And now the departure from Courcy Castle came rapidly one after the other, and there remained but one more evening before Miss Dunstable’s carriage was to be packed. The countess, in the early moments of Frank’s courtship, had controlled his ardour and checked the rapidity of his amorous professions; but as days, and at last weeks, wore away, she found that it was necessary to stir the fire which she had before endeavoured to slacken.
‘There will be nobody here to-night but our own circle,’ said she to him, ‘and I really think you should tell Miss Dunstable what your intentions are. She will have fair ground to complain of you if you don’t.’
Frank began to feel that he was in a dilemma. He had commenced making love to Miss Dunstable partly because he liked the amusement, and partly from a satirical propensity to quiz his aunt by appearing to fall into her scheme. But he had overshot the mark, and did not know what answer to give when he was thus called upon to make a downright proposal. And then, although he did not care two rushes about Miss Dunstable in the way of love, he nevertheless experienced a sort of jealousy when he found that she appeared to be indifferent to him, and that she corresponded the meanwhile with his cousin George. Though all their flirtations had been carried on on both sides palpably by way of fun, though Frank had told himself ten times a day that his heart was true to Mary Thorne, yet he had an undefined feeling that it behoved Miss Dunstable to be a little in love with him. He was not quite at ease in that she was not a little melancholy now that his departure was so nigh; and, above all, he was anxious to know what were the real facts about that letter. He had in his own breast threatened Miss Dunstable with a heartache; and now, when the time for their separation came, he found that his own heart was the more likely to ache of the two.
‘I suppose I must say something to her, or my aunt will never be satisfied,’ said he to himself as he sauntered into the little drawing-room on that last evening. But at the very time he was ashamed of himself, for he knew he was going to ask badly.
His sister and one of his cousins were in the room, but his aunt, who was quite on the alert, soon got them out of it, and Frank and Miss Dunstable were alone.
‘So all our fun and all our laughter is come to an end,’ said she, beginning the conversation. ‘I don’t know how you feel, but for myself I really am a little melancholy at the idea of parting;’ and she looked up at him with her laughing black eyes, as though she never had, and never could have a care in the world.
‘Melancholy! oh, yes; you look so,’ said Frank, who really did feel somewhat lackadaisically sentimental.
‘But how thoroughly glad the countess must be that we are both going,’ continued she. ‘I declare we have treated her most infamously. Ever since we’ve been here we’ve had the amusement to ourselves. I’ve sometimes thought she would turn me out of the house.’
‘I wish with all my heart she had.’
‘Oh, you cruel barbarian! why on earth should you wish that?’
‘That I might have joined you in your exile. I hate Courcy Castle, and should have rejoiced to leave — and — and —’
‘And I love Miss Dunstable, and should have doubly, trebly rejoiced to leave it with her.’
Frank’s voice quivered a little as he made this gallant profession; but still Miss Dunstable only laughed the louder. ‘Upon my word, of all my knights you are by far the best behaved,’ said she, ‘and say much the prettiest things.’ Frank became rather red in the face, and felt that he did so. Miss Dunstable was treating him like a boy. While she pretended to be so fond of him she was only laughing at him, and corresponding the while with his cousin George. Now Frank Gresham already entertained a sort of contempt for his cousin, which increased the bitterness of his feelings. Could it really be possible that George had succeeded while he had utterly failed; that his stupid cousin had touched the heart of the heiress while she was playing with him as with a boy?
‘Of all your knights! Is that the way you talk to me when we are going to part? When was it, Miss Dunstable, that George de Courcy became one of them?’
Miss Dunstable for a while looked serious enough. ‘What makes you ask that?’ said she. ‘What makes you inquire about Mr de Courcy?’
‘Oh, I have eyes, you know, and can’t help seeing. Not that I see, or have seen anything that I could possibly help.’
‘And what have you seen, Mr Gresham?’
‘Why, I know you have been writing to him.’
‘Did he tell you so?’
‘No; he did not tell me; but I know it.’
For a moment she sat silent, and then her face again resumed its usual happy smile. ‘Come, Mr Gresham, you are not going to quarrel with me, I hope, even if I did write a letter to your cousin. Why should I not write to him? I correspond with all manner of people. I’ll write to you some of these days if you’ll let me, and will promise to answer my letters.’
Frank threw himself back on the sofa on which he was sitting, and, in doing so, brought himself somewhat nearer to his companion than he had been; he then drew his hand slowly across his forehead, pushing back his thick hair, and as he did so he sighed somewhat plaintively.
‘I do not care,’ said he, ‘for the privilege of correspondence on such terms. If my cousin George is to be a correspondent of yours also, I will give up my claim.’
And then he sighed again, so that it was piteous to hear him. He was certainly an arrant puppy, and an egregious ass into the bargain; but then, it must be remembered in his favour that he was only twenty-one, and that much had been done to spoil him. Miss Dunstable did remember this, and therefore abstained from laughing at him.
