Chapter 15




THE QUEEN OF BEAUTY.

    O bright regina, who made thee so faire,
    Who made thy colour vermeilie and white?
    Now marveile I nothing that ye do hight
    The quene of love.--CHAUCER.


Only a week had elapsed before the quiet of Bowstead was again disturbed by the arrival of two grooms, with orders that everything should be made ready the next day for the arrival of my Lady, who was on her way to Carminster for a few weeks, and afterwards to Bath. Forthwith Mrs. Aylward and her subordinates fell into a frenzy of opening shutters, lighting fires, laying down carpets and uncovering furniture. Scrubbing was the daily task for the maids, and there was nothing extra possible in that line, but there was hurry enough to exacerbate the temper, and when Aurelia offered her services she was tartly told that she could solely be useful by keeping the children out of the way; for in spite of all rebuffs, they persisted in haunting the footsteps of the housekeeper and maids, Fay gazing with delight at the splendours that were revealed, Amy proffering undesired aid, Letty dancing in the most inconvenient places, romancing about her mamma and little brother, and making sure that her big beautiful brother was also coming.

The were very unwilling to let Aurelia call them away to practise them in bridling, curtseying, and saying "Yes, madam," according to the laws of good breeding so carefully inculcated by sister at home. So anxious was she that she tried them over and over again till they were wearied out, and became so cross and naughty that nothing restored good-homour except gathering blackberries to feast brother Archer.

The intelligence produced less apparent excitement in the dark chamber. When Aurelia, in an eager, awe-stricken voice began, "O sir, have you heard that my Lady is coming?" he calmly replied,

"The sounds in the house have amply heralded her, to say nothing of Jumbo."

"I wonder what she will do!"

"You will not long have known her, my fair friend, without discovering that she is one of the most inscrutable of her sex. The mere endeavour to guess at her plans only produces harassing surmises and alarms."

"Do you think, sir, she can mean to take me away?"

"I suppose that would be emancipation to you, my poor child."

"I should dance to find myself going home," said Aurelia, "yet how could I bear to leave my little girls, or you, sir. Oh! if you could only live at the Great House, at home, I should be quite happy."

"Then you would not willingly abandon the recluse?"

"Indeed," she said with a quivering in her voice, "I cannot endure the notion. You have been so kind and good to me, sir, and I do so enjoy coming to you. And you would be all alone again with Jumbo! Oh sir, could you not drive down if all the coach windows were close shut up? You would have my papa to talk to!"

"And what would your papa say to having a miserable old hermit inflicted on him?"

"He would be only too glad."

No, no, my gentle friend, there are other reasons. I could not make my abode in Lady Belamour's house, while in that of my nephew, my natural home, I have a right to drag out what remains of the existence of mine. Nay, are you weeping, my sweet child? That must not be; your young life must take no darkness from mine. Even should Lady Belamour's arbitrary caprice bear you off without another meeting, remember that you have given me many more happy hours than I ever supposed to be in store for me, and have opened doors which shall not be closed again."

"You will get some one to recite to you?" entreated Aurelia, her voice most unsteady.

"Godfrey shall seek out some poor scholar or exhausted poetaster, with a proviso that he never inflicts his own pieces on me," said Mr. Belamour, in a tone more as if he wished to console her than as it were a pleasing prospect. "Never fear, gentle monitress, I will not sink into the stagnation from which your voice awoke me. Neither Godfrey nor my nephew would allow it. Come, let us put it from our minds. It has always been my experience, that whatever I expected from my much admired sister-in-law, that was the exact reverse of what she actually did. Therefore let us attend to topics, though I wager that you have no fresh acquisitions for me to-day."

"I am ashamed, sir, but I could not fix my mind even to a most frightful description of wolves in Mr. Thomson's 'Winter.'"

"That were scarcely a soothing subject; but we might find calm in something less agitating and more familiar. Perhaps you can recall something too firmly imprinted on your memory to be disturbed by these emotions."

Aurelia bethought herself that she must not disappoint her friend on what might prove their last evening; she began very unsteadily:--

"' Hence, loathed Melancholy.'"

However by the time "Jonson's learned sock" was on, her mechanical repetition had become animated, and she had restored herself to equanimity. When the clock struck nine, her auditor added his thanks, "In case we should not meet again thus, let me beg of my kind visitor to wear this ring in memory of one to whom she has brought a breath indeed from L'Allegro itself. It will not be too large. It was made for a lady."

