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- The Two Sides of the Shield - 20/61 -
'I should not have thought Lady Merrifield would have been so like an old schoolmistress. Miss Dormer always did, the old cat! where I went to school,' said Constance. 'We did hate it so! She looked over every one's letters, except parents', so that we never could have anything nice, except by a chance or so.'
'It is tyranny,' said Dolores, solemnly. 'I do not see why one should submit to it.'
'We had dodges,' continued Constance, warming with the history of her school-days, and far too eager to talk to think of the harm she might be doing to the younger girl. 'Sometimes, when a lot of us went to a shop with one of the governesses, one would slip out and post a letter. Fraulein was so short-sighted, she never guessed. We used to call her the jolly old Kafer. But Mademoiselle was very sharp. She once caught Alice Bell, so that she had to make an excuse and say she had dropped something. You see, she really had--the letter into the slit.'
'But that was an equivocation.'
'Oh, you darling scrupulous, long-worded child! You aren't like the girls at Miss Dormer's, only she drove us to it, you know. You'll be horribly shocked, but I'll tell you what Louie Preston did. There was a young man in the town whom she had met at a picnic in the holidays--a clerk, he was, at the bank--and he used to put notes to her under the cushions at church; but one unlucky Sunday, Louie had a cold and didn't go, and she told Mabel Blisset to bring it, and Mabel didn't understand the right place, and went poking about, so that Miss Dormer found it out, and there was such a row!'
'Wasn't that rather vulgar?' said Dolores.
'Well, he was only a clerk, but he was a duck of a man, with regular auburn hair, you know. And he sang! We used to go to the Choral Society concerts, and he sang ballads so beautifully, and always looked at Louie!'
'I should not care for anything of that sort,' said Dolores. 'I think it is bad form.'
'So it is,' said Constance, seriously, 'only one can't help recollecting the fun of the thing, and what one was driven to in those days. Is there any one you are anxious to correspond with?'
'Not in particular, only I can't bear to have Aunt Lilias meddling with my letters; and there's a poor uncle of mine that I know would not like her, or any of the Mohuns, to see his letters.
'Indeed! Your poor mamma's brother?' cried Constance, full of curiosity.
'Mind, it is in confidence. You must never tell any one.'
'Never. Oh, you may trust me!' cried Constance.
'Her half-brother,' said Dolores; and the girl proceeded to tell Constance what she had told Maude Sefton about Mr. Flinders, and how her mother had been used to assist him out of her own earnings, and how he had met her at Exeter station, and was so disappointed to have missed her father. Constance listened most eagerly, greatly delighted to have a secret confided to her, and promising to keep it with all her might.
'And now,' said Dolores, 'what shall I do? If poor Uncle Alfred writes to me, Aunt Lilias will have the letter and read it, and the Mohuns are all so stuck up; they will despise him, and very likely she will never let me have the letter.'
'Yes, but, dear, couldn't you write here, with my things, and tell him how it is, and tell him to write under cover to me?'
'Dear Connie! How good you are! Yes, that would be quite delightful!'
All the confidences and all the caresses had, however, taken quite as long as the G.F.S. class, and before Constance had cleared a space on the table for Dolores's letter, there was a summons to say that Gillian was ready to go home.
'So early!' said Constance. 'I thought you would have had tea and stayed to evening service.'
'I should like it so much,' cried Dolores, remembering that it would spare her the black oxen in the cross-path, as well as giving her the time with her friend.
So they went down with the invitation, but Gillian replied that mamma always liked to have all together for the Catechism, and that she could not venture to leave Dolores without special permission.
'Quite right, my dear,' said Miss Hacket. 'Connie would be very sorry to do anything against Lady Merrifield's rules. We shall see you again in a day or two.'
And this is the way in which Constance kept her friend's secret. When Miss Hacket had done her further work with a G.F.S. young woman who needed private instruction to prepare her for baptism, the two sisters sat down to a leisurely tea before starting for evensong; in the first place, Constance detailed all she had discovered as to the connection with Lord Rotherwood, in which subject, it must be confessed, good Miss Hacket took a lively interest, having never so closely encountered a live marquess, 'and so affable,' she contended; upon which Constance declared that they were all stuck-up, and were very unkind and hard to poor darling Dolores.
