[Frontispiece: 'I HAVE SEALED THE DIRECTIONS IN THIS ENVELOPE.']
THE CARVED CUPBOARD
AMY LE FEUVRE
'PROBABLE SONS,' 'TEDDY'S BUTTON,' 'LEGEND LED,' 'ODD MADE EVEN,' 'HEATHER'S MISTRESS,' ETC.
R.T.S., 4 Bouverie Street, London, E.C. 4
CHAPTER I A SUPPLANTER
CHAPTER II FOUR VERSES
CHAPTER III A COUNTRY HOME
CHAPTER IV BLUEBEARD'S CUPBOARD
CHAPTER V A QUIET SUNDAY
CHAPTER VI A DEPARTURE
CHAPTER VII UNREST
CHAPTER VIII ENTERTAINING A STRANGER
CHAPTER IX GWEN'S RESOLVE
CHAPTER X CLARE'S DISCOVERY
CHAPTER XI AGATHA'S LEGACY
CHAPTER XII OUT IN CALIFORNIA
CHAPTER XIII HIS LAST MESSAGE
CHAPTER XIV THE COUSINS' RETURN
CHAPTER XV ALICK LESTER
CHAPTER XVI BRINGING BAD TIDINGS
CHAPTER XVII ELFIE'S CHOICE
CHAPTER XVIII PATTY'S GRAVE
CHAPTER XIX THE RIGHTFUL HEIR
CHAPTER XX BROUGHT BACK
'I HAVE SEALED THE DIRECTIONS IN THIS ENVELOPE.' . . . . . . Frontispiece
AND SAW A MAN ON HIS KNEES BY THE CUPBOARD
THE CARVED CUPBOARD
'For troubles wrought of men, Patience is hard.'—J. Ingelow.
The firelight shone upon a comfortably-furnished drawing-room in one of the quiet London squares, and upon four girlish figures grouped around a small tea-table. Agatha Dane, the eldest, sat back in her chair with a little wrinkle of perplexity upon her usually placid brow. Rather plump and short of stature, with no pretensions to beauty, there was yet something very attractive in her bright open countenance; and she was one to whom many turned instinctively for comfort and help.
Gwendoline, who sat next her, and was doing most of the talking, was a tall, slight, handsome girl, with dark eyes that flashed and sparkled with animation as she spoke, and there was a certain stateliness of carriage that made some of her acquaintances term her proud.
Clare was toying absently with her spoon and tea-cup; she was listening, and occasionally put in a word, but her thoughts were evidently elsewhere. She had not the determination in her face that was Gwendoline's characteristic; and perhaps the varying expressions passing over it, and so transparent to those who knew her, formed her chief charm. There was a wistfulness in her dark blue eyes, and a look of expectation that one longed to see fulfilled; and her dreamy preoccupied manner often made her friends wonder if she spent all her time in dreamland.
Elfrida sat on the hearth-rug with her sunny hair glistening in the firelight. She was the youngest and prettiest of the four, and had only just returned from Germany that same day. It was her eager questioning that was making them all linger over their tea.
'But I don't understand,' she said, a little impatiently. 'How does Cousin James happen to be here at all? Aunt Mildred never cared for him. She said last year when I was home that he was a regular screw, and that he only came on a visit to save his housekeeping bills. Now I come back and find dear Aunt Mildred gone, and he in full possession of our home, ready to turn us out to-morrow, you say! Aunt Mildred always told us we should never want after her death.'
'We shall not actually do that,' said Agatha quietly, 'for she has left us a legacy each, which will at any rate keep the wolf from the door.'
'But hasn't she left us Dane Hall? She always said she would.'
'No; a codicil to that will has been added since James has been here.'
'Yes; he has managed it beautifully,' put in Gwendoline, with scorn in her tone. 'He came down here directly he heard she was ill, and established himself in the dressing-room next to hers. Clare has been away, but Agatha and I were virtually shut out of the sick-room from the time he entered the house. He got a trained nurse; said Agatha was worn out, and must rest; and told Nannie she was too old and too near-sighted to be left alone with her mistress. The poor old soul has been weeping her eyes out since! Then he took advantage of Aunt Mildred's state of weakness, and worried and coaxed her into making this unjust codicil. All in his favour, of course; I don't believe poor aunt knew what she was doing. And we shall have to shift for ourselves now. I hope he will enjoy his unrighteous possessions. I—I hate him!'
'What are we going to do?'
'Well,' said Agatha, rousing herself, 'we have been talking over matters together. You see, we can be independent of each other if we choose, for we are all of age, and have each about 100 pounds a year, besides what the sale of this house will bring us.'
'Oh, she left us this house, did she? Then why can't we go on living here?'
'The lease terminates at the end of this year, and we have not the income to keep it up. Why, Elfie, a town house like this is ruinous for people of small means! I feel anxious for us to have a home together somewhere, even if we have to go into the country for it; but, of course, I would not influence any of you to side with me against your inclinations.'
'It would be an establishment of old maids; single women, shall we say? It doesn't sound very nice, buried away in the country.'
Elfie spoke dubiously; then Gwen broke in, 'Well, if Clare is wise, she will marry soon. I'm sure two years' engagement ought to be long enough in all conscience to satisfy her!'
Clare's soft cheeks flushed a little.
'Hugh is going out to Africa, you know, with a survey party. We could not settle till after that. He is quite of the same mind as I am on that point!'
'Do you like the country plan, Gwen?' asked Elfie.
'Yes, I think I do. I am personally sick of town. A suburban life would be intolerable, and we have all resources enough to prevent us from stagnating.'
Elfie gave a little sigh.
'You don't know how I was looking forward to a London season. I have been in Germany ever since I left school, studying music. And now what is the good of it? I shall be out of touch with it entirely.'
'Would you like to stay in town for a little?' asked Agatha sympathetically. 'We could easily arrange for you to board with some nice people somewhere.'
'No, I will come with you, and see how it works. I suppose we shall not be banished from London for ever? We can sometimes come up for a short stay?'
'Oh yes, I think so. We have not settled where to live yet, but we have been looking through some house agents' lists, and Gwen is full of plans, as usual.'
'You would be badly off without me to keep you all alive,' said Gwen laughing. 'If I were by myself, I would like nothing better than a caravan or a house-boat; but that wouldn't suit all of us.'
'Not me,' said Clare, with a little grimace of disgust.
'Oh, it is a shame!' exclaimed Elfie, springing up, and walking up and down in her excitement; 'how dare Cousin James behave so treacherously! Can't we dispute the will? Can't we go to law?'
'It is useless to think of such a thing. We can prove nothing. He is a man, and has had a jealous feeling of us all our lives. Now fortune has favoured him, and he is glorying in his prosperity. He is rightly named James, or Jacob, for he is a base supplanter!'
'Will you give me a cup of tea?'
Gwen started at the voice following her hot outburst so quickly, and Elfie stopped her hurried walk, and turned a little defiantly towards the new-comer.
Mr. James Dane was a quiet-looking, sprucely-dressed man of over forty years of age. He seated himself with the greatest equanimity in the midst of the group, and Agatha in silence poured him out a cup of tea, and handed it to him.
'I am afraid I have interrupted a very animated discussion,' he said blandly. 'I suppose you are arranging future plans. Of course, you cannot well remain here. Would you like me to take any steps about the sale for you? I shall be a week longer in town.'
'Mr. Watkins will arrange all that for us, thank you,' replied Agatha quietly.
'Oh, very well. Why, Elfrida, I never noticed you! Just come back from Germany, have you? It seems to have suited your health. You are looking quite bonny.'
'I don't feel so,' was the blunt reply; 'it is not a very happy home-coming!'
'No, of course not. But, as my wife was saying this morning, you girls can only have pleasant memories of your dear aunt, who did so much for you all when she was alive. I remember when first you all arrived from India, and she was in such an anxious state of bewilderment at the thought of the charge of four orphan children, my mother said to her, "Oh, well, Mildred, if you are good enough to educate them, they will naturally do something later to relieve you of the burden of maintaining them." And my wife and I have been so surprised at your all continuing to look upon her house as your rightful home. I suppose in the goodness of her heart she insisted upon it. Still, nowadays, young ladies are so independent, and have such a wide scope for their talents, that we quite expected to hear you were supporting yourselves, after the liberal education that you have received.'
There was dead silence after this speech, which Gwen broke at last, and her tone was haughtiness itself.
'As you have met with such success in your visit here, Cousin James, you could at least afford to be generous towards us. You have one mercy to be thankful for, and that is, that we never have, and never shall, look to you to maintain us!'
And then she left the room, shutting the door behind her with a rather ungentle hand. Mr. Dane smiled, passed his cup to be refilled, and then turned to Clare.
'I suppose your marriage will be hastened now, will it not? When is the happy day to be?'
'I will let you know when it is settled,' was the quiet reply.
'Come upstairs with me, Clare, and see Nannie,' said Elfie impetuously; 'I haven't been near her yet, dear old thing!'
The two girls quitted the room together, and with a little sigh Agatha settled herself down to a tete-a-tete with her cousin.
'You girls have all assumed such aggressive demeanours towards me, that I really hardly know if you will take any advice from me. It is exceedingly foolish to adopt such airs. No doubt you are disappointed in not being the sole heiresses of our aunt, but you ought not to have expected it for a moment. She had for a long time regretted making that rash will, which was drawn up when her heart was full of pity for your penniless condition. Only, being in such robust health, she always put off doing it until this last sad illness of hers. Where do you think of settling?'
'We have not made up our minds.'
'Have you heard from your brother lately? Is he doing better than he was? It is such a mistake for a young fellow to think he will make his fortune in the Colonies nowadays. I only hope you may not find him thrown on your hands soon.'
'Walter is doing very well, thank you. There is no chance of his coming back to England for a good long time.'
'I have been wondering whether you would like to settle somewhere near London. I have some house property at Hampstead, and could let you have a small villa there at a very reasonable rent. Of course, understand, this is entirely because I should like to give you any help that I can.'
At this Agatha could not help smiling.
'It is very kind of you, but we have decided to live in the country.'
'I am surprised. Have you ever tried a country life in the winter? I am afraid you will find it a great failure. And, remember, unprotected females, choosing an isolated position, run the risk of being robbed. If you do go to the country, be sure and get a house near others. Well, I must be going. Say good-bye to the others for me. I shall look in again on you before long, and if you want me, you know my club. Your cousin Helen has left town, and I shall be taking a trip to the Continent with her very soon.'
