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Mabel Chester was the beauty and toast of South Shropshire. She had refused the hand of half the country squires in a circle of some dozen miles, till at last Mr. Vane became her suitor. Besides a handsome face and person, Mr. Vane had accomplishments his rivals did not possess. He read poetry to her on mossy banks an hour before sunset, and awakened sensibilities which her other suitors shocked, and they them.
The lovely Mabel had a taste for beautiful things, without any excess of that severe quality called judgment.
I will explain. If you or I, reader, had read to her in the afternoon, amid the smell of roses and eglantine, the chirp of the mavis, the hum of bees, the twinkling of butterflies, and the tinkle of distant sheep, something that combined all these sights, and sounds, and smells--say Milton's musical picture of Eden, P. L., lib. 3, and after that "Triplet on Kew," she would have instantly pronounced in favor of "Eden"; but if we had read her "Milton," and Mr. Vane had read her "Triplet," she would have as unhesitatingly preferred "Kew" to "Paradise."
She was a true daughter of Eve; the lady, who, when an angel was telling her and her husband the truths of heaven in heaven's own music, slipped away into the kitchen, because she preferred hearing the story at second-hand, encumbered with digressions, and in mortal but marital accents.
When her mother, who guarded Mabel like a dragon, told her Mr. Vane was not rich enough, and she really must not give him so many opportunities, Mabel cried and embraced the: dragon, and said, "Oh, mother!" The dragon, finding her ferocity dissolving, tried to shake her off, but the goose would cry and embrace the dragon till it melted.
By and by Mr. Vane's uncle died suddenly and left him the great Stoken Church estate, and a trunk full of Jacobuses and Queen Anne's guineas--his own hoard and his father's--then the dragon spake comfortably and said: "My child, he is now the richest man in Shropshire. He will not think of you now; so steel your heart."
Then Mabel, contrary to all expectations, did not cry; but, with flushing cheek, pledged her life upon Ernest's love and honor: and Ernest, as soon as the funeral, etc., left him free, galloped to Mabel, to talk of our good fortune. The dragon had done him injustice; that was not his weak point. So they were married! and they were very, very happy. But, one month after, the dragon died, and that was their first grief; but they bore it together.
And Vane was not like the other Shropshire squires. His idea of pleasure was something his wife could share. He still rode, walked, and sat with her, and read to her, and composed songs for her, and about her, which she played and sang prettily enough, in her quiet, lady-like way, and in a voice of honey dropping from the comb. Then she kept a keen eye upon him; and, when she discovered what dishes he liked, she superintended those herself; and, observing that he never failed to eat of a certain lemon-pudding the dragon had originated, she always made this pudding herself, and she never told her husband she made it.
The first seven months of their marriage was more like blue sky than brown earth; and if any one had told Mabel that her husband was a mortal, and not an angel, sent to her that her days and nights might be unmixed, uninterrupted heaven, she could hardly have realized the information.
When a vexatious litigant began to contest the will by which Mr. Vane was Lord of Stoken Church, and Mr. Vane went up to London to concert the proper means of defeating this attack, Mrs. Vane would gladly have compounded by giving the man two or three thousand acres or the whole estate, if he wouldn't take less, not to rob her of her husband for a month; but she was docile, as she was amorous; so she cried (out of sight) a week; and let her darling go with every misgiving a loving heart could have; but one! and that one her own heart told her was impossible.
The month rolled away--no symptom of a return. For this, Mr. Vane was not, in fact, to blame; but, toward the end of the next month, business became a convenient excuse. When three months had passed, Mrs. Vane became unhappy. She thought he too must feel the separation. She offered to come to him. He answered uncandidly. He urged the length, the fatigue of the journey. She was silenced; but some time later she began to take a new view of his objections. "He is so self-denying," said she. "Dear Ernest, he longs for me; but he thinks it selfish to let me travel so far alone to see him."
Full of this idea, she yielded to her love. She made her preparations, and wrote to him, that, if he did not forbid her peremptorily, he must expect to see her at his breakfast-table in a very few days.
Mr. Vane concluded this was a jest, and did not answer this letter at all.
Mrs. Vane started. She traveled with all speed; but, coming to a halt at ----, she wrote to her husband that she counted on being with him at four of the clock on Thursday.
This letter preceded her arrival by a few hours. It was put into his hand at the same time with a note from Mrs. Woffington, telling him she should be at a rehearsal at Covent Garden. Thinking his wife's letter would keep, he threw it on one side into a sort of a tray; and, after a hurried breakfast, went out of his house to the theater. He returned, as we are aware, with Mrs. Woffington; and also, at her request, with Mr. Cibber, for whom they had called on their way. He had forgotten his wife's letter, and was entirely occupied with his guests.
