In the meantime the Rowleys were gone. On the Monday after the departure of Stanbury for Italy, Lady Rowley had begun to look the difficulty about Nora in the face, and to feel that she must do something towards providing the poor girl with a temporary home. Everybody had now agreed that she was to marry Hugh Stanbury as soon as Hugh Stanbury could be ready, and it was not to be thought of that she should be left out in the world as one in disgrace or under a cloud. But what was to be done? Sir Marmaduke was quite incapable of suggesting anything. He would make her an allowance, and leave her a small sum of ready money;—but as to residence, he could only suggest again and again that she should be sent to Mrs. Outhouse. Now Lady Rowley was herself not very fond of Mrs. Outhouse, and she was aware that Nora herself was almost as averse to St. Diddulph's as she was to the Mandarins. Nora already knew that she had the game in her own hands. Once when in her presence her father suggested the near relationship and prudent character and intense respectability of Mrs. Outhouse, Nora, who was sitting behind Sir Marmaduke, shook her head at her mother, and Lady Rowley knew that Nora would not go to St. Diddulph's. This was the last occasion on which that proposition was discussed.
Throughout all the Trevelyan troubles Lady Milborough had continued to shew a friendly anxiety on behalf of Emily Trevelyan. She had called once or twice on Lady Rowley, and Lady Rowley had of course returned the visits. She had been forward in expressing her belief that in truth the wife had been but little if at all to blame, and had won her way with Lady Rowley, though she had never been a favourite with either of Lady Rowley's daughters. Now, in her difficulty, Lady Rowley went to Lady Milborough, and returned with an invitation that Nora should come to Eccleston Square, either till such time as she might think fit to go to Monkhams, or till Mrs. Trevelyan should have returned, and should be desirous of having her sister with her. When Nora first heard of this she almost screamed with surprise, and, if the truth must be told, with disappointment also.
"She never liked me, mamma."
"Then she is so much more good-natured."
"But I don't want to go to her merely because she is good-natured enough to receive a person she dislikes. I know she is very good. I know she would sacrifice herself for anything she thought right. But, mamma, she is such a bore!"
But Lady Rowley would not be talked down, even by Nora, in this fashion. Nora was somewhat touched with an idea that it would be a fine independent thing to live alone, if it were only for a week or two, just because other young ladies never lived alone. Perhaps there was some half-formed notion in her mind that permission to do so was part of the reward due to her for having refused to marry a lord. Stanbury was in some respects a Bohemian, and it would become her, she thought, to have a little practice herself in the Bohemian line. She had, indeed, declined a Bohemian marriage, feeling strongly averse to encounter the loud displeasure of her father and mother;—but as long as everything was quite proper, as long as there should be no running away, or subjection of her name to scandal, she considered that a little independence would be useful and agreeable. She had looked forward to sitting up at night alone by a single tallow candle, to stretching a beefsteak so as to last her for two days' dinners, and perhaps to making her own bed. Now, there would not be the slightest touch of romance in a visit to Lady Milborough's house in Eccleston Square, at the end of July. Lady Rowley, however, was of a different opinion, and spoke her mind plainly. "Nora, my dear, don't be a fool. A young lady like you can't go and live in lodgings by herself. All manner of things would be said. And this is such a very kind offer! You must accept it,—for Hugh's sake. I have already said that you would accept it."
"But she will be going out of town."
"She will stay till you can go to Monkhams,—if Emily is not back before then. She knows all about Emily's affairs; and if she does come back,—which I doubt, poor thing,—Lady Milborough and you will be able to judge whether you should go to her." So it was settled, and Nora's Bohemian Castle in the Air fell into shatters.
The few remaining days before the departure to Southampton passed quickly, but yet sadly. Sir Marmaduke had come to England expecting pleasure,—and with that undefined idea which men so employed always have on their return home that something will turn up which will make their going back to that same banishment unnecessary. What Governor of Hong-Kong, what Minister to Bogota, what General of the Forces at the Gold Coast, ever left the scene of his official or military labours without a hope, which was almost an expectation, that a grateful country would do something better for him before the period of his return should have arrived? But a grateful country was doing nothing better for Sir Marmaduke, and an ungrateful Secretary of State at the Colonial Office would not extend the term during which he could regard himself as absent on special service. How thankful he had been when first the tidings reached him that he was to come home at the expense of the Crown, and without diminution of his official income! He had now been in England for five months, with a per diem allowance, with his very cabs paid for him, and he was discontented, sullen, and with nothing to comfort him but his official grievance, because he could not be allowed to extend his period of special service more than two months beyond the time at which those special services were in truth ended! There had been a change of Ministry in the last month, and he had thought that a Conservative Secretary of State would have been kinder to him. "The Duke says I can stay three months with leave of absence;—and have half my pay stopped. I wonder whether it ever enters into his august mind that even a Colonial Governor must eat and drink." It was thus he expressed his great grievance to his wife. "The Duke," however, had been as inexorable as his predecessor, and Sir Rowley, with his large family, was too wise to remain to the detriment of his pocket. In the meantime the clerks in the office, who had groaned in spirit over the ignorance displayed in his evidence before the committee, were whispering among themselves that he ought not to be sent back to his seat of government at all.
