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Chapter 15


"But ill for him who, bettering not with time,
Corrupts the strength of Heaven-descended will,
And ever weaker grows through acted crime,
Or seeming genial venial fault."

"Man Friday hope piccaniny live well--bring her buckra fish from sea!" Such was the greeting from Lord Rotherwood to Thekla when the whole party walked over in time for tea on the lawn, before church at Clipstone, as he presented her with a facsimile oyster which he had hunted up in a sweet shop, making an absurd bow and scrape.

Poor Thekla coloured, and mumbled a shy, "Thank you, my--my--" having had a lecture from Vera on treating a marquis with over familiarity and it was left to Primrose to ask where Friday learnt nigger language. "By nature, Missy buckra," he responded; "all same nigger everywhere." And he repeated his bow so drolly that Primrose's laugh carried Thekla's along with it, as Lady Phyllis walked up with, "Come, father, you are wanted to congratulate."

"Eh! Am I? So they have perpetrated it, have they? More's the pity is what I should say in the Palace of Truth; but the maiden has landed a better fish than she knows--that is, if she have landed him."

"There! take care, don't be tiresome, Papa!" admonished Lady Phyllis, drawing him on, when he met Vera with a courtly manner, and, "I hope I see you recovered, Miss Prescott, and able to rejoice in the pleasant consequences of your adventure."

Vera blushed, and looked very pretty and modest, making not much answer as she retreated among her contemporaries to show them her ring, a hoop of pearls, which Wilfred insisted were Roman pearls, fishes' eyes, most appropriate; but Flapsy felt immeasurably older than Wilfred to-day, and able to despise his teasing, though Hubert Delrio was not present, and indeed Wilfred was not disposed to bestow much of his attention upon her, having much more inclination to beset his cousin, Lady Phyllis, who surely ought to perceive that he had attained at least the same height as his brother Jasper, and could, in his absence, pose as the young man of the household.

Phyllis had not much to say to him, nor after the first to Vera, though she duly admired the ring so exultantly shown, and accepted the assurance that Hubert was the dearest fellow in the world. But there was no getting any condolence out of her upon the misery of having to wait four whole years. She said, "It was a very good thing! There was her cousin Gillian, who had insisted on waiting three years to finish her education."

"Oh, but dear Hubert likes me as I am," simpered Vera.

"You might wish that he should find more in you to like. Gillian," said Phyllis, coming up to her and Agatha, "I want you to assure Vera that four years is not such a great trial in waiting."

"It is what I have been trying to persuade her," said Agatha; "she is hardly seventeen."

"And I would not have been married at seventeen for anything," said Gillian to the pouting Vera. "I want to be more worth having."

Vera did not like it, she had heard the like at home, and she fell back upon Valetta, while the others walked on. "Poor little Flapsy!" said Agatha, "I do hope this engagement may make more of a woman of her."

"My father was very much struck by Mr. Delrio," said Phyllis, "both as artist and personally."

"You must be glad of the time for putting her up to his level," said Gillian.

"Do you think such things are to be done?" asked Agatha.

"Yes," said Phyllis stoutly. "You may not make her able to be a Senior Wrangler--(Oh you are Oxford!)--or capable of it, like this Gillyflower; but you can get the stuff into her that makes a sound sensible wife."

Gillian caught a little hopeless sigh of "CAN," and answered it with, "When all this effervescence is blown off, then will be the time for working at the substance, and she may be all the better wife-- especially for the artist temperament, if she is of the homely sort."

"How angry she would be if she heard you say so!" returned Agatha. "Yet certainly I do feel relieved that wifehood is to be my poor Flapsy's portion, for she is not of the sort that can stand alone and make her own way."

"There will always be plenty of such women in the world," said Gillian.

"So much the better for the world," retorted Phyllis, who had never shown any symptoms of exclusive devotion to any one of the other sex, except her father.

One thing Agatha wanted to know, and dared not ask, namely, what impression Vera had made in the Kittiwake and what Hubert had said about her; for she and Paula had begun to remark that, lover as he was, not a word about her heroism had escaped him. And it was as well that she did not hear what the extra plain spoken Primrose did not spare the boasting Thekla. "Cousin Rotherwood and Fly both say they can't think how Mr. Delrio got on with such a silly little hysterical goose upon his hands; and that it is a foolish romantic unlucky notion that he ought to be engaged to her. I think Mamma will tell Miss Prescott so."

