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CHAPTER ITORTOISES AND HARES
CHAPTER IITHE GOYLE
CHAPTER IIITHE FIRST SUNDAY
CHAPTER VCLIPSTONE FRIENDS
CHAPTER VITHE FRESCOES OF ST. KENELM’S
CHAPTER VIISISTER AND SISTERS
CHAPTER IXGONE OVER TO THE ENEMY
CHAPTER XII“THE KITTIWAKE”
CHAPTER XIIICHIMERAS DIRE
CHAPTER XIVPAIRING TIME ANTICIPATED
CHAPTER XVBROODS ASTRAY
CHAPTER XVITHE REGIMENT OF WOMEN
CHAPTER XVIIFOXGLOVES AND FLIRTATIONS
CHAPTER XVIIIPALACES OR CHURCHES
CHAPTER XIXTWO WEDDINGS
CHAPTER XXITHE ELECTRICIANS
CHAPTER XXIIANGEL AND BEAR
CHAPTER XXIIIWILLOW WIDOWS
CHAPTER XXIVCRUEL LAWYERS
CHAPTER XXVBEAR AS ADVISER
CHAPTER XXVINEW PATHS
CHAPTER XXVIIA SENTENCE
CHAPTER XXXTHE MAIDEN ROCKS
CHAPTER XXXITHE WRECK
“Whate’er is good to wish, ask that of Heaven, Though it be what thou canst not hope to see.”
The scene was a drawing-room, with old-fashioned heavy sash windows opening on a narrow brick-walled town-garden sloping down to a river, and neatly kept. The same might be said of the room, where heavy old-fashioned furniture, handsome but not new, was concealed by various flimsy modernisms, knicknacks, fans, brackets, china photographs and water-colours, a canary singing loud in the window in the winter sunshine.
“Miss Prescott,” announced the maid; but, finding no auditor save the canary, she retreated, and Miss Prescott looked round her with a half sigh of recognition of the surroundings. She was herself a quiet-looking, gentle lady, rather small, with a sweet mouth and eyes of hazel, in a rather worn face, dressed in a soft woollen and grey fur, with headgear to suit, and there was an air of glad expectation, a little flush, that did not look permanent, on her thin cheeks.
“Is it you, my dear Miss Prescott?” was the greeting of the older hostess as she entered, her grey hair rough and uncovered, and her dress of well-used black silk, her complexion of the red that shows wear and care. “Then it is true?” she asked, as the kiss and double shake of the hand was exchanged.
“May I ask? Is it true? May I congratulate you?”
“Oh, yes, it is true!” said Miss Prescott, breathlessly. “I suppose the girls are at the High School?”
“Yes, they will be at home at one. Or shall I send for them?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Best. I shall like to have a little time with you first. I can stay till a quarter-past three.”
“Then come and take off your things. I do not know when I have been so glad!”
“Do the girls know?” asked Miss Prescott, following upstairs to a comfortable bedroom, evidently serving also the purposes of a private room, for writing table and account books stood near the fire.
“They know something; Kate Bell heard a report from her cousins, and they have been watching anxiously for news from you.”
“I would not write till I knew more. I hope they have not raised their expectations too high; for though it is enough to be an immense relief, it is not exactly affluence. I have been with Mr. Bell going into the matter and seeing the place,” said Miss Prescott, sitting comfortably down in the arm-chair Mrs. Best placed for her, while she herself sat down in another, disposing themselves for a talk over the fire.
“Mr. Bell reckons it at about £600 a year.”
“And an estate?”
“A very pretty cottage in a Devonshire valley, with the furniture and three acres of land.”
“Oh! I believe the girls fancy that it is at least as large as Lord Coldhurst’s.”
“Yes, I was in hopes that they would have heard nothing about it.”
“It came through some of their schoolfellows; one cannot help things getting into the air.”
“And there getting inflated like bubbles,” said Miss Prescott, smiling. “Well, their expectations will have a fall, poor dears!”
“And it does not come from their side of the family,” said Mrs. Best. “Of course not! And it was wholly unexpected, was it not?”
“Yes, I had my name of Magdalen from my great aunt Tremlett; but she had never really forgiven my mother’s marriage, though she consented to be my godmother. She offered to adopt me on my mother’s death, and once when my father married again, and when we lost him, she wrote to propose my coming to live with her; but there would have been no payment, and so—”
“Yes, you dear good thing, you thought it your duty to go and work for your poor little stepmother and her children!”
“What else was my education good for, which has been a costly thing to poor father? And then the old lady was affronted for good, and never took any more notice of me, nor answered my letters. I did not even know she was dead, till I heard from Mr. Bell, who had learnt it from his lawyers!”
