A Little Mother to the Others
MRS. L.T. MEADE
AUTHOR OF "POLLY: A NEW-FASHIONED GIRL," "A SWEET GIRL GRADUATE," ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
I. THE POOR INNOCENT,
II. A LITTLE MOTHER TO THE OTHERS,
III. THE ARRIVAL OF THE AUNT,
V. AUNT IS HER NAME,
VI. THE POOR DEAD UN'S,
VII. BUT ANN COULD NOT HELP LETTING OUT NOW AND THEN,
VIII. THE STRAW TOO MUCH,
IX. THE PUNISHMENT CHAMBER,
X. BOW AND ARROW,
XII. A BABY'S HONOR,
XIII. BIRCH ROD,
XIV. DIANA'S REVENGE,
XV. MOTHER RODESIA,
XVI. UNCLE BEN,
XVII. GREASED LIGHTNING,
XVIII. THE HEART OF THE LITTLE MOTHER,
XIX. "A PIGMY I CALL HIM",
XX. "LET'S PERTEND," SAID DIANA,
XXI. POLE STAR,
XXII. THE MILKMAN,
XXIV. ON THE TRAIL,
XXVI. THE LITTLE MOTHER TO THE RESCUE,
A LITTLE MOTHER TO THE OTHERS
THE POOR INNOCENT.
The four children had rather peculiar names. The eldest girl was called Iris, which, as everybody ought to know, means rainbow—indeed, there was an Iris spoken of in the old Greek legends, who was supposed to be Hera's chief messenger, and whenever a rainbow appeared in the sky it was said that Iris was bringing down a message from Hera. The Iris of this story was a very pretty, thoughtful little girl, aged ten years. Her mother often talked to her about her name, and told her the story which was associated with it. The eldest boy was called Apollo, which also is a Greek name, and was supposed at one time to belong to the most beautiful boy in the world. The next girl was called Diana, and the youngest boy's name was Orion.
When this story opens, Iris was ten years old, Apollo nine, Diana six, and little Orion five. They were like ordinary children in appearance, being neither particularly handsome nor particularly the reverse; but in their minds and ways, in their habits and tastes, they seemed to have inherited a savor of those far-off beings after whom their mother had called them. They were, in short, very unworldly children—that does not mean that they were specially religious—but they did not care for fine clothes, nor the ordinary amusements which ordinary children delight in. They loved flowers with a love which was almost a passion, and they also knew a great deal about the stars, and often coaxed their mother to allow them to sit up late at night to watch the different constellations; but above all these things they adored, with a great adoration, the entire animal kingdom.
It so happened that the little Delaneys spent the greater part of their time in a beautiful garden. I don't think, in all the course of my wanderings, I ever saw a garden quite to compare to that in which their early days were spent. Even in the winter they lived the greater part of their time here, being hardy children and never catching cold. The house was a fine and beautiful building, having belonged to their family for several generations, but the children thought nothing at all of that in comparison with the garden. Here, when possible, they even had their lessons; here they played all their wonderful and remarkable games; here they went through their brief sorrows, and tasted their sweetest joys. But I must hasten to describe the garden itself. In the first place, it was old-fashioned, having very high brick walls covered all over with fruit trees. These fruit trees had grown slowly, and were now in the perfection of their prime. Never were such peaches to be seen, nor such apricots, nor such cherries, as ripened slowly on the red brick walls of the old garden. Inside the walls almost all well-known English flowers flourished in lavish profusion. There was also fruit to be found here in quantities. Never were such strawberries to be seen as could be gathered from those great strawberry beds. Then the gooseberries with which the old bushes were laden; the currants, red, black, and white; the raspberries, had surely their match nowhere else on this earth.
The walled-in garden contained quite five acres of ground, and was divided itself into three portions. In the middle was the flower garden proper. Here there was a long, straight walk which led to an arbor at the bottom. The children were particularly fond of this arbor, for their father had made it for them with his own hands, and their mother had watched its growth. Mrs. Delaney was very delicate at the time, and as she looked on and saw the pretty arbor growing into shape, she used to lean on Iris' arm and talk to her now and then in her soft, low voice about the flowers and the animals, and the happy life which the little people were leading. At these moments a look would often come into her mother's gentle eyes which caused Iris' heart to beat fast, and made her tighten her clasp on the slender arm. Then, when the arbor was quite finished, Mr. Delaney put little seats into it, a rustic chair for each child, which he or she could take in or out at pleasure. The chairs were carved in commemoration of each child's name. Iris had the deep purple flowers which go by that name twined round and round the back of hers. Apollo's chair was made memorable with his well-known lyre and bow, and these words were carved round it: "The golden lyre shall be my friend, the bent bow my delight, and in oracles will I foretell the dark future."
Diana's chair had a bow and quiver engraved on the back, while little Orion's represented a giant with a girdle and a sword. The children were very proud of their chairs, and often talked of them to one another, and Iris, who was the story-teller of the party, was never tired of telling the stories of the great originals after whom she and her brothers and sister were named.
Down the straight path which led to the pretty arbor were Scotch roses, red and white. The smell of these roses in the summer was quite enough to ravish you. Iris in particular used to sniff at them and sniff at them until she felt nearly intoxicated with delight.
The central garden, which was mostly devoted to flowers, led through little, old-fashioned, somewhat narrow postern doors into the fruit gardens on either side. In these were the gooseberries. Here were to be found the great beds of strawberries; here, by-and-by, ripened the plums and the many sorts of apples and pears; here, too, were the great glass houses where the grapes assumed their deep claret color and their wonderful bloom; and here also were some peculiar and marvelous foreign flowers, such as orchids, and many others.
Whenever the children were not in the house they were to be found in the garden, for, in addition to the abundance of fruit and vegetables, it also possessed some stately trees, which gave plenty of shade even when the sun was at its hottest. Here Iris would lie full length on her face and hands, and dream dreams to any extent. Now and then also she would wake up with a start and tell marvelous stories to her brothers and sister. She told stories very well, and the others always listened solemnly and begged her to tell more, and questioned and argued, and tried to make the adventures she described come really into their own lives.
Iris was undoubtedly the most imaginative of all the little party. She was also the most gentle and the most thoughtful. She took most after her beautiful mother, and thought more than any of the others of the peculiar names after which they were all called.
On a certain day in the first week of a particularly hot and lovely June, Iris, who had been in the house for some time, came slowly out, swinging her large muslin hat on her arm. Her face looked paler than usual, and somewhat thoughtful.
"Here you are at last, Iris," called out Diana, in her brisk voice, "and not a moment too soon. I have just found a poor innocent dead on the walk; you must come and look at it at once."
On hearing these words, the gloom left Iris' face as if by magic.
"Where is it?" she asked. "I hope you did not tread on it, Diana."
"No; but Puff-Ball did," answered Diana. "Don't blame him, please, Iris; he is only a puppy and always up to mischief. He took the poor innocent in his mouth and shook it; but I think it was quite deaded before that."
"Then, if it is dead, it must be buried," said Iris solemnly. "Bring it into the arbor, and let us think what kind of funeral we will give it."
"Why not into the dead-house at once?" queried Diana.
"No; the arbor will do for the present."
Iris quickened her footsteps and walked down the straight path through the midst of the Scotch roses. Having reached the pretty little summer-house, she seated herself on her rustic chair and waited until Diana arrived with the poor innocent. This was a somewhat unsightly object, being nothing more nor less than a dead earthworm which had been found on the walk, and which Diana respected, as she did all live creatures, great or small.
"Put it down there," said Iris; "we can have a funeral when the sun is not quite so hot."
"I suppose it will have a private funeral," said Apollo, who came into the summer-house at that moment. "It is nothing but a poor innocent, and not worth a great deal of trouble; and I do hope, Iris," he added eagerly, "that you will not expect me to be present, for I have got some most important chemical experiments which I am anxious to go on with. I quite hope to succeed with my thermometer to-day, and, after all, as it is only a worm——"
Iris looked up at him with very solemn eyes.
"Only a worm," she repeated. "Is that its fault, poor thing?" Apollo seemed to feel the indignant glance of Iris' brown eyes. He sat down submissively on his own chair. Orion and Diana dropped on their knees by Iris' side. "I think," said Iris slowly, "that we will give this poor innocent a simple funeral. The coffin must be made of dock leaves, and——"
Here she was suddenly interrupted—a shadow fell across the entrance door of the pretty summer-house. An elderly woman, with a thin face and lank, figure, looked in.
"Miss Iris," she said, "Mrs. Delaney is awake and would be glad to see you."
"Mother!" cried Iris eagerly. She turned at once to her sister and brothers. "The innocent must wait," she said. "Put it in the dead-house with the other creatures. I will attend to the funeral in the evening or to-morrow. Don't keep me now, children."
"But I thought you had just come from mother," said Apollo.
"No. When I went to her she was asleep. Don't keep me, please." The woman who had brought the message had already disappeared down the long straight walk. Iris took to her heels and ran after her. "Fortune," she said, looking into her face, "is mother any better?"
"As to that, Miss Iris, it is more than I can tell you. Please don't hold on to my hand, miss. In hot weather I hate children to cling to me."
Iris said nothing more, but she withdrew a little from Fortune's side.
Fortune hurried her steps, and Iris kept time with her. When they reached the house, the woman stopped and looked intently at the child.
"You can go straight upstairs at once, miss, and into the room," she said. "You need not knock; my mistress is waiting for you."
"Don't you think, Fortune, that mother is just a little wee bit better?" asked Iris again. There was an imploring note in her question this time.
"She will tell you herself, my dear. Now, be quick; don't keep her waiting. It is bad for people, when they are ill, to be kept waiting."
"I won't keep her; I'll go to her this very instant," said Iris.
