On the next morning Arabella went to church as did of course a great many of the party. By remaining at home she could only have excited suspicion. The church was close to the house, and the family pew consisted of a large room screened off from the rest of the church, with a fire-place of its own — so that the labour of attending divine service was reduced to a minimum. At two o’clock they lunched, and that amusement lasted nearly an hour. There was an afternoon service at three in attending which the Duchess was very particular. The Duke never went at that time nor was it expected that any of the gentlemen would do so; but women are supposed to require more church than men, and the Duchess rather made it a point that at any rate the young ladies staying in the house should accompany her. Over the other young ladies there her authority could only be that of influence, but such authority generally sufficed. From her niece it might be supposed that she would exact obedience, and in this instance she tried it. “We start in five minutes,” she said to Arabella as that young lady was loitering at the table.
“Don’t wait for me; aunt, I’m not going,” said Arabella boldly.
“I hope you will come to church with us,” said the Duchess sternly.
“Not this afternoon.”
“Why not, Arabella?”
“I never do go to church twice on Sundays. Some people do, and some people don’t. I suppose that’s about it.”
“I think that all young women ought to go to church on Sunday afternoon unless there is something particular to prevent them.” Arabella shrugged her shoulders and the Duchess stalked angrily away.
“That makes me feel so awfully wicked,” said the Duchess of Omnium, who was the only other lady then left in the room. Then she got up and went out and Arabella of course followed her. Lord Rufford had heard it all but had stood at the window and said nothing. He had not been to church at all, and was quite accustomed to the idea that as a young nobleman who only lived for pleasure he was privileged to be wicked. Had the Duchess of Mayfair been blessed with a third daughter fit for marriage she would not have thought of repudiating such a suitor as Lord Rufford because he did not go to church.
When the house was cleared Arabella went upstairs and put on her hat. It was a bright beautiful winter’s day, not painfully cold because the air was dry, but still a day that warranted furs and a muff. Having prepared herself she made her way alone to a side door which led from a branch of the hall on to the garden terrace, and up and down that she walked two or three times — so that any of the household that saw her might perceive that she had come out simply for exercise. At the end of the third turn instead of coming back she went on quickly to the conservatory and took the path which led round to the further side. There was a small lawn here fitted for garden games, and on the other end of it an iron gate leading to a path into the woods. At the further side of the iron gate and leaning against it, stood Lord Rufford smoking a cigar. She did not pause a moment but hurried across the lawn to join him. He opened the gate and she passed through. “I’m not going to be done by a dragon,” she said as she took her place alongside of him.
“Upon my, word, Miss Trefoil, I don’t think I ever knew a human being with so much pluck as you have got”
“Girls have to have pluck if they don’t mean to be sat upon; — a great deal more than men. The idea of telling me that I was to go to church as though I were twelve years old!”
“What would she say if she knew that you were walking here with me?”
“I don’t care what she’d say. I dare say she walked with somebody once; — only I should think the somebody must have found it very dull.”
“Does she know that you’re to hunt to-morrow?”
“I haven’t told her and don’t mean. I shall just come down in my habit and hat and say nothing about it. At what time must we start?”
“The carriages are ordered for half-past nine. But I’m afraid you haven’t clearly before your eyes all the difficulties which are incidental to hunting.”
“What do you mean?”
“It looks as like a black frost as anything I ever saw in my life.”
“But we should go?”
“The horses won’t be there if there is a really hard frost. Nobody would stir. It will be the first question I shall ask the man when he comes to me, and if there have been seven or eight degrees of frost I shan’t get up.”
“How am I to know?”
“My man shall tell your maid. But everybody will soon know all about it. It will alter everything.”
“I think I shall go mad.”
“In white satin?”
“No; — in my habit and hat. It will be the hardest thing, after all! I ought to have insisted on going to Holcombe Cross on Friday. The sun is shining now. Surely it cannot freeze.”
“It will be uncommonly ill-bred if it does.”
