By Mrs George de Horne Vaizey A very well-written book about the life of three sisters being brought up in the Lake District of northern England by their well-known author father. The time comes when one of them is of an age to get married. Which eligible young man shall she take? She makes her choice, and the preparations reach a very advanced state, when she realises she cannot go through with it.
Of course, it is just a bit dated; for instance young men are judged by the size and quality of their moustaches, a practice long discontinued in England, though not perhaps in other countries.
Still, it is a light and easy read, and of course sheds light on the way young girls were brought up around 1900. N.H. SISTERS THREE
BY MRS. GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
NEW YEAR'S DAY.
"I wish something would happen!" sighed Norah.
"If it were something nice," corrected Lettice. "Lots of things happen every day, but they are mostly disagreeable. Getting up, for instance, in the cold, dark mornings—and practising—and housework, and getting ready for stupid old classes—I don't complain of having too little to do. I want to do less, and to be able to amuse myself more."
"We want a change, that is the truth," said Hilary, bending forward on her seat, and sending the poker into the heart of the fire with a vigorous shove. "Our lives jog-trot along in the same way year after year, and it grows monotonous. I declare, when I think that this is the first day of another January it makes me ill! Fifty-two more Mondays to sit in the morning-room and darn stockings. Fifty-two Saturdays to give out stores. Three hundred and sixty-five days to dust ornaments, interview the cook, and say, 'Well, let me see! The cold mutton had better be used up for lunch'—Oh, dear me!"
"I'll tell you what—let's have a nice long grumble," said Lettice, giving her chair a hitch nearer the fire, and bending forward with a smile of enjoyment. "Let's hold an Indignation Meeting on our own account, and discuss our grievances. Women always have grievances nowadays—it's the fashionable thing, and I like to be in the fashion. Three charming and beauteous maidens shut up in the depths of the country in the very flower of their youth, with nothing to do—I mean with far too much to do, but with no amusement, no friends, no variety! We are like the princesses in the fairy tales, shut up in the moated tower; only then there were always fairy godmothers to come to the rescue, and beautiful princes in golden chariots. We shall have to wait a long time before any such visitors come tramping along the Kendal high-road. I am sure it sounds melancholy enough to make anyone sorry for us!"
"Father is the dearest man in the world, but he doesn't understand how a girl of seventeen feels. I was seventeen on my last birthday, so it's worse for me than for you, for I am really grown-up." Hilary sighed, and rested her sleek little head upon her hand in a pensive, elderly fashion. "I believe he thinks that if we have a comfortable home and enough to eat, and moderately decent clothes, we ought to be content; but I want ever so much more than that. If mother had lived—"
There was a short silence, and then Norah took up the strain in her crisp, decided accents. "I am fifteen and a half, and I look very nearly as old as you do, Hilary, and I'm an inch taller. I don't see why I need go on with these stupid old classes. If I could go to a good school, it would be another thing, for I simply adore music and painting, and should love to work hard, and become celebrated; but I don't believe Miss Briggs can teach me any more than I know myself, and there is no better teacher for miles around. If father would only let me go abroad for a year; but he is afraid of trusting me out of his sight. If I had seven children, I'd be glad to get rid of some of them, if only to get a little peace and quietness at home."
"Mother liked the idea of girls being educated at home, that is the reason why father objects to sending us away. The boys must go to boarding-schools, of course, because there is no one here who can take them in hand. As for peace and quietness, father enjoys having the house full. He grumbles at the noise sometimes, but I believe he likes it at the bottom of his heart. If we do happen to be quiet for a change in the evening, he peers over his book and says, 'What is the matter; has something gone wrong? Why are you all so quiet?' He loves to see us frisking about."
"Yes, but I can't frisk any longer—I'm too dull—I want something to happen," repeated Norah, obstinately. "Other people have parties on New Year's Day, or a Christmas-tree, or crowds of visitors coming to call. We have been sitting here sewing from ten o'clock this morning—nasty, uninteresting mending—which isn't half done yet, though it is nearly four o'clock. And you never think of me! I'm fifteen, and I feel it more than either of you. You see it is like this. Sometimes I feel quite young, like a child, and then you two are too proper to run about and play with me, so I am all alone; and then I feel quite old and grown-up, and am just as badly off as you, and worse, because I'm the youngest, and have to take third turn of everything, and wear your washed-out ribbons! If only something would happen that was really startling and exciting—!"
"I sink it's very naughty to wish like that!" A tiny, reed-like voice burst into the conversation with an unexpectedness which made the three sisters start in their seats; a small figure in a white pinafore crept forward into the firelight, and raised a pair of reproachful eyes to Norah's face. "I sink it's very naughty to wish like that, 'cause it's discontented, and you don't know what it might be like. Pr'aps the house might be burned, or the walls fall down, or you might all be ill and dead yourselves, and then you wouldn't like it!"
The three girls looked at each other, undecided between laughter and remorse.
"Mouse!" said Hilary, severely, "what are you doing here? Little girls have no business to listen to what big people are saying. You must never sit here again without letting us know, or that will be naughty too. We don't mean to be discontented, Mouse. We felt rather low in our spirits, and were relieving ourselves by a little grumble, that's all. Of course, we know that we have really many, many things to be thankful for—a nice house, and—ah—garden, and such beautiful country all round, and—ah—good health, and—"
"And the bunnies, and the pigeons, and the new carpet in the dining- room, and because the puppy didn't die—and—and—Me!" said the Mouse, severely; and when her sisters burst into a roar of laughter she proceeded to justify herself with indignant protest. "Well, it's the trufh! The bunnies are pretty, and you said, 'Thank goodness! we've got a respectable carpet at last!' And Lettice cried when the little pup rolled its eyes and squealed, and you said to Miss Briggs that I was only five, and if I was spoiled she couldn't wonder, 'cause I was the littlest of seven, and no one could help it! And it's 'Happy New Year' and plum pudding for dinner, so I don't sink you ought to be discontented!"
"You are quite right, dear, it's very naughty of us. Just run upstairs to the schoolroom, and get tidy for tea, there's a good little Mouse. Shut the door behind you, for there's a fearful draught." Hilary nodded to the child over her shoulder, and then turned to her sisters with an expressive shrug. "What a funny little mite she is! We really must be careful how we speak before her. She understands far too well, and she has such stern ideas of her own. Well, perhaps after all we are wrong to be discontented. I hated coming to live in this quiet place, but I have been ever so much stronger; I never have that wretched, breathless feeling now that I had in town, and I can run upstairs to the very top without stopping. You can't enjoy anything without health, so I ought to be—I am!—very thankful that I am so much better."
"I am thankful that I have my two dear hobbies, and can forget everything in playing and drawing. The hours fly when I can sit out of doors and sketch, and my precious old violin knows all my secrets. It cries with me, and sings with me, and shrieks aloud just as I would do if I dared to make all the noise I want, when I am in a temper. I do believe I could be one of the best players in the world if I had the chance. I feel it in me! It is aggravating to know that I make mistakes from want of proper lessons, but it is glorious to feel such power over an instrument as I do when I am properly worked up! I would not change places with any girl who is not musical!"
Lettice said nothing, but she lifted her eyes to the oval mirror which hung above the mantelpiece, and in her heart she thought, "And I am glad that I am so pretty. If one is pretty, everyone is polite and attentive; and I do like people to be kind, and make a fuss! When we were at the station the other day the people nudged each other and bent out of the windows of the train as I passed. I saw them, though I pretended I didn't. And I should look far nicer if I had proper clothes. If I could only have had that fur boa, and the feather for my hat! But what does it matter what I wear in this wretched place? There is no one to see me."
The firelight played on three thoughtful faces as the girls sat in silence, each occupied with her special train of thought. The room looked grey and colourless in the waning light, and the glimpse of wintry landscape seen through the window did not add to the general cheeriness. Hilary shivered, and picking up a log from the corner of the grate dropped it into the fire.
"Well, there is no use repining! We have had our grumble, and we might as well make the best of circumstances. It's New Year's Day, so I shall make a resolution to try to like my work. I know I do it well, because I am naturally a good housekeeper; but I ought to take more interest in it. That's the way the good people do in books, and in the end they dote upon the very things they used to hate. There's no saying—I may come to adore darning stockings and wending linen before the year is out! At any rate I shall have the satisfaction of having done my best."
"Well, if you try to like your work, I'll try to remember mine—that's a bargain," said Lettice solemnly. "There always seems to be something I want particularly to do for myself, just when I ought to be at my 'avocations,' as Miss Briggs has it. It's a bad plan, because I have to exert myself to finish in time, and get a scolding into the bargain. So here's for punctuality and reform!"
Norah held her left hand high in the air, and began checking off the fingers with ostentatious emphasis. "I resolve always to get up in the morning as soon as I am called, and without a single grumble; always to be amiable when annoyed; always to do what other people like, and what I dislike myself; always to be good-tempered with the boys, and smile upon them when they pull my hair and play tricks with my things; always be cheerful, contented, ladylike in deportment, and agreeable in manner. What do you say? Silly! I am not silly at all. If you are going to make resolutions at all, you ought to do it properly. Aim at the sky, and you may reach the top of the tree; aim at the top of the tree, and you will grovel on the ground. You are too modest in your aspirations, and they won't come to any good; but as for me—with a standard before me of absolute perfection—"
"Who is talking of perfection? And where is the tea, and why are you still in darkness, with none of the lamps lighted? It is five o'clock, and I have been in my study waiting for the bell to ring for the last half-hour. What are you all doing over there by the fire?" cried a masculine voice, and a man's tall figure stood outlined in the doorway.
