I. Fate and a Rusty Nail.
II. The News, and how they received it.
III. A Drive and a Slice of Cake.
IV. Storms at Home and Abroad
V. In Wenmere Woods.
VI. Tea at the Farm.
VII. The "Rover" takes them Home.
VIII. A Bad Beginning.
IX. The Coming of Anna.
X. Lessons, Alarms, and Warnings.
XI. Poor Kitty!
XII. Those Dreadful Stockings.
XIII. An Exciting Night.
XIV. Mokus and Carrots
XVII. "Good in Everything".
XVIII. Threatening Clouds.
XIX. Betty's Escapade.
XX. Kitty's Hands are Full.
XXI. The Last.
FATE AND A RUSTY NAIL.
On such an afternoon, when all the rest of the world lay in the fierce glare of the scorching sun, who could blame the children for choosing to perch themselves on the old garden wall, where it was so cool, and shady, and enticing? And who, as Kitty often asked tragically in the days and weeks that followed, could have known that by doing so "they were altering their fates for ever"?
The four of them talked a great deal in those days of their "fates;" it sounded so mysterious and grand, and so interesting too, for, of course, no one could know what lay in store for them all, and the most wonderful and surprising events might happen. They did happen to some people, and why not to them?
"I am quite sure something will happen to me some day," said Betty, with a very wise and serious look.
"I shouldn't be surprised," said Dan with mock seriousness, "if something did."
"I mean something wonderful, of course," added Betty. "Don't," with a superior air, "be silly, Dan. Things must happen to somebody, or there would never be any."
Later that same day they realized for the first time that small events could be interesting and important too, and that while they were thinking of their "fates" as something to be spun and woven in the mysterious future, the shuttle was already flying fast.
As I said before, the old wall was particularly cool and tempting-looking that sunny afternoon, for the high, untrimmed laurel hedge on the other side of the path behind them threw a deep broad shadow over the flat top of it, and shade was what one appreciated most on that hot day. All the ground in Gorlay sloped, for Gorlay was built on two hills, while the gardens of all the houses on either side sloped either up or down another and a steeper hill. Dr. Trenire's house was on the left-hand side of the street, as one walked up it, and it was the steep slope up of the garden behind it that made the old wall so fascinating.
To reach the garden from the house one had to pass through a cobbled yard, with the back wing of the house and a stable on one side of it, and a coach-house and another stable on the other. The garden and the garden wall were at the end. From the yard the wall ran up to a good height—to the children it seemed immense, as high as the tower of Babel, though were they to go back now and look at it I dare say they would find it quite insignificant, for walls have a curious way of decreasing an inch or two with every year one grows older.
To the children, though, its two chief charms were that it had a broad flat top on which one could sit and dangle one's legs over the abyss below, and that from the garden it was so low that by just walking over a flower-bed one could step right on to it, while from that eminence one could command a view of the back door, the side door, the stables, and all that went on in the yard. So that, in addition to being cool and shady, it really was a most attractive and alluring spot.
A vine with a wealth of pretty leaves and long graceful tendrils covered the front of the stable and side of the house, and some years there would be a few bunches of little green grapes hanging amongst the leaves. Through the open stable window, festooned by the vine, dear old Prue, Dr. Trenire's well-beloved and faithful mare, would thrust out her head and gaze dreamily at the life in the yard, or at nothing; and the children, if they were about, would rub her nose and fondle her lovingly, and bring her handfuls of grass, or carrots, or sugar. Sometimes, too, "Pinkie," the yellow cat, would seat herself on the narrow sill of the stable window, close to Prue's cheek, until, finding the air too chilly, or the children too noisy, or sleep overcoming her, she would go inside and curl herself up on Prue's back for a nap.
To-day, though, neither Prue nor Pinkie were to be seen. Apparently they were both indulging in an afternoon nap in the shady stable, for it really was a very hot day, and the sun fell full on the vine and the stable window.
Unfortunately it fell on the door too, and showed up a most inviting and enticing-looking spot where the sun had once raised a blister on the paint.
Every one will admit that there is a wonderful fascination about a nice soft paint-blister, and busy fingers had quickly peeled this one off, with the result that to-day there was a spot which made as good a target as any one could possibly desire, and just within range of their perch on the wall. There was also, unfortunately, quite close at hand a supply of perfect ammunition in the shape of a heap of small stones and rubbish which they had swept together a few days before when seized by a sudden mania for tidying up the garden. Of course, had they been really good children, they would have finished their job by shovelling up the heap and carrying it away; but they grew very tired, and the work was hard, and they felt they really had done a great deal for one day. So the heap was left in the path until, on this hot afternoon, they found a new and not at all tiring way of disposing of most of it.
They kept up such a sharp fire, and made such a noise, that presently Jabez, the coachman and general factotum, was dancing with rage in the yard below—rage at the noise they were making and the litter he foresaw he would have to sweep up before "the master" saw the place, and added rage at the calm unconcern with which they ignored his commands.
The children, though really very much attached to Jabez, unfortunately felt no fear of him, and above all things they loved to tease him. They would not willingly have hurt him on any account whatever, but, as they said afterwards, when he deliberately placed himself between them and their target, and dared them to throw another stone, why of course he had to put up with what he got; and what he got most particularly was a nasty blow on the forehead from a piece of old wood that Dan threw at him.
Dan, as he explained at the time, really selected the wood out of pure humanity, because he thought it would be softer than a stone if it should happen to strike any one; and, as he argued emphatically, "it was ridiculous to think he could have known that Jabez was going to duck his silly head at the very wrong moment, and it was even more ridiculous of Jabez to accuse him of knowing that there was a large rusty nail in the wood, for Jabez knew as well as possible that he, Dan, would have been only too jolly glad to have had the nail, for he was collecting old iron as hard as he could, intending to sell it the very next time the 'old-iron' man came round."
Instead of which it was taken by Jabez, along with his bleeding head, straight into the presence of Dr. Trenire, who happened at the moment to be sitting in his study, trying to get a little sorely-needed rest. The doctor had been out all the previous night at a most trying case, and body and brain were weary, his nerves all on edge, his patience nearly exhausted, and he had no time or inclination for unpleasant interruptions and unnecessary worries. Altogether there could not have been a much more unpropitious moment for any one to have gone to him than that which Jabez chose.
As a rule Dr. Trenire was only too gentle and kind and patient with his four motherless children; but to-day, when they slowly, and at a discreet distance, followed Jabez into the study, Kitty felt a sudden conviction that things were not going to be quite as simply and easily got over as usual. She saw a look cross her father's face such as she had never seen on it before, and for the first time in her careless, happy-go-lucky life realized with keen compunction what a sad, tired, patient face it was, and suddenly she found herself wanting to do things for him to try to cheer and help him, and wished most heartily that they had done anything but bring fresh worry and unpleasantness to him.
But before he inquired into the particulars of the squabble, Dr. Trenire attended to the wound. It was only a surface one, but the skin was torn rather badly, and Jabez was bleeding a good deal, and groaning with all his might.
"Get me some hot water."
Only too glad to be able to do anything to help, Kitty ran off; but to run for hot water was one thing, to get it was quite another. The fire was out, the kitchen was littered with dishes and pots and pans, and Fanny the cook, with a dirty apron on and no cap, was fast asleep in her chair by the window, just as though she had not a care or a duty in the world. The squalor and muddle of the whole place could not fail to strike any one, even casual Kitty; and to her it brought a deeper feeling, one of trouble and remorse, for, in response to her own pleading, her father had made her his housekeeper—and this was how she had fulfilled her duties! In fact, she had given herself no duties; she had shirked them. She had left everything to the servants, and as long as she had been free and untroubled, and meals of a kind had been served at more or less regular intervals, had bothered no further.
"Fanny!" she called sharply, "do wake up! Why haven't you got a fire, and a kettle boiling?"
Fanny awoke with a start, which in itself is enough to make a person cross; and to have been caught asleep, with her work not done, made her crosser. "I don't want a great fire burning on a hot afternoon like this," she answered sharply. "You wouldn't like it yourself if you had to sit by it, Miss Kitty; and if it's your tea you'm wanting, well, it isn't tea-time yet. When 'tis, you will find 'tis ready."
"Um—m!" said Kitty loftily, in a tone that expressed most emphatic doubt of Fanny's statement.
"What is it you're routing about in the cupboards for, miss? I don't like to have folks coming into my kitchen, turning everything over and rummaging round. I shan't know where to find a thing when I wants to. What is it you'm looking for?"
"The methylated spirit and the little stove," said Kitty. "I must have some hot water, Fanny, and quickly. Father wants some. There has been an accident."
