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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 2. Mrs. Bertram's Will
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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 2. Mrs. Bertram's Will Post by :JayBeau Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :3386

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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 2. Mrs. Bertram's Will

CHAPTER II. MRS. BERTRAM'S WILL

And Mrs. Bertram did not care in the least what anybody thought of her. She was in no sense of the word a sham. She was well-born, well-educated, respectably married, and fairly well-off. The people in Northbury considered her rich. She always spoke of herself as poor. In reality she was neither rich nor poor. She had an income of something like twelve hundred a year, and on that she lived comfortably, educated her children well, and certainly managed to present a nice appearance wherever she went.

There never was a woman more full of common sense than Mrs. Bertram. She had quite an appalling amount of this virtue; no one ever heard her say a silly thing; each step she took in life was a wise one, carefully considered, carefully planned out. She had been a widow now for sis years. Her husband had nearly come into the family estate, but not quite. He was the second son, and his eldest brother had died when his heir was a month old. This heir had cut out Mrs. Bertram's husband from the family place, with its riches and honors. He himself had died soon after, and had left his widow with three children and twelve hundred a year.

The children were a son and two daughters. The son's name was Loftus, the girls were called Catherine and Mabel. Loftus was handsome in person, and very every-day in mind. He was good-natured, but not remarkable for any peculiar strength of character. His mother had managed to send him to Rugby and Sandhurst, and he had passed into the army with tolerable credit. He was very fond of his mother, devotedly fond of her, but since he entered the army he certainly contrived to cost her a good deal.

She spoke to him on the subject, believed as much as she chose of his earnest promises to amend, took her own counsel and no one else's, gave up her neat little house in Kensington, and came to live at Northbury.

Catherine and Mabel did not like this change, but as their mother never dreamt of consulting them, they had to keep their grumbles to themselves.

Mrs. Bertram considered she had taken a wise step, and she told the girls so frankly. Their house in Kensington was small and expensive. In the country they had secured a delightful old Manor--Rosendale Manor was its pretty name--for a small rent.

Mrs. Bertram found herself comparatively rich in the country, and she cheered the girls by telling them that if they would study economical habits, and try to do with very little dress for the present, she would save some money year by year, so that by the time Catherine was twenty they might have the advantage of a couple of seasons in town.

"Catherine will look very young at twenty," remarked the mother. "By that time I shall have saved quite a fair sum out of my income. Catherine looked younger at twenty than Mabel at eighteen. They can both come out together, and have their chances like other girls."

Catherine did not want to wait for the dear delights of society until she had reached so mature an age. But there was no murmuring against her mother's decree, and as she was a healthy-minded, handsome, good-humored girl, she soon accommodated herself to the ways and manners of country folk, and was happy enough.

"I shall live on five hundred a year at Rosen dale Manor," determined Mrs. Bertram. "And I have made up my mind that Loftie shall not cost me more than three. Thus I shall save four hundred a year. Catherine is only seventeen now. By the time she is twenty I shall have a trifle over and above my income to fall back upon. Twelve hundred pounds is a bagatelle with most people, but I feel I shall effect wonders with it. Catherine and Mabel will be out of the common, very out of the common. Unique people have an advantage over those who resemble the herd. Catherine and Mabel are to be strongly individual. In any room they are to be noticeable. Little hermits, now, some day they shall shine. They are both clever, just clever enough for my purpose. Catherine might with advantage be a shade less beautiful, but Mabel will, I am convinced, fulfil all my expectations. Then, if only Loftie," but here Mrs. Bertram sighed. She was returning from her visit to Mrs. Meadowsweet, walking slowly down the long avenue which led to the Manor. This avenue was kept in no order; its edges were not neatly cut, and weeds appeared here and there through its scantily gravelled roadway. The grass parterre round the house, however, was smooth as velvet, and interspersed with gay flower-beds. It looked like a little agreeable oasis in the middle of a woodland, for the avenue was shaded by forest trees, and the house itself had a background of two or three acres of an old wood.

Mrs. Bertram was tired, and walked slowly. She did not consider herself a proud woman, but in this she was mistaken. Every line of her upright figure, each glance of her full, dark eyes, each word that dropped from her lips spoke of pride both of birth and position. She often said to herself, "I am thankful that I don't belong to the common folk; it would grate on my nerves to witness their vulgarities,--their bad taste would torture me; their want of refinement would act upon my nature like a blister. But I am not proud, I uphold my dignity, I respect myself and my family, but with sinful, unholy pride I have no part."

