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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 8. Nobody Else Looked The Least Like The Bertrams
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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 8. Nobody Else Looked The Least Like The Bertrams Post by :JayBeau Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :2233

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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 8. Nobody Else Looked The Least Like The Bertrams


It was the fashion to be punctual at Northbury, and when Catherine, Mabel and Loftus Bertram arrived about ten minutes past seven at the Gray House they found the pleasant old drawing-room already full of eager and expectant guests.

Beatrice would have preferred meeting her new friends without any ceremony in the garden, but Mrs. Meadowsweet was nothing if she was not mistress of her own house, and she decided that it would be more becoming and _comme il faut to wait in the drawing-room for the young visitors.

Accordingly Mrs. Meadowsweet sat in her chair of state. She wore a rose-colored silk dress, and a quantity of puffed white lace round her neck and wrists; and a cap which was tall and stiff, and had little tufts of yellow ribbon and little rosettes of Maltese lace adorning it, surmounted her large, full-blown face. That face was all beams and kindliness and good-temper, and had somehow the effect of making people forget whether Mrs. Meadowsweet was vulgar or not.

She sat in her chair of state facing the garden, and her visitors, all on the tip-toe of expectation, stationed themselves round her. The Bells had taken possession of the Chesterfield sofa. By sitting rather widely apart they managed to fill it; they always looked alike. To-night they so exactly resembled peas in a pod that one had a sense of ache and almost fatigue in watching them. This fatigue and irritation rose to desperation when they spoke. The Bells were poor, and their dresses bore decided signs of stint and poverty. They wore white muslin jackets, and pale green skirts of a shining substance known as mohair. Their mother fondly imagined that the shine and glitter of this fabric could not be known from silk. It was harsh, however, and did not lie in graceful folds, and besides, the poor little skirts lacked quantity.

The Bells had thin hair, and no knack whatever with regard to its arrangement. They looked unprepossessing girls, but no matter. Beatrice thought well of them. Mrs. Meadowsweet bestowed one or two broad glances of approval upon the inseparable little trio, and their own small hearts were dancing with expectation.

Would Bee, their darling, delightful, beautiful Bee, introduce them to Captain Bertram? Would he speak to them and smile upon them? Would he tell them stories of some of his gallant exploits? The Bells' round faces seemed to grow plumper, and their saucer eyes fuller, as they contemplated this contingency. What supreme bliss would be theirs if Captain Bertram singled them out for attention? Already they were in love with his name, and were quite ready to fall down in a phalanx of three, and worship the hero of many imaginary fights.

Standing by the open window, and with no shyness or stiffness whatever about them, Daisy and Polly Jenkins were to be seen. Daisy was a full-blown girl with a rather loud voice, and a manner which was by some considered very fascinating; for it had the effect of instantly taking you, as it were, behind the scenes, and into her innermost confidence.

Daisy was rather good-looking, and was the adored of Albert Bell, the little round-faced girls' brother. She was dressed in voluminous muslin draperies, and was a decidedly large and comfortable-looking young woman.

Polly was a second edition of her sister, only not so good-looking. She had made up her mind to marry Mr. Jones, the curate, who for his part was deeply in love with Beatrice.

"They are frightfully late, aren't they?" exclaimed Daisy Jenkins, giving a slight yawn, and looking longingly out at the tennis courts as she spoke. "I suppose it's the way with fashionable folk. For my part, I call it rude. Mrs. Meadowsweet, may I run across the garden, and pick a piece of sweet brier to put in the front of my dress? Somehow I pine for it."

"I'll get it for you," said Albert Bell, blushing crimson as he spoke.

He was a very awkward young man, but his heart was as warm as his manners were uncouth.

"I'll get it for you, Daisy," he said. His dull eyes had not the power of shining or looking eloquent. He stepped from behind the sofa where his sisters sat, and stumbled over Mrs. Meadowsweet's footstool.

"I think, my dears, we'll just wait for our guests," said the old lady. "We'll all just be present, please, when they come. It's my old-fashioned ideas, my loves, just for us all to be ready to give them a right-down, good welcome."

"Bother!" exclaimed Miss Daisy. She flounced her full skirts, cast a withering glance at young Bell, and once more looked out of the open window.

"Come here, Beatrice," exclaimed Polly.

Mr. Jones was talking to Beatrice, and Polly hoped they would both approach the window together.

"Come and tell us about that Adonis you went rowing with to-day," called the girl in her shrill, half-jealous voice.

