Tom and Maria
The next few days slipped away uneventfully. Nothing more exiting happened than a sudden rain which held the Miss Wards at a milliner's for the best part of an hour, an accident to Julia's dredger that scattered white sand all over the room, and pigs almost got into the garden.
Then Mrs Ward came to the decision that they were neglecting poor Mrs Pumfret, spending her lonely hours cut from society of her friends, and decreed a morning visit. It was only civil, and had no connection with what guests might be staying at the house at a time. Her daughters stoically endured being called an hour earlier than usual, bedecked harder than ever, and churned for eight miles of a country road.
Mrs Pumfret received the visitors in the sun-lit morning room, pleasant with light wall-paper, soft carpets and easy chairs. She was accompanied by her faithful attendants: Malmsey, her pug, a very strong-minded little lady, and Mrs Caddock, a dithery old dame de compagnie, who had sundry accomplishments and especially excelled in grinding snuff tobacco.
The guests were given a warm welcome and bid to make themselves comfortable. Maria was invited to share Mrs Pumfret's sofa; immediately Malmsey climbed from her mistress's knees into that sweet-smelling young lady's lap. After a long succession of visits she made her mind: the others would certainly jump to their feet, some without warning, but not that one. You knew where you were with her. Mrs Pumfret's feelings were exactly the same. The others talked incessantly, making her strain her hearing and understanding, but not Maria; she could listen very intelligently, or just join in companionable silence, her good nature found expression well enough in her sweet eloquent look.
For ages the climate of the British Isles afforded material for never-ending, amusing and agreeable conversation. Mrs Ward's solid remarks, Julia's poetic allusions, Mrs Caddock's loud repetitions persuaded Mrs Pumfret that the morning was beautiful, as her own eyes attested.
"Yes, a fine day. My son and Sir Thomas are shooting from the crack of dawn. The housekeeper told me, they went out so early, they took their breakfast in the kitchen."
Julia was trying not to show how a delicate sensibility could be pained by a mention of such an inelegant place. Of course, in real life one had to go and give directions, the servants would do nothing right without proper scolding, but at least one might refer to it as "sanctuary of home". Mrs Ward, though, threw a glance, warning to keep off her finicky ways, that brought her to her senses faster than sal volatile.
"I like fine weather better than rain," Maria confided. "It showered the other day, when Julia and I were out."
"My dear, did you get wet? It is most unhealthy, especially in autumn winds."
"Oh no, Mrs Pumfret," Julia explained triumphantly. "My sister unintentionally led you to a false conclusion. Actually for the whole duration of inclement weather we were under the shelter of Mrs Fraser's boutique, so we were able to preserve our equanimity in anticipating the cessation of the downpour."
Mrs Pumfret's troubled look turned to her companion.
"During the rain they waited quietly at the milliner's," Mrs Caddock mouthed.
"I'm glad that you were safe," the old lady smiled and patted Maria's hand.
"But it was vexing all the same. There was nothing we needed to buy, and nowhere to sit down."
"And then you had to walk home through puddles without pattens to protect your shoes. I hope you had good sense to put your feet into hot water directly on coming."
If Julia's delicacy was hurt because Mrs Pumfret, with her old-fashioned bluntness, insisted on using that uncouth word for "extremities", her pride suffered agonies; she would have given anything to insinuate without actually telling a lie that they were always conveyed in a carriage or a sedan-chair at least. The problem proved too difficult even for her glib tongue. She felt wretched, and no one paid any attention; in fact, her own mother and Mrs Caddock plunged into animated discussion of mustard plasters, linseed poultices, coltsfoot teas and other homely remedies with a fame of loosening a tight cough overnight.
A well-bred young lady would consider her dignity compromised by the slightest expression of surprise or dismay, and Julia eyed Maria with grudging admiration, as she just sat there, stroking the lap-dog, keeping undisturbed silence. It came natural to her, along with the knack of looking as if the latest fashion was nothing new to her. Julia anxiously raked her brain for something gracious to interrupt the flow of vulgar talk, but couldn't find anything, and held her tongue, too.
The fair damsel was saved from her distress by two gallant knights: Mr Pumfret and Sir Thomas returned from shooting and came in to pay their respects to the lady of the manor and her visitors. They were in excellent mood, and without waiting for questions about the day's sport Mr Pumfret described what copses they had taken with high expectations on success, for they brought home six braces between them, and boasted that they might each had killed six times as many, but they would wish to find the woods no worse stocked any other time. This pressing information, mixed with praise of his dogs, his jealousy of his neighbours, his doubts of their qualification, and his zeal after poachers, reduced the bright room to dullness. If such subjects find their way to female feelings, it must be because of some talent on one side, or some attachment on the other. He succeeded in involving Julia, but nobody else.
Mrs Ward and Mrs Caddock after a decent pause resumed their medical disputation, and even Mrs Pumfret, whose seat was too far from her son's position in the room to hear him comfortably, turned to Maria. Sir Thomas looked as if he might join them, but Julia strategically intercepted him, now with intelligent questions about qualification, which determined who had the right to kill game, now with ready count of his doubtless plentiful pheasants. When Mr Pumfret's spirits overflowed the conversation again, and he was at liberty to look elsewhere, he glanced with grave approval at the sofa, where Miss Maria listened with perfect civility to the old lady, never betraying any sign of impatience to join the young people. It was more than good manners, it was real kindness, that Sir Thomas Bertram, who possessed the general wish of doing right, could understand and admire.
She gazed in his direction, encompassing him in her warm smile, and he began talking twice as slowly, though describing Mansfield Woods, which he had known like the palm of his hand since childhood.
