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“Lucy, you are the cruelest, hardest woman I ever knew, and I will not have Laura baited in this way. The child is not in the least to blame, and if there is another word said to her on the subject, I shall never again speak to you."
“Oh !" sneered Mrs. Charlton, “ if you patronise Laura's disgraceful conduct, I have no more to say ; but there was no pressure on her in the first instance. Her engagement with Arthur Errol was altogether her own act, and I confess I cannot see how her conduct can be excused. It is my belief that she has given him his death-blow. I never saw a more wretched-looking creature than he was the day he came to say good-bye."
“I am sorry for him,” replied her aunt; “ but he is little more than a boy, and will get over it; and, at all events, it can do no good to torment Laura. She is not the first girl by a good many who has changed her mind. By the way, although you make such a boast of your girls' rectitude, had not Emilie a little affair of the same kind when you were living at ? Oh! that place in France ? No, no, I remember now; that was different. It was the gentleman who changed his mind. Yes, old Miss Wanstock told me a long story about it. Emilie was doing what Izaak Walton recommends, using a nice green gentle' to catch a salmon, and both gentle and salmon escaped. I was so much amused. go into the drawing-room, my dear?"
The ladies rose and swept out, mother and daughter speechless with rage and astonishment; for they had not for a moment dreamed that the little episode referred to had ever reached the ears of their spiteful old relative, who was rather more than a match for them with their own weapons. Presently her ladyship declared she would lie down for an hour, and left her hostess and Emilie alone together.
“ Poisonous old cat !” exclaimed Emilie ; “if she were a thousand times as rich, I shall never again try to be civil to her, and if I did, it would be of no use. I am quite sure she never meant to leave us anything."
“ You may blame your own bad tempers, then," returned her mother. “ I wanted nothing for myself, and I know that the insults and rebuffs I have borne for your sakes have nearly crazed me at times, but not one of you ever seconded me, except when it suited your own humours. Anything like consistent self-sacrifice seemed wholly beyond you."
“Don't preach now, mamma. I declare I don't care what that horrid old woman does with her money, so that Laura does not get it.”
“I fancy Laura will get it, then, and you may blame yourself with that, too. If you had come with me, instead of staying here to flirt with that abominable Irish major (as if an Irish major ever meant to marry anybody), you might have been first favourite with my aunt, and engaged to Colonel Home as well.”
“ No one could be first favourite with her who did not stoop to a meanness of submission. That I could never condescend to; and, as for Colonel Home, he is no such prize, and it is more than likely he would not have suited taste."
" It is quite time some one suited your taste, then. After all my trouble and expense, you have spoiled every chance
have had; and, mark my words, if you do not curb your temper, you will very soon
exhaust my patience, as well as any remains of good looks you may have,”
"I never knew you had any patience to exhaust,” said Emilie, half to herself. And with this parting relief to her feelings, she opened the glass door and passed out on the terrace, where the moonlight lay bright and full.
LADY LENOX and her husband stayed but three days at Charlwood, and during this time the moral atmosphere of the family circle was decidedly squally. Poor Mr. Charlton felt that things were going unpleasantly with the others, but his guests were full of the kindest deference and gentleness to him and Laura, and he thought it as well not to fish too deep in troubled waters. Laura herself would have been most uncomfortable, but that her thoughts were too full of her lover and his first letter to her to admit more than very
small share of less welcome ideas.. Emilie was sullen and dignified. Mrs. Charlton herself divided between her natural desire to toady her rich relatives, and not lose any chance she or her children might yet have, and the wish-quite as strong —to give free course to her vexation, and tell her aunt openly that she did not care a straw for her or her money. As for Lady Lenox, I must say that she enjoyed the perpetual covert skirmishes produced by such elements, and not even her affection for Laura could quite subdue her inclination to provoke Mrs. Charlton, and especially Emilie.
“ My dear sir,” she said to Mr. Charlton, about an hour before her departure, “ you will of course miss Laura terribly when she goes; but excuse me if I say that, in your place, I would not, on that account, make
any unnecessary difficulties if, as I think is likely, Colonel Home presses for a speedy marriage; indeed, Laura is not quite happy here, and it will be better that she should have a home and husband of her own.”
