Chapter 18




PALACES OR CHURCHES


"And if I leave the thing that lieth next,
To go and do the thing that is afar,
I take the very strength out of my deed."
- MACDONALD.


Those were happy days that succeeded Vera's engagement. It had made her more womanly, or at least less childish; and the intercourse with Hubert Delrio became an increasing delight to her sisters, who had never known anything so like a brother.

He was at first shy and not at ease with Magdalen, who, on her side, perceived the lack of public school and university training; but in grain he was so completely a good man, a churchman, and a gentleman, and had so much right sense as well as talent, that she liked him thoroughly and began to rely on him, as a woman with unaccustomed property is glad to do with a male relation.

And to him, the society of the Goyle was a new charm. He had been brought up to the technicalities and the business relations of art, and had a cultivated taste; but to be with a thoughtful, highly educated lady, able to enter into its higher and deeper associations, was an unspeakable delight and improvement to him. Vera was fairly satisfied as long as he sketched her in various attitudes, and held her hand while he talked; though she did grudge having so much time spent on "taste, Shakespeare and the musical glasses." Paula had various ecclesiastical interests in common with him, and began to expand and enter more into realities, while Thekla had in him a dear delightful delicious brother, who petted her, bantered her, mended her rabbit hutch, caught her hedgehog, taught her to guide her bicycle, drew picture games for her, and taught her to sketch.

Agatha had endless discussions with him on his various aspirations, in some of which Magdalen took her share, sometimes thinking with a pang of regret and self-reproach that that brief time of intercourse with Hal Merrifield had been spent in youthful nonsense that could have left no permanent influence for good.

In fact, whether through Hubert or through Agatha, a certain intellectual waft had breathed upon the Goyle. Hubert was eager for assistance in learning German and Italian, and read and discussed books of interest; and even when he had left Rockstone, and his work at St. Kenelm's being finished, the stimulus was kept up by his letters, comments and questions; and the younger girls had entirely ceased to form an opposite camp, or to view "sister" as a taskmistress, even when Agatha had returned to St. Robert's.

Mysie had come home, very brown, fuller of Scott than ever for her mother, and of Hugh Miller for Fergus, for whom she had brought so many specimens that Cousin Rotherwood declared that she would sink the Kittiwake. Over the sketches and photographs of Iona, she and Paulina became great friends, and Paula was admitted to hear accounts of the modern missions that had come from the other Harry Merrifield among the Karens in Burmah, or again through Franciska Ivinghoe, of her Aunt Angela Underwood, who was considered to have a peculiar faculty for dealing with those very unpromising natives, the Australian gins. Franciska remembered her tender nursing and bright manner in the days of fever at Vale Leston, and had a longing hope that she would take a holiday and come home; but at present she was bound to the couch of her slowly declining old friend, Sister Constance, the Mother of Dearport. It was another bond of interest with Magdalen, to whom missions to the heathens had always been a dream.

Thus had passed a year uneventful and peaceable, with visits from Hubert whenever he had a day or two to spare. They were looked forward to with delight; but if there were a drawback it was in Vera's viewing him partly as one who held her in a sort of chain, and partly as one whom it was pleasant to tease by allowing little casual civilities from Wilfred Merrifield.

For Wilfred was an embarrassment to his family. He had never been strong, his public school career had been shortened by failure in health, and headaches in the summer, and coughs in the winter made it needful to keep him at home, and trust to cramming at Rockstone, enforced by his father's stern discipline and his mother's authoritative influence.

Thus he was always within reach of the mild social gaieties in which each family indulged, and Vera was not quite so ready as were his sisters to contrast unfavourably his hatred of all self-improvement with Hubert Delrio's eagerness to pick up every crumb of information, thus deservedly getting on well in his profession.

One morning, at breakfast, Hubert opened a letter and made a sudden exclamation; and in answer to Vera's vehement inquiry said, "It seems that the great millionaire swell, Pettifer--is that his name?"

"Oh, yes, he was at Rock Quay."

"Well, he went to see St. Kenelm's, fell in love with the ceiling, and offered Pratt and Pavis any sum they like to decorate a huge new hall he is building in the same style. So they write to propose to me to come and do it, with a promise of future work, at any terms I like to ask."

