GIRLS OF THE FOREST
The story in this book is complete as written and published by the Author
MACLELLAN .N.Y. COMPANY
GIRLS OF THE FOREST
L. T. MEADE
AUTHOR OF ALWYN'S FRIENDS, BEYOND THE BLUE MOUNTAINS, GOOD LUCK, PLAYMATES, PRETTY GIRL AND THE OTHERS, THE PALACE BEAUTIFUL, ETC.
AKRON, OHIO MACLELLAN .N.Y. COMPANY PUBLISHERS
BIOGRAPHY AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
L. T. Meade (Mrs. Elizabeth Thomasina Smith), English novelist, was born at Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, 1854, the daughter of Rev. R. T. Meade, rector at Novohal, County Cork, and married Toulmin Smith in 1879. She wrote her first book, Lettie's Last Home, at the age of 17, and since then has been an unusually prolific writer, her stories attaining wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.
She worked in the British Museum, lived in Bishopsgate Without, making special studies of East London life, which she incorporated in her stories. She edited the Atlanta, a magazine, for six years. Her pictures of girls, especially in the influence they exert on their elders, are drawn with intuitive fidelity, pathos, love, and humor, as in Girls of the Forest, flowing easily from her pen. She has traveled extensively, and is devoted to motoring and other outdoor sports.
Among more than fifty novels she has written, dealing largely with questions of home life, are: A Knight of To-day (1877), Bel-Marjory (1878), Mou-setse: a Negro Hero (1880), Mother Herring's Chickens (1881), A London Baby: The Story of King Roy (1883), Two Sisters (1884), The Angel of Life (1885), A World of Girls (1886), Sweet Nancy (1887), Nobody's Neighbors (1887), Deb and The Duchess (1888), Girls of the Forest (1908), Aylwyn's Friends (1909), Pretty Girl and the Others (1910).
GIRLS OF THE FOREST.
THE GUEST WHO WAS NEITHER OLD NOR YOUNG.
It was a beautiful summer's afternoon, and the girls were seated in a circle on the lawn in front of the house. The house was an old Elizabethan mansion, which had been added to from time to time—fresh additions jutting out here and running up there. There were all sorts of unexpected nooks and corners to be found in the old house—a flight of stairs just where you did not look for any, and a baize door shutting away the world at the moment when you expected to behold a long vista into space. The house itself was most charming and inviting-looking; but it was also, beyond doubt, much neglected. The doors were nearly destitute of paint, and the papers on many of the walls had completely lost their original patterns. In many instances there were no papers, only discolored walls, which at one time had been gay with paint and rendered beautiful with pictures. The windows were destitute of curtains; the carpets on the floors were reduced to holes and patches. The old pictures in the picture gallery still remained, however, and looked down on the young girls who flitted about there on rainy days with kindly, or searching, or malevolent eyes as suited the characters of those men and women who were portrayed in them.
But this was the heart of summer, and there was no need to go into the musty, fusty old house. The girls sat on the grass and held consultation.
"She is certainly coming to-morrow," said Verena. "Father had a letter this morning. I heard him giving directions to old John to have the trap patched up and the harness mended. And John is going to Lyndhurst Road to meet her. She will arrive just about this time. Isn't it too awful?"
"Never mind, Renny," said her second sister; "the sooner she comes, the sooner she'll go. Briar and Patty and I have put our heads together, and we mean to let her see what we think of her and her interfering ways. The idea of Aunt Sophia interfering between father and us! Now, I should like to know who is likely to understand the education of a girl if her own father does not."
"It is all because the Step has gone," continued Verena. "She told us when she was leaving that she meant to write to Aunt Sophia. She was dreadfully cross at having to go, and the one mean thing she ever did in all her life was to make the remark she did. She said it was very little short of disgraceful to have ten girls running about the New Forest at their own sweet will, without any one to guide them."
"Oh, what a nuisance the Step is!" said Rose, whose pet name was Briar. "Shouldn't I like to scratch her! Dear old Paddy! of course he knows how to manage us. Oh, here he comes—the angel! Let's plant him down in our midst. Daisy, put that little stool in the middle of the circle; the Padre shall sit there, and we'll consult as to the advent of precious Aunt Sophia."
Patty, Briar, and Verena now jumped to their feet and ran in the direction where an elderly gentleman, with a stoop, gray hair hanging over his shoulders, and a large pair of tortoise-shell spectacles on his nose, was walking.
"Paddy, Paddy! you have got to come here at once," called out Briar.
Meanwhile Verena took one of his arms, Patty clasped the other, Briar danced in front, and so they conducted him into the middle of the group.
"Here's your stool, Paddy," cried Briar. "Down you squat. Now then, squatty-vous."
Mr. Dale took off his spectacles, wiped them and gazed around him in bewilderment.
"I was construing a line of Virgil," he said. "You have interrupted me, my dears. Whatever is the matter?"
"We have brought the culprit to justice," exclaimed Pauline. "Paddy, forget the classics for the time being. Think, just for a few moments, of your neglected—your shamefully neglected—daughters. Ten of them, Paddy, all running wild in the Forest glades. Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Don't you feel that your moment of punishment has come? Aunt Sophia arrives to-morrow. Now, what have you got to say for yourself?"
"But, my dear children, we can't have your Aunt Sophia here. I could not dream of it. I remember quite well she came here once a long time ago. I have not got over it yet. I haven't really."
"But she is coming, Paddy, and you know it quite well, for you got the letter. How long do you think you can put up with her?"
"Only for a very short time, Pauline; I assure you, my darling, she is not—not a pleasant person."
"Describe her, Paddy—do," said Verena.
She spoke in her very gentlest tone, and held out one of her long white hands and allowed her father to clasp it. Verena was decidedly the best-looking of the eight girls sitting on the grass. She was tall; her complexion was fair; her figure was naturally so good that no amount of untidy dressing could make it look awkward. Her hair was golden and soft. It was less trouble to wind it up in a thick rope and hairpin it at the back of her head than to let it run wild; therefore she was not even untidy. Verena was greatly respected by her sisters, and Briar was rather afraid of her. All the others sat silent now when she asked the old Padre to describe Aunt Sophia.
"My dear," he answered, "I have not the slightest idea what her appearance is like. My memory of her is that she was fashionable and very conventional."
"What on earth is 'conventional'?" whispered Pat.
"Don't interrupt, Patty," said Verena, squeezing her father's hand. "Go on, Paddy; go on, darling of my heart. Tell us some more. Aunt Sophia is fashionable and conventional. We can look out the words in the dictionary afterwards. But you must know what she is like to look at."
"I don't, my dears; I cannot remember. It was a good many years ago when she came to visit us."
"He must be prodded," said Briar, turning to Renny. "Look at him; he is going to sleep."
"Excuse me, girls," said the Squire, half-rising, and then sitting down again as Verena's young hand pushed him into his seat. "I have just made a most interesting discovery with regard to Virgil—namely, that——"
"Oh, father! we don't want to know about it," said Briar. "Now, then, Renny, begin."
"Her appearance—her appearance!" said Verena gently.
"Whose appearance, dear?"
"Why, Aunt Sophia's; the lady who is coming to-morrow."
"Oh, dear!" said Mr. Dale; "but she must not come. This cannot be permitted; I cannot endure it."
"Paddy, you have given John directions to fetch her. Now, then, what is she like?"
"I don't know, children. I haven't the slightest idea."
"Prod, Renny! Prod!"
"Padre," said Verena, "is she old or young?"
"Old, I think; perhaps neither."
"Write it down, Briar. She is neither old nor young. Paddy, is she dark or fair?"
"I really can't remember, dear. A most unpleasant person."
"Put down that she is—not over-beautiful," said Verena. "Paddy, must we put on our best dresses when she comes—our Sunday go-to-meeting frocks, you know?"
"Children, wear anything on earth you like, but in Heaven's name let me go away now! Only to think that she will be here to-morrow! Why did Miss Stapleton leave us? It is really too terrible."
"She left," said Briar, her eyes twinkling, "because we would call her Step, which means step-mother. She was so dreadfully, dreadfully afraid that you might find it out."
"Oh, children, how incorrigible you are! The poor woman! I'd sooner have married—— I—I never mean to marry anybody."
"Of course you don't, Padre. And you may go now, darling," said Verena. "Go, and be happy, feeling that your daughters will look after you. You are not lonely, are you, darling, with so many of us? Now go and be very happy."
Eight pairs of lips blew kisses to the departing figure. Mr. Dale shambled off, and disappeared through the open window into his study.
"Poor dear!" said Verena, "he has forgotten our existence already. He only lives when he thinks of Virgil. Most of his time he sleeps, poor angel! It certainly is our bounden duty to keep him away from Aunt Sophia. What a terror she must be! Fancy the situation. Eight nieces all in a state of insurrection, and two more nieces in the nursery ready to insurrect in their turn!"
"Something must be done," interrupted Pauline. "Nurse is the woman to help us. Forewarned is forearmed. Nurse must put us up to a wrinkle or two."
"Then let's go to her at once," said Verena.
They all started up, and, Verena leading the way, they went through the little paddock to the left of the house, and so into a yard, very old-fashioned and covered with weeds and cobble-stones. There were tumble-down stables and coach-houses, hen-houses, and buildings, useful and otherwise, surrounding the yard; and now in the coach-house, which for many years had sheltered no carriage of any sort, sat nurse busy at work, with two little children playing at her feet.
"Don't mind the babies at present," said Verena. "Don't snatch them up and kiss them, Briar. Patty, keep your hands off. Nurse, we have come."
"So I see, Miss Verena," said nurse.
She lifted her very much wrinkled old face and looked out of deep-set, black eyes full at the young girl.
"What is it, my darling child?"
"How are we to bear it? Shall we fall on our knees and get round you in a little circle? We must talk to you. You must advise us."
