More About Peggy, by Mrs G. de Horne Vaizey
This is another excellent book by Mrs de Horne Vaizey, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. While of course it is dated in its references to the world around its actors, yet nevertheless their emotions are well-described, and no doubt are timeless.
In some ways the world around the people in the book is recognisable today, in a way which a book written thirty or forty years before would not have been. They have electricity, telephones, trains, buses, and many other things that we still use regularly today. Of course one major difference is that few people today have servants, while middle-class and upper-class families of the eighteen nineties would certainly have had them.
Today we travel by aeroplane, while in those days, and indeed for much of my own life, we travelled by ship and train. It was normal when travelling back to England from India to disembark at Marseilles, and come on to the Channel Ports by train, perhaps even spending a week or two in Italy, en route. I have done it myself.
So it is not so very dated after all. But I do think there is a real value in reading the book. Oddly enough, I think that a boy would benefit from reading any of the author's books, more than a girl would, because it would give him an insight into the girlish mind which he could not so easily otherwise obtain. And as the young ladies of this book are trying to sort out whom they should marry, matters do get quite girlish. N.H.
MORE ABOUT PEGGY
BY MRS. GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
It was mid-January, and at home in England the ground was white with snow, but the sun shone down with brazen glare on the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal, along which a P and O steamer was gliding on its homeward way. An awning was hoisted over the deck, but not a breath of wind fluttered its borders, and the passengers lay back in their deck-chairs too limp and idle to do more than flick over the pages of the books which they were pretending to read. It was only twenty-four hours since they had left Calcutta, and they were still in that early stage of journeying when they looked askance at their fellows, decided that never, no, never had Fate placed them in the midst of such uninteresting companions, and determined to keep severely to themselves during the rest of the voyage.
The stout lady in the white pique stared stonily at the thin lady in drill, and decided that she was an "Impossible Person," blissfully unconscious of the fact that before Aden was reached she would pour all her inmost secrets into the "Impossible Person's" ear, and weep salt tears at parting from her at Marseilles. The mother of the sickly little girls in muslin swept them away to the other end of the deck when she discovered them playing with the children who inhabited the next state-room, and the men stared at one another stolidly across the smoking-room. The more experienced travellers knew that ere a week had passed the scene would be changed, that a laughing babel of voices would succeed the silence, and deck sports and other entertainments take the place of inaction; but the younger members of the party saw no such alleviation ahead, and resigned themselves to a month of frosty solitude.
The ladies dozed amongst their cushions, but the men strolled up and down the deck smoking their cigars with that air of resigned dejection which seems to be the monopoly of Englishmen of the upper classes. The quick movements, animated gestures, and sparkling eyes of the Southerner were all lacking in these strongly built, well-dressed, well-set-up men, who managed to conceal all signs of animation so successfully that no one looking at them could have believed that one was the wit of his regiment, another celebrated throughout an Indian province for his courage and daring, and a third an expectant bridegroom!
About eleven o'clock a diversion was made on the upper deck by the appearance of two more travellers—an elegant-looking woman accompanied by her husband, who came forward in search of the deck-chairs which had been placed in readiness for their use. They were not a young couple by any means, yet the eyes of the passengers followed their movements with interest, for they were not only exceedingly good to look upon, but had an air of enjoyment in their surroundings and in each other's society which is unfortunately not universal among middle-aged couples. The man was tall and slight, with the weather-beaten, dried-up skin which tells of a long residence under burning suns, and he had a long nose, and eyes which appeared almost startlingly blue against the brown of his skin. They were curious eyes, with a kind of latent fierceness in their good humour, but just now they shone in holiday mood, and softened into tenderness as he waited on his wife.
No sooner had this interesting couple seated themselves in their chairs than a chirrup of welcome sounded in their ears, and a beaming little figure in grey alpaca darted forward to greet them. Though the majority of passengers in an ocean-going boat may be unsociably inclined at the start, there are always one or two exceptions to the rule to be found, in the shape of ultra-friendly souls, who, willy-nilly, insist upon playing the part of devoted friends to some unresponsive stranger, and the old lady in question was one of these exceptions. She had begun operations the night before by quarrelling violently over the possession of a cabin, had then proceeded to borrow half-a-dozen necessities of the toilet which she had forgotten, and had advanced to the length of terms of endearment before the bell sounded for dinner. It was only natural then that she should exhibit a breathless anxiety to know how her new friend had fared during the night, and the invalid braced herself to bear the attack with composure.
"So glad to see you up this morning, dear!" she cried. "I was afraid you might be ill, but I asked your daughter about you, and was so relieved to hear good news. We met on deck before breakfast, and had a nice, long talk. Such a sweet creature! So different from the fast, loud-voiced specimens one meets nowadays. Quite an old-world girl, I declare; sweet, and mild, and gentle... 'A violet by a mossy dell, half-hidden from the eye'—as dear old What's-his-name has it! It does me good to be with her, and feel her restful influence. You are to be congratulated on owning such a daughter!"
"Thank you!" said the mild girl's mother softly. She dropped her eyelids, and twisted the rings round and round on her slender fingers, as if for some reason she did not wish to meet the speaker's eye, while her husband rose suddenly and walked to the end of the deck. When he came back, five minutes later, he remarked to his wife that there was no depending on weather signals nowadays; at which innocent remark she laughed so heartily that the friendly old lady instantly put down hysterics as the probable explanation of her delicate appearance, and felt a chilling of sympathy. In a few minutes she took herself off to some other friends, and the husband and wife whispered smilingly together, and, after the invariable custom on shipboard, fell to criticising their companions.
Perhaps the most striking figure which met their eyes was that of a young man some thirty years of age, whose walk and carriage plainly marked him out as an officer in the army. A certain pallor showing through his tanned skin made it seem possible that he was returning home on sick-leave, but he was a handsome fellow all the same with aquiline features and a heavy moustache, and he scanned the scene around him with an air of languid patronage, as one who felt that the P and O Company might feel themselves honoured to have the privilege of accommodating his noble self, and expected that even the ocean should show its best aspect for his benefit. Of the passengers by whom he was surrounded the lordly stranger appeared entirely oblivious, not deigning to throw even a glance in their direction; and so strange a thing is human nature that the feminine portion, at least, felt their interest heightened by this indifference, and were increasingly anxious to make his acquaintance. It did not seem likely that their desire would be granted on this occasion, at least, for as the morning wore on and the heat of the sun grew ever stronger and stronger, the object of their admiration took counsel with himself, and decided that it would be wisdom to retire within the shelter of the reading-room, and pass the hour before lunch in the company of a novel which he had brought on board with his effects. He had carried the book upstairs earlier in the morning, and placed it in a corner of the room where he believed it would be safe from alien hands; but, alas! the best-laid plans "gang aft a-gley," and when he went in search, he met with a shock of disappointment. The book had been appropriated, and the thief was seated in the very corner which he had destined for himself, bending over the pages with every appearance of absorption. Her face was hidden from view, and all that could be seen was a trim little figure in a trim white gown, a pair of trim little feet, a sleek brown head, and a well-rounded cheek. No one could deny that it was a pleasing figure, but the lordly stranger was too much ruffled in his feelings to be influenced by appearances. His manner was perhaps a trifle less haughty than it would have been, had the thief taken the shape of an elderly gentleman, but he never wavered in his intention, and only stopped for an imperceptible moment in his progress up the room to demand a return of the volume.
"Excuse me. Ah! My book, I think! Sorry to interrupt you, but—"
The young lady laid down the book and lifted her face to his. A flicker as of mingled surprise and pleasure passed over her features as she saw who it was that stood before her, but she showed not the slightest sign of discomfiture.
"I beg a thousand pardons!" she said, and inclined her head in such a bow as an empress might bestow on a blundering and ignorant supplicant. It was such a very grand air for such a small person that the big officer drew a breath of surprise, and gazed down with a startled interest. The girl's features were delicately modelled; the brows might have been drawn with a pencil, so clear and perfect was the arch which they described, and the brilliant hazel eyes met his with a mocking glance. For almost the first time in his life a spasm of discomfiture seized him, a struggling suspicion that his conduct had not been altogether above reproach. He stood with the book in his hand, hesitating, uncertain.
"If you would care to read it, pray keep it! I shall be most happy to lend it to you."
The girl waved her hand with a gracious patronage.
"Not for the world, until you have finished! When you have no more use for it yourself, perhaps you will be good enough to renew the offer. Meantime, there are plenty of other books. The library seems very large."
