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- Modern Broods - 4/47 -
"With centric and concentric scribbled o'er Cycle and epicycle orb in orb."
"Epicycle?" cried Vera. "I saw it advertised in the Queen. A splendid one."
"Ah! Magdalen, you will think I have not taught them their Milton," said Mrs. Best, as both elders burst out laughing; and Agatha said, in an undertone, "Don't make yourself such a goose, Vera."
"I should think it rather rough sailing for bikes," said Paulina.
"I should have thought so, myself," returned Magdalen; "but the Clipstone girls do not seem to think so. I see them sailing merrily into Rockstone."
"You have neighbours, then?" said Vera.
"Certainly. Rockstone supplies a good deal. Here are various cards of people whose visits are yet to be returned. Clipstone is further off; but the daughters will be nice friends for you. I met one of them before, when she was staying at Lord Rotherwood's. But I am afraid your boxes are hardly come yet. Still, you will like to take off your things before dinner, even if you cannot unpack."
She led the way, and disposed of each girl in her new quarters, explaining to Agatha that her's and her little lodger were only temporary; but it struck upon her rather painfully that the only word of approbation or comfort came from Mrs. Best, and there were no notes at all of admiration of the scenery.
"Well," she said to herself, "much is not to be expected from people who have been tired and shaken up in a station cab over newly-mended roads! Were they as bad when I came? But then I could look out, and did not hear poor Sophy's groans all the way. I rather wish she had not come with them, though I am glad to see her again for this last time."
Meantime the four girls had congregated in the room appropriated to Vera and Paulina. "Here are the necessaries of life," said Agatha, handing out a brush and comb. "That slow wain may roll its course in utter darkness before it comes here."
"To the other end of nowhere," said Vera.
"And I am so tired," whined Thekla. "These tight boots do hurt me so! I want to go to bed."
Paulina was already on her knees, removing the boots and accommodating a pair of slippers to the little feet.
"We might as well be in a desert island," continued Vera, "shut up from everything with an old frump."
"Take care," said Agatha, in warning, signing towards Thekla.
"I am sure she looks jolly and good-natured," said Paulina.
"But did you hear what Elsie Lee always calls her, 'our maiden aunt'?"
All three laughed, and Vera added, "All the girls say she can't be less than fifty."
"Topsy! You know she is only sixteen years older than I am."
"Well, that's half a hundred!"
"Sixteen and nineteen, what do they make?"
"Oh, never mind your sums. She has got the face and look of half a hundred!"
"Now, I thought her face and her dress like a girl's," said Paulina.
"Yes," said Vera, "that's just the way with old maids. They dress themselves up youthfully and affect girlish airs, and are all the more horrid."
"That's your experience!" said Agatha. "But there's the waggon creeping up at a snail's pace. "Let us run down and see after our things."
CHAPTER III--THE FIRST SUNDAY
"Speed on, speed on, the footpath way, And merrily hunt the stile-a; A merry heart goes all the way, A sad tires in a mile-a." - SHAKESPEARE.
Sunday morning rose with new and bright hopes. The girls looked out at their window, and saw that it was a beautiful morning, and that the spring sunshine glowed upon the purple summits of the hills. Agatha supposed there would be a pleasant walk to church; Paulina said she had heard good accounts of the services in that part of the country; Vera hoped that they would see what their neighbours were like, and Thekla was delighted with the jolly garden and places to scramble in.
On this first Sunday they were let alone to explore the garden before the walk to church, which Magdalen foresaw would be a long affair with Mrs. Best. After their decorous stillness at breakfast, it was a contrast to hear the merry voices and laughter outside, but it subsided as soon as she approached, though she did not hear the murmured ripple, "Here comes maiden aunt! Behold--Quite a spicy hat!"
In truth, Magdalen's hat was a pretty new one, not by any means unsuitable to her age and appearance, and altogether her air was more stylish than the country town breeding was accustomed to; her dress perfectly plain, but well made.
Vera was perhaps the most sensible of the perfection of the turn-out; Agatha chiefly felt that her more decorated skirt and mantle had their inconveniences in walking through the red mud of the lanes, impeded by books and umbrella, which left no leisure to admire the primroses that studded the deep banks and which delighted Thekla in the freedom of short skirts.
Magdalen herself had enough to do in steering along such a substantial craft as poor Mrs. Best, used to church-going along a street, and shrouded under a squirrel mantle of many pounds weight.
Barely in time was the convoy when at last the exhausted lady was helped over the stone stile that led to the churchyard. Highly picturesque was the grey structure outside, but within modernism had not done much; the chancel was feebly fitted after the ideas of the "fifties," but the faded woodwork of the nave was intact, and Magdalen still had to sit in the grim pew of her predecessors.
The girls' looks at each other might have suited the entrance to a condemned cell, and the pulpit towered above them with a faded green cushion, that seemed in danger of tumbling down over their heads.
The service was a plain one, but reverent and careful; the music had a considerable element of harmonium mixed with schoolchild voices, and the sermon from an elderly man was a good one; but when the move to go out was made, and the young ones were beyond ear-shot of their elders, the exclamations were, "Well, I never thought to have gone back to Georgian era."
"Exactly the element of our maiden aunt."
"And nobody to be seen."
"Naggie, why do they shut one up in boxes?"
"Just to daunt Flapsy's roving eye, Tickle, my dear."
"Don't, Polly. There was nobody to be seen if we hadn't been in a box. Of course no one comes there but stately old farmers and their smart daughters. I saw one with a Gainsborough hat, and a bunch of cock's feathers, with a scarlet cactus cocking it up behind."
"Flapsy made use of her opportunities, you see. Being 'emparocked in a pew' cannot daunt her spirit of research."
"Now, Nag, I only meant to show you what impossible people they are."
"Natives who will repay the study perhaps," continued Agatha, reading as though from a book of travels. "We were able to observe a group of the aborigines at their devotions. Conspicuous was a not ungraceful young female, whose head, ornamented with a plume of feathers, towered above the enclosure in which she was secluded, while an aged fakir, hakem or medicine man pronounced from a loftier structure resembling a sentry box."
"Children, children, that's the wrong way," came Magdalen's voice from behind. "You must turn into that lane. Wait a moment."
They waited till Mrs. Best's lagging steps allowed Magdalen to come up with them, but dead silence fell on them when Mrs. Best observed, "You were very merry." They could not speak of the cause. Perhaps Magdalen divined something, for she said, "We hope to make some improvements, and so indeed does Mr. Earl, but he is very poor. Besides, newcomers must work slowly."
The doubt whether she had heard Agatha's speech made the girls conscious enough to keep from responding, as she meant them to do, by cheerful criticisms, and indeed the task of cheering and dragging on Mrs. Best was quite enough to occupy her. There was only three years difference in their ages, but this seemed to have made a great interval between one whose metier had been to be youthful and active, and her who had to be staid and dignified.
The early dinner passed in all demureness and formality, and the poor visitor was too much tired for any more services to be thought of for her. Magdalen explained that when the days would be longer, she thought of walking to Rockstone for evensong, but now the best way was to go to the chapel at Clipstone, which was nearer than either of the others.
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