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fell into fits on hearing the news, an died in a few weeks. The unfortunate Mr. Belamour survives, but whether from injury to the brain, or from grief and remorse, he has never been able to endure either light or company, but has remained ever since in utter darkness and seclusion."
"Utter darkness! How dreadful!" cried Aurelia, shuddering.
"How long has this been, sister?" inquired Harriet.
"About nine years," said Betty. "The lamentable affair took place just before Sir Jovian's death, and the shock may have hastened it, for he had long been in a languishing state. It was the more unfortunate, since he had made Mr. Belamour sole personal guardian to his only surviving son, and appointed him, together with my father and another gentleman, trustee for the Belamour property; and there has been much difficulty in consequence of his being unable to act, or to do more than give his signature."
"Ah! sister, I wish you had not told me," said Aurelia. "I shall dream of the unfortunate gentleman all night. Nine years of utter darkness!"
"We know who is still child enough to hate darkness," said Harriet.
"Take care," said Betty. "You must make haste, or I shall leave you to it."
CHAPTER III. 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
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