PEGGY STEWART AT SCHOOL
GABRIELLE E. JACKSON
Author of "Peggy Stewart at Home," "Silver Heels," "Three Graces" Series, "Capt. Polly" Series, etc.
The Goldsmith Publishing Co. New York N. Y. Made in U.S.A.
Copyright, 1918 by Barse & Hopkins
I. THE BAROMETER FALLING 1 II. RECONSTRUCTION 16 III. HOSTILITIES SUSPENDED 32 IV. HOSTILITIES RESUMED 48 V. RUCTIONS! 64 VI. A NEW ORDER OF THINGS 81 VII. COLUMBIA HEIGHTS SCHOOL 97 VIII. A RIDING LESSON 114 IX. COMMON SENSE AND HORSE SENSE 131 X. TZARITZA AS DISCIPLINARIAN 149 XI. BEHIND SCENES 167 XII. CHRISTMAS AT SEVERNDALE 184 XIII. YULETIDE 202 XIV. AT SEVERNDALE 221 XV. IN SPRING TERM 239 XVI. A MIDNIGHT SENSATION 256 XVII. A SEND-OFF WITH FIREWORKS 274
THE BAROMETER FALLING
The September morning was warmer and more enervating than September mornings in Maryland usually are, though the month is generally conceded to be a trying one. Even at beautiful Severndale where, if at any point along the river, a refreshing breeze could almost always be counted upon, the air seemed heavy and lifeless, as though the intense heat of the summer had taken from it every particle of its revivifying qualities.
In the pretty breakfast room the long French windows, giving upon the broad piazza, stood wide open; the leaves upon the great beeches and maples which graced the extensive lawn beyond, hung limp and motionless; the sunlight even at that early hour beat scorchingly upon the dry grass, for there had been little rain during August and the vegetation had suffered severely; every growing thing was coated like a dusty miller. But within doors all looked most inviting. The room was scrupulous; its appointments indicated refined taste and constant care; the breakfast table, laid for two, was dainty and faultless in its appointments; our old friend, Jerome, moved about noiselessly, giving last lingering touches, lest any trifle be omitted which might add to the comfort and sense of harmony which seemed so much a part of his young mistress's life. As he straightened a fruit knife here, or set right a fold of the snowy breakfast cloth, he kept up a low-murmured monologue after the manner of his race. Very little escaped old Jerome's sharp eyes and keen ears, and within the past forty-eight hours they had found plenty to see or hear, for a guest had come to Severndale. Yes, a most unusual type of guest, too. As a rule Severndale's guests brought unalloyed pleasure to its young hostess and her servants, or to her sailor father if he happened to be enjoying one of his rare leaves, for Captain Stewart had been on sea-duty for many successive years, preferring it to land duty since his wife's death when Peggy, his only child, was but six years of age. Severndale had held only sad memories for him since that day, nearly ten years ago, in spite of the little girl growing up there, cared for by the old housekeeper and the servants, some of whom had been on the estate as long as Neil Stewart could remember.
But nine years had slipped away since Peggy's mother's death, and the little child had changed into a very lovely young girl, with whom the father was in reality just becoming acquainted. He had spent more time with her during the year just passed than he had ever spent in any one of the preceding nine years, and those weeks had held many startling revelations for him. When he left her to resume command of his ship, his mind was in a more or less chaotic state trying to grasp an entirely new order of things, for this time he was leaving behind him a young lady of fifteen who, so it seemed to the perplexed man, had jumped over at least five years as easily as an athlete springs across a hurdle, leaving the little girl upon the other side forever. When Neil Stewart awakened to this fact he was first dazed, and then overwhelmed by the sense of his obligations overlooked for so long, and, being possessed of a lively sense of duty, he strove to correct the oversight.
Had he not been in such deadly earnest his efforts to make reparation for what he considered his inexcusable short-sightedness and neglect, would have been funny, for, like most men when confronted by some problem involving femininity, he was utterly at a loss how to set about "his job" as he termed it.
As a matter of fact, a kind fate had taken "his job" in hand for him some time before, and was in a fair way to turn out a pretty good one too. But Neil Stewart made up his mind to boost Old Lady Fate along a little, and his attempts at so doing came pretty near upsetting her equilibrium; she was not inclined to be hustled, and Neil Stewart was nothing if not a hustler, once he got under way.
And so, alack! by one little move he completely changed Peggy's future and for a time rendered the present a veritable storm center, as will be seen.
But we will let events tell their own story.
Old Jerome moved about the sunny breakfast-room; at least it would have been sunny had not soft-tinted awnings and East-Indian screens, shut out the sun's glare and suffused the room in a restful coolness and calm, in marked contrast to the vivid light beyond the windows.
Jerome himself was refreshing to look upon. The old colored man was quite seventy years of age, but still an erect and dignified major-domo. From his white, wool-fringed old head, to the toes of his white canvas shoes, he was immaculate. No linen could have been more faultlessly laundered than Jerome's; no serviette more neatly folded. All was in harmony excepting the old man's face; that was troubled. A perplexed pucker contracted his forehead as he spoke softly to himself.
"'Taint going to do no how! It sure ain't. She ain't got de right bran', no she ain't, and yo' cyant mate up no common stock wid a tho'oughbred and git any sort of a span. No siree, yo' cyant. My Lawd, what done possess Massa Neil fer ter 'vite her down hyer? She cyant 'struct an' guide our yo'ng mist'ess. Sho! She ain' know de very fust rudimints ob de qualities' ways an' doin's. Miss Peggy could show her mo' in five minutes dan she ever is know in five years. She ain't,—she ain't,—well I ain't jist 'zackly know how I'se gwine speechify it, but she ain't like we all," and Jerome wagged his head in deprecation and forced his tongue against his teeth in a sound indicating annoyance and distaste, as he moved his mistress' chair a trifle.
Just then Mammy Lucy stuck her white-turbaned head in at the door to ask:
"Whar dat chile at? Ain't she done come in fer her breckfus yit? It's nine o'clock and Sis Cynthia's a-stewin' an' a steamin' like her own taters."
"She say she wait fer her aunt, an' her aunt say she cyant breckfus befo' half-pas' nine, no how," answered Jerome.
"Huh, huh! An' ma chile gotter wait a hull hour pas' her breckfus time jist kase Madam Fussa-ma-fiddle ain't choose fer ter git up? I bait yo' she git up when she ter home, and I bait yo' she ain't gitting somebody ter dress her, an' wait on her han' an' foot like Mandy done been a-doin' sense yistiddy; ner she ain' been keepin' better folks a-waiting fer dey meals. I'se pintedly put out wid de way things is been gwine in dis hyer 'stablishmint fer de past two days, an' 's fur 's I kin see dey ain' gwine mend none neider. No, not fer a considerbul spell lessen we has one grand, hifalutin' tornader. Yo' hyar me!"
"I sho' does hyar yo' Mis' Lucy, an' I sho' 'grees wid yo' ter de very top notch. Dere's gwine ter be de very dibble—'scuse me please, ma'am, 'scuse me, but ma feelin's done got de better of ma breedin'—ter pay ef things go on as dey've begun since de Madam—an' dat dawg—invest deyselves 'pon Severndale. But yonder comin' our yo'ng mistiss," he concluded as a clear, sweet voice was heard singing just beyond the windows, and quick decisive footsteps came across the broad piazza, and Peggy Stewart, only daughter and heiress of beautiful "Severndale," entered the room. By her side Tzaritza, her snowy Russian wolfhound, paced with stately mien; a thoroughbred pair indeed.
"Oh, Jerome, I am just starved. That breakfast table is irresistible. Mammy, is Aunt Katherine ready?"
"I make haste fer ter inquire, baby," answered the old nurse, hurrying from the room.
"I trus' she is," was Jerome's comment, adding: "Sis Cynthia done make de sallylun jist ter de perfection pint, an' she know dat pint too."
Peggy made no comment upon the implied reproach of her guest's tardiness, but crossing the room to a big chair, whither Tzaritza had already preceded her to rub noses with a magnificent white Persian cat, she stooped to stroke Sultana, who graciously condescended to purr and nestle her beautiful head against Peggy's hand. Sultana had only been a member of the Severndale household since July, Mr. Harold having sent her to Peggy as "a semi-annual birthday gift," he said. She had adapted herself to her new surroundings with unusual promptitude and been adopted by the other four-footed members of the estate as "a friend and equal." The trio formed a picturesque group as they stood there.
The dark-haired, dark-eyed young girl of fifteen, with her rich, clear coloring, her cheeks softly tinted from her brisk walk in the morning sunshine was very lovely. She wore a white duck skirt, a soft nainsook blouse open at the throat, the sailor collar knotted with a red silk scarf. Her heavy braids were coiled about her shapely head and held in place with large shell pins, soft little locks curling about her forehead.
The past year had wrought wonderful changes in Peggy Stewart. The little girl had vanished forever, giving place to the charming young girl nearing her sixteenth milestone. The contact with the outer world which the past three months had given, when she had made so many new friends and seen so much of the service and social world, had done a great deal towards developing her. Always exceptionally well poised and sure of herself, the summer at Navy Bungalow in New London, at Newport, Boston, and at other points at which the summer practice Squadron had touched, had broadened her outlook, and helped her gauge things from a different and wider viewpoint than Severndale or Annapolis afforded. Though entirely unaware of the fact, Peggy had few rivals in the world of young girls.
Presently a step sounded upon the polished floor of the broad hall and Mrs. Peyton Stewart, Peggy's aunt by marriage, stood in the doorway. Under one arm she carried her French poodle. Stooping she placed it upon the floor with the care which suggested a degree of fragility entirely belied by the bad-tempered little beast's first move, for as Peggy advanced with extended hand to greet her aunt, Toinette made a wild dash for the Persian cat, which onset was met by one dignified slap of the Sultana's paw, which left its red imprint upon the poodle's nose and promptly toppled the pampered thing heels-over-head. Tzaritza stood watching the entire procedure with dignified surprise, and when the yelping little beast rolled to her feet, she calmly gathered her into her huge jaws and stalking across the room held her up to Peggy, as though asking:
"What shall I do with this bad-mannered bit of dogdom? Turn her over to your discipline, or crush her with one snap of my jaws?"
