IN THE MIST OF THE MOUNTAINS
BY THE SAME AUTHOR (Uniform with this volume) SEVEN LITTLE AUSTRALIANS THE FAMILY AT MISRULE THE LITTLE LARRIKIN MISS BOBBIE THE CAMP AT WANDINONG THREE LITTLE MAIDS THE STORY OF A BABY LITTLE MOTHER MEG BETTY AND CO. MOTHER'S LITTLE GIRL THE WHITE-ROOF TREE THE STOLEN VOYAGE
IN THE MIST OF THE MOUNTAINS
By ETHEL TURNER (Mrs. H. R. Curlewis)
Author of "Seven Little Australians," "The Little Larrikin," "Miss Bobbie," etc., etc.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY J. MACFARLANE
LONDON WARD LOCK & CO. LIMITED 1908
TO H. R. C.
"They that have heard the overword Know life's a dream worth dreaming." Henley.
CHAP. PAGE I Somewhat Contagious 9 II Treating of Larkin and his Commission 23 III Miss Bibby 31 IV The Famous Novelist 43 V Ante-prandial Visitors 55 VI A Grocery Order 60 VII Letters to a Mother 72 VIII Across the Rubicon 87 IX The Interview for the "Evening Mail" 96 X Anna enjoys Ill-health 112 XI Miss Bibby's Holiday 126 XII In Black and White 135 XIII An Interview with the Interviewer 144 XIV The Literary Microbe 156 XV "Out of the Mouths of Babes" 170 XVI Wooing the Muse 179 XVII Literature is Low 190 XVIII An Editing Pencil 197 XIX Max Runs Amuck 205 XX A Lesson in Discipline 216 XXI In Print at last 227 XXII A Master Mind 229 XXIII The Picnic at the Falls 243 XXIV At the Second Fall 259
It is October and the mountains are waking from their short winter sleep.
It is October, the month of the moving mists.
Come and let us take a walk, not down Fleet Street with Dr. Johnson, but up a mountain side with Nature,—nay, with God Himself. There is nothing to see, absolutely nothing at all. You know that there are trees on either hand of you, and that the undergrowth is bursting into the stars and delicate bells of its springtime bloom. But your knowledge of this is merely one of the services your memory does for you, for the mist has covered it all away from sight.
You look behind you and your world is blotted out.
You look in front of you,—nay, you cannot look in front of you, for the mist lies as a veil, actually on your face.
"I breathed up a whole cloud this morning," Lynn remarked once.
"I eated one—and it was nasty," said Max.
Still you continue to look in front of you as far as may be.
And the next moment the veil lifts,—clean up over your head perhaps, and you see it rolling away on the wind to one side of you, yards and yards of flying white gossamer, its ragged edges catching in the trees.
And now your gaze leaps and lingers, and lingers and leaps for miles in front of you. You look downward and the ball of the earth has split at your feet and the huge fissure has widened and widened till a limitless valley lies there. You look down hundreds of feet and see like sprouting seedlings the tops of gum trees,—gum trees two hundred feet high.
The far side of the valley shows a rolling mountain chain washed in in tender shades of purple, paling nearer at hand to blue, the tender indescribable mountain blue. Great jagged headlands hang perilously over the deep, and the silver thread of a distant waterfall gleams here and there down the face of the gorges of whose wonderful beauty the tourist has heard and comes thousands of miles to see.
A billowy cloud, soft and dazzling as snow, has fallen from the sky or risen with the mist, you are not sure which, and lies bewilderingly low and lovely on the purple hills. Then there comes that damp, delicate sensation on your face and all is mist again.
It is just as if a lovely girl now playfully hid her exquisite face with the gauzy scarf twined round her head, and now showed it, each fresh glimpse revealing a newer and tenderer beauty.
Lynn, who, though but eight, is given to quaint and delicate turns of thought, calls it all "God's kaleidoscope."
Nearer to the station cluster the weatherboard business places of the little township of Burunda. The butcher does a trade of perhaps two sheep a week during the winter, but leaps to many a score of them when "the strangers" begin to come up from the moist city at the first touch of November's heat. The bakers—there are two of them—fight bitterly for "the strangers'" custom.
All the winter a few decrepit-looking tarts and buns form the shop window display of each. But when signs of life begin in the cottages the battle starts.
"Seven for sixpence," Benson writes in red letters on a card in the midst of his "drop" cakes.
"Eight for sixpence," Dunks retorts in larger type in the midst of his heap of the popular confectionery.
"Nine for sixpence," is Benson's desperate challenge,—the cakes of course shrinking somewhat in size.
The baker does not live who can afford to give ten for sixpence.
Benson has now to create new signs. "No second-class flour used in the cakes of this establishment," is one of his efforts.
Dunks caps it.
"No miserable counting out of currants in cakes baked here. Visitors are invited to sample." And on his counter is a very fruity specimen cut across. As a result of this competition "the strangers" may count on quite respectable cakes for their tea.
There are two grocers—brothers, oddly enough, though not connected in trade; steady, peaceable old men with whom brotherly love continues despite trade rivalry.
But they possess a live young assistant each, and it is war to the knife between these lads.
They fall on the startled stranger before he is fairly out of the train and thrust before him the merits of their respective establishments.
Howie, the boy of Septimus Smith, is lean and lanky and can stretch a long arm and a trade card for an amazing distance to just beneath your nose. But Larkin is small and wiry and has a knack of squeezing himself right into the midst of your mountain of luggage and children and porters, and earnestly informing you that Octavius Smith keeps the best bacon in the district, and promising you that if you deal with him, he, Larkin, will bring your letters with him from the post office every morning when he calls for orders.
It is said that the loser invariably fights the winner after these contests unless there falls to his lot another passenger by the same train. But if it happens that the luck is to neither,—that is, if all are hotel or boarding-house visitors, or (an unforgivable thing in the eyes of both) if the newcomers are people who bring their own groceries from the metropolis, then the two go off almost friends and help each other up with any boxes the train may have brought for them.
The Lomax children took a keen interest in the warfare, and always asked Larkin, when he came for orders in the morning, how many of the new people's custom he had secured.
For it was Larkin's trick of insinuating himself among the portmanteaus and confused servants and children, and then talking rapidly of bacon and letters, that had gained him Mrs. Lomax's custom when the family first came to Burunda. That bewildered lady simply had to consent that he might call to get him out of the knot of seemingly inextricable confusion with which she had to deal.
There are two photographers, two shoe-menders, two house agents, two visiting doctors.
It is conceivable that if a third man of any trade come along the character of business in Burunda may entirely change. But while there are but two of each, the chances are that any day the visitors may have the quiet monotony of the place broken up by a civil war.
Not far from the station stand the hotels and the more modest boarding-houses.
And then begin the cottages and villas—nearly all of them weatherboard—of people who like to have a foothold a few thousand feet in the air when summer's shroud of damp enwraps the Harbour city.
The Lomax children swung disconsolately on the gate of their summer home. All they could see was the road in front of them, now clear, now filled with flying mist, and their senses were wearied of it.
Might they go down the gully?
No, they might not go down the gully. Who had time on a busy day like this, and Miss Bibby writing to New Zealand, to go trapesing down all those rough places with them?
Couldn't they go alone?
No, they could not go alone. A nice thing it would be for the Judge's children to be lost down a gully and sleeping out all night.
Well, might they go down to the waterfall? They couldn't get lost on made paths and with picnickers everywhere.
No, they might not go down to the waterfall. What would the Judge say if he heard his children had been down a dangerous place like that and no one with them!
"Well, let us go up to the shops and the station. We've got twopence between us, and we want to spend it, and besides——" But Pauline broke off, recognizing it was worse than useless to explain to a person like Anna the pleasure they could obtain from watching to see whether Howie or their own Larkin got most of the customers by the excursion train. But Anna was horrified at the idea.
"In those dusty clothes and with your sandals off! A nice condition for the shopkeepers to see a Judge's children in!"
"Oh, hang a Judge's children," muttered Pauline, but not until Anna had returned to the house.
"Wish daddy was a butcher," said Muffie.
"Not a butcher," said Lynn, who was sensitive and never could pass the shop of hanging carcases without a shudder,—"but a baker would be very nice, and make drop cakes seven for sixpence. Oh, I could eat a drop cake,—couldn't you?"
"A Benson's one," said Pauline dreamily; "they're the sweetest."
"But there are more currants in Dunks's," said Muffie. "I shall spend my penny there."
"You won't," said Lynn, who was subject to fits of pessimism, "you'll never spend it. Anna will never have finished washing up. Miss Bibby will never have finished writing to mamma. We'll never get up to the shops. We'll have to stop shut up here for ever."
"But why," said Muffie, who was only six, and easily bewildered by words, "why can't we do like always and ever when we come up here?"
"Why, indeed!" said Pauline with much bitterness.
Max, the only son of the Judge and aged just four, had a clear way of his own of arriving at the cause of various effects.
"Wish a late big lecipice would fall on Anna," he said.
"Really, Max," said Lynn, whose unspent penny was burning a hole in her temper, "you are getting too big to talk like that. Late big lecipice! Say, great big precipice."
"I did," said Max indignantly,—"I'll push you off the gate in a minute."
"You wouldn't dare."
"Oh, wouldn't I?"
"If you move your foot I'll jerk you off."
"Now, don't begin that," said Pauline, "you'll make him cough again,—let him alone, Lynn."
"Well, he mustn't say he'll push me off," said Lynn. "I'm only trying to teach him to talk prop'ly. This morning he asked Larkin to come and look at his lee lowing in the lound. And I had to explain that he meant 'tree growing in the ground.'"
Max was red with anger.
"I didn't say that," he shouted, "I said plain's anything lee lowing in the lound."
