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AMONG THE COWSLIPS.
The insect youth are on the wing, Eager to taste the honeyed spring, And float amid the liquid noon, Some lightly on the torrent skim, Some show their gaily gilded trim, Quick glancing to the sun.--GRAY
Though hours were early, the morning meal was not served till so late as really to deserve the title of breakfast.
When the three sisters sat down at nine-o'clock, in mob caps, and the two younger in white dresses, all had been up at least two hours. Aurelia led forward little Eugene in a tailed red coat, long-breasted buff waistcoat, buff tights and knitted stockings, with a deep frilled collar under the flowing locks on his shoulders, in curls which emulated a wig. She had been helping him to prepare "his tasks" from the well-thumbed but strongly-bound books which had served poor Archie before him. They were deposited on the window-seat to wait till the bowls of bread and milk were discussed, since tea and coffee were only a special afternoon treat not considered as wholesome for children; so that Aurelia had only just been promoted to them, along with powder and fan.
Harriet wore her favourite pistachio ribbon round her cap and as a breast-knot, and her cheeks bore token of one of the various washes with which she was always striving to regain the smoothness of her complexion. Knowing what this betokened, an elder-sisterly instinct of caution actuated Betty to remind her juniors of an engagement made with Dame Jewel of the upland farm for the exchange of a setting of white duck's eggs for one of five-toed fowls, and to request them to carry the basket.
Eugene danced on his chair and begged to be of the party; but Harriet pouted, and asked why the "odd boy" could not be sent.
"Because, as you very well know, if he did not break, he would addle, every egg in the basket.
"There can be no need to go to-day."
"The speckled hen is clocking to brood, and she is the best mother in the yard. Besides, it is time that the cowslip wine were made, and I will give you some bread and cheese and gingerbread for noonchin, so that you may fill your baskets in the meadows before they are laid up for grass. Mrs. Jewel will give you a drink of milk."
"O let me go, sister!" pleaded Eugene. "She gives us bread and honey! And I want to hear the lapwings in the meadows cry pee-wit."
"We shall have you falling into the river," said Harriet, rather fretfully.
"No, indeed! If you fall in, I will pull you out. Young maids should not run about the country without a gentleman to take care of them. Should they, sister?" cried the doughty seven years' old champion.
"Who taught you that, sir?" asked Betty, trying to keep her countenance.
"I heard Mrs. Churchill say so to my papa," returned the boy. "So now, there's a good sister. Do pray let me go!"
"If you say your tasks well, and will promise to be obedient to Harriet and to keep away from the river, and not touch the basket of eggs."
Eugene was ready for any number of promises; and Harriet, seeing there was no escape for her, went off with Aurelia to put on their little three-cornered muslin handkerchiefs and broad-brimmed straw hats, while Eugene repeated his tasks, namely, a fragment of the catechism, half a column of spelling from the Universal Spelling-Book, and (Betty's special pride) his portion of the Orbis Sensualium Pictus of Johannes Amos Comenius, the wonderful vocabulary, with still more wonderful "cuts," that was then the small boys path to Latinity.
The Eagle, Aquila, the King of Birds, Rex Avium, looketh at the Sun, intuetur Solem, as indeed he could hardly avoid doing, since in the "cut" the sun was within a hairsbreath of his beak, while his claws were almost touching a crow (Corvus) perched on a dead horse, to exemplify how Aves Raptores fed on carrion.
Thanks to Aurelia's private assistance, Eugene knew his lessons well enough for his excitement not to make him stumble so often as to prevent Betty's pronouncing him a good boy, and dispensing with his copy, sum, piece, and reading, until the evening. These last were very tough affairs, the recitation being from Shakespeare, and the reading from the Spectator. There were no children's books, properly so called, except the ballads, chap-books brought round by pedlers, often far from edifying, and the plunge from the horn- book into general literature was, to say the least of it, bracing.
The Delavie family was cultivated for the time. French had been brought home as a familiar tongue, though Telemaque, Racine, and Le Grand Cyrus were the whole library in that language; and there was not another within thirty miles. On two days in the week the sisters became Mesdemoiselles Elisabeth, Henriette, and Aurelie, and conversed in French over their spinning, seams, lace, or embroidery; nor was Aurelia yet emancipated from reciting Racine on alternate days with Milton and Shakespeare.
Betty could likewise talk German with the old Austrian maid, Nannerl, who had followed the family from Vienna; but the accomplishment was not esteemed, and the dialect was barbarous. From the time of her mother's death, Betty had been a strict and careful, though kind, ruler to her sisters; and the long walk was a greater holiday to Aurelia than to Eugene, releasing her from her book and work, whereas he would soon have been trundling his hoop, and haunting the steps of Palmer, who was gardener as well as valet, butler, and a good deal besides, and moreover drilled his young master. Thus Eugene carried his head as erect as any Grenadier in the service, and was a thorough little gentleman in miniature; a perfect little beau, as his sisters loved to call the darling of their hearts and hopes.
