Author of "The Palace in the Garden," "'Carrots': Just a Little Boy," "The Cuckoo Clock," Etc.
Illustrated by Gordon Browne, E. J. Walker, Lizzie Lawson, J. Bligh, and Maynard Brown.
Published Under the Direction of the Committee of General Literature and Education Appointed by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Northumberland Avenue, Charing Cross, W.C.; 43, Queen Victoria Street, E.C. Brighton: 135, North Street. New York: E. & J. B. Young and Co.
"... what we have we prize not to the worth Whiles we enjoy it; but being lack'd and lost, Why then we rack the value."—Much Ado about Nothing.
THE MASTER OF THE HOUSE.
"That's Geoff, I'm sure," said Elsa; "I always know his ring. I do hope——" and she stopped and sighed a little.
"What?" said Frances, looking up quickly.
"Oh, nothing particular. Run down, Vic, dear, and get Geoff to go straight into the school-room. Order his tea at once. I don't want him to come upstairs just now. Mamma is so busy and worried with those letters."
Vic, a little girl of nine, with long fair hair and long black legs, and a pretty face with a bright, eager expression, needed no second bidding. She was off almost before Elsa had finished speaking.
"What a good child she is!" said Frances. "What a clever, nice boy she would have made! And if Geoff had been a girl, perhaps he would have been more easily managed."
"I don't know," said Elsa. "Perhaps if Vicky had been a boy she would have been spoilt and selfish too."
"Elsa," said Frances, "I think you are rather hard upon Geoff. He is like all boys. Everybody says they are more selfish than girls, and then they grow out of it."
"They grow out of showing it so plainly, perhaps," replied Elsa, rather bitterly. "But you contradict yourself, Frances. Just a moment ago you said what a much nicer boy Vic would have made. All boys aren't like Geoff. Of course, I don't mean that he is really a bad boy; but it just comes over me now and then that it is a shame he should be such a tease and worry, boy or not. When mamma is anxious, and with good reason, and we girls are doing all we can, why should Geoff be the one we have to keep away from her, and to smooth down, as it were? It's all for her sake, of course; but it makes me ashamed, all the same, to feel that we are really almost afraid of him. There now——" And she started up as the sound of a door, slammed violently in the lower regions, reached her ears.
But before she had time to cross the room, Vicky reappeared.
"It's nothing, Elsa," the child began eagerly. "Geoff's all right; he's not cross. He only slammed the door at the top of the kitchen stair because I reminded him not to leave it open."
"You might have shut it yourself, rather than risk a noise to-night," said Elsa. "What was he doing at the top of the kitchen stair?"
Vicky looked rather guilty.
"He was calling to Phoebe to boil two eggs for his tea. He says he is so hungry. I would have run up to tell you; but I thought it was better than his teasing mamma about letting him come in to dinner."
Elsa glanced at Frances.
"You see," her glance seemed to say.
"Yes, dear," she said aloud to the little sister, "anything is better than that. Run down again, Vicky, and keep him as quiet as you can."
"Would it not be better, perhaps," asked Frances, rather timidly, "for one of us to go and speak to him, and tell him quietly about mamma having had bad news?"
"He wouldn't rest then till he had heard all about it from herself," said Elsa. "Of course he'd be sorry for her, and all that, but he would only show it by teasing."
It was Frances's turn to sigh, for in spite of her determination to see everything and everybody in the best possible light, she knew that Elsa was only speaking the truth about Geoffrey.
Half an hour later the two sisters were sitting at dinner with their mother. She was anxious and tired, as they knew, but she did her utmost to seem cheerful.
"I have seen and heard nothing of Geoff," she said suddenly. "Has he many lessons to do to-night? He's all right, I suppose?"
"Oh yes," said Frances. "Vic's with him, looking out his words. He seems in very good spirits. I told him you were busy writing for the mail, and persuaded him to finish his lessons first. He'll be coming up to the drawing-room later."
"I think mamma had better go to bed almost at once," said Elsa, abruptly. "You've finished those letters, dear, haven't you?"
"Yes—all that I can write as yet. But I must go to see Mr. Norris first thing to-morrow morning. I have said to your uncle that I cannot send him particulars till next mail."
"Mamma, darling," said Frances, "do you really think it's going to be very bad?"
Mrs. Tudor smiled rather sadly.
"I'm afraid so," she said; "but the suspense is the worst. Once we really know, we can meet it. You three girls are all so good, and Geoff, poor fellow—he means to be good too."
"Yes," said Frances, eagerly, "I'm sure he does."
"But 'meaning' alone isn't much use," said Elsa. "Mamma," she went on with sudden energy, "if this does come—if we really do lose all our money, perhaps it will be the best thing for Geoff in the end."
Mrs. Tudor seemed to wince a little.
"You needn't make the very worst of it just yet, any way," said Frances, reproachfully.
"And it would in one sense be the hardest on Geoff," said the mother, "for his education would have to be stopped, just when he's getting on so well, too."
"But——" began Elsa, but she said no more. It was no use just then expressing what was in her mind—that getting on well at school, winning the good opinion of his masters, the good fellowship of his companions, did not comprise the whole nor even the most important part of the duty of a boy who was also a son and a brother—a son, too, of a widowed mother, and a brother of fatherless sisters. "I would almost rather," she said to herself, "that he got on less well at school if he were more of a comfort at home. It would be more manly, somehow."
Her mother did not notice her hesitation.
"Let us go upstairs, dears," she said. "I am tired, but I am not going to let myself be over-anxious. I shall try to put things aside, as it were, till I hear from Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot. I have the fullest confidence in his advice."
"I wish he would take it into his head to come home," said Frances.
"So do I," agreed her mother.
They were hardly settled in the drawing-room before Vic appeared.
"Elsa," she whispered, "Geoff sent me to ask if he may have something to eat."
"Something to eat," repeated Elsa. "He had two eggs with his tea. He can't be hungry."
"No—o— But there were anchovy toasts at dinner—Harvey told him. And he's so fond of anchovy toasts. I think you'd better say he may, Elsa, because of mamma."
"Very well," the elder sister replied. "It's not right—it's always the way. But what are we to do?"
Vicky waited not to hear her misgivings, but flew off. She was well-drilled, poor little soul.
Her brother was waiting for her, midway between the school-room and dining-room doors.
"Well?" he said, moving towards the latter.
"Yes. Elsa says you may," replied the breathless little envoy.
"Elsa! What has she to do with it? I told you to ask mamma, not Elsa," he said roughly.
He stood leaning against the jamb of the door, his hands in his pockets, with a very cross look on his handsome face. But Victoria, devoted little sister though she was, was not to be put down by any cross looks when she knew she was in the right.
"Geoff," she said sturdily, "I'll just leave off doing messages or anything for you if you are so selfish. How could I go teasing mamma about anchovy toasts for you when she is so worried?"
"How should I know she is busy and worried?" said Geoff. "What do you mean? What is it about?"
"I don't know. At least I only know that Elsa and Francie told me that she was worried, and that she had letters to write for the ship that goes to India to-morrow."
"For the Indian mail you mean, I suppose," said Geoff. "What a donkey you are for your age, Vic! Oh, if it's only that, she's writing to that old curmudgeon; that's nothing new. Come along, Vicky, and I'll give you a bit of my toasts."
He went into the dining-room as he spoke, and rang the bell.
"Harvey'll bring them up. I said I'd ring if I was to have them. Upon my word, Vic, it isn't every fellow of my age that would take things so quietly. Never touching a scrap without leave, when lots like me come home to late dinner every night."
"Elsa says it's only middle-class people who let children dine late," said Vic, primly, "I shan't come down to dinner till I'm out."
Geoffrey burst out laughing.
"Rubbish!" he said. "Elsa finds reasons for everything that suits her. Here, Vicky, take your piece."
Vicky was not partial to anchovy toasts, but to-night she was so anxious to keep Geoff in a good humour, that she would have eaten anything he chose to give her, and pretended to like it. So she accepted her share, and Geoff munched his in silence.
He was a well-made, manly looking boy, not tall for his years, which were fourteen, but in such good proportion as to give promise of growing into a strong and vigorous man. His face was intended by nature to be a very pleasing one. The features were all good; there was nobility in the broad forehead, and candour in the bright dark eyes, and—sometimes—sweetness in the mouth. But this "sometimes" had for long been becoming of less and less frequent occurrence. A querulous, half-sulky expression had invaded the whole face: its curves and lines were hardening as those of no young face should harden; the very carriage of the boy was losing its bright upright fearlessness—his shoulders were learning to bend, his head to slouch forward. One needed but to glance at him to see that Geoffrey Tudor was fast becoming that most disagreeable of social characters, a grumbler! And with grumbling unrepressed, and indulged in, come worse things, for it has its root in that true "root of all evil," selfishness.
As the last crumbs of the anchovy toasts disappeared, Geoff glanced round him.
"I say, Vic," he began, "is there any water on the sideboard? Those things are awfully salt. But I don't know that I'm exactly thirsty, either. I know what I'd like—a glass of claret, and I don't see why I shouldn't have it, either. At my age it's really too absurd that——"
"What are you talking about, Geoff?" said Elsa's voice in the doorway. "Mamma wants you to come up to the drawing-room for a little. What is it that is too absurd at your age?"
"Nothing in particular—or rather everything," said Geoff, with a slight tone of defiance. There was something in Elsa's rather too superior, too elder-sisterly way of speaking that, as he would have expressed it, "set him up." "I was saying to Vic that I'd like a glass of claret, and that I don't see why I shouldn't have it, either. Other fellows would help themselves to it. I often think I'm a great donkey for my pains."
Elsa looked at him with a strange mixture of sadness and contempt.
"What will he be saying next, I wonder?" her glance seemed to say.
But the words were not expressed.
"Come upstairs," she said. "Vicky has told you, I know, that you must be particularly careful not to tease mamma to-night."
Geoff returned her look with an almost fierce expression in the eyes that could be so soft and gentle.
"I wish you'd mind your own business, and leave mother and me to ourselves. It's your meddling puts everything wrong," he muttered.