"Oh you horrible, savage beast! You great brute! Drop her! Drop her! Drop her instantly! My precious Toinette. My darling!" shrieked Toinette's doting mistress. "Peggy, how can you have such a savage creature near you? She has crushed every bone in my pet's body. Go away! Go away!"
The scorn in Tzaritza's eyes was almost human. With a low growl, she dropped the thoroughly cowed poodle at Peggy's feet and then turned and stalked from the room, the very picture of scornful dignity. Mrs. Stewart snatched the poodle to her breast. There was not a scratch upon it save the one inflicted by Sultana, and richly deserved, as the tuft of the handsome cat's fur lying upon the floor testified.
"I hardly think you will find her injured, Aunt Katherine. Tzaritza never harms any creature smaller than herself unless bidden to. She brought Toinette here as much for the little dog's protection as for Sultana's."
"Sultana's! As though she needed protection from this fairy creature. Horrible, vicious cat! Look at poor Toinette's nose."
"And at poor Sultana's fur," added Peggy, pointing to the tuft upon the floor and slightly shrugging her shoulders.
"She deserved it for scratching Toinette's nose."
"I'm afraid the scratch was the second move in the onslaught."
"We will not argue the point, but in future keep that great hound outside of the house, and the cat elsewhere than in the dining-room, I beg of you—I can't have Toinette's life endangered, or my nerves shocked in this manner again."
For a moment Peggy looked at her aunt in amazement. Keep Tzaritza out of the house and relegate the Sultana to the servant's quarters? What had become of the lady of smiles and compliments whom she had known at New London, and who had been at such infinite pains to ingratiate herself with Neil Stewart that she had been invited to spend September at Severndale? And, little as Peggy suspected it, with the full determination of spending the remainder of her days there could she contrive to do so. Madam Stewart had blocked out her campaign most completely, only "the best laid plans," etc., and Madam had quite forgotten to take Mrs. Glenn Harold, Peggy's stanchest champion and ally, into consideration. Mrs. Harold had been Peggy's "guide, philosopher and friend" for one round year, and Mrs. Harold's niece, Polly Howland, was Peggy's chum and crony.
Mrs. Stewart felt a peculiar sensation pass over her as she met the girl's clear, steady gaze. Very much the sensation that one experiences upon looking into a clear pool whose depth it is impossible to guess from merely looking, though one feels instinctively that it is much deeper, and may prove more dangerous than a casual glance would lead one to believe. Peggy's reply was:
"Of course if you wish it, Aunt Katherine, Tzaritza shall not come into the house during your visit here. I do not wish you to be annoyed, but on the contrary, quite happy, and, Jerome, please see that Sultana is taken to Mammy, and ask her to keep her in her quarters while Mrs. Stewart remains at Severndale. Are you ready for your breakfast, Aunt Katherine?"
"Quite ready," answered Mrs. Stewart, taking her seat at the table. Peggy waited until she had settled herself with the injured poodle in her lap, then took her own seat. Jerome had summoned one of the maids and given Sultana into her charge, while Tzaritza was bidden "Guard" upon the piazza. Never in all her royal life had Tzaritza been elsewhere than upon the rug before the fireplace while her mistress' breakfast was being served, and it seemed as though the splendid wolfhound, with a pedigree unrivalled in the world, stood as the very incarnation of outraged dignity, and a protest against insult. Perhaps some vague sense of having overstepped the bounds of good judgment, if not good breeding, was beginning to impress itself upon Mrs. Peyton Stewart. Certainly she had not so thoroughly ingratiated herself in the favor of her niece, or her niece's friends during that visit in New London the previous summer, as to feel entirely sure of a cordial welcome at Severndale, and to make a false start at the very outset of her carefully formed plans was a far cry from diplomatic, to say the least. During those weeks at New London, when a kind fate had brought her again in touch with her brother-in-law after so many years, Mrs. Stewart had done a vast deal of thinking and planning. There was beautiful Severndale without a mistress excepting Peggy, a mere child, who, in Madam's estimation, did not count. Neil Stewart was a widower in the very prime of life and, from all Madam had observed, sorely in need of someone to look after him and keep him from making some foolish marriage which might end in—well, in not keeping Severndale in the family; "the family" being strongly in evidence in Mrs. Peyton. Her first step had been to secure an invitation to visit there. That done, the next was to remain there indefinitely once she arrived upon the scene. To do this she must make herself not only desirable but indispensable.
Certainly, the preceding two days had not promised much for the fulfillment of her plan. So being by no means a fool, but on the contrary, a very clever woman in her own peculiar line of cleverness, she at once set about dispelling the cloud which hung over the horizon, congratulating herself that she had had sufficient experience to know how to deal with a girl of Peggy's age. So to that end she now smiled sweetly upon her niece and remarked:
"I am afraid, dear, I almost lost control of myself. I am so attached to Toinette that I am quite overcome if any harm threatens her. You know she has been my inseparable companion in my loneliness, and when one is so utterly desolate as I have been for so many years even the devotion of a dumb animal is valued. I have been very, very lonely since your uncle's death, Peggy, dear, and you can hardly understand what a paradise seems opening to me in this month to be spent with you. I know we are going to be everything to each other, and I am sure I can relieve you of a thousand burdens which must be a great tax upon a girl of your years. I do not see how you have carried them so wonderfully, or why you are not old before your time. It has been most unnatural. But now we must change all that. Young people were not born to assume heavy responsibilities, whereas older ones accept them as a matter of course. And that's just what I have come way down here to try to do for my sweet niece," ended Mrs. Stewart smiling with would-be fascinating coyness. The smile would have been somewhat less complacent could she have heard old Jerome's comment as he placed upon the pantry shelf the fingerbowls which he had just removed from the table.
"Yas, yas, dat's it. Yo' needn't 'nounce it. We knows pintedly what yo's aimin' ter do, an' may de Lawd have mussy 'pon us if yo' succeeds. But dere's shorely gwine be ructions 'fore yo' does, er my name ain't Jerome Randolph Lee Stewart."
"I have to ride into Annapolis, this morning, Aunt Katherine. Would you like to drive in?" asked Peggy, when the unpleasant breakfast was ended.
"I should be delighted to, dear," answered Mrs. Stewart sweetly, striving to recover lost ground, for she felt that a good bit had been lost. "At what time do you start?"
"Immediately. I will order the surrey."
She left the room, her aunt's eyes following her with a half-mystified, half-baffled expression: Was the girl deeper than she had given her credit for being? Had she miscalculated the depth of the pool after all?
All through the breakfast hour Peggy had been a sweet and gracious young hostess, anticipating every want, looking to every detail of the service, ordering with a degree of self-possession which secretly astonished Mrs. Stewart, who felt that it would have been difficult for her, even with her advantage of years, to have equaled the girl's unassuming self-assurance and dignity, or have rivaled her perfect ability to sit at the head of her father's table. A moment later Mrs. Stewart went to her room to dress for the drive into town, her breakfast toilet having been a most elaborate silk negligee. Twenty minutes later the surrey stood at the door, but, contrary to Mrs. Stewart's expectations, her niece was not in it: she was mounted upon her beautiful black horse Shashai, at whose feet Tzaritza lay, her nose between her paws, but her ears a-quiver for the very first note of the low whistle which meant, "full speed ahead." On either side of Shashai, a superb bodyguard, stood Silver Star, Polly Howland's saddle horse, though he was still quartered at Severndale, and Roy, the colt that Peggy had raised from tiny babyhood, and which had followed her as he would have followed his dam, ever since the accident that had made him an orphan.
Perhaps the reader of "Peggy Stewart" will recall Mrs. Stewart's horror upon being met at the railway station by "the wild West show," as she stigmatized her niece's riding and her horses, for rarely did Peggy Stewart ride unless accompanied by her two beautiful horses and the wolfhound, and her riding was a source of marvel to more than one, her instructor having been Shelby, the veteran horse-trainer, who had been employed at Severndale ever since Peggy could remember, and whose early days had been spent upon a ranch in the far West where a man had to ride anything which possessed locomotive powers. At the present moment a more appreciative observer would have thrilled at the sight, for rarely is it given to mortal eyes to look upon a prettier picture than Peggy Stewart and her escort presented at that moment.
Given as a background a beautiful, carefully preserved estate, which for generations has been the pride of its owners, a superb old mansion of the most perfect colonial type, a sunny September morning, and as the figures upon that background a charming young girl in a white linen riding-skirt, her rich coloring at its best, her eyes shining, her seat in her saddle so perfect that she seemed a part of her mount, and you have something to look upon. To this add three thoroughbred horses and a snowy dog, an old colored servitor, for Jerome had come out with a message from Harrison, and it is a picture to be appreciated. Had the tall woman standing upon the broad piazza been able to do so, many things which happened later might never have happened at all.
Mrs. Stewart was elaborately gowned in a costume better suited for a drive in Newport than Annapolis, especially Annapolis in September. It was a striking creation of pale blue linen and Irish point lace, with a large lace hat, heavy with nodding plumes and a voluminous white lace veil floating out about it. She was a handsome woman in a certain conspicuous way, and certainly knew how to purchase her apparel, though, not above criticism in her selection of the toilet for the occasion, as the present instance evinced. She now walked to the piazza steps, and had anyone possessing a sense of humor been a witness of it, the transformation which passed over the lady's face en transit would have well nigh convulsed him, for the smile which had illumined her countenance at the door had gradually faded as she advanced until, when the steps were reached, it had been transformed into a most disapproving frown.
