The Small House at Allington/Chapter 6

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I am well aware that I have not as yet given any description of Bell and Lilian Dale, and equally well aware that the longer the doing so is postponed the greater the difficulty becomes. I wish it could be understood without any description that they were two pretty, fair-haired girls, of whom Bell was the tallest and the prettiest, whereas Lily was almost as pretty as her sister, and perhaps was more attractive.

They were fair-haired girls, very like each other, of whom I have before my mind's eye a distinct portrait, which I fear I shall not be able to draw in any such manner as will make it distinct to others. They were something below the usual height, being slight and slender in all their proportions. Lily was the shorter of the two, but the difference was so trifling that it was hardly remembered unless the two were together. And when I said that Bell was the prettier, I should, perhaps, have spoken more justly had I simply declared that her features were more regular than her sister's. The two girls were very fair, so that the soft tint of colour which relieved the whiteness of their complexion was rather acknowledged than distinctly seen. It was there, telling its own tale of health, as its absence would have told a tale of present or coming sickness; and yet nobody could ever talk about the colour in their cheeks. The hair of the two girls was so alike in hue and texture, that no one, not even their mother, could say that there was a difference. It was not flaxen hair, and yet it was very light. Nor did it approach to auburn; and yet there ran through it a golden tint that gave it a distinct brightness of its own. But with Bell it was more plentiful than with Lily, and therefore Lily would always talk of her own scanty locks, and tell how beautiful were those belonging to her sister. Nevertheless Lily's head was quite as lovely as her sister's; for its form was perfect, and the simple braids in which they both wore their hair did not require any great exuberance in quantity. Their eyes were brightly blue; but Bell's were long, and soft, and tender, often hardly daring to raise themselves to your face; while those of Lily were rounder, but brighter, and seldom kept by any want of courage from fixing themselves where they pleased. And Lily's face was perhaps less oval in its form—less perfectly oval—than her sister's. The shape of the forehead was, I think, the same, but with Bell the chin was something more slender and delicate. But Bell's chin was unmarked, whereas on her sister's there was a dimple which amply compensated for any other deficiency in its beauty. Bell's teeth were more even than her sister's; but then she showed her teeth more frequently. Her lips were thinner, and, as I cannot but think, less expressive. Her nose was decidedly more regular in its beauty, for Lily's nose was somewhat broader than it should have been. It may, therefore, be understood that Bell would be considered the beauty by the family.

But there was, perhaps, more in the general impression made by these girls, and in the whole tone of their appearance, than in the absolute loveliness of their features or the grace of their figures. There was about them a dignity of demeanour devoid of all stiffness or pride, and a maidenly modesty which gave itself no airs. In them was always apparent that sense of security which women should receive from an unconscious dependence on their own mingled purity and weakness. These two girls were never afraid of men,—never looked as though they were so afraid. And I may say that they had little cause for that kind of fear to which I allude. It might be the lot of either of them to be ill-used by a man, but it was hardly possible that either of them should ever be insulted by one. Lily, as may, perhaps, have been already seen, could be full of play, but in her play she never so carried herself that any one could forget what was due to her.

And now Lily Dale was engaged to be married, and the days of her playfulness were over. It sounds sad, this sentence against her, but I fear that it must be regarded as true. And when I think that it is true,—when I see that the sportiveness and kitten-like gambols of girlhood should be over, and generally are over, when a girl has given her troth, it becomes a matter of regret to me that the feminine world should be in such a hurry after matrimony. I have, however, no remedy to offer for the evil; and, indeed, am aware that the evil, if there be an evil, is not well expressed in the words I have used. The hurry is not for matrimony, but for love. Then, the love once attained, matrimony seizes it for its own, and the evil is accomplished.

And Lily Dale was engaged to be married to Adolphus Crosbie,—to Apollo Crosbie, as she still called him, confiding her little joke to his own ears. And to her he was an Apollo, as a man who is loved should be to the girl who loves him. He was handsome, graceful, clever, self-confident, and always cheerful when she asked him to be cheerful. But he had also his more serious moments, and could talk to her of serious matters. He would read to her, and explain to her things which had hitherto been too hard for her young intelligence. His voice, too, was pleasant, and well under command. It could be pathetic if pathos were required, or ring with laughter as merry as her own. Was not such a man fit to be an Apollo to such a girl, when once the girl had acknowledged to herself that she loved him?

