John Eames saw nothing more of Lily Dale till he packed up his portmanteau, left his mother’s house, and went to stay for a few days with his old friend Lady Julia; and this did not happen till he had been above a week at Guestwick. Mrs Dale repeatedly said that it was odd that Johnny Eames did not come to see them; and Grace, speaking of him to Lily, asked why he did not come. Lily, in her funny way, declared that he would come soon enough. But even while she was joking there was something of half-expressed consciousness in her words — as though she felt it to be foolish to speak of his coming as she might of that of any other young man, before people who knew her whole story. ‘He’ll come quick enough. He knows, and I know, that his coming will do no good. Of course I shall be glad to see him. Why shouldn’t I be glad to see him? I’ve known him and liked him all my life. I liked him when there did not seem to be much about him to like, and now that he is clever, and agreeable, and good-looking — which he never was as a lad — why shouldn’t I go on liking him? He’s more like a brother to me than anybody else I’ve got. James,’— James was her brother-in-law, Dr Crofts —‘thinks of nothing but his patients and his babies, and my cousin Bernard is much too grand a person for me to take the liberty of loving him. I shall be very glad to see Johnny Eames.’ From all which Mrs Dale was led to believe that Johnny’s case was still hopeless. And how should it not be hopeless? Had not Lily confessed within the last week or two that she still loved Adolphus Crosbie?
Mrs Eames also, and Mary, were surprised that John did not go over to Allington. ‘You haven’t seen Mrs Dale yet, or the squire?’
‘I shall see them when I am at the cottage.’
‘Yes; — no doubt. But it seems strange that you should be here so long without going to them.’
‘There’s time enough,’ said he. ‘I shall have nothing else to do when I’m at the cottage.’ Then, when Mary had spoken to him again in private, expressing a hope that there was ‘nothing wrong’, he had been very angry with his sister. ‘What do you mean by wrong? What rubbish you girls talk! And you never have any delicacy of feeling to make you silent.’
‘Oh, John, don’t say such hard things as that of me!’
‘But I do say them. You’ll make me swear among you some day that I will never see Lily Dale again. As it is, I wish I never had seen her — simple because I am so dunned about it.’ In all of which I think that Johnny was manifestly wrong. When the humour was on him he was fond enough of talking about Lily Dale. Had he not taught her to do so, I doubt whether his sister would ever have mentioned Lily’s name to him. ‘I did not mean to dun you, John,’ said Mary, meekly.
But at last he went to Lady Julia’s, and was no sooner there than he was ready to start for Allington. When Lady Julia spoke to him about Lily, he did not venture to snub her. Indeed, of all his friends, Lady Julia was the one whom on this subject he allowed himself the most unrestricted confidence. He came over one day, just before dinner, and declared his intention of walking over to Allington immediately after breakfast on the following morning. ‘It’s the last time, Lady Julia,’ he said.
‘So you say, Johnny.’
‘And so I mean it! What’s the good of a man flittering away his life? What’s the good of wishing for what you can’t get?’
‘Jacob was not in such a hurry when he wished for Rachel.’
‘That was all very well for an old patriarch who had seven or eight hundred years to live.’
‘My dear John, you forget your Bible. Jacob did not live half as long as that.’
‘He lived long enough, and slowly enough, to be able to wait fourteen years; — and then he had something to comfort him in the meantime. And after all, Lady Julia, it’s more than seven years since I first thought Lily was the prettiest girl I ever saw.’
‘How old are you now?’ ‘Twenty-seven — and she’s twenty-four.’
‘You’ve time enough yet, if you’ll only be patient.’
‘I’ll be patient for tomorrow, Lady Julia, but never again. Not that I mean to quarrel with her. I’m not such a fool as to quarrel with a girl because she can’t like me. I know how it all is. If that scoundrel had not come across my path just when he did — in that very nick of time, all might have been right betwixt her and me. I couldn’t have offered to marry her before, when I hadn’t as much income as would have found her bread-and-butter. And then, just as better times came to me, he stepped in! I wonder whether it will be expected of me that I should forgive him?’
‘As far as that goes, you have no right to be angry with him.’
‘But I am — all the same.’
‘And so was I— but not for stepping in, as you call it.’