And amid her tearful thanks she felt a light kiss on her fingers, revealing to her that the hermit must possess a beard, a fact, which in the close-shaven Hanoverian days, conveyed a sense of squalor and neglect almost amounting to horror.

In her own room she dropped many a tear over the ring, which was of course the Cupid intaglio, and she spent the night in strange mixed dreams and yearnings, divided between her father, Betty, and Eugene on the one hand, and Mr. Belamour and the children on the other. Home-sick as she sometimes felt, dull as Bowstead was, she should be sadly grieved to leave those to whom she felt herself almost necessary, though her choice must needs be for her home.

Early the next day arrived an old roomy berlin loaded heavily with luggage, and so stuffed with men and maids that four stout horses had much ado to bring it up to the door. The servants, grumbling heartily, declared that my Lady was only going to lie here for a single night, and that Sir Amyas was not with her.

Late in the afternoon, a couple of outriders appeared to say that the great lady was close at hand, and Aurelia, in her best blue sacque, and India muslin cap, edged with Flanders lace, had her three little charges, all in white with red shoes, red sashes, and red ribbons in their caps, drawn up in the hall to welcome their mother.

Up swept the coach with six horses, Mr. Dove behind--runners in fact, who at times rested themselves by an upright swing on the foot-board.

The door of the gorgeous machine was thrown open, and forth sprang a pretty little boy. Next descended the friendly form of Mrs. Dove, then a smart person, who was my Lady's own woman, and finally something dazzlingly grand and beautiful in feathers, light blue, and silver.

Aurelia made her reverence, and so did the little triad; the great lady bent her head, and gave a light kiss to the brow of each child, and the boy sprang forward, crying: "You are my sisters. You must play with me, and do whatever I choose." Amoret and he began kissing on the spot, but Fidelia, regarding must as a forbidden word, looked up at Aurelia with an inquiring protest in her eyes; but it was not heeded, in the doubt whether to follow Lady Belamour, who, with a stately greeting to Mrs. Aylward, had sailed into the withdrawing- room. The question was decided by Mrs. Aylward standing back to make room, and motioning her forward, so she entered, Letty preceding her and Fay clinging to her.

By the hearth stood the magnificent figure, holding out a long, beautiful, beringed hand, which Aurelia shyly kissed, bending as before a queen, while her forehead received the same slight salute as had been given to the little girls. "My cousin Delavie's own daughter," said the lady: "You have the family likeness."

"So I have been told, madam."

"Your father is well, I hope."

"He was pretty well, I thank you Ladyship, when I heard from my sister ten days ago."

"I shall see him in a week's time, and shall report well of his little daughter," said Lady Belamour kindly. "I am under obligations to you, my dear. You seem to have tamed my little savages."

Aurelia was amazed, for the universal awe of my Lady had made her expect a harsh and sever Semiramis style of woman, whereas she certainly saw a majestic beauty, but with none of the terrors that she had anticipated. The voice was musical and perfectly modulated, the manner more caressing than imperious towards herself, and studiously polite to the house keeper. While orders were being given as to arrangements, Aurelia took in the full details of the person of whom she had heard so much. It seemed incredible that Lady Belamour could have been mother to contemporaries of Betty, for she looked younger than Betty herself. Her symmetry and carriage were admirable, and well shown by the light blue habit laced richly and embroidered with silver. A small round hat with a cluster of white ostrich feathers was placed among the slightly frizzed and powdered masses of mouse-coloured hair, surmounting a long ivory neck, whose graceful turn, the theme of many a sonnet, was not concealed by the masculine collar of the habit. The exquisite oval contour of the cheek, the delicate ear, and Grecian profile were as perfect in moulding as when she had been Sir Jovian's bride, and so were the porcelain blue of the eyes, the pencilled arches of eyebrow, and the curve of the lips, while even her complexion retained its smooth texture, and tints of the lily and rose. Often as Aurelia had heard of her beauty, its splendour dazzled and astonished her, even in this travelling dress.

