Sense and sensibility, p.23
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       Sense and Sensibility, p.23

          

  CHAPTER XXI

  The Palmers returned to Cleveland the next day, and the two familiesat Barton were again left to entertain each other. But this did notlast long; Elinor had hardly got their last visitors out of her head,had hardly done wondering at Charlotte's being so happy without acause, at Mr. Palmer's acting so simply, with good abilities, and atthe strange unsuitableness which often existed between husband andwife, before Sir John's and Mrs. Jennings's active zeal in the causeof society, procured her some other new acquaintance to see andobserve.

  In a morning's excursion to Exeter, they had met with two youngladies, whom Mrs. Jennings had the satisfaction of discovering to beher relations, and this was enough for Sir John to invite themdirectly to the park, as soon as their present engagements at Exeterwere over. Their engagements at Exeter instantly gave way before suchan invitation, and Lady Middleton was thrown into no little alarm onthe return of Sir John, by hearing that she was very soon to receive avisit from two girls whom she had never seen in her life, and of whoseelegance--whose tolerable gentility even--she could have no proof; forthe assurances of her husband and mother on that subject went fornothing at all. Their being her relations too made it so much theworse; and Mrs. Jennings's attempts at consolation were thereforeunfortunately founded, when she advised her daughter not to care abouttheir being so fashionable; because they were all cousins and must putup with one another. As it was impossible, however, now to preventtheir coming, Lady Middleton resigned herself to the idea of it, withall the philosophy of a well-bred woman, contenting herself withmerely giving her husband a gentle reprimand on the subject five orsix times every day.

  The young ladies arrived: their appearance was by no means ungenteelor unfashionable. Their dress was very smart, their manners verycivil, they were delighted with the house, and in raptures with thefurniture, and they happened to be so doatingly fond of children thatLady Middleton's good opinion was engaged in their favour before theyhad been an hour at the Park. She declared them to be very agreeablegirls indeed, which for her ladyship was enthusiastic admiration. SirJohn's confidence in his own judgment rose with this animated praise,and he set off directly for the cottage to tell the Miss Dashwoods ofthe Miss Steeles' arrival, and to assure them of their being thesweetest girls in the world. From such commendation as this, however,there was not much to be learned; Elinor well knew that the sweetestgirls in the world were to be met with in every part of England, underevery possible variation of form, face, temper and understanding. SirJohn wanted the whole family to walk to the Park directly and look athis guests. Benevolent, philanthropic man! It was painful to him evento keep a third cousin to himself.

  "Do come now," said he--"pray come--you must come--I declare you shallcome--You can't think how you will like them. Lucy is monstrouspretty, and so good humoured and agreeable! The children are allhanging about her already, as if she was an old acquaintance. And theyboth long to see you of all things, for they have heard at Exeter thatyou are the most beautiful creatures in the world; and I have toldthem it is all very true, and a great deal more. You will be delightedwith them I am sure. They have brought the whole coach full ofplaythings for the children. How can you be so cross as not to come?Why they are your cousins, you know, after a fashion. _You_ are mycousins, and they are my wife's, so you must be related."

  But Sir John could not prevail. He could only obtain a promise oftheir calling at the Park within a day or two, and then left them inamazement at their indifference, to walk home and boast anew of theirattractions to the Miss Steeles, as he had been already boasting ofthe Miss Steeles to them.

  When their promised visit to the Park and consequent introduction tothese young ladies took place, they found in the appearance of theeldest, who was nearly thirty, with a very plain and not a sensibleface, nothing to admire; but in the other, who was not more than twoor three and twenty, they acknowledged considerable beauty; herfeatures were pretty, and she had a sharp quick eye, and a smartnessof air, which though it did not give actual elegance or grace, gavedistinction to her person. Their manners were particularly civil, andElinor soon allowed them credit for some kind of sense, when she sawwith what constant and judicious attention they were making themselvesagreeable to Lady Middleton. With her children they were in continualraptures, extolling their beauty, courting their notice, and humouringtheir whims; and such of their time as could be spared from theimportunate demands which this politeness made on it, was spent inadmiration of whatever her ladyship was doing, if she happened to bedoing any thing, or in taking patterns of some elegant new dress, inwhich her appearance the day before had thrown them into unceasingdelight. Fortunately for those who pay their court through suchfoibles, a fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children,the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous;her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow any thing; and theexcessive affection and endurance of the Miss Steeles towards heroffspring were viewed therefore by Lady Middleton without the smallestsurprise or distrust. She saw with maternal complacency all theimpertinent encroachments and mischievous tricks to which her cousinssubmitted. She saw their sashes untied, their hair pulled about theirears, their work-bags searched, and their knives and scissors stolenaway, and felt no doubt of its being a reciprocal enjoyment. Itsuggested no other surprise than that Elinor and Marianne should sitso composedly by, without claiming a share in what was passing.