But he followed his elder sister upstairs quietly enough. Down in the bottom of his heart was hidden great faith in Elsa. He would, had occasion demanded it, have given his life, fearlessly, cheerfully, for her or his mother, or the others. But the smaller sacrifices, of his likes and dislikes, of his silly boyish temper and humours—of "self," in short, he could not or would not make. Still, something in Elsa's words and manner this evening impressed him in spite of himself. He followed her into the drawing-room, fully meaning to be good and considerate.
"MAYN'T I SPEAK TO YOU, MAMMA?"
That was the worst of it—the most puzzling part of it, rather, perhaps we should say—with Geoffrey. He meant to be good. He would not for worlds have done anything that he distinctly saw to be wrong. He worked well at his lessons, though to an accompaniment of constant grumbling—at home, that is to say; grumbling at school is not encouraged. He was rather a favourite with his companions, for he was a manly and "plucky" boy, entering heartily into the spirit of all their games and amusements, and he was thought well of by the masters for his steadiness and perseverance, though not by any means of naturally studious tastes. The wrong side of him was all reserved for home, and for his own family.
Yet, only son and fatherless though he was, he had not been "spoilt" in the ordinary sense of the word. Mrs. Tudor, though gentle, and in some ways timid, was not a weak or silly woman. She had brought up her children on certain broad rules of "must," as to which she was as firm as a rock, and these had succeeded so well with the girls that it was a complete surprise as well as the greatest of sorrows to her when she first began to see signs of trouble with her boy. And gradually her anxiety led her into the fatal mistake of spoiling Geoffrey by making him of too much consequence. It came to be recognized in the household that his moods and humours were to be a sort of family barometer, and that all efforts were to be directed towards the avoidance of storms. Not that Geoff was passionate or violent. Had he been so, things would have sooner come to a crisis. He was simply tiresome—tiresome to a degree that can scarcely be understood by those who have not experienced such tiresomeness for themselves. And as there is no doubt a grain of the bully somewhere in the nature of every boy—if not of every human being—what this tiresomeness might have grown into had the Fates, or something higher than the Fates, not interposed, it would be difficult to exaggerate.
The cloudy look had not left Geoff's face when he came into the drawing-room. But, alas! it was nothing new to see him "looking like that." His mother took no notice of it.
"Well, Geoff?" she said pleasantly. "How have you got on to-day, my boy?"
He muttered something indistinctly, which sounded like, "Oh, all right;" then catching sight of Elsa's reproachful face, he seemed to put some constraint on himself, and, coming forward to his mother, kissed her affectionately.
"Are you very tired to-night, mamma?" he said. "Must I not speak to you?"
Mrs. Tudor was very tired, and she knew by old experience what Geoff's "speaking" meant—an hour or more's unmitigated grumbling, and dragging forward of every possible grievance, to have each in turn talked over, and sympathized about, and smoothed down by her patient hand. Such talks were not without their effect on the boy; much that his mother said appealed to his good sense and good feeling, though he but seldom gave her the satisfaction of seeing this directly. But they were very wearing to her, and it was carrying motherly unselfishness too far to undertake such discussion with Geoff, when she was already worn out with unusual anxiety.
She smiled, however, brightly enough, in reply to his questions. It cheered her to see that he could consider her even thus much.
"Of course I can speak to you, Geoff. Have you anything particular to tell me?"
"Lots of things," said the boy. He drew forward a chair in which to settle himself comfortably beside his mother, darting an indignant glance at his sisters as he did so. "Humbugging me as usual about mamma—anything to keep me away from her," he muttered. But Elsa and Frances only glanced at each other in despair.
"Well," said Mrs. Tudor, resignedly, leaning back in her chair.
"Mamma," began Geoffrey, "there must be something done about my pocket-money. I just can't do with what I've got. I've waited to speak about it till I had talked it over with some of the other fellows. They nearly all have more than I."
"Boys of your age—surely not?" interposed Mrs. Tudor.
"Well, some of them are not older than I," allowed Geoff. "If you'd give me more, and let me manage things for myself—football boots, and cricket-shoes, and that sort of thing. The girls"—with cutting emphasis—"are always hinting that I ask you for too many things, and I hate to be seeming to be always at you for something. If you'd give me a regular allowance, now, and let me manage for myself."
"At your age," repeated his mother, "that surely is very unusual."
"I don't see that it matters exactly about age," said Geoff, "if one's got sense."
"But have you got sense enough, Geoff?" said Frances, gently. "I'm three years older than you, and I've only just begun to have an allowance for my clothes, and I should have got into a dreadful mess if it hadn't been for Elsa helping me."
"Girls are quite different," said Geoff. "They want all sorts of rubbishing ribbons and crinolines and flounces. Boys only need regular necessary things."
"Then you haven't any wants at present, I should think, Geoff," said Elsa, in her peculiarly clear, rather aggravating tones. "You were completely rigged out when you came back from the country, three weeks ago."
Geoff glowered at her.
"Mamma," he said, "will you once for all make Elsa and Frances understand that when I'm speaking to you they needn't interfere?"
Mrs. Tudor did not directly respond to this request.
"Will you tell me, Geoff," she said, "what has put all this into your head? What things are you in want of?"
Geoff hesitated. Fancied wants, like fancied grievances, have an annoying trick of refusing to answer to the roll-call when distinctly summoned to do so.
"There's lots of things," he began. "I should have a pair of proper football boots, instead of just an old common pair with ribs stuck on, you know, like I have. All the fellows have proper ones when they're fifteen or so."
"But you are not fifteen."
"Well, I might wait about the boots till next term. But I do really want a pair of boxing-gloves dreadfully," he went on energetically, as the idea occurred to him; "you know I began boxing this term."
"And don't they provide boxing-gloves? How have you managed hitherto?" asked his mother, in surprise.
"Oh, well, yes—there are gloves; but of course it's much nicer to have them of one's own. It's horrid always to seem just one of the lot that can't afford things of their own."
"And if you are not rich—and I dare say nearly all your schoolfellows are richer than you"—said Elsa, "is it not much better not to sham that you are?"
"Sham," repeated Geoff, roughly. "Mamma, I do think you should speak to Elsa.—If you were a boy——" he added, turning to his sister threateningly. "I don't want to sham about anything; but it's very hard to be sent to a school when you can't have everything the same as the others."
A look of pain crept over Mrs. Tudor's tired face. Had she done wrong? Was it another of her "mistakes"—of which, like all candid people, she felt she had made many in her life—to have sent Geoff to a first-class school?
"Geoff," she said weariedly, "you surely do not realize what you cause me when you speak so. It was almost my principal reason for settling in London seven years ago, that I might be able to send you to one of the best schools. We could have lived more cheaply, and more comfortably, in the country; but you would have had to go to a different class of school."
"Well, I wish I had, then," said Geoff, querulously. "I perfectly hate London; I have always told you so. I shouldn't mind what I did if it was in the country. It isn't that I want to spend money, or that I've extravagant ideas; but it's too hard to be in a false position, as I am at school—not able to have things like the other fellows. You would have made me far happier if you had gone to live in the country and let me go to a country school. I hate London; and just because I want things like other fellows, I'm scolded."
Mrs. Tudor did not speak. She looked sad and terribly tired.
"Geoff," said Elsa, putting great control on herself so as to speak very gently, for she felt as if she could gladly shake him, "you must see that mamma is very tired. Do wait to talk to her till she is better able for it. And it is getting late."
"Do go, Geoff," said his mother. "I have listened to what you have said; it is not likely I shall forget it. I will talk to you afterwards."
The boy looked rather ashamed.
"I haven't meant to vex you," he said, as he stooped to kiss his mother. "I'm sorry you're so tired."
There was silence for a moment after he had left the room.
"I am afraid there is a mixture of truth in what he says," said Mrs. Tudor, at last. "It has been one of the many mistakes I have made, and now I suppose I am to be punished for it."
Elsa made a movement of impatience.
"Mamma dear!" she exclaimed, "I don't think you would speak that way if you weren't tired. There isn't any truth in what Geoff says. I don't mean that he tells stories; but it's just his incessant grumbling. He makes himself believe all sorts of nonsense. He has everything right for a boy of his age to have. I know there are boys whose parents are really rich who have less than he has."
"Yes, indeed, mamma; Elsa is right," said Frances. "Geoff is insatiable. He picks out the things boys here and there may have as an exception, and wants to have them all. He has a perfect genius for grumbling."
"Because he is always thinking of himself," said Elsa. "Mamma, don't think me disrespectful, but would it not be better to avoid saying things which make him think himself of such consequence—like telling him that we came to live in town principally for his sake?"
"Perhaps so," said her mother. "I am always in hopes of making him ashamed, by showing how much has been done for him."
"And he does feel ashamed," said Frances, eagerly. "I saw it to-night; he'd have liked to say something more if he hadn't been too proud to own that he had been inventing grievances."
"Things have been too smooth for him," said Elsa; "that's the truth of it. He needs some hardships."
"And as things are turning out he's very likely to get them," said Mrs. Tudor, with a rather wintry smile.
"Oh, mamma, forgive me! Do you know, I had forgotten all about our money troubles," Elsa exclaimed. "Why don't you tell Geoff about them, mamma? It's in a way hardly fair on him; for if he knew, it might make him understand how wrong and selfish he is."
"I will tell him soon, but not just yet. I do not want to distract his mind from his lessons, and I wish to be quite sure first. I think I should wait till I hear from your great-uncle."
"And that will be—how long? It is how many weeks since Mr. Norris first wrote that he was uneasy? About seven, I should say," said Elsa.
"Quite that," said her mother. "It is the waiting that is so trying. I can do nothing without Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot's advice."
That last sentence had been a familiar one to Mrs. Tudor's children almost ever since they could remember. "Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot" had been a sort of autocrat and benefactor in one, to the family. His opinions, his advice had been asked on all matters of importance; his approval had been held out to them as the highest reward, his displeasure as the punishment most to be dreaded. And yet they had never seen him!
"I wish he would come home himself," said Elsa. "I think Geoff would be much the better for a visit from him," she added, with a slight touch of sharpness in her tone.
"Poor Geoff!" said her mother. "I suppose the truth is that very few women know how to manage boys."
