They had come to the conclusion that my position was a somewhat awkward one, and that it would not do for me to go on living at the White Cottage. They wanted me to give up my work at Heathfield until after my marriage; and at last Aunt Philippa conceived the brilliant idea of taking a house at Brighton for the winter.
'You have never liked Hyde Park Gate, Ursula,' she said, very kindly; 'and we shall all be glad to escape London fogs this year: your uncle will not mind the expense, and I think the plan will suit admirably.
Heathfield is only twenty minutes from Brighton, and Mr. Hamilton will be able to visit you far more comfortably, and you can sleep a night or two at Sara's when you want to go up to London to get your _trousseau_.'
I thanked Aunt Philippa warmly for her kind thought, and then I wrote to Giles, and asked his opinion. I found that he entirely agreed with Aunt Philippa.
'I think it an excellent plan, dear,' he wrote; 'and you must thank your good aunt for her consideration for us both. I shall see you far oftener at Brighton than at the White Cottage. Miss Prudence will be less active there: I shall be allowed to enjoy a reasonable conversation without the speech--"Oh, do please go away now, Giles; you have been here nearly an hour"--that invariably closed our cottage interviews.' I could see Giles was really pleased with Aunt Philippa's proposition, so I promised to go back to Heathfield and settle my affairs, and join them directly the house in Brunswick Place was ready; and by the middle of October we were all settled comfortably for the winter.
I found Giles was right. I saw him oftener, and there was less restraint on our intercourse. He would come over to luncheon whenever he had a leisure day, and take me for a walk, or drop in to dinner and take the last train back. Gladys and Lady Betty came over perpetually. I used to help them with their shopping, and often go back with them for a few hours. Max was also a frequent visitor, and Mr. Tudor. Aunt Philippa kept open house, and made all my visitors welcome. I think she was a little sorry that Mr. Tudor came so perseveringly: but she was true to her principles to let things take their course and not to fan the flame by opposition. She was always kind to the young man, and though she generally contrived to keep Jill beside her when he dropped in for afternoon tea or encountered them on the parade, she did it so quietly that no one noticed any significance in the action.
But I think Aunt Philippa's maternal fears would have been up in arms if she had overheard a conversation between Jill and myself one wintry afternoon.
Aunt Philippa had gone up to town to see Sara, who was a little ailing, and she and Uncle Brian were to return later. Gladys and Giles were to dine with us, and Max would probably join them. Aunt Philippa was very fond of these impromptu entertainments, but she had not extended the invitation to Mr. Tudor, who had called the previous day, and I had got it into my head that Jill was a little disappointed.
She sat rather soberly by the fire that afternoon; but when Miss Gillespie left us she took her usual seat on the rug, and her black locks bobbed into my lap as usual, but I thought the firelight played on a very serious face.
'What makes you so silent this afternoon, Jill?' I asked, rather curiously; but she did not answer for a moment, only drew down my hand, and looked at the diamonds that were flashing in the ruddy blaze,--Giles's pledge that he had placed there; then she laid her cheek against them, and said suddenly--
'I was only thinking, Ursie dear: I often think about things. Do you remember that evening at Hyde Park Gate when the lamp fell on me, and I might have been burnt to death?'
'Oh yes, Jill,' with a shudder, for I never cared to recall that scene.
'Well, I was thinking,' still dreamily. Then, with a change of manner that startled me, 'Ursie, if a person saves another person's life, don't you think that life ought to belong to them?--that is, if they wish it?'
with a sudden blush that rather alarmed me.
'Stop, my dear,' I returned coolly. 'This is very vague. I do not think I quite understand. A person and another person, and them, too: it is terribly involved. Which is which? As the children say.'
Jill gave a nervous little laugh, but her eyes gave me no doubt of her meaning: they looked strangely dark and soft.
'Mr. Tudor saved my life,' she whispered. 'Ursie, if he wants it, that life ought to belong to him.'
'Jill, my dear,' for I was thoroughly startled now. Things were growing serious; but Jill gave me a little push in her childish way.
'Ursie, don't pretend to look so surprised: you knew all about it: I saw it in your face. Don't you remember what he said that night, that he did not know what would become of him if I died, that he could not bear it?
Did you see how he looked when he said it?'