"Eh, dears!" said nurse. "I am nearly past that sort of thing. I'm not as young as I wor, and master and me we're both getting old. It doesn't seem to me to matter much now whether a body's pretty or not, or whether you dress beautiful, or whether a thing is made to look pretty or otherwise. We're all food for worms, dears, all of us, and where's the use of fashing?"
"How horrid of you, nurse!" said Verena. "We have got beautiful bodies, and our souls ought to be more beautiful still. What about the resurrection of the body, you dreadful old nurse?"
"Oh, never mind me, dears; it was only a sort of dream I were dreaming of the funeral of your poor dear mother, who died when this dear lamb was born."
Here nurse patted the fat arm of the youngest hope of the house of Dale, little Marjorie, who looked round at her with rosy face and big blue eyes. Marjorie was between three and four years old, and was a very beautiful little child. Verena, unable to restrain herself any longer, bent down and encircled Marjorie with her strong young arms and clasped her in an ecstatic embrace.
"There, now," she said; "I am better. I forbid all the rest of you girls to touch Marjorie. Penelope, I'll kiss you later."
Penelope was seven years old—a dark child with a round face—not a pretty child, but one full of wisdom and audacity.
"Whatever we do," Verena had said on several occasions, "we must not let Penelope out of the nursery until she is quite eight years old. She is so much the cleverest of us that she'd simply turn us all round her little finger. She must stay with nurse as long as possible."
"I know what you are talking about," said Penelope. "It's about her, and she's coming to-morrow. I told nurse, and she said she oughtn't never to come."
"No, that she oughtn't," said nurse. "The child is alluding to Miss Tredgold. She haven't no call here, and I don't know why she is coming."
"Look here, nurse," said Verena; "she is coming, and nothing in the world will prevent her doing so. The thing we have to consider is this: how soon will she go?"
"She'll go, I take it," said nurse, "as soon as ever she finds out she ain't wanted."
"And how are we to tell her that?" said Verena. "Now, do put on your considering-cap at once, you wise old woman."
"Yes, do show us the way out, for we can't have her here," said Briar. "It is absolutely impossible. She'll try to turn us into fine ladies, and she'll talk about the dresses we should have, and she'll want father to get some awful woman to come and live with us. She'll want the whole house to be turned topsy-turvy."
"Eh!" said nurse, "I'll tell you what it is. Ladies like Miss Tredgold need their comforts. She won't find much comfort here, I'm thinking. She'll need her food well cooked, and that she won't get at The Dales. She'll need her room pretty and spick-and-span; she won't get much of that sort of thing at The Dales. My dear young ladies, you leave the house as it is, and, mark my words, Miss Tredgold will go in a week's time at the latest."
The girls looked full at nurse while she was talking. A look of contentment came into Verena's face. She shook herself to make sure she was all there; she pinched herself to be certain that she was not dreaming; then she settled down comfortably.
"There never was anybody like you, nursey," she said. "You always see the common-sense, possible side of things."
"Eh!" said nurse. "If I hadn't seen the common-sense, possible side of things many years ago, where would I be with the handling and bringing up of you ten young ladies? For, though I say it that shouldn't, there ain't nicer or bonnier or straighter children in the whole Forest; no, nor better-looking either, with cleaner souls inside of them; but for all that, anybody else"—and here nurse gave a little sort of wink that set Pauline screaming—"anybody else would say that you were a handful. You are a handful, too, to most people. But what I say now is this. You needn't take any notice of me; you can keep your own counsel and say nothing; but if you want her to go—the lady that has no call to be here—the lady that's forced herself where she ain't wanted—why, you have got to be handfuls. And now I'll go into the house with my two precious lambs."
The elder "precious lamb" looked very cross at being suddenly informed that she was to go indoors while the sun shone so brightly and the summer warmth surrounded her.
"No, I won't," said Penelope. "I am going to stay out with the others. I'm a very big girl; I am not a baby any longer. And you aren't to keep me in the nursery any longer, Verena. And I won't be naughty. I'll make up to Aunt Sophia like anything—that I will—if you keep me in the nursery any longer."
This was such a daring threat that, although Penelope was not thought much of as a rule, the girls looked at her now with a sort of awe.
"She might as well stay for a quarter of an hour longer, mightn't she, nursey?" said Briar.
"No, that she ain't to do, Miss Rose. She comes right indoors and prepares for her bed like a good child. Is it me that's to be shortened of my hours of rest by a naughty little thing like this? Come along this minute, miss, and none of your nonsense."
So Penelope, her heart full of rage, retired into the house with nurse and baby Marjorie.
"I hope she won't do anything mean and nasty," said Pauline. "It's the sort of thing she would do, for she's frightfully clever."
"Oh, we needn't consider her," said Verena. "Do let's make up our minds what to do ourselves."
"I have all sorts of things in my head," said Patty. "The pony-carriage might break down as it was coming from the station. I don't mean her to be badly hurt, but I thought she might get just a little bit hurt, so that she could stay in her bed for twenty-four hours. An aunt in bed wouldn't be so bad, would she, Renny?"
"I don't know," said Verena. "I suppose we must be polite. She is mother's half-sister, you know. If mother were alive she would give her a welcome. And then Padre will have to talk to her. He must explain that she must go. If he doesn't, we will lead him a life."
The girls talked a little longer. They walked round and round the ugly, ill-kept lawn; they walked under the beautiful trees, entwined their arms round each other's waists, and confabbed and confabbed. The upshot of it all was that on the following day a very large and very shabby bedroom was got ready after a fashion for Miss Tredgold's arrival; and John, the sole factotum of the establishment—the man who cleaned the boots and knives, and swept up the avenue, removed the weeds from the flower-beds, cleaned the steps whenever they were cleaned, and the windows whenever they were cleaned—appeared on the scene, leading a tumble-down, knock-kneed pony harnessed to a very shabby pony-cart.
"I'm off now, miss," he said to Verena, pulling a wisp of hair as he spoke. "No, miss, there ain't any room. You couldn't possibly sit on the back seat, for it's as much as ever I'll do to bring the lady home in this tumble-down conveyance. Our own is too bad for use, and I had to borrow from Farmer Treherne, and he said he wouldn't trust any horse but old Jock; this carriage will just keep together until the lady's here."
"But whatever he thinks," said Verena, "do you suppose we can have a smart, neat carriage ready to take Miss Tredgold back again this day week? You will see about that, won't you, John?"
"I will, miss. There'll be no difficulty about that; we'll get the lady away whenever she wants to go."
"Very well. You had better be off now. You must wait outside the station. When she comes out you are to touch your hat and say, 'This is the carriage from The Dales.' Be sure you say that, John. And look as important as ever you can. We must make the best of things, even if we are poor."
"You never saw me, miss, demeaning the family," said John.
He again touched his very shabby hat, whipped up the pony, and disappeared down the avenue.
"Now, then," said Briar, "how are we to pass the next two hours? It will take them quite that time to get here."
"And what are we going to give her to eat when she does come?" said Patty. "She'll be awfully hungry. I expect she'll want her dinner."
"Dinner!" cried Josephine. "Dinner! So late. But we dine at one."
"You silliest of silly mortals," said Verena, "Aunt Sophia is a fashionable lady, and fashionable ladies dine between eight and nine o'clock."
"Do they?" said Josephine. "Then I'm glad I'm not a fashionable lady. Fancy starving all that long time! I'm always famished by one o'clock."
"There's Penelope!" suddenly said Patty. "Doesn't she look odd?"
Penelope was a very stout child. She had black eyes and black hair. Her hair generally stood upright in a sort of halo round her head; her face was very round and rosy—she looked like a kind of hard, healthy winter-apple. Her legs were fat, and she always wore socks instead of stockings. Her socks were dark blue. Nurse declared that she could not be fashed with putting on white ones. She wore a little Turkey-red frock, and she had neither hat nor coat on. She was going slowly and thoughtfully round the lawn, occasionally stooping and picking something.
"She's a perfect mystery," said Pauline. "Let's run up to her and ask her what she's about."
Catching Patty's hand, the two girls scampered across the grass.
"Well, Pen, and what are you doing now? What curious things are you gathering?" they asked.
"Grasses," replied Penelope slowly. "They're for Aunt Sophia's bedroom. I'm going to make her bedroom ever so pretty."
"You little horror!" said Pauline. "If you dare to go against us you will lead a life!"
Penelope looked calmly up at them.
"I'll make a bargain," she said. "I'll throw them all away, and be nastier than you all—yes, much nastier—if you will make me a schoolroom girl."
Pauline looked at her.
"We may be low," she said, "and there is no doubt we are very poor, but we have never stooped to bribery and corruption yet. Go your own way, Penelope. If you think you can injure us you are very much mistaken."
Penelope shook her fat back, and resumed her peregrinations round and round the lawn.
"Really she is quite an uncomfortable child," said Pauline, returning to her other sisters. "What do you think she is doing now? Picking grasses to put in Aunt Sophia's room."
"Oh, let her alone," said Verena; "it's only her funny little way. By the way, I wonder if Padre has any idea that Aunt Sophia is coming to-day."
"Let's invade him," said Patty. "The old dear wants his exercise; he hasn't had any to-day."
The eight girls ran with whoops and cries round the house. Penelope picked her grasses with more determination than ever. Her small, straight mouth made a scarlet line, so tightly was it shut.
"I am only seven, but I'm monstrous clever," she whispered to herself. "I am going to have my own way. I'll love poor Aunt Sophy. Yes, I will. I'll kiss her, and I'll make up to her, and I'll keep her room full of lovely grasses."
Meanwhile the other girls burst into the study. A voice was heard murmuring rapidly as they approached. A silvery-white head was bending over a page, and some words in Latin came like a stream, with a very beautiful pronunciation, from the scholar's lips.
"Ah, Verena!" he said, "I think I have got the right lines now. Shall I read them to you?"
