by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey (aka Jessie Mansergh) ___________ This book concerns a family where the children consist of a couple of boys, and a few more than that of girls. They live in a Square in London, which bears the name of an existing London Square, but which is placed, according to the story, in quite a different place to the real one. The children are fascinated by the occupants of the various other houses, some of whom they gradually get to know.
The children grow up, the boys are away doing interesting things, and the girls become interested in their own clothes and appearances. This may be just a male's view of the story, but it seems like it to me, for there doesn't seem to be nearly as much life as you find in the same author's Pixie books. Well, I suppose that's not true: there is a subtle undercurrent of old love affairs revived that runs right to the very last page—and that is one of Mrs Vaizey's greatest skills. If you haven't done so, do read the little biography we have written of her, as it will help you to understand her writing rather better than if you don't.
Still, you read the book, and see what you think. You may well be pleasantly surprised. ___________ BETTY TREVOR
BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY (aka JESSIE MANSERGH)
THE "PAMPERED PET."
"There goes the 'Pampered Pet' again! Got its little keeper with it, as usual. Why don't they lead her by a chain, and be done with it?"
Miles stood by the schoolroom window, hands jingling in pockets, as he surveyed a prospect, sufficiently grey and drear to make any diversity doubly welcome, and at his words there came the sound of a general pushing-back of chairs, as the four other occupants of the room dashed forward to share in the view.
They jostled each other with the scant courtesy which brothers and sisters are apt to show each other in early days; five big boys and girls, ranging between the ages of eight and nineteen. Miles kept his central position by reason of superior strength, a vigorous dig of his pointed elbow being enough to keep trespassers at a distance. Betty darted before him and nimbly dropped on her knees, the twins stood on either side of the window-sill, while poor Pam grumbled and fretted in the background, dodging here and there to try all positions in turn, and finding each as unsatisfactory as the last.
The Square gardens looked grey and sodden with the desolation of autumn in a city, and the road facing the window was empty, except for two female figures—a lady, and a girl of sixteen, who were slowly approaching the corner. The lady was dressed in black, the girl was noticeably smart, in a pretty blue costume, with dainty boots on her tiny feet, and a fur cap worn at the fashionable angle on her golden head.
"That's a new dress,—the fifth I've seen her in this month!" sighed Betty enviously. "Wearing it on an afternoon like this, too. The idea! Serve her right if it were soaked through!"
"Look at her mincing over the puddles! She'd rather go a mile out of her way than get a splash on those precious boots. I'm sure by the look of them that they pinch her toes! I am glad you girls don't make ninnies of yourselves by wearing such stupid things."
"Can't! Feet too big!" mumbled Jill, each cheek bulging in turn with the lump of toffee which she was mechanically moving from side to side, so as to lengthen the enjoyment as much as possible.
"Can't! Too poor! Only four shillings to last out till the end of the quarter!" sighed Betty, dolorous again.
"Boots! Boots! What boots? Let me see her boots. It's mean! You won't let me see a thing!" cried Pam, pushing her shaggy head round Miles' elbow, and craning forward on the tip of her toes. "I say! She's grander than ever to-day, isn't she?"
"Look at the umbrella! About as thick as a lead pencil!" scoffed Jill, flattening her nose against the pane. "Aunt Amy had one like that when she came to stay, and I opened it, because mother says it spoils them to be left squeezed up, and she was as mad as a hatter. She twisted at it a good ten minutes before she would take it out again. She'd never get mine straight! I've carried things in it till the wires bulge out like hoops. An umbrella is made for use; it's bosh pretending it's an ornament. ... They are going a toddle round the Square between the showers for the benefit of the Pet's complexion. I'm glad I haven't got one to bother about!"
"True for you!" agreed Miles, with brotherly candour. "You are as brown as a nigger, and the Pet is like a big wax-doll—yellow hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks, all complete. Not a bad-looking doll, either. I passed quite close to her one day, and she looked rattling. She'll be a jolly pretty girl one of these days."
"Oh, if you admire that type. Personally, I don't care for niminy- piminies. You never see her speaking, but I daresay if you poked her in the right places she would bleat out 'Mam-ma! Pa-pa!' ... Now watch!" cried Betty dramatically. "When she gets to the corner, she will peer up at this window beneath her eyelashes, and mince worse than ever when she sees us watching. Don't shove so, Pam! You can see quite well where you are. Now look! She's going to raise her head."
The five heads pressed still more curiously against the pane, and five pairs of eyes were fixed unblinkingly upon the young girl who was daintily picking her way round the corner of the Square. The fur cap left her face fully exposed to view, and, true to Betty's prophecy, as she reached a certain point in the road she turned her head over her shoulder and shot a quick glance at the window overhead. Quicker than lightning the pretty head went round again, and the pink cheeks grew crimson at the sight of those five eager faces watching her every movement.
Jack and Jill burst into loud laughter, Betty's upper lip curled derisively, but Miles' thin face showed an answering flush of colour, and he backed into the room, exclaiming angrily—
"I say, this is too much of a good thing! I don't know what you all mean by swarming round me wherever I go! Why can't you leave a fellow alone? Can't I even look out of the window without having you all on my back? A nice effect it must have to see the whole place blocked up, as if we were staring at a Lord Mayor's show!"
Betty sat down by the table and took up the blouse on which she had been working for the last three months. The sleeves had been taken out and replaced twice over, and the collar-band obstinately refused to come right. By the time it was finished it would be hopelessly out of date, which Betty considered as one of the many contrary circumstances of life which continually thwarted her good endeavours.
"Don't worry yourself. She will enjoy being stared at!" she said coldly. "She knows we watch her coming in and out, and shows off all her little tricks for our benefit. She's the most conceited, stuck-up, affected little wretch I ever saw, without a thought in her head but her clothes, and her own importance. I wouldn't have anything to do with her for the world!"
"Jolly good thing then that you are never likely to get a chance! Her people will never trouble to call upon us; they are much too high and mighty. That's no reason, though, why you should be so down on the poor little soul. I should have thought that you would have felt sorry for her, cooped up with that old governess all her time, with not a soul to keep her company! But girls are such cads—they never play fair."
Miles strode out of the room in a fume, and Betty's lips compressed themselves into a thin straight line, the meaning of which the others knew full well. To incur Miles' displeasure was Betty's bitterest punishment, and the "Pampered Pet" was not likely to fare any better at her hands in consequence of his denouncement. Jill beckoned furtively to Jack. There was no chance of any more fun in the schoolroom now that Miles had departed, and Betty was in the sulks; it would be wise to go and disport themselves elsewhere. They left the room arm-in-arm, heads almost touching, as they whispered and giggled together, the most devoted pair of twins that ever existed, and eight-year-old Pam leant her elbows on the table and stared fixedly at her big sister.
Betty was seventeen, nearly grown-up, inasmuch as she had left school, and now took classes to complete her education. Her blue serge dress came down to her ankles, and she made a gallant attempt to "do up" her hair in the style of the period. Mrs Trevor considered the style too elaborate for such a young girl, but after all it did not much matter what was aimed at, since every morning someone exclaimed innocently, "You've done your hair a new way, Betty!" and was fully justified in the remark. One day Betty's ambition ran to curls and waves, and she appeared at the breakfast-table with a fuzz worthy of a negress. The next day better judgment prevailed, when she brushed hard for ten minutes, and then pinned on a hair-net, with the result that she looked a veritable little Puritan; and between these extremes ranged a variety of effects, only possible of achievement to an amateur with no experience, but boundless ambition.
If you could have honestly pronounced Betty pretty, you would have satisfied the deepest longing of her heart. She gazed in the glass every morning, twisting her head from side to side, and deciding irrevocably that she was hideous, a fright, a perfect freak, while all the time an obstinate little hope lingered that perhaps after all, in becoming clothes, and when she was in a good temper, she might look rather ... nice! Chestnut hair, such a pretty colour, but so little of it that it would not "go" like other girls'; dark grey eyes with curly black lashes; an impertinent little nose, and a mouth just about twice as big as those possessed by the ladies in mother's Book of Beauty downstairs. At the best she could only be "pretty" or a "sweet-looking girl," and she pined to be beautiful and stately, and to reign as a queen over the hearts of men.
Poor Betty! Many a girl of seventeen lives through the same tragedy in secret, but they are not all fortunate enough to possess an adoring younger sister who thinks her all that she fain would be.
Pam put out a little ink-stained hand, and stroked the half-finished blouse admiringly.
"It's going to be lubly, Bet! It hardly shows a bit where you joined it. You'll soon have finished it now."
"No, I shan't," snapped Betty. "There's heaps to do still, and it's getting too cold for cottons. Just my luck! I always seem to be making mistakes. It wasn't my fault that that stupid girl looked up and caught us watching."
The underlying thought showed itself in the sudden change of subject, but Pam was not surprised, for in her quiet, shrewd little way she had divined it long ago.
"But you said she'd look up, so you could have moved if you liked. I don't think it was very perlite," she said solemnly. "There were all four of you at the window, and my eyes peeping round Miles' back. I expect it looked pretty fearful. She went purple, didn't she? It's horrid to blush! I did once when I got a prize before people, and I hated it."
"Oh, you! You are a modest little mouse. The Pet is quite different. Nasty thing, she might have been satisfied without making mischief between Miles and me! She has everything that she wants, and that I want, and haven't got. She's pretty, and rich, and has a lovely big house and heaps of people to wait upon her, and nice things, and— everything! You can't think how I hate her!"
Pam leant her thin arms on the table, and meditated for a long, thoughtful moment. When she spoke, it was, as usual, to deliver herself of the unexpected.
"That's what you call 'envy, hatred, and malice,' I s'pose," she said thoughtfully, and Betty's head came up with a jerk to turn upon her a glance of suspicious inquiry.
No! The round, grey eyes were as clear, as innocent, as guilelessly adoring as she had ever seen them. They gazed into her own without a shadow of self-consciousness, and as she met that gaze Betty flushed, and the irritable lines disappeared from her face as if wiped out by a sponge.
