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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 31. Civil War At Northbury
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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 31. Civil War At Northbury Post by :shine4789 Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :741

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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 31. Civil War At Northbury

CHAPTER XXXI. CIVIL WAR AT NORTHBURY

It is often very difficult to trace Rumor to his foundation. His beginning is sometimes as small as a particle of sand; the first dawning of his existence as impalpable as the air.

From these small beginnings, however, rumor arises, strong as a giant, cruel as death. Perhaps no foe has more injured mankind than idle rumor.

He was abroad now in the little town of Northbury, and no one quite knew the exact place of his birth. A good many people traced his existence to Hunt, the baker, who sold many loaves of bread, and many sweet and tasty cakes by reason of his love of gossip--some people laid it to Miss Peters' door, some to Mrs. Gorman Stanley's, some again to Mrs. Morris's; but soon, in the excitement which the Giant Rumor caused, people had no time to talk of the place of his birth--he was there, he was among them, and he was the only subject now discussed.

A great many afternoon teas, and small social gatherings were given during the next few days in his honor. As to the Bells' house it became quite notorious. People paused as they passed the windows, and even the paving stones round the time-worn steps were fraught with interest.

At the club the men talked of nothing but the story which was abroad. They took the opportunity to make bets and wagers. Their tongues were not so cruel as those of the women, but still their tongues did wag, and there was more than one wife in the town who felt the effect of Beatrice Meadowsweet's engagement for many a long day, because the father of the family had jeopardized a considerable sum in a wager on the probable issue of events.

When Rumor in his full magnitude gets abroad he never spares the young, the beautiful, the innocent. Beatrice was loved by every one at Northbury, but the inhabitants of this good, old-fashioned little town would have been immaculate had they not said evil things of her now.

Sides were taken on the occasion, and the people of the town divided themselves pretty equally, and in an incredibly short time started a fierce sort of civil war. The "Beatricites," and the "Hartites," they were called, and the war of tongues between them became so fierce that long before Saturday night one party would not speak to another.

Mrs. Bell was at the head of the Hartites, and Mrs. Butler was the general of the Beatrice army.

Mrs. Bell spoke in the following terms of the girl who had hitherto been everybody's favorite:

"Ah, she's a deep one, is Beatrice Meadowsweet. You never know what those quiet ones are till they are tried. I spoke to her, I warned her, but she wouldn't listen. 'Beatrice,' I said, that young man cares no more for you than he does for the blackberries on the hedges. Beatrice, that young man's affections are given elsewhere.' Heed me, would she? No, not she. But follow him she would, follow him from place to place, out on the water in her boat, and at the Hector's garden party until it was disgraceful to see. It's my firm belief she popped the question herself, and we all know what followed. Poor Captain Bertram gave in for a time, thinking of her fortune, which is none so great, if rumors are correct, but love her, no, not he. Why, over and over and over he has said as much to my child, Matty. Matty was stiff to him, I'll say that; he was an audacious flirt, and he tried hard to bring Matty into a scrape too, but would she encourage him? No, though she was persecuted by his attentions, and now what's the result? Matty is honorably engaged to a man who is a Bayard for knightliness, and that poor Beatrice is jilted. Was she in hysterics in my house? Well, it isn't for me to say. Did she go down on her knees to Captain Bertram, and wring his hand, and kiss it and beg of him not to forsake her, with the tears streaming like rain down her cheeks, and implore of him to give up his true love, who was in a dead faint before their two eyes, and to be true to her who had given her heart to him, neighbor, did these things happen in this very house? You ask me that question, neighbor, and I say, answer it I won't, for I'm a woman, and I have known that unfortunate, misguided girl and her poor mother for years. Yes, neighbor, I cast a veil over what I might say."

This was the sort of gossip spread by Mrs. Bell, who further praised up Miss Hart, saying much about her beauty and her charms, and giving such a ravishing account of Bertram's love for her, and her adoration for him, that the neighbors who were on this side of the civil war crowned Josephine Hart as their chosen queen on the spot.

