More About Pixie, 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. It was a passing joke in the book that it was surprising that the butler, on discovering a young couple kissing, did not say, "Allow me, madam."
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. N.H.
MORE ABOUT PIXIE
BY MRS. GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
A NEW NEIGHBOUR.
The night nurse was dusting the room preparatory to going off duty for the day, and Sylvia was lying on her water-bed watching her movements with gloomy, disapproving eyes. For four long weeks—ever since the crisis had passed and she had come back to consciousness of her surroundings—she had watched the same proceeding morning after morning, until its details had become almost unbearably wearisome to her weak nerves.
First of all came Mary to sweep the floor—she went down on her knees, and swept up the dust with a small hand-brush, and however carefully she might begin, it was quite, quite certain that she would end by knocking up against the legs of the bed, and giving a jar and shock to the quivering inmate. Then she would depart, and nurse would take the ornaments off the mantelpiece, flick the duster over them, and put them back in the wrong places.
It did not seem of the least importance to her whether the blue vase stood in the centre or at the side, but Sylvia had a dozen reasons for wishing to have it in exactly one position and no other. She liked to see its graceful shape and rich colouring reflected in the mirror which hung immediately beneath the gas-bracket; if it were moved to the left it spoiled her view of a tiny water-colour painting which was one of her greatest treasures, while if it stood on the right it ousted the greatest treasure of all—the silver-framed portrait of the dear, darling, most beloved of fathers, who was afar off at the other side of the world, tea-planting in Ceylon.
Sylvia was too weak to protest, but she burrowed down among the clothes, and moped to herself in good old typhoid fashion. "Wish she would leave it alone! Wish people wouldn't bother about the room. Don't care if it is dusty! Wish I could be left in peace. Don't believe I shall ever be better. Don't believe my temperature ever will go down. Don't care if it doesn't! Wish father were home to come and talk, and cheer me up. Boo-hoo-hoo!"
The tears trickled down and splashed saltly against her lips, but she kept her sobs under control, for crying was a luxury which was forbidden by the authorities, and could only be indulged in by stealth.
The night nurse thought that the patient had fallen asleep, but when she went off duty, and her successor arrived, she cast a suspicious glance at the humped-up bedclothes, and turned them down with a gentle but determined hand.
"Crying again?" she cried. "Oh, come now, I can't allow that! What are you crying about on such a lovely, bright morning, when you have had such a good night's rest?"
"I had a horrid night. I couldn't sleep a bit. I feel so mum-mum- miserable!" wailed the patient dolefully. "I'm so tired of being in bed."
"You won't have very much longer of it now. Your temperature is lower than it has ever been this morning. You ought to be in good spirits instead of crying in this silly way. Come now, cheer up! I am not going to allow such a doleful face."
"I'm very cheerful when I'm well. Ask Aunt Margaret if I'm not. I've a most lively disposition. Everyone says so," whined Sylvia dismally. "I'm tired of everything and everybody. So would you be if you'd been in bed for two months."
"Tired of me as well as the rest?"
"Yes, I am. You are a nasty, horrid, strict, cross thing." But a smile struggled through the tears, and a thin hand stole out from beneath the clothes and pressed the white-sleeved arms in eloquent contradiction. Whatever Sylvia was tired of, it was certainly not this gentle, sweet- faced little woman who—humanly speaking—had brought her back from the verge of the grave. She snoodled her head along the pillow so as to lean it against the nurse's shoulder, and said in weak, disconnected snatches, "I'm sorry—I'm so horrid. I feel so cross and low-spirited. I want—a change. Can't you think—of something nice?"
"You are going to have some beautiful chicken-soup for your lunch. It is in a perfect jelly."
"Hate chicken-soup! Hate the sight of soup! Want to have salmon and cucumber, and ice creams, and nice rich puddings."
Nurse laughed complacently.
"So you shall—some day! Glad you feel well enough to want them now. Would you like to be carried to the sofa by the window for an hour this afternoon, while your bed is being aired and made comfortable? I think it would do you good to lie in the sunshine, and the doctor could help me to carry you. It would be quite exciting to see a glimpse of the outer world, wouldn't it?"
"Rather! I can't believe that everything is going on just the same. Are all the neighbours alive still? Is the old man at the corner alive? Has the little girl at Number Five grown-up and put on long frocks? I feel as if I had been lying here for years and years. I believe I have grown grey myself. Give me a hand-glass, Whitey, and let me see how I look."
Whitey walked obediently across the room, and brought back the silver- backed glass from the dressing-table. She was accustomed to her nickname by this time, and was indeed rather proud of it than otherwise. She had been known successively as "Spirit of the Day," and "The White Nurse," during the hours of delirium, and the abbreviation had a natural girlish ring about it, which was a herald of returning health.
"There, look at yourself, Miss Conceit!" she cried laughingly, and Sylvia held the glass erect in both hands and stared curiously at her own reflection. She saw a thin, clear-cut little face, with arched eyebrows, large brown eyes, an aquiline nose, and full, pouting lips. The cheeks showed delicate hollows beneath the cheek bones, and the eyes looked tired and heavy, otherwise there was no startling change to record.
"I don't look as much older as I expected, but I've got a different expression, Whitey—a sort of starved-wolf, haggard, tired-out look, just exactly like I feel. Aren't I beautifully thin? It's always been my ambition to be slim and willowy, like the people in fashion plates. I shall be quite a vision of elegance, shan't I, Whitey?"
"Um! Well," said Whitey vaguely, "you must expect to look very slight after lying in bed for so long, but it doesn't matter about that. You won't trouble about appearances, so long as you feel well and strong again."
"Yes, I shall!" said the invalid stubbornly. She turned her head on one side and stared intently at the long plaits of hair which trailed over the pillow—her "Kenwigs" as she had dubbed them, after Charles Dickens's immortal "Miss Kenwigses," who are pictorially represented in short frocks, pantaloons, and tight plaits of hair, secured at the ends by bows of ribbon.
"My Kenwigs look very thin," she said anxiously. "I used to have three thick coils. People's hair doesn't come out after typhoid fever, does it, Whitey? I shall be furious if mine does."
"Oh, hair generally comes out a little in autumn," replied Whitey easily. "Now you have looked at yourself quite long enough. I will put back the glass and prepare some food while your aunt comes to see you, but I shall tell her not to talk too much, for the doctor won't let you be moved if you are looking tired and exhausted."
Sylvia sighed to herself, for interviews with Aunt Margaret were a decided trial in these days of convalescence, when every nerve seemed on edge and ready to be jarred. She was nearly twenty-two, and for the first year after leaving school the dear old dad had been in England, and she had had the most delightful time travelling about with him. He always declared that he was a poor man, that tea was doing so disgracefully badly, that he expected to retire into the workhouse in the course of the next year, but, all the same, he never appeared to be short of money, and the travelling was done in the most comfortable and luxurious of fashions. Sylvia was his only child, and in his eyes was the most beautiful and accomplished creature in the world, so that it was a trying experience to be domiciled with an elderly maiden aunt, whose ideas were as early Victorian as her furniture, who had forgotten what it felt like to be young, and was continually aggrieved because her niece had not learned to be old.
During the long year of idleness Sylvia had cherished the idea that her father would take her back to Ceylon, when she would reign as Queen of the Bungalow, charm the hearts of the coolies by her beauty and dignity, pay frequent visits to Kandy, and become one of the favourites of society; but when it came to the point it appeared that he had no intention of the sort. In two or three years he hoped to be able to settle in England, and meantime his ambition for his daughter demanded that she should remain at home and devote her time to music, for which she showed an unusual talent. If he had other reasons he kept them to himself, but as a matter of fact he dreaded a possible marriage abroad, which would condemn the girl to a life of separation from so much that is good and pleasant, and if any qualms arose as to the cheerfulness of the home in which he was leaving her, he consoled himself by the reflection that he would be able to make up for temporary deprivations in the years to come.
Mr Trevor sailed off to the East, and Sylvia took up her abode at Number 6 Rutland Road, in an unfashionable suburb in the north of London, and settled down to being a "good industrious girl" with what grace she might. She did not understand Aunt Margaret, and Aunt Margaret felt it a decided trial to have her sleepy home invaded by a restless young creature, who was never so happy as when she was singing at the pitch of her voice, rushing up and down stairs, and playing silly schoolboy tricks; but fate had ordained that they were to live together, and they had jogged along more or less peacefully until that unlucky day when the girl had sickened for her dangerous illness. Then, indeed, Aunt Margaret realised that she had grown to love her wayward charge, and all the manifold demands and inconveniences of illness were swallowed up in anxiety during the first anxious weeks. She allowed not only one, but two of "those dreadful nurses" to take possession of her spare rooms, submitted meekly to their orders, and saw her domestic rules and regulations put aside without a murmur of protest; but when the crisis was safely passed, and recovery became only a matter of time, the old fussy nature reasserted itself, and her eyes were open to behold the dire results of a long illness.
