Tom and Maria
The first winter assembly in Huntingdon was to be held on Tuesday October the sixteenth, and it was generally expected to be a very good one.
The Miss Wards, two eldest daughters of a gentleman, whose family estates greatly contributed to the town's new boundaries, were being prepared to adorn the gathering. Their necks and ears were impeccably scrubbed, to a degree nothing save a ball could obligate, and they were submitted to a long sitting in their powder gowns until their tresses were frizzed and brushed into truly artistic disorder. Since the court ladies discarded great towers and naval battles from their delicate heads, a master hair-dresser was considered no more necessary. The upper house maid and Nanny sufficed - that, of course, not counting the chambermaid's help, who was run off her feet, now rushing to the irons in the kitchen fire to smooth frayed ribbons, now crawling on all fours in search of a pin dropped.
The household boasted a lady's maid, but it was an understood thing that her services were needed for Mrs Ward herself. She always staid the longest at the dressing table. For a comfortable quarter of a century she bore the title of a great beauty, established on the undeniable fact that in her youth she had been compared to one of the Gunnings. A certain much-travelled gentleman, for whom a tour all the way to London was nothing, often heard there about the famous pair of dazzling sisters, and decided that she had to resemble one or the other. Even reduced to chaperoning beautiful daughters of her own, she was not going to renounce the honour.
Mr Ward could not be expected to attend the Assembly. All the neighbouring families knew him for a sad invalid, subject to headaches (or, as Miss Ward insisted on calling them, megrims, which did sound more pernicious). He was condemned to reading Dr Johnson in his warm and quiet library, while his wife and daughters enjoyed the draughts in a ball-room.
The youngest of the family, Miss Frances, who had not come out yet, was allowed to watch her sisters dress, as a special treat. Curled up comfortably in a window-niche, she observed the development of lavish coiffures.
"Now, don't fidget, Miss Julia," pleaded Nanny, "look at Miss Maria, sitting so still."
"Well, don't take so much time, that's all. I wish Mamma would sometimes send Tilbrook to us, too. After all, we shall dance minuet under public observation, and who is going to look at Mamma in the chaperones' end of the room."
From her perch Fanny languidly contributed to the conversation. "Mamma says, Maria excels at minuet and Julia is better not to wear a lappet on her head-dress at all." Whether she noticed the freezing look, or not, she continued in the same breath, "Julia is at her best dancing a cotillion, so, with the under-petticoat showing, Tilbrook says, her dresses always take ten more yards of lace than Maria's."
"Utter nonsense, my petticoats taking more lace; I'm certain, we are treated equally, as sisters should. And even if there is a difference of a ribbon or a nosegay, why, I'm the eldest. Such slight dissemblance serves to stress proper order in society."
Somewhat mollified by her own clever speech, she could not resist a timely lecture. "You are not sitting any too gracefully, young lady. I think some people must return to the backboard and bunch of holly. When you prick your chin thoroughly, you'll learn soon enough."
In a twinkling of an eye Fanny assumed the posture: really upright with her legs straight out, the head held high, ready for a book on top.
"It's the graceful carriage that is the test of high breeding. A young lady is known by her manners and deportment. She must be ladylike in all that she does - or says. If she does this, she may not be praised, but she will certainly be condemned if she does not."
Having dispatched without a pause the beginning of her favourite compendium on decorum, Miss Ward could expect some acknowledgement of her refinement and brilliant memory, too; but her sisters, not so well-read, remained passive. Maria placidly agreed, "Yes, Fanny, all girls should." And the unimpressed child only shrugged her shoulders with resignation.
Nanny stepped aside, admiring the finished design. "Ah, now, Miss Julia, you look pretty as that picture at the milliner's, Mrs Fetters; the one with a big black hat and locks all over her shoulders."
Miss Ward remarked casually that all ladies pictured had their hats on, that being the fashion, but inwardly she might just consent to the one second right from the door.
The great moment came, when hardy corsets with busk sheaths, hoop skirts, tied-on cork rumps, elaborately stitched silk garters and lavishly flounced cambric under-petticoats were assembled on appropriate places. Amidst this bustle of activity Miss Ward complacently expanded on modern fashions, their soft folds and natural look, compared to recently abandoned quilted petticoats. Eager Fanny listened with deference due to a subject so important and agreed for the time being that nothing could be more comfortable, and perfect, and unchangeable than the current style; and nothing could be deader than the yesterday fashion - not even the fashion of the day before yesterday.
While construction was going on and on, child's attention drifted to her sisters' ball shoes. She moved to take a closer look. It was a difficult choice, which to admire more: one pair was flowered satin, another was silk with watery pattern.
"May I try them?"
The eldest sister advised her sharply to put them down; but Maria did not object, though warned good-naturedly, "Only be careful. You need practice to walk in mules."
The girl dragged a round in heeled slippers and exclaimed, "Talk about dancing! Maybe one can go through minuet in them, but what chance of a country dance!" Stopping suddenly in her way, struck by a thought, she asked earnestly, "But why country dance? They do not dance it in Town? Or is it for some country? Which?"
That was too much for erudite Miss Ward. "You ignorant wretch! It is a corruption - by such illiterates as you - of the French contre dance , a dance where the partners face each other. For penalty you ought to write five La Fontaine's fables at least. I'll tell Miss Dorey. And put these mules back at once."
Miss Maria wondered mildly, "Seems too much - five - for one mistake."
"It is for her own good, you know. She must be accomplished, as befits a daughter of a gentleman. I'm proud to say that I'm an advocate of young people being brought up without unnecessary indulgences. You are too indulgent, sister. Look out, or your own children will come to nought, if you treat them so."
It takes no common strength of character to be properly instructive when stays are being laced on one.