He sent each of the difficult words from his mouth with a snap, as if he were discharging them from a pistol that jammed.
But Lynn jeered again.
He could not jerk her from the gate, though he tried hard; eight years old can effect a much firmer lodgment than four years. He sheltered himself behind his weakness.
"You'll make me cough in a minute," he said, and began to draw in his breath.
"You'll make me cough," said Lynn.
"I cough worser than you," insisted Max.
"You don't,—I get much redder," said Lynn.
"I go purple, Miss Bibby says so," said Muffie complacently.
"I go nearly lack in the face," said Max.
It was possible that Pauline, who being ten was always superior, would have laid claim herself to some still darker shade of complexion but that a diversion occurred at the moment.
One or two people carrying golf clubs had passed along the monotonous road during the morning and Max had longed to be a caddie. Once a woodcutter had gone along with his axe over his shoulder and Lynn had been moved to recite—to the disgust of the others—"Woodman, spare that tree." And once Larkin had flashed past on horseback, Howie tearing along not far behind, it having come to their ears five minutes before that a cottage far away through the bush was opened, its occupants having come up by the night train.
"When I grow up," said Muffie enviously, "I'll be a grocer's boy."
"An' I'll be the other one," said Max, so filled with glorious visions suddenly that he forgot his original intention of coughing.
But now there came briskly round the corner one of the big Burunda wagonettes, overflowing with ladies and children and picnic baskets and plainly bound for the waterfall.
"Why," said Lynn excitedly, "there are Effie and Florence."
"And Frank," cried Muffie joyously.
"Why," said one of the ladies in the wagonette, "there are the little Lomaxes,—I didn't know they were up." She stopped the driver.
Lynn and Muffie and Max were for rushing out and charging bodily into the vehicle, and indeed one of the ladies was beckoning encouragingly to them all.
Lynn's swift imagination saw themselves borne joyously off to the loved waterfall; she felt the very water of the cool delicious pools on her hot feet.
But Pauline, with a look of absolute tragedy on her fair little face, banged the gate and kept her brothers and sisters on the hither side of it.
"We're contagious," she shouted.
"Wha-a-at?" said the lady.
"Whooping cough," said Pauline with extreme dejection in her tone, and as if for a guarantee of her veracity Max was seized with a paroxysm then and there, and Muffie followed suit.
"Oh, drive on!" cried the lady hastily to her man, and gave an alarmed look at her own little flock. But she pulled up again fifty yards away and came back on foot and stood a very respectable distance away from the infected spot.
"I'm so sorry, chickies," she said kindly; "that's a wretched visitor for the holidays. Have you been very bad?"
"I go nearly lack in the face," said Max, not without pride.
"Is mother with you?" said the lady, Mrs. Gowan by name, somewhat anxiously, "and your father?"
"No," said Pauline sadly, "they've gone to New Zealand,—mamma got quite ill with nursing us, and daddie got it too, and he wouldn't come up here."
Muffie giggled. "People's laugh 'cause daddie's got it," she volunteered.
"But in New Zealand, you see," explained Pauline gravely, "no one will know him."
Mrs. Gowan smiled a little—as others had done. For indeed the thought of a dignified Judge drawing in his breath and whooping on the bench like a frightened child was not without its humorous side.
The poor Judge had become quite sensitive about the ridiculous complaint his children had given to him, and after struggling with it pettishly for some time, and the vacation coming along, he had finally proposed the New Zealand trip to his wife, the children being sent to complete their cure to the summer home he had long since built on the mountains.
"Well," said Mrs. Gowan, "I am really sorry, dears, for we could have had such fun, all of us up here at the same time, couldn't we? But you won't speak to Effie and Florence if you meet them anywhere, will you? Even if they try to speak to you? I have such a dread of whooping cough."
"Paul told you straight away off that we were contagerous," said Lynn, a little hurt that after her sister's magnificent honesty such admonition should be deemed necessary.
"Yes, I know, dear," said the lady, "and indeed I thank Pauline very much for being so considerate. It is Effie and Florence I am thinking of; they are so thoughtless, I am afraid they will try to come over to you."
"You'd better not let them come down to this part of the road then," said Pauline sagely.
"But that's the difficulty," said Mrs. Gowan, "their uncle has taken 'Tenby'"—she waved her hand to the cottage opposite that had stood irksomely monotonous with closed shutters and chained gate ever since the Lomaxes had come to Burunda this year, "and of course they will often want to come down to him to listen to his stories. He is Hugh Kinross, you know."
They did not know, and even now the name was a name to them and nothing more. Mrs. Gowan evidently took it for granted that even children must have heard of her brother, the famous author.
"So you will help me, won't you, Pauline?" she said appealingly,—"you won't let Max and Muffie run out and talk to them! And if they try to come here you will send them away, won't you, dear?"
Pauline promised her co-operation, though indeed her heart sank at the prospect of seeing her merry little friend Effie day after day as close as the opposite fence and never as much as exchanging chocolates with her.
"When is he coming?" she said heavily.
"To-morrow," said Mrs. Gowan—then she laughed—"but I think he would be afraid to come, don't you, if he knew he was going to have four little rackets like you for such near neighbours. He has come all this way to be perfectly quiet and write his new book."
Lynn looked quite impressed.
"I think we'd better stop in the orchard," she said soberly.
Mrs. Gowan kissed her hand to them and went off laughing to her wagonette.
TREATING OF LARKIN AND HIS COMMISSION
"Well," said Lynn, looking across at "Tenby," "I'm glad it's going to be lived in at last, poor thing. It makes me quite mis'rable to see it standing there in the sun with its eyes shut up tight as if it wanted to wake up on'y it darerunt."
"Like the Sleeping Beauty," said Pauline.
Lynn, in whose composition had run from babyhood a marked vein of poetry, shook her hair back from her face.
"I made a song about it down at the waterfall the other day," she said. "Only mamma wasn't here to write it down, and I didn't know if you could spell all the words, Paul."
"What nonsense!" said Paul, "as if I couldn't spell any word a child like you could think of."
"Well, write it then," urged Lynn, "and I can send it in my next letter to mamma; the rhyums in it came quite right this time."
So Pauline, having nothing better to do, and anxious to display her spelling prowess, fished out of her pocket a bit of pencil and one of Octavius Smith's trade cards that drew attention to his prime line of bacon. This last Larkin had pressed upon her that very morning, and urged her to put it on the mantelpiece, where their visitors could see it. They owed him a return. Morning after morning did he, after receiving his orders from Miss Bibby at the kitchen door, ride his horse to the road at one side of the house, where some well-grown pines made a kindly screen, and there let the children, one after the other, have all the delights of a stolen ride. The ever-present dread of Miss Bibby's discovery naturally added a fearful joy to the proceedings "A judge's eldest daughter astride a grocer's horse!" Pauline could readily imagine the lady's tone of horror.
It seemed very easy repayment for the happiest moment of the dull day to promise to put this advertisement in evidence. But at present it was only the white back of the card that was pressed into service.
Lynn's eyes grew round and solemn, as they always did when she was delivering herself of a "song." She stared hard at the shuttered house.
"Call it 'The Very Sad House,'" she said.
"'The Very Sad House,'" wrote Pauline obediently.
"No, cross that out," said Lynn; "I remember I thought of a better name. It's called 'Forsaked.'"
Pauline grumbled at this. "You mustn't alter any more," she said; "even writing very small I can't get much in."
"Well," said Lynn, "write this down." And she dictated slowly. And slowly and a little painfully, for the space was cramped, Pauline wrote:—
"'Silent and sad it wates by the road, And it's eyes are shut with tears. Oh, Tenby, my heart is so greavous for you, You haven't woked up for years. Why don't you open your eyelids up wide And laugh and dance and frolick outside? And why don't—'"
"There can't be any more," said Pauline inexorably; "I'm at the bottom of the card."
"Oh," said the little poetess piteously, "you must put in the end lines,—can't you turn over?"
"Well, go on," said Pauline—"but it's very silly. As if a house could frolic outside of itself! Mother will laugh like anything."
But Lynn's face was trustfully serene. Mother never laughed.
"Go on," she said,—"the next line is, 'Out on the grass.'"
"I won't write stories," said Pauline decisively. "There's not a bit of grass in that garden, and you know there isn't."
Lynn looked distressed.
"But there ought to be," she said.
"But there isn't," repeated Pauline; "and I tell you I won't write untruths."
"Very well," said Lynn meekly, "it can be earth, only it doesn't sound so green. Say,
'Out on the earth where the fairies play; Come and play with us, oh, come and play.'"
"'Out on the earth where the fairies play,'" wrote Pauline, and the next line said, "Prime middle cuts at Octavius Smith's, Elevenpence a pound."
"Here's Larkin," called Muffie excitedly, "an' he's coming very slowly, so he can't be in a hurry. Let's ask him for another ride."
The four clambered on to the gate again.
Larkin was riding back with lowered crest.
He was a thin lad, small for fourteen, with sharp features and blue eyes, and a head of hair nearer in shade to an orange than to the lowly carrot to which red hair is popularly likened. He wore a khaki coat a size too small for him, and an old Panama hat some big-headed "stranger" had left behind. Round this latter dangled a string veil that he had manufactured for himself against the ubiquitous and famous mountain fly.
But the flamboyant head drooped wretchedly just at present.
He pulled up at the gate, seeing Miss Bibby was not on guard, and poured out a graphic account of the ride between himself and Howie. Browning's "Ghent to Aix" was nothing to it, and "How we beat the Favourite" was colourless narrative to the early part of Larkin's recital. But then the tragedy happened. Larkin's horse got a pebble in its foot, and went dead lame. Howie shot ahead and caught the lady of the house just as she was reluctantly sallying forth to find one of his trade and leave her order.
