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The city's golden spire it was, When hope and health were strongest; But now it is the churchyard grass, We look upon the longest.--E. B. BROWNING.
A disinclination for exertion or going into public hung upon Dr. May, but he was obliged to rouse himself to attend the Town Council meeting, which was held a few days after the vicar's funeral, to decide on the next appointment. If it had depended on himself alone, his choice would have been Mr. Edward Wilmot, whom the death of his good old father had uprooted from Settlesham; and the girls had much hope, but he was too much out of spirits to be sanguine. He said that he should only hear a great deal of offensive stuff from Tomkins the brewer; and that, in the desire to displease nobody, the votes should settle down on some nonentity, was the best which was likely to happen. Thus, grumbling, he set off, and his daughters watched anxiously for his return. They saw him come through the garden with a quick, light step, that made them augur well, and he entered the room with the corners of his mouth turning up. "I see," said Ethel, "it is all right."
"They were going to have made a very absurd choice."
"But you prevented it? Who was it?"
"Ah! I told you Master Ritchie was turning out a popular preacher."
"You don't mean that they chose Richard!" cried Margaret breathlessly.
"As sure as my name is Dick May, they did, every man of them, except Tomkins, and even he held his tongue; I did not think it of them," said the doctor, almost overcome; "but there is much more goodness of heart in the world than one gives it credit for."
And good Dr. May was not one to give the least credit for all that was like himself.
"But it was Richard's own doing," he continued. "Those sermons made a great impression, and they love the boy, because he has grown up among them. The old mayor waddled up to me, as I came in, telling me that they had been talking it over, and they were unanimously agreed that they could not have a parson they should like better than Mr. Richard."
"Good old Mr. Doddesley! I can see him!" cried Ethel.
"I expected it so little, that I thought he meant some Richards; but no, he said Mr. Richard May, if he had nothing better in view--they liked him, and knew he was a very steady, good young gentleman, and if he took after his fathers that went before him--and they thought we might like to have him settled near!"
"How very kind!" said Margaret, as the tears came. "We shall love our own townsfolk better than ever!"
"I always told you so, if you would but believe it. They have warm, sound hearts, every one of them! I declare, I did not know which way to look, I was so sorry to disappoint them."
"Disappoint them!" cried Margaret, in consternation.
"I was thinking," said Ethel. "I do not believe Richard would think himself equal to this place in such a state as it is. He is so diffident."
"Yes," said Dr. May, "if he were ten or twelve years older, it would be another thing; but here, where everything is to be done, he would not bring weight or force enough. He would only work himself to death, for individuals, without going to the root. Margaret, my darling, I am very sorry to have disappointed you so much--it would have been as great a pleasure as we could have had in this world to have the lad here--"
"And Cocksmoor," sighed Ethel.
"I shall be grateful all my life to those good people for thinking of it," continued the doctor; "but look you here, it was my business to get the best man chosen in my power and, though as to goodness, I believe the dear Ritchie has not many equals; I don't think we can conscientiously say he would be, at present, the best vicar for Stoneborough."
Ethel would not say no, for fear she should pain Margaret.
"Besides," continued Dr. May, "after having staved off the sale of the presentation as a sin, it would hardly have been handsome to have let my own son profit by it. It would have seemed as if we had our private ends, when Richard helped poor old Mr. Ramsden."
Margaret owned this, and Ethel said Richard would be glad to be spared the refusal.
"I was sure of it. The poor fellow would have been perplexed between the right and consideration for us. A vicar here ought to carry things with a high hand, and that is hardest to do at a man's own home, especially for a quiet lad like him."
"Yes, papa, it was quite right," said Margaret, recovering herself; "it has spared Richard a great deal."
"But are we to have Mr. Wilmot?" said Ethel. "Think of our not having heard!"
"Ay. If they would not have had Wilmot, or a man of his calibre, perhaps I might have let them offer it to Richard. I almost wish I had. With help, and Ethel--"
"No, no, papa," said Margaret. "You are making me angry with myself for my folly. It is much better for Richard himself, and for us all, as well as the town. Think how long we have wished for Mr. Wilmot!"
