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The Flight of GeorgianaA Story of Love and Peril in England in 1746ByRobert Neilson Stephens
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The Flight of Georgiana
A Story of Love and Peril in England in 1746
Robert Neilson Stephens
Illustrator: H. C. Edwards
CHAPTER I. ENEMIES
CHAPTER II. FRIENDS
CHAPTER III. KNAVES
CHAPTER IV. FUGITIVES
CHAPTER V. RISKS
CHAPTER VI. THANKS
CHAPTER VII. KISSES
CHAPTER VIII. THREATS
CHAPTER IX. SWORDS
CHAPTER X. WAGERS
CHAPTER XI. PROPOSALS
CHAPTER XII. TEARS
CHAPTER XIII. SURPRISES
CHAPTER XIV. ROADS
CHAPTER XV. PISTOLS
CHAPTER XVI. HORSES
“‘WHAT ’UD THE COUNTY SAY IF I EXHIBITED THIS HERE BIT O’ WRITING?’”
“The lioness, you may move her
To give o’er her prey;
But you’ll ne’er stop a lover—
He will find out the way.
* * *
“If once the message greet him
That his True Love doth stay,
If Death should come and meet him,
Love will find out the way!”
A little before noon one gray day in September, 1746, a well-made young fellow, in appearance and fact a gentleman’s servant, rode up the High Street of a town in the North of England, and through the passageway of an inn to the yard. Having entrusted his sorrel nag to an ostler, he hastened to the kitchen, and proceeded to give orders to the landlady with an absence of deference which plainly showed that he spoke not for himself but for his master.
There are still a few English inns not unlike those of that time. This particular house was of dull red brick, its main part extending along the street and pierced in the middle by the passageway which led back to the yard. In the front, the ground floor had four wide windows, and these were matched by four above, while a fifth was over the passage entrance. The small panes and stone facings of the windows gave the inn that look of comfort so characteristic of eighteenth-century houses, and this was increased by the small dormer casements in the sloping roof. The passage itself, paved with stones worn comparatively smooth, was capacious enough to admit a stage-coach or a carrier’s covered wagon. As you entered it, you saw the yard beyond, which was bounded by a wing of the main building and by stables, sheds, and sundry out-houses. Half-way through this passage, you found at your left hand a door, which opened to a public parlour, wherein meals were served at a common table to stage-coach passengers and other outside guests. At the right-hand side of the passage was a wider doorway, giving access to a small entry, from which you might step forward into the kitchen, or rightward into the bar, or leftward to a narrow stairway that wound steeply to the floor above.
The kitchen was not the least attractive of these destinations,—with the ample fire in its spacious chimney-place, the shine of the pots and pans on its wall, the blackened beams across its low ceiling, its table devoted to culinary business, its greater table devoted to gastronomic business—for all guests of low station, including the servants of those of higher station, ate in the kitchen,—and the oaken settles and joint-stools so tempting to the tired, hungry, and thirsty traveller who might appear in the doorway.
“And lookye, ma’am, you’ll oblige by making haste,” said the gentleman’s servant, having communicated his orders, “for master is following so close he may be here in a quarter of an hour. I’ll eat my bite while he’s on the way; for he’ll be having me wait on him at table, and as soon as he’s finished his dinner we shall be off again,—there’s eight bad miles between here and home.”
He went to that end of the long table whereon certain cold viands stood exposed, while the landlady set the cook and scullery-maid upon preparations for the meal that had been ordered. She then called a chambermaid and bade her get the Rose—the best room in the house—ready for the meal to be served in. By this time the gentleman’s servant had helped himself to a good slice from the round of cold beef, and a plentiful supply of bread, had obtained a pot of beer from the tapster, and was seated in great comfort at the table. The landlady, a fat and tyrannical-looking creature, turned to him.
“When your master stopped here t’other day, on his way to the South,” said she, “he had nobody with him but you. But now that he’s coming home, he orders dinner for two in a private room, and for one in the kitchen besides yourself. How comes that?”
“Because he’s bringing home the young mistress and her waiting-woman.”
“Young mistress, d’ye say? What, then, has Mr. Foxwell been married? Is that what he went South for?”
“Oh, God forbid! No, ma’am, ’tis his niece, Miss Foxwell, he’s fetching home. She’s been reared by an aunt on her mother’s side, but now her education is finished, and, according to her grandfather’s will, she comes home to Foxwell Court.”
“Then Foxwell Court was left to her? It seems to me I did hear summat of that estate going to a gran’daughter.”
