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THE SHAFTS OF PHOEBE.
Her golden bow she bends, Her deadly arrows sending forth.--Greek Hymn (KEIGHTLEY).
On coming in from a walk, Aurelia was surprised by the tidings that Mistress Phoebe Treforth had come to call on her, and had left a billet. The said billet was secured with floss silk sealed down in the antiquated fashion, and was written on full-sized quarto paper. These were the contents:--
"My Sister and Myself are desirous of the Honour of your Acquaintance, and shall be happy if you will do use the Pleasure of coming to partake of Dinner at Three o'Clock on Tuesday, the 13th instant.
"Yours to command,
Aurelia carried the invitation to her oracle.
"My cousins are willing to make your acquaintance?" said he. "That is well. Jumbo shall escort you home in the evening."
"Thank you, sir, but must I accept the invitation?"
"It could not be declined without incivility. Moreover, the Mistresses Treforth are highly respected, and your father and sister will certainly think it well for you to have female friends."
"Do you think those ladies could ever be my friends, sir?" she asked, with an intonation that made him reply, with a sound of amusement.
"I am no judge in such matters, but they are ladies connected and esteemed, who might befriend and counsel you in case of need, and at any rate, it is much more suitable that you should be on terms of friendly intercourse with them. I am heartily glad they have shown you this attention."
"I do not mean to be ungrateful, sir."
"And I think you have disproved that
Crabbed age and youth
Cannot live together."
"If they were only like you, sir!"
"What would they say to that?" he said with the slight laugh that had begun to enliven his voice. "I suppose your charges are not included in the invitation?"
"No; but Molly can take care of them, if my Lady will not object to my leaving them."
"She cannot reasonably do so."
"And, sir, shall I be permitted to come home in time for you to receive me?"
"I fear I must forego that pleasure. The ladies will insist on cards and supper. Jumbo shall come for you at nine o'clock."
Aurelia submitted, and tripped down arrayed in the dress that recalled the fete at Carminster, except that only a little powder was sprinkled on her temples. the little girls jumped round her in admiring ecstasy, and, under Molly's charge, escorted her to the garden gate, and hovered outside to see her admitted, while she knocked timidly at the door, in the bashful alarm of making her first independent visit.
The loutish man ushered her into a small close room, containing a cat, a little spaniel, a green parrot, a spinning-wheel, and an embroidery frame. There were also the two old ladies, dressed with old-fashioned richness, a little faded, and a third, in a crimson, gold-laced joseph [A long riding coat with a small cape, worn by women in the 18th century.--D.L.], stout, rubicund, and hearty, to whom Aurelia was introduced thus--
"Mrs. Hunter, allow me to present to you Miss Delavie, a relative of my Lady Belamour. Miss Delavie, Mrs. Hunter of Brentford."
"I am most happy to make your acquaintance, Miss," said the lady, in a jovial voice, and Aurelia made her curtsey, but at that moment the man announced that dinner was served, whereupon Mrs. Delia handed Mrs. Hunter in, and Mrs. Phoebe took the younger guest.
The ladies' faces both bore token of their recent attention to the preparation of the meal, and the curious dishes would have been highly interesting to Betty, but there was no large quantity of any, and a single chicken was the piece de resistance, whence very tiny helps were dealt out, and there was much unnecessary pressing to take a little more, both of that and of the brace of partridges which succeeded it. As to conversation, there was room for none, except hospitable invitations from the hostesses to take the morsels that they cut for their guests, praises of the viands from Mrs. Hunter, and endeavours to fish at the recipes, which the owners guarded jealously as precious secrets. Aurelia sat perfectly silent, as was then reckoned as proper in a young lady of her age, except when addressed. A good deal of time was also expended in directing John Stiggins, the ladies' own man, and George Brown, who had ridden with Mrs. Hunter from Brentford, in the disposal of the dishes, and the handing of the plates. George Brown was the more skilled waiter, and as the man who was at home did not brook interference, their disputes were rude and audible, and kept the ladies in agonies lest they should result in ruin to the best china.
At last, however, the cloth was removed, walnuts, apples, pears, and biscuits were placed on the table, a glass of wine poured out for each lady, and the quartette, with the cat and dog, drew near the sunny window, where there was a little warmth. It was a chilly day, but no one ever lighted a fire before the 5th of November, Old Style.
Then began one of those catechisms which fortunately are less unpleasant to youth and simplicity than they are to persons of an age to resent inquiry, and who have more resources of conversation. In truth, Aurelia was in the eyes of the Treforth sisters, descendants of a former Sir Jovian, only my Lady's poor kinswoman sent down to act gouvernante to the Wayland brats, who had been impertinently quartered in the Belamour household. She would have received no further notice, had it not been reported through the servants that "young Miss" spent the evenings with their own cousin, from whom they had been excluded ever since his illness.
