Books by Laura E. Richards.
"Mrs. Richards has made for herself a little niche apart in the literary world, from her delicate treatment of New England village life."—Boston Post.
THE CAPTAIN JANUARY SERIES.
CAPTAIN JANUARY. 16mo, cloth, 50 cents.
A charming idyl of New England coast life, whose success has been very remarkable. One reads it, is thoroughly charmed by it, tells others, and so its fame has been heralded by its readers, until to-day it is selling by the thousands, constantly enlarging the circle of its delighted admirers.
SAME. Illustrated Holiday Edition. With thirty half-tone pictures from drawings by Frank T. Merrill. 4to, cloth, $1.25.
MELODY. The Story of a Child. 16mo, 50 cents.
"Had there never been a 'Captain January,' 'Melody' would easily take first place."—Boston Times.
"The quaintly pretty, touching, old-fashioned story is told with perfect grace; the few persons who belong to it are touched on with distinctness and with sympathy."—Milwaukee Sentinel.
SAME. Illustrated Holiday Edition. With thirty half-tone pictures from drawings by Frank T. Merrill. 4to, cloth, $1.25.
MARIE. 16mo, 50 cents.
"Seldom has Mrs. Richards drawn a more irresistible picture, or framed one with more artistic literary adjustment."—Boston Herald.
"A perfect literary gem."—Boston Transcript.
NARCISSA, and a companion story, IN VERONA. 16mo, cloth, 50 cents.
"Each is a simple, touching, sweet little story of rustic New England life, full of vivid pictures of interesting character, and refreshing for its unaffected genuineness and human feeling."—Congregationalist.
"They are the most charming stories ever written of American country life."—New York World.
JIM OF HELLAS; or, IN DURANCE VILE, and a companion story, BETHESDA POOL. 16mo, 50 cents.
SOME SAY, and a companion story, NEIGHBOURS IN CYRUS. 16mo, 50 cents.
ROSIN THE BEAU. 16mo, 50 cents. A sequel to "Melody."
ISLA HERON. A charming prose idyl of quaint New England life. Small quarto, cloth, 75 cents.
NAUTILUS. A very interesting story, with illustrations; uniquely bound, small quarto, cloth, 75 cents.
FIVE MINUTE STORIES. A charming collection of short stories and clever poems for children. Small quarto, cloth, $1.25.
THREE MARGARETS. One of the most clever stories for girls that the author has written. 16mo, cloth, $1.25.
MARGARET MONTFORT. A new volume in the series of which "Three Margarets" was so successful as the initial volume. 16mo, cloth, handsome cover design, $1.25.
LOVE AND ROCKS. A charming story of one of the pleasant islands that dot the rugged Maine coast, told in the author's most graceful manner. With etching frontispiece by Mercier. Tall 16mo, unique cover design on linen, gilt top, $1.00.
Dana Estes & Company, Publishers, Boston.
LAURA E. RICHARDS
AUTHOR Of "CAPTAIN JANUARY," "MELODY," "QUEEN HILDEGARDE," ETC.
ETHELDRED B. BARRY
BOSTON DANA ESTES & COMPANY PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1898 BY DANA ESTES & COMPANY
Electrotyped and Printed by C. H. Simonds & Co. Boston, U.S.A.
I. PRESENT AND ABSENT 11
II. DOMESTIC 25
III. THE UNEXPECTED 44
IV. THE TRIALS OF MARGARET 61
V. A NEW TYPE 77
VI. A LESSON IN GEOGRAPHY 96
VII. THE DAUNTLESS THREE 114
VIII. THE FIRST CONQUEST 129
IX. A NEWCOMER 145
X. "I MUST HELP MYSELF" 164
XI. THE SECOND CONQUEST 179
XII. THE VOICE OF FERNLEY 195
XIII. WHO DID IT? 212
XIV. BLACK SPIRITS AND WHITE 231
XV. A DEPARTURE 249
XVI. PEACE 264
MARGARET MONTFORT Frontispiece
"AFTERWARDS SHE SALLIED OUT INTO THE GARDEN" 63
"'DID YOU BRING A BOOK TO READ TO ME, LITTLE GIRL?'" 84
"THE LITTLE GIRL HAD NEVER STIRRED, BUT STOOD GAZING UP AT THE BIG MAN WHO HELD HER HANDS" 120
"MERTON WAS TEASING CHIQUITO" 153
"'WON'T YOU COME IN?'" 175
A LIVELY GHOST 247
"THE 'FLAIL OF THE DESERT'" 268
PRESENT AND ABSENT.
"It shall be exactly as you please, my dear!" said Mr. Montfort. "I have no wish in the matter, save to fulfil yours. I had thought it would be pleasanter, perhaps, to have the rooms occupied; but your feeling is most natural, and there is no reason why you should not keep your present room."
"Thank you, uncle!" said the girl whom he addressed as Margaret, and whom some of my readers may have met before. "It is not that I don't love the dear rooms, nor that it would not be a joy to be in them, for some reasons; but,—I think, just to go and sit there every day, alone or with you, and think about her,—it seems as if that would be easier just now, dear uncle. You always understand, Uncle John!"
Mr. Montfort nodded, and puffed thoughtfully at his cigar. The two, uncle and niece, were sitting on the wide verandah of Fernley House; it was a soft, fair June evening, and the fireflies were flitting through the trees, and one or two late birds were chirping drowsily. There were only the two of them at Fernley now, for one day, some two months ago, the beloved Aunt Faith had fallen quietly asleep, and passed in sleep away from age and weakness and weariness. Margaret missed her sadly indeed; but there was no bitterness in her grieving, and she felt all the more need of keeping the house cheerful and bright for her uncle, who had lost the faithful and affectionate friend who had been for years like a second mother to him. They talked of her a great deal, of the beauty and helpfulness of the long life that had brought so much joy to others; just now Mr. Montfort had proposed that Margaret should occupy the White Rooms, which had been Mrs. Cheriton's special apartments in the great rambling house; but he did not urge the matter, and they sat in silence for a time, feeling the soft beauty of the evening wrap them round like a garment of rest.
"And what have you been doing all day, while I was in town?" asked Mr. Montfort presently. "You were not too lonely, May Margaret?"
"Oh, no, not a bit too lonely; just enough to make it very good to have one's Uncle John come back. Let me see! After you went, I fed Chiquito, and stayed with him quite a while, talking and singing. He is so pitiful, poor old fellow! Then I took a walk, and dropped in to see how Mrs. Peyton was; she asked me to come in the morning, you know, when I could."
"And how was she? Superb as ever?"
"Just, Uncle John! Her dressing-jacket was blue this time, and there was a new kind of lace on her pillows."
"Oh! she has lace on her pillows, has she, my dear?"
"Didn't I tell you, uncle? Pillows and sheets are trimmed with real lace, most magnificent. To-day it was Valenciennes, really lovely Valenciennes, to match her cap and the frills on her jacket. And turquoise buttons and cap-pins; oh, she was a vision of beauty, I assure you. The pale pink roses on the table by her bed gave just the right touch to accentuate—if that is what I mean—all the blue. She is an artist in effects. She must have been very beautiful, Uncle John? She is beautiful now, of course, only so worn and fragile."
"Yes, she was extremely beautiful, in her way," said Mr. Montfort; "and she was always, as you say, an artist in effects. And in a good many other things," he murmured, half under his breath. "She was glad to see you, no doubt, my child?"
"Oh, yes; she is always most cordial and kind. She made me tell her just how you were looking,—she always does that; and what you were doing."
"Emily Peyton is a singular woman," said Mr. Montfort, thoughtfully. "She suffers, no doubt, and I am glad if you can be a comfort to her, Margaret; but be a little careful, my dear; be a little careful with Mrs. Peyton! H'm! ha! yes, my love! and what else did you say you had done to amuse yourself?"
"Why, Uncle John, do you think I have to be amusing myself all day? What a frivolous creature you must think me! I practised after I came home; and then I had lunch, and then I arranged the flowers, and then I made some buttonholes, and all the rest of the afternoon I sat under the big tulip-tree, reading 'Henry Esmond.' So you see, I have really had the most delightful day, Uncle John."
"Especially the last part of it," said her uncle, smiling. "Esmond was rather more delightful than the buttonholes, eh, Meg?"
"Well, possibly!" Margaret admitted. "He is rather more delightful than almost anything else, isn't he? But not half so good as one's Uncle John, when he comes home in the gloaming, with his pockets full of bonbons and letters for his unworthy niece."
"Flatterer!" said Mr. Montfort. "Does this come of visiting Mrs. Peyton? She used to be an adept in the art. But what do our two other Margarets say? Has Peggy set the prairies on fire yet? She will some day, you know."
"Do you think the mosquitoes would quite devour us if I brought the small lamp out here? I really must read you the letters, and it is too lovely to go in. Shall I try?"
Margaret brought the lamp, and, drawing a letter from her pocket, began to read:
"I was so glad to get your letter. It was splendid, and I'm going to copy out a lot of the things you said, and pin them up by my looking-glass. My hair will not part straight, because I have the most frightful cowlick—
"I don't believe you care for this part, do you, Uncle John? Poor little Peggy's difficulties are very funny sometimes."
"Why, I like it all, Meg, if you think Peggy would not mind my hearing it. It is all sweet and wholesome, I know; but leave out anything you think I should not hear."