It was just at that moment that the door was flung open by Jane, and the Bertrams made their appearance.

Catherine and Mabel wore the simplest white washing-dresses. Their girlish waists were encircled by sashes of pale gold. Catherine's thick dark hair was coiled tightly round her head--Mabel's more frizzy and paler locks fell in wavy curls round her forehead and on her shoulders. Nobody else looked the least like the Bertrams. Their dresses were as cheap as any other girl's dresses in the room. Daisy and Polly Jenkins had really much handsomer and finer hair, but somehow the effect produced by the Bertrams was altogether different.

Mrs. Meadowsweet addressed them in a deferential tone as "Miss," and it went like an electric flash through the minds of all the other visitors that the old lady was quite right when she thought it her duty to receive them in state.

Bertram was in flannels, and these were cut not exactly after the pattern of those worn by young Bell, who looked with a sort of despair at his true love, Daisy, whose eyes, in company with the three pairs of eyes of the Bells, were directed full upon the aristocratic face of Captain Bertram.

"Come into the garden," said Beatrice, stepping forward in her usual bright way, forgetting herself completely, and in consequence putting every one else at their ease. "We are very punctual people at Northbury," she continued, "and we are all wild to begin our game Captain Bertram, these are my friends, the Bells. May I introduce you? This is Miss Matty, and this is Miss Alice, and this is Miss Sophy. Matty, I put Captain Bertram into your charge. Albert," she continued, looking at young Bell, "will you and Daisy arrange a set for tennis?"

How Albert Bell did bless Beatrice! In a moment or two all the visitors were perambulating about the garden. Mr. Jones was escorted on one side by Polly Jenkins, on the other, he, in his turn, tried to escort Mabel Bertram, who did not talk a great deal and seemed somewhat out of her element. Catherine and Beatrice walked together, and Mrs. Meadowsweet, still sitting in her arm-chair, smiled as she saw them.

"That's a nice girl, and a fine looking girl," she murmured, "and very good company for my Bee. Very good company for her. Yes, the Bertrams are stylish but not of our set. My word, not a bit of our set. Bee, of course, might talk to anybody, but the rest of us--no, no, I'm the first to see the fitness of things, and the Bertrams don't belong to us nor we to them. Bee takes after her father, poor man, but the rest of us, we have no right to know the Bertrams. Now, do look at that young captain. Why, he's making the little Bells laugh themselves into fits. Dear me, I'd better go out. These girls don't know manners, and their heads will be turned by that fine young spark. They are certain to believe any rubbish he talks to them."

Mrs. Meadowsweet rose with difficulty, stepped out of the open window, and sailed in her rose-colored satin across the grass.

"Now, what's up?" she said. "Fie, fie, Matty, your laugh is for all the world like a hen cackling."

"He, he!" exclaimed the younger girls.

"Now, there you are off again, and all three of you this time!"

"It's Captain Bertram, ma'am," began Matty.

"Captain Bertram!" echoed Alice.

"Bertram," sighed Sophy.

"He says," continued Matty, "that we are all alike, and he doesn't know one from the other, and we are trying to puzzle him. It is such delicious fun."

"Delicious fun!" said Alice.

"Fun!" gasped Sophy, through her peals of mirth.

"Now," continued Alice, "he shall begin again. He shall go through his catechism. Here we three stand in a row. Which is Matty, which is Alice, which is Sophy?"

Captain Bertram pulled his mustache, swept his dark eyes over the little eager palpitating group, and in a languid tone pronounced the wrong one to be Matty.

The cackling rose to a shriek.

"You shall pay a forfeit, you bad man," said the real Matty. She shook her little fat finger at him. "Oh, yes, Mrs. Meadowsweet, he really shall--he _must_. This really is too sweetly delicious,--fancy his not knowing me from Alice--I call it ungallant. Now what shall the forfeit be, Alice and Sophy. Let's put our fingers on our lips and think."

"He shall tell us," exclaims Alice, "he shall describe at full length his--"

She looked at her sisters.

"His first battle," prompted Matty.

"No, no, better than that, better than that--" came from Sophy's girlish lips. "Captain Bertram shall tell us about his--his first love."

It may have been rude, but at this remark Captain Bertram not only changed color but turned in a very marked way from the Misses Bell, and devoted himself to his hostess.

He was attacked by a complaint somewhat in vogue in high life--he had a sudden fit of convenient deafness. He said a few words in a cold voice to Mrs. Meadowsweet, crushed the little Bells by his icy manner, and took the first opportunity of finding more congenial society.