HILARY IN LUCK.
There was a simultaneous exclamation of dismay as the three girls leapt from their seats, and flew round the room in different directions. Hilary lighted the lamps, Norah drew the curtains across the windows, while Lettice first gave a peal to the bell, and then ran forward to escort her father to a chair by the fire.
"Tea will be here in a moment, father; come and sit down. It's New Year's Day, you know, and we have been so busy making good resolutions that we have had no time for anything practical. Why didn't you come down before? You are a regular old woman about afternoon tea; I believe you would miss it more than any other meal."
"I believe I should. I never get on well with my writing in the first part of the afternoon, and tea seems to give me a fresh start. So you girls have been making good resolutions? That's good hearing. Tell me about them." And Mr Bertrand leant back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head, and looking up at his young daughters with a quizzical smile. A photographer would have been happy if he could have taken a portrait at this moment, for Mr Bertrand was a well-known author, and the books which were written in the study in Westmoreland went far and wide over the world, and made his name a household word. He had forgotten his beloved work at this moment, however, at the sight of something dearer still—his three young daughters standing grouped together facing him at the other side of the old-fashioned grate, their faces flushed from the heat of the fire, their eyes dazzled by the sudden light. How tall and womanlike they looked in their dark serge dresses! Lettice's hair framed her face in a halo of mist-like curls; Hilary held up her head in her dignified little fashion; mischievous Norah smiled in the background. They were dearer to him than all his heroines; but, alas, far less easy to manage, for the heroines did as they were bid, while the three girls were developing strong wills of their own.
"I believe you have been plotting mischief, and that is the beginning and the end of your good resolutions!"
"Indeed, no, father; we were in earnest. But it was a reaction, for before that we had been grumbling about— Wait a moment, here comes tea. We'll tell you later on. Miss Briggs says we should never talk about disagreeable topics at a meal, and tea is the nicest meal of the day, so we can't afford to spoil it. Well, and how is Mr Robert getting on this afternoon?"
Mr Bertrand's face twitched in a comical manner. He lived so entirely in the book which he was writing at the time that he found it impossible to keep silent on the subject; but he could never rid himself of a comical feeling of embarrassment in discussing his novels in the presence of his daughters.
"Robert, eh? What do you know about Robert?"
"We know all about him, of course. He was in trouble on Wednesday, and you came down to tea with your hair ruffled, and as miserable as you could be. He must be happy again to-day, for your hair is quite smooth. When is he going to marry Lady Mary?"
"He is not going to marry Lady Mary at all. What nonsense! Lady Mary, indeed! You don't know anything about it! Give me another cup of tea, and tell me what you have been grumbling about. It doesn't sound a cheerful topic for New Year's Day, but I would rather have even that than hear such ridiculous remarks! Grumbling! What can you have to grumble about, I should like to know?"
"Oh, father!" The three young faces raised themselves to his in wide- eyed protest. The exclamation was unanimous; but when it was over there was a moment's silence before Hilary took up the strain.
"We are dull, father! We are tired of ourselves. You are all day long in your study, the boys spend their time out of doors, and we have no friends. In summer time we don't feel it, for we live in the garden, and it is bright and sunny; but in winter it is dark and cold. No one comes to see us, the days are so long, and every day is like the last."
"My dear, you have the housework, and the other two have their lessons. You are only children as yet, and your school days are not over. Most children are sent to boarding-schools, and have to work all day long. You have liberty and time to yourselves. I don't see why you should complain."
"Father, I should like to go to school—I long to go—I want to get on with my music, and Miss Briggs can't teach me any more."
"Father, when girls are at boarding-schools they have parties and theatricals, and go to concerts, and have all sorts of fun. We never have anything like that."
"Father, I am not a child; I am nearly eighteen. Chrystabel Maynard was only seventeen at the beginning of the book?"
Mr Bertrand stirred uneasily, and brushed the hair from his forehead. Chrystabel Maynard was one of his own heroines, and the allusion brought home the reality of his daughter's age as nothing else could have done. His glance passed by Norah and Lettice and lingered musingly on Hilary's face.
"Ha, what's this? The revolt of the daughters!" he cried. "Well, dears, you are quite right to be honest. If you have any grievances on your little minds, speak out for goodness' sake, and let me hear all about them. I am not an ogre of a father, who does not care what happens to his children so long as he gets his own way. I want to see you happy.—So you are seventeen, Hilary! I never realised it before. You are old enough to hear my reason for keeping you down here, and to judge if I am right. When your mother died, three years ago, I was left in London with seven children on my hands. You were fourteen then, a miserable, anaemic creature, with a face like a tallow candle, and lips as white as paper. The boys came home from school and ran wild about the streets. I could not get on with my work for worrying about you all, and a man must work to keep seven children. I saw an advertisement of this house in the papers one day, and took it on the impulse of the moment. It seemed to me that you would all grow strong in this fine, mountain air, and that I could work in peace, knowing that you were out of the way of mischief. So far as the boys and myself are concerned, the plan has worked well. I get on with my work, and they enjoy running wild in their holidays; but the little lasses have pined, have they? Poor little lasses! I am sorry to hear that. Now come—the post brought me some cheques this morning, and I am inclined to be generous. Next week, or the week after, I must run up to London on business, and I will bring you each a nice present on my return. Choose what it shall be, and I will get it for you if it is to be found in the length and breadth of the city. Now then, wish in turns. What will you have?"
"It's exactly like the father in Beauty and the Beast, before he starts on his travels! I am sure Lettice would like a white moss rose!" cried Norah roguishly. "As for me, I am afraid it's no use. There is only one thing I want—lessons from the very best violin master in London!"
"Three servants who could work by electricity, and not keep me running after them all day long!"
"Half a dozen big country houses near to us, with sons and daughters in each, who would be our friends."
They were all breathless with eagerness, and Mr Bertrand listened with wrinkled brow. He had expected to be asked for articles of jewellery or finery, and the replies distressed him, as showing that the discontent was more deepseated than he had imagined. For several moments he sat in silence, as though puzzling out a difficult problem. Then his brow cleared, and he smiled, his own, cheery smile.
"Hilary, pack your boxes, and get ready to go up to London with me on Monday week. If you are seventeen, you are old enough to pay visits, and we will stay for a fortnight with my old friend Miss Carr, in Kensington. She is a clever woman, and I will talk to her and see what can be done. I can't work miracles, but I will do what I can to please you. May I be allowed to have another cup of tea, Miss Seventeen?"
"Poor, dear, old father! Don't look so subdued. You may have a dozen if you like. Monday next! How lovely! You are the dearest father in all the world!"
Mr Bertrand shrugged his shoulders.
"When I give you your own way," he said drily. "Pass the cake, Lettice. If I have three grown-up daughters on my hands, I must make every effort to keep up my strength."
Lettice and Norah had a little conversation on the stairs as they went upstairs to change their dresses for dinner.
"It's very nice for Hilary, this going up to London; but it doesn't do us any good. When is something going to happen for us?"
"I suppose we shall have to wait for our turn," sighed Lettice dolefully; but that very same evening an unexpected excitement took place in the quiet household, and though the Mouse's prophecy was fulfilled, inasmuch as it could hardly be called an incident of a cheerful nature, it was yet fated to lead to great and far-reaching results.
AN UNEXPECTED GUEST.
The old grandfather's clock was just striking six o'clock when Raymond and Bob, the two public schoolboys, came home from their afternoon excursion. They walked slowly up the drive, supporting between them the figure of a young fellow a few years older than themselves, who hopped painfully on one foot, and was no sooner seated on the oak bench in the hall, than he rested his head against the rails, and went off into a dead faint. The boys shouted at the pitch of their voices, whereupon Mr Bertrand rushed out of his sanctum, followed by every other member of his household.
"Good gracious! Who is it? What is the matter? Where did he come from? Has he had an accident?" cried the girls in chorus, while Miss Briggs ran off for sal volatile and other remedies.
The stranger was a tall, lanky youth, about eighteen years of age, with curly brown hair and well-cut features, and he made a pathetic figure leaning back in the big oak seat.
"He's the son of old Freer, the Squire of Brantmere," explained Raymond, as he busied himself unloosing the lad's collar and tie. "We have met him several times when we have been walking. Decent fellow—Harrow— reading at home for college, and hates it like poison. We were coming a short cut over the mountains, when he slipped on a bit of ice, and twisted his ankle trying to keep up. We had an awful time getting him back. He meant to stay at the inn to-night, as his people are away, and it was too dark to go on, but he looks precious bad. Couldn't we put him up here?"
"Yes, yes, of course. Better carry him straight to bed and get off that boot," said Mr Bertrand cordially. "It will be a painful job, and if we can get it done before he comes round, so much the better. Here, you boys, we'll carry him upstairs between us, and be careful not to trip as you go. Someone bring up hot water, and bandages from the medicine chest. I will doctor him myself. I have had a fair experience of sprained ankles in my day, and don't need anyone to show me what to do."
The procession wended its way up the staircase, and for the greater part of the evening father and brothers were alike invisible. Fomentations and douches were carried on with gusto by Mr Bertrand, who was never more happy than when he was playing the part of amateur surgeon; then Miss Briggs had her innings, and carried a tray upstairs laden with all the dainties the house could supply, after partaking of which the invalid was so far recovered that he was glad of his friends' company, and kept them laughing and chatting in his room until it was time to go to bed.