To Peggy the reason was a mystery, for she had not overheard her aunt's comments upon the occasion of the drive from the railway station three days before. Of course Jess had, and they had been freely circulated and keenly resented in the servants' quarters, but no whisper of them had been carried to the young mistress. Nevertheless, Peggy was beginning to discover that a good many of her actions, and also the order of things at Severndale, had brought a cloud to her Aunt's brow, and a little sigh escaped her lips as she wondered what the latest development would prove. It seemed so easy for things to go amiss nowadays, when heretofore nearly everything had seemed, as a matter of course, to go right. Then the self-elected dictator spoke:
"Peggy, dear, are you not to drive with me?"
"Thank you, Aunt Katherine, but I always ride, and I have several errands to do which I can better attend to if I am mounted."
"Well, it can hardly be necessary for you to have three saddle horses at once. It seems to me unnecessarily conspicuous, and in very bad taste for a young girl to go tearing about the country, and especially into Annapolis—the capital City of the State—in the guise of a traveling circus."
A slight smile curved Peggy's lips as she answered:
"Annapolis is not New York, Aunt Katherine. What might be out of place in such a city would be regarded as a matter of course in a little town where everybody knows everybody else, and they all know me, and the Severndale horses. Nobody ever gives us a thought. Why should they? I'm nothing but a girl riding into town on an errand."
"You are extremely modest, I must say. Is it quite native or well—we'll dismiss the question, but I must ask you to do me the favor of leaving your bodyguard behind today; it may not seem conspicuous for you to play in a Wild West Show, but I must decline to be an actor. You are growing too old for such mad pranks, and are far too handsome a girl to invite observation."
Peggy turned crimson.
"Why, Aunt Katherine, I never regarded it as a prank in the least. I have ridden this way all my life and no one has ever commented upon it. Daddy Neil knows of it—he has ridden with me hundreds of times himself—and never said one word against it. And you surely do not think I do it to invite observation? Why, there isn't anything to observe. I am certainly no better looking than hundreds of other girls; at least, you are the only one who has ever commented upon my personal appearance. But I beg your pardon; you are my guest. I am sorry. Bud, please call Shelby to take Star and Roy back; I don't dare trust them to you."
The little negro boy who had brought Shashai to the doorstep, and who had been staring popeyed during the conversation, dashed away toward the paddock, to rush upon Shelby with a wild tale of "dat lady f'om de norf was a-sassin' Missie Peggy jist scan'lous and orderin' Shelby fer to come quick ter holp her."
"What you a-talking about, you little fool nigger?" demanded Shelby. Then gathering that something was amiss with the little mistress whom all upon the estate adored, he hastened to the house, his face somewhat troubled, for hints of the doings up there had penetrated even to his quarters.
"Shelby, please take Star and Roy back to the paddock and be sure to fasten them in."
"Ain't they a-goin' with you, Miss Peggy?"
"Not this morning, Shelby."
The man looked from the girl to the lady now settling herself in the carriage. Toinette still stood upon the piazza waiting to be lifted up to her mistress, too fat and too foolish to even go down the steps alone. As Shelby stepped toward the horses Mrs. Stewart waved her hand toward the dog and said to him:
"Lift Toinette into the surrey."
Shelby paid no more attention to her than he paid to the quarreling jays in the holly trees, and the order was sharply repeated.
"Oh, are you a-speakin' to me, ma'am?" he then said.
"Certainly. I wish my dog handed to me."
Shelby looked at the pampered poodle and then at its mistress. Then with a guileless smile remarked:
"Now you don't sesso? Well, when I git back to the paddock with these here horses what can't go 'long with Miss Peggy, I'll send a little nigger boy up here for ter boost your dog up to you, but I tend horses on this here place."
The man's dark skin grew several shades darker owing to the blood which flooded his cheeks, and his eyes narrowed as he looked for one second straight into Mrs. Stewart's. What possessed the woman to antagonize everyone with whom she came in touch? Shelby had never laid eyes upon her until that moment, but that moment had confirmed his dislike conceived from the reports which had come to him. He now went up to the horses. Knowing that neither of them had halters on, he had brought two with him and now slipped them over his charges' heads, saying as he did so:
"You've got to come 'long back with me and keep company manners, do you know that, you disrepu'ble gad-abouts? You ain't never had no proper eddicatin' an' now it's a-goin' to begin for fa'r. You-all are goin' ter be larnt citified manners hot off the bat. So come 'long back to the paddock an' git your fust lesson."
The horses toyed and played with him like a couple of children, but went pacing away beside him, now and again pulling at his sleeve, poking at him with their soft muzzles or mumbling at his cheeks with their velvety lips, a pair of petted, peerless creatures and as beautiful as any God had ever created. Now and again they stopped short to neigh a peremptory call, as though asking the reason of this surprising conduct.
"Are you ready, Aunt Katherine?" asked Peggy.
"As soon as Jerome takes your hound in charge. I don't care to have Toinette driven frantic with fear by the sight of her. She will grow so excited that I shall be unable to hold her."
Now the past two hours had held a good many annoyances for Peggy Stewart to whom annoyances had been almost unknown. Perhaps they constitute the discipline of life, but thus far Peggy Stewart had apparently gotten on pretty well without any radical chastening processes. Her life had been simply, but well, ordered, and her naturally sunny soul had grown sweet and wholesome in her little world. If correction had been necessary Mammy's loving old heart had known how to order it during Peggy's babyhood; Harrison had carefully watched her childhood, and her young girlhood had been most beautifully developed by her guardian, good Dr. Llewellyn, who loved her as a grand-daughter. Then had come Mrs. Harold, who had done so much for the young girl. Why could it not have gone on?
Perhaps the ordering of Peggy's life had been too smooth to develop the best in her character, so Kismet, or whatever it is which shapes the odd happenings of our lives, had stepped in to lay a hurdle or two to test her ability to meet obstacles. Since seven-thirty that morning she had met little else in one form or another, and had taken them rather gracefully, all things considered. Her breakfast had been delayed an hour; the breakfast itself had been far from the pleasant meal it usually proved; she had been needlessly criticised for her habit of riding with her beloved horses; and now poor Tzaritza, after being banished the house, was to be debarred from following her young mistress; something unheard of, since the hound had acted as Peggy's protectress ever since she could follow her. The blood flooded into the girl's face, as turning to her Aunt she said very quietly, but with a dignity which Mrs. Stewart dared not encroach upon:
"I am very sorry to seem in any way discourteous or disobliging, Aunt Katherine, but Daddy Neil and Compadre, have always wished Tzaritza to accompany me when I ride. I have never felt any fear but they feel differently, as there are, of course, some undesirable characters between Severndale and Annapolis, and they consider Tzaritza a great protection against any possible annoyance. We will ride on ahead, since it is likely to annoy you, but I must go into Annapolis this morning. Another time I shall drive with you, but I can't ask you to drive where I must ride today. When you see some of the Annapolitan streets you will understand why. They have not been re paved since the first pavements were laid generations ago, and you would be most uncomfortable. Be careful where you drive, Jess. I will meet you at the Bank."
There was a graceful bow to Mrs. Stewart, a slight pressure of the knee against Shashai, a low whistle to Tzaritza and she had whirled and was away like the wind.
Madam Stewart drew a quick breath and compressed her thin lips until they formed barely a line, and during that drive into Annapolis did some rapid thinking. Evidently she had made another mistake.
As Peggy rode along the highway which led to Annapolis, the usual merry, lilting songs, to which Shashai's hoofbeats kept time, were silenced, and the girl rode in deep thought. Shashai tossed his head impatiently as though trying to attract her attention, and now and again Tzaritza bounded up to her with a deep, questioning bark. Peggy smiled a little abstractedly and said:
"Your Missie is doing some hard thinking, my beauties and doesn't feel songful this morning." Then after a moment she resumed:
"O Shashai, what is the matter with everything? Am I all wrong, or is Aunt Katherine different from everybody else? I have never met anyone just like her before, and I feel just exactly as though someone had drawn a file across my teeth, and I dare say that's all wrong too. If the Little Mother and Polly were only here they'd know how to make me see things differently, but I seem to get in wrong at every turn. Aunt Katherine has been here only two days, but what days they have been! And ten times more to follow before the month ends!"
Shashai had gradually slowed down until he was walking with his own inimitably dainty step, his hoofs falling upon the leaf-strewn road with the lightness of a deer's. Presently they came to a pretty wood-road leading almost at angles to the highway, but Peggy was again too occupied to notice that Tzaritza had turned into it and that Shashai, as a matter of course, had followed her. Annapolis could be reached by this less frequented way but it made a wide detour, leading past Nelly Bolivar's home. As they struck the refreshing coolness of the byway Shashai broke into what Peggy called his "rocking-chair gait," though she was so much a part of him that she was hardly aware of the more rapid motion. Her first clear intimation that her route had changed occurred when a cheerful voice called out:
"And she wandered away and away into the land o' dreams, my princess."
Peggy raised her head quickly and the old light flashed back into her eyes, the old smile curved her lips as she cried:
"Why, Nelly Bolivar! How under the sun came I here?"
"In the usual way, I reckon, Miss Peggy. I don't often see you come in any other. But this time you sure enough look as though you had been dreaming," laughed Nelly, coming close to Shashai, who instantly remembered his manners and neighed his greeting, while Tzaritza thrust her head into the girl's arms with the gentlest insinuation. Nelly held the big head close, rested her face against it a second, then took Shashai's soft muzzle in both hands and planted a kiss just where it was most velvety, saying softly:
"I can't imagine you three separated. The picture would not be complete. But what is wrong, Miss Peggy? You look so sober you make me feel queer," for the smile had gone from the girl's face and Nelly was quick to feel the seriousness of her expression.