"I don't see that," said Elsie. "On the contrary, a generous-natured boy is often more influenced by a woman's gentleness than by a man's severity. It is just that, that I don't like about Geoff. There is a want of generous, chivalrous feeling about him."
"No," said Frances. "I don't quite agree with you. I think it is there, but somehow not awakened. Mamma," she went on, "supposing our great-uncle did come home, would he be dreadfully angry if he found out that we all called him 'Hoot-Toot'?"
"Oh no," said her mother, smiling; "he's quite used to it. Your father told me he had had the trick nearly all his life of saying 'Hoot-toot, hoot-toot!' if ever he was perplexed or disapproving."
"What a very funny little boy he must have been!" exclaimed both the girls together.
AN UNLOOKED-FOR ARRIVAL.
The next few days were trying ones for all the Tudor family. The mother was waiting anxiously for further news of the money losses, with which, as her lawyers told her, she was threatened; the sisters were anxious too, though, with the bright hopefulness of their age, the troubles which distressed their mother fell much more lightly on them: they were anxious because they saw her suffering.
Vicky had some misty idea that something was wrong, but she knew very little, and had been forbidden to say anything to Geoff about the little she did know. So that of the whole household Geoff was the only one who knew nothing, and went on living in his Fool's Paradise of having all his wants supplied, yet grumbling that he had nothing! He was in a particularly tiresome mood—perhaps, in spite of themselves, it was impossible for his sisters to bear with him as patiently as usual; perhaps the sight of his mother's pale face made him dissatisfied with himself and cross because he would not honestly own that he was doing nothing to help and please her. And the weather was very disagreeable, and among Geoff's many "hates" was a very exaggerated dislike to bad weather. About this sort of thing he had grumbled much more since his return from a long visit to some friends in the country the summer before, when the weather had been splendid, and everything done to make him enjoy himself, in consequence of which he had come home with a fixed idea that the country was always bright and charming; that it was only in town that one had to face rain and cold and mud. As to fog, he had perhaps more ground for his belief.
"Did you ever see such beastly weather?" were his first words to Vicky one evening when the good little sister had rushed to the door on hearing Geoff's ring, so that his majesty should not be kept waiting an unnecessary moment. "I am perfectly drenched, and as cold as ice. Is tea ready, Vic?"
"Quite ready—at least it will be by the time you've changed your things. Do run up quick, Geoff. It's a bad thing to keep on wet clothes."
"Mamma should have thought of that before she sent me to a day-school," said Geoff. "I've a good mind just not to change my clothes, and take my chance of getting cold. It's perfect slavery—up in the morning before it's light, and not home till pitch dark, and soaked into the bargain."
"Hadn't you your mackintosh on?" asked Vicky.
"My mackintosh! It's in rags. I should have had a new one ages ago."
"Geoff! I'm sure it can't be so bad. You've not had it a year."
"A year. No one wears a mackintosh for a year. The buttons are all off, and the button-holes are burst."
"I'm sure they can be mended. Martha would have done it if you'd asked her," said Vic, resolving to see to the unhappy mackintosh herself. "I know poor mamma doesn't want to spend any extra money just now."
"There's a great deal too much spent on Elsa and Frances, and all their furbelows," said Geoff, in what he thought a very manly tone. "Here, Vicky, help me to pull off my boots, and then I must climb up to the top of the house to change my things."
Vicky knelt down obediently and tugged at the muddy boots, though it was a task she disliked as much as she could dislike anything. She was rewarded by a gruff "Thank you," and when Geoff came down again in dry clothes, to find the table neatly prepared, and his little sister ready to pour out his tea, he did condescend to say that she was a good child! But even though his toast was hot and crisp, and his egg boiled to perfection, Geoff's pleasanter mood did not last long. He had a good many lessons to do that evening, and they were lessons he disliked. Vicky sat patiently, doing her best to help him till her bedtime came, and he had barely finished when Frances brought a message that he was to come upstairs—mamma said he was not to work any longer.
"You have finished, surely, Geoff?" she said, when he entered the drawing-room.
"If I had finished, I would have come up sooner. You don't suppose I stay down there grinding away to please myself, do you?" replied the boy, rudely.
"Geoff!" exclaimed his sisters, unwisely, perhaps.
He turned upon them.
"I've not come to have you preaching at me. Mamma, will you speak to them?" he burst out. "I hate this life—nothing but fault-finding as soon as I show my face. I wish I were out of it, I do! I'd rather be the poorest ploughboy in the country than lead this miserable life in this hateful London."
He said the last words loudly, almost shouting them, indeed. To do him justice, it was not often his temper got so completely the better of him. The noise he was making had prevented him and the others from hearing the bell ring—prevented them, too, from hearing, a moment or two later, a short colloquy on the stairs between Harvey and a new-comer.
"Thank you," said the latter; "I don't want you to announce me. I'll do it myself."
Geoff had left the door open.
"Yes," he was just repeating, even more loudly than before, "I hate this life, I do. I am grinding at lessons from morning to night, and when I come home this is the way you treat me. I——"
But a voice behind him made him start.
"Hoot-toot, young man," it said. "Hoot-toot, hoot-toot! Come, I say, this sort of thing will never do. And ladies present! Hoot——"
But the "toot" was drowned in a scream from Mrs. Tudor.
"Uncle, dear uncle, is it you? Can it be you yourself? Oh, Geoff, Geoff! he is not often such a foolish boy, uncle, believe me. Oh, how—how thankful I am you have come!"
She had risen from her seat and rushed forward to greet the stranger, but suddenly she grew strangely pale, and seemed on the point of falling. Elsa flew towards her on the one side, and the old gentleman on the other.
"Poor dear!" he exclaimed. "I have startled her, I'm afraid. Hoot-toot, hoot-toot, silly old man that I am. Where's that ill-tempered fellow off to?" he went on, glancing round. "Can't he fetch a glass of water, or make himself useful in some way?"
"I will," said Frances, darting forward. Geoffrey had disappeared, and small wonder.
"I am quite right now, thank you," said Mrs. Tudor, trying to smile, when Elsa had got her on to the sofa. "Don't be frightened, Elsa dear. Nor you, uncle; it was just the—the start. I've had a good deal to make me anxious lately, you know."
"I should think I did—those idiots of lawyers!" muttered the old man.
"And poor Geoff," she went on; "I am afraid I have not paid much attention to him lately, and he's felt it—foolishly, perhaps."
"Rubbish!" said Uncle Hoot-Toot under his breath. "Strikes me he's used to a good deal too much attention," he added as an aside to Elsa, with a quick look of inquiry in his bright keen eyes.
Elsa could hardly help smiling, but for her mother's sake she restrained herself.
"It will be all right now you have come home, dear uncle," Mrs. Tudor went on gently. "How was it? Had you started before you got my letters? Why did you not let us know?"
"I was on the point of writing to announce my departure," said the old gentleman, "when your letter came. It struck me then that I could get home nearly as quickly as a letter, and so I thought it was no use writing."
"Then you know—you know all about this bad news?" said Mrs. Tudor falteringly.
"Yes; those fellows wrote to me. That was right enough; but what they meant by worrying you about it, my dear, I can't conceive. It was quite against all my orders. What did poor Frank make me your trustee for, if it wasn't to manage these things for you?"
"Then you think, you hope, there may be something left to manage, do you?" asked Mrs. Tudor, eagerly. "I have been anticipating the very worst. I did not quite like to put it in words to these poor children"—and she looked up affectionately at the two girls; "but I have really been trying to make up my mind to our being quite ruined."
"Hoot-toot, hoot-toot!" said her uncle. "No such nonsense, my dear. I shall go to Norris's to-morrow morning and have it out with him. Ruined! No, no. It'll be all right, you'll see. We'll go into it all, and you have nothing to do but leave things to me. Now let us talk of pleasanter matters. What a nice, pretty little house you've got! And what nice, pretty little daughters! Good girls, too, or I'm uncommonly mistaken. They're comforts to you, Alice, my dear, eh?"
"The greatest possible comforts," answered the mother, warmly. "And so is little Vic. You haven't seen her yet."
"Little Vic? Oh, to be sure—my namesake." For Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot's real name, you must know, was Mr. Victor Byrne. "To be sure; must see her to-morrow; Vic, to be sure."
"And Geoffrey," Mrs. Tudor went on less assuredly. "Geoff is doing very well at school. You will have a good report of him from his masters. He is a steady worker, and——"
"But how about the home report of him, eh?" said Mr. Byrne, drily. "There's two sides to most things, and I've rather a weakness for seeing both. Never mind about that just now. I never take up impressions hastily. Don't be afraid. I'll see Master Geoff for myself. Let's talk of other things. What do these young ladies busy themselves about? Are they good housekeepers, eh?"
Mrs. Tudor smiled.
"Can you make a pudding and a shirt, Elsa and Frances?" she asked. "Tell your uncle your capabilities."
"I could manage the pudding," said Elsa. "I think the days for home-made shirts are over."
"Hoot-toot, toot-toot!" said Mr. Byrne; "new-fangled notions, eh?"
"No, indeed, Great-Uncle Hoot——" began Frances, eagerly. Then blushing furiously, she stopped short.
The old gentleman burst out laughing.
"Never mind, my dear; I'm used to it. It's what they always called me—all my nephews and nieces."
"Have you a great many nephews and nieces besides us?" asked Elsa.
Mr. Byrne laughed again.
"That depends upon myself," he said. "I make them, you see. I have had any quantity in my day, but they're scattered far and wide. And—there are a great many blanks, Alice, my dear, since I was last at home," he added, turning to Mrs. Tudor. "I don't know that any of them was ever quite such a pet of mine as this little mother of yours, my dears."
"Oh!" said Elsa, looking rather disappointed; "you are not our real uncle, then? I always thought you were."
"Well, think so still," said Mr. Byrne. "At any rate, you must treat me so, and then I shall be quite content. But I must be going. I shall see you to-morrow after I've had it out with that donkey Norris. What a stupid idiot he is, to be sure!" and for a moment Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot looked quite fierce. "And then I must see little Vic. What time shall I come to-morrow, Alice?"
"Whenever you like, uncle," she said. "Will you not come and stay here altogether?"
