by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey ___________ This is an absolutely delightful book. Pixie is a totally unique character! Her mother had died and had left what money she had for Pixie's education. The family live in a tumble-down old castle in Ireland, and are all and each totally eccentric, in an Irish kind of way. Pixies and her father travel to London, for she is to go to a school for girls in the London suburbs. Suddenly her father realises what a shabby little thing she is. Furthermore she has a very strong Irish brogue. So how does she get on with the other girls. Famously, in the end, but there were a few set-backs.
There is a very strongly written episode in the second half of the book, where Pixie takes the blame for the loss of a perfume-bottle that had been given to one of the mistresses by an old and beloved friend. Everything points to Pixie being the culprit. She actually knows who did it, but somehow had given her word that she wouldn't give the other girl away. Pixie is punished severely, not only for having done the deed, as generally assumed, but also for refusing to talk about it. Could any of us show such strength of character? There are several sequels to this book, but though good, they are mere sequels. The inspiration that went into this book is unsurpassable. N.H. ___________ PIXIE O'SHAUGHNESSY
BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
THE UGLY DUCKLING.
Pixie O'Shaughnessy was at once the joy and terror of the school. It had been a quiet, well-conducted seminary before her time, or it seemed so, at least, looking back after the arrival of the wild Irish tornado, before whose pranks the mild mischief of the Englishers was as water unto wine. Pixie was entered in the school-lists as "Patricia Monica de Vere O'Shaughnessy," but no one ever addressed her by such a title, not even her home-people, by whom the name was considered at once as a tragedy and a joke of the purest water.
Mrs O'Shaughnessy had held stern ideas about fanciful names for her children, on which subject she had often waxed eloquent to her friends.
"What," she would ask, "could be more trying to a large and bouncing young woman than to find herself saddled for life with the title of 'Ivy,' or for a poor anaemic creature to pose as 'Ruby' before a derisive world?" She christened her own first daughter Bridget, and the second Joan, and the three boys respectively Jack, Miles, and Patrick, resolutely waving aside suggestions of more poetic names even when they touched her fancy, or appealed to her imagination. Better err on the safe side, and safeguard oneself from the risk of having a brood of plain, awkward children masquerading through life under names which made them a laughing-stock to their companions.
So she argued; but as the years passed by, it became apparent that her children had too much respect for the traditions of the race to appear an any such unattractive guise. "The O'Shaughnessys were always beautiful," quoth the Major, tossing his own handsome head with the air of supreme self-satisfaction which was his leading characteristic, "and it's not my children that are going to break the rule," and certain it is that one might have travelled far and wide before finding another family to equal the one at Knock Castle in point of appearance. The boys were fine upstanding fellows with dark eyes and aquiline features; Bridgie was a dainty, fair-haired little lady; while Joan, (Esmeralda for short, as her brothers had it), had reached such a climax of beauty that strangers gasped with delight, and the hardest heart softened before her baby smile. Well might Mrs O'Shaughnessy waver in her decision; well might she suppose that she was safe in relaxing her principles sufficiently to bestow upon baby number six a name more appropriate to prospective beauty and charm. The most sensible people have the most serious relapses, and once having given rein to her imagination nothing less than three names would satisfy her—and those three the high-sounding Patricia Monica de Vere.
She was an ugly baby. Well, but babies often were ugly. That counted for nothing. It was really a bad sign if an infant were conspicuously pretty. She had no nose to speak of, and a mouth of enormous proportions. What of that? Babies' noses always were small, and the mouth would not grow in proportion to the rest of the features. In a few months she would no doubt be as charming as her sisters had been before her; but, alas! Pixie disappointed that expectation, as she was fated to disappoint most expectations during her life. Her nose refused to grow bigger, her mouth to grow smaller, her small twinkling eyes disdained the lashes which were so marked a feature in the faces of her sisters, and her hair was thin and straight, and refused to grow beyond her neck, whereas Bridgie and Esmeralda had curling manes so long that, as their nurse proudly pointed out to other nurses, they could sit on them, the darlints! and that to spare.
There was no disguising the fact that she was an extraordinarily plain child, and as the years passed by she grew ever plainer and plainer, and showed less possibility of improvement. The same contrariety of fate which made Bridget look like Patricia, made Patricia look like Bridget, and Mrs O'Shaughnessy often thought regretfully of her broken principle. "Indeed it's a judgment on me!" she would cry; but always as she said the words she hugged her baby to her breast, and showered kisses on the dear, ugly little face, wondering in her heart if she had ever loved a child so much before, or if any of Pixie's beautiful sisters and brothers had had such strange, fascinating little ways. At the age when most infants are content to blink, she smiled accurately and with intent; when three months old she would look up from her pillow with a twinkling glance, as who would say, "Such an adventure as I've had with these cot curtains! You wait a few months until I can speak, and I'll astonish you about it!" And when she could sit up she virtually governed the nursery. The shrewdness of the glance which she cast upon her sisters quite disturbed the enjoyment of those young ladies in the pursuance of such innocent tricks as making lakes of ink in the laps of their clean pinafores, or scratching their initials on newly painted doors, and she waved her rattle at them with such an imperious air that they meekly bowed their heads, and allowed her to tug at their curls without reproach.
The whole family vied with each other in adoring the ugly duckling, and in happy Irish fashion regarded her shortcomings as a joke rather than a misfortune. "Seen that youngster of mine?" the Major would cry genially to his friends. "She's worth a visit, I tell you! Ugliest child in Galway, though I say it that shouldn't." And Pixie's company tricks were all based on the subject of personal shortcomings.
"Show the lady where your nose ought to be, darling," her mother would say fondly, and the baby fingers would point solemnly to the flat space between the eyes.
"And where's the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, sweetheart?" would be the next question, when the whole of Pixie's fat fist would disappear bodily inside the capacious mouth.
"The Major takes more notice of her than he did of any of the others," Mrs O'Shaughnessy would tell her visitor. "He is always buying her presents!"
And then she would sigh, for, alas! the Major was one of those careless, extravagant creatures, who are never restrained from buying a luxury by the uninteresting fact that the bread bill is owing, and the butcher growing pressing in his demands. When his wife pleaded for money with which to defray household bills, he grew irritable and impatient, as though he himself were the injured party. "The impudence of the fellows!" he would cry. "They are nothing but ignorant upstarts, while the O'Shaughnessys have been living on this ground for the last three centuries. They ought to be proud to serve me! This is what comes of educating people beyond their station. Any upstart of a tradesman thinks himself good enough to trouble an O'Shaughnessy about a trumpery twenty or thirty pounds. I'll show them their mistake! You can tell them that I'll not be bullied, and indeed they might as well save their trouble, for, between you and me, there's not a five-pound note in my pocket between now and the beginning of the year." After delivering himself of which statement he would take the train to the nearest town, order a new coat, buy an armful of toys for Pixie, and enjoy a good dinner at the best hotel, leaving his poor wife to face the irate tradesmen as best she might.
Poor Mrs O'Shaughnessy! She hid an aching heart under a bright exterior many times over, as the pressure for money grew ever tighter and tighter, and she saw her children running wild over the countryside, with little or no education to fit them for the battle of life. The Major declared that he could not afford school fees, so a daily governess was engaged to teach boys and girls alike—a staid, old- fashioned maiden lady, who tried to teach the young O'Shaughnessys on the principles of fifty years ago, to her own confusion and their patronising disdain. The three boys were sharp as needles to discover the weak points in her armour, and maliciously prepared questions by which she could be put to confusion, while the girls tittered and idled, finding endless excuses for neglecting their unwelcome tasks. Half a dozen times over had Miss Minnitt threatened to resign her hopeless task, and half a dozen times had she been persuaded by Mrs O'Shaughnessy to withdraw her resignation. The poor mother knew full well that it would be a difficulty to find anyone to take the place of the hard-worked, ill-paid governess, and the governess loved her wild charges, as indeed did everyone who knew them, and sorrowed over them in her heart, because she saw what their blind young eyes never noticed— the coming shadow on the house, the gradual fading away of the weary, overtaxed mother. Mrs O'Shaughnessy had fought for years against chronic weariness and ill-health, but the time was coming when she could fight no longer, and, almost before her family had recognised that she was ill, the end drew near, and her husband and children were summoned to bid the last farewell.
The eyes of the dying woman roamed from one to the other of her six children—twenty-two-year-old Jack, handsome and manly, so like—oh, so like that other Jack who had come wooing her nearly thirty years ago! Bridgie, slim and delicate—so unfit, poor child, to take the burden of a mother's place; Miles, with his proud, overbearing look, a boy who had had especial claims on her care and guidance; Joan, beautiful and daring, ignorant of nothing so much as of her own ignorance; Pat, of the pensive face and reckless spirit; and last but not least, Pixie, her baby—dear, naughty, loyal little Pixie, whom she must leave to the tender mercies of children little older than herself! The dim eyes brightened, the thin hand stretched out and gripped her husband by the arm.
"Jack!" she cried shrilly—"Pixie! Give Pixie a chance! Take care of her—she is so young—and I can't stay. For my sake, Jack, give Pixie a chance!"
