A FAIR BARBARIAN
BY FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
I. MISS OCTAVIA BASSETT
II. "AN INVESTMENT, ANYWAY"
IV. LADY THEOBALD
VII. "I SHOULD LIKE TO SEE MORE OF SLOWBRIDGE"
VIII. SHARES LOOKING UP
IX. WHITE MUSLIN
X. ANNOUNCING MR. BAROLD
XI. A SLIGHT INDISCRETION
XII. AN INVITATION
XIV. A CLERICAL VISIT
XV. SUPERIOR ADVANTAGES
XIX. AN EXPERIMENT
XX. PECULIAR TO NEVADA
XXI. LORD LANSDOWNE
XXII. "YOU HAVE MADE IT LIVELIER"
XXIII. "MAY I GO?"
XXIV. THE GARDEN PARTY
XXV. "SOMEBODY ELSE"
A FAIR BARBARIAN.
MISS OCTAVIA BASSETT.
Slowbridge had been shaken to its foundations.
It may as well be explained, however, at the outset, that it would not take much of a sensation to give Slowbridge a great shock. In the first place, Slowbridge was not used to sensations, and was used to going on the even and respectable tenor of its way, regarding the outside world with private distrust, if not with open disfavor. The new mills had been a trial to Slowbridge,—a sore trial. On being told of the owners' plan of building them, old Lady Theobald, who was the corner-stone of the social edifice of Slowbridge, was said, by a spectator, to have turned deathly pale with rage; and, on the first day of their being opened in working order, she had taken to her bed, and remained shut up in her darkened room for a week, refusing to see anybody, and even going so far as to send a scathing message to the curate of St. James, who called in fear and trembling, because he was afraid to stay away.
"With mills and mill-hands," her ladyship announced to Mr. Laurence, the mill-owner, when chance first threw them together, "with mills and mill-hands come murder, massacre, and mob law." And she said it so loud, and with so stern an air of conviction, that the two Misses Briarton, who were of a timorous and fearful nature, dropped their buttered muffins (it was at one of the tea-parties which were Slowbridge's only dissipation), and shuddered hysterically, feeling that their fate was sealed, and that they might, any night, find three masculine mill-hands secreted under their beds, with bludgeons. But as no massacres took place, and the mill-hands were pretty regular in their habits, and even went so far as to send their children to Lady Theobald's free school, and accepted the tracts left weekly at their doors, whether they could read or not, Slowbridge gradually recovered from the shock of finding itself forced to exist in close proximity to mills, and was just settling itself to sleep—the sleep of the just—again, when, as I have said, it was shaken to its foundations.
It was Miss Belinda Bassett who received the first shock. Miss Belinda Bassett was a decorous little maiden lady, who lived in a decorous little house on High Street (which was considered a very genteel street in Slowbridge). She had lived in the same house all her life, her father had lived in it, and so also had her grandfather. She had gone out, to take tea, from its doors two or three times a week, ever since she had been twenty; and she had had her little tea-parties in its front parlor as often as any other genteel Slowbridge entertainer. She had risen at seven, breakfasted at eight, dined at two, taken tea at five, and gone to bed at ten, with such regularity for fifty years, that to rise at eight, breakfast at nine, dine at three, and take tea at six, and go to bed at eleven, would, she was firmly convinced, be but "to fly in the face of Providence," as she put it, and sign her own death-warrant. Consequently, it is easy to imagine what a tremor and excitement seized her when, one afternoon, as she sat waiting for her tea, a coach from the Blue Lion dashed—or, at least, almost dashed—up to the front door, a young lady got out, and the next minute the handmaiden, Mary Anne, threw open the door of the parlor, announcing, without the least preface,—
"Your niece, mum, from 'Meriker."
Miss Belinda got up, feeling that her knees really trembled beneath her.
In Slowbridge, America was not approved of—in fact, was almost entirely ignored, as a country where, to quote Lady Theobald, "the laws were loose, and the prevailing sentiments revolutionary." It was not considered good taste to know Americans,—which was not unfortunate, as there were none to know; and Miss Belinda Bassett had always felt a delicacy in mentioning her only brother, who had emigrated to the United States in his youth, having first disgraced himself by the utterance of the blasphemous remark that "he wanted to get to a place where a fellow could stretch himself, and not be bullied by a lot of old tabbies." From the day of his departure, when he had left Miss Belinda bathed in tears of anguish, she had heard nothing of him; and here upon the threshold stood Mary Anne, with delighted eagerness in her countenance, repeating,—
"Your niece, mum, from 'Meriker!"
And, with the words, her niece entered.
Miss Belinda put her hand to her heart.
The young lady thus announced was the prettiest, and at the same time the most extraordinary-looking, young lady she had ever seen in her life. Slowbridge contained nothing approaching this niece. Her dress was so very stylish that it was quite startling in its effect; her forehead was covered down to her large, pretty eyes themselves, with curls of yellow-brown hair; and her slender throat was swathed round and round with a grand scarf of black lace.
She made a step forward, and then stopped, looking at Miss Belinda. Her eyes suddenly, to Miss Belinda's amazement, filled with tears.
"Didn't you," she said,—"oh, dear! Didn't you get the letter?"
"The—the letter!" faltered Miss Belinda. "What letter, my—my dear?"
"Pa's," was the answer. "Oh! I see you didn't."
And she sank into the nearest chair, putting her hands up to her face, and beginning to cry outright.
"I—am Octavia B-bassett," she said. "We were coming to surp-prise you, and travel in Europe; but the mines went wrong, and p-pa was obliged to go back to Nevada."
"The mines?" gasped Miss Belinda.
"S-silver-mines," wept Octavia. "And we had scarcely landed when Piper cabled, and pa had to turn back. It was something about shares, and he may have lost his last dollar."
Miss Belinda sank into a chair herself.
"Mary Anne," she said faintly, "bring me a glass of water."
Her tone was such that Octavia removed her handkerchief from her eyes, and sat up to examine her.
"Are you frightened?" she asked, in some alarm.
Miss Belinda took a sip of the water brought by her handmaiden, replaced the glass upon the salver, and shook her head deprecatingly.
"Not exactly frightened, my dear," she said, "but so amazed that I find it difficult to—to collect myself."
Octavia put up her handkerchief again to wipe away a sudden new gush of tears.
"If shares intended to go down," she said, "I don't see why they couldn't go down before we started, instead of waiting until we got over here, and then spoiling every thing."
"Providence, my dear"—began Miss Belinda.
But she was interrupted by the re-entrance of Mary Anne.
"The man from the Lion, mum, wants to know what's to be done with the trunks. There's six of 'em, an' they're all that 'eavy as he says he wouldn't lift one alone for ten shilling."
"Six!" exclaimed Miss Belinda. "Whose are they?"
"Mine," replied Octavia. "Wait a minute. I'll go out to him."
Miss Belinda was astounded afresh by the alacrity with which her niece seemed to forget her troubles, and rise to the occasion. The girl ran to the front door as if she was quite used to directing her own affairs, and began to issue her orders.
"You will have to get another man," she said. "You might have known that. Go and get one somewhere."
And when the man went off, grumbling a little, and evidently rather at a loss before such peremptory coolness, she turned to Miss Belinda.
"Where must he put them?" she asked.
It did not seem to have occurred to her once that her identity might be doubted, and some slight obstacles arise before her.
"I am afraid," faltered Miss Belinda, "that five of them will have to be put in the attic."
And in fifteen minutes five of them were put into the attic, and the sixth—the biggest of all—stood in the trim little spare chamber, and pretty Miss Octavia had sunk into a puffy little chintz-covered easy-chair, while her newly found relative stood before her, making the most laudable efforts to recover her equilibrium, and not to feel as if her head were spinning round and round.
"AN INVESTMENT, ANYWAY."
The natural result of these efforts was, that Miss Belinda was moved to shed a few tears.
"I hope you will excuse my being too startled to say I was glad to see you," she said. "I have not seen my brother for thirty years, and I was very fond of him."
"He said you were," answered Octavia; "and he was very fond of you too. He didn't write to you, because he made up his mind not to let you hear from him until he was a rich man; and then he thought he would wait until he could come home, and surprise you. He was awfully disappointed when he had to go back without seeing you."
"Poor, dear Martin!" wept Miss Belinda gently. "Such a journey!"
Octavia opened her charming eyes in surprise.
"Oh, he'll come back again!" she said. "And he doesn't mind the journey. The journey is nothing, you know."
"Nothing!" echoed Miss Belinda. "A voyage across the Atlantic nothing? When one thinks of the danger, my dear"—
Octavia's eyes opened a shade wider.
"We have made the trip to the States, across the Isthmus, twelve times, and that takes a month," she remarked. "So we don't think ten days much."