Mrs. Butler, who led the van of the "Beatricites," was less voluble than Mrs. Bell, but her words were weighted with a very deadly shaft of poison. After Mrs. Butler had extolled Beatrice as a perfect model of all womanly graces and virtue, she proceeded, with keen relish, to take Josephine Hart to pieces. When she began to dissect Miss Hart she invariably sent her innocent sister, Maria, out of the room. It is unnecessary to repeat what passed behind the doors which were so cruelly closed on eager and curious Miss Peters, but it is not too much to say that poor Josephine had not a rag of character left to her when the good woman's tongue ceased to wag.

Thus the town of Northbury was in a distressing state of uproar during the three or four days which preceded Captain Bertram's wedding. And perhaps the cruellest thing about this fierce civil war was that none of the combatants, not even the leaders, knew what was really about to take place, nor who was to be married to whom on Tuesday, nor whether there was to be any wedding at all. The bridal dresses came home, and some of the ladies wept when they looked at them. Beatrice still received wedding presents, and the bridal robe of ivory-white silk trimmed with quantities of Honiton lace was absolutely sent down from London, all complete and ready for Beatrice to wear. Half the ladies in Northbury rushed up to the station when the news was brought to them that the box had arrived, and the porter, Payne by name, who carried the box to Mrs. Meadowsweet's, was followed by quite a little mob.

Thus time went on apace, and Rumor did his work, each lady saying when she met another:

"Well, what's the news? What's the latest? What did you hear last?"

Each Hartite bowed coldly to each Beatricite, or else cut each other dead, and, in short, the usual symptoms which accompany civil war made themselves felt.

It is a fact frequently noted that when Rumor, with his double-edged tongue is abroad, the persons most concerned often know nothing of the storm which is raging around them. In the present instance, two people who were keenly interested in coming events were in this position. One of them was Mrs. Meadowsweet, the other, Mrs. Bertram. The time would come when Beatrice would confide in her mother, but that moment had not yet arrived. The old lady wondered why she had so many visitors, and why people looked at her in a curious, pitying sort of fashion. Why also they invariably spoke of Beatrice as "poor dear," and inquired with tender solicitude for her health.

"Brides usedn't to be 'poor deared' in my day," the old lady remarked rather testily to her handmaiden, Jane. "Any one would suppose Beatrice was going to have an illness instead of a wedding from the way folks talk of her."

"Eh, well, ma'am," Jane replied.

Jane's "eh, well, ma'am" was as full of suppressed meaning as a balloon is full of air. She heaved a prodigious sigh as she spoke, for of course she had heard the gossip, and had indeed come to blows with a Hartite that very morning.

"Eh, dear!" said Jane. "Rumor's a queer thing."

She did not vouchsafe any more, and Mrs. Meadowsweet was too innocent and indolent and comfortable in her mind to question her.

The other person who knew nothing was Mrs. Bertram. Of all the people in the world Mrs. Bertram was perhaps the most interested in that wedding which was to take place on Tuesday. The wedding could scarcely mean more to the bride and bridegroom than it did to her--yet no news of any _contretemps_, of any little hitch in the all-important proceedings, had reached her ears. For the last week she had taken steps to keep Catherine and Mabel apart from all Northbury gossip. The servants at the Manor who, of course knew everything did not dare to breathe a syllable of their conjectures. The bravest Hartite and Beatricite would not have dared to intrude their budgets of wild conjecture on Mrs. Bertram's ears. Consequently she lived through these exciting days in comparative calm. Soon the great tension would be over. Soon her gravest alarms would be lulled to rest, Now and then she wondered that Beatrice was not oftener at the Manor. Now and then she exclaimed with some vexation at Mr. Ingram's extraordinary absence from home at such a time.

The Rector had gone to London, and a stranger took his pulpit on that all-important Sunday before the wedding.

Mrs. Bertram wondered a little over these two points, but they did not greatly disturb her;--Loftus was at home and Loftus looked strangely, wildly happy.

Mrs. Bertram had been alarmed, and rendered vaguely uneasy by her son's gloom a few days ago, but there was no shadow resting on the young man's face now. He laughed, he talked, his eyes wore an exultant expression in their fire and daring. He caressed his sisters, he hung over his mother's chair, and kissed her.

"Ah, Loftie," she said once, "you are really and honestly in love. I have had my doubts that you did not really appreciate our dear and noble Beatrice. But your manner the last few days, your spirits, my son, your all-evident happiness, have abundantly sent these doubts to rest. You are in love with your future wife, and no wonder!"