With many apologies Mrs Ward got up and reluctantly announced that they had to go in order to be home for dinner, it wouldn't do to make Mr Ward wait. At this point Julia was torn between vexation and rejoicing, for she had tried and tried to persuade her parents to dine at a later hour, ever since she had heard Emma's complaints that London dinners began so late, it made one positively hollow waiting for them. Mr Ward mocked her with a famous adage on Parisian ladies, described as never seeing sunlight, for they awoke at sunset and returned from balls at sunrise; while he would prefer to eat when he could see his food plainly. They were stuck at three o'clock, that was considered still a very late hour among the people with whom they chiefly mixed, and Miss Ward had to bore with what patience she could muster, that she, though of course superior in mental powers and cultivation, was thought on the same level as far as refinement went.
"I'm sorry it happens so, but you know what early hours we keep," she hurried to explain to Mr Pumfret and turned to Sir Thomas with an arch smile. "So, you see, our humbler style must be opened to the ridicule of grander people."
Sir Thomas expressed in few words that nothing was further from his intention, as strongly as the reserve of his manner permitted.
Maria's simpler mind (or, arguably, juster reason) saved her from such mortification; she gently removed sleeping Malmsey from her lap to a sunny spot on a cushion and stood up ready to follow her mother, who was making adieux to Mrs Pumfret.
"I really hope to persuade you to dine at Popplewell one of these days. I'm afraid you stay at home too much. Of course, I think of an informal dinner, just my family and yours. Mr Ward will be glad to converse with well-informed gentlemen; you know that he almost never leaves his rooms now, so you will do him a great kindness."
The lady's soft heart felt for another lonely person, and it needed only a little more pressure, just mentioning what a nice diversion would it be for invaluable Mrs Caddock, for her to agree and a very near day to be named.
Mrs Ward wanted her dinner to be irreproachable. Though at all times she had more good will than method in her guidance of the house, and she had nothing to do with the mysteries of the stew-pot or the preserving-pan, she did not lack determination.
It was soon decided that nothing less than two courses would be good enough for a man on whom she had such anxious designs, or satisfy the appetite and pride of a baronet.
"I'm glad it will be the day on which fish is delivered. Besides - we'll have potatoes, let them know that we are acquainted with what is new and fashionable."
Mr Ward was astonished.
"But, my dear - potatoes are to be eaten only with roast meat. You do not mean to feed me with roasted, think of what it will do to my headache."
But Mrs Ward took the steering wheel of the household firmly in her hands.
"My dear Mr Ward, if you do not feel equal to roasted venison, there will be partridges and fish. And I must find my grandmother's receipt for tansey-pudding. It was her particular dish, and she bequeathed the receipt to her descendants."
"Dos est magna parentium virtus," Mr Ward quoted for his own gratification, as no one else was listening to him.
"It is really superior and was always held in high estimation, and I defy Sir Thomas to have tasted a better one, though he may have two or three French cooks at least. Now for dessert..."
"I'm sure the cook can try her hand at marchpane," Julia suggested. "Almonds and sugar are needed, that's all, and it can be made into figures and fancy decorations."
"My child, you really must learn to consider your guests before your pet ideas. A plain spiced cake will be more to gentlemen's taste, and old ladies prefer almonds in blanc-manger."
"Well, if the question of gentlemen's taste is raised, I think I have claret to impress the most discerning palate. Though Dr Johnson considered that claret was the drink for boys, port for men, and brandy for heroes."
"And all of them are considered somewhat indelicate, sir, I'm afraid."
"I'm aware of it. That's why men consume them when ladies leave the table, with cheese, which, I believe, is indelicate also. Don't you be afraid, Julia. Your father is not a country bumpkin and is quite able to choose suitable white wine to be served at the meal itself."
The efforts were not in vain. The dinner was as well dressed as any, on which much thought, and money, and work had been spent. The venison was roasted to a turn, and everybody agreed they never saw so fat a haunch. Even Mr Ward was tempted to try a piece from a leaner part, without harmful consequences to his constitution. The soup was fifty times better than any soup you could get at any other house, as Sir Thomas consented on questioning, and Mr Pumfret acknowledged even without prompting that the partridges were remarkably well done. Julia's apprehension that the guests would experience some evil from the passing of the servants behind the chairs or among so many dishes but that some must be cold did not come true.
The meeting was generally felt to be a pleasant one, being composed in a good proportion of those who would talk and those who would listen. It was enough for Mr Ward to remark to his honoured right-hand neighbour, Mrs Pumfret, that he loved everything that was old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine - and she, in the best of humours, delivered a spirited speech in defence of old customs.
"Where I see the most change - is in the modern familiarity, with which children treat their parents, or in fact anybody else. Although an only child, I had never dared to sit down in my parents' presence without leave, till I was married. In my days, when we wrote to our fathers and mothers, we began 'Honoured Sir', or 'Honoured Madam'; and we ruled off our margin before beginning our letters, instead of cramming writing into every corner of the paper; and when we ended our letters we asked our parents' blessing; and if we wrote to a friend we were content to 'remain your affectionate friend', instead of hunting up some now-fangled expression, such as 'your attached', 'your loving' or what not. My dear Maria, I repeat myself, we were speaking on the matter on the occasion of your visit, you remember."
"It is always a pleasure to call on you, ma'am, and listen to your entertaining stories," Maria answered readily, and though it was no more than was expected of her, by the mere aid of a good-humoured smile she made it sound eager and sincere.
Mrs Ward offered the grandmother's famous tansey-pudding to her guests, with which Mrs Caddock had something to say about old cooking.
