In the Park
This thing that she was doing required an infinite amount of pluck,--of that sort of hardihood which we may not quite call courage, but which in a world well provided with policemen is infinitely more useful than courage. Lord Rufford himself was endowed with all the ordinary bravery of an Englishman, but he could have flown as soon as run into a lion's den as Arabella was doing. She had learned that Lady Penwether and Miss Penge were both at Rufford Hall, and understood well the difficulty there would be in explaining her conduct should she find herself in their presence. And there were all the servants there to stare at her, and the probability that she might be shown to the door and told that no one there would speak to her. She saw it all before her, and knew how bitter it might be; but her heart was big enough to carry her through it. She was dressed very simply, but still by no means dowdily, in a black silk dress, and though she wore a thick veil when she got out of the fly and rang the door bell, she had been at some pains with her hair before she left the inn. Her purpose was revenge; but still she had an eye to the possible chance,--the chance barely possible of bringing the man to submit.
When the door was opened she raised her veil and asked for Lord Rufford; but as she did so she walked on through the broad passage which led from the front door into a wide central space which they called the billiard-room but which really was the hall of the house. This she did as a manifesto that she did not mean to leave the house because she might be told that he was out or could not be seen, or that he was engaged. It was then nearly one o'clock, and no doubt he would be there for luncheon. Of course he might be in truth away from home, but she must do her best to judge of that by the servant's manner. The man knew her well, and not improbably had heard something of his master's danger. He was, however, very respectful and told her that his lordship was out in the grounds;-- but that Lady Penwether was in the drawing-room. Then a sudden thought struck her, and she asked the man whether he would show her in what part of the grounds she might find Lord Rufford. Upon that he took her to the front door and pointing across the park to a belt of trees, showed her three or four men standing round some piece of work. He believed, he said, that one of those men was his lordship.
She bowed her thanks and was descending the steps on her way to join the group, when whom should she see but Lady Penwether coming into the house with her garden-hat and gloves. It was unfortunate; but she would not allow herself to be stopped by Lady Penwether. She bowed stiffly and would have passed on without a word, but that was impossible. "Miss Trefoil!" said Lady Penwether with astonishment.
"Your brother is just across the park. I think I see him and will go to him."
"I had better send and tell him that you are here," said her ladyship.
"I need not trouble you so far. I can be my own messenger. Perhaps you will allow the fly to be sent round to the yard for half-an-hour." As she said this she was still passing down the steps.
But Lady Penwether knew that it behoved her to prevent this if it might be possible. Of late she had had little or no conversation with her brother about Miss Trefoil, but she had heard much from her husband. She would be justified, she thought, in saying or in doing almost anything which would save him from such an encounter. "I really think," she said, "that he had better be told that you are here," and as she spoke she strove to put herself in the visitor's way. "You had better come in, Miss Trefoil, and he shall be informed at once."
"By no means, Lady Penwether. I would not for worlds give him or you so much trouble. I see him and I will go to him." Then Lady Penwether absolutely put out her hand to detain her; but Arabella shook it off angrily and looked into the other woman's face with fierce eyes. "Allow me," she said, "to conduct myself at this moment as I may think best. I shall do so at any rate." Then she stalked on and Lady Penwether saw that any contest was hopeless. Had she sent the servant on with all his speed, so as to gain three or four moments, her brother could hardly have fled through the trees in face of the enemy.
Lord Rufford, who was busy planning the prolongation of a ha-ha fence, saw nothing of all this; but, after a while he was aware that a woman was coming to him, and then gradually he saw who that woman was. Arabella when she had found herself advancing closer went slowly enough. She was sure of her prey now, and was wisely mindful that it might be well that she should husband her breath. The nearer she drew to him the slower became her pace, and more majestic. Her veil was well thrown back, and her head was raised in the air. She knew these little tricks of deportment and could carry herself like a queen. He had taken a moment or two to consider. Should he fly? It was possible. He might vault over a railed fence in among the trees, at a spot not ten yards from her, and then it would be impossible that she should run him down. He might have done it had not the men been there to see it. As it was he left them in the other direction and came forward to meet her. He tried to smile pleasantly as he spoke to her. "So I see that you would not take my advice," he said.
