Read CHAPTER I of Andrew Golding A Tale of the Great Plague, free online book, by Anne E. Keeling, on ReadCentral.com.

HOW WE WERE VISITED BY TWO OF OUR KINSFOLK, OUR FATHER BEING DEAD; AND HOW THEY BEHAVED THEMSELVES TOWARD US.

Think, however, that the troubles that now lie upon us might not have been ours had not our father died when he did, which was the cause of our being taken into the house of our mother’s sister, Mrs. Margaret Golding; a happy thing we then thought it, that she would receive us, for we were in great straits; so I will begin my history at that sad period.

Our father, William Dacre, was indeed a gentleman, born to a competent estate, and married into an honest stock and to some fortune, but his fair prospects were all blighted and our mother’s money well-nigh wasted before he died. To his great loss, he stood steadily for the king against the Parliament all through the late Rebellion, as he would ever call it; and, our mother’s people being very stiff on the other side, and she dying while we were little children, we were sundered from them while our father lived. He took such care of us as he could, striving to breed us up like gentlewomen; sometimes we lived with him in London lodgings, sometimes were left at his manor-house of Milthorpe; but the last two years of his life were very uneasy to him and to us.

For when the young king, Charles the Second, was brought in again, five years agone, our father was drawn up to Court by some I will not name, who tempted him with hopes of preferments and rewards to recompense his loyalty. He wasted his means much through the ill counsel of these false friends, but obtained no fruit of their promises, and at last he died suddenly; whether broken-hearted or not I leave to the judgment of God, and to the consciences of the men who for their own ends had betrayed him into those vain expectations. At that time Althea was barely nineteen, and I a little past sixteen; we had no brother nor other sister.

We were then at Milthorpe; and thither our father was brought to be buried. That was a black time for us. Though lately we had been kept apart from our father, we loved him dearly, and we knew of no other friend and protector. And when the funeral was over we could not tell which way to turn; for we found our father’s land must needs pass to the next male heir, Mr. John Dacre, our distant cousin. He, I know not how, had contrived to thrive where our father had decayed, and had gotten a good share of favour at the new Court.

My memory offers things past to me as if in separate pictures, this and that accident that befell us showing much more clear and bright than things quite as important which lie between. I remember but dimly all the sad time of our father’s death and burial, the grief I myself felt, and all the bustle and stir about us, making those days cloudy to me; but all the more plainly I remember a certain day that followed the funeral, when Althea and I were sitting together in a little parlour where we had been wont to sew, I weeping on her neck, and she trying to turn my thoughts from my grief with planning how we two should live, when, the door opening, some one came briskly in who called us by our names.

What, Althea! what, Lucy! All in the dumps, and not a word to say to your mothers own sister? and, in great surprise, we looked up on our aunt, whom we had seen but once since our mother died, when we were quite little. She was looking kindly on us; her eyes were quick, black, and sparkling, but had something very tender in them at that moment. I noticed directly how plain she was as to her clothes, wearing a common country-made riding-suit, all of black, and how her shape was a little too plump for her low stature, while her comely face was tanned quite brown with the sun; but methought the kind look she bent on us was even sweeter because of her homely aspect. So I got up and ran to her, holding out both my hands; but she took me into her arms, and kissed me lovingly, saying,

’Poor lamb! poor fatherless, motherless lamb! thou shalt feel no lack of a mother while I live.’

Then, holding me in one arm, she stretched out the other hand to Althea, who had come up more slowly, and she said,

And you too, my fair lady-niece; I have room in my heart for the two of you, if you will come in; on which the water stood in Altheas eyes, and she took our aunts hand and kissed it, saying,

’God reward you, madam, for your goodness to us desolate orphans! I receive it most thankfully.’

‘That’s well,’ quoth our aunt cordially. And she proceeded to tell us how, when she got the news of our father’s death, she made haste to come down to Milthorpe. ‘Not that I hoped,’ said she, ’to be here in time for the burying; but it was borne in on my mind there should be a friend of our side of the house to stand by you. Is Mr. Dacre here?’

‘He came down to the funeral,’ said Althea, ’and hath spoken to us on some small business matters; but he has been constantly out of the house, riding about the estate, and so we have seen little of him.’

As she said this the door opened again, and our cousin, the new master of Milthorpe, entered. I had scarce noted his looks, being drowned in my grief at the time when, as Althea said, he had talked with us on business, accounting to us for some moneys, the poor wreck of our fortunes, which had been lodged in his hands; but I now thought what a grand gentleman he looked in his rich mourning suit; and indeed he was of a very graceful appearance, and smiled on us most courtly. He held his plumed hat in his hand, and, bowing low to our aunt,

‘I am much honoured,’ said he, ’that Mrs. Golding should grace my poor house with her presence before I have had time to sue for it. Will it please you, ladies, to step into the dining-parlour and sit down with me to a homely refection I have ordered to be spread there? I must return to-day to town; so if Mrs. Golding will bestow half an hour of her time on me to talk over some needful matters, I shall take it as a favour.’

