Title: Noel's Christmas tree
Author: Amy Le Feuvre
Release date: September 16, 2023 [eBook #71664]
Original publication: London: Ward, Lock & Co., Limited, 1926
Transcriber's note: Unusual and inconsistent spelling is as printed.
I. THEIR UNKNOWN BROTHER
II. WISTARIA COTTAGE
III. THE CHRISTMAS TREE
IV. A NURSERY ENTERTAINMENT
V. LESSON DAYS
VI. INEZ APPEARS
VII. INEZ AT HOME
VIII. THE LITTLE RESCUERS
IX. THE COMING OF THE HOLIDAYS
X. THEIR PICNIC
XI. WITHOUT A MOTHER
XII. INEZ'S VOW
XIII. THEIR MOTHER'S BIRTHDAY
XIV. THE GLORY OF THE TREE
XV. TO THE BORDERLAND AND BACK
"Dinah, do hurry up!"
A small boy with close-cropped brown head and dark eager eyes was drumming with his fingers on the windowpane. He turned his head over his shoulder as he spoke, and his tone was impatient.
Dinah, or Diana as she was really called, lay flat on her chest by the schoolroom fire. Big sheets of paper were before her, and with a good deal of sucking of her pencil she was writing rapidly. She was very thin and pale; her nurse said she was wiry, and her fair hair was bobbed in the usual fashion.
"How do you spell alarming, two l's and two m's?" she asked, without raising her head.
"Hurray! Here's the taxi! Such a lot of luggage! You're too late; you can't see it now."
Diana had dashed to the window. They were at the top of a high London house, in one of the quiet roads of South Kensington, but try as they could, they could neither see the cab nor its occupants now, and the windows were too heavy to be raised.
"Aha!" shouted the boy, dancing round the room. "I saw, and you didn't!"
"What did you see?"
"A monkey, and a parrot, and a black, and a huge bunch of coco-nuts!"
"I don't believe you. Did you see—Mother?" She added the last word in an awed whisper.
He looked at her, then impishly shook his head.
"I dare say she hasn't come. P'r'aps she's drowned in the sea."
"You wicked, wicked boy!"
"You're always making those kind of things in your stories."
Diana stole out of the room on tiptoe. Her brother Chris followed her. Hanging breathlessly over the staircase, they vainly tried to see what was going on in the hall. How could Granny have ordered them to stay up in the schoolroom till sent for, when an unknown mother and brother were arriving from India! It was too tantalizing! They could hear a great bustle in the hall, and then a little shrill voice made itself heard:
"I've gotted new boots with buttons."
"That's him," said Diana.
Chris danced up and down in excitement.
"We must see them," he cried.
"Then Granny or Nurse will only send us to bed. Of course Nurse is down there. I hear her voice. Mean old thing! As if we oughtn't to see Mother before she does!"
But the next moment Nurse came panting upstairs.
"You're to go down at once. Your mother wants to see you. She's in the drawing-room. Are you tidy?"
She passed her hands over their hair, pulled Diana's short brown velvet frock straight, then sent them down. And strange to say, they went very slowly.
"My heart is thumping!" whispered Diana.
Chris stuck his chest out with some bravado.
"My heart never thumps me!" he said. "I wouldn't let it!"
But when they reached the drawing-room door he hesitated.
When you have looked forward to a thing very much and talked about it every day, and many times a day, for quite a month, it is rather stupendous when it actually arrives.
And then he turned the door handle, and politely stood back and let his sister go in before him.
"Ladies first," was one of Nurse's favourite maxims. And just now Chris felt rather glad of it!
Granny was in her easy chair with her arm round a tiny fair curly-haired boy who stood leaning against her knees. Standing on the hearthrug with her back to them, warming her delicate-looking hands on which were many sparkling rings, was their mother. She was tall and slender, and wore a close-fitting green cloth gown. She had thrown off her thick fur coat, but wore a little sable toque over her sunny brown hair. And when she turned round and opened her arms exclaiming, "And here are my big boy and girl!"
Diana felt a lump rise in her throat. Inwardly she said to herself: "My beautiful mother—"
In another moment Diana and Chris were being embraced.
Little Noel regarded them with a pucker in his baby brow. He did not quite like seeing his mother kiss them as she kissed him.
"Now speak to your little brother. He has been longing to see you—haven't you, Noel?"
Noel stood out straight with his hands behind him.
"I've see'd them now, Mummy, and they're just like uvver chil'en. Like the chil'en on board."
He did not offer to kiss them, but Diana put her arms round him and kissed him warmly.
"I think you're a dear little boy," she said. "I like your curls!"
Chris shook hands with him, and said nothing.
His mother laughed:
"Take him up to the nursery or schoolroom, or whatever you call it, and you'll soon be friends. I think I'll have a warm bath, Mother, before dinner. Noel and I had tea in the train. Oh, I'm tired!"
The children left the room, and climbed two flights of stairs in perfect silence.
This new unknown brother with his baby face and flaxen curls was amazingly self-possessed. Diana tried to take his hand, but he pulled it away from her with a jerk. He seemed to find going upstairs a great effort, and put his right foot foremost the whole way. When they reached the schoolroom, at last, he heaved a little sigh.
"It's nearly as high as heaven!" he remarked.
Chris stared at him. He was going to show him the toy cupboard, but Noel suddenly found his tongue. He stood by the fire looking into the red coals with thoughtful face; then he turned to Diana.
"I like fires," he said, "and puppy dogs, and sa'ngwiches that taste hot and have no sweet in them. What do you like?"
"She likes paper and pencil best," said Chris. "Dinah writes lovely stories, Noel, about shipwrecks, and fires, and floods, and earthquakes, and everything exciting, and her people are just going to be killed and then they're saved, and the girls always have golden curls and blue eyes, and the boys black flashing eyes and coal-black hair."
Noel seemed impressed.
"What peoples do you know?" he asked. "I have two peoples always going about with me. Do you know them? God is one, and the Devil is another. God takes care of me and loves me. I love Him when I'm good, and I push the Devil away; but when I'm wicked, I make friends with the Devil."
"Oh!" cried Diana in a shocked voice. "You mustn't talk out loud about things like that. They're only spoken in church on Sundays."
"Have you never been to church?" asked Chris. "It's a house with a pointed roof or tower. Haven't you got any in India? People go to hear the clergyman read and say prayers, and preach a sermon, and everybody sings hymns."
"It's very dull," confessed Diana. "Grown-up people seem to like it, but there's a lot of kneeling and sitting still. Chris and I would like to run away out of it often."
"What do you do it for?"
"It's to worship God, Nurse says."
"Oh," said Noel with a smile, "then it's like what we have in a tent sometimes, when the padre comes to see us. I went once, and they sang hymns, but we hardly ever have it. I'd like to see a proper church. Is it like the temples where the idols are?"
"We don't know anything about them," said Chris. "You wait and see next Sunday."
Then Diana began to question the little stranger.
"Tell us," she said, with a little hesitation in her voice, "what is Mother like?"
Noel stared at her with his big eyes.
"She's like my darling Mummy, that's what she is!"
"I mean—is she cross or kind? Does she laugh, or is she shocked? We don't know her, and grown-up people are so very different, aren't they, Chris?"
"Yes; Granny says some things are wrong which Nurse sees no harm about! And Nurse is cross about something when Granny is not a bit."
"Where is your monkey, and parrot, and coco-nuts?" asked Diana.
Noel stared at her.
"Shut up!" said Chris, giving his sister a nudge. "I was only pulling your leg. I didn't see them really."
Nurse came into the room at this moment. She took possession of Noel at once.
"Come along, your mother says you'd best go to bed as you're tired out, and I'll bring you your supper, when you've had your bath."
"No, fanks, I'll stay here."
Noel put his hands in his pockets and looked at Nurse defiantly. She said nothing, but she was a big woman and Noel a tiny boy. She simply took him up in her arms and carried him off to bed. And Noel was so astounded that he said nothing. His ayah had been left behind in India, and a young girl who wanted her passage home had taken charge of him on the voyage. The consequence was that he had had things pretty much his own way.
"I rather like him," said Diana when the door had closed upon them. "He's a funny boy."
"He's too cocky," said Chris loftily. "I'll soon teach him!"
"But it's Mother I'm interested in," said Diana. "Oh, Chris, I think she's lovely, and she dresses like a queen, and she's so tall and thin, not fat like Granny, and she had buckles on her shoes that were sparkling like her rings. I wish we could see her again to-night. Do you think we will?"
"We're going away with her soon," said Chris. "Granny says she's going to take us with her to Granny's old home in the country. It's that white house with green shutters in the big garden in the picture over Granny's sofa."
"I know," said Diana, smiling in that soft dreamy way of hers that Chris always called "bunkum." "It's called Wistaria Cottage, and it will be heavenly going with a strange mother into a strange country! So many, many things might happen."
Chris laughed, but not derisively. He had had a feeling in his chest when his mother had put her arms round him and kissed him. He thought he had heard her murmur, "My first-born," but he could not be quite sure. He asked Diana now if he could be a "first-born."
"Of course, you stupid, if you were born first!"
"Oh," said Chris blankly. "I didn't know it meant that! I was thinking it was a Bible word. Wasn't it in the plagues in Egypt?"
"You're older than me."
"I know that; you generally forget it."
"I go by size."
This was an insult that Chris could not stand. He was a year older than Diana, but she was as tall as he was, and sometimes it seemed as if she were going to out-top him. Chris prayed in agony sometimes:
"O God, make me grow, make me grow in the night."
He was always measuring himself, and had been found by Nurse one day lying flat on his bed, his wrists and his ankles tied to the head and foot rail of the bed. "I'm trying to stretch myself," he said, and Nurse had laughed at him, and told him he would grow in "God's good time." So now he made a rush for Diana, and she fled round the room. Chairs were knocked over, and when Nurse came in to see what was the matter, there was a writhing mass of legs and arms on the floor. Diana was kicking and screaming for all she was worth. If she were inclined to be the taller, Chris was the stronger, and he was on top of her now. Nurse soon restored quiet and order.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," she said sternly; "the first evening your mother is here. She'd be ashamed to own you if she'd seen you a minute ago!"
"Shall we see her again?" questioned Diana eagerly.
"No, not unless you're sent for, and I know your Granny won't do that."
But they did see her again, for when they were in bed she came to visit them in turn. Diana and Chris had each a small room of their own, and Diana was the first one to be visited.
She sat up in bed with wide starry grey eyes, as she gazed in rapt admiration at her mother. Mrs. Inglefield had changed her cloth gown, and was in a powder-blue velvet tea-gown edged with sable fur. A string of pearls was round her white throat. Diana had sometimes hung over the banisters and watched some of Granny's friends go into the dining-room when they came to dinner, but though she had admired all their lovely clothes, none of them had ever belonged to her. She put her little hand out and stroked her mother's long open velvet sleeve. And then her mother knelt by her bed and looked at her with laughing eyes.
"Do you remember me, my sweet? Five years ago I brought you and Chris to Granny, and I thought my heart would break. Hasn't she been a good kind Granny to take care of you and keep you for me all these years? You were such a tiny girl, not three years old. I suppose you can't remember me? I'm quite a stranger to you."
Diana gave a little gulp. How she wished she could remember! But she wouldn't tell a lie.
"I'm 'fraid I don't remember," she said with downcast head. "But you aren't a stranger, for we've had your letters, and Chris and I have been counting the days till you came. And, please, we do belong to you as much as Noel, don't we? But of course he knows you better than we do."
"Oh, we shall all know each other very soon and will be a happy family party! Good night, darling, I'm very tired or I would stay longer. Where does Chris sleep?"
Diana told her, and Mrs. Inglefield passed on.
Chris received her very gravely and a little shyly.
"My eldest son," his mother murmured, as she laid her hand caressingly on his short-cropped head. "What talks you and I must have together! I'm very unhappy at being away from dear Dad, but you seem a little bit of him. You have his eyes, Chris. Such frank truthful eyes your Dad has. He has never told an untruth in his life, I believe."
Chris gave a little wriggle. He could not say that of himself, but he liked to think he had his father's eyes. He gazed at his mother adoringly.
What a beautiful mother she was! And he was her eldest son. He smiled at the thought of it.
"Are we going away with you to-morrow?" he asked.
"Oh, no, not for another week. I have a lot of shopping I want to do in town, and I must see something of Granny. She's my mummy, you know."
This was quite a new idea to Chris. He pondered over it, then he said suddenly:
"Noel is very cocky!"
"Is he? I dare say he may be, poor mite. He has lived very much alone in India, and ruled it over the native servants. He's a very quaint little soul with decided opinions of his own, though he looks and is such a baby. You must show him how English boys behave, Chris, and teach him to play fair and give honour to others. Now, good night, darling."
Chris had never been kissed in such a tender fashion before. He lay back with rapt eyes after she had left him. "I'm her eldest son," he murmured to himself.
The sound of it warmed and stirred his heart. He felt it was a new calling, a sudden incitement to heroic deeds. He would take care of her, die for her if necessary. He was a bit of Dad: she had said so. He must behave like Dad.
Then Mrs. Inglefield visited her baby. She thought at first that he was fast asleep, but Nurse shook her head.
"He has been very restless and excited," she said in a low tone. "I suppose it is his arrival here. He slept for an hour straight off and then woke, and I can't get him asleep again."
"Of course you can't," said Noel, hearing the whisper and opening his eyes wide. "It's dreffully hard to get me to sleep. God has to send an angel to do it and he works at me for hours! And then, pop! Off I go!"
Then he seized his mother's hand and held it tight.
"Have you been to those uvver chil'en?"
"Yes, darling. What a happy boy you are to have a little sister and brother to play with!"
"I don't want them. They're too large for me. How many kisses did you give them?"
"Oh, Noel, you funny boy! Half a dozen each, I dare say. I never counted."
"Then you mus' give me double half a dozen. You don't know them like you know me."
His mother looked at him a little anxiously.
"Noel, darling, I love my three children exactly the same. I have thought more of Diana and Chris than of you when we were in India, because they were away from me. Now we are together, and I am going to show my love as much to them as to you. You are all equal in my heart. I shall give you half a dozen kisses now. Not one more. Now then, one on each cheek, one on each eye, one on the top of your darling little nose, and one on your mouth. Good night, my blessing, God bless and keep you."
Noel took his mother's kisses very calmly.
He blew a kiss to her when she reached the door.
"I fink God likes me better than them," he murmured. "Anyhow, I'll ask Him to."
The next week seemed full of delightful bustle to Diana and Chris. Their mother was very busy shopping and arranging about their new home; so she did not see much of them in the daytime. Nurse was packing, and fitting Noel out with English clothes. He continued to be a puzzle and interest to his brother and sister. They found him a good playfellow, but difficult to corner. Nothing seemed to shake his good opinion of himself, and he would never acknowledge himself to be in the wrong. Yet he would talk like a little angel of the Unseen World Above, and had a firm, unshaken belief that God was his Best Friend, and Jesus Christ His Saviour. His Indian ayah had been an earnest Christian, and had taught him as she had been taught herself in the Mission School.
His grandmother regarded him with anxious eyes. She asked his mother one day:
"Are you bringing up that child in the crude modern fashion of letting him think himself of more importance than us older folk?"
"No, Mother, but he has an original mind, and I don't want him snubbed and repressed."
Diana heard this, and pondered over it. Another day her Granny said:
"I still doubt the wisdom of your burying yourself in the country. After your time abroad you will feel the loneliness dreadfully. I couldn't stand the country, and came to town, as you know. You will have very few neighbours."
"So much the better. I shall have my children, and I am sick and tired of society life. It is only a year and then Gregory will be home."
Then seeing Diana standing by, her mother turned to her.
"You won't let me be dull, Diana, will you?"
"Not if I can help it," said Diana fervently; and she there and then registered a vow that she would not.
The day of departure came at last.
Three happy children were packed into a taxi with Nurse, and their grandmother drove with their mother in another, behind them, for Mrs. Greyling was coming to see them off at Paddington.
Granny had some conversation with the guard at the station, and the result was that they got a reserved carriage all to themselves.
The English country was strange to Noel; he was delighted to see some lambs at play in the fields, and he took a great interest in the different churches which appeared.
"What a lot of houses God has!" he remarked. "How tired He must get of going round and round and round to them all! Does He never miss any?"
"God is never tired," Diana said rebukingly, "and of course God is everywhere at the same time."
"Isn't it wonnerful!" said Noel with shining eyes.
"I shall go to church next Sunday, shan't I, Mummy?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Inglefield absently as she read her magazine.
"Mummy," said Diana anxiously, "Miss Carr, when we wished her good-bye, said she hoped we wouldn't forget our lessons. But we're going to have holidays for a little, aren't we?"
"Yes, I think so. I have a good deal to arrange, Diana, but I'm going to look to my little daughter to do a lot of things for me."
Diana flushed with importance, but Chris said bluntly:
"Dinah is only good for writing stories; she always forgets everything else."
Mrs. Inglefield was deep in her magazine again.
"Shut up!" said Diana, stretching out one slim leg to give her brother a kick.
Chris retaliated at once. Noel looked at them in delight.
"Have a fight," he suggested cheerfully.
Chris instantly was on his best behaviour.
"Men don't fight women," he said; "they're too sloppy, girls are."
"I've got as much muscle as you," said Diana, baring her arm to the elbow.
Chris grinned at her, and said no more.
It was a long journey; and all the travellers were glad when it was over. A car was waiting for them at their destination. Mrs. Inglefield arranged that the luggage should follow in a cart, and then they drove along a country road till they came to a pretty village with quaint irregular thatched cottages, a corner general shop and post office, and a square green with a big oak tree in the middle of it.
There was an inn with a sign of a bright yellow dog hanging over it, and it was called "The Golden Dog." The children wanted to stop and look at it closer, but on the car went, and never stopped till it came to a white wooden gate a little way out of the village. There was a drive with trees and shrubs on either side, and then a low white house came in view, and over the porch door was a winter jasmine in full flower, and a red japonica was just coming out and was creeping up the house.
"Not a big house, but it is a cosy one," said Mrs. Inglefield, looking at it with content.
The children were delighted with the pretty little entrance hall and the white railed staircase leading up from the middle of it. Nurse took them straight upstairs. She had lived here before with their grandmother, and knew her way about. There was a day nursery, a bedroom out of it where Noel was going to sleep with Nurse; beyond was a little room for Chris, and Diana was going to sleep in her mother's dressing-room. All the bedrooms were on the same landing, and the windows all looked out the same way. Chris and Diana were surprised at the one flight of stairs after their high London house, but Noel found any stairs a difficulty.
"We never has them in India," he said; "and my legs don't like them."
It was nearly dark when they reached the house, so there was no exploring for the children to do out of doors. But they visited every room inside. The pretty little drawing-room with the big round bay window at one end of it, the long low dining-room with the square table in it, and some oil portraits of Granny's family on the wall. The room they liked best was a little boudoir full of beautiful china and pretty things.
"I s'pose," said Diana wistfully, "that we shan't ever be in the downstair rooms."
"My darling," said her mother quickly, "this is going to be your home. You are welcome to every room in it; but the drawing-room I must have kept for special occasions. I shall be generally in the boudoir, I think, until the summer comes, and then we shall all live out of doors." Diana danced up and down softly on the tips of her toes.
"We shall be full, full, full!" she chanted almost under her breath.
"Full of what?" questioned her mother, with laughing eyes.
"Oh," said Diana, waving her small hands in the air, "full of riches, and joys, and—and love."
Her mother gazed at her contemplatively, but Chris was standing by, and he was eminently practical.
"That's all her story-book stuff," he remarked. "Dinah is always full of words, that's what she's full of."
"Oh, you children!" laughed Mrs. Inglefield. "I suppose I shall get to know you soon. I hope I shall. Now we're all tired. We shall have our supper very soon, and then bed. And to-morrow—well, to-morrow we shall see everything. I'm longing to look at the garden."
The little people were very tired, but they managed to peep inside the kitchen, where a stout woman called Mrs. Tubbs was bustling round and produced some delicious little hot scones from the oven. There was also a very fat girl there, her daughter, whose name was Cassy. She was about fifteen, and wore a funny little white cap perched on the top of her head like a big white rosette. Nurse told them that she and her mother and herself were going to run the house together.
"Lizzie Tubbs and I are old friends, went to the village school here together. I never have liked London. It seems coming home to be back here."
After Granny's big house and many servants, this new home seemed very small and cosy; but the children were almost too tired to talk about it. They had a supper of boiled eggs, scones, and a rice pudding, and then went to bed.
The next morning was sunny and bright. They had their eight o'clock breakfast with Nurse in the nursery, and then to their joy she turned them out into the garden. "Your mother has a headache and is having her breakfast in bed. I knew she'd feel it—she's been overtiring herself these last few weeks, so don't you be making a noise in the garden."
"We shan't be making more noise than the birds," said Diana. "I heard them chattering quite early."
They flew off out of the back door, and found themselves in an old square walled garden. There was a big lawn with a group of trees at the bottom. All round it were beds for flowers. Fruit trees were nailed against the walls.
"It's quite large enough for cricket," said Chris, looking at the lawn with satisfaction in his eyes.
Diana walked on to the trees. She stopped beneath an old medlar tree with low branches almost reaching the ground.
"I shall sit up there and write my stories," she said with a rapt smile.
But Noel had trotted on; he had found between some high shrubs a little twisting path which led to two gates. One gate opened into a small kitchen garden. Noel surveyed this, with his chin resting on the top bar of the gate. It did not appeal to him; he turned to the other, opened it and disappeared. Diana and Chris did not miss him, they were so accustomed to only having each other, that they both climbed up into the medlar tree and began to discuss this wonderful new life of theirs.
"Isn't it perfectly lovely!" Diana said. "And when the summer comes, Chris, think of the garden with the flowers and the trees, and Mums in a white dress trailing about, carrying armfuls of roses, and looking like the fairy queen."
"Go on, describe it," he said.
"And that fat girl Cassy bringing out a tray for tea on the lawn with strawberries and ices and all kinds of cakes," went on Diana enthusiastically.
"And me on the lawn with a new hat, in white flannels, and a boy friend trying to bowl me out, and Noel fielding for us," put in Chris.
"And I shall be in a hammock swinging backwards and forwards," said Diana, "and writing stories all day long."
"How about lessons?"
"Oh, don't think of them. They belong to London."
"I say, how thick these walls are! I could walk along the top if I could get there," said Chris. "I think I could climb up if I got up that tree leaning against the wall. Shall I try?"
"I'll come, too."
Diana was equal to adventure at any time; but Nurse appeared and called them in.
"Your mother wants you. Where's Master Noel?"
"We don't know."
"Fetch him in then. I can't wait."
But they could not find him, and after calling for some minutes, they thought he must have gone into the house.
Mrs. Inglefield was waiting for them in her boudoir.
"Good morning, darlings. Come and kiss me. I want to have ten minutes' reading out of what Daddy calls our Order Book for the day. And I want all three of you to come to me every morning at ten o'clock, will you? Where's Noel?"
"We don't know. Is the Order Book the Bible?" asked Diana.
"But that's only for Sunday," objected Chris.
"Oh, no, indeed it is not. But I must have my baby. Ah, here he is! I hear his dear stumping feet."
Up the stairs plodded Noel. He came into the room with shining mysterious eyes.
His mother took him on her lap. His curls were full of cobwebs and his knees and hands very dusty.
"Where have you been, sweetheart?"
"You never tolded me that God was going to live next door to us," was Noel's astounding remark.
"I hope," said his mother gravely, "that God lives nearer to us than that."
"I went down the paff," said Noel in his little breathless way. "I sawed a gate and I went frough, and there was a tiny paff and a wall of trees and anuver little gate, and then one of God's houses like we saw in the train, and it's quite, quite close to us. And there are bumps all over its garden and white stones with letters, and then I opened a very big door and went in."
He paused, and his big blue eyes blazed with excitement.
"It was raver dark, but the sun came through a beautiful window all red and blue and yellow, and there were most wunnerful fings in it. Seats, and books, and stools, and little steps into a high box, and a very big book on a stand, and a stone idol lying on his back with a sword, and some flowers on a table. And does it belong to us, Mums? It's a church, isn't it? I never sawed one in India."
"No, darling, we have been far away from a church these last three years. You are right. It is our church, but it doesn't belong to me especially. But Granny was allowed to have a little gate made into the churchyard when she lived here. It saved her a longer walk."
"And I went into a little room where there were white dresses hanging, and then I found anuver door with steps up, and I went up and up and up near the sky, and there was a tangle of ropes like on board ship, and some great 'normous bells, and I climbed and climbed and I came out right frough anuver door to a wall where I sawed the whole world!"
"You got up to the tower through the belfry," said his mother. "No wonder you are dusty, and it was dangerous, Noel: you mustn't go up there by yourself again. You might have fallen."
"May I go there on Sunday?" demanded Noel.
"Yes, to church. We'll all go together. Now I want you to be quiet, and I'm going to begin the Gospel of St. Matthew, about the little Christmas Babe. I think Diana and Chris might read the verses with me."
The children thought their mother's Bible reading very strange, but interesting. When it was over they were sent into the garden again, and their mother told them she would join them there. Noel was rather quiet till they got out of the house, then he said to Chris rather truculently.
"I s'pose you know I'm one of God's specials?"
"What's that?" asked Chris.
"Well, it's His favrit boy. Jesus Christ and me have the same birfday. God borned me on Christmas Day."
"Oh, I see," said Diana; "but that won't make any difference to God."
"I'm a Christmas child," said Noel, staring at her gravely, "that's why I'm called Noel. It means Christmas. It's a very grand and wunnerful thing to have the same birfday as Jesus Christ."
"Oh, come on!" exclaimed Chris impatiently. "You aren't grand or wonderful, Noel. Why, you hardly know how to run! Race me to the medlar. I'll give you ten yards' start. I'll guess at it."
Noel did his best, but he certainly was not a good runner: he waddled and he panted, and several times nearly tumbled headlong. But the run had taken his thoughts off himself, and when Mrs. Inglefield joined them, he was as eager as the others to see everything, and to hear about the time when his mother lived here as a little girl.
"This is where I used to have my garden," she said, taking them to a corner under the high wall. "I remember quite well when I sowed some little shells in it which I had brought from the seaside, and thought that fishes might come up out of the ground! Would you each like a garden?"
There was an eager assent from all three children.
Mrs. Inglefield began to measure out ground in the large herbaceous border.
"What shall we plant in them?" Diana asked.
"Anything and everything you like. I know a dear old gardener outside the village who is a florist and has a nursery for flowers and plants. Shall we all go and see him one day and ask him for seeds and plants? I will give you three shillings each to lay out in seeds."
"Oh, thank you," cried Diana, "but let's go to-day."