An eager game of tennis was going on, and Beatrice, who did not play, stood by to watch. Northbury was accustomed to Beatrice, and did not therefore observe, what was very patent to Captain Bertram, that this girl was as perfectly well-bred as his own sisters. She wore a long, gray cashmere dress, slightly open at her throat, with ruffles of soft, real lace.

As she watched the game, her sensitive and speaking face showed interest, sympathy, keen appreciation. She heard Captain Bertram's step, and turned to welcome him with a smile.

"Would not you like to play?"

"Will you be my partner?"

"When they make up a fresh set I will, with pleasure; although," she added, looking down at her long dress, "I did not expect to play to-night, and did not dress for it."

"Thank goodness. I hate tennis dresses. All girls should wear trains."

Beatrice raised her bright eyes to his face. Their open expression said plainly, "It is a matter of indifference to me what you think about my dress." Aloud she said:

"What have you done with my friends, the Bells?"

"I am afraid, Miss Meadowsweet, that long intercourse with those young ladies would be too severe a strain on my intellect."

"Captain Bertram, you don't mean what you are saying."

"I do, on my honor. They are too intellectual for me."

"They are not! You are laughing at them."

Beatrice stepped back a pace, and looked at him with a heightened color coming into her face.

Captain Bertram began to explain. Before he could get in a word she said, abruptly:

"Pardon me," and flew from his side.

Her movement was so fleet and sudden that he had not realized her departure before the impulsive girl was standing by the despised Matty, talking to her in a cheery and affectionate voice, and making fresh arrangements for the pleasure and satisfaction of all three.

"By Jove, she's a fine creature!" thought the captain. "I don't mind how much I see of her--but as to the rest of this motley herd, my mother is quite right in not letting the girls have anything to do with them. I suppose I put my foot in it bringing them here to-night. Well, that can't be helped now. I hope Miss Beatrice will soon come back. Her eyes flashed when I said even a word against those terrible little friends of hers. I should like her eyes to flash at me again. I suppose she'll soon return. She promised to be my partner in the next set at tennis. That girl doesn't care a bit for fine speeches. She won't take a compliment even when it is offered to her--won't stretch out her hand for it or touch it. Cool? I should think she is cool. Might have been through two or three London seasons. What a queer lot surround her! And how unlike them she is. There's the old mother--I had better go and talk to her. She's quite as vulgar as the rest, but somehow she doesn't jar on a man's nerves like those charming Miss Bells. Positively, I should have a fever if I talked much longer to them. My first love, too! I'm to tell them about _her_. Oh, yes, that's so likely."

Again the angry flame mounted to Captain Bertram's thin cheek. He strolled across the grass, and joined his hostess.

"Now I call this a shame!" exclaimed the good lady, "you don't tell me that you are all by yourself, captain, and no one trying to make themselves agreeable to you! Oh, fie! this will never do--and you, so to speak, the lion of the party."

"Pray don't say that, Mrs. Meadowsweet, I hate being a lion."

"But you can't help it, my good young sir. You, who represent our Gracious Sovereign Lady's Army. Now, where's that girl of mine? Beatrice! Trixie! Bee!"

Captain Bertram was amazed at the shrill and far-sounding quality of Mrs. Meadowsweet's voice. It distressed him, for anything not ultra refined jarred upon this sensitive young officer's nerves; but he trusted that the result would be satisfactory, and that Beatrice, whose motions he began to liken to a poem, would put in a speedy appearance.

She was talking to Mr. Jones, however, and when her mother called her, she and the curate approached together.

"Beatrice, this poor young man--Captain Bertram, the hero of the evening, is all alone. Not a soul to amuse him or entertain him."

"Mother, you mistake," answered Beatrice, "Captain Bertram is being entertained by you."

"Hoots, child! What should an old lady have to say to a gay young lad?"

"Plenty, I assure you. I am being delightfully amused," replied the captain.

He gave Beatrice an angry look which she would not see.

"I want to talk to Jane about the supper," said the young lady in a calm voice. "Captain Bertram, may I introduce you to Mr. Jones?"

Again she flew lightly away, and the captain owned to himself that the tennis party at the Gray House was a very dull affair.

Supper, however, made amends for much. The incongruous elements were not so apparent. Everybody was hungry, and even the most fastidious had to acknowledge the fare of the best. Captain Bertram quite retrieved his character in Beatrice Meadowsweet's eyes, so well did he help her in serving her guests. Matty, Alice and Sophy Bell forgave him for his abrupt departure earlier in the evening from the charms of their society, when he helped them each twice to lobster salad.

