Chapter 23




WILLOW WIDOWS


"Set your heart at rest.
The fairyland buys not that child of me.
- "MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM."


An expedition to Minsterham finished the visit of Dolores and her faithful "Nag," whose abilities as an assistant were highly appreciated, and who came home brilliantly happy to keep her remaining holiday with Magdalen; while Dolores repaired to Clipstone. Bernard had been obliged to go to London, to report himself to Sir Ferdinand Travis Underwood, but his wife and little girl were the reigning joy at Clipstone. Phyllis looked very white, much changed from the buxom girl who had gone out with her father two years ago. She had never recovered the loss of the little boy, and suffered the more from her husband's inability to bear expression, and it was an immense comfort to her to speak freely of her little one to her mother.

The little Lilias looked frail, but was healthy, happy, and as advanced as a well-trained companion child of six could well be, and the darling of the young aunts, who expected Dolores to echo their raptures, and declare the infinite superiority of the Ceylonese to "that little cornstalk," as Valetta said.

"There's no difficulty as to that," said Dolores, laughing. "The poor little cornstalk looks as if she had grown up under a blight."

"It is a grand romance though," said Mysie; "only I wish that Cousin Harry had had any constancy in him."

"I wonder if Magdalen will adopt her!" was Valetta's bold suggestion.

"Poor Magdalen has had quite adopting enough to do," said Mysie.

"Besides," said Dolores, "Sister Angela will never let her go. And certainly I never saw any one more TAKING than Sister Angela. She is so full of life, and of a certain unexpectedness, and one knows she has done such noble work. I want to see more of her."

"You will," said Mysie. "Mamma is going to ask her to come, for Phyllis says there is no one that Bernard cares for so much. She was his own companion sister."

"Magdalen might have the little cornstalk," said Valetta.

"Well," said Mysie, "it is rather funny to have two--what shall I say?--willow widows, and a child that is neither of theirs! How will they settle it?"

Magdalen had heard from Agatha on the first evening of the arrival of the sister, and the probability of the identification of little Lena's father with the Henry Merrifield of her former years, and she was deeply touched by the bestowal of her name--so much that Nag avoided saying more, but only kissed her and went to bed.

The Merrifields discussed the subject dispassionately.

Sir Jasper recollected what his brother had written to him of his anxieties and disappointment in his son Henry, and of his absconding from Manitoba, since which time all trace of him had been lost, except in the restoration to the two brothers in Canada. To the surprise and indignation of Sir Jasper, there had been no attempt to follow it up.

"If my poor brother Edgar had done anything of the kind," said Bernard, "none of us would have rested."

So far as they could put recollections together this act of restitution must have been made soon after the connection with Fulbert Underwood began, perhaps at the time of the wife's death. If there had been another letter, as Sister Angela thought, it was more recent, certainly within the last two years.

Captain Samuel Merrifield, of Stokesley, had been on a voyage for four years, and had not long been at home. His wife had been charged with the forwarding of the letters that she thought of immediate interest, and there was an accumulation of those that had been left for his return, as yet not looked over.

Of course, Sir Jasper impelled him to plunge into these, and by and by one came to light, which Mrs. Merrifield had taken "for only some Australian gold mines," and left to wait, especially as it was directed to his father instead of himself.

It was a letter full of repentance, and entreaties for forgiveness, describing in part poor Henry's past life, and adding that the best thing that had ever befallen him was his association with "such a fellow as Underwood."

It was to be gathered that Fulbert's uprightness of mind had led him to the first impulse of restitution, and he went on to mention his first hasty marriage and the loss of his wife, with the kindness of the Carrigaboola Sisterhood; above all, of Sister Angela, and declaring his love and admiration for her, and his sense that she was the one person who could keep him straight now that her brother was gone.

He had more than once offered to her, but he found that her brother had solemnly charged her not to accept him till he had made all his past clear before her, and could show her that he was acknowledged by his family, and had his father's forgiveness, and for this he humbly craved, as one deeply sensible of his own demerits.

