4. Life Is A Jest
A great red sun that is warm and kind sinks behind the golden trees, rich with autumnal tints, as Philip and Eleanor drive up to "Lyndhurst," on Richmond Terrace.
"So this is your home--my
home?" she cries, her eyes sparkling with delight as they rest on her new abode. "Ring very loud and long, Philip; I am dying to be in!"
The door is almost immediately opened by a buxom maiden with rosy cheeks and a lenient smile, which alights on the youthful mistress. Eleanor bounds into the hall, and waves a feather boa joyfully over her head.
," she cries, saluting the old pictures on the wall with mock courtesy. "Real dead ancestors in wigs, and you never
told me, Philip!"
Saluting the old pictures on the wall with mock courtesy.
She is standing, gazing on them joyfully as the luggage is brought in, pointing with her umbrella at a wrinkled judge.
"They have seldom received such admiration," he says gently. "Poor old things, they disfigure the walls sadly with their grim faces."
"The lady on the left is simpering; and, oh! here is a tiger rug," stumbling over a head on the ground. "I caught my heel on his nose," as Philip prevents her falling by seizing her elbow.
"Show me which is my room. I am longing to see it," she continues, taking two steps at a time in her eager ascent. "Sarah," calling to her maid, "bring those three hat boxes and my cloak, there's a good soul! Come on, Philip, I'll race you to the top."
He feels as if he is playing with a child, as he rushes over the house after Eleanor. The day of the school treat returns to his mind, he fancies he sees her still, running through the long grass.
"Everything is beautiful," she gasps, clasping her hands. "There's a room to be frivolous and lazy in, a study for book learning (I'm going to read no end) and, oh! if you want to sing----"
She draws a deep breath at the remembrance of the grand piano in the drawing-room. "It is ever so much bigger than the one at the vicarage, which was always out of tune. I'll get my cousin Joe to send me a list of songs, and we will buy a harmonium, too, Philip. I can play the harmonium splendidly."
"I am glad you are pleased, Eleanor," ha replies, kissing her upturned face.
"And now, I am going to dress, for I feel horrible after my journey. May I ring for Sarah?"
"Of course. What a question! Do exactly as you like with your own servants."
She finds Sarah in her room busily unpacking.
"Oh! there you are," cries Eleanor. "I forgot I had given you my keys. It is such a blessing to be able to talk in English, that foreign stuff was awful, I could not speak a word! Yes, I will wear my lovely pink tea-gown--did you ever see anything so pretty, Sarah? I must make you put it on some day, just to see how it looks on another person. You are a bit stouter than I am though, but perhaps you could pull in----"
And so Eleanor rattles on, just as if Sarah were one of the farm-servants at home, and she the same unaffected light-hearted Miss Grebby.
"Do you come from the country, Sarah?" she asks at last.
"Yes, ma'am. My father's a grocer, and mother keeps house for the doctor's children in our next village."
"Then they don't live together?"
"No, ma'am, it's father's temper. We none of us can't live at home, he is that hasty! It ain't safe, ma'am, it ain't really!"
"How dreadful," sighs Eleanor. "Doesn't it frighten you?"
"Lor! yes, ma'am. I have seen him grow purple round the eyes, and crimson in the cheeks, and throve a whole sack of flour through the window."
Eleanor receives the information with an expressive "Oh!" as she shakes down her hair, and tells Sarah to brush it.
"How many servants have I got?" gazing at her face in the mirror contentedly.
"Three, ma'am. There's me, and Judith, and cook."
"Do you like Richmond?"
"Well enough, ma'am, thank you, but Judith would have rather been in London, and cook has always set her face against the suburbs."
"Then why did they come?"
"Well, you see, ma'am, the gentleman engaged them, and he seemed that put about they hadn't the heart to refuse."
"Good gracious! whatever is that noise?"
"The dinner gong. Judith is very strong in the arms, and she do make it sound, ma'am!"
"Light a few more candles; I want to have a good look at myself."
Eleanor walks up and down before the glass, with spasmodic gasps of satisfaction, till Philip comes to the door to see if she is ready.
