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Countess Kate By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 18897

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


"There, I've done every bit I can do! I'm going to see what o'clock it is."

"I heard it strike eleven just now."

"Sylvia, you'll tip up! What a tremendous stretch!"

"Wha-ooh! Oh dear! We sha'n't get one moment before dinner! Oh, horrible! oh, horrible! most horrible!"

"Sylvia, you know I hate hearing Hamlet profaned."

"You can't hate it more than having no one to hear our lessons."

"That makes you do it. What on earth can Mary be about?"

"Some tiresome woman to speak to her, I suppose."

"I'm sure it can't be as much her business as it is to mind her poor little sisters. Oh dear! if Papa could only afford us a governess!"

"I am sure I should not like it at all; besides, it is wrong to wish to be richer than one is."

"I don't wish; I am only thinking how nice it would be, if some one would give us a famous quantity of money. Then Papa should have a pretty parsonage, like the one at Shagton; and we would make the church beautiful, and get another pony or two, to ride with Charlie."

"Yes, and have a garden with a hothouse like Mr. Brown's."

"Oh yes; and a governess to teach us to draw. But best of all-O Sylvia! wouldn't it be nice not to have to mind one's clothes always? Yes, you laugh; but it comes easier to you; and, oh dear! oh dear! it is so horrid to be always having to see one does not tear oneself."

"I don't think you do see," said Sylvia, laughing.

"My frocks always will get upon the thorns. It is very odd."

"Only do please, Katie dear, let me finish this sum; and then if Mary is not come, she can't scold if we are amusing ourselves."

"I know!" cried Kate. "I'll draw such a picture, and tell you all about it when your sum is over."

Thereon ensued silence in the little room, half parlour, half study, nearly filled with books and piano; and the furniture, though carefully protected with brown holland, looking the worse for wear, and as if danced over by a good many young folks.

The two little girls, who sat on the opposite sides of a little square table in the bay-window, were both between ten and eleven years old, but could not have been taken for twins, nor even for sisters, so unlike were their features and complexion; though their dress, very dark grey linsey, and brown holland aprons, was exactly the same, except that Sylvia's was enlivened by scarlet braid, Kate's darkened by black-and moreover, Kate's apron was soiled, and the frock bore traces of a great darn. In fact, new frocks for the pair were generally made necessary by Kate's tattered state, when Sylvia's garments were still available for little Lily, or for some school child.

Sylvia's brown hair was smooth as satin; Kate's net did not succeed in confining the loose rough waves of dark chestnut, on the road to blackness. Sylvia was the shorter, firmer, and stronger, with round white well-cushioned limbs; Kate was tall, skinny, and brown, though perfectly healthful. The face of the one was round and rosy, of the other thin and dark; and one pair of eyes were of honest grey, while the others were large and hazel, with blue whites. Kate's little hand was so slight, that Sylvia's strong fingers could almost crush it together, but it was far less effective in any sort of handiwork; and her slim neatly-made foot always was a reproach to her for making such boisterous steps, and wearing out her shoes so much faster than the quieter movements of her companion did-her sister, as the children would have said, for nothing but the difference of surname reminded Katharine Umfraville that she was not the sister of Sylvia Wardour.

Her father, a young clergyman, had died before she could remember anything, and her mother had not survived him three months. Little Kate had then become the charge of her mother's sister, Mrs. Wardour, and had grown up in the little parsonage belonging to the district church of St. James's, Oldburgh, amongst her cousins, calling Mr. and Mrs. Wardour Papa and Mamma, and feeling no difference between their love to their own five children and to her.

Mrs. Wardour had been dead for about four years, and the little girls were taught by the eldest sister, Mary, who had been at a boarding-school to fit her for educating them. Mr. Wardour too taught them a good deal himself, and had the more time for them since Charlie, the youngest boy, had gone every day to the grammar-school in the town.

Armyn, the eldest of the family, was with Mr. Brown, a very good old solicitor, who, besides his office in Oldburgh, had a very pretty house and grounds two miles beyond St. James's, where the parsonage children were delighted to spend an afternoon now and then.