Captain Bertram was not at all averse to the charms of a small flirtation. He was forced to remain for a few days in the remote little world-forgotten town of Northbury, and it occurred to him as he helped the Bells to lobster salad, and filled up Miss Matty's glass more than once with red currant wine, that Beatrice could solace him a good deal during his exile from a gayer life. He was absolutely certain at the present moment that the best way to restore himself to her good graces was once again to endure the intellectual strain of the Bells' society. Accordingly when supper was over, and people with one consent, and all, as it were, moved by a sudden impulse, joined first in a country dance, then formed into sets for quadrilles, and finally waltzed away to the old-fashioned sound of Mrs. Meadowsweet's piano, played with vigor by the good lady herself, Captain Bertram, with a beseeching and deprecatory glance at Beatrice, who took care not to see it, led out Miss Matty Bell as his partner.

How much that young lady giggled! How badly she danced--with what rapture she threw up her round eyes at her partner's dark face, this chronicle need not record; so _naive was she, into such ecstasies did every word spoken by the captain throw her, that he quite feared for the result.

"It is awful when a girl falls in love in five minutes!" he mentally soliloquized. "I wonder if I have satisfied Miss Meadowsweet now? I do honestly think I have done my duty by Miss Matty Bell."

So he conveyed the gushing young person back to her sisters, and sought for Beatrice who was once more frank and friendly, but gave him excellent reasons for not dancing with him.

At this moment Catherine came up and touched her brother. Her cheeks had a bright color in them, she looked animated and happy.

"Loftus, it is close on twelve o'clock. We must go home. Look at Mabel," she added, seeing her brother hesitate, "she is frightfully sleepy. Mother never allows her to be up so late. We have had a happy evening," continued Catherine, looking full into Miss Meadowsweet's face, "and we are very much obliged to you. Now I must go and say good-night to your mother."

She tripped away, and Beatrice looked after her with affectionate eyes.

"It is unkind of you not to give me one dance," said the captain.

She had forgotten his presence.

"It is not unkind," she said. "The dancing is altogether an impromptu affair, and I had to attend to my guests. I was talking to your sister, Catherine, who did not care to dance."

"Very ungenerous to me," pursued the captain. "A poor return for all my efforts to please you."

"Your efforts--pray, what efforts?"

"Did you not observe me with your friend, Miss Matty Bell? I assure you she and I are now excellent friends."

"I do not suppose in my mother's house you would be anything else, Captain Bertram."

Her tone irritated the captain. His manner changed.

"Do you think I _wanted to dance with her?"

"I don't think about it. Here is your sister. I will help you to find your wraps, Catherine."

She linked her hand through Catherine Bertram's arm, and went with her into the hall. A few moments later the brother and sisters were walking quickly home.

"So you have come to Christian names already, Catherine," said Loftus.

"Yes," replied Catherine. "She is the very dearest girl. Have we not had a delightful evening?"

"Delightful, truly. How did you enjoy yourself, Mab?"

"Middling," replied Mabel. "I was with Mr. Jones, and he talked about vestments, and deplored the Rector's decision against High Church practices. He thought we were kindred souls, but we weren't, and I told him so. Then he turned crusty. I waltzed twice with Mr. Bell, and he kicked my ankle, and hurt me very much. I don't think I cared much for the party, Catherine, the people were so queer."

"Were they?" answered Catherine. "I didn't notice anything the matter with them. I talked for a short time with Mrs. Meadowsweet, and found her most interesting. She told me a lot about Beatrice. She thinks Beatrice the noblest creature in the world. As I very nearly agreed with her we got on capitally."

"What a romantic puss you are, Kate," said her brother.

She was leaning on him, and he gave her arm a playful pinch.

"You met Miss Meadowsweet on Tuesday, wasn't it? This is Friday, and she is the 'very dearest girl in the world,' and already you are Catherine and Beatrice to one another. Upon my word, hearts move rapidly towards each other in certain quarters."

"In more quarters than one," replied Kate, with an arch smile. "How you did flatter that poor little Miss Bell, Loftie. Her cheeks were like peonies while you talked to her. You certainly had an air of great tenderness, and I expect you have turned the poor little thing's head."

"Yes, Loftus," interrupted Mabel. "I remarked you, too, with Miss Bell. What a little fright she is--I never could have supposed she was in your style."

"Good gracious," began Loftus, "you didn't think--"

But Catherine in her sedate voice interrupted him.