"Oh! but that's jolly," cried Vera. "Can't you?"

"No," he said; "this is immediate, and I have two churches, reredos and walls, on my hands, enough to last me all the year. Nor could I throw over Eccles and Beamster."

"Is there an agreement with them?" asked Magdalen.

"Not regularly; but Mr. Eccles has been very kind to me, and promised me employment for four years to come; in fact, he has made engagements on that understanding."

"I see," said Magdalen. "You could not break with them."

"Certainly not. Nor do I entirely like the line of this other house. It is a good deal more secular."

"And you have dedicated your talents to the Church!" cried Paulina.

"Not that exactly, Paula," he said, smiling; "but I had rather work for the Church, so I am glad the matter is definitely settled for me."

To that he kept, though he had a very kind letter from Mr. Eccles, who had evidently been applied to, wishing not to stand in his light, especially as he was engaged to be married, and telling him how it might be possible to fairly compensate for the loss to the firm. Between the lines, however, it was plain that it would be a great blow, only possible because the agreement had been neglected; and Hubert was only the more determined, out of gratitude for the generosity, not to break what he felt to be an implied pledge; and all the sisters sympathised with his determination.

He adhered to it even after his return to London, though his father thought it a pity to lose the chance, if it could be accepted without discourtesy to Mr. Eccles; and he had been interviewed by various parties concerned, and there had been an attempt to dazzle him by the prospects held out to him by an enthusiastic young member of the firm. Perhaps he was too shrewd entirely to trust them, but at any rate he felt his good faith to Eccles and Beamster a bond to hold him fast from the temptation; and his heart was really set on the consecration of the higher uses of his art; so that regard to the simple rule of honour was an absolute relief to him.

So he wrote to Vera, who, if there were a secret wish on her part, did not dare to give it shape; while all her sisters, to whom she showed the letters that she scarcely comprehended, were open-mouthed in their admiration. Thekla, who had been seized with a fit of hagiology, went the length of comparing him to St. Barbara; even Paula pronounced it a far-fetched resemblance.

It was some months later that Sir Ferdinand Travis Underwood had decided on building a magnificent cathedral-like church for the population rising around him in the Rocky Mountains; and meeting Lord Rotherwood in London heard of the work at St. Kenelm's, and resorted to Eccles and Beamster as the employers of young Delrio. There would be plenty of varieties of beautiful material to be found near at hand in the mountains; but Hubert was sent first for a short journey in Italy to study the effect of the old mosaics as well as the frescoes, and then to go out to America to the work that would last a considerable time.

Vera was much excited by the notion of the Italian journey, and thought she ought to have been married at once and have shared it, including as it did a short visit to Rocca Marina. But she was scarcely eighteen, and neither her trustee nor her elder sister thought it advisable to dispense with the decision that her twenty- first birthday must be waited for, at which she pouted. Hubert came for two nights on his return, and was exceedingly full of his tour, talking over Italian scenes and churches with Magdalen, who had never seen them, but had the descriptions and the history at her fingers' ends, and listened with delight to all the impressions of a mind full of feeling and poetry. The time was only too short to discuss or look out everything, and much was left to be copied and sent after him, with many promises on Vera's part of writing everything for him, and translating the books that Magdalen would refer to. He was allowed to take Vera and Paulina to Filsted for a hurried visit to his parents. When they came home again, it soon became plain that it had not been a success. "I am glad to be at home again," said Paula, as the pony carriage turned up the steep drive, and the girls jumped out to walk. "I am quite glad to feel the stones under my feet again!"

Magdalen laughed. "A new sentiment!" she said.

"I don't like the stones," said Vera, "but I did not know Filsted was such a poky place."

"A dead flat!" added Paula. "No sea, no torrs! one wanted something to look at! and SUCH a church!"

"Did you see Minnie Maitland?" put in Thekla.

"I saw all the Maitlands in a hurry," said Vera. "I don't remember which was which. They were all dressed alike in horrid colours. Hubert said they set his teeth on edge!"

"How was old Mrs. Delrio?"

"Just the same as ever, lean and pinched."

"But so kind!" added Paula. "She could not make enough of Flapsy."