It was piteous to think of the poor fellow waiting and hoping for an answer to such a letter as this, and dying without one, while all the time it was lying unread in the Captain's desk, and no one even knew of the changed life and fresh hopes. Sir Jasper was much moved by it; but Sam said, "Ay, ay! poor Harry always was a plausible fellow!" and his wife was chiefly concerned to show that the suppression was not by her fault. Sir Jasper had brought the will with him, and the certificate of the child's baptism.

Both were met with a little hesitation. So little had been said in the letter about the marriage that the Captain wanted to know more, and also whether the will had been properly proved in Australia, and whether it had force in England. In that case he was surely the right person to have the custody of his brother's child. His wife, who had been bred up in a different school, was not by any means satisfied that she should be consigned to a member of a Sisterhood.

David came to Stokesley, saw the letter, and agreed with his brother on the expediency of obtaining full proof of the validity of the will in both Queensland and England, and put in hand the writing of inquiries for the purpose, from the legal authorities at Brisbane, for which purpose Angela had to be consulted.

She had been (having left the budgerigars to the delight of Pearl and Awdrey), in the meantime, at Vale Leston, enjoying the atmosphere of peace that prevailed wherever were Clement and Geraldine, and hailed with delight by all her old village friends, as well as Lady Vanderkist and her somewhat thinned flock.

She won Adrian's heart by skating or golfing with him, and even, on one or two hunting days, joining in his pursuit of the chase, being altogether, as he said, ever so much better a fellow than even his youngest sister Joan, and entrancing them all with tales of kangaroos. Lena had really a tame kangaroo at Carrigaboola. Oh, why did they not bring it home as well as Ben, the polly? She quite pined for it, and had tears in her eyes when it was spoken of.

Indeed the joyous young Vanderkists were too much for the delicate little girl, and sorry as Angela was to leave Vale Leston, she was not ungrateful for an invitation to the Goyle, where there was more room for them than at Clipstone in the holidays, and with the Bernard Underwoods making it their headquarters.

Lena and she were much better and happier with "Sister" always at her service, and Paula and Thekla were delighted to amuse her. Paula was in a state of delight with Sister Angela, only a little puzzled by the irregularity of her course, though it was carefully explained that she had never been under any vows. To hear of her doings among the Australian women was a romance, often as there had been disappointment. "Paula is a born Sister," said Angela, "a much truer one than I have ever been, for there does not seem to be any demon of waywardness to drive her wild."

These talks with Magdalen, often prolonged hours after the young people had gone to bed, were a great solace to both the elders. Girls like Mysie Merrifield and Phyllis Devereux thought sitting up to converse a propensity peculiar to themselves, and to their own age, of new experiences and speculations; but the two "old girls," whose experiences were not new, and whose speculations had a certain material foundation, they were equally fascinating.

There were no small jealousies in either of them--"willow widows"-- though Mysie's name stuck. There was nothing but comfort to Magdalen in the certainty of the ultimate "coming home" of one who had finished a delusive dream of her younger days, and been yearned after with a heartache now quenched; and Angela, who had never been the least in love with Henry Merrifield, could quite afford her interest in the scanty records of his younger days, and fill up all she knew of the measure of the latter and better days. There was another bond, for Mrs. Best's daughter was, "as distances go," a neighbour to Carrigaboola, and resorted thither on great occasions.

Angela's vision began to be, to take Magdalen and her sisters out to Carrigaboola, where a superior school for colonists' daughters was much needed, and where Paula might enter the Sisterhood. She longed all the more when she saw how much better Magdalen could deal with Lena as to teaching and restraint than she could. The child was very backward, and could hardly read words of one syllable, though she knew any amount of Scripture history and legends of Saints, and was very fairly intelligent; but though she was devoted to "Sister," always hanging on her, and never quite happy when out of sight of her, she had hardly any notion of prompt obedience or of giving up her own way.

