The Small House at Allington/Chapter 9

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



The next day was the day of the party. Not a word more was said on that evening between Bell and her cousin, at least, not a word more of any peculiar note; and when Crosbie suggested to his friend on the following morning that they should both step down and see how the preparations were getting on at the Small House, Bernard declined.

"You forget, my dear fellow, that I'm not in love as you are," said he.

"But I thought you were," said Crosbie.

"No; not at all as you are. You are an accepted lover, and will be allowed to do anything,—whip the creams, and tune the piano, if you know how. I'm only a half sort of lover, meditating a mariage de convenance to oblige an uncle, and by no means required by the terms of my agreement to undergo a very rigid amount of drill. Your position is just the reverse." In saying all which Captain Dale was no doubt very false; but if falseness can be forgiven to a man in any position, it may be forgiven in that which he then filled. So Crosbie went down to the Small House alone.

"Dale wouldn't come," said he, speaking to the three ladies together, "I suppose he's keeping himself up for the dance on the lawn."

"I hope he will be here in the evening," said Mrs. Dale. But Bell said never a word. She had determined, that under the existing circumstances, it would be only fair to her cousin that his offer and her answer to it should be kept secret. She knew why Bernard did not come across from the Great House with his friend, but she said nothing of her knowledge. Lily looked at her, but looked without speaking; and as for Mrs. Dale, she took no notice of the circumstance. Thus they passed the afternoon together without further mention of Bernard Dale; and it may be said, at any rate of Lily and Crosbie, that his presence was not missed.

Mrs. Eames, with her son and daughter, were the first to come. "It is so nice of you to come early," said Lily, trying on the spur of the moment to say something which should sound pleasant and happy, but in truth using that form of welcome which to my ears sounds always the most ungracious. "Ten minutes before the time named; and, of course, you must have understood that I meant thirty minutes after it!" That is my interpretation of the words when I am thanked for coming early. But Mrs. Eames was a kind, patient, unexacting woman, who took all civil words as meaning civility. And, indeed, Lily had meant nothing else.

"Yes; we did come early," said Mrs. Eames, "because Mary thought she would like to go up into the girls' room and just settle her hair, you know."

"So she shall," said Lily, who had taken Mary by the hand.

"And we knew we shouldn't be in the way. Johnny can go out into the garden if there's anything left to be done."

"He shan't be banished unless he likes it," said Mrs. Dale. "If he finds us women too much for his unaided strength——"

John Eames muttered something about being very well as he was, and then got himself into an arm-chair. He had shaken hands with Lily, trying as he did so to pronounce articulately a little speech which he had prepared for the occasion. "I have to congratulate you, Lily, and I hope with all my heart that you will be happy." The words were simple enough, and were not ill-chosen, but the poor young man never got them spoken. The word "congratulate" did reach Lily's ears, and she understood it all:—both the kindness of the intended speech and the reason why it could not be spoken.

"Thank you, John," she said; "I hope I shall see so much of you in London. It will be so nice to have an old Guestwick friend near me." She had her own voice, and the pulses of her heart better under command than had he; but she also felt that the occasion was trying to her. The man had loved her honestly and truly,—still did love her, paying her the great homage of bitter grief in that he had lost her. Where is the girl who will not sympathize with such love and such grief, if it be shown only because it cannot be concealed, and be declared against the will of him who declares it?

Then came in old Mrs. Hearn, whose cottage was not distant two minutes' walk from the Small House. She always called Mrs. Dale "my dear," and petted the girls as though they had been children. When told of Lily's marriage, she had thrown up her hands with surprise, for she had still left in some corner of her drawers remnants of sugar-plums which she had bought for Lily. "A London man is he? Well, well. I wish he lived in the country. Eight hundred a year, my dear?" she had said to Mrs. Dale. "That sounds nice down here, because we are all so poor. But I suppose eight hundred a year isn't very much up in London?"

"The squire's coming, I suppose, isn't he?" said Mrs. Hearn, as she seated herself on the sofa close to Mrs. Dale.

"Yes, he'll be here by-and-by; unless he changes his mind, you know. He doesn't stand on ceremony with me."

"He change his mind! When did you ever know Christopher Dale change his mind?"

"He is pretty constant, Mrs. Hearn."

"If he promised to give a man a penny, he'd give it. But if he promised to take away a pound, he'd take it, though it cost him years to get it. He's going to turn me out of my cottage, he says."

"Nonsense, Mrs. Hearn!"

"Jolliffe came and told me"—Jolliffe, I should explain, was the bailiff,—"that if I didn't like it as it was, I might leave it, and that the squire could get double the rent for it. Now all I asked was that he should do a little painting in the kitchen; and the wood is all as black as his hat."

