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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 22. Spare The Poor Child's Blushes
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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 22. Spare The Poor Child's Blushes Post by :SimonB Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :3477

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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 22. Spare The Poor Child's Blushes

CHAPTER XXII. SPARE THE POOR CHILD'S BLUSHES

It was Miss Peters who first spread the news. She heard it whispered at the fishmonger's, spoken of aloud at the butcher's, and confirmed at the baker's. She could doubt this combined testimony no longer, and hurried home to put on her best bonnet with the wallflowers in it, and go forth on a visiting tour.

Miss Peters was in the seventh heaven of delight. To have news, and such news, to convey, would make her a welcome inmate that afternoon of every house in Northbury. She was intensely anxious to go out and convey her news without being accompanied by her large sister, Mrs. Butler. In Mrs. Butler's presence Miss Peters was only a shadow, and she had no wish to be a shadow on this occasion.

_She had heard the gossip, not Martha--why, therefore, should she tell Martha for the sole satisfaction of having it repeated by Martha in her own tiresome way to each neighbor she met, while she, poor Miss Peters, who had really got the information first-hand--for the baker who served the two families with bread was so absolutely reliable--could only nod her head and roll her eyes in confirmation.

Miss Peters resolved, therefore, to tell her news to Mrs. Butler last of all; and her object now was to slip softly out of doors without being heard by her sister. She nearly accomplished this feat, but not quite. As she was going downstairs, with her best bonnet on, her lavender gloves drawn neatly over her hands, and her parasol, which was jointed in the middle and could fold up, tucked under her arm, she trod on a treacherous board which creaked loudly.

This was enough. Mrs. Butler popped her head out of the drawing-room door and confronted the little spinster.

"Where now, Maria?" she asked. "Dear, dear, and I've been wondering what was keeping you all this time. Where are you off to? Why, I declare you have on your visiting things?"

"I thought I'd just go round and see one or two friends, as the afternoon is fine," answered Miss Maria, in a meek voice.

"The afternoon fine!" retorted Mrs. Butler. Have we any but fine afternoons in the month of August? I don't feel disposed to visit to-day. The lobster salad I ate last night disagreed with me. I shall stay at home."

"Well, that's all right, Martha. I can take your compliments to any one, of course, and just mention that you are a little indisposed."

"_You take _my compliments? No, thank you. You'll just have the goodness to take off your bonnet and come and sit in the drawing-room with me. I have had enough of my own company today, and I want you to pick up some stitches in my knitting. Come, you needn't ogle me any more. Go back and take off your bonnet and be quick about it."

Very slowly Miss Peters turned and went up the stairs. She took off her neat little chip bonnet, adorned with the sprigs of wallflower, folded up her lavender gloves, and put back her heavily-fringed old-fashioned parasol in its case. Then she went down to the drawing-room; she sighed heavily as she did so. Poor thing; she had no money of her own, and was absolutely dependent on Mrs. Butler, who tyrannized over her as is the usual fashion in such cases.

The day was a glorious one, and from where Miss Peters sat she could get a splendid view of the bright and sparkling harbor. Little boats skimmed about on its surface, and Miss Peters longed to be in one of them--anywhere away from the tyrannical sister who would not allow her to go out and disburden herself of her news.

That news, bottled up within her breast, almost drove the little woman crazy. Suppose the baker told some one else? He had promised not; but who can depend on bakers? Suppose she was not the first to startle and electrify her fellow town's people after all? She felt so fretted and miserable that her sighs at last became audible.

"Well, Maria, you certainly are a lively companion!" exclaimed Mrs. Butler. "Fidget, fidget sigh, sigh, and not a word out of your lips! I'll thank you to hand me my knitting, and then you may read me a chapter from that book of sermons on the table. I often think it's in fine weather we should remember our souls most."

This remark was so startling that Miss Maria's grievance was forgotten for a moment in her surprise.

"Why in fine weather?" she ventured to ask.

"Because, being prosperous and comfortable, they are like to sleep within us. Now, get the sermons and read. Turn to sermon five, page four, begin second paragraph; there's a telling bit there, and I think the cap will fit your head."

Miss Maria was rising meekly to comply, when happening again to glance at the blue bosom of the water, she uttered a shriek, threw down Mrs. Butler's knitting, caught up the spy-glass, and sprang to the window.

"Good gracious! Maria, have you gone mad?" exclaimed her sister.

"It is--it is--" gasped Miss Peters. "There they are! It's beautiful; and it's true!"

"What's beautiful, and what's true? Really, Maria, you are enough to turn a person crazy. What _are you talking about, and who _are you looking at? Give me the glass."

