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- The Long Vacation - 2/58 -
"Daffodils! Oh!-—and anemones! How delicious! I must take Clement a bunch of those dear white violets. I know where they came from," and she held them to her lips. "Some primroses too, I hope."
"A few; but the main body, tied up in tight bunches like cauliflowers, I dropped at Kensington Palace Gardens."
"A yellow primrose is much more than a yellow primrose at present," said Mrs. Grinstead, picking out the few spared from political purposes. "Clement will want his button-hole, to greet Lance."
"So he is advanced to button-holes! And Lance?"
"He is coming up for the Press dinner, and will sleep here, to be ready for Primrose-day."
"That's prime, whatever brings him."
"There, children, go and _do_ the flowers, and drink tea. I am going to read to your uncle to keep him fresh for Lance."
"How bright she looks," said Gerald, as Anna began collecting vases from the tables in a drawing-room not professionally artistic, but entirely domestic, and full of grace and charm of taste, looking over a suburban garden fresh with budding spring to a church spire.
"The thought of Uncle Lance has cheered them both very much."
"So the Vicar is really recovering?"
"Since Cousin Marilda flew at the curates, and told them that if they came near him with their worries, they should never see a farthing of hers! And they are all well at home? Is anything going on?"
"Chiefly defence of the copses from primrose marauders. You know the great agitation. They want to set up a china clay factory on Penbeacon, and turn the Ewe, not to say the Leston, into milk and water."
"The wretches! But they can't. It is yours."
"Not the western quarry; but they cannot get the stream without a piece of the land which belongs to Hodnet's farm, for which they make astounding bids; but, any way, nothing can be done till I am of age, when the lease to Hodnet is out, except by Act of Parliament, which is hardly worth while, considering—-"
"That you are near twenty. But surely you won't consent?"
"Well, I don't want to break all your hearts, Cherie's especially, but why should all that space be nothing but a playground for us Underwoods, instead of making work for the million?"
"And a horrid, nasty million it would be," retorted Anna. "You born Yankee! Don't worry Aunt Cherry about profaning the Ewe, just to spoil good calico with nasty yellow dust."
"I don't want to worry her, but there never were such groovy people as you are! I shall think it over, and make up my mind by the time I have the power."
"I wish you had to wait till five-and-twenty, so as to get more time and sense."
Gerald laughed, and sauntered away. He was not Yankee, except that he had been born at Boston. His father was English, his mother a Hungarian singer, who had divorced and deserted his father, the ne'er-do-weel second son of an old family. When Gerald was five years old his father was killed, and he himself severely injured, in a raid of the Indians far west, and he was brought home by an old friend of the family. His eldest uncle's death made him heir to the estate, but his life was a very frail one till his thirteenth year, when he seemed to have outgrown the shock to spine and nerves.
Much had befallen the house of Underwood since the days when we took leave of them, still sorrowing under the loss of the main pillar of their house, but sending forth the new founders with good hope.
Geraldine had made her home at St. Matthew's with her brother Clement and the little delicate orphan Gerald; but after three years she had yielded to the persevering constancy of Mr. Grinstead, a sculptor of considerable genius and repute, much older than herself, who was ready and willing to be a kind uncle to her little charge, and who introduced her to all at home or abroad that was refined, intellectual, or beautiful.
It was in the first summer after their marriage that he was charmed with the vivacity and musical talent of her young sister Angela, now upon the world again. Angela had grown up as the pet and plaything of the Sisters of St. Faith's at Dearport, which she regarded as another home, and when crushed by grief at her eldest brother's death had hurried thither for solace. Her family thought her safe there, not realizing how far life is from having its final crisis over at one-and-twenty. New Sisters came in, old ones went to found fresh branches; stricter rules grew, up, and were enforced by a Superior out of sympathy with the girl, who had always rebelled against what she thought dictation. It was decided that she could stay there no longer, and her brother Lancelot and his wife received her at Marshlands with indignant sympathy for her wrongs; but neither she nor her sister-in-law were made to suit one another. With liberty her spirit and audacity revived, and she showed so much attraction towards the Salvation Army, that her brother declared their music to have been the chief deterrent from her becoming a "Hallelujah lass." However, in a brief visit to London, she so much pleased Mr. Grinstead that he invited her to partake in the winter's journey to Italy. Poor man, he little knew what he undertook. Music, art, Roman Catholic services, and novelty conspired to intoxicate her, and her sister was thankful to carry her off northward before she had pledged herself to enter a convent.