Fanny tossed her head. "Miss Dorey makes me learn such an awful lot. The order of the kings of England I can understand, even the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns. But why those horrid Roman emperors, besides a great deal of the heathen mythology... And then all the metals, semi-metals, planets and distinguished philosophers. And I see no use in the use of the globe, and if I don't know which way I should go to Ireland - well, I don't want to go to Ireland."
"You are seventeen in five years only. There is a great deal more for you to learn. Your Mamma expects you to pay special attention to your French lessons and daily portion of history. And wasn't the music-master saying the other day that you neglected your spinet?"
"Oh, music... I have no memory for it; I never remember properly what note comes after what. Miss Dorey says, 'Just listen to the tune, you'll immediately hear when you are off key,' but I cannot guess, however hard I try."
For that Maria could only apply that it was very unlucky, but some people had no ear for music, she did not know what was to be done. Miss Ward could not agree to less than perfection in performance. In Huntingdon society she spoke so often about satisfaction, comfort and delight that music brought to her, confessed so freely of being doatingly fond of it, that in all conscience she could not forget she was musical.
"A girl I know learnt music only for a year, it was the same with her," Fanny tried. "Then her mother said she didn't insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste, and allowed her to leave off."
"The lady you are referring to has a most strange attitude, if in fact such person exists. Didn't insist on being accomplished - whoever heard of such things! It is the first duty of a mother to display her daughters' accomplishments and to look about for their future husbands. Well, I may congratulate your friend: she will never secure an eligible man."
The girls fell into profound contemplation together. Young as they were, it came to their knowledge early that marriage was a manoeuvring business. Maria went to the length of stating in a voice somewhat warmer than its usual calm languor, "We must marry, you know." Julia, lost in reverie, breathed piously, "I should like to marry a member of Parliament, and write his speeches; they say that I'm choice in my language, they do, indeed. Why, my letters are generally considered as formed upon Dr Johnson's style."
The door opened, and Mrs Ward, in a magnificent polonaise, bunched up behind in three puffs, appeared on the doorstep.
"Tilbrook will help you to dress," she announced and motioned to the maid to come into the room. "I have received a very important note from Mrs Leighton."
As the Miss Wards were ready, the maid had nothing else to do but to hand them their fans, put up calashes to protect their head-dresses, and listen to her mistress's exited speech.
"She advises that Mr Pumfret is expected to bring a gentleman staying with him to the Assembly. He came to Gaines Court for shooting, she believes. They were in Oxford together, or something, she is not sure which. His name (she looked
significantly at her daughters) is Sir Thomas Bertram." Mrs Ward sighed and continued with great feeling, "It is a blessing to have good relatives. How William helped your father at the time of selling that land; certainly, being a lawyer, he could do no less. And Jane takes your interests quite to heart. Well, her own children are too young yet, of course."
Mr William Leighton was Mrs Ward's younger brother, an attorney in Huntingdon, in a good way of business, married to the only daughter of the attorney to whom he had been the clerk, with a fortune of six thousand pounds. They were well satisfied with each other, their house, their children, and life in general. Mrs Leighton was expecting and did not go into society for a time, but no circumstances could keep her excluded from news.
Fanny cleared out of the room, singing at the top of her shrill adolescent voice:
Malbrouk s'en va-t-en guerre,
Mironton, mironton, mirontaine;
Malbrouk s'en va-t-en guerre,
Ne sait quand reviendra.
Il reviendra z'a Paques,
Mironton, mironton --
The doggerel was cut short by Miss Dorey who could be heard scolding the child for fraying her father's nerves. Miss Ward, not pleased with hinting that someone was off to the wars, flushed. "Impudent girl!"
Her mother eyed her in a preoccupied way. "Stop finding fault with your sister, Julia. The song is well-known to be a favourite of Marie-Antoinette. I wish you would not frown before a ball, or your face would freeze like this. Remember, sweethearts, niminy-piminy . Repeat it softly to yourselves; the lips cannot fail to take the right plie ."
The young ladies hurriedly arranged their features into gracious company-faces and proceeded to the family chaise.
In a short time the party was transported to the bustle and noise in front of the broad entrance-passage of an inn. It was an ancient building with a venerable name of Blue Boar, going back to the War of the Roses. The Assembly Room itself had been added to the inn about three score years before, by the different county families, who met together there once a month during the winter, to dance and play cards. The wide yard was festively lit by sparkling chandeliers inside the rooms, lamps and flambeaux outside, and the inn-keeper honoured the occasion by trying out several new wrought-iron lanterns with tallow candles.
After a few minutes' fuss, while the passage was blocked by a sedan-chair, from which the Honourable Mrs Yaxley extricated herself with much dignity, the other guests got a chance to enter. The ladies went into the cloak-room adjoining the Assembly Room. To slip off a cloak was a matter of seconds, but to unpin a calash was a serious operation, it took time if done properly, so that not to disturb the precious arrangement of curls underneath. The experienced attendant, however, carried the task through without a hitch, and in front of the quaint old mirror, put up with the cloak-room all the time back, every fair guest had the assurance of being in good looks.
Mrs Ward led the way up the wide staircase, not forgetting to hold her dress becomingly, while she attended with yet greater solicitude to the proper security of her young charges' shoulders and throats. In passing along a short gallery to the Assembly Room, brilliant in lights before them, she was told by the waiter on the enquiry that there were many people come in good time.
The party passed on - Mrs Ward's laced petticoat swept along the clean floor of the ballroom, to the fireplace at the upper end. The salmon-coloured paint of the walls played up to any complexion, the white plaster wreaths and festoons joined well-polished wall-brackets of candles; really, everything furnished the appearance of high breeding and ton .