Mr. Dale began. He got through about one line when Patty interrupted him:
"It can't possibly be done, Paddy. We can't listen to another line—I mean yet. You have got to come out. Aunt Sophia is coming to-day."
"Eh? I beg your pardon; who did you say was coming?"
"Aunt Sophia—Miss Tredgold. She's coming to-day on a visit. She'll be here very soon. She's coming in an old cart that belongs to Farmer Treherne. She'll be here in an hour; therefore out you come."
"My dears, I cannot. You must excuse me. My years of toil have brought to light an obscure passage. I shall write an account of it to the Times. It is a great moment in my life, and the fact that—— But who did you say was coming, my dears?"
"Really, Paddy, you are very naughty," said Verena. "You must come out at once. We want you. You can't write another line. You must not even think of the subject. Come and see what we have done for Aunt Sophia. If you don't come she'll burst in here, and she'll stay here, because it's the most comfortable room in the house. And she'll bring her work-basket here, and perhaps her mending. I know she'll mend you as soon as she arrives. She'll make you and mend you; and you need mending, don't you, dear old Padre?"
"I don't know, my dears. I'm a stupid old man, and don't care about dress. Who is the person you said was coming? Give her some tea and send her away. Do you hear, Verena? Give her tea, my darling, and—and toast if you like, and send her away. We can't have visitors here."
"Patty!" said Verena.
Patty's eyes were shining.
The two girls came forward as though they were little soldiers obeying the command of their captain.
"Take Padre by the right arm, Pauline. Patty, take Padre by the left arm. Now then, Paddy, quick's the word. March!"
Poor Mr. Dale was completely lifted from his chair by his two vigorous daughters, and then marched outside his study into the sunshine.
"We are not going to be cross," said Verena, kissing him. "It is only your Renny."
"And your Paulie," said the second girl.
"And your Rose Briar," said the third.
"And your Patty," said the fourth.
"And your Lucy," "And your Josephine," "And your Helen," "And your Adelaide," said four more vigorous pairs of lips.
"And we all want you to stand up," said Verena.
"Good heavens! I did think I had come to the end of my worries. And what on earth does this mean? Penelope, my child, what a hideous bouquet you have in your hand! Come here and kiss father, my little one."
Penelope trotted briskly forward.
"Do you like my red frock, father?" she asked.
"It is very nice indeed."
"I thought it wor. And is my hair real tidy, father?"
"It stands very upright, Penelope."
"I thought it did. And you like my little blue stockings, father?"
"Very neat, dear."
"I thought they wor."
"You look completely unlike yourself, Penelope. What is the matter?"
"I want to be a true, kind lady," said the little girl. "I am gathering grasses for my aunty; so I are."
She trotted away into the house.
"What a pretty, neat, orderly little girl Penelope has become!" said Mr. Dale. "But—— You really must excuse me, my dear girls. You are most charming, all of you. Ah, my dears!—so fresh, so unsophisticated, so—yes, that is the word—so unworldly. But I must get back to my beloved Virgil. You don't know—you can never know—what a moment of triumph is mine. You must excuse me, darlings—Verena, you are nearly grown up; you will see to the others. Do what you can to make them happy—a little treat if necessary; I should not mind it."
"Give us fourpence to buy a pound of golden syrup for tea, please, Padre," suddenly said Briar. "If there is a thing I love, it is golden syrup. A pound between us will give us quite a feast—won't it, Renny?"
"Only we must save a little for the aunt," cried Patty.
"I do hope one thing," said Pauline: "that, whatever her faults, she won't be greedy. There isn't room for any one to be greedy in this house. The law of this house is the law of self-denial; isn't it, Padre?"
"I begin to perceive that it is, Pauline. But whom are you talking of?"
"Now, Padre," said Verena, "if you don't wake and rouse yourself, and act like a decent Christian, you'll be just prodded—you'll be just shaken. We will do it. There are eight of us, and we'll make your life a burden."
"Eh—eh!" said Mr. Dale. "Really, girls, you are enough to startle a man. And you say——"
"I say, Paddy, that Miss Sophia Tredgold is on her way here. Each instant she is coming nearer. She is coming in the old pony cart, and the old pony is struggling with all his might to convey her here. She is coming with her luggage, intending to stay, and our object is to get her to go away again. Do you hear, Padre?"
"Yes, my dear, I hear. I comprehend. It takes a great deal to bring a man back down the ages—down—down to this small, poor, parsimonious life; it takes a great deal. A man is not easily roused, nor brought back; but I am back now, darlings.—Excuse me, Briar; no more prodding.—Hands off, Pauline.—Hands off, Patty. Perhaps I had better tidy myself."
"You certainly would look nicer, and more like the owner of The Dales, if you got into your other coat," said Briar.
"Shall we all come up and help you, Padre?" called out the eight in a breath.
"No, no, dears. I object to ladies hovering about my room. I'll run away now."
"Yes, yes; and you'd better be quick, Padre, for I hear wheels."
"I am going, loves, this moment."
Mr. Dale turned and absolutely ran to the shelter of the house, for the wheels were getting near—rumbling, jumping, uncertain. Now the rumbling and the jumping and the uncertainty got into the avenue, and came nearer and nearer; and finally the tumble-down pony cart drew up at the house. The pony printed his uncertain feet awkwardly but firmly on the weed-grown sweep in front of the unpainted hall door, and Miss Tredgold gazed around her.
Miss Tredgold was a very thin, tall woman of about forty-five years of age. She was dressed in the extreme of fashion. She wore a perfectly immaculate traveling dress of dark-gray tweed. It fitted her well-proportioned figure like a glove. She had on a small, very neat black hat, and a spotted veil surrounded her face. She stepped down from the pony cart and looked around her.
"Ah!" she said, seeing Verena, "will you kindly mention to some of the ladies of the family that I have arrived?"
"I think I need not mention it, because we all know," said Verena. "I am your niece Verena."
Miss Tredgold could throw unutterable scorn into her voice. Verena stepped back, and her pretty face grew first red and then pale. What she would have said next will never be known to history, for at that instant the very good child, Penelope, appeared out of the house.
"Is you my Aunty Sophy?" she said. "How are you, Aunty Sophy? I am very pleased to see you."
Miss Sophia stared for a moment at Penelope. Penelope was hideously attired, but she was at least clean. The other girls were anyhow. They were disheveled; they wore torn and unsightly skirts; their hair was arranged anyhow or not at all; on more than one face appeared traces of recent acquaintance with the earth in the shape of a tumble. One little girl with very black eyes had an ugly scratch across her left cheek; another girl had the gathers out of her frock, which streamed in the most hopeless fashion on the ground.
"How do you do?" said Aunt Sophia. "Where is your father? Will you have the goodness, little girl, to acquaint your father with the fact that his sister-in-law, Sophia Tredgold, has come?"
"Please come into the house, Aunt Sophy, and I'll take you to father's study—so I will," exclaimed champion Penelope.
PREPARING FOR THE FIGHT.
Penelope held up a chubby hand, which Miss Tredgold pretended not to see.
"Go on in front, little girl," she said. "Don't paw me. I hate being pawed by children."
Penelope's back became very square as she listened to these words, and the red which suffused her face went right round her neck. But she walked solemnly on in front without a word.
"Aunties are unpleasant things," she said to herself; "but, all the same, I mean to fuss over this one."
Here she opened a door, flung it wide, and cried out to her parent:
"Paddy, here comes Aunt Sophia Tredgold."
But she spoke to empty air—Mr. Dale was still busy over his toilet.
"Whom are you addressing by that hideous name?" said Miss Sophia. "Do you mean to tell me you call your father Paddy?"
"We all do," said Penelope.
"Of course we do," said Verena, who had followed behind.
"That is our name for the dear old boy," said Pauline, who stood just behind Verena, while all the other children stood behind Pauline.
It was in this fashion that the entire party invaded Mr. Dale's sanctum. Miss Tredgold gazed around her, her face filled with a curious mixture of amazement and indignation.
"I had an intuition that I ought to come here," she said aloud. "I did not want to come, but I obeyed what I now know was the direct call of duty. I shall stay here as long as I am wanted. My mission will be to bring order out of chaos—to reduce all those who entertain rebellion to submission—to try to turn vulgar, hoydenish little girls into ladies."
"Oh, oh! I say, aunty, that is hard on us!" burst from Josephine.
"My dear, I don't know your name, but it is useless for you to make those ugly exclamations. Whatever your remarks, whatever your words, I shall take no notice. You may struggle as you will, but I am the stronger. Oh! here comes—— Is it possible? My dear Henry, what years it is since we met! Don't you remember me—your sister-in-law Sophia? I was but a little girl when you married my dear sister. It is quite affecting to meet you again. How do you do?"
Miss Tredgold advanced to meet her brother-in-law. Mr. Dale put both his hands behind his back.
"Are you sorry to see me?" asked Miss Tredgold. "Oh, dear, this is terrible!"
The next instant the horrified man found that Miss Tredgold had kissed him calmly and with vigor on each cheek. Even his own children were never permitted to kiss Mr. Dale. To tell the truth, he was the last sort of person anybody would care to kiss. His face resembled a piece of parchment, being much withered and wrinkled and dried up. There was an occasion in the past when Verena had taken his scholarly hand and raised it to her lips, but even that form of endearment he objected to.
"I forgive you, dear," he said; "but please don't do it again. We can love each other without these marks of an obsolete and forgotten age. Kissing, my dear, is too silly to be endured in our day."
That Miss Tredgold should kiss him was therefore an indignity which the miserable man was scarcely likely to get over as long as he lived.
"And now, girls," said the good lady, turning round and facing her astonished nieces, "I have a conviction that your father and I would have a more comfortable conversation if you were not present. Leave the room, therefore, my dears. Go quietly and in an orderly fashion."
"Perhaps, children, it would be best," said Mr. Dale.
