THE CARROLL GIRLS.
Up and down, to and fro, backwards and for wards over the sunny garden the butterflies, white, sulphur, and brown, flitted and fluttered, lightly poising on currant-bush or flower, loving life as they basked in the sunshine; and Penelope lay and watched them. What did it matter to them that the garden was neglected, the grass rank and uncut, the currant-bushes barren from neglect, the lilacs old and blossomless? It mattered no more to them than it did to Penelope, lying so lazy and happy in the coarse grass.
Penelope had never known the garden other than it was now, except, perhaps, at very far-distant intervals when a visitor was expected— usually Aunt Julia, when a shilling or so had to be found to pay a gardener to come and 'tidy up.' She herself was always better pleased when he did not come, for almost invariably he charged too much, or Lydia said he did, and would tell him of it, not too politely, and tell her mistress that she was encouraging robbery; and Mrs. Carroll—who would far rather pay too much and hear no more about it than be bothered—would be worried, and Lydia would be cross; and to Penelope it seemed a pity to be made so uncomfortable for the sake of sixpence or a shilling. She could not bear jars and discords. These, though, were troubles that occurred but seldom to ruffle the surface of her usually happy life. As a rule, like the butterflies, she saw only the sunshine, and the green things growing, and nothing of the sordidness and neglect of everything about her. If she did, if things jarred or fretted her, she just walked away, far out into the country and the woods where everything was peaceful, and nothing seemed to matter; and out there she would very soon recover again and become her old happy self.
There were three other Carroll children—Esther, the eldest, Angela, and Poppy, the baby of them all. Penelope was the second, aged nearly twelve.
"Four girls! isn't it dreadful?" Esther sometimes sighed. "But there, I suppose it is better than some of us being boys, for now we can hand our clothes down from one to the other, and if we couldn't I am afraid the younger ones would often have to go without."
In the thirteen short years of her life poor Esther had grown to know all the shifts and economies and discomforts of poverty only too well. She had seen, so to speak, the rise and fall of her family, and at last had become almost the only prop which kept it from falling altogether. She could remember when the house was always full of company and life and laughter, when her mother always wore pretty frocks and beautiful jewels, and drove everywhere in their own carriage. She could remember gay dinner-parties, when she used to creep out of bed and sit on the stairs to listen to the singing in the drawing-room.
The scent of certain flowers still brought back the memory of those days, when she and Penelope used to go down in their prettiest frocks to dessert, and were given dainty sweets and fruits, and were made much of.
Then there came a dark time when, although she was so young, she felt vaguely that there was trouble overshadowing them, and saw it, too, reflected in her father's face; and the darkest day of all was when Grandpa Carroll came, and with scarcely a word or a glance for the children, went at once to the library with her father, and departed again that same night, leaving gloom and misery behind him. All the rest of the day, she remembered, her father remained shut up in the library, and her mother locked herself, weeping, in her bedroom; and Esther and Penelope went to bed that night without any good-night kiss from either; and worse than that, Esther heard nurse and Jane, the housemaid, talking in low, mysterious tones, and knew that they were talking of her parents' and their affairs; and, as any child would, bitterly resented it.
"Why don't you go downstairs, Jane?" she said at last, when she could endure it no longer; "you know mother doesn't allow gossiping in the nursery."
But she had only a shaking from nurse, and a rude answer from Jane, which made her anger burn hotter than ever. She lay awake a long time that night, trying to make sense of what they had been saying, but it was not until years later that she really understood.
The next day Jane had had a month's notice given her, not because she gossiped in the nursery, or was rude to Esther—Esther never told tales about the servants—but because Mr. Carroll said briefly that they must manage with fewer servants and cut down all expenses. For that same reason the children's pony was taken away and sold a few days later, and from that time it seemed to Esther it had been nothing but cutting down and giving up and doing with less and less. It was only a few months after the pony was sold that Poppy was born, and soon after that they left their old home and went to live in a little house where they had no library and no nursery, and no stables or horses, and the children had to play in the dining-room; and Esther's chief recollection of this time was her constant struggle to prevent Penelope and Angela and the new baby from crying or making too much noise, for she knew by the frown on her father's face that he was worried and bothered by it, and she could not bear to see him looking gloomy, or to hear the children scolded.
Having no nursery they had no nurse—no real nurse; they had a 'cook-general' and a 'nurse-housemaid' as the advertisements put it, and, in common with most persons who profess to be able to 'turn their hands to anything,' they could do few things, and nothing well. So it fell to Esther and her mother to take care of the babies, and as Mrs. Carroll had not yet learnt to take care of herself even, a very heavy burden rested on little serious-faced Esther.
It was better when the summer came, though, for then the family made another move. True it was to a yet smaller house, and more things had to be given up; but the smaller house was in a little village called Framley, and the little village had woods lying behind it, and here was nursery large enough for any number of children to laugh in or cry to their hearts' content, without disturbing any one; and Esther's heart was relieved of one big worry, and the children soon learnt to laugh a again, and play, and make as much noise as their hearts desired.
Summer, though, cannot last for ever, and woods do not make an ideal nursery in winter. The perplexed frown was beginning to pucker Esther's brow again when once more they were called on to relinquish something. The nurse-housemaid had to be sent away, and they had to learn how to manage with one servant; and it was just about that time that she heard her father say one day, "It will really be easier for you, dear, when I am gone," at which her mother burst into tears and wailed something Esther could not quite understand, about being left to bear all the worries alone. "It is much worse for those who are left than for those who go," she cried.
"But you will have the children," Mr. Carroll said sadly.
"Yes, four of them to feed and bring up on two hundred a year, and only one servant to help me. I don't know how any one can expect me to do it. I've not had a new gown myself for nearly a year."
"It shall not be for long, dear, if I can help it," her husband had said, very patiently. "As soon as possible I will send for you and the children. But it is no use to take you all out until I have a home of some sort ready for you; it would be greater misery than this."
But Mrs. Carroll had only wept more and more, until the children began to weep too, though they did not know for what.
Soon after that there had been a great deal of upset and excitement in the house: big boxes stood about on the landing, and the children were told that daddy was packing—he was going away to Canada, where they were all to join him soon. For a few days this news filled them with a pleasant excitement, and for months after their father had gone Esther and Penelope talked and talked of what they would do when they got to Canada, and Penelope dragged out an old trunk and began to pack a curious assortment of things that she thought peculiarly suitable for that country. But as time went on she found she needed the things, and by degrees the thought of Canada became dim, and of no immediate interest to them. They were excited at first when their father's letters came because they thought each one would bring the longed-for summons; then they grew almost to dread them, for their mother always broke out into tears and wailings on reading them, finally locking herself in her room for the rest of the day, and the children were left to themselves to try to throw off the load of oppression and wretchedness which weighed on them even while they played. The memory of the wretchedness of those days remained with them to the end of their lives.
Two, three, four years passed by, and gradually they forgot Canada, and Mrs. Carroll ceased to weep on receipt of a letter from her husband; but whether it was that she grew more used to her trouble, or that the news was better, the children did not know, though Esther often longed to.
So things were on that sunny May day when Penelope lay dreaming and watching the butterflies in the neglected garden, and Esther made a milk pudding in the kitchen, and the two younger children played about the house, while nearer and nearer came the postman bearing the letter that was to alter all their lives for them.
Esther had just finished making her pudding, and Poppy had that moment succeeded in inveigling Angela into the cupboard under the stairs and turning the key on her, when footsteps came up the path, a letter dropped in through the letter-box, and a postman's rat-tat sounded to the furthermost corner of the little house.
