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FOXGLOVES AND FLIRTATIONS
"With her venturous climbings, and tumbles, and childish escapes."
Hubert Delrio, pleased and gratified, but very shy, joined the ladies from the Goyle in their walk to Clipstone, expecting perhaps a good deal of stiffness and constraint, since every one at St. Kenelm's told him what a severe and formidable person Sir Jasper Merrifield was, and that all Lady Merrifield's surroundings were "so very clever." "They did want SUCH books ordered in the library."
Magdalen laughed, and said her only chance of seeing a book she wanted was that Lady Merrifield should have asked for it. At Clipstone, they were directed to the dell where the foxgloves were unusually fine that year, covering one of the banks of the ravine with a perfect cloud of close-grown spikes, nodding with thick clustered bells, spotted withinside, and without, of that indescribable light crimson or purple, enchanting in reality but impossible to reproduce. It was like a dream of fairy land to Hubert to wander thither with his Vera, count the tiers of bells, admire the rings of purple and the crooked stamens, measure the height of the tall ones, some almost equal to himself in stature, and recall the fairy lore and poetry connected with them, while Vera listened and thought she enjoyed, but kept herself entertained by surreptitiously popping the blossoms, and trying to wreath her hat with wild roses.
Thekla meantime admired from the opposite bank, in a state of much elevation at acquiring a dear delicious brother-in-law, and insisted on Primrose sharing her sentiments till her boasting at last provoked the exclamation, "I wouldn't be so cocky! I don't make such a fuss if my sisters do go and fall in love. I have two brothers-in-law out in India, and Gillian has a captain, an Egyptian hero, with a medal, a post captain out at sea in the Nivelle. You shall see his photograph coloured in his lovely uniform, with his sword and all! Your Flapsy's man isn't even an officer!"
"He is a poet, and that's better!"
"Better! why, if you WILL have it, Wilfred and Fergus always call him that 'painter cad,'" broke out Primrose, who had not outgrown her childish power of rudeness, especially out of hearing of her elders.
"Then it is very wicked of them," exclaimed Thekla, "when the Marquis of Rotherwood himself said that Hubert Delrio is a very superior young man" (each syllable triumphantly rounded off).
Primrose was equal to the occasion. "Oh, they all laugh at Cousin Rotherwood; and, besides, a superior young man does not mean a gentleman."
Thekla burst into angry tears and sobs, which brought Gillian, and a grave, dark young lady from the other side of a rock to inquire what was the matter--there was a confession on the two tongues of "she did," and "I didn't" of "painter cad, superior young man and no gentleman," but at last it cleared itself into Primrose allowing that, to take down Thekla's conceit, she had declared that a very superior young man did not mean a gentleman.
"I could not have believed that you could have been so abominably ill-mannered," said Gillian gravely; "you ought to apologise to Thekla."
"Oh, never mind," began Thekla ashamed; and at that moment a frantic barking was heard in the depths, and Valetta, Wilfred, Fergus and a dog or two darted headlong past, calling out, "Hedgehogs, hedgehogs! Run! come!" And Primrose, giving a hand to Thekla, joined in the general rush down the glade.
"A situation relieved!" said the newcomer.
"For all ran to see,
For they took him to be
An Egyptian porcupig,"
quoted Gillian. "They have wanted such a beast for some time for their menagerie; but really Primrose is getting much too old to indulge in such babyish incivility to a guest, true though the speech was, 'a superior young man,' not necessarily a gentleman."
"I am colonial enough to like him the better for the absence of a hall mark."
"Should you have missed it? He is very good looking, and has a sensible refined countenance, poor man!"
"He is a little too point device, too obviously got up for the occasion!"
"Too like the best electroplate! No; that is not fair, for it is not pretence, at least, I should think there was sound material below, and that never would brighten instead of dimming it."
"According to Mysie and Fly, there is plenty of good taste; and his principle is vouched for. Mysie is quite furious at any lady-love having gone to sleep to the sound of original verses from a lover!"
"Dear old Mysie! No, she would not. She has a practical vein in her! Would you?"
"I'm not likely to be tried!" said Gillian merrily. "Catch Ernley either practising or not minding his boat! But come! Mamma will want me, I feel only deputy daughter, with Mysie away."