"Neither your advice nor your money, my lord."
"Ah,--I was so sorry about that! But, indeed, indeed,--the fault was not mine."
"They were your figures that I saw upon the paper, and by your orders, no doubt, that the lawyer acted. But I have not come to say much of that. You meant I suppose to be gracious."
"I meant to be--good-natured."
"I daresay. You were willing enough to give away what you did not want. But there must be more between us than any question of money. Lord Rufford you have treated me most shamefully."
"I hope not. I think not."
"And you yourself must be well aware of it,--quite as well aware of it as I am. You have thrown me over and absolutely destroyed me;-- and why?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Because you have been afraid of others; because your sister has told you that you were mistaken in your choice. The women around you have been too many for you, and have not allowed you to dispose of your hand, and your name, and your property as you pleased. I defy you to say that this was not your sister's doing." He was too much astounded to contradict her rapidly, and then she passed on, not choosing to give him time for contradiction. "Will you have the hardihood to say that you did not love me?" Then she paused thinking that he would not dare to contradict her then, feeling that in that she was on strong ground. "Were you lying when you told me that you did? What did you mean when I was in your arms up in the house there? What did you intend me to think that you meant?" Then she stopped, standing well in front of him, and looking fixedly into his face.
This was the very thing that he had feared. Lord Augustus had been a trouble. The Duke's letter had been a trouble. Lady Augustus had been a trouble; and Sir George's sermons had been troublesome. But what were they all when compared to this? How is it possible that a man should tell a girl that he has not loved her, when he has embraced her again and again? He may know it, and she may know it;--and each may know that the other knows it;--but to say that he does not and did not then love her is beyond the scope of his audacity,--unless he be a heartless Nero. "No one can grieve about this so much as I do," he said weakly.
"Cannot I grieve more, do you think,--I who told all my relatives that I was to become your wife, and was justified in so telling them? Was I not justified?"
"I think not."
"You think not! What did you mean then? What were you thinking of when we were coming back in the carriage from Stamford,--when with your arms round me you swore that you loved me better than all the world? Is that true? Did you so swear?" What a question for a man to have to answer! It was becoming clear to him that there was nothing for him but to endure and be silent. Even to this interview the gods would at last give an end. The hour would pass, though, alas, so slowly, and she could not expect that he should stand there to be rated much after the accustomed time for feeding. "You acknowledge that, and do you dare to say that I had no right to tell my friends?"
There was a moment in which he thought it was almost a pity that he had not married her. She was very beautiful in her present form,-- more beautiful he thought than ever. She was the niece of a Duke, and certainly a very clever woman. He had not wanted money and why shouldn't he have married her? As for hunting him,--that was a matter of course. He was as much born and bred to be hunted as a fox. He could not do it now as he had put too much power into the hands of the Penwethers, but he almost wished that he had. "I never intended it," he said.
"What did you intend? After what has occurred I suppose I have a right to ask such a question. I have made a somewhat unpleasant journey to-day, all alone, on purpose to ask that question. What did you intend?" In his great annoyance he struck his shovel angrily against the ground. "And I will not leave you till I get an answer to the question. What did you intend, Lord Rufford?" There was nothing for him but silence and a gradual progress back towards the house.
But from the latter resource she cut him off for a time. "You will do me the favour to remain with me here till this conversation is ended. You cannot refuse me so slight a request as that, seeing the trouble to which you have put me. I never saw a man so forgetful of words. You cannot speak. Have you no excuse to offer, not a word to say in explanation--of conduct so black that I don't think here in England I ever heard a case to equal it? If your sister had been treated so!"
"It would have been impossible"
"I believe it. Her cautious nature would have trusted no man as I trusted you. Her lips, doubtless, were never unfrozen till the settlements had been signed. With her it was a matter of bargain, not of love. I can well believe that."
"I will not talk about my sister."
"It seems to me, Lord Rufford, that you object to talk about anything. You certainly have been very uncommunicative with reference to yourself. Were you lying when you told me that you loved me?"
