Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options

View Options

Cometh Up as a Flower: an Autobiography, Vol. 1. Broughton, Rhoda, 1840–1920.
page: 33


AT about half‐past six on the evening of that ever memorable day when I crossed the narrow brook between “womanhood and childhood fleet,” my father's voice came sounding up the crooked oak staircase to my virgin chamber. “Nell, Nell, the carriage is waiting!” I was standing dressed, with all my worldly goods scattered higgledy‐piggledy about me, making derisive faces at my own image in the glass, and wondering to myself whether any one in England was the owner of such obnoxious locks as mine; wondering likewise, whether it would be wrong to smash the mirror which told me such disagreeable truths.

“I'm coming, pa,” responded I, still making passes at the pale, rose‐filleted head I saw there. “Ugh, you fright! There's pa calling again. Where are my gloves? Oh, Heavens, where can they page: 34 have gone to? Yes, pa, this very minute! What a potato face. It can't be helped. I must go.” Thus ejaculating, I élancéd down stairs. My father looked at me as I stood before him with an expression more doubtful than admiring.

“I don't know much about such things, Nell,” he began, dubiously; “but is not your gown rather—what d'ye call it? I do not know how to express myself; is not it rather scant and shabby?”

“It is rather skimping, I'm afraid, pa, and I did let down two inches, and put in a new breadth too, but tarletane is so dear now‐a‐days.”

A look of mortified vexation clouded his kind old face as I spoke.

“I wish I'd known this before,” he began; but I interrupted him.

“Please do not trouble about it,” I said, hastily; “ten to one not a soul will know what I have on, or whether I have anything on at all!”

The cloud did not disperse; it deepened.

“I like you to look as well as other people, I don't want people to say that I'm too poor to dress my girls properly.”

page: 35

“They won't say anything of the kind, dad, unless they are nasty, purse‐proud snobs; and if they do say it we shan't hear them!”

“I don't want my little girl to be cut out by those fine Miss Coxes,” persisted my father, thinking bitterly of the days when the said Miss Coxe's sire would have been glad to clean his boots for him.

I laughed. “Papa,” said I, “if I were dressed in sackcloth and ashes, or in the brim of a hat and spurs, I should look more like a lady than those great bouncing, overdressed dairymaids, and after all, that's all that matters much.”

A three miles' drive through the soft spring evening, along a turnpike road, with close‐cropped hedges on either side, whence the shears had lopped off all the pretty hawthorn flowers, leaving only dusty leaves; then we drew up before a Grecian portico, on which the arms of the Coxes—arrived last month from the Herald's College—were blazoned in full‐blown glory; while a nondescript antique bird, half cock, half griffin, and supposed to be the Coxe crest, showed its ugly page: 36 stone beak and claws all over the house, in every nook and angle where antique bird could perch. Big footmen, all calves and crimson plush, on whose heads the dredging‐box had done its work, a blaze of light and Babel of voices, and then I, not knowing exactly whether I was on my head or my heels, found myself being presented by my father to a large woman, whose roseate arms were fettered with heavy gold bracelets, fresh from the jeweller's, and above whose pug face a tiara rose like a mural crown.

Having got through the ceremony of introduction, I subsided into a chair, and gradually gained courage to look about me. A lofty, spacious saloon, oh, how unlike ours at home; wax‐lit chandeliers, Cupids, and Psyches sprawling on the ceiling; Carlo Dolcean Madonnas smiling insipidly, and Claudean landscapes flashing sunnily from the walls, a general impression of gilding and ormolu and white paint. There was a very large party—substantial country gentlemen; lords and commoners, with bald pates and a prosperous stall‐fed air, not unlike their own oxen; matrons with page: 37 double chins, in the folds and creases of whose fat necks diamonds blazed fitfully; youths for whom Pools had done his utmost; and girls like a flock of full‐plumaged doves. Oh, those young ladies! I could bear the gorgeous dowagers; I could bear the irreproachable cornets, and baronets, and undergraduates, but the girls were too much for my equanimity. If my poor frock had looked scant and skimping in the hall at home, where it had the background of oak chairs and panels to set it off, what aspect must it have worn here, among the crisp chef d'œuvres of Mmes. Descou and Eluse? It was ashamed of itself, I think, for it clung to me, limp and flabby, like a wet bathing dress; and to complete my discomfiture, I discovered that my hair was dressed in a fashion that had died the death at least a year and a half ago.