"No wonder," echoed Loftus.

He had the grace to blush.

"Yes, I am in love," he said. "No one was ever more madly in love than I am." Then after a pause he added: "And I think Beatrice, without exception, the noblest and best woman on earth."

"That is right, my boy. Ah, Loftus, I am glad I could do one thing for you. I have got you a wife whose price is above rubies."

Bertram laughed.

"You have made a feeble joke, mother," he said in some confusion. "I should like to know to which you allude--Bee's money or her personal charms."

"Both--both--you naughty boy Beatrice is all that could be desired in herself, but in what position should you and I be in the future without her money?"

"That is true," he said. And there was compunction in his voice.

On Monday morning two letters arrived at Northbury from the Rector. One was to his housekeeper, the other to Beatrice.

To his housekeeper, Mrs. Matthews, he said:

"Go on with all the wedding preparations, and expect me home this evening at six o'clock."

His letter to Beatrice was much longer.

"The time to reproach you, my dear ward, is past," began the Rector. "And you must promise never in the future to reproach me. You are an impulsive girl, and I may have done wrong to yield to your entreaties. Your father's face, has, however, over and over flashed before my mental vision, and the look in his eyes has comforted me. In one sense you are a fool, Beatrice; in another, you are thrice blessed. Forgive this little preamble. I have arranged matters as you wish. I shall be home this evening. Come to me in my study at nine o'clock to-night, my dear ward, and act in the meantime exactly as your true, brave heart suggests."

Beatrice read this letter in her own room. She was quite mortal enough to shed some tears over it, but when she sat opposite to her mother at breakfast, her face was quite as jubilant as any young bride's might be, who was so soon to leave home.

Mrs. Meadowsweet looked at her girl with great pride.

"You feature your father wonderfully, Bee," she said. "It isn't only the Grecian nose, and the well-cut lips, and the full, straight kind of glance in your eyes, but it's more. It's my belief that your soul features Meadowsweet; he was ever and always the best of men. Crotchety from uprightness he was, but upright was no word for him."

"Well, mother, I should like to resemble my father in that particular."

"Yes, my love, yes. Meadowsweet was always heights above me, and so are you also, for that matter."

"That is not true, mother, you must not say it. It pains me."

Beatrice looked distressed. She went over to her old parent and kissed her. Then she hastily left the room.

After breakfast Captain Bertram called at the Gray House.

He and Beatrice had a long interview, then she went to the Bells', and sat with Miss Hart for about half-an-hour.

After dinner that day Bertram spoke to his mother: "Beatrice wants to come up and see you. Can you receive her about six o'clock?"

"At any time, my dear son. But is she not dreadfully busy? Would it not convenience her more if I went to her, Loftie?"

"No, mother, she would prefer to come here. She has"--here his face turned pale--"she has a good deal to say to you--important things to speak about." His voice trembled. "You will see her alone. You will not hurry her. Beatrice is the best--the best girl in the world."

Bertram looked very pale when he said this.

"How strange you look, Loftus!" said his mother. "And your words are very queer. Is anything the matter? Are you concealing any thing from me?"

"Beatrice will tell you," he said. And he hurried out of the room.

A few minutes before six o'clock Beatrice arrived. Mrs. Bertram had given directions that she was to be sent at once to her private room. Clara had these instructions, and was about to carry them out literally when Catherine and Mabel ran into the hall.

They greeted Beatrice with raptures, and Mabel said in an eager voice:

"We have not yet seen you in your bridal dress, Bee. You know it was an old promise that we should see you in it the day before the wedding. Don't stay long with mother, Bee. Catherine and I can walk back with you, and you can try on your dress while we are by."

"My dress is all right," said Beatrice. "I have tried it; it fits. I don't want to put it on to-night. I am tired."

Her face was pale, her expression anxious.

Mabel hung back and looked disappointed.

"But you promised," she began.

"Hush, Mabel," said Catherine. She hid quick intuitions, and she saw at a glance that something was the matter.

"Bee would not break her promise if she could help it," she said to her sister. "Don't you see that she looks very tired. Bee, shall I take you to mother?"

"Yes, Catherine," replied Beatrice.

The two girls walked away together. As they mounted the stairs, Catherine stole another glance at her friend. Then almost timidly she put her hand through Beatrice's arm.

