Chapter XII. A Hunt
 

Dolores was glad to recollect, when she awoke, that Uncle Reginald was in the house. It was as if she had a friend of her own there who might enter into all the ill-usage she suffered, and whom she could even consult about Uncle Alfred, so far as she could do so without disclosing all the underhand correspondence. She called doing so betraying Constance, but, in truth, she shrank more from shocking him with what he might think very wrong--since, after all, he belonged to that hard-hearted generation of grown-up people who had no feeling nor understanding of one's troubles.

As she went downstairs she was aware of an increasing hubbub, and frequently looking over the balusters, perceived the top of Primrose's wavy head above the close-cropped one of Uncle Regie, as, with her mounted on his shoulder, he careered round the hall, with a pack of others vociferating behind him;

There was a lull, for Lady Merrifield came out of her room just as Dolores had paused; Primrose was put down, the morning salutations took place, and Dolores had her full share of them. She was even allowed to sit next her uncle at breakfast; but her rasher of bacon had not been half eaten, before she had perceived that, as to possessing him as she used to do at home, he was just as much everybody else's Uncle Regie as hers, for during the time of their being stationed at Belfast, he had been so often with them, that he was quite established as the prince of playfellows.

'Uncle Regie, will you have a crack at the rabbits tomorrow? Brown said we might have a day, and we have been keeping it for you.'

'Uncle Regie, the hounds meet at the Bugle this morning, won't you come and see them throw off?'

'Oh, let me come too!' 'And me!' 'And me!'

'My dear children,' exclaimed their mother, 'I can't have the whole tribe of little ones and girls going galloping after your uncle. You will only hinder him.'

'No, no, Lily! the more Merrifields, the merrier the field. I'll drill them well. How far off is this Bugle?'

'Not two miles over Furzy Common.'

'Oh! not so far, Hal!'

'That's nothing. Who is coming?'

A general outbreak of 'Me's' ensued, but mamma laid an embargo on Primrose, who must stay at home and 'help her,' while Gillian looked wistful and doubtful, knowing that more efficient help than the little one's might be desirable.

'You had better go, my dear,' said her mother, 'if you are not tired. I don't like to send Mysie and Val without some one to turn back with them if your uncle and the boys want to go further.'

But whereas it was not nearly time to start, Uncle Reginald was dragged down to inspect all the live stock in the stable-yard, at their feeding-time, and went off with Val and Primrose clinging to his hands, and the general rabble surrounding him.

Nothing could have been more alien to Dolores's taste than going out to a meet on foot through mud and mire--she who hated the being driven out to take a constitutional walk on the gravel road or the paved path! But she had some hope that while all the others ran off madly, as was their wont, she might secure a little rational conversation with Uncle Reginald. So she came down in hat and ulster, and was rewarded with 'That's right, Doll; I'm glad to see they have taught you to take country walks.'

'It is all compliment to you, Uncle Regie,' said Gillian. 'She hates them generally.'

'Are we all ready? Where are Japs and Will?'

'Gone to shut up the dogs; and Hal is not coming.'

'Beneath his dignity, eh?'

'I think he has some reading to do,' said Gillian.

'Now mind, Reginald,' said Aunt Lily, coming on the scene, 'you are not to let those imps drag you farther than you like. It is a very different thing, remember, children, from going out with the hounds like a gentleman.'

'Yes, mamma,' returned Fergus. 'If you would only let me have the pony!'

'And send home the girls as soon as you find them in the way,' she added.

'All right,' answered he, and off plunged the party; but Dolores soon found that she was not to be allowed much of Uncle Reginald's exclusive society. He did begin talking to her about her father's voyage, last letters, and intended departure from Auckland, but Valetta kept fast hold of his other hand, and the others were all round, every moment pointing out something--to them noticeable--and telling the story of some exploit, delighted when their uncle capped it with some boyish tales of Beechcroft, or with some droll, Irish story.

With such talk, the strong, healthy young folk little heeded the surface mud or the lanes. Even Dolores when she heard her father's name in the reminiscences,' was interested for a time, and was always hoping that the others would fly off and leave her to her uncle; but she was much less used to country mud and stout boots than the others, and she had been very much tired by her expedition on the previous day, so that she had begun to find the way very long before they came out on an open green, with a few cottages standing a good way back in their gardens, and as their centre, one of the great old coaching inns of past days, now chiefly farmhouse, though a sign, bearing a golden bugle-horn upon a blue ground, stood aloft in front of it, over the heads of the speckled mass of tan, black, and white, pervaded with curved tails, over which the scarlet-coated whips kept guard, while shining horses, bearing red coats and black coats, boys, and a few ladies, were moving about, and carriages drew up from time to time.

