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Cometh Up as a Flower: an Autobiography, Vol. 1. Broughton, Rhoda, 1840–1920.
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page: 258

CHAPTER XVII.

FEW, indeed, were those of the families dwelling round Lestrange that had not contributed a combatant to the siege of Sir Hugh Lancaster. Lestrange itself was no exception to the general rule; we had sent forth our eldest hope, or rather she had sent herself forth to the fray, and, after a protracted campaign, had returned to us, worsted, indeed, but in good order. She had never fought in the foremost ranks, nor had she ever been amongst the leaders of the Crusades, being too wary for that; but for all that she had laid lines of circumvallation, had set up battering‐rams, and pointed cannon as sedulously as the noisiest, vapouringest of her rivals.

But the lines had been laid so stealthily, the battering rams brought up so quietly, and the cannon pointed so noiselessly, that when she returned discomfited, hav‐ having page: 259 ing been compelled to raise the siege, none knew the fact, none knew that there had been a siege at all, except the besieged town itself, and one that viewed the carnage from afar, to wit, myself.

Dolly, unlike the bulk of her nation, knew when she was beaten; once thoroughly foiled, she never renewed the attack; whether by escalading, mining, or any other mode, she kept her scaling‐ladders for walls more accessible; she laid up her javelins and cannon balls to hurl against iller‐defended ramparts.

In Sir Hugh, I think, must have been lacking some one of the ingredients that go to compose a man; he was the sole individual of his species that ever I met with who appeared totally impervious to the beseechments of those maddening eyes that ordinarily upset the manly reason from its throne, and made the manly head giddy and staggering, as with strongest new wine. He did not appear even to see them.

Dolly was very civil to him after those days, and cooed pretty little speeches to him when they met, but she never missed page: 260 an opportunity of giving a sly little stab behind his honest back, and she “hated” him with the hate of “hell.”

Had Sir Hugh and Dolly been cast upon some desert island, it is my belief that each would have kept to their separate half, each have had their own banyan trees, and fountains, and caves; they might perhaps have exchanged nuts and roots, add other savage delicacies, but their intercourse would have been confined to that till some night, when the tropic moon was bathing in the plunging tropic waves, Dolly would have stolen to Sir Hugh as he slept under the feathery palm trees, and have cut his throat with a sharpened stone, or strangled him with her strong white fingers; she would then have taken off his handsome signet‐ring and his hunting‐watch, thinking it a pity that they should be wasted; would have buried him neatly in the shelly sand, that he might not infect the torrid air, and would then have sat down and watched “the sunrise broken into scarlet shafts,” with calmly waiting eyes.

That dreary week came to an end, and page: 261 still papa made no sign of any intention of returning to his leathern arm‐chair, and his handsome daughters, and his duns. One morning, Dolly and I sat as usual at our tête‐à‐tête breakfast. Most refreshing was she to look upon, as she sat there calmly eating her bread and butter, the sleep not yet quite gone out of her heavenly eyes. Her hair was all swept back, tidily and comfortably out of her way, behind those ravishing little ears, and gathered up into a delicious ingenious sort of twist behind, the mysteries of which no manly mind could pretend to fathom. Her dress, simple enough, was of some thin, cool summer stuff, of a rich, bright Forget‐me‐not blue, and round her dear little white throat hung a gold locket, in which lurked the photograph of the latest victim. She turned over her unopened despatches with slight leisurely fingers, and made comments on their exteriors before opening them.

“A bill,” she said to the first, tossing it away. “Another from that stupid boy! what a bore! I shall have the trouble of writing to him again;” and No. 2 was passed page: 262 carelessly by. “Lady Lancaster's hand, I declare!” The bread and butter is dropped, the envelope is torn open, and Dolly becomes immersed in the contents. I likewise have a letter—a letter written in a big bold hand, with a very broad‐nibbed quill‐pen, and about two words, or one long one, in a line. Thus it ran—

“My Darling,—My leave will be up on Friday; I have tried to get extension, and failed. They're up to the ‘urgent private affair’ dodge now, so go I must, I suppose. Will your father be home before then? I want very much to have a talk with him, on what subject I think you'll guess. Write to me one little line, my pretty one, and say something kind, for I'm awfully low at the thought of going.