“It was quite right of her. Dear Magdalen, I am so glad,” said Mrs. Best, crossing over to kiss her; for the first stiffness had worn off, and they were together again, as had been the solicitor’s daughter and the chemist’s daughter, who went to the same school till Magdalen had been sent away to be finished in Germany.
“Dear Sophy, I wish you had the good fortune, too!”
“Oh! my galleons are coming when George has prospered a little more in Queensland, and comes to fetch me. Sophia and he say they shall fight for me,” said Mrs. Best, who had been bravely presiding over a high-school boarding-house ever since her husband, a railway engineer, had been killed by an accident, and left her with two children to bring up. “Dear children, they are very good to me.”
“I am sure you have been goodness itself to us,” said Magdalen, “in taking the care of these poor little ones when their mother died. I don’t know how to be thankful enough to you and for all the blessings we have had! And that this should have come just now, especially when my life with Lady Milsom is coming to an end.”
“Yes, the little boys are old enough for school, and the Colonel is going to take a house at Shrewsbury, where his mother will live with them, and want me no longer.”
“You have been there seven years.”
“Yes, and very happy. When Fanny married, Lady Milsom was left alone, and would not part with me, and then came the two little boys from India, so that she had an excuse for retaining me; but that is over now, or will be in a few weeks time. I had been trying for an engagement, and finding that beside your high-school diploma young ladies I am considered quite passée—”
“My dear! With your art, and music, and all!”
“Too true! And while I was digesting a polite hint that my terms were too high, and therewith Agatha’s earnest appeal to be sent to Girton, there comes this inheritance! Taking my burthen off my back, and making me ready to throw up my heels like a young colt.”
“Ah! you will be taking another burthen, perhaps.”
“No doubt, I suppose so, but let me find it out by degrees. I can only think as yet of having my dear girls to myself, moi, as the French would say, after having seen so little of them.”
“It has been very unfortunate. Epidemics have been strangely inconvenient.”
“Yes. First there was whooping cough here to destroy the summer holidays; then came the Milsoms’ measles, and I could not go and carry infection. Oh! and then Freddy broke his leg, and his grandmother was too nervous to be left with him. And by and by some one told her the scarlatina was in the town.”
“It really was, you know.”
“Any way, it would have been sheer selfish inhumanity to leave her, and then she had a real illness, which frightened us all very much. Next came influenza to every one. And these last holidays! What should the newly-come little one from India do, but catch a fever in the Red Sea, and I had to keep guard over the brothers at Weymouth till she was reported safe, and I don’t believe it was infectious after all! Still, I am tired of ‘other people’s stairs.’”
“It is nearly five years since you have been with them, except for that one peep you took at Weston.”
“And that is a great deal at their age. Agatha was a vehement reader; she would hardly look at me, so absorbed was she in ‘The York and Lancaster Rose’ which I had brought her.”
“She is rather like that now. I conclude that you will wish to take them away?”
“Not this time, at any rate till the house is fit to put over their heads. Besides, you have so mothered them, dear Sophy, that I could not bear to make a sudden parting.”
“There will be pain, especially over little Thekla and Polly. But if George comes home this spring, and I go out to Queensland with him, perhaps I should have asked you to take this house off my hands. May be it would be prudent in you to do so even now, considering all things; only I believe that transplanting would be good for them all.”
“I am glad you think so, for I have a perfect longing for that little house of my own.”
“You will be able to give them a superior kind of society to what they have had access to here. There is a good deal that I should like to talk over with you before they come in.”
“Agatha seems to be in despair at her failure.”
“So is all the house, for we were very proud of her, and, of course, we all thought it a fad of the examiners, but perhaps our headmistress might not say the same. She is a good, hardworking girl though, and ambitious, and quite worth further training.”
“I am glad of being able to secure it to her at least, and by the time her course is finished I shall be able to judge about the others.”
“You thought of taking them in hand yourself?”
“Certainly; how nice it will be to teach my own kin, and not endless strangers, lovable as they have been!”
“It will be very good for them all to see something of life and manners superior to what I can give them here. You will take them into a fresh sphere, and—as things were—besides that, I could not—I did not know whether their lives would not lie among our people here.”
“Dear Sophy, don’t concern yourself. I am quite certain you would never let them fall in with anything hurtful.”
“Why, no! I hope not; but if I had known what was coming, I don’t think I should have asked you to consent to Vera and Thekla’s spending their holidays at Mr. Waring’s country house.”
“Very worthy people, you said. I remember Tom Waring, a very nice boy; and Jessie Dale went to school with us—I liked her. Fancy them having a country house.”