"Beatrice and I were watching you. I laughed when I saw that expression of tenderness filling your glorious dark eyes, but I think Bee was vexed."

"Vexed? No, Kate, surely not vexed?"

"I think so, Loftus. She said to me--'I hope your brother is not laughing at my little friend, Matty Bell.' Then she added, 'I know Matty is not beautiful nor specially attractive, but she has the kindest heart.' I said perhaps you were flirting, and that I knew you could flirt. She did not make any answer, only she looked grave, and turned away when you and Miss Bell came near us."

"That accounts," began Loftus. He did not explain himself further and by-and-by the little party reached the Manor.

There was an old tumble-down lodge at the gates. It was inhabited by a very poor man, who, for the sake of getting a shelter over his head, now and then undertook to clean up and do odd jobs in the Rosendale gardens. Mrs. Bertram thought it well to have some one in the lodge, and she was pleased with the economical arrangement she had made with David Tester.

One of his duties was to lock the old gates at night. There was a small and a large gate leading into the avenue, and it was one of Mrs. Bertram's special whims that both should be locked at night. Old Tester thought his mistress foolishly particular on this point, and wondered at so close a lady going to the expense of new locks, which were sent down from London, and were particularly good and expensive.

The small gate was furnished with a latch-lock as well. This arrangement was made for Tester's convenience, so that if Mrs. Bertram and her daughters chose to be absent from home a little later than usual, he could still close the gate and go to bed.

When the girls and their brother left home that evening Catherine had not forgotten the latch-key.

"We may be late," she said, "so I will put it in my pocket."

They were late, and as they approached the old gates Catherine gave the key to Mabel, who hastened to fit it into the lock of the side gate.

To her surprise it opened at a touch.

"Kate!" exclaimed the young girl, "Tester has been very careless; he has never closed the side gate."

"I will call him up and speak to him now," said Catherine, who had a certain touch of her mother's imperious nature. "He shall do it now. Mother is always most particular about the gates, and she ought not to be disobeyed in her absence."

Catherine was running across the avenue to wake old Tester when Loftus laid his hand on her arm.

"You really are too absurd, Kitty," he said. "I simply won't allow that poor, infirm, old man to be got out of his bed for such a ridiculous reason. Who cares whether the gates are locked, or not locked?"

"Mother cares," said Catherine, her eyes flashing.

"Now, Kate, you must use your common-sense. That fad about locking the gates is a pure and simple whim on the mother's part. Of course we'll humor it, but not to the extent of waking up old Tester. Come, Kitty, you shall give the old man any amount of blowing up in the morning, only now you really must leave him alone."

"I'm going on," said Mabel; "I can scarcely keep my eyes open. Will you come with me, Loftie? If Kate likes to stay by herself with the dark trees and the ghosts, why, let her. I'm off to bed."

She ran laughing and singing up the old avenue.

Loftus turned to resume his argument with Catherine, Mabel's gay voice echoed more faintly as she ran on. Suddenly it stopped. Patter, patter, came back the swift feet, and, trembling and shivering, she threw herself into Loftus's arms.

"I heard something--there's something in the avenue!"

The moon was shining, and showed Mabel's face as white as a sheet.

"You silly child," said Loftus, "you heard a rabbit scuttling home. Here, take my arm, and let us all get home as fast as we can. Why, you are trembling from head to foot. You are tired out, that's it. Take her other arm, will you, Kate?"

"They say Rosendale is haunted," panted Mabel.

"Folly! Don't listen to such rubbish. Your rabbit was hurrying to bed, and was as much afraid of you as you of it."

"It--it wasn't a rabbit," said Mabel. "Rabbits don't sigh."

"Oh--sighs only belong to ghosts?"

"I don't know. Don't laugh at me, Loftie. I heard a real sigh and a rustle, and something white flashed."

"Then you flashed back to us. Never talk of being a brave girl again, May."

"Let us walk very quickly," said Mabel. "It was just there I saw it. Just by that great clump of Lauristinus. Don't let us speak. There, that's better. I own I'm frightened, Loftie. You needn't laugh at me."

Loftus Bertram had many faults, but he was not ill-natured. He took Mabel's little cold hand, and pressed it between his warm fingers, and ceased to laugh at her, and walked quickly, and was even silent at her bidding. By degrees, Mabel leaned all her weight on Loftus, and took no notice of Kate, who, for her part, held herself erect, and walked up the avenue with a half-aggrieved, half-scornful look on her face, and with some anxiety in her heart.

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