The old house was as beautiful as the garden to which it belonged. It had been built, a great part of it, centuries ago, and had, like many other houses of its date, been added to from time to time. Queerly shaped rooms jutted out in many quarters; odd stairs climbed up in several directions; towers and turrets were added to the roof; passages, some narrow, some broad, connected the new buildings with the old. The whole made an incongruous and yet beautiful effect, the new rooms possessing the advantages and comforts which modern builders put into their houses, and the older part of the house the quaint devices and thick, wainscoted walls and deep, mullioned windows of the times which are gone by.
Iris ran quickly through the wide entrance hall and up the broad, white, stone stairs. These stairs were a special feature of Delaney Manor. They had been brought all the way from Italy by a Delaney nearly a hundred years ago, and were made of pure marble, and were very lovely to look at. When Iris reached the first landing, she turned aside from the spacious modern apartments and, opening a green baize door, ran down a narrow passage. At the end of the passage she turned to the left and went down another passage, and then wended her way up some narrow stairs, which curled round and round as if they were going up a tower. This, as a matter of fact, was the case. Presently Iris pushed aside a curtain, and found herself in an octagon room nearly at the top of a somewhat high, but squarely built, tower. This room, which was large and airy, was wainscoted with oak; there was a thick Turkey carpet on the floor, and the many windows were flung wide open, so that the summer breeze, coming in fresh and sweet from this great height, made the whole lovely room as fresh and cheery and full of sweet perfume as if its solitary inmate were really in the open air.
Iris, however, had often been in the room before, and had no time or thought now to give to its appearance. Her eyes darted to the sofa on which her young mother lay. Mrs. Delaney was half-sitting up, and looked almost too young to be the mother of a child as big as Iris. She had one of the most beautiful faces God ever gave to anybody. It was not so much that her features were perfect, but they were full of light, full of soul, and such a very loving expression beamed in her eyes that no man, woman, or child ever looked at her without feeling the best in their natures coming immediately to the surface.
As to little Iris, her feelings for her mother were quite beyond any words to express. She ran up to her now and knelt by her side.
"Kiss me, Iris," said Mrs. Delaney.
Iris put up her soft, rosebud lips; they met the equally soft lips of the mother.
"You are much better, mummy; are you not?" said the child, in an eager, half-passionate whisper.
"I have had a long sleep, darling, and I am rested," said Mrs. Delaney. "I told Fortune to call you. Father is away for the day. I thought we could have half an hour uninterrupted."
"How beautiful, mother! It is the most delightful thing in all the world to be alone with you, mummy."
"Well, bring your little chair and sit near me, Iris. Fortune will bring in tea in a moment, and you can pour it out. You shall have tea with me, if you wish it, darling."
Iris gave a sigh of rapture; she was too happy almost for words. This was almost invariably the case when she found herself in her mother's presence. When with her mother she was quiet and seldom spoke a great deal. In the garden with the other children Iris was the one who chattered most, but with her mother her words were always few. She felt herself then to be more or less in a listening attitude. She listened for the words which dropped from those gentle lips; she was always on the lookout for the love-light which filled the soft brown eyes.
At that moment the old servant, Fortune, brought in the tea on a pretty tray and laid it on a small table near Mrs. Delaney. Then Iris got up, and with an important air poured it out and brought a cup, nicely prepared, to her mother.
Mrs. Delaney sipped her tea and looked from time to time at her little daughter. When she did so, Iris devoured her with her anxious eyes.
"No," she said to herself, "mother does not look ill—not even very tired. She is not like anybody else, and that is why—why she wears that wonderful, almost holy expression. Sometimes I wish she did not, but I would not change her, not for all the world."
Iris' heart grew quiet. Her cup of bliss was quite full. She scarcely touched her tea; she was too happy even to eat.
"Have you had enough tea, mother?" she asked presently.
"Yes, darling. Please push the tea-table a little aside, and then come up very near to me. I want to hold your dear little hand in mine; I can't talk much."
"But you are better—you are surely better, mother?"
"In one sense, yes, Iris."
Iris moved the tea-table very deftly aside, and then, drawing up her small chair, slipped her hand inside her mother's.
"I have made up my mind to tell you, Iris," said the mother. She looked at the little girl for a full minute, and then began to talk in a low, clear voice. "I am the mother of four children. I don't think there are any other children like you four in the wide world. I have thought a great deal about you, and while I have been ill have prayed to God to keep you and to help me, and now, Iris, now that I have got to go away—"
"To go away, mother?" interrupted Iris, turning very pale.
"Yes, dearest. Don't be troubled, darling; I can make it all seem quite happy to you. But now, when I see it must be done, that I must undertake this very long journey, I want to put things perfectly straight between you and me, my little daughter."
"Things have been always straight between us, mother," said Iris. "I don't quite understand."
"Do you remember the time when I went to Australia?"
"Are you going to Australia again?" asked Iris. "You were a whole year away then. It was a very long time, and sometimes, mother, sometimes Fortune was a little cross, and Miss Stevenson never seemed to suit Apollo. I thought I would tell you about that."
"But Fortune means well, dearest. She has your true interest at heart, and I think matters will be differently arranged, as far as Miss Stevenson is concerned, in the future. It is not about her or Fortune I want to speak now."
"And you are going back to Australia again?"
"I am going quite as far as Australia; but we need not talk of the distance just now. I have not time for many words, nor very much strength to speak. You know, Iris, the meaning of your names, don't you?"
"Of course," answered Iris; "and, mother, I have often talked to the others about our names. I have told Apollo how beautiful he must try to be, not only in his face, but in his mind, mother, and how brave and how clever. I have told him that he must try to have a beautiful soul; and Orion must be very brave and strong, and Diana must be bright and sparkling and noble. Yes, mother; we all know about our names."
"I am glad of that," said Mrs. Delaney. "I gave you the names for a purpose. I wanted you to have names with meaning to them. I wanted you to try to live up to them. Now, Iris, that I am really going away, I am afraid you children will find a great many things altered. You have hitherto lived a very sheltered life; you have just had the dear old garden and the run of the house, and you have seen your father or me every day. But afterwards, when I have gone, you will doubtless have to go into the world; and, my darling, my darling, the cold world does not always understand the meaning of names like yours, the meaning of strength and beauty and nobleness, and of bright, sparkling, and high ideas. In short, my little girl, if you four children are to be worthy of your names and to fulfill the dreams, the longings, the hopes I have centered round you, there is nothing whatever for you to do but to begin to fight your battles."
Iris was silent. She had very earnest eyes, something like her mother's in expression. They were fixed now on Mrs. Delaney's face.
"I will not explain exactly what I mean," said the mother, giving the little hand a loving squeeze, "only to assure you, Iris, that, as the trial comes, strength will be given to you to meet it. Please understand, my darling, that from first to last, to the end of life, it is all a fight. 'The road winds uphill all the way.' If you will remember that you will not think things half as hard, and you will be brave and strong, and, like the rainbow, you will cheer people even in the darkest hours. But, Iris, I want you to promise me one thing—I want you, my little girl, to be a mother to the others."
"A mother to the others?" said Iris, half aloud. She paused and did not speak at all for a moment, her imagination was very busy. She thought of all the creatures to whom she was already a mother, not only her own dear pets—the mice in their cages, the silk-worms, the three dogs, the stray cat, the pet Persian cat, the green frogs, the poor innocents, as the children called worms—but in addition to these, all creatures that suffered in the animal kingdom, all flowers that were about to fade, all sad things that seemed to need care and comfort. But up to the present she had never thought of the other children except as her equals. Apollo was only a year younger than herself, and in some ways braver and stouter and more fearless; and Orion and Diana were something like their names—very bright and even fierce at times. She, after all, was the gentlest of the party, and she was very young—not more than ten years of age. How could she possibly be a mother to the others?
She looked at Mrs. Delaney, and her mother gazed solemnly at her, waiting for her to speak.
"After all," thought Iris, "to satisfy the longing in mother's eyes is the first thing of all. I will promise, cost what it may."
"Yes," she said; then softly, "I will, mother; I will be a mother to the others."
"Kiss me, Iris."
The little girl threw her arms round her mother's neck; their lips met in a long embrace.
"Darling, you understand? I am satisfied with your promise, and I am tired."
"Must I go away, mother? May not I stay very quietly with you? Can you not sleep if I am in the room?"
"I would rather you left me now. I can sleep better when no one is by. Ring the bell for Fortune as you go. She will come and make me comfortable. Yes; I am very tired."
"One moment first, mummy—you have not told me yet when you are going on the journey."
"The day is not quite fixed, Iris, although it is—yes, it is nearly so."
"And you have not said where you are going, mother. I should like to tell the others."
But Mrs. Delaney had closed her eyes, and did not make any reply.
A LITTLE MOTHER TO THE OTHERS.
That night the children's young mother went on her journey. The summons for her to go came unexpectedly, as it often does in the end. She had not even time to say good-by to the children, nor to her husband, only just a brief moment to look, with startled eyes, at the wonderful face of the angel who had come to fetch her, and then with a smile of bliss to let him clasp her in his arms and feel his strong wings round her, and then she was away, beyond the lovely house and the beautiful garden, and the children sleeping quietly in their beds, and the husband who was slumbering by her side—beyond the tall trees and the peaks of the highest mountains, beyond the stars themselves, until finally she entered the portals of a home that is everlasting, and found herself in a land where the flowers do not fade.
In the morning the children were told that their mother was dead. They all cried, and everyone thought it dreadfully sad, except Iris, who knew better. It was Fortune who brought in the news to the children—they had just gone into the day-nursery at the time.
