Charlotte M. Yonge
The Trial; Or, More Links of the Daisy Chain
Quand on veut dessecher un marais, on ne fait pas voter les grenouilles.—Mme. EMILE. DE GIRADIN
'Richard? That's right! Here's a tea-cup waiting for you,' as the almost thirty-year-old Incumbent of Cocksmoor, still looking like a young deacon, entered the room with his quiet step, and silent greeting to its four inmates.
'Thank you, Ethel. Is papa gone out?'
'I have not seen him since dinner-time. You said he was gone out with Dr. Spencer, Aubrey?'
'Yes, I heard Dr. Spencer's voice—"I say, Dick"—like three notes of consternation,' said Aubrey; 'and off they went. I fancy there's some illness about in the Lower Pond Buildings, that Dr. Spencer has been raging so long to get drained.'
'The knell has been ringing for a little child there,' added Mary; 'scarlatina, I believe—'
'But, Richard,' burst forth the merry voice of the youngest, 'you must see our letters from Edinburgh.'
'You have heard, then? It was the very thing I came to ask.'
'Oh yes! there were five notes in one cover,' said Gertrude. 'Papa says they are to be laid up in the family archives, and labelled "The Infants' Honeymoon."'
'Papa is very happy with his own share,' said Ethel. 'It was signed, "Still his own White Flower," and it had two Calton Hill real daisies in it. I don't know when I have seen him more pleased.'
'And Hector's letter—I can say that by heart,' continued Gertrude. '"My dear Father, This is only to say that she is the darlint, and for the pleasure of subscribing myself—Your loving SON,"—the son as big as all the rest put together.'
'I tell Blanche that he only took her for the pleasure of being my father's son,' said Aubrey, in his low lazy voice.
'Well,' said Mary, 'even to the last, I do believe he had as soon drive papa out as walk with Blanche. Flora was quite scandalized at it.'
'I should not imagine that George had often driven my father out,' said Aubrey, again looking lazily up from balancing his spoon.
Ethel laughed; and even Richard smiled; then recovering herself, she said, 'Poor Hector, he never could call himself son to any one before.'
'He has not been much otherwise here,' said Richard.
'No,' said Ethel; 'it is the peculiar hardship of our weddings to break us up by pairs, and carry off two instead of one. Did you ever see me with so shabby a row of tea-cups? When shall I have them come in riding double again?'
The recent wedding was the third in the family; the first after a five years' respite. It ensued upon an attachment that had grown up with the young people, so that they had been entirely one with each other; and there had been little of formal demand either of the maiden's affection or her father's consent; but both had been implied from the first. The bridegroom was barely of age, the bride not seventeen, and Dr. May had owned it was very shocking, and told Richard to say nothing about it! Hector had coaxed and pleaded, pathetically talked of his great empty house at Maplewood, and declared that till he might take Blanche away, he would not leave Stoneborough; he would bring down all sorts of gossip on his courtship, he would worry Ethel, and take care she finished nobody's education. What did Blanche want with more education? She knew enough for him. Couldn't Ethel be satisfied with Aubrey and Gertrude? or he dared say she might have Mary too, if she was insatiable. If Dr. May was so unnatural as to forbid him to hang about the house, why, he would take rooms at the Swan. In fact, as Dr. May observed, he treated him to a modern red-haired Scotch version of 'Make me a willow cabin at your gate;' and as he heartily loved Hector and entirely trusted him, and Blanche's pretty head was a wise and prudent one, what was the use of keeping the poor lad unsettled?
So Mrs. Rivers, the eldest sister and the member's wife, had come to arrange matters and help Ethel, and a very brilliant wedding it had been. Blanche was too entirely at home with Hector for flutterings or agitations, and was too peacefully happy for grief at the separation, which completed the destiny that she had always seen before her. She was a picture of a bride; and when she and Hector hung round the Doctor, insisting that Edinburgh should be the first place they should visit, and calling forth minute directions for their pilgrimage to the scenes of his youth, promising to come home and tell him all, no wonder he felt himself rather gaining a child than losing one. He was very bright and happy; and no one but Ethel understood how all the time there was a sensation that the present was but a strange dreamy parody of that marriage which had been the theme of earlier hopes.
The wedding had taken place shortly after Easter; and immediately after, the Rivers family had departed for London, and Tom May had returned to Cambridge, leaving the home party at the minimum of four, since, Cocksmoor Parsonage being complete, Richard had become only a daily visitor instead of a constant inhabitant.
There he sat, occupying his never idle hands with a net that he kept for such moments, whilst Ethel sat behind her urn, now giving out its last sighs, profiting by the leisure to read the county newspaper, while she continually filled up her cup with tea or milk as occasion served, indifferent to the increasing pallor of the liquid.