The Major promised with sobs and tears. In his own selfish way he had adored his wife, and her last words could not easily be put aside. As the months passed by, he was the more inclined to follow her wishes, as the few thousands which fell to him at her death enabled him to pay off his more pressing debts and enjoy a temporary feeling of affluence. Jack went back to his office in London, where he had betaken himself three years before, to the disgust of the father, who considered it more respectable for an O'Shaughnessy to be in debt than to work for his living in the City among City men. Pat and Miles remained at home, ostensibly to help on the estate, and in reality to shoot rabbits and get into mischief with the farm hands. Miss Minnitt was discharged, since Bridgie must now be occupied with household duties, and Joan was satisfied that her education was finished. And the verdict went forth that Pixie was to go to school.
"Your mother was always grieving that she could not educate your sisters like other girls, and it was her wish that you should have a chance. I'll send you to London to the best school that can be found, if I have to sell the coat off my back to do it," said the Major fervently; for there was no sacrifice which he was not ready to make—in anticipation, and he hoped to discover a school which did not demand payments in advance. He patted the child on the shoulder in congratulation; but Pixie was horrified, and, opening her mouth, burst into howls and yells of indignation.
"I won't! I shan't! I hate school! I won't go a step! I'll stay at home and have Miss Minnitt to teach me! I won't! I won't! I won't!"
The Major smiled and stroked his moustache. He was used to Pixie's outbursts, and quite unperturbed thereby, although a stranger would have quailed at the sound, and would certainly have imagined that some horrible form of torture was being employed. Pixie checked herself sufficiently to peep at his face, realised that violence was useless, and promptly changed her tactics. She whimpered dismally, and essayed cajolery.
"It will break me heart to leave you. Father darlin', let me stay! What will you do without your little girl at all?"
"I'll miss you badly, but it's for your own good. That brogue of yours is getting worse and worse. And such a fine school, too! Think of all you will be able to learn!"
"Me education's finished," said Pixie haughtily. "I know me tables and can read me books, and write a letter when I want, and that's all that's required of a young gentlewoman living at home with her parents. I've heard you say so meself—a hundred times, if once."
It was too true. The Major recognised the argument with which he had been wont to answer his wife's pleas for higher education, and was incensed, as we all are when our own words are brought up against us.
"You are a very silly child," he said severely, "and don't understand what you are talking about. I am giving you an opportunity which none of your brothers and sisters have had, and you have not the decency to say as much as 'Thank you.' I am ashamed of you. I am bitterly ashamed!"
Such a statement would have been blighting indeed to an ordinary child, but Pixie looked relieved rather than otherwise, for her quick wits had recognised another form of appeal, and she was instantly transformed into an image of penitence and humiliation.
"I am a bad, ungrateful choild, and don't deserve your kindness. I ought to be punished, and kept at home, and then when I grew older and had more sense I'd regret it, and it would be a warning to me. Esmeralda's cleverer than me. It would serve me right if she went instead."
It was of no avail. The Major only laughed and repeated his decision, when Pixie realised that it was useless fighting against fate, and resigned herself to the inevitable with characteristic philosophy.
Her outbursts of rebellion, though violent for the time being, were of remarkably short duration, for she was of too sunny a nature to remain long depressed, and moreover it was more congenial to her pride to pose as an object of envy than pity. On the present occasion she no sooner realised that go to school she must, than she began to plume herself on her importance, and prepare to queen it over her sisters.
"You had better make the most of me, my dears," she announced in the morning-room five minutes later, "for it's not long you'll be having me with you. I'm off to a grand London school to correct me brogue and learn accomplishments. It will cost a mint of money, and father can't afford to send you too; but I'll tell you all about it when I come back, and correct your accent and show you me fine new clothes!"
"Thank you, darling!" said Bridgie meekly, while Esmeralda stifled a laugh and turned her lovely eyes on the ugly duckling with a glance of fondest admiration. Both sisters had overheard the shrieks of ten minutes before and could still see tell-tale tear-marks, but nothing in the world would have induced them to say as much or check their darling in her newly found complacency.
After all it was not until some months had elapsed that the dilatory Major discovered a school to his liking, and even then he allowed his own engagements to interfere with the date of her arrival, for he insisted upon accompanying Pixie himself, and could not see that it made the least difference whether she arrived at the beginning of the term or a few weeks later on. Miss Minnitt protested faintly, but soon relapsed into silence, and consoled herself by turning seamstress and helping Bridgie and Joan with the school outfit. It was a case of making new lamps out of old, for little money was forthcoming to buy fresh material, and, with the best will in the world, the workers were still unskilled in their efforts.
Bridgie's tender heart was pierced with sorrow as she looked at the dismal little outfit spread out on the bed preparatory to packing—so poor it seemed, so shabby, oh, so black, black, black and sorrowful! Poor little Pixie going forth alone into the unknown world—little, wild, ignorant Irish girl, bound for a strange land among strange people! Would those fine English girls laugh among themselves and jeer at her untamed ways? Would they imitate her brogue in their thin mincing voices, and if so, how, oh, how would Pixie conduct herself in return? Bridgie was barely twenty years old, but since her mother's death she had grown into a woman in thoughtfulness and love for others, and now it weighed on her mind that it was her duty to speak seriously to Pixie before she left home, and prepare her in some sort for the trials which might lie before her. If she did not, no one would, and it was cruel to let the child leave without a word of counsel. She lay awake wondering what to say and how to say it.
"It's no use telling Pixie not to get into mischief, for she can't help it, the darling! It's the nature of her, but she has such a loving little heart that she will never go far wrong."
The next day she watched her opportunity, and took advantage of a quiet moment to speak her words of counsel.
"You won't be disappointed if school isn't all you expect, will you, dear?" she began nervously. "I have heard girls say that they felt dreadfully lonely and homesick at first, and when the pupils are all strange to you, and chums with one another, you may think they are not as friendly as you could wish. And the teachers may seem stern. Miss Minnitt has spoiled us by being too mild and easy, and you will feel the difference. Then you have run wild all your life, and it will seem strange to be allowed out for walks only; but, Pixie, I want you to remember that you are our pet and baby, and that our happiness depends on you. If you get a good report and bring home prizes, the pride we shall feel, the airs we shall be giving ourselves, going into Galway and telling everyone we meet on the street; but if you are disobedient and we hear complaints, it's covered with disgrace we shall be in the eyes of the county. Now, there will be good girls in that school, and bad girls, and lazy girls, and industrious ones, and girls who would tell the truth if they were to be shot for it the next moment; and girls who would trick and deceive to get a mean advantage over another. Patricia O'Shaughnessy, which are you going to choose for your companions?"
Pixie fairly jumped upon her seat with surprise, the use of that seldom- heard name impressing her more than anything else could possibly have done with the importance of the occasion. A murmur of protest did duty as a reply, and Bridgie continued impressively—
"Yes, I am sure you will choose the right sort of friend, for the honour of your name and the family to which you belong; but you must be industrious with your work as well. Now that I have left off lessons I wish I had worked twice as hard, for I feel so ignorant and stupid beside other girls; and you are clever, Pixie, and can do well if you choose. Don't be troublesome to the teachers, dearie; it must be maddening to have to teach day after day, and they have to be cross now and then—the creatures!—to relieve their feelings. And if you feel tempted to be rude and naughty, just remember that you are mother's little baby, and that the last thing she asked was that you should have your chance! Perhaps she sees you still, Pixie! Perhaps God lets her be a white angel to watch over her boys and girls. If you thought mother was watching, you never could do anything to grieve her!"
The ready tears poured down Pixie's face. She sobbed and moaned, and with clasped hands repeated her vow to be good, good, good; never to be naughty again so long as she lived! And Bridgie wept too, smiling through her tears at the impracticability of the promise, the while she clasped the dear little sister to her breast.
The morning rose clear and fair, and the sun shone as cheerfully as if no tragedy were about to be enacted, and Pixie O'Shaughnessy would presently run out of doors to sit swinging on a gate, clad in Esmeralda's dyed skirt, Pat's shooting jacket, and the first cap that came to hand, instead of starting on the journey to school in a new dress, a hat with bows and two whole quills at the side, and her hair tied back with a ribbon that had not once been washed! It was almost too stylish to be believed!
Pixie entered the breakfast-room with much the same stride as that with which the big drum-major heads the Lord Mayor's procession, and spread out her dress ostentatiously as she seated herself by the table. The armholes stuck into her arms, the collar was an inch too high, and the chest painfully contracted, but she was intensely proud of herself all the same, and privately thought the London girls would have little spirit left in them when confronted with so much elegance. Bridgie was wiping her eyes behind the urn, Esmeralda was pressing the mustard upon her, the Major was stroking his moustache and smiling as he murmured to himself—
"Uglier than ever in that black frock! Eh—what! Bless the child, it is the mischief to let her go! The house will be lost without her!"
Pat and Miles were conversing together in tones of laboured mystery, a device certain to arrest Pixie's vivid attention.
"On Sundays—yes! Occasionally on Wednesdays also. It does seem rather mean, but I suppose puddings are not good for growing girls. Two a week is ample if you think of it!"
"Good wholesome puddings too!" said Pat, nodding assent. "Suet and rice, and perhaps tapioca for a change! Very sensible, I call it. Porridge for breakfast, I think they said, but no butter, of course?"
"Certainly not! Too bad for the complexion, but cod-liver oil regularly after every meal. Especially large doses to those suffering from change of climate!"
