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- Wives and Daughters - 20/139 -
'I don't like him,' said my lady.
'He takes looking after; but he's a sharp fellow. He's such a good- looking man, too, I wonder you don't like him.'
'I never think whether a land-agent is handsome or not. They don't belong to the class of people whose appearance I notice.'
'To be sure not. But he is a handsome fellow; and what should make you like him is the interest he takes in Clare and her prospects. He is constantly suggesting something that can be done to her house, and I know he sends her fruit, and flowers, and game just as regularly as we should ourselves if we lived at Ashcombe.'
'How old is he?' said Lady Cumnor, with a faint suspicion of motives in her mind.
'About twenty-seven, I think. Ah! I see what is in your ladyship's head. No! no! he's too young for that. You must look out for some middle-aged man, if you want to get poor Clare married; Preston won't do.'
'I'm not a match-maker, as you might know. I never did it for my own daughters. I'm not likely to do it for Clare,' said she, leaning back languidly.
'Well! you might do a worse thing. I'm beginning to think she'll never get on as a schoolmistress, though why she should not, I'm sure I don't know; for she's an uncommonly pretty woman for her age, and her having lived in our family, and your having had her so often with you, ought to go a good way. I say, my lady, what do you think of Gibson? He would be just the right age--widower--lives near the Towers.'
'I told you just now I was no match-maker, my lord. I suppose we had better go by the old road--the people at those inns know us?'
And so they passed on to speaking about other things than Mrs Kirkpatrick and her prospects, scholastic or matrimonial.
THE WIDOWER AND THE WIDOW
Mrs. Kirkpatrick was only too happy to accept Lady Cumnor's invitation. It was what she had been hoping for, but hardly daring to expect, as she believed that the family were settled in London for some time to come. The Towers was a pleasant and luxurious house in which to pass her holidays; and though she was not one to make deep plans, or to look far ahead, she was quite aware of the prestige which her being able to say she had been staying with 'dear Lady Cumnor' at the Towers, was likely to give her and her school in the eyes of a good many people; so she gladly prepared to join her ladyship on the 17th. Her wardrobe did not require much arrangement; if it had done, the poor lady would not have had much money to appropriate to the purpose. She was very pretty and graceful; and that goes a great way towards carrying off shabby clothes; and it was her taste, more than any depth of feeling, that had made her persevere in wearing all the delicate tints--the violets and greys--which, with a certain admixture of black, constitute half- mourning. This style of becoming dress she was supposed to wear in memory of Mr. Kirkpatrick; in reality because it was both lady-like and economical. Her beautiful hair was of that rich auburn that hardly ever turns grey; and partly out of consciousness of its beauty, and partly because the washing of caps is expensive, she did not wear anything on her head; her complexion had the vivid tints that often accompany the kind of hair which has once been red; and the only injury her skin had received from advancing years was that the colouring was rather more brilliant than delicate, and varied less with every passing emotion. She could no longer blush; and at eighteen she had been very proud of her blushes. Her eyes were soft, large, and china-blue in colour; they had not much expression or shadow about them, which was perhaps owing to the flaxen colour of her eyelashes. Her figure was a little fuller than it used to be, but her movements were as soft and sinuous as ever. Altogether, she looked much younger than her age, which was not far short of forty. She had a very pleasant voice, and read aloud well and distinctly, which Lady Cumnor liked. Indeed, for some inexplicable reason, she was a greater; more positive favourite with Lady Cumnor than with any of the rest of the family, though they all liked her up to a certain point, and found it agreeably useful to have any one in the house who was so well acquainted with their ways and habits; so ready to talk, when a little trickle of conversation was required; so willing to listen, and to listen with tolerable intelligence, if the subjects spoken about did not refer to serious solid literature, or science, or politics, or social economy. About novels and poetry, travels and gossip, personal details, or anecdotes of any kind, she always made exactly the remarks which are expected from an agreeable listener; and she had sense enough to confine herself to those short expressions of wonder, admiration, and astonishment, which may mean anything, when more recondite things were talked about.