He rose, shook hands politely, and directly the door closed upon him, Agatha hastened to find her sisters.
She knew where to look for them. In a small room at the end of the passage past the best bedrooms, Nannie would now be taking her afternoon cup of tea. She had been with them all since they were quite tiny children; had brought them over from India after their parents' death, and had been kept in Miss Dane's service ever since—first as their nurse, then as housekeeper, when they no longer needed her care.
She was an old woman now, crippled with rheumatism; but she was a bright and happy Christian, and had a good influence upon all who came in contact with her. It had been already arranged that she was to go into an alms-house when the house was sold, and Miss Dane had left her a small legacy, so that her future was provided for. Agatha's face as she opened the door was a troubled one. She saw the old woman in her easy chair by the fire; Gwen and the two younger ones making themselves comfortable round her; and all were talking freely to her of what had passed downstairs.
'Come along, Agatha; has he gone?'
'Yes,' was the reply; 'and I have come to Nannie to be soothed. All the way upstairs I have been saying to myself, "Fret not thyself, because of him who prospereth in his way." But it is hard to see his self-complacency.'
'Poor old thing! When Agatha is disturbed, it must be something indeed! Here is a seat. Nannie has been scolding us, and now she shall scold you.'
'In preparing a guide to immortality, Infinite Wisdom gave not a dictionary, nor a grammar, but a Bible—a book of heavenly doctrine, but withal of earthly adaptation.'—J. Hamilton.
The old woman looked through her glasses at her four nurslings with a loving eye; then she said very quietly, 'I have been hearing all about your plans, Miss Agatha, and I'm thinking you have shown your wisdom in keeping a home together. Forgive my plain speaking. I know 'tis an age for young ladies to make homes for themselves, anywhere and everywhere, but unless a woman is married, 'tis a risky undertakin'! I've been inclined to fret that my working days are over, for dearly would I like to have gone with you, and done what I could to make you comfortable; but 'tis the Lord's will, and my age and helplessness doesn't prevent me from prayin' for you all! You have the same psalm in your mind, Miss Agatha, that I have been readin' and studyin' this afternoon. I would dearly like to give you each a verse out of it, if you won't take offence.'
'We're in for one of Nannie's preaches!' said Gwen, laughing, as she placed a large-print Bible before her old nurse; 'but we shan't have a chance of many more, so we promise to be attentive!'
'Ay, dear Miss Gwen, it isn't a preach! How often you come up here to have a cup o' tea to refresh your bodies! and 'tis a bit of refreshment to your souls that I'm now makin' so bold as to offer.' Nannie turned over the pages of her beloved Bible with a reverent hand, then she looked across at Agatha.
'My dear Miss Agatha, there are four verses here, with a command and a promise. I should like to give you each one to think of, through all the troubles and trials that may come to you. Will you mark it in your own Bibles, and live it out, remembering it was Nannie's verse for you, so that when I'm dead and gone you may still have the comfort and teachin' of it?'
Agatha was touched by the old woman's solemn earnestness.
'Yes, Nannie, give it to me, and I will try and put it "into practice."'
Nannie's voice rang out in the dusky firelit room, as she repeated, more from memory than by sight,—
'Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed!'
'Thank you, Nannie,' said Agatha after a pause, 'I will look it up and remember it.'
'Now mine, please,' said Gwen, looking over the old woman's shoulder. 'Is it the next verse for me?'
'No, my dear, I think not. It seems to me that this must be the Lord's word to you: "Commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass."'
'You have given me that because you think I like choosing my own way through life, now haven't you?'
'Maybe I have. Choosing our own ways and goin' in them always bring trouble in the end. Now, Miss Clare, your verse is the beginning of the one Miss Agatha was sayin': "Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him"; and, Miss Elfie, this is for you, "Delight thyself also in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thine heart."'
'And I am the only one that has got a command without a promise,' said Clare reproachfully.
Nannie looked at Clare, then at her big Bible again.
'You have a promise further on, Miss Clare, "Those that wait upon the Lord, they shalt inherit the earth."'
'Ah, Nannie, that is too big a promise to realize. If it was to inherit Dane Hall now!'
'My dear, since you were a little wee child, you have always been looking for something big. You will inherit more from God Almighty, if you wait for Him, than ever you could inherit without Him!'
There was silence for a few minutes; then Gwen said, trying to speak lightly, 'We shan't forget your verses, Nannie; and though I'm afraid none of us will ever grow into such a saint as yourself, it won't be for want of an example before us. Now may we turn to business? Jacob has gone, and we must bestir ourselves. I have cut out an advertisement from the Morning Post, which I think sounds tempting. And as Agatha seems so slow in making up her mind, I think I shall take the train to-morrow morning and go and inspect the place myself. Doesn't it sound as if it ought to suit us? "To Let. An old-fashioned cottage residence, four bedrooms, two attics, three reception-rooms, well-stocked fruit and vegetable garden. Owner called abroad suddenly; will let on reasonable terms!"'
'Where is it?' asked Elfie.
'Hampshire. I wrote to the agent who advertises, and he said the rent would be about 40 pounds. It is close to some pine woods, and only three miles from a town. It sounds nice, I think; at any rate, it is worth seeing about.'
'Do you like old-fashioned cottage residences?' said Clare very dubiously; 'they always remind me of rotten floors, rats and mice, and damp musty rooms.'
I hate modern villas,' retorted Gwen, 'with gimcrack walls and smoky chimneys and bad drainage! This has an old-world sound. Let us, if we live out of town, choose an Arcadia, with nothing to remind us of the overcrowded suburbs. Are you willing I should go, Agatha, and come back and report the land?'
Yes,' said Agatha; 'better you should do it than I, for what suits you will suit me, but what would suit me might not suit you. We will talk it over when you come back.'
And so it was settled; and after an early breakfast next day, Gwen started on her quest.
She did not come back till between seven and eight o'clock in the evening, and seemed so tired that Agatha insisted upon her eating a good dinner before she gave an account of herself. Then, rested and refreshed, she came into the drawing-room and settled herself in a comfortable chair by the fire to give her experiences.
'I really think it will do,' she began. 'I arrived at the station about twelve o'clock, and walked out the three miles, to see what the country was like. Brambleton is a clean, empty little town, with no one in the streets but a few tottering old men and children, a few good shops, and there is a market every Friday. I walked along the high road for a couple of miles, then turned up a lane with a ragged piece of common at the end of it, passed one or two nice houses standing back in their own grounds, a little country church with parsonage adjoining in the orthodox fashion, a cluster of thatched cottages, and finally came to the "cottage residence."'
'Is it in a village street?' asked Agatha.
'No, not exactly. It is in a side road leading to a farm. It is a low white house with a great box hedge hiding it from the road, and a stone-flagged path leading up to the door. A blue trellis verandah runs right round it, which I rather liked, and a row of straw bee-hives in front delighted me. There was an old woman in charge, who showed me all over, and talked unceasingly.'
'Now describe the rooms exactly,' said Elfie eagerly; 'and did the house smell musty and damp?'
'No, I shouldn't say it was at all damp; of course rooms that have been shut up always seem fusty and close. It is a little place; you must not think the rooms are anything like this. On one side of the door is a long low room, the width of the house, with a window at each end; the other side of the passage there are two smaller rooms; the kitchens, etcetera, lie out at the back; and the stairs go up in the middle of the passage. Four fair-sized bedrooms are above, and the two attics are quite habitable. The back of the house has the best view; it overlooks a hill with a cluster of pines, and woods in the distance. Fields are round it, but the back garden has a good high brick wall, with plenty of fruit trees, and all laid out as a kitchen garden. The front piece is in grass, with a dear old elm in the corner.'
I don't like the sound of the box hedge,' said Agatha thoughtfully; 'it seems so shut in, and very lonely, I should say.'
'Of course we shall not have many passers-by, except the carters to and from the farm; but if you are in the country, what can you expect? We can cut down the hedge. I like the place myself, and it is in good repair, for the owner has only just left it. I must tell you about him, for there is quite a story about him. Old Mrs. Tucker was his cook. He is an eccentric widower, and has a brother with a lot of property in the neighbourhood. He spends his time in carving, painting, and writing about old manuscripts. That is one thing you will like, Clare; all the doors and cupboards in the house are carved most beautifully, even the low window sills, and mantelpieces. About four months ago he had a dreadful quarrel with his brother, and told Mrs. Tucker that he was going abroad till his temper cooled. He stored all his furniture, and said he would let the house, but only to a yearly tenant, as he might wish to return again. That is the disadvantage of the house; but I think he will not be in a hurry to return. There is an old carved cupboard let into the wall in the room which was his study, and this he has left locked, and wishes any tenant to understand that it is not to be opened. They take the house under this condition.'
'A Bluebeard's cupboard,' said Clare delightedly. 'Why, this is most interesting. I am longing to take the house now.'
'That is indeed a woman's speech,' said a voice behind her, and a tall broad-shouldered man laid his hand gently on her shoulder.
Clare turned round, with a pretty pink colour in her cheeks.
'Oh, Hugh, is it you? Come and sit down, and hear about the cottage we meditate taking. Gwen is our business man, and seems to have found just the place we wanted.'
Captain Knox took a seat by his betrothed, and was soon hearing about it all. Then after it was discussed afresh, and he agreed that it might prove suitable, the other girls slipped away to the inner drawing-room, and left the young couple alone.
Clare's wistful dreaminess had vanished now, and she was bright and animated.
'I believe you girls are rejoicing in your sudden downfall,' said Captain Knox at length; 'I hear no moans now over your lost fortunes. It is the outside world that is pitying you. "Those poor girls," I hear on all sides, "after the very marked way in which old Miss Dane told everybody they would be heiresses at her death. It is most incomprehensible."'
It is no laughing matter, Hugh,' said Clare gravely. 'We are going to try and make the best of it; but when we think of James, our blood boils!'
'Well, darling, you will never know actual want, that is my comfort. How I wish I could offer you a home now! but I have been advised so strongly to go with this party that I feel I ought not to refuse. It will only be a matter of six months, I hope, and then I shall take you away from your country retreat altogether.'
'I sometimes wish——' Clare stopped.
'I was going to say I wish you were not in the army, but that is wrong. I do so much prefer a settled home to the incessant change in the service.'
