It soon became known to them all as they remained clustered in the hall that Mr. Glascock was in the house. Mrs. Stanbury came out to them and informed them that he had been at Nuncombe Putney for the last five hours, and that he had asked for Mrs. Trevelyan when he called. It became evident as the affairs of the evening went on, that Mrs. Stanbury had for a few minutes been thrown into a terrible state of amazement, thinking that "the Colonel" had appeared. The strange gentleman, however, having obtained admittance, explained who he was, saying that he was very desirous of seeing Mrs. Trevelyan,—and Miss Rowley. It may be presumed that a glimmer of light did make its way into Mrs. Stanbury's mind on the subject; but up to the moment at which the three travellers arrived, she had been in doubt on the subject. Mr. Glascock had declared that he would take a walk, and in the course of the afternoon had expressed high approval of Mrs. Crocket's culinary skill. When Mrs. Crocket heard that she had entertained the son of a lord, she was very loud in her praise of the manner in which he had eaten two mutton chops and called for a third. He had thought it no disgrace to apply himself to the second half of an apple pie, and had professed himself to be an ardent admirer of Devonshire cream. "It's them counter-skippers as turns up their little noses at the victuals as is set before them," said Mrs. Crocket.
After his dinner Mr. Glascock had returned to the Clock House, and had been sitting there for an hour with Mrs. Stanbury, not much to her delight or to his, when the carriage was driven up to the door.
"He is to go back to Lessboro' to-night," said Mrs. Stanbury in a whisper.
"Of course you must see him before he goes," said Mrs. Trevelyan to her sister. There had, as was natural, been very much said between the two sisters about Mr. Glascock. Nora had abstained from asserting in any decided way that she disliked the man, and had always absolutely refused to allow Hugh Stanbury's name to be mixed up with the question. Whatever might be her own thoughts about Hugh Stanbury she had kept them even from her sister. When her sister had told her that she had refused Mr. Glascock because of Hugh, she had shown herself to be indignant, and had since that said one or two fine things as to her capacity to refuse a brilliant offer simply because the man who had made it was indifferent to her. Mrs. Trevelyan had learned from her that her suitor had declared his intention to persevere; and here was perseverance with a vengeance! "Of course you must see him,—at once," said Mrs. Trevelyan. Nora for a few seconds had remained silent, and then had run up to her room. Her sister followed her instantly.
"What is the meaning of it all?" said Priscilla to her mother.
"I suppose he is in love with Miss Rowley," said Mrs. Stanbury.
"But who is he?"
Then Mrs. Stanbury told all that she knew. She had seen from his card that he was an Honourable Mr. Glascock. She had collected from what he had said that he was an old friend of the two ladies. Her conviction was strong in Mr. Glascock's favour,—thinking, as she expressed herself, that everything was right and proper,—but she could hardly explain why she thought so.
"I do wish that they had never come," said Priscilla, who could not rid herself of an idea that there must be danger in having to do with women who had men running after them.
"Of course I'll see him," said Nora to her sister. "I have not refused to see him. Why do you scold me?"
"I have not scolded you, Nora; but I do want you to think how immensely important this is."
"Of course it is important."
"And so much the more so because of my misfortunes! Think how good he must be, how strong must be his attachment, when he comes down here after you in this way."
"But I have to think of my own feelings."
"You know you like him. You have told me so. And only fancy what mamma will feel! Such a position! And the man so excellent! Everybody says that he hasn't a fault in any way."
"I hate people without faults."
"Oh, Nora, Nora, that is foolish! There, there; you must go down. Pray,—pray do not let any absurd fancy stand in your way, and destroy everything. It will never come again, Nora. And, only think; it is all now your own, if you will only whisper one word."
"Ah!—one word,—and that a falsehood!"
"No,—no. Say you will try to love him, and that will be enough. And you do love him?"
"Yes, you do. It is only the opposition of your nature that makes you fight against him. Will you go now?"
"Let me be for two minutes by myself," said Nora, "and then I'll come down. Tell him that I'm coming." Mrs. Trevelyan stooped over her, kissed her, and then left her.