Sir Charles Pomander joined them, and found Mr. Colander, the head domestic of the London establishment, cutting with a pair of scissors every flower Mrs. Woffington fancied, that lady having a passion for flowers.
Colander, during his temporary absence from the interior, had appointed James Burdock to keep the house, and receive the two remaining guests, should they arrive.
This James Burdock was a faithful old country servant, who had come up with Mr. Vane, but left his heart at Willoughby. James Burdock had for some time been ruminating, and his conclusion was, that his mistress, Miss Mabel (as by force of habit he called her), was not treated as she deserved.
Burdock had been imported into Mr. Vane's family by Mabel; he had carried her in his arms when she was a child; he had held her upon a donkey when she was a little girl; and when she became a woman, it was he who taught her to stand close to her horse, and give him her foot and spring while he lifted her steadily but strongly into her saddle, and, when there, it was he who had instructed her that a horse was not a machine, that galloping tires it in time, and that galloping it on the hard road hammers it to pieces. "I taught the girl," thought James within himself.
This honest silver-haired old fellow seemed so ridiculous to Colander, the smooth, supercilious Londoner, that he deigned sometimes to converse with James, in order to quiz him. This very morning they had had a conversation.
"Poor Miss Mabel! dear heart. A twelvemonth married, and nigh six months of it a widow, or next door."
"We write to her, James, and entertain her replies, which are at considerable length."
"Ay, but we don't read 'em!" said James, with an uneasy glance at the tray.
"Invariably, at our leisure; meantime we make ourselves happy among the wits and the sirens."
"And she do make others happy among the poor and the ailing."
"Which shows," said Colander, superciliously, "the difference of tastes."
Burdock, whose eye had never been off his mistress's handwriting, at last took it up and said: "Master Colander, do if ye please, sir, take this into master's dressing-room, do now?"
Colander looked down on the missive with dilating eye. "Not a bill, James Burdock," said he, reproachfully.
"A bill! bless ye, no. A letter from missus."
No, the dog would not take it in to his master; and poor James, with a sigh, replaced it in the tray.
This James Burdock, then, was left in charge of the hall by Colander, and it so happened that the change was hardly effected before a hurried knocking came to the street door.
"Ay, ay!" grumbled Burdock," I thought it would not be long. London for knocking and ringing all day, and ringing and knocking all night." He opened the door reluctantly and suspiciously, and in darted a lady, whose features were concealed by a hood. She glided across the hall, as if she was making for some point, and old James shuffled after her, crying: "Stop, stop! young woman. What is your name, young woman?"
"Why, James Burdock," cried the lady, removing her hood, "have you forgotten your mistress?"
"Mistress! Why, Miss Mabel, I ask your pardon, madam--here, John, Margery!"
"Hush!" cried Mrs. Vane.
"But where are your trunks, miss? And where's the coach, and Darby and Joan? To think of their drawing you all the way here! I'll have 'em into your room directly, ma'am. Miss, you've come just in time."
"What a dear, good, stupid old thing you are, James. Where is Ernest--Mr. Vane? James, is he well and happy? I want to surprise him."
"Yes, ma'am," said James, looking down.
"I left the old stupid coach at Islington, James. The something--pin was loose, or I don't know what. Could I wait two hours there? So I came on by myself; you wicked old man, you let me talk, and don't tell me how he is."
"Master is main well, ma'am, and thank you," said old Burdock, confused and uneasy.
"But is he happy? Of course he is. Are we not to meet to-day after six months? Ah! but never mind, they are gone by."
"Lord bless her!" thought the faithful old fellow. "If sitting down and crying could help her, I wouldn't be long."
By this time they were in the banqueting-room and at the preparations there Mabel gave a start; she then colored. "Oh, he has invited his friends to make acquaintance. I had rather we had been alone all this day and to-morrow. But he must not know that. No; his friends are my friends, and shall be too," thought the country wife. She then glanced with some misgiving at her traveling attire, and wished she had brought one trunk with her.
"James," said she, "where is my room? And, mind, I forbid you to tell a soul I am come."
"Your room, Miss Mabel?"
"Well, any room where there is looking-glass and water."
She then went to a door which opened in fact on a short passage leading to a room occupied by Mr. Vane himself.
"No, no!" cried James. "That is master's room."
"Well, is not master's room mistress's room, old man? But stay; is he there?"
"No, ma'am; he is in the garden, with a power of fine folks."
"They shall not see me till I have made myself a little more decent," said the young beauty, who knew at bottom how little comparatively the color of her dress could affect her appearance, and she opened Mr. Vane's door and glided in.