The Major was chuckling with amusement; Bridgie was shaking her head, and murmuring, "Boys, don't! It's cruel!" Pixie was turning from one to the other with eager eyes, and mouth agape with excitement. She knew perfectly well that the conversation was planned for her benefit, and more than guessed its imaginary nature, but it was impossible to resist a thrill—a fear—a doubt! The bread-and-butter was arrested in her hand in the keenness of listening.
"Did I understand you to say no talking allowed?" queried Pat earnestly. "I had an impression that on holiday afternoons a little more liberty might be given?"
"My dear fellow, there are no holidays! They are abolished in modern schools as being unsettling, and disturbing to study. 'In work, in work, in work always let my young days be spent!' Pass the marmalade, please! The girls are occasionally allowed to speak to each other in French, or, if they prefer it, in German, or any other Continental language. The constant use of one language is supposed to be bad for the throat. I hope, by the way, father, that you mentioned distinctly that Pixie's throat requires care?"
Pixie cast an agonised glance round the table, caught Bridgie's eye, and sighed with relief, as a shake of the head and an encouraging smile testified to the absurdity of the boys' statements.
"There's not a word of truth in it, darling. Don't listen to them. They are only trying to tease you."
"I'd scorn to listen! Ignorant creatures, brought up at home by a lady governess! What do they know about schooling?" cried Pixie cruelly; for this was a sore point, on which it was not safe to jest on ordinary occasions. Miles rolled his eyes at her in threatening fashion, and Pat stamped on her foot; but she smiled on unabashed, knowing full well that her coming departure would protect her from the ordinary retribution.
After breakfast it seemed a natural thing to go a farewell round of the house and grounds, escorted by the entire family circle, and a melancholy review it would have been to anyone unblessed with Irish spirits, and the Irish capability of shutting one's eyes to unpleasant truths. Knock Castle sounded grandly enough, and a fine old place it had been some centuries before; but for want of repairs it had now fallen into a semi-ruinous condition pathetic to witness. Slates in hundreds had fallen off the roof and been left unreplaced; a large staircase window, blown in by a storm, was still boarded up, waiting to be mended "some time," though more than a year had elapsed since the accident had taken place; the walls in the great drawing-room were mouldy with damp, for it had been deserted for many a day, because its owner could not afford the two big fires necessary to keep it aired. Pixie sniffed with delight when she entered the gloomy apartment, for the room represented the family glory to her childish imagination, so that the smell of mildew was irresistibly associated with luxury. The dining-room carpet was worn into holes, and there was one especially big one near the window, where Esmeralda, who was nothing if not artistic, had painted so accurate a repetition of the pattern on the boards beneath that one could scarcely see where one ended, and the other began!
The original intention had been to disguise the hole, but so proud was the family of the success of the imitation, that it became one of the show places of the establishment. When the hounds met at Bally William, and the Major brought old Lord Atrim into the house for lunch, he called the old gentleman's attention to it with a chuckle of enjoyment. "My daughter's work! The second, Joan here—Esmeralda, we call her. She'll be an artist yet! A real genius with the brush." And the old lord had laughed till he cried, and stared at Esmeralda the whole time of lunch, and when Christmas-time came round, did he not send her the most beautiful box of the best possible paints, the very thing of all others for which she had been longing, so that it seemed after all that it had been a good thing when the terriers Tramp and Scamp had scratched the thin web into a hole! The ceilings were black with the smoke of fire and lamps, but the silver on the oak dresser would have delighted the heart of a connoisseur, and the china in daily use would have been laid out for view in glassed-in cabinets in most households, instead of being given over to the care of an Irish biddy who tried to hang cups upon hooks with her head turned in an opposite direction, and had a weakness for sitting on the corner of the table to rest herself in the midst of washing the plates.
Outside the garden was an overgrown wilderness of vegetation, for the one gardener, realising the impossibility of doing the work of the six who would have been required to keep the place in order, resigned himself to doing nothing at all, or as little as was compatible with the weekly drawing of wages. The stables were empty, save for the two fine hunters which were necessary for the Major's enjoyment of his favourite sport, and the rough little pony which did duty for all the rest of the family in turns. The row of glass-houses looked imposing enough from a distance, but almost squalid at a nearer view, for, as the Major could not afford to keep them in working order, broken panes greeted the eye in every direction, and plants were replaced by broken pieces of furniture and the hutches and cages of such live-stock as white mice, guinea-pigs, and ferrets. Pixie had many farewells to bid in this quarter, and elaborate instructions to give as to the care to be lavished on her favourites during her absence. The ferret was boarded out to Pat, who had no idea of doing anything for nothing, but was willing to keep the creature supplied with the unsavoury morsels, in which its soul delighted, for the fee of a halfpenny a week, to be paid "some time," an happy O'Shaughnessy fashion. The white mice looked on coldly with their little pink eyes, while their mistress's own grew red with the misery of parting from them, and the rabbit seized the opportunity to gnaw Bridgie's skirt with its sharp teeth; but for Pixie the keenest pang of parting was over when she saw no more the floor with its scattered cabbage-leaves, and the door closed behind her, shutting out the dear mousy, rabbity smell associated with so many happy hours.
Outside on the gravel path old Dennis was sitting on a wheelbarrow enjoying a pipe in the sunshine. He made no attempt to rise as "the family" approached, but took the pipe out of his mouth and shook his head lugubriously.
"This is the black day for us, for all the sun's shining in the skies. Good luck to ye, Miss Pixie, and don't forget to spake a good word for Ould Ireland when the opportunity is yours. The ould place won't seem like itself with you and Mr Jack both going off within the same month; but there's one comfort—one frettin' will do for the pair of you!" And with this philosophic reflection he stuck the pipe back in the corner of his mouth and resigned himself to the inevitable.
"Pixie darling," said Bridgie nervously, "I think we must go back to the house. It's time—very nearly time that you were getting ready. Father is going to drive you over in the cart, and he won't like to be kept waiting."
"Aren't you coming too?" queried Pixie eagerly. There was a look on Bridgie's face this morning which reminded her of the dear dead mother, and she had a sudden feeling of dread and longing. "I want you, Bridgie! Come too! Come too!"
"I can't, my dearie. Your box must go, you know, and there's not room for both. But you won't cry, Pixie. It's only babies who cry, not girls like you—big girls, almost in their teens, going away to see the world like any grand lady. You may see the queen some day! Think of that, now! If you ever do, bow to her twice—once for yourself, and once for me—and tell her Bridget O'Shaughnessy is hers to the death. I wouldn't cry, Pixie, if I were going to see the queen!"
"Is it cry?" asked Pixie airily, with the tears pouring down her face and splashing on to her collar, which had been manufactured out of the strings of an old bonnet, with only three joins at the back to betray the fact that it had not been cut out of "the piece."
"It's not likely I'll cry, when I'm going on a real train and steamer, and meals on the way right up to to-morrow night! You never had lunch on a train, Bridgie, and you are eight years older than me!"
"'Deed I didn't, then. No such luck!" sighed Bridgie regretfully, making the most of her own privation for the encouragement of the young traveller. "That will be a treat for you, Pixie, and there are sandwiches and cakes in the dining-room for you to eat before you go. Come straight in, for I brought down your coat before going out. You must write often, dear, and tell us every single thing. What Miss Phipps is like, and the other teachers, and the girls in your class, and who sleeps in your bedroom, and every single thing that happens to you."
"And remember to write every second letter to your brothers, for if you don't, they won't write to you. Girls get all the letters, and it isn't fair. Tell us if you play any games, and what sort of food they give you, and what you think of the English," said Miles, helping himself to sandwiches, and turning over the cakes to select the most tempting for his own refreshment, despite the young housekeeper's frowns of disapproval. "Stick up for your country, and stand no cheek. You understand, of course, that you are to be the Champion of Ireland in the school."
"I do!" said little Pixie, and her back straightened, and her head reared itself in proud determination.
"And if any English upstarts dare to try bullying you, just let them know that your name is O'Shaughnessy, and that your ancestors were Kings of Ireland when theirs were begging bread on the streets! Talk to them straight, and let them know who they are dealing with!"
"I will so!" said Pixie. She chuckled gleefully at the anticipation; but, alas! her joy was short-lived, for at that moment the shabby dogcart passed the window, and the Major's voice was heard calling impatiently from the hall.
"Ten minutes late already. We shall need all our time. Tumble in, now, tumble in! You have had the whole morning for saying good-bye. Surely you have finished by now!"
The children thought they had hardly begun; but perhaps it was just as well to be spared the last trying moments. Bridgie and Esmeralda wrapped their arms round the little sister and almost carried her to the door; Pat and Miles followed with their hands in their pockets, putting on a great affectation of jollity in their anxiety to disguise a natural regret; the two women-servants wailed loudly from the staircase. Pixie scrambled to her seat and looked down at them, her poor little chin quivering with emotion.
"Bridgie, write! Esmeralda, write!" she cried brokenly. "Oh, write often! Write every day. Pat, Pat, be kind to my ferret. Don't starve it. Don't let it die. Take care of it for me till I come back."
"I'll be a mother to it," said Pat solemnly.
And so Pixie O'Shaughnessy went off to school.
THE NEW SCHOLAR.
