On the following morning at breakfast each of the three gentlemen at the Great House received a little note on pink paper, nominally from Mrs Dale, asking them to drink tea at the Small House on that day week. At the bottom of the note which Lily had written for Mr Crosbie was added:
“Dancing on the lawn, if we can get anybody to stand up. Of course you must come, whether you like it or not. And Bernard also. Do your possible to talk my uncle into coming.” And this note did something towards re-creating good-humour among them at the breakfast-table. It was shown to the squire, and at last he was brought to say that he would perhaps go to Mrs Dale’s little evening-party.
It may be well to explain that this promised entertainment had been originated with no special view to the pleasure of Mr Crosbie, but altogether on behalf of poor Johnny Eames. What was to be done in that matter? This question had been fully discussed between Mrs Dale and Bell, and they had come to the conclusion that it would behest to ask Johnny over to a little friendly gathering, in which he might be able to meet Lily with some strangers around them. In this way his embarrassment might be overcome. It would never do, as Mrs Dale said, that he should be suffered to stay away, unnoticed by them.
“When the ice is once broken he won’t mind it,” said Bell. And, therefore, early in the day, a messenger was sent over to Guestwick, who returned with a note from Mrs Eames, saying that she would come on the evening in question, with her son and daughter. They would keep the fly and get back to Guestwick the same evening. This was added, as an offer had been made of beds for Mrs Eames and Mary.
Before the evening of the party another memorable occurrence had taken place at Allington, which must be described, in order that the feelings of the different people on that evening may be understood. The squire had given his nephew to understand that he wished to have that matter settled as to his niece Bell; and as Bernard’s views were altogether in accordance with the squire’s, he resolved to comply with his uncle’s wishes. The project with him was not a new thing. He did love his cousin quite sufficiently for purposes of matrimony, and was minded that it would be a good thing for him to marry. He could not marry without money, but this marriage would give him an income without the trouble of intricate settlements, or the interference of lawyers hostile to his own interests. It was possible that he might do better; but then it was possible also that he might do much worse; and, in addition to this, he was fond of his cousin. He discussed the matter within himself, very calmly; made some excellent resolutions as to the kind of life which it would behove him to live as a married man; settled on the street in London in which he would have his house, and behaved very prettily to Bell for four or five days running. That he did not make love to her, in the ordinary sense of the word, must, I suppose, be taken for granted, seeing that Bell herself did not recognise the fact. She had always liked her cousin, and thought that in these days he was making himself particularly agreeable.
On the evening before the party the girls were at the Great House, having come up nominally with the intention of discussing the expediency of dancing on the lawn. Lily had made up her mind that it was to be so, but Bell had objected that it would be cold and damp, and that the drawing-room would be nicer for dancing.
“You see we’ve only got four young gentlemen and one ungrown,” said Lily; “and they will look so stupid standing up all properly in a room, as though we had a regular party.”
“Thank you for the compliment,” said Crosbie, taking off his straw hat.
“So you will; and we girls will look more stupid still. But out on the lawn it won’t look stupid at all. Two or three might stand up on the lawn, and it would be jolly enough.”
“I don’t quite see it,” said Bernard.
“Yes, I think I see it,” said Crosbie.
“The unadaptability of the lawn for the purpose of a ball —”
“Nobody is thinking of a ball,” said Lily, with mock petulance.
“I’m defending you, and yet you won’t let me speak. The unadaptability of the lawn for the purpose of a ball will conceal the insufficiency of four men and a boy as a supply of male dancers. But, Lily, who is the ungrown gentleman? Is it your old friend Johnny Eames?”
Lily’s voice became sobered as she answered him.
“Oh, no; I did not mean Mr Eames. He is coming, but I did not mean him. Dick Boyce, Mr Boyce’s son, is only sixteen. He is the ungrown gentleman.”
“And who is the fourth adult.”
“Dr Crofts, from Guestwick. I do hope you will like him, Adolphus. We think he is the very perfection of a man.”
“Then of course I shall hate him; and be very jealous, too!” And then that pair went off together, fighting their own little battle on that head, as turtle-doves will sometimes do. They went off, and Bernard was left with Bell standing together over the ha-ha fence which divides the garden at the back of the house from the field.
“Bell,” he said,” they seem very happy, don’t they?
“And they ought to be happy now, oughtn’t they? Dear Lily! I hope he will be good to her. Do you know, Bernard, though he is your friend, I am very, very anxious about it. It is such a vast trust to put in a man when we do not quite know him.”
“Yes, it is; but they’ll do very well together. Lily will be happy enough.”