"I make a point of never reading the ship's books. You never—aw—know who has had them last!" drawled the stranger, sweeping a scathing glance over the well-filled shelves; "and, as a rule, they are in such shocking condition. People seem to take a malign satisfaction in tearing out the most important pages, so that, after wading through a whole volume, you are left in uncertainty as to what really happened."
"But sometimes that is a blessing in disguise, for by exercising a little imagination you can make the story end as you like, and spare yourself the pain of disappointment. I rarely read a book without reflecting how much better I could have finished it myself," remarked the young lady, with an assurance which evoked a smile on the officer's impassive countenance.
"You don't look much like an authoress," he said, surveying the dainty little figure approvingly, and calling up a mental picture of the spectacled and cadaverous female invariably associated with a literary career in the masculine mind. "I am afraid my imagination will hardly stand such a strain; but books are the only refuge for the destitute on a voyage, especially during the first few days, when you find yourself shut up with a herd of strangers whom you have never met before in the course of your life. There is only one thing to do under the circumstances, and that is to lie low, and speak to no one until you have found your bearings and discovered who is who. If you go about talking to strangers, you can never tell in what sort of a set you may land yourself."
"You can't, indeed! It's appalling to think of!" agreed the young lady, with a dramatic gesture of dismay which brought her little ringed hands together in decided emphasis. "For my own part I get on well enough," she proceeded, contradicting herself with unruffled composure, "for I can find something interesting in all of my fellow-creatures; but I feel it for my maid! The couriers and valets are so very exclusive that she has been snubbed more than once because of our inferior station. Naturally she feels it keenly. I observe that those people are most sensitive about their position who have the least claim to distinction; but as she does my hair better than any one else, and is an admirable dressmaker, I am, of course, anxious to keep her happy."
The big man looked down with a suspicious glance. Through his not very keen sensibilities there had penetrated the suspicion that the small person in the white frock was daring to smile at him and amuse herself at his expense; but his suspicion died at once before the glance of infantile sweetness which met his own. Pretty little thing! there was something marvellously taking in her appearance. For one moment, as she had spoken of inferior station, he had had an uneasy fear lest he had made the acquaintance of some vulgar upstart, with whom he could not possibly associate. But no! If ever the signs of race and breeding were distinguishable in personal appearance, they were so in the case of the girl before him. A glance at the head in its graceful setting, the delicate features, the dainty hands and feet, was sufficient to settle the question in the mind of a man who prided himself on being an adept in such matters. To his own surprise, he found himself floundering through a complimentary denial of her own estimate of herself, and being rescued from a breakdown by a gracious acknowledgment.
"Praise," murmured the young lady sweetly—"praise from Major Darcy is praise indeed! When 'Haughty Hector' deigns to approve—"
The big man jumped as if he had been shot, and turned a flushed, excited face upon her.
"Wh-at?" he gasped. "What do you say? You know me—you know my old home name! Who are you, then? Who can you be?"
The girl rose to her feet and stood before him. The top of her smooth little head barely reached his shoulders, but she held herself with an air of dignity which gave an appearance of far greater height. For one long minute they stared at one another in silence; then she stretched out her hand and laid it frankly in his own.
"Why, I'm Peggy!" she cried. "Don't you remember me? I'm Peggy Saville!"
Hector Darcy knitted his brows, and started in bewilderment at the little figure before him. "Peggy Saville!" he repeated blankly. "No, you cannot mean it! The little girl who had lessons with Rob, and who saved Rosalind's life at the time of the fire? The little girl I met at The Larches with the pale face, and the pink sash, and the pigtail down her back?"
"The self-same Peggy—at your service!"—and Miss Saville swept a curtesy in which dignity mingled with mischief. Her eyes were sparkling with pleasure, and Major the Honourable Hector Darcy—to give that gentleman his full title—looked hardly less radiant than herself. Here was a piece of luck—to make the acquaintance of an interesting and attractive girl at the very beginning of a voyage, and then to discover in her an intimate friend of the family! True, he himself had seen little of her personally, but the name of Peggy Saville was a household word with his people, and one memorable Christmas week, which they had spent together at The Larches in years gone by, might be safely accepted as the foundation of a friendship.
"Of course I remember you!" he cried. "We had fine romps together, you and I. You danced me off my feet one night, and gave me my death of cold putting up a snow man the next day. I have never forgotten Peggy Saville, but you have changed so much that I did not recognise you, and I did not see your name."
"I noticed yours in the list of passengers, and then I looked out for you, and recognised you at once. There was a Darcy look about the back of your head which could not be mistaken! I meant to ask father to introduce you to me after lunch, but the book has taken his place. So you think I have changed! I have 'growed,' of course, and the pigtail has disappeared; but in other respects there is not so much alteration as could be desired. My father tells me, on an average three times a day, that I shall remain the same 'Peggy-Pickle' all my life."
"That sounds bad! So far as my remembrance goes, you used to be a mischievous little person, always getting into scrapes and frightening the wits out of your companions."
"Ah!" sighed Miss Saville dolorously. "Ah-h!" She shook her head with a broken-hearted air, and looked so overwhelmed with compunction for her misdeeds, that if it had not been for a treacherous dimple that defied her control, the major would have felt remorseful at awakening a painful memory. As it was he laughed heartily, and cried aloud:
"When you look like that, I can see you again with the pigtail and the white frock, just as you looked that Christmas half-a-dozen years ago! Your father is right—you have not changed a bit from the little Peggy I used to know!"
"I'm a full-fledged young lady now, Major Darcy, and have been 'out' for three whole years. I've grown into 'Miss Saville,' or at the very least into 'Mariquita.'"
"But not to me. I'm part of the old times; Rosalind's brother—Rob's brother—you cannot treat me like a stranger. Peggy you have been, and Peggy you must be, so far as I am concerned, for I could not recognise you by another name. Sit down and tell me all about yourself. How long have you been in India, and where are you bound for now?"
"I came out three years ago, when I was eighteen, and now we are going home for good. I'm so glad, for though I've enjoyed India immensely, there is no place like the old country. Mother is not strong, so we are going to stay on the Continent until it is warm enough to return safely. We shall land at Marseilles, stay a month in the Riviera, and gradually work our way homewards. When I say home, of course you understand that we have no home as yet, but we are going to look round for a house as soon as possible. We know exactly what we want, so it ought to be easy to get it. A dear old place in the country—the real country, not a suburb, but within half an hour's rail of town. A house covered with roses and creepers, and surrounded by a garden. Oh! think of seeing English grass again—the green, green grass, and walking along between hedges of wild roses and honeysuckle; and the smell of the earth after it has rained, and all the little leaves are glistening with water—do you remember—oh! do you remember?" cried Peggy, clasping her eager hands, and gazing at her companion with a sudden glimmer of tears which rose from very excess of happiness. "I don't say so to mother, because it would seem as if I had not been happy abroad; but I ache for England! Sometimes in the midst of the Indian glare I used to have a curious wild longing, not for the Country... that was always there—but for the dull, old Tottenham Court Road! Don't laugh! It was no laughing matter. You know how dull that road looks, how ugly and grimy, and how grey, grey, grey in rainy weather? Well, amidst the glare of Eastern surroundings that scene used to come back to me as something so thoroughly, typically English, that its very dreariness made the attraction. I have stood in the midst of palm and aloes, and just longed my very heart out for Tottenham Court Road!"
Major Darcy laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"I know the feeling—had it myself; but you will lose it soon enough. In the East you gasp and long for England; in England you shudder and long for the East. It's the way of the world. What you haven't got seems always the thing you want; but no sooner have you got it than you realise its defects. England will strike you as intolerably dreary when you are really there."
Peggy shook her head obstinately.
"Never! I was ablaze with patriotism before I left, and I have been growing worse and worse all the time I have been abroad. And it will not be dreary! What is the use of imagining disagreeable things? You might just as well imagine nice ones while you are about it. Now I imagine that it is going to be a perfect summer—clear, and fine, and warm, with the delicious warmth which is so utterly different from that dreadful India scald. And father and I are going to turn gardeners, and trot about all day long tending our plants. Did I tell you that we were going to have a garden? Oh yes—a beauty!—with soft turf paths, bordered with roses, and every flower that blooms growing in the borders. We will have an orchard, too, where the spring bulbs come up among the grass; and I've set my heart on a moat. It has been the dream of my life to have a moat. 'Mariquita of the Moated Grange!'... Sounds well, doesn't it? It would be good for me to have an address like that, for I possess a strong instinct of fitness, and make a point of living up to my surroundings." Peggy lay back in her seat and coughed in the languid, Anglo-Indian fashion which was her latest accomplishment. "I suppose you don't happen to know the sort of house that would suit us?"