This bright October morning she came stooping into Sylvia's bedroom, a slight woman with a narrow bent back, brown hair smoothed neatly down on each side of a withered, dried-up face, with a patch of red on the cheek bones, and sunken brown eyes roving restlessly to right and left. She wore a black stuff dress, a satin apron with pockets and an edging of jet, and knitted mittens over her wrists—a typical old lady of the ancient type. Yet as she stood beside the bed there was a curious likeness to be observed between her face and the one on the pillow; and Sylvia recognised as much, and felt a thrill of dismay at the thought that some day she, too, would be frail and bent, and wear a cap and mittens, and have rheumatic joints, and attacks of bronchitis if by chance she was so imprudent as to go out without putting on goloshes, a woollen "crossover," and a big silk muffler beneath her mantle. To one- and-twenty it seemed an appalling prospect, and one to be shunted into the background with all possible speed.
"Well, my love, and how are you this morning? Much better, I hear. A good drop in temperature," said Aunt Margaret, pecking her niece's cheek with her lips, and answering her own question without waiting for a reply, as her custom was. "Nurse tells me that you will soon be up again, and I'm sure it is time. This room needs a regular spring cleaning, and as for the new drugget on the landing—three new spots of milk this morning, to say nothing of what has gone before! If I had known you were going to be ill I would have made the old one last another year, for it is sheer waste of money buying new things to have them ruined in six months. The last one was down thirteen years, and looked very little worse than this does now!"
"Father will buy you another. You must put it down as one of the expenses. He won't mind so long as I get better," said the invalid wearily; whereupon Aunt Margaret drew herself up with an air of wounded pride.
"Indeed, my dear, your poor father will have enough to do to pay all the doctors and nurses without being called upon for extras. I am willing to bear my own share, though I will say my stair-carpets have had as much wear and tear in the last two months as in half a dozen years before, and that Nurse Ellen is a most careless creature, she leaves everything in a muddle! If you get up, my dear, you must wear my wadded jacket. I had a young friend—she was the cousin of Sarah Wedderburn, who lived in Stanhope Terrace, and married young Johnson of Sunderland.—You have heard me speak of the Johnsons, who were at school with your Aunt Emma?"
Sylvia blinked her eyelids in a non-committal manner which might be taken either for assent or denial. She was afraid to confess ignorance of the Johnson family, lest Aunt Margaret's love of biography should take a further flight in order to recall Sarah Wedderburn's cousin to her remembrance.
"And what did she do?" she queried weakly. "Don't tell me anything gruesome, please, aunt, because I feel so low-spirited this morning that I can't bear anything depressing!"
"I should be very sorry to depress you, my dear. Nothing is farther from my wishes, and if she had been careful nothing need have happened. Her sister told me it was all her own fault for not being sufficiently wrapped up. I'll tell you the whole story another day when there is more time, for now I must go out to do my housekeeping. These meals will be the death of me! The cloth is never off the table. I quite expect Mary will give notice at the end of the month, and goodness knows what we shall do then, for it seems impossible to get hold of respectable girls. The milk-bill has just come in for the month. Ruinous! Ruinous! Now, my love, you must really cheer up and try to look more like yourself. Perhaps I shall find you on the sofa when I come back. Tell nurse not to use my best cushions; your own pillows will do perfectly well."
She bustled out of the room, and Sylvia stared into space with a doleful face.
"It's all very well to ask me to be cheerful, when she tells me in the same breath that I am ruining her, and her beloved furniture. I'm sure I didn't want to be ill! If dad were at home he would never reproach me." The tears were very near falling once more, but just at that moment there came the sound of a manly footstep, and in walked the doctor, large, stout, beaming, a very incarnation of health and good spirits.
"Well, and so nurse tells me you think of going to the seaside to-day! You are getting tired of yourself, and want a change—eh? I don't wonder at that. You think you would enjoy having a little peep at the world again? Let me feel your pulse and see if I can allow it."
The pulse was quite satisfactory, so nurse and doctor promptly set to work to spread blankets on the couch, draw forward screens to prevent possibility of draught, and bank up pillows to allow a glimpse of the road beneath. Then Sylvia clasped her arms tightly round the nurse's neck, the doctor raised her feet, there was a moment's dizzy confusion, while her eyes swam and her ears hummed, and there she lay on the sofa, as at the end of a long and arduous journey, while her attendants wrapped her up in blankets and eiderdowns, and looked anxiously to see how she had borne the exertion. The little face was very white, but bright with pleasure and excitement, and the offer of smelling salts and cordials was laughed aside with good-natured contempt.
"No, no—I'm all right—just a little breathless after that whirl through space. How funny the room looks! I've looked at it broadways so long that I can't recognise it from this point of view. Is that the water-bed? What a strange-looking thing! just like a lot of hot bottles joined together. It is comfortable over here! I'd like to stay all day. Oh, oh, oh! here's the butcher's cart! How lovely it is to see the world again!"
The jovial-looking doctor shrugged his shoulders as he took his departure. The poor child must have been in sad straits indeed if she found the sight of a butcher's cart so exciting! He would have enjoyed sitting beside her and listening to her rhapsodies, but was obliged to hurry off to other patients, while Whitey seated herself beside the couch, and began hemming strips of muslin to be made into those starched cap-strings which were tied so jauntily beneath her chin.
"Oh, Whitey," cried Sylvia, "I feel better already! It all looks so bright, and cheerful, and alive! I'm simply dying to go out for a drive, and to see the people walking about. I used to think this such a dull little road, but now it seems quite gay and fashionable. I've seen three perambulators already, to say nothing of the butcher's cart! I wish the Number Seven lady would go out for a walk, and let me see her autumn clothes. She wears all the colours of the rainbow, and looks like a walking kaleidoscope... Whitey! Oh, Whitey!"
The weak voice rose to a squeal of excitement, and the nurse bent forward curiously to discover the reason of so much agitation. To the ordinary eye, however, there was nothing to be seen, for Sylvia's outstretched hand pointed to a semi-detached villa in no way distinguished from the rest of the row.
"It's taken!" she cried—"Number Three is taken! It has been empty for a year, and I have simply longed for someone to come, for it is the most convenient house to watch, and I take such interest in the neighbours. It's pretty lonely for me here, for I haven't a single girl-friend. Father kept me at school in Brussels for the sake of learning the language, but almost all the girls were French or American, and none of them live in London. Aunt Margaret introduced me to some 'young friends' when I first arrived, but I thought they were horrid prigs, and I suppose they thought I was mad, so the friendship didn't progress. I amuse myself with my music and in dreaming of the time when father comes home, but every time a house changes hands I have a wild hope that there will be a girl in the family, who would be lively and jolly like myself. I'm very nice when I'm well, Whitey—I am really! You needn't laugh like that. I daresay you would be fractious yourself if you had to lie in bed for months and months, and had an old griffin to mount guard over you, who made you eat against your will, and bullied you from morning till night... What was I talking about last? Oh yes, I wanted to ask if you had seen anything of these new people, and what they were like."
"I haven't had much time for looking out of the window, but I have seen a young lady and gentleman going out and in. I think they are a newly- married couple, for they look very juvenile and affectionate. He is dark and handsome, and she is fair, and I should say very pretty."
Sylvia's face clouded with disappointment.
"Bother the husband! She won't want me or anyone else to interrupt the duet. I do wish it could have been a family with a daughter. The curtains don't look newly-married, Whitey!"
"No, they don't. I thought that myself. The house doesn't look as smart and fresh as one expects under the circumstances, but perhaps they are not well off, and had to be content with what they could get. You should not leap to the conclusion that she won't want you. Brides often feel very lonely through the day when their husbands are in the city, and I should think she would be delighted to have a friend of her own age so near at hand. We will watch and see if we can get a glimpse of her. She is almost sure to have gone out for a walk this fine morning, and if so she will come home in time for lunch."
From that moment Sylvia's eyes were glued to the window, and every woman between the ages of sixteen and sixty was in turn heralded as the bride, and scornfully laughed aside by the nurse.