“Waring Grange they call it. He has got on wonderfully as upholsterer, decorator, and auctioneer. It is a very handsome one, with a garden that gets the prizes at the horticultural shows. They are thoroughly good people, but I was afraid afterwards that there had been a good deal of noisiness among the young folks at Christmas. Hubert Delrio was there, and I fancy there was some nonsense going on.”
“Ah, the Delrios! Are they here?”
“Yes, poor Fred did not make his art succeed when he had a family to provide for, and he is the head of the Art School here. His son has a good deal of talent, and very prudently has got taken on by the firm of Eccles and Co., who do a great deal of architectural decoration. The boy is doing very well, but there have been giggles and whispers that make me rejoice that Vera should be out of the neighbourhood.”
“Is she not very pretty?”
“You will be very much struck with her, I think; and Paulina is pretty too, and more thoughtful. She would not go with Thekla, because Waring Grange is far from church, and she would not disturb her Christmas and Epiphany. She is the most religious of them all, and puts me in mind of our old missionary castles in the air.”
“Ah, what castles they were! And they seem further off than ever! Or perhaps you will fulfil them, and go and teach the Australian blacks!”
“A very unpromising field,” said Mrs. Best, “though I hear there is a Sister Angela at the station who does wonders with them. I hear the quarter striking—they will be back directly.”
“Ah! before they come, we ought to talk over means! Something is owing for these last holidays. Oh! Sophy, I cannot find words to say how thankful I am to you for having helped me through this time, even to your own loss! It has made our life possible.”
“Indeed, I was most thankful to do all I could for poor Agnes’ children; and though I did not gain by them like my other boarders, I never lost, and they have been a great joy to me, yes, and a help, by giving my house a character.”
“When I recollect how utterly crushed down I felt, seven years ago, when their mother died, and Aunt Magdalen refused help, and how despairingly I prayed, I feel all the more that there is an answer to even feeble almost worldly prayer.”
“That it could not be when it was that you might be enabled to do the duty that was laid on you, my dear.”
And with the exchange of a kiss, the two good women set themselves to practical pounds, shillings, and pence, which was just concluded when the patter of feet up the stone steps and voices in the hall announced the return of Mrs. Best’s boarders.
Just as Magdalen was opening the door, there darted up, with the air of a privileged favourite, a little person of ten years old, with flying brown hair and round rosy cheeks, exclaiming breathlessly, “Is she come?”
The answer was to take her up with a motherly hug, and “My dear little Thekla!” There was not time for more than a hurried glance and embrace of the three on the steps of the stair, in their sailor hats and blue serge; but when in ten minutes more, the whole party, twenty in number, were seated round the dining table, observation was possible. Agatha, as senior scholar, sat at the foot of the table, fully occupied in dispensing Irish stew. She had a sensible face, to which projecting teeth gave a character, and a brow that would have shown itself finer but for the overhanging mass of hair. Vera and Paulina were so much alike and so nearly of the same age that they were often taken for twins, but on closer inspection Vera proved to be the prettiest, with a more delicately cut nose, clearer complexion, and bluer eyes; but Paulina, with paler cheeks, had softer eyes, and more pencilled brows, as well as a prettier lip and chin, though she would not strike the eye so much as her sister. Little Thekla was a round-faced, rosy little thing, childish for her nearly eleven years, smiling broadly and displaying enough white teeth to make Magdalen forebode that they would need much attention if they were not to be a desight like Agatha’s.
She sat between Mrs. Best and Magdalen; and in the first pause, when the first course had just been distributed, she looked up with a great pair of grey eyes, and asked, in a shrill, clear little voice, “Sister, may I have a bicycle?”
“We will see about it, my dear,” returned Magdalen, unwilling to pledge herself.
“But haven’t you got a fortune?” undauntedly demanded Thekla.
“Something like it, Thekla. You shall hear about it after dinner.” And Magdalen felt her colour flushing up under all those young eyes.
“Kitty Best said—”
But here Mrs. Best interposed. “We don’t talk over such things at table, Thekla. Take care with the gravy. Did Mr. Jones give a lesson, this morning?”
“Yes, a very long one,” said Vera.
“It was about the exact force of the words in the Revised Version,” added Agatha, “compared with the Greek.”
“That must have been very interesting!” said Magdalen.
Vera and her neighbour looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders; while some one else broke in with the news that another girl had not come back because she was down with influenza; and Magdalen, suspecting that “shop” was not talked at table, and also that the Scripture passage could not well be discussed there, saw that it was wise to let the conversation drift off, by Mrs. Best’s leading, into anecdotes of the influenza.
All were glad when grace was chanted, and the five sisters could retreat into the drawing-room, which Mrs. Best let them have to themselves for the half hour before Magdalen’s train, and the young ones’ return to the High School. She was at once established with Thekla on her lap, and the others perched round on chairs and footstools. Of course the first question was, “And is it really true?”
