The Duchess did tell the Duke the whole story about Lord Rufford and Arabella that night — as to which it may be said that she also was false. But according to her conscience there were two ways of telling such a secret. As a matter of course she told her husband everything. That idle placid dinner-loving man was in truth consulted about each detail of the house and family; but the secret was told to him with injunctions that he was to say nothing about it to any one for twenty-four hours. After that the Duchess was of opinion that he should speak to Lord Rufford. “What could I say to him?” asked the Duke. “I’m not her father.”
“But your brother is so indifferent”
“No doubt. But that gives me no authority. If he does mean to marry the girl he must go to her father; or it is possible that he might come to me. But if he does not mean it, what can I do?” He promised, however, that he would think of it.
It was still dark night, or the morning was dark as night, when Arabella got out of bed and opened her window. The coming of a frost now might ruin her. The absence of it might give her everything in life that she wanted. Lord Rufford had promised her a tedious communication through servants as to the state of the weather. She was far too energetic, far too much in earnest, to wait for that. She opened the window and putting out her hand she felt a drizzle of rain. And the air, though the damp from it seemed to chill her all through, was not a frosty air. She stood there a minute so as to be sure and then retreated to her bed.
Fortune was again favouring her; — but then how would it be if it should turn to hard rain? In that case Lady Chiltern and the other ladies certainly would not go, and how in such case should she get herself conveyed to the meet? She would at any rate go down in her hat and habit and trust that somebody would provide for her. There might be much that would be disagreeable and difficult, but hardly anything could be worse than the necessity of telling such lies as those which she had fabricated on the previous afternoon.
She had been much in doubt whether her aunt had or had not believed her. That the belief was not a thorough belief she was almost certain. But then there was the great fact that after the story had been told she had been sent out to dinner leaning on Lord Rufford’s arm. Unless her aunt had believed something that would not have taken place. And then so much of it was true. Surely it would be impossible that he should not propose after what had occurred! Her aunt was evidently alive to the advantage of the marriage, to the advantage which would accrue not to her, Arabella, individually, but to the Trefoils generally. She almost thought that her aunt would not put spokes in her wheel for this day. She wished now that she had told her aunt that she intended to hunt, so that there need not be any surprise.
She slept again and again looked out of the window. It rained a little but still there were hours in which the rain might cease. Again she slept and at eight her maid brought her word that there would be hunting. It did rain a little but very little. Of course she would dress herself in riding attire.
At nine o’clock she walked into the breakfast parlour properly equipped for the day’s sport. There were four or five men there in red coats and top boots, among whom Lord Rufford was conspicuous. They were just seating themselves at the breakfast table, and her aunt was already in her place. Lady Chiltern had come into the room with herself, and at the door had spoken some good-natured words of surprise. “I did not know that you were a sportswoman, Miss Trefoil.” “I do ride a little when I am well mounted,” Arabella had said as she entered the room. Then she collected herself, and arranged her countenance, and endeavoured to look as though she were doing the most ordinary thing in the world. She went round the room and kissed her aunt’s brow. This she had not done on any other morning; but then on other mornings she had been late. “Are you going to ride?” said the Duchess.
“I believe so, aunt.”
“Who is giving you a horse?”
“Lord Rufford is lending me one. I don’t think even his good-nature will extend to giving away so perfect an animal. I know him well for I rode him when I was at Rufford.” This she said so that all the room should hear her.
“You need not be afraid, Duchess,” said Lord Rufford. “He is quite safe”
“And his name is Jack,” said Arabella laughing as she took her place with a little air of triumph. “Lord Rufford offered to let me have him all the time I was here, but I didn’t know whether you would take me in so attended.”
There was not one who heard her who did not feel that she spoke as though Lord Rufford were all her own. Lord Rufford felt it himself and almost thought he might as well turn himself round and bid his sister and Miss Penge let him go. He must marry some day and why should not this girl do as well as any one else? The Duchess did not approve of young ladies hunting. She certainly would not have had her niece at Mistletoe had she expected such a performance. But she could not find fault now. There was a feeling in her bosom that if there were an engagement it would be cruel to cause obstructions. She certainly could not allow a lover in her house for her husband’s niece without having official authenticated knowledge of the respectability of the lover; but the whole thing had come upon her so suddenly that she was at a loss what to do or what to say. It certainly did not seem to her that Arabella was in the least afraid of being found out in any untruth. If the girl were about to become Lady Rufford then it would be for Lord Rufford to decide whether or no she should hunt. Soon after this the Duke came in and he also alluded to his niece’s costume and was informed that she was to ride one of Lord Rufford’s horses. “I didn’t hear it mentioned before,” said the Duke. “He’ll carry Miss Trefoil quite safely,” said Lord Rufford who was at the moment standing over a game pie on the sideboard. Then the subject was allowed to drop.