Captain Knox's brows clouded a little, for he was a keen soldier, and was devoted to his corps, which was the Royal Engineers.
'But, Clare, I have heard you say before that you do not care for a gay town life, nor a quiet country one; so what do you like?'
'I don't know what I like,' she said, laughing; 'generally it is what I haven't got. Don't mind my grumblings. I shall be so tired of the country, and the dull monotony of it all, by the time you come back, that I shall fly to you with open arms, and entreat you to take me into the very midst of garrison gaiety.'
Captain Knox smiled, though he still looked perplexed. Clare's moods, and contradictions of humour, were inexplicable to a man of his frank, straightforward nature. Yet she was so sweetly penitent after a fit of discontent, and so delightful in her waywardness, that he only loved her the more, and found, as so many others do, that woman is a problem that few masculine brains can solve.
Whilst the two lovers were enjoying their tete-a-tete, Elfie had crept upstairs to see Nannie, and a gravity had settled on her usually sunny face as she entered her nurse's room.
'Have you come for a chat, Miss Elfie?' inquired the old woman, brightening at the sight of her.
'Yes, Nannie. I have been thinking over my verse that you gave me. I can't get it out of my head. It is a very lovely one, but very difficult to put into practice, I should think.'
'Why, surely, no, my dear! And for you 'tis easier than most.'
'That is because I always say I find it is easy to be happy. But, Nannie, delighting oneself in the Lord is a very different thing.'
'Ay, but the lark that rises with his song, and the flowers that turn their faces to the sun, or soft refreshing showers, don't find it difficult to delight themselves in the air and sunshine. I think, Miss Elfie, you are one of the Lord's dear children, are you not?'
Elfie's face flushed; then sitting down in a low chair, she rested her head against Nannie's knees.
'Yes,' she said softly. 'I told you how different everything had been with me when last I was home, Nannie. That German governess was such a help to me. But what I feel is this: I enjoy everything in life so; it all seems so bright and sunny to me, that I feel the pleasure I take in everything may be such a snare. I ought to have my enjoyment in the Lord apart from it all. And I sometimes ask myself if I could be happy shut up in a prison cell, away from all I love, and—and I almost think I couldn't. Nannie smiled.
'You are a foolish child. Do you think the Lord loves to put His children in miserable circumstances and keep them there? Your youth and your gladness and your hopes are all gifts from Him. He loves to see us happy. Doesn't the sun, and the brightness, and all the lovely bits o' nature, come straight from Him? He didn't make London with its smoke and fog and misery, 'tis us that have done that.'
'But I like London,' put in Elfie. 'I love the shops and the people and the bustle, and at first I didn't like the idea of the country at all, but now I am beginning to.'
'Wherever you may be, Miss Elfie, delight yourself in your surroundings, unless they be sinful; but be sure o' this, you can delight yourself in the Lord in the midst of it all, and have no need to separate Him from all your innocent joys. Doesn't your verse say as much? Will the Lord take all that is pleasant away from you, if you do His command? No; "He will give thee the desires of thine heart." Could you want more proof of His love? You may later on in life have another lesson to learn, but 'twill come easier then, and you'll be able to say with Habakkuk, "Although everything else fails, yet I will rejoice in the Lord."'
Elfie was silent. Then she got up and kissed her old nurse.
'You're an old saint; you always do me such a world of good. I think you have given me the best verse of them all, and I will try and make it my motto. Now I must go. I only ran up to have a peep at you.'
A Country Home
'If thou would'st read a lesson that will keep Thy heart from fainting, and thy soul from sleep, Go to the woods and hills. No tears Dim the sweet look that Nature wears.'—Longfellow.
The day had come when the four sisters took their leave of London. The sale had taken place, as they only took enough furniture for their small house, and Nannie had taken a tender and sad farewell of her charges.
'I feel,' said Gwen, after they had watched her driven away in a cab with all her little belongings, 'that Nannie does not expect to see any of us again. She has given us her dying blessing, like Jacob did to his sons. I wonder if her verses will prove prophetic.'
Captain Knox went with them to the station, to see the last of Clare. He cheered her up by saying he would run down and see them before he went abroad, and the sisters were all doing their best to be cheerful. They had sent down two young maids the day before to get things comfortable, and both Agatha and Gwen had been backwards and forwards arranging their furniture, so that they did not feel they were going into a comfortless house.
'I always like everything new,' asserted Elfie. 'I feel quite excited to see what it will be like.'
'I think it is a dear little place,' Agatha said. 'I am sure we shall be happy there.'
But their arrival at Brambleton station was in the midst of steady, driving rain, and a wind that threatened instant destruction to open umbrellas. A fly was found, and they were soon driving along the country road, all distant scenery being obliterated by mist and wet. Clare's spirits sank at once.
'What a dreadful day, and what miserable country!'
'I hope the house won't be damp,' Agatha said anxiously.
Then Gwen laughed.
'Oh, for pity's sake, don't all begin to croak! We do have wet days in London. If Jane and Martha have done their work properly, we shall soon forget the wet when we are inside.'
Slowly the fly lumbered along, and darkness had set in when they at last reached their new home.
Mrs. Tucker, who was keeping the maids company, came bustling to the door, and when they saw the cheerful little dining-room with its blazing fire and well-spread table for their evening meal, the wind and wet outside were forgotten.
Elfie ran in and out of the rooms, delighted with the quaintness of it all, and Clare grew quite enthusiastic over the carved wood decorations.
'He must be an artist,' she exclaimed. 'How could he go off and leave it all to strangers?'
The rooms, though lacking as yet in all the details of comfort, were quite habitable, and the late dinner was a merry meal.
'We shall be a community of women, with no opportunities of getting away from one another occasionally; that is what I object to,' said Clare, leaning back in her chair, and looking at her sisters rather meditatively. 'If we quarrel, it will be dreadful, and I am perfectly certain we shall never agree on every point.'
'You will not on any point,' said Gwen, a little drily.
'We have the country round us,' put in Elfie, 'and there must be some people to know; it is only just at first we shall be shut up to ourselves, I expect.'
'As to the people, there will be the villagers, of course,' said Gwen briskly; 'but we needn't count upon many friends in our own class of life. The big houses round here won't be desirous of the acquaintance of four unknown females with a very small income.'
'I always thought,' said Elfie, 'that country villages contained a clergyman and family, a doctor, and a squire. Isn't that the case here?'
'No; this is a kind of suburb of Brambleton. There is a vicarage, but I don't know anything about the clergyman.'
'Well, I hope we shan't all die of the dumps,' said Clare, shivering slightly, as a fresh blast of wind howled and shrieked in the old chimney.
'Oh, that dreadful wind, how I hate it! It seems like a bad omen to have such a welcome when we get here.'
'Rubbish! Go to bed, if you don't like it, and put your head under the clothes. Of course we notice the wind more in the country because of the trees.'
Clare did not get much sympathy from her sisters, and she soon left them and went up to her bedroom. There was a bright fire burning, and some of her own pretty things were already being unpacked by the busy Jane, who was perhaps more attached to her than to any of the others.
'Captain Knox thinks her the best of the bunch,' said she in confidence to Martha, when on the subject of 'our young ladies,' 'and so do I—Miss Agatha is rather commonplace, to my mind, though she is a good mistress, and Miss Gwendoline is always catching up one and taking one's breath away. Miss Elfrida is very pleasant, but she's always the same. Now Miss Clare's never two days alike; she's that gentle and appealin' sometimes, that she makes me love her, and then she's miles away in the clouds, and very cross, and then her spirits get so high that she's ready for any mischief—and there's no knowin' how to take her.'
'Isn't the wind dreadful, Jane?' said Clare presently. 'We couldn't have had a more dreary and depressing day for coming here.'
'It's terrible lonely, miss. How you young ladies will put up with it is more than Martha and me can imagine! My home is in the country, so I don't mind it. I never could abear London with its fog and dirt. Mrs. Tucker has been telling me and Martha queer tales about the gentleman who lived here.'
Clare wrapped herself in her dressing-gown and sat down by the fire. She rarely checked Jane's flow of talk, and perhaps that was why the maid liked her.
'What kind of tales?'
'Mrs. Tucker says he ought to have the property here called The Park, for he is the eldest son, and his younger brother, Major Lester, has taken it all, for Mr. Tom Lester offended his father by marrying a foreign lady, and he struck him out of his will. Mrs. Tucker says she believes the quarrel last autumn was about Major Lester's son, who is missing somewhere abroad, and who Mr. Tom Lester hates. And did you hear about the cupboard downstairs? Mrs. Tucker says she never has been inside it herself, for Mr. Lester only used to open it late at night, and he's gone away and taken the key with him, and says it isn't to be touched. I says to Mrs. Tucker that there might be anything in the cupboard, and Martha says she's afraid to go near it, for you do hear such dreadful tales about locked cupboards, and skeletons inside them, don't you, miss?'
'Only in your penny novelettes, that do you more harm than good, Jane!' said Clare a little shortly. I think if Mrs. Tucker is such a gossip, we shan't care to have her about the house. Where does she live now?'
'She's going to stay with her married sister in Brambleton, miss, and she's going out cooking if she can. I says to Martha that her tongue runned away with her, we could hardly get in a word, she talks so; but she's a very good-natured person, and has given Martha and me a lot of information about the neighbourhood.'
Clare did not respond, but soon dismissed Jane, and then sat for some time in dreams before her fire. At last with a little sigh she took hold of her Bible, to have her usual evening reading out of it. She turned to Nannie's Psalm, and listlessly scanned the verse that had been given her.
'Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.'
'Rest!' she mused; 'it is the one thing I never have really experienced. I always seem to be wishing for, and wanting, what never comes to me. I don't suppose any but a very old person who has lived her life, and has no hopes left, can rest and wait patiently. I don't know why I always seem waiting for something big to come and satisfy my life. I remember when first Hugh spoke to me, and we were engaged, I hoped I should be perfectly satisfied and happy, but in some ways he has disappointed me. He is so—so humdrum and easily pleased, and wrapped up in his profession. I wish he were more intellectual. I do love him, of course I do, but he hasn't filled my life as I thought he would. He doesn't understand some of my thoughts about things. I often wonder why I can't be as easily pleased with everybody and everything as Elfie is. Nannie would say it is because my religion is not real. I don't feel I could rest in the Lord. He seems far away, and there are so many difficulties, and sometimes I get to doubt everything! I wish I had Nannie's faith.'