"Perhaps I'm cross and cranky, Nelly. At any rate I've no business to be here this minute. I started for Annapolis, but my wits got wool-gathering, I reckon, and I let Shashai turn in here without noticing where he was going. Aunt Katherine will reach Annapolis before I do and—then—" and Peggy stopped and wagged her head as though pursuit of the subject would better be dropped. Nelly's face clouded. It had not required the two days of Mrs. Stewart's visit to circulate a good many reports concerning her. Indeed both Jerome and old Mammy had described her at length, and the description had lost nothing upon their African tongues, nor had the experiences of the three months spent up north: Madam Stewart had figured rather conspicuously in their pictures of the "doin's up yander." Had she suspected how accurately the old colored people had gauged her, or how great an influence their gauging was likely to have upon the plans she had so carefully laid, she might have been a little more circumspect in her conduct toward them. But to her they were "just black servants" and she was entirely incapable of weighing their influence in the domestic economy, or of understanding their shrewd judgment as to the best interests of the young girl whom each, in common with all the other old servants upon the estate, loved with a devotion absolutely incomprehensible to most northern-born people. And another potent fact, entirely absent from the characteristics of the northern negro, is the fact that the southern negro servants' "kinnery" instantly adopts and maintains the viewpoint of those "nearest the throne." It is a survival of the old feudal system, unknown in the cosmopolitan North, but which even in this day, so remote from the days of slavery, makes itself very distinctly felt in many parts of the South.
And many of the servants upon the Severndale estate had been there for three generations. Hence Peggy was their "chile," and her joys or sorrows, happiness or unhappiness, were theirs, and all their kin's, to be talked over, remedied if possible, but shared if not, or made a part of their own delight in living, as the case might demand. And the ramifications of their kinship were amazing. No wonder the report that "an aunt-in-law ob de yo'ng mistress yonder at Severndale, had done come down an' ondertuck fer ter run de hull shebang an' Miss Peggy inter de bargain, what is never been run by nobody," had circulated throughout the whole community, and met with a resolute, though carefully concealed opposition—subtle, intangible, but sure to prove overwhelming in the end—the undertow, so hidden but so irresistible. All this had stolen from one pair of lips to another and, of course, been related with indignant emphasis to Jim Bolivar, Nelly's father, one of the tenants of Severndale's large estate. And he, in turn, had discussed it with Nelly, who worshipped the very ground Peggy chose to stand upon, for to Peggy Stewart Nelly owed restored health, her home rescued when ruin seemed about to claim everything her father owned, and all the happiness which had come into her lonely life.
No wonder she now looked up to the deep brown eyes with her own blue ones troubled and distressed.
During her drive into Annapolis Madam Stewart did more deep thinking than it was generally given to her shallow brain to compass. Like most of her type, she possessed a certain shrewdness, which closely touched upon cunning when she wished to gain her ends, but she had very little real cleverness, and practically no power of logical deduction.
Today, however, she had felt antagonism enveloping her as a fog, and would have been not a little surprised to realize that its most potent force lay in Peggy's humble servitors rather than in Peggy herself. From the old darkey driving her, so deferentially replying to her questions, and at such pains to point out everything of interest along the way, she felt it radiate with almost tangible scorn and hostility, and yet to have saved her life she could not have said: "He is remiss in this or that."
They drove into Annapolis by the bridge which crosses the Severn just above the Naval Hospital, and from which the whole Academy is seen at its best, with the wide sweep of the beautiful Chesapeake beyond. Jess pointed out everything most carefully. Then on they went across College Creek bridge, up College Avenue, by historic old St. Ann's and drew up at the Bank to meet Peggy. Mrs. Stewart looked about her in undisguised disappointment and asked:
"Is this the capital city of the State of Maryland? This little town?"
Jess' mouth hardened. He loved the quaint old town and all its traditions. So did his young mistress. It had always meant home to her, and to many, many generations of her family before her. The old "Peggy Stewart" house famous in history, though no longer occupied by her own family, still stood, a landmark, in the heart of the town and was pointed to with pride by all.
"Dis sho' is de capital city ob de State, Ma'am. Yonder de guv'nor's mansion, jist over dar stan' de co't house, an' yonder de Cap'tal an' all de yether 'ministrashum buildin's, an' we'all's powerful proud ob 'em."
Mrs. Stewart smiled a superior smile as she replied:
"I have heard that the South is not progressive and is perfectly apathetic to conditions. It must be. Heavens! Look at these streets! They are perfectly disgusting, and the odor is horrible. I shall be glad to drive home."
"De town done been pave all mos' all new," bridled Jess. "Dis hyar pavement de bes' ob brick. Miss Peggy done tole me ter be keerful whar I drive yo' at, an' I tecken yo' on de very be's."
"And what, may I inquire, is your very worst then? Have you no street cleaning department in your illustrious city?"
"We suttenly has! Dey got six men a-sweeping de hull endurin' time."
"What an overwhelming force!" and Mrs. Stewart gave way to mirth.
It was fortunate that Peggy should have arrived at that opportune moment, for there is no telling what might have occurred: Jess's patience was at the snapping-point. But Peggy's talk with Nelly Bolivar had served to restore her mental equilibrium to a certain degree—and her swift ride into Annapolis had completed the process. It was a sunny, smiling face which drew up to the surrey and greeted Mrs. Stewart. Peggy had made up her mind that she would not let little things annoy her, and was already reproaching herself for having done so. She had resolved to keep her temper during her aunt's visit if a whole legion of tormenting imps were let loose upon her.
Three weeks of Mrs. Stewart's visit passed. Upon her part, three weeks of striving to establish a firmer foothold in the home of her brother-in-law; to obtain the place in it she so ardently coveted—that of mistress and absolute dictator. But each day proved to her that she was striving against some vaguely comprehended opposition. It did not lie in Peggy, that she had the grace to concede, for Peggy had complied with every wish, which she had graciously or otherwise, expressed, except the one debarring Tzaritza from following Shashai when she rode abroad, and be it said to Peggy's credit that she had held to her resolution in spite of endless aggravations, for Madam was a past mistress of criticism either spoken or implied. Never before in all her sunny young life had Peggy been forced to live in such an atmosphere.
Little by little during those weeks Mrs. Stewart had pre-empted Peggy's position as mistress of the household; a position held by every claim of right, justice and natural development, for Peggy had grown into it, and its honors and privileges rested upon her young shoulders by right of inheritance. She had not rushed there, or forced her claim to it, hence had it been gradually given into her hands by old Mammy, her nurse, Harrison, the trusty housekeeper, and at length, as she had more and more clearly demonstrated her ability to hold it, by Dr. Llewellyn, her guardian, who regarded it as an essential part of a Southern gentlewoman's education.
Then had come Mrs. Harold, whose tact and affection seemed to supply just the little touch which the young girl required to round out her life, and fit her to ultimately assume the entire control of her father's home.
But all this was entirely beyond Mrs. Stewart's comprehension. Her own early life had been passed in a small New Jersey village in very humble surroundings. She had been educated in the little grammar school, going later to an adjoining town for a year at high-school. In her home, domestic help of any sort had been unknown, she and her mother, an earnest, hard-working woman, having performed all the household work. There were no traditions connected with that simple home; it was just an everyday round of commonplace duties, accepted as a matter of course. Then Mrs. Stewart, at that time "pretty Kitty Snyder," went as a sort of "mother's helper" to a lady residing in Elizabeth, whose brother was in a New Jersey College. Upon one of his visits to his sister he had brought Peyton Stewart home for a visit: Peyton, the happy-go-lucky, irresponsible madcap. Kitty Snyder's buxom beauty had turned all that was left to be turned of his shallow head and she had become Mrs. Peyton Stewart within a month.
The rest has been told elsewhere. For a good many years she had "just lived around" as she expressed it, her income from her husband's share of the very comfortable little fortune left him by his father, being a vast deal more than she had ever dreamed of in her youthful days. She felt very affluent. All things considered, it was quite as well that Peyton had quit this earthly scene after two years of married life for "Kitty" had rapidly developed extravagant tastes and there were many "scenes." Her old associates saw her no more, and later the new ones often wondered why the dashing young widow did not marry again.
They did not suspect how often her plans laid to that end had misscarried, for her ambitions were entirely out of proportion to her qualifications.
Now, however, chance had brought her once more in touch with her husband's family, and she was resolved to make hay while the sun shone. If Neil Stewart had not been an odd mixture of manly strength and child-like simplicity, exceptional executive ability and credulity, kindliness and quick temper, he would never in the wide world have become responsible for the state of affairs at present turning his old home topsy-turvy, and in a fair way to undo all the good works of others, and certainly make Peggy extremely unhappy.
But he had "made a confounded mess of the whole job," he decided upon receiving a letter from Peggy. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say upon reading between the lines, because it was not so much what Peggy had said as that which she left unsaid, which puzzled him, and to which puzzle Harrison supplied the key in her funny monthly report. Never in all the ten years of her stewardship had she failed to send her monthly letter.
Harrison was a most conscientious old body if somewhat below par in educational advantages. Nevertheless, she had filled her position as nurse, maid and housekeeper to Peggy's mother for over thirty years, and to Peggy for ten more and her idea of duty was "Peggy first, Martha Harrison second." Her letter to Neil Stewart, which he read while his ship was being overhauled in the Boston Navy Yard, set him thinking. It ran:
Severndale, Maryland. September 21, 19—
Captain Neil Stewart, U. S. N.
As has been my habit these many years, I take my pen in hand to make my monthly report concerning the happenings and the events of the past month. Most times there isn't many of either outside the regular accounts which, praises be, ain't never got snarled up none since I've had the handling of them.