He felt as though he could be terribly rude, but he made an effort not to show his feelings.
"There is no other possible way out of it," he said to himself. "I must be very frank. I must tell her quite plainly that she cannot stay. It will be easier for me to be frank without the children than with them."
So the girls left the room. Penelope, going last, turned a plump and bewildered face towards her aunt.
But Miss Tredgold took no more notice of Penelope than she did of the others. When the last pair of feet had vanished down the passage, she went to the door and locked it.
"What are you doing that for?" asked Mr. Dale.
"My dear Henry, I locked the door because I wish to have a quiet word with you. I have come here—I will say it plainly—for the sole purpose of saving you."
"Of saving me, Sophia! From what?"
"From the grievous sin you are committing—the sin of absolutely and completely neglecting the ten daughters given to you by Providence. Do you do anything for them? Do you try in the least to help them? Are you in any sense of the word educating them? I scarcely know the children yet, but I must say frankly that I never came across more terribly neglected young people. Their clothes are in rags, they are by no means perfectly clean in their persons, and they look half-starved. Henry, you ought to be ashamed of yourself! I wonder my poor sister doesn't turn in her grave! When I think that Alice was their mother, and that you are bringing them up as you are now doing, I could give way to tears. But, Henry, tears are not what are required. Action is the necessary thing. I mean to act, and nothing will turn me from that resolution."
"But, my dear Sophia, I have not met you for years. To be frank with you, I had almost forgotten your existence. I am a terribly busy man, Sophia—a scholar—at least, I hope so. I do not think the children are neglected; they are well, and no one is ever unkind to them. There is no doubt that we are poor. I am unable to have the house done up as poor Alice would have liked to see it; and I have let the greater part of the ground, so that we are not having dairy produce or farm produce at present. The meals, therefore, are plain."
"And insufficient; I have no doubt of that," said Miss Tredgold.
"They are very plain," he answered. "Perhaps you like dainty food; most ladies of your age do. I must be as frank with you as you are with me. You won't like our table. Sometimes we do without meat for a week at a time."
"I do not care if you never touch meat again," said Miss Sophia. "Thank goodness, with all my faults, I am not greedy."
"What a pity!" murmured Mr. Dale.
"What was that you said? Do you like greedy women?"
"No, Sophia; but I want to put matters so straight before you that you will consider it your bounden duty to leave The Dales."
"Where my duty calls me I stay, whatever the circumstances, and however great the inconveniences," remarked Miss Sophia.
"Well, Sophia, your attitude and manner and words distress me considerably. But I must speak to you again. I am busy now over a most important matter. I have just discovered——"
"A gold mine on your estate?"
"No; something fifty times more valuable—a new rendering——"
"Of what, may I ask?"
"'The noblest meter ever moulded by the lips of man.' Bowen is quite wrong in his translation; I am about to prove it. I allude to Virgil's AEneid."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Miss Tredgold, "is the man staring mad? Now, my dear fellow, you have got to put up with me. I can tell you plainly that it will be no treat to live with you. If it were not for my sister I would leave this house and let you and your family go your own way to destruction; but as Alice was so fond of me, and did her best for me when I was a little girl, I mean to do my best for your children."
"But in what way, Sophia? I told you I was poor. I am poor. I cannot afford a governess. Verena can darn quite nicely, and she knows a little about plain needlework. She turned a skirt of her own a month ago; her work seemed quite creditable, for I did not notice it one way or the other."
"Oh, you man—you man!" said Miss Tredgold.
"And the other children are also learning to use the needle; and most of them can read, for all the novels that I happen to possess have been removed from the bookshelves. The girls can read, they can write, and they can use their needles. They are thoroughly happy, and they are healthy. They do not feel the heat of summer or the cold of winter. The food is plain, and perhaps not over-abundant, but they are satisfied with it. They don't worry me much. In short, it is only fair to say that I am not well enough off to keep you here. I cannot possibly give you the comforts you require. I should be glad, therefore, my dear Sophia, if you would be kind enough to leave The Dales."
"Now listen to me, Henry. I have resolved to stay, and only force will turn me out. My heavier luggage is coming by the carrier to-morrow. I brought a small trunk in that awful little conveyance which you sent to meet me. As to the money question, it needn't trouble you, for I shall pay for all extras which my presence requires. As to luxuries, I am indifferent to them. But I mean the girls to eat their food like ladies, and I mean the food to be well cooked; and also everything in the house shall be clean, and there shall be enough furniture in the rooms for the ordinary requirements of ordinary gentlefolks. I shall stay here for at least three months, and if at the end of that time you do not say to me, 'Sophia, I can never thank you enough for what you have done,' I shall be surprised. Now I have stated exactly the position of things, and, my dear Henry, you are welcome to go back to your work. You can study your beloved Virgil and gloat over your discovery; but for goodness' sake come to dinner to-night looking like a gentleman."
"My wardrobe is a little in abeyance, Sophia. I mean that I—I have not put on an evening coat for years."
"You probably have one at the back of nowhere," said Miss Tredgold in a contemptuous tone. "But, anyhow, put on the best you have got. Believe me, I have not come to this house to sit down with my hands before me. I have come to work, to renovate, to restore, to build up. Not another word, Henry. I have put the matter into a nutshell, and you and your children must learn to submit to the arrival of Sophia Tredgold."
At these words the good lady unlocked the door and stepped out.
As she walked down the passage she heard the quick trampling of many feet, and it occurred to her that some of the girls must have been listening at the keyhole.
"I can't allow that sort of thing again," she said to herself. "But now—shall I take notice?"
She stood for a moment thinking. The color came into her cheeks and her eyes looked bright.
"For my sister's sake I will put up with a good deal," was her final comment; and then she went into the hall.
There was a wide old hall leading to the front stairs, and in this hall now stood the good child Penelope. She had brought in a quantity of fresh grasses, and had a piteous and beseeching expression on her face. Miss Tredgold took no notice of her. She stood by the open hall door and looked out.
"Might be made a pretty place," she said aloud.
Then she turned to go upstairs, sighing as she did so. Penelope echoed the sigh in a most audible manner. Miss Tredgold was arrested by the sound, and looked down.
"Ah, little girl!" she said. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought perhaps you'd like me to help you," said Penelope. "I wor waiting for you to come out of Pad's room."
"Don't use that hideous word 'wor.' W-a-s, was. Can you spell?"
"No; and I don't want to," said Penelope.
"We'll see about that. In the meantime, child, can you take me to my room?"
"May I hold of your hand?" said Penelope.
"May you hold my hand, not of my hand. Certainly not. You may go on in front of me. You have got clearly to understand—— But what did you say your name was?"
"You must clearly understand, Penelope, that I do not pet children. I expect them to be good without sugar-plums."
Now, Penelope knew that sugar-plums were delicious. She had heard of them, and at Christmas-time she used to dream of them, but very few had hitherto come into her life. She now looked eagerly at Miss Tredgold.
"If I are good for a long time without them, will you give me two or three?" she asked.
Miss Tredgold gave a short, grim laugh.
"We'll see," she said. "I never make rash promises. Oh! so this is my room."
She looked around her.
"No carpet," she said aloud; "no curtains; no pictures on the walls. A deal table for a dressing-table, the muslin covering much the worse for dirt and wear. Hum! You do live plain at The Dales."
"Oh, yes; don't us?" said Penelope. "And your room is much the handsomest of all the rooms. We call it very handsome. If you wor to see our rooms——"
"Were to see——"
"Yes, were to see," repeated Penelope, who found this constant correction very tiresome.
"And may I ask," exclaimed Miss Tredgold suddenly, not paying any heed to the little girl's words, "what on earth is that in the blue mug?"
She marched up to the dressing-table. In the center was a large blue mug of very common delft filled with poor Penelope's grasses.
"What horror is this?" she said. "Take it away at once, and throw those weeds out."
At that moment poor Penelope very nearly forsook her allegiance to Aunt Sophia. She ran downstairs trembling. In the hall she was received by a bevy of sisters.
"Well, Pen, and so you have bearded the lion! You took her to her room, did you? And what did she say? Did she tell you when she was going away?"
"Yes, did she?" came from Verena's lips; and Pauline's eager eyes, and the eyes of all the other children, asked the same question.
Penelope gave utterance to a great sigh.
"I thought I'd be the goodest of you all," she said. "I maded up my mind that I just would; but I doesn't like Aunt Sophia, and I think I'll be the naughtiest."
"No, you little goose; keep on being as good as you can. She can't possibly stay long, for we can't afford it," said Verena.
"She'll stay," answered Penelope. "She have made up her mind. She throwed away my lovely grasses; she called them weeds, my darlings that I did stoop so much to pick, and made my back all aches up to my neck. And she said she hated little girls that pawed her. Oh, I could cry! I did so want to be the goodest of you all, and I thought that I'd get sugar-plums and perhaps pennies. And I thought she'd let me tell her when you was all bad. Oh, I hate her now! I don't think I care to be took out of the nursery if she's about."
"You certainly are a caution, Penny," said Verena. "It is well that you have told us what your motives are. Believe me, there are worse places than that despised nursery of yours. Now, I suppose we must get some sort of dinner or tea for her. I wonder what Betty is doing to-day, if her head aches, and if——"
"Oh, come along; let's go and find out," said Pauline. "I feel so desperate that I have the courage for anything."
It is to be owned that the Dales did not keep an extensive establishment. Old John pottered about the gardens and did what little gardening he thought necessary. He also did odd jobs about the house. Besides John, there was Betty. Betty ruled supreme as cook and factotum in the kitchen. Betty never asked any one for orders; she got what she considered necessary from the local tradesmen, or she did without. As a rule she did without. She said that cooking was bad for her—that it made her head and back ache. On the days when Betty's head or back ached there was never any dinner. The family did not greatly mind. They dined on these occasions on bread, either with butter or without. Betty managed to keep them without dinner certainly at the rate of once or twice a week. She always had an excellent excuse. Either the boiler was out of gear, or the range would not draught properly, or the coals were out, or the butcher had failed to come. Sometimes the children managed to have jam with their bread-and-butter, and then they considered that they had a very fine meal indeed. It mattered little to them what sort of food they had if they only had enough; but sometimes they had not even enough. This more constantly happened in the winter than in the summer, for in the summer there was always plenty of milk and always plenty of fruit and vegetables.
