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Lady Penwether declared to her husband that she had never seen her brother so much cowed as he had been by Miss Trefoil's visit to Rufford. It was not only that he was unable to assert his usual powers immediately after the attack made upon him, but that on the following day, at Scrobby's trial, on the Saturday when he started to the meet, and on the Sunday following when he allowed himself to be easily persuaded to go to church, he was silent, sheepish, and evidently afraid of himself. "It is a great pity that we shouldn't take the ball at the hop," she said to Sir George.
"What ball;--and what hop?"
"Get him to settle himself. There ought to be an end to this kind of thing now. He has got out of this mess, but every time it becomes worse and worse, and he'll be taken in horribly by some harpy if we don't get him to marry decently. I fancy he was very nearly going in this last affair." Sir George, in this matter, did not quite agree with his wife. It was in his opinion right to avoid Miss Trefoil, but he did not see why his brother-in-law should be precipitated into matrimony with Miss Penge. According to his ideas in such matters a man should be left alone. Therefore, as was customary with him when he opposed his wife, he held his tongue. "You have been called in three or four times when he has been just on the edge of the cliff."
"I don't know that that is any reason why he should be pushed over."
"There is not a word to be said against Caroline. She has a fine fortune of her own, and some of the best blood in the kingdom."
"But if your brother does not care for her,--"
"That's nonsense, George. As for liking, it's all the same to him. Rufford is good-natured, and easily pleased, and can like any woman. Caroline is very good-looking,--a great deal handsomer than that horrid creature ever was,--and with manners fit for any position. I've no reason to wish to force a wife on him; but of course he'll marry, and unless he's guided, he'll certainly marry badly."
"Is Miss Penge in love with him?" asked Sir George in a tone of voice that was intended to be provoking. His wife looked at him, asking him plainly by her countenance whether he was such a fool as that? Was it likely that any untitled young lady of eight-and-twenty should be wanting in the capacity of being in love with a young lord, handsome and possessed of forty thousand a year without encumbrances? Sir George, though he did not approve, was not eager enough in his disapproval to lay any serious embargo on his wife's proceedings.
The first steps taken were in the direction of the hero's personal comfort. He was flattered and petted, as his sister knew how to flatter and pet him; and Miss Penge in a quiet way assisted Lady Penwether in the operation. For a day or two he had not much to say for himself; but every word he did say was an oracle. His horses were spoken of as demigods, and his projected fishing operations for June and July became matters of most intense interest. Evil things were said of Arabella Trefoil, but in all the evil things said no hint was given that Lord Rufford had behaved badly or had been in danger. Lady Penwether, not quite knowing the state of his mind, thought that there might still be some lurking affection for the young lady. "Did you ever see anybody look so vulgar and hideous as she did when she marched across the park?" asked Lady Penwether.
"Thank goodness I did not see her," said Miss Penge.
"I never saw her look so handsome as when she came up to me," said Lord Rufford.
"But such a thing to do!"
"Awful!" said Miss Penge.
"She is the pluckiest girl I ever came across in my life," said Lord Rufford. He knew very well what they were at, and was already almost inclined to think that they might as well be allowed to have their way. Miss Penge was ladylike, quiet, and good, and was like a cool salad in a man's mouth after spiced meat. And the money would enable him to buy the Purefoy property which would probably be soon in the market. But he felt that he might as well give them a little trouble before he allowed himself to be hooked. It certainly was not by any arrangement of his own that he found himself walking alone with Miss Penge that Sunday afternoon in the park; nor did it seem to be by hers. He thought of that other Sunday at Mistletoe, when he had been compelled to wander with Arabella, when he met the Duchess, and when, as he often told himself, a little more good-nature or a little more courage on her grace's part would have completed the work entirely. Certainly had the Duke come to him that night, after the journey from Stamford, he would have capitulated. As he walked along and allowed himself to be talked to by Miss Penge, he did tell himself that she would be the better angel of the two. She could not hunt with him, as Arabella would have done; but then a man does not want his wife to gallop across the country after him. She might perhaps object to cigars and soda water after eleven o'clock, but then what assurance had he that Arabella would not have objected still more loudly. She had sworn that she would never be opposed to his little pleasures; but he knew what such oaths were worth. Marriage altogether was a bore; but having a name and a large fortune, it was incumbent on him to transmit them to an immediate descendant. And perhaps it was a worse bore to grow old without having specially bound any other human being to his interests. "How well I recollect that spot," said Miss Penge. "It was there that Major Caneback took the fence."
"That was not where he fell"
"Oh no;--I did not see that. It would have haunted me for ever had I done so.--But it was there that I thought he must kill himself. That was a terrible time, Lord Rufford."
