A Houseful of Girls
By Mrs George de Horne Vaizey Another book by Mrs de Horne Vaizey, also known as Jessie Mansergh, about the lives of five girls in one family, and their friends, in Edwardian times. Of course every time there is a major event, such as an engagement, or the cancellation of one, the different girls all have different takes on the situation. NH
A HOUSEFUL OF GIRLS
BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
HALF A DOZEN DAUGHTERS.
There were six of them altogether—six great big girls,—and they lived in a great big house, in the middle of a long high road, one end of which loses itself in London town, while the other goes stretching away over the county of Hertford. Years ago, John Gilpin had ridden his famous race down that very road, and Christabel loved to look out of her bedroom window and imagine that she saw him flying along, with his poor bald head bared to the breeze, and the bottles swinging on either side. She had cut a picture of him out of a book and tacked it on her wall, for, as she explained to Agatha, her special sister, she felt it a duty to support "local talent," and, so far as she could discover, Gilpin was the only celebrity who had ever patronised the neighbourhood.
Christabel was the youngest of the family—a position which, as every one knows, is only second in importance to that of the eldest, and, in this instance, Maud was so sweet and unassuming that the haughty young person of fourteen ruled her with a rod of iron.
Fair-haired Lilias was a full-fledged young lady, and Nan had had all her dresses let down, and was supposed to have her hair up; but as a matter of fact it was more often down than not, for it was heavy and plentiful, and Nan's ten thumbs could by no chance fasten it securely. Hair-pins littered the schoolroom floor, hair-pins stood out aggressively against the white paint on the stairs, hair-pins nestled in the little creases of velvet chairs: there were hair-pins, hair-pins everywhere, except just where they should have been—on Nan's dressing- table; and here there was such a dearth of these useful articles, that on one memorable occasion she had been compelled to effect a coiffure with the aid of a piece of string and a broken comb. The effect was striking for a good ten minutes, and then came the inevitable collapse; but, "Dear me," as Nan observed, "accidents will happen, and what is the use of making a fuss about a thing like that, when the world is full of suffering!"
Elsie thanked her stars that she was only sixteen, and need not be "grown-up" for two long years to come; but when her younger sisters grew obtrusive, she suddenly remembered that she would be seventeen in three months' time, and would have them know that she was to be treated with respect; and, in spite of daily discussions, feuds, and battles, the girls all loved each other dearly, and believed that such a charming and highly endowed family had never before existed in the annals of Christendom.
As a matter of fact, the Rendell girls had claim to one great distinction—promiscuous accomplishments had been discarded in their case, and each had been brought up to do some one thing well. Maud was musical, and practised scales two hours a day as a preliminary before settling down for another two or three hours of sonatas and fugues. Elsie locked herself in her bedroom for a like period, and the wails of her violin came floating downstairs like the lament of a lost soul. Nan appropriated a chilly attic, carved wood and her fingers at the same time, and clanged away at copper work, knocking her nails black and blue with ill-directed strokes of the hammer, as she manufactured the panels which were fitted into her oak carving with such artistic effect. Lilias declared sweetly that she was too stupid to do anything, but privately reflected that at least she had mastered the art of looking charming; and what did it matter if she were useless, since with her beauty she would certainly marry a duke on the first opportunity, and be spirited away to a life of luxury! As for Agatha and Christabel, they were supposed to devote themselves to the study of languages and the domestic arts, but in private conclave they had already decided on their future career. They were to keep a select academy for young ladies, in which they would correct all those glaring errors of governess and mother under which they themselves had groaned.
"I can bear it better when I feel it is for a good end. Our girls shall never suffer as I am suffering!" said Chrissie, with an air of martyrdom, when she was ordered to bed at nine o'clock, and remorselessly roused from slumber at seven a.m. "If grown-ups were sensible, they would allow a child to follow its own instinct. Nature must surely know better than mothers; and my nature tells me to sit up at nights and have breakfast in bed. To be sent off as if one were a child in arms is really too horribly trying!"
"And when Mr Barr was there too! So degrading! Last night he was talking to me about books, and I'm sure he thought I was quite grown up. The table was between us, you know, so he couldn't see my legs. I was enjoying myself so much, and saying that I thought Thackeray much over- rated, when mother came up and said, 'Time for bed, Chickie! Run away!' I assure you, I blushed with mortification."
"Piteous!" said Christabel, bringing out her pet word with emphasis. "They never think of our feelings. I shall make it a rule to study the characters of our young ladies, and avoid wounding their susceptibilities. I know how it feels!"
In spite of their many sufferings, however, the Rendells would one and all have been ready to declare that there never had been, might, could, would, or should be, such another father and mother as they possessed. To have a son at college, and yourself carry off a prize at a tennis tournament, was surely a feat to be proud of on the part of a father; and what joy to have a tiny little scrap of a mother, who could be petted like a child and lifted up in the arms of the youngest daughter— a mother who had solved the problem of eternal youth, and looked so pretty and so meek, that it was a constant marvel where on earth she managed to stow that colossal will-power before which every member of the household bowed and trembled.
The Rendells' house was at once the brightest, the airiest, and the noisiest in the neighbourhood. As there were only six daughters, it can truthfully be asserted that there were never more than half a dozen girls talking at the same moment. Strangers passing beneath the schoolroom window at a moment when the sisters were assembled together, had indeed been known to estimate the numbers present as from a dozen to twenty; but such a statement was obviously false, and tended to that painful habit of exaggeration which it is the duty of all good folk to deplore. They were girls of strong individuality, and each felt it a duty to state her own views on any given subject, which she proceeded to do, undaunted by the fact that her companions were too much engrossed in talking themselves to be able to listen to a word she said. Maud talked, pouring out tea and dropping sugar into the cups with tragic emphasis; Lilias prattled sweetly, waving her white hands to enforce a point which no one heard; Nan banged the table and upset her cup in violence of denunciation; Elsie squeaked away in melancholy treble; and Agatha's "Too bad!" and Christabel's "Horrid shame!" were heard uninterruptedly in every pause.
When the door of the Grange opened to admit a stranger, the wail of a violin, the jingle of the piano, and the clang of Nan's hammer greeted him on the threshold, and from morn till night the echo of laughter and of happy voices never died away. There was only one occasion when the Rendell girls subsided into silence, and that was when Jim—the brother, the typical man of the race—came home on a visit and shed the lustre of his presence on his native village. Then the Miss Rendells sat in rows at his feet, paying obeisance, and, meekly opening their mouths, swallowed all he said, not even Nan herself daring to raise a question.
A HAPPY THOUGHT.
Thurston House, the abode of the Rendell family, was one of those curiously-constructed houses which are only to be met with in old- fashioned neighbourhoods. It stood directly on the high road, a big grey building which could boast of no architectural beauty, and which indeed presented a somewhat cheerless aspect, with its wire blinds and tall, straight windows. A gaunt, town-like house—such was the impression made upon the casual passer—by; but appearances are apt to be deceptive, and that same stranger would have speedily altered his impression, if he had been taken round the garden to view the other side of the house. It was almost impossible to believe in such a different aspect! From one side a busy high road, strings of cyclists, char a bancs driving past, bearing parties of brawling trippers, clouds of dust, the echo of the drivers' horns, and the continued whirl of wheels; and on the other—deep bay windows looking on to a lawn of softest green, winding paths shaded with grand old trees, and, beyond all, a meadow stretching down to the riverside, where punt and canoe stood waiting in happy proximity, and clumps of bamboos flourished in eastern luxuriance.
"Our country house," the girls called the rooms facing south, "Our town house," those at the front; but though they adored the garden, and spent every available moment out of doors, the busy high road still held an attraction of its own. Mrs Rendell had her own entertaining rooms at the back of the house, but the girls were faithful to the little porch chamber which had been their property since childhood—a quaint little den built over the doorway, with a window at each of the three sides, through which an extended view was afforded of the comings and goings of the neighbourhood.
"I love this dear little bower," sighed Lilias sentimentally. "There's something so quaint and old-world about it. I feel like Elaine in her turret-chamber, looking out upon the great wide world."
"And it's such sport watching the people pass, especially on rainy days when the wind is high, and they are trying to hold up their dresses, and carry an umbrella and half a dozen parcels at the same time!" cried Nan with a relish. "Last Saturday was the very worst day of the year, and all the good housewives went past to shop. Chrissie and Agatha and I offered a prize to go to the one who guessed rightly who would have the muddiest boots. It was lovely watching them! Old Mrs Rowe, clutching her dress in front, and showing all her ankles, while at the back it was trailing on the ground; Mrs Smith, stalking like a grenadier, with a skimpy skirt and snow-shoes a yard long; dear, sweet little Mrs Bruce, as neat as ever, with not a single splash; and Mrs Booth, splattered right up to her waist, with boots as white as that rag. I had her name on my paper, so I got the prize, and spent it in caramels. I'm getting rather tired of caramels—I've had such a run on them lately. I must turn to something else for a change."
"You are getting too old to eat sweets, Nan," said Lilias severely. "You ought to set the children a better example. If all the money you spend at the confectioner's was put together, you would be surprised to find how much it was. And it's bad for your teeth to eat so much sugar. Why don't you save up, and put it to some really good use?"
"Such as frilling, and ribbons, and combs for the hair!" suggested Nan slily, rolling her eyes at the younger girls, who chuckled in the consciousness that Lilias had got her answer this time at least, since every one knew well how her pocket-money went! "What is your idea of something useful, my dear? We'd be pleased to take into consideration any scheme which you may have to propose, but in its present form the suggestion is somewhat vague."