Mountain air and scenery, however, proved equally dangerous. Her enterprises inspired the two quiet people with constant fears for her neck; but it was worse when they fell in with a party of very Bohemian artists, whom Mr. Grinstead knew just well enough not to be able to shake them off. The climax came when she started off with them in costume at daybreak on an expedition to play the zither and sing at a village fete. She came back safe and sound, but Geraldine was already packed up to take her to Munich, where Charles Audley and Stella now were, and to leave her under their charge before she had driven Mr. Grinstead distracted.
There was a worse trouble at home. Since the death of his good old mother and of Felix Underwood, Sir Adrian Vanderkist had been rapidly going downhill; as though he had thrown off all restraint, and as if the yearly birth of a daughter left him the more free to waste his patrimony. Little or nothing had been heard direct from poor Alda till Clement was summoned by a telegram from Ironbeam Park to find his sister in the utmost danger, with a new-born son by her side, and her husband in the paroxysms of the terrible Nemesis of indulgence in alcohol.
Sir Adrian had quarrelled with all the family in turn except Clement, and this fact, or else that gentleness towards a sufferer that had won on old Fulbert Underwood, led him in a lucid interval to direct and sign a hurried will, drawn up by his steward, leaving the Reverend Edward Clement Underwood sole guardian to his children, and executor, together with his lawyer. It was done without Clement's knowledge, or he would have remonstrated, for never was there a more trying bequest than the charge which in a few days he found laid on him.
He had of course already made acquaintance with the little girls. Poor children, they had hitherto led a life as dreary as was possible to children who had each other, and fresh air and open grounds. Their mother was more and more of an invalid, and dreaded that their father should take umbrage at the least expense that they caused; so that they were scrupulously kept out of his way, fed, dressed, and even educated as plainly as possible by a governess, cheap because she was passe, and made up for her deficiencies by strictness amounting to harshness, while they learnt to regard each new little sister's sex as a proof of naughtiness on her part or theirs.
The first time they ever heard a man's step in the school-room passage was in those days of undefined sorrow, alarm, and silence after the governess had despatched the message to the only relation whose address she knew. The step came nearer; there was a knock, the sweet, strong voice asked,
"Are the poor little girls here?" and the tall figure was on one knee among them, gathering as many as he could within his loving arms. Perhaps he recollected Sister Constance among the forlorn flock at Bexley; but these were even more desolate, for they had no past of love and loyalty. But with that embrace it seemed to the four elders that their worst days were over. What mattered it to them that they- —all eight of them-—were almost destitute? the birth of the poor little male heir preventing the sale of the property, so terribly encumbered; and the only available maintenance being the £5000 that Mr. Thomas Underwood had settled securely upon their mother.
They began to know what love and kindness meant. Kind uncles and aunts gathered round them. Their mother seemed to be able to live when her twin-sister hung over her, and as soon as she could be moved, the whole party left the gloom of Ironbeam for Vale Leston, where a house was arranged for them. Lady Vanderkist continued a chronic invalid, watched over by her sister Wilmet and her excellent young daughter Mary. Robina, who had only one girl, and had not forgotten her training as a teacher, undertook, with the assistance of Sophia, the second daughter, the education of the little ones; and the third and fourth, Emilia and Anna, were adopted into the childless homes of Mrs. Travis Underwood and Mrs. Grinstead, and lived there as daughters. Business cares of the most perplexing kind fell, however, on Clement Underwood's devoted and unaccustomed head, and in the midst arrived a telegram from Charles Audley, summoning him instantly to Munich.
Angela was in danger of fulfilling her childish design of marrying a Duke, or at least a Graf. Diplomates could not choose their society, and she had utterly disdained all restraints from "the babies," as she chose to call Mr. and Mrs. Audley, and thus the wunderschones madchen had fascinated the Count, an unbelieving Roman Catholic of evil repute, and had derided their remonstrances.
Clement hurried off, but to find the bird flown. She had come down in the morning, white and tear-stained, and had told Stella that she could stay no longer, kissed her, and was gone out of the house before even Charles could be called. Stella's anxiety, almost despair, had however been relieved just before her brother's arrival by an electric message from Vale Leston with the words, "Angela safe at home."
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