Title: Holiday stories
Author: Ruth Lamb
Release Date: September 16, 2023 [eBook #71661]
Transcriber's note: Unusual and inconsistent spelling is as printed.
DEAR MISS MEG
CHAPTER I. MISTRESS AND MAID.—A BRIDE'S HOMECOMING.
CHAPTER II. LADY LONGRIDGE MEETS HER MATCH.
CHAPTER III. "MEN MAY COME AND MEN MAY GO," BUT I STAY ON FOR EVER.
CHAPTER IV. THE MOUSE HELPS THE LIONESS, AND MARGARETTA GAINS A THIRD FRIEND.
CHAPTER V. BRIGHTER DAYS FOR MARGARETTA.
CHAPTER VI. ANXIOUS DAYS.—A PAINFUL DISCOVERY.
CHAPTER VII. WHICH SHALL IT BE? BLUE OR WHITE?
A TALE OF A PENNY
CHAPTER I. INTRODUCTORY.
A STORY OF AN ANGLE WINDOW
CHAPTER I. "STEPBROTHER DICK."
CHAPTER II. "SILENCE IS GOLDEN."
CHAPTER III. RICHARD'S WARDS.
CHAPTER IV. THE ANGLE WINDOW.
CHAPTER V. MEETING AND PARTING.
CHAPTER VI. THE FRAME HAS A PICTURE ONCE MORE.
A MERE FLIRTATION
BY A GIRL'S HAND
CHAPTER I. LIKE FATHER UNLIKE SON.
CHAPTER II. A PEEP INTO AN EARTHLY PARADISE, AND A MEETING WITH EVE.
CHAPTER III. MR. WALTHEW IS FAR FROM EASY IN HIS MIND.
CHAPTER IV. A NEW FACE.
"THORLEY; go and tell Miss Margaretta to make less noise. How can I get my afternoon nap with that girl screeching and screaming loud enough to be heard beyond the park? I suppose she thinks I cannot be disturbed by her noise when she is out of doors, though I have told her twenty times already that she has a voice like a railway-whistle, and that it travels as far as one. It seems to me I cannot get out of reach of it. Thorley, why don't you go? What are you waiting for?"
The last questions were uttered in such a shrill tone, and with such evident irritation, that the pale face of the listener flushed, and she answered in a frightened voice—
"I thought your ladyship was speaking to me, and I waited for you to finish."
"I was doing nothing of the kind. I gave you an order which might have been attended to by this time. Then I went on thinking aloud, and you stood staring there, and listening in place of going about your business. Go now. Wait! I cannot hear the girl's voice. She has stopped, but she will begin again, so go all the same."
The person addressed as "Thorley" did not wait for the speaker to change her mind again, but hastened to do her mistress's bidding.
"Poor young thing!" she murmured, as she went in search of the offender. "It is well she can sing. Only one that has not been long at Northbrook Hall would be likely to lift up a cheerful voice in my mistress's hearing. I believe she would silence the very birds if she could, but she cannot do that, thank God." And the woman listened with gladness to a flood of melody that was being poured from scores of bird-throats, and rejoiced again that a message from her mistress could not stop it.
Thorley was old Lady Longridge's personal attendant, and had been such for twenty-five years. She was a staid spinster of fifty or thereabouts. Not that she ever told her age, or that any member of the household would have ventured to ask it; but there were older retainers at the Hall than herself, who could put two and two together.
There was old Jakes, for instance, who had spent sixty out of his seventy years of life in and about the gardens. He was morally certain that Susan Thorley would never see fifty again.
"Why, it's five-and-twenty years last May since Susan were promoted to be maid to our old lady, and she was no chicken in those days. I should have said she was nigh upon, if not all out thirty, though I do not suppose she would have owned to it, any more than she would say straight out, 'I am fifty-five to-day.' You don't catch these staid women folks telling their age." And the old man wagged his grey pate knowingly.
Thorley was accustomed to say of herself, "I have aged dreadfully since I came here, and I look older than I am. Five-and-twenty years in the service of Lady Longridge would equal forty, for wear and tear, under a reasonable mistress."
If someone suggested that Thorley was not compelled to endure the aggravations of the tyrannical old lady, she would reply, "If I thought only of myself, or studied my own comfort, I should have turned my back on the Hall many a year ago. But look at her age. She is turned eighty-one, and her mind is as clear as ever. I may have had a deal to put up with, and seen my hair turn grey before its time through her worrying, but I feel proud of my mistress, who is a wonderful old lady. Conscience reproaches me whenever I think of leaving her, and seems to say, 'What will you be at eighty-one? You will want someone to put up with your tempers then.' So I bear as well as I can, and if I have an uneasy time of it, conscience tells me I am right."
Some of Thorley's acquaintances credited her with at least one other motive for remaining at Northbrook. Lady Longridge was reputed wealthy, though she professed to be poor and unable to spare money for much-needed repairs and renewals within and around her home. She was always quarrelling with her relatives, and altering her will, or adding codicils to disinherit one and reinstate another.
At one time she would declare that none of her own kindred should ever possess a penny that she could bequeath to an outsider; at another she would quote the old proverb about blood being thicker than water, and rail against those who left their own families out in the cold when disposing of their wealth.
That quarter of a century of service had not been without its disturbing elements. Lady Longridge's temper often got the better of her, and Thorley usually had to bear the brunt of these outbreaks.
The woman was wonderfully patient, but this fact often had a different effect on her mistress from what might have been expected. It only made her more provoking, and on several occasions Thorley had received notice to quit. At first these breaches between mistress and maid had been patched up by mutual concessions, but by degrees Thorley became less placable. Then the old lady found that all advances for a renewal of the former relations must come from herself.
Thorley performed all her duties during the month she was under notice with the greatest exactitude, but she only spoke when spoken to and said no needless word, but packed her boxes and made ready to go to another situation. With such a character for long service, fidelity, patience, and trustworthiness, there were plenty of doors ready to open for Thorley's admission, plenty of places where her duties would be of a pleasanter character, and where, as she indignantly put it, "One might expect to have peace, a kind word sometimes, and get a bit of credit for trying with all one's heart to do right."
So Lady Longridge became convinced that Thorley could do better than stay at Northbrook, but that she would herself find it very difficult to replace Thorley.
The squabble always ended in the same way. The old lady would offer her hand to her departing maid and wish her well in a new place. Then she would break down and say that she was a miserable old woman for whom nobody cared, and that she was being left to die in her loneliness and helplessness by the one creature in whom she could trust.
The maid's tears would then accompany the mistress's; Thorley's boxes would be unpacked, and Lady Longridge promptly paid any expenses that might have been incurred in arranging for the new situation.
It was noticed that after each of these quarrels, Thorley had a day out accorded her without a murmur, and that as invariably she paid a visit to the savings bank. She would have wages to deposit there, no doubt, but it was whispered that Thorley found these little scenes very profitable, each reconciliation being sealed with a present. At any rate, she stayed at the Hall and bore a great deal of ill-temper and many hard words from Lady Longridge with more patience than any servant not inured thereto by many years of experience could have been expected to manifest.
The old lady had been more than usually provoking on that fair spring day, when the birds and her granddaughter, Margaretta, were carolling in company, and Thorley was on her way to silence the girl.
The errand was very distasteful to Thorley. If there was a creature on earth that the woman loved with a true, unselfish affection, it was Margaretta, who had spent the last few months of her life in that dull house, once the home of her dead father. Now it was the home of the girl herself, or the best substitute for one that she could claim.
Not that it was the first time Margaretta Longridge had been an inmate of Northbrook Hall. She had lived there off and on from the time of her birth until she was twelve years old, and now after an absence of nearly three, it was settled that she should remain permanently with her grandmother.
This was perhaps the best arrangement that could be made under the circumstances. But there were plenty of people who said that to condemn the fair young girl of fifteen to live in that gloomy, tumble-down house, and under the guardianship of that terrible old lady, was only a shade better than burying her alive.
The circumstances were these. Lady Longridge had been left a widow at twenty-eight, with one son and three daughters. By her husband's will, she was appointed their sole guardian, and she ruled them with enough of firmness and a scant expenditure of tenderness until each was emancipated by attaining the age of twenty-one, and receiving a handsome sum from the estate.
The daughters, being well dowered, soon married, and without exception resided far-away from Northbrook, which they seldom visited, and then only for a few days at a time.
Philip, the one son, seemed likely to remain a bachelor. His home was nominally with his mother, but he was fond of travelling, and ever on the look-out for new countries to explore, consequently he never stayed long at the Hall. The brevity of his visits rather than the fact of his being her only son, probably conduced to the good understanding between him and his mother. She had really no time to begin fault-finding before the packing process was in full operation, and Philip was preparing for a new journey. Even Lady Longridge did not like to quarrel with her son when he was about to leave her for an indefinite period.
She rejoiced in his bachelor estate, for, so long as Sir Philip remained unmarried, her rule at Northbrook would be undisturbed.
As to her daughters, she would say, when someone suggested that it was a pity they were not nearer, "Nearer! They are better where they are. If we met oftener we should quarrel. As it is, we have a week of each other's society now and then, and we can be happy and love one another for that time. But we never get beyond the week. We know the length of our affections' tether, and we keep within bounds."
"But mother and daughters, Lady Longridge!" the old clergyman would say, with uplifted hands and eyes.
"What of that? We get enough of each other in a week, and we part friends. If we had a fortnight we should not part at all, or at any rate we should go through no formal farewells. We should have ceased to speak to each other six days earlier, the previous one having been spent in mutual recrimination. We know our little failings, and we strive to keep out of the way of temptation."
"At your age, I should have thought the young ladies would bear anything from you without retorting, and that they would be unhappy if they did not see you often."
"No fear of that," was the earnest response. "They will not lose an hour's rest owing to anxiety on my account. And to be frank with you, I think it is very good of them to come at all. The journey costs something, and takes time. They count the hours whilst they are here, and long for the last to come. They know they have nothing to gain, for, lest they should forget, I remind them every time that they have had their fortunes; also, that I have nothing to leave, and if I had, they would not get a penny of it. Frankness promotes a good understanding. I take care to prevent false hopes."
The rector, Dr. Darley, was going to reply, but one of Lady Longridge's peculiarities was a liking for saying her own say at great length, and then calmly ending an interview.
"I will say good-bye now," she added, extending two fingers, though her visitor had shown no intention of rising to leave. "When I write to my daughters, I will not fail to mention that you alluded to them as 'young ladies.' I like to please people when I can, and it costs nothing to do it."
Lady Longridge was quite the most impracticable of the kind old rector's parishioners. He knew her too well to suppose that she would listen to him, so he quietly took his leave.
Sir Philip was the youngest of the family, but at length he brought home the wife whose possible coming had been the one thing his mother feared. He was thirty-nine when this happened, and he had been absent a full year, when he returned accompanied by a beautiful girl less than half his age—in fact, barely eighteen.
"Mother," he said, "this is my wife. Make her welcome for my sake, to begin with. You will do so for her own when you know her better."
The expression of his mother's face as he made this announcement was something never to be forgotten. She had risen at her son's approach and stood erect, her head on a level with Sir Philip's, for she was very tall, and at sixty-five had not lost a hair's-breadth of her height. At the slight fair girl whom he was putting forward with his left arm, whilst he extended his right to greet his mother, Lady Longridge did not deign to glance. She looked past her and straight into the face of her son, whilst she locked her mittened hands one within the other, without appearing to see the one he extended.
"It is a pity that when you decided to bring a wife to Northbrook, you forgot the fact of your mother's existence. Had you written, I should have arranged for her and your fitting reception. We would have had a rustic fête, a gathering of tenants, the carriage unhorsed, and a team of enthusiastic cottagers to draw you and your bride home in triumph; perhaps even a triumphal arch at the entrance of the park. Why, Philip! The forgetting your mother has made your homecoming of no more account than that of old Jakes' son, who was married the other day."
Sir Philip moved uneasily, and his eyes fell before the half-angry, half-sarcastic look of his mother, whilst his wife shrank back within the encircling arm that had gently urged her towards Lady Longridge.
"We desired none of these things," he said. "Florence has known a great sorrow, too recently to allow of her entering into the spirit of such festivities as you speak of. The one thing we both wish for is a welcome from yourself. To some extent we can command it from all beside."
It was proverbial of Lady Longridge that she would indulge her temper at any cost of discomfort to others, but that self-interest would induce her to subdue all outward sign of anger. She would not forget her grievance, but she would bide her time. Her son's last words brought certain unpalatable facts to mind and effected a change in her manner. He was master of Northbrook Hall, and, if he willed it, she must give up the place of mistress to his wife. Quick as lightning the thought flashed through her mind, "Philip has never cared to live here. Is it likely that marriage will entirely change his habits, and that he who has been wandering the world over for more than half his life will settle down to the dull life of a country gentleman? I may remain mistress of the Hall to the end of the chapter."
Aloud, Lady Longridge said, but in softened tones, "I think, Philip, you must admit that I have cause for displeasure. That your mother should know nothing of your marriage until you brought your wife under the roof to which she herself came, a bride in all honour, five-and-forty years ago, shows scant courtesy in an only son. But you are master here, and we must try to make up for the want of a more formal welcome as best we may."
She extended her hand, which her son took, and once again he would have urged his wife forward. The latter, however, gave one terrified glance at Lady Longridge's face, then turned away, and clinging to her husband cried out, "Take me away, Philip. I care not where we go, but do not let us stay here. I thought I should find a mother in yours."
It was vain to attempt to bring the two together. The lovely, fair young wife, a bride of less than a month, was dressed in mourning, which betokened recent bereavement.
It was evident that she was ill-fitted to bear the trial of such a meeting, when she had hoped for a genuine homecoming, and to find a mother in Lady Longridge. But the sight of that tall figure, with its clasped hands, the look of dislike shot from the keen black eyes, together with the mocking words, so startled the girl, that she was terrified into the display of feeling already described, and which added greatly to the uneasiness of her husband.
There was nothing left for him but to lead his weeping wife to the room always kept in readiness for his reception, and to comfort her as best he might, until, wearied with her long journey and all she had gone through, she slept like a tired child.
There were servants enough to minister to the bodily wants of the pair, and, amongst others, Susan Thorley, my lady's own maid, and at that time sixteen years younger than she is represented at the beginning of this chapter, was sent to offer her aid, and "Mind you find out everything you can about the girl," said her mistress, as she sent her on the former errand.
SUSAN THORLEY had no chance of fulfilling the behest of her lady. Her offered services were declined with thanks, and speech she had none with Sir Philip's bride. He liked Thorley, but guessed his mother's principal object in sending her, so answered—
"I will look after my wife for to-night. She has not been accustomed to the attendance of a maid, so will miss nothing. All she needs is rest and sleep, and these she is more likely to get by not seeing any more fresh faces."
"The sight of one new face has been enough for her, poor dear young creature," thought the maid, but she did not say it. She only replied, "I hope you will call me, sir, if I can be of any use."
"I would rather call you than any one, if help were needed," said Sir Philip; and Thorley, not a little gratified, dropped a respectful curtsey and withdrew.
"Humph! So that is all you have to tell me?" said Lady Longridge, when her maid reappeared. "Well, that is something. Not used to the attendance of a maid! Just as I thought. Philip has married a nobody for the sake of a pretty face. And to be so foolish at thirty-nine. Older and madder—older and madder. You can go, Thorley."
Later still, when his young wife was sleeping calmly, Sir Philip joined his mother in a little sitting-room, which she preferred to any of the larger apartments used on state occasions. The two were silent for some minutes; then Sir Philip raised his head, and said—
"I hope you will forgive my apparent want of respect, mother. It was not intentional, but this whole affair has been so sudden—brought about, indeed, by such unforeseen circumstances—that I could hardly help myself."
"If you had been a hot-headed lad of twenty, I could have understood your conduct. At your age it is incomprehensible—inexcusable, I was going to say. Put yourself in my place, if you can, and imagine what I felt on hearing you say, 'This is my wife.' I, your mother, to whom you had not deigned to send a word of warning."
"You had been so used to my coming home just when the humour seized me—to my comet-like fashion of appearing and disappearing—that I did not expect you would be so annoyed at my arriving unannounced."
"Nor am I. It is to your wife's arrival—if this girl be indeed your wife."
Sir Philip started from his seat in anger. "This taunt is too much even from you!" he exclaimed. "How dare you?"
"I dare anything. If the words sound harsh, you have brought them on yourself by your rash act and forgetfulness of the respect you owed me. What will the world say about Sir Philip Longridge's marriage? Have you announced it in the papers, or is the world to hear of it through gossiping servants?"
"I have made no announcement of my marriage to outsiders. You are the first in England to hear of it. I crossed the Channel to-day, and hurried to Northbrook with all possible speed. At least, mother, give me credit for having lost no time in coming to you. If I had known what I now do, I should have hesitated before bringing my wife home!"
Sir Philip laid a bitter stress on the last word.
There was not much sign of feeling in the reply: "Now you are here you had better tell me all about it."
But he complied with the half request conveyed in the words, and told the story of his marriage as briefly as possible.
The father of Florence Winstanley, an enthusiastic traveller like himself, had met with an accident during a mountain excursion. Sir Philip found him at a village inn of the poorest description, and in an out-of-the-world spot, just recovering his senses after many days spent in delirious ravings or silent unconsciousness. He had watched over him for weeks, and as soon as the sufferer was fit to be moved, had travelled with him by easy stages to Geneva, where he had left his daughter, and only child.
The homecoming was a terrible shock to the girl. Her father and she were all in all to each other, and in addition to the trial of seeing him so sadly changed, she soon had the greater one of knowing that he had only returned to die at home. It was during the last month of Mr. Winstanley's life that the man of mature years and the girl of eighteen were drawn together; and Florence became engaged to him who had first earned her gratitude by his devotion to her father. They would not have married so soon, but for Mr. Winstanley's wish to place his darling under the care of a loving husband before he was called to leave the world. There was no doubt about the affection of the two for each other, so they were married, and the bride of a week stood by her father's grave, leaning on the arm of the bridegroom, Sir Philip Longridge.
The pair lingered no longer than was necessary. There were business matters to settle, and these completed, they turned their faces homeward, to meet with the reception already described at Northbrook Hall.
"You see, mother, I could hardly help myself," added Sir Philip. "We were going to be married, but the fact of Mr. Winstanley's being on his death-bed precipitated matters. There was no time to let you know beforehand, and when the thing was done, why, it seemed so much better to tell you all about it than to attempt to write. I know you will feel a little annoyed, but after all you must see that the position was peculiar, and my poor darling's sad loss and loneliness, to say nothing of her lovely face and sweet nature, ought to appeal to your motherly heart."
Lady Longridge's motherly heart! Who had ever heard an appeal to it before? She turned coldly round and said, "The story is very romantic, no doubt, but I should hardly have expected the loss, the loneliness, or the fair face to turn the head of a man close upon forty. I trust she has something more solid by way of recommendation. A well-stocked purse, or a goodly dowry in houses and land, would appeal with more power to my feelings than any of the qualifications you have named."
"Florence has a little property, but she can draw only the income from it, and that is about two hundred a year."
Lady Longridge fairly hissed out something in reply, but her son could not distinguish the words. Her face was, however, almost frightful in its anger, and there was silence for some minutes, because she would not trust herself to speak, and Sir Philip deemed it best to say nothing.
"How do you expect to keep up Northbrook?" she asked at last. "You know your position, and that the paying out of your sisters' fortunes left you but a narrow income, considering the calls upon you. As you did not increase it by economy, or by devoting yourself to the improvement of the estates, you were bound, if you did marry, to choose a wife with money. I saved and pinched and scraped out of my means. You spent all you had in your harum-scarum way, never resting under your own roof, as a decent Christian should, but wandering the world over, as if you had something on your conscience, and squandering your money on those who doubtless blessed you to your face and mocked you when your back was turned. Then—"
"Then, mother, I borrowed from you and I owe you money now; but, remember, you have had fair interest for it, regularly paid, and surely it has been worth something to reign at Northbrook for eighteen years, since I came of age."
"Only to lose my place now for that chit of a girl."
"Hush, mother! Say what you choose of me, but be silent or speak kindly of my wife. I was going to say that I do not think Florence would care to live at Northbrook, and my associations with my birthplace are none of the sweetest. Circumstances may, however, make it advisable for us to settle here. If so, there will be only room for one mistress."
Sir Philip had touched the one tender spot at last. Lady Longridge might have little room in her heart for her son, and none for his wife, but she did long to live and die mistress of Northbrook Hall.
"You must pay me the four thousand pounds you owe me, before I stir from this place," she said.
"That will be quite easy. You will remember that everything connected with the loan was done as formally as though I were borrowing from a stranger, and I am entitled to three months' notice, but if you want the four thousand you can have it. I had a letter from Mr. Melville quite lately, in which he asked if I knew of anyone who wished to borrow a few thousands, for he is at his wits' end how to invest some trust-money."
Foiled once more, Lady Longridge was puzzled what to say. She decided to "sleep upon it," and, rising from her seat, remarked, "You will be tired with your journey, and I am overdone with the shock I have sustained. It would have been better to leave business matters until to-morrow, so I will say good-night. You are master, and can give your orders, you know."
She held out her hand—they were not demonstrative this mother and son; he took it in his own for an instant, and having opened the door for her, she passed out of the room and up the stairs without another word.
When morning came, Lady Longridge had thought the matter out and decided on her course of action. She would certainly come off the worse in an open quarrel with her son. Her reign at the Hall would be over. And she would either have to betake herself to a smaller residence which was hers for life, or find a home elsewhere. The house in question was well let and she had lived at the Hall rent free hitherto. Thus she was touched in two tender spots—her liking for Northbrook and her love of money.
For her own sake she resolved to conciliate that "chit of a girl whom Philip had married." Thus she spoke of the new Lady Longridge to Thorley.
But for once the elder lady found her match. The young wife, who was pliable as wax in the hands of one she loved, had a will as strong as that of her husband's mother, when roused by circumstances to exert it.
The old lady might think she had only to hold out a finger and the young one would run to seize it, but she found herself mistaken. Florence was as little likely to bend by a hair's-breadth as was one of the marble statues in the hall.
"My mother will be in a different humour this morning," said Sir Philip to his wife, when the morning came. "I dare say she will make herself very agreeable to you for the future."
"What she may do matters little to me, Philip. I am not likely to see her. You will please order someone to bring my breakfast here—not your mother's maid, who seems a kindly person, but of necessity a sort of domestic spy."
"But surely, Florence, you will meet my mother again. After all, she had cause to be aggrieved, and she is a lonely woman, getting on in life."
"I should have thought that one who had known bereavement and loneliness would have opened her heart to another in like circumstances. Philip, I shall never forget your mother's look of anger and hate as you spoke of your wife. It was directed at you, but it seemed to turn me to stone. She is a fearful woman, Philip, and for a world's wealth I would not live under the same roof with her."
Hitherto Sir Philip had only seen the tender, loving side of his wife's character. He had noted her devotion to her suffering parent, her utter forgetfulness of self, her unwearying patience. He had seen her caring for the troubled, poverty-stricken people in her neighbourhood, and finding time to give to others the help, sympathy, and kind words of which she too stood so much in need. He knew that she had given to himself no half-hearted affection, and yet her love went hand in hand with the most exquisite modesty of manner and speech. Now he saw the other side, and realized that his wife's will would match that of his mother, and, between the two, his position would be far from agreeable.
"Are you not rather hasty in coming to such a decision?" he asked. "You have seen so little of my mother."
"Very little in one sense, too much in another. I would not have a second experience like last night's for the world."
"Well, dearest, I will breakfast with my mother, and you shall have your meal here. Afterwards we will talk matters over," was Sir Philip's reply.
Lady Longridge had decided to meet both her son and his wife not with two fingers, but with both arms extended. She found only her son, who did not respond to her advances. After a formal greeting, he relapsed into silence and the newspaper.
"How is Florence this morning? Rested, I hope, poor child! She seemed almost hysterical last night, and no wonder. She was wearied and overwrought."
"Thank you, she is better, but will breakfast in her room," replied Sir Philip. "Do not trouble yourself, mother; I have already ordered something to be sent up," for her hand was on the bell to summon a servant.
"Thorley shall go to your wife immediately, Philip. She is a good creature, as you know."
"It is very kind of you, but Florence will not deprive you of Thorley's services, even for a short time. She prefers to be waited on by one of the girls, thank you all the same."
And again Sir Philip devoted himself to the paper.
There was mischief brewing. Lady Longridge noted the stress on those two words, and felt more uncomfortable than she would have liked to confess. After an interval of silence she said—
"I know you like to linger over your last cup and the paper, so, if you will excuse me, I will go up and see Florence."
She was not long absent. When she presented herself at the bedroom door, she found it locked, and in answer to her knock and request to be admitted, the voice of her daughter-in-law replied—
"I cannot see any one at present."
There was something in the tone which prevented Lady Longridge from making a second application for admission, and she returned to her son.
"Your wife will not admit me, Philip," she said.
"It is not always convenient to receive visitors when one is dressing," was the calm reply.
"She might have been civil."
"I have always found her more, and better, than merely civil, but she may be adapting her manners to those prevailing at Northbrook."
And again he turned to the "Times."
Never before had Lady Longridge been puzzled what to do next. After a short silence she said, in an ironical tone—
"Perhaps your wife will like to see Millward, and give her own orders, since I must yield place to the new mistress of Northbrook."
"Perhaps so; though I doubt if Florence had realized the fact. Millward may as well see her."
And, ignoring the irony in his mother's manner, Sir Philip rang for the housekeeper, and told her she had better wait upon Lady Longridge for orders.
The woman turned to her from whom she had been accustomed to receive them; but Sir Philip said—
"I mean my wife. My mother herself suggested that this would be the better plan. Your young mistress has not left her room yet, but she may see you."
She did, for she was ready dressed, and after a while Millward descended the stairs with two impressions on her mind. One was that the new Lady Longridge had her wits about her, and, though she was so young, would prove a match for the old one. The second that there would be some pleasure in serving a beautiful creature like that, who knew how to unite youth and beauty with dignity, and both with a gracious manner that made it delightful to receive orders from her.
A tyrannical mistress, who cares nothing for the feelings of her subordinates, may nevertheless be well served by them. Self-interest and fear may obtain this much, but such services will only be rendered until a better opportunity presents itself. So, though Millward had been twenty years at Northbrook, she went down-stairs glad at heart with the thought that her "old lady" would meet her match in Sir Philip's young wife.
WHEN Lady Longridge found that her daughter-in-law had promptly accepted the position, and that Millward went straight to her own domain instead of returning to her for the orders which she had felt quite certain she would have to give as usual, she was extremely angry. What added fuel to the fire was that she had brought about this state of things by her own act. But she never dreamed that her words would be taken in earnest. She only suggested that Florence should give the orders, as a means of humiliating the young wife, who could have had no experience of housekeeping in a place like Northbrook Hall.
She appealed to Sir Philip, who merely reminded her that Millward had gone to his with by her express wish.
"It was your doing, not mine," he said.
"I was not in earnest," she replied. "Was it likely that I should expect that mere girl to take command here at a moment's notice?"
"Then it was a pity you said it, mother. I took it for granted that since you made the suggestion it must be the right thing to do, though I am sure Florence would have been in no hurry to assert herself. The change must have come, of course, and perhaps it is as well that it should be effected without any needless fuss, especially as you were the first to propose it."
Yes, those incautious words, spoken ironically, but taken in earnest, had done mischief which could never be repaired. She was deposed without even a struggle, and yet had she not always resolved that should Philip marry, she would show a brave fight before yielding the chief place at Northbrook to a daughter-in-law?
It would take too long to tell how the two ladies were brought together, outwardly as friends, but really as far asunder as the poles. The young wife was the nominal head and mistress, but old Lady Longridge remained at the Hall, in spite of all efforts to dislodge her.
She talked of going, but objected to more than one removal, and said that she would reside at her own house when the present tenant's lease was out; it would be only a matter of six months. Surely Philip and Florence would not grudge her a shelter for so long. It would be trial enough to leave a place which had been her home for five-and-forty years, but a little delay would soften it to her. So this was agreed to.
Lady Longridge knew how to utilise the advantage, and laughed triumphantly to herself, as she set to work to regain lost ground.
"I made one mistake," she thought. "I will not repeat it. Philip's wife has not got rid of the mother-in-law. I know him yet better than she does. Phil is infatuated with her at present, but one gets accustomed to the fairest face, and after a while the old roving temperament will reassert itself. He has never stayed long in a place since he became his own master, and he never will."
The astute old woman judged rightly. The restless fit came on again before the end of three months. The young wife would not be left behind; the time for the mother's removal had not arrived, so the pair departed on their travels and left Lady Longridge, senior, at the Hall, but with the understanding that she would vacate it as arranged.
"When we return we shall have our house to ourselves," said Sir Philip to his wife. He felt that whilst she and his mother preserved an appearance of friendliness, and the elder lady carefully abstained from interfering in household matters, there was no real goodwill between them.
"I doubt it, Philip. Your mother will not move from Northbrook if she can help it."
"But she agreed to go at the six months' end, and considered it a favour to be allowed to stay so long."
"You will see when the time is up. I only hope you may be right."
It was a month past the six when the pair came back, and they found Lady Longridge, senior, still at the Hall. "Too ill to be moved," she said.
At any rate she had kept her room for several weeks, and still professed her inability to leave it.
"Have the Wilmotts left Graylands?" asked her son.
"No, Philip. They are staying on as yearly tenants. I shall not have a house to myself when I leave here. My health is quite broken. The thought of turning my back on Northbrook has been quite too much for me, and I shall not again trouble myself with housekeeping cares. Rooms will suffice for me and Thorley, and be much better suited to my income. I can move about, ringing the changes on Brighton, St. Leonards, or Scarborough in summer, and Torquay or Bournemouth in winter. It will matter little to me; only I shall see fresh faces, and be the same lonely old woman everywhere, away from Northbrook. You will take me in for a week or two now and then, if Florence is agreeable? Or I can stay at one of the farms."
Sir Philip said something about his mother finding it pleasant to visit her daughters also.
"Never," she replied. "They went their way, and I shall go mine. How much have I seen of them in more than twenty years? I have only my son." And Lady Longridge wiped her eyes, but the light was dim, and tears were strange to them, so perhaps there was no real moisture there. At any rate, Sir Philip could discern none.
Many a date was fixed for the old lady's departure, but something always prevented it.
Sixteen years had come and gone between the homecoming of Sir Philip Longridge with his bride and the fair spring morning when Thorley was sent to silence the too-tuneful Margaretta. But during the whole time Lady Longridge had not spent a night under any roof but that of Northbrook Hall. And now she reigned supreme there, for her son was dead, his widow married a second time, and Margaretta lived with her grandmother. There was no grandson, so the baronet of to-day was a far-away cousin, who had a finer place elsewhere, and Lady Longridge occupied her old home, for which she paid a rent which was little more than nominal, but which she made a cause for infinite grumbling.
Of personal property Sir Philip had not much to leave. The two hundred a year belonging to his wife was not doubled by what he could bequeath, but what there was became hers absolutely. He never believed she would marry again, but in case of her so doing, he willed that his mother was to have the guardianship of Margaretta, and he trusted to her to make a suitable provision for his child, knowing that she was well able to do so.
Margaretta was twelve years old when her father died, and Northbrook was no longer even a temporary refuge for the widow and her child.
Sir Philip had never cared to stay long at the Hall, and where he went his wife accompanied him, but the child was usually there under suitable guardianship, her nurse first, then a capable governess being answerable to her parents for their charge's well-doing.
Old Lady Longridge and her daughter-in-law had not become better friends, and the former was altogether more impracticable at seventy-eight than she had been at sixty-five. One roof could not shelter the two, and the young widow was as eager to leave Northbrook as the older was to get rid of her.
Florence Longridge was a proud woman, and it was a trial for her to give up the surroundings she had been used to as Sir Philip's wife, and to live on a narrow income, with a daughter to educate in a manner befitting her birth. She would have died sooner than ask help from her mother-in-law, even had she expected to receive it for the asking. At thirty-four she was almost more beautiful than in her girlish days, and no less attractive for her intellectual gifts.
After two years' widowhood she accidentally met an old friend of her husband, one for whom Sir Philip ever expressed the greatest esteem. He was a man of forty, with wealth, position, and an honoured name. When he asked her to be his wife she hesitated, only on her child's account.
"If I marry, I must part with Margaretta," she said. "I am her guardian only whilst I am a widow."
"Only for a few years, and though she may go to her grandmother, I will help you still to guard and care for her until she is of age, though, considering all things, she may return to you before then."
The marriage took place; Lady Longridge claimed her ward, and having got possession of Margaretta, succeeded in keeping her out of her mother's presence, except for a short time at the end of every six months, when she was obliged to permit a meeting by the terms of her son's will. Probably if Sir Philip could have foreseen events, he would have rather rejoiced to leave his child in such worthy hands as those of his friend Hugh Norland, in his position of stepfather to Margaretta. But the thought of his wife's second marriage was one he could not endure, so he had ordered matters otherwise, and the girl was with her grim old kinswoman.
"Thorley," said Lady Longridge, after Margaretta's arrival, "we have caged our bird once more, and we shall keep her safely, never fear. The thought of having the charge of her for—let me see—six years to come, will help to keep me alive. I dare say her mother will count my years and say, 'She will not last till Margaretta is of age.' But plenty of people live to eighty-seven, and why not I. I come of a long-lived race; at least the females live long. I am only angry at one thing. Mrs. Hugh Norland has far too much money now. I hate to think of her being rich—far richer than she ever was as Philip's wife. And she will not give a penny towards Margaretta's maintenance, shame on her!"
It was true that Mrs. Norland declined to relieve Lady Longridge's purse, unless she were permitted to have a say in her daughter's education and in spending the money. This granted, she would have given any reasonable amount. But much as the old lady loved to save, she liked still better to punish the daughter-in-law who had once made her fill a secondary position, and she availed herself to the utmost of her powers as the legally appointed guardian of Margaretta.
The girl had a sorry time at Northbrook. She had no companions of her own age, and indeed, visitors of any age were few and far between at the Hall. The rector, a new one in Dr. Darley's place, came, as in duty bound, and always felt, as the door closed behind him, that the most disagreeable of his pastoral calls was over for the time being.
Now and then a carriage would pass along the neglected drive, and ladies would alight from it and spend a short time with Lady Longridge, who, however, never returned such visits.
"I am too old for gadding about, so each call you are good enough to pay will only add to my debts," she would say. "However, it is some comfort to know that nobody cares to see an old lady like me. It is not likely. I hear nothing, so I have nothing to tell, and I miss one-half of what people say through not hearing. Then I repeat the tale wrongly to the next comer, and get into trouble; so you see it would have been better not to hear or speak."
An inquiry after Margaretta usually made the old lady eloquent.
"My granddaughter! I never know where she is, except at meal-times, for she is here, there, and everywhere between-whiles. I hear her often enough—too often, for she is always making a noise which she calls singing. It is a dreadful trial for an old woman like me to be burdened with the charge of a girl. But Philip would not leave her to the tender mercies of a stepfather, and that devoted wife of his would not keep single for the sake of her 'darling child.' Oh no."
It was always the same. No kind word fur any one, no messenger sent to bring the lonely girl into the presence of a visitor who might have been inclined to make her life a little brighter.
Yet Margaretta was not wholly friendless. She had, after a time, three persons on whose affection she could rely, and all within her reach at Northbrook.
First of these was Thorley, who had known her from her birth, and who, in spite of all her mistress could do to the contrary, had never missed an opportunity of showing her devoted love for the girl. When Margaretta was a baby, Thorley used to steal away to the nursery and satisfy the hunger of a loving woman's heart by spending her few spare moments with the child. She was full of devices for her amusement, having been herself "the eldest of nine and used to nursing," and was in consequence the little one's first favourite.
So when Margaretta came back to Northbrook after the interval between her father's death and her mother's second marriage, Thorley's was the only familiar face she saw there beside her grandmother's.
Lady Longridge's first act on finding herself sole mistress of the Hall had been to make "a clean sweep" of all the servants, Thorley excepted.
"Not one who ever received orders from Florence shall stay in my service," she said, and carried out her resolution.
This change rendered it easy for her to reduce her establishment. "Half the servants ought to be enough to wait on one old woman," she said next, and then she decided to spare her purse further by giving less wages for less trained domestics. No wonder that, inside and out, the appearance of Northbrook had changed for the worse since its old mistress resumed her absolute rule there.
"Things will last my time. Let those who follow renew. There are gewgaws enough that Florence put in and that are not worth house-room, only that as my landlord took them at a valuation, and I have nothing to fill their places if they were removed, they may as well stay where they are."
The gewgaws were all the dainty screens, needlework, elegant lamp-shades and artistic trifles with which Sir. Philip's wife had beautified the barrenness of the rooms. All the more substantial articles were old-fashioned, the last possessor having had no spare money to spend on refurnishing the Hall.
Margaretta's second and only young friend was a little village seamstress named Ellen Corry, by whose deft fingers the garments of the growing girl were remodelled let out and lengthened, as occasion required.
It was fortunate for Margaretta that she brought with her a good stock of clothes, and that the materials were admirably chosen both as to colours and quality—soft, beautiful, girlish, and not likely to become conspicuous, owing to the changes of fashion. Each garment had been carefully planned so as to permit of enlargement, and a length of new material was folded with it for future renovation.
Lady Longridge grunted indignantly as she caused Thorley to pass Margaretta's wardrobe in review before her. It was in one sense satisfactory to find that no expenditure of money would be needed for a long time.
"I should have bought nothing new in any case," snapped out the old lady. "There are coloured gowns enough of mine laid away that would have done for the girl, and they will come in when these are worn out. Take all this frippery away," and she waved off Thorley and the garments with an impatient gesture.
The maid retired, murmuring a thanksgiving that her darling Miss Margaretta would be preserved from the ancient horrors laid up by her mistress, professedly for future wear, but never likely to be needed.
"A lady's maid," muttered Thorley, "is supposed to get good pickings out of her mistress's clothes, but I never had any that were worth selling, much less wearing. However, it is some comfort to think that, while she goes on hoarding her rubbish, I never feel to covet any of and one may be thankful not to be tempted. As to Miss Margaretta, Nelly Corry will keep her right for a couple of years, let her grow as fast as she likes."
Nelly Corry's aid was soon needed, and in her joy at the sight of a young face, Margaretta, albeit an unskilful seamstress, determined to help her in her work.
"I can unpick the seams, if I cannot put them together," she said, and this she did with her grandmother's approval, qualified, however, by the remark that it would be a change to see her occupied in anything but mischief. Nelly was a good, pure-minded little creature, the staff of her widowed mother, and the child of careful training and many prayers. No fear that from her Margaretta would receive harm, or that the dingy nursery, now used as a workroom, would be the scene of gossip or idle tattle. The baronet's child and the seamstress a few years older were just a couple of innocent-minded girls, very happy only to be together, because they were young, and each had no friend of like age under the roof she called home.
Nelly's home was a real one, and the girl was eloquent always about her mother's goodness and the wealth of loving care she bestowed on the only child left her there. The rest were married and gone out into the world. Only the one ewe lamb was left.
How different with Margaretta! She could only say that she wished she could ever please her grandmother, who did not, and she thought never would, love her. That she longed for the mother from whom she was parted, and was sure that if only she could be with her and Mr. Norland, he would love her too. For she had known him when she was a little thing, and he was—oh, so nice always!
"I want the days to go twice as fast, and they pass so slowly here. I used to think lessons a nuisance, and wish I had only half as many. Now I should be glad to be properly taught again. My old governess would not live with grandmother if she might, and grandmother would not have her or pay her. She thinks anything spent on me is thrown away, and says I know more than I ought already. She hates music. Mamma's piano is gone, and the old one here is horrible, no two notes in tune. It must be a hundred years old, I should think. And grandmother is glad it is so bad, for she says if it were a good instrument, I should be at it always, as mamma used to be at hers, and there would be no peace. It is just the same if I sing. I went out of doors to-day, and thought she could not hear me, but she did, and sent Thorley to say I was to stop that screaming, for it was worse than a railway-whistle."
"Did Miss Thorley say that?" asked Nelly, who had a profound veneration for Lady Longridge's maid, and thought it impossible for her to say a harsh word.
"No. She came to me with such a heartbroken look, for she loves to hear me sing, and says my voice is the only pleasant thing she hears. I had just put myself in a comfortable place, leaning against a tree, and she stole up to me looking miserable when I was in the midst of a fresh song. 'Don't tell me the message,' I said, 'I will tell you. Grandmother has sent you to bid me stop screeching. I am right, am I not?'"
"'Yes, my darling. That is just what my lady did say. It seems as if you cannot get out of hearing, so as to sing in peace, and yet she is always complaining of being deaf, and turning what people say into nonsense. She hears well enough. She only pretends to misunderstand them, so that she may catch things that were never meant for her ears at all.'"
"Then I wished I were a bird, and that I could fly out of hearing. I sometimes think I shall run away, Nelly, for life here is so dreadful. And to have to live it for six long years, or five and a half, for I have been here a few months already! Thorley was quite shocked, and said, 'Oh, dear Miss Margaretta, you make me tremble, and I am just as nervous as I can be to begin with, through your grandma scolding.'"
"'If you don't call me "Meg," I will start off this minute,' I said. 'I can run so fast that I should be out of reach before you could begin to follow.'"
"Then Thorley gasped out, 'Oh, Meg, do not,' and I laughed until I forgot my grandmother's cross message. You see I make Thorley call me 'Meg,' because it was my poor father's pet name for me, and mamma got into the way of using it too. No one but those who loved me ever used it, so I ask Thorley to say it, because I want to feel loved yet, and she does care for me."