"Yes, don't let us wait," said Chris; "not a minute, as they might be growing."
Their mother laughed.
"Perhaps this afternoon I can manage it; but I have letters to write. It is mail day, and poor Daddy would be dreadfully disappointed if I didn't send him a letter."
"You can give him my big love," said Noel, "and tell him I'm going to be a church gardener."
"Are you?" said his mother, smiling at Diana and Chris, who always listened to Noel's statements with open eyes and mouths.
"Yes," nodded Noel, "I've just made it up, but I aren't going to tell nobody how I'll do it. It's a secret."
He would say no more, but pursed up his button of a mouth till it looked like a marble.
Then Mrs. Inglefield showed them the kitchen garden, and a shed in it where they might keep their gardening tools. An old man was in it, and Mrs. Inglefield spoke to him very pleasantly.
"Well, Foster, I see you have kept the garden in beautiful order," she said. "We're quite old friends. You were here before I went to India."
"A've bin fourteen year in this garden this coming midsummer," said the old man importantly.
"And these are my children, Foster. I'm going to try to make them gardeners."
"For mercy's sake, no!" ejaculated Foster, looking at the children with no loving eye. "Dogs an' childer be the garden's curse!"
Mrs. Inglefield looked really shocked.
"Of course they will have their own bit of ground and keep to it. But you were a boy once, Foster, and I'm sure you were always fond of flowers."
"He's a nassy old man!" said Noel in a loud voice; and his mother, taking him by the hand, left the kitchen garden and returned to the house.
In the afternoon it was a very happy little party that set out down the village. Diana and Chris were losing their shyness, and were able to chatter as freely as Noel to this new mother of theirs. It was of no use to point out to them the pretty thatched cottages, the geese and ducks upon the green, the lambs at play in the fields, the cows going home to be milked, the pale primroses appearing in the hedges, and the budding fresh green on every tree and bush. All these were delightful no doubt when there was nothing else on hand. With three shillings almost burning a hole in their pockets, was it likely that anything could keep them from their goal?
Along a green lane, up a hill, and then a very pretty whitewashed cottage appeared inside a big gate. Glass greenhouses stretched away on a sunny slope behind it. Mrs. Inglefield made her way to one of these, for she recognized Mr. Henry Sharpe, an old man with a white beard, standing at the door speaking to a workman.
And when he saw her, he came hurrying towards her with outstretched hands.
"Why, if it isn't Miss Bessie! Beg pardon, ma'am, but I do forget your married name. You are always Miss Bessie to me."
"I love to be called by the old name," said Mrs. Inglefield with her happy laugh, "and here is my little flock waiting to be made acquainted with you. They are going to start gardens, Henry, but they can make their own choice. Do you remember how I used to tear up to you when my pocket-money was due? What a lot of money I spent on seeds and flowers!"
"You were a born gardener, that you were!"
"Well, I haven't had a nice garden in India; we have moved about so much."
"Mums," said Chris, "may we see the flowers and choose?"
"Aye, come along then, and tell me what you want. Fruit to eat, flowers to smell, or shrubs to grow?"
"Is your daughter still with you?" asked Mrs. Inglefield.
"She is. She married, was left a widow in the war, and came back to me. My grandson is a big boy and goes to school. If I may say so, ma'am, you've a garden round you worth cultivating. Young fruit trees want a lot of training to make them fruit-bearing!"
Mrs. Inglefield looked at her children and then at the old man.
"You are right," she said, "and I'm going to try to do it, and if I get into difficulties I shall come to you. I think I will leave my children with you, and go into the cottage and have a talk with Bessie."
Mr. Sharpe took the children down between the houses to see the rows and rows of spring flowers and seedlings which were all coming on. He was very different to Foster. He loved children, and they all chattered away to him as if they had known him all their life.
By and by, he brought three very happy children back to their mother. Chris and Diana held fat packets in their hands. Noel had his in his pocket, but his blue eyes were shining mysteriously. They had each made their choice, and certainly Noel's choice seemed the strangest of all.
Old Mr. Sharpe insisted upon the children coming into the cottage and having some refreshment. It was too early for tea, but he produced some home-made ginger beer, and some currant cake. His daughter, a sad-faced young woman, had traces of tears on her cheeks. She had been talking about the young husband killed in the war. But she smiled at the children's eagerness and enthusiasm for the garden.
"Oh, Mums, such rows and rows of daffodils and narcissus! Isn't it a pity it's too late to plant them now?"
"And, Mums, you should have seen the flowers in the hot-houses, but none of them will grow out of doors now!"
"And the little trees, all coming out in pink and white flowers!"
It was not until they were on the way home that Mrs. Inglefield was told of the purchases.
Diana had chosen nothing but flowers. She had a tiny rose tree coming up the next day to be placed in the middle of her bed.
"It will be the queen," she said with the dreamy look in her grey eyes that her mother loved to see; "and I shall have her ladies-in-waiting all round her: Lady Pansy, and Lady Blue Cornflower, and Lady Pink Verbena, and Lady Snapdragon, and Lady Yellow Eschscholtzia; and then her little pages will be Tom Thumb Nasturtiums. Don't you think my bed will be lovely, Mums?"
"Lovely, darling. You have done very well, I think. What is Chris's choice?"
"I've got mustard and cress, and radishes," he said sturdily, "and one strawberry plant. And two red geraniums are coming to me when it's time to put them in the ground. And I've a lot of mixed sweet-peas, and one little gooseberry bush."
"You have a lot for your money. First rate," said his mother. "What has Noel got?"
Diana looked at Chris, and they both giggled.
Noel looked at them angrily, and turned to his mother:
"I'm going to have one fing only, but it's quite big, it's what we never had in India, and what I've always been wanting ever since you read me about it in my fairy book."
"I believe I can guess," his mother said: "it's a Christmas tree."
"Yes, that's just what it is. And Mr. Sharpe and me choosed for ever so long before we found a big one, and it's coming to-morrow."
"But, my darling, won't it be rather a dull garden with only that tree in it?"
"It won't be dull to me," said Noel. "I love it. And it will be ready for next Christmas. It's been wondering when its turn was coming to be taken away, it didn't know it was coming into this lovely garden with me to love it. Don't you r'ember the fir tree that was always finking and being disappointed? I mean to tell mine exac'ly what's going to happen to him."
"You're a funny darling," said his mother, but she kissed him and said no more.
"Mr. Sharpe gave him some flower seeds as a present," said Chris, "but he says he isn't going to put them in his garden."
"No, my Christmas tree won't like them. He likes plenty of room all to himself, and I shall put those seeds where I want to."
Mrs. Inglefield looked at him a little perplexedly.
"You're a funny boy," she said again; "but if your Christmas tree will make you happy, I shall say nothing against it. You've made your choice, so it's all right."
Noel seemed quite content. But he refused to tell Diana and Chris his plan about his seeds. All three of them wanted to go into the garden after tea, but Nurse refused to let them do it.
"It is too cold, and rain is beginning to fall. You must just stay in the nursery."
"We can go to Mums," said Diana.
"No, you can't. The mistress is going to rest. She's been at it all day long."
So they tried to make themselves happy in this new nursery of theirs. Chris got out his paint-box and began to colour the picture in a story-book of his. Diana got out her beloved sheets of paper and commenced a fresh story under the inspiration of this fresh home. Noel got a chair and knelt up at the window, looking out upon the English scene with keen, observant eyes.
Suddenly he looked round:
"What are those green lumps all over the church garden?" he asked.
"Those are graves, of course," said Chris, "where people are buried when they die."
"Why do they crowd into the church garden? Haven't they gardens of 'er own?"
"Oh, that wouldn't be proper," said Chris.
"I s'pose," Noel went on thoughtfully, "they try and get as near to God as they can, poor fings! But they aren't really vere at all, it's only their bodies. It isn't a very pretty garden: God ought to have a better one."
Chris made no reply.
Noel was always dressed first, and then Nurse went to Diana. It was a lovely sunny morning. Directly Nurse's back was turned, Noel slipped downstairs very quietly: then he ran out into the garden, opened the little gate that led to the churchyard and began his operations. Going from one green mound to another, he made a hole with his finger in the middle of each, opened his precious packet of seeds and dropped one or two seeds in it. Then he carefully covered it up with earth, and went on to another. Mr. Sharpe had put several varieties of seed into his packet. There was mignonette, aster, lobelia, and a few other summer flowers. Noel knew nothing about the names or the flowers, but he went on steadily planting seed by seed, and by and by a clergyman came out of the church. He looked at the small boy in surprise. He was a young, cheerful-looking man with a very quick, decided manner.
"Now, what on earth are you doing here?" he asked. "And who are you? We've never seen each other before, have we?"
"I'm Noel. Who are you?"
"I'm John Wargrave, the parson. And this place belongs to me."
Noel looked at him stolidly.
"This is God's garden," he said, "and that place you've come out of is God's house. It all belongs to Him."
"So it does, sonny. You've corrected me. But it isn't nice to make a playground of the churchyard. What are you doing?"
"I'm not playing. I'm working very hard."
Noel spoke in an injured tone. Mr. Wargrave looked at the packets of seeds in his hands, and wondered. Then Noel explained himself.
"I've made myself into God's gardener, and I'm going to make flowers come all over His garden. God loves flowers. Mums told me He did. It's an ugly garden now: not half as nice as ours."
"Do you love God?" Mr. Wargrave asked gently.
"It's a very nice thought, my boy, but a lot of people own a bit of ground here. The graves belong to them, and they wouldn't like you to meddle with them. Have you many seeds left?"
Noel spread out three small packets.
"Well, look here. There is a rose tree over the church porch. It is in a bed of its own, and you can plant the rest of your seeds there. I'll come and help you do it now."
Noel was quite willing. Mr. Wargrave produced a trowel from a little room at the back of the church, and they made quite a good job of it. He soon found out who Noel was and where he lived, and he said he was coming to call on Mrs. Inglefield very soon. They were good friends when they parted, and Noel trotted upstairs to his nursery breakfast. Nurse scolded him for his dirty hands, but supposed he had been playing in the garden. He did not tell anyone what he had been doing.
But later in the day when his Christmas tree arrived, and Diana and Chris were busy with their gardens, he was asked where his seeds were.
"God has got them," he said solemnly; "I've given them to Him."
He would say nothing more.
Diana remarked to Chris:
"I can't think why Noel is so religious. He isn't a good boy at all, and yet he is always talking about God."
"He's too little to know he oughtn't to do it," said Chris decidedly.
"Why oughtn't we to do it, I wonder?" said Diana musingly. "The people in the Bible talked about God."
"It isn't respectful," said Chris: "rev'rent, I mean. Granny always hushed us about religious things."
"Yes, but Mums talks about them quite easily: she doesn't whisper."
Chris gave it up.
"I only know Noel wouldn't do it if he was amongst a lot of other boys. They'd laugh at him."
"We laugh at him, but he doesn't care."
"He's a most cocky little beggar!"
The Christmas tree almost overshadowed Noel's small garden. It looked strangely out of place there, and would do so even more when surrounded by spring and summer flowers. Chris and Diana, up in the medlar tree the next day, watched Noel standing, hands in pockets, in front of it. A pert saucy robin came and perched on the topmost branch. Noel stood so still that he did not frighten it away, but he commenced to talk to it.
"You're sitting on my tree. I don't know if you know it. I'm a Chris'mas child and the tree is a Chris'mas tree, and we bofe belong to the best day in the whole year, and that's Jesus Christ's birfday and mine. It will take a long time to come this year, for we haven't got to the summer yet, but I'm going to be patient, and as for my tree, he is finking all the time of the wonderful day that's coming to him: the glorious, beautiful day when he'll be dressed from his head to his feet all over with lovely shining fings of glory, and crowds of chil'en and people will be dancing round him and looking up at him as if—as if he was a king. So, Mr. Robin, if you sit on his branches, you must re'mber you're almost sitting on a king!"
"Isn't he a funny boy?" whispered Diana to Chris.
Then Noel went on talking to his tree:
"I'm going to call you Firry; you must have a name. I hope you're happy in this garden; you haven't got any bruvvers to talk to, but I'd rather talk alone than to Chris. He never understands, and so you must be like me and like best to be alone. And if the trees wiv flowers on laugh at you, tell them that when winter comes—the English winter—they'll be dead and gone, and you'll be alive and glorious, it will be Chris'mas, and the very happiest day in the whole year. I don't want you to be unhappy, Firry. I cried for the poor little Chris'mas tree in Germany that was forgotten when Chris'mas Day was over. I shall never forget you. That's why I brought you here. I'll talk to you all the summer and tell you what's coming to you, and after Chris'mas you shall come back here and live and be happy and get ready for the nex' Chris'mas."
"He's talking drivel!" said Diana, and then she sprang down from the tree with a shout, and Noel, after giving a violent start, walked away and didn't go near his Christmas tree again that day.
The first Sunday came.
To Chris and Diana church was no treat; yet they looked forward to the novelty of going to a strange church and seeing strange people. To Noel this was a momentous day. He had never been to church in England yet. In London, for several reasons, he had not been taken there.
It was a bright sunny morning. Noel was dressed in his white sailor suit. It was a new one, and he felt rather self-conscious in it. As Mrs. Inglefield walked down the garden and through the little gate into the churchyard, she felt proud of her children. Diana had slipped her hand into her mother's, but Chris and Noel were having a tussle the other side of her. Each felt he ought to be nearest to his mother. When they reached the church door, Mrs. Inglefield looked down upon two hot, rather angry faces, and she said immediately:
"Now, boys, I can't have this. I am going to have Diana on one side of me in church, and Noel the other. Chris must be content to be the outside one. He shall sit near the aisle, for he is my eldest son, and that is where his father would sit if he were with us."
Chris brightened up immediately. They took their seats in the middle aisle, not very far from the pulpit. There was a good congregation, and the service was a hearty one. Mr. Wargrave, the young vicar, preached so earnestly and simply that even Noel could understand him. His big blue eyes seemed to be taking in everybody and everything. He was very still; he did not fidget as much as Chris did, and when they came out of church, he looked up at his mother with shining eyes:
"When I grow up, I shall have a white dress on, and stand up in church and preach like that man. I shall be a padre when I grow up."
Mrs. Inglefield looked down upon him tenderly.
"You couldn't be anything better, Noel," she said.
And then an old lady came up to them and shook hands with Mrs. Inglefield in a delighted way.
"I heard you were coming back to these parts. How's your mother? Still wedded to her town life? And are these your children? Bring them to tea with me to-morrow. Four o'clock. Good-bye. So glad to welcome you."
And then she bustled off and got into a car and was whirled away from them before Mrs. Inglefield had time to say a word. She turned to her children.
"That is Lady Alice Herbert. She's an old friend of Granny's. She lives at the Hall, and her husband, General Herbert, is a great invalid."
"And we're all going to tea with her. What fun!" said Chris.
In the afternoon the three children went into the garden whilst their mother rested; but by and by Mrs. Inglefield heard a little tap at the door, and Noel walked in. He did not look very happy.
"Am I asturbing you, Mummy?" he asked in his most angelic tone.
"No, darling, I am not sleeping; come and sit down by the couch here. What have you been doing?"
"I don't like those uvver two," said Noel, shaking his head with a heavy frown. "They're always playing and talking outside me."
"You mean without you; but you see they've not been accustomed to have a third in their games. I hope you're nice to them?"
"I don't want to have nuffin' to do with them. They laugh at me about the Chris'mas tree. You and me, Mummy, can be two as we've always been, and they can be just a two away from us."
"Oh, my darling," said Mrs. Inglefield, half laughing, yet with a perplexed face, "you mustn't talk so! This comes of bringing you up away from them. You all belong to me and to each other, and we must be a very happy little family. I can't talk to you any more now, so if you want to stay with me, get a picture-book from my table over there. There's that one you love about the boys in the Bible."
Noel got the book, and drawing a stool up by his mother's side, was quite happy till tea-time.
Chris and Diana appeared in very good spirits, and if Noel was rather silent, they did not seem to be impressed by it.
They were full of anticipation of going to Lady Alice Herbert's to tea the following day, and talked about it till bedtime.
Very great was their disappointment the next morning when their mother told them that she had received a letter from Lady Alice saying that, as the General was not very well, she would not ask the children, but only herself.
Diana pouted, Chris cried "What a shame!" and Noel stumped up and down the room in real anger.
"Never mind, chicks, she will ask you another day, I am sure, and perhaps it is just as well, for it looks like rain."
And rain it did in an hour's time. The children played contentedly in the nursery all the morning. They had their early dinner downstairs with their mother, and afterwards she took them up to her boudoir, and read a story to them till it was time for her to go off to the Hall. The car came for her a little before four o'clock, and the children watched her depart with envious eyes. They waved their hands to her, standing on the doorstep till they could see her no more, and then very reluctantly they went back to their nursery.
"What is there to do?" said Chris discontentedly as he put his hands deep in his jacket pockets and stood gazing out of the window at the driving rain and sodden garden.
"I'm going to finish my story, and then I'll read it to you," said Diana happily, as she drew her chair up to the table and produced some crumpled sheets of paper out of her pocket. Diana always carried her story about with her, in case of sudden inspiration seizing her.
"Read it to us first, and finish it afterwards," said Chris with a grin.
Noel looked at him contemptuously, and Chris caught the look and resented it.
"What are you going to do, Baby?" he asked.
Noel's eyes flashed.
"I aren't going to play with you," he said, and then, he marched out of the room.
A few minutes later a little figure in sailor cap and overcoat was plodding down the path to the gate, in the rain.
It was Noel. He felt that he could not be shut up in the nursery with his brother and sister all the afternoon, and suddenly thought that he would go and see Mr. Wargrave. Then he changed his mind. He would go into the church if the door was unlocked. There were a lot of things he wanted to see and understand there.
Half an hour later the house was being searched by Nurse for the truant. When she missed his cap and coat she was very angry with Chris and Diana.
"I was only ironing in the kitchen; you might have kept him quiet and out of mischief, the two of you," she said. "He's a child, I'll say that, but if he's wandering about in this rain, he'll be laid up with cold, with his Indian constitootion."
"He's most likely in the garden talking to his fir tree, or in the churchyard," said Chris. "Shall I go and look for him and bring him in?"
"Put on your mackintosh then, and be quick about it," said Nurse. "'Tis your fault he's wandered out, I consider. You're none too kind to him, either of you!"
Chris was delighted to have an excuse to go out in the rain. He sped away, down the garden, but there were no signs of Noel, then into the churchyard. When he got there, he found the young vicar, Mr. Wargrave, in the church porch. He had the door ajar, and to Chris's mystification seemed to be peeping through the opening.
"Have you seen my little brother?" he asked him.
"Hush!" said Mr. Wargrave, turning round, then he smiled at Chris.
"Don't make a noise," he said, "but have a look at him."
Chris peeped into the church. He caught sight of Noel's fair curly head at once. It was just above the edge of the pulpit, and two small arms were waving in the air. This was what he heard:
"And so you see, my frens, God wants you to be good. And my tex' is 'Fight the good fight,' and that's Satan, and I'll say good afternoon to you now, and mind you come next Sunday and I'll preach about the wind and rain trying to drown the boat. Amen."
Chris giggled loudly. Mr. Wargrave shut the door.
"We won't disturb him," he said.
"But he's no business there," Chris said; "Mums would be horrified. Noel thinks he can do anything he likes. He's going to be a clergyman, he says, so he's practising. He oughtn't to play in the church."
"It isn't play," said Mr. Wargrave. "Would you two boys like to come over to the Vicarage with me? My brother Ted would like to see you on a wet afternoon like this."
"I'd love it," said Chris; "but Nurse sent me to fetch Noel in. He's run away."
"I'll step across with you and ask Nurse to spare you for an hour. I live close here, you know."
Then he opened the church door with a little clatter. Noel darted down out of the pulpit. He looked very uncomfortable when he saw his brother's head peeping from behind Mr. Wargrave.
But he adopted a very careless air as he came down the aisle towards them.
"Are you come to have a—a service?" he asked the young vicar.
"No, I was coming to fetch a book in the vestry," Mr. Wargrave said; "and I want you and your brother to come back to the Vicarage to tea with me. We are going to your house to ask if you may. Perhaps you can get the permission while I get my book, Chris."
Chris sped away as fast as his legs could carry him. Noel stood still in the porch, looking out into the rain with grave thoughtful eyes. Mr. Wargrave was only a moment getting his book, and he joined him before Chris came back.
Putting his hand on his shoulder, he said, smiling:
"You'll be a preacher by and by, but don't hurry. We have to learn a lot before we can teach others."
Noel's cheeks became hot and red.
"Did you see anyone in the pulpit?" he asked in a whisper.
Mr. Wargrave nodded.
"I foughted I was quite alone. I only pretended the peoples. I just wanted to see if I could do it."
"Yes, yes, I understand. We'll forget it."
Mr. Wargrave pitied the small boy's distress and confusion. Chris reappeared, very breathless and happy.
"Nurse says we can come," he said. And then the three of them walked down the road a very little way, and turned in at a big iron gate with a thick shrubbery and a drive, and arrived at an old grey stone Vicarage, with small casement windows and walls covered with creepers.
The vicar took them straight through a long narrow hall to a room at the back of the house overlooking a very pretty garden. It was a cosy room. A bright red carpet was on the floor, and a blazing fire in the grate. There were bookshelves and many pictures lining the walls. On a big red-and-white chintz-covered couch by the fire, reclined a boy with a white face and a cheerful smile. He was a big boy, about fifteen or sixteen. Chris and Noel looked at him in awe.
"Two small neighbours, Ted," said Mr. Wargrave; "the other side of the church. They've come to tea. I'll go and tell Mrs. Hurcombe. You amuse them till I come back. I have my churchwarden waiting to see me."
He left the room. Chris and Noel stood by the side of the couch feeling a little shy of this strange boy, but when he looked at them and laughed, they laughed too.
"Don't think me an awful frump tucked up on a couch like this. It's only for a year. I was at school and hurt my back in the gym. Like to see how I spend my time?"
He drew a table by the side of his couch nearer, and showed them on a wooden tray a complete set of dolls' furniture. There was a most beautiful little cabinet of polished wood, which opened and shut its doors, six chairs with red leather seats, a four-post bedstead, a polished square table, and two chests of drawers.
"Oh!" cried Chris. "Did you make these all yourself?"
"Yes, and a lot more. They go to an Arts and Crafts Depot and sell like old boots. And I made them myself with the help of a book only, so I feel rather swanky over them."
"I wish Dinah could see these," said Chris.
"Here's something you may like better."
He produced a little canoe, and then a tiny tram and a wheelbarrow and a cart.
"It passes the time," he said.
"Don't you never go out of doors?" asked Noel, looking at him gravely.
"Not often. I have to be wheeled out in a flat pram, and I hate it. But when summer comes, I can lie on a rug on the lawn and then I shall feel first rate."
Chris was fingering the toys lovingly.
"I wish I was clever," he said with a little sigh.
"Can you make houses?" asked Noel eagerly. "Could you make a church?"
"He's mad on church," said Chris; "we've only just dragged him out of it. He's been in India, and doesn't know England."
"Tell us about India," said Ted, smiling at Noel.
Noel launched forth at once, waving his hands and getting quite excited as he described his home in India and the native servants, and all the pets he had kept out there. Chris openly yawned, but Ted was interested, and when Mr. Wargrave returned all three boys were talking fast and freely. Tea was brought in by a very smiling housekeeper, and they had a merry time.
But Chris watched Ted gravely, and at last he said to him:
"I couldn't laugh like you do if I had to lie on my back all day long. I'd have to die straight off if I couldn't jump up and run about."
"That's how I felt first of all," said Ted simply. "But of course it doesn't say much for your pluck if you can't face pain. And I came to see that I must make the best of it, and that I could be thankful that I wasn't blind or deaf and dumb, or covered over with loathsome sores. And—I—well, I've been helped along by remembering that there's a suffering corps in God's army, as well as a fighting corps."
Chris looked at him with big eyes.
Here was a big boy talking about God. He could not understand it.
But after tea, he was made very happy by having a lesson in wood-carving from Ted.
Noel went off with Mr. Wargrave to his study.
He sat on the deep window-ledge there, and swinging his legs, told the vicar all about his Christmas tree.
Mr. Wargrave was a good listener.
"I think it's splendid," he told him. "And then at Christmas perhaps you'd be able to make numbers happy. If I had a tree like that, I would ask a lot of children out of the village, and there are some in the Union, about a mile off on the high road. I'm the chaplain there, and I always feel sorry for the children. They don't have many pleasures. If you love Ted, he'll make you a lot of toys for your tree."
"Oh, will he?" Noel was radiant. "And I'll have a very big party. Mums will let me. I'll have all the children who live here. I do wish it was Christmas time."
"Oh, don't wish that. We have the lovely summer coming first. All of us are happy in summer-time. The flowers and the bees and butterflies, and the birds and squirrels and rabbits—they all love the warm sunshine. And you will, too."
"I don't like it when the sun is very hot," said Noel thoughtfully; then his thoughts took another turn. "What's a hypercrit?"
"Someone who pretends to be what he is not."
"And a 'cocky beggar'? I thoughted beggars were poor ragged men who asked for money: they were in India."
Mr. Wargrave smiled.
"Oh, that's a boy's expression for anyone who thinks a lot of himself. I suppose your brother has been calling you that?"
"If you speak about God at all, you're a hypercrit," said Noel. "I 'spect Chris doesn't know what it means: it's too long a word for him. I'll tell him so. I don't pretend half as much as they do; they're always pretending in their games. Why is it wrong to talk about God?"
"It isn't wrong; it ought to be the natural thing with every one of us. If we love anyone very much, we can't help talking about them. But—"
Mr. Wargrave hesitated; then he went on:
"Boys and girls, and grown-up people too, are shy sometimes of telling people what they feel deeply in their hearts; and when children play about with each other, they keep their thoughts about God and heaven to themselves, and don't quite understand anybody talking freely about it. I'm not saying they are right. But it makes us more reverent if we speak about God very gravely, almost in a whisper."
Noel listened and nodded his head.
And then he caught sight of a case of butterflies, and for the next half-hour hung over it entranced, whilst Mr. Wargrave talked about butterflies and their ways.
When Chris and Noel's visit was over, they went home and described all the glories of the Vicarage to Diana, who was quite curious about them.
She was wild to see the dolls' furniture.
"I don't see why I shouldn't go straight in to-morrow. I'll ask Mums if I may. That ill boy would be very glad to see me. Mums was only saying the other day that visiting sick people was a very nice thing to do."
When Mrs. Inglefield returned home, three eager children met her in the hall.
She was quite pleased that the boys had gone to tea at the Vicarage.
