Chapter IX. Letters
 

Constance Hacket was very much excited about the address to Dolores's letter to her uncle. She had not noticed it at the moment that it was written, but she did when she posted it; and the next time she could get her young friend alone, she eagerly demanded what Mr. Flinders had to do with the Many Tongues, and why her niece wrote to him at the office.

'He writes the criticisms,' said Dolores, magnificently; for though she despised pluming herself on any connection with a marquess, she did greatly esteem that with the world of letters. 'You know we are all literary.'

'Oh yes, I know! But what kind of criticisms do you mean? I suppose it is a very clever paper?'

'Of course it it,' said Dolores, 'but I don't think I ever saw it. Father never takes in society papers. I believe he does criticisms on plays and novels. I know he always has tickets for all the theatres and exhibitions.

She did not say how she did know it, for a pang smote her as she remembered dimly a scene, when her father had forbidden her mother to avail herself of escort thus obtained. Nor was she sure that the word all was accurately the fact; but it was delightful to impress Constance, who cried, 'How perfectly delicious! I suppose he can get any article into his paper!'

'Oh yes, of course,' said Dolores.

'Did your dear mother write in it?'

'No; it was not her line. She used to write metaphysical and scientific articles in the first-class reviews and magazines, and the Many Tongues is what they call a society paper, you know.'

'Oh yes, I know. There are charming things about the Upper Ten Thousand. They tell all that is going on, but I hardly ever can see one. Mary won't take in anything about Church Bells, and we get the Guardian when it is a week old, and my brother James has done with it.'

'Dear me! How dreadful!' said Dolores, who had been used to see all manner of papers come in as regularly as hot rolls. 'Why, you never can know anything! We didn't take in society papers, because father does not care for gossip or grandees. He has other pursuits. I can show you some of dear mother's articles. There's one called 'Unconscious Volition,' and another on the 'Progress of Species.' I'll bring them down next time I come.'

'Have you read them?'

'No; they are too difficult. Mother was so very clever, you know.'

'She must have been,' said Constance, with a sigh; 'but how did she get them published?'

'Sent them to the editor, of course,' said Dolores. 'They all knew her, and were glad to get anything that she wrote.'

'Ah! that is what it is to have an introduction,' sighed Constance.

'What! have you written anything?' cried Dolores.

'Only a few little trifles,' said Constance, modestly. 'It is a great secret, you know, a dead secret.'

'Oh! I'll keep it. I told you my secret, you know, so you might tell me yours.'

And so to Dolores were confided sundry verses and tales on which Constance had been wont to spend a good deal of her time in that pretty sitting-room. She had actually sent her manuscripts to magazines, but she had heard no more of one, and the other had been returned declined with thanks--all for want of an introduction. Dolores was delighted to promise that as soon as she heard from Uncle Alfred, she would get him to patronize them, and the reading occupied several Sunday afternoons. Dolores suggested, however, that a goody-goody story about a choir-boy lost in the snow would never do for the Many Tongues, and a far more exciting one was taken up, called 'The Waif of the Moorland,' being the story of a maiden, whom a wicked step-mother was suspected of murdering, but who walked from time to time like the 'Woman in White.' There was only too much time for the romance; for weeks passed and there was no answer from Mr. Flinders. It was possible that he might have broken off his connection with the paper, only then the letter would probably have been returned; and the other alternative was less agreeable, that it was not worth his while to write to his niece. While as to Maude Sefton, nothing was heard of her. Were her letters intercepted? And so the winter side of autumn set in. Hal was gone to Oxford, and there had been time for letters to come from Mr. Mohun, posted from Auckland, New Zealand, where he had made a halt with his sister, Mrs. Harry May, otherwise Aunt Phyllis. Dolores was very much pleased to receive her letter, and to have it all to herself; but, after all, she was somewhat disappointed in it, for there was really nothing in it that might not have been proclaimed round the breakfast- table, like the public letters from that quarter of the family who were at Rawul Pindee. It told of deep-sea soundings and investigations into the creatures at the bottom of the sea, of Portuguese men-of-war, and albatrosses; and there were some orders to scientific-instrument makers for her to send to them--a very improving letter, but a good deal like a book of travels. Only at the end did the writer say, 'I hope my little daughter is happy among her cousins, and takes care to give her aunt no trouble, and to profit by her kind care. Your three cousins here, Mary, Lily, and Maggie, are exceedingly nice girls, and much interested about you; indeed, they wish I had brought you with me.'

