Chapter XXIV.

Lucy's twenty-first birthday dawned, but it was not to her the gay exulting day it is to some. Last night her uncle and aunt had gone a step further, and, instead of kissing her ceremoniously, had evaded her. They were drawing matters to a climax: once of age, each day would make her more independent in spirit as in circumstances. This morning she hoped custom would shield her from unkindness for one day at least. But no, they made it clear there was but one way back to their smiles. Their congratulations at the breakfast-table were cold and constrained; her heart fell; and long before noon on her birthday she was crying. Thus weakened, she had to encounter a thoroughly prepared attack. Mr. Bazalgette summoned her to his study at one o'clock, and there she found him and Mrs. Bazalgette and Mr. Fountain seated solemnly in conclave. The merchant was adding up figures.

"Come, now, business," said he. "Dick has added them up: his figures are in that envelope; break the seal and open it, Lucy. If his total corresponds with mine, we are right; if not, I am wrong, and you will all have to go over it with me till we are right." A general groan followed this announcement. Luckily, the sum totals corresponded to a fraction.

Then Mr. Bazalgette made Lucy a little speech.

"My dear, in laying down that office which your amiable nature has rendered so agreeable, I feel a natural regret on your account that the property my colleague there and I have had to deal with on your account has not been more important. However, as far as it goes, we have been fortunate. Consols have risen amazingly since we took you off land and funded you. The rise in value of your little capital since your mother's death is calculated on this card. You have, also, some loose cash, which I will hand over to you immediately. Let me see--eleven hundred and sixty pounds and five shillings. Write your name in full on that paper, Lucy."

He touched a bell; a servant came. He wrote a line and folded it, inclosing Lucy's signature.

"Let this go to Mr. Hardie's bank immediately. Hardie will give you three per cent for your money. Better than nothing. You must have a check-book. He sent me a new one yesterday. Here it is; you shall have it. I wonder whether you know how to draw a check?"

"No, uncle."

"Look here, then. You note the particulars first on this counter-foil, which thus serves in some degree for an account-book. In drawing the check, place the sum in letters close to these printed words, and the sum in figures close to the pound. For want of this precaution, the holder of the check has been known to turn a 10 pound check into 110 pounds."

"Oh how wicked!"

"Mind what you say. Dexterity is the only virtue left in England; so we must be on our guard, especially in what we write with our name attached."

"I must say, Mr. Bazalgette, you are unwise to put such a sum of money into a young girl's hands."

"The young girl has been a woman an hour and ten minutes, and come into her property, movables, and cash aforesaid."

"If you were her real friend, you would take care of her money for her till she marries."

"The eighth commandment, my dear, the eighth commandment, and other primitive axioms: suum cuique, and such odd sayings: 'Him as keeps what isn't hisn, soon or late shall go to prison,' with similar apothegms. Total: let us keep the British merchant and the Newgate thief as distinct as the times permit. Fountain and Bazalgette, account squared, books closed, and I'm off!"

"Oh, uncle, pray stay!" said Lucy. "When you are by me, Rectitude and Sense seem present in person, and I can lean on them."

"Lean on yourself; the law has cut your leading-strings. Why patch 'em? It has made you a woman from a baby. Rise to your new rank. Rectitude and Sense are just as much wanted in the town of ----, where I am due, as they are in this house. Besides, Sense has spoken uninterrupted for ten minutes; prodigious! so now it is Nonsense's turn for the next ten hours." He made for the door; then suddenly returning, said: "I will leave a grain of sense, etc., behind me. What is marriage? Do you give it up? Marriage is a contract. Who are the parties? the papas and mammas, uncles and aunts? By George, you would think so to hear them talk. No, the contract is between two parties, and these two only. It is a printed contract. Anybody can read it gratis. None but idiots sign a contract without reading it; none but knaves sign a contract which, having read, they find they cannot execute. Matrimony is a mercantile affair; very well, then, import into it sound mercantile morality. Go to market; sell well; but, d--n it all, deliver the merchandise as per sample, viz., a woman warranted to love, honor and obey the purchaser. If you swindle the other contracting party in the essentials of the contract, don't complain when you are unhappy. Are shufflers entitled to happiness? and what are those who shuffle and prevaricate in a church any better than those who shuffle and prevaricate in a counting-house?" and the brute bolted.