As to the past three weeks considerable has took place in this quiet, peaceful (most times, at least) home, and I ain't quite sure where I stand at, or am likely to. Things seem sort of stirred round. Like enough we-all are old-fashioned and considerable sot in our ways and can't rightly get used to new-fangled ones. Then, too, we—I speak for everybody—find it kinder hard to take our orders from anybody but Miss Peggy, who has got the right to give them, which we can't just see that anybody else has got. Howsoever, some folks seem to think they have, and what I am trying to get at is, have they? If I have got to take them from other folks, why, of course I have got to, but it has got to be you that tells me I must.
Up to the present time I seem to have been pretty capable of running things down here, though I am free to confess I was right glad when Mrs. Harold come along as she done, to give me a hint or two where Miss Peggy was concerned, for that child had taken to growing up in a way that was fair taking the breath out of my body, and was a-getting clear beyond me though, praises be, she didn't suspicion the fact. If she had a-done it my time would a-come for sure. But the good Lord sent Mrs. Harold to us long about that time and she was a powerful help and comfort to us all. He don't make no mistakes as a rule and I reckon we would a done well to let well enough alone and not go trying to improve on his plans for us. When we do that the other one is just as likely as not for to take a hand in the job and if he ain't a-kinder stirring round on these premises right this very minute I'm missing my guess and sooner or later there is going to be ructions.
Cording to the way we-all think down here Miss Peggy's mighty close to the angels, but maybe we are blinded by the light o'love, so to speak. Howsoever and nevertheless, we have got along pretty comfortable till lately when we have begun to discover that our educasyons has been terribl neglected and we have all got to be took in hand. And we are being took powerful strong, let me tell you! It is some like a Spanish fly blister: It may do good in the end but the means thereto is some harrowing to the flesh and the spirit.
I don't suppose there is no hope of your a-visiting your home before the ship is ordered South for the fall target practice, more is the pity. Tain't for me to name nothing but I wish to the Lord Mrs. Harold was here. SHE is a lady—Amen.
Your most humble and obedient housekeeper, Martha Harrison.
The day after this letter was written Dr. Llewellyn 'phoned to Peggy that he would return at the end of the week and if quite agreeable would like to pass a few days at Severndale with her, as his own housekeeper had not yet returned from her holiday.
Peggy was in an ecstasy of joy. To have Compadre under her own roof from Saturday to Monday would be too delightful. Brimful of her pleasurable anticipations, and more like the natural, joyous girl of former days than she had been since leaving Mrs. Harold and Polly, she flew to the piazza where her aunt, arrayed in a filmy lingerie gown, reclined in one of the big East India chairs. For a moment she forgot that she did not hold her aunt's sympathies as she held Mrs. Harold's, and cried:
"Oh, Aunt Katherine, Compadre will be here on Friday evening and will remain until Monday! Isn't that too good to believe?"
"Do you mean Dr. Llewellyn?" asked Mrs. Stewart, coldly.
"Yes, Aunt Katherine, you had no chance to know him before he went away, but you will just love him."
"Shall I?" asked Mrs. Stewart with a smile which acted like a wet blanket upon poor Peggy.
"But why do you call him by that absurd name? Why not call him Dr. Llewellyn?"
"Call him Dr. Llewellyn?" echoed Peggy. "Why, I have never called him anything else since he taught me to call him by that dear name when I was a wee little thing."
"And do you expect to cling to childish habits all your days, Peggy dear? Isn't it about time you began to think about growing up? Sit here upon this cushion beside me. I wish to have a serious talk with you and this seems a most opportune moment. I have felt the necessity of it ever since my arrival, but have refrained from speaking because I feared I might be misjudged and do harm rather than good. Sit down, dear."
Mrs. Stewart strove to bring into her voice an element of deep interest, affection was beyond her,—and Peggy was sufficiently intuitive to feel it. Nevertheless, if anything could have appealed to this self-centered woman's affection it ought surely to have been the young girl who obediently dropped upon the big Turkish cushion, and clasping her hands upon the broad arm of the chair, looked up into the steely, calculating eyes with a pair so soft, so brown, so trustful yet so perplexed, that an ordinary woman would have gathered her right into her arms and claimed all the richness and loyalty of affection so eager to find an outlet. If it could only have been Mrs. Harold, or Polly's mother, how quick either would have been to comprehend the loving nature of the girl and reap the reward of it.
Mrs. Stewart merely smiled into the wild-rose face in a way which she fondly believed to accentuate her own charms, and tapping the pretty brown hands with her fan, said:
"I am growing extremely proud of my lovely niece. She is going to be a great credit to me, and, also, I foresee, a great responsibility."
"A responsibility, Aunt Katherine?" asked Peggy, a perplexed pucker upon her forehead. "Have I been a responsibility to you since you came here? I am sorry if I have. Of course I know my life down here in the old home is quite different from most girls' lives. I didn't realize that until I met Mrs. Harold and Polly and then, later, went up to New London and saw more of other girls and the way they live. But I have been very happy here, Aunt Katherine, and since I have known Mrs. Harold and Polly a good many things have been made pleasanter for me. I can never repay them for their kindness to me."
Peggy paused and a wonderfully sweet light filled her eyes, for her love for her absent friends was very true and deep, and speaking of them seemed to bring them back to the familiar surroundings which she knew they had grown to love so well, and where she and Polly had passed so many happy hours.
Mrs. Stewart was not noted for her capacity for deep feeling and was more amused than otherwise affected by Peggy's earnest speech, classifying it as "a girl's sentimentality." Finer qualities were wasted upon that lady. So she now smiled indulgently and said:
"Of course I can understand your appreciation of what you consider Mrs. Harold's and her niece's kindness to you, but, have you ever looked upon the other side of the question? Have you not done a great deal for them? It seems to me you have quite cancelled any obligation to them. It must have been some advantage to them to have such a lovely place as this to visit at will, and, if I can draw deductions correctly, to practically have the run of. It seems to me there was considerable advantage upon their side of the arrangement. You, naturally, can not see this, but I'll venture to say Mrs. Harold was not so unsophisticated," and a pat upon Peggy's hand playfully emphasized the lady's charitable view.
Peggy felt bewildered and her hands fell from the arm of the chair to her lap, though her big soft eyes never changed their gaze, which proved somewhat disconcerting to the older woman who had the grace to color slightly. Peggy then rallied her forces and answered:
"Aunt Katherine, I am sure neither Mrs. Harold nor Polly ever had the faintest idea of any advantage to themselves in being nice to me. Why in this world should they? They have ten times more than I could ever give to them. Why think of how extensively Mrs. Harold has traveled and what hosts of friends she has! And Polly too. Goodness, they let me see and enjoy a hundred things I never could have seen or enjoyed otherwise."
Mrs. Stewart laughed a low, incredulous laugh, then queried:
"And you the daughter of Neil Stewart and a little Navy girl? Really, Peggy, you are deliciously ingenue. Well, never mind. It is of more intimate matters I wish to speak, for with each passing day I recognize the importance of a radical reconstruction in your mode of living. That is what I meant when I said I foresaw greater responsibilities ahead. You are no longer a child, Peggy, to run wild over the estate, but—well, I must not make you vain. In a year or two at most, you will make your debut and someone must provide against that day and be prepared to fill properly the position of chaperone to you. Meantime, you must have proper training and as near as I can ascertain you have never had the slightest. But it can not be deferred a moment longer. It is absolutely providential that I, the only relative you have in this world, should have met you as I did, though I can hardly understand how your father overlooked the need so long. Perhaps it was from motives of unselfishness, though he must have known that I stood ready to make any sacrifice for my dear dead Peyton's brother." Just here Mrs. Peyton's feelings almost overcame her and a delicate handkerchief was pressed to her eyes for a moment.
Ordinarily tender and sympathetic to the last degree, Peggy could not account for her strange indifference to her aunt's distress. She simply sat with hands clasped about her knees and waited for her to resume the conversation. Presently Madam emerged from her temporary eclipse and said:
"Forgive me, dear, my feelings quite overcame me for a moment. To resume: I know dear Neil would never ask it of me, but I have been thinking very seriously upon the subject and have decided to forget self, and my many interests in New York, and devote my time to you. I shall remain with you and relieve you of all responsibility in this great household, a responsibility out of all proportion to your years. Indeed, I can not understand how you have retained one spark of girlish spontaneity under such unnatural conditions. Such cares were meant for older, more experienced heads than your pretty one, dear. It will be a joy to me to relieve you of them and I can not begin too soon. We will start at once. I shall write to your father to count upon me for everything and, if he feels so disposed, to place everything in my hands. Furthermore, I shall suggest that he send you to a fine school where you will have the finishing your birth and fortune entitle you to. You know absolutely nothing of association, with other girls,—no, please let me finish," as Peggy rose to her feet and stood regarding her aunt with undisguised consternation, "I know of a most excellent school in New York, indeed, it is conducted by a very dear friend of mine, where you would meet only girls of the wealthiest families" (Mrs. Stewart did not add that the majority had little beside their wealth to stand as a bulwark for them; they were the daughters of New York City's newly rich whose ancestry would hardly court inspection) "and even during your school days you would get a taste of New York's social advantages; a thing utterly impossible in this dull—ahem!—this remote place. I shall strongly advise dear Neal to consider this. You simply cannot remain buried here. I shall, of course, since I feel it my duty to do so, but I can have someone pass the winter with me, and can make frequent trips to Washington."
Mrs. Stewart paused for breath. Peggy did not speak one word, but with a final dazed look at her aunt, turned and entered the house.