“I suppose he’ll be happy, too. He’ll feel himself a little straightened as to income at first, but that will all come round.” “If he is not, she will be wretched.”
“They will do very well. Lily must be prepared to make the money go as far as she can, that’s all.”
“Lily won’t feel the want of money. It is not that. But if he lets her know that she has made him a poor man, then she will be unhappy. Is he extravagant, Bernard?”
But Bernard was anxious to discuss another subject, and therefore would not speak such words of wisdom as to Lily’s engagement as might have been expected from him had he been in a different frame of mind.
“No, I should say not,” said he.” But, Bell —”
“I do not know that we could have acted otherwise than we have done, and yet I fear that we have been rash. If he makes her unhappy, Bernard, I shall never forgive you.”
But as she said this she put her hand lovingly upon his arm, as a cousin might do, and spoke in a tone which divested her threat of its acerbity.
“You must not quarrel with me, Bell, whatever may happen. I cannot afford to quarrel with you.”
“Of course I was not in earnest as to that.”
“You and I must never quarrel, Bell; at least, I hope not. I could bear to quarrel with any one rather than with you.” And then, as he spoke, there was something in his voice which gave the girl some slight, indistinct warning of what might be his intention. Not that she said to herself at once, that he was going to make her an offer of his hand — now, on the spot; but she felt that he intended something beyond the tenderness of ordinary cousinly affection. “I hope we shall never quarrel,” she said. But as she spoke, her mind was settling itself — forming its resolution, and coming to a conclusion as to the sort of love which Bernard might, perhaps, expect. And it formed another conclusion; as to the sort of love which might be given in return.
“Bell,” he said, “you and I have always been dear friends.”
“Why should we not be something more than friends?”
To give Captain Dale his due I must declare that his voice was perfectly natural as he asked this question, and that he showed no signs of nervousness, either in his face or limbs. He had made up his mind to do it on that occasion, and he did it without any signs of outward disturbance. He asked his question, and then he waited for his answer. In this he was rather hard upon his cousin; for, though the question had certainly been asked in language that could not be mistaken, still the matter had not been put forward with all that fullness which a young lady, under such circumstances, has a right to expect.
They had sat down on the turf close to the ha-ha, and they were so near that Bernard was able to put out his hand with the view of taking that of his cousin within his own. But she contrived to keep her hands locked together, so that he merely held her gently by the wrist. “I don’t quite understand, Bernard,” she said, after a minute’s pause.
“Shall we be more than cousins? Shall we be man and wife?”
Now, at least, she could not say that she did not understand. If the question was ever asked plainly, Bernard Dale had asked it plainly. Shall we be man and wife? Few men, I fancy, dare to put it all at once in so abrupt a way, and yet I do not know that the English language affords any better terms for the question.
“Oh, Bernard! you have surprised me.”
“I hope I have not pained you, Bell. I have been long thinking of this, but I am well aware that my own manner, even to you, has not been that of a lover. It is not in me to smile and say soft things, as Crosbie can. But I do not love you the less on that account. I have looked about for a wife, and I have thought that if I could gain you I should be very fortunate.”
He did not then say anything about his uncle, and the eight hundred a year; but he fully intended to do so as soon as an opportunity should serve. He was quite of opinion that eight hundred a year and the good-will of a rich uncle were strong ground for matrimony — were grounds even for love; and he did not doubt but his cousin would see the matter in the same light.
“You are very good to me — more than good. Of course I know that. But, oh, Bernard I did not expect this a bit.”
“But you will answer me, Bell! Or if you would like time to think, or to speak to my aunt, perhaps you will answer me tomorrow?”
“I think I ought to answer you, now.”
“Not if it be a refusal, Bell. Think well of it before you do that. I should have told you that, our uncle wishes this match, and that he will remove any difficulty there might be about money.”
“I do not care for money.”
“But, as you were saying about Lily, one has to be prudent. Now, in our marriage, everything of that kind would be well arranged. My uncle has promised me that he would at once allow us —”
“Stop, Bernard. You must not be led to suppose that any offer made by my uncle would help to purchase — Indeed, there can be no need for us to talk about money.”
“I wished to let you know the facts of the case, exactly as they are. And as to our uncle, I cannot but think that you would be glad, in such a matter, to have him on your side.”
“Yes, I should be glad to have him on my side; that is, if I were going — But my uncle’s wishes could not influence my decision. The fact is, Bernard —”
“Well, dearest, what is the fact?
“I have always regarded you rather as a brother than as anything else.”
“But that regard may be changed.”
“No; I think not. Bernard, I will go further and speak on at once. It cannot be changed. I know myself well enough to say that with certainty. It cannot be changed.”