"Twelve times!" said Miss Belinda, quite appalled. "Dear, dear, dear!"
And for some moments she could do nothing but look at her young relative in doubtful wonder, shaking her head with actual sadness.
But she finally recovered herself, with a little start.
"What am I thinking of," she exclaimed remorsefully, "to let you sit here in this way? Pray excuse me, my dear. You see I am so upset."
She left her chair in a great hurry, and proceeded to embrace her young guest tenderly, though with a little timorousness. The young lady submitted to the caress with much composure.
"Did I upset you?" she inquired calmly.
The fact was, that she could not see why the simple advent of a relative from Nevada should seem to have the effect of an earthquake, and result in tremor, confusion, and tears. It was true, she herself had shed a tear or so, but then her troubles had been accumulating for several days; and she had not felt confused yet.
When Miss Belinda went down-stairs to superintend Mary Anne in the tea-making, and left her guest alone, that young person glanced about her with a rather dubious expression.
"It is a queer, nice little place," she said. "But I don't wonder that pa emigrated, if they always get into such a flurry about little things. I might have been a ghost."
Then she proceeded to unlock the big trunk, and attire herself.
Down-stairs, Miss Belinda was wavering between the kitchen and the parlor, in a kindly flutter.
"Toast some muffins, Mary Anne, and bring in the cold roast fowl," she said. "And I will put out some strawberry-jam, and some of the preserved ginger. Dear me! Just to think how fond of preserved ginger poor Martin was, and how little of it he was allowed to eat! There really seems a special Providence in my having such a nice stock of it in the house when his daughter comes home."
In the course of half an hour every thing was in readiness; and then Mary Anne, who had been sent up-stairs to announce the fact, came down in a most remarkable state of delighted agitation, suppressed ecstasy and amazement exclaiming aloud in every feature.
"She's dressed, mum," she announced, "an' 'll be down immediate," and retired to a shadowy corner of the kitchen passage, that she might lie in wait unobserved.
Miss Belinda, sitting behind the tea-service, heard a soft, flowing, silken rustle sweeping down the staircase, and across the hall, and then her niece entered.
"Don't you think I've dressed pretty quick?" she said, and swept across the little parlor, and sat down in her place, with the calmest and most unconscious air in the world.
There was in Slowbridge but one dressmaking establishment. The head of the establishment—Miss Letitia Chickie—designed the costumes of every woman in Slowbridge, from Lady Theobald down. There were legends that she received her patterns from London, and modified them to suit the Slowbridge taste. Possibly this was true; but in that case her labors as modifier must have been severe indeed, since they were so far modified as to be altogether unrecognizable when they left Miss Chickie's establishment, and were borne home in triumph to the houses of her patrons. The taste of Slowbridge was quiet,—upon this Slowbridge prided itself especially,—and, at the same time, tended toward economy. When gores came into fashion, Slowbridge clung firmly, and with some pride, to substantial breadths, which did not cut good silk into useless strips which could not be utilized in after-time; and it was only when, after a visit to London, Lady Theobald walked into St. James's one Sunday with two gores on each side, that Miss Chickie regretfully put scissors into her first breadth. Each matronly member of good society possessed a substantial silk gown of some sober color, which gown, having done duty at two years' tea-parties, descended to the grade of "second-best," and so descended, year by year, until it disappeared into the dim distance of the past. The young ladies had their white muslins and natural flowers; which latter decorations invariably collapsed in the course of the evening, and were worn during the latter half of any festive occasion in a flabby and hopeless condition. Miss Chickie made the muslins, festooning and adorning them after designs emanating from her fertile imagination. If they were a little short in the body, and not very generously proportioned in the matter of train, there was no rival establishment to sneer, and Miss Chickie had it all her own way; and, at least, it could never be said that Slowbridge was vulgar or overdressed.
Judge, then, of Miss Belinda Bassett's condition of mind when her fair relative took her seat before her.
What the material of her niece's dress was, Miss Belinda could not have told. It was a silken and soft fabric of a pale blue color; it clung to the slender, lissome young figure like a glove; a fan-like train of great length almost covered the hearth-rug; there were plaitings and frillings all over it, and yards of delicate satin ribbon cut into loops in the most recklessly extravagant manner.
Miss Belinda saw all this at the first glance, as Mary Anne had seen it, and, like Mary Anne, lost her breath; but, on her second glance, she saw something more. On the pretty, slight hands were three wonderful, sparkling rings, composed of diamonds set in clusters: there were great solitaires in the neat little ears, and the thickly-plaited lace at the throat was fastened by a diamond clasp.
"My dear," said Miss Belinda, clutching helplessly at the teapot, "are you—surely it is a—a little dangerous to wear such—such priceless ornaments on ordinary occasions."
Octavia stared at her for a moment uncomprehendingly.
"Your jewels, I mean, my love," fluttered Miss Belinda. "Surely you don't wear them often. I declare, it quite frightens me to think of having such things in the house."
"Does it?" said Octavia. "That's queer."
And she looked puzzled for a moment again.
Then she glanced down at her rings.
"I nearly always wear these," she remarked. "Father gave them to me. He gave me one each birthday for three years. He says diamonds are an investment, anyway, and I might as well have them. These," touching the ear-rings and clasp, "were given to my mother when she was on the stage. A lot of people clubbed together, and bought them for her. She was a great favorite."
Miss Belinda made another clutch at the handle of the teapot.
"Your mother!" she exclaimed faintly. "On the—did you say, on the"—
"Stage," answered Octavia. "San Francisco. Father married her there. She was awfully pretty. I don't remember her. She died when I was born. She was only nineteen."
The utter calmness, and freedom from embarrassment, with which these announcements were made, almost shook Miss Belinda's faith in her own identity. Strange to say, until this moment she had scarcely given a thought to her brother's wife; and to find herself sitting in her own genteel little parlor, behind her own tea-service, with her hand upon her own teapot, hearing that this wife had been a young person who had been "a great favorite" upon the stage, in a region peopled, as she had been led to suppose, by gold-diggers and escaped convicts, was almost too much for her to support herself under. But she did support herself bravely, when she had time to rally.
"Help yourself to some fowl, my dear," she said hospitably, even though very faintly indeed, "and take a muffin."
Octavia did so, her over-splendid hands flashing in the light as she moved them.
"American girls always have more things than English girls," she observed, with admirable coolness. "They dress more. I have been told so by girls who have been in Europe. And I have more things than most American girls. Father had more money than most people; that was one reason; and he spoiled me, I suppose. He had no one else to give things to, and he said I should have every thing I took a fancy to. He often laughed at me for buying things, but he never said I shouldn't buy them."
"He was always generous," sighed Miss Belinda. "Poor, dear Martin!"
Octavia scarcely entered into the spirit of this mournful sympathy. She was fond of her father, but her recollections of him were not pathetic or sentimental.
"He took me with him wherever he went," she proceeded. "And we had a teacher from the States, who travelled with us sometimes. He never sent me away from him. I wouldn't have gone if he had wanted to send me—and he didn't want to," she added, with a satisfied little laugh.
Miss Belinda sat, looking at her niece, with a sense of being at once stunned and fascinated. To see a creature so young, so pretty, so luxuriously splendid, and at the same time so simply and completely at ease with herself and her surroundings, was a revelation quite beyond her comprehension. The best-bred and nicest girls Slowbridge could produce were apt to look a trifle conscious and timid when they found themselves attired in the white muslin and floral decorations; but this slender creature sat in her gorgeous attire, her train flowing over the modest carpet, her rings flashing, her ear-pendants twinkling, apparently entirely oblivious of, or indifferent to, the fact that all her belongings were sufficiently out of place to be startling beyond measure.
Her chief characteristic, however, seemed to be her excessive frankness. She did not hesitate at all to make the most remarkable statements concerning her own and her father's past career. She made them, too, as if there was nothing unusual about them. Twice, in her childhood, a luckless speculation had left her father penniless; and once he had taken her to a Californian gold-diggers' camp, where she had been the only female member of the somewhat reckless community.
"But they were pretty good-natured, and made a pet of me," she said; "and we did not stay very long. Father had a stroke of luck, and we went away. I was sorry when we had to go, and so were the men. They made me a present of a set of jewelry made out of the gold they had got themselves. There is a breastpin like a breastplate, and a necklace like a dog-collar: the bracelets tire my arms, and the ear-rings pull my ears; but I wear them sometimes—gold girdle and all."
"Did I," inquired Miss Belinda timidly, "did I understand you to say, my dear, that your father's business was in some way connected with silver-mining?"
"It is silver-mining," was the response. "He owns some mines, you know"—
"Owns?" said Miss Belinda, much fluttered; "owns some silver-mines? He must be a very rich man,—a very rich man. I declare, it quite takes my breath away."