"Oh, there isn't anything, really. I'll go on, if you like. Where was I? Oh!—
"The most frightful cowlick. The reason I tried was because you said my forehead was nice. I hope you will not think me very vain, Margaret. And you know, no one is wearing bangs any more, not even curly ones. So I have put it straight back now, and Pa likes it, and says I look like his mother. Margaret, will you try to get me the receipt for barley soup, the way Frances makes it? Mother isn't well, and I thought I would try if I could make some. I think, Margaret, that I am going to find something I can really do! I think it is cooking! What do you think of that? Our cook went away to her brother's wedding last week, and Mother was sick, and so I tried; and Pa (I tried saying Father, but he wouldn't let me!) said the things tasted good, and I had a knack for flavouring. That made me feel so happy, Margaret! Because I had just gone ahead till I thought a thing tasted right. I did not want to be bothering 'round with cook-books, and besides, ours was lost, for Betsy can't read, so there was no use for one. I made an apple-pudding yesterday, and Pa had two helps, and all the boys wanted three, but there wasn't enough, though I made it in the big meat-pie pan. Darling Margaret, do please write again very soon, and tell me about everything at dear, darling Fernley. How is Chiquito, and does Uncle John ever speak of me? I miss him dreadfully, but I miss you most of all, darling Margaret,—I never get over missing you. I have a new dog, a setter, a perfect beauty. I asked Hugh to name him for me, and he named him Hamlet, because he was black and white, and Hugh thought he was going to be melancholy, but he grins and wiggles all over every time you look at him. I am teaching him to jump over a stick and he does it beautifully,—only the other day I stood too near the looking-glass, and he jumped into that, and smashed it, and frightened himself almost to death, poor puppy. Margaret, I read a little history every day,—not very much, but I think of you when I read it, and that makes it better. Pa says I am going to school next year; won't that be fun? Hugh is reading 'John Brent' to me in the evenings. Oh, how perfectly splendid it is! If I had a horse like Fulano, I would live with him all the time, and never leave him for five minutes. I want dreadfully to go out west and find Luggernel Alley. Hugh says perhaps we shall go some day, just him and me. That doesn't look right, Margaret, but I tried writing 'he and I' on a piece of paper, and it didn't look any better, so I guess I'll leave it as it is. Do you think I write better? I am trying to take a lot of pains. I try to think of all the things you tell me, dear Margaret. Mother thinks I am doing better, I know. Mother and I have real good talks together, like we never used to before, and she tells me what she used to do when she was a girl. I guess she had some pretty hard times. I guess I'm a pretty lucky girl, Margaret. Now I must go and get mother's supper. Give lots and lots of love to Uncle John, and some to Elizabeth and Frances, and say—I can't spell it, but the Spanish thing I learned—to poor Chiquito. But most love of all to your own, dear, darling self, Margaret, from
Mr. Montfort curled his moustaches in silence for some minutes, when the reading was over.
"Dear little girl!" he said at last. "Good little Peggy! So she will learn to cook, will she? And she is getting hold of her mother! This is as it should be, Margaret, eh?"
"Oh, yes!" cried Margaret. "Oh, Uncle John, this letter makes me feel so happy about the child. At first, you know, she missed us all more than she should have,—really. And—and I think that, except for Hugh, perhaps they did not receive her in quite the way they might have, laughing at her a good deal, and sneering when she tried to make little improvements. I don't mean Aunt Susan or Uncle James, but the younger children, and George, who must be—whom I don't fancy, somehow. And she has been so brave, and has tried so hard to be patient and gentle. I think our Peggy will make a very fine woman, don't you, uncle?"
"I do, my love. I have a great tenderness for Peggy. When she is at school, she must come here for her vacations, or some of them, at least."
"And she owes this all to you!" cried Margaret, with shining eyes. "If she had never come here, Uncle John, I feel as if she might have grown up—well, pretty wild and rough, I am afraid. Oh, she ought to love you, and she does."
"Humph!" said Mr. Montfort, dryly. "Yes, my dear, she does, and I am very glad of the dear little girl's love. But as for owing it all to me, why, Margaret, there may be two opinions about that. Well, and what says our Bird of Paradise?"
"Rita? Oh, uncle, I don't know what you will think of this letter."
"Don't read it, my dear, if you think it is meant for you alone. You can tell me if she is well and happy."
"That is just it, Uncle John. She wants to go to Europe, and her father does not approve of her going just at present, and so—well, you shall hear part of it, at any rate.
"Margaret, my Soul!"
"That sounds natural!" said Mr. Montfort. "That is undoubtedly Rita, Margaret; go on! If you were her soul, my dear, my brother Richard would have a quieter life. Go on."
"Hardly a week has passed since last I wrote, yet to-night I fly again in spirit to you, since my burning heart must pour itself out to some other heart that can beat with mine. It is midnight. All day I have suffered, and now I fain would lose myself in sleep. But no! My eyes are propped open, my heart throbs to suffocation, I enrage, I tear myself—how should sleep come to such as I? O Marguerite, there in your cool retreat, with that best of men, my uncle,—yours also,—a Paladin, but one whose blood flows, or rests, quietly, as yours, can you feel for me, for your Rita, who burns, who dissolves in anguish? Listen! I desire to go to Europe. I have never seen it, as you know. Spain, the home of my ancestors, the cradle of the San Reals, is but a name to me. Now I have the opportunity. An escort offers itself, perfection, beyond earthly desire. You recall my friend, my Conchita, who divides my heart with you? She is married, my dear! She is the Senora Bobadilla; her husband is noble, rich, devoted. Young, I do not say; brilliant, I do not pretend! Conchita is brought up in the Spanish way, my child; she weds a Spanish husband, as her parents provide him; it is the custom. Now! Marguerite, they offer to take me with them to Spain, to France, Italy, the world's end. It is the opportunity of a lifetime. I pine, I die for change. When you consider that I have been a year here, without once leaving home,—it is an eternity! I implore my father; I weep—torrents! I clasp his knees. I say, 'Kill me, but let me go!' No! he is adamant. He talks about the disturbed state of the country! Has it been ever undisturbed? I ask you, Marguerite! Briefly, I remain! The Bobadillas sail to-morrow, without me. I feel that this blow has crushed me, Marguerite. I feel my strength, never, as you know, robust, ebbing from me. Be prepared, Marguerite! I feel that in a few weeks I may be gone, indeed, but not to Europe; to another and a kinder world. The San Reals are a short-lived race; they suffer, they die! My father will realise one day that he might better have let his poor Rita have her way for once, when Rita lies shrouded in white, with lilies at her head and feet. Adios, Marguerite! farewell, heart of my heart! I have made my will,—my jewels are divided between you and Peggy. Poor Peggy! she also will mourn me. You will dry her tears, dearest! The lamp burns low—no more! For the last time, beloved Marguerite,
"Your unhappy "MARGARITA MARIA DOLORES DE SAN REAL MONTFORT."
"Isn't that really pretty alarming?" said Margaret, looking up. "Why—why, Uncle John! you are laughing! Don't laugh, please! Of course Rita is extravagant, but I am afraid she must really be very unhappy. Stay! Here is a postscript that I did not see before. Oh! Oh, uncle! Listen!
"Alma mia, one word! It is morning, in the world and in my heart. I go, Marguerite! My maid is packing my trunk at this instant. My father relents; he is an angel, the kindest, the most considerate of parents. We sail to-morrow for Gibraltar,—I shall be in Madrid in less than a month. Marguerite, I embrace you tenderly. Rejoice, Beloved, with your happy, your devoted
"Thank you, my dear!" said Mr. Montfort, twirling his moustaches. "Poor Richard! Poor old Dick! Do you know, my dear, I think Dick may have had some experience of life."
Life was pleasant enough for Margaret Montfort, in those days. The hours were still sad which she had been used to spend with Mrs. Cheriton, the beloved Aunt Faith; but there was such peace and blessedness in the thought of her, that Margaret would not have been without the gentle sorrow. She loved to sit in the White Rooms, sometimes with her uncle, but more often alone. In the morning, she generally walked for an hour in the garden with Mr. Montfort, tending the rose-bushes that were his special care and pride, listening to his wise and kindly talk, and learning, she always thought, something new each day. It is wonderful how much philosophy, poetry, even history, can be brought into the care of roses, if the right person has charge of them. At ten o'clock he generally went to town, and the rest of the morning was spent in practising, sewing, and studying; the hours flew by so fast, Margaret often suspected the clock of being something of a dishonest character. She was studying German, with the delightful result of reading "Der Trompeter von Saekkingen" with her uncle in the evening, when it was not too beautiful out-of-doors. Then, in the afternoon, she could with a clear conscience take up some beloved romance, and be "just happy," as she called it, till Mr. Montfort returned in time for the walk or ride which was the crowning pleasure of the day. And so the days went by, in a golden peace which seemed too pleasant to last; and yet there seemed no reason why it should ever change.
The morning after the reading of the letters, Margaret had been in the White Rooms, arranging flowers in the vases, and putting little loving touches to books and cushions, as a tidy girl loves to do, whether there is need or not. The windows were open, and the orioles were singing in the great elm-tree, and the laburnum was a bower of gold. It seemed really too perfect a morning to spend in the house; Margaret thought she would take her work out into the garden, not this sunny green parlour, but the great shady garden outside, where the box swept above her head, and the whole air smelt of it, and of moss and ferns and a hundred other cool things. She passed out of the rooms, and went along a passage, and as she went she heard voices that came through an open door at one side; clear, loud voices that she could not have escaped if she would.
"These table-napkins is scandalous!" said Elizabeth. "I do wish Miss Margaret would get us some new ones."
"Why don't you ask her?" said Frances, the cook, bringing her flat-iron down with a thump. "The table-cloths is most worn out, too, this set. Ask her to see to some new ones. She's young, you see, and she don't think."
"I've been giving her one with holes in it, right along this two weeks," said Elizabeth, "hoping she'd notice, but she don't seem to. I thought it'd be best if she found out herself when things was needed."
"Ah!" said Frances, "she's a sweet young lady, but she'll never make no housekeeper. She hasn't so much as looked inside one of my closets since Mis' Cheriton went."
"You wouldn't be over and above pleased if she looked much into your closets, Frances; I know that!"
"Maybe I wouldn't, and maybe I would; but I'd like to have her know as there was no need of her looking. Don't tell me, Elizabeth! So long as she could walk on her feet, never a week but Mis' Cheriton would look in, and take a peep at every shelf. 'Just for the pleasure of seeing perfection, Frances,' she'd say, or something like that, her pretty way. But if there had been anything but perfection, I'd have heard from her pretty quick."
"I think you're hard to please, I do!" Elizabeth answered. "I think Miss Margaret is as sweet a young lady as walks the earth; so thoughtful, and afraid of giving trouble, and neat and tidy as a pin. I tell you, Mr. Montfort's well off, and so's you and me, Frances. Why, we might have had one of them other young ladies, and then where'd we have been?"
"I don't know!" said Frances, significantly. "Not here, that's one sure thing."
"Or Mr. Montfort might have married. Fine man as he is, it's a wonder he never has."
"H'm! he's no such fool! Not but what there's them would be glad enough—"
But here Margaret, with burning cheeks, fled back to the White Rooms. It could not be helped; she had to hear what they were saying about herself; she must not hear what they said about her uncle.
She sat down on the little stool that had always been her favourite seat, and leaned her cheek against the great white chair, that would always be empty now.
"I wish you were here, Aunt Faith!" she said, aloud. "I am very young, and very ignorant. I wish you were here to tell me what I should do."
