Read CHAPTER V - A QUESTION OF EDUCATION of The Village by the River , free online book, by H. Louisa Bedford, on ReadCentral.com.

“I can’t think why you, or any reasonable man, should object to a board school?” said Paul, who had been expounding his views at some length to the rector. “The people should have a voice in the matter of their children’s education; and it can’t be fair that any particular system of religion should be forced upon them. In a place like this you would be pretty certain to come out at the head of the poll, and, if religious teaching seems such an essential, you would be allowed to give it with limitations.”

“With limitations that would practically make it useless,” said Mr. Curzon. “I am prepared to make any sacrifice rather than surrender the religious training of the children God has given to my care. It will be a hard matter, with you against me, but I must stick fast by my principle.”

“In a few more years there won’t be a voluntary school left in the country,” said Paul.

“Mine shall be one of the last to die,” replied Mr. Curzon.

“You are fully persuaded that you are carrying out the wishes of your people.”

“I am sure that, as far as I know it, I shall be doing my duty by them and that must come first; but they shall have an opportunity of expressing their opinion. I am going to call a meeting about the enlarging of the school, and I shall try and persuade every one to attend it.”

“Including myself?” inquired Paul, with a rather sceptical smile.

“I shall wish you, of course, to be there.”

“But I can only be there in opposition to your views,” Paul said.

“A clergyman gets used to opposition,” replied Mr. Curzon, quietly; “but if the school is to be continued under the management of myself and my churchwardens, it shall be no hole-and-corner business: it shall be with the consent and confidence of the majority of my people.”

Paul rose to go; and there was rather a troubled look on his face as he took Mr. Curzon’s out-stretched hand. It was such a kindly, friendly grip.

“I’m afraid we cannot help coming across each other as we both have the courage of our opinions; but at least you will believe that I have the social development of the village very near at heart.”

“And there, at least, we agree,” said Mr. Curzon, smiling; “but with me their spiritual welfare is even more urgent.”

Kitty’s little carriage was drawn up at the door, as she was just returning from an outing. She greeted Paul with a beaming face, which, as he came closer, grew clouded with anxiety.

“I’m afraid you’ve got another headache, and I’ve got nothing to bring now,” she said. “Blackberries wouldn’t do. They are rather nasty, daddy thinks.”

“I’ve not got a headache, Kitty, thank you,” said Paul, leaving the question of blackberries in abeyance. “What made you think I had?”

“You were frowning; but perhaps it was the sun in your eyes. Has your sister bigger than me come yet?”

“Oh yes; she has been here quite a time, and you have not been to see her.”

“I’ve been away; did not you know? away with daddy,” with a proud glance up at her father. “It was lovely; he had no one to think of but me, and I was with him on the beach nearly all day long.”

“Ah, that’s how you come to have such roses in your cheeks. Well, when are you coming to have tea with Sally and me? You shall choose your own day.”

“Would to-morrow do? It’s Sunday; and daddy likes me to have all the happiest things on Sunday. But I forgot; Nurse was to come, too, but she goes out on Sunday afternoon.”

The sweet-faced woman who wheeled Kitty about gave an amused little laugh.

“It would be rather nice for you to go this once alone, Miss Kitty; and I could wheel you there on my way out

“And Sally and I could bring you home. Would not that do?” said Paul to Mr. Curzon.

“If you are sure you will not be troubled with her.”

“Oh dear, no; it has been a long-standing engagement has it not, Kitty?”

“Daddy dear, lift me out, please!” said Kitty, when Paul had gone on his way. “I like him so much, although I don’t remember his name. It’s rather a funny one, but I like him; he has such kind eyes.”

Mr. Curzon tenderly lifted his little daughter out of her carriage, but made no answer to her remark about their new neighbour. To himself he was free to admit that the new squire’s views troubled him sorely.

“We are to have our first tea-party to-morrow, Sally. I have invited the district visitor.”

“Who?” asked Sally, in considerable astonishment.

“Kitty Curzon whose loving care for my head has won my heart. The child persists in believing that I live in a chronic state of headache, and resorts to her own methods of cure. Ours is a friendship doomed to be nipped in the bud, alas! Let us make the most of it while it lasts.”

“What is to kill it?”

“The father is the difficulty; he has caught sight of my cloven hoof this morning, and, depend upon it, he will not trust Kitty to us often. He had to consent to her coming this morning, for she arranged it all under his very eyes; and I saw he had not the heart to thwart her. She’s a young woman who evidently gets her own way up to a certain point; but unless I’m greatly mistaken, the fatherly fiat will go forth that the less she sees of us the better.”

