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2006-08-28 14:16

    Chapter VIII.

    If Helen had not been too much offended by Elizabeth's disregard of her counsel to think of anything but her own dignity, and had waited to remind Katherine of her argument with her, the latter might perhaps have taken the safest course, for it was not without many qualms of conscience that she ascended the stairs to Mrs. Turner's drawing-room.

    There was no one in the room; and as soon as the page had closed the door, Elizabeth exclaimed, 'I declare, Anne, there is the bone of contention itself——St. Augustine in his own person! Oh! look at King Ethelbert's square blue eye; and, Kate, is not this St. Austin's Hill itself in the distance?'

    'Nonsense, Lizzie!' said Katherine, crossly; 'you know it is no such thing. It was in the pattern.'

    'I assure you it is round, and exactly the colour of St. Austin's,' said Elizabeth; 'there can be no doubt about it.'

    Elizabeth's criticisms were here cut short by the entrance of Mrs. Turner and her daughter, ready dressed for the evening's excursion.

    'Mrs. Turner,' said Elizabeth, with all the politeness she was capable of towards that lady, 'we are come to claim your kind offer of taking us to the Mechanics' Institute this evening.'

    'Oh, my dear Miss Lizzie,' cried Mrs. Turner, 'I am so delighted to have the honour, you cannot think! It is my nephew, Augustus Mills, who lectures to-night. Most talented young man, poor fellow, is Augustus——never without a book in his hand; quite in your line, Miss Lizzie.'

    At this moment the gentleman quite in Elizabeth's line came into the room. He had a quantity of bushy black hair, a long gold chain round his neck, a plaid velvet waistcoat, in which scarlet was the predominant colour——and his whole air expressed full consciousness of the distinguished part which he was about to act. Poor Elizabeth! little reliance as she usually placed in Katherine's descriptions, she had expected to see something a little more gentleman-like than what she now beheld; and her dismay was increased, when Mrs. Turner addressed her nephew——'Augustus, Augustus, my dear, you never were so flattered in your life? Here is Miss Merton, and Miss Hazleby, and Miss Lizzie Woodbourne, all come on purpose to hear your lecture!'

    Mr. Augustus said something about being very happy, and bowed, but whether to the young ladies or to his own reflection in the looking- glass was doubtful. He was then regularly introduced to Anne and Elizabeth; and upon Mr. Turner making his appearance, they arranged themselves for the walk to the Mechanics' Institute. Mr. Turner, a fat silent old gentleman, very ceremoniously offered his arm to Miss Merton, who, though by this time exceedingly amazed and disgusted by all she saw and heard, could scarcely refrain from laughing at the airs and graces of her squire, or at the horror she plainly perceived in Elizabeth's face, when the talking Mrs. Turner exclaimed, 'Now, Augustus, I must have you take Miss Woodbourne——I know you will be such friends!'

    Little did Mrs. Turner suspect, as in the overflowing of her pride and delight she bestowed upon Elizabeth the hero of the night, the mingled feeling of shame and repugnance which the poor girl had to encounter as she placed her hand within the offered arm of Mr. Mills, almost groaning at her own folly, and vainly seeking some possible means of escape. Mrs. Turner followed with Harriet; and Katherine and Wilhelmina brought up the rear.

    'You are very fond of study, I believe, Miss Woodbourne?' said Mr. Mills, as they left the house.

    Elizabeth made some inarticulate answer: she was in the utmost dread of meeting either of the curates, or worse still, her cousin Rupert Merton, if he should chance to arrive that evening.

    'Most interesting pursuit!' continued Mr. Mills, wishing to shew his aunt how well he and his companion agreed. 'I am quite devoted to it, always was! You are a classical scholar, I presume?'

    Elizabeth was ready to wish she had never learnt to read: she fancied she saw a figure like Rupert's at the other end of the street, and was too much frightened to reply.

    While they were traversing one street of the old town, crossing the bridge over the little stream which flowed along the valley, and walking along the principal street of the new town, Mr. Mills continued to talk, and Elizabeth to echo the last word of each sentence; or when that would not serve for a reply, she had recourse to the simple interjection 'Oh!' that last refuge of listeners with nothing to say. After a walk, which she thought was at least as many miles in length as it was yards, they arrived at the Mechanics' Institute, outside which they found sundry loiterers, and a strong scent of tobacco; and inside some crowded benches, a table with some chairs ranged round it, and a strong odour of gas.

    After a good deal of pushing and shoving, the ladies were safely deposited on one of the front benches; while Mr. Turner, who was one of the managing committee, seated himself on one of the chairs; and Mr. Augustus Mills stood at the table.