She sighed again, and her thoughts came back to her present surroundings.
'I never shall like it here, I am sure; only it is no good to say so. It is such a depressing house, with not a sound outside, except this howling wind. I think it was a very doubtful venture coming down to a place where we know no one. Perhaps in the summer it will be better. I will try and not be discontented, but I feel to-night as if evil is coming upon us, and this awful wind seems to moan like a human being in the chimney. I think I will get into bed, and follow Gwen's advice. Oh dear, I wish I wasn't so easily depressed!'
But a sound night's rest made impressionable Clare view things rather differently the next day. The rain and wind had disappeared, and as she looked out of her window the first thing, she saw a cloudless blue sky, and the green meadows and pine woods in the distance, all lying in still bright sunshine. She opened her casement, and the fresh spring air fanned her cheeks, and brought her scents of the sweet country round her. She came downstairs to breakfast radiant; not even Elfie's sunny face could eclipse hers.
'It's delicious!' she exclaimed; 'I am longing to explore the garden. Is it as well stocked with fruit and vegetables as the advertisement led us to expect?'
'Yes, I think it is,' said Gwen; 'but of course everything has been very neglected. Mrs. Tucker assures me a nephew of hers always worked for Mr. Lester, and would be glad to come to us for the same wages. What do you think, Agatha? Can we afford eight shillings a week?'
Agatha looked a little worried.
'Oh, there is plenty of time to think of the garden later on. There is so much to do in the house. I hope you will all help in the unpacking to-day, or we shall never get straight.'
'Household cares already beginning!' said Elfie, laughing. 'Now I vote we all take a holiday this lovely day, and explore our surroundings; there's time enough to put the house straight later on.'
'Agatha will be miserable till every pin finds its place,' said Gwen. 'I promise that I'll work like a horse all this morning, but this afternoon I will have for pleasure.'
And this was how they finally settled it; and all four spent their morning in putting up curtains, hanging pictures, superintending the carpets and rugs being laid down, and sorting out and distributing the linen, plate, and china as it was needed.
Clare and Elfie sang as they worked, Gwen directed, scolded, and joked in turn, and Agatha was the only one who seemed to feel it a grave and solemn responsibility.
But they sat down to their luncheon with light hearts.
'We only want to fill the house with flowers to make it look really comfortable,' said Clare, 'and I mean to go and look for some this afternoon.'
Agatha could not be persuaded to leave the house. Housekeeping was her forte, and she declared she would never sit down in comfort, till her store and linen cupboards were in perfect order.
The three others wandered first through the garden, and Gwen declared her intention of taking the whole of it under her superintendence.
'You don't know a thing about it,' said Elfie, saucily.
'Then I can learn. We are not going to live in the lap of luxury here, as you will soon discover. Our two maids will be rather different to our staff of servants in London.'
'Well, I tell you what I will do,' said Elfie: 'I'll help Martha with the cooking; I did a lot in Germany. I'll send you in the most delicious tea-cakes and biscuits for afternoon tea, and I'll teach her how to cook her vegetables after the German fashion!'
'Defend us from German grease, and odious mixtures of sweet and sour!' exclaimed Clare. 'Make us the tea-cakes, but leave the vegetables alone. Now take us down the village, Gwen, and let us see the church.'
They left the garden, and picked their way down the muddy lane until they reached the village street. Clare and Elfie were delighted with all they saw, especially with the old church. It had a typical country churchyard, with a large yew tree inside the old lych gate. The door was open, so they went in, and, though plain and rather bare in appearance, it possessed a beautiful stained window at the east end, several old tombs, and a handsome-looking organ. Elfie pressed forward eagerly to look at the latter, and found to her delight that it was open. Music was her passion, and she was almost as skilful at the organ as at her piano or with her violin.
'I must try it,' she whispered; 'do blow for me, one of you!'
Gwen complied with her request immediately, and strains of Mendelssohn and Handel were soon filling the church. Clare was wandering dreamily round listening and enjoying it, when suddenly a harsh voice behind her startled her.
'And may I ask who has given you permission to touch the organ?'
'I am not touching it,' Clare responded, coolly, gazing in astonishment at the apparition before her.
An old lady with a cap awry on her head, green spectacles, and a large shawl flung round her, stood tapping the ground impatiently with a walking-stick.
'I don't wish to meet with impertinence; your party are taking an unwarrantable liberty. I wish, if my brother persists in keeping the church doors open, that he would keep a chained bulldog inside! Nothing else will keep you tourists in your place. And here am I without a bonnet, defying St. Paul's command, and getting a fresh attack of rheumatism, and perhaps palpitation of the heart, by my haste and exposure! Will you have the goodness to tell your friends to leave that organ alone?'
Elfie, hearing voices, now turned round and left her seat at once.
Clare was not trying to soothe the old lady, but rather seemed to enjoy her irascibility.
'No, madam, we are not tourists. Are you the verger's wife? You must excuse my ignorance, but we are strangers in this part. Perhaps you can tell us a little about the church; it seems a very old one. How many years has it been standing?'
For answer the old lady raised her stick and tapped her slightly on the shoulder with it.
'Leave the church, young woman, and don't try to make me violent in the house of God!'
They were in the porch by this time, and Elfie and Gwen joined them. Elfie at once tried to make peace.
'I am very sorry,' she said contritely. 'I am so fond of the organ that I could not resist trying it. Please forgive me; I will not do it again unless I have permission.'
She smiled so sweetly as she spoke that the old lady seemed a little softened.
'You will never get my permission,' was all she said; and then she hobbled away like some malignant fairy, disappearing through a little wicket gate at the end of the churchyard, and making Gwen exclaim, 'She must be the clergyman's mother or aunt. Well, we have had a pleasant introduction! What will Agatha say?'
'O most lame and impotent conclusion!'—Shakespeare.
Agatha was naturally very vexed when she heard from her sisters what had happened. She was sometimes laughed at by her friends for her devotion to the clergy, and all her hopes of doing good were centred in the country church and its organizations.
'It is most unfortunate,' she said; 'I was hoping that perhaps some of them might call before Sunday, but really after such an encounter they may totally ignore us. It was not right to do such a thing, Elfie, without permission. I can't think how Gwen could have allowed it.'
'Well, really, I am not up in propriety and etiquette in such matters,' was Gwen's rather impatient response. 'We are not in town now, thank goodness! In the country you are supposed to have a little freedom. If they don't wish people to try the organ, they should not leave it open, or they should chain a bulldog to the organ stool. Wasn't that her suggestion, Clare? My dear Agatha, don't fuss yourself. This old woman must be quite a character, and would abuse anybody, I feel certain. We didn't tell her who we were, so if she comes to call on you, we will keep out of the way. She seemed half blind, so I don't expect she would recognise us again.'
'Jane says she lives alone with her brother, who is unmarried,' said Clare, 'and she is quite a Tartar in the village, though she is very good in relieving the villagers' wants.'
'What does Jane know about it?'
'Oh, she gets her gossip from Mrs. Tucker, who also told her that Miss Miller sees better through her green glasses than most people do without any glasses at all!'
'Mrs. Tucker talks a lot of rubbish, I expect,' said Gwen, rather loftily; then, changing the conversation, she said, 'I am going to unpack my books now. Who will come and help me? I am longing to fill up those empty bookshelves in Mr. Lester's study. What a good thing he left them as fixtures!'
'I will help you, if you like,' said Clare. 'Are you going to take sole possession of that study, may I ask?'
Gwen looked across at her rather queerly.
'Not if you dispute it,' she said, with a little laugh. 'Agatha is in love with the drawing-room. She has already arranged a corner for herself there; her writing-table in the west window, her work-basket and books in the corner by it, and her pet canary is now singing himself hoarse at the view he has from the window.'
'Yes,' Agatha replied, 'it is an ideal old maid's corner, and that is where you will always find me, when my housekeeping duties are not keeping me away.'
'I wish we could have a sitting-room each,' said Clare; 'we get so in each other's way.'
'You can share the study with me when you want to be quiet,' said Gwen. 'I won't have you there if you talk!'
'You're quite the owner of it already, then? And what are you going to do, Elfie?'
'Oh, I shall be everywhere. Agatha never minds my music. I shall be practising a good deal, and if I'm voted a bore, I shall take my violin up to the bedroom. You and Gwen are the blue stockings, so the study will be given over to you.'
This seemed satisfactory. Gwen was a great reader, and possessed already a most valuable library. She wrote essays for some periodical occasionally, but would never bind herself to any steady contributions, and she was never so happy as when deeply engrossed in some ancient histories of Egypt or Nineveh. The buried past had a fascination for her, and perhaps she of all the others had most reason for regretting the departure from London, for her constant visits to the reading-room at the British Museum had been a keen delight and pleasure to her. When quite a schoolgirl she used to say, with that masterful toss of her head, 'I am quite determined that I will understand and master every "ology" under the sun!'
And Gwen and her 'ologies' had been a perpetual joke in her family ever since. She had dabbled in a good many sciences—geology, astronomy, architecture, physiology, botany, natural history, and archaeology all had their turn, and she certainly seemed to get a good deal of interest and amusement out of them all. She announced to Clare, as a little later they were seated on the study floor surrounded by pyramids of books, that she intended to give her thoughts now to gardening and agriculture.
'I have some delightful old books on horticulture, which I shall read up,' she said enthusiastically; 'and there is an old Dutch writer amongst them who gives the most minute directions for laying out a flower and vegetable garden. I have told Agatha I shall take the garden into my charge. I am certain I shall succeed with it.'
'Do you ever doubt your capability for doing anything?'
Clare put the question gravely.
'No, I don't think I do, except teach a Sunday school class!' said Gwen, laughing.
'I sometimes feel I am incapable of living even,' said Clare dreamily.
Gwen stared at her. These two understood each other better than one would have thought possible with such opposite characteristics. Clare admired Gwen's intellect, and there were times when Gwen knew that Clare had depths of which she knew nothing. Reason and practical common sense had full sway in the one, imagination and mysticism in the other, and none of these qualities were tempered with real religion.
'You must be in the blues!' exclaimed Gwen, with a laugh.
'No,' said Clare, looking up, 'I am not, at all. I am longing to be up and doing, and leave some mark behind me as I go. Is that Browning you have in your hand? Just let me look up a passage!' Gwen laughed again as she handed across the book.
'No hope for any more help from you, if you once get hold of him!'