‘You and I are different, Lady Julia. I was angry with him for stepping in; but I couldn’t show it. Then he stepped out, and I did manage to show it. And now I shouldn’t wonder if he doesn’t step in again. After all, why should he have such a power? It was simply the nick of time which gave it to him.’ That John Eames should be able to find some consolation in this consideration is devoutly to be hoped by us all.
There was nothing said about Lily Dale the next morning at breakfast. Lady Julia observed that John was dressed a little more neatly than usual; — though the change was not such as to have called for her special observation, had she not known the business on which he was intent.
‘You have nothing to send to the Dales?’ he said, as he got up from the table.
‘Nothing but my love, Johnny.’
‘No worsted embroidery work — or a pot of special jam for the squire?’
‘No, sir, nothing; though I should like to make you carry a pair of panniers, if I could.’
‘They would become me well,’ said Johnny, ‘for I am going on an ass’s errand.’ Then, without waiting for the word of affection which was on the old woman’s lips, he got himself out of the room, and started on his journey.
The walk was only three miles and the weather was dry and frosty, and he had come to the turn leading up to the church and the squire’s house almost before he remembered that he was near Allington. Here he paused for a moment to think. If he continued his way down by the ‘Red Lion’ and through Allington Street, he must knock at Mrs Dale’s door, and ask for admission by means of the servant — as would be done by any ordinary visitor. But he could make his way on to the lawn by going up beyond the wall of the churchyard and through the squire’s garden. He knew the path well — very well; and he thought that he might take so much liberty as that, both with the squire and with Mrs Dale, although his visits to Allington were not so frequent now as they used to be in the days of his boyhood. He did not wish to be admitted by the servant, and therefore he went through the gardens. Luckily he did not see the squire, who would have detained him, and he escaped from Hopkins, the old gardener, with little more than a word. ‘I’m going down to see the ladies, Hopkins; I suppose I shall find them?’ And then, while Hopkins was arranging his spade so that he might lean upon it for a little chat, Johnny was gone and had made his way into the other garden. He had thought it possible that he might meet Lily out among the walks by herself and such a meeting as this would have suited him better than any other. And as he crossed the little bridge which separated the gardens he thought of more than one such meeting — of one especial occasion on which he had first ventured to tell her in plain words that he loved her. But before that day Crosbie had come there, and at the moment in which he was speaking of his love she regarded Crosbie as an angel of light upon the earth. What hope could there have been for him then? What use was there in telling such a tale of love at that time? When he told it, he knew Crosbie had been before him. He knew that Crosbie was at that moment the angel of light. But as he had never before been able to speak of his love, so was he then unable not to speak of it. He had spoken, and of course had been simply rebuked. Since that day Crosbie had ceased to be an angel of light, and he, John Eames, had spoken often. But he had spoken in vain, and now he would speak once again.
He went through the garden and over the lawn belonging to the Small House and saw no one. He forgot, I think, that ladies do not come out to pick roses when the ground is frozen, and that croquet is not often in progress with the hoar-frost on the grass. So he walked up to the little terrace before the drawing-room, and looking in saw Mrs Dale, and Lily, and Grace at their morning work. Lily was drawing, and Mrs Dale was writing, and Grace had her needle in her hand. As it happened, no one at first perceived him, and he had time to feel that after all he would have managed it better if he had been announced in the usual way. As, however, it was now necessary that he should announce himself, he knocked at the window, and they all immediately looked up and saw him. ‘It’s my cousin John,’ said Grace. ‘Oh, Johnny, how are you at last?’ said Mrs Dale. But it was Lily who, without speaking, opened the window for him, who was the first to give him her hand, and who led him through into the room.
‘It’s a great shame my coming in this way,’ said John, ‘and letting all the cold air in upon you.’
‘We shall survive it,’ said Mrs Dale. ‘I suppose you have just come down from my brother-in-law?’
‘No; I have not seen the squire as yet. I will do so before I go back, of course. But it seemed such a commonplace sort of thing to go round by the village.’
‘We are very glad to see you, by whatever way you came; — are we not, mamma?’ said Lily.
‘I’m not so sure of that. We were only saying yesterday that as you had been in the country a fortnight without coming to us, we did not think we would be at home when you did come.’
‘But I have caught you, you see,’ said Johnny.
