Etheldreda the Ready A School Story
By Mrs George de Horne Vaizey
ETHELDREDA THE READY A SCHOOL STORY
BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
The first part of the Christmas holidays had gone with a roar. The Saxon family in conclave agreed that never before had they had so good a time. Invitations poured in; amusement after amusement filled up afternoon and evening; parents and friends alike seemed imbued with a wholly admirable desire to make the season one gay whirl of enjoyment, and then, suddenly, just after the beginning of the New Year, the atmosphere became mysteriously clouded.
What was the matter? Nobody knew. One day the sky was blue and serene—the next, the shadow was in possession. Mr Saxon looked suddenly old and bleached, and hid himself persistently in his study; Mrs Saxon sat at the head of the table with the air of one braced to perform a difficult task, listened vacantly to her children's prattle, and smiled a twisted smile in response to their merry outbursts of laughter. Two days later Miss Bruce, the governess, was summoned hastily to return from her holiday-making and take charge of the household, while Mr and Mrs Saxon set forth to pay a mysterious visit to their country house, which as a rule was left severely to the caretaker's mercies until spring was well advanced.
What in the world could have induced two people who were obviously worried and depressed to leave town and go down to that dull, deserted house in the depth of the winter? The Saxons discussed the subject with their wonted vivacity, and from the many divergent points of view with which they were accustomed to regard the world in general.
They were six in all, and as true Saxons in appearance as they were in name, being large, fair, flaxen-haired creatures, of the type which is unfortunately growing rarer year by year.
Rowena, tall and stately, had already reached the stage when womanhood and girlhood meet, but her undeniable beauty was somewhat marred by an air of self-consciousness, which was in truth more than half due to a natural shyness and diffidence in adapting herself to new conditions. Hereward, the Sandhurst cadet, and Gurth, the Eton stripling, were as handsome a pair as one could wish to meet. Etheldreda, with her flowing golden locks, widely open grey eyes and alert, vivacious features, might have sat as a type of a bonnie English schoolgirl, while the twins, Harold and Maud, were plump, pleasant-looking creatures, devoted to each other, who in holiday time could be turned into convenient fags for their elders and betters. Good old Harold could always be depended upon to do his duty with resignation, if not cheerfulness, but Maud was one of those constitutionally stupid people who are nevertheless gifted with sudden flashes of sharpness apt to prove embarrassing to their companions. The Saxons, to use their own expressive parlance, were always "a trifle wary" in dealing with Maud, for what that young lady thought she promptly said, and said without reserve, choosing, as it seemed, out of pure "cussedness" the very moment of all others when they would have had her silent.
Discussions and guesses alike failed to suggest any reasonable explanations of Mr and Mrs Saxon's mysterious behaviour, and Miss Bruce steadily refused to be drawn, though there was a certain something in her manner which convinced her charges that she was in the secret.
And then on the morning of the fifth day the blow fell, in the shape of a short, decisive note ordering the young people to pack their belongings and repair down to "The Meads" for the remainder of the holidays. The mandate was so firm and decisive that there was no hope of escape. The girls might cry and the boys might storm, but both realised the uselessness of protest. Assisted by Miss Bruce and Nannie, once nurse and now schoolroom maid, the melancholy preparations were made in time to allow the party to catch the three o'clock train from Victoria.
To secure a carriage in which they could travel alone and be able to talk as they pleased was the ambition of the four elders, and while Miss Bruce was busily looking after the luggage, they took possession of a corridor coupe, slammed the door, and blocked the window with determined faces, though deep in each heart lurked the conviction that Miss Bruce's morbidly acute conscience would feel it her duty to interfere.
"Nix for the Spider!" hissed Gurth, prising a hockey-stick against the handle of the door the while he gazed with elaborate calm at a poster on the station wall. It was inevitable that a person named Bruce should be given the nickname of "Spider" by young people who disdained correct appellations as heartily as did the Saxons, and, indeed, the busy little black figure darting to and fro on the platform might have been much less aptly named. She hustled the twins and Nannie into a carriage, turned her head to look for her elder pupils, and, upon realising the position, reared her head with the fighting gesture which they knew so well. For a moment, as she stood facing the coupe window, it seemed absolutely certain that she would insist upon joining the party, and so spoiling sport for the whole of the journey, but even as she looked her expression altered, a flicker of something—what was it?—affection, sympathy, pity passed over her face, she turned without a word, entered the carriage wherein the twins were seated, and disappeared from sight.
The plot had succeeded, but their success had left the conspirators dumb with wonder and surprise.
"I say! what's taken her all of a sudden?" ejaculated Gurth. Hereward whistled loudly, while Dreda, ever the prey of her emotions, began to flush and quiver beneath the prickings of remorse.
"Oh, poor dear! Oh, she saw! She saw we didn't want her! What brutes we are! Gurth, go!—go quickly, before the train starts, and tell her to come in here at once!"
"Not I! What a turncoat you are, Dreda! Of course she saw! We meant her to see. You were the worst of the lot, scowling as if she were an ogre. Don't be a little sneak!"
"Not a sneak!" protested Dreda, hotly. "S'pose I did. I can be sorry, can't I? She looked so—sick! It made me feel mean."
"All right! Go in to the other carriage, then, and suck up! We don't want her here, but there's room for you in there, if you like to change! Say the word! We are off in a minute!"
Etheldreda blushed, shuffled, and tossed her pigtail, but made not the slightest attempt to move from her place, whereat her brothers and sister chuckled with easy amusement.
"Oh, Dreda, in our hours of ease, Uncertain, coy, and hard to please, And variable as the shade By the light thingummy aspen made. When pain and anguish wring the brow, She nothing does, but makes a row."
The mutilated lines were the contributions of the two schoolboys, while Rowena looked down her nose once more, and dismissed the subject in a few scathing remarks.
"You might realise by this time that Dreda's sentiments have not the smallest influence on her actions! The Spider was evidently suffering from a spasm of repentance. Quite time, too! She has made herself most objectionable the last few days, sighing and groaning about the house, and looking as if her heart were broken. If we can stand breaking our engagements and giving up all the fun of the holidays, I don't see why she need grumble. But she is always like that—unsympathetic and absorbed in herself. It's a mystery to me, for what has she got to be absorbed in? To be old, and ugly, and poor, and to have no home or any people that count—there can't possibly be any personal interest in life! Her only hope would be to live for others, and of that, poor dear, she is incapable!"
Rowena folded her hands on her lap, turned her well-cut profile to the window, and sighed in an elderly, forbearing fashion, at which the two boys grinned broadly, while impetuous Dreda burst once more into speech.
"Rowena, I hate you when you talk like that! Don't be so self- righteous and horrid! It's not for you to criticise other people. The Spider is not a patch on you for selfishness, and if she has a poor time of it, that's all the more reason why you should be charitable, and try to cheer her up. You'll be old yourself some day, and ugly too! Fair people always fade soonest. I read that in the toilette column of a magazine, so it's true, and I shouldn't wonder if you grew nut-crackery, too. Your nose is rather beaky even now. You needn't be so proud!"
Rowena turned her head to look round the carriage with a gently tolerant smile.
"Our dear Dreda teaches us a lesson in charity, does she not?" she demanded blandly. That was all the response she deigned to make, but it was enough to reduce her sister to a crimson confusion, and to rouse Gurth to impatient anger.
"Oh, leave off nagging, you two!" he cried loudly. "If you don't drop it, I'll be off into a smoker at the first stop. Fight it out to-night when you are alone, if you can't agree; but let us off when we are caged up in the same pen. Here! Let's have a game of 'Roadside cribbage.' Bags I the left side! Now then, Dreda, I choose you first. Hereward can take Rowena. Buck up! We have got to win this time."
Etheldreda shot a glance of gratitude from the grey eyes which were such eloquent exponents of her thoughts. To be so championed by Gurth was worth far more than the temporary suffering inflicted by Rowena's sharp tongue, and she set herself valiantly to be worthy of his choice. "Roadside cribbage" was a game patronised for years by the Saxon family on their railway journeys, and consisted merely in dividing forces, staring steadily out of opposite windows, and scoring for the various objects perceived, according to a quaint but well understood method. Thus, a bridge over a river counted as five marks; a quarry, ten; a windmill, twenty; a fire, fifty; a motor car, minus one; while the ubiquitous bicycle was worth only three per dozen. These, and other objects too numerous to repeat, mounted but slowly towards the grand total of a hundred, but there remained one—just one rare chance of winning success at a stroke, for the competitor who had the luck to spy a cat looking out of a window might cry, "Game!" on the instant, even if he had not so far scored a single point. It can easily be understood that the best chances of spotting this valuable spectacle came as the train slackened steam before entering a station. Then, as one regarded the backs of dreary tenement houses, it really seemed inevitable that some household cat should wish to take the air, or to regard the world from the vantage of dusty, unwashed sills! Inevitable, yet with the perversity of cat nature, it was extraordinary how seldom this all-to- be-desired vision burst upon the view. "It's not fair!" Rowena cried. "You have all the poor houses on your side, and poor houses have always more cats than rich ones. A cat for every floor. We ought to change sides between every station, like cricket!"