"I told you that she was young and pretty!" she repeated laughingly. "I didn't mean that she was a schoolgirl, or a middle-aged woman. If she is coming at all she will be here within the next half-hour, so lie still and rest, and I'll play Sister Anne for you."
Ten minutes passed, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, and Whitey was beginning to hint at a return to bed, when at last the longed-for figure hove in sight. Sylvia raised herself on her pillows and peered eagerly forward, her scarlet dressing-jacket making a brilliant patch of colour against the background of white. She saw a slight, graceful figure clad in a tightly fitting black cloth costume, and a mass of flaxen hair beneath a sailor hat, and even as she looked the girl raised her head and stared upward with eager interest. She had a delicate, oval face and grey-blue eyes beneath thoughtful brows, but at the sight of the invalid the whole face flashed into sunshine, and the lips curled into a smile of such irrepressible rejoicing which was more eloquent than words. The next moment her head was lowered, and she walked demurely up the path dividing the little gardens, while Sylvia lay back on her pillows a-quiver with excitement.
"Oh, oh, the d-arling! What a perfect duck of a darling! Did you see her smile? Didn't she look glad to see me? Whitey, why did she look so pleased? What can she know about me?"
"My dear, she has seen the doctor's carriage drive up at all hours of the day, and two nurses going in and out, to say nothing of the bark which was laid down on the road. She must have known that someone was seriously ill, and no doubt the servants have told her that it was a young girl like herself. Yes, it was delightful to see her. You won't have any better congratulation on your recovery than that smile!"
"Whitey, she is in black! Brides don't wear black."
"They are obliged to wear it sometimes, dear. You can't lay down a rule about such things."
"She looks too young to be married. She ought to play about with me for a year or two first. I hate that man for taking her from me! That's the girl I should marry myself if I had a chance. Do find out what her name is, Whitey. Mary is sure to know, for she gossips with the other servants while she is cleaning the steps. Yes, I'll go back to bed now. I'm tired, and I don't care to see anyone else. I'll go to sleep and dream about that smile!"
AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR.
"Aunt Margaret, can you tell me anything about the people who have come to Number Three? I saw the lady coming in just now while I was sitting up, and I do so want to know her. Have you been to call while I was ill?"
Miss Munns crossed her hands on her lap, and looked the image of dignified reproach.
"My dear, do you suppose I have had leisure for social engagements? I know nothing about the people, except that their blinds are invariably crooked, and every one drawn up to a different length. Most untidy the house looks! A dear friend of mine used to say—Mary Appleford, whose father was the clergyman in my old home in Leicestershire—charming old man who married Lady Evelyn Bruce—most aristocratic family!—Mary always declared that she could judge a woman's character by the appearance of her windows. Judged from that standpoint, I should not feel disposed to call on the mistress of Number Three."
"But you haven't seen her, aunt; if you did, you could not help loving her. She looked so delighted to see me sitting up, and gave me such a delicious smile!"
"Smiled at you, do you say? A most unladylike thing to do! The first advances should come from our side, as she would know if she had any experience of society. I hope, my dear, that you were not so foolish as to respond. One cannot be too careful about strangers in this big wicked city. I shall never forget my poor dear cousin telling me how she called on a most superior-looking lady who came to live in the same terrace, and two months later the police raided the house, and it turned out that the husband made false coins in the back kitchen, and the wife circulated them among the tradesfolk. So awkward for Maria!"
Sylvia brought her eyebrows together in a frown, and tossed about on her pillow. She felt irritated and disappointed, and that made her head ache, and the headache sent down her spirits again, and eclipsed the brightness of the morning. If Aunt Margaret refused to call, she could not make the acquaintance of the fair unknown, and it would be a tantalising experience to see her every day, and, yet be as far removed from friendship as if they lived a dozen miles apart!
During the weeks which followed, nurse and patient kept a close watch on the little house over the road, and were rewarded by witnessing several interesting domestic scenes.
On Saturday afternoon, for instance, Edwin came home early to show himself in his turn. He was tall, dark, and handsome; dressed in the height of the fashion, and bore himself with such an air of complacency and benign patronage towards his fellows, that he looked far more like a prince of the blood than an ordinary city man. He carried a little bunch of flowers in his hand, and whistled as he drew near the gate in orthodox, newly-married fashion, and the pretty girl flew to the door, and nodded her head at him in happy welcome. He bent down to kiss her, and she took the flowers and sniffed at them lovingly; then they walked together down the little path to examine the growth of some sooty chrysanthemums and three struggling creepers placed against the house.
Edwin shook his head after the inspection, as though it had been far from promising, and then, instead of looking disappointed, they both laughed, turned round and round to look over their twelve-yard domain, and laughed again as if it were the best joke in the world. Then Angelina said something in a low aside, whereupon Edwin strolled to the gate, and in the most casual manner looked up the road and down the road, and then straight across at the window where the invalid lay!
"She told him to look!" cried Sylvia breathlessly, and her pale cheeks flushed until they were almost as red as the dressing-jacket itself. "He is very handsome, Whitey. I don't dislike him as much as I expected. Oh dear, they look disgustingly happy! I am sure they don't want me a bit, and I want them dreadfully. He doesn't seem the sort of man to coin false money, does he? Do please casually remark to Aunt Margaret how very nice and distinguished they look! It's my one object in life at present to make her call upon them."
The next day the situation developed still further, for a form was seen seated at a window, who must, of course, be Edwin; yet he looked strangely younger and fairer in colouring. Nurse and patient debated the point hotly, until presently the door opened and out came one, two, three masculine creatures, all as like as peas in a pod, except for the difference in years which divided Edwin from the handsome striplings on either side. They stood together in the tiny garden, obviously waiting for the mistress of the house, and when she did not appear, the youngest of the three picked up pieces of gravel and threw them up at a bedroom window, while the others whistled and beat upon the gate with their sticks.
Angelina strolled to the window in response to these demonstrations, and stood smiling at them while she fastened on her hat, but she did not appear to hurry herself in the least, nor did the brothers show any signs of annoyance at their long waiting. When at long last she made her appearance, there was great manoeuvring to get a place by her side, and away they trotted, four abreast, pushing everyone else off the pavement, but apparently blissfully unconscious of anything unusual in the proceeding.
Sylvia and Whitey watched until the last flutter of the black dress disappeared from sight, then fell to work to settle the identity of the new actors in the drama.
"They are brothers—there is no doubt about that; but they can't live there, Whitey! That wouldn't be at all newly-married. Do you suppose they are here for the day? Perhaps they are in rooms in town, and Angelina lets them come down over Sundays sometimes as a treat. They seem very fond of her, and quite at home. I think that is the most likely explanation, don't you?"
"I really think it is. Or they might live in the country and have come up to pay a visit and see the sights," said Whitey thoughtfully.
She was thankful to find a subject of interest in these long days of convalescence to keep her patient's mind from dwelling on depressing topics. Truth to tell, Sylvia was not getting well so quickly as had been expected, and besides more serious drawbacks there were minor troubles, trying enough to the girlish mind. She had to learn to walk again, like a baby, her back ached so badly that if she tried to stoop she screamed aloud with pain, and, worse than all, the plaits of hair grew small and beautifully less, until there was hardly anything left to plait. Sylvia had been proud of her hair, so she grew alarmed, and finally sent off in haste for her special barber to give advice and consolation in the difficulty. Consolation was not forthcoming, however, and the advice offered was by no means acceptable.
"You can't do nothing—there's nothing will be a bit of good," the man said dolefully. "Whatever you do, it's bound to come. The wisest thing would be to be shaved at once, and give it a start."
Sylvia fairly screamed with horror and consternation.
"Shaved!" she cried. "I? I go about with a bald head—a horrible, bare, shiny scalp! I'd rather die! I'd rather—I'd rather—I'd rather anything in the world! It's no use talking to me, Whitey; I will—not— be shaved!"
"Very well, dear," assented Whitey easily. "Then you shan't. We will just have a few inches cut off, and get a lotion to rub in to help the growth. I daresay the old hair will keep on until the new appears, and then you need never have the horrible experience of seeing a bald head."
"I never should see it in any case. I'd buy a wig and wear it night and day. Nothing would induce me to look in the glass when it was off. I should never respect myself again. And oh, Whitey, even at the best the new hair will be ages growing, and it will be impossible to do anything with it!"
"Not at all. You can wear it short and curly. It would look very pretty, and suit you so well."
Whitey was aggressively cheerful, but Sylvia refused to be comforted.
"It would be hateful. I don't know anything more dejected-looking than to see the back of a shorn head under a pretty hat. I won't allow my hair to fall out, and that's the end of it!"