And so they went on, chatting of old times and of mutual friends very comfortably for full an hour. And there was some serious conversation about Grace’s father and his affairs, and John declared his opinion that Mr Crawley should go to his uncle, Thomas Toogood, not at all knowing that at that time Mr Crawley himself had come to the same opinion. And John gave them an elaborate description of Sir Raffle Buffle, standing up with his back to the fire with his hat on his head, and speaking with a loud harsh voice, to show them the way in which he declared that that gentleman received his inferiors; and then bowing and scraping and rubbing his hands together and simpering with would-be softness — declared that after that fashion Sir Raffle received his superiors. And they were very merry — so that no one would have thought that Johnny was a despondent lover, now bent on throwing the dice for his last stake; or that Lily was aware that she was in the presence of one lover, and that she was like to fall on the ground between two stools — having two lovers, neither of whom could serve her turn.
‘How can you consent to serve him if he’s such a man as that?’ said Lily, speaking of Sir Raffle.
‘I do not serve him. I serve the Queen — or rather the public. I don’t take his wages, and he does not play his tricks with me. He knows that he can’t. He has tried it, and failed. And he only keeps me where I am because I’ve had some money left me. He thinks it fine to have a private secretary with a fortune. I know that he tells people all manner of lies about it, making it out to be five times as much as it is. Dear old Huffle Snuffle. He is such an ass; and yet he’s had wit enough to get to the top of the tree, and to keep himself there. He began the world without a penny. Now he has got a handle to his name, and he’ll live in clover all his life. It’s very odd, isn’t it, Mrs Dale?’
‘I suppose he does his work?’
‘When men get so high as that, there’s no knowing whether they work or whether they don’t. There isn’t much left for them to do, as far as I can see. They have to look beautiful, and frighten the young ones.’
‘And does Sir Raffle look beautiful?’ Lily asked.
‘After a fashion he does. There is something imposing about such a man till you’re used to it, and can see through it. Of course it’s all padding. There are men who work, no doubt. But among the bigwigs, and bishops and cabinet ministers, I fancy that the looking beautiful is the chief part of it. Dear me, you don’t mean to say it’s luncheon time?’
But it was luncheon time, and not only had he not as yet said a word of all that which he had come to say, but had not as yet made any move towards getting it said. How was he to arrange that Lily should be left alone with him? Lady Julia had said that she should not expect him back till dinner-time, and he had answered her lackadaisically, ‘I don’t suppose I shall be there above ten minutes. The minutes will say all I’ve got to say, and do all I’ve got to do. And then I suppose I shall go and cut names about bridges — eh, Lady Julia?’ Lady Julia understood the words; for once, upon a former occasion, she had found him cutting Lily’s name on the rail of a wooden bridge in her brother’s grounds. But he had now been a couple of hours at the Small House, and had not said a word of that which he had come to say.
‘Are you going to walk out with us after lunch?’ said Lily.
‘He will have had walking enough,’ said Mrs Dale.
‘We’ll convoy him part of the way,’ said Lily.
‘I’m not going yet,’ said Johnny, ‘unless you turn me out.’
‘But we must have our walk before it is dark,’ said Lily.
‘You might go up with him to your uncle,’ said Mrs Dale. ‘Indeed, I promised to go up there myself, and so did you, Grace, to see the microscope. I heard Mr Dale give orders that one of those long-legged reptiles should be caught on purpose for your inspection.’
Mrs Dale’s little scheme for bringing the two together was very transparent, but it was not the less wise on that account. Schemes will often be successful, let them be ever so transparent. Little intrigues become necessary, not to conquer unwilling people, but people who are willing enough, who, nevertheless, cannot give way except under the machinations of an intrigue.
‘I don’t think I mind looking at the long-legged creature, today,’ said Johnny.
‘I must go of course,’ said Grace.
Lily said nothing at the moment, either about the long-legged creature or the walk. That which must be, must be. She knew well why John Eames had come there. She knew that the visits to his mother and to Lady Julia would never have been made, but that he might have this interview. And he had a right to demand, at any rate, as much as that. That which must be, must be. And therefore when both Mrs Dale and Grace stoutly maintained their purpose of going up to the squire, Lily neither attempted to persuade John to accompany them nor said that she would do so herself.
‘I will convoy you home myself,’ she said, ‘and Grace, when she has done with the beetle, shall come and meet me. Won’t you, Grace?’
‘We are not helpless young ladies in these parts, nor yet timorous,’ continued Lily. ‘We can walk about without being afraid of ghosts, robbers, wild bulls, young men, or gypsies. Come the field path, Grace. I will go as far as the big oak with him, and then I shall turn back, and I shall come in by the stile opposite the church gate, and through the garden. So you can’t miss me.’
