Chapter XX.

From that day forth it was understood at Upcombe that Dolly Barton was informally engaged to Walter Brydges. Their betrothal would be announced in the "Morning Post"--"We learn that a marriage has been arranged," and so forth--as soon as the chosen bride had returned to town, and communicated the great news in person to her mother. For reasons of her own, Dolly preferred this delay; she didn't wish to write on the subject to Herminia. Would mamma go and spoil it all? she wondered. It would be just like her.

The remaining week of her stay at the rectory was a golden dream of delight to Dolly. Beyond even the natural ecstasy of first love, the natural triumph of a brilliant engagement, what visions of untold splendor danced hourly, day and night, before her dazzled eyes! What masques of magnificence! county balls, garden parties! It was heaven to Dolly. She was going to be grander than her grandest daydream.

Walter took her across one afternoon to Combe Mary, and introduced her in due form to his mother and his step-father, who found the pink-and-white girl "so very young," but saw no other grave fault in her. He even escorted her over the ancestral home of the masters of Combe Mary, in which they were both to live, and which the young squire had left vacant of set purpose till he found a wife to his mind to fill it. 'Twas the ideal crystallized. Rooks cawed from the high elms; ivy clambered to the gables; the tower of the village church closed the vista through the avenue. The cup of Dolly's happiness was full to the brim. She was to dwell in a manor-house with livery servants of her own, and to dress for dinner every night of her existence.

On the very last evening of her stay in Dorsetshire, Walter came round to see her. Mrs. Compson and the girls managed to keep discreetly out of the young people's way; the rector was in his study preparing his Sunday sermon, which arduous intellectual effort was supposed to engage his close attention for five hours or so weekly. Not a mouse interrupted. So Dolly and her lover had the field to themselves from eight to ten in the rectory drawing-room.

From the first moment of Walter's entry, Dolly was dimly aware, womanlike, of something amiss, something altered in his manner. Not, indeed, that her lover was less affectionate or less tender than usual,--if anything he seemed rather more so; but his talk was embarrassed, pre-occupied, spasmodic. He spoke by fits and starts, and seemed to hold back something. Dolly taxed him with it at last. Walter tried to put it off upon her approaching departure. But he was an honest young man, and so bad an actor that Dolly, with her keen feminine intuitions, at once detected him. "It's more than that," she said, all regret, leaning forward with a quick-gathering moisture in her eye, for she really loved him. "It's more than that, Walter. You've heard something somewhere that you don't want to tell me."

Walter's color changed at once. He was a man, and therefore but a poor dissembler. "Well, nothing very much," he admitted, awkwardly.

Dolly, drew back like one stung; her heart beat fast. "What have you heard?" she cried trembling; "Walter, Walter, I love you! You must keep nothing back. Tell me now what it is. I can bear to hear it."

The young man hesitated. "Only something my step-father heard from a friend last night," he replied, floundering deeper and deeper. "Nothing at all about you, darling. Only--well--about your family."

Dolly's face was red as fire. A lump rose in her throat; she started in horror. Then he had found out the Truth. He had probed the Mystery.

"Something that makes you sorry you promised to marry me?" she cried aloud in her despair. Heaven faded before her eyes. What evil trick could mamma have played her?

As she stood there that moment--proud, crimson, breathless--Walter Brydges would have married her if her father had been a tinker and her mother a gipsy girl. He drew her toward him tenderly. "No, darling," he cried, kissing her, for he was a chivalrous young man, as he understood chivalry; and to him it was indeed a most cruel blow to learn that his future wife was born out of lawful wedlock. "I'm proud of you; I love you. I worship the very ground your sweet feet tread on. Nothing on earth could make me anything but grateful and thankful for the gift of your love you're gracious enough to bestow on me."

But Dolly drew back in alarm. Not on such terms as those. She, too, had her pride; she, too, had her chivalry. "No, no," she cried, shrinking. "I don't know what it is. I don't know what it means. But till I've gone home to London and asked about it from mother,--oh, Walter, we two are no longer engaged. You are free from your promise."

She said it proudly; she said it bravely. She said it with womanly grace and dignity. Something of Herminia shone out in her that moment. No man should ever take her--to the grandest home--unless he took her at her full worth, pleased and proud to win her.

Walter soothed and coaxed; but Dolores stood firm. Like a rock in the sea, no assault could move her. As things stood at present, she cried, they were no longer engaged. After she had seen her mother and talked it all over, she would write to him once more, and tell him what she thought of it.

And, crimson to the finger-tips with shame and modesty, she rushed from his presence up to her own dark bed-room.