When Arabella Trefoil started from London for Mistletoe, with no companion but her own maid, she had given more serious consideration to her visit than she had probably ever paid to any matter up to that time. She had often been much in earnest but never so much in earnest as now. Those other men had perhaps been worthy, worthy as far as her ideas went of worth, but none of them so worthy as this man. Everything was there if she could only get it; — money, rank, fashion, and an appetite for pleasure. And he was handsome too, and good-humoured, though these qualities told less with her than the others. And now she was to meet him in the house of her great relations — in a position in which her rank and her fashion would seem to be equal to his own. And she would meet him with the remembrance fresh in his mind as in her own of those passages of love at Rufford. It would be impossible that he should even seem to forget them. The most that she could expect would be four or five days of his company, and she knew that she must be upon her mettle. She must do more now than she had ever attempted before. She must scruple at nothing that might bind him. She would be in the house of her uncle and that uncle a duke, and she thought that those facts might help to quell him. And she would be there without her mother, who was so often a heavy incubus on her shoulders. She thought of it all, and made her plans carefully and even painfully. She would be at any rate two days in the house before his arrival. During that time she would curry favour with her uncle by all her arts, and would if possible reconcile herself to her aunt. She thought once of taking her aunt into her full confidence and balanced the matter much in her mind. The Duchess, she knew, was afraid of her — or rather afraid of the relationship, and would of course be pleased to have all fears set at rest by such an alliance. But her aunt was a woman who had never suffered hardships, whose own marriage had been easily arranged, and whose two daughters had been pleasantly married before they were twenty years old. She had had no experience of feminine difficulties, and would have no mercy for such labours as those to which her less fortunate niece was driven. It would have been a great thing to have the cordial co-operation of her aunt; but she could not venture to ask for it.
She had stretched her means and her credit to the utmost in regard to her wardrobe, and was aware that she had never been so well equipped since those early days of her career in which her father and mother had thought that her beauty, assisted by a generous expenditure, would serve to dispose of her without delay. A generous expenditure may be incurred once even by poor people, but cannot possibly be maintained over a dozen years. Now she had taken the matter into her own hands and had done that which would be ruinous if not successful. She was venturing her all upon the die — with the prospect of drowning herself on the way out to Patagonia should the chances of the game go against her. She forgot nothing. She could hardly hope for more than one day’s hunting and yet that had been provided for as though she were going to ride with the hounds through all the remainder of the season.
When she reached Mistletoe there were people going and coming every day, so that an arrival was no event. She was kissed by her uncle and welcomed with characteristic coldness by her aunt, then allowed to settle in among the other guests as though she had been there all the winter. Everybody knew that she was a Trefoil and her presence therefore raised no question. The Duchess of Omnium was among the guests. The Duchess knew all about her and vouchsafed to her the smallest possible recognition. Lady Chiltern had met her before, and as Lady Chiltern was always generous, she was gracious to Arabella. She was sorry to see Lady Drummond, because she connected Lady Drummond with the Foreign Office and feared that the conversation might be led to Patagonia and its new minister. She contrived to squeeze her uncle’s hand and to utter a word of warm thanks — which his grace did not perfectly understand. The girl was his niece and the Duke had an idea that he should be kind to the family of which he was the head. His brother’s wife had become objectionable to him, but as to the girl, if she wanted a home for a week or two, he thought it to be his duty to give it to her.
Mistletoe is an enormous house with a frontage nearly a quarter of a mile long, combining as it does all the offices, coach houses, and stables. There is nothing in England more ugly or perhaps more comfortable. It stands in a huge park which, as it is quite flat, never shows its size and is altogether unattractive. The Duke himself was a hospitable, easy man who was very fond of his dinner and performed his duties well; but could never be touched by any sentiment. He always spent six months in the country, in which he acted as landlord to a great crowd of shooting, hunting, and flirting visitors, and six in London, in which he gave dinners and dined out and regularly took his place in the House of Lords without ever opening his mouth. He was a grey-haired comely man of sixty, with a large body and a wonderful appetite. By many who understood the subject he was supposed to be the best amateur judge of wine in England. His son Lord Mistletoe was member for the county and as the Duke had no younger sons he was supposed to be happy at all points. Lord Mistletoe, who had a large family of his own, lived twenty miles off — so that the father and son could meet pleasantly without fear of quarrelling.
During the first evening Arabella did contrive to make herself very agreeable. She was much quieter than had been her wont when at Mistletoe before, and though there were present two or three very well circumstanced young men she took but little notice of them. She went out to dinner with Sir Jeffrey Bunker, and made herself agreeable to that old gentleman in a remarkable manner. After dinner, something having been said of the respectable old game called cat’s cradle, she played it to perfection with Sir Jeffrey, till her aunt thought that she must have been unaware that Sir Jeffrey had a wife and family. She was all smiles and all pleasantness, and seemed to want no other happiness than what the present moment gave her. Nor did she once mention Lord Rufford’s name.