Fortune was a stern woman, somewhat over fifty years of age. She was American by birth, and had lived with Mrs. Delaney since Iris was born. Mrs. Delaney was also American, which may have accounted for some of her bright fancies, and quiet, yet sweet and quick ways. Fortune was very fond of the children after her fashion, which was, however, as a rule, somewhat severe and exacting. But to-day, in her bitter grief, she sank down on the nearest chair, and allowed them all to crowd round her, and cried bitterly, and took little Orion in her arms and kissed him and petted him, and begged of each child to forgive her for ever having been cross or disagreeable, and promised, as well and as heartily as she could, never to transgress again in that manner as long as she lived.
While the others were sobbing and crying round Fortune, Iris stood silent.
"Where is father?" she said at last, in a very quiet but determined voice.
Fortune glanced round at the grave little girl in some wonder.
"Miss Iris," she said, "you are not even crying."
"What do tears matter?" answered Iris. "Please, Fortune, where is father? I should like to go to him."
"He is locked up in his study, darling, and could not possibly see you nor anyone else. He is quite stunned, master is, and no wonder. You cannot go to him at present, Miss Iris."
Iris did not say another word, but she looked more grave and more thoughtful than ever. After a long pause she sat down in her own little chair near the open window. It was a very lovely day, just as beautiful as the one which had preceded it. As the child sat by the window, and the soft, sweet breeze fanned her pale cheeks, an indescribable longing came over her. No one was particularly noticing her. She crept softly out of the room, ran down some passages, and at last found herself once more mounting the turret stairs to the tower. A moment later she had entered the octagon room where she and her mother had talked together on the previous day. The windows were wide open, the pretty room looked just as usual, but mother's sofa was vacant. Iris went straight over to one of the open windows, knelt down, and put her little elbows on the ledge.
"Yes, mother," she said, speaking aloud and looking full up at the bright blue sky, "I promise you. I promised you yesterday, but I make a fresh, very, very solemn promise to-day. Yes, I will be a mother to the others; I will try never to think of myself; I will remember, mother darling, exactly what you want me to do. I will try to be beautiful, to be a little messenger of the gods, as you sometimes said I might be, and to be like the rainbow, full of hope. And I will try to help Apollo to be the most beautiful and the bravest boy in the world; and, mother, I will do my best to help Diana to be strong and bright and full of courage; and I will do what I can for Orion—he must be grand like a giant, so that he may live up to the wonderful name you have given him. Mother, it will be very hard, but I promise, I promise with all my might, to do everything you want me to do. I will act just as if you were there and could see, mother, and I will always remember that it is beautiful for you to have gone away, for while you were here you had so much pain and so much illness. I won't fret, mother; no, I won't fret—I promise to be a mother to the others, and there won't be any time to fret."
No tears came to Iris' bright eyes, but her little thin face grew paler and paler. Presently she left the window and went slowly downstairs again.
Fortune had now left the other children to themselves. They were scattered about the bright day nursery, looking miserable, though they could scarcely tell why.
"I don't believe a bit that mother is never coming back," said Orion, in a stout, determined voice.
He was a very handsome little fellow, strongly made—he had great big black eyes like his father's. He was standing now with his Noah's ark in his hand.
"It is unfeeling of you to want to play with your Noah's ark to-day, Orion," said Apollo. "Now, do you think I would go into my laboratory and try to make a thermometer?"
"Well, at least," said Diana, speaking with a sort of jerk, and her small face turning crimson, "whatever happens, the animals must be fed."
"Of course they must, Diana," said Iris, coming forward, "and, Apollo, there is not the least harm in our going into the garden, and I don't think there is any harm in Orion playing with his Noah's ark. Come, children; come with me. We will feed all the pets and then go into the arbor, and, if you like, I will tell you stories."
"What sort of stories?" asked Diana, in quite a cheerful voice. She trotted up to her sister, and gave her her hand as she spoke. She also was a finely made child, not unlike her name.
"I 'gree with Orion," she said. "I'm quite certain sure that mother is coming back 'fore long. Fortune did talk nonsense. She said, Iris—do you know what she said?—she said that in the middle of the night, just when it was black dark, you know, a white angel came into the room and took mother in his arms and flew up to the sky with her. You don't believe that; do you, Iris?"
"Yes, I do, Diana," answered Iris. "But I will tell you more about it in the arbor. Come, Apollo; mother would not like us to stay in the house just because she has gone away to the angels. Mother never was the least little bit selfish. Come into the garden."
The three forlorn-looking little children were much comforted by Iris' brave words. They dried their eyes, and Diana ran into the night nursery to fetch their hats. They then ran downstairs without anyone specially noticing them, passed through the great entrance hall, and out on to the wide gravel sweep, which led by a side walk into the lovely garden.
Iris held Diana by one hand and Orion by the other, and Apollo ran on in front.
"Now, then," said Iris, when they had reached the garden, "we must begin by feeding all the pets."
"There are an awful lot of them," said Diana, in quite a cheerful voice; "and don't you remember, Iris, the poor innocent was not buried yesterday?"
Iris could not help giving a little shiver.
"No more it was," she said, in a low tone. "It must have quite a private funeral. Please get some dock leaves, Apollo."
"Yes," answered Apollo.
He ran off, returning with a bunch in a moment or two.
"Take them into the dead-house," said Iris, "and sew them up and put the poor innocent inside, and then take your spade and dig a hole in the cemetery. We can't have a public funeral. I—I don't feel up to it," she added, her lips trembling for the first time.
Diana nestled close up to Iris.
"You need not look sad, Iris," she said; "there's no cause, is there? I don't believe that story 'bout mother, and if it is not true there'll be nothing wrong in my laughing, will there?"
"You may laugh if you like, darling," answered Iris.
They all entered the arbor now, and Iris seated herself in the little chair which mother had seen father make, and round which the beautiful flowers of the iris had been carved.
"Laugh, Di," she said again; "I know mother won't mind."
For a full moment Diana stood silent, staring at her sister; then her big black eyes, which had been full of the deepest gloom, brightened. A butterfly passed the entrance to the summer-house, and Diana flew after it, chasing it with a loud shout and a gay, hearty fit of laughter.
Apollo came back with the stray cat, whose name was "Trust," in his arms.
"She looks miserable, poor thing," he said. "I don't believe she has had anything to eat to-day. She must have her breakfast, as usual; must she not, Iris?"
"Yes; we must feed all the pets," said Iris, making a great effort to brighten up. "Let us go regularly to work, all of us. Apollo, will you take the birds? You may as well clean out their cages—they are sure to want it. I will collect flies for the green frogs, and Orion, you may pick mulberry leaves for the silk-worms."
For the next hour the children were busily employed. No one missed them in the house. The house was full of shade, but the garden, although mother had left it forever, was quite bright; the sun shone as brilliantly as it did every other day; a great many fresh flowers had come out; there was a very sweet smell from the opening roses, and in especial the Scotch roses, white and red, made a waft of delicious perfume as the children ran up and down.
"I'm awfully hungry," said Diana suddenly.
"But we won't go into the house for lunch to-day," said Iris. "Let us have a fruit lunch—I think mother would like us to have a fruit lunch just for to-day. Please, Apollo, go into the other garden and pick some of the ripest strawberries. There were a great many ripe yesterday, and there are sure to be more to-day. Bring a big leaf full, and we can eat them in the summer-house."
Apollo ran off at once. He brought back a good large leaf of strawberries, and Iris divided them into four portions. Diana and Orion, seated on their little chairs, ate theirs with much gusto, and just as happily as if mother had not gone away; but as to Iris, notwithstanding her brave words and her determination not to think of herself, the strawberries tasted like wood in her mouth. There was also a great lump in her throat, and a feeling of depression was making itself felt more and more, moment by moment.
Apollo sat down beside his sister, and glanced from time to time into her face.
"I cannot think why I don't really care for the strawberries to-day," he said suddenly. "I—" His lips trembled. "Iris," he said, gazing harder than ever at his sister, "you have got such a queer look on your face.
"Don't notice it, please, Apollo," answered Iris.
"I wish you would cry," said the boy. "When Fortune came in and told us the—the dreadful news, we all cried and we kissed her, and she cried and she said she was sorry she had ever been unkind to us; but I remember, Iris, you did not shed one tear, and you—you always seemed to love mother the best of us all."
"And I love her still the best," said Iris, in a soft voice; "but, Apollo, I have something else to do." And then she added, lowering her tones, "You know, I can't be sorry about mother herself. I can only be glad about her."
"Glad about mother! Glad that she is dead!" said the boy.
"Oh, I don't think about that part," said Iris. "She is not dead—not really. She is only away up above the stars and the blue sky, and she will never have any more suffering, and she will always be as happy as happy can be, and sometime or other, Apollo, I think she will be able to come back; and, if she can, I am sure she will. Yes, I am quite sure she will."
"If she comes back we shall see her," said Apollo; "but she can't come back, Iris. Dead people can't come back."
"Oh, please, don't call her that," said Iris, with a note of great pain in her voice.
"But Fortune says that mother is dead, just like anybody else, and in a few days she will be put into the ground. Oh, Iris! I am frightened when I think of it. Mother was so lovely, and to think of their putting her into the ground in a box just like—like we put the poor innocent and the other creatures, and if that is the case she can never come back—never, never, never!"
The little boy buried his black head of curling hair on his sister's knee, and gave vent to a great burst of tears.
"But it is not true, Apollo," said Iris. "I mean in one way it is not true—I can't explain it, but I know. Let us forget all the dark, dreadful part—let us think of her, the real mother, the mother that looked at us out of her beautiful eyes; she is not dead, she has only gone away, and she wants us all to be good, so that we may join her some day. She called me after the rainbow, and after the messenger of the gods; and you, Apollo, after the bravest and the most beautiful boy that was supposed ever to live; and Diana, too, was called after a great Greek goddess; and Orion after the most lovely star in all the world. Oh, surely we four little children ought to try to be great, and good, and brave, if we are ever to meet our mother again!"