“’Twas left to master and her together in some way or other—my master being the younger son, d’ye see, and she being the orphan of the elder. They do say master would ’a’ got the most of the property but for the wicked life he led in London,—I’ve heard he was a terrible gay man afore he came to the country to live,—but I wasn’t with him in them days, so can’t speak from my own knowledge.” The youth uttered an unconscious sigh, doubtless of regret at possibilities he had missed.
“Well, from what I’ve heard now and again of goings on at Foxwell Court since your master came to live there,” said the landlady, “he didn’t leave all his gay ways behind him in London; but maybe report is a liar, as the saying is, Master Caleb.”
“Oh, no doubt there’s summat of drinking, when the master can get anybody to his mind to drink with—for, between us, Mrs. Betteridge, he doesn’t run well with the county gentlemen—as how should he, with his town breeding? And I don’t say there isn’t considerable gaming, and frolics with the fair sex; but the place has been bachelor’s hall, d’ye see,—till now the young mistress comes.”
“And now I dare say all those fine doings will have to stop,” said Mrs. Betteridge; “—the frolics with the fair seck, at least.”
“That’ll be a pity,” said a voice behind her, whereupon the landlady, turning indignantly, beheld the stout form and complacent ruddy visage of her husband.
“A pity!” she echoed, in wrath and contempt. “’Tis like you to say it, Betteridge! I hope the young lady will keep Foxwell Court clean of the trollops. You’d be up to the same tricks in your own house if all the maids didn’t scorn you.”
The landlord’s only reply being a placid puff of smoke from his long-stemmed pipe, his helpmate discharged an ejaculation of disgust and waddled away. He took her place as catechist of the serving-man, seating himself on the opposite bench.
“What news on the road, Caleb?”
“Nothing to make a song of, as the saying is. Except at York,—we stayed the night there. They’ve indicted a great parcel of rebels—seventy-five all told, I hear.”
“They did better than that in Carlisle last month,—found true bills against a hundred and nineteen. Their trials will be coming on soon.”
“Ay, before the trials at York, no doubt. Well, all I can say is, ’tis bad weather for Scotchmen.”
“So many of ’em have come over the border to make their fortunes, ’tis only fair some of ’em should come over to be hanged. Well, he laughs best that laughs last. To think what a fright their army gave us last year,—some of us, that is,—not me. Have you heard if the Pretender has been caught yet?”
“Not I. Some think he’ll never be caught,—that he’s been picked up by a vessel on the Scotch coast and got safe away for France.”
“A good riddance, then, say I. I don’t begrudge him his neck, seeing there’s no fear he’ll ever ockipy the English throne. The British Constitution is safe. Well, ’tis all over with the Jacobites; no more ‘Charlie over the Water’; they’ll have to make up their minds to drink to King George for good and all. ’Twill be a bitter pill to swallow, for some I could mention.”
“You can’t say that of us. My master has always been Hanoverian.”
“Ay, ay, being town bred, and a gentleman of fashion. ’Tis some of our country gentry I’m thinking of. Well, they are singing small at present. Lucky for them they didn’t rise and join the Pretender when he invaded us last year.”
“There were mighty few English in his army, that’s certain.”
“Mighty few. A parcel enlisted at Manchester. And, to be sure, there was the garrison at Carlisle that declared for him. And some had gone to Scotland before that to meet him,—madmen, I call them. But he had no English of any family, barring a few that came with him from France, I hear:—chips of the old block, they were, dyed-in-the-wool Jacobites, from the old breed, that lived abroad for their health, eh? Well, ’tis all over now—all over now.”
Mr. Betteridge looked gratified as he said it, but there was a suppressed sigh beneath his content. Had he, too, in his day, sometimes held his glass over a bowl of water in drinking the king’s health?
“Except the hangings and beheadings,” he added, as an afterthought.
Caleb made no reply, being busy with his food lest his master might arrive before he had satisfied his hunger. The post-chaise which bore that gentleman was now approaching the town from the South, under the guidance of a despondent-looking postilion. Within the chaise, beside the gentleman, sat a young lady, and on the seat improvised on the bar in front was a lady’s maid. Between the young lady and the gentleman, who was middle-aged, silence prevailed. They did not look at each other; and something in the air of both seemed to denote a lack of mutual sympathy.
