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- The Young Step-Mother - 4/124 -
pronouncing his tooth far too bad for going to church, and she had just time for a fresh administration of camphor before Mr. Kendal came forth from his study, and gave her his arm.
The front door opened on a narrow sweep, the river cutting it off from the road, and crossed by two wooden bridges, beside each of which stood a weeping-willow, budding with fresh spring foliage. Opposite were houses of various pretentious, and sheer behind them rose the steep hill, with the church nearly at the summit, the noble spire tapering high above, and the bells ringing out a cheerful chime. The mist had drawn up, and all was fresh and clear.
'There go Lizzie and Loo!' cried Lucy, 'and the Admiral and Mrs. Osborn. I'll run and tell them papa is come home.'
Sophy was setting off also, but Mr. Kendal stopped them, and lingered a moment or two, making an excuse of looking for a needless umbrella, but in fact to avoid the general gaze. As if making a desperate plunge, however, and looking up and down the broad street, so as to be secure that no acquaintance was near, he emerged with Albinia from the gate, and crossed the road as the chime of the bells changed.
'We are late,' he said. 'You will prefer the speediest way, though it is somewhat steep.'
The most private way, Albinia understood, and could also perceive that the girls would have liked the street which sloped up the hill, and thought the lilac and green insulted by being conducted up the steep, irregular, and not very clean bye-lane that led directly up the ascent, between houses, some meanly modern, some picturesquely ancient, with stone steps outside to the upper story, but all with far too much of pig-stye about them for beauty or fragrance. Lucy held up her skirts, and daintily picked her way, and Albinia looked with kindly eyes at the doors and windows, secretly wondering what friends she should find there.
The lane ended in a long flight of more than a hundred shallow steps cut out in the soft stone of the hill, with landing-places here and there, whence views were seen of the rich meadow-landscape beyond, with villages, orchards, and farms, and the blue winding river Baye in the midst, woods rising on the opposite side under the soft haze of distance. On the other side, the wall of rock was bordered by gardens, with streamers of ivy or periwinkle here and there hanging down.
The ascent ended in an old-fashioned stone stile; and here Sophy, standing on the step, proclaimed, with unnecessary loudness, that Mr. Dusautoy was carrying Mrs. Dusautoy across the churchyard. This had the effect of making a pause, but Albinia saw the rector, a tall, powerful man, rather supporting than actually carrying, a little fragile form to the low-browed door leading into the chancel on the north side. The church was handsome, though in the late style, and a good deal misused by eighteenth-century taste; and Albinia was full of admiration as Mr. Kendal conducted her along the flagged path.
She was rather dismayed to find herself mounting the gallery stairs, and to emerge into a well-cushioned abode, with the shield-bearing angel of the corbel of an arch all to herself, and a very good view of the cobwebs over Mr. Dusautoy's sounding-board. It seemed to suit all parties, however, for Lucy and Sophia took possession of the forefront, and their father had the inmost corner, where certainly nobody could see him.
Just opposite to Albinia was a mural tablet, on which she read what revealed to her more of the sorrows of her household than she had guessed before:
'To the memory of Lucy, the beloved wife of Edmund Kendal. Died February 18th, 1845, aged 35 years.
Edmund Meadows Kendal, born January 20th, 1834. Died February 10th, 1845.
Maria Kendal, born September 5th, 1840. Died September 14th, 1840.
Sarah Anne Kendal, born October 3rd, 1841. Died November 20th, 1843.
John Augustus Kendal, born January 4th, 1842. Died July 6th, 1842.
Anne Maria Kendal, born June 12th, 1844. Died June 19th, 1844.'
Then followed, in the original Greek, the words, 'Because I live, ye shall live also.'
Four infants! how many hopes laid here! All the English-born children of the family had died in their cradles, and not only did compassion for the past affect Albinia, as she thought of her husband's world of hidden grief, but a shudder for the future came over her, as she remembered having read that such mortality is a test of the healthiness of a locality. What could she think of Willow Lawn? It was with a strong effort that she brought her attention back to Him Who controlleth the sickness that destroyeth at noon-day.
But Mr. Dusautoy's deep, powerful intonations roused her wandering thoughts, and she was calmed and reassured by the holy Feast, in which she joined with her husband.