Archer, who was about a year older than his sisters, was more like Amoret than the other two, with azure eyes, golden curls, and a plump rosy face, full of fun and mischief. Tired of the confinement of the coach, he was rushing round the house with Amoret, opening the doors and looking into the rooms. The other little sisters remained beside Aurelia till their mother said, pointing to Fay: "That child seems to mean to eat me with her eyes. Let all the children be with Nurse Dove, Mrs. Aylward. Miss Delavie will do me the pleasure of supping with me at seven. Present my compliments to Mr. Belamour, and let him know that I will be with him at eight o'clock on particular business." Then turning to the two children, she asked their names, and was answered by each distinctly, with the orthodox "madam" at the end.

"You are improved, little ones," she said: "Did Cousin Aurelia teach you?"

"And Mammy Rolfe," said constant Fay.

"She must teach you next not to stare," said Lady Belamour. "I intend to take one to be a companion to my boy, in the country. When I saw them before, they were rustic little monsters; but they are less unpresentable now. Call your sister, children." And, as the two left the room, she continued: "Which do you recommend, cousin?"

"Fidelia is the most reasonable, madam," said Aurelia.

"But not the prettiest, I trust. She is too like her father, with those dark brows, and her eyes have a look deep enough to frighten one. They will frighten away the men, if she do not grow out of it."

Here the door burst open, and, without any preliminary bow, Master Archer flew in, crying out "Mamma, mamma, we must stay here. The galleries are so long, and it is such a place for whoop-hide!"

His sisters were following his bad example, and rushing in with equal want of ceremony, but though their mother held the boy unchecked on her knee, Aurelia saw how she could frown. "You forget yourselves," she said.

Amoret looked ready to cry, but at a sign from their young instructress, they backed and curtsied, and their mother reviewed them; Letitia was the most like the Delavies, but also the smallest, while Amoret was on the largest scale and would pair best with her brother, who besides loudly proclaimed his preference for her, and she was therefore elected to the honour of being taken home. Aurelia was requested as a favour to bid the children's woman have the child's clothes ready repaired to her own room.

The little wardrobe could only be prepared by much assistance from Aurelia herself, and she could attend to nothing else; while the children were all devoted to Archer, and she only heard their voices in the distance, till--as she was dressing for her tete-a-tete supper--Fay came to her crying, "Archer is a naughty boy--he said wicked words--he called her ugly, and had cuffed and pinched her!"

Poor child! she was tired out, and disappointed, and Aurelia could only comfort her by hearing her little prayers, undressing her, and giving her the highly-esteemed treat of sleeping in Cousin Aura's bed; while the others were staying up as long as it pleased Master Archer. This actually was the cause of my Lady being kept waiting, and an apology was needful. "Fidelia was tired out, and was crying."

"A peevish child! I am glad I did not choose her."

"She is usually very good, madam," said Aurelia, eagerly.

"Is she your favourite?"

"I try not to make favourites, madam."

"Ah! there spoke the true Manor House tone," said her Ladyship, rather mockingly. "Maybe she will be a wit, for she will never be a beauty, but the other little one will come on in due time after Amoret."

"Your Ladyship will find Amoret a dear, good, affectionate child," said Aurelia. "Only---"

"Reserve that for nurse, so please you, my good girl. It is enough for me to see the brats on their good manners now and then. You have had other recreations--shall I call them, or cares? I never supposed, when I sent you here to attend on the children, that the hermit of Bowstead would summon you! I assure you it is an extraordinary honour."

"I so esteem it, madam," said Aurelia, blushing.

"More honour than pleasure, eh?"

"A great pleasure, madam."

"Say you so?" and the glittering blue eyes were keenly scanning the modest face. "I should have thought a young maid like you would have had the dismals at the mere notion of going near his dark chamber. I promise you it gives me the megrim [migraine--D.L.] to look forward to it."

"I was affrighted at first, madam," said Aurelia; "but Mr. Belamour is so good and kind to me that I exceedingly enjoy the hours I spend with him."

"La, child, you speak with warmth! We shall have you enamoured of a voice like the youth they make sonnets about--what's his name?"

"Narcissus, madam," said Aurelia, put out of countenance by the banter.

"Oh, you are learned. Is Mr. Belamour your tutor, pray? And--oh fie! I have seen that ring before!"

"He gave it to me yesterday," faltered Aurelia, "in case you should intend to take me away, and I should not see him again. I hope I was not wrong in accepting it, madam."