“It is true, my dears, that my old great aunt has left me a house and some money; but you must not flatter yourselves that it is a great estate.”
“Only mayn’t I have a bicycle?” began Thekla again.
“Child, I believe you have bicycles on the brain,” said Agatha. “But, sister, you do mean that we shall be better off, and I shall be able to go on with my education?”
“Yes, my dear, I think I can promise you so much,” said Magdalen, caressing the serge shoulder.
“O thanks! Girton?” cried Agatha.
“There is much that I must inquire about before I decide—”
Again came, “Elsie Warner has a bicycle, and she is no older than me! Please, sister!”
“Hush now, my little Thekla,” said the sister kindly; “I will talk to Mrs. Best, and see whether she thinks it will be good for you.”
Thekla subsided with a pout, and Magdalen was able to explain her circumstances and plans a little more in detail; seeing however that the girls had no idea of the value of money, Paulina asked whether it meant being as well off as the Colonel and Lady Mary—
“Who keep a carriage and pair, and a butler,” interposed Vera.
“Oh no, my dear. If I keep any kind of carriage it will be only a basket or governess cart, and a pony or donkey.”
“That’s all right,” said Agatha. “I would not be rich and stupid for the world.”
“Small fear of that!” said Magdalen, laughing. “Our home, the Goyle, is not more than a cottage, in a beautiful Devonshire valley—”
“What’s the name of it?”
“The Goyle. I believe it is a diminutive of Gully, a narrow ravine. It is lovely even now, and will be delightful when you come to me in April—”
“Shall I leave school?” asked Vera. “I shall be seventeen in May.”
“You will all leave school. Mrs. Best has made it easy to me by her wonderful goodness in keeping you on cheaper terms; but if Agatha goes to the University you must be content to work for a time with me.”
“Oh!” cried Thekla. “Shall I have always holidays? My bicycle!”
Everybody burst out laughing at this—not a very trained cachinnation, but more of the giggle, even in Agatha; and Magdalen answered:
“You will have plenty of time for bicycling if the hills are not too steep, but I hope to make your lessons pleasant to you.” She did not know whether to mention Mrs. Best’s intention of soon giving up her house, which would have much increased her difficulties but for her legacy; and Agatha said, “You know, I think, that Vera and Polly both ought to make a real study of music. They both have talent, and cultivation would do a great deal for it.”
Agatha spoke in a dogmatic way that amused Magdalen, and she said, “Well, I shall be able to judge when we are at the Goyle. Vera, I think you sing—”
Vera looked shy, and Agatha said, “She has a good voice, and Madame Lardner thinks it would answer to send her to some superior Conservatoire in process of time.”
Vera did not commit herself as to her wishes, and Mrs. Best returned to say that if Miss Prescott wished to see the headmistress it was time to set out for the school; and accordingly the whole party walked up together to the school, Magdalen with Agatha, who was chiefly occupied in explaining how entirely it was owing to the one-sidedness of the examiners that she had not gained the scholarship. Magdalen had heard of such examiners before from the mothers of her pupils.
She had to wish her sisters good-bye for the next three months, not having gathered very much about them, except their personal appearance. She administered a sovereign to each of them as they parted. Agatha thanked her in a tone as if afraid to betray what a boon it was; Vera, with an eager kiss, asking if she could spend it as she liked; Paulina, with a certain grave propriety; and Thekla, of course, wanted to know whether it would buy a bicycle, or, if not, how many rides could be purchased from it.
When they were absorbed in the routine of the day, the interview with the head mistress disclosed, what Magdalen had expected, that Agatha, was an industrious, ambitious girl, with very good abilities quite worth cultivating, though not extraordinary; that Vera had a certain sort of cleverness, but no application and not much taste for anything but music; and that Paulina was a good, dutiful, plodding girl, who surpassed brighter powers by dint of diligence. The little one was a mere child, who had not yet come much under notice from the higher authorities.
On the whole, Magdalen went away with pleasant hopes, and the affectionate impulses of kindred blood rising within her, to complete her term with Lady Milsom, by whom she could not well be spared till towards Easter; while, in the meantime, her house was being repaired.
“A poor thing, but mine own.”—Shakespeare.
“Thaay stwuns, thaay stwuns, thaay stwuns, thaay stwuns.”
—T. Hughes, Scouring of the White Horse.
Magdalen Prescott stood on her own little terrace. Her house was, like many Devonian ones, built high on the slope of a steep hill, running down into a narrow valley, and her abode was almost at the narrowest part, where a little lively brawling stream descended from the moor amid rocks and brushwood. If the history of the place were told, it had been built for a shooting box, then inherited by a lawyer who had embellished and spent his holidays there, and afterwards, his youngest daughter, a lonely and retiring woman, had spent her latter years there.
