'Aye, aye,' returned the Doctor, good-humouredly. 'Never mind.'
'But I DO mind,' said the Old Soldier, laying her fan upon his lips. 'I mind very much. I recall these things that I may be contradicted if I am wrong. Well! Then I spoke to Annie, and I told her what had happened. I said, "My dear, here's Doctor Strong has positively been and made you the subject of a handsome declaration and an offer." Did I press it in the least? No. I said, "Now, Annie, tell me the truth this moment; is your heart free?" "Mama," she said crying, "I am extremely young" — which was perfectly true — "and I hardly know if I have a heart at all." "Then, my dear," I said, "you may rely upon it, it's free. At all events, my love," said I, "Doctor Strong is in an agitated state of mind, and must be answered. He cannot be kept in his present state of suspense." "Mama," said Annie, still crying, "would he be unhappy without me? If he would, I honour and respect him so much, that I think I will have him." So it was settled. And then, and not till then, I said to Annie, "Annie, Doctor Strong will not only be your husband, but he will represent your late father: he will represent the head of our family, he will represent the wisdom and station, and I may say the means, of our family; and will be, in short, a Boon to it." I used the word at the time, and I have used it again, today. If I have any merit it is consistency.'
The daughter had sat quite silent and still during this speech, with her eyes fixed on the ground; her cousin standing near her, and looking on the ground too. She now said very softly, in a trembling voice:
'Mama, I hope you have finished?' 'No, my dear Annie,' returned the Old Soldier, 'I have not quite finished. Since you ask me, my love, I reply that I have not. I complain that you really are a little unnatural towards your own family; and, as it is of no use complaining to you. I mean to complain to your husband. Now, my dear Doctor, do look at that silly wife of yours.'
As the Doctor turned his kind face, with its smile of simplicity and gentleness, towards her, she drooped her head more. I noticed that Mr. Wickfield looked at her steadily.
'When I happened to say to that naughty thing, the other day,' pursued her mother, shaking her head and her fan at her, playfully, 'that there was a family circumstance she might mention to you — indeed, I think, was bound to mention — she said, that to mention it was to ask a favour; and that, as you were too generous, and as for her to ask was always to have, she wouldn't.'
'Annie, my dear,' said the Doctor. 'That was wrong. It robbed me of a pleasure.'
'Almost the very words I said to her!' exclaimed her mother. 'Now really, another time, when I know what she would tell you but for this reason, and won't, I have a great mind, my dear Doctor, to tell you myself.'
'I shall be glad if you will,' returned the Doctor.
'Well, then, I will!' said the Old Soldier. 'That's a bargain.' And having, I suppose, carried her point, she tapped the Doctor's hand several times with her fan (which she kissed first), and returned triumphantly to her former station.
Some more company coming in, among whom were the two masters and Adams, the talk became general; and it naturally turned on Mr. Jack Maldon, and his voyage, and the country he was going to, and his various plans and prospects. He was to leave that night, after supper, in a post-chaise, for Gravesend; where the ship, in which he was to make the voyage, lay; and was to be gone — unless he came home on leave, or for his health — I don't know how many years. I recollect it was settled by general consent that India was quite a misrepresented country, and had nothing objectionable in it, but a tiger or two, and a little heat in the warm part of the day. For my own part, I looked on Mr. Jack Maldon as a modern Sindbad, and pictured him the bosom friend of all the Rajahs in the East, sitting under canopies, smoking curly golden pipes — a mile long, if they could be straightened out.
Mrs. Strong was a very pretty singer: as I knew, who often heard her singing by herself. But, whether she was afraid of singing before people, or was out of voice that evening, it was certain that she couldn't sing at all. She tried a duet, once, with her cousin Maldon, but could not so much as begin; and afterwards, when she tried to sing by herself, although she began sweetly, her voice died away on a sudden, and left her quite distressed, with her head hanging down over the keys. The good Doctor said she was nervous, and, to relieve her, proposed a round game at cards; of which he knew as much as of the art of playing the trombone. But I remarked that the Old Soldier took him into custody directly, for her partner; and instructed him, as the first preliminary of initiation, to give her all the silver he had in his pocket.
We had a merry game, not made the less merry by the Doctor's mistakes, of which he committed an innumerable quantity, in spite of the watchfulness of the butterflies, and to their great aggravation. Mrs. Strong had declined to play, on the ground of not feeling very well; and her cousin Maldon had excused himself because he had some packing to do. When he had done it, however, he returned, and they sat together, talking, on the sofa. From time to time she came and looked over the Doctor's hand, and told him what to play. She was very pale, as she bent over him, and I thought her finger trembled as she pointed out the cards; but the Doctor was quite happy in her attention, and took no notice of this, if it were so.