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the colour came to Lucy's face, and that her hand trembled when she took the note from Fanny in the drawing-room. Everything in the world to her might depend on what that note contained; and yet she did not open it at once, but stood with it in her hand, and when Fanny pressed her on the subject, still endeavoured to bring back the conversation to the subject of Mrs Crawley. But yet her mind was intent on that letter, and she had already augured ill from the handwriting and even from the words of the address. Had Lady Lufton intended to be propitious, she would have directed her letter to Miss Robarts, without the Christian name; so at least argued Lucy--quite unconsciously, as one does argue in such matters. One forms half the conclusions of one's life without any distinct knowledge that the premises have even passed through one's mind. They were now alone together, as Mark was out. 'Won't you open the letter?' said Mrs Robarts.
'Yes, immediately; but, Fanny, I must speak to you about Mrs Crawley first. I must go back there this evening, and stay there; I have promised to do so, and shall certainly keep my promise. I have promised also that the children shall be taken away, and we must arrange about that. It is dreadful, the state she is in. There is no one to see to her but Mr Crawley, and the children are together left by themselves.'
'Do you mean that you are going back there to stay?'
'Yes, certainly; I have made a distinct promise that I would do so. And about the children; could not you manage for the children, Fanny--not perhaps in the house; at least not at first, perhaps?' And yet during all the time that she was thus speaking and pleading for the Crawleys, she was endeavouring to imagine what might be the contents of that letter which she had between her fingers.
'And is she so very ill?' asked Mrs Robarts.
'I cannot say how ill she may be, except this, that she certainly has typhus fever. They had some doctor or doctor's assistant from Silverbridge; but it seems to me that they are greatly in want of better advice.'
'But, Lucy, will you not read your letter? It is astonishing to me that you should be so indifferent about it.' Lucy was anything but indifferent, and now did proceed to tear the envelope. The note was very short, and ran in these words--
"MY DEAR MISS ROBARTS, "I am particularly anxious to see you, and shall feel much obliged to you if you can step over to me here, at Framley Court. I must apologize for taking this liberty with you, but you will probably feel that an interview here would suit us both better than at the parsonage. "Truly yours "M. LUFTON"
'There; I am in for it now,' said Lucy, handing the note over to Mrs Robarts. 'I shall have to be talked to as never poor girl was talked to before: and when one thinks of what I have done, it is hard.'
'Yes; and of what you have not done.'
'Exactly; and of what I have not done. But I suppose I must go,' and she proceeded to re-tie the strings of her bonnet, which she had loosened.
'Do you mean that you are going over at once?'
'Yes; immediately. Why not? it will be better to have it over, and then I can go to the Crawleys. But, Fanny, the pity of it is that I know it all as well as though it had been already spoken; and what good can there be in my having to endure it? Can't you fancy the tone in which she will explain it to me, the conventional inconveniences which arose when King Cophetua would marry the beggar's daughter? how she will explain what Griselda went through;--not the archdeacon's daughter, but the other Griselda?'
'But it came right with her.'
'Yes; but then I am not Griselda, and she will explain how it would certainly all go wrong with me. But what's the good when I know it all beforehand? Have I not desired King Cophetua to take himself and sceptre elsewhere?' And then she started, having first said another word or two about the Crawley children, and obtained a promise of Puck and the pony-carriage for the afternoon. It was almost agreed that Puck on his return to Framley should bring back the four children with him; but on this subject it was necessary that Mark should be consulted. The present scheme was to prepare for them a room outside the house, once the dairy, at present occupied by the groom and his wife; and to bring them into the house as soon as it was manifest that there was no danger from infection. But all this was to be matter for deliberation. Fanny wanted her to send over a note, in reply to Lady Lufton's, as harbinger of her coming; but Lucy marched off, hardly answering this proposition.