Angela's visit to Vale Leston had been partly spoilt by the little girl's fretful worry at the elder children, and by the somewhat uncalled for fears that all the Vanderkists were hard on the poor little colonial damsel; but whether it was the air of Rock Quay, or the quiet influence of Miss Prescott, Lena certainly improved in health at the Goyle, and was much more amenable, and less rudely shy. But her guardian trembled at hearing that, pending Captain Merrifield's correspondence with Brisbane, the sisters, Susan and Elizabeth, were coming to Miss Mohun's to see their niece, there being no room for them at Clipstone.

They came--Susan, plump, comfortable and good-natured looking, as like an apricot as ever, with an air many years more than three above her sister Bessie, who as ever was brisk and bright, scarcely middle aged in face, dress or demeanour. They arrived too late for visiting, and only dined at Clipstone to be introduced to Bernard Underwood, and see their cousin Phyllis, whom they had once met when all were small children. Dolores was much amused, as she told her Aunt Jane, to see how gratified they were at the "sanguine" colouring of Phyllis and Wilfred, quite Merrifields, they said, though Phyllis with auburn eyes and hair was far handsomer than any other of the clan had ever been; and Wilfred had simply commonplace carrots and freckles.

"The fun is," said Jane, "to remember how some of us Mohuns have sighed at Lily's having any yellow children, and, till we saw Stokesley specimens, wondering where the strain came from! As if it signified!"

"It does in some degree," said Dolores; "something hereditary goes with the complexion."

"I don't know," said Jane. "I believe too much is made in these days of heredity, and by those who believe least in the Bible indications on the effect, forgetting the counteracting grace."

"Well," said Dolores, "Wilfred was always a bete noire to me--no, not noire--in my younger days, and I can't help being glad he is not of our strain! Though you know the likeness was the first step to identifying that poor little girl."

"Poor child! I am afraid she will be a bone of contention."

The two aunts were at Clipstone early; and might be satisfied with the true Merrifield tints of Magdalen Susanna, but perhaps she had been over much warned to be gracious, for the very contrary was the effect. She had been very civil to her great-aunt Lilias, and had allowed both her uncles to take her up in their arms; but she retreated upon Angela, planted an elbow on the well-known lap, turned her back, and put a skinny little finger in her mouth by way of answer to Susan's advances, advances which had hardly ever before been repelled even by the most untamable of infants.

Angela tried to coax, lift her up and turn her round; but this only led to the shoulder being the hiding-place, and it might be suspected that there was a lurking perception that these strangers asserted a closer claim than the beloved "Sister." She would not even respond to Susan's doll or Bessie's picture book; and Bessie advised leaving her alone, and turned to the window with Agatha, who was nothing loth to tell of her Bexley and Minsterham experiences.

Angela tried to talk about the voyage, or any thing that might save the child from being discussed or courted; but Susan's heart was in the subject, and she had not enough tact or knowledge of the world to turn away from it. Regret for the past was strong within her, and she could not keep from asking how much "little Magdalen" (at full length) remembered of her father, how much she had been with him, whether he had much altered, whether there were a photograph of him, and a great deal more, with tears in her eyes and a trembling in her voice which made Angela feel much for her, even while vexed at her pertinacity, for the child was by no means the baby she looked like, but perfectly well able to listen and understand, and this consciousness made her own communications much briefer and more reserved than otherwise they would have been.

Bessie, with more perception, saw the embarrassment, turned round from Agatha, went up to the cockatoo in his cage, and asked in a pleasant voice if Magdalen would show him to her, and tell her his name. Angela was glad enough to break off poor Susan's questioning, and come forward, with the child still clinging, to incite the bird to display the rose colour under his crest, put up a grey claw to shake hands, and show off his vocabulary, laughing herself and acting merriment as she did so, in hopes to inspire Lena.

"Come, Ben, tell how you were picked up under a gum tree, quite a baby, a little grey ball, and brought over in the shepherd's pocket for a present to the little Boss, and how we fed you and nursed you till you turned all rose-colour and lovely! There! put up your crest and make red revelations. Can't you speak? Fetch him a banana, Lena. That will open his mouth."

At sight of the banana, the bird put his head on one side and croaked in a hoarse whisper, "Yo ho!"

