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By the simplicity of Venus' doves.--Merchant of Venice.
That Sunday was spent by Aurelia at the Bear Inn, at Reading. Her journey had been made by very short stages, one before breakfast, another lasting till noon, when there was a long halt for dinner and rest for horse and rider, and then another ride, never even in these longest summer days prolonged beyond six or seven o'clock at latest, such was the danger of highwaymen being attracted by the valuable horses, although the grooms in charge were so well armed that they might almost as well have been troopers.
The roads, at that time of year, were at their best, and Aurelia and Mrs. Dove were mounted on steady old nags, accustomed to pillions. Aurelia could have ridden single, but this would not have been thought fitting on a journey with no escort of her own rank, and when she mounted she was far too miserable to care for anything but hiding her tearful face behind Mr. Dove's broad shoulders. Mrs. Dove was perched behind a wiry, light-weighted old groom, whom she kept in great order, much to his disgust.
After the first wretchedness, Aurelia's youthful spirits had begun to revive, and the novel scenes to awaken interest. The Glastonbury thorn was the first thing she really looked at. The Abbey was to her only an old Gothic melancholy ruin, not worthy of a glance, but the breezy air of the Cheddar Hills, the lovely cliffs, and the charm of the open country, with its strange islands of hills dotted about, raised her spirits, as she rode through the meadows where hay was being tossed, and the scent came fragrant on the breeze. Mr. Dove would tell her over his shoulder the names of places and their owners when they came to parks bordering the road, and castles "bosomed high in the tufted trees." Or he would regale her with legends of robberies and point to the frightful gibbets, one so near to the road that she shut her eyes and crouched low behind him to avoid seeing the terrible burthen. She had noted the White Horse, and shuddered at the monument at Devizes commemorating the judgment on the lying woman, and a night had been spent at Marlborough that "Miss" might see a strolling company of actors perform in a barn; but as the piece was the Yorksire Tragedy, the ghastly performance overcame her so completely that Mrs. Dove had to take her away, declaring that no inducement should ever take her to a theatre again.
Mr. Dove was too experienced a traveller not to choose well his quarters for the night, and Aurelia slept in the guest chambers shining with cleanliness and scented with lavender, Mrs. Dove always sharing her room. "Miss" was treated with no small regard, as a lady of the good old blood, and though the coachman and his wife talked freely with her, they paid her all observance, never ate at the same table, and provided assiduously for her comfort and pleasure. Once they halted a whole day because even Mr. Dove was not proof against the allurements of a bull-baiting, though he carefully explained that he only made a concession to the grooms to prevent them from getting discontented, and went himself to the spectacle to hinder them from getting drunk, in which, be it observed, he did not succeed.
So much time was spent on thus creeping from stage to stage that Aurelia had begun to feel as if the journey had been going on for ages, and as if worlds divided her from her home, when on Sunday she timidly preceded Mrs. Dove into Reading Abbey Church, and afterwards was shown where rolled Father Thames. The travellers took early morning with them for Maidenhead Thicket, and breakfasted on broiled trout at the King's Arms at Maidenhead Bridge, while Aurelia felt her eye filled with the beauty of the broad glassy river, and the wooded banks, and then rose onwards, looking with loyal awe at majestic Windsor, where the flag was flying. They slept at a poor little inn a Longford, rather than cross Hounslow Heath in the evening, and there heard all the last achievements of the thieves, so that Aurelia, in crossing the next day, looked to see a masked highwayman start out of every bush; but they came safely to the broad archway of the inn at Knightsbridge, their last stage. Mrs. Dove took her charge up stairs at once to refresh her toilette, before entering London and being presented to my Lady.
But a clattering and stamping were heard in the yard, and Aurelia, looking from the window, called Mrs. Dove to see four horses being harnessed to a coach that was standing there.
"Lawk-a-day?" cried the good woman, "if it be not our own old coach, as was the best in poor Sir Jovian's time! Ay, there be our colours, you see, blue and gold, and my Lady's quartering. Why, 'twas atop of that very blue hammercloth that I first set eyes on my Dove! So my Lady has sent to meet you, Missie. Well, I do take it kind of her. Now you will not come in your riding hood, all frowsed and dusty, but can put on your pretty striped sacque and blue hood that you wore on Sunday, and look the sweet pretty lady you are."