Lady Rowley also was disappointed and unhappy. She had expected so much pleasure from her visit to her daughter, and she had received so little! Emily's condition was very sad, but in her heart of hearts perhaps she groaned more bitterly over all that Nora had lost, than she did over the real sorrows of her elder child. To have had the cup at her lip, and then not to have tasted it! And she had the solace of no communion in this sorrow. She had accepted Hugh Stanbury as her son-in-law, and not for worlds would she now say a word against him to any one. She had already taken him to her heart, and she loved him. But to have had it almost within her grasp to have had a lord, the owner of Monkhams, for her son-in-law! Poor Lady Rowley!
Sophie and Lucy, too, were returning to their distant and dull banishment without any realisation of their probable but unexpressed ambition. They made no complaint, but yet it was hard on them that their sister's misfortune should have prevented them from going,—almost to a single dance. Poor Sophie and poor Lucy! They must go, and we shall hear no more about them. It was thought well that Nora should not go down with them to Southampton. What good would her going do? "God bless you, my darling," said the mother, as she held her child in her arms.
"Good-bye, dear mamma."
"Give my best love to Hugh, and tell him that I pray him with my last word to be good to you." Even then she was thinking of Lord Peterborough, but the memory of what might have been was buried deep in her mind.
"Nora, tell me all about it," said Lucy.
"There will be nothing to tell," said Nora.
"Tell it all the same," said Lucy. "And bring Hugh out to write a book of travels about the Mandarins. Nobody has ever written a book about the Mandarins." So they parted; and when Sir Marmaduke and his party were taken off in two cabs to the Waterloo Station, Nora was taken in one cab to Eccleston Square.
It may be doubted whether any old lady since the world began ever did a more thoroughly Christian and friendly act than this which was now being done by Lady Milborough. It was the end of July, and she would already have been down in Dorsetshire, but for her devotion to this good deed. For, in truth, what she was doing was not occasioned by any express love for Nora Rowley. Nora Rowley was all very well, but Nora Rowley towards her had been flippant, impatient, and, indeed, not always so civil as a young lady should be to the elderly friends of her married sister. But to Lady Milborough it had seemed to be quite terrible that a young girl should be left alone in the world, without anybody to take care of her. Young ladies, according to her views of life, were fragile plants that wanted much nursing before they could be allowed to be planted out in the gardens of the world as married women. When she heard from Lady Rowley that Nora was engaged to marry Hugh Stanbury,—"You know all about Lord Peterborough, Lady Milborough; but it is no use going back to that now,—is it? And Mr. Stanbury has behaved so exceedingly well in regard to poor Louis,"—when Lady Milborough heard this, and heard also that Nora was talking of going to live by herself—in lodgings—she swore to herself, like a goodly Christian woman, as she was, that such a thing must not be. Eccleston Square in July and August is not pleasant, unless it be to an inhabitant who is interested in the fag-end of the parliamentary session. Lady Milborough had no interest in politics,—had not much interest even in seeing the social season out to its dregs. She ordinarily remained in London till the beginning or middle of July, because the people with whom she lived were in the habit of doing so;—but as soon as ever she had fixed the date of her departure, that day to her was a day of release. On this occasion the day had been fixed,—and it was unfixed, and changed, and postponed, because it was manifest to Lady Milborough that she could do good by remaining for another fortnight. When she made the offer she said nothing of her previous arrangements. "Lady Rowley, let her come to me. As soon as her friend Lady Peterborough is at Monkhams, she can go there."
Thus it was that Nora found herself established in Eccleston Square. As she took her place in Lady Milborough's drawing-rooms, she remembered well a certain day, now two years ago, when she had first heard of the glories of Monkhams in that very house. Lady Milborough, as good-natured then as she was now, had brought Mr. Glascock and Nora together, simply because she had heard that the gentleman admired the young lady. Nora, in her pride, had resented this as interference,—had felt that the thing had been done, and, though she had valued the admiration of the man, had ridiculed the action of the woman. As she thought of it now she was softened by gratitude. She had not on that occasion been suited with a husband, but she had gained a friend. "My dear," said Lady Milborough, as at her request Nora took off her hat, "I am afraid that the parties are mostly over,—that is, those I go to; but we will drive out every day, and the time won't be so very long."
"It won't be long for me, Lady Milborough;—but I cannot but know how terribly I am putting you out."
"I am never put out, Miss Rowley," said the old lady, "as long as I am made to think that what I do is taken in good part."