Burdock's first determination was, in spite of her injunction, to tell Colander; but on reflection he argued: "And then what will they do? They will put their heads together, and deceive us some other way. No!" thought James, with a touch of spite, "we shall see how they will all look." He argued also, that, at sight of his beautiful wife, his master must come to his senses, and the Colander faction be defeated; and perhaps, by the mercy of Providence, Colander himself turned off.
While thus ruminating, a thundering knock at the door almost knocked him off his legs. "There ye go again," said he, and he went angrily to the door. This time it was Hunsdon, who was in a desperate hurry to see his master.
"Where is Sir Charles Pomander, my honest fellow?" said he.
"In the garden, my Jack-a-dandy!" said Burdock, furiously.
(" Honest fellow," among servants, implies some moral inferiority.)
In the garden went Hunsdon. His master--all whose senses were playing sentinel--saw him, and left the company to meet him.
"She is in the house, sir."
Sir Charles looked into the banquet-room; the haunch was being placed on the table. He returned with the information. He burned to bring husband and wife together; he counted each second lost that postponed this (to him) thrilling joy. Oh, how happy he was!--happier than the serpent when he saw Eve's white teeth really strike into the apple!
"Shall we pay respect to this haunch, Mr. Quin?" said Vane, gayly.
"If you please, sir," said Quin, gravely. Colander ran down a by-path with an immense bouquet, which he arranged for Mrs. Woffington in a vase at Mr. Vane's left hand. He then threw open the windows, which were on the French plan, and shut within a foot of the lawn.
The musicians in the arbor struck up, and the company, led by Mr. Vane and Mrs. Woffington, entered the room. And a charming room it was!--light, lofty, and large--adorned in the French way with white and gold. The table was an exact oval, and at it everybody could hear what any one said; an excellent arrangement where ideaed guests only are admitted-- which is another excellent arrangement, though I see people don't think so.
The repast was luxurious and elegant. There was no profusion of unmeaning dishes; each was a bonne-bouche--an undeniable delicacy. The glass was beautiful, the plates silver. The flowers rose like walls from the table; the plate massive and glorious; rose-water in the hand-glasses; music crept in from the garden, deliciously subdued into what seemed a natural sound. A broad stream of southern sun gushed in fiery gold through the open window, and, like a red-hot rainbow, danced through the stained glass above it. Existence was a thing to bask in--in such a place, and so happy an hour!
The guests were Quin, Mrs. Clive, Mr. Cibber, Sir Charles Pomander, Mrs. Woffington, and Messrs. Soaper and Snarl, critics of the day. This pair, with wonderful sagacity, had arrived from the street as the haunch came from the kitchen. Good-humor reigned; some cuts passed, but as the parties professed wit, they gave and took.
Quin carved the haunch, and was happy; Soaper and Snarl eating the same, and drinking Toquay, were mellowed and mitigated into human flesh. Mr. Vane and Mrs. Woffington were happy; he, because his conscience was asleep; and she, because she felt nothing now could shake her hold of him. Sir Charles was in a sort of mental chuckle. His head burned, his bones ached; but he was in a sort of nervous delight.
"Where is she?" thought he. "What will she do? Will she send her maid with a note? How blue he will look! Or will she come herself? She is a country wife; there must be a scene. Oh, why doesn't she come into this room? She must know we are here! is she watching somewhere?" His brain became puzzled, and his senses were sharpened to a point; he was all eye, ear and expectation; and this was why he was the only one to hear a very slight sound behind the door we have mentioned, and next to perceive a lady's glove lying close to that door. Mabel had dropped it in her retreat. Putting this and that together, he was led to hope and believe she was there, making her toilet, perhaps, and her arrival at present unknown.
"Do you expect no one else?" said he, with feigned carelessness, to Mr. Vane.
"No," said Mr. Vane, with real carelessness.
"It must be so! What fortune!" thought Pomander.
Soaper. "Mr. Cibber looks no older than he did five years ago."
Snarl. "There was no room on his face for a fresh wrinkle."
Soaper. "He! he! Nay, Mr. Snarl: Mr. Cibber is like old port; the more ancient he grows, the more delicious his perfume."
Snarl. "And the crustier he gets."
Clive. "Mr. Vane, you should always separate those two. Snarl, by himself, is just supportable; but, when Soaper paves the way with his hypocritical praise, the pair are too much; they are a two-edged sword."
Woffington. "Wanting nothing but polish and point."
Vane. "Gentlemen, we abandon your neighbor, Mr. Quin, to you."
Quin. "They know better. If they don't keep a civil tongue in their heads, no fat goes from here to them."
Cibber. "Ah, Mr. Vane; this room is delightful; but it makes me sad. I knew this house in Lord Longueville's time; an unrivaled gallant, Peggy. You may just remember him, Sir Charles?"
Pomander (with his eye on a certain door). "Yes, yes; a gouty old fellow."