When we describe the gentleman as middle-aged, we mean as ages went in the reign of George II., for it is a vulgar error to suppose that people generally lived as long in the “good” old days as they do now. Not to speak of the wars and the hangman, there were bad sanitation and medical ignorance to shorten the careers of a vast number, and “drink and the devil did for the rest.” This gentleman in the post-chaise, then, was not over forty. Drink and the devil had made good headway upon him: one could see that in his face, which was otherwise a face of good breeding, wit, and accomplishment; a handsome face, lighted by keen, gray eyes, but marred by the traces of riotous living and cynical thoughts, and by a rooted discontent. He was tall and gracefully formed. His dress betokened fallen fortunes. The worn velvet of his coat and breeches was faded from a deep colour resembling that of the wine he had too much indulged in. The embroidery of his satin waistcoat, the lace of his three-cornered hat, the buckles of his shoes, the handle of his sword, and the mounting of his pistols, were of silver, but badly tarnished. His white silk stockings were mended in more places than one; his linen, however, was immaculate. He wore his own hair, tied behind with a ribbon.
The young lady beside him was very young, indeed; and very pretty, indeed, having wide-open blue eyes, a delicately coloured face, a charming little nose, an equally charming mouth, and a full, shapely chin. Her look was at once sweet-tempered and high-spirited; for the time being, it contained something of disapproval and rebellion. As for this young lady’s clothes, the present historian’s admiration for handsome dress on women is equalled by his dislike of describing it—or hearing it described—in detail. Enough to say that her gown of dark crimson, with its high waist, seemed to belong by nature to the small, slender, and graceful figure it encased; and was free from the excess—deplored by good judges then as now—so dear to overdressed dowdiness. She had, too, the secret still lacked by some of her fair countryfolk, of poising a hat gracefully, thus not to look top-heavy; hers was a hat of darker shade than her gown, with a good sweep of brim.
As for the maid, on the seat in front, she, too, was rather a young thing,—slim and tall, with a wholesome complexion, longish features, and the artful-artless, variable-vacuous, consequential-conciliating expression of her tribe. An honest, unlettered, shallow, not ill-meaning creature; cast by circumstance for a super’s part in the drama of life, never to be anything more than an accessory.
But the pretty young lady, left to her own thoughts, of what was she thinking? Did her mind cling regretfully to the life she had just left?—to the small, well-ordered home of her widowed old aunt; the decorous society of the staid cathedral town in the South, with its regular and deliberate gaieties, its exceeding regard for “politeness”? Or did it concern itself with the home for which she was bound, the country-house she had not seen since childhood, but which she remembered vaguely as old and half-ruinous then?—with what manner of life she was to lead there in the society of this strange, profligate-seeming uncle, who manifestly did not like her any more than she could find it in her heart to like him? Or did she have some vague intimation of great things about to happen unexpectedly?—of matters of deep import to her future life, destined to result from the chance coming together of certain people at the inn ahead?
Probably Miss Georgiana Foxwell had no such thought; but ’tis a fact that at the very time when her post-chaise was coming into sight of the church-tower of this town, other conveyances were bringing other travellers to the same town, to the great though unintended influencing of her destiny. To begin at the top, for that was an age of arbitrary social distinctions, a private coach, drawn by six horses and followed by a mounted servant, was lumbering along slowly from the North. Then from the East cantered two well-fed horses, bearing, as anybody could see, their owner and his man servant. From the North again, but far behind and out of ken of the coach-and-six, came three post-horses under saddle, one of the riders being the custodian and guide. And lastly, somewhere between the private carriage and the hired horses, but not within sight of either, a stage-coach ground its way over the rugged eighteenth-century highway. Of all the vehicles and horses that raised the dust on English roads that day, only these—with the post-chaise—concern us.
The first to arrive at the inn, where Caleb had by this time stayed his stomach and stepped out to look things over in the yard, were the two well-fed horses. Their owner, a robust, red-faced, round-headed, important-looking country gentleman of about five and thirty, slid off his steed with agility, and, leaving the animals to the care of his man, was met at the entry door by the landlady.
“Welcome, Squire Thornby!—a welcome to your Worship! I hope I see your Worship very well, sir.”
He took her obsequiousness as his due, and, with no more reciprocation than a complacent grunt, he bade her lay a cloth in the Rose and let his man Bartholomew bring to that room a round of cold beef and a quart of her best ale. With his snub-nosed crimson visage, he looked the part he had been born to fill in life; and was suitably dressed for it, too, in his brown wig, green cloth coat, brown waistcoat and breeches, large riding-boots, and plain, three-cornered hat.
“For I’m in haste to get home,” he added, “where I’ll pay myself for a cold dinner by a hot supper. So bestir, Mrs. Betteridge, and don’t keep me waiting.”
