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THE COUNTRY COUSIN,' 'MADEMOISELLE, ETC.
‘HERE'S CATHERINE!' SEVENTY or eighty years ago country life had a more definite meaning than belongs to the words now ; it had a very definite meaning indeed in that part of Devonshire, verging on Dartmoor, to which my little story belongs. So retired were the scattered villages, dotted here and there at the foot of some steep hill, that men and women were born, lived long years and died, without ever having seen a larger place than the small market-town to which they journeyed and jolted through twisting green lanes, always green, although ankle-deep in red mud at least ten months in the year-or knowing more of what the great sea was like than they could make out of the silver streak of light visible from the top of Shaugh Beacon. Newspapers came only at intervals, brought by the Plymouth coach which paused in its rollicking career some two miles off, and left them to be picked up by the carrier, with his covered cart, his lantern and his old grey horse ; while, as for fashions, they were not so changeable then as now, and the Squire's family posted once a year to London and back again, and every woman in the village-except old Betty Sanders, who was bedridden-hurried away to church on the Sunday after their return, to see for themselves what was to be expected of them in the coming twelvemonth ; or to have their eyes tickled with visions of splendour to which they might never attain. Such a Sunday had come and past, and the talk on Monday ran on little else than muslins, clear or sprigged, chip hats, gores or frills. At the Parsonage the girls were turning over a heap of clothes which Anne had just unceremoniously heaped upon her bed. Anne was the second of the sisters ; Mary, the eldest, was two-and-twenty; and a long interval separated them from Charlotte, still a child. Anne was tossing this, that, and the other on one side.
Nankeen, nankeen !'.she cried, impatiently, 'I declare there's nothing else in the whole bundle ; where did you get your kindness for it I wonder, Mary? Here is your old-fashioned straw bonnet which you actually insisted upon trimming with nankeen ! was there ever such a fright?'
And, making a face, she twirled the offending bonnet round by its strings.
Give it to me. It's a great deal more useful than white chip and pink roses,' said Mary, stoutly. "You said nothing against it a month ago.'
But then I had not seen Harriet Leslie's lovely lilac gauze with those delicate flowers,' sighed Anne, letting her hands fall disconsolately, and crushing a pile of soft muslin into a heap. Presently she started up. “It isn't the bonnet; I could manage the bonnet somehow or other, for I would make Miss Blake send for some white gauze, and I don't see why a trail of real ivy shouldn't look very nice,' she added, gazing reflectively at Mary's brown curls. “No, it's the scarf. A scarf is a thing complete in itself, you can't make it up anyhow out of odds and ends. Did you see Harriet's? It was pale lilac silk, embroidered at the ends with pink roses; just exactly matching her bonnet.'
"George said it made her look very sallow,' remarked Charlotte, audaciously.
'Pray who asked your opinion, Miss Pert? Mary, you should keep your child in better order.' .
Charlotte only laughed, not at all abashed. “Well, it did,' she declared, “and George thinks that Cousin Catherine is always twenty times as well dressed.'
'George, indeed! George is a fine fellow to talk! I believe we might all come forth in trains and shawl-gowns without his being one bit the wiser. Or perhaps the curricle dress which I turned out the other day, puce-coloured velvet, lined with amber satin, and cut to the knee, with a black lace flounce hanging over the muslin petticoats! I'll wager he wouldn't know the difference.'
'Well, Catherine has a very pretty taste,' said Mary, in extenuation.
Oh, very! Only she hasn't posted straight down from London this very moment with a lovely lilac scarf in her trunk, and
set us all breaking the tenth commandment. Mary, do put away that list petticoat, and be frivolous for once in your life. If I carry out the ivy idea, will you wear it? Will you promise to look nice in it?'
*I'll promise anything for a quiet life. Besides, you're certain to make something very tasty.'
Well,' with another deep sigh, 'that's as much as I shall get out of you, so I'd better make the most of it, and begin at once while it's all clear in my mind's eye. Scissors, cotton—where's the ball of cotton ? Charlotte, fly and look for it, and you might -oh, you would be the dearest child in the world if you'd run down to Miss Blake's, and plague her to send for some white gauze by the carrier. And, Charlotte, as you come back, tell cook that Betty Sanders wants some broth.'
*Never mind about cook, I will go to her,' Mary said, laying down her work. “Anne, when did you hear that she wanted it?'
'I don't know—when was it? Yesterday? Oh!' Anne's bright face changed, 'I'm dreadfully afraid 'twas Saturday, and now it's Monday, and the poor soul will have been expecting all the time. What a wretch I am! 'Twas Harriet and her hateful scarf that put it out of my head. I vow I'll never, never again go to church on the Sunday after she comes back from London ; at any rate I'll sit with my back turned and my eyes fast closed. I will, sister, I will indeed! No, you shan't go. I'll go myself, and make the broth if cook can't do it, and take it to Betty, and tell her 'twas all my own fault.'