"Lady Alice was telling me about that poor boy. It is a dreadful trial for him to be laid up like that for a year, or perhaps longer."
"But he's quite happy," said Chris. "He laughs like anything!"
"Yes, he has a brave cheerful spirit. I shall be very glad for you to know him. He must be a nice boy."
Two or three days afterwards, Diana got her chance. Mr. Wargrave came to call, and spoke to her in the hall as he was leaving. Diana was always outspoken.
"I don't want to be rude," she said, "but I'm just dying to see the dolls' furniture at your house. Could you ask me to, do you think? I wouldn't expect tea. I wouldn't be as mean as that, but just to see them."
"You shall come in now," he said, smiling, "if your mother will let you. Ted will be only too delighted to show you all his toys."
Mrs. Inglefield, who was standing by, gave her permission, and Diana danced off, and was a good hour away. She came back to the nursery with glowing eyes.
"He not only makes toys," she said to the boys emphatically, "but he makes poetry! He said some to me!"
The boys were impressed. Ted and his doings were much discussed amongst them for the following days.
The weather kept them indoors a good deal. It was rain and wind every day, and the nursery was a small room for three active children. One morning Nurse, sitting at her work there, was visited by Mrs. Budd.
Chris and Noel were busy in a corner with their bricks, Diana was finishing her story, but as she scribbled off the last sentence she caught a fragment of conversation between Nurse and her visitor.
"I always felt she would be dull here. She misses the master, of course, and she's been accustomed to a life in India. I feel fair worried when I sees her so quiet knitting for the boys, and tears in her eyes all the time."
"'Twill be better in the fine weather when there's plenty of gentry round her to keep her from dullness."
Diana shut up her papers and went over to the window. She had what Nurse called her "thinking cap" on!
After their early dinner she called the boys to her and said:
"Look here, I promised to keep Mums from feeling dull. It's come upon her, and we've got to do something."
"What?" asked Chris.
"We'll give her an entertainment," said Diana grandly. "And I'll tell her it's coming, so that will take away the dullness, to feel it's coming. We'll do it after tea."
"What can we do?" asked Chris helplessly.
"I've thought it all out. I'll read her my story. It's finished, and she's never heard any of my stories. It's awfully exciting. And you and Noel can learn something to recite, like we did with Miss Carr to Granny once."
"We can dance," said Chris, romping round the room, "and dress up! Oh, that will be the thing, Dinah!"
Mrs. Inglefield was feeling rather lonely that afternoon. She had been writing to her husband, and now she was knitting socks for Chris, and thinking about his schooling. She was in her boudoir. Presently she heard a sharp rattat at her door, a little giggle, and then a note was pushed through the bottom of the door.
She picked it up and opened it.
"OUR DEAR MUMS,—"
"We're sorry you are dull, but we are not going to let you be
any more. At half-past five we invite you to our Grand Entertainment.
Tickets free. The performance will be thrilling."
"YOUR LOVING CHILDREN."
"P.S.—It will be done in the Nursery—punctule."
So Mrs. Inglefield had enough to keep her expectant and smiling. She heard a good deal of noise overhead for the next hour or so. But punctually at half-past five she presented herself at the nursery door.
It was opened by Noel, who had a pink paper cap on his head, and his body and legs all wound round and round with coloured handkerchiefs and ribbons.
He gave her a very low bow and led her to Nurse's armchair, which was draped in an old red shawl.
It was the seat of honour. Then she was presented with a programme.
An acrobatic exhibishon.
Two gentlemen's duel.
An Authoresses story.
Beautiful Poem resited by motor-car and horse.
General Dance and Wind up.
All can join.
A row of chairs divided the audience from the performers.
The entertainment opened by Chris standing on his head in the corner, and Diana balancing a doll's tray of tea-things on his feet. Catastrophe was saved by her snatching the tray away, as his feet began to shake.
Then Noel and Chris had a fencing bout with two hoop sticks. Mrs. Inglefield drew a long breath when it was over and neither combatant was hurt. The next item on the programme was:
"An Authoresses story."
Diana made her appearance in one of Nurse's best gowns. A wreath of ivy was round her head. She had sheets of paper in her hand and commenced to read in a high sing-song voice.
The story was about a miserable ragged little girl in London who was given sixpence and a kiss by a beautiful lady one afternoon when she was selling matches in the streets. The lady's face and dress was described with much detail. Mrs. Inglefield had no difficulty in recognizing herself as the lady. The little girl's name was Sally, and she fell in love with this lady and used to follow her round in London every day, only at a distance. At night she dreamt of her. And then one day the lady was nearly run over by a motor. Sally dashed into the middle of the road and saved her, but got knocked down herself and had her leg broken. Then the lady burst into tears at her bravery, and told her coachman, who had arrived on the scene, to take her home in her carriage. She was carried to the "most beautiful house in London." Her bedroom was "covered with pink satin curtains and cushions all over the place." Sally was placed in bed, and a doctor sent for who mended her broken leg.
"But suddenly Mrs. Field fell on her knees by the bed and seized the broken leg:"
"'It is her, my long-lost daughter,' she cried. 'I know the scar which she had as a baby. My nurse lost her one day when she was wheeling her pram in Kensington gardens!'"
"And all was true, and Sally's leg mended very soon, and she never had to go back to the old woman who made her sell matches, but she lived with her darling mother ever after. And she grew up and married a relation of the Royal Family. But she always remembered her ragged time and gave money to match-girls. This is the moral and the end."
There was much applause when the young authoress sat down.
Then the children retired into the night nursery. After a time, with a rush and a fierce snorting noise, Chris tore backwards and forwards several times.
"A motor-car!" said Mrs. Inglefield, clapping her hands.
Then Noel entered, galloping up and down and whinnying so loud that Mrs. Inglefield called out very quickly:
And then he and Chris stood together and recited the following poem:
CHRIS. "I shriek and everybody flies!
I tear along beneath the skies,
I stop as quickly, for I feel
My master's hand upon the wheel."
NOEL. "I trot along the hard high road,
To journey slowly is my mode.
We want to see, to feel, to smile,
To scent the beauty of each mile."
CHRIS. "Past meadows, villages I fly,
No time to see as I go by!
The wind, the air is all I feel,
Beside the hand upon the wheel."
NOEL. "My master's hand is on my rein,
His eyes are in the country lane.
I canter on up hill, down dale,
Through grassy fields and lovely vale."
CHRIS. "I scorch up hills, I fly along,
My warning 'honk' is all my song.
Towns, rivers, sea, all pass away.
A hundred miles we do each day."
NOEL. "But cars can't hunt, or ride at will
Through woods, or up untrodden hill,
Nor soak their souls in beauty fair,
That's only done through my brown mare."
"Splendid!" cried Mrs. Inglefield enthusiastically, applauding with her feet and hands. "May I ask who is the author of that poem?"
"Ted wrote it," said Diana. "He said it to me when I went over to see him, so I made him write it down, and Chris and Noel have been learning it as fast as they could all the afternoon."
"I think you are all extremely clever," said Mrs. Inglefield. "I am quite proud of you."
"And which do you like best, Mums, a horse or motor?" asked Noel.
"It's easy to see which the poet liked best," said Mrs. Inglefield, laughing. "I think I like them both; if I were rich, I would keep a car to take me long distances, and a horse to ride when I wanted to enjoy the country."
"And now we'll have our dance," said Diana.
There was a great bustle then, clearing the chairs away. Chris had the honour of dancing with his mother, and Diana danced with Noel. They turned their small gramophone on, and all enjoyed themselves. When they at last had to stop from sheer fatigue, Mrs. Inglefield made a little speech in which she thanked them all most gratefully for their successful entertainment.
"It has kept your dullness away," said Diana with a satisfied smile. "I'm so glad. I promised you I would keep you from being dull."
Her mother did not remember the promise, but she was touched by her little daughter's thought for her.
"Did you like Dinah's story?" Chris asked.
"Very much. It was a sweet little story. I did not know I had a daughter who was an authoress. What a proud mother I shall be when her first book is published!"
Diana got rosy red. That was the dream and desire of her heart. She lay in bed at night imagining the time when a real book of hers should be in her hand fresh from the publishers, with her name in big letters across its title page.
A little later that evening they all went down to the boudoir. They always spent an hour before their mother's dinner with her there.
Diana and Noel were looking at a beautiful book of engravings together which belonged to their grandmother and had been left in the cottage. Diana was weaving stories out of every picture, and Noel listened to her with the greatest interest. Chris crept up close to his mother's chair, and sat down on a stool at her feet.
"I wish I was clever like Dinah," he sighed. "I can't write stories, Mums: I've tried and tried and tried. You'll never see a book of mine in print. There'll be nothing for you to be proud about in me."
His mother caressed his smooth brown head with her loving hand.
"Now, Chris, we'll have a little talk together. God gives us all different gifts. It isn't everyone who can write books. I am glad it isn't. We have quite enough books in the world as it is. And, do you know, I am very glad that my eldest son does not write stories. Somehow or other, I don't think it is very noble or uplifting work for strong men to do. A man who spends his life in making up stories of what silly men and women do and say isn't much of a man, to my thinking. Mind, Chris, there are great writers amongst men, and writers who do a lot of good by their pen, but there are men who do the reverse. I would far rather my son went out into the world, and endured hardness and worked hard for his country and fellow-men. I want you to be an Empire-builder, my boy, or an Empire-keeper. You can be a sailor, or a soldier, or a judge, or a policeman, or even a colonist, but if you're putting God first, service for country next, and self last, I shall be proud of my son."
Chris squared his shoulders. His heart caught fire at his mother's words.
"I will make you proud of me, Mums," he said earnestly. "I will work hard all my life till I die."
And then his mother stooped and kissed the top of his head, and a bright tear fell as she said:
"God bless and keep you, my boy, and help you to keep your promise."
Chris was a happy boy that night. He had often bewailed his inferiority to his sister, who was so quick and agile with her words and pen, but now he felt that he had a goal in front of him: a vision in which he saw himself as a doer if not a talker or a writer; and he fell asleep murmuring to himself:
"I'll do, do, do, and Mums will be proud of me!"
The weather cleared in a few days and spring came along in a rush.
Very soon Mrs. Inglefield had made her plans. She had found a good boys' school about six miles away, and though the schoolmaster did not care to take day boys as a rule, he made an exception in Chris's case, and took him as a weekly boarder. Chris was to come home every Saturday and stay till Monday. There was a train which would take him and bring him back. His mother meant to give him a bicycle very soon, but meanwhile, he used the train.
Then a young governess was found in the neighbouring town. Her name was Miss Morgan, and she came every morning at ten o'clock to give Diana and Noel some lessons. She stayed to lunch, took them for a walk afterwards, and then went home. Diana was a very tractable pupil, though she was apt to get dreamy and careless in her work. Noel was difficult. He did not like sitting still, and hated his lessons. He was always ready to talk, but never ready to learn, and Miss Morgan found her patience sorely tried by his inattention and restlessness.
One morning he had been very troublesome: he would not give his attention to an addition sum set down for him on his slate. He kicked his chair, he drummed with his elbows on the table, and he made grimaces at Diana, who sat on the opposite side of the table.
"Noel, if you don't start that sum at once I shall punish you," Miss Morgan said sternly.
"How?" asked Noel, not a bit abashed. "And why are figures so horrid, Miss Morgan? I like letters best: you don't have to add them up. But yesterday I did count up. I counted the bwanches of my fir tree, and I got up to twenty."
"No more talking. Begin your sum."
Noel balanced his slate pencil across his fingers, dropped it under the table, then scrambled down to get it. He was a long time under the table, and then announced that the pencil was broken into a "fowsand bits."
Miss Morgan produced another pencil promptly, and started him at his sum again.
She was giving Diana a French dictation lesson: when she looked at Noel again, she found him leaning back in his chair, his eyes upon the ceiling.
"I'm counting the flies," he said; "they're more interesting than sixes and sevens."
"Very well," said Miss Morgan, "as you are determined not to do that sum, you will stand in the corner till you are sorry for your idleness."
Noel did not like this at all, but he pretended he did. He marched off to the corner and stood with hands behind him and his face to the wall.
Then he began to mutter to himself. Miss Morgan told him to be quiet.
Presently he spoke out loud:
"I'm telling God about you, how unkind you are to me."
"You're displeasing God very much. Ask Him to take away the naughty spirit who is making you idle and disobedient."
"What's his name?" asked Noel, turning round with interest on his face. "Is it Satan?"
Miss Morgan made no reply. Diana giggled.
And then, with a sudden rush, Noel dashed at the door, opened it, and tore downstairs as fast as his two feet could carry him. Down the garden he went, through the little gate into the churchyard, and from there into the quiet silent church.
Miss Morgan went after him, but could not find him. She did not think of going into the church.
As she came back from a fruitless search in the garden, she met Mrs. Inglefield. In a few words she told her about Noel.
"He really is extremely naughty this morning," she said. "He won't do his lessons, and now he has run away."
Mrs. Inglefield looked distressed.
"He has been spoiled by his ayah in India," she said. "He has never been made to do things he doesn't like. Don't spend your time looking for him, Miss Morgan. Leave him alone. He must be punished when he comes back."
She sighed a little, for punishment of any sort was a painful necessity to her.
It was some time before Noel came back to the house. His mother caught sight of him stealing across the garden on tiptoe.
She met him at the garden door.
"Why are you not at lessons?" she asked gravely.
Noel stood still, his gaze irresolute, then he smiled, and when Noel smiled he was adorable.
"Oh, Mums dear, I've been doing a dweffully difficult fing. Casting out Satan like Jesus did in the Bible." Then he dropped his voice to an impressive whisper. "I fink I've left him in the church. I don't know whether he's there still, or where he's going nex'."
"I'm quite sure you haven't been able to cast him out," said Mrs. Inglefield.
She always took Noel seriously.
"Well, no, not 'zackly, but Miss Morgan said he was in me, and I fought I'd better get as near God as I could and then He'd help me. And I walked into the top seat and knelt on the stool."
"Are you good now?"
"It wasn't me that was wicked," he said, looking up at his mother with solemn eyes. "It was Satan. God said to him in church, 'Get behind me, Satan,' and he did it."
"I am afraid, Noel, you have vexed Miss Morgan very much. If you have told God that you are sorry, you must now go and tell her. And remember this. No one can make you naughty against your will. You have liked being naughty, and you went on being naughty. And to make you remember that you must not give way to such naughtiness, you must stay up in the nursery this evening and not come down with the others after tea."
Noel began to cry, then he spread out his hands pathetically:
"But I'm good now. You can't puni' me when I'm good."
"I'm very glad you're good now; but you must be punished all the same. If a man gets sent to prison for stealing, however good he feels and is, after stealing, it won't save him from the prison."
Noel stared at his mother. Then he sobbed out:
"But I want to be forgiven."
"Miss Morgan will forgive you if you tell her you are sorry, but you must still be punished."
And then she left him climbing slowly up the stairs to the schoolroom. She longed to take him in her arms and pet him, but she knew it would not be good for him if she did.
Noel went into the nursery a chastened boy.
"I've come to say I'm sorry," he said.
Miss Morgan looked at his red eyes, and wisely did not ask him where he had been.
"I am very glad to hear you say so," she said. "Now, to show me you are sorry, sit down and do your sums."
In silence Noel took up his slate and pencil. Miss Morgan had no cause for complaint of him again.
But when lessons were over Noel said to her:
"And though I'm as good as any angel, I'm going to be punished this evening. It isn't fair."
Miss Morgan asked him to explain. When she heard about it she said to him:
"Whatever your mother does is absolutely fair. It would not be fair to let you go unpunished. It is to remind you next time you are going to be naughty that punishment will surely follow."
Noel said no more. His mother could not have punished him more severely than by preventing him from joining her and Diana for what they called their happy hour.
But after this, he was better behaved in lesson time.
The flowers and bulbs in the garden were now making a good show.
Chris worked away in his garden when he came home on Saturday. His mustard and cress and radishes were quite a success, and he was a proud boy when he presented his mother with the first dish of them.
Diana was as busy as he, attending to her rose tree and seedlings. Noel weeded his plot, and talked to his fir tree whilst he was doing it. He was very delighted one Sunday to see some of his seeds coming up by the church porch.
But when Chris got his bicycle, there was not so much gardening done. Noel insisted upon learning to ride it, and Chris for some time was good-natured about it. The two boys helped each other, and strange to say Noel mastered the machine before Chris.
One Saturday afternoon their mother allowed them to go out with it. She was always anxious that the boys should play and do things together. Noel seemed to have more respect for Chris now he was at school, and was always asking him questions about it and longing to join him there.
Diana, strangely enough, did not take any interest in the bicycle. She tried to ride it one day and had a bad fall and hurt herself. Since then she never touched it.
Mrs. Inglefield, seeing her walking about the garden rather aimlessly, suggested to her that she should come for a walk with her.
Of course Diana was only too delighted to do so. She adored her mother and loved having her to herself.
"We will go and see a farmer's wife, a Mrs. Cobb. I knew her as a little girl. She is getting old, and is not able to leave home as she is stiff with rheumatism. It is such a pretty walk across the fields and through a bit of wood."
"I hope Chris and Noel won't be quarrelling," Diana said in her grown-up tone as she started from the house with her mother. She thought that her brothers would be envious of her when they heard how she had spent the afternoon.
"I hope not," said her mother, smiling. "The more they are together, the better I am pleased. That was why I let them go out by themselves to-day."
Diana gave a little sigh.
"I don't know why it is, but since Chris has gone to school, he turns up his nose at girls. He never used to, and he'd do anything I told him to, and now he won't do a thing, and laughs at me."
"Poor little girl!" said Mrs. Inglefield sympathetically. "I went through that with my brothers, when I was small. It is only when they first go to a boys' school. They get swelled heads, and think that boys are the most superior beings in creation. Chris is very fond of you, Diana; he'll soon come back to you if you take an interest in his cricket and games, and talk to him about his school."
Diana was silent; she knew she had not done this. They crossed some green fields, keeping to the little path which was the right-of-way, and then they came to a wood with a beaten path under overhanging trees. The fresh green foliage, the primroses and anemones and blue hyacinths enchanted Diana.
"In the country," she said as she went down on her knees to pick the flowers, "you have everything without paying for it. We couldn't do this in London. And the flowers in the parks are only to look at, not to pick."
It was a bright sunny afternoon. Mrs. Inglefield, who was in no hurry, sat down to rest herself on a fallen tree-trunk. Then suddenly a rather angry child's voice broke the silence:
"I won't go home—I won't! I won't ever again! I shall stay away till they find my dead body starved to death, a skillington! I hate them all! I'll live up in the trees with the birds. They can hunt and hunt and hunt for me, and will never find me. They'll be only hunting for me to punish me!"
Diana started up. She stood still and listened, and so did her mother. In a moment, pushing herself passionately through a lot of bushes and undergrowth, appeared a little girl about Diana's age. She was shorter than she, and had a short-cropped red head. She was not a pretty child, but there was something wild and graceful in the way she held herself. She eyed Diana and her mother as a young fawn might just before taking flight, but Mrs. Inglefield smiled at her tenderly and held out her hand:
"Are you a little wood nymph? Come and talk to us."
The little girl stood still. She was not a village child. She was dressed plainly but well, and she swung a straw hat in her hand as she walked. Her face had been furious with passion, but surprise and curiosity had taken the temper away. For an instant she wavered, as if meditating flight, and then she thought better of it and walked up to Mrs. Inglefield.
"I saw you in church on Sunday," she said. "You smiled so often! I never know people who smile."
"Oh, what a sad pity! How hot and tired you look, dear child! Come and sit down by me."
The little girl seated herself at the extreme end of the tree-trunk; she looked at Diana with a frown. Diana held out her hand, full of primroses and bluebells.
"Have a nosegay?"' she asked.
A shake of the head was the only answer given, and then suddenly the little stranger burst forth:
"I've run away, and I mean to stay away. They all hate me, and I hate them. And Julia is the worst of all. She's a murderer; she drowned my puppy and held my hands tight when I tried to save him. She drowned him in the water-butt and laughed all the time, and, oh, he thought I would save him. He looked at me, and he was such a darling!"
"The wicked woman!" exclaimed Diana, roused to quick indignation.
The little girl buried her face in her hands and sobbed as if her heart would break.
Mrs. Inglefield moved closer to her and put her motherly arms round her.
"My poor little girl, tell me a little more. What is your name? And where do you live?"
"My name is Inez. I used to live in London with Dad and Mother and I was happy there, for I had a kind Nanny. And then she went away and Julia came. And Dad and Mother are out in Spain, and our house in London is shut up, and Mother said it would do me good to come down to the country and stay at the Park with Julia."
She wiped her eyes and regarded Diana with interest. "I'd like to know you," she said; "I haven't any friends here at all, not one!"
"You will have to come and see us," said Mrs. Inglefield. "Would you be allowed to?"
"Julia doesn't care where I go, she only dresses me and puts me to bed; she's going to marry Jim the under-gardener, I think. She's always with him in the garden. Mrs. Ball is the crossest cook I've ever seen. She hates children, always did, she says, so she hates me, and the other maids always tell me to get out of their way. Sometimes they're kind, but I keep away from them all. I like climbing trees and making bows and arrows. I only shoot at targets on trees. I love the birds—I've a tame robin who comes into the nursery. I call him Jack."
Inez was brightening up as she talked.
Then Mrs. Inglefield said that she and Diana must go on to the farm. Inez asked if she might accompany them.
"I told Julia I should run away and kill myself, and never be heard of again," she remarked thoughtfully, "but now I've met you, I don't think I'll do that."
"I'm quite sure you wouldn't really be so foolish and naughty as to try to hurt yourself, because somebody else had done it," said Mrs. Inglefield gravely.
Diana looked quite shocked.
"I don't care what I do when I'm in a temper," said Inez carelessly. "I fight Julia. I pulled all her hair down one day."
"Don't tell us of the naughty things you do, for we don't want to feel unhappy, but tell us of the good things you do," said Mrs. Inglefield cheerfully.
"I'm not a bit good," said Inez, "never!"
"Then you can't be a happy little girl."
Inez was silent, then she began to chatter to Diana, and Mrs. Inglefield let the children talk together.
They soon reached the farm; Mrs. Cobb was upstairs in bed, so Mrs. Inglefield went up to see her, and Diana and Inez climbed the gate and sat on the top rail of it, swinging their legs to and fro, and talking eagerly together.
A pleasant-faced young woman, a niece of Mrs. Cobb's, presently came out of the house with two glasses of milk and two slices of currant cake. The children thanked her, and left their gate and came into the old porch and sat down there to enjoy what was given them. Diana was looking with the greatest interest at a hen and her tiny chicks who were on the bit of grass lawn before the house.
"What darlings!" she said. "How I wish I could have some little chickens of my own! I've never seen them in London."
"We have a lot," said Inez. "I'll bring you one or two if you like, unless the old hen makes a fuss and tries to peck my eyes out."
Diana was delighted. "I'll make a little home for them in my doll's house," she said; "I brought it from London, and the doors all open and shut, so they could run in and out."
They were very busy talking about it when Mrs. Inglefield appeared.
They walked across the fields, and then Mrs. Inglefield told Inez that she had better run home.
"I wonder," she said to her, "if you would like to please me by trying to be nice to Julia when you go back. If you will try, I would like you to come to tea with my children on Monday."
Inez looked up:
"I won't promise," she said earnestly, "for it may be too difficult, but if I'm awfully wicked I won't come to tea with you. That will make me try hard to be good."
Then she ran off. Her woes had been forgotten. She seemed a happy careless child.
"Oh, Mums, I do like her so much!" said Diana. "I've often wished we had another girl in our family. 'Specially now Chris has changed to me. And she loves hearing stories, she says she never gets tired of it. And I'm going to tell her some of mine that I haven't written down. I do like people who listen to them. I have to keep them bottled up so."
"Poor little storyteller!" said her mother, laughing. "I am afraid that busy brain of yours is only working in one corner."
"How?" asked Diana.
"It's working in your imagination corner, and there are several other corners more important: the learning corner—what grown-up people would call the receptive corner, and the spiritual corner. I should like that last corner to spread and spread till it covered the centre of your brain. Do you ever think about your Saviour and about heaven, that happy home prepared for those who love Him?"
Diana had hold of her mother's hand. She squeezed it tightly, but did not speak for a moment; then she said:
"Noel has that corner spreading all over him, but nobody has talked to us as you do. Granny never did."
"Well, darling, I'm going to talk very often about it, because I love to do so, and I want my children to grow up with their little hands placed in the Hands of their loving Saviour; I want them to be led through their lives by Him."
"I wonder if Chris and Noel have got home yet?"
Mrs. Inglefield smiled. She understood her children, and never gave them too much at a time. But she prayed a lot for them, as all good mothers do.
When they reached home they found Chris dusty, hot, and rather cross. He was cleaning his bicycle with some old rags outside the shed in which he kept it.
"Have you had a nice time?" his mother asked. "Where is Noel?"
"I don't know."
Chris spoke sullenly.
"Didn't he come back with you?"
"I think he's sulking in a ditch. I let him ride much more than I did, and then he went on for miles and left me. He wouldn't stop. And when I did come up with him I let him have it, and he yelled, and I told him, he shouldn't get on it again, so I came on home by myself."
"Oh, Chris! He's a little boy. You shouldn't have left him. Where is this ditch? I did think I could trust you to take care of him."
Chris looked ashamed of himself, then he straightened himself and met his mother's eyes frankly:
"I'm sorry, Mums, but he is a little rotter. And he could have walked home quite well. It was at the four cross corner by the Green Farm."
"That is nearly two miles away. I shall have to go and look for him."
Nurse had appeared, and protested as she heard her mistress say this.
"Indeed, you shall not, ma'am. You're much too tired. Master Chris must go himself."
"I can't," said Chris. "The little beast kicked and kicked at my bicycle with all his might, and something is bent, it won't go properly. It began to go wrong just before I got home."
"You can walk as well as your mother," said Nurse sternly.
Mrs. Inglefield hesitated. She was feeling very tired. And Diana's quick eyes had seen it.
"Chris, I'll come with you a part of the way, anyhow," she said. "I'm not as tired as Mums, and I dare say we shall meet him. And I want to tell you all about a strange little girl we met to-day."
"That's right," said Mrs. Inglefield. "I really think I must let you go. It is very silly of me, but I'm not a good walker. I got out of the way of it in India. I hope you will meet him on the way."
So Chris and Diana set off, and Mrs. Inglefield sat down in a big chair in her tiny hall and gave a sigh.
"I wish my three children pulled together better, Nurse. Whose fault is it, do you think?"
"They'll get on all right after a bit, ma'am. It's early days yet. Master Noel has been accustomed to have things all his own way, so it comes difficult to him. I think he wants a little taking down at times, but Master Chris deserves to be tired, leaving him in the lurch like that."
