There was much pity felt for Ayala among the folk at Stalham. The sympathies of them all should have been with Mrs Dosett. They ought to have felt that the poor aunt was simply performing an unpleasant duty, and that the girl was impracticable if not disobedient. But Ayala was known to be very pretty, and Mrs Dosett was supposed to be plain. Ayala was interesting, while Mrs Dosett, from the nature of her circumstances, was most uninteresting. It was agreed on all sides, at Stalham, that so pretty a bird as Ayala should not be imprisoned for ever in so ugly a cage. Such a bird ought, at least, to be allowed its chance of captivating some fitting mate by its song and its plumage. That was Lady Albury’s argument — a woman very good-natured, a little given to matchmaking, a great friend to pretty girls — and whose eldest son was as yet only nine, so that there could be no danger to herself or her own flock. There was much ridicule thrown on Mrs Dosett at Stalham, and many pretty things said of the bird who was so unworthily imprisoned in Kingsbury Crescent. At last there was something like a conspiracy, the purport of which was to get the bird out of its cage in November.
In this conspiracy it can hardly be said that the Marchesa took an active part. Much as she liked Ayala, she was less prone than Lady Albury to think that the girl was ill-used. She was more keenly alive than her cousin — or rather her cousin’s wife — to the hard necessities of the world. Ayala must be said to have made her own bed. At any rate there was the bed and she must lie on it. It was not the Dosetts’ fault that they were poor. According to their means they were doing the best they could for their niece, and were entitled to praise rather than abuse. And then the Marchesa was afraid for her nephew. Colonel Stubbs, in his letter to her, had declared that he quite agreed with her views as to matrimony; but she was quite alive to her nephew’s sarcasm. Her nephew, though he might in truth agree with her, nevertheless was sarcastic. Though he was sarcastic, still he might be made to accede to her views, because he did, in truth, agree with her. She was eminently an intelligent woman, seeing far into character, and she knew pretty well the real condition of her nephew’s mind, and could foresee his conduct. He would marry before long, and might not improbably marry a girl with some money if one could be made to come in his way, who would at the same time suit his somewhat fastidious taste. But Ayala suited his taste, Ayala who had not a shilling, and the Marchesa thought it only too likely that if Ayala were released from her cage, and brought to Albury, Ayala might become Mrs Jonathan Stubbs. That Ayala should refuse to become Mrs Jonathan Stubbs did not present itself as a possibility to the Marchesa.
So the matters were when the Marchesa and Nina returned from Stalham to London, a promise having been given that Nina should go back to Stalham in November, and be allowed to see the glories of a hunt. She was not to ride to hounds. That was a matter of course, but she was to be permitted to see what a pack of hounds was like, and of what like were the men in their scarlet coats, and how the huntsman’s horn would sound when it should be heard among the woods and fields. It was already decided that the Colonel should be there to meet her, and the conspiracy was formed with the object of getting Ayala out of her cage at the same time. Stalham was a handsome country seat, in the county of Rufford, and Sir Harry Albury had lately taken upon himself the duties of Master of the Rufford and Ufford United Pack. Colonel Stubbs was to be there with his horses in November, but had, in the meantime, been seen by Lady Albury, and had been instigated to do something for the release of Ayala. But what could he do? It was at first suggested that he should call at Kingsbury Crescent, and endeavour to mollify the stony heart of Aunt Dosett. But, as he had said himself, he would be the worst person in the world to perform such an embassy. “I am not an Adonis, I know,” he said, “nor do I look like a Lothario, but still I am in some sort a young man, and therefore certain to be regarded as pernicious, as dangerous and damnable, by such a dragon of virtue as Aunt Dosett. I don’t see how I could expect to have a chance.” This interview took place in London during the latter end of October, and it was at last decided that the mission should be made by Lady Albury herself, and made, not to Mrs Dosett, at Kingsbury Crescent, but to Mr Dosett at his office in Somerset House. “I don’t think I could stand Mrs D.,” said Lady Albury.
Lady Albury was a handsome, fashionable woman, rather tall, always excellently dressed, and possessed of a personal assurance which nothing could daunt. She had the reputation of an affectionate wife and a good mother, but was nevertheless declared by some of her friends to be “a little fast”. She certainly was fond of comedy — those who did not like her were apt to say that her comedy was only fun — and was much disposed to have her own way when she could get it. She was now bent upon liberating Ayala from her cage, and for this purpose had herself driven into the huge court belonging to Somerset House.
Mr Dosett was dignified at his office with the use of a room to himself, a small room looking out upon the river, in which he spent six hours on six days of the week in arranging the indexes of a voluminous library of manuscript letter-books. It was rarely indeed that he was disturbed by the presence of any visitor. When, therefore, his door was opened by one of the messengers, and he was informed that Lady Albury desired to see him, he was for the moment a good deal disturbed. No option, however, was given to him as to refusing admission to Lady Albury. She was in the room before the messenger had completed his announcement, and had seated herself in one of the two spare chairs which the room afforded as soon as the door was closed. “Mr Dosett,” she said, I have taken the great liberty of calling to say a few words about your niece, Miss Ayala Dormer.”
