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- Countess Kate - 30/36 -
Mr. Wardour bowed, and assented.
"But," added Lady Barbara, "it has made it quite impossible for my sister and myself to continue to take the charge of her. My sister's health has suffered from the constant noise and restlessness of a child in the house: the anxiety and responsibility are far too much for her; and in addition to this, she had such severe nervous seizures from the alarm of my niece's elopement, that nothing would induce me to subject her to a recurrence of such agitation. We must receive the child for the present, of course; but as soon as my brother returns, and can attend to business, the matter must be referred to the Lord Chancellor, and an establishment formed, with a lady at the head, who may have authority and experience to deal with such an ungovernable nature."
"Perhaps," said Mr. Wardour, "under these circumstances it might be convenient for me to take her home again for the present."
Kate quivered with hope; but that was far too good to be true; Lady Barbara gave a horrid little cough, and there was a sound almost of offence in her "Thank you, you are very kind, but that would be quite out of the question. I am at present responsible for my niece."
"I thought, perhaps," said Mr. Wardour, as an excuse for the offer, "that as Lady Jane is so unwell, and Colonel Umfraville in so much affliction, it might be a relief to part with her at present."
"Thank you," again said Lady Barbara, as stiffly as if her throat were lined with whalebone; "no inconvenience can interfere with my duty."
Mr. Wardour knew there was no use in saying any more, and inquired after Lady Jane. She had, it appeared, been very ill on Saturday evening, and had not since left her room. Mr. Wardour then said that Kate had not been aware, till a few hours ago, of the death of her cousin, and inquired anxiously after the father and mother; but Lady Barbara would not do more than answer direct questions, and only said that her nephew had been too much weakened to bear the journey, and had sunk suddenly at Alexandria, and that his father was, she feared, very unwell. She could not tell how soon he was likely to be in England. Then she thanked Mr. Wardour for having brought Lady Caergwent home, and offered him some luncheon; but in such a grave grand way, that it was plain that she did not want him to eat it, and, feeling that he could do no more good, he kissed poor Kate and wished Lady Barbara good-bye.
Poor Kate stood, drooping, too much constrained by dismay even to try to cling to him, or run after him to the foot of the stairs.
"Now, Katharine," said her aunt, "come up with me to your Aunt Jane's room. She has been so much distressed about you, that she will not be easy till she has seen you."
Kate followed meekly; and found Aunt Jane sitting by the fire in her own room, looking flushed, hot, and trembling. She held out her arms, and Kate ran into them; but neither of them dared to speak, and Lady Barbara stood up, saying, "She says she is very sorry, and thus we may forgive her; as I know you do all the suffering you have undergone on her account."
Lady Jane held the child tighter, and Kate returned her kisses with all her might; but the other aunt said, "That will do. She must not be too much for you again." And they let go as if a cold wind had blown between them.
"Did Mr. Wardour bring her home?" asked Lady Jane.
"Yes; and was kind enough to propose taking her back again," was the answer, with a sneer, that made Kate feel desperately angry, though she did not understand it.
In truth, Lady Barbara was greatly displeased with the Wardours. She had always been led to think her niece's faults the effect of their management; and she now imagined that there had been some encouragement of the child's discontent to make her run away; and that if they had been sufficiently shocked and concerned, the truant would have been brought home much sooner. It all came of her having allowed her niece to associate with those children at Bournemouth. She would be more careful for the future.
Careful, indeed, she was! She had come to think of her niece as a sort of small wild beast that must never be let out of sight of some trustworthy person, lest she should fly away again.
A daily governess, an elderly person, very grave and silent, came in directly after breakfast, walked with the Countess, and heard the lessons; and after her departure, Kate was always to be in the room with her aunts, and never was allowed to sit in the schoolroom and amuse herself alone; but her tea was brought into the dining-room while her aunts were at dinner, and morning, noon, and night, she knew that she was being watched.