"I shall not let them go out together again. It was an experiment."
It was a long time before the children came home.
Tea-time passed, and Mrs. Inglefield was getting seriously uneasy.
And then, about half-past six, they appeared. Mrs. Inglefield met them at the door with great relief of mind.
Noel was in the middle of them, and looked tear-stained and defiant.
"We've had to drag him along," Diana said breathlessly. "He wasn't trying to come home, he was just sitting there expecting you to fetch him, determined not to walk home at all by himself."
Noel flung himself in his mother's arms with a burst of sobs.
"My legs is nearly broken, I'm so tarred. Chris lost me and left me, and I didn't know the way home. He's a beast!"
"Hush, hush! Now, no more tears. You are growing out of a baby. Go upstairs with Nurse, and you'll feel better after tea."
Nurse took him off and managed to comfort him. Diana toiled upstairs with weary legs, and Chris turned to his mother.
"I've made you angry," he said; "I'm sorry."
"Not angry, only disappointed. I thought I should be able to depend upon you."
"Oh, do, Mums, do! Forgive me. It's all my fault. I was furious with him for not playing fair. I forgot he was only a baby. And he kicks so! When he kicks my shins, I feel I'd like to give him a good thrashing!"
Chris looked at his mother so appealingly that she took him into her arms and kissed him.
"My eldest son," she said softly: "I want to feel that he is my right hand when his father is away!"
Chris gulped down a choke in his throat.
"Oh, I won't fail you next time," he said in a whisper; "give me a next time, won't you?"
"I hope you'll have a good many 'next times,'" said his mother, smiling. "Now off to your tea, my boy, and make your peace with Noel."
She said no more about the matter till bedtime. They had not so much time with her as usual as their tea was extra late, but when Noel was in bed she talked to him very gravely.
He was still very angry with Chris, and began making excuses for himself, but his mother stopped him:
"I generally find that the angry person is the one in the wrong," she said. "Now, Noel, listen, hold your breath and hush! What does God think of you, I wonder! He was there, He saw it all, He heard all you said and saw all you did. You were the first in the wrong, you had no right to go off with Chris's bicycle and refuse to give it up. It belongs to him, not to you. And it was very good of him to let you ride it at all. I must now forbid you to use it again till you have my permission. You can't be trusted with it. You made Chris angry this afternoon, you vexed and worried me by not coming home, and you grieved God. You are His little servant, but this afternoon you changed sides and have been serving the Devil. What are you doing now? You can't go to sleep till you have asked God to forgive you."
Noel lay very still, his angry eyes closed, and he looked like a little angel.
Mrs. Inglefield had one of his hot little hands in hers, and she felt it twitching. She was silent now, and for a few minutes only the rather loud ticking of the nursery clock broke the stillness in the room.
Then Noel opened his eyes and looked at her.
"I'm quite, quite good now," he said calmly; "he's left me very kickly, because God and I turned him out."
"I am glad to hear it, darling. Now, will you tell God that you are sorry?"
"I've told Him. And I fink it's all right. I fink He's forgiven me."
"I'd like you to tell Chris you're sorry, too. If I bring Chris here, will you do so?"
"Oh, but I aren't, not a bit!"
Noel closed his eyes tightly again.
"I'm afraid," he murmured, "Satan's still inside me; he's left a bit of himself behind."
Mrs. Inglefield got up.
She knew that Noel rather liked to prolong this kind of conversation.
"I am going to fetch Chris," she said; "if you're really sorry—and God will not forgive you unless you are—you will of course, own up to him that it was your fault in the beginning—you know that is true."
She left the room. Noel wriggled about a good deal in bed, and when Chris came in there was nothing visible of him: only a fat lump below the bedclothes.
"Here is Chris," said Mrs. Inglefield; "I will leave you together."
She left the room.
Chris stood by the bed waiting.
Presently a muffled voice was heard.
"So am I!" said Chris frankly; "I hate making Mums unhappy!"
Noel's curly head suddenly shot up:
"Mums is always happy. It's only wicked people who are mis'able."
"Wicked people make her miserable," said Chris; "at least, we do."
"Did I spoil your cycle?"
"No, not much. I think I can put it right."
"I'm never to touch it again, never! Mums said so. Isn't that a punishment?"
"It was my fault," acknowledged Chris meekly; "I aggravated you."
Noel nodded. "And so I did, too. I've finished telling everybody I'm sorry, and now I'm going to sleep."
Chris looked at him.
"We'll shake hands on it," he said. "That's what we do at school when we've had a fight."
So Noel's fat dimpled hand and Chris's were clasped together, and then Chris crept silently out of the room. His mother was standing by a passage window looking out into the dusky garden. A young moon was rising over a hill in the distance. Her thoughts were away in India with her husband. She was longing, as she so often did, to have him once more by her side.
Chris leant his head against her shoulder.
"We're all right, Mother. I'm so sorry we've made you sad."
She put her arm round him and said gently:
"I've been wondering what kind of boys your father will meet when he comes home. Whether he'll be disappointed in them, and tell me that I have failed to train them rightly: that I have spoilt them. I wish he were here to talk to you, Chris."
"Oh, Mums, we want no one but you," was Chris's fervent reply; "and I'm awfully sorry about this afternoon. It was all my fault. I was cross to him first, and then he did it to spite me, and I left him there and rode off, to spite him! But we've made it up, and it won't happen again, I promise you!"
Then his mother turned quickly and kissed the brown head on her shoulder.
"I want to depend on you; I want to know that Noel won't come to harm when he's with you, and I'm going to trust you again, Chris. I don't believe you'll fail me."
Mrs. Inglefield had no fault to find with Chris for a long time after that. His ambition was to have his mother's trust and confidence.
On Monday afternoon Inez appeared just before three o'clock. Miss Morgan was just taking Diana and Noel out for their daily walk, but Mrs. Inglefield said that as Inez had come so early, they could all play in the garden together, instead of walking out, so Miss Morgan went home and the children were left to themselves.
Of course the garden was shown to Inez: she was tremendously interested in it all.
"It's so lovely to be able to grow just what you like," she said; "I think I shall get our gardener to give me a bit of ground, but not for flowers. I shall grow pumpkins and pomegranates."
"Oh!" said Diana, awed by this magnificent idea, "Will you be able to do it?"
Inez nodded; then she pointed to Noel's ground.
"I like the idea of growing your own Christmas tree," she said. "I think you were a clever boy to think of it."
Noel was very pleased.
"He's my little friend," he said; "I talk to him a lot. It's very dull for him now, but he knows his grand time is coming. And he's growing like anyfing. Look at his dear little green tips."
When they had seen all over the garden, they climbed Up into the medlar tree, and Diana began telling one of her wonderful stories. She found Inez a better listener than Noel. He presently left them, but the story continued, and was left to be continued.
"I can't make up any more now," said Diana; "I'll tell you the rest when we see each other next!"
Then they got down from the tree and played hide-and seek, and after a time Diana was called indoors by Nurse. Some new shoes had arrived which had to be tried on. Noel and Inez stayed in the garden.
"Would you like to see some flowers I planted for God?" Noel asked, wishing to do his part in entertaining the guest.
Inez looked at him and laughed, then followed him into the churchyard, where he showed her with pride some sweet-peas and blue cornflowers coming up by the church porch. Then he showed her some forget-me-nots growing on a small grave, and on another, some little pink asters.
"I did those," he said with pride, "but Mr. Wargrave stopped me. I do fink God might have a better garden, don't you? Mr. Wargrave says people are God's flowers. They're all sleeping underground now, but they'll come up the most lovely people by and by. At least, I s'pose it's their bodies that will. They get out of them when they die, and go away to God."
"You are a funny boy!" said Inez, staring at him. "Nobody in our house talks about God. Go on, say some more."
"Well, you know," said Noel eagerly, "I'm a Chris'mas child, specially born on the same day as Jesus Christ. Chris and Diana don't understand, so God loves me and I love Him, and I want Him to have lovely flowers in His garden, because He likes them. He made them, you know, so of course He does."
"I s'pose," said Inez, "He made me, but God doesn't like me. I'm too wicked."
"Are you?" said Noel, looking at her curiously. "What kind of wickedness do you do?"
"Well, yesterday I got the garden hose and I turned it on into Julia's bedroom window. It's rather low down, and she was doing her hair and trying on ear-rings, waiting for the gardener to come along and talk to her. She was in such a rage; her face was streaming with water, and then I had to hide from her till she forgot it a bit, and I hid in the best spare-room bed, and then they made a fuss about that."
"I think that's rather fun," said Noel, his eyes sparkling. "I wonder if we have got a hose. It squirts water, doesn't it? We used to have one in India. I should like to squirt my Chris'mas tree. He'd like it, I'm sure."
"I like to squirt people who don't like it," said Inez; "that's wicked, they say. But I don't think I care about God. I hate saying my prayers. I never know what it means, and it's so dull. And church is awfully dull."
"Oh!" gasped Noel; "I think it's beautiful! It belongs to God. He comes there, you know, every Sunday, and in the week besides. I almost fink I see Him sometimes. Mums says that God likes everybody, and calls them to get near Him. He doesn't like them far away."
"But God lives millions and billions of miles away up at the back of the stars," said Inez in a thoughtful tone.
"Oh, but He doesn't stay there," said Noel, shaking his head gravely. "Oh dear, no! He's always close to us. Why, I really do believe He's listening to us now."
There was such an emphatic conviction in Noel's tone that Inez looked quickly round; then she laughed uneasily.
"I hope He didn't hear me say I didn't like church," she said, "and I didn't like Him. But that's how I'm wicked, they all say so. I care for nobody and nobody cares for me. And now let's jump over those flower-beds: we've been grave enough."
They were back in the garden by this time, and of course in jumping the flower-beds Inez missed the distance and landed herself in the middle of one, breaking a young azalea to pieces and making havoc of some small seedlings planted.
"There now, that's a wickedness!" said Inez ruefully, as she surveyed the disaster. "Now, what will your mother say to me? Shall I tell her that a wild dog came in from the road and did it, or some pigs? Do you keep pigs?"
"We've got to tell her truefully if we do fings," said Noel.
Then Diana appeared, saying that tea was ready. She was consulted about the damaged flower-bed.
"Here is Mums coming out," she said. "She won't be angry."
And Mrs. Inglefield was not. She smiled at Inez, called her a little tomboy, and asked her not to do it again. Then they went upstairs to the nursery to tea.
There were hot buttered scones, plum cake, honey, and some fancy biscuits. Inez enjoyed her tea thoroughly.
"I hope you'll come to tea with me very soon," she said; "but I'm afraid they won't give us so good a tea as this. I should like you to come the end of this week: will you? We've a lovely big house to play hide-and-seek in!"
"May Chris come, too?" asked Diana. "He'll be home on Saturday from school. If you asked us then, he'd be able to come. Will Julia like us coming?"
"I shan't tell her till the day arrives," said Inez, "and then there'll be no time for her to do anything. She didn't mind my coming here to-day. She's glad to get rid of me."
"And I'll have time before Saturday to make up a lot more about 'Ada and Gertie,'" said Diana.
"Ada and Gertie" were the two motherless heroines in Diana's story.
They chattered away all tea-time, and afterwards went down to the drawing-room and had games with Mrs. Inglefield.
Inez was very loath to go home. To her surprise, at seven o'clock Julia appeared. She was a very smart young woman with a sharp voice, but she was quite respectful to Mrs. Inglefield.
"I've come to fetch Miss Inez," she announced, and then, whilst Inez was putting on her outdoor shoes, she went into the nursery and had a chat with Nurse.
Nurse spoke to Mrs. Inglefield afterwards.
"I hope the little girl won't be making our children naughty, ma'am. That young woman says she is terribly wild, and she can do nothing with her. She ran out of the house in her nightdress one night, and she has fits of passion in which she threatens to kill anyone who comes near her, and herself in the bargain. 'Tis a pity she has no governess, or isn't sent to school. She's supposed to do lessons with that young person, but she seems to have no influence over her, and the child will learn nothing."
"I think there are faults on both sides," said Mrs. Inglefield. "Mr. Wargrave has been telling me about the child. Her parents don't care for her. They wanted a boy because of the property; and it goes to a distant cousin, for a girl can't inherit. Poor little Inez has never had any love in her life. I feel a great pity for her, and I think we must try and help her."
It had been arranged before Inez left that the children should come over to spend the following Saturday afternoon with her. Mrs. Inglefield had asked Julia if it would be convenient to her, and she had made no objection.
When Chris heard about it, he looked doubtful.
"I don't know that I care about going to tea with a girl," he said.
His mother smiled.
"It won't hurt you, my boy. Inez has a most beautiful home, and you will enjoy seeing it. I used to go to the Park, as it is called, when I was a little girl, and I loved it. I am afraid there are no deer now in the Park, as there used to be, but the gardens are delightful, and perhaps she will take you up to what we used to call the battlements. It is a walk round the roof with a wall outside and places where the cannons used to be fired. It is like an old castle."
This sounded interesting, and when Saturday came, Chris accompanied Diana and Noel without a murmur.
They had to walk a good mile before they came to it.
Chris felt he was in charge of the party, and squared his shoulders as he marched along the road.
"Don't you think Inez is a pretty name?" Diana asked him. "Mother says she is Spanish—at least, her mother is. I can't think why she isn't happy living in a big beautiful house; but she told me that all the rooms were shut up, and that she has only one small room to live in. And she has all her meals alone. Julia likes to have hers with the other servants. It must be very dull for her."
"I wish she had a brother," said Chris; "I wonder if she could play cricket? We might try a game."
Talking together the mile soon came to an end. They turned in at some big iron gates, and up a drive bordered by chestnut trees, which were in full blossom.
Diana insisted upon stopping to gaze up at them. She always had a keen eye for beauty.
"They're wonderful," she said. "It's like going up an avenue to an enchanted castle. Let's pretend Inez is a princess kept in close custody."
"Oh, but how wet and sticky!" said Noel. "I shouldn't like to be kept in custard!"
Diana and Chris shouted with laughter. Noel did not like to be laughed at, and he turned a little sulky; but when they came up to the house he was himself again.
It was an old grey stone, turreted building. Two gardeners were mowing a very big lawn in front of it, and there were beds of spring flowers in front of the big square stone porch. They had to go up a flight of steps to the door, but before they had got to the top Inez had appeared.
"I saw you from the window," she said, a little breathlessly, "and I slid down the banisters the whole way."
Then she looked at Chris.
"Are you older or younger than Diana?" she asked.
"I'm the eldest of the family," Chris replied, drawing up his head proudly.
"So am I," said Inez, dancing lightly up and down on the tips of her toes. "I'm the eldest, and I'm the youngest, too, for there's nobody older or younger than me. I'm the only one."
Chris looked at her with some interest.
"Come along upstairs, and I'll show you where I live, and then we'll have a jolly racket all over the house and garden!"
She pulled hold of Diana's hand; the children followed her through a very large and lofty hall, up a broad staircase, and then along some stone passages through low doorways, until she pushed open the door of a room.
It was not a very cheerful-looking room. There were two windows, but they were small, set in thick grey stone. The carpet was a dingy brown. There was a round table with a red cloth, a horsehair sofa, a glass bookcase with a cupboard underneath it, a few very gloomy-looking pictures. Four chairs stood against the wall.
"You're very tidy," Diana observed as she looked round. "Where do you keep your playthings? You should see our nursery! It's littered all over the floor."
"I haven't got any playthings," said Inez; "I don't care for that sort of thing, and Julia keeps this room tidy. I'm never in it, and if she locks me in I just climb out of the window and walk along the gutter till I get to the battlements. I like playing in the stables and lofts. I have some rabbits I'll show you. I only come up here for meals."
"There's not much to do here," said Diana.
"No, and tea will come very soon. Take off your gloves and things, and come on down to the garden."
This they did, and all agreed that the gardens and shrubberies and stables were the best places to be in.
They had not seen half of them before a tea bell rang, and they had to return to the house. Julia had provided quite a nice tea: bread-and-butter, scones with jam, currant buns, and a big seed cake. She poured out tea for them, and then left them. Inez, with some importance, took her place, and poured out more cups of tea when wanted. Her tongue was very busy, and her little guests listened to her accounts of herself with surprise and awe. There seemed nothing that she could not and would not do.
She rode the cows as well as the horses bare-back, she drove the carts backwards and forwards to the Farm, she had a rope ladder which she fixed to all kinds of dangerous places, and she could climb up and down it like a monkey. Chris's eyes sparkled as he listened: this girl was more like a boy than anything else, he thought, and he began to long to join her in some of her mischievous pranks. When tea was over she suggested they should go to the battlements, and she took them through a narrow door, up a winding stone staircase, till they came out above the house. Here they had the greatest fun, running round the turreted towers and looking through the peepholes down to the country stretching out below them.
"You—you know what I'm going to do when I grow up?" Inez said. "I shall have a flying machine of my own, and fly all over the world."
"You couldn't do it," said Chris. "You'd come a cropper. It wants a proper airman to-fly."
"I'd be a proper airwoman," said Inez obstinately. "Now we'll come down and have some shooting. I have some bows and arrows. I've just one friend, Dick Yorke: he's the boy at the west lodge, and he makes stunning bows and arrows. He and I have shooting matches."
She led them on to the old lawn, left them there whilst she raced off to a shed, and came back in a few minutes with half a dozen bows in one hand and a bundle of arrows in the other.
This sport proved very exciting. Chris enjoyed it as much as anyone. They aimed at big paper targets fixed on some tree-trunks at the bottom of the lawn, and Chris and Inez both reached the bull's-eye.
There was no lack of occupation that evening. They went all over the stables, saw the two white terriers, the rabbits, chickens and turkeys, pigs and goats. They visited the barns, and enjoyed the swing that Inez had got one of the men to put up for her, and then, to their dismay, the big clock in the stable-yard struck seven.
Mrs. Inglefield had told them that they must leave Inez at seven o'clock.
When Chris said they must go, Inez declared that they should not.
"Why, I don't go to bed till eight, and very often I run out and hide somewhere away from Julia, and don't come in till nearly nine. I haven't shown you half yet. I want to take you down to the pond where the fish are."
"We must go now," Chris said firmly. "I promised Mother we should be punctual."
"I don't think you're to be pitied at all, with all this," said Diana, waving her hands about. "I think you live in a lovely house, Inez; I should never, never be dull, and I should write stories about people being shut up in your castle, and soldiers outside trying to catch them."
"It's so dull being alone," said Inez with a pout. "I have nobody with me."
"You have two peoples always," said Noel, staring at her with big eyes.
"I've nobody I like."
"Don't you like God?"
"Oh, shut up, Noel!" said Chris. "And come on. We must not be late."
"Oh, what a good boy am I!" said Inez mockingly. "But I shan't let you go, so don't you think it. You can easily say you didn't know the time."
"But we do know the time, and we don't tell lies."
"I do whenever I want to. What does it matter?"
They were walking towards the house as they spoke, and Diana ran upstairs to get their gloves and scarves that they had taken off before tea.
When she had got them and was coming downstairs again, she heard a great noise in the hall.
It was Inez struggling and fighting with Julia.
She had inveigled Chris and Noel into the big library, and then had run out and turned the key of the door.
"Now I've got you!" she cried, dancing up and down. "And you'll have to be late going home, for I shan't let you go."
Chris and Noel battered at the door, and Julia appeared. Then ensued a struggle for the key. Inez fought and screamed and kicked, and even tried to bite, when Julia wrenched the key out of her grasp and unlocked the door. Diana looked on in horror. Inez seemed to have turned into a little tiger.
"Come on," she said to the boys, "let us get out of this." And then they hastily went out of the hall door.
Inez left Julia and darted after them.
"You are all milksops, and I don't care for one of you! You might have backed me up against that beast of a Julia!"
"I wouldn't fight women," said Chris scornfully.
"And now I suppose you'll go home and tell your mother how wicked I am, and she'll never let me come near you again!"
The children were silent for a moment, then Diana said steadily:
"We tell Mother everything, but she won't be angry, only sorry."
"And now I know who does always live in your house," said Noel in his eager, breathless way: "it's the Devil!"
This statement reduced Inez to silence.
Chris hurried his sister and brother down the drive, and Inez stopped still and gazed after them with tears in her eyes.
"Good-bye," Chris said, looking back and waving his cap, "and thank you for a very nice time."
Inez made no answer: she turned and walked back slowly to the house. Noel's strange words rang in her ears: "Julia says I'm a young devil," she said to herself slowly. "I wonder if it is the Devil that makes me get into such tempers. I don't like to think he lives in the house with me."
Meanwhile Chris was saying to Noel:
"I do wish you wouldn't talk so much about God and the Devil. People don't do it. It makes us quite ashamed of you."
"I don't care," said Noel, setting his lips in an obstinate line. "It was Satan that made her fight like that. I'll ask Mother if it wasn't!"
"She's awfully naughty," said Diana, "but I do like her. She thinks we're prigs, but we couldn't be expected to all begin to fight and kick and scream at poor Julia. I don't wonder she gets cross with Inez!"
"She ought to go to school," said Chris in his superior tone. "She'd soon get licked into shape."
"She told me when her father and mother come home they are going to send her to school, and she says she will like it."
"Oh, will she!" said Chris with a short laugh. "A boy came the other day to our school: his mother and nurse have spoilt him, and he began carrying on high jinks with some fellows. You should have seen how they dropped on him! I felt quite sorry for the kid!"
"What did they do to him?" asked Noel with interest.
"You'll see when you come there. You aren't much better than Inez sometimes, when you can't get your way, so don't preach so much."
"I don't preach. But I shall when I grow up. It's very good to preach."
Chris refused to argue the matter out.
When they reached home they found their mother waiting for them. She was soon taken into their confidence, but as Diana said, she did not feel angry with Inez, only very, very sorry for her.
"I'm not afraid of her doing you harm, for I hope you will do her good."
"But we don't like being prigs," said Chris.
"No. You need not be. Be your own happy bright little selves, and show her that you are happier doing right than when you are doing wrong. That is all."
The children said no more. Diana had been rather afraid that their acquaintance with Inez might be stopped, and she was looking forward to pouring out some of the imaginations in her brain to her. Now she felt quite happy.
"Mother always understands," she said to herself as she laid her head down on her pillow that night, "and if Inez had a mother like ours, I expect she'd be as good as gold!"
"Come on, you little duffer! You're only picking rubbish. We want to get to the wild strawberries!"
"I'm tarred, and moss isn't rubbish! I fink I shall put it round my Chris'mas tree."
Chris, Diana and Noel were taking a walk together. It was the following Saturday, and Mrs. Inglefield, who encouraged independence in Chris, assented gladly when he told her that the baker had told him of a field which contained wild strawberries and that they would all like to go and get them. Chris had never seen a wild strawberry in his life, but he imagined them to be pretty much like those he had seen in the London shops. It was rather a long walk for Noel, and he soon began to lag behind and stop to look in the hedges for spoils. Chris felt impatient; it was a hot afternoon in June, and the country lane was dusty and breathless. No friendly trees shaded them from the glaring sun. Diana trudged along with a smiling face. She was generally wrapt in dreams when she was out of doors, but Noel's plaintive voice roused her.
"Take my hand," she said; "I'll help you along. It isn't much farther now. It's that high field over there by the side of the wood, isn't it, Chris?"
"Yes, that's it. We can sit down when we get there and eat."
"But we must bring some back for Mother."
"I'm raining!" announced Noel; "raining quite fast like I did in India!"
"You do say such things!" she said. "Take your handkerchief out and wipe your face. We're all hot."
The lane along which they were walking was very narrow and winding. It was a by-lane, and by the grassy ruts in it showed that it was not much used.
As they rounded a corner they suddenly came upon a motor turned nearly upside down in a hedge, and by the side of it a lady sat reclining against a bank. She did not see them till they were right up to her, for her eyes were shut, and she was groaning in an unhappy sort of way.
The children stood still, and then, doffing his cap, Chris stepped up to her.
"Are you hurt, please? Can we help you?"
The lady started and looked up. Then she put her hand up to her head and pulled her hat straight. She had a very cheerful-looking face and seemed about the age of their mother.
"Thank goodness someone has come by at last! I thought in this benighted country that no one would come to my help! Of course you can help me, little boy, by fetching men from somewhere to right my car and put it into the middle of the road again. If I hadn't smashed or sprained my ankle, I could have walked back to the village and sent someone to bring it along."
"I'll go at once," Chris said cheerfully. "There must be some policemen about, and they'll see to everything."
The lady went into peals of laughter.
"Hark at him! A little Londoner, eh? The police may rescue people in distress in London, but they don't exist in the country, my boy. There's a single one here and there, but my experience is that never by any chance do they turn up when one wants them. You must think of someone better than a policeman. Get to the nearest farm. They'll send some men along."
"There's that farm we passed a little time ago," said Diana. "Run back there, Chris, and ask them to come."
"Of course they may be out in the fields working," said the lady; "but get someone—anyone—quickly, if you can! I seem to have been here hours, and have shouted myself hoarse."
Noel stepped up in front of her when Chris had run off. His eyes were big with thought and anxiety.
"The best person who can help in a naxident is God," he remarked, looking at her gravely; "I fink He's the Person to be asked to send the men you want. For He knows just where they are."
Then the lady threw back her head and laughed more heartily than she had done before.
"Oh, you delicious child!" she said. "I'm sure from your face and curls you must be a cherub just flown down from heaven. Now, aren't you? Confess you are."
"I don't know what a cherub is," said Noel, looking at her stolidly, "but I haven't been in heaven since I was a baby."
"Please excuse him," interrupted Diana. "He's always talking like that. We can't get him to be quiet about God."
She said the last word in a whisper.
"But," said the lady, "I shouldn't wonder if he were right. Could you ask God to help us, as you seem to know Him better than the rest of us?"
She turned to Noel as she spoke, and in a moment he was on his knees in the dusty lane.
"Please, God, send somebody very quickly to help this poor lady. For Jesus' sake. Amen."
Then he got up.
"That's all right," he said calmly. "God always hears when anyone wants help. Mums has told us so."
He looked a little defiantly at Diana as he spoke, for he knew she was thoroughly disapproving of him.
But Diana did not heed him. She had seen the lady make a wry face and clasp her foot with her hand.
"Can I bind my handkerchief round it?" she asked. "Or get some water to bathe it with?"
"You are a little dear to think of such a thing, but I can't get my shoe off, it hurts too much; and I was due to lunch with Lady Alice at two o'clock. It's past three now. What will she think? Do you know where her house is? I took a wrong turn, thinking I would make a short cut, and then ran myself into the hedge in this twisty, twirly lane! It's only the third time I've been out alone with my car. I suppose I was careless."