"An' she's got a baby—patent foods and biscuits," said Larkin in a choked voice, "and I saw quite four boys,—oatmeal, tins of jam, bacon, butter,—I wouldn't have lost her for anything. An' only for giving you kids a ride this morning I'd have heard sooner, an' got the start of Howie."
The children felt quite crushed to think they were the cause of Larkin's great loss. For a loss it was indeed; both boys received commissions on the accounts of the new customers they obtained, and a lady with a baby and four hungry boys, not to mention a maid or two, and possible visitors, was not to be picked up every day.
Then Pauline had a brilliant thought.
"We know of another new one," she cried. "'Tenby' is taken; a man's coming up by to-night's train. Howie doesn't know, no one knows but ourselves,—that will make up to you, Larkin. Men eat more than babies."
Larkin was greatly excited. He made rapid plans: he would slip his cards under the door to-night; he would present himself at the house the moment it was unlocked in the morning. He would take butter, eggs, sugar, with him, so that breakfast at least would be comfortable, and the wife or housekeeper, or maiden sister, whichever the "man" brought with him, would bless his thoughtfulness, and promptly promise her custom.
Then his jaw dropped with a sudden recollection.
To-morrow was his holiday—the only whole week-day holiday he received in six months. He had arranged to go home, as he always did, catching the 11 o'clock train that night, and travelling through the midnight to the highest point of the mountains, and into the early dawn down, down the Great Zigzag on the other side, till he came out on the plain to a little siding, where he scrambled out with his bundle, and shouldered it briskly, and trudged along eight miles, perhaps, to a wretched selection where his father, for his mother and six or seven children younger than Larkin, fought the losing fight of the Man on the Land. A few hours here, slipping his wages into his mother's reluctant hand, escorted by his father round the place to see the latest devices for trapping rabbits and other pests, telling his brothers stirring tales of the struggles between himself and Howie, then the long tramp to the station, and the travelling through the night again, snatching his only chance of sleep sitting upright in his crowded carriage, he fitted his holidays naturally into the Railway Commissioners' Cheap Excursion seasons. And then the fight again in the new-born day with Howie.
The lad looked miserable. How could he give up such a holiday? Yet how allow Howie an uncontested victory with the latest stranger?
Max and Muffie had run back along the path in pursuit of a lively lizard. Only Lynn and Pauline, their sweet little faces ashine with sympathy, hung on the gate.
The lad blurted out his highest hope to them. He gave his mother his wages, of course, he told them, but he had been saving up his commissions for a special purpose. He wanted to put "a bit of stuff" on the Melbourne Cup.
"I know I'll win," he said, with glistening eyes. "It'll be five hundred at least,—p'raps a cool thou,—then I'll buy Octavius and Septimus out, and mother and the old man shall chuck up that dirty selection, and come an' get all the custom here. And the kids can go to school, an' I'll get Polly an' Blarnche a pianner." The rapt look of the visionary was on his face.
But he was torn with the conflict; it was plain he must give up either his holiday or his commission on the new "stranger."
Pauline's position as eldest had developed her naturally resourceful and intrepid disposition.
"Larkin," she said, "I've thought what to do. You go and see your mother. We'll get you the new man's custom. And before Howie gets a chance of it."
Then Anna appeared on the verandah, ringing the lunch bell violently, and Larkin rode home his dead lame horse, and Pauline marched into the house with her head up, the other children following and clamouring to be told of her great plan.
The Judge's mountain home had an inviting aspect. It was not large,—it was not handsome,—simply a comfortable brick cottage with a gable or two cut to please the eye as well as meet architectural requirements, and a fine window here and there where a glimpse of far-off mountain piled against mountain could be obtained.
It stood back from the road and hid itself from the picnickers' gaze in lovely garments of trees and green vines that would take the envious newly-sprung cottage ten years at least to imitate.
Yet "Greenways" had never looked crude and painful as the naked places about did, even when it emerged years ago fresh from the hands of the local builder. For the Lomaxes, unlike many Australians, respected the hand of Nature even when it had traced Australian rather than English designs on their land. And the young gum trees still tossed their light heads here and there, and clumps of noble old ones stood everywhere smiling benevolent encouragement to the beginners.
It had been the Judge's original intention to have nothing but native trees and shrubs and flowers on this summer estate, and a well-clipped hedge of saltbush at present flanked the drive, and a breakwind plantation of Tasmanian blue gum, alternated with silver wattle, ran for several hundred feet where the westerly winds had at first caught one side of the house.
The tennis-court was guarded along both ends by soldierly rows of magnificently grown waratahs, that from October to Christmas time were all in bloom and worth coming far to see. And you approached that same tennis-court through a shady plantation, where every tree and shrub was native-born, and the ground carpeted with gay patches of boronia and other purely aboriginal loveliness. Rarely did the Judge take his walks abroad on the hills or in the gullies but he returned carefully cherishing in one hand some little seedling tree or plant he had dug up with his penknife. And he would set and water and shade it in his plantation, and tell you its name and its species, and its manner of growth, for the bushland was an open book to him and every letter of it had been lovingly conned.
But Mrs. Lomax, English-born, while he was Australian, through two or three generations, hankered, after a year or two of this native garden, for the softer and richer greens and more varied loveliness of the trees and flowers of English cultivation. So they laughingly drew a line of division through the estate; and it must be confessed that, whatever the Judge's opinion, the average eye gathered more permanent pleasure and refreshment from Mrs. Lomax's division than from the stiff, though brilliant, portion under the Judge's jurisdiction.
After ten years the demarcation was not so clearly defined: pines and young oaks, ashes and elms, stood about in perfectly friendly relations with the gum trees and wattles, and the boronia looked up at the rose and saw that it, too, was good.
"Have you washed your hands? Max, Muffie—go into the bathroom instantly, please, and wash your hands," said Miss Bibby, as the children trooped in after their interview with Larkin.
Dinner was spread in the dining-room as usual. The children sighed for the times when their mother had been with them, and had had such a delightful habit of having that meal served in all sorts of unexpected places, even on days when they could not go for an orthodox picnic. Behind the waratahs one day—and of course they imagined themselves waited on by a row of stiff and magnificent footmen in red plush. Among the wattles another time, and the wattles just in bloom. Once in the vegetable garden with big leaves for plates, and the tomatoes that made the first course bending heavily on the trellis behind their seats, and the purple guavas that made the last hiding among their leaves just the other side of the path.
It would have required an earthquake to dislodge Miss Bibby from the stronghold of the dining-room table.
She sat at the head of that table now, a thin delicately-coloured woman not far from forty, with a nervous mouth and anxious blue eyes. Possibly she had been quite pretty in youth, if ever peace and the quiet mind had been hers. But the unrest and worry of her look left rather a disturbed impression on the beholder.
She sat at the head of the table and carved a leg of mutton, and saw Anna putting vegetables upon the children's plates under silent protest.
She did not believe in meat. She did not believe in vegetables. She did not believe in puddings. Pauline had drawn her into confessing this at the first meal she had had with them, and the shock was so great that Muffie had actually burst into tears, and Max had clambered down from his chair with the half-formed intention of setting out at once for New Zealand, and dragging his mother back to her proper place.
Miss Bibby, however, set their minds at rest. She had no intention of interfering with the food they were accustomed to; only she begged to be excused from partaking of such herself.
No meat, no vegetables, no pudding, and still alive! The children took an abnormal interest in watching her preparations for eating at each meal.
She began each day, they found out, with a pint of hot water. Indeed they found it out to their sorrow, for she had Mrs. Lomax's entire permission to work upon themselves one or two of her hygienic reforms—if she could only manage it.
So at seven o'clock, when in various stages of their morning toilet, they were confronted by Miss Bibby, armed with a tall jug of hot water and five tumblers. And they found they had to sit down on the edges of their beds and, receiving a full tumbler, hand back an empty one. If it had been their mother now, they might have protested and wheedled and got out of it in some way. But Miss Bibby was so strange to them, so new—and then mother had bidden them, even as she gave them their last kiss at the station, do all she bade them—that they found themselves making an absolute habit of this watery beginning to the day. Worse still, instead of being rewarded for such heroic behaviour, they were, in consequence of it, deprived of the pleasant cup of cocoa or hot milk that had always hitherto formed part of their breakfast.
"I consider it perfectly uncivilized to eat and drink at the same meal," Miss Bibby said.
Pauline blinked at her very fast, in a way she had when angry.
"Daddy and mamma always do," she said.
"For children, I mean," said Miss Bibby, correcting herself. "I trust, Pauline, you do not think me capable of reflecting upon the conduct of your father and mother."
But Pauline was engrossed with her breakfast again.
"All food should be taken dry," Miss Bibby continued; "and your mother is anxious that I should get you into good ways. At the same time the human system needs a certain degree of liquid, so I shall call you in for your drink meals at eleven, and at three, and you may also have a glass of water each upon retiring."
Sometimes it made the children quite depressed to watch her. Pauline used to say she would feel perfectly happy if she could once see Miss Bibby eat a big, lovely woolly currant bun or a plate of rich brown sausages dished on buttered toast.
And Lynn—it actually moved Lynn to poetry, the tragedy of this meagre fare. Pauline was bidden write "the song" down.
"And the name of the song," added the poetess after a melancholy verse or two, "is 'Sorrow,' or 'Miss Bibby.'"
Muffie told of the appearance of Mrs. Gowan and the heroic conduct of Pauline in announcing their contagion.
Lynn paused in her agreeable occupation of slicing up her banana and adding strawberry jam and milk to it.
"From to-morrow," she said, "we have to keep in the orchard when we're at home, so the man won't hear us shouting."
"What man?" asked Miss Bibby.
"The one who writes books," said Lynn.
"What is the child talking about?" said Miss Bibby, looking at Pauline.