"She does indeed. And, dear Miss Longridge, so do I. There isn't a thing you could ask me to do that I would not do for you."
"Then call me 'Meg' this minute, you dear little nice thing," said Margaretta, and then she flung her arm round the little seamstress's neck and kissed her with such energy that Nelly was half frightened at the suddenness of the embrace.
"Kiss me back again. Kiss me, Nelly," cried Margaretta. "Don't you see I am hungering for love and kindness? Thorley is an old dear, but I want a young one. I will have you for a friend. I like you, and grandmother gives me no choice."
So on that day a compact was entered into, and Nelly returned Margaretta's somewhat tempestuous affection with an almost worshipping devotion, calling her "Meg" in a whisper, as Thorley did when no one was within hearing, and resolving that if ever she in her humble way could help the lonely young lady, she would do it with all her might.
One thing she succeeded in making Margaretta promise when, from time to time, she threatened to run away, and that was that she would go straight to Nelly's home, and no further, to begin with.
To this Margaretta agreed, and both Nelly and Thorley, whom she informed of the arrangement, were content.
It was through the little seamstress that Meg gained her third friend, and the one who was likely to be of the most service to her.
NELLY CORRY'S active fingers were never idle, and her cleverness, good taste, and modest manners were the means of introducing her to the best houses in the neighbourhood, as well as to Northbrook Hall. One of her customers, a childless widow, resided in a pretty cottage about half a mile from it.
This lady, Mrs. Moffat, was much interested in the little seamstress, who was so good a daughter and so industrious, and very often made the girl bring her work into her own sitting-room. There the actual stitching was done, the cutting and snipping being effected in the little workroom proper. Mrs. Moffat would encourage Nelly's artless talk, which had in it no suggestion of gossip or scandal. It was usually about the mother, or the married brothers and sisters, in whom Mrs. Moffat took a kindly interest. It charmed her to note how Nelly's innocent face brightened as she spoke of her many blessings, and persistently brought the bright side to the front during these conversations.
"And yet," thought the lady, "what a life of continuous toil this little creature leads, without ever uttering a complaining word! She regards work, plenty of work, as a rich blessing, and takes it up joyfully, seeing in it, daily bread and comforts for mother."
One day as Nelly sat sewing at Mrs. Moffat's, she was unusually silent. Not for want of something to talk about, for her mind was full of a plan for Margaretta's benefit, but she knew not how to begin.
Mrs. Moffat set her tongue at liberty by asking, "Is there anything amiss, Nelly? You are silent this morning."
"Nothing, thank you, ma'am. I was thinking so much about poor Miss Longridge, and it came into my mind that with mother to love me, I was so much better off in our little place than she is at Northbrook Hall."
"She has a mother, Nelly, and her grandmamma."
"A mother in one way, but she is so far-away, and Miss Longridge has been here seven months and only seen her once—four weeks ago. Poor young lady! She is dreadfully lonely, for the old lady is—well, you know, ma'am, when people get quite old, they cannot help being—" Here Nelly stopped for a word. She did not like to say cross or ill-tempered. So she blushed, and bending her head over her work, stitched away diligently.
Mrs. Moffat knew enough of Lady Longridge to fill up the blank, so she did not ask Nelly's meaning. But she drew from her the story of Margaretta's daily life, her yearning for instruction, her friendlessness, the solitary wanderings in the grounds, and efforts to get out of the hearing of the relentless old relative, who compared her sweet rich voice to the screams of a railway-whistle.
"But surely Lady Longridge has someone to teach her granddaughter," said Mrs. Moffat.
"No, ma'am. Miss Margaretta has no lessons of any kind, and she cannot practise, for the only old piano is just dreadful. It is never tuned, and if it were it would not keep in tune. The young lady's mamma would have left her beautiful piano for her daughter; but Lady Longridge would not have it there, or a scrap that belonged to her. You see, ma'am, she has fancies, being old, and she seems to think she is poor and cannot afford to spend any money on her granddaughter."
Mrs. Moffat remained silent for a little while, turning over in her own mind a plan suggested by Nelly's confidences. She was a highly accomplished woman, a born musician, who delighted to encourage musical talent in others, and at once the thought occurred to her—
"Here am I, a lonely woman, with such talents as I possess running to waste for want of an opportunity to exercise them. And just within reach is a sweet young creature, wanting exactly what I am able to give. How can we be brought together?"
Soon afterwards Nelly Corry knew that her innocent stratagem had been successful, for Mrs. Moffat said—
"How I wish I could be of use to this dear lonely girl! I am sure I can trust you, Nelly. Tell me, now, what I can do for her. It would be quite a delight to me to give her an opportunity of using my piano, and I might perhaps direct her musical studies a little. Do you think Lady Longridge would let her come here?"
"Indeed, ma'am, I do not know. Thorley, that is her ladyship's maid, could tell more than anybody else. Lady Longridge never comes near the workroom, which is the old nursery at Northbrook, though she knows when I am there, for she sometimes grumbles at having to pay me for altering Miss Margaretta's frocks."
"How could I see Thorley? I know her by sight already, for I call on Lady Longridge now and then."
"She gets out very little, for it seems as if her mistress could hardly bear her to be out of hearing, but I am sure she will contrive to come to you if you will see her."
It was arranged that Nelly should take a message to Thorley on the following day, and certain hours were named at which she would find Mrs. Moffat at home for a week to come. Two days later, Thorley called at Clough Cottage, and had a long talk with its mistress. At its close, she said—
"If, madam, you could persuade my lady to fall in with your plan, it would be the saving of Miss Margaretta; but please do not let her think that it will be a favour to you. And if you would be so kind as to make her pay for it."
There was something quite whimsical in the look on Thorley's face as she said this, for she was in mortal dread of giving offence. Mrs. Moffat was a lady of means, who visited the county families, being as well-bred as any of them, and to suggest her receiving payment was something dreadful.
The maid began to try and explain her meaning, but Mrs. Moffat interrupted her with a smile, and said, "I think I know enough of Lady Longridge to comprehend the difficulty. We have to make great allowances for the peculiarities of aged people, and at four-score they are privileged."
"Lady Longridge is turned eighty-one, and just a wonder for her age," said Thorley enthusiastically, and with a look of infinite relief. "I have served her five-and-twenty years."
"She is fortunate in retaining such faithful service. Well, Thorley, I think I understand your meaning. You believe that if Lady Longridge supposed that I particularly wished to assist her granddaughter in her studies, and that the dear girl's presence would give pleasure to a solitary woman, she would say 'No.' And yet she does want a teacher for her granddaughter."
"I could not quite say that much. Miss Margaretta has been at her grandma to let her have lessons, and the rector has ventured to tell my lady that her granddaughter's time is being wasted, and that she is being let run wild as no working man's child would be. He told her what people were saying, and how it was the talk of the countryside that her son's only child was being frightfully neglected. I don't know how he dared, but, though he is so quiet mostly, he speaks out in a matter of right or wrong. So my lady has been asking about a governess, but she does not like to pay for a good one; besides, she does not wish one altogether at the Hall; and who that knew how dull it is, would like to come? It takes years to get used to the life there, and it is hard for the young.'
"Tell me exactly what course would be best, and speak out. Do not fear my being displeased."
"Then, madam, I think if you could call at Northbrook, very soon, just whilst my lady is worrited about getting someone to teach Miss Margaretta, she might perhaps ask your advice. You need not tell her straight out what is in your mind, but if only you could get to know what ladies have asked who have written about coming, you might see your way by making a great favour of it. As to the money part, you would know better than I should. Only my lady values most what she has to pay for."
Mrs. Moffat was shrewd enough to realise the position at once. She paid the proposed visit, as it happened, in the nick of time; found Lady Longridge irritated and perplexed, the former at the unconscionable salaries asked by governesses, when only a few years ago twenty pounds a year would have been considered ample.
"Not that my son and his wife thought so. They gave a hundred and board to the one who used to teach Margaretta, as though money were picked up in the streets! There is only one of these," and she laid her hand on a pile of letters, "that asks less, and she cannot write plainly, and has misspelt two words."
"She is perhaps one of the old twenty-pound-a-year class, belonging to the days when persons who could earn a living in no other way went out as governesses amongst people who knew not whether they were fit to teach or otherwise. But you, Lady Longridge, are better able to judge. Besides, teaching is now a distinct profession, and a highly honourable one, in which the incapables of old times would stand no chance to-day."
"Yes," said Lady Longridge, ignoring all but the compliment, "I can spell yet, though I am over eighty. Can you tell me of anyone hereabout who would teach Margaretta, just to make out a little income? I would give fifty pounds a year for three or even two hours' lessons a day, morning or afternoon, as might suit her best. I am wearied out of my life with all these letters."
"Would you give sixty to a competent person?"
"Yes, even sixty, but no board. Mind, no board," added the old lady, eagerly.
"I will think about this and tell you to-morrow without fail." And Mrs. Moffat departed, leaving Lady Longridge much relieved.
"She will find somebody, Thorley, I am convinced of it. She is a clever woman, with a good head and plenty of common sense, which almost make one wish she had to teach for a living. What a governess she would make for that gipsy of a girl!"
Thorley felt herself a dreadful hypocrite as she replied that Mrs. Moffat was quite a lady, and had plenty of money. Also that she did a world of good with it; but this remark caused such a snappish rejoinder, that she wished it had been suppressed.
Lady Longridge looked eagerly for Mrs. Moffat's coming, and greeted her with the inquiry, "Have you brought good news?"
"I cannot tell whether you will think it so, but if you like, I will give your granddaughter the benefit of all I know, on the terms named yesterday."
"You! You teach, and for money!" shrieked the old lady. "You are rich; you want none. I cannot understand you."
"If you agree to my proposal, you will give fifteen pounds a quarter into the hands of Mr. Moorhouse, our new rector, towards the repairs and restoration of the church. I shall not touch a penny of it myself. But the work is badly wanted, and is dear to his heart and to mine. I do not believe in our living in ceiled houses and being surrounded with luxuries, and allowing the House of God to fall into wreck and ruin."
"You have given I don't remember how much already, for the man flung that in my face when he came begging here. He could not say that I indulged in luxuries."
"I have given, but it has been of that which cost me nothing—not even a little self-denial. Now I am anxious to work for some extra money, in order that I may give it under more satisfactory conditions. I have never yet known the happiness of earning anything."
"No more have I, if you call it happiness. But there is an old proverb which says, 'There is more made by saving than getting.' Not," added Lady Longridge, "that I have saved much, only I have had to be careful. I will think of what you have said, but could you not call it fifty?"
"For myself I would say nothing. But this is for God's cause and His house. No, Lady Longridge, you must give me a decided answer before I leave, or you will lose your chance of paying me a salary. If I take your money, mind, I mean to earn it. If you do not pay me sixty pounds per annum, someone else will double the amount, for a similar return. Will you read this letter in proof of what I say?"
Mrs. Moffat handed one as she spoke. It was from a greater personage than Lady Longridge, and the writing was familiar to her. It said—
"My dear Hilda,—If you are bent on earning money in order to try the
luxury of giving at a considerable cost to yourself, do let us have the
benefit. You would have a submissive and adoring pupil in my daughter,
who would come to you daily, and share the advantages with Lady
Longridge's granddaughter, if you choose. You have only to name your
"Margaretta shall come to you, and I will pay the sixty pounds a year to Mr. Moorhouse. I shall be helping a good work too," added the old woman, with a look of self-gratulation.
"You will enable me to do so much more, but I protest against your claiming second-hand credit," said Mrs. Moffat.
The old lady laughed. She rather liked to meet her match sometimes, and the thought of having made a good bargain, even at the cost of sixty pounds a year, put her into a good humour for the time being. She was eager for Margaretta to begin her studies, but as the morrow would be Friday, it was decided that the girl should go to Clough Cottage on the Monday morning following.
How Thorley and the little seamstress rejoiced in the success of their innocent plan needs not be told, or with what impatience Margaretta counted the hours that must intervene before she should once more touch a piano worthy the name. In the meanwhile she hunted up her books and music, to be ready for use when needed.
MRS. MOFFAT took no second charge. Margaretta was her only pupil, and it is just probable that the letter which moved Lady Longridge to decide so quickly was not really intended to be acted upon, though the writer was thoroughly in earnest in making the offer.
What a little paradise Clough Cottage was to Margaretta, after the bare, comfortless rooms to which she was accustomed at Northbrook! How delightful it was to be addressed in terms such as her mother used in old days, and to find that this charming, cultured woman, to whose care she was consigned, was ready to open her heart to sympathise with a girl so untaught, as she now felt herself to be in comparison.
Mrs. Moffat wanted a young creature to love, and to whom she might impart a share of the mental treasures to which she was daily adding. She made a study of Margaretta, as a mother studies the nature of a child whom, by God's help, she aspires to mould into a noble woman. She won the girl's heart—that was an easy matter. She won her confidence, and used the knowledge she gained of the girl's inner nature to give her wise advice and lead her in the right way. How it touched Mrs. Moffat to receive the girl's communications, to know that little secret about the two humble friends who called her "Meg," when no one was at hand to overhear! And how she rejoiced that, despite the difference in their social position, these two friends, Thorley and the little seamstress, were not unwisely chosen, but deserved the name!
"I should never have known you but for Nelly Corry; and oh, how happy you have made me!" said Margaretta, as she held Mrs. Moffat's hand in her own, and caressed it from time to time in her childish fashion. "I owe her more than words can tell."
"And I owe her a great deal also, Meg, my darling. You have cheered my loneliness and given me a new interest in life," replied Mrs. Moffat, adding a loving kiss.
It would be waste of words to enter more fully into details. Meg was happy beyond expression. She worked with all her heart—so hard, indeed, that Mrs. Moffat was obliged to restrain her eagerness and insist on proper time being given to outdoor exercise and rest. As to music, the girl simply revelled in it.
At the end of two years her wonderful voice was the talk of the neighbourhood. Even old Lady Longridge became sensible that excellent value had been given for the money she had expended, and she began to take a grim pleasure in being called "grandmother" by this graceful girl who, though older, was infinitely more manageable than the wild young creature who roamed the woods at pleasure, yet felt all the while like an imprisoned bird, when first consigned to her guardianship. Alas! There was no summer holiday or visit to the seaside for the girl, who longed to be like others in this respect.
Lady Longridge had many more callers after Margaretta was taken in hand by Mrs. Moffat. Many of the neighbours would have liked to show kindly attentions to the girl of whom her teacher spoke so warmly, but their advances met with little encouragement. "I am too old to go out with Margaretta, and she is too young to take care of herself. She gets as much change as is good for her at Clough Cottage, and she has work to do both there and at home."
Mrs. Moffat, however, contrived little pleasures for her young charge, whom she was learning to love like a daughter, and occasionally invited other girls to meet her, when she could obtain permission for her to spend a night at the Cottage. But to strangers Margaretta was shy at first, and she did not meet any of these young people often enough to strike up a schoolgirl friendship with one of them.
She had Mrs. Moffat, whose sympathetic nature fitted her to fill the places of teacher, mother, friend, and sister to Margaretta, who, in possessing her affection, felt abundantly contented—nay, rich beyond expression.
Her days were no longer a weary blank, with nothing to vary their monotony. She had work and loved it, and though still living in such a retired fashion, she felt with unspeakable satisfaction that she was daily becoming better fitted for the society into which, when she returned to her darling mother, she should certainly be introduced.
It was well for Margaretta that there was one who sympathised with her on the subject which lay nearest to her heart, and which she dared not even mention in the presence of Lady Longridge. This was her separation from her mother. Mrs. Norland, who from the moment of her marriage disclaimed all wish to reserve the title by which she might still have been addressed had she chosen, liked her mother-in-law as little as she did after that first meeting at Northbrook. She had twice visited her daughter, but not at the Hall, having declared, when she left it just after her widowhood, that the same roof should never again cover Lady Longridge and herself.
Next Margaretta heard of the birth of a baby brother, whose coming prevented a third visit to which she was looking forward. It was a terrible disappointment, for Margaretta hoped that her mother and her beloved Mrs. Moffat would also meet, and that this would create a new bond between them. But this was not to be, and though Mrs. Moffat had been the tenant of Clough Cottage for five years past, she and Sir Philip's wife had only seen each other at church.
It has been said that Sir Philip seldom remained long at Northbrook, and Mrs. Moffat having no home ties, was often absent during the short time that they were nominal neighbours before his death. Now Mrs. Moffat's affection for Margaretta kept her much more at the Cottage. When she left it for a few weeks she would fain have taken the girl with her. But to this Lady Longridge would never consent, though she would have had nothing to pay for her granddaughter.
"Where I stay, Margaretta, remains also. I cannot go elsewhere, so she must content herself at Northbrook. I will never part with her whilst I live. If I die before she is of age, that will be another matter, though I do not think I shall. My head is clear, my memory good—oh yes, very good; too good sometimes, is it not, Thorley?" Appealing to her inseparable attendant, and looking so wickedly knowing and wide-awake to everything, that Mrs. Moffat felt that there was every prospect of her expectations being fulfilled.
It was of no use to ask, so Mrs. Moffat sorrowfully left her favourite behind, and returned the sooner for her sake.
A few weeks after that disappointment with regard to her mother's visit, Margaretta received the most loving of letters from her, together with a fresh consignment of pretty things for her wardrobe, and unmade materials.
"My dear child," she wrote, "I am extremely grieved to think that I shall have to leave England without seeing you, and I cannot quite say when I shall return. I have been less strong since little Hugh was born, and the doctors say that it will be necessary for me to winter in a warmer climate. I long to see you and kiss your dear face, my precious girl, but it is useless to ask Lady Longridge for you to visit me, and I cannot bear an extra three hundred miles of travelling to and from Northbrook, when the saving of every mile is important. So I can only pray, 'May God bless and keep you, and grant us a happy meeting on my return!'"
"Baby is very like you, and I am so glad of it, for in his, I seem to see your baby face again, and I give him double caresses on that account—one set for you. When I was lying very ill, I thought of Lady Longridge, and I wished we had been better friends. If you have an opportunity tell your grandmother this. I would send her a kinder message, but I am afraid she would misconstrue my motives. When a time of weakness comes, and the end of an illness is doubtful, the little jealousies and quarrels of the past seem so contemptible, and there is so much that one would like to undo if possible."
There was much more in the letter that need not be quoted, and with it came a supply of foreign stamps, notepaper, and various articles of everyday use, besides those in the way of dress. Also a ten-pound note, to which no allusion was made, and which, Margaretta judged, was to meet any special need which might arise during her mother's absence. She told Mrs. Moffat about this, and asked her to take care of it for her, saying, "Do you not think mamma avoided naming it, so that if grandmother makes me show her the letter, as she always does, she might not know about the money?"
"I do, dear Meg. If it were sent by any one but your mother it would be different, but she has a right to trust you alone, if she thinks proper. Have you any money?"
"I have a sovereign and some silver left of what mamma gave me the last time. I do not spend much, but I like to have a trifle to give at church, and so on. It looks odd to put a threepenny-bit in always, does it not? And grandmother never gives me more for collections. She says it is enough for me, and she forgets that it is for her too, seeing that she does not go herself."
Mrs. Moffat smiled at this, and consented to take charge of the note, as Meg had no safe place in which to keep it, and to give it back by instalments, as the girl might require.
As Margaretta anticipated, Lady Longridge demanded a sight of her letter, and there was a look of grim satisfaction on her face as she mastered its contents. The girl thought she was pleased at the message to herself, and was glad it should reach her just as it was written. But Lady Longridge was saying to herself—
"So you are being paid out at last, my lady. You are finding out that the old are sometimes hale and hearty, whilst the young are broken down. I don't wish you to die. At my time of life one must not be too hard; but I hope it will be a good while before you come back to England, to put false notions into your daughter's head, or meddle between her and me. Everyone can see how well the girl is being trained. She will be a credit to an old woman's bringing up, and you, proud as you are, will have to own it."
To Margaretta she said—
"Never mind, child. If your mother is away, you have me to look after you. You will be well taken care of, never fear. These meetings are mere matters of habit. I know by experience how well many daughters get on without seeing their mothers for many years together."
Truly she did. The visits of her own daughters had become fewer and farther between, as well as shorter in duration than of old, and the fact did not distress Lady Longridge in the least. She had cared more for her son than for anyone else. Now if she cared for anyone it was for Margaretta and Thorley. Not both alike. Two persons never occupied equal positions in Lady Longridge's regard at the same time. It was first one and then the other who was favourite for a while.
The old lady was great at will-making. How many of such documents had been prepared by her lawyer, Mr. Melville, would be difficult to tell. How many that purported each to be the last will and testament of Dame Sophia Janet Longridge, had been torn to fragments or committed to the flames, only the testatrix and her much-worried legal adviser could say.
At present her ladyship was happy in the possession of two such. By virtue of one, which she mentally styled her "white will," she bequeathed the bulk of what she possessed to Margaretta and a legacy of one thousand pounds to Thorley, of whose worth time had convinced her. By the other, which was her "blue will," the bequests were exactly reversed. Each had been framed according to the humour or ill-humour of the time being, and owed its name to the colour of the paper on which it was written. So, though nobody knew this but Lady Longridge and her lawyer, she delighted in the thought that by burning one will she could in a few seconds dispossess either of those named therein. But neither Margaretta nor Thorley knew how much depended on the whim of a moment, or that Lady Longridge intended to bequeath even a legacy to either.
The girl never troubled her head about the matter, and if Thorley did, she entertained small expectations of receiving any benefit from the decease of her mistress.
"Likely enough she will wear me out, and if I outlive her, I shall miss her terribly. One gets used to being worrited till it becomes a second nature."
From this faithful woman Lady Longridge knew that she had received what money could never repay, but she did not know how glad Thorley would have been if from her mistress's lips she could once have heard a few kindly approving words.
In her younger days Thorley had been eager to accumulate money, and infected, though in a less degree, with her mistress's passion for saving. But as the years went by the maid had seen how little happiness Lady Longridge's hoards were able to confer on herself, whilst they were utterly useless to others. What she had followed as an example she now felt to be a warning, and she gave more from her little than her lady did out of her abundance. Better still, she had been led to seek and to find a peace the world could neither give nor take away, but which our Saviour has promised to all who trustfully yield themselves to Him.
MONTH followed month, and Margaretta received no tidings of her mother, though Mrs. Norland had promised to send her address as soon as possible. Naturally the poor girl was greatly distressed at hearing nothing. Even had her mother been in perfect health when she wrote, the silence would have proved sufficiently trying, but those ominous words in the last letter, "when the end of an illness is doubtful," came again to her mind and filled her with sad forebodings.
Mrs. Moffat felt deeply for her favourite, and made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain information for her. Unfortunately, Mrs. Norland had not named the probable place at which they would sojourn, and the "South of Europe" was too vague an expression to help her inquiries. One thing she ascertained. The town house formerly occupied by the Norlands had been cleared of its contents, which were stored, and was in the hands of other tenants. This did not look favourable for a speedy return to England, as the house was Hugh Norland's own.
Once Margaretta returned to Lady Longridge, and asked if she had received news of her mother.
"I! No, indeed. Florence has never penned a line to me in her life of her own free will. She wrote a duty letter now and then whilst your father was living. I know no more of her movements than you do, or whether she is alive or dead."
"Oh, grandmother!" cried Margaretta, in an agony of distress at hearing those last terrible words. She could say no more, but broke into a passion of tears, and sobbed bitterly.
"Don't cry, child. Why, those words have no meaning. I told you the truth that I know nothing. I dare say your mother is all right and enjoying herself, gadding about with her new husband, as she did with her old one. You must remember she has another child now who is of more consequence than you, for he is heir to a fine estate, and you have nothing to look forward to, though you are Sir Philip Longridge's daughter. Do not trouble your head, child. You have your grandmother, who may have scraped enough to leave you what will keep you from going out as a governess, if you are a good girl. I like you better than I used to do—ever so much better; and after all blood is thicker than water." And Lady Longridge began to meditate as to the propriety of burning the blue will. Subsequently, she decided to keep it a little longer.
It was something to poor Margaretta's wounded spirit to have gained the goodwill of her grandmother, though this did not make up for the anxiety she was suffering on her mother's account. It was a trying time for her. Mrs. Moffat was away, and would be for several weeks, and Margaretta had only Thorley and Nelly Corry to whom she might look for sympathy. These gave it in full measure, but during her friend's absence the girl had more time to brood over her trouble, and to count the years that must yet pass before her twenty-first birthday would give her freedom from Northbrook and her grandmother's rule.
Margaretta never doubted her mother's love; never even thought that she could live and forget her child. She was seventeen and a half now. In three years and six months she would be of age, and then! Would there be any one to claim her? Or would she hear—she dared not think what? She dared not count years and months—the very process made the time seem longer. She would wait patiently and work till Mrs. Moffat returned, praying for the patience she sorely needed.
Prayer had become a blessed necessity to Margaretta, and this, too, was through Nelly Corry, so far as the human means went. The little seamstress, by her simple talk of God's goodness, His love, His provident care of all His creatures, had been the means of bringing Margaretta, into communion with a Friend far better even than the kind earthly one she had won for her in Mrs. Moffat.
"You see, Meg dear," Nelly whispered, "poor people, like mother and me, would be miserable if we could not think about God's love and all that Jesus told about it. We have sometimes been a good deal tried, but we have prayed that we might trust. We have thought how not a sparrow can fall without God knowing and caring, and we have taken up the words of Jesus and said to one another, 'Those that have precious souls that live for ever are of more value than many sparrows.' God never forgets us poor folks, Miss Meg, and He will not forget you."
It was a blessed day which brought the little seamstress to Northbrook Hall, and the results were doubly blessed to Margaretta.
Up to this time it had never struck the girl that her grandmother could possibly have suppressed her mother's letters; but one day she was reading a story, the interest of which hinged on an incident of the kind. Then it flashed across her mind how easily Lady Longridge could keep back letters which she did not wish her to receive. The post-bag was carried, locked, into her room, and she invariably sent Thorley out of it on some errand, before examining its contents. The maid had her suspicions, but had never breathed them to Margaretta, as she had no proof to offer. But she kept her eyes and ears open, and her watchfulness was at length rewarded.
Margaretta was asleep—for it was still early in the morning—when Thorley stole into her room and awoke her with a kiss and a whisper.
"Dear Miss Meg, I have found something. My lady must have dropped it without noticing, when she was taking out the letters yesterday morning, and it had gone under the edge of the bed-vallance, quite out of sight. She had a great many letters to look over, and did not see this one. Be calm, my dear, and do not make a bit of noise, for your grandma sometimes pretends to be asleep when she is not, just to find out if I leave the room, and why. I do believe you will have news of your dear mamma at last."
Thorley might well urge Margaretta to be calm, for the eager expression of the young face, as it paled and flushed in turns, showed how deeply she was moved. Yet even before her trembling hands released the precious letter from its cover, she clasped them together, and thanked God with all her heart for the good news. Yes, the very address brought this much of happy tidings. The writing was in her mother's hand, clear, firm, and beautiful to look upon. It said to the daughter's heart, "Your mother is living, and in very different health from what she was at the time when that letter came long ago, bearing evidence of having been written by feeble, tremulous hands."
Well might Margaretta utter a thanksgiving, and feel that a great load of suspense had been lifted from her mind. But what a revelation did the present letter present! Its contents showed that many others had preceded it, but no reply had reached the writer.
"And now I despair of hearing from you, my darling daughter," wrote Mrs. Norland. "You would have written if you could, and I can only suppose that your replies have been suppressed, unknown to yourself. At any rate, you will have heard of me, and rejoiced in my recovery, though the process has been a very slow one. But I am well now, and I expect to reach London not many days after you read this. I am sorry that you can never see your little brother as a baby proper, for he is now turned into a tiny boy, who trots to and fro at will, and is as bright and full of mischief as possible. But you will love little Hugh for his own sake, as well as for mine. He only has his proper share of love. My Meg has hers, and with interest. It only seems to accumulate during absence, and, darling, I trust you, though no line has come from your dear hand to say, 'Mother, I have not changed, I love you always.'"
"I do not ask you to write now, as we shall be travelling slowly homeward, but I shall lose no time in coming to Northbrook and clasping my darling to my heart.—Yours," etc.
With what mingled feelings Margaretta read these words cannot be described. Her joy and thankfulness on the one hand, her indignation at her grandmother's cruelty on the other.
She had no one to speak to at the moment, for Thorley, having just heard the good news that the letter was really from Mrs. Norland, stole back to her mistress's chamber, not daring to wait for particulars.
Margaretta dressed quickly and went down-stairs to the room in which breakfast was generally served. She was standing, lost in thought, with her elbow resting on the mantelpiece and the letter in her other hand, when Thorley entered with a tray to take the materials for her mistress's meal.
"Is my grandmother awake?" she asked. "I must see her as soon as possible. Thorley, she has been very cruel. She has kept back my mother's letters. There have been many before this. How could she do it? She is very hard, but I did not think anyone could have seen me hoping and hoping till my heart sunk within me, for the news which never came. I cannot tell you what dreadful thoughts I have had. Sometimes I have feared that my mother must be dead. Then I have felt that I must have been told if such were the case, and the more awful fear has come that perhaps I was being forgotten in the new cares that the dear baby brought with him, and owing to my mother's ill-health. Oh, Thorley! I have so prayed that I might be kept from doubting my mother, and I have sat down many a time to call her loving words and ways to remembrance, until I have been able to say to myself, 'No, it is impossible. My mother could never cease to love me.' Grandmother could have ended all this with a word, yet she saw me suffer and would not say it."
"She is very old, dear Miss Meg. She has had her own way always, and gone just in one rut through such a long life. I do believe she thinks she has a right to do these things. If they troubled her conscience, she would never rest, and she does sleep as sound as a healthy baby. She is a wonderful old lady."
"She cannot think that deceit is right. I have asked her so often, and she has declared that she did not know where my mother was."
"And perhaps she told the truth. It would be just like your grandmother to keep all those letters unopened, or to burn them without reading a word, so that she could say truly that she did not know."
"She will have to give an answer about them now," said Margaretta firmly.
"Dear Miss Meg, do consider her age. You know about your mamma now, and where will be the use of upsetting the old lady by saying anything? Beside, she is getting fond of you, and talks quite proudly when your back is turned about your pretty singing. Try and keep in with her, dear Miss Meg. It may mean a great deal to you some day."
But Meg was not to be moved from her purpose. "I will wait until grandmother has breakfasted, and then I will see her. Not all the wealth in the world would tempt me to be silent now."
"Think about it, dear, whilst you get your breakfast, or wait till to-morrow. It is a good thing to sleep on a matter when you are inclined to be angry."
"As to breakfast, I feel as though I could never take another mouthful in this house," replied Margaretta. "I cannot wait to sleep over the matter. I will spend my time in praying that I may not speak angrily, or forget the respect I owe to one who is my relative, and so old. I hope God will help me to be patient, but speak I must."
Margaretta accordingly entered Lady Longridge's room, as Thorley left it with the breakfast-tray.
The old lady greeted her more kindly than usual. She was in high good humour at receiving extra interest on an investment, but did not mention this to her granddaughter.
"Grandmother," said the girl, "I wish to speak to you about my mother. I have had a letter from her. It came into my hands in an unusual manner—you must not ask me how, for I cannot tell any more than this, that the post-bag was not meddled with, and that no one has disobeyed you in any way."
"There has been trickery!" cried Lady Longridge. "Tell me this instant. Give me the letter. You have no right to receive one unknown to me, your lawful guardian."
"I would not; I never have done from anyone else; but this is different, being from my mother."
"It is not. She was to see you once in six months, and seeing that your father had so willed it, she would not try to alter the conditions, though they pinched her, and I was glad of it. She has not come near you; there was nothing about letter-writing in Philip's will. I had the right to keep the letters!" cried the old lady, triumphantly.
"My mother could not come. She had been ill, but she wrote and wrote, and I waited, my heart aching with dread, as you know; but all in vain. Oh, grandmother, you knew, and you did not tell me! Even now you are glad to think of our suffering."
"No. Not yours. It was hers I spoke about," interrupted Lady Longridge.
"Well, hers, then. Did you never think what my mother must feel when not a word of answer reached her? And you are getting so old—forgive me for saying it; and surely if there has been ill-will between you and mother, it is time to forgive one another, and be friends."
"Friends with Florence! Never! And I have told the truth. I never opened one of her letters, so that I might say that I knew nothing, and tell no falsehood. The letters are there to prove it."
"Let me have them, grandmother. Do give them to me!" pleaded the girl.
"Take them, if you like, but take them somewhere else, and do not let me see your face again. I had meant to do something for you, but now you shall not have a penny of mine. I will burn my white will to-day, and send for Melville about the blue one."
"The letters, grandmother, please, the letters!"
"You shall have them. They will pay you well for what this affair will lose you. Take this key. In that little drawer are the letters unopened. Mind, you choose between those and more than you know of."
Without hesitation Margaretta took the key, emptied the little drawer of its contents, and then returned it to Lady Longridge, who said, "Get out of my sight, and do not trouble me again!"
"Good-bye, grandmother. I am sorry you are angry, but I could not help speaking. I forgive you. You have been hard sometimes, but I shall try to forget the pain you have caused me about my dear mother. I am glad I can forgive, or I should not dare to ask that my trespasses might be forgiven. Thank you for having me taught by dear Mrs. Moffat."
"Go!" screamed the old lady. "Go, and do not preach to me. I never wish to see you again."
The girl turned a look of the deepest pity on that old face, distorted with anger, and closing the door behind her went to her own room.
ONE thought above all others was in Margaretta's mind. She would leave Northbrook Hall at once and for ever. But where should she go?
She bethought herself of that old promise, and without waiting even to change her simple wrapper for a walking dress, she gathered up her precious letters, threw a soft woollen shawl round her, put on her hat, and went rapidly towards the little dwelling tenanted by Nelly Corry and her mother. As she passed through the ill-kept conservatory she plucked a rose from a bush that had been a favourite of her mother's, and which she had tended with loving hands.
She had tasted nothing since early on the preceding evening, and when she reached the cottage she was faint with want of food and excitement, for it was getting towards noon.
Nelly was in the midst of her dressmaking, but at the sight of Margaretta, she deposited her work on the seat she was occupying, drew forward an old wicker chair, the most comfortable one in the place, and begged her visitor to sit down. Then she removed her hat with gentle hands, and, quite alarmed at Margaretta's woe-begone appearance, asked what was the matter and what she could do for her.
The girl could not answer, but to Nelly's dismay she burst into a passion of hysterical weeping.
Nelly strove to soothe her with loving words, and wished that her mother would come, for Mrs. Corry being a little better than usual had gone to do the shopping of the tiny household.
Soothed and calmed at last, Margaretta told her tale to her humble friend, and concluded by saying, "I have come to you, Nelly. I have kept my promise. I have scarcely any money, for Mrs. Moffat has my last sovereign, and I forgot to mention it before she left."
"Don't name money, dear Miss Meg. I am not without a trifle, and there is Thorley with plenty, who would do anything for you. I will get you a cup of tea and something with it. Then you will be better, for you are faint for want of it."
Nelly busied herself in preparing the tea, and poor Meg thankfully partook of it, and then read, one by one, all the letters written by that dear hand, and now first opened by her own. From them she gathered all the details of her mother's illness and journeyings to and fro, of the tender cares by which she was surrounded; and she read, with tear-moistened eyes, how that dear parent was ever looking forward to meeting her again, and to the time when no one would be able to separate them from each other. In more than one letter money was enclosed, so that Margaretta found she would need no help of this kind.
As she closed the last precious letter she felt more tenderly towards her grandmother. "At least," thought she, "I have been able to read my dear mother's words of love. She might have read them herself and then burned them."
Old Lady Longridge was truly a strange mixture. Too vindictive to give up her daughter-in-law's letters, yet impelled by a certain sense of honour to refrain from reading words only meant for the eyes of her granddaughter, and determined that in saying she knew nothing of Mrs. Norland's movements, the statement should be true.
Thorley had a trying time with her old mistress that day. She found out that Margaretta had left the Hall, but that she had carried nothing away with her, so rightly judged that she had taken refuge at Nelly Corry's. She had no chance of following her thither, for Lady Longridge kept her constantly in sight, and, contrary to custom, remained in her own room all the day.
"I am not well enough to go down," she said. "That girl has upset me with her talk about forgiving. As if I, an old woman of eighty-three, now would ask her pardon. And to talk of Florence! I never could bear the woman! Daughters-in-law and daughters are all alike—at any rate mine were. They cared for themselves, and left me to shift for myself. I am getting old. The girl told the truth there, and somebody must have the money. If I could make a new will—but Melville is away, and I will trust nobody else. He is weak; he wanted me to leave money to my daughters, who had their share long since; but he is true, and can keep his own counsel and my secrets. I wish—"
But the voice became tremulous and quavering, and for a time Lady Longridge ceased to think aloud, and slept in her easy-chair by the fire, while Thorley watched in silence, afraid to move, lest she should arouse her mistress.
Lady Longridge awoke refreshed, but asked no questions about Margaretta. She, however, later in the day gave Thorley the key of a safe which occupied a corner of her bedroom and stood confessed as such, without an attempt at concealment.
"Get out two papers for me," she said. "They are in large envelopes—one blue, the other white, and both are marked alike, 'The last Will and Testament of Dame Sophia Janet Longridge.'"
Thorley obeyed, and placed them by her side.
"Now undress me. I am tired, and will go to bed," said her mistress; and as soon as her head touched the pillow she said, "Give me my two last wills."
Clutching them tightly in her hand, Lady Longridge again began to murmur to herself—
"The girl is a fine girl. She kept her temper better than I could have done. Perhaps I have been hard; but it was Florence I disliked. She would have turned me out of Northbrook, but she had to leave me here at last. I always said I would live and die here, and I shall. I am just a little glad the girl forgave me." Another pause. "I seem to see differently to-day. I could almost see Florence if she came now. Thorley, where is my granddaughter? Call her."
But Thorley knew she should call in vain, so she said she would send and seek Miss Longridge, who was out somewhere.
"I wonder will she come in time?"
The words dropped more slowly from Lady Longridge's lips, and there was a look in her face that startled Thorley. But once again she spoke with comparative firmness, and the maid thought that her mistress was battling against the drowsiness which was stealing over her, and had made her so slow of utterance.
"I think Thorley shall settle it," she said. "I can take her opinion first and act on it. Then if I like I can burn the other 'last will,' and let them fight over the old woman's money."
Addressing her maid, she continued, "Here are two wills. This blue one leaves much to you, little to Margaretta. The white, much to her, little to you. Both cannot stand; which shall I burn?"
"Dear madam, burn the blue one!" cried the unselfish creature, true to her love for dear Miss Meg. "Let the money go to your own flesh and blood. I do not want it; I have saved what will serve my time, and I shall be happy in seeing Miss Margaretta have it when you can enjoy it no longer."
"Here, then, burn the blue one," and Lady Longridge relinquished her hold of it. Thorley first tore it across, and then pushing it into the midst of the fire saw it consumed to the last morsel.
"I almost wish you had burned the other," said her mistress. "You are so unselfish you deserve the money; not that it has made me happy. Margaretta is a long time in coming, and I must go to sleep. Say 'good-night' for me. I think you have made me feel as if I wanted to forgive everybody. After all, blood is thicker than water."
Thorley heard unwonted words from the aged lips—"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us." Then a murmur only, then sleep.
The message sent by Thorley was the means of bringing Margaretta back to the Hall, though she had never intended to return thither. But a talk with her humble little friend Nelly had so softened the heart, that when summoned she was ready to go with the messenger. On tiptoe she entered Lady Longridge's room and crept to the bedside, accompanied by Thorley, who bent over her mistress to listen.
There was no sound of breathing, no sign of life. Those murmured words had been her last, and in her hand, though the grasp on it had relaxed, lay the white will, truly the last will and testament of Dame Sophia Janet Longridge, the contents of which made Margaretta her heiress and owner of wealth far beyond what those who thought they knew had counted on her leaving behind.
The succession of shocks was too great for the girl to bear, and for the first time in her life she fainted by the side of the bed whereon lay all that remained of her whose rule had been so long and so despotic.
It was a great and unforeseen blessing that Mrs. Moffat returned that night sooner than she intended, and that on her way to Clough Cottage she stopped to leave a message for Nelly Corry. From her she heard of Margaretta's flight from the Hall and the summons back, and without hesitating, she ordered her coachman to drive straight to Northbrook, where her presence gave the greatest possible comfort.
Clasped in her kind arms, Margaretta sobbed out her story, and received the best consolation she could have, until, only a couple of days later, she found herself in those of her mother. Mr. and Mrs. Norland had taken a shorter route home than they at first planned, to avoid a district in which there had been cases of cholera; and on reaching England saw the announcement of Lady Longridge's death in the "Times," so hastened to Northbrook.
No more separations to look forward to. Mother and daughter were united, with no fear of being snatched from each other. Lady Longridge would have wondered, if with mortal eyes she could have seen honest tears falling from those of her daughter-in-law. But the account of those last words, the fact that the old lady had left her wealth to Margaretta, as if to make amends for past harshness, the memory of the sick-bed from which, by God's goodness, she had been raised to renewed health, and perhaps the knowledge that she herself might have been more forbearing, all combined to produce softened feelings in her mind. She was very glad of those words which Thorley repeated in a voice broken by sobs, "You have made me feel as if I wanted to forgive everybody," and the divinely-taught prayer which followed, and which Mrs. Hugh Norland herself said that night as she had never said it before.
No one knew what Thorley had done, or by what a noble act of self-sacrifice she had secured the inheritance for her dear Miss Meg.