"Indeed, indeed it shall be taken in good part," said Nora,—"indeed it shall." And she swore a solemn silent vow of friendship for the dear old woman.
Then there came letters and telegrams from Chambery, Dijon, and Paris, and the joint expedition in search of the cottage was made to Twickenham. It was astonishing how enthusiastic and how loving the elder and the younger lady were together before the party from Italy had arrived in England. Nora had explained everything about herself,—how impossible it had been for her not to love Hugh Stanbury; how essential it had been for her happiness and self-esteem that she should refuse Mr. Glascock; how terrible had been the tragedy of her sister's marriage. Lady Milborough spoke of the former subject with none of Lady Rowley's enthusiasm, but still with an evident partiality for her own rank, which almost aroused Nora to indignant eloquence. Lady Milborough was contented to acknowledge that Nora might be right, seeing that her heart was so firmly fixed; but she was clearly of opinion that Mr. Glascock, being Mr. Glascock, had possessed a better right to the prize in question than could have belonged to any man who had no recognised position in the world. Seeing that her heart had been given away, Nora was no doubt right not to separate her hand from her heart; but Lady Milborough was of opinion that young ladies ought to have their hearts under better control, so that the men entitled to the prizes should get them. It was for the welfare of England at large that the eldest sons of good families should marry the sweetest, prettiest, brightest, and most lovable girls of their age. It is a doctrine on behalf of which very much may be said.
On that other matter, touching Emily Trevelyan, Lady Milborough frankly owned that she had seen early in the day that he was the one most in fault. "I must say, my dear," she said, "that I very greatly dislike your friend, Colonel Osborne."
"I am sure that he meant not the slightest harm,—no more than she did."
"He was old enough, and ought to have known better. And when the first hint of an uneasiness in the mind of Louis was suggested to him, his feelings as a gentleman should have prompted him to remove himself. Let the suspicion have been ever so absurd, he should have removed himself. Instead of that, he went after her,—into Devonshire."
"He went to see other friends, Lady Milborough."
"I hope it may have been so;—I hope it may have been so. But he should have cut off his hand before he rang at the door of the house in which she was living. You will understand, my dear, that I acquit your sister altogether. I did so all through, and said the same to poor Louis when he came to me. But Colonel Osborne should have known better. Why did he write to her? Why did he go to St. Diddulph's? Why did he let it be thought that,—that she was especially his friend. Oh dear; oh dear; oh dear! I am afraid he is a very bad man."
"We had known him so long, Lady Milborough."
"I wish you had never known him at all. Poor Louis! If he had only done what I told him at first, all might have been well. 'Go to Naples, with your wife,' I said. 'Go to Naples.' If he had gone to Naples, there would have been no journeys to Siena, no living at Casalunga, no separation. But he didn't seem to see it in the same light. Poor dear Louis. I wish he had gone to Naples when I told him."
While they were going backwards and forwards, looking at the cottage at Twickenham and trying to make things comfortable there for the sick man, Lady Milborough hinted to Nora that it might be distasteful to Trevelyan, in his present condition, to have even a sister-in-law staying in the house with him. There was a little chamber which Nora had appropriated to herself, and at first it seemed to be taken for granted that she should remain there at least till the 10th of August, on which day Lady Peterborough had signified that she and her husband would be ready to receive their visitor. But Lady Milborough slept on the suggestion, and on the next morning hinted her disapprobation. "You shall take them down in the carriage, and their luggage can follow in a cab;—but the carriage can bring you back. You will see how things are then."
"Dear Lady Milborough, you would go out of town at once if I left you."
"And I shall not go out of town if you don't leave me. What difference does it make to an old woman like me? I have got no lover coming to look for me, and all I have to do is to tell my daughter-in-law that I shall not be there for another week or so. Augusta is very glad to have me, but she is the wisest woman in the world, and can get on very well without me."
"And as I am the silliest, I cannot."
"You shall put it in that way if you like it, my dear. Girls in your position often do want assistance. I dare say you think me very straight-laced, but I am quite sure Mr. Stanbury will be grateful to me. As you are to be married from Monkhams, it will be quite well that you should pass thither through my house as an intermediate resting-place, after leaving your father and mother." By all which Lady Milborough intended to express an opinion that the value of the article which Hugh Stanbury would receive at the altar would be enhanced by the distinguished purity of the hands through which it had passed before it came into his possession;—in which opinion she was probably right as regarded the price put upon the article by the world at large, though it may perhaps be doubted whether the recipient himself would be of the same opinion.
"I hope you know that I am grateful, whatever he may be," said Nora, after a pause.
"I think that you take it as it is meant, and that makes me quite comfortable."
"Lady Milborough, I shall love you for ever and ever. I don't think I ever knew anybody so good as you are,—or so nice."
"Then I shall be more than comfortable," said Lady Milborough. After that there was an embrace, and the thing was settled.