As Peggy left the piazza her aunt's eyes followed her with an expression which held little promise for the girl's future happiness should it be given into Mrs. Stewart's keeping. A more calculating, triumphant one, or one more devoid of any vestige of affection for Peggy it would have been hard to picture. As her niece disappeared Mrs. Stewart's lips formed just two words, "little fool," but never had she so utterly miscalculated. She was sadly lacking in a discrimination of values. Peggy had chosen one of two evils; that of losing her temper and saying something which would have outraged her conception of the obligations of a hostess, or of getting away by herself without a moment's delay. She felt as though she were strangling, or that some horrible calamity threatened her. Hurrying to her own room she flung herself upon her couch and did that which Peggy Stewart was rarely known to do: buried her head in the cushions and sobbed. Not the sobs of a thwarted, peevish girl, but the deeper grief of one who feels hopeless, lonely and wretched. Never in her life had she felt like this. What was the meaning of it?
Those who were older and more experienced, would have answered at once: Here is a girl, not yet sixteen years of age, who has led a lonely life upon a great estate, remote from companions of her own age, though adored by the servants who have been upon it as long as she can remember. She has been regarded as their mistress whose word must be law because her mother's was. Her education has been conducted along those lines by an old gentleman who believes that the southern gentlewoman must be the absolute head of her home.
About this time there enters her little world a woman whose every impulse stands for motherhood at its sweetest and best, and who has helped all that is best and truest in the young girl to develop, guiding her by the beautiful power of affection. All has been peace and harmony, and Peggy is rapidly qualifying in ability to assume absolute control in her father's home.
Then, with scarcely a moment's warning, there is dropped into her home and daily life a person with whom she cannot have anything in common, from whom she intuitively shrinks and cannot trust.
Under such circumstances the present climax is not surprising.
Peggy's whole life had in some respects been a contradiction and a cry for a girl's natural heritage—a mother's all-comprehending love. The love that does not wait to be told of the loved one's needs and happiness, but which lives only to foresee what is best for her and to bring it to pass, never mind at what sacrifice to self. Peggy had missed that love in her life and not all the other forms combined had compensated.
Until the previous year she had never felt this; nor could she have put it into words even at the present moment. She only knew that in Polly's companionship she had been very, very happy and that she was terribly lonely without her. That in Mrs. Harold she had found a friend whom she had learned to love devotedly and trust implicitly, and that in the brief time Mrs. Howland, Polly's mother, had been in Annapolis and at New London, she had caught a glimpse of a little world before undreamed of; a world peculiarly Polly's and her mother's and which no other human being invaded. Mrs. Howland had just such a little world for each of her daughters and for the son-in-law whom she loved so tenderly. It was a world sacred to the individual who dwelt therein with her. There was a common world in which all met in mutual interests, but she possessed the peculiar power of holding for each of her children their own "inner shrine" which was truly "The Holy of Holies."
Although Peggy had known and loved Mrs. Harold longest, there was something in Mrs. Howland's gentle unobtrusive sweetness, in her hidden strength, which drew Peggy as a magnet and for the first time in her life she longed for the one thing denied her: such a love as Polly claimed.
But it seemed an impossibility, and her nearest approach to it lay in Mrs. Harold's affection for her.
Peggy was not ungrateful, but what had befallen the usual order of things? Was this aunt, with whom, try as she would, she could not feel anything in common, about to establish herself in the home, every turn and corner of which was so dear to her, and utterly disrupt it? For this Peggy felt pretty sure she would do if left a free hand. Already she had most of the old servants in a state of ferment, if not open hostility. They plainly regarded her as an interloper, resented her assumption of rule and her interference in the innumerable little details of the household economy. Her very evident lack of the qualities which, according to their standards, stood for "de true an' endurin' quality raisin'," made them distrust her.
Now the "time was certainly out of joint" and poor little Peggy began to wonder if she had to complete the quotation.
All that has been written had passed like a whirlwind through Peggy's harassed brain in much less time than it has taken to put it on paper. It was all a jumble to poor Peggy; vague, yet very real; understood yet baffling. The only real evidences of her unhappiness and doubt were the tears and sobs, and these soon called, by some telepathic message of love and a life's devotion, the faithful old nurse who had been the comforter of her childish woes. For days Mammy had been "as res'less an' onsettled as a yo'ng tuckey long 'bout Thanksgivin' time," as she expressed it, and had found it difficult to settle down to her ordinary routine of work during the preceding two weeks. She prowled about the house and the premises "fer all de 'roun worl' like yo' huntin' speerits," declared Aunt Cynthia, the cook.
"Huh!" retorted Mammy, "I on'y wisht I could feel dat dey was frien'ly ones, but I has a percolation dat dey's comin' from below stidder above."
So perhaps this explains why she went up to Peggy's room at an hour which she usually spent in her own quarters mending. Long before she reached the room she became aware of sounds which acted upon her as a spark to a powder magazine, for Mammy's loving old ears lay very close to her heart.
With a pious "Ma Lawd-God-Amighty, what done happen?" she flew down the broad hall and, being a privileged character, entered the room without knocking. The next second she was holding Peggy in her arms and almost sobbing herself as she besought her to tell "who done hurt ma baby? Tell Mammy what brecken' yo' heart, honey-chile."
For a few moments Peggy could not reply, and Mammy was upon the point of rushing off for Harrison when Peggy laid a detaining hand upon her and commanded:
"Stop, Mammy! You must not call Harrison or anyone else. There is really nothing the matter. I'm just a silly girl to act like this and I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself." Then she wiped her eyes and strove to check a rebellious sob.
"Quit triflin'! Kingdom-come, is yo' think I'se come ter ma dotage? When is I see you a cryin' like dis befo'? Not sense yo' was kitin' roun' de lot an' fall down an' crack yo' haid. Yo' ain' been de yellin', squallin' kind, an' when yo' begins at dis hyar day an' age fer ter shed tears dar's somethin' pintedly wrong, an' yo' needn' tell me dar ain't. Now out wid it."
Mammy was usually fiercest when she felt most deeply and now she was stirred to the very depth of her soul.
"Why, Mammy, I don't believe I could tell you what I'm crying for if I tried," and Peggy smiled as she rested her head upon the shoulder which had never failed her.
"Well, den, tell me what yo' ain't cryin' fo', kase ef yo' ain't cryin' fer somethin' yo' want yo' shore mus' be a-crying fo' somethin' yo' don't want," was Mammy's bewildering argument. "An' I bait yo' I ain't gotter go far fer ter ketch de thing yo' don' want neither," and the old woman looked ready to deal with that same cause once it came within her grasp.
Peggy straightened up. This order of things would never do. If she acted like a spoiled child simply because someone to whom she had taken an instinctive dislike had come into her home, she would presently have the whole household demoralized.
"Mammy, listen to me."
Instinctively the blood of generations of servitude responded to Peggy's tone.
"I have been terribly rude to a guest. I lost my temper and I'm ashamed of myself."
"What did you say to her, baby?"
"I didn't say anything, I just acted outrageously."
"An' what she been a-sayin' ter yo'?"
Peggy only colored.
Mammy nodded her bead significantly. "Ain't I know dat! Yo' cyant tell me nothin' 'bout de Stewart blood. No-siree! I know it from Alphy to Omegy; backards an' forrards. Now we-all kin look out fer trouble ahead. But I'se got dis fer ter say: Some fools jist nachelly go a-prancin' an' a-cavortin' inter places whar de angils outen heaven dassent no mo'n peek. If yo' tells me I must keep ma mouf shet, I'se gotter keep it shet, but Massa Neil is allers a projectin' 'bout ma safety-valve, an' don' yo' tie it down too tight, honey, er somethin' gwine bus' wide open 'fore long. Now come 'long an' wash yo' purty face. I ain' like fer ter see no tears-stains on yo' baby. No, I don'. Den yo' go git on Shashai an' call yo' body-gyard and 'Z'ritza an' yo' ride ten good miles fo' yo' come back hyer. By dat time yo' git yo' min' settle down an' yo' stummic ready fo' de lunch wha' Sis' Cynthia gwine fix fo' yo'. I seen de perjections ob it an' it fair mak' ma mouf run water lak' a dawg's. Run 'long, honey," and Mammy led the way down the side stairs, and watched Peggy as she took a side path to the paddock.
As she was in and out of her saddle a dozen times a day she wore a divided skirt more than half the time—another of Mrs. Stewart's grievances—and upon reaching the paddock her whistle soon brought her pets tearing across it to her. Their greeting was warm enough to banish a legion of blue imps, and a joyous little laugh bubbled to her lips as she opened the paddock gate and let the trio file through. Then in the old way she sprang upon Shashai's back and with a gay laugh cried:
"Four bells for the harness house."
Away they swept, as Peggy's voice and knees directed Shashai, Tzaritza, who had joined Peggy as she stepped from the side porch, bounding on ahead with joyous barks.
Peggy called for a bridle, which Shelby himself brought, saying as he slipped the light snaffle into Shashai's sensitive mouth and the headstall over his ears:
"So you've bruck trainin', Miss Peggy, an' are a-going for a real old-time warm-up? Well, I reckon it's about time, an' the best thing you can do, for you look sort o' pinin' an' down-in-the-mouth. Light out, little girl, an' come back lookin' like you uster; the purtiest sight God ever created for a man, woman or child ter clap eyes on. Take good care of her, Shashai, and you too, Tzaritza, cause you won't get another like her very soon."
Shelby's eyes were quick to discern the traces of Peggy's little storm, and he was by no means slow in drawing deductions. Peggy blushed, but said:
"I guess Daddy was right when he said I'd better go to school this year. You-all will spoil me if I stay here. Good-by, dear old Shelby, I love everyone on the place even if they do spoil me," and away she swept, as bonny a little bareback rider as ever sat a horse.
Meanwhile, up at the house events were shaping with the rapidity of a moving picture show.