Dolores read her letter over and over and over, for the pleasure of having something all to herself, and never communicated a word about the miscroscopic monsters her father had described, but she drew her head back and reflected, 'He little knows,' when he spoke of her being happy among her cousins.

Lady Merrifield likewise received a letter, about which she did not say much to her children, but Miss Mohun, who had had a much longer one, came over for the day to read this to her sister. In point of fact, she had paired in childhood with her brother Maurice. She had been his correspondent in school and college days, and being a person never easily rebuffed, she had kept up more intercourse with him and his wife than any others of the family had done, and he had preserved the habit of writing to her much more freely and unreservedly than to any one else. So the day after the New Zealand letters came, just as the historical reading and needlework were in full force, the schoolroom door was opened, and a brisk little figure stood there in sealskin coat and hat.

Up jumped mamma. 'Oh! Jenny! Brownie indeed! How did you come? You didn't walk from the station?'

'Yes, why not? Otherwise I should have been too soon, and have disturbed the lessons,' said Aunt Jane, in the intervals of the greeting kisses. 'All well with the Indian folks?'

'Oh yes; they've come back from the emerald valleys of Cashmere, and Alethea has actually sent me a primrose--just like an English one--that they found growing there. They did enjoy it so. Have you heard from Maurice?'

'Yes, I thought you would like to hear about Phyllis, so, having enjoyed it with Ada, I brought it over for further enjoyment with you.'

'That's a dear old Brownie! We've a good hour before dinner. Shall we read it to the general public, or shall we adjourn to the drawing- room?'

"Oh! I assure you it is very instructive. Quite as much so as Miss Sewell's 'Rome.'"

And Aunt Jane, whom Gillian had aided in disrobing herself of her outdoor garments, was installed by the fire, and unfolded a whole volume of thin, mauve sheets in Mr. Mohun's tiny Greek-looking handwriting.

It was a sort of journal of his voyage. There were all the same accounts of the minute creatures that are incipient chalk, and their exquisite cells, made, some of coral, some of silex spicule from sponges; the some descriptions of phosphorescent animals, meduse, and the like, that Dolores had thought her own special treasure and privilege, only a great deal fuller, and with the scientific terms untranslated--indeed, Aunt Jane had now and then to stop and explain, since she had always kept up with the course of modern discovery. There was also much more about his shipmates, with one or two of whom Mr. Mohun had evidently made great friends. He told his sister a great deal about them, and his conversations with them, whereas he had only told Dolores abut one little midshipman getting into a scrape. Perhaps nothing else was to be expected, but it made her feel the contrast between being treated with real confidence and as a mere child, and it seemed to put her father further away from her than ever.

Then came the conclusion, written on shore--

'Harry May came on board to take me home with him. He is a fine, genial fellow and his welcome did one's heart good. I never did him justice before; but I see his good sense and superiority called into play out here. Depend upon it, there's nothing like going to the other end of the world to teach the value of home ties.'

'Well done, Maurice,' exclaimed Lady Merrifield; but she glanced at Dolores and checked herself.

Miss Mohun went on, 'Phyllis met me at the door of a pleasant, English- looking house, with all her tribe about her. She has the true 'honest Phyl' face still, carrying me back over some thirty or forty years of life, and as you would imagine, she is a capital mother, with all her flock well in hand, and making themselves thoroughly useful in the scarcity of servants; though the other matters do not seem neglected. The eldest can talk like a well informed girl, and shows reasonable interest in things in general; but Phyllis wants to put finishing touches to their education, and her husband talks of throwing up his appointment before long, as he is anxious to go home while his father lives. I wish I had gone to Stoneborough before coming out here, now that I see what a gratification it would have been if I could have brought a fresh report of old Dr. May. (Somehow, I think there has been a numbness or obtuseness about me all these last two years which hindered me from perceiving or doing much that I now regret, since either the change or the wholesome atmosphere of this house has wakened me as it were. Among these ungracious omissions is what I now am much concerned to think of, that I never went to see Lilias when I committed my child to her charge; nor talked over her disposition. Not that I really understand it as I ought to have done when the poor child was left to me. I take shame to myself when Phyllis questions me about her), but as I watch these children with their parents I am quite convinced that the being taken under Lily's motherly wing is by far the best thing that could have befallen Dolores, and that my absence is for her real benefit as well as mine.'