“Certainly, your Worship, sir; by all means, Squire Thornby.” And she called to a chambermaid, “Moll, lay a cloth for the Squire in the Thistle, and be quick—”
“I said the Rose, Mrs. Betteridge. Didn’t you hear? Thistle be damned!—I never said Thistle.”
“The Rose, Squire? The Thistle is far the better room—far the better, your Worship.”
“Lea’ me be the judge o’ that, woman. I’ll dine in the Rose, and there’s an end.” Whereupon he turned toward the stairs.
“Your pardon, Squire,—I wouldn’t offend your Worship for anything,—but the Rose is bespoke already for dinner-time, and truly indeed most o’ the quality that stops here prefers the Thistle.”
“But I prefer the Rose, and the quality that stop here may be hanged, rat ’em.”
“I’m terrible sorry, your Worship. But all’s ready in the Rose for t’other party, sir; and the gentleman as sent orders was most particular about having the Rose—though for my part I can’t see why he should want that room when he might ’a’ had the Thistle, and so I thought to myself at the time, sir; and when I seed your Worship arrive just now, thinks I to myself, how lucky it is t’other gentleman bespoke the Rose, because now there’s the Thistle for his Worship. And sure indeed the cloth’s laid for t’other party, and their dinner a’most cooked, and we expect them every minute—”
Beaten down by this torrent of speech, the Squire waved his hand for silence, and said, with surly resignation: “Oh, well, then, the Thistle. Who is it has bespoke the Rose, drat ’em?”
“Mr. Foxwell, your Worship, a neighbour of yours, sir, if I may say so.”
The Squire gave a start, and the cloud on his brow deepened. “Foxwell!” he echoed. “A neighbour of mine!—H’m! Yes, there is a gentleman of that name living in my part of the county.” With a parenthetic “More’s the pity!” under his breath, he added, in a kind of dogged, grumbling way, “What the deuce is he dining here for?”
“Why, sir, he’s been to the South to fetch his niece home to Foxwell Court, and they’re coming in a po’shay, and stopping here for dinner. He sent his man Caleb ahead on horseback to order it cooked, so they shouldn’t be delayed, for they have eight bad miles yet from here to Foxwell Court.”
“Ecod!” said Squire Thornby, “I have the same bad miles to Thornby Hall—or five o’ them, at least,—and I ordered a cold dinner so I shouldn’t be delayed. But, damn it, now I come to think on’t, I’ll have something cooked, so I will! I presume my belly is as much to me as Mr. Foxwell’s is to him. I don’t see why I should eat cold while he eats hot. Have you got anything on the fire, Mrs. Betteridge?”
He strode into the kitchen to see for himself, followed by the landlady.
“That chicken is almost done,” said he.
“’Tis what Mr. Foxwell ordered, your Worship.”
“I might ’a’ known it! The leg o’ lamb, too, I suppose. Everything for Foxwell. Does the man think nobody else has a soul to save?”
“The leg o’ lamb isn’t his, sir. ’Tis roasting so as to be ready against the stage-coach arrives.”
“Then I’ll have the best cut o’ that. First come, first served:—let the stage-coach passengers take what’s left. A beggarly lot, or they’d have coaches o’ their own to ride in. And send up a bottle o’ the best wine you’ve got in the house. I’ll dine as well as Mr. Foxwell, rat him!”
Leaving Mrs. Betteridge to put his orders into execution, he went out to the passage and called his man Bartholomew, to whom he communicated his intentions.
“Very good, your Worship,” said Bartholomew, in the manner of a servant somewhat privileged. He was a lean, hardy fellow, of his master’s own age, with a long, astute-looking countenance. “I see Mr. Foxwell’s man Caleb in the yard, sir.”
“Ay, and Mr. Foxwell himself will be here presently. A sight for sore eyes, eh? If I’d ’a’ known he was coming here, I’d ’a’ stopped at the Crown. No, damme if I would, neither! I won’t be kept from going where I choose by any man, least of all a man I don’t like. What’s Foxwell to me?”
“It’s small blame to you for not liking him, sir, if you’ll pardon my saying it, after the way he acted about his gamekeeper trespassing.”
“A damned set of poachers he keeps on that place of his. ’Tis a pity for the county he ever came into it. The neighbourhood did well enough without him, I’m sure, all the years he was playing the rake in London and foreign parts.”
“It makes me sick, if I may say so,” replied the faithful servant, “the way I hear some folks sing his praises for a fine gentleman:—it does, indeed.”