    Elizabeth felt as if the crimson flush called up by vexation and embarrassment, together with her hasty walk, would never leave her cheeks; she held her head down till Katherine touched her to make her look up, and trusting that her bonnet would screen her heightened colour from observation, she obeyed the sign. A flaring gas-light hung opposite to her; and as she raised her face she encountered the gaze of Mr. Higgins, the Radical and Dissenting editor of a newspaper which had several times abused Mr. Woodbourne. The moment he caught her eye, he bowed with something of a triumphant air; and she, doubly ashamed of herself and provoked with him, bent her head so low that he might well imagine that she returned the bow. She hoped by looking down to escape all further observation, but unfortunately for her, Mrs. Turner had taken care to find a conspicuous place for her party; and Katherine, who had by this time quite forgotten her doubts and misgivings, was nodding and smiling to everyone, with what she considered the utmost grace and affability. Anne, meanwhile, was trying to account for Elizabeth's ever having thought of going to such a place, wondering what Sir Edward and Lady Merton would think of the expedition, and for a moment considering whether Mr. Woodbourne could approve of it, yet at the same time keenly enjoying all that was ludicrous in the scene, and longing to talk it over with Rupert. She was also much diverted with Mr. Augustus Mills's eloquent lecture, in which she afterwards declared that she heard the words 'barbarous institution' fifteen times repeated, and 'civilized and enlightened age,' at least twenty-three times. She was, however, not a little fatigued before it was nearly concluded, and was heartily glad when after an hour and a half it was terminated by a mighty flourish of rhetoric, upon the universal toleration, civilization, and liberty enjoyed in the nineteenth century.

    Deafened by the applause of those who had heard little and understood less, half stifled by the heat of the room, and their heads aching from the smell of gas, the girls now hoped to escape; but they were forced to wait till the crowd nearer the door had dispersed, and then to listen to the numerous compliments and congratulations which poured in upon Mrs. Turner from all quarters before they could reach the open air; and then, strenuously refusing all invitations to take tea in St. Martin's Street, they happily regained the Vicarage. Helen and Lucy met them at the door, with hopes that they had had a pleasant evening.

    Elizabeth answered quickly, 'Come, come, say no more about it, it was a foolish affair altogether;' but the inquiry, after the feelings she had seen expressed in Elizabeth's face, struck Anne as so excessively ridiculous, that the moment they were in the drawing-room she sank down upon the sofa, giving way to the laughter which, long repressed, now burst forth louder and more merrily upon every fresh remembrance of the scene; while the other girls, though persisting in declaring that they had seen nothing diverting, were soon infected by her joyous merriment, and the room rang again with laughter.

    'Well, Lizzie,' said Anne, recovering her breath, 'I hope, as Helen says, you have had a pleasant evening; I hope you were very much edified.'

    'How can you be so absurd, Anne?' answered Elizabeth, trying to look serious, but the corners of her mouth relaxing, in spite of her attempts to control her risible muscles.

    'I hope,' continued Anne, with a very grave face, 'that Mr. Augustus was fully sensible of your wisdom, love of erudition, and classical scholarship, though I cannot say they appeared on the surface.'

    'You may be sure he thought me very wise,' said Elizabeth; 'I only echoed his own words——and what would a man have more?'

    'And how tenderly you touched him with the tip of your glove!' continued Anne. 'I wish you could have seen yourself!'

    'Indeed, I wish you had, Lizzie,' said Katherine; 'I think you would have been ashamed of yourself.'

    'I am ashamed,' said Elizabeth, gravely and shortly.

    Lucy here asked where Fido was.

    No one knew; no one could recollect anything about him from the time they had left Mr. Turner's house to go to the Mechanics' Institute. Katherine and Harriet went to the front door, they called, they searched, they even went to Mr. Turner's to inquire for him, but all their researches were fruitless; and Harriet turned angrily upon her sister, saying, 'It is all your fault, Lucy, for running home in such a hurry, and never thinking of him. How was I to be watching him there, did you think?'

    'I should have supposed,' said Elizabeth, 'that the person who was leading the dog was more likely——'

    'No, no, Elizabeth,' hastily interrupted Lucy, 'it was my fault in some degree. I know I ought to have thought of him.'

    'Well, say no more about him,' said Elizabeth; 'I dare say he will come home before morning.'

    And Elizabeth left the room to take off her bonnet, and to visit the nursery, where the children were in bed. All were asleep excepting Dora; and as Elizabeth leant over her, kissing her and bidding her good-night, the little girl put her arm round her neck, and said, 'Lizzie, will you tell me one thing? Was it naughty to——to go where you went to-night?'

