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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 3. A Gentleman, Madam
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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 3. A Gentleman, Madam Post by :JayBeau Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :629

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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 3. A Gentleman, Madam

CHAPTER III. A GENTLEMAN, MADAM

Only apparently. Every one knows how small the little rift within the lute is. So are most beginnings.

Mrs. Bertram felt, that in her way, she had effected quite a victory. She stepped into her brougham to return to Rosendale Manor with a pleasing sense of triumph.

"I am thankful to say that ordeal is over," she remarked. "And I think," she continued, with a smile, "that when the Northbury people see my cards, awaiting them on their humble hall-tables, they will have learnt their lesson."

Neither of the girls made any response to this speech. Mabel was leaning back in the carriage looking bored and cross, but Catherine's expression was unusually bright.

"Mother," she exclaimed suddenly, "I met such a nice girl at the bazaar."

"You made an acquaintance at the bazaar, my dear Catherine," answered Mrs. Bertram with alacrity. "You made an acquaintance? The acquaintance of a girl? Who?"

"Her name is Beatrice Meadowsweet. She is a dear, delightful, fresh girl, and exactly my own age."

Catherine's dark face was all aglow. Her handsome brown eyes shone with interest and pleasure.

"Catherine, how often, how very often have I told you that expressions of rapture such as you have just given way to are underbred."

"Why are they underbred, mother?" Catherine's tone was aggressive, and Mabel again kicked her sister's foot.

The kick was returned with vigor, and Catherine said in an earnest though deliberate voice:

"Why are expressions of rapture underbred? Can enthusiasm, that fire of the gods, be vulgar?"

"Kate, you are cavilling. Expressions of rapture generally show a lack of breeding because as a rule they are exaggerated, therefore untrue. In this case they are manifestly untrue, for how is it possible for you to tell that the girl you have just been speaking to is dear, delightful, and fresh?"

"Her face is fresh, her manners are fresh, her expression is delightful. There is no use, mother, you can't crush me. I am in love with Beatrice Meadowsweet."

Mrs. Bertram's brow became clouded. It was one of the bitter defeats which she had ever and anon to acknowledge to herself that, in the midst of her otherwise victorious career, she could never get the better of her eldest daughter Catherine.

"Who introduced you to this girl?" she asked, after a pause.

"The Rector. He saw me standing by one of the stalls, looking what I felt--awfully bored. He came up in his kind way and took my hand, and said: 'My dear, you don't know any one, I am afraid. You would like to make some acquaintances, would you not?' I replied: 'I am most anxious to know some of the nice people all around me.'"

"My dear Catherine! The _nice people! And when you knew my express wishes!"

"Yes, mother, but they weren't mine. And I had to be truthful, at any cost. Beatrice was standing not far off, and when I said this my eye met hers, and we both smiled. Then the rector introduced me to her, and we mutually voted the bazaar close and hot, and went out to watch the tennis players in the garden. We had a jolly time. I have not laughed so much since I came to this slow, poky corner of the world."

"And what were you doing, Mabel?" questioned her mother. "Did you, too, pick up an undesirable acquaintance and march away into the gardens with her? Was your new friend also fresh, delightful and dear?"

"I wish she had been, mother," answered Mabel, her tone still very petulant. "But I hadn't Kate's luck. I was introduced to no one, although lots of people stared at me, and whispered about me as I passed."

"And you saw this paragon of Catherine's?"

"Yes, I saw her."

"What did you think of her, May? I like to get your opinion, my love. You have a good deal of penetration. Tell me frankly what you thought of this low-born miss, whom Catherine degraded herself by talking to."

Mabel looked at her sister. Catherine's eyes flashed. Mabel replied demurely:

"I thought Miss Meadowsweet quiet-looking and graceful."

Catherine took Mabel's hand unnoticed by their mother and squeezed it, and Mrs. Bertram, who was not wholly devoid of tact, thought it wisest to let the conversation drop.

The next day the Rector called, and Mrs. Bertram asked him, in an incidental way what kind of people the Meadowsweets were.

"Excellent people," he replied, rubbing his hands softly together. "Excellent, worthy, honorable. I have few parishioners whom I think more highly of than Beatrice and her mother."

Mrs. Bertram's brow began to clear.

"A mother and daughter," she remarked. "Only a mother and a daughter, Mr. Ingram?"

"Only a mother and a daughter, my dear madam. Poor Meadowsweet left us six years ago. He was one of my churchwardens, a capital fellow, so thoroughgoing and reliable. A sound churchman, too. In short, everything that one could desire. He died rather suddenly, and I was afraid Mrs. Meadowsweet would leave Northbury, but Bee did not wish it. Bee has a will of her own, and I fancy she's attached to us all."

"I am very glad that you can give us such a pleasant account of these parishioners of yours, dear Mr. Ingram," responded Mrs. Bertram. "The fact is, I am in a difficult position here. No, the girls won't overhear us; they are busy at their embroidery in that distant corner. Well, perhaps, to make sure. Kate," Mrs. Bertram raised her voice, "I know the Rector is going to give us the pleasure of his company to tea. Mr. Ingram, I shall not allow you to say no. Kate, will you and Mabel go into the garden, and bring in a leaf of fresh strawberries. Now, Mr. Ingram I want you to see our strawberries, and to taste them. The gardener tells us that the Manor strawberries are celebrated. Run, dears, don't be long."