Mrs. Dove's intentions were frustrated, for the maid of the inn knocked at the door with a message that the coach had orders not to wait, but that Miss was to come down immediately.
"Dear, dear!" sighed Mrs. DOve. "Tell the jackanapes not to be so hasty. He must give the young lady time to change her dress, and eat a mouthful."
This brought Dove up to the door. "Never mind dressing and fallals," he said; "this is a strange fellow that says he is hired for the job, and his orders are precise. Miss must take a bit of cake in her hand. Come, dame, you have not lived so long in my Lady's service as to forget what it is to cross her will, or keep her waiting."
Therewith he hurried Aurelia down stairs, his wife being in such a state of deshabille that she could not follow. He handed the young lady into the carriage, gave her a parcel of slices of bread and meat, with a piece of cake, shut the door, and said, "Be of good heart, Missie, we'll catch you up by the time you are in the square. All right!"
Off went Aurelia in solitude, within a large carriage, once gaily fitted though now somewhat faded and tarnished. She was sorry to be parted from the Doves, whom she wanted to give her courage for the introduction to my Lady, and to explain to her the wonders of the streets of London, which she did not quite expect to see paved with gold! She ate her extemporised meal, gazing from the window, and expecting to see houses and churches thicken on her, and hurrying to brush away her crumbs, and put on her gloves lest she should arrive unawares, for she had counted half-a-dozen houses close together. No! here was another field! More fields and houses. The signs of habitation were, so far from increasing, growing more scanty, and looked strangely like what she had before passed. Could this be the right road! How foolish to doubt, when this was my Lady's own coach. But oh, that it had waited for Mrs. Dove! She would beg her to get in when the riders overtook her. When would they? No sign of them could be seen from the windows, and here were more houses. Surely this was Turnham Green again, or there must be another village green exactly like it in the heart of London. How many times did not poor Aurelia go through all these impressions in the course of the drive. She was absolutely certain that she was taken through Brentford again, this time without a halt; but after this the country became unknown to her, and the road much worse. It was in fact for the most part a mere ditch or cart track, so rough that the four horses came to a walk. Aurelia had read no novels but Telemaque and Le Grand Cyrus, so her imagination was not terrified by tales of abduction, but alarm began to grow upon her. She much longed to ask the coachman whither he was taking her, but the check string had been either worn out or removed; she could not open the door from within, nor make him hear, and indeed she was a little afraid of him.
Twilight began to come on; it was much later than Mr. Dove had ever ventured to be out, but here at last there was a pause, and the swing of a gate, the road was smoother and she seemed to be in a wood, probably private ground. On and on, for an apparently interminable time, went the coach with the wearied and affrighted girl, through the dark thicket, until at last she emerged, into a park, where she could again see the pale after-glow of the sunset, and presently she found herself before a tall house, perfectly dark, with strange fantastic gables and chimneys, ascending far above against the sky.
All was still as death, except the murmuring caws of the rooks in their nests, and the chattering shriek of a startled blackbird. The servant from behind ran up the steps and thundered at the door; it was opened, a broad line of light shone out, some figures appeared, and a man in livery came forward to open the carriage door, but to Aurelia's inexpressible horror, his face was perfectly black, with negro features, rolling eyes, and great white teeth!
She hardly knew what she did, the dark carriage was formidable on one side, the apparition on the other! The only ray of comfort was in the face of a stout, comely, rosy maid-servant, who was holding the candle on the threshold, and with one bound the poor traveller dashed past the black hand held out to help her, and rushing up to the girl, caught hold of her, and gasped out, "Oh! What is that? Where am I? Where have they taken me?"
"Lawk, ma'am," said the girl, with a broad grin, "that 'ere bees only Mr. Jumbo. A' won't hurt'ee. See, here's Mistress Aylward."
A tall, white-capped, black-gowned elderly woman turned on the new- comer a pale, grave, unsmiling face, saying, "Your servant--Miss Aurelia Delavie, as I understand."
Bending her head, and scarcely able to steady herself, for she was shaking from head to foot, Aurelia managed to utter the query,
"Where am I?"
"At Bowstead Park, madam, by order of my Lady."
Much relieved, and knowing this was the Belamour estate, Aurelia said, "Please let me wait till Mrs. Dove comes before I am presented to my Lady."
