Monday, 2 November 2009

To Whom She Said Yes - Chapter Three

Eden Aubrey had amused herself and her mother by describing all that she had heard and seen both at Mrs Merstham's and Mr Stretby's.
She had won her consent to sit to Verna for the picture that lady was painting; and on the morning after her adventures - as she merrily styled them - she was sitting patiently helping her younger sister with her lessons when the waggonette of the Stretby's dashed up to the door.

The charioteer was her companion of the preceding evening - that daughter of Mr Stretby who rejoiced in the comical appellation of Flip.

The young lady was quite alone, and after securing her reins to a post, in the methodical manner of a person accustomed to have the sole control of a couple of spirited horses, she came nimbly towards the porch, into which Eden - excited by the prospect of another break in the monotony of her quiet life - had hurried to meet her.

"What a pretty cottage!" was Miss Stretby's first exclamation. "Is this little girl your sister? And how are you? Not too busy, I hope to go with me?"

"Unfortunately, no - I am not busy at all," Eden replied. "But don't think my answer rude. I mean that mamma, who always spends this one day in the week at home, has been obliged to go out; and losing her society, just as we had planned to be so happy together, has made me cross and idle."

"and not able to settle to anything else," said Miss Stretby, with a sagacious nod. "I know the feeling. How lucky it is that I have arrived just as you've nothing better to do than help me! Put on your hat, will you? and come at once. Our horses are soon fidgetty if they're kept standing ' and Rifles was too busy to drive me, so I'm on honour to get home again without any disastors."

"But where do you want me to go?" asked Eden, glancing doubtfully at the pawing, snorting animals.
"To fifty places; but I can explain all that as we go along. No, don't look doubtful. I'll not upset you, and your sister will spare you, I'm sure, if I promise to come some other day, and give her a long country drive."

Lotty who was rather glad than sorry to escape the long chapter of history Eden was inflicting on her, nodded assent, and ran off at once to her dolls, of which, being a shy, peculiar child, she was fonder than of the very few playmates their somewhat isolated dwelling enabled her to have.

And Eden, always willing to oblige, hurriedly donned her outdoor dress, and in a very few minutes pronounced herslef ready to accompany Miss Stretby.

"Now may I know where you are taking me," She said, when, after a little plunging about, the restless steeds permitted themselves to be guided in the direction of the village street.

"That depends on you," was the reply. "I came down here to order in stores for the garrison, and could get scarcely a thing I asked for. In some articles I had exhausted the supply last evening, and others are only to be had when ordered. The butcher, who is also the grocer, only kills beef once a week. Fish must be procured from Alderby, and for eggs, fowls, cream, butter, and cheese, I am directed to the farm houses round about. Now, where is 'round about?' When I inquired which way I had better take, Mrs Butcher - Mr Butcher was out pig-buying - got into a fog. I might go to Smith's farm if I liked, but she wasn't sure whether they'd any butter to spare. Or I might try Brown's, but their fowls was always terrible poor; and as for them Jones's - but I didn't stop to hear any more, for it had just popped into my head that you would be more likely to help me than this slow, stupid woman. Here we are at the cross roads. Which one am I to take?"

Her brisk proceedings almost took Eden's breath away; but after very brief consideration, she had decided where the Stretby's were most likely to get what they needed. Eden Aubrey's bonny face was well known at most of the farmhouses around Eastham, for she was a good walker, and the winning manner inherited from her mother - always so gay and so gracious - made the old women and children her friends wherever she appeared.

With a little aid and advice from her, Miss Stretby transacted her business satisfactorily, and turned her horses' heads homeward, with the carriage filled with provisions, and a regular supply promised to the household at The Beeches by the farmers' wives, to whom her companion had introduced her. She had proved herself such an adept at bargaining, that Eden laughingly expressed a little surprise.

"Lor now, does it strike you as odd?" said Flip, laughing too. 'You see I like buying, but I know no reason why I should pay away more of pa's money for an article than it is worth. We never run bills; it's always, 'how much is it,' and 'here's the cash.' But I once heard somebody say that we are a queer family; and perhaps it's true."

"How did you pass the night? Has your furniture arrived?" were the questions Eden now put to her.

"The night? Oh! We got on very well," was the careless reply. "The old woman came home soon after you had left us, and when she had got over the fright papa's scolding gave her, she was quite useful - found us some delicious home-baked bread, and lent us a feather bed for ma; and we made her sit up with us and tell us all the old ghost stories she could remember, only pa spoiled the effect of the most exciting by snoring his loudest in the middle of it."

"And the furniture?" queried Eden again. "I felt quite uncomfortable when the wind howled towards morning, to think of you all in that empty, desolate house."

