My uncle, after all, was not ill that day, after the strange fashion of his malady, be it what it might. Old Wyat repeated in her sour laconic way that there was 'nothing to speak of amiss with him.' But there remained with me a sense of pain and fear. Doctor Bryerly, notwithstanding my uncle's sarcastic reflections, remained, in my estimation, a true and wise friend. I had all my life been accustomed to rely upon others, and here, haunted by many unavowed and ill-defined alarms and doubts, the disappearance of an active and able friend caused my heart to sink.
Still there remained my dear Cousin Monica, and my pleasant and trusted friend, Lord Ilbury; and in less than a week arrived an invitation from Lady Mary to the Grange, for me and Milly, to meet Lady Knollys. It was accompanied, she told me, by a note from Lord Ilbury to my uncle, supporting her request; and in the afternoon I received a message to attend my uncle in his room.
'An invitation from Lady Mary Carysbroke for you and Milly to meet Monica Knollys; have you received it?' asked my uncle, so soon as I was seated. Answered in the affirmative, he continued—
'Now, Maud Ruthyn, I expect the truth from you; I have been frank, so shall you. Have you ever heard me spoken ill of by Lady Knollys?'
I was quite taken aback.
I felt my cheeks flushing. I was returning his fierce cold gaze with a stupid stare, and remained dumb.
'Yes, Maud, you have.'
I looked down in silence.
'I know it; but it is right you should answer; have you or have you not?'
I had to clear my voice twice or thrice. There was a kind of spasm in my throat.
'I am trying to recollect,' I said at last.
'Do recollect,' he replied imperiously.
There was a little interval of silence. I would have given the world to be, on any conditions, anywhere else in the world.
'Surely, Maud, you don't wish to deceive your guardian? Come, the question is a plain one, and I know the truth already. I ask you again—have you ever heard me spoken ill of by Lady Knollys?'
'Lady Knollys,' I said, half articulately,' speaks very freely, and often half in jest; but,' I continued, observing something menacing in his face, 'I have heard her express disapprobation of some things you have done.'
'Come, Maud,' he continued, in a stern, though still a low key, 'did she not insinuate that charge—then, I suppose, in a state of incubation, the other day presented here full-fledged, with beak and claws, by that scheming apothecary—the statement that I was defrauding you by cutting down timber upon the grounds?'
'She certainly did mention the circumstance; but she also argued that it might have been through ignorance of the extent of your rights.'
'Come, come, Maud, you must not prevaricate, girl. I will have it. Does she not habitually speak disparagingly of me, in your presence, and to you? Answer.'
I hung my head.
'Yes or no?'
'Well, perhaps so—yes,' I faltered, and burst into tears.
'There, don't cry; it may well shock you. Did she not, to your knowledge, say the same things in presence of my child Millicent? I know it, I repeat—there is no use in hesitating; and I command you to answer.'
Sobbing, I told the truth.
'Now sit still, while I write my reply.'
He wrote, with the scowl and smile so painful to witness, as he looked down upon the paper, and then he placed the note before me—
'Read that, my dear.'
'MY DEAR LADY KNOLLYS.—You have favoured me with a note, adding your request to that of Lord Ilbury, that I should permit my ward and my daughter to avail themselves of Lady Mary's invitation. Being perfectly cognisant of the ill-feeling you have always and unaccountably cherished toward me, and also of the terms in which you have had the delicacy and the conscience to speak of me before and to my child and my ward, I can only express my amazement at the modesty of your request, while peremptorily refusing it. And I shall conscientiously adopt effectual measures to prevent your ever again having an opportunity of endeavouring to destroy my influence and authority over my ward and my child, by direct or insinuated slander.