I was as much a stranger in this my own neighbourhood as a native of Kamtschatka could have been, and knew not a soul. Several people (men especially) looked at me, and I attributed their notice solely to my outlandish attire.

page: 38

“They are wondering who that bundle of rags, that scarecrow, is!” said I, bitterly, to myself. “Oh, Nelly Lestrange, you poor dowdy, how I wish you were back in your old holland gown, eating cold mutton for tea, in the dining room at home!”

I was very childish for my age, and I felt very lonely—so lonely that the tears came into my eyes as I sat contemplating my hands lying in their wrinkled eighteen‐penny gloves upon my lap. Just as dinner was announced a gentleman entered the room—a gentleman, the adornment of whose person had apparently detained him somewhat long. He was a tall, broad‐shouldered man, with yellow hair—a man whom the armour of some strong King Olaf, some red‐handed Jarl, would not have misbecome. I recognized him in a moment; he was the hero of my churchyard adventure. My father, who was just in the act of conducting old Lady Blank to the festive board, looked over his shoulder, and smiled at me. I smiled too; and a minute afterwards I had quite forgot my limp one‐skirted page: 39 frock and ill‐dressed hair. All my annoyances were merged in shy pleasure when I found that my Viking was under orders to take me in to dinner. But when he had so taken me, and had deposited me on a gorgeous velvet chair beside him, he did not seem in any violent hurry to cultivate my acquaintance. He ate his soup deliberately, and left me to the contemplation of his outward man. Perhaps he knew that he was pleasant to look upon, and trusted to that pleasantness to prepossess a stranger in his favour; perhaps he did not care whether I were prepossessed or no. I was soupless; so I amused myself glancing obliquely at my neighbour. Very curly Saxon hair—so curly as to excite in envious, lank‐haired brother officers a suspicion (a base and unfounded suspicion) of the agency of tongs; a beautiful bronzed face, with the scar of a sabre‐cut running down the cheek, close to the ear; a beardless, whiskerless face; hairless, save for the heavy tawny moustache.

“I wish he'd speak,” said I to myself at last. “Perhaps he has nothing to say; page: 40 good‐looking men seldom have the gift of tongues, Dolly says.” I would as soon have thought of cutting off my head as of originating a conversation with a perfect stranger, so I held my peace, and wondered how he had acquired that scar. At last, as if he had read my thoughts, he turned towards me.

“I'm afraid I startled you rather, last night?” said he, with a smile.

“Not much,” responded I, briefly, turning my head half away, after the manner of shy girls.

“Did you think I was an evil spirit or a bogy, going about, seeking whom I might devour?” he asked, more familiarly. I suppose he saw I was young and a raw recruit in the ranks of the beau monde, and consequently that he might treat me as sich.

“No, I didn't,” said I, “because—;” and there I stopped, I was going to say “because you are too good‐looking for a bogy,” but I recollected in time that it is an inversion of the order of society for a young lady to pay broad compliments to an unknown gentleman.

page: 41

“Because what?” asked he.

“Because—because—,” said I, floundering about, and seizing desperately the first reason that occurred to me, silly as that reason happened to be, “because I never heard of a bogy with yellow hair!”

“My hair is not yellow,” responded he, carelessly; “nothing half so nice; sandy decidedly.”

“It is not my idea of sandy,” I maintained, stoutly.

“What is your idea of sandy, then, may I ask?”

“Mrs. Coxe's is sandy,” said I, with youthful rashness, looking towards the lady of the house, “and very hideous it is.”