"He will be in time for the opening of Cocksmoor school!" cried Ethel. "How did you manage it?"
"I did not manage at all," said the doctor. "I told them exactly my mind, that Richard was not old enough for such arduous work; and though no words could tell how obliged I was, if they asked me who was the best man for it I knew, I should say Edward Wilmot, and I thought he deserved something from us, for the work he did gratis, when he was second master. Tomkins growled a little, but, fortunately, no one was prepared with another proposal, so they all came round, and the mayor is to write by this evening's post, and so shall I. If we could only have given Richard a dozen more years!"
Margaret was somewhat comforted to find that the sacrifice had cost her father a good deal; she was always slightly jealous for Richard, and now that Alan was gone, she clung to him more than ever. His soft calm manner supported her more than any other human comforter, and she always yearned after him when absent, more than for all the other brothers; but her father's decision had been too high-minded for her to dare to wish it recalled, and she could not but own that Richard would have had to undergo more toil and annoyance than perhaps his health would have endured.
Flora had discontinued comments to her sisters on her father's proceedings, finding that observations mortified Margaret, and did not tend to peace with Ethel; but she told her husband that she did not regret it much, for Richard would have exhausted his own income, and his father's likewise, in paying curates, and raising funds for charities. She scarcely expected Mr. Edward Wilmot to accept the offer, aware as he was, of the many disadvantages he should have to contend with, and unsuccessful as he had been in dealing with the Ladies' Committee.
However, Mr. Wilmot signified his thankful acceptance, and, in due time, his familiar tap was heard at the drawing-room door, at tea- time, as if he had just returned after the holidays. He was most gladly welcomed, and soon was installed in his own place, with his goddaughter, Mary, blushing with pleasure at pouring out his coffee.
"Well, Ethel, how is Cocksmoor? How like old times!"
"Oh," cried Ethel, "we are so glad you will see the beginning of the school!"
"I hear you are finishing Cherry Elwood, too."
"Much against Ethel's will," said Margaret; "but we thought Cherry not easily spoiled. And Whitford school seems to be in very good order. Dr. Spencer went and had an inspection of it, and conferred with all the authorities."
"Ah! we have a jewel of a parishioner for you," said Dr. May. "I have some hopes of Stoneborough now."
Mr. Wilmot did not look too hopeful, but he smiled, and asked after Granny Hall, and the children.
"Polly grew up quite civilised," said Ethel. "She lives at Whitford, with some very respectable people, and sends granny presents, which make her merrier than ever. Last time it was a bonnet, and Jenny persuaded her to go to church in it, though, she said, what she called the moon of it was too small."
"How do the people go on?"
"I cannot say much for them. It is disheartening. We really have done nothing. So very few go to church regularly."
"None at all went in my time," said Mr. Wilmot.
"Elwood always goes," said Mary, "and Taylor; yes, and Sam Hall, very often, and many of the women, in the evening, because they like to walk home with the children."
"The children? the Sunday scholars?"
"Oh, every one that is big enough comes to school now, here, on Sunday. If only the teaching were better--"
"Have you sent out any more pupils to service?"
"Not many. There is Willie Brown, trying to be Dr. Spencer's little groom," said Ethel.
"But I am afraid it will take a great deal of the doctor's patience to train him," added Margaret.
"It is hard," said Dr. May. "He did it purely to oblige Ethel; and, I tell her, when he lames the pony, I shall expect her to buy another for him, out of the Cocksmoor funds."
Ethel and Mary broke out in a chorus of defence of Willie Brown.
"There was Ben Wheeler," said Mary, "who went to work in the quarries; and the men could not teach him to say bad words, because the young ladies told him not."
"The young ladies have not quite done nothing," said Dr. May, smiling.
"These are only little stray things, and Cherry has done the chief of them," said Ethel. "Oh, it is grievously bad still," she added, sighing. "Such want of truth, such ungoverned tongues and tempers, such godlessness altogether! It is only surface-work, taming the children at school, while they have such homes; and their parents, even if they do come where they might learn better, are always liable to be upset, as they all it--turned out of their places in church, and they will not run the chance."