And, sweeping the finery into a tumbled heap, Anne rushed tumultuously away to the kitchen.
Mary Wilmot looked after her with a smile ; but the next moment she had set to work to smooth and re-arrange the crumpled materials, sorting and bringing them into order with a touch of exquisite neatness. Having accomplished this, she stood on a step under the high window, pushed open the casement, fastening it by the long perforated catch, and letting in the warm summer-scented air. A thatched cob-wall, against which were mellowing peaches, apricots, greengages, and purple plums, ran round two sides of the garden, and the gravel paths, edged by box, were also brightly bordered by clumps of scarlet lychnis, larkspurs, and York and Lancaster roses; all more or less gaily blossoming under the espaliers. Beyond the garden in a dip, ran the road; beyond the road, orchards, and seemingly out of the orchards, rose a fine but rather low church tower; while, over all, stretched a soft blue sky, against which the swallows were darting and circling.
Highcombe was a long sprawling village, with solitary cottages straggling away until they reached the outskirts of the moor ; indeed, one farm there was which was undoubtedly moorland; and Mary's bees made excellent honey from the thymy slopes easily within their reach. The air was sweet and fresh; the wild flowers were such as are no longer seen now-a-days, when all the country is ransacked and pillaged. Mr. Wilmot had been perpetual curate at Highcombe for fifteen years, George was his eldest child and only son; then came Mary, Anne, and Charlotte, at whose birth her mother died.
Mr. Wilmot was of good family and had a brother in the Engineers, by whose interest he had been able to get a commission in a foot regiment for his son ; and, promotion being quick in those days, George was already a lieutenant, and at home on short leave, torn between love and war; love represented by his pretty second cousin Catherine Armstrong; and war in all men's mouths, with Lord Wellington fighting in the Peninsula, Trafalgar some seven or eight years past, and press-gangs and recruiting forced to the very limit of the nation's endurance. George was just now in a state of burning excitement over further news of our successes. He had walked to the Cross Roads Inn to meet the coach and the newspapers, and there to his joy found a letter from Colonel Wilmot, telling him he believed his regiment would be: shortly sent out. As Mary leaned from the window, she saw George and his father pacing up and down the path at the farther end of the garden, where was the great bed of lilies of the valley, and the sunk wall to the road. The Parson was walking with his hand on his son's shoulder, while George was waving the paper and talking loudly, so that in the clear still air the sounds came cheerily towards Mary's window, although she could not distinguish the words.
'Glorious, isn't it, sir ?' George cried, triumphantly. “This last victory will drive the fellows in fine style; the only fear is whether 'twill not all be over too soon.'
‘Oh, we'll get the General to keep back a battle or two for your special benefit,' said his father, smiling. Nay, George, never fear, we haven't come to the last act yet.'
* I'll go by Friday's coach. I'll not risk waiting till Monday.' * That might be as well.'
And the young man went on to prove how wide a margin should be allowed for the possibilities of the coach sticking in the road, or breaking down. Many things might happen, but in the midst of enumerating their chances he pulled himself up short.
• What?' said his father.
• I've just remembered, sir, that it was proposed we should all go to the top of Shaugh Beacon on Saturday.'
Well, that's hardly an engagement of importance, is it?' said Mr. Wilmot, with some surprise. You must know every foot of the way to the beacon.'
• The girls are going, sir, too.'
"So I imagined. And both Mary and Anne know it as well as you.'
• Mary may be all right, but Anne-Anne never looks where she's going, and is as likely as not to land Catherine in a bog. You know, sir, that there are bad bogs about.'
The Parson's smile grew a little broader over this unusual anxiety.
• Tut, tut, my dear lad! you children have tumbled in and out of bogs all your lives without being the worse, and your sisters are as little likely to run into actual danger as you are yourself. Only last week Anne brought me home a fine clump of bog asphodel.'
Oh, Anne! Anne can take care of herself, of course, sir,' said George, impatiently.
*And of Catherine, who is no longer a stranger to the moor. Besides, if you are really uncomfortable about her, I can easily say a word to Frank Leslie, who I presume will make one of the party?'
* Frank Leslie, with his head in the air! I wonder, sirGeorge was bursting out, when he suddenly checked himself before his father's look of astonishment. It was so unusual for George to be irritable, that there was some cause for the Parson's surprise, especially when he was conscious of having exerted himself to meet his son's supposed wishes, and to have given no reason for impatience. But he was sweet-tempered himself, and put it down to the last news from Spain having stirred the young soldier's blood beyond its usual flow. Besides, the next moment George was himself again. We'll think it over, sir,' he said, with a slight abruptness. Here's Catherine!'
And perhaps it was the eager light in his eyes as he stepped