"At 'Tenby,'" said Pauline. "Well, he should have asked were there any children near when he took the cottage. Why should we give up swinging on the gate? He can take his old books and sit on the Orphan Rock to write them. No one will disturb him there."
"What are you talking about, children?" said Miss Bibby. "Pauline, answer me properly. I didn't know 'Tenby' was let. Who has taken it?"
"I forget his name," said Pauline; "please pass the bananas. Oh, Lynn, you've taken all the jam. Will you ring for some more, Miss Bibby?"
Miss Bibby rang absent-mindedly, though she had made the observation that any one eating bananas and strawberry jam together was actually inviting an attack of acute indigestion.
"I suppose you have confused the account," she said, and sighed.
But a momentary agitation had shaken her.
She was a woman with one absorbing ambition—to publish a book. She carried a most pathetic tin trunk about with her—the sepulchre of the hopes of years. The MS. of at least seven novels lay inside, each neatly wrapped in paper, and with a faithful docket of its adventures pasted upon it.
It is enough to examine one of them:—The Heirs of Tranby Chase. It weighed four or five pounds. The publishers would never have had to grumble at its brevity, or have been compelled to use large type and wide margins to "bulk up." It was written in the thin, early Victorian handwriting not often met with in this generation of writers. It subscribed faithfully to the great canons of publication—for instance, it was written on "one side only of the paper"; it was pinned together at the "left-hand top corner"; no publisher had ever found it necessary to gnash his teeth because it reached him rolled instead of flat.
Yet behold the piteous history!
"The Heirs of Tranby Chase, by Katherine J. Howard Bibby, Author of The Quest of Guy Warburton, Through Darkness to Light, or Lady Felicia's Peril, etc., etc. Commenced Jan. 1, 1895. Finished March 6, 1896. Copied out (three times) December, 1896. Submitted to Messrs. Kesteven, Sydney; but they say they are publishing very little at present, as times are depressed. To James & James, Melbourne; returned. And unread, I am sure; the package had hardly been touched. To Brown & McMahon, Melbourne. A most polite note, but they do not care to publish so long a story. Shortened it, and copied again (July, 1898). Sent again to Brown & McMahon. A printed refusal: 'Regret cannot use.' December, 1899, posted to London to Messrs. Frogget & Leach. No reply. Wrote five times, but could not get packet back again, though I enclosed postal note for return in case of rejection. (Memo., never submit another MS. to this firm.) Copied story again, and sent to Bailey & Thompson, Paternoster Row. An extremely kind and flattering reply; their reader evidently thinks highly of the story. Will be glad to publish it at my own expense. Consulted Thomas. He thinks this would be unwise, and will not allow me to withdraw my savings from the bank for the purpose until I have tried other firms. Sent to Mr. Lance Rankin, the great author's agent, together with the five-guinea fee which I found was necessary. April, 1902. Returned by Mr. Rankin, who says he has submitted it to fourteen different firms, but that there is a great depression in the book market at present. Possibly my plot is weak—must try another story."
And so on, and so forth. The pluck of the woman! The marvellous patience and endurance! Did this extinguish her spirit? No; she refreshed herself with reading tales of other writers worsted in the fight—Gissing's New Grub Street afforded her the maximum of melancholy satisfaction—and then she fell to work on a new book. And what the character of the new book was the latest popular success decided. Among the seven novels the trunk secreted was a historical romance, a religious novel, a detective tale, some "bush studies," and a book of political character.
Lynn disposed of a second saucerful of the banana compound that she called her ice cream. It seemed to quicken her memory.
"Hugh Rosskin is his name," she said deliberately, "and if Howie gets him it will be a great big shame, 'cause Larkin——"
But Miss Bibby was standing up, trembling from head to foot, and with a spot of scarlet colour in her cheeks.
"Hugh Kinross,—oh children, children—was that really the name? Oh, Pauline, my dear, my dear, try to think!"
"Yes," said Pauline, "Hugh Kinross—that was it."
"Hugh Kinross! Hugh Kinross! And at 'Tenby'!" Miss Bibby looked as excited as Muffie had done, when, going to feed her guinea-pig the day before, she found five little pinny gigs, as she tumultuously expressed it, had been unexpectedly added unto her stock.
Then she tried to pull herself swiftly together and to look—as Miss Bibby should look.
"If you have finished, children, you may go," she said. "Yes, Anna, you may clear the table."
She hurried away out of the room.
"It's my belief she's in love with 'im, and p'raps they've 'ad a quarrel," said Anna, who was aching in this quiet country place for a spice of adventure. Miss Bibby had not noticed that the girl had come into the room at Max's request with "more lawberry leserve."
The little girls looked at each other with sparkling eyes. They loved a mystery as much as Anna did.
"Oh," said Pauline, "won't it be lovely? Let's go and watch at the gate."
They flew off to stare at "Tenby"—"Tenby" with the local charwoman already there, throwing up the windows and sweeping away the dust of the winter.
THE FAMOUS NOVELIST
It was very early morning, seven o'clock perhaps, and Hugh Kinross, the famous novelist, sat in a camp chair at "Tenby," his feet on the verandah rail, and marvelled at his fame.
It was not his custom to rise quite so early to do this, but circumstances over which he alone had any control, namely the mountain fly, had driven him out of bed. There are no mosquitoes on the mountains; consequently many householders will not go to the expense of mosquito nets.
But the mountain fly rises earlier than any other fly extant, and the stranger who is not provided with a guardian net, leaping desperately up with it, has the early-rising virtue forcibly thrust upon him.
Later in the day, his wrath forgotten, the novelist writes to his city friends and boasts of the light atmosphere of the mountains, as if he had had something to do with the manufacture of it.
"I actually find myself rising at six," he writes, "simply to get out into the delicious air." And not one mention does he make of the debt he owes to the fly.
Hugh Kinross had been routed out at six and, his first choler spent, was quite pleased with himself. He discovered a path leading to a gully, and in the gully a pool beneath a fall, and here he had a circumscribed but delightful swim. Then he climbed up the gully side again, and the Lomaxes' home caught his eye, and so pleased the artistic side of him that he leaned over one of its hedges to gaze at it.
And "Greenways" in the clear morning air, nestling in its setting of tender green, splashed everywhere with the light tints of flowers,—"Greenways," with its eyes turned to the mountain where the marvellous morning lay in the first fresh indescribable blueness that creeps there after the pinks and purples and yellows of the dawn,—"Greenways," with a chimney at the rear sending up the friendly line of its earliest smoke, begot in him a vague emotion that all the bricks and mortar in the city were incapable of doing. He told himself that he, too, wanted a home;—not the boarding-house life that had been his before fame swooped down on him, nor the more luxurious club life that had followed, nor a holiday-month like this present one, in a rented cottage with his favourite sister for companion; but a home—like "Greenways"—with a slender woman in white, like the one there moving about the paths. There was no question in his mind but that she must be slender, for he himself and his sister were both stout. How Miss Bibby's heart would have leapt could she have known whose eyes were watching her as she walked perseveringly up and down, practising the early deep-breathing exercises that she maintained were so essential to health!
And it must be a home with signs of children's occupancy about—he was quite sure of that. Max and Muffie would have been amazed to know that the little red tricycle on the verandah, and the doll's perambulator overturned on a path, were assisting a celebrated man to this vague emotion.
"Ridiculous!" he said. "I'm hungry; that's what it is; this mountain air is doing me good already."
He crossed the road and went back to "Tenby," where his sister's bedroom was yet darkened, and the very servant still slept serenely. He was good-hearted, and could not bring himself to hammer on the doors; but as he went to the pantry to find something for himself, he concluded that they had fortified themselves against the fly by drawing the sheets over their heads.
The pantry and kitchen left him rueful. Boxes of every size stood about in what seemed to him the same wild confusion that they had worn last night when they had been tossed out of the carrier's cart. He foraged everywhere and could find no bread; in none of the tins or jars in which he peered lurked there any butter. Yet he realized that he had no one to blame but himself for this confusion. Matters had been beautifully arranged. His married sister, Mrs. Gowan, had taken "Tenby" for him, and seen to it that it was spotlessly clean; his unmarried sister, Kate, with an efficient servant, was to come up a week ahead of himself to get everything in perfect order and comfort for him, since he was supposed to be overworked and in need of a change.
And then, what must he do but upset everything! He had told Kate he would come to the station and see her comfortably off; but, indeed, she had seen all the luggage into the van, and the servant into another carriage, and bought her own magazines and ensconced herself comfortably in an empty first-class compartment before there was a sign of him. But then he came, and with a vengeance. She saw him, red-faced with hurrying, come striding along the platform, a Gladstone bag in his hand, plainly looking for her. She waved to him and he seized on a guard to unlock her door for him.
"You'll be carried on,—quick, quick, get out!" she gasped, for the bell was ringing.
But he had dropped comfortably on to the seat opposite to her, after putting his portmanteau on the rack.
"I'm coming, too," he said.
"You're not," she cried,—"you can't,—I shan't be ready for you; there'll be no breakfast. Get out immediately, Hugh, and don't be so foolish." She actually dragged at his coat to pull him up from his seat.
But then the train gave a jerk, and she recognized the matter was out of her hands.
"Well, of all the wild doings!" she said; "you really might be twenty again, Hugh, and going off to England at two days' notice with your very socks undarned."
"I wish I were," he said, and ruefully smoothed a bald patch on the top of his head.
"But—but—you don't realize things a bit. I haven't ordered anything,—the very beds aren't made,—there won't be a meal fit to eat for at least two days." Kate looked as nearly put out as a stout, bright-faced woman of forty-five could look.
"I'll sleep on a sofa," he said, good-humouredly.
"It will have to be made up," she snapped, or tried to snap.
"Very well, I'll sleep under it."