"Oh! he is rich," said Octavia; "awfully rich sometimes. And then again he isn't. Shares go up, you know; and then they go down, and you don't seem to have any thing. But father generally comes out right, because he is lucky, and knows how to manage."
"But—but how uncertain!" gasped Miss Belinda: "I should be perfectly miserable. Poor, dear Mar"—
"Oh, no, you wouldn't!" said Octavia: "you'd get used to it, and wouldn't mind much, particularly if you were lucky as father is. There is every thing in being lucky, and knowing how to manage. When we first went to Bloody Gulch"—
"My dear!" cried Miss Belinda, aghast. "I—I beg of you"—
Octavia stopped short: she gazed at Miss Belinda in bewilderment, as she had done several times before.
"Is any thing the matter?" she inquired placidly.
"My dear love," explained Miss Belinda innocently, determined at least to do her duty, "it is not customary in—in Slowbridge,—in fact, I think I may say in England,—to use such—such exceedingly—I don't want to wound your feelings, my dear,—but such exceedingly strong expressions! I refer, my dear, to the one which began with a B. It is really considered profane, as well as dreadful beyond measure."
"'The one which began with a B,'" repeated Octavia, still staring at her. "That is the name of a place; but I didn't name it, you know. It was called that, in the first place, because a party of men were surprised and murdered there, while they were asleep in their camp at night. It isn't a very nice name, of course, but I'm not responsible for it; and besides, now the place is growing, they are going to call it Athens or Magnolia Vale. They tried L'Argentville for a while; but people would call it Lodginville, and nobody liked it."
"I trust you never lived there," said Miss Belinda. "I beg your pardon for being so horrified, but I really could not refrain from starting when you spoke; and I cannot help hoping you never lived there."
"I live there now, when I am at home," Octavia replied. "The mines are there; and father has built a house, and had the furniture brought on from New York."
Miss Belinda tried not to shudder, but almost failed.
"Won't you take another muffin, my love?" she said, with a sigh. "Do take another muffin."
"No, thank you," answered Octavia; and it must be confessed that she looked a little bored, as she leaned back in her chair, and glanced down at the train of her dress. It seemed to her that her simplest statement or remark created a sensation.
Having at last risen from the tea-table, she wandered to the window, and stood there, looking out at Miss Belinda's flower-garden. It was quite a pretty flower-garden, and a good-sized one considering the dimensions of the house. There were an oval grass-plot, divers gravel paths, heart and diamond shaped beds aglow with brilliant annuals, a great many rose-bushes, several laburnums and lilacs, and a trim hedge of holly surrounding it.
"I think I should like to go out and walk around there," remarked Octavia, smothering a little yawn behind her hand. "Suppose we go—if you don't care."
"Certainly, my dear," assented Miss Belinda. "But perhaps," with a delicately dubious glance at her attire, "you would like to make some little alteration in your dress—to put something a little—dark over it."
Octavia glanced down also.
"Oh, no!" she replied: "it will do well enough. I will throw a scarf over my head, though; not because I need it," unblushingly, "but because I have a lace one that is very becoming."
She went up to her room for the article in question, and in three minutes was down again. When she first caught sight of her, Miss Belinda found herself obliged to clear her throat quite suddenly. What Slowbridge would think of seeing such a toilet in her front garden, upon an ordinary occasion, she could not imagine. The scarf truly was becoming. It was a long affair of rich white lace, and was thrown over the girl's head, wound around her throat, and the ends tossed over her shoulders, with the most picturesque air of carelessness in the world.
"You look quite like a bride, my dear Octavia," said Miss Belinda. "We are scarcely used to such things in Slowbridge."
But Octavia only laughed a little.
"I am going to get some pink roses, and fasten the ends with them, when we get into the garden," she said.
She stopped for this purpose at the first rose-bush they reached. She gathered half a dozen slender-stemmed, heavy-headed buds, and, having fastened the lace with some, was carelessly placing the rest at her waist, when Miss Belinda started violently.
"Oh, dear!" she exclaimed nervously, "there is Lady Theobald."
Lady Theobald, having been making calls of state, was returning home rather later than usual, when, in driving up High Street, her eye fell upon Miss Bassett's garden. She put up her eyeglasses, and gazed through them severely; then she issued a mandate to her coachman.
"Dobson," she said, "drive more slowly."
She could not believe the evidence of her own eyeglasses. In Miss Bassett's garden she saw a tall girl, "dressed," as she put it, "like an actress," her delicate dress trailing upon the grass, a white lace scarf about her head and shoulders, roses in that scarf, roses at her waist.
"Good heavens!" she exclaimed: "is Belinda Bassett giving a party, without so much as mentioning it to me?"
Then she issued another mandate.
"Dobson," she said, "drive faster, and drive me to Miss Bassett's."
Miss Belinda came out to the gate to meet her, quaking inwardly. Octavia simply turned slightly where she stood, and looked at her ladyship, without any pretence of concealing her curiosity.
Lady Theobald bent forward in her landau.
"Belinda," she said, "how do you do? I did not know you intended to introduce garden-parties into Slowbridge."
"Dear Lady Theobald"—began Miss Belinda.
"Who is that young person?" demanded her ladyship.
"She is poor dear Martin's daughter," answered Miss Belinda. "She arrived to-day—from Nevada, where—where it appears Martin has been very fortunate, and owns a great many silver-mines"—
"A 'great many' silver-mines!" cried Lady Theobald. "Are you mad, Belinda Bassett? I am ashamed of you. At your time of life too!"
Miss Belinda almost shed tears.
"She said 'some silver-mines,' I am sure," she faltered; "for I remember how astonished and bewildered I was. The fact is, that she is such a very singular girl, and has told me so many wonderful things, in the strangest, cool way, that I am quite uncertain of myself. Murderers, and gold-diggers, and silver-mines, and camps full of men without women, making presents of gold girdles and dog-collars, and ear-rings that drag your ears down. It is enough to upset any one."
"I should think so," responded her ladyship. "Open the carriage-door, Belinda, and let me get out."
She felt that this matter must be inquired into at once, and not allowed to go too far. She had ruled Slowbridge too long to allow such innovations to remain uninvestigated. She would not be likely to be "upset," at least. She descended from her landau, with her most rigorous air. Her stout, rich black moire-antique gown rustled severely; the yellow ostrich feather in her bonnet waved majestically. (Being a brunette, and Lady Theobald, she wore yellow.) As she tramped up the gravel walk, she held up her dress with both hands, as an example to vulgar and reckless young people who wore trains and left them to take care of themselves. Octavia was arranging afresh the bunch of long-stemmed, swaying buds at her waist, and she was giving all her attention to her task when her visitor first addressed her.
"How do you do?" remarked her ladyship, in a fine, deep voice.
Miss Belinda followed her meekly.
"Octavia," she explained, "this is Lady Theobald, whom you will be very glad to know. She knew your father."
"Yes," returned my lady, "years ago. He has had time to improve since then. How do you do?"
Octavia's limpid eyes rested serenely upon her.
"How do you do?" she said, rather indifferently.
"You are from Nevada?" asked Lady Theobald.
"It is not long since you left there?"
Octavia smiled faintly.
"Do I look like that?" she inquired.
"Like what?" said my lady.
"As if I had not long lived in a civilized place. I dare say I do, because it is true that I haven't."
"You don't look like an English girl," remarked her ladyship.
Octavia smiled again. She looked at the yellow feather and stout moire antique dress, but quite as if by accident, and without any mental deduction; then she glanced at the rosebuds in her hand.
"I suppose I ought to be sorry for that," she observed. "I dare say I shall be in time—when I have been longer away from Nevada."
"I must confess," admitted her ladyship, and evidently without the least regret or embarrassment, "I must confess that I don't know where Nevada is."
"It isn't in Europe," replied Octavia, with a soft, light laugh. "You know that, don't you?"
The words themselves sounded to Lady Theobald like the most outrageous impudence; but when she looked at the pretty, lovelock-shaded face, she was staggered the look it wore was such a very innocent and undisturbed one. At the moment, the only solution to be reached seemed to be that this was the style of young people in Nevada, and that it was ignorance and not insolence she had to do battle with—which, indeed, was partially true.
"I have not had any occasion to inquire where it is situated, so far," she responded firmly. "It is not so necessary for English people to know America as it is for Americans to know England."
"Isn't it?" said Octavia, without any great show of interest. "Why not?"
"For—for a great many reasons it would be fatiguing to explain," she answered courageously. "How is your father?"
"He is very sea-sick now," was the smiling answer,—"deadly sea-sick. He has been out just twenty-four hours."
"Out? What does that mean?"