"No, thank you, my dear. I've got my own ways, you see. I'm a fussy old fellow. And I've got my servant—my blackamoor. He'd frighten all the neighbours. And you'd fuss yourself, thinking I wasn't comfortable. I'll come up to-morrow afternoon and stay on to dinner, if you like. And just leave the boy to me a bit. Good night, all of you; good night."
And in another moment the little old gentleman was gone.
The two girls and their mother sat staring at each other when he had disappeared.
"Isn't it like a dream? Can you believe he has really come, mamma?" said Elsa.
"Hardly," replied her mother. "But I am very thankful. If only Geoff will not vex him."
Elsa and Frances said nothing. They had their own thoughts about their brother, but they felt it best not to express them.
"Is he like what you expected, Elsa?" asked Frances, when they were in their own room.
"Who? Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot? I'm sure I don't know. I don't think I ever thought about what he'd be like."
"Oh, I had an idea," said Frances. "Quite different, of course, from what he really is. I had fancied he'd be tall and stooping, and with a big nose and very queer eyes. I think I must have mixed him up with the old godfather in the 'Nutcracker of Nuremberg,' without knowing it."
"Well, he's not so bad as that, anyway," said Elsa. "He looks rather shrivelled and dried up; but he's so very neat and refined-looking. Did you notice what small brown hands he has, and such very bright eyes? Isn't it funny that he's only an adopted uncle, after all?"
"I think mamma had really forgotten he wasn't our real uncle," said Frances. "Elsa, I am very glad he has come. I think poor mamma has been far more unhappy than she let us know. She does look so ill."
"It's half of it Geoff," said Elsa, indignantly. "And now he must needs spoil Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot's arrival by his tempers. Perhaps it's just as well, however. 'By the pricking of my thumbs,' I fancy Geoff has met his master."
"Elsa, you frighten me a little," said Frances. "You don't think he'll be very severe with poor Geoff?"
"I don't think he'll be more severe than is for Geoff's good," replied Elsa. "I must confess, though, I shouldn't like to face Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot if I felt I had been behaving badly. How his eyes can gleam!"
"And how he seemed to flash in upon us all of a sudden, and to disappear almost as quickly! I'm afraid there's something a little bit uncanny about him," said Frances, who was very imaginative. "But if he helps to put all the money troubles right, he will certainly be like a good fairy to us."
"Yes; and if he takes Geoff in hand," added Elsa. "But, Frances, we must go to bed. I want to make everything very nice to-morrow; I'm going to think about what to have for dinner while I go to sleep."
For Elsa was housekeeper—a very zealous and rather anxious-minded young housekeeper. Her dreams were often haunted by visions of bakers' books and fishmongers' bills; to-night curry and pilau chased each other through her brain, and Frances was aroused from her first sweet slumbers to be asked if she would remember to look first thing to-morrow morning if there was a bottle of chutney in the store-closet.
At breakfast Geoff came in, looking glum and slightly defiant. But he said nothing except "Good morning." He started, however, a little, when he saw his mother.
"Mamma," he said, "are you not well? You look so very pale."
The girls glanced up at this. It was true. They had not observed it in the excitement of discussing the new arrival, and the satisfaction of knowing it had brought relief to Mrs. Tudor's most pressing anxieties.
"Yes, mamma dear. It is true. You do look very pale. Now, you must not do anything to tire yourself all day. We will manage everything, so that Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot shall see we are not silly useless girls," said Elsa.
Geoffrey's lips opened as if he were about to speak, but he closed them again. He was still on his high horse.
"Geoff," said his mother, as he was leaving, "you will dine with us this evening. Try to get your lessons done quickly. Uncle will wish to see something of you."
He muttered an indistinct "Very well, mamma," as he shut the door.
"Humph!" he said to himself, "I suppose Elsa will want to make him think I'm properly treated. But I shall tell him the truth—any man will understand how impossible it is for me to stand it any longer. I don't mind if he did hear me shouting last night. There's a limit to endurance. But I wish mamma didn't look so pale. Of course they'll make out it's all my fault."
And feeling himself and his grievances of even more consequence than usual, Master Geoff stalked off.
Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot made his appearance in the afternoon rather earlier than he was expected. He found Mrs. Tudor alone in the drawing-room, and had a talk with her by themselves, and then Vicky was sent for, to make his acquaintance. The little girl came into the drawing-room looking very much on her good behaviour indeed—so much so that Elsa and Frances, who were with her, could scarcely help laughing.
"How do you do, my dear?" said her great-uncle, looking at her with his bright eyes.
"Quite well, thank you," replied the little girl.
"Hoot-toot!" said the old gentleman; "and is that all you've got to say to me?—a poor old fellow like me, who have come all the way from India to see you."
Vicky looked up doubtfully, her blue eyes wandered all over Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot's queer brown face and trim little figure. A red flush spread slowly upwards from her cheeks to the roots of her fair hair, and by the peculiar droop in the corners of her mouth, Elsa, who was nearest her, saw that tears were not far off.
"What is it, Vicky dear?" she whispered. "What will he think of the children? Geoff in a temper, and Vicky crying for nothing!" she said to herself. "You are not frightened?" she added aloud.
"No," said Vicky, trying to recover herself. "It's only about Geoff. I want to ask—him—not to be angry with Geoff."
"And why should I be angry with Geoff?" said the old gentleman, his eyes twinkling. "Has he been saying so to you?"
"Oh no!" the little girl eagerly replied. "Geoff didn't say anything. It was Harvey and Martha. They said they hoped he'd find his master now you'd come, and that it was time he had some of his nonsense whipped out of him. You won't whip him, will you? Oh, please, please say you won't!" and she clasped her hands beseechingly. "Geoff isn't naughty really. He doesn't mean to be naughty."
The tears were very near now.
"Hoot-toot, hoot-toot!" said Mr. Byrne. "Come, come, my little Vic; I don't like this at all. So they've been making me out an ogre. That's too bad. Me whip Geoff! Why, I think he could better whip me—a strong, sturdy fellow like that. No, no, I don't want to whip him, I assure you. But I'm glad to see Geoff's got such a good little sister, and that she's so fond of him. He's not a bad brother to you, I hope? You couldn't be so fond of him if he were."
"Oh no; Geoff's not naughty to me, scarcely never," said Vicky, eagerly. "I'm sure he never wants to be naughty. It's just that he's got some bad habits, of teasing and grumbling, and he can't get out of them," she went on, with a little air of wisdom that was very funny.
"Exactly," said Uncle Hoot-Toot, nodding his head. "Well, don't you think it would be a very good thing if we could help him to get out of them?"
Vicky looked up doubtfully again.
"If I think of some plan—something that may really do him good, you'll trust your poor old uncle, won't you, my little Vic?"
She gave him a long steady stare.
"Yes," she said at last. Then with a sigh, "I would like Geoff to get out of his tiresome ways."
And from this time Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot and Vicky were fast friends.
Then he asked Elsa and Frances to go out a little walk with him.
"Is your mother always as pale as I have seen her?" he said abruptly, almost as soon as they were alone.
"No," she said at last. "I'm afraid she is not at all well. Geoff noticed it this morning."
"Oh, indeed! Then he does notice things sometimes?" said Mr. Byrne, drily.
"He's very fond of mamma," put in Frances.
"He takes a queer way to show it, it strikes me," remarked her uncle.
"It's—it's all his temper, I'm afraid," Frances allowed reluctantly.
"It is that he's spoilt," said Elsa. "He's perhaps not spoilt in one way, but in another he is. He has never known any hardships or been forced into any self-denial. Great-uncle," she went on earnestly, "if it's true that we have lost or are going to lose nearly all our money, won't it perhaps be a good thing for Geoff?"
"Who says you're going to lose your money?"
"I don't know exactly why I feel sure it's not coming right. I know you said so to mamma—at least you tried to make her happier; but I can't understand it. If that Mr. Norris wrote so strongly, there must be something wrong."
Mr. Byrne moved and looked at her sharply.
"You don't speak that way to your mother, I hope?"
"Of course not," said Elsa; "I'm only too glad for her to feel happier about it. I was only speaking of what I thought myself."
"Well—well—as long as your mother's mind is easier it doesn't matter. I cannot explain things fully to you at present, but you seem to be sensible girls, and girls to be trusted. I may just tell you this much—all this trouble is nothing new; I had seen it coming for years. The only thing I had not anticipated was that those fools of lawyers should have told your mother about the crash when it did come. There was no need for her to know anything about it. I'm her trustee——"
"But not legally," interrupted Elsa. "Mamma explained to us that you couldn't be held responsible, as it was only like a friend that you had helped her all these years."
"Hoot-toot, toot-toot!" he replied testily; "what difference does that make? But never mind. I will explain all about it to you both—before long. Just now the question is your mother. I think you will agree with me when I say that it is plain to me that Master Geoff should leave home?"
"I'm afraid mamma will be very much against it," said Elsa. "You see, Geoff is a good boy in big things, and mamma thinks it is owing to her having kept home influence over him. He's truthful and conscientious—he is, indeed, and you must see I'm not inclined to take his part."
"But he's selfish, and bullying, and ungrateful. Not pretty qualities, my dear, or likely to make a good foundation for a man's after-life. I'm not going to send him to a grand boarding-school, however—that I promise you, for I think it would be the ruin of him. Whatever I may do to save your mother, I don't see but that Master Geoff should face his true position."
"And we too, great-uncle," said Frances, eagerly. "Elsa and I are quite ready to work; we've thought of several plans already."
"I quite believe you, my dear," said Mr. Byrne, approvingly. "You shall tell me your plans some time soon, and I will tell you mine. No fear but that you shall have work to do."
"And——" began Elsa, but then she hesitated. "I was going to ask you not to decide anything about Geoff till you have seen more of him. If Frances and I could earn enough to keep him at school as he is, so that mamma could have the comf—— No, I'm afraid I can't honestly say that having Geoff at home would be any comfort to her—less than ever if Frances and I were away. Great-uncle, don't you think Geoff should have some idea of all this?"
"Certainly. But I cannot risk his teasing your mother. We will wait a few days. I should like to see poor Alice looking better; and I shall judge of Geoff for myself, my dears."
They were just at home again by this time. Vicky met them at the door. She was in great excitement about Mr. Byrne's Indian servant, who had come with his master's evening clothes.
