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UNE MAITRESSE FEMME.
THERE are persons, particularly in the class of those "qui vivent pour manger au lieu de manger pour vivre," whose blood circulates through their veins in prestissimo or double quick time; a peculiarity usually betrayed in irritability of body or irritability of mind;-by rendering them fidgets, or making them manæuvrers. Lady Jane Restless, for instance, was a fretful child, and even the beauty of her girlhood was impaired by a sort of unnatural vivacity, extremely perplexing to her sober-suited parents, the Duke and Duchess of Drone; who, having been born to the laborious task of doing nothing, fulfilled their vocation with such scrupulous exactitude as to render the space they occupied on the face of the earth almost commensurate with the vastness of their social importance. They were, in fact, very big as well as very great people: and while the slender Lady Jane fidgeted into airy nothing the moderate portion of flesh and blood allotted to her by nature, her Grace slumbered away her days in useless obesity in her easy chair or easy chariot; and her nights ensconced amid those huge pillows of down, up-piled by fashionable upholsterers to facilitate the drowsiness of the great.
It was a marvellous thing to the fat Duchess, so soon as Lady Jane attained to woman's estate, to mark with what untirable animation she supported the labours of the season; her mornings devoted to rehearsals of the monstrous but busy farce of Vanity, her nights to its representation. Birthnight balls, Ranelagh, the Pantheon, the Ridotto, Marylebone Gardens, galas, operas, plays and breakfasts,-nothing came amiss. The hoop's bewitching round could not circumscribe the activity of her movements; the high-heeled satin shoe placed no impediment to her measures. She was here, there, and everywhere :-her feathers in an incessant state of vibration, her fan always in movement, her ruffles ever waving,—lips, eyes, even to her rosy finger-tips, a perpetual motion! As she scudded along the Mall of a hot summer's afternoon, while the panting Duchess and her attendant lacqueys toiled after her in vain, the course of the lovely Lady Jane and her humble servants was as distinctly perceptible through the crowd, as the “blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone” through the tranquil lake cleaved by its impetuous waters.
But if such were her Ladyship’s vivacity during the first year of her appearance in the gay circles of St. James's, to what did it not amount when, at the commencement of her second season, the young Marquis of Amesbury returned in his red-heeled shoes from the grand tour! The Marquis-sprung from a race of statesmen, and predestined to add another well-powdered portrait to the gallery at Amesbury House, with Garter on knee and Bath on breast, and tributary Golden Fleeces, and St. Annes, and St. Stanislauses without end, in token of his ministerial alliance with foreign powers ;—the Marquis, who had estates craving legislation in the wilds of Munster, the deserts of the Hebrides; -the Marquis, who had houses and establishments to legislate in half the counties of the kingdom! Poor Lady Jane's veins frothed as if under the action of a chocolate-mill
, while she pondered upon the glorious toils likely to fall to the share of his future marchioness; and from the hour of her first acquaintance with the head and fount of so
much and such arduous occupation, left no maneuvre unattempted to secure her promotion to the vacant post. Such billets as she indited to win the suffrage of his old-fashioned relations !—such aprons as she flowered for his lady-sisters !—such courses to the New Exchange for lackered fans for his maiden aunts !--such ransacking of Mrs. Chenevix's shop for baubles for his guardian's watch-chain! The Duchess's meagre chairmen were ever on the trot; and even the porter at Drone House dwindled away in his leathern chair under the anxieties now added to his calling! Lord A., meanwhile, inaccessible to all this mercurial activity, was pursuing, unobserved, his sober courtship of a gentle cousin to whom he had been betrothed from his boyhood; and lo! upon the summer birthday which annually sounded a tocsin of retreat into the country for the belles and beaux of the court of George III., Lady Jane had the satisfaction of witnessing the presentation of the Marquis and Marchioness of Amesbury
on their marriage," and of protesting that the bride was a poor, dull, tame, humdrum creature,—a piece of still life, emulating one of the stone greyhounds, couchant, that adorned the entrance-gates of Amesbury House ! Nevertheless the disappointment was a severe one. Most people had prognosticated that her Ladyship’s manæuvres would prove successful, and even the sleepy Duchess opened wide her eyes with amazement on learning that the unheard-of exertions of her daughter were labour lost; while Lady Jane, unable to revenge her mortification on others, resolved, as many an irate dame has done before and since, to revenge it on herself.
She quitted London for Drone Castle, swearing to marry the first man who honoured her with the tender of his hand.