“I would rather she did not come at all, then,” said Sally, hotly.

“I wouldn’t; she has chosen this tea as her Sunday treat,” Paul answered with a humorous smile.

By four o’clock on the morrow the little invalid carriage stopped at the Macdonald’s gate, and Paul ran down to greet his visitor.

“Wait a moment, Kitty; Nurse and I between us can lift the whole thing in, and then she can go on for her outing, and you shall be left to Sally and me.”

Kitty’s eyes looked beyond Paul at Sally, who stood smiling behind.

“You did not tell me she was grown-up like everybody else,” she answered irrelevantly.

“Oh, there’s a lot of difference even between grown-up people, as I will presently show you,” said Paul. “Meanwhile, before you talk to Sally, we’ll get you into the cottage.”

“Shall you carry me, like daddy? I can walk on crutches, but it hurts me rather,” said Kitty. And Paul lifted her in his strong arms as gently as if she were a baby, and Sally followed with the crutches, her soul filled with pity for the child so perfectly developed as far as the waist, but whose legs were twisted and helpless.

Evidently poor Kitty had some affection of the spine. Sally felt her pity almost misplaced before the afternoon was over; Kitty’s enjoyment of life in general, and her present entertainment in particular was so genuine, and her laughter so infectious.

By a happy inspiration Mrs. Macdonald had suggested that the tea should be held in the orchard behind the house, and Kitty’s carriage was placed under the tree which bore the rosiest apples, one or two of which fell with a flop at her feet.

“Such as comes to little missy she must take home with her,” said Macdonald, smiling benignantly from his seat in the kitchen, and bestowing a meaning glance at Paul, who, mindful of the hint, shook the boughs as he handed Kitty her tea, bringing a shower of red fruit about her.

The conversation never flagged; Kitty’s life seemed full of interest, both at home and abroad, and she was fast friends, apparently, with every soul in the place, including Allison, who had won her affection for ever by presenting her with a Persian kitten, whom she brought down regularly once a week to call upon its former owner. When the bells began to chime for evening service Kitty signified her wish to depart.

“We could take little missy,” said Macdonald. “We’ll be going that way ourselves.”

“No, thank you,” said Paul. “We promised to take you home did not we, Kitty?”

Had he realized quite what the fulfilment of that promise involved, he might have been inclined to accept the Macdonald’s offer, for when he and Sally had wheeled their visitor as far as the rectory, and were going to enter, she shook her head vigorously.

“We can’t get in there it will be all locked up every one’s gone to church. Please take me on! my carriage goes into the belfry, and, as I lie there, I can see all down the church.”

There was no disobeying such clear directions, so Paul, with a smile, humbly did as he was bid.

“Is that all you want?” he asked, when he had adjusted Kitty’s carriage to the exact angle which she liked best.

He was in a hurry to slip out before the service began; Sally waited for him outside.

“Oh no; I haven’t got my book and things,” said Kitty. “They are in the box in the corner; daddy had it made for me, and here’s the key,” producing a key on a string from round her neck. “There’s a nice red one you can use that belongs to Nurse.”

By the time Paul had unlocked the box and found the books, Kitty’s hands were devoutly folded in prayer, and her eyes fast shut. She opened them presently with a bright smile.

“Thank you,” she half-whispered. “Now if you bring that chair close to me, you’ll find my places for me; Nurse always does. I’ve not learned to read so very long daddy would not let me.”

Paul, feeling himself a victim of circumstance, fetched the chair and seated himself.

“I suppose he’s forgotten to say his prayers,” thought Kitty, as she noticed that he neither knelt down nor even placed his hand over his eyes, which were the varying methods of paying homage to God, that she had observed the men of the congregation adopted when they came into church.

Paul found his position a singular one. He had not been present at a service of any description since his college days. It would not be true to say that he had lost his belief; he had never had any. He might well question the necessity of religious education, for he had had none himself. He and Sally had been baptized as babies, just because their mother had wished it; but after her death their father, who cared for none of these things, left their religious training to chance.

“Speak the truth, and behave like a gentleman,” he said to Paul, when he was sent at an early age to school; “and if ever you get into a scrape, come to me and tell me all about it.”

It was a very simple moral code, and Paul lived by it both at school and college; and before his college course was ended his father had died. Christianity had not appealed to him in any way; he regarded it as a worn-out system of religious belief that had been a moral force in the world, but was dying now, slowly perhaps, but surely. Perhaps in a remote village like this, where a Rector of strong personality was at the head of affairs, it might be fanned into a flame for a time, but it would not last. It certainly had a semblance of life to-night, Paul admitted, as the congregation rose to its feet at the opening bars of the voluntary, and the white-robed choir entered, followed by Mr. Curzon. There was scarcely an empty seat, and there were as many men present as women; and they were there, apparently, not to look on but to worship, if hearty singing or burst of response were any criterion. There was a scarcely a voice silent save Paul’s own.