"Well, p'r'aps it won't, after all, miss! We must 'ope for the best," said the barber cheerfully.
He and Whitey talked incessantly all the time the hair-cutting was proceeding, with the fond hope of distracting the girl's attention; but in naughty mood she refused to listen, insisted on sitting directly in front of her glass, and was rewarded for her pains by catching a glimpse of a bald spot on the crown of her head, which put the finishing touch of depression.
When the doctor arrived for his morning visit, he found a most melancholy patient, and held a serious consultation with nurse on the staircase before departing.
"She seems very low and listless this morning. Can't you do something to cheer her up? I am afraid we are going to have trouble with that foot, and if she has to lie up again it will never do for her to get in a melancholy condition. You do your best, I know, but she needs a change. There is no reason why she should not see visitors. Has she no young friends who could come to have tea with her, and make her laugh?"
Whitey sighed, and leant against the banisters with a dejected air. It is exhausting work being cheerful for two, and no one would have welcomed a laughing stranger more heartily than herself. The question was,—where was she to be found?
"She was lamenting to me the other day that she had no girl-friends. She went abroad to school, and has had little opportunity of making acquaintances since she came home. Miss Munns is very—conservative. She does not care to associate with her neighbours. There is a charming girl who has come to live opposite. We watch her from the window, and Sylvia has been trying to persuade her aunt to call for the last three weeks; but it is useless. I'm sorry, for she looks just the very person we want."
"Won't call, won't she? We'll see about that. I'm not going to have my patient thrown back, after all the trouble I've had with her, for fifty old ladies and their prejudices. You leave it to me!" cried the jovial doctor, and tramped downstairs into the parlour to give his orders forthwith.
A little diplomacy, a little coaxing, a few words of warning to revive affectionate anxiety, a good big dose of flattery, and the thing was done; and, what was better still, Aunt Margaret was left under the happy delusion that the projected visit was the outcome of her own inspiration. She said nothing to the invalid, but at half-past three that afternoon she put on her woollen crossover, and a black silk muffler, and her best silk dolman, and dear Aunt Sarah's sable pelerine, and her Sunday bonnet, and new black kid gloves, two sizes too big, carried her tortoiseshell card-case in one hand, and her umbrella in the other, and sailed across the road to call at Number Three.
Sylvia had gone back to bed after lunch by her own request. The hair- cutting ordeal had tired her out, and there was, besides, a deep-seated wearing pain in one foot and ankle which made her long to lie still and rest. She tried to sleep, and after long waiting had just arrived at that happy stage when thoughts grow misty, and a gentle prickling feeling creeps up from the toes to the brain, when a patriotic barrel- organ began to rattle out the strains of "Rule, Britannia" from the end of the road, and the chance was gone. Then Whitey read aloud for an hour, but the book had come to a dull, uneventful stage, and the chapters dragged heavily.
Sylvia longed for tea as an oasis in this desert of a day, and despatched nurse to bid Mary bring it up half an hour before the usual time. And then came a charming surprise! Back came Whitey all smiles and dimples, the tired lines wiped out of her face as by a miracle. She stood in the doorway, looking at her patient with dancing eyes.
"I've brought you something better than tea!" she cried. "Just look what I have brought you!" As she spoke she moved to the side, as if to make room for another visitor, and—was it a dream, or could it really be true?—there stood the bride of Number Three, the sweet-faced Angelina, in her black dress, her grey eyes soft with welcome.
"Oh!" cried Sylvia shrilly. "Oh—oh!" She sat up in bed and stretched out two thin little hands, all a-tremble with excitement. "It's you! Oh, how did you come? What made you come? How did you know I wanted you so badly?"
"I wanted you too!" said the girl quickly. She had a delightful voice; soft, and deep, and musical in tone, and she was prettier than ever, seen close at hand. Best of all, she was not a bit shy, but as frank and outspoken as if they had been friends of years' standing. "Your aunt called on me this afternoon," she went on, coming nearer the bed, and sitting down on the chair which nurse placed for her. "She invited me to come to see you some day, but I've a dislike to waiting, if there's a good thing in prospect, so I asked if I might come at once, and here I am! I'm so glad you wanted to see me. I have watched you from my window, ever since you first sat up in your pretty red jacket."
"And you looked up and smiled at me! I have watched you too, and wanted to know you so badly. I've been ill for months, it seems like years, and was so surprised to see that your house was taken. You can't think how strange it is to creep back to life, and see how everything has gone on while you have lain still. It's conceited, of course, to expect a revolution of nature, just because you are out of things yourself, but I didn't seem able to help it."
"I'm like that myself!" said the pretty girl pleasantly. There was a soft gurgle in her voice as of laughter barely repressed, and she pronounced her i's with a faint broadening of accent, which was altogether quaint and delightful.
Sylvia mentally repeated the phrase as it sounded in her ears, "Oi'm like that meself!" and came to an instant conclusion. "Irish! She's Irish. I'm glad of that. I like Irish people." She smiled for pure pleasure, and the visitor stretched out a hand impulsively, and grasped the thin fingers lying on the counterpane.
"You poor creature, I'm grieved for you! Tell me, is your name Beatrice? I'm dying to know, for we had a discussion about it at home, and I said I was sure it was Beatrice. I always imagine a Beatrice dark like you, with brown eyes and arched eyebrows."
"I don't! The only Beatrice I know is quite fair and fluffy. No, I am not Beatrice!"
"But you are not Helen! I do hope you are not Helen. The boys guessed that, and they would be so triumphant if they were right."
"No, I'm not Helen either. I'm Sylvia Trevor."
"'Deed, you are, then! It's an elegant name. I never knew anyone living by it before, and it suits you, too. I like it immensely. Did you,"—the grey eyes twinkled merrily—"did you find a nickname for me?"
Sylvia glanced at Whitey and smiled demurely.
"We called you Angelina. Oh, we didn't think that was really your name, but we called you by it because you looked so happy and er—er affectionate, and pleased with everything. And we called your husband Edwin, to match. Those are the proper names for newly-married couples, you know."
The girl stared back with wide grey eyes, her chin dropped, and she sat suddenly bolt upright in her chair.
"My what?" she gasped. "My h—" She put her hands against her cheeks, which had grown quite pink, and gurgled into the merriest, most infectious laughter. "But I'm not married at all! It's my brother. He is not Edwin, he is Jack, and I'm Bridgie—Bridget O'Shaughnessy, just a bit of a girl like yourself, and not even engaged."
Sylvia sank back in the bed with a great sigh of thanksgiving.
"What a relief! I was so jealous of that husband, for I wanted you for myself, and if you had been married you would have been too settled-down and domestic to care for me. I do hope we shall be friends. I'm an only child, and my father is abroad, and I pine to know someone of my own age."
"I know; your aunt told me. We talked about you all the time, for I had been so interested and sorry about your illness, that I had no end of questions to ask. What a dear old lady she is! I envy you having her to live with. I always think one misses so much if there is no old person in the house to help with advice and example!"
The invalid moved restlessly on her pillows, and cast a curious glance at her companion. The grey eyes were clear and honest, the sweet lips showed not the shadow of a smile; it was transparently apparent that she was in earnest.
Sylvia felt a pang of apprehension lest her new friend was about to turn out "proper," that acme of undesirable qualities to the girlish mind. If that were so, the future would be robbed of much of its charm; but the discussion of Aunt Margaret and her qualities must be deferred until a greater degree of intimacy had shown Bridgie the difficulties, as well as the advantages, of the situation. In the meantime she was longing to hear a little family history, and judiciously led the conversation in the desired direction.
"You are four young people living alone, then? for I suppose the two younger boys are brothers also. How fond they seem of you!"
"Why, of course. They dote upon me," said Miss O'Shaughnessy, with an air of calm taking-for-granted which spoke volumes for the character of the family. Then she began to smile, and the corners of her lips twisted with humorous enjoyment. "I wouldn't be saying that we don't have a breeze now and again, just to vary the monotony; but we admire one another the more for the spirit in us. And it's pleasant having an even number, for we can fight two against two, and no unfairness. Maybe they are a bit more attentive than usual just now, for they have been without me most of the winter, poor creatures! We have had a troublous time of it these last two years. My dear father died the spring before last, and we had to leave our home in Ireland. Then one sister was married, and another went to Paris for her education, so there were two trousseaux to prepare, and when all the fuss and excitement was over I was worn-out, and the doctor said I must do nothing but rest for some months to come. The boys went into lodgings, while I junketed about visiting friends, and they are so pleased to get into a place of their own again, that they don't know how to knock about the furniture enough, or make the most upset!"
