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The Duke's Guests
'The Duke of Omnium presents his compliments to Mr Francis Tregear, and begs to acknowledge the receipt of Mr Tregear's letter of-. The Duke has no other communication to make to Mr Tregear, and must beg to decline any further correspondence.' This was the reply which the Duke wrote to the applicant for his daughter's hand. And he wrote it at once. He had acknowledged to himself that Tregear had shown a certain manliness in his appeal; but not on that account was such a man to have all that he demanded! It seemed to the Duke that there was no alternative between such a note as that given above and a total surrender.
But the post did not go out during the night, and the note lay hidden in the Duke's private drawer till the morning. There was still that 'locus poenitentiae' which should be accorded to all letters written in anger. During the day he thought over it all constantly, not in any spirit of yielding, not descending a single step from that attitude of conviction which made him feel that it might be his duty absolutely to sacrifice his daughter,--but asking himself whether it might not be better to explain the whole matter at length to the young man. He thought that he could put the matter strongly. It was not by his own doing that he belonged to an aristocracy which, if all exclusiveness were banished from it, must cease to exist. But being what he was, having been born to such privileges and such limitations, was he not bound in duty to maintain a certain exclusiveness? He would appeal to the young man himself to say whether marriage ought to be free between all classes of the community. And if not between all, who was to maintain the limits but they to whom authority in such matters is given? So much in regard to rank! And then he would ask this young man whether he thought it fitting that a young man whose duty according to all known principles it must be to earn bread, should avoid that manifest duty by taking a wife who could maintain him. As he roamed about his park alone he felt that he could write such a letter as would make an impression even upon a lover. But when he had come back to his study, other reflections came to his aid. Though he might write the most appropriate letter in the world, would there not certainly be a reply? As to conviction, had he ever known an instance of a man who had been convinced by an adversary? Of course there would be a reply,--and replies. And to such a correspondence there would no visible end. Words when once written, remain, or may remain, in testimony for ever. So at last when the moment came he sent off those three lines, with his uncourteous compliments and his demand that there should be no further correspondence.
At dinner he endeavoured to make up for his harshness by increased tenderness to his daughter, who was altogether ignorant of the correspondence. 'Have you written your letters, dear?' She said she had written them.
'I hope the people will come.'
'If it will make you comfortable, papa!'
'It is for your sake I wish them to be here. I think that Lady Mabel and Miss Boncassen are just such girls as you would like.'
'I do like them; only--'
'Miss Boncassen is an American.'
'Is that an objection? According to my ideas it is desirable to become acquainted with persons of various nations. I have heard, no doubt, many stories of the awkward manners displayed by American ladies. If you look for them you may probably find American women who are not polished. I do not think I shall calumniate my own country if I say the same of English women. It should be our object to select for our own acquaintance the best we can find of all countries. It seems to me that Miss Boncassen is a young lady with whom any other young lady might be glad to form an acquaintance.'
This was a little sermon which Mary was quite contented to endure in silence. She was, in truth, fond of the young American beauty, and had felt a pleasure in the intimacy which the girl had proposed to her. But she thought it inexpedient that Miss Boncassen, Lady Mabel, and Silverbridge, should be at Matching together. Therefore she made a reply to her father's sermon which hardly seemed to go to the point at issue. 'She is so beautiful!' she said.
'Very beautiful,' said the Duke. 'But what has that to do with it? My girl need not be jealous of any girl's beauty.' Mary laughed and shook her head. 'What is it then?'
'Perhaps Silverbridge might admire her.'
'I have no doubt he would,--or does, for I am aware that they have met. But why should he not admire her?'
'I don't know,' said Lady Mary sheepishly.
'I fancy there is no danger in that direction. I think Silverbridge understands what is expected from him.' Had not Silverbridge plainly shown that he had understood what was expected from him when he selected Lady Mabel? Nothing could have been more proper, and the Duke had been altogether satisfied. That in such a matter there should have been a change in so short a time did not occur to him. Poor Mary was now completely silenced. She had been told that Silverbridge understood what was expected from him; and of course could not fail to carry home to herself an accusation that she failed to understand what was expected from her.