"I was watching for Geoff, to tell him!" she exclaimed. "But my tea's ready; I must go." And off she ran.
"Good little girl," said Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot, nodding his head approvingly. "No grumbling from her, eh?"
"No, never," said Elsa, warmly. "She's having her tea alone to-day. Geoff's coming in to dinner in your honour."
"Humph!" said the old gentleman.
Mrs. Tudor and the two girls had gone upstairs to the drawing-room. Geoff glanced dubiously at Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot.
"Shall I—shall I stay with you, sir?" he asked.
Geoff was on his good behaviour.
The old gentleman glanced at him.
"Certainly, my boy, if you've nothing better to do," he said. "No lessons—eh?"
"No, sir," Geoff replied. "I've got all done, except a little I can do in the morning."
"They work you pretty hard, eh?"
"Yes, they do. There's not much fun for a fellow who's at school in London. It's pretty much the same story—grind, grind, from one week's end to another."
"Hoot-toot! That sounds melancholy," said Mr. Byrne. "No holidays, eh?"
"Oh, of course, I've some holidays," said Geoff. "But, you see, when a fellow has only got a mother and sisters——"
"Only," repeated the old gentleman; but Geoff detected no sarcasm in his tone.
"And mother's afraid of my skating, or boating on the river, or——"
"Doesn't she let you go in for the school games?" interrupted Mr. Byrne again.
"Oh yes; it would be too silly not to do that. I told her at the beginning—I mean, she understood—it wouldn't do. But there's lots of things I'd like to do, if mother wasn't afraid. I should like to ride, or at least to have a tricycle. It's about the only thing to make life bearable in this horrible place. Such weather! I do hate London!"
"Indeed!" said Mr. Byrne. "It's a pity your mother didn't consult you before settling here."
"She did it for the best, I suppose," said Geoff. "She didn't want to part with me, you see. But I'd rather have been at a boarding-school in the country; I do so detest London. And then it's not pleasant to be too poor to have things one should have at a public school."
"What may those be?" inquired the old gentleman.
"Oh, heaps of things. Pocket-money, for one thing. I was telling mother about it. I really should have more, if I'm to stay properly at school. There's Dick Colethorne, where I was staying last holidays—cousins of ours; he has six times what I have, and he's only two years older."
"And—is his mother a widow, and in somewhat restricted circumstances?" asked Mr. Byrne.
"Oh no," replied Geoff, unwarily. "His father's a very rich man; and Dick is the only child."
"All the same, begging Mr. Colethorne's pardon, if he were twenty times as rich as Croesus, I think he's making a tremendous mistake in giving his boy a great deal of pocket-money," said Mr. Byrne.
"Well, of course, I shouldn't want as much as he has," said Geoff; "but still——"
"Geoffrey, my boy," said the old gentleman, rising as he spoke, "it strikes me you're getting on a wrong tack. But we'll have some more talk about all this. I don't want to keep your mother waiting, as I promised to talk some more to her this evening. So we'll go upstairs. Some day, perhaps, I'll tell you some of the experiences of my boyhood. I'm glad, by-the-by, to see that you don't take wine."
"No-o," said Geoff. "That's one of the things mother is rather fussy about. I'd like to talk about it with you, sir; I don't see but that at my age I might now and then take a glass of sherry—or of claret, even. It looks so foolish never to touch any. It's not that I care about it, you know."
"At your age?" repeated Mr. Byrne, slowly. "Well, Geoff—do you know, I don't quite agree with you. Nor do I see the fun of taking a thing you 'don't care about,' just for the sake of looking as if those who had the care of you didn't know what they were about."
They were half-way upstairs by this time. Geoff's face did not wear its pleasantest expression as they entered the drawing-room.
"He's a horrid old curmudgeon," he whispered to Vicky; "I believe Elsa's been setting him against me."
Vicky looked at him with reproachful eyes. "Oh, Geoff," she said, "I do think he's so nice."
"You do, do you?" said he. "Well, I don't. I'll tell you what, Vicky; I've a great mind to run away. I do so hate this life. I work ever so much harder than most of the fellows, and I never get any thanks for it; and everything I want is grudged me. My umbrella's all in rags, and I'm ashamed to take it out; and if I was to ask mamma for a new one, they'd all be down on me again, you'd see."
"But you haven't had it long, Geoff," said Vic.
"I've had it nearly a year. You're getting as bad as the rest, Vicky," he said querulously.
He had forgotten that he was not alone in the room with his little sister, and had raised his tone, as he was too much in the habit of doing.
"Hoot-toot, hoot-toot!" said a now well-known voice from the other side of the room; "what's all that about over there? You and Victoria can't be quarrelling, surely?"
Mrs. Tudor looked up anxiously.
"Oh no," said Vicky, eagerly; "we were only talking."
"And about what, pray?" persisted Mr. Byrne.
Vicky hesitated. She did not want to vex Geoff, but she was unused to any but straightforward replies.
"About Geoff's umbrella," she said, growing very red.
"About Geoff's umbrella?" repeated the old gentleman. "What could there be so interesting and exciting to say about Geoff's umbrella?"
"Only that I haven't got one—at least, mine's in rags; and if I say I need a new one, they'll all be down upon me for extravagance," said Geoff, as sulkily as he dared.
"My dear boy, don't talk in that dreadfully aggrieved tone," said his mother, trying to speak lightly. "You know I have never refused you anything you really require."
Geoffrey did not reply, at least not audibly. But Elsa's quick ears and some other ears besides hers—for it is a curious fact that old people, when they are not deaf, are often peculiarly the reverse—caught his muttered whisper.
"Of course. Always the way if I want anything."
Mr. Byrne did not stay late. He saw that Mrs. Tudor looked tired and depressed, and he did not wish to be alone with her to talk about Geoff, as she probably would have done, for he could not have spoken of the boy as she would have wished to hear.
A few days passed. Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot spent a part of each with the Tudor family, quietly making his observations. Geoff certainly did not show to advantage; and though his mother wore herself out with talking to him and trying to bring him to a more reasonable frame of mind, it was of no use. So at last she took Elsa's advice and left the discontented, tiresome boy to himself, for perhaps the first time in his life.
And every evening, when alone with Victoria, the selfish boy entertained his poor little sister with his projects of running away from a home where he was so little appreciated.
But a change came, and that in a way which Geoffrey little expected.
One evening when Mr. Byrne said "Good night," it struck him that his niece looked particularly tired.
"Make your mother go to bed at once, Elsa," he said, "I don't like her looks. If she's not better to-morrow, I must have a doctor to see her. And," he added in a lower tone still, "don't let Geoffrey go near her to-morrow morning. Has he bothered her much lately?"
"Mamma has left him alone. It was much the best thing to do," Elsa replied. "But all the same, I can see that it is making her very unhappy."
"Time something should be done; that's growing very plain," said Mr. Byrne. "Try and keep her quiet in the mean time, my dear. I have nearly made up my mind, and I'll tell you all about it to-morrow."
Elsa felt rather frightened.
"Great-uncle," she said, "I don't want to make silly excuses for Geoff, but it is true that he has never been quite so ill-natured and worrying as lately."
"Or perhaps you have never seen it so plainly," said the old gentleman. "But you needn't think I require to be softened to him, my dear; I am only thinking of his good. He's not a bad lad at bottom; there's good stuff in him. But he's ruining himself, and half killing your mother. Life's been too easy to him, as you've said yourself. He needs bringing to his senses."
Geoff slept soundly; moreover, his room was at the top of the house. He did not hear any disturbance that night—the opening and shutting of doors, the anxious whispering voices, the sound of wheels driving rapidly up to the door. He knew nothing of it all. For, alas! his tiresome, fidgety temper had caused him to be looked upon as no better than a sort of naughty child in the house—of no use or assistance, concerning whom every one's first thought in any trouble was, "We must manage to get Geoff out of the way, or to keep him quiet."
When he awoke it was still dark. But there was a light in his room—some one had come in with a candle. It was Elsa. He rubbed his eyes and looked at her with a strange unreal feeling, as if he were still dreaming. And when he saw her face, the unreal feeling did not go away. She seemed so unlike herself, in her long white dressing-gown, the light of the candle she was holding making her look so pale, and her eyes so strained and anxious—was it the candle, or was she really so very pale?
"Elsa," he said sleepily, "what are you doing? What is the matter? Isn't it dreadfully late—or—or early for you to be up?" he went on confusedly.
"It's the morning," said Elsa, "but we haven't been in bed all night—Frances and I. At least, we had only been in bed half an hour or so, when we were called up."
"What was it?" asked Geoff, sleepily still. "Was the house on fire?"
"Oh, Geoff, don't be silly!" said Elsa; "it's—it's much worse. Mamma has been so ill—she is still."
Geoff started up now.
"Do you want me to go for the doctor?" he said.
"The doctor has been twice already, and he's coming back at nine o'clock," she answered sadly. "He thought her a tiny bit better when he came the last time. But she's very ill—she must be kept most exceedingly quiet, and——"
"I'll get up now at once," said Geoff; "I won't be five minutes, Elsa. Tell mamma I'd have got up before if I'd known."
"But, Geoff," said Elsa, firmly, though reluctantly, "it's no use your hurrying up for that. You can't see her—you can't possibly see her before you go to school, anyway. The doctor says she is to be kept perfectly quiet, and not worried in any way."
"I wouldn't worry her, not when she's ill," said Geoff, hastily.
"You couldn't help it," said Elsa. "She—she was very worried about you last night, and she kept talking about your umbrella in a confused sort of way now and then all night. We quieted her at last by telling her we had given you one to go to school with. But if she saw you, even for an instant, she would begin again. The doctor said you were not to go into her room."
A choking feeling had come into Geoff's throat when Elsa spoke about the umbrella; a very little more and he would have burst into tears of remorse. But as she went on, pride and irritation got the better of him. He was too completely unused to think of or for any one before himself, to be able to do so all of a sudden, and it was a sort of relief to burst out at his sister in the old way.
"I think you're forgetting yourself, Elsa. Is mamma not as much to me as to you girls? Do you think I haven't the sense to know how to behave when any one's ill? I tell you I just will and shall go to see her, whatever you say;" and he began dragging on his socks as if he were going to rush down to his mother's room that very moment.
