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Salome By Emma Marshall Characters: 16469

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

UNT BETHA was not the person to do anything by halves. She had promised to set forth early the next day to "hunt for lodgings," and she did not shrink from her task. She was up earlier than usual, that everything might be in order and her daily routine gone through in good time. First there was Guy to be washed and dressed; and his breakfast, with his two little sisters, Maude and Hilda,-Edith breakfasting in the dining-room with her elders. Then came the visit to the kitchen, and Mrs. Wilton's orders and counter-orders to convey to the young servant who cooked under Aunt Betha's supervision. There were the daily accounts to balance, and the daily arrangements to make; and last, not least, the daily burden of others to be borne. How nobly and uncomplainingly Aunt Betha bore this burden I have no words to tell you. She had gone through deep trials in her young days, and had been the useful sister to Mrs. Wilton's mother. Then when that sister died, and dying said, "You will have a home with Anna; don't give her up, she will want help," Aunt Betha transferred her faithful service from the mother to the daughter. She was too poor to live without earning her own living, and she chose to do this by the position in Dr. Wilton's house in which we find her.

Dear Aunt Betha! She was plain, and short, and very old-fashioned in her dress. "I hear too much about dress in this house," she would say, "to care much about my own." And black silk for Sundays, and a black merino or alpaca for week-days, made short and full, was her unvarying costume. Aunt Betha was scrupulously neat and clean, and her caps, tied with mauve ribbon under her chin, were always fresh and bright. So were the large collar and cuffs which finished her "afternoon dress;" though when she was busy about the house in the morning she dispensed with the cuffs, and wore a large apron and holland sleeves over her gown.

Mrs. Wilton had that dislike to trouble which can hardly be called indolence; for she was active in her habits, and could go through a good deal of fatigue without complaining. She would walk with Louise to a house at some distance, if the carriage was not available, rather than miss an afternoon party. She would give herself any amount of trouble about one of her husband's patients who she thought belonged to a good family. She would plan and contrive for Louise and Kate's dress and amusement; and her own appearance was singularly youthful and her dress faultless; and all this was not effected without much pain and trouble. But all the daily routine of household duties which did not bring any especial honour with them she disliked. Drudgery could be as well done by Aunt Betha as by her. Why should she be a drudge? "Aunt Betha was made to be useful, and she enjoys it. Dear old woman! We give her a comfortable home, and she is happy. Nothing could fit in better."

"I am not to exceed two pounds a week, Anna?" Aunt Betha asked, as she put her head into the dining-room, where Mrs. Wilton and Louise were lingering over breakfast and complaining that Digby was so late.

"Oh, about the lodgings!" exclaimed Mrs. Wilton. "Are you going now, dear?" (Mrs. Wilton often called Aunt Betha "dear.") "I will go up to Guy, then."

"Susan is with him. He is better this morning. Good-bye,-I have no time to lose."

"Very well. Take a cab if you are very tired. Certainly not more than two pounds a week for the lodgings; but less will be better."

Aunt Betha closed the door, and was soon on her way, her quick, light footsteps growing faint and fainter as she went along the smooth pavement of Edinburgh Crescent. She had a message at the green-grocer's and an order at the butcher's to leave as she passed the shops which supplied the wants of Roxburgh; and then she turned away from what might be called the West End of Roxburgh to the neighbourhood of St. Luke's Church. Here there was a substratum of small villas and long, narrow streets, which were a long way from the crescents and terraces of the gay town to which so many people resorted for health and pleasure. The college at Roxburgh stood a little apart from crescents and small streets, and a large number of well-built houses clustered around it, where the families of boys who attended the college mostly lived. In days gone by there had been a mineral spa at Roxburgh, which had proved the starting-point of the large fashionable watering-place of these later times. But "the spa" had declined in popularity, and the old pump-room was in a forlorn state of decay and desolation. It had given Roxburgh its fame; and now, being out of repute, was cast aside and renounced.

The part of the town towards which Aunt Betha directed her efforts lay below the deserted spa, and was nearer the large, smoky town of Harstone, which was scarcely two miles from Roxburgh, where a busy life of trade and commerce went on in the valley, apart from the life of pleasure on the hill above. A cloud of smoke lay in the valley above Harstone, and the river fogs crept up on this side of Roxburgh, laden with the smut and breath of the chimneys, in late autumn and winter; but on this bright August morning, the towers and spires of the Harstone churches looked picturesque in the soft, gray mist which lay over them and the tall masts of the ships in the docks.

Aunt Betha did not, however, turn her eyes to the valley. She was too much intent on scanning the rows of small houses with "Apartments," "Furnished Apartments," printed on boards in the windows.