    Elizabeth had felt annoyed and provoked and surprised at herself for her folly, but she had not thought herself in fault; but now Dora's soft, sweet, caressing tone sounded in her ears like a serious reproof, and turned her thought upon her sin. She was too upright and sincere to evade such an inquiry as this, even from a younger sister and a pupil, and answered, 'Indeed, Dora, I can hardly tell yet how wrong it was; but I am afraid it was very wrong, for I am sure it is a thing I hope you will never do. Besides, I know I was very self-willed, and unkind to Helen; I have set you a very bad example, Dora, and I believe I ought to beg your pardon for it. Good-night, my dear!'

    Was Elizabeth lowered in her sister's eyes by humbling herself?

    Just as the girls were arranging themselves in the drawing-room for the evening, a loud knocking was heard at the front-door, and Harriet and Anne both sprang up——the one exclaiming, 'Someone has brought Fido back!'——the other, 'Can that be Rupert?'

    The last supposition was proved to be right; and in another moment Rupert Merton was receiving the affectionate greetings of his sister and cousins. Elizabeth felt some embarrassment in performing a regular introduction of Mr. Merton to the Miss Hazlebys; but Rupert's easy well-bred manners rendered the formidable ceremony much easier than she had expected, and the cousins soon fell into their usual style of conversation.

    'Well, Mr. Rupert,' said Elizabeth, 'better late than never; that is all that can be said for you!'

    'Am I late?' said Rupert; 'I hope no one has waited for me.'

    'I hope not indeed,' said Elizabeth; 'pray, did you expect the Bishop and Clergy, and the whole town of Abbeychurch, St. Mary and St. Austin, to wait your pleasure and convenience? Anne, did you ever hear the like? Do you think Prince Rupert himself was ever so favoured and honoured?

    'What do you mean?' said Rupert.

    'That you have come a day too late, you idle boy!' said Anne.

    'I thought next Tuesday was to have been the day of the Consecration,' said Rupert.

    'Did you never get my letter?' said Anne; 'I wrote to tell you that the day was altered, and you were to meet us here on the Wednesday.'

    'Can I ask you to believe a gentleman's word in opposition to a lady's?' said Rupert, looking round. 'I did indeed receive a letter from my amiable sister, full of——let me see——histories of dogs and cats, and the harvest, and old Dame Philips, and commissions for pencils, which I will produce if I have not lost the key of my portmanteau, but not one word of the Consecration.'

    'But indeed I wrote a good many words about it,' said Anne; 'have you the letter, Rupert?'

    'Have I the letter?' cried Rupert. 'Young ladies, did you ever hear of such overweening presumption? Here is a damsel who expects her scraps of angular writing to be preserved with as much care as the Golden Bulls of the Pope!'

    'That is to say, you burnt it without reading it,' said Anne.

    'The former part of your supposition is true, sweet sister mine,' replied Rupert: 'not knowing what spells it might contain, seeing that Miss Merton's caligraphy is more like the cabalistic characters of a sorceress than the Italian-hand of a gentle demoiselle, I exorcised it——I committed it to the devouring element!'

    'Without turning over the second page of the second piece of note- paper, I suppose?' said Anne.

    'How was I ever to suppose that anyone would write a letter for the purpose of giving me an important piece of information,' said Rupert, 'and then put the pith of it in a place where no one would ever dream of looking? No, Lady Elizabeth, if by my absence your feast has lost its brightest ornament, its wittiest and wisest cavalier, it is this sister of mine whom you must accuse!'

    It was really not a little provoking to be blamed in this manner for Rupert's own carelessness; but Anne was used to her brother's ways, and could bear them with good humour. Elizabeth, however, attacked him. 'Why, Rupert, one would suppose you had never heard where a woman's mind is to be found! These are most futile excuses.'

    'I will only attempt one other,' said the truant——'the utter worthlessness of young ladies' letters, which is such as not to encourage their friends to make any very strict researches into them.'

    'Worse and worse!' said Elizabeth; 'you have certainly behaved most cavalierly, that must be confessed! We are only considering what punishment you deserve.'

    'I deserve the punishment I have had, Lizzie,' said Rupert; 'I have missed the Consecration, and three days of this fair company!'

    'Besides that, you will be held up ever after as a warning to Horace and Edward,' said Elizabeth.

    'I saw that first-mentioned pupil of yours on Sunday,' said Rupert.

    'Oh! how pleased Mamma will be!' cried Elizabeth; 'then you went to Sandleford?'

    'Yes; finding myself too late for the coach on Saturday afternoon, by which I had intended to go to Ely,' said Rupert, 'I made up my mind to spend Sunday at Sandleford, and take a cursory view of the young gentleman, and of my old haunts.'