They are not parted, for though Thorley at first thought she would have a little home of her own, the tears of her darling induced her to forego her resolution. The same roof covers them, and she who might have inherited Lady Longridge's wealth waits upon the heiress, and is well contented with the legacy which came to her, or indeed would have been content without it.
Margaretta is doubly happy in her present home, for her stepfather is good and wise, and regards her as a sacred charge from his old friend, because she is Sir Philip Longridge's daughter. The girl finds endless pleasure in the little boy who calls her "Sister Meg," and tyrannises over her in baby fashion.
Mrs. Moffat has left Clough Cottage, and resides near the Norlands, so Margaretta, long deprived of her mother's presence, now declares she has two mammas.
Little Nelly Corry's deft fingers are often employed on dear Miss Meg's gowns still, for she, too, has left the neighbourhood of Northbrook Hall, and has a better and prettier home with her mother, rent free, on Mr. Norland's estate.
So we will leave Margaretta, loved and cared for, amid surroundings suitable to her present fortunes, and finding happiness in giving it to others. A holiday story hers is, without a holiday or a hero. But she is young yet, and abundantly contented. Her hero will come in time, and if I happen to know him, I will tell you when a love story begins with dear Miss Meg for its heroine.
"Do be quiet, Jack. I wonder who can read, write, or think, with any hope of satisfactory results, whilst you are turning everything topsy-turvy and rummaging round in such a fashion. What restless plagues lads are, to be sure!"
"And all because a penny is lost, stolen, strayed, or otherwise mislaid. I am sure it is not worth all that fuss," said sister number two, while the young gentleman addressed, no ways affected, continued his search for the missing coin.
There were just the three of them in a cosy room, one of those universally useful apartments which are not too grand for working, studying, or playing in, as the case may be, but in which mothers and their young folk love to congregate. Florence, mostly called Flossie, on account of her lovely hair, which was just one mass of silken locks, was the eldest, and a girl of sixteen. She was generally considered "a little bit blue," being a hard worker at her books, and great in various branches of study unknown to girls when our mothers were at school.
One of the teachers had been heard to call Flossie the prop of her class; whereupon Master Jack, who was very fond of having a sly poke at girls in general, and his sisters in particular, said he had never known such an appropriate name for anybody.
"Floss is not only a prop but a perfect clothes-prop in every position," he said, in allusion to his sister's height, slimness, and length of limb.
At this moment Flossie was studying for an "exam." And, though very fond of her young brother, she did not like to be interrupted by Jack's "rampage" for his lost penny.
Madge, the second girl, though nearly two years younger, was a born housewife; full of motherly instincts, and doting on little children. She was still a child, despite those graver employments and abstruse studies which are supposed to promote the higher education of women in these enlightened days. She had been a doll-worshipper always, and now, at more than fourteen years of age, was the happy possessor of an immense family in wax, wood, cloth, and porcelain. Amongst these she was as busy as was Flossie at her books—furbishing up the whole lot, washing faces, repairing garments, tidying dishevelled locks, and otherwise making the multitude of dolls fit to be seen. Madge had brought down a doll's house, relegated a year before to the garret, and was setting it in order for the amusement of some very small cousins who were expected on the following day.
At first Jack had been helping Madge, but the loss of that precious penny—and a new one, too—had diverted his attention, and in the search for it, he had upset chairs, unmade beds, brought down miniature pictures, to the destruction of those works of art, and brought down upon himself, in addition, the wrath of his younger sister and playmate.
It was amusing to see how the ten-year-old lad's nature seemed compounded of the very opposite characteristics of the girls. At lesson time, he plodded away beside Flossie, who helped him with his declensions, gave him almost too-learned lectures on the beauties of Euclid, and piloted him tenderly across the Pons Asinorum.
At playtime, he entered into Madge's pursuits, believed in the reality of doll families and all their joys and sorrows. He even assisted at their toilettes by dressing the boy juveniles, propriety being duly considered, though under the roof of a doll's house. Madge was playfellow, sister, friend, little mother and comforter to Jack from and before the time he could toddle. Her great grief in those early days was that he would grow, and often was she heard to say, when remarking his progress upwards, "Oh, mamma, won't it be a pity when Jack is grown out of a baby!" He being the youngest of the family, and consequently the darling of all.
Father and mother both rejoiced in the close union among the children, which helped, especially in Madge's case, to keep the girls young—alas! A very difficult matter in these high-pressure days. And Jack had a good deal of quiet humour for a lad of his age. He professed to read Madge like a book, and declared that she made the coming of the little visitors an excuse to have a turn at the dolls, of which she was as fond as ever; moreover, that she still nursed them on the quiet, and caressed them with all the old tenderness when nobody was by, though in company she tried to look as grown-up as dear old Floss, who was, in many ways, nearly as old as Methuselah and as wise as Solomon.
An extra crash amongst the small furniture, and a half-penitent apology from Jack, and then Madge began to scold in earnest.
"I declare, you bad boy, you have undone nearly an afternoon's work, and done many a pennyworth of damage. I'll bring an action against you, Jack, and mamma shall be judge. And here's the porcelain doll that I called after you, and you were pretending to wash, left at the bottom of the bath. Of course it's drowned, for no person could be ten minutes face downwards and under water without being finished off. However, the little ones can play at burying him to-morrow—that's something."
This was too much even for Flossie's gravity. She and Jack burst into a fit of laughing at the idea of the drowned doll and funeral in prospective, in which Madge joined a moment after, despite her endeavours to look aggrieved at the sad consequences of Jack's negligence.
In removing the tin bath Madge discovered the new penny underneath it, and then Jack remembered that he had put it there himself for safety, because both his pockets were in an unsafe condition.
"And no wonder, Jack, considering the loads and loads of rubbish you put in. One of your jackets came from the cleaner's only yesterday, and mamma says it smells oily yet, and all through your carrying lumps of putty in it for weeks together."
Jack pulled a long face, and held out his hand for the recovered coin, which Madge at first refused to deliver up.
"Give me a kiss for it, and say you're sorry for all the fuss and the mischief you have caused," said she.
Madge held out her rosy lip; Jack drew back, shrugged his shoulders, and looked as if he were going to perform an act of penance. He gave the pretty lips a very rapid salute, snatched the coin from Madge, then pulled a wry face and polished his own mouth on the cuff of his coat.
"Is it such a terrible dose, Jack?" asked Madge, with just a suspicion of moisture in the corner of her eye, for she could not bear the young rebel even to pretend anything unloving towards her.
For answer she received a hug that would have been a credit to a Greenland bear, and quite a little shower of kisses from the boy, who added, "You knew it was only for fun, Madge. I would not vex you, dear." And she did, know it.
At this moment mamma came in.
"My dear children, what an untidy room! What! Up to the eyes in dolls and dolls' belongings, Madge. I suppose you are preparing for the small cousins. But I thought by this time the whole establishment would be in order. Flossie, how have you gone on working amid such a racket? What has it been about?"
"Jack's new penny. He lost it, and would not be pacified until at length it was discovered—but not without enough fuss and turmoil to make the room in this state—in the very place where he had himself put it. I offered him another, two others, but nothing save the particular penny would do. As if the loss of a penny were of any consequence."
"It is of consequence," said Jack. "I did not want to lose it. I never like to lose anything, if taking a little trouble will find it. Besides, I don't believe in being beaten when I know the thing must be somewhere about, so I was determined not to give in, until I got my penny back again."
"Right, Jack," said mamma, "and I am very glad your perseverance was rewarded by its recovery. Still, you had no occasion to make the whole room and its contents look as though the place was the scene of a recent earthquake. Flossie, dear, how have you managed to move your elbows? You might be besieged. Let me say to you, dear, also, never undervalue a penny. I once heard a story which told how the future of two lives hung on a single penny."
Flossie's book was closed, and her pen wiped and put away in a moment.
"I have just finished my work, mamma, and am longing for a chat with you by the fireside. Tell us the story about the penny. Do, there's a darling."
Mamma's cosy chair was drawn forward, and a little fireside circle formed instanter. But mamma protested that she never could tell a story in the midst of a litter, so Madge and Jack began to clear away with great rapidity. The girl, who was naturally methodical, put things in their places; the boy made bad worse by the unceremonious fashion in which he huddled the dolls, their clothing and furniture into the miniature mansion, and closed the door upon them.
In her eagerness to hear her mother's story Madge forgot to find fault with Jack, and soon the girls were seated at each side of the family tale-teller, and the lad stretched on the rug at her feet, his upturned, intelligent face lighted by the blaze of the cheerful fire, gas having been vetoed by unanimous consent.
TWENTY years ago two girls might have been seen approaching a London railway-station. They had evidently been on a shopping expedition, for they were quite laden with numbers of small parcels, besides which they had one of considerable bulk, though not very weighty. A glance at their fine, fresh faces and the lovely colour on their cheeks suggested the idea that they were country girls on a visit to the metropolis. Indeed, few persons could have met these girls without giving them a second glance. One, the elder by several years, was unusually tall; but her carriage was equally remarkable for grace and dignity, and her features for almost faultless regularity. No wonder that she attracted some attention amongst the many passers-by.
The younger, a girl of eighteen, was also above the middle height, and although not a beauty like her sister, her face just possessed the charm which was lacking in the other. It beamed with intelligence, and seemed to be the reflection of an active mind, a cheerful temper, and a warm, loving heart.
Even as they passed along, the unselfish character of the younger was made manifest. She insisted on carrying the larger share of the parcels, notably the largest of all, which was evidently a source of considerable annoyance to her beautiful companion, who plainly deemed these packages infra dig. Though surrounded by strangers, she glanced round from time to time, to see if, by any chance, some acquaintance were noticing her, and carried such parcels as she retained by their loops of string and on the tips of her fingers, as if under constant protest.
As they were nearing the station the elder girl said, "I am so glad we are getting near the end of our tramp. You, Lizzie, scarcely seem to care how many bundles you have about you, if you can only carry them; but I hate to go along laden just like a pack-horse, and on a warm day, too. This hot weather makes me look like a washerwoman."
"It would take a great deal to make you look like a washerwoman, Edith," replied Lizzie, with a merry laugh. "I never saw you look better than you do at this moment. I get as red as a peony all over my face, and you are only rose-coloured, and in the proper places. Do touch my face with your handkerchief; for mine is deep down in one of my many pockets, each of which is crammed with odds and ends of purchases."
Mollified by this tribute to her personal appearance, Edith did as she was requested, and the girls, finding they had a quarter of an hour to spare, seated themselves on a shady seat at one side of the platform, on which Lizzie also placed her larger parcels; seeming thankful for the rest.
They were not going home together after all. They were guests in the same house; but they had other friends in the neighbourhood besides those with whom they were staying. Edith, especially, had many acquaintances, amongst whom she had often visited when in London on former occasions, and she was going to spend the evening with an old schoolfellow recently married.
Lizzie, in London for the first time; was a stranger to this married friend of her sister. She had been invited to accompany Edith; but had declined, because had she gone she must have disappointed some quite little children, to whom she considered herself engaged.
"You might have gone with me, Lizzie," said Edith, in a tone of annoyance. "Just as though it mattered for you to romp with those little cousins to-night."
"I had promised the children before Mrs. Martin's invitation came, and these little people feel a disappointment far more than elder ones do. Besides, I know your friend does not really want me, and Sam and Nellie do. She only asked me out of civility to you, and you will enjoy your confab a great deal better by yourselves. Even if Mrs. Martin did want me, a promise is a promise, and I must keep my word."
A slight look of contempt crossed Edith's fair face as Lizzie announced her intention of keeping her appointment with the little people, but she felt that, after all, her frank young sister might be rather in the way than otherwise, on the principle that two are company, three none. She was rather reckoning on an hour's tête-à-tête with Mrs. Martin, who had been her chosen school friend, and as whose bridesmaid she had officiated a few months before. Mr. Martin and his brother would be in to dinner at six, and then there would be two couples for chatting, and perhaps a stroll together, before she should have to return to her temporary home, and rejoin Lizzie there.
Edith did not say aloud what was passing through her mind. Her reply was, "Of course you cannot go with me now, as you have not dressed for the purpose, and I was certain you would go back to those children in any case. But you will have to take every one of the parcels and my umbrella. It will not matter, as you take the train directly, and you can have a cab from the station."
"Oh no, I can manage very well. But, Edith, you forget. I have no money left. You must give me some."
"And I have very little; only five and sixpence. I cannot go to Mrs. Martin's without anything in my pocket. If you had not persisted in buying that Shetland shawl to-day we should have had plenty and to spare, and if you had let the shop people send it, we need not have gone about laden like two excursionists."
"We are excursionists," laughed Lizzie. "Haven't we got special tickets for this very trip? As to the shawl, it was so exactly what mamma has been trying to obtain, that I felt we ought not to risk losing it. I care nothing about carrying it, for though it makes rather a large parcel, it is very light, and I shall have the pleasure of forwarding it to mamma at once. Besides, Edith, you bought several little things for yourself after I had spoken for the shawl."
Lizzie felt just a little bit hurt at her sister's reproof, for Edith's purchases, which had nearly drained her purse, were all for her own personal adornment, and helped very considerably to increase the load which she declined to share. The shawl would add greatly to the comfort of their rather delicate mother, who needed one which would combine warmth with extreme lightness, and who had begged the girls to send one from London with as little delay as possible.
Edith insisted that in such roasting hot weather, the shawl could not be of any consequence. Lizzie's great desire was to execute her mother's commission, and to keep her promise.
Again the girl reminded her elder sister of her own moneyless condition. "However the cash has gone, Edith, it is gone, and I suppose the railway people will not give me a ticket for nothing. You must spare me something in the shape of a coin. I will do with as little as possible. I can pay the cabman from my money at home."
"The fare is only fourpence," said Edith, taking out her purse and abstracting the only small coin in it. "I suppose this sixpence will do. By the bye, it is my train that goes at the quarter; yours is at the half-hour, so you will have to wait by yourself."
A moment after the first train glided in, and, after a brief pause, carried Edith away with it.
In spite of the heat, Lizzie, who had only lunched after a very mild fashion at a confectioner's, and who had the vigorous appetite of a healthy girl, began to feel excessively hungry. It seemed impossible for her to endure another quarter of an hour at the station and the short railway journey and cab drive without having something in the shape of food to sustain her.
So, taking up her load, she moved towards a refreshment room and procured a bun. A wistful little face, with hollow eyes, was peering at her through the open doorway and gazing longingly at the food.
Ever sensitive to the call of need, the warm-hearted girl rose and handed the untasted bun to the famished-looking lad, who had hardly time to make a rude nod and utter thank ye' before one of the porters gave him a gentle push, and said, "Come, youngster, get out o' this. We can't do with beggars in the station."
The child, only too glad to escape, was off like an arrow, and Lizzie sat down to discuss another bun in the place of the one she had given away. She then paid her twopence, and was going out of the refreshment room with a very unsatisfied feeling when she suddenly remembered that she had just another penny loose in a small outside jacket pocket. This time she chose a different kind of bun, and when she had eaten it found, to her horror, that the price of it was twopence, and that when it was paid for she would not have sufficient money left to purchase her railway-ticket.
Lizzie picked up her parcels and went out of the refreshment room, feeling half-perplexed, half-amused at the position in which she found herself. "What would mamma think if she knew that I was wandering about here at a railway-station in London, and with only three-pence in my pocket? Actually unable to go on my way for want of a penny. What shall I do for two more halfpennies? Poor mamma! She would fancy all kinds of horrors—that I should be kidnapped, perhaps, for she seemed to think that Edith ought to keep me close at her side under all circumstances. Five minutes to train time. Something must be done."
What Lizzie did was to indulge in a hearty laugh first of all, and whilst these thoughts were passing through her mind. The next thing was to go towards the window, at which a boy-clerk was giving out tickets. The boy was looking excessively cross, and he did his work in a morose fashion, without uttering a word, unless compelled to reply to a question, which he did as briefly as possible. The fact was he had made a mistake in giving change to a passenger early in the day, and had been obliged to make up the deficiency out of his own pocket, in accordance with rules.
Lizzie explained her position to this youngster, after peeping over his shoulder to see if there was any older person in the office to whom she might appeal.
"Can't help it. Ticket's fourpence," was the sullen reply.
"But I have told you I am just a penny short. If you will let me have a ticket, I will leave something with you worth many shillings. This silk umbrella, my silver pencil-case, or one of my parcels. You can look inside."
For a moment the sullen face relaxed; but no, the young clerk was in a savage mood, and determined to revenge himself on all the other passengers who might come to him for the dishonesty of that one who had gone off with more than his lawful change. He therefore shook his head, and gruffly said, "Booking-offices are not pawnshops."
No other reply could Lizzie get, and she turned from the little window with a slight quiver of the lip, which told of a little sinking of the heart at the thought of her predicament. To add to her discomfort, the train by which she should have gone on, came in and went without her. There would be another in a few minutes; after that a very long interval. She must make an effort to obtain a penny, if she even begged for it. She was far too tired to walk the weary miles between her and home, had she known the way, and it would be a very expensive cab ride. Edith would certainly scold her roundly if she were to use that mode of conveyance. She must not think of it.
Glancing along the platform, Lizzie saw a lady and a gentleman sauntering slowly towards her, arm-in-arm. The thought crossed her mind that a lady would be sure to help a girl like herself out of such an unexpected dilemma, and she accordingly advanced towards the couple, and, in as few words as possible, explained her position, and simply asked for the gift of a penny.
To Lizzie's utter astonishment, the lady turned on her a hard, searching glance. Then looking up at her husband she said, while her lip was curled contemptuously, "Do you believe this absurd story?"
The gentleman did not answer, but Lizzie often remembered, in after days, the deprecating glance which he cast on his wife, though he seemed afraid to suggest that, after all, the "absurd story" might be true.
His companion did not hesitate long.
"I do not believe a word of your tale," she said in a harsh voice. "It is most unlikely that a person of your dress and appearance should be really in need of a penny. I suspect there is some trick in this application. Go away. I shall give you nothing."
After another searching look, first at Lizzie, then at her husband, which seemed to ask if there were any acquaintance between them, she turned away, the hard expression still on her face. Lizzie stood for a moment, as if petrified with astonishment, and then, utterly overcome with pain and mortification, she burst into tears, and once more took her seat on the bench where she had rested before.
At this crisis of the story there was a unanimous burst of indignation from mamma's three listeners. Flossie could hardly believe it possible that a woman could be so horrid. Jack wished he could punch the boy at the booking-office, and Madge lifted her sympathetic blue eyes, all moist with tears, and asked "if the story were real, or only make-believe?"
"Absolutely true," replied mamma.
"Were you the girl without a penny?" inquired Jack, who had a way of connecting his mother with all her stories, and who insisted that she was like all the nice heroines.
"No, Jack. I never was placed in such a strait. But I regret to say I must leave Lizzie in it, for I hear your father's step. You must wait till to-morrow for another chapter."
THE young people were careful to have their room in a state of very unusual order on the following afternoon when their mother entered to spend the twilight hour with them and to continue her story. The small cousins were too much occupied with the many treasures of the doll's house to be much in the way.
"Go on as quickly as you can, mother," said Jack. "It seemed horrid to leave poor Lizzie and her parcels at that station last night, and crying, too, for want of a penny. I wish I had been there; I would have carried all her biggest parcels, and given her my new penny that Flossie thought of so little consequence last night."
"If it had not been lost past recovery, through the hole in your pocket, Jack," remarked Madge, the housewife. "But there is this about dear old Jack: his sympathy means something, and he will help as well as talk if there is anything he can do."
"I am sure of that," said mamma.
We will go back twenty years, and to Lizzie Northcote. I think I only told you her Christian name last night. Probably if she had spoken to one of the porters, he would have helped her out of the trifling difficulty; but the girl naturally spoke first to a lady, as the least likely to refuse her request. She was wiping away the tears which the coarse refusal had brought into her eyes, when, on looking up, she noticed a stout, ruddy-faced country gentleman observing her attentively. He had been about the station almost as long as herself, and appeared to be waiting for someone. He was a man in the full vigour of life and health, though his crisp hair was tinged with gray, and in his face there was a fatherly expression that reminded Lizzie of her own dear parent in their Lincolnshire home.
She was about making up her mind to speak to him, when he addressed her. "What is your trouble, dear child?" said he. "Anything I can do for you? You need not be afraid to speak; I have had children of my own, and still have one dear lass about your age. I wish her cheeks were half as rosy as yours."
There was a tinge of sadness about the last words, but there was no mistaking the manly, sympathetic ring of that kindly voice. Lizzie felt that she had found the friend she wanted, and she told her story in a few words, but did not ask her listener for a penny. There was no need to do that. Almost before she had finished, his hand was in his pocket, as he asked the name of the station at which she wished to alight; and, as soon as he knew it, he went to the booking-window, obtained a ticket, and placed it in the girl's hand.
"I don't know how to thank you enough," she said, half-laughing, half-crying. "It seemed so absurd to be kept here for want of a penny—to become a beggar for it, and to be refused, when I had the worth of so much money about me."
"Do not thank me at all, my child," said the gentleman. "But may I ask whether you sought help from the lady to whom you spoke?"
Lizzie's face flushed as she told how rudely she had been repulsed.
"Poor thing!—I don't mean you, child; I mean the fossil in female attire whom you mistook for a woman with a heart in her bosom. Depend on it she never held a little prattling girl of her own in her arms, as I have done. Now, will you take another shilling or two, in case of further emergency?"
"No, thank you; indeed I want nothing more. I should like to send back what you have lent me in stamps, if you will kindly give me your address."
The gentleman laughed merrily at the idea of receiving the trifle back again, and said, "Tell that handsome sister of yours I saw you both long before you saw me; that she must never leave you again with such a narrow margin of cash, especially if there is a refreshment stall close at hand, and a ragged urchin to assist you in eating the buns."
"I was very hungry," said Lizzie, with a good hearty laugh, "and my second bun was the cause of all my trouble."
"Not the boy's share; eh?"
"Certainly not. If I had been contented with one bun, all would have been well."
"Here is your train coming in," said the friend in need. "Let me hand in your parcels."
He saw her comfortably placed, closed the door of the carriage, and lifted his hat by way of farewell.
The train went slowly forward, and Lizzie, as she waved her hand in reply, saw the kindly stranger extend his own to a tall young man who was stepping eagerly towards him just as he turned away from the carriage.
"No doubt," thought she, "he has been waiting all this time for that new-comer who stepped up in such a hurry. A happy thing for me that he did not come sooner, and carry off my kind gentleman before I had time to receive his help. I wish I knew his name; I am sure papa would like to thank him for his goodness to me."
At this moment Lizzie noticed what she at first thought was a letter amongst her parcels. She snatched it hastily, fearing that the unknown had left something of consequence behind him; but she found it was only an empty envelope addressed, "Percival Long, Esq., Elin Crag, Belford Regis." Naturally she did little else but wonder whether this could be the name she wished so much to know. At any rate she resolved to take care of the envelope, and deposited it at the very bottom of her pocket.
The brief railway journey was soon over, and a cab speedily landed Lizzie at her cousin's house, where she received a rapturous welcome from her smaller relatives, who were beginning to think their playmate had forgotten her promise. As a matter of course, she had to obtain money for her cab-fare before she could dismiss the man. Her cousin supplied this at once, saying, "Do not trouble to go into your room to fetch it, Lizzie. But, my dear girl, you should not run your purchases within a shilling or two of your cash."
"I have done worse than that," said Lizzie. "I have not only been within a penny, but without one this afternoon. It is lucky I escaped being taken up for begging at a railway-station."
Without implicating Edith or letting her cousin Ellen know how scanty was the margin over and above her railway-fare which her sister had given her, Lizzie gave a ludicrous account of her recent troubles and of the manner in which she had been relieved.
Helen was horrified, and began to concern herself about Edith's pecuniary resources.
"Edith is all right. She has enough, and, besides, she is with an old friend who would supply her wants. We are thorough country folk, Helen, and we had so enjoyed the shops and the buying all sorts of nice little things, without considering that unlimited expenditure was leading us straight to bankruptcy. I should have done well enough but for my greediness in eating two buns instead of making one do. However, I am quite ready for that delightful meal—a knife and fork tea—which you promised me. I ate the buns 'without prejudice,' as the lawyers say, and beg you will not remember those items when you see me feeding. You alluded to roast fowl, I think, and my nose suggests fried ham. I must not lose another moment."
Gathering up her gloves and other minor belongings, the girl ran up-stairs, and soon returned, bright, fresh, and smiling, in her pretty cool muslin dress. But if anyone had peeped into her room they would have seen that a portion of her time there had been spent on her knees. She had knelt to acknowledge an answered prayer; for, in her brief trouble, she had lifted up her heart to God to ask Him for help, and she now thanked Him as heartily for having sent her just the assistance and the friend she needed.
Lizzie's hostess had no occasion to complain that her young cousin failed to appreciate the tea-table dainties, or the little people that she was a less lively companion than usual. It was only when even they confessed themselves too tired to play any longer that Lizzie at length sat down to enjoy a much-needed rest.
The weary girl had forgotten self in her desire to keep her promise and minister to the pleasure of the children, who little knew what the effort cost her.
Edith returned sooner than was expected. Her cousin was not in the room when she entered, so did not hear the exclamation, "Oh, Lizzie I am most thankful to see you safe at home."
"Where did you expect to see me, Edie?"
"To say the truth I have been quite uncomfortable about you. I had scarcely left the station and you on the platform when I thought how little money I had just given you, and how selfish I had been all the day through, as we had gone about together. You thought of mamma, of me, of everybody but yourself; and I, Lizzie! I feel ashamed when I remember that I considered no person's convenience but my own, and that every purchase I made was a selfish one. I did not even care about getting that shawl for dear mamma!"
"Well, dear, it was got, and Helen was kind enough to make it up in a nice large pasteboard box, and send it off to the parcels office. I hope mamma will receive it to-morrow."
"No thanks to me!" said Edith.
"It went as from both," replied Lizzie. "You may be sure of that, Edie. Now, tell me, have you enjoyed your evening?"
"Nora—Mrs. Martin—was delighted to see me, and I found her husband exceedingly kind and agreeable."
"And his brother, the young groomsman?" asked Lizzie, with an arch smile.
Edith would not appear to understand the insinuation; but only replied that all the Martins were as nice as usual.
"But," she added, "I must tell you, Lizzie, what spoiled the evening for me. We had two other guests who came later than I did, and quite unexpectedly. The gentleman is a distant relative of Mr. Martin's, and is agreeable enough; but his wife is Nora's aversion. She is a dreadful person: so cold, hard, unsympathetic, and besides so fond of saying sharp things without the least regard to the feelings of others that she spoils everybody's comfort. She told a story, and she looked, I thought, only at me whilst she related it, about a well-dressed young lady who had asked her for the gift of a penny at a railway-station. 'And fancy,' she said, 'I had seen the creature gorging herself with sweets in the refreshment room only the moment before. I told her plainly that she was an impostor, though I have no doubt George would have opened his purse to her had he been alone.'"
"I could not get rid of the idea that you were the young lady, Lizzie; and when she named the place and described the girl I felt sure of it. All my selfishness flashed across my mind. I remembered how I had hurried you about your lunch—far less substantial than my own; loaded you with my parcels; and left you with not even money enough to obtain proper refreshment, when you must have been both hungry and weary. I thought, too, that I might grow to be like that hard, cold-hearted woman who seemed so devoid of common feeling, and I could not endure even the fancied picture. I was too unhappy to stay at Mrs. Martin's as long as I intended, and nothing ever rejoiced me more than to find you here safe and sound."
As Edith spoke she threw her arms round her sister's neck and kissed her affectionately.
Lizzie returned the caress with all the warm sisterly love that was part of her sweet feminine character. Further conversation was, however, prevented by the entrance of Cousin Helen, who announced that her lively little ones were at length sleeping peacefully, from the baby upwards. She jestingly alluded to Lizzie's adventure, and was surprised to observe the effect her joke had upon Edith, and to hear the latter frankly acknowledge how much she had been to blame.
Lizzie turned the conversation as quickly as possible, and no more was said about the matter. The cousins passed the last hour before bed-time in talk about mutual friends and relatives, and the expected return of Helen's husband on the morrow.
When the two sisters were in their own room, Edith had something more to say.
"Does it not seem strange that so little a thing should make me feel so differently, both about myself and you, Lizzie? I have always had an idea that you, as younger sister, ought to give up your will to mine, and as though things which mattered for me were of no consequence to you; as though the best was my due always, and that—"
"Don't say another word, Edith. I have always been glad for you to have the best. You set off pretty things far more than I do."
"Ah, Lizzie, darling! It was good in you to give up; but it was not good in me to take the best. I can see to-night, as I never did before, how much I may learn from you, little sister."
"I am certain your feeling in this way towards me is an answer to dear mamma's prayers, Edie. People have always petted and admired you, dear, and I'm sure I do, as much as anybody," said frank Lizzie, looking with genuine admiration into the face of her tall, handsome sister, who had probably never in her life looked so lovely and lovable as she did at that moment. "And so much praise is not quite a help towards keeping us humble. Luckily for me, I am never very much admired, except by old women and little children."
"And that is because your kind heart and willing hands are always devising and doing something for their happiness. You must help me to deserve love; and let us work together."
"As a beginning, let us pray together, Edie, to fit us for our work."
If the mother of those two kneeling girls could have looked into their room that summer night she would have been filled with joy and praise, and would have thanked God for an answered prayer.
From that time a new bond existed between the sisters. They were united by closer ties than that of kindred, being sisters in Christ.
"I SUPPOSE," said Flossie, when the story was resumed on the third afternoon, "that the two lives influenced through the want of a penny were those of Edith and Lizzie. I did not like Edith in the least when she left her sister in such a way, but I do like her now."
Mamma smiled at her daughter's earnestness, and replied, "Those two lives were lastingly influenced; but there is something more to be told. You must not want to know the end of the story until it comes to you in due course. There is no peeping at the last page or two when you are listening to a tale-teller, as some impatient readers do when they are professing to read a story, just to know how it ends. To continue mine:"
The girls had a few more happy days with their relatives, during which everyone noticed the increased unity between the sisters. Probably the effect produced on Edith would have passed away, but for that closer bond of which I spoke to you. The habit of united prayer and of seeking counsel from God's Word together was not given up by the girls, consequently there was spiritual growth, and each influenced the other for good.
Edith had refined tastes and persevering industry. Lizzie, with all her warm-heartedness and self-devoting disposition, was often too impulsive, besides being far less orderly and methodical than her elder sister. So each benefited the other, and was herself improved by communion of work and interests.
Lizzie showed her sister the envelope which she had found amongst her parcels, and the two after due deliberation decided on addressing a few grateful lines to Percival Long, Esq., nothing doubting that he was the fatherly gentleman who had been so kind. The letter did not come back, and; on the other hand, there was no reply. So the sisters were left in doubt as to whether it had reached the right person or had been received by a stranger, to whom its contents would prove enigmatical.
Two or three days before the girls were to have returned to their country home they received an unexpected summons which caused their immediate departure.
Mrs. Northcote was again laid on a bed of sickness, and needed the presence of her daughters.
Perhaps Edith's filial affection had never before been so severely tested. Her "young groomsman," as Lizzie named Mr. Henry Martin, had accompanied his sister-in-law when she called upon the Northcote girls at "Cousin Helen's." Nothing loth, they had accepted the hearty invitation to stay the evening, and during the remainder of the time that Edith and Lizzie remained in London scarcely a day passed without their seeing each other. Nora, the young wife, had as yet few household cares, and could devote much of her time to the country sisters. She was delighted to have the company of her own school friend, and charmed with her bright, unaffected younger sister. Mr. Henry Martin managed, probably through the sympathetic consideration of his elder brother and partner, to be much less occupied than usual. So pleasant little parties were formed for sight-seeing and little excursions in and about London, which were thoroughly enjoyed by all the individual members thereof.
And in the midst of all this enjoyment came the sorrowful summons to call Edith and Lizzie home. There had been some talk of Lizzie's returning alone before the news arrived telling of Mrs. Northcote's illness. Nora was anxious for both the girls to spend a few days with her at the termination of their visit to Cousin Helen. That Edith wished to accept the invitation there could be no doubt; but Lizzie, while equally anxious for her sister to enjoy a longer stay, had herself decided to return home.
"I do not think we ought both to stay away from mamma," she said; "but if she has one of us, that will suffice for the time, Edie. I will go. You shall stay. The visit to Nora is more to you than it could possibly be to me."
The rising flush on Edith's cheek told that she felt the truth of her sister's words. She made no reply in words; but she bent lovingly towards Lizzie and kissed the bright kind face, the expression of which was one of the most hearty sympathy. The silent caress, the pressure of hands, said more than words. It was in the evening of that day, when Edith had decided, with her mother's consent, to accept Nora's invitation, that the girls received the sorrowful news from home.
There was no doubt that Mr. Henry Martin had been greatly struck with Edith from the time of his brother's marriage, when she officiated as first bridesmaid, and he as groomsman. Her remarkable beauty, her refined manners, her taste, combined with perfect neatness in dress, had all struck him as far beyond what he had ever seen in combination. But while these outside attractions were admirable in their way, he felt they were not all that would be needed to ensure domestic happiness. He feared that Edith prided herself too much on her beauty, and was apt not only to expect homage on account of it, but to undervalue others who did not possess it in the same degree.
"I could not endure a vain, selfish, and self-asserting woman," thought he to himself; "one who would only value a man's honest affection in accordance with the doses of flattery he might administer, or the means which he might place at her disposal for the indulgence of taste in dress or love of display. I want a helpmeet, such as God intended woman to be when He gave her to the man whom He had formed. If only Edith Northcote's inner qualities corresponded to her beautiful person, I would endeavour to win her affections. But, whatever else I have in a partner for life, I must try to choose one who will help and not hinder me on the heavenward road."
Probably few persons knew the depth and earnestness of Henry Martin's character, or guessed that what they did see and admire was only the fruit of lessons learned at the feet of Jesus. In society everyone said of him that he was a finished gentleman; so kind, so unselfish, so modest, thinking for the comfort of all whilst regardless of his own. As a lawyer, the clients who consulted the firm could never speak too highly of the unflinching uprightness of the younger brother, though one plain-spoken old gentleman, with a sad lack of the courtesy which distinguished Henry Martin, told him to his face, "Sir, you are as obstinate as a mule. You are not fit for a lawyer. Your business is to win my case for me by using every weapon the law will allow, whether I am right or wrong, provided I pay the bill."
"Then," replied Henry, "I fear I am not fit to be a lawyer, for I cannot fight feeling that I ought to lose the battle, and that if it were won it would be because your purse is long enough to carry the case from court to court, whilst your antagonist, a poor man, would be ruined at the end of the first stage. I could and did fight on your side once, but then you were in the right."
The irascible old gentleman was won over by these words to reconsider his intended action, and to see its injustice. More than that, his really generous nature was stirred to seek a reconciliation with the opponent, who had once been his friend, and a lasting reunion was the result.
He still told Henry Martin in jest that he was not fit to be a lawyer, but he never failed to throw business in the way of the firm, and in the young man's ear a voice seemed to whisper the sweet words, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."
"Child of God." Yes, that was the title to which Henry Martin aspired, and the fellow Christian who saw his daily life felt that such fruit could only spring from the good seed which had taken root in an honest and good heart through the influence of the Holy Spirit.
There were poor homes, too, in which Henry was a well-known visitor; whose presence brought sunshine and comfort, both to soul and body. He strove to live, not to himself, but for the good of others, and to the glory of the Master whom he professed to serve. Many wondered that at thirty years of age he was still unmarried, but this peep into his inner life will sufficiently explain the reason. He sought one who would be at least like-minded with himself, and at the same time his habits and tastes were too refined to admit of companionship with a partner who lacked these characteristics, however excellent in other respects.
In Edith Northcote, he found every external charm, and he was now watching closely, to discover if the still more important qualities were also to be found in her. He was also watchful over his own conduct, and, whilst kindness itself towards both the Northcotes, he was most careful to conceal the deeper interest with which Edith had inspired him.
Nora, with feminine quick-sightedness, guessed something of what was in his mind, and joked him about her fair friend.
"You must not be an old bachelor, Henry," she said. "And where would you find a handsomer wife than Edith?"
"If beauty were all," said he, laughing.
"Beauty is not all with Edith," she replied, warming in defence of her friend. "She comes of a good stock; her father has abundant means, if that mattered to you, and the whole family are deservedly respected. And then how tasteful she is! Her appearance would adorn any home, even with a master as fastidious as yourself. She has charming taste, and would be as ornamental as any man could desire, provided his means were sufficiently large to gratify her wishes in the way of dress, and Edith is one of the least extravagant people I know. She combines economy with taste. I only wish I looked half as well-dressed by spending twice the money. Both she and Lizzie are splendid housekeepers, too. They have given me many a hint since they came to London, which I hope to profit by. What else could a man want?"
"There is still one thing needful, Nora, and I hope to find that in the girl I ask to be my wife, or I must be an old bachelor."
"I know what you mean, Henry, and if you had asked me whether Edith possessed it, I should have said, 'She is very dear to me; but I do not think she is all you mean in that respect.' Lately, I have noticed a great difference. Not that her words have told much; but there is a softened manner, an increased thoughtfulness for others. I can hardly express all I mean; but it seems to me that where Edith would once have put herself before others, she now puts others before herself. She used rather to snub Lizzie, too; now she loves to speak of her sister's good qualities, and of all she, 'stately Edith,' owes to her influence and example. Lizzie is a good girl all through; but for all that, Henry, I should love to have Edith in the family."
"Because you like her better; but then you see, to me, it is of consequence that I should like her better."
Henry left his sister-in-law still in the dark about his feelings towards her friend; but he was looking forward to seeing Edith when she should be Nora's guest. The letter from home, however, deranged his plan. He saw the faces of the sisters pale at the news, and heard Lizzie's prompt words, as she rose from her seat:
"I must prepare at once. Would it be possible to travel to-night?"
"We must prepare, dear," said Edith. "I do not think we can go to-night. Indeed, Harold's letter expressly states that there is no danger, and that papa does not wish us to leave London before the 9.15 train, which is express, and will arrive as soon as the one that starts earlier. This is an attack similar to others which have tried mamma so sadly for years, and we must be with her as soon as possible."
"Could I not go, Edie, and leave you to finish your visit to Nora, as we had arranged? If there were the least sign of danger you should be sent for."
"That is like you, Lizzie, to take the watching and anxiety, and wish to leave me the pleasure. Of course, I had reckoned on my visit to Nora; but it must not be thought of now. We must go together, dear; though," she added, "Lizzie is worth twice as much in a sick-room as I am."
The words were simply said, but they touched Henry Martin deeply; and his sister replied to them: "We shall be very sorry to lose you both, and are specially sorry for the cause of your going. But I trust Mrs. Northcote may soon recover her strength, and then we shall look forward to a still longer visit, and from Lizzie as well as yourself, Edith."
Henry himself added, "You are right to go with your sister, Miss Northcote. Now, would you like to send a telegram to your brother?"
"I should indeed."
"Tell me the exact address and the message you wish conveyed, and I will take it myself."
Edith did so, and Henry put it into few words, read it aloud, and then took it to the office.
The girls lost no time in making their preparations, and on the following morning were speeding on their homeward way. Early as it was, Henry Martin was at the Great Northern station to see them start, and to bring another farewell from Nora, and a request for immediate intelligence of their arrival and frequent news of Mrs. Northcote.
It had cost Edith something to give up the visit to Mrs. Martin, on which she had reckoned so much; for old habits, particularly selfish ones, are not to be rooted out all at once. Only a very short time before, she would have hesitated and considered if it were possible for her to send Lizzie home alone, and for herself to follow a little later.
Happily, Lizzie's prompt example and the voice of conscience pointed out the proper course; and the strength to do right for which she had asked on her knees was given her. And now, as the train was carrying her rapidly homeward, Edith felt happy, apart from the anxiety on account of her mother; for conscience spoke approvingly, and the words of one whose approbation she had learned to value, "You are right to go with your sister," still seemed to sound in her ear.
Mamma paused, then added, "I shall finish my story to-morrow, children; but I must leave you now."
"We can guess the ending," interposed Madge; and the others nodded, in a confident fashion, as if they, too, knew all about it.
"And we know what two lives were influenced as regarded their future by that penny."
Mamma only laughed, and saying, "Do not be too sure," retreated without further comment.
WHEN the sisters arrived at home they were doubly thankful that they had lost no time in setting out. They found Mrs. Northcote's illness was of a much more serious character than the letter had led them to anticipate. The filial love and self-devotion of both the girls would be tested to the utmost, and it must be owned that Mr. Northcote and his sons doubted much whether these qualities in Edith's case would stand the strain.
But soon all who were in the house, and none more than the invalid mother, became sensible of the change that had begun in the elder daughter. Perhaps nothing tries the mettle that the young are made of more than sickness in a house. When not actually engaged in attendance on the sufferer, there is the unnatural quiet in the home, the necessity for excluding visitors, abstaining from outdoor social intercourse, and the impossibility of indulging in the usual merry games. The burst of song which springs to the young lips must be hushed, the piano remain closed, for fear of disturbing the invalid. Even the innocent jest, which might provoke a laugh, is suppressed; because laughter has a heartless sound when pain shuts out those we love from sharing in it.
At first Edith found all these things hard to bear with perfect submission. But she loved her mother, and love is all-constraining. Lizzie and she acted in a delightful concert, which none had ever seen to exist between them before, and it astonished all to find how willing the elder was to learn from the younger. When, at length, the crisis had passed, and the minds of the watchers were relieved by the invalid's gradual approach towards convalescence, Edith found how great a blessing to herself had been the needful discipline of those sorrowful weeks. How sweet it was to feel her mother's arm around her neck and to hear her say:
"I can thank God for every day of pain and sickness, my darling; for this illness has shown me that in you I have a treasure of which I never before saw all the value."