"Fudge! You've got the open country. Look out for pigs and quarries... We've had no luck with cats for the last three journeys. On the whole, I think yours is the best side."
"Why didn't you choose it yourself, then?"
"Charity!" answered Gurth, shortly, with a twinkling glance at his partner, who happened to be at the same time his favourite sister, despite her many and obvious faults. If he had been asked to describe Dreda's character, he would have said in his easy schoolboy language that she was a bit of a sham, perhaps, but then all girls were shams more or less, and if you kept her off high falutin', she was a decent sort, and always ready to do a fellow a good turn.
It was sad to note that even when speaking of his favourite sister, Gurth should have felt it necessary to adopt this tone of patronage, but even the stoutest champion of girls cannot but admit that the sense of honour is in them less developed than in boys, and that in moments of irritation they betray a petty spite, of which the more brutal male is incapable. Gurth was conscious that he had faults of his own, but he regarded them leniently as being on an altogether different level from those of his sisters. He was a bit of a slacker, perhaps, but most "men" were slackers, and yet pulled through all right by means of a spurt at the end. His chiefs called him obstinate, but a fellow had to know his own mind if he were to get on in the world, and he jolly well knew that he was right as often as not Masters were awful muffs. On the other hand, he hated gush like poison, and was invariably a hundred times better than his word, whereas Dreda could hold forth as eloquently as a parson, with the tears pouring down her cheeks, and her figure trembling with emotion, and the next day forget the very cause of her emotion! The girl was like a fire of shavings, quickly lighted, quickly extinguished, and probably the greatest punishment which she could have sustained would have been compelled to carry on one of her many philanthropic schemes to a deliberate conclusion.
They were all stored up in the family archives—the histories of Dreda's charitable enterprises! The factory girl to whom she was going to write regularly every week, and whose address was lost in a fortnight—the collecting cards beyond number, for which, in the first ardour of possession, subscriptions were extorted from every member of the household, and which were rescued from stray hiding-places at the last possible moment and despatched with odd offerings of twopences and threepences from "A Friend" scribbled in, to fill up the empty spaces. Everyone understood that the "friend" was Dreda herself, and that she might be expected to be correspondingly short in tuck money for some time to come! Never a society did Dreda hear of but she panted to become a member on the spot, and never a society but received her resignation, accompanied by a goodly sum in fines, before six months had run their course.
Closeted with parent and teachers, the girl received numberless lectures on the dangers of a thoughtless and unstable character, and was moved to ardent vows of repentance; but, alone with Maud, her confidante and admirer, she was wont to cast a kindly glamour of romance over her own delinquencies. "It's my heart," she would sigh pathetically. "My heart is so sensitive. It's like an Aeolian harp, Maud, upon which every passing breeze plays its melody. I'm a creature of sensibility!" And she rolled her fine eyes to the ceiling, the while Maud snorted, being afflicted with adenoids, and wrinkled her brows in the effort to put her fingers on the weak spot in the argument, the which she felt, but had difficulty in explaining.
"Your heart is hard enough at times!" she said at last. "I suppose the strings get so thin with being everlastingly twanged that they break, and then the breeze can moan as much as it likes without waking a sound. When you let that poor little puppy lie for two days without any food, for instance—"
"You're a beast!" retorted Dreda with fervour. "You don't understand. No one does. I'm misunderstood all round. At any rate I'd rather reach the hilltops sometimes than everlastingly crawl along in the mire, like some people I can mention. It's better to have soared and fallen than never to have soared at all!"
Dreda, like most of us, was tender towards her own failings, and resented the criticism of her peers. This afternoon she kept her eyes glued upon the landscape, affecting to be ignorant of Gurth's sly hit, and presently it was balm to her wounded spirit to be able to win the game for herself and her partner, and with a squeal of triumph to point to an upper window in a row of tenement houses, where two erect ears and a pair of yellow eyes could be clearly discerned over the edge of a wooden box filled with miniature fir trees of funereal aspect.
The game was over, and with it had disappeared all disposition to quarrel. Henceforward, to the end of the journey, the four young people chatted amicably together, discussing various subjects of interest, but invariably returning to the one absorbing question of the hour—what could have happened to account for the hasty and mysterious summons to the solitary home in the country at a time when all their interests and pleasures were centred in town?
Mr and Mrs Saxon welcomed their children on the threshold of their country home, but a chill seemed to settle on the young people's spirits as they entered the great square hall, which looked so colourless and dreary. As a rule, The Meads was inhabited during the summer months alone, and the children were accustomed to see it alight with sunshine, with doors and windows thrown wide open to show vistas of flower gardens and soft green lawns. In such weather, a house was apt to be regarded merely as a place to sleep in, but now that it would be necessary to spend a great part of the day indoors, it was regarded more critically, and found far from attractive.
The Meads was one of those square, uncompromisingly ugly white houses which are so often to be found in rural England, and which were built at that architecturally unhappy period when old traditions had been cast aside and the modern craze for art was as yet undeveloped. There were plenty of rooms in the house, lofty and spacious enough, but as to outline just so many boxes, with four straight walls, and never a niche or an alcove to break the severity of line. The hall was another square, and the staircase ascended straightly to the first landing, where a monstrosity of a stained-glass window lighted the long corridors beyond.
The furniture was of the same calibre as the house, for, The Meads having been regarded more as a convenient dumping-ground for the children in the summer holidays than as a formal residence, everything that was shabby, injured, or out of date had been weeded from the beautiful town mansion and drafted down to fill up the big square rooms. Mr Saxon had a shooting-box in Scotland in which he was wont to spend the autumn months, Mrs Saxon had a passion for travelling, and could not understand the joy of spending every summer in the same house. The Meads was large, healthy, and convenient, so that while the children were young it had filled a real need, but there was no denying that, regarded as a winter residence, it bore a somewhat chilling aspect. Gurth looked round the hall with eyes very wide open and nose screwed up in eloquent disapproval.
"I say! don't it look different, just, without the sun? Regular old grim hole of a place, ain't it? Like an institution, or a hospital, or something of the kind—not a bit like home—"
"Oh, Gurth, don't," cried his mother quickly, while her forehead corrugated with lines as of actual physical pain. "Dear, you are cold and tired after your journey. Things always look dull when one is tired. Come into the library, all of you! There's a glorious fire, and you shall have tea at once." She slid her hand into her eldest daughter's arm, looking with fond admiration at the fair, delicately cut profile. "You have had a happy time in town this last week—since we left?"
Rowena turned her tall head, and looked down upon her mother with the air of a young goddess, offended, yet resolutely self-restrained. Mrs Saxon was a medium-sized woman, but she looked small beside the tall slenderness of the young daughter who held herself so loftily erect. "Mother!" cried Rowena, in a deep tone of remonstrance, "it's the Vincents' dance to-morrow! I was looking forward to it more than anything else. Lots of grown-up people are going—it would have been almost like coming out. I never thought you would have brought me away from town the very day before that. You knew how I should feel—"
"Darling, I'm sorry, more sorry than I can say, but it was necessary. As things are, it is better that you should not go. I'll explain—we will explain. You shall hear all about it later, but first we must have tea. I think we shall all feel better after tea."
Mrs Saxon looked from one to another of her children with the same strained, unnatural smile which had greeted them a few minutes before, and Gurth and Dreda, falling behind the rest, rolled expressive eyes and whispered low forebodings.
"Something up! I thought as much. What can it be?"
"Don't know. Something horrid, evidently. In the holidays, too. What a sell!"
Miss Bruce had considerately disappeared, and the parents and children were left alone in the big bare library, with its rows of fusty, out-of- date books in early Victorian mahogany bookcases, its three long windows draped in crimson red curtains, its Indian carpet worn by the tramp of many feet. A cheerful fire blazed in the grate, however, and the tea equipage set out on the long table was sufficiently tempting to raise the spirits of the travellers. It was a real old-fashioned sit-down tea, where one was not expected to balance a cup and plate on one's knee and yet refrain from spilling tea or scattering crumbs on the carpet. Girls and boys arranged themselves in their usual places with sighs of relief and satisfaction, and, disdaining bread-and-butter, helped themselves energetically to the richest cake on the table. It was a family custom with the Saxons to begin on cake and work steadily back to bread and butter. There had been some opposition to encounter from conservative elders before this reversal of the ordinary programme had been sanctioned, but the arguments advanced had been too strong to resist.