It seemed to Sylvia an extraordinary manner of appreciating the delights of housekeeping, and she attempted to condole with the young mistress, only to be interrupted with laughing complacency.
"'Deed, I don't mind. Let them enjoy themselves, poor dears. It's depressing to boy creatures to have to think about carpets and cushions, and have no ease at their writing for fear of a spot of ink. I care far more about seeing them happy, than having the furniture spick and span. What was it made for, if it wasn't to be used?"
Sylvia groaned heavily.
"Wait until you have been in our drawing-room!" she said. "The chairs were originally covered in cherry-coloured repp,—over that is a cover of flowered chintz,—over that is a cover of brown holland,—over that is a capacious antimacassar,—over that, each night of the week, is carefully draped a linen dust sheet. The carpet is covered with a drugget, the ornaments are covered with glass shades, the fire-screen is covered with crackly oilskin. Even the footstools have little hoods to draw on over the beadwork. I have lived here for two years, and on one occasion we got down as far as the chintz stratum, when Cousin Mary Robinson and dear Mrs MacDugal from Aberdeen came to stay for the night, but my eyes have never yet been dazzled by the glory of the cherry-coloured repp."
Bridgie lengthened her chin, and shook her head from side to side, with a comical air of humiliation.
"Ah, well, tidiness is a gift. It runs in the family like wooden legs. Some have got it, and others haven't, so they must just be resigned to their fate. I'm going to see these repp covers, though! I'll wheedle and wheedle until one cover comes off after another, and never feel that I have done credit to Old Ireland until I get down to the foundation." She rose from her chair, and held out a hand in farewell. "Nurse said I was to stay only a few minutes, as you were tired already, but I may come to tea another day if you would like to have me."
"Oh, do, please! Come often! You can't think how I should love it. Will you come for a drive with me some day, when it is bright and sunny?"
"I will. We could have a nice chat as we went along. I have not told you about my sisters yet. I have the dearest sisters in the world!" said Bridgie O'Shaughnessy.
Bright and sunny days are not common in November, but the invalid managed to go out driving in such fine blinks as came along, and in each instance "Angelina" was seated by her side. The friendship was progressing with giant strides, and doctor and nurse looked upon Bridgie O'Shaughnessy as their greatest assistant in a period of great anxiety.
Sylvia was now able to sit up and work and read; head and eyes had come back to their normal condition, but the treacherous disease had left its poison in foot and ankle, and the pain on movement became more and more acute. It required all the cheer that the new friend could give to hearten the invalid when once more she was sent back to counterpane land, with a big cage over the affected part to protect it from the bedclothes, and all manner of painful and exhausting dressings to be undergone.
Sylvia fumed, and grumbled, and whined; she grew sulky and refused to speak; she waxed angry and snapped at the nurse. Worst of all, she lost hope, and shed slow, bitter tears, which scalded the thin cheeks.
"I shall never get better, Whitey," she sobbed miserably. "I shan't try; it's too much trouble. You might as well leave me alone to die in peace."
"It's not a question of dying, my dear. It's a question of healing your foot. If I leave you in peace, you may be lame for life. How would you like that?" said Whitey bluntly. She knew her patient by this time, and understood that while the idea of fading away in her youth might appear sufficiently romantic, Miss Sylvia would find nothing attractive in the prospect of limping ungracefully through life. The dressings and bandagings were endured meekly enough after that, but the girl's heart was full of dread, and the long dark days were hard to bear.
It became a rule that, instead of taking the meal alone, Bridgie O'Shaughnessy should come across the road to tea, and sit an hour in the sick-room while Whitey wrote letters or went out for a constitutional. She came with hands full of photographs and letters and family trophies, to give point to her conversation, and make her dear ones live in Sylvia's imagination.
One day there was a picture of the old home—such a venerable and imposing building that Aunt Margaret, beholding it, felt her last suspicions of counterfeit coining die a natural death, and gave instructions to Mary that the second-best tea-things were to be taken upstairs whenever Miss O'Shaughnessy was present. Sylvia was impressed too, but thought it very sad that anyone who had lived in a castle should come down to Number Three, Rutland Road. She delicately hinted as much, and Bridgie said—
"Yes, it would be hard if we took it seriously, but we don't. It's just like being in seaside lodgings, when the smallnesses and inconveniences make part of the fun. We are going home some day, when Jack has made his fortune, and until then my brother-in-law rents the Castle from us, and we go over and stay with him once or twice in the year. Esmeralda is mistress of Knock, and is having it put in such terrible order that we can hardly recognise the dear old tumbledown place. There is not a single broken pane in the glass-houses!" Bridgie spoke in a tone of almost incredulous admiration, the while she drew a large promenade photograph from its envelope. "There, that's Esmeralda! Taken in the dress in which she was presented."
Sylvia looked, and gasped with surprise. Such a vision of beauty and elegance, such billows of satin, such lace, such jewels and nodding plumes, were seldom seen in this modest suburban neighbourhood. She had never before had any connection with a girl who had been presented at Court, and the face which looked out of the photograph was as young as her own—startlingly, dazzlingly young.
"Your sister? Really! How per-fectly lovely and beautiful! Is she really as pretty as that? How old is she? What is her husband like? Is she very happy? She must be very rich to have all those beautiful things."
"She has more money than she can spend. Can you imagine that? I can't!" said Bridgie solemnly. "I asked Esmeralda what it felt like to be able to get whatever she liked without asking the price, and she said it was very soothing to the feelings, but not nearly so exciting as when she used to make up new hats out of nothing at all and a piece of dyed ribbon. She is only twenty—younger than I, and as beautiful as a picture. Geoffrey adores her. She has a dear little baby boy to play with, and wherever she goes people turn round to look after her, so that she walks about from morning till night in a kind of triumphal procession."
"How nice!" sighed Sylvia enviously. "Just what I should like. No one turns round to look after me, and I feel a worm every time I walk down Bond Street among all the horrible creatures who look nicer than I do myself. People say—sensible old people, I mean—that it is bad for the character to have everything that one wants. Do you think it is so in your sister's case? Is she spoiled by prosperity?"
Esmeralda's sister hesitated, loyally unwilling to breathe a word against a member of her family.
"She is just as loving and generous as she can be; thinks of every single thing that father would have liked, and makes a perfect mistress of the old place. The people adore her, and are in wholesome awe of her, too—far more so than they ever were of me. The boys get cross sometimes because she expects us to do exactly what she wishes, and that immediately, if not sooner, but it doesn't worry me. I agree with all she says, and then quietly go my own way, and the next time we meet she has forgotten all about it. She is just the least in the world inclined to be overbearing, but we all have our faults, and can't afford to judge each other. She has been a dear sweet sister to me!"
Bridgie smoothed the tissue paper carefully over the portrait and put it back in its envelope. Then she picked up a smaller photograph from the table, and her face glowed with tenderness and pride. "Now!" she cried, and her voice was as a herald's trumpet announcing the advent of the principal character upon the stage. "Now, here she comes! Here's Pixie! Here's our Baby!"
Sylvia sat up eagerly and held the photograph up to the light. She looked at it, and blinked her eyes to be sure she had seen aright. She cast a swift look at Bridgie's face to assure herself that she was not the victim of a practical joke. She pressed her lips together to repress an exclamation of dismay. She had expected to behold a vision of loveliness—the superlative in the scale in which the two elder sisters made positive and comparative, but what she saw was an elf-like figure sitting huddled in the depths of an arm-chair, with tiny hands clasped together, and large dilapidated boots occupying the place of honour in the foreground. Lank tails of hair fell to the shoulders, and while the nose was of the smallest possible dimensions, the mouth seemed to stretch right across the face. It seemed impossible that this comical little creature could belong to such a handsome and distinguished-looking family, still more so that her belongings should be proud of her rather than ashamed, yet there sat Bridgie all beams and expectancy, her sweet lips a-tremble with tenderness.
"That's little Pixie! Esmeralda gave her two shillings for unpicking some old dresses, and she went into the village and got photographed for my birthday present. There was a travelling photographer down for a week, and it's wonderfully like her for eighteenpence. The other sixpence she spent on a frame—green plush, with shells at the corners. Esmeralda had remarks to make when I put it on the drawing-room mantelpiece, and offered to give me a silver one instead." Bridgie smiled and shook her head with an expression which showed that the price of the green plush frame was above rubies. "No, indeed! It's not likely I will give up Pixie's present."
