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- Love and Life - 2/60 -
by what is curiously like, and curiously unlike, our own sayings and doings.
The feelings of a retired officer of the nineteenth century expecting the return of his daughters from the first gaiety of the youngest darling, are probably not dissimilar to those of Major Delavie, in the earlier half of the seventeen hundreds, as he sat in the deep bay window of his bed-room; though he wore a green velvet nightcap; and his whole provision of mental food consisted of half a dozen worn numbers of the _Tatler_, and a _Gazette_ a fortnight old. The chair on which he sat was elbowed, and made easy with cushions and pillows, but that on which his lame foot rested was stiff and angular. The cushion was exquisitely worked in chain-stich, as were the quilt and curtains of the great four-post bed, and the only carpeting consisted of three or four narrow strips of wool-work. The walls were plain plaster, white-washed, and wholly undecorated, except that the mantelpiece was carved with the hideous caryatides of the early Stewart days, and over it were suspended a long cavalry sabre, and the accompanying spurs and pistols; above them the miniature of an exquisitely lovely woman, with a white rose in her hair and a white favour on her breast.
The window was a deep one projecting far into the narrow garden below, for in truth the place was one of those old manor houses which their wealthy owners were fast deserting in favour of new specimens of classical architecture as understood by Louis XIV., and the room in which the Major sat was one of the few kept in habitable repair. The garden was rich with white pinks, peonies, lilies of the valley, and early roses, and there was a flagged path down the centre, between the front door and a wicket-gate into a long lane bordered with hawthorn hedges, the blossoms beginning to blush with the advance of the season. Beyond, rose dimly the spires and towers of a cathedral town, one of those county capitals to which the provincial magnates were wont to resort during the winter, keeping a mansion there for the purpose, and providing entertainment for the gentry of the place and neighbourhood.
Twilight was setting in when the Major began to catch glimpses of the laced hats of coachman and footmen over the hedges, a lumbering made itself heard, and by and by the vehicle halted at the gate. Such a coach! It was only the second best, and the glories of its landscape- painted sides were somewhat dimmed, the green and silver of the fittings a little tarnished to a critical eye; yet it was a splendid article, commodious and capacious, though ill-provided with air and light. However, nobody cared for stuffiness, certainly not the three young ladies, who, fan in hand, came tripping down the steps that were unrolled for them. The eldest paused to administer a fee to their entertainer's servants who had brought them home, and the coach rolled on to dispose of the remainder of the freight.
The father waved greetings from one window, a rosy little audacious figure in a night-dress peeped out furtively from another, and the house-door was opened by a tall old soldier-servant, stiff as a ramrod, with hair tightly tied and plastered up into a queue, and a blue and brown livery which sat like a uniform.
"Well, young ladies," he said, "I hope you enjoyed yourselves."
"Vastly, thank you, Corporal Palmer. And how has it been with my father in our absence?"
"Purely, Miss Harriet. He relished the Friar's chicken that Miss Delavie left for him, and he amused himself for an hour with Master Eugene, after which he did me the honour to play two plays at backgammon."
"I hope," said the eldest sister, coming up, "that the little rogue whom I saw peeping from the window has not been troublesome."
"He has been as good as gold, madam. He played in master's room till Nannerl called him to his bed, when he went at once, 'true to his orders,' says the master. 'A fine soldier he will make,' says I to my master."
Therewith the sisters mounted the uncarpeted but well-polished oak stair, knocked at the father's door, and entered one by one, each dropping her curtsey, and, though the eldest was five-and-twenty, neither speaking nor sitting till they were greeted with a hearty, "Come, my young maids, sit you down and tell your old father your gay doings."
The eldest took the only unoccupied chair, while the other two placed themselves on the window-seat, all bolt upright, with both little high heels on the floor, in none of the easy attitudes of damsels of later date, talking over a party. All three were complete gentlewomen in air and manners, though Betty had high cheek-bones, a large nose, rough complexion, and red hair, and her countenance was more loveable and trustworthy than symmetrical. The dainty decorations of youth looked grotesque upon her, and she was so well aware of the fact as to put on no more than was absolutely essential to a lady of birth and breeding. Harriet (pronounced Hawyot), the next in age, had a small well-set head, a pretty neck, and fine dark eyes, but the small- pox had made havoc of her bloom, and left its traces on cheek and brow. The wreck of her beauty had given her a discontented, fretful expression, which rendered her far less pleasing than honest, homely Betty, though she employed all the devices of the toilette to conceal the ravages of the malady and enhance her remaining advantages of shape and carriage.