‘Why, Mr Gresham, what on earth do you mean? In all human probability I shall never write another line to Mr de Courcy; but, if I did, what possible harm could it do you?’
‘Oh, Miss Dunstable! you do not in the least understand what my feelings are.’
‘Don’t I? Then I hope I never shall. I thought I did. I thought they were the feelings of a good, true-hearted friend; feelings that I could sometimes look back upon with pleasure as being honest when so much that one meets is false. I have become very fond of you, Mr Gresham, and I should be sorry to think that I did not understand your feelings.’
This was almost worse and worse. Young ladies like Miss Dunstable — for she was still to be numbered in the category of young ladies — do not usually tell young gentlemen that they are very fond of them. To boys and girls they may make such a declaration. Now Frank Gresham regarded himself as one who had already fought his battles, and fought them not without glory; he could not therefore endure to be thus openly told by Miss Dunstable that she was very fond of him.
‘Fond of me, Miss Dunstable! I wish you were.’
‘So I am — very.’
‘You little know how fond I am of you, Miss Dunstable,’ and he put out his hand to take hold of hers. She then lifted up her own, and slapped him lightly on the knuckles.
‘And what can you have say to Miss Dunstable that can make it necessary that you should pinch her hand? I tell you fairly, Mr Gresham, if you make a fool of yourself, I shall come to a conclusion that you are all fools, and that it is hopeless to look out for any one worth caring for.’
Such advice as this, so kindly given, so wisely meant, so clearly intelligible he should have taken and understood, young as he was. but even yet he did not do so.
‘A fool of myself! Yes; I suppose I must be a fool if I have so much regard for Miss Dunstable as to make it painful for me to know that I am to see her no more: a fool: yes, of course I am a fool — a man is always a fool when he loves.’
Miss Dunstable could not pretend to doubt his meaning any longer; and was determined to stop him, let it cost what it would. She now put out her hand, not over white, and, as Frank soon perceived, gifted with a very fair allowance of strength.
‘Now, Mr Gresham,’ said she, ‘before you go any further you shall listen to me. Will you listen to me for a moment without interrupting me?’
Frank was of course obliged to promise that he would do so.
‘You are going — or rather you were going, for I shall stop you — to make a profession of love.’
‘A profession!’ said Frank making a slight unsuccessful effort to get his hand free.
‘Yes; a profession — a false profession, Mr Gresham — a false profession — a false profession. Look into your heart — into your heart of hearts. I know you at any rate have a heart; look into it closely. Mr Gresham, you know you do not love me; not as a man should love the woman he swears to love.’
Frank was taken aback. So appealed to he found that he could not any longer say that he did love her. He could only look into her face with all his eyes, and sit there listening to her.
‘How is it possible that you should love me? I am Heaven knows how many years your senior. I am neither young nor beautiful, nor have I been brought up as she should be whom you in time will really love and make your wife. I have nothing that should make you love me; but — but I am rich.’
‘It is not that,’ said Frank, stoutly, feeling himself imperatively called upon to utter something in his own defence.
‘Ah, Mr Gresham, I fear it is that. For what other reason can you have laid your plans to talk in this way to such a woman as I am?’
‘I have laid no plans,’ said Frank, now getting his hand to himself. ‘At any rate, you wrong me there, Miss Dunstable.’
‘I like you so well — nay, love you, if a woman may talk of love in the way of friendship — that if money, money alone would make you happy, you should have it heaped on you. If you want it, Mr Gresham, you shall have it.’
‘I have never thought of your money,’ said Frank, surlily.
‘But it grieves me,’ continued she, ‘it does grieve me, to think that you, you, you — so young and gay, so bright — that you should have looked for it in this way. From others I have taken it just as the wind that whistles;’ and now two big slow tears escaped from her eyes, and would have rolled down her rosy cheeks were it not that she brushed them off with the back of her hand.
‘You have utterly mistaken me, Miss Dunstable,’ said Frank.
‘If I have, I will humbly beg your pardon,’ said she, ‘but — but — but —’
Frank had nothing further to say in his own defence. He had not wanted Miss Dunstable’s money — that was true; but he could not deny that he had been about to talk that absolute nonsense of which she spoke with so much scorn.
‘You would almost make me think that there are none honest in this fashionable world of yours. I well know why Lady de Courcy has had me here: how could I help knowing it? She has been so foolish in her plans that ten times a day she has told me her own secret. But I have said to myself twenty times, that if she were crafty, you were honest.’
‘And am I dishonest?’
‘I have laughed in my sleeve to see how she played her game, and to hear others around playing theirs; all of them thinking that they could get the money of the poor fool who had come at their beck and call; but I was able to laugh at them as long as I thought that I had one true friend to laugh with me. But one cannot laugh with all the world against one.’
‘I am not against you, Miss Dunstable.’