Fanny changed her tone, and her expression grew a little milder. "We haven't got a leak, miss. We ran out of it a week ago. I told Emily to tell you—but there, I might as well talk to the wind as talk to her—"
"Oh dear," interrupted Kitty, "whatever shall I do? Jabez is bleeding so he will bleed to death—"
"Jabez! Oh my! Whatever has happened, Miss Kitty?" Suddenly Fanny's whole manner changed to one of anxious eagerness and deep concern. "Is it—is it dangerous, miss? How did it happen? What's he done?" Fanny had been so sound asleep that she had not noticed the noise in the yard, or the little procession pass the kitchen window on its way to the study.
"I don't think it is very bad," said Kitty. "Dan threw a piece of wood, and it—it hit Jabez on the forehead, and—and oh, Fanny, what will father think? I believe he is angry with us already, and you know he was out all night and is very tired, and he will be more angry if there's no hot water or anything he wants, and I—I did so want to help him."
Fanny, who appeared more concerned about Jabez than about her master, was, with a lavish use of sticks, kindling a big blaze under a small kettle, and soon had water ready as hot as it was needed. Kitty, greatly relieved, ran back with it to her father.
"I suppose, as usual, there was none," he said gravely, "though I have said until I am tired that in a doctor's house there should always be a supply;" and Kitty could find nothing to say.
Jabez by this time was seated in a chair, facing the light. He was looking very pale and subdued. The thought of having his wound washed and dressed upset him far more than did the wound itself. Betty and Anthony were sitting on two of the stiffest and most uncomfortable-looking chairs in the room, with very grave expressions on their pale but not too clean faces. Dan was standing by the window looking intensely nervous and uncomfortable. He glanced frequently from Jabez to his father, and back again, and Kitty could see he was longing to say something, but did not know how to. She was very sorry that it had been Dan who had dealt the fatal blow. She almost wished that it had been she herself who had done it, for their father was never quite so severe with her or Betty as with the boys.
With the feeling still on her that trouble was coming, she fried to make herself as useful as possible; but as she knew little or nothing as to where anything was kept, she was more of a hindrance than a help, and her hopes were blighted by her father's order to them all to leave the room.
"I will see you presently," he said sternly. "I will either come to you or send for you when I am ready;" and, feeling very crushed, they made their way to the old nursery, now called "the schoolroom," and there waited with curiously mingled feelings for what was to happen next. They did not expect it to be anything very serious; but they hated to vex their father, and they felt that now they really had vexed him.
Oh how slowly the minutes passed, and what a lot of them there were! It seemed to them that time enough had elapsed in which to have set every limb that Jabez possessed, and to hear the recital of every wrong he had ever received at their hands; and by the time they heard their father's footstep coming their hopes and fears had gone up and down again many times, and they had pictured themselves sentenced to every possible and impossible punishment that their minds could imagine.
THE NEWS, AND HOW THEY RECEIVED IT.
When the door opened and Dr. Trenire came in with the heavy tread of a very weary man, and the face of a very worried one, another and a larger wave of shame and remorse rushed over them all.
Dan stepped forward at once to put his feelings into words. "I am fearfully sorry, father," he said impetuously. "I—I was a brute to throw the things at Jabez; but I—I never meant to hurt him. Is it very bad?"
"It is not a serious wound by any means," said the doctor slowly; "but, of course, the wood was old and dirty, and the nail rusty, and there is always danger of blood-poisoning."
"Oh, I hadn't thought of that," said Dan, looking alarmed.
"No, that is just it," sighed the doctor; "you don't think. No one in the house thinks, it seems to me. I suppose, though, it isn't your fault; you have no one to teach you," and he sighed a heavy, harassed sigh.
The children's mother had died nearly five years earlier, when Kitty was nine, and Anthony but a year old. For a time a housekeeper had been employed to manage both children and servants; but so uncomfortable had been her rule, so un-homelike the house, so curbed and dreary the children's lives, that when Kitty reached the mature age of thirteen her father, only too glad to banish the stranger from their midst, had given in to her pleading, and with high hopes of a home which would be happy and homelike once more, allowed her to become housekeeper and mistress of the house.
Unfortunately, though, Kitty had had no training. Her mother had been an excellent manager; but Kitty was only a little thing when she lost her, and her life had mostly been spent, happily enough, in nursery and schoolroom. Mrs. Trenire's wish had been that her children should have a happy childhood, so all family troubles, all anxieties, domestic worries and details, were kept from them, and the result was that, beyond the nursery and schoolroom life, they knew nothing. Kitty had not the least idea how rooms were cleaned, or meals provided, or anything. Then had come the housekeeper, who for other reasons had kept the children to their own quarters. She resented any interference or questioning, and objected to any trouble they might give her, but as long as they amused themselves and kept out of her way, they were free to do pretty much as they wished.
Under the circumstances it was not greatly to be wondered at that when Kitty took up the reins of management, life at Dr. Trenire's was not well-ordered and free from muddle, and that the doctor himself looked worried, and sad, and careworn.
The pity of it was that Kitty did not try to learn even the very simplest things in housekeeping, and in that lay the root of the trouble and the cause of all that followed. Though when four wild young spirits, that have been bottled up and corked down for years, suddenly find themselves free and able to do what they like when they like, without having to render an account to any one, it would be rather wonderful if they did settle down and become quite staid and steady all at once.
Kitty it was, though, who was most at fault. She had begged to be allowed to manage the house, and, having got her wish, she just seized the advantages and revelled in the freedom, but ignored the responsibilities; and no one was more acutely aware of this fact than was Kitty herself during the next half-hour, when their father talked so gravely to them all in the schoolroom.
"I have been thinking a great deal," he said, as he dropped wearily into the roomy old chair by the fireplace—the chair where their mother used to sit and tell them stories, and hear them say their prayers before they went to bed. "I have thought over the whole situation, as well as my tired brain will let me, and I have come to the conclusion that for all our sakes I must get some one to come and look after us."
"O father!" gasped Kitty in utter dismay. She had never thought that anything as dreadful as this could happen.
"Evidently the management of the house and all of us is beyond Kitty," went on Dr. Trenire; "and that is not to be wondered at. We are a large family on the whole, and a doctor's house is not an ordinary one, and it is not surprising that everything should have got into a state of muddle and confusion."
Kitty felt, but could not say, that she had never really tried to manage it; that as long as things had gone on without any open fiasco, and they had been able to enjoy themselves, and the servants had not been bad-tempered, she had been quite content. She could not make that confession now, and if she had it would not have done any good.
"The house must be orderly and well managed, the meals properly arranged and served, and the servants kept in order, and I should be very culpable if I did not see that it was so," went on her father slowly. "So, after much thought and hesitation, for I am very reluctant to admit even a comparative stranger into our midst again, I feel that the only thing to be done is to write to your dear mother's cousin, Mrs. Pike, and ask her to come and make her home with us. She once offered to, and I think now, if she is still willing, it will be well to accept her kind offer."
A stifled cry of dismay broke from the four shocked listeners—a cry they could not repress. "Aunt Pike!" Aunt Pike, of all people, to come to live with them! Oh, it was too dreadful! It could not be—they could never bear it! She had stayed with them once for a fortnight, and it might have been a year from the impression it had left on their memories. When she had left they had had a thanksgiving service in the nursery, and Betty—solemn Betty—had prayed aloud, "From Aunt Pike, pestilence, and famine, please deliver us."
And now this dreaded aunt was to be asked to come again—not for a fortnight only, but for many fortnights; and not as a guest, but as head and mistress of them all, to manage them, to order them about, to make them do as she chose. Oh, it was overwhelming, appalling, too appalling to be true!
"But there is Anna!" gasped Kitty.
"I know," said Dr. Trenire, who really felt nearly as bad about it as did his children. "Anna will live here too, probably. Of course we could not expect her mother to leave her."
This was the hardest blow, the final drop of bitterness their cup could hold, the last straw on four overburthened camels.
"But we all hate Anna," said Betty with slow, deliberate emphasis; "and we shall hate her more if she is here always, wanting to play with us, and go about with us, and—and—"
"Betty, those remarks are unworthy of you," said her father gravely.
"But they are quite true, daddy," said Tony solemnly, "and we've got to speak the truth and shame the devil. Jabez told us so."
Dr. Trenire did not feel able or inclined to argue the point then. Betty drew nearer to him and leaned against his shoulder. "Daddy," she said in her grave, confiding way, "you won't like it either, a bit. When Anna was here before you often used to say, 'Oh, that child!' and you looked quite glad, as glad as we did, when she went away. I am sure you will be sorry if she comes, nearly as sorry as we shall be, only you will be able to go your rounds and get away from them every day; but we," pathetically, "can't do that."
Again Dr. Trenire was silent. He sometimes wished his younger daughter's memory was less acute, and her love of reasoning less strong. No one spoke, and until some one did, remarks would go on dropping from Betty's lips. It was a way she had. She had never been known to cease talking without being forcibly made to do so. "It does seem dreadful," she went on thoughtfully, "that just because Jabez got his head hit we must have Aunt Pike and Anna here for ever and ever, and be made very unhappy. I am sure Jabez would rather have us punished in some other way. Shall I ask him what he would like done to us instead?" she finished up eagerly.