The next morning the ankle was much better, but, at his host's instigation, the young fellow despatched a note to his mother, telling her not to expect him home for a few days, as Mr Bertrand wished him to stay until he was better able to bear the long, hilly drive.
The girls discussed the situation as they settled down to finish the much disliked mending in the afternoon. "It's very annoying," Hilary said. "I do hope he won't be long in getting better. We were going to London on Monday week, but if he is still here we shall have to wait, and I hate having things postponed."
"I wish he had been a girl," said Norah, who came in for so much teasing from her two brothers during the holidays that she did not welcome the idea of having another boy in the house. "We could have had such fun together, and perhaps she might have asked us to stay with her some day. I should love to pay visits! I wonder if father will take us up to London in turns, now that he has begun. I do hope he will, for it would be great fun staying in Kensington. I remember Miss Carr when we were in London; she was a funny old thing, but I liked her awfully. She was often cross, but after she had scolded for about five minutes, she used to repent, and give us apples. She will give you apples, Hilary, if you are very good!"
Hilary screwed up her little nose with an expression of disdain. Apples were not much of a treat to people who had an orchard at home, and she had outgrown the age of childish joy at the gift of such trifles. Before she could speak, however, the door burst open, and Raymond precipitated himself into the room. He was a big, broad fellow of sixteen, for he and Lettice were twins, though widely differing in appearance. Raymond had a flat face, thickly speckled over with freckles, reddish brown hair, and a pair of brown eyes which fairly danced with mischief. It was safe to prophesy that in less than two minutes from the time that he entered the room where his sisters were sitting, they would all three be shrieking aloud in consternation, and the present instance was no exception to the rule. It was very simply managed. He passed one hand over the table where lay the socks and stockings which had been paired by Hilary's industrious fingers, and swept them, helter-skelter, on the floor. He nudged Norah's elbow, so that the needle which she was threading went deep into her fingers, and chucked Lettice under the chin, so that she bit her tongue with a violence which was really painful. This done, he plunged both hands into his pockets and danced a hornpipe on the hearthrug, while the girls abused him at the pitch of their voices.
"Raymond Bertrand, you are the most horrid, ungentlemanly, nasty, rude boy I ever knew!"
"If you were older you'd be ashamed of yourself. It is only because you are a stupid, ignorant little schoolboy that you think it funny to be unkind to girls."
"Very well, then! You have given me all my work to do over again; now I won't make toffee this afternoon, as I promised!"
"I don't want your old toffee. I can buy toffee in the village if I want it," retorted Raymond cheerfully. "Besides, I'm going out to toboggan with Bob, and I shan't be home until dark. You girls will have to go and amuse Freer. He is up, and wants something to do. I'm not going to stay indoors on a jolly afternoon to talk to the fellow, so you'll have to do it instead."
"Indeed, we'll do nothing of the kind; we have our work to do, and it is bad enough to have two tiresome boys on our hands without looking after a third. He is your friend, and if you won't amuse him, he will have to stay by himself."
"All right! Nice, hospitable people you are! Leave him alone to be as dull as he likes—it's no matter to me. I told him that you would look after him, so the responsibility is off my shoulders." Raymond paused, pointed in a meaning manner towards a curtained doorway at the end of the room, tiptoed up to the table, and finished his reply in a tragic whisper. "And I've settled him on the couch in the drawing-room, so you had better not speak so loudly, because he can hear every word you say!"
With this parting shot, Mr Raymond took his departure, banging the door after him, while his sisters sat paralysed, staring at each other with distended eyes.
"How awful! What must he think? We can't leave him alone after this. Hilary, you are the eldest, go and talk to him."
"I won't—I don't know what to say. Norah, you go! Perhaps he is musical. You can play to him on your violin!"
"Thank you, very much. I'll do nothing of the kind. Lettice, you go; you are not shy. Talk to him prettily, and show him the photographs."
"I daren't; I am horribly shy. I wouldn't go into that room now, after what he has heard, for fifty thousand pounds!"
"Norah, look here, if you will go and sit with him until four o'clock, Lettice and I will finish your work between us, and we will all come and have tea in the drawing-room, and help you out for the rest of the afternoon!"
"Yes, Norah, we will; and I'll give you that pink ribbon for your hair. Do, Norah! there's a good girl. You won't mind a bit after the first moment."
"It's all very well," grumbled Norah; but she was plainly softening, and after a moment's hesitation, she pushed back her chair and said slowly, "All right, I'll go; but mind you are punctual with tea, for I don't bargain to stay a moment after four o'clock." She brushed the ends of cotton from her dress, walked across to the door, and disappeared through the doorway with a pantomimic gesture of distaste. At the other side she paused and stood facing the invalid in silent embarrassment, for his cheeks were flushed, and he looked so supremely uncomfortable that it was evident he had overheard the loud-toned conversation which had been carried on between the brother and sisters. Norah looked at him and saw a young fellow who looked much older and more formidable than he had done in his unconsciousness the night before, for his grey eyes had curious, dilating pupils, and a faint mark on the upper lip showed where the moustache of the future was to be. The stranger looked at Norah, and saw a tall, slim girl, with masses of dark hair falling down her back, heavily marked eyebrows, and a bright, sharply cut little face, which was very attractive, if it could not strictly be called pretty.
"How do you do?" said Norah desperately. "I hope you are quite—I mean, I hope your foot is better. I am glad you are able to get up."
"Thank you very much. It's all right so long as I lie still. It's very good of you to let me stay here. I hope I'm not a great nuisance."
"Oh, not at all. I'm sure you are not. I'm not the eldest, you know, I'm only the third, so I have nothing to do with the housekeeping, but there are so many of us that one more doesn't make any difference. My name is Norah."
"And mine is Reginald, but I am always called Rex. Please don't trouble about me if you have anything else to do. If you would give me a book, I'd amuse myself."
"Are you fond of reading?"
"No, I hate it—that is to say, I like it very much, of course, but I have had so much of it for the last two years that I sometimes feel that I hate the sight of a book. But it's different here, for a few hours."
"I think I'll stay and talk to you, if you don't mind," said Norah, seating herself on an oak stool by the fire, and holding out a thin, brown hand to shade her face from the blaze. "I'm very fond of talking when I get to know people a little bit. Raymond told us that you were reading at home to prepare for college, and that you didn't like it. I suppose that is why you are tired of books. I wish I were in your place! I'd give anything to go to a town, and get on with my studies, but I have to stay at home and learn from a governess. Wouldn't it be nice if we could change places? Then we should both be pleased, and get what we liked."
The young fellow gave a laugh of amusement. "I don't think I should care for the governess," he said, "though she seems awfully kind and jolly, if she is the lady who looked after me last night. I've had enough lessons to last me for the rest of my life, and I want to get to work, but my father is bent on having a clever son, and can't make up his mind to be disappointed."
"And aren't you clever? I don't think you look exactly stupid!" said Norah, so innocently, that Rex burst into a hearty laugh.
"Oh, I hope I'm not so bad as that. I am what is called 'intelligent,' don't you know, but I shall never make a scholar, and it is waste of time and money to send me to college. It is not in me. I am not fond of staying in the house and poring over books and papers. I couldn't be a doctor and spend my life in sick-rooms; the law would drive me crazy, and I could as soon jump over a mountain as write two new sermons a week. I want to go abroad—to India or Ceylon, or one of those places— and get into a berth where I can be all day walking about in the open air, and looking after the natives."
"Oh, I see. You don't like to work yourself, but you feel that it is 'in you' to make other people exert themselves! You would like to have a lot of poor coolies under you, and order them about from morning till night—that's what you mean. I think you must be very lazy to talk like that!" said Norah, nodding her head in such a meaning fashion that the young fellow flushed in embarrassment.
"Indeed, I'm nothing of the kind. I am very energetic—in my own way. There are all sorts of gifts, and everyone knows which one has fallen to his share. It's stupid to pretend that you don't, I know I am not intellectual, but I also know that I have a natural gift of management. At school I had the arrangement of all the games and sports, and the fellows would obey me when no one else could do anything with them. I should like to have a crowd of workmen under me—and I'll tell you this! they would do more work, and do it better, and be more contented over it, than any other workmen in the district!"
"Gracious!" cried Norah, "you are conceited! But I believe you are right. It's something in your eyes—I noticed it as soon as I saw you— a sort of commanding look, and a flash every now and then when you aren't quite pleased. They flashed like anything just now, when I said you were lazy! The poor coolies would be frightened out of their senses. But you needn't go abroad unless you like. You could stay at home and keep a school."
"No, thank you. I know too much about it. I don't want the life worried out of me by a lot of boys. I could manage them quite well though, if I chose."
"You couldn't manage me!" Norah brought her black brows together in defiant fashion, but the challenge was not taken up, for Master Rex simply ejaculated, "Oh, girls! I wasn't talking about girls," and laid his head against the cushions in such an indifferent fashion that Norah felt snubbed; and the next question came in a very subdued little voice—"Don't you—er—like girls?"
"Ye-es—pretty well—the ones I know. I like my sister, of course, but we have only seen each other in the holidays for the last six years. She is sixteen now, and has to leave school because her chest is delicate, and she has come home to be coddled. She don't like it a bit—leaving school, I mean—so it seems that none of us are contented. She's clever, in music especially; plays both violin and piano uncommonly well for a girl of her age."
"Oh, does she? That's my gift. I play the violin beautifully," cried Norah modestly, and when Rex laughed aloud she grew angry, and protested in snappish manner, "Well, you said yourself that we could not help knowing our own talents. It's quite true, I do play well. Everyone says so. If you don't believe it, I'll get my violin and let you hear."