"To-morrow, Bee," she said, with a loving hug, "you will be _my real, real sister."

Beatrice stopped, turned round, and looked at Catherine.

"Kitty, I can't deceive you. I--love you, but I am not going to be what--what you suppose."

"Then there is something wrong!" exclaimed Catherine. "I feared it from my mother's face when I saw her an hour ago. Now I am sure. Bee, are you going to fail us at the last moment? Oh, Beatrice, you have made him so nice, and we have all been so happy, and mother has said more than once to me, 'Beatrice Meadowsweet has saved us,' and now, just at the very last, just at the very end, are you going to be a coward--a deserter?"

"No," said Beatrice. "I won't desert you. I won't fail you. It is given to me to save your brother Loftus, to really save him. Don't be frightened, Kitty. I have a hard task to go through. I have to say some things to your mother which will try her. Yes, I know they will try her much, but I am doing right, and you must help me, and be brave. Yes, you must be brave because you know I am doing right."

"I will trust you, Beatrice," said Catherine. Her dark eyes shone, over the pallor of her face there came a glow. She opened the door of her mother's room.

"Here is Beatrice, mother. And may I--may I--stay too?"

"No, Kate, you are unreasonable. What a long time you have kept Beatrice. She has been in the house for ten minutes. I heard you two gossiping in the corridor. Girls are unreasonable, and they don't understand that the impatience of the old is the worst impatience of all. Go, Kate."

Catherine's eyes sought her friend's. They seemed to say mutely:

"Be good to her, Beatrice, she is my mother."

Then she closed the door behind the two.

People who have secrets, who find themselves hemmed into corners, who live perpetually over graves of the dead past, are seldom quite free from fear. Mrs. Bertram had gone through tortures during the last couple of hours. When she was alone with Beatrice she seized her hands, and drew her down to sit on the sofa by her side. Her eyes asked a thousand questions, while her lips made use of some conventional commonplace.

Beatrice was after all an unsophisticated country girl. She had never been trained in _finesse_; painful things had not come to her in the past of her life, either to conceal or avoid. Now a terrible task was laid upon her, and she went straight to the point.

Mrs. Bertram said: "You look tired, my dear future daughter."

Beatrice made no reply to this. She did not answer Mrs. Bertram's lips, but responding to the hunger in her eyes, said:

"I have got something to tell you."

Then Mrs. Bertram dropped her mask.

"I feared something was wrong. I guessed it from Loftie's manner. Go on, speak. Tell me the worst."

"I'm afraid I must give you pain."

"What does a chit like you know of pain? Go on, break your evil tidings. Nay, I will break them for you. There is to be no wedding tomorrow."

"You are wrong. There is."

"Thank God. Then I don't care for anything else. You are a true girl, Beatrice, you have truth in your eyes. Thank God, you are faithful. My son will have won a faithful wife."

"I trust he will--I think he will. But--"

"You need not be over modest, child. I know you. I see into your soul. We women of the world, we deep schemers, we who have dallied with the blackness of lies, can see farther than another into the deep, pure well of truth. I don't flatter you, Beatrice, but I know you are true."

"I am true, true to your son, and to you. But Mrs. Bertram, don't interrupt me. In being true, I must give you pain."

Again Mrs. Bertram's dark brows drew together until they almost met. Her heart beat fast.

"I am not very strong," she said, in a sort of suffocating voice. "You are concealing something; tell it to me at once."

"I will. Can you manage not to speak for a moment or two?"

"Go on, child. Can I manage? What have I not managed in the course of my dark life? Go on. Whatever you tell me will be a pin-prick, and I have had swords in my heart."

"I am sorry," began Beatrice.

"Don't--do you suppose I care for a girl's sorrow! The sorrow of an uncomprehending child? Speak."

"I have found out," said Beatrice, in a slow voice, "just through an accident, although I believe God was at the bottom of it, something which has saved me from committing a great wrong, which has saved your son from becoming an absolute scoundrel, which has saved us both from a life of misery."

"What have you found out, Beatrice?"

Mrs. Bertram's face was perfectly white; her words came out in a low whisper.

"Beatrice, what have you discovered?"

"That Captain Bertram loves another, that another girl loves him, has almost been brought to death's door because she loves him so well."