"My dear child, you know as well as I do that there are a hundred different ways. The only difficulty is to choose." Lilias stared out of the window, trying hard to cudgel up one idea out of the specified hundred, in case she should be pressed still further. That was the worst of Nan, she always persisted on pushing a subject to the end. "You—er—you might help the poor of the parish!"
"Just what we do! I heard the vicar say myself that Mrs Evans was a striving little woman who ought to be supported. If we took away our custom—"
"I mean the really poor. Mrs Evans would not shut up shop for the want of your threepenny-pieces, but the Mission at Sale is always short of funds. If you had a collecting-box, you could send in a subscription at Christmas."
"'The Misses Margaret, Elsa, Agatha, and Christabel Rendell—four and sixpence halfpenny,'" quoted Chrissie derisively. She marched across the room and stationed herself with her back to the fire, her thin face looking forth from a cloud of hair, an expression of dignified disdain curling her lips. "How important it sounds, to be sure! It's all very well talking about saving up, Lilias, but it's not so easy to do with sixpence a week, and birthdays every month, and Christmas presents, and pencils and indiarubbers, and always seeing fresh things in the shop- windows that you want to buy. It's not that I wouldn't like to help: if I had a sovereign, I'd give it at once, but I won't be put down in the list for eighteenpence, and that's all I could save, if I tried, from now to Christmas. I gave a threepenny-bit to old 'Chairs to mend' only last Saturday, and one the week before to a woman who was begging. I am most charitably disposed!"
"So am I," agreed Agatha—"especially when it's cold. Rags wouldn't be so bad in summer, but they must be awfully draughty in winter. And I spend less in sweets than any of the others, because my teeth ache. I've often wished we could do something for the Mission; but I'm so poor, and I sha'n't get any goose-money till autumn. I wish we could think of some plan by which we could make some more. Chrissie and I are always talking about it. There seems so few ways in which girls of fourteen can make money. We thought of writing and asking the editor of the employment column; but mother laughed at us, and said it was nonsense. It's not nonsense to us!"
"If we could only have a sale of work," said Lilias slowly. She was still staring dreamily out of the window, and hardly realised what she was saying, but the other four girls turned sharply towards each other, and a flash of delight passed from one pair of eyes to the other.
"Ah-ah!" sighed Elsie.
"Splendiferous!" cried Nan.
"How simp-lay love-lay!" drawled Christabel, with the languid elegance of manner for which she was distinguished; and Agatha beamed broadly all over her good-humoured face, oblivious of the sufferings of the poor in the prospect of her own amusement.
"What fun we should have! I'd bake the cakes and manage the refreshment stall! Tea and coffee, threepence a cup; lemonade, fourpence; fruit salad, sixpence a plate!"
"I'd sell toffee in tins, and have a pin-cushion table, and make every single soul I know give me a contribution."
"I'd give my new oak bracket. No, it's too big. I couldn't spare that; but I'd carve something else; and make little brass trays and panels. 'High art stall: Miss Margaret Rendell. Objects of bigotry and virtue to be handed over to her,' and don't you forget it!"
"I'll take visitors out in the punt at threepence a head. I'm so stupid that I can't do any work, but the idea is mine, and that ought to count for something," said Lilias; and a vision rose before her eyes of a slim white figure gracefully handling the pole as the punt glided down the stream. Punting was a most becoming occupation; on the whole she could not have hit on a pleasanter manner of helping the cause. "I daresay I shall make quite a lot of money!" she added cheerfully; and her sisters laughed with the half-indulgent, half-derisive laughter with which they were accustomed to greet Lilias's sayings. She was so sweetly unconscious of her own selfishness, and looked so pretty as she turned her big bewildered eyes from one to the other, that they had not the heart to disturb her equanimity.
"The punt is a good idea," admitted Nan, "for people are always pleased to go on the river, and we must turn our advantages to account. A garden sale, that's what we must have! Little tables dotted about the lawn beneath Japanese umbrellas; tea in a tent, and seats under the trees. We can use all the properties that mother keeps for her garden parties, and make it just as pretty and attractive as can be. I shouldn't wonder if we made a lot of money, for we shall be so original and ingenious. People are so stupid in this world. I always feel I could do things so much better myself. Who wants to go to a stuffy old bazaar in the Mission Room? No one does! They go from a sense of duty. Mother groans and says, 'Oh dear, if I could only give a subscription and be done with it! More cosies and chairbacks! I've a drawerful already!' And bazaar things are hideous! Father gave me ten shillings to spend at the Christmas sale, and I wandered round and round like a lost sheep, and couldn't see a single thing that I wanted. In the end I bought a cover for Bradshaw. It wasn't a bit useful, for I never have a Bradshaw; but it was the nicest thing I saw. Now, let us solemnly resolve not to have anything on our stalls that will not reflect credit on our judgment. Nothing ugly, nothing useless, nothing vulgar—"
"Impossible, my dear! Can't be managed. It's the law of Nature that the kindest-hearted people have the least taste. I don't know why it should be so, but it is, and I'll prove it to you. If we announced that we were going to have a sale of work and asked for contributions, who would be the first people to respond?" Christabel thrust out her left hand and began checking off the fingers with dramatic emphasis. "Miss Ross,—Mrs Hudson,—Mary Field,—old Jane Evans. 'So pleased to hear that the dear children are interesting themselves in the welfare of their poor brothers and sisters, and I've brought round a few wool mats as a little expression of sympathy!'—that's Mrs Ross! Then Mary Ann would hobble up with a parcel wrapped up in a handkerchief, and kiss us all twice over, and say, 'I've brought round a piece of my own fancy work, lovies, as a contribution for your sale. My sight is not what it used to be, and it's difficult to get the material one would like in this little place; but shaded silks always look well, and I made the fringe myself out of odd pieces of wool.' And that's not the worst! Mrs Hudson would paint bulrushes on cream-pots, and forget-me-nots on tambourines, and come round bristling with importance. 'I always find fancy work is overdone at sales, so I thought a little of my hand- painting would be acceptable! No one needs more than a dozen cosies, but every one is glad of an extra tambourine!' ... It's easy to talk, my dear, but what could you do when it came to the point? There's nothing for it but to smile, and look pleased."
"I should say politely, but firmly, that I could not find it in my heart to deprive them of such treasures—that with so many deserving objects craving support, it would be pure selfishness on our part to monopolise all the good things! Such munificence was far, far more than we deserved, and would they kindly send a little cake instead? They would be delighted, for they are everlastingly giving to some mission or other, and are always in a rush to get work finished. But I don't propose to let things reach such a climax. I wouldn't hurt their dear old feelings for the world. So we will say at once that we want cake and fruit, and we shall get the very best of its kind. We must fix our date for the strawberry season; for the human heart is desperately wicked, and people will gladly pay sixpence to sit under trees and eat strawberries and cream, when wild horses wouldn't drag twopence out of them for a pen-wiper. I expect we shall succeed best with punting and refreshments."
"If it's fine! But it won't be fine—it will pour!" said Elsie gloomily, and wagged her head in the hopeless manner of one who has tasted deeply of the world, and knew its hollowness by heart. If there was by chance a cheerful and a melancholy view to be taken on any subject, Elsie invariably chose the melancholy one, and gloated over it with ghoulish enjoyment. She was never so happy as when she was miserable,—as an Irishman would have had it,—and hugged the conviction that she was "unappreciated" by her family, and a victim of fate. She shed tears over Misunderstood in the solitude of her chamber, and cultivated an expression of patient martyrdom, as most fitted for her condition. Occasionally she forgot herself so far as to be cheery and playful; but her feelings were so ultrasensitive that they were bound to be wounded by some thoughtlessness on the part of her sisters before many hours were over, when she would remember her own unhappiness, and roam away by herself to the other end of the garden to apostrophise the heavens and pity her hard lot. "It will be sure to pour! It always does pour when we want to do anything!" she declared; upon which Nan threw her book into the air and caught it again with a dexterous movement.
"Fiddle-de-dee! It's going to be a bright, glorious summer day, with just enough sun to be warm and not enough to be hot, and just enough wind to be cool and not enough to be cold. And the grass is going to be dry and the strawberries ripe; and all the pretty ladies and gentlemen are going to drive over from miles and miles around, and spend so much money that they will have none left to take them home. What is the use of croaking? If things go wrong, it's bad enough to have to bear them at the time; but until then imagination is our own, and we will make the most of it. It will not pour, my dear Raven; so don't let me hear you say so again! Make up your mind that this sale is going to be a success, and try to bear it as well as you can."
Elsie looked up at the corner of the ceiling, and arched her eyebrows in resigned and submissive fashion. When the rain did come,—as of course it would,—when all the fancy work was drenched and the pretty dresses spoiled, the girls would remember her prophecy, and be compelled to acknowledge its correctness; but till then she would suffer in silence, and refuse to be drawn into vulgar argument. So she determined, at least; but a fiery temptation assailed her in the form of another objection, so unanswerable that it was not in human nature to resist hurling it at the heads of her companions.
"I hope you are right, I am sure; but, all the same, it is rather early in the day to make arrangements. You are counting without your host. How can you tell that mother will consent to let you have the sale at all?"
And at that the listeners hung their heads and were silent, for it was indeed useless to build castles unless they were first assured of this foundation.
A NEW NEIGHBOUR.