It was a very pleasant change to a poor unsuccessful schoolmistress to leave her own house, full of battered and shabby furniture (she had taken the goodwill and furniture of her predecessor at a valuation, two or three years before), where the look-out was as gloomy, and the surrounding as squalid, as is often the case in the smaller streets of a country town, and to come bowling through the Towers Park in the luxurious carriage sent to meet her; to alight, and feel secure that the well-trained servants would see after her bags and umbrella, and parasol, and cloak, without her loading herself with all these portable articles, as she had had to do while following the wheel-barrow containing her luggage in going to the Ashcombe coach-office that morning; to pass up the deep-piled carpets of the broad shallow stairs into my lady's own room, cool and deliciously fresh, even on this sultry day, and fragrant with great bowls of freshly gathered roses of every shade of colour. There were two or three new novels lying uncut on the table; the daily papers, the magazines. Every chair was an easy- chair of some kind or other; and all covered with French chintz that mimicked the real flowers in the garden below. She was familiar with the bedroom called hers, to which she was soon ushered by Lady Cumnor's maid. It seemed to her far more like home than the dingy place she had left that morning; it was so natural to her to like dainty draperies and harmonious colouring, and fine linen and soft raiment. She sate down on the arm-chair by the bed-side, and wondered over her fate something in this fashion,--
'One would think it was an easy enough thing to deck a looking-glass like that with muslin and pink ribbons; and yet how hard it is to keep it up! People don't know how hard it is till they've tried as I have. I made my own glass just as pretty when I first went to Ashcombe; but the muslin got dirty, and the pink ribbons faded, and it is so difficult to earn money to renew them; and when one has got the money one hasn't the heart to spend it all at once. One thinks and one thinks how one can get the most good out of it; and a new gown, or a day's pleasure, or some hot-house fruit, or some piece of elegance that can be seen and noticed in one's drawing-room, carries the day, and good-by to prettily decked looking-glasses. Now here, money is like the air they breathe. No one ever asks or knows how much the washing costs, or what pink ribbon is a yard. Ah! it would be different if they had to earn every penny as I have! They would have to calculate, like me, how to get the most pleasure out of it. I wonder if I am to go on all my life toiling and moiling for money? It's not natural. Marriage is the natural thing; then the husband has all that kind of dirty work to do, and his wife sits in the drawing-room like a lady. I did, when poor Kirkpatrick was alive. Heigho! it's a sad thing to be a widow.'
Then there was the contrast between the dinners which she had to share with her scholars at Ashcombe--rounds of beef, legs of mutton, great dishes of potatoes, and large barter-puddings, with the tiny meal of exquisitely cooked delicacies, sent up on old Chelsea china, that was served every day to the earl and countess and herself at the Towers. She dreaded the end of her holidays as much as the most home-loving of her pupils. But at this time that end was some weeks off, so Clare shut her eyes to the future, and tried to relish the present to its fullest extent. A disturbance to the pleasant, even course of the summer days came in the indisposition of Lady Cumnor. Her husband had gone back to London, and she and Mrs. Kirkpatrick had been left to the very even tenor of life, which was according to my lady's wish just now. In spite of her languor and fatigue, she had gone through the day when the school visitors came to the Towers, in full dignity, dictating clearly all that was to be done, what walks were to be taken, what hothouses to be seen, and when the party were to return to the 'collation.' She herself remained indoors, with one or two ladies who had ventured to think that the fatigue or the heat might be too much for them, and who had therefore declined accompanying the ladies in charge of Mrs. Kirkpatrick, or those other favoured few to whom Lord Cumnor was explaining the new buildings in his farm-yard. 'With the utmost condescension,' as her hearers afterwards expressed it, Lady Cumnor told them all about her married daughters' establishments, nurseries, plans for the education of their children, and manner of passing the day. But the exertion tired her; and when every one had left, the probability is that she would have gone to lie down and rest, had not her husband made an unlucky remark in the kindness of his heart. He came up to her and put his hand on her shoulder.
'I'm afraid you're sadly tired, my lady?' he said.
She braced her muscles, and drew herself up, saying coldly,--
'When I am tired, Lord Cumnor, I will tell you so.' And her own fatigue showed itself during the rest of the evening in her sitting particularly upright, and declining all offers of easy-chairs or footstools, and refusing the insult of a suggestion that they should all go to bed earlier. She went on in something of this kind of manner as long as Lord Cumnor remained at the Towers. Mrs Kirkpatrick was quite deceived by it, and kept assuring Lord Cumnor that she had never seen dear Lady Cumnor looking better, or so strong and well. But he had an affectionate heart, if a blundering head; and though he could give no reason for his belief, he was almost certain his wife was not well. Yet he was too much afraid of her to send for Mr. Gibson without her permission. His last words to Clare were,--
'It's such a comfort to leave my lady to you; only don't you be deluded by her ways. She'll not show she's ill till she can't help it. Consult with Bradley,' (Lady Cumnor's 'own woman,'--she disliked the new- fangledness of 'lady's-maid,') 'and if I were you, I'd send and ask Gibson to call--you might make any kind of a pretence,'--and then the idea he had had in London of the fitness of a match between the two coming into his head just now, he could not help adding,--'Get him to come and see you, he's a very agreeable man; Lord Hollingford says there's no one like him in these parts: and he might be looking at my lady while he was talking to you, and see if he thinks her really ill. And let me know what he says about her.'
But Clare was just as great a coward about doing anything for Lady Cumnor which she had not expressly ordered, as Lord Cumnor himself. She
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