"Did I lie when I told the Duchess that you had promised me your love? Did I lie when I told my mother that in these days a man does not always mention marriage when he asks a girl to be his wife? You said you loved me, and I believed you, and the rest was a thing of course. And you meant it. You know you meant it. When you held me in your arms in the carriage you know you meant me to suppose that it would always be so. Then the fear of your sister came upon you, and of your sister's husband,--and you ran away! I wonder whether you think yourself a man!" And yet she felt that she had not hit him yet. He was wretched enough; and she could see that he was wretched; but the wretchedness would pass away as soon as she was gone. How could she stab him so that the wound would remain? With what virus could she poison her arrow, so that the agony might be prolonged. "And such a coward too! I began to suspect it when you started that night from Mistletoe,--though I did not think then that you could be all mean, all cowardly. From that day to this, you have not dared to speak a word of truth. Every word has been a falsehood."
"By heavens, no."
"Every word a falsehood! and I, a lady,--a lady whom you have so deeply injured, whose cruel injury even you have not the face to deny,--am forced by your cowardice to come to you here, because you have not dared to come out to meet me. Is that true!"
"What good can it do?"
"None to me, God knows. You are such a thing that I would not have you now I know you, though you were twice Lord Rufford. But I have chosen to speak my mind to you and to tell you what I think. Did you suppose that when I said I would meet you face to face I was to be deterred by such girl's excuses as you made? I chose to tell you to your face that you are false, a coward, and no gentleman, and though you had hidden yourself under the very earth I would have found you." Then she turned round and saw Sir George Penwether standing close to them.
Lord Rufford had seen him approaching for some time, and had made one or two futile attempts to meet him. Arabella's back had been turned to the house, and she had not heard the steps or observed the direction of her companion's eyes. He came so near before he was seen that he heard her concluding words. Then Lord Rufford with a ghastly attempt at pleasantry introduced them. "George," he said, "I do not think you know Miss Trefoil. Sir George Penwether; Miss Trefoil."
The interview had been watched from the house and the husband had been sent down by his wife to mitigate the purgatory which she knew that her brother must be enduring. "My wife," said Sir George, "has sent me to ask Miss Trefoil whether she will not come into lunch."
"I believe it is Lord Rufford's house," said Arabella.
"If Miss Trefoil's frame of mind will allow her to sit at table with me I shall be proud to see her," said Lord Rufford.
"Miss Trefoil's frame of mind will not allow her to eat or to drink with such a dastard," said she turning away in the direction of the park gates. "Perhaps, Sir George, you will be kind enough to direct the man who brought me here to pick me up at the lodge." And so she walked away--a mile across the park,--neither of them caring to follow her.
It seemed to her as she stood at the lodge gate, having obstinately refused to enter the house, to be an eternity before the fly came to her. When it did come she felt as though her strength would barely enable her to climb into it. And when she was there she wept, with bitter throbbing woe, all the way to Rufford. It was over now at any rate. Now there was not a possible chance on which a gleam of hope might be made to settle. And how handsome he was, and how beautiful the place, and how perfect would have been the triumph could she have achieved it! One more word,--one other pressure of the hand in the post-chaise might have done it! Had he really promised her marriage she did not even now think that he would have gone back from his word. If that heavy stupid duke would have spoken to him that night at Mistletoe, all would have been well! But now,--now there was nothing for her but weeping and gnashing of teeth. He was gone, and poor Morton was gone; and all those others, whose memories rose like ghosts before her;--they were all gone. And she wept as she thought that she might perhaps have made a better use of the gifts which Providence had put in her way.
When Mounser Green met her at the station she was beyond measure weary. Through the whole journey she had been struggling to restrain her sobs so that her maid should neither hear nor see them. "Don't mind me, Mr. Green; I am only tired,--so tired," she said as she got into the carriage which he had brought.
He had with him a long, formal-looking letter addressed to herself. But she was too weary to open it that night. It was the letter conveying the tidings of the legacy which Morton had made in her favour.
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