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- Nuttie's Father - 10/69 -
shoulders in a knowing knapsack fashion.
The two young people had known one another all their lives, for Gerard was the son of a medical man who had lived next door to Miss Headworth when the children were young. The father was dead, and the family had left the place, but this son had remained at school, and afterwards had been put into the office at the umbrella factory under charge of Mr. Dutton, whose godson he was, and who treated him as a nephew. He was a good-hearted, steady young fellow, with his whole interest in ecclesiastical details, wearing a tie in accordance with 'the colours,' and absorbed in church music and decorations, while his recreations were almost all in accordance therewith.
There was plenty of merriment, as he drew and measured at the very scanty ruins, which were little more than a few fragments of wall, overgrown luxuriantly with ivy and clematis, but enclosing some fine old coffin-lids with floriated crosses, interesting to those who cared for architecture and church history, as Mr. Dutton tried to make the children do, so that their ecclesiastical feelings might be less narrow, and stand on a surer foundation than present interest, a slightly aggressive feeling of contempt for all the other town churches, and a pleasing sense of being persecuted.
They fought over the floriations and mouldings with great zest, and each maintained a date with youthful vigour--both being, as Mr. Dutton by and by showed them, long before the foundation. The pond had been left to the last with a view to the wellbeing of the water- soldier on the return. Here the difficulties of the capture were great, for the nearest plant flourished too far from the bank to be reached with comfort, and besides, the sharp-pointed leaves to which it owes its name were not to be approached with casual grasps.
'Oh Monsieur, I wish you were a Beau,' sighed Nuttie. 'Why, are you too stupid to go and get it?'
'It is a proof of his superior intelligence,' said Mr. Dutton.
'But really it is too ridiculous--too provoking--to have come all this way and not get it,' cried the tantalised Nuttie. 'Oh, Gerard, are you taking off your boots and stockings? You duck!'
'Just what I wish I was,' said the youth, rolling up his trousers.
But even the paddling in did not answer. Mr. Dutton called out anxiously, 'Take care, Gerard, the bottom may be soft,' and came down to the very verge just in time to hold out his hand, and prevent an utterly disastrous fall, for Gerard, in spite of his bare feet, sank at once into mud, and on the first attempt to take a step forward, found his foot slipping away from under him, and would in another instant have tumbled backwards into the slush and weeds. He scrambled back, his hat falling off into the reeds, and splashing Mr. Dutton all over, while Monsieur began to bark 'with astonishment at seeing his master in such a plight,' declared the ladies, who stood convulsed with cruel laughter.
'Isn't it dreadful?' exclaimed Ursula.
'Well! It might have been worse,' gravely said Mr. Dutton, wiping off the more obnoxious of his splashes with his pocket handkerchief.
'Oh I didn't mean you, but the water-soldier,' said Nuttie. 'To have come five miles for it in vain!'
'I don't know what to suggest,' added Gerard. 'Even if the ladies were to retire--'
'No, no,' interposed Mr. Dutton, ''tis no swimming ground, and I forbid the expedient. You would only be entangled in the weeds.'
'Behold!' exclaimed Mary, who had been prowling about the banks, and now held up in triumph one of the poles with a bill-hook at the end used for cutting weed.
'Bravo, Miss Nugent!' cried Gerard.
'Female wit has circumvented the water-soldier,' said Mr. Dutton.
'Don't cry out too soon,' returned Mary; 'the soldier may float off and escape you yet.'
However, the capture was safely accomplished, without even a dip under water to destroy the beauty of the white flowers. With these, and a few waterlilies secured by Gerard for the morrow's altar vases, the party set out on their homeward walk, through plantations of whispering firs, the low sun tingeing the trunks with ruddy light; across heathery commons, where crimson heath abounded, and the delicate blush-coloured wax-belled species was a prize; by cornfields in ear hanging out their dainty stamens; along hedges full of exquisite plumes of feathering or nodding grass, of which Nuttie made bouquets and botanical studies, and Gerard stored for harvest decorations. They ran and danced on together with Monsieur at their heels, while the elders watched them with some sadness and anxiety. Free-masonry had soon made both Mary and Mr. Dutton aware of each other's initiation, and they had discussed the matter in all its bearings, agreed that the man was a scoundrel, and the woman an angel, even if she had once been weak, and that she ought to be very resolute with him if he came to terms. And then they looked after their young companions, and Mr. Dutton said, 'Poor children, what is before them?'