"I can 'preciate things more when I'm hungry. Cake's the best thing; why need I stodge on bread and butter till I can't properly 'preciate the cake? Why can't I stodge on cake, and eat the bread when I don't 'preciate? It doesn't matter about bread!"
So ran the thread of Harold's arguments, and it must be confessed that there was reason therein. To-day, as the young people satisfied their first pangs of hunger on iced cake, the parents watching them exchanged a piteous glance, for the proceeding seemed so sadly typical of the secret that was about to be divulged! Until this day, all that was richest and best in life had been the everyday possession of these loved and fortunate children—after to-day, the love would continue unchanged, but the luxuries must come to an end.
The meal was unusually silent, both Mr and Mrs Saxon and the elder boys and girls being too much oppressed by their own feelings to be able to indulge in ordinary light conversation; only Harold and Maud remained unconscious of the cloud in the atmosphere, and everyone was thankful for their artless prattle, which filled up what would otherwise have been a painful silence. As for the twins, they were quite elated to find so attentive an audience, for as a rule their attempts to enter the conversation were severely nipped in the bud. "That's enough, thank you!" Rowena would say in her most lofty manner. "Shut up, you kids. A fellow can't hear himself speak for your row!" Gurth would call out fiercely. Even when Mrs Saxon was present she would shake her head gently across the table, to enforce the oft-repeated axiom that in so large a family the younger members must perforce learn to be quiet at table. Maud beamed with pleasure at being allowed to continue her never-ending descriptions without a word of remonstrance. She was a fair, pretty, somewhat stupid child, gifted with an overflow of words, which were, however, singularly incapable of conveying any definite impression. Observation she possessed in abundance, but her discursive narratives were by no means improved by being weighted by a plethora of useless detail. One could listen to Maud's efforts to describe her own doings for half an hour on end, and remain almost as much in the dark as at the beginning! On the present occasion she was full of excitement about a wonderful conjurer whose tricks she had witnessed at a children's party in town three nights before, and which she was anxious to enumerate for the benefit of the family.
"...He was the most egg-strawdinary creature you ever saw. He did the most egg-strawdinary things. I'll tell you what he did... You know the Westons' drawing-room? You go upstairs—crimson carpets, and such wide brass rods. Then there's a statue holding up a lamp, and the first door's the drawing-room. All the doors were taken down to make more room, and there were rows and rows of forms... He was like a Frenchman with a pointed moustache, but his clothes weren't very clean... He rolled up his sleeves, and there was a ring on his finger, and yards and yards of ribbon came out of his thumb. He had a little table in front of him with bulgy legs. It stands in the corner with silver on it. Then he asked a boy in the front row for a watch... Mr Weston said he wouldn't have lent his, but he got it back all right. It was egg- strawdinary! Meta Rawlins sat by me. She had a pink sash. She says her father can do it a little bit, only of course not as well as this one. Then there was an egg. If he had broken it, it would have made a mess on the carpet! Meta said perhaps it was stone. He talked all the time, so funny and quick, and one of his front teeth was out. He asked if any boy or girl would go up to help him, and Brian Hackett went. He looked so silly. He had to hold things in his hand, and when he asked for them, they weren't there. It was egg-strawdinary! We had supper in the dining-room, jellies and cream, and presents in the trifle. I saw the conjurer having his in the library. I never saw anything so egg-strawdinary in all my life!"
Gurth and Hereward exchanged expressive glances, Rowena frowned impatience, Mrs Saxon smiled a faint amusement, and Maud continued to prattle on, blissfully unconscious of the fact that no one troubled to listen.
It was after everyone had been fed and refreshed that the explanation of the mysterious summons from town was given, in response to an outspoken question from Dreda, whose impetuous nature was ever impatient of suspense.
"Mother, what has happened? There must be something, or you would never have left town and sent for us in such a hurry. Can't you tell us now? It's something horrid, of course! And it's horrid waiting for horrid things."
Dreda put both elbows on the table, in flagrant disregard of schoolroom rules, and leant her charming, eager face in the cup of her hands. She might describe her state of mind as "horrid," but an appearance more opposed to such a description it would be impossible to imagine. Dreda had been hungry, and her hunger was satisfied; she had been cold and tired, now she was warmed and refreshed; she talked vaguely of horrible things, but nothing approaching real fear had as yet entered her heart. Grown-ups made such a fuss about trifles. Probably it was something quite silly and unimportant after all.
Mrs Saxon did not answer. She looked down at her hands and twisted the rings on her fingers, the while her husband took upon himself the burden of explanation.
"Yes, Dreda, we wish to speak out plainly. As far as possible we have always taken our children into our confidence, and now we must all try to strengthen each other, for a great change is before us. It must affect us all... I have lost money—a great deal of money. I am no longer a rich man. Your mother and I came down here to face the situation quietly, and to think out our plans. We wished to be by ourselves for a few days before saying anything to you."
"Oh-h. Is that it? Poor father! What a shame!"
"What a beastly fag! How did it happen, Pater?"
"Poor old father! Yes! I quite understand."
They spoke together with impetuous warmth, Gurth, Hereward, and Etheldreda, but, in spite of their words, none of them understood in the least. Maud and Harold stared open-mouthed. Only Rowena turned white, and pressed her lips nervously together.
"Thank you, dears. I knew you would sympathise, but our grief is on your account more than on our own. If you can bear the change bravely, our worst fears will be allayed. It will be a big change. To begin with, I have let the town house. An offer came to take it furnished on a lease, and I dared not refuse. The Meads will now be our settled home."
Silence... One definite statement has more effect than a dozen vague forebodings, and the young people sat stunned with dismay, while the thoughts of each wandered away on a voyage of personal reflections.
"No town house! No season! Shut up here all the year round, just as I was coming out, and expecting to have such a lovely time."
"Let the house! Whew! Things must be precious bad ... Suppose, after all, the Governor can't afford to send me to the army!"
"Here's a pretty go! The house doesn't matter. The country knocks town into fits any day, but it will be a beastly fag if we have to cut things down fine. What about the horses?"
"Poor father. Oh, dear, how awful mother looks! Rowena is a brute to look so cross. P'raps the Spider will have to go, and I shall be finished, and done with lessons. Topping!"
"Bateson's father lost his money and he went to sea. I wonder if they'd let me!"
"I've got five pounds six in the bank. I'll draw it out, and give it to them to help. That would last for mumfs and mumfs."
Mrs Saxon lifted her sad eyes and glanced wistfully round the table. When she herself had first heard the news she had been stunned into silence; she hardly expected words, but her mother's heart yearned for a glance of sympathy and love. The boys, as is the habit of boys, were rendered awkward and uncomfortable by the atmosphere of emotion, and stared stolidly at their plates. Rowena sat like a frozen statue of misery, Maud gaped blankly from one face to another; only Dreda was ready and waiting with her sunny smile and her easy flow of sympathy.
"Darling! Of course we'll be brave! Don't worry about us. Everyone says money doesn't matter a bit. You can be perfectly happy without it... Perfectly sickening for you and father, down here by yourselves with all that worry. You must have been bored!"
Bored! The utter inadequacy of the word brought a smile to the parents' eyes, but the kindly warmth of voice and manner was as balm to their sore hearts. What though Dreda's conduct belied her words time and again, her impetuous kindliness of heart was for the moment infinitely soothing, and a blessed contrast to Rowena's gloom. Both parents smiled lovingly upon her, and Dreda glowed with satisfaction. Really, being ruined was quite exciting and dramatic!
"Thank you, Dreda," said her father, gratefully. "These have been very sad days for us, as you say, and even yet we are feeling rather stunned by the suddenness of this trouble, and have not been able to think out definite plans for your future. It was necessary to tell you the bare fact, but you must be patient and forbear from questioning for a few days. We shall not keep you in suspense longer than is necessary."
Suspense! Six pairs of ears pricked uneasily at the sound of that word; six hearers seemed to hear in it the knell of a cherished hope. Even Dreda was awed into silence. The "horrid things" were evidently not yet finished. What was going to happen next?