"The church must come to them," said Mr. Wilmot. "Could the school be made fit to be licensed for service."
"Ask our architect," said Dr. May. "There can be little doubt."
"I have been settling that I must have a curate specially for Cocksmoor," said Mr. Wilmot. "Can you tell me of one, Ethel--or perhaps Margaret could?"
Margaret could only smile faintly, for her heart was beating.
"Seriously," said Mr. Wilmot, turning to Dr. May, "do you think Richard would come and help us here?"
"This seems to be his destiny," said the doctor, smiling, "only it would not be fair to tell you, lest you should be jealous--that the Town Council had a great mind for him."
The matter was explained, and Mr. Wilmot was a great deal more struck by Dr. May's conduct than the good doctor thought it deserved. Every one was only too glad that Richard should come as Cocksmoor curate; and, though the stipend was very small--since Mr. Wilmot meant to have other assistance--yet, by living at home, it might be feasible.
Margaret's last words that night to Ethel were, "The last wish I had dared to make is granted!"
Mr. Wilmot wrote to Richard, who joyfully accepted his proposal, and engaged to come home as soon as his present rector could find a substitute.
Dr. Spencer was delighted, and, it appeared, had already had a view to such possibilities in designing the plan of the school.
The first good effect of Mr. Wilmot's coming was, that Dr. Spencer was cured of the vagrant habits of going to church at Abbotstoke or Fordholm, that had greatly concerned his friend. Dr. May, who could never get any answer from him except that he was not a Town Councillor, and, as to example, it was no way to set that to sleep through the sermon.
To say that Dr. May never slept under the new dynasty would be an over-statement, but slumber certainly prevailed in the minster to a far less degree than formerly. One cause might be that it was not shut up unaired from one Sunday to another, but that the chime of the bells was no longer an extraordinary sound on a week-day. It was at first pronounced that time could not be found for going to church on week-days without neglecting other things, but Mary, who had lately sat very loose to the schoolroom, began gradually to slip down to church whenever the service was neither too early nor too late; and Gertrude was often found trotting by her side--going to mamma, as the little Daisy called it, from some confusion between the church and the cloister, which Ethel was in no hurry to disturb.
Lectures in Lent filled the church a good deal, as much perhaps from the novelty as from better motives, and altogether there was a renewal of energy in parish work. The poor had become so little accustomed to pastoral care, that the doctors and the district visitors were obliged to report cases of sickness to the clergy, and vainly tried to rouse the people to send of their own accord. However, the better leaven began to work, and, of course, there was a ferment, though less violent than Ethel had expected.
Mr. Wilmot set more cautiously to work than he had done in his younger days, and did not attack prejudices so openly, and he had an admirable assistant in Dr. Spencer. Every one respected the opinion of the travelled doctor, and he had a courteous clever process of the reduction to the absurd, which seldom failed to tell, while it never gave offence. As to the Ladies' Committee, though there had been expressions of dismay, when the tidings of the appointment first went abroad, not one of the whole "Aonian choir" liked to dissent from Dr. Spencer, and he talked them over, individually, into a most conformable state, merely by taking their compliance for granted, and showing that he deemed it only the natural state of things, that the vicar should reign over the charities of the place.
The committee was not dissolved--that would have been an act of violence--but it was henceforth subject to Mr. Wilmot, and he and his curates undertook the religious instruction in the week, and chose the books--a state of affairs brought about with so much quietness, that Ethel knew not whether Flora, Dr. Spencer, or Mr. Wilmot had been the chief mover.
Mrs. Ledwich was made treasurer of a new coal club, and Miss Rich keeper of the lending-library, occupations which delighted them greatly; and Ethel was surprised to find how much unity of action was springing up, now that the period was over, of each "doing right in her own eyes."
"In fact," said Dr. Spencer, "when women have enough to do, they are perfectly tractable."
