In absolute silence Lord Lovel and Lady Anna walked back to the inn. He had been dumbfoundered — nearly so by her first abrupt statement, and then altogether by the arguments with which she had defended herself. She had nothing further to say. She had, indeed, said all, and had marvelled at her own eloquence while she was speaking. Nor was there absent from her a certain pride in that she had done the thing that was right, and had dared to defend herself. She was full of regrets — almost of remorse; but, nevertheless, she was proud. He knew it all now, and one of her great difficulties had been overcome.
And she was fully resolved that as she had dared to tell him, and to face his anger, his reproaches, his scorn, she would not falter before the scorn and the reproaches, or the anger, of the other Lovels — of any of the Lovels of Yoxham. Her mother’s reproaches would be dreadful to her; her mother’s anger would wellnigh kill her; her mother’s scorn would scorch her very soul. But sufficient for the day was the evil thereof. At the present moment she could be strong with the strength she had assumed. So she walked in at the sitting-room window with a bold front, and the Earl followed her. The two aunts were there, and it was plain to them both that something was astray between the lovers. They had said among themselves that Lady Anna would accept the offer the moment that it was in form made to her. To their eyes the manner of their guest had been the manner of a girl eager to be wooed; but they had both imagined that their delicately nurtured and fastidious nephew might too probably be offended by some solecism in conduct, some falling away from feminine grace, such as might too readily be shown by one whose early life had been subjected to rough associates. Even now it occurred to each of them that it had been so. The Earl seated himself in a chair, and took up a book which they had brought with them. Lady Anna stood at the open window, looking across at the broad field and the river bank beyond; but neither of them spoke a word. There had certainly been some quarrel. Then Aunt Julia, in the cause of wisdom, asked a question:
“Where is Minnie? Did not Minnie go with you?”
“No,” said the Earl. She went in some other direction at my bidding. Mr Cross is with her, I suppose.” It was evident from the tone of his voice that the displeasure of the head of all the Lovels was very great.
“We start soon, I suppose?” said Lady Anna.
“After lunch, my dear; it is hardly one yet.”
“I will go up all the same, and see about my things.”
“Shall I help you, my dear?” asked Mrs Lovel.
“Oh, no! I would sooner do it alone.” Then she hurried into her room and burst into a flood of tears, as soon as the door was closed behind her.
“Frederic, what ails her?” asked Aunt Julia.
“If anything ails her she must tell you herself,” said the lord.
“Something is amiss. You cannot wonder that we should be anxious, knowing that we know how great is the importance of all this.”
“I cannot help your anxiety just at present, Aunt Julia; but you should always remember that there will be slips between the cup and the lip.”
“Then there has been a slip? I knew it would be so. I always said so, and so did my brother.”
“I wish you would all remember that about such an affair as this, the less said the better.” So saying, the lord walked out through the window and sauntered down to the river side.
“It’s all over,” said Aunt Julia.
“I don’t see why we should suppose that at present,” said Aunt Jane.
“It’s all over. I knew it as soon as I saw her face when she came in. She has said something, or done something, and it’s all off. It will be a matter of over twenty thousand pounds a year!”
“He’ll be sure to marry somebody with money,” said Aunt Jane. “What with his title and his being so handsome, he is certain to do well, you know.”
“Nothing like that will come in his way. I heard Mr Flick say that it was equal to half a million of money. And then it would have been at once. If he goes up to London, and about, just as he is, he’ll be head over ears in debt before anybody knows what he is doing. I wonder what it is. He likes pretty girls, and there’s no denying that she’s handsome.”
“Perhaps she wouldn’t have him.”
“That’s impossible, Jane. She came down here on purpose to have him. She went out with him this morning to be made love to. They were together three times longer yesterday, and he came home as sweet as sugar to her. I wonder whether she can have wanted to make some condition about the money.”
“That she and her mother should have it in their own keeping.”
“She doesn’t seem to be that sort of a young woman,” said Aunt Jane.
“There’s no knowing what that Mr Goffe, Serjeant Bluestone, and her mother may have put her up to. Frederic wouldn’t stand that kind of thing for a minute, and he would be quite right. Better anything than that a man shouldn’t be his own master. I think you’d better go up to her, Jane. She’ll be more comfortable with you than with me.” Then Aunt Jane, obedient as usual, went up to her young cousin’s bedroom.
