Chapter VIII. My Persecuted Uncle
 

Dolores was allowed to go to Casement Cottage on Sunday. It was always rather an awful thing to her to get through the paddock when the farmer's cattle turned out there. She did not mind it so much in the broad road and in the midst of a large party, with Hal among them, and no dogs; but alone with only one companion, and in the easy path which was the shortest way to the cottage, she winced and trembled at the little black, shaggy Scotch oxen, with white horns and faces that looked to her very wild and fierce.

'Oh, Gillian, those creatures! Can't we go the other way?'

'No; it is a great deal further round, and there's no time. They won't hurt. The farmer engaged not to turn out anything vicious here.'

'But how can he be sure?'

'Well, don't come if you don't like it,' said Gillian, impatiently. 'It is your own concern. I must go.'

Dolores did not like the notion of Constance being told that she would not come because she was afraid of the oxen. She thought it very unkind of Gillian, but she came, and kept carefully on the side furthest from the formidable animals. And Gillian really was forbearing. She did make allowances for the London-bred girl's fears; and the only thing she did was, that when one of the animals lifted up its head and looked, and Dolores made a spring as if to run away, she caught the girl's arm, crying, 'Don't! That's the very way to make him run after you.'

They got safe out of the paddock at last, and rang at the door. They were both kissed, Dolores with especial affectionateness, because the good ladies pitied her so much; and then while Miss Hacket and Gillian went off to their class, Constance took Dolores up into her own room, and began to tell her how disappointed she was not to have seen more of her at the Festival.

'But those curates would not let me alone. I was obliged to attend to them.'

And then she was very eager to know all about Lord Rotherwood, which rather amazed Dolores, who had been in the habit of hearing her father mention him as 'that mad fellow Rotherwood,' while her mother always spoke with contempt of people who ran after lords and ladies, and had been heard to say that Lord Rotherwood himself was well enough, but his wife was a mere fine lady.

But Dolores had a matter on which she was very anxious.

'Connie, do they always read one's letters first? I mean the old people, like Aunt Lily.'

'What! has she been reading your letters?'

'She says she always shall, except father's and Maude Sefton's, because papa spoke to her about that. She took a letter of mine the other day, and never let me have it till the evening, and I am sure Aunt Jane put her up to it.'

'You poor darling!' exclaimed Constance. 'Was it anything you cared about?'

'Oh no--not that--but there might be. And I want to know whether she has the right.'

'I should not have thought Lady Merrifield would have been so like an old schoolmistress. Miss Dormer always did, the old cat! where I went to school,' said Constance. 'We did hate it so! She looked over every one's letters, except parents', so that we never could have anything nice, except by a chance or so.'

'It is tyranny,' said Dolores, solemnly. 'I do not see why one should submit to it.'

'We had dodges,' continued Constance, warming with the history of her school-days, and far too eager to talk to think of the harm she might be doing to the younger girl. 'Sometimes, when a lot of us went to a shop with one of the governesses, one would slip out and post a letter. Fraulein was so short-sighted, she never guessed. We used to call her the jolly old Kafer. But Mademoiselle was very sharp. She once caught Alice Bell, so that she had to make an excuse and say she had dropped something. You see, she really had--the letter into the slit.'

'But that was an equivocation.'

'Oh, you darling scrupulous, long-worded child! You aren't like the girls at Miss Dormer's, only she drove us to it, you know. You'll be horribly shocked, but I'll tell you what Louie Preston did. There was a young man in the town whom she had met at a picnic in the holidays--a clerk, he was, at the bank--and he used to put notes to her under the cushions at church; but one unlucky Sunday, Louie had a cold and didn't go, and she told Mabel Blisset to bring it, and Mabel didn't understand the right place, and went poking about, so that Miss Dormer found it out, and there was such a row!'

'Wasn't that rather vulgar?' said Dolores.

'Well, he was only a clerk, but he was a duck of a man, with regular auburn hair, you know. And he sang! We used to go to the Choral Society concerts, and he sang ballads so beautifully, and always looked at Louie!'

'I should not care for anything of that sort,' said Dolores. 'I think it is bad form.'

'So it is,' said Constance, seriously, 'only one can't help recollecting the fun of the thing, and what one was driven to in those days. Is there any one you are anxious to correspond with?'

'Not in particular, only I can't bear to have Aunt Lilias meddling with my letters; and there's a poor uncle of mine that I know would not like her, or any of the Mohuns, to see his letters.

'Indeed! Your poor mamma's brother?' cried Constance, full of curiosity.

'Mind, it is in confidence. You must never tell any one.'