"I know where Lady Alice lives. Mums has been to tea with her and has shown us the house. It's over there. We can just see its chimneys."
"Well, now, that's splendid! May I send you off there to tell them where I am? They'll send their car for me. And leave the cherub to take care of me."
"I think I can go across the fields," said Diana, peeping over the hedge.
This was an adventure after her own heart. She found a gate into the field and sped away.
Noel heaved a sigh, then suddenly plumped down on the bank beside the stranger.
"I'm so tarred," he said; "we've walked miles. We were going to pick strawberries."
"Were you? How delightful! I hope the strawberries will wait for you. Talk away. Tell me who you are and all about yourself. It will cheer me up."
Noel began at once.
"I've comed from India. The other children haven't been there since they were babies. Mums likes us all alike, but I know her bester than the others, 'cause I've always, always been with her. And I've got a Chris'mas tree. I planted it myself. I'm very fond of him, and I talk to him a lot. He's rather sad now because the flowers are so pretty and he isn't pretty, and he doesn't smell like the roses. But by and by, when Chris'mas comes, he'll be beautiful, grand, and beautiful! And the flowers will be dead and buried. He's really much better than they are, because he lives longer. Chris and Dinah won't laugh at him when he's dressed with beautiful lights and presents, and when he's in the middle of the room and all of us dancing round him. I tell him about it when he feels a little unhappy. And he nods his head and unnerstands."
"I'm most awfully interested," said the lady as Noel came to a pause. "Go on. Tell me more."
Noel drew a long breath, and then he sprang to his feet. "Here's a man in a cart, and I believe it is God's man, and he's got here first of all."
Sure enough, a farm cart was coming round the corner, and the man who was driving got down at once when he saw there had been an accident.
"You'm best get in my cart, mum, and I'll drive 'ee to the Hall," he said when matters had been explained to him. "'Tisn't a one man's job to get that car out o' ditch."
The lady looked at the rough dirty cart which had been used for carting manure, and she smiled very sweetly:
"I think I'll wait, thank you. I've sent a little messenger to the Hall, and they'll be sending a car for me."
The man rubbed the back of his head and looked first at her and then at the car.
"Seems as if I be no use to ye."
"But you must be," Noel said, staring at him, "because God sent you. I asked Him to. Oh, do give a pull to the car and I'll help you."
The man laughed at the tiny boy's offer. The car was a very small one, but he set his shoulder to it, and after much vigorous effort he actually got it righted.
Noel clapped his hands in triumph, and danced round him excitedly:
"I knew you'd do it!"
The lady was very pleased. She presented the man with two half-crowns out of her purse, and then she tried to raise herself to her feet.
"If I could once get in!" she sighed. "But I'm afraid it is of no use. I shouldn't be able to manage the car with no feet, and it is my right one that is hurt. I am not a clever enough driver to do without it."
"Here's Chris coming with some other men," shouted Noel, "but we've done it without them!"
"I think I shall be very glad of their help to bring my car along after me," said the lady, who seemed willing to employ all who came up.
Chris seemed almost disappointed when he saw the car standing on its four wheels in the lane.
"I've brought Mr. Down and Mr. Gates," he said importantly. "They were working in the field and they came at once."
"But God's man got here first," said Noel.
For a moment there was silence; the men stared at each other, and then the lady had a brilliant idea.
"Take one of the cushions out of the car, or perhaps the thick rug would answer as well, two of you catch hold of each end, and I can then be carried off to the Hall, where they are expecting me to lunch."
This was immediately done. She waved her hand to the little boys from her improvised seat.
"Good-bye; you will have to come and see me. I have taken a house for the summer about four miles off, and I am ever so grateful for your help."
She seemed to have forgotten about Diana, and Chris asked Noel where she was.
"She's gone to Lady Alice's. I don't believe she'll ever come back; let's go on and get the strawberries."
After a little hesitation, Chris agreed to this.
"I like that lady," Noel announced as they went on their way. "She laughs so when she talks. And she liked me to talk to her. I told her all about my Chris'mas tree, and she said it was very interessing!"
"I bet she did!" Chris said with an unbelieving laugh.
Here Noel made a rush forwards. They had reached the top of the field, and there was some red amongst the grass along a bank there.
But when Chris reached the spot he was bitterly disappointed.
"They're so tiny, they're not proper strawberries!"
"They taste nice and sweet," said Noel, putting some of the little strawberries into his mouth. "Let's pick a lot of them."
They set to work. There were really a fine number on the bank, and Chris began to wish Diana was with them.
"She's so quick," he said. "She'd pick a lot in no time."
But Diana did not come. There was no sign of her. And by the time they had nearly filled their basket, Chris said they must go home.
On their way back, they passed the place where the accident had happened.
The car was gone, but Noel's quick eyes spied something in the hedge. He pounced upon it at once. It proved to be a small leather purse attached to a little gold chain.
"What shall we do with it, Chris?"
"Take it to her," cried Chris, joyfully pouncing upon it and putting it in his pocket. "Come on, Noel, hurry up! The Hall is ever so far off, but it will be fun going there. I shouldn't wonder if they haven't kept Dinah to tea."
"I found it," said Noel sulkily. "It's mine, it isn't yours."
"What does it matter who found it, you stupid! Why, you're beginning to cry! What a baby! I'll give it to you to give to her when we get there. Come on! What a slow coach you are!"
Noel struggled to keep up with his brother's quick pace, but at last he gave up, and again dissolved into tears.
"I'm tarred. I've walked ever so many miles. I wiss I was home!"
"Then you go home, and I'll go on to the Hall."
"It isn't fair. I found it, and I like that lady. She smiled at me!"
Poor Noel was divided between his longing to go on and the desire to rest his poor little legs. The afternoon had been very warm, and he was tired out. By the time they came to the signpost at the cross-roads which marked the way to the Hall, he had made up his mind to go home.
"We might take it to her to-morrow," he suggested.
"Oh, she must have it at once!" Chris said. "It has money in it. I can hear it jingle. You always give up money at once. Besides, she may be wanting to use it. You go on back to Mums and give her the strawberries, and tell her all about it."
Noel brightened up. To give his mother anything was always a treat, and he dearly liked telling her of any adventure that befell him.
So the little boys parted, and Noel reached home at last. His mother met him at the door.
"Why, my darling, how warm you are!"
"And I'm tarred and firsty," said Noel, "and I'm raining all over me—"
"Where are the others? Come into the dining-room and I will get you a glass of lemonade."
"Here are the strawberries, such tinies! But they taste very nice, Mums. Dinah and Chris have both gone off about a lady who's at Lady Alice's—"
Then he poured into his mother's ears the events of the afternoon. When he had drunk the lemonade and had had his hands and face washed, and was seated in his mother's lap in her boudoir, he began to feel better.
And then he suddenly put his arms round his mother's neck and hugged her.
"I do feel sorry for the poor little boys who can't get on their mothers' laps," he said.
"Ah!" said his mother with a sigh and a smile. "I'm afraid my children will soon get beyond their mother's lap."
"I never shall," said Noel determinedly. "Not when I'm a grown-up big man—"
"You're my baby-man now," said Mrs. Inglefield, laughing. "And I should like to keep you so."
It was not very long afterwards that Chris and Diana came home together. Diana had her story to tell first.
"I thought I should never get to Lady Alice's, it seemed such a long way, and when I knocked at the big door I felt quite frightened. I told the butler about the accident, and he took me into such a beautiful big drawing-room, and there were a lot of people there, and Lady Alice came up and kissed me, for she said she knew who I was, and then she ordered out her car at once, but the chauffeur couldn't be found, he had gone home to dinner, and so it all took time, and Lady Alice gave me a real ice and some cake, and then said I had better go in the car, and she sent her maid as well, and we were coming through the village and had got to the narrow lane when we met two men carrying the lady on a cushion, and so she was put very carefully in, and it hurt her and she gave a little scream, and then she said I must come back with her and tell her all about ourselves, for she wanted to be amused."
"But she wouldn't go to Lady Alice's; she said she must get straight home because of her foot. And she lives in such a pretty little house, Mums, and she has a dear old aunt who lives with her and is very small, not much taller than I am, but so pretty, and she made such a fuss when she heard about her foot. And she's called Constance—the old lady called her Connie, and then one of the servants was sent for a doctor, and old Miss Trent, that's the aunt's name, began to bathe the foot and bandage it, and she let me help, and Miss Constance laughed most of the time, though she called out too, and she said such funny things; she made up a rhyme about herself, about taking out her car, and roaming afar, and having a spill, and then being ill, and it ended up with:"
"'Having contracted a sprain,
I won't drive again;
I'll lie on my sofa
And become a poor loafer.'"
"And then she said she must have visitors to amuse her, and she wants Noel to go to her on Monday."
Diana paused for breath. Noel clapped his hands, and cried out with delight.
"Well now, I'll tell the rest," said Chris. "I went off to the Hall, but when I got to the lodge the woman told me that Lady Alice had sent her car to take the lady home, and I asked where it was, and the woman told me it was called Ladywell Cottage, and was two miles off. I was pretty well done, but as it happened a baker's cart was going that way, and he took me up. It was fun driving along with him! I think bakers' men must have a jolly time of it! And then I went up and knocked at the door, and the doctor had just arrived, but the lady would see me and thanked me for the purse, and I told her that Noel had picked it up, but couldn't walk so far, so that's why she wants to see him next Monday. And then the doctor said he would drive Dinah and me back, for he was going to see Ted at the Rectory and it was all in his way. So we had a jolly drive back in the doctor's car, and here we are!"
"I think you've had a lot of adventures," said his mother, smiling, "but I am sorry for that poor girl's accident. I met her at the Hall the other day. She has come into this part to spend the summer here. Her name is Constance Trent. She lives with her brother, who is a Harley Street doctor, and is a cousin of Lady Alice's. I don't know how Noel will get to her, it is three miles from here."
"She said if her car was all right, she would send it for him. I wish she had asked us all," said Diana. "I liked her, she's such fun!"
Then the nursery bell rang for tea, and Mrs. Inglefield took the strawberries and put them upon a big plate and covered them with white sugar, and said she must have nursery tea with them so that she could enjoy the strawberries as well as they.
Nurse produced some cream, and the children thought they had never tasted any fruit more delicious.
"It was worth getting hot and tired for," said Diana, "especially as it helped us to rescue a lady in distress. I shall write my next story about it, only I shall make her a princess in disguise."
Miss Trent's car arrived at three o'clock on the following Monday afternoon. Noel was dressed in his best white sailor suit, and was immensely pleased to go off on his own. He sat back against the cushions of the car with such a proud self-satisfied look that his mother and Diana, who stood at the gate waving good-bye, both laughed together.
"He does think a lot of himself to-day!" said Diana.
"He's such a baby!" said her mother, almost apologetically.
"Miss Constance calls him the Cherub," said Diana. "I don't think he's a cherub when he screams and kicks for nothing."
"But he's getting better, isn't he? I don't hear so many rumpuses now."
"I think he's better since he saw Inez in one of her rages," said Diana gravely. "Oh, Mums, mayn't we have her to tea again?"
"The holidays will soon be here," her mother said, "then you can have her here every day if you like. We must get up some picnics. I should like that poor boy Ted to have a little fun."
"The week after next," sighed Diana; "it seems a long time. But let us talk about the picnics, Mums. I've never been to one, except when we had tea on the beach at Brighton."
Mrs. Inglefield began to describe a picnic in a shady wood where the dinner things could be washed up in a brook, and the tea boiled in a kettle over a real gipsy fire. Diana was enchanted at the sound of it; she had been feeling rather envious of Noel's treat, but now she forgot all about him, and only thought of the joys that were coming to them in the holidays.
Meanwhile Noel was being carried swiftly along through the country lanes, and it seemed that the end of his drive came almost too soon, for he was enjoying it so much. Ladywell Cottage stood in a garden of its own, well back from the road. It was a low thatched house with quaint gables and windows. The door had a deep porch to it in which there were seats; beehives lined a little path that led across the lawn to some apple trees. The hall door stood open, and as Noel came up a little shyly, wondering if he had better go in or ring the bell, he heard Miss Trent calling to him:
"Is that the Cherub? I heard the car. Come along in."
He took off his hat and stepped across the daintily furnished hall into a very pretty little sitting-room, where upon a chintz-covered couch by the open window lay his hostess.
She held out both hands to him.
"Come along. I have been such a dull dog to-day, and I want to be amused! Sit down on that small chair, and let me look at you. Now talk. You talk and I'll listen."
Noel felt absolutely dumb. What could he say?
"Well," she said, looking at him with a little laugh, "I'm sure you have never lost your tongue. And you do know such a lot that I don't. I want to be taught as well as amused."
"Grown-up people aren't taught," said Noel, looking at her in his stolid kind of way.
"Oh, aren't they, my little cherub! I'm learning every day of my life."
"I'm not a cherub," said Noel. "I'm a boy."
"Do you know what cherub means? In the Hebrew tongue, it means fullness of knowledge, and the cherubims have it. I think you know a lot that I don't know. I shan't tell you to be quiet about God. I like to hear you talk about Him."
Noel couldn't quite make out this new friend, but his tongue was loosening.
"Chris says you can think about God, but boys don't talk about Him unless they're with their mothers alone; then they can."
"I wish I were your mother," said Miss Trent, looking at him with a sparkle in her eyes. "Can't you imagine I am?"
"Couldn't!" said Noel briefly.
Then after a moment's pause he said:
"Do you ever have the Devil in your house?"
Miss Trent checked her inclination to laugh. The small boy she saw was in dead earnest and could not stand ridicule.
"I hope I don't," she said gravely, "but I'm not sure. What does he come into houses for?"
"To get into your heart," Noel responded in a most cheerful tone. "He comes into mine ever so many times a day. Mums says if you're a good soldier you can keep him out, but he's too strong for me, unless I get behind Jesus Christ and fight him like that. We know a girl who doesn't know about fighting him. She lets him do what he likes with her."
"A great many people do that," said Miss Trent. "Go on, Cherub, tell me more."
"I don't make fren's with the Devil often," Noel went on gravely, "but when Chris gets me down on the ground and sits on me, I don't care nuffin about being good and pleasing God; I only wiss I could kill him, and of course Satan likes me to wiss that, for you know what I am then?"
"What?" asked Miss Trent, looking as if she were enjoying herself.
"A murderer!" said Noel, shaking his head solemnly. "And that's what Julia makes Inez feel. I b'lieve if nobody in'erfered with me I should be a quite good boy always."
"But as long as people are in the world, they will interfere with us, Cherub. I have suffered in that way, too."
"Have you ever had anyone sit upon your chest and twist your nose?"
"I've had a good many people sitting upon me, and trying to twist my poor will to suit them," said Miss Trent with a funny little laugh.
"Diana says I tell tales," said Noel. "She and Chris say that's an awful fing to do. So please forget I said Chris sat upon me. They've been learning me a lot of fings since I came to live with them. But I like them better than I did. Did you have any bruvvers and sisters when you were a little girl?"
"Only one brother," said Miss Trent. "I think he and I were better friends when we were small than we are now. He tries to manage me."
"Yes, that's what Chris and Diana do to me. I reely got on better wivout them, but Mums seems to like them very well. Does your bruvver insist on taking your hand when you can get on quite well alone, and then anover time run on and leave you ever so far behind?"
"Ah, Cherub! You and I understand each other very well. That's just what my brother does. He won't believe I can get on quite well alone, and as for going on and leaving me far behind, he and his books are always doing that. We quarrelled so badly one day that I ran away and left him, and that's why I'm down here, and I shall keep away till he is repentant."
"My dear child!"
It was little old Miss Trent who spoke. She had come quietly into the room, and had overheard her niece's speech.
"Well, isn't it true, Aunt Prissy?"
Miss Trent smiled and shook her head.
"I sometimes thank God that he is your brother only and not a husband."
"A husband! Horrors! Fancy living with a husband like Vincent!"
Then Miss Trent held out her hand to Noel, and drew him gently to her.
"I have an old-fashioned box of Chinese puzzles in my work-table over there: would you like to play with them? Tea will be coming in directly."
Noel was delighted with the little ivory box that was shown him. He sat on the window-seat, and was perfectly happy with it whilst the maid laid the table for tea. Then suddenly glancing out of the window he saw a man beginning to mow the lawn in front of the house. And when he saw him he sprang to his feet.
"There's God's man!" he exclaimed.
Constance Trent looked out of the window and smiled.
"Yes, I found out yesterday that he was out of work, and as I want some gardening done, he has come round to do it. Would you like to go and speak to him?"
Noel was out of the room and in the garden like a shot.
Running up to the man, he said:
"Good afternoon, God's man! I saw you frough the window. Do you like cutting grass?"
The man smiled.
"I like a job, little master. Why do you call me God's man?"
"Because you are. I prayed for a man, and God sent you."
"The Almighty God has no dealin's with me. Not for many a long year."
"But He did send you. I know He did, and you came along the lane just in proper time."
The man shook his head.
"I'm worse than nought in God's sight. Haven't been to church for nigh on twenty year—not since I buried my poor old mother."
"I s'pect God wants you back there, that's why He took hold of you yesterday and made you walk up the lane just when we wanted you. I'm having tea with the lady all by myself. I came in her car. There was only me in it."
"To think o' that, now!"
The man rested his mower and looked at Noel with a good-natured smile.
"Well, little master, if you brought me along that lane yesterday, you did me a good turn, for it give me five shilling and this job. I've a wife ill, and little enough to live on. Work is not to be had in these parts."
"I didn't bring you, God brought you!"
And then Noel was called indoors to tea.
Such a nice tea! A big currant cake, some sweet preserves, little iced biscuits, and hot sweet tea-cakes. Noel sat up on his best behaviour, and Constance and her aunt chatted and laughed with him until he felt thoroughly at home.
After tea Miss Trent took him round the garden and picked some beautiful ripe red cherries to take home to his mother. He had another talk with Constance before he left, and she said to him:
"Look here, little cherub, you seem to be on very friendly terms with God. Couldn't you ask Him to make my foot quite well? I want to get about. I wasn't made for lying still."
"I'll ask Him in my prayers to-night," Noel said promptly.
"And do you think He'll make my foot well to-morrow?"
Noel looked thoughtful.
"When I had the measles in India, Mums said God didn't want to take them away till I'd learnt to lie still and be a good boy—"
"Ah, perhaps I have got to lie here and be a good girl!"
"But you're a grown-up lady. Grown-up people always feel good, don't they?"
"I won't try to undeceive you, little cherub. You're a darling! I must see more of you. I hope I shan't be tempted to steal you away from your mother."
"You couldn't do that," said Noel as he lifted up his face to be kissed. "Nobody, not wild chariots and horses, could tear me away from Mums!"
Then he said good-bye. The car was there to take him home again. Miss Trent took him down the garden path and he waved to Constance, who was at the window looking after him.
"You must come again," she called out to him. "If I don't get well by next week, you must come to tea with me again!"
And Noel called out in reply:
"I will! I will! I'll come as often as you ask me."
He was very excited when he got home, telling his mother and Diana all about his visit, and rather troublesome with Nurse. She said his head was turned by the notice taken of him, and when he had defied her by coming to his supper with very dirty hands, and then screamed with anger when she dragged him off to the bathroom, Diana said very gravely:
"If Miss Trent saw you at home, she wouldn't say you were a cherub!"
"Why?" Noel demanded.
"Because cherubs never have dirty hands, and never scream like you!"
"Are cherubs angels?"
"Kind of angels. Little fat boys who look out of the clouds. I've seen them in pictures."
Noel was back in the nursery now eating his bread-and-milk. He turned his hands over and looked at them thoughtfully.
"It's weeding. I took up some grass weeds round my Chris'mas tree. What is the earth like in heaven?"
"I don't know, but it isn't dirty, I suppose. Everybody is always clean and good there."
"I don't think I'm a cherub," said Noel; "but if Miss Trent likes to call me it, I shall pretend I am."
"Then you'll have to try to be like one," said Diana.
Noel said no more, but when Nurse undressed him that evening and spoke to him sharply, he said rather plaintively:
"I wish I was a real cherub, then I shouldn't be managed."
"You're no more like a cherub than the black cat is!" said Nurse shortly. "Now get into bed, and try to be a good boy to-morrow. That's all that you need trouble your head about."
And Noel laid his head on his pillow and went fast asleep, to dream that Miss Trent and he were sailing through the sky on a fat soft white cloud, and then that they tumbled into a pond and "God's man" fished them out with his garden rake!
He went to tea with Miss Trent once more in the following week and enjoyed himself even more than before, for her foot was better and they had tea in the garden, and he played with a terrier puppy which had been given to Miss Trent the previous day.
The days were sunny and warm, and lessons were really a trial when everything out of doors was so delicious. But as every day passed, the holidays came nearer, and at last the eventful Wednesday came when Chris came home from school and Miss Morgan said good-bye to the children for six long weeks.
Then Mrs. Inglefield had her first picnic. And Inez and Ted both came to it. Ted was carried on a stretcher and laid on a light four-wheeled little carriage that the village carpenter had made for him. And Mr. Wargrave drew it gently along the roads, till they came to the wood where Mrs. Inglefield meant to have her picnic. He and Miss Constance Trent were both invited to the picnic. Miss Constance limped a little, but her foot was very nearly well.
Mrs. Inglefield took them all to the very spot in the woods where she had always picnicked as a little girl. There was a stream running by, and a smooth grassy place under some old beech trees. Diana was so lost in admiration of the scenery that she stood gazing round in silent awe. Inez laughed at her.
"What's the matter? Don't you feel inclined to dance like the fairies?"
"No; I only want to look and look," said Diana. "It's like the woods in the pantomimes, only you can't get inside them there, and now we're really in this."
Miss Constance overheard this. She turned to Diana and impulsively laid her hand on her shoulder.
"Don't you let anyone quench your love of beauty, dear," she said. "Fill your soul up with it whenever you get a chance, for you'll have the memory of it when you're an old woman. They've tried to quench me in London, but I've run away from them."
Diana looked at her gratefully.
"You understand?" she said. "You see, we've come away from London, too, and we're so glad we have. For there's nothing like this in the whole of London, not even in Buckingham Palace!"
"Indeed there isn't," Miss Constance responded.
Then the children ran off together. There were trees to climb, and rabbits' holes to explore, and flowers and berries to pick. The older people unpacked the luncheon baskets, and Ted lay on a rug looking up at the sky and green trees, with deep contentment in his heart.
Before long they were all sitting in a circle under the beech trees, enjoying cold veal pie and sandwiches, salad and cold chicken, followed by fruit tarts and cream. Chris and Diana had never enjoyed themselves so much before. The country was newer to them than to the others. Noel took everything that came to him in a matter-of-fact way. Inez was a little shy of the grown-up people.
After the lunch was over Chris and Diana helped their mother to wash up the dishes in the stream. Inez and Noel wandered off together.
Miss Constance sat down by Ted's side and talked to him. Mr. Wargrave helped Mrs. Inglefield in packing up the remains of the lunch.
Inez and Noel suddenly frightened a rabbit out of his hole, and then gave chase to it. Noel longed to catch it. They ran and ran along the narrow green paths that led through the wood.
When they were tired out they turned back. But they had lost their bearings, and were really wandering away from the picnic party, instead of towards them.
"I'm afraid we're lost," said Inez, suddenly stopping still.
She did not look afraid, her eyes were sparkling with excitement.
"I've often wished to lose myself," she said, "but I've never managed it. Every one meets with adventures when they're lost."
"But I don't like being lost," said Noel, puckering up his face. "I don't like it at all."
"It's jolly! Come on, it's no good standing still. We shall get out of this old wood if we walk long enough."
Noel trotted after her with an anxious face.
"We'd better ask God to find us the way back," he said at last.
"Oh, no, we won't do that. This is fun!"
"It isn't fun," said Noel crossly.
Then Inez took hold of his hand.
"Come on, I think I know the way. Look at the light through the trees over there. We're at the edge of the wood now."
But they were not, and after wandering on and on, Noel began to cry.
"I'm tarred. I'm going to ask God to find us."
"Oh, you're always talking about God!" said Inez impatiently. "God is in heaven, millions and billions of miles away from us. He won't hear you. You only think He does."
Then she dashed on in front and called to him excitedly:
"Come on, here's a fence and a field. We're out of the wood."
Noel scrambled after her. They climbed the fence. The country was strange to them. There was a river, and across the field an old disused mill-house.
Once out of the wood Noel recovered his spirits, and when Inez proposed that they should go across the field and see if anyone lived in the old house, he agreed to accompany her.
"And then we'll go back to the uvvers!" he said.
"There's generally someone living in ruined houses," said Inez. "In story-books it's gipsies or smugglers or misers. We'll go and see."
But when they came to the old house, it was quite deserted. The roof had partly fallen in; there was no glass in the windows.
Inez and Noel scrambled in at an old window and explored the house. Then they found a shut door which with difficulty Inez opened. This led into a small room with a window high above their reach. There was an old box in the corner turned upside down. By its side was a heap of ashes. Evidently a tramp had taken refuge there at some time. A gust of wind suddenly swept through the house, and the door which the children had left open, banged violently. As it shut upon them the vibration brought a torrent of mortar and stones down from the roof.
Noel was frightened and ran to open the door. He could not move it, and when Inez came to his help she found that it had jammed in some way, which made it impossible for her to open it.
"Oh, Noel," she screamed, "we're shut up here! We shall never be able to get out, and we shall be starved to death!"
Noel stared at Inez as if he could not believe her words. Then he kicked and banged at the door with all his might. But the door would not move an inch.
"Now we've got our adventure, and I hate it," said Inez. "Nobody knows we're here, and nobody will find us; it's away from the road, and we may stay here for days and days, and months after they'll find our skillingtons."
Noel began to cry, then he suddenly wiped his eyes.
"We're forgetting God!" he said. "God always takes care of me. Doesn't He take care of you?"
"I don't belong to Him," said Inez slowly. "You can pray to Him if you want to."
"But you must pray, too," said Noel.
"I don't know how to."
Noel knelt down in a corner and put his two hands together: "Please, God, send somebody to open the door. Send an angel if there's nobody else. We must get out. Please be very quick. For Jesus' sake. Amen."
Then he got up and waited. Inez climbed upon the box and tried to reach the window, but it was too high above her.
She banged at the door and screamed at the top of her voice.
"God will send somebody!" said Noel confidently.
"I don't believe God hears us," said Inez. "You told me the Devil lives in my house. Perhaps he has come with us here, and means to keep us here."
"It's only when we're naughty that the Devil is near," said Noel. "I haven't had him near me to-day. I've been a good boy all along."