Mr. Kendal's fine face was calm and placid, as best she loved to look upon it, when they came out of church, and she was too happy to disturb the quiet by one word. Lively and animated as she was, there was a sort of repose and enjoyment in the species of respect exacted by his grave silent demeanour.
If this could only have lasted longer! but he was taking her along an irregular street, and too soon she saw a slight colour flit across his cheek, and his eyebrows contract, as he unlatched a green door in a high wall, and entered a little flagged court, decorated by a stand destined for flowers.
Albinia caught the blush, and felt more bashful than she had believed was in her nature, but she had a warm-hearted determination that she would work down prejudices, and like and be liked by all that concerned him and his children. So she smiled at him, and went bravely on into the matted hall and up the narrow stairs, and made a laughing sign when he looked back at her ere he tapped at the sitting-room door.
It was opened from within before he could turn the handle, and a shrill voice, exaggerating those of the girls, showered welcomes with such rapidity, that Albinia was seated at the table, and had been helped to cold chicken, before she could look round, or make much answer to reiterations of 'so very kind.'
It was a small room, loaded with knicknacks and cushions, like a repository of every species of female ornamental handiwork in vogue for the last half century, and the luncheon-tray in the middle of all, ready for six people, for the two girls were there, and though Mr. Kendal stood up by the fire, and would not eat, he and his black image, reflected backwards and forwards in the looking-glass and in the little round mirror, seemed to take up more room than if he had been seated.
Mrs. Meadows was slight, shrunken, and gentle-looking, with a sweet tone in her voice, great softness of manner, and pretty blue eyes. Albinia only wished that she had worn mourning, it would have been so much more becoming than bright colours, but that was soon overlooked in gratitude for her affectionate reception, and in the warmth of feeling excited by her evident fondness and solicitude for Mr. Kendal.
Miss Meadows was gaily dressed in youthful fashion, such as evidently had set her off to advantage when she had been a bright, dark, handsome girl; but her hair was thin, her cheeks haggard, the colour hardened, and her forty years apparent, above all, in an uncomfortable furrow on the brow and round the mouth; her voice had a sharp distressed tone that grated even in her lowest key, and though she did not stammer, she could never finish a sentence, but made half-a-dozen disjointed commencements whenever she spoke. Albinia pitied her, and thought her nervous, for she was painfully assiduous in waiting on every one, scarcely sitting down for a minute before she was sure that pepper, or pickle, or new bread, or stale bread, or something was wanted, and squeezing round the table to help some one, or to ring the bell every third minute, and all in a dress that had a teasing stiff silken rustle. She offered Mr. Kendal everything in the shape of food, till he purchased peace by submitting to take a hard biscuit, while Albinia was not allowed her glass of water till all manner of wines, foreign and domestic, had been tried upon her in vain.
Conversation was not easy. Gilbert was inquired after, and his aunt spoke in her shrill, injured note, as she declared that she had done her utmost to persuade him to have the tooth extracted, and began a history of what the dentist ought to have done five years ago.
His grandmother softly pitied him, saying poor little Gibbie was such a delicate boy, and required such careful treatment; and when Albinia hoped that he was outgrowing his ill-health, she was amused to find that desponding compassion would have been more pleasing.
There had been a transaction about a servant in her behalf: and Miss Meadows insisted on hunting up a note, searching all about the room, and making her mother and Sophy move from the front of two table-drawers, a disturbance which Sophy did not take with such placid looks as did her grandmother.
The name of the maid was Eweretta Dobson, at which there was a general exclamation.
'I wonder what is the history of the name,' said Albinia; 'it sounds like nothing but the diminutive of ewer. I hope she will not be the little pitcher with long ears.'
Mr. Kendal looked as much amused as he ever did, but no one else gave the least token of so much as knowing what she meant, and she felt as if she had been making a foolish attempt at wit.
'You need not call her so,' was all that Mrs. Meadows said.
'I do not like calling servants by anything but their true names,' answered Albinia; 'it does not seem to me treating them with proper respect to change their names, as if we thought them too good for them. It is using them like slaves.
Lucy exclaimed, 'Why! grandmamma's Betty is really named
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