'Never. Oh, you may trust me!' cried Constance.

'Her half-brother,' said Dolores; and the girl proceeded to tell Constance what she had told Maude Sefton about Mr. Flinders, and how her mother had been used to assist him out of her own earnings, and how he had met her at Exeter station, and was so disappointed to have missed her father. Constance listened most eagerly, greatly delighted to have a secret confided to her, and promising to keep it with all her might.

'And now,' said Dolores, 'what shall I do? If poor Uncle Alfred writes to me, Aunt Lilias will have the letter and read it, and the Mohuns are all so stuck up; they will despise him, and very likely she will never let me have the letter.'

'Yes, but, dear, couldn't you write here, with my things, and tell him how it is, and tell him to write under cover to me?'

'Dear Connie! How good you are! Yes, that would be quite delightful!'

All the confidences and all the caresses had, however, taken quite as long as the G.F.S. class, and before Constance had cleared a space on the table for Dolores's letter, there was a summons to say that Gillian was ready to go home.

'So early!' said Constance. 'I thought you would have had tea and stayed to evening service.'

'I should like it so much,' cried Dolores, remembering that it would spare her the black oxen in the cross-path, as well as giving her the time with her friend.

So they went down with the invitation, but Gillian replied that mamma always liked to have all together for the Catechism, and that she could not venture to leave Dolores without special permission.

'Quite right, my dear,' said Miss Hacket. 'Connie would be very sorry to do anything against Lady Merrifield's rules. We shall see you again in a day or two.'

And this is the way in which Constance kept her friend's secret. When Miss Hacket had done her further work with a G.F.S. young woman who needed private instruction to prepare her for baptism, the two sisters sat down to a leisurely tea before starting for evensong; in the first place, Constance detailed all she had discovered as to the connection with Lord Rotherwood, in which subject, it must be confessed, good Miss Hacket took a lively interest, having never so closely encountered a live marquess, 'and so affable,' she contended; upon which Constance declared that they were all stuck-up, and were very unkind and hard to poor darling Dolores.

'I don't know. I cannot fancy dear Lady Merrifield being unkind to any one, especially a dear girl as good as an orphan,' said Miss Hacket, who, if not the cleverest of women, was one of the best and most warm- hearted. 'And, indeed, Connie, I don't think dear Gillian and Mysie feel at all unkindly to their cousin.'

'Ah! that's just like you, Mary. You never see more than the outside, but then I am in dear Dolly's confidence.'

'What do you mean, Connie?' said Miss Hacket, eagerly.

Constance had come home from school with the reputation of being much more accomplished than her elder sister, who had grown up while her father was a curate of very straitened means, and thus, though her junior, she was thought wonderfully superior in discernment and everything else.

'Well,' said Constance, 'what do you think of Lady Merrifield sending her to bed for staying late here that morning?'

'That was strict, certainly; but you know she sent Mysie too. It was all my own thoughtlessness for detaining them,' said the good elder sister. 'I was so grieved!'

'Yes,' said Constance, 'it sounds all very well to say Mysie was treated in the same way, but in the afternoon Mysie was allowed to go and make messes with blackberry jam, while poor Dolly was kept shut up in the schoolroom!'

Constance did not like Lady Merrifield, who had unconsciously snubbed some of her affectations, and nipped in the bud a flirtation with Harry, besides calling off some of the curates to be helpful. But Miss Hacket admired her neighbour as much as her sister would permit, and made answer--

'It is so hard to judge, my dear, without knowing all. Perhaps Mysie had finished her lessons.'

'Ah! I know you always are for Lady Merrifield! But what do you say, then, to her prying into all that poor child's correspondence?'

'My dear, I think most people do think it advisable to have some check on young girl's letters. Perhaps Dolores's father desired it.'

'He never put on any restrictions,' said Constance. 'I am sure he never would. Men don't. It is always women, with their nasty, prying, tyrannous instincts.'

'I am sure,' returned Mary, 'one would not think a child like Dolores Mohun could have anything to conceal.'

'But she has!' cried Constance.

'No, my dear! Impossible!' exclaimed Miss Hacket, looking very much shocked. 'Why, she can't be fourteen!'

'Oh! it is nothing of that sort. Don't think about that, Mary.'

'No, no, I know, Connie dear; you would never listen to any young girl's confidence of that kind--so improper and so vulgar,' said Miss Hacket, and Constance did not think it necessary to reveal her knowledge of the post-office under the cushions at church, and other little affairs of that sort.

'It is her uncle,' said Constance. 'Her mother, it seems, though quite a lady, was the daughter of a professor, a very learned man, very distinguished, and all that, but not a high family enough to please the Mohuns, and they never were friendly with her, or treated her as an equal.'