In the schoolroom the young people flocked together, eager to discuss the news apart from the restraint of their parents' presence. Round the great fireplace stood one of those delightful fenders whose top is formed by a wide-cushioned seat. Hereward pulled it forcibly back, with a fine disregard of cinders, until it was sufficiently distant from the blaze to be comfortable, when the six young people seated themselves and prepared to talk in comfort. They made a pretty picture as the leaping flame lighted up their fair blond faces, but for the moment the general expression was far from cheerful. The twins were all eyes and gaping mouths, devoured with curiosity to hear what their elders might have to say with regard to the thrilling intelligence just given; the two schoolboys looked cross and thundery, and it was difficult to say which was the more exasperating to beholders—Rowena's angry frown or Dreda's artificial smiles.
Gurth stamped a smoking cinder into the hearthrug, taking a malicious pleasure in the scorch and smell which ensued. He was never too patient, and this afternoon he felt that he had reached the end of his tether.
"Oh, chuck it, Rowena!" he cried savagely. "What's the use of sitting there looking like a tragedy queen? A jolly example you set, for the eldest of a family. You look as if the whole thing was got up on purpose to annoy you, and nobody had a right to be pitied except your precious self. I don't see it a bit! I think you come off best of all. Your education is finished, so you're bound to be all right!"
"Education!" echoed Rowena, in the tone of ineffable scorn natural to a young woman who for months past had been basking in the prospect of a presentation at court. "Education, indeed! Who cares for education? If it is finished, what has it all been intended for, pray? To prepare me for a life which I am not to have! Other girls have the best time of their lives when they come out. They are taken about to see everything and do everything which they have longed for all the time they have been shut up at school. It's no wonder I feel bad at coming home to find I have only escaped one prison for another. To live here all the year long! What a prospect! There isn't a decent neighbour nearer than five miles.—If this could only have happened a year or two later, after I had had a little fun!"
"Rowena, how selfish! You think only of yourself, and not a bit of anyone else—father or mother, or the boys, or—or Me!" cried Dreda, smiting herself on the breast with dramatic empressement as she uttered the last all-important word. "It won't be a bit easier for me when the time comes, but I do hope and believe that I shall bear it bravely, and try to be an example to the rest. It's our duty, you know, as the eldest daughters of the house!"
"Oh, Dreda, stop preaching! It's too ridiculous. You to lecture me! For that matter, you need not wait until you are finished to set me an example. You can begin this very minute, for I don't believe for a moment that father will be able to afford to send you to Madame Clerc's. It's a frightfully expensive school, and he used to grumble at the way my extras ran up, even before, when he was rich. I expect you will have to finish at home with the Spider, and then she will go, and you will have to set to work to teach Maud!"
"I shan't!" shrieked Dreda, and flamed a sudden violent red.
"She shan't!" shrieked Maud, at one and the same moment, her fair, placid face flushing to the same crimson hue.
They faced each other like two infuriated turkey cocks—heads erect, feathers ruffled, bodies swaying to and fro with indignation.
"As if I should!"
"As if I'd let you!"
"The very idea!"
"I'm 'stonished you should talk such nonsense, Rowena!"
Rowena laughed softly. It was the first time she had unbent since the telling of the dread news. She put her head on one side and stared at Dreda's furious face with an "I told you so!" expression which that young lady found infinitely exasperating.
"Our dear Dreda, as usual, finds preaching easier than practice. You see, my dear, when it comes to the point, you are not a bit more resigned than I am myself. It's worse for me to give up all the fun of my first season than for you to stay at home instead of going to school; the only difference is that I have sense enough to realise what is before me, while you are so taken up with sentiment and—"
"Oh, shut up, girls! Stop wrangling, for pity's sake!" cried Hereward, impatiently. "Things are bad enough as they are, without making them worse. If you are going to nag, we'll go downstairs and leave you to yourselves. It's such bad form to kick up a fuss; but girls are all alike. You wouldn't find a boy going on like that—"
Rowena turned upon him with wide, challenging eyes.
"Wouldn't I? Are you so sure? Suppose father were to tell you to- morrow that you couldn't be a soldier, but must go into an office and try to earn money for yourself... Suppose he took you away from Eton, Gurth, and sent you to a cheap school! How would you like that?"
Silence... The two lads sat staring into the fire with dogged faces. They scorned to cry aloud, but the horror of the prospect had for a moment a so paralysing effect that they could not reply. Leave Sandhurst in the middle of one's course, and become—a clerk! Leave Eton and the fellows, and go to one of those miserable, second-rate shows which all good Etonians regarded with ineffable contempt! Was it possible to suffer such degradation and live?
Rowena was touched to compunction by the sight of the stricken faces, for though at the moment the worst side of her character was in the ascendant, she was by no means hard-hearted, and, moreover, Hereward was her especial friend and companion. She laughed again, and gave an impatient shrug to her shoulders.
"Oh, don't be afraid ... He never will! Whatever happens, nothing will be allowed to interfere with 'the boys' and their careers! We shall all pinch and screw and live on twopence-halfpenny a week, so as to be able to pay your bills. It's always the same story. Everything is sacrificed for the sons."
"Quite right, too," maintained the eldest son, stoutly. "How are you going to keep up the honour of a family if you don't give the boys a chance? It doesn't matter a fig whether a girl is educated or not, so long as she can read and write. She'll marry, of course, and then she has nothing to do but add up the bills."
At this truly masculine distinction, Rowena and Dreda tossed scornful heads and rolled indignant eyes to the ceiling.
"I shall never marry!" announced the former, thinking ruefully of the bare countryside, with never a house of consequence within a radius of miles ... "I am a suffragette. I believe in the high, lofty mission of women!" cried the second, who had been converted to the movement the day before by the sight of some sketches in the Daily Graphic. Only nine- year-old Maud sniffed, and opined, "I shall marry a lord! Then he'll have lots of money, and I'll give it to father, and we'll live happily ever after."
Poor Maud! Her millennium was not to begin just yet, at least; for Nannie, her immaculate but austere attendant, rapped at the door at that moment, and summoned her nursling to be bathed and put to bed. Maud was every evening enraged afresh at being called at such a ridiculously early hour, and to-night her annoyance was increased by the fact that she was torn ruthlessly from the rare treat of a conference with her elders, in which she had really been and truly on the level of a "grown- up." She fumed with anger, but presently consolation came with the idea of a dramatic disclosure upstairs. She waited until she and her attendant were alone together in the bedroom, and then sprung the bolt in her most impressive fashion.
"Nannie, we're ruined!"
"Indeed, miss. Sorry to hear it, I'm sure," returned Nannie, unperturbed. It is safe to predict that any important family news will be known as soon in the servants' hall as in the drawing-room, and Nannie had the air of listening to a very stale piece of information.
Maud was distinctly disappointed, but nerved herself for fresh efforts. "Yes. Bankrup'! There's nothing left. I'm going to give up all my savings. What will you do, Nannie—leave?"
"I shall be pleased to stay on, miss, as long as your mother can afford to give me my wages and a nursery maid."
"Oh, Nannie, how mean! The Pharisees likewise do as much as that! In storybooks the nurses always stay on, whether they are ruined or not, and give their money to help. You are mean!"
"No impertinence, please," said Nannie sharply. She was just beginning to comb out Maud's hair, and it was astonishing how many knots there appeared to be that evening. "I'm sorry I spoke," reflected poor Maud.
In the next week future plans were practically settled so far as the young people were concerned. Rowena had been right in her surmise about the boys, for, like most fathers, Mr Saxon was prepared to retrench in any and every direction rather than interfere with the education of his sons. It was a family tradition that the eldest son should go into the army; therefore, at all costs, Hereward must continue that tradition. The Saxons had for generations been Eton boys, therefore it was impossible that Gurth could attend another school. As to the girls— well, Mr Saxon dearly loved his three daughters, and was proud of their grace and beauty, but in effect he held much the same ideas with regard to their education as those which Hereward had expounded to his sisters' indignation. He thought it quite unnecessary to spend large sums on schooling for girls, and for his own part frankly preferred a woman who had no pretensions to being a blue-stocking.
The boys received the intelligence with a complacent sense that all was as it should be, and the one great anxiety being relieved, were disposed to make light of minor privations. What though the manner of living at home must necessarily be less luxurious than of yore, holidays occupied, after all, a small portion of the year, and in a few years' time they would be launching out for themselves. Hereward had an ambition to join an Indian regiment. Gurth was destined for the Civil Service. The Meads would be quite a good old place in which to spend an occasional furlough. But the girls! The girls were by no means reconciled to being sacrificed on the altar of masculine ambition. When the programme for their own future was announced by the nervously anxious mother, Rowena, Etheldreda, and Maud were alike consumed with indignation and dismay. They could hardly believe the evidence of their own ears as they listened to her words:
"Father thought I had better have a little talk with you, dear girls, and explain to you what we have decided about your future. It has been a difficult question—very difficult, and we have had to face alterations which we would thankfully have avoided, for in the end it simply comes down to the bare question of what we can or cannot afford. The boys' education is unfortunately very costly, and those expenses cannot be reduced."