When Betty heard that Miss Tredgold was coming to stay she immediately gave Verena notice. This was nothing at all extraordinary, for Betty gave notice whenever anything annoyed her. She never dreamed of acting up to her own words, so that nobody minded Betty's repeated notices. But on the morning of the day when Miss Tredgold was expected, Betty told nurse that she was about to give a real, earnest notice at last.
"I am going," she said. "I go this day month. I march out of this house, and never come back—no, not even if a dook was to conduct me to the hymeneal altar."
Betty was always great on the subject of dukes and marquises. She was seldom so low in health as to condescend to a "hearl," and there had even been a moment when she got herself to believe that royalty might aspire to her hand.
"She must be really going," said Verena when nurse repeated Betty's speech. "She would not say that about the duke if she was not."
"You leave her alone," said nurse. "But she's dreadful put out, Miss Renny; there's no doubt of that. I doubt if she'll cook any dinner for Miss Tredgold."
Verena, Pauline, and Penelope now rushed round to the kitchen premises. They were nervous, but at the same time they were brave. They must see what Betty intended to do. They burst open the door. The kitchen was not too clean. It was a spacious apartment, which in the days when the old house belonged to rich people was well taken care of, and must have sent forth glorious fires—fires meant to cook noble joints. On the present occasion the fire was dead out; the range looked a dull gray, piles of ashes lying in a forlorn manner at its feet. Betty was sitting at the opposite side of the kitchen, her feet on one chair and her capacious person on another. She was busily engaged devouring the last number of the Family Paper. She had come to a most rousing portion in her story—that part in which the duke marries the governess. Betty was, as she said, all in a twitter to see how matters would end; but just at this crucial moment the girls burst in.
"Betty, do stop reading," said Verena. "She's come, Betty."
"I know," cried Betty. "I'm not deaf, I suppose. John told me. He brought her, drat him! He says she's the sort to turn the house topsy-turvy. I'll have none of her. I won't alter my ways—no, not a hand's-turn—for the like of her, and I go this day month."
"Oh, Betty!" said Verena.
"I do, my dear; I do. I can't put up with the ways of them sort—never could. I like you well enough, young ladies, and your pa; and I'd stop with you willing—so I would, honey—but I can't abide the likes of her."
"All the same, she's come, Betty, and we must have something for dinner. Have you anything in the house?"
"Not a blessed handful."
"Oh, Betty!" said Verena; "and I told you this morning, and so did nurse. We said we must have dinner to-night at seven o'clock. You should have got something for her."
"But I ain't done it. The stove's out of order; we want the sweep. I have a splitting headache, and I'm just reading to keep my mind off the pain."
"But what are we to do? We must get her something."
"Can't she have tea and bread-and-butter? We've half-a-pound of cooking butter in the house."
"Are there any eggs?"
"No. I broke the last carrying it across the kitchen an hour ago. My hands were all of a tremble with the pain, and the egg slipped."
"Betty, you are too dreadful! Won't you put that paper down and try to help us?"
Betty looked at the three faces. In their shabby dresses, and with their pretty, anxious eyes, Verena having a frown between her charming brows, they made a picture that struck the cook's heart. With all her odd and peculiar ways, she was affectionate.
"Are you fretting about it, Miss Renny?" she asked.
As she spoke she put down her feet and pushed the tempting number of the Family Paper from her.
"There!" she said; "poor little Miss Dunstable may marry the Dook of Mauleverer-Wolverhampton just as soon as she pleases, but I won't have you put out, Miss Renny."
"I did want something nice for dinner," said Verena.
"Then I'll manage it. There ain't a better cook than I anywhere when I'm put on my mettle. Miss Penny, will you help me?"
"Certainly," said Penelope.
"Well, run into the garden and pick all the peas you can find. There's a nice little joint in the larder, and I'll roast it, and you shall have a beautiful dinner. Now off you go, dears. You shall have custard-pudding and cream and strawberry-jam afterwards."
"Oh, how nice!" cried Penelope, with a little gasp. "Be sure you give us plenty of strawberry-jam, and make a very large custard-pudding, for there's such a lot of us to eat the things, and I generally get the teeniest little bit."
"You are a nursery child, and it's in the nursery you'll have your tea," said Verena in a stern tone. "Go and pick the peas."
"Not me," said Penelope.
She sat down just where she was, in an obstinate heap, in the middle of the floor.
"If I are not to eat those peas I don't pick 'em," she said. "I wor going to be kind, but I won't be kind if I'm to be turned into a nursery child."
"Oh! do let her come to the dining-room just for to-night," pleaded Pauline.
"Very well, then; just for once," said Verena.
THE LIFE OF MISRULE.
Dinner went off better than the girls had expected. But to Miss Tredgold it was, and ever would be, the most awful meal she had eaten in the whole course of her existence. The table was devoid of all those things which she, as a refined lady, considered essential. The beautiful old silver spoons were dirty, and several of them bent almost out of recognition. A like fate had befallen the forks; the knives were rusty, the handles disgracefully dirty; and the tablecloth, of the finest damask, was almost gray in color, and adorned with several large holes. The use of serviettes had been long abolished from The Dales.
The girls, in honor of the occasion, had put on their best frocks, and Verena looked fairly pretty in a skimpy white muslin made in an obsolete style. The other girls each presented a slightly worse appearance than their elder sister, for each had on a somewhat shabbier frock, a little more old-fashioned and more outgrown. As to Mr. Dale, it had been necessary to remind him at least three times of his sister-in-law's arrival; and finally Verena had herself to put him into his very old evening-coat, to brush him down afterwards, and to smooth his hair, and then lead him into the dining-room.
Miss Tredgold, in contradistinction to the rest of the family, was dressed correctly. She wore a black lace dress slightly open at the neck, and with elbow sleeves. The children thought that she looked dazzlingly fashionable. Verena seemed to remember that she had seen figures very like Aunt Sophia's in the fashion books. Aunt Sophia's hair in particular absorbed the attention of four of her nieces. How had she managed to turn it into so many rolls and spirals and twists? How did she manage the wavy short hair on her forehead? It seemed to sit quite tight to her head, and looked as if even a gale of wind would not blow it out of place. Aunt Sophia's hands were thin and very white, and the fingers were half-covered with sparkling rings, which shone and glittered so much that Penelope dropped her choicest peas all over her frock as she gazed at them.
John was requisitioned to wait at table, and John had no livery for the purpose. The family as a rule never required attendance at meals. On this occasion it was supposed to be essential, and as Betty refused point-blank to stir from the kitchen, John had to come to the fore.
"No, no, Miss Renny," said Betty when poor Verena begged and implored of the good woman to put in an appearance. "No, you don't. No, you certain sure don't. Because you looked pretty and a bit coaxing I gave up Miss Dunstable and the Dook of Mauleverer-Wolverhampton two hours ago, but not another minute will I spare from them. It's in their select society that I spend my haristocratic evening."
Verena knew that it would be useless to coax Betty any further. So John appeared with the potatoes in a large dish on a rusty tray, each potato having, as Betty expressed it, a stone inside. This she declared was the proper way to cook them. The peas presently followed the potatoes. They were yellow with age, for they ought to have been eaten at least a week ago. The lamb was terribly underdone, and the mint sauce was like no mint sauce that Miss Tredgold had ever dreamed of. The pudding which followed was a pudding that only Betty knew the recipe for, and that recipe was certainly not likely to be popular in fashionable circles. But the strawberry-jam was fairly good, and the cream was excellent; and when, finally, Miss Tredgold rose to the occasion and said that she would make some coffee, which she had brought down from town, in her own coffee-pot on her own etna, the girls became quite excited.
The coffee was made, and shed a delicious aroma over the room. Mr. Dale was so far interested that he was seen to sniff twice, and was found to be observing the coffee as though he were a moth approaching a candle. He even forgot his Virgil in his desire to partake of the delicious stimulant. Miss Tredgold handed him a cup.
"There," she said. "If you were ever young, and if there was ever a time when you cared to act as a gentleman, this will remind you of those occasions.—And now, children, I introduce you to 'Open sesame;' and I hope, my dear nieces, by means of these simple cups of coffee you will enter a different world from that which you have hitherto known."
The girls all drank their coffee, and each pronounced it the nicest drink they had ever taken.
Presently Miss Tredgold went into the garden. She invited Verena and Pauline to accompany her.
"The rest of you can stay behind," she said. "You can talk about me to each other as much as you like. I give you leave to discuss me freely, knowing that, even if I did not do so, you would discuss me all the same. I am quite aware that you all hate me for the present, but I do not think this state of things will long continue. Come, Verena; come, Pauline. The night is lovely. We will discuss nature a little, and common sense a great deal."
The two girls selected to walk with Miss Tredgold looked behind at the seven girls left in the dining-room, and the seven girls looked back at them with a mixture of curiosity and pity.
"Never mind your sisters now," said Miss Tredgold. "We want to talk over many things. But before we enter into any discussion I wish to ask a question."
"Yes," said Verena in her gentle voice.
"Verena," said her aunt suddenly, "how old are you?"
"Fifteen," said Verena.
"Precisely. And on your next birthday you will be sixteen, and on the following seventeen, and on the next one again eighteen. You have, therefore, nearly three years in which to be transformed from a little savage into a lady. The question I now want to ask you is: Do you prefer to remain a savage all your days, uneducated, uncultured, your will uncontrolled, your aspirations for good undeveloped; or do you wish to become a beautiful and gracious lady, kind, sympathetic, learned, full of grace? Tell me, my dear."
