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- The Pillars of the House, V1 - 10/124 -
that Mr. Audley had adopted some habit my Lady disapproved, or that the schoolmaster was misbehaving, or that some Christmas dole was to be curtailed, and that he would have to announce it because Mr. Bevan would not. He was not prepared to hear, 'Are you aware that--in short--perhaps you can explain it, but has not your son Felix been spending a good deal of money--for him, I mean--lately?'
'Felix had a present from his godfather,' said Mr. Underwood, not at all moved, so secure was he that this must be an exaggeration.
'Last summer, I heard of that. It was laid out on a picnic,' said Lady Price, severely.
'It was intended to be so spent,' said the curate; 'but people were so good-natured, that very little actually went that way, and the remainder was left in his own hands.'
'Yes, Mr. Underwood, but I am afraid that remainder has been made to cover a good deal of which you do not know!'
Mrs. Underwood flushed, and would have started forward. Her husband looked at her with a reassuring smile. My Lady, evidently angered at their blindness, went on, 'It is a painful duty, Mr. Underwood, especially in your present state; but I think it due to you, as the father of a family, to state what I have learned.'
'Thank you. What is it?'
'Have you reckoned the number of times the chair has been hired?' and as he shook his head, 'That alone would amount to more than a pound. Besides which, your daughters have been provided with books and music--fruit has been bought--all amiable ways of spending money, no doubt; but the question is, how was it procured?'
'Indeed,' said Mr. Underwood, still pausing.
'And,' added the lady, 'the means can, I am afraid, be hardly doubted, though possibly the boy may have done it in ignorance. Indeed, one of his sisters allowed as much.'
'What did she allow, Lady Price?'
'That--that it was won at play, Mr. Underwood. You know Mr. Froggatt gives his boy an absurd amount of pocket-money, and when she was taxed with this, your daughter--Alda is her name, I believe--allowed that--'
'Papa, Papa!' breathlessly broke out Cherry, who had been forgotten on her little sofa all this time, but now dashed forward, stumping impetuously with her crutch--'Papa, it's all Alda, how can she be so horrid?'
'What is it, my dear?' said Mr. Underwood. 'You can explain it, I see. Tell Lady Price what you mean, Geraldine,' he added gravely, to compose the child, who was sobbing with excitement and indignation.
'O Lady Price!' she cried, facing about with her hair over her face, 'he earned it--he earned every bit of it! How could any one think he did not?'
'Earned it? What does that mean, little girl!' said Lady Price, still severely. 'If he did the boy's exercises for him--
'No, no, no,' interrupted Geraldine, 'it was old Mr. Froggatt. He asked Felix to look over the papers he had to print for the boys' work at the Grammar School, because it is all Latin and Greek, and Charles Froggatt is so careless and inaccurate, that he can't be trusted.'
The faces of the father and mother had entirely cleared; but Lady Price coughed drily, saying, 'And you did not know of this arrangement?'
Geraldine's eyes began to twinkle with tears. 'I don't know what Felix will say to me for telling now,' she said.
'It must have come to light some time, though concealment is always a proof of shame,' began Lady Price in a consoling tone that filled the little lame girl with a fresh passion, drawing up her head.
'Shame! Nobody's ashamed! Only Mamma and Felix and Wilmet never will bear that Papa should know how terribly we do want things sometimes.'
And Geraldine, overpowered by her own unguarded words, ran into her mother's arms, and hid her face on her shoulder.
'Thank you, Lady Price,' said Mr. Underwood gravely. 'I am glad my little girl has been able to satisfy you that Felix has honestly earned whatever he may have spent.'
'If you are satisfied,' returned the lady, 'it is not my affair; but I must say I should like to know of such transactions among my children.'
'Sometimes one is glad to have a boy to be perfectly trusted,' said Mr. Underwood.
'But you will speak to him!'
'Certainly I shall.'
Lady Price felt that she must go, and rose up with an endeavour to retract. 'Well, it is a relief to Mr. Bevan and me to find your son not consciously in fault, for it would have been a most serious thing. And in such a matter as this, of course you can do as _you_ please.'
To this Mr. Underwood made no reply, as none was necessary, but only saw her out to the door in that extremely polite manner that always made her feel smallest, and then he dropped into his chair again, with a curl of the lip, and the murmur, 'not consciously!'
'O Papa, Papa!' cried Cherry.
'Dear Felix!' said the mother, with tears in her eyes; 'but what can Alda have been saying?'
Cherry was about to speak again, but her father gently put her aside. A little quietness now, if you please, my dear; and send Felix to me when he comes in. Let me have him alone, but don't say anything to him.'
There was no need to send Felix to his father, for he came in of his own accord, radiant, with a paper containing a report of a public meeting on Church matters that his father had been wishing to see.
'Thanks, my boy,' said Mr. Underwood; 'where does this come from?'
'From Froggatt's father. It was only fourpence.'
'But, Felix, repeated fourpences must exhaust even that Fortunatus' purse of Admiral Chester's.'
Felix coloured. 'Yes, Papa, I wanted to tell you; but I waited till you were better.'
'You will hardly find a better time than the present,' said Mr Underwood.
'It is only this,' said Felix, with a little hesitation. 'You know there's a good deal of printing to be done for the school sometimes-- the questions in Latin and Greek and Algebra, and even when Mr. Ryder does have the proofs, it wants some one who really understands to see that the corrections are properly done. Old Smith used to do it, by real force of Chinese accuracy, but he has been ill for some time, and Mr. Froggatt can't see to do it himself, and Charlie won't, and can't be trusted either. So one day, when I was reading in the shop, Mr. Froggatt asked me to see if a thing was right; and it went on: he asked me after a time to take anything I liked, and I did get some school books we all wanted; but after that, just when you were ill, I could not help telling him I had rather have the money. O Father!' cried the boy, struck by a certain look of distress, 'did I do wrong?'
'Not in the least, my boy. Go on; what does he give you?'
'Exactly at the rate he gave Smith for doing the same work,' said Felix: 'it always was an extra for being so troublesome. It was seven shillings last week--generally it comes to three or four and sixpence.'
'And when do you do it?'
'I run in after I come out of school for half an hour. Last Saturday I corrected a sheet of the Pursuivant, because Mr. Froggatt had to go out, and that made it more. And, Father, Mr. Froggatt says that poor old Smith will never be fit for work again.'
'Then I suppose these welcome earnings of yours will end when he has a successor?'
Felix came nearer. 'Papa,' he said, 'Mr. Froggatt told me that if Charlie would only have taken to the work, he would have done without another man in Smith's place, and got him gradually into editing the paper too. He said he wished I was not a gentleman's son, for if I had not been so I should have suited him exactly, and should be worth a guinea a week even now. And, Father, do not you really think I had better take it?'
'You, Felix!' Mr. Underwood was exceedingly startled for the moment.
'You see,' said Felix rather grimly, leaning his head on the mantelshelf, and looking into the fire, 'any other way I can only be an expense for years upon years, even if I did get a scholarship.'
His face was crimson, and his teeth set. Mr. Underwood lay back in his chair for some seconds; then said in a low voice, 'I see you know all about it, Felix; and that I am going to leave you as heavy a burthen as ever lad took on willing shoulders.'
Felix knew well enough, but his father had never uttered a word of despondency to him before, and he could only go on gazing steadfastly into the fire with an inarticulate moan.
Mr. Underwood opened the first leaf of a volume of St. Augustine, beside him, a relic of former days, the family shield and motto within--namely, a cross potent, or crutch-shaped, and the old English motto, 'UNDER WODE, UNDER RODE.'
'Under wood, under rood,' he repeated. 'It was once but sing-song to
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