But, after all, the hunting was not the main point. The hunting had been only intended as an opportunity; and if that were to be lost — in which case Lord Rufford would no doubt at once leave Mistletoe — there was the more need for using the present hour, the more for using even the present minute. Though she had said that the sun was shining, it was the setting sun, and in another half hour the gloom of the evening would be there. Even Lord Rufford would not consent to walk about with her in the dark. “Oh, Lord Rufford,” she said, “I did so look forward to your giving me another lead.” Then she put her hand upon his arm and left it there.
“It would have been nice,” said he, drawing her hand a little on, and remembering as he did so his own picture of himself on the cliff with his sister holding his coat-tails.
“If you could possibly know,” she said, “the condition I am in.”
“I know that I can trust you.”
“Oh dear, yes. If you mean about telling, I never tell anything.”
“That’s what I do mean. You remember that man at your place?”
“What man? Poor Caneback?”
“Oh dear no! I wish they could change places because then he could give me no more trouble.”
“That’s wishing him to be dead, whoever he is.”
“Yes. Why should he persecute me? I mean that man we were staying with at Bragton.”
“Of course I do. Don’t you remember your asking me about him, and my telling you that I was not engaged to him?”
“I remember that”
“Mamma and this horrid old Duchess here want me to marry him. They’ve got an idea that he is going to be ambassador at Pekin or something very grand, and they’re at me day and night”
“You needn’t take him unless you like him.”
“They do make me so miserable!” And then she leaned heavily upon his arm. He was a man who could not stand such pressure as this without returning it. Though he were on the precipice, and though he must go over, still he could not stand it. “You remember that night after the ball?”
“Indeed I do.”
“And you too had asked me whether I cared for that horrid man.”
“I didn’t see anything horrid. You had been staying at his house and people had told me. What was I to think?”
“You ought to have known what to think. There; let me go,”— for now he had got his arm round her waist. “You don’t care for me a bit. I know you don’t. It would be all the same to you whom I married; — or whether I died.”
“You don’t think that, Bella?” He fancied that he had heard her mother call her Bella, and that the name was softer and easier than the full four syllables. It was at any rate something for her to have gained.
“I do think it. When I came here on purpose to have a skurry over the country with you, you went away to Holcombe Cross though you could have hunted here, close in the neighbourhood. And now you tell me there will be a frost to-morrow.”
“Can I help that, darling?”
“Darling! I ain’t your darling. You don’t care a bit for me. I believe you hope there’ll be a frost.” He pressed her tighter, but laughed as he did so. It was evidently a joke to him; — a pleasant joke no doubt. “Leave me alone, Lord Rufford. I won’t let you, for I know you don’t love me.” Very suddenly he did leave his hold of her and stood erect with his hands in his pockets, for the rustle of a dress was heard. It was still daylight, but the light was dim and the last morsel of the grandeur of the sun had ceased to be visible through the trees. The church-going people had been released, and the Duchess having probably heard certain tidings, had herself come to take a walk in the shrubbery behind the conservatory. Arabella had probably been unaware that she and her companion by a turn in the walks were being brought back towards the iron gate. As it was they met the Duchess face to face.
Lord Rufford had spoken the truth when he had said that he was a little afraid of the Duchess. Such was his fear that at the moment he hardly knew what he was to say. Arabella had boasted when she had declared that she was not at all afraid of her aunt; — but she was steadfastly minded that she would not be cowed by her fears. She had known beforehand that she would have occasion for much presence of mind, and was prepared to exercise it at a moment’s notice. She was the first to speak. “Is that you, aunt? you are out of church very soon.”
“Lord Rufford,” said the Duchess, “I don’t think this is a proper time for walking out.”
“Don’t you, Duchess? The air is very nice.”
“It is becoming dark and my niece had better return to the house with me. Arabella, you can come this way. It is just as short as the other. If you go on straight, Lord Rufford, it will take you to the house.” Of course Lord Rufford went on straight and of course Arabella had to turn with her aunt. “Such conduct as this is shocking,” began the Duchess.
“Aunt, let me tell you.”
“What can you tell me?”
