At length they were dressed, and Nancy stood on the court-steps, shading her eyes, and looking after them, as they climbed the heathery slope leading to Combehurst.
“I wish she’d take her hand sometimes, just to let her know the feel of her mother’s hand. Perhaps she will, at least after Master Edward goes to school.”
As they went along, Mrs. Browne gave the children a few rules respecting manners and etiquette.
“Maggie! you must sit as upright as ever you can; make your back flat, child, and don’t poke. If I cough, you must draw up. I shall cough whenever I see you do anything wrong, and I shall be looking at you all day; so remember. You hold yourself very well, Edward. If Mr. Buxton asks you, you may have a glass of wine, because you’re a boy. But mind and say, ‘Your good health, sir,’ before you drink it.”
“I’d rather not have the wine if I’m to say that,” said Edward, bluntly.
“Oh, nonsense! my dear. You’d wish to be like a gentleman, I’m sure.”
Edward muttered something which was inaudible. His mother went on:
Of course you’ll never think of being helped more than twice. Twice of meat, twice of pudding, is the genteel thing. You may take less, but never more.”
“Oh, mamma! how beautiful Combehurst spire is, with that dark cloud behind it!” exclaimed Maggie, as they came in sight of the town.
“You’ve no business with Combehurst spire when I’m speaking to you. I’m talking myself out of breath to teach you how to behave, and there you go looking after clouds, and such like rubbish. I’m ashamed of you.”
Although Maggie walked quietly by her mother’s side all the rest of the way, Mrs. Browne was too much offended to resume her instructions on good-breeding. Maggie might be helped three times if she liked: she had done with her.
They were very early. When they drew near the bridge, they were met by a tall, fine-looking boy, leading a beautiful little Shetland pony, with a side-saddle on it. He came up to Mrs. Browne, and addressed her.
“My father thought your little girl would be tired, and he told me to bring my cousin Erminia’s pony for her. It’s as quiet as can be.”
Now this was rather provoking to Mrs. Browne, as she chose to consider Maggie in disgrace. However, there was no help for it: all she could do was to spoil the enjoyment as far as possible, by looking and speaking in a cold manner, which often chilled Maggie’s little heart, and took all the zest out of the pleasure now. It was in vain that Frank Buxton made the pony trot and canter; she still looked sad and grave.
“Little dull thing!” he thought; but he was as kind and considerate as a gentlemanly boy could be.
At last they reached Mr. Buxton’s house. It was in the main street, and the front door opened upon it by a flight of steps. Wide on each side extended the stone-coped windows. It was in reality a mansion, and needed not the neighboring contrast of the cottages on either side to make it look imposing. When they went in, they entered a large hall, cool even on that burning July day, with a black and white flag floor, and old settees round the walls, and great jars of curious china, which were filled with pot-pourrie. The dusky gloom was pleasant, after the glare of the street outside; and the requisite light and cheerfulness were given by the peep into the garden, framed, as it were, by the large door-way that opened into it. There were roses, and sweet-peas, and poppies — a rich mass of color, which looked well, set in the somewhat sombre coolness of the hall. All the house told of wealth — wealth which had accumulated for generations, and which was shown in a sort of comfortable, grand, unostentatious way. Mr. Buxton’s ancestors had been yeomen; but, two or three generations back, they might, if ambitious, have taken their place as country gentry, so much had the value of their property increased, and so great had been the amount of their savings. They, however, continued to live in the old farm till Mr. Buxton’s grandfather built the house in Combehurst of which I am speaking, and then he felt rather ashamed of what he had done; it seemed like stepping out of his position. He and his wife always sat in the best kitchen; and it was only after his son’s marriage that the entertaining rooms were furnished. Even then they were kept with closed shutters and bagged-up furniture during the lifetime of the old couple, who, nevertheless, took a pride in adding to the rich-fashioned ornaments and grand old china of the apartments. But they died, and were gathered to their fathers, and young Mr. and Mrs. Buxton (aged respectively fifty-one and forty-five) reigned in their stead. They had the good taste to make no sudden change; but gradually the rooms assumed an inhabited appearance, and their son and daughter grew up in the enjoyment of great wealth, and no small degree of refinement. But as yet they held back modestly from putting themselves in any way on a level with the county people. Lawrence Buxton was sent to the same school as his father had been before him; and the notion of his going to college to complete his education was, after some deliberation, negatived. In process of time he succeeded his father, and married a sweet, gentle lady, of a decayed and very poor county family, by whom he had one boy before she fell into delicate health. His sister had married a man whose character was worse than his fortune, and had been left a widow. Everybody thought her husband’s death a blessing; but she loved him, in spite of negligence and many grosser faults; and so, not many years after, she died, leaving her little daughter to her brother’s care, with many a broken-voiced entreaty that he would never speak a word against the dead father of her child. So the little Erminia was taken home by her self-reproaching uncle, who felt now how hardly he had acted towards his sister in breaking off all communication with her on her ill-starred marriage.