"Why?" demanded Dreda. The crisp, sharp question cut like a lash across Mrs Saxon's soft-toned explanation, and she started, and faced her young daughter with a shrinking almost of dismay. Perhaps in her heart of hearts she, too, doubted the justice of the masculine mandate that girls should invariably be sacrificed for boys, but she was too loyal to admit any dissension when her husband had laid down his commands.
"Why, Dreda?" she repeated, gently. "Because the boys have their way to make in the world ... If we have not much money to leave them, we must at least give them every chance of success. Their education will be their capital."
"An officer in the army needs a large private allowance. Father has always said so. Hereward will need to be helped all his life, instead of being able to help the family as an eldest son should do ... He could go into business."
"Oh, Dreda dear! You, who are so sympathetic and kind-hearted. Think of the terrible disappointment! There always has been a soldier in the family."
"The family has always been rich. Of course I don't want him to be disappointed. I don't want anyone to be disappointed," declared Dreda with an emphasis which brought the colour into her mother's thin cheeks. "I suppose I can go to Madame Clerc's at Easter, just the same?"
"I—I am afraid ... Madame Clerc's is a very expensive school, darling. I am afraid it is out of the question! We will do all we can for you. That is one of the principal things which we have had on our minds the last week, and I trust—I believe we have made satisfactory arrangements. Miss Bruce does not feel able to give you finishing lessons, but Mrs Webster, of Swithin, tells me that she is quite satisfied with the school to which she has sent her three daughters. The education is all that could be desired, and the fees much more moderate than Madame Clerc's. We should see more of you, too, darling, for you would be able to come home for the exeats in the middle of the term—"
"Mother! What are you saying? You can't possibly be in earnest. Please, please don't frighten me! It's a hateful school. I have always looked down upon it and detested it, and thanked goodness I should never have to go to it!"
Dreda's face was aflame with colour; her eyes had widened until they looked about twice their natural size, in her voice there sounded a quiver of so real a distress that the mother flushed painfully in response.
"Dear! why be so prejudiced? It may not be so fashionable a school as Madame Clerc's, but it is admirable in every way, and you will meet friends there whom you already know—the Websters..."
"Know them! We don't! We have met now and then, but we always determine not to know them. We christened them 'The Currant Buns,' and hated them from the first moment. Round, white faces and little curranty eyes!"
"Dreda! Dreda! What has appearance to do with it? You confess yourself that you are prejudiced, so you cannot possibly judge... They are said to be clever and industrious, and exceptionally well brought up, but there will be other girls, plenty of other girls from whom to choose friends."
"It is settled, then? Really settled. You have seen the mistress?"
"Yes, dear, it is settled. You are to begin work at the beginning of the term. The Websters are delighted to think of having you as a companion."
Dreda flung out her arms with a gesture of passionate despair, stood for a moment confronting her mother with flashing eyes and quivering lips, then suddenly wheeled round, and rushed headlong from the room.
Her first overwhelming impulse was to get out into the air. The house suffocated her, and besides, she was going to do something ... something desperate ... and there was no scope indoors. She thought of the lake, lying dull and grey within its reedy bank, and saw a vision of herself floating on the surface, with her unbound hair streaming round her face. In the Academy a year before she had been much attracted by a picture of the dead Elaine, and her own hair was exactly the same shade... But it was wicked to commit suicide, and, miserable though she was, life held too many attractions to be lightly abandoned. She would just run away into the darkness and the silence, with her sore, sore heart—to commune with nature, and face the future alone with her own soul! Dreda sobbed aloud at the pathos of the thought, and, racing down the passage, threw open the side door leading into the garden.
A gust of wind blew into her face, a dash of cold sleety rain. The sky was inky black, so black that it was impossible to distinguish even the outline of the trees: the air was soaking with moisture. To one longing for darkness and loneliness, the prospect should have been all that could be desired; yet Dreda drew back shuddering, and shut the door with a hasty hand. It was wet. She hated to get wet, yet she could not take an umbrella. When your heart was breaking, and you were face to face with one of the tragic moments of life, to walk abroad sheltered by an umbrella was too calm and commonplace a proceeding to be contemplated for a moment! Dreda decided that on the whole it would be better to do her wrestling in her own room; but the noise of the opening and shutting of the door had attracted attention, and as she slowly retraced her steps the pantry door opened, and Martin the parlourmaid thrust her head inquiringly outward.
Martin was a pleasant middle-aged woman, an old retainer in the family, and the pantry at The Meads was quite a good-sized room, and a comfortable one at that, boasting a fireplace in which blazed the cheeriest of fires, for Martin was fond of comfort, and took a pride in keeping her domain spick and span. Her face brightened as she saw the girl standing in the passage, for Dreda was a favourite with all the servants. Miss Rowena, they agreed, was "high;" but Miss Dreda was "feelin'."
"Very feelin' was Miss Dreda!" She was always sorry for you, and wanted to help. They bore her no grudge because the "wanting" frequently went no farther than words. She was but young. Young things did forget. It was entered to her abiding credit that she was "feelin'."
This afternoon one glimpse at the flushed, excited face was sufficient to show that the girl herself was in trouble, and Martin threw open the door to show the hospitable glow of the fire.
"Miss Dreda! Was that you standing by that door in the cold? You'll be catching cold; that's what you'll be doing! I'm having a snack of cocoa and buttered toast. Come in and have a bite by the fire."
Dreda hesitated. Buttered toast was incongruous—painfully incongruous; for among the other desperate resolutions which had rushed through her brain, a slow, determined starvation had held a foremost place. She would turn with a sick distaste from the pleasures of the table; would eat only the plainest of viands, and of them barely enough to keep herself in life. She would grow thin and hollow-eyed, and her parents, looking on, would repent their cruelty in sackcloth and ashes. But—the buttered toast smelt wonderfully good!
"I'll come in and warm myself, but—I'm not hungry," said Dreda, hesitating. But Martin did not appear to have heard. As her young mistress seated herself by the fire, a stool was quietly placed by her side, and on the stool appeared, as if by magic, a plate of toast and a cup of cocoa.
Dreda's hand stretched out involuntarily; she ate and drank, and reflected that, after all, as her father had lost money so unexpectedly, it was only reasonable to suppose that he would recover it in a manner equally rapid. She was sorry she had been cross. She would never be cross any more. In the recovered days of prosperity it would be so pleasant to remember how nobly she had borne herself in the hour of trial!
Meantime in the schoolroom upstairs another blow had fallen, and Rowena was quivering beneath the shock of discovering that in Miss Bruce's absence it was she and not Etheldreda who was expected to carry on Maud's education.
"I am sure you will be a conscientious teacher, dear; and I hope that the regular occupation, and the consciousness that you are being of real use will make life brighter for you. Maud will promise to be an industrious pupil, won't you, darling?"
Maud eyed Rowena's tragic countenance, and felt it wise to refrain from rash protestations. She was longing to rush after Dreda to declaim against this last injustice, and as her mother continued to address herself pointedly to Rowena, taking no more notice of her own important presence, she slipped softly from the room.
The two who were left, felt, the one a throb of relief, the other a chill of acute discomfort, at finding themselves alone. The tie between this mother and her eldest daughter was a very tender one, and in the shock of the recent losses Mrs Saxon had unconsciously built much on Rowena's sympathy and love. Rowena would help. Rowena would sympathise; Rowena—herself a woman—would understand some things which even the good husband could not grasp. In the happy, easy days of prosperity, Rowena could always be relied on to be loving, dutiful, and considerate—it was a shock to discover that these good qualities had not enough foundation to withstand the test of adversity. Mrs Saxon was not angry; only distressed and troubled afresh, and overwhelmingly anxious to find the right way to her daughter's heart.
"Mother!" cried Rowena sharply. "How did father lose his money? It seems so strange that it should disappear all of a sudden like this. We have always had plenty until now. Has he been speculating, or doing something rash?"
The momentary pause before Mrs Saxon replied and the dignified lifting of her gentle head were more eloquent than a spoken reproof.
"No, Rowena; there is no blame attaching to your father. There has been a great failure in America, which has affected many of his investments. We cannot reproach ourselves for any want of care, and that being so, we must look upon this change of circumstances as coming to us from God's hands, and try to learn the lessons which it is intended to teach. To each of us, perhaps, our own task appears especially hard. You, darling, have looked forward to a time of pleasure and gaiety, and it is difficult to give it up cheerfully, and face living quietly in the country and helping in the house. I understand; I've been a girl myself, and I remember how I felt; but, darling, I am a woman now— getting quite an old woman—and I have learnt my lessons. There is more real joy and contentment to be gained by simply doing one's duty than in all the balls and receptions of a London season, Rowena!"