"One for you, Pam," she cried, laughing. "I am a pig! A nice big elder sister I am, to set you such an example! I'm cross, dear. Everything has gone wrong the whole day long. You had better run off and leave me alone, or I'll snap again. I feel all churned up inside! This is only a temporary lapse."
"There's scones for tea; I saw the bag in the pantry. S'pose I went downstairs and coaxed cook to toast them? You said yourself toasted scones were soothing. If Miles smells them he's sure to come," said Pam shrewdly, and Betty leant forward and kissed her impetuously on the cheek.
"There's one comfort," she cried; "I've got you, and the Pet hasn't! You are the comfort of my old age, Pamela, my child. Yes, toasted! And lots of butter, and leave the door wide open, so that the smell may get out, and lure Miles back."
THE PEOPLE OF THE SQUARE.
Brompton Square is situated on the north side of Hyde Park, between the Marble Arch and Lancaster Gate, and is as stiff and, for the greater portion of the year, as gloomy in appearance as most of the regions in the neighbourhood. The different sides of the Square differ widely in social status, the northern side being the most, and the eastern side the least, aristocratic and roomy. The largest house of all was a great grey stone edifice, having a stretch of three windows on either side of the heavy oak door. The smallest and shabbiest stood at right angles to it, showing a shabby frontage of two windows to the gardens, and having its front entrance in a side street. Really and truly it could barely claim to belong to the Square at all, though the landlord claimed, and the doctor tenant felt it worth while to pay, a heavy rent for the privilege of printing a fashionable address upon his cards.
Behind the silken curtains and brise-bise of Number 14, the "Pampered Pet" had her residence. At Number 1 the doctor's big family was so crowded together that Betty was thankful to appropriate a front attic as the only chance of possessing that luxury dear to every girlish heart—"a bedroom to herself!" It was not a luxurious apartment, but it was pretty, as every girl's bedroom may easily be, if she has the will to make it so. The hemp carpet had long since faded to a nondescript grey, but the pink-washed walls were hung with pictures and photographs, and the owner's love of beauty and order showed itself in the arrangement of the furniture, and the careful setting out of a few treasured ornaments.
There was no gas in the room, so that Betty was obliged to do her simple dressing for dinner by the aid of a candle, whose flickering beams seemed intent on lighting every corner of the room, and leaving the mirror in inky darkness. It was only within the last three months that Dr Trevor had left his old-fashioned house in Bloomsbury, hoping that the change of residence would help him in his ambition to extend his practice among a better class of patients. The neighbourhood was new to his family, and none of the residents of the Square had so far taken any notice of their presence. Calling is not usual in London unless there is some personal interest involved, and no doubt the occupants of more aristocratic houses looked down with contempt on the sandwiched row of shabby windows which belonged to them only on sufferance. If the neighbours showed no interest in the doctor's family, the Trevors, on the contrary, felt a devouring interest in everyone around them. They had invented nicknames for all the residents in the northern row, of which the schoolroom possessed the best view, before they had been a week in their new quarters. A glance at the Directory in their father's consulting-room would have solved the problem at once, but that was a practical and commonplace method of procedure which made no appeal to their imaginations. Nicknames were a thousand times better, because you could manufacture them to suit!
The two old maiden ladies who lived in Number 15 were Emily and Hannah. Emily was dressy, wore a false front, and always took precedence of her sister, who was small and mousy in demeanour. It was apparent to the meanest intellect that a godmother had bequeathed her fortune to Emily, and that she gave her sister a home and generally supported her, for which generosity Hannah was duly thankful. The two old ladies breakfasted in bed every morning, went out for drives at eleven and three o'clock, ("ambles," Miles called them in scornful reference to the pace of the sleek old horses), retired to their rooms for naps after lunch, ate a hearty dinner at eight, and settled down for the night at ten o'clock.
It does not require the skill of a Sherlock Holmes to discover such proceedings on the part of our neighbours. The study of electric lights on gloomy autumn days is wonderfully informing! Number 16 was uninteresting,—only a stupid man and his wife, who looked like a hundred other men and their wives; and who had tiresome silk curtains drawn across the lower panes of their windows, so that it was impossible to obtain a glimpse of the rooms. Number 17, however, more than ever made up for this disappointment, for there lived "The Pretty Lady" beloved by one and all. She was tall, and dark, and young; almost like a girl, and Betty darkly suspected her of being engaged, for she looked so beamingly happy, and was often seen walking about with a tall, handsome man in the shiniest of top-hats. The door of Number 17 was somewhat out of the line of vision, so that it was not always easy to see who went in and out, but the young couple often passed the corner of the Square, and always seemed to be in radiant spirits. Once when the pretty lady was wearing a new coat, Edwin (of course he was Edwin!) fell behind a pace or two to study the effect, and softly clapped his hands in approval. It must be nice, Betty thought wistfully, to be engaged, and have someone who liked you the best of all, and brought you home chocolates and flowers! She was anxious to know who formed the other members of the household, but Jill said there was only an invalid mother, who said, "Go about as much as ever you can, my darling. Don't think about me! The young should always be happy;" and this was accepted by all as a natural and satisfactory explanation.
There were no children to be found in the whole length of the terrace. The landlords, no doubt, had too much regard for their white enamel and costly wall-papers to welcome tenants with large families. The "Pampered Pet" in Number 14 was the nearest approach to a child, and she must have been sixteen at least. Her father was a General Somebody out in India, and her mother remained in England to superintend the Darling's education, and see that she did not get her feet wet. As soon as she was eighteen she would be presented at Court, taken out to India, and married to the Viceroy at the end of her first season.
The Pet's bedroom was on the third storey of the house, and as its windows faced the gardens of the Square, she had a fancy for leaving them undraped, except for the narrow brise-bise over the lower panes. It probably never occurred to her to remember one little dormer window perched high in the corner house, which of late days had constituted Betty Trevor's domain, and she would have been greatly surprised to know how good a view of her sanctum could be obtained from this vantage- ground, or how much time its mistress gave to enjoying the same.
All alone in the dark Betty would kneel on a chair and press her face against the cold panes, staring, staring, muttering to herself—
"She has a fire to dress by—I can see the flames flickering up and down. What stupid indulgence for a child like that! Electric lights in pink shades. It does look cosy! The maid is brushing her hair. I can see her arm going up and down like a machine. Goodness! How long is she going to keep on? No wonder it shines! I'll brush mine, too. Ten minutes regularly every night and morning; but I'm always late in the morning, and too tired at night, so I know I won't. I do hope they come over here to fasten her dress. It was white last night; on Tuesday it was blue. What a fuss to make, when there is only Mrs General and the governess! The Pet plays and sings to them in the drawing-room after dinner. That hot night when the windows were open we could hear her distinctly, and it was such a funny little squeak. Jill can imitate it beautifully. If I couldn't sing better than that I wouldn't sing at all. ... There! She Is getting up—pink this time! I can see the maid lacing it up. Well, what next!"
Betty crouched back on her knees and sighed dolorously. It must be nice to be rich like that and have everything one wanted,—the only adored darling of the household. It did seem hard that one girl should have everything she wanted, and another want so much. The furnishing of this attic bedroom, for instance—everything was a makeshift for something else which was what she really wanted, and had been unable to get, and it was the same all through the house. When mother had pleaded for a new paper for the drawing-room, father had said—
"Not just yet, I'm afraid, dear. There are so many necessities which must be met." That was the worst of it; there never was money enough for the nice ornamental things which were so much more interesting than stodgy old usefuls!
Betty sighed again, and shrugged her shoulders impatiently. The Pampered Pet had finished her toilet by this time; she crossed the room and stood by the window for a moment, a slim pink figure in the soft pink light.
"Horrid, horrid thing!" cried Betty fretfully. "How I do—" And then at the very moment of repeating her protestations of dislike, Pam's serious childish face rose before her sight, and she heard the sweet shrill voice saying once again—
"I suppose that's what they call 'envy, hatred, and malice.'" ...
"She's right, quite right," Betty acknowledged to herself. "It is, or just as near it as is possible for a girl to get who is surrounded by good influences. How hateful it sounds! I did feel ashamed of myself. I'm the eldest girl, and I ought to set a good example. If I were quiet and gentle and resigned, they would all look up to me, and Miles wouldn't snub me any more. I'll turn over a new leaf from this very hour, and remember my blessings, and never grumble any more, or be cross, or snappy, and be glad, absolutely glad, when other people are better off than myself. After all, I'm seventeen. It's time I was growing resigned. I won't envy anybody any more."
Betty jumped up from her seat, lighted her candles, and began to make her modest toilet for dinner with an air of satisfied finality. It was characteristic of her that she was never satisfied with half-measures, and was always supremely confident of her ability to carry out new resolutions. The determination to become a perfect character was taken as easily as if it had been a choice between a couple of ribbons, and she put on her quietest blouse, and parted her hair in the middle, brushing it smoothly over her ears, with an artistic satisfaction in dressing for a part. The resolution held good exactly a quarter of an hour, at the expiration of which time Jack and Jill dashed suddenly out of the schoolroom as their elder sister was pursuing a staid course downstairs, when Jill promptly seized hold of her silk sleeves with sticky fingers, and Jack exclaimed, "I say! What a fright!" with brotherly candour.
Betty snapped, of course, and snapped vigorously. It was not her fault, she reflected. No one could be expected to be patient if other people would insist on being so horrid and exasperating!
THE TREVOR FAMILY.
The family dinner was served at seven o'clock, and all the children, down to Pam herself, appeared at table, for Dr Trevor liked to have his family round him at the close of the day, and, thanks to his wife's good management, the meal was always a bright and cheery occasion.
Mrs Trevor was a devoted mother to every one of her flock, but the person in the house whom she mothered most of all was her hard-working husband, whose life was so devoted to others that he had little time to consider himself. From the children's earliest years they had been taught that to "worry father" was one of the most serious offences which they could commit.