"Within half an hour of London? No! That is too much to ask. It's a Chateau en Espagne, Peggy, and not to be had in Middlesex. You will have to do like the rest of the world, and settle down in a red brick villa, with a plot of uncultivated land out of which to manufacture your garden. There will be neither green sward nor festoons of roses; but, on the other hand, the house will contain every modern convenience, and there will be hot and cold water, electric light—"
"Don't!" cried Peggy hastily. She lifted her hand with a gesture of entreaty, and Hector was startled to see how seriously she had taken his jesting words. "Don't laugh at me! I've been dreaming of it so long, and it's such a dear, dear dream. Do you realise that in all my life I have never had a permanent home? It has been a few years here, a few years there, with always the certainty of another change ahead; but now we mean to find a real home, where we can take refuge, with all our possessions around us. Mother and I have talked about it until we can see every nook and corner, and it is waiting for us somewhere—I know it is! So don't be sceptical, and pretend that it is not! We won't talk about houses any more, but you shall tell me your own news. It is four years since I saw Rob and Rosalind, as they were abroad for the year before I left England. But you have been home since then, I know."
"Yes; only eighteen months ago. I should not be back so soon, but I've had an attack of fever, and am taking a few months off, to pull myself together. I'm glad our home-goings have taken place at the same time. What do you want to know? My people were much as usual when I saw them last; but the mater has not been at all well for some months back. She has had to leave the house in charge of her sister, Mrs Everett, and go off to some baths in Germany for a course of treatment, and I believe she will not return to England until the autumn. Rosalind—"
The major's handsome face softened into a smile, which showed that the subject of his young sister was pleasant to his mind.
"Rosalind," he said slowly, "is a circumstance—decidedly a circumstance to be taken into account! We look to her to redeem the fortunes of the family, and the mater considers nobody under a royal duke worthy of her acceptance. She is certainly a lovely girl, and a more agreeable one into the bargain than I expected her to turn out. She was a spoiled, affected child, but she took a turn for the better after her accident. My parents, I believe,"—Major Darcy looked at his companion with a brightening glance,—"my parents ascribe a great part of the change to your beneficial influence."
Peggy's cheeks flushed with pleasure, for she had by no means outgrown her childish love of a compliment; but she shrugged her shoulders, and replied in a tone of would-be indifference:
"Plus the wholesome discipline of having her hair cut short. Poor Rosalind! Never shall I forget her confiding to me that she was 'wesigned to becoming a hideous fwight,' while all the time she was admiring her profile in the mirror and arranging her curls to hide the scar. We had been on very distant terms before that accident; but when we were both convalescent we took courage, and spoke faithfully to one another on the subject of our several failings. I told Rosalind, in effect, that she was a conceited doll, and she replied that I was a consequential minx. It cleared the air so much that we exchanged vows of undying friendship, which have been kept to the extent of some half- a-dozen letters a year. I know much more about Rosalind than I do about Rob. Please tell me all you can about Rob!"
"Oh, Rob, you know, was always a boor," said Rob's brother lightly, "and, upon my word, he is a boor still! He did remarkably well at Oxford, as no doubt you heard, and then went travelling about for a couple of years through a number of uncomfortable and insanitary lands. He has always been a great gardener and naturalist, and he brought home some new varieties of shrubs and flowers, out of which he makes a fair amount of money. His principal craze, however, as I understand it, was to add to his knowledge on the engrossing subject of Beetles. He has written some papers on them since his return, and they tell me he has made his mark, and will soon be considered a leading authority. I must say, however, that the whole thing seems to me of supreme unimportance. What on earth can it matter whether there are ten varieties of beetles or ten thousand? Rob is just the sort of hard-headed, determined fellow who could have made himself felt in whatever role he had taken up, and it seems hard luck that he should have chosen one so extremely dull and unremunerative." Hector leant his head against the wall with an air of patronising disgust, for his own profession being one of avowed readiness to kill as many as possible of his fellow-creatures, he felt a natural impatience with a man who trifled away his time in the study of animal nature. He sighed, and turned to his companion in an appeal for sympathy. "Hard lines, isn't it, when a fellow has society practically at his feet, that he should run off the lines like that?"
"De-plorable!" said Peggy firmly, and her expression matched the word. She shook her head and gazed solemnly into space, as if overpowered by the littleness of the reflection. "Poor Rob—he is incorrigible! I suppose, then, he doesn't care a bit for dinners, or dances, or standing against a wall at a reception, or riding in a string in the Park, but prefers to pore over his microscope, and roam over the country, poking about for specimens in the ditches and hedgerows?"
"Exactly. The mater can hardly induce him to go out, and he is never so happy as when he can get on a flannel shirt and transform himself into a tramp. You remember Rob's appearance in his school-days? He is almost as disreputable to-day, with his hair hanging in that straight heavy lock over his forehead, and his shoulders bowed by poring over that everlasting microscope."
A light passed swiftly across Peggy's face, and her eyes sparkled. One of the most trying features of a long absence from home is that the face which one most longs to remember has a way of growing dim, and elusively refusing to be recalled. In those hot Indian days, Peggy had often seated herself in her mental picture gallery, and summoned one friend after another before her: the vicar, with his kindly smiles; Mrs Asplin, with the loving eyes, and the tired flush on the dear, thin cheeks; Esther, with her long, solemn visage; Mellicent, plump and rosy; Rex, with his handsome features and budding moustache; Oswald, immaculately blond—they could all be called up at will, and would remain contentedly in their frames until such times as she chose to dismiss them; but Rob's face refused to be recalled in the same easy fashion. Now and again, from out the gloom, a pair of stormy eyes would flash upon her, or she would catch her breath as a stooping figure seemed to rise suddenly beside the palm-trees; but Rob, as a whole, had refused to be recalled, until at his brother's words his image had appeared before her in so vivid and characteristic a guise that it seemed almost as if Rob himself stood by her side. She drew a long breath, and chimed in with an eager—
"Yes, yes! And his great long arms waving about—I never knew any one with such long arms as Rob. And a pair of thick, nailed boots, with all four tabs sticking out, and a tie slipping round to the back of his neck. It's exactly like him. I can see him now!"
Hector Darcy shrugged his shoulders.
"Don't, please! It's not a pleasant prospect. I try to let distance lend enchantment to the view, for it's bad enough having to go about with him when I am at home. The fellow would not be bad-looking, if he took a little care of himself; but he is absolutely regardless of appearances."
"He must have an idea that there are other things of more importance. He was always a ridiculous boy!" murmured Miss Saville sweetly. The major glanced at her with a suspicious eye, once more disturbed by the suspicion that she was being sarcastic at his expense, but Peggy was gazing dreamily through the opposite windows, her delicately cut profile thrown into relief against the dark wood of the background. She looked so young, so fragile and innocent, that it seemed quite criminal to have harboured such a suspicion. He was convinced that she was far too sweet and unassuming a girl to laugh at such a superior person as Major Hector Darcy.
A fortnight later the passengers on board the steamer were congratulating themselves on having accomplished half their journey, and being within ten days' sail of England. The waters of the Mediterranean surrounded them, clear and blue as the sky overhead, a healthful breeze supplanted the calm, and the spirits of the travellers rose ever higher and higher. Homeward bound is a very different thing from outward bound, and every soul on board had some dear one waiting for them in Old England, some one who had loved them faithfully through the years of absence, and who was even now counting the days until their return. The mothers boasted to each other concerning the doings of the children whom they had left at school, and in the midst of laughter turned aside suddenly to conceal their tears; the men thought lovingly of the wives from whom they had parted years before; and one or two radiant bridegrooms exhibited photographs of the brides whom they were going to carry back to cheer their exile.
After a fortnight at sea the company on board this particular steamer might be said to be divided into four distinct cliques—namely, members of military and diplomatic services, Civil Service employees, second- class passengers, and—Miss Mariquita Saville. The young lady must be taken as representing a class by herself, because while each of the other divisions kept, or was kept, severely to itself, Peggy mixed impartially with all, and was received with equal cordiality wherever she turned. The little person had made such a unique position for herself that there is no doubt that if a vote had been taken to discover the most popular person on board, she would have headed the list by a large majority; but whether her unfailing affability was due more to pride or humility, Hector Darcy, among others, found it difficult to determine.
