Chapter XI.

Love’s Young Dream

Of the rising men of the day, Edward Preston, barrister-at-law, took a foremost place. He had been wonderfully successful in two or three difficult cases, had made an exceedingly clever speech, and had been highly complimented by the judge. In the opinion of most men well able to judge, a seat on the bench, if not the woolsack, was in store for him. He was a good-looking fellow, tall, and well-formed, with a quick, keen intellect, and a sound judgment. Though turned thirty, he was still a bachelor, a fact which secretly excited some little surprise among the ladies of his acquaintance. But naturally of a studious nature, he had applied himself to his profession with the ardour of a devotee, and it really never occurred to him to get married. When, therefore, he met Florence Dorrington, and discovered she was not like most young ladies, that the more he saw of her the greater pleasure he felt in her society, and that somehow he felt less interest in law than he did formerly, it slowly dawned upon him he was in love. He was not a man to hesitate after he had made up his mind, and accordingly, having settled the preliminary stage as to his feelings towards the young lady, he at once resolved to enter upon the next step, which was nothing less than to make a proposal. When a man has come to this conclusion it is, perhaps, natural he should feel some nervousness about the way of proceeding, especially if he has not gone very far in the process of love-making. He had seen Miss Dorrington ten or twelve times; had been introduced to old Lady Dorrington, a stately dowager, poor and proud; and on the whole had been received favourably, but this was all. To be on friendly terms with a lady is a very different matter from asking her to be your wife, and hence Mr. Preston felt some diffidence as to how his proposition might be met. However, as we have said, he had made up his mind; and on this particular morning when he is introduced to the reader, he had risen with the full determination to bring matters to a crisis. He was much exercised in his mind as to the set of his shirt collar, and the colour of his necktie, for turn-down collars and scarfs were then unknown luxuries; and somewhat agonised at a wrinkle in his coat, and was fidgetty over his boots. At last all was arranged to his satisfaction, and, screwing up his courage, he set off somewhat in the frame of mind of a soldier who is about to enter a battle, and is uncertain whether he will come off victorious. “Well,” said he philosophically, as he turned out of the Temple, “nothing venture nothing win. If she refuses me, why, there’s an end to the matter.” But, despite his philosophy, he was much more concerned at the result of his enterprise than he cared to own, and if the truth be told he at times felt as if a failure would be a blow he should not get over very soon.

Lady Dorrington lived in the eminently aristocratic, slightly rural locality of Kensington, and had just enough means to enable her to keep an expensive house by economical expenditure in other directions. In early youth she had been a great beauty, and among those who had sought her hand was Viscount Morleigh, afterwards Earl Annesley. A thorough coquette, she had first led him on, and afterwards heartlessly jilted him. He never forgave her, and when she married Sir John Dorrington, a rich but spendthrift baronet, he felt a malignant satisfaction in knowing that her husband would soon run through her fortune and his own. This indeed happened. What with gambling and racing (a large portion of his losings, by the way, coming into the hands of the Earl of Annesley, who left no stone unturned to encourage him in his waste), he found himself, after a lapse of a few years, a comparatively poor man. Catching a severe cold after a night of dissipation, he went into a consumption and died, leaving his widow with one child, who subsequently ripened into a young lady, who, as we have seen, enchained the heart of Edward Preston. The enmity existing between Lady Dorrington and the Earl had increased rather than lessened in intensity as they grew older. She knew well enough how her discarded lover had led her husband on to gamble and bet, and she also knew his motive for so doing. Hence, when her daughter came home one evening from a ball, and said she had been introduced to Viscount Morleigh, her mother angrily bade her never to mention his name to her again.

Calling a hansom, Edward bade the man drive to Kensington, and, having arrived at his destination, walked up the carriage drive in front of the house with just, it must be confessed, the least atom of trepidation.

“Is Miss Dorrington within?” he inquired of the servant.

“No, sir, but my lady is.”

This was not what he exactly wanted. It seemed as if it took off the romance to declare his love in cold blood, as it were, to Lady Dorrington before he was sure of her daughter’s feelings towards him, and in all probability he would have retreated had not the lady (the old, not the young one) suddenly entered the hall and caught sight of him before he had time to retire. Of course, he entered, and in some confusion greeted the dowager, who received him with a stately grace, in which perhaps there was the least tinge of condescension. He followed her into the drawing-room, and for some minutes they chatted on various topics of the day. Preston, however, was ill at east, and the conversation was, to say the truth, a little disconnected. At last, with the air of a man who was about to plunge into an abyss, he said​—​

“My dear Lady Dorrington, probably you may not guess what has really brought me here to-day,” and then he awkwardly stopped.

Lady Dorrington raised her eye-glass to her eye, and looked at the young man interrogatively, but said nothing. It was not her custom to help people when they were in difficulties.

Preston coughed, and went on again. Never had he felt the difficulty in addressing a jury which he felt now.

“The truth is​—​and, my dear Lady Dorrington, I wish to be perfectly open and straightforward with you​—​I came here with the intention of asking your daughter to be my wife. Forgive me if I am rather abrupt in my utterance, but I have ever through life tried to go straight to the point, and I do not know why I should not do so now.”

It cannot be said that the young man’s declaration did not take Lady Dorrington by surprise. She again stared at him through her glass, and, with an air of solemn grandeur, replied​—​

“Really, the suddenness of your proposal, Mr. Preston, scarcely allows me to give you a reply. My daughter’s marriage is not a thing to be lightly settled in a quarter-of-an-hour’s conversation.”