Little did they know that it was the taking the little niece as a daughter that had made it needful to make Armyn enter on a profession at once, instead of going to the university and becoming a clergyman like his father; nor how cheerfully Armyn had agreed to do whatever would best lighten his father's cares and troubles. They were a very happy family; above all, on the Saturday evenings and Sundays that the good-natured elder brother spent at home.

"There!" cried Sylvia, laying down her slate pencil, and indulging in another tremendous yawn; "we can't do a thing more till Mary comes! What can she be about?"

"Oh, but look, Sylvia!" cried Kate, quite forgetting everything in the interest of her drawing on a large sheet of straw-paper. "Do you see what it is?"

"I don't know," said Sylvia, "unless-let me see- That's a very rich little girl, isn't it?" pointing to an outline of a young lady whose wealth was denoted by the flounces (or rather scallops) on her frock, the bracelets on her sausage-shaped arms, and the necklace on her neck.

"Yes; she is a very rich and grand- Lady Ethelinda; isn't that a pretty name? I do wish I was Lady Katharine."

"And what is she giving? I wish you would not do men and boys, Kate; their legs always look so funny as you do them."

"They never will come right; but never mind, I must have them. That is Lady Ethelinda's dear good cousin, Maximilian; he is a lawyer-don't you see the parchment sticking out of his pocket?"

"Just like Armyn."

"And she is giving him a box with a beautiful new microscope in it; don't you see the top of it? And there is a whole pile of books. And I would draw a pony, only I never can nicely; but look here,"-Kate went on drawing as she spoke-"here is Lady Ethelinda with her best hat on, and a little girl coming. There is the little girl's house, burnt down; don't you see?"

Sylvia saw with the eyes of her mind the ruins, though her real eyes saw nothing but two lines, meant to be upright, joined together by a wild zig-zag, and with some peaked scrabbles and round whirls intended for smoke. Then Kate's ready pencil portrayed the family, as jagged in their drapery as the flames and presently Lady Ethelinda appeared before a counter (such a counter! sloping like a desk in the attempt at perspective, but it conveniently concealed the shopman's legs,) buying very peculiar garments for the sufferers. Another scene in which she was presenting them followed, Sylvia looking on, and making suggestions; for in fact there was no quiet pastime more relished by the two cousins than drawing stories, as they called it, and most of their pence went in paper for that purpose.

"Lady Ethelinda had a whole ream of paper to draw on!" were the words pronounced in Kate's shrill key of eagerness, just as the long lost Mary and her father opened the door.

"Indeed!" said Mr. Wardour, a tall, grave-looking man; "and who is Lady Ethelinda!"

"O Papa, it's just a story I was drawing," said Kate, half eager, half ashamed.

"We have done all the lessons we could, indeed we have-" began Sylvia; "my music and our French grammar, and-"

"Yes, I know," said Mary; and she paused, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable, so that Sylvia stood in suspense and wonder.

"And so my little Kate likes thinking of Lady-Lady Etheldredas," said Mr. Wardour rather musingly; but Kate was too much pleased at his giving any sort of heed to her performances to note the manner, and needed no more encouragement to set her tongue off.

"Lady Ethelinda, Papa. She is a very grand rich lady, though she is a little girl: and see there, she is giving presents to all her cousins; and there she is buying new clothes for the orphans that were burnt out; and there she is building a school for them."

Kate suddenly stopped, for Mr. Wardour sat down, drew her between his knees, took both her hands into one of his, and looked earnestly into her face, so gravely that she grew frightened, and looking appealingly up, cried out, "O Mary, Mary! have I been naughty?"

"No, my dear," said Mr. Wardour; "but we have heard a very strange piece of news about you, and I am very anxious as to whether it may turn out for your happiness."

Kate stood still and looked at him, wishing he would speak faster. Could her great-uncle in India be come home, and want her to make him a visit in London? How delightful! If it had been anybody but Papa, she would have said, "Go on."

"My dear," said Mr. Wardour at last, "you know that your cousin, Lord Caergwent, was killed by an accident last week."