"Well, it is all very puzzling," said Apollo, "and I can't understand things the way you can, Iris, and I have an awful ache in my throat. I am hungry, and yet I am not hungry. I love strawberries as a rule, but I hate them to-day. If only father would come and talk to us it would not be quite so bad; but Fortune said we were not to go to him, that he was shut up in his study, and that he was very unhappy. She said that he felt it all dreadfully about mother."
"Iris," said Diana's voice at that moment, "we are not surely to have any lessons to-day?"
She had come to the door of the summer-house, and was looking in.
"Lessons?" said Iris. She put up her hand to her forehead in a dazed manner.
"Yes; do be quick and say. Miss Stevenson is coming down the garden path. I do think that on the very day when mother has gone away it would be hard if we were to have lessons; and if what you say is true, Iris, and mother is happy, why, it does not seem fair; does it? We ought to have a whole holiday to-day, ought we not? Just as if it was a birthday, you know."
"I think so too," said Orion, with a shout. "I don't think we need be bothered with old Stevie to-day." He raised his voice, and ran to meet her. "You are not to give us any lessons to-day, Stevie," he said. "It is a holiday, a great, big holiday—it is a sort of birthday. We were all eating strawberries, for Iris said we were not to go back to the house."
"Oh, my poor, dear, little boy!" said Miss Stevenson. She was a kind-hearted, although old-fashioned, governess. She bent down now and kissed Orion, and tried to take one of his very dirty little hands in hers.
"My dear little children—" she began again.
"Please, Miss Stevenson, don't pity us," said Iris.
Miss Stevenson started.
"My dear Iris," she said, "you don't realize what it means."
"I do," answered Iris stoutly.
"And I know what Iris means," said Apollo; "I know quite well. I feel miserable; I have got a pain in my throat, and I cannot eat my strawberries; but Iris says we ought not fret, for mother is much better off."
"Then, if mother is much better off, we ought to have a holiday, same as if it was a birthday; ought we not, Miss Stevenson?" said Diana, puckering up her face and looking, with her keen black eyes, full at her governess.
"You poor little innocents, what is to become of you all?" said Miss Stevenson.
She entered the summer-house as she spoke, sank down on the nearest chair, and burst into tears. The four children surrounded her. They none of them felt inclined to cry at that moment. Orion, after staring at her for some little time, gave her a sharp little tap on her arm.
"What are you crying about?" he said. "Don't you think you are rather stupid?"
"You poor innocents!" said Miss Stevenson.
"Please don't call us that," said Diana; "that is our name for the worms. Worms can't see, you know, and they are not to blame for being only worms, and sometimes they get trodden on; and Iris thought we might call them innocents, and we have always done so since she gave us leave; but we would rather not be called by quite the same name."
Miss Stevenson hastily dried her eyes.
"You certainly are the most extraordinary little creatures," she said. "Don't you feel anything?"
"It would be horrid selfish to be sorry," said Diana "Iris says that mother is awfully happy now."
Miss Stevenson stared at the children as if they were bewitched.
"And we are not to have lessons, Stevie," said Orion; "that's settled, isn't it?"
"Oh, my dear little child! I was not thinking of your lessons. It is your terrible—your terrible loss that fills my mind; that and your want of understanding. Iris, you are ten years old; I am surprised at you."
Iris stood, looking very grave and silent, a step or two away.
"Please, Miss Stevenson," she said, after a long pause, "don't try to understand us, for I am afraid it would be of no use. Mother talked to me yesterday, and I know quite what to do. Mother asked me to be a mother to the others, so I have no time to cry, nor to think of myself at all. If you will give us a holiday to-day, will you please go away and let us stay together, for I think I can manage the others if I am all alone with them?"
Miss Stevenson rose hastily.
"I thought you would all have been overwhelmed," she said. "I thought if ever children loved their mother you four did. Oh! how stunned I feel! Yes, I will certainly go—I don't profess to understand any of you."
THE ARRIVAL OF THE AUNT.
About a week after the events related in the last chapter, on a certain lovely day in June, a hired fly might have been seen ascending the steep avenue to Delaney Manor. The fly had only one occupant—a round, roly-poly sort of little woman. She was dressed in deep mourning, and the windows of the fly being wide open, she constantly poked her head out, now to the right and now to the left, to look anxiously and excitedly around her.
After gazing at the magnificent view, had anyone been there to look, they might have observed her shaking her head with great solemnity. She had round black eyes, and a rather dark-complexioned face, with a good deal of color in her cheeks. She was stoutly built, but the expression on her countenance was undoubtedly cheerful. Nothing signified gloom about her except her heavy mourning. Her eyes, although shrewd and full of common sense, were also kindly; her lips were very firm; there was a matter-of-fact expression about her whole appearance.
"Now, why does David waste all those acres of splendid land?" she muttered angrily to herself. "The whole place, as far as I can see, seems to be laid out in grass. I know perfectly well that this is an agricultural country, and yet, when produce is so precious, what do I see but a lawn here and another lawn there, and not even cows feeding on them. Oh, yes! of course there is the park! The park is right enough, and no one wants to interfere with that. But why should all the land in that direction, and in that direction, and in that direction"—here she put out her head again and looked frantically about her—"why should all that land be devoted to mere ornament? It seems nothing more nor less than a tempting of Providence." Here she suddenly raised her voice. "Driver," she said, "have the goodness to poke up your horse, and to go a little faster. I happen to be in a hurry."
"'Orse won't do it, ma'am," was the response. "Steep 'ill this. Can't go no faster."
The little lady gave an indignant snort, and retired once more into the depths of the gloomy fly. Presently a bend in the avenue brought the old manor house into view. Once more she thrust out her head and examined it critically.
"There it stands," she said to herself. "I was very happy at the Manor as a girl. I wonder if the old garden still exists. Twenty to one it has been done away with; there's no saying. Evangeline had such dreadfully queer ideas. Yes, there stands the house, and I do hope some remnants of the garden are in existence; but the thing above all others to consider now is, what kind these children are. Poor David, he was quite mad about Evangeline—not that I ever pretended to understand her. She was an American, and I hate the Americans; yes, I cordially hate them. Poor David, however, was devoted—oh, it was melancholy, melancholy! I suppose it was on account of Evangeline that all this splendid land has been allowed to lie fallow—not even cows, not even a stray sheep to eat all that magnificent grass. Wherever I turn I see flower-beds—flower-beds sloping away to east and west, as far almost as the eye can travel. And so there are four children. I have no doubt they are as queer, and old-fashioned, and untrained as possible. It would be like their mother to bring them up in that sort of style. Well, at least I am not the one to shirk my duty, and I certainly see it now staring me in the face. I am the wife of a hard-working vicar; I work hard myself, and I have five children of my own; but never mind, I am prepared to do my best for those poor deserted orphans. Ah, and here we are at last! That is a comfort."
The rickety old fly drew up with a jerk opposite the big front entrance, and Mrs. Dolman got out. She was short in stature, but her business-like manner and attitude were unmistakable. As soon as ever she set foot on the ground she turned to the man.
"Put the portmanteau down on the steps," she said. "You need not wait. What is your fare?"
The fly-driver named a price, which she immediately disputed.
"Nonsense!" she said. "Eight shillings for driving me from the station here? Why, it is only five miles."
"It is nearly seven, ma'am, and all uphill. I really cannot do it for a penny less."
"Then you are an impostor. I shall complain of you."
At this moment one of the stately footmen threw open the hall door and stared at Mrs. Dolman.
"Take my portmanteau in immediately, if you please," she said, "and pray tell me if your master is at home."
"Yes, madam," was the grave reply. "But Mr. Delaney is not seeing company at present."
"He will see me," said Mrs. Dolman. "Have the goodness to tell him that his sister has arrived, and please also see that my luggage is taken to my room—and oh, I say, wait one moment. What is the fare from Beaminster to Delaney Manor?"
The grave-looking footman and the somewhat surly driver of the cab exchanged a quick glance. Immediately afterwards the footman named eight shillings in a voice of authority.
"Preposterous!" said Mrs. Dolman, "but I suppose I must pay it, or, rather, you can pay it for me; I'll settle with you afterwards."
"Am I to acquaint my master that you have come, madam?"
"No; on second thoughts I should prefer to announce myself. Where did you say Mr. Delaney was?"
"In his private study."
"I know that room well. See that my luggage is taken to a bedroom, and pay the driver."
Mrs. Dolman entered the old house briskly. It felt quiet, remarkably quiet, seeing that there was a large staff of servants and four vigorous, healthy children to occupy it.
"Poor little orphans, I suppose they are dreadfully overcome," thought the good lady to herself. "Well, I am glad I have appeared on the scene. Poor David is just the sort of man who would forget everybody else when he is in a state of grief. Of course I know he was passionately attached to Evangeline, and she certainly was a charming, although quite incapable, creature. I suppose she was what would be termed 'a man's woman.' Now, I have never any patience with them, and when I think of those acres of land and—but, dear me! sometimes a matter-of-fact, plain body like myself is useful in an emergency. The emergency has arrived with a vengeance, and I am determined to take the fortress by storm."
The little lady trotted down one or two passages, then turned abruptly to her left, and knocked at a closed door. A voice said, "Come in." She opened the door and entered. A man was standing with his back to her in the deep embrasure of a mullioned window. His hands were clasped behind his back; he was looking fixedly out. The window was wide open.
"There, David, there! I knew you would take it hard; but have the goodness to turn round and speak to me," said Mrs. Dolman.
When he heard these unexpected words, the master of Delaney Manor turned with a visible start.