Mrs. Golding bent her head to him, saying, At your pleasure, sir; and we followed to the dining-room, where we found what I should have called a plentiful dinner, but Mr. Dacre kept excusing its meanness at every dish he offered us. This was very grating to Althea, seeming a reflection both on our ways at Milthorpe and on our poor old faithful servants; and Mrs. Golding liked it no better. I saw her turning very red; and at last she said bluntly,

’The dinner is all very well, and I think Margery cook needs not so many excuses; so will you please leave speaking of meats and drinks, and turn to the needful matters you spoke of instead?’

‘I might have chosen,’ says Mr. Dacre, ’to talk to you in private first about those things; but perhaps it’s as well my fair cousins should hear at once what I have to say. I am a married man, as you know, Mrs. Golding; and my wife loves the town, and cannot endure to hear of a country life. I have no hope she will ever live at the Manor here. But I will not let it; and I shall want it kept in good order against my coming down, which will be frequent. So if my cousin, Mistress Althea, likes to remain here as housekeeper, she will be very welcome.’

‘And what do you think of paying her for her services?’ said our aunt.

Mr. Dacre lifted his eyebrows, and looked at her as if much surprised. ‘She would have meat and lodging free,’ said he, ’and servants to do her bidding. Also, if she can make anything by keeping of a dairy, or of fowls, or selling of fruit from the gardens, or such like devices of country dames, I shall ask no account of her gains; and if her management pleases me, I shall find a broad piece for her from time to time, I doubt not; so she may do very well.’

’And is her sister, Mistress Lucia, to dwell in your house and receive your bounty also?’ said Mrs. Golding.

‘That made no part of my plans,’ said he, smiling and bowing. ’I shall hardly need two housekeepers here.’

‘Then it may chance you must look otherwhere for your one housekeeper,’ said Mrs. Golding. ’What sayest, Althea? Wilt be parted from thy sister that thou mayest have the honour of keeping house for so liberal a kinsman and master? or wilt go with Lucy and me to my farm, at West Fazeby, where you two shall be to me as daughters? for I am a childless widow, and will gladly cherish you young things. The choice lies before you, Althea.’

Althea was now red as any rose; and the tears’ that had been in her eyes seemed turned to sparks of fire. She rose from the table and made a deep curtsey to Mr. Dacre.

‘I am exceeding grateful for your preference of me,’ she said; ’but seeing I am only a young maid, and inexpert in the management of a house, I must beg to refuse your princely offer’ she spoke with infinite scorn ’and betake myself instead to the home Mrs. Golding will give me, where I may improve myself, and become fitter in time, both in years and skill, for some such post as you would now prefer me to.’ She stopped and panted, being quite out of breath.

Mr. Dacre did but lift his eyebrows again and say, As you will, madam, and then begged she would sit down and finish eating; but she remained standing, and looked pitifully at Mrs. Golding; on which our aunt rose also, and I doing the same,

‘You go to town to-day, I think you said?’ questioned Mrs. Golding; ’we will therefore take our leave of you now, not to importune you further. My nieces and I will endeavour to be gone from here to-morrow, so please you to endure their presence in their father’s house until then; for you must think it will ask a few hours for them to remove their apparel and other goods.’

‘Assuredly, madam; they have full liberty,’ said Mr. Dacre, rising and bowing, and, for a wonder, looking a little abashed.

‘And I think it were well we lost no time,’ continued our aunt.

So we took our leave of him gladly enough, and I think he was full as glad to have us go; and we went back to the little parlour.

‘I guessed what sort of kindness John Dacre would show you,’ said our aunt, looking at us with a smile. ’Your father, my sweet maidens, of whom you have a heavy loss indeed, was of a much nobler nature than this his kinsman; and it’s doubtless for that reason that one of them has thriven in the bad air where the other could not thrive, but perished;’ and then came tears into her lively black eyes, and she was fain to sit down and weep awhile, in which we bore her company.

Then Althea wiped her eyes, and said, with a trembling voice,

’I cannot think, however, why our cousin should make so strange a proffer to me one so unfitting for a well-taught maiden to accept.’

‘He made it that you might refuse it, child,’ said our aunt. ’Now he can truly say he was willing to do somewhat for you, and that you would none of it, but thought scorn of his goodwill. It hath ever been his way to get much credit for little goodness. Well, Lucy, child, what art thinking of?’

‘I was thinking,’ stammered I, surprised with her question, ’I was thinking that the day is not so far spent but we could get away from Milthorpe before night. I wish not to sleep under Mr. Dacre’s roof again.’