“Of course not,” the young man returned hastily. “I should be the last one to do so. Pray, take time. I may also tell you that I have not mentioned the subject to Miss Dorrington, as I thought I would consult you first.”

“Exceedingly proper,” thought the dowager. “Really, the young man seems to be well-intentioned. He is of good family, and will rise, they say. I don’t know, I’m sure, what to do. I wonder what Florence thinks about the matter? She must, I suppose, have given him some encouragement, or he would not have spoken so confidently.”

While Lady Dorrington thus reflected Edward Preston sat in a state of great anxiety. Why did she not speak and end the matter one way or the other. He was naturally impetuous, and though the verdict might go against him he would sooner hear it than be kept in suspense.

“Well, Mr. Preston,” she returned, after a long pause, “I cannot, of course, control my daughter’s feelings in such an important matter; but I may tell you, as far as I am concerned, you have my consent.”

“A thousand thanks, my dear Lady Dorrington,” he exclaimed joyfully. “You have made me very happy now that I can go confidently to Miss Dorrington and say what I have said to you.”

In the exuberance of his spirits he kissed the lady’s hand, and, snatching up his hat, bade her adieu.

Left alone Lady Dorrington thought seriously over the announcement just made to her, and the more she thought the more she was inclined to the opinion that the match was one to be encouraged. She would have liked a title as well as wealth; but, forced to make a choice between the two, she would certainly have chosen the latter. Preston, however, was cousin to an earl, so that there was a prospect of a combination of the two.

In about an hour her daughter came in. She was a tall, graceful girl, not what one would at first sight term pretty, but with an expressive face which strangely gained upon you the more you knew her.

“Who do you think has called, Florence?” said Lady Dorrington with a smile, as they sat together at luncheon.

“How can I possibly tell, mamma?”

“I thought you might guess,” replied the older lady, significantly. “Some one who inquired very particularly after you​—​Mr. Preston.”

“Very kind of him, I am sure,” returned Florence carelessly.

She spoke in an indifferent tone, and her mother was much puzzled to tell whether her indifference was real or assumed.

“Yes; and can you imagine what his errand was?”

“No, that I cannot, unless it was to bring me some dreadful heavy book. I don’t believe the man ever read anything of a more frivolous nature than Blackstone,” and the young lady laughed a merry laugh.

Lady Dorrington looked serious. This was not exactly the reply she expected. Evidently, whatever the young man might have fancied, Florence did not seem very desperately in love. But then the feminine nature in matters of this kind is so self-deceptive. No, there was nothing to be deduced from this tone of indifference, and again Lady Dorrington went on​—​

“I don’t know how far you have encouraged him, but he is deeply in love with you, my dear.”

Florence opened her eyes wide, and a blush suffused her cheek.

“With me, mamma? What nonsense! Why, I have never encouraged him in the least. Indeed, to tell you the truth, I have always thought him just the least bit of a bore.”

“Well, he seems to be fascinated, and what is more, he has asked my consent.”

“Mamma!” exclaimed the young lady half pained and half offended, “he must really be mad. I have never thought of him excepting as a mere acquaintance. Of course you said no?”

“On the contrary,” replied her mother calmly, “I said yes. He is very well off, apart from his profession; he is a gentleman and well connected. You know, if his cousin, Lord Pounceford, dies, the title and estate come to him.”

“But I do not care for him; and besides, if he really had the intention of marrying he surely might have spoken to me first. It is exceedingly disagreeable receiving a proposal through a third person,” and this time Flora’s tone was decidedly one of anger.

“Really, Florence, I think you might be more respectful. I am not quite accustomed to be called a ‘third person,’” returned the dowager in some stateliness.

“I beg your pardon; but the idea of Mr. Preston wanting to marry me and setting about it so sharply is so irritating, I hope you will write at once and put everything straight. He must never come here again.”

“My dear Florence, I do not understand your objection to Mr. Preston. Besides, I have given him my word. I can hardly go back.”

“But, mamma, he does not want to marry you. As I was not asked, I do not see that what you may have said is at all binding. I don’t want to give you pain, or go against your wishes, but I cannot marry Mr. Preston; and if you do not write I must. It would be very wrong to let him go on under a false impression.”

“I don’t think he will give you up as easily as you imagine. He has my consent entirely, and I think you ought to pay some little attention to my opinion. You know very well that when I die my income dies too, and it is such a great thing for a girl to marry well. You will seriously annoy me if you reject him.”

Lady Dorrington spoke in a voice of displeasure, and Florence knew she meant what she said. “Oh,” she thought, “why was I not at home when Mr. Preston called? A word from me would have saved all this, and now I shall never have any peace.” But it was no use temporising, and indeed, Florence had too much of her mother’s temper in her to think of doing so. She rose from her seat, and, with a look of trouble on her brow, said​—​

“Well, mamma, I assume, from what you have said, that you do not intend to undeceive Mr. Preston. It is, as you must know, a painful and embarrassing thing for me to do, but I cannot help it. I shall certainly write to him this afternoon.” And so saying, she swept out of the room.

The next morning Edward Preston sat at his breakfast table a disappointed and dismal man. By his empty plate​—​for he could eat nothing​—​lay an open letter in a lady’s handwriting, and the deathblow to all his hopes for the hand of Florence Dorrington.