Major Darcy had attached himself to the Saville party with a determination hardly to be expected in so languid a man, had even lowered his dignity to the extent of asking the fellow-passenger who occupied the coveted seat at table to exchange places with himself, so that breakfast, lunch, and dinner found him seated at Peggy's side, finding ever-fresh surprises in her society. Sometimes the surprise was the reverse of pleasant, for Miss Saville was a prickly little person, and upon occasion would snap him up in the middle of an argument with a lack of respect which took away his breath. When any difference arose between them, she never seemed to have a shadow of a doubt that she was in the right, and as Hector was equally positive about his own position, relationships frequently grew so strained that Peggy would rise from the table half-way through the meal, and stalk majestically out of the saloon. She invariably repented her hastiness by the time she reached the deck, for dessert was the part of the meal which she most enjoyed, so that when the major followed ten minutes later on, bearing a plate of carefully selected fruit as a peace-offering, he was sure of a gracious welcome.
"But you must never contradict me on Tuesdays, I can't support it!" she said on one of these occasions, as he seated himself beside her, and watched her raising the grapes to her lips with her little finger cocked well in the air. "Especially when I am in the right, as you must admit—"
"I admit nothing; but I pray and beseech you not to begin the discussion over again. I am nine years older than you, and must surely be supposed to know a little more."
"If you only realised it, that is just the reason why you don't. The world advances so rapidly with every decade, that you of the last generation have necessarily enjoyed fewer opportunities than myself and my contemporaries, and are therefore behind the times. It's not your fault, of course, and I don't advance it in any way as a reproach, but still—"
Major Darcy stared at her, struck dumb by an insinuation of age which was even more hurtful than that of inferior knowledge; but before he had recovered himself sufficiently to reply, his companion had finished her dessert, presented him calmly with the empty plate, and risen to take her departure.
"Where are you going?" he queried in an injured tone; for it was one of his pet grievances that the girl refused to be appropriated by himself whenever he wished to enjoy her society. "Can't you sit still for an hour at least? You have been rushing about all the morning. Surely now you can take a rest!"
But Peggy shook her head.
"Impossible! I'm engaged straight away from now until tea-time. The nurse of those peevish little Mortons is worn out, for the mother is ill, and can't help her at all, so I promised to amuse the children for an hour after lunch while she takes a nap. Then I have to play a game of halma with old Mr Schute, and help Miss Ranger to dress and come on deck. She thinks she can manage it to-day, and it will do her a world of good to get some fresh air."
"But why need you fag yourself for all these people? Surely there is some one else who can do it. Can you not send your maid to look after the children, at least, and take that hour to yourself?"
Peggy smiled with complacent satisfaction.
"They would scream themselves hoarse. Of all the spoilt, bad-tempered little ruffians you ever encountered, they are the worst, and there is not a soul on board who can manage them except myself. Yesterday they got so cross that I was almost in despair, and it was only by pretending to be a wild buffalo, and letting them chase me and dig pencils into me for spears, that I could keep them in any sort of order. When they grew tired of the buffalo, I changed into a musical-box, and they ground tunes out of me until my throat was as dry as leather. It kept us going for a long time, however, for they all wanted to hear their own favourite tunes, and were so charmed with the variations. I wish you could have heard the variations! I was so proud of them. The scales ran up and down just like a real musical-box, the tremolo and arpeggio chords were fine, and as for the trills, they were simply entr-r- rancing!" Peggy rolled the 'r' with a self-satisfied enjoyment which made Hector laugh in spite of his displeasure, and finished up with an explanatory, "I could never expect Parker to pose as a wild buffalo. She has far too much sense of dignity!"
"Oh, of course, I acknowledge that you have a wonderful knack with children! Every one sees that," allowed Hector unwillingly. "It is very kind and delightful of you to bother about other people as you do; but what I complain of is the extent of your services, and—aw—the nature of the recipients! Miss Ranger, for instance, is an impossible person. What she calls herself I don't know, but she doesn't even begin to be a lady. I heard her talking the other day, and she has a vile accent, and not an 'h' in her composition."
"She has enough responsibilities without them at present, poor soul, so perhaps it's just as well. She has been ill ever since we started, and has no friend nor servant to look after her. She fell on the floor in a faint one day while she was trying to dress, and lay there helpless until the stewardess happened to go in and find her. That sort of thing sha'n't happen twice on board this ship, if I can help it!" cried Peggy with a straightening of the slim little back which seemed to add a couple of inches to her height, and a toss of the head which convinced Major Darcy that it was no use arguing further on this point. It was astonishing how often he was forced to retire from post to post in arguments with Miss Saville, and the consciousness that this was the case gave him courage to enter yet a third protest.
"Well, at least, old Schute is hearty enough! There is no necessity to pity him; and, really, don't you know, he is hardly the right sort of friend for you. Do you know who he is? The proprietor of one of the big drapers' shops in Calcutta."
"It was a very good shop," said Peggy reflectively. "They were most obliging in sending patterns. Two of the assistants were in a class mother held for English girls, and they said he was so kind and considerate, and had even paid to send some of them to the hill, after they had been ill. I've a great respect for Mr Schute."
"Quite so; but that's not exactly a reason why you should play halma with him. I've a respect for him also, if what you say is true, but he is not in our class, as he himself would acknowledge, and it's not the thing for you to be seen talking to him. There are certain restrictions which we must all observe."
"Excuse me—I don't observe them. I am Mariquita Saville. Nothing that I can do can alter that fact, or take from me the position to which I was born," replied Peggy, with that air of overweening pride in her belongings which had a distinctly humorous aspect in the eyes of her companion, for though a county name and some well-won decorations are, no doubt, things to be valued, nothing short of a pedigree traced direct from the Flood itself would have justified the ineffable assurance of her manner.
He was not rash enough, however, to put such a reflection into words, so he stood in silence until once again the girl turned to leave him, when he found his tongue quickly enough.
"You are really going then?"
"Certainly I'm going!"
"You'll tire yourself out with those children, and get a headache into the bargain in the stuffy cabins."
"I think it's extremely probable."
"Then why will you be obstinate, and go in spite of all I can, say?"
"Shall I tell you why?" Peggy raised her head and stared at him with brilliant eyes. "I must go and help these poor people because you— and others like you—refuse to do it! I can't bear to see them neglected, but I should be delighted to share the work with some one else. Major Darcy, will you do me a favour? Mr Schute is very lonely; no one speaks to him, and his eyes are so weak that he can't amuse himself by reading. He is a very interesting old man, and I assure you his 'h's' are above reproach. Will you have a game of halma with him this afternoon instead of me, and so set me free from my promise?"
Haughty Hector's stare of amazement was a sight to behold. He, Hector Darcy, play a game with a tradesman in the saloon of a steamship? Associate on terms of intimacy with a member of a class who, according to his ideas, existed for no other reason than to minister to his needs and requirements? He was breathless with astonishment that such a request should have been made, and made no concealment of his annoyance.
"Really," he said loftily, "anything in reason that I could do to assist you would be too great a pleasure, but what you ask is impossible. You must see for yourself—"
"You will not do it, then?"
"If you will think for one moment, you will realise that you could not expect—"
Peggy threw back her head and surveyed him deliberately from the crown of his head to the tip of his shoes, from his shoes up again until the hazel eyes met his with a mocking light.
"I did not expect—I hoped; but I see that even that was a mistake! Good afternoon, Major Darcy, and many thanks for your polite assurances! It is gratifying to discover exactly how much they are worth."
She sailed away with her head in the air, leaving Hector to pace the deck with a frown of thunderous ill-temper disfiguring his handsome countenance. It was annoying to be worsted by an antagonist of such small dimensions, but, astonishing as it appeared, he invariably got the worst of it in a conflict with Peggy Saville!
The next two weeks passed away all too quickly. The latter part of the voyage had been chill and stormy, so that when Marseilles was reached, Hector Darcy was seized with a conviction that it would be injudicious for him to risk the dangers of an English spring, and that wisdom pointed out a preliminary sojourn in the sunny South. This being the case, it was only natural that he should betake himself to the hotel where his friends the Savilles were located, and so make a convenient fourth in their excursions. It would have been difficult to find a pleasanter party with whom to travel, for father, mother, and daughter were all in holiday mood, rejoicing in the prospect of home, and a reunion with that redoubtable Arthur, whose exploits and excellences were detailed a dozen times a day. They were so happy together, moreover, and there was so friendly an understanding between them, that they made an agreeable contrast to those numerous family parties who reduce a stranger to a condition of misery by their mutual bickerings. So far from labouring under the impression that any manners were good enough for the members of their own family, the Saville trio were even more punctiliously courteous to each other than to strangers, and that despite the fact that parents and child were on terms of much greater intimacy than is usual in such relationships.