"Number 3 Lavender Place. That is a nice bow window, and white curtains. I'll try there." Aunt Betha rang the bell, and did not fail to notice "that you might see your face in the brass knob of the handle." A very neat woman came to the door, and in answer to her inquiries said-

"Yes, I have apartments to let,-a drawing-room and four bed-rooms."

Aunt Betha felt quite delighted at what seemed likely to be the speedy end of her labours. Everything was so neat. Drawing-room back and front. Could anything be better? Then came the question of terms.

"Two guineas a week."

"Would you, Mrs.-" Aunt Betha paused.

"Parsons-my name is Parsons," said the landlady.

"Could you, Mrs. Parsons, say less if the rooms were taken for some time?"

"Perhaps I might, ma'am. I might say two pounds."

"Very well. I don't think I shall do better. I will close at once, and send you word as to the day the family will arrive."

"Pray, ma'am," inquired Mrs. Parsons, "how many are there in the family?"

"A widow lady, and, let me see, a servant,-poor thing, she must keep one servant; she has been used to more than you can count on your fingers,-and six children."

"I never take children, ma'am, never," said Mrs. Parsons.

"Oh dear, that is unfortunate; but these are not young children. The little boys are twins, and are-"

"Boys! that quite decides me, ma'am. I don't like other folk's servants about my place; but I might have got over that, had the children been girls. But boys-"

"Then I must wish you good-morning," said Aunt Betha. "Can you tell me of any house where children would not be objected to? I live in a house full of children myself, and I find them, as a rule, a deal pleasanter than grown-up people. But of course you must please yourself."

"I look at my furniture, ma'am, and my peace and comfort. I look to the ruin of carpets and chairs, and-"

But Aunt Betha stayed to hear no more, and trotted off on her arduous errand.

In and out of houses went poor Aunt Betha, with alternate hopes and fears. Some were dirty and slovenly: the landladies of these called the children "little dears," and said "they doted on children." Some rooms were too dear; some too small; and as the sharp-sounding clock of St. Luke's struck twelve, Aunt Betha felt tired out and ready to give up. She was standing hopelessly at the corner of Lavender Place, when a pleasant-looking woman, crossing the road, exclaimed with a smile, "Why, if that's not Miss Cox! Dear me, Miss Cox, how are you, ma'am?"

"I am pretty well, Ruth, thank you; but I am tired out. I am looking for lodgings for poor Mr. Arthur Wilton's family, and I can't find any."

"Mr. Arthur

Wilton! Poor gentleman. I saw his death in the paper, and thought it must be the doctor's brother. He has left a long family, hasn't he?"

"Yes; that is, shorter than my niece's; but six are enough to provide for when there is nothing left but debts and difficulties."

Ruth was an old married servant of Dr. Wilton's, one of the innumerable young cooks who had been under Miss Cox, and had basely deserted her as soon as she could cook-send up a dinner fit to be eaten-to dress the dinner of the baker's boy who had served 6 Edinburgh Crescent with bread.

"Dear me! I thought Mr. Wilton was a very rich gentleman. I have heard the young ladies talk of the fine country place. How was it?"

"He had misfortunes and losses, Ruth; and his family are coming here to live in furnished lodgings. But I can meet with none. Can you help me?"

Ruth looked right and left, as if she expected to see some one coming up or down the road with the news of lodgings in their hands, and was silent. At last a light seemed to break over her rosy face. "If they don't mind being next to our shop, I believe I do know the very place. Will you come and see? The house belongs to my mother-in-law, and she has got it nicely furnished. It is not far; will you come, Miss Cox?"

"Is it quite near, Ruth? for I must be back for the children's dinner, and I am so tired."

"You can take a tram from the Three Stars, and that will get you home in no time. It is not far, Miss Cox."

"Well, I will come, Ruth; but I don't feel sure about engaging the lodgings. Your mother-in-law won't mind my looking at them?"

"Oh no, ma'am, not a bit. She was an old servant, you know, of some real gentry at Whitelands, and the old lady died last fall twelvemonth, and left mother-I always calls her mother-a nice little sum and some real valuable furniture."

"Oh! then she won't take children," said Miss Cox despairingly. "She won't take boys?"

"That she will, if you like the apartments; there won't be no difficulties," said Ruth in a reassuring voice. "You see, my Frank's father died when he was an infant, and mother went back to her old place, where she lived till two years ago, when the mistress died. Then she took this little business for Frank, and the house next. It is quite a private house, and was built by a gentleman. She thought she should be near us and help us on a bit, and so she has. And she put the furniture in it, and has added a bit here and there; and she let it all last winter to the curate and his mother; and here we are, Miss Cox. Look straight before you."

Miss Cox looked straight before her as she was told, and there, at the end of the road, stood a neat white house with a pretty good-sized baker's shop on the lower floor, and two windows above. There was a wing with a bake-house, and then a tall elm tree, left of its brethren which had once stood there in a stately group, either by accident or by design, and given their name to the locality-Elm Fields.