The post was the principal excitement of the day to the little Carrolls, and there was usually a race to the door to try to be first to seize the letters. This time Poppy had a clear start, for Esther was in the kitchen, and Angela was safely under lock and key.
"A letter from daddy," she shouted, recognising the stamp; and in she flew with it to her mother.
Mrs. Carroll, roused from her reading, laid aside her novel and bottle of smelling-salts to take the letter. Having secured and handed over the prize, Poppy danced off again. She was far more interested, at that moment, in her prisoner, whose kicks on the door and screams of rage had brought Esther to her rescue.
Esther, having released one sister, strolled wearily out into the garden to seek another and a little rest. She was very tired and very depressed; but the garden did not look inviting when she got there.
"How can you like this untidy old place?" she cried, as she made her way through the long rank grass.
"Oh, Esther, come gently, do! Look, oh do look at that lovely dragon-fly! Did you ever see such a beauty? Don't disturb him. Oh, do be careful!"
But Esther looked with only half-interest at the gorgeous insect; then, turning away a little impatiently, "I don't know how you can be out here so much and not try to make it a little tidier," she said vexedly. "I only wish I had a machine, or shears or something, and more time, and I would do something to it."
Esther was by nature a very neat and dainty little person, with none of Penelope's dreamy indifference to her surroundings. The untidy garden with its air of neglect would have been irritating to her if it had belonged to some one else, but being their own, and feeling responsible for it, it vexed her so she could hardly endure to stay in it. If the others could have had their way, they would have had all their meals out there, but not so Esther; the sight of the poor neglected spot would have quite destroyed her appetite, though no one loved having meals out-of-doors better than she did. She often took the children to tea in the woods, but that was different; the woods were always lovely, and just what they should be.
Esther's earlier years had given her a brief experience of how things should be done, and how they should look, and she had never forgotten; Penelope, on the other hand, had forgotten, or never noticed Angela and Poppy, fired by Esther's example, had spasmodic passions for improving the house or garden, during which every one suffered more or less, and they themselves were exhausted long before the huge tasks they had undertaken were half completed.
So here and there the garden showed cleared and scarred patches where the children had 'worked,' which meant that they had begun to 'tidy' by pulling up everything that grew, after which they would scrape the bed over with a rake and replace in a prim row as many of the plants as they could get in, and a day or two later the eye would be caught by a square of brown earth, broken by a row of sorry-looking dead or dying plants standing conspicuous and solitary against the wild, untrained vegetation round about, while a later search would perhaps reveal, under the tangled litter in the path, one of the best dinner-knives, covered with rust, and other lost treasures, such as a trowel, scissors, and occasionally a silver fork.
To Esther these attempts were merely depressing and irritating; they seemed only to emphasise their helplessness, and the uselessness of trying to make things better.
"Nothing is right here, somehow," she complained to Penelope now, "neither the house, nor the garden, nor ourselves. Look at us!" throwing out her hands dramatically. "We aren't educated, or dressed properly, or—or anything. Look at that," stretching out her foot, and eyeing disdainfully the clumsy shoe which disfigured it. "We aren't fit to go anywhere, and we can't ask any one here because the house is never fit to be seen, or the meals, or—"
"Never mind," said Penelope placidly. She was used to Esther's outbursts, but, though quite unable to sympathise, she was ready with attempts at comfort. "You don't want to know any one but ourselves, do you? I don't."
"No-o," admitted Esther. "But we ought to. It—well, it is always supposed to be right. We shall grow up like savages, Aunt Julia says, and not be fit to talk to any one or go anywhere, and we shan't have any friends; and every one ought to make nice friends; it looks so bad if one has none—"
"Miss Esther! Miss Esther!" called a sharp voice from the kitchen door. "You must all come in at once. Your ma wants you immejutly—all of you."
Esther rose, a little anxious pucker gathering on her brow as she remembered the Canadian letter.
"Come along, Pen," she said impatiently. "I wonder what it is. Bad news from father, I expect."
"P'r'aps it's good news," said Penelope hopefully, rising with a sigh of regret at having to leave her nest and the sunshine and the butterflies. Somehow, though, she did not really expect any such thing. "P'r'aps we are to go, at last. Oh," with sudden excitement, "wouldn't it be perfectly lovely! Oh, Essie, wouldn't it be splendid! Do let's run in and see if that is what it is mother wants us for."
"Children, do make haste! How long you do take coming when I send for you! And I've had such news I am really quite bewildered, and haven't a moment to spare. All my plans are changed in a minute, and I can hardly realise all I have to do. I have heard from your father. He wants me to come out to him, and I am going, at once; of course, I must go. I couldn't refuse to, and—you must all go to live with your Aunt Julia. I know you don't like her—and it is very naughty and ungrateful of you— but I can't do anything else, and you must make up your minds to behave."
Mrs. Carroll paused at last from want of breath, and the children gasped in sympathy.
They had barely entered the dining-room when this cataract of speech was turned on them by their mother, with every appearance of excitement and gratification. All her usual melancholy apathy was thrown aside; her face was alight with pleasure, her eyes bright with excitement. Mrs. Carroll loved to be the bearer of startling news, to spring a surprise on people— just as she loved to have a pleasant one sprung on herself. She adored excitement, and under its influence saw nothing but the one thing that appealed to her at the moment.
Now, after hastily scanning her husband's letter, she grasped the one fact that he thought she might come out to him very soon. What the change might mean to others, never occurred to her; that it might be for the worse, never entered her head. She saw simply a chance of a change, an escape from the monotony and sordidness of her present life. She would have a new outfit, and travel, and meet new people, and escape from that dreadful little cheap house and dull village, not to speak of other tiresome things which had been thrusting themselves on her attention for a long time, but had been put aside and aside for consideration 'some day.'
The children stood just within the door, startled and bewildered—too bewildered for the moment to move or speak. "Going away!" they gasped at last, "and—and we are to be left behind! Oh, mother, you can't mean it!"
They loved their careless, easy-going mother very dearly, and, in spite of her neglect of them were, as a rule, very happy. She was the one person in the world, too, that they knew well and were accustomed to; and to be thus suddenly bereft of her and left entirely to strangers, or worse, was a prospect too appalling almost to be credited. In spite of her neglect they loved her; in fact it was only as they grew older that they realised that she did neglect them, or was not to them all she might have been. Esther was beginning to realise it; but Esther, in spite of her odd, sharp temper and reserved manner, had a great love for her mother; she loved her so much that she wanted her to be different, to be more what the ideal mother was—such a one as she had read of in books.
"Oh, mother, you aren't really going away, and going to leave us!" cried Angela again. "Mother, you can't! We can't be left!" At the thought of it Poppy began to cry.
"Yes, your father wants me to come, and I must go as soon as I can make arrangements. Of course I can't take you all with me, so I am going to ask your Aunt Julia to let you go and live with her."
What Esther had been on the point of saying, was never said—her mother's apparent indifference to their separation hurt her too deeply. "Oh, then, Aunt Julia does not know it yet?" she remarked shrewdly.
"No, your father has left all the arrangements to me to make, and I am to come as soon as I like; so, as I see no use in delaying, I shall try to get away as soon as I possibly can."