"I don't want to punish you," said Dr. Trenire. "Don't run away with the idea, children, that I am doing it for that purpose. It is that I think it will be the best plan for all of us—for our comfort and happiness, and your future good. I can't have you all growing up like savages, untrained, uneducated, uncared for. What would you all say to me when you grew up?" looking round at them with a smile.
"I would say, 'Thank you,'" said Betty gravely.
"I'd rather be a savage than anything," said Tony eagerly.
Kitty and Dan were silent. Dan was old enough to realize something of what his father meant; Kitty was altogether too upset to answer. She was thinking that it was she who had brought all this on them; that she might have saved them from it. The others blamed Jabez and his tale-bearing; but Kitty in her heart of hearts felt that Jabez with his cut forehead and his tale of woe was but a last link in the long chain which she had forged—a chain which was to grapple to them Aunt Pike and the unwelcome Anna. At the same time the injury to Jabez was a last link, without which the chain might never have been completed.
It was completed though, for that their father's mind was made up, his decision final, they recognized only too clearly, and the glorious summer day turned suddenly to blackest, dreariest night for all of them.
By-and-by, though, after their father had left them, and they had talked things over amongst themselves, some of Kitty's remorse gave way to a rebellion against fate. "How could they have known," she demanded tragically, "that by just sitting on the garden wall that afternoon they were changing and spoiling their lives for ever, and giving Aunt Pike the chance she had been longing for, the chance of coming there to 'boss' them? How was one to know what one might do and what one mightn't? What was the use of trying? There was no going against 'fate'! If it was their fate to have everything spoilt by her, she would have come even if Jabez had never been hurt at all, and everything had been quite right and perfect."
"I shall never sit on that old wall again without expecting something to happen," said Betty in solemn tones.
"And you will never be disappointed after she comes," Dan foreboded gloomily, "so it is just as well to be prepared." At which they all groaned in miserable chorus.
By-and-by they straggled downstairs again and out into the yard. The house was really unbearably hot, and seemed too small to allow their minds to grasp all they had to grasp. They had a sort of gloomy longing, too, to revisit the spot where so much had happened, to go over the familiar ground and see if the bright outer world looked different at all; there surely must be some sign of the tragedy that had befallen them.
In the outer world things had changed very much. The sun had disappeared, and the sky was heavy and overcast with threatenings of the storm that had been brewing all the day; the old wall looked gray, and sad, and uninviting.
"Just as though it knew," thought Kitty.
In the yard Prue was standing somewhat dejectedly, evidently waiting to be harnessed; Jabez was creeping about, getting out the carriage in preparation for a journey. He looked quite imposing with his bandaged head, and he was taking himself very seriously. He glanced furtively at the children, and bore himself with an air of patient but superior resignation. In his heart he was really vexed with himself for having complained of them, though he felt it would not do to let them know it.
Betty, Dan, and Tony felt so bitterly the ill turn he had done them that they walked through the yard and up into the garden without a word or a glance—a cut on the forehead seemed so trifling compared with what they had to bear. Jabez, who had expected anger or teasing on their parts, felt this coldness greatly; he was not used to that kind of treatment, and it hurt him. Kitty, though, was so struck by the sight of his preparations that for the moment she forgot him and his injuries.
"Father hasn't to go out again to-night, has he, Jabez?" she asked anxiously, staying behind while the others strolled on.
"Yes, miss, he hev. He've got to go to Welland to once. They've just sent in."
"Are you going too?" looking at his bandaged head.
"No, miss," with a resigned air. "Master says I'm to go 'ome and 'ave a good night's rest—that is if so be as I can get to sleep."
"But who is going to drive father?" interrupted Kitty.
"Master said as 'ow he'd drive hisself."
Kitty remembered the weary look on her father's face, the sleepless night he had had, the long, busy day. "Jabez," she said with quiet firmness, "I am going to drive father; then perhaps he will be able to sleep a little in the carriage. Don't say anything to him, but I'll be in the carriage when you drive it round for him, and then I expect he will let me go."
Jabez looked dubiously first at the sky and then at Kitty.
"I can drive; you know I can," she said eagerly. "Now don't be nasty, Jabez; we have got trouble enough as it is."
"'Tis my belief there's a nasty storm brewing—"
"I love a storm, especially when I am driving through it."
"I was putting in the old mare on purpose, 'cause she stands thunder and lightning better than what Billy does, but—"
"Jabez, you may say what you like, but I am going, unless father stops me; so don't bother to say any more about it. I know the way, and father trusts me to drive."
"I wasn't going against 'ee, Miss Kitty. If you'm set on it you'm set on it, and 'tisn't no manner of use for me to talk."
Dan and the others came sauntering down from the garden again. "Jabez, you might give me the nail out of that bit of wood," said Dan; "every half-ounce counts, and I want to get enough iron to sell."
Jabez shook his head knowingly. He would rather not have had any further reference made to the affair, for he was really devoted to them all, and was ashamed of his part in it. He always made a point, though, of seeming to distrust them; he thought it safer.
"Ah, I ain't so sure," he began, "that it'd be wise of me to let 'ee 'ave it. I dunno what more 'arm you mightn't be doing with it."
"We couldn't do more harm than you have done already," snapped Dan. "You've nailed Aunt Pike fast to the house with it, and it will take more than we can do to get her away again."
"What be saying of, sir?" asked Jabez, bewildered, and suddenly realizing that their sombre faces and manner meant something more than usual. "Mrs. Pike—"
"Father is going to send and ask Aunt Pike to live here, and it's your fault," said Betty concisely. "It was your complaining about Dan that did it."
Jabez gasped. He knew the lady well, and preserved a vivid recollection of her former visit. "She hain't a-coming visiting here again, is she, sur?" he groaned.
"Visiting! It's much worse than that, a thousand times worse. She is coming here for good, to manage all of us—and you too!" they gasped.
Jabez dropped helpless on to an upturned bucket, the picture of hopeless dejection. "There won't be no peace in life no more," he said, "and I shan't be allowed to show my nose in the kitchen. I'd have had my old 'ead scat abroad every day of my life and never have told rather than I'd have helped to do this. Was it really me telling on 'ee, sur, that made the master settle it so?"
"Yes," nodded Dan, "that finished it."
Jabez groaned again in sheer misery. "I dunno, I'm sure, whatever made me take and do it. I've stood so much more from all of 'ee and never so much as opened my lips. I reckon 'twas the weather made me a bit peppery like—"
"It was fate," interposed Kitty gravely. "It must have been something, for sure," breathed Jabez, with a dreary shake of his head.
"Make haste and get Prue harnessed," said Kitty, "or the storm will begin before we start, and then father won't let me go;" and Jabez, with another gloomy shake of his head, rose from the upturned bucket and proceeded with his task.
A DRIVE AND A SLICE OF CAKE.
With one thing and another Jabez was so agitated as to be quite incapable of hurrying, and Kitty, who could harness or unharness a horse as well as any one, had to help him. She fastened the trace on one side, buckled up the girths, and finally clambered up into the carriage while Jabez was still fumbling with the bit and the reins. She caught the braid of her frock in the step as she mounted, and ripped down many inches of it, but that did not trouble her at all.
"Have you got a knife in your pocket, Dan?" she asked calmly; and Dan not only produced a knife, but hacked off the hanging braid for her and threw it away.
"I do wish I could go too," said Betty wistfully. "I'd love to drive all over the downs at night, particularly if there was a storm coming. May I come too, Kitty?"
But Kitty, for several reasons, vetoed the suggestion. For one thing she wanted to be alone with her father, to try her powers of argument and persuasion against the summoning of Aunt Pike and Anna into their midst; for another, she felt that to be driving in the dark, and probably through a storm, was responsibility enough, without the care of Betty added; and she felt, too, that though her father might be induced to let one of them go with him, he would, under such circumstances, shrink from the pleasure of their united company.
"No, Bet," she answered firmly, "you can't come to-night. I—I want to talk things over with father; but," with sudden inspiration, "I tell you what you can do, and it would be awfully sweet of you. You coax Fanny to get something very nice for supper by the time we come home, and see that Emily has the table properly laid, and that the glasses are clean, and that there are knives enough, and—oh, you know, all sorts of things."
"I know," said Betty, quite as delighted with the responsibility thrust on her as she would have been with permission to go for the drive.
Dr. Trenire came out presently with some letters in his hand, which he gave to Jabez. "Post those without fail," he said, then mounted to his seat. He was so absorbed, or bothered, or tired, that he did not at first observe Kitty's presence, or, at any rate, object to it; and when he did notice her, all he said was, "O Kitty, are you going to drive me? That is very good of you; but isn't it rather late for you?"
"No, father," said Kitty, relieved by his tone. "I love driving by night, and I—I thought it would rest you to have some one to drive. Perhaps you will be able to have a nap on the way."