Major O'Shaughnessy and his little daughter reached London on the following afternoon, after a comfortable and unadventurous journey. Pixie had howled dismally all the way to the station, but had dried her eyes at the sight of the train, and even brightened into hilarious spirits on boarding the steamer. She ate an enormous dinner of the richest and most indigestible dishes on the menu, slept peacefully through a stormy passage, and was up on deck conversing affably with the men who were washing down, long before her father had nerved himself to think of dressing. The journey to London was a more or less disappointing experience, for, if she had not known to the contrary, she was not at all sure that she would have recognised that she was in a strange land. What she had expected, it was impossible to say; but that England should bear so close a resemblance to her beloved land seemed another "insult to Ireland," as Pat would have had it, and that it should in some respects look better, more prosperous and orderly, this was indeed a bitter pill to swallow.
As the train neared London, and other passengers came in and out of the carriage, Major O'Shaughnessy became conscious for the first time what a dusty, dishevelled little mortal he was about to introduce to an English school. He was not noticing where his children were concerned, and moreover, his eye had grown accustomed to the home surroundings, but the contrast between these trim strangers and his own daughter was too striking to be overlooked. Pixie had wriggled about until her frock was a mass of creases, her hat was grey with dust, and she had apparently forgotten to brush her hair before leaving her cabin. The Major was too easy-going to feel any distress at this reflection. He merely remarked to himself whimsically that, "the piccaninny would astonish them!" meaning the companions to whom she was about to be introduced, and decided then and there to take her straight to her destination. This had been the only point upon which he and his young daughter had been at variance; for from the start Pixie had laid down, as her idea of what was right and proper, that her father should take her for the night to a grand hotel, introduce her next morning to the Tower, the Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud's, and deposit her at Surbiton in the afternoon. The Major's ideas on the subject were, however, that an exacting little daughter was a drawback to a man's enjoyment of a visit to London, and that there were other forms of amusement which he would prefer to a visit to the before-mentioned historic resorts. With accustomed fluency, he found a dozen reasons for carrying out his own wishes, and propitiated Pixie by promising that Jack should take her sight-seeing before many weeks were over.
"I'll tell Miss Phipps that I wish you to go out with your brother on Saturday afternoons, and you'll have a fine time together seeing all that is to be seen. Far greater fun than if we tried to hurry about with not a minute to spare."
"I like to do things now," sighed Pixie pensively; but as usual she resigned herself to the inevitable, and a box of chocolates, bought at Waterloo, sufficed to bring back the smiles to her face and restore her equanimity.
The arrival at Surbiton Station was a breathless experience, though it was a distinct blow to her vanity to find that no deputation from Holly House was in waiting to receive Patricia O'Shaughnessy with the honours she deserved. No one took any notice of her at all. When the cabman, when directed to drive to Holly House, preserved an unmoved stolidity of feature, and had no remark whatever to offer on the subject. How different from dear, friendly, outspoken Bally William, where each man was keenly interested in the affairs of his neighbour, and the poorest peasant upon the road felt himself competent to offer advice on the most intimate family matters! Pixie felt a chill of foreboding as she drove through the trim Surbiton streets and noticed girls like herself walking demurely beside mother or governess, with laced-in boots, gloved bands, and silky manes flowing down their backs in straight, uninterrupted flow. She looked down at her own new, stout, little boots. Sixteen buttons in all, and only one missing! Such a pitch of propriety made her feel quite in keeping with her surroundings, and she had kid gloves too—dyed ones—which looked every bit as good as new, and left no mark at all except round the fastenings, and the lobes of the fingers. She gave a wriggle of contentment, and at that moment the cab turned in at the gate of Holly House.
The name of the house seemed to have more appropriateness than is usually the case, for the garden was surrounded by a thick holly hedge, and the beds were planted with holly trees so dark that they appeared to be almost black in hue. To the eyes of the new pupil there was something awe-inspiring in the sight of the grim flowerless beds and the foliage which looked so stern and prickly, almost as bad as the pieces of broken glass which are laid on the top of high walls to prevent escape or intrusion. The house itself was big and square, with a door in the centre, and at the top two quaint dormer windows, standing out from the roof like big surprised-looking eyes. "Dear, dear!" they seemed to say. "If this isn't Pixie O'Shaughnessy driving up to the door! Wonders will never cease!"
The hall was wide and cold, and, oh, so clean—"fearful clean," thought the new pupil with a sigh, as she stepped gingerly over the polished oilcloth and gazed awesomely at spotless wood and burnished brass. The drawing-room had none of the splendour of that disused apartment at Knock Castle, but it was bright and home-like, with an abundance of pretty cushions and tablecloths, a scent of spring flowers in the air, and a fire dancing cheerily in the grate. Pixie's prejudices received a shock at the sight of so much frivolity in a drawing-room, and she could not echo her father's admiration. She seated herself on the edge of the sofa and began to paint imaginary pictures of the mistress of this fine house. "She will be tall, with yellow hair. She will have cold fingers and a nose that looks thin and has a hump in the middle. No, I don't believe she will, after all. I believe she'll be fussy, and then they are small and dark—dark, with eyeglasses, and those funny red cheeks that are made up of little lines, and never get lighter or darker. And she'll have a chain hanging from her waist with a lot of things that jingle, like the lady in the train. Oh, me dear, suppose she was old! I never thought of that. Suppose she was old, in a cap and a black satin dress, and chilblains on her hands!" And when the door opened—it was really a most exciting occasion!—and Miss Phipps came into the room.
She was not in the least like any of the three pictures which Pixie had imagined, she was far, far nicer and prettier. She was tall, and so graceful and elegantly dressed as to be quite dazzling to the eyes of the country-bred stranger. She had waving brown hair, which formed a sort of halo round her face, a pale complexion, and grey eyes which looked at you with a straight long glance, and then lightened as if they liked what they saw. She was quite young, too, not a bit old and proper; the only thing that looked old were the little lines about the eyes, and even those disappeared when her face was in repose. She came forward to where the major was standing, and held out her hand with a smile of welcome.
"Major O'Shaughnessy! I am very pleased to see you. I hope you have had a good journey and a comfortable crossing." Then she turned and looked at the crumpled little figure on the sofa, and her eyes softened tenderly. "Is this my new pupil? How do you do, dear? I hope we shall be very good friends!"
"Oi trust we may!" returned Pixie fervently, and with a broadening of the already broad brogue which arose from the emotion of the moment and made her father frown with embarrassment.
"Ha—hum—ha—I am afraid I have brought you rather a rough specimen," he said apologetically. "Pixie is the baby of the family, and has been allowed to run wild, and play with all the children about the place. I hope you will not find her very backward in her lessons. She has had a governess at home, but—"
"But she wasn't much good, either!" interrupted Pixie, entering into the conversation with the ease and geniality of one whose remarks are in the habit of being received with applause. "I didn't pay much attention to her. I expect there's a good deal I don't know yet, but I'm very quick and clever, and can be even with anyone if I choose to try."
"Then please try, Pixie! I shall be disappointed if you don't!" said Miss Phipps promptly. Her cheeks had grown quite red with surprise, and she pulled in her upper lip, and bit at it hard as she looked down at her new pupil, and noted the flat nose, the wide mouth, and the elf-like thinness of the shabby figure. "Pixie! that's a very charming little name, but a fancy one, surely. What is your Christian name?"
Father and daughter gazed at each other appealingly. It was a moment which they had both dreaded, and the Major had fondly hoped that he might escape before the question was asked. He remained obstinately silent, and Pixie nerved herself to reply.
"Me name's not suited to me appearance," she said sadly. "I'd rather, if you please, that ye didn't tell it to the girls. I am always called Pixie at home. Me name's Patricia!"
Miss Phipps bit her lip harder than ever, but did managed to control her features, and Pixie was relieved to see that she did not even smile at the mention of the fatal name.
"It's rather a long name for such a small person, isn't it?" she said seriously. "I think we will keep to Pixie. It will make school more home-like for you, than if we changed to one to which you are not accustomed." Then turning to the Major, "I am sorry my head mistress, Miss Bruce, is not at home to-day, as I should have liked you to see her. She is very bright and original, and has a happy knack of bringing out the best that is in her pupils. She directs the teaching, and I am the housekeeper and sick-nurse of the establishment. Would you like to come upstairs, and see the room in which Pixie will sleep, or shall we wait perhaps until after tea?"
The Major declared that he could not wait for tea. He had kept the cab waiting at the door, and was all anxiety to get the parting over as quickly as possible and return to the fascinations of town, so he discussed a few business matters with Miss Phipps, and then took Pixie's hand and accompanied her up the staircase to the third-floor bedroom which she was to share with three other pupils.
Two windows looked out on to the garden in front of the house, and an arrangement of curtains hung on rods made each little cubicle private from the rest. Pixie's handbag had already been laid by her bed, and she felt quite a swelling of importance as she surveyed her new domain, wherein everything was to be her very own, and not shared with someone else, as had always been the case at home. The Major gushed over all he saw, and professed himself as more than satisfied, but he was plainly ill at ease, and after walking twice round the room was all eagerness to make his escape.
"I'll say good-bye to you now, Pixie," he said, "for your bag is there, I see, and you would be much the better for a wash and brush. It's no use coming downstairs again. Be a good girl, now, and Jack shall come often to see you! I'm happy to leave you in such good hands, and it's a lucky child you are to have such a school to come to! It will be your own fault if you are not happy."