"I wish you would! Please forgive me for laughing, I didn't mean to be rude, but it sounded so curious that I forgot what I was doing. Do play! I should love to hear you."
Norah walked across the room and lifted the beloved violin from its case. Her cheeks were flushed, and she was tingling with the remembrance of that incredulous laugh, but her anger only made her the more resolved to prove the truth of her words. She stood before Rex in the firelight, her slim figure drawn up to its full height, and the first sweep of the bow brought forth a sound so sweet and full, that he started in amazement. The two sisters in the adjoining room stopped their work to listen, and whispered to one another that they had never heard Norah play so well; and when at last she dropped her arms, and stood waiting for Rex to give his verdict, he could only gasp in astonishment.
"I say, it's wonderful! You can play, and no mistake! What is the piece? I never heard it before. It's beautiful. I like it awfully."
"Oh, nothing. It isn't a piece. I made it up as I went along. It is too dark to see the music, and I love wandering along just as I like. I'll play you some pieces later on when the lamps are lit."
"I say, you know, you are most awfully clever! If you play like that now, you could do as well as any of those professional fellows if you had a chance. And to be able to compose as well! You are a genius—it isn't talent—it's real, true, genuine genius!"
"Oh, do you think so? Do you really, truly think so?" cried Norah pitifully. "Oh, I wish you would say so to father! He won't let us go away to school, and I do so long and pine to have more lessons. I learnt in London ever since I was a tiny little girl, and from a very good master, but the last three years I have had to struggle on by myself. Father is not musical himself, and so he doesn't notice my playing, but if you would tell him what you think—"
"I'll tell him with pleasure; but if he won't allow you to leave home, I don't see what is to be done—unless—look here! I've got an idea. My sister may want to take lessons, and if there were two pupils it might be worth while getting a man down from Preston or Lancaster. Ella couldn't come here, because she can only go out on fine days, but you could come to us, you know. It would make it so much more difficult if the fellow had to drive six miles over the mountains, and we are nearer a station than you are here. I should think it could be managed easily enough. I'll write to the mater about it if you like."
"Will you, really? How lovely of you! Oh, it would be quite too delightful if it could be managed. I'd bless you for ever. Oh, isn't it a good thing you sprained your ankle?" cried Norah in a glow of enthusiasm, and the burst of laughter which followed startled the occupants of the next room by its ring of good fellowship.
"Really," said Hilary, "the strange boy must be nicer than we thought. Norah and he seem to be getting quite good friends. Let us hurry up, and go and join them."
ROUND THE FIRE.
Mrs Freer wrote a grateful letter to Mr Bertrand, thanking him for his hospitality to her son, and arranging to drive over for Rex on the following Saturday afternoon, so that Hilary's anxiety was at an end, and she could enjoy the strange boy's society with an easy mind. After Norah had broken the ice, there was no further feeling of shyness. When Rex hobbled downstairs at ten o'clock in the morning, he ensconced himself on the old-fashioned sofa in the sewing-room, and remained there until he adjourned into the drawing-room for the evening. The boys came in and out as they pleased, Miss Briggs coddled him and brought him cups of beef-tea, but it was upon the girls that he chiefly depended for amusement. In the morning they were busy with their household duties; but, as regular lessons had not begun, afternoon was a free time, and while Norah drew, Lettice carved, and Hilary occupied herself manufacturing fineries for the London visit, a brisk clatter of tongues was kept up, in which the invalid took his full part. The sound of five-finger exercises would come from the schoolroom overhead, but so soon as four o'clock struck, the Mouse would steal in, in her little white pinafore, and creep on to the corner of the sofa. She and the "strange boy" had made friends at once, and were on the best of terms.
"I wish you lived with us for ever!" she said one afternoon, looking lovingly in his face, as he stroked her wavy locks.
"And I wish you lived with me, Mouse," he answered. "I should like a little sister like you, with a tiny pointed chin, and a tiny little nose, and big dark eyes. You are a real little mouse. It is exactly the right name for you."
"No, it's my wrong name. My true name is Geraldine Audrey. It's written that way in the Bible."
"Dear me! that's a big name for a small person. And who gave you that name?" asked Rex, laughing. But the child's face did not relax from its characteristic gravity as she replied—
"My godfathers and my godmothers, and a silver mug, and a knife and fork in a case, with 'GAB' written on the handles. Only I mayn't use them till I'm seven, in case I cut my fingers."
Dear little Geraldine Audrey! Everyone loved her. She was always so desperately in earnest, so unsuspicious of fraud, that her little life was made a burden to her in the holidays by reason of the pranks of her big brothers. They sent her into village shops to demand "a halfpenny- worth of pennies," they kept her shivering in the drive staring at the lions on the top of the gate-posts, to see them wag their tails when they heard the clock strike twelve; they despatched her into the garden with neat little packets of salt to put on the birds' tails, and watched the poor mite's efforts in contortions of laughter from behind the window curtains. The Mouse was more sorrowful than angry when the nature of these tricks was explained to her. "I fought you told the trufh," she would say quietly, and then Raymond and Bob would pick her up in their arms, and try to make amends for their wickedness by petting her for the rest of the day.
On the third day of Rex's visit, the weather was so tempestuous that even Raymond and Bob did not stir from the house. They spent the morning over chemical experiments in the schoolroom, but when afternoon came they wearied of the unusual confinement and were glad to join the cosy party downstairs. Norah had a brilliant inspiration, and suggested "Chestnuts," and Master Raymond sat in comfort, directing the efforts of poor red-faced Bob, as he bent over the fire and roasted his fingers as well as the nuts. When half a dozen young people are gathered round a fire, catching hot nuts in outstretched hands, and promptly dropping them with shrieks of dismay, the last remnants of shyness must needs disappear; and Rex was soon as uproarious as any other member of the family, complaining loudly when his "turn" was forgotten, and abusing the unfortunate Bob for presenting him with a cinder instead of the expected dainty. The clatter of tongues was kept up without a moment's intermission, and, as is usual under such circumstances, the conversation was chiefly concerned with the past exploits of the family.
"You can't have half as many jokes in the country as you can in town," Raymond declared. "When we were in London, two old ladies lived in the house opposite ours, who used to sit sewing in the window by the hour together. One day, when the sun was shining, Bob and I got hold of a mirror and flashed it at them from our window so that the light dazzled their eyes and made them jump. They couldn't see us, because we were hiding behind the curtains, but it was as good as a play to watch first one, then the other, drop her work and put up her hand to her eye? Then they began shaking their fists across the road, for they knew it was us, because we had played some fine tricks on them before. On wet days we used to make up a sham parcel, tie a thread to the end, and put it on the side of the pavement. Everyone who came along stooped down to pick it up, we gave a jerk to the string and moved it on a little further, then they gave another grab, and once or twice a man overbalanced himself and fell down, but it didn't always come off so well as that— oh, it was capital sport!"
"You got into trouble yourselves sometimes. You didn't always get the best of it," Norah reminded him. "Do you remember the day when you found a ladder leaning against the area railings of a house in the white terrace? Father had forbidden you to climb ladders, but you were a naughty boy, as usual, and began to do it, and when you got to the top, the ladder overbalanced, and you fell head over heels into the area. It is a wonder you were not killed that time!"
Raymond chuckled softly, as if at a pleasant remembrance. "But I was not, you see, and the cook got a jolly fright. She was making pastry at a table by the window, and down we came, ladder and I, the finest smash in the world. There was more glass than flour in the pies that day!"
"But father had to pay for new windows, and you were all over bruises from head to foot—"
"That didn't matter. It was jolly. I could have exhibited myself in a show as a 'boy leopard,' and made no end of money. And I wasn't the only one who made father pay for new windows. When Bob was a little fellow, he broke the nursery window by mistake, and a glazier came to mend it. Bob sat on a stool watching him do it, and snored all the time—Bob always snores when he is interested—and as soon as the man had picked up his tools and left the room, what did he do but jump up and send a toy horse smashing through the pane again. He wanted to watch the glazier put in another, but he hadn't the pleasure of seeing it mended that time. He was whipped and sent to bed."
"We-w-w-well," cried Bob, who was afflicted with a stammer when he was excited, "I didn't c-c-ut off my eyelashes, anyway! Norah went up to her room one day and p-played barber's shop. She cut lumps off her hair wherever she could get at it, till she looked like an Indian squaw, and then she s-s-snipped off her eyelashes till there wasn't a hair left. She was sent to bed as w-well as me."
"They have grown again since then," said Norah, shutting one eye, and screwing up her face in a vain effort to prove the truth of her words. "I had been to see Lettice have her hair cut that day, and I was longing to try what it felt like. I knew it was naughty, but I couldn't stop, it was too fascinating. ... Oh, Lettice, do you remember when you sucked your thumb?"
Lettice threw up her hands with a little shriek of laughter. "Oh, how funny it was! I used to suck my thumb, Rex, until I was quite a big girl, six years old, I think, and one day mother spoke to me seriously, and said I really must give it up. If I didn't I was to be punished; if I did, I was to get a prize. I said, 'Well, may I suck my thumb as long as ever I like to-day, for the very last time?' Mother said I might, so I sat on the stairs outside the nursery door and sucked my thumb all day long—hours, hours, and hours, and after that I was never seen to suck it again. I had had enough!"
