The Two Sides of the Shield by Charlotte M. Yonge
Chapter II. The Merrifields.
The cool twilight of a long sunny summer's day was freshening the pleasant garden of a country house, and three people were walking slowly along a garden path enjoying the contrast with the heat, glare, and noise of the day. The central one was a tall, slender lady, with a light shawl hung round her shoulders. On one side was a youth who had begun to overtop her, on the other a girl of shorter and sturdier mould, who only reached up to her shoulder.
'So she is coming!' the girl said.
'Yes, Uncle Maurice has answered my letter very kindly.'
'I should think he would be very much obliged,' observed the boy.
'Please, mamma, do tell us all about it,' said the girl. 'You know I stopped directly when you made me a sign not to go on asking questions before the little ones. And you said you should have to make us your friends while papa and the grown-ups are away.'
'Well, Gillian, I know you can be discreet when you are warned, and perhaps it is best that you should know how things stand. Do you remember anything about it, Hal?'
'Only a general perception that there were tempests in the higher regions, but I think that was more from hearing Alley and Phyl talk than from my native sagacity.'
'So I should suppose, since you were only six years old, at the utmost.'
'But Uncle Maurice always was under a cloud, wasn't he, especially at Beechcroft, where I never saw him or his wife in the holidays except once, when I believe she was not at all liked, and was thought to be very proud, and stuck-up, and pretentious.'
'But was she just nobody? not a lady?' cried Gillian. 'Aunt Emily always called her, '"Poor thing."'
'Perhaps she did the same by Aunt Emily,' returned Hal.
'And I am sure I have heard Aunt Ada say that she wasn't a lady; and Aunt Jane that she had all sorts of discreditable connections.'
'Come now, Gill, if you chatter so, how is mamma to get a word in between?'
'I'm afraid we have all been hard on her, poor thing!'
'There now, mamma has done it, just like Aunt Emily!'
'Anybody would be poor who got killed in a glacier!'
'No, but one doesn't say poor when people are--nice.'
'When I said poor,' now put in Lady Merrifield, 'it was not so much that I was thinking of her death as of her having come into a family where nobody welcomed her, and I really do not suppose it was her fault.'
'Moreover, she seemed to do very well without a welcome,' added Hal.
'Who is interrupting now?' cried Gillian, 'but was she a lady?'
'I never saw her, you know,' said the mother; 'but from all I ever heard of her, I should think she was, and cleverer and more highly educated than any of us.'
'Yes,' said Hal, 'that was the kind of pretension that exasperated them all at Beechcroft, especially Uncle William.'
'I wonder if Dolores will have it!' said Gillian. 'I suppose she will know much more than we do.'
'Probably, being the only child of such parents, and with every advantage London can give. Maurice was always much the cleverest of us all, and with a very strong mechanical and scientific turn, so that I now think it might have been better to have let him follow his bent. But when we were young there was a good deal of mistrust of anything outside the beaten tracks of gentlemanlike professions, and my dear old father did not like what he heard of the course of study for those lines. Things were not as they are now. So Maurice went to Cambridge, and was fifth wrangler of his year, and then had to go to the bar. It somehow always gave him a thwarted, injured feeling of working against the grain, and he cultivated all these scientific pursuits to the utmost, getting more and more into opinions and society that distressed grandpapa and Uncle William. So he fell in with Mr. Hay, a professor at a German university. I can hear William's tone of utter contempt and disgust. I believe this poor man was exceedingly learned, and had made some remarkable discoveries, but he was very poor, and lived in lodgings at Bonn with his daughter in the small way people are content to do in Germany. As to his opinions, we all took it for granted that he was a freethinker; but I can't tell how that might be. Maurice lodged in the same house one year when he went to learn German and attend lectures, and he went back again every long vacation. At last came your dear grandfather's death. Maurice hurried away from Beechcroft immediately after the funeral, and the next thing that was heard of him was that he had married Miss Hay. It was no wonder that your Uncle William was bitterly hurt and offended at the apparent disrespect to our father, and would make no move towards Maurice.'
'It was when we were at the Cape, wasn't it?' asked Hal.
'Yes, the year Gillian was born. Well, your dear Uncle Claude went to see Maurice in London, and found there was much excuse. Maurice had learnt that the old professor was dying, and his daughter had nothing, and would have had to be a governess, so that Maurice had married her in haste in order to be able to help them.'
'Then it really was very kind and noble in him!' exclaimed Gillian.
'And I believe every one would have felt it so; but for his unfortunately reserved way of concealing the extent of the acquaintance, and showing that he would not be interfered with. Claude did his best to close the breach, but there had been something to forgive on both sides, and perhaps she was prouder than the Mohuns themselves. Oh! my dears, I hope you will never have a family quarrel among you! It is so sad to look back upon a change after the happy years when we were all together, and were laughing and making fun of one another!'
'But you were quite out of it, mamma.'
'So I was in a way, but I knew nothing of the justification till too late for any advances from us to take much effect. I am four years older than Maurice, we had never been a pair, and had never corresponded. And when I wrote to him and to his wife, I only received stiff, formal answers. They were abroad when we were in London on coming home, and they would not come to see us at Belfast, so that I could never make acquaintance with her; but I believe she was an excellent wife, suiting him admirably in every way, and I expect to find this little daughter of theirs very well brought up, and much forwarder than honest old Mysie.'