Rowena sat dumb, her eyes fixed on the tablecloth, her long dark lashes resting on her cheeks. Those were the sentiments you read in books, and heard in sermons, but it was always grown-up people who voiced them; grown-up people who, like mother, had had a good time in their own youth, and were afterwards unreasonable enough to expect their children to be resigned and middle-aged when they had just emerged from the schoolroom. Rowena thought of the prospect which had stretched dazzlingly before her but a week before; of the gaiety and variety of amusement which had made so fair a dream, and contrasted it with the prospect of an uneventful domestic life at the Manor—teaching Maud! She pressed her lips together, and sat silent, feeling her mother's eyes on her face; dreading to meet their tenderly reproaching gaze.
"That sounds strange to you, dear, and perhaps a little hard, but all the same it is true. I do not minimise your disappointment, but for the time being it is inevitable, and nothing remains but to face the situation bravely. As the eldest daughter of the house more depends upon you than upon any of the rest, and your opportunities will be endless. You can be a great comfort to us, darling, or a great additional care. It all depends upon the spirit in which you start the new life—upon whether you look in or out—put yourself first, or think of others."
Mrs Saxon paused again, and within Rowena's still form two contending forces fought for victory. While one sullen spirit held her dumb, the real self seemed to stand apart, reviewing her own conduct, and uttering words of exhortation and appeal: "How hateful of you never to say a word in reply! Poor mother! her voice trembled... It's hard on her, too. If you could just put your arms round her neck and kiss her, and promise to be good, it would comfort her ever so much. And you'd be happier yourself. It only makes you more miserable to sulk, and be unkind. Look up and smile, and promise to be nice." So urged the inner voice, but alas, the fleshy eyelids seemed heavy as lead, and the lips remained stiff and unmoveable. To all outward appearance there was no sign of softening in the fixed face.
Mrs Saxon's heart sank heavily. Rowena's lack of response to her appeal was a bitter disappointment; but she realised that it was useless to prolong the interview. A few moments longer she waited, hoping against hope for a word in reply, then stifling a sigh, she rose from her seat.
"Well—I must go back to father. Look after the fire, darling, if you are going to stay here. It is getting low, and you must not catch cold."
She bent as she passed to kiss the unresponsive lips, and walked from the room carrying a heavy heart in her breast. "If she had only spoken! If she had even looked up and smiled!" Such was the wounded mother cry; and all the time Rowena's heart was speeding unspoken messages after her as she went.
"Mother! I'm sorry. You are so sweet, and I am a wretch! I will try! I'll try my best!"
Alas! the ears of sense could not catch the message, and so the opportunity passed, and left both hearts aching and oppressed.
"What's 'rejuiced'?" queried Maud, squeezing herself into the central place on the big fender, as her brothers and sisters sat roasting chestnuts by the schoolroom fire one wet afternoon a few days later, and the question being received by a blank stare of bewilderment she repeated the word with intensified emphasis. "Re-juiced! We're rejuiced! I heard Mary say so in the schoolroom. She said to nurse that she didn't know if the missis would be wanting to keep on two housemaids now she was re-juiced! Does it mean poor?"
"You have no business to listen to servants' conversation; but if you do, pray spare us the repetition!" said Rowena in her most grown-up manner. Maud reflected that ever since mother had spoken of the new arrangement about lessons, Ro had talked exactly like a governess, and been just as snappy as snappy. She bounced on her seat, and wagged her head in the obstinate manner which she adopted upon provocation.
"I don't listen, but I have ears, and if people speak I am obliged to hear. Mary came into the room to dust. Nurse was darning the tablecloth. It's all gone into holes where Gurth spilt the chemical acid. It's the one with the little shamrocks for a pattern. So Nurse said: 'Drat those boys!' and licked the cotton with her tongue, and—"
Hereward and Gurth exchanged glances of resigned boredom, but Dreda drummed her heels on the floor, and called aloud with startling emphasis:
"Go on! Go on! Who wants to hear about tablecloth patterns, and licking threads? Keep to your point, if you have a point to stick to! If Rowena's is going to give you lessons, she'd better begin by teaching you not to be such a bore. You go prosing on and on—"
"I don't. I'm not. Bore yourself! 'Twas most intrusting!" insisted Maud, stolidly. "They were sort of talking about us all, in a sort of way as if I couldn't understand, and I understood all the time, and they said we were rejuiced, and I asked you a simple question what it meant. When you're perlite to other people, other people should be perlite to you in return."
"All right, Maud, keep calm, keep calm! You reduce a thing by taking something from it. We are reduced because something—a great deal—has been taken away from our income, and what remains is not enough to go round. I expect the second housemaid will be sent packing, and you will have to make the beds."
Maud squealed with dismay, then with a gleam of shrewdness nodded her head, and prophesied sagely:
"It would be worse for you than me if I did! I'd make them full of crumples. I'd get hold of the ends of the clothes, and Hop them down all together like Mary does when it's her Sunday out, and she's in a hurry. Then you'd be in a rage when you got in and your toes stuck out!"
"I'll make the beds!" announced Dreda, graciously. "I think all girls ought to learn to be domestic, and there's a real art in making beds. I've often thought how much better I could do it than any servant we have had. It's the trained intellect, I suppose. (I do hate you, Rowena, when you sneer like that!) F'rinstance—I like my blankets just up to my chin, and if I tell Mary ten times a day, it's always the same—she doubles them down till you are all hunkley round the neck. Then that leaves less to tuck in at the bottom, and if you have a nightmare and kick, there you are with your feet sticking out in the cold, and have to get up and tuck them in, when you want to sleep! And I can't endure creases. I like the under sheet stretched as tight as tight. Everyone likes a bed made in a special way, and it ought to be done. Think of the time one spends in bed! A third of one's life. It's a shame not to be comfortable. I should be an expert in bed- making. I'd keep a book to remind me of everyone's special fancies—"
"And lose it the second day! Play all the experiments you like, but leave my room alone. I want no expert. The ordinary common or garden housemaid is good enough for me," said Hereward, cruelly.
Dreda reflected sadly that a prophet was not a prophet in her own country, but she was too much fired with the new idea to relinquish it without a trial. Besides, hidden in her heart lay the reviving thought: "If I could prove that I could be of use in the house, perhaps they'd let me stay! I know quite enough lessons as it is!"
The first two nights after hearing of the changed arrangements for her own education Dreda had cried herself to sleep, and had even succeeded— with a little difficulty—in squeezing out a few tears as she dressed in the morning, or what was the use of breaking your heart if no one were the wiser, or pitied you for your pathetic looks? By the third morning, however, her facile nature had adapted itself to the inevitable. She was tired of being in the dumps, and reflected that with a little diplomacy she would be able to "manage" the school governesses as cleverly as she had done the Spider before them, while the Currant Buns looked meek, poor-spirited creatures, who would like nothing better than to be ruled. "I'll teach them!" prophesied Dreda darkly, and the word was used in no educational sense.
The future was thus swallowed at a gulp; but all the same Dreda thought it worth while to interview her mother on the subject of her domestic ambitions, and was much disappointed to have her generous offer kindly but firmly refused.
"There is no necessity, dear. Thank you very much, all the same," Mrs Saxon said, smilingly. "We are no longer able to keep up two houses, but we can afford all the help that is needed for one. The two housemaids can keep the bedrooms in order very easily in this fresh clean air."
Etheldreda put her head on one side and lengthened her upper lip, after a fashion she affected when she wished to be impressive.
"Still," she insisted, obstinately, "when a family is reduced in circumstances I think it most important that the girls should learn to be domestic. I have always understood that in reduced circumstances it was necessary for the mistress to overlook everything, and how can you learn to do that if you never begin? It seems to me that one can never begin too young, and if we could do with only one housemaid, it is our duty to do so."
Mrs Saxon laughed. She always did laugh when Dreda waxed impressive, which was one of that young woman's trials in life.
"Darling Dreda!" she cried, affectionately. "You shall be as domestic as ever you please—the more domestic the better; but there is a time for everything, and this is your time for study. You must wait until your education is finished, before you take up home duties. We are not going to sacrifice your interests for the sake of a servant's wages. Work hard, and do your best, dear. One thing at a time, and that done well—"
But Dreda refused to be convinced.
"My theory," she announced, firmly, "my theory is that it is stupid to waste time learning things which you will never need! As we are 'rejuiced' (the expression had stuck, until the very pronunciation was unconsciously reproduced), and I can't go to Madame Clerc's and be finished properly, I should consider that it would be wiser to stop as I am. I am very well grounded. We can't afford to go into society now, so I shall probably marry a man in a humble position, and it's foolish to educate me above my rank!"