“Your very fond

“R. H. M'GREGOR.”

Before opening this document, I had had a very good appetite, and had surveyed the viands with a hungry eye; now I felt that one mouthful would choke me. My hands were trembling, and my cheek flush‐ flushing page: 263 ing when Dolly's calm voice wafted these few words to my ear, “Do you wish to read this?” she held out Lady Lancaster's note, inscribed with niggling little characters, and headed with a monster monogram, in which half the letters of the alphabet twisted their legs and bent their backs against each other.

“Dear Miss Lestrange,—My son tells me that you and your sister are quite alone at Lestrange. Will you come to us to‐morrow for three days, as we have a few friends coming to us? Please excuse such a short notice, as I did not know you had returned before.

“Yours sincerely,

“A.J.K.N. LANCASTER.”

“P.S.—Major M'Gregor, who I think you know, is to be among our party.”

Lady Lancaster's characters were of the crabbedest, “scribbled, crost, and crammed,” “hard to mind and eye,” as Merlin's charm; any word might have been any other word: “friends” looked like “fiends,” “house” like “louse,” “quite” page: 264 like “guts,” and “days” like “dogs.” However, I mastered the gist with great rapidity, and left the minor difficulties for after‐consideration.

“Shall we go, Dolly?” asked I, and I covered my mouth with my hand, to hide the broad smiles that would come rippling, dimpling over it. Hei mihi! What a capacity for pleasure feeling one has in one's green youth! To feel either pleasure or pain is a sign of weakness; if we could ward off things noxious, hateful to us; if we could procure at will things profitable, jocund, we should never experience either sensation, but rest in a calm, immovable nothingness. “I joy because the quails come; would not joy Could I bring quails at will, or something to that effect, says Browning's Caliban. Our sources of enjoyment grow fewer, and dwindle at every fresh section of our lives.

In childhood we enjoy everything, from the devouring of uncleanly compounded lollipops upwards, everything except being washed and saying our prayers. In youth page: 265 we enjoy most things; the screws and springs of our earthly machine are in such prime order; the wheels of that chariot that will drive so heavily by‐and‐bye, run so smoothly and glibly, that we think they must needs be running to some pleasant goal, as they are in such a hurry to get over the ground to it. In manhood we enjoy many things, though each year knocks off one or two from the shortening list; in old age we enjoy few; the wheelless, springless waggon lumbers toilfully along a rutty road, and in death—nay, in death, I know not what we do, nor what we leave undone—yea, I know nothing concerning it.

My hand is on the thick black curtain, whose warp is darkness, and whose woof is grief; when next the hedges, burgeoning now, are putting forth their sprouting green, I shall have raised the curtain, and have found out what there is behind it; but, oh, my friends, I cannot come back to tell you; if I shriek with agony, if I laugh with rapture at what I find there, you will not hear me.

“Shall we go, Dolly?” said I.

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“I don't know what you'll do, I'm sure; I shall go.”

“There's no reason why I should not go too, is there, Dolly?” I went over and knelt down by my sister, and put up my small white face to be kissed. I was so happy that I loved everybody, even Dolly (with a spurious sort of affection it is true). Doily stooped a reluctant pink velvet cheek towards mine; she looked upon two women's kissing one another as a misapplication of one of God's best gifts.

“No reason whatever,” said she, with cold cheerfulness, “except that you have nothing but rags to go in.”

I rose hastily from my knees, with my desire for osculation quite quenched.

“All the better for you,” said I, a little bitterly; “I shall make a better foil than ever.”

“I'm quite satisfied with you as you are,” Dolly said; and with this parting shaft she withdrew.

Twelve hours more, and I am transferred from the ancient domicile where the rats and we hold a divided sway to the substantially hideous brickdust coloured pile, page: 267 where Hugh Lancaster and his household gods dwelt with his mamma, well content.

Two aged coach‐horses (whereof one was spavined and the other had string‐halt, and both were overfull of grass), yoked to our triumphal car, i.e. id est , a dilapidated yellow‐bodied barouche, hung high in air, in which papa and mamma had taken their wedding tour, bore my sister and myself to Wentworth Park. It is ten o'clock, and the brave and the fair are all assembled in the yellow drawing‐room. There are a good many people, but not a great many.

