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[-355-] 

CHAPTER CCXLII.

THE AUNT.

    ALBERT EGERTON now became the constant companion of the fashionable acquaintances whom he had accidentally picked up — or rather, who had cunningly picked up him.
    He dined with them at Long's; — he formed with them parties to eat fish at Greenwich and Blackwall; — he became a member of Crockford's; and every-day he lost considerable sums to them in one shape of gambling or another.
    They had ascertained that he was possessed, on coming of age a few weeks previously, of the handsome fortune of sixty thousand pounds; and they determined to appropriate the best portion of it to their own uses.
    The Honourable Colonel Cholmondeley most obligingly acted as his Mentor in the choice of magnificent furnished apartments in Stratton Street; — Lord Dunstable was kind enough to purchase two thorough-breds for him, the price being only eight hundred guineas — a little transaction by which his lordship quietly pocketed three hundred as his own a commission; — Mr. Chichester thought it no trouble to select a rare assortment of wines at one of the most fashionable merchants of the West End, and actually carried his good-nature so far as to see them carefully stowed away in the young dupe's cellar; — and Sir Rupert Harborough generously surrendered to him his cast-off mistress.
    The four friends also conceived so violent an attachment towards Mr. Egerton, that they never lost sight of him. They managed matters so well that he had no time for compunctious reflections; for they invariably made him drunk ere they took him home to his bed; and when he awoke in the morning, the obliging Mr. Chichester was sure to be already there to give him sherry and soda-water.
    Then Harborough would drop in to breakfast; and while Egerton was performing the duties of the toilette, Dunstable and Cholmondeley were sure to make their appearance.
    Perhaps Egerton would complain of headach.
    "Don't talk of headach, my dear fellow," Lord Dunstable exclaimed: "you were quite sober last night in comparison with me. My losses were terrific! A thousand to Cholmondeley — fifteen hundred to Chichester — and double as much to Harborough."
    "It is very strange that I seldom win any thing," observed Egerton on one of these occasions: "and yet we can't all lose. Some one must be the gainer."
    Every one has his turn, my dear boy," cried Harborough. "But what shall we do to-day? Any thing going on at Tattersall's, Colonel?"
    "Nothing particular," was the reply, lazily delivered. "Suppose we have some claret and cigars for an hour or two, and then play a rub of billiards till dinner-time. Of course we all dine together this evening."
    "Oh! of course," chimed in Lord Dunstable. "What do you think the Duke of Highgate said of us all yesterday, Egerton?"
    "I know not what he could have said of you," was the answer "but I am sure he could have said nothing of me — for he cannot be aware that there is such a person in existence."
    "Nonsense, my dear fellow!" exclaimed Dunstable: "you are as well known now in the fashionable world as any one of us. Every body is speaking of you; and it will be your own fault if you do not marry an heiress. We must introduce you at Almack's in due course. But I was speaking about my friend the Duke. His Grace met me yesterday as I was on my way to join you all at the Clarendon: and when I told him where I was going, he said with a laugh, 'Ah! I call you the Inseparables! — and away he went."
    Egerton was profoundly gratified with the ab-[-356-]surd flattery thus constantly poured in his ear; and as he really possessed a handsome person, he saw no difficulty in carrying out the idea of marrying an heiress.
    And this same belief has proved fatal to thousands and thousands of young men placed in the same situation as Albert Egerton. They pursue a career of reckless extravagance and dissipation, buoying themselves up with the hope that when their present resources shall have passed away, it will be the easiest thing possible to rebuild their fortunes by means of marriage.
    A month slipped away, and Egerton found himself on intimate terms with many "men about town" — one of the most popular members at Crockford's — a great favourite in certain titled but not over-particular families, where there were portionless daughters to "get off," and at whose house Lord Dunstable enjoyed the entrιe — and the pride and delight (as he believed) of his four dear friends who had done so much for him!
    And sure enough they had done a great deal in his behalf; for he had already sold out twenty thousand pounds, or one third of his entire fortune; but he was purposely kept in such an incessant whirl of excitement, pleasure, dissipation, and bustle, that he had no time for reflection.
    One morning — it was about eleven o'clock — the young man awoke with aching head and feverish pulse, after the usual night's debauch; and it happened that none of his dear friends had yet arrived.
    Egerton rang the bell for some white wine and soda-water to assuage the burning thirst which oppressed him; and when his livery-boy, or "tiger," appeared with the refreshing beverage, the young rake learnt that a lady was waiting, to see him in the drawing-room.
    "A lady?" exclaimed Egerton: "who the deuce can she be?"
    "She is a stout, elderly lady, sir," said the tiger.
    "And did she give no name?" inquired Egerton, beginning to suspect who his visitor was.