"Oh, Dreda, Dreda! Oh! I haven't laughed for weeks. You mustn't be vexed with me for laughing, dear—it's so refreshing!" And Mrs Saxon wiped her eyes and chuckled irresistibly, the while her young daughter regarded her more in pity than in anger.
"I can't see what I have said that is so amusing. I was speaking most seriously. I'm fifteen. It's my own future that is at stake. Really, mother!"
"I'm sorry, dear, and I don't mean to be unsympathetic. I know you are in earnest, but for the next few years you must consent to be guided by what father and I believe to be best. Whatever may be before you, it is necessary that you have a good education, so put your heart into your work, and get on as quickly as possible."
Dreda sucked her upper lip in eloquent disgust.
"Parents are so trying!" she told herself, mentally. "They never seem to think it possible that you know better yourself. I shall be quite different with my daughters. What a pity it is that you can never manage to be your own mother!"
During the next three weeks the Saxons settled slowly into the routine of life as it would in future be spent at the Manor. To begin with, the house itself was greatly improved in appearance by the addition of extra furniture and draperies sent down from the lavishly equipped house in town. The cold austerity of the entrance-hall was turned into something positively approaching cheerfulness by the presence of crimson portieres, a huge tapestry screen shutting off the staircase, and, best of all, by a brass brazier which, piled high with blazing coals, diffused both light and heat, and seemed to speak a cheery welcome to each new-comer. The Bechstein grand piano was not only a gain from a musical point of view, but made a decided improvement in the sparsely furnished drawing-room, while a few good pictures and ornaments gave a homelike air which had hitherto been conspicuous by its absence.
Rowena regarded these improvements with the numb unconcern which a prisoner might manifest over an unimportant alteration in his cell; but Dreda, as usual, was afire with enthusiasm, and spent a radiantly happy day playing the part of a charwoman, in apron and rolled-up sleeves. She washed all the ornaments, exulting in the inky colour of the water after the operation, and insisting that each member of the household should ascend to regain the same.
"Isn't it beautifully dirty?" she cried in triumph. "I scrubbed them with the nail brush. You should have seen the dust come out of the chinks! I simply dote upon seeing the water turn black. It's no fun washing things unless they are really dirty!"
When the additions were viewed as a whole, however, Dreda was not so content. She even frowned with displeasure at sight of the luxury in the hall.
"It's not consistent!" she pronounced, judicially. "We are rejuiced, and it doesn't look rejuiced! People in the neighbourhood coming to call will think we are richer instead of poorer. You will have to explain, mother. It wouldn't be honest if you didn't."
Mrs Saxon's smile was a somewhat painful effort.
"I imagine there will be little need of explanation, Dreda. News flies fast in a country place, and our neighbours probably know our affairs as well as we know them ourselves."
"And are gossiping about us behind our backs, and longing to call and see how we bear it!" continued Rowena, with that new edge of bitterness in her voice, which sounded so sadly in her mother's ears. It needed a hard struggle with herself before Mrs Saxon could command herself to reply gently:
"Curiosity is natural, perhaps, but I don't think we need fear anything unfriendly. If there should be any exhibition of the sort, it's a comfort to feel that I can depend upon my grown-up daughter to set an example of dignity and self-restraint. My nature is like Dreda's, so much more impulsive, that you will be a great strength to me, dear."
Oh, that soft answer that turneth away wrath, how omnipotent it is! The sneer was wiped off Rowena's face as by a sponge, her blue eyes glistened, and she stooped her tall young head to press an impetuous kiss upon her mother's cheek. For the rest of the day she was her old, sweet loving self, and the mother was rewarded a thousandfold for the effort which it had cost her to repress a hasty retort, and replace it by a word of tenderness and appreciation.
At the end of a fortnight the three boys returned to school, placidly resigned to a change of circumstances which left their own lives untouched; and no sooner had they departed than the Spider in her turn began to pack her boxes, in preparation for her own exit. For the past ten years she had been regarded as a member of the family, spending the greater number of her holidays with her pupils, and being included in all the household festivities and rejoicings. It was inevitable that her absence would cause a blank, and the young people experienced sundry pangs of conscience as they recalled the want of appreciation with which they had received their efforts on their behalf. How they had teased and lazed, and plotted and schemed, to escape the tasks which she had so laboriously enforced! How they had laughed behind her back, imitating her little mannerisms, and exhorting each other after her invariable formulae: "Impertinence, my love, is not wit!"
"A young lady should be composed and dignified in demeanour."
"Concentration, my dear, concentration! That is what you require." Poor, dear, good Spider; her methods were somewhat behind the times; but she was the kindest, most faithful of souls. Everyone was thankful to know that owing to the recent receipt of a legacy she was able to retire comfortably from active work, and to look forward to a peaceful contented home in the family of a beloved niece. Neither was it a very serious parting, since nothing was so certain as that so true a friend must return again and again to the scene of her labours; to see Hereward in his first uniform; to attend Rowena's marriage; Dreda's coming out; and inspect the progress of her youngest pupils. A few tears were shed when the hour of parting actually arrived, but there was no bitterness in them on either side, nor were they of any long duration.
And now for Etheldreda's turn! When the morning dawned on which she was to depart for school, she felt it fitting that her toilette should express the melancholy of her mood. Dreda had a great idea of fitness, and a costume composed of an old shepherd plaid skirt, a grey flannel blouse and a black tie seemed admirably symbolic of what she herself described as "the mourning of her soul." When it was donned, however, the result was found to be so extremely unbecoming that resolution wavered, and collapsed. After all, the most important matter was to impress her new companions, and there was no denying that that could be done most effectively in blue—in just such a blue as was at that moment hanging in the wardrobe ready for use. With light-like speed Dreda shed her dun-coloured garments on to the floor, and in a trice was arrayed in her prettiest, most becoming costume.
This time the reflection was so pleasing that it was quite an effort to pull down her chin, and drop her eyelids, with the air of melancholy resignation which she was determined at all costs to preserve during breakfast. Mrs Saxon's face brightened at sight of the pretty blue dress, but neither she nor any other member of the family mentioned the fatal word "school." Rather did each one try to give a cheerful turn to the conversation, and to lead it towards a discussion of those topics in which the heroine of the day was the most interested. "Sops!" murmured Dreda dramatically to herself. "Sops!" She struggled hard to restrain her longing for a second helping of bacon; but her courage gave out at the thought of the motor drive across the cold open country.
"I must strengthen myself with plenty of nourishment," she decided, as she handed over her plate, and accepted the offer of a third cup of coffee. Like all pleasant things, however, the meal came to an end at last, and then the great event of the day could no longer be ignored. Maud caught the glance exchanged between her parents, and felt herself freed from her promise of silence.
"Now!" she exclaimed, with a gusty sigh of relief. "Now for the Buns! Now you'll see which knows most, them or you. Them, I should think, 'cause they're clever, and you forget. Miss Bruce said your head was like a sieve. Do you remember the day she said it? She had on her jet chain, and jingled with the beads. You'll have to remember not to forget, or you'll be the bottom of the class. Fancy three Currant Buns on top!"
She stopped short, with her characteristic throaty little laugh, and Dreda glared at her with flashing eyes. It was really extraordinary that anyone so stupid as Maud should so often succeed in hitting upon just the most aggravating thing to say under the circumstances. Three Currant Buns on top indeed! Life would only be endurable if she herself could seize the leading place, and hold it relentlessly to the end. She would not condescend to reply, and Maud was hurriedly nudged, and poked, and "shoved" into silence by Rowena, who was in an unusually sympathetic mood, realising how she herself would have felt had fate cast her own scholastic lot with that of the Misses Webster.
"Never mind her," she whispered, consolingly, as she followed Dreda upstairs to put on hat and jacket before her departure. "It's not worth while troubling yourself about Maud's remarks. It's impossible to think that any of those girls will get the better of you! It's hateful, of course; but perhaps it may not be quite so hateful as we think—"
"Oh, I don't mind. I'm resigned! One can only be as miserable as one can. Perhaps I'll have an accident some day, riding over those rough roads, and then it will all be finished. I don't mind how soon my life is over!" declared Dreda, harpooning her hat viciously with a pin of murderous length, ornamented at the head by a life-size imitation of a tomato. "But while I do live, I tell you one thing, Rowena, I'll— I'll hold my own!"
"I'm sure of that," assented Rowena, with conviction. "Look here, Dreda, would you like me to drive over with you as well as mother? I could, you know; and it might break the ice!"
