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THE VICTIM DEMANDED.
And if thou sparest now to do this thing, I will destroy thee and thy land also.--MORRIS.
"Well, sir, have you seen my Lady?"
"Not a year older than when I saw her last," returned Major Delavie, who had just dismounted from his trusty pony at his garden gate, and accepted Betty's arm; "and what think you?" he added, pausing that Corporal Palmer might hear his news. "She has been at Bowstead, and brings fresh tidings of our Aura. The darling is as fair and sprightly as a May morning, and beloved by all who come near her--bless her!"
Palmer echoed a fervent "Amen!" and Betty asked, "Is this my Lady's report?"
"Suspicious Betty! You will soon be satisfied," said the Major in high glee. "Did not Dove meet me at the front door, and Mrs. Dove waylay me in the hall to tell me that the child looked blooming and joyous, and in favour with all, gentle and simple? Come her, Eugene, ay, and Harriet and Arden too. Let us hear what my little maid says for herself. For look here!" and he held aloft Aurelia's packet, at sight of which Eugene capered high, and all followed into the parlour.
Mr. Arden was constantly about the house. There was no doubt that he would soon be preferred to a Chapter living in Buckinghamshire, and he had thus been emboldened to speak out his wishes. It would have been quite beneath the dignity of a young lady of Miss Harriet's sensibility to have consented, and she was in the full swing of her game at coyness and reluctance, daily vowing that nothing should induce her to resign her liberty, and that she should be frightened out of her life by Mr. Arden's experiments; while her father had cordially received the minor Canon's proposals, and already treated him as one of the family. Simpering had been such a fattening process that Harriet was beginning to resume more of her good looks than had ever been brought back by Maydew.
"Open the letter, Betty. Thanks, Arden," as the minor Canon began to pull off his boots, "only take care of my knee. My Lady has brought down her little boy, and one of Aurelia's pupils; I declare they are a perfect pair of Loves. What are you fumbling at, Betty?"
"The seal, sir, it is a pity to break it," said Betty, producing her scissors from one of her capacious pockets. "It is an antique, is it not, Mr. Arden?"
"A very beautiful gem, a sleeping Cupid," he answered.
"How could the child have obtained it?" said Harriet.
"I can tell you," said the Major. "From old Belamour. My Lady was laughing about it. The little puss has revived the embers of gallantry in our poor recluse. Says she, 'He has actually presented her with a ring, nay, a ring bearing Love himself.'"
Somehow the speech, even at second hand, jarred upon Betty, but her father was delighted with my Lady's description of his favourite, and the letters were full of contentment. When the two sisters, arrayed in their stiffest silks, went up to pay their respects to my Lady the next afternoon, their reception was equally warm. My Lady was more caressing to her old acquaintance, Betty, than that discreet personage quite liked, while she complimented and congratulated Harriet on her lover, laughing at her bashful disclaimers in such a charmingly teasing fashion as quite to win the damsel's heart, and convince her that all censure of Lady Belamour was vile slander. The children were sent for, and Amoret was called on to show how Cousin Aurelia had taught her to dance, sing and recite. The tiny minuet performed by her and Archer was an exceedingly pretty exhibition as far as it went, but the boy had no patience to conclude, and jumped off into an extemporary pas seul, which was still prettier, and as Amoret was sole exhibitor of the repetition of Hay's "Hare and many friends," he became turbulent after the first four lines, and put a stop to the whole.
Then came in a tall, large, handsome, dashing-looking man, with the air of a "beau sabreur," whom Lady Belamour presented to her cousins as "Colonel Mar, my son's commandant, you know who has been kind enough to take Carminster on his way, so as to escort me to the Bath. I am such a sad coward about highwaymen. And we are to meet dear Lady Aresfield there to talk over a little matter of business."
Colonel Mar made a magnificent bow, carelessly, not to say impertinently, scanned the two ladies, and having evidently decided they had neither beauty nor fashion to attract him, caught up little Amy in his arms, and began to play a half teasing, half caressing game with the children. Betty thought it high time to be gone, and as she took leave, was requested to send up her little brother to play with his cousins. This did not prove a success, for Eugene constituted himself champion to Amoret, of whom Archer was very jealous, though she was his devoted and submissive slave. Master Delavie's rustic ways were in consequence pronounced to be too rude and rough for the dainty little town-bred boy, the fine ladies' pet.
The Major dined at the Great House, but came home so much dismayed and disgusted that he could hardly mention even to Betty what he had seen and heard. He only groaned out at intervals, "This is what the service is coming to! That fop to be that poor lad's commanding officer! That rake to be always hovering about my cousin!"