After dinner that evening the six girls assembled in the drawing-room, and little Mrs Rendell sat in their midst on a low chair drawn up in the centre of the fireplace. A grey silk dress fitted closely to the lines of her tiny figure, two minute little slippers were placed upon the fender, and the diamonds flashed on her fingers as she held up a fan to protect her face from the blaze. She looked ridiculously young and pretty, to be the mother of those six big girls; and a stranger looking in at the scene would have put her down as a helpless little creature, too meek and gentle to cope with such heavy responsibilities. But the stranger would have been mistaken.
"Mother darling," said Christabel insinuatingly, "granting always that you are the kindest and most amiable of mothers, do you happen to feel in an extra specially angelic temper this evening?"
"An 'oh-certainly-my-darlings-do-whatever-you-please' temper!" chimed in Nan sweetly; "because if you do—"
"I hope I shall never be so forgetful of my duties as to say anything so indiscreet," replied Mrs Rendell firmly. "Margaret, your hair is tumbling down again! Kneel down, and let me fasten it for you at once!"
Nan knelt down meekly, her roguish face on a level with her mother's, and the brown coils were twisted and hair-pinned together with swift, decided fingers.
"You must do it like this—do you see!—tighter, closer, more firmly!"
"It's disgraceful that a big girl like you—a girl nearly eighteen— should not be able to do her own hair!"
"You wouldn't like to be known as the girl with the untidy hair, I suppose, or to have a collapse of this sort in church or in the street?"
"Then pray, my dear, be more careful. Don't let me have to speak again."
"I'll try, mother. A rough head, but a loving heart! You might kiss me now and say you're sorry, for you stuck two hair-pins right into my scalp, and I never winced!"
Mrs Rendell smiled, and laid a gentle hand on the girl's cheek. For one moment her dignified airs seemed to vanish, and nothing but motherly tenderness shone in her eyes, but the next she drew herself up again, stiff as a little poker, and said lightly—
"Nonsense, nonsense! Get up, child, and don't be ridiculous! Sit on that high chair, and don't stoop! I can't endure to see a young girl lounging on a couch. What is this new scheme that you wish to ask me about to-night?"
"Mother dear, you know you like us to be charitable! You are always preaching—er, I mean impressing upon us—that we ought to remember the poah," said Christabel, standing up as stiff as a grenadier, and smiling at her mother in her most ingratiating manner. Mrs Rendell would have died rather than acknowledge a special weakness towards any member of her flock; but as a matter of fact her youngest-born possessed a power of wheedling favours which none of her sisters could boast, and was herself agreeably conscious of the fact, and fond of putting it to the test. "I am sure you will approve of our scheme, and feel pleased with us for thinking of it. It's for the Mission. We thought of getting up a little sale among ourselves, and giving the proceeds towards the funds."
"It is so little that we can give; but if we devote our time and strength"—murmured Lilias prettily.
"It all adds up when you put it together," said practical Agatha; "and you can stick on such awful prices. Chrissie and I thought we might have the refreshments and a pin-cushion stall, and set out little tables on the lawn."
"Such jolly fun!" gushed Nan. "Every one would come; and we would have games, and sports, and sails in the boats, and something to pay wherever they went. The young ones would stay, after the others had gone, to eat up the strawberries, and we would have pounds and pounds to give to the secretary."
"Of strawberries?" queried Mrs Rendell coldly. "Your English, Nan, is painful to hear. I think I shall write down some of your sentences and give them to you to parse. Then perhaps you may realise how they sound! A sale for the Mission! That is an ambitious idea. How do you propose to get together enough work to fill a single stall, much less three or four?"
"There are five months before July, and we would work like niggers all the time. Nan would carve, we would sew, all our friends would help, and we would make money by tea and refreshments. Really and truly, we could do very well, if you would only say 'Yes'."
"And we should so enjoy it! It's horrid having nothing to look forward to; and if there was this in prospect, we should be busy and occupied, and the wet days wouldn't seem half so long!"
"Now, let us understand each other," said Mrs Rendell briskly. "Is this scheme proposed for your own amusement, or for the good of the Mission? One says one thing, one another, and I can't make up my mind whether I am asked to consent to a charity or to a novel form of garden- party. I should like to have that point settled before we go any further. Are you thinking of yourselves or your neighbours?"
Silence. The sisters looked at one another askance. Elsie sighed and shook her head, Agatha flushed to the roots of her hair, only Nan retained her composure, and said daringly—
"Both, mother. We began by saying that we should like to give a contribution, but we had so little money that it seemed hardly worth while sending it; and then the sale was suggested. The first idea was to help the Mission, but we did think that it would be good fun for ourselves as well! There is no harm in that, is there? You have said lots of times that you love cheerful givers, and it must be better to do a thing willingly than grumbling all the time. Do people who get up bazaars never think of the fun, and the dresses, and the meeting with their friends, but only just of the charity for which they are working? Oh, mother, I don't believe they do! I've heard you say yourself—"
"Nan, Nan, Nan! I object to be quoted! It is dreadful to have an audience of six girls swallowing every word, and bringing them up in judgment on the first convenient opportunity!" Mrs Rendell showed her pretty teeth in a smile of amusement, and returned to the subject in hand with suspicious haste. "Well, you are honest, at any rate, and so long as you keep the idea of helping others to the fore, and don't allow it to be crowded out by the thought of your own enjoyment, I don't see anything to object to in your scheme. No; I don't give my consent yet! You must think it over quietly for a week, and be quite sure of your own minds. A sale would involve more work than you think; for you will have to give up time and money and do the thing thoroughly, if you once take it in hand. I will promise nothing to-night; for I wonder how many times you have come to me brimming over with enthusiasm about some new plan, and how often it has collapsed like a bubble in a couple of days! You are such changeable children!"
"Oh, Mummy, come! Call things by their nice names," pleaded Nan. "It's not fickleness—it's fertility of imagination; it's not a collapse—it's only a fresh beginning! But we really mean it this time, and you mean to say 'Yes,' too. I know you do; so nothing now remains but to talk it over with Kitty in the morning."
"Ah, yes! Until Kitty has been consulted nothing can be called certain," said Mrs Rendell, smiling again; and as she spoke she lifted her head in a listening gesture, and pushed her stool from the fire. She had heard the opening of a door, and knew that her husband had finished his after-dinner cigar and was on his way to the drawing-room; and the next moment he appeared on the threshold, looked round the group by the fire, and threw himself in a chair by Nan's side.
"Well, Mops!" The big hand descended on the girl's head, and ruffled the locks which had been so carefully put in order, while she turned up her face with a beaming smile, for there was a special bond of union between herself and her father, and they aided and abetted each other in mischief like a couple of merry children. "Well, Mops, how goes it? What pranks have you been up to to-day?"
"Oh, father, none at all. I've behaved beautifully—just like a real, grown-up lady! In the morning I pursued my avocations, and in the afternoon I went out calling, with light kid gloves and a card-case. Every one was out but old Mrs Reed, and you would have loved it if you could have heard us talk! We discussed the weather in all its branches. Cold—dampy-cold—dry cold; warm—close-warm—breezy warm; hot, thundery hot, scorching. She told me which of each she liked best, and which her poor dear mother had liked best; and I lingered on and on, hoping they would bring in tea, until at last I yawned so much that I was obliged to come away unfed. Then I had cold tea and scraps in the schoolroom, and we discussed charitable agencies."
"Oh, Nan, Nan, this will never do! You are getting altogether too civilised. I shall have no playmate left at this rate," cried her father, laughing. "Can't you be satisfied with two grown-up daughters, mother, and leave Mops to me for a few years longer?"
Mrs Rendell tried to look shocked, a task which she found somewhat difficult when her husband was the offender; but if her eyes betrayed her, the elevated brows and pursed-up lips made a valiant show of disapproval.
"At eighteen? She is past eighteen, remember. You don't expect a girl of eighteen to run about in short skirts, with her hair down her back?"
"She would look much nicer!" sighed Mr Rendell, looking regretfully first at the long white skirt, and then at the coiled-up tresses. "They grow up so quickly, Edith; I live in terror of having no children left— nothing but fashionable young ladies. One must give in to custom to a certain extent, I suppose, but I warn you frankly that Chrissie shall be the exception. It would break my heart to see Chrissie properly grown up. Chrissie shall always wear her hair down her back!"
Christabel screwed up her eyes at him across the fireplace with a smile of indulgent affection. He was so young, this dear old father! so ridiculously young, that his vagaries could not be treated with the severity they deserved. It was truest wisdom to take no notice, and lead the conversation to wiser topics.
"Any news in the great world to-day, father?" she inquired airily. "Any nice little bits of gossip to tell us? We look forward to hearing your news, you know, as part of the day's excitement."
"My news, indeed! Gossip, she calls it. If you had to provide for half a dozen daughters, Miss Christabel, you wouldn't find much time to spend in 'gossip.' I go to town to work, and leave it to you at home to run round collecting the news of the neighbourhood. I know nothing. I hear nothing. Men don't trouble themselves with gossip."
Seven long-drawn gasps of incredulity greeted this utterance; seven pairs of eyes rolled involuntarily to the ceiling; seven heads wagged in accusation.
"Oh, oh, oh! Who goes on 'Change and is told the latest jokes? Who goes to a cafe after lunch and smokes with his cronies? Who has afternoon tea, and talks again? Who travels every day with the same men in the train, and hears everything, every—single—tiny—weeny snap of news that has happened within ten miles around?"
"Don't know, I'm sure. I don't!"