It was mid-November when Colonel Home came to Charlwood. Without were grey cloudy skies, spongy lawns, and cold wintry winds, but there was sunshine and summer in Laura's heart and face, and there was no lack of warmth either in her lover's feelings or manners. He was anxious to please, as, indeed, he generally was, and he had that unpurchasable gift of being able to win his way where he desired to do so. Before he had been four-and-twenty hours in the house, Laura felt that not only had she the peculiar happiness of his being there, but that his coming had smoothed away all the asperities of temper, and assimilated the discordant elements which had, since her return, not permitted her to know one untroubled hour. Mrs. Charlton admired Colonel Home beyond any man she had ever known, and was, above all things, anxious to cultivate his good opinion ; his reputation, as a sort of “arbiter elegantiarium,” was exactly the kind of notoriety she was fitted to appreciate, and that which she desired to propitiate, and she spared no pains to make her guest pleased with his visit. For him, he had never been so happy, since he had come to man's estate : there was something in the loving welcome of Laura's eyes and voice which went straight to his
heart (what he had of it). His campaign, since he had parted from Laura at Cragsmere, had not been altogether pleasant or successful ; in almost every house where he was in the habit of staying, he had a regular sentimental Airtation--taken up when he entered on his visit, and relinquished with little pain on either side when the hour of parting came. He had long been looked on as the most un-marrying of men, and now he found that the news of his engagement had spread fast and far, and that there was a difference between the causeries of this and former autumns. He had not felt at ease ; and now it was rest and peace to meet those truthful eyes, and know that the love which spoke in them came from a heart which mirrored no image save his own.
He felt younger, purer, better, in the atmosphere of her inartificial maidenhood; and, although he knew that a long continuance of the strain, necessitated by Laura's exalted opinion of him, would prove too fatiguing for endurance, yet for a short time it was pleasant enough to stand on a pedestal and be worshipped, and half cheat himself into the belief that he was something exceedingly superior. Laura pleased him more and more, too, the more intimately he knew her; her natural grace and elegance charmed his taste, and her beauty was of that refined character which does not show itself to all. Those who loved Laura and knew her best, thought her peerless ; but it was quite possible for a stranger to think her merely a nice, elegant-looking girl. So, being highly pleased himself, the thriving wooer made himself excessively agreeable, and a most harmonious visit was the result. All the county members were entertained at Charlwood, and the colonel was “all things to all men,” and to all women too. Every one regarded Laura as being such a fortunate girl; and so, indeed, she was, for the time, for she loved Home with all the power of her loving nature, and he was hers—and those who love are happier than those who are loved. Yes, it may, it must, have its pains, anxieties, and tortures; yet even these are sweet, sweeter a thousand-fold than the
poor triumphs of vanity, or the dull calm of indifference. It was a pity that this summer-time of her life could not have endured longer; but her lover was urgent, and her father inclined to yield, and she, ah ! she had no fear-no shadow on her heart-to have the right to be always beside her lover, to be his best, and closest, and dearest friend to be with him till death. This seemed only too much happiness for Laura, and it was arranged that the marriage should take place in March.
One morning, as they sat at breakfast at Charlwood, the letters were brought in and distributed by Mr. Charlton.
“What a pile for you, Home!” he said, as he gave the colonel his share; "and every one but one from ladies, too, I'll venture to say-I know the dainty envelopes, and pretty seals, and the writing.”
Colonel Home gathered his correspondence hurriedly together, and smiled nervously, for he well knew that, if some malicious fate were to put Laura in possession of the contents of his letters, she would rise from their perusal with an altered estimate of him, and he did desire that she should continue to respect and esteem as well as love him.
“Yes,” he answered, “a lonely bachelor, with my tastes, contracts many female friendships. I have friends of all ages, but my correspondents are chiefly old ladies--young ladies' letters are in general very tiresome.”
As he spoke he glanced a tLaura, but her face was quite serene and
untroubled ; and it speaks volumes for the nature of the man, that, although he had feared to read suspicion or jealousy in her eyes, he was conscious of a mortified feeling, because it had evidently never occurred to her that she ought to be jealous--no, that was all to come.
Two or three letters had fallen to Mrs. Charlton's share.
“ How vexatious !” she said, as she ran her eyes over the page. “ The Heytesburys are not coming home, after all, and of course Adelaide will not, in that case.” Then addressing Colonel Home, "Sir John Heytesbury, my Marion's father-in-law, was dangerously ill, but he is recovering rapidly, and has been ordered to Nice, so that he and his unmarried daughter are to join Mrs. Heytesbury's party in Paris, and they all go back to Italy together.”
“A very pleasant exchange, I should say," answered the colonel. • English rain, and fog, and cold, I should exchange any day for an Italian sky."
Yes, that is true; but remember that it is so long since I have seen my daughters, and I do pine for Adelaide, she is such a bright, joyous creature. I am sure you would like her.”