‘That might be managed,’ said Mrs. Golding; ’I left my horses and my men at the little inn in your village, where I had some thought of sleeping myself. And yet it’s but a little inn; nor should I care to turn Andrew out of his lodging even to please thee, pretty Lucy. No, child; put thy hand to some work and thy pride in thy pocket, and submit even to spend one night in the house of an unkind kinsman. He will not be in it, thou knowest; see where he rides out of the gate.’

So I looked and saw Mr. Dacre riding off, a very grand gentleman on his tall black horse, with his men, also well mounted, following him.

‘He will be in town before nightfall,’ quoth Mrs. Golding.

It did not seem so insupportable to stay one more night in our old home, now its new master had left it; but I was in haste to be gone for all that, and Althea too; so we fell to work with great eagerness, gathering all our own possessions together and packing them for removal; while Mrs. Golding helped us with her hands and her counsel; and so well we worked that the sun had not gone down before we had all in readiness for our departure in the early morning; for it was the height of summer, and the days therefore long. Then Mrs. Golding would have us take her into the garden and show us what used to be our mother’s favourite walks and alcoves; there was a good prospect of the house from one of them, and she stood some time regarding it.

‘It’s a stately place,’ said she, ’a very noble house indeed, and a fair garden too. Your mother had a pride in it once, I know; and there was a time when it would have grieved her sore to think how her children should leave it. But what signifies that to her now? a happy, glorified spirit, who may scorn the transitory riches and joys of this poor world, which are far outvalued by one ray shining on us from the Father of Lights. At His right hand are pleasures for evermore.’

Althea and I looked on each other surprised, for we had then heard little of that kind of talk; and, our aunt espying it,

‘Ah, children,’ she said, ’I have learnt a new language since I saw you, and I see you know it not; but your mother could speak it before I could. I think thou art most like her, Lucy; there is more of your poor father about Althea.’

I looked at Althea and thought Mrs. Golding was not much mistaken; for if I were to write my sister’s description, it would need but the change of a word or two to make it pass for a portrait of my father. Like him, she is tall and slender and well-shaped; her complexion pale and clear, her hair almost black, very thick, softer than the finest silk, and curling in loose rings at the ends; her brows and eyelashes black also, but her eyes a blue-grey, appearing black when she is much moved or in deep thought; and she moves with admirable grace, showing a kind of nobleness in all her carriage. Myself am of low stature, and of shape nothing like so slender; indeed one hath told me I am dark and round as a blackheart cherry; so I could well think that at Mrs. Golding’s years I should be very like her, though perhaps less comely.

Mrs. Golding was still comparing us with each other and speaking of our parents, when I was aware of a tall man coming up to the garden gate; and my aunt, turning as she heard the latch clink, cried,

’Ah, here is Andrew! he will have come to have my orders for the night; I think we may welcome him in, nieces.’ So she stepped to him, and taking him by the hand led him to us. ‘This,’ quoth she, ’is my husband’s nephew and mine, but he is something more he is my steward and my heir. I hold him for my son; I were but a lost woman without him. He would not hear of my coming to Milthorpe with no company but that of my serving-men, but must needs be my conductor himself; so precious a jewel as I was sure to be lost in the hedges otherwise;’ and she laughed cordially. ’And, Andrew, these are two poor fatherless girls, Althea and Lucia Dacre by name; fatherless, I say, but not motherless, for I am their mother from this day forth, and so they are your sisters; see you use them kindly.’

Andrew coloured up to his hair, and bowed to us, with some confused words about the honour of being as a brother to such gentle ladies; then he turned to her and they talked of our morrow’s journey, and how our mails should be conveyed; and Mrs. Golding, telling him she would sleep at the Manor, bade him be early at the gate with horses for us; ’for we have many a mile to go,’ she said to us; ’and make what speed we may, we shall be a day or two on the road.’

And Althea spoke very prettily to Mr. Golding, praying him to sup with us; but he excused himself, still in a confused and disturbed way, and went away.

While he stood and talked I was able to take note of his aspect, and I thought he looked a very homely youth indeed, after Mr. Dacre, though he was taller and of a better shape, and I believe a better face too; though burnt with the sun, and ruddy like a country-man, he had well-cut features and a full mild eye, with a right pleasant smile. But his garb was so ordinary, being of some dark cloth, and cut very plainly, and his hat with no feather in it, that though I had little cause to love Mr. Dacre, yet I wished our new friend was more like him outwardly, and thought I should then have been prouder to ride in his company. And Mrs. Golding praising him to us, and saying how good he was, and wise beyond his years, I thought it was pity such good people as he and she did not go handsomer; so little I knew of what belonged to goodness.