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- The Pillars of the House, V1 - 110/124 -


burthen of two secrets rendered him uncommunicative, when Wilmet tried to understand the cause of Cherry's delay at St. Faith's; and Alda was curious about Vale Leston and Mrs. Fulbert, whom she had seen at Kensington Palace Gardens. It did not take much acumen to exclaim, 'Still no children! Then there must be a chance for us!'

'That is not likely,' said Wilmet: 'it must be all in their own power; and the Vicar must be quite a young man. Is he not, Lance?'

'How should I know?'

'Didn't you see him?'

'I saw his wife, and that was enough.'

'About five-and-thirty,' said Alda. 'Of course it will all go to Uncle Tom. Money always goes to money.'

'How flushed you are, Lance!' said Wilmet. 'Are you tired?'

'Rather. I am going out into the garden.'

There, however, he was pursued by Bernard with a war-whoop, and by Theodore with his concertina; and Stella presently reported that he was gone up to bed.

'And I am afraid his room is very hot and noisy,' sighed Wilmet.

'He is only tired and cross after his two nights at sea,' said Alda.

'Lance cross!'

'My dear Wilmet, it is very bad taste in families always to maintain each other's impeccability!'

Alda was still the only person capable of defeating Wilmet, and she managed to render her very uncomfortable before the end of the evening, when hours passed and still Felix did not come in; and Alda suggested, in the intervals of yawning, that Wilmet would soon learn how green it was to sit up, now that Felix had got out of leading- strings, and set up bachelor habits.

At first Wilmet was highly indignant; but when Alda persisted that she was rather glad to see Felix like other young men, and that Wilmet would know better when she was married, and then yawned herself off to bed, there was a sense of great discomfort to accompany the solitary vigil, which not only involved fancies of possible accidents, but was harassed by this assault on faith in the virtue and sincerity of man. Could it really be the part of a wise woman to wink at being deceived as an inferior creature, with impossible expectations of truth and purity? Yet Alda knew the world!

How much heart-sickness was darned into Lance's impossible heel before the clock chimed two! A step, and not a policeman's, came along the pavement and paused at the door, as, while the bell was cautiously pulled, down she flew!

'My dear Mettie, I am so sorry, so ashamed, of not having sent home to tell you; but if I had made the least move, it might have upset everything!'

'What _have_ you been about?'

'Going over Mowbray Smith's accounts.'

'Oh!'

'I am very sorry! How tired you must be! I was vexed not to be able to give you notice, but you know what poor Smith is.'

'I don't know why you had to do it all, and at this time of night,' said Wilmet, still a little hurt.

'It is the only chance for him to-morrow at the meeting to have his accounts clear; so I called under the plea of seeing about the letter in Pur, and with much ado got him to realise a little more of his position, and let me look at the books. That was at five.'

'And you have been at it ever since? O Felix!' as he stretched his arms and gave a vast yawn.

'Ay! If I had shown any consciousness of the time, he would have shut up at once; and he would not let me take them home to do to-morrow morning.'

'It _is_ to-morrow morning!'

'So it is! I must make haste, for I must try to see Mr. Ryder and Jones before the meeting. Good-night, dear old W. W. I meant to have had other talk.'

'But oh! you must have some supper!'

'I've had it--sumptuous! Stilton cheese!'

So Wilmet's faith in masculine nature rebounded as high as Alda had striven to sink it!

Patience was a good deal needed the next day; for Felix, had to rush away from breakfast, and never appeared at all at dinner. He had to be present at the very stormy meeting, though only to take notes, and thus had the annoyance of seeing Mr. Smith destroying his own cause by his incapacity to understand the statement so carefully drawn up, until Mr. Ryder (on whom the enemy had reckoned as a champion) took the papers out of the helpless hand, comprehended Felix's figures at a glance, and set them lucidly forth, such as they were; but even then there were blots which there were plenty of persons ready to hit. The truth was, that between Lady Price's economies, and the unwillingness to call vestry meetings, moneys intended for one purpose had been used for another, and articles not within the denomination of charities had been charged on funds raised for that exclusive object.

The assembly comprised the usual variety: the malicious foes of religion, headed by Jackman; the more numerous enemies, not of what they supposed religion, but of the Church; the adversaries, not of the Church, but of the Curate; and the few loyally unwilling to condemn a clergyman, but disgusted at the affair, and staggered by his management. Perhaps the rabid and ribald violence of the hostile party did Mr. Smith good with the respectable; and there were many, too, whose dictum was--'Felix Underwood says it is all right!' At any rate, though the Bishop was memorialised, it was in a much better spirit than had been likely at first; and it was not to be done without notice to the Rector. And when this was over, every one as usual went to the rendezvous at 'Froggatt's,' either to discuss or inquire; and the release of both partners on that summer evening was later than ever it had been before.

But then what a welcome upstairs! what a clamour of happy tongues! what an ecstatic humming of 'The Hardy Norseman!' what a clinging to and climbing on him! If he had the cares, he had much of the joys, of the goodman of the house! But presently he missed the voice usually blithest of all, and asked for Lance.

'He was here a little while ago,' said Wilmet, 'drinking his tea. He must have gone up to bed.'

'No,' said Bernard; 'I've just been up to the barrack, and he isn't there.'

'You've not let him sleep in the attic!' exclaimed Felix. 'Why, under the leads it is like an oven!'

'I am very sorry,' said Wilmet, 'but I could not see how to help it. Your room is worse, with the glare of the setting sun; and so is Cherry's at this time of the evening.'

'Then he must have Mr. Froggatt's.'

'I thought,' said Alda, 'that you never took liberties with Mr. Froggatt?'

'Nonsense!' said Felix. 'There are only two bedrooms in this house fit for that boy in his present state--yours and Mr. Froggatt's. Which shall we have, Wilmet?'

'Mr. Froggatt's,' she answered at once. 'If you will not have another cup, I'll get it ready for him at once.'

'I've just done. I'll come and help you. But where can the boy be? In the garden?'

'No,' said Wilmet, taking a survey from the window.

'I have hardly seen him all day,' added Alda. 'I suppose he has pursuits of his own.'

'Pursuits!' said Felix, looking really anxious; 'poor little chap, he can't do without constant care and quiet!'

Wilmet made no answer, but rose and left the room; Alda muttered something about his looking quite well, which Felix did not stay to hear, following his sister out with a word about looking for him. At the same moment a little soft hand was thrust into his, and Stella, as soon as the door was shut, said, 'Please, I know where Lance is, but it's a secret.'

'Not from me, I hope?' said Felix, catching her up in his arms.

'I think not,' said Stella meditatively. 'He only told me not to let Bear and Tedo know, because they make a row. He is only up over the back warehouse, where he used to play the fiddle to us last Easter.'

'The only cool quiet place he could find!' said Felix, with more of a look of reproach than he had ever given Wilmet.

It went to her heart. 'I did not know what to do,' she said meekly. 'I wanted very much to go into the barrack ourselves, but Alda said it would kill her, and you know it has always been a sore subject that we would not let her have Mr. Froggatt's room. I ought not to have given way.'

'Alda's selfishness is a great power,' muttered Felix; and Wilmet was too much ashamed to contradict him, except by 'She is vexed because she has not heard from Ferdinand,' as they hastily made their way to the warehouse, which, being on the north side of higher buildings, never did get scorched through.

Felix went up a step-ladder, Wilmet following; and there, sure enough, was Lance, lying in a nest of paper shavings, with head on


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