"And what about breakfast? Well, you will simply have to go to the hotel till I'm ready for you."
"I'll go to no hotel," he said; "I'm sick of them. I'll have half of your breakfast."
"A boiled egg and bread, and the possibility of no butter," she said scornfully.
"A boiled egg and bread, and the possibility of no butter be it," he answered.
"But what on earth induced you to do such a mad thing?" she persisted.
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"I think it was chiefly because the beggar wouldn't propose," he said.
"What are you talking about, you mad boy?"
"You see," he said, "he was a decent fellow—I'd quite spread myself on him, and she was no end of a girl, quite the best I've done. And I'd got him right up to the fence, and I'm hanged if I could get him over. He perorated, he posed like a shop-walker, you could see him hanging limp like a broken puppet, and me behind with beads on my forehead uselessly jerking the wires."
"Poor old boy!" said Kate sympathetically. "Oh, he'll do it beautifully when once you're on the mountains. Now I look at you I can see you really are run down. I've been planning how I will make you a comfortable little study out of one of the bedrooms, and fix up your writing-table under a window that has a view, and give you a verandah to stalk up and down on when the fine frenzies seize you. But I don't want you to come in for all the confusion of the first day."
"Nonsense," he said; "if you can stand it, I ought to be able to."
But that noble sentiment was uttered at night, after a comfortable dinner at the club, and with the grateful appreciation of the sacrifice this loyal sister was making in breaking all her engagements to come to look after his welfare. It was before breakfast now, a time when the sentiments are absolutely raw, and the noblest mind is capable of resentment when not fortified with food. Hugh went out of the pantry and settled himself gloomily upon a side verandah, uncertain which to anathematize, the flies that had broken in upon his slumbers, or the ones that evidently were studiously refraining from awakening his sister and her handmaid.
But after a time the peace of the perfect morning soothed him, and he put his feet up on the verandah rail, and fell to marvelling at his own fame.
Five years ago he had been quite unknown—a struggling journalist savagely treated by Fate. And for sheer need once of saner employment for his leisure hours, he poured out some of the bitterness that a severe attack of indigestion had deposited on the wholesome substratum of his nature in perhaps as fierce a novel as had yet been written.
Five publishers rejected it with their customary regret; to the stereotyped refusal of the sixth the reader added a few lines, saying he had found much to admire in the work, but that a gracious public full of nerves would not stand so much cold water poured upon it. The seventh firm to whom he submitted the tale was on the verge of bankruptcy. Kinross was absolutely startled when he received a laconic note accepting his MS., and offering a very fair royalty. He was not to know that these publishers had taken it in the spirit of a man who with six shillings for his only capital puts five of them in a sweep where the odds are a thousand to one.
And then Fortune, who for more than forty years had pretended she did not know that there was any such person as Hugh Kinross cumbering the globe, suddenly veered round and smiled one of her most gracious smiles upon him.
He fairly leapt into fame. The inscrutable reading world, long bored almost to death by a sameness of methods, actually rose up and waved its hat at this savage treatment, and demanded that he should continue so to deal with it.
So Hugh, marvelling more than any one, continued to "lay about him with a knotted stick" as Kate, who had long typed his stories unsuccessful and successful, expressed it.
And he found himself wealthy, or at least comfortable, beyond the hopes of his most avaricious days, and famous beyond the wildest dreams that had flamed up in him when he had read his first journalese in print.
Even at forty-nine he had made no close ties. One sister, Mrs. Gowan, was married to a somewhat consequential brewer, who in the journalistic days had rather patronized Hugh. So there was no corner in that home the author cared to accept for his own.
The other sister, Kate—
"Fair, fat and fortiter in re, And suave in manner"—
had long since refused the brewer's patronage and pompous proposal that she should make a home in his house, and in return act as governess to his children. She had thrown in her lot with Hugh, and was soon making, as a typewriter who could be relied upon for faithful work, a very comfortable income. The brother and sister boarded generally at the same house, and, absorbed in their work, drifted over the borderland of middle age together, and together lost their respective waist lines. They were the best of chums and respected each other's weaknesses. It was rather a trial to Hugh, perhaps, that Kate, being fat, had taken ardently to the bicycle and was therefore a joke among onlookers. But seeing the extreme enjoyment she got from her machine, and recognizing that a healthy, hardworking woman, without home or children, must break out somewhere, he had never tried to make her desist from her pleasure.
And Kate had to bear with Hugh.
He had a maddening habit of casting forth the match with which he lighted his pipe.
He would sit at a table surrounded with match-holders of every variety—one Christmas Kate had put six of the latest novelties in this line in his sock—and he would strike a light, and then thoughtlessly throw the dead match either towards the window or the fireplace.
As he pointed out to Kate, the wish to do well was plainly imbedded in his breast, or he would simply fling the useless thing down at his feet. Conscience was not deadened in him; he was quite aware that matches should not be casually strewn upon a carpet, and in his most absent-minded moods he sent them in the direction of those approved receptacles—the window or fireplace. Let her blame others if the window was closed—the sole use of a window, as far as he could see, was to throw matches through,—or if the fireplace was ridiculously decorated with plants and such foolishness, instead of holding its rightful consuming element for used vestas.
When Fortune smiled so marvellously on Hugh, one of the first things he did was to go down to the city, and with his own hands take down the strip of painted tin that, in a building of offices, announced "Miss Kinross, Typist."
He was on the verge of following this act by dropping the typewriter out of the window, when Kate came in just in time to point out to him that some one might be passing beneath, and so receive a worse headache from the thing than it had ever given her. She accepted, as wholeheartedly as he gave it, an income of two hundred a year from him. But she clung to her old typewriter, and copied lovingly all his stories for him.
A deprecatory little cough just below him took Hugh's attention from himself, and the place he had come so unexpectedly to occupy in the economic scheme of Nature.
He looked and beheld a small maiden clad in a holland frock, with a white linen hat on the back of her gold-brown curls, instead of being set in orthodox fashion upon her head. Her white shoes and socks, fresh with the morning, were a little reddened with walking through the "Tenby" garden, which, as Pauline had borne witness, contained no grass whatever.
Just behind her was a small boy, sitting very firmly on a little red tricycle.
"Hello!" said Hugh; "very glad to see you, I'm sure. Friends who look you up in the low ebb of the hours before breakfast are friends indeed. Come along up, both of you, and tell me your names."
But Lynn stood loyal and steadfast at the foot of the steps, while she put the first necessary and searching question that was his due.
"Have you had whooping cough?" she said.
Hugh clutched his hair. He told her he was searching himself through all the crannies of his boyhood years. Yes, he remembered. He had undergone the affliction. There was a birthday party away back twenty, thirty, forty years through the mists, and she would have been at it, with her hair done in two little plaits and tied with blue ribbon. And he had to stay away because he had whooping cough.
Lynn looked very much relieved.
"What a good thing!" she said. "It is very seldom you get it twice, so we shan't hurt you."
"No," he said gravely, looking down on them, "you really don't look as if you would hurt me—much. But won't you come on the verandah? And can the gentleman alight by himself?"
Lynn came up the steps a little shyly.
But Max, though he got off his tricycle, looked a bit worried.
"He won't stand," he said. "Will you lend me your hank'fust to tie him to the post? he's a lood horse."
"He means a blood horse," explained Lynn in a low tone; "he always pretends his tricycle is a race-horse."
Hugh lent the handkerchief—even offered to assist in the tying.
"I'd like to have given him a feed, poor old Trike," said Max, "only—" and he looked regretfully around the garden—"you've no grass, have you?"
"I've no grass," said Hugh; "but did you never try him on white daisies? It wouldn't do, of course, to feed common horses on them, but a blood steed like yours, why, it would make his coat shine like varnish."
Max's eyes grew brilliant at the notion, and he rattled his charger up to a bank near, that was white with the flowers, and stuck the thing's head into it and fed him with handfuls of petals.
"Why, why," he shouted, "he's getting shinier every minute—and his mane's growing longer and longer."
From that moment he regarded Hugh as a man and a brother.
But Lynn had got to business.
"No," she said when offered a chair—"oh, no, thank you, we can't stay—Miss Bibby doesn't know we've come. But will you please deal with Larkin?"
"Deal with Larkin?" Hugh repeated.
"Yes, he's Octavius Smith, not Septimus, and much better. Mamma deals with him, and his bacon is only elevenpence, and he'll always bring your letters, too."
"Bacon!" said Hugh, hungrily. "I'd deal with any one who has bacon if it is fried and eggs are thrown in with it."
"Oh," said Lynn, "he never throws them; they're always packed very carefully in sawdust. And he doesn't mind how often he comes with the things you've forgotten, and he gives you rides on his horse, and everything. He's really much better than that horrid Howie, and he does so want to get a piano for Blanch and Emma, and buy out Octavius and Septimus, and put his mother in, because she works too hard on the farm. You will deal with him, won't you?"
By dint of a few questions Hugh put himself in possession of the facts, and found out that his visitors were also his nearest neighbours. He discovered, too, that he would have been called upon by the whole quartet, but that it had been considered, in family conclave, that four was perhaps too great a number for a morning call. And further, it was necessary for Miss Bibby to see some figures about the garden. So the question was solved by drawing lots, which fell, greatly to the disgust of Pauline and Muffie, to Lynn and Max.
"I know you'll go and spoil it all," said Pauline. "I could do it so much better."
So Lynn was on her mettle and fought hard in Larkin's cause.
"I tell you what we'll do," said Hugh, struck with a brilliant idea, "you shall come with me, and we'll go straight up to this Larkin's. You have made me feel that I can exist no longer without some of the prime, middle cuts of his bacon at elevenpence."
"Oh," said Lynn, "Miss Bibby!" She was torn between Larkin and duty.