"It must be awfully nice to belong to a large family," said Rex wistfully. "You can have such fun together. Edna and I were very quiet at home, but I had splendid times at school, and sometimes I used to bring some of the fellows down to stay with me in the holidays. One night I remember—hallo, here's the Mouse! I thought you were having a nice little sleep on the schoolroom sofa, Mouse. Come here and sit by me."
Geraldine advanced to the fireplace in her usual deliberate fashion. She was quite calm and unruffled, and found time to smile at each member of the party before she spoke.
"So I was asleep, only they's a fire burning on the carpet of the schoolroom, and it waked me up."
"They's a fire burning in the miggle of the carpet—a blue fire, jest like a plum pudding!"
There was a simultaneous shriek of dismay, as work, scissors, and chestnuts were thrown wildly on the floor, and the Bertrand family rushed upstairs in a stampede of excitement. The schoolroom door stood open, the rug thrown back from the couch on which the Mouse had been lying, and in the centre of the well-worn carpet, little blue flames were dancing up and down, exactly as they do on a Christmas pudding which has been previously baptised with spirit. Bob cast a guilty look at his brother, who stuck his hands in his pockets and looked at the conflagration with smiling patronage.
"Phosphorus pentoxide P2O5," he remarked coolly. "What a lark!"
"It wouldn't have been a lark if the Mouse had been stifled by the nasty, horrid fumes," said Lettice angrily. "Get some water at once and help us put it out, before the whole house is on fire."
"Water, indeed! Don't do anything so foolish. You mustn't touch it with water. Here, it's only a square, pull the thing up and throw it through the window into the garden. That's the best thing we can do," said Raymond, dropping on his knees and setting himself to pull and tear with all his strength. Bob and the girls did their best to assist him, for the Bertrands were accustomed to help themselves, and in a very few minutes the carpet was lifted, folded hurriedly in two, and sent flying through the window to the garden beneath. After which the tired and begrimed labourers sank down on chairs, and panted for breath.
"This is what comes of chemical experiments," said Hilary severely. "I shall ask father to forbid you to play with such dangerous things in the house. I wonder what on earth you will do next."
"Have some tea! This sort of work is tiring. I'm going downstairs to ring the bell and hurry Mary up," said Raymond coolly. It was absolutely impossible to get that dreadful boy to realise his own enormities!
A VISIT TO LONDON.
On Saturday afternoon Mrs Freer drove up to the door in an old- fashioned carriage. She was a thin, little woman, not at all like her big son, whom she evidently adored as the most wonderful specimen of his sex, and full of gratitude for the kindness which had been shown to him. Rex's letter had evidently been of a descriptive nature, for his mother recognised each of the three girls, addressed them by name, and referred to their special interests.
"How do you do, Miss Hilary? I hope my son's illness has not interfered with the arrangements for your journey. How do you do, Miss Lettice? How do you do, Norah? Rex has told me of your wonderful playing. I hope you will let me hear something before I go."
Norah was never loath to play, and on this occasion was anxious to make a good impression, so that Mrs Freer might gain her father's consent to the proposed music lessons. At the earliest opportunity, therefore, she produced her violin, played her favourite selections, and had the satisfaction of seeing that Mrs Freer was unmistakably impressed.
The little head in the large black bonnet approached Mr Bertrand's in confidential fashion. Norah watched the smile of pleasure on her father's face, followed by the usual pucker of the brows with which he was wont to receive a difficult question. Mrs Freer was evidently approaching the subject of the professor from Lancaster, and presently, oh, joy! the frown passed away, he was leaning forward, clasping his hands round his knees, and listening with an air of pleased attention.
"Mr Freer is quite willing to allow Edna to take lessons, even if they should be rather expensive, for the poor child frets at being separated from her friends, and she is not strong enough to remain at school. She could not come here to have her lesson, I am afraid, for she is only allowed to go out when the weather is mild and sunny; but if you would allow Norah to come to us for the day, once a fortnight (fortnightly lessons would be quite enough, don't you think?), it would be a real pleasure to have her. She would have to stay for the night, of course, for it is too far to come and go in one day, but Edna would be all the more charmed! It would be a charity to the poor child!"
"You are very good. It sounds feasible. If you will be kind enough to make inquiries, I shall be happy to fall in with your arrangements. And now let me give you some tea."
Half an hour later the carriage was brought round again, for the nights grew dark so soon that it was necessary to make an early start on the ten-mile drive. Rex hobbled down the hall on his sticks, escorted by the entire Bertrand family, for the week of his visit had seemed to place him on the standing of a familiar friend, and the Mouse shed tears when he kissed her in the porch, while Lettice looked the picture of woe. Norah was the most cheerful of all, for Rex whispered in her ear—"I'll keep them up to the mark about the lessons. We will have some good times together when you come over, and—I say!—I impressed upon your father that you were awfully clever; you'll have to do as much for me, and convince mine that I am too stupid to do any good at college—!"
"Oh, I will!" said Norah emphatically. "I will! Good-bye. I'm most fearfully obliged!" She stood on the path waving her hand and nodding farewells so long as the carriage remained in sight. It seemed as if her wish were to be fulfilled indeed, and the thought of the new friends and the fortnightly visits to Brantmere filled her with delighted expectation.
For the next few days Hilary was as busy as a bee preparing for her visit to London. She gathered together all her nicest things, and, not content with her own, cast a covetous eye on the possessions of her sisters. Half a dozen times in the course of the morning the door of the room in which the two youngest sisters sat would burst open, and Hilary's sleek little head appear round the corner to make some new request.
"Lettice! you might lend me your new muff!"
"Oh, Hilary! I only got it at Christmas, and I need it myself in this cold weather."
"Don't be so selfish. I'll leave you my old one. It doesn't matter what sort of a muff you wear here, and you know quite well mine is too shabby for London. It's only for a fortnight!"
"Oh, well, I suppose you must have it. It's very hard, though, for I do like nice things, even if I am in the country."
"Oh, thanks awfully. I'll take mine to your room." Then the door would bang and Hilary's footsteps be heard flying up the staircase, but in less than ten minutes she would be down again with another request. "You don't mind, I suppose, if I take your silver brushes?"
"My silver brushes! I should think I do mind, indeed. What next?"
"But you never use them. You might just as well lend them to me as leave them lying in their case upstairs."
"I am keeping them until I go away visiting. If I don't even use them myself, it's not likely I am going to lend them to anyone else."
"Lettice, how mean! What harm could I do to the brushes in a fortnight? You know what a grand house Miss Carr's is, and it would be too horrid for me to go with a common wooden brush. I do think you might lend them to me!"
"Oh, well, you can have them if you like, but you are not afraid of asking, I must say! Is there anything else—?"
"Not from you; at least, I don't think so just now. But, Norah, I want your bangle—the gold one, you know! Lend it to me, like a dear, won't you?"
"If you lose it, will you buy me a new one?"
"I won't lose it. I'll only wear it in the evening, and I'll be most awfully careful."
"You have a bangle of your own. Why can't you be content with that?"
"I want two—one for each arm; they look so nice with short sleeves. I'll put it in my jewel-box, and lock it up safely—"
"I haven't said I would lend it to you yet."
But Hilary ran away laughing, and gathered brushes and bangles together in triumph.
It was on the evening preceding the journey to London that Mr Bertrand came upon his second daughter standing alone in the upstairs corridor, which ran the whole length of the house, pressing her forehead against the panes of the windows. Lettice had been unusually quiet during the last few days, and her father was glad to have the opportunity of a quiet talk.
"All alone, dear?" he asked, putting his arm round her waist and drawing her towards him. "I was thinking about you only a few minutes ago. I said on New Year's Day, you remember, that I wanted to give each of you three girls some special little present. Well, Hilary is having this trip with me, and Norah seems in a fair way of getting her wish in the matter of lessons; but what about you? I'll take you with me next time I go away; but in the meantime, is there any little thing you fancy that I could bring back from London town?"
"No, thank you, father. I don't want anything."
"Quite sure? Or—or—anything I can do for you here, before I go?"
"No, thank you, father. Nothing at all."
The tone was dull and listless, and Mr Bertrand looked down at the fair face nestled against his shoulder with anxious eyes.
"What is it, dear? What is the matter, my pretty one?"
He was almost startled by the transformation which passed over the girl's face as he spoke the last few words. The colour rushed into the cheeks, the lips trembled, and the beautiful eyes gazed meltingly into his. Lettice put up her arm and flung it impetuously round his neck.
"Do you love me, father? Do you really love me?"
"Love you! My precious child! I love every one of you—dearly—dearly! But you—" Mr Bertrand's voice broke off with an uncontrollable tremble—"you know there are special reasons why you are dear to me, Lettice. When I look at you I seem to see your mother again as I met her first. Why do you ask such a question? You surely know that I love you, without being told?"
"But I like being told," said Lettice plaintively. "I like people to say nice things, and to be loving and demonstrative. Hilary laughs at me if I am affectionate, and the boys tease. Sometimes I feel so lonely!"
Mr Bertrand drew his breath in a short, stabbing sigh. He was realising more keenly every day how difficult it was to bring up young girls without a mother's tender care. Hilary, with the strain of hardness and self-seeking which would ruin her disposition unless it were checked in time; beautiful Lettice, longing for love and admiration, and so fatally susceptible to a few flattering words; Norah, with her exceptional talents, and daring, fearless spirit—how was he to manage them all during the most critical years of their lives? "I must speak to Helen Carr. Helen Carr will help me," he said to himself, and sighed with relief at the thought of sharing his burden with the kind- hearted friend of his youth.