'That couldn't have been Lady Merrifield,' persevered Miss Hacket. 'She lamented to me herself that she had been out of England for so many years that she had scarcely seen Mrs. Maurice Mohun.'

'Well, there were the Miss Mohuns and all the rest!' said Constance. 'Why, Dolores has only once been at the family place. And her mother had a brother, an author and a journalist, a very clever man, and the Mohuns have always regularly persecuted him. He has been very unfortunate, and Mrs. Maurice Mohun has done her utmost to help him, writing in periodicals and giving the proceeds to him. Wasn't that sweet? And now Dolores feels quite cut off from him; and she is so fond of him, poor darling for her mother's sake.'

Tender-hearted as Miss Hacket was, she had seen enough of life to have some inkling of what being very unfortunate might sometimes mean.

'I should think,' she said, 'that Lady Merrifield would never withhold from the child any letter it was proper she should have, especially from a relation.'

'Yes, but I tell you she did keep back a letter on the festival day till she had looked at it. Poor Dolores saw it come, and she saw a glance pass between her and Miss Mohun, and she is quite sure, she says, her Aunt Jane had been poisoning her mind about this poor persecuted uncle, and that she shall never be allowed to hear from him.'

'I don't suppose there can be much for him to say to her,' said Miss Hacket. Then, after a little reflection, 'Connie, my dear, I really think you had better not interfere. There may be reasons that this poor child knows nothing about for keeping her aloof from this uncle.'

'Oh! but her mother helped him.'

'She was his sister. That was quite another thing. Indeed, Connie,' said Miss Hacket, more earnestly, 'I am quite sure that you will use your influence--and you have a great deal of influence, you know--most kindly by persuading this dear child to be happy with the Merrifields and submit to their arrangements.'

'You are infatuated with Lady Merrifield,' muttered Constance. 'Ah! how little you know!'

Here the first warning note of the bell ended the discussion, and Constance did not think it necessary to tell her sister of the offer she had made to Dolores. In her eyes, Mary, who was the eldest of the family, had always been of the dull, grown-up, authoritative faction of the elders, while she herself was still one of the sweet junior party, full of antagonism to them, and ready to elude them in any way. Besides, she had promised her darling Dolores; and the thing was quite romantic; nor could any one call it blame-worthy, since it was nothing like a lover--not even a young man, but only a persecuted uncle in distress.

So she awaited anxiously the next Sunday when Dolores's letter was to be written in her room. To tell the truth, Dolores could quite as easily have written in her own, and brought down the letter in her pocket, if she had been eager about the matter; but she was not, except under the influence of making a grievance. She had never written to Uncle Alfred in her life, nor he to her; and his visits to her mother had always led to something uncomfortable. Nor would she have thought about the subject at all if it had not been for the sore sense that she was cut off from him, as she fancied, because he belonged to her mother.

Nothing particular had happened that week. There had been no very striking offences one way or the other; she was working better with her lessons and understanding more of Miss Vincent's methods. She perceived that they were thorough, and respected them accordingly, and she had had the great satisfaction of getting more good marks for French and German than Mysie. She had become interested in 'The Old Oak Staircase,' and began to look forward to Aunt Lily's readings as the best part of the day. But she had not drawn in the least nearer to any of the family. She absolutely disliked, almost hated, the quarter of an hour which Aunt Lily devoted to her religious teaching every morning, though nobody was present, not even Primrose. She nearly refused to learn, and said as badly as possible the very small portions she was bidden to learn by heart, and she closed her mind up against taking in the sense of the very short readings and her aunt's comments on them. It seemed to her to be treating her like a Sunday-school child, and insulting her mother, who had never troubled her in this manner. Her aunt said no word of reproach, except to insist on attention and accuracy of repetition; but there came to be an unusual gravity and gentleness about her in these lessons, as if she were keeping a guard over herself, and often a greatly disappointed look, which exasperated Dolores much more than a scolding.

Mysie had left off courting her cousin, finding that it only brought her rebuffs, and went her own way as before, pleased and honoured when Gillian would consort with her, but generally paring with her younger sister.

Dolores, though hitherto ungracious, missed her attentions, and decided that they were 'all falseness.' Wilfred absolutely did tease and annoy her whenever he could, Fergus imitated him, and Valetta enjoyed and abetted him. These three had all been against her ever since the affair of the arrow; but Wilfred had not many opportunities of tormenting her, for in the house there was a perpetual quiet supervision and influence. Mrs. Halfpenny was sure to detect traps in the passage, or bounces at the door. Miss Vincent looked daggers if other people's lesson books were interfered with. Mamma had eyes all round, and nobody dared to tease or play tricks in her presence. Hal, Gillian, and even Mysie always thwarted such amiable acts as putting a dead wasp into a shoe, or snapping a book in the reader's face; while, as to venturing into the general family active games, Dolores would have felt it like rushing into a corobboree of savages!