"Oh, oh! Who told us about Evan Bruce, and about Mabel's engagement, and the robbery at the Priory, and—and—"
"For pity's sake, stop talking all at once! Take it in turns. Speak in pairs if you must, but not in a perfect orchestra. I didn't know I had been the first to hear any of those thrilling incidents, but it was quite an exception if I did. We generally read reviews, or talk business. I've no news for you to-night, at any rate."
"You always say so at first, dear. You're so forgetful. Think again. Frank Brightwen, now—he told you something?"
"Gold Reef shares gone up two per cent. Market closed firm, with a tendency to rise."
"I shall buy some at once. I like things that are going to rise. Be sensible now, for I shall have to go to bed in ten minutes, and I do so want to be amused. Had Mr Keeling nothing interesting to relate?"
"Bad cold, and feared influenza. Details of his last attack. Prescriptions from all the other fellows, with accounts of their own experiences."
"Deah me, how appalling! Worse than a tea-party! I had no ideah men could be so dull. Nobody engaged? Nobody married? Nobody going to give a dance? No new people coming to live in the neighbourhood?"
"Ha!" Mr Rendell struck an attitude of remembrance, at which the watching faces brightened with smiles. "Yes, now I come to think of it, there was one little item of news. I forgot all about it; but you will be interested, no doubt. The Grange is sold!"
The expression of curiosity on his daughters' faces was exchanged for one of blank amazement. Even his wife gave a start of surprise, and turned towards him with eager inquiry.
"Let! Really let, Alfred? You don't mean it?"
"So I am told."
"We've been told so so often that one grows sceptical. Is it really and truly sold, and the deeds signed? I sha'n't believe it unless they are, for difficulties have cropped up so often at the last moment. Are you quite sure this time?"
"As sure as it is possible to be about anything in this wicked world. Braithwaite tells me it's an accomplished fact. The deeds are signed, and the workmen are to begin putting the house in order next week. You may take it as settled this time, for the man really means to come. He is a certain Ernest Vanburgh by name, and has been living abroad for some years."
"And is there a Mrs Vanburgh, and has he any children, and are they young or grown up?"
"Is he a dull sort of man, or will he be hospitable, and give dinners and parties and help to make the place lively?"
"Is he musical, father, because there's that lovely big room where we could have such charming musical evenings?"
Mr Rendell shrugged his shoulders with an air of resignation.
"How like a woman, or rather, I should say, how like half a dozen women put together! My dears, I know absolutely nothing about the man, except that he has bought the place. He is in a hurry to get settled, so you will probably find out all about him for yourselves before many weeks are over. It's no use asking questions. He was willing to pay down the money, and that was all that Braithwaite cared about. He may be a bachelor or a second Bluebeard, for all I know; but I suppose in either case he will still be better than nobody."
"Of course he will. Blank windows are so dull. Curtains are much more interesting. There's so much character in curtains. I can tell the sort of woman who lives in a house merely by looking at her curtains. It will be a new interest in life to have the Grange let again."
"And I have a Feeling that it will be an Epoch in our lives. I have a Feeling that our Fate and that of the new tenants will be inextricably woven together. It may be foolish, but these convictions are borne in upon me; I cannot help them!" cried Elsie, clasping her hands and opening her blue eyes to the fullest capacity, as she turned a gaze of mysterious raptness upon the group by the fireplace. "Perhaps in years to come we may look back upon this evening as a milestone marking out the past from the future, and realise—"
A burst of laughter put a stop to further sentimentalising, and Elsie retired within her shell, aggrieved and dignified; but for once she was right in her surmises, for her own fate and that of her sisters was indeed destined to be permanently affected by the coming of the new tenant of the Grange.
CASTLES IN THE AIR.
The news that the Grange was sold was truly of great interest to the Rendell family, for the house faced their own on the opposite side of the road, and its uninhabited condition had been a standing grievance. That one of the handsomest houses of the neighbourhood should remain empty was a serious matter in a small community, and the younger girls listened with bated breath to the accounts of the gorgeous entertainments which had been given by the last tenant, hoping against hope that the time would soon come when the house would once more be thrown open, and the great oak-panelled rooms re-echo to the sound of music and laughter. Like their own house, a portion of the Grange abutted on to the high road, so that a row of windows lay immediately open to inspection; but two great wings stretched back to right and left, and the house was surrounded on three sides by beautiful and extensive grounds. The late owner had spent lavishly in beautifying the place, and had asked in return a sum so exorbitant, that though many would-be tenants had arrived to look over the house, one and all drew back when the nature of his demands was made known, and the Rendell girls were not the only people who had despaired of a settlement. But now at last a delightful certainty had been gained, the deeds were signed, and the long waiting was at an end!
The morning after the news had been received, Agatha and Christabel rushed to the porch-room directly after breakfast, and flattened their noses against the pane to watch for the first sign of their chosen companion, that same Kitty of whom mention has already been made, and who came daily to join the schoolroom party, instead of indulging in the luxury of a governess of her own. She came at last, a tall lamp-post of a girl, with blue serge skirt blowing back from long brown legs, a plaid Tam O'Shanter perched on the top of chestnut locks, and a bundle of books tucked beneath the arm of a corduroy jacket. Christabel banged an eager fist upon the window, and rushed downstairs in a whirl of excitement to meet her friend, and carry her off to the schoolroom.
"My deah, such news! You'll never guess! It's perfectly charming! You'll go wild when you hear it!"
Kitty sat down in a chair and gazed calmly around. Whether she would "go wild" or not when the news was unfolded remained to be seen; but in the meantime her composure showed not the slightest sign of being disturbed.
"Um!" she ejaculated, and began to divest herself of her outdoor garments, as if nothing more important engrossed her attention. She tugged at the fingers of her deerskin gloves, and let them fall indiscriminately at either side of her chair; she sent her cap flying across the room, wriggled out of her jacket, kicked her overshoes beneath the table, then folded her arms and seemed to feel that she had no further responsibility in the matter. The art of putting away outdoor clothes was one, indeed, which Miss Kitty seemed powerless to master. In vain her mother exhausted herself in objurgation, and grew alternately pitiful and angry; Kitty kissed her fervently and vowed amendment, but the next day there was the jacket as usual, hanging over a dining-room chair, and the other garments dropped in as many odd places about the house. This method of procedure was, no doubt, a saving of trouble in the first instance, but retribution followed when it came to starting out again after lunch, when Miss Kitty might have been seen plunging wildly about the room in search of a missing glove or tie, while groans of despair attended every movement.
"Where can it be? Wish my things could be left alone! Always stuck out of the way! Shall be late again now, and get bad marks. Not my fault. Horrid old servants! Wish they'd do their own work, and leave my things alone." So on, and so on, until at last the missing article was found, folded up in a magazine, or thrust beneath a fern-pot, when Kitty would seize it resentfully, and stalk down the garden-path on her long brown legs, puffing and fuming, and feeling herself the most ill- used of mortals. On the present occasion Elsie and Agatha entered the room as she finished undressing, and the former immediately set to work to gather together the scattered possessions and put them away, for she was tidier-in-general to the household, and could never by any possibility bring herself to sit down comfortably in a room where a picture hung awry, or a tablecloth dipped unevenly at the corner. The while she moved about she cast a pensive glance at the newcomer, and exclaimed regretfully—
"Kitty doesn't approve. I saw it in her face the moment I came into the room. I knew she wouldn't, and I don't know that I do, either. It's a great risk!"
"I haven't heard anything to approve of yet. Chrissie has been too excited to descend to details. You seem to have been very busy! I never heard of any news when I was here yesterday."
There was a tinge of displeasure in the voice in which the last sentence was spoken, and Agatha, the tenderhearted, was quick to note it, and to explain away the misconception.
"There was nothing to hear. It happened later. There are two things we want to tell you about. One is a piece of news from the outside, and the other is our own special affair; but of course it's not really settled, for, as mother said, until you had been consulted, nothing definite could be decided."
"Think not, indeed!" said Kitty shortly. She put her hand in her pocket and drew forth a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, which she placed, not on the bridge, but on the extreme tip of her nose. Her curly hair was roughened over her shoulders, the brown ribbon bow stood up erect at the top of her head; her arms were folded in deliberate inelegance, and she gazed over the spectacles with an air of grandmotherly condescension, comically at variance with her appearance.
"Let me hear about it at once, or Miss Phelps will arrive, and I shall burst with curiosity in the middle of lessons. What is it that you want to do?"
Elsie, Agatha, and Christabel immediately proceeded to explain the situation in characteristic Rendell fashion, all speaking together, and continuing to speak, without being in the least disconcerted by the babble evoked. Elsie whined, Agatha gurgled, and Chrissie drawled, while the listener rolled her eyes from one to another, catching a phrase here, a phrase there, until at length some dawning of the situation began to make itself known.
"A sale of work! We are to slave away making pin-cushions from now until July, and then sell them to some one else! I understand that; but what is the idea of doing it? Who is going to get the money when it is made?"
"The poor and needy!"
"Thank you so much! Most considerate, I'm sure!"
"Kittay, be quiet! The Mission, of course; the Mission at Sale. We thought we ought to help, as it is in debt, and we do no good with our money as it is. We could collect enough to buy materials if we give up sweets for the next few months."
Kitty's face fell gloomily. "I've only three and fourpence in the world, and it's mother's birthday next month, and Aunt May's and granny's the month after that, and Agatha's next week."
