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Again at Babington
The affair of Julia Babington had been made to him in set terms, and had, if not accepted, not been at once refused. No doubt this had occurred four years ago, and, if either of them had married since, they would have met each other without an unpleasant reminiscence. But they had not done so, and there was no reason why the original proposition should not hold good. After escaping from Babington he had, indeed, given various reasons why such a marriage was impossible. He had sold his inheritance. He was a ruined man. He was going out to Australia as a simple miner. It was only necessary for him to state all this, and it became at once evident that he was below the notice of Julia Babington. But everything had been altered since that. He had regained his inheritance, he had come back a rich man, and he was more than ever indebted to the family because of the violent fight they had made on his behalf, just as he was going. As he journeyed to Babington all this was clear to him; and it was clear to him also that, from his first entrance into the house, he must put on an air of settled purpose, he must gird up his loins seriously, he must let it be understood that he was not as he used to be, ready for worldly lectures from his aunt, or for romping with his female cousins, or for rats, or rabbits, or partridges, with the male members of the family. The cares of the world must be seen to sit heavy on him, and at the very first mention of a British wife he must declare himself to be wedded to Polyeuka.
At Babington he was received with many fatted calves. The whole family were there to welcome him, springing out upon him and dragging him out of the fly as soon as he had entered the park gates. Aunt Polly almost fainted as she was embracing him under an oak tree; and tears, real tears, ran down the squire's face as he shook both his nephew's hands at once. 'By George,' said the Babington heir, 'you're the luckiest fellow I ever heard of! We all thought Folking was gone for good.' As though the possessions of Folking were the summit of human bliss! Caldigate with all the girls around him could not remonstrate with words, but his spirit did remonstrate. 'Oh, John, we are so very, very, very, very glad to have you back again,' said Julia, sobbing and laughing at the same time. He had kissed them all of course, and now Julia was close to his elbow as he walked up to the house.
In the midst of all this there was hardly opportunity for that deportment which he meant to exercise. When fatted calves are being killed for you by the dozen, it is very difficult to repudiate the good nature of the slaughterers. Little efforts he did make even before he got to the house. 'I hardly know how I stand just yet,' he had said, in answer to his uncle's congratulations as to his wealth. 'I must go out again at any rate.'
'Back to Australia?' asked his aunt.
'I fear so. It is a kind of business,--gold-mining,--in which it is very hard for a man to know what he's worth. A claim that has been giving you a thousand pounds net every month for two years past, comes all of sudden a great deal worse than valueless. You can't give it up, and you have to throw back your thousands in profitless work.'
'I wouldn't do that,' said the squire.
'I'd stick to what I'd got,' said the Babington heir.
'It is a very difficult business,' said Caldigate, with a considerable amount of deportment, and an assumed look of age,--as though the cares of gold-seeking had made him indifferent to all the lighter joys of existence.
'But you mean to live at Folking?' asked Aunt Polly.
'I should think probably not. But a man situated as I am, never can say where he means to live.'
'But you are to have Folking?' whispered the squire,--whispered it so that all the party heard the words;--whispering not from reticence but excitement.
'That's the idea at present,' said the Folking heir. 'But Polyeuka is so much more to me than Folking. A gold mine with fifty or sixty thousand pounds worth of plant about it, Aunt Polly, is an imperious mistress.' In all this our hero was calumniating himself. Polyeuka and the plant he was willing to abandon on very moderate terms, and had arranged to wipe his hands of the whole concern if those moderate terms were accepted. But cousin Julia and aunt Polly were enemies against whom it was necessary to assume whatever weapons might come to his hand.
He had arranged to stay a week at Babington. He had considered it all very deeply, and had felt that as two days was the least fraction of time which he could with propriety devote to the Shands, so must he give at least a week to Babington. There was, therefore, no necessity for any immediate violence on the part of the ladies. The whole week might probably have been allowed to pass without absolute violence, had he not shown by various ways that he did not intend to make many visits to the old haunts of his childhood before his return to Australia. When he said that he should not hunt in the coming winter; that he feared his hand was out for shooting; that he had an idea of travelling on the Continent during the autumn; and that there was no knowing when he might be summoned back to Polyeuka, of course there came across Aunt Polly's mind,--and probably also across Julia's mind,--an idea that he meant to give them the slip again. On the former occasion he had behaved badly. This was their opinion. But, as it had turned out, his circumstances at the moment were such as to make his conduct pardonable. He had been harassed by the importunities both of his father and of Davis; and that, under such circumstances, he should have run away from his affianced bride, was almost excusable, But now----! It was very different now. Something must be settled. It was very well to talk about Polyeuka. A man who has engaged himself in business must, no doubt, attend to it. But married men can attend to business quite as well as they who are single. At any rate, there could be no reason why the previous engagement should not be consolidated and made a family affair. There was felt to be something almost approaching to resistance in what he had said and done already. Therefore Aunt Polly flew to her weapons, and summoned Julia also to take up arms. He must be bound at once with chains, but the chains were made as soft as love and flattery could make them. Aunt Polly was almost angry,--was prepared to be very angry;--but not the less did she go on killing fatted calves.
