Chapter XIX. A Sadder and a Wiser Authoress.
 

Colonel Mohun took Wilfred to his school, which began its term earlier than did Jasper's, and Silver-ton was wonderfully quiet. The elder Mrs. Merrifield was not to come for nearly a week, so that it would have been possible for her daughter-in-law to go to the Rotherwood festivities without interfering with her visit, but this no one except Gillian and Mysie knew, and they kept the secret well.

The departure of the boys was a great relief to Dolores. Her aunt did not rank her with Valetta and Fergus, but let her consort with herself and Gillian, and this suited her much better. Even Gillian allowed that she was ever so much nicer when there was no one to tease her. It was true that Jasper certainly, and perhaps Wilfred, would not have molested her if she had not offended the latter, and offered herself as fair game; but Gillian, who had to forestall and prevent their pranks, could not feel their absence quite the privation her sisterly spirit usually did!

Valetta and Fergus were harmless without them, but they were forlorn, being so much used to having their sports led by their two seniors that they hardly knew what to do without them, and the entreaty, or rather the whine, 'I want something to do,' was heard unusually often. This led to Gillian's being often called off to attend to them during the course of wet days that ensued, and thus Dolores was a good deal alone with her aunt, who was superintending her knitting a pair of silk stockings to send out to her father, it was hoped in time for his next birthday.

At the first proposal, Dolores looked dull and unwilling, and at last she squeezed out, 'I don't think father will ever want me to do anything for him again.'

'My poor child, do you think a father does not forgive and love all the more one who is in deep sorrow for a fault?'

'I don't think my letter seemed sorry! I was not half so sorry then as I am now,' then at a kind word from her aunt her eyes overflowed, and she said, 'No, I wasn't; I didn't know how good you were, or how bad I was!'

And when Aunt Lily kissed her, she put her arms round the kind neck that bent down to her, and laid her head against it, as if it was quite a rest to feel that love. Her aunt encouraged her to write again to her father, and to try to express something of her grief and entreaty for forgiveness, and she was somewhat cheered after this; as though something of the load on her mind was removed. One day she brought down all the books in her room and said, 'Please, Aunt Lily, look at them, and let them be with the rest in the schoolroom, I want to be just like the others.'

Lady Merrifield was much pleased with this surrender. Some of the books were really well worth having and reading, indeed, the best of them she knew, but there were eight or ten which she suspected of being what Mysie called silly stories, and she kept them back to look over. She had been trying in this quiet interval to get Dolly to read something besides mere childish stories for recreation; and when she saw how well worn the story books were, and how untouched the 'easy history,' and the books about animals and foreign countries were, she saw why so clever a girl as Dolores seemed so stupid about everything she had not learnt as a lesson, and entirely ignorant of English poetry.

Lady Merrifield read to her and Gillian in the evenings, and how they did enjoy it, and bemoaned the coming of grandmamma, to spoil their snugness and occupy 'mamma.' For Dolores began so to call Lady Merrifield. She had never so termed her own mother, and it seemed to her that with the words 'Aunt Lily' she put away all sorts of foolish, sinister feelings.

'Mrs. Merrifield was a wonderful old lady, brisk of mind and body, though of great age. She had been spending Christmas with her eldest son, the Admiral, at Stokesley, and was going to take on her way the daughter-in-law, of whom she knew but little in comparison; and with her she brought the granddaughter, Elizabeth Merrifield, who--since her own daughter had died--generally lived with her in London, to take care of her.

'It will be all company and horrid, and nobody will be allowed to make a noise!' sighed Valetta to Fergus, as the waggonette, well shut up, drove to the door.

'There's cousin Bessie,' said Fergus.

'Oh, cousin Bessie is thirty-four, and that is as bad as being as old as grandmamma!'

And they hung back while the old lady was helped out, and brought across the hall into the warm drawing-room before her fur cloak was taken off. There was a quiet little person with her, and Val whispered, 'She'll be just like Aunt Jane.'

But the eyes that Bessie turned on her cousins were not at an like Aunt Jane's little searching black ones. They were of a dark shade of grey, and had a wonderful softness and sweetness in them. Gillian knew her a little already, but very little, for there had always been the elder sisters at their former short meetings. Mamma lamented that there should be so few grandchildren at home to be shown, though, as she said, 'the full number might have been too noisy.'

