Chapter 58433177

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Chapter NumberI
Chapter Url
Full Date1885-12-25
Page Number0
Word Count2484
Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleMercury and Weekly Courier (Vic. : 1878 - 1903)
Trove TitleMildred Austin's Two Christmas Eves
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IMIELDRED AUSTIN'S TWO CHRISTMAS EVES. BY ILL SL POLLARD, AUTHOR OF -" CLARA," ETC. 'CHAPTER L A PAINTED SCROLL. THERE is a poetry-about Christmastide that gushes forth in various ways, though perhaps we do not always call it poetry,or recognize the mystic rhythm Do we not adorn our homes with bright garlands and scarlet berries, send forth pictured messengers of kindly greeting to friends from whom we are separated, and do not look more sally at the vacant place by the fireside thin we do at any other period of the year? Also, do we not try to forgive this unkindness, that we may be in h irmony with the univer sal "good will to men." We fill the frosty air with the musical chimings, the grand crashing peals of cathedral bells, and we deck our churchs with holly and ivy, twine graceful leaves around the pillars, hang them on the pulpit and font to celebrate the greatest birthday the world ever knew. On the Christmas Eve on which our story opens, perhaps thoughts such as those passed through the minds of some of the busy workers in the new school rooms of Hillcross village. - Mrs. Hillyard was there, the vicar's wife; so were her three bright' daugh - ters, just blooming into womsonhood, fresh, frank, eager girls, with flashing dark eyes and rose-tinted complexions. The vicar was there also, a tall, grave, thoughtful man, who walked about from group to group, stopping to speak to one, to look at the half finished work of another, buat not staying long with any. He seemed to prefer pacing the distant part of the large roomn,where with folded hands and slightly bent head he could watch the workers, note their progress, and perhaps enjoy his own meditations at the same time. The curate of the parish was there also. the centre of a group of half-a-dozen young ladies, who all wanted his advice and craved his assistance-which he gave with impartial alacrity. Mildred Austin-the hero of our tale -looked not much like a heroine just the", for she was mounted on a stool nailing a delicate wreath of ivy round a scroll-a scroll which bore a text in O d English, beautifully written on a pale cream blackground, with a fret border in deep red. By her side stood Mr. Philip Fordham a guest who was staying at the vicarage. and he was offering his services to take her place on the sto I1. " No thank you, I have nearly finish ed now, but you can tell me if I have hung the wreath straight. Mr. Fordham went off a short dist ance, peered at the wreath critically, went off still further, and examined again, then came back with the result of his investigation. " There is something crooked, either the scroll or the wreath, but I cannot make out which is in fault." The vicar joined them at the moment, and added "The fault is in neither, but the banners above them are hung all on one side. Fordham, you can rectify that. There is a ladder against the wall near the door; if you will fetch it here I will help you. How beautifully the scroll is made ! Is it your handiwork, Miss Austin ?" " Ye., I did it," said Mildred, shyly, with a droop of her deep blue eyes. "It does you credit, I am sure. Here comes Fordham with the ladder. Ere long the mishap was rectified; the vicar had gone off to another part of the room, but Mr. Fordham still lingered, helping Mildred with various details of ornamentation. At this end of the room there was a -raised platform, on which the singers and orchestra were to stand on that evening, for the oratorio of the " Messiah" was to be performed. " An ambitions undertaking for a little place like Hilleross," some people might say, but it was planned and ar ranged by the vicar's wife, and all th· musical people in and near the plac had come forward to give their services either in the choruses or in the solos. Little else had been talked of in the village for weeks past; it was to be a kind of inauguration of the new schools that lately been built by public subscrip tion, and so many people were invited to come, for Mr. Hillyard had said " We must notokeep the performance for the Wlite of the place alone, we want the Sunday-school children and as many of their friends as would like to be present ; all will