'I don't know. I cannot fancy dear Lady Merrifield being unkind to any one, especially a dear girl as good as an orphan,' said Miss Hacket, who, if not the cleverest of women, was one of the best and most warm- hearted. 'And, indeed, Connie, I don't think dear Gillian and Mysie feel at all unkindly to their cousin.'
'Ah! that's just like you, Mary. You never see more than the outside, but then I am in dear Dolly's confidence.'
'What do you mean, Connie?' said Miss Hacket, eagerly.
Constance had come home from school with the reputation of being much more accomplished than her elder sister, who had grown up while her father was a curate of very straitened means, and thus, though her junior, she was thought wonderfully superior in discernment and everything else.
'Well,' said Constance, 'what do you think of Lady Merrifield sending her to bed for staying late here that morning?'
'That was strict, certainly; but you know she sent Mysie too. It was all my own thoughtlessness for detaining them,' said the good elder sister. 'I was so grieved!'
'Yes,' said Constance, 'it sounds all very well to say Mysie was treated in the same way, but in the afternoon Mysie was allowed to go and make messes with blackberry jam, while poor Dolly was kept shut up in the schoolroom!'
Constance did not like Lady Merrifield, who had unconsciously snubbed some of her affectations, and nipped in the bud a flirtation with Harry, besides calling off some of the curates to be helpful. But Miss Hacket admired her neighbour as much as her sister would permit, and made answer--
'It is so hard to judge, my dear, without knowing all. Perhaps Mysie had finished her lessons.'
'Ah! I know you always are for Lady Merrifield! But what do you say, then, to her prying into all that poor child's correspondence?'
'My dear, I think most people do think it advisable to have some check on young girl's letters. Perhaps Dolores's father desired it.'
'He never put on any restrictions,' said Constance. 'I am sure he never would. Men don't. It is always women, with their nasty, prying, tyrannous instincts.'
'I am sure,' returned Mary, 'one would not think a child like Dolores Mohun could have anything to conceal.'
'But she has!' cried Constance.
'No, my dear! Impossible!' exclaimed Miss Hacket, looking very much shocked. 'Why, she can't be fourteen!'
'Oh! it is nothing of that sort. Don't think about that, Mary.'
'No, no, I know, Connie dear; you would never listen to any young girl's confidence of that kind--so improper and so vulgar,' said Miss Hacket, and Constance did not think it necessary to reveal her knowledge of the post-office under the cushions at church, and other little affairs of that sort.
'It is her uncle,' said Constance. 'Her mother, it seems, though quite a lady, was the daughter of a professor, a very learned man, very distinguished, and all that, but not a high family enough to please the Mohuns, and they never were friendly with her, or treated her as an equal.'
'That couldn't have been Lady Merrifield,' persevered Miss Hacket. 'She lamented to me herself that she had been out of England for so many years that she had scarcely seen Mrs. Maurice Mohun.'
'Well, there were the Miss Mohuns and all the rest!' said Constance. 'Why, Dolores has only once been at the family place. And her mother had a brother, an author and a journalist, a very clever man, and the Mohuns have always regularly persecuted him. He has been very unfortunate, and Mrs. Maurice Mohun has done her utmost to help him, writing in periodicals and giving the proceeds to him. Wasn't that sweet? And now Dolores feels quite cut off from him; and she is so fond of him, poor darling for her mother's sake.'
Tender-hearted as Miss Hacket was, she had seen enough of life to have some inkling of what being very unfortunate might sometimes mean.
'I should think,' she said, 'that Lady Merrifield would never withhold from the child any letter it was proper she should have, especially from a relation.'
'Yes, but I tell you she did keep back a letter on the festival day till she had looked at it. Poor Dolores saw it come, and she saw a glance pass between her and Miss Mohun, and she is quite sure, she says, her Aunt Jane had been poisoning her mind about this poor persecuted uncle, and that she shall never be allowed to hear from
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