"Sister," said Miss Peters, "they're in a boat together. Out there in the harbor. _Both of them! In a boat!"

"If they weren't in a boat they'd be drowned to a certainty," snapped Mrs. Butler. "And who are they? And why shouldn't they be in a boat together?"

"Look for yourself, sister--there they are! And beautiful they look--beautiful!"

Mrs. Butler seized the spy-glass and tried to adjust it.

"Where?" she asked. "What part of the harbor?"

"Over there, just under the old Fort."

"My good gracious, Maria, you always do something to these glasses to make them go wrong. I can see nothing. Who, in the name of charity, are in the boat?"

"Martha, it's a secret. I heard it to-day."

"Oh, you heard it to-day! And you kept it from your own only sister whose bread you eat! _Very nice, and very grateful. I'm obliged to you Maria, I have cause to be."

"It was the baker who told me, sister."

"The baker? Hunt, the baker. And pray what had he to tell?"

"Well, you know, he delivers bread at the Meadowsweets."

"I neither know nor care."

"And at the Manor. He takes bread every day to the Manor, Martha."

"H--m--only his seconds, I should say. Well, this is all very interesting, but I can't see what it has to say to two people being in a boat on the harbor."

"Oh, Martha, you see the baker must know, and he told me for a positive fact. They're engaged."

"What! Has Hunt made it up with Gracie Jones? It's time for him. He has been hanging after her long enough."

"Oh, sister, I am not alluding to anything plebeian."

"Well, my dear Maria, I'd be glad to know once for all to what you are alluding, for, to be frank with you, I think your brain is going fast."

"It's Bee," said Miss Maria. "It's our Bee. She's engaged. It's all settled."

"Beatrice engaged? I don't believe a word of it."

"It's true. Hunt said there wasn't a doubt of it, and he ought to know, for he takes bread--"

"You needn't go on about the bread. To whom is Beatrice Meadowsweet affianced?"

"To no less a person, Martha, than Captain Bertram, and there they are in a boat by themselves on the water."

Mrs. Butler snatched up the spy-glass again, and after considerable difficulty, and some mutterings, focussed it so as to suit her sight. She was absolutely silent, as she gazed her fill at the unconscious occupants of the green boat.

After a long time she put down the glass, and turned to her sister.

"We'll go upstairs and put on our bonnets, Maria, I should like to go out. I want to call on the Bells."

Mrs. Bell had lately tried to connect herself with the outside world by adopting a few of its harmless and inexpensive little fashions. She had a day at home. This universal mode of receiving one's friends was not generally adopted in Northbury, but Mrs. Bell, who had heard of it through the medium of a weekly fashion paper which a distant cousin in London was kind enough to supply her with, thought it would be both distinguished and economical to adopt the system of only receiving her friends on Thursdays.

She was laughed at a good deal, and considered rather upstartish for doing so; but nevertheless, on Thursdays the friends came, being sure of a good dish of gossip as well as sugared and creamed tea and home-made cakes in abundance.

On Thursdays Mrs. Bell put on every ring and ornament she possessed. Her one and only dark red tabinet--this was her wedding-gown let out and dyed--adorned her stout figure, and then she sat in her drawing-room, and awaited her company. Her daughters always sat with her, and they, too, on these occasions, made the utmost of their poor wardrobes.

Mrs. Bell was in particularly good spirits on this special afternoon, for rumors had as yet cast no shadows before, and the preceding evening she had been lucky enough to meet Mabel Bertram, and had almost extracted a promise from that young lady that she would come to her reception in the company of her gallant brother.

"Thank you, for Matty's sake," Mrs. Bell had responded to Mabel. "Matty will be delighted to see you both,--delighted."

Mabel had gone home a little bewildered and a little amused, and Mrs. Bell felt herself altogether in high feather.

When Mrs. Butler and Miss Peters appeared on the scene there had already arrived a fair sprinkling of guests. Mrs. Gorman Stanley who did most of her eating at her friends' houses, was enjoying her second cup of tea, and asking Alice for the third time to pass her the sponge-cakes. Mrs. Morris, considerably wrapped up on account of her bronchitis, was shivering by an open window, and Mrs. Jenkins and the two Misses Jenkins, and Mr. Jones the curate, were also in the room.

The eldest Miss Jenkins had managed, for the first time, to establish herself in the vicinity of Mr. Jones, when the maid--no one kept two maids at Northbury--threw open the door.

"Mrs. Butler, ma'am, and Miss Peters, ma'am."

Whereupon the two ladies, portentous with their great news, came in.

As they walked down the street Mrs. Butler had warned her sister not to leak out a word.

