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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Chapter I

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Chapter I.

It was a raw, cold day, and the twilight was creeping on apace as two young girls sat at the window of the large dining-room of the old Manor-house, in the parish of Fanarth. Their father, the Rev. Charles Bateman, was curate in charge of the above parish,—the rector, being in very delicate health, was obliged to spend the greater part of each winter in the South of France.

The room was scantily furnished, and generally considered to be rather cheerless; but on this particular evening—when the fire-light did not show up too plainly the threadbare carpet and the little devices of art muslin made to fill up—it looked, not only comfortable, but really cosy. There were a few good pieces of furniture scattered here and there about the room—the relics of better days,—among which were a massive sideboard, two or three oil paintings in heavy gilt frames, and two immense easy chairs. There was also a grand piano in the room—but that was quite modern—the gift of Netta's god-mother.

"When does the sale of work take place?" asked the younger sister.

"Very soon, I think," answered Agnes, the elder one; "but you better put away your sailor-boy now, dear, for I am sure you cannot see to do any more with that dark material, and we must let you have a little more time for it in the morning."

So Addie, nothing loth, gathered up her scraps and took possession of one of the large easy chairs, taking with her, as companion, a beautiful white Persian cat that was lying on the hearthrug.

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Agnes took the other chair, but did not put away her work, hoping she might still put in a few stitches before the tea was brought in, as the sale of work was to be early in December, and she had several garments yet to finish.

They were scarcely seated when a firm, sharp step was heard, and after hanging up her ulster and hat in the hall, Netta Bateman joined her sisters. She knelt down on the hearthrug and held up her hands to the warm glow of the fire before removing her gloves, then, looking round the room, said: "Well, Agnes, I shall never call this room bare or cheerless again, for this evening it looks the picture of comfort; but, I suppose, most things go by comparison, and I have just come from Mrs. Parker's."

"How is Bessie to-day?" asked her sister.

"Very ill!" replied Netta. "I am sure I don't know how she can possibly live through the winter, her home is so wretched; and, then, Mrs. Parker is constantly talking of for home when she was a girl—the carriages they drove, the servants they kept, the beautiful house they lived in, etc., etc. I am sure poor Bessie must be so tired of it all. I feel inclined to tell her sometimes 'That if she had been content with a few less comforts, or, rather, extravagancies then, Bessie might have had a few more comforts now.' How I wish papa were Rector of Fanarth, instead of being merely curate! I don't think it is fair for papa to have only a paltry two hundred and fifty pounds a year, for doing nearly all the work, while Mr. Cromby gets double the amount. And then, he is always away in the winter, so that I cannot appeal to him in any case of distress." And poor Netta lay her head on Agnes' lap, and two big tear-drops rolled down her soft cheeks.

Her sister let her fingers play carelessly through Netta's brown tresses,—or rather, shall I say, through her tangled and stray curls; for, as Netta said, "Her hair never could be brushed into a bit of satin like Agnes'."

"What is it, dear?" she said. "Has this poor little head been worrying itself again, and wondering why it was not consulted in the general arrangement of things?"

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"Oh! Agnes, you know it is not that, but it is so hard to go and see those people and feel you can do so little for them. Aggie, dear, I do hope we can afford it. I was obliged to order another roll of flannel to-day. On my way from Bessie's, I called to see old Peter Robinson. Poor old man! his rheumatism seems worse than ever, and his old hut, for I cannot call it anything else, is so damp! He says, 'When it rains out, it rains in.' "

"What do you think he told me this afternoon?"

"I don't know, I am sure," said Agnes.

"That he had spent as much money on beer and tobacco as would have kept him comfortably now, if it had been put out at compound interest."

"And who is it, I should like know, that still encourages him in his bad habit of smoking?" said Agnes, playfully, as she still stroked back Netta's curls, "and takes him tobacco every time she goes to see him? "

"Oh! Aggie; you should see how his poor old face lights up when he gets the tobacco!" said Netta. "It is worth wearing a pair of shabby gloves for six months to see it; "and Netta smiled in spite of herself at the recollection of the old man's childish joy.

"If people only would——"

Here the conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Bateman. As he came in he deposited, very quietly, a a parcel on the side-board—as if he did not want to attract much attention to it. He was a fine, tall, clerical-looking man, with wide and projecting forehead, and deep-set eyes; and not by any means old looking, though his hair—the little he had of it—was quite white. He had a genial, pleasant face, and one could easily understand his being a favourite in the parish.

Agnes got up to see about the tea, and Netta to get her father's slippers, but it was on the pair that were on the easy chair that Mr. Bateman's eyes fondly rested.

Addie did not rise, only lifted her pretty lips to be kissed; but as her father stooped to perform that ceremony she threw her arms impulsively round his neck, and whispered— page 6

"Oh! papa, I am so glad you are come in from the cold."

At the tea-table that evening, Mr. Bateman, on looking round on his daughters—of whom he was justly proud—thought what a blessing they were! and wondered how many parents were fortunate enough to possess three such good girls, for, so far, they had never given him a moment's uneasiness.

Ever since the death of their mother—now a little over four years—Agnes had struggled bravely with the house-keeping, not always an easy task, for, with Netta's liberality to the poor and her father's taste for new books, Agnes often found her purse empty before the next quarter's salary was due; but for all that they had always had a cheerful and happy home.

