Three weeks passed by, and Ayala was still at Stalham. Colonel Stubbs had not yet appeared, and very little had been said about him. Sir Henry would sometimes suggest that if he meant to see any more hunting he had better come at once, but this was not addressed to Ayala. She made up her mind that he would not come, and was sure that she was keeping him away by her presence. He could not — “bring himself to try over again,” as Lady Albury had put it! Why should he — “bring himself’ — to do anything on behalf of one who had treated him so badly? It had been settled that she should remain to the 25th of March, when the month should be up from the time in which Lady Albury had decided upon that as the period of her visit. Of her secret she had given no slightest hint. If he ever did come again it should not be because she had asked for his coming. As far as she knew how to carry out such a purpose, she concealed from Lady Albury anything like a feeling of regret. And she was so far successful that Lady Albury thought it expedient to bring in other assistance to help her cause — as will be seen by a letter which Ayala received when the three weeks had passed by.
In the meantime there had been at first dismay, then wonder, and lastly, some amusement, at the condition of Captain Batsby. When Captain Batsby had first learned at Merle Park that Ayala and Jonathan Stubbs were both at Stalham, he wrote very angrily to Lady Albury. In answer to this his sister-in-law had pleaded guilty — but still defending herself. How could she make herself responsible for the young lady — who did not indeed seem ready to bestow her affections on any of her suitors? But still she acknowledged that a little favour was being shown to Colonel Stubbs — wishing to train the man to the idea that, in this special matter, Colonel Stubbs must be recognised as the Stalham favourite. Then no further letters were received from the Captain, but there came tidings that he was staying at Merle Park. Ayala heard continually from her sister, and Lucy sent some revelations as to the Captain. He seemed to be very much at home at Merle Park, said Lucy; and then, at last, she expressed her own opinion that Captain Batsby and Gertrude were becoming very fond of each other. And yet the whole story of Gertrude and Mr Houston was known, of course, to Lucy, and through Lucy to Ayala. To Ayala these sudden changes were very amusing, as she certainly did not wish to retain her own hold on the Captain, and was not specially attached to her cousin Gertrude. From Ayala the tidings went to Lady Albury, and in this way the fears which had been entertained as to the Captain’s displeasure were turned to wonder and amusement. But up to this period nothing had been heard of the projected trip to Ostend.
Then came the letter to Ayala, to which allusion has been made, a letter from her old friend the Marchesa, who was now at Rome. It was ostensibly in answer to a letter from Ayala herself, but was written in great part in compliance with instructions received from Lady Albury. It was as follows:
I was glad to get your letter about Nina. She is very happy, and Lord George is here. Indeed, to tell the truth, they arrived together — which was not at all proper; but everything will be made proper on Tuesday, 8th April, which is the day at last fixed for the wedding. I wish you could have been here to be one of the bridesmaids. Nina says that you will have it that the Pope is to marry her. Instead of that it is going to be done by Lord George’s uncle, the Dean of Dorchester, who is coming for this purpose. Then they are going up to a villa they have taken on Como, where we shall join them some time before the spring is over. After that they seem to have no plans — except plans of connubial bliss, which is never to know any interruption.
Now that I have come to connubial bliss, and feel so satisfied as to Nina’s prospects, I have a word or two to say about the bliss of somebody else. Nina is my own child, and of course comes first. But one Jonathan Stubbs is my nephew, and is also very near to my heart. From all that I hear, I fancy that he has set his mind also on connubial bliss. Have you not heard that it is so?
A bird has whispered to me that you have not been kind to him. Why should it be so? Nobody knows better than I do that a young lady is entitled to the custody of her own heart, and that she should not be compelled, or even persuaded, to give her hand in opposition to her own feelings. If your feelings and your heart are altogether opposed to the poor fellow, of course there must be an end of it. But I had thought that from the time you first met him he had been a favourite of yours — so much so that there was a moment in which I feared that you might think too much of the attentions of a man who has ever been a favourite with all who have known him. But I have found that in this I was altogether mistaken. When he came that evening to see the last of you at the theatre, taking, as I knew he did, considerable trouble to release himself from other engagements, I was pretty sure how it was going to be. He is not a man to be in love with a girl for a month and then to be in love with another the next month. When once he allowed himself to think that he was in love, the thing was done and fixed either for his great delight — or else to his great trouble.
I knew how it was to be, and so it has been. Am I not right in saying that on two occasions, at considerable intervals, he has come to you and made distinct offers of his hand? I fear, though I do not actually know it, that you have just as distinctly rejected those offers. I do not know it, because none but you and he can know the exact words with which you received from him the tender of all that he had to give you. I can easily believe that he, with all his intelligence, might be deceived by the feminine reserve and coyness of such a girl as you. If it be so, I do pray that no folly may be allowed to interfere with his happiness and with yours.
