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matter by this time, if nothing else had; while you announce it as a very extraordinary, grave, and startling piece of intelligence.”
“ Did I? Very possibly. I was thinking of it in a different way to any I have done before, now it seems so very, very close at hand.”
Yes, it is rather appalling, I allow; but it must be done some time or other, I suppose, and to-morrow would come at last, defer it as long as one might. And you, Maude; how much longer is poor Hubert Courtenay's probation to last ?"
Maude started at the sound of this name ; a deadly paleness spread over her cheeks for a moment, succeeded by a burning flush, while her proud eye flashed fire ; then, again, she grew pale and trembled so that she leant against the window for support, and looked out into the quiet stillness of the spring evening, to avoid her sister's gaze. But Beatrice was too busy to take very accurate note of her proceedings at that time, and repeated her question regarding Courtenay.
“Do not speak of him, Beatrice," replied Maude, in a low altered tone. “At least,” she went on hurriedly,
not now. Let him be forgotten till to-morrow is over,” she added gaily, turning full round upon
her sister (who had paused in her occupation, and looked aghast at the beginning of this speech); "to-morrow is all for you, my Beatrice, for you, and mirth, and gladness," she proceeded : and it was spoken with a smile so sunny, that Beatrice imagined her ears must have deceived her as to the voice which first answered her question, and laughed happily, as she returned the fond embrace with which Maude's sentence concluded.
And to-morrow was all mirth and gladness, so far as bright sunshine, a rich, merry company of relatives and friends, and devoted attention to every wish and whim of the young bride could make it so to Beatrice Willingham, who on that morning became the wife of the chosen man of her heart, Ralph Neville.
The wedding was over, the bride and her husband
gone, the guests most of them departed, and the few that remained resting in their respective chambers from the gaieties of the morning, in preparation for the brilliant ball which was to close the day, when Maude sat alone with her aunt in the library of Willingham Manor.
Both had been silent for some time, both were musing intently, but the subjects occupying the thoughts of each differed widely, if one might judge from the light smiling expression of the one face, and the grave, well-nigh sad, calmness of the other.
Well,” said Lady Halford, at length, “ Beatrice at last is married, thank heaven. One of my charges is flown off, and really I am very well pleased; only, if it had been the elder brother, I should have preferred it certainly. Still, Lord St. Maur does not seem very likely to marry at present, and we may see our Beatrice Countess of Melton yet.”
Maude made no reply, and, after awhile, the lady proceeded : I wish
your uncle had been able to stay: it would have been much pleasanter to have had them at the ball to-night. I don't think the Marchioness has ever been at one of our grand parties, and I should have liked introducing her to the neighbourhood.”
Maude had roused herself, and smiled somewhat scornfully at this speech. She knew, “ introducing the neighbourhood to her” would have been its more truthful wording; and the contempt she felt at the instant for the speaker might have been read in her eyes, but she was silent still.
Lady Halford did not notice it much: she was accustomed (of late especially) to her younger niece's taciturnity.
“Well, Beatrice will have a charming tour, and be in town just in time for the height of the season. We must get up some recherché fétes for her, my love. I was saying to Lady Etherington, this morning, we should all soon meet again in London : indeed, it is
time for us to fix the day now; the Birthday will fill town so early.”
This time the lady did want an answer, and she received one.
“I believe, ma'am, I must leave the getting up of these parties to you alone. I shall not go
to London this year.”
The effect of this announcement on Lady Halford showed how great was the shock it conveyed to her whole being; for she was absolutely silent-quite silent for at least three minutes. At length, recovering her breath and her senses together, she closed her lips, removed the eyes which had been fixed in utter astonishment on Maude, and then slowly repeated :
“ Not go to town, Maude! what in the name of all that is rational, do you mean? or are you absolutely crazy with dreaming ?”
“ Í hope not, ma'am, though I really mean what I say. I am weary of the frivolous dissipation I have regularly passed through for these last four years, and I shall not go to London this season.”
The decision was repeated so firmly, that Lady Halford, who was about to assume an authoritative tone, changed her tactics, (for she stood a little in awe of this niece,) and replied more quietly, “Indeed, this is a very new freak, Maude, and one which, I fear, I must interfere with, since I have already made several engagements in town, and such as I can by no means give up."
“I should be sorry, ma'am, if my decision should give you any inconvenience, and I have no idea that it will do so; though I must repeat decidedly, I shall not leave the country this summer.”
Maude half smiled as she spoke.
Lady Halford, whose cheeks began to grow rather warmer than was either becoming or agreeable, answered hastily, “ You speak in riddles to me, Maude; but I assure you I have no intention of giving up the innocent pleasures which you are
pleased to call frivolous dissipation, and I think, grave and wise as you would be thought, you can scarcely imagine that Miss Willingham at two and twenty, can very consistently reside for months quite alone at Willingham Manor, without any chaperone."
“No, I have provided for that, as I was sure you would prefer going to town, and I expect a lady here next week, whose age and position will satisfy, I hope, even your London world that Miss Willingham is not quite insane, though she does for once prefer her own green glades to the heat and crowd and noise of their
There was an ironical emphasis on the word “gay,” and a peculiar smile on the speaker's lips as she uttered it.
Lady Halford was aghast. She had for some time had a haunting fear that her younger charge was growing very independent and acquiring a most inconvenient knack of thinking and reasoning for herself, instead of blindly following in the usual routine of fashionable life, those who, like Lady Halford, imagined there should be no deviation from its laws, and could be no enjoyment, no life, no anything, in fact, out of its pale. But such a step as this she had never deemed it possible could enter Maude's head to think of for an instant, much less to deliberately settle on taking, and without once consulting her.
Apparently some idea that an apology was due to her aunt, in regard to the latter proceeding, came into Maude's mind at the same instant, for before Lady Halford could muster words strong enough to express all she desired, her niece proceeded : “I should have told
you this before, aunt, but I felt sure you would dislike the plan, and as I was and am firm in my determination, I judged my not doing so would save
many useless discussions ; and for Mrs. Redgrave, the Villebois recommend her highly as the sort of companion I want; therefore, I think you will be perfectly contented with her."
“ You might at least bave given me a voice in the matter, I think,” returned Lady Halford, gaining courage from Maude's conciliatory explanation; "how could
tell that I would not have arranged matters so as to have remained here myself, if I had known this mad, absurd fancy before pui
Maude looked half inclined to return a satirical reply to this, but she checked herself, and only said: “I was certain you would not enter into my feelings on this point, and therefore arranged what will suit both of us best; and for the rest, Lady Halford, you may still remain with me if you wish it: you need not surely to be told that the doors of Willingham Manor will ever be open to my father's sister.”
Maude did not intend this at all in the spirit her aunt chose to take it in. She had curbed the feelings of contempt and rebellion which were busy within her, and following the impulse of the moment, spoke only what she felt towards her father's near relative. The latter however received it very differently.
Upon my word, your liberality and condescension are amazing You, first of all, assume most extraordinary powers of sole authority for your age, act as if my position in regard to you was nothing more than an upper hireling, who can be changed at will, and then condescendingly inform me I may still find an asylum here if I desire it.” And Lady Halford rose in extreme and agitated indignation. Nay, not so;
you know you would not have stayed with me here. You know I may choose any place of residence I like, and you know also that wherever that might be, you would have always a right of welcome thither. Dear madam, you must allow me to say, you put a strange construction on what is, after all, a very simple matter."
Lady Halford only replied to this half apology by reiterating her astonishment and displeasure; and it was some time before Maude succeeded in ending the discussion in any way: not, indeed, till her aunt per