"It was not there, dear mamma," was the girl's answer. "I have been dreadfully selfish and careless of other people nearly all my life—even of you—but lately I have been led to see myself in a new light. I do long to be all that you think me, dear mamma; and if I am better, Lizzie has been the instrument, in God's hands, of helping me."
What a precious confession was this! And when the mother knew yet more of her child's inward struggles against evil, and the united daily prayers of the sisters for blessing and strength from above, her cup of happiness was filled to overflowing.
It must not be supposed that the girls had forgotten their promise to keep Nora fully informed of all that passed during their mother's illness. It is hardly needful to say that, through Mrs. Martin, her brother-in-law shared in the correspondence. Generous-hearted Lizzie did not know how to say enough of Edith's devotion to her mother, and Edith let her friend into the secret of the change, and told what her young sister's example had done for herself. The letters between the friends had always been unrestrained, and now the correspondence was not without its influence on the young wife in London, for through it she was led to realise her responsibilities as she had never done before. So true is it that "no man—" that is, no one of the human race—"liveth to himself alone."
Nora often wondered whether, after all, anything would come of the acquaintance between her brother-in-law and Edith; but during all Mrs. Northcote's illness, he made no sign. When the better tidings came, he received them with manifest pleasure, and that same evening he spent an unusual time at his writing table in the library. When he joined Nora, he held a single letter in his hand, and she jokingly told him, if that were the extent of his correspondence, he must have been asleep, or the letter of vast importance.
"It is of vast importance. I have been writing to Edith. A love-letter—my first, Nora, and a very sober one; but I hope it will bring much happiness."
Truly, the letter which, on the morrow, was placed in the hands of Miss Northcote, The Manor House, Haltham, Lincolnshire, was, in one sense, a sober one. Believing that he could do so with the certainty of sympathy, he told Edith of the deep feelings of his heart, his desire to find in the woman he loved one who would share his higher aspirations, and join in his work for God's glory, and the good of those around them. He acknowledged the feeling of admiration which she had from the first inspired, and the reason why he had hesitated to let this be seen. There was much more in the letter than can be related at length.
Enough to say that, as Edith read it, a glad flush spread on her cheeks—paler than usual through much watching—and, as happy tears coursed down them, she murmured, "If I were only good enough to deserve the affection of one like Henry Martin!"
The Northcote family generally were quite satisfied to believe that Edith would now be a treasure to any good man. Henry Martin's character, age, and position were all suitable, and the girl's blushing face told the loving mother that his many excellences had won her daughter's affection and respect. The answer to that "sober letter" was evidently all that its writer desired, for he said to his sister, "Congratulate me, Nora. I hope soon to call Edith my wife."
"And congratulate me," said lively Mrs. Martin, hardly knowing whether to laugh or cry, to show her sympathy; "for my brother-in-law is giving me my dearest friend as a sister."
There was, of course, further correspondence between Mr. Northcote and his son-in-law elect, but all of a pleasant character. Henry was to spend Christmas and New Year at the Manor House, for that season was close at hand. Nora and her husband could not join the happy gathering, for on Christmas Eve their first baby opened her blue eyes to the light, and they were rejoicing in their tiny treasure.
No person who looked at Henry and Edith could help saying how well they matched each other. They were naturally almost inseparable during that happy holiday time, for, as Henry said, "their actual love-making was terribly in arrears. In fact, it had all to be done. Did you ever think I cared so much for you when we used to meet last summer, Edith?" he asked.
"You did not show special regard for me, and you were so kind to everybody. Sometimes I thought you liked me better than others, and then, when I felt how little there really was in me for anyone to love, I was just as certain that I was mistaken. Still, seeing you what you were, Henry, made me wish to deserve a higher, better affection than any external attractions could win or keep."
"Ah, dearest, you will find me just as much in need of improvement as you deem yourself! But we will be learners together from the same Divine Teacher. Do you remember the night when you received news of your mother's illness?"
"Can I ever forget it?" said Edith, with deep feeling. "It was a turning-point in my life."
"More than you knew. And in mine also; for, dear Edith, had you then selfishly hesitated, or decided on sending your sister home to undertake alone the work which it was alike your duty and privilege to share, I should never have sought you as my wife. And," he added, "neither should I have sought another; but my sister-in-law's oft-repeated prophecy would have been fulfilled by my remaining a hopeless bachelor."
Time went happily on, and the sisters, accompanied by their mother and brother, were again in London, making preparations for Edith's wedding. By the girl's own wish, the arrangements were to be simple, but tasteful, as all to which she put her hand was sure to be. Still, a great many purchases had to be made; and, above all, a home had to be selected for the young couple within a few miles of London.
House-hunting is a most fatiguing business, and occupies a great deal of time, especially near the great metropolis. Before starting on a tour of inspection, Lizzie was running over the advertisements in the paper.
"Here is one that sounds likely," she said, and she ran through the particulars. "And at Belford Regis, too. How singular! Mamma, do let us go and look at the place."
"Belford Regis," said Henry. "A delightful neighbourhood. Have you been there, Lizzie?"
"No, but I have a particular wish to go." She looked at Edith, and the intelligent glance she received in return showed Mrs. Northcote that there must be some mental association with Belford Regis. Amid a good deal of laughing, the story was told, and as Mrs. Northcote said, she for the first time became aware that one of her daughters had once begged for the gift of a penny at a railway-station.
"Let us go to Belford Regis by all means," echoed Henry and Harold Northcote. "Perhaps we shall have a sequel to Lizzie's adventure, or find out whether Mr. Percival Long was her unknown friend."
The proposition was carried unanimously, and the party set out. Arrived at their journey's end, they first inquired the way to the house they had come to examine. This one of the railway-porters told them, and then Lizzie eagerly asked, "Is there a Mr. Long living in this neighbourhood?"
"Yes, ma'am, and no better-known or better-liked gentleman anywhere," was the reply.
"What age is he, do you suppose? I want to find out if he is an acquaintance of mine."
"About fifty-five, I should think. He has only one child living—a daughter; such a one for age and height as you, miss, I should think, and a sweet young lady. You will pass his place—Elfin Crag, they call it—on your way to the house you have been asking about. You are likely enough to meet him on the way, as he is often out walking with his daughter. You see she has no ma living, and that makes them so much together."
Lizzie popped a gratuity into the hand of her informant, which made the man wonder what he had done to deserve it, and then hurried off at such a speed that her mother was fain to plead her inability to follow within any reasonable distance.
"I beg your pardon, mamma. I felt quite excited. We shall see that dear, kind face, for I am sure this is my Mr. Long."
Harold begged that she would not be in such a hurry to appropriate the elderly widower, and received a hint to be silent in the shape of a little fist shaken threateningly. But, sure enough, they did meet the porter's Mr. Long, who turned out to be also Lizzie's "Percival Long, Esq.," with his daughter hanging on his arm. He opened his eyes very wide as he caught sight of Lizzie, then saying, "Mildred, this is my young friend, Miss Lizzie Northcote, whose acquaintance I made under peculiar circumstances," he extended his hand to Lizzie, and shook hers heartily.
"Can you forgive me, my dear, for not answering your little letter? It came when this child, my Milly, was at death's door, and it got thrown aside somehow, for when, after the danger was past, I sought for it everywhere, it was nowhere to be found."
After this there was a grand introducing, hand-shaking, and laughing. Mr. Long insisted on turning back with the party, and, taking Mrs. Northcote on his arm, went with them to look at the house, which he knew all about, and advised them to take.
They did so, and then they all went to Elin Crag to luncheon, where they were hospitably entertained, Miss Milly presiding, while her father called Lizzie's attention to the fact that his dear child's cheeks were now as rosy as her own.
There is not so very much more to be told, except that Milly officiated as a bridesmaid at Edith's wedding, and that the young couple became the neighbours of Mr. Long, at Belford Regis. Also, that the union proved, as might be expected, a very happy one.
Harold, like a dutiful brother, soon paid a visit to Edith, and did not fail also to pay his respects at Elin Crag, having, he said, "been greatly attracted by the character of Mr. Long." It turned out that there was another attraction under the same roof, for the following spring Lizzie had again to officiate as bridesmaid to Mildred Long, who became the wife of her favourite brother, Harold.
* * * * *
"Well, I declare," shouted Jack, as his mother paused for a moment, "I call this story of yours a sort of swindle. Whoever suspected such a finish? And you have told us all about Lizzie's troubles and Edith's courtship, and crammed Milly and Harold into a few words."
"Well, dear, you could not expect me to give such details twice over in one story. But you shall have a little more."
"About Lizzie. I should like to know whom she married, and all particulars, for she is still my favourite."
"Perhaps I may tell you Lizzie's special story some other time. But I will just say that Mr. Northcote, having other sons, had to spare Harold to his father-in-law, and that when they married, he and Milly took up their abode at Belford Regis, at Elin Crag itself. Also that they lived very happy ever after, that is, to this present time of telling. Also," and here mamma's eyes sparkled with fun, "that I have altered names of persons and places, to make my story a little more mysterious. The truth is, Milly's name was not Milly at all; but Florence, like yours, Flossie, and Harold's was John; and that two of their children are called after them."
Mamma was here interrupted by a perfect shout. "Then you and papa were the Harold and Mildred of the story."
"Yes, darlings; and you can testify to the truth of the statement that they too lived happily ever after. It was most especially of your dear father and myself I was thinking when I spoke of the two lives whose future was influenced by a penny."
And mamma having thus finished her story, vanished by the open door in order to greet her hero, who had just entered, and was rubbing his shoes in the hall, and left her youngsters to digest as best they might her "Tale of a Penny."
"THAT dreadful bell again, and I am almost certain I heard wheels on the gravel! If it should be one of mamma's grandee friends, and only Cinderella to answer the door! I have a great mind to let the individual ring on until he or she is tired. To-morrow I will have all the front blinds down until evening, then no one will think there is anybody at home. And," added the speaker, "as, socially speaking, I am nobody, they will be right."
Annette Clifford was talking to herself. She had two good reasons for doing it, the first being that she had nobody else to talk to at the time. The second, that being a bright lively girl, possessed of great intelligence, overflowing spirits, and a gregarious temperament, she found it difficult to hold her tongue for hours together. During most of the day she was all but alone in a large house, its only other inmate being a make-shift servant, who, in addition to general incapacity, was so deaf as to render any attempt at conversation laborious.
Whilst Annette thus communed with herself, she was also moving swiftly and noiselessly towards a window whence she could command a view of the person who was demanding admittance at the hall door.
There was a vehicle standing opposite to it, but it was a humble cab instead of the dreaded carriage. There was luggage on the top, and the driver was in the act of ringing the door bell a second time.
"Mamma and Laura, come back before their month is over," was Annette's first thought; but the sight of a lady's face which belonged to neither of the relatives named sent the girl flying to the entrance with all possible speed.
Rushing past the cabman, and opening the door of the vehicle, she had her arms round the neck of the solitary passenger in a moment.
"Aunty," exclaimed the girl. "Is it really you? It seems quite too good to be true that you are actually here, and with boxes which indicate a possible stay."
The new arrival smiled at Annette's vehemence, and returned her embrace in the most affectionate manner.
"My stay depends upon yourself, dear child," she replied. "I know you are in sole charge at present, and, from a whisper which reached me, I am inclined to think that your domestic staff is below the average."
"Domestic staff! Why, aunty, I have neither staff nor crutch. Nothing but a broken reed, on which I cannot lean for a single instant. Nevertheless, I am here, and I have a couple of fairly capable hands, the work of which shall be devoted to insuring your comfort, whatever else may be left undone."
Then turning to the cabman, Annette said, "Please get down the boxes and bring them inside the hall."
The man obeyed, and then the girl seized some of the smaller matters which were inside the vehicle, and saying, "Do come in, aunty, and let me carry the rest," she tripped lightly into the house with her burden, and soon returned for what remained.
"I suppose you will not want the larger things up-stairs just yet, shall you?" she asked. "This old man is not strong enough to carry them to your bedroom unassisted, but when the boys come home, the boxes will be whisked up-stairs in a few seconds. Will you rest for a few minutes, or go straight to your room? It is quite ready, though it would be difficult for me to say what possessed me to see that it was kept so, from day to day."
"I shall not want my boxes at present, dear; and I would rather go straight to my room," replied Mrs. Worsley, the lady whom Annette called "aunty," though she was no relation to the girl, only her godmother. "But where is the 'reed' aforesaid? Surely she could carry up my dressing-bag, and the odds and ends with which you are overloading yourself."
"The 'reed,' 'Sarah Jane,' by names—and she insists on being called by both—is at this moment engaged in what she calls 'cleaning herself.' The operation occupies most of each afternoon, and is unsatisfactory as regards results. She goes up-stairs with honest black patches about her face, garments, and person generally. She comes down with an appearance of profuse dinginess, which gives you the idea that the black patches have been diluted by the application of water, and thus diffused over a larger surface. Sarah Jane objects to soap, aunty—on her face, I mean—as calculated to injure her complexion. The 'cleaning' process of which she talks so much is, I think, done in chapters, and ought to be continued."
The girl laughed merrily as she deposited her load in the bedroom. Then she brought hot water, undid straps, and paid the welcome guest all the little attentions which thoughtful love could suggest.
"Thank you, darling," said Mrs. Worsley. "You take care that I shall not be conscious of any lack of servants." And drawing the girl's glowing face to her own, she kissed it again and again.
Annette allowed her head to rest on her friend's breast for a few moments. "It is very sweet to be petted now and then," she said, "but I must not stay long now; that would be too selfish. Shalt we have our afternoon tea in the drawing-room or the den?"
"The den, by all means, dear; I will be down in a quarter of an hour," replied Mrs. Worsley.
After glancing round, to convince herself that she had done all in her power for the guest's comfort, Annette went down-stairs and removed the pretty tea equipage from the state room to the smaller one, which the younger members of the family usually occupied. Knowing that no dependence was to be placed on Sarah Jane, Annette had taken care to have everything ready for afternoon tea, in case of callers, and a very few minutes sufficed to arrange a tempting little meal for the tired traveller. Cake and bread-and-butter were already on the table; to these Annette added two or three daintily-cut sandwiches, a couple of peaches, and some cream.
The tea-table stood within a large bay window, one side or which was open, and let in the sweet summer air, laden with the scent of roses. A few flowers were in tiny vases up and down, just a bloom or two amid a mass of variegated ivy leaves, like jewels in a setting of plain gold. The tea equipage was pretty—a harlequin set made up from a collection of fine old china. The kettle in which the water was boiling over a spirit lamp was of massive silver, exquisitely chased, and everything prepared for the visitor's entertainment suggested refinement and loving thoughtfulness.
Yet the room and its furniture were emphatically shabby. Each article had been good and handsome in its day, but the day was many a year back. Even the fine engravings on the walls were in this room because the frames had become too hopelessly dingy to permit of their remaining in what Annette called the state apartments.
As Mrs. Worsley entered the den, she was first struck with its general air of dilapidation, then charmed with the pretty picture presented by that one little nook which held the tea equipage and Annette.
The girl's face was all aglow with happy anticipation, and she exclaimed, "Come, aunty, dear, the tea is just in perfection, and I hope you feel ready for it. Here are some sandwiches, which will perhaps sustain nature until—I had nearly said dinner-time, but I must own the truth. Having no cook, we have no formal dinners; the boys get a substantial lunch in the middle of the day; I have something here, and at seven we have a sort of mongrel meal, which combines dinner, tea, and supper."
"I could wish nothing better than what you have prepared for me, Nettie," said Mrs. Worsley. "Why, my dear, this is a meal for a princess. How have you arranged and prepared all so quickly?"
"The tea things were in the drawing-room, and the water had boiled once, and only required a renewed blaze to make it boil again. I have to exercise a little diplomacy, seeing that I am at the head of domestic affairs, but with nobody to obey orders."
"Not even the 'reed,' my dear?" asked Mrs. Worsley.
"Not even Sarah Jane, aunty. She hears, sometimes, in spite of her deafness, but never obeys; and when she finds it inconvenient to hear, her natural infirmity increases fourfold. There is always a possibility of callers, in spite of mamma's absence, and I must be prepared to entertain them thus far—" with a wave of the hand to indicate the tea equipage. "Well, Sarah Jane and I are agreed on one subject, namely, that she is unpresentable to any caller of higher degree than the butcher's boy."
"Should there be a ring at the hall door, Sarah Jane's tousled head is pushed in at this, and she says, 'Please, miss, there's that door again, and I'm not fit to be seen.' I assent, for the fact is self-evident, and I answer the door myself, trying the while to look as if I had been accidentally crossing the hall, and recognised a friend in the applicant for admission. During the afternoon matters are easily managed. The tea things are in the drawing-room, the bread-and-butter cut and covered with a second plate, so that it may not get dry, and so placed that I can whisk away the upper plate unperceived; I do it so cleverly, aunty, that the operation is like a conjuring trick. Then I lie in wait, sometimes indoors, at others in the garden, the hall door being kept hospitably open; and if people come, I meet them quite naturally, bring them in for rest and tea, then stroll with them to the entrance if they are driving, to the gate itself if they are pedestrians. I had only to bring the tea things from the other room to this, you see, aunty."
"And to cut the sandwiches, and gather the peaches, for I presume these are not generally found on the tea-table. Well, my dear, you see how thoroughly I appreciate these additions. I never felt more grateful for a meal, or enjoyed one more than I am doing this. Now tell me how it is I find you alone?"
"Mamma and Laura are at Scarborough, and the boys do not reach home until nearly six. They still attend the Grammar School, and they have a long walk home after the work is done."
"True, dear, but the servants—where are they? Your mamma keeps three usually, does she not?"
"Two and a half. We have really only two efficient servants, and a girl who does the most disagreeable items of household work, and waits upon and is scolded by the other two," replied Annette, promptly.
"Where are the efficients?" asked Mrs. Worsley.
"Bolton, the housemaid-waitress, is at Scarborough with mamma and Laura, promoted for a full month to the dignity of ladies' maid."
Mrs. Worsley looked perplexed.
"I do not understand," she said. "I thought you told me in a letter that Mrs. Clifford and your sister were staying at the principal hotel."
"They are. Mamma said that Scarborough lodgings in the only part that she could possibly elect to stay in were extremely expensive, and that, by arranging to remain the whole time at the hotel, she would be able to make favourable terms. That, in fact, the cost of staying there would not be much greater than in private rooms, to say nothing of the isolation of lodgings and housekeeping worries which would be avoided."
"Then is Bolton at the hotel too?"
"Of course, aunty. She would be useless anywhere else," said Nettie.
"But Mrs. Clifford and Laura have no maid when at home! It seems so strange to take one for a month to an expensive hotel, when—"
Mrs. Worsley paused. She was very nearly adding, "when they are always complaining of poverty and the difficulty of making ends meet." She might have further said, "and borrowing without troubling much as to how or when the money will be repaid." But she did not say this. She only stopped, and Annette took up the subject.
"When there is not much money to spare, aunty, you would say. It is quite true. There is none to spare, but mamma is rather fond of appearing en granda dame when she is from home. Here, in spite of narrow means and perpetual pinching, she is a great lady, you know. Was she not Miss Heydon, of Heydon Hill, before she became Mrs. Clifford? Everyone knows that in this neighbourhood, and knows, also, that she was a great heiress before she married a handsome, penniless captain of dragoons, who lived nearly long enough to leave his wife and children in the same condition. Does it sound wicked to say so, aunty? I never saw my father, you know, after I was three years old, and I have been more accustomed to hear him blamed than lamented."
"Unfortunately this has been the case, dear," said Mrs. Worsley, "but I presume you would not say this to any ordinary acquaintance?"
"Certainly not," replied Annette. "You are far better informed of all these particulars than I am, and therefore I did not think my alluding to them would matter in the least. Besides, you are a dear, true friend to us all—best and dearest to me."
"I should like to prove myself one, Nettie," and the speaker laid her hand caressingly on that of the girl. "Now tell me about Bolton. I interrupted you."
"Mamma cannot quite forget what she was accustomed to have as a girl, and she is unwilling to do without it still. When at the seaside, for instance, she likes to see 'Mrs. and Miss Clifford and maid' in the visitors' list. I sometimes wish she did not care so much for keeping up appearances. She pays pretty dearly for that word 'maid,' and it is but an empty sound after all. But I suppose it would be hard for her to change," added Annette meditatively.
"Now you have accounted for the absence of one efficient servant. Where is the cook?"
"Oh! Williams is gone home for her annual holiday."
"Does your mamma give her the whole month?"
"No, aunty, a fortnight. Then Williams will come back, and, with Sarah Jane's assistance, do some cleaning down before mamma's return. Mamma hates an upset house, and thinks it is better to have such work done when she and Laura are absent, so that everything may be in apple-pie order when they come. By letting cook take her holidays now, we have our whole available staff when we settle down in winter quarters. Bolton has no friends she cares to go and see, so her stay at the seaside with mamma, as maid, gives her a double holiday."
"There is still the half—the girl—to be accounted for."
"She was not even half efficient, so as mamma would have parted with her soon in any case, she said she might as well go before she and Laura went away. Sarah Jane was sure she could manage by herself; and mamma said she might try."
The girl gave a weary little sigh, though the expression of her face was humorous enough. In fact, Sarah Jane's eccentricities and incapacity served one good purpose. They kept Annette alive by giving her food for fun. During the day she carefully garnered every experience, and, despite her daily difficulties, met the boys with a bright face, and furnished material for laughter with the evening meal.
"When do you expect Williams?" asked Mrs. Worsley.
"On Friday evening, and on that day the boys' vacation begins. They hope to enjoy it, for Colonel Cracroft has invited them to spend the whole time at Fox Howe, his charming country home in the Lake district. The boys—ours and the two Cracrofts—are to take little walking tours between Mondays and Saturdays, weather permitting, and their own inclinations being in harmony with the plan. But anybody who chooses may stay at home, as it is to be Liberty Hall for the young people. I wish I were going on tramp for days together, aunty. Girls do it now as well as boys, and the Cracrofts are so nice. But the colonel is a widower with no daughters, or else, perhaps, he might have asked me," said Annette.
"Where are you going for your summer outing, dear?"
"Nowhere. When the boys are out of the way, I shall not be at home any longer. The blinds will be down, and 'the family are away' will be the reply, should anyone, undeterred by the desolate appearance of the premises, be rash enough to call."
At this moment there was a knock at the door, and Annette asked to be excused for a few minutes, and left the room.
MRS. WORSLEY was not long alone. Annette soon returned, flushed and panting with exercise.
"Sarah Jane and I carried up your boxes quite easily," she said. "I had forgotten when I spoke of the boys that they are playing in a school cricket match, and as there will be a supper afterwards, they will not be home till late. Your eyes are wandering round the den, aunty. It is so desolate. It did not matter when we were less, but it would be nice to have it made into a really charming room. A few pounds and a good deal of handiwork and contriving would make it lovely. But there are no pounds to spare for what would give lasting home comfort."
There was a shade of bitterness in the girl's tone which told Mrs. Worsley whither her thoughts were tending. If only Mrs. Clifford had been content to do without a maid at Scarborough, her children would have reaped the benefit of her abstinence in years of increased comfort. Fresh prettiness would have taken the place of dingy finery, and much that was good and handsome might have been utilised by renovation.
Mrs. Worsley did not answer directly. She showed her sympathy by drawing Annette to her side, and holding her in an affectionate embrace. At length she said, "It does seem rather hard for you to be left alone in this way, darling."
"I was not thinking of that. Indeed, I have now the most delightful companion," and she lifted her honest face to Mrs. Worsley's for a kiss. "And I mean to make the most of my privileges, before I assume my role of Cinderella during the cleaning down season. Of course it would be impossible for you to stay in the midst of a muddle, aunty."
"Quite, Nettie; I shall stay until Saturday, and when the boys' backs are turned, I must turn mine."
Annette's countenance fell.
"Do you know," she said, "I was just wondering if it would be possible to keep a little nook, a sort of small house in a large house, comfortable enough to induce you to stay another week. Cinderella grieves at the thought of so soon parting with her fairy godmother."
"I am afraid it would be as impossible for me to remain as to exercise the powers of a fairy godmother, Nettie. Now if I could dress you in all sorts of braveries with a mere touch of my wand, and send you out to meet the prince, with the retinue of a princess, I might deserve the name."
"I should not like you to do it if you could. I hate shams of every kind, and I have already had too long an experience of them. Some Cinderellas would ride with a light heart in a carriage that might at any moment turn into a pumpkin again, but not your Cinderella, godmother dear."
The young lips quivered, and Annette, while smiling bravely into Mrs. Worsley's face, had to turn aside to brush away a rebellious tear.
To lead the girl's thoughts to something pleasanter, the visitor suggested a stroll through the grounds. "I thought I had never seen them look so beautiful," she said. "How you must revel amongst fruit and flowers!"
"Shams again, aunty. Not the fruit and flowers; they are provokingly real, but only to be revelled in by two senses—those of sight and smell. The grounds are let out to a gardener and florist, who pays a rent for them. It is true that fruit and vegetables, to a certain weekly market value, are bargained for, and our table is fairly supplied; but each article is sent in by mamma's tenant. We cannot bestow a bouquet on a friend, or give one permission to cull blossom or fruit for herself. The addition to the income is very useful, and supplies more shams, but this state of things is dreadful when one thinks of what used to be. Stay, though, aunty, I stood out for my own garden—the plot I called mine when I was a tiny toddles, and mamma had not the heart to take it from me. In it are some old-fashioned flowers, a wealth of ivy on the wall, and some lovely yellow gooseberries with a flavour better than that of half the grapes grown in the houses."
Towards this favourite corner Mrs. Worsley and Annette strolled arm-in-arm, and the girl's eyes grew brighter as aunty fastened a rose in her dress, and ate of the yellow champagnes with manifest enjoyment.
Bed-time brought the boys—victorious, noisy, and full of delight, as they talked of the approaching holidays and the enjoyable visit to which they were looking forward. They were not, however, wholly self-absorbed. Mingled with these gleeful anticipations were regrets at the thought of leaving their favourite sister behind them and alone.
"If we could only take Nettie, we should have nothing to wish for," said Lionel.
"Oh, Nettie, why were you not a boy?" cried Fred. "You would have been such a jolly boy, and the Cracrofts could have asked the three of us."
"I am by no means sure of this. Two such boys must be quite enough to have at once. Besides, you would not like me half so well if I were a boy. You squabble almost daily about some nonsense or other; how would you get friends again if you had each a second brother to quarrel with, instead of a sister to reconcile your differences? Considering all I do for you, it is very ungrateful to suggest that I could be improved by a change of sex," said Nettie, with a little pout of the lip, which deceived nobody.
"We should never get on without you, as you are, yet for your own sake we cannot help wishing to have you with us. Is it not horrid to think of her being left at home by herself?" said outspoken Lionel, addressing Mrs. Worsley. "Why did not mamma take Nettie to Scarborough instead of Bolton? She does all sorts of things both for her and Laura, when they are at home."
"Hush, Lionel!" said Nettie.
"It is not for you boys to settle what your mother ought to do," said Mrs. Worsley, "though I can well imagine that you would like to have Nettie's enjoyment provided for as well as your own."
"And Laura's," interposed Fred. "It does not seem fair that Laura should always be first and foremost, and Nettie left out in the cold."
"Mamma knows that I care less than Laura does; and besides, she is the eldest of us all."
"Don't tell fibs, Nettie. At least, do not pretend to be better than you are. You may not care about parties and balls, and finery, but never say you do not mind about being left here to see to the turning out of rooms, the shaking of carpets, and with only the society of Williams and Sarah Jane, for a fortnight after next Saturday. Do not tell me that you are not longing for a whiff of the sea breeze, and the sound of the waves as they tumble in. Heydon Hill is very beautiful, with its flowers that we must not pluck, and its fruit that we are forbidden to taste; but just ask us, now, whether we would not rather go scrambling across the fells or boating on the lakes than have Heydon Hill all the year round, even with free run at everything? As to Laura, of course she is the eldest. She likes to claim all the privileges of her present age. But wait a year or two, and she will be only too glad for people to think she is the younger."
Lionel nodded sagaciously as he finished his long speech.
Nettie made no answer until Sarah Jane left the room. Then she remarked, with a little laugh, "I think the 'reed' must be less deaf than usual. I am almost certain she heard you, Lionel, she looked so knowing. Now, dear boys, understand that there are many reasons why I should stay at home. As the maid, Bolton only counts for half in the hotel bill; I might do a maid's duties, but I should cost the same as mamma or Laura. I should have wanted some new gowns had I accompanied them; my old ones are good enough for home use."
"Laura got new ones; so did mamma," said Fred.
"When I go away for a holiday I shall have them too," insisted Nettie.
"When? I should like to know when?" replied Lionel, in a tone of disgust.
"And you shall know, my dear boy," said Mrs. Worsley. "Nettie's holiday will begin on Saturday next. When she and I have seen you two safe off these premises, we shall prepare for our own departure. If there had been no other reason for her staying here until then, you boys would have furnished two substantial ones. You are to blame for the fact that one sister is gone to the seaside, the other left to take care of you."
The speaker's face expressed no little amusement as she observed the effect of her words.
"Aunty, what do you mean?" asked Annette. "It cannot be true that I am to go somewhere with you. What would mamma say?"
"She has said you may go, dear."
"But when? How did you hear from her? I do not understand," replied Nettie, more bewildered than ever.
"I had a letter from your mother about a week ago, in which she told me that she and Laura were at Scarborough, and you here with the boys. She suggested my joining them on my way home, for I was then in Scotland. I did spend a single night under the same roof, for I wanted to run away with you, Nettie, and I thought I could negotiate for that purpose more successfully in person than by letter. After a little talk it was arranged that as soon as the boys were off I might have you. The method of taking possession was left to myself. I might write for you and enclose this, or do as I chose about communicating your mother's consent to my plan."
Mrs. Worsley handed a note to Nettie, and the girl exclaimed, "How kind of you, aunty! To think of you travelling so far out of your way on my account, first to Scarborough, then to this place! How can I thank you?"
"Do not try, dear. Read your mother's note," said Mrs. Worsley. "But please do not put me down as another sham, because I asked you so many questions when I already knew the answer to some of them. I wanted to have a peep into your mind. As to Bolton, I inquired after her in all good faith, for neither your mother nor Laura told me that she was with them, or how very much you had been left to yourself."
Nettie gave her godmother a girlish hug and a shower of kisses, then applied herself to the letter, whilst the boys expressed their delight at her improved prospects, after the manner of their kind.
They repeatedly embraced their sister, showered thanks on Mrs. Worsley in rather slangy English, and finally gave relief to their exuberant spirits by dancing round the den in a sort of wild Indian style, which was not calculated to render the reading of the letter an easy task to Nettie. The purport of it was, however, soon mastered. Mrs. Clifford wrote warmly of Mrs. Worsley's kindness, and told her daughter that she must consider herself at liberty to leave Hoyden Hill as soon as Williams returned and the boys were gone. There were loving messages and a promise of another letter to follow by post, and that was all.
Annette's dreams were pleasant ones for that night, but the waking was less agreeable. The morning brought the promised letter, with detailed instructions as to certain matters for the house and the boys, and a cheque to meet the expenditure involved by their coming journey, and the domestic supplies alluded to. But for Annette herself there was nothing, not even a hint as to possible wants. The girl thought she must be mistaken, that there must be another enclosure; but a further examination revealed the fact that the envelope contained nothing more.
"How can I go?" she exclaimed. "Mamma knows that I need at least a couple of new gowns to make me fairly presentable, and it would be a dreadful scramble to get one in the short time there is. Besides, Laura's last are unpaid for, and I will not go for more on credit, though I suppose that is what she must have meant me to do. Mamma must feel that I cannot go away without even the means to pay my travelling expenses, or a spare pound in my pocket."
Annette's self-communings had reached this point when Mrs. Worsley entered the den, where breakfast awaited her coming.
"I thought you were still asleep, aunty," said the girl. "I have been twice to your door, but everything was so quiet that I stole softly down again. The boys had to go, you know, to be in time for school, so I shall have you all to myself. Have you rested well?"
"Delightfully, Nettie, and I am quite ready for breakfast, and work to follow, for we must begin our preparations for the journey without an hour's delay."
Annette's face flushed and paled as she turned her mother's letter round in her fingers in an absent fashion. Then she said, "I am afraid I can make none. Mamma has written about everyone but me. She must know that I need more than her permission to go with you."
"My dear, I am sorry that you have had a moment's anxiety on that score, which I might have prevented by a word. Your mother and I arranged everything on your behalf when we met at Scarborough. This is for you, Nettie, to meet any minor expenses, and after breakfast we will see what sort of a substitute for the fairy godmother I shall make in providing the more substantial portion of your outfit." Mrs. Worsley handed Annette an envelope addressed in her mother's handwriting, and on opening it she found, to her utter amazement, a ten-pound note.
"For me, aunty? How has mamma spared it? Did she really send it?" asked Annette, half ashamed of her question.
"I saw Mrs. Clifford place the note in the envelope, which she addressed, and then handed to me, for your sole use, my dear, if that is what you mean. And she sent her love, and hoped you would spend it judiciously."
The young face brightened again at these words.
"Mamma is very kind; I did not expect this," she said. "Now I can manage quite nicely; but how disgracefully selfish I am to keep you talking about my concerns when you must be famishing for your breakfast!"
"Not famishing, dear, but with a good healthy appetite to enjoy this tempting breakfast," replied Mrs. Worsley. "But, Nettie, you have not asked whither we are bound when we leave Heydon Hill."
"I thought I was going home with you, aunty."
"Home, in one sense, dear, but not to the one I call my very own. We are going to my brother's."
"To Broadlands! You cannot mean it?"
"I am quite in earnest. My brother and his wife have given you a warm corner in their warm hearts, Nettie; your last year's visit established you as first favourite with them and the children, and I believe if I were to make my appearance alone, I should be sent back to fetch you. The people at Ferndene are having a large party of young guests, too. I believe almost the same who were there twelve months ago, so you will meet a host of old young acquaintances."
Mrs. Worsley was looking straight at Nettie as she spoke, and, lo! Across the girl's face stole a look of indescribable gladness, along with a rich rosy glow that spread from cheek to brow; a sort of dancing, happy light, the reflex of some deep-seated joy, brought to the innocent young heart by her friend's words.
Nettie turned away quickly and shyly, as if afraid that secret of hers should be read, and she could not have borne a significant look just then, much less a jesting word. That expression, however, set Mrs. Worsley thinking and wondering whether, amongst the guests at Ferndene, Cinderella might have met her prince. Truly the girl was very young in her ways and simple in her tastes, as innocent of flirting and coquetry as the most loving mother could desire her child to be. But time had not been standing still with Nettie any more than others; she would keep her nineteenth birthday during the visit to Broadlands.
BREAKFAST was over, and Nettie was standing in Mrs. Worsley's bedroom, speechless and overwhelmed at the sight which met her view. Spread around her were the contents of one of those large boxes which she had assisted Sarah Jane to carry up-stairs on the preceding evening. There were braveries of all kinds suited to a girl like herself, and fit for wear in such a home as Broadlands. Nothing very costly, but all beautiful, dainty, and suggestive of refined taste and a sweet, pure-minded girl wearer.
It was not the first time that Mrs. Worsley had supplied deficiencies in Nettie's wardrobe, and the measures taken a year before would, she knew, still be near enough to go by. She shrewdly suspected that her request for the girl's company would be cheerfully acceded to if no demand were made on the mother's purse to furnish the needed outfit. Even that ten-pound note which had called forth such fervent gratitude, though nominally sent by her mother, had first been given to Mrs. Clifford by Mrs. Worsley for the purpose.
"She is rich, and has neither chick nor child. All her own relatives are richer still, so why should not Nettie be the better for having a wealthy sponsor?" said Mrs. Clifford to her eldest daughter. "Besides, by having nothing to buy for Nettie, I shall be able the better to supply your wants."
So Laura, too, had cause to rejoice, for she benefited indirectly by Mrs. Worsley's gifts, in having money spent upon her wardrobe, some of which must otherwise have gone for Nettie's.
Standing amidst a wealth of pretty things, Nettie said—"These are all far too handsome, and you are much too kind, aunty, darling. I cannot thank you as I ought. I feel that I shall be a grand sham myself amongst the dear friends at Broadlands—'a daw with borrowed feathers.'"
"Not borrowed, Nettie; these things are truly your own. Not shams any more than you are, my dear, honest-hearted lassie. They are fashioned by human fingers, not transformed by the touch of a fairy's wand, so you can wear them without fear that they will resume some uncanny shape. And they come from one who loves you dearly, Nettie, and who has too much of this world's gear, and no kindred of her own who need to share it. I settled about these trifles before I even saw your mother. I never dreamed that I might find you too proud to accept at once, and without misgivings, your godmother's little gift."
Nettie burst into tears, and flinging her arms round her friend's neck, begged to be forgiven.
"Of course it is hateful pride and horrid ingratitude," she cried. "But I did not see it in that way before; I only felt overwhelmed with your kindness, and that it was all too much for you to do for my sake. I have had shamefully ungrateful thoughts about being left here, and have felt angry at mamma and Laura, and generally rebellious on account of my lot, instead of just accepting it as from God's hand, and making the best of it. And all the while He was ordering everything for my good, putting it into your heart to be so kind to me, and planning that I should be invited to the place I longed to visit above every other in the world. I am ashamed of myself."
"That is right, darling," replied Mrs. Worsley. "Now you are looking at things in a proper light, and there is nothing to be done but to continue our preparations."
After this the hours seemed to fly, so much had to be done; but further help was obtained to sustain the "reed." Williams returned in due time, the boys set out for Cumberland in the highest of spirits, and a couple of hours later Mrs. Worsley carried off Nettie, and arrived in the early afternoon at the station nearest to Broadlands.
On the platform were three or four of Mrs. Worsley's nephews and nieces, wild with delight at seeing her with Nettie in charge, and at the cry of the first, "Here's Nettie! Hurrah!" The shout was taken up by the others, who each cheered in a different key, and made the station resound with their shrill young voices.
There was another person who met the train, and handed the ladies out, and who, though he did not join in the cheer raised by the juniors, managed to express his pleasure at sight of the travellers in no less eloquent language. Truly if ever eyes spoke of gladness, the fine grey ones of Arthur Boyd told Nettie Clifford that the sight of her bright, blushing face had vastly increased his present feeling of happiness.
What halcyon days followed! Broadlands itself, with just its regular inmates, would have been a paradise to Nettie, nestling, as it did, among glorious woods which sheltered without hiding it, and yet within walking distance of the sea on one side and a lovely undulating country on the other three. There were endless drives and plenty of pleasant neighbours within reach, nearest of all Ferndene, the residence of old Sir Henry Boyd, Arthur's uncle, with whom Nettie was a prime favourite. He and his dear old wife were deeply attached to their nephew and heir, very anxious for him to marry, and yet in great dread lest he should fall a victim to a mere pretty face.
They had a horror of fastness and flirtation. They believed in one true, ever-growing holy love which should become stronger and more self-devoting through each year of wedded life, as theirs had done. Their nephew would be independent of money considerations; they wanted him to have a fortune in the wife herself; and so, when twelve months before they thought their nephew was learning to care for Nettie Clifford, they were ready to give their hearty consent if he would only ask it.
"Just the girl for Arthur," they had said to each other. Well born and educated, with good health, good looks, a pure mind, and habits untainted by fashion and folly, yet as bright as a bird; one in whose society young and old found pleasure. What could they desire better? Yet the girl's visit had come to an end, and Arthur had not spoken. The hopes of the old couple had died away, and twelve months had come and gone in the meanwhile.
Now Nettie was again at Broadlands, and day by day she and Arthur met. Lookers-on began to whisper, and some that had hoped Sir Henry's heir would seek a wife in a different direction lost hope.
At last a day came when the young man opened his heart to the relatives who had been as father and mother to him, and asked their consent and blessing on his union with Nettie Clifford, provided he could win hers.
They answered him together: "May God bless you as we do, and speed your wooing! 'A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband.' We could desire no better fortune for our boy than to win such a wife as Annette Clifford."
With a light heart Arthur set out for Broadlands. There was to be a garden party in the lovely grounds that afternoon, and he had no doubt that he should find an opportunity of telling Nettie all that was in his mind. He did not, however, see her immediately on his arrival. The grounds were extensive, and before Arthur Boyd made one amid the crowd of guests who kept pouring through the wide gateway, Nettie had been pounced upon and carried off to take part in a game at tennis.
The decisive set was just at an end when he caught sight of her, flushed and smiling, after a hard-won victory. But bright as was the colour on the girl's cheek, it deepened at his approach, and it was with a look of frank pleasure that she laid her hand in his and bade him welcome.
But while Nettie's roses deepened, those on Arthur's face died away, and he became deadly pale as he glanced at the girl's extended hand, for there, glittering on her "engaged finger," was a superb diamond, a beautiful single stone of bluish white, a stone of great value, as the merest ignoramus could tell. Surely the presence of such a jewel in such a place could have only one meaning.
Arthur hardly knew what he said. He knew that Nettie looked half frightened, and asked if he were ill, and that he had answered in the negative, and got away out of sight. True, she seemed to look wistfully after him, and her lips moved, as if she were begging him to stay. Probably she was shocked at what she had done, and wished to deprecate the grief and resentment his face must have expressed.
All their happy hours, all her sweet girlish ways, all the tell-tale blushes at his coming, all that he had thought he read in the shy eyes that were wont to droop when he looked too steadily in their direction, all these things were as nothing to him any more than others. Someone—Arthur thought he knew who—had offered, and been promptly accepted by the portionless girl, who was bound to marry well, whether true love were included in the bargain or not.