When Peggy left her so abruptly Madam Stewart sat still for a few moments, pondering her next step. She had arrived at some very definite conclusions and intended carrying them out without loss of time. Her first move in that direction led her into the library where she wrote a letter to her brother-in-law. It was while she was thus occupied that Mammy had found Peggy and sent her for her ride. Then Mammy sought Harrison. Ordinarily, Mammy would have died before consulting Harrison about anything concerning Peggy, but here was a common issue, and if Mammy did not know that a house divided against itself must fall, she certainly felt the force of that argument. In Harrison she found a sympathetic listener, for the old housekeeper had been made to feel Mrs. Stewart's presence in the house in hundreds of irritating little ways. Mammy told of finding Peggy in tears, though she could not, of course, tell their cause. But Harrison needed no cause: the tears in themselves were all the cause she required to know.
Their conversation took place in the pantry and at the height of Harrison's protest against the new order of things a footfall was heard in the dining-room beyond. Thinking it Jerome's and quite ready to add one more to their league of defenders of Peggy's cause, Harrison pushed open the swinging door and stepped into the dining-room with all of her New England-woman's nervous activity. Mrs. Stewart stood in the room surveying with a critical, calculating eye, every detail of its stately, chaste appointments, for nothing had ever been changed.
Mrs. Stewart looked up as Harrison bounced in.
"O Harrison, you are exactly the person I wished to speak with," she said. "There are to be a few changes made in Mr. Stewart's domestic arrangements. In future I shall assume control of his home and relieve Miss Peggy of all responsibility. You may come to me for all orders."
She paused, and for the moment Harrison was too dumbfounded to reply, while Mammy in the pantry, having overheard every word, was noiselessly clapping her old hands together and murmuring: "Ma Lawd! Ma Lawd! Now I knows de sou'ce ob dat chile's tears." Before Harrison could recover herself Mrs. Stewart continued:
"Dr. Llewellyn will be here tomorrow for the weekend, and as I am to be mistress of the household it is more seemly that I preside at the head of the table. Tell Jerome that I shall sit there in future. And now I wish you to take me through the house that I may know more of its appointments than I have thus far been able to learn."
Without a word Harrison led the way into the hall, and up the beautiful old colonial stairway.
Peggy's sitting-room and bed-room were situated at the south-east corner of the house overlooking the bay. Back of her bath and dressing-rooms were two guest rooms. A broad hall ran the length of the second story and upon the opposite side of it had been Mrs. Neil Stewart's pretty sitting-room, which corresponded with Peggy's and her bed-room separated from her husband's by the daintiest of dressing and bath-rooms. Neil Stewart's "den" was at the rear. Beyond were lavatories, linen-room, house-maid's room and every requirement of a well-ordered home.
Mrs. Peyton began by entering Peggy's sitting-room, a liberty she had not hitherto taken, but she felt pretty sure Peggy was not in the house. At any rate she had made her plunge and did not mean to be diverted from her object now. Martha Harrison was simply boiling with wrath at the intrusion.
"You are a wonderfully capable woman, Martha. I see I shall have very light duties," was Mrs. Peyton's patronizing comment.
"Harrison, if you please, ma'am," emphasized that person.
"Oh, indeed? As you prefer. Now let me see the rooms on the opposite side of the hall."
Perhaps had Mrs. Peyton asked Harrison to lead her into the little mausoleum, built generations ago in the whispering white pine grove upon the hill back of the house, it could not have been a greater liberty or sacrilege. Not so great, possibly. In all the nine years nothing had been changed. They were sacred to the entire household and especially sacred to Harrison who had held it her especial privilege to keep them immaculate. In the bed-room the toilet and dressing tables held the same articles Mrs. Neil had used; her work-table stood in the same sunny window. In the sitting-room the books she loved and had read again and again were in the case, or lying upon the tables where she had left them. It seemed as though she might have stepped from the room barely ten minutes before. There was nothing depressing about it. On the contrary, it impressed upon the observer the near presence of a sweet, cultivated personality. The sitting-room was a shrine for both Peggy and her father, and it was his wish that it be kept exactly as he had known and loved it during the ideal hours he had spent in it with wife and child. He and Peggy had spent many a precious one there since its radiant, gracious mistress had slept in the pine grove. Harrison crossed the hall and opened the door, still mute as an oyster. Mrs. Stewart swept in, Toinette, who had followed her, tearing across the room ahead of her and darting into every nook and corner. At that moment the obnoxious poodle came nearer her doom than she had ever come in all her useless life, for Harrison was a-quiver to hurl her through the open window.
"What charming rooms," exclaimed Madam, trailing languidly from one to the other, touching a book here, some exquisite curio there, the carved ivory toilet articles on the dresser. The morning sunlight, tempered by the green and white awnings at the great bowed-windows filled the tastefully decorated rooms with a restful glow. They were beautiful rooms in every sense of the word.
"Very charming indeed and very useless apparently. They seem not to have been occupied in months. They are far more desirable than those assigned to me at the North side of the house. The view of the bay is perfect. As I am to be here indefinitely, instead of one month only, you may have my things moved over to this suite, Harrison. I shall occupy it in future."
"Occupy this suite?" Harrison almost gasped the words.
"Certainly. Why not? You need not look as though I had ordered you to build a fire in the middle of the floor," and Mrs. Peyton laughed half scornfully.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but when Mr. Neil gives the order to move your things into this suite, I'll move them here. These was his wife's rooms and his orders to me was never to change 'em and I never shall 'till he tells me to. There's some things in this world that can't be tampered with. Please call your dog, ma'am; she's scratchin' that couch cover to ribbons."
The enemy's guns were silenced for the time being. She picked up her poodle and swept from the room. Harrison paused only long enough to close all the doors, lock them and place the keys in her little hand bag. Then she departed to her own quarters to give vent to her pent-up wrath.
Mrs. Stewart retired to her own room.
The next evening Dr. Llewellyn arrived and when he took his seat at the table his gentle face was troubled: Mrs. Peyton had usurped Peggy's place at the head. Peggy sat opposite to him. She had accepted the situation gracefully, not one word of protest passing her lips and she did her best to entertain her guests. But poor old Jerome's soul was so outraged that for the first time in his life he was completely demoralized. Only one person in the entire household seemed absolutely and entirely satisfied and that was Harrison, and her self-satisfaction so irritated Mammy that the good old creature sputtered out:
"Kingdom come, is yo' gittin' ter de pint when yo' kin see sich gwines-on an' not r'ar right spang up an' sass dat 'oman?"
"Just wait!" was Harrison's cryptic reply.
Jerome had just passed a silver platter to Madam Stewart, his hands trembling so perceptibly as to provoke from her the words: "Have you a chill, Jerome?" as she conveyed to her plate some of Cynthia's delicately fried chicken.
Jerome made no answer, but started toward Peggy's chair. He never reached it, for at that moment a deep voice boomed in from the hall:
"Peggy Stewart, ahoy!"
With the joyous, ringing cry of:
"Daddy Neil! Oh, Daddy Neil!" Peggy sprang from the table to fling herself into her father's arms, and to startle him beyond words by bursting into tears. Never in all of his going to and fro, however long his absences from his home, had he met with such a reception as this. Invariably a smiling Peggy had greeted him and the present outbreak struck to the very depth of his soul, and did more in one minute to reveal to him the force of Harrison's letter than a dozen complaints. The tears betrayed a nervous tension of which even Peggy herself had been entirely unaware, and for Peggy to have reached a mental condition where nerves could assert themselves was an indication that chaos was imminent. For a moment she could only sob hysterically, while her father held her close in his arms and said in a tone which she had never yet heard:
"Why, Peggy! My little girl, my little girl, have you needed Daddy Neil as much as this?"
Peggy made a gallant rally of her self-control and cried:
"Oh, Daddy, and everybody, please forgive me, but I am so surprised and startled and delighted that I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm so ashamed of myself," and smiling through her tears she strove to draw away from her father that he might greet the others, but he kept her close within his circling left arm, as he extended his hand in response to the effusive greeting of his sister-in-law.
With what she hoped would be an apologetic smile for Peggy's untoward demonstration, Mrs. Stewart had risen to welcome him.
"We must make allowances for Peggy, dear Neil. You came so very unexpectedly, you know. I hardly thought my letter would be productive of anything so delightful for us all."
"I fear it was not wholly, Katherine. I had several others also. How are you, Doctor? I see you haven't quite abandoned the ship. Well, I'm glad of that; I need my executive officer and my navigator also."
At the concluding words Mrs. Peyton smiled complacently. Who but she could fill that office? But Captain Stewart's next words dissipated that smile as the removal of a lantern slide causes the scene thrown upon the screen to vanish.
"Yes, indeed, my navigator must get busy. She's had a long leave, but I need her now and she's never failed me in heavy weather. She'll report for duty on the thirtieth, thank the powers which be. Hello, Jerome! What's rattled you like this? Next time I set my course for home I'd better send a wireless, or I'll demoralize the whole personnel," and Neil Stewart's hearty laugh brought a sympathetic smile to Dr. Llewellyn's and Peggy's lips.
And well it might, for in the background the minor characters in the little drama had filled a role all their own. In the doorway stood Harrison, bound to witness the outcome of her master-stroke and experiencing no small triumph in it. Behind her Mammy, with characteristic African emotion, was doing a veritable camp-meeting song of praise, though it was a voiceless song, only her motions indicating that her lips were forming the words, "Praise de Lawd! Praise Him!" as she swayed and clasped her hands.
But Jerome outdid them all: At his first glimpse of the master he was so flustered that he nearly collapsed where he stood, and his platter had a perilous moment. Then, crying, "Glory be!" he beat a hasty retreat intending to place it upon his serving table, but growing bewildered in his joy, inadvertently set it upon a large claw-foot sofa which stood at the end of the dining-room, where Toinette, ever upon the alert, and not banished from the dining-room as poor Tzaritza had been, promptly pounced upon the contents, and in the confusion of the ensuing ten minutes laid the foundation for her early demise from apoplexy.
"Brace up, Jerome, I'm too substantial to be a ghost, and nothing short of one should bowl you over like this," were Captain Stewart's hearty words to the old man as he shook his hand.