The Kittiwake, having arrived three days later than had been expected, there had been an amount of revolution in the general arrangements. The break up of the High School was to be on an early day of the next week. It had become a much more extensive and public matter than in the days of Valetta and Maura, though these were not so very long ago, and there was a great day of exhibitions and speeches to the parents and neighbourhood generally. Two ladies had been secured for the purpose, Elizabeth Merrifield and Miss Arthuret, and the former arrived on the Saturday afternoon, but as the Rotherwood party almost overflowed Clipstone, she was transferred to Miss Mohun.

After the death of their parents, about three years previously, Susan and Elizabeth had gone to live at Coalham, and to be useful to their brother David's parish; Susan betaking herself to the poor, and Bessie finding herself specially available in the various forms of improvement undertaken by ladies in modern days. To her own surprise, and her sister's discomfiture, her talent as a public speaker had become developed. With a little assistance from her sister-in-law Agnes's unwilling stage experience, and entreaties, not easily to be withstood, came from various quarters that she would come and advocate the good cause.

Of course she was ever welcome at Clipstone, and she walked up thither with General Mohun, arriving just after the others from the Goyle; and in the general confusion of greetings, and the Babel of cousinly tongues, there were no introductions nor naming of names. Bessie declared herself delighted with the chance of seeing Lady Ivinghoe, whom she considered more to realise the beauty of women than any one she had hitherto beheld, and the fair face had not lost its simplicity, but rather gained in loveliness by the sweetness of early motherhood, as she and Phyllis sat by Mysie, regaling her with tales of what they regarded as the remarkable precocity of the infant Claude, reluctantly left to his grandmother.

"But where's Dolores?" asked Bessie. "I miss her among the swarm of mice!"

"Dolores is at Vale Leston," answered Gillian. "She has been a long time making up her mind to go there, to Gerald's home; and now she is there, they will not let her go till some birthday is over."

"Uncle Felix's!" whispered Franceska to Mysie. "You know it was dear Gerald's place. She had never seen it."

Another voice was now raised, asking, "What had become of Miss Arthuret?"

"She only comes down on Monday," said Bessie. "Just in time for the meeting. She is too valuable to come for more than one meeting."

"But who is she?"

"Arthurine Arthuret? She is a girl, or rather woman, who has some property at Stokesley. In fact, she is one of those magnets that seem to attract inheritance without effort--like the Hapsburgs, though happily she makes a most beneficent, though, sometimes, original use of them."

"Is not that very dangerous?" said Aunt Lily.

"The first came to her early, and coming into it very young, and overflowing with new ideas, she began rather grotesquely; but she has tamed down a good deal since, and really has done an immense deal of good in finding employment for people, making improvements and the like, though she is Sam's pet aversion, a tremendous Liberal, almost a Socialist. They are so like cat and dog that Susan and I were really glad to be away from Stokesley, especially at election times; but altogether she is an admirable person."

Lady Merrifield thought she detected a start of Miss Prescott at the name Stokesley, and that her eyes looked anxiously at the speaker. Bessie was not of the sandy part of the family. Was the unattractive schoolboy, once seen, like his sisters? All that was observable was startling similitudes to her own children, though in them the elements of the handsome dark Mohun generally predominated.

But by and by, in a quiet moment, Bessie suddenly asked, "Did you say her name was Magdalen?"

Lady Merrifield laughed. "Four years MAY do a good deal at that time of life," she said. "I suppose no time ever so changes--changes-- what shall I say?--eyes--views--characters. Only constancy in absence is the dangerous thing. There are distinguished examples of- -of the mischief of being constant without knowing what one is constant to. Virulent constancy, as Mrs. Malaprop has it."

Magdalen thanked and smiled. Perhaps there was a certain virulent constancy in a remote corner of her heart which had been revived by a certain indescribable look in the eyes and contour of Bessie Merrifield.

And Bessie herself, while sitting under the verandah with Lady Merrifield, while all the others were walking down to embark Lord and Lady Ivinghoe in the yacht, suddenly repeated, "Did you say that her name was Magdalen?"

"Yes; I saw it startled you, my dear."

"It revived an old, old story. I do not know whether there was anything in it. Who or what is she, Aunt Lily? I only know her as the sister of the girl that the Ivinghoes picked up."

"She is the owner of a little property at Arnscombe, and has taken home her four young half-sisters to live with her, after having slaved for them as a governess till she came into this inheritance. She is an excellent person."

"Ah! Was her house at Filsted?"

