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- The Young Step-Mother - 6/124 -
Fog greeted Mrs. Kendal's eyes as she rose, and she resolved to make an attack on the pond without loss of time. But Mr. Kendal was absorbed nearly all breakfast-time in a letter from India, containing a scrap in some uncouth character. As he finished his last cup of tea, he looked up and said, 'A letter from my old friend Penrose, of Bombay--an inscription in the Salsette caves.'
'Have you seen the Salsette caves?
She was longing to hear about them, but his horse was announced.
'You said you would be engaged in the morning while I ride out, Albinia?' he said, 'I shall return before luncheon. Gilbert, you had better go at once to Mr. Bowles. I shall order your pony to be ready when you come back.'
There was not a word of remonstrance, though the boy looked very disconsolate, and began to murmur the moment his father had gone. Albinia, who had regarded protection at a dentist's one of the offices of the head of a family, though dismayed at the task, told Gilbert that she would come with him in a moment. The girls exclaimed that no one thought of going with him, and fearing she had put an affront on his manliness, she asked what he would like, but could get no answer, only when Lucy scolded him for lingering, he said, 'I thought _she_ was going with me.'
'Amiable,' thought Albinia, as she ran up to put on her bonnet; 'but I suppose toothache puts people out of the pale of civilization. And if he is thankless, is not that treating me more like a mother?'
Perhaps he had accepted her escort in hopes of deferring the evil hour, for he seemed discomfited to see her so quickly ready, and not grateful to his sisters, who hurried them by saying that Mr. Bowles would be gone out upon his rounds.
Mr. Bowles was amazed at the sight of Mrs. Kendal, and so elaborate in compliments and assurances that Mrs. Bowles would do herself the honour of calling, that Albinia, pitying Gilbert, called his attention back.
With him the apothecary was peremptory and facetious. 'He had expected that he should soon see him after his papa's return!' And with a 'soon be over,' he set him down, and Albinia bravely stood a desperate wringing of her hand at the tug of war. She was glad she had come, for the boy suffered a good deal, and was faint, and Mr. Bowles pronounced his mouth in no state for a ride to Tremblam.
'I must go,' said Gilbert, as they walked home, 'I wish papa would listen to anything.'
'He would not wish you to hurt yourself.'
'When papa says a thing--' began Gilbert.
'Well, Gilbert, you are quite right, and I hope you don't think I mean to teach you disobedience. But I do desire you, on my own responsibility, not to go and catch an inflammation in your jaw. I'll undertake papa.'
Gilbert at once became quite another creature. He discoursed so much, that she had to make him restore the handkerchief to his mouth; he held open the gate, showed her a shoal of minnows, and tried to persuade her to come round the garden before going in, but she clapped her hands at him, and hunted him back into the warm room, much impressed and delighted by his implicit obedience to his father. With Lucy and Sophy, his remaining seemed likewise to make a great sensation; they looked at Mrs. Kendal and whispered, and were evidently curious as to the result of her audacity. Albinia, who had grown up with her brother Maurice and cousin Frederick, was more used to boys than to girls, and was already more at ease with her son than her daughters.
Gilbert lent a ready hand with hammer and chisel, and boxes were opened, to the great delight and admiration of the girls. They were all very happy and busy setting things to rights, but Albinia was in difficulty how to bestow her books. There was an unaccountable scarcity both of books and book-cases; none were to be seen except that, in a chiffoniere in the drawing-room, there was a row in gilded bindings, chiefly Pope, Gray, and the like; and one which Albinia took out had pages which stuck together, a little pale blue string, faded at the end, and in the garlanded fly-leaf the inscription, 'To Miss Lucy Meadows, the reward of good conduct, December 20th, 1822.' The book seemed rather surprised at being opened, and Albinia let it close itself as Lucy said, 'Those are poor mamma's books, all the others are in the study. Come in, and I'll show you.'