There was one wet afternoon when they could not even get as far as to the loft over the stables; at least the little ones could not have done so, and it was decided that it would be very cruel to them for all the others to run off, and leave them to Mrs. Halfpenny; so the plan was given up.

Partly because Lady Merrifield thought it very amiable in Mysie and Valetta to make the sacrifice, and partly to disperse the thundercloud she saw gathering on Wilfred's brow, she not only consented to a magnificent and extraordinary game at wolves and bears all over the house, but even devoted herself to keeping Mrs. Halfpenny quiet by shutting herself into the nursery to look over all the wardrobes, and decide what was to 'go down' in the family, and what was to be given away, and what must be absolutely renewed. It was an operation that Mrs. Halfpenny enjoyed so much, that it warranted her to be deaf to shrieks and trampling, and almost to forget the chances of gathers and kilting being torn out, and trap-doors appearing in skirts and pinafores.

All that time Dolores sat hunched up in her own room, reading 'Clare, or No Home,' and realizing the persecutions suffered by that afflicted child, who had just been nearly drowned in rescuing her wickedest cousin, and was being carried into her noble grandfather's house, there to be recognized by her golden hair being exactly the colour it was when she was a baby.

There were horrible growlings at times outside her door, and she bolted it by way of precaution. Once there was a bounce against it, but Gillian's voice might be heard in the distance calling off the wolves.

Then came a lull. The wolves and bears had rushed up and down stairs till they were quite exhausted and out of breath, especially as Primrose had always been a cub, and gone in the arms of Hal or Gillian; Fergus at last had rolled down three steps, and been caught by Wilfred, who, in his character of bear, hugged and mauled him till his screams grew violent. Harry had come to the rescue, and it was decided that there had been enough of this, and that there should be a grand exhibition of tableaux from the history of England in the dining-room, which of course mamma was to guess, with the assistance of any one who was not required to act.

Mama, ever obliging, hastily condemned two or three sunburnt hats and ancient pairs of shoes, to be added to the bundle for Miss Hacket's distribution, and let herself be hauled off to act audience.

'But where's Dolly?' she asked, as she looked at the assemblage on the stairs.

'Bolted into her room, like a donkey,' said Wilfred, the last clause under his breath.

'Indeed, mamma, we did ask her, and gave her the choice between wolves and bears,' said Mysie.

'Unfortunately she is bear without choosing,' said Gill.

'A sucking of her paws in a hollow tree,' chimed in Hal.

'Hush! hush!' said Lady Merrifield, looking pained; 'perhaps the choice seemed very terrible to a poor only child like that. We, who had the luck to be one of many, don't know what wild cats you may all seem to her.'

'She never will play at anything,' said Val.

'She doesn't know how to,' said Mysie.

'And won't be taught,' added Wilfred.

'But that's very dreadful,' exclaimed Lady Merrifield. 'Fancy a poor child of thirteen not knowing how to play. I shall go and dig her out!'

So there came a gentle tap at the closed door, to which Dolores answered--

'Can't you let me alone? Go away,' thinking it a treacherous ruse of the enemy to effect an entrance; but when her aunt said--

'Is there anything the matter, my dear? Won't you let me in?' she was obliged to open it.

'No, there's nothing the matter,' she allowed. 'Only I wanted them to let me alone.'

'They have not been rude to you, I hope.'

Dolores was too much afraid of Wilfred to mention the bouncing, so she allowed that no one had been rude to her, but she hated romping, which she managed to say in the tone of a rebuke to her aunt for suffering it.

However, Aunt Lily only smiled and said--

'Ah! you have not been used to wholesome exercise in large families. I dare say it seems formidable; but, my dear, you are looking quite pale. I can't allow you to stay stuffed up there, poking over a book all the afternoon. It is very bad for you. We are going to have some historical tableaux. They are to have one set, and I thought perhaps you and I would get up some for them to guess in turn.'

Dolores was not in a mood to be pleased, but she did not quite dare to say she did not choose to make herself ridiculous, and she knew there was authority in the tone, so she followed and endured.

