She released the hand of which she had made a prisoner—released it with a movement of petulance; and Lord Hartledon quitted the room, the words she had just spoken beating their refrain on his brain. It did not occur to him in his gratified vanity to remember that Anne Ashton, about whose love there could be no doubt, never avowed it in those pretty speeches.
“Well?” said Mr. Carr, when he got back to the dining-room.
“It is not well, Carr; it is ill. There can be no release. The old dowager won’t have it.”
“But surely you will not resign Miss Ashton for Lady Maude!” cried the barrister, after a pause of amazement.
“I resign both; I see that I cannot do anything else in honour. Excuse me, Carr, but I’d rather not say any more about it just now; I feel half maddened.”
“Elster’s folly,” mentally spoke Thomas Carr.
AN AGREEABLE WEDDING.
That circumstances, combined with the countess-dowager, worked terribly against Lord Hartledon, events proved. Had the Ashtons remained at the Rectory all might have been well; but they went away, and he was left to any influence that might be brought to bear upon him.
How the climax was accomplished the world never knew. Lord Hartledon himself did not know the whole of it for a long while. As if unwilling to trust himself longer in dangerous companionship, he went up to town with Thomas Carr. Whilst there he received a letter from Cannes, written by Dr. Ashton; a letter that angered him.
It was a cool letter, a vein of contemptuous anger running through it; meant to be hidden, but nevertheless perceptible to Lord Hartledon. Its purport was to forbid all correspondence between him and Miss Ashton: things had better “remain in abeyance” until they met, ran the words, “if indeed any relations were ever renewed between them again.”
It might have angered Lord Hartledon more than it did, but for the hopelessness which had taken up its abode within him. Nevertheless he resented it. He did not suppose it possible that the Ashtons could have heard of the dilemma he was in, or that he should be unable to fulfil his engagement with Anne, having with his usual vacillation put off any explanation with them; which of course must come sometime. He had taken an idea into his head long before, that Dr. Ashton wished to part them, and he looked upon the letter as resulting from that. Hartledon was feeling weary of the world.
How little did he divine that the letter of the doctor was called forth by a communication from the countess-dowager. An artful communication, with a charming candour lying on its surface. She asked—she actually asked that Dr. Ashton would allow “fair play;” she said the “deepest affection” had grown up between Lord Hartledon and Lady Maude; and she only craved that the young man might not be coerced either way, but might be allowed to choose between them. The field after Miss Ashton’s return would be open to the two, and ought to be left so.