There were archery meetings at this time through the country, the period of the year being unfitted for other sports. It seemed to Caldigate as though all the bows and all the arrows had been kept specially for him,--as though he was the great toxophilite of the age,--whereas no man could have cared less for the amusement than he. He was carried here and was carried there; and then there was a great gathering in their own park at home. But it always came to pass that he and Julia were shooting together,--as though it were necessary that she should teach him,--that she should make up by her dexterity for what was lost by his awkwardness,--that she by her peculiar sweetness should reconcile him to his new employment. Before the week was over, there was a feeling among all the dependants at Babington, and among many of the neighbours, that everything was settled, and that Miss Julia was to be the new mistress of Folking.
Caldigate knew that it was so. He perceived the growth of the feeling from day to day. He could not say that he would not go to the meetings, all of which had been arranged beforehand. Nor could he refuse to stand up beside his cousin Julia and shoot his arrows directly after she had shot hers. Nor could he refrain from acknowledging that though she was awkward in a drawing-room, she was a buxom young woman dressed in green with a feather in her hat and a bow in her hand; and then she could always shoot her arrows straight into the bull's-eye. But he was well aware that the new hat had been bought specially for him, and that the sharpest arrow from her quiver was intended to be lodged in his heart. He was quite determined that any such shooting as that should be unsuccessful.
'Has he said anything?' the mother asked the daughter. 'Not a word.' This occurred on the Sunday night. He had reached Babington on the previous Tuesday, and was to go to Folking on next Tuesday. 'Not a word.' The reply was made in a tone almost of anger. Julia did believe that her cousin had been engaged to her, and that she actually had a right to him, now that he had come back, no longer ruined.
'Some men never do,' said Aunt Polly, not wishing to encourage her daughter's anger just at present. 'Some men are never left alone with a girl for half a moment, but what they are talking stuff and nonsense. Others never seem to think about it in the least. But whether it's the one or whether it's the other, it makes no difference afterwards. He never had much talk of that kind. I'll just say a word to him, Julia.'
The saying of the word was put off till late on Sunday evening. Sunday was rather a trying day at Babington. If hunting, shooting, fishing, croquet, lawn-billiards, bow and arrows, battledore and shuttle-cock, with every other game, as games come up and go, constitute a worldly kind of life, the Babingtons were worldly. There surely never was a family in which any kind of work was so wholly out of the question, and every amusement so much a matter of course. But if worldliness and religion are terms opposed to each other, then they were not worldly. There were always prayers for the whole household morning and evening. There were two services on Sunday, at the first of which the males, and at both of which the females, were expected to attend. But the great struggle came after dinner at nine o'clock, when Aunt Polly always read a sermon out loud to the assembled household. Aunt Polly had a certain power of her own, and no one dared to be absent except the single servant who was left in the kitchen to look after the fire.
The squire himself was always there, but a peculiar chair was placed for him, supposed to be invisible to the reader, in which he slept during the whole time, subject to correction from a neighbouring daughter in the event of his snoring. An extra bottle of port after dinner was another Sunday observance which added to the irritability of the occasion,--so that the squire, when the reading and prayers were over, would generally be very cross, and would take himself up to bed almost without a word, and the brothers would rush away almost with indecent haste to their smoking. As the novels had all been put away into a cupboard, and the good books which were kept for the purpose strewed about in place of them, and as knitting, and even music, were tabooed, the girls, having nothing to do, would also go away at an early hour.
'John, would you mind staying a few moments with me?' said Aunt Polly, in her softest voice when Caldigate was hurrying after his male cousins. He knew that the hour had come, and he girded up his loins.
'Come nearer, John,' she said,--and he came nearer, so that she could put her hand upon his. 'Do you remember, John, when you and I and Julia were together in that little room up-stairs?' There was so much pathos in her voice, she did her acting so well, that his respect for her was greatly augmented,--as was also his fear. 'She remembers it very well.'
'Of course I remember it, Aunt Polly. It's one of those things that a man doesn't forget.'
'A man ought not to forget such a scene as that,' she said, shaking her head. 'A man would be very hard of heart if he could forget it.'