"I've no doubt I'll be very comfortable, thank you," Pixie said pleasantly, lifting her cheek to receive her father's kiss, with little sign of the emotion dreaded by the two onlookers, for her mind was too full of the new excitements to allow her to realise his departure. He hurried out of the room, followed by Miss Phipps, and Pixie withdrew into her cubicle, pulled the curtains closely around her, and felt monarch of all she surveyed. A dear little white bed, so narrow that if you turned, you turned at your peril and in instant dread of landing on the floor; a wonderful piece of furniture which did duty as dressing- table, washstand, and chest of drawers combined; a single chair and a hanging cupboard. Everything fresh, spotlessly clean, and in perfect order; absolutely, if you can believe it, not a single broken thing to be seen! Pixie drew a quick breath of admiration, and wondered how long it could possibly be before she succeeded in cracking that lovely blue and white china, and exactly what would happen if she spilt the water over the floor! She was so much occupied in building castles in the air that ten minutes passed by and she had not moved from her seat, when suddenly there came the sound of footsteps running up the stairs, the door was pushed open, and tramp, tramp, in came her future companions, hidden from sight, but talking volubly to each other as they took off hats and jackets after the afternoon walk.
"The new girl has arrived!" cried number one, in a tone of breathless excitement. "I saw her box as I came through the hall. I peeped at the label, but hadn't time to read it properly."
"I did, though!" cried another. "A funny name—O something or other. 'Shog-nessie,' or something like that. Such a shabby old trunk! Looked as if it came out of the Ark."
"It will be rather fun having an Irish girl, don't you think?" number two suggested. "They are untidy and quarrelsome, of course, but it is funny to hear them talk, and they make such droll mistakes. I shouldn't like to be Irish myself, but it will be a pleasant change to have a Paddy among us!"
"Well, I hope she isn't quarrelsome in this room, that's all!" said a third speaker, who had hitherto been silent, "because if she is, I shall feel it my duty to give her a taste of Home Rule that she may not appreciate. And if she snores I shall squeeze my sponge over her, so you may tell her what she has to expect. There's nothing like training these youngsters properly from the beginning!"
"Twelve years old! I call it mean to put a child like that in this room! You are fourteen, I'm fourteen, Ethel is fifteen; we ought to have one of the older ones with us. We will make her fag for her living. She shall get the hot water, and fold up our nightgowns, and pick up the pins. All the same, I shall be kind to her, for the credit of the country, for Irish people are always imagining themselves ill- used by England. If I had thought of it I would have drawn a picture for her cubicle, as a delicate little mark of attention. An Irishman with his—what do you call it?—shi-lee-lah!"
The speaker stopped suddenly as she pronounced this difficult word, for a curious muffled sound reached her ears. "What's that?" she asked quickly; but her companions had heard nothing, so she retired into the cubicle next Pixie's own to brush her hair, slightly raising her voice, so as to be heard more easily by her companions.
"She lives in a castle! I heard Miss Phipps telling Miss Bruce when she was sending the labels. 'Knock-kneed Castle,' or something like that. Every second house in Ireland is called a castle, my father says. It's no more than a villa in England, and all the people are as poor as Job, and have hens in their parlours and pigs on the lawn. They don't know what it is to keep order. What are you grunting for, Ethel? It's quite true, I tell you!"
"Dear me, I'm not grunting, I'm only washing my hands," cried Ethel, aggrieved. "What's the matter with your ears this afternoon? I don't care where she lives, so long as she behaves herself, and knows how to respect her elders. I wonder what she is like!"
"Irish girls are mostly pretty."
"Who told you that?"
"Never mind, I know it. It's always raining over there, and that is supposed to be good for the hair, or the complexion, or something. And they are so bright and vivacious. If an author wants to make a specially lively heroine in a book, the father is Irish, and the mother is French. Perhaps she'll be the beauty of the school, and then won't someone we could mention tear her hair with rage?"
"Well, I don't know about being pretty," said Pixie's neighbour reflectively. "We have had lots of Irish servants, and they were plain enough. But the name sounds interesting—'Miss Shog-nessie—the Castle—Ireland.' It certainly sounds interesting. I'd give something to know what she is like."
"If ye'll step inside the curtain, ye may judge for yerself," said a deep rich voice suddenly from behind the curtain which was farthest from the door.
There was silence in the bedroom—a silence which might be felt!
Pixie's first week at school was a period of delirious excitement. Above all things in the world she loved to be of importance, and occupy a foremost place with those around her, and she was proudly conscious that her name was on every lip, her doings the subject of universal attention. New girls were wont to be subdued and bashful in their demeanour, and poor unfortunates who arrived after the beginning of the term to find other pupils settled down into regular work, were apt to feel doubly alone. By this time those arrangements are determined which are of such amazing importance to the schoolgirl's heart—Clara has sworn deathless friendship with Ethel; Mary, Winifred, and Elsie have formed a "triple alliance," each solemnly vowing to tell the other her inmost secrets, and consult her in all matters of difficulty. Rosalind and Bertha have agreed to form a pair in the daily crocodile, and Grace has sent Florence to Coventry because she has dared to sharpen pencils for Lottie, the school pet, when she knew perfectly well that it was Grace's special privilege, and she is a nasty, interfering thing, anyhow, and ought to be snubbed! What chance has a poor late-comer against such syndicates as these? There is nothing for her but to take a back place, and wait patiently for a chance at the beginning of another term.
Pixie O'Shaughnessy, however, has never taken a back place in her life, and has no intention of beginning now. On her very first evening the two head girls entered the school parlour to find a small, ugly girl seated in the middle of the hearth rug on the most comfortable chair which the room afforded, and were invited in the most genial manner to, "Shtep forward and take a seat!"
"It's rhemarkably cold for the time of year!" remarked the small person, making no sign of giving up her seat, but waving blandly towards the cane chairs by the wall. "I'm the new girl, I come from Ireland. Me father brought me. I'm the youngest of six, and I've come to school to correct me brogue, and be polished up. As soon as I've finished I shall go back to me home!"
The head girl came over to the fireplace, and stared downwards with wide grey eyes. She looked almost grown-up, for her hair was twisted round and round like a lady's, and her dress reached to her ankles.
"That's very interesting!" she said slowly. "I am glad you have made yourself comfortable, for from what you say I expect we shall have you with us for quite a long time. Can't you tell us some more family details while you are about it?"
"I can so!" said Pixie with emphasis, and sitting erect in her seat she folded her hands in her lap, and began to talk. The room was filling by this time, for the quarter of an hour before tea was a cosy holiday- time, when the girls could talk without restraint, and compare notes on the work of the day. One by one they approached the fireside, until Pixie's chair was surrounded by a compact wall of laughing young faces, and thirty pairs of eyes stared at her from head to foot, back again from foot to head. Her black skirt was so short that it was like a flounce, and nothing more; from chest to back there was no more width than could be covered by the scraggy little arm, the feet dangled half- way to the floor, and the hands waved about, emphasising every sentence with impassioned gestures.
At the end of ten minutes what the pupils of Holly House did not know about the O'Shaughnessy family may be safely described as not worth knowing! They had been treated to graphic descriptions of all its members, with illustrative anecdotes setting them forth in their best and worst lights; they had heard of the ancient splendours of the Castle, and the past glories of the family, and—for Pixie was gifted with a most engaging honesty—they had also heard of the present straitness of means, the ingenious contrivances by which the family needs were supplied, and even of one tragic episode when the butcher refused to supply any more meat, just when one of the county magnates was expected to dinner! It had been a ghastly occasion, but Bridgie went and "spoke soft to him," and he was a decent man, and he said it wasn't for "all the mutton in the world," he said, that he would see her shamed before the quality, so all ended as happily as could be desired!
"I wouldn't tell stories like that if I were you, Pixie," said the head girl gravely, at the end of this recital. She had not laughed as the others had done, but looked at the little chatterbox with a grave, steady glance. Margaret had gained for herself the title of "School- Mother", by thinking of something better than the amusement of the moment, and being brave enough to speak a word of warning when she saw a girl setting out on a path which was likely to bring her into trouble. "I wouldn't tell stories like that!" she repeated, and when the swift "Why not?" came back, she was ready with her reply. "Because I am sure your people would not like it. It is all right for you to tell us about your brothers and sisters, and it was very interesting. I wish Bridgie and Esmeralda had come to school with you; but we don't tell stories of our home doings of which we are,"—she was about to say "ashamed," but the child's innocent eyes restrained her—"about which we are sorry! We keep those to ourselves."
"But—but we got the mutton! He gave us the mutton!" cried Pixie, agape with wonder. It seemed to her an interesting and highly creditable history, seeing that Bridgie had had the better of the butcher, and maintained the family credit in the eyes of the neighbourhood. She could not understand Margaret's gravity, and the half-amused, half- pitiful glances of the older pupils.
The girl standing nearest to her put an arm round her neck, and said, "Poor little girlie!" in such a soft, tender voice that her tears overflowed at the moment, and she returned the embrace with startling fervour. Pixie's emotions were all on the surface, and she could cry at one moment and laugh at the next, with more ease than an ordinary person could smile or sigh. When the gong sounded for tea, she went downstairs with her arms twined fondly round the waists of two new friends, and there was quite a quarrel among the girls, as to who should sit beside her.