The girls stepped out through the open French window, interlaced their arms round one another and disappeared.

"They are good girls," said the mother, "but Kate has a will of her own. Mr. Ingram, you will allow me to take you into my confidence. I am often puzzled to know how to act towards Catherine. She is a good girl, but I can't lead her. She is only seventeen, only just seventeen. Surely that is too young an age to walk quite without leading strings."

Mr. Ingram was an old bachelor, but he was one of those mellow, gentle, affectionate men who make the most delightful companions, whose sympathy is always ready, and tact always to the fore. Mr. Ingram was full of both sympathy and tact, but he had also a little gentle vanity to be tickled, and when a handsome woman, still young, appealed to him with pathos in her eyes and voice, he laid himself, metaphorically, at her feet.

"My dear madam," he responded, "it is most gratifying to me to feel that I can be of the least use to you. Command me at all times, I beg. As to Miss Catherine, who can guide her better than her excellent mother? I don't know much about you, Mrs. Bertram, but I feel--forgive me, I am a man of intuition--I feel that you are one to look up to. Miss Catherine is a fortunate girl. You are right. She is far too young to walk alone. Seventeen, did you say--pooh--a mere child, a baby. An immature creature, ignorant, innocent, fresh, but undeveloped; just the age, Mrs. Bertram, when she needs the aid and counsel of a mother like you."

Mrs. Bertram's dark eyes glowed with pleasure.

"I am glad you agree with me," she said. "The fact is, Mr. Ingram, we have come to the Manor to retrench a little, to economize, to live in retirement. By-and-bye, I shall take Catherine and Mabel to London. As a mother, I have duties to perform to them. These, when the time comes, shall not be neglected. Mr. Ingram, I must be very frank, I _don't want to know the good folk of Northbury."

Mr. Ingram started at this very plain speaking. He had lived for thirty years with the Northbury people. They had not vulgarized him; their troubles and their pleasures alike were his. His heart and soul, his life and strength were given up to them. He did not feel himself any the less a gentleman because those whom he served were, many of them, lowly born. He started, therefore, both inwardly and outwardly at Mrs. Bertram's plain speech, and instantly, for he was a man of very nice penetration, saw that the arrival of this lady, this brilliant sun of society, in the little world of Northbury, would not add to the smoothness of his lot.

Before he could get in a word, however, Mrs. Bertram quickly continued:

"And Catherine is determined to make a friend of Beatrice Meadowsweet."

"She is quite right, Mrs. Bertram. I introduced Miss Catherine to Beatrice yesterday. They will make delightful companions; they are about the same age--I can vouch for the life and spirit possessed by my friend Bee, and if I mistake not Miss Catherine will be her worthy companion."

Mrs. Bertram laughed.

"I wish I could tell you what an imp of mischief Kate is," she said. "She is the most daring creature that ever drew the breath of life. Dear Mr. Ingram, forgive me for even doubting you for a moment. I might have known that you would only introduce my daughter to a lady."

The Rector drew himself up a very little.

"Certainly, Beatrice Meadowsweet is a lady," he replied. "If a noble heart, and frank and fearless ways, and an educated mind, and a refined nature can make a lady, then she is one--no better in the land."

"I am charmed, _charmed to hear it. It is such a relief. For, really Mr. Ingram, some people from Northbury came and sat on that very sofa which you are occupying, who were quite too--oh, well, they were absolutely dreadful. I wonder if Mrs. Meadowsweet has called. I don't remember the name, but I suppose she has. I must look amongst the cards which have absolutely been showered on us and see. I must certainly return her visit and at once. Poor Mr. Meadowsweet--he was in the army perhaps! I am quite glad to know there are people of our position here. Did you say the army? Or perhaps a retired gentleman,--ah, I see Catherine and Mabel coming back. Which was Mr. Meadowsweet's regiment?"

Poor Mr. Ingram's face grew absolutely pink.

"At some time in his life poor Meadowsweet may have served in the local volunteers," he replied. "He was however, a--ah, Miss Catherine, what tempting strawberries!"

The rector approached the open French window. Mrs. Bertram followed him quickly.

"A--what?" she repeated. "The girls needn't know whom we are talking about. A gentleman who lived on his private means?"

"A gentleman, madam, yes, a _gentleman_,--and he lived on his means,--and he was wealthy. He kept a shop, a draper's shop, in the High Street. Now, young ladies, young ladies--I call this wrong. _Such strawberries! Strawberries are my special weakness. Oh, it is cruel of you to tempt me. I ought to be two miles from here now."

"You ought not," said Catherine in a gay voice. "You must sit with us on the lawn, and drink our tea, and eat our strawberries."

Catherine had given a quick, lightning glance at her mother's face. She saw a cloud there, she guessed the cause. She felt certain that her mother would consult Mr. Ingram on the subject of Beatrice. Mr. Ingram's report was not satisfactory. Delightful! She felt the imp of mischief taking possession of her. She was a girl of many moods and tenses. At times she could even be sombre. But when she chose to be gay and fascinating she was irresistible. She was only seventeen, and in several ways she was unconventional, even unworldly. In others, however, she was a perfect woman of the world, and a match for her mother.

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