There was a long standing about, and Colonel Mohun, being a stranger there himself, kept his flock on the outskirts, only Jasper plunging in, at sight of a mounted schoolfellow, while Gillian and Mysie told the names of the few they recognized. At last there was a move, and Jasper came back to point out the wood they were going to draw, close at hand. Should they not all go on and see it?

'Oh! let us! do come, Uncle Regie,' cried Mysie and Val.

'Look here, Gill,' said the uncle, 'this child doesn't look fit to go any farther.'

'I'm very tired, and so cold,' said Dolores.

'Yes,' said Gillian, 'we ought to go home now.'

Not me! not me;' cried the other two girls; 'Uncle Regie will take care of us.'

'I think you must come,' said Gillian, 'mamma said you had better come home when I do.'

'Yes,' said Wilfred, 'we don't want a pack of girls to go and get tired.'

'We shall go into all sorts of places not fit for you,' said Jasper; 'you wouldn't come back with a whole petticoat among you.'

'And Val would be left stodged in a ditch for a month of Sundays,' added Wilfred.

'I am afraid we had better part company, Gill,' said the colonel. 'I would take you on a little further, but this poor little Londoner won't have a leg to stand upon by the time she gets home.'

'More shame for her to come out to spoil our fun,' muttered Valetta, too low for her uncle to hear.

'Mamma will think we have gone quite far enough, thank you, uncle,' said the sage Gillian, 'and I think Fergus had better come too.'

'That he had,' said Jasper. 'Fancy him over Peat Hill.'

'He'll be left behind to be picked up as we come back,' said Wilfred.

'No, no, no! I can keep up better than you can, Wil! Take me, Uncle Regie.' The little boy was so near a howl that good-natured Colonel Mohun's heart was touched, and he consented to let him come on, though Jasper argued, 'You'll have to carry him, uncle.'

'No, I'll make you, master! Tell your mother not to wait luncheon for us, Gillian; we'll pick up something somewhere.'

'Hurrah!' cried Wilfred and Fergus, to whom this was an immense additional pleasure.

The girls turned away into the lane, Valetta indulging in an outrageous grumble. 'Why should Dolores have come out to spoil everything?'

Dolores did not speak.

'Just our one chance,' sighed Mysie, 'and perhaps we should have seen the fox.'

'We may do that yet,' said Gillian; 'he may come this way.'

'I don't care if he does,' said Valetta. 'I wanted to see them draw the copse. I believe Dolores did it on purpose to spoil our pleasure.'

'Don't be so cross, Val,' said Mysie. 'She can't help being tired.'

'Why did she come, then, when nobody wanted her?'

'For shame, Val,' said Gillian, 'you know mamma would be very angry to hear you say anything so unkind.'

'It's quite true, though,' muttered Valetta.

'Never mind, Dolly, dear,' said Mysie, shocked. 'Val doesn't really mean it, you know.'

'Yes, she does,' said Dolores, shaking her comforter off; 'you all do! I wish I had never come here.'

Mysie tried in her own persevering way to argue again that Val was only put out, and disappointed at having to turn back, to which Valetta, in spite of Gillian's endeavour to silence her, added, 'So stupid of her to come out! What did she do it for?'

Dolores, who hardly ever cried, was tired into crying now. 'You grudge me everything; you wouldn't let me speak one single word to Uncle Regie, and kept bothering about! I'll never do anything with you again! I won't.'

'Did you want to speak to Uncle Regie?' asked Mysie.

'To be sure I did! He is my uncle, that I knew ever so long before you did, and you never let him speak to me.'

'Mrs. Halfpenny always put us on the high chair, with our faces to the wall when we were jealous,' remarked Valetta.

'But did you want to say anything to him in particular?' said Mysie, revolving means of contriving a private interview.

'That's no business of yours! I wish you would let me alone!' broke out Dolores, in a fretful fright lest any one should guess that she had anything on her mind.

