Part Second--In the country.
Chapter XXIII. Tea served here.
 

It was some days after the naming of the cottage that Mrs. Bobby admitted me into her financial secrets, and explained the difficulties that threatened her peace of mind. She still has twenty-five pounds to pay before Comfort Cottage is really her own. With her cow and her vegetable garden, to say nothing of her procrastinating fowl, she manages to eke out a frugal existence, now that her eldest son is in a blacksmith's shop at Worcester, and is sending her part of his weekly savings. But it has been a poor season for canaries, and a still poorer one for lodgers; for people in these degenerate days prefer to be nearer the hotels and the mild gaieties of the larger settlements. It is all very well so long as I remain with her, and she wishes fervently that that may be for ever; for never, she says, eloquently, never in all her Cheltenham and Belvern experience, has she encountered such a jewel of a lodger as her dear Miss 'Amilton, so little trouble, and always a bit of praise for her plain cooking, and a pleasant word for the children, to whom most lodgers object, and such an interest in the cow and the fowl and the garden and the canaries, and such kindness in painting the name of the cottage, so that it is the finest thing in the village, and nobody can get past the 'ouse without stopping to gape at it! But when her American lodger leaves her, she asks,--and who is she that can expect to keep a beautiful young lady who will be naming her own cottage and painting signboards for herself before long, likely?--but when her American lodger is gone, how is she, Mrs. Bobby, to put by a few shillings a month towards the debt on the cottage? These are some of the problems she presents to me. I have turned them over and over in my mind as I have worked, and even asked Willie Beresford in my weekly letter what he could suggest. Of course he could not suggest anything: men never can; although he offered to come there and lodge for a month at twenty-five pounds a week. All at once, one morning, a happy idea struck me, and I ran down to Mrs. Bobby, who was weeding the onion-bed in the back garden.

"Mrs. Bobby," I said, sitting down comfortably on the edge of the lettuce-frame, "I am sure I know how you can earn many a shilling during the summer and autumn months, and you must begin the experiment while I am here to advise you. I want you to serve five- o'clock tea in your garden."

"But, miss, thanking you kindly, nobody would think of stoppin' 'ere for a cup of tea once in a twelvemonth."

"You never know what people will do until you try them. People will do almost anything, Mrs. Bobby, if you only put it into their heads, and this is the way we shall make our suggestion to the public. I will paint a second signboard to hang below 'Comfort Cottage.' It will be much more beautiful than the other, for it shall have a steaming kettle on it, and a cup and saucer, and the words 'Tea Served Here' underneath, the letters all intertwined with tea- plants. I don't know how tea-plants look, but then neither does the public. You will set one round table on the porch, so that if it threatens rain, as it sometimes does, you know, in England, people will not be afraid to sit down; and the other you will put under the yew-tree near the gate. The tables must be immaculate; no spotted, rumpled cloths and chipped cups at Comfort Cottage, which is to be a strictly first-class tea station. You will put vases of flowers on the tables, and you will not mix red, yellow, purple, and blue ones in the same vase-"

"It's the way the good Lord mixes 'em in the fields," interjected Mrs. Bobby piously.

"Very likely; but you will permit me to remark that the good Lord can manage things successfully which we poor humans cannot. You will set out your cream-jug that was presented to Mrs. Martha Buggins by her friends and neighbours as a token of respect in 1823, and the bowl that was presented to Mr. Bobby as a sword and shooting prize in 1860, and all your pretty little odds and ends. You will get everything ready in the kitchen, so that customers won't have to wait long; but you will not prepare much in advance, so that there'll be nothing wasted."

"It sounds beautiful in your mouth, miss, and it surely wouldn't be any 'arm to make a trial of it."

"Of course it won't. There is no inn here where nice people will stop (who would ever think of asking for tea at the Retired Soldier?), and the moment they see our sign, in walking or driving past, that moment they will be consumed with thirst. You do not begin to appreciate our advantages as a tea station. In the first place, there is a watering-trough not far from the gate, and drivers very often stop to water their horses; then we have the lovely garden which everybody admires; and if everything else fails, there is the baby. Put that faded pink flannel slip on Jem, showing his tanned arms and legs as usual, tie up his sleeves with blue bows as you did last Sunday, put my white tennis-cap on the back of his yellow curls, turn him loose in the hollyhocks, and await results. Did I not open the gate the moment I saw him, though there was no apartment sign in the window?"

Mrs. Bobby was overcome by the magic of my arguments, and as there were positively no attendant risks, we decided on an early opening. The very next day after the hanging of the second sign, I superintended the arrangements myself. It was a nice thirsty afternoon, and as I filled the flower-vases I felt such a desire for custom and such a love of trade animating me that I was positively ashamed. At three o'clock I went upstairs and threw myself on the bed for a nap, for I had been sketching on the hills since early morning. It may have been an hour later when I heard the sound of voices and the stopping of a heavy vehicle before the house. I stole to the front window, and, peeping under the shelter of the vines, saw a char-a-bancs, on the way from Great Belvern to the Beacon. It held three gentlemen, two ladies, and four children, and everything had worked precisely as I intended. The driver had seen the watering-trough, the gentlemen had seen the tea-sign, the children had seen the flowers and the canaries, and the ladies had seen the baby. I went to the back window to call an encouraging word to Mrs. Bobby, but to my horror I saw that worthy woman disappearing at the extreme end of the lane in full chase of our cow, that had broken down the fence, and was now at large with some of our neighbour's turnip-tops hanging from her mouth.