“Where is Erminia, Frank?” asked his father, speaking over Maggie’s shoulder, while he still held her hand. “I want to take Mrs. Browne to your mother. I told Erminia to be here to welcome this little girl.”
“I’ll take her to Minnie; I think she’s in the garden. I’ll come back to you,” nodding to Edward, “directly, and then we will go to the rabbits.”
So Frank and Maggie left the great lofty room, full of strange rare things, and rich with books, and went into the sunny scented garden, which stretched far and wide behind the house. Down one of the walks, with a hedge of roses on either side, came a little tripping fairy, with long golden ringlets, and a complexion like a china rose. With the deep blue of the summer sky behind her, Maggie thought she looked like an angel. She neither hastened nor slackened her pace when she saw them, but came on with the same dainty light prancing step.
“Make haste, Minnie,” cried Frank.
But Minnie stopped to gather a rose.
“Don’t stay with me,” said Maggie, softly, although she had held his hand like that of a friend, and did not feel that the little fairy’s manner was particularly cordial or gracious. Frank took her at her word, and ran off to Edward.
Erminia came a little quicker when she saw that Maggie was left alone; but for some time after they were together, they had nothing to say to each other. Erminia was easily impressed by the pomps and vanities of the world; and Maggie’s new handsome frock seemed to her made of old ironed brown silk. And though Maggie’s voice was soft, with a silver ringing sound in it, she pronounced her words in Nancy’s broad country way. Her hair was cut short all round; her shoes were thick, and clumped as she walked. Erminia patronized her, and thought herself very kind and condescending; but they were not particularly friendly. The visit promised to be more honorable than agreeable, and Maggie almost wished herself at home again. Dinner-time came. Mrs. Buxton dined in her own room. Mr. Buxton was hearty, and jovial, and pressing; he almost scolded Maggie because she would not take more than twice of his favorite pudding: but she remembered what her mother had said, and that she would be watched all day; and this gave her a little prim, quaint manner, very different from her usual soft charming unconsciousness. She fancied that Edward and Master Buxton were just as little at their ease with each other as she and Miss Harvey. Perhaps this feeling on the part of the boys made all four children unite after dinner.
“Let us go to the swing in the shrubbery,” said Frank, after a little consideration; and off they ran. Frank proposed that he and Edward should swing the two little girls; and for a time all went on very well. But by-and-by Edward thought, that Maggie had had enough, and that he should like a turn; and Maggie, at his first word, got out.
“Don’t you like swinging?” asked Erminia.
“Yes! but Edward would like it now.” And Edward accordingly took her place. Frank turned away, and would not swing him. Maggie strove hard to do it, but he was heavy, and the swing bent unevenly. He scolded her for what she could not help, and at last jumped out so roughly, that the seat hit Maggie’s face, and knocked her down. When she got up, her lips quivered with pain, but she did not cry; she only looked anxiously at her frock. There was a great rent across the front breadth. Then she did shed tears — tears of fright. What would her mother say?
Erminia saw her crying.
“Are you hurt?” said she, kindly. “Oh, how your check is swelled! What a rude, cross boy your brother is!”
“I did not know he was going to jump out. I am not crying because I am hurt, but because of this great rent in my nice new frock. Mamma will be so displeased.”
“Is it a new frock?” asked Erminia.