Mrs. Carroll's brain could work very quickly under certain circumstances. Now, though only a few moments had elapsed since the momentous letter had arrived, she had formed plans innumerable, to be carried out at once in spite of all obstacles. She would give Lydia a month's notice this very day, and the landlord notice that she was going to leave the house, and her sister Julia that she was about to send the four children to take up their abode with her at once—she would feel so much freer when they were settled, and she was alone.
"But perhaps Aunt Julia will not have us," said Penelope, joyfully clutching at the hope. They none of them loved their Aunt Julia. Not to be going to Canada was bad enough, but to have to go and live with Aunt Julia, for no one knew how long, was too dreadful to contemplate.
"Oh, mother, don't send us to her, do take us with you, mother dear," pleaded Angela tearfully. "Doesn't father say we are to come? I am sure he wants us too."
"Don't bother me now, child," said Mrs. Carroll, not crossly, but with a distracted air, pushing aside Angela's clinging, eager arms. "I've got more than enough to think of as it is. Of course you can't go now."
"Why, mother? Can't we afford it?" asked straightforward Penelope.
"Oh, do be quiet. Don't bother any more," cried Esther bitterly. "Don't you see that mother doesn't want us, and Aunt Julia won't want us— nobody wants us." And in a tumult of pain and anger she flung herself out of the room to hide the tears that made her eyes smart and tingle.
"I really think your Aunt Julia would refuse to have Esther if she knew how bad her temper has become," said Mrs. Carroll with a sigh. "She seems quite to have forgotten the respect due to her mother, and to think I may be spoken to in any way she chooses. I am sure no other mother would endure such behaviour from their children as I have to."
"Esther didn't mean to be rude, mother," pleaded Penelope. "I expect she is upset 'cause daddy didn't send for us too. He said he would, you know, and we always thought we should go too when you went. It is an awful disappointment," sadly.
"Mother," pleaded Angela wistfully, "it isn't true what Esther said, is it? You do want us, don't you?"
"I certainly do not want children with me who don't know how to behave," said Mrs. Carroll in a quick, reproving tone, never dreaming of the love and longing in the child's heart. A few words of explanation, of love, and sorrow for the parting, of hope of a speedy reuniting would have relieved all their young hearts of a load, would have banished that chilling feeling of being unloved, unwanted, would have filled them with hope and patience, and have bound their young hearts to their absent parents for ever. Instead of which they felt rebuffed and unloved, they were turned in on themselves, until such time as some other love should warm their chilled hearts and expand their natures, and a stranger, maybe, should mean more to them than a parent.
Of all the little brood Angela was the most affectionate, the most clinging little home-bird. She loved her mother passionately, and her home too, in spite of its unattractiveness, for the flaws she saw in persons or things only made her love with a deeper, more sympathetic desire to help. It was always to the most unlovable and unattractive that Angela's heart went out. If people or animals had no one else to care for them, she felt they might be glad of her.
She turned away from her mother with a little sigh. She did not blame her for her want of feeling, she only winced as at a new revelation of her own unlovableness.
Poppy, who all this while had been standing mute and considering, was at that moment struck by an inspiriting idea.
"But, mother," she said gravely, "if we don't know how to behave properly Aunt Julia won't want us either, and then what shall we do! You will have to take us with you," with rising hope in her voice, "and I am sure daddy would be glad, and I do want to go in the big ship and see daddy," with a deep sigh. "Oh, I do," pathetically, "want to see daddy, so badly."
"Don't talk nonsense, child. You can't remember your father. Why should you want to see him?"
"I do. I want to see what he is like. Esther remembers him, and she wants to see him too. Do take us with you, mother. We'll be—oh, ever so good. I don't like Aunt Julia; she is always cross, and I don't like cross people."
Poppy had no fear or awe of any one. Every one but Aunt Julia had loved her always, and done their best to make her happy, even cross Lydia, and she in return rewarded them by a placid, sweet acceptance of their efforts, and allowing them to love her.
"Mother," burst out Penelope eagerly, "couldn't we all go to boarding-school while you are away? It would be jolly, and ever so much nicer than living with Aunt Julia. I know we shall always be getting into scrapes if we go to her, and no one could please her, Lydia said so."
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Carroll warmly, "Lydia is a very rude girl to speak so of a lady, and my sister, and if I were remaining here I should not allow you all to go into the kitchen so much. It will be very good for you to try to please your aunt. Children don't know what is best for them, and—and they should learn to consider others before themselves."
A grown-up observer might have smiled satirically at Mrs. Carroll's theories, so easily preached, so neglected in practice.
"Now run away. I have so much to think of, my poor head is quite bewildered. I think I must have a cup of tea at once—will you tell Esther or Lydia to make it for me—or I shall have a dreadful headache, and I must think out what outfit I shall require, or it will never be ready in time, and I must try to let the house, or we shall have to pay another quarter's rent, and there is the furniture to get rid of and—oh dear, oh dear, my poor head feels quite bewildered already; however shall I manage it all, and by myself too! It is really too much to face alone—now, children, don't make a noise or you will drive me distracted."
Without another word the three walked away in search of Esther, and to talk over the dreadful and bewildering change the last hour had wrought in their outlook; but Esther, sitting white-faced and angry-eyed on her bed, could not be brought to discuss anything. She was bitterly disappointed not to be going to Canada, furiously angry at having to go to Aunt Julia, who treated them all invariably as though they were naughty or going to be naughty, cruelly hurt that her mother showed so little feeling at being parted from them all, and, curiously, full of pain at the thought of parting from that mother.
Poor Esther could not see, of course, that this same parting was really for her good; that there, under the strain and discord of her home she was allowing herself to become irritable and captious, despondent and sharp-tongued. She knew she always felt cross and injured and sore, but she never set herself to face the reason and combat it.
Two days later a reply came from Miss Julia Foster, and a frown sat heavily on Mrs. Carroll's brow. Aunt Julia firmly refused to take over at a moment's notice the burden her sister was so calmly laying on her shoulders.
"People who have children must expect to give up something for them," she wrote. "You really must not expect to throw off your responsibilities in this way. It is your duty to stay with them if you cannot take them with you. I observe you say nothing as to the provision you are prepared to make for their board and clothing and education. I presume you don't expect me to take over the responsibility of providing all that too."
Miss Foster wrote as she talked, very candidly.
Mrs. Carroll's face flushed with anger and annoyance.
"Julia never would do anything to oblige any one," she said sharply. "She has always been the same. I only wonder I thought of asking her."
It never occurred to her to think what it would mean to a person unaccustomed to children to have four suddenly introduced into a quiet home hitherto occupied only by one very prim and particular lady and two equally prim servants, who did not know what real work was.
Miss Foster's first thought had been: "Neither of the maids would stay," and she could not contemplate the terrors of changing. Her second thought, "Who is to provide for the children?" She felt quite certain that that important point had never entered into their mother's calculations, and she felt distinctly annoyed with her sister for the abrupt and casual way in which she threw such a great responsibility on others' shoulders, and in her letter she made her feelings plain.
For a few moments Mrs. Carroll sat considering. One by one all her relations and friends were passed in review before her mind's eye. "There seems," she said at last in a musing tone, "no one but Cousin Charlotte. I wonder—"
There was not much doubt as to what Mrs. Carroll was wondering. Her face lightened, determination shone in her eye.
"Cousin Charlotte," or Miss Charlotte Ashe, was a cousin of Mrs. Carroll's mother. In her earlier years she had kept a girls' school in London, but when she found herself growing old she sold it, and retired to a little house in her native village in Devonshire. Schoolmistresses do not, as a rule, grow rich, and Miss Ashe was the last person to save money for herself while there was any one else wanting it; she managed, however, to save enough to keep herself, and Anna, her former cook, in their little house in comfort, and put a trifle by for an emergency.