‘Sell yourself for money! why, if I were a man I would not sell one jot of liberty for mountains of gold. What! tie myself in the heyday of my youth to a person I could never love, for a price! perjure myself, destroy myself — and not only myself, but her also, in order that I might live idly! Oh, heavens! Mr Gresham! can it be that the words of such a woman as your aunt have sunk so deeply in your heart; have blackened you so foully as this? Have you forgotten your soul, your spirit, your man’s energy, the treasure of your heart? And you, so young! For shame, Mr Gresham! for shame — for shame.’
Frank found the task before him by no means an easy one. He had to make Miss Dunstable understand that he had never had the slightest idea of marrying her, and that he had made love to her merely with the object of keeping his hand in for the work as it were; with that object, and the other equally laudable one of interfering with his cousin George.
And yet there was nothing for him but to get through this task as best he might. He was goaded to it by the accusations which Miss Dunstable brought against him; and he began to feel, that though her invective against him might be bitter when he had told the truth, they could not be so bitter as those she now kept hinting at under her mistaken impression as to his views. He had never had any strong propensity for money-hunting; but now that offence appeared in his eyes abominable, unmanly, and disgusting. Any imputation would be better than that.
‘Miss Dunstable, I never for a moment thought of doing what you accuse me of; on my honour, I never did. I have been very foolish — very wrong — idiotic, I believe; but I have never intended that.’
‘Then, Mr Gresham, what did you intend?’
This was rather a difficult question to answer; and Frank was not very quick in attempting it. ‘I know you will not forgive me,’ he said at last; ‘and, indeed, I do not see how you can. I don’t know how it came about; but this is certain, Miss Dunstable; I have never for a moment thought about your fortune; that is, thought about it in the way of coveting it.’
‘You never thought of making me your wife, then?’
‘Never,’ said Frank, looking boldly into her face.
‘You never intended really to propose to go with me to the altar, and then make yourself rich by one great perjury?’
‘Never for a moment,’ said he.
‘You have never gloated over me as the bird of prey gloats over the poor beast that is soon to become carrion beneath its claws? You have not counted me out as equal to so much land, and calculated on me as a balance at your banker’s? Ah, Mr Gresham,’ she continued, seeing that he stared as though struck almost with awe by her strong language; ‘you little guess what a woman situated as I am has to suffer.’
‘I have behaved badly to you, Miss Dunstable, and I beg your pardon; but I have never thought of your money.’
‘Then we will be friends again, Mr Gresham, won’t we? It is so nice to have a friend like you. There, I think I understand it now; you need not tell me.’
‘It was half by way of making a fool of my aunt,’ said Frank, in an apologetic tone.
‘There is merit in that, at any rate,’ said Miss Dunstable. ‘I understand it all now; you thought to make a fool of me in real earnest. Well, I can forgive that; at any rate it is not mean.’
It may be, that Miss Dunstable did not feel much acute anger at finding that this young man had addressed her with words of love in the course of an ordinary flirtation, although that flirtation had been unmeaning and silly. This was not the offence against which her heart and breast had found peculiar cause to arm itself; this was not the injury from which she had hitherto experienced suffering.
At any rate, she and Frank again became friends, and, before the evening was over, they perfectly understood each other. Twice during this long tete-a-tete Lady de Courcy came into the room to see how things were going on, and twice she went out almost unnoticed. It was quite clear to her that something uncommon had taken place, was taking place, or would take place; and that should this be for weal or for woe, no good could not come from her interference. On each occasion, therefore, she smiled sweetly on the pair of turtle-doves, and glided out of the room as quietly as she had glided into it.
But at last it became necessary to remove them; for the world had gone to bed. Frank, in the meantime, had told to Miss Dunstable all his love for Mary Thorne, and Miss Dunstable had enjoined him to be true to his vows. To her eyes there was something of heavenly beauty in young, true love — of beauty that was heavenly because it had been unknown to her.
‘Mind you let me hear, Mr Gresham,’ said she. ‘Mind you do; and, Mr Gresham, never, never forget her for one moment; not for one moment, Mr Gresham.’
Frank was about to swear that he never would — again, when the countess, for the third time, sailed into the room.
‘Young people,’ said she, ‘do you know what o’clock it is?’
‘Dear me, Lady de Courcy, I declare it is past twelve; I really am ashamed of myself. How glad you will be to get rid of me tomorrow!’
‘No, no, indeed we shan’t; shall we, Frank?’ and so Miss Dunstable passed out.
Then once again the aunt tapped her nephew with her fan. It was the last time in her life that she did so. He looked up in her face, and his look was enough to tell her that the acres of Greshamsbury were not to be reclaimed by the ointment of Lebanon.
Nothing further on the subject was said. On the following morning Miss Dunstable took her departure, not much heeding the rather cold words of farewell which her hostess gave her; and on the following day Frank started for Greshamsbury.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55