The gentlemen have just torn themselves from Sir Hugh's '47 port, and are huddling, most of them, about the door, black‐backed, white‐throated, with the Briton's inborn grace in each of their attitudes. The ladies, in blue and pink and purple, and fine twined linen, and with many natural productions in the shape of flowers and butterflies and feathers, and beetles about their heads, are dotted about the yellow satin. The yellow satin is Lady Lancaster's very own taste; she matched it by her cheeks, page: 268 and then lavished it on sofas and ottomans and chairs. It makes most people look hideous by night and jaundiced by day.

Let me give a short descriptive list of the company among whom I find my lot for the present cast: Sir Hugh, in broadcloth and high good‐humour; his mother in wrinkles and Point d'Alençon; a thin viscount with a handsome wife, who bore a year of her lord's income on her fat back; a man in barnacles, supposed to be a genius, because he never spoke, and had one or two nasty tricks; a puisne judge, who to his acquaintance's exceeding dolour, was very much up in political economy; a tall young man, who had a bad cold; and a short one, who wore death's‐head studs and made jokes; an agreeable old gentleman, who did not believe in anything particular, and had a certain proclivity towards double entendres; a young lady, with sharp shoulder blades, and another with a sharp tongue; a widow with a great many bugles about her, who rather relished the agreeable old gentleman's innuendoes; a big fair man of the name of M'Gregor, and two page: 269 artless virgins of the name of Lestrange. The judge has got the cheerful old sceptic into a corner, and is inflicting a new form of the question on him.

“We must ameliorate the condition of the rural poor, my dear sir, that's what we must do,” he is saying, very confidentially, as if he was telling some pleasant secret. “We must set sanitary reforms on foot throughout the country; that's what I've always been saying. I can tell you” (lowering his voice) “that the utter neglect of sewage in many of the agricultural districts would surprise you, it would indeed.”

“Yes, yes, I dare say, no doubt,” replies the unhappy heathen uneasily, edging away from his captor, and looking as if he did not much care whether there was one sewer throughout the length and breadth of Britain or no. He has got a succulent anecdote which he is panting to pour into the widow's rosy ears.

“I bet a dabesake of yours the other day,” quoth the man with the catarrh to the man with the skulls; “he was a cordet page: 270 in the dideth; they had some dickdabe for hib; the Dose, I think it was.”

“The what?”

“The dose, because he had such a big dose, you dow,” touching his own afflicted feature, explanatorily.

“What a cold that poor man has got!” says the viscountess, with fat compassion.

“Does not he wish he was in bed, poor wretch?” says the sharp young lady, pertly. The shoulder‐blades agitates her fan softly, and sighs behind it.

“Aren't you tired of standing?” breathes Dolly, low as the south wind when it blows the down from the clematis, to a large and stately person who is leaning over her.

“Is that a hint for me to go?” responds the large person, making no movement, however, towards so doing.

My sister says, “Oh, no!” semi‐audibly; and the thick white lids sweep down over the modest eyes. Dolly is sitting on a prie‐dieu, right under the big, hundred‐lighted chandelier, and the wax‐lights are blazing down full on her shimmery sheeny garments, on her round, pearl‐white shoulders, and on the coral lengths that page: 271 go twisting in and out of her blue black hair. Dolly is doing no harm at all, none whatever; only she is looking up under her eyes in a way I know, a way I cannot do myself, and that I hate.

Dick rests his arms on the back of the prie‐dieu, which is diverted from its original use this evening; he looks very handsome and a good deal out of sorts; his yellow moustache droops close to her ear, as he talks low and rapidly to her, occasionally looking up to scowl at me.

For myself, I am in a position which I would willingly cede to any one else in the room, should they propose an exchange. I am seated on a sofa (yellow, of course), by Sir Hugh, and we have a picture book on our laps (half on mine and half on his), and he will keep his head very close to mine, pull away as I will; and the consequence is, we have, to a casual observer, a very lover‐like and flirtatious air.

Over against me is a big mirror; in it I catch occasional glimpses of myself. I see a little head “brow‐bound with” the “burning gold” of its own ruddy locks. I see great blue eyes that look childish and page: 272 troubled, and about to cry, and I see a good sized but withal pretty mouth quivering distressedly. We are looking at prints from Landseer.