The house was low, stone built, and roofed with rough slate, with a narrow verandah in front, and creepers in bud covering it. Then came a terrace just wide enough for a carriage to drive up; and below, flower-beds bordered with stones found what vantage ground they could between the steep slopes of grass that led almost precipitously down to the stream, where the ground rose equally rapidly on the other side. Moss, ivy, rhododendrons, primroses, anemones, and the promise of ferns were there, and the adjacent beds had their full share of hepaticas and all the early daffodil kinds. Behind and on the southern side, lay the kitchen garden, also a succession of steps, and beyond as the ravine widened were small meadows, each with a big stone in the midst. The gulley, (or goyle) narrowed as it rose, and there was a disused limestone quarry, all wreathed over with creeping plants, a birch tree growing up all white and silvery in the middle, and above the house and garden was wood, not of fine trees, and interspersed with rocks, but giving shade and shelter. The opposite side had likewise fields below, with one grey farm house peeping in sight, and red cattle feeding in one, and above the same rocky woodland, meeting the other at the quarry; and then after a little cascade had tumbled down from the steeper ground, giving place to the heathery peaty moor, which ended, more than two miles off in a torr like a small sphinx. This could not be seen from Magdalen’s territory, but from the highest walk in her kitchen garden, she could see the square tower of Arnscombe, her parish church; and on a clear day, the glittering water of Rockstone bay.
To Magdalen it was a delightful view, and delightful too had been the arranging of her house, and preparing for her sisters. All the furniture and contents of the abode had been left to her. It was solid and handsome of its kind, belonging to the days of the retired Q.C., and some of it would have been displaced for what was more fresh and tasteful if Magdalen had not consulted economy. So she depended on basket-chairs, screens, brackets and drapery to enliven the ancient mahagony and rosewood, and she had accumulated a good many water colours, vases and knick-knacks. The old grand piano was found to be past its work, so that she went the length of purchasing a cottage one for the drawing-room, and another for the sitting-room that was to be the girls’ own property, and on which she expended much care and contrivance. It opened into the drawing-room, and like it, had glass doors into the verandah, as well as another door into the little hall. The drawing-room had a bow window looking over the fields towards the South, and this way too looked the dining-room, in which Magdalen bestowed whatever was least interesting, such as the “Hume and Smollett” and “Gibbon” of her grandfather’s library and her own school books, from which she hoped to teach Thekla.
Her upstairs arrangements had for the moment been rather disturbed by Mrs. Best’s wishing to come with her pupils; but she decided that Agatha should at once take possession of her own pretty room, and the two next sisters of theirs, while she herself would sleep in the dressing room which she destined to Thekla, giving up her own chamber to Mrs. Best for these few days, and sending Thekla’s little bed to Agatha’s room.
And there she stood, on the little terrace, thinking how lovely the purple light on the moor was, and how all the newcomers would enjoy such a treat.
She had abstained from meeting them at the station, having respect to the capacities of the horse, even upon his native hills, and she had hired a farmer’s cart to meet them and bring their luggage. Already she had a glimpse of the carriage, toiling up one hill, then disappearing between the hedges, and it was long before her gate, already open, was reached, and at her own own door, she received her little sister, followed by the others. And the first word she heard even before she had time to pay the driver was, “My dear Magdalen, what a road!”
Poor Mrs. Best! as the payment was put into the man’s hand, Magdalen looked round and saw she looked quite worn out.
“Yes,” said Paulina, “bumped to pieces and tired to death.”
“I was afraid they had been mending the roads,” said Magdalen.
“Mending! Strewing them with rocks, if you please,” said Agatha.
“And such a distance!” added Paulina.
“Not quite three miles,” replied Magdalen. “Here is some tea to repair you.”
“My dear Magdalen”—in a chorus—“that really is quite impossible. It must be five, at least.”
“Your nearest town ten miles off!” sighed Vera.
“Your nearest church,” cried Paulina.
“Up in the wilds,” said Agatha.
Magdalen felt as if these speeches were so many drops of water in her face and that of her beautiful Goyle, but she rose in its defence.
“It actually is less than three miles,” she said. “I have walked it several times, and the cabs only charge three.”
“That is testimony,” said Mrs. Best, smiling; “but hills, perhaps, reckon for miles in one’s feelings!”
“Particularly before you are rested,” said Magdalen, setting her down in a comfortable wicker chair. “You will think little of it on your own feet, Vera, and the church is much nearer, Paulina, only on the other side of the hill.”
“May I have a bicycle of my own?” burst in Thekla, again; while every one began laughing, and Agatha told her that Sister would think her brains were cycling.