"I haven't been good," said Inez. "I fought with Julia when she was combing my hair. She pulls it on purpose, so I hit her with the hairbrush; and when we were running after the rabbit in the wood, I meant to run away and give the others the trouble of looking for us. I like giving people trouble. That's wicked, you know. As long as it doesn't get dark, I don't mind, but if it gets dark here, I dare say the Devil will come and frighten us, and then what shall we do?"
"God won't let him!" said Noel stoutly.
Nothing would shake his faith.
Inez began to admire him for it.
"I wish I belonged to God like you do," she said. "Do you think He'd love me if I did?"
"O' course He would."
"How do you do it? But then I couldn't possibly be good, so it's no use talking about it, and I like being in tempers with Julia. It frightens her."
"I s'pect God is punis'ing you for being in tempers, and I've come into it too because I'm with you."
Noel's eyes were big with awe. He remembered the story of Jonah well, how Jonah was punished, and why.
And then, sitting on the box in the sunlight, he began to tell Inez the story. She listened, for she had heard few Bible stories, and Noel told it graphically, waving his hands about and describing the storm with gusto.
They forgot they were shut into an empty room; the sun streamed through the window upon their heads, the coolness and shade was refreshing after their hot scramble through the wood.
Inez was impressed, as Noel had meant her to be.
"Do you think God sent the wind to bang the door?" she asked Noel. "And all because of me?"
"We'll ask Him to forgive you," said Noel cheerfully, "and then if you're sorry, He will. And God will easily open the door. God can do everyfing, you know." Inez was so subdued that she knelt down with Noel, and putting her hands together and shutting her eyes very tightly, she said nervously and quickly:
"O God, I'm very sorry. Please forgive me. I'm sorry. I'll try to be good. Please listen to us and forgive me. Amen."
Then they tried the door again, and they called and called, but there was no answer, and nobody came.
The time seemed endless. They wondered if the others were sitting down to tea. Noel began to cry a little.
"I do want to get out of this horrid room—I want Mums! I want my tea."
And then he began to say over and over again in a whispering tone, "Please, God, help us! Please, God, help us!"
"I'm sure God will send somebody. He sent a man very quick to Miss Constance when she tumbled out of her car." His tone was brave, and he wiped his tears away.
Inez had found a thick short stick and began battering at the door and calling out for help.
Suddenly, to their great delight, they heard a man's voice outside:
"Hallo! What's up? Who's here?"
"Open the door! It's us! We're shut in!"
Inez's voice was shrill and frantic.
Noel stood up smiling seraphically.
"It's another of God's men!" he said. "He's comed at last!"
The man outside came nearer them; then he seized hold of the door handle and tried to move it, and then he called out cheerily:
"Why, you're bricked in! There's nearly a ton of mortar and stones keeping you fast. Wait a bit, till I clear it away."
It seemed a very long time to the children before the doorway was cleared, but they were frightened no longer. And it was a happy moment when the door moved, opened, and they confronted a strange gentleman in fishing garb.
"Well, upon my word!" he ejaculated as he looked the children up and down. "How on earth did you get shut in there?"
They told him.
Noel, with shining eyes, concluded:
"And you're one of God's men, aren't you? He sent you. We asked Him to. I told Inez I was perfully sure God would send somebody."
The young man laughed.
"I have been fishing down the river and had just got to this old mill-house when I heard your cries. It's lucky I came this way; it was just a chance I didn't go up the other way!"
"God sent you!" said Noel stolidly.
"Did He now? How do you know that, little chap?"
"Oh, Noel believes God hears everything he says to Him," said Inez, "and I'm beginning to believe it, too. I'm going to start proper prayers when I get home. Not the silly things I was taught to say when I was a baby. I gave those up long ago."
"And where do you young people hail from?" asked their rescuer.
"We lost our way in the wood. We're all having a picnic there. Do take us back."
"But I don't know my way about. I'm only a stray loafer, staying at the Hall."
"But you can help us to find the uvvers," said Noel; "Mums will be so glad to see us. We've been lost for years!"
The young man laughed again, but he walked with them across the field towards the wood, and then in the distance they caught sight of the vicar. He gave a loud shout when he saw them, and when they came up to him he said:
"Oh, you truants! We've been scouring the wood for you. Come along. Why, Captain Melton, are you the one who has found them?"
"He's God's man!" said Noel eagerly: "the second God's man I've seen lately. God sent him to us."
Mr. Wargrave took hold of Noel's hand and smiled at him understandingly. Captain Melton gave his explanation of the children's plight, and then Mr. Wargrave begged him to join their party.
"We shall all be having tea. I know you and Miss Trent are old friends, and I believe you have met Mrs. Inglefield before—this little chap's mother."
So Captain Melton walked on, and before very long they came to the clearing under the trees where only poor Ted lay alone in his glory. All the others were hunting for the wanderers. Mr. Wargrave sounded a hunting-horn which he had brought with him.
"I always find this so useful in village excursions and treats," he said. "They'll soon return when they hear my horn."
And very soon they did. Mrs. Inglefield was the first to arrive, and very relieved she was to find her youngest child safe and sound. Then came Miss Trent, and Chris and Diana followed close behind them. Inez and Noel told their story, and everybody said what a lucky thing it was that Captain Melton had been fishing near the mill.
"We should never have dreamt of looking there," said Mrs. Inglefield, "and the children might have been there all night!"
Both she and Miss Constance were pleased to see Captain Melton, and they all very soon sat down to tea. A fire had already been made and the kettle was boiling upon it.
Diana seated herself close beside Inez.
"I wish I'd been with you," she said; "I should like to have been shut up in that old house. It's like a story-book. Didn't you look about till you could find an underground passage? There might be one to cross the river underneath, like they have in London."
"No, it was too miserable to think of underground passages," said Inez. "We spent our time in saying prayers to God. At least, Noel did. What a good boy he is!"
Diana looked doubtful.
"He thinks he is," she said, "but Chris and I think he's too cocky!"
"Well, I think I shall try and get God to love me, if He will. He answers Noel's prayers, so He'll answer mine."
"Noel talks too much," Diana said.
"I like the way he talks."
Inez stood up for Noel. His real trust in God had made a deep impression on her.
When the picnic was over, and she was walking across the fields, she had a few quiet words with Mrs. Inglefield.
"You aren't angry with me because I got lost with Noel, are you?" she asked.
"No, dear, you could not help it, but I'm very thankful you were found."
"Well, I've tried to be good all day, but I did run away from you because I thought it would be fun for you all to be looking for us. But it wasn't fun when we were shut up in that room. Mrs. Inglefield, God always hears Noel's prayers. Will he hear mine?"
"Always, darling. God is never far away from you, and He has told you that He wants you to tell Him all your troubles."
"How has He told me?"
"In the Bible."
"Would He let me join myself on to Him? I don't quite know how to do it, but Noel loves Him and God loves Noel. I should like to be like that. How can I do it?"
"Dear Inez, God has loved you all your life. He sent His Son Jesus Christ down here to tell everybody so, and Jesus died for you. He died for your sins, so that God could forgive you, and that heaven's gates might be opened for you. Kneel down and ask your Saviour to come into your little heart. He will make you happy and good. Give yourself to Him, and trust Him. He will do all the rest."
"Would He be able to turn me from a wicked girl into a good girl?" asked Inez.
"Indeed He will, though it may not be done all at once. He will love to do it. That is a prayer that will most certainly be answered."
"I wish I lived with you," said poor Inez with a little sigh.
There was no opportunity for further talk. The turning came for Inez to part with her friends, but as she ran home her heart was singing inside her.
"I'll do it, and then I'll have somebody who really loves me, and I'll try to love Jesus Christ with all my heart and soul!"
Meanwhile Miss Constance and Captain Melton walked together with Noel between them.
"I'm grateful to you, Harry, for rescuing my cherub. He comes to cheer me up when I'm in the blues. And I'm grateful to him for producing you. I was getting very dull in the country here. Will you take me out fishing with you to-morrow?"
"How many fish would I get if I did?" asked Captain Melton with a smile.
"You could come and fiss with Chris and me," put in Noel. "We go to the bridge across the stream at the back of our house, and we catch sticky bats."
"Thank you, Cherub, but two's company and three is none."
"P'r'aps," Noel said, turning to the Captain—"p'r'aps, God's man, you'd like to come and see my Chris'mas tree?"
"My dear fellow," said the Captain, "I don't like that nickname you've given me. Choose another!"
"Oh," said Miss Constance, laughing, "you are number two! Remember—"
Then her face softened and she spoke gravely and in almost a whisper, "You were an answer to prayer—"
"Yes," said Noel cheerfully, "that's just what he was. God sent him because we wanted to be let out."
"It's the first time in my life that I've been told that I'm a messenger from God," said Captain Melton.
"Well, it needn't be the last," said Miss Constance. And then they were silent, for they had reached the spot where Miss Constance's car was waiting for her.
Captain Melton was going part of the way with her, so Noel said good-bye to them and ran on to join his mother, who had just parted with Inez.
Chris and Diana were accompanying Ted home.
"Oh, Mums," said Noel, putting his hand in hers, "I wiss I understood grown-ups. They talk so funny, and laugh when I'm grave."
"They don't understand you as your mother does," said Mrs. Inglefield, giving his hand a little squeeze.
"I fink I like you best," said Noel, looking up at her with grave considerate eyes.
"I'm glad to hear that. Did you enjoy your picnic?"
"Little bits of it, but a wood is like the jungle in India. It tears your legs and trips you up, and scratches you all over."
But this was not Chris's and Diana's verdict when they got home.
"It has been perfectly lovely, Mums."
"Yes, only spoilt by Noel and Inez at the last."
"Hush! We won't think of that. We'll remember the sunshine and the trees and flowers, and all the pleasant sights we saw."
"I shall never forget it," said Diana in her rapt tone. This was only the first of the holiday treats. Mrs. Inglefield gave herself up to her children. She took them one day in a car to the top of a moor a long way off, Inez accompanying them.
And then suddenly one day everything seemed to come to an end.
The postman brought bad news. Granny was very ill in London, and Mrs. Inglefield said she must go to her immediately. Unfortunately Nurse had gone away for her holiday. Mrs. Tubbs was quite equal to the occasion. She said that she and Cassy would look after the children and that Mrs. Inglefield need not have an anxious thought.
Mrs. Inglefield went to her room to pack, and called Chris to her.
"My boy, you are the eldest, and I want you to help me. I don't like leaving you with Nurse away, but I hope she will soon be returning. And in any case, whether she is here or not, I want you to be my deputy while I am away. Do you know what a deputy is?"
"I leave you in charge of Diana and Noel. Diana is dreamy, and wants to be roused sometimes. Noel is very small and still ignorant of English ways. I don't want accidents to happen to any of you through mischief or carelessness. I should like to think that everything will go on just the same as if I am here. Will you do your best to let it be so?"
"I will, Mums!"
Chris spoke solemnly. He was pleased at his mother's confidence in him. He vowed that she should not be disappointed in him.
Then he asked her:
"And what about Inez? Is she to come here when you're away?"
"I don't think you could prevent it," said Mrs. Inglefield, smiling. "She's a poor lonely little girl. If you get into any trouble, Chris, you have Mr. Wargrave close at hand."
"Oh," said Chris quickly, "we shall manage quite well alone, Mums! And if I hear from George Burke that he's in this part, may I ask him to tea?"
"Yes, dear, certainly. I may not be long away: I hope not."
George Burke was Chris's great chum at school. He was devoted to him, and was looking forward to seeing him in the holidays, as he was going to stay at an uncle's, about ten miles away.
Then Mrs. Inglefield had some last words with the other two children.
To Diana she said:
"Di, darling, you are so quick and clever with your pen. Will you write me a little scrap every day to tell me what you're all doing? Don't post every day. Every three days will be often enough, but write me a little diary. I shall love to read it, for I shall be thinking of you all so much!"
Diana was transported with delight. Nothing could have pleased her better.
Then Noel was addressed:
"Noel dearest, you'll promise me to be a good boy till I come back? And do what Chris tells you?"
Noel's face fell.
"S'posing Chris tells me to put my hand into a bonfire, must I do it? S'posing he tells me to be hurt?"
"Oh, Chris wouldn't be unkind, darling!"
"But he is. He told me to take hold of the stinging-nettle, and it stung me just like a snake."
"Mums, I only told him to do what Nurse said could be done. If you pinch it tightly, it doesn't sting. But he was frightened of it!"
"I don't like to be—er—managed," said Noel, shutting up his lips in obstinate fashion.
"I won't manage you," Chris cried, seeing an anxious look come into his mother's eyes. "We're all going to be most awfully good when Mums is away, just to make her feel easy about us."
"Yes, I'll be good," assented Noel, "if you're good, Chris."
And so Mrs. Inglefield had to leave it. She was very hurried in her departure, and when a taxi came to take her to the station, there were tears in Diana's and Noel's eyes. Chris stood with white face and clenched hands. He was a schoolboy and had learnt to control his feelings, but when his mother's car was out of sight, he felt as if the sunshine had gone out of his sky.
For the first few days things went well. The three children were on their best behaviour. One day was spent at the Rectory, and Inez joined them there. Ted was out in the garden. He was as busy as ever, and had just completed a beautiful little set of furniture which he had enamelled white. A toyshop in the neighbouring town had promised to buy it from him. He was delighted to think that he could earn a little money.
"I wish—I wish I had clever fingers like you," said Chris. "Mums' birthday will be here very soon. I should like to make something for her."
"I could show you how to cut out a wooden photo frame for her and then you could stick cones and moss on it and varnish it over. Would you like to try? You'll have plenty of time these holidays. Come over in the mornings and I'll show you how to do it."
"That would be ripping!" said Chris.
Then his face fell.
"I shan't be able to be too much away from the others: not till Nurse comes back. Noel is always up to mischief when he's left alone."
"Why, I thought Noel was the good boy of the family!"
"He doesn't mean to be naughty, but he thinks of such strange things to do. Yesterday he got some paint from the attic and painted a lot of the garden hose. He made himself in a filthy mess, and the gardener is furious!"
"Well, get Diana to look after him for an hour to-morrow and come over here. Come about ten o'clock."
So this was settled. When Noel heard of it, he said:
"I don't want Diana to look after me. I'm going to be busy in the garden."
"So am I," said Diana; "we'll garden together. I want to tie up my rose, the branches tumble about in the wind."
"And I'm going to hose my Chris'mas tree. He loves a shower bath."
But the next day was rainy, and Mrs. Tubbs told them they must stay in the house. Chris was allowed to go to the Rectory. Diana and Noel had the nursery to themselves. Diana got out her story and began to write. Noel played with his bricks for some time, then tiring of it stole out of the room. Diana was too engrossed in her story to notice his disappearance.
He went downstairs and wandered into the drawing-room, and from there into his mother's boudoir.
"What can I do?" he muttered to himself. "I must get my hands busy, or Satan will find mischief for me, that's what Nurse always says." He began opening the drawers of his mother's writing bureau. In her anxious haste she had left them unlocked. Then he found himself turning over the contents, though he had an uneasy feeling that he was doing wrong. In the first one which he opened there were letters and old papers, a box of sealing-wax and some old pens and pencils. The next was in a very untidy state. "I'll tidy all Mums' drawers," he said to himself: "that will be very kind and good of me."
So with some trouble, he emptied out the whole contents of three drawers upon the carpet, and when they were in one confused heap, he began to sort things out and put back as he thought they ought to be. It was a long business, and several accidents happened. A bottle of gum emptied itself upon the carpet. The cork was not secure. Some ink out of a small bottle marked "marking ink" also spilt itself amongst the papers. Then Noel was tempted to light a match and seal some of the empty envelopes. He had seen his mother do it, but it was a difficult business. The match burnt his fingers, he dropped it hurriedly, and it immediately set fire to some of the loose papers.
This frightened him: he rushed out of the room to the back lobby where the garden hose was kept. Unfortunately it had been left by the gardener attached to the water pipe there. Triumphantly Noel turned on the tap, seized the end of the hose and ran back to the boudoir, where he turned it full on the heap of rubbish on the carpet. The water did more harm than the fire, for that had fortunately died down, but the room was flooded with water, and Noel began to feel very uncomfortable. He put the hose back, leaving pools of water following in his wake; and then hearing Chris come in, he began to bundle things back into the drawers as fast as he could. Chris discovered him before his task was finished, and his wrath was great.
"You wicked little beast! You've ruined Mums' room! What have you been doing? You deserve a good thrashing, and I've a great mind to give it to you!"
He seized hold of Noel by the neck of his jersey and marched him upstairs. Noel shrieked and kicked.
"You're as bad as Inez!" said Chris. "There isn't much to choose between the two of you!"
Noel was subdued and silent at once.
When Mrs. Tubbs and Cassy and Diana surrounded them, Noel lapsed into injured tears:
"I was tidying Mums' drawers. I'm not a wicked boy," he sobbed.
"You just look at the room, Mrs. Tubbs! There are great black sticky pools on the carpet; and the chairs and sofa and all the ornaments are streaming wet! I don't know what he's been doing, but he ought to be jolly well punished. I don't know what Mums will say when she comes back!"
"I'll write and tell her all about it at once," said Diana in tones of satisfaction.
Chris looked at her.
"That's rather tell-taley!" he remarked.
"I don't care. Mums said I was to write and tell her everything."
Noel began to cry lustily now. And then Chris, still holding him firmly, backed him into a big hanging cupboard outside the nursery door. Locking the door upon him, he said:
"You'll stay there till dinner-time to punish you."
Mrs. Tubbs and Cassy had gone to the boudoir to repair the mischief done there. Noel kicked and screamed till he was tired out.
Chris felt worried. He looked at Diana writing away as if her life depended upon it.
"I'm afraid Mums will say that you ought to have looked after Noel better. I s'pose I oughtn't to have gone away, but you did promise you'd see after him."
"Yes, but I was writing my story, and I forgot him."
"Don't make him out too bad, Diana. Tell Mums he was trying to tidy her drawers for her. He didn't mean to be wicked. I think I'll let him out. He's quiet now."
But when Noel was liberated, he rushed downstairs and out into the road without his cap. The rain had stopped. He was so angry that Chris had dared to lock him up in a cupboard that he hardly knew what he was doing. And then suddenly he met the man who had been doing some gardening for Miss Constance.
"Oh, God's man, they've been so unkind to me!"
Noel stopped and gripping hold of the man's coat held him prisoner whilst he poured out his story to him.
"And there's nobody to be kind to me, not one. Diana is writing to Mums to tell her I'm a wicked boy, and Chris called me a beast, and I hate him!"
"Oh, 'ere, little master! This won't do! No, it won't! Why, I were tellin' my wife of you, 'ow pious you were for such a little 'un. Why, your name for me sticks in my throat at times and keeps me from the 'Golden Dog,' which I do frequent more'n is good for me!"
Noel stopped crying. He began to smile.
"I b'lieve God sent you to meet me to be kind to me, did He?"
"Well, I shouldn't wonder. Cheer up! You be too big a boy to cry! I reckon you just meant to have a tidy-up. Accidents will happen."
"But Mums will hear about me, and she'll think I spoilt her room on purpose."
"Not her. And couldn't you write a letter yourself and say you didn't mean to do it?"
"Why, so I could!" said Noel. "Could you help me to write it?"
"I bain't much on a scholar, but my wife, she be a fine writer! You come on home with me, and we'll get 'er to set her pen to work for 'ee."
Noel slipped his hand inside the big horny one of his friend and trotted home with him quite contentedly. His cottage was up a lane at the end of the village. Mrs. Thorn, his wife, was just dishing a very nice dish of stewed rabbit; the little kitchen, though small and bare, was beautifully clean. In a chair up at the table sat a little white-faced, dark-haired boy about a year younger than Noel. His name was Bertie.
Mrs. Thorn listened with a pleasant smile to Noel's story. She asked him to sit down and have a bit of food with them, and promised to help him write his letter afterwards.
"I've heard of you, dear," she said. "I love the name you give my husband. And 'twas you who sowed some flowers 'mongst the graves in the churchyard. I lost my mother five months ago, and one day I found some sweet-peas growing on her grave. The vicar—he told me who had done it. I did feel pleased and proud."
"I wish I'd a grave in God's garden," said Noel eagerly. "I'd have flowers all over it. I've a garden of my own with a big Chris'mas tree in it. He's growing bigger and bigger, and at Chris'mas I'm going to have a party. Would your little boy like to come to it?"
"Indeed he would. Poor Bertie isn't strong. He can't go to school. He suffers from asthma."
Before the meal was over Noel was chattering away quite happily. And when it was done, Mrs. Thorn cleared away the dishes into the back kitchen, and her husband said he would wash them up whilst the letter was being written. Noel and Mrs. Thorn had a good deal of talk together over it. And finally this was what Mrs. Thorn wrote at his dictation, Noel signing the letter himself in big capital letters:
"MY DARLING MUMS,—"
"I never meant to make a mess, I truly didn't. I had nothing to do,
I pulled out your drawers to tidy, and things spilt themselves, and
Dinah is making me out wicked in her letter, and Chris locked me in the
cupboard, and I have nobody to be my friend. And I wish you were home,
darling Mums, and now God's man has given me some nice dinner,
and Mrs. Thorn is writing this. I like her, and Bertie is coming to my
Chris'mas tree. Good-bye, Mums, and please love me like God does, and
I do try to be His good boy."
When this letter was written, Tom Thorn asked Noel if he had not better go home.
"I want to post my letter," he said, "but I've no stamp."
"They'll give you one at the post office. We haven't one in the house," said Mrs. Thorn, "or I would give it to you."
Noel put his hand in his pocket rather grandly.
"I have two pennies of my own. I'll go to the post office and buy one. Good-bye, God's man, and I like Bertie and Mrs. Thorn. I'll ask you all—every one—to my Chris'mas tree."
He ran off down the street to the village, and Mrs. Thorn looked after him and smiled:
"Quite the little man, isn't he? I wish our Bertie was as spry!"
Bertie looked at his mother.
"He's bigger nor me. I'd like well to see his Chris'mas tree."
Meanwhile, at home they were very anxious about Noel. Chris went down the garden to look for him and then into the church and churchyard. Mrs. Tubbs was worried.
"You shouldn't have been so high-handed, Master Chris. What shall we do if any harm has come to him? Even Nurse never locks him into a cupboard."
Chris was consumed with remorse. Diana did not comfort him.
"He may have tumbled into the pond at the bottom of our field and been drowned, or perhaps a motor has run over him and they've taken him to a hospital."
"He's done it to annoy us," said Chris crossly. "I wish Mums was home!"
When dinner-time came Noel was still absent.
Mrs. Tubbs made the two children have their dinner.
"And afterwards, I'll put on my bonnet, and go down to the village myself. Somebody is sure to have seen him."
And then about two o'clock Noel appeared with a broad smile all over his face.
To all the questions and exclamations, he made answer:
"I runned away because everybody was unkind, and I've written a big letter to Mums and tolded her what you dooed to me, and I got a stamp and posted it, and it's going in the train to Mums as fast as it can!"
Chris and Diana looked at each other in a puzzled kind of way. They knew how badly Noel wrote, and what a time it took him to form his letters.
"You're not speaking true!" said Diana severely.
"Let him alone!" said Mrs. Tubbs. "I'm sure I wish Nurse was back! I've been worried to death this morning. Come and have your dinner, Master Noel, and be a good boy."
"I've had some nice dinner," said Noel triumphantly, "but I'll have some more."
In a few minutes Chris had got his story out of him. Nothing would shake Noel's self-satisfaction until Diana took him to see the carpet in Mrs. Inglefield's boudoir. Mrs. Tubbs had done her best with it, but there were black ink stains and discoloration.
When Noel saw it his face lengthened.
"I'm truly sorry," he said. "I fink I'll save up my pennies to buy Mums a new carpet. I should like to give her it on her birfday."
Chris and Diana scoffed at him.
"A carpet costs pounds and pounds and pounds!"
But they said no more to him, and for the rest of the day they got on peaceably together.
The next morning brought Chris a letter from his chum, George Burke. He was at his uncle's, and he invited Chris to spend a whole day with him and sleep a night there.
Chris danced round the table with delight at the thought of it, and then remembered that he had been left in charge.
"George wants me to go to-morrow, Dinah; he says he'll meet me at the station if I come by the first train after breakfast."
"All right," said Diana, "you go. Inez is coming to spend the whole day to-morrow. We shall be all right."
Chris's face was very grave.
He knew what a pickle Inez was. How could he go away and leave them! Noel was utterly irresponsible. His mother had left him in charge. Diana was too dreamy to look after them. The events of yesterday had taught him the necessity of keeping Noel under his eye.
But George told him that visitors were expected, and that he must come the next day or he could not have a room. And it was no use asking George over now, for he seemed to have so much on hand.
And then poor Chris walked up and down the garden path in agony of longing and indecision. It did seem hard to refuse; he had been so looking forward to seeing George again. If only Nurse would hurry back! Surely Mums would not expect him to lose this treat! He mightn't get the chance again. What was he to do?
In the bottom of his heart he knew what he ought to do.
"I am Mother's deputy. She made me it, and I promised her I would look after the others while Nurse was away. It's no good. I can't go. I must write by this post and tell George so."
And after saying this firmly to himself Chris ran back to the house. His mother had left a packet of postcards to be sent to her if Diana did not want to write more. He took one of these and wrote:
"DEAR GEORGE,—Awfully sorry. Can't come. Mother away. Am in charge
till she comes back. Very disappointed. Good luck to you!"
Then, lest he should be tempted to reconsider the matter, he ran off to the post office and posted his card.
He was rather cross and irritable for the rest of the day; and when Diana begged him to make plans for to-morrow so that Inez might enjoy herself, he said:
"Oh, I'm tired of Inez! I don't want to play with girls all day long!"
"No one asked you to," snapped Diana. "You've got so grand since you went to school that nobody is good enough for you. Why don't you go off to this boy George? We don't want you. I can look after Noel and Inez as well as you."
"Can you? Did you look after Noel yesterday when I was out?"
"Oh, well, that was my story. But I shan't write stories to-morrow. Don't be cross, Chris. Don't you think we might have our dinner out on the lawn under the trees? It would be like a picnic. And I've got a lovely idea for afterwards. We'll dress up and act History. Miss Morgan said she used to at school. We'll do the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and Rosamond swallowing the poison."
Chris did not look thrilled. His disappointment was too acute.
"I'd rather have a paper-chase," he said.
"Very well," said Diana good-naturedly, "we will, and we can begin tearing up the paper to-day. Noel can help us at that."
Chris tried to forget George's invitation, and for the rest of the day, he busied himself in various employments. He knew he was feeling disappointed and cross, but he endeavoured to be cheerful.