"I thought it was understood you were to paint inside."

"How can I do it, my dear, with a hundred and forty pounds for everything? I must live, you know! And he that has workmen about him every day of the year! And was that a message to send to me, who have lived in the parish for fifty years? Here he is." And Mrs. Hearn majestically raised herself from her seat as the squire entered the room.

With him entered Mr. and Mrs. Boyce, from the parsonage, with Dick Boyce, the ungrown gentleman, and two girl Boyces, who were fourteen and fifteen years of age. Mrs. Dale, with the amount of good-nature usual on such occasions, asked reproachfully why Jane, and Charles, and Florence, and Bessy, did not come,—Boyce being a man who had his quiver full of them,—and Mrs. Boyce, giving the usual answer, declared that she already felt that they had come as an avalanche.

"But where are the—the—the young men?" asked Lily, assuming a look of mock astonishment.

"They'll be across in two or three hours' time," said the squire. "They both dressed for dinner, and, as I thought, made themselves very smart; but for such a grand occasion as this they thought a second dressing necessary. How do you do, Mrs. Hearn? I hope you are quite well. No rheumatism left, eh?" This the squire said very loud into Mrs. Hearn's ear. Mrs. Hearn was perhaps a little hard of hearing; but it was very little, and she hated to be thought deaf. She did not, moreover, like to be thought rheumatic. This the squire knew, and therefore his mode of address was not good-natured.

"You needn't make me jump so, Mr. Dale. I'm pretty well now, thank ye. I did have a twinge in the spring,—that cottage is so badly built for draughts! 'I wonder you can live in it,' my sister said to me the last time she was over. I suppose I should be better off over with her at Hamersham, only one doesn't like to move, you know, after living fifty years in one parish."

"You mustn't think of going away from us," Mrs. Boyce said, speaking by no means loud, but slowly and plainly, hoping thereby to flatter the old woman. But the old woman understood it all. "She's a sly creature, is Mrs. Boyce," Mrs. Hearn said to Mrs. Dale, before the evening was out. There are some old people whom it is very hard to flatter, and with whom it is, nevertheless, almost impossible to live unless you do flatter them.

At last the two heroes came in across the lawn at the drawing-room window; and Lily, as they entered, dropped a low curtsey before them, gently swelling down upon the ground with her light muslin dress, till she looked like some wondrous flower that had bloomed upon the carpet, and putting her two hands, with the backs of her fingers pressed together, on the buckle of her girdle, she said, "We are waiting upon your honours' kind grace, and feel how much we owe to you for favouring our poor abode." And then she gently rose up again, smiling, oh, so sweetly, on the man she loved, and the puffings and swellings went out of her muslin.

I think there is nothing in the world so pretty as the conscious little tricks of love played off by a girl towards the man she loves, when she has made up her mind boldly that all the world may know that she has given herself away to him.

I am not sure that Crosbie liked it all as much as he should have done. The bold assurance of her love when they two were alone together he did like. What man does not like such assurances on such occasions? But perhaps he would have been better pleased had Lily shown more reticence,—been more secret, as it were, as to her feelings, when others were around them. It was not that he accused her in his thoughts of any want of delicacy. He read her character too well;—was, if not quite aright in his reading of it, at least too nearly so to admit of his making against her any such accusation as that. It was the calf-like feeling that was disagreeable to him. He did not like to be presented, even to the world of Allington, as a victim caught for the sacrifice, and bound with ribbon for the altar. And then there lurked behind it all a feeling that it might be safer that the thing should not be so openly manifested before all the world. Of course, everybody knew that he was engaged to Lily Dale; nor had he, as he said to himself, perhaps too frequently, the slightest idea of breaking from that engagement. But then the marriage might possibly be delayed. He had not discussed that matter yet with Lily, having, indeed, at the first moment of his gratified love, created some little difficulty for himself by pressing for an early day. "I will refuse you nothing," she had said to him; "but do not make it too soon." He saw, therefore, before him some little embarrassment, and was inclined to wish that Lily would abstain from that manner which seemed to declare to all the world that she was about to be married immediately. "I must speak to her to-morrow," he said to himself, as he accepted her salute with a mock gravity equal to her own.