"The puddings then were not light matters, the receipts usually asked for thirty eggs, two quarts of cream, and other things in proportion."
"A really brobdingnagian pudding," Mr Pumfret exclaimed laughing. "As in Gulliver's Travels, you understand, Brobdingnag, a country of huge people, who alone would be able to do justice to such a morsel."
"Oh no, you may be sure that ordinary people finished them very successfully. The households were larger those days, and the afternoon meal, before the introduction of tea, generally consisted of cakes and cold puddings, together with a glass of what we should now call liqueur, but which was then denominated bitters."
"Our grandmothers must have been strong-headed women," Mr Ward joined in. "Once, in idle curiosity, I perused an old receipt-book, dating back to the middle of the sixteenth century. There were numerous receipts for 'ladies' beverages', generally beginning with 'Take a gallon of brandy, or any other spirit'."
The ladies laughed, shook their heads, raised their hands and turned the accusation down. Everyone felt better for unpretentious neighbourly chat, except poor Julia, whose erudition and refinement were not called for. To her the table-talk was insipid, and the period which passed in the withdrawing-room before the gentlemen came was wearisome and dull to a degree that almost made her uncivil.
The company joined together again. Mrs Pumfret, Mrs Caddock, Mr and Mrs Ward made up the Whist table; they being safely seated at the table of prime intellectual state and dignity, the young people, under Miss Ward's direction, were arranged round the other, to amuse themselves as best they could.
Cards were rejected almost at once, after ombre and quadrille were mentioned half-heartedly.
"No real conversation at them."
"I don't know Spadille from Manille - a capital rhyme, eh?"
"Papa plays cribbage with me sometimes, but it is for two players."
"I see a spinet over there. Is it safe to suggest that the ladies will sing for us?"
Then came Miss Ward's hour of triumph. She treated the guests to the full sound of "Vous dirai-je, maman", and played accompaniment to Maria's simple country air with much expression and eclat. And all gratitude she got for her accomplished performance, was Mrs Ward coming to her with low-voiced warning about her father's head. Just at the moment, too, when she was through with pretty fluttering of uncertainty which most spoken ariette to plunge into.
They returned to the table, and a mysterious pack of small cards, tied by a pink ribbon, with a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper, ornamented with cyphers and trophies, were brought forward by Miss Ward.
"We may try our wits against some riddles from my collection, or would you like conversation cards?"
Sir Thomas turned to Miss Maria, waiting for her decision with true civility, but the young lady was not accustomed to being applied to for her own choice.
"Julia, which will amuse me most?"
While her sister patiently constructed a suitable answer, that would not disgrace herself in public, Mr Pumfret enthusiastically proposed a riddle.
"Why is a wig like a battle? This is for you, Bertram. You still wear wigs."
His friend considered carefully.
"It is better to compare one's wig to a battle, than one's own head - because they both take much powder."
"What will you say, ladies? He is right! And even more - he shows vitriolic wit, against which I must find some way to defend myself."
Julia was ready to praise, though she did not forget to point out that she had the answer on the tip of her tongue.
There was no holding Mr Pumfret now, and he announced a most exquisite charade.
"What flower is that which bears the Virgin's name,
The richest metal joined with the same?"
Silence descended upon them.
"Oh, it is not even new. John Gay brought it in The Shepherd's Week. 'This riddle, Cuddy, if thou can'st, explain...' I was almost afraid you had it already in your well-known collection, Miss Ward. And you, Miss Maria, the first part is your own name, I'm sure you will show kindness to the whole."
"As the richest metal is gold," Julia slowly began, "the word must be marigold, the flower."
Her cleverness was proved beyond any doubt, but instead of congratulations she heard bothersome complaining - and from a sister, too, who ought to be rejoicing at her success.
"You misled me, Mr Pumfret; why, my name is Maria, not Mary," this young lady said with a puzzled frown.
"Poetic licence! Actually, your name is nearer to Our Lady's original name, than 'Mary' that we call her. It is, in Latin. I can bring a fresh proof, it is quite amusing. You remember Norris, don't you, Bertram? Of course, you do - there never were two such bookworms at one time in Oxford as both of you. I ran against him the other day in Town, and what do you think? He was commissioned by a fellow clergyman - Norris took orders, you know - to look after publication of a piece of Latin poetry. The carmen was on his friend's wife, who figured away as 'Maria' in verse, and 'Molly' in dedication. You watch the 'Gentleman's Magazine', it will surely appear there."
Sir Thomas was inclined to Miss Maria's side. He also didn't recognise the yellow-orange calendula in the humble heroine of the childish rhyme. True to human nature, we like the riddle we guessed, and are always ready to turn down the one on which we gave up. But he struggled to give impartial judgement.
"Yes, it is nearer, though more in writing than in pronunciation."
Miss Ward thought that it was high time for other names to be brought forward.
"I can give another example. My mother was called Julie in her youth; we have the same name. Right at that time the Rousseau's Julie ou Nouvelle Heloise was published - ah, what a sublime novel!"
This soulful exclamation was directed chiefly at Sir Thomas, and he measured his opinion scrupulously, "I have read it in translation only, probably some important merits were lost on me; I have found it, as I remember, highly charged with most improbable sentiments, expressed twenty times over, and wanting in structure."
"The eloquence, Sir Thomas, the eloquence demands repetitions and figures of speech, but it does not seem tedious when put down in French language."
"Julia is right; the letters always repeat themselves, and it makes them so very long. I hope their writers have a lot of friends in Parliament to frank them."
"Maria, it is very stupid of you," hissed her sister graciously. "They don't have Parliament's privilege in France."