She had acknowledged it to herself, and had acknowledged it to him,—as the reader will perhaps say without much delay. But the courtship had so been carried on that no delay had been needed. All the world had smiled upon it. When Mr. Crosbie had first come among them at Allington, as Bernard's guest, during those few days of his early visit, it had seemed as though Bell had been chiefly noticed by him. And Bell in her own quiet way had accepted his admiration, saying nothing of it and thinking but very little. Lily was heart-free at the time, and had ever been so. No first shadow from Love's wing had as yet been thrown across the pure tablets of her bosom. With Bell it was not so,—not so in absolute strictness. Bell's story, too, must be told, but not on this page. But before Crosbie had come among them, it was a thing fixed in her mind that such love as she had felt must be overcome and annihilated. We may say that it had been overcome and annihilated, and that she would have sinned in no way had she listened to vows from this new Apollo. It is almost sad to think that such a man might have had the love of either of such girls, but I fear that I must acknowledge that it was so. Apollo, in the plenitude of his power, soon changed his mind; and before the end of his first visit, had transferred the distant homage which he was then paying from the elder to the younger sister. He afterwards returned, as the squire's guest, for a longer sojourn among them, and at the end of the first month had already been accepted as Lily's future husband.

It was beautiful to see how Bell changed in her mood towards Crosbie and towards her sister as soon as she perceived how the affair was going. She was not long in perceiving it, having caught the first glimpses of the idea on that evening when they both dined at the Great House, leaving their mother alone to eat or to neglect the peas. For some six or seven weeks Crosbie had been gone, and during that time Bell had been much more open in speaking of him than her sister. She had been present when Crosbie had bid them good-by, and had listened to his eagerness as he declared to Lily that he should soon be back again at Allington. Lily had taken this very quietly, as though it had not belonged at all to herself; but Bell had seen something of the truth, and, believing in Crosbie as an earnest, honest man, had spoken kind words of him, fostering any little aptitude for love which might already have formed itself in Lily's bosom.

"But he is such an Apollo, you know," Lily had said.

"He is a gentleman; I can see that."

"Oh, yes; a man can't be an Apollo unless he's a gentleman."

"And he's very clever."

"I suppose he is clever." There was nothing more said about his being a mere clerk. Indeed, Lily had changed her mind on that subject. Johnny Eames was a mere clerk; whereas Crosbie, if he was to be called a clerk at all, was a clerk of some very special denomination. There may be a great difference between one clerk and another! A Clerk of the Council and a parish clerk are very different persons. Lily had got some such idea as this into her head as she attempted in her own mind to rescue Mr. Crosbie from the lower orders of the Government service.

"I wish he were not coming," Mrs. Dale had said to her eldest daughter.

"I think you are wrong, mamma."

"But if she should become fond of him, and then——"

"Lily will never become really fond of any man till he shall have given her proper reason. And if he admires her, why should they not come together?"

"But she is so young, Bell."

"She is nineteen; and if they were engaged, perhaps, they might wait for a year or so. But it's no good talking in that way, mamma. If you were to tell Lily not to give him encouragement, she would not speak to him."

"I should not think of interfering."

"No, mamma; and therefore it must take its course. For myself, I like Mr. Crosbie very much."

"So do I, my dear."

"And so does my uncle. I wouldn't have Lily take a lover of my uncle's choosing."

"I should hope not."

"But it must be considered a good thing if she happens to choose one of his liking."

In this way the matter had been talked over between the mother and her elder daughter. Then Mr. Crosbie had come; and before the end of the first month his declared admiration for Lily had proved the correctness of her sister's foresight. And during that short courtship all had gone well with the lovers. The squire from the first had declared himself satisfied with the match, informing Mrs. Dale, in his cold manner, that Mr. Crosbie was a gentleman with an income sufficient for matrimony.

"It would be close enough in London," Mrs. Dale had said.

"He has more than my brother had when he married," said the squire.

"If he will only make her as happy as your brother made me,—while it lasted!" said Mrs. Dale, as she turned away her face to conceal a tear that was coming. And then there was nothing more said about it between the squire and his sister-in-law. The squire spoke no word as to assistance in money matters,—did not even suggest that he would lend a hand to the young people at starting, as an uncle in such a position might surely have done. It may well be conceived that Mrs. Dale herself said nothing on the subject. And, indeed, it may be conceived, also, that the squire, let his intentions be what they might, would not divulge them to Mrs. Dale. This was uncomfortable, but the position was one that was well understood between them.

Bernard Dale was still at Allington, and had remained there through the period of Crosbie's absence. Whatever words Mrs. Dale might choose to speak on the matter would probably be spoken to him; but, then, Bernard could be quite as close as his uncle. When Crosbie returned, he and Bernard had, of course, lived much together; and, as was natural, there came to be close discussion between them as to the two girls, when Crosbie allowed it to be understood that his liking for Lily was becoming strong.