Arthur could not leave Broadlands at once, as he longed to do, for his aunt and uncle, with other friends, were to come later, and he had promised to wait for and return with them. So he strolled away to a lonely part of the grounds, and having passed a miserable hour there, once more bent towards the entrance-gates, where he met Nettie.
Surely the girl must have been miserable too, for she looked pale and troubled, and there were signs about her usually bright eyes that were suggestive of recent tears. And lo! As he glanced at her hand which hold up a parasol, he saw that it was unadorned. The ring was gone.
"There must have been some stupid mistake," he thought. "I have taken for granted what had probably no reality. Only Nettie's own lips shall convince me that she is other than the pure, true-hearted girl I have ever judged her to be."
To think was to act. There was no one else very near, so Arthur joined Nettie, and a new light came to her sweet face, and new roses sprang into being on her cheeks. He began to tell his tale, strolling the while into a by-path, and had got as far as the ring.
"I came on purpose to speak to you to-day, Nettie, bringing with me the blessing and approval of my dear aunt and uncle, who would welcome you with open arms as my wife," he said. "There was only one person for me amongst all the guests, and when I saw you, darling, sweet, and fair, and true, I longed to clasp you to my heart and tell you that I gave you my whole best love a year ago. And then I looked at something sparkling on your finger, and saw a ring, and feared that someone had been beforehand with me, so went away miserable, without a word. What did the ring mean, dear, for you wear it no longer?"
Nettie glanced at her hand as Arthur alluded to the ring, and gave a cry of horror.
"What shall I do?" she cried. "I did not know it was gone. I would not lose it for anything. Please do not stop me!"
Away fled Nettie towards the house, leaving Arthur with his love story unfinished, and to put what construction he chose upon her precipitate retreat. To pursue the girl would have been to cause remark, and Arthur went more slowly in the direction taken by Nettie, his mind full of half-formed plans for an immediate voyage to the Antipodes.
Mrs. Worsley was sitting on the terrace, and Annette must have passed her on her way to the house. Arthur stood by her for a little while, talking of the party, the lovely weather, and the manifest enjoyment of the guests, but his manner was constrained, and his answers often irrelevant. He was on the point of turning away, when Annette once more appeared, tripping lightly towards them, with a radiant face.
"Aunty, dear aunty, please take this back with my best thanks, and never, if you love me, ask me to wear borrowed feathers again. I have been in dreadful trouble. I missed it from my finger, or rather Mr. Boyd did, and I thought I had lost it in the park. Then I remembered I had been to my room to wash my hands after preparing some fruit for the children, and I left Mr. Boyd very unceremoniously, to see if I had laid it on the dressing-table. It was not there, and I was almost in despair, when where do you think I found it? Exactly fitted into the centre hole of the drainer which covers the sponge bowl. How glad I was! I am not fit to be trusted with valuables, you see, for, being unaccustomed to them, I forget that I have them. Thank you a thousand times for the loan of the ring, aunty, and most of all for freeing me from the awful responsibility of having valuables not my own to take care of. I will never wear borrowed feathers again as long as I live."
As Nettie spoke, she placed the ring which had caused Arthur's misery in Mrs. Worsley's hand, and then gave a sweet, shy, upward glance at the young man, which seemed to say that the story he had begun to tell would now find an attentive listener.
Mrs. Worsley, with a laughing face, told Arthur how she had insisted on Nettie's wearing one of her rings because the girl possessed scarcely any ornaments of her own. "It will be hers some day," she added, "but I must take care of it until she is fit to be trusted with the custody of valuables."
Arthur mentally dissented from Mrs. Worsley's statement that Nettie possessed few ornaments. He thought that truth, modesty, unselfishness, a pure, tender nature, and a warm, faithful heart were better adornments and possessions than all the jewels in the world. But he did not trouble to tell her so, for some friends were approaching, whom Mrs. Worsley joined. And Arthur told his thoughts to Nettie instead, and completed the story begun a little while before.
He must have had faith, too, in Nettie's powers to take care Of a ring, for when the young people met the party from Ferndene, there glittered on the girl's engaged finger a most beautiful specimen of the jeweller's art, the diamonds in which were worthy to follow the borrowed gem.
Thus Arthur Boyd won Nettie for a wife; and the dear old couple at Ferndene rejoiced that their adopted son would soon give them the daughter they coveted above all others. And there was rejoicing at Scarborough, and Mrs. Clifford wrote that her darling Nettie had more than fulfilled her most cherished hopes by making so wise a choice.
That Mrs. Worsley played the true mother's part to her goddaughter need hardly be told, or that it was on her breast that the girl shed the glad tears which came from a heart almost too full of happiness as she said, "How can I be thankful enough for God's great goodness to me? How be ashamed enough of my old want of faith, my repinings, and discontent?"
Mrs. Arthur Boyd has no lack of jewels now, and has long since been accustomed to the charge of articles of value of her very own. But if she had never possessed any, her friends think that those better ornaments which her husband valued most would have been conspicuous in her life and actions. Also that the one lesson would have sufficed to prevent her from ever making a second appearance in "borrowed feathers."
"You will have to be father, mother, and brother to the girls, Dick. It is a great charge, but you will not shirk it. I know what you are, dear boy, and now, more than ever, I thank God, who took my only son, that He left me you."
The speaker had not long to live, and she knew it. She had four girls to leave motherless, and she had been ten years a widow. He to whom she spoke was her stepson, Richard Maynard Whitmore, who was sitting by her bed and looking in her wan face with loving, troubled eyes. His answer was not long in coming. Holding the invalid's thin hand in a gentle, caressing clasp, the young man replied, "As you have been a true mother to me, so will I be to the girls all you say, as God shall enable me."
A beautiful glad light overspread Mrs. Whitmore's face as the words fell on her ear. Dick's honest eyes were turned towards her, and though he spoke quietly, his tone was solemn and earnest, as befitted the occasion and the responsibility he was taking upon himself.
"Kiss me, dear Dick."
Richard rose and bent his tall figure until his lips touched those of his stepmother. She made an effort to clasp her thin arms round his neck, and after kissing him again and again, she held him for a few moments in a close embrace. Thus was the compact sealed.
Mrs. Whitmore knew well what a noble nature was covered under Dick's quiet, undemonstrative manner. The few words he had just spoken were quite enough to remove every anxious thought from her mind—save one.
Even before they were spoken the mother had said to herself, "The girls will be safe so long as they are sheltered by Dick's roof. He will be a true guardian, and will watch over and guide them aright, if they will be guided. He is good and wise beyond his years, and so unselfish."
"The three will be manageable enough, for they love him. My only fear is for Gertrude, and I dread her influence over the rest."
It seemed strange and sad that at such a time Mrs. Whitmore's thoughts should be disturbed by anxiety about her eldest daughter, and that her whole trust should be placed on the only one of her husband's children who was not also her very own son.
It was evident that Richard Whitmore read a story of hidden trouble in his mother's face, for, after her arms released him, he noted that the glad look called forth by his assurance had faded, and given place to a different expression. There was something yet unsaid, and he asked her, gently, "What is it, dear mother?"
"You read me like a book almost, Dick. I have been hesitating whether to say any more or no, but it is due to your goodness that I should withhold no thought from you which has relation to your sisters. Indeed, I have no wish to do it. My anxiety is on Gertrude's account. She has never been like the rest, especially to you, and never treated you as she ought to have done since that miserable visit. When I am gone it may be that she will try to prejudice the younger ones, and that they will listen to her, and then—"
Tears began to flow down the wan cheeks, and the speaker was unable to continue.
"I know all, and I have no fear. We will not trouble ourselves about 'maybes,'" returned Richard, in a cheery, hopeful tone, though he was not wholly without forebodings on the same account.
"Do not think I have made my promise to you without asking for help to enable me to keep it. That is enough for to-day. As future days pass one by one into the present, I shall seek strength for each as it comes. Let this thought comfort you, dear mother, when you are inclined to remember how young I am to undertake such a responsibility. Say to yourself, 'Dick does not stand alone. His father's God is his God also, and trusting in Him for strength according to his day, he can never be desolate or in doubt as to the course he should take.'"
"May that God bless you abundantly, my dear boy!" replied Mrs. Whitmore, fervently. "As I lie here weak and helpless, I feel that if I had only you to thank Him for, my heart would be filled with gratitude. He took my only boy, but left me one of the best of sons in you. I cannot fret or trouble about the future. It seems to me that in the solemn last days of life a clearer understanding of our Father's dealings with us is vouchsafed, to make up for the fading away of earthly interests. I see how kindly I have been dealt with through ten years of widowhood, and how I have been spared till the youngest of the girls is past mere childhood, and you are grown old enough for them to look up to as brother, guardian, friend."
Richard answered by a few more loving words, and then, after tenderly kissing his stepmother, left her to rest.
Mrs. Whitmore might well think much of Dick, and he of her in return. She was the only mother he could remember, having become his father's second wife when the boy was barely three years old.
She had come to the home a fair young creature, who had, happily for herself and the child, been brought up in an atmosphere of love, and was ready to pour a whole wealth of affection upon little Dick.
From the very day that she entered Mr. Whitmore's house as his wife, she brightened the life of her tiny stepson in every possible way. She was so young herself—very little over twenty—and to Dick, who had been under the charge of a faithful but somewhat prim nurse, her lovely face was like that of an angel.
The loss of her first baby, the only boy born of this second marriage, drew the loving bonds between her husband's child and herself closer still. It was such a comfort to feel his little arms round her neck, to have him for her companion, and to hear his childish prattle as he coaxed her out into the garden and fields, and persuaded her to join again in his baby games, as she did before the little one came and went.
Dick was only six years old when Gertrude, the eldest of the girls, was born, so that there was no great difference between his age and theirs, and all seemed to belong to one family on both sides. A looker-on could not have distinguished which of the five was Mrs. Whitmore's own child, either when all were little ones, or when they were comparatively grown-up.
Before Mr. Whitmore brought his second wife home, he had wisely explained to her his position and that of Dick with regard to the property on which they lived.
"Most of it came with my wife," he said, "and will eventually go to the boy, though while I live two-thirds of the income from the estate will be mine. Until he is of age, the whole of it passes through my hands, though, of course, a liberal portion is to be expended on his maintenance and education. When Richard is twenty-one, he will have a third for his own absolute use and until my death, when all his mother's property will be his. As his future is thus amply provided for, all that I have shall be yours for life, if you survive me, and afterwards go to our children, if we have others beside Dick. It will not be much in comparison, but would keep you in a modest way."
Pretty Amy Christie had been accustomed to simple surroundings, and was willing to trust her future in the hands of Mr. Whitmore. She was transplanted to a luxurious home, but as she looked around her, from the first she accustomed herself to think, "We owe the greater part of the good things we enjoy to little Dick's mother, and they are really held in trust for the boy."
There was no envious feeling in Mrs. Whitmore's mind as she thought of this. On the contrary, she rejoiced that the boy whom she had been privileged to train was daily developing into a noble character: true, loving, brave, unselfish. A little too quiet if anything, save to those who had the key to his inmost heart; and perhaps even more than to the father whom he loved and reverenced, did Richard Whitmore reveal it to his stepmother.
He was only sixteen when his father died, and the four girls were mere children: Gertrude ten, Mina (short for Wilhelmina) eight, Josephine six, and Florence Mary, or Molly, as everybody called her, only four.
With Mr. Whitmore's death went a large portion of the income, to accumulate and make Dick richer still, when he should come of age. What the husband had the power to bequeath to his widow seemed a mere pittance in comparison with what had been spent on the household, though he had saved out of it and left a little nest-egg, in the shape of ready money thus accumulated, absolutely to his widow.
The father had faith in Dick, though he was but a lad of sixteen, and to him, he commended his still young stepmother and the girls.
The trustees consented that Dick's home should still be shared by them, and made a liberal allowance. The ready money alluded to helped to tide over the time until he came of age, so that the interval was passed without much change in the surroundings of Mrs. Whitmore and her children. Only there was one unfortunate incident, which helped to spoil the perfect unity which had hitherto subsisted in the little family.
When Gertrude was about seventeen, she paid a visit to the home of a schoolfellow who lived at no very great distance. Whilst there, and as the girls strolled in the sweet spring sunshine, exchanging confidences, Gertrude's friend began to talk to her of the home she had lately left.
"I think Mere Side is just the most charmingly-situated house, and altogether the loveliest spot I ever saw. I always envied you your home until I knew."
"Knew what?" asked Gertrude, turning sharply round with an expression of utter astonishment on her handsome face. It was reflected on that of her friend, Pauline Tindall, who had spoken without having an idea that she was trenching on forbidden ground.
"You must know what I mean, dear," she replied, "and surely you are not angry at me for alluding to it. I would not pain or annoy you for the world," and she clung coaxingly to Gertrude, who was a full head above her in height.
"I do not understand you. I was surprised, not angry, when you said those words, 'until I knew,' and I want to know the meaning of them also. Tell me, Pauline, if you are really my friend!"
"If! Oh, Gertrude, can you doubt me? I am and shall always be your true friend, I hope. It is impossible that you should not know already far more than I can tell. I was only thinking that if Mr. Richard—I should say Mr. Whitmore now, as he is the only gentleman in the family—were to marry, how sad it would be for you all. If I lived at Mere Side on the same terms, I should be haunted with a perpetual dread of receiving notice to gait, and should feel as if a sword were hanging over my head whenever my brother spoke to a girl."
Still there was a look of perplexity and bewilderment on Gertrude Whitmore's face, and at last it dawned on her friend's mind that facts which were known to all the country round must be unknown to her.
It was perfectly true. No outsider had ever spoken to these Whitmore girls about the difference between Dick's worldly circumstances and their own. Everybody knew that the main portion of the money and the whole of the estate had come by Dick's mother, and that Mr. Whitmore had only a life interest in these. Of course, all had belonged to the young man himself since he came of age, and that was two years ago, when Gertrude was fifteen.
And everybody took it for granted that what was so generally known outside was equally so to the young people who lived so comfortably with stepbrother Dick. It was of no use alluding to such matters. The girls were happy and well cared for, and Richard Whitmore was the best of sons to his charming stepmother, and of brothers to the quartet of bonnie lasses at Mere Side. No doubt they would marry in good time, or if he married, he would do something towards increasing the slender income of one to whom he gave a son's affection.
If outsiders failed to speak of the position, Richard Whitmore was still less likely to name it. It was this lad of sixteen, who, when his father died, had gone quietly to the trustees, that father's old friends, and pleaded with them for the largest allowance that they dared take the responsibility of granting during his minority. Not for himself, but that Mrs. Whitmore might not want any luxury to which she had been accustomed, or the girls feel that a needless shadow had fallen on their young lives.
It was Richard who had said to the mother, "Do not be afraid of spending from your own store. It will be replenished in due time," meaning when he should have legal power to do what he chose with his own. And, lastly, it was he who had persuaded Mrs. Whitmore to keep the girls in ignorance of what they owed to him.
"We are children of the same parents, for you are the only mother I can remember," he said to her. "Do not let them think that Fortune has made any difference in the shares she has severally allotted to us. Why should they know? I am not likely to marry for years and years to come, if ever, and what would my home be, without the girls and you?"
So it was Dick's doing that Gertrude first listened in such amazement to Pauline Tindall's sympathetic remarks, and then insisted on an explanation.
"Then, from what you tell me, I am to understand that my sisters and I are to a great extent dependent on Richard. That, but for him, we must live in some little poky place with one, or at most two servants, if indeed we could afford so much. That I, but for my—" she had always said brother before—"stepbrother's generosity—is that the right word, Pauline?—would have to go out as a governess, or companion, or something of the kind."
"I did not say so, dear Gertrude. I never dreamed of such a thing. I only alluded to what I thought you knew as well as myself. Mr. Richard is good and generous, splendidly generous. Everybody says so, and I should think that the very fact of your having no knowledge of what he has done, will show you what a delicate mind he must have."
There was a hard, set look on Gertrude's face as she answered, "True, Pauline, you said nothing of the going out as a governess, or the consequences which might follow if Richard Whitmore were to marry. But you showed me plainly enough that, were he to bring home a wife, there would no longer be room for the rest of us under his roof. The remainder of the blanks were easy to fill in, and my imagination did that quickly enough."
Again Pauline spoke soothingly and tenderly to her friend. She felt that she had unwittingly done mischief, and was distressed beyond measure at the impression produced on Gertrude. She pleaded again that she could not have imagined that she was touching on a forbidden subject, when it was one so well-known. That it was her own enthusiastic admiration for Mere Side, which had made her express what would be her feelings were she in Gertrude's place, at the very possibility of having to leave it.
Then she added, "Knowing how often you have spoken of your brother in such affectionate terms, and that he is honoured and respected by everyone, I thought you would love to know how his beautiful unselfishness is spoken of."
"I suppose I should appreciate it too in somebody else," replied Gertrude, trying to repress her angry feelings, or to prevent their being noticed. "But it has been a rude awakening for me. I have lived in a dream of comforts, luxuries, beautiful surroundings, to a share of which I thought I had as good a personal right as anyone who enjoyed them with me. I have been shaken out of my pleasant sleep to find that I can claim only a share in a mere pittance, and that I am a species of genteel pauper—a dependant on the charity of my stepbrother."
Poor Pauline! She attempted no further explanations. She was a little, tender, clinging creature, but withal an enthusiastic admirer of all that was generous or noble. Richard Whitmore's had seemed to her one of the most beautiful and unselfish of characters—a hero to be worshipped, though he was not externally suggestive of one.
Now she had done harm, both to Gertrude and to him. She was overwhelmed with distress, and, unable to think of anything else to say or do, she sat down and cried bitterly.
This was more than Gertrude bargained for when she used such harsh words, and now she found herself compelled to try and comfort Pauline.
"Dry your tears, you dear little thing," she said. "Pray do not take my hasty words for more than they are worth. Of course I was annoyed at first. Who would not be when they felt what they had looked on as firm ground crumbling away beneath their feet? It was a shock to me to hear such news for the first time, but no doubt Dick is the finest, dearest old darling in the world, and the best of brothers. Have I not cause to say so?"
"Oh, I am so glad you are not angry, and that you are taking things rightly, Gertrude. You make me quite frightened. But I understand. It was likely you should feel surprised, even angry, at the first look, as it were. Promise now that you will not repeat what I have said, but let all pass as if you had never heard it."
The childlike pleading tone and tearful eyes drew a smile from the stronger-minded girl. She put her arm caressingly round Pauline, and said, "I will promise not to say a word more about this matter until to-morrow morning, and then only to you. And you must promise that you will not repeat either my hasty expressions or anything that we have been talking about, until the same time."
Pauline promised gladly enough, and then retreated to her own room to try and remove the traces of tears, which were only too visible.
Gertrude walked slowly backwards and forwards in the grounds for some time before she returned to the house. Then the sound of the dressing bell reached her, and she went in to prepare for dinner. It was not often that she was betrayed into such an exhibition of feeling, and she was now angry at herself for not having shown more self-control. She wanted time to think over what she had heard, and it was for that purpose she had given to, and obtained from, Pauline the promise that, until the next day, no allusion should be made to the subject which had so agitated her.
For a girl of seventeen, Gertrude had no small amount of worldly wisdom. People said that Miss Whitmore had great individuality of character, she thought and decided so largely for herself, and often got her own way by dint of steady determination. And it was a remarkable fact that whilst each of the younger sisters had her pet name, and were Mina, Jo, and Molly, no one would ever have presumed to call the eldest Gerty.
GERTRUDE went early to bed that evening. She wanted to think over her conversation with Pauline, and felt that for such a purpose there could be nothing like the quiet of her own room. She was, beside, of an eminently practical turn of mind, and had no desire to look weary and hollow-eyed on the morrow, when there was to be a picnic specially got up in her honour, as the guest of the Tindalls.
"I am just a little tired," she said to Mrs. Tindall, "and as I want to look my best and be ready for any amount of rambling, I will say good-night now."
"This is very early, my dear, but I am sure you are wise, and Pauline will do well to follow your example. If only young people would believe it, there is no better preserver of good looks than early hours," replied Mrs. Tindall.
Gertrude assented, and managed to get her thinking done soon enough to allow of some "beauty sleep." She came down in the morning in a charming but simple dress, looking as gay and bright as though nothing had occurred to disturb her on the preceding day.
She was especially affectionate to Pauline, and answered her friend's inquiring look with a frank smile. A little later, amid the bustle of preparation for starting, she whispered in her friend's ear, "Pauline, I was very cross and stupid yesterday. I took an altogether wrong view of things. Forgive my ill-tempers, darling, and, if you can, forget them, as I want to forget what caused them."
Pauline's face brightened. "I am so glad," she replied. "I felt quite distressed last night, because I had been the cause of the trouble. I never meant it. I could not have guessed that you—"
"Hush, darling!" and Gertrude placed her hand playfully on Pauline's lips. "Do not let us go over the ground again. The only thing I ask is that you will not say another word about it. You could only suppose I knew all as well as yourself. I understand the kindness which kept my position and that of the girls at home a secret from ourselves. I was a very naughty child, and you the sweet, sympathetic little friend you always are."
"And shall you not say a word at home—I mean to your mother, or Mr. Richard?"
"Not a word. I decided last night, before I went to sleep even, that since my mother and stepbrother had not chosen to speak about money matters, neither would I. Do you not think I may be well content to go on as I have hitherto done, enjoying the good things of this world without troubling to ask myself who paid for them?"
"I think so, Gertrude, dear—that is, in one sense. When the good things are given by such a kind hand as that of your brother, there can be no painful feeling of obligation in taking. I do believe he is just one of those whose 'heart grows rich in giving,' and that he delights in making everybody happy—most of all his mother and sisters."
"My mother, not his, really," replied Gertrude.
"That makes it all the nicer, does it not? Who could tell that they were not really mother and son? Why think about the fact at all, when he so willingly forgets it, and Mrs. Whitmore loves him as her own? Do you know, Gertrude, you called him your 'stepbrother' to-day. I never heard you use the term before, and to me it sounded horribly harsh, seeing you are all children of one father."
"Did I?" replied Gertrude. "Ah, well, only one heard it; and, if you please, we will now have done with this matter, once and for all. Mrs. Tindall is wanting our help. It is shocking to desert her, even for a few moments."
Gertrude hastened to offer her assistance in packing some sweets which required careful handling, and soon she and the rest of the party were on their way to the place selected for the picnic.
Never had Pauline seen her friend more apparently gay and light-hearted, and the girl rejoiced that the impression produced by her unfortunate allusions had already passed away. She was, however, mistaken.
Gertrude did not, and could not, forget. Through that day and after came again and again the haunting thought, "I am only a pensioner on Richard's bounty. Only one of the second wife's children—the portionless wife of a man who had little to leave for her and his daughters. It is plain what people think. How grateful we ought to be that we are allowed to live as if we were rich, when we have next to nothing! I wish, how I wish, that I, at any rate, had been justly dealt with, and brought up with a full knowledge that I am a poor girl, who may at any time, be sent out into the world to battle for my daily bread."
In spite of these bitter thoughts, Gertrude was quite in earnest when she told Pauline that she should say nothing of what she had learned through her words. The girl liked her life of luxury, her beautiful surroundings, her freedom from present care. She was not prepared to give up these, even while she inwardly rebelled against receiving as her brother's gift what she had always deemed her own by right of being her father's daughter, as Richard was his son. So she shut up all these thoughts in her own mind, and returned home to live the old life and enjoy as best she might the sweets of it, though sometimes the one bitter drop would partly spoil the flavour of the rest.
Much, however, as Gertrude might strive to conceal what she felt, everyone noticed a change in her manner towards her brother, though none could account for it. "Brother Dick" was the term hitherto used by all the girls in speaking of him, but the bare "Richard" became Gertrude's substitute for the more endearing expression, ever after her return home.
Once, to Mrs. Whitmore's intense surprise, she called him her stepbrother to some visitors at Mere Side.
"Gertrude, why did you speak of Dick by that name?" asked her mother, with a pained look on her face.
"It is right, is it not? Surely there was no harm in using the correct term for once!" she replied in half-jesting, half-defiant tone. "Richard is my stepbrother."
"Undoubtedly he is. But, dear child, consider what he has been to me, to us all. I could not bear to call him my stepson. I rejoice, I am proud, thankful that I have had one like him to stand by me and give to me a mother's name and a son's love. I would not have him hear you speak of him as you did to-day for the world."
"I did not mean to trouble you, mother; you may be sure of that. I will always call him Richard; and I am sure I wish he were my real brother, instead of being only half and half."
The words jarred on Mrs. Whitmore's ear, though she echoed Gertrude's wish without realising its double meaning. But the sarcastic laugh which the girl gave, and a certain hardness of manner when Richard was spoken of, alike grieved and puzzled her mother. She hardly knew how to speak on the subject, but kept hoping that if during Gertrude's absence from home she had received some undesirable impression, it would be best removed by time and the absence of any allusion to it.
But three years passed, and still an unseen barrier stood between Richard and his eldest sister; yet though everyone felt its existence, and dated it from Gertrude's visit to the Tindalls, she had adhered to her resolve, and never named the cause of her changed manner. Indeed, she would have felt ashamed to lay bare her thoughts, even to her mother. She could not help being conscious of her unreasonableness in feeling indignant at Richard, simply because he had alike the power and the will to shower good things upon them all, and did it with a large-hearted affection which never allowed the thought to intrude itself, that they had no legal claim to share equally with him.
Selfishness would not permit Gertrude to relinquish what she so thoroughly enjoyed, but her appreciation did not stir her to thankfulness to God or gratitude to her brother. Often, instead of these, she would shed bitter tears at the thought of her dependence on Richard's pleasure, and call herself a mere pauper in the sight of the world.
If ever there was a time when the nobility of Richard Whitmore's character shone out with greater lustre than at others, it was in his dealings with his sister Gertrude. He could not be unconscious that she regarded him with less affection than of old; and if he guessed the cause of the change, he said nothing. He simply met it with unvarying kindness, snaking no difference between one and another of the girls, except that she, as the eldest, had in some respects more and handsomer dresses than the younger ones, as became a lady after her introduction to society.
So three years passed, and brought about little change in the relations between the two, but at the end of the time came the day when Richard stood beside Mrs. Whitmore, and soothed her last hours by the promise, "As you have been a true mother to me, so will I be to the girls all that you say—God helping me." Then he had driven away her anxieties about the future by brave and trustful words, and Mrs. Whitmore put from her mind the last anxious thought by repeating to herself what he had bidden her remember, "Dick does not stand alone. His father's God is his God also, and trusting in Him for strength, according to his day, he can never be desolate, or in doubt as to the course which is right."
Yet it was a solemn responsibility for so young a man to take upon himself. Dick was just twenty-six and Gertrude twenty, the others following at intervals of two years each, so that Molly, his special darling, was fourteen when left without father and mother.
She was a warm-hearted, impulsive creature, to whom Dick had been from her earliest days playfellow, friend, confidant, and protector, as well as brother. To Molly there was no one in the world like Richard. As a child she would have left any person or thing only to be by his side, to wait his leisure, or to trot patiently up and down after or for him.
It was to him she fled for comfort in trouble at all times, and especially when this crowning sorrow of her young life came upon her. The three elder girls wept together. Molly stole into the library, where Dick sat alone after he had given the needful orders and spoken a few loving words to the rest. She did not trouble him with passionate tears or outbreaks of wailing and sobbing, but in truly unselfish fashion tried to repress these for his sake.
Dick drew the child on his knee, and, clasping her in his arms, the two sat in silence in a great low chair in the library. Many a time had she coiled herself up in it, and fallen asleep by his side, when he was busy or deep in study, and could not give her immediate attention; for, while nominally of no profession, and leading the life of a country gentleman, his time was fully and usefully employed.
In the depths of Molly's favourite chair and encircled by Dick's loving arms, the child found the best of earthly comfort. As her head rested on his breast, he could note the effort she made to suppress her sobs, while little guessing that Dick was also exercising equal self-control for her sake. He could feel the heaving of her breast as they thus sat in silence, and from time to time, as she clung more closely to him, he would smooth back the shining curls and kiss her tenderly.
At last Molly could no longer restrain her tears.
"We did so love her, Dick, didn't we?" she said, as if in excuse for breaking down.
"We did, darling Molly, and we do, for the end of life here is not the end of all things for us. We shall meet our dear mother again. But it is natural to weep, because we are left outside, whilst mother has passed through the golden gates before us."
And then he spoke to his favourite of the Father's home above, and happy meetings there, and the absence of sorrow and tears for all those who had been taught by the Holy Spirit to trust in Jesus as a precious Saviour. He pictured their joy in meeting Him who had loved them and given Himself for them, until at last Molly was carried away from the sad realities of present bereavement to picture in her mind also what Dick was telling her about. At last, wearied with all she had gone through, the child fell asleep, and sooner than disturb her, Richard sat on until the room was dark, and his limbs cramped with keeping them in the same position for so long a time.
The others found them at last, and even Gertrude's heart was touched as she looked at the pair of true friends—one watching, the other sleeping profoundly.
"Oh, Richard, we have wondered where you could be!" she said. "There was no light, or we should have looked for you here, but we knew wherever you were we should find Molly. How tired you must be holding that great girl in your arms asleep."
"I could not bear to wake her," said Dick, simply. "Whilst the dear child sleeps, she forgets."
RICHARD WHITMORE was left sole executor and guardian to his sisters. This was to be expected, as Mrs. Whitmore had the power to appoint, in accordance with the will of her late husband. And who could be so fit for such a trust as Dick? Indeed, the mother was beyond measure thankful that he was of an age to undertake it.
As to the little property which their father had it in his power to bequeath, that was to be equally divided amongst the girls after the mother's death, each taking her share as she came of age.
The division would present no difficulty, as the property was purely personal, and had been carefully invested during Mr. Whitmore's lifetime. In the meanwhile, outsiders who knew the circumstances of the younger members of the family, wondered what arrangements Richard would make for the girls. Would all go on as before, or would a difference be made now the mother was gone? So long as Richard remained a bachelor it might answer very well to keep the girls about him, to brighten the home as of old. But were he to marry, how would a young wife like to come amongst such a tribe of sisters? And seven years must pass before Molly, the youngest of them, would be of age.
They were fine, handsome, and intellectual girls, and some of them might soon marry, for Gertrude was now twenty and Mina eighteen. But they had not much to bring in the way of dowry, and girls brought up as they had been—"shamefully indulged," said one lady of vinegarish aspect—were no wives for poor men.
"Perhaps Mr. Richard will do something more for his sisters," suggested a listener, little Miss Pease.
"Better teach them to do with less, and especially Miss Gertrude; not to act as if they were heiresses, and could carry all before them. Remember, they have no claim on Richard Maynard Whitmore. All he has, came from the Maynards, and through his mother. To be sure, they are children of the same father, but from Mr. Whitmore Dick does not get a penny-piece. They have his share of the father's little property to swell their portions, seeing it is divided into four parts instead of five. Richard's property has been taxed enough already, for they have all lived upon it from the time of his mother's marriage until now. It was not what Mr. Whitmore had that kept the family in princely style at Mere Side. They have had no trifle out of Richard Whitmore," retorted Miss Sharp, the keen-visaged lady alluded to.
"I do not believe he ever made such a calculation in his life," replied the other. "He only considers how much happiness he can give to others, and especially his sisters."
"They are only half-sisters," persisted Miss Sharp.
"It would be a pity to remind him of the fact. He would feel so much the poorer," answered Miss Pease, with a smile. She understood Richard Whitmore.
"What an extraordinary remark! I should think that he would be much poorer in reality, for having that tribe of girls hanging on him. Besides, he knows they have no claim on him, and that they are half-sisters, whatever you or anybody else may say."
"Happily for them and himself, he does not give them a half share of brotherly love. I believe he would be deeply wounded if they, or anyone else, alluded to him as their stepbrother. You see they have been so entirely brought up together, and Richard's own mother died so soon, that she seemed to have slipped out of the family, so to speak, before there was any question of calculating kinship."
"What an absurd speech, my dear Miss Pease, if you will forgive my saying so! Of course the first Mrs. Whitmore was gone, or there could not have been a second. And a very good thing for Amy Christie that her husband did not marry her first, and that Miss Maynard that was, Dick's mother, could not take her money with her. But do you think things will go on just in the old way at Mere Side? I do not envy Dick the guardianship of Miss Gertrude. That girl will plague him yet."
"I cannot tell," replied Miss Pease. "Though we are great friends, Richard has not mentioned his plans to me, probably because he has made none. Knowing him as I do, I should think he will try to make the home all that it has hitherto been to the girls, only without the mother, and that his great sorrow will be that he has her the less to love and care for."
Miss Pease was right in her judgment of Richard. As to three out of the four girls their minds were disturbed by no anxieties. So far, their lives had been as happy as love could make them. They could have no fears for the future, when they thought of what Richard had been in the past.
"We cannot bring our dear mother back by our tears and sorrow," said Dick, his voice trembling and his kind eyes moist with tears, for he was so manly that he was not ashamed to weep with the rest. "All we can do is to remember the beautiful example she set us, her loving ways and wise words, and to love each other all the more for her dear sake."
They kissed him and each other, Gertrude amongst the rest, and were thankful, oh, so thankful that they had Dick—no one but Dick—to look up to in the place of the parents who were gone.
If Miss Sharp could have read his thoughts, she would have found that, instead of calculating how long it would be before Molly's majority would enable him to wash his hands of all legal responsibility about "that tribe of girls," he was rejoicing that for seven years to come he could claim the precious privilege of watching over the youngest darling. As to the others, this was what Dick said in his heart—
"In the nature of things, I must part with them by degrees. They are sure to be sought after for their own sakes, and I can easily save, to increase their little portions. We shall live very quietly for the next twelve months, at any rate. What a blessing it is that families are scattered by degrees I can hardly lose more than one at a time; and as for Molly, seven years is a good while to look forward to."
After the first days of sorrow were over, Gertrude's mind was much exercised as to what would be her own position in the family. Would Richard allow her to sit in her mother's seat and act as mistress? If he did this then she would acknowledge him as a brother indeed, though conscience told her that she did not deserve such confidence.
Richard, however, had no intention of placing his sister in such a position. He felt that she was too young to be looked up to by the girls nearest in age to herself, or to guide the reins of a large establishment like that at Mere Side, and he frankly told her so.
"If it were a matter of looking graceful and pouring out tea, or doing a host of feminine matters, I know of no one who would do better than yourself. But the housekeeping would be too heavy a weight for such young shoulders. Wait a moment, dear—" for Gertrude was about to protest that she was able for all, if he would trust her. "I am not old enough or wise enough to be father and mother. I can only be the big brother to you girls. We must have a good woman in the house for all our sakes."
Then Richard told her that he had thought of Miss Pease, their mother's friend, and of similar age, but he had not spoken to her as yet.
"I want you girls to think if there is any one whom we could all like better. You are the eldest, Gertrude, and so I have named this to you first, that you may talk it over with the rest. You know there must be some motherly lady to act as your chaperone and my friend, but I will not ask Miss Pease unless there is a unanimous vote in her favour."
There was such a vote. Miss Pease was invited to come to Mere Side, and, as Richard put it to herself, "to be as much of a mother to all of us as you possibly can."
The little lady almost said "No" to begin with, but she was persuaded to take time, and finally said "Yes."
Miss Sharp found plenty to occupy her in criticising this arrangement, since she could not alter it, and declared that she could now understand Miss Pease's persistent praise of Richard Whitmore. Mrs. Whitmore had long been delicate, and no doubt she had reckoned on being asked to fill her shoes after a fashion.
"She has fawned on Mrs. Whitmore and praised up Richard in the most bare-faced manner," said Miss Sharp. "What a pity it is that the owner of Mere Side is such a young man, and that Miss Pease is old enough to be his mother, or else she might perhaps have hung up her bonnet there once and for altogether."
There are always Miss Sharps in the world, ready to misjudge their neighbours, and to attribute motives for the conduct of those who are better than themselves, which would never have entered into the minds of those they criticise. The speaker was as unable to understand Miss Pease as she was to appreciate Richard Whitmore. Little did she guess that, so far from being eager to take such a responsibility on herself, it was with fear and trembling, and after much thought and many prayers, that she consented to live at Mere Side as a friend and companion to the family.
Gertrude consented to the arrangement, not because she wished it, but because she was convinced from Richard's manner that it would either be Miss Pease or somebody else, and she know of no one whom she would prefer to her mother's friend.
"I am sure I could have managed the housekeeping," she said, "with Wharton's help. She has spent most of her life in the family, and really does all the practical part, Richard."
"But, my dear, you forget, just as I am apt to do, that after all I am a young man and a bachelor. How could you have your young girl friends here if there were no older lady to beam propriety over the domestic circle?"
"I thought of that at once, Dick," said Mina. "Of course, there must be some one who will be a little like the dear mother, and to whom we can go as we used to do to her. Jo and I thank you very much for Miss Pease, and if mother could have chosen for us, she would have said the same."
"Perhaps she did choose," replied Dick. "Only I wanted to know how you felt as well. You may like her all the better for being told that our mother, foreseeing that she would have to leave us, herself suggested the friend she loved as most suitable to fill the place in one sense. I had to tell Miss Pease this before she agreed to come. What do you think about it, Molly?"—to the girl who was clinging to his arm.
"That what mother and you settled must be the very best thing," she replied, squeezing the arm a little more closely.
There was only one discordant echo, and that was not in word, but in thought. Gertrude said to herself—
"I shall not put Miss Pease in my mother's place, or consult her and make her a confidante. She will be housekeeper and chaperone, if needs must, but that will be all. As to other girls coming here, I want none of them."
It was after some deliberation in her own room that Gertrude spied her brother in the garden, and asked for a few moments' quiet talk with him, and she found it rather difficult to begin when they both met in his little room; but Richard's kindly, "What is it, dear?" and the way in which he sat down beside her, so as to take away all appearance of formality from their talk, emboldened her to speak.
"I thought," she said, "that we should be told something about our circumstances. I know my mother had no need to make a will, but we girls are quite ignorant about our father's affairs, and as to what means we shall have of our very own. I wish you would tell us."
"Do the others—I mean, Mina and Jo—want to know?" asked Dick, rather nervously.
Gertrude would not say yes, for she could not, so she replied—
"I am sure they would like to be told. It is only natural."
Dick hesitated a moment; then in a half-jesting way he answered—
"For a year to come even you are my ward, and I am the guardian of your property and dear self, Gertrude. The others will be in the same position for longer periods—that is, until they are of age or marry with my consent."
"Do you mean to say I should have to ask it too?"
"I suppose so, Gertrude, since I am your lawfully appointed guardian. It does seem absurd, does it not? But there could hardly be a difference made between you and the rest. You need not mind that, dear; for if the fairy prince should come, we will receive him with all due honour."
The girl could scarcely listen patiently. She felt more angry than ever at the position in which she found herself. She had hoped by concealing her knowledge of her comparative dependence, that possibly she might be allowed to rule as mistress of Mere Side, until she should leave it for a home of her own. Instead of that, she was in double leading-strings, under Dick and Miss Pease, and must endure them for a year to come. She, however, preserved an appearance of calmness, and asked another question.
"Tell me, Richard, what I have to look forward to? I know my father left something to be divided amongst us girls, and surely I am old enough to be informed what?"
"For a year to come you can have—from our father's property, I mean—an allowance of one hundred and twenty-five pounds. That is a settled amount. After that a principal sum will be absolutely yours—how much I cannot tell at present; it will depend on circumstances. Only you may believe me, dear, that your interests are in safe hands, and that whatever you are entitled to will not diminish during the next twelve months. You know," he added, "there is no longer the dear mother to require a share of it."
Gertrude appeared satisfied.
"Thank you, Richard," she said. "I hope you have not thought me very troublesome or needlessly inquisitive. It was natural I should ask, was it not?"
"Quite natural, Gertrude. Never hesitate to speak to me about anything. I am only too glad when you come to me for any information I can give."
The girl left him, and Dick's face assumed a brighter expression.
"That is well over," thought he. "I have been rather dreading this, and I am glad I have been able to satisfy her quite truthfully without telling her too much. In a year's time I shall be better prepared to speak, and in seven I shall only be thirty-three. I can do a great deal by contriving matters in seven years. Besides, I am not tied to keep every acre; I can sell some if I choose."
Gertrude went straight to her room without troubling herself to impart what Richard had told her to Mina and Jo. She threw herself on a couch, and burst into a perfect passion of tears.
"I know," she said, speaking aloud in her anger. "He could not deceive me. The money I am to receive as an allowance is the interest of my fortune—the exact sum to which I am lawfully entitled. All the rest I owe to charity. My fortune, indeed! It is a shame! A cruel shame!"
If only the girl's vision had been clearer, if she could but have judged rightly, she would have seen that the only one on whom the shadow of shame rested was herself, because of her unthankfulness for past and present blessings, and worse than ingratitude to the true heart whose unselfish affection only desired to continue them, without even allowing her to know that she owed them to him.
Three days later a tall, graceful girl, dressed in deep mourning and closely veiled, applied in the proper quarter for a sight of the late Mr. Whitmore's will. It was Gertrude, who, being at Salchester, the county town, with Miss Pease, managed to obtain the wished-for opportunity by asking to be left in the cathedral, whilst her gentle chaperone went on a shopping expedition.
"I cannot bear to be in the streets and business places," she said. "I will wait for you here."
"I can quite understand your feelings, dear Gertrude," replied Miss Pease. "I will come back for you as soon as possible."