Elsa grew still paler than she had been before.
"Geoff," she said, "you must listen to me. It was for that I came up to tell you. You must not come into mother's room. I'd do anything to prevent it, but I can't believe that you'll force me to quarrel with you this morning when—when we are all so unhappy. I don't want to make you more unhappy, but I can't help speaking plainly to you. You have worried mamma terribly lately, Geoff, and now you must bear the punishment. It's—it's as much as her life is worth for you to go into her room and speak to her this morning. I cannot allow it."
"You allow it!" burst out Geoff. "Are you the head of the house?"
"Yes," said Elsa, "when mamma is ill, I consider that I am. And what's more, Geoff, I have telegraphed to Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot. He made me promise to do so if mamma were ill. I expect him directly. It is past seven. Geoff, you had better dress and take your breakfast as usual. I will come down and tell you how mamma is the last thing before you go."
"I will see mamma before I go to school," he replied sharply. "I give you fair warning."
"Geoff," said Elsa, "you shall not."
And with these words she left the room.
GEOFF "WON'T STAND IT."
Geoff hurried on with his dressing. He was wretchedly unhappy—all the more so because he was furiously angry with Elsa, and perhaps, at the bottom of his heart, with himself.
His room was, as I have said, at the top of the house. He did not hear the front-door bell ring while he was splashing in his bath; and as he rushed downstairs a quarter of an hour or so after Elsa had left him, he was considerably taken aback to be met at the foot of the first flight by the now familiar figure of Mr. Byrne.
"Geoffrey," he said quietly, "your sisters have gone to lie down and try to sleep for a little. They have been up all night, and they are likely to want all their strength. Go down to the school-room and get your breakfast. When you have finished, I will come to talk to you a little before you go to school."
Geoff glanced up. There was something in Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot's face which made him feel there was no use in blustering or resisting.
"Very well," he said, putting as little expression in his voice as he could; and as Mr. Byrne turned away, the boy made his way down to the school-room.
It looked dreary and strange this morning. It was earlier than usual, and perhaps the room had been less carefully done, for Mrs. Tudor's illness had upset the whole household. The fire was only just lighted; the preparations for Geoff's breakfast were only half ready. It was a very chilly day; and as the boy sat down by the table, leaning his head on his hands, he shivered both with cold and unhappiness.
"They all hate me," he said to himself. "I've known it for a long time, but I've never been so sure of it before. It is much the best for me to go away. Mamma has cared for me; but they're making her leave off, and they'll set her entirely against me. She'll be far better and happier without me; and when she gets well—I dare say they have exaggerated her illness—they will have the pleasure of saying it's because I'm gone. There's only Vic who'll really care. But she won't mind so very much, either. I'll write to her now and then. I must think how best to do about going away. I hate the sea; there's no use thinking of that. I don't mind what I do, if it's in the country. I might go down to some farmhouse—one of those jolly farms where Dick and I used to get a glass of milk last summer. I wouldn't mind a bit, working on one of those farms. It would be much jollier than grinding away at school. And I am sure Dick and I did as much work as any haymakers last summer."
He had worked himself up into positively looking forward to the idea of leaving home. Vague ideas of how his mother and sisters would learn too late how little they had appreciated him; visions of magnanimously forgiving them all some day when he should have, in some mysterious way, become a landed proprietor, riding about his fields, and of inviting them all down into the country to visit him, floated before his brain. He ate his breakfast with a very good appetite; and when Mr. Byrne entered the room, he was surprised to see no look of sulkiness on the boy's face; though, on the other hand, there were no signs of concern or distress.
"Is he really heartless?" thought the old man, with a pang of disappointment. "Am I mistaken in thinking the good material is there?"
"I want to talk to you, Geoff," he said. "You are early this morning. You need not start for twenty minutes or more."
"Am I to understand you intend to prevent me seeing my mother, sir?" said Geoff, in a peculiar tone.
Mr. Byrne looked at him rather sadly.
"It is not I preventing it," he said. "The doctor has left his orders."
"I understand," said Geoff, bitterly. "Well, it does not much matter. Mother and the others are not likely to see much more of me."
The old gentleman looked at him sharply.
"Are you thinking of running away?" he said.
"Not running away," said Geoffrey. "I'm not going to do it in any secret sort of way; but I've made up my mind to go. And now that mother has thrown me over too, I don't suppose any one will care."
"You've not been going the way to make any one care, it strikes me," said Mr. Byrne. "But I have something to say to you, Geoff. One thing which has helped to make your poor mother ill has been anxiety about money matters. I had not wished her to know of it; but it was told her by mistake. I myself have known for some time that things were going wrong. But now the worst has come——"
"What is the worst?" asked Geoffrey. "Have we lost everything?"
"Yes," said Mr. Byrne, "I think that's about it."
"I think I should have been told this before," said Geoff.
"Well," said his uncle, "I'm not sure but that I agree with you. But your mother wished to save you as long as she could. And you have not borne small annoyances so well that she could hope for much comfort from you in a great trouble."
Geoff said nothing.
"I shall take care of your mother and sisters," Mr. Byrne went on.
"I am not even to be allowed to work for my mother, then?" said Geoffrey.
"At your age it will be as much as you can do to work for yourself," said the old man. "And as yet, you cannot even do that directly. You must go on with your education. I have found a school in the country where you will be well taught, and where you will not be annoyed by not being able to have all that your companions have, as you have so complained about."
"And who is to pay for my schooling?" asked the boy.
"I," replied Mr. Byrne.
"Thank you," said Geoffrey. His tone was not exactly disrespectful, but it was certainly not grateful. "I know I should thank you, but I don't want you to pay schooling or anything else for me. I shall manage for myself. It is much best for me to go away altogether. Even—even if this about our money hadn't happened, I was already making up my mind to it."
Mr. Byrne looked at him.
"Legally speaking, your mother could stop your leaving her," he said.
"She is not likely to do so," replied the boy, "if she is so ill that she cannot even see me."
"Perhaps not," said the old gentleman. "I will send my servant to you at mid-day, to say how your mother is."
"Thank you," said Geoffrey again.
Then Mr. Byrne left the room, and Geoff went off to school.
He was in a strange state of mind. He hardly took in what he had been told of the state of his mother's money matters. He hardly indeed believed it, so possessed was he by the idea that there was a sort of plot to get rid of him.
"It isn't mother herself," he reflected. "It's all Elsa and Frances, and that horrid old Hoot-Toot. But as for going to any school he'd send me to—no, thank you."
He was standing about at noon with some of his companions, when the coloured servant appeared.
"Please, sir," he said, "I was to tell you that the lady is better—doctor say so;" and with a kind of salaam he waited to see what the young gentleman would reply.
"All right," said Geoff, curtly; and the man turned to go.
Geoff did not see that at the gates he stood still a moment speaking to another man, who appeared to have been waiting for him.
"That young gentleman with the dark hair. You see plain when I speak to him," he said in his rather broken English.
The other man nodded his head.
"I shall know him again, no fear. Tell your master it's all right," he said.
Geoff had to stand some chaff from his friends on the subject of the "darkey," of course. At another time he would rather have enjoyed it than otherwise; but to-day he was unable to take part in any fun.
"What a surly humour Tudor's in!" said one of the boys to another.
Geoff overheard it, and glared at him.
"I shan't be missed here either, it seems," he said to himself.
He did not notice that evening, when he went home, that a respectable unobtrusive-looking man, with the air of a servant out of livery, or something of that kind, followed him all the way, only turning back when he had seen the boy safe within his own door. And there, just within, faithful Vicky was awaiting him.
"I've been watching for you such a time, Geoff dear," she said. "Mamma's better. Aren't you glad? The doctor's been again, just about an hour ago, and he told me so as he went out."
"Have you seen her?" said Geoff, abruptly.
Vicky hesitated. She knew her answer would vex Geoff, and yet she could not say what was not true.
"I've only just seen her," she said. "Elsa just took me in for a moment. She has to be kept very, very quiet, Geoff. She'll have to be very quiet for a long time."
"You may as well speak plainly," said her brother. "I know what that means—I'm not to be allowed to see her for 'a very, very long time.' Oh yes, I quite understand."
He was in his heart thankful to know that his mother was better, but the relief only showed itself in additional ill-temper and indignation.
"Geoffrey dear, don't speak like that," said Vicky. "I wish I hadn't gone in to see mamma if you couldn't, but I didn't like to say so to Elsa. I know you didn't mean ever to vex mamma, and I'm sure you'll never do it again, when she gets better, will you? Would you like me just to run and tell Elsa and Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot how dreadfully you'd like to see her just for a minute? If you just peeped in, you know, and said 'Good night, mamma; I am so awfully glad you're better!' that would be better than nothing. Shall I, Geoff?"
"No," he replied gruffly. "I want to ask nothing. And I'm not sure that I do want dreadfully to see her. Caring can't be all on one side."
Vicky's eyes were full of tears by this time.
"Oh, Geoff!" was all she could say. "Mamma not care for you!"
Her distress softened him a little.
"Don't you cry about it, Vic," he said. "I do believe you care for me, anyway. You always will, won't you, Vicky?"
"Of course I shall," she sobbed, while some tears dropped into Geoff's teacup. They were in the school-room by this time, and Vicky was at her usual post.
"And some day," pursued Geoff, condescendingly, "perhaps we'll have a little house of our own, Vicky, in the country, you know; we'll have cocks and hens of our own, and always fresh eggs, of course, and strawberries, and——"
"Cream," suggested Vicky, her eyes gleaming with delight at the tempting prospect; "strawberries are nothing without cream."
"Of course," Geoff went on. "I was going to say cream, when you interrupted me. We'd have a cream-cow, Vicky."
"A cream-cow," Vicky repeated. "What's that?"
"Oh, I don't know exactly. But one often reads of a milk-cow, so I supposed there must be some cows that are all for cream, if some are for milk. I'll find out all about it when——" But he stopped short. "Never mind, Vicky. When I have a little farm of my own, in the country, I promise you I'll send for you to come and live with me."