‘I daresay he’ll come back with you,’ said Grace.
‘No, he won’t. He will do nothing of the kind. He’ll have to go on and open Lady Julia’s bottle of port wine for his own drinking.’
All this was very good on Lily’s part, and very good also on the part of Mrs Dale; and John was of course very much obliged to them. But there was a lack of romance in it all, which did not seem to him to argue well as to his success. He did not think much about it, but he felt that Lily would not have been so ready to arrange their walk had she intended to yield to his entreaty. No doubt in these latter days plain good sense had become the prevailing mark of her character — perhaps, as Johnny thought, a little too strongly prevailing; but even with all her plain good sense and determination to dispense with the absurdities of romance in the affairs of her life, she would not have proposed herself as his companion for a walk across the fields merely that she might have an opportunity of accepting his hand. He did not say all this to himself, but he instinctively felt that it was so. And he felt also that it should have been his duty to arrange the walk, or the proper opportunity for the scene that was to come. She had done it instead — she and her mother between them, thereby forcing upon him a painful conviction that he himself had not been equal to the occasion. ‘I always make a mull of it,’ he said to himself, when the girls went up to get their hats.
They went down together through the garden, and parted where the paths led away, one to the great house and the other towards the church. ‘I’ll certainly come and call upon the squire before I go back to London,’ said Johnny.
We’ll tell him so,’ said Mrs Dale. ‘He would be sure to hear that you had been with us, even if we said nothing about it.’
‘Of course he would,’ said Lily; ‘Hopkins has seen him.’ Then they separated, and Lily and John Eames were together.
Hardly a word was said, perhaps not a word, till they had crossed the road and got into the field opposite to the church. And in this first field there was more than one path, and the children of the village were often there, and it had about it something of a public nature. John Eames felt that it was by no means a fitting field to say that which he had to say. In crossing it, therefore, he merely remarked that the day was very fine for walking. Then he added one special word, ‘And it is so good of you, Lily, to come with me.’
‘I am very glad to come with you. I would do more than that, John, to show how glad I am to see you.’ Then they had come to the second little gate, and beyond that the fields were really fields, and there were stiles instead of wicket-gates, and the business of the day must be begun.
‘Lily, whenever I come here you say that you are glad to see me?’
‘And so I am — very glad. Only you would take it as meaning what it does not mean, I would tell you, that of all my friends living away from the reach of my daily life, you are the one whose coming is ever the most pleasant to me.’
‘It was, I think, only yesterday that I was telling Grace that you are more like a brother to me than anyone else. I wish it might be so. I wish we might swear to be brother and sister. I’d do more for you then than walk across the fields with you to Guestwick Cottage. Your prosperity would then be the thing in the world for which I should be most anxious. And if you should marry —’
‘It can never be like that between us,’ said Johnny.
‘Can it not? I think it can. Perhaps not this year, or next year; perhaps not in the next five years. But I make myself happy with thinking that it may be so some day. I shall wait for it patiently, very patiently, even though you should rebuff me again and again — as you have done now.’
‘I have not rebuffed you.’
‘Not maliciously, or injuriously, or offensively. I will be very patient and take little rebuffs without complaining. This is the worst of it all. When Grace and I are together we can never manage it without tearing ourselves all to pieces. It is much nicer to have you to help me.’
‘Let me help you always,’ he said, keeping her hands in his after he had aided her to jump from the stile to the ground.
‘Yes, as my brother.’
‘That is nonsense, Lily.’
‘Is it nonsense? Nonsense is a hard word.’
‘It is nonsense as coming from you to me. Lily, I sometimes think that I am persecuting you, writing to you, coming after you, as I am doing now — telling the same whining story — asking, asking, and asking for that which you say you will never give me. And then I feel ashamed of myself, and swear that I will do it no more.’
‘Do not be ashamed of yourself; but yet do it no more.’
‘And then,’ he continued, without minding her words, ‘at other times I feel that it must be my own fault; that if I only persevered with sufficient energy, I must be successful. At such times I swear I will never give it up.’
‘Oh, John, if you could only know how little worthy of such pursuit it is.’