Poor Lily! How little she understood as yet what was passing through his mind. Had she known his wish she would have wrapped up her love carefully in a napkin, so that no one should have seen it,—no one but he, when he might choose to have the treasure uncovered for his sight. And it was all for his sake that she had been thus open in her ways. She had seen girls who were half ashamed of their love; but she would never be ashamed of hers or of him. She had given herself to him; and now all the world might know it, if all the world cared for such knowledge. Why should she be ashamed of that which, to her thinking, was so great an honour to her? She had heard of girls who would not speak of their love, arguing to themselves cannily that there may be many a slip between the cup and the lip. There could be no need of any such caution with her. There could surely be no such slip! Should there be such a fall,—should any such fate, either by falseness or misfortune, come upon her,—no such caution could be of service to save her. The cup would have been so shattered in its fall that no further piecing of its parts would be in any way possible. So much as this she did not exactly say to herself; but she felt it all, and went bravely forward,—bold in her love, and careful to hide it from none who chanced to see it.

They had gone through the ceremony with the cake and teacups, and had decided that, at any rate, the first dance or two should be held upon the lawn when the last of the guests arrived.

"Oh, Adolphus, I am so glad he has come," said Lily. "Do try to like him." Of Dr. Crofts, who was the new comer, she had sometimes spoken to her lover, but she had never coupled her sister's name with that of the doctor, even in speaking to him. Nevertheless, Crosbie had in some way conceived the idea that this Crofts either had been, or was, or was to be, in love with Bell; and as he was prepared to advocate his friend Dale's claims in that quarter, he was not particularly anxious to welcome the doctor as a thoroughly intimate friend of the family. He knew nothing as yet of Dale's offer, or of Bell's refusal, but he was prepared for war, if war should be necessary. Of the squire, at the present moment, he was not very fond; but if his destiny intended to give him a wife out of this family, he should prefer the owner of Allington and nephew of Lord De Guest as a brother-in-law to a village doctor,—as he took upon himself, in his pride, to call Dr. Crofts.

"It is very unfortunate," said he, "but I never do like Paragons."

"But you must like this Paragon. Not that he is a Paragon at all, for he smokes and hunts, and does all manner of wicked things." And then she went forward to welcome her friend.

Dr. Crofts was a slight, spare man, about five feet nine in height, with very bright dark eyes, a broad forehead, with dark hair that almost curled, but which did not come so forward over his brow as it should have done for purposes of beauty,—with a thin well-cut nose, and a mouth that would have been perfect had the lips been a little fuller. The lower part of his face, when seen alone, had in it somewhat of sternness, which, however, was redeemed by the brightness of his eyes. And yet an artist would have declared that the lower features of his face were by far the more handsome.

Lily went across to him and greeted him heartily, declaring how glad she was to have him there. "And I must introduce you to Mr. Crosbie," she said, as though she was determined to carry her point. The two men shook hands with each other, coldly, without saying a word, as young men are apt to do when they are brought together in that way. Then they separated at once, somewhat to the disappointment of Lily. Crosbie stood off by himself, both his eyes turned up towards the ceiling, and looking as though he meant to give himself airs; while Crofts got himself quickly up to the fireplace, making civil little speeches to Mrs. Dale, Mrs. Boyce, and Mrs. Hearn. And then at last he made his way round to Bell.

"I am so glad," he said, "to congratulate you on your sister's engagement."

"Yes," said Bell; "we knew that you would be glad to hear of her happiness."

"Indeed, I am glad; and thoroughly hope that she may be happy. You all like him, do you not?"

"We like him very much."

"And I am told that he is well off. He is a very fortunate man,—very fortunate,—very fortunate."

"Of course we think so," said Bell. "Not, however, because he is rich."

"No; not because he is rich. But because, being worthy of such happiness, his circumstances should enable him to marry, and to enjoy it."

"Yes, exactly," said Bell. "That is just it." Then she sat down, and in sitting down put an end to the conversation. "That is just it," she had said. But as soon as the words were spoken she declared to herself that it was not so, and that Crofts was wrong. "We love him," she said to herself, "not because he is rich enough to marry without anxious thought, but because he dares to marry although he is not rich." And then she told herself that she was angry with the doctor.

After that Dr. Crofts got off towards the door, and stood there by himself, leaning against the wall, with the thumbs of both his hands stuck into the armholes of his waistcoat. People said that he was a shy man. I suppose he was shy, and yet he was a man that was by no means afraid of doing anything that he had to do. He could speak before a multitude without being abashed, whether it was a multitude of men or of women. He could be very fixed too in his own opinion, and eager, if not violent, in the prosecution of his purpose. But he could not stand and say little words, when he had in truth nothing to say. He could not keep his ground when he felt that he was not using the ground upon which he stood. He had not learned the art of assuming himself to be of importance in whatever place he might find himself. It was this art which Crosbie had learned, and by this art that he had flourished. So Croft retired and leaned against the wall near the door; and Crosbie came forward and shone like an Apollo among all the guests. "How is it that he does it?" said John Eames to himself, envying the perfect happiness of the London man of fashion.