"Asks yo' pardon, Massa Neil! I sho' does ask yo' pardon fer lettin' mysef git so flustrated, but we-all's so powerful pleased fer ter see yo', an' has been a-wanting yo' so pintedly, that—that—that—but, ma Lawd, I—I—I'se cla'r los' ma senses an', an—Hi! look yonder at dat cussed dawg an' ma fried chicken!"
For once in her useless life Toinette had created a pleasing diversion. With a justifiable cry of wrath Jerome pounced upon her and plucked her from the platter, in which for vantage she had placed her fore feet. Flinging her upon the floor, he snatched up his dish and fled to the pantry, Neil Stewart's roars of laughter following him. Toinette rolled over and over and then fled yelping into her mistress' lap to spread further havoc by ruining a delicate silk gown with her gravy-smeared feet. Tzaritza, who had followed her master into the room, looked upon the performance with a superior surprise. Neil Stewart laid a caressing hand upon the beautiful head and said laughingly:
"You'd blush for that little snippin-frizzle if you could, wouldn't you, old girl? Well, it's up to you to teach her better manners. She's young and flighty. The next time she starts in on any such rampage, just pick her up and carry her out, as any naughty child should be carried. Understand?"
"Woof-woof," answered Tzaritza, deep down in her throat.
"She's wise all right. After this you can leave that midget of yours in her care, Katherine. But now let's get busy. I'm upon the point of famishing. Come, Peggy, honey; rally your forces and serve your old Daddy."
Peggy turned toward her aunt. Not until that moment had her father been aware of the change made at his table. Then it came to him in a flash, and Mrs. Peyton was hardly prepared for the change which overspread his countenance as he asked:
"Peggy, why have you allowed your aunt to assume the obligations of hostess? Have you lost your ability to sit at the head of my table, daughter?"
Poor Peggy! It was well she understood or she would have been nearly heartbroken at the rebuke. Mrs. Peyton answered for her:
"Little Peggy had far too much upon her young shoulders, dear Neil. So I have volunteered to relieve her of some of her duties. I am happy to be able to do so."
"Indeed, Katherine, we are all under deep obligation to you, I am sure, but Peggy hardly seems overborne by her burdens, and it is my wish that my daughter shall preside in her mother's place at my table. Jerome, Mrs. Stewart is to be relieved of this obligation after this meal. You are to be quite free of all responsibility during your visit with us, Katherine. And now, little girl, let me look at you. July, August, and, let me see, twenty-five days of September since I left you? Nearly three months. You manage to do remarkable things in a brief time, little daughter. But I fancy by the time I get back here again they will be more remarkable. Great plans are simmering for you; great plans," and her father nodded significantly across at her.
Peggy was too happy to even ask what they were. She could only smile and nod back again.
Meanwhile Mrs. Stewart had used her napkin to scrub off her besmirched poodle's feet and had then surreptitiously thumped her down upon her lap where the table-cloth would conceal her. At Captain Stewart's concluding words she felt her hopes revive a trifle. She was a fair actress when it served her turn. So now smiling across the table she said:
"So you have decided to consider my suggestion, Neil?"
"In one respect, yes, Katherine. I see plainly that things can no longer go on as they have been going. Llewellyn concurs in that." He glanced toward the Doctor, who nodded gravely.
"I do most fully. Our halcyon days must end, I fear, as all such days do eventually, and we must meet the more prosaic side of life. Let us hope it will assume a pleasing form. I am loth to hand in my resignation as Dominie Exactus, however," he ended with a smile for Peggy.
Peggy looked puzzled, and glanced inquiringly from one to the other. Her father stretched forth a hand and laid it over hers which rested upon the edge of the table:
"Smooth out the kinks in your forehead, honey. Nothing distressing is to happen."
"Hardly," agreed Mrs. Stewart. "On the contrary, if your father acts upon my suggestion something very delightful will be the outcome, I am sure. I feel intuitively that you approve of my plan regarding the school, Neil."
Peggy started slightly, and looked at her father. He nodded and smiled reassuringly, then turning toward his sister-in-law, replied:
"Your letter, Katherine, only served to convince me that Peggy must now have a broader horizon than Severndale, or even Annapolis affords. Dr. Llewellyn and I talked it over when I was home over a year ago, and again last June. When we first discussed it we were about as much at sea as the 'three wise men of Gotham' who launched forth in a tub. We needed a better craft and a pilot, and we needed them badly, I tell you, and at that time we hadn't sighted either. Then the 'Sky Pilot' took the job out of our hands and He's got it yet, I reckon. At any rate, indications seem to point that way, for on my way down here He ran me alongside my navigator and it didn't take her long to give me my bearings. She got on board the limited at Newark, N. J., and we rode as far as Philly together. She had three of her convoys along and they're all to the good, let me tell you."
"Oh, Daddy, did you really meet Mrs. Harold and Polly, and who was with them?" broke in Peggy eagerly.
"I surely did, little girl; Mrs. Harold, Polly, Ralph and Durand. She was on her way for a week's visit with some relatives just out of Philly—in Devon, I believe, a sort of house-party, she's chaperoning—and a whole bunch of the old friends are to be there. Well, I got the 'Little Mother' all to myself from Newark to Philly and we went a twenty-knot clip, I tell you, for big as I am, I was just bursting to unload my worries upon someone, and that little woman seems born to carry the major portion of all creation's. She gets them, any way, and they don't seem to feaze her a particle. She bobs up serene and smiling after ever comber. But I've yet to see the proposition she wouldn't try to tackle. Oh, we talked for fair, let me tell you, and in those two hours she put more ideas into this wooden old block of mine than it's held in as many months. Did your ears burn this afternoon, Peggy? You are pretty solid in that direction, little girl, and you'll never have a better friend in all your born days, and don't you ever forget that fact. Well, the upshot is, that next Friday, one week from today, Middie's Haven will have its tenant back and, meantime, she is to write some letters and lay a train for your welfare, honey. That school plan is an excellent plan, Katherine, but not a New York school: New York is too far away from home and Mrs. Harold. Peggy will go to Washington this winter. Hampton Roads is not far from Washington and the —— will put in there a number of times this winter. That gives me a chance to visit my girl oftener and also gives Peggy a chance to visit Mrs. Harold, and run out here now and again if she wishes, though the place will be practically closed up for the winter. It was very good of you to offer to remain here but I couldn't possibly accept that sacrifice; for all your interests lie in New York, as you stated in your letter to me. You still have your apartments there, you tell me, and to let you bury yourself down here in this lonely place would be simply outrageous. Even Peggy has been here too long, without companions."
Neil Stewart paused to take some nuts from the dish which Jerome, now recovered and beaming, held for him. Mrs. Stewart could have screamed with baffled rage, for, now that it was too late, she saw that she had quite overshot the mark, and given her brother-in-law a complete advantage over her designs. "And that hateful, designing cat!" as she stigmatized Mrs. Harold "had completed her defeat." She had gauged her brother-in-law as "a perfect simpleton where a woman was concerned," and never had she so miscalculated. He was easygoing when at home on leave, or off on one of his outings, as he had been when she met him in New London. Why not? When he worked he worked with every particle of energy he possessed, but when he "loafed," as he expressed it, he cast all care to the winds and was like an emancipated school-boy. It was the school-boy side of his nature she had gauged. She knew nothing of Neil Stewart the Naval Officer and man; hadn't the very faintest conception of his latent force once it was stirred. And she little guessed how she had stirred it by her letter written the morning she had made Peggy so unhappy. It was the one touch needed to bring the climax and it had brought it with a rush which Mrs. Peyton had little anticipated. What the outcome might have been had Neil Stewart not met Mrs. Harold on that train is impossible to surmise further than that he had fully decided to free himself of all connection with Peyton's widow. He had always disliked and distrusted her, but now he detested her. Peggy's letters had revealed far more than she guessed, though they had not held one intended criticism. She had written just as she had written ever since she promised him when he visited her the previous year, to send "a report of each day, accurate as a ship's log." But she could not write of the daily happenings without giving him a pretty graphic picture of Mrs. Stewart's gradual usurpation, and Harrison had felt no compunction in expressing her views.
And so the "best laid plans o' mice and (wo)men" had "gone agley" in a demoralizing manner, and Neil Stewart had come down to Severndale "under full headway," and wasted no time in "laying hold of the helm." That talk upon the train had been what he termed "one real old heart-to-hearty," for Mrs. Harold had foreseen just such a crisis and felt under no obligation to refrain from speaking her mind where Mrs. Stewart was concerned. She had seen just such women before. Captain Stewart had asked her to read the letters sent to him. She nearly had hysterics over Harrison's, but Peggy's brought tears to her eyes, for she loved the girl very dearly and understood her well. Mrs. Stewart's letter made her eyes snap and her mouth set firmly, as she said:
"Captain Stewart, you have asked my advice and I shall give it exactly as though Peggy were my daughter, for I could hardly love her and Polly more dearly if they were my own children. I am under every obligation of affection to Peggy but not the slightest to Mrs. Stewart, and from all I observed in New London she is by no means the woman to have control over a girl like Peggy. She is one of the most lovable girls I have ever known, but at the same time has one of the most distinct personalities and the strongest wills. She can be easily guided by combined wisdom and affection, but she would be ruined by association with a calculating, unrefined, or capricious nature, and, pardon my frankness, I consider Mrs. Peyton Stewart all of these. Peggy needs association with other girls—that is only natural—and we must secure it at once for her."
Neil Stewart laid her words to heart, and the ensuing week brought to pass some radical changes.
On the thirtieth of September the whole brigade of midshipmen came pouring back to Annapolis, the academic year beginning on October first.
On the thirtieth also came Mrs. Glenn Harold and her niece Polly Howland, brown, happy and refreshed by their summer's outing, and Polly eager to meet her old friends at the Academy and her chum Peggy.