"My dear Jane, what have you come for?" he exclaimed. He advanced to meet his sister, dismay evident on every line of his face.
"I knew you would not welcome me, David. Oh, no prevarications! if you please. It is awful to think how many lies people tell in the cause of politeness. When I undertook this wearisome journey from the north of England, I knew I should not be welcome, but all the same I came; and, David, when I have had a little talk with you, and when you have unburdened your heart to me, you will feel your sorrow less."
"I would rather not touch on that subject," said Mr. Delaney. He offered his sister a chair very quietly, and took another himself.
Father, as Iris used to say, was not the least like mother. Mother had the gentlest, the sweetest, the most angelic face in the world; she never spoke loudly, and she seldom laughed; her voice was low and never was heard to rise to an angry tone. Her smile was like the sweetest sunshine, and wherever she appeared she brought an atmosphere of peace with her. But father, on the other hand, although an excellent and loving parent, was, when in good spirits, given to hearty laughter—given to loud, eager words, to strong exercise, both physical and mental. He was, as a rule, a very active man, seldom staying still in one place, but bustling here, there, and everywhere. He was fond of his children, and petted them a good deal; but the one whom he really worshiped was his gentle and loving wife. She led him, although he did not know it, by silken cords. She always knew exactly how to manage him, how to bring out his fine points. She never rubbed him the wrong way. He had a temper, and he knew it; but in his wife's presence it had never been exasperated. His sister, however, managed to set it on edge with the very first words she uttered.
"Of course, I know you mean well, Jane," he said, "and I ought to be obliged to you for taking all this trouble. Now that you have come, you are welcome; but I must ask you to understand immediately that I will not have the subject of my"—he hesitated, and his under lip shook for a moment—"the subject of my trouble alluded to. And I will also add that I should have preferred your writing to me beforehand. This taking a man by storm is, you know of old, my dear Jane—not agreeable to me."
"Precisely, David. I did not write, for the simple reason that I thought it likely you would have asked me not to come; and as it was necessary for me to appear on the scene, I determined, on this occasion, to take, as you express it, Delaney Manor by storm."
"Very well, Jane; as you have done it you have done it, and there is no more to be said."
Mr. Delaney rose from his seat as he spoke.
"Would you not like to go to your room, and wash and change your dress?" he asked.
"I cannot change my dress, for I have only brought one. I will go to my room presently. What hour do you dine?"
"At half-past eight."
"I have a few minutes still to talk to you, and I will not lose the opportunity. It will be necessary for me to return home the day after to-morrow."
An expression of relief swept over Mr. Delaney's countenance.
"I shall, therefore," continued Mrs. Dolman, taking no notice of this look, which she plainly saw, "have but little time at my disposal, and there is a great deal to be done. But before I proceed to anything else, may I ask you a question? How could you allow all that splendid land to lie waste?"
"What land, Jane? What do you mean?"
"Those acres of grass outside the house."
"Are you alluding to the lawns?"
"I don't know what name you choose to call all that grass, but I think it is a positive tempting of Providence to allow so much land to lie fallow. Why, you might grow potatoes or barley or oats, and make pounds and pounds a year. I know of old what the land round Delaney Manor can produce."
"As the land happens to belong to me, perhaps I may be allowed to arrange it as pleases myself," said Mr. Delaney, in a haughty tone.
His sister favored him with a long, reflective gaze.
"He is just as obstinate as ever," she muttered to herself. "With that cleft in his chin, what else can be expected? There is no use bothering him on that point at present, and, as he won't allow me to talk of poor Evangeline,—who had, poor soul, as many faults as I ever saw packed into a human being,—there is nothing whatever for me to do but to look up those children."
Mrs. Dolman rose from her seat as this thought came to her.
"I am tired," she said. "From Yorkshire to Delaney Manor is a long journey, as perhaps you do not remember, David; so I will seek my room after first having informed you what the object of my visit is."
"I should be interested to know that, Jane," he answered, in a somewhat softened tone.
"Well, seeing I am the only sister you have—"
"But we never did pull well together," interrupted he.
"We used to play in the same garden," she answered, and for the first time a really soft and affectionate look came into her face. "I hope to goodness, David, that the garden is not altered."
"It is much the same as always, Jane. The children occupy it a good deal."
"I am coming to the subject of the children. Of course, now that things are so much changed—"
"I would rather not go into that," said Mr. Delaney.
"Dear me, David, how touchy you are! Why will you not accept a patent fact? I have no wish to hurt your feelings, but I really must speak out plain common sense. I always was noted for my common sense, was I not? I don't believe, in the length and breadth of England, you will find better behaved children than my five. I have brought them up on a plan of my own, and now that I come here at great trouble, and I may also add expense, to try and help you in your—oh, of course, I must not say it—to try and help you when you want help, you fight shy of my slightest word. Well, the fact is this: I want you to take my advice, and to shut up Delaney Manor, or, better still, to let it well for the next two or three years, and go abroad yourself, letting me have the children!"
"My dear Jane!"
"Oh, I am your dear Jane now—now that you think I can help you. Well, David, I mean it, and what is more, the matter must be arranged. I must take the children back with me the day after to-morrow. Now I will go to my bedroom, as I am dead tired. Perhaps you will ring the bell and ask a servant to take me there."
Mr. Delaney moved slowly across the room. He rang the electric bell, and a moment later the footman appeared in answer to his summons. He gave certain directions, and Mrs. Dolman left the room.
The moment he found himself alone, the father of the children sank down on the nearest chair, put his hands on the table, pressed his face down on them, and uttered a bitter groan.
"What am I to do, Evangeline?" said Mr. Delaney, a few moments later. He stood up as he spoke, shook himself, and gazed straight before him. It was exactly as if he were really speaking to the children's mother. Then again he buried his face in his big hands, and his strong frame shook. After a moment's pause he took up a photograph which stood near, and looked earnestly at the beautiful pictured face. The eyes, so full of truth and tenderness, seemed to answer him back. He started abruptly to his feet. "You always directed me, Evangeline," he said. "God only knows what I am to do now that you have left me. I am in some matters as weak as a reed, great, blustering fellow though I appear. And now that Jane has come—she always did bully me—now that she has come and wants to take matters into her own hands, oh, Evangeline! what is to be done? The fact is, I am not fit to manage this great house, nor the children, without you. The children are not like others; they will not stand the treatment which ordinary children receive. Oh, why has Jane, of all people, come? What am I to do?"
He paced rapidly up and down his big study; clenching his hands at times, at times making use of a strong exclamation.
The butler knocked at the door. "Dinner will be served in half an hour, sir," he said. "Am I to lay for two?"
"Yes, Johnson. Mrs. Dolman, my sister, has arrived, and will dine with me. Have places laid for two."
The man withdrew, and Mr. Delaney, stepping out through the open window, looked across the lawns which his sister had so strongly disapproved of.
"Jane was always the one to poke her finger into every pie," he said half aloud. "Certainly this place is distasteful to me now, and there is—upon my word, there is something in her suggestion. But to deliver over those four children to her, and to take them away from the garden, and the house, and the memory of their mother—oh! it cannot be thought of for a moment; and yet, to shift the responsibility while my heart is so sore would be an untold relief."
A little voice in the distance was heard shouting eagerly, and a small child, very dirty about the hands and face, came trotting up to Mr. Delaney. It was Diana. She was sobbing as well as shouting, and was holding something tenderly wrapped up in her pocket handkerchief.
"What is the matter with you, Di?" said her father. He lifted her into his arms. "Why, little woman, what can be the matter? and what have you got in your handkerchief?"
"It's Rub-a-Dub, and he is deaded," answered Diana. She unfolded the handkerchief carefully and slowly, and showed her father a small piebald mouse, quite dead, and with a shriveled appearance. "He is as dead as he can be," repeated Diana. "Look at him. His little claws are blue, and oh! his little nose, and he cannot see; he is stone dead, father."
"Well, you shall go into Beaminster to-morrow and buy another mouse," said Mr. Delaney.
Diana gazed at him with grave, wondering black eyes.
"That would not be Rub-a-Dub," she said; then she buried her little, fat face on his shoulder and sobs shook her frame.
"Evangeline would have known exactly what to say to the child," muttered the father, in a fit of despair. "Come along, little one," he said. "What can't be cured must be endured, you know. Now, take my hand and I'll race you into the house."
The child gave a wan little smile; but the thought of the mouse lay heavy against her heart.
"May I go back to the garden first?" she said. "I want to put Rub-a-Dub into the dead-house."
"The dead-house, Diana? What do you mean?"
"It is the house where we keep the poor innocents, and all the other creatures what get deaded," said Diana. "We keep them there until Iris has settled whether they are to have a pwivate or a public funeral. Iris does not know yet about Rub-a-Dub. He was quite well this morning. I don't know what he could have died of. Perhaps, father, if you look at him you will be able to tell me."
"Well, let me have a peep," said the man, his mustache twitching as he spoke.
Diana once again unfolded her small handkerchief, in the center of which lay the much shriveled-up mouse.
"The darling!" said the little girl tenderly. "I loved Rub-a-Dub so much; I love him still. I do hope Iris will think him 'portant enough for a public funeral."
"Look here," said Mr. Delaney, interested in spite of himself, and forgetting all about the dinner which would be ready in a few minutes; "I'll come right along with you to the dead-house; but I did not know, Di, that you kept an awful place of that sort in the garden."
"Tisn't awful," said Diana. "We has to keep a dead-house when we find dead things. We keep all the dead 'uns we find there. There aren't as many as usual to-day—only a couple of butterflies and two or three beetles, and a poor crushed spider. And oh! I forgot the toad that we found this morning. It was awful hurt and Apollo had to kill it; he had to stamp on it and kill it; and he did not like it a bit. Iris can't kill things, nor can I, nor can Orion, so we always get Apollo to kill the things that are half dead—to put them out of their misery, you know, father."