"I should think not!" ejaculated Vera. "Enough! aye, and too much! just fancy, no dinner napkins! and Edith went away and made the scones herself!"

"Very praiseworthy," said Magdalen. "Don't you know how Hubert always tells us what a dear devoted good girl she is?"

"Well, I only hope Hubert does not expect me to live in that way," said Vera. "His mother looks like a half-starved hare, and Edith is giving lessons as a daily governess!

"Edith is very nice," said Paula; "and I never understood before how excellent old Mr. Delrio's pictures are! Do you remember his 'Country Lane'? What a pity it did not sell!"

"Poor man!" said Magdalen. "He married too soon, and that has kept him down."

"It is beautiful to see how proud they are of Hubert," said Paula, "and his pretty gentle attention and deference to them both. Mr. Delrio is really a gentleman, I am sure; but, Maidie," she said, falling back with her, while Vera and Thekla mounted faster, "it was very odd to see how different things looked to us from what they seemed when we were at Mrs. Best's. Filsted High Street has grown so small, and one could hardly breathe in Mrs. Delrio's stuffy drawing- room. And as to Waring Grange, which we used to think just perfect, it was all so pretentious and in such bad taste. Hubert saw it as much as we did, but I could see he was on thorns to hinder Flapsy from making observations."

Certainly the visit had not done much good, except in making the girls appreciate the refinement of their surroundings at the Goyle.

And when letters arrived from Hubert at the American Vale Leston, asking questions requiring some research in books, either Magdalen's or at the Rock Quay library, Vera dawdled and sighed over them; and when the more zealous Magdalen or Paula took all the trouble, and left nothing for her to do but to copy their notes, and write the letters, she grew cross. "It was for Hubert, and she did not want any one else to meddle! So stupid! If he had only taken Pratt and Pavis's offer, there would not have been all this bother!"

That, of course, she only ventured to utter before Paula and Thekla, and it made them both so furious that she declared she was only in joke, and did not mean it.

She was indulging in reflections on the general dulness of her lot, and the lack of sympathy in her sisters, as she lingered by the confectioner's window, with her eyes fixed on a gorgeous combination of coloured bonbons, when Wilfred Merrifield sauntered out. "Fresh from Paris!" he said. "Going to choose some?"

"Oh no, I haven't got any cash. M. A. keeps us horribly short."

"As usual with governors! But look here! Pocket this. Sweets to the sweet, from an old chum!"

"Oh, Will, how jolly! Such a love of a box."

"Make haste! Some of the girls are lurking about, and if there is any mischief to be made, trust Gill for doing it."

"Mischief!--" but before the words were out of her mouth, Gillian and Mysie appeared from the next shop, a bootmaker's, and Mysie stood aghast with, "What ARE you doing? Buying goodies! How very ridiculous!"

"The proper thing between chums, isn't it, Vera?" said Wilfred, with an indifferent air. "We aren't unlucky Sunday scholars, Mysie, to be jumped upon! Good-bye, Vera, au revoir!"

He sauntered away with his hands in his pockets; while Gillian, from her eldership of two years, and her engagement, gravely said, "Vera, perhaps you do not fully know, but I should say this is not quite the thing."

"He told you we are just chums!" exclaimed Vera. "As if there were any harm in it! You've not got a sweet tooth yourself, so you need not grudge me just a few goodies."

Gillian saw that it was of no use to prolong the dispute either for the place or the time, and she hushed Mysie, who was about to expostulate farther, and made her go away with a brief parting, such as she hoped would impress on Vera that the sisters thought very badly of her discretion and loyalty. They could not hear the reflection, "They need not be so particular and so cross. Hubert never thought of giving me anything nice like this. Why should not my chum? Such a sweet little box too, with a dear girl's head on it! Would Polly fuss about it, and set on Sister? I shall put it into my own drawer, and then if they notice it, they may think somebody at Filsted gave it! No one has any business to worry me about Hubert, and Wilfred being civil to me. He IS a gentleman."

The gentleman had been overtaken by his sisters. He was walking his bicycle up the hill rather breathlessly and slowly. Mysie indignantly began, "Of all the stupid things to do, to give goodies to that girl, like a baby!"