Even Harriet could not be cross to him, though she made Aurelia carry the eggs, and indulged in sundry petulant whisks of the fan which she carried by way of parasol. "Now, why does Betty do this?" she exclaimed, as soon as they were out of hearing. "Is it to secure to herself the whole enjoyment of your beau?"
"You forget," said Aurelia. "You promised to fetch the eggs, when we met Mrs. Jewel jogging home from market on her old blind white horse last Saturday, because you said no eggs so shaken could ever be hatched."
"You demure chit!" exclaimed Harriet; "would you make me believe that you have no regrets for so charming a young gentleman, my Lady's son and our kinsman."
"If he spoke to me I should not know how to answer. And then you would blame my rudeness. Besides," she added, with childish sagacity, "he can be nothing but a fine London macaroni. Only think of the cowslips! A whole morning to make cowslip balls," she added with a little frisk. "I would not give one for all the macaronies in England, with their powder and their snuff-boxes. Faugh!"
"Ah, child, you will sing another note perhaps when it is too late," said her sister, with a sigh between envy and compassion.
It floated past Aurelia unheeded, as she danced up one side of a stile, and sprang clear down into a green park, jumped Eugene down after her by both hands, and exclaimed, "Harriet is in her vapours; come, let us have a race!"
She was instantly careering along like a white butterfly in the sunshine, flitting on as the child tried to catch her, among the snowy hawthorn bushes, or sinking down for very joy and delight among the bank of wild hyacinths. Life and free motion were joy and delight enough for that happy being with her childish heart, and the serious business of the day was all delight. There lay the rich meadows basking in the sun, and covered with short grass just beginning its summer growth, but with the cowslips standing high above it; hanging down their rich clusters of soft, pure, delicately-scented bells, from their pinky stems over their pale crinkled leaves, interspersed here and there with the deep purple of the fool's orchis, and the pale brown quiver-grass shaking out its trembling awns on their invisible stems. No flower is more delightful to gather than the cowslip, fragrant as the breath of a cow. And Aurelia darted about, piling the golden heap in her basket with untiring enjoyment; then, producing a tape, called on Harriet, who had been working in a more leisurely fashion, to join her in making a cowslip ball, and charged Eugene not to nip off the heads too short.
The sweet, soft, golden globe was made, and even Harriet felt the delicious intoxication. The young things tossed it aloft, flung from one to the other, caught it, caressed it, buried their faces in it, and threw it back with shrieks of glee.
Suddenly Harriet checked her sister with a peremptory sign. She heard horse-hoofs in the lane, divided from the field by a hedge of pollard willows, so high that she had never thought of being overlooked, till the cessation of the trotting sound struck her; and looking round she saw that a horseman had halted at the gate, and was gazing at their sports. It was from the distance of a field, but this was enough to fill Harriet with dismay. She drew herself up in a moment, signing peremptorily to Aurelia, who was flying about, her hat off, her one long curl streaming behind as she darted hither and thither, evading Eugene who was pursuing her.
As she paused, and Eugene clutched her dress with a shout of ecstasy, Harriet came up, glancing severely toward the gate, and saying, as she handed her sister the hat, "This comes of childishness! That we should be seen thus! What a hoyden he will think you!" as the hoofs went on and the red coat vanished.
"He! Who? Not the farmer?" said Aurelia. "This is not laid up for hay."
"No indeed. I believe it is he," said Harriet, mysteriously.
"He?" repeated Aurelia. "Not Mr. Arden, for he would be in black," and at Harriet's disgusted gesture, "I beg your pardon, but I did not know you had a new he. Oh! surely you are not thinking of the young baronet?"
"I am sure it was his figure."
"You did not see him yesterday?"
"No, but his air had too much distinction for any one from these parts."
"Could you see what his air was from this distance? I should never have guessed it, but you have more experience, being older. Come, Eugene, another race!"
"No, I will have no more folly. I was too good-natured to allow it. I am vexed beyond measure that he should have seen such rusticity."
"Never mind, dear Harriet. Most likely it was no such person, for it was not well-bred to sit staring at us; and if it were he, you were not known to him."
"Then he must have eyes as sharp as yours are for an air of distinction. Having only seen me in my blue and primrose suit, how should he know me in my present trim? Besides, I believe it was only young Dick Jewel in a cast coat of Squire Humphrey's."
The charm of the cowslip gathering was broken. Eugene found himself very hungry, and the noonchin was produced, after which the walk was continued to the farm-house, where the young people were made very welcome.