"But you'll invite mamma and Elsa, and Francie too, Geoff; I wouldn't care to come without them," objected Vicky.
"Mamma; oh yes, if she likes to come. Perhaps Elsa and Frances will be married, and have houses of their own by then. I'm sure I hope so."
He had talked himself and Vicky into quite good spirits by this time. He was almost forgetting about his plan of running away. But it was soon recalled to him. Elsa put her head in at the door.
"Vicky," she said, "you may come up to see mamma for a few minutes. Come now, quick, before Geoff comes home, or else he will begin about it again, and he just must not see her for some days. Mamma sees that he must not."
Geoff's face grew dark.
"Elsa," Vicky called out appealingly. But Elsa had already disappeared.
And then Geoffrey quite made up his mind.
A FORTUNATE CHANCE.
He was a sensible, practical enough boy in some ways. He thought it all well over that night, and made what preparations he could. He packed up the clothes he thought the most necessary and useful in an old carpet-bag he found in the box-room, and then he looked over his drawers and cupboards to see that all was left in order, and he put together some things to be sent to him in case he found it well to write for them.
Then he looked at his purse. He had, carefully stowed away, thirty shillings in gold, and of his regular pocket-money a two-shilling piece, a shilling, a threepenny bit, and some coppers. It was enough to take him some hours' distance out of London, where he would be quite as likely to find what he wanted, employment at some farmhouse, as farther away.
He did not sleep much that night. He was so anxious to be off early that he kept waking up every hour or two. At last, after striking a match to see what o'clock it was for perhaps the twentieth time, his watch told him it was past six. He got up and dressed, then he shouldered his bag, and made his way as quickly as he could downstairs. He could not resist lingering a moment outside his mother's door; it was slightly ajar, and there was a faint light within. Elsa's voice came to him as he stood there.
"I am so glad you are better this morning, dear mamma," she was saying. "I hoped you would be when I went to bed, at three o'clock. You were sleeping so peacefully. I am sure you will be quite well again soon, if we can manage to keep you quiet, and if you won't worry yourself. Everything is quite right."
Geoff's face hardened again.
"I know what all that means," he thought. "Yes, indeed, everything is so right that I, I, have to run away like a thief, because I am too miserable to bear it any more."
And he lingered no longer.
He made his way out of the house without difficulty. It was getting light after a fashion by this time, though it was quite half an hour earlier than he usually started for school. He felt chilly—chillier than he had ever felt before, though it was not a very cold morning. But going out breakfastless does not tend to make one feel warm, and of this sort of thing Geoff had but scant experience. His bag, too, felt very heavy; he glanced up and down the street with a vague idea that perhaps he would catch sight of some boy who, for a penny or two, would carry it for him to the omnibus; but there was no boy in sight. No one at all, indeed, except a young man, who crossed the street from the opposite side while Geoff was looking about him, and walked on slowly a little in front. He was a very respectable-looking young man, far too much so to ask him to carry the bag, yet as Geoff overtook him—for, heavy though it was, the boy felt he must walk quickly to get off as fast as possible—the young man glanced up with a good-natured smile.
"Excuse me, sir," he said civilly, "your bag's a bit heavy for you. Let me take hold of it with you, if we're going the same way."
Geoffrey looked at him doubtfully. He was too much of a Londoner to make friends hastily.
"Thank you," he said. "I can manage it. I'm only going to the corner to wait for the omnibus."
"Just precisely what I'm going to do myself," said the other. "I'm quite a stranger hereabouts. I've been staying a day or two with a friend of mine who keeps a livery stable, and I'm off for the day to Shalecray, to see another friend. Can you tell me, sir, maybe, if the omnibus that passes near here takes one to the railway station?"
"Which railway station?" said Geoff, more than half inclined to laugh at the stranger's evident countrifiedness.
"Victoria Station, to be sure. It's the one I come by. Isn't it the big station for all parts?"
"Bless you! no," said Geoff. "There are six or seven as big as it in London. What line is this place on?"
"That's more nor I can say," said the stranger, looking as if he would have scratched his head to help him out of his perplexity if he had had a hand free. But he had not, for he had caught up the bag, and was walking along beside Geoff, and under his arm he carried a very substantial alpaca umbrella. And in the interest of the conversation Geoff had scarcely noticed the way in which the stranger had, as it were, attached himself to him.
"Ah, well! never mind. I'm going to Victoria myself, and when we get there I'll look up your place and find you your train," said Geoff, patronizingly.
He had kept looking at the stranger, and as he did so, his misgivings disappeared.
"He is just a simple country lad," he said to himself. And, indeed, the young man's blue eyes, fresh complexion, and open expression would have reassured any but a most suspicious person.
"You're very kind, sir," he replied. "You see, London's a big place, and country folk feels half stupid-like in it."
"Yes, of course," said Geoff. "For my part, I often wonder any one that's free to do as they like cares to live in London. You're a great deal better off in the country."
"There's bads and goods everywhere, I take it, sir," said the young man, philosophically.
But by this time they had reached the corner where the omnibus started, and Geoff's attention was directed to hailing the right one. And an omnibus rattling over London stones is not exactly the place for conversation, so no more passed between them till they were dropped within a stone's throw of Victoria Station.
Geoff was beginning to feel very hungry, and almost faint as well as chilly.
"I say," he said to his companion, "you're not in any very desperate hurry to get off, are you? For I'm frightfully hungry. You don't mind waiting while I have some breakfast, do you? I'll look you out your train for that place as soon as I've had some."
"All right, sir," said the stranger. "If it wouldn't be making too free, I'd be pleased to join you. But I suppose you'll be going into the first-class?"
"Oh no," said Geoff. "I don't mind the second-class."
And into the second-class refreshment-room they went. They grew very friendly over hot coffee and a rasher of bacon, and then Geoff laid out threepence on a railway guide, and proceeded to hunt up Shalecray.
"Here you are!" he exclaimed. "And upon my word, that's a good joke. This place—Shalecray—is on the very line I'm going by. I wonder I never noticed it. I came up that way not long ago, from Entlefield."
"Indeed, sir; that's really curious," said the countryman. "And are you going to Entlefield to-day?"
"Well," said Geoff, "I fancy so. I've not quite made up my mind, to tell the truth. I know the country about there. I want to find some—some farmhouse."
"Oh, exactly—I understand," interrupted the young man. "You want somewhere where they'll put you up tidily for a few days—just for a breath of country air."
"Well, no; not exactly," said Geoffrey. "The fact is, I'm looking out for—for some sort of situation about a farm. I'm very fond of country life. I don't care what I do. I'm not a fine gentleman!"
The countryman looked at him with interest.
"I see," he said. "You're tired of town, I take it, sir. But what do your friends say to it, sir? At sixteen, or even seventeen, you have still to ask leave, I suppose?"
"Not always," said Geoff. "I've made no secret of it. I've no father, and—I'm pretty much my own master."
"'I care for nobody, and nobody cares for me,' eh?" quoted the young man, laughing.
"Something like it, I suppose," said Geoff, laughing too, though rather forcedly. For a vision of Vicky, sobbing, perhaps, over her lonely breakfast, would come before him—of Elsa and Frances trying how to break to their mother the news that Geoff had really run away. "They'll soon get over it," he said to himself. "They've got that old curmudgeon to console them, and I don't want to live on his money."
"Do you think I can easily find a place of some kind?" he went on, after a pause.
The countryman this time did scratch his head, while he considered.
"How old may you be, sir? Sixteen or seventeen, maybe?" he inquired.
"I'm not so much; I'm only fourteen," said Geoff, rather reluctantly.
"Really! now, who'd 'a' thought it?" said his new friend, admiringly. "You'll be just the man for a country life when you're full-grown. Not afraid of roughing it? Fond of riding, I dare say?"
"Oh yes," said Geoff. "At least, in town of course I haven't had as much of it as I'd like." He had never ridden in his life, except the previous summer, on a peculiarly gentle old pony of Mrs. Colethorne's.
"No, in course not. Well now, sir, if you'd no objection to stopping at Shalecray with me, it strikes me my friend there, Farmer Eames, might likely enough know of something to suit you. He's a very decent fellow—a bit rough-spoken, maybe. But you're used to country ways—you'd not mind that."
"Oh, not a bit!" said Geoff. "I'm much obliged to you for thinking of it. And you say it's possible—that this Farmer Eames may perhaps have a place that I should do for?"
"Nay, sir, I can't say that. It's just a chance. I only said he'd maybe know of something."
"Well, I don't see that it will do any harm to ask him. I'll only take a ticket to Shalecray, then. I can go on farther later in the day if I don't find anything to suit me there. We'd better take the first train—a quarter to nine. We've still twenty minutes or so to wait."
"Yes, there's plenty of time—time for a pipe. You don't object, sir? But, bless me"—and he felt in his pockets one after the other—"if I haven't forgotten my 'bacca! With your leave, sir, I'll run across the street to fetch some. I saw a shop as we came in."
"Very well," said Geoff; "I'll wait here. Don't be too late."
He had no particular fancy for going to buy cheap tobacco in the company of the very rustic-looking stranger. Besides, he thought it safer to remain quiet in a dark corner of the waiting-room.
It was curious that, though the countryman came back with a well-filled tobacco-pouch, he had not left the station! He only disappeared for a minute or two into the telegraph office, and the message he there indited was as follows:—
"Got him all safe. Will report further this evening."
And ten minutes later the two were ensconced in a third-class carriage, with tickets for Shalecray.
Geoff had often travelled second, but rarely third. He did not, truth to tell, particularly like it. Yet he could not have proposed anything else to his companion, unless he had undertaken to pay the difference. And as it was, the breakfast and his own third-class ticket had made a considerable hole in his thirty shillings. He must be careful, for even with all his inexperience he knew it was possible he might have to pay his own way for some little time to come.
"Still, the chances are I shall find what I want very easily," he reflected. "It is evidently not difficult, by what this fellow tells me."
It did not even strike him as in any way a very remarkable coincidence that almost on the doorstep of his own home he should have lighted upon the very person he needed to give him the particular information he was in want of. For in many ways, in spite of his boasted independence, poor Geoff was as innocent and unsuspicious as a baby.
