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Miss Boncassen's Idea of Heaven
It was generally known that Dolly Longstaff had been heavily smitten by the charms of Miss Boncassen; but the world hardly gave him credit for the earnestness of his affection. Dolly had never been known to be in earnest in anything;--but now he was in very truth in love. He had agreed to be Popplecourt's companion at Custins because he had heard that Miss Boncassen would be there. He had thought over the matter with more consideration than he had ever before given to any subject. He had gone so far as to see his own man of business, with a view of ascertaining what settlements he could make and what income he might be able to spend. He had told himself over and over again that he was not the 'sort of fellow' that ought to marry; but it was all of no avail. He confessed to himself that he was completely 'bowled over',-- 'knocked off his pins'!
'Is a fellow to have no chance?' he said to Miss Boncassen at Custins.
'If I understand what a fellow means, I am afraid not.'
'No man alive was ever more earnest than I am.'
'Well, Mr Longstaff; I do not suppose that you have been trying to take me in all this time.'
'I hope you do not think ill of me.'
'I may think well of a great many gentlemen without wishing to marry them.'
'But does love go for nothing?' said Dolly, putting his hand upon his heart. 'Perhaps there are so many that love you.'
'Not above half-a-dozen or so.'
'You can make a joke of it, when I-. But I don't think, Miss Boncassen, you at all realise what I feel. As to settlements and all that, your father could do what he likes with me.'
'My father has nothing to do with it, and I don't know what settlements mean. We never think anything of settlements in our country. If two young people love each other they go and get married.'
'Let us do the same here.'
'But the two young people don't love each other. Look here, Mr Longstaff, it's my opinion that a young woman ought not to be pestered.'
'You force me to speak in that way. I've given you an answer ever so many times. I will not be made to do it over and over again.'
'It's that d---- fellow, Silverbridge,' he exclaimed almost angrily. On hearing this Miss Boncassen left the room without speaking another word, and Dolly Longstaff found himself alone. He saw what he had done as soon as she was gone. After that he could hardly venture to persevere again--here at Custins. He weighed it over in his mind for a long time, almost coming to a resolution in favour of hard drink. He had never felt anything like this before. He was so uncomfortable that he couldn't eat his luncheon, though in accordance with his usual habit he had breakfasted off soda-and- brandy and a morsel of devilled toast. He did not know himself in his changed character. 'I wonder whether she understands that I have four thousand pounds a year of my own, and shall have twelve thousand pounds more when my governor goes! She was so headstrong that it was impossible to explain anything to her.'
'I'm off to London,' he said to Popplecourt that afternoon.
'Nonsense! You said you'd stay for ten days.'
'All the same, I'm going at once. I've sent to Bridport for a trap, and I shall sleep tonight at Dorchester.'
'What's the meaning of it all?'
'I've had some words with somebody. Don't mind asking any more.'
'Not with the Duke?'
'The Duke? No; I haven't spoken to him.'
'Or Lord Cantrip?'
'I wish you wouldn't ask questions.'
'If you've quarrelled with anybody you ought to consult a friend.'
'It's nothing of that kind.'
'Then it's a lady. It's the American girl!'
'Don't I tell you. I don't want to talk about it? I'm going. I've told Lady Cantrip that my mother wasn't well and wants to see me. You'll stop your time out, I suppose?'
'I don't know.'
'You've got it all square, no doubt. I wish I'd a handle to my name. I never cared for it before.'
'I'm sorry you're so down in the mouth. Why don't you try again? The thing is to stick to 'em like wax. If ten times of asking won't do, go in twenty times.'
Dolly shook his head despondently. 'What can you do when a girl walks out of a room and slams the door in your face? She'll get it hot and heavy before she's done. I know what she's after. She might as well cry for the moon.' And so Dolly got into the trap and went to Bridport and slept the night at the hotel at Dorchester.
Lord Popplecourt, though he could give such excellent advice to his friend, had been able as yet to do very little in his own case. He had been a week at Custins, and had said not a word to denote his passion. Day after day he had prepared himself for the encounter, but the lady had never given him the opportunity. When he sat next to her at dinner she would be very silent. If he stayed at home on a morning she was not visible. During the short evenings he could never get her attention. And he made no progress with the Duke. The Duke had been very courteous to him at Richmond, but here he was monosyllabic and almost sullen.
Once or twice Lord Popplecourt had a little conversation with Lady Cantrip. 'Dear girl!' said her ladyship. 'She is so little given to seeing admiration.'
'I dare say.'
'Girls are so different, Lord Popplecourt. With some of them it seems that a gentleman need have no trouble in explaining what it is that he wishes.'
'I don't think Lady Mary is like that at all.'
'Not in the least. Anyone who addresses her must be prepared to explain himself fully. Nor ought he to hope to get much encouragement at first. I do not think that Lady Mary will bestow her heart till she is sure she can give it with safety.' There was an amount of falsehood in this which was proof at any rate of very strong friendship on the part of Lady Cantrip.
After a few days Lady Mary became more intimate with the American and his daughter than with any others of the party. Perhaps she liked to talk about Scandinavian poets, of whom, Mr Boncassen was so fond. Perhaps she felt sure that her transatlantic friend would not make love to her. Perhaps it was that she yielded to the various allurements of Miss Boncassen. Miss Boncassen saw the Duke of Omnium for the first time at Custins, and there had the first opportunity of asking herself how such a man as that would receive from his son and heir such an announcement as Lord Silverbridge would have to make him should she at the end of three months accept his offer. She was quite aware that Lord Silverbridge need not repeat his offer unless he were so pleased. But she thought that he would come again. He had so spoken that she was sure of his love; and had so spoken as to obtain hers. Yes;--she was sure that she loved him. She had never seen anything like him before;-- so glorious in his beauty, so gentle in his manhood, so powerful and yet so little imperious, so great in condition, and yet so little confident in his own greatness, so bolstered up with external advantages, and so little apt to trust anything but his own heart and his own voice. She was glad he was what he was. She counted at their full value all his natural advantages. To be an English Duchess! Oh--yes; her ambition understood it all! But she loved him, because in the expression of his love no hint had fallen from him of the greatness of the benefits which he could confer upon her. Yes, she would like to be a Duchess; but not to be a Duchess would she become the wife of a man who should begin his courtship by assuming a superiority.