“With centric and concentric scribbled o’er Cycle and epicycle orb in orb.”
“Epicycle?” cried Vera. “I saw it advertised in the Queen. A splendid one.”
“Ah! Magdalen, you will think I have not taught them their Milton,” said Mrs. Best, as both elders burst out laughing; and Agatha said, in an undertone, “Don’t make yourself such a goose, Vera.”
“I should think it rather rough sailing for bikes,” said Paulina.
“I should have thought so, myself,” returned Magdalen; “but the Clipstone girls do not seem to think so. I see them sailing merrily into Rockstone.”
“You have neighbours, then?” said Vera.
“Certainly. Rockstone supplies a good deal. Here are various cards of people whose visits are yet to be returned. Clipstone is further off; but the daughters will be nice friends for you. I met one of them before, when she was staying at Lord Rotherwood’s. But I am afraid your boxes are hardly come yet. Still, you will like to take off your things before dinner, even if you cannot unpack.”
She led the way, and disposed of each girl in her new quarters, explaining to Agatha that her’s and her little lodger were only temporary; but it struck upon her rather painfully that the only word of approbation or comfort came from Mrs. Best, and there were no notes at all of admiration of the scenery.
“Well,” she said to herself, “much is not to be expected from people who have been tired and shaken up in a station cab over newly-mended roads! Were they as bad when I came? But then I could look out, and did not hear poor Sophy’s groans all the way. I rather wish she had not come with them, though I am glad to see her again for this last time.”
Meantime the four girls had congregated in the room appropriated to Vera and Paulina. “Here are the necessaries of life,” said Agatha, handing out a brush and comb. “That slow wain may roll its course in utter darkness before it comes here.”
“To the other end of nowhere,” said Vera.
“And I am so tired,” whined Thekla. “These tight boots do hurt me so! I want to go to bed.”
Paulina was already on her knees, removing the boots and accommodating a pair of slippers to the little feet.
“We might as well be in a desert island,” continued Vera, “shut up from everything with an old frump.”
“Take care,” said Agatha, in warning, signing towards Thekla.
“I am sure she looks jolly and good-natured,” said Paulina.
“But did you hear what Elsie Lee always calls her, ‘our maiden aunt’?”
All three laughed, and Vera added, “All the girls say she can’t be less than fifty.”
“Topsy! You know she is only sixteen years older than I am.”
“Well, that’s half a hundred!”
“Sixteen and nineteen, what do they make?”
“Oh, never mind your sums. She has got the face and look of half a hundred!”
“Now, I thought her face and her dress like a girl’s,” said Paulina.
“Yes,” said Vera, “that’s just the way with old maids. They dress themselves up youthfully and affect girlish airs, and are all the more horrid.”
“That’s your experience!” said Agatha. “But there’s the waggon creeping up at a snail’s pace. Let us run down and see after our things.”
“Speed on, speed on, the footpath way, And merrily hunt the stile-a; A merry heart goes all the way, A sad tires in a mile-a.”
Sunday morning rose with new and bright hopes. The girls looked out at their window, and saw that it was a beautiful morning, and that the spring sunshine glowed upon the purple summits of the hills. Agatha supposed there would be a pleasant walk to church; Paulina said she had heard good accounts of the services in that part of the country; Vera hoped that they would see what their neighbours were like, and Thekla was delighted with the jolly garden and places to scramble in.
On this first Sunday they were let alone to explore the garden before the walk to church, which Magdalen foresaw would be a long affair with Mrs. Best. After their decorous stillness at breakfast, it was a contrast to hear the merry voices and laughter outside, but it subsided as soon as she approached, though she did not hear the murmured ripple, “Here comes maiden aunt! Behold—Quite a spicy hat!”
In truth, Magdalen’s hat was a pretty new one, not by any means unsuitable to her age and appearance, and altogether her air was more stylish than the country town breeding was accustomed to; her dress perfectly plain, but well made.
Vera was perhaps the most sensible of the perfection of the turn-out; Agatha chiefly felt that her more decorated skirt and mantle had their inconveniences in walking through the red mud of the lanes, impeded by books and umbrella, which left no leisure to admire the primroses that studded the deep banks and which delighted Thekla in the freedom of short skirts.
Magdalen herself had enough to do in steering along such a substantial craft as poor Mrs. Best, used to church-going along a street, and shrouded under a squirrel mantle of many pounds weight.
Barely in time was the convoy when at last the exhausted lady was helped over the stone stile that led to the churchyard. Highly picturesque was the grey structure outside, but within modernism had not done much; the chancel was feebly fitted after the ideas of the “fifties,” but the faded woodwork of the nave was intact, and Magdalen still had to sit in the grim pew of her predecessors.