The part between brackets was omitted by Miss Mohun in the public reading, but the last sentence she did read, thinking it good for both parties to hear it. However, Dolores both disliked the conclusion to which her father had come, and still more that her aunt and cousins should hear it, though, after all, it was only Gillian and Mysie who remained to listen by the time the end of the letter was reached. The long words had frightened away Valetta as soon as her appointed task of work was finished.

Aunt Lily did not see the omitted sentence till the two sisters were alone together later in the afternoon. It filled her eyes with tears. 'Poor Maurice,' she said; 'he wrote something of the same kind to me.'

'I expect we shall see him wonderfully shaken up and brightened when he comes home. The numbness he talks of was half of it Mary's dislike to us all, only I never would let her keep me aloof from him.'

'I almost wish he had taken Dolores out to Phyllis. I am not in the least fulfilling his ideal towards her.'

'Nor would Phyllis, unless the voyage had had as much effect on her as it seems to have had upon Maurice. So you don't get on any better?'

'Not a bit. It is a case of parallel lines. We don't often have collisions--unless Wilfred gets an opportunity of provoking her.'

'Why don't you send that boy to school?'

'I shall after Christmas. He is quite well now, and to have him at home is bad both for himself and the others. He needs licking into shape as only boys can do to one another, and he is not a model for Fergus, especially since Harry has been away.'

'What does he do?'

'Nothing very brilliant, nor of the kind one half forgives for the drollery of it. Putting mustard into the custard was the worst, I think; inciting the dogs to bring the cattle down on the girls when they cross the paddock; shutting up their books when the places are found--those are the sort of things; putting that very life-like wild cat chauffe-pied with glaring eyes in Dolly's bed. I believe he does such things to all, but his sisters would let him torture them rather than complain, whereas Dolores does her best to bring them under my notice without actually laying an information, which she is evidently afraid to do. It is very unlucky that her coming should have been just when we had such an element about--for it really gives her some just cause of complaint.'

'But you say he is impartial?'

'Teasing is unfortunately his delight. He will even frighten Primrose, but I am afraid there is active dislike making Dolores his favourite victim; and then Val and Fergus, who don't tease actively on their own account, have come to enjoy her discomfiture.'

"And you go on the principle of 'tolerer beaucoup?'"

'I do; hoping that it is not laziness and weakness that makes me abstain from nagging about what is not brought before my eyes by the children or the police--I mean Gill, Halfpenny, and Miss Vincent. Then I scold, or I punish, and that I think maintains the principle, without danger to truth or forbearance. At least, I hope it does. I am pretty sure that if I punished Wilfred for every teasing trick I know, or guess at, he would--in his present mood--only become deceitful, and esprit de corps might make Val and Fergus the same, though I don't think Mysie's truth could be shaken any more than honest Phyl's.'

'Besides, mutual discipline is not a thing to upset. Lily, I revere you! I never thought you were going to turn out such a sensible mother.'

'Well, you see, the difficulty is, that what may work for one's own children may not work for other people's. And I confess I don't understand her persistent repulse of Mysie.'

'Nor of you, the nasty little cat!' said Aunt Jane, with a little fierce shake of the head.

'I do understand that a little. I am too unlike Mary for her to stand being mothered by me.'

'There must be some other influence at work for this perverseness to keep on so long. Tell me, did she take up with that very goosey girl, that Miss Hacket?'

'Oh yes; she goes there every Sunday afternoon. It is the only thing the poor child seem much to care about, and I don't think there can be any harm in it.'

'Humph! the folly of girl is unfathomable! Oh! you may say what you like--you who have thrown yourself into your daughters and kept them one with you. You little know in your innocence the product of an ill- managed boarding-school!'

'Nay,' said Lady Merrifield, a little hotly, 'I do know that Miss Hacket is one of the most excellent people in the world, a little tiresome and borne, perhaps, but thoroughly good, and every inch a lady.'

'Granted, but that's not the other one--Constance is her name? My dear, I saw her goings on at the G.F.S. affair--If she had only been a member, wouldn't I have been at her.'

'My dear Jenny, you always had more eyes to your share than other people.'

'And you think that being an old maid has not lessened their sharpness, eh! Lily? Well, I can't help it, but my notion is that the sweet Constance--whatever her sister may be--is the boarding-school miss a little further developed into sentiment and flirtation.'

'Nay, but that would be so utterly uncongenial to a grave, reserved, intellectual girl, brought up as Dolores has been.'