"Oh, of course, we'll go and ask permission first," said Hugh; "and we might leave Trike behind, eh, Max? After a feed like that he'll want a rest."
Away they went out of the gate and across the road.
Miss Bibby was down at the gate, fluttering with vexation. She had just found out that two of her naughty charges had actually dared to go and trouble the sacred peace of the famous novelist, and before he could have breakfasted!
She positively could hardly keep the tears back.
A GROCERY ORDER
Miss Bibby had been awake nearly all the night, her blood at fever heat.
Hugh Kinross a stone's-throw away! Hugh Kinross, the author of Liars All, and In the Teeth of the World, and other books, that had thrilled her and set her nerves tingling as if a whip had been applied to her back!
No book had ever so agitated her as Liars All. And she had paid it the highest compliment in her power—she had flung aside her political novel, and the historical one that she had been touching up, and the detective tale that she had been copying afresh, and she had started feverishly upon a short story that she had entitled Hypocrites. And she had tried desperately to "lay about her with a bludgeon," and say biting, savage things of hypocritical human nature, and hold a relentless mirror up to its little faults. Kinross would have been convulsed could he have seen it.
Miss Bibby lay in her quiet bed and illustrated Kinross for herself, since she had never been able to find a portrait of him in any magazine. He was very tall, austere-looking, very thin; the only smile that ever crossed his face was a cynical, a sardonic one. His hair and his eyes were black. He was clean-shaven and his lip and chin were blue.
And she would meet him—she could hardly help meeting him. Possibly she would never get so far as knowing him to speak to, but she would see his tall, spare figure moving slowly about the verandah as he wove his plots, and perhaps the shadow of his head on the blind of a lighted window far into the night.
The fever in her blood drove her from bed. She got up and bathed, and dressed herself with the punctilious care she always bestowed upon her toilet.
Over the choice of her morning dress she hesitated a moment. She wore dainty washing blouses, and neatly-cut serge skirts as a rule; but this morning something induced her to don a limp lavender muslin that took all the freshness from her cheeks.
Then she went out to the faithful performance of her duties, which no amount of fever in her blood could make her neglect. The hot-water ordeal was gone through, the children were turned out speckless from their bedrooms, the bedclothes were put to air, and not even her own "deep-breathing exercises" were omitted.
But then she missed Max and Lynn. And after a world of trouble dragged it from Pauline that they had actually gone across to "Tenby" to try to induce Hugh Kinross to give his orders for bacon and such things to Larkin.
Hugh Kinross and bacon! Miss Bibby ran down to the gate almost choking with agitation and distress.
There was a figure crossing the road, with Lynn held by the hand, and the red tricycle, and Max flanking it on the other side. It was a figure of merely medium height, more than a trifle inclined to stoutness, with an ordinary kindly face and shrewd eyes. He wore a white linen suit, creased all over with bad packing, and a soft shirt with a low collar. When he took off his old Panama hat, Miss Bibby saw, quite with a shock, the bald patch at the back of his head.
"Good-morning," he said pleasantly; "my little friend here tells me you are Miss Bibby. May I introduce myself? My name is Kinross. I have met the Judge on several occasions and I think he will vouch for my respectability. May I take these small ones up the road with me? We are going in hot pursuit of two of the world's best things—eggs and bacon. I will return them safely—thank you very much. Good-bye."
That was all. Not another word, though Miss Bibby, going over and over again in her mind the great meeting, tried hard to imagine that she had forgotten some notable thing he had said. Then she began to torture herself with fears that she had behaved stupidly. The suddenness had been too much for her; she could not recollect one solitary thing that she had said except a fluttering "Certainly," when he asked permission to take the children with him. What must he have thought of her?
Ah, if it could only happen over again when she should have had time to collect her faculties and make some brilliant and scathing repartee as the women in his books so frequently did. But then again, what chance had his speech offered for repartee? What kindling of conversation could there be when the only tinder provided was—eggs and bacon?
She worried herself to such a degree that when breakfast-time came, her appetite, usually small, had almost reached vanishing-point.
The cause of her flutterings was striding along the red dusty road, Lynn and Max having all they could do to keep up with him.
He, too, had had his moment of disappointment. Lynn had told him there was no other lady in their house but Miss Bibby; and then the figure that had given him some pleasurable emotions an hour ago—the slender white figure that had walked on the path between the flowers—turned out on close view to be merely a thin woman of almost forty, in a floppy puce-coloured muslin gown.
And Lynn was unwittingly merciless to the temporary occupant of her mother's place. When Kinross had asked her if it was Miss Bibby who was up so early and walking among the trees, she volunteered, in addition to the affirmative—which would have been quite enough—that she walked about like that when she was doing some of her deep-breathing exercises. And that after her deep-breathing exercises she always skipped backwards for five minutes, and after the skipping she lay down flat on the floor and kept lifting up her head in such a funny way.
And of course this led to an account of Miss Bibby's eccentricities of diet, of which Kinross soon knew all that seemed worth knowing. At first he had hardly listened as the irrepressibles chattered away, or he might have bidden them respect the lady's idiosyncrasies. But a sudden image confronted him of the figure in limp muslin, solemnly skipping for the good of her health, and he gave a great roar of laughter and vowed to himself he would use her for "copy" some day.
But now they were at the shops and Lynn and Max were greatly excited.
They pointed out the different places to him.
This was Benson's, and he made the most delicious drop cakes that ever were; they always bought some when they were going for picnics, and gen'ally on a Saturday, when Anna had no time to make cakes, they had them again. Hugh was solemnly warned not to be beguiled into dealing with Dunks. Dunks did give, it was true, nine for sixpence; but then Pauline had measured them once with Miss Bibby's tape measure—measured them "longways, and broadways, and fatways," and Benson's had been fully half an inch superior.
These were the two photographers. It was advisable to deal with this one, for he always gave you the whole tray down to choose from when you went to buy picture post-cards, and the other man didn't, 'cause he was afraid your hands were dirty. But they never were when you went for a walk, only Max's sometimes, because he still fell down a lot (this point Max contested hotly).
These were the two shoe-makers: if you broke the strap of your sandals this one could fix it best; but if you wore out your climbing shoes, and wanted a new pair made, it was advisable to patronize this one.
And these were the grocers. Poor old Septimus Smith would have stirred uncomfortably in the dreams that still held him, could he have heard Lynn and Max vigorously advising Burunda's latest stranger never on any pretence whatever to buy as much as half a pound of butter at his establishment.
And Octavius, sleepily sweeping his shop and doing the manifold duties of little Larkin, who was fast nearing the poor selection for his dearly-earned holiday,—Octavius would himself have been amazed at the number of good points his business had. His currants—how much cleaner than the currants of Septimus,—his bacon—words seemed inadequate to describe his bacon. He gave you a whole penny box of chocolates each when you went with Anna to pay his bill. He saved you the tinfoil from his tea-boxes and the lovely paper ribbon off the boxes of raisins.
Hugh heard again about Blanche and Emma and the piano, and the rapt vision of the buying up of both the Smiths, and the future conduct of one grocery business only by a person of the name of Larkin.
"Not another word," he said; "you have more than convinced me that no one who has any regard for his immortal soul would deal anywhere but at Octavius Smith's. Let us go on and swell Larkin's commission at once. You are probably better up in housekeeping than I am, Lynn,—if I forget any item you must jog my memory. My sister will be quite delighted that we have saved her all this trouble."
Octavius was speedily wide-awake.
He had always liked the Judge's children, and took a special interest in Lynn, who had composed the following song for him:—
"You must deal at the shop of Octave Ius Smith if you're anxious to save. But into the small shop of Sept We hope that you never have stept."
But this was beyond everything good and thoughtful of the child. And as to Larkin, who had obtained her interest so well—well, the lad should have a "thumping" commission on the order.
The old man's hand began positively to shake as he wrote and wrote at the order.
It was Lynn who suggested everything, with Max occasionally coming in with a brilliant thought like "hundreds and lousands of laspberry jam."
As for instance—soap. "Yes, you will need soap," Lynn said; "how much? Oh, I think you always order grocery things in half-dozens."
"Half-dozens be it," said Hugh.
"Six bars of soap," wrote Octavius, who was a little deaf, and had not heard the quantity difficulty. "Six pounds of sago, six tins of curry-powder, y-y-yes, six jars of honey, certainly, six tins of tongue, six tins of asparagus, six pounds of pepper, six clothes pegs. Bacon? Any favourite brand?"
"Well, all I'm particular about," said Hugh, with a twinkle in his eye, "is that it shall be prime middle cut and elevenpence a pound."
"Just the very thing I make a speciality of!" cried the old man marvelling.
Finally the order was complete; it took two pages of the order book. Octavius would have to borrow Burunda's one cart to deliver so tremendous an order; the usual thing was for Larkin to carry goods in a basket on horseback.
He would have to go over to his brother Septimus and borrow some things,—asparagus, for instance; he never kept more than two tins at a time of so expensive an article. And pepper—his whole stock of pepper at present was but three pounds!
He bowed his customers out, rubbing his hands together, praising the day, the view—everything. Some enormously wealthy friend of the Judge, without a doubt. Possibly the Premier from some other State—yes, most likely a Premier—who else could want six tins of tongue? Doubtless he was going to entertain the Ministers at a picnic at the waterfall.
"The Premier" came back after he had gone a step or two.
"Look here," he said, "just wrap me up some of that bacon and a few eggs, and I'll take them with me now. We've nothing for breakfast at our house."
Half-way down the hill again, Lynn, speechless with the thought of telling Pauline and Muffie about her brilliant success, Max, a little depressed—he could never walk before breakfast without feeling very large and hollow inside—Hugh, blandly holding to him the parcel of eggs and bacon, met an unexpected sight—Kate toiling along up the steep grade on her bicycle.