The office at which Gertrude wished to call was within the Close, and long before Miss Pease returned the girl had effected the object for which she had really accompanied her to Salchester. The result of the search was exactly what she had expected. The sum total of her father's property would bring in a trifle less than five hundred a year. Richard was dealing generously with her in giving her a full fourth of that amount for her private use, as it was all on which she had any legal claim.
MERE SIDE deserved all the praises bestowed upon it by Pauline Tindall. The house was really almost new, and had replaced one that was old-fashioned and inconvenient. It had been built and partially furnished out of some of the funds which had accumulated during Dick's minority. When people admired it, he was accustomed to say, "The mother and I built it. We were planning it for a couple of years before I came of age, so we were ready to begin at once when I had sufficient command of money. It owes far more to her than it does either to the architect or myself."
Truly there were plenty of more pretentious-looking places round about, for that portion of Saltshire abounded in handsome country residences. Mere Side was so delightfully homely that people scarcely thought of its costliness, but rather of the thought and taste expended upon it. There was nothing of glare or glitter about it, and it would certainly have disappointed a vulgar rich owner, whose great object might have been to secure as much show as possible in return for the expenditure. But every article of furniture was exactly suited, both for the place it occupied and for comfort and use.
Ask Richard to name the style of architecture, and he answered, "It is peculiar to the county. We call it 'Old Saltshire,' because the best really old houses that remain are in this style; only we have had to make some innovations to meet modern requirements. It is a sort of Early English. You see the lower half is in red brick and the upper half timbered, but the ivy has run up so fast that it has nearly covered the red, and already touches the black and white. We shall not allow it to stretch any higher. Now this angle window is genuine Saltshire. You never meet with just the same thing in any other county." And he would pause before one of his favourite corners.
This angle window was in the morning-room, and was perhaps the most delightful nook in the place. It was thrown across the corner of the room to the right of the tiled fireplace, just where two walls formed a right angle. It was, indeed, a square bay, and to sit in it was like being out of doors, as it was glazed to within two feet of the floor and nearly to the ceiling, the upper part in delicately tinted glass, the lower sashes being plain and opening lengthwise. The view from it was picturesque and extensive, owing to its peculiar position, which commanded two sides. Two dainty low chairs and a little writing table furnished this recess. One seat was sacred to Mrs. Whitmore's use whilst she lived. The other was called Brother Dick's, but, like everything else supposed to belong to him, was common property, and very largely appropriated by the rest in turn.
The angle window was entered from the room by an archway, draped in summer with exquisite lace curtains. In winter these were supplemented by others of rich Oriental stuff, lined with pale blue silk. Most of the happy talks between Dick and the mother took place in the angle window, and there she would sit, especially during the last weeks, watching him busy amongst the roses. He was an enthusiast about flowers, and she would smile and sympathise when he brought some dainty bloom to offer her, carrying it tenderly, as became one who loved these fair creations.
Dick was so used to her gentle presence there that, as he told Miss Pease, "I can hardly bear to look up at the angle now, I was so accustomed to see her there and meet her smile, or go to stand on the slope and chat with her from time to time. It was my favourite corner; but the charm has in great part gone, though the girls all like it, and Molly coaxes me into it sometimes. You must take care, now the dark evenings are coming on and the heavy curtains hung up, that you do not talk secrets in the morning-room without first looking to see that no one is hiding behind them. Two persons might be concealed there, and their presence be unsuspected when the curtains are down."
"I am not likely to say anything that others might not hear, and if I began telling secrets, no one in this house would hide for the purpose of listening. I hope, however, the vacant seat will one day be worthily filled by a younger Mrs. Whitmore."
"Thank you. I am sure you mean it, and I hope so too. But I must wait a few years to accomplish a purpose of mine. There will be time enough after that, if I live, and I am keeping no one waiting, for I have not yet seen her whom I should like to place in the dear mother's chair. It is ten months since we lost her, and how much the girls and I owe to you! You have got on wonderfully well with them."
"Yes, they have been very sweet and kind to me. Only Gertrude's manner puzzles me as much as ever. One would think she would wish for the society of other girls of similar age; but I think, if she might have her way, she would not allow any to cross the threshold of Mere Side. Mina and Jo are quite different, and yet for some reason they give in to their eldest sister."
"I sometimes think," said Dick, in a half-musing way, "that Gertrude dislikes the idea of being even nominally under my authority, though I cross her in nothing. In another two months she will be her own mistress. Then we shall see if there is a change."
It was only a few days after this, that the three elder girls were talking together in the morning-room. They entered it in the twilight, the curtains being already drawn, and sat down by the fire to talk.
Mina was evidently annoyed about something.
"I am tired of this, Gertrude," she said. "Of course it was right, and we all felt it as much as yourself, that we should live quietly for a good while after we lost mother. But if it had not been for going abroad, and having a change from home now and then, I could scarcely have endured the sort of isolation to which you would condemn us. Dick does not wish it. Miss Pease urges us to have young friends to stay with us; but you always oppose every suggestion of the kind, until Mere Side is like a nunnery. And you look mysterious, and drop hints about something which, if we knew, would make us feel with you. I hate secrets and mysteries. Tell us why you want to shut the door in the face of every girl friend."
"Because I realise, and you do not, what would be the consequence to us all if Richard were to marry."
Mina and Jo burst into a fit of ringing, girlish laughter.
"If Dick wanted to marry, do you think he would be hindered by you? You may make the house as dull as you please, but you cannot lock him up in it."
"I know that, but I diminish probabilities. Richard studies so much, and seems so contented without the company of dangerous characters, that I do not see why we should bring them into his presence."
"You really are too ridiculous, Gertrude, and, if I must say it, abominably selfish," said Jo. "If Brother Dick had a wife to-morrow, she would till her own lawful place in his heart, and we should keep ours. Why, Gertrude, you are jealous of a shadow."
"Am I?" was the cool response.
"Well, tell us if there is a substance in the case," said Mina. "Don't be mysterious. What would happen to us if Dick took to himself a wife? I say it would be delightful to have a nice sister-in-law—only in that case, I suppose, we could not keep darling Miss Pease."
"Do you suppose we girls should have a home here with Richard and his wife?" asked Gertrude.
"If not, we should have a good one somewhere near, with Miss Pease to take care of us; for perhaps we should be too many to stay with Dick, though I believe nothing would persuade him to part with Molly."
"You simpletons! Richard can afford to be generous now, as an unmarried man; but you would soon find out, were he to take a wife. I may as well tell you what I have known for some years past. We four girls have only a mere pittance of our very own. Mere Side is Richard's, with all the land and money, except about ten thousand pounds. That, divided into four, will be the fortunes of Mr. Whitmore's daughters."
"I always understood that the home was Dick's." said Mina. "Knowing that, I gave myself no trouble. Whilst he has it, we have a home too."
"Not if he marries. I only hope you may not find out the mistake you are making in trusting to Richard's continued generosity. He has been good so far. He could hardly have turned us out; but it will come to that some day, and it is better we should accustom ourselves to the prospect."
Gertrude rose and left the room; the others followed; and when all was still, and the sound of their footsteps could be heard no longer, a scared-looking young face, fringed with sunny hair, peeped from between the curtains which hid the angle window.
It was Molly's. The girl had been sitting watching the sunset, and remained to enjoy the lovely tints after it had disappeared. When her sisters entered, she remained quiet, never dreaming of listening, and then she felt as if she could not move from the spot. Gertrude's hard words about darling Brother Dick roused her indignation, and her heart swelled within her at the thought of her selfishness.
Released by the departure of the speakers, Molly rushed away from her hiding-place and across the hall to the library. Without waiting a moment, the impulsive girl ran towards her brother, and exclaimed—
"Dick, I have done a horridly mean thing; but I did not intend to do it. I must tell you all about it."
With an eagerness that would not be checked, she told him all that had passed.
"It was all Gertrude," she added, "not a bit Mina or Jo. You ought to know why she is so strange, and wants the others to be like her. And, Dick, if you do get married you will not send us all away from Mere Side. Jo said you would never part with me, and you will not, dear Dick. Say you will not. And oh! I want us to be together always. Forgive me for staying to hear. I could not help it."
"Molly, I am sorry, in one sense, that you listened, yet not sorry that I know what you heard. But you and I must keep all this to ourselves. Poor Gertrude! Some day she will be sorry, and will know me better."
"Thank you, Dick. I will not say a word," and Molly ran away with a lightened heart, leaving her brother to finish his letters, but only after she had received his solemn assurance that he would never part with her, until she should give somebody else leave to carry her off, ever so many years hence. He could not lecture her, because he knew Molly too well to think that the listening had been an act of deliberate meanness.
Gertrude's twenty-first birthday came and went.
She refused to have it made an occasion for special festivity, but it was marked by loving gifts from each and all the rest.
To Richard's relief his sister said nothing about her little fortune, and Molly's revelation proved to him that by some means or other she was already well informed about pecuniary matters, and knew that she was receiving the interest of the amount she was entitled to on her coming of age.
"She is becoming more reasonable," thought he. "Poor girl! It does seem hard that one son should have so much, and that the others, who are children of the same father, so little in comparison. I think she is gradually beginning to trust me, and to be content that I should make up the deficiency. It is my privilege to do it for the mother's sake—not an unwelcome burden, to be lightened as much as possible."
As to Gertrude, she was silent from motives of policy, or, to give it a right name, pure selfishness.
"If I appeared to know, I should be miserable. I will go on as I have done and say nothing," was the resolution which marked her twenty-first birthday.
Richard also came to a firm decision with regard to social matters. He was determined that Gertrude's influence should not be allowed to mar the brightness of the home, and he took open counsel with Mina, Jo, and Miss Pease as to inviting friends to Mere Side, and forming plans for their enjoyment.
He gave Gertrude every opportunity for joining in each and all of these, but she listened quietly and simply stood aloof.
She could hardly do this when longer days came round, and the disused tennis-lawn was pronounced to be in perfect condition. So again the lovely grounds were peopled by young forms, and the sound of merry voices and laughter were heard, Dick sometimes joining vigorously in a tennis tournament, or rowing the elder guests on the little lake, the most timid professing to feel safe under his guardianship.
As the days passed, and no harm seemed to be done, but rather good, Gertrude decided that perhaps there was safety in numbers, for Richard appeared to be equally kind to all the girl guests. So she, too, became more genial in her ways, and enjoyed the society of old friends, and was, to Dick's special delight, a girl once more.
One day Gertrude ran towards her brother, with her handsome face flushed with exercise and success, to tell him of a tennis victory she had just won.
He congratulated her, and taking hold of her hands in his, he held her at arm's length for a moment, whilst he surveyed her with a look of frank admiration.
"Gertrude, you have been growing younger and bonnier every day since you arrived at woman's estate," he said. "People say that girls are always in a hurry to reach twenty-one, and afterwards would count backwards if they could. You seem to be counting backwards in looks, dear. Talk about Mere Side roses! There are none amongst them, lovely as they are, that deserve to be named beside my cluster of sisters. I must be the envy of the countryside."
Gertrude felt not a little self-reproached as she looked at that kind, true face, and knew that Richard meant all he said, and that she was unworthy of his unselfish, brotherly affection. A feeling to which she had long been a stranger moved her to lessen the distance between him and herself, and to lift her face to kiss him.
His arms were round her in a moment, and he held her to him in a loving clasp, then releasing her after another kiss, he said, softly, "God bless you, Gertrude, now and always! He knows I am happy in seeing you so."
"You are the best of brothers, Dick," she replied, and then ran away, dashing a suspicious moisture from her eyes as she went.
And Richard said to himself, "Love must conquer in the end. We are brother and sister once again."
If it had but lasted!
THERE was one thing about Miss Pease's conduct which even Miss Sharp could not find fault with. She brought none of her own relatives to stay at Mere Side.
At stated times she visited them, but on one fine morning at the beginning of July the little lady was thrown into a flutter of excitement by the receipt of an Indian letter.
Eager to impart her good news, she said, "My brother, James, is coming home at last. He is on his way now. How delighted I am at the prospect of seeing him, for it is ten years since we met, and he is my only brother living! And I shall see Norah too, my pet and goddaughter, such a dear child she is. You have heard me speak of her."
Everybody rejoiced with Miss Pease, whose life had been a lonely one before she took up her abode at Mere Side, and congratulated her on the happy prospect before her.
"But Norah is not with her father," said Mina.
"Oh dear no. She has been with my brother William's widow, who has two girls and a boy. Norah and her cousins have been educated together. William left his family very well-off, and since his death my sister-in-law has had no settled home, but has travelled from place to place, in order to give her young people every possible educational advantage."
"Then I suppose they will come to London to meet your brother," suggested Richard.
"They cannot at present, and James could scarcely expect it. No. He has arranged for Norah to be sent to England under safe convoy, and he wants me to meet her in London on the 4th of July. Dear me, how sudden! And this is the 2nd. I scarcely know what to do, though it would be very awkward not to go."
"My dear Miss Pease, you must not think of anything else," said Richard. "You must go to-morrow, and I will run up to town with you, for I should have gone this week in any case. Just put the domestic reins into Gertrude's hands in the meanwhile. She is a grown-up young lady now, remember, and will hold them firmly as well as gracefully."
Gertrude's smile was pleasant to behold, and so the matter was settled, Richard having announced that he should only be one night absent.
"Is your niece like any of us?" asked Molly, who felt a special interest in the "dear child," whose name was so often on Miss Pease's lips whilst she was preparing for her journey.
"She is most like you, Molly—very fair and slender, but not skinny, you know. In fact, as a little thing she always reminded me of a kitten, she was so round and graceful, whilst her cousin Nelly, who is the same age, was spoken of as 'all elbows.'"
"Has she red hair, like mine?" asked Molly, desirous of a more particular description.
"Yours is not red, my dear. It is a lovely shade, and Norah's is not unlike it, and just as abundant, or at least it was four years ago. Your hair, Molly, is what, I have heard my German friends call the 'Gretchen' shade, because they associate it with the heroine in 'Faust.'"
"I wish you could bring her back with you."
"I wish I could, but Norah's father will want her to himself for some time to come. They have been so long parted, and she is all he has."
"Where is Norah coming from, Miss Pease?"
"Somewhere in Switzerland. They spent the winter in Italy, then came further north as it grew warmer. Norah will have the one long journey between Geneva and Paris, rest a few hours, and then come on to London."
From all that had been said the Whitmore girls concluded that Norah Pease was about Molly's age, namely, In her sixteenth year, but she was really nineteen.
The little lady thought and talked of the girl as if Time had stood still with her since they last met, and had really forgotten the change that must have taken place.
Richard Whitmore returned without having seen either Colonel Pease or his daughter, so was unable to answer the volley of questions by which he was assailed.
"Miss Pease was comfortably established at the hotel selected by her brother, and had received a telegram announcing his arrival. She hoped to see him almost immediately. I thought it better not to intrude upon such a meeting by staying until he came," he replied.
Miss Pease wrote letters which showed that she was brimming over with gladness; but as the days went on a difficulty arose as to her return to Mere Side.
"My brother has much business to attend to, and will have a great deal of travelling before he can settle down. There is no one but myself to look after Norah. What can I do but stay with the child?"
"Bring her here, I should say," suggested Mina. "By all accounts she knows very little of her native country, for she went to India a tiny child, came back, lost her mother, and since then has wandered to and fro on the earth under her aunt's wing. May she come here, Dick, and enjoy a summer holiday in England?"
"I can have no objection, dear. In fact, it is the best possible solution to the difficulty. Then we shall get our dear little house-mother back again, and as soon as Colonel Pease can spare time for a rest he shall come too, if he will. Mere Side will be a real home for him amongst you girls, until he can fix on one for himself. He means to buy a handsome place somewhere."
Miss Pease was delighted when the cordial invitation came, and actually written in Gertrude's hand. She was longing for the dear niece to meet the girls to whom she was so warmly attached, and she was utterly weary of hotel life after a fortnight's experience, and with but little of her brother's society, owing to unavoidable causes. So she sent a grateful acceptance on North's behalf, and herself carried to Mere Side a message from Colonel Pease, who promised to spend his first spare week there.
The little lady was warmly welcomed by the Whitmore girls on her return, and her niece was also received in a manner that charmed both. They were all, however, surprised to find that the new guest, though a girl, was about Mina's age, instead of Molly's.
The latter expressed what the rest felt when, after embracing Miss Pease with equal vigour and affection, she exclaimed, "Why, your niece is a grown-up young lady. I thought she was a girl like me, and that we should all call her Norah."
"She will be very much distressed if you call her anything else," said the girl herself. "I am very sorry for the misapprehension, but you must please not blame my aunt for it. The mistake she made was not a wilful one."
"The fact is, Molly dear, that I never calculated on Norah being grown-up any more than you did, but kept picturing her as very much the same as when I last saw her, forgetting that Time had not stood still with the child any more than with the rest of us."
They felt that Miss Pease had been herself mistaken, and when she added, "You must not like my Norah any less on account of her aunt's blunder," a chorus of welcoming words came from the girls, after which the young guest was conveyed to her room.
"I think she is one of the most charming young creatures I ever saw," said Jo, and Mina echoed the expression.
"What do you think of Norah, Gertrude?"
"I quite agree with you both," was the answer; and in her heart she added, "I wish she were not so charming."
Richard was absent when the arrival took place, but on his return in the early evening, he glanced towards the doorway, and saw not only his pet Molly on the look-out for his coming, but a sort of glorified Molly near her.
It was a girl with hair of the same shade and a very fair complexion, but taller and slenderer than his robust young sister. He could see the perfect profile, and was sure the eyes were beautiful, though he could not discern their colour. But whilst the features were so fine and delicately cut, there was nothing of the mere statue-like beauty in the face as a whole. On the contrary, those who might be at first attracted by the almost perfect features, would forget these in the greater beauty of expression and the wonderful charm of manner which Norah Pease possessed.
Richard Whitmore did not see all this at once. But he noted the figure of a girl in a simple dress of dainty Dacca muslin, only relieved by pale blue bows, and he thought it exactly suited the place. Norah was not looking in his direction, but towards something which Molly was pointing out in the distance, and he slackened his steps in order to take in the sweet picture more fully.
Miss Pease saw him coming, and met him at the door to exchange greetings, and to be welcomed back by Richard himself. As they crossed the hall together, Molly, who had become aware of her brother's presence, rushed to meet him.
"Come, Dick," she said, "and be introduced to Norah. She is older than I am by more than three years, and not a schoolgirl, but she is just as nice."
Miss Pease was about to introduce Norah to her host in due form, but Molly spared her the trouble by saying, "Norah, this is Brother Dick. He is such a darling, and so is she, Dick. You are sure to like one another. Are they not, Miss Pease?" turning to her elder friend.
"Indeed I hope so," said Richard; and, quite naturally, Norah echoed the wish.
"I can hardly feel strange here," she added, "for my aunt has written so much, and, since we met, talked so much about every one at Mere Side, that I almost thought I was going to meet five more cousins, and had a sense of extra riches in consequence."
"Cousins do not seem such very near relatives after all," said Molly, in a meditative tone. "Sisters are better. I should like you for one, Norah."
Miss Pease was just a little scandalized at Molly's freedom of speech, and said, "My dear, you talk too fast. I am afraid Richard spoils you too much."
But there was no trace of self-consciousness on Norah's face as she thanked Molly for her willingness to adopt her as a relative on such very short acquaintance. Then Richard, Miss Pease, and she talked on quite unrestrainedly, and the girl was enthusiastic about the loveliness around her. Somehow, the aunt and niece drifted into the angle window, while Dick stood just within, his arm round Molly, and told his young guest the names of the hills which bounded the view, and various other particulars about the landscape before them.
"This window is the most charming nook I ever saw," said Nora. "I can scarcely bear to leave it. And what a wealth of roses you have! The varieties seem endless."
"If you are not too tired, will you come and look at them before dinner? You want some flowers to wear, do you not? My sisters always like to have them and to choose for themselves."
"That is the best of all," said Norah. "I would rather have a knot of wild-flowers that I gathered for myself than the finest bouquet that could be bought ready put together by an accomplished gardener."
She turned to leave the recess, but at the instant something struck violently against the glass and startled her. On looking she could see nothing.
"Do not be alarmed," said Richard. "This is a thing which, unfortunately, often happens. A poor bird has flown against the pane, and probably wounded itself so badly that it will die. As the creatures can see through the glass, they cannot understand that it offers a solid obstacle to their flight, and many are killed in this way. It is the only drawback to my enjoyment of this window. Will you not come out this way?" And Richard stepped out through the open sash, and offered his hand to assist Norah in following.
There upon the ground, feebly fluttering, lay a fine thrush, wounded to death. Tears sprang into Norah's eyes as she saw it, but, happily, the pains of the injured bird were not of long duration. A moment after she first saw it the movement ceased.
Richard picked up the dead thrush, and gently stroked its glossy feathers, then laid it down amongst some shrubs, saying, "It shall be buried by and by. You may think me sentimental for a man, but I do not like to cover the poor little body with earth whilst it is warm with the life that has but just fled."
"I think you feel just as I do. Why should a man be less pitiful than a girl?" replied Norah.
Richard smiled in reply, and led the way to the roses, for his guest to make choice amongst them. At first he had felt sorry that Norah should be with only her aunt and Molly, beside himself, for the other girls were engaged at a tennis party, to which they had been invited before they knew when Miss Pease would return. But he never forgot that evening which seemed to bring the girl guest and himself so near together, and that night he dreamed of the slender white-robed figure framed by the angle window.
Day followed day, and each developed some new charm in Norah. She had travelled much, and had a well-stored mind, without the smallest taint of pedantry. She was a born musician, but though her voice was well cultivated, she owed less to her teachers than to her natural gifts, and when she sang, none could help listening with delight.
The Whitmore girls loved her. Even Gertrude felt the spell, for with all Norah was so sweet, frank, tender, and natural, that she won hearts without effort. She had won one that hitherto had never been stirred in like manner, for Richard Whitmore had given to Norah all the love of which his large heart was capable.
Outsiders began to smile as they saw the young master of Mere Side so constant in his attendance on his graceful guest. Miss Sharp found something new to talk about, and whispered to gossips like herself, that any one could see what Miss Pease had brought Norah to Saltshire for. She had fished for an invitation for her niece in order to get her a rich husband. How hard it would be for those four girls to give place to a chit like that!
Gentle Miss Pease had her qualms of conscience lest she might be misjudged in this matter, though she knew her brother's only child would be a rich heiress, and no unsuitable mate in that respect for Richard Whitmore.
And Gertrude! She was not blind. She guessed her brother's secret, but said nothing, though a fierce combat was going on within her. Self was battling against her love for Richard, and that which Norah had wrung from her in spite of her will. She felt how well suited they were to each other, and yet she could not endure the idea of Richard taking to himself a wife.
The other girls had no such feelings, but would have welcomed Norah as a sister with open arms.
Week followed week, and it was near the end of August. Still Norah stayed on at Mere Side, and waited in expectation of her father's coming, and still he was prevented from joining her there. His letters were frequent and full of regrets, though he expressed the hope that present self-denial would lead to satisfactory results, and that when these business matters were settled, a future of rest would be before him.
One morning, however, Norah received a letter which scattered dismay amongst the family at Mere Side.
She could not bear to tell the contents, but passed it for her aunt to read aloud, and Miss Pease began, "My dearest Eleanor."
"I thought your name was just Norah," said Molly. "I am always called so, because—"
Someone entered at the moment, and stopped the girl from telling why her name had been thus abridged, and Miss Pease continued—
"I am really grieved that after all I cannot at present join you at Mere Side, and have the pleasure of personally thanking Mr. Whitmore and his sisters for all their kindness and of making their acquaintance. I must hope for this at some future time."
"You, dear Eleanor, must come to me with as little delay as possible. I should like you to meet me on Thursday, and on Saturday I purpose going on to Paris, where your aunt and cousins now are. A family matter requires that we should meet. Indeed, she wants my help, and, after all her goodness to you, it would ill become me to hesitate, if I can be of use to her. Nelly and Beatrice are in a state of wild delight at the prospect of seeing you."
"Your aunt's maid, Carter, has been visiting her old mother in Lincolnshire, and I have arranged that she shall bring you from Mere Side, or rather from Salchester, where she will meet with you, travel to town with you, and cross with us to the Continent. This plan will prevent your causing any inconvenience to your aunt."
There were further messages of thanks, regards, and regrets, and then the letter ended, amid a chorus of groans from the listeners.
Norah's face had grown pale, and Richard's had on it an expression of pain that was unmistakable.
He had waited, like the honourable man he was, for the coming of Colonel Pease before speaking to Norah. He thought it would not be right to declare his affection for the daughter until the father had seen him, and had an opportunity of judging of his character.
He must not speak now, for this was Wednesday, and on the morrow the girl was to leave. The bustle of preparation had to be got over, and at ten o'clock in the morning Norah must be ready to depart.
So much had to be crowded into so short a time that there was little leisure for uttering vain regrets, though a running fire of these was kept up on all sides through the day and during the gathering together of Norah's belongings.
"Shall you have any spare time?" asked Richard at luncheon. "Or will it be all bustle until you step into the carriage?"
"I shall have the whole evening," replied Norah; "all the time, I mean, from four o'clock. I could not do without a last happy night to look back upon. I can never thank you all for your kindness to me."
"Thank us by coming back and bringing your father as soon as possible. For the present, I, for one owe you much, Norah; so the balance is really on the other side. My home was never so graced before," he added, with a smile and a look which made a flush cover the girl's fair face, "or seemed so bright a place to me."
But she looked bravely up at him in return, and said—
"I will certainly come back to Mere Side, if I may, and bring my father too. You ought to know each other. You only need to meet to be friends."
That afternoon they all had early tea on the terrace, and as they sat there the old swallows circled round and round, feeding their young ones in the air, and exercising them preparatory to the long flight before them. Down they came, skimming the surface of the lake, which was all aglow with the rays of the declining sun, dipping in its waters, and then gathering on the roof to plume themselves after their bath.
"The swallows are getting ready for flight, like you, Norah," said Richard. "A little while and they will all be gone. See, that is a hawk in the distance. I hope he will not carry off any fledgling to-night."
"You know everything," she replied. "Birds, bees, trees, flowers are all familiar. You only need a glance to name them."
"I have lived among them always. A country life has interest enough for me; but I do sometimes wish to see more than these familiar objects, and, but for an outcry among the girls, I should have joined a scientific expedition this last spring. I could not leave the mother awhile back, or my sisters in their sorrow. Perhaps I may give up the idea altogether," he added in a musing fashion, "though there is such an expedition annually in connection with a society to which I belong."
"I hope you will not be away when I—when my father comes to Mere Side," said Norah.
And Dick responded emphatically—
"I certainly shall not."
Later on in the twilight Norah sat at the piano and sang one song after another, and then they stole an hour from sleep, and all talked of the happy days they had spent together, and of their hope of meeting again. At the same time on the following evening the swallows were skimming to and fro, but Norah was gone, and the house seemed empty to its master, though all the rest were left. But as he sat in the library, with his head leaning on his hand, Richard saw neither books nor aught around him.
He was picturing that slender, white-robed figure as he first saw it in the doorway. He heard none of the sounds going on around, though the tennis-players were on the lawn and the bold song of the robins came from every bush. What he heard was a sweet voice flooding the room with a richer song, and one that spoke more to his heart than theirs.
And Richard smiled to himself as he said, "The seat in the angle window, the mother's seat, will be filled again, and I shall hear the dear voice that makes my heart thrill as no other can, in place of the echo which memory gives me now. For I felt her little hand tremble in mine, and though she said 'good-bye' in a brave voice to all the rest, she could not say it to me, though her lips parted and closed. I had her last look, and tears were shining in her eyes as she gave it. They are speaking eyes, and they said to me, 'I am sorry to go, but I will not forget my promise. I will come again.'"
NORAH wrote as soon as possible to tell of her arrival at Paris, and pour forth on the same sheet her regrets at parting from the Whitmores, and her pleasure in being with all her kith and kin. At first there seemed a prospect of their returning to England; but later on, instead of hearing that a time was fixed for their coming, news arrived of a contrary character. The doctors advised Colonel Pease to winter at Cannes, in order that after so many years spent in India, he might not be too suddenly exposed to the severity of the season in England.
Richard Whitmore heard this, and began to meditate on the possibility of taking Miss Pease and his sisters to spend the winter in the Riviera, but he decided to let January come first, and then to journey South for the three following months.
Once more came a message from the angle window which put an end to his plans and froze to the death the glad hopes that he had been nourishing in his heart.
Gertrude was sitting there with Miss Pease, reading a letter aloud, when he entered the morning-room. She was not very fond of pet names, and often called her sisters by theirs at fall length instead of using the diminutives, Mina and Jo, and roused Molly's wrath by calling her Florence Mary. Since she had been aware that Norah was only short for Eleanor, Gertrude usually spoke of their late guest by her full name also.
As Richard entered the room he heard his sister say, "So Eleanor is actually engaged to Sir Edward Peyton. Is it not rather a sudden affair?"
"Perhaps it may be deemed so in respect to the engagement itself, but they have been long acquainted. While Norah was here she often spoke of his frequent visits and attentions when we were alone, but so long as there was nothing definite it was scarcely likely she would allude to such things before others."
Richard paused a moment to recover himself after the blow. Then he advanced towards Miss Pease, saying, "I was not an intentional eavesdropper, but I heard the news of your niece's engagement, and I suppose I must congratulate you on the event."
"Yes, Eleanor is engaged," said the little lady, all sympathetic smiles and blushes. "Sometimes I think when such events occur, condolences would be more fitting for those they leave behind. When there is but a single parent and few children, or only one, a break brings pain as well as pleasure, even though caused by marriage."
Richard begged Miss Pease to give his congratulatory messages, and then stole away into the library to think over what he had heard, and find comfort as best he might.
There was only one picture that came constantly before him, and that was the angle window without an occupant, and a dying bird on the terrace below.
And Richard whispered to himself, "Just another wounded bird. I could almost wish that I, too, had been injured even unto death. If it were not that I am needed, specially by Molly, I should say it in earnest. As it is, I must run away, lest the rest should see the wound."
Richard's mind was promptly made up. There was to be an expedition for the purpose of observing a total eclipse of the sun, visible in Southern latitudes, but not in England. He announced his intention of joining it, pleaded that he wanted a shake-up, that he was growing old and rusty by dint of over-petting and self-indulgence; and, in short, that he must go.
Before Miss Pease received another letter conveying a message of thanks for his congratulations, Richard had completed his arrangements and was on his way to Mauritius.
Whilst there he saw in the "Times," for February 27, an announcement of the marriage, at Cannes, of Sir Edward Peyton, Bart., and Eleanor Pease. It was simply worded, and as the "Queen" did not fall into his hands, Richard missed many details about dresses, bridesmaids, etc., some of which might have proved interesting.
He wondered a little that almost nothing was said in subsequent home letters about this marriage. Miss Pease did just mention that Eleanor's wedding had taken place, and there were allusions in some of his sisters' epistles to the good match made by her niece, but Norah, as the Norah of Mere Side, was not mentioned, or only in the most cursory way.
"Perhaps they guess," thought Richard, "and are silent for my sake. Thank God, for Norah's! From all I have been able to ascertain she has married a good man, and I pray that she may be happy. I would not grudge her to the husband of her choice, but somehow I cannot believe that any tie existed when she was with us. If I had only spoken, or gone when she did to meet her father—but it is too late."
It was not until the May twelve months after leaving home that Richard Whitmore set foot in England again.
He joined one scientific party after another, and went to and fro, adding much to his store of knowledge, and finding in change of scene and the habit of close observation, which gave him work for every day, the best remedy for the wound which healed but slowly.
Then he had to come home, to open his hands for more wealth. A distant cousin had left him thirty thousand pounds. When the news reached him he said, "This, divided into four and added to the little belonging to the girls, will give each of them ten thousand pounds, for the Maynards do not want it. There will be more for them by and by, from their bachelor brother, for I shall never marry now."
He did not tell them this, or even about the legacy at first. He had to hear of all that had passed during his absence, to note that Molly, now turned seventeen, was more like Norah Pease, slenderer and more thoughtful-looking than of old.
It was Dick's absence that had made her the last. Little Miss Pease's hair was greyer, but it just suited her delicately fresh complexion. Nina and Jo had altered less than Molly, but Gertrude was the most changed of all.
There was a new light in her eyes, a softer flush on her cheek, a gentleness of manner foreign to the old Gertrude. Molly's welcome was not more hearty than hers, or her sisterly embrace more tender or more entirely voluntary than was Gertrude's.
Nobody had told Richard anything, but he looked at his eldest sister and guessed her secret rightly.
The girl had given her heart to a good, but not a rich man, one who at first feared to offer his own to Miss Whitmore, of Mere Side, lest he should be suspected of seeking a rich bride whose wealth would make amends for his own small means.
For once Miss Sharp's tongue did good service without its being intended. Her keen eyes, ever on the watch, detected something in Gertrude's manner favourable to Mr. Kemble, of whose views she decided there could be no doubt.
"He is in the Civil Service, and has an income of three hundred a year," said Miss Sharp. "I dare say he thinks Gertrude Whitmore is an heiress, but I shall open his eyes, and show that proud minx what he is really looking after."
Miss Sharp carried out her resolution, and managed to let Mr. Kemble's sister and niece, visitors in the neighbourhood, know the exact amount to which Miss Whitmore was entitled under her father's will. The result astonished her.
Instead of packing up and departing at once, Mr. Kemble manifested the greatest delight. He would have shrunk from the heiress, but he dared to ask the girl he loved to share his lot, when he found out that there was not much disparity in their means, and none in social standing; and she accepted him with this proviso, that Richard must give his consent, though she was of age.
Gertrude told her brother this, sitting in the angle window, and with the moon shining in thereat.
Dick kissed her, rejoiced with her, and told her there was no need to wait for the advance of salary which Kemble was sure of in another year.
"True hearts should not be parted without a needs-be, my dear, and none exists in your case," he said. Then he told her how he had always put by a considerable portion of his income, in order that his sisters might not be dowerless maidens.
"I counted on this sort of thing coming to one of you at a time, you know, and I was fairly ready for your first turn, my dear, before something else happened, which has given me at a stroke enough for you all."
He told her of the legacy, and the share he had mentally appropriated to herself, then added, "As I am a cut-and-dried old bachelor, there will be more for you in the long run."
He was not prepared for what followed.
Gertrude broke into a flood of passionate tears and sobs, and between these she cried, "Dick, dear brother Dick, can you forgive me? I do not deserve anything from you. I have been hard and selfish and ungrateful. I have tried to make the others so, and cared nothing for your happiness, only how I could keep all good things to myself. It was when I learned to love Bertram that I knew what I had done to you."
The girl sank on her knees and hid her tearful face in her hands as she bowed her head over Dick's lap, and her frame shook with sobs.
Love had conquered at last, as he always believed it would, and Richard's face looked beautiful in the moonlight, as he bent over his sister and insisted on raising her from the ground and drawing her head on his breast.
"You do forgive me, Dick. Your kind touch tells me so without words; but please listen, I want you to know everything—" and the girl went on and laid bare all the envy, ingratitude, and selfishness that had begun during that visit to the Tindalls, and how these things had grown and for a long time influenced her life for evil. "Then," she said, "you were so persistently loving that I began to see the beauty of your life and disposition, and to loathe the ugliness of my own—till Norah came."
Richard started at the mention of that name, and Gertrude felt his heart beat fuller and faster.
"No one, not even I, could help loving Norah," she said, "and often I thought what a perfect mate she would be for you, dear Dick; but I could not endure the idea of her coming here as mistress and turning us all out of Mere Side. I thought you cared for her, and she for you, but nothing came of it, only I was glad when she went away, though I expected you and she would soon meet again. You would have done so if you had not set out for Mauritius, for we were invited to the wedding, only we did not go as you were absent."
"How could I have gone?" asked Dick, with a groan of anguish that went to the listener's heart and told her something of what he had suffered.
"Then you did think it was Norah who married Sir Edward Peyton. I thought you misunderstood, and yet I purposely held my tongue. I know what my silence has done. I felt it when I realised what it would be if I were called on to part with Bertram. You will never forgive me, never."
"For pity's sake tell me what you mean, Gertrude! I am not often so impatient, but suspense will drive me mad. Is Norah married?"
"No, Dick, neither has she ever been engaged. Do you remember that morning when Miss Pease was reading the colonel's letter, in which he called his daughter 'Eleanor'? Nora was going to explain why she was never addressed by it at her aunt's, but someone interrupted. She told me afterwards that Eleanor was her grandmother's name, and that her elder cousin bore it as well as herself. To distinguish between them, one was called Nelly; that was the girl whom Miss Pease described as having been 'all elbows' when she was just in her teens, and the other, our Eleanor, was Norah to everybody. Nelly is Lady Peyton, and Norah is Norah Pease to-day."
An irrepressible thanksgiving broke from Richard's lips, and confirmed Gertrude's conviction, whilst it increased her penitence.
"You must know all," she added. "All the rest believed that you knew which of the girls was engaged to Sir Edward Peyton. I led them to think so, without directly saying it; and though they had thought you cared for Norah, when you went away so suddenly they concluded either that they had made a mistake or that she had refused you. This is why they scarcely named her in letters."
"Are Colonel Pease and Norah in England?" asked Richard, in a voice unlike his own, so moved was he.
"Yes; and they are coming here to-morrow. They were to have come together so long ago, but they have been wintering abroad and travelling about with the other family ever since."
There was a short silence, and again Gertrude faltered out—
"Can you forgive me, now you know all?"
"Thank God, I can, as I hope to be forgiven. He has overruled all for good—even my rashness and blindness."
For a little moment Richard still held the weeping girl to his breast, and then he kissed her once more, and, gently placing her on the seat whence he had risen, left her alone in the moonlight.
The next day brought Norah and her father, and the first sight of the dear fair face told Richard as plainly as words that she had come back unchanged, and was glad to be there.
A few more happy days, and then Richard told the story of his love, and knew that the treasure he desired above all others was his very own, with her father's full consent.
He spoke and she listened, in the fittest place of all—the angle window, which is no longer a frame without a picture. A white-robed figure sits on what was once the mother's seat, and gives her husband an answering smile when he looks in that direction from amongst the roses.
Colonel Pease has bought a fine estate in Saltshire, with a house on it ready to his hand, and his gentle little sister presides over his domestic arrangements.
Gertrude's home is in the outskirts of London; Mina will soon follow her sister's example, and go to a new nest. The other girls will do as they have done since Dick's marriage—flit between Mere Side and Overleigh, the colonel's home; for the old soldier is never happier or Miss Pease more in her element than when they have young faces about them.
It is said that Miss Sharp has greatly affected the society of Miss Pease since she began her rule at Overleigh; but there is no fear for the colonel; he is too old a soldier.
Brother Dick is as truly blessed as his unselfish nature deserves to be, now he has quite recovered from the wound he received through the angle window.
"IT seems strange that Dr. Connor should advise your going away again in such lovely weather, and from a place to which other people come in search of health. He might let you have a little peace."
So spoke Norah Guiness to Jeannie Bellew, an only child, a probable heiress, and the object of enough thought, care, and indulgence to spoil a much finer nature than she was gifted with.
"It is always a doctor's way. He must order something different from what you have, however good that may be. I have everything that money can buy, and instead of being allowed to enjoy it in peace, am sent hither and thither at the doctor's will. Look at me, Norah. Am I like an invalid?"
Thus appealed to, Norah surveyed Jeannie as she lay back in a folding-chair and challenged her scrutiny with a half-defiant air.
Truly there was nothing of an invalid about the girl. There was a rich colour on her fair face, her figure was symmetrical, and the shapely hand on which her curly head partly rested was plump and well-rounded. Norah thought there was no trace of illness, and said so.
"The doctor should know what is best," she replied; "but as an invalid you appear to me an utter fraud."
A ringing, musical laugh greeted these words, then Jeannie started from her seat, kissed Norah, declared she always was a dear, sensible darling, whose judgment was worth that of all the doctors put together, danced round the room, and finally dropped panting into her seat again, with a considerably heightened colour.
Norah noticed that Jeannie's hand was pressed to her side, and looked grave.
"Are you wise to indulge in such violent exercise?" she asked.
"Perhaps not, though it is only the having been pampered and waited on hand and foot that has made me so susceptible. I must really begin to live like other girls now I am so well again," said Jeannie.
"Only do not make such a sudden start. Have you any pain?"
"Not a bit, now. I had a little twinge or two, but it is all gone. The strongest girl would have felt as much if she had been prancing round as I did a minute ago. I am as well as you are, Norah. It is downright wicked of Doctor Connor to say that I must have another change for a month or so, and then he will decide about next winter. As though one lost nothing by leaving a home like mule with all its comforts. I have often thought that the loss of them counterbalanced the good done by the 'entire change' the doctors are so fond of ordering. If I could take Benvora and all belonging to it, Jet included, away with me, I should care less. And I would have you, Norah, if I could."
"That is impossible, dear. I am quite indispensable at home. But there is Jack Corry. You will want him most of all, now your engagement is a settled thing."
"Want Jack with me!" exclaimed Jeannie. "Why, Norah, what can have put such an absurd notion into your head? If you realised my feelings the least little bit, you would know that the sweet drop in my cup of banishment from Ballycorene is the thought that I shall leave Jack Corry behind me. He bores me to death. He follows me like a lapdog, gives me no chance of wishing to see him, for he is here so often that I am at my wits' end to get rid of him half the time. Jack Corry, indeed!" And Jeannie gave her pretty head a toss, as though she and the individual in question had neither thought nor wish in common.
Norah looked utterly bewildered, and heard without understanding her friend's words.