"Yes, I know," said Kate; "that was why Mary made me put this black braid on my frock; and a very horrid job it was to do-it made my fingers so sore."

"I did not know till this mo

rning that his death would make any other difference to you," continued Mr. Wardour. "I thought the title went to heirs-male, and that Colonel Umfraville was the present earl; but, my little Katharine, I find that it is ordained that you should have this great responsibility."

"What, you thought it was the Salic law?" said Kate, going on with one part of his speech, and not quite attending to the other.

"Something like it; only that it is not the English term for it," said Mr. Wardour, half smiling. "As your grandfather was the elder son, the title and property come to you."

Kate did not look at him, but appeared intent on the marks of the needle on the end of her forefinger, holding down her head.

Sylvia, however, seemed to jump in her very skin, and opening her eyes, cried out, "The title! Then Kate is-is-oh, what is a she-earl called?"

"A countess," said Mr. Wardour, with a smile, but rather sadly. "Our little Kate is Countess of Caergwent."

"My dear Sylvia!" exclaimed Mary in amazement; for Sylvia, like an India-rubber ball, had bounded sheer over the little arm-chair by which she was standing.

But there her father's look and uplifted finger kept her still and silent. He wanted to give Kate time to understand what he had said.

"Countess of Caergwent," she repeated; "that's not so pretty as if I were Lady Katharine."

"The sound does not matter much," said Mary. "You will always be Katharine to those that love you best. And oh!-" Mary stopped short, her eyes full of tears.

Kate looked up at her, astonished. "Are you sorry, Mary?" she asked, a little hurt.

"We are all sorry to lose our little Kate," said Mr. Wardour.

"Lose me, Papa!" cried Kate, clinging to him, as the children scarcely ever did, for he seldom made many caresses; "Oh no, never! Doesn't Caergwent Castle belong to me? Then you must all come and live with me there; and you shall have lots of big books, Papa; and we will have a pony-carriage for Mary, and ponies for Sylvia and Charlie and me, and-"

Kate either ran herself down, or saw that the melancholy look on Mr. Wardour's face rather deepened than lessened, for she stopped short.

"My dear," he said, "you and I have both other duties."

"Oh, but if I built a church! I dare say there are people at Caergwent as poor as they are here. Couldn't we build a church, and you mind them, Papa?"

"My little Katharine, you have yet to understand that 'the heir, so long as he is a child, differeth in nothing from a servant, but is under tutors and governors.' You will not have any power over yourself or your property till you are twenty-one."

"But you are my tutor and my governor, and my spiritual pastor and master," said Kate. "I always say so whenever Mary asks us questions about our duty to our neighbour."

"I have been so hitherto," said Mr. Wardour, setting her on his knee; "but I see I must explain a good deal to you. It is the business of a court in London, that is called the Court of Chancery, to provide that proper care is taken of young heirs and heiresses and their estates, if no one have been appointed by their parents to do so; and it is this court that must settle what is to become of you."

"And why won't it settle that I may live with my own papa and brothers and sisters?"

"Because, Kate, you must be brought up in a way to fit your station; and my children must be brought up in a way to fit theirs. And besides," he added more sadly, "nobody that could help it would leave a girl to be brought up in a household without a mother."

Kate's heart said directly, that as she could never again have a mother, her dear Mary must be better than a stranger; but somehow any reference to the sorrow of the household always made her anxious to get away from the subject, so she looked at her finger again, and asked, "Then am I to live up in this Court of Chances?"

"Not exactly," said Mr. Wardour. "Your two aunts in London, Lady Barbara and Lady Jane Umfraville, are kind enough to offer to take charge of you. Here is a letter that they sent inclosed for you."

"The Countess of Caergwent," was written on the envelope; and Kate's and Sylvia's heads were together in a moment to see how it looked, before opening the letter, and reading:-"'My dear Niece,'-dear me, how funny to say niece!-'I deferred writing to you upon the melancholy-' oh, what is it, Sylvia?"

"The melancholy comet!"

"No, no; nonsense."

"Melancholy event," suggested Mary.