After all, he reminded himself, he was only carrying out his mother's wishes, and she was dearer to him than a dozen Georges.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon. The children were feeling rather tired: were all under the shade of the big tree on the lawn. They had had their paper-chase, and now Inez was proposing a bonfire at the end of the garden.
"Old Foster won't like it," said Chris.
"Well, we'll have a fire of some sort. I know! We'll have one in the middle of the grass, and be gipsies. We'll roast potatoes and boil the kettle for tea."
Inez sprang to her feet as the inspiration seized her.
"I don't believe Mrs. Tubbs will let us," said Diana. "She wouldn't let us have our dinner out here as we wanted to."
"We won't tell her, and she won't see us till we've done it. Let's pick up all the sticks we can!"
This appealed to them all; even Chris did not see any harm in it, but there was a terrible outcry from Noel when Inez attempted to break some little branches from his Christmas tree.
He thumped her in the back and yelled.
Inez only laughed.
"His under branches ought to be cut off," she said, "it would do him good. He's got too many of them."
"Cut your hair off!" cried Noel. "I'll cut some of it, you've got too much of it, and it will burn beautiful."
He picked up the garden shears and pursued her round the garden. Inez enjoyed the chase. They were all laughing, when suddenly a visitor appeared in their midst. She had walked out of one of the French windows in the drawing-room and come down the garden to them. It was Miss Constance Trent.
Noel dropped his shears and rushed at her.
"My Cherub!" she exclaimed as she embraced him. "I was feeling so dull his afternoon that I suddenly thought I would come and see you all and your mother. I have just been told that she's away."
In a moment she had sat down amongst them and made herself at home.
"I think I must stay and play with you. Captain Melton has gone back to London, and I've nobody who wants me."
The children were delighted to have her. She was told about Granny's illness, and about Chris's invitation.
And then she looked at Chris very thoughtfully for a moment.
"My dear boy," she said in her quick impetuous fashion, "there's no reason why you should not go and see your school friend and stay the night. Is Nurse away? I'll take her place: it will be great fun. My little aunt is always telling me I never do anything useful, and I can be a stern martinet when I choose. I'm sure your mother would like you to go. I'll stay till tea-time, and then I'll come over the first thing to-morrow morning. You can sleep the night, as you were asked, and come back to-morrow afternoon. And my car is at the gate with my chauffeur: he'll run you out in no time."
Chris wavered. Then he shook his head and said firmly:
"Thank you very much, but Mums made me her—her deputy, and it would be mean to get someone else to do my job. I'd rather stay, thank you."
Miss Constance tried to persuade him, but she soon saw it would be useless.
And so she stayed and played with them; and they gave up the idea of having a fire upon the lawn, because she told them it would burn the grass and leave a bare place. She told them she was going to marry Captain Melton very soon.
"And when I'm married I mean to have the cherub as my page. Aren't you very glad, Cherub, that I'm going to marry one of 'God's men'?"
Noel looked at her gravely.
"I don't want him to take you away."
"I don't mean to go back to London, Cherub. We are going to live in the country, not so very far from here. So I shall come flying along to see you when I'm unhappy."
"Oh!" said Diana, clasping her hands. "You'll never be unhappy if you are married. They always marry and live happy ever after!"
"So they do—I forgot that—I hope I shall be no exception to the rule."
Miss Constance left them when tea came.
Cassy brought it out into the garden and Diana, with pleased importance, poured out a cup of tea for Miss Constance and persuaded her to drink it before she went.
"When I grow up," Inez informed them, after they had waved a farewell to their grown-up visitor and heard her car tear along the road towards her home—"when I grow up, I shall marry and make my husband take me to the top of the Himalayas. I shan't stay in England, it's too pokey."
"P'r'aps you won't get a husband," said Chris, looking at her critically. "I shouldn't like to be him."
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Because you're always wanting your way, and I should like my wife to want mine."
"I wouldn't have you as a husband for a hundred pounds," said Inez scornfully.
"When I grow up," Diana said softly, "I shall love my husband so much that I'll always do what he wants, and he'll love me so much that he'll always do what I want."
"And when I grow up," burst out Noel, "I shan't marry nobody, but I shall be a padre and build the biggest church in the world: that's what I'm going to do, and I'll live in it!"
"Clergymen don't live in churches," said Diana.
"I shall. Samuel in the Bible did, and Eli, and God and me will live there together."
"There you are again!" demonstrated Chris. "That's not the way to speak of God."
"Oh, I like to hear him!" said Inez. "He tells me a lot of things I never heard before."
And after they had had tea, and Chris and Diana began watering their garden, Inez and Noel wandered off into the churchyard together. It was Noel's favourite haunt.
"I like things that specially belong to God, don't you?" said Noel confidentially. "Old Mr. Sharpe, the man who keeps the big garden and who gave me my Chris'mas tree, he said that God had always liked gardens from the very beginning, and this is one of His special little gardens where people grow."
"But they're dead. They're buried, like my poor little puppy that Julia drowned. I buried him myself, and made him a little grave just like these."
"Yes, I know, but Mr. Wargrave telled me they're like the flowers in the winter time. They'll come out of the ground one day beautiful!"
Inez looked at him thoughtfully, then she said:
"I've made up my mind to belong to God. I talk a little like you do when I say my prayers. Your mother told me a lot. Let's come into the church, and I'll tell you what I mean to do."
So as the church door was always left unlocked they found their way in.
"You must whisper," Noel told her; "everybody whispers, except when they're here on Sunday."
They walked up the aisle, and sat down in one of the choir seats in the chancel. The sun was shining through the coloured window which represented our Lord as the Good Shepherd amongst his flock. It touched their heads with bars of gold. The church was quiet and cool and restful. Inez was impressed by the atmosphere.
"Are you positively certain that God is here to-day?" whispered Inez.
"Quite positive certain," said Noel in a shrill, eager whisper. "It's His Own House, you know. Mr. Wargrave says he leaves the door open for anyone who wants to speak to God."
Then screwing up his eyelids very tightly, Noel added:
"I can almost see Him, Inez."
Inez looked startled.
"Well, listen!" she whispered. "I've been reading about a traveller who stood up in the desert when he had nearly died, and when a deer crept out from somewhere and showed him a well. The traveller knew that God had sent the deer to him, and he took off his hat and knelt on the ground and he held up his hand and he vowed a vow."
"It's a very solemn, on-your-honour promise. He told God that he would take service with Him for ever and ever and do what He told him. And he became a very great missionary after that."
"We had missionaries in India," said Noel. "What else?"
"Oh, that's all I need tell you, but I thought I'd rather like to give myself right away to God, and vow a solemn vow like that."
"Do it now," whispered Noel; "let me see you."
Inez hesitated: "Your mother said it was the Saviour who wanted me."
She pointed to the window.
"There He is! Do you think He'd like me to be one of His sheep?"
"Kneel down and hold up your hand!" urged Noel in an eager whisper.
So Inez knelt down and took off her hat and held up her hand very solemnly.
"Here I vow, O Jesus Christ, to be Your servant and do what You tell me for ever and ever. Amen."
There was silence in the church. Noel was kneeling by her side. He felt as if something tremendous was taking place.
And he was not far from wrong, for Inez was in dead earnest, and in after-days when she became quite an old woman with grandchildren of her own around her, she would tell them of the first stepping-stone towards the Better Land on which she placed her feet, in that quiet little country church, on a summer's evening in August. And then after silence, Inez spoke to her Saviour again:
"I'm sorry I've been such a wicked girl, but Mrs. Inglefield told me You had died for wicked people to forgive them, so please forgive me. And make me never want to kick or scratch or bite Julia again."
Then she got up on her feet and looked at Noel in a solemn, satisfied kind of way.
"There, that's done, and I can never go back! I've been wanting to do it ever since the picnic, but I didn't seem to know how. And when Dad and Mother come home they'll find their daughter an angel-child, who almost smiles when she's ill-treated, and is almost too good to live! And I shall end my days by being a missionaryess, out in the heathen countries where lions take you off to their dens."
Noel looked at her admiringly.
"And," went on Inez, as she took his hand and came out of the church into the sunshiny churchyard, "now you'll never be able to say that the Devil lives in my house any more."
But Noel shook his head doubtfully:
"He comes for visits sometimes—at least, he does to me."
"Well, they'll be very short visits," said Inez with much self-assurance.
And then they ran back to the others, and joined in more games, till it was time for Inez to go. Julia came for her. Neither she nor Noel told the others about their talk in church, but when Julia said to her on their way home:
"I hope you've been a good girl. Why you can't always behave like a little lady I can't think!"
Inez quickly rejoined:
"I always behave well with other people who behave well."
Then she added reflectively:
"And now I'm going to be quite a different sort of person. And I'm not going to do what anybody tells me except God. And I'm going to obey Him all my life long, so you needn't bother about me any more, Julia."
Julia stared at her in astonishment: then she said sharply:
"The skies will fall when you turn religious!"
Inez would not deign to reply to this, and their walk home was a silent one.
Chris and Diana were delighted the next morning to get a letter from their mother, saying that their Granny was much better, and that she hoped to be home at the end of the week.
This seemed to them too good to be true.
"Saturday is her birthday," said Diana. "Oh, I do hope she'll come Friday night, so that we'll have every minute of her birthday with her."
"I must get on with my present for her," said Chris.
"What are you going to give her, Dinah?"
"A hanky with beautiful fine crochet round it. Miss Morgan taught me a long while ago, and I finished it the other day."
Noel looked rather sorrowful.
"I've fluffing for her birfday, nulling, and I've only sixpence! What can I get her?"
"Go and buy something in the village," said Chris.
"But what shall I buy?"
Chris and Diana turned impatiently from him.
"We've chosen our presents, and you must choose yours," said Diana.
Noel began to cry in a miserable kind of way. He felt very small and helpless sometimes, and thought the others most unkind.
Cassy found him sitting on the stairs with tears rolling down his cheeks, and took pity on him.
"I'll get aunt to let me come to the village shop with you, and we'll choose together. We're sure to see something nice."
Noel cheered up. Mrs. Tubbs was willing to spare Cassy, so they started for the shop.
When they got there it seemed most confusing to Noel, for there were so many things and they were so mixed up together that it was very difficult to choose at all.
Cassy suggested a piece of scented soap, a china vase, a box of hairpins, and a needlebook, but Noel shook his head at all four.
At last he saw a very brightly coloured plate, with two dancing figures painted upon it. He got this for sixpence and carried it home triumphantly.
"Mums will be able to eat her tea on it. I know she'll like it."
When he got home he found Chris and Diana talking over decorations, which they meant to put up in honour of their mother's birthday. They spent all that afternoon in the nursery painting great letters in red paint, which they pasted on some brown paper. Chris composed the sentence and was very proud of it:
"Happy health, boundless wealth, and a very long life
to our Mother!"
Then Diana ran out into the garden and let Noel help her pick some green leaves, which she sewed round the paper as a frame.
After this they got the long steps, and nailed it up at the top of the front porch, so that it should meet their mother's eyes as soon as she came in.
"But," said Diana as she read it aloud to Noel, "we haven't mentioned her birthday, Chris."
"No, of course not. We can't do that before her birthday comes. This is just for her coming home."
The days seemed to pass slowly. But another letter arrived saying that Mrs. Inglefield would be home on Friday evening, and Nurse arrived on Friday afternoon. Chris heaved a sigh of relief when he saw her. He felt his charge was over, and except for the boudoir carpet no harm had been done. On the whole, things had gone on quietly.
Mrs. Inglefield did not get to the station till six o'clock in the evening. She had ordered the car, and all three children were in it waiting for her.
When she made her appearance they all flew at her. Chris was not ashamed to hug her before the porters, and there seemed so much to tell her on the way home that the drive was far too short.
"I seem to have heard all about you from Diana's clever letters," Mrs. Inglefield said, smiling; "but I find that there is a lot to be told me."
She was delighted with the words over the porch.
"Dear me!" she said. "I am a very proud mother this evening; it's not only the skill that is shown, but the love behind it that delights me!"
The children spent their happy hour a little later than usual that night. The stains on the carpet told their tale, but Mrs. Inglefield did not appear to notice them.
When she was visiting Noel in bed, he poured out the whole account to her.
"I've tried hard to be good, Mums. I reely have, and God has tried hard to make me good. But when you're away I've nobody to love me, and then I feel mis'able—I haven't had one little tiny kiss from anyone in the world since you went away. Oh, yes, I have. Miss Constance kissed me, but she only came once."
Mrs. Inglefield only breathed the words, but she gathered her little son into her arms as only a mother can, and Noel was deeply content as he lay there.
Then Chris was visited. Mrs. Inglefield had heard about his school friend's invitation, and she spoke very tenderly to him about it.
"You must go and see him, dear, now, if he is still there. If it is only ten miles, you could cycle over, could you not? But I like to feel that my boy did not fail me. I shall always rely on you now, Chris. You are like your father. His word is his bond. He never fails, never disappoints! You might have let Miss Constance relieve you, as she offered to do so, but I am glad you did not. If anything had happened, you would not have forgiven yourself. I am pleased with my eldest son, and very proud of him!"
Chris flushed all over. When his mother spoke like that, he felt he could die for her!
Diana clasped her mother round the neck when she came to her.
"Oh, Mums, how I love you!" she whispered. "The house is dreadful without you."
"I think I have missed you, darling, as much as you have missed me. But I wish that my daughter would show some of her love towards poor little Noel. I think he's the unhappy one of the trio when I am away."
Diana looked surprised.
"Is he, Mums? He always seems busy and fussing in and out. He's what we call 'all to himself' always, you know. He doesn't care about being with me."
"Why not, darling? Couldn't you mother him a little? He needs it. He is only a little boy, and has a very deep, affectionate heart."
"He—he's so huffy!" Diana said in a hesitating way. "Perhaps Chris and I do leave him alone too much. But he's so silly over that old Christmas tree of his. He talks as if it was alive."
"I do believe it is," said Mrs. Inglefield, laughing.
"Oh, well, Mums—I mean, he treats it as if it could think and hear and see, and then he gets so cross if we laugh at him."
"Don't laugh at him, and then he won't be cross. Try to sympathize with his ideas. I want my trio to be a united one—I want you all to love one another."
Diana looked very sober, then she took her mother's hand and laid it under her cheek.
"I'll try and be nice to him," she said earnestly; "but I couldn't mother him. I couldn't be like you, Mums, if I tried hard all my life. There's nobody like you in the world!"
With which emphatic utterance Mrs. Inglefield could not deal. She kissed her little daughter, and departed.
Mrs. Inglefield's birthday dawned very brightly. The birthday presents were given to her before breakfast, and she expressed herself as peculiarly pleased and satisfied with each.
Then she told her children of the treat that she proposed to give them. She had ordered a car to come for them all at ten o'clock, and they were going to drive away to the sea, which was just twenty miles away.
"It is a big car and we have room for Inez. Could you go and fetch her, Chris?"
Chris willingly consented. All the children were enchanted at the idea of going to the sea. But before Chris had started from the house, Inez appeared, almost hidden by the most enormous bouquet of flowers, which she carried with both hands.
"It's for you," she said, flying into Mrs. Inglefield's arms; "and I wish you many, many happy returns of your birthday. I picked every flower I could get in the garden, and I wish I could have carried more. I brought as many as I could hold."
Mrs. Inglefield expressed her gratitude and then told Inez of their intended outing. Inez of course was only too glad to be included, and Chris rode off on his cycle to tell Julia not to expect her home till the end of the day.
"You'll find Julia rather waxy," Inez said to Chris, "because she tried to prevent me picking some of the flowers in the greenhouse, so I pushed her into a potting-shed, and locked her in, and went on picking my flowers until I remembered something, so then I unlocked her in a hurry, and begged her pardon, and flew like the wind away from her with my flowers, and she started to chase me, and then she stopped, for she saw it was no good."
Mrs. Inglefield shook her head at Inez.
"I'm afraid I shan't like to look at these orchids, for they are forbidden spoils."
"Oh no, not really. It's only Julia. And she says herself she doesn't know what has come to me, for I'm so good. And she wasn't locked in more than two minutes—you see I forgot until I remembered. And I don't expect you know what I'm talking about, but I'll tell you when we're quite alone."
"I know!" said Noel, nodding his head importantly.
Mrs. Inglefield looked from one to the other with puzzled eyes, but she did not ask to be enlightened, and there was so much bustle and confusion getting ready for the expedition that there was no chance of any quiet talk.
They all packed themselves away in an open car, and had the most glorious two hours' drive, through woods and by the river's side, up and down hill, and then through a beautiful green valley down to the sea. It was rather a lovely little bay, with a few fishers' cottages standing on the green sloping cliffs above it. Very few people were on the beach. The tide was out, and there was a great stretch of golden sand with brown rocks, and delicious pools fringed with seaweed and sea anemones.
Mrs. Inglefield had a big luncheon-basket in the car, and the children were quite ready for their open-air meal.
Afterwards they played on the sands and waded into the sea, and Mrs. Inglefield sat amongst the rocks, watching them and reading a book by turns.
Presently Inez crept up to her.
"May I sit here and talk with you? Do you remember you said to me that I could get joined to God if I wanted to, and you told me about Jesus Christ loving me. That was on the day of our other picnic. Well, I thought and thought, and when you were away Noel and I managed it together. We went into the church and I made a vow. I told Jesus I would serve Him for ever and ever and do what He told me. And I went home and thought I was going to be exactly like an angel, but it didn't turn out as I thought. The next day I began all right; but in the afternoon Julia provoked me and I got mad and wild, until I remembered —and it was of a sudden—just like God laying His hand on my shoulder. I stopped, and Julia thought I was going to have a fit, and I went away to my room, and cried, for it all seemed no use. And then I thought I'd talk to God like Noel does, instead of saying prayers. And He seemed to forgive and comfort me. But I haven't been turned from a wicked child into a good child all at once."
"No, darling, of course not," said Mrs. Inglefield gently; "and you never will be. It will be always a fight to the end between good and evil. It isn't easy to be good with any of us, but it is possible with God's help and strength. Pray to Him, and you will find the oftener you pray the more you will remember. It is forgetfulness that makes us sin, isn't it?"
Inez listened with eager face. And then, child-like, she dashed away in a moment or two to join the others in their play.
It was late in the evening before they returned home, and they were all a little tired though very happy. There had been no quarrels and nothing to mar the enjoyment of Mrs. Inglefield's birthday treat.
As Noel was getting into bed he said to Nurse: "I s'pose birfdays are the happiest days in the year, aren't they?"
"I think they are, for children," said Nurse. "Some older people find them rather sad."
"Does Jesus Christ find His birfday sad?" Noel asked quickly.
It was one of Noel's questions that Nurse could not answer.
He went on:
"I'm sure He doesn't, because everybody in the world is happy on Chris'mas Day and that's His birfday, and He likes to see us happy, doesn't He?"
"Yes," said Nurse.
"And the next birfday in our family will be His birfday and mine," said Noel with intense satisfaction in his tone.
A few days after, Chris had the joy of seeing his school chum. He called in a car in the morning and took Chris off to spend a long day with him. And Chris enjoyed it all the more, because of his previous disappointment.
The holidays slipped away very fast, and soon school and lessons began again.
The next event was Miss Constance's wedding in London. Noel went up to it, as he was to be her page; and as Mrs. Inglefield was asked, too, she took Diana up as well, and they all stayed with Granny for the occasion.
Granny rather wondered at Noel's being asked to the wedding.
"I should have thought Diana would have made a pretty little bridesmaid. Why did she fix upon him?"
"She took a great liking to him," said Mrs. Inglefield. "Do you think that strange?"
"I suppose," said Granny, "that I know the other two best. They have lived with me and he hasn't. I still consider him a spoilt bit of goods."
"Oh no," remonstrated his mother: "I don't think I have spoilt him. He gets on better with his brother and sister now. Don't you notice it?"
"I notice that Diana's will gives way first," said Granny.
The wedding took place, and was a very pretty one. Noel's behaviour was perfect, but he always was good in a church, and the big London church with all its floral decorations and crowds of people awed him. When he returned home, his granny called him to her, and began to question him about it.
He described it all eagerly to her.
"Miss Constance was all in white. She looked like an angel, and God's man was smiling all over his face. She kissed me and he kissed me."
"Who do you mean by 'God's man'? The clergyman?"
"No. God sent him to get Inez and me out of the room—we asked God to send somebody and God sent him."
This needed explanation, and Noel gave it in his funny quaint way.
Granny told his mother afterwards that he was too religious for a child.
"No," said Mrs. Inglefield gravely. "His faith is real and big. I wish I had as much."
Before the children left Granny to return home, she presented them each with five shillings.
"What will you do with it?" she asked them.
"I shall spend mine on a little—just a little present for Chris," said Diana. "He collects stamps at school, and I'm going to buy some for him. The rest I shall spend on a big fat book of lined paper for my stories. I want to write a real long story, and I'm always short of paper."
"And what is Noel going to do with his?"
Noel looked up with shining eyes.
"I'm going to buy presents for my Chris'mas tree," he said; "and I'll begin doing it now, so as to get ready in time, and I'll show them to him. He's very dull and lonely, and thinks he's no good to nobody. It will cheer him up."
"Who do you mean?"
"Oh," said Diana, laughing, "he means his Christmas tree; he's just mad about it. He talks as if it can feel and think."
"Hans Andersen's book says they do fink," said Noel eagerly; "and, Granny, he's having such a dull time in our garden! Him and me long every day for Chris'mas to come."
Granny laughed at him; and then she laid her delicate old hand on his curly head.
"Lots of people have a very dull time and even Christmas brings no change to them," she said. "When you get old, it ceases to amuse you."
"But it's a birfday," cried Noel; "it's my biggest, wonder-fullest day in the year, and it's Jesus Christ's birfday, Granny."
"Yes; so it is."
Granny gave a little sigh, and sent them away from her; but when Mrs. Inglefield came to wish her good-bye, she said to her:
"I pitied you for your dull life in the country, but I find that I am having the dull time now. I suppose I miss the children. They do keep one amused."
"Come and stay with us," begged Mrs. Inglefield; but Granny shook her head.
"No, I'll live through my days. If I get very hipped, you can send me one of the chicks for a week or two. I am getting too old to move about, and most of my friends are in town—"
So Diana and Noel came back to their lessons, and autumn set in. The flowers in the garden faded; the leaves came flying down from the trees; and soon Noel's garden was the only one that had a good show of green in it.
One afternoon Inez came flying over in the greatest excitement. Her parents had returned very suddenly from abroad, and had taken her by surprise by arriving very late on the previous evening.
"And Mother has been talking to me this morning. I'm going to school directly after Christmas, and I'm glad of it. I'm tired, very tired of Julia."
"But I hoped you were getting on better with her lately!" said Mrs. Inglefield.
"Oh yes. I don't bite or kick or scratch her any more. We've made an agreement that we don't take hold of each other at all. She has left off grabbing at me, and if she scolds, I back away from her as fast as I can, so as not to tempt her to touch me. It's when she snatches hold of me that I get angry. But of course a proper Christian girl wouldn't get angry if they were snatched and shaken to pieces. I'm hardly a Christian at all yet. But perhaps I shall be better at school."
"How lovely to have your father and mother both home together," said Diana.
But Inez did not seem very joyful over the arrivals.
"Father thinks I'm too lanky, and mother says my fingernails are shocking! They're going hunting to-morrow. I wish they'd take me, but they won't. They're going to stay till Christmas. I shall have three people to please and to obey now. It's dreadfully difficult for me. May I stay to tea? Nobody wants me at home, and I told Julia I would try and stay here as long as I could."
"We shall be very glad to have you, dear," said Mrs. Inglefield; "if you are sure that your mother would like you to be here."
"Mother is lying down till tea, and Father is in the stables; he's going round the gardens afterwards. He says everybody has been neglecting everything, and he must wake them up. He'll make things hum now he's home again!"
"Is Daddy like that?" Diana asked her mother.
But Mrs. Inglefield would not answer. Noel and Diana were going for their walk with Miss Morgan, and she told Inez that she had better go with them.
Inez was delighted to do so. She and Diana walked on in front together and Diana resumed her wonderful, never-ending story about "Ada and Gertrude," whose adventures thrilled Inez through and through.
Noel walked with Miss Morgan. He rather preferred a talk and a walk with a grown-up person. They were delighted when Miss Morgan suggested going to Mr. Sharpe's nursery gardens, as she wanted to take home a plant to her mother.
Bessie, the daughter, received them with a grave face.
"Dad is ill. Been in bed for six weeks with rheumatic fever. But his foreman will do what you want. I'll call him."
Miss Morgan expressed her sympathy for old Mr. Sharpe; then she and the little girls followed the foreman through the gardens to the glasshouses. But Noel begged to see Mr. Sharpe. He was devoted to him, and after Bessie had been upstairs, she came down saying:
"Dad would dearly like to see you, Master Noel. He's quite comfortable this afternoon; he's on the mend, I hope, but the doctor says he'll never work in his garden again; and if he knew it, I believe it would fair break his heart."
Noel went up the narrow stairs on tiptoe, then found himself in a big comfortable-looking bedroom.
Upon a large bed drawn close to the window, lay old Mr. Sharpe. His face looked thin and worn with suffering, but he greeted Noel with his cheery smile.
"Hulloo, little Master Christmas, how are you? And how's the little tree?"
"I'm very well, and so's my tree. Only think, Mr. Sharpe, it will be not three months to Chris'mas! I'm counting up every week. I fink my Chris'mas tree is a little happier now. You see, he didn't much like it when all the flowers were out smelling so beautiful and looking so pretty! I raver fink they weren't very nice to him, and he felt ugly, and no use to anybody. Chris and Diana would point their fingers at him and say that he looked higeous and was only taking up room, and doing nothing at all. 'He doesn't even smell,' they said; but I like his smell, 'specially after rain, and he's been growing green tips all over him. Now he knows he hasn't much more time to wait, and then he'll come into his glory."
"Come into his glory," repeated Mr. Sharpe, looking at Noel with a wistful smile; "do you know, little master, I've been lying here in much pain and trouble, and then I've taken to think over my plants, and I've learnt a lot of rare lessons from them. My days of work and usefulness are over—I'm in a bed now doing nothing, and shall do nothing for a long time to come. My hands and feet are that twisted that I doubt if they'll ever come straight again. My Bessie, she thinks I don't know, but I do—I know I'm going to be a bedridden cripple for the rest of my life—"
"Oh! Mr. Sharpe," cried Noel, "but God will make you well again. We'll ask Him to do it at once."
"Ay, ay, He could if He would. I've prayed quick and hasty-like, but now I tell the good Lord that He must have His will with me, and I'll be content. I've just got transplanted into a quiet bed by myself; and, like your little tree, I'm a useless hulk to some eyes, doing no good to no one. That will be my fate in the future. But my Gardener and Master has put me here, and I'm to wait till I'm called into my glory. My Christmas will come by and by, when I shall be taken up and carried into the king's palace. I shall see there what I was meant for."