Cibber fired up. "I wish you may ever be like him. Oh, the beauty, the wit, the petits-soupers that used to be here! Longueville was a great creature, Mr. Vane. I have known him entertain a fine lady in this room, while her rival was fretting and fuming on the other side of that door."
"Ah, indeed!" said Sir Charles.
"More shame for him," said Mr. Vane.
Here was luck! Pomander seized this opportunity of turning the conversation to his object. With a malicious twinkle in his eye, he inquired of Mr. Cibber what made him fancy the house had lost its virtue in Mr. Vane's hands.
"Because," said Cibber, peevishly, "you all want the true savoir faire nowadays, because there is no juste milieu, young gentlemen. The young dogs of the day are all either unprincipled heathen, like yourself, or Amadisses, like our worthy host." The old gentleman's face and manners were like those of a patriarch, regretting the general decay of virtue, not the imaginary diminution of a single vice. He concluded with a sigh that, "The true preux des dames went out with the full periwig; stap my vitals!"
"A bit of fat, Mr. Cibber?" said Quin, whose jokes were not polished.
"Jemmy, thou art a brute," was the reply.
"You refuse, sir?" said Quin, sternly.
"No, sir!" said Cibber, with dignity. "I accept."
Pomander's eye was ever on the door.
"The old are so unjust to the young," said he. "You pretend that the Deluge washed away iniquity, and that a rake is a fossil. What," said he, leaning as it were on every word, "if I bet you a cool hundred that Vane has a petticoat in that room, and that Mrs. Woffington shall unearth her?"
The malicious dog thought this was the surest way to effect a dramatic exposure, because if Peggy found Mabel to all appearances concealed, Peggy would scold her, and betray herself.
"Pomander!" cried Vane, in great heat; then, checking himself, he said coolly: "but you all know Pomander."
"None of you," replied that gentleman. "Bring a chair, sir," said he, authoritatively, to a servant; who, of course, obeyed.
Mrs. Clive looked at him, and thought: "There is something in this!"
"It is for the lady," said he, coolly. Then, leaning over the table, he said to Mrs. Woffington, with an impudent affectation of friendly understanding: "I ran her to earth in this house not ten minutes ago. Of course I don't know who she is! But," smacking his lips, "a rustic Amaryllis, breathing all May-buds and Meadowsweet."
"Have her out, Peggy!" shouted Cibber. "I know the run--there's the covert! Hark, forward! Ha, ha, ha!"
Mr. Vane rose, and, with a sternness that brought the old beau up with a run, he said: "Mr. Cibber, age and infirmity are privileged; but for you, Sir Charles--"
"Don't be angry," interposed Mrs. Woffington, whose terror was lest he should quarrel with so practiced a swordsman. "Don't you see it is a jest! and, as might be expected from poor Sir Charles, a very sorry one.
"A jest!" said Vane, white with rage. "Let it go no further, or it will be earnest!"
Mrs. Woffington placed her hand on his shoulder, and at that touch he instantly yielded, and sat down.
It was at this moment, when Sir Charles found himself for the present baffled--for he could no longer press his point, and search that room; when the attention of all was drawn to a dispute, which, for a moment, had looked like a quarrel; while Mrs. Woffington's hand still lingered, as only a woman's hand can linger in leaving the shoulder of the man she loves; it was at this moment the door opened of its own accord, and a most beautiful woman stood, with a light step, upon the threshold!
Nobody's back was to her, except Mr. Vane's. Every eye but his was spellbound upon her.
Mrs. Woffington withdrew her hand, as if a scorpion had touched her.
A stupor of astonishment fell on them all.
Mr. Vane, seeing the direction of all their eyes, slewed himself round in his chair into a most awkward position, and when he saw the lady, he was utterly dumfounded! But she, as soon as he turned his face her way, glided up to him, with a little half-sigh, half-cry of joy, and taking him round the neck, kissed him deliciously, while every eye at the table met every other eye in turn. One or two of the men rose; for the lady's beauty was as worthy of homage as her appearing was marvelous.
Mrs. Woffington, too astonished for emotion to take any definite shape, said, in what seemed an ordinary tone: "Who is this lady?"
"I am his wife, madam," said Mabel, in the voice of a skylark, and smiling friendly on the questioner.
"It is my wife!" said Vane, like a speaking-machine; he was scarcely in a conscious state. "It is my wife!" he repeated, mechanically.
The words were no sooner out of Mabel's mouth than two servants, who had never heard of Mrs. Vane before, hastened to place on Mr. Vane's right hand the chair Pomander had provided, a plate and napkin were there in a twinkling, and the wife modestly, but as a matter of course, courtesied low, with an air of welcome to all her guests, and then glided into the seat her servants obsequiously placed before her.
The whole thing did not take half a minute!
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