Now the lordly halls of Drone Castle were situated in the watery waste of the county of Lincoln; in the midst of a domain where, during the midsummer heats, the castle stood half hidden in the fertile pastures that resembled copious baths of verdure rather than mere vegetable growth; and where, during the dank autumn, the wide fen-ditches opened their gaping mouths, for the emission of ague and the drainings of the spongy soil. The aborigines of the domain of Dronington were said to be as speckle-breasted as frogs; and the place and the people were alike weary, flat, and stale, though not alike unprofitable. The very clouds seemed to sail lazily over the land ;—the solemn rooks swung heavily through the air, like so many young members plodding through their maiden speeches ;—even the leaves on the trees had a fat pulpy texture, and the flowers an overblown, apoplectic hue. There could not, in short, be a duller spot than the whereabouts of Drone Castle, unless it were that of Cumber Hall, a place about two miles deeper ensconced in fenhood, the place destined to send forth that luckless suitor threatened by Lady Jane with immediate acceptance.
Erasmus Cumber, its opulent inheritor, was a heavy-shouldered, well-doing, well-thinking young gentleman of five-and-twenty, from whom neither Rugby nor Oxford had shaken off the rusticity of Lincolnshire squirehood; and who, finding himself suddenly bereft of the matronly cosseting of the widowed mother by whom he had been reared to man's estate and the estate of Cumber Hall, a few months previous to the annual return of the Drone family to the Fens, with the world before him where to choose his place of rest, but without a guardian in cap and
petticoat for his guide, unhappily for himself took refuge from his selfmistrust at the feet of Lady Jane Restless, and was almost terrified by the hastiness of her assumption of office. Her Ladyship's “I will !" was instantaneous as an electric shock; and such was the rapidity with which she proceeded to urge on the hymeneal preliminaries, to issue orders for wedding clothes, instructions for the Herald's Office, and lists for favours and wedding cake, that the poor squire began to ponder secretly upon the eligibility of propping up the dilapidated walls and crazy chimneys of Cumber Hall; lest, peradventure, the activity of its new mistress should topple down some part or parcel of the old mansion-house during her honeymoon into the weedy moat below.
The precaution would have been premature! Already Lady Jane projected the total demolition of the place; and her only consolation in exchanging the bridal post-chaise of a marquis for that of a squire of the county of fat beeves and fat beer, was the consciousness that Lord Amesbury boasted nothing in his possession so susceptible of reformation and improvement as the old castellated manor of the Cumbers, with the house-leek tufting its parapets, and the “ chimney-haunting martlets” colonizing its crazy abutments. Lady Jane beheld, as the brightest prospect in her marriage, a house to be thrown down,-gardens to be thrown up,-habits and customs to be thrown aside,-new conservatories, pineries, dairies, ice-houses, and ovens, to be erected on every side, and in every form which the London Gazette's last list of new patents might suggest to her preference; an avenue to be rooted up, and full-grown single trees to be transplanted here and there, according to the triumphant recipe of Sir Walter Scott and the Caledonian Agricultural Society.
But among all these projected constructions, there was still one on which her Ladyship had neglected to calculate,-a tomb-stone for her husband! Twelve months had not passed over the heads of the Squire and Lady Jane Cumber, the new mansion had risen but to its first story, and the new plantations were just attached by wisps of straw to the broom-sticks destined to “ teach their young ideas how to shoot,” when poor Erasmus, dunce as he was, became penetrated by the fatal truth, that the family vault of all the Cumbers would afford him a more tranquil retreat than that feudal stronghold on the Castle-hill at Lincoln by the vulgar yclept the county gaol; and almost with greater promptitude than the Lady Jane had snapped at his proposals, the grim monarch did come when Erasmus did call for him. The squire of Cumber Hall pined away, or was fretted into atrophy; and so rapidly, that his anxious wife scarcely found time to irrigate the conjugal clay, about to return to the dust, with more than three dozen varieties of quack medicines, before he breathed his last. Nothing remained but to bury him in a patent coffin, and erect a group of weeping Virtues in patent artificial stone to his memory; and then to devote her active cares to the education of the infant heir of the new hall; who, at six weeks of age, had already been inured to six different systems of diet and doctoring! Poor bahe !-better had his cradle become his burialbed at once, and spared him the hard labour—the more than pauper industry-of which he was about to become at once the object and the patient.
The maîtresse femme was now the happiest woman in the world. Little as she had suffered the departed squire to interfere in her measures, she fancied herself, for the first time, independent; and while deploring to her country neighbours her hard fate, in having an only child to manage, workmen to control, bailiffs to bully, lawyers to outchicane, she rose every morning merrily with the lark, to preside over her bricklayers and masons, and watched all night vigilantly with the owl to audit her accounts ;-delighted to find that the affairs of the deceased squire were somewhat embarrassed, and that the mortgages necessitated by her genius for improvement threatened to involve the family in half a dozen law-suits ;-nay! scarcely envying the Marchioness of Amesbury herself, when, on the roofing-in of the new house, it was discovered that the timber was full of dry rot, and that her wits might set themselves to work to cure or arrest the mischief!
