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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 19. The Rector's Garden Party
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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 19. The Rector's Garden Party Post by :SimonB Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :3089

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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 19. The Rector's Garden Party


A few days after the tennis party at the Manor, at which Bertram had talked a good deal to Beatrice, and in a very marked way snubbed Matty Bell, the Rector gave his customary annual treat. He gave this treat every year, and it was looked upon by high and low alike as the great event of the merry month of August. The treat lasted for two days, the first day being devoted to the schools and the humble parishioners, the second to the lads and lasses, the well-to-do matrons and their spouses, who formed the better portion of his parishioners.

Every soul in the place, however, from the poorest fisherman's child to the wealthy widow, Mrs. Meadowsweet, wag expected to come to the Rectory to be feasted and petted, and made much of, at Mr. Ingram's treat.

With the small scholars and the fishermen and their wives, and all the humbler folk of the place, this story has nothing to do. But it would not be a true chronicle of Northbury if it did not concern itself with the Jenkinses and their love affairs, with Mrs. Gorman Stanley and her furniture, with Mrs. Morris and her bronchitis, with Mrs. Butler and her adorable sister, Miss Peters, and last, but not least, with that young, _naive_, and childish heart which beat in the breast of Matty Bell.

There are the important people in all histories, and such a place in this small chronicle must the Bertrams hold, and the Meadowsweets. But Matty, too, had her niche, and it was permitted to her to pull some not unimportant wires in this puppet show.

It is not too strong a word to say that Matty, Alice and Sophy Bell, received their invitation to play tennis at the Manor with a due sense of jubilation. Matty wore the shot silk which had been partly purchased by the sale of good Mrs. Bell's engagement ring. This silk had been made, at home, but, with the aid of a dressmaker young Susan Pettigrew, who had served her time to the Perrys. Susan had made valuable suggestions, which had been carried into effect, with the result that the shot silk was provided with two bodies--a high one for morning wear, and one cut in a modest, demi-style for evening festivities. The evening body had elbow-sleeves, which were furnished with raffles of coffee-colored lace, and, when put on, it revealed the contour of a rather nice plump little throat, and altogether made Matty Bell look nicer than she had ever looked in anything else before.

The wonderful Miss Pettigrew had also supplied the dress with a train, which could be hooked on with safety hooks and eyes for evening wear, and removed easily when the robe was to act as a tennis or morning costume. Altogether, nothing could have been more complete than this sinning garment, and no heart could have beat more proudly under it than did fair Matty's.

When the captain went suddenly away this little girl and her good mother had both owned to a sense of depression; but his speedy return was soon bruited abroad, and at the same time that little whisper got into the air with regard to the gallant captain, that, like Duncan Gray, he was coming back to woo. It did not require many nods of Mrs. Bell's head to assure all her acquaintances whom she considered the favored young lady. Matty once more blushed consciously, and giggled in an audible manner when the captain's name was mentioned. The invitation to play tennis at the Manor completed the satisfaction of this mother and daughter.

"There's no doubt of it," said Mrs. Bell; "I thought my fine lady would have to come down from her high horse. I expect the captain makes his mother do pretty much what he wishes, and very right, too, very right. He wants to show his little girl to his proud parent, and, whether she likes it or not, she'll have to make much of you, my love. Sophy and Alice, it's more than likely Matty will be asked to dine and spend the evening, at the Manor, and I think we'll just make up the evening body of her silk dress and her train in a bit of brown paper, and you can carry the parcel up between you to the Manor. Then, if it's wanted, it will come in handy, and my girl won't be behind one of them."

"Lor, ma, what are we to do with such a bulky parcel?" objected Sophy, who was not looking her best in a washed-out muslin of two years' date. "What can we do with the parcel when we get to the Manor?"

"Take it up, of course, to the house, child, and give it to the servant, and tell her it's to be kept till called for. She'll understand fast enough; servants always guess when there's a sweetheart in the question. Most likely she'll place the things ready for Matty in one of the bedrooms. I'll put in your best evening shoes too, Matty, love, and my old black lace fan, in case you should flush up dreadful when the captain is paying you attention. And now, Sophy, you'll just be good-natured, and leave the parcel with the parlor maid, so your sister will be prepared for whatever happens."