"I thought you cared so much for Jack," she said. "If not, why did you act in such a way as to make him think you did? 'Why did you accept his offer, and allow your engagement to be announced, if—"
Norah hesitated to put her thoughts into words. She was true to the core herself, and infinitely above the petty vanity and cruel selfishness combined which make up the character of a flirt—vanity, which is ever craving for admiration, and never satisfied with what it gets; selfishness, that cares only for gratifying the whim of the moment, without heeding what the amusement may cost some true heart; vanity, that loves to parade the homage that is rendered, yet only values it so far as it can be displayed and utilised to advance its own importance, or to while away time that would otherwise hang heavily; selfishness, that having had its turn served, its little day of triumph, never asks whether the moths that fluttered round had merely sunned themselves in the light and suffered no harm, or whether they had been cruelly scorched whilst suspecting none.
Hard hearts are like diamonds. The flirt's weapons glance harmlessly aside from them and leave no wound, as the best-tempered tool leaves no scratch on the surface of the precious stone. But those same weapons have pierced many a true and tender heart, and virtually killed its faith in womanly truth, and taught it to doubt the possibility of honest girlish affection.
It seemed too dreadful for Norah to associate the idea of vanity and selfishness with her friend Jeannie, a girl just eighteen, and looking even younger, with her fair face and childish head covered with a crop of short curls. Yet as she gave a mental glance at the past she felt that Jeannie's actions and words belied each other.
Jack Corry had long been deemed quite first favourite in the neighbourhood. He was bright, kindly. To young and old alike, he was ever ready to render a service, and people used to look at him and say that this was his one fault. He was the same to all, and no person could detect any sign of preference towards any of his fair neighbours.
Jeannie Bellew had spent two winters in the Riviera. Whether there now existed any cause for anxiety on her behalf, there had been enough to justify the fears of her parents and her own banishment.
A sharp attack of inflammation of the lungs, brought on, if truth must be told, by her own wilfulness, had left the girl without absolute disease, but extremely sensitive to every change of temperature. After her second winter in the South, she had returned home with greatly improved strength and looks, but in other respects rather changed than improved.
Jeannie, the little schoolgirl, with her artless country manners and winsome ways, was gone, and in her stead there returned to Ballycorene one who was a girl in age and looks, but who brought with her more knowledge of the world than all her feminine neighbours put together could boast of.
Mrs. Bellew had accompanied her daughter on both occasions, and a middle-aged, trusty servant waited on the two. But the mother dreaded the loneliness of life in apartments, where everything and every person were strange around them, and so the pair spent the two winters in a large hotel, and gained many experiences which the younger especially would have been much better without.
Before Jeannie's reappearance, Ballycorene gossips had begun to couple the name of Jack Corry with that of Norah Guiness, and to say that at last the way to his heart had been discovered. Also that if he had the luck to gain Norah's, he would win the greatest treasure that could enrich his life and brighten a home, though she would be almost a dowerless maiden.
Perhaps it was because no word or act of Norah's gave Jack Corry cause to think she bestowed a thought upon him, that he began to devote much thought to her. She practised no little coquettish airs, did not pretend to shun him, in order to hire him to seek her. She met him, as she did others, with the bright smile, the honest look devoid of all self-consciousness, the kindly greeting which was natural in one whom he had known all his life, and no more.
No girl looked on Norah as a possible rival. All regarded her as a true-hearted friend, and saw in her a self-devoting daughter, the one comfort of her father's life, and a sister almost worshipped by his three motherless lads. None could accuse her of striving to attract Jack Corry, and so, when it seemed that he was likely to be attracted, all the girls with one consent voted, "Better Norah than anyone else."
Then Jeannie Bellew came back to Benvora, changed as aforesaid, a fashionable young lady instead of a simple country girl, and yet with the power to act the latter character to perfection when it suited the whim of the moment. She was prettier than ever, and had acquired an ease and grace of manner which, together with an almost inexhaustible wardrobe, threw all the country girls into the shade.
Jeannie's father was very rich; sole owner of a vast manufacturing concern, which in his skilful hands was always growing in value.
In what way could wealth be better applied than in surrounding his only child with every luxury that it could purchase? Mr. Bellew was a good master, and paid his hands liberally. No man ever applied to him in vain if help was wanted for any good object, and so, as he was generous to all beside, was he likely to stint where Jeannie was concerned?
The girl had excellent taste in the choice of garments, and did not care for show and glitter. But everything she wore was in exquisite harmony with her youth, and only the initiated would have guessed what a simple morning-robe of muslin and lace had cost her father.
Jack Corry had been in and out at Benvora, Mr. Bellew's place, ever since he could walk. He could remember the day when he, a boy of ten, was first trusted to hold Jeannie, a baby three weeks old, in his arms, and how proud he had felt to kiss her pink cheek, then glad to be rid of so great a responsibility when the nurse reclaimed her charge.
Jack dropped in on the evening of Jeannie's return. He had cheered Mr. Bellew with his sunny presence many a time whilst his wife and daughter were away, and now the older man gave him a hearty welcome.
"Jack is here, Jeannie," he said. "Come to see how you look after your wanderings in foreign lands. He has been my best neighbour during the winter, and has deprived himself of many a pleasure to cheer a lonely man."
Jack deprecated the idea of its being possible for him to have had better or pleasanter evenings than those he had spent at Benvora, and congratulated Jeannie on her restored health, as he took in his, the little plump hand which she promptly extended.
"But you have been good, Jack. Father has told us in nearly every letter about your kindness to him. You don't know how grateful we are, mother and I. Are we not, mother?"
Whilst Jeannie was speaking she was also looking straight into Jack's face and leaving her hand resting in his clasp, as if she had forgotten that it was there.
What wonder that Jack was in no hurry to relinquish it, that he thought Jeannie very charming and winsome, and was conscious of an undercurrent of gladness at the conviction that she had come back unspoiled, the same simple-minded country lassie whom he had always regarded as a dear, loving child-friend of his own?
She positively had tears in her eyes, called thither by the thought of his little attentions to Mr. Bellew. Why, he would have been the most ungrateful monster in existence if he could have neglected the man who had tipped him as a boy, given him his first pony, been his good friend always, and whom, apart from all this, he loved and honoured.
"You'll stay the evening?" said Mr. Bellew to Jack.
"Not to-night. You will want to talk, and Mrs. and Miss—"
"Jeannie," put in the owner of the name, before Jack had time to finish. "How dare you try to make me grown-up and call me 'Miss,' you that nursed me when I was a tiny baby? For shame, Jack!"
There was quite a distressed look on Jeannie's face, and Jack was sure there would be tears directly, and felt and said that he was ashamed of himself.
"Then take off your overcoat this minute. You are going to say that we must be tired and want to talk to each other, too. You forget that father met us, that we spent three days in London, and have made other halts on the road. To-day we have only been travelling two hours. Father has told all the home news; we are not a bit tired, and now you must stay and tell us about everything and everybody else. Do stay, Jack."
The tone was beseeching, the look no less so. Jack was vanquished before Mrs. Bellew had time to add—
"Yes, do stay. We shall all be glad to have you, and I cannot tell you how much I feel all your kind attentions to my husband."
Mrs. Bellew was in earnest in her welcome and in her thanks to Jack. But she was uneasy. Her eyes had for some time past been opened to the fact that there were many sides to Jeannie's nature, and somehow she dreaded, both for the girl herself and for others, the exhibition of the artless childish side, which most people found so charming, but which she knew to be the least real and the most dangerous of all.
How could Jack Corry refuse the triple invitation? He was actually on his way to Mr. Guiness's house, for of late he had dropped in there on two nights in the week, and he knew that he was expected this evening.
Of late, too, he had begun to delight in seeing a soft flush rise on Norah's cheek when she gave him her hand, or when she noted how he followed her movements with looks of interest and approval. The home of which Norah was the mistress was as well ordered and as refined as Benvora, and there was true comfort at comparatively little cost. He had said to himself, "What a home she will some day make of mine!"
He had settled everything in his own mind, and though as yet no direct word of love had been spoken, he knew that he had been wooing Norah Guiness by his frequent visits, his manifested pleasure in her society, and by a thousand looks and nameless attentions that were as eloquent as speech.
Jack meant them to be so. He was thoroughly honest in paying these attentions. But he did not regard Norah as one who could be lightly won, and he wanted to feel sure of his ground before he risked all on a distinct offer.
He was beginning to feel satisfied with the progress of his wooing, for he knew she would never wish to bring him to her feet in order to fling back an honest heart, or make pretence that she had not thought him in earnest.
She, too, was beginning to feel that he was in earnest, and the thought filled her with a great gladness. She would not have given her heart unasked, but was not Jack pleading for it in numberless ways?
He, on his part, argued well for his suit, when he noticed that Norah was a little shyer than of old, though more thoughtfully kind than ever. A little more silent, but so careful to listen to every word of his. And Jack said to himself, "Norah is a pearl amongst girls. What matters her lack of fortune? She is the rose out of the whole 'rosebud garden.'"
From his very heart, he thanked God that he had no need to trouble himself about money, but would have enough and to spare for both. He had been orphaned very early in life, but was abundantly provided for. Yet never till he thought of what his ample means would do for Norah did Jack Corry greatly value them, and then it was for her sake.
"My rose flourishes in a poor soil now; she shall be transplanted into a fair garden. My pearl's surroundings are all unsuited to so rare a jewel. It shall have a brave setting when I become the owner."
Jack planned how he would help Norah to increase her father's home comforts; how he would smooth things for the lads who would be his brothers, and as such the lawful objects of his care; how, in short, he would turn the good things he possessed to account for the benefit of the whole Guiness family, and one in particular, "bless her!"
He had almost made up his mind to tell his tale to Norah on that evening, when, on his way to her home, he felt it right just to look in at Benvora, and ask after Mrs. Bellew and Jeannie. He would be sure not to stay long, and the call was a matter of positive duty to old friends.
JACK CORRY stayed with the Bellews, and Norah Guiness listened in vain that night for the step to which she had become accustomed, and which made her heart beat more quickly when it approached.
Her boy brothers made many a journey to the gate to look for Jack, and grumbled loudly at his nonappearance.
Norah looked and spoke calmly enough. She told the boys they must not be selfish. They had seen a great deal of Jack Corry lately, and must not expect him always to give them so much of his time. But while Norah spoke bravely, she was conscious of a strange foreboding for which she could not account, and against which she battled bravely, but in vain.
The boys accused her of being cross, and then felt ashamed of themselves, and said so, when she proved the contrary by her extra kindness. Her father thought her very silent, and began to tell, what was news to Norah, that Mrs. Bellew and Jeannie were back at Benvora.
The girl's face brightened directly.
"Then, of course, Jack had gone to see them. How could he do anything else? I am so glad, for Jeannie must be a great deal better, or they would not have ventured to return. Mr. Bellew did not expect them until May, and it is only the middle of April. How delighted he will be!"
The weight was gone; the cloud was nowhere to be seen. Norah, in the singleness of her heart, was rejoicing in the joy of others, and feeling that if Jack Corry had not gone straight to Benvora that evening, he would have fallen many degrees in her estimation. He would come to them the next night, no doubt.
But Jack did not come, and a week passed before he at length made his appearance. Then somehow, he was not quite the same Jack who had last parted with Norah, who had lingered over his leave-taking, and by the look from his eyes had caused hers to droop, and her heart to beat more quickly. He was kind, of course; Jack Corry could be nothing else. He had brought things for the boys which enriched them for the time, and called forth the remark, "Jack, you are the biggest brick living." Whereat he had laughed as merrily as usual. He had talked cheerily to Mr. Guiness, and then—well, he had no time to steal to Norah's side and talk to her whilst she worked, or beg for a favourite song. Only just enough for a hurried good-night, and he was gone, almost without waiting for an answer, quite without the lingering farewell or one of the looks which had been silently telling a love story to Norah for months past.
Jack was gone—doubly gone—and Norah, quick to note the change in their pleasant guest, began to ask herself what could have brought it about.
During the last few days she and Jeannie Bellew had exchanged visits, and Norah had been struck with the subtle difference which had taken place in the girl during her absence from home. That daintily-dressed young lady, with her self-possessed manners and knowledge of the outer world, could hardly be Jeannie, her girl friend and junior by a couple of years. Then she was so changeable. At one moment she was almost patronising to Norah, and would give herself little airs which made the elder girl smile. Again, she would throw off all the crust she had gathered during her travels, and seem the most artless, loving, childish creature imaginable.
As Norah reviewed the position, her eyes were opened to many things of which she had hitherto thought little. For instance, the difference between Jeannie Bellew's surroundings and her own had never troubled her in the least. Benvora was the home of wealth, and all the luxuries that money could buy were found in profusion beneath its roof.
In the Guinesses' rambling old house a new article was the exception, and there were few superfluities. Comfort and order prevailed in every part of it; but its contents had a well-worn look, which suggested that money was not too plentiful with its occupants. Yet the Guinesses were rather proud of their home, which, like their name, was no thing of to-day. The house had stood for many a year, and sheltered several generations of a family that was well respected far and near. Socially speaking, the Guinesses stood higher than the Bellews. Jeannie's father had begun the world with no capital, but good business talents combined with industry and perseverance. His wife's little fortune had enabled him to begin in a small way, and at forty-five he was a rich man.
In the old days—that is, two or three years before—Norah Guiness had never noted word or look on Jeannie Bellew's part that indicated a consciousness of the difference in their worldly circumstances. The latter had been rather proud than otherwise to call Norah her friend, and to be welcomed in the picturesque old house in which she was mistress. But when Norah went to see Jeannie as soon as possible after her return, she became conscious of a change in her friend. She could not have said in what it consisted, but there was a self-complacency about the girl, a manner which seemed to bid Nora realise all the advantages of her position when compared with those she possessed, that jarred on the visitor's sensitive nature.
She noticed how Jeannie glanced at her simple dress, and then looked down at the tasteful combination of soft falling silk, lace and ribbons, which was draped so gracefully about her own person; and how her fingers wandered for a moment amongst the folds, as if she found a subtle pleasure in touching the dainty materials, and mentally contrasting them with what met her eye as she looked at Norah.
Then again, when Jeannie returned the visit, Norah could not help seeing a sort of half-pitying expression on her face, as she looked round the drawing-room, and her eyes rested on its so-called ornaments.
"If I were you, I would make a clean sweep of a lot of these things. I know they have 'associations,' but I would pack them—associations and all—into a big box and put them in the garret. They would keep just as well there, and you might make this room one of the most picturesque places imaginable. I would help you, dear. I have seen so much since I left home that one could never get an idea of in this quiet place, you know," said Jeannie.
"I could never love any place so well," replied Norah; and she added, "I am not sure that I should care for the wider experiences you have had, especially if I must purchase them by previous illness. However, I am glad you have no longer that excuse for running away from old friends."
"I am very well now, but I am glad too that illness gives one many advantages. That is, if one's father has plenty of money. If I had never been ill, I should have been mewed up at Benvora, and seen nothing of the world. Now it is delightful to come back too, for a while, and to think over all the fun I have had."
Then Jeannie returned to the charge about the furniture.
"May I help you to remodel this room, Norah?"
"My dear Jeannie, were I to make the clean sweep you name, the room would be horribly bare-looking. I do not agree with making a place ugly because of 'associations,' but without our present 'ornaments,' my reception room would be a wilderness."
"There are the loveliest muslins and cretonnes, ever so cheap," began Jeannie; but Norah stopped her by saying quietly—
"I have no money for such things, dear."
"You cannot mean that, Norah. They would cost so little."
"I do mean it, Jeannie, though perhaps many beside yourself would hardly believe me. I think I must keep on saying it, for if people plead poverty, those who hear generally give them credit for ample means," added Norah, with a light laugh.
Afterwards, it seemed to the girl as if she became conscious of many wants and defects in her surroundings, of which before Jeannie's visit she had been blissfully unaware. It was in those first few days, too, that Jack Corry's defection took place, and after his hurried call, Norah remembered, with acute pain, the glance he had cast at her comparatively countrified dress.
"He will compare Jeannie's surroundings with mine; her dainty silks and laces, her costly furs at hand when needed, with my simple stuffs and cottons; and my plain cloth jacket, which is in its third season, and which I have been taking such care of that it may last another! And Jeannie can be so charming that no one can withstand her. As a child she could do as she liked with me, even. Well, if it should be so, I only hope that she may not play with Jack's heart. I should be sorry for that; after all, I should like them both to be happy and true, if they care for each other."
Dear, unselfish Norah! A little sob followed this mental communing, for Jack Corry was the first who had stirred the depths of her pure, tender heart, and how could she help knowing that he had wooed her with everything but words? At their last meeting before Jeannie's return, these had seemed trembling on his lips; and now!
Norah's prophetic foreboding was speedily fulfilled. Jack Corry, as her young brothers said, was "for ever at Benvora, or riding or walking with Jeannie Bellew."
Her parents were evidently in favour of such companionship, and Mrs. Bellew especially smiled benignly on handsome Jack Corry, as he became daily more marked in his attentions to the girl. She had a talk with her husband on the subject, for, truth to say, Mr. Bellew was not at first altogether satisfied with the turn affairs had taken, and he said so.
"We seldom disagree, James, but I must own I am glad of it. What could be better than for Jeannie and Jack to marry? She is certain to be much run after. Whilst we have been away I have been kept in continual dread lest some mere adventurer should succeed in gaining her affections. It is wonderful how people get to know about you and your concerns, no matter how far you may be from home. Quite unintentionally, I overheard conversations which were never meant for my ears, and I know that your position and Jeannie's probable fortune were freely discussed. One of the speakers had the impertinence to say that the little heiress would be a great catch for somebody. Think of that, James," added Mrs. Bellew, indignantly.
"I have not a word against Jack Corry. He is, as a whole, a steady, right-principled young man, handsome enough to mate with our bonnie Jeannie, and whilst he is very kind, he is by no means weak of will, but—"
"I do not see that there is room for a but in regard to Jack. We have known him all his life; he has ample means, and comes of a good family. If he and Jeannie care for each other, and in due time marry, we shall keep her near us, and have a son to our own liking. Think, James, what a stay it would be if we have to go away again for the winter, for Jeannie to go as an engaged girl. I should not like to spend another season like the two last, and without you."
Mrs. Bellew sighed, and looked troubled at the remembrance. She had gone through a most painful experience, some of the details of which she had kept from her husband, in order to spare him anxiety.
Jeannie's health, though such as to render the change imperative, had not been of a kind to prevent her from mixing in the society she and her mother were placed amongst by reason of their hotel life. Even during the first winter the girl's head had been a little turned by the attentions she received, though she was only in her seventeenth year. She was pretty enough to attract them, though probably she owed a large share of the notice she received to the report of her father's wealth, and the fact of her being an only child and his heiress.
Mrs. Bellew had found her position a most difficult one. Her daughter must not be unduly excited, for fear of ill consequences. She had already become accustomed to following her own sweet will when at home, because of her position and the over fondness of her parents, and her mother was in equal dread of contradicting Jeannie and of giving way to the new whims born of her novel surroundings.
To the girl, accustomed to constant oversight, it seemed a new and delightful amusement to baffle Mrs. Bellew's efforts to continue it, and the residence in a large hotel offered endless opportunities for evading her mother. The practice, begun in a spirit of fun, was continued in a less innocent one, and Mrs. Bellew was pained beyond measure to find that Jeannie had spent many hours in undesirable companionship, and that the gossips were beginning to talk of "the little heiress," and couple her name with that of an idle sojourner under the same roof who was said to be looking out for a young wife with money.
Happily for the girl, the acquaintance was promptly ended. Apart from the gossip alluded to, no harm followed. Jeanie had acted thoughtlessly, and been amused by the talk of one who had seen much, and could talk brilliantly, and who, though a mere butterfly so far as the world's work was concerned, was nothing worse.
The second winter Miss Bellew seemed well able to take care of herself; but her mother could not help feeling that the sweet artlessness of her child was gone, and that at eighteen Jeannie was a very worldly young person, and rapidly becoming a very heartless one, though as a rule she was admired for her charming simplicity and girlishness, the semblance of which she still kept up.
With such memories it was not wonderful that Mrs. Bellew looked forward with glad anticipation to the probability of an engagement between Jeannie and Jack Corry as a happy settlement of all her difficulties, and did not like her husband's "but," when his attentions were alluded to. It came again, however.
"There is no one I should prefer to Jack; but, my dear, I doubt whether he is doing right in paying such court to Jeannie," said Mr. Bellew. "Whilst you were away he went a great deal to the Guinesses, and I for one thought that matters were as good as made up between him and Norah. Other people thought so too, and if Jack Corry meant nothing, he ought never to have acted as if he did. Jeannie's coming has made the difference, and I do not like to think about it."
"Jack's name has always been brought up as looking after one girl or other," said Mrs. Bellew, "and there has been nothing in it, only people are so fond of meddling in what is no business of theirs. Jack is such a favourite, and he is kind all round, you know."
"But Norah's affair has been different, and Norah herself is not like most of the girls. I should be terribly grieved if our Jeannie were to be the cause of pain to her old friend. Our girl is too young yet to know her own mind, and I should be glad to see a few more years pass over her head before she chooses a partner for life."
"She could never choose one more suitable in every way than Jack Corry," persisted Mrs. Bellew. "If he had any little feeling towards Norah Guiness, and it has passed away, we cannot help that. Better he should find out his mistake before it is too late, for both their sakes. She is a good girl, but she is not like Jeannie," added the mother, with conscious pride in her darling.
"No, she is not like Jeannie," echoed Mr. Bellew; and he did not wonder at any man being charmed by his daughter.
All the same, he felt sorry for Norah, very sorry. He hoped she did not think much about Jack Corry. At any rate, he could not interfere, though he sighed and shook his head, as if he were by no means satisfied at the present state of things.
JACK'S attentions gratified Jeannie for several reasons. First, because she would have found home a dull place without the flattery to which she had of late become accustomed. Secondly, because he was in every sense superior to any other young man in the neighbourhood; and lastly, perhaps most of all, because his devotion would render her an object of envy to all her girl acquaintances.
So Jeannie smiled on Jack and encouraged him in the prettiest, most artless fashion, without troubling her head about results, and probably thinking, as she had done of others, that she might amuse herself very pleasantly for a while, and there would be no harm done. She would be going away again, and if Jack should care a little, he would get over it when she was fairly out of sight. There would be plenty ready to console him. He might go back to Norah. Poor Norah!
Jeannie had heard of Jack's attentions in that quarter whilst she was away, and as her thoughts ran over the details, she smiled to herself at the ease with which she had drawn him from his allegiance. A look of triumph and gratified vanity accompanied the smile, as Jeannie stood passing her white fingers through her dainty ribbons, and surveying her face in an opposite mirror.
The look changed to one of half-contemptuous pity as she turned away and said to herself—
"No wonder Norah is such a dowdy in her country-made gowns and her old-fashioned cloth jacket. Jack really has very good taste in dress for a man. He notices every little change that I make, and always admires it. I should be very dull without Jack here."
If, however, Jeannie thought of simply making a convenience of her country admirer, she found herself mistaken. Jack was very much in earnest, fascinated by the pretty face, the sweet manners, the childlike graces, the general refinement that marked every act of hers. He had spoken frankly to Mr. and Mrs. Bellew, and made sure of their approval, though the former did not give it until he had plainly asked Jack if there had been any kind of engagement between him and Norah Guiness.
"I would not utter that dear girl's name in such a connection," he said; "but for my own daughter's sake everything must be plain and above-board. You were a great deal at the Guinesses' last winter, and people were talking."
Jack blushed violently, but declared, with perfect truth, that he had never said a word of love to Norah; that he thought she was one of the best girls in the world, and they were such old acquaintances. Surely he might go in and out without people gossiping, especially as there were not many houses he dare go to in an unrestrained manner.
"The boys are so nice I made them quite chums," said Jack; "and as to dear old Mr. Guiness, I used to delight in those fireside talks with him. We were always all together. I never spent an hour with Norah alone. But it is always the same in these country places. I have been given to every girl within twenty miles, and my own consent never asked. Isn't it a shame? So just to stop everybody's mouth, or to give the people something true to talk about for once, do say that you will consent to our engagement, if Jeannie says 'Yes' when I ask her. I will be contented to wait your time and hers."
Mr. Bellew offered no further opposition. Jack's wooing was continued, and, with Mrs. Bellew as his friend, soon came to what appeared a satisfactory conclusion.
Jeannie strongly objected to uttering the affirmative which would bind her to Jack Corry, and pleaded how short a time she had been at home. To this the answer was easy.
"It would be too short if we had met as strangers, dear; but we have known each other all our lives."
Jeannie reflected a little. She had gained a complete triumph in winning Jack. He was really nicer than anybody she knew. He promised that she should not be teased or hurried into matrimony. So if she did get tired of him, or if she were after all to see somebody who was a great deal nicer still, she could plead her youth and ignorance of her own mind. Everything would come right. Things always did come right for her.
So she let her little hand lie in Jack's manly palm as she gave a sort of consent, enjoying in a fashion the romance of being engaged to such a fine fellow whilst she was barely eighteen.
What a talk there would be! What congratulations from everybody! And lots of them would not be real; but, anyway, for a while, Jeannie knew that she would be the great centre of interest in and around Ballycorene. She wondered how Norah would look when she called.
This engagement took place just two months after Jeannie's return, and about the middle of June. Jack would have been perfectly happy but for certain twinges of conscience concerning Norah Guiness. He could not recall the conversation with Mr. Bellew, and feel comfortable. He had told nothing but the truth in reply to that gentleman's questions, yet he knew that he had not told the whole truth. Hitherto, anything like duplicity had been foreign to Jack's nature, and he had many a bad quarter of an hour when he looked into the past and when absent from Jeannie. With her, he forgot all but herself, and what a happy fellow he was to have won such a charming creature.
A true-hearted girl can picture for herself what Norah Guiness would feel at this time. A small, vain, selfish nature could never realise such a trial, and an attempt to describe it would be lost time.
How the girl schooled herself into outward calmness; how she prayed for the power to repress every angry and envious thought against Jack Corry and Jeannie; how she strove to fill up time and thoughts by caring, if possible, more and better for her father and the boys, may be named but not described.
If there was one ray of comfort for her, surely she had it in the knowledge that during all those past months when Jack had seemed to find his chief happiness in her society, she could recall no word or act of her own that gave her cause for regret, or that was unbecoming a pure-minded girl.
She determined to go to Benvora, see Jeannie, and offer her good wishes.
"Thank God, I can do that in all sincerity!" she said to herself.
On the way she met Jack and Jeannie, and in sight of two of the most arrant gossips Ballycorene could boast, was enabled to lift her honest face to theirs, shake hands with each, and say the kind words she had meant to say in a less public place.
The worst seemed over now they had met. Jeannie was effusively affectionate to Nora, Jack vastly cheered by her calmness and the smile with which she succeeded in meeting his somewhat conscious looks. Then, as Norah declined to go on to Benvora, the others, who were going in her direction, joined her, and they walked together until they reached her home.
On the whole this outdoor meeting was fortunate, and took the sting out of some gossiping tongues. People might have their opinions about Jack Corry's conduct, but as Norah had been seen with him and Jeannie Bellew, and apparently on the old friendly terms, surely they had no right to take up cudgels on her behalf.
There was one, only one, who named Jack to Norah, her eldest brother, Roderick, or Rory, as he was generally called, a lad of fifteen, who almost worshipped his sister.
"Norah," he said, "I am horribly disappointed in Jack Corry. I thought him the finest fellow in the world—one that could not do a mean thing to save his life. But he is a deceitful wretch, and I hate him! If I were a man, he should pay for his conduct to you, my darling."
The boy flung his arms round Norah's neck and held her in a passionate embrace, while he kissed her again and again. She felt her cheek moist with the tears he could not restrain, and was comforted by the thought of the home affections that were so fully hers. She returned the boy's caresses, and passed her hand tenderly over his curly head as she said—
"Rory, dear lad, you must not talk of hating Jack. He was always good to you boys and to all of us, when his time was not so taken up as it is now. You must not expect him to leave Jeannie for you."
"For me, indeed! as if I cared! It is for you, Norah, you, that I am grieved and angry. He was always coming after you, not to see us, we knew that well enough, and everybody said so. They used to joke and smile about Jack having lost his heart at last, and then they would say, 'He will have the sweetest girl in Ballycorene—God bless her!'"
"How sweet it is to think that people think so kindly of me!" said Norah, turning a bright face to Rory. "But they were wrong. They know better now whom Jack wanted."
"He did not care for Jeannie Bellew then. And if he did not care for you, why did he pretend to do so? You have told us boys many a time that truth was a thing of deeds as well as words, and that we could lie without uttering a syllable. Jack Corry lied in action for months and months, and he knows it. If I could only pay him out!"
"Rory, my darling, this is hardest of all. I cannot bear even for you to speak about Jack and me in that way." And Norah covered her face with her hands, and sobbed bitterly.
Rory was full of remorse; he lavished the tenderest expressions on his sister, begged her to forgive him, and declared he would never speak on the subject again. For the boy's sake Norah tried to conquer her emotion, and at length so far succeeded that she could reply calmly:
"Perhaps it is as well, dear, that there is one person in the world I can open my heart to. I should never have had courage to name him as you have done. It is a comfort to know how my boy loves his sister, and feels for and with her. These last two months have been very dreadful, Rory, but I am better, now it is really all over. He could not help it; Jeannie is so pretty and winning, and I am like a country sparrow by the side of—what bird shall I say, Rory?—a bird of paradise, compared with her in all her plumage."
"Fine feathers make fine birds. She is not fit to tie your shoe," growled Rory.
"Never mind. I have a dear friend in you as well as a brother, a friend whom I can trust at all times. And though we will not talk of it, we shall know there is one secret just between us two that will not be breathed to anyone else in the world."
The thought of Norah's confidence in him, above all others, soothed Rory. They sealed the compact with a kiss, and Jack Corry's conduct was named no more between them, though neither forgot it or was likely to do so.
For a month after his engagement to Jeannie was made public, Norah met the two from time to time, and could not help noticing that whilst Jack's devotion increased, his fiancée seemed rather to tolerate than appreciate it. Then came the conversation between the two girls, in which Jeannie alluded to the probability of her having to leave home again by the doctor's orders, and Norah heard the careless words that have been already recorded: the wish to stay at Benvora in peace or to be able to take away with her, father, mother, 'Jet' the pony, Norah herself, any person, anything but Jack Curry.
It was hard to think she could be in earnest when she said, "The one sweet drop in my cup of banishment is the thought that I shall leave Jack Corry behind me. He bores me to death."
Could it be possible that after all the affection was one-sided, that Jeannie had entered upon the engagement without any real love for Jack, and only as a means of amusing herself and occupying her idle hours?
"You ought not to speak of Jack in such a way," said Norah. "If I were a mischief-maker, and were to repeat words which you do not mean, but which would grieve him terribly, what then?"
"I shall say what I like. I mean every word I do say. You are not a mischief-maker, and would not make mischief to save your own life; but if you were to repeat what you consider my naughty speech to Jack, he would not believe me in earnest—more's the pity. I have told him the same thing myself a score of times. He will not be driven away. So you see, dear there is no alternative but for me to leave him."
"You cannot be in earnest, Jeannie. You would never think of treating Jack in such a manner, when you know how he cares for you, and looks on the engagement between you as the most solemn that can be entered into."
"You look solemn enough, Norah," said Jeannie, lightly. "Let me tell you this engagement, into which I was fairly worried by my mother and Jack together, sits lightly on my conscience. I only meant it as a bit of innocent flirtation; it is they who have made a serious affair of it, not I."
"Think what poor Jack would feel if he heard you," said Norah, shocked and grieved at the heartless speech.
"If Jack is made to feel a little, it will do him good, I hope, and teach him to know his own mind. Has he never flirted, I wonder?"
Jeannie gave a meaning look at Norah, then seeing the rising flush on her friend's face, she added, "You can remember that Jack's name has been coupled with that of first one girl, then another, for years and years past."
"Not seriously, Jeannie. A real engagement was never spoken of until you and Jack entered into one."
"Well, I did not want this to be a real one, either. All the same, it has been pleasant enough to have poor Jack at my beck and call, seeing there is really no one else about here that I should care to employ in the same manner, and I have become used to such attentions now. But, Norah, do you remember those balls we used to play with that had a piece of elastic fastened to them? We threw them, but we could always draw them back at will. I have always kept my affections discreetly in check, and, like that old toy, I never let them go so far that I cannot recall them at will."
Norah sat listening like one in a dream. She had schooled herself to suffer in silence; nay, she had by persistent effort put self out of sight, and looking into her own true heart could say that she honestly wished and prayed for the lasting happiness of these two, believing that they loved each other. To think that she had battled, suffered, conquered in vain, and that this girl, so young, so innocent and winsome to all appearance, could have deliberately set herself to gain Jack Corry's heart, only to wound it and fling it back to him!
The girl could not speak at first. She sat for a few moments, then, without allusion to their conversation, she rose, and in a dazed, mechanical way, said she must go home.
Jeannie went forward to kiss her and say good-bye, but Norah did not, could not return the caress. She started, though, as if a serpent had stung her when Jeannie whispered, "Don't be angry, dear. I only borrowed Jack for a little while; you shall have him back for altogether."
The words and careless smile were too much for Norah. She flung Jeannie's hand from her, and, with flashing eyes and righteous indignation at the girl who had so outraged both friendship and affection, said, "How dare you say such words to me!"
There was no sign of shrinking or timidity in Norah then, as she stood at her full height, looking down, both physically and morally, on the fair form which held so small and selfish a nature. At sight of her, Jeannie flushed, paled, trembled, and then stammered out, "Surely you are not angry at my little joke!"
"Joke!" said Norah. "Do you call it a jest to trifle with the purest, holiest feelings that God has given us the power to entertain one towards another? Is it a jest to bring a man to your feet, to induce him to lay bare his heart, to offer you his affection, to devote all that is best in him, and all that he has to your service, and then to mock him? Mock him, did I say? To wound him cruelly, to take the courage, the joy, hope, sunshine, out of his life—and for what? Not because you valued the priceless gift he had to offer, or that you wanted it. But you did want the paltry satisfaction of showing your power over this man, of being the envied of many, because everyone liked him; of using him in order to make your idle hours pass more quickly; of preventing any other girl from possessing the honest love which many would have prized, though you did not know its value. As to your whispered insult to myself, I have no answer for such words; they are too contemptible. We are not likely soon to meet again, but, as my farewell words, let me say: Think, Jeannie, before you decide to spoil Jack Corry's life, or your own may be saddened by bitter memories that you will never be able to banish while it lasts."
Norah waited for no reply, but almost fled from Jeannie's presence, and hurried homeward, to relieve her outraged feelings in the quiet of her own room.
A smaller nature might have rejoiced that Jack was likely to be doubly repaid for the pain he had caused herself. But Norah's was not a small soul, and she could distinguish the difference between Jack's conduct in yielding to temptation, and Jeannie's actual treachery. Like the high souled girl she was, Norah would have saved Jack from suffering, even at the cost of bearing herself a double burden, though she sighed as the thought came, "Poor Jack! Jeannie could not make him truly happy."
As to Jeannie, she was frightened and angry by turns as she recalled Norah's searching words and reproof, but not sorry.
She tossed her pretty head, and said to herself, "What right had she to take me to task? It is just her jealousy, because Jack left her for me. She shall not have a chance of rating at me again. She may think what she likes; I do not care."
The spirit of the spoiled child, the heiress, and the successful flirt, rose to the occasion. Jeannie decided that after all she had the best of it, and she smiled at the idea of a coming triumph.
The doctor had decreed that she must go away for a month. Jeannie resolved that many months should pass before she returned to Benvora, and took means to hasten her departure—a thing she well knew how to manage.
Needless to say, there was no farewell between her and Norah Guiness; but in parting with Jack Corry she made her feelings sufficiently plain.
How it all came about the gossips never knew, but first there was a whisper about a broken engagement, and then the report was boldly spread that Jack Corry had been summarily dismissed by his fickle little fiancée, who was off to foreign parts again.
Mr. Bellew went away for a time with his wife and daughter, so no one could note how he took the changed aspect of affairs; but those who knew his kind heart gave him credit for the best feelings towards Jack, and not a little regret for Jeannie's conduct.
The question that stirred most minds was how Jack would bear it. Would he get over this blow, and find consolation elsewhere? Would he go back to Norah? And if so, would she forgive him? How would it all end?
Some said, "Jack deserved the treatment he had received," but most felt more kindly towards their old favourite, and were sorry for him.
No one had an opportunity of judging for some little time, for Jack Corry was not to be seen or spoken with. Whether he was at home or not, no one seemed to know, but he was denied to all who inquired for him there.
About a fortnight after the departure of the Bellews, Norah Guiness was returning home after a long walk, when she was caught in a heavy shower. She kept on her way, and, as there seemed little prospect that the rain would cease, she decided to take a short cut through a wood.
Her mind was full of sad thoughts, her heart aching at the remembrance of all that had come and gone in a few short months, when a little turn in the path brought her close to Jack Corry. Such a changed Jack! The light seemed to have left his eyes, the gladness to be gone from his face, and he was pale and weary-looking.
Norah was shocked at the alteration in the fine, gallant young fellow, who had so often brought brightness to their fireside by his cheery ways, and she held out her hand in the old kindly fashion.
Jack took it, and clasping it in both his, stood for a moment without speaking. Then he said:
"You know what has happened, Norah?"
"Yes, Jack. I am so sorry!"
Her lips quivered, her kind eyes filled as she noted the tremulous voice, and the poor ghost of a smile as he looked in hers.
"Thank God! I can believe you yet. Sometimes I feel as if there was no truth in the world, when I remember how simple and innocent she seemed. And she was playing with my heart like a worthless toy, and never cared for me, never! I should have been miserable if she had become my wife, but I am miserable without her. I was true to—to—"
He turned away, unable to utter the name of the girl who had deceived him; and for the first time the full sense of his own conduct to Norah came to his mind, though conscience had reproached him before.
The girl stood weeping quietly, heedless of rain, of everything but Jack's misery, and her own longing to comfort him. She was pained to hear the man's sobs, and then a hollow, racking cough which followed them.
"Jack," she said, "you must not stay in this rain. Your clothes are soaked already. You have taken cold and need care."
"Why should I care?" he replied. "I have spent nearly all my time in this wood since she left; one night I fell asleep under a tree, and woke in the morning soaked through with dew."
"Jack, you are killing yourself!" cried Norah. "Come home with me. We can get to the house without being noticed, and my father and the boys will make you welcome."
How she succeeded in persuading him she could not tell; perhaps her firm hold of his arm was comforting; at any rate, he let her guide him where she would.
It was evident to Mr. Guiness that Jack was fearfully ill, and, owing to reckless exposure of himself, already in a condition of great danger, and hardly responsible for his actions. The doctor confirmed his worst fears. Jack was suffering from inflammation of the lungs; he came of delicate parents, who had died young, and it soon became evident that he had gone to Mr. Guiness's home to die also. Well for him that in his last days he had tender nurses, and was surrounded by true and loving hearts, for the boys, seeing their former friend so pitifully changed could think of nothing but their old happy times together, and even Rory was able to forgive him. It seemed terrible for the lads to think of death in connection with him who had been their model of all that was manly.
"You have forgiven me, Norah? May God bless you, and make you very happy!" said Jack, on the day he died. For answer she bent and kissed the dying lips again and again, and her kind hand was the last that Jack clasped in his.
It was only after the grave closed over him that Norah knew all Jack's remorse on her account. But for Jeannie's wiles their two lives might have been united and happy; but he had loved the little flirt in spite of reason and conscience, and he had paid the penalty. He had, however, made a will three days before he and Norah met in the wood, and to her absolute use he had bequeathed his ample means. He had no near relatives, and his wealth was at his own disposal. In Norah's hands, he knew it would prove a blessing not only to her father and the boys, but to all the poor and friendless within her reach.
Many were the tears she shed by Jack's last resting-place, and gladly would she have given up the wealth he had endowed her with, could he have taken it and lived to use it. She has had suitors many since he died, but they have wooed in vain. Most people think that she has no love to give, and that her heart is buried with Jack.
As to Jeannie, she made a little capital out of her late fiancée's death, and told, in confidence, a little sentimental tale about his devotion and the affection she found herself unable to return as it deserved. It was to a new admirer she told it, and as she wiped away a tear or two she added—
"No doubt my parents were wise to part us. Dear Jack came of a delicate family. He could have had no strength of constitution, or a mere cold would not have killed him. He left all his money to a girl who professed to be my friend, but—"
And then Jeannie stopped, as if she could have told another tale of treachery, but would not.
Later on in the day she listened with apparently artless surprise and pleasure whilst the new admirer sang a quaint little song, in which were these words, glancing the while at the Jeannie present—
"'Where's the way to Jeannie's heart?
That I canna answer;
Here about or there about,
Find it if you can, sir.'"
If the singer had known all!
Girl-readers of this story would doubtless be better pleased if Jeannie had been punished a little, than mated with somebody else, or if she had died instead of poor Jack, and Jack had lived to marry Norah, and be happy ever after. But such an ending would have failed to teach a much-needed lesson, and to show what cruel suffering is brought on true hearts by what girls are in the habit of calling "a mere flirtation." Through such conduct many a man has lost faith in the simplicity and innocence of girlhood and in womanly truth, and has become hard and cynical. He has lived perhaps for many a year—for such wounds do not always kill—but only half a life, since it has been embittered and robbed of its best affections.
Does any girl ask, "Is it possible that one ever lived and acted like Jeannie Bellew?"
I answer "Yes." The portrait is drawn from life, and is given in its natural repulsiveness, that it may prove a warning against flirtation.