A big enough room seemed empty still. It was not easy to work out the precise point of arrival, as Mrs Ward liked to get a good seat by the fire, and Miss Ward liked to be fashionably late, and described any time before dancing actually began as "the candles are but this moment lit".
The inspiriting sounds of carriages were heard without ceasing, and continual accessions of portly chaperons, and strings of smartly-dressed girls were received, with now and then a fresh gentleman straggler, who if not enough in love to station himself near any fair creature seemed glad to escape into the card-room. Upon yet another arrival Miss Ward informed her sister in a stage whisper of heart-felt delight, "Emma Greenwood, my dear; her parents, too."
Miss Greenwood was a sworn friend of the Miss Wards. She was not more than of the middle height, well made and plump, with an air of healthy vigour. Her skin was very brown, but clear, smooth and glowing. The Miss Wards gladly allowed her to be pretty, while they, tall, full formed and fair, were considered the finest young women in the county. In fact, when Emma was mentioned, Julia loved to quote in her most dulcet tones,
"She like the hazel-twig
Is straight and slender and as brown in hue
As hazel-nuts and sweeter than the kernels."
This could not fail to convey the idea of Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew to anyone remembering his Shakespeare. And, after all, Shakespeare's work is the common inheritance of all Englishmen, a part of their constitution. One is intimate with him by instinct, exclaim romantic souls; one is familiar with him from one's earliest years through his quotes, his similes, and his descriptions, correct sober people; but anyway - there he is, well-known without knowing how.
Emma's reaction to her dear friends would have been more complicated: to be sure, there were two of them. Dear Maria was disposed of easily as "sweet unaffected girl with Cordelia's gift" ("Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low - an excellent thing in a woman"). This apt allusion helped to suggest that Cordelia had sisters, too. As to dear Julia, she was without doubt the most enlightened, learned, scholarly, bookish young person imaginable. The only use people in present flippant times made of four-syllabled words was to teach how they should be spelt, while Julia could really rattle them one after another in her letters, oh, merest scrawls and notes, taken up in a spare half-hour just previous to post-time, when epistolary text-books were surely out of her reach. It was a pleasure and a privilege to keep correspondence with her; when she (Emma) attended the London season, it was with inner trembling that she (Emma) sent to her refined friend poor hasty descriptions of Ranelagh, or Vauxhall, or Little Theatre in the Hay Market; especially the one, of which she (Emma) was almost ashamed, sketching ridotto at St. James's. Julia could elaborate the subject so beautifully, seeing that no-one was more skilled in music and dancing; on many an assembly Julia would have danced the whole ball-room down if she but had partners enough.
The girls continued their letter-writing, though Emma was living at home; she had not been sent to the Little Season, as was hoped for. Indeed, Miss Ward spared herself no effort to keep her dear friend's spirits up, encouraging her every time to bear her disappointment with equanimity. As they also visited regularly, the diversion had to be received "not from the matter, but from the manner", and many and high-flown were discourses upon Art, Literature, and Fashions. Luckily, it cost them nothing, as they did not use post; usually someone or other of Mr Greenwood's servants found his way to Huntingdon, and not rarely they exchanged epistles themselves when meeting - to be relished afterwards.
Their social embrace was the very height of affection.
"You are very lucky, Julia, to live right in the place, so near, and be always on the spot to greet us country dwellers."
"Oh, Emma, I'm so glad that you are here actually before the beginning. The road from Champney is at best indifferent, and I'm constantly on the tether that in your eagerness to get to the Assembly you will make Warbiss to hurry your dear steady horses, and they'll overturn the carriage."
"Ah, Maria, I'm infinitely fond of this fan of yours; you are wise not to change it, these ivory sticks suit your colouring inordinately. You might want to look at this tortoise shell with vellum; I've found it unexpectedly among odds and ends brought from London."
"How nice for you."
"It is well for me that the old custom is dead, when ladies put their fans on a table, and a gentleman had to dance with the one whose fan he had chosen. Nobody would give a second glance at such a poor thing."
They were still comparing fans, when the violins struck up a favourite air - a pleasant moment of much uneasiness, as all the girls that were engaged for the first two dances, stood ready to be claimed by their partners. Miss Ward considered even the first Assembly in winter as no occasion for delicate-minded ladies engaging themselves any dances beforehand, so those wanting in proper decorum peopled the centre of the room, and she was elbowed toward the wall, the place that should never harbour a beauty and a heiress. But her discretion was soon triumphantly proved, when from a small commotion at the entrance two more visitors emerged.
The taller one, Mr Pumfret, a young man of six-and-twenty, who recently succeeded to a fine estate, was, of course, known to the whole county; welcomed everywhere, he was a favourite with ladies. Some praised his crushing wit, some - his real amiability, and several outspoken old creatures threw in a word or two for his Gaines Court. He cut a dashing figure, discarded a wig, powdering his natural hair, and wore rock crystal shoe buckles and knee buckles.
Another gentleman had buckles of cut steel on his shoes of sober black leather. The whiteness of an immaculate wig made his noticeable tan stand out conspicuously.
Mr Pumfret's movement through the room was marked by his own special greetings, which he had ready cut out for every one, and used interminably.
"Are all well at Popplewell? Ah, Bertram, you don't know; Popplewell is the name of the house belonging to Mr Ward, who is the father of these two pretty ladies. Give me leave to introduce my fellow-student at alma mater , Sir Thomas Bertram; Miss Ward, Miss Maria Ward, Miss Greenwood."
The ladies met the gentleman's punctilious bow with nonpareil curtsies.
"Popple is for poplar, I'm told, there was a well surrounded by trees in Mr Ward's land before it was built over. But, you see, 'well at Popplewell' - rather neat, eh, Bertram?"