"Don't count me! I'm as poor as Job myself, but my old yellow sash will wash and make into sachets, and I'll cut the crushed parts out of hair ribbons, and use the ends for needlebooks. If they are a tiny bit stained, I will embroider flowers over the spots. We shall manage the work somehow, never fear; and think of the tea and refreshments, and sails in the punts! We shall simply coin money over them. Lilias is going to do the punting."
"Naturally she is!" Kitty's eyes twinkled with humorous enjoyment. "Easy and profitable! Just the sort of work Lilias likes. Oh yes, I agree. I'd like to work and feel that I was reforming the world, and it will be great jokes. I know what I'll do. I'll take snap-shots at the company with my new Kodak, and take orders for copies. There's an idea for you! People are so vain that they always think they would like a photograph—until they see a proof! If they refuse, I shall try another plan. I will snap them unawares, and say, 'I have taken several photographs of you this afternoon at moments which, perhaps, you would prefer not to have immortalised. The negative is yours for two and six.' How do you think that would work as a source of income?"
"Better not let mother hear you talk like that, my child, or the Kodak will be forbidden once for all, and it is really a lovely idea! You could take the punt with the different people on board, and groups eating refreshments, and talking to each other on the lawn. My deah, you will amass fortunes! I'm jealous of you. I believe you will make far more than we shall with our tea."
"But of course if it's wet"—insinuated Elsie persistently, only to be frowned down by her companions, who were eager to impart the second and most exciting piece of intelligence.
"It won't be wet, Croaky! Don't say that again. That's one piece of news, then; now for the other! Three guesses, Kitty, for a really convulsing piece of local gossip."
"Maud is engaged?"
"Not yet! You can guess that again later on! This special piece of news is not about our family at all. Some one else! Guess again!"
"Some one I know well?"
"Not at all?"
"Then how on earth can I possibly—"
"It isn't necessary to know the person. No one knows him yet, but we soon shall. He is coming to—to—can't you guess? Think of the empty houses near here!"
"The Grange!" cried Kit, and clapped her hands with delight. "Some one has bought the Grange! How sweet of him! Now we shall have something to look at. He is coming soon, you say—oh, what fun! We can watch the furniture unload, and the family arrive. Who are they, and how many may they be? Lots of girls, I hope—the right sort, with plenty of fun in them, and pony-carriages of their own, in which they can drive us about!"
"We don't know a single thing about them, and can't find out. The man is called Vanburgh, which is all right so far as it goes, but whether he is married or a bachelor—"
"Of course he is married! A bachelor would never dare to take a house like the Grange. It would be downright wicked! He is a married man, with a grey beard, and a fat wife, and four beauteous daughters. I see them now before me, as in a mirror!" Kitty shut her eyes behind the spectacles, and screwed up her face into a grimace which was meant to be vague and visionary, but fell a long way short of success. She was fond of indulging in flights of fancy, and her friends waited for her utterances with smiling delight.
"Yes, yes, I see them all! Veronique, the eldest, is a stately beauty, tall and slender, with lustrous Spanish eyes, and locks—"
"Black as the raven's wing." Chrissie's murmur seemed a fitting climax to the description, but the Visionary objected to be interrupted, and turning scornful eyes upon her, said icily—
"Quite the contrary. Bright as pure gold! She knows not the meaning of fear, and rides an Arab charger, who knows every movement of her mistress's hand. She is betrothed to the scion of a noble house, and will shortly be led to the hymeneal altar, when we shall attend as maids of honour, clad in the sheen of satin and glimmer of pearls. Gabriella, the second, is mignonne in stature, with a wee, winsome face—"
But at this point in the description Agatha spluttered with laughter, and Christabel rose from her seat, and began banging down books on the table with disdainful emphasis.
"I refuse to listen any longer to such uttah rubbish."—"Wee, winsome face," repeated Kitty loudly, determined to finish the sentence or perish in the attempt. "Eyes blue as the summer skies, and a skin of snow and roses. She has a timorous, shrinking nature, and prefers a milk-white charger to her sister's untamed steed. Evangeline, the third, has tawny locks and a dimpling smile, and makes up by charm of manner for what she lacks in regular beauty. Valentine, the fourth—"
But the characteristics of Miss Vanburgh number four were fated to remain in obscurity, for at that moment a step was heard approaching the schoolroom door, and the historian made a dash forward to collect her books, and place them on the table, before the entrance of Miss Roberts, the governess.
AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR.
During the next few weeks the workmen took possession of the Grange, and each morning as Kit made her appearance in the schoolroom Christabel had some fresh item of intelligence to unfold.
"A blue paper is going up in the bedroom—pale, pale blue, with loops of roses tied with lovers' knots—s-imply sweet! ... Nothing but brown paper in the little room over the door—nasty, common brown paper like you use for parcels. Hideous! What can they be thinking of?"—and the girls would stare together through the windows, watching every movement of painters and paperers with breathless interest.
Later on a still more exciting period was reached, when vanloads of furniture arrived, and their contents were spread about on the roadway. Then the Rendell girls massed themselves in the porch-room, and while they manufactured needle-books, and scattered bran over the floor in the wholesale manufacture of pincushions, Lilias played the part of Sister Anne, sitting with idle hands, reporting progress to the workers, and sounding a bugle-note of warning when any object appeared which demanded attention. The numberless packing-cases were baffling to feminine curiosity, but the furniture itself was so unique that the most prosaic articles assumed a surprising interest. There were no modern designs to be seen here, no cream enamelled bedroom suites, no green wood chairs, nor cosy corners. Everything belonging to the house was of a sombre grandeur which belonged to another country than our own. Sideboards and cabinets of carved Indian wood blocked up the roadway, and made black patches against the oak-panelled walls; overmantels of the same dusky hue stretched up to the ceilings, and Oriental rugs of priceless value, but distressing shabbiness, were spread over the floors, while the lower windows were covered with screens of carved wood, such as are to be seen over the windows of Turkish harems.
Lilias, the worldly wise, was pleased to pronounce the equipments of the house as in "a style of quiet magnificence," but her sisters were less enthusiastic, and Nan screwed up her saucy nose in open disdain.
"Very grand and antique-y, and all that sort of thing, but my, how dull! Fancy sitting in that oak-panelled room, with those black ghosts reared up against the walls, and the light shut out by those carved screens. I should go stark, staring mad! Give me something bright and cheerful, and lots of sunshine. What worries me is that there is so little that is feminine and frivolous. I haven't seen a single thing as yet that looks suitable for a girl's room."
"But think of the cases! All those dozens and dozens of cases. You can never tell what may be inside them. They may be stored with—"
"Treasures of buhl and ormolu!" sighed Kit softly. "That's what they always say in books, though I haven't the slightest idea what it means. Wouldn't it be a terrific blow if there were no girls after all?"
But such a possibility the Rendells absolutely refused to admit. The prospect of finding friends of their own age in the deserted Grange had taken such firm hold of their imagination, that Veronique, Evangeline, and Ermyntrude had already become living companions who played a part in their lives, and whose tastes had to be seriously considered in arranging the future. They longed for the time to come when doubt would be put at an end; but the Vanburghs seemed in no hurry to appear, and meanwhile April was at hand, and, as was their custom, Mr and Mrs Rendell prepared to leave home on a short holiday, leaving the girls alone to battle with the terrors of spring-cleaning.
Mrs Rendell had strong ideas on the subject of domestic education, and would allow no extra help to be engaged for this yearly upheaval. It was timed to take place in the Easter holidays, and each girl was expected to take a special task in hand, and to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. She herself frankly confessed that she had come to a time of life when she was thankful to be spared fatigue and discomfort; but her husband was not so willing to make the admission, and talked about his proposed absence in an impersonal fashion, which vastly amused his hearers.
"Mother has had to bear the burden of housekeeping for over twenty years, and I think it quite time that some of you took it off her shoulders. It is good training for girls to learn everything that has to be done in connection with a house, so for your sakes as well as hers I feel it a duty to take her away." So he spoke, and Nan rolled her eyes at him in mischievous fashion, poking forward her head until her face was but a few inches from his own.
"And—er, what about your own? You do not love the smell of soft soap, do you, dear? I remember last year—"
Her father waved his arms helplessly.
"Everything tasted of it! Soup, fish, puddings, everything one ate seemed saturated with soft soap; and there is something peculiarly depressing about a house with no carpets on the floors. I feel as if I were going to be sold up; and if there is one thing more aggravating than another, it is to be obliged to sit in a fresh room every day, and have all one's possessions stored carefully out of sight. Now, remember, whoever dusts the books in the library is only to take out a few at a time, and put them back—ex-actly where she found them!"
"No servant is to touch them! I know what that means—every book piled on the floor, and stuffed back into the shelves just as they come! You girls are responsible, and must dust them yourselves."
"Mine own fair hands shall do the deed—in gloves, however, for I know those books of old, and shall smother myself in sheets before I begin. I don't object to a few days' charing for a change," said Nan briskly. "I love rushing about in an apron, using my muscles instead of my brain, gathering all the ornaments together, and washing them in a nice soapy bath—"
"And watching the water get dirty! Isn't it lovely?" gushed Agatha enthusiastically. "It isn't a bit interesting when they are only a little bit soiled. I like figures and things with lots of creases where the dust gets in, and you have to scrub away with a nail-brush, and the water gets black—perfectly black! It's lovely!"
Every one laughed, even Mrs Rendell, though she felt in duty bound to protest at the idea of anything being "black" in her well-kept house; and the girls proceeded to sing the joys of spring-cleaning with youthful fervour.