Grandmamma shook her head. 'I like the house full,' she said, 'I'm all right, but it is a pity to see the nest emptied, like Stokesley, now. Nobody left at home but Susan and little Sally! Make the most of them while you have them about you!'

The old lady was quite delighted to find Primrose so nearly a baby, and to have one grandchild still quite as small or smaller than some of her great grandchildren whom she had never seen. Her great pleasure, however, soon proved to be in talking about her son Jasper, and hearing all his wife could tell her about his life in India; and as Lady Merrifield liked no other subject so well, they were very happy together, and quite absorbed.

Meanwhile Bessie made herself a companion to Gillian and Dolores, and though so much older, seemed to consider herself as a girl like them. Then, living for the most part in town, she could talk about London matters to Dolly, and this was a great treat, while yet she had country tastes enough to suit Gillian, and was not in the least afraid of a long walk to the fir plantations to pick up Weymouth pine cones, and the still more precious pinaster ones.

For the first time Gillian began to see Dolores as Uncle Reginald used to know her, free from that heavy mist of sullen dislike to everything and everybody. It seemed to bring them together, but, in spite of Bessie's charms, they both continually missed Mysie, out of doors and in, in schoolroom and drawing-room, and, above all, in Dolly's bedroom. She seemed to be, as Gillian told Bessie, 'a sort of family cement, holding the two ends, big and little, together;' and Bessie responded that her elder sister Susan was one of that sort.

The evenings now were quite unlike the usual ones. Dinner was late, and the two girls came down to it. Afterwards the young ones sat round the fire in the hall, where Bessie, who was a wonderful story-teller, kept Fergus and Valetta quiet and delighted, either with invented tales or histories of the feats of her own brothers and sisters, who were so much older than their Silverton first cousins as to be like an elder generation.

When the two young ones were gone to bed, the others came into the drawing-room, where mamma and grandmamma were to be found, either going over papa's letters, or else Mrs. Merrifield talking about her Stokesley grandchildren, the same whose pranks Bessie had just been telling, so that it was not easy to believe in Sam, a captain in the navy. Harry and John farming in Canada, David working as a clergy-man in the Black Country, George in. a government office, Anne a clergyman's wife, and mother to the great grandchildren who were always being compared to Primrose, Susan keeping her father's house, and Sarah, though as old as Alethea, still treated as the youngest--the child of the family.

The bits of conversation came to the girls as they sat over their work, and Bessie would join in, and tell interesting things, till she saw that grandmamma was ready for her nap, and then one or other gave a little music, during which Dolly's bed-time generally came.

'You can't think how grateful I am to you for helping to brighten up that poor child in a wholesome way!' said Lady Merrifield to Bessie, under cover of Gillian's performance.

'One can't help being very sorry for her,' said Elizabeth, who knew what was hanging over Dolly.

'Yes, it is a terrible punishment, especially as she has a certain affection for her step-uncle, or whatever he should be called, for her mother's sake. It really was a perplexed situation.'

'But why did she not consult you?'

'Do you know, I think I have found out. She held aloof from us all, and treated us--especially me--as if we were her natural enemies, and I never could guess what was the reason till the other day; she voluntarily gave me up all her books to be looked over and put into the common stock, which you saw in the schoolroom.'

'You look over all the children's books?'

'Yes. While we were wandering, they did not get enough to make it a very arduous task, and now I find that they want weeding. If children read nothing but a multitude of stories rather beneath their capacity, they are likely never to exert themselves to anything beyond novel reading.'

'That is quite true, I believe.'

'Well, among this literature of Dolly's I found no less than four stories based on the cruelty and injustice suffered by orphans from their aunts. The wicked step-mothers are gone out, and the barbarous aunts are come in. It is the stock subject. I really think it is cruel, considering that there are many children who have to be adopted into uncles' families, to add to their distress and terror, by raising this prejudice. Just look at this one'--taking up Dolly's favourite, 'Clare; or No Home'--'it is not at all badly written, which makes it all the worse.'

'Oh, Aunt Lilias,' cried Bessie, whose colour had been rising all this time. 'How shall I tell you? I wrote it!'