Peggy's pride in her father was beautiful to behold, and in the presence of strangers she paid him a respect so profound that those same strangers would have been vastly surprised if they could have seen her rumpling his hair in private, and tying his moustache in a neat little festoon round his nose, while mother and daughter never seemed to outgrow the joy of being together again after the years of separation.
"Oh, my Peg, what should I do without you?" Mrs Saville would cry on those too frequent occasions when a recurrence of the weary Indian fever came upon her, and Peggy nursed and comforted her as no hired attendant could ever do. "Oh, my Peg, what should I do without you? What shall I do, when you leave me to fly away to a home of your own? You have spoiled me so much during these last years that I don't know what will become of me without you, darling."
"I shall never marry, dear," returned Peggy comfortably. "I'll stay at home like a good little girl, and wheel my mammie in a Bath chair. Marriage is a luxury which is forbidden to an only daughter. Her place is to stay at home and look after her parents!" But at this Mrs Saville looked alarmed, and shook her head in emphatic protest.
"No, no—that's a wrong idea! I want you to marry, dear, when the right time comes. I have been too happy myself to wish to keep you single. Marriage is the best thing that can happen to a woman, if her husband is as good and kind and noble as your father. I'm not selfish enough to spoil your life for my own benefit, Peggy; but when the times comes, remember I shall be very, very particular about the man you choose."
"Where, and how, shall I earliest meet him? What are the words that he first will say?"
chanted Peggy, with so disastrous an attempt at the correct tune that Mrs Saville shook with laughter, despite the pain in her head, and Hector Darcy, entering the room, demanded to know the nature of the joke.
"I was singing a little ditty, and mother derided me, as usual. People always laugh when I sing, and declare that the tune is wrong. They don't seem to understand that I'm improving on the original. We were discussing my future husband, and the serenade was in his honour," explained Peggy with an unconscious serenity, at which her two companions exchanged glances of astonishment.
"He is quite an imaginary hero as yet," Mrs Saville explained hastily, "but the subject having been introduced, I was explaining to Peggy that I should be extremely difficult to satisfy, and could not consent to spare her to a man who did not come up to my ideal in every respect."
"And Peggy herself—what does she say? Has she an ideal, too, and what shape does it take, if one may ask?" queried Hector, with an embarrassment of manner which the mother noticed, if the daughter did not.
Mrs Saville shaded her eyes with her hands and gazed keenly across the room to where the two figures stood in the window, the man so tall and imposing, the girl so small and dainty in her pretty white dress.
"Oh, I'm not exacting," said Peggy coolly. "I'm going to marry a man with 'heaps of money and a moustache, and a fireplace in the hall,' as Mellicent used to say when we planned out our future in the old school- days. Dear old Mill! I wonder if she is as funny as ever, and if she still mixes up her sentences in the same comical way. I shall be terribly disappointed if she doesn't. Five, six more weeks before I see her and all the other vicarage people, and already I'm in a ferment of impatience. Every mile we travel nearer home, the more I long for the time to come; and when we get to London I really don't know how I shall last out the fortnight before I go down to the country."
"Would it help matters if we invited Mellicent to come and join us in London? She would enjoy the experience of living in an hotel and house- hunting with us. You can write and ask her, dear, if you like," said Mrs Saville fondly; and Peggy clasped her hands together in one of the old ecstatic gestures.
"How s-imply lovely! Mother dear, you are an admirable person. There is nothing in the world I should like so much, and it would be so wise, too, for Mellicent and I would have time to get through our first floodgates of talk before I met the others, so that I should not be torn asunder by wanting to speak to every one at the same time. It will be a wild dissipation for the dear old girl to stay in an hotel, and she does enjoy herself so beamingly when she is out for a holiday that it's a pleasure to behold her. I'll write this very minute!"
The invitation was despatched forthwith, and such a rhapsodical acceptance received by return of post as effectually dispelled Peggy's fears lest her friend might have outgrown her old peculiarities. Mellicent at twenty-one was apparently as gushingly outspoken, as amazingly irrelevant, as in the days of short frocks and frizzled locks, and the expectation of meeting her in four short weeks lent added zest to Peggy's enjoyment of her new surroundings.
The headquarters of this happy party was at an hotel situated on the hill behind Cannes, and every morning a carriage waited at the door, to drive them to the different places of interest in the neighbourhood. They bought curious plaques and vases at the Vallauris pottery, went over the scent manufactory at Grasse, where mountains of rose leaves and violets are converted into fragrant perfumes, and drove along the exquisite Cornichi road, which winds round the hillside, and affords a view of the Mediterranean lying below, blue as a sapphire in the summer sunshine. In the afternoons Mrs Saville would retire to rest, tired out by the morning's exertions, and Peggy would say plaintively:
"Father dear, could you bear the reflections that your only daughter was pining for an ice and a box of chocolates, and that you had refused to indulge her for the sake of a few miserable rupees!" and the colonel invariably replying in the negative, she would array herself in her smartest frock, and repair with him to Rumpelmeyer's, who, as every one who has stayed in the Riviera knows full well, is at once the most wonderful and the most extortionate confectioner who ever tempted the appetites of men.
At every visit Peggy and her father groaned afresh at the price of the bonbons displayed so daintily in their satin boxes; but though they agreed that it was impossible to indulge any more in such extravagance, they invariably succumbed to temptation, the colonel ejaculating, "It's a poor heart that never rejoices. We shall be young only once in our lives, Peg, so we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can," and Peggy explaining to her scandalised mother that the expenditure was really an economy in the end, since she would keep all the pretty cases, fill them with jujubes, and present them as Christmas presents to deserving friends!
At Paris Hector Darcy bade his friends farewell, and Peggy bore his departure in philosophical fashion. It had been delightful having his company, for it had seemed like a "bit of home," but he would have been dreadfully in the way in Paris, where the avowed business of the day was the purchase of clothes and fripperies. Mrs Saville and her daughter prepared for the fray with every appearance of enjoyment, and though the colonel professed a horror of shopping, he yet manifested an agreeable interest in their purchases.
"I can't afford to give you carte blanche, with all the expenses of the new house before us," he explained, "but one or two pretty frocks apiece you must and shall have, while we are on the spot; so go ahead and make yourself smart, and I'll brace my nerves to face the bill."
There was no fear that Miss Peggy would not go ahead in such an occupation. The only difficulty was that she went ahead too fast; but by dint of forbearance, mingled with judicious firmness, the choice was made at last, and in due time the dresses came home, the bills were paid, and Colonel Saville, blessing Providence that he had not six women to dress instead of two, hurried on the day of departure from a city of such ruinous fascinations.
On one happy spring morning, then, behold the Saville trio once more nearing the white cliffs of Old England—blessed travellers, whose exile was over, and who could look forward to spending the rest of their lives in that dear old country which, despite its rain and fog, must ever be the dearest in the world to true-born Britons.
They stood together, amidst the bustle of arrival, looking with sparkling eyes at the well-remembered scene, for there was no necessity to hurry for the train, and Colonel Saville, with all a soldier's intolerance of a scramble, decided to wait on board until the general exodus was over. "Then we will get a porter to take our boxes quietly ashore," he explained to his companions; and, as if his words had been overheard, at that very moment a candidate for that post came up from behind.
"Carry your boxes, sir? Can I carry your boxes?" cried a breezy voice, at the sound of which Peggy gasped, Mrs Saville laid her hand over her heart, and the colonel wheeled round to confront Arthur himself, taller, broader, handsomer than ever.
"My boy!" he cried brokenly.
"Arthur!" gasped his mother, and lay sobbing on the dear, strong shoulder, while Peggy stroked the tails of his coat, and assiduously licked away the tears which would insist upon flowing down her cheeks. Why cry, when she was so happy? The thing was absurd! Why do anything but laugh, and dance, and sing with mirth, when at long, long last they were all four together, and Arthur stood before her in solid flesh and blood?
"How tall you are! Taller than your father, my dear big son!"
"How good it is to see you again, my boy! We have wearied for this day."
"Oh, Arthur, what a big moustache! What a dear you look! We never, never expected to see you before we got to London."
"I was not sure of coming, but I worked it somehow, for I could not wait an hour longer than was necessary. Peg, you're a lady growed! I looks towards you! Oh, let us be joyful! This is grand to be together again, with no more miserable partings ahead. Welcome to England, mother! First step on the old land—eh? Feels nice and sound beneath your feet, doesn't it? Just the sort of solid, durable old place to take root in after a roaming life!" And Arthur led his mother on shore, rattling away in his old merry style, though the tears shone in his eyes also, and his voice was not so clear as it might have been.