"Wrong, little fool, assuredly not," said my Lady, laughing. "It is an ensign of victory. Why, child, you have made a conquest worthy of--let me see. You, or the wits, could tell me who it was that stormed the very den of Cocytus and bore off the spoil!"

Aurelia liked the tone too little to supply the names; yet she felt flattered; but she said quietly, "I am happy to have been the means of cheering him."

The grave artlessness of the manner acted as a kind of check, and Lady Belamour said in a different tone, "Seriously, child, the family are truly obliged for your share in rousing the poor creature from his melancholy. My good man made the attempt, but all in vain. What do you to divert him?"

In inquires of this kind the supper hour passed, and Lady Belamour was then to keep her appointment with her brother-in-law. She showed so much alarm and dread that Aurelia could not but utter assurances and encouragements, which again awoke that arch manner, partly bantering, partly flattering, which exercised a sort of pleasant perplexing fascination on the simple girl.

After being dismissed, Aurelia went in search of Mrs. Dove, whom she found with Molly, taking stock of Amoret's little wardrobe. The good woman rose joyfully. "Oh, my dear missie! I am right thankful to see you looking so purely. I don't know how I could have held up my head to Miss Delavie if I had not seen you!"

"Ah! you will see my sister and all of them," cried Aurelia, a sudden rush of home-sickness bringing tears to her eyes, in oblivion alike of her recluse and her pupils. "Oh! if I were but going with you! But what folly am I talking? You must not let them think I am not happy, for indeed I am. Will you kindly come to my room, dear nurse, and I will give you a packet for them?"

Mrs. Dove willingly availed herself of the opportunity of explaining how guiltless she had been of the sudden separation at Knightsbridge four months back. She had been in such haste to ride after and overtake the coach, that she had even made Dove swear at her for wanting to give the horses no time to rest, and she had ridden off on her own particular pillion long before the rest. She had been surprised that she never succeeded in catching up the carriage, but never suspected the truth till she had dismounted in Hanover Square and asked whether "Miss" were with my Lady. Nobody knew anything about Miss Delavie, nor expected her; and the good woman's alarm was great until she had had an interview with her Ladyship, when she was told not to concern herself about the young lady, who was safely bestowed in the country with the Miss Wayland. "But that it was here, if you'll believe me, missie, I was as innocent as the babe unborn, and so was his Honour, Sir Amyas. Indeed, my Lady gave him to understand that she had put you to boarding-school with his little sisters."

"Oh! nurse, that is impossible!"

"Lawk-a-day, missie, there's nothing my Lady wouldn't say to put him off the scent. Bless you, 'tis not for us servants to talk, or I could tell you tales! But there, mum's the word, as my Dove says, or he wouldn't ha' sat on his box these twenty year!"

"My Lady is very kind to me," said Aurelia, with a little assumption of her father's repressive manner.

"I'm right glad to hear it, Miss Aureely. A sweet lady she can be when she is in the mood, though nothing like so sweet as his Honour. 'Tis ingrain with him down to the bone, as I may say--and I should know, having had him from the day he was weaned. To see him come up to the nussery, and toss about his little brother, would do your very heart good; and then he sits him down, without a bit of pride, and will have me tell him all about our journey up to Lunnon, and the fair, and the play and all; and the same with Dove in the stables. He would have the whole story, and how we was parted at Knightsbridge, I never so much as guessing where you was--you that your sister had given into my care! At last, one day when I was sitting a darning of stockings in the window at the back, where I can see out over to the green fields, up his Honour comes, and says he, with his finger to his lips, 'Set your heart at rest, nurse, I've found her!' Then he told me how he went down to see his old uncle. Mr. Wayland had been urging him on one side that 'twas no more than his duty; and her Ladyship, on the other, would have it that Mr. Belamour was right down melancholy mad, and would go into a raving fit if his nevvy did but go near the place."

"She did not say that!"

"Oh yes, she did, miss, I'll take my oath of it, for I was in the coach with Master Wayland on my knee, when she was telling a lady how hard it was they could have no use of Bowstead, because of Sir Jovian's brother being there, who had got the black melancholics, and could not be removed. The lady says how good she was to suffer it, and she answers, that there was no being harsh with poor Sir Jovian's brother, though he had a strange spleen at her and her son, and always grew worse when they did but go near the house; but that some measures must be taken when her son came of age or was married."

"But he came at last!"