Nora, as soon as she was alone, stood upright in the middle of the room and held her hands up to her forehead. She had been far from thinking, when she was considering the matter easily among the hillocks, that the necessity for an absolute decision would come upon her so instantaneously. She had told herself only this morning that it would be wise to accept the man, if he should ever ask a second time;—and he had come already. He had been waiting for her in the village while she had been thinking whether he would ever come across her path again. She thought that it would have been easier for her now to have gone down with a "yes" in her mouth, if her sister had not pressed her so hard to say that "yes." The very pressure from her sister seemed to imply that such pressure ought to be resisted. Why should there have been pressure, unless there were reasons against her marrying him? And yet, if she chose to take him, who would have a right to complain of her? Hugh Stanbury had never spoken to her a word that would justify her in even supposing that he would consider himself to be ill-used. All others of her friends would certainly rejoice, would applaud her, pat her on the back, cover her with caresses, and tell her that she had been born under a happy star. And she did like the man. Nay;—she thought she loved him. She withdrew her hands from her brow, assured herself that her lot in life was cast, and with hurrying fingers attempted to smooth her hair and to arrange her ribbons before the glass. She would go to the encounter boldly and accept him honestly. It was her duty to do so. What might she not do for brothers and sisters as the wife of Lord Peterborough of Monkhams? She saw that that arrangement before the glass could be of no service, and she stepped quickly to the door. If he did not like her as she was, he need not ask her. Her mind was made up, and she would do it. But as she went down the stairs to the room in which she knew that he was waiting for her, there came over her a cold feeling of self-accusation,—almost of disgrace. "I do not care," she said. "I know that I'm right." She opened the door quickly, that there might be no further doubt, and found that she was alone with him.
"Miss Rowley," he said, "I am afraid you will think that I am persecuting you."
"I have no right to think that," she answered.
"I'll tell you why I have come. My dear father, who has always been my best friend, is very ill. He is at Naples, and I must go to him. He is very old, you know,—over eighty; and will never live to come back to England. From what I hear, I think it probable that I may remain with him till everything is over."
"I did not know that he was so old as that."
"They say that he can hardly live above a month or two. He will never see my wife,—if I can have a wife; but I should like to tell him, if it were possible,—that,—that—"
"I understand you, Mr. Glascock."
"I told you that I should come to you again, and as I may possibly linger at Naples all the winter, I could not go without seeing you. Miss Rowley, may I hope that you can love me?"
She did not answer him a word, but stood looking away from him with her hands clasped together. Had he asked her whether she would be his wife, it is possible that the answer which she had prepared would have been spoken. But he had put the question in another form. Did she love him? If she could only bring herself to say that she could love him, she might be lady of Monkhams before the next summer had come round.
"Nora," he said, "do you think that you can love me?"
"No," she said, and there was something almost of fierceness in the tone of her voice as she answered him.
"And must that be your final answer to me?"
"Mr. Glascock, what can I say?" she replied. "I will tell you the honest truth:—I will tell you everything. I came into this room determined to accept you. But you are so good, and so kind, and so upright, that I cannot tell you a falsehood. I do not love you. I ought not to take what you offer me. If I did, it would be because you are rich, and a lord; and not because I love you. I love some one else. There;—pray, pray do not tell of me; but I do." Then she flung away from him and hid her face in a corner of the sofa out of the light.
Her lover stood silent, not knowing how to go on with the conversation, not knowing how to bring it to an end. After what she had now said to him it was impossible that he should press her further. It was almost impossible that he should wish to do so. When a lady is frank enough to declare that her heart is not her own to give, a man can hardly wish to make further prayer for the gift. "If so," he said, "of course I have nothing to hope."
She was sobbing, and could not answer him. She was half repentant, partly proud of what she had done,—half repentant in that she had lost what had seemed to her to be so good, and full of remorse in that she had so unnecessarily told her secret.
"Perhaps," said he, "I ought to assure you that what you have told me shall never be repeated by my lips."
She thanked him for this by a motion of her head and hand, not by words;—and then he was gone. How he managed to bid adieu to Mrs. Stanbury and her sister, or whether he saw them as he left the house, she never knew. In her corner of the sofa, weeping in the dark, partly proud and partly repentant, she remained till her sister came to her. "Emily," she said, jumping up, "say nothing about it; not a word. It is of no use. The thing is done and over, and let it altogether be forgotten."
"It is done and over, certainly," said Mrs. Trevelyan.
"Exactly;—and I suppose a girl may do what she likes with herself in that way. If I choose to decline to take anything that is pleasant, and nice, and comfortable, nobody has a right to scold me. And I won't be scolded."
"But, my child, who is scolding you?"
"You mean to scold me. But it is of no use. The man has gone, and there is an end of it. Nothing that you can say or I can think will bring him back again. I don't want anybody to tell me that it would be better to be Lady Peterborough, with everything that the world has to give, than to live here without a soul to speak to, and to have to go back to those horrible islands next year. You can't think that I am very comfortable."
"But what did you say to him, Nora?"
"What did I say to him? What could I say to him? Why didn't he ask me to be his wife without saying anything about love? He asked me if I loved him. Of course I don't love him. I would have said I did, but it stuck in my throat. I am willing enough, I believe, to sell myself to the devil, but I don't know how to do it. Never mind. It's done, and now I'll go to bed."