The girls’ looks at each other might have suited the entrance to a condemned cell, and the pulpit towered above them with a faded green cushion, that seemed in danger of tumbling down over their heads.
The service was a plain one, but reverent and careful; the music had a considerable element of harmonium mixed with schoolchild voices, and the sermon from an elderly man was a good one; but when the move to go out was made, and the young ones were beyond ear-shot of their elders, the exclamations were, “Well, I never thought to have gone back to Georgian era.”
“Exactly the element of our maiden aunt.”
“And nobody to be seen.”
“Naggie, why do they shut one up in boxes?”
“Just to daunt Flapsy’s roving eye, Tickle, my dear.”
“Don’t, Polly. There was nobody to be seen if we hadn’t been in a box. Of course no one comes there but stately old farmers and their smart daughters. I saw one with a Gainsborough hat, and a bunch of cock’s feathers, with a scarlet cactus cocking it up behind.”
“Flapsy made use of her opportunities, you see. Being ‘emparocked in a pew’ cannot daunt her spirit of research.”
“Now, Nag, I only meant to show you what impossible people they are.”
“Natives who will repay the study perhaps,” continued Agatha, reading as though from a book of travels. “We were able to observe a group of the aborigines at their devotions. Conspicuous was a not ungraceful young female, whose head, ornamented with a plume of feathers, towered above the enclosure in which she was secluded, while an aged fakir, hakem or medicine man pronounced from a loftier structure resembling a sentry box.”
“Children, children, that’s the wrong way,” came Magdalen’s voice from behind. “You must turn into that lane. Wait a moment.”
They waited till Mrs. Best’s lagging steps allowed Magdalen to come up with them, but dead silence fell on them when Mrs. Best observed, “You were very merry.” They could not speak of the cause. Perhaps Magdalen divined something, for she said, “We hope to make some improvements, and so indeed does Mr. Earl, but he is very poor. Besides, newcomers must work slowly.”
The doubt whether she had heard Agatha’s speech made the girls conscious enough to keep from responding, as she meant them to do, by cheerful criticisms, and indeed the task of cheering and dragging on Mrs. Best was quite enough to occupy her. There was only three years difference in their ages, but this seemed to have made a great interval between one whose métier had been to be youthful and active, and her who had to be staid and dignified.
The early dinner passed in all demureness and formality, and the poor visitor was too much tired for any more services to be thought of for her. Magdalen explained that when the days would be longer, she thought of walking to Rockstone for evensong, but now the best way was to go to the chapel at Clipstone, which was nearer than either of the others.
“There is a lovely little chapel there, beautifully fitted up by Lord Rotherwood and Sir Jasper Merrifield, for the hamlet,” she said.
“How far?” asked Mrs. Best.
“About a mile and a half across the fields; further by the road. You will find your bicycles available when you know the way.”
“Don’t we go to Rockstone?” asked Paulina. “I am sure there is a really satisfactory church there.”
“St. Kenelm’s, do you mean? That is not so near as St. Andrew’s Church, but that is very satisfactory, and I go to one or other of them on week-days. It is too late to come back on these spring Sundays.”
“I should not like to live among so many churches,” said Mrs. Best, “and so far from them all!”
“You love your old parish church, like a faithful old churchwoman,” said Magdalen. “Well, you see, I am faithful enough to go to my parish in the morning, but I think we may be discursive afterwards. There is a Sunday school in which I was waiting to offer help till our party was made up.”
Magdalen had looked twice for a responding smile, first from Agatha, and then from Paulina, but none was awakened. The girls clustered together in the bedroom, and the word “Goody” passed between them.
“Tempered by respect for my Lord and Sir Jasper,” added Agatha.
“And avoiding St. Kenelm’s because it is the real correct church,” said Paulina.
“Oh, yes!” cried Vera. “Mr. Hubert Delrio went to see it in case Eccles and Beamster should have an order. We must go there.”
“Of course,” said Paulina, with a sympathetic nod.
“But,” said Agatha, “there will be an embargo on all acquaintance except the grandees at Clipstone.”
“I shall never drop old friends,” cried Vera. “I am a rock of crystal as regards them, whatever swells may require, if they burst themselves like the frog and the ox.”
“Well done, crystal rock; but suppose the old friends slide off and drop you?” laughed Agatha.
Vera tossed her head; and Thekla ran in to say that Sister was ready.
The walk was shorter and pleasanter than that in the morning, over moorland, but with a good road; but all Magdalen discovered on the walk was that though the girls had attended botanical classes, they did not recognise spear-wort when they saw it, and Agatha thought the old catalogue fashions of botany were quite exploded. This was a sentiment, and it gave hopes of something like an argument and a conversation, but they were at that moment overtaken by the neighbouring farmer’s wife, who wanted to give Miss Prescott some information about a setting of eggs, which she did at some length, and with a rapid utterance of dialect that amused, while it puzzled, Magdalen, and her inquiries and comments were decided to be “thoroughly good-wife” by all save Thekla, who hailed the possible ownership of a hen and chicken as almost equal to that of a bicycle.