His friend was saved from immediate necessity to express his opinion by the evident duty to ask Miss Ward for the honour of a dance. Mr Pumfret was obliged to finish his explanations for the benefit of Miss Greenwood, whom he led away, clarifying for her once again that he asked about the fields of Champney because of French champ meaning English "field" and coming here with the Normans. Miss Maria Ward followed them on the arm of a neighbour, Mr Tardew. That is, he never thought of such familiarity as offering her his arm to conduct her to the dance, but taking up the flap of his silk-lined coat, he placed it over his open palm, for the lady to rest the tips of her fingers on it, which she did very daintily.
As couple after couple finished the slow and solemn movements of the stately minuet, formal bows and curtsies, measured paces, forwards, backwards and sideways, and many complicated gyrations, they joined the surrounding spectators, to take part in admiration or criticism, or lively chat.
Mr Pumfret had time to enquire after Miss Ward's father and described his mother's state of health; Mrs Pumfret, getting frail and hard of hearing, seldom went to parties, and received few callers. Meanwhile Emma appropriated her partner.
"Have you been to Town lately, Sir Thomas?"
"No, ma'am. I have but recently returned from West Indies."
Julia would not suffer poaching.
"West Indies! How thrilling! Have you crossed the line? Do tell me. I believe there are all sorts of quaint customs when a ship is going beyond the equator."
"Very possibly, ma'am, but I did not witness them," answered he earnestly. "I have been to Antigua, which is seventeen degrees north latitude."
"The late Sir Thomas Bertram owned wide plantations in Antigua, but largely neglected them," Mr Pumfret interposed. "So my friend, coming into property, had to straighten things out."
"The business talk is hardly suitable to a ball-room," Sir Thomas observed gravely. "Let us find something of interest to the ladies." He turned to Julia. "Your sister treads the measure with remarkable elegance, Miss Ward."
"But I'm dying to hear about Antigua. One meets a girl who dances passably oftener than a traveller from distant parts. Reveal to us the wonders of the world, I beg of you."
Julia fluttered her eyelashes and flirted her fan in the most approved manner.
The gentleman looked concerned. "It is unfortunate that I feel hardly equal to the task, ma'am. There was nothing wonderful in my stay, that I can call to mind, and, I'm afraid, my revelations won't go further than any geography book."
"Now, Bertram, a lecture is not called for. It is amusement we crave, not learning. If you cannot remember a story, why, invent one."
It was obvious that Sir Thomas couldn't invent an amusing story; still, he could dance, and the ladies willingly forgave him. The gravity of his deportment lent him a peculiar dignity in minuet, and the voice of general opinion proclaimed him a man of high breeding, suitable to the head of such a house. The older ladies, who went through the stately dance in its earlier days, unitedly remembered the disused custom of their partners wearing dress swords, which put an end to doubts who had, and who had not, been used to good society. To wear the sword easily was an art which required to be learned in youth. Children could practice it with their toy swords adapted to their size. The younger ladies unanimously regretted that the head of a house was not yet the head of a family, which was not suitable at all.
An end being put to minuets, the benches were removed to make way for the country dances, meanwhile everyone drank tea. The tea-room was a small room within the card-room, in which two long tables were prepared. Mrs Ward always gave her daughters a caution to be at hand at the time, as she held it very important to have them both close to her when she moved into the tea-room.
It was always a pleasure of the company to have a little bustle and crowd when they thus adjourned for refreshment. Everybody ate freely and talked delightedly, and above the clatter of cups and the babble of voices, like a foghorn above breakers, Mr Pumfret's explanations were heard.
"A drum! An assembly is not a rout any more in London. 'A meeting of fashionable people, not unaptly stiled a drum, from the noise and emptiness'. Biting, eh? Not mine - Smollett. The more riotous of parties are called drum-majors. Very clever! I have a name for this: kettle-drum. See? 'Drum' for assembly, and 'kettle' for tea. Capital!"
Under cover of noise Mrs Ward inquired into enjoyment and success of her daughters and was glad to hear that Maria had promised to dance with Sir Thomas. Julia, however, was certain: her superior performance would attract more attention and more partners.
"Very nice, but you should remember to avoid any look of particularity, especially if you are asked twice. Well, I needn't tell you, Julia, - you are a hanging judge on propriety."
The dancing recommenced, with an old favourite Sir Roger de Coverley ; Miss Greenwood had the privilege to call. Miss Maria's partner came to claim her hand, and they joined the set, which was now rapidly forming. By unfortunate turn of circumstances both her sister and her friend stood above Miss Ward, but she was lucky in her temper and was not given to heart-burning and petty discontent - in public.
The double line of guests was now extended three quarters of the way down the ball-room. Emma, full of importance, skipped away down the centre. The two lines of dancers broke into the hop-and-skip step of the country dance in concert. Let the ceremonious French disdain anything that differed from such court-like measures that they had invented, and call high-paced jig, or hopskip rigadoon befitting only the brisk lasses at a rustic merrymaking - for stout English hearts the sport had just begun. The first couple turned out and led the dancers down. Sir Thomas, catching Maria's hand, stooped with her beneath the arch of arms and came triumphantly up to the top of the room, in a magnificent rustle of silk and satin. Hands clapped merrily. The first couple changed partners, Emma danced up to meet Sir Thomas.
"You have the prettiest partner in the room."
"Now... or now?"
He again gave his hand to Maria and led her down. Under their lifted arms the other couples passed. Right hand, left hand, both hands across, back to back, round you go and up the middle. Down the centre and up again, beneath the lengthening arch.
By such wordless understanding that comes between a dancing couple (and some people, fond of fancy comparisons even in a ball-room, say a married couple as well), Sir Thomas and Maria agreed to retire prematurely from their duties. At this no little indignation might be felt at the lower end of the room, as always when one of the leading couples did not condescend to dance up and down the whole set, but the lady preferred to consult her own convenience, and the gentleman was all that was courteous and thoughtful.