It was nearly six o'clock when the travellers drove up to the door of the white house in Kensington, and Miss Carr came into the hall to meet them, looking far less altered by the lapse of years than did her young visitor, who had developed from a delicate schoolgirl into a self- possessed young lady of seventeen.
"And this is Hilary. Tut, tut! what do you mean by growing up in this ridiculous manner, child?" Miss Carr pecked the girl's cheek with a formal kiss, and turned to hold out both hands to Mr Bertrand. "Austin! how good to see you again. This is a pleasure—a real pleasure." There was no doubting the sincerity of the tone, which was one of most affectionate welcome, and the plain old face beneath the white cap was beaming with smiles. Miss Carr had been Austin Bertrand's devoted friend from his youth onwards, one of the earliest believers in his literary powers, and the most gratified by the fame which he had gained. Hilary was left out in the cold for the next ten minutes, while the old lady fussed round her father, inquiring anxiously if he were cold, if he were tired, and pressing all manner of refreshments upon him. Even over dinner itself she received scanty attention. She had put on a pretty blue dress, with a drapery of lace over the shoulders, arranged her hair in a style copied from the latest fashion book, and snapped the gold bangles on her arms, with a result which seemed highly satisfactory upstairs, but not quite so much so when she entered the drawing-room, for Miss Carr put up her eye-glasses, stared at her fixedly for several moments, and then delivered herself of an expressive grunt. "Deary me! seventeen, are we! Don't be in too great a hurry to grow up, my dear. The time will come when you will be only too thankful to be young!"
At this rate Hilary began to feel that it was not uninterrupted bliss to be in London, and this suspicion was deepened when at nine o'clock her hostess looked at her stolidly, and remarked—
"You are tired, my dear. Go to bed, and have a good night's rest."
Hilary bridled, and held her little head at the angle of injured dignity which her sisters knew so well. Nine o'clock indeed! As if she were a baby!
"Oh, thank you, Miss Carr, but I am not tired. It was such an easy journey. I am not sleepy at all."
"My dear, all young girls ought to get to bed and have their beauty sleep before twelve o'clock. Don't mind me. Your father will manage to entertain me. He and I have always plenty to say to each other."
After such plain speaking as this, it was impossible to object any further. Hilary rose with a flush on her cheeks, kissed her father, and held out a stiff little hand towards Miss Carr. The old lady looked at her, and her face softened. She was beginning to repent, in the characteristic manner to which Norah had referred. Hilary felt herself pulled forward, kissed lovingly on the lips, and heard a kindly tone take the place of the mocking accents, "Good-night, dearie, good-night! We must have some good times while you are here. Sleep well, and to- morrow we will talk things over, and make our plans."
The door shut behind the girl, and the two occupants of the room looked at one another in silence. Miss Carr's expression was self-conscious and apologetic; Mr Bertrand's twitching with humorous enjoyment.
"Too bad, Helen, too bad! I can't have my poor little lass snubbed like that!"
"My dear Austin, it will do her all the good in the world. What a little Miss Consequence! What have you been about to let the child think so much of herself?"
"Put a woman's responsibilities on her shoulders before she was ready to bear them. My dear Helen, that's the very thing about which I am anxious to consult you. These girls of mine are getting on my nerves. I don't know what to do with them. Hilary has the audacity to be seventeen, and for the last eighteen months she has practically done all the housekeeping. Miss Briggs looks after the Mouse—Geraldine, you know—gives lessons to Lettice and Norah, but beyond that she does little else. She is a good, reliable soul and a great comfort in many ways, but I fear the girls are getting beyond her. We had a conference on New Year's Day, and I find that they are tired of present arrangements, and pining for a change. I promised to think things over, and see what could be done, and I want your advice. Hilary is a conscientious, hard-working little soul. She has been thrust into a responsible position too soon, and it is not her fault if she is a trifle overbearing, poor child. At the same time, it will be a terrible misfortune if she grows up hard and unsympathetic. Norah is a vivacious young person, and they tell me she is developing a genius for music. She is afire to go abroad and study, but I think I have settled her for the time being with the promise of the best lessons that the neighbourhood can produce. Lettice—"
"She is a beautiful girl, Helen! You remember what Elma was at her age. Lettice is going to be quite as lovely; but I am more anxious about her than any of the others. She is demonstrative herself, and loves demonstration, and flattery, and appreciation. It's natural, of course—quite natural—but I don't want her to grow up into a woman who lives only for admiration, and whose head can be turned by the first flattering tongue that comes along. What would be the best thing for a girl with exceptional beauty, and such a disposition as this—?"
Miss Carr gave one of her comical grunts, "Small-pox, I should say!" she replied brusquely, then softened into a laugh at the sight of her friend's horrified face. "I see you are like most parents, Austin; all your geese are swans! Norah a genius, Lettice a beauty, and Hilary a model housewife! You seem to be in a nest of troubles, poor man; but I can't undertake to advise you until I know more of the situation. We will have a pleasant time while you are here—take Miss Consequence about, and let her see a little life; and then, as you're an old friend, I'll sacrifice myself on your behalf, and as soon as the weather is anything like warm, pay you a visit, and see how things are for myself."
"My dear Helen, this is really noble of you. I know your dread of the 'North Countrie,' and I assure you I appreciate your self-sacrifice. There is no one else in the world who can help me so much as you."
"Well, well, I have an idea; but I won't say anything about it until I know the girls better. Would you be willing to—"
"Nothing at all. What a silly old woman I am to be sure, when I had just said that I wouldn't speak of it! It's something for the good of your girls, Austin, but that's all you will hear about it until I come to Cloudsdale, and see them for myself."
So soon as Mr Bertrand's arrival in town became known, he was inundated with invitations of every description. To most of these it was impossible to take Hilary, but Miss Carr was indefatigable in escorting the girl to concerts and entertainments, and insisted that she should accompany her father when it was possible.
"If the child is old enough to have the responsibility of a household, she is old enough to have a little enjoyment, and to make her entrance into society. She is eighteen next May, she tells me, and she is old for her age. You must certainly take her to Lady Mary's 'At Home.' There will be music, and recitations, and a crowd of people—just the sort of thing to please a young girl!"
Mr Bertrand shrugged his shoulders and affected to be horrified at the idea of having to take out a grown-up daughter. "It makes a man feel so old," he said, "and I know quite well I shall forget all about her when I begin talking to my old friends! However, I'll do my best. See that the child has something decent to wear, like a good soul. I'm not so short of money now as in the days when you used to send hampers to my rooms in Oxford, and I should like her to look well. She is not a beauty like Lettice, but she is a nice-looking little girl in her way, isn't she, Helen?"
"Oh, I think we may give her credit for more than that. She has an exquisite complexion, and holds up her little head as if she were quite conscious of being the eldest child of a famous man. You won't be ashamed of your daughter, I promise you."
Hilary was delighted at the thought of accompanying her father to the "At Home," but though she gushed over the prospect in her letters to her sisters, she did her utmost to hide her excitement from Miss Carr. The old lady had a habit of making sly little hits at her expense, the cause of which the girl totally misunderstood. She imagined that it was her youth and want of experience which annoyed her hostess, whereas, in reality, it was her affectation of age and worldly knowledge. When the night arrived, however, it was impossible to keep as calm as she would have liked, as she arrayed herself in her dainty new frock before dinner. Miss Carr's choice had been eminently successful. A plain white satin dress with an overskirt of chiffon, which gave an effect of misty lightness, a wreath of snowdrops among the puffings at the neck, and long ends of ribbon hanging from the waist. Hilary looked very sweet and fresh as she walked into the drawing-room, with a flush of self-conscious pleasure on her cheeks, and her father gave a start of surprise as he saw her.
"So! My little girl!" Miss Carr was not yet in the room, and he took Hilary by the hands, holding her out at arm's length, and looking down at her with grave, tender eyes. "It's very nice, dear. I'm proud of you!" Then drawing her to him, and kissing her on the forehead, "We must be great friends, you and I, my big daughter. This is the beginning of a new life for you, but you will not grow to think less of the old home and the old friends?"
"No, no, father! no, never!" Hilary spoke in a quick, breathless whisper, and there was an unusual moisture in her eyes. Her father saw that she was nervous and excited, and hastened to change the subject before there was any danger of a breakdown. The door opened at this moment to admit Miss Carr, and he advanced to meet her holding Hilary's hand in his, in the high, stately fashion in which a knight of old led out his partner in the gavotte.
"Miss Hilary Maud Everette Bertrand—at your service. And many thanks to the good fairy who has worked the transformation!"
"Humph!" said Mrs Carr, shortly. "Fine feathers make fine birds. There's the gong for dinner, and if you two are not hungry, I am, so let us get the serious business over first, and then I'll have a look at the fineries." Then, after her usual fashion, she slipped her hand through the girl's arm and led her affectionately across the hall. "Sweet seventeen! Ah, dear me, I wonder how many years ago it is since I went out in my first white dress? I was a pretty girl then, my dear, though you may not think it to look at me now, and I remember my excitement as if it were yesterday."
When the carriage came to the door two hours later on, Hilary wrapped herself up in fleecy shawls and went into the drawing-room to bid her hostess good-night, but she was not allowed to take her departure so easily. Miss Carr protested that she was not wrapped up sufficiently, and sent upstairs for a hood and a pair of hideous scarlet worsted bedroom slippers, which she insisted upon drawing over the dainty white satin shoes. Hilary protested, but she was not allowed to have a say in the matter.
