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Chapter 21


"Thou shalt have the air
Of freedom. Follow and do me service."

"Is Agatha in?" asked Dolores Mohun, jumping off her bicycle as she saw Magdalen, on a frosty day the next Christmas vacation, in her garden.

"She is doing scientific arithmetic with Thekla; giving me a holiday, in fact! You University maidens quite take the shine out of us poor old teachers."

"Ah! if we can give shine we can't give substance. But I want to borrow Nag, if you have no objection."

"Borrow her! I am sure it is something she will like."

"It is in the way of business, but she will like it all the same. They want me to give a course of lectures on electricity at Bexley to the Institute and the two High Schools, and I particularly want a skilled assistant, whom I can depend upon; not masters, nor boys! Now Nag is just what I should like. We should stay at Lancelot Underwood's, a very charming place to be at."

"Isn't he some connection?"

"Connection all round. Phyllis Merrifield married his brother, banking in Ceylon, and may come home any day on a visit; and Ivinghoe's pretty wife is Lancelot's niece. He edits what is really the crack newspaper of the county, in spite of its being true blue Conservative, Church and all."

"The Pursuivant? It has such good literary articles."

"Oh, yes! Mrs. Grinstead and Canon Harewood write them. His wife is a daughter of old Dr. May--rather a peculiar person, but very jolly in her way."

"But would they like to have Agatha imposed upon them?"

"Certainly; they are just the people to like nothing better, and it will only be for a fortnight. I have settled it all with them."

At which Magdalen looked a little doubtful, but Dolores reiterated that there need be no scruple, she might ask Aunt Lily if she liked; but Lance Underwood was Mayor, and member of all the committees, and the most open-hearted man in the world besides, and it was all right.

To the further demur as to safety, Dolores answered that to light a candle or sit by the fire might be dangerous, but as long as people were careful, it was all right, and Agatha had already assisted in some experiments at Rock Quay, which had shown her to be thoroughly understanding and trustworthy, and capable of keeping off the amateur--the great bugbear.

So Magdalen consented, after rapturous desires on the part of Agatha, and assurances from General Mohun that Dolores had it in her by inheritance and by training to meddle with the lightning as safely as human being might; and Lady Merrifield owned with a sigh that she must accept as a fact that what even the heathens owned as a Divine mystery and awful attribute, had come to be treated as a commonplace business messenger and scientific toy, though (as Mrs. Gatty puts it) the mystery had only gone deeper. So much for the peril; and for the other scruple, it was set at rest by a hospitable letter from Mrs. Underwood, heartily inviting Miss Agatha Prescott, as an Oxford friend of Gillian.

So off the two electricians set, and after two days of business and sight-seeing in London, went down to Bexley. In the third-class carriage in which they travelled they were struck by the sight of a tall lady in mourning--a sort of compromise between a conventual and a secular bonnet over short fair hair, and holding on her lap a tiny little girl of about six years old, with a small, pinched, delicate face and slightly red hair, to whom she pointed out by name each spot they passed, herself wearing an earnest absorbed look of recognition as she pointed out familiar landmark after landmark till the darkness came down. Also there were two cages--one with a small pink cockatoo, and another with two budgerigars.

As the train began slackening Dolores exclaimed:

"There he is! Lance--!"

"Lance! Oh, Lance!" was echoed; and setting the child down, her companion almost fell across Agatha, and was at the window as the train stopped.

What happened in the next moment no one could quite tell; but as the door was torn open there was a mingled cry of "Angel!" and of "Lance!" and the traveller was in his arms, turning the next moment to lift out the frightened little girl, who clung tight round her neck; while Lance held out his hand with, "Dolores! Yes. This is Dolores, Angel, whom you have never seen."

Each knew who the other was in a moment, and clasped hands in greeting, as well as they could with the one, and the other receiving bird-cages, handbags, umbrellas, and rugs from Agatha, whom, however, Lance relieved of them with a courteous, "Miss Prescott! You have come in for the arrival of my Australian sister! What luggage have you?" Wherewith all was absorbed in the recognition of boxes, and therewith a word or two to an old railway official, "My sister Angela."

"Miss Angela! this is an unexpected pleasure!"

"Tom Lightfoot! is it you? You are not much altered. Mr. Dane, I should have known you anywhere!" with corresponding shakes of the hand.

"Yes, that's ours. Oh, the birds! There they are! All right! Oh! not the omnibus, Lance! Let the traps go in that! Then Lena will like to stretch her legs, and I must revel in the old street."

Dolores and Agatha felt it advisable to squeeze themselves with the bird-cages into the omnibus, and leave the brother and sister to walk down together, though the little girl still adhered closely to her protector's hand.

"Poor Field's little one? Yes, of course."

"But tell me! tell me of them all!"

"All well! all right! But how--"

"The Mozambique was out of coal and had to put in at Falmouth. You know, I came by her because they said the long sea voyage would be best for this child, and it was so long since I had heard of any one that I durst not send anywhere till I knew--and I knew Froggatt's would be in its own place. Oh! there's the new hotel! the gas looks just the same! There's the tower of St. Oswald's, all shadowy against the sky. Look, Lena! Oh! this is home! I know the lamps. I've dreamt of them! Tired, Lena, dear? cold? Shall I carry you?"

