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- The Pillars of the House, V1 - 6/124 -
the town. The place, though in the south of England, had become noted as a pottery, owing partly to the possession of large fields of a peculiar clay, which was so bad for vegetable growth as to proclaim its destiny to become pots and pans, partly to its convenient neighbourhood to the rising seaport of Dearport, which was only an hour from it by railway. The old St. Oswald's school had been moulded under the influence of newcomers, who had upset the rules of the founder, and arranged the terms on the broadest principles of liberality, bringing, instead of the drowsy old clerical master, a very brisk and lively young layman, who had a knack of conveying instruction of multifarious kinds such as had never occurred to his predecessor.
Mr. Underwood had a certain liking for the man, and when tolerably well, enjoyed the breaking a lance with him over his many crude heterodoxies; but he did not love the school, and as long as he was able had taught his boys himself, and likewise taken a few day-pupils of the upper ranks, who were preparing for public schools. But when his failure of health rendered this impracticable, the positive evil of idleness was, he felt greater than any possible ones that might arise from either the teaching or the associations of the town school, and he trusted to home influence to counteract any such dangers. Or perhaps more truly he dreaded lest his own reluctance might partly come from prejudice in favour of gentlemen and public schools: and that where a course seemed of absolute necessity, Providence became a guard in its seeming perils. Indeed, that which he disapproved in Mr. Ryder's school was more of omission than commission. It was that secularity was the system, rather than the substance of that secularity.
So Felix and Edgar went to school, and were in due time followed by Clement and Fulbert; and their bright wits, and the educated atmosphere of their home, made their career brilliant and successful. Mr. Ryder was greatly pleased to have got the sons of a man whom he could not but admire and respect, and was anxious that the boys should be the means of conquering the antiquated prejudices in favour of exclusiveness at school.
Felix and Edgar were neck and neck, carrying off all the prizes of the highest form but one--Felix, those that depended on industry and accuracy; Edgar, those that could be gained by readiness and dexterity. Both were to be promoted to the upper form; and Mr. Ryder called upon their father in great enjoyment of their triumph, and likewise to communicate his confident certainty that they would do him and Bexley credit by obtaining the most notable scholarships of the University. Mr. Underwood was not a little delighted, grateful for the cordial sympathy, and he fully agreed that his own lads had benefited by the clear vigorous teaching they had received; but though he smiled and allowed that they had taken no harm, he said good-humouredly that 'Of course, he must consider that as the proof of his own powers of counteraction.'
'Exactly so,' said the schoolmaster. 'All we wish is, that each home should exercise its powers of counteraction. We do the teaching, you form the opinions.'
'Oh! are we parents still to be allowed to form the opinions?'
'If you _will_. Your house is your castle, and the dungeons there may be what you will.'
'Well, I cannot have a quarrel with you to-day, Ryder! As long as I can show up my boys as tokens of God's blessing on their home, you are welcome to them as instances of wits well sharpened by thorough good instruction.'
Mrs. Underwood had likewise had a congratulatory visit that was very gratifying. The girls' school, a big old red house, standing back from the road at the quietest end of the town, was kept by two daughters of a former clergyman, well educated and conscientious women, whom she esteemed highly, and who gave a real good grounding to all who came under their hands, going on the opposite principle to Mr. Ryder's and trying to supply that which the homes lacked.
And they did often succeed in supplying it, though their scholars came from a class where there was much to subdue, and just at present their difficulties had been much increased by their having been honoured by the education of Miss Price. Seven governesses in succession had proved incapable of bearing with Lady Price; and the young lady had in consequence been sent to Miss Pearson's, not without an endeavour on her mother's part to obtain an abatement in terms in honour of the eclat of her rank.
There her airs proved so infectious, that, as Miss Pearson said, the only assistance she had in lessening their evil influence was the perfect lady-likeness of the Underwood twins, and the warm affection that Wilmet inspired. Alda headed a sort of counter party against Caroline Price, which went on the principle of requiting scorn with scorn, but Wilmet's motherly nature made her the centre of attraction to all the weak and young, and her uprightness bore many besides herself through the temptation to little arts. Both sisters had prizes, Alda's the first and best, and Miss Pearson further offered to let Wilmet pay for her own studies and those of a sister, by becoming teacher to the youngest class, and supervisor during the mid-day recreation, herself and her sister dining at school.