'Your defamed and injured kinsman,
SILAS RUTHYN.' I was stunned; yet what could I plead against the blow that was to isolate me? I wept aloud, with my hands clasped, looking on the marble face of the old man. Without seeming to hear, he folded and sealed his note, and then proceeded to answer Lord Ilbury. When that note was written, he placed it likewise before me, and I read it also through. It simply referred him to Lady Knollys 'for an explanation of the unhappy circumstances which compelled him to decline an invitation which it would have made his niece and his daughter so happy to accept.' 'You see, my dear Maud, how frank I am with you,' he said, waving the open note, which I had just read, slightly before he folded it. 'I think I may ask you to reciprocate my candour.' Dismissed from this interview, I ran to Milly, who burst into tears from sheer disappointment, so we wept and wailed together. But in my grief I think there was more reason. I sat down to the dismal task of writing to my dear Lady Knollys. I implored her to make her peace with my uncle. I told her how frank he had been with me, and how he had shown me his sad reply to her letter. I told her of the interview to which he had himself invited me with Dr. Bryerly; how little disturbed he was by the accusation—no sign of guilt; quite the contrary, perfect confidence. I implored of her to think the best, and remembering my isolation, to accomplish a reconciliation with Uncle Silas. 'Only think,' I wrote, 'I only nineteen, and two years of solitude before me. What a separation!' No broken merchant ever signed the schedule of his bankruptcy with a heavier heart than did I this letter. The griefs of youth are like the wounds of the gods—there is an ichor which heals the scars from which it flows: and thus Milly and I consoled ourselves, and next day enjoyed our ramble, our talk and readings, with a wonderful resignation to the inevitable. Milly and I stood in the relation of Lord Duberly to Doctor Pangloss. I was to mend her 'cackleology,' and the occupation amused us both. I think at the bottom of our submission to destiny lurked a hope that Uncle Silas, the inexorable, would relent, or that Cousin Monica, that siren, would win and melt him to her purpose. Whatever comfort, however, I derived from the absence of Dudley was not to be of very long duration; for one morning, as I was amusing myself alone, with a piece of worsted work, thinking, and just at that moment not unpleasantly, of many things, my cousin Dudley entered the room. 'Back again, like a bad halfpenny, ye see. And how a' ye bin ever since, lass? Purely, I warrant, be your looks. I'm jolly glad to see ye, I am; no cattle going like ye, Maud.' 'I think I must ask you to let go my hand, as I can't continue my work,' I said, very stiffly, hoping to chill his enthusiasm a little. 'Anything to pleasure ye, Maud, 'tain't in my heart to refuse ye nout. I a'bin to Wolverhampton, lass—jolly row there—and run over to Leamington; a'most broke my neck, faith, wi' a borrowed horse arter the dogs; ye would na care, Maud, if I broke my neck, would ye? Well, 'appen, jest a little,' he good-naturedly supplied, as I was silent. 'Little over a week since I left here, by George; and to me it's half the almanac like; can ye guess the reason, Maud?' 'Have you seen your sister, Milly, or your father, since your return?' I asked coldly. 'They'll keep, Maud, never mind 'em; it be you I want to see—it be you I wor thinkin' on a' the time. I tell ye, lass, I'm all'ays a thinkin' on ye.' 'I think you ought to go and see your father; you have been away, you say, some time. I don't think it is respectful,' I said, a little sharply. 'If ye bid me go I'd a'most go, but I could na quite; there's nout on earth I would na do for you, Maud, excep' leaving you.' 'And that,' I said, with a petulant flush, 'is the only thing on earth I would ask you to do.' 'Blessed if you baint a blushin', Maud,' he drawled, with an odious grin. His stupidity was proof against everything. 'It is too bad!' I muttered, with an indignant little pat of my foot and mimic stamp. 'Well, you lasses be queer cattle; ye're angry wi' me now, cos ye think I got into mischief—ye do, Maud; ye know't, ye buxsom little fool, down there at Wolverhampton; and jest for that ye're ready to turn me off again the minute I come back; 'tisn't fair.' 'I don't understand you, sir; and I beg that you'll leave me.' 'Now, didn't I tell ye about leavin' ye, Maud? 