"I shouldn't be surprised if I did," said her father, with a smile. "I feel as though my head is asleep already. Have we got the lamps?"
"Yes, I think everything is right," and, gathering up the reins, off she drove down through the street.
Every one they met smiled and saluted them in some way, and Kitty smiled back, well pleased. To be perched up on the box-seat, with the reins in her hand, in a position of real trust, gave her the happiest thrills imaginable. Horses, and riding and driving, were passions with her.
At the bottom of the street they branched to their left, and went more slowly up a steep hill, which wound on and on, gradually growing steeper and steeper, past villas and cottages and pretty gardens, until at last all dwellings were left behind, and only hedges bordered the wide road; and then the hedges were passed too, and they were out on the open downs with miles of rough level grassland stretching away on either side of them, broken only by the flat white road along which they rolled so easily.
Up here, on this height, with nothing to intercept it, a little breeze met them. It was a very faint little breeze, but it was refreshing. Kitty drew in deep breaths of it with pleasure, for the closeness and thunderousness of the atmosphere were very trying. The sky overhead looked heavy and angry, black, with a dull red glow burning through here and there, while a hot mist veiled the horizon.
For a time they drove on without speaking, Prue's regular footfalls, the noise of the wheels, and the sharp, clear calls of the birds alone breaking the silence. Kitty was thinking deeply, trying to summon courage to make her earnest, final appeal, and wondering how to begin.
"Father," she began at last, "I—I wish you would give us one more chance—trial, I mean. We would try to behave better, really we would; and—and I will do my best to look after the house and the servants properly. I am sure I can if I try. There shall always be hot water, and—well, you see I feel it is all my fault, and I have brought it all on the others—"
Dr. Trenire came back with a start from his drowsy musings, and tried to gather what it was that his daughter was saying, for she was rather incoherent. Her voice shook at first with nervousness. "Eh, what?" he stammered.
It was disconcerting to Kitty to find that he had not been taking in a word of what it had cost her such an effort to say. "I will do my best to look after the house and the servants," she repeated desperately, "if—"
"But I am afraid, child, you really don't know how. It is not in anger, Kitty, that I am making this new arrangement. I am doing it because I feel you have a task entirely beyond your power, and for all your sakes I must see that you have an orderly and comfortable home, and—"
"It won't be comfortable," said Kitty pathetically. "It will never be that any more."
"You must not begin by being prejudiced against your aunt," reasoned her father gently.
"I am not, father, really; we are not prejudiced," she answered; "but we know, and—and every one else knows that—that—well, when I told Jabez what was going to happen, he sat down on a bucket and he looked—he looked at first as though he were going to faint, and then as though he would leave. I feel nearly certain he will not stay, I really do, father. Aunt Pike was always down on him."
Dr. Trenire felt a little uneasy. He hated changes amongst his servants when once he had grown used to them, and Jabez was a faithful and valuable one in spite of his peculiarities. "You should have thought of all this sooner," he said, rather crossly, "and not have made such a step necessary."
"But—but, father, if we promise now, and really mean it, and begin at once, and—and—" Kitty was so excited she could hardly get her words out, for she had quickly caught the signs of wavering in her father's voice and manner. Already she felt as though victory were near. "Anyhow, father, give us six months, or even three months more, just to let us show that—"
With an exclamation, Dr. Trenire leaned forward and pulled the right rein sharply. "Take care, child," he cried; "you will have us over in a moment. You have almost got this wheel over the edge of the ditch. You must learn to attend to the business in hand, or you will never succeed in anything. Another inch and you would have upset us, and probably have broken a spring."
Dr. Trenire's nerves were on edge, and he spoke more sharply than was usual with him. Kitty felt that she had made a bad beginning, her spirits sank, and she lapsed into silence. But when they were once more bowling smoothly along, her father's thoughts returned to her appeal.
"I am afraid it is too late now," he said gently, sorry for his momentary irritability. "I have already written to your aunt."
Kitty turned a stricken face to him, and her hold of the reins loosened again. "Written to Aunt Pike—already!" she gasped. "Oh!" But hope rose again a moment later. "But you haven't posted it?"
"Yes, I have. At least, I gave it, with some others, to Jabez to post. It will have gone by the time we reach home."
"Oh, how dreadful!" Kitty's fingers tightened on the reins. Her impulse was to turn and drive back furiously to try and intercept that fatal letter. "Father, do let me just drive quickly back and stop it," she pleaded; but her father shook his head.
"I must get on to see Sir James as speedily as I can. It would take us nearly an hour to go home and reach this far again; the old gentleman would think I wasn't coming to-night. Look at the sky, too; we must try and get to Welland, if not home again, before the storm bursts. It will be a bad one when it comes, and anything but pleasant or safe to be driving through over an exposed road such as this; and even now I am afraid it will be dark before we get home."
Kitty knew that; but everything seemed trifling in comparison with this affair of Aunt Pike, and she drove on in a state of mutiny and misery very hard to bear, until by-and-by another comforting thought came to her. If she could not recall that letter, perhaps she could induce her father to write another to her aunt, telling her that after all he had made other arrangements, and that there was no occasion to trouble her. She would not say anything about it now though, and presently other things occurred which helped to banish for the moment this particular trouble from her mind.
By the time they reached Welland it was very nearly dark, and Kitty felt not a little nervous as she guided Prue through the gate leading into the Manor grounds; for the turning was an awkward one, and the gate not wide. She managed it, however, and drove along the drive and drew up before the door in quite a masterly fashion.
"I had better light the lamps by the time you come out," she said to her father as he got down from the carriage; but before he could tell her that One of the stablemen would probably come and see to the lamps and Prue too, the hall door was opened by an anxious-faced maid.
"We are glad you have come, sir," she exclaimed. "The master seems very bad, and the mistress is very anxious."
"I will be with your master in a moment," said the doctor cheerfully; then, turning again to Kitty, "Hadn't you better come inside, dear? You—"
"Oh no," cried shy Kitty, to whom the suggestion was full of horror. "Oh no. I would much rather stay here, please, father. It is cooler now, and I am very comfortable;" and Dr. Trenire, understanding her nature, let her have her way, and followed the impatient maid to the sickroom.
Kitty, greatly relieved, was fastening the reins to the splashboard before getting down to light the lamps, when a man appeared around the corner of the house, and came towards her.
"You had better go inside, miss, hadn't you?" he said, speaking as though he were bidding her to go rather than asking her a question. "I'll look after the mare."
"Thank you," said Kitty decisively, "I would rather stay here."
"I think we'm going to have a storm, and you'll get wet through before the doctor comes out. I reckon he'll be some time."
Kitty felt strongly inclined to say she would like nothing better than to get wet through, and that she preferred sitting out in a storm to anything else in the world. Why couldn't people let her do as she liked best? It seemed to her that it was only for her to want to do one thing, for every one to conspire to make her do another. And how aggravating it was to have the man glued to Prue's bridle all the time, as though Prue ever needed holding, or Kitty were absolutely incapable! He was not at all a pleasant man; he spoke very sulkily and never smiled. She wished for his departure even more fervently than he, she felt, was wishing for hers, but she could not summon up courage to tell him to go, nor could she get over her irritation with him sufficiently to talk to him. So there they stayed in gloomy silence, and Kitty, to add to her annoyance, was made to feel that she was acting foolishly, and ought to have done what she particularly objected to doing.
A sudden vivid flash of lightning drew the exclamation from her, and made even quiet old Prue toss her head; and immediately after the flash came a violent peal of thunder just above their heads, so violent that it seemed as though the heavens themselves were being rent and shaken and the house tumbling about them. Then came a quick patter, patter, patter, swish, swish, and a storm of rain descended on them.
"If you'll get out, miss, and go into the house, I'll take the mare and the carriage round and put them under shelter, or the cushions and things'll be soaking wet by the time the doctor comes out."
There was a tone in the man's voice that Kitty could not ignore, though she disliked him intensely for it—the more so, perhaps, because she felt that he was in the right. He addressed her as though she were a little wilful child, whose foolishness he had endured for some time, but was not going to endure any longer.
Kitty was so annoyed that for a moment she felt that nothing would induce her to dismount, and that if he chose to put the carriage under shelter he could take her there along with it; but the prospect of having to endure his society the whole time made her pause, and while she paused the hall door was opened, and a lady appeared, peering out into the darkness. Standing outlined against the lighted hall Kitty could see her distinctly, while she, her eyes dazzled for the moment by the light, could see nothing.
"Did Dr. Trenire bring one of his little girls with him, Reuben?"
"Do come in at once, child. Which is it? Kitty?"
"Yes," answered Kitty reluctantly.
"Then do come in. Whatever makes you stay out in the storm?" cried Lady Kitson.