Sophy, having been judiciously bribed by the loan of a large Cairngorm brooch of her mother's, which took up a conspicuous position at her throat, finally consented to carry the obnoxious parcel. Alice was further instructed, in case Mrs. Bertram so far failed in her duty as to neglect to invite Matty to stay to dine at the Manor to try and bring Captain Bertram back with them to supper.

"You tell him that I'll have a beautiful lobster, and a crab done to a turn ready for him," whispered the mother. "You'll manage it, Alice, and look sympathetic when you speak to him, poor fellow. Let him know that I'll give him his chances, whether that proud lady, his mother, does or not. Now then, off you go, all three of you. Kiss me, Matty, my pet. Well, to be sure, you do look stylish."

The three little figures in their somewhat tight shoes toddled down the street. In the evening they toddled back again. The brown paper parcel tossed, and somewhat torn, was tucked fiercely under Sophy's arm, and Alice was unaccompanied by any brave son of Mars.

Sophy was the first to enter her expectant mother's presence.

"There, ma," she said, flinging the paper parcel on the table. "I hope we have had enough of those Bertrams and their ways. The fuss I had over that horrid parcel. I thought I'd never get it back again. In the end I had to see Mrs. Bertram about it, and didn't she crush me just! She's an awful woman. I never want to speak to her again all my life, and as to the captain caring for Matty!"

"Where is Matty?" here interrupted Mrs. Bell. "She was not asked to stay behind after all, then?"

"_She asked to stay behind? You speak for yourself, Matty. For my part, I think it was very unfair to give Matty that silk. We might all have had nice washing muslins for the price of it. Where are you, Matty? Oh, I declare she has gone upstairs in the sulks!"

"You're in a horrid bad temper, Sophy; that I can see," expostulated the mother. "Well, Alice, perhaps you can tell me what all this fuss is about? I hope to goodness you gave the captain my message, child."

"I didn't see him to give it, mother," answered Alice. "He never spoke once to us the whole time. He just shook hands when we arrived, but even then he didn't speak."

"Captain Bertram never spoke to Matty during the entire evening?" gasped Mrs. Bell. "Child, you can't be speaking the truth, you must be joking me."

"I'm not, truly, mother. Captain Bertram didn't even look at Matty. He was all the time following Beatrice Meadowsweet about like a shadow."

Mrs. Bell gave her head a toss.

"Oh, that's it, is it?" she said. "I didn't think the captain would be so artful. Mark my word, girls, he behaved like that just as a blind to put his old mother off the scent."

But as Mrs. Bell spoke her heart sank within her. She remembered again how Beatrice had looked that evening in the green boat, and she saw once more Matty's tossed locks and sunburnt hands.

After a time she went upstairs, and without any ceremony entered her daughter's room.

Matty had tossed off the gaudy silk, and was lying on her bed. Her poor little face was blistered with tears, and, as Mrs. Bell expressed it, it "gave me a heart-ache even to look at her." She was not a woman, however, to own to defeat. She pretended not to see Matty's tears, and she made her tone purposely very cheerful.

"Come, come, child," she said, "what are you stretched on the bed for, as if you were delicate? Now, I wouldn't let this get to Captain Bertram's ears for the world."

"What do you mean, mother?" asked the astonished daughter.

"What I say, my love. I wouldn't let the captain know that you were so tired as to have to lie down after a game of tennis, for a ten pound note. Nothing puts a man off a girl so soon as to hear that she's delicate."

"Oh, he--he doesn't care," half sobbed Matty.

"Oh, doesn't he, though? I never knew anything more like caring than for him to be too shy to come near you. Things have gone pretty far when a man has to blind his mother by pretending to be taken up with another girl. I knew the captain was in love, Matty, but I did not suppose he was deep enough to play his cards after that fashion. You get up now, lovey, and come down, and have a nice hot cup of tea. It will revive you wonderfully, my pet."