The two girls rose from the mossy bank, and proceeded across the paddock to the opening of the glade.
On the turf Lady Merrifield sat enthroned; making a nucleus to the festivities and delicacies of all sorts, from sandwiches and cakes down to strawberries, cherries and Devonshire cream, were displayed before her; and the others drifted up gradually, Miss Mohun first. "I am later than I meant to be," she said, "but I was delayed by a talk with Sister Beata. I never saw a woman more knocked down than she is by that adventure of Vera's."
"I know," said Magdalen, rousing herself. "It has made her look ten years older, and she could not talk it over or let a word be said to comfort her. She says it was all her fault, and I should have thought it was that silly little Sister Mena's, if that is her name.
"She considers it her fault for objecting to strict discipline in things of which she did not see the use," said Jane Mohun, "and so getting absorbed in her own work, and having no fixed rule by which to train Mena."
"I see," said Lady Merrifield; "it reminds me of a story told in Madame de Chantal's life, how, when, par mortification, a Sister quietly ate up a rotten apple without complaint and another made signs of amusement, a rule was made that no one should raise her eyes at meals. It shows that some rules which seem unreasonable may have a foundation."
"It is an unnatural life altogether," said Dolores. "Why should the rotten apple have been swallowed? or, if it was, I should think a joke over it might have been wholesome."
"Hindering priggishness in the mortified Sister," said Gillian.
"The fact is," said Lady Merrifield, "that if you vow yourself to an unnatural life, so to speak, you must submit to the rules that have been found best to work for it."
"And poor Sister Beata did neither the one nor the other, by her own account," said Jane. "She called herself a Sister, but disliked each rule, and chose to go her own way, like any other benevolent woman, doing very admirable work herself, but letting little Mena have the prestige of a Sister, while too busy to look after her, and without rules to restrain her."
"But surely there has been no harm!" exclaimed Lady Merrifield.
"No harm, only a little incipient flirtation with the organist, nothing in any one else, but not quite like a convent maid."
"Ah! I rather suspected," said Agatha.
"I should think the best thing for Sister Mena would be to go to a good school, leave off her veil, in which she looks so pretty, and be treated like an ordinary girl," said Lady Merrifield.
"That is just what Sister Beata intends," said Miss Mohun. "She is to sink down into Miss Marian Jenkins, to wear a straw hat and blue frock, and go to school with the other girls, the pupils, while Sister Beata begins life as a probationer at Dearport."
"Poor Sister Beata!"
"She says she has experienced that it is best to learn to obey before one begins to rule. It is most touching to see how humble she is. Such a real good woman too! I doubt whether she gets a night's rest three days in a week, and she looks quite haggard with this distress," said Jane.
"She will be a great power by and by! But what will Mr. Flight and St. Kenelm's do without her?"
"He is promised relays of Sisters from Dearport, which has stood so many years that they have a supply. You see, he, like Sister Beata, tried a little too much to be original and stand aloof."
"Ah!" said Lady Merrifield, "that is the benefit of institutions. They hinder works from dying away with the original clergyman or the wonderful woman."
"But, Aunt Lily," put in Dolores, "institutions get slack?"
"They have their DOWNS, but they also have their ups. There is something to fall back upon with public schools."
"Yes, like croquet," laughed Aunt Jane. "We saw it rise and saw it fall; and here come all the players, the revival. Well, how went the game?"
So the party collected, and the two Generals came in from some vanity of inspection to grumble a little merrily at the open air banquet, but to take their places in all good humour, and the lively meal began with all the home witticisms, yet not such as to exclude strangers. Indeed, Hubert Delrio was treated with something like distinction, and was evidently very happy, with Vera by his side. Perhaps Magdalen perceived that there was not the perfect ease of absolute equality and familiarity; but his poetical and chivalrous nature was gratified by the notice of a Crimean hero, and he infinitely admired the dignity and courtesy of Lady Merrifield, and the grace and ease of her daughters, finding himself in a new world of exquisite charm for him.
And before they broke up, Magdalen had a quiet time with Lady Merrifield, in which she was able, not without a tell-tale blush even at her years, to ascertain that there were two Henry Merrifields, and that, alas! there was nothing good known of the son of Stokesley, except that anonymous attempt at restitution which gave hopes of repentance.
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