Kitty obediently, but most unwillingly, scrambled down from her seat. Even from the carriage, and through the darkness, she could see how charming and dainty Lady Kitson was looking. She had on a soft, flowing gray silk gown, with white lace about her shoulders and arms, and her beautiful golden hair gleamed brightly in the lamplight. Kitty, at sight of her, suddenly realized with overwhelming shame that in her zeal to drive her father and make her appeal, she had neither brushed her own hair nor washed her hands, nor changed her old garden hat or morning frock. She was, she knew, as disreputable-looking and untidy a daughter as any father could feel ashamed of.
"How stupid of me—how stupid of me," she thought, full of vexation with herself, "when I knew I was coming here, too."
There was nothing to be done, though, but to go in and live through this ordeal as best she might. "Why do these things always happen to me?" she groaned miserably. "If I had wanted very much to go in, and had had on all new beautiful clothes, I should have been left out here to spoil them. I wish father would come; he must have been gone quite half an hour, I am sure, and Sir James can't want him any longer."
In the hall Lady Kitson held out a delicate white hand, with sparkling rings on her fingers, and took Kitty's grubby one in hers. Some persons might not have noticed the roughness and stains and marks made by the reins, but Kitty knew that Lady Kitson did. Her keen eyes missed nothing, and probably before very long she would be retailing to Dr. Trenire all his daughter's shortcomings, and the crying necessity for sending her away to a good boarding-school at once.
None of the Trenire children liked Lady Kitson, though they could hardly have told you why. Poor Kitty felt now that she disliked her exceedingly.
"Come into the drawing-room; the girls are there."
"The girls" were Lady Kitson's step-daughters. They were both of them older than Kitty, but were inclined to be very friendly. The Trenire children, though, did not respond much to their advances; they found them uninteresting and silly, and never felt at home with them. The truth was, they had no tastes in common, and probably never would have.
Kitty felt glad of their presence now though, for anything would be better, she thought, than to have to sit for a long time with Lady Kitson alone. At least she felt glad until, having been directed to a low easy-chair facing them all, she suddenly caught sight of the two jagged ends of braid hanging from the front breadth of her dress—the braid Dan had hacked off with his knife. Both ends hung down two or three inches, and no eye could avoid seeing them. From them her glance travelled to her shabby old shoes, the spots on her frock, her hands. Her face flushed a fiery red and her eyes filled. Not for any consideration could she at that moment have raised her eyes. She knew, she felt those gimlet glances, the looks and meaning smiles that were being exchanged, and she writhed under them, while her heart felt very full and sore. She could not talk, her mind was weighed down. In her embarrassment she could think of nothing to say, and her hostesses were apparently too absorbed to make an effort either. Moment after moment of overwhelming wretchedness dragged by.
"I shall never, never forget this," thought Kitty, "all the rest of my life. It will make me miserable whenever I think of it."
At last, to every one's relief, Lady Kitson went upstairs to join her husband, and with her departure some, at least, of the stiffness was removed.
"Aren't you hungry?" asked Lettice, the elder of the two girls. "I am sure you must be after that long drive."
"No, thank you," said Kitty soberly.
"Oh, I think you must be.—Maude, do go and ask Parkin to give us some cake for Kitty. Be sure and say it is for Kitty."
"Can't you go yourself?" asked Maude. "Parkin is in a fearful temper with me because I told mother about her giving things to Reuben."
"Bother! You are always rubbing the servants the wrong way. I let them do as they like, for the sake of keeping them amiable. I am awfully hungry, and so is Kitty, if she would only admit it; but if she refuses to, I suppose I must go hungry."
"We shall have dinner soon," said Maude sharply. "I should think you could wait until then."
"I will have some cake, if you really want me to," said Kitty, looking up at Lettice with a smile, the first she had been able to call to her lips. She liked Lettice the better of the two girls.
"Will you?" cried Lettice delightedly. "Then I will go and ask for something nice for you. I am sure Parkin will give me something if I promise her my little pansy brooch;" and off she went, returning a moment later with a plateful of huge slices of orange cake.
Kitty looked at the slices in dismay. "I can't eat a whole one," she said. "I shouldn't have time either, for I expect father will be down soon."
"Nonsense! you must. There is no knife to cut them smaller," cried Lettice, already making marked inroads on a slice herself. "Quick, take some, or I shall drop the plate."
Kitty unwillingly did as she was told, only to regret it bitterly as, at the first mouthful, a shower of crumbs descended on the polished floor. After that experience it took her so long to make up her mind to take a second bite, that just as she did so voices were heard outside the door, the handle was turned, and Lady Kitson, followed by Dr. Trenire, entered the room. At the first sounds Lettice had seized the plate of cake and made a hasty exit through the conservatory, but for Kitty there was no such escape.
"Well, dear, are you ready to face the storm?" asked her father, smiling down at her.
"I think I must lend you a wrap of some sort," said Lady Kitson. "I suppose you have none?"
Kitty, her mouth full of cake and one hand grasping the remainder, tried to swallow it hastily that she might reply, and, of course, choked. As she often remarked afterwards, the misery of that visit would not have been complete without that final blow. Covered with shame and confusion, she rose awkwardly from her chair, looking about her for some place whereon to deposit that dreadful cake. There was none. The tables were covered with books and frames, vases and ornaments, but the vases were full of flowers, and there was not even a friendly flower-pot saucer. There was nothing for her to do but carry it with her.
"Don't hurry," said Lady Kitson politely; "stay and finish your cake."
"I can't," said Kitty desperately.
She could not even say "thank you." In fact, there seemed so little to give thanks for that it never entered her head to do so.
"Then we will start at once," said her father briskly; and to her immense relief she soon found herself, her farewells said, mounting once more the dear homely carriage. With the reins between her fingers, and the responsibility on her of driving through the storm and darkness, some of her courage and self-respect returned, but not until she had flung that wretched cake far from her into the darkness.
"I shall hate orange cakes all the rest of my life," she thought.
"It was kind of Lady Kitson to take you in out of the storm," remarked her father absently.
"Was it?" she questioned doubtfully. "I suppose it was. But—another time I—I would rather stay out in the very worst storm that ever was," she added mentally. "Nothing could be worse than what I have gone through, and what I shall feel whenever I remember it."
STORMS AT HOME AND ABROAD.
Time might soften Kitty Trenire's recollections of that embarrassing visit of hers, but it could never dim her remembrance of the drive home that night over that wide expanse of moorland which stretched away black and mysterious under a sky which glowed like a furnace, until both were illuminated by lightning so vivid that one could but bow the head and close the eyes before it. A gusty wind, which had sprung up suddenly, chased the carriage all the way, while the rain, which came down in sheets, hissing as it struck the ground, thundered on the hood drawn over their heads, but left their vision clear to gaze in wondering awe at the marvels which surrounded them.
Dr. Trenire presently took the reins from Kitty, and tucking her well up in the wrap that had been lent her, left her free to gaze and gaze her fill. Prue did not relish the din and uproar in the heavens, the flashing lightning, or the rain beating on her; but though she shook her head and flapped her long ears in protest, she stepped out bravely.
When they came at last to the houses and the more shut-in roads the wild beauty was less impressive, and Kitty's thoughts turned with pleasure to home and dry clothes, and the nice meal Betty had undertaken to have in readiness for them. How jolly it all was, and how she did love her home, and the freedom and comfort of it.
The first sight of the house, though, decidedly tended to damp her pleasant anticipations, for there was not a light to be seen anywhere. All the windows were gaping wide to the storm, while from more than one a bedraggled curtain hung out wet and dirty.
Dr. Trenire drove straight in to the stable-yard, expecting to have to groom down and stable Prue himself. But Jabez had changed his mind about going home and early to bed, and was there ready to receive them. At the sight of his bandaged head Kitty's thoughts flew to the events of the day, to Aunt Pike and the fatal letter, and she simply ached with anxiety to know if Jabez had posted it or not.
While she was waiting for an opportunity to ask him Dr. Trenire solved the difficulty for her.
"Have you posted those letters I gave you, Jabez?" he asked, with, as it seemed to Kitty, extraordinary calm.
"Oh yes, sir," said Jabez cheerfully, very proud of himself for his unusual promptness. "I went down with 'em to once. When there's a hubbub on in the kitchen I'm only too glad to clear out."
For once Dr. Trenire did not appear particularly pleased with his assiduity, and Kitty turned dejectedly away. The letter, the fatal letter, was gone, her hopes were ended, fate was too strong for them. And to add to her trouble there had been a hubbub in the kitchen, which meant a quarrel. Oh dear, what could be the matter now? Emily was in a bad temper again, she supposed. Emily generally was.
As she went up to her room to change she met Emily coming down, and whatever else she might be in doubt about, she was in none as to the signs on Emily's face. It was at "very stormy," and no mistake.
"I am wet through," said Kitty brightly, hoping to smooth away the frown; "but oh it was grand to see the storm across the downs. I did enjoy it."
But Emily was not to be cajoled into taking an interest in anything. "I'm glad somebody's been able to enjoy themselves," she said pertly, and walked away down the stairs.