‘Leave me to be the judge of that, dear. When a man has taken a month, or perhaps only a week, or perhaps not more than half-an-hour, to make up his mind, it may be very well to tell him that he doesn’t know what he is about. I’ve been in the office now for over seven years, and the first day I went I put an oath into a book that I would come back and get you for my wife when I had got enough to live upon.’
‘Did you, John?’
‘Yes. I can show it to you. I used to come and hover about the place in the old days, before I went up to London, when I was such a fool that I couldn’t speak to you if I met you. I am speaking of a time long before — before that man came down here.’
‘Do not speak of him, John.’
‘I must speak of him. A man isn’t to hold his tongue when everything he has in the world is at stake. I suppose he loved you after a fashion, once.’
‘Pray, pray, do not speak ill of him, John.’
‘I am not going to abuse him. You can judge of him by his deeds. I cannot say anything worse of him than what they say. I suppose he loved you; but he certainly did not love you as I have done. I have at any rate been true to you. Yes, Lily, I have been true to you. I am true to you. He did not know what he was about. I do. I am justified in saying that I do. I want you to be my wife. It is no use your talking about it as though I only half wanted it.’
‘I did not say that.’
‘Is not a man to have any reward? Of course if you had married him there would have been an end of it. He had come in between me and my happiness, and I must have borne it, as other men bear such sorrows. But you have not married him; and, of course, I cannot but feel that I may yet have a chance. Lily, answer me this. Do you believe that I love you?’ But she did not answer him. ‘You can at any rate tell me that. Do you think that I am in earnest?’
‘Yes, I think you are in earnest.’
‘And do you believe that I love you with all my heart and all my strength and all my soul?’
‘But do you?’
‘I think you love me.’
‘Think! What am I to say or to do to make you understand that my only idea of happiness is the idea that sooner or later I may get you to be my wife? Lily, will you say that it shall be so? Speak, Lily. There is no one that will not be glad. Your uncle will consent — has consented. Your mother wishes it. Bell wishes it. My mother wishes it. Lady Julia wishes it. You would be doing what everybody around you wants you to do. And why should you not do it? It isn’t that you dislike me. You wouldn’t talk about being my sister, if you had not some sort of regard for me.’
‘I have a regard for you.’
‘Then why will you not be my wife? Oh, Lily, say the word now, here, at once. Say the word, and you’ll make me the happiest fellow in all England.’ As he spoke he took her by both arms, and held her fast. She did not struggle to get away from him, but stood quite still, looking into his face, while the first sparkle of a salt tear formed itself in each eye. ‘Lily, one little word will do it — half a word, a nod, a smile. Just touch my arm with your hand and I will take it for a yes.’ I think that she almost tried to touch him; that the word was in her throat, and that she almost strove to speak it. But there was no syllable spoken, and her fingers did not loose themselves to fall upon his sleeve. ‘Lily, Lily, what can I say to you?’
‘I wish I could,’ she whispered; — but the whisper was so hoarse that he hardly recognized the voice.
‘And why can you not? What is there to hinder you? There is nothing to hinder you, Lily.’
‘Yes, John; there is that which must hinder me.’
‘And what is it?’
‘I will tell you. You are so good and so true, and so excellent — such a dear, dear friend, that I will tell you everything, so that you may read my heart. I will tell you as I tell mamma — you and her and no one else; — for you are the choice friend of my heart. I cannot be your wife because of the love I bear for another man.’
‘And that man is he — he who came here?’
‘Of course it is he. I think, Johnny, you and I are alike in this, that when we have loved, we cannot bring ourselves to change. You will not change, though it would be so much better you should do so.’
‘No; I will never change.’
‘Nor can I. When I sleep I dream of him. When I am alone I cannot banish him from my thoughts. I cannot define what it is to love him. I want nothing from him — nothing, nothing. But I move about through my little world thinking of him, and I shall do so till the end. I used to feel proud of my love, though it made me so wretched that I thought it would kill me. I am not proud of it any longer. It is a foolish poor-spirited weakness — as though my heart has been only half formed in the making. Do you be stronger, John. A man should be stronger than a woman.’
‘I have none of that sort of strength.’
‘Nor have I. What can we do but pity each other, and swear that we will be friends — dear friends. There is the oak-tree and I have got to turn back. We have said everything that we can say — unless you will tell me that you will be my brother.’
‘No; I will not tell you that.’
‘Good-bye, then, Johnny.’