'It is well they are both so young,' answered Mary.
CHAPTER VII. THAT MAN.
'It is the last time--'tis the last!'--SCOTT.
Sundays were the ever-recurring centres of work and interests to the little circle in St. Ambrose's Road. To them the church services and the various classes and schools were the great objects and excitements of the week. A certain measure of hopeful effort and varying success is what gives zest to life, and the purer and higher the aim, and the more unmixed the motives, the greater the happiness achieved by the 'something attempted, something done.'
Setting apart actual spiritual devotion, the altar vases, purchased by a contribution of careful savings, and adorned with the Monks Horton lilies, backed by ferns from the same quarter; the surplices made by the ladies themselves, the chants they had practised, the hymns they had taught, could not but be much more interesting to them than if they had been mere lookers on. Every cross on the markers, every flower on the altar cloth was the work of one or other of them; everything in the church was an achievement, and choir boys, school children, Bible classes, every member of the regular congregation, had some special interest; nay, every irregular member or visitor might be a convert in time--if not a present sympathiser, and at the very least might swell the offertory that was destined to so many needs of the struggling district.
Thus it was with some curiosity mingled with self-reproach that Nuttie, while singing her Benedictus among the tuneful shop-girls, to whom she was bound to set an example, became aware of yesterday's first-class traveller lounging, as far as the rows of chairs would permit, in the aisle, and, as she thought, staring hard at her mother. It was well that Mrs. Egremont's invariable custom was never to lift her eyes from her book or her harmonium, or she surely must have been disconcerted, her daughter thought, by the eyes that must have found her out, under her little black net bonnet and veil, as the most beautiful woman in church,--as she certainly was,--even that fine good-for-nothing gentleman thinking so. Nuttie would add his glances to the glories of her lovely mother!
And she did so, with triumph in her tone of reprobation, as she trotted off, after the early dinner, to her share of Sunday-school work as usual under Miss Nugent's wing. It began with a children's service, and then ensued, in rooms at the factory, lent by Mr. Dutton, the teaching that was to supply the omissions of the Board School; the establishment of a voluntary one being the next ambition of St. Ambrose's.
Coming home from their labours, in the fervent discussion of their scholars, and exchanging remarks and greetings with the other teachers of various calibres, the friends reached their own road, and there, to their amazement, beheld Miss Headworth.
'Yes, it really is!' cried Nuttie. 'We can't be too late? No-- there's no bell! Aunt Ursel! What has brought you out? What's the matter? Where's mother?'
'In the house. My dear,' catching hold of her, and speaking breathlessly, 'I came out to prepare you. He is come--your father--'
'Where?' cried Nuttie, rather wildly.
'He is in the drawing-room with your mother. I said I would send you.' Poor Miss Headworth gasped with agitation. 'Oh! where's Mr. Dutton--not that anything can be done--'
'Is it _that man_?' asked Nuttie, and getting no answer, 'I know it is! Oh Aunt Ursel, how could you leave her with him? I must go and protect her. Gerard--come. No, go and fetch Mr. Dutton.'
'Hush! hush, Nuttie,' cried her aunt, grasping her. 'You know nothing about it. Wait here till I can tell you.'
'Come in here, dear Miss Headworth,' said Mary, gently drawing her arm into hers, for the poor old lady could hardly stand for trembling, and bidding Gerard open the door of her own house with the latch-key.
She took them into the dining-room, so as not to disturb her mother, sent Gerard off after Mr. Dutton in the very uttermost astonishment and bewilderment, and set Miss Headworth down in an easy-chair, where she recovered herself, under Mary's soothing care, enough to tell her story in spite of Nuttie's exclamations. 'Wait! wait, Nuttie! You mustn't burst in on them so! No, you need not be afraid. Don't be a silly child! He won't hurt her! Oh no! They are quite delighted to meet.'
'Delighted to meet?' said Nuttie, as if transfixed.
'Yes,' said her aunt. 'Oh yes, I always knew the poor child cared
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