Magdalen further discovered that Thekla’s name in common use was “Tickle,” or else “Tick-tick”; Paulina was, of course, Paula or Polly; Vera had her old baby title of Flapsy, which somehow suited her restless nervous motions, and Agatha had become Nag. Well, it was the fashion of the day, though not a pretty one; but Magdalen recollected, with some pain, her father’s pleasure in the selection of saintly names for his little daughters, and she wondered how he would have liked to hear them thus transmuted. There had been something bordering on sentiment in her father’s character, and something in Paulina’s expression made her hope to see it repeated by inheritance. She saw the countenance brighten out of the morning’s antagonistic air when they entered the little chapel at Clipstone, and saw the altar adorned and carefully decked with white narcissus and golden daffodils.
The little chapel was old and plain, very small, but reverently cared for. There was no choir, but the chairs of those who could sing were placed near the harmonium, which was played by one of the young ladies from the large gabled house to which the chapel was attached, and the singing had the refined tones that belong to the music of cultivated people. The congregation was evidently of poor folks from the hamlet, dependants of the great house, and the family itself, a grey-haired, fine-looking general, a tall dark-eyed lady, a tall youth, a schoolboy, and four girls—one of whom was musician, and the other presided over the school children. The service was reverent, the catechising good and effective, the sermon brief, and summing up in a spiritual and devotional manner; Magdalen was happy, and trusted that Paulina was so likewise.
She expected to hear some commendation as they walked home, but Vera alone kept with her, to examine her on the names and standing of the persons she had seen, on which there was as yet little to tell, for the first move towards acquaintance had not yet been made. All that was known was that there were Sir Jasper and Lady Merrifield, connections of Lord Rotherwood, who owned most of the Rockstone property, and who with his family had once been staying in the country house where Magdalen had been governess; but it was a long time ago, and she only recollected that there were some nice little girls. At least she said no more, but her friend thought the more.
“I suppose they will call?” said Vera.
“Most likely they will.”
“Has nobody called?”
“Mr. Earl, the Vicar of Arnscombe. He has promised to tell me how we can be of use here. I believe there is great want of a lady at the Sunday school.”
This did not interest Vera—and she went on asking questions about the neighbourhood, and whether any of the Rockstone people had left cards, and whether there were any parties, garden or evening, at Rockstone—more than Magdalen could yet answer, though she was glad to promote any sort of conversation with either of the girls who did not stand aloof from her.
“I say, the M.A. (maiden aunt) knows nobody but that old clergyman, who wants her to teach his Sunday school.”
“I’m out of that, thank goodness,” said Agatha.
“And Sunday schools are a delusion, only hindering the children from going to church with their parents,” said Paulina.
“And if nobody calls, and they all think her no better than an old governess, how awfully slow it will be,” continued Vera.
“I do not suppose that will last,” said Agatha. “There is Rockstone, remember.”
“Ten miles off,” said Vera disconsolately. “Oh, Nag, Nag, isn’t it horrid! We shall be just smart enough to be taken for swells, and know nobody; and the swells won’t have us because she is a governess. We might as well be upon a desert island at once.”
Agatha could not help laughing and repeating—
“I am out of humanity’s reach, I must finish my journey alone— Never hear the sweet music of speech, I start at the sound of my own.”
“But really, Nag,” broke in Paulina, “it is horrid. Here we are equidistant from three or four churches, and condemned to the most behind the world of them all, and then to the one where there is this distant fragrance of swells, instead of the only Catholic one.”
Agatha had a little more common sense than the other two, and she responded—
“After all, you know, you are better off than if you were still at school; and the M.A. is a good old soul at the bottom, and you may manage her, depend on it. Though I wish she had let me go to Girton.”
Magdalen and Mrs. Best meantime were going over future prospects and old times. Mrs. Best’s destination was Albertstown, in Queensland, where her son George had a good practice as a doctor, and where he assured her she would find church privileges—even a cathedral, so-called, and a bishop—though Bishop Fulmort was always out on some expedition among the colonists or the natives, but among his clergy there was always Sunday service. In fact, Magdalen thought the good old lady expected to find a town more like Filsted than the Goyle. There was a sisterhood located there too, which tried, mostly in vain, to train the wild native women—an attempt at which George Best laughed, though he allowed that the sisters were splendid nurses, especially Sister Angela, who had a wonderful way of bringing cases round.