This was by no means the opinion held of her, however, by the Northbury folk. They had hailed her advent with delight; they had witnessed her arrival with the keenest, most absorbing interest, and, to the horror of the good lady herself, had one and all called on her. She was petrified when this very natural event happened. She had bargained for a life of retirement for herself and her girls. She had never imagined that society of a distinctly lower strata than that into which she had been born would be forced on her. Forced! Whoever yet had forced Mrs. Bertram into any path she did not care to walk in?

She was taken unawares by the first visitors, and they absolutely had the privilege of sitting on her sofas, and responding to a few icy remarks which dropped from her lips.

But the next day she was armed for the combat. The little parlor-maid, in her neat black dress, clean muslin apron, large frilled, picturesque collar, and high mob-cap, was instructed to say "Not at home" to all comers. She was a country girl, not from Northbury, but from some still more rusticated spot, and she thought she was telling a frightful lie, and blushed and trembled while she uttered it. So apparent was her confusion that Miss Peters, when she and her sister, Mrs. Butler, appeared on the scene, rolled her eyes at the taller lady and asked her in a pronounced manner if it would not be well to drop a tract on the heinousness of lying in the avenue.

This speech was repeated by Clara to the cook, who told it again to the young ladies' maid, who told it to the young ladies, who narrated it to their mother.

Mrs. Bertram smiled grimly.

"Don't repeat gossip, my dears," she said, Then after a pause she remarked aloud: "The difficulty will be about returning the calls."

Mabel, the youngest and most subservient of the girls, ventured to ask her mother what she intended to do, but Mrs. Bertram was too wise to disclose her plans, that is, if she had made any.

The Rector of Northbury was one of the first to visit the new inhabitants of the Manor. To him Mrs. Bertram opened her doors gladly. He was old, unmarried, and of good family. She was glad there was at least one gentleman in the place with whom she might occasionally exchange a word.

About a fortnight after his visit the Rector inclosed some tickets for a bazaar to Mrs. Bertram. The tickets were accompanied by a note, in which he said that it would gratify the good Northbury folk very much if Mrs. Bertram and the young ladies would honor the bazaar with their presence.

"Every soul in the place will be there," said Mr. Ingram. "This bazaar is a great event to us, and its object is, I think, a worthy one. We badly want a new organ for our church."

"Eureka!" exclaimed Mrs. Bertram when she had read this note.

"What is the matter, mother?" exclaimed Mabel.

"Only that I have found a way out of my grand difficulty," responded their mother, tossing Mr. Ingram's note and the tickets for the bazaar into Catherine's lap.

"Are you so delighted to go to this country bazaar, mother?" asked the eldest daughter.

"Delighted! No, it will be a bore."

"Then why did you say Eureka! and look so pleased?"

"Because on that day I shall leave cards on the Northbury folk--not one of them will be at home."

"Shabby," muttered Catherine. Her dark cheek flushed, she turned away.

Mabel put out her little foot and pressed it against her sister's. The pressure signified warning.

"Then you are not going to the bazaar, mother?" she questioned.

"I don't know. I may drop in for a moment or two, quite at the close. It would not do to offend Mr. Ingram."

"No," replied Mabel. "He is a dear, _gentlemanly old man."

"Don't use that expression, my love. It is my object in life that _all your acquaintances in the world of men should be gentlemen. It is unnecessary therefore to specify any one by a term which must apply to all."

Mrs. Bertram then asked Mabel to reply to Mr. Ingram's note. The reply was a warm acceptance, and Mr. Ingram cheered those of his parishioners who pined for the acquaintance of the great lady, with the information that they would certainly meet her at the bazaar.

Accordingly when the fateful day arrived the town was empty, and the Fisherman's Hall (Northbury was a seaport), in which the bazaar was held was packed to overflowing. Accordingly Mrs. Bertram in a neat little brougham, which she had hired for the occasion, dropped her cards from house to house in peace; accordingly, too, she caught the maids-of-all-work in their undress toilets, and the humble homes looking their least pretentious.

The bazaar was nearly at an end, when at last, accompanied by her two plainly-dressed, but dainty looking girls, she appeared on the scene.

The Northbury folk had all been watching for her. Those who had been fortunate enough to enter the sacred precincts of the Manor watched with interest, mingled with approval. (Her icy style was quite _comme-il-faut_, they said.) Those who had been met by the frightened handmaid's "not at home" watched with interest, mixed with disapproval, but all, all waited for Mrs. Bertram with interest.