Others spoke out more plainly. Stories were afloat or orgies ending in the gallant Colonel being under the supper table, a thing only too common, but not in the house of a solitary lady who had only lately quitted the carousers. Half the dependants on the estate were complaining of the guest's swaggering overbearing treatment of themselves, or of his insolence to their wives or daughters; and Betty lived in a dreadful unnamed terror lest he should offer some impertinence to her father which the veteran's honour might not brook. However, there was something in the old soldier's dignity and long service that kept the arrogance of the younger man in check, and repressed all bluster towards him.
Demands for money were, as usual, made, but the settlement of accounts was deferred till the arrival of Hargrave, the family man of business, who came by coach to Bath, and then rode across to Carminster. The Major dined that day at the Great House, and came home early, with something so strange and startled about his looks that Betty feared that her worst misgivings were realised. It was a relief to hear him say, "Come hither, Betty, I want a word with you." At least it was no duel!
"What is it, dear sir?" she asked, as she shut his study door. "Is it come at last? Must we quit this place?"
"No, I could bear that better, but what do you think she asks of me now?--to give my little Aurelia, my beautiful darling, to that madman in the dark!"
"Oh!" exclaimed Betty, in a strange tone of discovery. "May I inquire what you said?"
"I said--I scarce know what I said. I declared it monstrous, and not to be thought of for a moment; and then she went on in her fashion that would wile a bird off a bush, declaring that no doubt the proposal was a shock, but if I would turn the matter over, I should see it was for the dear child's advantage. Belamour dotes on her, and after being an old man's darling for a few years, she may be free in her prime, with an honourable name and fortune."
"I dare say. As if one could not see through the entire design. My Lady would call her sister-in-law to prevent her being daughter-in-law!"
"That fancy has had no aliment, and must long ago have died out."
"Listen to Nurse Dove on that matter."
"Women love to foster notions of that sort."
"Nay, sir, you believe, as I do, that the poor child was conveyed to Bowstead in order that the youth might lose sight of her, and since he proves refractory to the match intended for him, this further device is found for destroying any possible hope on his part."
"I cannot say what may actuate my Lady, but if Amyas Belamour be the man I knew, and as the child's own letters paint him, he is not like to lend himself to any such arrangement."
"Comes the offer from him, or is it only a scheme of my Lady's?"
"He never writes more than a signature, but Hargrave is empowered to make proposals to me, very handsome proposals too, were not the bare idea intolerable."
"Aurelia is not aware of it, I am sure," said Betty, to whom Hargrave had brought another packet of cheerful innocent despatches, of which, as usual, the unseen friend in the dark was the hero.
"Certainly not, and I hope she never may be. I declared the notion was not to be entertained for a moment; but Urania never, in her life, would take no for an answer, and she talked me nearly out of my senses, then bade me go home, think it over, and discuss it with my excellent and prudent daughter; as if all the thinking and talking in the world could make it anything but more intolerable."
His prudent daughter understood in the adjective applied to her a hint which the wily lady would not have dared to make direct to the high-spirited old soldier, namely, that the continuance of his livelihood might depend on his consent. Betty knew likewise enough of the terrible world of the early eighteenth century to be aware that even such wedlock as this was not the worst to which a woman like Lady Belamour might compel the poor girl, who was entirely in her power, and out of reach of all protection; unless-- An idea broke in on her--"If we could but go to Bowstead, sir," she said, "then we could judge whether the notion be as repugnant to Aurelia as it is to us, and whether Mr. Belamour be truly rational and fit to be trusted with her."
"I tell you, Betty, it is a mere absurdity to think of it. I believe the child is fond of, and grateful to, the poor man, but if she supposed she loved him, it would be mere playing on her ignorance."
"Then we could take her safely home and bear the consequences together, without leaving her alone exposed to any fresh machination of my Lady."
"You are right, Betty. You have all your sainted mother's good sense. I will tell my cousin that this is not a matter to be done blindly, and that I withhold my reply till I have seen and spoken with her and this most preposterous of suitors."
"Yes, it is the only way," said Betty. "We can then judge whether it be a cruel sacrifice, or whether the child have affection and confidence enough in him to be reasonably happy with him. What is his age, father?"
"Let me see. Poor Sir Jovian was much older than Urania, but he died at forty years old. His brother was some three years his junior. He cannot be above forty-six or seven. That is not the objection, but the moody melancholy--Think of our gay sprightly child!"
"We will see, sir."
"We! Mistress Betty? The cost will be severe without you!"
"Nay, sir, I cannot rest without going too; you might be taken ill."
"You cannot trust a couple of old campaigners like Palmer and me? What did we do without you?"
"Got lamed for life," said Betty, saucily. "No, I go on a pillion behind Palmer, and my grandfather's diamond ring shall pay expenses."
"Sir Archibald's ring that he put on two baby fingers of yours when he went off to Scotland."
"Better part with that then resign my Aurelia in the dark, uncertain whether it be for her good."
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