The years that had passed since he had seen his parents last had not been altogether easy ones for him. He had had to face the bitterest disappointment of his life, to adapt himself to a new and uncongenial sphere, and, in spite of all his courage, there had been moments when the task had seemed too heavy to bear. It had been an effort to write cheerfully, and to refrain from repinings over his lost hopes, but he had made the effort, and he was rewarded for his forbearance a hundred times over in this moment of meeting, as he noticed the hollows in his mother's cheeks, and the grey locks on his father's brow. It had been hard enough for them as it was. He was thankful he had not laid on them the additional burden of his own sufferings.
The reunited family travelled up to town together, and dined in a private room in the hotel, so that they might be able to talk without interruption. Arthur was, of course, the hero of the occasion, and was handed about from one to another of his adoring relatives in a manner which would have been amusing to an onlooker. First of all Mrs Saville claimed him, and they sat on the sofa together, stroking each other's hands like a charming pair of lovers, as a mother and grown-up son should always be. Then she cast an apologetic glance at her husband, and made an excuse to move her position, when Colonel Saville took possession of his "boy," and the two tall figures leant against the mantelpiece talking "manny talk," as Peggy expressed it, and smoking their cigarettes. Finally it was Peggy's own turn, and she sat perched on Arthur's knee, gazing into the dear, handsome face which had always been her ideal of manly beauty.
"Fancy, Arthur, just fancy, we are grown-up ladies and gentlemen! I am twenty-one, and you are twenty-six! Doesn't it seem wonderful? You look so handsome, dear, so big and important! I suppose you are important, aren't you? What is your chief like? Does he appreciate you? Does he defer sufficiently to your advice? Between ourselves, the English Government isn't so well managed as I could wish. There is a want of firmness in dealing with Foreign Powers which annoys me greatly. Next time you get into a muddle at the War Office, just tell them to apply to me, and I'll set them straight! If I could get the chance of being Minister of War for a couple of days, I'd settle them! No shilly- shally for me I I'd show them how the thing ought to be done!"—and Peggy wagged her head in a fierce and defiant manner, which sent Arthur into a peal of laughter.
"Not any more burdened by modesty than you used to be, I perceive, young lady. I'll be pleased to pass on your message. The chief is a conscientious fellow, and feels his responsibility so much that it will doubtless be a relief to him to know that Peggy Saville is to the rescue. I'll introduce you to him some time soon, when you can have an opportunity of airing your views."
"I should like that. I suppose we shall have any amount of invitations when we are really settled, but just at first we want to devote all our energies to house-hunting. We are going to drive to the agent's first thing to-morrow morning, to see what he has to offer us, and then Mellicent arrives in the afternoon. You knew she was coming, didn't you, and that I am going home with her at the end of a fortnight?"
Arthur chuckled softly to himself.
"Chubby in London! What delirious excitement! I must try to go about with you sometimes, for it will be great to hear her remarks. She has never been in town for more than a few hours at a time on a shopping expedition, and has everything to see. Chubby has developed into a very creditable specimen, I'd have you know, and she don't appreciate being called Chubby no more. Consequently, I make a point of addressing her by no other name! When she gets into a rage she looks surprisingly like the fat little girl of a dozen years back."
"Too bad!" cried Peggy, laughing. "None of that sort of thing while she is here, remember! No one shall tease my visitors but myself. I'm simply longing to see the dear old girl, and hear all the news about everybody. Rob is at The Cedars, they say, so I must wait to see him there, but Rosalind is in town. Oh, Arthur, do you see much of her? Do you meet her often? Is she a great beauty, and does every one talk about her and make a fuss of her wherever she goes, as we used to imagine they would do when she grew up? Do tell me all about Rosalind!"
Arthur's face stiffened in a curious, unnatural fashion, and his lips lost their laughing curve, and grew straight and hard. The sparkle died out of his face, and he looked a boy no longer, but a man, and a man who had not found his life too easy. He was astonishingly like his father at that moment, and both mother and sister noted the fact.
"Oh, that would be a long story, and would take up too much time. For Rosalind's doings, see the society papers," he cried, with an indifference too elaborate to be genuine. "To-morrow's issue will no doubt inform you that she is at some big function to-night, wearing a robe of sky-blue silk, festooned with diamonds and bordered with rubies. That's the proper style of thing, isn't it, for a society belle? I see her occasionally. Lord Darcy is the kindest of friends, and I have always a welcome at his house. I don't go very often, but I meet them out, and am vouchsafed a dance, or ten minutes' conversation, if nobody more important is on the scene. Rosalind is an important personage nowadays, and can't waste her time on the likes of me; but she is devoted to you, Peg, and will rush round to see you the moment you let her know that you are at home."
But Peggy set her lips, and privately resolved to be in no hurry to apprise Rosalind Darcy of her return. No one who considered herself too grand for Arthur should have the chance of associating with his sister. Dear, darling Arthur! Did he still care, then? Was Rosalind's beautiful face still a Will-o'-the-wisp to dazzle and ensnare his heart, and was it possible that she, or any mortal woman, could have the hardihood to resist Arthur Saville when he came to woo? Peggy sat silent, but her heart formed a voiceless prayer—a prayer that if in the future trouble must come, she might be the one to bear it, and that Arthur might be shielded from a second crushing disappointment.
The next day the Savilles lost no time in consulting the agent who had been commissioned to advertise for houses on their behalf, and he in his turn presented them with a list of a dozen places which were for sale, eight of which were obviously unsuitable, and none in the very least like Peggy's ideal abode. This was a bitter disappointment to the expectant trio, and the disappointment was not softened by the offhand and independent manner in which they were treated, for the agent hinted at inordinate expectations, smiled openly at Peggy's inquiry about a moat, and floated off to attend to another inquirer, as if any other subject were worth considering when the question of Colonel Saville's future home was on the tapis!
Mrs Saville left the office with a crestfallen air, but her husband and daughter stalked forth with their most military stride, and exchanged glances of kindling irritation on the doorstep.
"Insubordinate wretch!" cried the colonel, the ends of his moustache looking fiercer than ever, and his eyes gleaming with anger, for after ruling as despot over his regiment for so many years, the lack of deference shown by a mere civilian was a distinct trial to the flesh. "There's a good deal to be said for our friends the natives after all, Peg! If one of them had dared to treat me like that—"
"Just so!" assented Peggy. "I'm with you, father. I do like people to tremble at my nod, and in this land of freedom no one seems in the least afraid of us. It's disgraceful. We had better take the train, and look at this Uplands place. It seems the most likely of any on the list, so I suppose we ought to see it."
To the Uplands, then, the trio betook themselves, to find disappointment number two, for the name had evidently been bestowed in a spirit of satire on a house situated in a valley, and shut in by a network of trees. The rooms smelt like so many vaults, and presented a cheerful pattern of mould upon the walls, while even Peggy's ardour could not face the task of reducing a wilderness into a garden. A drive of three miles brought the explorers to yet another desirable residence of so uncompromisingly bleak and hideous an aspect that they drove away from the gates without examining the interior, and returned to town fatigued and discouraged.
"But we could not expect to find what we wanted the very first day," Peggy reminded herself cheerily. "Besides, Mellicent is coming! That is quite enough happiness for one day. In two more hours she will be here. I'll go downstairs at five o'clock, and wait for her in the hall."
When five o'clock arrived, however, a brother officer came to call upon Colonel Saville, and Peggy was delayed several minutes longer than she intended, so that when she repaired downstairs it was a little past the hour when Mellicent was due. It was quite likely that the train had been behind time, or that difficulties in getting luggage put on a cab might have delayed her arrival, and Peggy devoutly hoped that this had been the case, so that she might still be in time to give a friendly welcome. The hall was, as usual, crowded with visitors. An American contingent chatted merrily together in one corner; a French marquise stared around through a gold-rimmed lorgnette; and the usual array of family parties lolled on ottomans and sofas, scrutinising the passers- by, and exchanging whispered criticisms, which were neither so complimentary nor so subdued as might have been desired. A stout lady and two slim daughters, looking more like fashion-plates than Peggy could have believed it possible for any human creatures to do, stood discussing a knotty point together in the centre of the floor, their voluminous skirts shutting out the view beyond.