I call it folly, not because I am adverse to feminine reserve, not because I am prone to quarrel even with what I call coyness; but because I know his nature so well, and feel that he would not bear rebuffs of which many another man would think nothing; that he would not bring himself to ask again, perhaps even for a seventh time, as they might do. And, if it be that by some frequent asking his happiness and yours could be ensured, would it not be folly that such happiness should be marred by childish disinclination on your part to tell the truth?
As I said before, if your heart be set against him, there must be an end of it. I can understand that a girl so young as you should fail to see the great merit of such a man. I therefore write as I do, thinking it possible that in this respect you may be willing to accept from my mouth something as to the man which shall be regarded as truth. It is on the inner man, on his nature and disposition, that the happiness of a wife must depend. A more noble nature, a more truthful spirit than his, I have never met. He is one on whom in every phase of life you may depend — or I may depend — as on a rock. He is one without vacillation, always steady to his purpose, requiring from himself in the way of duty and conduct infinitely more than he demands from those around him. If ever there was a man altogether manly, he is one. And yet no woman, no angel, ever held a heart more tender within his bosom. See him with children! Think of his words when he has spoken to yourself! Remember the estimation in which those friends hold him who know him best — such as I and your friend, Lady Albury, and Sir Harry, and his cousin Nina. I could name many others, but these are those with whom you have seen him most frequently. If you can love such a man, do you not think that he would make you happy? And if you cannot, must there not be something wrong in your heart — unless indeed it be already predisposed to someone else? Think of all this, dear Ayala, and remember that I am always
Your affectionate friend, JULIA BALDONI
Ayala’s first feeling as she read the letter was a conviction that her friend had altogether wasted her labour in writing it. Of what use was it to tell her of the man’s virtues — to tell her that the man’s heart was as tender as an angel’s, his truth as assured as a god’s, his courage that of a hero — that he was possessed of all those attributes which should by right belong to an Angel of Light? She knew all that without requiring the evidence of a lady from Rome — having no need of any evidence on that matter from any other human being. Of what use could any evidence be on such a subject from the most truthful lips that ever spoke? Had she not found it all out herself would any words from others have prevailed with her? But she had found it out herself. It was already her gospel. That he was tender and true, manly, heroic — as brightly angelic as could be any Angel of Light — was already an absolute fact to her. No! — her heart had never been predisposed to anyone else. It was of him she had always dreamed even long before she had seen him. He was the man, perfect in all good things, who was to come and take her with him — if ever man should come and take her. She wanted no Marchesa Baldoni now to tell her that the Angel had in truth come and realised himself before her in all his glory.
But she had shown herself to be utterly unfit for the Angel. Though she recognised him now, she had not recognised him in time — and even when she had recognised him she had been driven by her madness to reject him. Feminine reserve and coyness! Folly! Yes, indeed; she knew all that, too, without need of telling from her elders. The kind of coyness which she had displayed had been the very infatuation of feminine imbecility. It was because nature had made her utterly unfit for such a destiny that she had been driven by coyness and feminine reserve to destroy herself! It was thus that Ayala conversed with herself.
“I know his nature so well, and feel that he would not bear rebuffs of which many another man would think nothing.” Thus, she did not doubt, the Marchesa had spoken very truly. But of what value was all that now? She could not recall the rebuff. She could not now eradicate the cowardice which had made her repeat those wicked fatal words — “I cannot.” I cannot. “I cannot.” The letter had come too late, for there was nothing she could do to amend her doom. She must send some answer to her friend in Italy, but there could be nothing in her answer to her to assist her. The feminine reserve and coyness had become odious to her — as it had been displayed by herself to him. But it still remained in full force as to any assistance from others. She could not tell another to send him back to her. She could not implore help in her trouble. If he would come himself — himself of his own accord — himself impelled once more by his great tenderness of heart — himself once more from his real, real love; then there should be no more coyness. “If you will still have me — oh yes!”