'What's the use of such a deal of ceremony?' she said. 'I know she's at home; and if she is not, I shall only lose ten minutes in going.' And so she went, and on reaching the door at Framley Court house found that her ladyship was at home. Her heart almost came to her mouth as she was told so, and then, in two minutes' time, she found herself in the little room upstairs. In that little room we found ourselves once before--but Lucy had never before visited that hallowed precinct. There was something in its air calculated to inspire awe in those who first saw Lady Lufton sitting bolt upright in the cane-bottomed arm-chair, which she always occupied when at work at her books and papers; and this she knew when she determined to receive Lucy in that apartment. But there was another arm-chair, an easy, cosy chair, which stood by the fireside; and for those who had caught Lady Lufton napping in that chair of an afternoon, some of this awe had perhaps been dissipated. 'Miss Robarts,' she said, not rising from her chair, but holding out her hand to her visitor, 'I am much obliged to you for having come over to me here. You, no doubt, are aware of the subject on which I wish to speak to you, and will agree with me that it is better that we should meet here than over at the parsonage.' In answer to which Lucy merely bowed her head, and took her seat on the chair which had been prepared for her. 'My son,' continued her ladyship, 'has spoken to me on the subject of--I think I understand, Miss Robarts, that there has been no engagement between you and him?'
'None whatever,' said Lucy. 'He made me an offer and I refused him.' This she said very sharply;--more so undoubtedly than the circumstances required; and with a brusqueness that was injudicious as well as uncourteous. But at the moment, she was thinking of her own position with reference to Lady Lufton--not to Lord Lufton; and of her feelings with reference to the lady--not to the gentleman.
'Oh,' said Lady Lufton, a little startled by the manner of the communication. 'Then I am to understand that there is nothing now going on between you and my son; that the whole affair is over?'
'That depends entirely upon you.'
'On me; does it?'
'I do not know what your son may have told you, Lady Lufton. For myself I do not care to have any secrets from you in this matter; and as he has spoken to you about it, I suppose that such is his wish also. Am I right in presuming that he has spoken to you on the subject?'
'Yes, he has; and it is for that reason that I have taken the liberty of sending for you.'
'And may I ask what he has told you? I mean, of course, as regards myself,' said Lucy. Lady Lufton before she answered this question, began to reflect that the young lady was taking too much of the initiative in this conversation, and was, in fact, playing the game in her own fashion, which was not at all in accordance with those motives which had induced Lady Lufton to send for her. 'He has told me that he has made you an offer of marriage,' replied Lady Lufton: 'a matter which, of course, is very serious to me, as his mother; and I have thought, therefore, that I had better see you, and appeal to your own good sense and judgement and high feelings. Of course you are aware--'
Now was coming the lecture to be illustrated by King Cophetua and Griselda, as Lucy had suggested to Mrs Robarts; but she succeeded in stopping it for awhile. 'And did Lord Lufton tell you what was my answer?'
'Not in words. But you yourself now say that you refused him; and I must express my admiration for your good--'
'Wait half a moment, Lady Lufton. Your son did make me an offer. He made it to me in person, up at the parsonage, and I then refused him;--foolishly, as I now believe, for I dearly love him. But I did so from a mixture of feelings which I need not, perhaps, explain; that most prominent, no doubt, was a fear of your displeasure. And then he came again, not to me, but to my brother, and urged his suit to him. Nothing can have been kinder to me, more noble, more loving, more generous, than his conduct. At first I thought, when he was speaking to myself, that he was led on thoughtlessly to say all that he did say. I did not trust his love, though I saw that he did trust it himself. But I could not but trust it when he came again--to my brother, and made his proposal to him. I don't know whether you will understand me, Lady Lufton; but a girl placed as I am feels ten times more assurance in such a tender of affection as that, than in one made to herself, at the spur of the moment, perhaps. And then you remember that I--I myself--I loved him from the first. I was foolish enough to think that I could know him and not love him.'
'I saw what was going on,' said Lady Lufton, with a certain assumption of wisdom about her; 'and took steps which I hoped would have put a stop to it in time.'
'Everybody saw it. It was a matter of course,' said Lucy, destroying her ladyship's wisdom at a blow. 'Well; I did learn to love him, not meaning to do so; and I do love him with all my heart. It is no use my striving to think that I do not; and I could stand with him at the altar to-morrow and give him my hand, feeling that I was doing my duty by him, as a woman should do. And now he has told you of his love, and I believe in that as I do in my own--' And then for a moment she paused.
'But, my dear Miss Robarts--' began Lady Lufton. Lucy, however, had not worked herself up into a condition of power, and would not
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