Peggy made a detour to the side, caught sight of a broad, blue serge back, looking broader than ever from contrast with sylph-like forms, a coil of yellow hair beneath a sailor hat, and the side of a crimson cheek. Mellicent! Of course it was Mellicent! There she stood, the poor dear thing, a statue of misery in the midst of the fashionable crowd, a roll of shawls clutched in one hand, her dress thick with dust, and her hair blown into disorder. The critics on the benches sniggered and whispered to one another, and the French marquise examined her through the lorgnette with unconcealed amaze; but at the sight of the familiar figure Peggy's heart leapt within her, for she saw again the ivy-covered vicarage, and the shabby, sunny schoolroom in which she had spent such happy days. A hand clutched Mellicent's arm in ecstatic grasp, and a tremulous voice spoke in her ear.
"Mellicent, darling! Is it really you?"
"Oh, my goodness, Peggy, have you come at last? Nobody knew where you were, and they said they'd send, and it's simply awful the way these wretches stare!" cried Mellicent in a rush, "They sit round in rows, and glare as if they had nothing in the world to do but quiz the poor new arrivals as they come in at the door."
"Which, my dear, is precisely the state of the case. It is disconcerting, especially when you arrive in the evening, after a tempestuous Channel passage, and step into a hall aglow with diamonds and eye-glasses; but turn about is fair play!" cried Peggy reassuringly. "To-morrow you and I will quiz in our turn, and just think how we shall enjoy it. Father and I have sat together for hours, criticising and inventing histories, and you have no idea how entertaining it is. You'll simply love it."
"No, I sha'n't. It's unkind and cruel, and must make people simply dread coming in. If I were the manager, I wouldn't allow it!" declared Mellicent in righteous wrath; then her eyes turned to her companion, and a tardy realisation of the position seemed to dawn upon her. "Oh, Peggy!" she cried, and again, "Oh, Peggy! I'm so glad to see you again. It has seemed such a long, long time since you went away, and there was no one like you—no one who could ever take your place."
Peggy gave an affectionate little grip to the blue serge arm, but made none of the protests which usually follow such an announcement. Modesty not being her strong point, she saw no reason to dispute Mellicent's assertion, so smiled instead, and cried reassuringly:
"Never mind, I'm back again now, and never going away no more! Dear old Chubs, you look so fresh, and pink-and-white and Englishy, that it does me good to see you. This is our sitting-room, and you must come in and say how do you do to father and mother, and have some tea. Father is going out with a friend presently, and mother will have a rest in her bedroom, so we shall have a cosy little chat by ourselves. Don't look alarmed! They are not a bit fierce, I assure you, but a most mild and agreeable old couple."
As she spoke Peggy threw open the door of the sitting-room, and the mild and agreeable couple bestowed the kindliest of greetings upon their young visitor; but the surroundings were all so strange and formal that country-bred Mellicent was overpowered, and could only blush and stammer in school-girl fashion. Her own perfect consciousness of the fact added fuel to her embarrassment, and a full-length mirror at the opposite side of the room presented such an exasperating contrast of rustic awkwardness and dainty grace, as she and Peggy stood side by side, that her heart died down within her. Poor Mellicent! her new coat and skirt had been made by the very best dressmaker in the village, and had been considered a miracle of elegance by the admiring home circle; so that she had looked forward to making quite a triumphant entrance, and now here she was, looking her very worst, and conscious of a dozen shortcomings as she looked at her friend's graceful figure. Peggy's features still retained their miniature-like faultlessness of outline, her pretty hair was coiled about her head in fantastic fashion, she bore herself with even more than the old assurance, and rustled about the room in a gown of Parisian manufacture. A little chill of strangeness and depression settled down on Mellicent's spirits. For the last month she had lived in constant expectation of this visit, had built a fairy edifice of dreams concerning it, and already the foundations were beginning to totter. The great hotel, with its crowd of critical inmates, was terrifying to the country-bred girl, the graciousness of her host and hostess appeared formal, when compared with the warm- hearted cordiality of her Irish mother, and even Peggy herself seemed transformed into another person. It was no longer Peggy, it was Mariquita, and Mariquita a dozen times more self-possessed and imposing than in the days of old.
When Colonel and Mrs Saville left the room, Mellicent watched with awed eyes an interview which took place between Miss Peggy and a waiter whom she had summoned to bring a supply of fresh tea. There were several other matters to discuss regarding the despatch of letters and parcels, and the severe though courteous manner in which the young lady conducted the conversation, reduced the listener to a condition of speechless amazement. When the door closed behind the man, Peggy met the stare of the horrified blue eyes, and put a laughing inquiry as to the nature of her offence.
"I don't know how you dare talk to him like that!" stammered Mellicent in return. "He is ever so much older than you, and looks so—so dignified and grand, and you order him about, and tell him to be careful, and send him running up and downstairs. I don't know how you can do it. I'm nervous enough about finding fault with the servants at home, but with a stranger! A man! I could never summon up courage to find fault, no matter what mistakes he made. And you are so cool about it!"
"My dear, I'm used to it. Consider the position I have had to fill these last three years in Indiah!" drawled Miss Peggy, and leant her head against the cushions of her chair with an exhausted air, which seemed to imply that she had come straight from the duties of Government House itself. Then suddenly she straightened herself, and attacked the teapot.
"I forget if you take sugar in your tea. So few people do nowadays. And cream? It's rather strong, I'm afraid. Be sure to tell me if it's exactly as you like."
"Thank you!" murmured Mellicent faintly. She put the cup down on a table close at hand, and fumbled nervously with her gloves.
"Yes, Mellicent, what is it?"
"Oh, Peggy, I feel—I feel so uncomfortable! It's all so strange and different from what I expected. I thought I should feel at home the moment I saw you—but I don't, not a bit. You look so grown-up and proper, and your dress is so grand, and you have done your hair like the people in the fashion-books, and I never can make out how on earth they twist it in and out... We are the same age, but you seem ever so much older, and I don't feel that it is you at all."
"The inference is, that I never was proper, nor tidy, nor well-dressed in the old days! Not very complimentary to me, I must say," began Peggy lightly, and then caught sight of a tear-drop glittering on Mellicent's eyelashes, which sobered her very quickly. Crying? No, surely not; yet tears were there, undeniable tears, filling the blue eyes, and rolling slowly down over the pink cheeks. Peggy dropped down on her knees, and clasped her hands round the plump blue waist.
"Why, Mill, what is it? What grieves you, dear? What have I done, or said, or looked—horrid thing that I am!—to vex you within ten minutes of your arrival? I never, never meant it!"
"You haven't done anything! It's my own fault. I'm sorry to be so silly, Peggy, but all this time I have been longing and longing to see you, and thinking that it would be just the same as in the old days; but, oh, Peggy, we've led such different lives, and it's not the same— oh, it's not the same at all! I have stood still, but you have moved on, and there's such a big, big difference. I realised it all of a sudden, and began to cry like a baby, but it's not your fault. It's only because I am so fond—so fond of you, Peggy, and so sorry to think—"
"You dear, sweet goose! Stop crying this minute, and listen to me. There is no difference between us, and it's going to be exactly the same. You are Mellicent Asplin, and I'm Peggy Saville, and after my very own people I love the dear old vicaragers more than any one else in the world. I never change in my affections, and in other respects the day may yet dawn, my love, when you may wish that I had altered considerably more than I have. Will it help you to recognise me if I pull your hair, eli?—or tickle you under the chin, eh?—or give a nice little jolt to your elbow just as you lift your cup, eh?" cried Peggy, illustrating each inquiry in practical fashion, while Mellicent giggled in the midst of tears, and dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.
"D-o-on't! You'll spoil my dress. Oh, Peggy, it is good of you, and I did so want to come, and will you really promise not to be ashamed of me, if I make stupid mistakes, and look dowdy and horrid when we go out together?"
"I'll be ashamed of you, and furious into the bargain, if you hint at such a thing again. I'm not a snob, thank goodness! Now sit up, my dear, and drop sentiment, and attend to tea. Take a cress sandwich, and don't cry over it, I beseech you! If there is one thing more objectionable than another, it is wet salad. Tell me all about home, and every one in it. Are they looking forward to my advent, and is cook remembering my favourite puddings? I've got a present for every one— such a beautiful white shawl for Mrs Asplin, a tiger skin for your father's study, some old manuscripts for Esther, as I could not think of anything she would like better, and—"
"And what for—How very nice! So kind of you, Peggy, to think of us!" protested Mellicent, drawing herself up with sudden recollection, but palpitating with curiosity to hear what her own share might be. "Esther hopes to get home while you are with us, but she can't tear herself from her precious pupils for more than a week. She has three little boys whom she is training for school, and teaching Latin and Greek and mathematics and all sorts of horrid things. You would hate it, Peggy, and so would I, but Esther loves it, and grudges every moment she is away."