He brought her some negus to guard her from the cold that could ensue from her exertion.
"Even in Antigua, where the climate is generally warm, little varying with months, ladies are expected to catch cold at balls. They drink negus there, too, but, I dare say, with more spices that the landlady here thinks enough."
Maria thanked him with her slow, sweet smile of a contented being and wished to learn more about the balls in Antigua.
Sir Thomas began to gather his observations on different modes of dancing, but was intercepted by Miss Ward, who, using a little breathing-space, wanted to share her knowledge with him.
"Isn't Sir Roger the best of country-dances? Not for nothing it is called after that best of English squires, described in the Spectator . Don't you think, Sir Thomas, that it was a creation of genius?"
"As to this, ma'am, certainly. But the country dance called Roger of Coverly was well known before Addison's time."
His fair opponent did not find it safe or politic to break into counter-argument. Instead she hastened to join the whirl, where she considered herself unbeatable, feeling that she had left Sir Thomas to compare her cultivation of mind with Maria's lack of schooling.
So, when back at home, the sisters compared retrospections of the Assembly over the welcome soup in the dining-room, each declared having enjoyed the evening ever so much, and Julia went to bed pleasantly elated, and Maria - enchantingly dreamy.
The next morning should have brought a great many visitors, as always after a big gathering. In order to be ready, the ladies of the house had a hasty late breakfast, after which the girls dashed upstairs to remove curl-paper and altogether array themselves. It was easier, of course, for Mrs Ward, who could conceal hair that was not yet done under the mob-cap.
The first shreds were barely out, when the wheels of a carriage sounded below.
"Already?" exclaimed Julia, rushing into Maria's bedroom, which afforded better view of the drive, but was immediately assuaged. "It's only Uncle Leighton's phaeton. So early, he must be on business to Papa."
In the parlour William Leighton presented a beaming countenance to his sister and his brother-in-law, half-hidden in the Dutch-upholstered wing-chair, defying tiresome talks on affairs. True, Leighton began with innocuous inquiries after the health of every member of the family, and answered the similar questions about his heirs and assigns. But the dreaded moment struck all the same, and the attorney mentioned bids and plots of land.
"Popplewell used to be a country seat," Mr Ward grumbled. "Once it had only a dependent village at its doors. And now it founds outside all its doors a - a suburb."
"It's Progress, sir," Leighton parried habitually. "The numbers of people are rising with improvement of medicine, the towns are growing, the owners sell their land at a profit, and we lawyers have our share of bustle and importance, which is meat and drink to us. London's the same - the most remarkable developments are taking place. In the parks, gardens and estates beyond the city, where in the past the great noble families had their mansions, grow new streets and squares of town houses. Nothing squalid about them, all laid out in planned and organised geometrical forms. They are considered not the outskirts but the ornaments of the capital."
Mr Ward sighed resignedly.
"All I know is that the town came to stay with me, uninvited."
"It is not as bad as all that. Within the walls your inclosure keeps itself still entirely rural."
"Now, dear, there are advantages in living in a town. Consider:
people go miles from the country to town shops, while here one can step out of doors, and get a thing in five minutes."
"Have it your own way. Soon Huntingdon and Godmanchester will be one town, in spite of the Ouse river, and joy to you all. I feel my spleen rising; I know, I'm going to have the most terrible head-ache. No, Leighton, I'm of no use for business today. My dear, I shall stay the whole day in the library, don't call me before the dinner. And no visitors, please."
The unruffled attorney, who went through scores of such scenes before, and with good perseverance always emerged victorious, bowed his host out of the parlour. Mrs Ward looked at her brother piteously.
"That's what I have to put up with."
"Invalids are entitled to gentle handling."
Brother and sister exchanged discreet smiles.
"To be sure Mr Ward plays rather a better knife and fork at dinner than is usual with persons having that peculiar ailment, this is my only consolation."
William laughed good-naturedly.
"Remember your Scripture. The union of angels with women has been forbidden since the Flood."
He sat more comfortably and got out his snuff-box. He took a generous pinch from the back of his left hand in two business-like sniffs and flicked away the loose grains with a handkerchief, while his countenance remained completely unmoved.
"Well, Julie, how everything was yesterday? You understand, I must bring the full account of the young ladies' conquests to Jane. Where are they, by the way?"
"Dawdling with their curl-paper, I suppose."
"Oho-o!" William laughed anew. "The Spectator in olden times directed its powerful raillery against ladies appearing at the breakfast table with their hair en papillotes , and it has been of no avail, it seems. Never mind, they should please young gentlemen, and not their family, seeing them in all weathers."
"Jane's news was most timely. I sent Tilbrook to help the girls dress, and they looked very well. Sir Thomas Bertram danced minuet with Julia and country-dance with Maria, and I dare say, would have asked Julia for a country-dance, too, if Mr Pumfret's servant did not appear with an unconvincing tale of the passage being stopped by his vehicle. All those newfangled fashions of coming late and going early - fatuity and indolence, I call it."
"Many people will agree with you that a single man of a good fortune has a duty to be waited upon by every girl who desires to set her cap on him. A truth universally acknowledged, as they write in solemn treaties."
"There are girls enough on the catch for him if we sit idle. This Greenwood gypsy, to be sure."
"My dear Julie, I'd rather you do not fret yourself about unattainable things. Your daughters have seven thousand pounds apiece, a good portion, but Miss Greenwood has twice as much."
"Well, what of it? At seven thousand Julia is a heiress. Surely a baronet is not too good for her, with all the elegance and accomplishments she has."
