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Charlotte M. Yonge
The Pillars of the House; Or, Under Wode, Under Rode, Vol. 1 (of 2)

CHAPTER I
THE BIRTH-DAY GIFT

'O I've got a plum-cake, and a feast let us make,

Come, school-fellows, come at my call;

I assure you 'tis nice, and we'll all have a slice,

Here's more than enough for us all.'

Jane Taylor.

'It is come! Felix, it is come!'

So cried, shouted, shrieked a chorus, as a street door was torn open to admit four boys, with their leathern straps of books over their shoulders. They set up a responsive yell of 'Jolly! Jolly!' which being caught up and re-echoed by at least five voices within, caused a considerable volume of sound in the narrow entry and narrower staircase, up which might be seen a sort of pyramid of children.

'Where is it?' asked the tallest of the four arrivals, as he soberly hung up his hat.

'Mamma has got it in the drawing-room, and Papa has been in ever since dinner,' was the universal cry from two fine complexioned, handsome girls, from a much smaller girl and boy, and from a creature rolling on the stairs, whose sex and speech seemed as yet uncertain.

'And where's Cherry?' was the further question; 'is she there too?'

'Yes, but—' as he laid his hand on the door—'don't open the letter there. Get Cherry, and we'll settle what to do with it.'

'O Felix, I've a stunning notion!'

'Felix, promise to do what I want!'

'Felix, do pray buy me some Turkish delight!'

'Felix, I do want the big spotty horse.'

Such shouts and insinuations, all deserving the epithet of the first, pursued Felix as he entered a room, small, and with all the contents faded and worn, but with an air of having been once tasteful, and still made the best of. Contents we say advisedly, meaning not merely the furniture but the inmates, namely, the pale wan fragile mother, working, but with the baby on her knee, and looking as if care and toil had brought her to skin and bone, though still with sweet eyes and a lovely smile; the father, tall and picturesque, with straight handsome features, but with a hectic colour, wasted cheek, and lustrous eye, that were sad earnests of the future. He was still under forty, his wife some years less; and elder than either in its expression of wasted suffering was the countenance of the little girl of thirteen years old who lay on the sofa, with pencil, paper, and book, her face with her mother's features exaggerated into a look at once keen and patient, all three forming a sad contrast to the solid exuberant health on the other side the door.

Truly the boy who entered was a picture of sturdy English vigour, stout-limbed, rosy faced, clear eyed, open, and straightforward looking, perhaps a little clumsy with the clumsiness of sixteen, especially when conscience required tearing spirits to be subdued to the endurance of the feeble. It was, however, a bright congratulating look that met him from the trio. The little girl started up: 'Your sovereign's come, Felix!'

The father showed his transparent-looking white teeth in a merry laugh. 'Here are the galleons, you boy named in a lucky hour! How many times have you spent them in fancy?'

The mother held up the letter, addressed to Master Felix Chester Underwood, No. 8, St. Oswald's Buildings, Bexley, and smiled as she said, 'Is it all right, my boy?'

'They want me to open it outside, Mamma!—Come, White-heart, we want you at the council.'

And putting his arm round his little sister Geraldine's waist, while she took up her small crutch, Felix disappeared with her, the mother looking wistfully after them, the father giving something between a laugh and a sigh.

'Then you decide against speaking to him,' said Mrs. Underwood.

'Poor children, yes. A little happiness will do them a great deal more good than the pound would do to us. The drops that will fill their little cup will but be lost in our sea.'

'Yes, I like what comes from Vale Leston to be still a festive matter,' said Mrs. Underwood; 'and at least we are sure the dear boy will never spend it selfishly. It only struck me whether he would not enjoy finding himself able to throw something into the common stock.'

'He would, honest lad,' said Mr. Underwood; 'but, Mamma, you are very hard-hearted towards the rabble. Even if this one pound would provide all the shoes and port wine that are pressing on the maternal mind, the stimulus of a day's treat would be much more wholesome.'

'But not for you,' said his wife.

'Yes, for me. If the boy includes us old folks in his festivity, it will be as good as a week's port wine. You doubt, my sweet Enid. Has not our long honeymoon at Vale Leston helped us all this time?' Her name was Mary, but having once declared her to be a woman made of the same stuff as Enid, he had made it his pet title for her.

Mrs. Underwood's thoughts went far away into the long ago of Vale Leston. She could hardly believe that nine years only had passed since that seven-years' honeymoon. She was a woman of the fewest possible words, and her husband generally answered her face instead of her voice.

Vale Leston had promised to be an ample provision when Edward Underwood had resigned his fellowship to marry the Rector's niece and adopted daughter, his own distant cousin, with the assurance of being presented to the living hereafter, and acting in the meantime as curate. It was a family living, always held conjointly with a tolerably good estate, enough to qualify the owner for the dangerous position of 'squarson,' as no doubt many a clerical Underwood had been ever since their branch had grown out from the stem of the elder line, which had now disappeared. These comfortable quarters had seemed a matter of certainty, until the uncle died suddenly and with a flaw in his will, so that the undesirable nephew and heir-at-law whom he had desired to exclude, a rich dissipated man, son to a brother older than the father of the favourite niece, had stepped in, and differing in toto from Edward Underwood, had made his own son take orders for the sake of the living, and it had been the effort of the young wife ever since not to disobey her husband by showing that it had been to her the being driven out of paradise.

ASSISTANT CURACY.—A Priest of Catholic opinions is needed at a town parish. Resident Rector and three Curates. Daily Prayers. Choral Service on Sundays and Holy-days. Weekly Communion.—Apply to P.C.B., St. Oswald's Rectory, Bexley.

