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"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."
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