"Hm! Speaking as a lawyer, I'd say she is at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to the match. I believe, Dr Johnson related the story of a friend of his, Mrs Thrale. During her youth her expectations went up and down, according to the humours of a rich uncle. When she was the intended heiress, all eyes turned to the eldest Radcliff boy; when her father behaved foolishly to the man with the money, sights were lowered and a younger brother was considered. In the end, out of favour completely, she was thought lucky to get Mr Thrale, a man of no family - a brewer, indeed - but with lots of money of his own and a handsome estate, and himself very handsome, the record goes."
"I see the moral of your tale, and I'm not an advocate for Gretna Green elopements. Of course, girls should know exactly what they may expect to inherit or have settled on them, and to understand in which circles to look for a husband. But I still think we are within our boundaries."
"Well, well... And your great hopes on Mr Pumfret - are they fulfilled yet?"
"Maria is a decided favourite with Mrs Pumfret."
"Now, in France that would be glad news; there the parents arrange for their children's marriages, a very sensible custom. But on this side of the Channel the young men do the deciding themselves. As it is... He is probably on the look-out for someone who can laugh at his jokes. I, for one, cannot understand them, and I greatly doubt that Maria can."
"In any case, he needs a listener, and Maria is a well brought-up girl, she won't interfere with him."
At this moment both interesting subjects of the engrossing family talk came into the parlour. The Miss Wards were attired for receiving visitors, that is, in well-chosen finery appearing as if they were always dressed like this when at home. Mr Leighton exchanged greetings with them and was gone.
Even before the accustomed hour Mr Tardew, a neighbour, appeared at the door, then visitors were on steady move. It was the way of the place always to call on Mrs Ward on the morning after a ball, and, of course, the gentlemen were obliged to call upon their partners of the previous evening with humble hopes that the ladies had caught no cold.
The morning passed quietly away in discussing the merits of the ball with all this succession of company, in praises of the fullness, brilliance and spirit of the meeting, especially from the card-players, though as they had been fixed the whole time at the same table in the same room, with an occasional change of chairs, it might have seemed a matter scarcely perceived. Miss Ward had the satisfaction of putting everyone right in doubts concerning anybody's dress or anybody's place at supper, but Miss Maria appeared to have seen little of what passed, and to have but slight curiosity of exact sequence of events. She took part in the conversation with her soft encouraging "yes - yes - very well - did you? - did he? - I did not see that", so there was perfect good humour in her and others.
In a short pause between callers Julia was at once astonished by finding it was two o'clock, and they had still seen nothing of Mr Pumfret and his guest. If she had not been the paragon of decorum, commanding the first society in the neighbourhood, looked-up to perhaps as leading it even more than those of larger fortune, she would have walked to the window to examine the street. She might on occasion envy Maria's languid ease, her not knowing what impatience was, but she could not stay passive with turning up of the circumstances so advantageous. Her beauty, and accomplishments, and good sense shall won her the rank worthy of her, and even if the newcomer's stay won't prove long enough to discover her value - who knows with these great people! - then Mr Pumfret must be made to feel that he is not the only fish in the sea. Those pleasant reflections were interrupted by the light sound of a carriage driving up the door, and somewhat louder sound of the voice confronting the butler with the question whether all were well in Popplewell.
Mr Pumfret and Sir Thomas Bertram were shortly afterwards announced. The former paid his compliments to each of the ladies with no unbecoming ease, and continuing to address himself to Mrs Ward, presented her a note, which he had the honour of bringing her from Mrs Greenwood, on whom they had called earlier. He accomplished his task almost before his friend was through with dignified approaches and stately bows.
Mrs Ward opened the note immediately, announcing that she saw no use for ceremony in front of her own daughters and the son of a friend of long standing.
"It is only a short invitation for my girls and myself to visit her for tea-drinking. I thank you profoundly, Mr Pumfret. The answer can wait," she mused as if thinking aloud, "though I could have asked for kind help of my guests. But, insignificant as our humble abode is comparing to Champney Manor, there is no lack of servants to run errands."
The gentlemen did not omit to ask after everyone's health and were properly grieved that they couldn't wait upon Mr Ward.
"But you - I needn't have inquired - you eclipse the brilliance of the morning."
Mr Pumfret had already repeated this particular phrase in more than one house, but he could be justified by its being true, because all the ladies were bright and eager to discuss the ball.
"How long did you keep it up, after Pumfret and I went away?"
Sir Thomas had already heard the answer to this particular question in more than one house, but he could be justified by its being directed at Maria.
"We had two dances more."
"It is making it too much of a fatigue, I think, to stay so late."
Maria admired him for comprehension, at least she looked it. A stitch, that dancing gave her sometimes, was on her lips, but Julia exclaimed, "Fatigue, Sir Thomas! Not a sign of it. The set was quite as full as ever, there seemed no vacancy anywhere, and everybody danced with uncommon spirit to the very last."
Sir Thomas expressed his pleasure at the company having had so much enjoyment. While his measured speech kept Miss Ward's at bay, Mr Pumfret turned to Maria.
"We had a famous ball, a good beginning for the whole winter. We can only hope that November will be just as fortunate. If we shall have any November, that is." An enlightened expression, the stormy petrel of his elaborate jokes, settled on his animated features. "Imagine, Miss Maria, I've known places where November comes before October."
The girl simply smiled and shook her head incredulously; but her sister evidently decided that the orator needed more encouragement.
"November before October! Fie, Mr Pumfret! How is it possible? Why, even Louisa, my dear little cousin, has learnt already the order of months. But then she is a very sensible girl, and never tears her frocks. I'm excessively proud of her."
She turned an affectionate glance heavenwards and delicately heaved her "angelic" sigh.