So they beheld Alfred watching the cakes before the bright grate in the dining-room, and having his ears beautifully boxed. Also Knut and the waves, which were graphically represented by letting the wind in under the drugget, and pulling it up gradually over his feet, but these, Mysie explained, were only for the little ones. Rollo and his substitute doing homage to Charles the Simple, were much more effective; as Gillian in that old military cloak of her father's, which had seen as much service in the play-room as in the field, stood and scowled at Wilfred in the crown and mamma's ermine mantle, being overthrown by Harry at his full height.

The excitement was immense when it was announced that mamma had a tableau to represent with the help of Dolores, who was really warming a little to the interest of the thing, and did not at all dislike being dressed up with one of the boy's caps with three ostrich feathers, to accompany her aunt in hood and cloak, and be challenged by Hal, who had, together with the bow and papa's old regimental sword, been borrowed to personate the robber of Hexham. Everybody screamed with ecstasy except Fergus, who thought it very hard that he should not have been Prince Edward instead of a stupid girl.

So, to content all parties, mama undertook to bring in as many as possible, and a series from the life of Elizabeth Woodville was accordingly arranged.

She stood under the oak, represented by the hall chandelier, with Fergus and Primrose as her infant sons, and fascinated King Edward on the rocking-horse, which was much too vivant, for it reared as perpendicularly as it could, and then nearly descended on its nose, to mark the rider's feelings.

Then, with her hair let down, which was stipulated for, though, as she observed, nothing would make it the right colour, she sat desolate on the hearth, surrounded by as many daughters as could be spared from being spectators, as her youngest son was born off from her maternal arms by a being as like a cardinal as a Galway cloak, disposed tippet fashion, could make him.

She could not be spared to put up her hair again before she had to forget her maternal feelings and be mere audience, while her two sons were smothered by Mysie and Dolores, converted into murderers one and two by slouched hats. Fergus, a little afraid of being actually suffocated, began to struggle, setting off Wilfred, and the adventure was having a conclusion, which would have accounted for the authentic existence of Perkin Warbeck, when--oh horror! there was a peal at the door-bell, and before there was a moment for the general scurry, Herbert the button-boy popped out of the pantry passage and admitted Mr. Leadbitter, to whom, as a late sixth standard boy, he had a special allegiance, and, having spied him coming, hurried to let him in out of the rain instantly.

At least, such was the charitable interpretation. Harry strongly suspected that the imp had been a concealed spectator all the time, and had particularly relished the mischief of the discomfiture, which, after all, was much greater on the part of the Vicar than any one else, as he was a rather stiff, old-fashioned gentleman. Lady Merrifield only laughed, said she had been beguiled into wet day sports with the children, begged him to excuse her for a moment or two, and tripped away, followed by Gillian to help her, quickly reappearing in her lace cap as the graceful matron, even before Mr. Leadbitter had quite done blushing and quoting to Harry 'desipere in loco,' as he was assisted off with his dripping, shiny waterproof.

After all no harm would have been done if--Harry and Gillian being both off guard--Valetta had not exclaimed most unreasonably in her disappointment--

'I knew the fun would be spoilt the instant Dolores came in for it.'

'Yes, Mr. Murderer, you squashed my little finger and all but smothered me,' cried Fergus, throwing himself on Dolores and dropping her down.

'Don't! don't! you know you mustn't,' screamed valiant Mysie, flying to the rescue.

'Murderers! Murderers must be done for,' shouted Wilfred, falling upon Mysie.

'You shan't hurt my Mysie,' bellowed Valetta, hurling herself upon Wilfred.

And there they were all in a heap, when Gillian, summoned by the shrieks, came down from helping her mother, pulled Valetta off Wilfred, Wilfred off Mysie, Mysie off Fergus, and Fergus off Dolores, who was discovered at the bottom with an angry, frightened face, and all her hair standing on end.

'Are you hurt, Dolores? I am very sorry,' said Gillian. 'It was very naughty. Go up to the nursery, Fergus and Val, and be made fit to be seen.'

They obeyed, crestfallen. Dolores felt herself all over. It would have been gratifying to have had some injury to complain of, but she had fallen on the prince's cushions, and there really was none. So she only said, 'No, I'm not hurt, though it is a wonder;' and off she walked to bolt herself into her own room again, there to brood on Valetta's speech.

It worked up into a very telling and pathetic history for Constance's sympathizing ears on Sunday, especially as it turned out to be one of the things not reported to mamma.

And on that day, Dolores, being reminded of it by her friend, sent a letter to Mr. Flinders to the office of the paper for which he worked in London, to tell him that if he wished to write to her as he had promised he must address under cover to Miss Constance Hacket, Casement Cottage, as otherwise Aunt Lilias would certainly read all his letters.