Farmers were, as a rule, more rustic than the present labourer, but they lived a life of far less care, if of more toil, than their successors, having ample means for their simple needs, and enjoying jocund plenty. The clean kitchen, with the stone floor, the beaupot of maythorn on the empty hearth, the shining walnut-wood table, the spinning-wheel, wooden chairs, and forms, all looked cool and inviting, and the visitors were regaled with home-made brown bread, delicious butter and honey, and a choice of new milk, mead, and currant wine.
Dame Jewel, in a white frill under a black silken hood, a buff turnover kerchief, stout stuff gown and white apron, was delighted to wait on them; and Eugene's bliss was complete among the young kittens and puppies in baskets on opposite sides of the window, the chickens before their coops, the ducklings like yellow balls on the grass, and the huge family of little spotted piglings which, to the scandal of his sisters, he declared the most delightful of all.
Their hostess knew nothing of the young baronet being in the neighbourhood, and was by no means gratified by the intelligence.
"Lack-a-day! Miss Harriet, you don't mean that the family is coming down here! I don't want none of them. 'Tis bad times for the farmer when any of that sort is nigh. They make nothing of galloping their horses a hunting right through the crops, ay, and horsewhipping the farmer if he do but say a word for the sweat of his brow."
"O Mrs. Jewel!" cried Aurelia, in whose ear lingered the courteous accents of her partner, "they would never behave themselves so."
"Bless you, Miss Orreely, I'll tell you what I've seen with my own eyes. My own good man, the master here, with the horsewhip laid about his shoulders at that very thornbush, by one of the fine gentlefolks, just because he had mended the gap in the hedge they was used to ride through, and my Lady sitting by in her laced scarlet habit on her fine horse, smiling like a painted picture, and saying, 'Thank you, sir, the rascals need to learn not to interfere with our sport,' all in that gentle sounding low voice of hers, enough to drive one mad."
"I thought Sir Jovian had been a kind master," said Harriet.
"This was not Sir Jovian. Poor gentleman, he was not often out a- hunting. This was one of the fine young rakish fellows from Lunnun as were always swarming about my Lady, like bees over that maybush. Sir Thomas Donne, I think they called him. They said he got killed by a wild boar, hunting in foreign parts, afterwards, and serve him right! But there! They would all do her bidding, whether for bad or good, so maybe it was less his fault than hers. She is a bitter one, is my Lady, for all she looks so sweet. And this her young barrowknight will be his own mother's son, and I don't want none of 'em down here. 'Tis a good job we have your good papa, the Major, to stand between her and us; I only wish he had his own, for a rare good landlord he would be."
The Dame's vain wishes were cut short by shrieks from the poultry-yard, where Eugene was discovered up to his ankles in the black ooze of the horse-pond, waving a little stick in defiance of an angry gander, who with white outspread wings, snake-like neck, bent and protruded, and frightful screams and hisses, was no bad representation of his namesake the dragon, especially to a child not much exceeding him in height.
The monster was put to rout, the champion dragged out of the pond, breathlessly explaining that he only wanted to look at the goslings when the stupid geese cackled and the gander wanted to fly at his eyes. "And I didn't see where I was going, for I had to keep him off, so I got into the mud. Will sister be angry?" he concluded, ruefully surveying the dainty little stockings and shoes coated with black mud.
But before the buckled shoon had been scraped, or the hosen washed and dried, the cheerful memory of boyhood had convinced itself that the enemy had been put to flight by his manful resistance; and he turned a deaf ear to Aurelia's suggestion that the affair had been retribution for his constant oblivion of Comenius' assertion that auser gingrit, "the goose gagleth."
They went home more soberly, having been directed by Mrs. Jewel to a field bordered by a copse, where grew the most magnificent of Titania's pensioners tall, wearing splendid rubies in their coats; and in due time the trio presented themselves at home, weary, but glowing with the innocent excitement of their adventures. Harriet was the first to proclaim that they had seen a horseman who must be Sir Amyas. "Had sister seen him?"
"Only through the window of the kitchen where I was making puff paste."
"He called then! Did my papa see him?"
"My father was in no condition to see any one, being under the hands and razor of Palmer."
"La! what a sad pity. Did he leave no message?"
"He left his compliments, and hoped his late partner was not fatigued."
"Is he at the Great House? Will he call again?"
"He is on his way to make a visit in Monmouthshire, together with a brother office, who is related to my Lady Herries, and finding that their road led them within twenty miles of our town, the decided on making a diversion to see her. It was only from her that Sir Amyas understood how close he was to his mother's property, for my Lady is extremely jealous of her prerogative."
"How did you hear all this, sister?"
"Sir George Herries rode over this afternoon and sat an hour with my father, delighting him by averring that the young gentleman has his mother's charms of person, together with his father's solidity of principle and character, and that he will do honour to his name."
O, I hope he will come back by this route!" cried Harriet.
"Of that there is small likelihood," said Betty. "His mother is nearly certain to prevent it since she is sure to take umbrage at his having visited the Great House without her permission."
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