It was very bitter to her. It seemed to take all the spirit away from her, as if she did not care for books, lessons, or anything else. Sometimes her heart burnt with hot indignation, and she would squeeze her hands together, or wring round her handkerchief in a sort of misery; but it never got beyond that; she never broke out, for she was depressed by what was still worse, the sense of shame. Lady Barbara had not said many words, but had made her feel, in spite of having forgiven her, that she had done a thing that would be a disgrace to her for ever; a thing that would make people think twice before they allowed their children to associate with her; and that put her below the level of other girls. The very pain that Lady Barbara took to hush it up, her fears lest it should come to the ears of the De la Poers, her hopes that it MIGHT not be necessary to reveal it to her brother, assisted to weigh down Kate with a sense of the heinousness of what she had done, and sunk her so that she had no inclination to complain of the watchfulness around her. And Aunt Jane's sorrowful kindness went to her heart.
"How COULD you do it, my dear?" she said, in such a wonderful wistful tone, when Kate was alone with her.
Kate hung her head. She could not think now.
"It is so sad," added Lady Jane; "I hoped we might have gone on so nicely together. And now I hope your Uncle Giles will not hear of it. He would be so shocked, and never trust you again."
"YOU will trust me, when I have been good a long time, Aunt Jane?"
"My dear, I would trust you any time, you know; but then that's no use. I can't judge; and your Aunt Barbara says, after such lawlessness, you need very experienced training to root out old associations."
Perhaps the aunts were more shocked than was quite needful and treated Kate as if she had been older and known better what she was doing; but they were sincere in their horror at her offence; and once she even heard Lady Barbara saying to Mr. Mercer that there seemed to be a doom on the family--in the loss of the promising young man--and- -The words were not spoken, but Kate knew that she was this greatest of all misfortunes to the family.
Poor child! In the midst of all this, there was one comfort. She had not put aside what Mr. Wardour had told her about the Comforter she could always have. She DID say her prayers as she had never said them before, and she looked out in the Psalms and Lessons for comforting verses. She knew she had done very wrong, and she asked with all the strength of her heart to be forgiven, and made less unhappy, and that people might be kinder to her. Sometimes she thought no help was coming, and that her prayers did no good, but she went on; and then, perhaps, she got a kind little caress from Lady Jane, or Mr. Mercer spoke good-naturedly to her, or Lady Barbara granted her some little favour, and she felt as if there was hope and things were getting better; and she took courage all the more to pray that Uncle Giles might not be very hard upon her, nor the Lord Chancellor very cruel.
A fortnight had passed, and had seemed nearly as long as a year, since Kate's return from Oldburgh, when one afternoon, when she was lazily turning over the leaves of a story-book that she knew so well by heart that she could go over it in the twilight, she began to gather from her aunt's words that somebody was coming.
They never told her anything direct; but by listening a little more attentively to what they were saying, she found out that a letter-- no, a telegram--had come while she was at her lessons; that Aunt Barbara had been taking rooms at a hotel; that she was insisting that Jane should not imagine they would come to-night--they would not come till the last train, and then neither of them would be equal -
"Poor dear Emily! But could we not just drive to the hotel and meet them? It will be so dreary for them."
"You go out at night! and for such a meeting! when you ought to be keeping yourself as quiet as possible! No, depend upon it they will prefer getting in quietly, and resting to-night; and Giles, perhaps, will step in to breakfast in the morning."
"And then you will bring him up to me at once! I wonder if the boy is much altered!"
Throb! throb! throb! went Kate's heart! So the terrible stern uncle was in England, and this was the time for her to be given up to the Lord Chancellor and all his myrmidons (a word that always came into her head when she was in a fright). She had never loved Aunt Jane so well; she almost loved Aunt Barbara, and began to think of clinging to her with an eloquent speech, pleading to be spared from the Lord Chancellor!
To-morrow morning--that was a respite!
There was a sound of wheels. Lady Jane started.
"They are giving a party next door," said Lady Barbara.
But the bell rang.
"Only a parcel coming home," said Lady Barbara. "Pray do not be nervous, Jane."
But the red colour was higher in Barbara's own cheeks, as there were
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