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Abbeychurch(4)

2006-08-28 14:09

    Chapter IV.

    The clock was striking eight as the young ladies entered the house; but Dora was allowed to sit up a little longer to see her aunt, Mrs. Hazleby. It was not long before a loud knock at the door announced that lady's arrival.

    Mrs. Hazleby was a tall bony Scotchwoman, with fierce-looking grey eyes. She gave Mrs. Woodbourne a very overpowering embrace, and then was careful to mark the difference between her niece, little Dora, whom she kissed, and the three elder girls, with whom she only shook hands. She was followed by her daughters——Harriet, a tall showy girl of sixteen, and Lucy, a pale, quiet, delicate-looking creature, a year younger. Rupert Merton was still missing; but his movements were always so uncertain, that his family were in no uneasiness on his account.

    As Mrs. Woodbourne was advancing to kiss Harriet, a loud sharp 'yap' was heard from something in the arms of the latter; Mrs. Woodbourne started, turned pale, and looked so much alarmed, that Anne could not laugh. Harriet, however, was not so restrained, but laughed loudly as she placed upon a chair a little Blenheim spaniel, with a blue ribbon round his neck, and called to her sister Lucy to 'look after Fido.' It presently appeared that the little dog had been given to them at the last place where they had been staying on the road to Abbeychurch; and Mrs. Hazleby and her eldest daughter continued for some time to expatiate upon the beauty and good qualities of Fido, as well as those of all his kith and kin. He was not, however, very cordially welcomed by anyone at the Vicarage; for Mr. Woodbourne greatly disliked little dogs in the house, his wife dreaded them much among her children, and there were symptoms of a deadly feud between him and Elizabeth's only pet, the great black cat, Meg Merrilies. But still his birth, parentage, and education, were safe subjects of conversation; and all were sorry when Mrs. Hazleby had exhausted them, and began to remark how thin Elizabeth looked——to tell a story of a boy who had died of a fever, some said of neglect, at the school where Horace was——to hint at the possibility of Rupert's having been lost on the Scottish mountains, blown up on the railroad, or sunk in a steam-vessel——to declare that girls were always spoiled by being long absent from home, and to dilate on the advantages of cheap churches.

    She had nearly all the conversation to herself, the continual sound of her voice being only varied by Harriet's notes and comments, given in a pert shrill, high key, and by a few syllables in answer from Lady Merton and Mrs. Woodbourne. The two gentlemen, happily for themselves, had a great quantity of plans and accounts of the church to look over together, which were likely to occupy them through the whole of Sir Edward's visit. Elizabeth was busy numbering the Consecration tickets for the next day, and Anne in helping her, so that they sat quietly together in the inner drawing-room during the greater part of the evening.

    When they went up-stairs to bed, Elizabeth exclaimed, 'Oh! that horrid new bonnet of mine! I had quite forgotten it, and I must trim it now, for I shall not have time to-morrow morning. I will run to Kate and Helen's room, and fetch my share of the ribbon.'

    As she returned and sat down to work, she continued, 'It is too much plague to quill up the ribbon as the others have theirs. It will do quite well enough plain. Now, Anne, do not you think that as long as dress is neat, which of course it must be, prettiness does not signify ?'

    'Perhaps I might think so, if I had to trim my own bonnets,' said Anne, laughing.

    'Ah! you do not think so——Anne, you who have everything about you, from your shoe-strings upwards, in the most complete order and elegant taste. But then, you know, you would do quite as well if the things were ugly.'

    'If I wore yellow gowns and scarlet bonnets, for instance?' asked Anne.

    'No, no, that would not be modest,' said Elizabeth; 'you would be no longer a lady, so that you could not look lady-like, which I maintain a lady always is, whether each morsel of her apparel is beautiful in itself or not.'

    'Indeed, Lizzie,' said Anne, 'I cannot say that I think as you do, at least as far as regards ourselves, I think that it may be possible to wear ugly things and still be lady-like, and I am sure I honour people greatly who really deny themselves for the sake of doing right, if anyone can seriously care for such a thing as dress; but I consider it as a duty in such as ourselves, to consult the taste of the people we live with.'

    'As your mother said about my hair,' said Elizabeth thoughtfully; 'I will do as she advised, Anne, but not while she is here, for fear Mamma should fancy that I do so because Aunt Anne wished it, though I would not to please her. I believe you are right; but look here, will my bonnet do?'