At first the women's talk seemed cruel to her. They had been here so long, they knew the ways of the house so entirely, she had never dreamed of advising them, any more than of advising her uncle himself. Frances had been at Fernley twenty years, Elizabeth, twenty-five. What could she tell them? How could she possibly know about the things that had been their care and pride, year in and year out, since before she was born? It seemed very strange, very unkind, that they should expect her to step in, with her youth and ignorance, between them and their experience. So she thought, and thought, feeling hot, and sore, and angry. She had never had any care of housekeeping in her life. Old Katy, her nurse, who had taken her from her dying mother's arms, had always done all that; Margaret's part was to see that her own and her father's clothes were in perfect order, to keep the rooms dusted, and arrange the books when she was allowed to touch them, which was not often. As to table-cloths, she had never thought of them in her life; Katy saw to all that; and if she had attempted to suggest ordering dinner, Katy would have been apt to send her to bed, Margaret thought. Poor, dear old Katy! She was dead now, and Aunt Faith was dead, and there was no one to stand between Margaret and the cares that she knew nothing about. Of course, Uncle John must never know anything of it; he expected perfection, and had always had it; he did not care how it was brought about. Surely these women were unkind and unreasonable! What good could she possibly do by interfering? They would not endure it if she really did interfere.
The white linen cover of the chair was smooth and cool; Margaret pressed her cheek against it, and a sense of comfort stole over her insensibly. She began to turn the matter over, and try to look at the other side of it. There always was another side; her father had taught her that when she was a little child. Well, after all, had they really said anything unkind? Frances's words came back to her, "I'd like to have her know as there was no need of her looking."
After all, was not that perfectly natural? Did not every one like to have good work seen and recognised? Even Uncle John always called her to see when he had made a particularly neat graft, and expected her praise and wonderment, and was pleased with it. And why did she show him her buttonholes this morning, except that she knew they were good buttonholes, and wanted the kindly word that she was sure of getting? Was the trouble with her, after all? Had she failed to remember that Elizabeth and Frances were human beings, not machines, and that her uncle being what he was, she herself was the only person to give them a word of deserved praise or counsel?
"My dear," she said to herself, "I don't want to be hasty in my judgments, but it rather looks as if you had been a careless, selfish goose, doesn't it now?"
She went up to her own room,—the garden seemed too much of an indulgence just now,—and sat down quietly with her work. Sewing was always soothing to Margaret. She was not fond of it; she would have read twelve hours out of the twenty-four, if she had been allowed to choose her own way of life, and have walked or ridden four, and slept six, and would never have thought of any time being necessary for eating, till she felt hungry. But she had been taught to sew well and quickly, and she had always made her own underclothes, and felled all the seams, and a good many girls will know how much that means. She sat sewing and thinking, planning all kinds of reforms and experiments, when she heard Elizabeth stirring in the room next hers. It was the linen room, and Elizabeth was putting away clean clothes, Margaret knew by the clank of the drawer-handles. Now! this was the moment to begin. She laid down her work, and went into the linen room.
"May I see you put them away, Elizabeth?" she asked. "I always like to see your piles of towels,—they are so even and smooth."
Elizabeth looked up, and her face brightened. "And welcome, Miss Margaret!" she said. "I'll be pleased enough. 'Tis dreadful lonesome, and Mis' Cheriton gone. Not that she could come up here, I don't mean; but I always knew she was there, and she was like a mother to me, and I could always go to her. Yes, miss, the towels do look nice, and I love to keep 'em so."
"They are beautiful!" said Margaret, with genuine enthusiasm, for the shelves and drawers were like those she had read about in "Soll und Haben." She had loved them in the book, but never thought of looking at them in reality. "Oh, what lovely damask this is, Elizabeth! It shines like silver! I never saw such damask as this."
"'Tis something rare, miss, I do be told," Elizabeth replied.
"Mr. Montfort brought them towels back from Germany, three years ago, because he thought they would please his aunt, and they did, dear lady. Hand spun and wove they are, she said; and there's only one place where they make this weave and this pattern. See, Miss Margaret! 'Tis roses, coming out of a little loaf of bread like; and there was a story about it, some saint, but I don't rightly remember what. There! I have tried to remember that story, ever since Mis' Cheriton went, but it seems I can't."
"Oh, oh, it must be Saint Elizabeth of Hungary!" cried Margaret, bending in delight over the smooth silvery stuff. "Why, how perfectly enchanting!"
"Yes, miss, that's it!" cried Elizabeth, beaming with pleasure. "Saint Elizabeth it was; and maybe you'll know the story, Miss Margaret. I never like to ask Mr. Montfort, of course, but I should love dearly to hear it."
Margaret asked nothing better. She told the lovely story as well as she knew how, and before she had finished, Elizabeth's eyes as well as her own were full of tears. One of Elizabeth's tears even fell on the towel, and she cried out in horror, and wiped it away as if it had been a poison-spot, and laid the sacred damask back in its place. Margaret felt the moment given to her.
"Elizabeth," she said, "I want to ask you something. I want to ask if you will help me a little. Will you try?"
Elizabeth, surprised and pleased, vowed she would do all she could for Miss Margaret, in any way in her power.
"You can do a great deal!" said Margaret. "I—I am very young, Elizabeth, and—and you and Frances have been here a long time, and of course you know all about the work of the house, and I know nothing at all. And yet—and yet, I ought to be helping, it seems to me, and ought to be taking my place, and my share in the work. Do you see what I mean, Elizabeth? You and Frances could help me, oh, so much, if you would; and perhaps some day I might be able to help you too,—I don't know just how, yet, but it might come."
"Oh, miss, we will be so thankful!" cried Elizabeth. "Oh, miss, Frances and me, we'd been wishing and longing to have you speak up and take your place, if I may say so. We didn't like to put ourselves forward, and we've no orders from Mr. Montfort, except to do whatever you said; and so, when you'll say anything, Miss Margaret, we feel ever and ever so much better, Frances and me. And I'll be pleased to go all over the work with you, Miss Margaret, this very day, and show you just how I've always done it, and I think Mr. Montfort has been satisfied, and Mis' Cheriton was, Lord rest her! and you so young, and with so much else to do, as I said time and again to Frances, reading with Mr. Montfort and riding with him, and taking such an interest in the roses, as his own daughter couldn't make him happier if he had one. And of course it's nature that you haven't had no time yet to take much notice, but it makes it twice as easy for servants, Miss Margaret, where an interest is took; and I'm thankful to you, I'm sure, and so will Frances be, and you'll find her closets a pleasure to look at."
Elizabeth stopped to draw breath, and Margaret looked at her in wonder and self-reproach. The grave, staid woman was all alight with pleasure and the prospect of sympathy. It came over Margaret that, comfortable and homelike as their life at Fernley was, it was not perhaps exactly thrilling.
"We will be friends, Elizabeth!" she said, simply; and the two shook hands, with an earnestness that meant something. "And you are to come to me, please, whenever there is anything that needs attention, Elizabeth, and I will do my best, and ask your advice about anything I don't understand. Don't—don't we—need some new napkins, Elizabeth?"
Elizabeth was eloquent as to their need of napkins. In a couple of washes more, there would be nothing but holes left to wipe their hands on.
"Then I'll order some this very day," said Margaret. "Or better still, I'll go to town with Uncle John to-morrow, and get them myself. And now, Elizabeth, I am going down to see Frances, and—and perhaps—do you think she would like it if I ordered dinner, Elizabeth?"
"Miss Margaret, she'd be pleased to death!" cried Elizabeth.
Returning from the kitchen an hour later, a sadder and a wiser girl (for Frances's perfection seemed unattainable by ordinary mortals, even with the aid of Sapolio), Margaret heard the sound of wheels on the gravel outside. Glancing through the window of the long passage through which she was going, she saw, to her amazement, a carriage standing at the door, a carriage that had evidently come some way, for it was covered with dust. The driver was taking down a couple of trunks, and beside the carriage stood a lady, with her purse in her hand.
"I shall give you two dollars!" the lady was saying, in a thin, sharp voice. "I consider that ample for the distance you have come."
"I told the gentleman it would be three dollars, mum!" said the man, civilly, touching his hat. "Three dollars is the regular price, with one trunk, and these trunks is mortal heavy. The gentleman said as it would be all right, mum."
"The gentleman knew nothing whatever about it," said the sharp-voiced lady. "I shall give you two dollars, and not a penny more. I have always paid two dollars to drive to Fernley, and I have no idea of being cheated now, I assure you."
The man was still grumbling, when Elizabeth opened the door. She looked grave, but greeted the newcomer with a respectful curtsey.
"Oh, how do you do, Elizabeth!" said the strange lady. "How is Mr. Montfort?"
"Mr. Montfort is very well, thank you, mum!" said Elizabeth. "He is in town, mum. He'll hardly be back before evening. Would you like to see Miss Montfort?"
"Miss Montfort? Oh, the little girl who is staying here. You needn't trouble to call her just now, Elizabeth. Send for Willis, will you, and have him take my trunks in; I have come to stay. He may put them in the White Rooms."
"I—I beg pardon, mum!" faltered Elizabeth. "In the Blue Room, did you say? The Blue Room has been new done over, and that is where we have put visitors lately."
"Nothing of the sort!" said the lady, sharply. "I said the White Rooms; Mrs. Cheriton's rooms."
Margaret stayed to hear no more. A stranger in the White Rooms! Aunt Faith's rooms, which she could not bear to occupy herself, though her uncle had urged her to do so? And such a stranger as this, with such a voice,—and such a nose! Never! never, while there was breath to pant with, while there were feet to run with!
Never but once in her life had Margaret Montfort run as she did now; that once was when she flew up the secret staircase to save her cousin from burning. In a flash she was in her own room—what had been her room!—gathering things frantically in her arms, snatching books from the table, dresses from the closets. Down the back stairs she ran like a whirlwind; down, and up, and down again. Had the girl gone suddenly mad?
Ten minutes later, when Elizabeth, her eyes smarting with angry tears, opened the door of the White Parlour,—Willis the choreman behind her, grunting and growling, with a trunk on his shoulder,—a young lady was sitting in the great white armchair, quietly reading. The young lady's cheeks were crimson, her eyes were sparkling, and her breath came in short, quick gasps, which showed that what she was reading must be very exciting; what made it the more curious was that the book was upside down. But she was entirely composed, and evidently surprised at the sudden intrusion.
"What is it, Elizabeth?" asked Margaret, quietly.
"I—I—I beg your pardon, Miss Montfort!" said Elizabeth, whose eyes were beginning to brighten, too, and her lips to twitch dangerously. "I—I didn't know, miss, as you had—moved in yet. Here is Miss Sophronia Montfort, miss, as perhaps you would like to see her."
The strange lady was already glaring over Willis's shoulder.
