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"I always thought there was. It is always on our library table."
Mrs. Denham groaned, and dropped a stitch, and could not pick it up, and before she had regained her equanimity, which was always shaken by such a catastrophe, in came Sir John and Cyril, and Janet Anstruther. Sir John had taken Cyril out to see his pigs, and Cyril, albeit he professed great interest in juvenile porkers, was shaking with cold, and he rushed to the hearth to warm his benumbed fingers, exclaiming, "Oh! so miserably frigid!"
Mrs. Denham looked up reprovingly, and replied: "such weather as God pleases to send to us. His sinful creatures, cannot be miserable!"
No one appeared inclined to gainsay this opinion; yet Sir John, looking out across the lawn, and seeing the wandering flakes begin to fall, wondered what Mrs. Denham would say if she had to walk to Southchester with the biting north-east wind and the driving snow fall in her face I He was half inclined to wish that she would make the trial.
'• The Erskines will not have a pleasant journey," said Sir John, as the flakes fell faster, and the ground began to whiten. "I should think they must be here soon. I heard the train whistling for the tunnel nearly half an hour ago."
"They stop, of course, at Fairchurch station'.'"
•■ Yes! I have sent the carriage, and I saw to the foot-warmers myself. Cyril nearly burnt his fingers with them. Elizabeth. I hope the fires are blazing finely in Mrs. Erskine s rooms?"
"Oh, yes. papa, trust Roberts for that: she has the art of getting a fire up to perfection at the exact moment a visitor arrives. Mine always burn out too soon, or else burn up too late. I nurse up a fire with as much solicitude as if it were a child, and then introduce my friend to a heap of glowing cinders in their- last stage of redness, or else to a gratefull of smoking coals that will not blaze let me poke and hammer at them as I will."
"Ah! there is a science in getting up good fires," said Sir John, stroking fondly the bright braids of his daughter s hair. Mrs. Denham looked as if she thought everybody sadly frivolous, and presently, still clicking at her needles with an energy that made one really nervous, heaved a deep sigh, and remarked: "This is an age of luxuries; in my young days there were no such tilings as foot-warmers. Young people then never thought of fires in their own rooms, unless, indeed, they were so ill as to need the doctor; and girls, healthy girls, were not allowed to lounge about in easy chairs, or throw themselves on couches. Even school-rooms now have soft-backed chairs, and have mattresses on the reclining boards; in my day we had only forms, common, hard deal benches, and we stood to say our lessons with our hands upon our shoulders, and our feet in the first position."
"Now really!" said Sir John; "I never imagined, Mrs. Denham. that you knew aught about such worldly vanities. To think now, you uphold the ' first position;' you must have learned to dance!"
"My parents, Sir John, were unenlightened people, and I learned many things that were objectionable; among others, I was taught to dance minuets and cotillions: but permit me to observe, the positions may be acquired in mere deportment lessons, and I have no objection to deportment, if not carried too far."
"Mrs. Denham!" said Sir John, seriously, " I have no doubt that the spinal complaints of nine-tenths of the delicate girls of half a century ago, were traceable to those abominable wooden benches, and to the practice of standing up in class, an hour at a time."
"I grew up as straight as a dart, Sir John, I never knew what it was to be tired."
"That was the reason you grew up so straight! Had you been weakly, you would probably have had curvature of the spine."
Mrs. Denham was beginning another tirade against the enervating tendencies of a degenerate race, when there were sounds of an arrival, and Mr. and Mrs. Erskine were announced. Cyril and Elizabeth left the room together; and while Cyril carried in his little niece, and Elizabeth saluted Mrs. Erskine, Mrs. Denham put away her knitting, and seated herself in the most approved style of the deportment masters of the Regency. At the same moment, Lady Ashburner appeared; she had been detained by a woman from the village, who came up with news of a child nearly burnt to death, and a request for cotton-wool.