    'I think it looks very well,' said Anne; 'but will it not seem remarkable for you to be unlike your sisters?'

    'Ah! it will give Mrs. Hazleby an opportunity of calling me blue, and tormenting Mamma,' said Elizabeth; 'besides, Mamma wished us all to be alike down to the little ones, so I will make the best of it, and trim it like any London milliner. But, Anne, you must consider it is a great improvement in me to allow that respectable people must be neat. I used to allow it in theory, but not in practice.'

    'I do not think I ever saw you untidy, Lizzie,' said Anne, 'except after a day's nutting in the hanging wood.'

    'Oh yes, I could generally preserve a little outward tidiness,' said Elizabeth; 'besides, a visit at Merton Hall is very different from every day in shabby old Abbeychurch. No, you must know that when I was twelve years old, I was supposed to be capable of taking care of my own wardrobe; and for some time all went on very smoothly, only that I never did a stitch towards mending anything.'

    'Did a beneficent fairy do it for you, then?'

    'Not a sprite, nor even a brownie, but one of the old wrinkled kind of fairies. Old Margaret, that kindest of nurses, could not bear to see her dear Miss Lizzie untidy, or to hear her dear Miss Lizzie scolded, so she mended and mended without saying anything, encouraging me in habits of arrant slovenliness, and if I had but known it, of deceit. Dear old Margery, it was a heart-breaking thing when she went away, to all from Winifred upwards, and to none more than to me, who could remember those two melancholy years when she often seemed my only friend, when I was often naughty and Papa angry with me, and I feeling motherless and wretched, used to sit on her lap and cry. Dear old Margery, it is a shame to abuse her in spite of the mischief her over-kindness did us all. Well, when our new maid came, on the supposition that Miss Woodbourne took care of her own clothes, she never touched them; and as Margaret's work was not endowed with the fairy power of lasting for ever, I soon grew as ragged as any ragged-robin in the hedge. Mamma used to complain of my slovenliness, but I am afraid I was naughty enough to take advantage of her gentleness, and out-argue her; so things grew worse and worse, till at last, one fatal day, Papa was aware of a great hole in my stockings. Then forth it all came; he asked question after question; and dear kind Mamma, even more unwilling to expose me than I was myself, was forced to answer, and you may suppose how angry he was. Oh! Anne, I can hardly bear to think of the stern kindness of his voice when he saw I was really quite wretched. And only think how kind it was in him, he spoke seriously to me, he shewed me that building the church, helping our poor people, even Mamma's comforts, and the boys' education, depend upon home economy; and how even I could make a difference by not wasting my clothes, and making another servant necessary.'

    'Then could you really gain neat habits immediately?' asked Anne; 'there could be no doubt of your resolving to do so, but few people could or would persevere.'

    'Oh! I am not properly tidy now,' said Elizabeth, opening a most chaotic table-drawer, 'see, there is a proof of it. However, I do not think I have been shamefully slovenly in my own person since that explosion, and I have scarcely been spoken to about it. Who could disregard such an appeal? But, Anne, are you not enchanted with sweet Mrs. Hazleby?'

    'I wish you would not ask me, Lizzie,' said Anne, feeling very prudent, 'you know that I know nothing of her.'

    'No, and you never will know enough of her to say such savage things as I do,' said Elizabeth, 'but at any rate you saw her when she came in.'

    'Certainly.'

    'I mean the kissing; I am sure I am glad enough to escape it, and always think Mamma and the children seem to be hugged by a bear; but you know making such distinctions is not the way to make us like her, even if we were so disposed. Oh! and about me in particular, I am convinced that she thinks that Mamma hates me as much as she does, for she seems to think it will delight her to hear that I am thinner than ever, and that such bright colour is a very bad sign, and then she finishes off with a hypocritical sigh, and half whisper of "It can be no wonder, poor thing!" trying to put everyone, especially Papa and Uncle Edward, in mind of my own poor mother. I declare I have no patience with her or Harriet, or that ugly little wretch of a dog!'