"No, you need not be afraid of any more sailors' language," said Angela. "They were as careful as possible on board. I overheard once, 'Hold hard, Tom, Polly Pink is up there, and she's a regular lady born!

Whereupon Polly indulged in a ridiculous chuckle, holding the banana cleverly in one foot, while Angela laughed and chattered more and more nervously, but only succeeded in disgusting the visitors by what Susan at least took for unbecoming flippancy.

"THAT Sister," said Susan, as they drove away, "does not seem to me at all the person to have the charge of Henry's poor little girl!"

"I wish she had not thrust herself in," said Bessie, "to prevent me from getting on with the child over the cockatoo."

"She calls herself a Sister! I don't understand it, for she seems to have been bent on marrying poor Henry."

"She never took any vows."

"Then why does she wear a ridiculous cap over all that hair?"

By and by they were met by Bernard Underwood striding along. "Holloa! have you seen Angel and her darling? She is a perfect slave to the little thing, and one only gets fragments of her."

"She seems very fond of her," said Bessie.

"Just kept her alive, you see. Poor old Angel! She is all for one thing at a time! Are you going up to Clipstone?"

"I think we shall find Phyllis at Beechcroft."

"Yes, she is driving there to lunch, and Angel is to bring the little cornstalk over to make friends with our Lily! I trust the creature goes to sleep now, and I may get a word out of Angel!" Wherewith he dashed on, and the two ladies agreed that "those Underwoods seemed to be curiously impulsive."

They were, however, much better satisfied with the Ceylonese Lily, who was a very well trained civilised specimen, conversing very prettily over one of Aunt Jane's picture books, which Bessie looked at with her, and showing herself fully able to read the titles beneath, a feat of which Lena was quite incapable, though she was less on the defensive than she had shown herself at the Goyle, and Angela was far more at her ease than when she was conscious that "Field's" original love was watching the introduction to his sisters. Besides, Bernard's presence was sunshine to her, and the two expanded into bright reminiscences and merry comparisons of their two lives, absolutely delightful to themselves, and to Phyllis and her Aunt Jane, and which would have been the same to Elizabeth, if she had not been worried at Susan's evident misunderstanding of--and displeasure at--the quips and cranks of the happy brother and sister; also she was bent on promoting an intercourse between Lily and Lena, over the doll she had brought for the former. She was a little hurt that Lena had not been accompanied by the blue-eyed article with preposterously long eyelashes that had been bestowed on her at the Goyle; but the little Australian had no opinion of dolls, and had let the one bought for her at Sydney be thrown overboard by the ship's monkey.

"That was cruel!" said Lily, fondling her black-eyed specimen.

"She could not feel," reasoned Lena, with contempt.

"I don't know," said Lily, knitting her brows. "It's not ALL make believe! I do love my Rosamunda Rowena, and she loves me, and I shall tell her not to be jealous of this dear Betsinda. For, do you know, when Rosamunda was ill in the Red Sea, father carried her up and down on deck, and made her a dear little deck chair."

"But she is not alive. She COULDN'T be," sighed Lena. "I like my Ben and my kangaroo! Oh, I do want to go back to my kangaroo!"

"And does Lily want to go back to her riki-tiki?" asked Lily's father, lifting a little girl on each knee, so that they might be vis-a-vis, when certainly his own had the advantage in beauty, as she answered, leaning against him, "Granny's better than riki-tiki!"

For which pretty speech some of the ladies gave her much credit; but her father, with a tender arm round her, said, "Ah! you are a sentimental little pussy-cat! Is anything here as good as Carrigaboola? Eh, Lena?"

But Lena resolutely shook her carrots; but kept silence, while Bernard turned over the leaves of a great book of natural history, till as a page was displayed with a large kangaroo under a blue-gum tree, with a yellow wattle tree beside him, her lips quivered, her face puckered, and she burst into an uncontrollable fit of crying; "Oh! I want to go home, home! Sister, Sister, take me home!"

Angela was in a minute beside her, took her within loving arms, and carried her off.




Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Email:
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.
Email: