Thursday, 29 October 2009

To whom she said "Yes" - Chapter Two

The Beeches

"Now, which way am I going home?" said Eden to herself, making a pause as the iron gates of Mrs Merstham's grounds clanged behind her. "Along the high road? No, it is too formal, too dull; and the last time I went that way, I forgot myself , and whistled a tune, and the Reverend Jonas was just coming out of a cottage and heard me. I didn't mean to shock him, I'm sure; and though mamma laughed a little when I mimicked his look of horror, she begged me not to offend against the proprieties in that way again. The fields, then? No, the heavy rains have flooded them, and it's too cold to doff boots and hose and wade through the water, as I should dearly like to do. Why shouldn't I take a short cut across the plantations of The Beeches? Everyone does it, though it's trespassing; but while the house is empty and the place a perfect wilderness, what harm can it be?"

So away went Eden. There was a gate to climb, and a broken paie to squeeze through; but she was a country girl, and accustomed to surmount such obstacles. Onward she went, dancing though the fallen leaves, sometimes chasing a rabbit, sometimes stopping to listen to the song of a robin, till she drew near the long-deserted house, when, suddenly remembering that her mother had expressed a wish to have a receipt of Granny Myers, the care-taker, had promised her, Eden thought it would be an excellent opportunity for calling and procuring it.

But, as soon as she emerged from the shrubbery, she stopped, and began to retreat, for a stranger, a male one, was walking to and fro in front of the portico, brandishing a large white umbrella, as if threatening some imaginary foe.

His quick, roving glances lighted on the young girl as she began to move away, and he came striding across the lawn at a tremendouus rate, in order to intercept her.

"Do you know who I am?" he demanded, as soon as he was near enough to make himself heard.

"I am very sorry that I have trespassed!" faltered Eden, alarmed at his gruff voice and belligerent manner. "I did not know that anyone was here but Mrs Myers, who knows me very well, and --"

"But, my good young lady, Mrs Myers is not here; and that's why I'm in a dilemma." he retorted, wiping his forehead and making a dive with the umbrella at the air, as if he were thrusting a lance thorugh a Cossack. "Let me introduce myself, for I can see that you do not know me. I am Robert Stretby, ex-major in Her Majesty's 160th regiment; and I have rented this house because Mrs Stretby thinks the children's education can be carried out better in the country. She'll be here directly - Mrs Stretby, I mean. I've walked on to stretch my legs; and the furniture has not arrived, and the con - beg pardon! - the old woman is out, the shutters are shut, the doors are all locked, and I cannot get in. Pretty state of things, in a strange country, isn't it? How will Mrs Stretby look when she gets here, I should like to know? And I told her she'd find everything in applie-pie order. Only think! Why, she'll colapse, positively!"

As Mr Stretby's imagination pictured his wife's discomfiture, he broke into a little chuckle, which soon beame a roar of laughter, so hearty, so gleeful, that Eden could scarcely help joining in it.

"Well, it is ludicrous, isn't it?" he said, when he had exhausted himself. "Yet, it's aggravating, too; and I'm horribly annoyed, although I've the consolation of being able to laugh at my own misfortunes; but, by Jove! it's going to rain, and there isn't an hotel in Eastham; for I inquired when I was here the other day, and that old woman's not to be found. Have you any idea where she is?"

"Gone into the village, perhaps, for a gossip," said Eden, who knew Mrs Myers had plenty of acquaintances in Eastham. "But there is a window at the back of the house through which I think you might obtain an entrance. Shall I show you which one I mean?"

"If you please; for Mrs Stretby will be here in a minute; and if she finds neither fire nor shelter, food nor furniture, she'll think she has some reason to scold me; though you are witness, my young lady, that the fault is not mine, but that con - beg pardon, I'm sure - tiresome old woman's."

While he talked he was hurrying Eden towards the house; his long legs taking three steps to one of hers.

Mr Stretby was very tall, very thin, and gray, with a huge white moustache ornamenting a face that had been burned a deep brick red with exposure, and overhanging brows, also white, beneath which his eyes gleamed or twinkled, according to his mood, as brightly as in his youth.

Altogether he was a very fierce-looking vieux militaire; and yet he contrived to convey the impression that he was the best-tempered of men.

Eden laughed outright, when, having clambered to the window and pulled up the sash, he suddenly shot through it head-foremost. But he peeped out, to assure her that there was nothing broken, and ask which way he must turn to find the outer door.

She had scarcely finished directing him, when an open carriage was heard rolling up the drive, and she saw three or four feminine faces peeping from it at her, as she stood undecided whether to depart or to stay and ascertain whether she would be of any further service to these newcomers.

The carriage was a roomy waggonette, and a young lady tall, thin, and with prominent features, like Mr Stretby, had taken the reins from the servant, who was an old soldier and was driving.

The seats of the wagonette were occupied by more young ladies, all bearing the same likeness to their father - all wearing the same happy expression of features; and with them there was a stout, rosy, placid matron, who, although she was evidently in excellent health, was propped up with cushions and half smothered in wraps.

"Woa!" cried the driver to her steeds, as she reined up in front of the house. "No shutters opened, no fires alight, and no pa to be seen anywhere. Why ma, can this be our new bungalow?"

"Of course it's not, my dear Venetia," said Mrs Stretby mildly. "I told you I was almost sure we had taken the worng turning. And where poor dear papa can be, goodness only knows."

"Lost himself, most likely." said Miss Venetia Stretby. "It's a chance if we see him again till tomorrow morning. I vote that we drive back to the place where he left us, and wait there till he turns up again. So here goes!"

"Wouldn't it be as well to make some inquiries first?" cried another of the daughters; and, jumping nimbly from the carriage, she ran up to Eden, who, confused by the non-appearance of Mr Stretby, and the loud voices and rapid utterance of the ladies of his household, had not been able to offer any explanation.

"Yes, this is The Beeches," she now contrived to say; "but the person who has the key of the house is absent, and Mr Stretby has been obliged to obtain admission by climbing in at one of the windows."

"Then papa is here!" and a rush was made from the carriage to inspect the narrow casement through which he had squeezed himself. Mrs Streby rose to follow her daughters, and, the man being busy with his horses, she gave such an entreating look at Eden, that, fancying she must be lame, the latter courteously went to her assistance.

Some years since, Mrs Stretby had suffered a long but not dangerous illness, through which she had been most affectionately nursed by her husband and daughters; and, although she had quite regained her health, they continued to cosset and watch over her with the same jealous care, till she had grown so accustomed to it, that she now received these attentions as a matter of course. One of her daughters dutifully ran back as soon as she preceived that Mrs Stretby was alighting; and, leaning on her arm and Eden's, she joined the group beneath the window.

"If papa's here, what's become of him?" inquired some one.

"Gracious me! something's happened to him," cried Mrs Stretby, plaintively. "Something always is happening to him."

"Now, ma, this won't do!" cried Miss Venetia, snatching off her hat to fan her mother. "You must keep up! Pat her back, Flip, there's a dear! Pa will never forgive us if we let you worry yourself into another illness. Lin, run to the trap, and find the brandy flask; and send the twins to look for the smelling salts. Do you hear, ma? You've got to sit down on this green bank, and do your best to keep up."

"But where is he?" asked Mrs Stretby, clinging to Eden, and looking to her for an answer.

"I'm here, my dears!" shouted her spouse, through the keyhole of a door, and tugging desperately at the rusty bolts.

"I'm all right, and very much obliged to that young lady - just ask her name, will you? - for directing me, though I believe I must have misunderstood what she said, for I fell into a cellar, and con - take the bolt, what a plague it is to me!"

The next minute he appeared in their midst, very hot and grimy; and Eden , feeling herself de trop, would have glided away and walked into Eastham, to find and despatch Granny Myers to their assistance, if Mrs Stretby, in her excitement, had not held her so fast that she could not release herself.

In a matter of fact manner, that was highly amusing to a looker-on, Mr Stretby's daughters instantly took possession of him, and while one on either side brushed him down, another removed the cobwebs from his hat, a fourth, with her handkerchief, wiped a streak of dirt off his forehead, and with a pocket-comb, frizzed up his short, stubbly gray hair, while the twins - girls about twelve years of age - who had scampered off for the flask, on finding that their maternal parent no longer requied its contents, proffered it to their paternal one, who evidently appreciated the attention.

"Why aren't the shutter open, Robert?" asked Mrs Stretby, when this little performance was over.

"La, yes," said Miss Venetia, replacing her hat on her head, and gazing about her; "and where is the funiture?"