"You seem to be a very wise little girl; but I am sure this cannot be at all wholesome work," said the father, looking more bewildered and puzzled than ever.
Diana gazed gravely up at him. She did not know anything about the work being wholesome or the reverse. The dead creatures had to be properly treated, and had to be buried either privately or publicly—that was essential—nothing else mattered at all to her.
"As Rub-a-Dub is such a dear darlin', I should not be s'prised if Iris did have a public funeral," she commented.
"But what is the difference, Di? Tell me," said her father.
"Oh, father! you are ig'rant. At a pwivate funeral the poor dead 'un is just sewn up in dock leaves and stuck into a hole in the cemetery."
"The cemetery! Good Heavens, child! do you keep a cemetery in the garden?"
"Indeed we does, father. We have a very large one now, and heaps and heaps of gravestones. Apollo writes the insipcron. He is quite bothered sometimes. He says the horrid work is give to him,—carving the names on the stones and killing the half-dead 'uns,—but course he has to do it 'cos Iris says so. Course we all obey Iris. When it is a pwivate funeral, the dead 'un is put into the ground and covered up, and it don't have a gravestone; then of course, by and by, it is forgot. You underland; don't you, father?"
"Bless me if I do," said Mr. Delaney, in a puzzled tone.
"But if it is a public funeral," continued Diana, strutting boldly forward now, and throwing back her head in quite a martial attitude, "why, then it's grand. There is a box just like a coffin, and cotton wool—we steal the cotton wool most times. We know where Fortune has got a lot of it put away. Iris does not think it quite right to steal, but the rest of us don't mind. And we have banners, and Orion plays the Jew's harp, and I beat the drum, and Iris sings, and Apollo digs the grave, and the dead 'un is put into the ground, and we all cry, or pretend to cry. Sometimes I do squeeze out a tiny tear, but I'm so incited I can't always manage it, although I'm sure I'll cry when Rub-a-Dub is put into the ground. Then afterwards there is a tombstone, and Iris thinks of the insipcron. I spects we'll have a beautiful insipcron for poor Rub-a-Dub, 'cos we all loved him so much."
"Well, all this is very interesting, of course," said Mr. Delaney. "But now we must be quick, because your Aunt Jane has come."
"Who's her?" asked Diana.
"A very good lady indeed—your aunt."
"What's an aunt?"
"A lady whom you ought to love very much."
"Ought I? I never love people I ought to love," said Diana firmly. "Please, father, this is the dead-house. You can come right in if you like, father, and see the dead 'uns; they are all lying on this shelf. Most of them is to be buried pwivate, 'cos they are not our own pets, you know; but Rub-a-Dub is sure to have a public funeral, and an insipcron, and all the rest."
Mr. Delaney followed Diana into the small shed which the children called the dead-house. He gazed solemnly at the shelf which she indicated, and on which lay the several dead 'uns.
"Put your mouse down now," he said, "and come along back with me to the house at once. You ought to have been in bed long ago."
Diana laid the mouse sorrowfully down in the midst of its dead brethren, shut the door of the dead-house, and followed her father up the garden path.
"It's a most beautiful night," she said, after a pause. "It's going to be a starful night; isn't it, father?"
"Starful?" said Mr. Delaney.
"Yes; and when it is a starful night Orion can't sleep well, 'cos he is a star hisself; isn't he, father?"
"Good gracious, child, no! He is a little boy!"
"No, no, father! You are awfu' mistook. Mother called him a star. I'll show you him up in the sky if it really comes to be a starful night. May I, father?"
"Some time, my darling; but now you must hurry in, for I have to get ready for dinner. Kiss me, Di. Good-night. God bless you, little one!"
"B'ess you too, father," said Diana. "I love 'oo awfu' well."
She raised her rosebud lips, fixed her black eyes on her parent's face, kissed him solemnly, and trotted away into the house. When she got close to it, a great sob came up from her little chest. She thought again of the dead Rub-a-Dub, but then the chance of his having a public funeral consoled her. She longed to find Iris.
Full of this thought, her little heart beating more quickly than usual, she rushed up the front stairs, and was turning down the passage which led to the nursery, when she was confronted by a short, stout woman dressed in black.
"Now, who is this little girl, I wonder?" said a high-pitched, cheery voice.
"It is not your little girl; and I am in a hurry, please," said Diana, who could be very rude when she liked. She did not wish to be interrupted now; she wanted to find Iris to tell her of the sad fate of Rub-a-Dub.
"Highty-tighty!" exclaimed the little lady, "that is no way to speak to grown-up people. I expect, too, you are one of my little nieces. Come here at once and say, 'How do you do?'"
"Are you the aunt?" asked Diana solemnly.
"The aunt!" replied Mrs. Dolman. "I am your aunt, my dear. What is your name?"
"Diana. Please, aunt, don't clutch hold of my hand; I want to find Iris."
"Of all the ridiculous names," muttered Mrs. Dolman under her breath. "Well, child, I am inclined to keep you for a moment, as I want to talk to you. Do you know, you rude little girl, that I have come a long way to see you. Of course, my little girl, I know you are sad at present; but you must try to get over your great sorrow."
"Do you know, then, about Rub-a-Dub?" said Diana, her whole face changing, and a look of keen interest coming into it.
If Aunt—whatever her other name was—should turn out to be interested in Rub-a-Dub, and sorry for his untimely end, why, then, Diana felt there was a possibility of her squeezing a little corner for her in her hearts of hearts. But Mrs. Dolman's next words disturbed the pleasant illusion.
"You are a poor little orphan, my child," she said. "Your poor, dear mother's death must be a terrible sorrow to you; but, believe me, you will get over it after a time."
"I has quite got over it awready," answered Diana, in a cheerful voice. "It would be awfu' selfish to be sorry 'bout mother, 'cos mother is not suffering any more pain, you know. I am very glad 'bout mother. I am going to her some day. Please don't squeeze my hand like that. Good-by, aunt; I weally can't stay another moment."
She trotted off, and Mrs. Dolman gazed after her with a petrified expression of horror on her round face.
"Well," she said to herself, "if ever! And the poor mother was devoted to them all, and she is scarcely a week in her grave, and yet that mite dares to say she has got over it. What nonsense she talked, and what a queer name she has. Now, our family names are sensible and suited for the rising generation. We have had our Elizabeths and our Anns, and our Lucys and our Marys, and, of course, there is Jane, my name. All these are what I call good old respectable Delaney names; but Diana and Iris make me sick. And I believe, if report tells true, that there are some still more extraordinary names in the family. What a rude, dirty little child! I did not like her manners at all, and how neglected she looked. I shall follow her; it is my manifest duty to see to these children at once. Oh! I shall have difficulty in breaking them in, but broken in they must be!"
Accordingly Mrs. Dolman turned down the passage where Diana's fat legs disappeared. The eager but gentle flow of voices directed her steps, and presently she opened the door of a large room and looked in.
She found herself unexpectedly on the threshold of the day-nursery. It was a beautiful room, facing due west; the last rays of the evening sun were shining in at the open windows; some children were collected in a corner of the room. Diana had gone on her knees beside a girl a little older and slighter than herself. Her plump elbows were resting on the girl's knee, her round hands were pressed to her rounder cheeks, and her black eyes were fixed upon the girl's face.
The elder girl, very quiet and calm, had one hand on Diana's shoulder, her other arm was thrown round a handsome little boy, not unlike Diana in appearance, while an older boy sat on a hassock at her feet.
"I will listen to you presently, Diana," said Iris. "Now, I must finish my story."
"Yes, please go on, Iris," said Orion; "it's all about me, and I'm 'mensely inte'sted."
"Very well, Orion. The King of Chios did not want his daughter to marry you."
"Good gracious!" muttered Mrs. Dolman in the doorway.
"So he let you fall sound asleep," continued Iris, in her calm voice. None of the children had yet seen the stout personage on the threshold of the room. "He let you fall very sound asleep, having given you some strong wine."
"What next?" thought Mrs. Dolman.
"And when you were very sound asleep indeed, he put out both your eyes. When you awoke you found yourself quite blind, and did not know what to do or where to go. Suddenly, in the midst of your misery, you heard the sound of a blacksmith's forge. Guided by the noise, you reached the place and begged the blacksmith to climb on your shoulders, and so lend you his eyes to guide you. The blacksmith was willing to do it, and seated himself on your shoulders. Then you said, 'Guide me to the place where I can see the first sunbeam that rises in the east over the sea,' and—"
"Yes," said Orion, whose breath was coming quickly, "yes; and what happened to me then?"
"Nonsense, little boy! Don't you listen to another word of that folly," said a very strong, determined voice.
All the children turned abruptly.
"Oh, she has come bothering!" said Diana.
But the other three had started to their feet, and a flush rose into Iris' pale face.
AUNT IS HER NAME.
"Aunt is her name," said Diana, "and I don't think much of her."
Mrs. Dolman strode rapidly into the nursery.
"Yes, children," she said, "I am your aunt—your Aunt Jane Dolman, your father's only sister. Circumstances prevented my coming to see your father and mother for several years; but now that God has seen fit to give you this terrible affliction, and has taken your dear mother to Himself, I have arrived, determined to act a mother's part to you. I do not take the least notice of what that rude little girl says. When I have had her for a short time under my own control, she will know better. Now, one of you children, please have the politeness to offer me a chair, and then you can come up one by one and kiss me."
Iris was so much petrified that she could not stir. Diana and Orion came close together, and Diana flung her stout little arm round Orion's fat neck. Apollo, however, sprang forward and placed a chair for his aunt.