Flip opened her eyes to their fullest extent.
"Lor now, did you? Why we had a jolly fire, and were comfortable enough. Lin went into fits of laughter when she woke at daybreak and looked round her. She said she never saw human creatures sleeping in such ridiculous attitudes before. But we jumped up none the worse for it, except one of the twins, I put her to bed on a wide shelf, and she fell off and bruised her nose."

"But your furniture?" said Eden, for the third time.

"Oh, that came in sight just as I started, so we shall be able to give you your luncheon on a table, instead of spreading the cloth on the floor, as we did at breakfast-time. No, indeed, you are not going to leave me yet. Ma wants to ask you something, and made me promise not to go back without you."

So Eden had to keep her seat till they arrived at The Beeches, where they found confusion worse confounded. Huge vans were drawn up in front of the house, and workmen, under the direction of Rifles, were toiling up the staircases with heavy chests of drawers, etc. A buxom cook - who, with half a dozen more servants had just arrived in the roomy carriage of their employers - came out to greet Miss Flip and carry off the contents of the wagonnette. The maids ran to and fro trying to reduce to something like order the chaos around them; and to make the turmoil greater, the younger Stretbys were dancing a sort of war dance around a fat placid baby, the last born, the only boy, who sat in the arms of his nurse chuckling and crowing at his worshippers, to their intense delight.

Eden looked round for Mr Stretby; but, cigar in his mouth, he had sallied forth to have a chat with a man who had offered himself as gardener. Mrs Stretby was reclining on a pile of cushions in one of the bay-windows of the drawing-room, doing nothing but play with the rings on her plump fingers and smile at her daughters whenever one of them rushed in to announce some new discovery, pat up her cushions, and fly off again. There were noises around her that would have distracted some matrons - hammering and knocking, lumbering of heavy feet overhead, a crash of glass down below, and presently a shrill scream so startling to Eden that she offered to go and ascertain what had occasioned it.

"Thank you my love, but I don't think I need trouble you," said Mrs Stretby , calmly. "It isn't baby's voice; I rather think that it is only Priss, our housemaid; she is nervous, poor thing, and is always fancying she sees a mouse or feels a spider. It was annoying till were were used to it, but she's an excellent servant, and a little brandy generally brings her to."

Eden then condoled with her on the confusion that reigned around, but was answered in the same placid strain.
"Ah! yes; I suppose the house does look untidy, but we shall get settled by-and-by, I dare say. Pray sit down. Ah! I forgot that there are no chairs unpacked; do have one of my cushions, unless you prefer the window-seat."

"Thanks, but is there nothing I can do for you? to assist, I mean, in arranging either of the rooms. I shall be so pleased to be of some use."

"You are very good natured, my love," said Mrs Stretby, leaning back to look up into the pretty, animated face of her visitor; "but there really isn't the least occasion for you to tire yourself.
The servants are here, and they will do all that is required. Not today, perhaps we must give them time, poor things! but in the course of a week or two everything will be in its place, I dare say. Have you seen baby? He's somewhere about, I've no doubt. I should like you to see our only boy."

Yes, Eden had caught more than one glimpse of the heir of the Stretby's; sometimes borne on the shoulders of one of his elder sisters, as they wandered about the house watching the workmen, sometimes tucked up under the arm of the more energetic Flip, as she bustled away to point out the place for some piece of furniture; then, for a little while, the object of dispute with the twins who struggled for him till any other infant would have squalled lustily; but beyond screwing up his features and converting his mouth into a round O, Master Stretby bore the pulling and lugging to which he was subjected, as if it were second nature. The last time an opening door enbabled Eden to glance into the hall; he was there, and had been squeezed into a basket and propped up with a hassock, that the young lady who, by dint of greater strength, had gained possession of him might the more conveniently feed him with sugar-plums and bites from a raw apple.

"Venetia darling, I should like Miss Aubrey to see Roderick," said Mrs Stretby, when her eldest daughter came in sight, laden with music books. Down went the pile of large volumes, and away went Venetia in serach of the infant. Eden saw her run across the court-yard with him, possibly in the direction of the pump, because he was in too sticky a condition to be presentable, for when she bore him into the room his rosy little face was still wet, shining with his recent ablutions.

While Eden romped with and tickled the plump baby, it was quite amusing to see the placid complacency with which Mrs Stretby looked on. She roused herself once to proffer a request that Roderick might be allowed to come to his mamma to be nursed, and the child was seated on her knee; but after apostrophising him once or twice with a gentle, "Oh! baby, baby!" she looked helplessly round; and Flip seized her little brother, proclaiming that he was too much for ma. Another contest for possession of him then arose, in which the twin, who had been worsted in the first battle, came off victorious, and danced off with her prize hanging over her shoulders, and only saved from falling by her grasp of his mottled legs.