"All the worse for them! So heroes and heroines had to pay good money for those stacks of letters - I say, it must have cost a pretty penny, considering the size of publications, French and English together! In fact, perusing Richardson, one will think that letter-writing was at the time the main occupation of men and especially women."
"You cannot be serious, Mr Pumfret. The novels are long, but consider what torrents of incident are revealed in them, what minutely repeated conversations, sometimes of twenty years ago, what deeply penetrating descriptions of characters' motives. And if sometimes an author lets himself to be diverted from the story, it is for a commendable moral lesson."
"The length was pecuniary profitable, but awkward in some circumstances. I'll tell you a very refreshing anecdote, a true account that was related to me by one of the humbler participants. While Clarissa was still being published (you see where the length comes in), it chanced that Mr Richardson encountered Mr Fielding at a Hounslow inn and they had dinner together. Warmed a little with liquor, he spoke boastfully of his unequalled fame and the numerous letters and visitors to his bookshop, begging him to spare Clarissa; in fact, he couldn't receive an invitation to a dish of tea, but it was made conditional upon his sparing Clarissa. I can well imagine those supplicants, dissolved in tears, also I can believe that Mr Richardson wasn't slow to mention the price of glory to his rival. After the bill was paid, Mr Fielding pleaded some affair in town and rode ahead. The other followed at a more sober pace. What was his indignation when first a turnpikeman declined to open the gate, unless he would spare Clarissa, and a little after a horseman rode up to him, clapped a pistol to his head, demanding his money or his life, or - you guessed it - that he should spare Clarissa. Mr Richardson was not harmed, but he was greatly annoyed. At home at last, he went early to bed, but was awoke about two in the morning by a concourse of very harsh and tuneless singers, who brayed at the pitch of their voices, 'Spare us Clarissa, Richardson O!' to the tune of Lillibullero. The next morning many neighbours came to the bookshop and complained with much asperity of what they had endured. Mr Richardson was yet engaged in mollifying them, when a street singer struck up before his place of business the very song. At this Mr Richardson was so transported out of himself that he ran headlong out of his house and struck the singer in the face. The man returned the blow; there arose an instant hubbub; and before Mr Richardson could at all collect his spirits, he was being borne along in custody, without hat or wig and with a bloody nose, toward the court. Mr Fielding was upon the bench. He would hear his defence, but upon one condition: that he spared Clarissa."***
"It shows only the envy of that man Fielding," Julia announced the moment Mr Pumfret's laugh stopped. "People were concerned about Clarissa, but no one would turn a hair if Tom Jones went to the gallows. And I don't remember that Fielding's novels are short, though they are not in epistolary style. I believe it was Dr Johnson who said that both Fielding and Smollett knew the husk of life perfectly well, yet for the kernel - you must go to either Richardson or Rousseau."
She permitted herself a small dignified smirk, but her opponent shook his head coolly.
"That was his friend Mrs Thrale, Johnson said that if you were to read Richardson for the story your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself."
At this point Julia received unexpected re-enforcement from the other end of the room. Mr Ward, making use of a pause in his game, called out, "Dr Johnson seemed to be of two opinions, as he also believed that there was more knowledge of the human heart in one letter of Richardson's than in all of Tom Jones."
"Precisely!" Miss Ward sent her father a brilliant smile. "You are silent, Sir Thomas. Tell us your opinion in this controversy."
"I agree with both sides, English literature produced real giants; but still I cannot help thinking that most things in modern novels cry for the touchstone of good sense. Maybe I wish for another kind of writer, whose aim is character, not incident, and who never uses the characters as pegs for ethical or metaphysical doctrines. The novel does not need to be long or varied, but its matter ought to be thoroughly known to the narrator. Most of all, I wish for that sense of balance and proportion, as shined in classical Greece."
"I hope this writer of yours will have a good deal of humour, too," exclaimed his friend, "the sharpest and most delicate of wit. Never mind, perhaps the wonder child is born already and in no time some of us will find their way into a novel."
Julia shuddered inwardly. Much as she cherished the idea of herself being a perfect heroine for a three-volume novel with a gloriously fortunate and moral end, she had a distinct feeling that she would not like to be put on paper by such unconventional writer.
"Meanwhile we must do with what we have. Please, Mr Pumfret, tell me again John Gay's riddle, I want to join it to my collection."
While the gentleman obligingly dictated the verse word after word for Miss Ward to put down, Sir Thomas asked Miss Maria politely, "What writers do you like?"
She raised her tranquil eyes to his and answered matter-of-factly, "Julia reads faster than I, she is always ahead of me and tells me what books to take, or Papa reads aloud to me. Emma once advised me to write out from Sir Charles Grandison to develop my style, but I finished one passage only."
The passage was the long description of Miss Harriet Byron's wedding-clothes, and certainly gratifying to all young ladies, even to those without high intellectual purposes.
By and by the young people turned idly to the conversation cards, forgotten on the table. Sir Thomas was asked by Miss Ward, reading faithfully from a slip of cardboard, "Can you tell what those dearest to you think of you at this present time?" - and read back in amiable earnestness, "How can you expect me to reveal such a secret to the present company?"
"Julia composed them by herself and gave me to write down."
"This does not answer very well, but it is difficult to make the answers fit all and any of the questions." Julia assumed her "modest" expression which revealed better than any words could: the greatest of her perfections was that she was entirely insensible of them herself.
"You write in a delicate hand."
No, the conversation cards were not so good an idea, after all.
The company finished the evening looking over prints at Mr Ward's zograscope. Being somewhat short-sighted, and sharing the common prejudice against spectacles, he had to use this complicated combination of a mirror and a magnifying glass to look through his large collection of engravings.