"Out on the Atlantic. He was called back suddenly, and obliged to leave me. That is why I came here alone."
"Pray do come into the parlor, and sit down, dear Lady Theobald," ventured Miss Belinda. "Octavia"—
"Don't you think it is nicer out here?" said Octavia.
"My dear," answered Miss Belinda. "Lady Theobald"—She was really quite shocked.
"Ah!" interposed Octavia. "I only thought it was cooler."
She preceded them, without seeming to be at all conscious that she was taking the lead.
"You had better pick up your dress, Miss Octavia," said Lady Theobald rather acidly.
The girl glanced over her shoulder at the length of train sweeping the path, but she made no movement toward picking it up.
"It is too much trouble, and one has to duck down so," she said. "It is bad enough to have to keep doing it when one is on the street. Besides, they would never wear out if one took too much care of them."
When they went into the parlor, and sat down, Lady Theobald made excellent use of her time, and managed to hear again all that had tried and bewildered Miss Belinda. She had no hesitation in asking questions boldly; she considered it her privilege to do so: she had catechised Slowbridge for forty years, and meant to maintain her rights until Time played her the knave's trick of disabling her.
In half an hour she had heard about the silver-mines, the gold-diggers, and L'Argentville; she knew that Martin Bassett was a millionnaire, if the news he had heard had not left him penniless; that he would return to England, and visit Slowbridge, as soon as his affairs were settled. The precarious condition of his finances did not seem to cause Octavia much concern. She had asked no questions when he went away, and seemed quite at ease regarding the future.
"People will always lend him money, and then he is lucky with it," she said.
She bore the catechising very well. Her replies were frequently rather trying to her interlocutor, but she never seemed troubled, or ashamed of any thing she had to say; and she wore, from first to last, that inscrutably innocent and indifferent little air.
She did not even show confusion when Lady Theobald, on going away, made her farewell comment:—
"You are a very fortunate girl to own such jewels," she said, glancing critically at the diamonds in her ears; "but if you take my advice, my dear, you will put them away, and save them until you are a married woman. It is not customary, on this side of the water, for young girls to wear such things—particularly on ordinary occasions. People will think you are odd."
"It is not exactly customary in America," replied Octavia, with her undisturbed smile. "There are not many girls who have such things. Perhaps they would wear them if they had them. I don't care a very great deal about them, but I mean to wear them."
Lady Theobald went away in a dudgeon.
"You will have to exercise your authority, Belinda, and make her put them away," she said to Miss Bassett. "It is absurd—besides being atrocious."
"Make her!" faltered Miss Bassett.
"Yes, 'make her'—though I see you will have your hands full. I never heard such romancing stories in my life. It is just what one might expect from your brother Martin."
When Miss Bassett returned, Octavia was standing before the window, watching the carriage drive away, and playing absently with one of her ear-rings as she did so.
"What an old fright she is!" was her first guileless remark.
Miss Belinda quite bridled.
"My dear," she said, with dignity, "no one in Slowbridge would think of applying such a phrase to Lady Theobald."
Octavia turned around, and looked at her.
"But don't you think she is one?" she exclaimed. "Perhaps I oughtn't to have said it; but you know we haven't any thing as bad as that, even out in Nevada—really!"
"My dear," said Miss Belinda, "different countries contain different people; and in Slowbridge we have our standards,"—her best cap trembling a little with her repressed excitement.
But Octavia did not appear overwhelmed by the existence of the standards in question. She turned to the window again.
"Well, anyway," she said, "I think it was pretty cool in her to order me to take off my diamonds, and save them until I was married. How does she know whether I mean to be married, or not? I don't know that I care about it."
In this manner Slowbridge received the shock which shook it to its foundations, and it was a shock from which it did not recover for some time. Before ten o'clock the next morning, everybody knew of the arrival of Martin Bassett's daughter.
The very boarding-school (Miss Pilcher's select seminary for young ladies, "combining the comforts of a home," as the circular said, "with all the advantages of genteel education") was on fire with it, highly colored versions of the stories told being circulated from the "first class" downward, even taking the form of an Indian princess, tattooed blue, and with difficulty restrained from indulging in war-whoops,—which last feature so alarmed little Miss Bigbee, aged seven, that she retired in fear and trembling, and shed tears under the bedclothes; her terror and anguish being much increased by the stirring recitals of scalping-stories by pretty Miss Phipps, of the first class—a young person who possessed a vivid imagination, and delighted in romances of a tragic turn.
"I have not the slightest doubt," said Miss Phipps, "that when she is at home she lives in a wampum."
"What is a wampum?" inquired one of her admiring audience.
"A tent," replied Miss Phipps, with some impatience. "I should think any goose would know that. It is a kind of tent hung with scalps and—and—moccasins, and—lariats—and things of that sort."
"I don't believe that is the right name for it," put in Miss Smith, who was a pert member of the third class.
"Ah!" commented Miss Phipps, "that was Miss Smith who spoke, of course. We may always expect information from Miss Smith. I trust that I may be allowed to say that I think I have a brother"—
"He doesn't know much about it, if he calls a wigwam a wampum," interposed Miss Smith, with still greater pertness. "I have a brother who knows better than that, if I am only in the third class." For a moment Miss Phipps appeared to be meditating. Perhaps she was a trifle discomfited; but she recovered herself after a brief pause, and returned to the charge.
"Well," she remarked, "perhaps it is a wigwam. Who cares if it is? And at any rate, whatever it is, I haven't the slightest doubt that she lives in one."
This comparatively tame version was, however, entirely discarded when the diamonds and silver-mines began to figure more largely in the reports. Certainly, pretty, overdressed, jewel-bedecked Octavia gave Slowbridge abundant cause for excitement.
After leaving her, Lady Theobald drove home to Oldclough Hall, rather out of humor. She had been rather out of humor for some time, having never quite recovered from her anger at the daring of that cheerful builder of mills, Mr. John Burmistone. Mr. Burmistone had been one innovation, and Octavia Bassett was another. She had not been able to manage Mr. Burmistone, and she was not at all sure that she had managed Octavia Bassett.
She entered the dining-room with an ominous frown on her forehead.
At the end of the table, opposite her own seat, was a vacant chair, and her frown deepened when she saw it.
"Where is Miss Gaston?" she demanded of the servant.
Before the man had time to reply, the door opened, and a girl came in hurriedly, with a somewhat frightened air.
"I beg pardon, grandmamma dear," she said, going to her seat quickly. "I did not know you had come home."
"We have a dinner-hour," announced her ladyship, "and I do not disregard it."
"I am very sorry," faltered the culprit.
"That is enough, Lucia," interrupted Lady Theobald; and Lucia dropped her eyes, and began to eat her soup with nervous haste. In fact, she was glad to escape so easily.
She was a very pretty creature, with brown eyes, a soft white skin, and a slight figure with a reed-like grace. A great quantity of brown hair was twisted into an ugly coil on the top of her delicate little head; and she wore an ugly muslin gown of Miss Chickie's make. For some time the meal progressed in dead silence; but at length Lucia ventured to raise her eyes.
"I have been walking in Slowbridge, grandmamma," she said, "and I met Mr. Burmistone, who told me that Miss Bassett has a visitor—a young lady from America."
Lady Theobald laid her knife and fork down deliberately.
"Mr. Burmistone?" she said. "Did I understand you to say that you stopped on the roadside to converse with Mr. Burmistone?"
Lucia colored up to her delicate eyebrows and above them.
"I was trying to reach a flower growing on the bank," she said, "and he was so kind as to stop to get it for me. I did not know he was near at first. And then he inquired how you were—and told me he had just heard about the young lady."
"Naturally!" remarked her ladyship sardonically. "It is as I anticipated it would be. We shall find Mr. Burmistone at our elbows upon all occasions. And he will not allow himself to be easily driven away. He is as determined as persons of his class usually are."
"O grandmamma!" protested Lucia, with innocent fervor. "I really do not think he is—like that at all. I could not help thinking he was very gentlemanly and kind. He is so much interested in your school, and so anxious that it should prosper."
"May I ask," inquired Lady Theobald, "how long a time this generous expression of his sentiments occupied? Was this the reason of your forgetting the dinner-hour?"
"We did not"—said Lucia guiltily: "it did not take many minutes. I—I do not think that made me late."
Lady Theobald dismissed this paltry excuse with one remark,—a remark made in the deep tones referred to once before.
"I should scarcely have expected," she observed, "that a granddaughter of mine would have spent half an hour conversing on the public road with the proprietor of Slowbridge Mills."
"O grandmamma!" exclaimed Lucia, the tears rising in her eyes: "it was not half an hour."
"I should scarcely have expected," replied her ladyship, "that a granddaughter of mine would have spent five minutes conversing on the public road with the proprietor of Slowbridge Mills."