“I am sorry you think her so hideous,” responded he, coolly; “she's my sister!”

I was covered with confusion. I would fain have slipped from my chair underneath the table, and spent the remainder of the dinner hour among the feet of the company. I reddened to the roots of my hair, which, as I have before mentioned, was red too. My shamefaced eyes sought my plate, and studied the parrot‐poppy depicted thereon in glow‐ glowing page: 42 ing colours. I attempted no apology, but sat dumb‐foundered. Then a deep voice, stifling much laughter, sounded close to my blazing ear.

“Never mind! I won't tell of you. By‐the‐bye, Mrs. Coxe is not my sister, and I only said so to frighten you.”

I felt extremely angry, though profoundly relieved.

“How could you tell such a story?” I asked, reproachfully.

“It was not a story, as you call it,” he answered, with an almost imperceptible mimicking of my indignant intonation. “In one sense, she is my sister. We are all brethren, aren't we?—at least, we call each other dearly beloved brethren in the prayer‐book every Sunday.”

“That is very flippant,” said I, gravely. I had a great respect for the prayer‐book, and did not like to hear it mentioned so lightly. I fancied he looked slightly surprised that a country chit like me should venture to rebuke a man of the world like him, but he said nothing to that effect, and rather abruptly changed the subject.

page: 43

“Is it one of the manners and customs of the young ladies in these parts to sit among the tombs towards nightfall?” he inquired.

“I don't know about other young ladies; I sit there sometimes.”

“You are a strong‐minded person, evidently; cart ropes would not drag one of my sisters within half a mile of a churchyard after dark.”

“Indeed! How many sisters have you got?— “‘Sisters and brothers, little maid, How many may you be? eh?’”

“‘Sisters and brothers, little man,’ it ought to be in this case, oughtn't it? Well, I've got two.”

“Are they like you?”

“Not a bit; much better looking.”

I felt incredulous, but I hope I kept my incredulity out of my countenance.

“Have you been here long?” I resumed, catechetically.

“Since last Tuesday.”

“Are you going to stay here long?”

“That depends upon how I like my page: 44 quarters. Is there anything more you wish to know?”

“Oh, I beg your pardon; I'm sorry I asked so many questions,” I said, contritely, fearing I had committed a grievous sin against good manners.

“I did not intend to be rude, indeed!”

“Rude,” said he, “nonsense! I should not think such a pretty mouth could say anything rude, if it tried.”

It was rather impudent of him, certainly, and I ought to have told him so, I suppose; but, as he spoke, the dark gray eyes looked full into mine, with an expression I had never seen in mortal eyes before; an expression that sealed my lips, and sent a sort of odd shiver—a shiver that had nothing to say to cold, through my frame. I felt that, to the utter neglect of “beignets aux huitres” (than which no dish can be delectabler), he was watching me, which did not add to my composure.

“Don't be angry with me,” he said at last, in a tone that meant to be penitent, bending his handsome head down towards page: 45 my downcast face. “I didn't mean to say it—it slipped out.”

“I'm not angry,” I said, with some difficulty, “that is, not very; but I'm afraid—you—think—I'm an ignorant country bumpkin, to whom you may say anything you like to?”

“Upon my soul, I don't,” he replied, earnestly. “I think—well! it doesn't much matter what I think about you.”

“You cannot think much about me,” said I, “seeing that you have only known me for about a quarter of an hour.”

“It doesn't take long to know some people!”

“They're so shallow, you mean?” suggested I, attempting to be arch.

“What a shame!” he said, “you know I didn't mean that; but have you never heard of a sort of inexplicable sympathy and attraction between two people at first sight?”

I had heard of something else at first sight, but I did not say so.

“I have nobody to sympathize with or to be attracted to, at home, except papa, and our old man‐servant, and the sexton.”

page: 46

“What do you mean? do you never go out anywhere?”

“Never. Dolly does often, but I don't.”

“Who is Dolly?” he asked, rather amused at my naiveté; “or I suppose I ought to say who's Miss or Mrs. Dolly?”