“It is a new one for me. Nancy has sat up several nights to make it. Oh! what shall I do?”
Erminia’s little heart was softened by such excessive poverty. A best frock made of shabby old silk! She put her arms round Maggie’s neck, and said:
“Come with me; we will go to my aunt’s dressing-room, and Dawson will give me some silk, and I’ll help you to mend it.”
“That’s a kind little Minnie,” said Frank. Ned had turned sulkily away. I do not think the boys were ever cordial again that day; for, as Frank said to his mother, “Ned might have said he was sorry; but he is a regular tyrant to that little brown mouse of a sister of his.”
Erminia and Maggie went, with their arms round each other’s necks, to Mrs. Buxton’s dressing-room. The misfortune had made them friends. Mrs. Buxton lay on the sofa; so fair and white and colorless, in her muslin dressing-gown, that when Maggie first saw the lady lying with her eyes shut, her heart gave a start, for she thought she was dead. But she opened her large languid eyes, and called them to her, and listened to their story with interest.
“Dawson is at tea. Look, Minnie, in my work-box; there is some silk there. Take off your frock, my dear, and bring it here, and let me see how it can be mended.”
“Aunt Buxton,” whispered Erminia, “do let me give her one of my frocks. This is such an old thing.”
“No, love. I’ll tell you why afterwards,” answered Mrs. Buxton.
She looked at the rent, and arranged if nicely for the little girls to mend. Erminia helped Maggie with right good will. As they sat on the floor, Mrs. Buxton thought what a pretty contrast they made; Erminia, dazzlingly fair, with her golden ringlets, and her pale-blue frock; Maggie’s little round white shoulders peeping out of her petticoat; her brown hair as glossy and smooth as the nuts that it resembled in color; her long black eye-lashes drooping over her clear smooth cheek, which would have given the idea of delicacy, but for the coral lips that spoke of perfect health: and when she glanced up, she showed long, liquid, dark-gray eyes. The deep red of the curtain behind, threw out these two little figures well.
Dawson came up. She was a grave elderly person, of whom Erminia was far more afraid than she was of her aunt; but at Mrs. Buxton’s desire she finished mending the frock for Maggie.
“Mr. Buxton has asked some of your mamma’s old friends to tea, as I am not able to go down. But I think, Dawson, I must have these two little girls to tea with me. Can you be very quiet, my dears; or shall you think it dull?”
They gladly accepted the invitation; and Erminia promised all sorts of fanciful promises as to quietness; and went about on her tiptoes in such a labored manner, that Mrs. Buxton begged her at last not to try and be quiet, as she made much less noise when she did not. It was the happiest part of the day to Maggie. Something in herself was so much in harmony with Mrs. Buxton’s sweet, resigned gentleness, that it answered like an echo, and the two understood each other strangely well. They seemed like old friends, Maggie, who was reserved at home because no one cared to hear what she had to say, opened out, and told Erminia and Mrs. Buxton all about her way of spending her day, and described her home.
“How odd!” said Erminia. “I have ridden that way on Abdel–Kadr, and never seen your house.”
“It is like the place the Sleeping Beauty lived in; people sometimes seem to go round it and round it, and never find it. But unless you follow a little sheep-track, which seems to end at a gray piece of rock, you may come within a stone’s throw of the chimneys and never see them. I think you would think it so pretty. Do you ever come that way, ma’am?”
“No, love,” answered Mrs. Buxton.
“But will you some time?”
“I am afraid I shall never be able to go out again,” said Mrs. Buxton, in a voice which, though low, was very cheerful. Maggie thought how sad a lot was here before her; and by-and-by she took a little stool, and sat by Mrs. Buxton’s sofa, and stole her hand into hers.
Mrs. Browne was in full tide of pride and happiness down stairs. Mr. Buxton had a number of jokes; which would have become dull from repetition (for he worked a merry idea threadbare before he would let if go), had if not been for his jovial blandness and good-nature. He liked to make people happy, and, as far as bodily wants went, he had a quick perception of what was required. He sat like a king (for, excepting the rector, there was not another gentleman of his standing at Combehurst), among six or seven ladies, who laughed merrily at all his sayings, and evidently thought Mrs. Browne had been highly honored in having been asked to dinner as well as to tea. In the evening, the carriage was ordered to take her as far as a carriage could go; and there was a little mysterious handshaking between her host and herself on taking leave, which made her very curious for the lights of home by which to examine a bit of rustling paper that had been put in her hand with some stammered-out words about Edward.
When every one had gone, there was a little gathering in Mrs. Buxton’s dressing-room. Husband, son and niece, all came to give her their opinions on the day and the visitors.
“Good Mrs. Browne is a little tiresome,” said Mr. Buxton, yawning. “Living in that moorland hole, I suppose. However, I think she has enjoyed her day; and we’ll ask her down now and then, for Browne’s sake. Poor Browne! What a good man he was!”
“I don’t like that boy at all,” said Frank. “I beg you’ll not ask him again while I’m at home: he is so selfish and self-important; and yet he’s a bit snobbish now and then. Mother! I know what you mean by that look. Well! if I am self-important sometimes, I’m not a snob.”
“Little Maggie is very nice,” said Erminia. “What a pity she has not a new frock! Was not she good about it, Frank, when she tore it?”
“Yes, she’s a nice little thing enough, if she does not get all spirit cowed out of her by that brother. I’m thankful that he is going to school.”
When Mrs. Browne heard where Maggie had drank tea, she was offended. She had only sat with Mrs. Buxton for an hour before dinner. If Mrs. Buxton could bear the noise of children, she could not think why she shut herself up in that room, and gave herself such airs. She supposed it was because she was the granddaughter of Sir Henry Biddulph that she took upon herself to have such whims, and not sit at the head of her table, or make tea for her company in a civil decent way. Poor Mr. Buxton! What a sad life for a merry, light-hearted man to have such a wife! It was a good thing for him to have agreeable society sometimes. She thought he looked a deal better for seeing his friends. He must be sadly moped with that sickly wife.
(If she had been clairvoyante at that moment, she might have seen Mr. Buxton tenderly chafing his wife’s hands, and feeling in his innermost soul a wonder how one so saint-like could ever have learnt to love such a boor as he was; it was the wonderful mysterious blessing of his life. So little do we know of the inner truths of the households, where we come and go like intimate guests!)
Maggie could not bear to hear Mrs. Buxton spoken of as a fine lady assuming illness. Her heart beat hard as she spoke. “Mamma! I am sure she is really ill. Her lips kept going so white; and her hand was so burning hot all the time that I held it.”
“Have you been holding Mrs. Buxton’s hand? Where were your manners? You are a little forward creature, and ever were. But don’t pretend to know better than your elders. It is no use telling me Mrs. Buxton is ill, and she able to bear the noise of children.”
“I think they are all a pack of set-up people, and that Frank Buxton is the worst of all,” said Edward.
Maggie’s heart sank within her to hear this cold, unkind way of talking over the friends who had done so much to make their day happy. She had never before ventured into the world, and did not know how common and universal is the custom of picking to pieces those with whom we have just been associating; and so it pained her. She was a little depressed, too, with the idea that she should never see Mrs. Buxton and the lovely Erminia again. Because no future visit or intercourse had been spoken about, she fancied it would never take place; and she felt like the man in the Arabian Nights, who caught a glimpse of the precious stones and dazzling glories of the cavern, which was immediately after closed, and shut up into the semblance of hard, barren rock. She tried to recall the house. Deep blue, crimson red, warm brown draperies, were so striking after the light chintzes of her own house; and the effect of a suite of rooms opening out of each other was something quite new to the little girl; the apartments seemed to melt away into vague distance, like the dim endings of the arched aisles in church. But most of all she tried to recall Mrs. Buxton’s face; and Nancy had at last to put away her work, and come to bed, in order to soothe the poor child, who was crying at the thought that Mrs. Buxton would soon die, and that she should never see her again. Nancy loved Maggie dearly, and felt no jealousy of this warm admiration of the unknown lady. She listened to her story and her fears till the sobs were hushed; and the moon fell through the casement on the white closed eyelids of one, who still sighed in her sleep.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55