“There are some folks who are asses, Bartholomew,” said the Squire, warmly. “Sing his praises for a fine jackanapes! Fine gentleman, d’ye say? How can anybody be a fine gentleman on a beggarly three hundred a year? Why, don’t you know, don’t all the county know, ’twas his poverty drove him down here to his estate to be a plague among us? Ecod, who are the rest of us, I wonder, solid country gentlemen of position in the county, to be come over by this town-bred fop with his Frenchified ways? Give me a plain, home-bred Englishman, and hang all these conceited pups that come among us trying to put us down in talk with their London wit and foreign manners!”
The extraordinary heat manifested by the Squire during this oration was a warning to his man to desist from the subject, lest he might himself become the victim of the wrath it engendered. Moreover, the outdoor passage of an inn was a rather public place for such exhibitions, though fortunately there was at the time no audience.
“Will you wait for dinner in your room, sir?” suggested Bartholomew, after a moment’s cooling pause.
“No, I won’t. Tom Thornby won’t beat a retreat, neither, for any man! I’ll stay till he comes, now that I’m here, and if he tries any of his London airs on me, I’ll give him as good as he sends.”
Bartholomew was too well acquainted with the obstinacy of this vain, grown-up child, his master, to oppose; and almost at that moment a post-chaise turned in from the street, requiring both Thornby and the man servant to stand close to the wall for safety.
The landlady came bouncing out, followed by her husband at a more dignified gait, to receive the newcomers. Indifferent to their salutations, Mr. Foxwell stepped quickly from the chaise and offered his hand to his niece, who scarcely more than touched it in alighting. Caleb meanwhile ran up to assist the maid, but was forestalled by Mr. Betteridge, who performed the office with a stately gallantry quite flustering to the young woman, causing her to blush, and her legs, stiff with the constraint of the journey, to stumble. Miss Foxwell and the maid followed the landlady immediately to the entry and up the stairs; but Mr. Foxwell, as he saw Squire Thornby gazing at him in sullen defiance, stopped to greet that gentleman in the suavest possible manner.
“Ah, Mr. Thornby, you here?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the Squire, in the shortest of tones, and as if determined to show himself proof against the other’s urbanity; “attending to my own business.”
“An unusual circumstance, I suppose,” said Foxwell, pleasantly, “as you think it worth mentioning. A dull sort of day.”
“I dare say,” was Thornby’s savage reply.
Not the least altering his amiable tone or half-smiling countenance, Foxwell continued: “Smooth roads—that is to say, for these remote parts.”
“Sir,” said Thornby, fiercely, conceiving himself and his county alike disparaged, “I find these parts quite good enough for me.”
“Indeed, I envy you,” said Foxwell, with a slight plaintiveness. “I wish from my heart I could say I find them good enough for me—since I am doomed to live in them.”
That anything good enough for Thomas Thornby could not be good enough for another man was not a proposition soothing to Thomas Thornby’s soul. Having no fit retort within present grasp of his tongue, however, and knowing that even if he had one, his adversary would find a better one to cap it with, the Squire contented himself with a fiery glare and an inward curse. Then saying abruptly to his servant, “See that my dinner is served the moment it’s ready, Bartholomew,” he entered the inn and tramped up the stairs with great weight of heel.
Foxwell laughed scarce audibly, and followed with a step as light as the other’s was heavy. Emerging from the stair-head to a passage that divided the rear from the front rooms, he went into one of the latter, where he found the table set, and his niece and her maid at the window, looking down at the street. Across the way were a baker’s shop, a draper’s, a rival inn with gables and a front of timber and plaster; and so forth. A butcher’s boy with a tray of meat, a townswoman with a child by the hand, and two dogs tumbling over each other, were the moving figures in the scene—until a clatter of horses and a rumble of wheels were heard, and then the maid exclaimed:
“Lor, mistress, what a handsome coach, to be sure! And see the man servant on the horse behind. People of great fashion, I’ll warrant. And they’re coming to this very inn!”
Miss Foxwell watched listlessly till the vehicle—the private coach already mentioned as approaching the town from the North—had disappeared beneath the window from which she looked.
Foxwell had been standing at the empty fireplace, heedless of what might be seen in the street. He now spoke, carelessly:
“You saw the amiable gentleman who stood below, Georgiana, and who passed this door with so fairy-like a tread as I came up?”
“I didn’t observe him,” replied Georgiana. “Somebody passed very noisily.”