'tis the only thing I can't compass for yer sake. I'm jest a child in yere hands, I am, ye know. I can lick a big fellah to pot as limp as a rag, by George!'—(his oaths were not really so mild)—'ye see summat o' that t'other day. Well, don't be vexed, Maud; 'twas all along o' you; ye know, I wor a bit jealous, 'appen; but anyhow I can do it; and look at me here, jest a child, I say, in yer hands.' 'I wish you'd go away. Have you nothing to do, and no one to see? Why can't you leave me alone, sir?' Cos I can't, Maud, that's jest why; and I wonder, Maud, how can you be so ill-natured, when you see me like this; how can ye?' 'I wish Milly would come,' said I peevishly, looking toward the door. 'Well, I'll tell you how it is, Maud. I may as well have it out. I like you better than any lass that ever I saw, a deal; you're nicer by chalks; there's none like ye—there isn't; and I wish you'd have me. I ha'n't much tin—father's run through a deal, he's pretty well up a tree, ye know; but though I baint so rich as some folk, I'm a better man, 'appen; and if ye'd take a tidy lad, that likes ye awful, and 'id die for your sake, why here he is.' 'What can you mean, sir?' I exclaimed, rising in indignant bewilderment. 'I mean, Maud, if ye'll marry me, you'll never ha' cause to complain; I'll never let ye want for nout, nor gi'e ye a wry word.' 'Actually a proposal!' I ejaculated, like a person speaking in a dream. I stood with my hand on the back of a chair, staring at Dudley; and looking, I dare say, as stupefied as I felt. 'There's a good lass, ye would na deny me,' said the odious creature, with one knee on the seat of the chair behind which I was standing, and attempting to place his arm lovingly round my neck. This effectually roused me, and starting back, I stamped upon the ground with actual fury. 'What has there ever been, sir, in my conduct, words, or looks, to warrant this unparalleled audacity? But that you are as stupid as you are impertinent, brutal, and ugly, you must, long ago, sir, have seen how I dislike you. How dare you, sir? Don't presume to obstruct me; I'm going to my uncle.' I had never spoken so violently to mortal before. He in turn looked a little confounded; and I passed his extended but motionless arm with a quick and angry step. He followed me a pace or two, however, before I reached the door, looking horridly angry, but stopped, and only swore after me some of those 'wry words' which I was never to have heard. I was myself, however, too much incensed, and moving at too rapid a pace, to catch their import; and I had knocked at my uncle's door before I began to collect my thoughts. 'Come in,' replied my uncle's voice, clear, thin, and peevish. I entered and confronted him. 'Your son, sir, has insulted me.' He looked at me with a cold curiosity steadly for a few seconds, as I stood panting before him with flaming cheeks. 'Insulted you?' repeated he. 'Egad, you surprise me!' The ejaculation savoured of 'the old man,' to borrow his scriptural phrase, more than anything I had heard from him before. How? he continued; 'how has Dudley insulted you, my dear child? Come, you're excited; sit down; take time, and tell me all about it. I did not know that Dudley was here.' 'I—he—it is an insult. He knew very well—he must know I dislike him; and he presumed to make a proposal of marriage to me.' 'O—o—oh!' exclaimed my uncle, with a prolonged intonation which plainly said, Is that the mighty matter? He looked at me as he leaned back with the same steady curiosity, this time smiling, which somehow frightened me, and his countenance looked to me wicked, like the face of a witch, with a guilt I could not understand. 'And that is the amount of your complaint. He made you a formal proposal of marriage!' 'Yes; he proposed for me.' As I cooled, I began to feel just a very little disconcerted, and a suspicion was troubling me that possibly an indifferent person might think that, having no more to complain of, my language was perhaps a little exaggerated, and my demeanour a little too tempestuous. My uncle, I dare say, saw some symptoms of this misgiving, for, smiling still, he said— 'My dear Maud, however just, you appear to me a little cruel; you don't seem to remember how much you are yourself to blame; you have one faithful friend at least, whom I advise your consulting—I mean your looking-glass. The foolish fellow is young, quite ignorant in the world's ways. He is in love—desperately enamoured.
And suffering prompts to desperate remedies. We must not be too hard on a rough but romantic young fool, who talks according to his folly and his pain.'