Meanwhile the boy grew and grew; perhaps because it was the only thing his managing mother did not insist upon his doing. At three years old he had a learned preceptor; at five, a fencing-master. Lady Jane protested, that as public schools are favourable only to classical acquirements, he must be made a proficient in every modern language previous to being sent to Eton ;-and to London, every spring, was young Erasmus dragged, to be tormented by dentists and dancing-masters, and taught to draw in crayons and play the fiddle; to ride as only riding-masters ride; and talk only as only sons are permitted to talk. The old Duke and Duchess were astonished to observe what a slender second had budded from their fubsy family-stock, when the poor lad, slight and pensile as a fishing-rod, was daily exhibited at Lady Jane Cumber's dinner-table as an admirable Crichton of the rising generation.
Meanwhile, the Lady-mother had somewhat diminished the family rental by her mania for improvements,—by setting up a rope-walk, to be made from nettle-stalks; a china manufactory, based upon brickearth; an oil-mill for sun-flower seeds; and a foundry of tobaccopipes on a stratum of blue clay: she judged it at least indispensable to cram into the knowledge-box of her son a succedaneum for the paltry pelf she had extracted from the strong box of his inheritance.
The day for public schooling arrived; and the pale urchin already hailed with delight the prospect of Brocas meadows, and Serly Hall, and the Christopher, and all its clarets. But when the time came for separating from his mother, a totally different view of things was suddenly unfolded to his ken.
“ Ras! my dear boy!” she cried, as she delivered into his hands a trunk-key and a christmas-box of no mean consistency, “ remember that, next to the studies which are to fit you for parliament, your chief object at Eton must be the extension of your family connexions. Although so closely allied to the aristocracy, I have no hereditary rank to bequeath you. To be a squire, therefore, a Lincolnshire squire, is the utmost degree to which through life you can pretend; unless by the exercise of your own faculties you form such alliances and friendships as may tend to your advancement. I have been careful to place you in the same house with young Annesley and Lord Fitzwarren, whose fathers are both in the cabinet, and to whom I beg you will devote your utmost attention. Annesley, I am told, is but a few degrees removed from an idiot; and Fitzwarren is a martyr to scrofulous disorders. But you will sleep in their room, and will naturally make every sacrifice to conciliate their friendship.”
Poor Erasmus was astounded; and every letter received from home added to his dismay, by adding to the list of tufts he was doomed to toady some Honourable John, or Sir Frederick Somebody, whom his mother had just discovered among the intended patrons of his future preferments. Not a crony was he allowed to select, not a chum was he permitted to make his own, except under sanction of the Court Calendar; and whereas the Isis and the Classics happened to be in fashion, he found himself also required to qualify for a prize poem, and taunted into the ambition of becoming a second Canning. The “ Talents” were just then in, and blue and buff your only wear. It necessarily ensued, that the only son of Lady Jane Cumber must be a Whig, and the favourite of Whigs. He could not pledge himself too deeply on this head to the little mealy-faced hereditary legislators with whom he was now studying Herodotus, and with whom, some day or other, there was a probability of his studying the long odds.
Nor did Oxford bring relief to his cares and embarrassments. Lady Jane insisted upon his being the first man of his year as well as the first sportsman of his college; at once the best-dressed and the bestplaced under-graduate of Ch. Ch. The consequence was, that he became the butt of the bucks as a sap, and the butt of the saps as a buck; and only triumphed in his double vocation at the sacrifice of all his comforts and half his constitution. Up early with the hounds,-up late with his folios,-or up late with Chateau Margaux and Prince's punch, and early again for chapel. Such was the alternation of poor Erasmus's days and nights. He came off at last second wrangler, but with a complexion worthy to stand comparison with the ripest Seville orange in St. Botolph's-lane.
“ To Cheltenham with him!” cried Lady Jane, scared by the aspect of his yellow visage, at the very moment when she had three heiresses-a blind, a halt, and a deaf-waiting his selection; and, but that the Continent was fortunately closed by the Bonapartean wars, it is probable that the academic squireling would have been promenaded over half Europe, from Spa to Vichy, from Vichy to Barrèges, from Barrèges to Lucca, from Lucca to Mehadia, for the regeneration of his beauty. Meanwhile Lady Jane presided, during his absence, over the bonfires and roasted ox destined to commemorate his majority at Cumber Hall; pledging herself and him, over head and ears, as to the liberality of his political principles, and canvassing slyly and sub rosâ for his return at the next county election. And thus, having laid her night-lines and set her eelbaskets entirely to her satisfaction, she whirled back again to London, to make love, par procuration, to the lame heiress, who, although no chicken, was still less of a lame duck-having bonds and exchequer bills, and scrip and omnium, at her disposal, enough to line all the fen-ditches on the estate of Cumber Hall. Willing, however, to prepare an agreeable surprise for her son, she said nothing of her vicarious courtship in her letters to Cheltenham; and her own letters from Cheltenham, probably from a similar design, said nothing of a certain daughter of romance, a blue-eyed Miss Melusina Grubbs, residing in a rural retreat, with a green verandah and a parterre of marigolds, fronting the Montpelier Parade; to whom the invalid squireling was devoting, and in this case not by proxy,