"Nonsense, my dear; it's a bitterly cold night, and you have half an hour's drive. We can't have you catching cold, just to have your feet looking pretty in a dark carriage. Go along now, and 'Good-night,' for I shall be in bed when you come back. I'll hear all your adventures in the morning," and she waved the girl away in the imperious fashion which no one dare resist.
Hilary was annoyed, but she soon forgot the ugly slippers in the fascination of a drive through the brightly-lighted streets, and when the carriage drew up beneath an awning, and she had a peep at a beautiful hall, decorated with palms and flowering plants, and saw the crowd flocking up the staircase, her breath came fast with excitement. Her father led her into the house and disappeared through a doorway on the left, while she herself was shown into a room on the right, wherein a throng of fashionable ladies were divesting themselves of their wraps, and giving finishing touches to their toilets before the mirrors. Those who were nearest to Hilary turned curious glances at her as she took off her shawls, and the girl felt a sudden and painful consciousness of insignificant youth. They were so very grand, these fine ladies. They wore such masses of diamonds, and such marvellous frocks, and mantles, and wrappings, that she was over-awed, and hurried out of the room as quickly as possible, without daring to step forward to a mirror. Such a crowd of guests were making their way up the staircase, that Hilary and her father could only move forward a step at the time, but after they had shaken hands with a stout lady and a thin gentleman at the head of the stairs, there was a sudden thinning off, for a suite of reception rooms opened out of the hall, and the guests floated away in different directions.
Mr Bertrand led the way into the nearer of the rooms, and no sooner had he appeared in the doorway, than there came a simultaneous exclamation of delight from a group of gentlemen who stood in the centre of the floor, and he was seized by the arm, patted on the shoulder, and surrounded by a bevy of admiring friends. Poor Hilary stood in the background, abashed and deserted. Her father had forgotten all about her existence. The group of friends were gradually drawing him further and further away. Not a soul did she know among all the brilliant throng. Several fashionably dressed ladies put up their eye-glasses to stare at her as she stood, a solitary figure at the end of the room, then turned to whisper to each other, while the youngest and liveliest of the party put her fan up to her face and tittered audibly. They were laughing at her, the rude, unkind, unfeeling creatures.
"What could there be to laugh at?" asked Hilary of herself. Her dress had been made by a fashionable modiste; Miss Carr's own maid had arranged her hair. "I may not be pretty, but there's nothing ludicrous about me that I know of," said the poor child to herself, with catching breath. In spite of her seventeen years, her new dress, and all her ecstatic anticipations, a more lonely, uncomfortable, and tearfully- inclined young woman it would be difficult to find. She looked round in despair, espied a seat in a retired corner, and was making for it as quickly as might be, when she came face to face with a mirror, and in it saw a reflection which made the colour rush to her cheeks in a hot, crimson tide. A girlish figure, with a dark head set gracefully upon a slender neck, a dainty dress, all cloudy chiffon, satiny ribbons, and nodding snowdrops, and beneath—oh, good gracious!—beneath the soft frilled edgings, a pair of enormous, shapeless, scarlet worsted bed slippers! It would be difficult to say which was the more scarlet at that moment—the slippers themselves or Hilary's cheeks. She shuffled forward and stood in the corner, paralysed with horror. There had been such a crowd in the cloak-room, and she had been so anxious to get away, that she had forgotten all about the wretched slippers. So that was why the ladies were laughing! Oh, to think how she must have looked— standing by herself in the doorway, with those awful, awful scarlet feet shown up against the white skirts!
"Sit down and slip them off, and hide them in the corner. No one will see you!" said a sympathetic voice in her ear, and Hilary turned sharply to find that one end of the seat was already occupied by a gentleman, who was regarding her with a very kindly smile of understanding. His face was thin, and there were signs of suffering in the strained expression of the eyes, so that Hilary, looking at him, found it impossible to take his advice otherwise than in a friendly spirit.
"Th-ank you," she stammered, and pulling off the offending slippers, hid them swiftly behind the folds of the curtains, and seated herself on the sofa by his side.
"That's better!" cried the stranger, looking down with approving eyes at the little satin shoes which were now revealed. "Forgot to take them off, didn't you? Very natural. I did the same with snow-shoes once, and was in the room for half an hour before I discovered that I still had them on."
"But snow-shoes are black. They wouldn't look half so bad. I saw those ladies laughing at me. What must they have thought?"
"Do you think it matters very much what they thought?" The stranger turned his face towards Hilary, and smiled again in his slow, gentle manner. "Why trouble yourself about the opinion of people whom you don't know, and whom you will probably never see again? I suppose it is a matter of perfect indifference to them, but what I think about them is, that they were exceedingly ill-bred to behave as they did, and I should attach no value whatever to their opinions. Have you—er—lost sight of your friends?"
"No, they have lost sight of me." The stranger was at once so kind, and so sensible, that Hilary began to feel a delightful sense of restored equanimity, and even gave a little laugh of amusement as she spoke. "I came with my father, and he has gone off with some friends and forgotten all about my existence. He is over there at the end of the room; the tall man with the brown moustache—Mr Austin Bertrand."
The stranger gave a little jump in his seat, and the colour tinged his cheek. "Bertrand!" he exclaimed. "You are Bertrand's daughter!" He stared at Hilary with newly-awakened interest, while she smiled, well pleased by the sensation which the name caused.
"Yes; Austin Bertrand, the novelist. You know him, then? You are one of his friends?"
"Hardly that, I am afraid. I know him slightly, and he has been most kind to me when we have met, but I cannot claim him as a friend. I am one of his most ardent admirers."
"And do you write yourself?" queried Hilary, looking scrutinisingly at the sensitive, intellectual face, and anticipating the answer before it came.
"A little. Yes! It is my great consolation. My name is Herbert Rayner, Miss Bertrand. I may as well introduce myself as there is no one to do it for me. I suppose you have come up to town on a visit with your father. You have lived in the Lake district for the last few years, have you not? I envy you having such a lovely home."
Hilary elevated her eyebrows in doubtful fashion. "In summer it is perfectly delightful, but I don't like country places in winter. We are two miles from a village, and three miles from the nearest station, so you can imagine how quiet it is, when it gets dark soon after four o'clock, and the lanes are thick with snow. I was glad to come back to London for a change. This is the first grown-up party I have been to in my life."
Mr Rayner smiled a little, repeating her words and lingering with enjoyment on the childish expression. "The first party! Is it indeed? I only wish it were mine. I don't mean to pretend that I am bored by visiting, as is the fashionable position nowadays. I am too fond of seeing and studying my fellow-creatures for that ever to be possible, but a first experience of any kind has an interest which cannot be repeated. I am like you, I don't like winter. I feel half alive in cold weather, and would like to go to bed and stay there until it was warm again. There is no country in the world more charming than England for seven months of the year, and none so abominable for the remaining five. If it were not for my work I would always winter abroad, but I am obliged to be in the hum of things. How do you manage to amuse yourself in the Lakes?"
"We don't manage at all," said Hilary frankly. "At least, I mean we are very happy, of course, because there are so many of us, and we are always having fun and jokes among ourselves; but we have nothing in the way of regular entertainments, and it gets awfully dull. My sisters and I had a big grumbling festival on New Year's Day, and told all our woes to father. He was very kind, and said he would see what could be done, and that's why I came up to London—to give me a little change."
"I see!" Mr Rayner looked into the girl's face with a scrutinising look. "So you are dull and dissatisfied with your surroundings. That's a pity! You ought to be so happy, with such a father, brothers, and sisters around you, and youth, and health! It seems to me that you are very well off."
Hilary put up her chin with an air of offended dignity. For one moment she felt thoroughly annoyed, but the next, her heart softened, for it was impossible to be vexed with this interesting stranger, with his pathetic, pain-marked face. Why had he used that word "consolation" in reference to his work? And why did his voice take that plaintive note as he spoke of "youth and health"? "I shall ask father about him," said Hilary to herself; and just at that moment Mr Bertrand came rushing across the room with tardy remembrance.
"My dear child, I forgot all about you. Are you all right? Have you had some coffee? Have you found anyone to—er—" He turned a questioning glance upon the other occupant of the seat, knitted his brows for a second, and then held out his hand, with an exclamation of recognition. "Rayner! How are you? Glad to see you again. I was only talking of you to Moss the other day. That last thing of yours gave me great pleasure—very fine indeed. You are striding ahead! Come and lunch with me some day while I am in town. I should like to have a chat. Have you been making friends with my daughter? Much obliged to you for entertaining her, I have so many old friends here that I don't know which way to turn. Well, what day will you come? Will Tuesday suit? This is my present address, and my kind hostess allows me to ask what guests I will. There was something I had specially on my mind to ask you. Tuesday, then—half-past one! Good-bye till then. Hilary, I will look you up later on. Glad you are so well entertained." He was off again, flying across the room, scattering smiles and greetings as he went, while the two occupants of the corner seat exchanged glances of amusement.
"That's just like father. He gets so excited that he flies about all over the house, and hardly knows what he is doing."
"He is delightfully fresh and breezy; just like his books. And now you would like some refreshments. They are in the little room over there. I shall be happy to accompany you, if you will accept my somewhat—er— inefficient escort."
Hilary murmured some words of thanks, a good deal puzzled to understand the meaning of those last two words. Somewhat to her surprise, her new friend had not risen to talk to her father, and even now, as she stood up in response to his invitation, he remained in his seat, bending forward to grope behind the curtains. A moment later he drew forth something at the sight of which Hilary gave an involuntary exclamation of dismay. It was a pair of crutches; and as Mr Rayner placed one under each arm and rose painfully to his feet, a feeling of overpowering pity took possession of the girl's heart. Her eyes grew moist, and a cry of sympathy forced themselves from her trembling lips.