  "John is in such spirits today!" said she, on his taking Miss Steele'spocket handkerchief, and throwing it out of window--"He is full ofmonkey tricks."

  And soon afterwards, on the second boy's violently pinching one of thesame lady's fingers, she fondly observed, "How playful William is!"

  _Mischievous tricks._]

  "And here is my sweet little Annamaria," she added, tenderly caressinga little girl of three years old, who had not made a noise for thelast two minutes; "And she is always so gentle and quiet--Never wasthere such a quiet little thing!"

  But unfortunately in bestowing these embraces, a pin in her ladyship'shead dress slightly scratching the child's neck, produced from thispattern of gentleness such violent screams, as could hardly be outdoneby any creature professedly noisy. The mother's consternation wasexcessive; but it could not surpass the alarm of the Miss Steeles, andevery thing was done by all three, in so critical an emergency, whichaffection could suggest as likely to assuage the agonies of the littlesufferer. She was seated in her mother's lap, covered with kisses, herwound bathed with lavender-water, by one of the Miss Steeles, who wason her knees to attend her, and her mouth stuffed with sugar plums bythe other. With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise tocease crying. She still screamed and sobbed lustily, kicked her twobrothers for offering to touch her, and all their united soothingswere ineffectual till Lady Middleton luckily remembering that in ascene of similar distress last week, some apricot marmalade had beensuccessfully applied for a bruised temple, the same remedy was eagerlyproposed for this unfortunate scratch, and a slight intermission ofscreams in the young lady on hearing it, gave them reason to hope thatit would not be rejected. She was carried out of the room therefore inher mother's arms, in quest of this medicine, and as the two boyschose to follow, though earnestly entreated by their mother to staybehind, the four young ladies were left in a quietness which the roomhad not known for many hours.

  "Poor little creatures!" said Miss Steele, as soon as they were gone."It might have been a very sad accident."

  "Yet I hardly know how," cried Marianne, "unless it had been undertotally different circumstances. But this is the usual way ofheightening alarm, where there is nothing to be alarmed at inreality."

  "What a sweet woman Lady Middleton is!" said Lucy Steele.

  Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did notfeel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore thewhole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell.She did her best when thus called on, by speaking of Lady Middletonwith more warmth than she felt, though with far less than Miss Lucy.

  "And Sir John too," cried the elder sister, "what a charming man heis!"

  Here too, Miss Dashwood's commendation, being only simple and just,came in without any eclat. She merely observed that he was perfectlygood humoured and friendly.

  "And what a charming little family they have! I never saw such finechildren in my life. I declare I quite doat upon them already, andindeed I am always distractedly fond of children."

  "I should guess so," said Elinor, with a smile, "from what I havewitnessed this morning."

  "I have a notion," said Lucy, "you think the little Middletons rathertoo much indulged; perhaps they may be the outside of enough; but itis so natural in Lady Middleton; and for my part, I love to seechildren full of life and spirits; I cannot bear them if they are tameand quiet."

  "I confess," replied Elinor, "that while I am at Barton Park, I neverthink of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence."

  A short pause succeeded this speech, which was first broken by MissSteele, who seemed very much disposed for conversation, and who nowsaid rather abruptly, "And how do you like Devonshire, Miss Dashwood?I suppose you were very sorry to leave Sussex."

  In some surprise at the familiarity of this question, or at least ofthe manner in which it was spoken, Elinor replied that she was.

  "Norland is a prodigious beautiful place, is not it?" added MissSteele.

  "We have heard Sir John admire it excessively," said Lucy, who seemedto think some apology necessary for the freedom of her sister.

  "I think every one _must_ admire it," replied Elinor, "who ever sawthe place; though it is not to be supposed that any one can estimateits beauties as we do."

  "And had you a great many smart beaux there? I suppose you have not somany in this part of the world; for my part, I think they are a vastaddition always."

  "But why should you think," said Lucy, looking ashamed of her sister,"that there are not as many genteel young men in Devonshire asSussex?"

  "Nay, my dear, I'm sure I don't pretend to say that there an't. I'msure there's a vast many smart beaux in Exeter; but you know, howcould I tell what smart beaux there might be about Norland; and I wasonly afraid the Miss Dashwoods might find it dull at Barton, if theyhad not so many as they used to have. But perhaps you young ladies maynot care about the beaux, and had as lief be without them as withthem. For my part, I think they are vastly agreeable, provided theydress smart and behave civil. But I can't bear to see them dirty andnasty. Now there's Mr. Rose at Exeter, a prodigious smart young man,quite a beau, clerk to Mr. Simpson, you know, and yet if you do butmeet him of a morning, he is not fit to be seen. I suppose yourbrother was quite a beau, Miss Dashwood, before he married, as he wasso rich?"