Miss Phipps was at one end of the table, and Mademoiselle, the resident French teacher, at the other, and between them stretched a long white space flanked by plates of bread-and-butter, and in the centre some currant scones, and dishes of jam. These latter dainties were intended to supply a second course when appetite had been appeased by plainer fare, but the moment that grace was said the new-comer helped herself to the largest scone she could find, half covered her plate with jam, and fell to work with unrestrained relish, while thirty pairs of eyes watched with fascinated horror. She thought that everyone seemed uncommonly quiet and solemn, and was casting about in her mind for a pleasant means of opening the conversation, when a sound broke on her ears which recalled one of Pat's prophecies with unpleasant distinctness. Mademoiselle was talking in her native tongue, and it was not in the least like the French which she had been accustomed to hear in the schoolroom at Bally William. The agonising presentiment that her ignorance was about to be discovered before her schoolmates reduced Pixie at one blow to a condition of abject despair. She hung her head over her plate, and strove to avoid attention by keeping as quiet as possible.
"They speak too quick. It's rude to gabble!" she told herself resentfully. "And I know some French meself. 'J'ai, tu as, il a, nous sommes, vous etes, ils sont.' Listen at that, now!" She felt a momentary thrill of triumph in her achievement, but it quickly faded away, as further efforts showed how scanty was the knowledge upon which she could draw. "Je suis faim" was the only phrase which occurred at the moment, and appropriately enough too! She stretched out her hand to take a second scone, but was immediately called to order by Miss Phipps's soft voice.
"Bread-and-butter this time, Pixie! You are not supposed to take scones until you have had at least three pieces of bread. You must do as the other girls do, you know, dear!"
"Oi like a relish to my tay!" sighed Pixie sadly, and five separate girls who happened to have their cups to their mouths at the moment, choked immediately, and had to be patted on the backs by their companions. All the girls were laughing; even the victims smiled amidst their struggles, and Mademoiselle's brown eyes were sparkling with amusement. There was not one of them half so beautiful as Esmeralda, nor so sweet as Bridgie, but they were good to look at all the same, reflected the new pupil critically. Right opposite sat her three room- mates—Flora, plump and beaming; Kate, sallow and spectacled; Ethel, the curious, with a mane of reddish brown hair, which she kept tossing from side to side with a self-conscious, consequential air. Margaret sat by Miss Phipps's side, and helped her by putting sugar and milk into the cups. Glance where she would, she met bright, kindly smiles, and her friend on either side looked after her wants in the kindest of manners. Pixie did not know their names, so she addressed them indiscriminately as "darlin'," and was prepared to vow eternal friendship without waiting to be introduced.
"Do you always speak French at meals?" she asked under cover of the general conversation a few minutes later, and the reply was even worse than her fears.
"We are supposed to speak it always, except in the quarter of an hour before tea, and on Sundays, and holidays. But of course, if you do not know a word you can ask Mademoiselle, or look it up in a dictionary, and the new girls get into it gradually. Miss Phipps is a darling; she can't bear to see a girl unhappy, and of course it is difficult to get into school ways when you have been taught at home. I have been here for two years, and am as happy as possible, though I cried myself sick the first week. If you do what you are told and work hard, you will have a very good time at Holly House."
Pixie looked dubious.
"But aren't you ever naughty?" she asked anxiously. "Not really bad, you know, but just mischeevious! Don't you ever play tricks, or have pillow fights, or secret suppers up in your room, or dress up as bogeys to frighten the others?"
"Certainly not!" Eleanor Hopton was a proper and dignified young lady, and the straightness of her back was quite alarming as she frowned dissent at the new-comer. "Frighten people, indeed! Do you not call that naughty? It's a wicked and dangerous thing to do, and you would be punished severely if you attempted it. I have read of people who died of fright. How would you feel if you played bogey, as you call it, to startle one of the girls, and she had a weak heart and died before your eyes? You would feel pretty miserable then, I should say."
"I would so! I'd get the fright myself that time. But suppers, now,— suppers don't hurt anyone!" urged Pixie, pushing aside one objectionable proposition and bringing forward the next with unconscious generalship. "Don't you ever smuggle things upstairs—sausages and cakes, and sardines and cream—and wake up early in the morning—early—early, before it is light—and eat them together, and pretend you are ladies and gentlemen, or shipwrecked mariners on desert islands, or wild Indians, or anything like that, and talk like they talk, and dance about the room?"
"Cer-tain-ly not! The very idea!" cried Eleanor once more. "I never heard of anything so silly. Why on earth should one sit up shivering to eat things in the middle of the night, when one can have them comfortably downstairs at the right hour? I should not think of doing anything so foolish."
Pixie sighed heavily. This was England indeed! For the first time since entering the house she realised that she was a stranger in a strange land. Eleanor's calm commonsense was so entirely foreign to her nature that she felt a distinct chilling of the new affection. The companion on her right looked more sympathetic, and she addressed her next remark in that direction.
"We were for ever playing tricks on one another at home. Bridgie and Esmeralda sleep in the same bed, and one day Pat—that's the second boy—the next but one to me—he went to Bridgie and he says, 'I've played a fine joke on Esmeralda! Ask no questions, but just wait up until she gets into bed to-night, and you'll have the best laugh you've had this side Christmas.' Then off he goes to Esmeralda, and 'Keep a secret!' says he. 'Let Bridget be the first to get into bed to-night. Make an excuse and sit up yourself to see the fun, for she'll have a fine surprise when she lies down.' The girls guessed that they had been taking the laths off the bed, as they had done once or twice before, to let a visitor fall through on to the floor, and it was a very cold night, and they were tired, for they had been working hard mending the staircase carpet; and says Bridgie to Esmeralda, 'Just hurry up, can't you! I never did see such a girl for dawdling. Get into bed,' she says, 'and don't sit up all night.' 'Oh,' says Esmeralda, smiling, 'I've a fancy to brush out me hair. Take no notice of me, but just lie down and turn your face to the wall, and I'll be as quiet as a mouse.' 'I never can sleep with a light in the room,' says Bridgie, quite testy... I was in my own bed in the dressing-room, so I heard what they said, and was stuffing the bedclothes into my mouth not to laugh out, and spoil the fun. 'If you are going to make a night of it, I'll sit down and read, and you can let me know when you are ready.' 'You will catch cold sitting in that draught!' Esmeralda says, her own teeth chattering, for it was mortal cold, and there was a hole in the window above her head, where Pat had thrown up a stone when he wanted to wake her one morning, and couldn't spare time to walk upstairs. 'And you know, Bridget, you are always delicate on the chest.' 'It'll be on your head, then,' says Bridgie, 'if I am made ill, keeping me up when I'm longing for my bed! Come, dear,' wheedling her to see if she could get round that way, 'leave it alone now, and I'll brush it for you in the morning. It is beautiful hair, and Mrs Gallagher the laundress was saying to me this morning there wasn't its match in the country.' And Esmeralda said afterwards that she was too cold for compliments, so she up and said it was her own hair, and she'd brush it when she liked, and how she liked, without interference from anyone; and at that they grew mad, and began quarrelling with each other, and throwing up everything that ever they did since they were short-coated, and meself lying trembling on me bed, to think what would happen next. Joan—that's Esmeralda—she would have sat up all night, she's that obstinate, but Bridgie grew tired, and says she, 'I'm not going to catch me death shivering here for all the jokes on earth, so here goes, and I don't care what happens!' and with that she throws herself down on the bed; and—would ye believe it?—nothing happened at all. The bed was as right as it had been all its life, and the boys had had their joke without any trouble."
Pixie finished in the midst of a dead silence, for one by one the speakers round the table had paused to listen to the soft Irish voice, and the story once begun had riveted attention. Some of the girls laughed outright, some held down their heads to conceal their smiles, some nudged their companions and looked demurely at Miss Phipps to take their cue from her face. She was undoubtedly smiling, but she looked worried all the same, and gave the signal for rising in a hurried manner, as if anxious to allow no time for comment. The girls rose and filed slowly past, Pixie skipping complacently in front, with her arm round another new friend, whom she was prepared to adore even more fondly than the last. Only Margaret remained behind to assist in putting the room in order, and when the door shut Miss Phipps looked at her under raised appealing brows.
"I am afraid we have rather a difficult subject there, Margaret! Poor little thing! Her father says she has been allowed to run wild, and it will be difficult for her to get into school ways. She doesn't mean to be forward, but of course we can't allow her to go on like this. She must be taught wholesome respect and reticence, but I don't want to be too hard upon her at first. She's a lovable little creature, and I've no doubt will be a favourite with the girls. They like to be amused, and I fear they may encourage her for the sake of their own amusement. You must help me, dear, by setting a good example and checking her gently when she gets excited."
"I'll try!" said Margaret, but she looked by no means hopeful of success. "I did try before tea. She was telling the most extraordinary tales about home, and I said it was not right to repeat such things, but she seemed quite puzzled. She doesn't seem to have the same ideas that we have, or the same feelings about things."
Miss Phipps sighed, and shook her head.
"She is a difficult subject," she repeated anxiously; then her face lighted up suddenly and she began to laugh. "But you can't help liking her!" she cried. "Funny little mite! I am growing quite fond of her already."
THE ALICE PRIZE.