At half-past nine there was no rain, and the ladies were so nearly punctual that the carriages absolutely started at ten. Some of the men rode on; one got a seat on the carriage; and Lord Rufford drove himself and a friend in a dog-cart, tandem. The tandem was off before the carriages, but Lord Rufford assured them that he would get the master to allow them a quarter of an hour. Arabella contrived to say one word to him. “If you start without me I’ll never speak to you again.” He nodded and smiled; but perhaps thought that if so it might be as well that he should start without waiting for her.
At the last moment the Duchess had taken it into her head that she too would go to the meet. No doubt she was actuated by some feeling in regard to her niece; but it was not till Arabella was absolutely getting on to Jack at the side of the carriage — under the auspices of Jack’s owner — that the idea occurred to her Grace that there would be a great difficulty as to the return home. “Arabella, how do you mean to get back?” she asked.
“That will be all right, aunt,” said Arabella.
“I will see to that,” said Lord Rufford.
The gracious but impatient master of the hounds had absolutely waited full twenty minutes for the Duchess’s party; and was not minded to wait a minute longer for conversation. The moment that the carriages were there the huntsmen had started so that there was an excuse for hurry. Lord Rufford as he was speaking got on to his own horse, and before the Duchess could expostulate they were away. There was a feeling of triumph in Arabella’s bosom as she told herself that she had at any rate secured her day’s hunting in spite of such heart-breaking difficulties.
The sport was fairly good. They had twenty minutes in the morning and a kill. Then they drew a big wood during which they ate their lunch and drank their sherry. In the big wood they found a fox but could not do anything with him. After that they came on a third in a stubble field and ran him well for half an hour, when he went to ground. It was then three o’clock; and as the days were now at the shortest the master declined to draw again. They were then about sixteen miles from Mistletoe, and about ten from Stamford where Lord Rufford’s horses were standing. The distance from Stamford to Mistletoe was eight. Lord Rufford proposed that they should ride to Stamford and then go home in a hired carriage. There seemed indeed to be no other way of getting home without taking three tired horses fourteen miles out of their way. Arabella made no objection whatever to the arrangement. Lord Rufford did in truth make a slight effort — the slightest possible — to induce a third person to join their party. There was still something pulling at his coat-tail, so that there might yet be a chance of saving him from the precipice. But he failed. The tired horseman before whom the suggestion was casually thrown out, would have been delighted to accept it, instead of riding all the way to Mistletoe; but he did not look upon it as made in earnest. Two, he knew, were company and three none.
The hunting field is by no means a place suited for real love-making. Very much of preliminary conversation may be done there in a pleasant way, and intimacies may be formed. But when lovers have already walked with arms round each other in a wood, riding together may be very pleasant but can hardly be ecstatic. Lord Rufford might indeed have asked her to be Lady R. while they were breaking up the first fox, or as they loitered about in the big wood; — but she did not expect that. There was no moment during the day’s sport in which she had a right to tell herself that he was misbehaving because he did not so ask her. But in a post chaise it would be different.
At the inn at Stamford the horses were given up, and Arabella condescended to take a glass of cherry brandy. She had gone through a long day; it was then half-past four, and she was not used to be many hours on horseback. The fatigue seemed to her to be very much greater than it had been when she got back to Rufford immediately after the fatal accident. The ten miles along the road, which had been done in little more than an hour, had almost overcome her. She had determined not to cry for mercy. as the hard trot went on. She had passed herself off as an accustomed horsewoman, and having done so well across the country, would not break down coming home. But, as she got into the carriage, she was very tired. She could almost have cried with fatigue; — and yet she told herself that now — now — must the work be done. She would perhaps tell him that she was tired. She might even assist her cause by her languor; but, though she should die for it, she would not waste her precious moments by absolute rest. “May I light a cigar?” he said as he got in.