On the next morning after breakfast her aunt sent for her to come up-stairs. Such a thing had never happened to her before. She could not recollect that, on any of those annual visits which she had made to Mistletoe for more years than she now liked to think of, she had ever had five minutes’ conversation alone with her aunt. It had always seemed that she was to be allowed to come and go by reason of her relationship, but that she was to receive no special mark of confidence or affection. The message was whispered into her ear by her aunt’s own woman as she was listening with great attention to Lady Drummond’s troubles in regard to her nursery arrangements. She nodded her head, heard a few more words from Lady Drummond, and then, with a pretty apology and a statement made so that all should hear her, that her aunt wanted her, followed the maid up-stairs. “My dear,” said her aunt, when the door was closed, “I want to ask you whether you would like me to ask Mr. Morton to come here while you are with us?” A thunderbolt at her feet could hardly have surprised or annoyed her more. If there was one thing that she wanted less than another it was the presence of the Paragon at Mistletoe. It would utterly subvert everything and rob her of every chance. With a great effort she restrained all emotion and simply shook her head. She did it very well, and betrayed nothing. “I ask,” said the Duchess, “because I have been very glad to hear that you are engaged to marry him. Lord Drummond tells me that he is a most respectable young man.”
“Mr. Morton will be so much obliged to Lord Drummond.”
“And I thought that if it were so, you would be glad that he should meet you here. I could manage it very well, as the Drummonds are here, and Lord Drummond would be glad to meet him.”
They had not been above a minute or two together, and Arabella had been called upon to expend her energy in suppressing any expression of her horror; but still, by the time that she was called on to speak, she had fabricated her story. “Thanks, aunt; it is so good of you; and if everything was going straight, there would be nothing of course that I should like so much.”
“You are engaged to him?”
“Well; I was going to tell you. I dare say it is not his fault; but papa and mamma and the lawyers think that he is not behaving well about money; — settlements and all that. I suppose it will all come right; but in the meantime perhaps I had better not meet him.”
“But you were engaged to him?”
This had to be answered without pause. “Yes,” said Arabella; “I was engaged to him.”
“And he is going out almost immediately?”
“He is going, I know.”
“I suppose you will go with him?”
This was very hard. She could not say that she certainly was not going with him. And yet she had to remember that her coming campaign with Lord Rufford must be carried on in part beneath her aunt’s eyes. When she had come to Mistletoe she had fondly hoped that none of the family there would know anything about Mr. Morton. And now she was called upon to answer these horrid questions without a moment’s notice! “I don’t think I shall go with him, aunt; though I am unable to say anything certain just at present. If he behaves badly of course the engagement must be off.”
“I hope not. You should think of it very seriously. As for money, you know, you have none of your own, and I am told that he has a very nice property in Rufford. There is a neighbour of his coming here to-morrow, and perhaps he knows him.”
“Who is the neighbour, aunt?” asked Arabella, innocently.
“Lord Rufford. He is coming to shoot. I will ask him about the property.”
“Pray don’t mention my name, aunt. It would be so unpleasant if nothing were to come of it. I know Lord Rufford very well.”
“Know Lord Rufford very well!”
“As one does know men that one meets about”
“I thought it might settle everything if we had Mr. Morton here.”
“I couldn’t meet him, aunt; I couldn’t indeed. Mamma doesn’t think that he is behaving well.” To the Duchess condemnation from Lady Augustus almost amounted to praise. She felt sure that Mr. Morton was a worthy man who would not probably behave badly, and though she could not unravel the mystery, and certainly had no suspicion in regard to Lord Rufford, she was sure that there was something wrong. But there was nothing more to be said at present. After what Arabella had told her Mr. Morton could not be asked there to meet her niece. But all the slight feeling of kindness to the girl which had been created by the tidings of so respectable an engagement were at once obliterated from the Duchess’s bosom. Arabella, with many expressions of thanks and a good-humoured countenance, left the room, cursing the untowardness of her fate which would let nothing run smooth.
Lord Rufford was to come. That at any rate was now almost certain. Up to the present she had doubted, knowing the way in which such men will change their engagements at the least caprice. But the Duchess expected him on the morrow. She had prepared the way for meeting him as an old friend without causing surprise, and had gained that step. But should she succeed, as she hoped, in exacting continued homage from the man, homage for the four or five days of his sojourn at Mistletoe — this must be carried on with the knowledge on the part of many in the house that she was engaged to that horrid Patagonian Minister! Was ever a girl called upon to risk her entire fate under so many disadvantages?
When she went up to dress for dinner on the day of his expected arrival Lord Rufford had not come. Since the interview in her aunt’s room she had not heard his name mentioned. When she came into the drawing-room, a little late, he was not there. “We won’t wait, Duchess,” said the Duke to his wife at three minutes past eight. The Duke’s punctuality at dinner-time was well known, and everybody else was then assembled. Within two minutes after the Duke’s word dinner was announced, and a party numbering about thirty walked away into the dinner-room. Arabella, when they were all settled, found that there was a vacant seat next herself. If the man were to come, fortune would have favoured her in that.
The fish and soup had already disappeared and the Duke was wakening himself to eloquence on the first entree when Lord Rufford entered the room. “There never were trains so late as yours, Duchess,” he said, “nor any part of the world in which hired horses travel so slowly. I beg the Duke’s pardon, but I suffer the less because I know his Grace never waits for anybody.”
“Certainly not,” said the Duke, “having some regard for my friends’ dinners.”
“And I find myself next to you,” said Lord Rufford as he took his seat. “Well; that is more than I deserve.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14