Poor Kitty's brightness vanished. Was there never to be anything but worry and unpleasantness? All her excitement, and interest, and hopefulness evaporated, leaving her depressed and dispirited. The memory rushed over her of former home-comings, before the dear mother died; the orderly comfort, the cheerfulness and joy which seemed always to be a part of the house in those days; and her eyes grew misty with the ache and loneliness of her heart, and the sense of failure which weighed her down. There rose before her that dear, happy face, with the bright smile and the ready interest that had never failed her.
"O mother, mother," she cried, "I want you so, I want you so! Everything is wrong, and I can't get them right. I am no use to any one, and I—I don't know how to do better."
The hot tears were brimming up and just about to fall over, when flying footsteps sounded on the stairs—Betty's footsteps. Kitty closed the door of her room, though she knew it was of no use. It was Betty's room too, and nothing, certainly not a mere hint, could keep Betty out; and she sighed, as she had often sighed before, for a room of her very own, for some place where she could be alone sometimes to think, or read, or make plans, or hide when the old heartache became too much for her.
But Betty shared her room, and Betty had every right to walk in, and Betty did so. She was quiet, and vouchsafed no account of her doings, but she was quite calm and unperturbed.
"What has made Emily in such a bad temper?" asked Kitty wearily.
"Emily always is in a bad temper, isn't she?" asked Betty placidly. "I don't take any notice of her." Then with some slight interest, "What did she say to you?"
"She didn't say anything," answered Kitty, "but she looked temper, and walked temper, and breathed temper. Have you got a nice supper for us? I am starving, and I am sure father must be."
Betty did not answer enthusiastically; in fact, she gave no real answer at all, but merely remarked in an off-hand manner, "I shouldn't have thought any one could want much to eat in this weather."
"Is it ready?"
"I don't know."
"Well, will you go down and see, and tell them to take it in at once if they haven't done so? I know father wants his supper."
"I—think," said Betty thoughtfully, "—p'r'aps you had better go yourself. Fanny said—Fanny's manners are awful; I think father ought to send them both away—"
"What did Fanny say?"
"Fanny told me—well, she said she would rather I—didn't go into the kitchen again—yet."
Kitty groaned. "What have you done to vex them both so, Betty?"
"I only tried to see that the table was nicely laid, and everything just as you told me; and because I took out all the glasses and told Emily they were dirty, she got as cross as anything; and they really were dirty, for I showed her all the finger-marks, so it wasn't as if I was complaining about nothing. If I'd 'cused her wrongly I shouldn't wonder at her getting mad; but I hadn't, and she couldn't deny it. The forks were dirty too; at least I showed her six that were."
Without any comment Kitty left the room and descended to the kitchen. All the way she went she was dreading what she should find when she got there, and wondering how she should best approach matters, and it was a relief to her on opening the kitchen door to find that Fanny was alone. Fanny was looking cross enough at that moment to daunt any ordinary courage, but, somehow, Kitty never felt as alarmed of her as of Emily.
"Well, Fanny," she began, intending to ignore the hints and rumours that had reached her, "we have got back. We were wet through nearly, and now father and I are longing for our supper. Have you got something very nice for us?" She tried to speak cheerfully, but it cost her a great effort.
Fanny took up the poker and made an attack on the stove. "You never ordered nothing, Miss Kitty, and 'tisn't my place to say what you should have."
"Oh but, Fanny, you generally do," said Kitty, half inclined to be indignant at Fanny's injustice, for she could not help remembering how Fanny, as a rule, resented any attempt on her part to order or arrange the meals. She knew, though, that her only chance now was to be patient, and to ignore a good many things. "And you manage so well, so much better than I can." She felt she must say something to restore peace and amiability, if they were to have any supper at all that night, and not incur greater disgrace than she had already.
"I don't want to boast," said Fanny, "'tisn't my nature to do so, but if I'm gived a free hand, well—I can turn out a passable meal; but when one doesn't like this and the other doesn't like that, and nothing I do is right, and there's nothing but rows and squabblings in the kitchen, and no peace nowhere—well, I gives it all up! P'r'aps somebody else could manage better."
Fanny's voice rose more and more shrilly. Poor Kitty's head by this time was aching badly, and her nerves were all on edge. "Fanny, what is the matter?" she asked despairingly. "What has happened while we've been away? I thought we were coming home to a nice comfortable meal and a happy evening, and when we drive up the house is all dark, and the rain beating in at the windows. Emily is in a fury, and—and oh it is all so miserable. I—I'd rather be out alone on the downs in the storm without any home at all, or—or—" Here Kitty's voice faltered, and once more the tears brimmed up in her eyes—a most unusual occurrence with her; but the events of the day, the storm, and the difficulties that beset her, were proving too much for her.
Fanny, hearing the break in her voice, looked round quickly, just in time to see the tears, the white, tired face, and the look of dejection. "Why, Miss Kitty," she cried, her soft heart touched at once, "don't 'ee take it like that. Why, 'tisn't nothing to fret about; it'll all come right again, my dear," and she put her big red arm round her little mistress, and drew her head down to rest on her shoulder. But Kitty, completely overcome now, shook her head mournfully.
"No, it won't, Fanny; it is too late now. Aunt Pike is to come and live here to look after us. Father says we must have some one, and—and I think he is right. I don't seem able to manage things, everything goes just as I don't want it to," and the tears brimmed over again and fell on Fanny's shoulder.
"Mrs. Pike!" gasped Fanny. "Mrs.—Pike—coming here—for good! Oh my! Miss Kitty, you don't really mean it!"
"Yes, I do," groaned Kitty. "It is really true. Father has written to her, and—oh I never dreamed such a thing could happen, or I would have tried and tried to be more careful. It must be fate, though, as well as our bad managing, for I've never before known Jabez post a letter when he was told to; but he must have gone right down to the post at once with the one to Aunt Pike that sealed all our fates. If he hadn't I do believe I could have got father not to send it, or at least to give us another chance."
Fanny shook her head solemnly. "It do seem like it," she groaned.
"What has happened while I have been out, Fanny? Has Betty been rude to Emily?"
"Well, you see, Miss Kitty," said Fanny, anxious to tell, but softened sufficiently to wish to make the best of the matter, "Miss Betty is so tackless. Emily's temper really wasn't so bad till Miss Betty kep' on with her. So soon as Emily had put the things on the table for supper, Miss Betty 'd bring them all out again one by one, and put them down before Emily, and every time she'd say, in that way she's got, 'Emily, that glass is filthy; you must wash it at once. I wonder you ain't ashamed to lay the things in such a state.' When she brought out the third lot Emily got mad, and when Miss Betty come out with the forks too—well, the storm bursted. Emily was cheeky, I don't deny, and Miss Betty was rude, and I had to tell 'em at last that they must go out of the kitchen if they was likely to go on like that. I wasn't going to have my place turned into a bear-garden."
"Emily shouldn't have put down dirty things," said Kitty, loyal to her sister. "She is always doing it, and she ought to know better." Her sympathies were all with Betty. She may have been "tackless," as Fanny called it, but however kindly Emily had been told of her carelessness she would have been certain to fly into a rage; and they had put up with so much from her without complaining, that no one could accuse them of being fidgety or captious.
As a matter of fact, Emily, who needed a very firm mistress of whom she would stand in awe, should have been sent away long before. Kitty could not manage her at all, and as she thought of all they had endured daily at Emily's hands, she felt almost thankful that soon the management of her would fall to Aunt Pike's lot.
"Did you say, Miss Kitty, that the master had asked Mrs. Pike to come here to live altogether, to look after us?"
Kitty nodded despairingly. After all, the managing of Emily seemed but a very trifling advantage to weigh against the Pike invasion and all that would follow on it. "O Fanny," she sighed brokenly, "if only—if only mother were alive! Nothing has gone right since, nor ever will again; and I feel it is almost all my fault that Aunt Pike has got to come, and—and—"
"Now don't take on like that, Miss Kitty," said Fanny, sniffing audibly, and not entirely able to throw off a sense of her own guilt in the matter. "'Tisn't nothing to do with you, I'm sure. If things 'as to be, they 'as to be, and we'll manage some'ow. I'm going to set about getting a nice supper so soon as ever I can. I think we'm all low with the thunder and the 'eat, and we'll be better when we've had some food. Now don't 'ee fret any more, that's a dear," and she wiped Kitty's eyes and then her own on her very soiled apron, but Kitty bore it gladly for the sake of the warm heart that beat beneath the soiled bib.
"Thank you, Fanny; you are a dear," she said gratefully; "and I will go and light some lights about the house by the time father has done with that patient he has in with him now."
Kitty had a great idea of making the house bright and cheerful, but in her zeal she forgot the heat of the night.
"Phew! my word!" gasped Dr. Trenire as he came presently to the dining-room. "Why, children, how can you breathe in this atmosphere? I have been turning down the gas all the way I've come. But how nice the table is looking, and how good something is smelling. I want some supper pretty badly; don't you, little woman?" with a friendly pull at Kitty's curls.