"No, no! Father wanted to come, but I begged not. Everything is arranged, and I don't want people looking on. It will be a hidjus ordeal!"
"Oh, my dear, come! Don't exaggerate. It's not so tragic as all that."
"Isn't it, then? Don't be so grown-up and horrid! How would you like it yourself, if anyone made the best of your having to teach Maud?"
That one trenchant question was sufficient to reduce Rowena to the depths of silent despair, and the two sisters descended the staircase with aspects equally lugubrious and mournful.
It was not a cheerful send-off, despite all the efforts of the family, who stood shivering in the porch to wave farewells, and call out encouraging prognostications so long as the motor remained in sight. Dreda drew a big sigh of relief as they turned out of the drive, and spun rapidly along the highway. The necessity for keeping up a part was over, and involuntarily she began softly whistling beneath her breath, for in truth she was by no means so miserable as she had striven to appear.
Novelty was the breath of Dreda's nostrils. Any novelty to her was better than none, and if the chance of returning to the house had at that moment been vouchsafed, it is doubtful if she would have accepted it at the cost of missing the excitements of the next few hours.
The car spun along strongly, so that the twenty miles' distance was speedily covered, and before Etheldreda was half-way through her dreams it had turned in at a gate, and there before her eyes lay Grey House, a square, pretentious-looking building, with a door in the middle and a stretch of three windows on either side. There, also—oh! thrilling and exciting moment—pressed against the panes of an upper window were a number of round white discs, which must obviously be the faces of pupils watching the advent of the new girl!
Dreda sat up, and throwing back her golden mane, tossed a laughing remark to her mother—the first she had volunteered since leaving home, and showed her white teeth in a determined smile. If she were fated to arrive at all, she would arrive as a conqueror who would be regarded with envy and admiration. Privately, she might consider herself a martyr, but that was not a role in which she chose to appear before other people. She was smiling as she entered the drawing-room after her mother, smiling as Miss Bretherton came forward to greet them, smiling still, a forced, fixed smile, as she listened to the conversation between the two ladies.
"Hope we shall be very happy together—"
("I shan't. I don't like you a bit! Scraggy, cross-looking thing! Your nose looks as if it would cut!")
"...Dreda is fond of society. She will enjoy working with other girls!"
("Shan't, then! I shall hate it. I should have enjoyed it in Paris.")
"...Beginnings always are a little difficult; but young people soon adapt themselves!"
("It's easy to talk!")
After a few minutes passed in the exchange of these and similar commonplaces, Mrs Saxon rose to depart. On a previous visit she had been shown over the house, and had seen the room where her daughter was to sleep, and now her presence would only prolong the agony. She cast a look at her daughter, full of yearning mother love and sympathy; but Dreda was smiling still, her grey eyes wide open, her very gums showing in the unnatural stretching of her lips. She submitted to be kissed, but offered no caress in return, and turned with a nonchalant air to examine the photographs on the mantelshelf, while Miss Bretherton escorted her mother to the door.
They were all photographs of girls—old girls who had left school and could afford to be amiable and forgiving. One wore a cap and gown and was evidently a crack pupil who had won honours at college; another held a baby on her knee—she was pretty, and had married young; a third supported her head on her hand and stared dreamily into space; another posed against a screen. Dreda stared at them with eyes that grew misty and unseeing, as the motor puffed down the drive. Now she was alone— away from home for the first time in her life! Miss Bretherton was coming back—Miss Bretherton with the thin face and the sharply pointed nose.
The door opened; the photographs looked mistier than ever; Miss Bretherton's voice sounded from an immense distance, saying in cheery tones:
"Now I am going to take you upstairs to see your room, Etheldreda. Susan Webster and Nancy West will share it with you. Susan you know already—a delightful girl; and Nancy is equally charming. Most of the girls returned last night, but we have not yet settled into regular work: it takes a little time to arrange the classes. Are your boots quite clean? Better rub them once more on the mat! Pupils are not allowed to ascend the staircase in outdoor shoes."
She led the way forward, while Dreda followed, looking about with curious eyes. The carpet lasted only so long as the stair could be seen from the hall beneath, and was then replaced by oil-cloth, worn to a colourless drab by the tramp of many feet. On the first storey a narrow passage ran the whole length of the house, and innumerable doors seemed to open on each side. The murmur of voices could be heard from within, as one passed these closed portals; but one of the number, labelled Number 5, was not quite shut, and Dreda had a shrewd suspicion that it opened an inch or two wide as she passed by. Probably it gave entrance to the room from which faces had stared out on the drive; probably the same curious faces were peering forth through that crack at this very moment.
The bedroom bore a bleak look, despite the fact that the furniture was all in threes—three narrow beds, three washstands, three chests of drawers—topped by miniature mirrors—and three small cane-seated chairs. Each of the three inmates had a portion of the room to herself, and against the wall stood two folding screens, evidently designed to insure privacy. Dreda noted with dismay that the two ends of the room, the one next the window and the one next the door, already bore signs of occupation. Her brow clouded, and instead of the usual polite remarks of approval, out shot an impetuous question:
"Have I to take the middle? I'd rather have an end!"
"Susan and Nancy have occupied the same beds for the last year. All are equally comfortable."
"There ought to be three screens. I want two to shut myself in. Suppose one of the others didn't want hers up!"
"Why suppose disagreeables, my dear? It is a great mistake. I feel sure your companions will consider your comfort as thoughtfully as their own. Hang your jacket on the pegs; then you can come to your classroom, to be introduced to your companions. Take off your hat."
Dreda pulled a face in the mirror. She felt cross and ill-used. At home she was accustomed to a big, beautiful room all to herself; she did not at all enjoy the prospect of owning a third of this chill grey dormitory. She took off her hat—conscious that Miss Bretherton's eyes were regarding the tomato-topped pin with silent disapproval—wriggled out of her coat, and bestowed a series of pats and pulls to hair, necktie, and blouse. Being one of the happy people who feel cheered rather than depressed by the sight of her own reflection in the glass, she followed the head mistress downstairs without any of the trepidations of nervousness which afflict most new girls, and was by no means surprised when that lady made straight for the doorway of Number 5.
It opened, and six girls were discovered seated before a table, wearing expressions of preternatural solemnity. One of the number wore spectacles; a second had a broad band of metal over her front teeth; a third had red hair and a thick powdering of freckles; "The Currant Buns" wore dresses of yellowy-brown tweed, which in Dreda's eyes made them appear "bunnier" than ever. So much was taken in by the first lightning glance, as at the appearance of Miss Bretherton the girls leapt mechanically to their feet and stood stolidly at attention.
"Girls, this is your new companion, Etheldreda Saxon. She is to share Number 20 with Susan and Nancy, and I expect will be in the fourth form. You had better leave your books and have a little chat beside the fire, until Miss Drake is ready. You may tell her that I gave you permission."
She left the room and shut the door behind her, and Dreda was left face to face with her new companions.
For a moment the six girls retained their former positions, staring with blank, expressionless faces at the new comer. Then Mary Webster, the eldest of the "Currant Buns," advanced with outstretched hand, followed by her two younger sisters.
"How do you do?"
"How do you do?"
"How do you do?"
"So glad to see you."
The murmurs died into silence, while Dreda smiled a radiant encouragement.
"Quite well, thank you. But rather cold. May we poke the fire? My feet—"
She tapped expressively on the floor, whereupon Mary Webster poked discreetly at the fire and Susan, the youngest of the sisters, pushed a chair into the cosiest corner. The other three girls had come forward by this time, and introduced themselves in due form.
"How do you do? I'm Barbara Moore. It's hateful to be a new girl!"
"How do you do? I'm Norah Grey. Sorry you're cold."
"How do you do? I'm Nancy. Tell me truthfully—Do you snore?"
Dreda laughed gaily.
"Sometimes—when I lie on my back. I do it on purpose, because you dream such thrilling dreams. And I yell horribly when I come to the bad bits."
"Something will have to be done!" said Nancy, darkly. She was the girl with the band over her front teeth. It was ugly, but fascinating; one felt constrained to look at it, and looking at it could not help noticing how curved and red were the lips, how darkly lashed the long grey eyes. Nancy was evidently a person to be reckoned with. She sat herself down by the fire, stretched out her feet to the blaze, and appeared to be lost in thought. Dreda longed to talk to her, to inquire what she meant by that mysterious "something," but the "Currant Buns" were clustering round her, regarding her with anxiously proprietary airs as if, having the honour of a personal acquaintance, it was their due to receive the first attention. Dreda felt quite like a celebrity, on the point of being interviewed by a trio of reporters; but as usual she preferred to play the part of questioner herself.