"He said he wanted to see for himself, and thought he could at least find out from the servants whether his uncle was in the state they reported. And there he found his three little sisters, and that you was their tutoress, and they couldn't say enough about you, nor the poor gentleman neither. 'I didn't see her, nurse,' says he, 'but there's a bit of her own sweet fingers' work.' And sure enough, I knew it, for it was a knot of the very ribbon you had in your hair the day I came to talk to your sister about the journey."

"That was what Amy told me she gave him."

"Nothing loth would he be to take it, miss! Though says he, 'Don't you let my mother know I have tracked her, nurse,' says he. 'It is plain enough why she gives out that I am not to go near my uncle, and if she guessed where I had been, she would have some of her fancies.' 'Now your Honour, my dear,' says I, 'you'll excuse your old nurse, but her sister put her in my charge, and though I bless Heaven that you are no young rake, yet you will be bringing trouble untold on her and hers if you go down there a courting of her unbeknownst.' 'No danger of that, nurse,' says he; 'why there's a she-dragon down there (meaning Mrs. Aylward) that was ready to drive me out of my own house when I did but speak of waiting to see her.'"

"No, I am glad he will not come again. Yet it makes his uncle happy to see him. I will keep out of the way if he does."

"Right too, miss. A young lady never loses by discretion."

"Oh, do not speak in--in that way," said Aurelia, blushing at the implication. "Besides, he is going home with my Lady to dear Carminster."

"No, no, he remains with his regiment in town, unless he rides down later when he can have his leave of absence, and my Lady is at the Bath. He will not if he can help it, for he is dead set against the young lady they want to marry him to, and she is to be there. What! you have not heard? It is my Lady Arabella, sister to that there Colonel as is more about our house than I could wish. She is not by the same mother as him and my Lord Aresfield. Her father married a great heiress for his second wife, whose father had made a great fortune by victualling the army in the war time. Not that this Dowager Countess, as they call her, is a bit like the real quality, so that it is a marvel how my Lady can put up with her; only money- bags will make anything go down, more's the pity, and my Lady is pressed, you see, with her losses at play. It was about this match that Sir Amyas was sent down to Battlefield, the Countess's place in Monmouthshire, when he came to Carminster last summer, and his body servant, Mr. Grey, that has been about him from a child, told me all about it. This Lady Belle, as they call her, is only about fourteen, and such a spoilt little vixen, that they say nobody has been able to teach her so much as to read, for her mother, the Dowager, never would have her crossed in anything, and now she has got too headstrong for any of 'em. Mr. Grey said dressing for supper, they heard the most horrid screams, and thought some one must be killed at least. Sir Amyas was for running out, but at the door they met a wench who only said, 'Bless you! that's nought. It's only my young lady in her tantrums!' So in the servants' hall, Grey heard it was all because her mamma wouldn't let her put on two suits of pearls and di'monds both together. She lies on her back, and rolls and kicks till she gets her own way; and by what the servants say, the Dowager heerself ain't much better to her servants. Her woman had got a black eye she had given her with her fan. She has never had no breeding, you see, and there are uglier stories about her than I like to tell you, Miss Aureely; and as to the young lady, Sir Amyas saw her with his own eyes slap the lackey's face for bringing her brown sugar instead of white. She is a little dwarfish thing that puts her finger in her mouth and sulks when she is not flying out into a rage; but Colonel Mar is going to have her up to a boarding-school to mend her manners, and he and my lady are as much bent on marrying his Honour to her as if she was a perfect angel."

"They never can!"

"Well, miss, they do most things they have a mind to; and they mean to do this before my Lady's husband comes home."

"But Mr. Belamour is his nephew's guardian."

"That's what my Lady is come down here for. Either she will get his consent out of him, or she will make the poor gentleman out to be non compos, and do without him."

"Oh, nurse, he is the wisest, cleverest gentleman I ever saw, except my papa."

"Do you say do, miss? But you are young, you see. A gentleman to shut himself up in the dark like that must needs be astray in his wits."

"That is because of his eyes, and his wound. Nobody could talk to him and doubt his reason."

"Well, missie, I hope you are in the right; but what my Lady's interest is, that she is apt to carry out, one way or t'other! Bless me, if that be not Master Archer screaming. I thought he was fast off to sleep. There never was a child for hating the dark. Yes, yes, I'm coming, my dearie! Lack a daisy, if his mamma heard!"




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