It was to this quiet, modest little home that Mrs. Carroll's thoughts now flew, without the slightest feeling of compunction at invading it, as she meant it to be invaded. Her letter to Miss Ashe was a masterpiece of pathetic pleading. Miss Charlotte read it with tears of pity for the poor mother, reduced from affluence and luxury to poverty and the position of an emigrant's wife torn from her children by stress of circumstance. Then she read it again to Anna, and Anna's eyes filled too; but it was for the children that Anna wept. Both kind hearts agreed, though, that they could not refuse to give the homeless ones a home; and a letter was despatched at once, full of warm hospitality and affection, and almost before it was posted a perfect fury of cleaning, planning, rearranging burst over Moor Cottage, in preparation for the four new inhabitants.
"Children," cried Mrs. Carroll delightedly, when the letter arrived, "your dear Cousin Charlotte is quite anxious to have you in her charming little home in Devonshire. I know you will be happy there, she is so sweet and kind. I was always very fond of her, and so will you be, I know; and you must do all you can to help her, and not be too troublesome. She says she can have you at any time, so I think you really had better go as soon as I can get you ready. I shall be able to see to things better, and pay a few farewell visits, when I am quite free. It will be a great relief to know you are comfortably settled."
Esther listened in silence. She was terribly sensitive. She was interested, but troubled. Did Cousin Charlotte really want them, she wondered, "or had mother forced them on her?"
Penelope knew no qualms; she simply danced with delight at the thought of going to Devonshire, and to live on a moor. "I always wanted to go there," she cried. "I know I shall love it."
Angela wept quietly at the thought of leaving Framley, and her mother, and the house and the woods. Poppy stood gazing eagerly from one to the other, prepared to do whatever her sisters did, but puzzled to know which to copy.
"Cousin Charlotte will want a big house," she remarked gravely, "if she has all of us to live with her. I wonder if she is glad we are coming—or sorry," she added as an afterthought.
"What about our clothes and food, and everything," asked Esther presently, nervously summoning up courage to put the great question that had troubled her most ever since the move was first mooted. She knew from bitter experience that the very last person to trouble about such details was her mother.
"Really, Esther, you are very inquisitive and interfering," said Mrs. Carroll, deeply annoyed because the question was one of the most embarrassing that could have been put to her. "Who do you consider is the right person to attend to such matters, myself or yourself?"
Esther sighed, but made no answer. She had no doubt as to who was the right person, her doubt was as to the right person's doing it. The matter, though, was too important for her to be easily daunted. She felt she must know, or she could not go.
"And—and what about our education?" she asked. She meant so well, but she spoke in that sullen, aggressive tone that always put her in the wrong and made her mother angry. It was purely the result of nervousness. She did so hate to have to be disagreeable and say these things, making herself seem so forward and important, when she really felt just the reverse. There was no one else though to do it, so she had to. "Is there a school there? We all ought to go to school now, even Poppy. I am thirteen, and—and I don't know as much as the village children, and I—I'm ashamed to go anywhere or meet any one. Every one sees how stupid and ignorant we are." A great sob clutched her throat and choked the rest of her words, tears of mortification and bitterness filled her eyes. She was painfully conscious of her own ignorance, and had an exaggerated idea of the contempt others must feel for her. "And some day the others would come to feel the same," she told herself resentfully, "if nothing was done for them. It was cruel. No one seemed to care for them, or how they grew up."
And then again, she would hate herself for her bad temper, and the nasty things she said. She knew she was making herself unlovable, and she did so long for love.
Mrs. Carroll looked somewhat taken aback at this new question. "Oh," she stammered, "I suppose I must arrange something. I must talk to your father about it when I get out to him. In the meantime I daresay Cousin Charlotte will be able to help you a little with a few lessons. She has been a schoolmistress all her life; she had a splendid school— such nice girls, too. She must miss them so. She will probably be quite glad to do a little teaching."
"I wonder what she will think of us," said Esther, "if she has been accustomed to well-brought-up girls."
"Well," cried Mrs. Carroll, turning on her sharply, "surely if you are so anxious to learn, you might have been studying by yourself all this time. I am sure there are books enough in the house, and you knew there was no money to spare for education."
"Yes, there are books," said Esther quietly. "Father's books that he brought from Oxford, but I can't understand them. It is books for quite little children that I want," her face flushing hotly.
"Well, I daresay Cousin Charlotte will have loads of old school-books, and—and well, at any rate, Esther," reproachfully, "you know how to read and write, and you might have been teaching Angela and Poppy to do so, you really might have done that."
"I have," said Esther.
"Oh, well, that is something. When one can read there is no excuse for ignorance in a place where there are books. There are lots of people who have set to work and taught themselves when they have been too poor to go to school, and have done—oh, marvels!" responded Mrs. Carroll, relieving herself of any feeling of self-reproach. Because a few rare geniuses had done so, by facing difficulties and self-sacrifices such as she could not even imagine, she felt there was nothing to prevent every ordinary child from pursuing the same course.
Esther said no more; a sense of hopelessness and helplessness seized her— a feeling common to most who had to do with Mrs. Carroll, but Esther, as yet, did not know that. She walked away out of the room and the house— she felt she must get away somewhere by herself.
She hurried on quickly till she came to the woods. There, at any rate, there was peace and rest, and no bickerings. "But oh," she thought, as she flung herself down on the soft, springy pine-needles which lay so thickly everywhere, "what shall I do when I haven't the woods to come to?" and she put out her hand and patted tenderly the rough trunk of the nearest pine-tree.
Half an hour later she rose as bewildered and vexed as ever. Her thoughts had led her nowhere; instead of finding some way to surmount her troubles, she had just brooded and brooded, and nursed her grievances until they were larger than ever. She could not go home yet, she felt too depressed and miserable, so she wandered on and on.
In one little hollow in the woods was a spot they called their 'house,' where they spent long days playing all sorts of lovely games, and very often, when their mother or Lydia wanted to have a free day, they had their dinner and tea there too. Making for this place now, Esther came upon Penelope perched in the forked trunk of an old tree, a book in her hand. She was so absorbed she gave quite a start when Esther called to her, "What are you doing, Pen?"
Penelope had a deep pucker in her forehead and a very grave face. "I am trying to educate myself," she said soberly. "I thought if I could learn even only a little before I went to Cousin Charlotte's it would not seem so bad. But I don't seem able to get on very well. I can't quite make out what it is all about, and the words are very long. I thought I'd try though. I only wish I'd thought of it sooner."
Esther felt a twinge of shame. She had thought of it, but she had done nothing, and her inmost conscience told her she might have spent her time more profitably than she had. "If we were not going away, Pen," she said enthusiastically, "we would have lessons here every day. P'r'aps if we kept on at it we might get to understand better, and we might get some nice books in time. But," hopelessly, "it is too late now."
"Oh, I don't think so," said Penelope encouragingly. "It can never be too late to learn things, and p'r'aps we can make up for lost time. At any rate, let's try."
"Very well, we'll begin now. Shall we start together? What book are you reading?"
"It is called The Invasion of the Crimea" said Penelope slowly. "I think it will be very interesting—further on."
"I wonder what the Crimea was," mused Esther.
"If we read very carefully perhaps we shall find out. There seems to be a lot about soldiers and battles."