"What is this?" she said. "What does this mean? These rooms are not occupied; I was positively told they were not occupied. There must be some mistake. Willis—"
"Yes, there is a mistake!" said Margaret, coming forward, and holding out her hand with a smile. "Is this Cousin Sophronia? I am Margaret, Cousin Sophronia. Uncle John asked me to take these rooms, and I—I feel quite at home in them already. Would you like the Pink, or the Blue Room? They are both ready, aren't they, Elizabeth?"
"Yes, Miss Montfort," said Elizabeth, "quite ready."
The strange lady's eyes glared wider and wider; her chest heaved; she seemed about to break out in a torrent of angry speech; but making a visible effort, she controlled herself. "How do you do, my—my dear?" she said, taking Margaret's offered hand, and giving it a little pinch with the tips of her fingers. "I—a little misunderstanding, no doubt. Willis,—the Blue Room,—for the present!" But Willis was suffering from a sudden and violent fit of coughing, which shook his whole frame, and made it necessary for him to rest his trunk against the wall and lean against it, with his head down; so that it was fully five minutes before Miss Sophronia Montfort's trunk got up to the Blue Room.
When Mr. Montfort came home that afternoon, Margaret was waiting for him, as usual, on the verandah; as usual, for she was determined to keep the worry out of her face and out of her voice. But as her uncle came up the steps, with his cheery "Well! and how's my lassie?" he was confronted by Miss Sophronia Montfort, who, passing Margaret swiftly, advanced with both hands held out, and a beaming smile.
"My dearest John! my poor, dear fellow! Confess that I have surprised you. Confess it, John!—you did not expect to see me."
"Sophronia!" exclaimed Mr. Montfort. He stood still and contemplated the visitor for a moment; then he shook hands with her, rather formally.
"You certainly have surprised me, Sophronia!" he said, kindly enough. "What wind has blown you in this direction?"
"The wind of affection, my dear boy!" cried the strange lady. "I have been planning it, ever since I heard of Aunt Faith's death. Dearest Aunt Faith! What a loss, John! what an irreparable loss! I shall never recover from the shock. The moment I heard of it, I said—William would tell you, if he were here—I said, 'I must go to John! He will need me now,' I said, 'and go I must.' I explained to William that I felt it as a solemn duty. He took it beautifully, poor, dear fellow. I don't know how they will get on without me, for his wife is sadly heedless, John, and the children need a steady hand, they do indeed. But he did not try to keep me back; indeed, he urged me to come, which showed such a beautiful spirit, didn't it? And so here I am, my dearest boy, come to take Aunt Faith's place, and make a home for you, my poor lonely cousin. You know I have always loved you as a sister, John, and you must consider me a real sister now; sister Sophronia, dear John!"
The lady paused for breath, and gazed tenderly on Mr. Montfort; that gentleman returned her gaze with one of steady gravity.
"I shall be glad to have a visit from you, Sophronia," he said. "I have no doubt we can make you comfortable for a few weeks; I can hardly suppose that William can spare you longer than that. We have no children here to need your—your ministrations."
The lady shook her head playfully; she had thin curls of a grayish yellow, which almost rattled when she shook her head.
"Always self-denying, John!" she cried. "The same unselfish, good, sterling fellow! But I understand, my friend; I know how it really is, and I shall do my duty, and stand by you; depend upon that! And this dear child, too!" she added, turning to Margaret and taking her hand affectionately. "So young, so unexperienced! and to be attempting the care of a house like Fernley! How could you think of it, John? But we will make that all right. I shall be—we can hardly say a mother, can we, my dear? but an elder sister, to you, too. Oh, we shall be very happy, I am sure. The drawing-room carpets are looking very shabby, John. I am ready to go over the dear old house from top to bottom, and make it over new; of course you did not feel like making any changes while dear Aunt Faith was with you. Such a mistake, I always say, to shake the aged out of their ruts. Yes! so wise of you! and who is in the neighbourhood, John?"
"I hardly know," said Mr. Montfort. "You know I live rather a hermit life, Sophronia. Mrs. Peyton is here; I believe you are fond of her."
"Sweet Emily Peyton!" exclaimed Miss Sophronia, with enthusiasm. "Is that exquisite creature here? That will indeed be a pleasure. Ah, John, she should never have been Emily Peyton; you know my opinion on that point." She nodded her head several times, with an air of mysterious understanding. "And widowed, after all, and once more alone in the world. How does she bear her sorrow, John?"
"I have not seen her," said Mr. Montfort, rather shortly. "From what I hear, she seems to bear it with considerable fortitude. Perhaps you forget that it is fully ten years since Mr. Peyton died, Sophronia. But Margaret here can tell you more than I can about Mrs. Peyton; she goes to see her now and then. Mrs. Peyton is something of an invalid, and likes to have her come."
"Indeed!" cried Miss Sophronia. "I should hardly have fancied—Emily Peyton was always so mature in her thought, so critical in her observations; but no doubt she is lonely, and glad of any society; and sweet Margaret is most sympathetic, I am sure. Sympathy, my dear John! how could we live without it, my poor dear fellow?"
"I am going to walk," said Mr. Montfort, abruptly. "Margaret, will you come? Sophronia, you will be glad of a chance to rest; you must be tired after your long drive."
"This once, yes, dearest John!" said the lady. "This once you must go without me. I am tired,—so thoughtful of you to notice it! There is no sofa in the Blue Room, but I shall do very well there for a few days. Don't have me on your mind in the least, my dear cousin; I shall soon be absolutely at home. Enjoy your walk, both of you! After to-day, I shall always be with you, I hope. I ordered tea an hour earlier, as I dined early, and I knew you would not mind. Good-bye!" and the lady nodded, and smiled herself into the house.
Margaret went for her hat in silence, and in silence she and her uncle walked along. Mr. Montfort was smoking, not in his usual calm and dignified manner, but in short, fierce puffs; smoking fast and violently. Margaret did not dare to speak, and they walked a mile or more without exchanging a word.
"Margaret," said her uncle, at last.
"Yes, Uncle John."
"Not in the least, my dear!"
"No, Uncle John."
They walked another mile, and presently stopped at the top of a breezy hill, to draw breath, and look about them. The sun was going down in a cheerful blaze; the whole country smiled, and was glad of its own beauty. Mr. Montfort gazed about him, and heaved a long sigh of content.
"Pretty! Pretty country!" he said. "Spreading fields, quiet woods, sky over all, undisturbed. Yes! You are very silent, my dear. Have I been silent, too, or have I been talking?"
"What a curious question!" thought Margaret.
"You—you have not said much, Uncle John," she replied.
"Well, my love, that may be because there isn't much to say. Some situations, Margaret, are best met in silence."
Margaret nodded. She knew her uncle's ways pretty well by this time.
"And yet," continued Mr. Montfort, "it may be well to have just a word of understanding with you, my dear child. Sophronia Montfort is my own cousin, my first cousin."
"Yes, Uncle John," said Margaret, as he seemed to pause for a reply.
"Ri tumpty,—that is to say, there is no gainsaying that fact,—my own cousin. And by natural consequence, Margaret, the own cousin of your father, and by further consequence, your first cousin once removed. It is—a—it is many years since she has been at Fernley; we must try to make her comfortable during the time—the short time—she is with us. You have put her in the Blue Room; that is comfortable, is it, and properly fitted up,—all the modern inconveniences and abominations, eh?"
Mr. Montfort's own room had a bare floor, a bed, a table, a chest of drawers, and a pitcher and basin and bath that might have been made for Cormoran or Blunderbore, whichever was the bigger.
"Everything, I think, uncle," faltered Margaret, turning crimson, and beginning to tremble. "Oh! Oh, Uncle John! I have something to tell you. I—I don't know how to tell you."
"Don't try, then, my dear," said Uncle John, in his own kind way. "Perhaps it isn't necessary."
"Oh, yes, it is necessary. I shall have no peace till I do, uncle,—you remember you asked me to take the White Rooms; you surely asked me, didn't you?"
"Surely, my child," said Mr. Montfort, wondering much. "But I wished you to do as you pleased, you know."
"Yes! Oh, uncle, that was it! When Cousin Sophronia came, she—she told Elizabeth to have her trunks carried into the White Rooms."
"So!" said Mr. Montfort.
"Yes, uncle! I was in the passage, and heard her give the order, and I—I could not bear it, Uncle John, I could not, indeed. I flew up-stairs, and brought down some of my things,—all I could carry in two trips,—and, when they came in with the trunk, I—I was sitting there, and—and wondering why they came into my room. Uncle John, do you see? Was it very, very wicked?"
For all reply, Mr. Montfort went off into a fit of laughter so prolonged and violent, that Margaret, who at first tried to join in timidly, became alarmed for him. "Ho! ho! ho!" he laughed, throwing his head back, and expanding his broad chest. "Ha! ha! ha! so you—ho! ho!—you got in first, little miss! Why wasn't I there to see? Oh, why wasn't I there? I would give a farm, a good farm, to have seen Sophronia's face. Tell me about it again, Margaret. Tell me slowly, so that I may see it all. You have a knack of description, I know; show me the scene."
Slowly, half frightened, and wholly relieved, Margaret went through the matter from beginning to end, making as light as she could of her own triumph, of which she really felt ashamed, pleased as she was to have achieved it. When she had finished, her uncle sat down under a tree, and laughed again; not so violently, but with a hearty enjoyment that took in every detail.
"And Willis had a fit of coughing!" he exclaimed, when Margaret had come to the last word. "Poor Willis! Willis must see a doctor at once. Consumptive, no doubt; and concealed under such a deceptive appearance of brawn! Ho! Margaret, my dear, I feel better, much better. You have cleared the air for me, my child."
"You—are not angry, then, Uncle John? You don't think I ought to have put Cousin Sophronia in the rooms?"
"My love, they should have been burned to the ground sooner. There was only one person in the world whom your Aunt Faith could not endure, and that person was Sophronia Montfort. You did perfectly right, Margaret; more right than you knew. If she had got into the White Rooms, I should have been under the necessity of taking her forcibly out of them (nothing short of force could have done it), and that would have created an unpleasantness, you see. Yes! Thank you, my dear little girl! I feel quite myself again. We shall worry through, somehow; but remember, Margaret, that you are the mistress of Fernley, and, if you have any trouble, come to me. And now, my love, we must go home to tea!"
When the gong rang for tea, Margaret and her uncle entered the dining-room together—to find Cousin Sophronia already seated at the head of the table, rattling the teacups with intention.
"Well, my dears!" she cried, in sprightly tones. "You walked further than you intended, did you not? I should not have sat down without you, but I was simply famished. I always think punctuality such an important factor in the economy of life. It is high time you had some steady head to look after you, John!" and she shook her head in affectionate playfulness. "Sit down, John!"
Mr. Montfort did not sit down.