To this assault there seemed to be no reply to make. Lady Theobald had her granddaughter under excellent control. Under her rigorous rule, the girl—whose mother had died at her birth—had been brought up. At nineteen she was simple, sensitive, shy. She had been permitted to have no companions, and the greatest excitements of her life had been the Slowbridge tea-parties. Of the late Sir Gilbert Theobald, the less said the better. He had spent very little of his married life at Oldclough Hall, and upon his death his widow had found herself possessed of a substantial, gloomy mansion, an exalted position in Slowbridge society, and a small marriage-settlement, upon which she might make all the efforts she chose to sustain her state. So Lucia wore her dresses a much longer time than any other Slowbridge young lady: she was obliged to mend her little gloves again and again; and her hats were retrimmed so often that even Slowbridge thought them old-fashioned. But she was too simple and sweet-natured to be much troubled, and indeed thought very little about the matter. She was only troubled when Lady Theobald scolded her, which was by no means infrequently. Perhaps the straits to which, at times, her ladyship was put to maintain her dignity imbittered her somewhat.
"Lucia is neither a Theobald nor a Barold," she had been heard to say once, and she had said it with much rigor.
A subject of much conversation in private circles had been Lucia's future. It had been discussed in whispers since her seventeenth year, but no one had seemed to approach any solution of the difficulty. Upon the subject of her plans for her granddaughter, Lady Theobald had preserved stern silence. Once, and once only, she had allowed herself to be betrayed into the expression of a sentiment connected with the matter.
"If Miss Lucia marries"—a matron of reckless proclivities had remarked.
Lady Theobald turned upon her, slowly and majestically.
"If Miss Gaston marries," she repeated. "Does it seem likely that Miss Gaston will not marry?"
This settled the matter finally. Lucia was to be married when Lady Theobald thought fit. So far, however, she had not thought fit: indeed, there had been nobody for Lucia to marry,—nobody whom her grandmother would have allowed her to marry, at least. There were very few young men in Slowbridge; and the very few were scarcely eligible according to Lady Theobald's standard, and—if such a thing should be mentioned—to Lucia's, if she had known she had one, which she certainly did not.
When dinner was over, Lady Theobald rose, and proceeded to the drawing-room, Lucia following in her wake. From her very babyhood Lucia had disliked the drawing-room, which was an imposing apartment of great length and height, containing much massive furniture, upholstered in faded blue satin. All the girl's evenings, since her fifth year, had been spent sitting opposite her grandmother, in one of the straightest of the blue chairs: all the most scathing reproofs she had received had been administered to her at such times. She had a secret theory, indeed, that all unpleasant things occurred in the drawing-room after dinner.
Just as they had seated themselves, and Lady Theobald was on the point of drawing toward her the little basket containing the gray woollen mittens she made a duty of employing herself by knitting each evening, Dobson, the coachman, in his character of footman, threw open the door, and announced a visitor.
Lady Theobald dropped her gray mitten, the steel needles falling upon the table with a clink. She rose to her feet at once, and met half-way the young man who had entered.
"My dear Francis," she remarked, "I am exceedingly glad to see you at last," with a slight emphasis upon the "at last."
"Tha-anks," said Capt. Barold, rather languidly. "You're very good, I'm sure."
Then he glanced at Lucia, and Lady Theobald addressed her:—
"Lucia," she said, "this is Francis Barold, who is your cousin."
Capt. Barold shook hands feebly.
"I have been trying to find out whether it is third or fourth," he said.
"It is third," said my lady.
Lucia had never seen her display such cordiality to anybody. But Capt. Francis Barold did not seem much impressed by it. It struck Lucia that he would not be likely to be impressed by any thing. He seated himself near her grandmother's chair, and proceeded to explain his presence on the spot, without exhibiting much interest even in his own relation of facts.
"I promised the Rathburns that I would spend a week at their place; and Slowbridge was on the way, so it occurred to me I would drop off in passing. The Rathburns' place, Broadoaks, is about ten miles farther on; not far, you see."
"Then," said Lady Theobald, "I am to understand that your visit is accidental."
Capt. Barold was not embarrassed. He did not attempt to avoid her ladyship's rather stern eye, as he made his cool reply.
"Well, yes," he said. "I beg pardon, but it is accidental, rather."
Lucia gave him a pretty, frightened look, as if she felt that, after such an audacious confession, something very serious must happen; but nothing serious happened at all. Singularly enough, it was Lady Theobald herself who looked ill at ease, and as though she had not been prepared for such a contingency.
During the whole of the evening, in fact, it was always Lady Theobald who was placed at a disadvantage, Lucia discovered. She could hardly realize the fact at first; but before an hour had passed, its truth was forced upon her.
Capt. Barold was a very striking-looking man, upon the whole. He was large, gracefully built, and fair: his eyes were gray, and noticeable for the coldness of their expression, his features regular and aquiline, his movements leisurely.
As he conversed with her grandmother, Lucia wondered at him privately. It seemed to her innocent mind that he had been everywhere, and seen every thing and everybody, without caring for or enjoying his privileges. The truth was, that he had seen and experienced a great deal too much. As an only child, the heir to a large property, and heir prospective to one of the oldest titles in the country, he had exhausted life early. He saw in Lady Theobald, not the imposing head and social front of Slowbridge social life, the power who rewarded with approval and punished with a frown, but a tiresome, pretentious old woman, whom his mother had asked him, for some feminine reason, to visit. "She feels she has a claim upon us, Francis," she had said appealingly.
"Well," he had remarked, "that is rather deuced cool, isn't it? We have people enough on our hands without cultivating Slowbridge, you know."
His mother sighed faintly.
"It is true we have a great many people to consider; but I wish you would do it, my dear."
She did not say any thing at all about Lucia: above all, she did not mention that a year ago she herself had spent two or three days at Slowbridge, and had been charmed beyond measure by the girl's innocent freshness, and that she had said, rather absently, to Lady Theobald,—
"What a charming wife Lucia would make for a man to whom gentleness and a yielding disposition were necessary! We do not find such girls in society nowadays, my dear Lady Theobald. It is very difficult of late years to find a girl who is not spoken of as 'fast,' and who is not disposed to take the reins in her own hands. Our young men are flattered and courted until they become a little dictatorial, and our girls are spoiled at home. And the result is a great deal of domestic unhappiness afterward—and even a great deal of scandal, which is dreadful to contemplate. I cannot help feeling the greatest anxiety in secret concerning Francis. Young men so seldom consider these matters until it is too late."
"Girls are not trained as they were in my young days, or even in yours," said Lady Theobald. "They are allowed too much liberty. Lucia has been brought up immediately under my own eye."
"I feel that it is fortunate," remarked Mrs. Barold, quite incidentally, "that Francis need not make a point of money."
For a few moments Lady Theobald did not respond; but afterward, in the course of the conversation which followed, she made an observation which was, of course, purely incidental.
"If Lucia makes a marriage which pleases her great-uncle, old Mr. Dugald Binnie, of Glasgow, she will be a very fortunate girl. He has intimated, in his eccentric fashion, that his immense fortune will either be hers, or will be spent in building charitable asylums of various kinds. He is a remarkable and singular man."
When Capt. Barold had entered his distinguished relative's drawing-room, he had not regarded his third cousin with a very great deal of interest. He had seen too many beauties in his thirty years to be greatly moved by the sight of one; and here was only a girl who had soft eyes, and looked young for her age, and who wore an ugly muslin gown, that most girls could not have carried off at all.
"You have spent the greater part of your life in Slowbridge?" he condescended to say in the course of the evening.
"I have lived here always," Lucia answered. "I have never been away more than a week at a time."
"Ah?" interrogatively. "I hope you have not found it dull."
"No," smiling a little. "Not very. You see, I have known nothing gayer."
"There is society enough of a harmless kind here," spoke up Lady Theobald virtuously. "I do not approve of a round of gayeties for young people: it unfits them for the duties of life."
But Capt. Barold was not as favorably impressed by these remarks as might have been anticipated.
"What an old fool she is!" was his polite inward comment. And he resolved at once to make his visit as brief as possible, and not to be induced to run down again during his stay at Broadoaks. He did not even take the trouble to appear to enjoy his evening. From his earliest infancy, he had always found it easier to please himself than to please other people. In fact, the world had devoted itself to endeavoring to please him, and win his—toleration, we may say, instead of admiration, since it could not hope for the latter. At home he had been adored rapturously by a large circle of affectionate male and female relatives; at school his tutors had been singularly indulgent of his faults and admiring of his talents; even among his fellow-pupils he had been a sort of autocrat.