"I can imagine it! The little rascals scrawling substantives on their slates—'O frog—To a frog—By, with, or from a frog!' and Esther's solemn distress over a wrong termination. Isn't it a blessing that we are made differently, and that some people are born with such wonderful patience and forbearance? I pity their poor little knuckles if I were in charge. But then I was always hastily inclined. Your father used to say that Esther and Rob had far more of the scholarly spirit than Rex, though he must have worked hard to get through his examinations so well. Dear old Rex, how I should love to see him again! It seems so funny to think of him as a full-fledged doctor, with a practice of his own! How does he like living in the North, and how does he get on?"
Mellicent shrugged her shoulders uncertainly.
"Pretty well, only it's such a disgustingly bracing place that no one is ever ill. Rex says it is most depressing to look out of the windows and see the healthy faces! He gets so tired waiting for patients who never come. I stayed with him for a week in the winter, and whenever the bell rang we used to rush out into the hall, and peer over the banisters to see who was there, and if it was a patient Rex kept him waiting for ten minutes by his watch, to pretend that he was busy, though he was really dying to fly downstairs at once. He makes very little money, and father has to help him a good deal; but last month something happened which he hopes will help him on. The mayor of the town had a carriage accident just opposite his house, and was nearly killed. Wasn't it luck for Rex? He was so pleased! The mayor was carried into the house, and could not be moved for days, and the papers were full of 'Dr Asplin this, and Dr Asplin that,' as if he was the biggest doctor they had! The mayoress seems to have taken a fancy to him too, for she begs him to go to their house as often as he likes, without waiting to be asked. It will be nice for Rex to have some friends in the town, for he daren't go far from home. Oswald and his wife live within an hour's rail, and often invite him there, but he is afraid to go, in case a patient should appear!"
"Oswald's wife! How strange it sounds! I have never heard anything about her, and am so curious to know what she is like! What account did Rex bring when he came home from the wedding?"
"He said he couldn't attempt to describe her, but that you could meet seventy-six girls exactly like her any day of the week. Rather pretty, rather fair, rather nice, rather musical! Everything rather, and nothing very! and thinks Oswald the most wonderful man in the world. She can't be very clever herself, if she thinks that, can she? Oswald was always a regular dunce!"
"Oh, 'dunce' is too strong a word, Chubby! He was not brilliant, but you must remember that he suffered from contrast with his companions. Rex was very bright, if he was not exactly clever, and it is not often that you come across such a really scholarly boy as Rob Darcy!"
Peggy busied herself with the arrangement of the tea-tray without glancing in her friend's direction, and with an air of studied carelessness. She herself knew that she had dragged Rob's name into the discussion for no other object than to set Mellicent's ready tongue to work on a subject about which she was longing for information, and she was alarmed lest her intention might be suspected. Mellicent, however, had retained her comfortable obtuseness, and rose to the bait with innocent alacrity.
"Well, I don't know if you call it scholarly to think of nothing in the world but beetles, and grubby little plants that no one ever heard of before; but I call it idiotic. He is worse than Esther, because, after all, schoolboys are human creatures, and sometimes you can't help liking them, though they are so tiresome, but nobody could love a beetle! I said so once to Rob, and he snubbed me dreadfully, and talked at me for half an hour. I didn't understand half he said—for it was all in technical beetley language, but it was meant to prove that it was wrong to say anything of the sort, or refuse to see the beauty hidden away in the meanest created thing."
"Quite true! I agree with Rob. He was perfectly right."
"But, Peggy, a beetle! And to care for nothing else! You have no idea what a regular old hermit Rob has become. He is perfectly wrapped up in beetles!" cried Mellicent, with a descriptive elegance of diction, at which her hearer shuddered visibly. "He takes no interest in anything else!"
Peggy smiled, and her head took a complacent tilt.
"That's bad! That will have to be altered. He'll take interest in me, my dear, or there'll be trouble! I believe in a man devoting himself to his work, but Rob is too nice to be allowed to bury himself completely. I must rouse him up! A fortnight from now we will meet again, and the treatment will begin. Meanest creatures are all very well in their way, but superior ones demand their own share of attention. Rob always did as I told him, and he will not disappoint me now."
Mellicent gazed at her friend in reflective fashion. She called up before her a picture of Rob's great stooping form, his shaggy head, and overhanging brows, and contrasted it mentally with that of the slim little, neat little, prettiest of elf-like figures before her. No, it was not in the least likely that Rob would disappoint Peggy Saville. "Those dreadful Savilles" had now, as ever, the power of enforcing obedience from their vassals.
"But all the same," she repeated obstinately, "but all the same he would have liked you better if you had been a beetle!"
The next morning was devoted to another house-hunting expedition, unsuccessful as its predecessor, while in the afternoon came a fresh excitement, in the shape of a call from Arthur's "chief," accompanied by his wife and daughter. Mr Rob had had a slight acquaintance with Colonel Saville years before, so that the interview lost some of the stiffness incidental to such occasions; and while the two men talked together in one corner of the room, their wives exchanged condolences on the ever-fruitful subject of domestic arrangements, and the three girls cast curious glances at one another in the intervals of conversation.
"I am afraid you must find the weather chilly. Our English springs are very treacherous!" remarked Miss Rollo properly, turning her card-case round and round in her hands, and blinking rapidly with a pair of shy grey eyes, veiled by eyelashes of extraordinary length and silkiness. As the only child of distinguished parents, Miss Eunice Rollo was a personage of some importance in society; but she appeared much more afraid of the two girls than they were of her, and kept her eyes fixed so persistently on the carpet that Mellicent enjoyed an unusual opportunity of indulging a favourite pastime, and sat braced against the back of her chair, staring stolidly up and down, down and up, until she could have passed an examination on the minutest detail of the stranger's appearance and clothing. As for Peggy, she prattled away on the engrossing subjects of sun and rain, while her thoughts went off on an excursion of their own, and busied themselves with criticisms on the new visitor.
"Eunice by name, and Eunice by nature! A more Eunicey creature I never beheld. Grey eyes like Mrs Asplin... I could love her for those alone, but so solemn! I'd like to wake you up, my dear, and make you look more like a real live girl, and less like a marionette. The way that Mellicent stares is disgraceful. She must be made to stop."
Peggy cleared her throat in meaning fashion, met the wide blue eyes and frowned a warning. Any other girl in the world would have understood and obeyed; but Mellicent only gaped the more, raised questioning eyebrows, and even mouthed a dumb inquiry. Peggy screwed up her face into a vicious glare of anger, at which moment, it is needless to say, Eunice seized the opportunity to lift her eyes from the carpet. For one second amazement held her motionless, then she fell to work on the card- case with redoubled zeal, and tilted her hat over her face. Her eyes could not be seen, but her lips were twisted on one side, and her cheeks grew suddenly, mysteriously pink. Was she laughing? Was she angry? Peggy could not tell, but she felt an intense curiosity to discover, and a dawning suspicion that Eunice was perhaps not quite so "Eunicey" after all.
"It is very nice to come home to the old country again, and to see all our friends. Miss Asplin and I had lessons together for four years, so that, as you may imagine, we have a great deal to talk over now that we have met again," she explained; and Miss Rollo replied with elaborate politeness:
"I can indeed. It must be delightful I hope you will bring Miss Asplin with you, if you come to us on Wednesday. We are having a reception in the evening, with music and tableaux. It will be a crush, I'm afraid, but you may find it amusing. Rosalind Darcy is coming. She has been staying in the country for a week, but she will be back by then, and would like to see you, I'm sure. I hope you will be able to come."
"Oh, I hope so!" The answer came simultaneously from two pairs of lips, and Mellicent drew in her breath with a gasp of pleasure. It was beginning already. What excitement—what joy—what delight! Only the first day of her visit, and behold! an invitation to one of the best- known houses in London, where with her own eyes she should behold those great people of the world whom she had read about, but never, never expected to see. At this rate, Mellicent reflected, she would find herself on intimate terms at Court before the fortnight was concluded; and oh! the joy of returning home and speaking in casual tones about Princes of the Blood, Dukes and Marquises, and Cabinet Ministers, for, the edification of village hearers! Her complacency vented itself in a long postscript to the letter already written to her mother, a postscript of such characteristic nature as delighted that appreciative lady, and which was read aloud with much unction to her husband, and a friend of the family who happened to be paying a call at the time, whereby, as will be seen, certain things came to pass which would not otherwise have happened.