When the lady was first announced, Mr Dosett, in his confusion, had failed to connect the name which he had heard with that of the lady who had invited Ayala to her house. But now he recognised it, and knew who it was that had come to him. “You were kind enough”, he said, “to invite my little girl to your house some weeks ago.”
“And now I have come to invite her again.”
Mr Dosett was now more disturbed than ever. With what words was he to refuse the request which this kind but very grand lady was about to make? How could he explain to her all those details as to his own poverty, and as to Ayala’s fate in having to share that poverty with him? How could he explain the unfitness of Ayala’s temporary sojourn with people so wealthy and luxurious? And yet were he to yield in the least how could he face his wife on his return home to the Crescent? “You are very kind, Lady Albury,” he said.
“We particularly wish to have her about the end of the first week in November,” said the lady. “Her friend Nina Baldoni will be there, and one or two others whom she knows. We shall try to be a little gay for a week or two.”
“I have no doubt it would be gay, and we at home are very dull.”
“Do you not think a little gaiety good for young people?” said her ladyship, using the very argument which poor Mr Dosett had so often attempted to employ on Ayala’s behalf.
“Yes; a little gaiety,” he said, as though deprecating the excessive amount of hilarity which he imagined to prevail at Stalham.
“Of course you do,” said Lady Albury. Poor little girl! I have heard so much about her, and of all your goodness to her. Mrs Dosett, I know, is another mother to her; but still a little country air could not but be beneficial. Do say that she shall come to us, Mr Dosett.”
Then Mr Dosett felt that, disagreeable as it was, he must preach the sermon which his wife had preached to him, and he did preach it. He spoke timidly of his own poverty, and the need which there was that Ayala should share it. He spoke a word of the danger which might come from luxury, and of the discontent which would be felt when the girl returned to her own home. Something he added of the propriety of like living with like, and ended by praying that Ayala might be excused. The words came from him with none of that energy which his wife would have used — were uttered in a low melancholy drone; but still they were words hard to answer, and called upon Lady Albury for all her ingenuity in finding an argument against them.
But Lady Albury was strong-minded, and did find an argument. “You mustn’t be angry with me,” she said, if I don’t quite agree with you. Of course you wish to do the best you can for this dear child.”
“Indeed I do, Lady Albury.”
“How is anything then to be done for her if she remains shut up in your house? You do not, if I understand, see much company yourselves.”
“None at all.”
“You won’t be angry with me for my impertinence in alluding to it.”
“Not in the least. It is the fact that we live altogether to ourselves.”
“And the happiest kind of life too for married people,” said Lady Albury, who was accustomed to fill her house in the country with a constant succession of visitors, and to have engagements for every night of the week in town. “But for young people it is not quite so good. How is a young lady to get herself settled in life?”
“Settled?” asked Mr Dosett, vaguely.
“Married,” suggested Lady Albury, more plainly. Mr Dosett shook his head. No idea on the subject had ever flashed across his mind. To provide bread and meat, a bed and clothes, for his sister’s child he had felt to be a duty — but not a husband. Husbands came, or did not — as the heavens might be propitious. That Ayala should go to Stalham for the sake of finding a husband was certainly beyond the extent of his providing care. “In fact how is a girl to have a chance at all unless she is allowed to see someone? Of course I don’t say this with reference to our house. There will be no young men there, or anything of that kind. But, taking a broad view, unless you let a girl like that have what chances come in her way how is she to get on? I think you have hardly a right to do it.”
“We have done it for the best.”
“I am sure of that, Mr Dosett. And I hope you will tell Mrs Dosett, with my compliments, how thoroughly I appreciate her goodness. I should have called upon her instead of coming here, only that I cannot very well get into that part of the town.”
“I will tell her what you are good enough to say.”
“Poor Ayala! I am afraid that her other aunt, Aunt Tringle, was not as good to her as your wife. I have heard about how all that occurred in Rome. She was very much admired there. I am told that she is perfectly lovely.”
“A sort of beauty that we hardly ever see now — and very, very clever.”
“Ayala is clever, I think.”
“She ought to have her chance. She ought indeed. I don’t think you quite do your duty by such a girl as that unless you let her have a chance. She is sure to get to know people, and to be asked from one house to another. I speak plainly, for I really think you ought to let her come.”
All this sank deeply into the heart of Uncle Reginald. Whether it was for good or evil it seemed to him at the moment to be unanswerable. If there was a chance of any good thing for Ayala, surely it could not be his duty to bar her from that chance. A whole vista of new views in reference to the treatment of young ladies was opened to him by the words of his visitor. Ayala certainly was pretty. Certainly she was clever. A husband with an income would certainly be a good thing. Embryo husbands with incomes do occasionally fall in love with pretty girls. But how can any pretty girl be fallen in love with unless someone be permitted to see her? At Kingsbury Crescent there was not a man to be seen from one end of the year to another. It occurred to him now, for the first time, that Ayala by her present life was shut out from any chance of marriage. It was manifestly true that he had no right to seclude her in that fashion. At last he made a promise, rashly, as he felt at the very moment of making it, that he would ask his wife to allow Ayala to go to Stalham. Lady Albury of course accepted this as an undertaking that Ayala should come, and went away triumphant.
