The School-feast

Not on combat bent, nor of foemen in search, was this priest-led and woman-officered company, yet their music played martial tunes, and—to judge by the eyes and carriage of some, Miss Keeldar for instance—these sounds awoke, if not a martial, yet a longing spirit. Old Helstone, turning by chance, looked into her face, and he laughed, and she laughed at him.

‘There is no battle in prospect,’ he said; ‘our country does not want us to fight for it; no foe or tyrant is questioning or threatening our liberty; there is nothing to be done; we are only taking a walk. Keep your hand on the reins, Captain, and slack the fire of that spirit; it is not wanted; the more’s the pity.’

‘Take your own advice, Doctor,’ was Shirley’s response. To Caroline she murmured: ‘I’ll borrow of imagination what reality will not give me. We are not soldiers—bloodshed is not my desire—or, if we are, we are soldiers of the Cross. Time has rolled back some hundreds of years, and we are bound on a pilgrimage to Palestine. But no; that is too visionary. I need a sterner dream: we are Lowlanders of Scotland, following a covenanting captain up into the hills to hold a meeting out of the reach of persecuting troopers. We know that battle may follow prayer; and, as we believe that in the worst issue of battle heaven must be our reward, we are ready and willing to redden the peat-moss with our blood. That music stirs my soul; it wakens all my life; it makes my heart beat, not with its temperate daily pulse, but with a new, thrilling vigour. I almost long fo danger, for a faith, a land, or at least a lover, to defend.’

‘Look, Shirley!’ interrupted Caroline. ‘What is that red speck above Stilbro’ Brow? You have keener sight than I; just turn your eagle eye to it.’

Miss Keeldar looked.

‘I see,’ she said; then added presently: ‘There is a line of red. They are soldiers—cavalry soldiers,’ she subjoined quickly; ‘they ride fast; there are six of them; they will pass us; no, they have turned off to the right; they saw our procession, and avoid it by making a circuit. Where are they going?’

‘Perhaps they are only exercising their horses.’

‘Perhaps so. We see them no more now.’

Mr. Helstone here spoke.

‘We shall pass through Royd Lane, to reach Nunnely Common by a short cut,’ said he.

And into the straits of Royd Lane they accordingly defiled. It was very narrow—so narrow that only two could walk abreast without falling into the ditch which ran along each side. They had gained the middle of it, when excitement become obvious in the clerical commanders; Boultby’s spectacles and Helstone’s Rehoboam were agitated; the curates nudged each other; Mr. Hall turned to the ladies and smiled.

‘What is the matter?’ was the demand.

He pointed with his staff to the end of the lane before them. Lo and behold! another, an opposition procession was there entering, headed also by men in black, and followed also, as they could now hear, by music.

‘Is it our double?’ asked Shirley—‘our manifold wraith? Here is a card turned up!’

‘If you wanted a battle, you are likely to get one—at least, of looks,’ whispered Caroline, laughing.

‘They shall not pass us!’ unanimously cried the curates. ‘We’ll not give way.’

‘Give way!’ retorted Helstone sternly, turning round. ‘Who talks of giving way? You boys mind what you are about; the ladies, I know, will be firm—I can trust them. There is not a Churchwoman here but will stand her ground against these folks for the honour of the Establishment. What does Miss Keeldar say?’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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