    In the mean time, Katherine and Helen were visiting their guests, Harriet and Lucy Hazleby, whom, contrary to Elizabeth's arrangement, Mrs. Woodbourne had lodged in the room where her own two little girls usually slept. Harriet was sitting at the table, at her ease, curling her long cork-screw ringlets, with Fido at her feet; Lucy was unpacking her wardrobe, Katherine lighting her, and admiring each article as it was taken out, in spite of her former disapprobation of Harriet's style of dress. Helen stood lingering by the door, with her hand on the lock, still listening or talking, though not much interested, and having already three times wished her guests good night. Their conversation, though not worth recording for any sense or reflection shewn by any of the talkers, may perhaps display their characters, and add two or three facts to our story, which may be amusing to some few of our readers.

    'Oh! Lucy,' cried Harriet, with a start, 'take care of my spotted muslin, it is caught on the lock of the box. You always are so careless.'

    Katherine assisted Lucy to rescue the dress from the threatened danger, and Harriet continued, 'Well, and what do you wear to-morrow, Kate?'

    'White muslin, with pink ribbons,' said Katherine.

    'I have a green and orange striped mousseline de laine, Mamma gave only fifteen-pence a yard for it; I will shew it to you when Lucy comes to it, and you will see if it is not a bargain. And what bonnets?'

    'Straw, with ribbon like our sashes,' said Katherine. 'Oh! we had so much trouble to get——'

    'My bonnet is green satin,' said Harriet, 'but if I had been you, Kate, I would have had Leghorn. Wouldn't you, Lucy?'

    'Five Leghorn bonnets would have cost too much,' said Katherine, 'and Mamma wished us all to be alike.'

    'Ah! she would not let you be smarter than her own girls, eh, Kitty?' said Harriet, laughing.

    'I had been obliged to buy a very nice new straw bonnet at Dykelands,' said Helen, 'and it, would have been a pity not to use that.'

    'Well, I have no notion of a whole row of sisters being forced to dress alike,' said Harriet; 'Aunt Mildred might——'

    Here Lucy stopped her sister's speech, by bringing the gown forward to display it. When Harriet had sufficiently explained its excellence she began, 'So your cousin, young Merton, is coming, is he?'

    'Yes,' said Katherine, 'we expected him last night, or in the course of this day, but he has not come yet.'

    'Well, what sort of a young fellow is he?' said Harriet.

    'Very clever indeed,' said Katherine.

    'Oh! then he will not be in my line at all,' said Harriet; 'those clever boys are never worth speaking to, are they, Lucy?'

    'Do you like stupid ones better?' said Helen.

    'Capital, isn't it, Lucy?' cried Harriet; 'I did not mean stupid; I only meant, clever boys, as they call them, have no fun, they only read, read for ever, like my brother Allan.'

    'I am sure Rupert is full of fun,' said Katherine.

    'Oh, but he is quite a boy, is not he?' said Harriet.

    'Nineteen, and at Oxford,' said Katherine.

    'Oh! I call that quite a boy——don't you, Lucy?' said Harriet; 'is he handsome?'

    'Yes, very,' said Katherine.

    'Not like his sister, then, I suppose,' said Harriet.

    'Oh! do not you, think Anne pretty?' said Katherine.

    'I do not know——no, too small and pale to suit me,' said Harriet.

    'Rupert is not like Anne,' said Katherine, 'he has a very bright pink and white complexion, and light hair.'

    'Is he tall?'

    'No, not so tall as your brother George, but slighter. He has had two of his front teeth knocked out by a stone at school,' said Katherine.

    'What a fuss they did make about those teeth!' muttered Helen.

    'Was that the school where Horace is?' said Harriet.

    'Yes,' said Katherine, 'Sandleford.'

    'How you must miss Horace!' said Lucy.

    'Poor little fellow, yes, that we do,' said Katherine, 'but he was so riotous, he would pull all my things to pieces. Nobody could manage him but Lizzie, and she never minds what she has on.'

    'What a tear he did make in my frock!' said Harriet, laughing; 'didn't he, Lucy?'

    'How tired you look, Lucy,' said Helen, 'I am sure you ought to be in bed.'

    'Oh no, I am not very sleepy,' said Lucy, smiling.

    'I am dead tired, I am sure,' said Harriet, yawning; 'it was so hot in the railway carriage.'

    'Cannot the rest of those things be put away to-morrow morning, Harriet?' said Helen.

    'Oh!' said Harriet, yawning, 'there will not be time; Lucy may as well do them all now she has begun. How sleepy I am! we walked about London all the morning.'

    'Come, Helen,' said Katherine, 'it is quite time for us to be gone; we must be up early to-morrow.'

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