"Father spends his life going about from one sickroom to another; all day long he is meeting people who are ill, and anxious, in fear, and in pain, and when he comes home he must have a cheery welcome. If you want to grumble about anything, grumble to yourselves or to me; if you have anything disagreeable to tell, let it wait until we are alone. Meal- times with father must be devoted to pleasant subjects alone." Such were Mrs Trevor's instructions, instilled into her children's minds with such persistent firmness that they were never disobeyed, with the result that the tired doctor came home with the happy certainty of enjoying a cheery, harmonious hour, and the young people themselves learnt a lesson in self-restraint which was of infinite value in after life.
Betty might grumble and tirade outside the schoolroom door, but as she approached the dining-room she mechanically smoothed her brow and adopted a cheerful expression. To-night Dr Trevor was already seated in his place at the end of the long table, for his wife took the head, to save him the fatigue of carving for so large a party. He was a tall, thin man, with a lined face lit by the keen, thoughtful eyes of the true physician. He looked up as his eldest daughter entered the room, and held out his hand to her in a mute caress. She bent to kiss his forehead, and stood holding his hand to chat for a few minutes until the other members of the family made their appearance. He noticed the Puritan-like coiffure—there were few things that those shrewd eyes did not notice—but made no comment thereon, for, as he frequently observed to his wife when she confided to him her troubles over Betty's eccentricities, boys and girls who are in the transition stage between childhood and maturity are apt to become a trifle restless and eccentric, and it was wisdom to be for the most part judiciously blind, interfering only in cases of right and wrong. Let the little maid run with a loose rein for a time. She would soon settle down, and be the first to laugh at her own foibles.
Mrs Trevor took her place, looking round on her assembled children with the pretty, half-appealing little smile which was her greatest charm. She was slight and graceful, not stout and elderly, like other people's mothers. In the morning light she often looked wan and tired, but in the kindly lamplight she seemed more like Betty's sister than the mother of a rapidly growing up family.
Miles sat at her right hand, a tall, somewhat heavy-looking youth, with enormous hands and feet, a square, determined jaw, and deep-set brown eyes. Even a casual glance at him was sufficient to show that he was going to make a man of power and determination, but, like Betty, he was passing through his awkward stage, and was often neither easy nor agreeable to live with.
Jack was just a mischievous schoolboy, with protruding ears and twinkling eyes. One can see a score like him any day, marching, marching along the street with satchels of books; but his twin sister had a more striking personality. Jill was a mystery to her relations and friends. She had ordinary brown hair, and not too much of that, light blue eyes with indifferent lashes, a nose a shade more impertinent than Betty's own, a big mouth, and a powdering of freckles under her eyes; yet with those very ordinary equipments she managed to rank as a beauty among her schoolmates, and to attract more admiration than is vouchsafed to many people whose features might have been turned out of a classic mould. Betty used to ponder wistfully over the secret of Jill's charm, and think it hard lines that it had not been given to herself, who would have cared for it so much more. Jill didn't care a pin how she looked. She wanted to "have fun," to invite Nora Bruce to tea as often as possible, to buy a constant supply of a special sort of almond toffee which was offered for sale at a shop which she passed on the way to school, to be a first-form girl and have one of the new desks, and, incidentally, to pass the Cambridge examination if it could be done without too much "fag." She put on her clothes any way, did her hair in the twinkling of an eye, and the effect was uniformly charming.
"If she's untidy, she's picturesque; if I'm untidy, I'm a fright. It's mean!" soliloquised Betty discontentedly. Every day she lived she was the more convinced that the world was topsy-turvy, and that she herself was the only person who was competent to set it to rights.
Pam was just Pam; like herself, and no one else in the world. A dear little, wide-eyed, pointed-chinned kitten, everybody's tease, and pet, and conscience all in one, for those clear child eyes seemed to see through all pretences, and what she thought she put into words without a shadow of fear or hesitation.
It was a very plain, almost a frugal, repast, but the table looked cheerful and pretty with the pink-shaded lamp in the centre, surrounded by the four little bowls of flowers which it was one of Betty's duties to keep fresh, and there was no lack of lively conversation.
Mrs Trevor had had a trying day, and several of her worries must of necessity be discussed with her husband later on, but she would allow no hint of them to escape until he had been fed and rested, and in the same manner all the children searched their memories for the pleasantest event which they had experienced to retail for his benefit.
"I was top to-day, father," Jack announced proudly; "answered every single question in Latin, and read off my translation like a book. If I liked to stew, I believe I could lick Johnston all the time. He was pretty sick at having to go down; looked as glum as an old owl for the rest of the morning."
"He takes his work more seriously than you do, my boy. You say you could be top if you liked: I am glad to hear it; but why don't you like? You can't surely prefer a lower place?"
"Oh, well, there's reason in all things!" returned Jack, with a vagueness which his brothers and sisters had apparently little difficulty in understanding, for they laughed, and sniggered meaningly to each other.
"Such a waste of time, when there is football to be played!"
"A full back has to keep his energy for his work, and not fritter it away over stupid books. That's about it, isn't it, Jack?" they teased, while Dr Trevor said between a sigh and a smile—
"Ah, well, my boy, you are old enough to judge for yourself how your time should be spent! If you win a scholarship, I'll manage to help you through a 'Varsity course, but I can't afford to keep you there unassisted. Remember it is your whole career which is at stake."
"All right, father, I will work," said Jack easily.
He was an affectionate boy, who disliked disappointing his parents, but unfortunately he disliked work even more. He was rather sorry now that he had mentioned his easy victory over the redoubtable Johnston. The pater would expect him to be top every day, whereas he had only just put on a spurt to show what he could do if he chose. Suppose he did lose the scholarship, it wouldn't be so bad after all, he could still play footer on Saturday afternoons!
The doctor's glance had wandered, as if for consolation, to his elder son—Miles the strenuous, the indefatigable, who had a passion for work for work's sake. He was going through the practical stage of an engineer's training, and left the house at six o'clock each morning, to return in the afternoon clad in workman's clothes, incredibly greasy and dirty. Betty suffered agonies in case "they"—that wonderful impersonal "they" who overclouded her life—should think he was really and truly an ordinary workman! On one occasion Miles had joined her on the doorstep as she was returning from an afternoon walk, and she had distinctly seen the curtains of the Pampered Pet's drawing-room move, as if someone were peeping out from behind, when, as she confided to Jill later on, "her cheeks turned k-r-rimson with mortification!"
"Well, Miles, my boy, did you take your little invention with you to- day, and were you able to show it to the manager?"
"Yes, I took it all right."
"And what did he say?"
"He said it was all right."
"Does that mean that he acknowledged that it was an improvement on the present method? Did he feel inclined to give it a trial?"
"Oh yes, it went all right. He said it would do."
"But that's capital! Capital! I congratulate you heartily! Didn't Mr Davidson seem pleased that you should have hit on such a bright idea?"
"Oh, he said it was all right."
Miles made a determined attack on his plate, as if pleading to be left alone to enjoy his dinner in peace. Since the days of his babyhood he had shown a strong inventive genius, and now it was his delight to spend his spare moments working in his little cupboard sanctum at home, striving to improve on any bit of machinery which struck him as falling short of perfection. It was a very simple thing which he had attempted, but in machinery, as in many other things, trifles are all-important, and it was a triumph indeed that a lad of nineteen should have hit on an improvement which was considered worth a trial.
Dr Trevor and his wife exchanged smiles of happy satisfaction. They yearned to ask a dozen more questions, but refrained out of sympathy with that natural masculine reserve which they understood so well. Betty, however, was less considerate.
"I do think you might tell us a little more about it, Miles!" she cried resentfully. "You know we are all dying of curiosity. I can't think why it is that boys can never give a decent account of anything that has happened! Now, if it had been me, I should have begun at the very beginning, from the moment I entered the works, and told you how I felt as I went upstairs, and how I began to speak to the manager, and what he said, and how he looked, and—"
"What colour of necktie he wore—"
Betty tossed her head in scornful contempt of the burst of laughter evoked by Miles' words.
"And what he did with the screw, or whatever you call it, when you showed it to him, and what the other men said, and— Oh, dozens of interesting things; but you can say nothing but 'all right' to every single question. It is dull!"
"You must allow for diversities of talent, Betty," said Mrs Trevor, laughing. "We do not all possess your powers of description. Miles is very modest over his success, and I, like you, want to hear more details. You must be sure to tell us how the trial works, Son; and if your improvement is permanently adopted, I shall be proud!"
"Nothing to be proud of!" muttered Miles into his plate.
If there was one thing he loathed more than another, it was to be praised and petted, and made the centre of attention. His roughened fingers clenched themselves tightly round the knife and fork, and he cut his beef into pieces with savage energy.
Why couldn't they leave a fellow alone? All this fuss about a bit of a cog!
Betty divined his discomfiture, as she divined all that concerned her beloved brother, but she had not the tact to come to the rescue, and it was Jill who turned the conversation by a casual question which yet was of interest to all the family.
"Father, is there a father at the big house at the corner? We can't decide what's the matter with him. There must have been one, of course, because of the Pet. Jack says he's dead, but she is not in mourning, and the mother doesn't wear widow's things. I say he's gone a tour round the world, and is buying presents at every port so as to pamper her more than ever when he comes back."
Dr Trevor looked a trifle mystified, but he was accustomed to his children's mental flights, and, after a moment's consideration, he replied smilingly—
"If you mean Number 14, the tenant is a certain Major Alliot, who is at present, I believe, with his regiment in India. I don't know anything about his household, or the identity of the 'Pet,' as you are pleased to call her."
"I wish she'd fall downstairs, or have an accident of some sort suddenly, so that they'd have to fly across for you in a hurry," sighed Jill with frank brutality. "I wish all the people in that row would have accidents, so that you could tell us all about them. We are dying with curiosity!"
"Wouldn't influenza do as well? There is no need to be quite so brutal, Jill," her father reminded her. "Besides, it is hardly my usual custom to tell you 'all about' my cases, is it? I should be very glad to find new patients nearer here for my own sake; which reminds me, dear, that I have to go a long drive after dinner, and shan't be home for the evening, as I hoped. It is unfortunate having so many late nights this week."
Mrs Trevor's brow shadowed for a moment, but she recovered herself, and smiled bravely at her husband, while Betty cried emphatically—
"I shall never marry a doctor!"