    "No, sir," was the answer. "I assured her that you were not up yet, and that you never received any one at so early an hour; but she declared that you would see her; and I was obliged to show her into the drawing-room."
    Ah! it must be my aunt, then!" muttered Egerton to himself. "Bring me up some hot-water this minute, you young rascal" — fashionable upstarts always vent their annoyances upon their servants; — "and then go and tell the lady that I will be with her in five minutes."
    The tiger disappeared — returned with the hot-water — and then departed once more, to execute the latter portion of his master's orders.
    Egerton felt truly wretched and ashamed of himself when he surveyed his pale cheeks and haggard eyes in the glass, and thought of the course which he had lately been pursuing. But then he remembered the flattery of his fashionable friends, and soothed his remorseful feelings by the idea that he was on intimate terms with all the "best men about town," was a member of Crockford's, and had the entrιe of several families of distinction.
    Moreover, when he was shaved and washed, — oiled and perfumed, — and attired in a clean shirt, slack trousers, red morocco slippers, and an elegant dressing-gown, his appearance was so much more satisfactory to himself that he felt quite equal to the task of encountering his relative.
    He accordingly proceeded, with a smile upon his lips and an easy unconstrained manner, to the drawing-room, where a respectable, motherly-looking stout old lady was anxiously awaiting him.
    "My dear Albert," she exclaimed, as he entered the apartment, "what have you been doing with yourself this last month, that you never come near us — no, not even on Sundays, as you used to?"
    And, while she spoke, the good-natured woman made a motion as if she were anxious to embrace her nephew; but he — well aware that it is improper to give way to one's feelings in the fashionable world — retreated a step or two, and graciously allowed his aunt to shake the tip of his fore-finger.
    "Lor, Albert, how strange you are!" exclaimed the baffled relative. "But do tell me," she continued, quietly resuming her seat, "what you have been doing with yourself. Why did you leave your nice little lodging in Budge Row? why do you never come near us? why have you moved up into this part of the town? and why didn't you ever write to tell us where you was living? If it hadn't been for Storks, your stock-broker, I shouldn't have known how to find you out; but he gave me your address."
    "Storks!" murmured Egerton, turning very pale. "Did he tell you — any thing — "
    "Oh! yes," continued the aunt, speaking with great volubility; "he told me that you had sold out a power of money; — but when he saw that I was annoyed, he assured me that it could only be for some good purpose. And it is so, Albert dear — isn't it?"
    "Certainly — to be sure, aunt — Oh! certainly," stammered the young man, as he glanced uneasily towards the door.
    "Well, now — I am glad of that, Albert," said the old lady, apparently relieved of a serious misgiving. "I said to your eldest cousin Susannah Rachel, says I, 'Albert is a good young man — quiet — steady — and firm in his resolve to follow in the footsteps of his dear lamented father:' — here the aunt wiped her eyes; — 'and,' says I, 'if he has sold out fifteen or twenty thousand pounds, depend, upon it he has bought a nice snug little estate, and he means to surprise us all by asking us to dine with him some Sunday at his country-house.' Am I right, Albert dear?"
    "Oh! quite right, aunt," exclaimed the young man, overjoyed to find that his dissipated courses were unknown to his relatives. "And that was the reason why I did not go near you — nor yet write to you. But have a little patience — and, in a few weeks, I promise you and my cousins a pleasant day — "
    "Well, well — I don't want penetrate into your little secrets, you know," interrupted the aunt. "But how late you get up. Why, it is near twelve, I declare; and I rose this morning before day-light."
    "I was detained last evening — "
    "Ah! by your man of business, no doubt," cried the voluble old lady. "Many papers to read over and sign — contracts to make — leases to consider — deeds to study — Oh! I understand it all; and I am delighted, Albert, to find you so prudent."
    "It is quite necessary, my dear aunt," said Egerton, in a hurried and nervous tone, for a thundering [-357-] double-knock at that moment reverberated through the house. "But I am afraid — that is, I think — some one is coming, who — "
    "Oh! never mind me, dear Al," observed the old lady. "I shall just rest myself for half an hour or so, before I take the omnibus back to the Pavement."
    "Certainly, my dear aunt — but — "
    The door opened; and Lord Dunstable entered the room.
    "Ah! my dear Egerton!" he exclaimed, rushing forward, with out-stretched hand, to greet his young friend: but, perceiving the lady, who had risen from the sofa, he stopped short, and bowed to her with distant politeness — for it struck him at the moment that she might be a washerwoman, or the mother of Egerton's servant, or a shirt-maker, or some such kind of person.