"There's my Frank at the door," Ruth said, nodding; "he wonders what I am come back for."

"I remember him," said Miss Cox; "he used to take an hour to deliver the bread. Ah, Ruth, you should not have married such a boy."

"Shouldn't I? Then, Miss Cox, you and I don't agree there. If I am a bit older, Frank is the best husband that ever lived.-This way, ma'am."

Ruth opened a wooden gate and went up a narrow path to the door of a small house, built of old-fashioned brick, with a porch at the side, and a trellis covered with clematis.

"Quite like country, isn't it, ma'am?-Mother," Ruth called. And then from the back of the house Mrs. Pryor emerged, a thin, pale, respectable-looking woman, but with a sad expression on her face. "Here's a lady, mother, come to look at your apartments, for a family-Dr. Wilton's brother, you know, mother, where I lived when I first saw Frank."

"Ah! indeed; will you please to look round, ma'am? It is a tidy place; I do all I can to keep it neat and clean; and there's some good furniture in it, left me by my dear blessed mistress." And Mrs. Pryor raised her apron to her eyes, and spoke in a low voice, like one on the brink of tears.

"Well then, mother, when ladies come to be in their eighty-sevens, one can't wish or expect them to live. It is only natural; we can't all live to be a hundred."

"I don't like such flighty talk, Ruth," said Mrs. Pryor reprovingly. "It hurts me.-This way, ma'am."

Aunt Betha followed Mrs. Pryor into a sitting-room on the ground floor, square and very neat,-the table in the middle of the room, a large mahogany chiffonier, with a glass of wax flowers on it, and two old china cups. Miss Cox went to the square window and looked out. The ground sloped away from the strip of garden, and the hamlet of Elm Fields, consisting of the cottages and small houses where Frank now delivered his own bread, was seen from it. There was nothing offensive to the eye, and beyond was a line of hills. Harstone lay to the right. Another room of the same proportions, and four bed-rooms, all very neat, and in one, the pride of Mrs. Pryor's heart, a large four-post bed with carved posts and heavy curtains, the very chief of the dear mistress's gifts and legacies.

Aunt Betha felt it would do-that it must do; and there was a little room for the servant which Mrs. Pryor would throw in, and all for the prescribed two pounds a week.

"I will tell Dr. Wilton about it, and you shall hear this evening, or to-morrow morning at latest, and you will do your best to make them comfortable. They have had great sorrows. One thing I forgot to consider,-how far are we from the college?"

"Not a quarter of an hour by the Whitelands road," said Ruth eagerly. "I can walk it in that time; and young gentlemen, why they would do it in five minutes."

"How many young gentlemen are there?" Mrs. Pryor asked feebly, when they were in the passage.

"Two that will go to the college," said Ruth quickly. Then, with a glance at Miss Cox, she said in a lower voice, "I will make it right. Now, ma'am, you will catch the tram at the Three Stars if you make haste."

Poor Aunt Betha trudged off to the Three Stars, and stumbled into the tram just as it was starting.

She reached Edinburgh Crescent almost at the same moment as Dr. Wilton, who was returning from his first round.

"I have found a house which I think will answer for the poor people from Maplestone," she said. "I did not absolutely engage the rooms till I had consulted you and Anna."

Dr. Wilton gave a rapid glance to the white slate in the hall, and then said, "Come in here a minute, auntie," opening the door of his consulting-room. "Where are the lodgings?"

"In the neighbourhood you mentioned-by St. Luke's Church-in that new part by Whitelands called the Elm Fields. They are kept by a respectable woman, the mother of an old servant of ours-Ruth-and there is room for them all. Four bed-rooms, two sitting-rooms, and a little room for the servant."

"I'll take a look at the place this afternoon. I expect it is the very thing; and I have to see a patient in that direction. If I am satisfied, I will engage them from this day week. Guy is better to-day."

"Yes; he slept better," said Aunt Betha.

She was very tired, for she carried the weight of sixty-five years about with her on her errands of love and kindness. "I must go now and carve for Anna," she said. "It is past one o'clock."

Dr. Wilton always took his hasty luncheon in the consulting-room,-a glass of milk and a few biscuits. He did not encounter that long array of young faces in the dining-room in the middle of his hard day's work. Aunt Betha departed with her news, which was received with some satisfaction by Mrs. Wilton. At least, Elm Fields did not lie much in the way of Edinburgh Crescent. There was safety in distance. And Aunt Betha wisely forbore to make any reference to the baker's shop.

That afternoon a telegram was handed in at Maplestone, which Salome opened for her mother with trembling fingers:-

"Dr. Wilton, Roxburgh, to Mrs. Wilton, Maplestone Court, near Fairchester.

"I have taken comfortable lodgings here for you from the twenty-third. I will write by post."

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