Feeling that she could not be of any further service, Eden would have departed, but Mrs Stretby entreated her to stay a little longer.
"Pray don't go yet, my love, for there is something I particularly wish to say to you. Venetia, what is it I wanted to ask Miss Aubrey?"
Venetia took hold of the extreme tip of her roman nose, and meditated.
"Was it oatmeal, ma?"
"I think not, love, though somebody did saysomething to me about it being excellent food for children; and I believe I made up my mind to ask some one or other if it were true, but still I don't think it was that."

"Goats?" now queried Venetia.
"For baby's chaise? Ah! Perhaps Miss Aubrey can tell us if they are to be had here; but still, that isn't it."

"Patterns, then, of her dress and jacket? Pa said she dressed better than any girl he had seen for some time - so stylish, and yet so quiet and ladylike."

The blushing Eden hastened to disclaim any credit for this.
"Mamma cuts out and plans my dressed. It is she who has both taste and ingenuity - not me."
"no, it was not patterns," said Mrs Stretby beginning to look hopelessly perplexed, 'though I believe I said I'd ask Miss Aubrey who made for her. Ah! now, I remember: it was the twins and their education. They must be taught something. I'm quite anxious about them; I am indeed!"

"You are in want of a governess?" asked Eden.
"Oh! no; not a resident one. We have tried that plan, but somehow it doesn't answer. Mr Stretby doesn't like to see the poor dears cry over their lessons, or fret at being confined too strictly to the school-room."

"Then you would prefer a daily governess?"
Mrs Stretby meditated.
"I don't know what to say about that. I am afraid it would worry me to have a stranger coming to the house at regular hours; because, you see, she would expect to find her pupils always ready for her, and they are such haram-scarum little creatures, one never knows where to find them."
"Then I don't think I quite underrstand what it is you wish," said Eden, hesitatingly, as she glanced from Mrs Stretby to her daughters.
"It is a difficult question, isn't it?" Murmured the matron. "But I am so anxious that their education shouldn't be neglected, that Flip - where's Flip? - seeing how it harassed me, came to my aid with a proposal. Now, what was it she proposed? Where is she?"

"Here am I, ma," said that young lady wheeling in a small table on which to deposit the luncheon-tray a servant was bringing. "I know what we planned last night. The old woman told us that Miss aubrey is highly accomplished, and regularly teaches her little sister, and I said how nice it would be if she would let H and P share the child's lessons."

"H and P?" repeated Eden, half-laughing, half-bewildered.

"Yes, the twins; don't you know that they are called that in short for Hyacinthe and Persis, just as I am Flip for Philippina, and Lin was christend Ethelinda? Ma always chooses from some romance she has read, but pa hates what he calls crack-jaw names, and curtails them as much as he can. But what do you say to my scheme, Miss Aubrey? Will you agree to it? Pray do; it will be such a relief to poor dear ma! her head quite ached with thinking about it."

Before Eden could make any reply, Mr Stretby came bustling into the room.
"Girls, I've had a visitor, and he's given me an idea," he exclaimed, as soon as he had shaken hands with Eden. "I had walked down to the gates with the new gardener, when who should come riding by but Halliss. You remember him? he was once a lieutenant in ours, and now he's a Major in the 150th - one of the regiments stationed at Aldenby."

"Why didn't you bring him in to luch, pa?" asked Miss Venetia.
"Because, my dear Sneshy, I couldn't be sure that the state of the larder admitted it. Besides, he had an engagement; but I have promised to dine at the mess tomorrow, and then I can tell him and his friends to come over whenever they feel inclined."

This free and easy style of giving invitations was evidently the usual thing, for no remark was made upon it, Flip only inquiring what had been Major Halliss's clever idea.

"Ah! I was forgetting it! He walked with me as far as a building that stands in the grounds - a banqueting hall, or something of the kind, - and what do you think he said?"
"Go on pa!" cried Lin imperiously. "I hate the bother of guessing."

"He said: 'Why don't you lay down some asphalte here, and convert it into a rink? Our fellows are moped to death at Aldenby, which is the dullest, dirtiest hole imaginable; and they'd regard you as their best friend if you'd do this, and let them come and rink with the young ladies.' and by Jove, girls! I don't think I could do better than act upon the suggestion, for an English winter is not like a Canadian one, and you'll terribly miss your skating, and sleighing, and tobogginning. Come and have a look at the place."

Away they ran at his heels, carrying the baby with them, and Eden, who had declined to accompany them, bade Mrs Stretby farewell, having first promised to consult her mother respecting the pupils so suddenly offered to her.

to be continued.........

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