"She is not very like any of you!" Sylvia said lamely. She wanted to be pleasant and appreciative, but could not think what on earth to say next. "It must be—er—very nice to have a little sister. She is in Paris, you say. Will she be away long?"
"She is coming home for good in January. Geoffrey and Esmeralda are going over to bring her back, and she will go on with finishing lessons at home. We can't do without each other any longer. I feel quite sore with wanting her sometimes, and she is home-sick too. I had a letter from her this morning. Would you like me to read it to you to show you what she is like?"
"Please do!" said Sylvia politely, but in reality she was rather bored by the prospect.
It was one of Aunt Margaret's peculiarities that she insisted upon reading aloud the letters which she received from old-lady friends, and the incredible dulness of the epistles made them a trial to the patience of her lively young niece. She stifled a yawn as Bridgie straightened the sheets of foreign note-paper, and cleared her throat with prospective enjoyment.
"'Dearest, Darling People, especially Bridgie,—I was gladder than ever to get your letters this week, because it's been raining and dull, and the mud looked so home-like that it depressed my spirits. Therese has gone out for the day, so Pere and I are alone. He wears white socks and a velvet jacket, and sleeps all the time. He told me one day that he used to be very active when he was young, and that was why he liked to rest now. "All the week I do nozzing, and on Sundays I repose me!" I teach him English, but he doesn't like to talk it much, because it's so difficult to be clever in a foreign language.
"'My dear, I never suffered more than when I first came here, and Therese telling everyone how amusing I was, and myself sitting as dumb as a mummy! I can talk quite beautifully now, and wriggle about like a native. I'll teach you how to shrug your shoulders, and you hold up your dress quite differently in France, and it's fashionable to be fat. Last night Therese let me have two girls for souper. They are called Marie and Julie, and wear plaid dresses, and combs in their hair. I like them frightfully, but they are very rude sometimes, saying France is better than England, and that we have big teeth and ugly boots. Then they got angry because I laughed, and said England always thought she was right, but that everyone else knew she was a cheat and a bully, and that she was the most disliked nation on earth! "And you are the politest," says I, quite composed, and at that they got red in the face, for I was all alone, and there were two of them in their own country.
"'When they went away they kissed me, and said they were sorry, and that my teeth weren't big a bit, and I said France was an elegant country, but you couldn't wear high heels in Ireland, or you'd never be free of the bog. It's a pity French people don't like us, and I don't think they always mean exactly what they say, but they make beautiful things to eat.
"'Therese gives me cooking lessons out of school hours, and I've lost my taste for coffee with grounds in it, like we had at Knock. Everything is as clean as if it were quite new, and there is such a different smell in the houses—a lonely smell! It makes me long for home and you, and a peat fire, and all the people in the streets speaking English, and never as much as thinking of the tenses of verbs.
"'You are quite sure I may come home in January, aren't you, Bridgie? You are not saying it just to pacify me? I'll tell you a secret! Once I thought of running away and coming back to you in London, because I couldn't bear myself any longer. I said to Therese, just in a careless kind of way, as if I had only thought of it that moment: "Supposing now that a young girl was in Paris, and wanting to run away to her friends in England, how would she set about getting there?"
"'And she never suspected a bit, for she said:—
"'"Supposing that she lived in this suburb, it would be quite easy to manage. She should rest tranquil until the family were in bed, and no one in the streets but thieves and robbers, and then slip out of the house and walk to the station. There would be no voiture, but perhaps the thieves may not see her, and all of them do not care about kidnapping children. When she reaches the station, she will take her ticket for England—it costs but a few sovereigns—and she has only to change twice, and get through the custom-house. If all went well, she would be in London next morning, while the poor friends in Paris might cry as much as they liked—they could not bring her back."
"'She seemed to think it quite easy, but I was afraid of the thieves, and had only three francs in my purse; and that afternoon they were both awfully kind to me, and Pere called me cherie, and Therese took me to the circus. The clown is called August, but the principal one is English, because they are the best. He made English jokes, and I laughed as loudly as I could, to show that I understood. The other people smiled with their lips, don't you know—the way people do when they don't understand, but think it is grand to pretend. I feel so stylish being English in France. When I come home to London, I'll be French!
"'Esmeralda sent me a book and some money for Christmas presents. Tell Jack to write me a funny letter with illustrations. How is the poor girl with the bark on the road? We haven't a single animal in the house, not even a cat. I miss them frightfully. Do you remember when my ferret died, and I filled up to cry, and the Major bought me a white rat for consolation? Health, and tons of love, darling, from your own Pixie.'"
Sylvia chuckled softly from the bed.
"It's not a scrap like a letter," she said. "It is just like somebody talking. What a jolly little soul! She seems very young, doesn't she? Some girls of sixteen are quite young ladies."
"Pixie will always be a child," said Pixie's sister fondly. "There is something simple and trustful about her which will keep her young all her life. She is so transparently honest, that it never occurs to her that anyone else can be different; and she is the kindest, most loving little creature that was ever created. Don't you think she looks a darling in the photograph?"
It had come at last, the dreaded question, and Sylvia tried her best to combine truthfulness with politeness.
"She has very sweet eyes. It is difficult to judge when you have never seen a person. She—she isn't exactly pretty, is she?"
"Pretty—Pixie pretty! I should think not, indeed!" cried Bridgie, with a heat of denial which seemed singularly out of keeping with the occasion. From the manner of her reply it was evident that she considered Pixie's plainness a hundred times more distingue than Esmeralda's beauty. "She's the quaintest-looking little creature that ever you set eyes on, with the dearest, funniest face! Father used to call her the ugliest child in Galway. He was so proud of her, bless him!"
Bridgie sighed pensively, and Sylvia stared at her with curious eyes. So far she had made the acquaintance of but one member of the O'Shaughnessy family, but it seemed as though they took the various trials and vicissitudes of life in a very different spirit from the people with whom she herself had associated. Instead of moaning over the inevitable, they discerned the humour of the situation, and in happy fashion turned the trial into a joke.
"I wonder," sighed Sylvia to herself, "I wonder where the joke comes in in losing your hair. I suppose she would say it was so cool to be bald!" Not even to herself would she put into words the deeper, crueller dread which lay hauntingly in the background of her mind!
The foot refused to heal, and one morning a well-known surgeon followed Dr Horton into the sick-room. The very sound of his name was as a death-knell to the girl in the bed, but she controlled herself by a mighty effort, and strained every nerve to watch the faces of her attendants during the examination which followed. She knew that they would keep up appearances in her presence, and so long as possible hide the worst from her knowledge; but if she appeared unsuspicious they would perhaps be less careful, and a stray word, an interchange of glances, might show the direction of their thoughts. She lay perfectly still, not even flinching with pain when the diseased bone was touched, for the tension of mind was so great as to eclipse bodily suffering; but the cool, business-like manner of the great surgeon gave no hint of his decision, while Dr Horton was as cheerful, Whitey as serenely composed, as on ordinary occasions.
The cage was replaced over the foot, the bedclothes put in order, a few pleasant commonplaces exchanged, and the trio adjourned for consultation. Trained to their work of self-repression, not one of them had given the slightest hint of what was feared, but their precautions were undone by the thoughtless haste of the watcher outside.
Miss Munns was hovering about the landing awaiting the verdict, and trembling at the thought of the news which she might have to send to her brother, when the door opened and the surgeon came towards her. Dr Horton and the nurse followed, and before the door was closed behind them an eager whisper burst from her lips—
"Can you save it? Must you ampu—"
Before the word was completed the surgeon's hand was over her lips, Whitey brought to the door with a bang, and three pale faces stared at each other in consternation. Had Sylvia heard? Could she have overheard? That was the question which was agitating every mind. They strained their ears for a cry from the sick-room, but no cry came. Whitey looked at the doctor and made a movement towards the door, and he bent his head in assent.
"Yes! Go in as if you had forgotten something. She may have fainted. Poor child, it was enough to make her!"
Tears of remorse were standing in Aunt Margaret's eyes, but she waited silently enough now while Whitey re-entered the room and strolled across to the window to pick up the book in which she wrote the daily report. She smiled at Sylvia as she passed, and Sylvia looked at her quietly, quite quietly, and the dark eyes showed no signs of tears. Whitey went back to the doctors with lightened face, and eased their minds by a definite assurance.
"She heard nothing. She is lying quite still and composed. She cannot possibly have heard."