Eleanor is brimming over with conversation during the evening meal; she has something to say about everything, and her ideas seem to expand over each fresh course. At the soup she wants a pony cart, but over the fish decides on a brougham and victoria. The entrée
introduces a pair of prancing chestnuts, and Philip is quite afraid that the arrival of the meat will suggest powdered footmen in silk stockings.
"You see, dear," he explains at dessert, when Sarah and Judith have left the room, "I have a very comfortable income to live in a fairly luxurious style without undue extravagance. We can easily keep one horse and man, which I have waited to choose with you."
"I see," replies Eleanor, peeling a banana. There is a pause, then she looks up and repeats uncertainly: "I see, Philip."
"You will try and make a good little housekeeper and manage everything splendidly. I often think of you, Eleanor, in your peaceful domesticity at Copthorne. How quiet it was, and----"
It all comes back with a rush--the pewter dinner service, and spotless parlour, smelling of lavender and soap, the cackle of hens and lowing of cows. Eleanor pushes aside the dish of bananas, "Let us go out in the moonlight," she says. "It is lovely in the garden, and you can smoke. Let me light your cigar?" striking a match on the sole of her velvet slipper, and narrowly escaping burning her pink silk train.
"You must not do that, dear, it is dangerous," remonstrates Philip.
"Oh, no! not if you put up your foot so," illustrating her meaning by striking another. "What is that pretty yellow stuff you are drinking?"
Eleanor kneels down by his side and sips out of his glass. "What queer tasting stuff, not half as nice as elderberry wine!"
"Don't you like it?"
"No; it's almost as nasty as the cowslip tea I used to make. But do come for a stroll; I like wandering about in this long silk gown, it feels so grand."
"What myriads of stars!" exclaims Philip, who is well versed in astronomy. "Don't they make you feel like a mere atom, Eleanor, when you think they are all worlds?"
"No, I never bother my head about stars. I like moonlight, it's so pretty, and the moonbeams look ghostly and fairylike. But isn't it cold in the garden? I only just realise that summer is over, and what an eventful summer it has been for me! The other girls at Copthorne were mad with jealousy at my wedding. They all want to marry gentlemen now, and come to London. Do you remember the schoolchildren, Philip? How they scattered flowers and crowded round to kiss me. I gave them my wedding cake (or rather what was left of it) when we went, and the three cheers for 'Teacher' is quite the nicest recollection." Eleanor's passionate love for children pleases her husband, it shows that her nature is good. He puts his arm lovingly round her as they return to the house.
"Are you happy, Eleanor?" he whispers. A soft brightness creeps into her eyes.
"Yes, Philip, there isn't a lighter heart in Richmond!"
"Oh! dear, more cards! I returned the doctors' wives' visits yesterday, three of them, Philip--each intent on her husband's business, I suppose. Two were at home, and I looked so aggravatingly healthy. I could not think what to talk about, having never done that sort of thing before. The first mercifully had a dog, which I admired for a quarter of an hour, the second showed me her pigeons. I knew all about them
Philip looked at the latest cards which Eleanor handed him.
"Mrs. Mounteagle," he read, "why she is the lady next door. I don't want you to know her, Eleanor. She has not the best of names in Richmond; this place teems with scandal! I am acquainted with half-a-dozen people who positively cram it down your throat whenever you are unfortunate enough to meet them."
"And what have they against Mrs. Mounteagle?"
"Well, my dear, nothing alarmingly serious, only she is rather a fast widow, and not a nice companion for you. She has a queer set at her house, and is almost too 'up-to-date' even for Richmond society."
"But since she has called, Philip, and we live next door, what am I to do?"
"It is awkward, certainly. I should leave cards, and not ask if she is in. That is about the best hint if you don't desire her acquaintance."
"She will think me so horrid," sighs Eleanor, "but I will do as you wish."
The following afternoon Eleanor, card-case in hand, rings at Mrs. Mounteagle's, prepared to carry out her husband's suggestion.
A soft voice singing in the garden arrests her attention. It is the sweetest sound Eleanor has ever heard. Light footsteps crunch the gravel, and a slim, dark woman approaches with slumbrous eyes, which look at the visitor dreamily. A smile, like a fitful name, flickers over Mrs. Mounteagle's face, suddenly bursting into a bright expression of ill-concealed amusement at Eleanor's nervous demeanour.