"_I'll tell," she said, with simple gravity which impressed.

"But it was _my news," said poor Miss Peters.

"I prefer to tell," said Mrs. Butler.

And Miss Peters was demolished.

Accordingly when they entered the room Mrs. Butler made straight for the sofa beside Mrs. Bell. She took her friend's hand, looked at her solemnly, and said:

"How are you?" in a lugubrious voice.

Mrs. Bell assured Mrs. Butler that she was in excellent health, and Matty was called forward to administer the tea and cake.

Mrs. Butler also favored Matty with a portentous glance.

"Has that girl got over the cough which she was so troubled with a year back?" she queried of the parent.

Mrs. Bell bridled at this. Never had her Matty looked stronger or more blooming, and after all the cough so solemnly inquired after, just for all the world, muttered the poor mother, as if it were a graveyard cough, had been but the remains of the whooping cough.

"Matty blooms," replied Mrs. Bell. "Don't you, Matty, my love? I don't suppose, Mrs. Butler, you ever saw my girl looking better."

"I'm glad of it," said Mrs. Butler. "No more tea, I thank you, Matty. Well, then, as you are so pressing, just a tiny drop. You can put it on what's in my cup, if you like. Oh, yes, certainly more cream. I'm partial to cream, if it's good. It agrees with me. It doesn't agree with Maria, so I never give it her. Well, as I was saying, I'm glad you are in good health, Matty, for a girl who has a real fine constitution can stand up against shocks."

"Shocks?" said Mrs. Bell. "I don't think we need talk of shocks at this time of day, unless indeed, they are joyful ones. Matty, my love," here Mrs. Bell raised her voice to a high and penetrating key, "I wonder when our dear friends the Bertrams will be here."

Matty blushed and giggled as only Matty could blush and giggle. Poor Miss Peters felt herself turning crimson. She ogled her eyes round at her sister, who rose solemnly and put down her cup and saucer.

The whole company had been impressed by Mrs. Bell's words. They ceased to talk, they seemed to know something was impending, and Mrs. Butler felt that her hour had come. She cleared her throat and looked around at her audience.

"H--m! ladies, I have called here with a little piece of news. I daresay you have not heard it yet, for it's fresh. It was told to me in confidence, but my source is a most reliable one. What's the matter, Maria? Oh, good gracious, I see you are taking cream. You know how ill cream always makes you. Will no one be kind enough to give Maria another cup of tea? Well, ladies, I've come with news. We're to have a wedding soon!"

Here Mrs. Bell, who had felt, as she afterwards expressed it, cold shivers going down her back, while Mrs. Butler was firing off her preamble, now bridled and even blushed. It was a little premature, certainly, but reports always did a trifle exceed the truth, and, as Matty was so certain to be engaged immediately she could scarcely blame Mrs. Butler for alluding to it prematurely.

She bent forward therefore and touched her friend on the arm.

"Spare the poor child's blushes," she whispered. "She's such a sensitive little thing."

"Spare whose blushes, my good friend? The girl isn't in the room. Do you think I'd be so indelicate as to mention the sacred subject of the wedding before the bride-elect? No, no, Beatrice isn't by, unless she is hiding behind one of the window curtains."

At the word Beatrice Mrs. Bell felt her spirit sink down to zero. She had an insane desire to take Mrs. Butler by main force, and drag her out of the room. Poor Matty's blushes changed to pallor, and her hand shook as she pessed Miss Peters her creamless tea. Mr. Jones also, who had been listening to the conversation in a half-hearted way suddenly felt himself turning very rigid and stiff, and the eyes which he fixed on Daisy Jenkins took a glassy stare as though he were looking through that young lady into futurity.

Mrs. Butler liked to tell her news with effect and she felt now that she had made a profound sensation.

"Good-bye," she said, holding out her hand. "I thought I'd drop in and tell you, as being old friends, but I must go on at once to congratulate dear Mrs. Meadowsweet. There's no doubt at all; Bee is engaged, and we saw them just now in a boat at the other side of the harbor, all alone, and making love as hard as they could. It's a pretty match, and she's a fine girl. Good-bye, Mrs. Bell; come, Maria."

"Yes," said Mrs. Bell. "Yes. Not that I believe a word of the story--you didn't tell us the name of the--the future bridegroom--not that I believe a word."

"Oh, yes, you do believe. Didn't I mention the bridegroom's name? Well, somehow I thought that went without saying. He's Captain Bertram, of course. Good-bye, Matty. Come, Maria."

The two ladies disappeared, and the Bells and their other guests were left to face each other, and discuss the news.

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