They turned and went downstairs to the dining-room. Sylvia heard their footsteps die away in the distance, the opening and shutting of the door. The brown eyes shone with unnatural brilliancy, the hot hands were clasped tightly together beneath the sheet.
"God," she was crying deep down in her soul, "do You really mean it? I've been very wicked often, I've forgotten You and taken my own way, but I'm so young—only twenty-one—don't make me lame! I'll be good, I'll think of other people, I'll be grateful all my life. Don't make me lame! Think what it means to a girl like me to lose her foot! I have no mother, nor brothers, nor sisters, and father is far-away. It would be so dreadful to be shut up here and never, never run about any more. Have pity on me. Don't make me lame!"
It was a cry from the depths of her heart, very different from the formal prayers which she was accustomed to offer morning and evening—a plea for help such as she would have addressed to her dear earthly father in any of the minor difficulties of life, but in this great crisis of her fate she must needs go straight to the fountain of comfort—the Great Physician who was able to save the soul as well as the body.
All the rest of the day, as she lay so quietly on her pillows, she was talking to Him, pleading for deliverance, setting forth pathetic girlish arguments why she should be spared the coming trial. When the thought arose of many others younger than herself who were leading maimed lives, she thrust the memory aside as something which could not be faced, and her lips refused to utter the words which she had been taught to affix to her petitions. "'Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done.' I can't say it, Lord. I can't mean it!" she cried tremblingly. "Not yet! Forgive me, and be patient with me. I'm so frightened!" and even as the prayer went up, the assurance came into her soul that the Heavenly Father would understand, and show towards her the divinest of sympathy and patience.
For some reason which she would have found difficult to explain to herself Sylvia felt an intense disinclination to let her attendants know what she had overheard. She perceived that they were more than usually tender towards herself, and they on their part were puzzled by the quiet of the once restless patient. She grumbled no more about small unpleasantnesses—oh, how small they seemed! She was content to lie still and think her own thoughts, and seemed to have lost all interest in the ordinary events of the day.
Only once in the twenty-four hours did a smile light up the set face, and that was when Bridgie O'Shaughnessy appeared for her afternoon visit, and seated herself by the bedside. On one of these occasions, a week after the surgeon's first visit, Whitey went out for, her daily walk, and Sylvia watched her go and peered anxiously round the screen to make sure that the door was really shut. Then she stretched out her hand, and gripped Bridgie by the wrist. It was a very thin, feeble- looking hand, but the grip had nothing feeble about it—it was almost painful in its strength, and the brown eyes had a glazed misery of expression which made Bridgie tremble at the thought of what was to come.
"Bridget O'Shaughnessy, you call yourself my friend. Will you tell me the truth?"
"I'll not promise that, me dear. I'll not deceive you about anything if I can help it, but you are an invalid, and there are some questions which you should not ask me. Only the doctor should answer them."
But Sylvia went on with her story as if she had not heard the protest.
"The other morning Sir Alfred Heap came to see my foot. He said very little about it to me, and after examining it, went out of the room to consult with Dr Horton. Aunt Margaret was waiting for them on the landing, and they were not quick enough in shutting the door. I heard what she said. To-morrow morning Sir Alfred is coming again. Bridgie,—is he going to cut off my foot?"
"He is not, darling. He is going to give you chloroform and do something to the bone to try to make it sound and healthy again."
"And if that fails, will he cut it off then?"
"He will operate again, and go on trying as long as he dare."
"And if everything else fails, then—"
"Yes, Sylvia," said Bridgie gently.
Downstairs in the dining-room Miss Munns had been consulting with Whitey as to how the patient was to be prepared for the ordeal of to-morrow, and by whom the news should be broken. Whitey had taken the task upon herself with the unselfish heroism of her profession, but her pretty face was worn with the strain of this long anxious case, and Bridgie's heart had ached for her in her painful task. Now, in the midst of her own agitation, she felt a thrill of unselfish joy that she had been able to take one burden at least from those heavily-laden shoulders.
Sylvia knew not only of the ordeal of the morrow, but also of that nightmare dread of what might have to follow. She had known it for a week past, and had lain quietly on her bed with all the horror and misery of it locked up in her own heart. Such restraint seemed almost incredible to the outspoken Irish nature, but Bridgie's words of admiration brought an added shade over the invalid's face.
"No, it was not bravery, it was cowardice! I was like an ostrich hiding my head in the ground for fear of what I might see. I literally dare not ask until it came to the last moment. Oh, Bridgie, what a week it has been! Going to sleep with the weight on my heart; waking up and thinking, 'What is it? What is it?' and the shock of remembering afresh! I lay and thought it all out; never to be able to run, nor bicycle, nor skate, nor dance, nor even walk without crutches, to dread going upstairs, to be cut off from girls of my own age because I could not take part in their amusements, to hear people say 'Poor thing!' and look pitifully at me as I hobbled by. I've tried to be resigned and take it like invalids in books, but—I can't! I feel desperate. Bridgie, suppose it was you! How would you feel?"
"I should cry myself ill for two or three days, and then brisk up and be thankful that if it was one foot, it wasn't two!" said Bridgie quaintly. "That is, if I were quite certain about it, but I never believe in disagreeable things until they have really happened. Hope for the best as long as you can. You have clever doctors and nurses, and you will have a better chance if you keep up your spirits."
Sylvia shook her head hopelessly.
"It's easy to be philosophic for someone else. I could preach beautifully to you, Bridgie, if you were lying here instead of me, but the suspense is so hard to bear! I feel as if I could not live through another week like the last. Have you ever known what it was to drag through the days with a nightmare of dread growing bigger and bigger, nearer and nearer, to look ahead and see your life robbed of the things you care for most, to hope against hope, while all the time your heart is sinking down—down—"
"Down—until it is just one great big ache clouding out the whole world? Yes, I know!" said Bridgie quietly. "I have never had a bad illness, but my trouble came to me in a different way, Sylvia, and my time of suspense was not days, but weeks and months, I might almost say years, except that even my hopes died out before that time arrived!"
The two girls looked at each other intently, and the blank depression on the invalid's face gave place to one of anxious sympathy.
"You mean, of course, that it was a mental trouble. Could you tell me about it, Bridgie, do you think? I don't want to force your confidence, but I am so interested in you, and it would do me good to be sorry for someone beside myself. Was it a—love affair?"
"I cared for him, but I am afraid he could not have liked me very much," said Bridgie sadly. "I have never spoken of him except to Esmeralda and one other person, but I don't mind telling you, dear, if it will be the least bit of help to you now. We seem to know each other so well that it seems absurd to think we had not met, two months ago.
"It was just someone I met one time when I was visiting, and when he was ordered abroad he asked if he might write while he was away. I was very happy about it, for I had never seen anyone I liked so much, and we wrote to each other regularly for over a year. They were not love- letters; just quite ordinary, sensible, telling-the-news, but there was always one little sentence in his which seemed to say more than the words, and to tell me that he cared a great deal. If a stranger had read it, he would not have understood, but I knew what he meant, and I used to skim over the pages until I came to those few words, and they were the whole letter to me.
"Looking back now I can see how I lived in expectation of mail day, but suddenly his letters stopped. When father was pronounced hopelessly ill, I sent him a hurried note, saying that we should have to leave the Castle, for all the money was gone, and from that day to this I have heard no more. It was very hard coming just then, Sylvia!
"For the first few months I was not really uneasy, though very disappointed. I knew that a soldier's life is not always his own, and that he might have been ordered to a part of the country where it was impossible to send off letters, but then I read his name as taking part in some function in Bombay, and I knew that could be the case no longer. I would not tell Esmeralda to depress her in the midst of her happiness, so I just sat tight and waited, and the time was very long.
"When it came near mail day my hopes would go up, for it's my nature to be cheerful. The postman would knock at the door, and my heart would go head over heels with excitement, and it would be a circular, or a bill wanting payment. Another time he would not come at all, and that was worse, for one went on drearily hoping and hoping, and pretending that the clock was fast. Now I forget mail days on purpose, for it is nearly eighteen months since he wrote last, and I have given up all hope of hearing."
Sylvia drew a deep sigh, and knitted her forehead.
"I can't believe that anyone could forget you when he had once cared. You are so different from other girls. It is most strange and mysterious. Do you think that perhaps—you won't mind my suggesting it—the money had some influence with him? Perhaps he thought you were an heiress—at any rate, that your people were rich and influential, and when he heard that you were poor he may have changed."
"No!" said Bridgie decisively. "No, I won't think it! I won't let myself think so badly of anyone for whom I have cared so much. I don't know what his reasons were, and perhaps I never shall, but I would rather believe the best. Some people don't find it easy to remember when they are far-away, and he might have a delicacy in writing to say that he had forgotten!