There was an air of vexation about her as her father asked, "Well, how many conquests has my little Aurelia made?" She could not but recollect how triumphantly she had listened to the same inquiry after her own first appearance, scarcely three short years ago. Yet she grudged nothing to Aurelia, her junior by five years, who was for the first time arrayed as a full-grown belle, in a pale blue, tight- sleeved, long-waisted silk, open and looped up over a primrose skirt, embroidered by her own hands with tiny blue butterflies hovering over harebells. There were blue silk shoes, likewise home-made, with silver buckles, and the long mittens and deep lace ruffles were of Betty's fabrication. Even the dress itself had been cut by Harriet from old wedding hoards of their mother's, and made up after the last mode imported by Madam Churchill at the Deanery.
The only part of the equipment not of domestic handiwork was the structure on the head. The Carminster hairdresser had been making his rounds since daylight, taking his most distinguished customers last; and as the Misses Delavie were not high on the roll, Harriet and Aurelia had been under his hands at nine A.M. From that time till three, when the coach called for them, they had sat captive on low stools under a tent of table-cloth over tall chair-backs to keep the dust out of the frosted edifice constructed out of their rich dark hair, of the peculiar tint then called mouse-colour. Betty had refused to submit to this durance. "What sort of dinner would be on my father's table-cloth if I were to sit under one all day?" said she in answer to Harriet's representation of the fitness of things. "La, my dear, what matters it what an old scarecrow like me puts on?"
Old maidenhood set in much earlier in those days than at present; the sisters acquiesced, and Betty had run about as usual all the morning in her mob-cap, and chintz gown tucked through her pocket-holes, and only at the last submitted her head to the manipulations of Corporal Palmer, who daily powdered his master's wig.
Strange and unnatural as was the whitening of the hair, it was effective in enhancing the beauty of Aurelia's dark arched brows, the soft brilliance of her large velvety brown eyes, and the exquisite carnation and white of her colouring. Her features were delicately chiselled, and her face had that peculiar fresh, innocent, soft, untouched bloom and undisturbed repose which form the special charm and glory of the first dawn of womanhood. Her little head was well poised on a slender neck, just now curving a little to one side with the fatigue of the hours during which it had sustained her headgear. This consisted of a tiny flat hat, fastened on by long pins, and adorned by a cluster of campanulas like those on her dress, with a similar blue butterfly on an invisible wire above them, the dainty handiwork of Harriet.
The inquiry about conquests was a matter of course after a young lady's first party, but Aurelia looked too childish for it, and Betty made haste to reply.
"Aurelia was a very good girl. No one could have curtsied or bridled more prettily when we paid our respects to my Lady Herries and Mrs. Churchill, and the Dean highly commended her dancing."
"You danced? Fine doings! I thought you were merely invited to look on at the game at bowls. Who had the best of the match?"
"The first game was won by Canon Boltby, the second by the Dean," said Betty; "but when they would have played the conqueror, Lady Herries interfered and said the gentlemen had kept the field long enough, and now it was our turn. So a cow was driven on the bowling- green, with a bell round her neck and pink ribbons on her horns."
"A cow! What will they have next?"
"They say 'tis all the mode in London," interposed Harriet.
"Pray was the cow to instruct you in dancing?" continued the Major.
"No, sir," said Aurelia, whom he had addressed; "she was to be milked into the bowl of syllabub."
This was received with a great "Ho! ho!" and a demand who was to act as milker.
"That was the best of it," said Aurelia. "Soon came Miss Herries in a straw hat, and the prettiest green petticoat under a white gown and apron, as a dairy-maid, but the cow would not stand still, for all the man who led her kept scolding her and saying 'Coop! coop!' No sooner had Miss Herries seated herself on the stool than Moolly swerved away, and it was a mercy that the fine china bowl escaped. Every one was laughing, and poor Miss Herries was ready to cry, when forth steps my sister, coaxes the cow, bids the man lend his apron, sits down on the stool, and has the bowl frothing in a moment."
"I would not have done so for worlds," said Harriet; "I dreaded every moment to be asked where Miss Delavie learnt to be a milk-maid."
"You were welcome to reply, in her own yard," said Betty. "You may thank me for your syllabub."
"Which, after all, you forbade poor Aura to taste!"
"Assuredly. I was not going to have her turn sick on my hands. She may think herself beholden to me for her dance with that fine young beau. Who was he, Aura?"
"How now!" said the Major, in a tone of banter, while Harriet indulged in a suppressed giggle. "You let Aura dance with a stranger! Where was your circumspection, Mrs. Betty?" Aurelia coloured to the roots
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