Bessie, with a yearning sigh, composed herself, laid hands on her blue bonnet while nobody was observing, and moved away to an open window in the show-room that commanded the street. Deliberately she tied the strings in the fashion that pleased her, and seated herself to look out where a few men and boys were collecting on the edge of the pavement to await the appearance of the Conservative candidate at the bow-window over the portico of the “George.” Presently, Mrs. Stokes joined her, shaking her head, and saying with demure rebuke, “You naughty girl! And this is all you care for pretty things?” Miss Burleigh, with more real seriousness, hoped that the pretty things would be right. Miss Jocund came forward with a natural professional anxiety to hear their opinions, and when she saw the bonnet-strings tied clasped her hands in acute regret, but said nothing. Mrs. Betts, a picture of injured virtue, held herself aloof beyond the sea of finery, gazing across it at her insensible young mistress with eyes of mournful indignation. Bessie felt herself the object of general misunderstanding and reproach, and was stirred up to extenuate her untoward behavior in a strain of mischievous sarcasm.
“Don’t look so distressed, all of you,” she pleaded. “How can I interest myself to-day in anything but Mr. Cecil Burleigh’s address to the electors of Norminster and my own new bonnet?”
“That is very becoming, for a consolation,” said the milliner with an affronted air.
“I think it is,” rejoined Bessie coolly. “And if you will not bedizen me with artificial flowers, and will exonerate me from wearing dresses that crackle, I shall be happy. Did you not promise to give me simplicity and no imitations, Miss Jocund?”
“I cannot deny it, Miss Fairfax. Natural leaves and flowers are my taste, and graceful soft outlines of drapery; but when it is the mode to wear tall wreaths of painted calico, and to be bustled off in twenty yards of stiff, cheap tarletan, most ladies conform to the mode, on the axiom that they might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion. And nothing comes up so ugly and outrageous but there are some who will have it in the very extreme.”
“I am quite aware of the pains many women take to be displeasing, but I thought you understood that was not ‘my style, my taste,’” said Bessie, quoting the milliner’s curt query at their first interview.
“I understand now, Miss Fairfax, that there are things here you would rather be without. I will not pack up the tarletan skirts and artificial flowers. With the two morning silks and two dinner silks, and the tulle over the blue slip for a possible dance, perhaps you will be able to go through your visit to Brentwood?”
“I trust so,” said Bessie. “But if I need anything more I will write to you.”
There was an odd pause of silence, in which Bessie looked out of the window, and the rest looked at one another with a furtive, defeated, amused acknowledgment that this young lady, so ignorant of the world, knew how to take her own part, and would not be controlled in the exercise of her senses by any irregular, usurped authority. Mrs. Betts saw her day-dream of perquisites vanish. Both she and Miss Jocund had got their lesson, and they remembered it.