'You! I never guessed you did anything in that line.'

'We don't talk about it. My father knows, and so does grandmamma, in a way; but I never bring it before her if I can help it, for she does not half like the notion. But, indeed, they aren't all as bad as that! I know now there is a great deal of silly imitation in it; but I never thought of doing harm in this way. It is a punishment for thoughtlessness,' cried poor Bessie, reddening desperately, and with tears in her eyes.

'My dear, I am so sorry I said it! If I bad not one of these aunts, I should think it a very effective story.'

'I'm afraid that's so much the worse! Let me tell you about it, Aunt Lilias. At home, they always laughed at me for my turn for dismalities.'

'I believe one always has such a turn when one is young.'

'Well, when I went to live with grandmamma, it was very different from the houseful at home, I had so much time on my hands, and I took to dreaming and writing because I could not help it, and all my stories were fearfully doleful. I did not think of publishing them for ever so long, but at last when David terribly wanted some money for his mission church, I thought I would try, and this Clare was about the best. They took it, and gave me five pounds for it, and I was so pleased and never thought of its doing harm, and now I don't know how much more mischief it may have done!'

'You only thought of piling up the agony! But don't be unhappy about it. You don't know how many aunts it may have warned.'

'I'm afraid aunts are not so impressionable as nieces. And, indeed, among ourselves story-books seemed quite outside from life, we never thought of getting any ideas from them any more than from Bluebeard.'

'So it has been with some of mine, while, on the other hand, Dolores seemed to Mysie an interesting story-book heroine--which indeed she is, rather too much so. But you have not stood still with Clare.'

'No, I hope I have grown rather more sensible. David set me to do stories for his lads, and, as he is dreadfully critical, it was very improving.'

'Did you write 'Kate's Jewel'? That is delightful. Aunt Jane gave it to Val this Christmas, and all of us have enjoyed it! We shall be quite proud of it--that is--may I tell the children?'

'Oh, aunt, you are very good to try to make me forget that miserable Clare. I wonder whether it will do any good to tell Dolores all about it. Only I can't get at all the other girls I may have hurt.'

'Nay, Bessie, I think it most likely that Dolores would have been an uncomfortable damsel, even if Clare had remained in your brain. There were other causes, at any rate, here are three more persecuted nieces in her library. Besides, as you observed, everybody does not go to story-books for views of human nature, and happily, also, homeless children are commoner in books than out of them, so I don't think the damage can be very extensive.'

'One such case is quite enough! Indeed, it is a great lesson to think whether what one writes can give any wrong notion.'

'I believe one always does begin with imitation.'

'Yes, it is extraordinary how little originality there is in the world. In the literature of my time, everybody had small hands and high foreheads, the girls wanted to do great things, and did, or did not do, little ones, and the boys all took first classes, and the fashion was to have violet eyes, so dark you could not tell their colour, and golden hair.'

'Whereas now the hair is apt to be bronze, whatever that may be like.'

'And all the dresses, and all the complexions, and all the lace, and all the roses, are creamy. Bessie, I hope you don't deal in creaminess!'

'I'm afraid skim milk is more like me, and that you would say I had taken to the goody line. I never thought of the responsibility then, only when I wrote for David's classes.'

'It is a responsibility, I suppose, in the way in which every word one speaks and every letter one writes is so. And now--here is Gillian finishing her piece. How far is it a secret, my dear.'

'It need not be so here, Aunt Lilias. Only my people are rather old- fashioned, you know, and are inclined to think it rather shocking of me, so it ought not to go beyond the family, and especially don't 'let her,' indicating her grandmother, 'hear about it. She knows I do such things--it would not be honest not to tell her--but it goes against the grain, and she has never heard one word of it all.'

It appeared that Bessie daily read the psalms and lessons to grandmamma, followed up by a sermon. Then, with her wonderful eyes, Mrs. Merrifield read the newspaper from end to end, which lasted her till luncheon, then came a drive in the brougham, followed by a rest in her own room, dinner, and then Bessie read her to sleep with a book of travels or biography, of the old book-club class of her youth. Her principles were against novels, and the tale she viewed as only fit for children.