"My Lady is not here, madam," said Mrs. Aylward. "Allow me--" and she led the way across a great empty hall, that seemed the vaster for its obscurity, then along a matted passage, and down some steps into a room surrounded with presses and cupboards, evidently belonging to the to the housekeeper. She set a chair for the trembling girl, saying, "You will excuse the having supper here to-night, madam; the south parlour will be ready for you to-morrow."
"Is not Mrs. Dove coming?" faintly asked Aurelia.
"Mrs. Dove is gone to London to attend on little Master Wayland. You are to be here with the young ladies, ma'am."
"What young ladies?" asked the bewildered maiden.
"My Lady's little daughters--the Misses Wayland. I thought she had sent you her instructions; but I see you are over wearied and daunted," she added, more kindly; "you will be better when you have taken some food. Molly, I say, you sluggard of a wench, bring the lady's supper, and don't stand gaping there."
Mrs. Aylward hurried away to hasten operations, and Aurelia began somewhat to recover her senses, though she was still so much dismayed that she dreaded to look up lest she should see something frightful, and started at the first approach of steps.
A dainty little supper was placed before her, but she was too faint and sick at heart for appetite, and would have excused herself. However, Mrs. Aylward severely said she would have no such folly, filled a glass of wine, and sternly administered it; then setting her down in a large chair, helped her to a delicate cutlet. She ate for very fright, but her cheeks and eyes were brightened, the mists of terror and exhaustion began to clear away, and when she accepted a second help, she had felt herself reassured that she had not fallen into unkindly hands. If she could only have met a smile she would have been easier, but Mrs. Aylward was a woman of sedate countenance and few words, and the straight set line of lips encouraged no questioning, so she merely uttered thanks for each act of hospitality.
"There! You will take no more roll? You are better, now, but you will not be sorry to go to your bed," said Mrs. Aylward, taking up a candle, and guiding her along the passage up a long stair to a pretty room wainscoted and curtained with fresh white dimity, and the window showing the young moon pale in the light of the western sky.
Bedrooms were little furnished, and this was more luxurious than the dear old chamber at home, but the girl had never before slept alone, and she felt unspeakably lonely in the dreariness, longing more than ever for Betty's kiss--even for Betty's blame--or for a whine from Harriet; and she positively hungered for a hug from Eugene, as she gazed timidly at the corners beyond the influence of her candle; and instead of unpacking the little riding mail she kissed it, and laid her cheek on it as the only thing that came from home, and burst into a flood of despairing tears.
In the midst, there fell on her ears a low strain of melancholy music rising and falling like the wailing of mournful spirits. She sprang to her feet and stood listening with dilated eyes; then, as a louder note reached her, in terror uncontrollable, she caught up her candle, rushed down the stairs like a wild bird, and stood panting before Mrs. Aylward, who had a big Bible open on the table before her.
"Oh, ma'am," she cried, between her panting sobs, "I can't stay there! I shall die!"
"What means this, madam?" said Mrs. Aylward, stiffly, making the word sound much like "foolish child."
"The--the music!" she managed faintly to utter, falling again into the friendly chair.
"The music?" said Mrs. Aylward, considering; then with a shade of polite contempt, "O! Jumbo's fiddle! I did not know it could be heard in your room, but no doubt the windows below are open."
"Is Jumbo that black man?" asked Aurelia, shuddering; for negro servants, though the fashion in town, had not penetrated into the west.
"Mr. Belamour's blackamoor. He often plays to him half the night."
"Oh!" with another quivering sound of alarm; "is Mr. Belamour the gentleman in the dark?"
"Even so, madam, but you need have no fears. He keeps his room and admits no one, though he sometimes walks out by night. You will only have to keep the children from a noise making near his apartments. Good night, madam."
"Oh, pray, if I do not disturb you, would you be pleased to let me stay till you have finished your chapter; I might not be so frightened then."
In common humanity Mrs. Aylward could not refuse, and Aurelia sat silently grasping the arms of her chair, and trying to derive all the comfort she could from the presence of a Bible and a good woman. Her nerves were, in fact, calmed by the interval, and when Mrs. Aylward took off her spectacles and shut up her book, it had become possible to endure the terrors of the lonely chamber.
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