And for an hour Clare sat amongst the piles of books with her fair head resting against the carved cupboard, and not a word or sign could Gwen get out of her.
Elfie spent her time in helping Agatha to unpack, and it was a very tired little party that gathered round the drawing-room fire that evening.
'I wonder,' said Clare, 'if we shall find we have made a mistake in coming here. It seems so very quiet, and different to either London or Dane Hall. When we used to stay there with Aunt Mildred, there was always such a lot going on that it didn't seem quite like the country.'
'My dear Clare,' said Agatha quietly, 'you would be much happier yourself, and would make others happier too, if you always made the best of your circumstances. I remember you used to complain at Dane Hall of the frivolity and empty-headedness of aunt's visitors, and would say it was a mere waste of life to live as we did!'
'Oh, don't be so prosy, Agatha!' Clare returned impatiently. 'If you were dropped into a workhouse ward, you would look round and remark how comfortable you were, and how at last you had found your vocation!'
Elfie laughed aloud at this, but Agatha leant back in her chair and looked into the glowing coals in front of her with a smile that showed she was not destitute of humour. 'I daresay I might,' she said. 'I always love a community of old women, and if I could have chats with them, I am sure I should enjoy myself.'
'Well, I only wish I could be so easily contented,' said Clare, in a tone that showed she would be very sorry for herself if she were. She soon went off to bed, and Elfie followed, and then the two elder ones drew their chairs together and had a confidential talk over ways and means.
Agatha, though apparently apathetic at times and of a yielding disposition, had not always been so. When she first came home from school, she had all the bright hopes and restless longings of a young girl, and her aunt did all in her power to make life pleasant and bright for her. She went out into society, and was a general favourite, owing to her sweet temper and extreme unselfishness. Then one came on the scene who attracted her heart from the first. He was an earnest, whole-hearted Christian man, a vicar of an East End parish, and it was his influence that made Agatha view life in a different light. She vexed her aunt at first by gradually withdrawing from gaieties, and it was only with great difficulty that she was given permission to visit in the slums. The vicar was soon her betrothed, and Agatha had a few months of perpetual sunshine. But hard work, and a not very strong constitution, soon brought about a serious break-down, and he was ordered to the south of France to recruit his health. The parting was a sad one, and Agatha had wild thoughts of marrying then and there, and going with him as his wife and nurse. But this Miss Dane strenuously opposed, and poor Agatha had to bear the strain of five months away from the one who needed her so badly. He died, and for a time she was broken-hearted; but gradually she came to prove the reality and comfort of her religion, and then, taking up the interests of those around her, she had cheerfully buried her own sorrow, and became the mainstay of her aunt and her household. Perhaps Agatha felt most keenly being shut out from her aunt's dying room, she certainly uttered with heartfelt fervour morning and evening, 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.'
And she had never trusted herself to mention her cousin's unjust dealing to anyone; even her sisters had little idea how deep her feelings were about it.
The next few days were very busy ones. Saturday brought Captain Knox, to stay with them till Monday, and Clare showed him over house and garden in the best of spirits. 'It is rather strange,' he said, as he sat at dinner with them that night, 'but one of my sisters knows a lady in this neighbourhood, and she thinks you will like her. She lives somewhere on the outskirts of Brambleton. A Miss Villars. She is a charming woman, I hear, very comfortably off, but rather eccentric in the way she spends her money. My sister wrote to her when she knew of your arrival here, so you may have a visit from her soon.'
'Is she an old maid?' asked Elfie; 'because we have seen one, and, I was going to say, don't want to see another.'
Clare related their adventure in the church, and Captain Knox was much amused.
'I do not think there is anything queer about Miss Villars, except that she is a very religious woman.'
'Is that queer?' questioned Clare, a little wistfully.
'No,' Agatha said very quietly; 'it ought not to be.'
'But it is in the sight of the world,' retorted Captain Knox; 'that is, if your religion in an aggressive one.'
'Well, of course it ought not to be aggressive,' said Gwen briskly. 'Religion is a matter to be lived, not talked about. It only concerns oneself, and no one else.'
'That is a very selfish creed,' said Agatha. 'If you possess something good, you ought to wish to pass it on.'
'But not to thrust it on people who don't want it. I am thirsty, and like a glass of water, but need I insist upon your drinking it, when you are not thirsty at all?'
'Gwen loves an argument,' said Captain Knox good-naturedly.
'I am not good at arguing,' said Agatha, 'only, knowing that thirst can be a blessing, I think we should try to make people thirsty.'
'How do you mean?' asked Clare with interest, 'thirst is not, generally, a very happy experience.'
'Doesn't it say, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled"?'
'Oh, come, Agatha, we don't want a sermon with our dinner. You are not given to preach, so don't be trying to show us that you know how to be aggressive.'
Gwen's tone was a little scornful, and Agatha said no more; but as Clare was pacing up and down in the verandah with Captain Knox, a little time after, she suddenly said, 'I think I am a thirsty person, Hugh, only I never can tell what it is I am thirsting for; tell me, are you perfectly satisfied with yourself and with life?'
Captain Knox looked down at the sweet, pensive face of his betrothed. 'I shall be, Clare—on our wedding day.'
Clare frowned. 'You never will be in earnest about anything; you always turn my thoughts into ridicule.'
'Indeed I do not. But I am a plain, matter-of-fact soldier, and live on earth; you are in dreamland half your time, or in the clouds. Clare, darling, I cannot bear the thoughts of Africa sometimes; how shall I be able to stand being away from you so long? And time is slipping away so fast; only a fortnight more before I am off.'
'You will come down again before you start, of course?'
'Oh yes, I certainly intend to do so; but I have a lot to do in town—it may be only the last day that you will see me.'
Clare sighed, but said nothing, and then Captain Knox said suddenly,—
'Is Agatha very religious, Clare?
'No, I don't think so—not particularly. She is fond of church and all that, but she doesn't often speak out as she did at dinner to-night. Now, don't let us be gloomy; come indoors, and I will show you Bluebeard's cupboard in the study, It is well worth looking at, for it is beautifully carved, and I am going to try and copy it. You know how I love carving.'
She took him to the study, and there, by the aid of a lamp, they examined the old oak cupboard in the deep recess at the side of the fireplace.
'The strange thing is that there seems to be no lock or opening at all to it,' said Clare. 'I have spent hours in trying to find out where it is opened. Do you think one day I shall touch a spring, the doors will fly open, and there we shall see his headless wives?'
She was laughing now, and full of animation. Captain Knox passed his fingers lightly across the carving.
'I expect one of these carved bits is movable,' he said. 'It is a handsome bit of handicraft. What is this along the bottom, a scroll with writing?'
'That is what I say it is; Gwen says not, but I am sure those hieroglyphics mean something.'
It looks like Arabic characters,' said Captain Knox with interest. 'I believe it is so. Here, stop a minute; let me copy these in my notebook. I shall be studying Arabic on my way out, and if I find I can translate this, I will let you know.'
'Perhaps it is a clue to the mystery,' said Clare, with shining eyes; 'I am dying to know what this cupboard contains. Mrs. Tucker said she never saw it opened the whole time she was here; but Mr. Lester told her once that he prized this cupboard more than anything else in the house. She thinks, foolish woman, that it is full of gold! I only hope she won't spread that notion about Brambleton. The next thing will be that we shall have thieves in the house, and perhaps be all murdered in our beds!' Captain Knox laughed at her fears, and soon after, they joined the others in the drawing-room.
A Quiet Sunday
'O day most calm, most bright, The fruit of this, the next world's bud. * * * * The week were dark, but for thy light, Thy torch doth show the way.'—G. Herbert.
The sisters, accompanied by Captain Knox, made quite a sensation in the little village church when they entered it on that Sunday morning. The old sexton fussed about as if all the seats were occupied; but eventually they were shown into one just beside the pulpit stairs. Miss Miller glared at them through her green spectacles, and Elfie felt miserably conscious that she had recognised them. There were a few other gentle-people in the church besides themselves, and a very fair sprinkling of farmers and villagers. The service was simple and hearty; the village schoolmaster played the organ, and Mr. Miller, a fine-looking, grey-headed man, delighted Agatha at least, by his earnest, faithful preaching. Coming out into the churchyard, Agatha was stopped by Miss Miller hastening up to her. She was dressed in black silk; but her bonnet, a wonderful erection of lace and ribbon, was quite awry, and she seemed agitated. She spoke jerkily, and Agatha had difficulty in preserving her usual equanimity of mind.
'Excuse me, but I believe you have taken Mr. Tom Lester's house—a most unsatisfactory parishioner he is, and not at all what he should be. I am hoping to call on you this week. Who is the gentleman? your brother? No? A great pity, then, for a houseful of women is only a hot-bed for scandal and gossip. We have too many women by far in this neighbourhood—a bachelor parson always draws them. Have you any acquaintances in the neighbourhood? Ah, so much the better. There is service at half-past six this evening; I hope you will be regular attendants. You live in a godless house; take care that the atmosphere does not affect you. Mr. Tom Lester never entered the House of God after I spoke to him about the irreverence of his yawns during the sermon! Good-bye, and I hope you will prove pleasant neighbours. That remains to be seen!'
She darted away as quickly as she came; and Elfie, who was walking with Agatha, gave one of her merry, rippling laughs.
'Isn't she an odd character? We shall have a good deal of fun out of her, I am sure! I am thankful she did not recognise me, or at least had the good taste not to appear as if she did.'
'I wonder,' said Agatha thoughtfully, 'if that old man who sat behind Miss Miller was our landlord's brother.'
'Oh, he was much too nice-looking; I imagine the other Mr. Lester is an awful old curmudgeon. He has got his property unjustly, I consider—the eldest son ought to have it.'
'Cousin James is not an old curmudgeon,' put in Gwen, stepping back to join in the conversation; 'supplanters and usurpers generally carry all the world before them, "like green bay trees," as the Psalmist says. I am sure our Jacob is most prepossessing in manner and appearance, like his namesake. History repeats itself!'
'Don't be bitter after church,' said Agatha, in her quiet voice.
Gwen laughed. 'I'm not bitter. I feel I can snap my fingers at him now! Hugh says he saw him in town the other day, and he said with his pleasant smile, "When we are quite settled at Dane Hall my wife will ask the girls down. They will be glad of the change, I expect, after their seclusion in the country!" Wasn't it truly kind and considerate of him?'