“I can tell you a great deal if you will let me. Of course I am quite prepared to own that I did not intend to tell you anything.”
“I can well believe that”
“Because I could hardly hope for your sympathy. You have never liked me.”
“You have no right to say that”
“I don’t do it in the way of finding fault. I don’t know why you should. But I have been too much afraid of you to tell you my secrets. I must do so now because you have found me walking with Lord Rufford. I could not otherwise excuse myself.”
“Is he engaged to marry you?”
“He has asked me”
“But he has, aunt. You must be a little patient and let me tell it you all. Mamma did make up an engagement between me and Mr. Morton at Washington.”
“Did you know Lord Rufford then?”
“I knew him, but did not think he was behaving quite well. It is very hard sometimes to know what a man means. I was angry when I went to Washington. He has told me since that he loves me — and has offered.”
“But you are engaged to marry the other man.”
“Nothing on earth shall make me marry Mr. Morton. Mamma did it, and mamma now has very nearly broken it off because she says he is very shabby about money. Indeed it is broken off. I bad told him so even before Lord Rufford had proposed to me.”
“When did he propose and where?”
“At Rufford. We were staying there in November.”
“And you asked to come here that you might meet him?”
“Just so. Was that strange? Where could I be better pleased to meet him than in my uncle’s house?”
“Yes; — if you had told us all this before.”
“Perhaps I ought; but you are so severe, I did not dare. Do not turn against me now. My uncle could not but like that his niece should marry Lord Rufford.”
“How can I turn against you if it is settled? Lord Rufford can do as he pleases. Has he told your father — or your mother?”
“Mamma knows it.”
“But not from him?” asked the Duchess.
Arabella paused a moment but hardly a moment before she answered. It was hard upon her that she should have to make up her mind on matters of such importance with so little time for consideration. “Yes,” she said; “mamma knows it from him. Papa is so very indifferent about everything that Lord Rufford has not spoken to him.”
“If so, it will be best that the Duke should speak to him.”
There was another pause, but hardly long enough to attract notice. “Perhaps so,” she said; “but not quite yet. He is so peculiar, so touchy. The Duke is not quite like my father and he would think himself suspected.”
“I cannot imagine that if he is in earnest.”
“That is because you do not know him as I do. Only think where I should be if I were to lose him!”
“Oh, aunt, now that you know it I do hope that you will be my friend. It would kill me if he were to throw me over.”
“But why should he throw you over if he proposed to you only last month?”
“He might do it if he thought that he were interfered with. Of course I should like my uncle to speak to him, but not quite immediately: If he were to say that he had changed his mind, what could I do, or what could my uncle do?”
“That would be very singular conduct.”
“Men are so different now, aunt. They give themselves so much more latitude. A man has only to say that he has changed his mind and nothing ever comes of it.”
“I have never been used to such men, my dear.”
“At any rate do not ask the Duke to speak to him to-day. I will think about it and perhaps you will let me see you to-morrow, after we all come in.” To this the Duchess gravely assented. “And I hope you won’t be angry because you found me walking with him, or because I did not go to church. It is everything to me. I am sure, dear aunt, you will understand that” To this the Duchess made no reply, and they both entered the house together. What became of Lord Rufford neither of them saw.
Arabella when she regained her room thought that upon the whole fortune had favoured her by throwing her aunt in her way. She had, no doubt, been driven to tell a series of barefaced impudent lies — lies of such a nature that they almost made her own hair stand on end as she thought of them; — but they would matter nothing if she succeeded; and if she failed in this matter she did not care much what her aunt thought of her. Her aunt might now do her a good turn; and some lies she must have told; — such had been the emergencies of her position! As she thought of it all she was glad that her aunt had met her; and when Lord Rufford was summoned to take her out to dinner on that very Sunday — a matter as to which her aunt managed everything herself — she was immediately aware that her lies had done her good service.
“This was more than I expected,” Lord Rufford said when they were seated.
“She knew that she had overdone it when she sent you away in that cavalier way,” replied Arabella, “and now she wants to show that she didn’t mean anything.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14