"He-he-he!" giggled Lynn; "look at that funny fat woman on a bicycle."
"It's only a lack bicycle," said Max critically, "mine's led."
The funny fat woman got off in a most agile fashion when they came alongside.
"My dear Hugh!" she said, "and I imagined you still sound asleep. What on earth are you after now?"
"Eggs and bacon," said Hugh promptly, "and you can just come home and fry them for me. Exercise must wait for a more suitable time."
"Exercise!" panted the lady indignantly, "why, I was just killing myself to get up to a store, and buy some butter for your breakfast, I had quite forgotten to bring any."
"We have ordered it," said Hugh—"six pounds of it. My little lady friend here informs me that it is the correct thing to order groceries in half-dozens. I like doing the correct thing, though a doubt did cross my mind as to the advisability of laying in six pounds of pepper."
"Six pounds of pepper! Oh, Hugh, you are joking."
She looked helplessly at Lynn.
But Lynn's sensitive little face was scarlet; she had called this bicycle lady "a funny fat woman," and here she was a friend of this very nice man's.
She did not know whether to gasp out an apology or remain silent. The latter course commended itself, however, to her, as it ever does to children.
"You don't mean to say you have given a grocery order without consulting me, Hugh?" insisted the lady.
"Just a little one to see us over to-day," said Hugh. "Half a dozen ox-tongues, half a dozen bars of soap—I forget the rest. I thought they would come in useful."
"Why, man," cried Kate, "the kitchen is full of packing-cases of groceries that I brought from town. You don't imagine I was going to let you run the risk of inferior things from a country store!"
"It is prime middle cut, I assure you," said Hugh seriously.
"I am going up to cancel your ridiculous order," said Kate determinedly, preparing to mount. "I shall explain to the storekeeper that you are not responsible for your actions."
"You are going home to fry my bacon," said Hugh, as he whirled her bicycle round; "if you don't I swear I'll sit down here and eat it raw."
LETTERS TO A MOTHER
One morning, not long after this, there came to Miss Bibby at "Greenways" a letter from Thomas Bibby in the city.
Thomas was the sole male member of the family of Bibby, and was a hard-headed young clerk in the commercial department of a big evening newspaper. He had been brought up by his sisters;—there were three more Misses Bibby scattered about the State, teaching, or in similar positions of trust to the "Greenways" Miss Bibby. And they were all inclined to be literary. Clara Bibby wrote verse; if you happened to be a reader of obscure country newspapers you would frequently come across a poem entitled Australia—my Country, or Wattle Blossom, with the signature "Clara L. C. Bibby" beneath it. Alice, the quietest, gentlest little person in the world, wrote vehement articles in the suburban Woman's Political Organ. And Grace had actually brought out a book. A publisher had been touched at her despair when he handed her back her useless MS., and suggested she should compile a cookery book for him, which after a little time of dignified sulking she did; and the book came out and, there being room for it, had a most successful sale. And Grace, quite pleased and surprised, positively taught herself to cook from it, and found the subject so full of interest that she abandoned her heroines and started a second volume of Cookery Hints for Busy Housewives. But it galled the pride of Agnes, the "Greenways" Miss Bibby, and Clara, the poetess, and Alice, the Woman's Voice, that she signed it with her own name. They were confronted everywhere with Bibby's Cookery Book.
Thomas, after he had finished being brought up by these ladies, surprised every one by his faculty for business. They took him in his eighteenth year to the editor of an evening paper who was known to them, and begged that he should be received into the office to gain an insight into literary life, as they hoped in a few more years he would become a novelist.
"Suppose I'll have to give you a trial," growled the editor to the sulky-looking novelist-to-be, when the ladies had fluttered away. "Here you are, here's a bank manager made a mess of his accounts—no roguery about it, simple confusion, and he goes and shoots himself and his wife—can you turn that into a novel of two hundred words?"
"No, I can't," said Thomas, who hated all things literary. Then his sulky look vanished and his eyes brightened. "But I tell you what I could do—go and straighten out the poor chap's accounts."
"Here," said the editor, "you'd better go downstairs, my fine fellow, and ask Mr. Gates to give you a stool in the office."
So Thomas became a valued clerk in the counting-house. And presently when a foolish, feminine speculation swept away the income of the sisters, Thomas established himself as guardian of their bank-books, and general business man of the family.
The sisters, though a little money was still left, decided to take situations as governesses and companions, telling each other it would widen their outlook on life, and give them experiences that might prove invaluable in their literary work. Judge and Mrs. Lomax felt themselves fortunate when Miss Agnes Bibby, with such unquestionable credentials, appeared in answer to their advertisement for some one to take charge of their family during their absence.
And now came a letter from Thomas in the city to Agnes at "Greenways":—
"Dear old Ag.—
"Here's a chance for you if you can only take it. We've just heard that writing chap, Hugh Kinross, has gone to Burunda for a holiday. The beggar has dodged every attempt at an interview, though we and every other paper, for the matter of that, have lain for him in every possible place. Well, I was talking to the editor the other day—he's no end affable to me, and often has a chat—and I happened to say you were at Burunda. And he said, 'Burunda! why that's where Kinross is taking a holiday. Tell her to get any interesting information she can about him, and I'll pay her well for it. If she can manage an interview—a woman can rush in sometimes where a man fears to tread—I'll give her six guineas. Yes, and take one of the stories with which she is always bombarding me, hanged if I won't!'
"You can see it's worth trying for, old girl. Six guineas down for the interview, and say another four for a short story, not counting getting into print at last. Go in and win, say I. I'm sending with this an English mag. or two, with interviews in to show you the style of thing they need.
"You can easily find him out; he's sure to be at one of the hotels. Dog him on a walk some day, and then when you've got him cornered somewhere where he can't escape, whip out your note-book and make him hold up his arms. Butter him up a bit, and he'll give in; he's not been famous long enough not to feel inclined to purr if you rub him the right way.
"He's written two or three books; Liars All is one of them. They're not in your line, of course, but I must say they're not at all bad. Well, go in and win.
"PS.—I banked thirteen pounds six to-day for Grace—more royalties from the Cookery Book. Why don't you try something in the same line? Poultry Keeping for Retrenched Incomes, for instance; it would sell like penny ice creams on a heat-wave day."
Miss Bibby, after reading this letter for the third time that day, hastened into the dining-room where the children were awaiting her, a red spot on her cheek, and a hole burning inside her sleeve near her elbow, where, being pocketless as any modern woman, she had tucked the letter.
She kept her thoughts away from it only by desperate expedients, such as sternly reminding herself that her time at present was paid for by Judge Lomax, and therefore belonged absolutely to him. Later in the day it would be a different matter, but now to her duties,—
"Pauline, Lynn, get out your pens this moment;—no, Muffie, you must write in pencil, you have spoiled the cloth with the ink you have spilled;—yes, yes, in a minute; Max, you sit here, dear, on the nice high chair, and then you can reach beautifully."
Max firmly refused the nice high chair, which he long had considered beneath the dignity of a man with a pocket, and had to be established as usual on two or three fat music books placed on a "grown-up" chair.
There were no regular lessons during the holidays, but Mrs. Lomax having said vaguely, at leaving, that she hoped the little girls would not have quite forgotten their scales, and how to write and read, before the governess returned, Miss Bibby had considered it her duty to see to these things.
So she exacted half an hour a day at the piano from each of the little girls, and faithfully sat beside them saying: "One, two, three, four, don't droop your wrists, Lynn; one, two, three, four, count, Pauline; one, two, three, four, thumb under, Muffie."
And she established two letter hours a week, and saw to it that the children wrote to their parents in their best hand for one page, though she allowed a "go-as-you-please" for the other pages, judging that that would give most pleasure across the wash of the Pacific seas.
"My dearest Mummie and Dad," wrote Pauline this afternoon, "I played my Serenade through yesterday without one single solitary mistake."
Then she looked up with trouble in her eyes.
"Miss Bibby," she said, "you know just where you turn over and the chords begin, are you sure I didn't play D flat there, instead of D natural?"
Miss Bibby started guiltily; as silence had settled slowly down over the room her thoughts began to drop nearer and nearer to her elbow.
"I don't remember, dear," she said; "didn't I praise you—didn't we say you could tell mother that you had it quite correct at last? Yes, I remember quite well."
Pauline sighed. There was no help for her spiritual difficulty here. That doubtful D flat had made her toss restlessly for half an hour before she slept last night. She was consumed by the desire to write the glorious news to her mother, and even Miss Bibby, exigent Miss Bibby, had said the piece was perfect. But Pauline herself had a lurking, miserable doubt in her mind; she seemed to recollect just one mistake, just one tiresome finger jumping up to a black note, when it should have played a white one with a slur. She stared wretchedly at the written statement before her. Suppose it were not true—think of writing a lie, an actual lie to mother! But, indeed, if she really knew for certain that she had played D flat she would not dream of writing so. It was the doubt that tormented. She had better not write so certainly—yes, she would add something that would leave the question more open. "Perhaps" was the word, of course,—"perhaps" excused many, many things. She read over the beginning once more, imagining it to be her mother's eye perusing.
"'My dearest Mummie and Dad,—I played my Serenade through this morning without one single solitary mistake perhaps.'" Oh, how the wretched word pulled one up, tarnished the brilliant achievement!
"Pauline, you cannot have finished; sit down," said Miss Bibby.
Pauline shook her head gloomily. "I can't write yet," she said; "I think I'll just go and play it over once more to be certain. That might have been D flat."
"Oh," said Miss Bibby excusingly, for the Serenade was long, like the lay of the Last Minstrel. "Mother won't mind, dear—just say you played it very well, and I was much pleased."
But Pauline shook her head wretchedly.
"I think I'll play it again," she said, and crossed over to the piano with melancholy eyes.