Viewed as a picture it was a pretty one, framed as it was by the high narrow Early English arch which opened from the belfry into the nave. First came the bowed heads of the kneeling people, and, through the beautiful old screen which separated chancel from nave, the altar shone out in strong relief against its background of soft-coloured mosaic, the rays of the western sun giving an added touch of brilliance to its decoration of cross and flowers.

But Kitty’s hand was laid upon Paul’s arm, and “Psalms, please!” brought him back from his reverie to his duty. He did not keep her waiting again, and he was interested by watching the sensitive, eager little face. There was no question that the child was following the service heart and soul; but when the sermon time came she was fairly tired out, and, turning her head a little on one side, she was soon fast asleep.

“If the Lord be God, follow Him,” said Mr. Curzon; and Paul glanced up at the preacher, and noticed that every head was turned in the same direction. And yet it was no great eloquence that held them, but a certain manly simplicity of speech which carried conviction of the preacher’s absolute sincerity. He prefaced his sermon with a notice of a public meeting that was to be held about the schools in the course of the coming week, at which he begged the attendance of all interested in the subject of education. The time had come when the schools must be enlarged, and he put the question of whether this should be done by private subscription, or by turning the school into a board school, very simply before his people, telling them that a grave question was involved in the decision that of religious education.

“There are those among you who will say that in this matter the parsons want it all their own way; but, for myself, I emphatically deny the charge. I want God’s way, and it is not until after much thought and prayer that I venture to place this matter before you to-night. It is one that I, as shepherd of this flock, must talk to you about, for holy hands have been laid upon my head, and the souls of all in this place are committed solemnly to my charge; and I must claim the little ones for the Master whom I serve, I wish to retain the right to train them as faithful and true members of Christ and His Church. I should not be faithful to my office unless I try to make you fully grasp the danger I believe to lurk in education that is robbed of its crowning glory the knowledge of God.”

Paul listened to the simple appeal which followed with interest not unmixed with irritation.

“He has the whip-hand over me; he rules his people by their hearts rather than by their heads,” he said to Sally, afterwards, when he was giving her the gist of the sermon. “Parsons have a greater chance of propagating their views than any other set of men. Twice a day every Sunday they can lay down the law with never a soul to gainsay them.”

“But lots of us don’t go to listen,” said Sally.

Paul laughed. “Well, no; I don’t think there are many country congregations like the one I saw to-night. I’m not sorry to have been there for once. In future we’ll fix some other day than Sunday for our visitor. I really could not hurt the child’s feelings, and yet I cannot be led along a victim at her chariot wheels.”

“I can’t think why you take so much notice of her? You’ve never cared for a child before.”

“She bought me with ripe gooseberries,” Paul answered laughing. “I couldn’t refuse a child’s friendship any more than a dog’s.”

The Rector’s sermon was fully discussed at the forge the following evening.

“Says I to Mr. Lessing to-day when we was talking together about this eddication business, ‘It’s all very well sayin’ as we must make the schools so fine and grand, but what I wants to know is, who’s goin’ to pay?” said Allison. “Them as has got the money, I s’pose.”

“What did he say?” asked Tom Burney.

“‘If I have my way it’ll be thrown upon the rates.’ But I’m not sure I’m with him there. Once let the rates run up, and we dunno where we are. Seems to me, with all his free-and-easy ways, and his living like one of us, he’s a bit close-fisted not a bit like the old major. Depend upon it, he don’t want to put down his cool hundred; and that’s why he talks so brisk about the rates. There’s something about it as I’ve not got clear yet, for the rector comes along this morning, quite cheery like, and sings out as he passes, ‘Comin’ to the school meetin’ a Friday, Allison? Room for all. I wants this school business settled.’”

“We couldn’t settle it no better than it is at present, I’m thinking,” interposed Macdonald gently. “To hear the rector talk a Sunday night about it were grand, that it was; and, if it’s money he wants, there isn’t one of us that oughtn’t to help him.”

“Rich fellers like you can talk about money!” retorted Allison, with withering scorn; “but for me, who makes every penny I earns, he may think hisself well off to get the five shillin’s I gives him every year for those blessed schools. I’ll stick to that five, neither more nor less, unless the squire gets his way; and then I won’t give nothink but what I’m made to.” But Allison found himself without an audience. With the mention of money the company had dispersed.