They accomplished some views of St Mark's Place, Venice, very satisfactorily. Everyone found something to his or her taste. Mr Pumfret quoted from miscellaneous sources, more or less to the point, and Julia had a great deal to insinuate in her own praise as to her learning and fine sensitivity. Maria considered it too fatiguing to stand up in front of the high optical machine, and she was content to listen to Sir Thomas describing the fine details of this or that print. He was slow, constant, and methodical; the picture was standing before her eyes, it couldn't be better if she looked herself - she was sure to miss what was important. He felt very knowing and helpful under her serene expectant gaze and sweet grateful smile.
***(This is R.L.Stevenson's story, reluctantly abridged.)
The after-dinner letter from Miss Ward to Miss Greenwood was as detailed as any of Pamela's epistles and almost as complacent. However, Emma's reply, when duly forwarded, was not less breathtaking than Clarissa's revelations. She described in her turn a dinner party at Champney Manor, and what she called an extempore dance on the carpet, to the music of a fiddle from the village, her partners being the same Mr Pumfret, Sir Thomas Bertram, and other young gentlemen of distinction. Though they were not so lucky as to have Mrs Pumfret among their guests, and their amusements, she admitted regretfully, were not quite so high-minded, it could be put down as a nice, easy-going meeting in unassuming society. The shortness of the notice was such that they had to gather only immediate neighbours, and she wished so much for the dear Miss Wards, because by some miscalculation there were not enough ladies.
But the faithful enumeration of sets wasn't the only matter in the message of friendship; Emma was also glad to offer something that she knew would please her dear Julia. It appeared that Mr Pumfret had invited Miss Greenwood for a drive, with her mother as a chaperone, of course. The delightful plan almost failed, as Mrs Greenwood pleaded indisposition and actually suggested putting it off till some other time. Exercising unheard-of firmness, Emma insisted that they had to make use of fine weather while it lasted, her particular friends the Miss Wards might join her instead. If dear Julia would be so kind as to take this as an informal invitation for herself and her sister, they could go in Mr Pumfret's cabriolet, driven by any coachman, and be attended by Mr Pumfret and Sir Thomas on horseback. Would she please answer at her earliest convenience?
All in all, put together, this was sufficient to provoke a saint, and at first Miss Ward very strongly expressed her intention to regret that they were obliged to decline. Only urged by her mother, who would not hear about throwing away the advantage of meeting eligible bachelors, she had to reconsider. One would not like Emma Greenwood to think that anything she could do, or say, was of consequence enough to give offence - it would be too flattering to her. So Julia did not enter into the little delicacies of feeling which she possessed in so remarkable a degree, and replied in a set phrase that they were most happy to accept.
The day of the pleasure ride was windy, the sky was overcast, though it was not actually raining. Mrs Ward, seeing her daughters off, was glad that they were going not in an open phaeton, but in a hooded cabriolet, and made sure that they had their capuchins on.
Mr Pumfret's smile stood for the sunlight.
"Really the day is so mild. Our weather must not be always judged by the calendar. We may sometimes take greater liberties in November than in May."
He wore a white riding-coat, with the cape buttoned up to his chin; Sir Thomas had a dark horseman's coat on, and a laced hat flapped over his eyes. To keep with the mildness of the weather, they rode at a round trot.
The cabriolet with the Miss Wards turned to Champney road. It was a light and easy-running chase, elegantly set. Its spokes were painted red and yellow for decoration, the seat was covered with blue cloth, the hood was made of shining black leather, and could be kept open or closed with the aid of a gilded, compass-shaped lever. Certainly a fashionable carriage, designed to be noticed anywhere, and additionally driven by a new coachman even more fashionable, a Negro servant in an impressive livery.
"Sir Thomas, is it one of your slaves from West Indies?"
"Positively not, Miss Ward. By the law, any slaves brought to England are free. Surely you have heard about Somersett's Case, it was widely proclaimed. And justly so, as the decision concerned a great number of people. I'm told that it is between fifteen and twenty thousand of Negro servants in London alone. As for Pompey here, my father had brought him from Antigua, he grew in Mansfield Park, being a page, a footman, a coachman, always a trusted family servant."
The law lecture took a lot of time his measured manner required, and some more time was taken by pondering whether it was worth while to talk about those tracts for total abolition of slavery, and what to say about them. Certainly not to agree with their unthinkable hypotheses, but maybe not to condemn them wholeheartedly, if his outlook was so mild; or would it be tactless to mention them at all; or would it show that she had the heart in the right place or was well-informed - the road to Champney was as good as lost. Maria was useless, of course, just ruffling her muff, gathering her cloak about and distracting the men with her smiles. And when Emma was handed into the carriage, nobody could get a word in edgeways.
"Where do we go? What are we going to see? What have you to show us on your estate, Mr Pumfret?"
The young man readily bowed from a saddle.
"The grounds of Gaines Court are widely considered to be delightful. I have good fortune to possess some of the finest woods in the country."
The girls, whose previous visits had never extended far from the main road, were soon beyond their knowledge. Emma was particularly insistent upon observing the appearance of the country, the bearings of the roads, the difference of soil, the cottages, the cattle, the children. She earnestly asked whether "those woods belonged to Gaines Court"; she helpfully observed that "she believed it was now all Mr Pumfret's property on each side of the road."
He was careful to show every remarkable spot and point of view.