"I wonder," said Esther, after a moment's thought, "if it will be any good our reading all this. Don't you think we ought to learn something that people talk about every day?"
Penelope looked a little disappointed. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I don't know how to—or what books to get, and—and p'r'aps some people do talk about the Crimea. Cousin Charlotte may, and then won't she be surprised if we know all about it!"
"Is it long?" asked Esther, still dubiously. Esther wanted to find the royal road to knowledge, which is easy and short and smooth—so they say, but no one knows, for no one has found it yet.
"Eight more volumes," said Penelope, almost apologetically. She was beginning to feel her zest for self-education considerably damped. "But," brightening up a little, "we can go on with this, at any rate, until we find out what we ought to learn. It can't do any harm. It looks like history, and I am sure we ought to know history."
"Yes," agreed Esther. So they began taking it in turns to read; but the words were long, and the names difficult to pronounce, and Esther's mind was in such a state of turmoil she could not fix it on anything, and line after line, as Penelope read, fell on deaf ears. "I think I shall go home now," she said at last. "Penelope, do you think we shall have some new clothes before we go away? We ought, we are dreadfully shabby."
Penelope looked up with doubt in her face. "I don't know. I don't expect so; you see it would cost such a lot to get things for the four of us, and there will be the tickets too, and it must be a very long journey."
Esther sighed. "Well, we are disgracefully shabby. I don't know what we are going to do. Cousin Charlotte will think we are a tramp's children."
The next day, when the study hour came, Esther took a large basket of stockings out into the woods with her to darn. "I must try and mend these again," she said. "We don't seem to be going to have any new ones," and while Penelope with some trouble made her way through a chapter of the Invasion of the Crimea, and the younger ones collected fir-cones to take home for the kitchen fire, Esther sorted out and darned a motley collection of stockings of various sizes and every variety of shade of washed-out black and brown. She darned them quickly and thoroughly; but the great excrescences of blue, brown, grey, or black darning-wool would have brought terror to the heart of any one who suffered from tender feet. "There," she said, laying aside the last pair with a sigh, "at any rate we shall be sound if we are shabby. I wish, though, the darns didn't show quite so much," gazing regretfully at a large light-blue patch in the middle of one of Poppy's black stockings.
After that the Crimea was abandoned, and they all fell to talking of the strange new life which was drawing so close to them now, and by degrees, and in spite of their first dread, was so exciting, so full of interest, and all manner of possibilities.
And now at last the parting was over, and the new life fairly begun. Esther, Penelope, Angela, and Poppy sat alone in a third-class carriage, looking out with blurred and smarting eyes at the fields and hedges rushing past them, at telegraph wires bowing and rising, at people and cattle and houses, and wondered if it could all be real or if they were only dreaming.
They had been very sad for the last few days, for the parting had been a painful wrench. In spite of all its drawbacks, the little house at Framley was their home, and they shed many bitter tears when they bade good-bye to it, and the woods and the walks, and all their well-known play-places. They wept, too, at leaving their mother, and even Lydia, cross, careless Lydia, for, after all, their mother and Lydia were the only two beings they knew well, and to be obliged to leave them and go entirely to utter strangers, in a quite unknown place, was very alarming.
"No one knows what it may be like at Dorsham," said Esther tragically, "and we—and we are not like children accustomed to going about. We don't know what are the right things to do—you know what I mean, we don't know how to behave, at least I don't. I hate having to meet any one in the street, for I never know what to say or do; and if I don't speak I know I am rude, and they think all sorts of things about me, and then I am miserable, and—and it'll be like that all the time at Cousin Charlotte's."
The other children looked awed until Penelope brightened up a little. "Never mind," she said hopefully, "we will go on just as we do now. After all, we can't be so very very dreadful, for mother is a lady, and knows, and we aren't wild savages; and Cousin Charlotte must tell us if we don't do things right, and we must remember for another time. Don't you think that will be all right, Esther?"
"I wish I could remember all the things Aunt Julia used to tell us," sighed Angela regretfully. "If we could we should know exactly what to do; but she was always telling me things and I've got them all mixed up."
"Will Tousin Charlotte whip us if we don't do right?" asked Poppy, in an awe-stricken voice.
"No one knows," said Esther, still in the same tragic, woebegone manner. "She may. I believe schoolmistresses are very strict. We shall know when we get there." Poppy's face grew longer and longer. "Mother says she is a dear old lady, but—but mother forgets, and she never had to live with her, as we've got to."
So their hearts were heavy with mingled dread and shyness, as well as sadness and a sense of desertion, as they took their seats in the train which was to convey them to Dorsham. In the luggage van were two small trunks containing their four scanty wardrobes, and all their toys and other treasures. In her hand Esther carried a large old purse of her mother's, containing their four tickets, and a sovereign which her mother had at the last moment given her to provide them all with stamps and notepaper and pocket-money for the next twelve months.
To children who had been in the habit of doing without pocket-money at all it seemed as though unbounded wealth were theirs, and they could never know want again.
Penelope carried a basket of provisions, which Lydia, with unusual care, had insisted on their taking. Penelope consented because she did not like to refuse Lydia's last request, but neither it nor its contents held the slightest interest for them until quite a long stretch of their journey had been covered. They were too unhappy to feel hungry. They would never care for food again, or for any one or anything but Framley and their mother and Lydia; and while they were in this frame of mind two or three hours and many miles passed by.
But the lapse of time brought some relief and a lightening of their depression. They became able to take a growing interest in their surroundings, and a sensation of hunger began to assert itself; so did a savoury odour from Lydia's basket, an odour so delicious that, in spite of themselves, they became interested.
"I wonder what Lydia put in here," said Penelope, looking down at the despised basket for the first time. "Something smells rather nice." They had left home before nine, and the meal they ate before starting was hardly worthy the name, and as it was now past twelve they began to feel very empty and rather faint, and the savoury whiffs which floated out from the basket grew more and more appealing.
Poppy slipped from her seat at last and pressed her small nose close to the cover. "I believe it's patties, and gooseberries, and—and—"
Lydia had her faults as to temper, but there was no denying she could cook when she chose to, and her meat patties were the joy of the children's hearts on the rare occasions when she could find time to make them.
Without more delay the basket was unpacked, and Poppy's sense of smell was amply justified. Four meat patties, some hard-boiled eggs and slices of bread and butter, cakes, biscuits, milk, gooseberries, and apples, made a lunch fit for four queens. And the children fairly squealed with delight as they unrolled packet after packet.
"We will have a table," cried Esther, springing up and spreading a newspaper on the seat for a tablecloth, "and lay everything out on it. I only hope no one else will want to come into this carriage."
It was not very easy to keep on their feet with the train swaying and jerking them as it did, but it made it all the more amusing, and when all was spread it looked so nice it made them feel very grand and grown-up. It was a wonderful new experience, and their spirits rose quite high under it.
"I wish we could go on and on like this always," said Esther. "Wouldn't it be jolly! There would be no one to worry us, and no strangers to face."
Penelope looked up quickly, her eyes alight with a sudden idea. "Oh, Esther, let's do it! Let's go on and not get out at Dorsham," she cried wickedly.
"But could we go on much further?" asked practical Angela. "Isn't there any end to the railway?"
"I don't know. Perhaps it just goes on and on all round England, and in and out until it comes to where it started from, and then goes on again," said Penelope, her mind busy over the problem.