"Where indeed!" echoed her father, with a groan, and a vicious pull at his long moustache "I never was so near falling into a passion as when I reached this place and found an empty house, and not a creature to explain the reason of it! Have you asked this young lady her name, and thanked her for her courtesy? If it hadn't been for a bright thought of hers, we shouldn't have gained entrance at all."

"But where is the furniture?" Mrs Stretby mildly inquired again.

"That's the question my dear, I keep asking, and can't find any answer. I went to the upholsterer myself - myself, remember - paid for all the artciles you had selected, gave him the address legibley written, and ordered him to pack and despatch them here."

"But did you write and tell him that we were coming to The Beeches a day earlier than we originally proposed?" And then Mrs Stretby gently shook her finger at her husband, "No, Robert, you need not hesitate; I know you did not."

"But, indeed I did, my dear. Ask the children; they saw me upset the ink-bottle in the act."

"But did you post your note? You know how forgetful you are! Now I'm sure by your looks that you didn't! Just examine your papa's pockets, girls! Ah! There it is," she added, triumphantly, as one of them held up a letter.

"What a con- beg pardon - old idiot I am!" cried Mr Stretby, ruefully. "Now wht's to be done? Can anyone tell me what's to be done?"

"My name is Aubrey, and I live in Eastham," said Eden. "Can I be of any use to you?"

"Thank you, love," Mrs Stretby smilingly responded, as she settled herslef comfortably on the green bank, to which her daughters had led her. "You are very kind; but it's not of much consequence. We shall manage somehow."

"Manage somehow!" Eden repeated, looking so perplexed that one of the girls began to titter, her sisters followed suit, and Mr Stretby burst into one of his heartiest roars of laughter.

"'Pon my word, we've had many adventures; but this is one of the queerest! children, bring your mamma in doors out of the rain."

"But what will you do?" Eden inquired, as the whole party turned into the empty hall, carrying her with them.

"Bivouac in the snuggest corner, eh, papa?" cried Venetia. "Ma can have the cushions out of the carriage, and all the cloaks and shawls, and the rest of us will build a great fire - there must be lots of wood about - and we'll sit round it and tell stories till morning!"

"Oh! Jolly!" exclaimed the twins.
"And look here," cried the girl next in age to Venetia. Before Rifles takes the horses out I shall drive into the village; Miss Aubrey says she lives there, so she will go too, and show me th w ay to the butcher's and the baker's, and if we can pounce upon the old woman, we'll arrest her for neglect of duty, and I'll bring home my prisoner along with the provisions."

"Flip, my child, that's a capital idea," said her father, approvingly. "So be off with you, or it will be dark before you start. Don't forget some tobacco for Rifles, and a tea-kettle. We can't make a comfortable night of it without a tea-kettle."

"All right, sir," said Flip, giving her father a military salute. "I'm off at once; but where's the family purse?"

For this article there was a long search. Mamma remembered to have had it to give some halfpence to a beggar, and the twins had borrowed it when solicited to buy some apples by a travelling hawker; but it seemed to be generally understood that all missing articles found their way into one or other of the pockets in Mr Stretby's shooting-jacket; and from the deepest of them it was at last extracted.

Then, a little to her astonishment, as well as amusement, Eden was escorted to the carriage by paterfamilias, hat in hand; Flip scrambled in after her, and, with the latter young lady shouting back an injuction to her sisters to take care of ma, they were driven off to Eastham.

During the rapid journey, Flip was engaged in telling off on her fingers the items she proposed carrying back to the empty house, appealing every now and then to the taciturn servant when she found herself in dager of forgetting some necessary.

"No, thank you; there's not the slightest occasion for it," she tranquilly replied, when Eden good-naturedly proposed procuring from her mother the loan of such comforts as bedding, etc. "Ma don't mind, nor we don't, and pa's an old soldier, and used to roughing it. There's two or three vans of furniture on the road, and they will turn up some time or other. We were worse off than this once in Canada; for the tents were on one side of a wide river, and we on the other; the ferryboat had come to grief, and there wasn't a house within ten miles of us. Papa owns that he should have been a bad general; for he always contrives to get in advance of his baggage and commissariat; but then it's his only fault, so it's no use making a trouble of it."

And in the same comfortable frame of mind, Miss Stretby invaded the general-shop, secured a supply of edibles, and drove off again with her lap full of cups and saucers, nodding and smiling at the amused Eden, who stood by the roadside, waving farewells to her new acquaintance, until the waggonette disappeared in the darkness of the fast-falling night.

To be continued....

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