Lord Rufford’s letter reached Arabella at her cousin’s house, in due course, and was handed to her in the morning as she came down to breakfast. The envelope bore his crest and coronet, and she was sure that more than one pair of eyes had already seen it. Her mother had been in the room some time before her, and would of course know that the letter was from Lord Rufford. An indiscreet word or two had been said in the hearing of Mrs. Connop Green — as to which Arabella had already scolded her mother most vehemently, and Mrs. Connop Green too would probably have seen the letter, and would know that it had come from the lover of whom boasts had been made. The Connop Greens would be ready to worship Arabella down to the very soles of her feet if she were certainly — without a vestige of doubt — engaged to be the wife of Lord Rufford. But there had been so many previous mistakes! And they, too, had heard of Mr. John Morton. They too were a little afraid of Arabella though she was undoubtedly the niece of a Duke.
She was aware now — as always — how much depended on her personal bearing; but this was a moment of moments! She would fain have kept the letter, and have opened it in the retirement of her own room. She knew its terrible importance, and was afraid of her own countenance when she should read it. All the hopes of her life were contained in that letter. But were she to put it in her pocket she would betray her anxiety by doing so. She found herself bound to open it and read it at once — and she did open it and read it.
After all it was what she had expected. It was very decided, very short, very cold, and carrying with it no sign of weakness. But it was of such a letter that she had thought when she resolved that she would apply to Lord Mistletoe, and endeavour to put the whole family of Trefoil in arms. She had been — so she had assured herself — quite sure that that kind, loving response which she had solicited, would not be given to her. But yet the stern fact, now that it was absolutely in her hands, almost overwhelmed her. She could not restrain the dull dead look of heart-breaking sorrow which for a few moments clouded her face — a look which took away all her beauty, lengthening her cheeks, and robbing her eyes of that vivacity which it was the task of her life to assume. “Is anything the matter, my dear?” asked Mrs. Connop Green.
Then she made a final effort — an heroic effort. “What do you think, mamma?” she said, paying no attention to her cousin’s inquiry.
“What is it, Arabella?”
“Jack got some injury that day at Peltry, and is so lame that they don’t know whether he’ll ever put his foot to the ground again”
“Poor fellow,” said Mr. Green. “Who is Jack?”
“Jack is a horse, Mr. Green; and such a horse that one cannot but be sorry for him. Poor Jack! I don’t know any Christian whose lameness would be such a nuisance.”
“Does Lord Rufford write about his horses?” asked Mrs. Connop Green, thus betraying that knowledge as to the letter which she had obtained from the envelope.
“If you must know all the truth about it,” said Arabella, “the horse is my horse, and not Lord Rufford’s. And as he is the only horse I have got, and as he’s the dearest horse in all the world, you must excuse my being a little sorry about him. Poor Jack!” After that the breakfast was eaten and everybody in the room believed the story of the horse’s lameness — except Lady Augustus.
When breakfast and the loitering after breakfast were well over, so that she could escape without exciting any notice, she made her way up to her bedroom. In a few minutes — so that again there should be nothing noticeable — her mother followed her. But her door was locked. “It is I, Arabella,” said her mother.
“You can’t come in at present, I am busy.”
“You can’t come in at present, mamma.” Then Lady Augustus slowly glided away to her own room and there waited for tidings.
The whole form of the girl’s face was altered when she was alone. Her features in themselves were not lovely. Her cheeks and chin were heavy. Her brow was too low, and her upper lip too long. Her nose and teeth were good, and would have been very handsome had they belonged to a man. Her complexion had always been good till it had been injured by being improved — and so was the carriage of her head and the outside lines of her bust and figure, and her large eyes, though never soft, could be bright and sparkle. Skill had done much for her and continued effort almost more. But now the effort was dropped and that which skill had done turned against her. She was haggard, lumpy, and almost hideous in her bewildered grief.
Had there been a word of weakness in the short letter she might have founded upon it some hope. It did not occur to her that he had had the letter written for him, and she was astonished at its curt strength. How could he dare to say that she had mistaken him? Had she not lain in his arms while he embraced her? How could he have found the courage to say that he had had no thought of marriage when he had declared to her that he loved her? She must have known that she had hunted him as a fox is hunted; — and yet she believed that she was being cruelly ill-used. For a time all that dependence on Lord Mistletoe and her uncle deserted her. What effect could they have on a man who would write such a letter as that? Had she known that the words were the words of his brother-in-law, even that would have given her some hope.
But what should she do? Whatever steps she took she must take at once. And she must tell her mother. Her mother’s help would be necessary to her now in whatever direction she might turn her mind. She almost thought that she would abandon him without another word. She had been strong in her reliance on family aid till the time for invoking it had come; but now she believed that it would be useless. Could it be that such a man as this would be driven into marriage by the interference of Lord Mistletoe! She would much like to bring down some punishment on his head; but in doing so she would cut all other ground from under her own feet. There were still open to her Patagonia and the Paragon.
She hated the Paragon, and she recoiled with shuddering from the idea of Patagonia. But as for hating — she hated Lord Rufford most. And what was there that she loved? She tried to ask herself some question even as to that. There certainly was no man for whom she cared a straw; nor had there been for the last six or eight years. Even when he was kissing her she was thinking of her built-up hair, of her pearl powder, her paint, and of possible accidents and untoward revelations. The loan of her lips had been for use only, and not for any pleasure which she had even in pleasing him. In her very swoon she had felt the need of being careful at all points. It was all labour, and all care — and, alas, alas, all disappointment!