But there was the letter to be written. She so wrote it that by far the greater part of it — the larger part at least — had reference to Nina and her wedding. “I will think of her on the 8th of April,” she said. “I shall then be at home at Kingsbury Crescent, and I shall have nothing else to think of.” In that was her first allusion to her own condition with her lover. But on the last side of the sheet it was necessary that she should say more than that. Something must be said thoughtfully, carefully, and gratefully in reply to so much thought, and care, and friendship, as had been shown to her. But it must be so written that nothing of her secret should be read in it. The task was so troublesome that she was compelled to recopy the whole of her long letter, because the sentences as first written did not please her. “I am so much obliged to you”, she said, “by your kindness about Colonel Stubbs. He did do me the honour of asking me to be his wife. And I felt it so. You are not to suppose that I did not understand that. It is all over now, and I cannot explain to you why I felt that it would not do. It is all over, and therefore writing about it is no good. Only I want you to be sure of two things — that there is no one else, and that I do love you so much for all your kindness. And you may be sure of a third thing, too — that it is all over. I do hope that he will still let me be his friend. As a friend I have always liked him so much.” It was brave and bold, she thought, in answer to such words as the Marchesa’s; but she did not know how to do it any better.
On Tuesday, the 25th of March, she was to return to Kingsbury Crescent. Various little words were said at Stalham indicating an intended break in the arrangement. “The Captain certainly won’t come now,” said Lady Albury, alluding to the arrangement as though it had been made solely with the view of saving Ayala from an encounter with her objectionable lover. “Croppy has come back,” said Sir Harry one day — Croppy being the pony which Ayala had ridden. “Miss Dormer can have him now for what little there is left of the hunting.” This was said on the Saturday before she was to go. How could she ride Croppy for the rest of the hunting when she would be at Kingsbury Crescent? On neither of these occasions did she say a word, but she assumed that little look of contradiction which her friends at Stalham already knew how to read. Then, on the Sunday morning, there came a letter for Lady Albury. “What does he say?” asked Sir Harry, at breakfast. I’ll show it you before you go to church,” answered his wife. Then Ayala knew that the letter was from Colonel Stubbs.
But she did not expect that the letter should be shown to her — which, however, came to be the case. When she was in the library, waiting to start to church, Lady Albury came in and threw the letter to her across the table. “That concerns you,” she said, “You had better read it.” There was another lady in the room, also waiting to start on their walk across the park, and therefore it was natural that nothing else should be said at the moment. Ayala read the letter, returned it to the envelope, and then handed it back to Lady Albury — so that there was no word spoken about it before church. The letter, which was very short, was as follows:
“I shall be at Stalham by the afternoon train on Sunday, 30th — in time for dinner, if you will send the dog-cart. I could not leave this most exigeant of all places this week. I suppose Albury will go on in the woodlands for a week or ten days in April, and I must put up with that. I hear that Batsby is altogether fixed by the fascinations of Merle Park. I hope that you and Albury will receive consolation in the money.” Then there was a postscript. “If Croppy can be got back again, Miss Dormer might see me tumble into another river.”
It was evident that Lady Albury did not expect anything to be said at present. She put the letter into her pocket, and there, for the moment, was the end of it. It may be feared that Ayala’s attention was not fixed that morning so closely as it should have been on the services of the Church. There was so much in that little letter which insisted on having all her attention! Had there been no postscript, the letter would have been very different. In that case the body of the letter itself would have intended to have no reference to her — or rather it would have had a reference altogether opposite to that which the postscript gave it. In that case it would have been manifest to her that he had intentionally postponed his coming till she had left Stalham. Then his suggestion about the hunting would have had no interest for her. Everything would have been over. She would have been at Kingsbury Crescent, and he would have been at Stalham. But the postscript declared his intention of finding her still in the old quarters. She would not be there — as she declared to herself. After this there would be but one other day, and then she would be gone. But even this allusion to her and to the pony made the letter something to her of intense interest. Had it not been so Lady Albury would not have shown it to her. As it was, why had Lady Albury shown it to her in that quiet, placid, friendly way — as though it were natural that any letter from Colonel Stubbs to Stalham should be shown to her?
At lunch Sir Harry began about the pony at once. “Miss Dormer,” he said, “the pony will hardly be fit tomorrow, and the distances during the rest of the week are all too great for you; you had better wait till Monday week, when Stubbs will be here to look after you.”
“But I am going home on Tuesday,” said Ayala.
“I’ve had the pony brought on purpose for you,” said Sir Harry.
“You are not going at all,” said Lady Albury. All that has to be altered. I’ll write to Mrs Dosett.”
“I don’t think — “ began Ayala.
“I shall take it very much amiss”, said Sir Harry, if you go now. Stubbs is coming on purpose.”
“I don’t think — “ began Ayala again.
“My dear Ayala, it isn’t a case for thinking,” said Lady Albury. “You most positively will not leave this house till some day in April, which will have to be settled hereafter. Do not let us have a word more about it.” Then, on that immediate occasion, no further word about it was spoken. Ayala was quite unable to speak as she sat attempting to eat her lunch.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14