Noel did not follow all this, but he caught the idea.
"You mean that people can be like Chris'mas trees, and have a very lonely, dull time, and then God takes them and lights them up in heaven and covers them with glory. That's what I shall do to my tree. I shall cover him with glory."
"Yes, we shall be 'covered with glory,'" said Mr. Sharpe, his eyes shining with a strange light. "What does it matter if we lie in bed or work in our garden? We have only to do what our Master tells us. And we shan't have to wait too long. We have such a happy life coming."
"And you're like my tree. You're just waiting," said Noel.
Then he began to tell the old man of all the presents that he had bought for his tree with his granny's money.
"And Ted is making me some frogs, and Mums is going to help, and I'm going to ask everybody I know to come to it. And Chris and Diana won't laugh at him any more then."
Bessie came in at this juncture. She was afraid her father would be tired.
"The little gentleman has done me good," said the old man happily. "We have been reminding each other of our good time coming."
Then he turned to Noel.
"There be many who would do well to be like your fir tree. Be quiet and content in a dull life and go on quietly growing and waiting. Such souls may grow faster than some of the busy workers. Good-bye, little laddie, and come again and see the old man if you can."
"I'll tell Mums, and she'll come, too," said Noel, clattering down the stairs.
He joined the others with rather a sober face, and tried to repeat to Miss Morgan what the old man had said to him. But she did not seem to understand so well as his mother, and when he told her all about it, she exclaimed:
"Dear old man! I suppose his time is coming, and God wants him to lie still and think about it. I shall go and see him to-morrow."
"And he's just like my Chris'mas tree," said Noel, summing up the whole in his usual slow, deliberate way.
It was the day before Christmas Eve.
Though the time had gone slowly to Noel, Christmas had come at last.
The house was full of the chatter of the children. Chris had come home from school the previous evening, and he was in the best of spirits, for he was head of his form, and his report was a very good one.
It seemed as if it were going to be a real old-fashioned Christmas. There was hard frost and bright sun.
Directly after breakfast Mrs. Inglefield suggested that they should all go to the woods, and bring home some evergreens and holly.
"Take the wheelbarrow. General Herbert said you could cut as much as you like in the nearest wood. I dare say you will find Mr. Wargrave and his helpers there getting some green for decorating the church. I wish I could come with you, but I am too busy."
"Oh, Mums, when, when shall my tree be brought in?" Noel was in such a state of excitement that he could hardly contain himself.
"This afternoon, darling. You must wait till then. I have asked Foster to come round and dig it up."
A few moments later and the three children were out on the hard, frosty road wheeling their barrow along and talking hard as they went.
"Inez is going to have a party," Diana told Chris; "her father and mother have let her ask who she likes. I wouldn't have them for my father and mother for worlds! They never go about with her or have her with them, but Inez says they're nicer to her than they used to be. I think she isn't so disagreeable herself. She's going to have a conjurer at her party. It will be like our London parties, Chris. It is going to be on New Year's Eve, and we are all asked, and Ted is asked, too, and he's so much better that he can sit up now, and stand on his feet sometimes."
"But Inez's party won't be as good as mine," burst out Noel; "mine is going to be to-morrow night, and everybody is coming to it."
"Oh, we've heard of nothing but your Christmas tree for ever so long," said Diana a little impatiently. "Fancy, Chris! He has asked nearly all the village children, and Foster's little boy, and the baker's little girls, and ever so many people that he speaks to, and whom we don't know at all."
"I know them," said Noel stoutly.
"I hope you'll have presents for them all," said Chris.
Noel looked a little anxious.
"Mums says we shall, and I've bought ever so many with Granny's money."
"He keeps them hidden away in a box under his bed," said Diana.
"Yes," nodded Noel, "Mums and me are going to do it ourselves in secret."
He began to caper up and down. Diana tried to sober him.
"Nurse says you'll be ill of excitement if you don't take care. She said to Mrs. Tubbs that she knew a boy who got so excited that he had fits."
"What are fits?" asked Noel.
"You fall down and bite your tongue in half, and go black in the face!" said Chris cheerfully. "A chap at school did that once, and he had to be sent home for good."
But nothing could damp Noel's spirits.
When they came to the wood, they found others before them there. Mr. Wargrave had half a dozen of his choir-boys, and they were all as busy as they could be.
Noel was very interested in the decoration of the church. He asked Mr. Wargrave if he could help in it, and before he returned home he went into the church with the young vicar.
"It's for Jesus' birfday, isn't it? He'll like His house to look pretty."
"Yes," answered Mr. Wargrave. "I don't believe in decorating our own houses, and leaving God's house untouched."
Noel stood looking at the holly and evergreens which had been put together in a heap at the bottom of the church.
And then a gardener appeared with some white flowers from the Hall. Lady Alice had sent them. The vicar received them with much pleasure.
"I wish," said Noel, "that I could give something of my own to Jesus for His birfday. He likes things that grow, doesn't He?"
Then an idea struck him, and he darted away through the churchyard gate into their own garden. There he found Foster sweeping up the leaves on the paths.
"Thought I'd come a bit earlier and tidy-up for Christmas. I'm a-goin' to dig up your tree, Master Noel, this afternoon."
Noel did not hear him. He was standing in front of his tree talking to it earnestly:
"Your grand day is nearly here, you know, and very soon you'll be the most important person in the house, but I reely fink a part of you must be a birfday present to Jesus. You'd like to be right in God's house, wouldn't you? Just a bit of you, it's only like having your hair cut. It won't reely hurt you."
Then he called out to Foster to come and help him. But when Foster heard that he wanted to cut off one of the branches, he shook his head.
"Don't 'ee do it, Master Noel, 'twill spoil the look of it. You wouldn't go for making it just a guy, when it's grown so nice all round."
"It's to go into the church," said Noel firmly. "Mr. Wargrave is putting all the nicest holly and flowers there, and my Chris'mas tree would like to be there, too. Not the whole of him, only a bit."
So after some further discussion a branch was cut off, and Noel bore it into the church with a mixture of reverence and pride in his heart.
If it had been a casket of gold or of precious stones, it could not have been given into the vicar's hands with more solemnity of purpose.
"It's my darling tree. He wants a bit of himself to be in church. It's a present for Jesus."
And Mr. Wargrave understood in a moment, and though there was a murmur amongst his helpers, "Not that ugly old branch," he hushed them at once, and with his own hands arranged the branch in the middle of the pulpit.
Noel looked at it there with a smile all over his face, and then he trotted home to his dinner, but never said a single word to anyone of what he had done.
The event of that day was the carrying of the fir tree into the house. It was dug up carefully, and then put into a big pot, Noel watching the process throughout with big anxious eyes. The drawing-room had been emptied of its furniture, and Mrs. Inglefield and Noel were the only ones allowed to go inside.
It was enough to make any small boy feel important, for he and his mother were going to trim the tree themselves, and it took a long time to do it. Only a very little was done on this afternoon, and then the room was locked up until the next day.
Mrs. Inglefield had noticed that a branch was missing, and Noel's explanation had brought a smile to her face.
"A very nice thought, my boy. We shall like to see it in church on Christmas Day."
There seemed so much to do that day that time flew. The children put holly and ivy and mistletoe all over the house, even twining it round the banisters of the staircase.
When Christmas Eve came, Chris and Diana went up to the nursery to get their presents ready for Noel, and their mother and the servants. Noel went into the drawing-room with his mother, and was not seen for the whole morning. When he appeared at dinner, he said triumphantly:
"It is finished, and it looks glorious!"
But when Noel was not looking Mrs. Inglefield slipped into the room and put a few finishing touches to the tree. At half-past four the children were receiving their guests.
There was a big tea laid out in the nursery. The Vicar, Ted and Inez were the chief guests. But just before they sat down Miss Constance and her husband appeared. They had driven over in a car from their house, which was twenty-five miles away, but Noel had written in his own handwriting asking them to come, and they did not disappoint him.
Then Tom Thorn, his wife, and little boy arrived, the postman, the baker, who was a widower, brought his three little girls, and there were about a dozen other children, eight of them choir-boys.
Altogether there were thirty guests, including the three children. Noel felt he was master of the ceremonies, but to his brother's and sister's surprise, he suddenly turned shy. And during tea, he spoke to nobody. His excitement was so great that he could hardly eat, and it left him speechless.
Mrs. Inglefield called Mr. Wargrave out of the room directly after tea. They were going to light up the tree, but Noel's quick eyes spied them and he slipped out after them.
"I must see it all, Mums, from the very beginning," he said.
It was a magnificent tree. To Noel it seemed the most wonderful sight he had seen in his life, and when the candles were ablaze, and it glittered and shone through all its frosted tinsel and finery, he simply stood still gazing at it with open eyes and mouth.
"It's as good, better, much better than the picture books, Mums," he gasped. "Why, it is good enough to be in heaven!"
"Run and bring your guests in," said his mother, smiling. "We want them to get all the good of the candles when they are lighted."
So Noel ran upstairs, and down trooped the merry throng. Soon Mrs. Inglefield and the vicar were cutting the presents off the tree. Every one had been provided for, and Noel trotted round and round, giving all of them their gifts.
Mrs. Inglefield made a little speech.
"This is entirely my little boy's idea," she said; "he bought the tree early last spring, and has taken the greatest care of it ever since. And a great many of the presents have been bought with his own money. We wish you a very happy Christmas, and hope that you will enjoy it with all your hearts."
Then all the children clapped vociferously.
"Well," said Noel, going up to Chris and Diana, who were in one corner together, "what do you think of my Chris'mas tree now?"
It was the only bit of triumph he showed that evening. Chris and Diana meekly said:
"It's one of the best Christmas trees we have ever seen."
And every one agreed with them.
Chris received a box of fretwork tools, Diana a beautiful leather manuscript book with clasps, and Noel, to his surprise, a big paint-box. These, they discovered, were given to them by Miss Constance. Their mother's presents were kept till Christmas Day.
The only sad part of the evening to Noel was when the candles were put out, and the tree stood there stripped of most of its finery and looking very forlorn. He lingered on in the room after the others had left it.
His mother understood the wistful look in his eyes.
"We must let him rest here all to-morrow, darling," she said, "and then the next day Foster will take him out into the garden, and put him back into his own corner. He will be quite happy there, and we'll hope that next Christmas, he may give us this pleasure again. I expect he will be much bigger then."
Noel brightened up a little.
"I wish he could have stayed lighted up for ever. Don't you think he was much more beautiful than Hans Andersen's tree, Mums?"
"I daresay he was," said his mother, laughing. "Now run along, I am going to lock this room up again."
"Well, Cherub," said Miss Constance to Noel as she was wishing him good-bye, "has this quite come up to your expectations? I have never come across a small boy before who grew his own Christmas tree. I think it quite a good idea. Perhaps I had better start doing it. What do you think? Anyhow, you've managed to give us all a lot of pleasure. I really don't see that you'll have any left for Christmas Day, we have had it all beforehand."
"But to-morrow is my birfday," said Noel; "and it's Jesus Christ's birfday too. That's the enormous day to me."
"Is it? I thought the tree was the biggest thing in your life."
"So it is," he said, "but it's only because it belongs to it."
Miss Constance laughed, then she said:
"I'm afraid I shan't be able to get over to your church to-morrow. I must go to my own, so I wish you now, darling Cherub, very many happy returns of your birthday. I'm sure you'll have a happy day. I envy you."
She embraced him, with a smile on her lips and a sigh in her heart.
"One ought to be a child at Christmas time!"
Inez left the party very reluctantly.
"I wish I could spend Christmas Day here," she said to Ted, who was sitting in his chair in the hall waiting to be wheeled away by his brother.
"Oh, that wouldn't do at all," Ted said cheerfully: "Christmas is a family day. We all like to be in our own homes then. I know I do, though we aren't many in family."
"I shall spend it in the nursery with Julia. Father and mother are dining out, and if I go down to lunch with them, I shan't be able to talk—they always do the talking, and if I join in, they tell me to be quiet. Julia is always her crossest when she has to look after me, and she knows a good time is going on in the kitchen. The kitchen doesn't want me, and the drawing-room doesn't want me, so there I am!"
"Poor little lonely soul!" said Ted, laughing. "Now from the look of you I should say you could make yourself happy anywhere! Would you like to come to tea with us? Ask permission and come along. There's a carol service at four o'clock, but it doesn't last an hour. Come to that."
Inez's eyes brightened.
"I hope I haven't asked myself to tea," she said; "and I didn't mean to grumble, because when I'm alone I think about going to school, and that cheers me up. Will Mr. Wargrave like to see me?"
"Very much, I know."
Inez went home with a happy heart. And she had the surprise of her life the next morning, when a beautiful little gold watch lay upon her plate on the breakfast-table, a gift to her from her father and mother.
Even Julia had remembered her, and presented her with a big box of chocolates.
Christmas Day had begun well. She went to church with her father and mother, and lunch was a much more cheerful meal than usual. She had permission to go out to tea, and thoroughly enjoyed herself at the Vicarage. Ted had presented her with a little carved bookcase of his own making, with which she was delighted.
"This is a very happy Christmas to me," he said to her as they were wishing each other good-bye, "for I believe I shall be back at school very soon. It's the end of my invalid stunt."
"I'm sorry you're going to school. Will you never make any more of those wonderful little wooden toys?"
"I was going to say I hope not, but I dare say I may while away my time in the holidays. Oh, Inez, if you only knew how I've longed to be on my feet again! Now it has come, it seems too good to be true."
"If you go to school and I go to school, Diana and Noel won't have anybody left to play with."
"That won't trouble them. Diana will be wrapped up in her stories, and Noel will have his Christmas tree. What a funny kid he is."
"Yes, he kept saying last night, 'How pleased my tree must be!' He thought more of the tree than of the presents! But I like Noel, he's helped me."
"Yes," said Ted; "I know he has."
"How do you know he has?"
"Oh, you're different, not quite so harum-scarum, and I saw you sloping off to church one day and I guessed, because he talks to me sometimes, and I always feel as if he's pretty near heaven."
"'Cherub' is a very good name for him," said Inez.
And Ted agreed with her.
Christmas morning at Wistaria Cottage was a very merry one.
Long before light the children were examining their Christmas stockings, which were bulging with all kinds of presents from every one. Of course Noel's was the biggest; and there beside his bed was a bicycle, just like Chris's, only smaller. He was in transports of delight, and tried to get on it and go up and down the passage, but Nurse quickly put a stop to that. They all trooped down to their mother's room in their dressing-gowns and presented her with a beautiful picture representing the Manger at Bethlehem.
"It's from all three of us," said Chris. "We thought you'd like to hang it up over your bed."
And Mrs. Inglefield said she would love to do that, and that they could not have given her anything which she would have liked better.
Then they were called away by Nurse, and dressing and breakfast followed.
They all went to church, Noel much interested in the branch of his tree, which formed the centre of a group of evergreens on the front panel of the pulpit. When they came out he said to his mother:
"I'm sure Jesus must be enjoying His birfday, isn't He, Mums? And Nurse told me every church all over the world has music and singing and decorations to-day, and it's all for Him."
Mrs. Inglefield squeezed the little hand in hers.
"Yes, Noel, and what will please our Saviour most will be the grateful thanks and hearts of His people everywhere."
Before they sat down to the Christmas dinner, Noel had coaxed his mother to let him go into the drawing-room to see his tree. She let him go and he remained there for quite a quarter of an hour. He looked a little happier when he came out. It was the only shadow so far on his birthday, the thought that the glory of his tree was over.
"I fink he'll be comf'able when he gets back into my garden," he said to his mother. "He won't be up in the garret with the mice like Hans's tree."
"You must look forward to having him another Christmas," his mother said cheerfully.
In the afternoon they went to the Carol Service. Noel had never heard carols before, and when they sang:
"Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel."
He thought they were singing it to him.
Coming home afterwards, Chris and Diana soon undeceived him.
"They did sing a hymn about me," Noel said obstinately.
"It means Christmas; Noel is the French for Christmas, isn't it, Mums?" said Diana.
"You always think that everybody is thinking about you," Chris said.
"Hush, Chris! Remember it is Noel's birthday. Be kind."
And then Mrs. Inglefield explained that carols were very ancient, and that many words that were spoken at that time have now entirely been changed or forgotten.
Noel was a little crestfallen.
"I thought they might know it was my birfday," he said.
Chris and Diana laughed at him, but said no more.
They were all going to have tea downstairs with their mother. Noel was having his hair brushed and his hands and face washed by Nurse when he heard Chris laughing rather loudly in the hall.
He rushed out to the stairs and hung his head and shoulders over the banister rail to see what was going on.
It was only the vicar's dog who had accidentally found his way in, but he was dressed in a paper cap, and though he turned his head from side to side he could not get it off.
There was holly on the stair-rail and it pricked Noel; he leant over farther to get away from it, and then to the horror of Nurse, who had followed him out, she saw him over balance himself, and with a sudden awful thud, his little figure fell, his head striking the tiled floor of the hall with awful force.
Chris uttered a horrified cry which brought his mother out of her room.
She was the first to reach her darling, and raised him in her arms; but he lay still and unconscious. It had been so swift, so sudden an accident, that he had not had time to utter a cry.
The little household gathered round him.
"He is killed!" cried Diana and Chris together.
"No—no—stunned!" said Mrs. Inglefield in her agony, still striving to allay the fears of her children.
Then she turned to Chris:
"Fetch the doctor. Go on your bicycle. Nurse, come with me."
Diana watched the limp, unconscious form of her small brother being carried upstairs. Mrs. Tubbs followed Nurse; Cassy put her apron up to her eyes and began to cry.
"Oh, Miss Diana, 'tis his birthday; what an end to it!"
Diana seemed turned to stone.
How and why did these things happen? They were all so happy a few minutes ago, and now Noel was perhaps dead and would never speak or laugh again.
She went slowly into the dining-room. The tea was all laid upon the table, the silver kettle boiling over the methylated lamp. They would have all been sitting round the table now, mother would be pouring out the tea, Noel's cake would have delighted him. It was a surprise—made by Mrs. Tubbs, who had put her very best work into it. It was a big iced cake, and had seven candles upon it. In the centre was a tiny little Christmas tree—a copy of Noel's. Its leaves and branches were frosted with sugar and a robin perched on the topmost branch. In pink letters on the white surface was written:
"Noel Inglefield. Happy Returns of his Birthday,
and best Christmas Wishes."
As Diana gazed at the cake, tears crowded into her eyes.
Noel's cake! And he might never see it!
There were crackers round the table. What fun they would have had! There were jam sandwiches and sugarcoated biscuits, and coco-nut cakes and shortbread.
Who would enjoy the tea now, when Noel lay dead or dying upstairs?
"Oh, it's awful! awful!" she cried, "worse than anything I have ever thought of or made up for my stories! And I've spoken so crossly to him to-day, even though it was his birthday! Oh, what shall we do! What shall we do!"
When Chris returned he found Diana pacing the hall like a demented person.
The doctor followed on his heels, and with two or three strides had mounted the stairs and gone into the nursery.
"Oh, Chris," said Diana with tearful eyes, "what shall we do? I believe he is quite dead already."
"He can't be," said Chris. "Wasn't it awful seeing him fall! I've been thinking the whole way along to the doctor's and back, of my cross words to him about the carol. We haven't been kind to him, Dinah—over and over again we haven't! And we can't ask him to forgive us. And it's his birthday. Do you think we could pray to God? Noel gets all his prayers answered, he says."
"He's so fond of God," moaned Diana; "perhaps God is very fond of him and wants him in heaven. I wish mother would come to us."
But it was a long while before their mother came, and when she did, all the glow and brightness of her face had vanished. She and the doctor went into her boudoir and talked a little, and then he went away, saying:
"I'll be up the first thing in the morning, but there's nothing more can be done."
Then Chris and Diana crept up to their mother.
"Is he dead, Mums?" Chris whispered.
Mrs. Inglefield looked at them sorrowfully.
"He is very, very ill, dear. It is bad concussion of the brain, and he may be unconscious for a long time. We must ask God to spare his precious little life."
A choke came in her voice, then she seemed to pull herself together.
"We must have some tea. Nurse is watching by him, and I will go and relieve her soon. Come along."
That was a most miserable meal for both mother and children.
Noel's chair opposite his cake was empty. His cheerful little voice, which was always making itself heard, was hushed and silent now. Would they ever hear it again, his mother wondered?
And at last in desperation Chris spoke out his thoughts:
"Why has God let it happen on his birthday and on Christmas night, Mums? Any other time it wouldn't have been so bad."
"Be quiet," said Diana in a whisper, giving him an angry nudge. "You'll only make Mums more miserable."
Mrs. Inglefield caught the whisper.
"No, he won't, dear. God loves Noel better than any of us. He has sent this trouble to us for some good reason. We must never question God's will."
The children were silent. They were glad when tea was over, but when their mother left them to return to the sickroom, they wandered about the house, not knowing what to do with themselves. Nurse came down at last, and told them that they must keep out of the nursery, as Noel must be kept as quiet as possible.
"I should go to bed early if I were you," she told them. "Perhaps your little brother will be better to-morrow morning."
"I know why God has let this accident happen," said Diana to Chris when Nurse had left them, and they had gone into their mother's boudoir, and sitting down on two chairs near the fire had faced each other in despairing silence; "it is to punish us. We haven't been good to him. We haven't loved him, and now God is going to take him away from us."
"We'll miss him horribly if he dies," said Chris. "I wouldn't let him ride my bicycle the day before yesterday."
"And I pushed him out of the nursery when I was writing," said Diana; "and told him he was a horrid little bother."
These torturing memories went with them when they went to bed.
For the first time their mother failed to come and wish them good night. Nurse was having her supper, and Mrs. Inglefield could not leave Noel.
But she did not forget them; only later on, when she did come, they had both forgotten their regrets, and remorse, in sleep.
The following days were very sad. Noel lay unconscious for two days and two nights; and then when he was able to eat, and take notice, his memory seemed to have left him. The house had to be kept very quiet, and for days his life seemed to hang upon a thread.
It was astonishing how many friends the little fellow had. The back door was besieged by the villagers during the first few days of his illness. Foster took the Christmas tree out of the drawing-room and planted it in its old bed, but as he did so he was heard murmuring to himself:
"We'll never see his like again. He were too near heaven for a little chap like him!"
Mr. Wargrave, Miss Constance, Ted and Inez, all tried in turns to comfort and amuse poor Chris and Diana.
As the days went on they began to hope, and when at last the doctor said that Noel was going to pull through, they cheered up and began to smile once more.
But they were not allowed to see him. Mrs. Inglefield looked worn to a shadow; it was heart-breaking to her to see her busy chattering little son lying in listless apathy on his bed, only moving his head to and fro, and hardly recognizing his own mother.
Chris had to return to school before Noel was convalescent. Just before he went his mother let him come in and see the little patient. Chris could hardly believe that the tiny pinched face with the big restless eyes belonged to rosy, sturdy Noel.
He stooped over and kissed him very gently, and called him by name; but Noel took no notice, only moved his head restlessly from side to side.
And Chris went out of the room fighting with his tears. The very next day Diana said to her mother:
"Will Noel never get better, Mums? God isn't answering our prayers. I pray ever so many times in the day about him."
"Oh," cried her mother in anguish of tone, "don't pray too hard, darling, that we may keep him here. God knows best. For his sake I dare not pray too earnestly for his recovery."
Diana could not understand this until she talked to Mrs. Tubbs in the kitchen about it.
"Bless your heart, missy, your poor mother is afraid he'll never get his senses again. Some is left idiots after such a blow in the head. And Master Noel knows nobody yet, and p'r'aps never will."
This was a fresh horror to Diana. It was a good thing for her when Miss Morgan returned and lessons began again.
But at last steady improvement set in, and Mrs. Inglefield went about with the light again in her eyes and a smile upon her lips.
Inez came to wish Diana good-bye upon the day when the doctor was for the first time hopeful. She was going to school, and had been dreadfully distressed about Noel.
"I liked him the best of you," she said; "he was always so funny and so naughty, and yet so very good. And he talked like an angel. He's taught me more than anybody else, and I'm going to school with quite a good character."
"I'll write to you, Inez, and tell you about him," said Diana, "and perhaps you'll like me to send you a bit of my new story sometimes."
"I should love it."
They parted. Diana felt very lonely; she had never imagined that she would miss Noel so very much.
And then one Saturday when Chris was home, he and she went upstairs together to sit for a short time with the little invalid.
He was decidedly better, his eyes were dear and bright, and he was able to talk a little, though his voice was husky and weak. He smiled when he saw them.
"I've been very ill," he announced to them.
"Yes," said Diana, "we've missed you dreadfully, Noel. It will be nice when you're quite well again."
"I b'lieve," said Noel in his old slow way, "that I've been away to heaven, only I can't remember. I know I haven't been here all the time."
Chris stooped over him:
"We'll never be cross to you again, Noel, never."
Noel looked at him, then asked gravely:
"Do you love me now?"
And Chris and Diana both cried out with all their hearts:
"Indeed we do. We'll always love you."
Noel smiled contentedly. Then after a pause he said: "Then will you be kind to my Chris'mas tree? Will you give him some water and take care of him?"
"I'll water him every day," Diana rashly promised.
The interview was over; but Noel began to recover rapidly. It was a happy day when he was downstairs again: and the first thing he did was to totter out into the garden, and make his way to his beloved fir tree.
It stood there, looking rather bedraggled, and showing a great gap where the branch had been cut off.
Noel was distressed at first, and then Chris, who was with him, said:
"He is like a soldier who has lost his arm in fighting for his King."
Noel's whole face brightened as he said:
"And he gave his branch to God for Jesus' birfday." He was comforted.
That same day, Bessie Sharpe came up to tell Mrs. Inglefield that her father had quietly passed away.
"He were always talking of Master Noel. The last thing he said was, 'Tell Master Noel when he's well enough to hear it, that my time of waiting is over and I'm going like his Christmas tree, to be taken in for my Master's glory.'"
This message was given to Noel. He quite understood it.
"And Mr. Sharpe will be covered with glory," he said. "Everybody who goes to heaven will be like Christmas trees lighted up. I almost wish I had wented there."
But Chris and Diana had cried out together:
"We want you here."
And their mother looked at them with a smile upon her face and deep thankfulness in her heart. She knew now what had been the purpose in Noel's accident and illness. It was to bring the brothers and sister closer together, and to bind them in a strong chain of love and understanding that would not break under any provocation.
And Noel cried out:
"And I want to be here, for I love you all, specially—my dear Christmas tree."