"If I had still been Miss O'Shaughnessy of Knock, I should have sent just one more letter to ask if anything was wrong, but I had too much pride to obtrude myself as Bridgie of nowhere. I have no reason to believe that my letter went astray, and even if it had, he would have written again if he had wished to hear. He is alive and well, I know so much, and I'm well too, and very happy with my boys. I had a bad time of it, and the suspense had more to do with making me ill than the hard work of that summer; but now I have faced the worst, and have far too much to do to be able to mope. Boys are such cheering creatures! They give you so much work. The very darning of their socks is a distraction!"
"It would distract me in a very different way!" said Sylvia, with a smile.
The operation was successful and unsuccessful—that is to say, the fear of amputation was removed; but it became abundantly evident that it would be a very long time before Sylvia recovered the power of walking about with ease.
A few weeks earlier she would have been heartbroken at the prospect of a spell of crippledom, but the greater troubles eclipse the less, and compared with that other paralysing dread, it was a passing inconvenience at which she could afford to smile.
Poor child! her first impulse on recovering from the chloroform had been to dive to the bottom of the bed to feel if the foot were still there, and her elastic spirits went up with a bound as she listened to the surgeon's reassuring report. She was perfectly willing to lie on the sofa and give up all idea of Christmas festivities, willing, in fact, in the relief and joy of the moment, to promise anything and everything if only she might look forward to unimpaired strength in the future.
As for Miss Munns, she rejoiced with grumbling, as her custom was, mingling thankful speeches with plaints for her own deprivations, to the mingled distress and amusement of her hearers. Christmas was drawing near, and there had been no time to prepare for the proper keeping of the festival, for cook had been too much occupied with jellies and beef- teas to have any time to spare. There were no mince-pies in the larder, no plum-puddings in their fat cloth wrappings, no jars of lemon cheese, no cakes, no shortbread, not so much as a common bun-loaf, and Aunt Margaret hung her head, and felt that a blot had fallen upon her escutcheon.
"I can't fancy Christmas with bought mince-pies!" she said sadly. "I've kept house for forty years and never failed to make four plum-puddings— one for Christmas Day, one for New Year, one for company, and one for Easter. Some people make them without eggs nowadays, but I keep to the old recipe. My mother's plum-puddings were quite famous among her friends. Of course, my dear, we have great cause for thankfulness, and I should have had no appetite if you had lost your foot; but it really upsets me to look at that larder! How many pounds of mincemeat have you made, Miss O'Shaughnessy, may I ask?"
Sylvia was lying on the sofa in the drawing-room, to which she had been carried in time for tea, and Bridgie was sitting beside her, looking with wondering eyes at the muffled splendours which she now beheld for the first time. She blushed as she heard the question, and adroitly evaded an answer, for, to tell the truth, she bought her pies from the pastry-cook, and congratulated herself on the saving of trouble.
"Oh, indeed, we get through a great deal, for the boys think nothing of three pies at a sitting. I'd be obliged to you, Miss Munns, if you would lend me your recipe for the pudding, for my cook is not the cleverest in the world, and, as Jack says, there is no monotony about her results. If she does a thing well three times, there's all the more chance that it will be wrong the fourth, when you are encouraged to ask a friend to dinner."
Aunt Margaret sawed the air with her mittened hands, and shook her cap in solemn denunciation.
"Method, my dear—method! They won't take the trouble to measure the ingredients, but just trust to chance, so what can you expect? You shall have the recipe with pleasure, but if you take my advice you will look after the weighing yourself. Are you expecting any friends for the day, or perhaps one of your sisters?"
"No—we shall be quite alone. My married sister wanted us all to go to Ireland, but the boys cannot spare the time, and I will not leave them." Bridgie sighed, and a shadow passed over her face. "It won't seem like Christmas to have no coming nor going, and Esmeralda and Pixie so far- away. I have been trying to think of a diversion for the boys, but I might spare myself the trouble, for I've no money to pay for it if I had the idea."
"Straitness of means is a great curtailer of pleasure," said Miss Munns, gazing solemnly into space over the edge of her spectacles. "In my own family we have had sad experiences of the kind. My great-uncle was in most comfortable circumstances, and kept his own brougham and peach- houses before the failure of the Glasgow Bank. They removed to Syringa Villas after that, and did the washing at home. I shall never forget calling upon Emma the first Tuesday that the clothes were hanging out to dry in the back garden, and finding her in tears, with the blinds drawn down. She had a great deal of family pride, had poor Emma, for her mother belonged to the leading circles in Wolverhampton, and the steam of clothes in the boiler is most depressing unless you have been brought up to it from a child. George died soon after. He never held up his head again, and Emmeline, the daughter, had a very good offer from a corn-broker. She was a fine-looking girl, with black eyes and her poor father's nose. She looked very well in the evening, when she was dressed, and had a colour."
"And did she marry the corn-broker?" queried Bridgie eagerly.
Sylvia was flushed and frowning, more than half ashamed of the old lady's disclosures, fearful lest they might affect her own importance in the estimation of a friend who had lived in a Castle, and owned a sister who went to Court, and profoundly uninterested in Emmeline and her destiny; but Bridgie was all animation and curiosity, her grey eyes wide with anxiety as to the success of the corn-broker and his suit. Here, indeed, was a listener worth having, and Miss Munns warmed to her task with even more than the usual enjoyment.
"My dear, you would hardly believe the time poor Emma had with that girl! She took a fancy to a bank clerk on two hundred a year, and nothing would suit but she must be engaged to him. He gave her a turquoise ring, I remember—a shabby thing that could not have cost more than a sovereign, and Emma was quite mortified when people asked to see it. They were engaged for five years, and she lost all her looks, and he had a bicycling accident, and hurt his right arm so badly that he could not write.
"Emma insisted that the engagement should be broken off, but the stupid girl would not listen to reason. She had a little legacy from her godmother about that time, and his father allowed him something, so they were married, and went abroad to try a cure for his arm. He is back at work again, and they seem happy enough; but it was a poor match for her, and they can only afford one servant. The corn-broker said he could never look at a girl again, but he married one of the Miss Twemlows within the year. Perhaps you know the Twemlows? They are a very well- known family in their suburb."
No, Bridgie did not know them, but her expression seemed to denote that she was quite ready to listen to their family history, in addition to those which she had already heard. But this was more than Sylvia could bear, and she hastened to interrupt the flow of her aunt's reminiscences.
"You have not heard from Aunt Emma lately—at least, you have not told me of her letters. I suppose you have not seen her while I have been ill?"
Miss Munns pursed up her lips in a manner which seemed to imply that she was in possession of some weighty secret, but from motives of prudence was resolved to conceal it from the world.
"I have heard from her, my dear. I have not seen her. As I said in my reply, everything must give way to illness, though I am very sorry indeed to think of her alone in the house. Emmeline can't leave the baby, so it is only natural that her mother should want some companionship over Christmas. I would have had her here instead, but the house is so upset that I am not prepared for visitors. It is very pleasant meeting from time to time, being contemporaries as we are, and having gone through so many troubles together. There is nothing I enjoy more than talking them over with your Aunt Emma, and I am grieved to disappoint her. Of course I made up my mind from the first to say nothing about it to you."
Now it was Bridgie's turn to look blank, and Sylvia's to question anxiously.
"Do you mean that she invited you for Christmas, and that you refused because of me? Oh, Aunt Margaret, you must not do that! You need a change, and it would be a relief to have all arrangements taken off your hands. Whitey and I could manage quite well by ourselves. Do please change your mind and write to say that you will go!"
"My love, I assure you that I considered the matter very carefully before I decided, and it is impossible for me to leave home. I have promised nurse that she shall spend two days with her sister, coming round each morning to attend to your foot, and I should not like to disappoint her. It is only natural that she should wish to be with her own friends. I sympathise with her, but I don't complain. It is not your fault that your illness has upset my plans, and it is my duty to be resigned and cheerful."
Aunt Margaret testified to her sense of duty by heaving a sigh of funereal proportions, the while Sylvia's brow became fretted with lines, and she turned a glance of despair upon her friend.
To be condemned to spend Christmas alone with Aunt Margaret in this mood of melancholy resignation; to realise that she had deprived her of the happiness of talking over past troubles with poor dear Emma; to listen from morning to night to her transparently-veiled repinings—this was indeed a cheerful prospect for an invalid, who might naturally have expected to receive the sympathy herself.