In the meantime the young lord was standing on the river’s brink, thinking what he would do. He had, in truth, very much of which to think, and points of most vital importance as to which he must resolve what should be his action. Must this announcement which he had heard from his cousin dissolve for ever the prospect of his marriage with her; or was it open to him still, as a nobleman, a gentleman, and a man of honour, to make use of all those influences which he might command with the view of getting rid of that impediment of a previous engagement? Being very ignorant of the world at large, and altogether ignorant of this man in particular, he did not doubt that the tailor might be bought off. Then he was sure that all who would have access to Lady Anna would help him in such a cause, and that her own mother would be the most forward to do so. The girl would hardly hold to such a purpose if all the world — all her own world, were against her. She certainly would be beaten from it if a bribe sufficient were offered to the tailor. That this must be done for the sake of the Lovel family, so that Lady Anna Lovel might not be known to have married a tailor, was beyond a doubt; but it was not so clear to him that he could take to himself as his Countess her who with her own lips had told him that she intended to be the bride of a working artisan. As he thought of this, as his imagination went to work on all the abominable circumstances of such a betrothal, he threw from his hand into the stream with all the vehemence of passion a little twig which he held. It was too, too frightful, too disgusting; and then so absolutely unexpected, so unlike her personal demeanour, so contrary to the look of her eyes, to the tone of her voice, to every motion of her body! She had been sweet, and gentle, and gracious, till he had almost come to think that her natural feminine gifts of ladyship were more even than her wealth, of better savour than her rank, were equal even to her beauty, which he had sworn to himself during the past night to be unsurpassed. And this sweet one had told him — this one so soft and gracious — not that she was doomed by some hard fate to undergo the degrading thraldom, but that she herself had willingly given herself to a working tailor from love, and gratitude, and free selection! It was a marvel to him that a thing so delicate should have so little sense of her own delicacy! He did not think that he could condescend to take the tailor’s place.
But if not — if he would not take it, or if, as might still be possible, the tailor’s place could not be made vacant for him — what then? He had pledged his belief in the justice of his cousin’s claim; and had told her that, believing his own claim to be unjust, in no case would he prosecute it. Was he now bound by that assurance — bound to it even to the making of the tailor’s fortune; or might he absent himself from any further action in the matter, leaving it entirely in the hands of the lawyers? Might it not be best for her happiness that he should do so? He had been told that even though he should not succeed, there might arise almost interminable delay. The tailor would want his money before he married, and thus she might be rescued from her degradation till she should be old enough to understand it. And yet how could he claim that of which he had said, now a score of times, that he knew that it was not his own? Could he cease to call this girl by the name which all his people had acknowledged as her own, because she had refused to be his wife; and declare his conviction that she was baseborn only because she had preferred to his own the addresses of a low-born man, reeking with the sweat of a tailor’s board? No, he could not do that. Let her marry but the sweeper of a crossing, and he must still call her Lady Anna — if he called her anything.
Something must be done, however. He had been told by the lawyers how the matter might be made to right itself if he and the young lady could at once agree to be man and wife; but he had not been told what would follow, should she decline to accept his offer. Mr Flick and the Solicitor-General must know how to shape their course before November came round — and would no doubt want all the time to shape it that he could give them. What was he to say to Mr Flick and to the Solicitor-General? Was he at liberty to tell to them the secret which the girl had told to him? That he was at liberty to say that she had rejected his offer must be a matter of course; but might he go beyond that, and tell them the whole story? It would be most expedient for many reasons that they should know it. On her behalf even it might be most salutary — with that view of liberating her from the grasp of her humiliating lover. But she had told it him, against her own interests, at her own peril, to her own infinite sorrow — in order that she might thus allay hopes in which he would otherwise have persevered. He knew enough of the little schemes and byways of love, of the generosity and self-sacrifice of lovers, to feel that he was bound to confidence. She had told him that if needs were he might repeat her tale — but she had told him at the same time that her tale was a secret. He could not go with her secret to a lawyer’s chambers, and there divulge in the course of business that which had been extracted from her by the necessity to which she had submitted of setting him free. He could write to Mr Flick — if that at last was his resolve — that a marriage was altogether out of the question, but he could not tell him why it was so.
He wandered slowly on along the river, having decided only on this — only on this as a certainty — that he must tell her secret neither to the lawyers, nor to his own people. Then, as he walked, a little hand touched his behind, and when he turned Minnie Lovel took him by the arm. “Why are you all alone, Fred?”
“I am meditating how wicked the world is — and girls in particular.”
“Where is Cousin Anna?”
“Up at the house, I suppose.”
“Is she wicked?”