“You know you may. Wherever I may be with you do you think that I would interfere with your gratifications?”
“You are the best girl in all the world,” he said as he took out his case and threw himself back in the corner.”
“Do you call that a long day?” she asked when he had lit his cigar.
“Not very long.”
“Because I am so tired.”
“We came home pretty sharp. I thought it best not to shock her Grace by too great a stretch into the night. As it is you will have time to go to bed for an hour or two before you dress. That’s what I do when I am in time. You’ll be right as a trivet then.”
“Oh; I’m right now — only tired. It was very nice.”
“Pretty well. We ought to have killed that last fox. And why on earth we made nothing of that fellow in Gooseberry Grove I couldn’t understand. Old Tony would never have left that fox alive above ground. Would you like to go to sleep?”
“O dear no.”
“Afraid of gloves?” said he, drawing nearer to her. They might pull him as they liked by his coat-tails but as he was in a post chaise with her he must make himself agreeable. She shook her head and laughed as she looked at him through the gloom. Then of course he kissed her.
“Lord Rufford, what does this mean?”
“Don’t you know what it means?”
“It means that I think you the jolliest girl out. I never liked anybody so well as I do you.”
“Perhaps you never liked anybody,” said she.
“Well; — yes, I have; but I am not going to boast of what fortune has done for me in that way. I wonder whether you care for me?”
“Do you want to know?”
“I should like to know that you did.”
“Because you have never asked me.”
“Am I not asking you now, Bella?”
“There are different ways of asking — but there is only one way that will get an answer from me. No; — no. I will not have it. I have allowed too much to you already. Oh, I am so tired.” Then she sank back almost into his arms — but recovered herself very quickly. “Lord Rufford,” she said, “if you are a man of honour let there be an end of this. I am sure you do not wish to make me wretched.”
“I would do anything to make you happy.”
“Then tell me that you love me honestly, sincerely, with all your heart — and I shall be happy.”
“You know I do.”
“Do you? Do you?” she said, and then she flung herself on to his shoulder, and for a while she seemed to faint. For a few minutes she lay there and as she was lying she calculated whether it would be better to try at this moment to drive him to some clearer declaration, or to make use of what he had already said without giving him an opportunity of protesting that he had not meant to make her an offer of marriage. He had declared that he loved her honestly and with his whole heart. Would not that justify her in setting her uncle at him? And might it not be that the Duke would carry great weight with him; — that the Duke might induce him to utter the fatal word though she, were she to demand it now, might fail? As she thought of it all she affected to swoon, and almost herself believed that she was swooning. She was conscious but hardly more than conscious that he was kissing her; — and yet her brain was at work. She felt that he would be startled, repelled, perhaps disgusted were she absolutely to demand more from him now. “Oh, Rufford; — oh, my dearest,” she said as she woke up, and with her face close to his, so that he could look into her eyes and see their brightness even through the gloom. Then she extricated herself from his embrace with a shudder and a laugh. “You would hardly believe how tired I am,” she said putting out her ungloved hand. He took it and drew her to him and there she sat in his arms for the short remainder of the journey.
They were now in the park, and as the lights of the house came in sight he gave her some counsel. “Go up to your room at once, dearest, and lay down.”
“I will. I don’t think I could go in among them. I should fall.”
“I will see the Duchess and tell her that you are all right, but very tired. If she goes up to you had better see her.”
“Oh, yes. But I had rather not.”
“She’ll be sure to come. And, Bella, Jack must be yours now.”
“You are joking.”
“Never more serious in my life. Of course he must remain with me just at present, but he is your horse.” Then, as the carriage was stopping, she took his hand and kissed it.
She got to her room as quickly as possible; and then, before she had even taken off her hat, she sat down to think of it all — sending her maid away meanwhile to fetch her a cup of tea. He must have meant it for an offer. There had at any rate been enough to justify her in so taking it. The present he had made to her of the horse could mean nothing else. Under no other circumstances would it be possible that she should either take the horse or use him. Certainly it was an offer, and as such she would instruct her uncle to use it. Then she allowed her imagination to revel in thoughts of Rufford Hall, of the Rufford house in town, and a final end to all those weary labours which she would thus have brought to so glorious a termination.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01