'To make up stories of us, of course,' growled Valetta, but Gillian here interposed, declaring with authority that if she heard another word before they reached the paddock gate, she should certainly tell mother how disgracefully they had been behaving. When Gillian said such things she kept her word. Besides, by way of precaution, she marched down the muddy middle of the road, with Dolores limping along the footpath on one side, and Val as far off as possible on the border of the ditch, on the other; the more inoffensive Mysie keeping by her side. They were all weary, and Dolores was very footsore also, by the time they reached home, at the very moment that the two Misses Hacket appeared coming up the drive. Lady Merrifield, having the day before invited the elder, as the purchases needed to be looked over, and preparations set in hand, and she did not then know that her brother was coming.

Dolores scarcely knew whether she was glad to see Constance. She had many doubts and qualms about that cheque. And if she had spent any quiet time alone with her uncle, she might have laid enough of her trouble before him to get some advice or help; but to ask for an interview, especially when 'everybody' thought it was to make complaints, was too uncomfortable and alarming; and she was inclined to escape from thought of the whole subject altogether by taking action quickly.

Gillian gave her uncle's message about not waiting; the dirty boots were taken off in the hall, and Constance followed her friend up to her room to take off her things.

Dolores sat on the side of her bed, too much tired at first to be willing to move, Constance's pity elicited tears, and that they had all been so very unkind to her; they were angry at her getting tired, and they were jealous of her even speaking to Uncle Regie. Again this alarmed Constance, 'You weren't going to tell him about Mr. Flinders-- you know you promised.'

'He knows about him already, and he would tell me what to do.'

'Oh! but that would never do, darling Dolly. You told me all the family were hard and unjust, and he would tell Lady Merrifield, and we should never be allowed to see each other again. And only think of my poor little secret! I didn't think you would have turned from your poor relation in misfortune for the sake of this grand Colonel.'

The end of it was, that just as the gong was sounding, Dolores handed over to Constance an envelope directed to Mr. Flinders, and containing Mr. Maurice Mohun's cheque. It was off her mind now, she thought, as she shuffled down to dinner, lookup so pale and uneasy that her aunt made her have a glass of wine and some gravy soup to begin with, and, when dinner was over, turned all the parcels off the school-room sofa, and made her lie upon it during the grand unpacking, which was almost as charming as the purchasing, perhaps more so, since there was no comparison with costlier articles.

There was not very much time. This was Friday and Christmas Day was on Monday, so there were only two more clear week-days before the birthday and Miss Hacket would be church-decorating on the morrow; but Lady Merrifield would not send her daughters to help, as there were plenty of hands without them, and they were too young to trust in a mixed set, who were not always sure to be reverent.

Dinner had rested and refreshed them; they rejoiced in the absence of the man-kind, and Primrose was sent out for her walk while the numerous boxes and packages were opened, and displayed sconces and tapers, gilt balls and glass birds, oranges and bon-bons, disguised in every imaginable fashion. There was a double set of the tapers, and two relays of devices in sweets, for the benefit of the party of the second night, a list of whom Miss Hacket had brought, that heads might be counted, and any deficiency supplied in time through Aunt Jane. For Lady Merrifield had commissioned Gillian to lay in--unknown to the good lady--a stock of such treasures as are valuable indeed to the little maid: shell pin-cushions, Cinderella slippers holding thimbles, cases of hair-pins, queer housewives, and the like things, wonderfully pretty for the price, and which filled the kind heart of Miss Hacket with rapture and gratitude at such brilliant additions to her own home-made contrivances in the way of cuffs, comforters, and illuminated workbags, all beautifully neat; I though it was hard to persuade her of what Lady Merrifield averred, that such things ought to be far more precious than brilliant, shop-bought, ready-made ware, 'with no love-seed in it.'

'It is very hard,' she said; 'how fancy shops try to spoil all one used to be able to do for one's friends. The purses, and the penwipers, and the needle-cases that were one's choicest presents in my youth, are all turned out now smart and tight and fashioned, but without a scrap of the honest old labour and love that went into them.'

'But papa and mamma do care still,' cried Gillian; 'papa never will have any purse but the long ones mamma nets for him.'

'And mamma always will have the old brown and blue carriage-bag that Aunt Phyllis worked,' chimed in Mysie, 'though Claude did say he would throw it into the sea when we crossed from Dublin for it looked like an old housekeeper's.'

'Claude was in a superfine condition then--in awe of an old Sandhurst comrade. He would be gild enough to see the old brown bag now, poor fellow,' said Lady Merrifield, tenderly.