"My husband is a worthy man," said Mrs. Bazalgette, languidly, "but now and then he makes me blush for him."

"Our good friend is a humorist," replied Fountain, good-humoredly, "and dearly loves a paradox"; and they pooh-poohed him without a particle of malice.

Then Mrs. Bazalgette turned to Lucy, and hoped that she did her the justice to believe she had none but affectionate motives in wishing to see her speedily established.

"Oh no, aunt," said Lucy. "Why should you wish to part with me? I give you but little trouble in your great house."

"Trouble, child? you know you are a comfort to have in any house."

This pleased Lucy; it was the first gracious word for a long time. Having thus softened her, Mrs. Bazalgette proceeded to attack her by all the weaknesses of her sex and age, and for a good hour pressed her so hard that the tears often gushed from Lucy's eyes over her red cheeks. The girl was worn by the length of the struggle and the pertinacity of the assault. She was as determined as ever to do nothing, but she had no longer the power to resist in words. Seeing her reduced to silence, and not exactly distinguishing between impassibility and yielding, Mrs. Bazalgette delivered the coup-de-grace.

"I must now tell you plainly, Lucy, that your character is compromised by being out all night with persons of the other sex. I would have spared you this, but your resistance compels those who love you to tell you all. Owing to that unfortunate trip, you are in such a situation that you must marry."

"The world is surely not so unjust as all this," sighed Lucy.

"You don't know the world as I do," was the reply. "And those who live in it cannot defy it. I tell you plainly, Lucy, neither your uncle nor I can keep you any longer, except as an engaged person. And even that engagement ought to be a very short one."

"What, aunt? what, uncle? your house is no longer mine?" and she buried her head upon the table.

"Well, Lucy," said Mr. Fountain, "of course we would not have told you this yesterday. It would have been ungenerous. But you are now your own mistress; you are independent. Young persons in your situation can generally forget in a day or two a few years of kindness. You have now an opportunity of showing us whether you are one of that sort."

Here Mrs. Bazalgette put in her word. "You will not lack people to encourage you in ingratitude--perhaps my husband himself; but if he does, it will make a lasting breach between him and me, of which you will have been the cause."

"Heaven forbid!" said Lucy, with a shudder. "Why should dear Mr. Bazalgette be drawn into my troubles? He is no relation of mine, only a loyal friend, whom may God bless and reward for his kindness to a poor fatherless, motherless girl. Aunt, uncle, if you will let me stay with you, I will be more kind, more attentive to you than I have been. Be persuaded; be advised. If you succeeded in getting rid of me, you might miss me, indeed you might. I know all your little ways so well."

"Lucy, we are not to be tempted to do wrong," said Mrs. Bazalgette, sternly. "Choose which of these two offers you will accept. Choose which you please. If you refuse both, you must pack up your things, and go and live by yourself, or with Mr. Dodd."

"Mr. Dodd? why is his name introduced? Was it necessary to insult me?" and her eyes flashed.

"Nobody wishes to insult you, Lucy. And I propose, madam, we give her a day to consider."

"Thank you, uncle."

"With all my heart; only, until she decides, she must excuse me if I do not treat her with the same affection as I used, and as I hope to do again. I am deeply wounded, and I am one that cannot feign."

"You need not fear me, aunt; my heart is turned to ice. I shall never intrude that love on which you set no value. May I retire?"

Mrs. Bazalgette looked to Mr. Fountain, and both bowed acquiescence. Lucy went out pale, but dry-eyed; despair never looked so lovely, or carried its head more proudly.

"I don't like it," said Mr. Fountain. "I am afraid we have driven the poor girl too hard."

"What are you afraid of, pray?"

"She looked to me just like a woman who would go and take an ounce of laudanum. Poor Lucy! she has been a good niece to me, after all;" and the water stood in the old bachelor's eyes.

Mrs. Bazalgette tapped him on the shoulder and said archly, but with a tone that carried conviction, "She will take no poison. She will hate us for an hour; then she will have a good cry: to-morrow she will come to our terms; and this day next year she will be very much obliged to us for doing what all women like, forcing her to her good with a little harshness."