"But the poor engine-drivers must get down sometimes and go to bed, mustn't they?" asked Poppy. "They don't sleep on the engine, do they?"
"I wish I knew," said Penelope. "It would be so lovely just to go on and on and not know where we were, or anything, and—"
"But what should we do for food?" asked Esther quietly. "The meat patties are gone already," throwing the last crumbs out of window, "and we couldn't get any more, and—and—" At that moment the train drew up at a station, and a ticket-collector, flinging open the door, came in and demanded to see their tickets. Trembling with nervousness, certain that he must have heard what they had been saying, Esther fumblingly undid her purse and produced them. The man looked at the tickets closely, clipped bits out of them, and handed them back again, giving at the same time a keen, curious look at the four young travellers.
It was not until the train had steamed on again, and he was left behind on the platform, that either one of them recovered from the shock sufficiently to speak.
"He must have heard us," breathed Angela, with wide frightened eyes. "He must have, and—oh! he must have seen all that," pointing to the remains of the feast spread out on the seat.
"I expect he is used to it," said Penelope consolingly. "Most people do eat when they are travelling, I expect. But it is no use for us to try to travel on beyond Dorsham, that is certain. They would find us out by looking at our tickets, and—and p'r'aps we should be sent to jail!"
Agreeing, reluctantly, that their plan for a life of perpetual travel must be abandoned, they settled down again to face the more monotonous future that had been arranged for them. Tired at last of talking, they tried to read, but no book could enthral them for long, while there was so much to see and take note of, as they rushed through the beautiful country all bathed in June sunshine, or stopped at the big bustling stations, and the funny little country ones. Oddly enough, though they stopped so often no one got into their carriage, which was very nice, they thought. By and by, though, they began to grow very weary, the carriage was very hot, and they grew tired of their own company. It might have been better for them, perhaps, had they had some fellow-passengers.
"Only three o'clock!" sighed Penelope, catching sight of a clock at the station they were drawn up in. "We have two and a half more hours yet. Oh dear, what a long day it is! I believe I shall be almost glad to get there, though I do dread it so."
"I wonder if Cousin Charlotte is nervous, too," remarked Angela, who had been very quiet for some time.
Poppy woke up from an uncomfortable nap, looking and feeling very cross. "Oh, I am so thirsty," she cried. "Esther, mayn't I have an apple?"
Esther roused herself from her study of the landscape. "Of course you may, dear—let us all have another meal now, and call it tea. You see, if we get there at half-past five we are sure to have something to eat soon after, so it will be better to eat up what we have here soon, unless we mean to waste it."
There was complete agreement of opinion on this point, so Esther tidied their tablecloth and rearranged the remaining food as well as she could, and they set to work to demolish everything with keen appetites—a task they accomplished without any great effort; and it is only to be hoped that Lydia heard of the appreciation the contents of her basket met with.
Try, though, as they would to spin out the meal, it was not yet four when the last crumb and drop had vanished; and, finding nothing else to do, they nestled down in their four corners again with the quiet melancholy of a dying day settling down on them once more. Though it was June, the land outside seemed already to take on a look of evening, the wind had changed, and little dark clouds had come up and hidden the sun. The children were reminded of the woods at home, and the curious air of gloom they wore, as though there were a storm outside, even when the sun was shining brightly.
Poppy crept from her corner and nestled up close to Esther.
"Essie, let's tell stories that will make us feel happy," she said, wistfully, with just the faintest quiver of her baby lip. "Something that will make me not think about mummy and Lydia and home."
"Pen, you tell us one, will you?" said Esther, lifting her little sister on to her lap, and holding her very close. "You can tell stories better than I can."
Angela in her corner kept her back turned to them, looking out of window very persistently, and winking very hard. But when the story was fairly begun she too crept up and nestled close to Esther, with her face well hidden behind Poppy's back and Esther's encircling arm.
The request roused Penelope from her own depression. She loved to tell stories. Usually she made up her own, for she had read but few to repeat; and the children always preferred hers, for, somehow, she seemed to know exactly what they liked. Now it seemed as though she understood perfectly just what would cheer them, and what to avoid, and they listened in perfect silence, drinking in comfort.
"Don't stop, don't stop!" pleaded Poppy, when the obvious end had been reached. But at that moment the train drew up, and Esther's eyes, wandering idly over the little station to see what place they had reached, read 'Dorsham' on the signboard, and sprang to her feet with such energy as to send Angela and Poppy tottering across the carriage.
"We are come," she gasped. "Oh girls, we are come! What shall we do?"
"Dorsham, Do-orsham," shouted a porter outside, in confirmation of her words, and the carriage immediately became a scene of wild confusion and excitement.
"I wonder if there is any one here to meet us," said Esther, as she tidied Poppy's dark hair and put on her hat. "Perhaps some of us had better get out and see, or they'll think we have not come."
They were all almost breathless with nervous excitement, and Esther was just popping her head out of the window to try to open the carriage door when a little lady came hurrying along the platform, her cheeks very pink, her eyes bright with anxiety. When she saw Esther she stopped, her face brightening with an expectant smile. When her eye fell on the three other little faces gazing out through the side windows with eager curiosity, her face brightened still more.
"Oh," she gasped, "are you—I think you must be the little Carrolls from Framley, my young cousins. I am Miss Charlotte Ashe, Cousin Charlotte— and I've come to meet you—are you Esther? I think you must be."
Esther's face had brightened too, with relief. This gentle little lady was so unlike the formidable stranger she had been dreading so, she felt quite at ease at once.
In another moment they were all on the platform being introduced.
"This is Penelope, and this is Poppy, the youngest of us, and this is Angela, the third," she said with the air of a proprietor, "and I am the eldest."
"I am delighted to see you all, my dears," said Miss Ashe warmly, kissing each in turn. She felt a little nervous under the fire of four pairs of enquiring eyes; there was nothing rude, though, in their stare; it was simply full of a wistful, half-incredulous pleasure. They could scarcely believe their eyes and ears that things were turning out so much less dreadful than they expected.
Then followed a moment of bustle, while the station-master and the one porter went in search of the luggage, and the children were led up to identify the various things as they should be lifted out. When they were told that the two shabby trunks were all there were to identify, disappointment was only too plainly written on the men's faces.
Seeing how little it was, the porter readily promised "to wheel it along by and by," and Miss Ashe turned away with a sigh of relief.
"Now then, chicks," she said cheerily, "we will start for home. You won't mind a walk, I hope, dears. My house is only fifteen minutes from the station. Are you very tired?" looking anxiously from one to the other, but most anxiously at Poppy.
"Oh no," they assured her politely. "We would like to walk, Cousin Charlotte," added Esther; "after sitting still so long it will be very nice," and her sisters supported her eagerly.
The engine, with a good deal of puffing and snorting, glided on its way again. The children stood to watch it, but they saw it depart without any of the regret they had expected to feel, and then the little party turned out of the station, on the last stage of their pilgrimage to their new home.
They were accustomed to the country, of course, so that their first view of Dorsham did not affect them as it would have affected a town child, but even they exclaimed with delight at the weird, wild beauty which opened out before them. The station appeared to have sprung up in the heart of a little forest of firs, as being the most sheltered spot it could alight upon in that open country, and it was not until they had walked a little way along the white road which skirted the woods, and came to the other road which led at right angles to Dorsham, that the real beauty of the place they had come to burst upon them.
Then, "Oh!" they gasped. "Oh! oh! Cousin Charlotte, how perfectly lovely! We did not think it would be a bit like this."