It was a handsome offer for such a young beginner, and the mother's eyes filled with tears of pleasure; and yet there was a but--
'Not come home to dinner!' cried the children. 'Can't it be Alda instead of Wilmet? We do always want Wilmet so, and Alda would do just as well at school.'
Alda too was surprised; for was not she more regular and more forward than her twin sister, who was always the one to be kept at home when any little emergency made Mamma want the aid of an elder daughter? And the mother would almost have asked that Alda might be the chosen governess pupil, if Mr. Underwood had not said, 'No, my dear, Miss Pearson must have her own choice. It is a great kindness, and must be accepted as such. I suppose Robina must be the new scholar. My little pupil will not leave me.'
Geraldine only heard of the alternative, to say, 'I'll be nobody's pupil but yours, Papa.'
While Robina was proportionably exalted by her preferment, and took to teasing every one in the house to hear her spelling and her tables, that she might not fulfil Edgar's prediction by going down to the bottom of the baby-class; and up and down the stairs she ran, chanting in a sing-song measure--
'Twenty pence are one and eightpence, Thirty pence are two and sixpence,'
and so on, till her father said, smiling, 'Compensations again, Mother: the less you teach them the more they are willing to learn. The mother shook her head, and said the theory was more comfortable than safe, and that she did not find Lancelot an instance of it.
But there was a general sense of having earned the holiday, when the grocery van came to the door, on a morning of glorious sunshine. Edgar and Alda, true to their promise, had walked on so far ahead as to avoid being seen in the town in connection with it; and Fulbert had started with them to exhale his impatience, but then had turned back half-way, that he might not lose the delicious spectacle of the packing of the vehicle. A grand pack it was: first, the precious hamper; then a long sofa cushion, laid along the bottom; then Geraldine lifted in by Sibby and Felix, and folded up with shawls, and propped with cushions by Mamma, whose imagination foresaw more shaking than did the more youthful anticipation; then Mamma herself, not with 'little baby,' but with Angela on her lap, and Angela's feet in all manner of unexpected places; then a roll of umbrellas and wraps; then Wilmet, Fulbert, Lance, and Robina--nowhere in particular, and lastly Papa, making room for Clement between himself and the good-humoured lad of a driver, who had not long ago been a member of the choir, while Felix, whom nothing could tire on that day, dived rapidly down a complication of alleys, declaring he should be up with the walkers long before they were overtaken by the van.
Next appeared Mr. Audley, with his pretty chestnut horse, offering in the plenitude of his good-nature to give Lance a ride, whereupon vociferous '_me toos_' resounded from within the curtains; and the matter was compounded on ride and tie principles, in which the Underwood juniors got all the ride, and Mr. Audley all the _tie_--if that consisted in walking and holding the bridle.
By the time the very long and dull suburbs of Bexley were passed, with their interminable villas and rows of little ten-pound houses-- the children's daily country walk, poor things! the two elder boys and their sister were overtaken, the latter now very glad to condescend to the van.
'Oh, how nice to get beyond our tiresome old tether!' she said, arranging herself a peep-hole between the curtains. 'I am so sick of all those dusty black beeches, and formal evergreens. How can you stare at them so, Cherry?'
But Geraldine was in a quiet trance of delight; she had never spoken a word since she had first found a chink in the awning, but had watched with avid eyes the moving panorama of houses, gardens, trees, flowers, carriages, horses, passengers, nursemaids, perambulators, and children. It was all a perfect feast to the long-imprisoned eyes, and the more charming from the dreamy silence in which she gazed. When Felix came up to the slit through which the bright eyes gleamed, and asked whether she were comfortable and liked it, her answer was a long-drawn gasp from the wells of infinite satisfaction, such as set him calculating how many drives in a bathchair the remnant of his birthday gift would yet produce.
But there were greater delights, corn-fields touched with amber, woods sloping up hills, deep lanes edged with luxuriant ferns, greenery that drove the young folk half mad with delight, and made them scream to be let out and gather--gather to their hearts' content. Only Mamma recommended not tiring themselves, but trusting that Centry Park would afford even superior flowers to those they passed.
They reached the lodge gate at last. They were known, for the Castle had been long untenanted, and they, like other inhabitants of Bexley, had from time to time enjoyed themselves in the Park, but to-day there was a shadow of demur. The gentleman who was going to buy the place was looking over it--but surely--
Horror began to spread over the inmates of the van.
'But did you come by appointment, sir?' added the gatekeeper's wife, coming out; 'the gentleman's name is Mr. Underwood.'
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