"I am sorry you were hungry, Sophronia," he said, kindly. "I cannot think of letting you wait to pour tea for me, my dear cousin. Margaret does that always; you are to sit here by me, and begin at once upon your own supper. Allow me!"
Margaret hardly knew how it was done. There was a bow, a courtly wave of the hand, a movement of chairs; and her own place was vacant, and Cousin Sophronia was sitting at the side place, very red in the face, her eyes snapping out little green lights; and Uncle John was bending over her with cordial kindness, pushing her chair in a little further, and lifting the train of her dress out of the way. With downcast eyes, Margaret took her place, and poured the tea in silence. She felt as if a weight were on her eyelids; she could not lift her eyes; she could not speak, and yet she must. She shook herself, and made a great effort.
"How do you like your tea, Cousin Sophronia?" she asked, in a voice that tried to sound cheerful and unconcerned. And, when she had spoken, she managed, with another effort, to look up. Cousin Sophronia was smiling and composed, and met her timid glance with an affectionate nod.
"Weak, my dear, if you please,—weak, with cream and sugar. Yes,—that will be excellent, I have no doubt. I have to be a little exact about my tea, my nerves being what they are. The nights I have, if my tea is not precisely the right shade! It seems absurd, but life is made up of little things, my dear John. And very right and wise, to have the dear child learn to do these things, and practise on us, even if it is a little trying at first. Is that the beef tea, Elizabeth? Thank you. I told Frances to make me some beef tea, John; I knew hers could be depended on, though I suppose she has grown rusty in a good many ways, with this hermit life of yours,—so bad for a cook, I always think. Yes, this is fair, but not quite what I should have expected from Frances. I must see her in the morning, and give her a good rousing; we all need a good rousing once in awhile. Frances and I have always been the best of friends; we shall get on perfectly, I have no doubt. Ah! The old silver looks well, John. Where did that sugar-bowl come from? Is it Montfort, or Paston? Paston, I fancy! The Montfort silver is heavier, eh?"
"Possibly!" said Mr. Montfort. "That sugar-bowl is neither one nor the other, however. It is Dutch."
"Really! Vanderdecken? I didn't know you had any Vanderdecken silver, John. Grandmother Vanderdecken left all her silver, I thought, to our branch. Such a mistake, I always think, to scatter family silver. Let each branch have all that belongs to it, I always say. I feel very strongly about it."
"This is not Vanderdecken," said Mr. Montfort, patiently. "I bought it in Amsterdam."
"Oh! in Amsterdam! indeed! boughten silver never appeals to me. And speaking of silver, I have wished for years that I could find a trace of the old Vanderdecken porringer. You remember it, surely, John, at Grandmother Vanderdecken's? She had her plum porridge in it every night, and I used to play with the cow on the cover. I have tried and tried to trace it, but have never succeeded. Stolen, I fear, by some dishonest servant."
"I beg your pardon, Cousin Sophronia," said Margaret, blushing. "I have the old Vanderdecken porringer, if it is the one with the cow on the cover."
"You!" cried Miss Sophronia, opening her eyes to their fullest extent.
"Yes," Margaret replied. "There it is, on the sideboard. I have eaten bread and milk out of it ever since I can remember, and I still use it at breakfast."
Speechless for the moment, Miss Sophronia made an imperious sign to Elizabeth, who brought her the beautiful old dish, not without a glance of conscious pride at the wonderful blue polish on it. There was no piece of plate in the house that took so perfect a polish as this.
Miss Sophronia turned it over and over. Her eyes were very green. "Margaret Bleecker. On the occasion of her christening, from her godmother," she read. "Yes, this is certainly the Vanderdecken porringer. And may I ask how you came by it, my dear?"
"Certainly, Cousin Sophronia. Aunt Eliza Vanderdecken gave it to me at my christening; she was my godmother, you see."
"A most extraordinary thing for Eliza Vanderdecken to do!" cried the lady. "Eliza Vanderdecken knew, of course, that she was meant to have but a life-interest in the personal property, as she never married. I cannot understand Eliza's doing such a thing. I have longed all my life for this porringer; I have associations with it, you see, lifelong associations. I remember my Grandmother Vanderdecken distinctly; you never saw her, of course, as she died years before you were born."
"Yes," said Margaret, gently, but not without intention. "And I, Cousin Sophronia, associate it with Aunt Eliza, whom I remember distinctly, and who was my godmother, and very kind to me. I value this porringer more than almost any of my possessions. Thank you, Elizabeth; if you would put it back, please. Will you have some more tea, Cousin Sophronia?"
"Let me give you another bit of chicken, Sophronia!" said Mr. Montfort, heartily. "I think we have had enough about porringers, haven't we? There are six or seven, I believe, in the strong closet. One of 'em was Adam's, I've always been told. A little gravy, Sophronia? You're eating nothing."
"I have no appetite!" said Miss Sophronia. "You know I only eat to support life, John. A side-bone, then, if you insist, and a tiny bit of the breast. William always says, 'You must live,' and I suppose I must. Cranberry sauce! Thank you! I am really too exhausted to enjoy a morsel, but I will make an effort. We can do what we try to do, I always say. Thank you, dearest John. I dare say I shall be better to-morrow."
THE TRIALS OF MARGARET.
Margaret woke early the next morning, and lay wondering where she was. Her eyes were used to opening on rose-flowered walls and mahogany bed-posts. Here all was soft and white, no spot of colour anywhere. She came to herself with a start, and yesterday with its happenings came back to her. She sighed, and a little worried wrinkle came on her smooth forehead. What a change, in a few short hours! Was all their peaceful, dreamy life over, the life that suited both her and her uncle so absolutely? They had been so happy! Was it over indeed? It seemed at first as if she could not get up and face the cares of the day, under the new conditions. Indolent by nature, Margaret dreaded change, and above change unpleasantness; it seemed as if she might have plenty of both. She rose and dressed in a despondent mood; but when her hair was pinned up and her collar straight, she took herself to task. "I give you three minutes!" she said, looking at herself in the glass. "If you can't look cheerful by that time, you can go to bed again."
The threat, or something else, carried the point, for it was an entirely cheerful young woman who came into the library, with a rose for Uncle John's buttonhole. Miss Montfort was already there, and responded with sad sprightliness to Margaret's greeting. "Thank you, my dear! I was just telling your uncle, it is a mere matter of form to ask if I have slept. I seldom sleep, especially if I am up-stairs. The servants over my head, it may be,—or if not that, I have the feeling of insecurity,—stairs, you understand, in case of fire. Dear William had my rooms fitted up on the ground floor. 'Sophronia,' he said, 'you must sleep!' I suppose it is necessary, but I am so used to lying awake. Such frightful noises in the walls, my dear John! Rats, I suppose? Has the wainscoting been examined lately, in the room you have put me in? Not that it matters in the least; I am the person in the world most easily suited, I suppose. A cot, a corner, a crust, as William says, and I am satisfied."
It took several crusts to satisfy Miss Sophronia at breakfast. Afterwards she sallied out into the garden, where Mr. Montfort was enjoying his morning cigar, with Margaret at his side. "You dear child," said the sprightly lady, "run now and amuse yourself, or attend to any little duties you may have set yourself. So important, I always say, for the young to be regular in everything they do. I am sure you agree with me, dearest John. I will be your uncle's companion, my love; that is my duty and my pleasure now. I must see your roses, John! No one in the world loves roses as I do. What do you use for them? I have a recipe for an infallible wash; I must give it to you, I must indeed."
Margaret went into the house; there was no place for her, for the lady was leaning on Mr. Montfort's arm, chattering gaily in his ear. Margaret was conscious of an unpleasant sensation which was entirely new to her. She had always been with people she liked. Rita had often distressed her, but still she was most lovable, with all her faults. Cousin Sophronia was—not—lovable, the girl said to herself.
It was a relief to visit the kitchen, and find Frances beaming over her bread-pan. The good woman hailed Margaret with delight, and received her timid suggestions as to dinner with enthusiasm.
"Yes, Miss Margaret, I do think as a chicken-pie would be the very thing. I've a couple of fowl in the house now, and what would you think of putting in a bit of ham, miss?"
"Oh!" said Margaret. "Is that what you usually do, Frances? Then I am sure it will be just right. And about a pudding; what do you think, Frances? You know so many kinds of puddings, and they are all so good!"
Well, Frances had been thinking that if Miss Margaret should fancy apple-fritters, Mr. Montfort was fond of them, and they had not had them this month. And lemon-juice with them, or a little sugar and wine; which did Miss Margaret think would be best? This was a delightful way of keeping house; and after praising the bread, which was rising white and light in the great pan, and poking the bubbles with her little finger, and begging that she might be allowed to mix it some day soon, Margaret went back in a better humour to the White Rooms, and sat down resolutely to her buttonholes. There would be no walk this morning, evidently; well, when she had done her hour's stint, she would go for a little stroll by herself. After all, perhaps Uncle John would, when the strangeness had worn off a little, enjoy having some one of his own age to talk to; of course she was very young, too young to be much of a companion. Still,—
Well, she would be cheerful and patient, and try to make things pleasant so far as she could. And now she could only go and wish Uncle John good-bye when he started for town, and perhaps walk to the station with him, if he was going to walk.
While she sat sewing, glancing at the clock from time to time, Cousin Sophronia came in, work-bag in hand.
"He is gone!" she said, cheerfully. "I saw him off at the gate. Dearest John! Excellent, sterling John Montfort! Such a pleasure to be with him! Such a joy to feel that I can make a home for him!"
"Gone!" echoed Margaret, looking up in dismay. "Why, surely it is not train time!"
"An early train, my love," the lady explained. "Your dear uncle felt obliged to start an hour earlier than usual, he explained to me. These busy men! And how are you occupying yourself, my dear? Ah! buttonholes? Most necessary! But, my love, you are working these the wrong way!"
"No, I think not," said Margaret. "This is the way I have always made them, Cousin Sophronia."
"Wrong, my dear! Quite wrong, I assure you. Impossible to get a smooth edge if you work them that way. Let me—h'm! yes! that is fairly even, I confess; but the other way is the correct one, you must take my word for it; and I will show you how, with pleasure. So important, I always say, to do things just as they should be done!"
In vain Margaret protested that she understood the other way, but preferred this. She finally, for quiet's sake, yielded, and pricked her fingers, and made herself hot and cross, working the wrong way.
Miss Sophronia next began to cross-question her about Mrs. Cheriton's last days. Such a saintly woman! Austere, some thought; perhaps not always charitable—
"Oh!" cried Margaret, indignant. "Cousin Sophronia, you cannot have known Aunt Faith at all. She was the very soul of charity; and as for being austere—but it is evident you did not know her." She tried to keep down her rising temper, with thoughts of the sweet, serene eyes that had never met hers without a look of love.