"I am not sure. Yes, I think the young ones were at school there. You think--"

"I feel certain. May I tell you, Aunt Lily? Some of the others cannot bear to mention my poor Hal; but to me the worst of the sting is gone, since I know he repented."

"My dear, I should be very glad to hear. Your father and mother never mention your brother, and we were away at the time."

"Poor Hal! I am afraid there was a weakness in him. He never had that determination that carried all the others on. He never could get through an examination, and my father put him into a bank at Filsted. By and by, after some years, came a letter telling my father he was gambling very seriously, getting into temptation, and engaging himself to an attorney's daughter. It was while I was living with grandmamma, and he used sometimes to look in on me, and talk to me about this Magdalen. Once he showed me her photograph and I thought I knew her face again. But my father went off, very angry. I have always feared he found poor Hal on the verge of tampering with the bank money, but he never would say a word. He broke everything up, put an end to the engagement if there was one, and sent Hal off to John and George, who had just got their farm in Manitoba, and were getting on by dint of hard work."

"They have done very well, have they not?"

"Yes, by working and living harder than any day labourer at Stokesley. Hal could not stand it, and--and I'm afraid the boys were not very merciful to him, poor fellow, and he got something to do in Winnipeg. There he fell in with a speculator called Golding, they all did in fact; he was a plausible man, whom they all liked, and used to put up at his house when they took waggons in with their produce. He had a daughter, and Johnnie got engaged to her, or thought he was. They all were persuaded to put money into a horrid building speculation,--Henry, what he had brought out, the other two what they had realised. Well, suddenly it all ended. They were all gone, Golding, daughter, Hal and all--yes, all--the money the other boys had put in the thing, off to the States, as we suppose! No trace ever found."

"Really no trace?"

"None! The poor boys lost all they had, and were obliged to begin over again."

"And has really nothing been heard of this unfortunate Hal?"

"There is one thing that does give me a hope. There did come to Stokesley a letter from a Brisbane bank, addressed to J. and G. Merrifield, to the care of Rear-Admiral Merrifield, and in it were bank bills up to the value of what the boys had been robbed of, about two hundred and fifty pounds. Poor Henry must have repented, and wished to make restitution."

"Was there no name, no clue?"

"None at all. We know no more."

"But was there no inquiry made at Brisbane?"

"It was when my father was very ill. The parcel was not opened at first. I have been always sorry he never heard of it; but after all there was no asking of forgiveness, nor anything that could be answered. The boys got it with the tidings of our dear father's death. John came home to see about things, George stayed to look after his Stokesley. They were well over their troubles by that time, and they gave the restored money to David for his churches."

"And no more was done, not even by David?" said Lady Merrifield, thinking over what she had heard from Geraldine Grinstead, and how the Underwoods would have accepted such a token from their lost sheep.

"David did write to Brisbane to the bank, but there never was any answer. There is no knowing how it might have been, if any one had gone out and done his best; but you see we were all much taken up with home duties and cares, and I am afraid we have not dwelt enough upon our poor boy, and he had much against him. The discipline from my dear father, that all the elders responded to with a sort of loyal exultation, only frightened him and made him shifty. They despised him, and I do not think any of us were as kind to him as we ought to have been; though on the whole he liked me the best, for he cared for books and quiet pursuits, such as all laughed at, except David. I wish he could have seen more of David."

"Did your mother hear of this ray of hope?"

"Susan thought it best not to tell her. We used to hear her murmuring his name among all ours in her prayers, Susie, Sam, Hal, Bessie, and so on; but she never was herself enough to understand, and they thought it might only stir her up to expect to see him. Oh, Aunt Lily, I don't think you--any of you--would have gone on so; but you are all much more affectionate and demonstrative than our branch of the family."

"Ah, my dear, I am sure there was a pang in your mother's heart that she never durst mention," said Lady Merrifield, her imagination dwelling in terror on her Wilfred, the one child in whom she could not help detecting the weakness of character of his unhappy cousin. "Depend upon it, Bessie, her prayers were hovering round him all the time, and bringing that act of restitution, though she was not allowed to hear of it."

"I had not thought of that," said Bessie, in a low tone, "though I think David has. I have heard his voice choke over an intercession for the absent."

"Think of it now, my dear, and do not let habitual reserve hinder you from speaking of it to Susan and David, though most likely they have the habit already. Who knows what united prayer may do with Him who deviseth means to bring home His banished?"

Steps returning, Bessie wiped away her tears in haste, actually the first she had shed for the lost Hal, though there was a heartache too deep for tears.

Charlotte M. Yonge