"AND so you want to be a-setting up for a gentleman, do you? You think you know better than anybody else, and that what has been good enough for me—and my father and grandfather too, for that matter—is not good enough for you. You are going to be dressed up in broadcloth on week days, and work with your coat on, are you? Grimblethorpe isn't big enough for a fine fellow like you to swagger about in. You must have a market-town, must you? And I suppose you'll be going up and down the streets o' nights, like plenty more of the same sort that are 'shamed of the honest work that their fathers took their coats off to do, and gloried in doing well. You'll be smoking cigars next, and wearing a top hat, and going in for all the new-fangled ways of spending money that young fellows practise nowadays, because they have never known what went to the earning of it. But you'll rue not having taken my advice, as sure as your name is Mark Walthew."
The speaker, Daniel Walthew, and father of Mark, paused for a minute, not because he had finished, or that he desired any reply from his son; he was only out of breath, and was fain to recover it.
More than once Mark had tried to answer these hard words, which pained him sorely; but all to no purpose. From his earliest childhood he had been told to speak when he was spoken to. But, though he was now long past childhood, he was rarely allowed to speak at all if his father were holding forth, and especially if he were not in a very happy frame of mind at the time.
Daniel Walthew had always prided himself on what he called "keeping to his own rut." By this he meant holding to the same opinions, keeping to the same habits, living on the same spot, doing the same kind of work as he had done ever since he could remember, and thus following in the steps of the father and grandfather who had gone before him. Each of these had saved a good bit of money, and handed it down to be added to by the next generation. Daniel Walthew had been the only son of his father, and though there had been three children born to himself, Mark was the only survivor.
Everybody in Grimblethorpe knew that Daniel Walthew must be well-off, but nobody, his wife and son included, could have told how well. Daniel considered that to let a woman or a young man know the length of his purse would be a great mistake, and only teach idleness, pride, and extravagance. It was commonly reported that even on his wedding-day he had half killed his bride by making her walk some twelve miles, on a hot summer's afternoon, from her native village, where they were married, to the cottage at Grimblethorpe which was to be her new home.
"We'll send the boxes by carrier," said Daniel; "you and I can walk. I mean to begin as we shall go on, Barbara."
So the newly-wedded couple walked the dozen miles, side by side when they started, the young wife plodding on behind, and being waited for at intervals when she could not keep up with the bridegroom's steady stride. Daniel was thirty-five at the time, and he had waited until after his mother's death before he made up his mind to marry. He meant to live in the old home always, married or single, and he did not believe in two mistresses under the same roof. He surprised everybody by taking to wife Barbara Sharp, aged twenty-two, and consequently thirteen years younger than himself.
A far-seeing man was Daniel, even in this matter. He had watched the girl closely, for she was in service at Grimblethorpe, before he popped the question. He knew how thrifty she was, and that, instead of wearing feathers and finery, and aping those who could afford such things, and whose position they became, she made her simple garments last twice as long as most did, and put them together with her own clever fingers. She liked saving almost as well as he did, and had a "nice bit" in the bank already.
Of course he might have married somebody higher up than a mere servant. But would one of the farmers' or tradesmens' daughters have stepped beside him in his rut? By no means. They would have wanted to drag him into a wider one, and to scatter to the winds some of the dearly-loved savings that it had been the work of three generations to bring together.
It would be different with Barbara Sharp. She would be lifted into a higher part of the road, albeit the rut might be narrow, and be mistress instead of maid, though in a much smaller dwelling than the one in which she served.
Even in the matter of age Daniel had made his calculations. "A wife should be a dozen years younger than her husband, so as to be able to nurse him when he gets a good way on in life. A woman gets looked after by other women folk; but for a man, his wife is the natural nurse." (Daniel said "natteral.") "And it is very upsetting for him to have anyone else about him in his latter days."
Self came first with Daniel, even in his way of looking right on to the very end of life.
He was dreadfully upset on his wedding-day, for just when home was reached, Barbara's face went white, and down she dropped in a dead faint on the floor of the "house," as the apartment was called which did everyday duty for sitting-room and kitchen. There was a parlour, but it was kept sacred to Sundays and state occasions.
This fainting fit filled Daniel with misgivings. Not so much on account of the hardships to which he had subjected his bride in making her walk so many miles during the heat of the day, but lest after all he had married a delicate woman, and might find her a burden instead of a helpmeet.
Such, however, was not the case. Barbara, on coming to, seemed properly ashamed of herself for having excited such a commotion; said such a thing had never happened before, and she did not think it would again. She had been mistimed, having worked early and late to do everything in the way of preparation for her marriage, instead of spending a needless shilling. On the top of all this, the walk had been too much for her—that was all, so Daniel was comforted.
Into the rut stepped Barbara, and kept therein close beside her husband. She had few relatives, and by degrees, as no visits were paid on either side, she lost sight of these. She was not an inquisitive woman, and was content to know that there was no fear of want before their eyes, and to work, that additions might be made to whatever savings already existed.
The few acres about the cottage belonged to Daniel, and furnished him with occupation. Her household work, the dairy, poultry, and pigs found enough for his wife to do. Too much when there was a baby as well. But Barbara managed. She never dreamed of employing a servant, and she was so habitually careful and orderly, that both work and expenditure were reduced to the lowest possible amount.
The two first children, both boys, died just when the toils of nursing were over, and each could patter unassisted over the red-tiled house-floor.
It was a very silent place after that. Barbara grieved, and worked more mechanically, and Daniel mourned after his fashion, thinking to himself that there was to be no son to follow father and grandfather in the old rut.
Yet the expenditure was not increased. Every apple in the orchard, every cabbage in the garden, every scrap of produce that could be turned into a penny or the half of one, was so turned to account. Slowly and surely the money kept growing, for the little holding furnished nearly all that the pair required, and clothes seemed, in Barbara's careful hands, to grow little the worse for wear.
Daniel's hoards grew—Mr. Mitcheson, the chief lawyer at Claybury, could have told how fast; for though Barbara did not know it, her husband was adding field to field, and rents and interest were being turned into principal, and let out on safe mortgages to increase the income that was never to be spent, but to go on increasing still.
Daniel liked Mr. Mitcheson, chiefly because he kept in the same rut as his father and grandfather had followed before him. It was as natural for a Mitcheson to be the chief lawyer at Claybury, as for Daniel Walthew to plough, sow, and reap the fields that his forefathers had first earned, then owned.
Daniel was forty-one and Barbara twenty-eight when their second child died. Five years later a third child was given them, and the gift remained. That he had all the affection of which his father was capable may well be imagined. In the depths of her heart, his mother longed to do more and better for her boy, to make his young life brighter and more childlike. But she had been trained to keep in one rut, and felt that there was no stepping out of it. She had no will but that of her husband, and she must teach little Mark to keep within the same bounds.
The child was not stinted in one way. He was fed with food convenient for him; his clothing was good and comfortable, and shaped to promote freedom of limb and preserve health, by the careful hands of his mother. She watched him, worked for him, nursed him, as no hireling could have done; though, thank God! There are many nurses not mothers who look for their reward less in pounds, shillings, and pence than in the well-being of the little ones committed to their charge.
But though little Mark's bodily wants were well supplied, his young heart hungered for young companionship, and no small feet except his own ever crossed the red-tiled floor. Father could not be troubled with other people's children; they would be noisy, and sometimes need asking to a meal. Mother had trained her own little man to the tidiest, cleanest ways imaginable. She rubbed and scraped his boot soles till his feet glowed again, and his tread left no mark of mud on step or ruddy floor. Mrs. Walthew had no time to look after other people's children, so, though a little schoolfellow might come with Mark as far as the gate, he came no further. Father and mother knew at what time to expect the boy, and, in their cut-to-pattern fashion, rejoiced at his coming.
But if he were later than usual, the time had to be accounted for, and he was ever admonished to come straight home, and not loiter or play on the road.
No wonder the boy grew old too fast, and felt that he was doing so—that in sheer desperation, he worked too hard at his books, and distanced the motley group of boys and girls that together made up the village school.
Fortunately, Mr. Mitcheson, after long striving, succeeded in persuading Mark's father to send him to a high-class grammar school at Claybury, the one at which he had been taught, and to which his own sons were now going.
Daniel Walthew hardly thought it possible for Mr. Mitcheson to make a mistake. All his investments, made by that gentleman's advice, had been so satisfactory, and the interest was so regularly paid, that he was delighted Mr. Mitcheson claimed no credit for this.
Daniel Walthew was too wise a man to ask for large percentages. He always said, "High interest means great risk. I want nothing beyond five per cent., and if that means risk, four and safety." So the lawyer found it easy to place his client's money in good hands, and insure the regular payments of interest in which Daniel delighted.
He alone knew what the sum total of these amounted to, but he was also aware that a good deal of money went straight into Daniel's hands every six months without passing through his own.
Mr. Mitcheson looked ahead, and in imagination saw the boy Mark grown into the man, and heir to all this wealth.
"It would be too terrible," he said, "if that fine lad were to have his life narrowed down to the limits which at present confine them. The old man's one ambition is that the boy may keep to the same rut as he walks in, but I will do my best to free him from such bondage."
Airs. Mitcheson agreed with her husband, and said, "If Mr. Walthew will send his boy to Claybury as a weekly boarder, we can do something to brighten the lad's life between Mondays and Saturdays. He will listen to you if he will to anybody."
But Mr. Mitcheson would have failed in his efforts but for the help of an unexpected ally, and an unforeseen trouble with regard to Mark himself.
"HE is top of the school, and knows more than any of the other scholars, and all that I can teach him."
"That is good hearing," said Daniel Walthew, as the schoolmaster told this of Mark, then aged thirteen; but he was not equally gratified when he added, "The boy ought to go to a better place than this. Give him a chance, and you will be proud of him."
"I'm proud of him now. Top boy of Grimblethorpe school is good enough for me, and better than I could ever do."
Daniel Walthew went home rejoicing. His boy's education was completed to his own satisfaction, and there would be no more school fees to pay. Now he would take him in hand and guide his steps in the old rut.
But Daniel had planned what he could not carry out.
Mark had tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and hungered for more. There were no books at home that he did not know by heart. A weekly local newspaper was the only new literature that came within the door of the cottage. He had not even the companionship of his old schoolfellows; he was to share his father's occupations by day, and to be content with what sufficed to fill up the measure of his parents' days when working hours were over.
Mrs. Walthew doubted what the result would be, but did not say so. Mark felt his monotonous life unbearable, but had been too well trained to rebel. So he did as he was bid, and in a short time became silent, listless, careless about his food, and spiritless in everything, besides looking miserably ill.
His mother and father had little faith in doctors, except as persons who were all of one mind in having long bills. So Mrs. Walthew made herb tea of the kind drunk by three generations of Walthews, and the fourth took it from her hand, but grew no better. Then a doctor was called in. He knew the family history, and he said promptly enough, "Your boy needs no medicine such as I can give, Mr. Walthew."
Daniel looked cheerful on hearing this, and decided that advice without physic could not be very costly. He was grievously undeceived when he found that the advice of this doctor would cost a guinea, whereas the Grimblethorpe medical man only charged half-a-crown for a visit, and a bottle of medicine into the bargain.
"What your son wants is something to think about, work for mind as well as body, and young companions to work amongst. Give him change of scene, plenty of books, good teachers, bright companions, and you will save him. Here he will die, or lose his reason."
The doctor was a friend of Mr. Mitcheson's, and therefore to be trusted, and as the result of the combined advice of lawyer and doctor, Mark went to Claybury, and stayed there from Monday to Saturday in each week, whilst his father trod the old rut with only his wife to bear him company, and both sorely missing their boy's presence.
At first, Daniel Walthew had many misgivings as to the wisdom of the plan to which he had been brought to consent. Mark's feet had not taken kindly to the path which sufficed for his father, though he had never complained of it. But a new interest was created by the lad's very absence. He was terribly missed during the week; but how delightful it was to welcome him back on Saturdays, and to hear all he had to tell! So thought the mother.
But whilst Daniel rejoiced to see the hue of health coming back to his son's cheeks, and to hear the new glad ring in his voice, he was not so ready to listen, because with every week's work the lad's store of knowledge was increasing. He was getting new-fangled notions, and Grimblethorpe, which had been and still was his father's world, would never satisfy him when school days were over. "What next?" Daniel asked himself. But he was afraid to suggest an answer to the question.
Besides the wider school world, and world of books to which Mark had access now, there was another charmed circle into which he entered with bated breath. Mrs. Mitcheson did not forget the talk between her husband and herself about brightening the life of the solitary lad. She questioned her own sons about him. "How do you like young Walthew?" she asked.
"Oh, mother, he is most amusing," said Allan. "I do not mean in his talk, but he has such prim, quiet ways for a boy. He is going to be a model good boy, and as such most objectionable. He never blots his exercise-books, or leaves anything out of place, or tears a leaf, or speaks at a wrong time. He is hatefully goody-goody."
"You are too hard on him, Allan," interposed Fred, who was sixteen, and a couple of years his brother's senior. "You know how Mark has been brought up, mother, in such old-fashioned un-boylike ways—they are very good ways all the same. If I were half as careful and methodical, I should save myself many a lecture. But Mark is very clever, and his parents will be very proud of him one of these days. He is a year and a half younger than I am, but I shall have to work hard to hold my own against Mark."
"I wonder if Mr. Walthew really will be proud of the result of his son's school work. It is certain to interfere with his pet plan of tying the lad down to the same kind of life that he leads himself."
"Why, mother, Mr. Walthew could never expect Mark to go back to the old life at Grimblethorpe. To dig and delve, to sow and reap on that little holding, where two or three generations of miserly Walthews have gone on scraping and hoarding farthings, until they are as rich as —"
"Hush! Fred, your father would be displeased if he heard you talk in such a manner."
"No one can hear me but yourself, mother, or you may be sure I should not say a word."
"Tell me about Mark's manners, Fred. I have seen little of him. He is very shy, is he not?"
"Yes, but he has really nice manners. Old Mr. Walthew, though homely and countrified, had nothing coarse or uncouth about him."
"Then you think Mark will behave nicely if I ask him here?"
"No fear of that. Do ask him, mother. It will be a real kindness to him to bring him amongst younger children. He is so much too old for fourteen," said Fred.
Mark was accordingly invited to Mr. Mitcheson's, and there he entered on a new and hitherto undreamed-of life. Mrs. Mitcheson did the wisest and kindest thing possible by handing him over to the tender mercies of her younger children; for she had a very populous nursery, and Mark soon became an immense favourite with them all.
In the Walthews' home at Grimblethorpe there was hardly an article of furniture that had not done duty for two or three generations. This said much both for the makers and users thereof, but little for the good taste of either. Everything was hard, bare, and uncompromising, though exquisitely clean and orderly. Nothing ever seemed to wear out or get broken in Barbara's careful hands.
After Mark became familiar with the handsome table appointments, soft carpets, fine pictures, and furniture which combined beauty of form with comfort in use, he became painfully sensible of the bareness and ugliness of his home surroundings. How he longed to break those impossible animals in brown and white pottery which ornamented (?) the parlour mantelshelf—how he wished to remove the china mugs, with "A present from Blackshore" in gilt letters on their sides, from the rank of decorations to the crockery shelf in the cupboard!
Mark compared the hard Windsor chairs with printed patchwork covers, and the hearthrug made of scraps of cloth sewed on a canvas foundation, with the velvet-seated furniture, of which, at first, he had been almost afraid to make use at Mr. Mitcheson's. But there all the beautiful things were in constant use, and in his own home, the best, where all were ugly, might only be brought out on rare occasions.
In a general way, the Walthews used thick delft cups and saucers and two-pronged steel forks. The china tea service, really beautiful and dainty, seldom graced the board, and three-pronged forks were only seen on Sundays.
Yet Mark made no mistakes. He was too quietly observant for that, and Mrs. Mitcheson was greatly delighted with the manners of her young guest.
"He has been very nicely brought up," she said to her husband. "Who would guess, to see him at our table, that the very sight of many of its appliances was new to him but a month ago?"
"Poor fellow! I am not sure whether we are doing him a kindness," replied Mr. Mitcheson. "The father is bent on pinning his boy down to the same dreary life that he leads, and every day's absence from Grimblethorpe makes it less likely that he will submit to it."
The lawyer's children were boys with one exception. There were three—Fred, Allan, and Maurice—then the only girl, Dorothy, who was nearly twelve years old when Mark paid his first visit to the house.
After her came four little masculine steps, the very youngest being only a few months old.
Dorothy, or Dolly, was the darling of the household, alike the pet and tyrant of the boys. The elder ones were continually contriving pleasures for their sister, she as continually playing little mother to the smaller people in the nursery, each of whom in turn learned to trot after her as soon as they could trot independently, and to look for her help in every difficulty.
It was twelve-year-old Dolly who took possession of fourteen-year-old Mark, questioned him about his home, and pitied him with all her heart when she found that he had neither brother, sister, nor even a cousin within reach.
"You poor lonely boy!" she exclaimed. "You say there is only yourself at home, and no one ever comes to play at your house. What do you do with yourself on Saturday afternoons and Sundays?"
"I get lessons ready for Monday first of all. Sometimes I fetch things from the shop for mother, or help father in the garden when there is anything I can do. On Sundays I go to church once—there is only one service."
"And then, I suppose, you have somebody to talk to."
"Not often, except my father and mother. I used to have very little fresh to say to them, but now it is better, for we are not all seeing the same things the week through, and I can speak about school, and all that happens at Claybury between Monday and Saturday."
"Next time you are at home you will tell them about me," said Dolly, with childish frankness, and a little sagacious nod of the head.
"What else? About the little ones, and how nice it is to be one of a lot of children—though they do bother you at times, you know," said Dolly.
"Oh yes. And I shall say how kind your mamma has been to me, and—"
But Mark checked himself, and his face flushed suddenly.
"And what?" persisted Dolly.
"You can guess what," replied Mark. "Think of all that I shall see new; of any kind words said to me, and then you will know for yourself."
"But if anyone says unkind words, what then?"
"I will keep them to myself. Repeating things helps me to remember them, and I would rather forget unkind words if I can."
"Now, if anybody vexes me, I always go straight to mamma, and tell her; or if she is not in, I tell Fred. I believe you were going to say something to me, only you stopped all in a minute. I saw you go quite red, too."
The observant little lady was right. Mark was going to say that he should tell his mother how beautiful everything was at Mr. Mitcheson's, and how different from his own home surroundings. But he felt that silence on this point would be best. Somehow, he shrank from drawing too exact a picture of the cottage at Grimblethorpe.
"Then have you no cousins at all?' persisted Dolly.
"No own cousins or near relatives."
"How horribly poor you must feel! Don't you want any?"
"I should be glad if I had brothers and sisters. There were two baby boys before me, but they died. If I could choose, I would have a brother and a sister."
"It's no good troubling now," said Dolly. "If any were to come, they would be no good for companions, so you would be as well without. Being a boy, you would not want to nurse a baby, like I always do. They are such darlings—at least ours are," claiming proprietary right in the nursery treasures. "Are not your father and mother sorry you have no cousins or anybody?"
"They grieved when the other children died, but I do not think they care about relatives. Father says the fewer people have the better; for if they are richer, they look down on you, and if they are poorer, they always want to borrow money from you."
Mark said this innocently enough, just repeating his father's words. But these made Dolly thoughtful, and she remained silent, puzzling over and trying to understand the difference between this boy's life and parents and her own.
The Mitchesons were strong in family affection, never disowning their kindred, but readily responding to all reasonable claims for help and sympathy one amongst another.
There were no loose links in their family chain; through evil report and good report, they clung together. They helped the weak, cheered the troubled, and, if misfortune pursued one of their number, the prosperous held out kind hands—not empty hands—and set him on his legs again.
Even if there were a black sheep amongst them, love flung a mantle over his faults, so that the world at large should not scoff at the sable fleece, which, maybe, grew whiter in time, as grey hairs replace black ones, with advancing years and better judgment.
Mark was a problem to Dolly which she could not solve.
She had heard people say that his father was rich; yet, she was sure he worked in the fields, and wore a coat on week days, like the cottagers round Claybury. There was no servant—Mark had accidentally told so much—and therefore his mother must sweep, scrub, and make fires, and cook, and wash up dishes; no wonder she did not want company. And they did not care for aunts and uncles and cousins! It must be all very horrid. But Mark was nice, and so Dolly magnanimously resolved that she would not "bother"—her favourite, though inelegant, expression—but would be as good as ever she could to the lonely boy. So she sent her problem to the winds, and said to Mark—
"I have seven brothers—three older, four younger than I am. One more does not make much difference; so I will have you to go amongst the big lot, and make it into four. Then I shall be exactly in the middle, and you will have eight of us belonging to you. There!"
And Dolly, having settled this matter to her own satisfaction, gave herself no further anxiety on the subject, but managed to give Mark something to talk about by initiating him into the mysteries of tennis, and laughing and making him laugh at his awkwardness.
DANIEL WALTHEW'S mind was much exercised by the fact that his son had been invited to Mr. Mitcheson's, and treated like one of his own boys, for the solicitor was a very great man in his eyes. He was not only a lawyer, but the lawyer to whom noblemen, the first in the county, went for advice. He had property, too, which made him independent of his profession, and Mrs. Mitcheson had not come to him empty-handed. He entertained his aristocratic clients, and was entertained by them, and, as Mr. Walthew put it, "He thinks no more of a Member of Parliament coming to dinner, than I should of asking my next-door neighbour to a cup of tea."
Doubtless he thought less—for it was only after much deliberation that even such modest hospitality was dispensed at the cottage board at Grimblethorpe, and such occasions were few and far between.
Daniel Walthew was proud of the honour done to Mark, and yet it troubled him for two reasons. The first was because he could not understand that a lady like Mrs. Mitcheson had invited a simple country lad to her house from sheer kindness of heart, and with the single desire to brighten his young life.
Secondly, he felt that Mr. Mitcheson's life path lay on a much higher level than his own, and if Mark got accustomed to mix with grand people, how would he ever come down to that humble part of the road on which was his own rut?
"What do you think about it, Barbara?" he asked his wife.
"That Mrs. Mitcheson is very kind to Mark, and I am very thankful to her."
"But why should she ask him? That's what I want to know. I should like to know what will be the outcome of it."
"Maybe because you are a customer of her husband, and your father went and paid good money to his father. I reckon your custom has been worth a good bit to them from first to last."
"What I am afraid of is that Mark will get stuck-up notions, and when he has done with schooling, he will not want to settle down here again. If I were to see him with a cigar in his mouth, swaggering up and down like some of those empty-headed puppies that think fathers were only meant to work and scrape money together for them to waste, I should almost wish that he had followed the others when he was little."
"There is no better boy than Mark; and what is the worth of the money if neither I nor he is ever to be any the happier for it?" asked Barbara, stung to speak as she had never done before during more than twenty-five years of married life. "Why," she continued, "should Mark be tied to Grimblethorpe? He will be fit for something better, and I hope he will get it."
Very wroth was Daniel Walthew when these rebellious words met his ear. He had not married Barbara to teach him what he ought to do, or talk about money as if she brought him any.
"So you mean to encourage the lad in stuck-up ways, do you?" he asked. "You want Mark to be a fine, do-nothing gentleman when he leaves school? I wish I had never sent him, but I've promised him three years, and I never broke my word yet. He shall have his time, and then—"
There was comfort in the thought. Daniel Walthew never boasted of his money. It was happiness enough to know of his hoards, and how they grew—grew, day by day, as the grass grew, without being watched. No need that others should share the knowledge with him. But Daniel liked every one to regard him as a man of his word, and he would keep a promise at any cost to himself. So Barbara knew that Mark was safe up to seventeen, and by that time something might happen.
However much Mr. Walthew might wish to keep the actual amount of his property a secret, and perhaps most of all to his son, lest Mark should thereon found a claim to live as a gentleman, other people talked and calculated, unassisted by any hint from him. The talk reached Mark's ears, and he tried to speak about it to his mother.
"Everybody says my father is a very rich man. If he is, why should we not have a different house from this, and live like other people? It seems a shame that you should do the cleaning and washing, and that father should work just like a labouring man, when we might have things as pretty as the Mitchesons have. It is so pleasant even to look round one of their rooms, and to sit at a table where the silver and glass glitter when the light falls on them, and the table-cloth shines like satin. If we only had a few pretty vases to put flowers here and there, they would brighten the table, and we have plenty in the garden."
Mrs. Walthew looked terrified when Mark spoke of his father's wealth.
"Hush, dear!" she said. "People talk of things they know nothing about. How should they? Your father keeps his affairs to himself. As to him and me dressing up like gentlefolks, and having servants to wait on us in a big house, we should be fish out of water. We are used to our work, we couldn't be idle, and if we had to change our ways, we should be miserable. Let us alone, lad. We are best as we are. As to sticking flowers about the place, why, you have only to turn your head, and there they are all in sight, and the sweet smell coming in at the open door, so that you cannot help knowing they are there."
Mark had to be silent, for he could get no information from his mother with regard to his father's wealth; only a hurried, frightened whisper, for Mr. Walthew's step was heard on the gravel.
"Don't trouble yourself! There is only you for everything, but you will have to humour father, for he can do as he likes with what belongs to him."
"But, mother, he talks of my coming and living here in his way and working as he works. I never shall. Do you think if a blind man's eyes were suddenly opened, and he had the power either to keep his sight or go back to his old state, he would shut them and choose blindness? I have seen a better, brighter life, mother. I can never settle down at Grimblethorpe again."
Mr. Walthew's entrance prevented more conversation, and Mark, seeing that an allusion to money matters or his own future only troubled his mother, said no more, but worked harder than ever, and bided his time. He had, however, a confederate and devoted friend in Dolly Mitcheson. Dolly was the very soul of honour, and to be trusted. Her brothers, big and little, chose her as the repository of their secrets, and the one girl of the family was never known to "peach." It mattered not to her whether the smallest toddles in the nursery, or Fred, who was growing tall and manly, chose to speak confidentially, or whether the subject was trivial or important, she was equally trustworthy in every case.
When Dolly adopted Mark as a brother, in order to make a double fraternal quartet, she did him a vast service by giving him a friend on whose truth and good sense he could rely at all times.
At first, when the girl spoke to him in her frank fashion about his home, and asked him if this and the other in her own were like it, Mark hesitated, and scarcely knew what to say, whilst his face flushed painfully. How could this dainty maiden realise the difference between her parents beautiful house and its surroundings and the cottage he called home! So he turned the talk from furniture to flowers, and being great on this subject, he delighted and instructed Dolly by telling her about those she loved, and such as grew in his father's garden.
As time went on, Mark, after thinking over the matter, decided to tell this girl friend the exact story of his past life, and to describe, with the utmost minuteness, the cottage home and its contents, as well as the narrow circle in which his parents were satisfied to move.
Dolly listened attentively, picturing the while all that Mark was taking such pains to make clear to her. She could guess, too, what it cost him; but when he finished she bravely looked in his face and said—
"When people have lived so long in one way they cannot change, Mark, can they? They are like old trees—if you try to take them up and plant them somewhere else, the roots cling, and there is no moving them without breaking some. If people choose to live in a little house and wait on themselves, instead of in a big one and be waited on by other people, it is their own business, and nobody has a right to find fault. One working bee is worth a lot of drones, is he not? Any way, if your mother has no servants, she has not them to grumble about all the time she is out calling, as my mamma's visitors do. I do get tired of hearing them, when I am dressed up and sitting in the drawing-room sometimes, and I wish they would talk of something else. So does mamma. I mean to learn how to do everything, and then when I am grown-up, and have a house and servants, I shall be able to tell them what they do not know."
Mark agreed with the wisdom of this resolution; then he said:
"You must not think we are without anything that is really necessary. We have good food, beautifully cooked, and clothes, only they have to be taken great care of. I know my parents are very fond of me; only somehow, I have never been a boy like other boys. I never ran, and jumped, and raced, and got into scrapes, and tore my clothes, or got sent off to bed, as the neighbours' lads did. I think I was born rather old."
Dorothy laughed at this, and Mark joined her, then added that he had been growing younger every day since he came to Claybury, and it was all through Mr. and Mrs. Mitcheson and herself.
"But you work fearfully hard, Fred says."
"Because I want to get one scholarship at least—two if possible. I cannot live at Grimblethorpe always, and unless I can give a very good reason for doing so, my father will insist on my going home, and working as he does. He calls it 'keeping in the old rut.' If I had known no different life, I might have done it, but not now."
Months grew into years. Mark Walthew laboured incessantly at his studies. Daniel would have been more or less than human if he had not been proud of the place won by his son, of the reports which came at each term's end, and the prizes he carried off. Mrs. Walthew's glad tears ran down her cheeks, and even her husband had to turn his back upon her, that she might not see why his spectacles needed so much polishing before he could read what "schoolmaster had written about Mark."
The boy was no country lout or awkward bookworm to look at, but was growing into a fine youth, whose manners would disgrace no society. His mother's training had given him right habits to begin with, and under Mr. Mitcheson's roof he had learnt those practised by persons in a higher position. Frank, yet modest, simple but refined, sincere without forwardness, and with a mind richly stored for one so young, Mark Walthew was indeed a son on whom a father might have rejoiced to bestow all the advantages money could give.
But all the while Mr. Walthew was saying, "Barbara, this is Mark's last term. In July, he will come home to stay."
She, with a sinking of the heart, could only answer, "Yes; he will have had the three years you promised him," and hope for a solution as to future difficulties which she could foresee, though her husband could not. Whilst he, nevertheless, confessed that he was not altogether easy in his mind as to what all this learning would lead to.
CLAYBURY SCHOOL was richly endowed, and had many valuable scholarships open to candidates born within a certain radius of its walls. It had been Mark Walthew's desire to win one of these, believing that if he succeeded his father would consent to his continuing his studies after the allotted three years.
His success exceeded his most sanguine hopes. He won two of the best, and even without further help from Mr. Walthew, might work on for three more years, and, he trusted, win further distinctions.
"Scholarships!" said old Daniel, when informed of Mark's success. "Hasn't he been getting scholarships these last three years? He went for learning, and he should have put some by for future use by this time. I don't know what you mean by two scholarships. I always lumped the whole concern, and called it learning. Well, if he has got a double dose, so much the better; I reckon it will last longer. And when he is settled down at home, he will have plenty to serve him his lifetime."
Then came the struggle. Mark bared his heart, and told his hopes to his father, and was answered by a torrent of reproaches—told that he wanted to set up for a fine gentleman, instead of keeping to the old rut, and doing the work his father had been proud to do well.
This story begins with some of the words used by the wrathful old man; many others, far more bitter and cruel, sank deep into Mark's memory, and grieved him to the heart, but they need not be repeated here.
"If," said Mr. Walthew, "you are resolved to turn your back on home, and choose a new road for yourself, go, and never darken my doors again. But if you think of being kept in idleness by the old father's money, you will find your mistake out; I will never leave you a penny! You choose now—once and for all!"
"Then I must choose to go, father," said Mark. "God has given me some talents to account for, and I must use them. I will never ask you for money; but some day I hope I shall hear you say I have chosen wisely. If you are not now proud of my success—and, oh, I had so counted on hearing you and mother say, 'Well done, Mark!'—you shall not be ashamed of me in after years."
"I am proud of you, Mark," cried Mrs. Walthew, "so proud that I would not have you stay and be tied down from youth to age, to such a life as we have led! We are too old to change; but for you it would be a living death. Go, my son, my one darling, if so be you can choose, and have no fear of want before your eyes. I have been twenty-eight years always going the same daily round, without change in anything, except the growing older. Talk of money! What is it worth if it never gives a day's brightness, and the only pleasure the owner has is the being able to say, 'I have so many thousands of pounds, or hundreds of acres'?"
"Listen, my boy. It is terrible for a wife to take the opposite side to her husband, but I could not bear to think of your growing into a man like your father. Not that he is dishonest! To gain a hundred pounds, he would not take a penny wrongfully, or refuse to pay what is fairly due. He has only robbed himself and me of everything that money could have bought in the way of happiness for ourselves, or enabled us to give it to other people. Those who have wealth, and neither the heart to spend nor give of their abundance, are the poorest of the poor. You may be blessedly rich with very little money."
Need it be said that Daniel Walthew was not present when his wife spoke these words to her son? They cheered Mark, for they told him that his mother's blessing would be on his head, his mother's prayers ever offered on his behalf. And both hoped that in time the father's views might change. How could he stand singly against the world?
The world meant Claybury and the country round, for naturally Mark's success had made his friends proud of him—none more so than the Mitchesons, and most of all his friend Dolly. Many a time the true-hearted girl had cheered the boy on, until her own brothers used to say that the adopted one took the first place of all in her thoughts, and had more than an eighth share thereof.
Mr. Mitcheson tried to move Mr. Walthew from his resolve, but in vain. The headmaster of the school used his influence, and spoke in such terms of Mark's talents and industry, that any other man would have been delighted beyond measure to call him son.
Not so Daniel Walthew. "I don't hold with learning that takes a man out of his proper spear, and makes him ashamed of the honest work his father does," said he, and refused to hear any argument on the other side, or to speak again on the subject.
So the cottage door closed behind Mark Walthew, and all the articles purchased for his use went with him. The old man would not suffer a scrap belonging to him to remain, and the goodly pile of handsome books which had brightened the dingy parlour no longer lay on its table, to tell of the boy's school victories.
Daniel Walthew neither spoke of Mark nor allowed any other person to mention his name.
In his heart he must have felt for the sorrow of his faithful wife, for he did not hinder her from receiving letters; and he knew that the tidings they brought must be good by the glad light on her face, though tears often accompanied it—tears because her husband did not share her joy.
Mr. Mitcheson still transacted Daniel's legal business, found new investments for his hoards, and made out deeds when some fresh purchase was completed. But he felt equal pity and indignation at the sight of his self-willed client, and his inability to value the good gift bestowed on him in the shape of his talented and worthy son.
Years passed on. Mark did wonders, and his friends rejoiced that his career had more than fulfilled their most sanguine expectations.
He was at Claybury, the honoured guest of the headmaster of the old school, and his name was mentioned in the columns of the principal local papers. Copies of these came to Mrs. Walthew, who, entering the kitchen gently, found her husband eagerly reading the paragraphs relating to his boy.
At sight of her, he angrily thrust the paper between the bars and saw it burn to ashes. But his wife had caught the expression on his face as he read, and thanked God for this, as for a ray of light and hope.
"He is not so hard as he seems," she said to herself. And this she not only thought, but told her son in a letter, written in a cramped hand and imperfectly spelled, but which the youth kissed—soft-hearted fellow that he was—because it came from that dear unselfish mother whom he had only seen very rarely for seven long years.
He was turned four-and-twenty, tall, straight, and healthy, despite hard brain work, for he had lived temperately, taken outdoor exercises, and not "burned the candle at both ends."
There was a fair face that lighted at his coming—a warm, loving heart that did not try to hide its gladness, when, at an evening gathering at the headmaster's house, in honour of his old pupil, Dolly Mitcheson's hand was clasped in that of Mark Walthew.
Dorothy was twenty-two now, and for years past she and Mark had known that each held the first place in the other's heart. Friends—adopted brother and sister!—these might be and were sweet relationships; but that which subsisted now was nearer and dearer still.
Dolly had been wooed by wealthy suitors. Mark's father would never break his word, so that he had only himself to rely upon; but she knew that a time would come when her lover would be able to claim his bride, and offer a home of his own winning. And Mark knew that wealth had sought in vain for Dorothy's regard, and that she would wait, no matter how long, for her one love.
"There is one chance as to old Daniel," said Mr. Mitcheson to his wife. "He will hate to go to any other lawyer; it would be stepping out of his rut. He may not make a will at all. He has said he will leave nothing to Mark. Let him die intestate, and the lad will get the money, and the old man keep his word."
The same thought had passed through Mrs. Walthew's mind; and, if truth may be told, through that of Daniel also.
Before Mark left Claybury, he paid a brief visit to Grimblethorpe, and saw his mother; not in the cottage—never would he cross its threshold without his father's leave—but in a field-path, between the waving corn, they walked and talked together, whilst Daniel Walthew kept a business appointment with Mr. Mitcheson at Claybury.
The mother fed on that happy meeting for many a day—looking back on it, and forward to the next.
Winter came, and sturdy old Daniel, who had never known a day's illness before, was attacked by severe bronchitis, and confined, not only to house, but to bed for many weeks. It would have been going out of the regular rut to have outside help; so Barbara toiled and watched, and nursed him tenderly, getting often hard words and never thanks—for Daniel was a most impatient patient. It was only when he was fairly well again, and grumbling over his sadly-neglected plots, that Barbara's strength gave way. She was simply worn out with loss of rest and overwork. She had been as hale as Daniel; as independent of doctors and their physic; but now a great dread fell upon her husband. What if his wife were to die? He had always made sure she would outlive him, and counted on her careful nursing to the last.
Who was to nurse her? They had kept themselves to themselves. They had no neighbours in the ordinary sense, and were unused to asking favours of anyone.
Worse still, Daniel must go to Claybury on the very day that Barbara broke down, as deeds had to be signed, and the other party to them would come a long way to meet him.
Barbara suggested the name of an elderly woman who would bear her company during his absence, and she further said, "There are nurses at Claybury. Ask Mr. Mitcheson to give you the name of one."
The lawyer felt sorry to see the trouble of his stout old client, despite his stubbornness and unreasonable treatment of Mark, and called Mrs. Mitcheson into consultation about finding a nurse for Mrs. Walthew.
"I think I can find one," she said. "I will do my best, for I am grieved to hear of Mrs. Walthew's illness. No doubt she has broken down through overwork and anxiety."
When Daniel Walthew was ready to return, the nurse was forthcoming. She was young, and pleasant to look upon, but such a picture of neatness! No frizzled hair or finery, but smooth braids under a cottage bonnet, whilst wholesome-looking prints, ample aprons, and snug caps, with stout serviceable boots for outside, and noiseless slippers for indoor wear, composed her visible wardrobe.
How deft she was in her movements! How tender in her manner towards the poor invalid! How clever in preparing little things to tempt her appetite, and how patient and considerate to Daniel himself!
The old man saw his wife's face become more hopeful-looking, and in time overspread with a faint colour. He noted that her spirits improved, and that this young presence had a cheering effect on himself, for the nurse told bright tales, and as her patient gained strength, went singing about the cottage in a voice that sounded wondrously sweet, when compared with anything he had ever heard.
Barbara and her young nurse had always plenty to talk about, but sometimes they stopped suddenly when Daniel came in. He noticed, too, that she had very pretty ways, and what he called "lady hands," and yet how clever they were at whatever they attempted!
Barbara went on improving to a certain point, and then stopped. The doctor was puzzled, and said so. Day after day passed, and no progress was made. Then she began to go back a little. In mortal dread, Daniel consulted the nurse, who calmly answered, "Mrs. Walthew wants a medicine which only you can give her. She wants her son's arms round her neck, and the sight of his face."
An angry exclamation fell from Daniel's lips, and he left the cottage for a time. When he returned the nurse was standing with her outdoor garments on and her box packed ready to depart, as it was the carrier's day for Claybury.
"You will not leave her!" he cried, aghast at the sight and at the tears of his wife.
"I would not, if I could do more for her, but I cannot stay to see her die when it is in your power to save her. If Mrs. Walthew dies, the blame will be on your head."
The nurse looked fearlessly at Daniel, who turned from her to his wife as these plain words fell on his ears.
"Have your will," he said. "She must be saved. It is human nature for a mother to want her only son."
Joyfully the nurse prepared a telegram, and ran with it to the post-office, Daniel watching the while beside his wife. Not many hours later Mark stood by his mother, and that too by his father's wish, and from that moment Mrs. Walthew began to mend.
"I may have been wrong in keeping in one rut all my life, and keeping other people at a distance," said old Daniel. "Nurse Dora has taught me a good many lessons in a few weeks, more than I had learned in seventy years before. I don't know how we shall do without her, and she will have to leave us soon, she says. Here is Mark, far and away happier without money than mine has ever made me. That is a good thing. For I have said I will not leave him any, and I will not break my word."
"Do not make a will at all," said Nurse Dora.
"But I shall, my dear," said the old man, his eyes twinkling with a knowing expression, such as Mark had never seen in them before. "I shall make a will, that I may leave you a legacy. And there is no need to trouble for a way out of the difficulty. I never said I would not give Mark anything. I am free to do that, and I am not sure but what there is more pleasure in giving than leaving, for you can see the fruits of one, and not the other."
"Ah, Miss Dorothy," he continued, "the old man is not quite so blind as you thought! You have not come to speak to me of late years, but you have some of the child's face left yet, and you favour your mother. And my ears have caught old words now and then, and I know how good and true a heart my lad has won, and what a clever housewife and nurse can be joined to a born lady. You have won old Daniel as well as young Mark, and all I can say is, 'May God bless you both, and forgive me!'"
Is it worth while to add another word? To tell how Dolly Mitcheson's wise resolve, "to learn everything," brought good fruit, or to speak of the way in which Daniel opened his purse as well as his heart, or of the renewed health of Mrs. Walthew, the changed cottage, the abandoned rut, the perfect union between the faithful young pair when they twain became one, or of the manner in which Daniel kept his word?
He gave a handsome sum to Mark, and that, too, before his marriage; and when he and Barbara have done with the rest, it will go to "Nurse Dora," as old Daniel delights to call his daughter-in-law. No fear that this bequest will disturb the true union between Mark and his wife, despite the power put into her capable hands by the Married Women's Property Act!
Dorothy tells her husband in confidence, that however proud she may be of him, his devoted love and his great attainments, the conquest on which she plumes herself most of all is her victory over old Daniel's prejudices, and on having coaxed him out of the narrow path to which he had restricted himself for threescore years and ten.
Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, London & Bungay.