Lady Merrifield could not help thinking what a dull life it must be for Bessie, a woman full of natural gifts and of great powers of enjoyment, accustomed to a country home and a large family, and she said something of the kind. 'I did not like it at first,' said Bessie, 'but I have plenty of occupations now, besides all these companions that I've made for myself, or that came to me, for I think they come of themselves.'

'But what time have you to yourself?'

'Grandmamma does not want me till half-past ten in the morning, except for a little visit. And she does not mind my writing letters while she is reading the paper, provided I am ready to answer anything remarkable. I am quite the family newsmonger! Then there's always from four to half-past six when I can go out if I like. There's a dear old governess of ours living not far off, and we have nice little expeditions together. And you know it is nice to be at the family headquarters in London, and have every one dropping in.'

'Oh dear! how good you are to like going on like that,' said Gillian, who had come up while this was passing; 'I should eat my heart out; you must be made up of contentment.'

Elizabeth held up her hand in warning lest her grandmother should be wakened, but she laughed and said, 'My brothers would tell you I used to be Pipy Bet. But that dear old governess. Miss Fosbrook, was the making of me, and taught me how to be jolly like Mark Tapley among the rattlesnakes,' she finished, looking drolly up to Gillian.

'And, Gill, you don't know what Bessie has made her companions instead of the rattlesnakes,' said Lady Merrifield. 'What do you think of "Kate's Jewel?"'

Gillian's astonishment and rapture actually woke grandmamma; not that she made much noise, but there was a disturbing force about her excitement; and the subject had to be abandoned.

As the great secret might be shared with Dolores, though not with the younger ones, whose discretion could not be depended upon, Gillian could enter upon it the more freely, though she was rather disappointed that an author was not such an extraordinary sight to Dolly as to herself. But it was charming to both that Bessie let them look at the proofs of the story she was publishing in a magazine; and allowed them as well as mamma, to read the manuscript of the tale, romance, or novel, whichever it was to be called, on which she wished for her aunt's opinion.

Bessie took care, when complying with the girls' entreaty, that she would tell them all she had written; to observe that, she thought 'Clare' a very foolish book indeed, and that she wished heartily she had never written it. Gillian asked why she had done it?

'Oh,' said Dolores, 'things aren't interesting unless something horrid happens, or some one is frightened, or very miserable.'

'I like things best just and exactly as they really are--or were,' said Gillian.

'The question between sensation and character,' said Bessie to her aunt. 'I suppose that, on the whole, it is the few who are palpably affected by the mass of fiction in the world; but that it is needful to take good care that those few gather at least no harm from one's work-- to be faithful in it, in fact, like other things.'

And there was no doubt that Bessie had been faithful in her work ever since she had realized her vocation. Her lending library books, written with a purpose, were excellent, and were already so much valued by Miss Hacket, that Gillian thought how once she should have felt it a privation not to be allowed to tell her whence they came; but to her surprise on the Sunday, instead of the constraint with which of late she had been treated at tea-time, the eager inquiry was made whether this was really the authoress, Miss Merrifield?

Secrets are not kept as well as people think. The Hackets' married sister was a neighbour of Bessie's married sister, and through these ladies it had just come round, not only who was the author of 'Charlie's Whistle,' etc., but that she wrote in the ---- Magazine, and was in the neighbourhood.

All offences seemed to be forgotten in the burning desire for an introduction to this marvel of success. Constance had made the most of her opportunities in gazing at church; but if she called, would she be introduced?

'Of course,' said Gillian, 'if my cousin is in the room.' She spoke rather coldly and gravely, and Miss Hacket exclaimed--

'I know we have been a little remiss, my dear, I hope Lady Merrifield was not offended.'

'Mamma is never offended,' said Gillian--'but, I do think, and so would she and all of us, that if Constance comes, she ought to treat Dolores Mohun--as--as usual.'

The two sisters were silent, perhaps from sheer amazement at this outbreak of Gillian's, who had never seemed particularly fond of her cousin. Gillian was quite as much surprised at herself, but something seemed to drive her on, with flaming cheeks. 'Dolores is half broken- hearted about it all. She did not thoroughly know how wrong it was; and it does make her miserable that the one who went along with her in it should turn against her, and cut her and all.'