“Dolly is my sister.”

“Oh, older or younger?”

“Four years older; she was twenty‐three last January, and I am nineteen this month.”

“You are very candid.”

“Am I? why should I not be?”

“No reason whatever; and do you and Dolly—I beg her pardon—Miss Dolly, live together, all alone?”

“All alone! oh, dear no; we live with papa, of course; that is papa opposite.”

How many more revelations concerning my family history I might have made in my young ingenuousness can never now be ascertained, for at this point I perceived Mrs. Coxe, inclining her head towards the old woman of exaltedest rank, at the other end of the table; whereupon page: 47 we all sailed and floated and shuffled out of the room. How glad I should have been to have stayed with the gentlemen; protected by papa, and condescendingly chatted to by my blonde King Olaf. With my return to the drawing‐room returned my sense of loneliness, my consciousness of shabby clothes, and my embarrassment as to the disposal of my hands. There was no wish, I am sure, among those dames and damsels to neglect or be unkind to the poor gawky young stranger; it was only the force of circumstances. One good‐natured, graceful Lady Alice tried her best to extract my ideas on the comparative charms of Brighton and Scarboro'; but finding I had no ideas on the subject to be extracted she desisted in despair.

All the other ladies knew each other very well, lived in the same circle, had the same pursuits, objects, interests. I, alone, shivered chilly outside the magic ring. I was like a ghost come back, after the lapse of a century, to the house where he used to be lord and master and darling, who hears language that he understands page: 48 not. What did I know about the Duchess of A.'s at home? or dear Lady B.'s ball? I who had never to my knowledge set eyes upon a duchess, and whose sole experience of balls was derived from the inglorious Infirmary one of our little county town. However, I looked with unshaken faith to the coming of the gentlemen for bettering my condition, and better it that coming certainly did. If I had expected indeed that my large new friend would make any demonstrations in my favour, I was disappointed. He betook himself straightway to the piano, where a brilliant little brunette was trilling airy French songs in a voice like a bird's; there he stood with his back against the wall, now and then leaning forward to whisper two or three words into the pretty musician's ear, words that made the dark eyes sparkle more brightly than before.

I felt an insane desire to sing too; I could sing; it was the one accomplishment I possessed, but nobody requested the pleasure of hearing me warble; so I sat chafing, with my talent hid in a napkin. page: 49 Then a quartett of old fogies sat down to whist, and dealt, and shuffled, and abused their cards, and quarrelled with their partners, as irascible old gentlemen will; and other bald heads got into groups, and bragged about their short‐horns to their hearts' content. And gradually the younger men sought out such women as seemed good in their eyes, and sat into their pockets, to the satisfaction of both parties; even dowdy I found favour in somebody's eyes.

Two or three men came and were introduced to me, and I attributed their notice to a praiseworthy feeling of compassion, having too unaffected a belief in my own ugliness to attribute it to any other motive. I tired my neck somewhat craning up at them as they stood blacklegged around me, and they were very civil—one of them indeed, a jolly‐looking, short, dark man, considerably past his première jeunesse, whom I had heard addressed as Sir Hugh, civiller far, as I now see, than the occasion required. While we were making our adieux to the hostess on our departure, King Olaf left page: 50 his brunette and her little songs in praise of love and wine rather abruptly, and gave me his arm to lead me to the carriage. We were in the hall alone together for a minute, and as he put my shawl round my shoulders, he stooped and gazed full into my eyes. Innocent and childish as I was, I could not mistake that expression, bewildering me with its bold, avowed admiration.

“Will there be any use in my going to the churchyard to‐morrow evening?” he asked hurriedly.

“I'm sure I don't know,” said I, turning away coldly; “it's nothing to me whether you go there or not.”

“Is it not? I'm sorry for that,” he said gravely; and I was sorry too, as soon as the words were out of my mouth.

And then my father called me, and I ran hastily away, and left him standing under the portico, with the carriage lamps gilding his severe Greek beauty.