Why not, indeed, with such birthrights and such prospects? When he had entered society, he had met with even more amiable treatment from affectionate mothers, from innocent daughters, from cordial paternal parents, who voted him an exceedingly fine fellow. Why should he bore himself by taking the trouble to seem pleased by a stupid evening with an old grenadier in petticoats and a badly dressed country girl?
Lucia was very glad when, in answer to a timidly appealing glance, Lady Theobald said,—
"It is half-past ten. You may wish us good-night, Lucia."
Lucia obeyed, as if she had been half-past ten herself, instead of nearly twenty; and Barold was not long in following her example.
Dobson led him to a stately chamber at the top of the staircase, and left him there. The captain chose the largest and most luxurious chair, sat down in it, and lighted a cigar at his leisure.
"Confoundedly stupid hole!" he said with a refined vigor one would scarcely have expected from an individual of his birth and breeding. "I shall leave to-morrow, of course. What was my mother thinking of? Stupid business from first to last."
"I SHOULD LIKE TO SEE MORE OF SLOWBRIDGE."
When he announced at breakfast his intention of taking his departure on the midday train, Lucia wondered again what would happen; and again, to her relief, Lady Theobald was astonishingly lenient.
"As your friends expect you, of course we cannot overrule them," she said. "We will, however, hope to see something of you during your stay at Broadoaks. It will be very easy for you to run down and give us a few hours now and then."
"Tha-anks," said Capt. Barold.
He was decently civil, if not enthusiastic, during the few remaining hours of his stay. He sauntered through the grounds with Lucia, who took charge of him in obedience to her grandmother's wish. He did not find her particularly troublesome when she was away from her ladyship's side. When she came out to him in her simple cotton gown and straw hat, it occurred to him that she was much prettier than he had thought her at first. For economical reasons she had made the little morning-dress herself, without the slightest regard for the designs of Miss Chickie; and as it was not trimmed at all, and had only a black-velvet ribbon at the waist, there was nothing to place her charming figure at a disadvantage. It could not be said that her shyness and simplicity delighted Capt. Barold, but, at least, they did not displease him; and this was really as much as could be expected.
"She does not expect a fellow to exert himself, at all events," was his inward comment; and he did not exert himself.
But, when on the point of taking his departure, he went so far as to make a very gracious remark to her.
"I hope we shall have the pleasure of seeing you in London for a season, before very long," he said: "my mother will have great pleasure in taking charge of you, if Lady Theobald cannot be induced to leave Slowbridge."
"Lucia never goes from home alone," said Lady Theobald; "but I should certainly be obliged to call upon your mother for her good offices, in the case of our spending a season in London. I am too old a woman to alter my mode of life altogether."
In obedience to her ladyship's orders, the venerable landau was brought to the door; and the two ladies drove to the station with him.
It was during this drive that a very curious incident occurred,—an incident to which, perhaps, this story owes its existence, since, if it had not taken place, there might, very possibly, have been no events of a stirring nature to chronicle. Just as Dobson drove rather slowly up the part of High Street distinguished by the presence of Miss Belinda Bassett's house, Capt. Barold suddenly appeared to be attracted by some figure he discovered in the garden appertaining to that modest structure.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, in an undertone, "there is Miss Octavia."
For the moment he was almost roused to a display of interest. A faint smile lighted his face, and his cold, handsome eyes slightly brightened.
Lady Theobald sat bolt upright.
"That is Miss Bassett's niece, from America," she said. "Do I understand you know her?"
Capt. Barold turned to confront her, evidently annoyed at having allowed a surprise to get the better of him. All expression died out of his face.
"I travelled with her from Framwich to Stamford," he said. "I suppose we should have reached Slowbridge together, but that I dropped off at Stamford to get a newspaper, and the train left me behind."
"O grandmamma!" exclaimed Lucia, who had turned to look, "how very pretty she is!"
Miss Octavia certainly was amazingly so this morning. She was standing by a rosebush again, and was dressed in a cashmere morning-robe of the finest texture and the faintest pink: it had a Watteau plait down the back, jabot of lace down the front, and the close, high frills of lace around the throat which seemed to be a weakness with her. Her hair was dressed high upon her head, and showed to advantage her little ears and as much of her slim white neck as the frills did not conceal.
But Lady Theobald did not share Lucia's enthusiasm.
"She looks like an actress," she said. "If the trees were painted canvas and the roses artificial, one might have some patience with her. That kind of thing is scarcely what we expect in Slowbridge."
Then she turned to Barold.
"I had the pleasure of meeting her yesterday, not long after she arrived," she said. "She had diamonds in her ears as big as peas, and rings to match. Her manner is just what one might expect from a young woman brought up among gold-diggers and silver-miners."
"It struck me as being a very unique and interesting manner," said Capt. Barold. "It is chiefly noticeable for a sang-froid which might be regarded as rather enviable. She was good enough to tell me all about her papa and the silver-mines, and I really found the conversation entertaining."
"It is scarcely customary for English young women to confide in their masculine travelling companions to such an extent," remarked my lady grimly.
"She did not confide in me at all," said Barold. "Therein lay her attraction. One cannot submit to being 'confided in' by a strange young woman, however charming. This young lady's remarks were flavored solely with an adorably cool candor. She evidently did not desire to appeal to any emotion whatever."
And as he leaned back in his seat, he still looked at the picturesque figure which they had passed, as if he would not have been sorry to see it turn its head toward him.
In fact, it seemed that, notwithstanding his usual good fortune, Capt. Barold was doomed this morning to make remarks of a nature objectionable to his revered relation. On their way they passed Mr. Burmistone's mill, which was at work in all its vigor, with a whir and buzz of machinery, and a slight odor of oil in its surrounding atmosphere.
"Ah!" said Mr. Barold, putting his single eyeglass into his eye, and scanning it after the manner of experts. "I did not think you had any thing of that sort here. Who put it up?"
"The man's name," replied Lady Theobald severely, "is Burmistone."
"Pretty good idea, isn't it?" remarked Barold. "Good for the place—and all that sort of thing."
"To my mind," answered my lady, "it is the worst possible thing which could have happened."
Mr. Francis Barold dropped his eyeglass dexterously, and at once lapsed into his normal condition—which was a condition by no means favorable to argument.
"Think so?" he said slowly. "Pity, isn't it, under the circumstances?"
And really there was nothing at all for her ladyship to do but preserve a lofty silence. She had scarcely recovered herself when they reached the station, and it was necessary to say farewell as complacently as possible.
"We will hope to see you again before many days," she said with dignity, if not with warmth.
Mr. Francis Barold was silent for a second, and a slightly reflective expression flitted across his face.
"Thanks, yes," he said at last. "Certainly. It is easy to come down, and I should like to see more of Slowbridge."
When the train had puffed in and out of the station, and Dobson was driving down High Street again, her ladyship's feelings rather got the better of her.
"If Belinda Bassett is a wise woman," she remarked, "she will take my advice, and get rid of this young lady as soon as possible. It appears to me," she continued, with exalted piety, "that every well-trained English girl has reason to thank her Maker that she was born in a civilized land."
"Perhaps," suggested Lucia softly, "Miss Octavia Bassett has had no one to train her at all; and it may be that—that she even feels it deeply."
The feathers in her ladyship's bonnet trembled.
"She does not feel it at all!" she announced. "She is an impertinent—minx!"
SHARES LOOKING UP.
There were others who echoed her ladyship's words afterward, though they echoed them privately, and with more caution than my lady felt necessary. It is certain that Miss Octavia Bassett did not improve as time progressed, and she had enlarged opportunities for studying the noble example set before her by Slowbridge.
On his arrival in New York, Martin Bassett telegraphed to his daughter and sister, per Atlantic cable, informing them that he might be detained a couple of months, and bidding them to be of good cheer. The arrival of the message in its official envelope so alarmed Miss Belinda, that she was supported by Mary Anne while it was read to her by Octavia, who received it without any surprise whatever. For some time after its completion, Slowbridge had privately disbelieved in the Atlantic cable, and, until this occasion, had certainly disbelieved in the existence of people who received messages through it. In fact, on first finding that she was the recipient of such a message, Miss Belinda had made immediate preparations for fainting quietly away, being fully convinced that a shipwreck had occurred, which had resulted in her brother's death, and that his executors had chosen this delicate method of breaking the news.
"A message by Atlantic cable?" she had gasped. "Don't—don't read it, my love. L-let some one else do that. Poor—poor child! Trust in Providence, my love, and—and bear up. Ah, how I wish I had a stronger mind, and could be of more service to you!"
"It's a message from father," said Octavia. "Nothing is the matter. He's all right. He got in on Saturday."
"Ah!" panted Miss Belinda. "Are you quite sure, my dear—are you quite sure?"