'Don't trust to that! Dolores is an interesting orphan, and the notice of a grown-up young lady is so flattering that it carries off a great deal of folly.'

'Well, Jenny, I must think about it. I hope I have done no harm by allowing the friendship--the only indulgence she has seemed to wish for; and I am afraid checking it would only alienate he still more! Poor Maurice, when he is trusting and hoping in vain!'

'Three year is a long time, Lily; and you have no had three months of her yet--'

The door opened at that moment for the afternoon tea, which was earlier than usual, to follow of Miss Mohun's reaching the station in time for her train. Lady Merrifield was to drive her, and it was the turn of Dolores to go out, so that she shared the refection instead of waiting for gouter. In the midst the Miss Hackets were announced, and there were exclamations of great joy at the sight of Miss Mohun; as she and Miss Hacket flew upon each other, and to the very last moment, discussed the all-engrossing subject of G.F.S. politics.

Nevertheless, while Miss Mohun was hurrying on her sealskin in her sister's room, she found an opportunity of saying, 'Take care, Lily, I saw a note pass between those two.'

'My dear Jenny, how could you? You were going on the whole time about cards and premiums and associates. Oh! yes, I know a peacock or a lynx is nothing to you, but how was it possible? Why, I was making talk to Constance all along, and trying to make Dolly speak of her father's letter.'

'I might retort by talking of moles and bats! Did you never hear of the London clergyman whose silver cream-jug, full of cream too, was abstracted by the penitent Sunday school boy whom he was exhorting over his breakfast-table?'

'I don't believe London curates have silver jugs or cream either!'

'A relic of past wealth, like St. Gregory's one silver dish, and perhaps it was milk. Well, to descend to particulars. It was done with a meaning glance, as Dolores was helping her on with her cloud, and was instantly disposed of in the pocket.'

'I wonder what I ought to do about it,' sighed Lady Merrifield, 'If I had seen it myself I should have no doubts. Oh! if Jasper were but here! And yet it is hardly a thing to worry him about. It is most likely to be quite innocent.'

'Well, then you can speak of the appearance of secrecy as bad manners. You will have her all to yourself as you go home.'

But when the aunts came downstairs, Dolores was not there. On being called, she sent a voice down, over the balusters, that she was not going.

Aunt Jane shrugged her shoulders. There was barely time to reach the train, so that it was impossible to do anything at the moment; but in the Merrifield family bad manners and disrespect were never passed over, Sir Jasper having made his wife very particular in that respect; and as soon as she came home in the twilight, she looked into the school-room, but Dolores was not there, and then into the drawing-room, where she was found learning her lessons by firelight.

'My dear, why did you not go with your Aunt Jane and me?'

'I did not want to go. It was so cold,' said Dolores in a glum tone.

'Would it not have been kinder to have found that out sooner? If I had not met the others in the paddock, and picked up Valetta, the chance would have been missed, and you knew she wanted to go.'

Dolores knew it well enough. The reason she was in this room was that all the returning party had fallen upon her; Wilfred had called her a dog in the manger, and Gillian herself had not gainsayed him--but the general indignation had only made her feel, 'what a fuss about the darling.'

'Another time, too,' added Lady Merrifield, 'remember that it would be proper to come down and speak to me instead of shouting over the balusters in that unmannerly way; without so much as taking leave of your Aunt Jane. If she had not been almost late for her train, I should have insisted.'

'You might, and I should not have come if you had dragged me,' thought, but did not say, Dolores. She only stood looking dogged, and not attempting the 'I beg your pardon,' for which her aunt was waiting.

'I think,' said Lady Merrifield, gently, 'that when you consider it a little, you will see that it would be well to be more considerate and gracious. And one thing more, my dear, I can have no passing of private notes between you and Constance Hacket. You see a good deal of each other openly, and such doings are very silly and missish, and have an underhand appearance such as I am sure your father would not like.'

Dolores burst out with, 'I didn't,' and as Primrose at this instant ran in to help mamma take off her things, she turned on her heel and went away, leaving Lady Merrifield trusting to a word never hitherto in that house proved to be false, rather than to those glances of Aunt Jane, which had been always held in the Mohun family to be a little too discerning and ubiquitous to be always relied on; and it was a satisfactory recollection that at the farewell moment when Miss Jane professed to have observed the transaction, she had been heard saying, 'Yes, it will never do to be too slack in inquiring into antecedents, or the whole character of the society will be given up,' and with her black eyes fixed full upon Miss Hacket's face.