"HALF-A-CROWN A WEEK AND HIS VICTUALS."
Shalecray was a small station, where no very considerable number of trains stopped in the twenty-four hours. It was therefore a slow train by which Geoffrey Tudor and his new friend travelled; so, though the distance from London was really short, it took them fully two hours to reach their destination. And two hours on a raw drizzly November morning is quite a long enough time to spend in a third-class carriage, shivering if the windows are down, and suffering on the other hand from the odours of damp fustian and bad tobacco if they are up.
Cold as it was, it seemed pleasant in comparison when they got out at last, and were making their way down a very muddy, but really country lane. Geoff gave a sort of snort of satisfaction.
"I do love the country," he said.
His companion looked at him curiously.
"I believe you, sir," he replied. "You must like it, to find it pleasant in November," he went on, with a tone which made Geoff glance at him in surprise. Somehow in the last few words the countryman's accent seemed to have changed a little. Geoff could almost have fancied there was a cockney twang about it.
"Why, don't you like it?" said Geoff. "You said you were lost and miserable in town."
"Of course, sir. What else could I be? I'm country born and bred. But it's not often as a Londoner takes to it as you do, and it's not to say lively at this time, and"—he looked down with a grimace—"the lanes is uncommon muddy."
"How far is it to your friend's place?" Geoff inquired, thinking to himself that if he were to remark on the mud it would not be surprising, but that it was rather curious for his companion to do so.
"A matter of two mile or so," Jowett—for Ned Jowett, he had told Geoff, was his name—replied; "and now I come to think of it, perhaps it'd be as well for you to leave your bag at the station. I'll see that it's all right; and as you're not sure of stopping at Crickwood, there's no sense in carrying it there and maybe back again for nothing. I'll give it in charge to the station-master, and be back in a moment."
He had shouldered it and was hastening back to the station almost before Geoff had time to take in what he said. The boy stood looking after him vaguely. He was beginning to feel tired and a little dispirited. He did not feel as if he could oppose anything just then.
"If he's a cheat and he's gone off with my bag, I just can't help it," he thought. "He won't gain much. Still, he looks honest."
And five minutes later the sight of the young man's cheery face as he hastened back removed all his misgivings.
"All right, sir," he called out. "It'll be quite safe; and if by chance you hit it off with Mr. Eames, the milk-cart that comes to fetch the empty cans in the afternoon can bring the bag too."
They stepped out more briskly after that. It was not such a very long walk to the farm, though certainly more than the two miles Jowett had spoken of. As they went on, the country grew decidedly pretty, or perhaps it would be more correct to say one saw that in summer and pleasant weather it must be very pretty. Geoff, however, was hardly at the age for admiring scenery much. He looked about him with interest, but little more than interest.
"Are there woods about here?" he asked suddenly. "I do like woods."
"I don't know this part of the country not to say so very well," he replied. "There's some fine gentlemen's seats round about, I believe. Crickwood Bolders, now, is a fine place—we'll pass by the park wall in a minute; it's the place that Eames's should by rights be the home farm to, so to say. But it's been empty for a many years. The family died down till it come to a distant cousin who was in foreign parts, and he let the farm to Eames, and the house has been shut up. They do speak of his coming back afore long."
Geoff looked out for the park of which Jowett spoke; they could not see much of it, certainly, without climbing the wall, for which he felt no energy. But a little farther on they came to gates, evidently a back entrance, and they stood still for a moment or two and looked in.
"Yes," said Geoff, gazing over the wide expanse of softly undulating ground, broken by clumps of magnificent old trees, which at one side extended into a fringe skirting the park for miles apparently, till it melted in the distance into a range of blue-topped hills—"yes, it must be a fine place indeed. That's the sort of place, now, I'd like to own, Jowett."
He spoke more cordially again, for Jowett's acquaintance with the neighbourhood had destroyed a sort of misgiving that had somehow come over him as to whether his new friend were perhaps "taking him in altogether."
"I believe you," said the countryman, laughing loudly, as if Geoff's remark had been a very good joke indeed. Geoff felt rather nettled.
"And why shouldn't I own such a place, pray?" he said haughtily. "Such things, when one is a gentleman, are all a matter of chance, as you know. If my father, or my grandfather, rather, had not been a younger son, I should have been——"
Ned Jowett turned to him rather gravely.
"I didn't mean to offend you, sir," he said. "But you must remember you're taking up a different line from that. Farmer Eames, or farmer nobody, wouldn't engage a farm hand that expected to be treated as a gentleman. It's not my fault, sir. 'Twas yourself told me what you wished."
Geoff was silent for a moment or two. It was not easy all at once to make up his mind to not being a gentleman any more, and yet his common sense told him that Jowett was right; it must be so. Unless, indeed, he gave it all up and went back home again to eat humble pie, and live on Great-Uncle Hoot-Toot's bounty, and go to some horrid school of his choosing, and be more "bullied" (so he expressed it to himself) than ever by his sisters, and scarcely allowed to see his mother at all. The silent enumeration of these grievances decided him. He turned round to Jowett with a smile.
"Yes," he said; "I was forgetting. You must tell Farmer Eames he'll not find any nonsense about me."
"All right, sir. But, if you'll excuse me, I'd best perhaps drop the 'sir'?"
"And that reminds me," Jowett went on, "you've not told me your name—leastways, what name you wish me to give Eames. We're close to his place now;" and as he spoke he looked about him scrutinizingly. "Ten minutes past the back way through the park you'll come to a lane on the left. Eames's farm is the first house you come to on the right," he repeated to himself, too low for Geoff to hear. "Yes, I can't be wrong."
"You can call me Jim—Jim Jeffreys," said the boy. "He needn't be afraid of getting into any trouble if he takes me on. I've no father, and my mother won't worry about me," he added bitterly.
The entrance to the lane just then came in sight.
"This here's our way," said Jowett. "Supposing I go on a bit in front. I think it would be just as well to explain to Eames about my bringing you."
"All right," said Geoff. "I'll come on slowly. Where is the farm?"
"First house to the right; you can't miss it. But I'll come back to meet you again."
He hurried on, and Geoff followed slowly. He was hungry now as well as cold and tired—at least, he supposed he must be hungry, he felt so dull and stupid. What should he do if Farmer Eames could not take him on? he began to ask himself; he really felt as if it would be impossible for him to set off on his travels again like a tramp, begging for work all over the country. And for the first time it began faintly to dawn upon him that he had acted very foolishly.
"But it's too late now," he said to himself; "I'd die rather than go home and ask to be forgiven, and be treated by them all as if I deserved to be sent to prison. I've got enough money to keep me going for a day or two, anyway. If it was summer—haymaking-time, for instance, I suppose it would be easy enough to get work. But now——" and he shivered as he gazed over the bare, dreary, lifeless-looking fields on all sides, where it was difficult to believe that the green grass could ever spring again, or the golden grain wave in the sunshine—"I really wonder what work there can be to do in the winter. The ground's as hard as iron; and oh, my goodness, isn't it cold?"
Suddenly some little way in front he descried two figures coming towards him. The one was Jowett; the other, an older, stouter man, must be Farmer Eames. Geoff's heart began to beat faster. Would he be met by a refusal, and told to make his way back to the station? And if so, where would he go, what should he do? It had all seemed so easy when he planned it at home—he had felt so sure he would find what he wanted at once; he had somehow forgotten it would no longer be summer when he got out into the country again! For the first time in his life he realized what hundreds, nay, thousands of boys, no older than he, must go through every day—poor homeless fellows, poor and homeless through no fault of their own in many cases.
"If ever I'm a rich man," thought Geoff, "I'll think of to-day."
And his anxiety grew so great that by the time the two men had come up to him his usually ruddy face had become almost white.
Jowett looked at him curiously.
"You look uncommon cold, Jim," he said. "This 'ere's Jim Jeffreys as I've been a-talking to you of, Mr. Eames," he said, by way of introduction to the farmer.
"Ah, indeed!" Farmer Eames replied; "seems a well-grown lad, but looks delicate. Is he always so white-like?"
"Bless you! no," said Jowett; "he's only a bit done up with—with one thing and another. We made a hearly start of it, and it's chilly this morning."
The farmer grunted a little.
"He'd need to get used to starting early of a morning if he was to be any use to me," he said half-grudgingly. But even this sounded hopeful to Geoff.
"Oh, I don't mind getting up early," he said quickly. "I'm not used to lying in bed late."
"There's early and early," said the farmer. "What I might take you on trial for would be to drive the milk-cart to and fro the station. There's four sendings in all—full and empty together. And the first time is for the up-train that passes Shalecray at half-past five."
Geoff shivered a little. But it would not do to seem daunted.
"I'll be punctual," he said.
"And of course, between times you'd have to make yourself useful about the dairy, and the pigs—you'd have to see to the pigs, and to make yourself useful," repeated the farmer, whose power of expressing himself was limited.
"Of course," agreed Geoff as heartily as he could, though, truth to tell, the idea of pigs had not hitherto presented itself to him.
"Well," Farmer Eames went on, turning towards Jowett, "I dunno as I mind giving him a trial, seeing as I'm just short of a boy as it happens. And for the station work, it's well to have a sharpish lad, and a civil-spoken one. You'll have to keep a civil tongue in your head, my boy—eh?"
"Certainly," said Geoff, but not without a slight touch of haughtiness. "Of course I'll be civil to every one who's civil to me."
"And who isn't civil to thee, maybe, now and then," said the farmer, with a rather curious smile. "'Twon't be all walking on roses—nay, 'twon't be all walking on roses to be odd boy in a farm. But there's many a one as'd think himself uncommon lucky to get the chance, I can tell you."
"Oh, and so I do," said Geoff, eagerly. "I do indeed. I think it's awfully good of you to try me; and you'll see I'm not afraid of work."
"And what about his character?" said the farmer, speaking again to Jowett. "Can you answer for his honesty?—that's the principal thing."
Geoff's cheeks flamed, and he was starting forward indignantly, when a word or two whispered, sternly almost, in his ear by Jowett, forced him to be quiet. "Don't be an idiot! do you want to spoil all your chances?" he said. And something in the tone again struck Geoff with surprise. He could scarcely believe it was the simple young countryman who was speaking.