"Will you sit here, please, Aunt Jane Dolman?" he said.
"You need not say Aunt Jane Dolman," replied the lady; "that is a very stiff way of speaking. Say Aunt Jane. You can kiss me, little boy."
Apollo raised his lips and bestowed a very chaste salute upon Aunt Jane's fat cheek.
"What is your name?" said Aunt Jane, taking one of his small, hard hands in hers.
"Apollo," he replied, flinging his head back.
"Apollo! Heaven preserve us! Why, that is the name of one of the heathen deities—positively impious. What could my poor sister-in-law and your father have been thinking of? At one time I considered your father a man of sense."
Apollo flushed a beautiful rosy red.
"Please, Aunt Jane," he said, "I like my name very much indeed, and I would rather you did not say a word against it, because mother gave it to me."
"It is a name with a beautiful meaning," said Iris, coming forward at last. "How are you Aunt Jane? My name is Iris, and this is Diana, and this is Orion—both Diana and Orion are very good children indeed, and"—here her lips quivered, her earnest, brown eyes were fixed with great solicitude on her aunt's face—"I ought to know," she said, "for I am a mother to the others, and, I think, please, Aunt Jane, Orion and Diana should be going to bed now."
"I have not the slightest objection, my dear. I simply wished to see you children. I will say good-night now; we can have a further talk to-morrow. But first, before I go, let me repeat over your names, or rather you—Apollo, I think you call yourself—had better say them for me."
"That is Iris," said Apollo, pointing to his elder sister, "and I am Apollo, and that is Diana, and that is Orion."
"All four names taken from the heathen mythology," replied Aunt Jane, "and I, the wife of a good honest clergyman of the Church of England, have to listen to this nonsense. I declare it may be inconvenient—it may frighten the parishioners. I must think it well over. I have, of course, heard before of girls being called Diana, and also of girls being called Iris—but Apollo and Orion! My poor children, I am sorry for you; you are burdened for life. Good-night, good-night! You will see me again to-morrow."
The great dinner-gong sounded through the house, and Aunt Jane sailed away from the day-nursery.
"Fortune, who is she?" asked Iris, raising a pair of almost frightened eyes to the old nurse's face.
"She is your father's sister, my darling," said Fortune. "She has come on a visit, and uninvited, Peter tells me. I doubt if my master is pleased to see her. She will most likely go away in a day or two, so don't you fret, Miss Iris, love. Now, come along, Master Orion, and let me undress you. It is very late, and you ought to be in your little bed."
"I'm Orion," said the little boy, "and I'm stone blind." He began to strut up and down the nursery with his eyes tightly shut.
"Apollo, please, may I get on your shoulder for a bit, and will you lead me to that place where the first sunbeam rises in the east over the sea?"
"Come," said Fortune, in what Diana would call a "temperish" tone, "we can have no more of that ridiculous story-telling to-night. Miss Iris, you'll ask them to be good, won't you?"
"Yes. Children, do be good," said Iris, in her earnest voice.
Diana trotted up to her sister and took her hand.
"I has something most 'portant to tell you," she said, in a low whisper. "It's an awfu' sorrow, but you ought to know."
"What is it, Di?"
"Rub-a-Dub has got deaded."
"Yes; it is quite true. I found him stark dead and stiff. I has put him in the dead-house."
Iris said nothing.
"And he is to have a public funeral, isn't he?" said Diana, "and a beautiful insipcron. Do say he is, and let us have the funeral to-morrow."
"I am awfully sorry," said Iris, then; "I did love Rub-a-Dub. Yes, Di; I'll think it over. We can meet after breakfast in the dead-house and settle what to do."
"There are to be a lot of funerals to-morrow—I'm so glad," said Diana, with a chuckle.
She followed Orion into the night-nursery. He was still walking with his eyes tightly shut and went bang up against his bath, a good portion of which he spilt on the floor. This put both Fortune and the under-nurse, Susan, into a temper, and they shook him and made him cry, whereupon Diana cried in concert, and poor Iris felt a great weight resting on her heart.
"It is awfully difficult to be a mother to them all," she thought. "The usual kind of things don't seem to please them. Apollo, what is the matter? What are you thinking of?"
"I'm only wishing that I might be the real Apollo," said the boy, "and that I might get quite far away from here. Things are different here now that mother has gone, Iris. I don't like Aunt Jane Dolman a bit."
"Oh, well, she is our aunt, so I suppose it is wrong not to like her," answered Iris.
"I can't help it," replied Apollo. "I have a feeling that she means to make mischief. Why did she come here without being asked? Iris, shall we go down to dessert to-night, or not?"
"I would much rather not," answered Iris.
"But father likes us to go. It is the only time in the day when he really sees us. I think, perhaps, we ought to get dressed and be ready to go down."
"I will if you think so, Apollo; but I am very tired and sleepy."
"Well, I really do. We must not shirk things if we are to be a bit what mother wants us to be; and now that Aunt Jane has come, poor father may want us worse than ever."
"I never thought of that," replied Iris. "I'll run and get dressed at once, Apollo."
She flew away into a tiny little room of her own, which opened into the night-nursery.
"Susan," she called out, "will you please help me to put on my after-dinner frock?"
"You have only a white dress to wear this evening, miss; your new black one has not come home yet."
"A white one will be all right," replied Iris.
"Oh, dear me, miss! and your poor mother only a week dead."
"I wish, Susan, you would not talk of mother as dead," answered Iris. "I don't think of her like that a bit. She is in Heaven; she has gone up the golden stairs, and she is quite well and ever so happy, and she won't mind my wearing a white dress, more particular if I want to comfort father. Please help me on with it and then brush out my hair."
Iris had lovely hair—it was of a deep, rich chestnut, and it curled and curled, and waved and waved in rich profusion down her back. When Susan had brushed it, and taken the tangles out, it shone like burnished gold. Her pretty white frock was speedily put on, and she ran out of her little room to join Apollo, who, in his black velvet suit, looked very picturesque and handsome.
Not long afterwards the little pair, taking each other's hands, ran down the broad, white marble stairs and entered the big dining room. They looked almost lost in the distance when they first appeared, for the table at which Mr. Delaney and Mrs. Dolman sat was far away in a bay window at the other end of the stately apartment.
"Hullo, children! so there you are!" called their father's voice to them. He had never been better pleased to see them in all his life, and the note of welcome in his tones found an answering echo in Iris' loving little heart.
They both tripped eagerly up the room and placed themselves one on each side of him, while Iris slipped her hand into his.
"Well, my chicks, I am right glad to see you," he said.
"Perhaps, David, you will remember how disgracefully late it is," said Mrs. Dolman. "Children, I must frankly say that I am not pleased to see you. What are you doing up at this hour?"
"We have come to keep father company," said Apollo, fixing his flashing black eyes, with a distinctly adverse expression in them, on his aunt's face.
"In my day," continued Aunt Jane complacently, helping herself to strawberries, "the motto was: 'Little boys should be seen and not heard.' To-night, of course, I make allowances; but things will be different presently. David, you surely are not giving those children wine?"
"Oh, they generally have a little sip each from my port," said Mr. Delaney; "it does not do them any harm."
"You may inculcate a taste," said Mrs. Dolman, in a very solemn voice. "In consequence of that little sip, which appears so innocent, those children may grow up drunkards. Early impressions! Well, all I can say is this—when they come to live at the Rectory they will have to be teetotalers. In my house we are all teetotalers. My husband and I both think that we cannot have proper influence on the parishioners unless we do ourselves what we urge them to do."
Iris and Apollo both listened to these strange words with fast-beating hearts. What did they mean? Mrs. Dolman spoke of when they were to live at the Rectory. What rectory? She spoke of a time when they were to live with her. Oh, no; she must be mistaken. Nothing so perfectly awful could be going to happen.
Nevertheless, Iris could scarcely touch her wine, and she pushed aside the tempting macaroon which Mr. Delaney had slipped on to her plate. She found it impossible to eat.
Apollo, after a moment's hesitation, attacked his wine and swallowed his biscuit manfully; but even he had not his usual appetite.
After a short pause, Iris gave a gentle sigh and put both her arms round her father's neck.
"I am tired, father; I should like to go to bed."
"And I want to go too," said Apollo.
"Those are the first sensible remarks I have heard from either of the children," said Mrs. Dolman. "I should think they are dead tired for want of sleep, poor little mites. Good-night, both of you. When you come to live with me—ah! I see you are astonished; but we will talk of that pleasant little scheme to-morrow. Good-night to you both."
"Good-night, Aunt Jane," said Iris.
"Good-night, Aunt Jane," said Apollo.
"Good-night to you both, my pets," said Mr. Delaney.
Iris gave her father a silent hug, Apollo kissed him on the forehead—a moment later the little pair left the room. As soon as ever they had done so, Mrs. Dolman turned to her brother.
"Now then, David," she said, "you have got to listen to me; we may just as well settle this matter out of hand. I must return home on Thursday—and this is Tuesday evening. It will be impossible for you to stay on here with those four children and no one responsible to look after them. You appear half dead with grief and depression, and you want a thorough change. The place is going to rack and ruin. Your rent-roll, how much is it?"
"About fifteen thousand pounds a year—quite enough to keep me out of anxiety," said Mr. Delaney, with a grim smile.
"It ought to be twenty thousand a year—in our father's time it was quite that. No doubt you let your farms too cheap; and so much grass round the house is disgraceful. Now, if I had the management—"
"But you see you have not, Jane," said Mr. Delaney. "The property happens to belong to me."