At last Lily got the dancers out upon the lawn, and then they managed to go through one quadrille. But it was found that it did not answer. The music of the single fiddle which Crosbie had hired from Guestwick was not sufficient for the purpose; and then the grass, though it was perfect for purposes of croquet, was not pleasant to the feet for dancing.

"This is very nice," said Bernard to his cousin. "I don't know anything that could be nicer; but perhaps——"

"I know what you mean," said Lily. "But I shall stay here. There's no touch of romance about any of you. Look at the moon there at the back of the steeple. I don't mean to go in all night." Then she walked off by one of the paths, and her lover went after her.

"Don't you like the moon?" she said, as she took his arm, to which she was now so accustomed that she hardly thought of it as she took it.

"Like the moon?—well; I fancy I like the sun better. I don't quite believe in moonlight. I think it does best to talk about when one wants to be sentimental."

"Ah; that is just what I fear. That is what I say to Bell when I tell her that her romance will fade as the roses do. And then I shall have to learn that prose is more serviceable than poetry, and that the mind is better than the heart, and—and that money is better than love. It's all coming, I know; and yet I do like the moonlight."

"And the poetry,—and the love?"

"Yes. The poetry much, and the love more. To be loved by you is sweeter even than any of my dreams,—is better than all the poetry I have read."

"Dearest Lily," and his unchecked arm stole round her waist.

"It is the meaning of the moonlight, and the essence of the poetry," continued the impassioned girl. "I did not know then why I liked such things, but now I know. It was because I longed to be loved."

"And to love."

"Oh, yes. I would be nothing without that. But that, you know, is your delight,—or should be. The other is mine. And yet it is a delight to love you; to know that I may love you."

"You mean that this is the realization of your romance."

"Yes; but it must not be the end of it, Adolphus. You must like the soft twilight, and the long evenings when we shall be alone; and you must read to me the books I love, and you must not teach me to think that the world is hard, and dry, and cruel,—not yet. I tell Bell so very often; but you must not say so to me."

"It shall not be dry and cruel, if I can prevent it."

"You understand what I mean, dearest. I will not think it dry and cruel, even though sorrow should come upon us, if you—— I think you know what I mean."

"If I am good to you."

"I am not afraid of that;—I am not the least afraid of that. You do not think that I could ever distrust you? But you must not be ashamed to look at the moonlight, and to read poetry, and to——"

"To talk nonsense, you mean."

But as he said it, he pressed her closer to his side, and his tone was pleasant to her.

"I suppose I'm talking nonsense now?" she said, pouting. "You liked me better when I was talking about the pigs; didn't you?"

"No; I like you best now."

"And why didn't you like me then? Did I say anything to offend you?"

"I like you best now, because——"

They were standing in the narrow pathway of the gate leading from the bridge into the gardens of the Great House, and the shadow of the thick-spreading laurels was around them. But the moonlight still pierced brightly through the little avenue, and she, as she looked up to him, could see the form of his face and the loving softness of his eye.

"Because——," said he; and then he stooped over her and pressed her closely, while she put up her lips to his, standing on tiptoe that she might reach to his face.

"Oh, my love!" she said. "My love! my love!"

As Crosbie walked back to the Great House that night, he made a firm resolution that no consideration of worldly welfare should ever induce him to break his engagement with Lily Dale. He went somewhat further also, and determined that he would not put off the marriage for more than six or eight months, or, at the most, ten, if he could possibly get his affairs arranged in that time. To be sure, he must give up everything,—all the aspirations and ambition of his life; but then, as he declared to himself somewhat mournfully, he was prepared to do that. Such were his resolutions, and, as he thought of them in bed, he came to the conclusion that few men were less selfish than he was.

"But what will they say to us for staying away?" said Lily, recovering herself. "And I ought to be making the people dance, you know. Come along, and do make yourself nice. Do waltz with Mary Eames;—pray, do. If you don't, I won't speak to you all night!"

Acting under which threat, Crosbie did, on his return, solicit the honour of that young lady's hand, thereby elating her into a seventh heaven of happiness. What could the world afford better than a waltz with such a partner as Adolphus Crosbie? And poor Mary Eames could waltz well; though she could not talk much as she danced, and would pant a good deal when she stopped. She put too much of her energy into the motion, and was too anxious to do the mechanical part of the work in a manner that should be satisfactory to her partner. "Oh! thank you;—it's very nice. I shall be able to go on—again directly." Her conversation with Crosbie did not get much beyond that, and yet she felt that she had never done better than on this occasion.