Netta was her father's right hand in all parish work. She had always been fond of visiting the poor,—especially old people. When she was quite a child, and long before her father removed to Fanarth, nurse used to take her to the almshouses at Frankton to see an old maiden aunt of hers. Indeed, it was the height of Netta's ambition, at that time, to become an inmate of one of those "dear little houses" herself—no one had such tea, and such nice hot muffins as Miss Saers, a luxury which, of course, Netta was not allowed to have in her own nursery.

Addie was the "baby," and the pet of the family. Since her mother's death she had known no trouble greater than that caused by the death of a pet canary, or the loss of her white pigeon. She was one of those placid natures, perfectly contented and happy herself, and wondered why others could not be the same. She was never one of the very industrious ones, but her love for doll-dressing amounted almost to a passion—little thinking at the time it would prove so useful to her in after years, when superintending the cottage sewing meetings. She used to study the costumes of different countries and dress her dolls accordingly; so that at all their bazaars, Addie's doll stall was the chief attraction, and, her father said, always brought in the most money.

Addressing himself to Addie, the father said—

"Well, and what has my little girl been doing with herself to-day?"

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Addie coloured slightly, and did not answer, but looked as kitten-like as she very well could; so Agnes answered for her.

"Addie has been so good, papa. She practised her last sonata for more than two hours, and has 'smoothed' out the difficult bars so nicely; you must hear her play it after tea."

"I shall be delighted," said Mr. Bateman. Then, turning to Netta,

"And how are all your patients to-day?"

"Bad, very bad," answered Netta. "It is dreadful to be so poor in the winter; people can manage pretty well in the summer, when the sun is bright and warm; but in the winter it makes one's heart ache to see them. How is it, papa, that people in th——? "But a glance from Agnes caused Netta to pause, for she knew what was coming, and also knew that her father was among the erring ones.

"Never mind, Netta," said Mr. Bateman; "finish your sentence."

"I was only thinking, papa," said Netta, with heightened colour, "how foolish it is of people not to make some provision for old age."

"Well, child," answered the father, "I suppose even that will come to pass some day! People are beginning to wake up to the necessity of something being done."

"How is Mr. Smith to-day, papa?" asked Agnes, thinking to give a turn to the conversation.

"I am really sorry, but I failed to reach so far," said Mr. Bateman, a little uneasily; "the fact is, I went in to Mr. Elliot's, the bookseller. He had a new book on the 'Revelations,' by Professor Bowden. I just dipped into it, and it certainly is the best exposition I have ever seen."

"Oh, papa!" Agnes could not help exclaiming, "a little while ago you bought an expensive book on the 'Revelations' before."

"But that is some time ago?"

"About two months, I think."

"Is that all? How quickly time flies! I will tell you whom I did see," continued Mr. Bateman; "Ernest Mordaunt." page 8 He wanted to know if Addie could go for a ride with Mr. Webster and him to-morrow to see the Eirick Waterfalls. Would you like to go, 'pussy?' "he said, turning to Addie.

"Oh! papa, it would be delightful," cried Addie, clapping her hands.

"Then we had better have that sonata," said her father, "for you must be up betimes to-morrow morning. Ernest will be here quite early with the horses, so you had better go to bed soon and have a good night's rest."

Ernest Mordaunt was the son of John Mordaunt, Esq., of Warrington Hall. The Mordaunts and the Batemans were near neighbours, and as Ernest had no brothers or sisters, he used to spend a good deal of his time at the Manor-house. When he was not there, Addie was generally at the Hall; for they had a good deal in common, and were more like brother and sister than anything else.

After Addie had left the room, Agnes said, with a very grave face, "Do you think it wise, papa, to let Addie go about with Ernest so much? You know that, although we treat her and speak of her as a child, she will be eighteen next birthday!"

"And as innocent as if she were eight;" thought Mr. Bateman to himself, then aloud, "Nonsense, Agnes; let the children enjoy themselves while they can. Ernest is a good lad, and has the making of a fine man in him yet, thanks, in a great measure, to his father's wise training. I have no patience with the present system of cram. Some parents bring up their boys as if the chief object of life were to win school prizes and examination certificates: things very well in themselves, but only as a means to an end. When I was a boy, patriotism, chivalry, reverence for the good and the great, kindness towards all weaker than ourselves, truth, honour,—those were the qualities we were told to cultivate; now these are relegated quite to the back ground; and what have taken their places, forsooth?—flippancy, irreverence to parents and old age, slang, sharpness, selfishness.

The two girls looked up; thoroughly surprised; it was some, thing quite new for their father to speak in that strain.

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"Well, dears," said he, in explanation, "I saw two specimens of the 'modern youth' in Mr. Elliot's shop to-day, and they pained me exceedingly. They came in for some books. 'Something, ah—interesting, you know; something, be Jove! that will make existence bearable in this insufferable weather!' And, after scoffing at every good book in the shop, they went out with a thrilling detective story each. But there, my dears, I am keeping you talking when you ought to be in bed. I must have a look at my new book before I go. Will you please pass it, Netta? "

"Aggie, dear, what is to become of your new waterproof?" asked Netta, as they were going up the stairs. "I knew mine was gone when I ordered the roll of flannel; and now, I suppose, that new book has taken yours."

"Never mind, dear," said Agnes, as she passed into her own room; "there are other things to live for besides new waterproofs."

Mr. Bateman must have had a very long look at his book, for he read on till midnight; and when he went to bed he had forgotten all about "old age pension," the "modern youth," and all other grievances, in the contemplation of a "new heaven and anew earth."