The Cocksmoor accounts were Ethel's chief anxiety. It seemed as if now there might be a school-house, but with little income to depend upon, since poor Alan Ernescliffe's annual ten pounds was at an end. However, Dr. May leaned over her as she was puzzling over her pounds, shillings, and pence, and laid a cheque upon her desk. She looked up in his face. "We must make Cocksmoor Harry's heir," he said.
By and by it appeared that Cocksmoor was not out of Hector Ernescliffe's mind. The boy's letters to Margaret had been brief, matter-of-fact, and discouraging, as long as the half-year lasted, and there was not much to be gathered about him from Tom, on his return for the Easter holidays, but soon poor Hector wrote a long dismal letter to Margaret.
Captain Gordon had taken him to Maplewood, where the recollection of his brother, and the happy hopes with which they had taken possession, came thronging upon him. The house was forlorn, and the corner that had been unpacked for their reception, was as dreary a contrast to the bright home at Stoneborough, as was the dry, stern captain, to the fatherly warm-hearted doctor. Poor Hector had little or nothing to do, and the pleasure of possession had not come yet; he had no companion of his own age, and bashfulness made him shrink with dislike from introduction to his tenants and neighbours.
There was not an entertaining book in the house, he declared, and the captain snubbed him, if he bought anything he cared to read. The captain was always at him to read musty old improving books, and talking about the position he would occupy. The evenings were altogether unbearable, and if it were not for rabbit shooting now, and the half-year soon beginning again, Hector declared he should be ready to cut and run, and leave Captain Gordon and Maplewood to each other--and very well matched too! He was nearly in a state of mind to imitate that unprecedented boy, who wrote a letter to 'The Times', complaining of extra weeks.
As to Cocksmoor, Ethel must not think it forgotten; he had spoken to the captain about it, and the old wooden-head had gone and answered that it was not incumbent on him, that Cocksmoor had no claims upon him, and he could not make it up out of his allowance; for the old fellow would not give him a farthing more than he had before, and had said that was too much.
There was a great blur over the words "wooden-head," as if Hector had known that Margaret would disapprove, and had tried to scratch it out. She wrote all the consolation in her power, and exhorted him to patience, apparently without much effect. She would not show his subsequent letters, and the reading and answering them fatigued her so much, that Hector's writing was an unwelcome sight at Stoneborough. Each letter, as Ethel said, seemed so much taken out of her, and she begged her not to think about them.
"Nothing can do me much good or harm now," said Margaret; and seeing Ethel's anxious looks, "Is it not my greatest comfort that Hector can still treat me as his sister, or, if I can only be of any use in keeping him patient? Only think of the danger of a boy, in his situation, being left without sympathy!"
There was nothing more to be said. They all felt it was good for them that the building at Cocksmoor gave full occupation to thoughts and conversation; indeed, Tom declared they never walked in any other direction, nor talked of anything else, and that without Hector, or George Rivers, he had nobody to speak to. However, he was a good deal tranquillised by an introduction to Dr. Spencer's laboratory, where he compounded mixtures that Dr. Spencer promised should do no more harm than was reasonable to himself, or any one else. Ethel suspected that, if Tom had chanced to singe his eyebrows, his friend would not have regretted a blight to his nascent coxcombry, but he was far too careful of his own beauty to do any such thing.
Richard was set at liberty just before Easter, and came home to his new charge. He was aware of what had taken place, and heartily grateful for the part his father had taken. To work at Cocksmoor, under Mr. Wilmot, and to live at home, was felicity; and he fitted at once into his old place, and resumed all the little home services for which he had been always famed. Ethel was certain that Margaret was content, when she saw her brother bending over her, and the sense of reliance and security that the presence of the silent Richard imparted to the whole family was something very peculiar, especially as they were so much more active and demonstrative than he was.
Mr. Wilmot put him at once in charge of the hamlet. The inhabitants were still a hard, rude, unpromising race, and there were many flagrant evils amongst them, but the last few years had not been without some effect--some were less obdurate, a few really touched, and, almost all, glad of instruction for their children. If Ethel's perseverance had done nothing else, it had, at least, been a witness, and her immediate scholars showed the influence of her lessons.
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