"What I like best are the picnic meals," said Chrissie. "We always have the same things for lunch—a round of cold salt beef and beetroot, and coffee, and bread and jam. It is all put on the table at once, and we all carve for ourselves, and march about the room with aprons on, and behave as badly as we like. Then we have tea about three, and cold meat again for dinner, and fruit instead of pudding, and are all so stiff that we can hardly move, and all fighting to have the first hot bath. The water gets cold after the second, so it's a great thing to be first, if you can."
"And there are such amusing contretemps!" said Maud, the good-natured. "There seems to be a special imp of mischief abroad at these times, for something is bound to go wrong. You can't guard against it, for it is always the last thing you could expect, and it happens at the worst moment, and in some extraordinary manner stops all the wheels of the machinery. It is really excruciatingly funny—"
"You don't think so at the time! When Agatha knocked a nail into the gas-pipe on Thursday afternoon, when the shops were closed, and all the men had gone off to a beanfeast, you didn't think it much of a joke then!" said Elsie darkly. "We tried leaving the nail in and smearing the hole with soap, but the gas came out in gusts, and we had to turn it off, and there were only two candles in the house. ... We sat all evening in the dark, and undressed together in one room, because we were obliged to give the servants one of the candles. It wasn't in the least funny, and you didn't think so either."
"Oh, I don't know! It gave us a rest, which we wanted badly, and it is amusing to think of afterwards. I've often thought of it, and laughed to myself,"—and Maud laughed again, the happy, kindly laugh which was the outward sign of a sweet-hearted nature.
Altogether it was a very cheerful little party of workers whom the parents left behind when the hour for departure arrived. It was a bright, inspiriting spring morning, just one of the days when it is delightful to start off on the first holiday of the year, and Mr and Mrs Rendell looked fully appreciative of the fact. He was attired in a new suit, while his wife, not to be outdone, had provided herself with a pretty blue coat and skirt, and a flowered toque which was perhaps a trifle more summery than the season justified. After twenty-five years of married life, it was still a delight to this husband and wife to steal off for a holiday by themselves, and Mrs Rendell took the same delight in her husband's approval as when she had first become his wife. Every detail of her attire was daintily correct, and so pretty did she look, so trig and smart, that her six big daughters stared at her in admiration.
"Perfectly s-weet!" was Chrissie's verdict; then her eyes passed on to her handsome, stalwart father, and a twinkle of amusement showed in her eyes. "They both do! And so spick and span—everything new from head to foot. They might be a newly-married couple—a trifle elderly, but ve-ry well preserved! I shouldn't wonder if people thought they were. How would it be if we hid a little rice?—"
"Happy thought! A most delicate attention. Keep them talking for a few minutes while I pay a visit to the kitchen," cried Nan, deftly nipping up the roll of umbrellas, and disappearing from the hall, to return with the meekest of meek faces, and bid a fond adieu to the parents for whose confusion she had been planning.
When the carriage drove off, the conspiracy was divulged to the other girls, who fully appreciated the humour of the position, but were unanimously eager to disclaim responsibility.
"I'd give worlds to be there when they open the straps!" cried Agatha. "It will be too killingly funny. They will both jump and get red in the face—father from laughter, and mother from rage. Oh-oh, it's lovely; but I didn't do it, remember! I hadn't a suspicion of it until this minute!"
"I couldn't have allowed it, if you had consulted me, but I'm glad you didn't!" Maud declared. "It will be exciting hearing how it comes off. They won't need rugs or umbrellas in the train, but crossing the Channel mother is sure to feel chilly, as she will never sit in the cabin. Father will settle her comfortably in a chair on deck and proceed to unfasten the rugs. Every one will look on, for there is nothing else to do on board ship but stare at your companions. Then patter, patter, patter, down the rice will fall, and roll along the deck. I can see it all! And the more they blush, the younger they will look; and the angrier and more confused they are, the more natural it will seem. Oh, I do hope and trust it comes off on the steamer!"
"It would be even better in the train!" said Lilias wisely. "If they once get settled in the train to Paris, they would be stuck with the same people for five mortal hours, whether they liked it or not, and they would stare, and stare, and stare. Whatever father and mother said, it would make no difference, for they would think they were only pretending. Oh, Nan, I wouldn't be you! You will catch it!"
Nan shrugged her shoulders recklessly. "Time works wonders. If they were coming home to-morrow I should tremble; but after ten days' galumptious holiday it wouldn't be in human nature to come home and be cross with a poor, hard-working Cinderella. Besides, why should they be vexed? When I'm married you can use as much rice as you like. I don't mind if I scatter it broadcast wherever I go. I shall just smile back in the people's faces, and hang on to Adolphus for support. If I can afford a little amusement to my fellow-creatures, I shall not be so selfish as to object; and I must say that for my own part I do adore finding out a bride and bridegroom, and staring at them with all my eyes."
"I shall never marry; but if I do I shall wear my oldest clothes on my honeymoon, and snap at my husband every time he opens his mouth. That's the way to manage!" said Christabel with an air, and the two elder girls exchanged smiles of amusement. Neither of them volunteered any information as to how she herself would behave in the circumstances, for the nearer such a possibility becomes, the less easy it is to discuss it in indifferent fashion. Lilias dropped her lids in smiling modesty, and Maud's eyes shone with a happy glow. She was twenty-three now, and for the last four years a secret hope had dwelt in her heart, and invested the future with charm. It had begun on a certain holiday time, when Jim for the second or third time had brought home his friend Ned Talbot for a visit, and Ned had caught his foot in a rabbit-hole, and sprained it so severely that he was a prisoner at Thurston House for weeks, instead of days. Lilias and Nan were away at school at that time, but Maud had finished her education, and shared with her mother the task of amusing the invalid. She read aloud to him; played on the piano; was demolished at Halma; and, above all, talked to him on one topic after another, growing ever more and more intimate, until at the end of the visit it had seemed as if there was no secret which was held back from Ned Talbot's knowledge. He had not said so much in return, but there was no sense of chill in his reserve. He was naturally silent, and a word from him meant more than many protestations from another. Maud knew that he enjoyed her society by a hundred indefinable signs; and when they bade each other good-bye, the glance of the dark eyes seemed to speak of a warmer interest than that of friendship. Since then four years had passed by, and twice a year at least Ned had contrived to pay a visit to Waybourne.
Now that the other girls were at home there were no longer opportunities for uninterrupted converse, for, as the eldest daughter of a large household, Maud was often compelled to busy herself with household duties, leaving the charge of entertainment to the younger girls; but she felt sure that Ned understood, and no trace of dissatisfaction clouded her gentle spirit. She calculated happily that four months had passed since his last appearance, and felt her cheeks flush as she remembered Jim's accounts of a recent prosperous change in his friend's business. A great step upward had been taken during the last year, and now, for the first time, Talbot was in a position to keep a wife! This being so, who could tell what might happen next? The hour to which she had looked forward to so long, when Ned would give her a right to love him and to be his helpmeet in life, might be close at hand. Oh, it was a good world, a beautiful world! Life was in its spring, and every opening bud and flower in the green world without seemed to typify the hope in her own heart!
The next few days witnessed a perfect rush of industry. It was no light task to complete the cleaning of so large a house in ten days' time, but many hands make light work; and while the servants scrubbed and scoured, the girls performed the lighter duties, washing ornaments, polishing pictures, turning faded draperies, sewing on new lengths of fringe, until old bottles were, if not exactly converted into new, at least assured a fresh lease of juvenility. There was always a rush to get the work finished a day or two before the parents' return, for the time that was over was legally the girls' own, to be employed in whatsoever manner seemed most pleasing. Christabel stayed in bed to breakfast; Agatha ate apples and read novels all day long; Elsie made copious entries in her diary, and wore her hair in the picturesque confusion which she considered becoming, and felt it cruel of her mother to forbid; Nan worked in her studio, and came down to dinner in a flannel shirt; Lilias wore her best clothes, and went up to town to see and be seen; and Maud dreamt dreams at her ease, without the disturbing consciousness of work undone.
By the end of the week the carpets were cleaned and ready to put down, and it was decided that the drawing-room felting should be laid first of all, because in itself it was a more lengthy task than the mere laying of squares, and also because the after work of arranging pictures and china would be greater here than elsewhere. The three maids shut themselves in the room together for an hour or more, and at the end of the time adjourned in a body to the library, where the young mistresses were busy arranging books. They looked flushed and discouraged, and each of the three had her own comments to make upon the situation. Cook reported that "that there felting wouldn't come right nohow." Mary put her hand to her heart, and said her inside ached with dragging the tiresome thing; and bright-eyed Jane smiled cheerfully, and vowed that "she didn't believe it never would meet no more." The girls adjourned into the drawing-room to investigate the difficulty, and found the felting neatly fastened at three sides, but steadily refusing to come within inches of the fourth wall.
"Seems as if it's shrunk itself somehow in the cleaning," said cook dolefully; but Maud only laughed, and went forward to the rescue in her cheery, capable manner.
"Oh, nonsense, cook! If the cleaning did anything, it would stretch it and make it bigger. It is purposely made rather a tight fit, or it would go into wrinkles, which would never do. It only wants a little coaxing. Nan and Agatha, you have the strongest arms, go over there and pull as hard as you can, while Elsie and I push towards you."