“The same. I thought you might remember him from the days before you left home. But, to be sure, you were a child then, and he, too, was younger. He is one of our neighbours, Squire Thornby.”
“I remember the name, but I don’t think I ever knew the gentleman.”
“If you never did, you lost little; and you’ll count it no great privilege when you do know him,—unless you have a tenderness for rustical boobies.”
Georgiana making no answer, the maid said to her in a lowered voice, “Lor, m’lady, your uncle had needs know you better. I saw the gentleman, and a ojus-looking man servant he had with him. I never could abide such bumpkin fellows.” The waiting-woman came from the town in which her mistress had received her education; she had been promoted to her present post from that of housemaid to Miss Foxwell’s aunt, and naturally she brought superior notions with her to the North.
Foxwell, wondering why the dinner had not arrived, went impatiently to the door. Steps were heard ascending the stairs, accompanied by the voices of women.
“The party from the private coach, being shown to a room,” whispered the maid to her mistress.
At that moment Foxwell, in the doorway, called out in pleased surprise, “Why, as I live—certainly it is! Lady Strange, upon my soul!—and Mrs. Winter! And Rashleigh!—George Rashleigh, or I’m a saint!”
He seized the hand of her whom he called Lady Strange, and kissed it with a gallant fervour; treated the other lady in like manner, and then threw his arms around the gentleman who was third and last of the newcomers (not counting two servants) in an embrace such as was the fashion at the time.
“Why, upon my honour, ’tis Bob Foxwell,” said Lady Strange.
She was a fair woman in the thirties, of the opulent style of beauty, being of good height, and having a fine head, and a soft expression wherein good nature mingled with worldly nonchalance. She was dressed as a fashionable person of the town would dress for travelling, and her presence brought to the north country inn something of the atmosphere of St. James’s. As far as attire and manner went, this was true of her companions also. The gentleman, whom Foxwell had saluted as Rashleigh, was a good-looking man of medium age and size, retaining in face and carriage the air of youth; he was the elegant town gentleman, free from Foxwell’s discontent, easy-going and affable without apparently caring much for anything in the world. The second lady, Mrs. Winter, formed a contrast to Lady Strange: she was slight, though not angular; her eyes were gray, and her complexion clear, yet the impression she left was that of a dark beauty; and she had a cold incisiveness of glance.
“And your devoted slave as ever, Lady Strange,” said Foxwell, kissing that lady’s hand again. “But in heaven’s name, what are you doing in this part of the world? Come in, that I may see you better. Come, I am dining in this room.”
They entered the chamber, regardless of the landlady’s eagerness to show them to a room for their own use. Mrs. Betteridge would thereupon have ushered their man servant and lady’s maid to the room she had chosen, but these menials refused to proceed without orders, and so remained outside Foxwell’s door, laden with small impedimenta of various sizes and uses, from pistols to scent-bottles.
“One never knows who may turn up,” said Rashleigh. “I was thinking of you only yesterday, Bob, and wondering if I should ever see you again.”
“And what ill wind for you,” asked Foxwell, “blows this good to me?—for an ill wind it must be to any civilized person that blows him to these wilds.”
“I have the honour to be escorting these ladies back to London from Lady Strange’s country-seat by the Tweed, where they have been for the recovery of their health.”
“And our good looks,—tell the truth, Cousin Rashleigh,” said Lady Strange. “My dear Foxwell, we have rusticated till we are near dead of dulness,—is it not so, Isabella?”
“Dead and buried, Diana,” said Mrs. Winter, in a matter-of-fact tone. “And to think you are still alive, Foxwell? ’Tis so long since you disappeared from the town, I swear I had forgot you.”
“Cruel Mrs. Winter!” replied Foxwell. “But ’tis not for you to speak of being dead and buried. You know not what rustication is. You have passed, I suppose, a month or so out of the world, and are now going back to it; while I have been a recluse in this county these two years, and may be so for the rest of my life. The town, as you say, has forgot me, and God knows whether I shall ever return. See what poverty brings one to, and take warning.”
The reader is doubtless aware that country-house life did not occupy in the eighteenth century the place it does to-day in the routine of the “smart” world. People of fashion had their town houses and their country-seats then, of course; but many such were wont to pursue more exclusively the one life or the other,—to be town mice who sometimes went to the country, or country mice who sometimes came up to town. Those who preferred the gaiety of the town were more prone to count that time lost which they had to pass out of it, and to look down upon those who spent most of their days in the country. When the town mice left London by choice, it was to take the waters at Bath, or to make the “grand tour” of the Continent. Week-end house-parties had not come in, there were no seaside resorts, and the rich did not hie themselves in August to the moors of Scotland. “Beyond Hyde Park all is desert,” said the fop in the play; and Robert Foxwell and his friends were so far of Sir Fopling’s mind; they valued wit, and used “fox-hunter” as a name of scorn. No wonder, then, that Foxwell declared himself miserable in his exile.