  "Upon my word," replied Elinor, "I cannot tell you, for I do notperfectly comprehend the meaning of the word. But this I can say, thatif he ever was a beau before he married, he is one still for there isnot the smallest alteration in him."

  "Oh! dear! one never thinks of married men's being beaux--they havesomething else to do."

  "Lord! Anne," cried her sister, "you can talk of nothing butbeaux;--you will make Miss Dashwood believe you think of nothingelse." And then to turn the discourse, she began admiring the houseand the furniture.

  This specimen of the Miss Steeles was enough. The vulgar freedom andfolly of the eldest left her no recommendation, and as Elinor was notblinded by the beauty, or the shrewd look of the youngest, to her wantof real elegance and artlessness, she left the house without any wishof knowing them better.

  Not so the Miss Steeles. They came from Exeter, well provided withadmiration for the use of Sir John Middleton, his family, and all hisrelations, and no niggardly proportion was now dealt out to his faircousins, whom they declared to be the most beautiful, elegant,accomplished, and agreeable girls they had ever beheld, and with whomthey were particularly anxious to be better acquainted. And to bebetter acquainted therefore, Elinor soon found was their inevitablelot, for as Sir John was entirely on the side of the Miss Steeles,their party would be too strong for opposition, and that kind ofintimacy must be submitted to, which consists of sitting an hour ortwo together in the same room almost every day. Sir John could do nomore; but he did not know that any more was required: to be togetherwas, in his opinion, to be intimate, and while his continual schemesfor their meeting were effectual, he had not a doubt of their beingestablished friends.

  To do him justice, he did every thing in his power to promote theirunreserve, by making the Miss Steeles acquainted with whatever he knewor supposed of his cousins' situations in the most delicateparticulars,--and Elinor had not seen them more than twice, before theeldest of them wished her joy on her sister's having been so lucky asto make a conquest of a very smart beau since she came to Barton.

  "'Twill be a fine thing to have her married so young to be sure," saidshe, "and I hear he is quite a beau, and prodigious handsome. And Ihope you may have as good luck yourself soon,--but perhaps you mayhave a friend in the corner already."

  Elinor could not suppose that Sir John would be more nice inproclaiming his suspicions of her regard for Edward, than he had beenwith respect to Marianne; indeed it was rather his favourite joke ofthe two, as being somewhat newer and more conjectural; and sinceEdward's visit, they had never dined together without his drinking toher best affections with so much significancy and so many nods andwinks, as to excite general attention. The letter F had been likewiseinvariably brought forward, and found productive of such countlessjokes, that its character as the wittiest letter in the alphabet hadbeen long established with Elinor.

  The Miss Steeles, as she expected, had now all the benefit of thesejokes, and in the eldest of them they raised a curiosity to know thename of the gentleman alluded to, which, though often impertinentlyexpressed, was perfectly of a piece with her general inquisitivenessinto the concerns of their family. But Sir John did not sport longwith the curiosity which he delighted to raise, for he had at least asmuch pleasure in telling the name, as Miss Steele had in hearing it.

  "His name is Ferrars," said he, in a very audible whisper; "but praydo not tell it, for it's a great secret."

  _Drinking to her best affections._]

  "Ferrars!" repeated Miss Steele; "Mr. Ferrars is the happy man, is he?What! your sister-in-law's brother, Miss Dashwood? a very agreeableyoung man to be sure; I know him very well."

  "How can you say so, Anne?" cried Lucy, who generally made anamendment to all her sister's assertions. "Though we have seen himonce or twice at my uncle's, it is rather too much to pretend to knowhim very well."

  Elinor heard all this with attention and surprise. "And who was thisuncle? Where did he live? How came they acquainted?" She wished verymuch to have the subject continued, though she did not choose to joinin it herself; but nothing more of it was said, and for the first timein her life, she thought Mrs. Jennings deficient either in curiosityafter petty information, or in a disposition to communicate it. Themanner in which Miss Steele had spoken of Edward, increased hercuriosity; for it struck her as being rather ill-natured, andsuggested the suspicion of that lady's knowing, or fancying herself toknow something to his disadvantage. But her curiosity was unavailing,for no farther notice was taken of Mr. Ferrars's name by Miss Steelewhen alluded to, or even openly mentioned by Sir John.

 
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