No sooner said than done. Maud and Elsie went down on their knees, and travelled slowly across the floor, pushing infinitesimal creases before them, while the others pulled and strained to make the most of the advantage thus given. It was a lengthy business, and the crawling operation was repeated several times over before the first ring could be induced to catch over its nail; but when this was done hope began to revive, and the pushing and tugging was carried on with such vigour that presently the last fastening was secured, and the workers rested from their labours, weary, yet triumphant.
"My back!" groaned Elsie, straightening herself with a groan; "it's broken in two. I feel as if I could never stand erect again."
"My hands!" groaned Agatha, stretching out her arms, and slowly uncurling ten cramped-up fingers. "They ache. Whew! I never worked so hard in my life. I shall be more careful about spilling crumbs on this carpet in the future, now that I know what it means to have it cleaned. How you ever got it up I can't think. It must have been even more difficult than putting it down."
"Broke every nail I 'ave," said cook concisely. "It's not woman's work, and that's the truth. We 'ad ought to 'ave 'ad a man to do it that 'ad proper tools; but there, it's done, thank goodness, for another year, and it's the worst in the house. Them squares is no trouble."
"No; I think you can manage the squares yourselves; but first of all we will have the furniture brought in here. The house looks so forlorn with the hall blocked up, and if we get one room tidy, we shall feel that we are getting on," said Maud, who as yet had not risen from the floor, but sat with feet stretched out, gathering resolution to begin work afresh. She stretched out her hands and drew herself slowly along towards the farther side of the room; but scarcely had she moved a couple of feet when she gave an exclamation of dismay, and, stopping short, passed her hand over the surface of the felting.
"Whatever is this? Something sticking up through the felting! Sharp little points, here and there. Dozens of them all about! What can they be?"
The others hastened to the spot, and gazed with horror-stricken eyes at a number of minute molehills showing distinctly in the felting, and each one presenting a sharp point when investigated by the touch.
"It's nails!" croaked Elsie deeply; and at that cook gave a groan of dismay.
"It is, for sure! Them dratted tacks! Your Mar said we was to put in a tack here and there between the rings, and there was a saucerful just there. Somebody has knocked it over, I expect, and scattered them about the floor."
Maud looked round with a despairing glance. The accident had happened in the worst possible position, as such accidents are invariably supposed to do, the nails being spilt a couple of yards from the wall, in such a position that two sides of the carpet must be unfastened before they could be removed. She stared at her sisters, and they stared back in a long, sullen silence.
"We can't do it again, and we sha'n't!" said Nan recklessly. "Send for a man, and let him break his fingers for a change. I need mine for another purpose."
"Thursday afternoon, my dear. The shops are shut, and not a man to be had."
"Never saw anything like it. It always is Thursday afternoon! Put a table over the place then, and leave the tacks where they are. No one will see them."
"Oh, Nan, as if a table could stay in the same place for a year. Besides, the nails are bound to come out; if we don't take them away, they'll work little holes for themselves, and then what would mother say? There's no use shirking it. The carpet has to come up again, and we shall have to do it."
"It's too disgusting! All this time wasted, and now to find ourselves farther back than when we started. I could cry!" protested Elsie dolefully; and Maud gave a little flop of impatience.
"Oh, so could I—howl, if that would do any good; but it won't, so we might as well stop talking and set to work. Begin at once, Jane, please; we'll push, and make it as easy as possible."
The workers crawled wearily back to their posts, while the audience, in the shape of Lilias and Christabel, stood in the doorway and cheered them with derisive comments.
"Amusing contretemps, isn't it? Reminds one of Maud's ecstasies the other evening. Quite pleased, aren't you, Maudie, to have another illustration of the humours of house-cleaning?"
"Never mind, darlings, keep cool! You'll think it very funny in six months' time. If you work hard you'll finish by to-morrow morning!"
The glances cast upon the miscreants in reply to their witticisms were so threatening, that they ran back to the library to stifle their laughter; but five minutes had not elapsed before they were back again, gasping in consternation.
"A caller! Some one at the door! Can't see properly, but it's a man! A young man in a frock coat and a tall hat. What shall we do?"
"Send him away, of course. Jane, quick! put on a clean apron, and tell the gentleman that Mrs Rendell is away from home. If he asks for us— we are engaged. Sorry you can't ask him in, as the house is upset. He'll see that for himself," added Maud, in a resigned tone, as Jane hurried from the room. "The hall looks as if it were in the midst of a removal, and if he had had any sense he would have known from the look of the windows that we were not in a fit state to receive callers. Anyhow, he will have to go away now."
The visitor, however, refused to go away, for, to the consternation of the listeners, the parley at the front door was succeeded by the sound of footsteps picking their way through the piled-up furniture, and Jane's suggestion of "The library, sir," was apparently neglected, for the tramp came nearer and nearer to the drawing-room door. Six pairs of hands were raised to smooth six ruffled heads, Maud twitched down her sleeves, Lilias stood in an attitude of graceful attention, and the next moment the door was thrown open, and Ned Talbot's deep voice called out a greeting.
"May I come in? I refused to be turned away at the door. How does everybody do? You look very busy. I am going to stay and help you."
NAN PLAYS HELPER.
Alas for Maud! Had it been for this that she had lived in dreams since October last, planning afresh, and yet afresh, every detail of the next meeting with Ned? Had it been for this that she had mentally arranged background, occasion, opportunity, sending abroad mother, and sisters five, and seating herself in solitude to await Ned's arrival? Had it been for this that she had cherished her dainty new blouse, refusing to crush it beneath cloak or shawl, and appearing over and over again in the pink of a bygone age, so that it might appear in its first beauty for Ned's inspection? Oh, it was hard to have planned so well, and then to be discovered with ruffled hair, flushed cheeks, and unbecoming attire! Lilias was only the more picturesque for her working attire, and was even now shaking hands with the visitor, and welcoming him in pretty, winsome fashion, as the other girls shook down skirts and aprons, and took furtive peeps in the looking-glass.
"Mr Talbot. You! This is a surprise. It is delightful to see you again, but we are so upset! We are in the throes of spring-cleaning, as you perceive. Have you come from town? Agatha, Chrissie, bring in a few chairs! This is the only room that has a pretence of a carpet, but at any rate we can give you a chair to sit upon."
"But I don't want one. I have been sitting in the train, and would rather stand for a change, or, still better, help with some work. Please don't treat me as a visitor! What were you about when I came in? Laying a carpet? Six of you! It doesn't take six women to lay one carpet, surely!"
Nan groaned dismally.
"It does indeed, and then they can't do it! It's nasty, horrid, rough, heavy work, only fit for men, and not for our poor little fingers. We had just succeeded, with immense labour, in fastening it all round when we made the cheerful discovery that a boxful of nails are scattered over the floor beneath. You came in at the ghastly moment when it had dawned upon us that it had all to come up again!"
Nan waved her hand with a tragic movement towards the little heap of nails, then, making a sudden step forward, caught her foot in a loose piece of braid at the bottom of her skirt, and went rushing forward at a headlong run, to be caught in Ned Talbot's arms, and so rescued from destruction against a corner of the wall.
"Nan, I told you that that braid was torn! I told you to sew it up! I told you you'd trip and hurt yourself," cried Maud reproachfully; but the culprit only laid her hand over her heart, and gurgled in impenitent amusement.
"But I didn't, you see! I came off all right. It's only a little end— not worth talking about!"—and she took a couple of pins from the corner of her apron and began fastening up the offending loop, while her sister lifted her hands in disapproval.
"Pins? They won't hold! Better go upstairs and sew it at once. If you don't, I warn you, Nan,"—but Maud did not get any further in her prophecy, for Ned Talbot came over to her side, and looked down at her with kindly, anxious eyes.
"Maud, you look so tired! Don't trouble any more about the carpet; I'll manage it for you. What's the good of a great lumbering six-footer if he can't manage a little job like that! I'll have it up and down again before you can say 'Jack Robinson,' and then we will have our talk in comfort."
"It's more difficult than you think," said Maud dolefully; but Ned only laughed, then proceeded to take off his coat and go down on his knees to attack the obstinate rings. The workers took advantage of the opportunity to adjust hair-pins, and divest themselves of soiled aprons, while Lilias, having no such defects to remedy, developed sudden interest in the work on hand, and knelt down on the floor beside him, holding out first one implement and then another for his use. The softly-tinted face and cloudy golden hair looked lovelier than ever about the long white smock which she had adopted as her working costume, and poor Maud stared at her own heated reflection with increased disfavour, the while she whispered in Nan's ear—
"I suppose he expects to stay for the evening. So awkward! Can we ask him, do you think, when mother's away?"
"Mother would be very much annoyed if we sent away an old friend, who has stayed in the house dozens of times, without even offering him a meal; especially when he has travelled twenty miles to see us!"
"But, my dear, what have we got? I can't give him dinner. There's nothing in the house but cold meat."
"Cutlets and tinned fruit—the refuge of the destitute! Send Mary flying to the butcher's!"
"It's Thursday afternoon!"
Nan's groan of dismay brought Ned Talbot's head round in inquiry. The rings were giving way obediently in his strong grasp, and Lilias was clapping her hands at each fresh success, and chatting away in animated fashion. The sisters waited until the work was resumed, and then continued the whispered conference.
"It always is Thursday when we want anything. People should never be allowed to shut their shops. Cold meat it must be, then, and nothing else, I'm afraid. We might manage to manufacture a few made dishes from the tinned things in the store-room, but entrees and savouries seem out of place in the middle of spring-cleaning, and the dining-room is impassable—a perfect block."