“Jolly kind of dog that,” says Sir Hugh, “ain't it? had one just like it myself once, only mine had more tan about the muzzle; best sporting dog I ever had. Came to awful grief, poor brute, though, got caught in a trap and had to be shot. I never was so cut up about anything, I don't think.”

“Perhaps so,” I murmur, with utter irrelevancy.

“Perhaps what?” cries Sir Hugh at sea.

“Did I say perhaps anything—oh, so I did. I—I don't think I quite understood what you were saying. Truth to tell, I am straining my ears to catch Dolly's remarks. My ears do not look very long ones, but they are long of hearing.”

“Does not Nelly look nice to‐night?” She was sighing in her honeyed way. “What would not one give for that freshness of sensation? We old people have effleuré all our pleasures, haven't we?”

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Dick's answer is addressed to the back of her head, so I lose it.

“Half child and half woman? Ye—es, I think so, combining the amusements of both ages too, isn't she, lover and picture‐book.”

Dick bit his golden moustache, and his gray eyes flashed angrily.

“She must be mighty easy pleased, if Lancaster's conversation can afford her amusement.”

“Oh, I don't know; she is young, and—well, perhaps—but indeed, Major M'Gregor, I think that facility of being pleased and attracted, is a very enviable possession. If one had it, one would never feel lonely in society, as one sometimes does now, doesn't one?”

One swift satanic shot from the dark, passionate sympathy‐craving eyes; a shot that reached his senses, I think, though it missed his heart.

“Do you sig, Biss Seybour?” asks the cold in the head of the shoulder‐blade.

“Sometimes—to intimate friend—now and then; do you?”

page: 274

“Do; but I'be very fod of it. Do you dow a sog called ‘Baggie's Secret?’”

Miss Seymour bites her fan in perplexity.

“‘Baggie's Secret?’ No—o, I think not; who's it by? Oh, ‘Maggie's Secret,’ to be sure; how stupid of me!”

Miss Seymour does know it, loves it, and will sing it if he wishes. My Hugh and I have reached the last of our dog portraits.

“H'm! come to an end, have they?” says Hugh, trying to split the last leaf in two with his broad thumb. “Never mind, there's lots more, somewhere.”

He rises to seek more pabulum for my mind and eyes, and I stretched out an eagerly detaining hand.

“Oh, please, won't it do another time? I think I've seen almost enough pictures. I'm—I'm a little tired.”

The worthy baronet regarded me with surprise plainly written on his broad brown face.

“Tired! nonsense! are you? Have some sherry and soda? Mother, here's Miss Lestrange so knocked up she can page: 275 hardly move; what are we to do with her?”

Lady Lancaster and the Point d'Alençon happily do not hear; are rather hard of hearing indeed.

“Oh, don't, don't please! it's nothing, only the room is a little hot; isn't it?” cry I, panting.

“Ah, yes; so it is, now you mention it; quite like an oven; I never can get mother to have the windows open; come into the next room, it's much cooler there, and we shall have it all to ourselves.”

What an inducement! thought I. The waxlights blaze steadily oppressive; the singing girl's voice comes harshly to my ear; the yellow satin glare tires my aching eyes; and across blaze and glare I see a Greek face, a very cross Greek face, scowling prohibition at me. Oh, why is he scowling at me? what have I done? what can I do? “We shall have it all to ourselves,” repeats honest Sir Hugh, with his jolly voice not a note lowered. The heathen escaped from his corner, is getting to the point of his spiced tale; its page: 276 cayenne is tickling the widow's palate; she is chuckling behind her black‐edged pocket‐handkerchief. The air is faint with patchouli and ess bouquet, and heavy scented gardenias.

I feel a hysterical lump rising in my throat, and the angry Greek face is clouding before my eyes. I am going to cry! I am going to make a scene! I am going to make a beast of myself! I rise hastily; and upsetting a light cane chair, and two Chinese gods in my passage, pass hurriedly down she room, through the folding‐doors into the cool empty saloon beyond, while Hugh, sore amazed at my indecent haste, follows hard upon my heels. Dolly's voice, pseudo‐compassionate, pseudo‐motherly, pursuing, stings me. “Poor Nell! that empressé manner is very pretty, isn't it?”

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