Angela alone did not speak; she gazed, and shivered as she gazed. She was too awed by the rugged wildness to be able to find any words—awed and rather frightened. In the beautiful evening light of the summer's day there lay before them an immense stretch of wild and rugged moorland, sloping down on either side till it met a winding silver streak at the bottom of the valley, and rolling upwards, away and away, rising and dipping, with every here and there rough boulders and tors, single or in groups, standing upon its brown bosom like rocks out of a brown sea, until in the distance high rock-crowned hills bounded and closed it in.
Then would the eye travel from the wilder beauty back to rest on the gleaming, gliding river in its rocky bed, and the group of little houses which stood about so irregularly as to give the impression that they had been dropped down promiscuously and allowed to remain as they fell; while close about each house were large gardens snatched from the wealth of wildness outside and enclosed within sturdy walls, as though to protect them from the encroaching brown sea outside.
"Oh, Cousin Charlotte," gasped Angela, "aren't you afraid to live here? It looks so—so wild and—and sad?"
Cousin Charlotte smiled. "Oh no," she cried, "it is not as lonely as it looks. There is quite a village just on beyond, but you cannot see it from here." Then noticing the look on Angela's face, "You will not be afraid, will you, children?" she asked anxiously.
"Oh no," said Esther, replying for them all. "I am sure we shall like it, Cousin Charlotte. I don't think it is as lonely as a wood really, because here you can look all about you, and can see if any one is coming. Angela is tired, I expect, and I think every place looks rather sad when night is coming on. I think she will like it soon, when she is more used to it."
"The village looks more lonely than it is really," said Cousin Charlotte. "From here it seems as though we are quite unprotected, but when we are at home that feeling will be gone. It seems then as though the moor is protecting us. There are other villages just beyond us in each direction, too, so we are not quite deserted."
"Oh, I love it, I love it!" gasped Penelope, who had been silent from the intensity of her emotion all this time. It was almost as though the sight was too much for her. She felt bewildered, overcome, full of awe and love, and a feeling she could not describe. She stood still in the wide white road, and gazed and gazed with her heart in her eyes. The others walked briskly on, Angela keeping close to Esther, her hand thrust through Esther's arm, Poppy holding Miss Ashe by one hand and Esther by the other. The road wound down in almost a straight line, until they could hear the murmuring of the river, like a welcoming voice, as it hurried along over the stones. The nearer they drew to the house and the river, the less did the moor and the hills seem to dominate them, and the feeling of home grew on them.
Just before they reached the house Penelope overtook them.
"Oh," she cried enthusiastically, "it is so lovely. I—I am sorry I have lived all my life away from it. I might have had nearly twelve more years here."
Miss Ashe laughed, well pleased. "I am so glad, children, that you think you will like it. Anna and I thought it might be dull for you. Well, here we are at last, and very glad you must be, I am sure, after your long, tiring day. This is Moor Cottage, dears, and I hope you will all be very, very happy here as long as I am allowed to keep you. It shall not," she added gravely, pausing as she stood in the porch with her hand on the latch, "be my fault if you are not."
"I am sure we shall be happy, Cousin Charlotte," said Esther earnestly, longing to throw her arms about the dear little lady, and kiss her, but feeling too shy. "I know we shall."
Angela did not only long, but she acted. "And I hope we shall make you happy, too," she cried, and throwing her arms about Miss Ashe's neck kissed her lovingly.
Cousin Charlotte's eyes were dim as she opened the door wide. "Welcome home," she cried. Then in a louder, brisker voice, "Anna, Anna," she called, "where are you? Here are our young ladies come, and neither of you out to meet and welcome them! I am ashamed."
A wild scratching was heard at the back of the little stone-paved hall, then a door was flung wide, revealing for a moment a pretty, cosy kitchen with firelight gleaming on a dresser laden with dainty china; but only for a moment, for the doorway was almost immediately blocked by a figure which blotted out every other view—the big, broad figure of Anna, white-capped, white-aproned, red-faced and smiling.
"Well I never!" she kept exclaiming, "and to think of me never hearing you coming. Well I never!" but all further talk was put a stop to by a yelp of joy, and the wild rush from somewhere of a creature that, for the moment, Poppy was quite sure was a bear. The creature flung himself on Miss Ashe so impetuously as to very nearly topple her over.
"Guard, Guard," she protested, recovering her footing with a laugh, "behave yourself, sir." But the great dog would not be quiet until she had given him her hand to kiss and her purse to hold; with that in his mouth he contented himself with wriggling joyfully at her feet, making little muffled sounds of welcome.
"Now come and speak to your visitors," she said, "and shake hands like a gentleman." But he had to return her purse to her own safe keeping before he could be induced to do anything more, after which he went round and solemnly shook hands with each of the girls, smiling very wide with pleasure at the pats and caresses he got, until, on coming to Poppy, she flung her baby arms about his great rough neck, crying, "Oh, you darling, you darling," and kissed his soft brown cheek, upon which he looked up at her adoringly, and seated himself beside her. Then Anna came forward and seemed quite pleased when they all shook hands with her; and Guard, seeing every one else so hearty, began to dash round and round again as he looked ecstatically from one to the other, making little low cries of pleasure.
"Now then, Anna," said Miss Ashe at last, "we really must show these poor children their rooms, and let them wash and refresh themselves before tea; they must be longing to, and I am sure they are famished—aren't you, children?"
They remembered their 'tea' at three o'clock, and blushed; but that really did seem hours ago now, and they honestly were very hungry again. Perhaps the moor air had something to answer for already.
"Well, come along," said Miss Ashe, while, murmuring something about hot water, she bustled off to the kitchen. "No, Guard, you must wait down here," said his mistress, as he rose to follow them; and with his feet on the bottom stair he stood still, gazing after them longingly, but without attempting to follow.
At the right of the hall was an archway, and going up a step and through this, the children found themselves in another little hall, with doors on two sides of it, and a staircase at the back, all completely cut off from the view from the front door. The stairs were so wide and shallow they tripped as they followed Miss Ashe up them. At the top they found themselves in a little gallery which ran all round with several doors opening into it.
"Now, my chicks," said Miss Charlotte, throwing open the first door they came to, "you must settle amongst yourselves which two shall share a room, and which room you will have."
The children, greatly excited, poured after her into what they all thought the sweetest, loveliest bedroom they had ever seen in their lives—which it certainly was. The walls were covered with a pretty creamy paper festooned all over with bunches of pink-tipped daisies tied together with blue ribbons; two little white beds, with snowy curtains and quilts, stood with a table between them. But most fascinating of all was the long, low, lattice-window with its white dimity curtains, and frill across the top. They flew to it to look out, and there before them lay the river winding in and out on its crooked course, and beyond it the moor stretching away, as far as the eye could see, to where, in the distance, it melted into the sky. The beauty of it so fascinated them that it was not until later they noticed all the remaining charms of the room—the little white bookcase full of books, the chairs on either side of the windows, the two white chests of drawers, one for each of them, and provided with a key, too, and the charming blue carpet on the floor.
"I hope we don't do any harm," said Esther nervously. To her, accustomed to the shabby bare rooms at home, ill-kept and untidy, it looked almost too dainty and pretty to use.
"I am quite sure you will not," said Miss Ashe, who appeared to have no fears. "Now this is the sunniest side of the house, and I think, perhaps, the Poppy ought to have the sun."
Poppy laughed. The idea pleased her, and, as though to claim possession, threw her hat on to one of the chairs.