"I have been wishing to speak to you," said Gillian. "You are going the way to get that foolish girl into a scrape."

"Oh, yes, of course. Sisters uniformly object to a little civility to a pretty girl," carelessly answered Wilfred.

"Nonsense!" returned Mysie, hotly. "We don't care! only it is not fair on Mr. Delrio."

"The painter cad! A very good thing too! The sacrifice ought to be prevented. Is not that the general sentiment?"

"Wilfred!" cried the scandalised Mysie, "when it is all the other way, and he is ever so much too good for her."

"Consummate prig! The cheek of him pretending to a lady!"

"But, Wilfred," went on downright Mysie, "is it only mischief, or do you want to marry her yourself?"

"Draw your own conclusions," responded Wilfred, mounting his machine, and spinning down the hill faster than they could follow on foot.

"What is to be done, Gill?" sighed Mysie. "Ought we to get mamma to speak to him?"

"Better not," said Gillian, with more experience. "It would only make it worse to take it seriously. Half of it is play--and half to tease you."

"And," said Mysie, with due deference to the engaged sister, "how about Mr. Delrio? Will it make him unhappy?"

"If he finds out in time what a horrid little thing it is, I should say it would be very well for him; but I don't want Will to be the means."

"Oh! when his examination is over, and he gets an appointment, he will go away, and it will be safe."

"I have not much hopes of his getting in!"

"Oh, Gill, none of us ever failed before."

On the side of the Goyle not much was known or cared about Wilfred's little attentions, which were generally out of sight of Magdalen, and did not amount to much; but Paula saw enough of them to consult Agatha on, and to observe that Flapsy was going on just as she used to at Filsted, and she thought Hubert would not like it.

"I believe Flapsy can't live without it," sighed Agatha.

"But would you speak to her? I don't think she ought to let him give her boxes of bonbons--to keep up in her room, and never give a hint to Maidie."

Agatha did speak but the effect was to set Vera into crying out at every one being so intolerably cross about such a trifle, Gillian Merrifield and all!

"Did Gillian speak to you?"

"Yes, as if she had any business to do so!"

"I am sure it is not the way she would treat Captain Armitage."

"I don't believe she cares for Captain Armitage one bit! You said yourself that all the girls at Oxford thought she cared much more for her horrid examination! I wouldn't be a dry, cold-hearted, insensible stick like her for the world."

"Perhaps she is the more quietly in earnest," said Agatha, repenting a little that she had told before Vera the college jokes over what had leaked out of Gillian's reception of Ernley Armitage when he had hastened up to Oxford as soon as his ship was paid off, and she had been called down to him in the Lady Principal's room. Report said that she had only prayed him to keep out of the way, and not to upset her brain, and that he had meekly obeyed--as one who knew what it was to have promotion depending on it.

It was a half truth, exaggerated, but it had not a happy effect on Vera. Nevertheless, the finishing push of preparation brought on such a succession of violent headaches as quite to disable the really delicate boy. Moreover, the tutor declared that there had been little chance of his success, and Dr. Dagger said that he had much better not try again. The best hope for his health, and even for his life, was to keep him at home for a few years, and give him light work.

He had never been the pleasantest element in the household; and if his parents were glad of the avoidance of the risk of a launch into the world, and his mother's love rejoiced in the power of watching over him, there were others who felt his temper a continual trial, while his career was a perplexity.

However, Captain Henderson offered a clerkship at the Marble Works, subject to Mr. White's approval; and this was gratefully accepted. Nor did Agatha come home again at the Long Vacation for more than two days, in which there was no time for consultation with her sisters on matters of uncertain import.

Miss Arthuret and Elizabeth Merrifield had arranged together to take the old roomy farmhouse on Penbeacon for three or four months, and there receive parties of young women in need of rest, fresh air, and, in some cases, of classes, or time for study. It was to be a sort of Holiday House, though not altogether of idleness; and Dolores undertook to be a kind of vice-president, with Agatha to pursue her reading under her superintendence, and to assist in helping others, governesses, students, schoolmistresses from Coalham, in whose behalf indeed the scheme had been first started, and it was extremely delightful to Agatha, among many others.




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