"Pooh, child, is that all? How you frightened me."

"Why do you speak in that contemptuous tone. The 'all' means a great deal to Captain Bertram, and to me, and to the other girl."

"Beatrice, you are a baby. What young man of my son's age has not had his likings, his flirtations, his heart affairs? If that is all--"

"It is all, it is enough. Your son has not got over his heart affair."

"Has he not? I'll speak to him. I'll soon settle that"

"Nor have I got over it."

"Beatrice, my dear girl, you really are something of a little goose. Jealous, are you? Beatrice, you ask an impossibility when you expect a young man never to have looked with eyes of affection on any one but yourself."

"I will not marry the man who looks with eyes of affection at another."

"How you bewilder me, and yet, how childish you are. Must I argue this question with you? Must I show you from my own larger experience how attached Loftus is to you? Dear fellow, his very face shows it."

"I don't want you to teach me anything from your experience, Mrs. Bertram. Captain Bertram does not love me. I do not love him; he loves another. She has given him all her heart, all that she can give. He shall marry her;--he shall marry her to-morrow."

Mrs. Bertram rose very slowly.

"Beatrice," she said. "Your meaning is at last plain to me. _Noblesse oblige_. Ah, yes, that old saying comes true all the world over. You have not the advantage of good birth. I thought--for a long time I thought that you were the exception that proved the rule. You were the lady made by nature's own hand. Your father could be a tradesman--a _draper_--and yet have a lady for his daughter. I thought this, Beatrice; I was deceived. There are no exceptions to that nobility which only birth can bestow. You belong to the common herd, the _canaille_. You cannot help yourself. A promise to one like you is nothing. You are tired of Loftus. This is an excuse to get out of a bargain of which you have repented."

"It is not."

Beatrice looked at Mrs. Bertram with eyes that blazed with anger. She walked across the room, and rang the bell. Her ring was imperious. She stood near the bell-pull until Clara, in some trepidation, obeyed the summons.

"Is Captain Bertram downstairs?" asked Beatrice.

"I'll inquire, Miss Meadowsweet."

"I think he is. I think you'll find him in the study. Ask him to have the goodness to come to Mrs. Bertram's room."

Clara withdrew. Beatrice began slowly to pace up and down the floor.

"I belong to the _canaille_," she murmured. "And my father--_my father is taunted because he earned his bread in trade. Mrs. Bertram, I am glad I don't belong to your set."

Beatrice had never been so angry in all her life before. The anger of those who scarcely ever give way to the emotion has something almost fearful about it. Mrs. Bertram was a passionate woman, but she cowered before the words and manner of this young girl. She had taunted Beatrice. The country girl now was taunting her, and she shrank away in terror.

The door was opened, and Loftus Bertram came in. Beatrice went up to him at once.

"I have prepared the way for you, Loftus," she said. "It is your turn now to speak. Tell your mother the truth."

"Yes, my son."

Mrs. Bertram looked up in his face. Her look was piteous; it disarmed Beatrice; her great anger fled. She went up to the poor woman, and stood close to her.

"Speak, Loftus," she said. "Be quick, be brave, be true. Your mother cannot bear much. Don't keep her in suspense."

"Go out of the room, Beatrice," said Loftus. "I can tell her best alone."

"No, I shall stay. It is right for me to stay. Now speak. Tell your mother who you really love."

"Go on, Loftus," said Mrs. Bertram, suddenly. "You love Beatrice Meadowsweet. She angered me, but she is a true and good girl at heart. You love her; she is almost your bride--say that you love her."

"She is the best girl I ever met, mother."

"There, Beatrice, does not that content you?" said Mrs. Bertram.

"Hush," said Beatrice. "Listen. He has more to say. Go on, Loftus--speak, Captain Bertram. Is Josephine not worth any effort of courage?"

"Josephine!" Mrs. Bertram clasped her hands.

Bertram stepped forward.

"Mother, I don't love Beatrice as I ought to love my wife. I do love Josephine Hart, and she is to be my wife to-morrow morning."

"Josephine Hart!" repeated Mrs. Bertram. She looked round at Beatrice, and a smile played all over her face--a fearful smile.

"My son says he loves Josephine Hart--Josephine--_and he will marry her_!"

She gave a laugh, which was worse than any cry, and fell insensible on the floor.

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