“ I am sure I should. Will she not be at home for March?” with a glance at Laura.
“No; I fear not. This letter is from Marion, who is very curt in her intelligence; but here is one from Adelaide herself. No! she says, • You may not hope to see us till June, as Sir John is ordered to remain at Nice until all danger of east winds shall have passed.' I am so sorry. Adelaide gives such life and spirit to one's daily existence; but at least she will enjoy the stay abroad, although a more affectionate daughter does not exist."
“Your step-mother is a most agreeable woman, Laura," said the colonel, as he and Laura were alone in the course of the day.
"I don't know a more charming hostess ; her manner is, perhaps, a shade too loud, but that is to be expected. A military life does not suit a lady; but what a clever woman she is ! As for this Adelaide, of whom she is always talking, I should really like to see her. If those photographs are at all like her, what a little beauty she must be !"
They are very like her,” said Laura.
Well, I suppose they must be ; there is little flattery in photography. Yours, for instance, though inexpressibly dear to me, I should not like to show any one, as a portrait of you.”
“ I should not wish you to show it, even if it were pretty.”
“ Nevertheless, my dearest, I should have liked to show it to one or two particular friends, had it been at all calculated to give even a faint idea of what you really are; but it is a caricature. However, it does not matter, I shall soon be able to show yourself to them, and I shall get a miniature of
the first time we are in London." Colonel Home seemed to take an extraordinary interest in hearing of Adelaide ; and her mother, whose darling theme she was, was only too glad to have an interested listener. I must confess that Laura grew rather impatient of the often-recurring subject; and even Emilie had not enough sisterly affection to bear Adelaide's frequent praises with equanimity.
“Really, Laura,” she said one day, when the three ladies were alone together, “ I think I should be jealous, if I were you. Colonel Home is
perpetually looking at those photographs of Adelaide, and talking of her, and mamma humours him and herself at the same time.”
"I am not at all jealous," said Laura, laughing and blushing.
“It is fortunate you are not. I should be. It is quite as well that Adelaide is not to be home till your wedding is over ; it might be your turn to be jilted, if Colonel Home saw her.”
Laura made no reply to this, but Mrs. Charlton's black eyes flashed an angry glance at her daughter, though her voice and manner were playful, as she said :
“Colonel Home has seen many prettier girls than Laura, Emilie; beauty is not everything, indeed it is at best a dangerous gift.”
With which piece of stock morality, pointed by a deprecatory, penitential sigh, she introduced another topic of conversation.
All too swiftly for Laura fled the days and weeks, and brought the time fixed for Colonel Home's departure. He must go, there was an architect to be met at "Thornicroft,” and some alterations planned and executed; and three days after Christmas he went.
Two other flying visits he paid to Charlwood, and in March the wedding took place. Mrs. Charlton would fain have had it a very grand affair, but Laura's wishes carried the day, and the proceedings were as quiet and unostentatious as though Laura had not been the greatest heiress in the county. Colonel Horne got full credit for knowing what he was about," and Mr. Charlton was blamed for not seeking a more equal mate in point of fortune for his well-dowered daughter. But although Colonel Home, doubtless, did know what he was about, and probably felt gratified that he had not given up his sweet liberty for nothing, yet I must do him the justice to say, that had Laura not been what she was, she must have been very much richer than she was,
before he would have asked her to be his wife. No, with all his faults, he was not mercenary; but his disinterestedness did by no means preclude the consciousness that he had done a very good thing for himself.
As regards Laura and her father, it had never occurred to either of them that Laura's fortune was the bait which had won Colonel Home. Mrs. Charlton and Emilie, as well as many others, thought differently; but in this particular case they judged the gentleman unjustly.
Colonel Home and his bride had made no settled plan for their wedding tour, beyond that they were to go in the first instance to Paris; but as it must still be some months before “ Thornicroft” could be ready for occupation, their absence promised to be prolonged until far into the summer. Sir Thomas and Lady Lenox were amongst the few guests at the wedding; and the superb set of pearls and diamonds presented to the bride by the former, and the dinner service of Sèvres porcelain which was the gift of the latter, caused Mrs. Charlton and Emilie many a bitter pang; but worst of all was the peroration of Sir Thomas's speech at the breakfast:
“It has pleased Heaven to bereave us of our own only son, but he who was that son's best friend to the last shall ever be regarded as a son by my wife and myself, and we rejoice that he has been fortunate enough to win for his wife a young lady who (without prejudice to the claims of her own excellent father) is, perhaps, the only girl whom two peculiar, ill-tempered, cranky old people could cordially love and welcome as the wife of their adopted son."