So it went on, with merry chat and a good deal of real preparation, till the early darkness came on, and a great noise in the haul announced the return of 'the boys,' among whom Lady Merrifield still classed her colonel brother. They were muddy up to the eyes, but they had seen a great deal more than was easy to understand in their incoherent accounts. Wilfed had rolled into a wet ditch, and been picked out by his uncle and hung up to dry at a little village inn, where--this seemed to have been the supreme glory--they had made a meal on pigs'-liver and bread-and-cheese before plodding home again--losing their way under Wilfred's confident pilotage--finding themselves five miles from home--getting a cast in a cart for the two little boys just as Fergus was almost ready to cry--Colonel Mohun and Jasper walking alongside of the carter for two miles, and conversing in a friendly manner, though the man said he knew the soldier by his step, and thought it was a pool-trade. Finally, he directed them by a short cut, which proved to be through a lane of clay and pools of such an adhesive nature that Fergus had to be pulled out step by step by main force by his uncle, who deposited him on some stones at the other end, and then came back to assist the struggles of Wilfred, who was slowly proceeding with Jasper's help.

'And that's the way we make you spend your Christmas holiday, Regie,' said Lady Merrifield.

'Never mind. Lily; mud was a congenial element to us both in old times, you know, so no wonder your brood take to it like ducks or hippopotamuses. I say, we ought to have come in by the rear. Couldn't that imp of a buttons of yours come and scrape us before we go upstairs?'

'You are certainly grown older, Regie. You never would have thought of that once.'

'No more would you, Lily--so do yourself justice.'

However, when five o'clock tea was spread in the drawing-room, and the Hacket ladies came in, Constance beheld such a splendid vision of a fine, fair, though sunburnt face, long, light moustaches, and tall figure, that she instantly assumed her most affected graces, and did not wonder the less that the Mohuns were all so very high.

Dolores's strong desire for a private interview with her uncle died away when Constance carried off the cheque. She knew he would tell her she had no right to give it, and she did not want to be told so, nor to have any special inquiries made. She was not sorry that an invitation from a neighbour kept him and Hal out shooting all Saturday, and, on the other hand, she so far shrank from Constance's talk about Mr. Flinders as not to be vexed that it was too wet on Sunday afternoon for any going down to Casement Cottages.

It was on that wet afternoon, however, that Uncle Reginald, crossing the hall for once without his tail of followers, saw her slowly dragging downstairs with a book in her hand.

'Well, Miss Doll,' he said; 'you don't look very jolly! What's the matter?'

'Nothing, Uncle Regie.'

'I don't believe in nothing. Here,' sitting down on the stairs, with an arm round her, 'tell me all about it, Dolly, we are old chums, you know. Have you got into a row?'

'Oh no!'

'Is there anything I can put straight?'

'No, thank you, Uncle Regie.'

'There's something amiss!' said the good-natured, puzzled uncle. 'What is it? I should have thought you would have got on with these young folks like--like a house on fire.'

'That's all you know about it,' thought Dolly. What she said was, 'One never does.'

'I don't understand that generalization,' answered her uncle; then, as she did not answer, he added, 'I am sure your Aunt Lily is very anxious to make you happy. Have you anything to complain of?'

'No,' said Dolores, 'I don't complain of anything.'

She was thinking of Valetta's notion that she wanted to 'make up stories of them,' and therefore she said it in a manner which conveyed that she had a good deal to complain of, if she would, though really she would have been a good deal puzzled to produce a grievance that a man like Uncle Reginald would understand, though she had plenty for sympathy like Constance's.

However, it was not to be expected that a private conference should last long in that house, and Mysie appeared at that moment, looking for her cousin, to say that 'Mamma was ready for her.' Dolores went off with more alacrity than usual, and Uncle Reginald beckoned up his other niece, and observed: 'I say, Mysie, what's the matter with Dolly?'

'She is always like that, uncle,' answered Mysie.

'Don't you hit it off with her, then?'

'I can't, uncle,' said Mysie, looking up, with a sudden wink now and then to stop her tears. 'I thought we should have been such friends; but she won't let me. I didn't mean to be stupid and disagreeable, like the girls in 'Ashenden Schoolroom,' but she doesn't care for anybody but Miss Constance and Maude Sefton.'

'I hope you are all very kind to her,' said Uncle Reginald, rather wistfully.

'We try,' said Mysie, who was not going to betray Wilfred and Valetta, and could honestly say so of herself and Gillian.