"I knew her before you were born, my dear!" said Miss Sophronia, with a slightly acid smile. "Oh, yes, I was intimately acquainted with dear Aunt Faith. I have never thought it right to be blind to people's little failings, no matter how much we love them. I always tell my brother William, 'William, do not ask me to be blind! Ask me, expect me, to be indulgent, to be devoted, to be self-sacrificing,—but not blind; blindness is contrary to my nature, and you must not expect it.' Yes! And—what was done with the clothes, my dear?"
"The clothes?" echoed Margaret. "Aunt Faith's clothes, do you mean, Cousin Sophronia?"
"No. I meant the Montfort clothes; the heirlooms, my dear. But perhaps you never saw them?"
"Oh, yes, I have seen them often," said Margaret. "They are in the cedar chest, Cousin Sophronia, where they have always been. It is in the deep closet there," she nodded towards an alcove at the other end of the room.
Miss Sophronia rose with alacrity. "Ah! I think I will look them over. Very valuable, some of those clothes are; quite unsuitable, I have thought for some years, to have them under the charge of an aged person, who could not in the course of nature be expected to see to them properly. I fear I shall find them in a sad condition."
Her hand was already on the door, when Margaret was able to speak. "Excuse me, Cousin Sophronia; the chest is locked."
"Very proper! Entirely proper!" cried the lady. "And you have the key? That will not do, will it, my love? Too heavy for these dear young shoulders, such a weight of responsibility! I will take entire charge of this; not a word! It will be a pleasure! Where is the key, did you say, love?"
"Uncle John has the key!" said Margaret, quietly; and blamed herself severely for the pleasure she felt in saying it.
"Oh!" Miss Montfort paused, her hand on the door; for a moment she seemed at a loss; but she went on again.
"Right, Margaret! Very right, my love! You felt yourself, or your uncle felt for you, the unfitness of your having charge of such valuables. Ahem! I—no doubt dear John will give me the key, as soon as I mention it. I—I shall not speak of it at once; there is no hurry—except for the danger of moth. An old house like Fernley is always riddled with moth. I fear the clothes must be quite eaten away with them. Such a sad pity! The accumulation of generations!"
Margaret hastened to assure her that the clothes were looked over regularly once a month, and that no sign of moths had ever been found in them. Miss Sophronia sighed and shook her head, and crocheted for some minutes in silence; she was making a brown and yellow shoulder-shawl. Margaret thought she had never seen a shawl so ugly.
"Has Cousin William Montfort any daughters?" she asked, presently, thinking it her turn to bear some of the burden of entertainment.
"Four, my dear!" was the prompt reply. "Sweet girls! young, heedless, perhaps not always considerate; but the sweetest girls in the world. Amelia is just your age; what a companion she would be for you! Dear Margaret! I must write to William, I positively must, and suggest his asking you for a good long visit. Such a pleasure for you and for Amelia! Not a word, my dear! I shall consider it a duty, a positive duty! Amelia is thought to resemble me in many ways; she is the image of what I was at her age. I am forming her; her mother is something of an invalid, as I think I have told you. The older girls are away from home just now,—they make a good many visits; I am always there, and they feel that they can go. If they were at home, I should beg dear John Montfort to invite Amelia here; such a pleasure for him, to have young life in the house. But as it is, William must ask you. Consider it settled, my love. A—what was done with Aunt Faith's jewels, my dear? She had some fine pearls, I remember. Vanderdecken pearls they were originally; I should hardly suppose Aunt Faith would have felt that she had more than a life interest in them. And the great amethyst necklace; did she ever show you her jewels, my love?"
Margaret blushed, and braced herself to meet the shock. "I have them, Cousin Sophronia!" she said, meekly. "Aunt Faith wanted me to have all her jewels, and she gave them to me before—before she died." Her voice failed, and the tears rushed to her eyes. She was thinking of the frail, white-clad figure bending over the ancient jewel-box, and taking out the pearls. She heard the soft voice saying, "Your great-grandmother's pearls, my Margaret; they are yours now. Wear them for me, and let me have the pleasure of seeing them on your neck. You are my pearl, Margaret; the only pearl I care for now." Dear, dearest Aunt Faith. Why was she not here?
Before Miss Sophronia could recover her power of speech, a knock came at the door.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Margaret!" said Elizabeth, putting her head in, in answer to Margaret's "Come in!" "The butcher is here, miss, and Frances thought perhaps, would you come out and see him, miss?"
"Certainly!" said Margaret, rising; but Miss Sophronia was too quick for her.
"In a moment!" she cried, cheerfully. "Tell Frances I will be there in a moment, Elizabeth! Altogether too much for you, dear Margaret, to have so much care. I cannot have too much care! It is what I live for; give the household matters no further thought, I beg of you. You might be setting your bureau drawers in order, if you like, while I am seeing the butcher; I always look over Amelia's drawers once a week—"
She glided away, leaving Margaret white with anger. How was she to endure this? She was nearly eighteen; she had taken care of herself ever since she was seven, and had attained, or so she fancied, perfection, in the matter of bureau-drawers, at the age of twelve. To have her precious arrangements looked over, her boxes opened, her—oh, there could be, there was no reason why she should submit to this! She locked the drawers quietly, one after the other, and put the key in her pocket. She would be respectful; she would be civil always, and cordial when she could, but she would not be imposed upon.
By the time Miss Sophronia came back, Margaret was composed, and greeted her cousin with a pleasant smile; but this time it was the lady who was agitated. She came hurrying in, her face red, her air perturbed. "Insufferable!" she cried, as soon as the door was closed. "Margaret, that woman is insufferable! She must leave at once."
"Woman! what woman, Cousin Sophronia?" asked Margaret, looking up in amazement.
"That Frances! She—why, she is impertinent, Margaret. She insulted me; insulted me grossly. I shall speak to John Montfort directly he returns. She must go; I cannot stay in the house with her."
Go! Frances, who had been at Fernley twenty years; for whom the new kitchen, now only fifteen years old, had been planned and arranged! Margaret was struck dumb for a moment; but recovering herself, she tried to soothe the angry lady, assuring her that Frances could not have meant to be disrespectful; that she had a quick temper, but was so good and faithful, and so attached to Uncle John; and so on. In another moment, to her great discomfiture, Miss Sophronia burst into tears, declared that she was alone in the world, that no one loved her or wanted her, and that she was the most unhappy of women. Filled with remorseful pity, Margaret bent over her, begging her not to cry. She brought a smelling-bottle, and Miss Sophronia clutched it, sobbing, and told Margaret she was an angelic child. "This—this is—a Vanderdecken vinaigrette!" she said, between her sobs. "Did Eliza Vanderdecken give you this, too? Very singular of Eliza! But she never had any sense of fitness. Thank you my dear! I suffer—no living creature knows what I suffer with my nerves. I—shall be better soon. Don't mind anything I said; I must suffer, but it shall always be in silence, I always maintain that. No one shall know; I never speak of it; I am the grave, for silence. Do not—do not tell your uncle, Margaret, how you have seen me suffer. Do not betray my momentary weakness!"
"Certainly not!" said Margaret, heartily. "I will not say a word, Cousin Sophronia, of course!"
"He would wish to know!" said Miss Sophronia, smothering a sob into a sigh. "John Montfort would be furious if he thought I was ill-treated, and we were concealing it from him. He is a lion when once roused. Ah! I should be sorry for that woman. But forgiveness is a duty, my dear, and I forgive. See! I am myself again. Quite—" with a hysterical giggle—"quite myself! I—I will take the vinaigrette to my room with me, I think, my dear. Thank you! Dear Margaret! cherub child! how you have comforted me!" She went, and Margaret heard her sniffing along the entry; heard, and told herself she had no business to notice such things; and went back rather ruefully to her buttonholes.
A NEW TYPE.
"My child, I thought you were never coming again!" said Mrs. Peyton. "Do you know that it is a week since I have seen you? I have been destroyed,—positively destroyed, with solitude."
"I am so sorry," said Margaret. "I could not come before; truly I could not, Mrs. Peyton. And how have you been?"
Mrs. Peyton leaned back on her pillows, with a little laugh. "Who cares how I have been?" she said, lightly. "What does it matter how I have been? Tell me some news, Margaret. I must have news. You are alive, you move, and have your being; tell me something that will make me feel alive, too."
Margaret looked at the lady, and thought she looked very much alive. She was a vision of rose colour, from the silk jacket fluttering with ribbons, to the pink satin that shimmered through the lace bed-spread. The rosy colour almost tinted her cheeks, which were generally the hue of warm ivory. Her hair, like crisped threads of gold, was brought down low on her forehead, hiding any lines that might have been seen there; it was crowned by a bit of cobweb lace, that seemed too slight to support the pink ribbon that held it together. The lady's hands were small, and exquisitely formed, and she wore several rings of great value; her eyes were blue and limpid, her features delicate and regular. Evidently, this had been a great beauty. To Margaret, gazing at her in honest admiration, she was still one of the most beautiful creatures that could be seen.
Mrs. Peyton laughed under the girl's simple look of pleasure. "You like my new jacket?" she said. "The doctor never so much as noticed it this morning. I think I shall send him away, and get another, who has eyes in his head. You are the only person who really cares for my clothes, Margaret, and they are the only interest I have in the world."
"I wish you wouldn't talk so!" said Margaret, colouring. "You don't mean it, and why will you say it?"
"I do mean it!" said the beautiful lady. "I mean every word of it. There's nothing else to care for, except you, you dear little old-fashioned thing. I like you, because you are quaint and truthful. Have you seen my pink pearl? You are not half observant, that's the trouble with you, Margaret Montfort."
She held out her slender hand; Margaret took it, and bent over it affectionately. "Oh, what a beautiful ring!" she cried. "I never saw a pink pearl like this before, Mrs. Peyton, so brilliant, and such a deep rose colour. Isn't it very wonderful?"
"The jeweller thought so," said Mrs. Peyton. "He asked enough for it; it might have been the companion to Cleopatra's. The opal setting is pretty, too, don't you think? And I have some new stones. You will like to see those."
She took up a small bag of chamois leather, that lay on the bed beside her, opened it, and a handful of precious stones rolled out on the lace spread. Margaret caught after one and another in alarm. "Oh! Oh, Mrs. Peyton, they frighten me! Why, this diamond—I never saw such a diamond. It's as big as a pea."
"Imperfect!" said the lady. "A flaw in it, you see; but the colour is good, and it does just as well for a plaything, though I don't like flawed things, as a rule. This sapphire is a good one,—deep, you see; I like a deep sapphire."