He paused, holding her by the hand and thinking of another question which he longed to put to her — considering whether he would ask her that question or not. He hardly knew whether he were entitled to ask it; — whether or no the asking of it would be ungenerous. She had said that she would tell him everything — as she had told everything to her mother. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I have no right to expect to know anything of your future intentions.’
‘You may know them all — as far as I know them myself. I have said that you should read my heart.’
‘If this man, whose name I cannot bear to mention, should come again —’
‘If he were to come again he would come in vain, John.’ She did not say that he had come again. She could tell her own secret, but not that of another person.
‘You would not marry him, now that he is free?’
She stood and thought for a while before she answered him. ‘No, I should not marry him now. I think not.’ Then she paused again. ‘Nay, I am sure I would not. After what has passed, I could not trust myself to do it. There is my hand on it. I will not.’
‘No, Lily, I do not want that.’
‘But I insist. I will not marry Mr Crosbie. But you must not misunderstand me, John. There; — all that is over for me now. All those dreams about love, and marriage, and of a house of my own, and children — and a cross husband, and a wedding-ring growing always tighter as I grow fat and older. I have dreamed of such things as other girls do — more perhaps than other girls, more than I should have done. And now I accept the thing as finished. You wrote something in your book, you dear John — something that could not be made to come true. Dear John, I wish for your sake it was otherwise. I will go home and I will write in my book, this very day, Lily Dale, Old Maid. If ever I make that false, do you come and ask me for the page.’
‘Let it remain there till I am allowed to tear it for you.’
‘I will write it, and it shall never be torn out. You I cannot marry. Him I will not marry. You may believe me, Johnny, when I say there can never be a third.’
‘And is that to be the end of it?’
‘Yes; — that is to be the end of it. Not the end of our friendship. Old maids have friends.’
‘It shall not be the end of it. There shall be no end of it with me.’
‘But, John —’
‘Do not suppose that I will trouble you again — at any rate not for a while. In five years perhaps —’
‘Now, Johnny, you are laughing at me. And of course it is the best way. If there is not Grace, and she has caught me before I have turned back. Good-bye, dear John. God bless you. I think you the finest fellow in the world. I do, and do does mamma. Remember always that there is a temple at Allington in which your worship is never forgotten.’ Then she pressed his hand and turned away from him to meet Grace Crawley. John did not stop to speak a word to his cousin, but pursued his way alone.
‘That cousin of yours,’ said Lily, ‘is simply the dearest, warmest-hearted, finest creature that ever was seen in the shape of a man.’
‘Have you told him that you think him so?’ said Grace.
‘Indeed, I have,’ said Lily.
‘But have you told this finest, warmest, dearest creature that he shall be rewarded with the prize he covets?’
‘No, Grace. I have told him nothing of the kind. I think he understands it all now. If he does not, it is not for the want of my telling him. I don’t suppose any lady was ever more open-spoken to a gentleman that I have been to him.’
‘And why have you sent him away disappointed? You know you love him.’
‘You see, my dear,’ said Lily, ‘you allow yourself, for the sake of your argument, to use a word in a double sense, and you attempt to confound me by doing so. But I am a great deal too clever for you, and have thought too much about it, to be taken in in that way. I certainly love your cousin John; and so do I love Mr Boyce, the vicar.’
‘You love Johnny much better than you do Mr Boyce.’
‘True; very much better; but it is of the same sort of love. However, it is a great deal too deep for you to understand. You’re too young, and I shan’t try to explain it. But the long and the short of it is — I am not going to marry your cousin.’
‘I wish you were,’ said Grace, ‘with all my heart.’
John Eames as he returned to the cottage was by no means able to fall back upon those resolutions as to his future life, which he had formed for himself and communicated to his friend Dalrymple, and which he had intended to bring at once into force in the event of his being rejected by Lily Dale. ‘I will cleanse my mind of it altogether,’ he had said, ‘and though I may not forget her, I will live as though she were forgotten. If she declines my proposal again, I will accept her word as final. I will not go about the world any longer as a stricken deer — to be pitied or else bullied by the rest of the herd.’ On his way down to Guestwick he had sworn twenty times that it should be so. He would make one more effort, and then he would give it up. But now, after his interview with Lily, he was as little disposed to give it up as ever.
