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- The Young Step-Mother - 5/124 -
Albinia laughed, but was disconcerted by finding that she had really given annoyance. 'I beg your pardon,' she said. 'It is only a fancy of my own. I am afraid that I have many fancies for my friends to bear with. You see I have so fine a name of my own, that I have a fellow-feeling for those under the same affliction; and I believe some servants like an alias rather than be teased for their finery, so I shall give Miss Eweretta her choice between that and her surname.
The old lady looked good-natured, and that matter blew over; but Miss Meadows fell into another complication of pros and cons about writing for the woman's character, looking miserably harassed whether she should write, or Mrs. Kendal, before she had been called upon.
Albinia supposed that Mrs. Wolfe might call in the course of the week; but this Miss Meadows did not know, and she embarked in so many half speeches, and looked so mysterious and significant at her mother, that Albinia began to suspect that some dreadful truth was behind.
'Perhaps,' said the old lady, 'perhaps Mrs. Kendal might make it understood through you, my dear Maria, that she is ready to receive visits.'
'I suppose they must be!' said Albinia.
'You see, my dear, people would be most happy, but they do not know whether you have arrived. You have not appeared at church, as I may say.'
'Indeed,' said Albinia, much diverted by her new discoveries in the realms of etiquette, 'I was rather in a cupboard, I must allow. Ought we to have sailed up the aisle in state in the Grandison pattern? Are you ready?' and she glanced up at her husband, but he only half heard.
'No,' said Miss Meadows, fretfully; 'but you have not appeared as a bride. The straw bonnet--you see people cannot tell whether you are not incog, as yet--'
To refrain from laughing was impossible. 'My tarn cap,' she exclaimed; 'I am invisible in it! What shall I do? I fear I shall never be producible, for indeed it is my very best, my veritable wedding-bonnet!'
Lucy looked as if she thought it not worth while to be married for no better a bonnet than that.
'Absurdity!' said Mr. Kendal.
If he would but have given a good hearty laugh, thought Albinia, what a consolation it would be! but she considered herself to have had a lesson against laughing in that house, and was very glad when he proposed going home. He took a kind, affectionate leave of the old lady, who again looked fondly in big face, and rejoiced in his having recovered his looks.
As they arrived at home, Lucy announced that she was just going to speak to Lizzie Osborn, and Sophy ran after her to a house of about the same degree as their own, but dignified as Mount Lodge, because it stood on the hill side of the street, while Mr. Kendal's house was for more gentility called 'Willow Lawn.' Gilbert was not to be found; but at four o'clock the whole party met at dinner, before the evening service.
Gilbert could eat little, and on going back to the fire to roast his cheek instead of going to church, was told by his father, 'I cannot have this going on. You must go to Mr. Bowles directly after breakfast to-morrow, have the tooth drawn, and then go on to Mr. Salsted's.
The tone was one that admitted of no rebellion. If Mr. Kendal interfered little, his authority was absolute where he did interfere, and Albinia could only speak a few kind words of encouragement, but the boy was vexed and moody, seemed half asleep when they came home, and went to bed as soon as tea was over.
Sophy went to bed too, Mr. Kendal went to his study, and Albinia, after this day of novelty and excitement, drew her chair to the fire, and as Lucy was hanging wearily about, called her to her side, and made her talk, believing that there was more use in studying the girl's character than even in suggesting some occupation, though that was apparently the great want of the whole family on Sunday.
Lucy's first confidence was that Gilbert had not been out alone, but with that Archibald Tritton. Mr. Tritton had a great farm, and was a sort of gentleman, and Gilbert was always after that Archy. She thought it 'very undesirable,' and Aunt Maria had talked to him about it, but he never listened to Aunt Maria.
Albinia privately thought that it must be a severe penance to listen to Aunt Maria, and took Gilbert's part. She supposed that he must be very solitary; it must be a melancholy thing to be a twin left alone.