"Here begins the village. Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the Great House as often happens in old places. In Mansfield they are scarcely half a mile apart, Bertram, aren't they? The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. Those are alms-houses, built by some of the family. Now we are coming to the lodge gates, but we won't take the drive to the principal entrance, we'll go around the park. I really must show you the avenue behind the house; it begins at a little distance and ascends for half-a-mile to the extremity of the grounds. You may see something of it here - something of the more distant trees. It is oak entirely; there is some fine timber."
Emma was all delight and volubility, and even Maria was heard to murmur, "Great variety of ground." Julia couldn't find anything to say, she saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation; it was because, she told herself, her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively. Dear Emma, of course, couldn't talk five minutes without displaying her accomplishments.
"I must sometimes draw a picture here. In a painter's eye the grounds ask only for a frame to be a ready picture. I've put it awkwardly, I know; is there a word for it? The landscape is..."
"Pictorial," Mr Pumfret suggested.
"Picturesque," Sir Thomas preferred.
They try the words on their tongues, and very strange and artificial they felt. Whoever thought of a countryside to be described for itself, not for a state of a harvest?
"Our English vistas are hopeless, they lack the atmosphere, but in some places there is real natural beauty. In London I saw Salvatore Rosa's paintings, in a private collection, one has the eerie feeling just by looking at them."
Miss Ward had the feeling it was high time to change the subject; she could see neither the use of talking about landscapes, nor any pleasure in talking about London.
"Sir Thomas," she tried for an ally, "tell us how Mansfield compares with Gaines Court. I can imagine an undulating park, with its church, and its lakes, and its heronry, and its decoy, and its racecourse, and its varied grasses of the choicest kinds, for feeding the numerous herds of deer. And the manor, I'm sure, deserves to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen's seats in the kingdom."
"Dear Julia, you have told it all, you haven't left anything for Sir Thomas to describe."
He admitted with his usual heavy civility, "There is a park five miles round; the house is spacious and modern-built, it is well placed and well screened, just as Pumfret's house here, which is down hill for half-a-mile. But it is wanting to be completely new furnished, and the estate is not as grandly endowed as you picture. I'm afraid, my father wasn't paying it as much attention as he could. He preferred his town residence."
"By the way, Bertram, are you sure that you don't mind my staying at your house for these few days?"
"I'm only too glad to repay your hospitality and save you some expense on the inns. Everyone knows their prices are such that most people cannot afford to linger longer than it takes them to find lodgings in a private house. You shall have to do it anyway, why not in my quarters? I have already written to the caretaker on the matter."
"Are you going away then, Mr Pumfret?"
"Yes, Miss Ward, but not for long. I want to find my old friend Norris in Town and bring him back to attend my birthday. I mean to celebrate it with a ball. Certainly the present company is invited. I calculate, with all necessary allowance for the shortness of notice, to collect young people enough to form twelve or fourteen couple. But do not be in despair, fair damsels, I leave my friend to keep the stronghold," he chanted playfully. "He alone makes a whole garrison, consisting of knights of several orders."
Encouraged by a puzzled silence, he explained with glee, "Uncommonly neat jeu de mots, that. The original title instituted by James the First was 'knight baronet'. In their time the knights of the lowest rank were known as 'knight bachelor', well applied to my friend, too. And though the rank is lower, maidens like it best," he broke into hearty laughter, "I wonder why!"
Sir Thomas by easy transition from oaks, to forests in general, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, shortly found himself arrived at politics. Julia snatched a favourable moment to express her deep abhorrence of Washington and her admiration of General Eliott, heroically defending Gibraltar, but from politics it was an easy step to silence.
When Miss Ward ceased speaking it was altogether a silent drive. The ladies contemplated what gowns and what head-dresses they should wear on the occasion, and the men were deep in reverie of their own.
True to his word, Mr Pumfret made it his business to announce the ball before his departure for London. Mrs Ward chose to consider it as given in compliment to one of her daughters, and was particularly flattered by receiving the invitation from Mr Pumfret himself, instead of a ceremonious card. She even forced Mr Ward, first, to promise that he would go, in return for Mrs Pumfret's visit, and second, to allow his elder daughters some extra money for clothes besides their regular pin-money.
We have learned from the best sources that she couldn't be justified in it. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim, as Miss Leighton in her time was lectured by her great aunts. It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their silk, and how insusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards stripes, gimping, floral patterns, or furbelows.
The Miss Wards' pleasure was not marred by such reflections, when coming out of the milliner's they accidentally met Sir Thomas Bertram, who politely offered to accompany them home. They set off promptly, the maid tottering with packages behind.
One cannot really shine in talk on busy streets, jammed solid with baskets, trays, carts and barrows, with each hawker shouting his little snatch of song.
"Scissors to grind! Umbrellas to mend!"
"My bell I keep ringing and walk about merrily singing my muffins."
"White sand and grey sand! Who'll buy my white sand? Who'll buy my grey sand?"
"Quick periwinkles, quick, quick, quick."
"Come to the bakehouse!"
"Will you buy my sweet blooming lavender, three bunches a penny?"
It was exceptionally trying to improvise a brilliant speech on home oeconomie apropos of the use to which dry flowers are put, only to find that the listener's attention was diverted by Maria's giddy humming of that ancient love-song, "Lavender blue".
At home she took trouble to put some unpleasant truths before her sister.
"I assure you, Maria, that you mistake, or affect to mistake, the meaning of Sir Thomas's courtesy; there can be nothing particular in his civilities towards you. When a girl is brought into the world, she is bound to ask herself whether she is well qualified to make a distinguished figure there. Nature never intended you for the busy world - you long for repose and solitude, where you can enjoy that disinterested friendship which is not to be found among crowds, and indulge those pleasing reveries that shun the hurry and tumult of fashionable society. A well-bred discerning gentleman - anyone in possession of one's senses - will conclude at once that you won't make an active managing lady of the manor or a dazzling hostess."