“You mean that you cannot love me?”
“Not as you would have me do, I do love you very dearly — very dearly, indeed. I would go to you in any trouble, exactly as I would go to a brother.”
“And must that be all, Bell?”
“Is not that all the sweetest love that can be felt? But you must not think me ungrateful, or proud. I know well that you are — are proposing to do for me much more than I deserve. Any girl might be proud of such an offer. But, dear Bernard —”
“Bell, before you give me a final answer, sleep upon this and talk it over with your mother. Of course you were unprepared, and I cannot expect that you should promise me so much without a moment’s consideration.”
“I was unprepared, and therefore I have not answered you as I should have done. But as it has gone so far, I cannot let you leave me in uncertainty. It is not necessary that I should keep you waiting. In this matter I do know my own mind. Dear Bernard, indeed it cannot be as you have proposed.”
She spoke in a low voice, and in a tone that had in it something of almost imploring humility; but, nevertheless, it conveyed to her cousin an assurance that she was in earnest; an assurance also that that earnest would not readily be changed. Was she not a Dale? And when did a Dale change his mind? For a while he sat silent by her; and she too, having declared her intention, refrained from further words. For some minutes they thus remained, looking down into the ha-ha. She still kept her old position, holding her hands clasped together over her knees; but he was now lying on his side, supporting his head upon his arm, with his face indeed turned towards her, but with his eyes fixed upon the grass. During this time, however, he was not idle. His cousin’s answer, though it had grieved him, had not come upon him as a blow stunning him for a moment, and rendering him unfit for instant thought. He was grieved, more grieved than he had thought he would have been. The thing that he had wanted moderately, he now wanted the more in that it was denied to him. But he was able to perceive the exact truth of his position, and to calculate what might be his chances if he went on with his suit, and what his advantage if he at once abandoned it.
“I do not wish to press you unfairly, Bell; but may I ask if any other preference —”
“There is no other preference,” she answered. And then again they were silent for a minute or two.
“My uncle will be much grieved at this,” he said at last.
“If that be all,” said Bell, “I do not think that we need either of us trouble ourselves. He can have no right to dispose of our hearts.”
“I understand the taunt, Bell.”
“Dear Bernard, there was no taunt. I intended none.”
“I need not speak of my own grief. You cannot but know how deep it must be. Why should I have submitted myself to this mortification had not my heart been concerned? But that I will bear, if I must bear it —”. And then he paused, looking up at her.
“It will soon pass away,” she said.
I will accept it at any rate without complaint. But as to my uncle’s feelings, it is open to me to speak, and to you, I should think, to listen without indifference. He has been kind to us both, and loves us two above any other living beings. It’s not surprising that he should wish to see us married, and it will not be surprising if your refusal should be a great blow to him.”
“I shall be sorry — very sorry.”
“I also shall be sorry. I am now speaking of him. He has set his heart upon it; and as he has but few wishes, few desires, so is he the more constant in those which he expresses. When he knows this, I fear that we shall find him very stern.”
“Then he will be unjust.”
“No; he will not be unjust. He is always a just man. But he will be unhappy, and will, I fear, make others unhappy. Dear Bell, may not this thing remain for a while unsettled? You will not find that I take advantage of your goodness. I will not intrude it on you again — say for a fortnight — or till Crosbie shall be gone.”
“No, no, no,” said Bell.
“Why are you so eager in your noes? There can be no danger in such delay. I will not press you — and you can let my uncle think that you have at least taken time for consideration.”
“There are things as to which one is bound to answer at once. If I doubted myself, I would let you persuade me. But I do not doubt myself, and I should be wrong to keep you in suspense. Dear, dearest Bernard, it cannot be; and as it cannot he, you, as my brother, would bid me say so clearly. It cannot be.”
As she made this last assurance, they heard the steps of Lily and her lover close to them, and they both felt that it would be well that their intercourse should thus be brought to a close. Neither had known how to get up and leave the place, and ye each had felt that nothing further could then be said.
“Did you ever see anything so sweet and affectionate and romantic?” said Lily, standing over them and looking at them.
“And all the while we have been so practical and worldly. Do you know, Bell, that Adolphus seems to think we can’t very well keep pigs in London. It makes me so unhappy.”
“It does seem a pity,” said Crosbie, “for Lily seems to know all about pigs.”
“Of course I do. I haven’t lived in the country all my life for nothing. Oh, Bernard, I should so like to see you rolled down into the bottom of the ha-ha. Just remain there, and we’ll do it between us.”
Whereupon Bernard got up, as did Bell also, and they all went in to tea.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55