To the surprise of all concerned, Pixie took a very fair place in the school. The sorely tried Miss Minnitt was by no means an accomplished woman, but what she did know she taught well, and she felt rewarded for her efforts when she heard that Miss Bruce, the English teacher, had remarked that Pixie had been well grounded, and knew more than many girls of her age. The mixture of knowledge and ignorance which the child displayed was indeed incomprehensible to those who did not understand the conditions under which she had lived. She was quite a botanist in a small way, could discourse like any farmer on crops and tillages, was most sporting in her descriptions of shooting and hunting, and had an exhaustive understanding of, and sympathy with, the animal world, which seemed quite uncanny to town-bred girls. Here, however, her knowledge stopped, and of the ways of the world, the hundred and one restrictions and obligations of society which come as second nature to most girls, she knew no more than a South Sea Islander dancing gaily upon the sands, and stringing shells in her dusky locks. "I wish I was born a savage!" was indeed her daily reflection, as she buttoned her tight little frock, and wriggled to and fro in a vain search for comfort.
"Now listen to me!" said Miss Bruce, at the end of the examination which was conducted after breakfast the day following Pixie's arrival. "I am undecided which of two classes you shall join, so I am going to give you the choice. The under-fourth would be comparatively easy, the upper- fourth would mean real hard work. I think you could manage it, if you worked hard and determined to do your very, very best; but I tell you frankly it will not be easy. If you would rather have a term in the lower class and work up gradually, I am willing to let it be so; but you must realise that it will be less good for yourself. You seem to have a good memory and to learn quickly; but we don't like to force girls beyond their strength. You would be the youngest girl in the upper- fourth."
That decided the matter! Pixie's heart had sunk at the mention of work; but the ecstatic prospect of being the baby of a class, of writing home to boast of her position, and of reminding her elders at frequent intervals of her own precocious cleverness, was too tempting to be resisted. She pleaded eagerly for the upper-fourth, and came through the first morning's ordeal with gratifying success. But, alas! afternoon brought a change of scene, for the girls retired to the schoolroom for "prep," and the new class-member stared in dismay at the work before her.
"Is it for next week we are to learn it?" she asked, and when the answer came, "For to-morrow," she shrieked aloud in dismay. "What! The lot of it? Grammar, and arithmetic, and geography? All those pages, an' pages, and pages! I couldn't finish to-day if I sat up all night! You're joking with me! It isn't really and truly for to-morrow morning?"
"It is indeed, my dear, worse luck! Miss Bruce gives a terrible amount of prep, and you are bound to get through somehow. Sometimes it is worse than this, and you feel simply frantic. You are not allowed to go on after seven o'clock either, so there is no hope for you if you are not finished by that time."
"Don't frighten her, Dora," said Kate kindly. She looked through her spectacles at Pixie's woe-begone face, and smiled encouragement. "It seems hopeless at first, but you will get accustomed to it in time. I used to be in despair, but you get into the way of learning quickly, and picking out the things that are most important. There's no time for talking, though. Open your grammar and begin at once."
"Hate grammar!" grumbled Pixie crossly. "What's the use of it? I can talk as well as I want to without bothering about grammar, and I don't understand it either! Silly gibberish!"
She wished with all her heart at that moment that she had been content with the seclusion of the lower-fourth; but she was not allowed to talk any more, for Clara called out an impatient "Hush!" and Florence stuck her fingers in her ears and looked so savage that it was impossible to disregard the warning. Pixie read over the tiresome grammar, and then lay back in her seat studying the furniture of the room, and deciding on the improvements which she would make if Miss Phipps asked her advice on the subject of redecoration. It was an engrossing subject, and would have kept her happily occupied for quite a long time, had not Kate jerked her elbow as a reminder, and pointed significantly to the history. She had mentally constituted herself as friend-in-need to the new classmate, and was determined to do her duty by her, however little thanks she might receive; so she nudged, and nudged again, until Pixie resentfully opened the history book in its turn.
History was interesting—it was just like a story! When the prescribed portion had been read, she was anxious to learn what happened next, and read on and on until the watchful Kate suspected something wrong, and forcibly confiscated the book.
"What are you reading the next chapter for? A minute ago you were groaning because you had too much to do. Finish the work that is given you before trying to do more!"
"But there was an execution coming on. I love executions!" sighed Pixie miserably. "This is the best bit of the whole history, for there's no more fun when you get to the Georges. They never have any murders, nor plots, nor blowings up."
"You will get blown up if you interrupt like this! How do you suppose I can learn with you chattering away all the time?" cried Clara, the irascible. She glared at Pixie, and Pixie glared at her, and went on glaring long after the other had settled to work, with an intentness which seemed mysteriously connected with the movement of a stubbly lead pencil. Presently she touched Kate softly, and there on the margin of the clean new book was exhibited the drawing of a dismembered head, glaring horribly over rule-of-three problems, and labelled "Clara" in largest round hand. It was a very juvenile effort, but drawing was a family talent among the O'Shaughnessys, and the artist had been sharp to note the weak points of her subject, as well as to exaggerate them with cruel honesty. The high forehead was doubled in height, the long upper lip stretched to abnormal length, the blots which did duty for eyes were really marvellously, astonishingly like Clara's in expression! Kate pressed her handkerchief against her mouth, but the sound of her splutters was distinctly audible, and her companions looked up in amazement. Kate laughing during prep was a sight which had never been witnessed before, and they stared at her in mingled surprise and envy.
"What's the joke?" asked Marjorie wistfully. "You might share it, I think, for I feel as if I should never smile again until the holidays. If there is anything amusing in these lessons to-night, I should like to have it pointed out, that's all!"
"It's n-n-thing!" returned Kate, spluttering still. Pixie had flipped over a page with a deft movement, and sat with hands folded on her lap, a picture of lamblike innocence.
For the rest of the time allowed for preparation she worked really well, inspired by the remembrance that she had made Kate laugh, and drawn a caricature which even Esmeralda herself must have approved.
About half-past seven came supper, and after supper prayers, and after prayers bed, and an interesting conversation with the three room-mates.
"Which is the nicest girl in the school?" Pixie asked, going at once to the most important point, and fondly hoping that she might listen to her own name by way of answer. She was doomed to disappointment, however, for though there was a difference of opinion, her name was not even mentioned.
"Margaret!" said Kate.
"Lottie!" cried Flora.
"Clara!" cried Ethel; and they proceeded to argue the question between themselves.
"Margaret is an angel. She is sweet to everyone. She never says an unkind word."
"Lottie is so bright and clever. She is first in almost every single class."
"Clara is so sensible. She doesn't make a fuss, and gush over everything, as Lottie does; but if she says she will be your friend, she keeps her word, and always tries to do you a good turn."
"That's the way with meself," said Pixie modestly. "I'm the soft- heartedest creature! You three girls are me best friends because ye share me room, and I'll stick to you, whatever trouble ye're in. Ye need never be afraid to come to me, for the worse ye are, the better I'll like ye!"
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Kate shrilly. Flora chuckled to herself in fat, good-natured fashion, and Ethel tossed her mane and said—
"I can quite believe it, but if you will excuse my saying so, I think the trouble is more likely to come to you than to us! If you go on behaving as you have done the last two days, you will be in need of friends yourself, my dear, so don't say I haven't warned you."
"Behaving as I have done! Get into trouble meself!" echoed Pixie blankly. "And what for, please? What have I done? I promised Bridgie before I left that I would behave meself, and not disgrace the family, and I've kept me word. I've not been naughty once the whole time through."
"Don't say 'naughty,' child, as if you were a baby two years old! You may not have done anything wrong from your point of view, but you have broken half a dozen rules all the same. You planted yourself in front of the fire when the fifth-form girls were in the room, and never offered to give up your place even when Margaret herself came in. Not one of the old girls would think of doing such a thing. And you answered back when Miss Phipps spoke to you at tea—and told a story so loud that everyone could hear!"
"And small blame to me if I did! It was the dullest meal I ever sat through, and I thought I would do you a kindness by waking you up!" returned Pixie defiantly. She did not at all approve of Clara's attitude of fault-finding, and was up in arms at once in her own defence. "I have been brought up to make meself agreeable, and when Miss Phipps spoke to me, wasn't I obliged to give a civil answer? And I was cold when I sat before the fire. Are fifth-form girls colder than anyone else, that they must have all the heat?"
"You know perfectly well what I mean, or if you don't, you are a stupid child, and you needn't fly into a temper when I tell you your mistakes. You want to get on, I suppose, and take a good place in the school, so you ought to be grateful to anyone who tries to keep you out of trouble."
In the seclusion of her cubicle Pixie made a grimace, the reverse of appreciative, but she stifled her feelings in her desire for information, and asked the next question on her list.
"How often in the year do you get prizes?"
"Once. At the end of the summer term. There's a chance for you now! Work hard for six months, and win the class prize!"
Flora chuckled with amusement at the idea, but Pixie considered the subject seriously for a good two minutes, and found it altogether agreeable. She saw a vision of herself walking forward to receive her honours while the elder girls sat in a row, subdued and envious, and tasted in advance the ecstasy of the moment.
"What sort of prizes do they give you—books?"
"Books, of course. Improving books. Poets, with nice soft backs, and Dutch Republics in calf, and things like that. The sort of book you are awfully proud of, but hardly ever read. You put it carefully in a bookcase, and admire the binding. You can always tell a prize a yard off, it looks so smart and gilt, and unopened. I've seen rows of them in some houses, all ranged together with their little silk markers hanging out at the bottom, as smooth and uncrumpled as if they had never been moved; and the owners take them down and show you the inscription on the first page, to prove how good and clever they were when they were at school!"