It would not be fair to enquire into a young lady's exact estimate of her perfections. Maria answered in her tone of calm languor, for she never took the trouble of raising her voice.
"No, I can do things when I'm shown how. Mamma herself says that I do fringe very well."
That left Julia in complete bewilderment: was she going to argue with her wisdom; or perhaps she didn't understand because the speech was too fast or her wits too slow; or did she simply sleep through the expostulation? Well, never mind, the others would agree with her. There would be more chance encounters on the streets, meetings at neighbours', and abundance of civil speeches to make.
Mr Pumfret's birthday was approaching. In Gaines Court Mrs Pumfret had some extra visits from the housekeeper, in the neighbourhood several maids were rather hurried in making up new dresses. Some of the guests pictured to themselves a happy evening in the society of their friends, more than one lady expected attentions of one or more gentlemen, and even those who did not depend on any single event, or any particular person, had something to look forward to, for a ball was, at any rate, a ball.
Sir Thomas Bertram intended to return to his estate after wishing his friend many happy returns. He was in hopes that the evening would afford some opportunity of bringing him together with the silent Miss Maria; that the whole of the visit would not pass away without enabling them to enter into something more of conversation than the mere ceremonious salutations. The elder of two inseparable sisters always had so much to talk about. Though a big part of her speeches consisted of "I perfectly comprehend you", "I thoroughly understand you", "I knew what was coming, I knew what you were going to say", she was less of an appreciative listener than the younger one. Miss Maria's reception of his respectful address was so proper and modest, so calm and uninviting; she said little, assented only here and there, and betrayed no inclination either of strengthening his views in favour of staying in Huntingdonshire or of appropriating any part of the compliment to herself. Indeed, the very spirit of Mrs Grundy had nothing to censure in her.
Was the young host expecting anything of his reception? His eager smile radiated joy as he met his guests in a white coat richly embroidered with silver and served them with his choicest wines and jokes.
"The punch is already in the bowl, and though it is a custom to take advice of those present on mixing it, I'm ready to defend to my last breath what and what not should go in. The tenth Earl of Pembroke is reported to have said, 'These, gentlemen, is my champagne, my claret and other wines. I am no great judge. I give you these on authority of my wine-merchant, but I can answer for my punch for I have made it myself.' My sentiments, absolutely."
Every lady got an elaborate compliment from him, but when Miss Greenwood appeared in skirts of soft white silk over white satin petticoats, with pointed bodice and fichus of silver lace, and yellow shoes and stockings, like the biggest and the prettiest lily inverted, even Mr Pumfret was reduced to speechlessness.
The Miss Wards eyed their friend anxiously. Was silver back in fashion? Mrs Greenwood also was in silver brocade with broad white trimmings. But there was no leisure for thinking; they were in the ball-room, the violins were playing. To the three girls three young men came; Mr Pumfret introduced his friend, the Rev. Mr Norris, who might be considered at a disadvantage in a brilliantly lit chamber, because of the sickly pale face and the shabby clergyman's frock. The host, or course, was to lead the way and open the ball, he brought away Miss Greenwood; Sir Thomas chose Miss Maria; and Mr Norris civilly asked Miss Ward for the pleasure of a dance.
"I consider dancing as a very innocent diversion, and perfectly compatible with the profession of a clergyman."
Miss Ward was much obliged, but she was engaged, and only was waiting for a few minutes, her partner had gone into the card-room to speak to a friend. The rest of the dance she sat with an expression nicely adjusted to one vexed at the non-appearance of her partner; even Mr Tardew, a neighbour, did not guess anything, or he would certainly step forth.
The endless first dances over, Emma unexpectedly came to her and asked in whispers to help her in Mrs Pumfret's powdering closet. That meant missing next two dances also, and Julia bitterly felt that the friendship of a selfish person had to offer thorns only instead of roses; but she went.
"Dear Julia, I pledge you to secrecy," Emma began more dramatically than a broken garter or something justified. "I am going to marry Mr Pumfret right now."
Miss Ward was a little confounded, and as nearly being silenced as ever she had been in her life.
"He proposed when we were dancing at Champney, before the ride on his grounds, you remember, and immediately went for the special licence and the Rev. Mr Norris. It was an ordeal to persuade his mother to do without banns, but imagine hearing oneself to be called spinster in a rustic church! I meant, though, to be dressed properly; it's the worst luck in the world, in anything but white and silver; and, of course, I must have a bridesmaid. Mr Pumfret was going to ask Sir Thomas to be a witness, but he didn't approve; so behind the fashion! I'll give you my wedding-ring to thread a piece of cake through; if you fast any Friday when Venus in on the rise, and put it in your pillow-bear for the night, you are sure to dream of your true love."
Meanwhile in the front rooms the guests were celebrating, unaware that there was any additional cause for congratulation. Mrs Pumfret called Maria to sit with her on a sofa, patted her hand, sighed, murmured sadly, "In my days it was considered enough for a wife to produce a heir and a spare, not so much learning there was," sighed again, took a pinch of snuff from her round china box, and announced her firm decision.
"I will tell you what: the next time pug has a litter you shall have a puppy."
Maria lost any power of speech she ever had with heart-felt delight; Mrs Pumfret moved on to destination unknown, and the place on the sofa was taken by Sir Thomas. He bore in mind that silence in such circumstances would be improper, and plunged stiffly into a literary remark.