    "How d'ye do, sir!" said the aunt, in acknowledgment. of the bow; and, resuming her seat, also observed, "I find it very warm for the time of year. But then I was scrooged up in an omnibus for near an hour — all packed as close as herrings in a barrel; and that's not pleasant — is it, sir!"
    "By no means, madam," answered Dunstable, in a cold tone; while Egerton bit his lips — at a loss what to do.
    "Well — it is not pleasant," continued the garrulous lady. "And now, when I think of it, I have a call to make in Aldgate to-day; and so, when I leave here, I shall take a Whitechapel 'bus. Nasty place that Aldgate, sir?"
    "Really, madam, I never heard of it until now," said Lord Dunstable, with marvellous stiffness of manner.
    "Never heard of Aldgate, sir?" literally shouted the lady. "Why, you must be very green in London, then."
    "I know no place east of Temple Bar, madam," was the cold reply. "I am aware that there are human habitations on the other side; and I could perhaps find my way to the Bank — but nothing more, madam, I can assure you."
    And he turned towards Egerton, who was pretending to look out of the window.
    "Well — I never!" exclaimed the lady, now eyeing the nobleman with sovereign contempt.
    "My dear aunt," said Egerton, desperately resolved to put an end if possible to this awkward scene; "allow me to introduce my friend Lord Dunstable: Lord Dunstable — Mrs. Bustard."
    "Oh! delighted at the honour!" cried the nobleman, instantly conquering his surprise at this announcement of the relationship existing between his young friend and the vulgar lady who complained of having been "scrooged up in an omnibus:" — "proud, madam, to form your acquaintance!"
    And his features instantly beamed with smiles — a relaxation from his former chilling manner, which appeared like a sudden transition from the north pole to the tropics.
    On her side, the aunt bad started up from the sofa, quite electrified by the mention of the magic words — "LORD DUNSTABLE;" and there she stood, cruelly embarrassed, and bobbing up and down in a rapid series of curtseys at every word which the nobleman addressed to her. For this was the first time in her life that she had ever exchanged a syllable with a Lord, unless it were with a Lord Mayor on one or two occasions — but that was only "cakes and gingerbread" in comparison with the excitement of forming the acquaintance of a real Lord whose title was not the temporary splendour of a single year.
    "I really must apologise, my dear madam," said the nobleman, now speaking in the most amiable manner possible, "for having affected ere now not to know anything of the City. I cannot fancy how I could have been so foolish. As for the Mansion House, it is the finest building in the world; and Lombard Street is the very focus of attraction. With Aldgate I am well acquainted, and a pleasant spot it is, too. The butchers' shops in the neighbourhood must be quite healthy for consumptive people. Then you have Whitechapel, madam; — fine — wide — and open: the Commercial Road — delightful proof of the industry of this great city;-and, best of all, there is the Albion in Aldersgate Street, — where, by the by, Egerton," he added, turning towards his friend," we will all dine today, if you like."
    "Oh! yes — certainly," said Egerton, smiling faintly.
    But Dunstable was too good a judge to show that he even perceived the honest vulgarity of his friend's aunt: he accordingly seated himself near her upon the sofa, and rattled away, in the most amiable manner possible, upon the delights of the City. He then listened with great apparent interest to the long story which the old lady told him, — how she kept a haberdashery warehouse on the Pavement, and did a very tidy business, — how she had five daughters all "well-edicated gals as could be, and which was Albert's own first cousins," — how her late husband had once been nearly an alderman and quite a sheriff, — how she and her deceased partner dined with the Lord Mayor "seven years ago come next November," — how she had been lately plundered of three hundred pounds' worth of goods by a French Marchioness, who turned out to be an English swindler, — and how she strongly suspected that young Tedworth Jones, the only son of the great tripe-man in Bishopsgate Street-Without, was making up to her third daughter, Clarissa Jemima.
    To all this, we say, Lord Dunstable listened with the deepest interest; and, at the conclusion, he expressed a hope that if the anticipated match did come off between Mr. Tedworth Jones and Miss Clarissa Jemima Bustard, he should have the honour of receiving an invitation on the happy occasion.
    Even Egerton himself was rendered more comfortable by the distinguished politeness with which his aunt was treated; but he was not the less delighted when she rose and took her departure.
    As soon as the door was shut behind her, Dunstable hastened to observe, "There goes an estimable woman — I can vouch for it! What would England's commerce be without such industrious, plodding, intelligent persons as your aunt! Egerton, my boy, you ought to be proud of her — as I am of her acquaintance. But there is Chichester's knock, I'll swear!"
    In a few moments the gentleman alluded to made his appearance; and the scene with the aunt was soon forgotten.
    The day was passed in the usual profitless manner; and the greater portion of the night following was spent in gaming and debauchery.    

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