"Lucky beggar! He's had an escape anyway!" growled Miles beneath his breath, quite unable to resist paying Betty back for her attack on him a few moments before, and Betty laughed as merrily as the rest at the joke against herself.
"Well, I shall have an escape too! I don't like ill people or having anything to do with them; it's not my vocation!" she announced grandiloquently, and her face fell with dismay when her father said cheerily—
"Oh, come, you don't do yourself justice, dear. I always find you a very acceptable little nurse. Mrs Ewen was asking for you only to-day. I should be glad if you would make a point of going to see her some afternoon this week, and trying to amuse her for an hour or two. She has had a very sharp attack, poor soul."
"Yes, father," assented Betty meekly, but mentally she ground her teeth.
Mrs Ewen was an old patient, a tiresome patient from Betty's point of view, who never grew better, but was frequently worse, who spent all her life in her bedroom and an upstairs sitting-room, her chief subject of conversation being the misdemeanours of her hardly-worked nurses. She had taken a fancy to the doctor's young daughter, and liked to be visited by her as often as possible in convalescent periods; but Betty did not return the liking.
"She doesn't understand girls," she grumbled to herself. "I don't believe she ever was a girl herself. She must have been born about forty, with spectacles and a cap. I can't think why she wants to see me. I do nothing but say 'Yes' and 'No' while she abuses other people, and yawn my head off in that stifling room. And I did so want to get on with my blouse. Seems as if I could never do as I like, somehow!"
She sat looking such an image of meekness and resignation, with her smoothly-braided locks and downcast lids, that her father's lips twitched with amusement as he glanced at her, and quickly averted his eyes. He knew just as well as she did how distasteful his request had been, but he was none the less anxious to enforce it. Betty's horizon was blocked with self at the present moment, and anything and everything was of gain which forced her to think of something besides that all- important personage Miss Elizabeth Trevor.
A PIECE OF LOOKING-GLASS.
"Such a joke, Jill! The sun is shining, and the Pet is sitting reading, in the drawing-room window, and I've found a broken piece of looking- glass in the street.—There's luck! Let's hide behind the curtains and flash it in her eyes!"
Jill's book fell down with a crash, and she leapt to her feet, abeam with anticipation. It was Saturday, and she had announced her intention of "stewing hard" all the afternoon, but the claims of examinations sank into the background before the thrilling prospect held out by her twin.
"Break it in two! Fair does, Jack! Give me a bit, and let us flash in turns!" she cried eagerly; but Jack would not consent to anything so rash.
"How can I divide it, silly?" he replied. "I haven't a diamond to cut it, and if I crunch it with my foot it may all go to smithereens, and there will be nothing left. I'll lend it to you for a bit now and then, but you won't aim straight. Girls never do!"
"I do! I do!" Jill maintained loudly. "I will! I will! Come along, be quick! She might move away, and it would be such a sell. I'll kneel down here and keep the curtains round me. I wonder what she's reading. Something awfully dry and proper, I expect! What heaps of hair! It hangs over her face, so that we shan't be able to dazzle her a bit."
"Yes, we will," contradicted Jack. "She'll see the light dancing about on the page, and look up to see what's the matter! You watch, but mind you don't bob up your head and let her see you!"
"Mind you don't let her see your hand! It's sticking right out. You ought to put on a dark glove, which she wouldn't notice against the pane."
Jack was pleased to approve of the glove proposition, and an adjournment was made to the doctor's dressing-room, where a pair of 'funeral gloves' were discovered which seemed exactly what was desired. Jack drew one on his right hand, Jill drew the other on her left, and thus equipped they crept back to their hiding-place behind the shabby red curtains, and proceeded to work.
It was rather difficult to move the glass so as to throw the reflection on one exact spot, as the conspirators could only peep out for a moment at a time. The little white circle of light danced all over the big grey house before it found the window above the porch, and, moving slowly up and down, eventually alighted on the page of the open book. Jill giggled, Jack snored loudly, as was his habit when excited; the Pet gave a little hitch round in her chair, and read on stolidly.
"My turn! My turn!" cried Jill excitedly. "You've had your innings, now give me mine. Hand it over!" and the two black gloved hands met in the middle of the window.
"You moved it away too quickly! You must follow her about, and bob it g-ently up and down. Wait till I get it right. There it is! I've got it better than you, Jack, ever so much better!"
"That's because the sun's so much brighter. Be careful now. That's enough! If you go on too long at a time, she'll move away into the room and it will be all up. Let her settle down again, and imagine she's all right, then we'll give her another treat!"
It was wonderful how expert one grew with practice! The light now danced direct to its destination, and move her book as she would, the Pet could not escape. At last she grew impatient, tossed back her mane of hair and turned to stare curiously out of the window. This was the longed-for opportunity, and Jack snored louder than ever with relief that it had come about when it was his turn to hold the treasured glass. Quick as thought he waved it to and fro, and the Pet threw up her hands, unable to withstand the glare. Safe in the seclusion of their distant room, the twins shrieked with exultation, and had much ado to keep their position behind the curtains. Jill kept endeavouring to snatch the glass from her brother, but Jack was too intent on his work to take any notice of her efforts.
The Pet lifted one hand from her eyes and cautiously peeped out. The sun was shining with unusual brilliancy for an October morning, but there was not the slightest difficulty in viewing the landscape as fully as she liked. She turned her head from side to side in a curious inquiring fashion, and Jack, with an artist's appreciation of the right moment, waited until she had abandoned the search, and was about to settle down again, when another blinding flash of light fell full on her face, and she shrank back into the shade with a startled gesture.
Seated in this last position, she exactly faced the schoolroom, and the twins had a moment's horrified fear that she had caught a glimpse of their peeping faces, but her next movement put an end to suspicion, for she took up her book and settled down again to her reading exactly as if she had never been interrupted.
And then an extraordinary thing happened! The mane of golden hair was tossed back, leaving the face fully exposed, yet though the twins flashed the light on both eyes and book, the Pet read on stolidly, turning over the pages with leisurely enjoyment, apparently no whit disturbed.
"What's the matter with her all of a sudden? Is she blind?" Jill queried impatiently.
Jack grunted, and flashed more vigorously than ever, but the Pet might have been a hundred miles away for all the effect produced. It was most mysterious and perplexing, not to say exasperating to the last degree. After ten minutes' fruitless effort, Jack went off in search of fresh victims, and Jill sorrowfully returned to her lessons.
How interested they would have been if they could have overheard a conversation which was even then taking place across the road!
"Dear child!" cried a lady lying on a sofa at the far end of a beautifully-furnished drawing-room. "Dear child, what are you doing? For the last five minutes I have been watching you pretending to read with your eyes shut. It's not a lesson book, and Miss Mason is not here, so what can you be thinking about, dear wee goose?"
The fair head turned round, and the book dropped to the floor.
"I'm thinking," said a very sweet, sad little voice, "I'm thinking that I wish I were a large family, mother. I'm so tired of being only one!"
"Oh, Cynthia!" cried the lady—and there was a world of mother-yearning in her voice—"is it that old trouble again? Poor child, it is dull for you, but I do all I can for you, darling. I stayed at home especially to be near you, and I do my best to be a companion, and to sympathise in all your interests. Don't tell me that I have failed altogether!"
Cynthia crossed the room, knelt down on the floor by her mother's couch and laid both hands on her knee. The two faces that confronted each other were as much alike as was possible, given a difference in age of twenty-five years. Cynthia was a beautiful girl, and her mother was a beautiful woman, and the beauty lay as much in expression as in feature. Miles Trevor had been entirely mistaken when he compared the girl to a doll, for the direct glance of the eye, the sweet, firm lips and well- formed chin, belonged to no puppet, but showed unusual strength of character.
"You are a darling, and I adore you!" cried Cynthia fondly. "But you are old, you know, and I am so dreadfully young. There's something all fizzling inside me for want of a vent. I'm just desperate sometimes to do something wild, and exciting, and hilarious; it doesn't matter how silly it is; the sillier the better! I'm so dreadfully well-regulated, mother, considering I'm only sixteen. Lessons—'studies,' as Miss Mason calls them—musical exercises, constitutional, luncheon, more studies, dinner, polite conversation, performances upon the piano, that's my daily round, and I get so tired! Don't think I don't appreciate you, mother. You know I do. We are the best friends in the world, but still—"
"I know," said Mrs Alliot, and sighed once more. She stroked her daughter's golden head in thoughtful silence, then asked curiously, "What made you feel your loneliness especially to-day, dear?"
A flicker of laughter passed over Cynthia's pink-and-white face.
"The boy and girl in Number 1, the corner house, were playing tricks on me, trying to dazzle my eyes with something—a piece of old looking- glass, I suppose. I could not understand what caused the sudden glare until I caught a glimpse of their faces peering out from behind the curtains."
"Trying to dazzle you! That doctor's children? How exceedingly rude! They must be very badly brought up. And you were sitting with your eyes shut pretending to go on reading. You curious child! Why?"
"It was their joke; they enjoyed it. It would have been mean to cut it short. Besides," added Cynthia, with a twinkle, "it was my joke too! They must have been so puzzled when I seemed to go on reading, for they couldn't see that my eyes were shut, and I went on turning over the pages at regular intervals, as if I were perfectly comfortable and happy. Oh no, I don't think they are rude, mother; only frisky, and I love frisky people! There are such a lot of them, and they do have such a good time. Schoolroom tea all together, and the big girl pours out. I could see them quite well when they first came, and the afternoons were light. They go in pairs—a big boy and a big girl, a middling boy and a middling girl, and then a dear little girl with a face like a kitten. I like them all so much, but—" and her voice died away in a plaintive cadence, "they don't like me!"
"And how have you found that out, may I ask?"
"I—I feel they don't," sighed Cynthia sadly. "They watch me out of the windows, and talk and laugh, and make remarks among themselves. The window seemed full of faces the other day..."
Mrs Alliot's delicate face flushed resentfully.
"Abominably rude! Really, dear, I don't think you need worry yourself what such people think. There can be no possible excuse for such behaviour!"