"How can I?" replied Verena. "I like my life here; we all suit each other, and we like The Dales just as it is. Yes, we all suit each other, and we don't mind being barbarians."
Miss Tredgold sighed.
"I perceive," she said, "that I shall have uphill work before me. For you of all the young people, Verena, are the easiest to deal with. I know that without your telling me. I know it by your face. You are naturally gentle, courteous, and kind. You are easy to manage. You are also the most important of all to be brought round to my views, for whatever you do the others will do. It is on you, therefore, that I mean to exercise my greatest influence and to expend my heaviest forces."
"I don't quite understand you, Aunt Sophia. I know, of course, you mean kindly, but I would much rather——"
"That I went away? That I left you in the disgraceful state in which I have found you?"
"Well, I don't consider it disgraceful; and——"
"Yes? You would rather I went?"
Verena nodded. After a moment she spoke.
"It seems unkind," she said—"and I don't wish to be unkind—but I would rather you went."
"And so would I, please, Aunt Sophia," said Pauline.
Miss Tredgold looked straight before her. Her face became a little pinched, a little white round her lips.
"Once," she said slowly, "I had a sister—a sister whom I loved. She was my half-sister, but I never thought of that. She was to me sister and mother in one. She brought me up from the time I was a little child. She was good to me, and she instilled into me certain principles. One of these principles can be expressed in the following words: God put us into the world to rise, not to sink. Another of her principles was that God put us into the world to be good, to be unselfish. Another one, again, was as follows: We must give account for our talents. Now, to allow the talent of beauty, for instance, to degenerate into what it is likely to do in your case, Verena, is distinctly wicked. To allow you to sink when you might rise is sinful. To allow you to be selfish when you might be unselfish is also wrong. Your talents, and the talents of Pauline, and the talents of your other sisters must be cultivated and brought to the fore. I want to tell you now, my dear girls, that for years I have longed to help you; that since your mother's death you have scarcely ever been out of my mind. But circumstances over which I had no control kept me away from you. At last I am free, and the children of my sister Alice are the ones I think most about. I have come here prepared for your rebellion, prepared for your dislike, and determined not to be discouraged by either the one or the other. I have come to The Dales, Verena and Pauline, and I mean to remain here for at least three months. If at the end of the three months you ask me to go, I will; although even then I will not give you up. But until three months have expired you can only turn me out by force. I don't think you will do that. It is best that we should understand each other clearly; is it not, Verena?"
Verena's face was very white; her big brown eyes were full of tears.
"I ought to be glad and to say 'Welcome.' But I am not glad, and I don't welcome you, Aunt Sophia. We like our own way; we don't mind being savages, and it is untrue that we are selfish. We are not. Each would give up anything, I think, for the other. But we like our poverty and our rough ways and our freedom, and we—we don't want you, Aunt Sophia."
"Nevertheless you will have to put up with me," said Miss Tredgold. "And now, to start matters, please tell me exactly how you spend your day."
"Our life is not yours, Aunt Sophia. It would not interest you to know how we spend our day."
"To-morrow, Verena, when the life of rule succeeds the life of misrule, I should take umbrage at your remark, but to-night I take no umbrage. I but repeat my question."
"And I will tell you," said Pauline in her brisk voice. "We get up just when we like. We have breakfast when we choose—sometimes in the garden on the grass, sometimes not at all. We walk where we please, and lose ourselves in the Forest, and gather wild strawberries and wild flowers, and watch the squirrels, and climb the beech-trees. When it is fine we spend the whole day out, just coming back for meals, and sometimes not even then, if Betty gives us a little milk and some bread. Sometimes we are lazy and lie on the grass all day. We do what we like always, and always just when we like. Don't we, Renny?"
"Yes," said Verena. "We do what we like, and in our own way."
"In future," said Miss Tredgold, "you will do things in my way. I hope you will not dislike my way; but whether you like or dislike it, you will have to submit."
"But, Aunt Sophia," said Verena, "what authority have you over us? I am exceedingly sorry to seem rude, but I really want to know. Father, of course, has authority over us, but have you? Has anybody but father? That is what I want to know."
"I thought you might ask something of that sort," said Miss Tredgold—"or, even if you did not ask it, you might think it—and I am prepared with my answer. I quite recognize that in the case of girls like you I have no authority, and I cannot act fairly by you until I have. Now, my dear girls, please understand that before I go to bed to-night I get that authority. I shall get it m writing, too, so that you can none of you gainsay it, or slip past it, or avoid it. When the authority comes, then will also come the happy life of rule, for the life of misrule can never be really happy—never for long. Believe me, I am right."
Pauline pulled her hand away from Aunt Sophia's. She ran to the other side of Verena.
"I don't like you, Aunt Sophia," she said, "and I don't want you to stay. Renny, you don't like her either, and you don't want her to stay. We don't believe all the things you are saying, Aunt Sophia. You can't look into our hearts, and although you are clever, you can't know all about us. Why shouldn't we be wild in our own fashion? We are very happy. To be happy is everything. We have only been unhappy since we knew you were coming. Please go away; please do."
"You cannot influence me, Pauline. I love you too well to desert you. Now I am going into the house. You can discuss me then with your sister to your heart's content."
Miss Tredgold went very slowly towards the old and dilapidated house. When she reached the hall door she turned and looked around her.
"I certainly have tough work before me. How am I to manage? If I were not thinking so much of Alice, I should leave these impertinent, neglected, silly girls to their fate. But no—I seem to see my sister's eyes, to hear her voice. I can so well understand what she would really want me to do. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my beloved sister. I am free, hampered by no ties. I will reform these wild young nieces. I will not be easily deterred."
Miss Tredgold clasped her hands before her. The moon was rising in a silvery bow in the sky; the air was deliciously fresh and balmy.
"The place is healthy, and the children are strong," she thought, "notwithstanding their bad food and their disreputable, worn-out clothes. They are healthy, fresh, good-looking girls. But this is summer-time, and in summer-time one puts up with discomforts for the sake of air like this. But what about winter? I have no doubt they have scarcely any fires, and the house must be damp. As the children grow older they will develop rheumatism and all kinds of troubles. Yes, my duty is plain. I must look after my nieces, both soul and body, for the future."
As Miss Tredgold thought these last thoughts she re-entered the house. She walked through the desolate rooms. It was now twilight, but no one thought of lighting lamps, or drawing curtains, or shutting windows. Miss Tredgold stumbled as she walked. Presently she found that she had wandered in the neighborhood of the kitchen. She had no intention of bearding Betty in her den—she had no idea that there was a Betty—but as she was near the kitchen, and as under that doorway alone there streamed a light, she opened the door.
"Is there any one inside?" she asked.
A grunt in the far distance came by way of response. The fire was out in the stove, and as Miss Tredgold grew accustomed to the gloom she saw in the farthest corner something that resembled the stout form of a woman, whose legs rested on one chair and her body on another. A guttering dip candle was close to her side, and a paper book was held almost under her nose.
"I am sorry to disturb you," said Miss Tredgold, "but I have come for a light. Will you kindly inform me where I can get a candle?"
"There ain't none in the house."
The book was put down, and the angry face of Betty appeared to view.
"Then I fear I must trouble you to resign the one you yourself are using. I must have a light to see my way to my bedroom."
"There ain't no candles. We don't have 'em in summer. This one I bought with my own money, and I don't give it up to nobody, laidy or no laidy."
"Am I addressing the cook?"
"You are, ma'am. And I may as well say I am cook and housemaid and parlor-maid and kitchen-maid and scullery-maid all in one; and I does the laundry, too, whenever it's done at all. You may gather from my words, ma'am, that I have a deal to do, so I'll thank you to walk out of my kitchen; for if I am resting after my day of hard work, I have a right to rest, and my own candle shall light me, and my own book shall amuse me. So have the goodness to go, ma'am, and at once."
"I will go," replied Miss Tredgold very quietly, "exactly when I please, and not a moment before. I wish to say now that I require breakfast to be on the table at nine o'clock, and there must be plenty of good food. Do you mean to say that you have not got food in the house? You can, I presume, send out for it. Here is a half-sovereign. Spend it in what is necessary in order to provide an abundant meal on the table to-morrow morning for the use of Mr. Dale, myself, and my nieces."
What Betty would have said had there been no half-sovereign forthcoming history will never relate. But half-sovereigns were very few and very precious at The Dales. It was almost impossible to get any money out of Mr. Dale; he did not seem to know that there was such a thing as money. If it was put into his hand by any chance, he spent it on books. Betty's wages were terribly in arrears. She wanted her wages, but she was too generous, with all her faults, to press for them. But, all the same, the touch of the gold in her hand was distinctly soothing, and Miss Tredgold immediately rose in her estimation. A lady who produced at will golden half-sovereigns, and who was reckless enough to declare that one of these treasures might be spent on a single meal, was surely not a person to be sniffed at. Betty therefore stumbled to her feet.
"I beg your pardon, I'm sure, ma'am; and it's badly we does want some things here. I'll get what I can, although the notice is short, and the dook's nuptials, so to speak, at the door."
"What!" said Miss Tredgold.
"I beg your pardon again, ma'am, but my head aches and I'm a bit confused. I'm reading a most wonderful account of the wedding of the Dook of Mauleverer-Wolverhampton."
"I never heard of him."
"He's marrying a young girl quite in my own station of life—one that was riz from the cottage to the governess-ship, and from the governess-ship to the ducal chair. My head is full of Her Grace, ma'am, and you'll excuse me if I didn't rightly know to whom I had the honor of talking. I'll do what I can. And perhaps you'd like to borrow one of my dip candles for the present night."