"Oh—I—I'm sorry!" she gasped, with something that was almost a sob of emotion, and Mr Rayner winced at the sound as with sudden pain.
"Thank you," he said shortly. "You are very kind. I'm—I'm used to it, you know. This way, please." And without another word he led the way towards the refreshment room, while Hilary followed, abashed and sorrowful.
AN "AT HOME."
Hilary asked her father many questions about the new acquaintance, and took great interest in what he had to tell.
"Clever fellow, clever fellow; one of the most promising of the younger men. I expect great things of him. Yes, lame, poor fellow! a terrible pity! Paralysis of the lower limbs, I hear. He can never be better, though I believe there is no reason why he should get worse. It's a sad handicap to such a young man, and, of course, it gives a melancholy cast to his mind. It was kind of him to entertain you so nicely—very kind indeed."
Hilary gave her head a little tilt of displeasure. Why should it be "kind" of Mr Rayner to talk to her? Father seemed to think she was a stupid little girl, on whom no grown-up person would care to waste their time; but Mr Rayner had not seemed at all bored by her conversation, and when some friends had tried to take him away, he had excused himself, and preferred to remain in the quiet corner.
When Tuesday came, and Mr Rayner arrived, Mr Bertrand was busy writing, and despatched his daughter to amuse his guest until he should have finished his letters. "Tell him I won't be more than ten minutes; and he must excuse me, like a good fellow, for I am obliged to catch this post," he said, and Hilary went into the long drawing-room, to find her new friend seated on the couch, with his crutches by his side. He was looking better than when she had seen him last, and had a mischievous smile on his face.
"Good morning, Miss Two Shoes!" he cried, and Hilary gave a little start of consternation.
"Oh, h-ush! They don't know—I didn't tell them. Miss Carr would never stop talking about it, and father would tease me to death. I only said that I had forgotten to put the slippers on coming home, which was quite true. It was rather awkward, for they belonged to Miss Carr. She insisted on lending them to me at the last moment. The servants would be surprised when they found them behind the curtains the next morning, wouldn't they?"
"They would!" said Mr Rayner drily, and there was a peculiar smile upon his face which Hilary could not understand. "So they were not yours, after all. I thought the size seemed rather—excessive! I promise not to betray you if you would rather keep the secret, but if the story gave as much pleasure to your father as it has done to me, it seems rather selfish to keep it from him. I have had the heartiest laughs I have known for months past, thinking of the tragic incident of the scarlet slippers!"
"Please don't!" said Hilary; but she laughed as she spoke, and so far from being offended, was quite thankful to hear that she had been the means of giving some amusement to the new friend. "I have been hearing all about you from father," she continued, nodding her head at him cheerily. "He has promised to give me one of your books to read when we get back to Clearwater. Will you please write your name in my autograph book? I brought it downstairs on purpose. There are pens and ink on this little table."
Mr Rayner smiled, but made no objections. He took a very long time over the signature, however, and when Hilary took up the book, she saw that each leg of the H ended in the shape of a dainty little shoe, so finely done that it would probably escape the notice of anyone who was not critically inclined.
"Too bad," she cried laughingly; "I am afraid you are going to be as persistent as father in keeping up the joke."
"They are the proper slippers, you observe—not the woollen atrocities," replied Mr Rayner; and Hilary was still rejoicing in the discovery that he could be mischievous like other people, when the door opened, and her father came rushing into the room.
Luncheon was served immediately afterwards, and when it was over, Mr Bertrand carried off the young man to have a private talk in the library. They did not make their appearance until the afternoon was well advanced, and when they did, the drawing-room was full of people, for it was Miss Carr's "At home" day, and the presence of Austin Bertrand, the celebrated novelist, brought together even more visitors than usual.
Hilary had not found the entertainment at all amusing. It seemed absurd to her innocent mind that people should come to see Miss Carr, and exchange no further word with her than "How d'you do," and "Good-bye," and though the hum of conversation filled the room, most of the visitors were too old and too grand to take any notice of a girl just out of the schoolroom. A few young girls accompanied their mothers, but though they eyed Hilary wistfully, they would not speak without the introduction which Miss Carr was too busy to give. One girl, however, stared more persistently than the rest, and Hilary returned her scrutiny with puzzled curiosity. She was a tall, elegant girl, but there was something in the wavy line of the eyebrows which seemed strangely familiar, and she had a peculiar way of drawing in her lips, which brought back a hundred misty recollections. Where had she seen that face before? Hilary asked herself, staring fixedly at the stranger. The stranger began to smile; a flash of recollection passed across each face, and the next moment they were clasping hands, and exclaiming in mutual recognition—
"The idea of meeting you here! I haven't seen you since we were tiny little dots at school. I thought you lived ever so far away—up in the North of England."
"So we do; but we are here on a visit. Madge! how grown-up you are! You are only six months older than I, but you look ever so much more than that. How are you, and what are you doing, and how are all your brothers and sisters? Lettice will be so interested to know I have seen you."
"Dear Lettice, yes! She was a nice girl. So affectionate, wasn't she? I should like to see her again. Perhaps I may, for father has taken a house at Windermere for next summer, and if you are not far away, we could often meet and go excursions together."
"Oh, how lovely! We are three miles from Windermere station, but we have a pony carriage and bicycles, and could drive over to see you. Do sit down, Madge. I don't know anyone here, and it is so dull sitting by myself in a corner."
"I am afraid I can't. I am with mother, you see, and she doesn't like to be left alone. Perhaps I shall see you again before I go!" And Madge Newcome nodded, and strolled off in a careless, indifferent manner which brought the blood to Hilary's face. Mrs Newcome was talking to a group of friends and looked very well satisfied, so much so that Hilary suspected that the daughter's anxiety had been more for herself than her mother, and that Miss Madge did not appreciate the attractions of sitting in a quiet corner.
"It's very unkind, when I told her I knew nobody; but she was a selfish girl at school. She doesn't want to stay with me, that's the truth. I wish this horrid afternoon would come to an end!" she told herself dolefully, and it was with unconcealed delight that at last she heard the sound of Mr Rayner's crutches, and welcomed that gentleman to a seat by her side. He looked brighter than she had yet seen him, and had evidently been enjoying himself upstairs.
"Well," he said cheerily, "here you are in the midst of the merry throng! Have you had a pleasant time? Not! Why, how's that? I thought you enjoyed seeing a crowd of people."
"I thought I did, but I find I don't like it so much as I expected," said Hilary dejectedly. "When people are talking and laughing all round, and I am left to keep myself company in a corner, it isn't at all amusing. I suppose there are a great many celebrated people here, but I don't know one from the other, so I am no wiser."
"Never mind, I know them all. We will sit here quietly, and when anyone interesting comes along, I will let you know. Your father has been so kind to me, and has encouraged me until I feel as strong as a giant, and greedy for work. He has asked me to come down to the Lakes to visit you some time in spring, so I may see you again before long. Now then! one of those ladies over there on the sofa is the Duchess of M—-. Guess which of the three she is!"
"Oh, I know; the pretty one, of course, with the blue dress, and the bonnet with the cream lace."
"Wrong! Guess again."
"The dark one with the beaded cape!"
"Wrong again! It is the grey-haired lady in the corner."
Hilary gasped, and stared aghast at the stout, shabby lady, who looked everything that was motherly and pleasant, but as different as possible from her ideas of what a duchess ought to be. Then Mr Rayner went on to point out a poet, a painter of celebrated pictures, and half-a-dozen men and women whose names the girl had known from her youth, but who all seemed terribly disappointing in reality. She expressed her opinions in a candid manner, which seemed vastly to amuse her hearer, and they were so merry together that Hilary saw many envious glances directed towards their corner, and realised that other people were envying her in their turn. Madge Newcome came up to say good-bye, before leaving, and elevated her eyebrows in a meaning manner towards Mr Rayner.
"You seem to be having a pleasant time. I think Mr Rayner has such an interesting face, but people say he is so stiff and reserved that it is impossible to know him."
"He is not reserved to me!" said Hilary consequentially. She had not forgiven Madge Newcome for her desertion an hour earlier, and shook hands with an air of dignified reserve.
A PAINFUL AWAKENING.
A fortnight in London passes quickly enough; but the time seems much longer to the friends who are left at home, and who have no variety in the quiet course of their lives. Half-a-dozen times a day Lettice and Norah said to each other, "What will Hilary be doing now?" And when a letter came, telling the plans of the next few days, they followed her movements hour by hour, telling each other, "Now she will be driving into town!" "Now she will be looking at the pictures!" "Now she will be dressing for the evening!" When the day of the traveller's return arrived, there was quite a bustle of excitement in the home. Lettice ordered Hilary's favourite puddings for dinner, Norah gave the drawing- room a second dusting in the afternoon, while Miss Briggs put on her cap with the pink ribbons, and dressed Geraldine in her best frock. They were all in the hall, ready to receive the travellers, as the fly from the station drove up to the door, and while Mr Bertrand stayed without to pay the driver, Hilary lost no time in hurrying indoors. Within the first two minutes the sisters noticed a change in her manner. Her voice seemed to have a new tone; when Miss Briggs held out a welcoming hand, she extended her own at an elevation which made the good lady stare, and even while kissing the girls, her eyes were roving round the hall with an expression of dissatisfaction.