“’Tis for your sins, Bob,” said Lady Strange. “You were a monstrously wicked man in London, as I remember.”
Mrs. Betteridge now contrived to insinuate herself into the notice of Rashleigh, addressing him as “my lord,” and begging to know the wishes of himself and their ladyships upon the matter of dinner and rooms.
He turned to Lady Strange. “What say you, Cousin Di? I suppose we shall be driving on as soon as we have dined—”
“You shall dine with me,” broke in Foxwell. “I’ll not lose sight of your faces. I don’t meet a civilized being once in an age.—You will set more places, landlady: my friends will dine here.” Without waiting for their assent, he motioned the landlady out to the passage, and there gave further orders.
The attention of the three Londoners now fell upon the two figures at the window. Miss Foxwell, quite ignored by her uncle since the arrival of his friends, had remained where she was, regarding the newcomers with a side glance in which there was no great joy at their advent. Now that she saw their looks directed to her, she turned her face again toward the street, with a slight blush at the scrutiny.
“What a pretty girl it is at the window,” whispered Lady Strange to her companions.
“And what is she doing here with Foxwell?” said Mrs. Winter, eying the young lady critically.
“The dog!—he is to be envied,” said Rashleigh.
Resentfully conscious of the cool gaze upon her, Miss Foxwell whispered to her maid, “How rudely those people stare at us!”
“They must be very great quality,” replied the maid, reverentially. “Their waiting-gentleman looks the height of fashion,—but their woman isn’t no great sights.” Miss Foxwell’s maid had been quick to inspect the attendants of the travellers, and the lackey had already put himself on ogling terms with her, a proceeding which the other maid regarded superciliously.
As soon as Foxwell returned to his friends, Rashleigh called him to account in an undertone: “I say, Foxwell, if this county produces such flowers as that at the window, ’tis not so barren a wilderness.”
“That?” said Foxwell, carelessly. “Oh, that’s my niece, Miss Foxwell. Come here, Georgiana.”
She obeyed without haste, and was introduced. She was not in the mood to affect for civility’s sake a cordiality she did not feel, nor was she conciliated by the easy graciousness of Lady Strange, the sharp, momentary smile of Mrs. Winter, or the unrestrained admiration of Mr. Rashleigh.
“You are a sweet child,” said Lady Strange, speaking in a sweet tone herself, “to have such a naughty uncle.”
“I dare say my uncle is not much worse than other people,” said Georgiana, coolly, with the intention, not of defending her relation, but of being pert.
“She means you, Cousin Rashleigh,” said Lady Strange, smiling gaily. “She sees your character in your face.—But, my dear, you can’t have known much of your uncle in London. I’ll tell you some tales!”
Instead of carrying out her threat immediately, however, the lady turned her attention to her maid, bidding her put down her burdens and go and dine in the kitchen.
The man servant and Georgiana’s attendant being dismissed for a like purpose, Foxwell and Rashleigh, to give the ladies that brief privacy from masculine eyes which a toilet-marring journey makes welcome, went down-stairs and paced the yard till dinner was ready.
“So this is the place of your retreat, Bob,” said Rashleigh; “or hereabouts, I mean.”
“An old house and some beggarly acres eight miles from here. ’Tis my last ditch. Perhaps I was lucky in having that to fall back into. Fortune was set upon driving me from the field in London.”
“But you might still have contrived to live there one way or another. Men do, who have lost their all.”
“By playing the parasite?—begging of people whom I scorn?—laughing at great men’s stupid jests, or enslaving myself to great ladies’ caprices? Not I. Neither could I play the common rook where I had once lived the gentleman. Nor had I any fancy for the debtors’ prison. I might have turned highwayman, but I am too old and indolent, and the risk is too great. No; for a gentleman who had made the figure I had, and who could no more keep up that figure,—curse the cards and the tables, the mercenary women and the swindling tradesmen!—there was nothing but self-banishment to the ancestral fields.”
“’Tis a wonder you’ve kept them. I should have thought, from your habits of old, you’d have converted the last inch into the ready by this time.”