"Mrs. Roche," she exclaims, holding out a welcoming hand. "You see, being such near neighbours, I know you already by sight. I am sure, if you are only just married, you must find first calls most boring and tedious. But I am very glad you selected this afternoon to return mine, for I am simply pining to talk to someone. The dead leaves and general decay out here give one the blues. Come in, and help me to appreciate my first fire."
Eleanor has utterly forgotten her husband's wishes, till she finds herself in a softly cushioned rocking chair, with her feet on Mrs. Mounteagle's brightly-polished fender. Then she remembers--and ignores.
Never has any woman fascinated her as the lovely widow she is asked not to know. What sparkling conversation! and, oh, what a dainty tea service and piping hot cakes the footman places between them as they talk.
The room is far prettier than Eleanor's boudoir which she has hitherto considered such a dream of beauty. More than once Mrs. Roche suggests going, but the widow intreats her to remain.
"It is so delightful to have you!" she declares, with exuberant cordiality. "I have done nothing all the afternoon but lie on this sofa and yawn over a novel. I could have written it better myself, and that foolish librarian at Mudie's recommended it. I drive to town nearly every afternoon--there is always something to buy or something to see. Are you fond of London, Mrs. Roche?"
"I hardly know, I have been there so little. I lived in the country before my marriage, and was positively buried."
"It is a mercy then that Mr. Roche found you, and dug you up."
"Yes. I like married life much better."
"Spinsterhood is a mistake," retorts Mrs. Mounteagle. "If you have the misfortune to be thrown back upon yourself--widowed in your prime--take my advice and marry again. We poor weak little women were not made to take care of ourselves. We want a stronger arm to lean on--someone who will think for us, anticipate our every wish, load us with all the good things of this earth, and kiss us to sleep when we die!"
Eleanor listens admiringly to this superior mind.
"I shall re-marry," continues Mrs. Mounteagle, "but not immediately. I am practically 'growing my husband.' He is still young in years, though old in frivolity, or vice, whichever you like to call it. He must have his fling before he settles down, or I shall only be binding a burden on my shoulders."
Eleanor attends with deepening interest.
"I married very young," continues Mrs. Mounteagle, "and my husband was nearly eighty. Yes," noting her visitor's surprise, "rather a difference in our ages, wasn't there?
"Love, my dear Mrs. Roche, is a science; you can learn it with careful study, and make it always accommodating, pleasant, and never vulgarly effusive. Do not imagine that the first bloom of youth gleans all the peaches, leaving only apples for after years. A clever woman seldom grows old. She erases Time with the same nimble fingers with which she creates her boudoir, and makes it appear part of her being. You admire my sanctum, and small wonder. It has cost me sleepless nights as long as the furniture bills. I invented it. These chairs for instance were not arranged, they occurred
. The minutest detail has positively been prayed over. Look at my quaint treasures! If other hands had placed them they might appear ignoble, debased. You see the curve of this pillowed couch, the tint of the curtains, it is Art
, Mrs. Roche, Art with a big A
"I am dreadfully envious," cries Eleanor, "there is no artistic genius in me."
"It must be born in the blood, but if you like I will 'compose' you a room. It shall be like a melody (if you can grasp the comparison)--subtle, entrancing."
"You are wonderful
;" says Eleanor solemnly. "It is all so like a fairy palace, and you are the fairy, Mrs. Mounteagle."
"Then, in the guise of a mysterious gnome, let me give you a word of warning. You are a stranger in Richmond; pray take care not to get into a clique. They are so numerous and unhealthy, so full of civil wars and petty strife, that existence becomes poisoned, and all the romance of life is swept aside, seared, wasted!"
"Thank you," replies Eleanor, rising reluctantly and giving Mrs. Mounteagle both her hands. "How good you have been to me to-day!"
"I hope we shall see a great deal of each other," answers the widow softly, "and be very great friends."
"It shan't be my fault if we are not," responds Mrs. Roche.
"Oh, ma'am! Master's been home an hour, and he's frightened to death about you."
Thus Sarah greets her on her return.