"Yes, to be sure. I can't think why grown-up people always write on purpose for one not to read them.-'Melancholy event that has placed you in possession of the horrors of the family.'"

"Horrors!-Kate, Kate!"

"Well, I am sure it is horrors," said the little girl rather perversely.

"This is not a time for nonsense, Kate," said Mr. Wardour; and she was subdued directly.

"Shall I read it to you?" said Mary.

"Oh, no, no!" Kate was too proud of her letter to give it up, and applied herself to it again.-"'Family honours, until I could ascertain your present address. And likewise, the shock of your poor cousin's death so seriously affected my sister's health in her delicate state, that for some days I could give my attention to nothing else.' Dear me! This is my Aunt Barbara, I see! Is Aunt Jane so ill?"

"She has had very bad health for many years," said Mr. Wardour; "and your other aunt has taken the greatest care of her."

"'We have now, however, been able to consider what will be best for all parties; and we think nothing will be so proper as that you should reside with us for the present. We will endeavour to make a happy home for you; and will engage a lady to superintend your education, and give you all the advantages to which you are entitled. We have already had an interview with a very admirable person, who will come down to Oldburgh with our butler next Friday, and escort you to us, if Mrs. Wardour will kindly prepare you for the journey. I have written to thank her for her kindness to you.'"

"Mrs. Wardour!" exclaimed Sylvia.

"The ladies have known and cared little about Kate or us for a good many years," said Mary, almost to herself, but in such a hurt tone, that her father looked up with grave reproof in his eyes, as if to remind her of all he had been saying to her during the long hours that the little girls had waited.

"'With your Aunt Jane's love, and hoping shortly to be better acquainted, I remain, my dear little niece, your affectionate aunt, Barbara Umfraville.' Then I am to go and live with them!" said Kate, drawing a long sigh. "O Papa, do let Sylvia come too, and learn of my governess with me!"

"Your aunts do not exactly contemplate that," said Mr. Wardour; "but perhaps there may be visits between you."

Sylvia began to look very grave. She had not understood that this great news was to lead to nothing but separation. Everything had hitherto been in common between her and Kate, and that what was good for the one should not be good for the other was so new and strange, that she did not understand it at once.

"Oh yes! we will visit. You shall all come and see me in London, and see the Zoological Gardens and the British Museum; and I will send you such presents!"

"We will see," said Mr. Wardour kindly; "but just now, I think the best thing you can do is to write to your aunt, and thank her for her kind letter; and say that I will bring you up to London on the day she names, without troubling the governess and the butler."

"Oh, thank you!" said Kate; "I sha'n't be near so much afraid if you come with me."

Mr. Wardour left the room; and the first thing Mary did was to throw her arms round the little girl in a long vehement embrace. "My little Kate! my little Kate! I little thought this was to be the end of it!" she cried, kissing her, while the tears dropped fast.

Kate did not like it at all. The sight of strong feeling distressed her, and made her awkward and ungracious. "Don't, Mary," she said, disengaging herself; "never mind; I shall always come and see you; and when I grow up, you shall come to live with me at Caergwent. And you know, when they write a big red book about me, they will put in that you brought me up."

"Write a big red book about you, Kate!"

"Why," said Kate, suddenly become very learned, "there is an immense fat red and gold book at Mr. Brown's, all full of Lords and Ladies."

"Oh, a Peerage!" said Mary; "but even you, my Lady Countess, can't have a whole peerage to yourself."

And that little laugh seemed to do Mary good, for she rose and began to rule the single lines for Kate's letter. Kate could write a very tidy little note; but just now she was too much elated and excited to sit down quietly, or quite to know what she was about. She went skipping restlessly about from one chair to another, chattering fast about what she would do, and wondering what the aunts would be like, and what Armyn would say, and what Charlie would say, and the watch she would buy for Charlie, and the great things she was to do for everybody-till Mary muttered something in haste, and ran out of the room.

"I wonder why Mary is so cross," said Kate.

Poor Mary! No one could be farther from being cross; but she was thoroughly upset. She was as fond of Kate as of her own sisters, and was not only sorry to part with her, but was afraid that she would not be happy or good in the new life before her.

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