He sat upon a gate in a paddock through which there was a back entrance into Lady Julia’s garden, and there swore a thousand oaths that he would never give her up. He was, at any rate, sure that she would never become the wife of anyone else. He was equally sure that he would never become the husband of any other wife. He could trust her. Yes; he was sure of that. But could he trust himself? Communing with himself, he told himself that after all he was but a poor creature. Circumstances had been very good to him, but he had done nothing for himself. He was vain, and foolish, and unsteady. So he told himself while sitting upon the gate. But he had, at any rate, been constant to Lily, and constant he would remain.
He would never more mention her name to anyone — unless it were to Lady Julia tonight. To Dalrymple he would not open his mouth about her, but would plainly ask his friend to be silent on that subject if her name should be mentioned by him. But morning and evening he would pray for her, and in his prayers he would always think of her as his wife. He would never speak to another girl without remembering that he was bound to Lily. He would go nowhere into society without recalling to mind the fact that he was bound by the chains of a solemn engagement. If he knew himself he would be constant to Lily.
And then he considered in what manner it would be best and most becoming that he should still prosecute his endeavour and repeat his offer. He thought that he would write to her every year, on the same day of the year, year after year, it might be for the next twenty years. And his letters would be very simple. Sitting there on the gate he planned the wording of his letters; — of his first letter, and of his second, and of his third. They should be very like to each other — should hardly be more than a repetition of the same words. ‘If now you are ready for me, then Lily, am I, as ever, still ready for you.’ And then, ‘if now’ again and again, ‘if now; — and still ‘if now’. When his hair should be grey, and the wrinkles on his cheeks — ay, though they should be on hers, he would still continue to tell her from year to year that he was ready to take her. Surely some day that ‘if now’ would prevail. And should it never prevail, the merit of his constancy should be its own reward.
Such letters as those she would surely keep. Then he looked forward, down into the valley of coming years, and fancied her as she might sit reading them in the twilight of some long evening — letters which had been written all in vain. He thought that he could look forward with some satisfaction towards the close of his own career, in having been the hero of such a love-story. At any rate, if such a story were to be his story, the melancholy attached to it should arise from no fault of his own. He would still press her to be his wife. And then as he remembered that he was only twenty-seven and that she was twenty-four, he began to marvel at the feeling of grey old age which had come upon him, and tried to make himself believe that he would have her yet before the bloom was off her cheeks.
He went into the cottage and made his way at once into the room in which Lady Julia was sitting. She did not speak at first, but looked anxiously about his face. And he did not speak, but turned to a table near the window and took up a book — though the room was too dark for him to see to read the words. ‘John,’ at last said Lady Julia.
‘Well, my lady?’
‘Have you nothing to tell me, John?’
‘Nothing on earth — except the same old story, which has now become a matter of course.’
‘But, John, will you not tell me what she said?’
‘Lady Julia, she has said no; simply no. It is a very easy word to say, and she has said it so often that it seems to come from her quite naturally.’ Then he got a candle and sat down over the fire with a volume of a novel. It was not yet past five, and Lady Julia did not go upstairs to dress till six, and therefore there was an hour during which they were together. John had at first been rather grand to his old friend, and very uncommunicative. But before the dressing-bell had rung he had been coaxed into a confidential strain and had told everything. ‘I suppose it is wrong and selfish,’ he said. ‘I suppose I am a dog in a manger. But I do own that there is a consolation to me in the assurance that she will never be the wife of that scoundrel.’
‘I could never forgive her if she were to marry him now,’ said Lady Julia.
‘I could never forgive him. But she has said that she will not, and I know that she will not forswear herself. I shall go on with it, Lady Julia. I have made up my mind to that. I suppose it will never come to anything, but I shall stick to it. I can live an old bachelor as well as another man. At any rate I shall stick to it.’ Then the good silly old woman comforted him and applauded him as though he were a hero among men, and did reward him, as Lily had predicted, by one of those now rare bottles of super-excellent port which had come to her from her brother’s cellar.
John Eames stayed out his time at the cottage, and went over more than once again to Allington, and called on the squire, on one occasion dining with him and meeting the three ladies from the Small House; and he walked with the girls, comporting himself like any ordinary man. But he was not again alone with Lily Dale, nor did he learn whether she had in truth written those two words in her book. But the reader may be know that she did write them there on the evening of the day on which the promise was made. ‘Lilian Dale — Old Maid’.
And when John’s holiday was over, he returned to his duties at the elbow of Sir Raffle Buffle.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01