Mr Dosett walked home across the parks with a troubled mind, thinking much of all that had passed between him and the lady of fashion. It was with great difficulty that he could quite make up his mind which was right — the lady of fashion or his wife. If Ayala was to live always as they lived at Kingsbury Crescent, if it should in process of time be her fate to marry some man in the same class as themselves, if continued care as to small pecuniary needs was to be her future lot, then certainly her comfort would only be disturbed by such a visit as that now proposed. And was it not probable that such would be the destiny in store for her? Mr Dosett knew the world well enough to be aware that all pretty girls such as Ayala cannot find rich husbands merely by exhibiting their prettiness. Kingsbury Crescent, unalloyed by the dangers of Stalham, would certainly be the most secure. But then he had been told that Ayala now had special chances offered to her, and that he had no right to rob her of those chances. He felt this the more strongly, because she was not his daughter — only his niece. With a daughter he and his wife might have used their own judgment without check. But now he had been told that he had no right to rob Ayala of her chances, and he felt that he had not the right. By the time that he reached Kingsbury Crescent he had, with many misgivings, decided in favour of Stalham.
It was now some weeks since the first invitation had been refused, and during those weeks life had not been pleasant at the Crescent. Ayala moped and pined as though some great misfortune had fallen upon her. When she had first come to the Crescent she had borne herself bravely, as a man bears a trouble when he is conscious that he has brought it on himself by his own act, and is proud of the act which has done it. But when that excitement has gone, and the trouble still remains, the pride wears off, and the man is simply alive to his suffering. So it had been with Ayala. Then had come the visit to Brook Street. When, soon after that, she was invited to Stalham, it seemed as though a new world was being opened to her. There came a moment when she could again rejoice that she had quarrelled with her Aunt Emmeline. This new world would be a much better world than the Tringle world. Then had come the great blow, and it had seemed to her as though there was nothing but Kingsbury Crescent before her for the rest of her wretched life.
There was not a detail of all this hidden from the eyes of Aunt Margaret. Stalham had decided that Aunt Margaret was ugly and uninteresting. Stalham, according to its own views, was right. Nevertheless the lady in Kingsbury Crescent had both eyes to see and a heart to feel. She was hot of temper, but she was forgiving. She liked her own way, but she was affectionate. She considered it right to teach her niece the unsavoury mysteries of economy, but she was aware that such mysteries must be distasteful to one brought up as Ayala. Even when she had been loudest in denouncing Ayala’s mutiny, her heart had melted in ruth because Ayala had been so unhappy. She, too, had questioned herself again and again as to the justness of her decision. Was she entitled to rob Ayala of her chances? In her frequent discussions with her husband she still persisted in declaring that Kingsbury Crescent was safe, and that Stalham would be dangerous. But, nevertheless, in her own bosom she had misgivings. As she saw the poor girl mope and weary through one day after another, she could not but have misgivings.
“I have had that Lady Albury with me at the office today, and have almost promised that Ayala shall go to her on the 8th of November.” It was thus that Mr Dosett rushed at once into his difficulty as soon as he found himself upstairs with his wife.
“Well, my dear, I almost did. She said a great deal, and I could not but agree with much of it. Ayala ought to have her chances.”
“What chances?” demanded Mrs Dosett, who did not at all like the expression.
“Well; seeing people. She never sees anybody here.”
“Nobody is better than some people,” said Mrs Dosett, meaning to be severe on Lady Albury’s probable guests.
“But if a girl sees nobody,” said Mr Dosett, she can have no — no — no chances.”
“She has the chance of wholesome victuals,” said Mrs Dosett, “and I don’t know what other chances you or I can give her.”
“She might see — a young man.” This Mr Dosett said very timidly.
“A young fiddlestick! A young man! Young men should be waited for till they come naturally, and never thought about if they don’t come at all. I hate this looking after young men. If there wasn’t a young man for the next dozen years we should do better — so as just to get out of the way of thinking about them for a time.” This was Mrs Dosett’s philosophy; but in spite of her philosophy she did yield, and on that night it was decided that Ayala after all was to be allowed to go to Stalham.
To Mr Dosett was deputed the agreeable task of telling Ayala on the next evening what was to befall her. If anything agreeable was to be done in that sombre house it was always deputed to the master.
“What!” said Ayala, jumping from her chair.
“On the eighth of November,” said Mr Dosett.
“Lady Albury was with me yesterday at the office, and your aunt has consented.”
“Oh, Uncle Reginald!” said Ayala, falling on her knees, and hiding her face on his lap. Heaven had been once more opened to her.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Ayala, when she went to thank her aunt — “never.”
“I only hope it may not do you a mischief.”
“And I beg your pardon, Aunt Margaret, because I was — I was — because I was — “ She could not find the word which would express her own delinquency, without admitting more than she intended to admit — “too self-asserting, considering that I am only a young girl.” That would have been her meaning could she have found appropriate words.
“We need not go back to that now,” said Aunt Margaret.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55