Chapter XIX.
 

When Dolly was seventeen, a pink wild rose just unrolling its petals, a very great event occurred in her history. She received an invitation to go and stop with some friends in the country.

The poor child's life had been in a sense so uneventful that the bare prospect of this visit filled her soul beforehand with tremulous anticipation. To be sure, Dolly Barton had always lived in the midmost centre of the Movement in London; she had known authors, artists, socialists, the cream of our race; she had been brought up in close intercourse with the men and women who are engaged in revolutionizing and remodelling humanity. But this very fact that she had always lived in the Thick of Things made a change to the Thin of Things only by so much the more delicious and enchanting. Not that Dolores had not seen a great deal, too, of the country. Poor as they were, her mother had taken her to cheap little seaside nooks for a week or two of each summer; she had made pilgrimages almost every Sunday in spring or autumn to Leith Hill or Mapledurham; she had even strained her scanty resources to the utmost to afford Dolly an occasional outing in the Ardennes or in Normandy. But what gave supreme importance to this coming visit was the special fact that Dolly was now for the first time in her life to find herself "in society."

Among the friends she had picked up at her Marylebone day-school were two west-country girls, private boarders of the head-mistress's, who came from the neighborhood of Combe Neville in Dorset. Their name was Compson, and their father was rector of their native village, Upcombe. Dolly liked them very much, and was proud of their acquaintance, because they were reckoned about the most distinguished pupils in the school, their mother being the niece of a local viscount. Among girls in middle-class London sets, even so remote a connection with the title-bearing classes is counted for a distinction. So when Winnie Compson asked Dolly to go and stop with her at her father's rectory during three whole weeks of the summer holidays, Dolly felt that now at last by pure force of native worth she was rising to her natural position in society. It flattered her that Winnie should select her for such an honor.

The preparations for that visit cost Dolly some weeks of thought and effort. The occasion demanded it. She was afraid she had no frocks good enough for such a grand house as the Compsons. "Grand" was indeed a favorite epithet of Dolly's; she applied it impartially to everything which had to do, as she conceived, with the life of the propertied and privileged classes. It was a word at once of cherished and revered meaning--the shibboleth of her religion. It implied to her mind something remote and unapproachable, yet to be earnestly striven after with all the forces at her disposal. Even Herminia herself stretched a point in favor of an occasion which she could plainly see Dolly regarded as so important; she managed to indulge her darling in a couple of dainty new afternoon dresses, which touched for her soul the very utmost verge of allowable luxury. The materials were oriental; the cut was the dressmaker's--not home-built, as usual. Dolly looked so brave in them, with her rich chestnut hair and her creamy complexion,--a touch, Herminia thought, of her Italian birthplace,-- that the mother's full heart leapt up to look at her. It almost made Herminia wish she was rich--and anti-social, like the rich people--in order that she might be able to do ample justice to the exquisite grace of Dolly's unfolding figure. Tall, lissome, supple, clear of limb and light of footstep, she was indeed a girl any mother might have been proud of.

On the day she left London, Herminia thought to herself she had never seen her child look so absolutely lovely. The unwonted union of blue eyes with that olive-gray skin gave a tinge of wayward shyness to her girlish beauty. The golden locks had ripened to nut-brown, but still caught stray gleams of nestling sunlight. 'Twas with a foreboding regret that Herminia kissed Dolly on both peach-bloom cheeks at parting. She almost fancied her child must be slipping from her motherly grasp when she went off so blithely to visit these unknown friends, away down in Dorsetshire. Yet Dolly had so few amusements of the sort young girls require that Herminia was overjoyed this opportunity should have come to her. She reproached herself not a little in her sensitive heart for even feeling sad at Dolly's joyous departure. Yet to Dolly it was a delight to escape from the atmosphere of Herminia's lodgings. Those calm heights chilled her.

The Compsons' house was quite as "grand" in the reality as Dolly had imagined it. There was a man-servant in a white tie to wait at table, and the family dressed every evening for dinner. Yet, much to her surprise, Dolly found from the first the grandeur did not in the least incommode her. On the contrary, she enjoyed it. She felt forthwith she was to the manner born. This was clearly the life she was intended by nature to live, and might actually have been living--she, the granddaughter of so grand a man as the late Dean of Dunwich--had it not been for poor Mamma's ridiculous fancies. Mamma was so faddy! Before Dolly had spent three whole days at the rectory, she talked just as the Compsons did; she picked up by pure instinct the territorial slang of the county families. One would have thought, to hear her discourse, she had dressed for dinner every night of her life, and passed her days in the society of the beneficed clergy.

But even that did not exhaust the charm of Upcombe for Dolly. For the first time in her life, she saw something of men,--real men, with horses and dogs and guns,--men who went out partridge shooting in the season and rode to hounds across country, not the pale abstractions of cultured humanity who attended the Fabian Society meetings or wrote things called articles in the London papers. Her mother's friends wore soft felt hats and limp woollen collars; these real men were richly clad in tweed suits and fine linen. Dolly was charmed with them all, but especially with one handsome and manly young fellow named Walter Brydges, the stepson and ward of a neighboring parson. "How you talked with him at tennis to-day!" Winnie Compson said to her friend, as they sat on the edge of Dolly's bed one evening. "He seemed quite taken with you."