"This light one is nearer your eyes," said Margaret, taking up a lovely clear blue stone.
"Flatterer! People used to say that once; a long time ago. Heigh ho, Margaret, don't ever grow old! Take poison, or throw yourself out of the window, but don't grow old. It's a shocking thing to do."
Margaret looked at her friend with troubled, affectionate eyes, and laid her hand on the jewelled fingers.
"Oh, I mean it!" said the lady, with a pretty little grimace. "I mean it, Miss Puritan. See! Here's a pretty emerald. But you haven't told me the news. Mr. Montfort is well always?"
"Always!" said Margaret. "We—we have a visitor just now, Mrs. Peyton,—some one you know."
"Some one I know?" cried Mrs. Peyton. "I thought every one I knew was dead and buried. Who is it, child? Don't keep me in suspense. Can't you see that I am palpitating?"
She laughed, and looked so pretty, and so malicious, that Margaret wanted to kiss and to shake her at the same moment.
"It is a cousin of Uncle John's and of mine," she said; "Miss Sophronia Montfort."
"What!" cried Mrs. Peyton, sitting up in bed. "Sophronia Montfort? You are joking, Margaret."
Assured that Margaret was not joking, she fell back again on her pillows. "Sophronia Montfort!" she said, laughing softly. "I have not heard of her since the flood. How does John—how does Mr. Montfort endure it, Pussy? He was not always a patient man."
Margaret thought her uncle one of the most patient men she had ever seen.
"And how many men have you seen, little girl? Never mind! I will allow him all the qualities of the Patient Patriarch. He will need them all, if he is to have Sophronia long. I am sorry for you, Pussy! Come over as often as you can to see me. I am dull, but there are worse things than dullness."
This was not very encouraging.
"She—Cousin Sophronia—sent you a great many messages," Margaret said, timidly. "She—is very anxious to see you, Mrs. Peyton. She would like to come over some morning, and spend an hour with you."
"If she does, I'll poison her!" said Mrs. Peyton, promptly. "Don't look shocked, Margaret Montfort; I shall certainly do as I say. Sophronia comes here at peril of her life, and you may tell her so with my compliments."
Margaret sat silent and distressed, not knowing what to say. She had known very few people in her quiet life, and this beautiful lady, whom she admired greatly, also puzzled her sadly.
"I cannot tell her that, can I, dear Mrs. Peyton?" she said, at last. "I shall tell her that you are not well,—that is true, most certainly,—and that you do not feel able to see her."
"Tell her what you please," said Emily Peyton, laughing again. "If she comes, I shall poison her,—that is my first and last word. Tell her? Tell her that Emily Peyton is a wreck; that she lies here like a log, week after week, month after month, caring for nothing, no one caring for her, except a kind little girl, who is frightened at her wild talk. I might try the poison on myself first, Margaret; what do you think of that?" Then, seeing Margaret's white, shocked face, she laughed again, and fell to tossing the gems into the air, and catching them as they fell. "It would be a pity, though, just when I have got all these new playthings. Did you bring a book to read to me, little girl? I can't abide reading, but I like to hear your voice. You have something, I see it in your guilty face. Poetry, I'll be bound. Out with it, witch! You hope to bring me to a sense of the error of my ways. Why, I used to read poetry, Margaret, by the dozen yards. Byron,—does any one read Byron nowadays?"
"My father was fond of Byron," said Margaret. "He used to read me bits of 'Childe Harold' and the 'Corsair;' I liked them, and I always loved the 'Assyrian.' But—I thought you might like something bright and cheerful to-day, Mrs. Peyton, so I brought Austin Dobson. Are you fond of Dobson?"
"Never heard of him!" said the lady, carelessly. "Read whatever you like, child; your voice always soothes me. Will you come and be my companion, Margaret? Your uncle has Sophronia now; he cannot need you. Come to me! You shall have a thousand, two thousand dollars a year, and all the jewels you want. I'll have these set for you, if you like."
She seemed only half in earnest, and Margaret laughed. "You sent your last companion away, you know, Mrs. Peyton," she said. "I'm afraid I should not suit you, either."
"My dear, that woman ate apples! No one could endure that, you know. Ate—champed apples in my ears, and threw the cores into my grate. Positively, she smelt of apples all day long. I had to have the room fumigated when she left. A dreadful person! One of her front teeth was movable, too, and set me distracted every time she opened her mouth. Are you ever going to begin?"
Margaret read two or three of her favourite poems, but with little heart in her reading, for she felt that her listener was not listening. Now and then would come an impatient sigh, or a fretful movement of the jewelled hands; once a sapphire was tossed up in the air, and fell on the floor by Margaret's feet. Only when she began the lovely "Good Night, Babette!" did Mrs. Peyton's attention seem to fix. She listened quietly, and, at the end, drew a deep breath.
"You call that bright and cheerful, do you?" Mrs. Peyton murmured. "Everything looks cheerful in the morning. Good night,—"I grow so old,"—how dare you read me such a thing as that, Margaret Montfort? It is an impertinence."
"Indeed," said Margaret, colouring, and now really wounded. "I do not understand you at all to-day, Mrs. Peyton. I don't seem to be able to please you, and it is time for me to go."
She rose, and the lady, her mood changing again in an instant, took her two hands, and drew her close to her side.
"You are my only comfort," she said. "Do you hear that? You are the only person in this whole dreadful place that I would give the half of a burnt straw to see. Remember that, when I behave too abominably. Yes, go now, for I am going to have a bad turn. Send Antonia; and come again soon—soon, do you hear, Margaret? But remember—remember that the poison-bowl waits for Sophronia!"
"What—shall I give her any message?" said poor Margaret, as she bent to kiss the white forehead between the glittering waves of hair.
"Give her my malediction," said Mrs. Peyton. "Tell her it is almost a consolation for lying here, to think I need not see her. Tell her anything you like. Go now! Good-bye, child! Dear little quaint, funny, prim child, good-bye!"
* * * * *
Margaret walked home sadly enough. She loved and admired her beautiful friend, but she did not understand her, and there was much that she could not approve. It seemed absurd, she often said to herself, for a girl of her age to criticise, to venture to disapprove, of a woman old enough to be her mother, one who had travelled the world over, and knew plenty of human nature, if little of books. Yet, the thought would come again, there was no age to right and wrong; and there were things that it could not be right to think, or kind to say, at eighteen or at eighty. And her uncle did not like Mrs. Peyton. Margaret felt that, without his having ever put it into words. Still, she was so beautiful, so fascinating,—and so kind to her! Perhaps, unconsciously, Margaret did miss a good deal the two young cousins who had been with her during her first year at Fernley; surely, and every hour, she missed her Aunt Faith, whose tenderness had been that of the mother she had never known.
She was in no haste to go home; there was still an hour before Uncle John would come. There was little peace at home in these days, but a prying eye, and a tongue that was seldom still save in sleep. She had left Elizabeth in tears to-day, her precious linen having been pulled over, and all the creases changed because they ran the wrong way. In vain Margaret had reminded her of the heroine of the story she had liked so much, the angelic Elizabeth of Hungary. "It don't make much difference, Miss Margaret!" Elizabeth said. "I am no saint, miss, and all the roses in the world wouldn't make my table-cloths look fit to go on, now."
Frances was "neither to hold or to bind;" even the two young girls whom the elder women had in training were tossing their heads and muttering over their brasses and their saucepans. The apple of discord seemed to be rolling all about the once peaceful rooms of Fernley House. "I'll go home through the woods," said Margaret, "and see if they have begun work on the bog yet."
It was lovely in the woods. Margaret thought there could be no such woods in the world as these of Fernley. The pines were straight and tall, and there was little or no undergrowth; just clear, fragrant stretches of brown needles, where one could lie at length and look up into the whispering green, and watch the birds and squirrels. There was moss here and there; here and there, too, a bed of pale green ferns, delicate and plumy; but most of it was the soft red-brown carpet that Margaret loved better even than ferns. She walked slowly along, drinking in beauty and rest at every step. If she could only bring the sick lady out here, she thought, to breathe this life-giving air! Surely she would be better! She did not look ill enough to stay always in bed. They must try to bring it about.
She stopped at the little brook, and sat down on a mossy stone. The water was clear and brown, breaking into white over the pebbles here and there. How delightful it would be to take off her shoes and stockings, and paddle about a little! Peggy, her cousin, would have been in the water in an instant, very likely shoes and all; but Margaret was timid, and it required some resolution to pull off her shoes and stockings, and a good deal of glancing over her shoulder, to make sure that no one was in sight. Indeed, who could be? The water was cool; oh, so cool and fresh! She waded a little way; almost lost her balance on a slippery stone, and fled back to the bank, laughing and out of breath. A frog came up to look at her, and goggled in amazement; she flipped water at him with her hand, and he vanished indignant. It would be very pleasant to walk along the bed of the stream, as far as the entrance to the bog meadow. Could she venture so far? No, for after all, it was possible that some of the workmen might have arrived and might be in the neighbourhood, though they were not to begin work till the next day. Very slowly Margaret drew her feet out of the clear stream where they twinkled and looked so white,—Margaret had pretty feet,—but she could not make up her mind to put on the shoes and stockings just yet. She must dry her feet; and this moss was delightful to walk on. So on she went, treading lightly and carefully, finding every step a pure pleasure, till she saw sunlight breaking through the green, and knew that she was coming to the edge of the peat bog. Ah, what memories this place brought to Margaret's mind! She could see her cousin Rita, springing out in merry defiance over the treacherous green meadow; could hear her scream, and see her sinking deep, deep, into the dreadful blackness below. Then, like a flash, came Peggy from the wood, this very wood she was walking in now, and ran, and crept, and reached out, and by sheer strength and cleverness saved Rita from a dreadful death, while she, Margaret, stood helpless by. Dear, brave Peggy! Ah, dear girls both! How she would like to see them this moment. Why! Why, what was that?