be welcome as far as the tickets go, and I dare say if the place were twice as large we should have it filled-" There had been many rehearsals and much preparation. " We must do our best," the vicar's' wife had suggested, "and give those little ones and their relatives a real treat in the way of singing and music. Who knows what influence it may have on their lives to hear the praises of God soung in our grandest strains of melody ? Whenever I have the ' Hallelujah Chorus,' and see the people standing in solemn worship of the ' King of Kings,' it brings a thrill to my heart and tears to my eyes, and I do not forget the impression for days; and what willnot the effect be on those whq have never before had the chance of hearing Handel's magnificent oratorio ?" Mrs. Beale, a young married lady from London, who was staying on a visit at Doctor Atkin's, was to take the leading soprano, and it was well known through the place that even hearing her fine voice alone would be a great treat. But the best laid plans often fail, and this seemed to threaten on the present occasion, for just as the decoration of the schoolroom was completed, and Mrs. lillyard was telling the workers she expected to meet them all at the vioar age, where high tea had been prepared, a telegram was placed in her hands. " What news, I wonder ?" said she. "I confess I have a kind of shuddering dislike to those yellow envelopes that come fluttering in at such unexpected times, and so often bring tidings of disaster." She was opening the telegram as she spoke, and as she glanced her eyes over its contents, she exclaimed "How sad I Mrs. Beale has been called off to London suddenly, for her husband, Major Beale, has met with an aacident-been thrown from his horse,

I am very sorry indeed for this, and I em also sorry for ourselves, as I cannot tell who we can get to take poor Mrs. Beale's place in the oratorio." They all crowded round Mrs. Hillyard by this time, and were'looking at her with faces of consternation, some suggesting this, others suggesting that impossible plan. "My dear! could not one of the other ladies take Mrs. Beale's part ?" inquired the vicar, calmly. " But who is there likely to be able to do such a thing without practice or preparation ? It will spoil the whole if we lose the leading soprano part. And it is not every one who has courage enough to stand up and sing before a crowd, even if it is composed of one's friends and neighbours. I could have done it a dozen years ago, but my voice has failed now. I wish one of my daughters could attempt it, but Anges is a contralto, and Madge and Louie have no more voices than crows," ex claimed the vicar's wife emphatically. " Oh, mamma, spare us !" said Madge, with a smile. Mrs. Hillyard seated herself discon tentedly at the harmonium and began playing the air of "I know that my Redeemer liveth." When she had finis hed, she looked round at the listeners, for they had all gathered near the instrument. "There I that is the most difficult part, we might manage the rest. But whoever heard the ' Messiah' without that solo? To leave it out would be like leaving out the triumph song after a victory. Can any of you ladies attempt it ?" " Miss Austin could sing it, 1 know," whispered. Dora Howe, the lawyer's daughter. " Miss Austin ! Where is she?" a-'':d Mrs. Hillyard, looking'round. • She is gone home. She wanted to 4 : her mother's tea ready," said Dora. " We must send for her, and there is no time to lose. Who will volunteer to go ?" " Where does the young lady live ?" asked Mr. Fordham. " In that cottage next Mr. White's farm-house. It has ' Laurel Lodge' written on the outer gate, and is quite half a mile from Hillcross. Mrs. Austin is the widow ofaclergyman, and is a great invalid. They have oniy lately come to live here, but as I have not yet heard Miss Austin's voice, I cannot confirm Dora's opinion of her capabilities." Ere Mrs. Hillyard had finished her speech, Mr. Fordham was walking towards Laurel Lodge as fast as his feet could carry him, every step ringing onut loud and clear on the frosty road. The streams and ponds were frozen hard as iron, icicles hung from the cottage eaves, from hedges, and the grasswas sprinkled with hoary particles that shone like diamonds in the rays of the setting sun. Fine weather for the active and young who can take quick exercise and step forth with the vigour that sets theblood coursinglthrough the veins, but chill, pitiless, and penetrat ing for the old and sick and weak, who shiver