"We might alter that if we put out the things that are needed for this room. We had better go and do it now, for we don't seem needed here any longer,"—and Maud cast a wistful look towards the two kneeling figures in the corner. She envied Lilias her position; but it never entered into her honest heart to mistrust her sister's loyalty, or to put a cynical construction upon this sudden show of industry. All the girls were fond of Ned; it was only natural that Lilias should want to help him. She held out her poor, roughened hands, and looked appealingly at Nan as they stood outside the drawing-room door.
"I might wash them, mightn't I, and put on a pair of cuffs, and a fresh tie? I won't change my blouse, of course; but he is a man, and wouldn't notice what I'd done—only perhaps that I looked a little bit nicer!"
Nan nodded silently, a lump rising in her throat at the sight of the wistful face. She was the only one of the sisters who had been told the secret of Maud's heart, and the bond between these two girls was very strong and tender. She watched Maud until she disappeared from sight, with her lips screwed tightly together, and her eyebrows meeting in an ominous frown across her forehead. She felt very fierce and formidable at that moment, and it was a positive relief to be able to vent some of her pent-up irritation in work, so for the next ten minutes she dragged and tugged at the piled-up furniture, making order out of confusion, and carrying the lighter drawing-room articles into the hall, in readiness to be put into their proper places. Then Maud reappeared, smartened up by those subtle touches which every woman knows how to bestow, and no man is able to understand, though the result is patent to his eyes; and after a second consultation on the subject of dinner, a return was made to the drawing-room, to see how the carpet-laying was progressing. Ned Talbot was still on his knees, but now he was fastening instead of unfastening the rings, while Lilias was exhibiting a cup full of sharp, jagged little nails. The dreaded task was almost accomplished, and that in less time than would have been possible with the united efforts of the feminine household.
"Done already?" cried the new-comers; and Agatha shook her mane with a melancholy air.
"It's s-imply wondrous! He just pulls, and the thing meets as easy as winking. It doesn't seem a bit difficult. And to think how we almost killed ourselves! It's humiliating!"
"Don't feel it so at all. If I am beaten at carpet-laying all my life, I'll never repine. It's a woman's duty to do nice things, and pleasant things, and pretty things, and leave the men to do the hard bits," said Elsie, standing on one leg to relieve the pain which had come from long kneeling, and looking with melancholy significance at her thin little arms. "Look at those compared to his! Nature never intended me—"
Ned fastened the last hook, and straightened his back with a sigh of satisfaction.
"Done! That's all right. I'm glad I came in time, for it's stiffish work. I am staying in town for a few days, and thought I would chance it this afternoon, and run down to see you for a few hours."
He looked at Maud as he spoke, and she hesitated uncertainly, thinking once again of her mother's absence, the disordered rooms, the prescribed contents of the larder.
"It was very good of you, and we are very pleased. Will you—er—will you be able to stop and dine?"
"Thank you very much. Your sister has already asked me. If it wouldn't be giving you too much trouble."
"Oh, no trouble! I mean, of course, we are very much upset, and I don't quite know what we can give you, but if you will stay we will do our best!"
"Now, Mr Talbot, listen to me!" interrupted Nan decisively. "There are two alternatives open to you, and you can take your choice. Would you rather sit here by yourself, looking at albums and illustrated books while Mary changes her dress, and cook flies into a temper preparing a proper dinner, and Jane helps to tidy the dining-room, and Maud ransacks the store—room, and Elsie polishes up silver, and Chrissie cuts flowers, and I—"
Ned Talbot threw up his hands in despair.
"Mercy! What next? Please stop, Nan. You make me feel the most shocking intruder. If I am to cause such an upset, the sooner I rush back to the station the better. What is the alternative? Tell it me at once. You said I had a choice!"
"The alternative," said Nan slowly, beaming upon him the while, in a friendly, encouraging fashion, "the alternative is what would happen to us if we were alone, and you had not arrived. Dinner in the schoolroom, with the library pictures ranged along the walls, and the books piled on the floor. No flowers—no fruit—no waiting—no evening dress. Everything on the table at once, and very little of that. Cold beef— very good cold beef! I'll answer for that, for we've had it two days already—potatoes in their jackets, perhaps one other vegetable..."
"Nan!" cried Maud protestingly; but Talbot gazed at her with a smile, shadowed only by a faint anxiety.
"Pickles?" he queried eagerly. "Put my mind at rest on that point before we go any further! Surely there are pickles?"
"Pickles, cer-tainly! As many as you like; but mostly onions, I am afraid, for we like the cauliflowery bits best, and poke about with the fork to get them out first. But there are lots of onions. Cold beef and pickles, then, and something plain and wholesome in the shape of a pudding, such as stewed prunes and rice; biscuits and cheese to follow; and a really good cup of coffee made by our own fair hands."
"It's a feast for the gods! Nothing I should like better. Don't you know, Nan, that nine out of ten Englishmen would rather be set down opposite a joint of meat than half a dozen kickshaws! It will be like old times to have a meal in the schoolroom, and if you will really let me stay, and treat me exactly like one of yourselves, I shall enjoy it more than a dozen dinner parties. You will promise faithfully to make no alteration whatever in the menu?"
"Certainly, if you wish it."
"And—er—you will not feel it necessary to dress on my behalf! I can make no change myself, so please don't confound me by your magnificence."
Lazy Nan consented readily enough, but once more the thought of the blue silk blouse sent a pang of disappointment to Maud's heart. She should not be able to wear it after all, and the long hoarding up had been in vain. She reflected on the disappointing nature of earthly hopes, with a melancholy which would have done credit to Elsie herself, as she took her way downstairs to interview cook on the subject of dinner. It is one thing to give a promise to make no difference in a menu, and another to keep that promise to the letter, as every housekeeper knows; and even if circumstances did not allow of any substantial addition to the meal, there were a dozen little contrivances by which it could be given an air of elegance and distinction. They took time to arrange, however, as all such contriving do, and cook was cross at being asked to undertake fresh duties, and wished to know what people wanted coming worriting about a house when a child in arms could see he wasn't wanted! Maud smiled at the reflection that, in this instance, the child would be vastly mistaken in his views, but did her best to soothe the offended dignitary; and finally matters were smoothed over by Mary being told off to help in the kitchen, while Maud herself undertook the arrangement of the table.
"Nan will help me," she told herself encouragingly, as she mounted the staircase and saw through the window a procession of girlish figures making their way down the garden path, escorting Ned to a survey of the daffodils and spring bulbs, for which Mr Rendell was famous among amateur gardeners. Lilias walked first, a dainty figure against the background of fresh green; slim little Elsie picked her way daintily over the gravel; Agatha followed, large and beaming; and Christabel majestically brought up the rear. Maud pressed her face against the window and watched with a spasm of envy. Oh, to be out, enjoying herself with the rest—to let everything take care of itself, and take her place by Ned's side! Too bad to be kept indoors when her opportunity had come at last, and the sun was shining, and all Nature seemed bright and gay! No one seemed to have thought of her, or of offering to help, except Nan—dear, good, thoughtless, and yet most thoughtful of Nans; and here she came, flying three steps at a time, upstairs to the rescue.
"Oh, you are here! I've been searching downstairs. Out you go! If there's anything to do indoors, I'll do it. Your place is in the garden."
"I've been in the kitchen, and cook was so cross that I told off Mary to help her. I promised to lay the table."
"I'll do it for you!"
Maud tried not to smile. Well she knew what would happen if the work were left in Nan's care. Crooked cloth, forks and spoons looking as if they had been tossed upon the table; as likely as not, no cruets nor water-bottles; and a general air of slipshod carelessness, which would more than defeat all her arrangements.
"I—er—think I ought to look after it myself," she said apologetically; "but please help me, dear! If we work together we'll get it done in no time, and then I can go out and enjoy myself with an easy mind."
"I want you to go now. If you think I can't manage alone, send in Chrissie. She's even more particular than you, and I'll do as she tells me like a lamb!" said Nan, not one whit offended at the implied slight on her own powers; but Maud shook her head.
"I couldn't! I never ask help in an ordinary way, and I couldn't do it to-day!"
"Good for you! I'd feel the same. Come on, then; let's set to work and get it over. He'll be wondering what you are doing. Where are the things?"
"Mary has taken up some already, and the rest are in the pantry. I'll tell you what I want, and you can carry up a trayful at a time while I set the cloth. I know exactly how I want everything laid, you see!"
"Don't apologise, my love. I know I'm no good at finnicky work, but I'll fetch and carry with the best. Knives—yes! Glass—yes! Plates— yes! Leave the plates till the last, and bring up the rest first. Yes'um! I understand! Knives and tumblers for seven. They shall be yours before you can say 'Jack Robinson.'"
"Not too quick, now!" cried Maud warningly; but Nan was off, leaping downstairs in a succession of daring bounds, swinging round corners at break-neck speed, and singing at the pitch of her voice, after the usual decorous and ladylike manner in which she was wont to descend to the lower regions.
Left to herself, Maud took a couple of steps towards the window, turned back resolutely, spread the cloth over the table, and went back at a run to peer behind the curtains and see what was going on in the garden. Chrissie and Agatha were strolling about arm in arm; Elsie walked apart, bowed in thought; Lilias flitted among the flower—beds, gesticulating with graceful abandon as she called Ned's attention to the choicest blooms. Maud could hear her pretty ecstasies as plainly as though she had been standing by her side.
"The little dears! Aren't they just too sweet? Don't you love the first spring flowers? They seem so full of hope and promise!"