"How late these fashionable people are," quote Miss Peters. "It's absolutely five o'clock. My dear Martha, do sit down and rest yourself. You look fit to drop. I'll keep an eye on the door and tell you the very moment Mrs. Bertram comes in. Mrs. Gorman Stanley has promised to introduce us. Mrs. Gorman Stanley was fortunate enough to find Mrs. Bertram in. It was she who told us about the drawing-room at the Manor. Fancy! Mrs. Bertram has only a felt carpet on her drawing-room. Not even a red felt, which looks warm and wears. But a sickly green! Mrs. Gorman Stanley told me _as a fact that the carpet was quite a worn-out shade between a green and a brown; and the curtains--she said the _drawing room curtains were only cretonne. You needn't stare at me, Martha. Mrs. Gorman Stanley never makes mistakes. All the same, though she couldn't tell why, she owned that the room had a _distingue effect. _En regle_, that was it; she said the room was _en regle_."

"Maria, if you could stop talking for a moment and fetch me an ice, I'd be obliged," answered Mrs. Butler. "Oh!" standing up, "there's Mrs. Gorman Stanley. How do you do, Mrs. Gorman Stanley? Our great lady hasn't chosen to put in her appearance yet. For my part I don't suppose she's any better than the rest of us, and so I say to Maria. Well, Maria, what's the matter now?"

"Here's your ice," said Miss Peters; "take it. Don't forget that you promised to introduce us to Mrs. Bertram, Mrs. Gorman Stanley."

Mrs. Gorman Stanley was the wealthy widow of a retired fish-buyer. She liked to condescend; also to show off her wealth. It pleased her to assume an acquaintance with Mrs. Bertram, although she thoroughly despised that good lady's style of furnishing a house.

"I'll introduce you with pleasure, my dear," she said to Mrs. Butler. "Yes, I like Mrs. Bertram very much. Did you say she was out when you called? Oh! she was in to me. Yes, I saw the house. I don't think she had finished furnishing it. The drawing-room looked quite bare. A made-up sort of look, you understand. Lots of flowers on the tables, and that nasty, cold, cheap felt under your feet. Not that _I mind how a house is furnished." (She did very much. Her one and only object in life seemed to be to lade her own mansion with ugly and expensive upholstery.) "Now, what's the matter, Miss Peters? Why, you are all on wires. Where _are you off to now?"

"I see the Rector," responded Miss Peters. "I'll run and ask him when he expects Mrs. Bertram. I'll be back presently with the news."

The little lady tripped away, forcing her slim form through the ever-increasing crowd. The rector was walking about with a very favorite small parishioner seated on his shoulder.

"Mr. Ingram," piped Miss Peters. "Don't you think Mrs. Bertram might favor us with her presence by now? We have all been looking for her. It's past five o'clock, and--"

There was a hush, a pause. At that moment Mrs. Bertram was sailing into the room. Miss Peters' exalted tones reached her ears. She shuddered, turned pale, and also turned her back on the eager little spinster.

Nobody quite knew how it was managed, but Mrs. Bertram was introduced to very few of the Northbury folk. They all wanted to know her; they talked about her, and came in her way, and stared at her whenever they could. There was an expectant hush when she and the Rector were seen approaching any special group.

"I do declare it's the Grays she's going to patronize," one jealous matron said.

But the Grays were passed over just as sedulously as the Joneses and the Smiths. Excitement, again and again on the tenter-hooks, invariably came to nothing. Even Mrs. Gorman Stanley, who had sat on Mrs. Bertram's sofa, and condemned her felt carpet was only acknowledged by the most passing and stately recognition. Little chance had the poor lady of effecting other introductions; she realized for the first time that she was only a quarter introduced to the great woman herself.

The fact was this: There was not a soul in Northbury, at least there was not an acknowledged soul who could combat Mrs. Bertram's will. She had made up her mind to talk to no one but Mr. Ingram at the bazaar. She carried out her resolve, and that though the Rector had formed such pleasant visions of making every one cheerful and happy all round, for he knew the simple weaknesses and desires of his flock, and saw not the smallest harm in gratifying them. Why should not the Manor and the town be friendly?

Mrs. Bertram saw a very good reason why they should not. Therefore the Rector's dreams came apparently to nothing.

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