"That's what he says. Listen."
"Got in Saturday. Piper met me. Shares looking up. May be kept here two months. Will write. Keep up your spirits. MARTIN BASSETT."
"Thank Heaven!" sighed Miss Belinda. "Thank Heaven!"
"Why?" said Octavia.
"Why?" echoed Miss Belinda. "Ah, my dear, if you knew how terrified I was! I felt sure that something had happened. A cable message, my dear! I never received a telegram in my life before, and to receive a cable message was really a shock."
"Well, I don't see why," said Octavia. "It seems to me it is pretty much like any other message."
Miss Belinda regarded her timidly.
"Does your papa often send them?" she inquired. "Surely it must be expensive."
"I don't suppose it's cheap," Octavia replied, "but it saves time and worry. I should have had to wait twelve days for a letter."
"Very true," said Miss Belinda, "but"—
She broke off with rather a distressed shake of the head. Her simple ideas of economy and quiet living were frequently upset in these times. She had begun to regard her niece with a slight feeling of awe; and yet Octavia had not been doing any thing at all remarkable in her own eyes, and considered her life pretty dull.
If the elder Miss Bassett, her parents and grandparents, had not been so thoroughly well known, and so universally respected; if their social position had not been so firmly established, and their quiet lives not quite so highly respectable,—there is an awful possibility that Slowbridge might even have gone so far as not to ask Octavia out to tea at all. But even Lady Theobald felt that it would not do to slight Belinda Bassett's niece and guest. To omit the customary state teas would have been to crush innocent Miss Belinda at a blow, and place her—through the medium of this young lady, who alone deserved condemnation—beyond the pale of all social law.
"It is only to be regretted," said her ladyship, "that Belinda Bassett has not arranged things better. Relatives of such an order are certainly to be deplored."
In secret Lucia felt much soft-hearted sympathy for both Miss Bassett and her guest. She could not help wondering how Miss Belinda became responsible for the calamity which had fallen upon her. It really did not seem probable that she had been previously consulted as to the kind of niece she desired, or that she had, in a distinct manner, evinced a preference for a niece of this description.
"Perhaps, dear grandmamma," the girl ventured, "it is because Miss Octavia Bassett is so young that"—
"May I ask," inquired Lady Theobald, in fell tones, "how old you are?"
"I was nineteen in—in December."
"Miss Octavia Bassett," said her ladyship, "was nineteen last October, and it is now June. I have not yet found it necessary to apologize for you on the score of youth."
But it was her ladyship who took the initiative, and set an evening for entertaining Miss Belinda and her niece, in company with several other ladies, with the best bohea, thin bread and butter, plum-cake, and various other delicacies.
"What do they do at such places?" asked Octavia. "Half-past five is pretty early."
"We spend some time at the tea-table, my dear," explained Miss Belinda. "And afterward we—we converse. A few of us play whist. I do not. I feel as if I were not clever enough, and I get flurried too easily by—by differences of opinion."
"I should think it wasn't very exciting," said Octavia. "I don't fancy I ever went to an entertainment where they did nothing but drink tea, and talk."
"It is not our intention or desire to be exciting, my dear," Miss Belinda replied with mild dignity. "And an improving conversation is frequently most beneficial to the parties engaged in it."
"I'm afraid," Octavia observed, "that I never heard much improving conversation."
She was really no fonder of masculine society than the generality of girls; but she could not help wondering if there would be any young men present, and if, indeed, there were any young men in Slowbridge who might possibly be produced upon festive occasions, even though ordinarily kept in the background. She had not heard Miss Belinda mention any masculine name so far, but that of the curate of St. James's; and, when she had seen him pass the house, she had not found his slim, black figure, and faint, ecclesiastic whiskers, especially interesting.
It must be confessed that Miss Belinda suffered many pangs of anxiety in looking forward to her young kinswoman's first appearance in society. A tea at Lady Theobald's house constituted formal presentation to the Slowbridge world. Each young lady within the pale of genteel society, having arrived at years of discretion, on returning home from boarding-school, was invited to tea at Oldclough Hall. During an entire evening she was the subject of watchful criticism. Her deportment was remarked, her accomplishments displayed, she performed her last new "pieces" upon the piano, she was drawn into conversation by her hostess; and upon the timid modesty of her replies, and the reverence of her listening attitudes, depended her future social status. So it was very natural indeed that Miss Belinda should be anxious.
"I would wear something rather quiet and—and simple, my dear Octavia," she said. "A white muslin perhaps, with blue ribbons."
"Would you?" answered Octavia. Then, after appearing to reflect upon the matter a few seconds, "I've got one that would do, if it's warm enough to wear it. I bought it in New York, but it came from Paris. I've never worn it yet."
"It would be nicer than any thing else, my love," said Miss Belinda, delighted to find her difficulty so easily disposed of. "Nothing is so charming in the dress of a young girl as pure simplicity. Our Slowbridge young ladies rarely wear any thing but white for evening. Miss Chickie assured me, a few weeks ago, that she had made fifteen white-muslin dresses, all after one simple design of her own."
"I shouldn't think that was particularly nice, myself," remarked Octavia impartially. "I should be glad one of the fifteen didn't belong to me. I should feel as if people might say, when I came into a room, 'Good gracious, there's another!'"
"The first was made for Miss Lucia Gaston, who is Lady Theobald's niece," replied Miss Belinda mildly. "And there are few young ladies in Slowbridge who would not emulate her example."
"Oh!" said Octavia, "I dare say she is very nice, and all that; but I don't believe I should care to copy her dresses. I think I should draw the line there."
But she said it without any ill-nature; and, sensitive as Miss Belinda was upon the subject of her cherished ideals, she could not take offence.
When the eventful evening arrived, there was excitement in more than one establishment upon High Street and the streets in its vicinity. The stories of the diamonds, the gold-diggers, and the silver-mines, had been added to, and embellished, in the most ornate and startling manner. It was well known that only Lady Theobald's fine appreciation of Miss Belinda Bassett's feelings had induced her to extend her hospitalities to that lady's niece.
"I would prefer, my dear," said more than one discreet matron to her daughter, as they attired themselves,—"I would much prefer that you would remain near me during the earlier part of the evening, before we know how this young lady may turn out. Let your manner toward her be kind, but not familiar. It is well to be upon the safe side."
What precise line of conduct it was generally anticipated that this gold-digging and silver-mining young person would adopt, it would be difficult to say: it is sufficient that the general sentiments regarding her were of a distrustful, if not timorous, nature.
To Miss Bassett, who felt all this in the very air she breathed, the girl's innocence of the condition of affairs was even a little touching. With all her splendor, she was not at all hard to please, and had quite awakened to an interest in the impending social event. She seemed in good spirits, and talked more than was her custom, giving Miss Belinda graphic descriptions of various festal gatherings she had attended in New York, when she seemed to have been very gay indeed, and to have worn very beautiful dresses, and also to have had rather more than her share of partners. The phrases she used, and the dances she described, were all strange to Miss Belinda, and tended to reducing her to a bewildered condition, in which she felt much timid amazement at the intrepidity of the New-York young ladies, and no slight suspicion of the "German"—as a theatrical kind of dance, involving extraordinary figures, and an extraordinary amount of attention from partners of the stronger sex.
It must be admitted, however, that by this time, notwithstanding the various shocks she had received, Miss Belinda had begun to discover in her young guest divers good qualities which appealed to her affectionate and susceptible old heart. In the first place, the girl had no small affectations: indeed, if she had been less unaffected she might have been less subject to severe comment. She was good-natured, and generous to extravagance. Her manner toward Mary Anne never ceased to arouse Miss Belinda to interest. There was not any condescension whatever in it, and yet it could not be called a vulgarly familiar manner: it was rather an astonishingly simple manner, somehow suggestive of a subtile recognition of Mary Anne's youth, and ill-luck in not having before her more lively prospects. She gave Mary Anne presents in the shape of articles of clothing at which Slowbridge would have exclaimed in horror if the recipient had dared to wear them; but, when Miss Belinda expressed her regret at these indiscretions, Octavia was quite willing to rectify her mistakes.
"Ah, well!" she said, "I can give her some money, and she can buy some things for herself." Which she proceeded to do; and when, under her mistress's direction, Mary Anne purchased a stout brown merino, she took quite an interest in her struggles at making it.
"I wouldn't make it so short in the waist and so full in the skirt, if I were you," she said. "There's no reason why it shouldn't fit, you know," thereby winning the house-maiden's undying adoration, and adding much to the shapeliness of the garment.
"I am sure she has a good heart," Miss Belinda said to herself, as the days went by. "She is like Martin in that. I dare say she finds me very ignorant and silly. I often see in her face that she is unable to understand my feeling about things; but she never seems to laugh at me, nor think of me unkindly. And she is very, very pretty, though perhaps I ought not to think of that at all."