"Ah!" Pixie drew a rapturous sigh, seeing herself be-capped and shawled, in the act of exhibiting her own spoils to a bevy of admiring grandchildren. The great point seemed to be to have the inscription as striking as possible, so she inquired anxiously if the class prize was the highest that could be obtained.
"She's ambitious, girls, isn't she? The class prize isn't enough for her, you notice!" cried Ethel, splashing her face with cold water, and interposing her remarks with audible shudderings. "Yes, there's one thing higher—the 'Alice Prize,' we call it, because it is given by the father of a certain Alice who used to be at school here, and who died at the end of her last term. She was Lottie's sister; but Lottie is not in the least like her, for she was very shy and nervous, and the girls teased her a great deal, and she took it to heart and made herself miserable. After her death it was found that she had kept a diary, and written down all her troubles; and her parents read it, and tried to think what they could do to prevent any other girl suffering as she had done. At last they thought of offering this prize—it is given every year—five pounds' worth of books, which you can choose for yourself. You can get a lot of books for five pounds, and it is given to the girl who is kindest and most considerate to others. She has to be nice to new girls, and answer their questions, and be patient with them, as I am being with you, my dear, at the present moment, and dry their little eyes when they weep, and cheer them up when they are low in their minds. And she has to be careful not to hurt other people's feelings, and to use her influence to stop a joke when it is going too far. Oh, and a dozen other things which you can imagine for yourself! The girls know best who deserves the prize, and they vote at the end of the year, and whoever gets most votes gets the prize."
"Who got it last year?"
"Margaret, of course. So she would every time, but the same person is not allowed to have it two years running. A good thing, too, for we should all feel that it was no use competing with her, and so give up trying."
"And who do you think will get it this year?"
"Oh dear me! How many more questions? Myself, of course, for answering you so kindly. If you don't vote for me, young woman, there'll be a coldness between us, and so I tell you. Flora thinks she will get it, but it won't be fair if she does, for she is so fat that she couldn't be anything else than good-natured if she tried. Now I have really a violent temper, but I keep it in check. I can't answer any more questions, though. Time's up. I give you all two minutes more, and then I must put out the light."
"Let me do it! I'll put it out! You get into your bed and keep warm, and I'll wait upon you!" cried Pixie eagerly; and, to her dismay, there came a simultaneous burst of laughter from all three listeners.
"She's Alicing," they cried—"she's Alicing! Nothing like beginning in time, and making the most of your opportunities. So you want that prize too, do you, as well as the class one? It's a bad lookout for the rest of the girls. There won't be anything left for us to try for."
Pixie stood transfixed within her cubicle, staring before her with bewildered eyes. As it had been her delight to wait upon her beloved sisters, it had come naturally to wish to help these girls who, for the time, had taken their place in her life. She had made her offer in all good faith, and her heart swelled with bitterness at the injustice of the accusation. A rush of honest Irish pride forbade an answer; but the tears came to her eyes as she lay down in bed, and the loneliness of exile fell upon her. Bally William, oh, dear Bally William, how are you looking to-night? Is everything going on as usual, though Pixie O'Shaughnessy is far away in a cold, cruel land where no one knows her, and her best motives are misjudged and derided? Beautiful old castle, standing among your luxuriant green, are the lamps lit in your rooms, and twinkling like so many stars into the night? And there, where the red curtains are drawn so snugly, are the boys and girls gathered round the fire, the flames lighting up Bridgie's sweet face and Esmeralda's stormy beauty? Oh, boys and girls, are you thinking of Pixie—your own little Pixie?
"How that child does snort!" muttered Ethel impatiently. "It seems to be our luck to have all the snorers in this room."
A NOVEL AMUSEMENT.
During the weeks which followed, "Pixie's Prep" became a by-word among her companions, for no amount of goading seemed sufficient to keep her attention from roaming from her books during the hours when it was most necessary that she should give them her undivided attention. However sturdily she might begin, in ten minutes' time her eyes were wandering about the room, she was scribbling on the margin of her book, or twisting her handkerchief into a new variety of rag doll. The well- meaning Kate, finding frowns and nudges losing their effect, resorted to more drastic measures, such as the prick of a pin, or a tug of the elf- like locks; but the victim's howls and protestations not only disturbed her companions, but took so long to pacify that the experiment had to be abandoned.
How Pixie managed to sustain even her very low place in the class was a wonder to her companions; but in truth she had an unusually quick brain, so that when she chose to apply herself she learnt as much as slower girls would do in twice the time, while her Irish wit enabled her to place her scraps of knowledge in the most advantageous light, and rescued her from awkward questionings. Nowhere was this faculty more marked than in French, of which she knew least, yet in which subject she made the most rapid progress. It was clear to a pair of uncommonly sharp eyes that Miss Phipps's leniency would some day come to an end, and that she would then find herself in the position of being obliged either to speak French or not to speak at all. To a born chatterbox the latter alternative seemed the acme of misery, so it behoved her to prepare for speech before the dread verdict was given, which she did in a manner astonishing to her companions. Of French grammar she had the poorest opinion, but she was sharp as a magpie to pick up the phrases of others and store them for her own use. The morning after Mademoiselle had suffered from a headache, Pixie's handkerchief was soaked with offerings of eau-de-Cologne, from the various girls to whom she had repeated ejaculations of distress; she discoursed exhaustively upon the weather to every one who could be induced to listen, and recited exercise phrases to the school cat until her tongue grew quite nimble over the words.
Mademoiselle was an object of intense interest and curiosity to her new pupil. She was the first foreigner whom Pixie had known, and there was something in her dark, eager face which arrested the child's attention. Mademoiselle was quick and nervous, subject to fits of unreasonable irritation; but at other times there was a sad, far-away look in her eyes, and then her voice would take a softer cadence, so that when she said "Cherie," one pupil at least forgot all the scoldings which had gone before. Pixie felt irresistibly drawn to Mademoiselle in her hours of depression. She could not have explained the attraction, but in her heart she felt that they were both exiles, and that Mademoiselle pined for her own sunny land, even as she pined for the dear green isle which seemed so far away. She longed for Mademoiselle to notice her, to show her some special mark of favour, but longed in vain, until at last a day dawned which brought her into notice in a manner which was scarcely to her liking.
It was a wet Saturday afternoon, and wet Saturday afternoons are abominations to every boarding-school girl, and the cause of endless grumblings and repinings. Ethel and Kate had gone out to tea with an old maiden lady who lived in the neighbourhood, and had still further deepened their friend's depression before departing by drawing a most roseate picture of the joys before them.
"She is awfully kind," they had explained of their hostess; "she gives you the most galumptious teas, and the best part of it is, she has an e- normous appetite herself, so you can eat as much as you like, without fear of looking greedy!"
No wonder the poor stay-at-homes looked glum after this; no wonder they sighed with envy as they thought of the thick bread-and-butter in store for themselves. The elder girls provided themselves with books, and sat in rows before the fire, while artistic spirits set themselves copies, and filled up page after page of their sketching-books. Flora stitched on a table-centre destined to be a birthday present for her mother, and the younger girls clustered round Pixie, and besought her to think of some new means of amusement.
"Think of something, Pixie-doo! It's so dull, and we are sick of the stupid old games. What did you do at home when it rained and you couldn't go out?"
"I've never seen it rain hard enough to keep me indoors if I wanted to be out," returned Pixie, with a toss of the head; "but I've had fine fun indoors sometimes when I didn't feel disposed for exertion. Ratting in the barn is good sport, or grooming the pony, or feeding the animals, and pretending it is the Zoo; but you can't do those things here. It's hard to think of anything amusing when you are shut up in one room."
"We can go out on the landing, if we like; I vote we do, and be by ourselves. The fifth forms are sure to tell us not to, the moment we have thought of something nice. Come along now, before they notice us!"
No sooner said than done. The little band of conspirators slipped from the room, and stood without on the square landing, five short-frocked girls all gazing eagerly, confidently, into the face of their leader.
"Pixie, what shall we do?"
Pixie racked her brains in despair, for not a single idea would come to her aid, and yet to acknowledge such a want of invention would have been to forfeit her position, and therefore not to be thought of for a second. Her eyes roamed from side to side, and lit upon a table on which some working materials happened to be lying. A basket, a folded length of cloth, and a roll of wide green binding such as was used to edge old-fashioned window-curtains. Pixie looked at it thoughtfully, fingered it to ascertain its weight, shook it out to discover its length, and cried eagerly—
"Just the thing! Might have been made for it. Would you like to see me lasso the next person who comes upstairs?"
"Lasso!" The girls were not quite sure of the meaning of the word, but Pixie explained it, suiting the action to the word.
A lasso was a rope with a noose at one end—so! and it was used to catch wild horses, or anything else you happened to chase. You stood with the rope gathered up in your hand—so! and then took aim and sent it flying out suddenly—so! Pat could do it beautifully, and he had taught her too, but she could not always manage very well. If you caught a girl from above, she would be startled out of her wits, and squeal like anything. It would be splendid fun. The next one, then, who came upstairs!
The girls were divided between horror and delight. Dared she? Really! Would it hurt? What would Miss Phipps say? Did she really think she ought? But their agitation acted as fuel to Pixie's determination, and she would only laugh and lean over the banisters, experimenting with the long green rope, and altering the length until it met with her approval.