Every one knows the sort of advertisement which had brought Mr. Underwood to Bexley, as a place which would accord with the doctrines and practices dear to him. Indeed, apart from the advertisement, Bexley had a fame. A great rubrical war had there been fought out by the Rector of St. Oswald's, and when he had become a colonial Bishop, his successor was reported to have carried on his work; and the beauty of the restored church, and the exquisite services, were so generally talked of, that Mr. Underwood thought himself fortunate in obtaining the appointment. Mr. Bevan too, the Rector, was an exceedingly courteous, kindly-mannered man, talking in a soft low voice in the most affectionate and considerate manner, and with good taste and judgment that exceedingly struck and pleased the new curate. It was the more surprise to him to find the congregations thin, and a general languor and indifference about the people who attended the church. There was also a good deal of opposition in the parish, some old sullen seceders who went to a neighbouring proprietary chapel, many more of erratic tastes haunted the places of worship of the numerous sects, who swarmed in the town, and many more were living in a state of town heathenism.

It was not long before the perception of the cause began to grow upon Mr. Underwood. The machinery was perfect, but the spring was failing; the salt was there, but where was the savour? The discourses he heard from his rector were in one point of view faultless, but the old Scottish word 'fushionless' would rise into his thoughts whenever they ended, and something of effect and point was sure to fail; they were bodies without souls, and might well satisfy a certain excellent solicitor, who always praised them as 'just the right medium, sober, moderate, and unexciting.'

In the first pleasure of a strong, active, and enterprising man, at finding his plans unopposed by authority, Mr. Underwood had been delighted with his rector's ready consent to whatever he undertook, and was the last person to perceive that Mr. Bevan, though objecting to nothing, let all the rough and tough work lapse upon his curates, and took nothing but the graceful representative part. Even then, Mr. Underwood had something to say in his defence; Mr. Bevan was valetudinarian in his habits, and besides—he was in the midst of a courtship—after his marriage he would give his mind to his parish.

For Mr. Bevan, hitherto a confirmed and rather precise and luxurious bachelor, to the general surprise, married a certain Lady Price, the young widow of an old admiral, and with her began a new régime.

My Lady, as every one called her, since she retained her title and name, was by no means desirous of altering the ornamental arrangements in church, which she regarded with pride; but she was doubly anxious to guard her husband's health; and she also had the sharpest eye to the main chance. Hitherto, whatever had been the disappointments and shortcomings at the Rectory, there had been free-handed expenditure, and no stint either in charity or the expenses connected with the service; but Lady Price had no notion of taking on her uncalled-for outlay. The parish must do its part, and it was called on to do so in modes that did not add to the Rector's popularity. Moreover, the arrangements were on the principle of getting as much as possible out of everybody, and no official failed to feel the pinch. The Rector was as bland, gentle, and obliging as ever; but he seldom transacted any affairs that he could help; and in the six years that had elapsed since the marriage, every person connected with the church had changed, except Mr. Underwood.

Yet, perhaps, as senior curate, he had felt the alteration most heavily. He had to be, or to refuse to be, my Lady's instrument in her various appeals; he came in for her indignation at wastefulness, and at the unauthorised demands on the Rector; he had to feel what it was to have no longer unlimited resources of broth and wine to fall back upon at the Rectory; he had to supply the shortcomings of the new staff brought in on lower terms—and all this, moreover, when his own health and vigour were beginning to fail.

Lady Price did not like him or his family. They were poor, and she distrusted the poor; and what was worse, she knew they were better born and better bred than herself, and had higher aims. Gentle Mrs. Underwood, absorbed in household cares, no more thought of rivalry with her than with the Queen; but the soft movement, the low voice, the quiet sweep of the worn garments, were a constant vexation to my Lady, who having once pronounced the curate's wife affected, held to her opinion. With Mr. Underwood she had had a fight or two, and had not conquered, and now they were on terms of perfect respect and civility on his side, and of distance and politeness on hers. She might talk of him half contemptuously but she never durst show herself otherwise than civil, though she was always longing to bring in some more deferential person in his place; and, whenever illness interfered with his duties, she spoke largely to her friends of the impropriety of a man's undertaking what he could not perform.

One of her reductions had been the economising the third curate, while making the second be always a neophyte, who received his title for Orders, and remained his two years upon a small stipend.

The change last Easter, which had substituted a deacon for a priest, had fallen heavily on Mr. Underwood, and would have been heavier still, but that the new comer, Charles Audley, had attached himself warmly to him. The young man was the son of a family of rank and connection, and Lady Price's vanity was flattered by obtaining his assistance; but her vexation was proportionably excited by his preference for the Underwood household, where, in truth—with all its poverty—he found the only atmosphere thoroughly congenial to him in all the parish of St. Oswald's.

Speedily comprehending the state of things, he put his vigorous young shoulder to the wheel, and, full of affectionate love and admiration for Mr. Underwood, spared himself nothing in the hope of saving him fatigue or exertion, quietly gave up his own holidays, was always at his post, and had hitherto so far lightened Mr. Underwood's toil, that he was undoubtedly getting through this summer better than the last, for his bodily frame had long been affected by the increased amount of toil in an ungenial atmosphere, and every access of cold weather had told on him in throat and chest attacks, which, with characteristic buoyancy, he would not believe serious. He never deemed himself aught but 'better,' and the invalid habits that crept on him by stealth, always seemed to his brave spirit consequent on a day's extra fatigue, or the last attention to a departing cough. Alas! when every day's fatigue was extra, the cough always departing, never departed.

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