"Perhaps the other day you thought me too severe a critic of our moral writers, especially your favourite Richardson."
Mr Tardew, a neighbour, standing nearby, immediately cleared away; he did not care for novels himself, if the Ward sisters did - let them.
"Yet I admit that he was a fine judge of human nature, and gave sage advice. I was especially struck with a letter from Pamela to Mr B. on education. Mothers would have a pleasing task of assisting in the early education of their children, but who shall teach the mothers? After a gentleman had entered into a marriage state with a young creature far inferior to him in learning, in knowledge of the world, he would endeavour to make her fit company for himself, that he would direct her taste, point out to her proper subjects for her amusement and instruction. What obligations, and opportunities too, will this give her to love and honour such a husband, as she will see his wisdom in a thousand instances and experience his indulgence to her in ten thousand. And then, in his home conversation, to have him delight to instruct and open her views, and inspire her with an ambition to enlarge her mind. And how suitable to the rules of policy and self-love in the gentleman; for is not the wife, and are not her improvements, all his own?"
The advantages of a very ignorant mind in a good-looking girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add that smiling dreamily, with her eyes opened, gives a great enhancement to her personal charms.
Maria slowly came out of her reverie to find herself being admired, prized, esteemed and finally proposed to. She needed nobody's advice on that, so she just said quietly, "Yes." Then she thought it was too bare and hastily improved, "Yes, Sir Thomas."
The rest of the evening passed merrily indeed, and if any guest had other secrets, they were kept successfully.
In a family chaise-and-four on the road from Gaines Court Maria reflected guiltily that her answer lacked in grandness and style; Julia would have wished her to say something like, "I'm aware that it is every young woman's duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this." But then - he seemed content and looked it. Now she was going to have a pug and a husband.
Julia unobtrusively put her hand into the pocket through a slit in the skirt, fingering the gold etuis, presented to her by the grateful bridegroom. She rather felt that one shouldn't accept anything for performing duties of a friend, but she longed to keep it as a delicate souvenir of Emma's affection - no, it was not greed or anything vulgar. On her own wedding-day she would give rich presents to everyone, that is, her husband would.
And right away, Maria, without as much as to say that she would surprise them, told her simple story. It was so sheerly unexpected that Miss Ward didn't have presence of mind to resort to vapours, or fall in a fit, or show in some other way to the applauding world how ill-used she was. She sat quite still, and unable to utter a syllable.
Mrs Ward, however, made up for that. Her first worry was to make certain of her own perception and Maria's.
"Lord bless me! I never was more surprised. And is it really true? Make this intelligible to me. Did not you misunderstand him? Are you perfectly sure that he had absolutely and downright proposed to you?"
On being assured that there could be no mistake at all in his plain, direct words, she began to fidget about in her seat.
"Good gracious! only think! dear me! Sir Thomas! Who would have thought it? Oh, my sweetest Maria! how rich and how great you will be! I'm so pleased - so happy! Such a charming man! so handsome! so tall! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! A house in town! Everything that is charming! Mr Ward, pray say something, don't sit silent, tell your daughter that you approve."
"He is rich, to be sure, and you will have fine clothes and fine carriages. As far as the man is concerned, I could not wish you in better hands."
Mrs Ward was glowing. She was not backward to credit what was to advantage of her family. At that moment Maria was beyond competition her favourite child, Julia was nothing to her. She did not even notice that her other daughter's surprise and vexation required some minutes silence to be settled into composure before she joined with the others in expressions of their happiness.
Maria was obliged to repeat so many times the minute particulars, which only woman's curiosity could find interesting, and answer so many questions, that she was quite fatigued by the time they reached Popplewell, while Mr Ward developed a splitting headache.
He was prescribed not to have any when Sir Thomas would wait on him in the morning; and probably thanks to that their talk went as well as could be expected.
The next day, what with usual tattling visitors and Maria's engagement, Julia really had no opportunity to hint at dear Emma's secret wedding. But when Mrs Ward, in answer to an urgent note from Jane Leighton, called on her in the afternoon, she heard a full account of it.
"It is a day of wonders, indeed! I know, my dear Jane, that you are usually au courant of what is happening in the neighbourhood, but you must agree that this is not easily believable. Secret, you say, and only yesterday?"
"Oh, I understood at once which way the wind blew, the moment I heard how the lot of them was dressed. The man in white and silver, the girl in white and silver, and what is most important - Mrs Greenwood in white and silver. My dear, for which occasion a mother, and even a step-mother, as the case may be, ought to be dressed in the odious colours? After that it was a clear way through: a little of knowing with whom a coachman keeps company, a little present to a maid - you won't be interested."
Mrs Leighton was all sympathy, for she knew that Maria ought to have been Mr Pumfret's choice. Mrs Ward explained that she could bear this blow of fate philosophically, and why. It was Jane's turn to be astonished.
"Sir Thomas and Maria! To tell the truth, I always suspected Julia of having given very rigorous chase to him when he first came to Huntingdon."
"Quite the contrary, my dear Jane; she dreads lest her name should ever be coupled with his. I'm sure she is even now going around relating how she contrived to throw them in each other's way. Well, when she stays with her sister in Town, her circle of acquaintances will widen; and if Maria could engage a baronet, Julia might without censure aspire to the affections of some lord."
It formed just such a contrast as time is for ever producing between the plans and decisions of mortals, for their own instruction, and their neighbours' entertainment.
All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match: Miss Maria Ward had to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. She had two sisters to be benefited from her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them. Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances fared yet worse, by fixing on a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connections.
I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend men's slowness of speech or reward girls' indolence.
© 2000 Copyright held by author