She did go to bed, and Mrs. Trevelyan explained to the two ladies as much as was necessary of what had occurred. When Mrs. Stanbury came to understand that the gentleman who had been closeted with her would, probably, in a few months be a lord himself, that he was a very rich man, a member of Parliament, and one of those who are decidedly born with gold spoons in their mouths, and understood also that Nora Rowley had refused him, she was lost in amazement. Mr. Glascock was about forty years of age, and appeared to Nora Rowley, who was nearly twenty years his junior, to be almost an old man. But to Mrs. Stanbury, who was over sixty, Mr. Glascock seemed to be quite in the flower of his age. The bald place at the top of his head simply showed that he had passed his boyhood, and the grey hairs at the back of his whiskers were no more than outward signs of manly discretion. She could not understand why any girl should refuse such an offer, unless the man were himself bad in morals, or in temper. But Mrs. Trevelyan had told her while Nora and Mr. Glascock were closeted together, that he was believed by them all to be good and gentle. Nevertheless she felt a considerable increase of respect for a young lady who had refused the eldest son of a lord. Priscilla, when she heard what had occurred, expressed to her mother a moderated approval. According to her views a girl would much more often be right to refuse an offer of marriage than to accept it, let him who made the offer be who he might. And the fact of the man having been sent away with a refusal somewhat softened Priscilla's anger at his coming there at all.
"I suppose he is a goose," said she to her mother, "and I hope there won't be any more of this kind running after them while they are with us."
Nora, when she was alone, wept till her heart was almost broken. It was done, and the man was gone, and the thing was over. She had quite sufficient knowledge of the world to realise perfectly the difference between such a position as that which had been offered to her, and the position which in all probability she would now be called upon to fill. She had had her chance, and Fortune had placed great things at her disposal. It must be said of her also that the great things which Fortune had offered to her were treasures very valuable in her eyes. Whether it be right and wise to covet or to despise wealth and rank, there was no doubt but that she coveted them. She had been instructed to believe in them, and she did believe in them. In some mysterious manner of which she herself knew nothing, taught by some preceptor the nobility of whose lessons she had not recognised though she had accepted them, she had learned other things also,—to revere truth and love, and to be ambitious as regarded herself of conferring the gift of her whole heart upon some one whom she could worship as a hero. She had spoken the simple truth when she had told her sister that she had been willing to sell herself to the devil, but that she had failed in her attempt to execute the contract. But now as she lay weeping on her bed, tearing herself with remorse, picturing to herself in the most vivid colours all that she had thrown away, telling herself of all that she might have done and all that she might have been, had she not allowed the insane folly of a moment to get the better of her, she received little or no comfort from the reflection that she had been true to her better instincts. She had told the man that she had refused him because she loved Hugh Stanbury;—at least, as far as she could remember what had passed, she had so told him. And how mean it was of her to allow herself to be actuated by an insane passion for a man who had never spoken to her of love, and how silly of her afterwards to confess it! Of what service could such a passion be to her life? Even were it returned, she could not marry such a one as Hugh Stanbury. She knew enough of herself to be quite sure that were he to ask her to do so to-morrow, she would refuse him. Better go and be scorched, and bored to death, and buried at the Mandarins, than attempt to regulate a poor household which, as soon as she made one of its number, would be on the sure road to ruin!
For a moment there came upon her, not a thought, hardly an idea,—something of a waking dream that she would write to Mr. Glascock and withdraw all that she had said. Were she to do so he would probably despise her, and tell her that he despised her;—but there might be a chance. It was possible that such a declaration would bring him back to her;—and did it not bring him back to her she would only be where she was, a poor lost, shipwrecked creature, who had flung herself upon the rocks and thrown away her only chance of a prosperous voyage across the ocean of life; her only chance, for she was not like other girls, who at any rate remain on the scene of action, and may refit their spars and still win their way. For there were to be no more seasons in London, no more living in Curzon Street, no renewed power of entering the ball-rooms and crowded staircases in which high-born wealthy lovers can be conquered. A great prospect had been given to her, and she had flung it aside! That letter of retractation was, however, quite out of the question. The reader must not suppose that she had ever thought that she could write it. She thought of nothing but of coming misery and remorse. In her wretchedness she fancied that she had absolutely disclosed to the man who loved her the name of him whom she had been mad enough to say that she loved. But what did it matter? Let it be as it might, she was destroyed.
The next morning she came down to breakfast pale as a ghost; and they who saw her knew at once that she had done that which had made her a wretched woman.