"I should very much," said Miss Tredgold. "And please understand, Betty—I think you said your name was Betty—please understand that if you are on my side I shall be on your side. I have come here meaning to stay, and in future there will be a complete change in this establishment. You will receive good wages, paid on the day they are due. There will be plenty of money and plenty of food in the house, and the cook who pleases me stays, and the cook who displeases me goes. You understand?"
"Sakes!" muttered Betty, "it's nearly as exciting as the doocal romance.—Well, ma'am, I'm of your way of thinking; and here's your candle."
IN THE STUDY.
Miss Tredgold was the sort of woman who never let the grass grow under her feet. She felt, therefore, altogether out of place at The Dales, for at The Dales there was time for everything. "Time enough" was the motto of the establishment: time enough for breakfast, time enough for dinner, time enough for supper, time enough for bed, time enough for getting up, time enough for mending torn garments; surely, above all things, time enough for learning. To judge by the manner in which the family at The Dales went on, life was to last for ever and a day. They never hurried; they put things off when it pleased them; they stopped in the middle of one pursuit and turned to something else when the fancy took them; they were unruffled by the worries of life; they were, on the whole, gay, daring, indifferent. There was no money—or very little—for the future of these girls; they were absolutely uneducated; they were all but unclothed, and their food was poor and often insufficient. Nevertheless they were fairly happy. "Let well alone" was also their motto. "Never may care" was another. As to the rush and toil and strain of modern life, they could not even comprehend it. The idea of not being able to put off an engagement for a week, a month, or a year seemed to them too extraordinary to be believed. They were too young, too healthy, too happy to need to kill time; for time presented itself to them with an agreeable face, and the hours were never too long.
But although they were so indifferent to weighty matters, they had their own enthusiasms, and in their idle way they were busy always and forever. To have, therefore, a person like Aunt Sophia put suddenly into the middle of their gay and butterfly lives was something which was enough to madden the eight healthy girls who lived at The Dales. Aunt Sophia was, in their opinion, all crotchets, all nervousness, all fads. She had no tact whatsoever; at least, such was their first opinion of her. She put her foot down on this little crotchet, and pressed this passing desire out of sight. She brought new rules of life into their everyday existence, and, what is more, she insisted on being obeyed. With all their cleverness they were not half so clever as Aunt Sophia; they were no match for this good lady, who was still young at heart, who had been highly educated, who was full of enthusiasm, full of method, and full of determination. Aunt Sophia brought two very strong essentials with her to The Dales, and there was certainly little chance of the girls getting the victory over her. One thing which she brought was determination, joined to authority; the other thing was money. With these two weapons in her hand, what chance had the girls?
It might have been supposed that Miss Tredgold had done enough on the first night of her arrival. She had to a great extent vanquished the cook; and she had, further, told Verena and Pauline what lay before them. Surely she might have been contented, and have taken her dip candle in its tin candlestick and retired to her own room. But that was not Aunt Sophia's way. She discovered a light stealing from under another door, and she made for that door.
Now, no one entered Mr. Dale's room without knocking. None of the girls would have ventured to do so. But Aunt Sophia was made of sterner stuff. She did not knock. She opened the door and entered. The scholar was seated at the far end of the room. A large reading-lamp stood on the table. It spread a wide circle of light on the papers and books, and on his own silvery head and thin aquiline features. The rest of the room was in shadow. Miss Tredgold entered and stood a few feet away from Mr. Dale. Mr. Dale had already forgotten that such a person as Miss Sophia existed. It was his habit to work for a great many hours each night. It was during the hours of darkness that he most thoroughly absorbed himself in his darling occupation. His dinner had been better than usual, and that delicious coffee had stimulated his brain. He had not tasted coffee like that for years. His brain, therefore, being better nourished, was keener than usual to go on with his accustomed work. As Miss Sophia advanced to his side he uttered one or two sighs of rapture, for again a fresh rendering of a much-disputed passage occurred to him. Light was, in short, flooding the pages of his translation.
"The whole classical world will bless me," murmured Mr. Dale. "I am doing a vast service."
"I am sorry to interrupt you, Henry," said the sharp, incisive tones of his sister-in-law.
At Miss Tredgold's words he dropped his pen. It made a blot on the page, which further irritated him; for, untidy as he was in most things, his classical work was exquisitely neat.
"Do go away," he said. "I am busy. Go away at once."
"I am sorry, Henry, but I must stay. You know me, don't you? Your sister-in-law, Sophia Tredgold."
"Go away, Sophia. I don't want to be rude, but I never see any one at this hour."
"Henry, you are forced to see me. I shall go when I choose, not before."
Mr. Dale sprang to his feet.
"Madam!" he repeated, almost sputtering out his words, "you surely don't wish me to expel you. You don't intend to stand there all night. I can't have it. I don't allow people in my study. I am sorry to be discourteous to a lady, but I state a fact; you must go immediately. You don't realize what it is to have a brain like mine, nor to have undertaken such a herculean task. Ah! the beautiful thought which meant so much has vanished. Madam, you are responsible."
"Stop!" interrupted Miss Tredgold. "I will go the moment you do what I want."
"Will you? I'll do anything—anything that keeps you out of this room."
"That is precisely what I require. I don't wish to come into this room—that is, for the present. By-and-by it must be cleaned, for I decline to live in a dirty house; but I give you a fortnight's grace."
"And the rendering of the passage is beyond doubt, according to Clericus—— I beg your pardon; are you still speaking?"
"Yes, Henry. I am annoying you, I know; and, all things considered, I am glad, for you need rousing. I intend to sit or stand in this room, close to you, until morning if necessary. Ah! here is a chair."
As Miss Tredgold spoke she drew forward an unwieldy arm-chair, which was piled up with books and papers. These she was calmly about to remove, when a shriek from the anguished scholar stopped her.
"Don't touch them," he exclaimed. "You destroy the work of months. If you must have a chair, take mine."
Miss Tredgold did take it. She now found herself seated within a few yards of the scholar's desk. The bright light from the lamp fell on her face; it looked pale, calm, and determined. Mr. Dale was in shadow; the agony on his face was therefore not perceptible.
"Take anything you want; only go, woman," he said.
"Henry, you are a difficult person to deal with, and I am sorry to have to speak to you as I do. I am sorry to have to take, as it were, advantage of you; but I intend to stay in this house."
"You are not wanted, Sophia."
"I am not wished for, Henry; but as to being wanted, no woman was ever more wanted."
"That you are not."
"I say I am; and, what is more, I intend to remain. We need not discuss this point, for it is settled. I take up my sojourn in this house for three months."
"Three months!" said Mr. Dale. "Oh, my word! And this is only June. From June to July, from July to August, from August to September! It is very cruel of you, Sophia. I did not think my poor wife's sister would torture me like this."
"For the sake of your family I intend to stay, Henry. You will have to submit. I do not leave this room until you submit. What is more, you have to do something further. I want you to give me authority over your children. The moment I have it—I want it in writing, remember—I will leave you; and I will trouble you in the future as little as woman can trouble man. You will have better meals; but that you won't care about."
"The coffee," murmured Mr. Dale.
"Yes, you will have plenty of that delicious coffee. You will also have cleaner rooms."
"This room is not to be touched; you understand?"
"For the present we will let that matter lie in abeyance. Come, give me your authority in writing, and I leave the room; but if you don't, I stay in this chair—your chair, Henry Dale—all night if necessary."
If ever there was a poor, bewildered man, it was Mr. Dale at that moment. He did not give many thoughts to anything on earth but his beloved studies; but, all the same, when he had time for a momentary reflection that he possessed girls, he felt that he quite liked them. In his own fashion he was fond of Verena; and once when Briar had a very bad cold he sat with her for a very few minutes, and recommended her to try snuff. He did not wish to make his children unhappy, and he thought that the advent of Miss Tredgold would have that effect on them. But, after all, a determined woman like her must be humored; and what were the children compared to his own most valuable work? In the days to come they would be proud to own him. He would be spoken of as the very great English scholar whose rendering of Virgil was the most perfect that had ever been put into English prose. Oh! it was impossible to hesitate another moment. The woman was in his chair, and his thoughts were leaving him.
"Madam," he said, "you have taken me at a cruel disadvantage. I am seriously sorry for my poor children."
"Never mind about that now, Henry. You are, I perceive, a wise man. You can rest assured that I will do what is best both for you and for them."
"Very well, madam, I yield."
"You give me absolute authority to do what I think best for your children?"
"To reorganize this household?"
"Not this room."
"With the exception of this room."
"I suppose so."
"You will uphold my authority when the girls come to you, as perhaps they will, and ask you to interfere?"
"Oh, Sophia, you won't be hard on the poor children?"
"I will be just to them. You will uphold my authority?"
"If I think it necessary to punish them, you won't condemn the punishment?"
"Oh, please, Sophia, do go away! The night is passing quickly. I never think well by daylight."
"Put it on paper, Henry. Or stay! that will take too long. Give me a sheet of paper; I will write what I require. I only want your signature."
Poor Mr. Dale had to search among his papers for a blank sheet. Miss Sophia seized his special stylographic pen, pressed very hard on the nib, and wrote what she required. Mr. Dale felt certain he would find it quite spoilt when he came to use it again. But at last all her requirements were on paper, and Henry Dale wrote his signature at the end.
"Thank you, Henry; you have acted wisely. You have your study now to yourself."
Miss Tredgold bowed as she left the room.
The fortnight that followed was not likely to be forgotten by the young Dales. It would live in the remembrance of each child old enough to notice. Even Penelope found the course of events interesting—sometimes irritating, it is true; sometimes also delightful; but at least always exciting. Miss Tredgold never did things by halves. She had got the absolute authority which she required from the master of the house, and having got it she refrained from annoying him, in any way whatsoever. His meals were served with punctuality, and were far more comfortable than they had ever been before. He was always presented with a cup of strong, fragrant, delicious coffee after his dinner. This coffee enabled him to pursue his translation with great clearness and accuracy. His study up to the present was left undisturbed. His papers were allowed to remain thick with dust; his chairs were allowed to be laden with books and papers; the carpet was allowed to remain full of holes; the windows were left exactly as the scholar liked them—namely, tightly screwed down so that not even the faintest breath of heaven's air could come in and disarrange the terrible disorder.