'Mysie is in perfect raptures at the notion of having a cousin here exactly of her own age,' said Gillian. 'What she would wish is that the two should be so much alike as to be taken for twins. I have been trying to remember Dolores on that dreadful Sunday at the hotel, when Uncle Maurice came to see us, just when papa was setting off for Bombay, but it all seems confusion. I can think of nothing but a little black, shy figure. I remember Phyllis telling me that she thought I ought to do something to entertain her, but I could not think of a word to say to her.'
'For which perhaps she was thankful,' said her brother.
'I am not sure. You are all too apt, when you are shy, to console yourself with fancying that you are doing as you would be done by. It might have worried her then perhaps, but it would have made it easier for her to begin among us now! I am very glad her father consents to my having her! I do hope we may make her happy.'
'Happy!' said Gillian. 'Anybody must be happy with such a number to play with, and with you to mother her, mamma.'
'I am afraid she will not feel me much like her own mother, poor child! But it will not be for want of the will. When I look back now I feel sorry for myself for the early loss of my mother, for though we were all merry enough as children and young people, there always seems to have been a lack of something fostering and repressing. There was a kind of desolateness in our life, though we did not understand it at the time. I am thankful you have not known it, my dears.' There was a strange rush of tears nearly choking her voice, and she shook them away with a sort of laugh. 'That I should cry for that at this time of day!'
Gillian raised her face for a kiss, and even Harry did the same. Their hearts were very full, as the perception swept over them in one flash what their lives would have been without mamma. It seemed like the solid earth giving way under their feet!
'I am very sorry for poor Dolores,' said Gillian presently. 'It seems as if we could never be kind enough to her.'
'Yes. Indeed I hope we may do something towards supplying her with a real home, wandering sprites as we have been,' said Lady Merrifield.
'What a name it is! Dolores! It is as bad as Peter Grievous! How did she get it?' grumbled Harry.
'That I cannot tell, but I think we must call her Dora or Dolly, as I fancy your Aunt Jane told me she was called at home. I hope Wilfred will not get hold of it and tease her about it. You must defend her from that.'
'If we can,' said Gillian; 'but Wilfred is rather an imp.'
'Yes,' said Harry. 'I found Primrose reduced to the verge of distraction yesterday because 'Willie would call her Leg of Mutton.''
'I hope you boxed his ears!' cried Gillian.
'I did give it to him well,' said Hal, laughing.
'Thank you,' said his mother. 'A big brother is more effective in such cases than any one else can be. Wilfred is the only one of you all who ever seemed to take pleasure in causing pain--and I hardly know how to meet the propensity.'
'He is the only one who is not quite certain to be nice with Dolores,' said Gillian.
'And I really don't quite see how to manage,' said the mother. 'If we show him our anxiety to shield her, it is very likely to direct his attention that way.'
'She must take her chance,' said Hal, 'and if she is any way rational, she can soon put a stop to it.'
'But, oh dear! I wish he could go to school,' said Gillian.
'So do I, my dear,' returned her mother; 'but you know the doctors say we must not risk it for another year, and I can only hope that as he grows stronger, he may become more manly. Meantime we must be patient with him, and Hal can help more than any one else. There--what's that striking?'
'Then we must make haste in, or we shall not have finished supper before ten.'
Lilias Mohun had married a soldier, and after many wanderings through military stations, the health and education of a large proportion of her family had necessitated her remaining at home with them, while her husband held a command in India, taking out with him the two grown-up daughters and the second son, who was on his staff. She was established in a large house not far from a country town, for the convenience of daily governess, tutor, and masters. She herself had grown up on the old system which made education depend more on the family than on the governess, and she preferred honestly the company and training of her children to going into society in her husband's absence. Therefore she arranged her habits with a view to being constantly with them, and though exchanging calls, and occasionally accepting invitations in the neighbourhood, it was an understood thing that she went out very little. The chief exceptions were when her eldest son, Harry, was at home from Oxford. He was devotedly fond of her, and all the more pleased and proud to take her about with him because it had not always been possible that his holidays in his school life should be spent at home, and thus the privilege was doubly prized.
The two sisters above and one brother below him were in India with their father, and Gillian was not yet out of the schoolroom, though this did not cut her off from being her mother's prime companion. Then followed a schoolboy at Wellington, named Jasper, two more girls, a brace of boys, and the five-year-old baby of the establishment-- sufficient reasons to detain Lady Merrifield in England after more than twenty years of travels as a soldier's wife, so that scarcely three of her children had the same birthplace. She had been able to see very little of her English relations, being much tied by the number of her children while all were very young, and the expense of journeys; but she was now within easy reach of her two unmarried sisters, and after the Cape, Gibraltar, Malta, and Dublin, the homes of her eldest sister, and of her eldest brother did not seem very far off.
Indeed Beechcroft, the home of her childhood, had always been the headquarters of herself and her children on their rare visits to England. Her elder boys had been sure of a welcome there in the holidays, and loved it scarcely less than she did herself; and when looking for her present abode, the whole family had stayed there for three months. Her brother Maurice, however, she had scarcely seen, and she had been much pained at being included in his persistent avoidance of the whole family, who felt that he resented their displeasure at his marriage even more since his wife's death than he had done during her lifetime, as if he felt doubly bound, for her sake, not to forgive and forget. At least so said some of the family, while others hoped that his distaste to all intercourse with them only arose from the apathy succeeding a great blow.