"I assure you, Miss Ward," Mr Pumfret insisted. "I can prove it. It is written in black-and-white that November comes before October... In A Dictionary! Ha-ha-ha! That's a denouement! Admit that you did not expect it. November follows October in the calendar, but the word 'November' begins with 'N', which precedes 'O' in the alphabet. Uncommonly catching!"
Mr Pumfret was not through with his explanations, indeed he looked ready to recite the complete ABC for edification of the company, but Miss Ward discovered that behind her back Sir Thomas began a chat with her sister. On Antigua balls, too, - but what to expect from trifling Maria. So she silenced the wit with a dainty shaking of a finger.
"Oh, you sad, sad joker. I shouldn't give attention to you when I ought to improve my mind by imbibing knowledge of the wide world."
With the expression of the liveliest interest, and sometimes unfeigned excitement she was listening to Sir Thomas's matter-of-fact description how in the tropics the social life was regulated by seasonal hurricanes of West Indies.
Maria remarked quietly, "Dear me! how disagreeable. I wonder anybody can live there," and turned a compassionate glance on Sir Thomas.
He acknowledged her naive solicitude with a quick flash of a smile. His solemn countenance looked boyish for a second, but his answer was as sedate as ever.
"Yet people do live there. I mean not just overseers on plantations, but men of fortune and education. In fact, Sir Ralph Payne, the Governor of the Leeward Islands, made an observation in my presence that Antigua had much advantage of the other islands in point of an independent and respectable inhabitancy."
Mrs Ward also promoted the talk.
"Are there cities, or do they live in the country all the year round?"
"Mostly on their estates, ma'am, but the island can be justly proud of the capital - Fort St John's. I was told that it had been severely damaged by a fire not a dozen years ago, but I saw no traces of it."
Miss Ward wanted more elevated exchange of opinions.
"But do the owners look after saving the poor Negroes' souls? Is the gospel being preached among the unenlightened heathens?"
"The Moravian brethren had been active there since my father's time. The planters naturally give every encouragement to the missionaries' work," Sir Thomas replied just as gravely.
As much piety as allowed to a well-behaved girl seeped to Julia's eyes.
"It must be s source of great joy to the masters that they fulfil their Christian duty."
"I wish all the slaves may be truly converted, for this will render them far more honest and punctual in their work, than any punishment."
The prescribed quarter of an hour for a call was soon over, and some of the ladies could be sure of good impressions made.
The Miss Wards were particularly busy in the morning. Julia took up a slate and was engrossed in composing and correcting an offhand note to Emma Greenwood. Fanny hammered scales on the spinet with Miss Dorey beating time over her inattentive fingers. Maria sat on a sofa doing a long piece of needlework.
The beginning of the letter formed well at once. "I'm taking a pen in haste while it is Maria's turn for having her hair brushed preliminary to donning the clothes of festivity for the sweet toils of friendship, in order to jot down a few observations on the Assembly, the pleasure of attending the same we had on the 16th inst." She re-read it and hastily crossed "jot down", putting in "communicate" instead. The august rolling sentence looked even better.
She scribbled happily for some time, then paused, wrote a few tentative words, wiped them forcibly, dashed off again, stuck completely and in her desperation tried to seek advice from humbler quarters.
"Maria, what do you think will be a nicer expression, 'the ladies of a more elevated life and conversation', or 'the ladies that move in an exalted sphere of knowledge and virtue'?"
"I'm sure, sister, you will make the best choice," she answered without even bothering to lift her eyes from the infinite fringe.
The busy writer, having got the only help she expected or wanted, finally decided on "the ladies that join all the beauties of the mind to the elegance of dress". Maria was spared the fatigue of describing the ladies in question, and, after all, one bas bleu is very much like another blue stocking.
Then it was Maria who broke the industrious silence.
"This fringe is getting uneven somehow, I don't understand why. Miss Dorey, will you have a look at it?"
She watched with polite attention while the governess disentangled her work, showing where a necessary stitch or a crucial loop was lost, thanked her with a pleased smile and continued to apply her needle quietly. Fanny was returned to the hated exercise, sighing, and the spinet sounded as if it would never cease jangling. Nor did it, for even when the child was turned out to her books, Miss Ward took a seat and began to rehearse the newest song, recently published in Les Amours de Silvano . She repeated diligently, " Ah! vous dirai-je, maman ", until Mr Ward's voice was heard, roused by the urgency of occasion far above its usual feebleness.
"My dear, tell Julia that you do not want to hear from her, or my head will split."
The aggrieved girl suspired, but stopped prudently, saving her breath to cast pearls before more appreciative audience.
"I expect a great feast of quintessence," she confided to Maria, when their hair was really brushed for a visit.
"Mrs Greenwood keeps a very good table, I dare say."
Julia could only shake her head in dismay, which unfortunately caused a shower of hair-pins. The elaborate arrangement of curls had to be restored in haste, and she found herself in real danger to be blamed for their being late because of Mrs Ward's tarrying in the dressing-closet.
At last the ladies were duly driven to the doors of Champney Manor and led to the boudoir, where the mistress of the house and her daughter were expecting them.
Popplewell was a nice, if old-fashioned, house, well furnished and fitted up at the time of Mr Ward's wedding, but it could offer nothing like this boudoir. The octagonal room was decorated most elegantly, in white paper, bordered by pink silk with white and gold flowers stuck upon it; window curtains were of pink linen with white silk fringes.
Mrs Greenwood, though a very friendly woman, had a reserved air, and a great deal of formal civility. She met her guests in state, and invited them immediately to sit at a Pembroke table, its flaps extended to the utmost, bending under all the paraphernalia of a generous reception.
"I'm afraid, Mrs Ward, you will find our beaufet too scanty."