"Terrible to poor Caneback certainly."
"Yes, and to all of us. Do you remember that fearful ball? We were all so unhappy,--because you suffered so much."
"It was bad."
"And that woman who persecuted you! We all knew that you felt it"
"I felt that poor man's death."
"Yes;--and you felt the other nuisance too."
"I remember that you told me that you would cling on to my legs."
"Eleanor said so;--and when it was explained to me, what clinging on to your legs meant, I remember saying that I wished to be understood as being one to help. I love your sister so well that anything which would break her heart would make me unhappy."
"You did not care for my own welfare in the matter?"
"What ought I say, Lord Rufford, in answer to that? Of course I did care. But I knew that it was impossible that you should really set your affections on such a person as Miss Trefoil. I told Eleanor that it would come to nothing. I was sure of it."
"Why should it have to come to nothing,--as you call it?"
"Because you are a gentleman and because she--is not a lady. I don't know that we women can quite understand how it is that you men amuse yourselves with such persons."
"I didn't amuse myself."
"I never thought you did very much. There was something I suppose in her riding, something in her audacity, something perhaps in her vivacity;--but through it all I did not think that you were enjoying yourself. You may be sure of this, Lord Rufford, that when a woman is not specially liked by any other woman, she ought not to be specially liked by any man. I have never heard that Miss Trefoil had a female friend."
From day to day there were little meetings and conversations of this kind till Lord Rufford found himself accustomed to Miss Penge's solicitude for his welfare. In all that passed between them the lady affected a status that was altogether removed from that of making or receiving love. There had come to be a peculiar friendship,--because of Eleanor. A week of this kind of thing had not gone by before Miss Penge found herself able to talk of and absolutely to describe this peculiar feeling, and could almost say how pleasant was such friendship, divested of the burden of all amatory possibilities. But through it all Lord Rufford knew that he would have to marry Miss Penge.
It was not long before he yielded in pure weariness. Who has not felt, as he stood by a stream into which he knew that it was his fate to plunge, the folly of delaying the shock? In his present condition he had no ease. His sister threatened him with a return of Arabella. Miss Penge required from him sensational conversation. His brother-in-law was laughing at him in his sleeve. His very hunting friends treated him as though the time were come. In all that he did the young lady took an interest which bored him excessively,--to put an end to which he only saw one certain way. He therefore asked her to be Lady Rufford before he got on his drag to go out hunting on the last Saturday in March. "Rufford," she said, looking up into his face with her lustrous eyes, and speaking with a sweet, low, silvery voice,--"are you sure of your self?"
"Quite sure of yourself?"
"Never so sure in my life."
"Then dearest, dearest Rufford, I will not scruple to say that I also am sure." And so the thing was settled very much to his comfort. He could hardly have done better had he sought through all England for a bride. She will be true to him, and never give him cause for a moment's jealousy. She will like his title, his house, and his property. She will never spend a shilling more than she ought to do. She will look very sharply after him, but will not altogether debar him from his accustomed pleasures. She will grace his table, nurse his children, and never for a moment give him cause to be ashamed of her. He will think that he loves her, and after a lapse of ten or fifteen years will probably really be fond of her. From the moment that she is Lady Rufford, she will love him,--as she loves everything that is her own.
In spite of all his antecedents no one doubted his faith in this engagement;--no one wished to hurry him very much. When the proposition had been made and accepted, and when the hero of it had gone off on his drag, Miss Penge communicated the tidings to her friend. "I think he has behaved very wisely," said Lady Penwether.
"Well;--feeling as I do of course I think he has. I hope he thinks the same of me. I had many doubts about it, but I do believe that I can make him a good wife." Lady Penwether thought that her friend was hardly sufficiently thankful, and strove to tell her so in her own gentle, friendly way. But Miss Penge held her head up and was very stout, and would not acknowledge any cause for gratitude. Lady Penwether, when she saw how it was to be gave way a little. Close friendship with her future sister-in-law would be very necessary to her comfort, and Miss Penge, since the law-suit was settled, had never been given to yielding.
"My dear Rufford," said the sister affectionately, "I congratulate you with all my heart; I do indeed. I am quite sure that you could not have done better."
"I don't know that I could."
"She is a gem of inestimable price, and most warmly attached to you. And if this property is to be bought, of course the money will be a great thing."
"Money is always comfortable."
"Of course it is, and then there is nothing to be desired. If I had named the girl that I would have wished you to love, it would been Caroline Penge." She need hardly have said this as she had in fact been naming the girl for the last three or four months. The news was soon spread about the country and the fashionable world; and everybody was pleased,--except the Trefoil family.
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