Mrs. Erskine walked in, a mass of cloaks and shawls and furs; she was very tall and very stately— stately in her ways, and in right stately fashion she kissed her mother's cheek. Though her words were affable, her tones were icy as the cold air that came in with her, and it was only to Elizabeth that she seemed fully to unbend; she was evidently prepared to pet Elizabeth and make much of her. When she came down to dinner, which was very quickly afterwards, Agnes Craven saw that she really was very much like Cyril. Only she was in truth, far handsomer! Her skin was like white marble, but her bloom was perfect, so delicately, softly roseate ; her figure a little inclinedto enbonpoint, but only just so far as suited her tall regal stature; her features were classically regular; her eyes deep azure blue, fringed with long brown sweeping lashes.and her lovelygoldenliair hung in luxuriant ringlets round her snowythroat. She was quite as beautiful in another way as Elizabeth Ashburner, Agnes thought, and yet she could not possibly admire her haltas much. To Agnes it was a perfect feast to gaze upon a truly lovely face, but there was something in the cold light of Mrs. Erskine's violet eyes, in the bend of her proud neck, in the very gesture of her ivory hand, sparkling with rich gems, that repelled, while it subdued. Decidedly if Cyril lacked practicality and worldly wisdom, his sister had his share of these
utilitarian virtues, as well as her own. She was not the person to dream her life away; neither poetry nor metaphysics had any charms for her; she was a woman who would have played her part successfully in courts, had opportunity permitted; she had a talent for diplomacy, for political intrigue, and she had done her possible in this direction, at the viceregal court of Dublin. Yes! there was power, and strength, and steadfastness of purpose, and great ambition too, in every line of Mrs. Erskine's exquisitely handsome face!
But then she was married to a man without ambition; a goodnatured, kind-hearted, frank, ingenuous fellow, who would do his best, in a simple way, to make all around him happy. He was very rich, and of good family; he was not very clever, nor particularly goodlooking; but he saw Lucretia Denham at the house of one of the cathedral dignitaries in Southchester, fell in love with her, proposed, and was accepted.
She had been so shut up, so thoroughly kept under—this proud, ambitious girl; her high spirit had been so curbed, her opportunities of ascertaining her exact position so singularly few, and her desire to escape from the dreary walls of Monkswood so vehement,—that she at once accepted the loveenthralled John Erskine, and persisted in marrying him, though her mother said him nay, and advised her to live a single life, and devote herself to works of piety. But a single life and works of piety, as Mrs. Denham interpreted them, meant painful economy, entire separation from society, the reading of much mouldy theology, and wearing mortified apparel. Lucretia very naturally declined; she knew full well that the fortunes of the Denhams were nearly at the lowest ebb; and here was Mr. Erskine, asking her to share his fortunes, which were a perpetual in-coming tide; for he had mines, and railway shares, and mtch a balance at his banker's! So the strong-minded mother, altogether amazed at the sudden strongmindedness of a girl who had been obedient all her life, actually gave way. Miss Denham had a splendid settlement, but she went as emptyhanded to her wealthy husband, as if she had been a hard-worked seamstress, or a third-rate daily governess. She did not even take with her the usual trousseau which young ladies of family think indispensable: for the best of reasons, that she had not more money than sufficed to buy her wedding-gown and bonnet, and a few inexpensive garments, which she really could not do without. She was too proud to run in debt—too conscientious then, it is but justice to remark.
Not that she accused herself with contracting debts in later days, she had no temptation to that perilous and most exciting game. When your husband holds out money with both hands perpetually, you must indeed consider debt a luxury, if still you will incur it. And Mr. Erskine was exactly such a model husband; he even gave his wife blank cheques to fill up at her pleasure; and he never had the bad taste to inquire what she did with them! An enviable woman! as many an aristocratic dame in X>ublin said and thought!
A sweet little girl of five came in with the dessert—Mrs. Erskine's only child, and Mr. Erskine's of course—only nobody ever dreamed of attributing any kind of possession to that gentleman; the house in Merrion Square was Mrs. Erskine's, so was the lovely villa on Killiney Bay, the servants all were hers, the pew at Church, the orchard, houses, and the pineries, and of course this little daughter!
Never had anybody in the world a clearer and stronger sense of "meum,'' with so decided an inclination to ignore " tuum," as far as her liege lord and master was concerned! Yet the world considered John and Lucretia Erskine a very happy pair!