I remained silent, for I could not deny that Mr. Tudor had betrayed himself at that moment; but she went on very quietly, 'Ursie dear, I know Mr. Tudor cares for me; he does not always hide it, though he tries to do so. You see he is so real and honest that he cannot help showing things.'
'Jill,' I exclaimed anxiously, 'what would your mother say if she knew this?'
'I think she does know it,' replied Jill calmly. 'She does not care for Mr. Tudor to come so often, but she is good to him all the same. Neither father nor mother will be pleased about it, because he is not rich, poor fellow; not that I think that matters,' finished Jill, in a grave, old-fashioned manner.
'My dear child,' in a horrified tone, 'you talk as though you were sure of your own mind, and you are hardly seventeen.'
'So I am sure,' was the confused answer. 'If Mr. Tudor cares enough for me to wait for a good many years,--until I am one-and-twenty,--he will find me all ready: of course I belong to him, Ursula: has he not saved my life? There is no hurry,' went on Jill, in her matter-of-fact way; 'he is very nice, and I shall always like him better than any one else; but I should not care to be engaged until I am one-and-twenty. One wants a little fun and a good deal of work before settling down into an engaged person,' finished the girl, with a droll little laugh.
I was spared the necessity of any reply to this surprising confession by the entrance of our three visitors, for Max had encountered them at the station, of course by accident, and had walked up with them. That fact was sufficient to account for Gladys's soft bloom and the satisfied look in her eyes: she looked so lovely in the new furs Giles had bought her, that I did not wonder that Max was a little absent in his replies to me.
Jill had made some excuse and left us, and it was really a very good idea of Giles's to ask me to come out on the balcony and look at the sea.
He wrapped me in his plaid and placed me in a sheltered corner, and we stood watching the twinkling lights, and the dark water under the glimmer of starlight. He had a great deal to tell me, first how happy Eric was in his new work, and what cheerful letters he wrote to Gladys, and next about Captain Hamilton, with whom he professed himself much pleased.
'Lady Betty is just as much a child as ever. It is ridiculous to think of her as a married woman,' he went on; 'but Claude declares himself to be perfectly satisfied. Well, there is no accounting for tastes,' with a change of intonation that was very intelligible.
'And how is Phoebe, Giles?'
'Oh, first-rate,' he answered cheerfully; 'she likes her new couch much better than the bed. I tell her if she goes on improving like this we shall have her in the next room before Easter. By the bye, Ursula, have you digested the contents of my last letter? Shall we go to the Pyrenees to spend our honeymoon? It will be too early for Switzerland; we might go later on, or to the Italian lakes.'
'Anywhere with you, Giles,' I whispered; and he gave me silent thanks for that pretty speech.
He did not say any more for a little time, and I stood by him watching the dark, wintry sea. Once my life had been dark and wintry too, but how mercifully I had been drawn out of the deep waters and brought to this dear haven of rest! As I crept nearer to Giles he seemed to utter my unspoken thought.
'I am very happy to-night, Ursula, I have been thinking as I travelled down what it will be to me to have you always near me, to share my work and life. I am so glad you love Gladwyn so dearly.'
'Love Gladwyn,--your home, Giles: is there anything strange in that?'
'No, dear, perhaps not; but I like to hear you say so. There will not be a wish of yours ungratified if I can help it. I mean to spoil you dreadfully, Ursula.'
I told him, smiling, that I was not afraid of this threat, and just then Max's voice interrupted us:
'Little she-bear, do you know this is dreadfully imprudent? Is this the way Hamilton means to take care of you?'
'Wait a moment, Ursula,' whispered Giles. 'Do you hear that ballad-singer in the square?' A voice clear and shrill seemed to float to us in the darkness: 'Sweet and low, sweet and low, wind of the western sea,' she sang. The waves seemed to splash in harmonious accompaniment; the lights were flickering, the carriages rolling under the faint starlight. I saw Giles's face--as I loved to see it--grave, thoughtful, and satisfied.
'After all,' he said, as though answering some inward questioning, 'a man cannot know what his life will bring him. Do you remember what Robert Browning says:
"What o' the way to the end?--The end crowns all."
The end crowns all to me, Ursula.' And Giles's deep-set eyes gave me no doubt of his meaning.
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