Now the chances of society had brought her into the company of his nearest friends. She was in the house with his father and with his sister. Now and again the Duke spoke a few words to her, and always did so with a polite courtesy. But she was sure that the Duke had heard nothing of his son's courtship. And she was equally sure that the matter had not reached Lady Mary's ears. She perceived that the Duke and her father would often converse together. Mr Boncassen would discuss republicanism generally, and the Duke would explain that theory of monarchy as it prevails in England, which but very few Americans had been made to understand. All this Miss Boncassen watched with pleasure. She was still of opinion that it would not become her to force her way into a family which would endeavour to repudiate her. She would not become this young man's wife if all connected with the young man were resolved to reject the contact. But if she could conquer them,--then,--then she thought that she could put her little hand into that young man's grasp with a happy heart.
It was in this frame of mind that she laid herself out not unsuccessfully to win the esteem of Lady Mary Palliser. 'I do not know whether you approve it,' said Lady Cantrip to the Duke; 'but Mary has become very intimate with our new American friend.' At this time Lady Cantrip had become very nervous,--so as almost to wish that Lady Mary's difficulties might be unravelled elsewhere than at Custins.
'They seem to be sensible people,' said the Duke. 'I don't know when I have met a man with higher ideals on politics than Mr Boncassen.'
'His daughter is popular with everybody.'
'A nice ladylike girl,' said the Duke, 'and appears to have been well educated.'
It was now near the end of October, and the weather was peculiarly fine. Perhaps in our climate, October would of all months be the most delightful if something of its charms were not detracted from by the feeling that with it depart the last relics of delight of summer. The leaves are still there with their gorgeous colouring, but they are going. The last rose still lingers on the bush, but it is the last. The woodland walks are still pleasant to the feet, but caution is heard on every side by the coming winter.
The park at Custins, which was spacious, had many woodland walks attached to it, from which, through vistas of the timber, distant glimpses of the sea were caught. Within half a mile of the house the woods were reached, and within a mile the open sea was in sight,--and yet the wanderers might walk for miles without going over the same ground. Here, without other companions, Lady Mary and Miss Boncassen found themselves one afternoon, and here the latter told her story to her lover's sister. 'I long to tell you something,' she said.
'Is it a secret?' asked Lady Mary.
'Well; yes it is,--if you will keep it so. I would rather you should keep it a secret. But I will tell you.' Then she stood still looking into the other's face. 'I wonder how you will take it.'
'What can it be?'
'Your brother has asked me to be his wife.'
'Yes;--Lord Silverbridge. You are astonished.'
Lady Mary was much astonished,--so much astonished that words escaped from her, which she regretted afterwards. 'I thought there was someone else.'
'Lady Mabel Grex. But I know nothing.'
'I think not,' said Miss Boncassen slowly. 'I have seen them together and I think not. There might be somebody, though I think not her. But why do I say that? Why do I malign him, and make so little of myself. There is no one else, Lady Mary. Is he not true?'
'I think he is true.'
'I am sure he is true. And he has asked me to be his wife.'
'What did you say?'
'Well;--what do you think? What is it probable that such a girl as I would say when such a man as your brother asks her to be his wife? Is he not such a man as a girl would love?'
'Is he not handsome as a god?' Mary stared at her with all her eyes. 'And sweeter than any god those pagan races knew? And is he not good-tempered, and loving; and has he not that perfection of manly dash without which I do not think I do not think I could give my heart to any man?'
'Then you have accepted him?'
'And his rank and wealth! The highest position in all the world in my eyes.'
'I do not think you should take him for that.'
'Does it not all help? Can you put yourself in my place? Why should I refuse him? No, not for that. I would not take him for that. But if I love him,--because he is all that my imagination tells me that a man ought to be;--if to be his wife seems to be the greatest bliss that could happen to a woman; if I feel that I could die to serve him, that I would live to worship him, that his touch would be sweet to me, his voice music, his strength the only supports in the world on which I would care to lean,--what then?'
'Is it so?'
'Yes it is so. it is after that fashion that I love him. He is my hero;--and not the less so because there is none higher than he among the nobles of the greatest land under the sun. Would you have me for a sister?' Lady Mary could not answer all at once. She had to think of her father,--and then she thought of her own lover. Why should not Silverbridge be as well entitled to his choice as she considered herself to be? And yet how would it be with her father? Silverbridge would in process of time be the head of the family. Would it be proper that he should marry an American?
'You would not like me for a sister?'
'I was thinking of my father. For myself I like you.'
'Shall I tell you what I said to him?'
'If you will.'
'I told him that he must ask his friends;--that I would not be his wife to be rejected by them all. Nor will I. Though it be heaven I will not creep there through a hole. If I cannot go with my head upright, I will not go even there.' The she turned round as though she were prepared in her emotion to walk back to the house alone. But Lady mare ran after her, and having caught her put her arm round her waist and kissed her.
'I at any rate will love you,' said Lady Mary.
'I will do as I said,' continued Miss Boncassen. 'I will do as I have said. Though I love your brother down to the ground he shall not marry me without his father's consent.' Then they returned arm-in-arm close together; but very little was said between them.
When Lady Mary entered the house she was told that Lady Cantrip wished to see her in her own room.
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