And there again came an interruption, in the shape of Gillian. 'Mysie, mamma says we may finish up our sacred illuminated cards, for it will be Sunday work.'

'Oh, jolly!' cried Mysie, jumping up. 'And will you give me one rub of your real good carmine Gilly-flower, dear.'

'And of my ultramarine, too,' responded Gillian, wherewith the two sisters disappeared, radiant with goodwill and gratitude; while poor Uncle Reginald, who had intended to devote this wet Sunday afternoon to writing to his brother that Dolores was perfectly happy and thriving in Lily's care, and like a sister to his other favourite, Mysie, remained disappointed and perplexed, wondering whether the poor little maiden were homesick, or whether no children could be depended on for kindness when out of sight, and deciding that he should defer his letter till he had seen a little more, and talked to his sister Jane, who could see through a milestone any day.

It was understood that mamma preferred home-made cards to bought ones, so there was always a great manufacture of them in the weeks previous to Christmas, the comparative failures being exchanged among the younger members.

The presents were always reserved for Valetta's birthday and the tree, and this rendered the circulation of the cards doubly interesting. In the immediate family alone, there were thirteen times thirteen, besides those coming from, and going to outsiders, so that it was as well that a good many should be of domestic manufacture, either with pencil and brush, or of tiny leaves carefully dried and gummed. And mamma had kept an album, with names and dates, into which all these home efforts were inserted, and nothing else! This year's series began with a little chestnut curl of Primrose's hair, fastened down on a card by Gillian, and rose to a beautiful drawing of a blue Indian Lotus lily, with a gorgeous dragon-fly on it, sent by Alethea. The Indian party had sent a card for every one--the girls, beautiful drawings of birds, insects, and scenery; the brother, a bundle of rice-paper figured with costumes, and papa, some clever pen-and-ink outlines of odd figures, which his daughters beguiled from him in his leisure moments!

As to the home circle, it is enough to say that their performances were highly satisfactory to the makers, and were rewarded by mamma's kisses, and the text or verse she had secretly illuminated for each. She had no time to do more, and the series were infinitely prized and laid up as treasures. There were plenty of ornamental cards from without to be admired: the Brighton and Beechcroft aunts; the Stokesley cousins, and whole multitudes of friends pouring them in as usual; so that the entire review seemed to occupy all those free moments of the Christmas Day, when the young folks were neither at church, nor at meals, nor singing carols themselves, nor hearing the choir sing in the hall, nor looking over photograph books and hearing old family stories. This last occupation was received in the family as the regular evening pleasure, ending in all singing, 'When shepherds watch their flocks by night.'

Dolores had a card from her aunt and each of her cousins, besides one of the parcel Uncle Reginald had brought. She did not think enough of the very bad drawing and smeared painting of the ambitious attempts she received, to feel at all disconcerted at having no reciprocity to offer. The only cards she had sent were to Constance Hacket, to Fraulein, and to Maude Sefton--the last with a sore sense of the long interval since she had heard.

However, there was a card from Maude, but it was a very poor one, looking very much like a last year's possession, and the letter was not much better, being chiefly an apology for having been too busy to write. Maude was going to lectures with Nona Styles--Nona was such a darling girl--and breaking off because she was wanted to rehearse Cinderella with this same darling Nona.

It made Dolores's heart go down farther, though there was a beautiful and unexpected card from Mrs. Sefton, one from her former servant, Caroline, also from Fraulein, and three or four from old friends of her mother, who had remembered the solitary girl. In truth, she had more beautiful ones than anybody else, but she kept these in their envelopes, and showed herself so much averse to free fingering and admiration of them that Lady Merrifield had to call off Valetta, remind her that her cousin had a right to her own cards, and hear in return that Dolores was so cross.

'Dolly,' said Uncle Reginald, in a low voice, since he was permitted to look over the cards with her, 'I think I have found out part of your troubles.'

She looked at him in alarm.

He put his finger on a card bearing the words, 'Goodwill to men.'

'Umph,' said she. 'I don't want everything of mine messed and spoilt.'

And as his eye fell on Fergus's cards, he felt there was reason in what she said.

Aunt Lily had taken her for a quarter of an hour that morning, trying to infuse the real thought underlying the joy that makes it Christmas, not only yule-tide. But it all fell flat--it was all lessons to her-- imposed on her on a day that she had not been used to see made what she called 'goody.' Last year her father had shut himself up after church, and she had spent the evening in noisy mirth with the Seftons.