But there was a future through which she must live. How might she best avoid the misfortune of poverty for the twenty, thirty, or forty years which might be accorded to her? What did it matter whom or what she hated? The housemaid probably did not like cleaning grates; nor the butcher killing sheep; nor the sempstress stitching silks. She must live. And if she could only get away from her mother that in itself would be something. Most people were distasteful to her, but no one so much as her mother. Here in England she knew that she was despised among the people with whom she lived. And now she would be more despised than ever. Her uncle and aunt, though she disliked them, had been much to her. It was something — that annual visit to Mistletoe, though she never enjoyed it when she was there. But she could well understand that after such a failure as this, after such a game, played before their own eyes in their own house, her uncle and her aunt would drop her altogether. She had played this game so boldly that there was no retreat. Would it not therefore be better that she should fly altogether?
There were a time on that morning in which she had made up her mind that she would write a most affectionate letter to Morton, telling him that her people had now agreed to his propositions as to settlement, and assuring him that from henceforward she would be all his own. She did think that were she to do so she might still go with him to Patagonia. But, if so, she must do it at once. The delay had already been almost too long. In that case she would not say a word in reply to Lord Rufford, and would allow all that to be as though it had never been. Then again there arose to her mind the remembrance of Rufford Hall, of all the glories, of the triumph over everybody. Then again there was the idea of a “forlorn hope.” She thought that she could have brought herself to do it, if only death would have been the alternative of success when she had resolved to make the rush.
It was nearly one when she went to her mother and even then she was undecided. But the joint agony of the solitude and the doubts had been too much for her and she found herself constrained to seek a counsellor. “He has thrown you over,” said Lady Augustus as soon as the door was closed.
“Of course he has,” said Arabella walking up the room, and again playing her part even before her mother.
“I knew it would be so.”
“You knew nothing of the kind, mamma, your saying so is simply an untruth. It was you who put me up to it.”
“Arabella, that is false.”
“It wasn’t you, I suppose, who made me throw over Mr. Morton and Bragton.”
“That is so like you, mamma. There isn’t a single thing that you do or say that you don’t deny afterwards.” These little compliments were so usual among them that at the present moment they excited no great danger. “There’s his letter. I suppose you had better read it.” And she chucked the document to her mother.
“It is very decided,” said Lady Augustus.
“It is the falsest, the most impudent, and the most scandalous letter that a man ever wrote to a woman. I could horsewhip him for it myself if I could get near him.”
“Is it all over, Arabella?”
“All over! What questions you do ask, mamma! No. It is not all over. I’ll stick to him like a leech. He proposed to me as plainly as any man ever did to any woman. I don’t care what people may say or think. He hasn’t heard the last of me; and so he’ll find.” And thus in her passion she made up her mind that she would not yet abandon the hunt.
“What will you do, my dear?”
“What will I do? How am I to say what I will do? If I were standing near him with a knife in my hand I would stick it into his heart. I would! Mistaken him! Liar! They talk of girls lying; but what girl would lie like that?”
“But something must be done”
“If papa were not such a fool as he is, he could manage it all for me,” said Arabella dutifully. “I must see my father and I must dictate a letter for him. Where is papa?”
“In London, I suppose.”
“You must come up to London with me tomorrow. We shall have to go to his club and get him out. It must be done immediately; and then I must see Lord Mistletoe, and I will write to the Duke.”
“Would it not be better to write to your papa?” said Lady Augustus, not liking the idea of being dragged away so quickly from comfortable quarters.
“No; it wouldn’t. If you won’t go I shall, and you must give me some money. I shall write to Lord Rufford too.”
And so it was at last decided, the wretched old woman being dragged away up to London on some excuse which the Connop Greens were not sorry to accept. But on that same afternoon Arabella wrote to Lord Rufford:
Your letter has amazed me. I cannot understand it. It seems to be almost impossible that it should really have come from you. How can you say that I have mistaken you? There has been no mistake. Surely that letter cannot have been written by you.
Of course I have been obliged to tell my father everything.
On the following day at about four in the afternoon the mother and daughter drove up to the door of Graham’s Club in Bond Street, and there they found Lord Augustus. With considerable difficulty he was induced to come down from the whist room, and was forced into the brougham. He was a handsome fat man, with a long grey beard, who passed his whole life in eating, drinking, and playing whist, and was troubled by no scruples and no principles. He would not cheat at cards because it was dangerous and ungentlemanlike, and if discovered would lead to his social annihilation; but as to paying money that he owed to tradesmen, it never occurred to him as being a desirable thing as long as he could get what he wanted without doing so. He had expended his own patrimony and his wife’s fortune, and now lived on an allowance made to him by his brother. Whatever funds his wife might have not a shilling of them ever came from him. When he began to understand something of the nature of the business on hand, he suggested that his brother, the Duke, could do what was desirable infinitely better than he could. “He won’t think anything of me,” said Lord Augustus.
“We’ll make him think something,” said Arabella sternly. “You must do it, papa. They’d turn you out of the club if they knew that you had refused.” Then he looked up in the brougham and snarled at her. “Papa, you must copy the letter and sign it.”
“How am I to know the truth of it all?” he asked.
“It is quite true,” said Lady Augustus. There was very much more of it, but at last he was carried away bodily, and in his daughter’s presence he did write and sign the following letter; —
I have heard from my daughter a story which has surprised me very much. It appears that she has been staying with you at Rufford Hall, and again at Mistletoe, and that while at the latter place you proposed marriage to her. She tells me with heart-breaking concern that you have now repudiated your own proposition — not only once made but repeated. Her condition is most distressing. She is in all respects your Lordship’s equal. As her father I am driven to ask you what excuse you have to make, or whether she has interpreted you aright.
I have the honour to be,
Your very humble servant,
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55