That first Sunday in the country was a very pleasant one to the sisters, Clare went off for a long walk with Hugh in the afternoon; Agatha settled herself in a wicker chair with her books in the sunny verandah overlooking the meadows and distant pine woods; and Gwen and Elfie wandered off across the fields, enjoying the sweet spring air, and noting all the spring flowers peeping out of the hedgerows.
'Yes, I'm thankful we are out of town,' said Gwen emphatically, standing up and drawing in long breaths of content and satisfaction. 'If I were starving, I would rather be in the country, because one can be clean. It's the oppression in the atmosphere that is so sickening in London, and never being able to get away from people!'
'This is an ideal Sunday,' said Elfie, turning her radiant face upwards and watching a lark soaring out of sight; 'I don't think I shall miss the concerts in town, with such music as this around one!'
Then after a pause she said, 'I suppose becoming lazy and self-indulgent is a danger in the country.'
'We are not rich enough for that,' responded Gwen with a short laugh; 'at least, I know I have my work cut out for me.'
'I wasn't meaning actual daily duties, but our responsibilities regarding others,' said Elfie, a little shyly.
Gwen shrugged her shoulders. 'I suppose you feel you ought to be in Sunday school this afternoon, is that it? I dare say Miss Miller will give you some parish work, if you ask her. Are you going to follow in Agatha's steps? I saw her from my bedroom window this morning stop a carter going by from the farm, and hand him some tracts.'
Elfie laughed. 'She's a good old thing; she never says anything about her good deeds, but I know she will soon be fast friends with all the farm labourers who pass up and down. You see if next week she doesn't know all their names and family histories!'
They were crossing a fresh meadow now, and as they came up to a stile, they saw in the next field a most picturesque little cottage standing in the midst of a mass of apple blossom. It was a low white-washed building, with thatched roof and latticed windows, green shutters opening back upon the wall.
The girls went up, and leaning against the gate, looked at it admiringly; then started at the sight of two oldish women sitting opposite one another in the old-fashioned porch. They were dressed exactly alike, two lilac sun-bonnets hiding their faces; their figures were thin and angular, and each had a book in her lap. Their dark-blue serge gowns, white aprons, and little red worsted shawls over their shoulders, were duplicates one of the other.
'It's like a book,' whispered Elfie. 'Do let us speak to them. We can ask them where the footpath leads to!'
Gwen opened the gate, and accordingly put the question.
Both women started to their feet, and one came forward.
'Where does this footpath lead to? Why, to our cottage, and no further, miss.'
She spoke respectfully, though rather shortly.
'I am afraid we have trespassed,' said Elfie, in her sweet, bright tone; 'but we are strangers here, and are trying to find our way about. What a lovely little cottage you have!'
'It's a tidy little place,' the woman responded, with an approving nod. 'Perhaps you'd like to come in and sit for a bit. Patty and me don't care for Sunday visitin', but you'll be the ladies from Jasmine Cottage, I reckon?'
'Yes,' said Gwen, 'we will come in for a minute before we go back.'
They followed her into a spotlessly clean and tidy kitchen. Patty drew forward two chairs, and began to speak rather breathlessly. 'My sister and me saw you in church to-day. We said you were the new family; and Deb is very good at upholsterin' and alterin' carpets, and doin' plain needlework, and we thought maybe you'd be wantin' help that way, for Deb goes to work by the day at most of the big houses round!'
'Tis the Lord's Day,' said Deb, giving her sister a sharp nudge with her elbow; 'we'll not be talking business now. Sit down, ladies.'
Gwen and Elfie exchanged amused glances. Then Gwen said,—
'Well, we won't transact business now; but we want a workwoman badly, and if you will come to the cottage tomorrow my sister will show you any amount of carpets that need refitting. But if I had a cottage like this, away from all sound and sight of any human beings, I think I wouldn't trouble to go out carpet-making!'
'You would if you wanted to keep your cottage,' said Deb brusquely. Then, taking off her sun-bonnet and smoothing down her grey hair, she sat down on an old oak settle beside the little cheery blazing fire, and grasping her angular knees with each hand, she looked at Given a little defiantly.
'Eight and forty year come next Christmas have Patty and I lived together here, and never a year have we been behind our rent since father died; but it have been done by downright hard labour. And if you and your people want new-laid eggs, or fresh spring chickens, or honey from the comb, why, 'tis Patty that will supply you, as also milk and butter from an Alderney cow.'
''Tis Sunday!' ejaculated Patty, as she stood by the fire with arms akimbo; and at this retort Gwen and Elfie laughed outright.
'And do you ever go away from home?' asked Gwen curiously, after a slight pause, in which Deb looked very discomposed.
'We are continually away,' said Deb, looking up and speaking very shortly. 'I know every gentry's house in the neighbourhood, not to speak of Brambleton, where Patty goes reg'lar once a week to market. But as to sleepin' away, that we never mean to do till we be taken to our last restin'-place!'
'And are you great readers? I am afraid we disturbed you from your books when we came in.'
Patty took up her book, which was on the window-ledge. ''Tis Bunyan's book, The Pilgrim's Progress. Father give Deb and me a copy each when we were fifteen years old, and we have read it every Sunday afternoon since. We don't always get very far, for 'tis a sleepy time in the afternoon, but a page or two is always edifyin' and improvin' to the soul!'
'It's a lovely book!' said Elfie enthusiastically; 'you must know it nearly by heart.'
The sisters smiled at each other.
'We do that,' said Deb.
'I suppose you have visitors from the village here occasionally?' asked Gwen.
Deb frowned grimly, then looked her questioner straight in the face, with hard-set lines about her mouth, as she replied,—
'We keeps ourselves to ourselves, miss. You are both young ladies, and haven't lived long enough to have it cast up in your teeth that you're not wed; but there be those who scorn us for choosin' to keep by each other, and not do as most young maids do. Patty and me have had our chances, but Patty's lad couldn't take us both, and 'twas the same with my lad, and neither of us could bear to be away from the other. We've always grown together, Patty and me—we came into the world together, and we pray the Lord He'll take us out in the same manner; and we know each other's ways, and when we don't agree, there's no one else to interfere.'
'Do you ever disagree?' asked Elfie, smiling.
Patty nodded her head solemnly.
'Ay, we ain't quite the same make through and through,' she said, in her little breathless way, 'and words run high at times. I keep to my opinions, and Deb keeps to hers; and if we have an extra hard dispute on, we know how to settle it!'
'How? with fists?' asked Gwen, looking from one hard-featured woman to the other with the greatest interest.
Deb looked up grimly, and said, as she raised her hand in emphasis,—
'Patty have never had a blow from me since we were children, nor I from her. When our tongues run away with us, one locks the t'other out, and when we get cool again the door is opened!'
'I would rather be inside than outside on a winter's day,' said Gwen, laughing heartily. 'Now come, Elfie, we must be off. I shall pay you another visit before long, to learn about bee-keeping. I see your hives are just like ours, and we know nothing about such things!'
'And I'll be very glad to tell you,' said Patty eagerly, 'for I've tended bees since I were a child, and know all their tricks, and as to their swarmings.'
''Tis the Lord's Day,' put in Deb grimly, and Gwen and Elfie promptly took their leave.
'Aren't they old dears?' said Elfie enthusiastically; 'they seem to live in quite another world. Imagine reading The Pilgrim's Progress all your life, and no other book beside the Bible! Do they ever see a newspaper, I wonder?'
'It isn't often one meets such a couple; we shall get a good deal of entertainment out of them, I expect. What an awful existence! Is it what we shall come to years hence, I wonder? And yet I, for one, am quite certain that will not be my lot.'
'What?' inquired Elfie, 'the old maid's existence, do you mean, or the little secluded country cottage?'
'Neither. I have my plans and purposes; and not all Jacob's machinations and schemings will frustrate them.'
'What are they?' inquired Elfie.
'Ah, well, I had best not say. I mean to see you all thoroughly comfortable and settled here, and then break them to you. I have plenty of resources and interests to take up my time, so am in no hurry.'
'You always were a wonderful one for plans! Let me guess. You are going to start a magazine, and be the editor of it!'
'No, thank you. Magazines are as plentiful as pins just now; they appear and disappear like sky-rockets!'
'Is it a way of earning money?'
'No, of spending it; but I am not going to tell you. I generally find I can carry out my plans successfully, if I don't take too many people into my confidence!'
Elfie was silent for a few minutes; then she said, with a little sigh, 'I wonder how old Nannie is getting on?'
'What has put her into your head?'
'The verses she gave us. Don't you remember?'
'I'm sure I forget what mine was.'
'"Commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass,"' said Elfie softly.
'Nannie never could stand my independence. I believe she thought we ought not to have taken this cottage without first having prayer about it!'
'Agatha did pray about it,' said Elfie very quietly.
'Well, I didn't, and I was the one to find it, and it has turned out quite a success. I never can understand such narrow views of life as Agatha takes. Prayer is all very well in church, or in great crises, but in everyday life I think it is perfectly unnatural and unnecessary!'
Elfie did not answer. She felt too inexperienced to argue the matter out with Gwen, though she totally disagreed with her.
They reached home, and found Clare and Captain Knox before them. Afternoon tea was had in the drawing-room, and afterwards, before evening church, Elfie brought her violin out, and Agatha went to the piano, whilst the others gathered round and sang some hymns with them. The evening closed quietly and peacefully; and as Captain Knox said good-night to his betrothed, he added, 'I am so glad I have seen you all here. I shall picture your quiet Sundays when I am in the wilds of Africa, and it will do me good!'
'The heart which like a staff was one For mine to lean and rest upon, The strongest on the longest day, With steadfast love, is caught away, And yet my days go on, go on.'—E. B. Browning.
Miss Miller came to call with her brother a few days afterwards. Agatha and Elfie were busy putting some finishing touches to the drawing-room when they arrived.
Miss Miller looked round the room, when she was seated, with some interest; and then she said abruptly,—
'Too much furniture, and too many useless ornaments, my dears. A drawing-room ought to be for use, and not for show. Who arranges your flowers?'
She might well ask, for none but an artist's hand could have grouped together so harmoniously the daffodils and primroses, with trails of ivy and fern in their beds of moss.
'Clare does,' responded Elfie brightly, sitting down by her side, whilst Agatha turned to the vicar. 'She went out this morning and picked them in a wood close to us. Aren't they lovely?'