A pink spot of pleasure glowed on Dolly's round cheek to think that a real young man, in good society, whom she met at so grand a house as the Compsons', should seem to be quite taken with her.

"Who is he, Winnie?" she asked, trying to look less self-conscious. "He's extremely good-looking."

"Oh, he's Mr. Hawkshaw's stepson, over at Combe Mary," Winnie answered with a nod. "Mr. Hawkshaw's the vicar there till Mamma's nephew is ready to take the living--what they call a warming-pan. But Walter Brydges is Mrs. Hawkshaw's son by her first husband. Old Mr. Brydges was the squire of Combe Mary, and Walter's his only child. He's very well off. You might do worse, dear. He's considered quite a catch down in this part of the country."

"How old is he?" Dolly asked, innocently enough, standing up by the bedside in her dainty white nightgown. But Winnie caught at her meaning with the preternatural sharpness of the girl brought up in immediate contact with the landed interest. "Oh, he's of age," she answered quickly, with a knowing nod. "He's come into the property; he has nobody on earth but himself to consult about his domestic arrangements."

Dolly was young; Dolly was pretty; Dolly's smile won the world; Dolly was still at the sweetest and most susceptible of ages. Walter Brydges was well off; Walter Brydges was handsome; Walter Brydges had all the glamour of a landed estate, and an Oxford education. He was a young Greek god in a Norfolk shooting-jacket. Moreover, he was a really good and pleasant young fellow. What wonder, therefore, if before a week was out, Dolly was very really and seriously in love with him? And what wonder if Walter Brydges in turn, caught by that maiden glance, was in love with Dolly? He had every excuse, for she was lithe, and beautiful, and a joyous companion; besides being, as the lady's maid justly remarked, a perfect lady.

One day, after Dolly had been a fortnight at Upcombe, the Compsons gave a picnic in the wild Combe undercliff. 'Tis a broken wall of chalk, tumbled picturesquely about in huge shattered masses, and deliciously overgrown with ferns and blackthorn and golden clusters of close-creeping rock-rose. Mazy paths thread tangled labyrinths of fallen rock, or wind round tall clumps of holly-bush and bramble. They lighted their fire under the lee of one such buttress of broken cliff, whose summit was festooned with long sprays of clematis, or "old man's beard," as the common west-country name expressively phrases it. Thistledown hovered on the basking air. There they sat and drank their tea, couched on beds of fern or propped firm against the rock; and when tea was over, they wandered off, two and two, ostensibly for nothing, but really for the true business of the picnic--to afford the young men and maidens of the group some chance of enjoying, unspied, one another's society.

Dolly and Walter Brydges strolled off by themselves toward the rocky shore. There Walter showed her where a brook bubbled clear from the fountain-head; by its brink, blue veronicas grew, and tall yellow loosestrife, and tasselled purple heads of great English eupatory. Bending down to the stream he picked a little bunch of forget-me-nots, and handed them to her. Dolly pretended unconsciously to pull the dainty blossoms to pieces, as she sat on the clay bank hard by and talked with him. "Is that how you treat my poor flowers?" Walter asked, looking askance at her.

Dolly glanced down, and drew back suddenly. "Oh, poor little things!" she cried, with a quick droop of her long lashes. "I wasn't thinking what I did." And she darted a shy glance at him. "If I'd remembered they were forget-me-nots, I don't think I could have done it."

She looked so sweet and pure in her budding innocence, like a half-blown water-lily, that the young man, already more than two-thirds in love, was instantly captivated. "Because they were forget-me-nots, or because they were mine, Miss Barton?" he asked softly, all timorousness.

"Perhaps a little of both," the girl answered, gazing down, and blushing at each word a still deeper crimson.

The blush showed sweet on that translucent skin. Walter turned to her with a sudden impulse. "And what are you going to do with them now?" he enquired, holding his breath for joy and half-suppressed eagerness.

Dolly hesitated a moment with genuine modesty. Then her liking for the well-knit young man overcame her. With a frightened smile her hand stole to her bodice; she fixed them in her bosom. "Will that do?" she asked timidly.

"Yes, that will do," the young man answered, bending forward and seizing her soft fingers in his own. "That will do very well. And, Miss Barton--Dolores--I take it as a sign you don't wholly dislike me."

"I like you very much," Dolly answered in a low voice, pulling a rock-rose from a cleft and tearing it nervously to pieces.

"Do you love me, Dolly?" the young man insisted.

Dolly turned her glance to him tenderly, then withdrew it in haste. "I think I might, in time," she answered very slowly.

"Then you will be mine, mine, mine?" Walter cried in an ecstasy.

Dolly bent her pretty head in reluctant assent, with a torrent of inner joy. The sun flashed in her chestnut hair. The triumph of that moment was to her inexpressible.

But as for Walter Brydges, he seized the blushing face boldly in his two brown hands, and imprinted upon it at once three respectful kisses. Then he drew back, half-terrified at his own temerity.