Little Lucy sat upon her uncle's knee, daintily munching candied apricots, much to Mrs. Denham's horror, for she was not quite sure
that it was not pampering the flesh sinfully to eat such things at all! Only they certainly were very nice; and at her age, and with her settled habits of self-discipline, it did not matter, just for once or so, just while she stayed at Forest Range, where they kept habitually a shamefully luxurious table. But with a child it was another case; she ought to have had some bread and milk,and gone to bed: whereas, as she gathered from sundry revelations, uttered in a silvery voice, that Miss Erskine had dined on chicken and rhubarb-tart.and had been dressed, and was quite ready for fruits, candied or uncandied, and biscuits at discretion! -Cyril!" she said at length uneasily, "you are doing that child harm, why not have given her one of those small apples, or half an orange, and perhaps a fig! Figs are good for children just one at a time; Lucy, put down that nasty sugary stuff, and have a fig"
"TantyouDrandmama!" replied Miss Lucy, courteously, like a little lady, as she was; "but the ntritot is very nice, not nasty at all; and I can have a fid any time I like, nursie always keeps a bots of fids for me."
And then Elizabeth, Agnes, and Cyril, and even Lady Ashburner went into raptures with her pretty lisping tongue, which ignored at least half a dozen consonants of the English alphabet. I dare say it really is very senseless, but to many people, men as well as women, the prattle of a child who cannot turn its k's, and p's, and g's, is irresistible! I must say, I like sometimes to hear a little lad or maiden chattering just as Miss Lucy Erskine did, when she declined a " fid!"
Cyril, however, was not exactly wise, neither was Elizabeth, and the two, with Miss Craven for accomplice, would soon have made little Lucy illI had not that discreet young maiden herself affirmed, "I tant tate no more; mamma says I must eat only one sing at dessert; I should lite a little more atritot, but I musn'thave dried cherries!" From which genuine speech you may infer that Mrs. Erskine understood the art of government, and trained her little daughter wisely. Ah! wisdom of a certain sort Mrs. Erskine did not lack, the art of governing prudently was hers in all its fulness.
After dinner, while the ladies gossiped over their coll'ee-cups, Mrs. Denham progressed rapidly with her stocking; she was narrowing the heel, or doing something at the heel that involved much careful counting, and she did not join in conversation. When the gentlemen appeared, she grimly kissed Elizabeth and Mrs. Erskine, and said "good night," carrying off Sally Hawkes to the upper regions. And no one saw her again till next morning, when she appalled the housemaids by taking up her quarters, knitting and all, in the breakfast-room, while the clusters were still in requisition, and the fire newly lighted. Sally had read aloud the "Meditation for the Day," and the best part of a sermon, before anybody else came down. Lady Ashburner, shocked at Sally's faint look and totally exhausted voice, gave orders that a cup of tea should be taken to Mrs. Denham and to Miss Hawkes, every morning at half-past seven, during their stay at Forest lunge. A piece of consideration for which Sally was devoutly thankful; for she was not so strong as she had been, and Mrs. Denham with her iron constitution, was merciless through want of thought.
THE STAR OF HOPE.
Two days afterwards the party at Forest llange was augmented by the arrival of Elizabeth's old schoolfellow, Miss Kate Gower, and her brother. Miss (lower was a merry, open-hearted girl, moderately clever, but scarcely moderately pretty. Yet when you had known her a few days, and especially if you had been rather poorly, or in any little trouble, you would begin to think her square cheeks and chin, her want of complexion, and her decidedly snub nose, far from
unattractive. And then she had beautiful honest eyes, of no particular colour indeed, but beaming with the truth, with purity of mind, and kindliness beyond description. She had plenty of good common sense, and used it too, and like the little fountain bubbling through the herbage, she had learned to "do good secretly." She became a great ally of Sally Hawkes at once, and volunteered to read sometimes to Mrs. Denham, if that lady would permit an interchange of duties; Kate undertaking the miserably printed sermons, and Sally joining the walking or riding party, or the merry circle in the morning-room, where music, drawing, literature, and chat filled up the hours when the weather kept them in the house.