The subject was approached through interrogations on Miss Delavie's home and breeding, how she had travelled, and what were her accomplishments, also whether she were quite sure that none of the triad was either imbecile nor deformed. Mrs. Hunter seemed to have heard wonderful rumours about the poor children.
"Has their lady mother seen them?"
"Yes, madam. She had been there with them shortly before my arrival."
"Only once in their lives!" There was a groan of censure such as would have fired the loyal Major in defence.
"No wonder, Sister Phoebe, my Lady Belamour does not lead the life of a tender mother."
"She has the little boy, Archer, with her in London," Aurelia ventured to say.
"And a perfect puppet she makes of the poor child," said Mrs. Hunter. "My sister Chetwynd saw him with his mother at a masquerade, my Lady Belamour flaunting as Venus, and he, when he ought to have been in his bed, dressed in rose-colour and silver, with a bow and arrows, and gauze wings on his shoulders!"
"What will that child come to?"
"Remember, Sister Delia, he is no kin of ours. He is only a Wayland!" returned Mrs. Phoebe, in an accent as if the Waylands were the most contemptible of vermin.
"I hope," added Mrs. Delia, "that these children are never permitted to incommode our unfortunate cousin, Mr. Belamour."
"I trust not, madam," said Aurelia. "Their rooms are at a distance from his; they are good children, and he says he likes to hear young voices in the gardens."
"You have, then, seen Mr. Belamour?"
"I cannot say that I have seen him," said Aurelia, modestly; "but I have conversed with him."
"Indeed! Alone with him?"
"Jumbo was there."
The two old ladies drew themselves up, while Mrs. Hunter chuckled and giggled. "Indeed!" said Mrs. Phoebe; "we should never see a gentleman in private without each other's company, or that of some female companion."
"I consulted Mrs. Aylward," returned Aurelia, "and she said he was old enough to be my father."
"Mrs. Aylward may be a respectable housekeeper, though far too lavish of butcher's meat, but I should never have recourse to her on a matter of decorum," said Mrs. Phoebe.
Aurelia's cheeks burnt, but she still defended herself. "I have heard from my father and my sister," she said, "and they make no objection."
"Hoity-toity! What means this heat, miss?" exclaimed Mrs. Phoebe; "I am only telling you, as a kindness, what we should have thought becoming with regard even to a blood relation of our own."
"Thank you, ma'am," said Aurelia; "but, you see, you are so much nearer his age, that the cases are not alike."
She said it in all simplicity, and did not perceive, at first, why the two sisters drew themselves up in so much offence, or why Mrs. Hunter cried, "Oh, fie, for shame, you saucy chit! Bless me!" she continued, more good-naturedly, "Cousin Phoebe, times are changed since we were young, and poor Sir Jovian and his brother were the county beaux. The child is right enough when one comes to think of it; and for my part, I should be glad that poor Mr. Amyas had some one young and cheerful about him. It is only a pity his nephew, the young baronet, never comes down to see him."
"Like mother like son," said Mrs. Phoebe; "I grieve to think what the old place will come to."
"Well," said Mrs. Hunter, "I do not hear the young gentleman ill spoken of; though, more's the pity, he is in a bad school with Colonel Mar for his commanding officer, the fine gallant who is making his mother the talk of the town!"
The gossip and scandal then waxed fast and furious on the authority of Mrs. Hunter's sister, but no one paid any more attention to Aurelia, except that when there was an adjournment to the next room, she was treated with such double stiffness and ceremony as to make her feel that she had given great offence, and was highly disapproved of by all but Mrs. Hunter. And Aurelia could not like her, for her gossip had been far broader and coarser than that of the Mistresses Treforth, who, though more bitter were more of gentlewomen. Happily much of what passed was perfectly unintelligible to Betty's carefully shielded pupil, who sat all the time with the cat on her lap, listening to its purring music, but feeling much more inclined to believe nothing against my Lady, after her father's example, than to agree with those who were so evidently prejudiced. Tea was brought in delicate porcelain cups, then followed cards, which made the time pass less drearily till supper. This consisted of dishes still tinier than those at dinner, and it was scarcely ended when it was announced that Jumbo had come for Miss Delavie.
Gladly she departed, after an exchange of curtsies, happily not hearing the words behind her:--
"An artful young minx."
"And imagine the impudence of securing Jumbo's attendance, forsooth!"
"Nay," said Mrs. Hunter, "she seemed to me a pretty modest young gentlewoman enough."
"Pretty! Yes, she comes of my Lady's own stock, and will be just such another."
"Yes; it is quite plain that it is true that my Lady sent her here because she had been spreading the white apron for the young baronet."
"And now she is trying her arts on poor cousin Amyas Belamour. You heard how she would take no advice, and replied with impertinence."
"Shall you give my Lady a hint?"
"Not I. I have been treated with too much insolence by Lady Belamour to interfere with her again," said Mrs. Phoebe, drawing herself up; "I shall let things take their course unless I can remonstrate with my own kinsman."
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