Kitty was not hungry now, but she was delighted by her father's appreciation, and she cut the bread very zealously, and passed him everything she thought he could want. It was not until she had done all that that the silence and the emptiness of the table struck her. "Why, where is Dan?" she cried.
"And where is Anthony?" asked Anthony's father.
Betty gave a little jump, but as quickly controlled herself again. "Oh, I'd quite forgotten about him," she said calmly. "Tony is in bed."
"In bed?" cried Dr. Trenire and Kitty at the same moment. "Isn't he well?"
None of them had ever been sent to bed for being naughty, so that illness was the only explanation that occurred to them.
"Oh yes, he is all right; but I made him get under the feather-bed because of the lightning—"
"The lightning. They say it can't strike you if you are covered with feathers, and of course I didn't want it to strike Tony, speshally with nobody here but me to—to take the 'sponsibility," looking at her father with the most serious face imaginable. "So I made him get into the spare-room bed, 'cause it's a feather-bed, and then I put all the eider-downs over him, and I expect he's as safe as can be."
Dr. Trenire gave a low whistle and started to his feet. "Very thoughtful of you, child," he said, trying not to smile, "and I expect Tony is safe enough, if he isn't cooked or suffocated. For my part, I should prefer the risk to such a protection in this weather. I'll go and rescue him." But Kitty had already flown.
"I forgot to tell Kitty," went on Betty thoughtfully, "that I think the moths have got into the eider-downs, such a lot of them flew out when I moved the quilts."
Dr. Trenire groaned. "I suppose the quilts have never been attended to or put away since we ceased to use them?"
"No," said Betty gravely. "You see, if they are on the spare-room bed they are all out in readiness for when we want them."
"And for the moths when they want them," sighed her father. "I expect they will not leave much for us."
Kitty, her father's half-jesting words filling her with a deep alarm, had meanwhile raced up to the spare room. Somehow, on this dreadful day, anything seemed possible, certainly anything that was terrible, and she remembered suddenly that the spare bedroom was the very hottest room in the house. It was over the kitchen, and caught every possible gleam of sunshine from morning till evening. Also she knew Betty's thoroughness only too well, and her mind's eye saw poor little Tony buried deep and tucked in completely, head and all.
The whole house was stiflingly hot. Kitty's own face grew crimson with her race upstairs, and when she opened the door of the spare bedroom the heat positively poured out; but a terrible load was lifted from her mind, for, mercifully, Tony's head was uncovered. He was the colour of a crimson peony, it is true, but at any rate he was not suffocated, unless—Kitty stepped quickly forward and touched his cheek. It almost made her sick with dread to do so; but the red cheek was very, very hot and lifelike to the touch, and at the same moment Tony opened a y pair of large sleepy eyes, and stared up at his sister wonderingly.
"I'm not struck, am I?" he asked half nervously. "I am very hot, Kitty. Is it the lightning?"
"No," said Kitty cheerfully, "it is feathers," and she flung back the pile of quilts. "Poor Tony. Get up, dear, and come down and have some supper. It is all ready, and father was wondering where you were."
Tony slipped with grateful obedience from his protection and followed Kitty, but rather languidly, it is true, for he was very hot and exhausted, and very rumpled, all but his sweet temper, which was quite unruffled.
"Is Dan come back?" he asked eagerly, as he crept slowly down the stairs.
"Dan!" cried Kitty, stopping and looking back at him anxiously. She remembered again then that she had not seen Dan since her return. "Did he go out?"
"Yes, he went to catch some fishes for daddy's supper. He heard you tell Betty to have a nice one ready, and he said, 'There's sure to be nothing nice in the house; there never is. I'll go and catch some trout,' and he went. Do you think he was out in all that funder and lightning?" Then, seeing Kitty's startled look, Tony grew frightened too. "You don't fink he is hurt, do you, Kitty?" he asked anxiously. "You don't fink Dan has been struck, do you?"
But at that moment, to their intense relief, Dan himself crossed the hall. From his appearance he might have been actually in the stream, getting the trout out without rod or line. Water was running off his hat, his clothes, and his boots. Tony heard it squishing with every step he took, and thought how splendid and manly it seemed.
Kitty called out to him, but Dan did not stay to talk.
"Where's father?" he asked, turning a very flushed but very triumphant face towards them, and waving his basket proudly.
"In the dining-room," said Kitty, and Dan hastened on. His face fell a little, though, when he saw the table, and his father already eating.
"I'm awfully sorry I'm late," he said disappointedly. "I thought I should have been in heaps of time. I've got you some jolly fine trout, father. I meant them for your supper. Just look! Aren't they beauties?" and he thrust his basket over the table and held it right under his father's nose. The mud and green slime dripped on tablecloth and silver and on the bread, and even on Dr. Trenire's plate and the food he was eating.
The doctor's much-tried patience gave way at last. "Look at the mess you are making—all over my food too! Look at the filth you have brought in!" he exclaimed angrily. "Take it away! take it away! What do you mean by coming into the room in that condition, bringing a filthy thing like that and pushing it under my very nose when you see I am eating? And why, Dan, once more, are you not here and decently neat, when a meal is ready? It is perfectly disgraceful. Here am I, and supper has been on the table I don't know how long, and only one of you is ready to sit down with me. Anthony is in bed, or somewhere else, Kitty is racing the house to find him, and you—I am ashamed of you, sir, for coming into a room in such a condition. You are perfectly hopeless. Here, take away my plate, take everything; you have quite spoilt my appetite. I couldn't eat another mouthful at such a table!" and Dr. Trenire rose in hot impatience and flung out of the room.
For a second Dan seemed unable to believe his ears, then without a word he closed his basket and walked away. He was more deeply hurt than he had ever been in his life before, and his face showed it. Kitty and Tony, hesitating in the hall, saw it, and their eyes filled with tears. "Throw it away, will you?" he said in a choked voice, holding out the unfortunate basket to Kitty.
Kitty, knowing how she would have felt under similar circumstances, took it without looking at him; instinctive delicacy told her not to. "Father didn't mean it," she whispered consolingly. "You will come down and have some supper when you have changed, won't you?"
They were not a demonstrative family; in fact, any lavishly expressed sympathy or affection would have embarrassed them; but they understood each other, and most of them possessed in a marked degree the power of expressing both feelings without a word being spoken.
Dan understood Kitty, but it was too soon to be consoled yet. "No," he said bitterly, "I have had supper enough, thank you," and hurried away very fast.
It really did seem as if Kitty was not to reach the Supper-table that night. Telling Tony to go in and begin his meal, she flew off with the basket, and, heedless of anything but Dan's request, was just about to fling it away—fish, basket, and all—when she paused. It was a very good basket, and Dan had no other. Kitty hesitated, then opened it and looked in. Six fine trout lay at the bottom on a bed of bracken and wet moss, evidently placed so that they could look their best. The sight of Dan's little arrangements brought the tears to her eyes. No, she could not throw away what he had taken so much pride in.
She turned back and went to the kitchen. "Fanny," she said, "will you cook these for father's breakfast? Dan has caught them for him."
"And fine and proud he was too," said Fanny, looking in at Dan's catch.
"He was, but he isn't now. I wish," with a deep sigh, "we didn't always do things the wrong way. I wonder why nothing ever comes quite right with us?" Then she turned away hastily, that Emily, who at that moment came into the kitchen, might not see the tears that would start to her eyes.
When at last Kitty sat down to the meal which she no longer wanted, every one else had left the table. She was not sorry, for it saved her from having to make a pretence of eating, and left her free to indulge in her own moods. It gave her time, too, to think over all that had happened, and might yet happen.
Before she went up to bed, though, she got a tray, and collecting on it a tempting meal, carried it to Dan's room. She hoped he would let her in, for she badly needed a talk with him, but just as she was about to knock at his door the murmur of voices within arrested her attention. Whom could Dan have got in there? she wondered in great surprise. Tony was in bed, and Betty was in her room. She listened more closely, and nearly dropped the tray in her astonishment, for the voice she heard was her father's, and she had never before known him go to their rooms to talk to them.
For a moment her heart sank with dread. Was he still angry? Was he scolding poor Dan again? he could hardly think so, for it was so unlike him to be harsh or severe with any of them.
Then, as the voice reached her again, though she caught only the tone of it, and not a word that was said, she knew that all was right, and with a sudden lightening of her heart, and a sense of happiness, she quietly crept away to her own room. All the time she was undressing she listened alertly for the sound of her father's footsteps, but she had been in bed some time before they passed down the corridor. "They must be having a nice long talk," she thought, as she lay listening, in a state of happy drowsiness; and she was almost in the land of Nod when a sudden thought turned her happiness to dismay, and drove all sleep from her.
"Oh!" she cried, springing up in her bed, "oh, how stupid of me! How perfectly dreadfully stupid of me!"
"Whatever is the matter?" demanded Betty crossly. "I was just beginning a most beautiful dream, and now you have sent it right away."