"On the contrary, Mrs Greenwood, we all know that it is in the customs of high-life to avoid anything vulgarly ostentatious, such as a heaped-up tea-tray."
While Emma and Julia exchanged their greetings and letters, a neat maidservant brought a japanned tea-caddy to her mistress. She opened it with a small key on her chatelaine, measured aromatic pekoe by a spoonful and gave directions for brewing it.
When the beverage was ready, Mrs Greenwood filled the cups using an old-fashioned silver saucer pierced through with holes. Mrs Ward, who paraded little silver basket-strainer at her tea-parties, remarked upon the quick change in manners of tea-preparing.
"It is a family relic, reminding of the times when tea was first introduced to England and only people of quality were acquainted with it. Nowadays, of course, every tradesman's or farmer's wife can drink it. You girls probably cannot imagine its use. The leaves were taken out of the teapot and placed on this strainer, and then eaten by those who liked with sugar and butter. And very good they were. I remember distinctly my father taking them occasionally against his insomnia."
Old customs are but a flat subject to discuss when there is the latest ball to be talked over, and the ladies soon were at it, with all the heightenings of imagination and all the laughs of playfulness which are so essential to the shade of a departed ball. Apropos of snipping "little Cupids", macaroons sopped in brandy, Mrs Ward politely recollected what it was that Lady Prescott had noticed in Emma; Mrs Greenwood over her piece of seed-cake was not sure whether Colonel Harrison had been talking of Julia or Maria, when he said she was the finest young woman in the room, but that much she herself had heard distinctly. Somebody had whispered something or other to Emma, Julia could relate at length about one of the Miss Maddoxes, and it was a pleasure indeed to mix into their tea-bread hopes and smiles, bustle and motion, noise and brilliancy in the Assembly room, and out of the Assembly room, and everywhere.
Though the most important talk was not begun until the cloth was removed, and the young ladies drifted to the other end of the room to admire a flower arrangement, leaving their mothers to the usual conversation upon cards, servants, relations, pedigrees.
"How did you like Mr Pumfret's friend?" Julia rushed in. "Is he not gentlemanlike and quite handsome? But his complexion is appalling, so brown and coarse."
"Being in the tropics, he probably couldn't help it," Maria remarked.
"I grant you that, but he has so much countenance, and his teeth are so good, and he is so well made, that one soon forgets his tan that, I agree, is out of ordinary," was Emma's well-qualified opinion, as dark-complexioned herself.
"He has most dignified, consistent manners," Miss Ward brought forth with inner satisfaction.
"Well, yes, but I suppose, his reserve may be a little repulsive. At least Mr Pumfret said something to this purpose, when we were dancing," Emma insisted.
"This is, perhaps, due to having seen him so seldom after their studying together at Oxford. Men, I'm afraid, don't understand the sweetness of sensibility, of opening up the innermost secrets of the heart to a chosen friend; that is why they refrain from divulging their reflections and cordial thoughts, be it in ever so harmonious company."
"I like to hear him talk of the West Indies. I could listen to him for an hour together."
But the two friends, well versed in modern romances, refused to be diverted from an elevated path by such ungenteel simplicity. Sensibility was the banner of the day, and romantic heiresses sighed with Lydia Languish about so sentimental elopements, so becoming disguises, so amiable ladders of ropes, conscious moon, four horses, Scotch parson - and oh, such surprise to relations, such paragraphs in the newspapers. Failing that, the special licence and top-secret ceremony with only the parson and a couple of witnesses was very stylish indeed; Emma had at the tips of her fingers numerous cases among the highest and the greatest, including the King's brothers. If the marriage could then be kept secret for several days - the lucky ones managed months - the very pinnacle of bon ton was achieved.
Nor was sensibility just a fashion to follow, it was an art to cultivate. To be accepted as truly sensitive among the circle of devotees demanded considerable discernment and tact: how to be properly enraptured, to what limits to be transported, when to be ecstatic and when merely agitated, in what subtle ways to reveal tender emotion.
"Of course, one ought to be overcome by the awful solemnity. Palpitations to show that it affects one deeply, or will trembling suffice, how do you think, dear?"
"Nothing to show being distressed beyond words like a timely swoon. Opinions may differ, but to my mind vapeurs d'Omphale are the most expressive. To fall down to all appearance lifeless, overpowered by sensibility, is to show oneself from the best side."
"There is much to say for convulsions, if not spoiled by a hurry. Les spasmes de Nina , if one has patience enough to recover from a fit before one falls into another, is as good a succession of fainting-fits, as any."
"And what do you think is the nicest smelling-bottle?"
"Oh, spirit of lavender, without doubt; one recovers so much slower than with that vulgar hartshorn!"
"Yes, it is a great advantage. Though aromatic vinegar, especially together with bathing one's temples with Hungary water, is most beneficial, too."
"Certainly, then one needs two persons attending."
"Maria, but you are sleeping! Be sure, Emma dear, when you see this particular dreamy smile on her face, she is settling into a doze with her eyes open."
"What is the matter? I was not asleep. Only you were holding forth so fluently, it was difficult for me to follow. You remember, Julia, from a child upwards I could never understand being read aloud to."
"Yet you should pay attention to the subject at least. How do you expect to shine in society without learning faints?"
"I am seldom, if ever, in a flutter, I'll never be able to do it properly," Maria admitted humbly.
"If you don't want to make a small effort, don't expect the men accustomed to higher circles to take notice of you."
Emma, the authority on aristocracy, supported her opinion, throwing in her own prescription for tears of ideal. So in the carriage Julia's explanations and castigations kept her tongue busy to the very gate-house of Popplewell. Nobody remonstrated; in the autumnal dusk Mrs Ward enjoyed a restful nap, and Maria nodded with a sweet penitent smile.
Continued in Part 2
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