“They are beyond my power to convert. The estate is mine only in part. I share the possession with that young person you saw up-stairs.”
“The pretty niece?”
Foxwell shrugged his shoulders. “She may be pretty—I really haven’t concerned myself enough to study her looks. I shall doubtless find her an intolerable drag upon me. Notwithstanding our relationship, we are new acquaintances. She is my brother’s orphan—the only child. She was born at Foxwell Court, the place of my retirement, and she spent her childhood there. Both her parents died when she was very young; my father survived them a year, and upon his death she was sent to be reared by her mother’s elder sister. During all this time,—from before my brother’s marriage till after this girl left Foxwell Court,—I never came near the place. Most of the time, indeed, I was abroad, but even when in England I preferred the South,—and my father perhaps was not sorry for that, for, to tell the truth, I had never agreed with him and my brother, and, as the old gentleman loved his peace, he could spare my presence. After his death and the departure of the girl, Foxwell Court was shut up for a long while,—that is to say, till I sought refuge there two years ago. My father left the place to me and my niece, on such terms that it cannot be divided till she marries, nor my share sold during my lifetime.”
“You speak of it as a few beggarly acres. Had he nothing else to leave?”
“Not a farthing. Ours was a family of decayed fortune. You are wondering how in that case I contrived to make the appearance I did in town and on the Continent. By the bounty of my Uncle Richard—you remember him, of course: the attorney who made a fortune in speculation. He looked upon life much as I did, and not with the puritanical eyes of my father and brother; so he provided for me while he lived, and left me half his shares when he died,—to prove, I make no doubt, that virtue does not always pay best. When I had melted his shares into pleasure, I resorted, as you know, to the cards, and the tables in Covent Gardens, thinking they might repay in my necessity what I had lost by them in my prosperity. ’Twas a fool’s hope! For a roof to cover my head, I came home to Foxwell Court. I have at least enjoyed liberty there. But now that this niece has finished her education, and comes home in accordance with my father’s plans, responsibility begins. I was never made to play the guardian, George. The affectionate, solicitous, didactic uncle is no part for me. And especially to a minx who has been taught to look upon the frivolities of the gay world with virtuous horror. We have known each other but four days, and we hate each other already. She hadn’t been in my society an hour till I perceived righteous disapproval written upon her face.”
“Oh, I think you mistake the girl altogether. From the glimpse I had of her, brief as it was, I could swear she is no prude. There is, indeed, a delicacy and sensibility in her face, but nothing the least sanctimonious. She seems to me a young lady of spirit, a little annoyed about something. No doubt you expected to find such a girl as you describe, and you behaved accordingly: she was quick to take offence, and now you mistake her natural resentment for self-righteous rebuke.”
“I know not what my expectations had to do with the matter, but I can see plainly enough her dislike. And, damme, George, can you imagine what a restraint upon my conduct the presence of a young unmarried female will be?”
“Then you have only to get her married off your hands as soon as may be,” said Rashleigh.
“Her marriage means the division of our estate, and my share then will not suffice to feed a horse upon. But I won’t balk at that, for the sake of freedom, if you’ll find me a man willing to take her with the little she’ll have.”
“I grant, gentlemen of any fashion want a good settlement with their wives, in this age. But consider her beauty:—that is an item on account of which I, for one, would vastly abate my demands—if I were fool enough to marry at all.”
“She wouldn’t have you, fool or no fool. I can see she will be as fastidious when it comes to mating as if she had ten thousand a year. I fear this region will not furnish a man to her liking—I can commend her good taste in that. So heaven knows when I may be rid of her! But enough of the chit: I’m saddled with her, and there’s an end. You must do something for me, George,—you and Lady Strange and her friend.”
“Speaking for myself, I’m entirely at your service.”
“You must make me a visit at Foxwell Court,—now. Yes, you must. Your time is your own, I am sure. It matters not whether you arrive in town this month or the next. While I have you, I will hold you. When we have dined, you will drive on with me, not to London, but to Foxwell Court. You’ll give me a week—nay, a fortnight, at least—of civilized company, for humanity’s sake.”
“Why,” said Rashleigh, “’tis rather a change of plan—though I see nothing against it, for my part. If the ladies are willing—”
“They must be willing,” cried Foxwell. “You must persuade them:—if naught else will do, you must be taken ill and be unable to go on to London. Egad, I’ll poison you all with the bad wine they keep here, ere I let you escape me!”
“Nay, let me try persuasion first. I can commend you to them as a host—I know of old that you’ll stop at nothing that has promise of amusement in it.”
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