As the good little spinster was arraying herself on this particular evening, having laid upon the bed the greater portion of her modest splendor, she went to her wardrobe, and took therefrom the scored bandbox containing her best cap. All the ladies of Slowbridge wore caps; and all being respectfully plagiarized from Lady Theobald, without any reference to age, size, complexion, or demeanor, the result was sometimes a little trying. Lady Theobald's head-dresses were of a severe and bristling order. The lace of which they were composed was induced by some ingenious device to form itself into aggressive quillings, the bows seemed lined with buckram, the strings neither floated nor fluttered.
"To a majestic person the style is very appropriate," Miss Belinda had said to Octavia that very day; "but to one who is not so, it is rather trying. Sometimes, indeed, I have almost wished that Miss Chickie would vary a little more in her designs."
Perhaps the sight of the various articles contained in two of the five trunks had inspired these doubts in the dear old lady's breast: it is certain, at least, that, as she took the best cap up, a faint sigh fluttered upon her lips.
"It is very large for a small person," she said. "And I am not at all sure that amber is becoming to me."
And just at that moment there came a tap at the door, which she knew was from Octavia.
She laid the cap back, in some confusion at being surprised in a moment of weakness.
"Come in, my love," she said.
Octavia pushed the door open, and came in. She had not dressed yet, and had on her wrapper and slippers, which were both of quilted gray silk, gayly embroidered with carnations. But Miss Belinda had seen both wrapper and slippers before, and had become used to their sumptuousness: what she had not seen was the trifle the girl held in her hand. "See here," she said. "See what I have been making for you!"
She looked quite elated, and laughed triumphantly.
"I did not know I could do it until I tried," she said. "I had seen some in New York, and I had the lace by me. And I have enough left to make ruffles for your neck and wrists. It's Mechlin."
"My dear!" exclaimed Miss Belinda. "My dear!"
Octavia laughed again.
"Don't you know what it is?" she said. "It isn't like a Slowbridge cap; but it's a cap, nevertheless. They wear them like this in New York, and I think they are ever so much prettier."
It was true that it was not like a Slowbridge cap, and was also true that it was prettier. It was a delicate affair of softly quilled lace, adorned here and there with loops of pale satin ribbon.
"Let me try it on," said Octavia, advancing; and in a minute she had done so, and turned Miss Bassett about to face herself in the glass. "There!" she said. "Isn't that better than—well, than emulating Lady Theobald?"
It was so pretty and so becoming, and Miss Belinda was so touched by the girl's innocent enjoyment, that the tears came into her eyes.
"My—my love," she faltered, "it is so beautiful, and so expensive, that—though indeed I don't know how to thank you—I am afraid I should not dare to wear it."
"Oh!" answered Octavia, "that's nonsense, you know. I'm sure there's no reason why people shouldn't wear becoming things. Besides, I should be awfully disappointed. I didn't think I could make it, and I'm real proud of it. You don't know how becoming it is!"
Miss Belinda looked at her reflection, and faltered. It was becoming.
"My love," she protested faintly, "real Mechlin! There is really no such lace in Slowbridge."
"All the better," said Octavia cheerfully. "I'm glad to hear that. It isn't one bit too nice for you."
To Miss Belinda's astonishment, she drew a step nearer to her, and gave one of the satin loops a queer, caressing little touch, which actually seemed to mean something. And then suddenly the girl stooped, with a little laugh, and gave her aunt a light kiss on her cheek.
"There!" she said. "You must take it from me for a present. I'll go and make the ruffles this minute; and you must wear those too, and let people see how stylish you can be."
And, without giving Miss Bassett time to speak, she ran out of the room, and left the dear old lady warmed to the heart, tearful, delighted, frightened.
A coach from the Blue Lion had been ordered to present itself at a quarter past five, promptly; and at the time specified it rattled up to the door with much spirit,—with so much spirit, indeed, that Miss Belinda was a little alarmed.
"Dear, dear!" she said. "I hope the driver will be able to control the horse, and will not allow him to go too fast. One hears of such terrible accidents."
Then Mary Anne was sent to announce the arrival of the equipage to Miss Octavia, and, having performed the errand, came back beaming with smiles.
"Oh, mum," she exclaimed, "you never see nothin' like her! Her gownd is 'evingly. An' lor'! how you do look yourself, to be sure!"
Indeed, the lace ruffles on her "best" black silk, and the little cap on her smooth hair, had done a great deal for Miss Bassett; and she had only just been reproaching herself for her vanity in recognizing this fact. But Mary Anne's words awakened a new train of thought.
"Is—is Miss Octavia's dress a showy one, Mary Anne?" she inquired. "Dear me, I do hope it is not a showy dress!"
"I never see nothin' no eleganter, mum," said Mary Anne: "she wants nothin' but a veil to make a bride out of her—an' a becominer thing she never has wore."
They heard the soft sweep of skirts at that moment, and Octavia came in.
"There!" she said, stopping when she had reached the middle of the room. "Is that simple enough?" Miss Belinda could only look at her helplessly. The "white muslin" was composed almost entirely of Valenciennes lace; the blue ribbons were embroidered with field-daisies; the air of delicate elaborateness about the whole was something which her innocent mind could not have believed possible in orthodox white and blue.
"I don't think I should call it exactly simple," she said. "My love, what a quantity of lace!"
Octavia glanced down at her jabots and frills complacently.
"There is a good deal of it," she remarked; "but then, it is nice, and one can stand a good deal of nice Valenciennes on white. They said Worth made the dress. I hope he did. It cost enough. The ribbon was embroidered by hand, I suppose. And there is plenty of it cut up into these bows."
There was no more to be said. Miss Belinda led the way to the coach, which they entered under the admiring or critical eyes of several most respectable families, who had been lying in wait behind their window-curtains since they had been summoned there by the sound of the wheels.
As the vehicle rattled past the boarding-school, all the young ladies in the first class rushed to the window. They were rewarded for their zeal by a glimpse of a cloud of muslin and lace, a charmingly dressed yellow-brown head, and a pretty face, whose eyes favored them with a frank stare of interest.
"She had diamonds in her ears!" cried Miss Phipps, wildly excited. "I saw them flash. Ah, how I should like to see her without her wraps! I have no doubt she is a perfect blaze!"
ANNOUNCING MR. BAROLD.
Lady Theobald's invited guests sat in the faded blue drawing-room, waiting. Everybody had been unusually prompt, perhaps because everybody wished to be on the ground in time to see Miss Octavia Bassett make her entrance.
"I should think it would be rather a trial, even to such a girl as she is said to be," remarked one matron.
"It is but natural that she should feel that Lady Theobald will regard her rather critically, and that she should know that American manners will hardly be the thing for a genteel and conservative English country town."
"We saw her a few days ago," said Lucia, who chanced to hear this speech, "and she is very pretty. I think I never saw any one so very pretty before."
"But in quite a theatrical way, I think, my dear," the matron replied, in a tone of gentle correction.
"I have seen so very few theatrical people," Lucia answered sweetly, "that I scarcely know what the theatrical way is, dear Mrs. Burnham. Her dress was very beautiful, and not like what we wear in Slowbridge; but she seemed to me to be very bright and pretty, in a way quite new to me, and so just a little odd."
"I have heard that her dress is most extravagant and wasteful," put in Miss Pilcher, whose educational position entitled her to the condescending respect of her patronesses. "She has lace on her morning gowns, which"—
"Miss Bassett and Miss Octavia Bassett," announced Dobson, throwing open the door.
Lady Theobald rose from her seat. A slight rustle made itself heard through the company, as the ladies all turned toward the entrance; and, after they had so turned, there were evidences of a positive thrill. Before the eyes of all, Belinda Bassett advanced with rich ruffles of Mechlin at her neck and wrists, with a delicate and distinctly novel cap upon her head, her niece following her with an unabashed face, twenty pounds' worth of lace on her dress, and unmistakable diamonds in her little ears.
"There is not a shadow of timidity about her," cried Mrs. Burnham under her breath. "This is actual boldness."
But this was a very severe term to use, notwithstanding that it was born of righteous indignation. It was not boldness at all: it was only the serenity of a young person who was quite unconscious that there was any thing to fear in the rather unimposing party before her. Octavia was accustomed to entering rooms full of strangers. She had spent several years of her life in hotels, where she had been stared out of countenance by a few score new people every day. She was even used to being, in some sort, a young person of note. It was nothing unusual for her to know that she was being pointed out. "That pretty blonde," she often heard it said, "is Martin Bassett's daughter: sharp fellow, Bassett,—and lucky fellow too; more money than he can count."