She threw open the door, and Albinia entered. The study was shaded with a mass of laurels that kept out the sun, and made it look chill and sad, and the air in it was close. The round library-table was loaded with desks, pocket-books, and papers, the mantelpiece was covered with letters, and book-shelves mounted to the ceiling, filled with the learned and the poetical of new and old times.
Over the fireplace hung what it needed not Lucy's whisper to point out, as 'Poor mamma's picture.' It represented a very pretty girl, with dark eyes, brilliant colour, and small cherry mouth, painted in the exaggerated style usually called 'ridiculously like.'
Albinia's first feeling was that there was nothing in herself that could atone for the loss of so fair a creature, and the thought became more oppressive as she looked at a niche in the wall, holding a carved sandal-wood work-box, with a silver watch lying on it.
'Poor Edmund's watch,' said Lucy. 'It was given to him for a reward just before he was ill.'
Albinia tried to recover composure by reading the titles of the books. Suddenly, Lucy started and exclaimed, 'Come away. There he is!'
'Why come away?' said Albinia.
'I would not have him find me there for all the world.'
In all her vexation and dismay, Albinia could not help thinking of Bluebeard's closet. Her inclination was to stay where she was, and take her chance of losing her head, yet she felt as if she could not bear to be found invading a sanctuary of past recollections, and was relieved to find that it was a false alarm, though not relieved by the announcement that Admiral and Mrs. Osborn and the Miss Osborns were in the drawing-room.
'Before luncheon--too bad!' she exclaimed, as she hurried upstairs to wash off the dust of unpacking.
Ere she could hurry down, there was another inundation streaming across the hall, Mrs. Drury and three Miss Drurys, who, as she remembered, when they began to kiss her, were some kind of cousins.
There was talk, but Albinia could not give entire attention; she was watching for Mr. Kendal's return, that she might guard Gilbert from his displeasure, and the instant she heard him, she sprang up, and flew into the hall. He could not help brightening at the eager welcome, but when she told him of Mr. Bowles' opinion, he looked graver, and said, 'I fear you must not always attach credit to all Gilbert's reports.'
'Mr. Bowles told me himself that he must run no risk of inflammation.'
'You saw Mr. Bowles?'
'I went with Gilbert.'
'You? I never thought of your imposing so unpleasant a task on yourself. I fear the boy has been trespassing on your kindness.'
'No, indeed, he never asked me, but--' with a sort of laugh to hide the warmth excited by his pleased, grateful look, 'I thought it all in the day's work, only natural--'
She would have given anything to have had time to enjoy his epanchement de coeur at those words, bit she was obliged to add, 'Alas! there's all the world in the drawing-room!'
'Osborns and Drurys.'
'Do you want me?'
'I ran away on the plea of calling you.'
'I'll never do so again,' was her inward addition, as his countenance settled into the accustomed fixed look of abstraction, and as an unwilling victim he entered the room with her, and the visitors were 'dreadful enough' to congratulate him.
Albinia knew that it must be so unpleasant to him, that she blushed up to the roots of her hair, and could not look at anybody.
When she recovered, the first comers were taking leave, but the second set stayed on and on till past luncheon-time, and far past her patience, before the room was at last cleared.
Gilbert hurried in, and was received by his father with, 'You are very much obliged to her!'
'Indeed I am,' said Gilbert, in a winning, pleasant manner.
'I don't want you to be,' said Albinia, affectionately laying her arm on his shoulder. 'And now for luncheon--I pitied you, poor fellow; I thought you must have been famished.'
'Anything not to have all the Drurys at luncheon,' said Gilbert, confidentially, 'I had begun to wish myself at Tremblam.'
'By the bye,' said Mr. Kendal, waking as he sat down at the bottom of the table, 'how was it that the Drurys did not stay to luncheon?'
'Was that what they were waiting for?' exclaimed Albinia. 'Poor people, I had no notion of that.'
'They do have luncheon here in general,' said Mr. Kendal, as if not knowing exactly how it came to pass.
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