Now must be the moment for his exertion! She had spoken so plainly as to leave no doubt of her meaning, and she was pausing for an answer; yet he hesitated,--not in his purpose, but doubting as to his own manner of declaring it. He must be very decided. Upon that he was resolved. He would be decided, though they should drag him in pieces with wild horses for it afterwards. But he would fain be gentle with his aunt if it were possible. 'My dear Aunt Polly, it won't do; I'm not going to be caught, and so you may as well give it over.' That was what he wished her to understand;--but he would not say it in such language. Much was due to her, though she was struggling to catch him in a trap. 'When I had made such a fool of myself before I went--about money,' he said, 'I thought that was all over.'
'But you have made anything but a fool of yourself since,' she replied triumphantly; 'you have gone out into the world like a man, and have made your fortune, and have so returned that everybody is proud of you. Now you can take a wife to yourself and settle down, and be a happy goodman.'
It was exactly his view of life;--only there was a difference about the wife to be taken. He certainly had never said a word to his cousin which could justify this attack upon him. The girl had been brought to him in a cupboard, and he had been told that he was to marry her! And that when he had been young and drowned with difficulties. How is a man ever to escape if he must submit under such circumstances as these? 'My dear Aunt Polly, I had better tell you at once that I cannot marry my cousin Julia.' Those were the words which he did speak, and as he spoke there was a look about his eyes and his mouth which ought to have made her know that there was no hope.
'And why not? John Caldigate, is this you that I hear?'
'Why should I?'
'Because you promised it.'
'I never did, Aunt Polly.'
'And because she loves you.'
'Even if it were so, am I to be bound by that? But, indeed, indeed, I never even suggested it,--never thought of it. I am very fond of my cousin, very fond of all my cousins. But marriage is a different thing. I am inclined to think that cousins had better not marry.'
'You should have said that before. But it is nonsense. Cousins marry every day. There is nothing about it either in the Bible or the Prayer-book. She will die.'
Aunt Polly said this in a tone of voice which made it a matter of regret that she should not have been educated for Drury Lane. But as she said it, he could not avoid thinking of Julia's large ankles, and red cheeks, and of the new green hat and feather. A girl with large ankles is, one may suppose, as liable to die for love as though she were as fine about her feet as a thorough-bred filly; and there is surely no reason why a true heart and a pair of cherry cheeks should not go together. But our imagination has created ideas in such matters so fixed, that it is useless to contend against them. In our endeavours to produce effects, these ideas should be remembered and obeyed. 'I hope not on that account,' said Caldigate, and as he uttered the words some slightest suspicion of a smile crossed his face.
Then Aunt Polly blazed forth in wrath. 'And at such a moment as this you can laugh!'
'Indeed, I did not laugh;--I am very far from laughing, Aunt Polly.'
'Because I am anxious for my child, my child whom you have deceived, you make yourself merry with me!'
'I am not merry. I am miserably unhappy because of all this. But I cannot admit that I have deceived my cousin. All that was settled, I thought, when I went away. But coming back at the end of four years, of four such long years, with very different ideas of life----'
'Well,--at any rate, with ideas of having my own way,--I cannot submit myself to this plan of yours, which, though it would have given me so much----'
'It would give you everything, sir.'
'Granted! But I cannot take everything. It is better that we should understand each other, so that my cousin, for whom I have the most sincere regard, should not be annoyed.'
'Much you care!'
'What shall I say?'
'It signifies nothing what you say. You are a false man. You have inveigled your cousin's affections, and now you say that you can do nothing for her. This comes from the sort of society you have kept out at Botany Bay! I suppose a man's word there is worth nothing, and that the women are of such a kind they don't mind it. It is not the way with gentlemen here in England; let me tell you that!' Then she stalked out of the room, leaving him either to go to bed, or join the smokers or to sit still and repent at his leisure, as he might please. His mind, however, was chiefly occupied for the next half-hour with thinking whether it would be possible for him to escape from Babington on the following morning.
Before the morning he had resolved that, let the torment of the day be what it might, he would bear it,--unless by chance he might be turned out of the house. But no tragedy such as that came to relieve him. Aunt Polly gave him his tea at breakfast with a sternly forbidding look,--and Julia was as cherry-cheeked as ever, though very silent. The killing of calves was over, and he was left to do what he pleased during the whole day. One spark of comfort came to him. 'John, my boy,' said his uncle in a whisper, 'what's the matter between you and Madame?' Mr. Babington would sometimes call his wife Madame when he was half inclined to laugh at her. Caldigate of course declared that there was nothing wrong. The squire shook his head and went away. But from this it appeared to Caldigate that the young lady's father was not one of the conspirators,--by ascertaining which his mind was somewhat relieved.
On the next morning the fly came for him, and he went away without any kisses. Upon the whole he was contented with both his visits, and was inclined to assure himself that a man has only to look a difficulty in the face, and that the difficulty will be difficult no longer.
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