'Not Major Lester's wood, I hope. He will not be best pleased to have any one from this house trespassing in his places. Miss Dane, do you know the history of your house?'
Agatha looked up, a little startled at the sharp voice. 'I did not know it had any history,' she said.
'It is best you should know facts. No, Wilfrid, you need not stop me; they will hear our village gossip fast enough. To begin with—your house used to be the old vicarage. It was built on the site of an old monastery. Our church is four hundred years old. The monastery came to grief long before the church. When old Squire Lester died, most of us thought the Hall would go to Mr. Tom. He had always been erratic and restless, spending most of his time abroad, and the squire never forgave his marriage with a French artist's daughter. He disinherited him, and made his second son leave the army and come home. A couple of years after, Mr. Tom returned, having lost his wife, and bringing a little son with him, a boy of four years. The old squire seemed to relent a little then, and was always having the child at the house. Mr. Tom, as we call him here, settled in this house, and was on friendly terms with his father till his death. Major Lester then took the property. He had an only son, too; and the boys, being of the same age, were much together; but their fathers would hardly speak to each other, and were angry at the friendship between the boys. I remember being at Major Lester's the very day of the sad event. I was calling on Mrs. Lester, and we heard a violent altercation going on in the hall between the brothers. Mr. Tom had come up for his son, who had made him anxious by his non-appearance at home the night before. The lads had been out for a night's rabbit-snaring with the gamekeeper, and Alick had slept at the Hall without the major's knowledge. I don't know why this should have led to such a violent quarrel, but Alick was summoned from the stables, where he was found with his cousin Roger, and forbidden ever to put his foot on Major Lester's property again. Then and there the lads were separated; but as Mr. Tom marched off with his son, he shouted out to his brother, "You'll live to see my son stand in Roger's shoes yet, and the property will come back to the rightful heir!"
'I remember Mrs. Lester turning to me, and trembling like a leaf: "He will murder Roger! The dreadful man!" she exclaimed; "that is the only way the property will come to Alick!"
'The very next day both boys were missing. Mr. Tom seemed quite as distracted as his brother, but he declared he knew nothing of them, and for a month no tidings were received, in spite of all the detectives at work. Then came a letter from Alick, written for both of them, saying they had taken their passage together for Australia, and had already got the promise of being taken on a farm; for they were made so miserable at home by the quarrels of their fathers, that they had "determined to clear out of it," and nothing would separate them from each other. They have not been in this neighbourhood since; but last autumn news came that Roger had disappeared. Alick wrote, giving details:—"I think Roger was sent on some confidential errand by the farmer, for he had money with him, and they fear that he was robbed, perhaps murdered on the way." Mrs. Lester, who was never very strong, took to her bed, and died a fortnight after the news was brought to her. But before she died she emphatically declared that Mr. Tom and his son had decoyed Roger out of the country to make away with him; and Alick was solely responsible for his death. She persisted in this until the major more than half believed it; and two days after the funeral he came down here, and had another most violent quarrel with his brother. It almost came to blows; and Mr. Tom decamped altogether within a week from that time. I only tell you the story. Some people here think badly of him, and his disappearance looks suspicious. Of course he gave out that he was going to Australia to find out the rights of it; but Major Lester does not believe this.'
'I wonder Major Lester does not go out himself,' said Agatha, feeling strangely interested in this story.
'He is too crippled by gout to do so. He has put the matter into the hands of the police out there. It's a sad story. The major is most regular at church, and highly respected in the neighbourhood. Mr. Tom is most erratic; I believe he has been seen in the Methodist chapel occasionally, but won't put his foot inside our church; and he is no loss at all to the neighbourhood, for he lived the life of a recluse. I always look upon this house as an ill-omened place. I didn't tell you that the last vicar who lived here died of delirium tremens. He was a disgrace to his profession, but that was thirty years ago. The new vicarage was built shortly after.' Miss Miller paused for breath, and her brother remarked, 'You must not prejudice the Miss Danes, Deborah, against their house. It is a quaint place, and its past need not be recorded.'
'We are charmed with it,' said Agatha simply; 'and we have moved into it at the right time. Spring in the country is always so delightful.'
Miss Miller was more agreeable when visiting than Agatha had hoped for, and though she insisted on the monopoly of the conversation, and gave the good vicar little chance of putting in a word, yet Agatha felt that they would be pleasant neighbours. There was a good deal of discussion over the Lesters' history, but Gwen dismissed the subject in her usual way.
'Major Lester is another Jacob. There's nothing more to be said, and Mr. Tom is a much-abused and misunderstood man!'
Agatha began to settle into her new life very happily. She became engrossed in housekeeping for several hours every morning, and was delighted to hear of a seamstress who could come in and work by the day. Deb Howitt was sent for, and she proved a skilful and industrious needlewoman, and amused and interested all who came in contact with her by her quaint remarks.
'Yes,' she remarked to Gwen, who had strolled into Agatha's bedroom one morning, and found Deb seated on the floor shaping a refractory carpet that would not fit, 'my sister is the stay-at-home, and I bring her the news of the world as I pick it up when I'm out visitin'. It's surprisin' the stories of high and low life that I hear. I take it all in, and think it over while I'm stitchin', and come to many a wise conclusion before I take it back with me and talk it over with Patty.'
'And what conclusion will you come to about us?' asked Gwen.
The old woman nodded her head with a meaning smile.
'Ay, well, ye're a house full of women, and there's an astonishin' little scoldin' and quarrellin'. I should say, taking the cluster of you together, that the one at either end keeps the peace in the middle.'
Gwen laughed delightedly. 'You are right: Agatha and Elfie are the peace-makers, Clare and I the disturbing elements! What else?'
But Deb shook her head, and would say no more.
Clare and Gwen shared the study very amicably together, but both were out of doors a great deal—Gwen tackling the untidy garden with a great deal of energy, but little experience; and Clare wandering about the lanes and fields, doing little, and dreaming much. Then came Captain Knox's farewell visit, and it was a very short one. He appeared at seven o'clock one evening, just as the sisters were sitting down to their high tea, which meal they had substituted for the orthodox dinner to which they had been accustomed in London.
Clare's cheeks grew pale as she greeted him. 'How long have you?' she asked, a little breathlessly.
'Till eight o'clock to-morrow morning. I must catch the 8.30 train from Brambleton. We sail to-morrow afternoon.'
It was rather a silent meal, and being a rough, stormy night Clare took him off to the study directly afterwards. She was in the mood that pleased her lover best: sweet and gentle, and showing more affection than she was wont to do, for she was not demonstrative usually.
'Hugh,' she said later in the evening, after sitting still and letting him do most of the talking, 'I wish I were going with you. I feel as if this parting is going to be a long one. I can't bear this wind and rain to-night—it makes me feel as if something awful is coming; it was just the same the first night we were here. I have a kind of presentiment about your going, as if something evil is coming upon us. Couldn't you give it up?'
Captain Knox smiled a little, though his face looked troubled as he drew her closer to him.
'My darling, you would not really wish me to. We must look forward to six months hence, when I return, and then, Clare, I shall wait no longer. You must come to me for good and all.'
Clare did not reply for a minute, then gently slipping her hand into the strong one near her, she said, very wistfully, 'Hugh, don't you think we should both have more comfort if we had more religion? I haven't enough of it to satisfy me, I think. Now Agatha trusts everything in her life to—to God, and is never worried or anxious. I can't do that, and oh, I'm so unsatisfied! You don't know how restless and wretched I feel sometimes! I should like to be able to pray for you properly when you are away, and feel that you were praying for me.'
Captain Knox was silent for a little, then he said quietly,—
'I have a certain amount of religion, as you know, and you couldn't have too much for me, at least as long as you keep it to yourself. I think every woman is the better for being truly religious; but we men who knock about amongst all kinds of evil, well, we can't expect to be very devout. It is soon knocked out of one. Pray for me as much as you like, darling; I need it!'
'I can't help thinking of Nannie's verse she gave me one evening,' said Clare, with a little sigh: '"Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him." It sounds so nice; but I don't know how to do it. And I am sure I shall need patience till you come back again!'
'We must write to each other, and think of next autumn. I shall not forget to send you the translation of those characters on that old cupboard. I am convinced they are Arabic.'
'Oh, bother the cupboard!' was Clare's petulant retort. 'It is too bad you are going away for so long, and you take it so coolly. I don't believe you mind a bit!'
Here she burst into a passion of tears, and poor Captain Knox, who was controlling his feelings for her sake, almost gave way himself.
It was not a happy evening, and Clare cried herself to sleep that night, feeling that she was the most unfortunate, wretched girl in the world. She crept down the next morning with a white face to give him his early breakfast, and then drove to Brambleton station with him; so no one saw the last parting. When she returned, she went upstairs to her room, and shut herself up for the rest of the morning.
'It is a pity Clare did not show her affection for him more when she was with him,' said Gwen impatiently, when Agatha came to her in the study, and wondered if she should go up and try to comfort her. 'I often marvel at Hugh's infatuation for her. I don't believe she knows what real love is. She is so taken up with her own feelings and moods, that she has no time for his, and I think he is far too good for her. If she is so discontented before marriage, what will she be afterwards? He will have a miserable time of it, I am afraid!'
'You are too hard upon her! I daresay his absence will prove to her how truly she loves him, for I am quite sure she does.'
'I have no patience with her!' said Gwen shortly; and then she buried herself in her book again, whilst Agatha went away and shed some tears herself over Captain Knox's departure.
'Thou hast made us for Thyself, And our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.—St. Augustine.
Some weeks passed. The girls were perfectly satisfied with their quiet country life. Elfie brightened the whole house with her music and high spirits. Agatha soon found her way to the nearest cottages, and was friends with all the farm labourers who passed by the house, and Gwen tried to manage everything and everybody. Clare shook off her low spirits, but was uncertain-tempered, and would never settle at any occupation for long at a time. Still, she delighted in the country round, and would return from her rambles with her arms full of Nature's treasures, making the little house beautiful with her lovely flowers and greenery.
Miss Miller fussed in and out, and was very glad of Agatha's help in parish matters; even unbending so far as to give Elfie permission to play on the organ in church, which, of course, delighted her. Agatha was informed that she could visit as freely as she liked, but that no relief was to be given, except through the vicarage.
'I look after everybody myself. I know the deserving and the undeserving, and they know me! I won't have anything given to my parishioners without my knowledge. My brother leaves it all in my hands.'