"You know, I suppose, that my uncle wishes me to marry the elder one," Bernard had said.

"I have guessed as much."

"And I suppose the match will come off. She's a pretty girl, and as good as gold."

"Yes, she is."

"I don't pretend to be very much in love with her. It's not my way, you know. But, some of these days, I shall ask her to have me, and I suppose it'll all go right. The governor has distinctly promised to allow me eight hundred a year off the estate, and to take us in for three months every year if we wish it. I told him simply that I couldn't do it for less, and he agreed with me."

"You and he get on very well together."

"Oh, yes! There's never been any fal-lal between us about love, and duty, and all that. I think we understand each other, and that's everything. He knows the comfort of standing well with the heir, and I know the comfort of standing well with the owner." It must be admitted, I think, that there was a great deal of sound, common sense about Bernard Dale.

"What will he do for the younger sister?" asked Crosbie; and, as he asked the important question, a close observer might have perceived that there was some slight tremor in his voice.

"Ah! that's more than I can tell you. If I were you, I should ask him. The governor is a plain man, and likes plain business."

"I suppose you couldn't ask him?"

"No; I don't think I could. It is my belief that he will not let her go by any means empty-handed."

"Well, I should suppose not."

"But remember this, Crosbie,—I can say nothing to you on which you are to depend. Lily, also, is as good as gold; and, as you seem to be fond of her, I should ask the governor, if I were you, in so many words, what he intends to do. Of course, it's against my interest, for every shilling he gives Lily will ultimately come out of my pocket. But I'm not the man to care about that, as you know."

What might be Crosbie's knowledge on this subject we will not here inquire; but we may say that it would have mattered very little to him out of whose pocket the money came, so long as it went into his own. When he felt quite sure of Lily,—having, in fact, received Lily's permission to speak to her uncle, and Lily's promise that she would herself speak to her mother,—he did tell the squire what was his intention. This he did in an open, manly way, as though he felt that in asking for much he also offered to give much.

"I have nothing to say against it," said the squire.

"And I have your permission to consider myself as engaged to her?"

"If you have hers and her mother's. Of course you are aware that I have no authority over her."

"She would not marry without your sanction."

"She is very good to think so much of her uncle," said the squire; and his words as he spoke them sounded very cold in Crosbie's ears. After that Crosbie said nothing about money, having to confess to himself that he was afraid to do so. "And what would be the use?" said he to himself, wishing to make excuses for what he felt to be weak in his own conduct. "If he should refuse to give her a shilling I could not go back from it now." And then some ideas ran across his mind as to the injustice to which men are subjected in this matter of matrimony. A man has to declare himself before it is fitting that he should make any inquiry about a lady's money; and then, when he has declared himself, any such inquiry is unavailing. Which consideration somewhat cooled the ardour of his happiness. Lily Dale was very pretty, very nice, very refreshing in her innocence, her purity, and her quick intelligence. No amusement could be more deliciously amusing than that of making love to Lily Dale. Her way of flattering her lover without any intention of flattery on her part, had put Crosbie into a seventh heaven. In all his experience he had known nothing like it. "You may be sure of this," she had said,—"I shall love you with all my heart and all my strength." It was very nice;—but then what were they to live upon? Could it be that he, Adolphus Crosbie, should settle down on the north side of the New Road, as a married man, with eight hundred a year? If indeed the squire would be as good to Lily as he had promised to be to Bell, then indeed things might be made to arrange themselves.

But there was no such drawback on Lily's happiness. Her ideas about money were rather vague, but they were very honest. She knew she had none of her own, but supposed it was a husband's duty to find what would be needful. She knew she had none of her own, and was therefore aware that she ought not to expect luxuries in the little household that was to be prepared for her. She hoped, for his sake, that her uncle might give some assistance, but was quite prepared to prove that she could be a good poor man's wife. In the old colloquies on such matters between her and her sister she had always declared that some decent income should be considered as indispensable before love could be entertained. But eight hundred a year had been considered as doing much more than fulfilling this stipulation. Bell had had high-flown notions as to the absolute glory of poverty. She had declared that income should not be considered at all. If she had loved a man, she would allow herself to be engaged to him, even though he had no income. Such had been their theories; and, as regarded money, Lily was quite contented with the way in which she had carried out her own.

In these beautiful days there was nothing to check her happiness. Her mother and sister united in telling her that she had done well,—that she was happy in her choice, and justified in her love. On that first day, when she told her mother all, she had been made exquisitely blissful by the way in which her tidings had been received.

"Oh! mamma, I must tell you something," she said, coming up to her mother's bedroom, after a long ramble with Mr. Crosbie through those Allington fields.

"Is it about Mr. Crosbie?"

"Yes, mamma." And then the rest had been said through the medium of warm embraces and happy tears rather than by words.

As she sat in her mother's room, hiding her face on her mother's shoulders, Bell had come, and had knelt at her feet.

"Dear Lily," she had said, "I am so glad." And then Lily remembered how she had, as it were, stolen her lover from her sister, and she put her arms round Bell's neck and kissed her.

"I knew how it was going to be from the very first," said Bell. "Did I not, mamma?"

"I'm sure I didn't," said Lily. "I never thought such a thing was possible."

"But we did,—mamma and I."

"Did you?" said Lily.

"Bell told me that it was to be so," said Mrs. Dale. "But I could hardly bring myself at first to think that he was good enough for my darling."

"Oh, mamma! you must not say that. You must think that he is good enough for anything."

"I will think that he is very good."

"Who could be better? And then, when you remember all that he is to give up for my sake!—And what can I do for him in return? What have I got to give him?"

Neither Mrs. Dale nor Bell could look at the matter in this light, thinking that Lily gave quite as much as she received. But they both declared that Crosbie was perfect, knowing that by such assurances only could they now administer to Lily's happiness; and Lily, between them, was made perfect in her happiness, receiving all manner of encouragement in her love, and being nourished in her passion by the sympathy and approval of her mother and sister.

And then had come that visit from Johnny Eames. As the poor fellow marched out of the room, giving them no time to say farewell, Mrs. Dale and Bell looked at each other sadly; but they were unable to concoct any arrangement, for Lily had run across the lawn, and was already on the ground before the window.

"As soon as we got to the end of the shrubbery there were uncle Christopher and Bernard close to us; so I told Adolphus he might go on by himself."

"And who do you think has been here?" said Bell. But Mrs. Dale said nothing. Had time been given to her to use her own judgment, nothing should have been said at that moment as to Johnny's visit.

"Has anybody been here since I went? Whoever it was didn't stay very long."

"Poor Johnny Eames," said Bell. Then the colour came up into Lily's face, and she bethought herself in a moment that the old friend of her young days had loved her, that he, too, had had hopes as to his love, and that now he had heard tidings which would put an end to such hopes. She understood it all in a moment, but understood also that it was necessary that she should conceal such understanding.

"Dear Johnny!" she said. "Why did he not wait for me?"

"We told him you were out," said Mrs. Dale. "He will be here again before long, no doubt."

"And he knows——?"

"Yes; I thought you would not object to my telling him."

"No, mamma; of course not. And he has gone back to Guestwick?"

There was no answer given to this question, nor were there any further words then spoken about Johnny Eames. Each of these women understood exactly how the matter stood, and each knew that the others understood it. The young man was loved by them all, but not loved with that sort of admiring affection which had been accorded to Mr. Crosbie. Johnny Eames could not have been accepted as a suitor by their pet. Mrs. Dale and Bell both felt that. And yet they loved him for his love, and for that distant, modest respect which had restrained him from any speech regarding it. Poor Johnny! But he was young,—hardly as yet out of his hobbledehoyhood,—and he would easily recover this blow, remembering, and perhaps feeling to his advantage, some slight touch of its passing romance. It is thus women think of men who love young and love in vain.

But Johnny Eames himself, as he rode back to Guestwick, forgetful of his spurs, and with his gloves stuffed into his pocket, thought of the matter very differently. He had never promised to himself any success as to his passion for Lily, and had, indeed, always acknowledged that he could have no hope; but now, that she was actually promised to another man, and as good as married, he was not the less broken-hearted because his former hopes had not been high. He had never dared to speak to Lily of his love, but he was conscious that she knew it, and he did not now dare to stand before her as one convicted of having loved in vain. And then, as he rode back, he thought also of his other love, not with many of those pleasant thoughts which Lotharios and Don Juans may be presumed to enjoy when they contemplate their successes.

"I suppose I shall marry her, and there'll be an end of me," he said to himself, as he remembered a short note which he had once written to her in his madness. There had been a little supper at Mrs. Roper's, and Mrs. Lupex and Amelia had made the punch. After supper, he had been by some accident alone with Amelia in the dining-parlour; and when, warmed by the generous god, he had declared his passion, she had shaken her head mournfully, and had fled from him to some upper region, absolutely refusing his proffered embrace. But on the same night, before his head had found its pillow, a note had come to him, half repentant, half affectionate, half repellent,—"If, indeed, he would swear to her that his love was honest and manly, then, indeed, she might even yet,—— see him through the chink of the doorway with the purport of telling him that he was forgiven." Whereupon, a perfidious pencil being near to his hand, he had written the requisite words. "My only object in life is to call you my own for ever." Amelia had her misgivings whether such a promise, in order that it might be used as legal evidence, should not have been written in ink. It was a painful doubt; but nevertheless she was as good as her word, and saw him through the chink, forgiving him for his impetuosity in the parlour with, perhaps, more clemency than a mere pardon required. "By George! how well she looked with her hair all loose," he said to himself, as he at last regained his pillow, still warm with the generous god. But now, as he thought of that night, returning on his road from Allington to Guestwick, those loose, floating locks were remembered by him with no strong feeling as to their charms. And he thought also of Lily Dale, as she was when he had said farewell to her on that day before he first went up to London. "I shall care more about seeing you than anybody," he had said; and he had often thought of the words since, wondering whether she had understood them as meaning more than an assurance of ordinary friendship. And he remembered well the dress she had then worn. It was an old brown merino, which he had known before, and which, in truth, had nothing in it to recommend it specially to a lover's notice. "Horrid old thing!" had been Lily's own verdict respecting the frock, even before that day. But she had hallowed it in his eyes, and he would have been only too happy to have worn a shred of it near his heart, as a talisman. How wonderful in its nature is that passion of which men speak when they acknowledge to themselves that they are in love. Of all things, it is, under one condition, the most foul, and under another, the most fair. As that condition is, a man shows himself either as a beast or as a god! And so we will let poor Johnny Eames ride back to Guestwick, suffering much in that he had loved basely—and suffering much, also, in that he had loved nobly.

Lily, as she had tripped along through the shrubbery, under her lover's arm, looking up, every other moment, into his face, had espied her uncle and Bernard. "Stop," she had said, giving him a little pull at the arm; "I won't go on. Uncle is always teasing me with some old-fashioned wit. And I've had quite enough of you to-day, sir. Mind you come over to-morrow before you go to your shooting." And so she had left him.

We may as well learn here what was the question in dispute between the uncle and cousin, as they were walking there on the broad gravel path behind the Great House. "Bernard," the old man had said, "I wish this matter could be settled between you and Bell."

"Is there any hurry about it, sir?"

"Yes, there is hurry; or, rather, as I hate hurry in all things, I would say that there is ground for despatch. Mind, I do not wish to drive you. If you do not like your cousin, say so."

"But I do like her; only I have a sort of feeling that these things grow best by degrees. I quite share your dislike to being in a hurry."

"But time enough has been taken now. You see, Bernard, I am going to make a great sacrifice of income on your behalf."

"I am sure I am very grateful."

"I have no children, and have therefore always regarded you as my own. But there is no reason why my brother Philip's daughter should not be as dear to me as my brother Orlando's son."

"Of course not, sir; or, rather, his two daughters."

"You may leave that matter to me, Bernard. The younger girl is going to marry this friend of yours, and as he has a sufficient income to support a wife, I think that my sister-in-law has good reason to be satisfied by the match. She will not be expected to give up any part of her small income, as she must have done had Lily married a poor man."

"I suppose she could hardly give up much."

"People must be guided by circumstances. I am not disposed to put myself in the place of a parent to them both. There is no reason why I should, and I will not encourage false hopes. If I knew that this matter between you and Bell was arranged, I should have reason to feel satisfied with what I was doing." From all which Bernard began to perceive that poor Crosbie's expectations in the matter of money would not probably receive much gratification. But he also perceived—or thought that he perceived—a kind of threat in this warning from his uncle. "I have promised you eight hundred a year with your wife," the warning seemed to say. "But if you do not at once accept it, or let me feel that it will be accepted, it may be well for me to change my mind—especially as this other niece is about to be married. If I am to give you so large a fortune with Bell, I need do nothing for Lily. But if you do not choose to take Bell and the fortune, why then——" And so on. It was thus that Bernard read his uncle's caution, as they walked together on the broad gravel path.

"I have no desire to postpone the matter any longer," said Bernard. "I will propose to Bell at once, if you wish it."

"If your mind be quite made up, I cannot see why you should delay it."

And then, having thus arranged that matter, they received their future relative with kind smiles and soft words.