“Don’t you know that everybody is wicked, because Eve ate the apple?”
“Adam ate it too.”
“Who bade him?”
“The devil,” said the child whispering.
“But he spoke by a woman’s mouth. Why don’t you go in and get ready to go?”
“So I will. Tell me one thing, Fred. May I be a bridesmaid when you are married?”
“I don’t think you can.”
“I have set my heart upon it. Why not?”
“Because you’ll be married first.”
“That’s nonsense, Fred; and you know it’s nonsense. Isn’t Cousin Anna to be your wife?”
“Look here, my darling. I’m awfully fond of you, and think you the prettiest little girl in the world. But if you ask impertinent questions I’ll never speak to you again. Do you understand?” She looked up into his face, and did understand that he was in earnest, and, leaving him, walked slowly across the meadow back to the house alone. “Tell them not to wait lunch for me,” he hollowed after her — and she told her Aunt Julia that Cousin Frederic was very sulky down by the river, and that they were not to wait for him.
When Mrs Lovel went upstairs into Lady Anna’s room not a word was said about the occurrence of the morning. The elder lady was afraid to ask a question, and the younger was fully determined to tell nothing even had a question been asked her. Lord Lovel might say what he pleased. Her secret was with him, and he could tell it if he chose. She had given him permission to do so, of which no doubt he would avail himself. But, on her own account, she would say nothing; and when questioned she would merely admit the fact. “She would neither defend her engagement, nor would she submit to have it censured. If they pleased she would return to her mother in London at any shortest possible notice.
The party lunched almost in silence, and when the horses were ready Lord Lovel came in to help them into the carriage. When he had placed the three ladies he desired Minnie to take the fourth seat, saying that he would sit with Mr Cross on the box. Minnie looked at his face, but there was still the frown there, and she obeyed him without any remonstrance. During the whole of the long journey home there was hardly a word spoken. Lady Anna knew that she was in disgrace, and was ignorant how much of her story had been told to the two elder ladies. She sat almost motionless looking out upon the fields, and accepting her position as one that was no longer thought worthy of notice. Of course she must go back to London. She could not continue to live at Yoxham, neither spoken to nor speaking. Minnie went to sleep, and Minnie’s mother and aunt now and then addressed a few words to each other. Anna felt sure that to the latest day of her existence she would remember that journey. On their arrival at the rectory door Mr Cross helped the ladies out of the carriage, while the lord affected to make himself busy with the shawls and luggage. Then he vanished, and was seen no more till he appeared at dinner.
“What sort of a trip have you had?” asked the rector, addressing himself to the three ladies indifferently.
For a moment nobody answered him, and then Aunt Julia spoke. “It was very pretty, as it always is at Bolton in summer. We were told that the duke has not been there this year at all. The inn was comfortable, and I think that the young people enjoyed themselves yesterday very much.” The subject was too important, too solemn, too great, to allow of even a word to be said about it without proper consideration.
“Did Frederic like it?”
“I think he did yesterday,” said Mrs Lovel. I think we were all a little tired coming home today.”
“Anna sprained her ankle, jumping over the Stryd,” said Minnie.
“Not seriously, I hope.”
“Oh dear no — nothing at all to signify.” It was the only word which Anna spoke till it was suggested that she should go up to her room. The girl obeyed, as a child might have done, and went upstairs, followed by Mrs Lovel. “My dear,” she said, “we cannot go on like this. What is the matter?”
“You must ask Lord Lovel.”
“Have you quarrelled with him?”
“I have not quarrelled, Mrs Lovel. If he has quarrelled with me, I cannot help it.”
“You know what we have all wished.”
“It can never be so.”
“Have you said so to Frederic?”
“Have you given him any reason, Anna?”
“I have,” she said after a pause.
“What reason, dear?”
She thought for a moment before she replied. “I was obliged to tell him the reason, Mrs Lovel; but I don’t think that I need tell anybody else. Of course I must tell mamma.”
“Does your mamma know it?”
“And is it a reason that must last for ever?”
“Yes — for ever. But I do not know why everybody is to be angry with me. Other girls may do as they please. If you are angry with me I had better go back to London at once.”
“I do not know that anybody has been angry with you. We may be disappointed without being angry.” That was all that was said, and then Lady Anna was left to dress for dinner. At dinner Lord Lovel had so far composed himself as to be able to speak to his cousin, and an effort at courtesy was made by them all — except by the rector. But the evening passed away in a manner very different from any that had gone before it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01