"Never mind your dream," groaned Kitty. "That's nothing compared with that letter. I did mean to get him to write it to-night, and I would have posted it, so that it could reach almost as soon as the other, and—and I never did it, I never even asked him to write it, and now the post has gone, and—"
"Whatever are you talking about?" interrupted Betty impatiently.
"Why, the letter to Aunt Pike, of course. I was going to coax father to write another letter to her to-night, to say it was all a mistake, that we didn't want her, and—"
"Oh, that's all right," answered Betty coolly. "Don't worry. I have written to Aunt Pike and told her all that, and I posted it myself to make sure of its going. She will get it almost as soon as she gets—"
"Betty, you haven't?"
"Yes, I have," said Betty quietly. "Why not? I am sure it was best to. Fanny wouldn't live with her, I know, and Jabez said it would be more than his life was worth, and you know father hates changing servants, so I wrote and told her exactly all about it. I wrote quite plainly, and I think she will understand."
"O Betty, you shouldn't have. What will father say?"
"Father will be very glad, I think. He hates writing letters himself."
"Um—m!" commented Kitty dubiously, but said no more, for at that moment Dan's door was opened, and she heard her father's steps pass lightly along the corridor.
A few moments later she slipped out of bed and carried Dan's tray to his room, but she did not go in with it. Her instinct told her that he would rather she did not just then; so, laying it on the floor, she tapped lightly at his door, told him what was there, and crept back to bed again.
"What a day it has been," she thought to herself as she nestled down under the cool sheet. "Yet it began like all the others. I wonder how all will end. Perhaps it won't be so bad after all. I hope that Betty's letter won't do more harm than good. I shouldn't be at all surprised, though, if it made Aunt Pike make up her mind to come. But I'll try not to think about it," and turning over on her pillow, Kitty had soon forgotten Aunt Pike, Anna, torn braid, orange cake, and Lady Kitson, and was once again driving dear old Prue across the moor with the storm beating and roaring about them, only this time it was a dreamland moor and a dreamland storm.
IN WENMERE WOODS.
"I could not think, for the moment," said Kitty, sitting up in bed and clasping her knees, "why I woke with a feeling that something dreadful had happened. Of course it is Aunt Pike that is on my mind.
"She needn't be, then," said Betty, stretching herself luxuriously in her little bed. "My letter will settle all that worry."
"Um!" remarked Kitty thoughtfully, with none of the confidence shown by her young sister. "If your letter doesn't make her come by the very first train, it will only be because she missed it. I shouldn't be at all surprised to see her walk in, and Anna too."
"You don't really think she will?" Betty, struck by something in Kitty's voice, had stopped stretching herself, and looked across at her sister. "Kitty, you don't really mean that? Oh no, of course you don't; she couldn't really come to-day, she would have lots to do first—packing and saying 'good-byes.'"
"I should think she hadn't a friend to say 'good-bye' to," said Kitty naughtily. "Any way, I am not going to worry about her. If she doesn't come—oh, it'll be perfectly lovely; and if she does—well, we will get all the fun we can beforehand, and after, too, of course; but we will try and have some jolly times first, won't we? What shall we do to-day? I wonder if Dan has planned anything."
What Dan's plan might be was really the important point, for according to him the others, as a rule, shaped their day.
"I don't know if Dan has made any," cried Betty with sudden alertness, "but I know what would be simply lovely. Let's spend the day in Wenmere Woods, and take our lunch with us, and then have tea at the farm—ham and eggs, and cream, and cake, and—"
"Oh, I know," interrupted Kitty; "just what Mrs. Henderson always gives us—"
"No," interrupted Betty anxiously, "not what she always gives us; we will have fried ham and eggs as well, because, you see, it is a kind of special day."
"Very well, we will if we have money enough. I wonder if Dan will agree."
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight," clanged out the town clock viciously. Betty sprang up in bed at once. "It is time to get up, Kitty," she said peremptorily. "We've got to do everything right to-day, and be very punctual at meals, and very tidy and all that sort of thing, so that father will see that Aunt Pike isn't wanted. Do you think he will be vexed when he knows about my writing to her? P'r'aps she won't tell."
Kitty scoffed at such an idea. "Aunt Pike is sure to tell; but father is never very angry."
"But he might be," said Betty wisely; "he looked so last night when all the mud dropped on his plate; but, of course, this is different—there is nothing very bad about my writing the letter. I did it to save him trouble."
"Perhaps you had better tell father so," said Kitty dryly. "Honour bright, though, Betty, I really would tell him, and not let him first find it out from Aunt Pike."
"Um!" ejaculated Betty thoughtfully, as she collected Kitty's sponge and bath-towel before departing to the bathroom. But there was nothing very hearty in her tone.
When she returned, looking very fresh and rosy, and damp about the curls, she found Kitty sitting on the side of her bed, and still in her night-gown. Hearing Betty's returning footsteps, she had managed to get so far before the door was flung open, but that was all.
"Isn't it dreadful," she sighed wearily, "to think that day after day, year after year, all my life through, I shall have to get up in the morning and go through all the same bother of dressing, and I—I hate it so."
"P'r'aps you won't have to," said Betty cheerfully; "p'r'aps you'll be a bed-lier like Jane Trebilcock, and you won't have to have boots, or dresses, or hats."
But the prospect did not cheer Kitty very greatly. "I didn't say I didn't want dresses and things. I do. I want lots of them, but I don't want the bother of putting them on."
"Well, they wouldn't be much good if you didn't put them on," retorted practical Betty. "I hate getting up too"—Betty never failed in her experience of any form of suffering or unpleasantness—"but I try to make it a little different every day, to help me on. Sometimes I pretend the bath is the sea, and I am bathing; other times I only paddle my feet, and sometimes I don't bath at all—that's when I am playing that I am a gipsy or a tramp—"
"Betty, you nasty, horrid, dirty little thing!" cried Kitty, looking shocked.
But Betty was quite unabashed. "I've known you not wash either," she remarked calmly.
Kitty coloured. "But—but that was only once when I forgot; that is quite different."
"But I don't see that it is," said Betty firmly. You are not cleaner because you forget to wash than if you don't wash on purpose. Hark! O Kitty!"
"What shall I do?" cried Kitty despairingly as the boom of the breakfast-gong sounded through the house. "I haven't begun to dress, and—Fanny might have told me she was going to be punctual to-day."
"P'r'aps she didn't know it herself," said Betty, tugging away at her tangle of curls with a comb, and scattering the teeth of it in a shower. "I expect it is an accident."
"Then I wish she wouldn't have accidents," snapped Kitty. "It is awfully hard on other people."
Try as hard as one may, one cannot bath and dress in less than five minutes. Kitty declared she could have done it in that time, if Dan had not had possession of the bathroom, and Betty had not used her bath-towel and left it so wet that no one else could possibly use it.
"But I couldn't use my own," protested Betty, when the charge was brought against her, "for I hadn't one, and of course I had to use something."
When the discussion had proceeded for some time, Dr. Trenire looked up from his paper with a half-resigned air. "What is the matter, children? Haven't we bath-towels enough to go round? Kitty, you should tell me when things are needed. But never mind; your aunt will see to everything of that sort now."
"I don't think she will," murmured Betty knowingly, but her father did not hear her. Kitty felt too dismayed to speak; there was something so final in her father's tone, it made the coming of the dreaded aunt seem quite inevitable.
"What are you children going to do to-day?" he went on kindly. "It is a glorious morning after the storm. You ought to be out as much as possible, all of you. You should start as soon as you have finished your work with Miss Pooley."
Miss Pooley was the governess who came daily from ten till one to instruct them. At least she instructed them as often as she had the opportunity, but it very frequently happened that when she arrived she was told that the children had gone out for the day, or even oftener a little note to the same effect reached her, adding that as they would be engaged all day they wished to save her the trouble of coming for nothing.
This morning they had intended to do the same thing. Kitty was to write the note, and Tony to deliver it, but their father's remark, and his look, touched their consciences. Dan, too, for some reason or another, was against it; he said he thought that after all it was a bit sneaky and underhand, and he wasn't going to have any more of it. Betty felt the foundations of her world shake, and life bristled with new difficulties; but Dan had said it, so no one questioned. After Dan had put things in that light, Kitty suddenly realized that their conduct in the matter had been neither honourable nor honest.
"We will have our lessons and leave directly after," she planned cheerfully. "I will ask Fanny to let us have some food to take with us for our dinner, and then we will go to the farm for tea, and come home in time for supper. Won't it be jolly! And we will have our dinner down by the river—by that dear little silvery, sandy beach, you know."
"It sounds fine," said their father, returning to the room just in time to hear the arrangements. "I wish I could go too."
"I wish you could," cried Kitty. "Wouldn't it be fun to see father exploring the woods, and catching beetles and minnows, and paddling in the river, and—daddy, can't you come, just this once?"