'And Edmund, dear Edmund, was always so kind and so fond of Gilbert!' said Lucy. 'You would not have thought they were twins, Edmund was so much the tallest and strongest. It seemed so odd that Gilbert should have got over it, when he did not. Should you like to hear all about it, mamma?'
It was Albinia's great wish to lift that dark veil, and Lucy began, with as much seriousness and sadness as could co-exist with the satisfaction and importance of having to give such a narration, and exciting emotion and pity. It was remarkable how she managed to make herself the heroine of the story, though she had been sent out of the house, and had escaped the infection. She spoke in phrases that showed that she had so often told the story as to have a set form, caught from her elders, but still it had a deep and intrinsic interest for the bride, that made her sit gazing into the fire, pressing Lucy's hand, and now and then sighing and shuddering slightly as she heard how there had been a bad fever prevailing in that lower part of the town, and how the two boys were both unwell one damp, hot autumn morning, and Lucy dwelt on the escape it had been that she had not kissed them before going to school. Sophy had sickened the same day, and after the tedious three weeks, when father and mother were spent with attendance on the three, Edmund, after long delirium, had suddenly sunk, just as they had hopes of him; and the same message that told Lucy of her brother's death, told her of the severe illness of both parents.
The disease had done the work rapidly on the mother's exhausted frame, and she was buried a week after her boy. Lucy had seen the procession from the window, and thought it necessary to tell how she had cried.
Mr. Kendal's had been a long illness; the first knowledge of his loss had caused a relapse, and his recovery had long been doubtful. As soon as the children were able to move, they were sent with Miss Meadows to Ramsgate, and Lucy had joined them there.
'The day before I went, I saw papa,' she said. 'I had gone home for some things that I was to take, and his room door was open, so he saw me on the stairs, and called me, for there was no fear of infection then. Oh, he was so changed! his hair all cut off, and his cheeks hollow, and he was quite trembling, as he lay back on pillows in the great arm-chair. You can't think what a shock it was to me to see him in such a state. He held out his arms, and I flung mine round his neck, and sobbed and cried. And he just said, so faintly, "Take her away, Maria, I cannot bear it." I assure you I was quite hysterical.'
'You must have wished for more self-command,' said Albinia, disturbed by Lucy's evident pleasure in having made a scene.
'Oh, but it was such a shock, and such a thing to see the house all empty and forlorn, with the windows open, and everything so still! Miss Belmarche cried too, and said she did not wonder my feelings overcame me, and _she_ did not see papa.'
'Ah! Lucy,' said Albinia, fervently, 'how we must try to make him happy after all that he has gone through!'
'That is what grandmamma said when she got his letter. "I would be glad of anything," she said, "that would bring back a smile to him." And Aunt Maria said she had done her best for him, but he must consult his own happiness; and so I say. When people talk to me, I say that papa is quite at liberty to consult his own happiness.'
Lucy did not understand the tone, and went on patronizing. 'And if they say you look younger than they expected, I don't object to that at all. I had rather you were not as old as Aunt Maria, or Miss Belmarche.'
'Who thinks me so young?'
'Oh! Aunt Maria, and grandmamma, and Mrs. Osborn, and all; but I don't mind that, it is only Sophy who says you look like a girl. Aunt Maria says Sophy has an unmanageable temper.'
'Don't you think you can let me find that out for myself?'
'I thought you wanted me to tell you about everybody.'
'Ah! but tell me of the good in your brother and sister.'
'I don't know how,' said Lucy. 'Gilbert is so tiresome, and so is Sophy. I heard Mary telling Jane, "I'm sure the new missus will have a heavy handful of those two."'
'And what of yourself?' said Albinia.
'Oh! I don't know,' said Lucy, modestly.
Mr. Kendal came in, and as Albinia looked at his pensive brow, she was oppressed by the thought of his sufferings in that dreary convalescence. At night, when she looked from her window, the fog hung white, like mildew over the pond, and she could not reason herself out of a spectral haunting fancy that sickness lurked in the heavy, misty atmosphere. She dreamt of it and the four babies, started, awoke, and had to recall all her higher trust to enable her vigour to chase off the oppressive imagination.
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