The Rector of Uppercross


July, 1822

"Walter!" exclaimed his brother. "Leave them be!" He splashed into the muddy water, bending over the crying little girl. "Are you all right, Anne?" he asked. "Come, let me help you." He took her hand and pulled her to her feet. Her white muslin dress was covered with mud, the red sash hung bedraggled and wet, and her white stockings and black boots were soaked. The muck had even splashed into her shining dark hair, ruining the pretty red ribbons that held it away from her face.

Elizabeth was crying, too; unlike her cousin, she had managed to avoid falling into the puddle, but her dress was also splashed with mud and her fair curls and ribbons equally besmirched. "I hate you, Walter Musgrove!" she screamed at her brother. "I hope you get--eaten--by a--a--tiger!"

"Small chance that I shall encounter a tiger in Somersetshire," replied Walter with all the wisdom of nearly ten years. "And if you girls are big enough to play with us, then you are big enough not to cry when you meet with an accident."

"I saw you," said Charles darkly. "That was not an accident, Walter. You pushed them into that puddle. You should be ashamed of yourself, teasing little girls in such a way. They are not old enough to defend themselves." He took the girls' hands and led them away toward Uppercross Cottage.

"I suppose you shall tell Papa," said Walter offhandedly. He would rather that Charles did not disclose his actions to their father. Mr. Musgrove turned a blind eye to any disputes between the brothers, under the dictum that boys will be boys, but he was more protective of his daughter and his niece. Anne was spending the summer at Kellynch Lodge, visiting Lady Russell along with her parents and brother and new baby sister. Walter knew that his father would be angry if he discovered that his youngest son had teased his sister's playmate.

"No," said Charles. "I shall not tell." Walter was momentarily relieved. "But if I am asked I shall not lie." Walter watched them as they walked away. Elizabeth's head was drooping and her feet were dragging; even at not quite five years of age, she became upset when her pretty clothes got dirty. Anne had stopped weeping and was gazing worshipfully up at Charles.

They don't know how to have fun, he thought balefully. I will show them. I shall go and have fun all by myself.

He ran into the woods, following a familiar path that he had learned from his father, who allowed the boys to accompany him when he went out shooting. Next month, when grouse season started, Mr. Musgrove had promised that Walter would have his own gun and be allowed to practice. Charles had gotten a gun the previous year and was a good and careful shot, but he preferred to spend his spare time at the stables, helping the grooms muck out the smelly stalls and clean the tack. Walter laughed at his brother's choices, and went with his father, who was always glad to have him along.

But Papa will be angry when he finds out what I've done. Walter already regretted pushing the girls into the puddle. It seemed like a great joke at the time, and he had thought the girls would see the humour in it, but as soon as he saw little Anne fall into the mud, he knew he had done wrong. She was a pretty little girl, good-humoured and always ready for fun, but she was barely five years old, and Papa would say that big boys like Walter and Charles should know better than to involve such small girls in their games. As if Charles would ever tease Eliza or Anne.

Walter ran down a path that he knew led to a clearing containing a small pond. He could see the patch of sunshine on the grass ahead of him; he planned to run out of the woods, yank off his boots and coat, and plunge head-first into the water, sun-warmed near the top and deliciously cool below the surface. He burst out of the trees and was brought up short by a vision.

The vision had long, wavy golden hair and was dressed in white. Walter knew all the children in the neighbourhood, and he knew he had never seen this girl before. His nine-year-old mind did not admit strangers in such familiar settings, so he immediately jumped to a conclusion that an adult would have considered outrageous but that made perfect sense to him.

He slowly walked closer to the vision, not sure if the species was skittish like wild birds, winging away at the first hint of danger. Suddenly the vision turned her head and saw him. She gasped and jumped to her feet.

They stood a few yards apart, staring at one another. Finally Walter found his voice. "Are--are you an angel?" he asked tentatively.

"No," the girl said. "Why did you think so?"

"Because you look exactly like a picture of an angel in a book my Aunt Anne reads to me."

"I wish I were. Then I could be with my papa." As Walter drew closer to her, he saw that his former conclusion was silly. Angels did not weep, and this girl's face was marked with the evidence of tears. She clutched something in her hand that winked golden in the sunshine.

"My grandfather has gone to be with the angels," said Walter importantly. This event had occurred only a few months before. Walter's mamma had wept copiously and spent a great deal of time on the sofa, and Father had said that the boys were not to tease her, that she was sad because she had lost her papa. "He lived at Kellynch Hall."

"I have come to live at Kellynch Hall," said the girl. "I used to live with my grandpapa in Crewkherne, but now I must live with Mamma and her husband."

"I thought your papa was with the angels," said Walter skeptically. "Besides, my cousin Sir William has come to live at Kellynch Hall." He had heard his parents discussing Sir William Elliot. He could not hear everything they had said, but his father had sounded angry.

"Sir William is married to my mamma," the girl explained.

"Then he is your papa," Walter persisted.

"No!" the girl cried. She turned away. "He is not my papa." She began to weep again.

Her tears were troubling. Walter did not mean to make the girls cry, but they always seemed to do so around him. He went to the girl and touched her arm. "I am sorry," he said.

The girl wiped her eyes. She opened her fist and held out something to him. "This is my papa," she said.

Walter took the object that she proffered. It was a miniature in a gilt frame, showing a handsome young man with golden hair and green eyes like the girl's. "I miss him so much," she sniffed. "He went away when I was little, but I remember him. He used to hold me on his lap and call me his best girl." She reached out and took back the miniature.

"I am sure your new papa will be just as nice," Walter said encouragingly.

"I tell you, he is not my papa!" she cried. "I shall never be happy here, never! I want to go back to my grandpapa!" She sat on the bank of the pond, buried her head in her arms, and burst into tears.

Walter sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulders, trying to comfort her as he had seen Charles comfort Eliza. He did not know what to say, but the girl leaned against him and wept luxuriantly. After a bit her sobs grew less, and finally they stopped. She looked up at him, and despite her red eyes and wet cheeks, she was still the prettiest girl he had ever seen. "I must get back," she said. "They will miss me, and Mamma becomes angry when I stay away for so long. She says she will send me away to school."

"I am going to school," said Walter. "At Winchester, like my brother."

"I am glad that they are sending me away," the girl said fiercely. "I do not want to be here. They do not want me." She stood and wiped her eyes, and put the miniature in the pocket of her pinafore. Walter remembered his manners and stood to say good-bye to a lady.

"It was very nice to meet you," the girl said, holding out her hand. Walter shook it, and she turned and began to walk toward Kellynch.

"Wait," said Walter. She stopped and turned back. "I do not know your name," he said.

"Gwendolyn," the girl said. "My name is Gwendolyn Clay."

"I am Walter Musgrove," he said. "It was very good to meet you."

She smiled at him, and Walter instinctively ran to her and kissed her on the cheek. "I still think you look like an angel," he whispered, and ran toward Uppercross without looking back.

~ Continued in next chapter