"Oh yes, dear, there is, for they don't intend me to see! It was quite extraordinary how they all vanished into space the very instant I raised my eyes. You might just as well say it is rude of me to stare into their windows, and I do, for I can't help it. It's a sort of magnet to me every time I pass. I do so wish I knew them, mother dear!"
Mrs Alliot smiled and stroked her daughter's head once more. She was thinking that for Cynthia's sake she must really manage to cultivate some friends with large families; but she had not the least intention of introducing her daughter to the strange doctor's mischievous, unconventional children.
In many cases, however, there is something stronger than the will of parents and guardians. Some people call it fate, some by a higher name. In later years Cynthia Alliot considered her friendship with the Trevor family as one of the greatest providences of her life.
AN OLD TRICK.
It was very dull and dreary for the remainder of the month, typical November weather, with what the Trevors called a "pea-soup" atmosphere, deepening now and then into a regular fog. The Square gardens were soaking with moisture, the surrounding houses looked greyer and gloomier than ever, until it seemed impossible to believe that the sky had ever been blue, or that gay-coloured spring flowers had flourished in those black-looking beds.
Jack and Jill had the bad taste to approve of fogs. They were "ripping," they declared. "So adventurous and jolly! Yesterday, when I was walking to school, a hansom drove on the pavement beside me. Think of that!" cried Jill in a tone of triumph. "The horse's nose nearly touched my shoulder, and an old lady near me shrieked like anything. It was sport!"
Jack was rather envious of the hansom episode, but had had his own share of amusement. "I followed Johnston all the way home, and chaffed him with a pebble in my mouth to disguise my voice. He was nearly mad with rage, and whenever he turned round I simply bent double, and he went for another fellow, and there was no end of a game."
"But how did it happen that you could see him when he couldn't see you?" queried Jill, when Jack was forced to admit that he had made mistakes more than once; but it only added to the sport to see the consternation of innocent pedestrians when an accusing voice suddenly hissed in their ears, "Who sneaked the indiarubber from Smith's desk?"
The twins were happily constituted to enjoy all things, and from their conversation it would have appeared that to be hopelessly lost in a fog would be the climax of earthly joy; but Betty hated the gloom of the long days, when the gas burned steadily from breakfast to bedtime, and was nervous about trusting herself alone in the streets. In her leisure moments she devoted herself to the preparation of Christmas presents, and turned over the contents of her scrap-drawers, debating how to make a dozen handsome articles with the least possible expenditure. It is to be feared that Betty's gifts were arranged more to suit her own convenience than the tastes of the recipients. "This will make a book- cover for Jill. I don't suppose she'll ever use it, but it's not big enough for anything else, so she'll just have to like it!" This was the spirit in which she assorted her materials, and set to work thereon. Not the ideal attitude by any means, but one must make allowances for a girl with a small allowance and a large family connection, and must also enter it to the credit of this particular damsel that she grudged no work which could beautify the simple background. Poor Betty! For two whole gloomy afternoons did she work at a spray of roses on a linen work-bag, and on the third day a feeble gleam of sunlight showed itself, and lo, the roses were a harlequin study in pinks and orange!
"Is it at all trying? Is it enough to make you pitch the whole thing into the fire?" she demanded dramatically of the chairs and tables, as the horrible discovery burst upon her, and she proceeded to snap at the silk with her sharp little scissors, and viciously tear away the stitches. "Shan't bother to fill them in any more! They'll just have to do in outline, and if she doesn't like it she can do the other thing!" she grunted under her breath; but that was only the impulse of the moment, and when it came to action each stitch was put in as carefully as before.
"What are you sewing away at those old things for?" Jill demanded, coming into the room and seating herself easily on the edge of the table. "It's much easier to buy match-boxes and needle-books. You can get beauties for sixpence three-farthings at the Christmas bazaars, and it saves no end of fag. You can give me safety-pins if you like, for my clothes are all coming to pieces, and my pins disappear like smoke. Mary eats them, I believe! What are you going to give mother?"
"Can't think! She wants a palm for the drawing-room, but a nice one costs half a guinea, and I couldn't possibly scrape together more than three and six."
Jill pondered, swinging her feet to and fro. "Five more Saturdays at fourpence each,—one and eight-pence, and I've got about two shillings in hand. No! I couldn't possibly offer to join. I wish we could have managed it, for the drawing-room doesn't look half furnished, and a big palm would have made a fine effect, but we can't, so there's an end of that!"
A gasp of suppressed nervousness sounded from the end of the room, and Pam's voice said with the usual funny little squeak, "I've got sixpence with a hole in it. I'll join, Betty! Do get mother a palm! She wants it so badly. We saw one in a shop window yesterday, and she said it was just the thing for our room!"
"Sorry, Pam, but it can't be done. They are a frightful price in the shops, and even old 'All a-growing all a-blowing' has none under seven and six. Perhaps when her birthday comes round we can manage it, but at Christmas there are so many presents to buy that one can't afford big things."
"I want to get it now," squeaked Pam obstinately, while Jill jumped down from the table and turned to the door.
"I'm going out! Can't afford to waste holiday afternoons. Why don't you put away that stupid work and come too?"
"Where are you going? A walk?"
"Rather not! Am I a Pampered Pet to promenade up and down? Jack and I are going to have some fun in the Square. I'm not going to tell you what it is, but you can come too if you like."
Betty raised her head and peered out of the window. Black railings, black trees, sodden grass, paths strewn with decaying leaves, a fast- failing light. She gave a shudder of distaste and sank back in her chair.
"Thanks! I prefer the fire. I can't understand you, Jill, going in for an exam, and wasting every spare moment you get! When I went in, I stewed every Saturday afternoon the whole term, and never dreamed of going out."
"Yes, and got plucked for your pains!" retorted Jill brutally. Poor Betty! She had passed so well in everything but that fatal arithmetic, which made all the difference between success and failure. The figures would not add up, the lines danced before her eyes, she could not remember the simplest table. It was cruel to rake up that old sore. She pressed her lips together and sat in offended dignity, while Jill skipped to the door, tossing her pretty pert head.
"I shall take care of my health and my nerves, and not have them breaking down just when I need them most. If the worst comes to the worst, I shall be no worse off than you were yourself, and I shall have had my fun!"
She ran downstairs into the hall, where Jack was awaiting her with a brown-paper parcel tucked under his arm, and together they crossed the road to the nearest gate, and let themselves into the garden with a heavy key.
"The other corner is the best," Jack cried, leading the way forward at an eager pace, "more traffic, and thicker bushes. I spotted the exact place yesterday. Have you got the reel in your pocket all right?"
"Yes, yes! And you must give me my turn, Jack. It's only fair, because you wouldn't let me have a parcel of my own on the other side."
"Of course not! You wouldn't expect to find two lost parcels within a few yards of each other, would you? You want to give the whole show away!" cried Jack in indignant schoolboy fashion. "Now don't talk so much, but creep between these bushes when nobody is passing. There's room for us both, and I can get a pull at the string between these branches. We'll have a rehearsal now, and see how it works." He crawled forward on the dank earth, in easy unconcern for the knees of his trousers, dropped the daintily-wrapped parcel on to the centre of the pavement, and crept back to his place, holding in his hand the end of a long black thread.
They crouched together behind the bushes, as mischievous a Jack and Jill as have been known since the world began, giggling with anticipated glee, nudging each other violently at the sound of approaching footsteps, and peering eagerly through their loopholes to see what manner of prey was about to fall into their hands.
First, a fine lady walking gingerly along, both hands occupied in keeping her skirt from contact with the greasy pavement. She looked at the parcel with blank indifference, and passed quietly on her way. The twins gasped with stupefaction. Could such things be? Was it possible that a human creature could be so surfeited with the good things of this world, that she could behold an unopened parcel lying on the ground, and feel no curiosity to discover what was inside? Imagination refused to picture such a position!
"Mad!" was Jack's scornful explanation. "Mad as a March hare! Ought to be shut up out of the way. Walked straight over the string too. Hope to goodness she hasn't broken it!"
A flick to the end of the string proved that this fear was unfounded, and the twins composed themselves for another period of waiting. Pedestrians seemed to prefer the pavement by the houses instead of that darker one overshadowed by the trees of the gardens, and several moments elapsed before a brisk footstep announced the approach of a tall, well set-up man clad in a light overcoat. His eye lit on the parcel, he bent his head and stretched out a hand to raise it up. Instantly Jack gave a flick to the string, to which the parcel responded by jumping an inch or two farther along the pavement. The brown-coated man straightened himself, gave a funny little grunt, half amused, half-angry, and strode on his way. He had been a boy himself!
The next victim was an old woman carrying a pile of parcels, and breathing heavily from fatigue, but although over-laden, she was evidently nothing loath to add to her burden. The twins could hear her surprised exclamation, and see the hitch of the shoulders with which she freed her right arm for the attack. Down she bent, panting louder than before, until, even as her envious fingers approached the prize, it leapt into the air, and as by some magic process disappeared from sight. Jack was bursting with pride at his own adroitness, and Jill nudged in enthusiastic approval. This came of fishing by the river-banks in the last summer holidays, and gaining dexterity in the art of casting lines! It was wonderful how useful such accomplishments were at times. The bewildered face of the disappointed treasure-seeker was almost too much for the conspirators, and had she not been too much engrossed in her own thoughts she must certainly have heard the splutterings which not even the handkerchief stuffed between Jill's lips could entirely drown. With a sigh she went on her way, wondering if eyesight were about to fail, as the culmination of her troubles.
After this came an errand-boy, whistling as he walked. He made a pounce at the parcel, and when it disappeared had no difficulty in understanding the phenomenon.
"Ho, you would, would you?" he cried, and picking up a handful of stones, sent them flying in among the bushes with such force that the twins congratulated themselves on escaping without injury.
They learnt a lesson from this experience, and henceforth made a rule of allowing all boys to pass by when they practised this particular pastime. By this time Jill was shivering in her shabby coat, and beginning to cast longing glances across the Square to the lighted schoolroom window. Anticipations of tea and hot buttered toast—the Saturday afternoon treat of years' standing—made her present position seem unattractive, and she proposed an immediate adjournment home.