    'Thank you,' said Elizabeth, her eyes beaming with pleasure; 'I am sure that was very kind of you. And how did he look, poor little fellow, and what did he say, and was not he delighted to see you?'

    'I shall leave you to judge of that,' said Rupert, 'and say that he looked very happy and flourishing, with face and shirt-collar all over ink on Saturday afternoon; and he said more than I can remember on Sunday evening.'

    'And what does Dr. Freeman say of him?' said Elizabeth.

    'Dr. Freeman assured me——what do you think, young ladies?——that Master Horatio Woodbourne is by far the most promising youth who has entered his celebrated academy since——of course you know whom I mean, and will spare my blushes!'

    'Unluckily,' said Anne, 'the evident fabrication of the latter part of that speech destroys our belief in the beginning of it.'

    'No, no,' said Elizabeth, 'it is only the most promising, not the most performing. No one can doubt of Rupert's promises!'

    'Rupert, you always do talk such nonsense,' said Katherine.

    'Many thanks for the compliment, Lady Kate,' said Rupert, with a bow; 'considering how my intelligence is received, I think I shall spare it in future. I have a letter and parcel from Master Horatio in my portmanteau, and they may speak for themselves, if I have not lost my keys, as I said before.'

    'O Rupert!' cried Anne, 'how could you lose them again, after all the pains Mamma took to save them?'

    'Indeed, Anne, I did behave better than usual,' said Rupert; 'I kept them safe till yesterday, I assure you. I wish you would come and give me the carriage keys; perhaps some of them may unlock the portmanteau.'

    Anne did not think they would; she said they had all been tried twice before; but Rupert would not be satisfied till the experiment had been repeated once more; and long after all the other girls were gone to bed, he kept his sister up, looking out some things which had been brought from Merton Hall for him, while he sat by recounting all his adventures in Scotland. Anne was much delighted to listen, and very glad to have her brother with her again; but perhaps, if he had not been quite so much engrossed by his own affairs, he would have seen that she looked very tired, and have remembered that it was much later than her usual bed-time.

    While Katherine and Helen were undressing, the former began:

    'Helen, I wish you had gone, it was such fun!'

    'Was it?' said Helen. 'I thought Lizzie did not seem much gratified.'

    'Lizzie? Oh no,' said Katherine; 'she only hung her head and looked vexed, though there were such a number of people, all so civil and bowing——Mr. Wilkins, and the Greens, and Mr. Higgins.'

    'Did Mr. Higgins bow to you and Lizzie?' exclaimed Helen.

    'Yes, that he did,' said Katherine triumphantly; 'and a very polite bow he made, I assure you, Helen. I was quite glad to see him; I hope he is coming round.'

    'How did Lizzie like it?' asked Helen.

    'Oh! she is so odd, you know,' said Katherine; 'she seemed really quite angry; I jogged her once or twice to make her look up, but she shook me off quite crossly; I thought she would have been pleased.'

    'I should think few things would vex her much more,' said Helen.

    'Well,' said Katherine, 'Willie once told me that some people think Lizzie very proud and disdainful, and I really begin to believe so too.'

    'Oh no, Kate,' said Helen; 'I am sure she is not proud, it is only——'

    'Mercy, Helen!' here interrupted Kate, 'what are you doing to your hair?'

    'Curling it,' replied Helen, in her composed manner.

    'Why in the world?' said Katherine; 'I thought you liked your plaits better.'

    'Lizzie does not,' said Helen.

    'Well,' said Katherine, 'I am sure I should never dream of doing such a thing, only because Lizzie chooses to make a fuss.'

    'Perhaps not,' said Helen.

    There was a silence. Presently Helen said, 'I suppose Mr. Higgins's next Sunday's paper will mention that the Mechanics' Institute was honoured by the presence of the Miss Woodbournes!'

    'Dear me, do you think so?' said Katherine, who could not guess from her sister's manner what opinion she intended to express.

    'I think it very probable indeed,' said Helen; 'such a sanction to the education-without-religion system is not to be neglected.'

    'System!' said Katherine, looking bewildered; 'how are we to sanction anything?'

    'Our station here, as the daughters of the clergyman, gives us some weight,' said Helen; 'besides that, what each person does, however trifling, is of importance to others.'

    This was not very clearly expressed, and Katherine did not trouble herself to understand it. She only said, 'Well, I hope we have not got into a scrape; however, you know it was Lizzie's doing, not mine.'

    'I thought you went,' said Helen.

    'Yes,' said Katherine; 'but that was only because Lizzie said it was not wrong. She is the eldest, and you know she is accountable.'

    'I should think that poor consolation,' said Helen.

    'Well,' said Katherine sleepily, 'good-night. Those horrid gas- lights have made my head ache. I cannot talk any more.'

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