Some one was whistling out there in the open. Whistling a lively, rollicking air, with a note as clear and strong as a bird's. Horror! The workmen must have come! Margaret was down on the grass in an instant, pulling desperately at her shoes and stockings. From the panic she was in, one might have thought that the woods were full of whistling brigands, all rushing in her direction, with murder in their hearts. She could hardly see; there was a knot in her shoe-string; why did she ever have shoes that tied? Her heart was beating, the blood throbbing in her ears,—and all the time the whistling went on, not coming nearer, but trilling away in perfect cheerfulness, though broken now and then, and coming in fits and starts. At last! At last the shoes were tied, and Margaret stood up, still panting and crimson, but feeling that she could face a robber, or even an innocent workman, without being disgraced for life. Cautiously she stole to the edge of the wood, and peeped between the pine-boles. The sun lay full on the peat bog, and it shone like a great, sunny emerald, friendly and smiling, with no hint of the black treachery at its heart. No hint? But look! Out in the very middle of the bog a figure was standing, balanced on a tussock of firm earth. A light, active figure, in blue jean jumper and overalls. One of the workmen, who did not know of the peril, and was plunging to his destruction? Margaret opened her lips to cry aloud, but kept silence, for the next moment she comprehended that the young man (he was evidently young, though his back was turned to her) knew well enough what he was about. He had a long pole in his hand, and with this he was poking and prodding about in the black depths beneath him. Now he sounded carefully a little way ahead of him, and then, placing his pole carefully on another firm spot, leaped to it lightly. The black bog water gurgled up about his feet, but he did not sink, only planted his feet more firmly, and went on with his sounding. Now he was singing. What was he singing? What a quaint, funny air!
"A wealthy young farmer of Plymouth, we hear, He courted a nobleman's daughter, so dear; And for to be married it was their intent,—
Hi! muskrat!—come out of there!" He almost lost his balance, and Margaret screamed a very small scream, that could not be heard a dozen yards. Recovering himself, the young man began to make his way towards the shore, at a point nearly opposite to where Margaret stood. Springing lightly to the firm ground, he took off his cap, and made a low bow to the bog, saying at the same time something, Margaret could not hear what. Then, looking carefully about him, the young workman appeared to be selecting a spot of earth that was to his mind; having done so, he sat down, took out a note-book, and wrote with ardour for several minutes. Then he took off his cap, and ran his fingers through his hair—which was very curly, and bright red—till it stood up in every direction; then he turned three elaborate somersaults; and then, with another salute to the bog, and a prolonged whistle, he went off, leaping on his pole, and singing, as he went:
"And for to be mar-ri-ed it was their intent; All friends and relations had given their consent."
A LESSON IN GEOGRAPHY.
"Can you come here a moment, my dear?"
"Surely, Uncle John. I was looking for you, and could not find you."
Margaret came running in from the garden. Her uncle was sitting in his private study, which opened directly on the garden, and communicated by a staircase in the wall with his bedroom. The study was a pleasant room, lined with books for the most part, but with some valuable pictures, and a great table full of drawers, and several presses or secretaries, filled with papers and family documents of every kind. Mr. John Montfort, recluse though he was, was the head of a large and important family connection. Few of his relatives ever saw him, but most of them were in more or less constant correspondence with him, and he knew all their secrets, though not one of them could boast of knowing his. He was the friend and adviser, the kindly helper, of many a distant cousin who had never met the kind, grave glance of his brown eyes. Peggy Montfort used to say, in the days when it had pleased him to appear as John Strong, the gardener, that it "smoothed her all out," just to look at him; and many people experienced the same feeling on receiving one of his letters. No one had it, however, so strongly as Margaret herself, or so she thought; and it was with a sensation of delightful relief that she answered his call this morning. Mr. Montfort turned round from the great table at which he was sitting, and held out his hand affectionately.
"Come here, my child," he said, "and let me look at you. Look me straight in the eyes; yes, that will do. You are feeling well, Margaret? You look well, I must say."
"Well? Of course, Uncle John! Am I ever anything else? I have never had a day's illness since I came here."
"You do not feel the load of responsibility too much for your young shoulders?" Mr. Montfort went on. "It—it is not too dull for you here, alone month after month with an elderly man, and a hermit, and one who has the reputation of a grim and unfriendly old fellow? What do you say, Margaret?"
The quick tears sprang to Margaret's eyes. She looked up at her uncle, and saw in his eyes the quizzical twinkle that always half puzzled and wholly delighted her. "Oh, uncle!" she cried; "you really deceived me this time! I might have known you were in fun,—but you were so grave!"
"Grave?" said Mr. Montfort. "Never more so, I assure you. I may not have very serious doubts, in my own mind; nevertheless, I want your assurance. Do you, Margaret Montfort, find life a burden under existing circumstances, or do you find it—well, endurable for awhile yet?"
"I find life as happy as I can imagine it," said Margaret, simply; and then, being absolutely truthful, she added, "That is,—I did find it so, Uncle John,—until these last two weeks."
"Precisely!" said Mr. Montfort. "Not a word, my dear! I understand you. You are fond of children, I think, Margaret?"
"Very fond," said Margaret, thinking that Uncle John was strange indeed to-day.
"Get on well with them, I should suppose. You had a great deal of influence over Peggy, Margaret."
"Dear, good Peggy! She was so ready to be influenced, Uncle John. She was just waiting to—to be helped on a little, don't you know?"
"Yes; so Rita thought, if I remember aright!" said Mr. Montfort, dryly. "But with younger children, eh? You have had some experience of them, perhaps, Margaret?"
Was he still joking? Margaret had not much sense of humour, and she was sadly puzzled again.
"I—I love little children," she said. "Of course I do, Uncle John!"
"Little children,—yes. But how about boys? Active, noisy, happy-go-lucky boys? Boys that smash windows, and yell, and tear their clothes on barbed-wire fences? How about those, Margaret?"
"Is that the kind of boy you were, Uncle John?" asked Margaret, smiling. "Because if so, I am sure I shall like them very much."
"Very well, my dear child!" he said. "You are well and happy, and we understand each other, and that is all right, very right. Now, Margaret,—I ask this for form's sake merely,—have you been in this room before, to-day?"
"No, Uncle John," said Margaret.
"Of course you have not. Knew it before I asked you. Do you notice anything unusual in the appearance of the room, my dear?"
Margaret looked about her, wondering. It produced an impression of—well, not just the perfect order in which it was generally to be found. Several drawers were half open; a sheaf of papers lay on the floor, as if dropped by a startled hand. The writing things were disarranged, slightly, yet noticeably; for Mr. Montfort always kept them in one position, which was never changed save when they were in actual use.
"Why, it looks—as if—as if you had been in a hurry, Uncle John," she said at last.
"It looks as if some one had been in a hurry," said Mr. Montfort, significantly. "I have not been in this room before, to-day; I found it in this condition. Never mind, my dear! I am going to write a letter now. Don't let me keep you any longer."
Margaret went away, wondering much; her uncle joined her soon, and they looked at the roses together, and chatted as usual, and were happy, till Cousin Sophronia rapped on the window with her thimble, and asked whether they were coming in, or whether she should come out and join them.
She was trying that evening, Cousin Sophronia. Nothing on the tea-table suited her, to begin with. She declared the beef tea unfit to touch, and desired Mr. Montfort to taste it, which he politely but firmly refused to do. "But it is not fit to eat!" cried the lady. "I insist on your tasting it, my dear John."
"My dear Sophronia, I am extremely sorry it is not to your taste. If it is not good, I certainly do not want to taste it. Send it away and ask me to taste something that is good."
The chicken was tough. "You should change your butcher, John. Or are these your own fowls? Chickens I will not call them; they must be two years old at least. Nothing disagrees with me like tough poultry. Nobody to look after the fowls properly, I suppose. I must take them in hand; not that I have had any experience myself of fowls, but an educated person, you understand. So important, I always say, to bring educated intelligence to bear on these matters. And then, these knives are so dull! Even if the fowls were tender, impossible to make an impression with such a knife as this. Elizabeth, what do you use for your knives?"
Elizabeth used Bristol brick, as she always had done.
"Ah, entirely out of date, Bristol brick. You must send for some of the preparation that William uses, John. Nothing like it. Something or other, it's called; somebody's—I can't remember now, but we will have it, never fear, dearest John. Shameful, for you to be subjected to dull knives and tough poultry. What are these? Strawberries? Dear me! I did hope we could have raspberries this evening. One is so tired of strawberries by this time, don't you think so?"
"I am sorry," said Mr. Montfort. "The raspberries will be ripe in a day or two, Sophronia; Willis thought they would hardly do to pick to-day."
"Oh, but I assure you, my dearest John, Willis is entirely wrong. I examined the bushes myself; I went quite through them, and found them quite—entirely ripe. That was just Willis's laziness, depend upon it. These old servants" (Elizabeth had gone to get more cream, the lady having emptied the jug on her despised strawberries) "are too lazy to be of much use. Depend upon it, John, you will know no peace until you get rid of them all, and start afresh; I am thinking very seriously about it, I assure you, my dear fellow. Yes, I have been longing for days for a plate of raspberries and cream. I have so little appetite, that whenever I can tempt it a little, the doctor says, I must not fail to do so. No more, dear, thank you! It is of no consequence, you know, really, not the least in the world; only, one can be of so much more use, when one keeps one's health. Ah, you remember what health I had as a child, John! You remember the dear old days here, when we were children together?"
"I remember them very well, Sophronia," said Mr. Montfort, steadily. "And speaking of that, I am expecting some young visitors here in a day or two."
Cousin Sophronia looked up with a jerk; Margaret looked at her uncle in surprise; he sipped his tea tranquilly, and repeated: "Some young visitors, yes. They will interest you, Sophronia, with your strong family feeling."
"Who—who are they?" asked Miss Sophronia. "Most ill-judged, I must say, to have children here just now; who did you say they were, John?"
"Cousin Anthony's children. They lost their mother some years ago, you remember; I fancy Anthony has had rather a hard time with them since. Now he has to go out West for the rest of the summer, and I have asked them to come here."
For once Miss Sophronia was speechless. After a moment's silence, Margaret ventured to say, timidly, "How old are the children, Uncle John?"
"Really, my dear, I hardly know. Two boys and a girl, I believe. I don't even know their names; haven't seen their father for twenty years. Good fellow, Anthony; a little absent-minded and heedless, but a good fellow always. I was glad to be able to oblige him."
Miss Sophronia recovered her speech.
"Really, my dear John," she said, with an acrid smile; "I had no idea you were such a philanthropist. If Fernley is to become an asylum for orphan relations—"
"Sophronia!" said Mr. Montfort.
His tone was quiet, but there was something in it that made the lady redden, and check herself instantly. Margaret wondered what would become of her, if her uncle should ever speak to her in that tone.
"I am sure I meant nothing!" said Miss Sophronia, bridling and rallying again. "I am sure there was no allusion to our dearest Margaret. Absurd! But these children are very different. Why, Anthony Montfort is your second cousin, John. I know every shade of relationship; it is impossible to deceive me in such matters, John."
"I should not attempt it, my dear cousin," said Mr. Montfort, quietly. "Anthony is my second cousin. I will go further to meet you, and admit boldly that these children are my second cousins once removed, and Margaret's third cousins. Where shall we put them, Margaret?"