Jack, however, was not yet satisfied with his achievements.
"We haven't had what I call a real proper rise out of anyone yet. Just once more, and then we'll run for it," he protested, and Jill shivered, and yielded to his superior will.
She had not long to wait. In less than five minutes a slow, measured tread was heard in the distance, and presently an elderly gentleman hove in sight, portly, well-dressed, and walking with a certain stiffness and deliberation which would have secured for him the sympathetic consideration of people of his own age. Jack and Jill, however, had no thought for such uninteresting subjects as rheumatism; they nudged each other delightedly, and waited in breathless silence to see what would happen next.
Tramp, tramp, tramp came the slow approach, and then a sudden halt—the halt they knew so well—followed by something like a stifled groan as the victim stiffly bent forward to examine the treasure-trove. His gloved hand had nearly closed on the parcel when Jack adroitly flicked it a few inches away. He bent still farther, with another gasping effort, and then, even as the parcel again moved onward, there came a loud, startled cry, and the horrified twins beheld their victim fall forward on his face, and lie helpless on the ground.
WHAT CAME OF THE TRICK.
A moment Jack and Jill stared at each other in horrified silence, then the same words burst from both lips—
"We must help him! We must see if he is hurt!" Out from behind the bushes they flew, raced for the nearest gate, and ran panting to the scene of the accident.
The rays from the lamp near at hand lighted up the pavement, and showed the old gentleman already dragging himself to his feet, assisted by a lady whom Jill recognised in the flash of an eye as the much-admired occupant of Number 17. There she stood in her smart fur coat, a little red velvet toque perched on her dark locks, supporting the old gentleman by the arm, and so evidently overpowered by his weight that she was overjoyed to welcome further assistance.
No words were spoken, but quick as light Jack darted forward and pulled with all his force, while Jill placed both hands against the blue broadcloth back and vigorously pushed forward. As a result of these united efforts, the old gentleman was hoisted to an upright position, with a celerity which appeared to startle him almost as much as the preceding fall. He leant against the railings, puffed and panted, groaned and grumbled, while the onlookers listened with sympathy and self-reproach.
"Injured for life—strained in every muscle—nervous shock—police— disgraceful—much obliged—advice at once—no time for delay." The different phrases detached themselves from attacks of groanings and sighings, and, hearing the last words, Jack was blessed with a brilliant inspiration.
"There's a doctor at the corner, sir. Would you like me to help you to the house?" he said in his politest manner.
It seemed as if, after all, good might arise out of evil if the accident were the means of providing his father with a new patient. There was not much wrong with the old fellow—anyone could see that—but he was fidgety and nervous about himself, which, of course, would make him the more valuable from a doctor's point of view. Later on the boy would be obliged to confess his own responsibility in the accident. He would feel a sneak if he did not, but the present was the time for action, not confession.
"Doctor at the corner, eh? Well, well, get me to him as quickly as possible. Shattered! Quite shattered! Must have a rest, and drive home! Bad day's work! Never the same again!"
The old gentleman laid his hand on Jack's shoulder and hobbled stiffly away, pausing just one moment to lift his hat and say courteously—
"My best thanks to you, madam, for your assistance." Jill and the pretty lady were left standing in the middle of the pavement, staring curiously into each other's faces.
The pretty lady was dark, and quite young, astonishingly young, like a big girl dressed in important clothes. Her eyes were very bright and happy-looking, and her lips looked as though they were made for laughter. Jill's pert little face was left fully exposed by the cloth cap which was perched at the top of her curly locks; her expression was divided between triumph and consternation.
"Do you think he is hurt, really hurt?" she asked eagerly. "He made a great fuss, but men generally do, and he walks nearly as well as before. He can't have broken anything, can he?"
"Oh no!" cried the pretty lady. "I think you can be quite sure of that, but at such an age any shock of this kind may be serious. He is a very heavy old man."
She paused, looking at the girl with an inquiring expression, as if waiting for something which had not yet been said, and to her own astonishment Jill found herself answering the unspoken question.
"It was our fault that he fell at all. We did it. We were in the Square hiding behind the bushes, and we had a parcel just the right size to hold something nice and pretty—it was cotton-wool really!—very neatly tied up. We dropped it out through the railings and waited till people came along, and then we twitched it away by the end of a long black thread."
The pretty lady's expression changed suddenly. Up till now she had been all interest and vivacity, almost one might have imagined of approval, but at the last word she frowned and shook her head. Jill expected a vigorous remonstrance, but the words, when they came, were not in the least what she had expected.
"Thread!" echoed the pretty lady shrilly. "But how stupid! Elastic is far better. It jerks ever so much bet—" She stopped suddenly with a gasp of recollection, and continued in a stiff, mincing voice, "It is very unwise to play practical jokes. One can never tell what the consequence may be."
Jill laughed gaily, being much too sharp to be put off with so transparent a pretence. She drew a step nearer to the pretty lady, and looked up in her face with twinkling eyes.
"Oh, it's no use pretending! You weren't shocked a bit! I believe"— she gave a little gasp at the audacity of the idea, but her courage did not fail—"I believe you have even—done it yourself. However did you manage to think of elastic? It's a lovely idea!"
The pretty lady wrinkled her brows in a funny, apologetic fashion.
"It doesn't follow because I did a thing that it is not foolish and rash. I am afraid I was known for my foolish tricks. I was one of a big family—such a lot of sisters that people used to call us 'the houseful of girls,' and I was the most mischievous of all. I don't want to preach to you—it wouldn't be fair, would it, when I have done far sillier things myself?—but next time you try the parcel trick, get it out of the way when old people come along. Don't let them run the risk of a fall, like this poor old gentleman, or even have the trouble of stooping for nothing. Try to remember, won't you? And,"—eyes and teeth flashed in an irresistible smile,—"try the elastic!"
Jill's merry trill rang out again, and the pretty lady looked at her with smiling approval. The girl's natural attractiveness was as conspicuous as ever, despite the disadvantageous circumstances, and it would have been a cold heart that did not warm towards her, as she stood with hands thrust deep into her pockets, fresh, wholesome, and bonnie, like a bit of summer in the midst of the grey London gloom.
The pretty lady had heard high praise of the skill of the new doctor who had come to live in the Square, and also of the personal character of himself and his wife, but at this moment it is to be feared that she felt little interested in them as individuals, but regarded them solely as the parents of their daughter.
"It is getting rather dusk for you to be out alone. I will walk with you to the corner. You are one of the doctor's daughters, aren't you? I have watched you and your sisters from my windows, and envied you for being together. I do so miss my own sisters. I have five—think of that!—and only one married besides myself. You can think what a lively time of it we used to have!"
But Jill was too busy thinking of something else to have any thought to spare for the lively times of the past.
"Are you married?" she inquired breathlessly. "Truly and really? You look much too young. We thought you were engaged, and had an invalid mother in the house. I suppose he is the husband?"
"Yes, he is the husband, sure enough, and we keep no invalids nor skeletons of any sort in the cupboards, only such a lot of big, empty rooms, waiting for girls to fill them. I do love girls. I can't be happy without girls. We have been away constantly the last few months, but now that we are settled at home I must call on your mother, and ask if she will spare you to come and have tea with me sometimes. Would you like to come?"
"Rather!" replied Jill in expressive, schoolgirl fashion, and the pretty lady laughed again.
"That's all right! We must arrange a day quite soon, and I must ask Cynthia Alliot to meet you. She is a lonely little soul who needs livening. There now, here we are at your door, and I am sure you are longing to see how the old gentleman is getting on. Good-bye! We shall meet soon again."
She waved her hand, and hurried homewards, the red toque gleaming out brightly as she passed under the lamp-post, and Jill gazed after her with adoring eyes. Young girls often cherish a romantic affection for women older than themselves, and where could there be a more fitting object on which to lavish one's devotion—so young, so pretty, so friendly, so—so understanding! She had not preached a bit, only just thought it would be better to leave old people alone; and then that suggestion of elastic! In itself it was sufficient to establish her as a miracle of good sense and ingenuity!
WHAT THE VICTIM SAID.
Jill entered the house to hear from the servant that the doctor had not yet returned from his rounds, that Mrs Trevor was also out, and that Miss Betty and Master Jack were looking after the old gentleman in the dining-room.
Listening outside the door, she caught a sound of puffing and groaning, and, unable to resist the promptings of anxiety and curiosity, turned the handle and entered the room.
The victim was seated in the doctor's big leather arm-chair, looking very perturbed and sorry for himself, while Jack and Betty hovered near, alternately offering suggestions for his relief.
"If you would lie down on the sofa—"
"Or have a cushion to your back—"
"Or a cup of tea—"
"Shall I bathe your head with eau de Cologne?"
"Would you put up your feet on a chair?"
The victim had apparently been too much engrossed in his own self-pity to take any notice of the separate suggestions, but now their reiteration had an irritating effect, for with startling unexpectedness he thrust forward his big, flushed face, and shouted a loud refusal.
"No, no, no, no! Do you want to kill me at once? I only want rest and a chance to get my breath again. Tea? Wine? Faugh! I hope I know better than that after the agonies I have had to go through. Sal- volatile! Do you take me for an hysterical old woman? Feet up? Ay, young sir, I expect I shall have a longer dose of that position than I care for after this adventure! As if I had not had enough of it already—five weeks on my chair in the summer, three in the spring, two months last winter."
From his own account he was evidently a great sufferer, yet in appearance he was stout and healthy enough. Jack made a swift diagnosis, and said politely—
"Gout, I suppose, sir? Gout in your feet?"
"And what makes you suppose anything of the kind, sir? I don't carry a label to advertise my ailments that I am aware of!" cried the old gentleman, with an irascibility which convinced his audience that he was on the point of another attack. Then suddenly he looked past his two questioners, saw Jill's peering face, and went off at another tangent.
"Oh ho! What's this? I saw you outside in the street. What are you doing here, may I ask? Come in for a treat to see the rest of the show?"