Though there were, at most, not above five couples of dancers, and though they who did not dance, such as the squire and Mr. Boyce, and a curate from a neighbouring parish, had, in fact, nothing to amuse them, the affair was kept on very merrily for a considerable number of hours. Exactly at twelve o'clock there was a little supper, which, no doubt, served to relieve Mrs. Hearn's ennui, and at which Mrs. Boyce also seemed to enjoy herself. As to the Mrs. Boyces on such occasions, I profess that I feel no pity. They are generally happy in their children's happiness, or if not, they ought to be. At any rate, they are simply performing a manifest duty, which duty, in their time, was performed on their behalf. But on what account do the Mrs. Hearns betake themselves to such gatherings? Why did that ancient lady sit there hour after hour yawning, longing for her bed, looking every ten minutes at her watch, while her old bones were stiff and sore, and her old ears pained with the noise? It could hardly have been simply for the sake of the supper. After the supper, however, her maid took her across to her cottage, and Mrs. Boyce also then stole away home, and the squire went off with some little parade, suggesting to the young men that they should make no noise in the house as they returned. But the poor curate remained, talking a dull word every now and then to Mrs. Dale, and looking on with tantalized eyes at the joys which the world had prepared for others than him. I must say that I think that public opinion and the bishops together are too hard upon curates in this particular.

In the latter part of the night's delight, when time and practice had made them all happy together, John Eames stood up for the first time to dance with Lily. She had done all she could, short of asking him, to induce him to do her this favour; for she felt that it would be a favour. How great had been the desire on his part to ask her, and, at the same time, how great the repugnance, Lily, perhaps, did not quite understand. And yet she understood much of it. She knew that he was not angry with her. She knew that he was suffering from the injured pride of futile love, almost as much as from the futile love itself. She wished to put him at his ease in this; but she did not quite give him credit for the full sincerity, and the upright, uncontrolled heartiness of his feelings.

At length he did come up to her, and though, in truth, she was engaged, she at once accepted his offer. Then she tripped across the room. "Adolphus," she said, "I can't dance with you, though I said I would. John Eames has asked me, and I haven't stood up with him before. You understand, and you'll be a good boy, won't you?"

Crosbie, not being in the least jealous, was a good boy, and sat himself down to rest, hidden behind a door.

For the first few minutes the conversation between Eames and Lily was of a very matter-of-fact kind. She repeated her wish that she might see him in London, and he said that of course he should come and call. Then there was silence for a little while, and they went through their figure dancing.

"I don't at all know yet when we are to be married," said Lily, as soon as they were again standing together.

"No; I dare say not," said Eames.

"But not this year, I suppose. Indeed, I should say, of course not."

"In the spring, perhaps," suggested Eames. He had an unconscious desire that it might be postponed to some Greek kalends, and yet he did not wish to injure Lily.

"The reason I mention it is this, that we should be so very glad if you could be here. We all love you so much, and I should so like to have you here on that day."

Why is it that girls so constantly do this,—so frequently ask men who have loved them to be present at their marriages with other men? There is no triumph in it. It is done in sheer kindness and affection. They intend to offer something which shall soften and not aggravate the sorrow that they have caused. "You can't marry me yourself," the lady seems to say. "But the next greatest blessing which I can offer you shall be yours,—you shall see me married to somebody else." I fully appreciate the intention, but in honest truth, I doubt the eligibility of the proffered entertainment.

On the present occasion John Eames seemed to be of this opinion, for he did not at once accept the invitation.

"Will you not oblige me so far as that?" said she softly.

"I would do anything to oblige you," said he gruffly; "almost anything."

"But not that?"

"No; not that. I could not do that." Then he went off upon his figure, and when they were next both standing together, they remained silent till their turn for dancing had again come. Why was it, that after that night Lily thought more of John Eames than ever she had thought before;—felt for him, I mean, a higher respect, as for a man who had a will of his own?

And in that quadrille Crofts and Bell had been dancing together, and they also had been talking of Lily's marriage. "A man may undergo what he likes for himself," he had said, "but he has no right to make a woman undergo poverty."

"Perhaps not," said Bell.

"That which is no suffering for a man,—which no man should think of for himself,—will make a hell on earth for a woman."

"I suppose it would," said Bell, answering him without a sign of feeling in her face or voice. But she took in every word that he spoke, and disputed their truth inwardly with all the strength of her heart and mind, and with the very vehemence of her soul. "As if a woman cannot bear more than a man!" she said to herself, as she walked the length of the room alone, when she had got herself free from the doctor's arm.

After that they all went to bed.