She had written her letters, but had not yet sent them. Those to Mrs Finn and the two younger ladies had been easy enough. Could Mr and Mrs Finn come to Matching on the twentieth of November? 'Papa says that you promised to return, and thinks this time will perhaps suit you.' And then to Lady Mabel: 'Do come if you can; and papa particularly says that he hopes Miss Cassewary will come also.' To Miss Boncassen she had written a long letter, but that too had been written very easily. 'I write to you instead of your mamma because I know you. You must tell her that, and then she will not be angry. I am only papa's messenger, and I am to say how much he hopes that you will come on the twentieth. Mr Boncassen is to bring the whole British Museum if he wishes.' Then there was a little postscript which showed that there was already considerable intimacy between the two young ladies: 'We won't have either Mr L or Lord P.' Not a word was said about Lord Silverbridge. There was not even an initial to indicate his name.
But the letter to her brother was more difficult. In her epistles to those others she had so framed her words as if possible to bring them to Matching. But in writing to her brother, she was anxious to write as to deter him from coming. She was bound to obey her father's commands. He had desired that Silverbridge should be asked to come,--and he was asked to come. But she craftily endeavoured to word the invitation that he should be induced to remain away. 'It is all papa's doing,' she said; 'and I am glad that he should like to have people here. I have asked the Finns with whom papa seems to have made up everything. Mr Warburton will be here of course, and I think Mr Moreton is coming. He seems to think that a certain amount of shooting ought to be done. Then I have invited Lady Mabel Grex and Miss Cassewary,--all of course of papa's choosing, and the Boncassens. Now you will know whether the set will suit you. Papa particularly begged that you will come,--apparently because of Lady Mabel. I don't know what all that means. Perhaps you do. As I like Lady Mabel, I hope she will come.' Surely Silverbridge would not run himself into the jaws of the lion. When he heard that he was specially expected by his father to come to Matching in order that he might make himself agreeable to one young lady, he would hardly venture to come, seeing that he would be bound to make love to another young lady!
To Mary's great horror, all the invitations were accepted. Mr and Mrs Finn were quite at the Duke's disposal. That she had expected. The Boncassens would all come. This was signified by a note from Isabel, which covered four sides of the paper and was full of fun. But under her signature had been written a few words,--not in fun,-- words which Lady Mary perfectly understood. 'I wonder, I wonder, I wonder!' Did the Duke when inviting her know anything of his son's inclinations? Would he be made to know them now, during this visit? And what would he say when he did know them?
That the Boncassens would come as a matter of course; but Mary had thought that Lady Mabel would refuse. She had told Lady Mabel that the Boncassens had been asked, and to her thinking it had not been improbable that the young lady would be unwilling to meet her rival at Matching. But the invitation was accepted.
But it was her brother's ready acquiescence which trouble Mary chiefly. He wrote as though there was no doubt about the matter. 'Of course there is a deal of shooting to be done,' he said, 'and I consider myself bound to look after it. There ought not to be less than four guns,--particularly if Warburton is to be one of them. I like Warburton very much, but I think he shoots badly to ingratiate himself with the governor. I wonder whether the governor would get leave for Gerald for a week. He has been sticking to his work like a brick. If not, would he mind my bringing someone? You ask the governor and let me know. I'll be there on the twentieth. I wonder whether they'll let me hear what goes on among them about politics? I'm sure there is not one of them hates Sir Timothy worse than I do. Lady Mab is a brick, and I'm glad you have asked her. I don't think she'll come, as she likes shutting herself up at Grex. Miss Boncassen is another brick. And if you can manage about Gerald I will say you are a third.'
This would have been all very well had she not know that secret. Could it be that Miss Boncassen had been mistaken? She was forced to write again to say that her father did not think it right that Gerald should be brought away from his studies for the sake of shooting, and that the necessary fourth gun would be there in the person of Barrington Erle. Then she added: 'Lady Mabel Grex is coming, and so is Miss Boncassen.' But to this she received no reply.
Though Silverbridge had written to his sister in his usual careless style, he had considered the matter much. The three months were over. He had no idea of any hesitation on his part. He had asked her to be his wife, and he was determined to go on with his suit. Had he ever been enabled to make the same request to Mabel Grex, or had she answered him when he did half make it in a serious manner, he would have been true to her. He had not told his father, or his sister, or his friends, as Isabel had suggested. He would not do so till he should have received some more certain answer from her. But in respect to his love he was prepared to be as quite as obstinate as his sister. It was a matter for his own consideration, and he would choose for himself. The three months were over, and it was now his business to present himself to the lady again.
That Lady Mabel should also be at Matching, would certainly be a misfortune. He thought it probable that she, knowing that Isabel Boncassen and he would be there together, would refuse the invitation. Surely she ought to do so. That was his opinion when he wrote to his sister. When he heard afterwards that she intended to be there, he could only suppose that she was prepared to accept the circumstances as they stood.
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