Mary, a 'fine young woman,' as George Rivers called her, of blooming face and sweet open expression, had begun, at Gertrude's entreaty, a game of French billiards. Gertrude had still her childish sunny face and bright hair, and even at the trying age of twelve was pleasing, chiefly owing to the caressing freedom of manner belonging to an unspoilable pet. Her request to Aubrey to join the sport had been answered with a half petulant shake of the head, and he flung himself into his father's chair, his long legs hanging over one arm—an attitude that those who had ever been under Mrs. May's discipline thought impossible in the drawing-room; but Aubrey was a rival pet, and with the family characteristics of aquiline features, dark gray eyes, and beautiful teeth, had an air of fragility and easy languor that showed his exercise of the immunities of ill-health. He had been Ethel's pupil till Tom's last year at Eton, when he was sent thither, and had taken a good place; but his brother's vigilant and tender care could not save him from an attack on the chest, that settled his public-school education for ever, to his severe mortification, just when Tom's shower of honours was displaying to him the sweets of emulation and success. Ethel regained her pupil, and put forth her utmost powers for his benefit, causing Tom to examine him at each vacation, with adjurations to let her know the instant he discovered that her task of tuition was getting beyond her. In truth, Tom fraternally held her cheap, and would have enjoyed a triumph over her scholarship; but to this he had not attained, and in spite of his desire to keep his brother in a salutary state of humiliation, candour wrung from him the admission that, even in verses, Aubrey did as well as other fellows of his standing.
Conceit was not Aubrey's fault. His father was more guarded than in the case of his elder sons, and the home atmosphere was not such as to give the boy a sense of superiority, especially when diligently kept down by his brother. Even the half year at Eton had not produced superciliousness, though it had given Eton polish to the home-bred manners; it had made sisters valuable, and awakened a desire for masculine companionship. He did not rebel against his sister's rule; she was nearly a mother to him, and had always been the most active president of his studies and pursuits; and he was perfectly obedient and dutiful to her, only asserting his equality, in imitation of Harry and Tom, by a little of the good-humoured raillery and teasing that treated Ethel as the family butt, while she was really the family authority.
'All gone, Ethel,' he said, with a lazy smile, as Ethel mechanically, with her eyes on the newspaper, tried all her vessels round, and found cream-jug, milk-jug, tea-pot, and urn exhausted; 'will you have in the river next?'
'What a shame!' said Ethel, awakening and laughing. 'Those are the tea-maker's snares.'
'Do send it away then,' said Aubrey, 'the urn oppresses the atmosphere.'
'Very well, I'll make a fresh brew when papa comes home, and perhaps you'll have some then. You did not half finish to-night.'
Aubrey yawned; and after some speculation about their father's absence, Gertrude went to bed; and Aubrey, calling himself tired, stood up, stretched every limb portentously, and said he should go off too. Ethel looked at him anxiously, felt his hand, and asked if he were sure he had not a cold coming on. 'You are always thinking of colds,' was all the satisfaction she received.
'What has he been doing?' said Richard.
'That is what I was thinking. He was about all yesterday afternoon with Leonard Ward, and perhaps may have done something imprudent in the damp. I never know what to do. I can't bear him to be a coddle; yet he is always catching cold if I let him alone. The question is, whether it is worse for him to run risks, or to be thinking of himself.'
'He need not be doing that,' said Richard; 'he may be thinking of your wishes and papa's.'
'Very pretty of him and you, Ritchie; but he is not three parts of a boy or man who thinks of his womankind's wishes when there is anything spirited before him.'
'Well, I suppose one may do one's duty without being three parts of a boy,' said Richard, gravely.
'I know it is true that some of the most saintly characters have been the more spiritual because their animal frame was less vigorous; but still it does not content me.'
'No, the higher the power, the better, of course, should the service be. I was only putting you in mind that there is compensation. But I must be off. I am sorry I cannot wait for papa. Let me know what is the matter to-morrow, and how Aubrey is.'
Richard went; and the sisters took up their employments—Ethel writing to the New Zealand sister-in-law her history of the wedding, Mary copying parts of a New Zealand letter for her brother, the lieutenant in command of a gun-boat on the Chinese coast. Those letters, whether from Norman May or his wife, were very delightful, they were so full of a cheerful tone of trustful exertion and resolution, though there had been perhaps more than the natural amount of disappointments. Norman's powers were not thought of the description calculated for regular mission work, and some of the chief aspirations of the young couple had had to be relinquished at the voice of authority without a trial. They had received the charge of persons as much in need of them as unreclaimed savages, but to whom there was less apparent glory in ministering. A widespread district of very colonial colonists, and the charge of a college for their uncultivated sons, was quite as troublesome as the most ardent self-devotion could desire; and the hardships and disagreeables, though severe, made no figure in history—nay, it required ingenuity to gather their existence from Meta's bright letters, although, from Mrs. Arnott's accounts, it was clear that the wife took a quadruple share. Mrs. Rivers had been heard to say that Norman need not have gone so far, and sacrificed so much, to obtain an under-bred English congregation; and even the Doctor had sighed once or twice at having relinquished his favourite son to what was dull and distasteful; but Ethel could trust that this unmurmuring acceptance of the less striking career, might be another step in the discipline of her brother's ardent and ambitious nature. It is a great thing to sacrifice, but a greater to consent not to sacrifice in one's own way.
Ethel sat up for her father, and Mary would not go to bed and leave her, so the two sisters waited till they heard the latch-key. Ethel ran out, but her father was already on the stairs, and waved her back.
'Here is some tea. Are you not coming, papa?—it is all here.'
'Thank you, I'll just go and take off this coat;' and he passed on to his room.
'I don't like that,' said Ethel, returning to the drawing-room, where Mary was boiling up the kettle, and kneeling down to make some toast.
'Why, what's the matter?'
'I have never known him go and change his coat but when some infectious thing has been about. Besides, he did not wait to let me help him off with it.'