'Connie never meant to keep it up, I'm sure,' said Miss Hacket; 'but she was very much hurt.'

'So was Dolly,' said Gillian.

'Is she so fond of me?' said Constance, in a softened tone.

'She was,' replied Gillian.

'I'm sure,' said Miss Hacket, 'our only wish is to forget and forgive as Christians. Lady Merrifield has behaved most handsomely, and it is our most earnest wish that this unfortunate transaction should be forgotten.'

'And I'm sure I'm willing to overlook it all,' said Constance. 'One must have scrapes, you know; but friendship will triumph over all.'

Gillian did not exactly wish to unravel this fine sentiment, and was glad that the little G.F.S. maid came in with the tea.

Lady Merrifield was a good deal diverted with Gillian's report, and invited the two sisters to luncheon on the plea of their slight acquaintance with Anne--otherwise Mrs. Daventry--with a hint in the note not to compliment Mrs. Merrifield on Elizabeth's production.

Then Dolores had to be prepared to receive any advance from Constance. She looked disgusted at first, and then, when she heard that Gillian had spoken her mind, said, 'I can't think why you should care.'

'Of course I care, to have Constance behaving so ill to one of us.'

'Do you think me one of you, Gillian?'

'Who, what else are you?'

And Dolores held up her face for a kiss, a heartier one than had ever passed between the cousins. There was no kiss between the quondam friends, but they shook hands with perfect civility, and no stranger would have guessed their former or their present terms from their manner. In fact, Constance was perfectly absorbed in the contemplation of the successful authoress, the object of her envy and veneration, and only wanted to forget all the unpleasantness connected with the dark head on the opposite side of the table.

'Oh Miss Merrifield,' she asked, in an interval afterwards, when hats were being put on, 'bow do you make them take your things?'

'I don't know,' said Bessie, smiling. 'I take all the pains I can, and try to make them useful.'

'Useful, but that's so dull--and the critics always laugh at things with a purpose.'

'But I don't think that is a reason for not trying to do good, even in this very small and uncertain way. Indeed,' she added, earnestly. 'I have no right to speak, for I have made great mistakes; but I wanted to tell you that the one thing I did get published, which was not written conscientiously--as I may say--but only to work out a silly, sentimental fancy, has brought me pain and punishment by the harm I know I did.'

This was a very new idea to Constance, and she actually carried it away with her. The visit had restored the usual terms of intercourse with the Hackets, though there was no resumption of intimacy such as there had been, between Constance and Dolores. It had, however, done much to make the latter feel that the others considered themselves one with them, and there was something that drew them together in the universal missing of Mysie, and eagerness for her letters.

These were, however, rather disappointing. Mysie had not a genius for correspondence, and dealt in very bare facts. There was an enclosure which made Lady Merrifield somewhat anxious:

'My Dear Mamma,
'This is for you all by yourself. I have been in sad mischief, for I broke the conservatory and a palm-tree with my umbrella; and I did still worse, for I broke my promise and told all about what you told me never to. I will tell you all when I come home, and I hope you will forgive me. I wish I was at home. It is very horrid when they say one is good and one knows one is not; but I am very happy, and Lord Rotherwood is nicer than ever, and so is Fly.
'I am your affectionate and penitent and dutiful little daughter,

'MARIA MILLICENT MERRIFIELD.'

With all mamma's intuitive knowledge of her little daughter's mind and forms of expression, she was puzzled by this note and the various fractures it described. She obeyed its injunctions of secrecy, even with regard to Gillian and Bessie, though she could not help wishing that the latter could have seen and judged of her Mysie.

Grandmamma was somewhat disappointed to have missed her eldest grandson, but she was obliged to leave Silverton two days before his return with his little sister. She had certainly escaped the full tumult of the entire household, but Bessie observed that she suspected that it might have been preferred to the general quiescence.

In spite of all the regrets that Bessie's more coeval cousins, Alethea and Phyllis were not at home, she and her aunt each felt that a new friendship had been made, and that they understood each other, and Bessie had uttered her resolution henceforth always to think of the impression for good or evil produced on the readers, as well as of the effectiveness of her story. 'Little did I suppose that 'Clare' would add to any one's difficulties,' she said, 'still less to yours, Aunt Lilias.'