One afternoon Miss Villars called, and found only Clare at home. She was a sweet-looking, attractive woman, and Clare, with her usual impulsiveness, lost her heart to her at once. She confided to her the history of her engagement, and parting with Captain Knox; and the visit lengthened into nearly an hour before Miss Villars took her leave.
Clare went into raptures about her, when talking to her sisters afterwards.
'She is not a bit goody or eccentric, as Hugh hinted. She talked and laughed as naturally as any one; and she has such a lovely face. Dresses very quietly, but with good taste; and is such a graceful woman! She is quite the nicest person I have met for a long time. I am dying to see her in her own home. I am sure it must be a charming one. She drove over in an open carriage with a handsome pair of horses; and has offered to take us for drives whenever we like.'
'We really must afford ourselves a small trap,' said Gwen. 'We cannot do without it in the country. If we had a donkey, it would be better than nothing!'
'I wouldn't go in a donkey-cart,' said Clare, with disdain.
'Then you could stay at home. Agatha, what do you say? We have a stable. How much will it cost, do you think?'
When once Gwen took a matter in hand, she generally carried it through; and very shortly after, the sisters were the proud possessors of a little two-wheeled trap, and a small rough pony. This was a great convenience as well as pleasure to them, and when Clare had a fit of the blues, she would go off to Brambleton and do some shopping, and return quite interested and eager to tell all she had seen and heard. She met Miss Villars on one of her expeditions, and she asked her to go and have a cup of tea with her before she returned home. This Clare willingly did. She had not been to the house before, though Agatha and Gwen had; but she found it quite answered her expectations. It was an ideal old-fashioned country house, and Miss Villars was a perfect hostess. She introduced Clare to a delicate-looking girl staying with her: 'This is Miss Audrey Foster, who enjoys the country quite as much as you do.'
'It is paradise to me,' said the girl enthusiastically. 'I am a Londoner, and have never stayed in the country before.'
Clare looked at her, and noted that her shabby serge dress and pale pinched face seemed strangely incongruous with her surroundings. But when she had left the room shortly afterwards, Miss Villars said: 'Miss Foster is the eldest daughter of an East End vicar. She has not had a holiday or any change from home since her school-days; and she is mother and governess to five younger brothers and sisters. I hope to send her back a different creature. It is a great pleasure to give pleasure to other people, is it not?'
'I don't think I ever have,' said Clare frankly.
'Ah, well, my circumstances have made it easy for me to do so. My house is too big to live alone in it, and so I have relays of young visitors who need a little brightness in their lives. It is so sad to think of some young lives being cramped and dwarfed by their surroundings; and some natures utterly sink beneath the burden of household cares and anxieties, that ought not to touch them at all in youth.'
'You are very good, Miss Villars, are you not?'
Miss Villars laughed brightly. 'Not at all, my dear child. I wish I were.'
'I wish I were too,' said Clare, with sudden impulse. 'You look so happy—I wish I knew your secret.'
'"Happy is that people whose God is the Lord,"' said Miss Villars softly.
Clare sighed. 'I never have found religion make me happy, Miss Villars.'
'No more have I. It is only the Lord Himself who can do that. Do you know Him as your Friend and Saviour?'
Clare had never had such a question put to her before. 'I don't know Him at all,' she said earnestly; 'God seems such a long way off.'
'You know how you can get near Him?'
'By being very religious, I suppose.'
'The Bible doesn't say so. It says this: "But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us." Think that verse over, dear, and look it up in your own Bible.'
'But,' said Clare, hesitating a little, 'I don't think I want to be brought nearer to God. That has no attraction for me.'
'Then you will never know real happiness. Any soul away from its Creator knows no peace.'
Clare was silent, and then Miss Foster entered the room again, and the subject was changed; but Clare had plenty of food for reflection as she drove home.
It was a lovely afternoon in June—so warm that for once the four sisters were together in the shady verandah outside the drawing-room windows, taking their ease and waiting for their afternoon tea. Agatha was the only one who was doing anything, and she was stitching away at some small garment for one of the farm carter's children. It was a still, drowsy afternoon; the very bees seemed too lazy to hum, and were settling sleepily on the rose bushes close to their hives.
'This is the most sleepy time in the day,' observed Gwen, leaning back in her low wicker chair, her head resting on her arms behind it, 'I could go to sleep in five minutes if I chose; there is not a creature moving for miles round us, I expect.'
'I love the stillness,' said Clare. 'Every one in the country has time to rest. How different it is in London!'
'I think we're all living very lazy lives,' said Elfie, as she picked a climbing rose beside her and placed it in her belt; 'I feel as if every day here is one long holiday!'
'Well, we are not at school,' returned Clare; 'and I beg to state I have not been idle to-day. Attending to the flowers in the house every morning is no joke! I was nearly two hours over them; then I wrote letters and took them to the post before luncheon, and I have been mending a dress, and tidying my cupboards since.'
Gwen laughed a little derisively. 'You will never die of hard work, Clare.'
'I think it is harder work doing what I have done, than sitting still in the same chair from ten o'clock to one, and simply reading and writing!'
'Ted was asking for directions in the garden,' said Agatha, looking up; 'but when I peeped inside the study, Gwen, and saw you had one of your writing crazes on, I knew it was no good coming to you.'
'No, he has plenty of work, and I shall be occupied in the morning for some time now.'
'Why have you taken such a fit of it?' asked Clare. 'You're writing as if for your life.'
'I want money,' was the brief reply.
'That I shall not tell you at present. I want it so much, that I am even condescending to write silly stories, which I despise myself for doing.'
'Oh! that will be delightful,' exclaimed Elfie. 'Couldn't you read us one now, to pass the time?'
'I will read you a kind of conundrum I have dashed off this morning to amuse some sentimental goose like Clare!'
'Thank you,' said Clare imperturbably; and when Gwen sauntered into the house to get her manuscript, she said, 'Gwen is preparing some surprise for her family. You mark my words; before long she will unfold a startling plan of action!'
Gwen reappeared very soon, and settling herself in her easy chair, began to read in a lazy and slightly mocking tone as follows:—
'The princess walks in her garden alone. Her face is sad, and her steps are slow. She reaches a low moss-covered wall, and leaning upon it gazes dreamily and wistfully upon the busy crowded city below. Sounds of toil and labour meet her ears. The busy multitudes are all engaged in the various occupations of their spheres. And whilst the ringing laughter, the joyous mirth, of some is borne upwards by the breeze, it is mingled with the sobs and bitter weeping of the neglected and oppressed. Stretching out her soft white hands, she clasps them in piteous yearning.
'"My soul craves for it," she cries. "Since first I became conscious of its absence I am longing to find it. If I could devote a lifetime to it, and obtain it at last, I should die content!"
* * * * * *
'She stands in the deepest recess of a lonely forest. Far away from the city, no human habitation is near. Her feet are on the moss-covered ground, soft as velvet to the touch. Above is a canopy of green, through which the pure blue heavens appear, and the rays of the setting sun are giving the stately elms and rugged oaks a golden beauty of its own. She is leaning against a copper beech, and her soft brown hair is kissing the shining bark. Her blue eyes are turned upwards, full of expectancy and hope. She stands like a beautiful statue. A squirrel darts up a tree close by, and rabbits sport amongst the fallen leaves. The birds are carolling forth their evening hymns of praise, and Nature seems to be parading its loveliness. But her face is sorrowful still, and she shakes her head dejectedly. "It is of no avail," she murmurs; "even here in such a scene I cannot obtain my heart's desire! I yearn more for it day by day, and yet with the crushing longing within my breast I seem further away than ever from it!"
'She turns, and retraces her steps to the home of her forefathers.
* * * * * *
'A luxuriously furnished apartment; cool and refreshing after the glare of the sun outside. The Venetian shutters are closed. Sweet-scented flowers are filling the room with their perfume. The sound of children's happy voices, as they roam through the meadows and play in the new-mown hay, the humming of bees, sipping their honey from the full-blown flowers, come in at the open windows. Upon a couch in the darkest corner of the room lies our princess. She is not asleep; her hands are folded listlessly across her breast, her lips are moving. Now burying her face in the cushions, she exclaims:—
'"No, I have it not. Methought I might find it even here. No happiness for me until I experience it All the gold I possess would I gladly give to have the exquisite pleasure of obtaining and realizing it!"
* * * * * *
It is night-time. She stands upon the summit of a hill alone, and her figure looks weird and ghostly in the silver moonlight. Her head is thrown back, her lips parted breathlessly; her whole attitude bespeaks eager and intense expectation. She is waiting and watching for the desire of her heart.
'She overlooks the city, now wrapped in slumber. Green plains stretch away in the dim distance, and the moon throws its light upon her upturned face, making fantastic shadows around her. Hark! From yonder tree the nightingale trills out her midnight song. She listens and does not move, but hears it to the end. It ceases, and the wind rushes through the long grass at her feet, and shakes the leaves above, even venturing with its lawless impudence to buffet her fair brow, and scatter her brown locks across her eyes. A deep sigh escapes from her heaving breast. "It is hopeless. I am well-nigh despairing. Whither shall I go? I will not be conquered. I must find, and will find it soon!"
* * * * * *
'Again we see her. In a grotto, deep in the heart of the earth. She is seated on a rock, and all is darkness save a faint ray of light that creeps through a small crevice overhead.
'No one is near. No living creature but herself, and she is still seeking and waiting for what she has not found. Water is trickling drop by drop from the moist roof above; the atmosphere is damp and close, yet little she heeds the discomfort of her surroundings, and heavy sighs come from her lips. She looks up at last, then wends her way still further into the innermost recess of the cavern. She stands beneath a deep vaulted roof, in deeper darkness, but in drier atmosphere, and here she pauses, a light coming into her sad blue eyes, and for the first time a smile hovering about her lips. A quiver of excitement, a thrill of suppressed awe vibrates through her nervously strung frame. "At last," she murmurs; "if nowhere else, I shall find it here."
'Her heart throbs violently, and in vain she places her hand upon it to still its beating. Moments pass in anxious hope, then suddenly she sinks to the ground in a passion of sobs and bitter weeping.
'"No, no, poor weak fool that I have been," she breaks forth, in disdainful self-contempt; "never in this life shall I obtain it, for outward circumstances influence it little. How vainly deluded I have been hitherto! Little did I imagine that the very longing and craving of my heart for it, would thereby prevent my possessing it!"