Matty allowed her mother to coax her off the bed, and to assist her on with her every-day brown holland frock. She was a good deal comforted and inclined to reconsider the position which had seemed so hopeless half-an-hour ago.

"Only he did neglect me shamefully," she said, with a little toss of her head. "And I don't see why I should take it from him."

"That's right, my girl. You show Captain Bertram you've got a spirit of your own. There's nothing brings a man to the point like a girl giving him a little bit of sauce. Next time he speaks to you, you can be as stand-off as you please, Matty."

"Yes, mother," said Matty, in a languid tone.

She knew, however, that it was not in her nature to be stand-off to any one, and beneath all the comfort of her mother's words she could not help doubting if Captain Bertram would care how she behaved to him.

The next morning the Rector's invitation came for the annual treat, and the hopes of the Bells once more rose high. On this occasion Mrs. Bell was to accompany her daughters. Bell would also be present, but, as he was never of much account, this small fact scarcely rested on any one's mind. All the town was now in state of ferment. The Rector's party was the only thing spoken about, and many were the prognostications with regard to the weather.

The day of festival came at last; the sun arose gloriously, not a cloud was in the sky, all the merry-makers might go in their best, and all hearts might be jubilant. It was delightful to see Northbury on this day, for so gay were the costumes worn by its inhabitants that as they passed through the narrow old streets they gave the place of their birth a picturesque and even a foreign appearance.

The Rectory was just outside the town, and, of course, all the footsteps were bending thither. The Rector had invited his guests to assemble at three o'clock, and punctually at a quarter to that hour Miss Peters seated herself in her bay window, armed with a spy-glass to watch the gathering crowd.

Miss Peters was already arrayed in her festive clothes, but she and Mrs. Butler thought it ungenteel not to be, at least, an hour late. "The Bertrams will be sure to be late," remarked the good lady to her sister, "and we, too, Martha, will show that we know what's what."

"Which we don't," snapped Mrs. Butler. "We are sure and certain to be put in the wrong before we are half-an-hour there. However, I agree with you, Maria; we won't be among the hurryers. I hate to be one of those who snap at a thing. Now, what's the matter? How you do startle me!"

"It's Mrs. Gorman Stanley," gasped Miss Peters; "she's in red velvet, with a beaded bodice--and--oh, do look at her bonnet, Martha! Positively, it's hideous. A straw-green, with blue forget-me-nots, and those little baby daisies dropping over her hair. Well, well, how that woman does ape youth!"

Mrs. Butler snatched the spy-glass from her sister, and surveyed Mrs. Gorman Stanley's holiday attire with marked disapproval. She threw down her glasses presently with a little sniff.

"Disgusting," she said with emphasis. "That woman will never see fifty again, and she apes seventeen. For my part, I think, when women reach a certain age they should not deck themselves with artificial flowers. Flowers are for the young, not for poor worn-out, faded types of humanity. Now you, Maria----"

"Oh, don't," said Miss Maria, stepping back a few paces in alarm, and putting up her hand to her bonnet, "don't say that wallflowers aren't allowable, Martha; I always did think that wallflowers were so _passe_. That's why I chose them."

"Who's that now?" exclaimed Mrs. Butler. "My word, Maria, get quick behind the curtain and peep! Give me the spy-glass; I'll look over your head. Why, if it isn't--no--yes--it is, though--it's that young Captain Bertram, a _most stylish young man! He looks elegant in flannels--quite a noble face--I should imagine him to be the image of Julius Caesar--there he comes--and Bee--Bee Meadowsweet with him."

"Just like her name," murmured Miss Peters; "just--just like her name, bless her!"

The poor, withered heart of the little old maid quite swelled with love and admiration as the beautiful girl, dressed simply all in white, with roses on her cheeks, and sparkles in her eyes, walked to the scene of the coming gayeties in the company of the acknowledged hero of the town.

"Poor Matty Bell, I pity her!" said Mrs. Butler. "Oh, it has been a sickening sight the way the mother has gone on lately, perfectly sickening; but she'll have her come down, poor woman, and I, for one, will say, serve her right."

"We may as well be going, Martha," said Miss Peters.

"Well, I suppose so, since our betters have led the way. Now, Maria, don't drag behind, and don't ogle me with your eyes more than you can help. I have made up my mind to have a seat next to Mrs. Bertram at the feast, and to bring her down a peg if I can. Now, let's come on."

The ladies left the house and joined the group of holiday-seekers, who were all going in the direction of the Rectory. When they reached the festive scene, the grounds were already thronged. Mr. Ingram was very proud of his gardens and smoothly-kept lawns. He hated to see his velvet swards trampled on and made bare by the tread of many feet. He disliked the pet flowers in his greenhouses being pawed and smelt, and his trim ribbon borders being ruthlessly despoiled. But on the day of the annual treat he forgot all these prejudices. The lawns, the glass-houses, the flower-beds, might and would suffer, he cared not. He was giving supreme pleasure to human flowers, and for two days out of the three hundred and sixty-five they were free to do as they liked with the vegetable kingdom over which on every other day he reigned as monarch supreme. Marquees now dotted the lawns, and one or two brass bands played rather shrill music. There were tennis-courts and croquet lawns, and fields set aside for archery. Luxurious seats, with awnings over them, were to be found at every turn, and as the grass was of the greenest here, the trees of the shadiest, and the view of the blue harbor the loveliest, the Rector's place, on the day of the feast, appeared to more than one enthusiastic inhabitant of Northbury just like fairyland.

Matty Bell thought so, as, accompanied by her sisters and mother she stepped into the enchanted ground. The girls were in white to-day, not well made, and very bunchy and thick of texture. But still the dresses were white, and round each modest waist was girdled a sash of virgin blue.

"It makes me almost weep to look at the dear children," whispered Mrs. Bell to her husband. "They look so innocent and lamb-like, more particularly Matty."

Here she sighed profoundly.

"I don't see why you should single out Matty," retorted the spouse. "She's no more than the others, as far as I can see, and Sophy has the reddest cheeks."

"That's all you know," said Mrs. Bell. Here she almost shook herself with disdain. "Well, Peter, I often do wonder what Pas are for--not for observation, and not for smoothing a girl's path, and helping an ardent young lover. Oh, no, no!"

"Helping an ardent young lover, Tilly! Whatever are you talking about? Where is he? I don't see him."

"You make me sick, Peter. Hold your tongue, do, and believe your wife when she says that's about all you are good for. Matty's on the brink, and that's the truth."

Poor Bell looked as mystified as he felt. Presently he slunk away to enjoy a quiet smoke with some congenial spirits in the coal trade, and Mrs. Bell marshalled her girls to as prominent a position as she could find.

It was her object to get on the terrace. The terrace was very broad, and ran not only the length of the front of the house, but a good way beyond at either side. At each end of the terrace was a marquee, decorated with colored flags, and containing within the most refined order of refreshments. On the terrace were many seats, and the whole place was a blaze of gay dresses, brilliant flowers, and happy, smiling faces.

It was here the _elite of the pleasure-seekers evidently meant to congregate, and as Mrs. Bell intended, on this occasion at least, to join herself to the select few, her object was to get on the terrace. She had not at first, however, the courage to mount those five sacred steps uninvited. The battery of eyes which would be immediately turned upon her would be greater than even her high spirit could support. Mr. Ingram had already spoken to her, she did not know Mrs. Bertram, although she felt that if Catherine or Mabel were near she might call to one of them, and make herself known as Matty's mother.

Catherine and Mabel were, however, several fields away engaged in a vigorous game of archery. Mrs. Bell raised her fat face, and surveyed the potentates of the terrace with anxiety.

"Keep close to me, Matty," she said to her eldest daughter. "Don't go putting yourself in the background. It isn't becoming, seeing what will be expected of you by-and-by. Now I wonder where the captain is! Mr. Ingram is sure to make a fuss about those Bertrams, and that young man will be expected to be at the beck and call of everybody all day long. But never you mind, Matty, my pet. He shall have his chances, or my name is not Tilly Bell."

"I wish ma wouldn't," whispered Sophy to Alice. "I don't believe Captain Bertram cares a bit for Matty. Now, what are we all going to do! Oh, dear, I quite shake in my shoes. Ma is awfully venturesome, and I know we will be snubbed."

"Come on, girls," said Mrs. Bell looking over her shoulder. "What are you loitering for? I see Mrs. Gorman Stanley at the back there, by one of the big refreshment booths. I'm going to make for her."

"Oh, ma, she doesn't care a bit for us."

"Never mind, she'll do as an excuse. Now let's all keep close together."

Amongst the select company on the terrace Mrs. Bertram of course found a foremost place. She was seated next to Lady Verney, whose daughter, the Lady Georgiana Higginbotham also stood near, languidly pulling a splendid gloire de Dijon rose to pieces. She was a tall, sallow-faced girl, with the true aristocratic expression of "I-won't-tell-you-anything-at-all" stamped on her face. She was to be married the following week, and had all the airs of a bride-elect.

This young lady raised her pince nez to watch the Bells as they ascended the steps.

"Who _are those extraordinary people?" she whispered to her mother.

"I'm sure I don't know, my dear. How intolerably hot it is. Really our good Rector ought not to ask us to submit to the fierce rays of the sun during this intense weather. Georgiana, pray keep in the shade. Yes, Mrs. Bertram, you must find the absence of all society a drawback here."

"I sha'n't stay here long," responded Mrs. Bertram. "Catherine is still so young that she does not want society. Ah, there is Loftus. I should like to introduce him. Loftus, come here."

Captain Bertram, raising his hat to the Bells as he passed, approached his mother's side. He was introduced in due form to Lady Verney and the Lady Georgiana, and the two young people, retiring a little into the background, began to chat.

"Who are those extraordinary folk?" asked Lady Georgiana of her companion.

She waved her fan in the direction of Mrs. Bell's fat back.

"Do you know them, Captain Bertram?"

His eyes fairly danced with mirth as he swept them over the little group.

"I must confess something, Lady Georgiana. I do know those young ladies and their mother. I have supped with them."

"Oh, horrors! And yet, how entertaining. What were they like?"

"Like themselves."

"That is no answer. Do divert me with an account of them all. I am sure they are deliciously original. I should like to sketch that mother's broad back beyond anything."

It was at this moment that Beatrice and Catherine appeared together on the scene. Captain Bertram, who thought himself an adept in a certain mild, sarcastic description, was about to gratify Lady Georgiana with a graphic account of the Bells' supper-table, when his gaze met the kind, clear, happy expression of Beatrice Meadowsweet's eyes. He felt his heart stir within him. The Bells were her friends, and she was so good, bless her--the best girl he had ever met. No, he could not, he would not, turn them into fun, just to while away an idle five minutes.

Mrs. Bertram called Catherine over to introduce her to Lady Verney, and Bertram, in a moment, was by Beatrice's side.

"This is lucky," he said. "I thought you had left me for the day."

"Why should you think that?" she replied. "It would be impossible for people not constantly to come against each other in a small place like this."

"May I come with you now? You seem very busy."

"You can come and help me if you feel inclined. I always have a great deal to do at these feasts; I have been at them for years, and know all about them, and the Rector invariably expects me to keep the ball going."

"What ball?"

"The ball of pleasure. Each hand must grasp it--everyone must be happy. That is the Hector's aim and mine."

"I think it is your aim not only to-day, but every day."

"Yes, if I can manage it. I can't always."

"You could always make me very happy."

Beatrice turned her eyes and looked at him. Her look made him blush.

"You are mistaken when you say that," she responded, in a grave tone. "You are not the sort of person to be made happy by a simple country girl like me. The Northbury people only need small things, and many times it is within my power to supply their desires. But you are different. You would not be content with small things."

"Assuredly not from you."

Then he paused; and as she blushed this time, he hastened to add:

"You can help me not in a small, but in a big way, and if you grant me this help, you will save my mother, and--yes--and Catherine."

"I love Catherine," said Beatrice.

"I know it--you would like to save her."

"Certainly; but I did not know she was in peril."

"Don't whisper it, but she is. You can put things straight for her. May I talk to you? May I tell you what I mean?"

"You look very solemn, and this is a day of pleasure. Must you talk to me to-day?"

"I won't talk of anything to worry you today. But I may some time?"

"I suppose you may. At least it is difficult to reply in the negative to any one who wants my help."

"That is all I need you to say. You will understand after I have spoken. May I come to see you to-morrow?"

"Yes, you may come to-morrow. I shall be at home in the morning."

"Beatrice," said a voice, "Bee--Trixie--I do think it's unkind to cut an old friend."

Beatrice turned.

Mrs. Bell, puffed and hot, accompanied by Matty, who was also a little blown, and by the younger girls, looking very cross, had been chasing Captain Bertram and Miss Meadowsweet from one lawn to another. Mrs. Bell, after receiving a somewhat severe snubbing from Mrs. Gorman Stanley, had just retired into the marquee to refresh herself with strawberry ices, when Sophy, laying a hand on her mother's shoulder, informed her in a loud whisper that Captain Bertram and Bee Meadowsweet had gone down the steps of the terrace to the tennis lawn side by side.

"We'll make after them!" exclaimed the good lady. "Girls, don't finish your ices; come quick."

Mrs. Bell took her eldest daughter's hand, and rushed out of the tent. Sophy and Alice stayed behind to have one parting spoonful each of their delicious ices. Then the whole family went helter-skelter down the five sacred steps and on to the lawn. They saw the objects of their desire vanishing through a gap in the hedge into a distant field. They must pursue, they must go hotly to work. Mrs. Bell panted and puffed, and Matty stopped once to breathe hard.

"Courage, child," said the mother. "We'll soon be up with them. I'm not the woman to leave an innocent young man alone with that siren."

"Mother! You call Beatrice a siren?"

"Well, and what is she, Matty, when she takes your lawful sweetheart away before your very eyes? But here, we're in hailing distance, now, and I'll shout. Beatrice--Bee--Trixie!"

Beatrice turned. She came up at once to Mrs. Bell, took her hand, and asked all four why they had run so fast after her.

"For I was coming back at once," she said, in a _naive tone. "Captain Bertram was kind enough to walk with me to the archery field. Then I was coming to arrange some tennis sets."

"My girls have had no tennis yet to-day, Beatrice," said Mrs. Bell, fixing her eyes solemnly on Miss Meadowsweet. "And they are all partial to it, more especially Matty. You're a devotee to tennis too, aren't you, Captain Bertram?"

"Well, ah, no, I don't think I am," said the captain.

"You'd maybe rather have a quiet walk, then. For my part I approve of young men who are prudent, and don't care to exercise themselves too violently. Violent exercise puts you into too great a heat, and then you're taken with a chill, and lots of mischief is done that way. Bee, lend me your arm, love. I'm more recovered now, but I did have to hurry after you, and that's a fact."

Determined women very often have their way, and Mrs. Bell had the satisfaction of walking in front with Beatrice, while Captain Bertram brought up the rear in Matty's company.

Sophy and Alice Bell no longer belonged to the group. They had found matters so intolerably dull that they started off on their own hook to find partners for tennis.

Mrs. Bell, as she walked in front with Beatrice heard Matty's little and inane giggles, and her heart swelled within her.

"Poor young man, he is devoted," she whispered to her companion. "Ah, dear me, Beatrice, I know you sympathize with me; when one has a dear child's fate trembling in the balance it's impossible not to be anxious."

Mrs. Bell's face was so solemn, and her words so portentous, that Beatrice was really taken in. It was stupid of her to misunderstand the good woman, but she did.

"Is anything the matter?" she asked, turning to look at Mrs. Bell. "Whose fate is trembling in the balance?"

If it had been possible for light blue eyes of a very common shade and shape to wither with a look, poor Beatrice would never have got over that terrible moment.

Stout Mrs. Bell dropped her companion's arm, moved two or three paces away, and accompanied her scorching glance with words of muffled thunder.

"Beatrice Meadowsweet, you are either green with jealousy, or you are a perfect goose."

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