"No, no; let me!" and he lifted her up, not unwillingly on her part, though she did not speak. "You are a light weight," he said.

"I am afraid so," answered Angel. "Oh! there's the bus stopping at Mr. Pratt's door."

"Mine, now. We have annexed it."

"But let me go in by the dear old shop. The window is as of old, I see. Ernest Lamb! don't you know me?" as a respectable tradesman came forward. "And Achille, is it? You are as much changed as this old shop is transmogrified! And they are all well? Do you mean Bernard?"

"Bernard and Phyllis may come home any day to deposit a child. They lost their boy, and hope to save the elder one. But come, Angel! if you have taken in enough we must go up to those electrical girls. Dolores is come to give a lecture, with the other girl to assist, Miss Prescott."

"Dolores! Yes, poor Gerald's love! They are almost myths to me. Ah!" as Lancelot opened his office-door, "now I know where I am! And there's the old staircase! This is the real thing, and no mistake."

"Angel, Angel, come to tea!" And Gertrude, comfortable and substantial, in loving greeting threw arms round the new comers, Lance still carrying the child, who clung round his neck as he brought her into the room, full of his late fellow travellers, and also of a group of children.

"It is as if we had gone back thirty years or more," was Angela's cry, as she looked forth on what had been as little altered as possible from the old family centre; and Lance, setting down the child, spoke as the pretty little blue-eyed girls advanced to exchange kisses with their new aunt.

"Margaret, or Pearl, whom you knew as a baby; Etheldred, or Awdrey, and Dickie! Fely is at Marlborough. There, take little Lena--is that her name--to your table, and give her some tea."

"Her name is Magdalen," said Angela, removing the little black hat and smoothing the hair; but Lena backed against her, and let her hand hang limp in Pearl's patronising clasp. Nor would she amalgamate with the children, nor even eat or drink except still beside "Sister," as she called Angela. In fact, she was so thoroughly worn out and tired, as well as shy and frightened, that Angela's attention was wholly given to her and she could only be put to bed, but not in the nursery, which, as Angel said, seemed to her like a den of little wild beasts. So she was deposited in the chamber and bed hastily prepared for the unexpected guest; and even there, being wakeful and feverish from over-fatigue, there was no leaving her alone, and Gertrude, after seeing her safely installed, could only go down with the hope that she would be able to spare her slave or nurse, which was it? by dinner-time.

"Who is that child so like?" said Dolores, in their own room.

"Very like somebody, but I can't tell whom," said Agatha. "Who did you say she is?"

"I cannot say I exactly know," said Dolores. "I believe she is the daughter of Fulbert Underwood's mate, on a sheep-farm in Queensland, and that as her mother died when she was born, she has been always under the care of this Angela, living in the Sisterhood there."

"Not a Sister?"

"Not under vows, certainly. I never saw her before, but I believe she is rather a funny flighty person, and that Fulbert was afraid at one time that she would marry this child's father."

"Is he alive?"

"Which? Fulbert died four or five years ago, and I think the little girl's father must be dead, for she is in mourning."

"There's something very charming about her--Miss Underwood."

"Yes there is. They all seem to be very fond of her, and yet to laugh about her, and never to be quite sure what she will do next."

"Did I not hear of her being so useful among the Australian black women?"

"No one has ever managed those very queer gins so well; and she is an admirable nurse too, they say. I am very glad to have come in her way."

They did not, however, see much of her that evening. The head master of the Grammar School and his wife, the head mistress of the High School, and a few others had been invited to meet them; and Angela could only just appear at dinner, trusting to a slumber of her charge, but, on coming out of the dining-room, a wail summoned her upstairs at once, and she was seen no more that night.

However, with morning freshness, Lena showed herself much less farouche, and willing to accept the attentions of Mr. Underwood first, and, later, of his little daughter Pearl--a gentle, elder sisterly person, who knew how to avert the too rough advances of Dick--and made warm friends over the pink cockatoo; while Awdrey was entranced by the beauties of the budgerigars.

Robina had been informed by telegram, and came up from Minsterham with her husband, looking just like his own father, and grown very broad. He was greatly interested in the lecture, and went off to it, to consider whether it would be desirable for the Choristers' School. Lancelot had, of course, to go, and Angela declared that she must be brought up to date, and rejoiced that Lena was able to submit to be left with the other children under the protection of Mrs. Underwood, who averred that she abhorred electricity in all its forms, and that if Lance were induced to light the town, or even the shop by that means, he must begin by disposing of her by a shock.

It was an excellent lecture, only the two sisters hardly heard it. They could think of nothing but that they were once more sitting side by side in the old hall, where they had heard and shared in so many concerts, on the gala days of their home life.

The two lecturers, as well as the rest of the party, were urgently entreated to stay to tea at the High School; but when the interest of the new arrival was explained, the sisters and brother were released to go home, Canon Harewood remaining to content their hostesses.

Charlotte M. Yonge