with cold even at the fireside. Mdildred Austin had, as Dora hinted, gone home to see about her mother's afternoon meal. When she entered the parlour, on the right hand side of the door, she found her sister Floy there, seated in the depths of a large armchair, her feet on the fender, a novel in her hands, and her thoughts far away from all mean, petty, domestic worries, as she followed the exciting fortunes of some fair " ladye," some faithful knight. She scarcely heard Mildred enter the room,and looked up at her inquiringly. " Have you come home already ?" "Yes, I hurried away as soon as I had hung the scroll I promised to give, and had finished some other work, but it is not very early after all. Has mamma had her tea ?" " Not yet, I was waiting for Martha to come back." "Where has she gone ?" "I sent her to the circulating library an hour ago to get the third volume of this, and she does gossip so, when once she gets down in the village." "Almost a pity you sent her. Have you been up to mamma latey 7" "Not since you went away. You know she always rings the bell when she wants anyone, and I'm has not rang, or I should have heard it." Mildred did not say any more. She often took refuge in silence, when to speak her mind would be but finding fault with careless Floy, whose forget folness, or selfishoess, or whatever it might be, so often caused her to neglect the duties that lay at her hand. The kitchen was deserted, the fire out, the grate cold, so Mildred took up the kettle, placed it quietly on the parlour fire, and then went upstairs to the front bedroom. Mrs. Austin lay there on a sofa opposite the window, and one might have supposed she was watching the last rosy tints that lingered in cloud land after the sun had set; but a nearer view would show her wide-open eyes were sightless-day and night had be come the same to her, She knew Mildred's step at once, and turned towards her with a smile "I am glad you have come home Mildred,'it seems so lonely and quiet up here, and Floy rarely comes up to see me," The last words had a tone of com plaint in them, so Mildred stooped down, kissed her pale cheek, and said, cheerfully "You want your tea, darling. I, will take off my hat and bring it up to you. " "How did you get on this after noon ?" " Oh, it was quite lively and pleas ant-Mrs. Hillyard so sociable and kind. And do you know, mamma, the schoolroom is really spacious and hand some when the folding doors are put back and the three rooms turned into one. N?ambers of people can be seated there, and I daresay it will be crowded this evening. "How was the scroll you made liked ?" '" The vicar seemed very pleased with it, and so did Mr. Fordham, a gentle man who is staying at the vicarage. Now I will get your tea ready," added Mildred, as bshe hurried outof the room. It was not long ere she returned bearing a teatray in her hands, on which stood a cup of the fragrant

beverage, some crisp toast, a pat of batter, and a poached egg. Not a , luxurious repast, but all daintily prepared, and Mrs. Austin seemed fully to appreciate it as she sat up, propped by cushions, to partake of the good things. M.leanwhile Mildred related any little incident she thought would interest about the preparations that were being made at the schoolroom. " Who is Mr. Fordham ?" asked her mother. " I have not heard the name at Hillcross before. Is he a stranger here ?' "I suppose so. He was with the Hillyards, and I fancy is related to them. Here comes Martha at last I And, and who is this following her in at the gate ? It looks like Mr. Ford ham himself. He must have made a mistake, I think." But it was no mistake. Presently Martha's tap was heard at the bedroom door. "Please, miss, a gentleman wants to see you down in the parlor, and he have sent up his card." Mildred found Mr. Fordham alone in the room, for Floy had seen him coming up the garden path, and think ing she was not quite finely dressed enough to receive so distinguished-look ing a guest, she had slipped nimbly out of the room with her novel ere he entered. Mr. Fordham came towards Mildred, and said, with a smile "I have called on a mission from Mrs. Hillyard, who wishes to see you at the school-room. She will wait there until you arrive, and I think, if you will allow me, I will leave her to explain why she wants you." Mildred returned his smiles, and said "Oh, yes, I will wait. Must I go to her now ?" "She is all impatience, I assure you." " Then I will run up and tell mamma, and get ready at once."