"That is true, and I have a great deal too much on my mind to worry myself about Delaney Manor; but, of course, it is the old place, and you are my only brother, and I am anxious to help you in your great affliction. When you married you broke off almost all connection with me, but now—now I am willing to overlook the past. Do you, or do you not, intend those children to run wild any longer? Even though they are called after heathen idols they are flesh and blood, and it is to be hoped that some religious influence may be brought to bear on them. At the present moment, I conclude that they have none whatever."
"I never saw better children," said Mr. Delaney; "their mother brought them up as no one else could. In my opinion, they are nearly perfect."
"You talk nonsense of that kind because you are blinded by your fatherly affection. Now, let me assure you, in full confidence, that I never came across more neglected and more utterly absurd little creatures. Good-looking they are—you are a fine-looking man yourself, and your wife was certainly pretty—the children take after you both. I have nothing to say against their appearance; but they talk utter gibberish; and as to that eldest little girl, if she is not given something sensible to occupy her I cannot answer for the consequence. My dear David, I don't want to interfere with your estate."
"You could not, Jane; I would not permit it."
"But with regard to the children, I really have experience. I have five children of my own, and I think, if you were to see them, you would be well assured that Iris and Diana, Apollo and Orion would do well to take example by them. We might change the names of the boys and give them titles not quite so terrible."
"I wish them to be called by the names their mother chose," said Mr. Delaney, with great firmness.
"Well, I suppose the poor children will live it down, but they will have a terrible time at school. However, they are too young for anything of that kind at present. Give me the children, David, and I will act as a mother to them; then pack up your belongings, put your estate into the hands of a good agent, and go abroad for some years."
"It would be an untold relief," said Mr. Delaney.
At that moment the door was opened, and the butler appeared with the evening post on a salver. Mr. Delaney laid the letters languidly by his plate.
"Shall we go into the drawing room, Jane?" he said.
Mrs. Dolman rose briskly.
"I shall retire early to bed," she said. "Read your letters, please, David; you need not stand on ceremony with me."
Mr. Delaney looked over his post; then his eyes lighted up as he saw the handwriting on one of the envelopes. He opened the letter in question, which immediately interested him vastly. It happened to be from an old friend, and certainly seemed to come at an opportune moment. This friend was about to start on an expedition to the Himalayas, and he begged his old fellow-traveler to go with him. His long letter, the enthusiastic way he wrote, the suggestions he threw out of possible and exciting adventures came just at the nick of time to the much-depressed and weary man.
"Why, I declare, Jane," he said, "this does seem to come opportunely." He walked over to where his sister was standing, and read a portion of the letter aloud. "If I might venture to trust my darlings to you," he said, "there is nothing in all the world I should like better than to accompany Seymour to the Himalayas. He starts in a fortnight's time, so there really is not a day to lose."
"Then, David," said Mrs. Dolman, "you will not allow this valuable opportunity to slip—you will trust your children to me. I assure you I will do my duty by them." She spoke with real sincerity, and tears absolutely dimmed her bright eyes. "David," she continued, "that letter seems a Providence; you will act upon it."
"It certainly does," said the man; "but, Jane, you will be good to the children—tender, I mean. Their mother has always been very gentle to them."
"You need not question me as to how I will treat them. I will bring them up as I would my own. I will do my utmost to rear them in the fear of God. David, this clinches the matter. Write to Mr. Seymour by this night's post."
Mr. Delaney promised to do so, and soon afterwards Mrs. Dolman, feeling that she had done a very good and excellent work, retired, in a thoroughly happy frame of mind, to her bedroom.
THE POOR DEAD 'UNS.
Mr. Delaney's bedroom faced east, and the following morning, at a very early hour, he began to have most unpleasant dreams. He thought a hobgoblin was seated on his chest, and several brownies were pulling him where he did not wish to go, and finally that a gnome of enormous dimensions was dragging him into a dark cavern, where he could never again behold the daylight. At last, in great perturbation, he opened his dazed eyes. The sight he saw seemed at first to be a continuation of his dream, but after a moment or two he discovered that the person who had become possessed of his chest was a small boy of the name of Orion, that a little black-eyed girl called Diana had comfortably ensconced herself on his knees, and that Iris and Apollo were seated one at each side of his pillow. The four children had all climbed up on to the big bedstead, and were gazing attentively at him.
"He is opening his eyes," said Orion, "he'll be all right after a minute or two. Don't hurry up, father; we can wait."
"We can wait quite well, father," said Diana; "and it's very comf'able on your knees; they is so flat."
"We are awfully sorry to disturb you, father," said Iris.
"But we can't help it, because it's most solemnly important," said Apollo.
"So it seems," remarked Mr. Delaney, when he could at last find a voice. "You have all subjected me to a terrible dream. I am really glad that I have awakened and find that the hobgoblins, and gnomes, and brownies are no less little people than my own four children. But why am I to be disturbed at such a very early hour?"
"If you like, father," said Diana, "we'll pull up all the blinds; then the hot, blazin' sun will come in, and you'll see that it's not early at all; it's late."
Mr. Delaney happened to glance at a clock which stood on the mantelpiece exactly facing the big bed.
"I read on the face of that clock," he said, "that the hour is half-past five. Now, what have you four little children to do, sitting on my bed at half-past five in the morning?"
When Mr. Delaney said this he shook himself slightly and upset Diana's balance, and made Orion choke with silent laughter. Iris and Apollo gazed at him gravely.
"We all made up our minds to do it," said Iris. "We have come to ask you to make a promise, father."
"A promise, my dear children! But you might have waited until the usual hour for getting up. What are you going to wring from me at this inclement moment?"
"I don't exactly know what inclement moment means," said Iris, "but I do know, and so does Apollo—"
"And so do I know all about it," shouted Diana. "You see, father," continued the little girl, who spoke rather more than any of the other children, "we has to think of the poor innocents, and the birds and the mice, and the green frogs, and our puppy, and our pug dog, and our—and our—" Here she fairly stammered in her excitement.
"Has a sudden illness attacked that large family?" said Mr. Delaney. "Please, children, explain yourselves, for if you are not sleepy, I am."
"Yes, father," said Iris, "we can explain ourselves quite easily. The thing is this—we don't want to go away."
"To go away? My dear children, what do you mean?" But as Mr. Delaney spoke he had a very uncomfortable memory of a letter which he had posted with his own hands on the previous evening.
"Yes," said Apollo; "we don't want to go away with her."
"And we don't wish for no aunts about the place," said Diana, clenching her little fist, and letting her big, black eyes flash.
"Now I begin to see daylight," said Mr. Delaney. "So you don't like poor Aunt Jane?"
"Guess we don't," said Orion. "She comed in last night and she made an awful fuss, and she didn't like me 'cos I'm Orion, and 'cos I'm a giant, and 'cos sometimes I has got no eyes. Guess she's afraid of me. I thought her a silly sort of a body."
"She's an aunt, and that's enough," said Diana. "I don't like no aunts; they are silly people. I want her to go."
"Apollo and I brought the two younger children," continued Iris, "because we thought it best for us all to come. It is not Aunt Jane being here that is so dreadful to me, and so very, very terrible to Apollo," she continued. "It's what she said, father, that we—we were to go away, away from the house and the garden—the garden where mother used to be, and the house where the angel came to fetch mother away—and we are to live with her. She spoke, father, as if it was settled; but it is not true, is it? Tell us, father, that it is not true."
"My poor little children!" said the father. His own ruddy and sunburnt face turned absolutely pale; there was a look in his eyes which Diana could not in the least understand, nor could Orion, and which even Apollo only slightly fathomed; but one glance told Iris the truth.
"When I am away you are to be a mother to the others," seemed at that moment to echo her mother's own voice in her ear. She gulped down a great sob in her throat, and stretching herself by her father's side she put one soft arm round his neck.
"Never mind if it is really settled," she said. "I will try hard to bear it."
"You are about the bravest little darling in the world," said Mr. Delaney.
"What are you talking about, Iris?" cried Apollo, clutching his sister by her long hair as she spoke. "You say that you will try and bear it, and that father is not to mind? But father must mind. If I go to Aunt Jane Dolman's, why—why, it will kill me." And the most beautiful of all the heathen gods cast such a glance of scorn at his parent at that moment that Mr. Delaney absolutely quailed.
"For goodness' sake, Apollo, don't eat me up," he said. "The fact is this, children; I may as well have the whole thing out. Aunt Jane came last night and took me by surprise. I have been very lonely lately, and you know, you poor little mites, you cannot be left to the care of Fortune. She is a very good soul, but you want more than her to look after you, and then Miss Stevenson—I never did think her up to much."
"Father," said Apollo, "you have no right to abuse our spiritual pastors and masters."
Notwithstanding his heathenish name, it will be seen by this remark that some of his time was occupied learning the church catechism.
"I stand corrected, my son," said Mr. Delaney, "or, rather, at the present moment, I lie corrected. Well, children, the truth must out—Aunt Jane took me by surprise. She promises she will look after you and be a mother to you."
"We don't want no other mother, now that our own mother is gone, except Iris," said Apollo. "We won't have Aunt Jane for a mother."
"She is a howid old thing, and I hate aunts," said Diana.
"Well, children, I am very sorry for you, but it is too late to do anything now. The whole thing is arranged. I hope you will try to be good, and also to be happy with Aunt Jane. You won't find her half bad when you get to know her better, and of course I won't be very long away, and when I come back again—"
"Please don't say any more, father," interrupted Iris. She slipped off the bed and stood very pale and still, looking at her father with eyes which, notwithstanding all her efforts, were full of reproach.
"Come, children," she said to the others, "let poor father have his sleep out. It is quite early, father, and—and we understand now."
"Do say you are not angry with me, you dear little kids. I would not hurt you for the whole world."
"Of course we are not angry, father," said Iris. She bent slowly forward and kissed her father on his forehead. "Go to sleep, father; we are sorry we woke you so early."