"It's my house! I live here!" replied Jill grandiloquently. "I am sorry you are not well. Would you like us to whistle for a cab to take you home? It's always nicest to be at home when one is ill."
It was all very well for Jack to frown dissent. Jill was inclined to think that the truest wisdom lay in getting the old gentleman out of the way before her father's return, and so escape with one scolding instead of two. She raised her eyebrows, and mouthed the dumb question, "Will you tell?" while the victim continued his groans and lamentations.
"Great mistake ever to leave home in these days. Can't think what I am coming to next. I merely stooped down to pick up a parcel—simplest thing in the world; done it a score of times before—and over I went full on my face. Terrible crash! Terrible crash! Paralysis now, I expect, in addition to everything else. Just my luck! A wreck, sir—a wreck! And I used to be the strongest man in the regiment. Ah, well, well, that's all over! I must be content to be on the shelf now."
Betty turned towards the twins with a scrutinising gaze, but they had no eyes for her. A note of real pathos had sounded in the victim's voice as he bemoaned his lost strength, and their hearts melted before it. Jack stepped boldly forward to make his confession.
"It was not paralysis, sir. It was—the parcel! We're sorry,—I'm sorry, but it was only a joke, and we never thought you would fall. No one else fell. We kept pulling it away by the string, you know, a few inches at a time, so that you did not notice, but you had really farther and farther to stretch, and it was that that made you topple over."
He paused, and the old gentleman stopped groaning and stared at him with eyes of crab-like protuberance. The crimson flush deepened on his cheeks, and his white whiskers appeared to bristle with wrath. He was truly an awe-inspiring object.
"It was your doing, was it? You pulled away the parcel, did you? I 'toppled over,' did I?" he repeated with awful deliberation. That was the lull before the storm, and then it broke in all its fury, and roared over their heads, so that they gasped and trembled before it.
The victim went back to his earliest childhood, and thanked Providence that he at least had known how to behave himself, and desist from silly, idiotic, ridiculous, tom-fool tricks, which would disgrace a monkey on an organ. He projected himself into the future, and prophesied ruin and destruction for a race which produced popinjays and clowns. He announced his intention of dying that very night, so that the crime which his hearers had committed might be duly avenged, and in the same breath would have them to know that he was not the sort of man to be affected by the tricks of unmannerly cubs, and that General Terence Digby was match for a hundred such as they, gout or no gout. Gout, indeed! Toppled, forsooth! The world was coming to a pretty pass! Was it part of the plot, might he ask, to cajole him into the house and poison him with their sal-volatile tea? This was a case for the police!
Betty gave a little shriek of dismay, but the twins exchanged glances of subdued admiration. They liked to hear a thing done really well, and the General's denunciation was a triumph of its kind. But when asked if he were not thoroughly ashamed of himself, Jack showed the courage of his opinion.
"Sorry!" he declared. "I said so before, sir, but not ashamed. We wouldn't have been bribed to hurt you, and I'll apologise as much as you like, but we were doing nothing wrong. It was only a joke."
"Joke!" screamed the old gentleman. "Joke!" He rolled his protruding eyes towards the ceiling, and gasped and spluttered in disgust. "Is that what you call a joke? I don't know what this country is coming to! Have you nothing better to do with your time, young sir, than to prowl about the streets playing monkey tricks on innocent passers-by? I am sorry for you if that is your best idea of enjoyment."
"Boys will be boys!" said Jack, in his quaint, sententious fashion. "We can only be young once, sir, so we might as well make the most of it while we can."
"Besides, we weren't prowling about in the street!" cried Jill, suddenly bursting into the conversation, her determination to keep silent melting away before what she was pleased to consider a slight on her dignity. "Mother wouldn't allow such a thing. The Square is private property. We have a key, and she knows we are perfectly safe when we are there."
"But, by Jove, other people are not! You manage to get into mischief though you are railed up!" cried the victim, and a sort of spasm passed over his face, as of a smile violently suppressed. He glared at Jill, from her to Betty, from Betty to Jack, and then let his glance wander round the room—the big, handsome apartment so sparsely filled with the furniture of a smaller house. The sideboard looked poor and insignificant in the recess designed for one twice the size; the few pictures entirely failed to hide the marks of the places where the last tenant had hung his more generous supply. The carpet covered only two- thirds of the floor, and was eked out by linoleum. To the most unobservant eye it must have been evident that the owner of this house was a man whose means were so limited that the strictest economy was necessary in the management of his household.
"Ha—ho—hum!" coughed the old gentleman suddenly. "Have you ever heard of such a thing as the Employers' Liability Act?"
The girls shook their heads. Jack had glimmering ideas on the subject.
"It's a sort of—er—of insurance, isn't it? If a workman fellow drops a sack on your head, the other fellow has to pay up, so he pays the insurance fellow to do it for him. That's the sort of thing, isn't it, sir?"
"That is the sort of thing, sir, expressed with your natural elegance of diction. Does your father contract with an 'insurance fellow,' may I ask?"
"No—why should he? He doesn't employ any workmen."
"He is responsible for his children, however, who are a hundred times more dangerous. How will he like it, do you think, when I send him in a bill for my expenses, and the loss of time caused by this accident? I put a high price on my time, let me tell you. It is of value to other people besides myself—of value to my country, sir, I am proud to think! If I am laid aside by the hand of Providence, that is one matter. It's a very different thing when it is done of malice intent. What should you say to a hundred pounds a week, eh, what?"
Jill gave a squeal of dismay. Betty set her lips tight, and tried to look composed and haughty, but she felt a trifle sick. She could hardly bring herself to believe that such a proceeding would be legally possible, yet the old gentleman had distinctly said that such a law existed, and Jack appeared to know something about it. Beneath his air of bravado she could see that the boy shared in her own nervousness, and a wild idea of flinging herself at the stranger's feet and imploring his clemency was beginning to take shape in her brain, when a sound from without attracted the attention of all.
It was the click of the doctor's key in the latch, and a moment later he entered the hall, and paused, as his custom was, to read the messages which had been pencilled for him on a slate. Then came the rustle of Mary's skirt, a few low-toned words, and the sound of quick steps approaching the dining-room door. It was a thrilling moment!
There sat the victim, scarlet-faced, glassy-eyed, scowling more fiercely than ever, as if in anticipation of the coming conflict. There in a row stood the three young people, shivering in their respective shoes, for was it not the greatest of offences to "worry father," and involve him in needless expenses?
"Sorry to have been out, sir," cried the doctor, entering the room, and rubbing his hands in brisk, professional manner. "My maid tells me that you have had a fall. I hope my young people have looked after you in my absence. Now, would you prefer to have a talk here, or shall I assist you into my consulting-room?"
The critical moment had arrived, and with it came a rapturous surprise, for even as the young people gazed, the anger faded out of the stranger's face, the gleaming eyes softened, the lips relaxed, and, as by the waving of a magician's wand, he was suddenly changed into a kindly, benevolent old gentleman, who would never condescend to such an indignity as a fit of temper.
"Thank you, sir, thank you, sir! I fancy I am pretty nearly my own man again. Your son very kindly brought me in, and gave me the opportunity of resting, which was really all I required. And your daughter offered me refreshments. I—ah—happened to slip,"—the protruding eyes met Jack's with a flicker, which, if such a thing could be imagined, was almost a wink!—"to slip on the pavement, and a man of my weight feels these things more than a boy. Gout, sir, gout in the feet! Your good son has already diagnosed my complaint, and, no doubt, you will be equally ready. Now, if you could make up a prescription which would give me back my powers of twenty years ago—"
Dr Trevor laughed, while Betty, Jack, and Jill mentally erected a monument, and placed the figure of the victim upon it in everlasting gratitude and affection.
"I am afraid I can hardly do that, but if you will allow me I will give you a draught which will steady your nerves after the shock. How did you come to fall? Was the pavement slippery with the mud?"
"The London pavements, sir," answered the old man pompously, "the London pavements are a disgrace to civilisation! Don't tell me that I am crazy. Don't tell me it is the best-paved city in the world. I've heard that statement before, and I stick to my own opinion. My opinion, I trust, sir, is worth as much as any other man's. It is a wonder there are not many more accidents. I fell, sir, I would have you know, in consequence of my own selfish and avaricious instincts, and I attach no blame to anyone but myself!"
"Ah!" exclaimed the doctor significantly. He glanced towards his son, caught his air of embarrassment, and hesitated between amusement and indignation. "Jack—at your old parcel trick again?"
"Boys will be boys, sir, as I have just been reminded. Perhaps we can remember the day when we also— But what about that draught? Five minutes in your consulting-room, if you please, and then Master Jack can kindly get me a cab. I will not trust myself in the streets again to- day."
Another twinkling glance at the twins, and the old gentleman raised himself slowly from his chair, and followed the doctor from the room, leaving the three young people staring at each other breathlessly.
"This is a day!" cried Jill, with a caper of delight. "We've made two new friends! The pretty lady says she is coming to call, and we must go to tea, and then this jolly old man... What a brick he is! He didn't mind scolding us himself, but he wouldn't let anyone else do it. Jack, do be awfully nice when you get the cab, and offer to see him home. Tell him how grateful we are. Hint like anything to make him invite us there!"
"Trust me for that!" cried Jack.
MRS. VANBURGH'S PLANS.
The pretty lady came to call the very next week. Mrs Trevor and Betty were busy sewing in the upstairs workroom when the maid brought up the card, and the first sight of it brought no enlightenment.
"Mrs Gervase Vanburgh! Goodness! What a fine name! Who can she be? Do you know who it is, mother?"
"Not in the least, dear. One of the neighbours, perhaps. We will go down and see."
Betty smoothed her hair before the looking-glass, and then as carefully fluffed it out, shook her skirt free from the little ends of thread which would stick to the rough blue cloth, and followed her mother to the drawing-room, for now that she was over seventeen it was Mrs Trevor's wish that she should learn to help in social duties. Half-way downstairs inspiration dawned. "I believe it's the pretty lady! Jill said she was coming!" she whispered breathlessly. The pleasant expectation brought a flush into her cheeks, and an added animation into her eyes, so that it was in her most attractive guise that she entered the drawing-room in her mother's train.