Lynn was wrestling with her first page.
"'Dearie mother, we don't cough so mush' (how do you spell cough, Miss Bibby? There's a horrid g or q in it somewhere, I know)—'I don't smudg so mush.' I wish (Oh, dear, you said we oughtn't to say we wished she'd come back, didn't you, Miss Bibby, cause she might stop enjoying herself? What else could I put after 'I wish'? I've got that written)."
"Suppose you say you wish you could write better," suggested Miss Bibby.
"I suppose that will have to do," said the little girl sadly. "No, I'll tell you, 'cause I don't much want to write better, I'll say I wish words would ryum better. Look at beauty, nothing will go with it but duty, and duty is such a ugly word in a song, isn't it?"
"No, I think it is a beautiful word," said Miss Bibby; she expected herself to say this, and was not disappointed.
"Well, I don't," sighed Lynn. "I could have made a lovely song this morning. It began—
'Oh, the bush is full of beauty, And the flowers are full of love,'
but I couldn't go any farther, 'cause there was nothing to ryum but that horrid duty."
"I think you could have made it very pretty, dear, with that word," said Miss Bibby. "And say rhyme, Lynn, not ryum. You could have said,—
'Oh, the bush is full of beauty, And the flowers are full of love, And if we do our duty, We——we——'
—something like that, you know, dear."
"'We'll soon get up above,'"
finished Lynn discontentedly. "No, I didn't want it to go like that; it was just going to be a springy sort of a song, with wild birds in it, not a lessony sort."
"Well, get on with your letter, my dear," said Miss Bibby, who was often helpless before the fine instinct for the value of words with which Lynn had been gifted.
So Lynn continued in a cramped hand, "I wish there were more nice words—duty won't do."
This was a sentence calculated to puzzle even parents intelligent as Judge and Mrs. Lomax imagined themselves.
Then the child turned over to her "free" sheet, on which she might write and spell as she pleased, and gazed at it wistfully.
Oh, to purr out her little heart upon it so that the mother so far away might hear her speaking, whispering, just as if she were cuddled up in the dear arms!
What a tragic thing this was in her hand, this red pen with the end sucked nearly white, so powerful, so powerless!
"I love you," she wrote, and then covered a line or two with black crosses, that meant a passion of kisses. Oh, to catch at all the words that were surging in her heaving little breast, and to force them down on the white sheet, and to send them away red-hot across the sea!
She dipped wildly in the ink, she breathed hard and held the pen in almost a convulsive way. But the pitiful steel thing only spluttered, and left a few lines of black scribble. Could the mother understand that? Ah, perhaps, perhaps.
"I hop you are well, from Lynn."
And so concluded the bi-weekly letter, with a big tear as usual, for Lynn simply could not write to mother without crying a little, though for the rest of the time she was a merry little grig.
Muffie was still blissfully untroubled by the need of orthography, and scribbled steadily over four pages, her lips moving all the time to such tune as "'so we went down the gully and ferns, such a lot. And I got the best of all, and it's under the house for you in a tin from Anna, and all of it's for you in the bushhouse at our proper house and daddie.'"
After a time the Serenade began to get upon the nerves of all the room.
Eleven times did poor Pauline attack it and eleven times did she have a breakdown. It was not always the D flat that caused the downfall, though Miss Bibby found herself listening with nerves a-stretch every time the difficult bar approached. And she felt inclined to cry with thankfulness everytime the child went smoothly past. But then just as surely as her nervous tension released itself, and she began to comfort herself that the concluding page could not fail to go well, a stumble, a slip, a despairing cry from the piano stool, and the whole performance began again.
"Oh, make her stop, Miss Bibby," implored Muffie; "she intrupts me dreadf'lly, and I'm in the middle of telling about the fat lady that rides on a bicycle."
"Make her stop," said Max, she "intlups me worse. I'll never get my letter done." Max, except for a wavy line or two in red chalk generally confined his correspondence to enclosing tangible sections of things in which he was interested at the time. To-day he had stuffed into his envelope a clipping from the tail of Larkin's horse, one of the white daisies Trike was being nourished upon, some shavings of coloured chalks from a box on which he had just expended his final penny, and a few currants from his last drop cake.
"I'm getting all my chalks mixed up with her intlupting me," he complained, looking angrily towards the piano where the devoted Pauline still battled madly with the Serenade.
"Pauline, my dear child, I shall go out of my senses if you play the thing again," Miss Bibby said desperately, as Pauline for the twelfth time began the clashing chords that opened the piece, and served as contrast for the gentler music of the Serenade itself.
"I've—I've sworn to myself to get it right," said Pauline wildly. Her lips were quivering, her eyes were full of tears, her very hands were shaking with weariness.
"You shouldn't swear," began Miss Bibby.
"The butcher does," volunteered Max.
"I—I mean it is wrong to bind oneself by a promise one may not be able to keep," Miss Bibby added hastily. "And you are not to talk to the butcher, Max. Shut the piano now, Pauline, and another time when you are quite calm——"
"I've got it w-w-written," sobbed Pauline, fighting with the keys through a mist of tears.
"You can easily start another letter," said Miss Bibby distractedly; "don't mention your music this time—your mother won't mind."
"No, I can't stop; I can't stop," wailed Pauline, playing on as if under a spell.
At this point Anna stalked into the room.
"Which I'm quite aware it isn't my place, Miss Bibby; but I'm here to look after the children as well as you," she said, "and them down with whooping cough that dreadful they can't eat potatoes, and getting punished like this till the very kettle in the kitchen is ready to scream, and the Missus don't believe in punishing, no, she don't, and it's a good deal longer I've lived in the fambly than some people, and knows the ways better, and the tears streaming down the poor child's face like you never saw."
Pauline had quivered once or twice during this heated speech, but as it finished she crashed on to D flat yet again, fell off her stool on to the floor, and rolled about screaming with laughter.
Even Miss Bibby was forced to smile a little, for Anna was plainly suffering keenly, and had bottled it up for some time.
"You mean well, Anna," she said quietly, "even if you don't express yourself well. You can put on your hat and take the children to the waterfall; it will do you all good, for it will be cool down there. I will go to the post, lock the side door, and put the key under the mat."
In ten minutes "Greenways" lay still and peaceful once more among its trees, as if no Serenade had ever troubled its repose. The children were scampering down the gully with Anna following warily, certain she heard a snake at every step.
And Miss Bibby, the letters under her arm, was buttoning her gloves inside the gate, and settling her veil for the walk up to the township.
ACROSS THE RUBICON
But Larkin came along, Larkin, his auriferous hair glinting in the sun, Larkin, with his empty grocery basket swung on his rein arm, and a sheaf of papers under the other.
Larkin came along. And the whole course of Miss Bibby's life was thereby changed.
"Good-morning, ma'am," said the boy; "anything I can fetch yer down fer tea?"
"No, thank you," said Miss Bibby.
"I'll post yer letters for you," continued the youth; "I'm going straight back."
Miss Bibby reflected a moment.
It would certainly save her some time if he did so, and she had nothing now to do until tea—yes, it would give her a chance to read Thomas's letter once more, and consider things quietly.
"It's a bit 'ot, walking," Larkin said encouragingly. She handed him the letters.
"Put them in your pocket," she said, "and be sure to post them very carefully."
"I posts a good few 'ereabouts, and no complaints," smiled Larkin. "So nothing's wanted?" There was a note of sadness in the last question.
"Well, perhaps I could do with a tin of sponge fingers," said Miss Bibby softening.
"Thank you, Miss Bibby, ma—am, twopence," said Larkin, digging his heel into his horse and flying off. Twopence represented his commission; of course, without knowing it, he was falling into the habit of calculating it aloud.
Miss Bibby walked slowly back along the path, and with one slender white hand drew out again from her sleeve the agitating letter from Thomas. Again she read it steadily. Again she walked back to the gate, thinking deeply.
Actually at the gate she lifted her eyes and looked, with a quivering sigh at "Tenby," blinking shadeless in the afternoon sun.
The thing was impossible, of course. Not for anything in the world could she march up to that dread door and calmly propose to interview its almost sacred tenant.
Yet what a chance it was—in very truth the chance of all her lifetime! To have a story in print and paid for, she had craved this during all the long years that separate fourteen from thirty-six.
Again she walked towards the house, again back, this time along a higher path, to look yet again across the front hedge to the fateful cottage opposite.
And this time the higher position disclosed a view of the cottage not obtainable from the big gate. And this view included a little side verandah. And the little side verandah included Miss Kinross, her ample proportions disposed upon a small rocking-chair,—Miss Kinross amiably engaged in eating bananas, and reading a penny woman's paper in the hope of finding therein some new dish with which to tempt Hugh's appetite.
How very ordinary she looked, how very good-natured and stout!
Sudden and brilliant ideas came more seldom to Miss Bibby than to the children she was "care-taking." But undoubtedly one seized her now. The author himself was plainly either out, pacing a mountain top as he worked out his ideas, or else shut up securely in his study.
What if one threw oneself on the mercy of the stout, kindly-faced lady over there and implored her aid in the delicate task!
Miss Bibby did what she had probably never done since she was twenty—acted upon a sudden impulse instead of weighing and considering her action for days and weeks. She found herself moving across the road, lifting the latch of "Tenby's" gate, walking, not to the front door and ringing the bell in a respectable fashion, but forcing her trembling knees to carry her directly round to the side verandah.
Miss Kinross looked annoyed; few of us like to be caught by a stranger when we are tilted well back in a rocking-chair eating bananas in our fingers instead of upon a fruit plate and with orthodox knife and fork.
"Oh," said Miss Bibby, "pray don't be vexed; pray forgive me, it must seem unpardonably rude, but I—I——" She put her hand to her throat a moment, too agitated to continue.