But the rest of the house was truly turned topsy-turvy. It was necessary, Miss Tredgold assured the girls, to have topsy-turvydom before the reign of order could begin.
At first the young Dales were very angry. For the whole of the first day Verena wept at intervals. Pauline sulked. Briar wept one minute and laughed the next. The other children followed in the footsteps of their elders. Penelope was now openly and defiantly a grown-up child. She belonged to the schoolroom, although no schoolroom as yet existed at The Dales. She defied nurse; she took her meals with her sisters, and pinched baby whenever she found her alone. Miss Tredgold, however, took no notice of the tears or smiles or groans or discontented looks. She had a great deal to do, and she performed her tasks with rectitude and skill and despatch. New furniture was ordered from Southampton. She drove to Lyndhurst Road with Verena in the shabby trap which had first brought her to The Dales. She went from there to Southampton and chose new furniture. Verena could not help opening her eyes in amazement. Such very pretty white bedsteads; such charming chests of drawers; such nice, clean-looking carpets!
"Surely, Aunt Sophia," she said, "these things are not for us?"
"They certainly are, my dear," replied her aunt; "for in future I hope you will live as a lady and a Christian, and no longer as a savage."
The furniture arrived, and was put into the rooms. Pretty white curtains were placed at the windows; the paint was washed, and the paper rubbed down with bread.
"Fresh decoration and repainting must wait until I get the children to London for the winter," thought Aunt Sophia.
But notwithstanding the fact that paint and paper were almost non-existent by this time at The Dales, the house assumed quite a new air. As to Betty, she was in the most extraordinary way brought over absolutely to Miss Tredgold's part of the establishment. Miss Tredgold not only raised her wages on the spot, but paid her every farthing that was due in the past. She spoke to her a good deal about her duty, and of what she owed to the family, and of what she, Miss Tredgold, would do for her if she proved equal to the present emergency. Betty began to regard Miss Tredgold as a sort of marchioness in disguise. So interested was she in her, and so sure that one of the real "haristocrats" resided on the premises, that she ceased to read the Family Paper except at long intervals. She served up quite good dinners, and by the end of the fortnight few people would have known The Dales. For not only was the house clean and sweet—the drawing-room quite a charming old room, with its long Gothic windows, its tracery of ivy outside, and its peep into the distant rose-garden; the hall bright with great pots of flowers standing about—but the girls themselves were no longer in rags. The furniture dealer's was not the only shop which Miss Tredgold had visited at Southampton. She had also gone to a linen draper's, and had bought many nice clothes for the young folks.
The house being so much improved, and the girls being clothed afresh, a sufficient staff of servants arrived from a neighboring town. Betty was helped in the kitchen by a neat kitchen-maid; there were two housemaids and a parlor-maid; and John had a boy to help in the garden.
"Now, Verena," said Miss Tredgold on the evening of the day when the new servants were pronounced a great success, "what do you think of everything?"
"You have made the place quite pretty, Aunt Sophia."
"And you like it?"
"I think you mean to be very kind."
"My dear Verena, do talk sense. Don't tell me that you don't feel more comfortable in that pale-gray, nicely fitting dress, with the blush-rose in your belt, and that exceedingly pretty white hat on your head, than you did when you rushed up to welcome me, little savage that you were, a fortnight ago."
"I was so happy as a savage!"
"And you are not happy now?"
"I think you are kind, Aunt Sophia, and perhaps—I shall get accustomed to it."
Her aunt whisked round with some impatience.
"I hope so," she said; "for, whether you like it or not, you will have to put up with it. I fully intend to be kind, but I also mean to be very firm. I have now got the home in which you live into decent order, and you yourselves are respectably clothed. But I have not yet tackled the most important part of my duties, my dear Verena."
"Oh, please, Aunt Sophia, what else is necessary?"
Miss Tredgold threw up her hands.
"A great, great deal more," she cried. "I have not yet touched your minds; and I fear, from the way you speak, that I have scarcely touched your hearts. Well, your bodies at least are attended to, and now come your minds. Lastly, I hope to reach the most important of all—your hearts. Verena, I must probe your ignorance in order to stimulate you to learn. You, my dear, will be grown up in three years, so that you in particular have a vast lot to do."
"But I hate learning, and I shouldn't like to be a learned woman," said Verena. "Mother knew a lot of things, but she wasn't learned like father."
"Good gracious, child! I don't want you to be like your father. To tell the truth, a bookworm such as he is is one of the most irritating persons in existence. But there! What am I saying? I oughtn't to speak against him in your presence. And your poor mother loved him, oh, so much! Now then, dear, to return to yourself and your sisters. I presume that you would like to be a useful and valuable member of society—a woman who has been trained to do her best, and to exercise the highest influence over all those with whom she comes in contact. Influence, which springs from character, my dear Verena, is the highest power that any one can get. Now, an ignorant person has little or no influence; therefore, to be kind and sympathetic and useful in the future, you must know many things. You have not a minute to lose. I appeal to you for your mother's sake; for my dear, dear sister would have liked her eldest child to be—ah, Verena!—so good and so true!"
"You touch me, Aunt Sophy," said Verena, "when you talk of mother. You touch me more than words can say. Yes, I will try to be good; but you must bear with me if I don't take the yoke too kindly at first."
"Poor child! I will try to make it light for you. Now what is the matter, Penelope?"
"Please, please, Aunt Sophy," said that young person, rushing up at the moment.
"Hold yourself erect, my dear; don't run quite so fast. There! you have got a rent already in your new frock. Now what do you want?"
"May I be a schoolroom little girl in the future?"
"What are you now?"
"Nursey says I'm nursery. But I don't want to be nursery; I want to stay always with my own good Aunty Sophy. That is what I want. May I be a schoolroom child?"
"In the first place, you are not to call me 'aunty.' I am Aunt Sophia to you. I dislike abbreviations."
"Say, 'What are they?'"
"What are they?"
"I will tell you another time. How old are you, Penelope?"
"I wor seven my last birthday, one month agone."
"Your grammar is disgraceful, child. Please understand that the schoolroom has its penalties."
"Again I shall have to correct you. 'What are they?' is the sentence you ought to use. But now, my dear, I don't approve of little girls learning much when they are only seven years old; but if you wish to be a schoolroom girl you will have to take your place in the schoolroom, and you will have to learn to submit. You will have to be under more discipline than you are now with nurse."
"All the same, I'll be with my own aunt," said Penelope, raising her bold black eyes and fixing them on Miss Sophia's face.
But Miss Tredgold was not the sort of person to be influenced by soft words. "Deeds, not words," was her motto.
"You have said enough, Penelope," she said. "Take your choice; you may be a schoolroom child for a month if you like."
"I wouldn't if I were you, Pen," said Josephine.
"But I will," said Penelope.
In her heart of hearts she was terrified at the thought of the schoolroom, but even more did she fear the knowledge that nurse would laugh at her if she returned to the nursery.
"I will stay," she said. "I am a schoolroom child;" and she pirouetted round and round Aunt Sophia.
"But, please, Aunt Sophia," said Verena, "who is going to teach us?"
"I intend to have that honor," said Miss Tredgold.
If there were no outward groans among her assembled nieces at these words, there were certainly spirit groans, for the girls did not look forward to lessons with Aunt Sophia.
"You are all displeased," she said; "and I am scarcely surprised. The fact is, I have not got any efficient teacher to come here just yet. The person I should wish for is not easy to find. I myself know a great deal more than you do, and I have my own ideas with regard to instruction. I may as well tell you at once that I am a very severe teacher, and somewhat cranky, too. A girl who does not know her lessons is apt to find herself seated at my left side. Now, my right side is sunshiny and pleasant; but my left side faces due northeast. I think that will explain everything to you. We will meet in the schoolroom to-morrow at nine o'clock sharp. Now I must go."
When Miss Tredgold had vanished the girls looked at each other.
"Her northeast side!" said Pauline. "It makes me shudder even to think of it."
But notwithstanding these remarks the girls did feel a certain amount of interest at the thought of the new life that lay before them. Everything had changed from that sunny, languorous, dolce far niente time a fortnight back. Now the girls felt keen and brisk, and they knew well that each moment in the future would be spent in active employment.
The next day, sharp at nine o'clock, the young people who were to form Miss Tredgold's school entered the new schoolroom. It was suitably and prettily furnished, and had a charming appearance. Large maps were hung on the walls; there was a long line of bookshelves filled partly with story books, partly with history books, and partly with ordinary lesson books. The windows were draped with white muslin, and stood wide open. As the girls took their seats at the baize-covered table they could see out into the garden. A moment after they had arrived in the schoolroom Miss Tredgold made her appearance.
"We will begin with prayers," she said.
She read a portion from the Bible, made a few remarks, and then they all knelt as she repeated the Lord's prayer.
"Now, my dears," said their new governess as they rose from their knees, "lessons will begin. I hope we shall proceed happily and quietly. It will be uphill work at first; but if we each help the other, uphill work will prove to have its own pleasures. It's a long pull, and a strong pull, and a pull all together that masters difficulties. If we are all united we can accomplish anything; but if there is mutiny in the camp, then things may be difficult. I warn you all, however, that under any circumstances I mean to win the victory. It will be much easier, therefore, to submit at first. There will be no use in sulkiness, in laziness, in inattention. Make a brave effort now, all of you, and you will never regret this day. Now, Verena, you and I will have some conversation together. The rest of you children will read this page in the History of England, and tell me afterwards what you can remember about it."