Yes! It was the pretty lady and no one else, prettier than ever in her very smartest clothes, sitting in orthodox fashion, on a stiff upright chair, card-case in hand, and discussing the weather and the advantages and disadvantages of the neighbourhood with the sedateness of an old married woman; yet ever and anon as she glanced at Betty there was a something in her face,—a smile, a tremble, a momentary uplifting of the eyebrow,—which bespoke an unspoken sympathy. "We understand each other, you and I!" it seemed to say. "This is only a pretence. The real business will begin when we are alone, but—don't I do it well?" Betty twinkled back, and was content to wait her turn, knowing that it would surely come.
Yes, Mrs Vanburgh said, she and her husband had only lately returned to their town house. They had a little place in the country, and spent a great deal of time with an old uncle who was an invalid, and very fond of young society. No! She did not care for town life, but for her husband's sake she made the best of it for a few months in the year. The days seemed very long when one was obliged to turn on the lights before four o'clock. Oh yes, she was fond of reading—sometimes! But one seemed to need some more active occupation. She did a good deal of wood-carving. Did Miss Trevor go in for wood-carving? Would she care to take it up? It would be so very nice to have a companion, and all the tools were lying in readiness just across the road.
"Thank you so much. I'd love it!" cried Betty, all pink with excitement and pleasure. "I take a few classes still—music and French—but my afternoons are mostly free. I could come any time."
"To-day?" queried the pretty lady, raising her pretty eyebrows eagerly. "Now? Come back with me and have tea, and I'll show you my carvings, and you can decide what you will try first."
It was all very irregular and unconventional, because, of course, the proper thing would have been for Mrs Vanburgh to have waited quietly until Mrs Trevor had returned her call, and even for a judicious period after that, before sending a formal invitation. Nevertheless Mrs Trevor had not the heart to interfere. She remembered her own youth, and the rapture which it had then afforded her to be able to do things at once; she saw the radiance in Betty's face, and realised that her visitor was only a girl herself, so that when Betty turned towards her a flushed, appealing face, she smiled indulgently, and said, "Certainly, dear! It is very kind of Mrs Vanburgh to ask you. Run upstairs and put on your hat."
Betty lost no time in taking advantage of this permission, and in ten minutes' time the extraordinary thing came to pass, that she and the pretty lady were walking along the Square, chatting together as if they had been friends of years' standing.
Mrs Vanburgh paused upon the threshold to give some instructions to the servant, then escorted Betty straight upstairs to a big, bare room on the third floor, which she described as her "lair."
"No one ever sits here but myself, and I can make as much mess as I like. It's lovely!" she explained, and forthwith turned on the electric light, and poked up the fire, for the atmosphere was distinctly chilly. It was certainly not a tidy apartment, no one could have said that for it, but it was extremely interesting from a girl's point of view. The wood-carving bench occupied the place of honour before the window; but there were evidences that the owner possessed more hobbies than one, for a piece of copper was in process of being beaten into a pattern of pomegranates and leaves, a work-table was littered with odds and ends, and on an old black tray was a weird medallion portrait of a gentleman, manufactured out of plasticine, a lump of which lay by its side.
Young Mrs Vanburgh held out the tray towards Betty with a dramatic gesture.
"That's my husband! Let me introduce you—Mr Gervase Vanburgh—Miss Trevor! Would you believe, to look at him there, that he is quite the handsomest man you ever beheld?"
Betty looked at the grey profile, and sniggered helplessly.
"I'm afraid I never should!"
"No, it's horrid! I'm just beginning modelling, and it's not a success. I suppose it's because I can't draw well enough. What is wrong, do you think?"
"Everything!" Betty felt inclined to say, but politely compromised by pointing out the most flagrant offences.
"The ear is on a level with the mouth. The eye is perched upon a mound, instead of being in a hollow; he has no nostril, and oh! Water on the brain! He must have, with all that bump in front!"
"Goodness! What a critic! You might be one of my very own sisters!" cried Mrs Vanburgh, laughing. She looked at the profile scrutinisingly. "There's one comfort—it can soon be altered. There! I'll take a bit off his head. It's the neatest shape in the world really. I don't think I am born to be a sculptor. For one thing, I should never have the patience to clean my nails. This plasticine gets into all the nooks and crannies, and simply won't come out!"
Betty had no sympathy to spare for nails. She was too much occupied in considering another problem. Mrs Vanburgh looked almost as young as herself, and was far more spontaneous and lively in manner; it seemed impossible to imagine her the mistress of this stately house, and the wife of the handsomest man in the world! There was all the natural awe of the unmarried for the married girl in her voice as she said—
"It is so strange to hear you talk of your husband. You don't look a bit married. Doesn't it feel very—queer?"
Mrs Vanburgh laughed happily.
"It feels very—nice! I have only one trouble in life, and that is that I am too happy. Yes, seriously, it does trouble me! It's so difficult not to grow selfish when one is always petted, and praised, and considered first of all. I want to be of some use in the world. My husband says I am of use to him, and of course that's my first duty, but it's not enough. When I was married a dear old lady wrote me a letter, and said that marriage often became 'the selfishness of two,' and I do feel that it is true. It's no credit to be good to someone who is dearer than yourself, and giving a few subscriptions is no credit either when you are rich; it was a very different matter when you scraped them out of your dress allowance. I've thought over heaps of things that I could do, and at last I've decided—sit down, and I'll tell you all about it! This is the comfiest chair. It's so nice getting to know you first, because you can help. Ages ago I read a story by Sir Walter Besant, Katherine Regina was the name, I think. I forget what it was about, and all about it, except that one character was a poor governess living in a dreary London 'Home,' knowing nobody, and having absolutely nowhere to go in her leisure hours, because of course she could not afford entertainments. One day she had a desperately miserable fit, and said to one of her companions—I always remembered those words—'Is there no woman in all the length and breadth of this great city who has a thought for us, or who cares enough for us to open the house to us for a few hours a week?' I made up my mind then and there, that if I ever lived in a city and had a home of my own, I would share it with homeless people. I asked my husband if I might have an 'At Home' every Saturday afternoon, and he said I could ask everyone I liked, so long as I did not expect him to put in an appearance. So!"—she clasped her hands excitedly, and her eyes flashed—"this very week I drove round to three separate Governesses' Homes and left cards of invitation—'Mrs Gervase Vanburgh will be at home every Saturday afternoon between November 12 and December 20 from three to seven o'clock, and will be pleased to see any ladies who may care to call upon her.' What do you think of that for a start?"
Betty stared in amazement. "Governesses! Three Homes! Three to seven! How dreadful! What will you do with them?"
"Oh! I've lots of plans. I'll have a scrumptious light, cakey tea in the drawing-room, and in the dining-room a sort of cold high-tea as they have in the North, with chickens, and ham, and potted shrimps, and sandwiches, and all sorts of good things for those who can stay until six, and sit down to a regular meal. And I'll have nice books and magazines in the library, and easy-chairs drawn up to the fire; and up here, anyone who likes can practise wood-carving, or copper beating, or any of my little hobbies. I'll throw open the whole house, and let each one do what she likes best; and you shall help me! I've got another girl coming on Saturday, and between the three of us we ought to be able to manage. I don't ask you to come, you see,—I command! I need your help."
Betty hesitated between pride and dismay.
"I can't imagine myself entertaining a party of govies! I am still under their thrall, remember. You are emancipated, so it's different for you. But I'll come, of course I'll come. How many visitors do you expect?"
"That's just what cook asked, and I hadn't a notion what to say. I don't suppose we shall have many the first time. Only the enterprising spirits will come, but when they go back and say what a good time they have had, the numbers will increase. Do you think perhaps—twenty altogether?"
"Say a dozen!" said Betty, and Nan's face lengthened with disappointment.
"Only a dozen? Oh, surely there must be more than that! Just think; there are three Homes, and I expect forty or fifty living in each. I am quite sure there will be twenty. I shall provide for twenty-five, to be on the safe side."
She bent forward to poke the fire once more, and Betty's eyes roamed to the white overmantel, which was divided into five panels, each of which contained a vignette portrait of a girl's head, printed in a delicate shade of brown. She had seen much the same kind of thing in furniture warehouses again and again, but in this case the pictured faces lacked the pretty prettiness which was the usual characteristic, and were unmistakably portraits of living people. She looked at her hostess with an eager question.
"Yes; isn't it lovely? They clubbed together and gave it to me for a wedding present. It feels a little bit as if they were here, to look up from my work and see their faces. That's the eldest—Maud; my Maud! She and I were always together. She is married, and has a dear little girl. That's Lilias, the next eldest—the beauty of the family."
"Ah!" sighed Betty enviously, "she is pretty. How lovely to be like that! Is she married too?"
"How funny! I should have thought she would have been married the first of all. Didn't everyone fall in love with her at first sight?"
"Yes, I think they did, but at second sight they seem to have preferred Maud and—me?"
Mrs Vanburgh did not seem disposed to discuss her sister's love affairs. She pointed to the next portrait, that of a dark, interesting- looking girl with hair parted down the middle and smoothed plainly down, in marked contrast to her sister's curls and pompadours.
"That's Elsie! She has views, and objects to being like the common herd. She writes articles for papers, not in them, abusing everything that is, and praising up everything that isn't. Gervase, my husband, says she will do very well when she learns sense. She is a dear old raven, and I miss her croak more than you would believe. That's Agatha. She's just—Agatha! A good-natured dear, always terribly in earnest about the smallest thing. Christabel is the baby, which means the head of the family. She is coming out next year, and means to outshine us all. I will tell you lots of stories about the girls and the jolly times we had at home, and soon I hope you will meet some of them here. Sisters are such comforts, aren't they?"
Betty mumbled an inarticulate something which might have been an assent or the reverse, and a servant entering with a tea-tray, the conversation turned to less personal topics. There was never any lack of anything to say, however, for, strangers as they were, the two girls chattered away without a break until the clock struck six, at which sound Betty leapt from her seat like another Cinderella, and turned hastily towards the door.