It was astonishing how Sally mended, even in the first week of her visit at Forest Range ; there was a little colour in her sallow cheeks, and she lost something of the prim old-maidish air, which, had distinguished her of late. Poor Sally! these were halcyon days; only Monkswood would seem so much drearier when she went away. In the mean time, however, everyone conspired to make her happy. Sir John and Lady Ashburner treated her, not only as a welcome, but as an honoured guest; there was no side-table, no grate-less attic, for her, no put-offs, or makeshifts of any kind, such as generally fell to the lot of a poor "companion," who accompanies her lady on a visit. Elizabeth petted her to her heart's content whenever she had the opportunity, and Agues Craven liked nothing better than a quiet half-hour with Sally Hawkes.
Mr. Gower did not at all resemble his sister; he was strikingly handsome, brilliant in conversation, aristocratic in his general aspect, and languidly indifferent to everything which did not concern himself. Cyril did not like him; Agnes regarded him with something bordering on disfavour, and Sir John and Lady Ashburner, while they strove to be as cordial to him as to his sister, blamed themselves for a coldness they could not overcome. Mrs. Denham said at once he was " a son of Belial,' and told him so within a day of his arrival, but he only shrugged his shoulders, French fashion, and declared that she was a "most charmingly original old lady."
A week's frost followed the gathering of the party at Forest Range, and there was a great deal done in skating on the streams that intersect the valley of the lister, about the villages of Ashchurch and Fairchurch, and Forest Range; they were frozen " gloriously," the gentlemen declared, and many a pleasant hour was spent upon the ice, the ladies, wrapped in furs and velvets, laughing at the cold. But there were some days when there was no going beyond the stables, when the ladies were compelled to take their exercise in the gallery or to have a game of romps with little Lucy; and what with walks across the snowy meadows, sharp constitutionals in the sheltered portion of the grounds, when for an hour or two the sun came out, loitering in the greenhouse and long mornings in the library, the intimacy between Agnes and Cyril Denham progressed most satisfactorily. That is, satisfactorily to themselves. Mrs. Denham looked on grimly, biding her time till it should seem good to her to frown her son into obedience and to sink Miss Craven fathoms deep in shame and penitence. Another person looked on disapprovingly though smilingly. She too resolved to bide her time, and take care that nothing came of " such a folly." No, no! that would not do at all; the worldly sister and the unworldly mamma both agreed in this,— that Cyril must marry money. He had none of his own; but he was of ancient family and attractive presence, and he must woo and win an heiress and so reclaim the scattered lands of Monkswood. And of all this, Cyril was utterly unconscious; both mother and sister had had the great good sense not to tell him what it behoved him to achieve in the way of matrimony, for there was just a chance that so instructed he might turn restive on their
hands and marry some fair girl simply because he liked her and because she had no money. Cyril had just a spark of his mother in his composition, but it needed something like a hurricane to fan it to a flame.
So he went on contentedly enough, reading and talking with Miss Craven, discussing philosophy and poetry, criticizing popular authors, and comparing notes on certain mental experiences. And Mrs. Denham wished Vivian Gower would marry her; he was rich enough to wed a slender fortune, such as Agnes must possess. Mrs. Erskine felt a little like her namesake of the house of Borgia, and thought it was a pity that oubliettes were out of fashion in the nineteenth century; but nevertheless, she cultivated Agnes's society most assiduously, and often joined those readings in the library and prattled very prettily about the strength of Longfellow, the Platonism of Wordsworth, the daring imagery of Southey, and the true ringing metal of the Laureate. And so the time passed on and the early days of April came, and ere long the circle would break up. The Gowers were leaving very soon, and in another week the Erskines were to be in London. Mrs. Denham and Sally would go away almost immediately. But everybody, even the lady of Monkswood, was to stay for the great party to which so many were invited. Many, too, accepted the invitation, and as not a few lived at a considerable distance, and remained all night, the house promised to be as full as it could hold.
The day before the party, Elizabeth, Agnes, Cyril, and Mr. Erskine went to Southam: Mrs. Erskine intended to accompany them, but a night of violent toothache warned her to avoid the piercing winds which blowing over Southern water sweep up all the streets of that busy seaport town.
They had shopping to do which occupied them till it grew quite dusk, and they had promised to take a friendly cup of tea with a family across the water, and so it