"Now, come along, or tea will be ready before we are." Out they trooped excitedly, each delighted in her own particular way. "That is my room," said Miss Ashe, touching the next door, which was closed. "My window looks towards the station, along the road we came just now." She did not say she had given up the pretty room they had just quitted, in order that they might have the sunshine.
At the back of the square gallery she threw open another door. "This is your other room," she said; and Penelope, who was standing by her, gave one long, low cry of pleasure, and was across the room in a moment.
"Oh!" she gasped, "oh my!" She could not find words to express the feelings which rushed over her as her eyes fell on the view without—the pretty garden full of flowers, enclosed within a stone wall, and beyond that the old brown moor stretching far and wide in every direction, until it broke like a brown sea about the foot of the distant hills. Here and there were lesser tors and piles of rock, and little footpaths through the heather, and pools which gleamed with a cold light in the light of the evening sky. It was wild, weird, fascinating.
"I think you, at any rate, should have this room," said Miss Ashe, smiling, well pleased at Penelope's delight. The rest of the children were looking interestedly about them. "As this has a colder aspect I thought it should be made to look warmer," Miss Ashe explained; and indeed the warm red carpet, and the dark-red roses nestling against deep-green leaves on the walls, gave it a very cosy, comfortable look.
Esther felt soothed and calmed already. The air of comfort and neatness, the good taste that met them on all sides, gave her such a sense of pleasure and ease as she had never known before. This was just how things should look, how she had always wanted them to look, and had never been able to get them to, or make the others understand.
"How do you think you will manage?" said Miss Ashe, turning to Esther. "Don't you think you and the baby here had better be together in the other room, so that you may be able to help her a little? I have only the one servant yet, so we must manage to do as best we can for the time. I think these two," laying a hand on Angela and Penelope, "had better stay here;" a plan they all heartily agreed with. Then, after providing them with brushes and combs until they could unpack their own, Miss Ashe went away, and left them to prepare themselves for tea.
And here, perhaps, it would be as well to give you some idea of what the four little Carrolls were like at this time, for one's first question generally, on hearing any one spoken of, is, "Is she pretty?" or, "What is she like?" and quite naturally, too, for people only seem real to us when we are able to picture them in our own minds as they really are.
Well, Esther Carroll at this time was a tall, thin girl, with a grave face and fine expressive grey eyes. She was not pretty, but she would have been what is generally described as 'nice-looking' if her face had not been almost always spoilt by her worried, cross expression. She was a tall, graceful girl, with a good carriage, well-shaped hands and feet, a good complexion, and an abundance of long light-brown hair. She took great pains that her hair should look well-kept and glossy, and it hung long, straight, and gleaming, to below her waist.
Penelope was shorter and broader, altogether a more portly little person, with a clever face, dreamy, questioning grey eyes, and a nose which was decidedly a snub—a fact there was no getting over, though Penelope often tried. Her hair, which was short and curly, was not so golden as Esther's; it had deeper, redder tints in it.
Angela was more like Esther in appearance than either of the others. She was a lanky, overgrown little person at nine years of age, but her long, shapely feet and hands gave promise of a graceful woman by and by. She had long, fair hair like Esther's too, but Angela's had a beautiful wave in it. Her eyes, blue and soft, and appealing as her warm affectionate nature, looked out of a beautiful child-like face, full of gentleness and love.
Then came the Poppy, the pet and plaything and ruler of them all, a little round, dark-haired, brown-eyed contrast to the others, who demanded love and got it, giving it in return when she chose, and that was not always to those who asked most loudly for it. Fearless, outspoken, and quick, Poppy had none of Penelope's dreaminess, or Esther's anxiousness, or Angela's timidity. She was eminently a practical little person, with deep thoughts and plans of her own, and a will to carry them through.
They had had a rough, uncared-for upbringing, which had made Esther perhaps a little masterful and grown-up in her ways and ideas, and Penelope, somewhat careless, had not checked Angela's nervousness or Poppy's independence, but they were all honest and truthful, and full of good instincts; and as they stood looking out of the windows of their new home at the new strange world beyond, each in her own way was determining to make the best of her new life, and be good.
But they dared not linger at the windows.
"Tea may be ready even now, and Cousin Charlotte is perhaps a very particular and punctual person," said Esther, and taking Poppy by the hand they started to go down. But at the top of the stairs they found Penelope and Angela debating and looking about them nervously.
"Ought we to go down, or ought we to wait till we are called?" asked Angela, turning to Esther, with relief at leaving it to some one else to decide. "Would it be rude to seem in a hurry, or to keep Miss Charlotte waiting?"
Esther could throw no light on the dreadful problem, there were so many things to think of. If they went down they would not know where to go, and if they stayed in their rooms Cousin Charlotte might wait and wait for them, thinking they were not ready.
"Anyhow, we can't stand here," whispered Penelope. "It will look as though we are listening and prying. Let's go back to our rooms—and yet— oh dear, Cousin Charlotte may be down there now, at this very moment, getting angry with us and thinking how long we take getting ready, and we don't really."
Esther's temper suddenly gave way. "I do wish one knew what to do, always," she said crossly. "But mother never taught us things like this— yet we are expected to know—"
"P'r'aps it doesn't really matter," whispered Angela, who could not bear to hear her mother spoken harshly of.
"Oh yes, it does," snapped Esther. "It makes all the difference."
"P'r'aps they'll ring a bell when tea is ready," chimed in Poppy, with sudden inspiration, "then we will know." And sure enough at that moment a bell did ring down below, and settled the difficulty. In their relief Penelope and Angela started off with a rush.
"Oh, girls, don't hurry so," cried Esther nervously. "It looks so bad, as though we had been waiting."
So the impetuous ones slackened their pace, and four very demure little maidens entered the dining-room a moment later in a manner as decorous and restrained as the most polite could wish.
And what a charming scene it was that met their eyes—one that all the four appreciated to the full: a long, low room with a French window standing wide open to the garden just a step or two below. On the evening breeze wafted in the scent of mignonette and flowers, and the low sleepy clucking of the hens, about to go to roost. Near the window stood the table, with a silver kettle boiling merrily on its stand, and fruit and flowers and pretty china in abundance, all looking as dainty and tempting as heart could desire. There was an abundance too of more substantial fare, eggs and fish, and jam and cream, a tart, and a big home-made loaf; and the scent of the flowers and the tea all mingled together in a most appetising whole.
To the children it all seemed wonderful, exquisite; and for the first time they realised how hungry they were. Penelope's eyes wandered through the window to the flower-beds outside.
"Oh, what a lovely garden!" she cried, struck at once by the beauty of its well-kept air, and the cared-for look of everything. Then she grew silent as her thoughts flew back with tender pity to the old beloved untidy Framley garden, and she felt a twinge of remorse that she had not tried to do something with it—it might perhaps have been made to look like this. Then, at a word from Miss Ashe, they turned away from the window to the tea-table.
While the children were taking their places she made the tea.
"Now," she said, as she drew the cosy over the teapot, "which of you will say grace?"
The four looked from one to the other dismayed. Esther and Penelope's cheeks flamed hotly, Angela looked puzzled. Poppy alone spoke.
"What is 'grace'?" she asked innocently.
Miss Ashe grasped the situation in a moment, and, though her heart sank a little in dismay at their ignorance, she showed no sign. "It is a little prayer we say before a meal, to ask God's blessing on what He has given us, and we say one again at the end to thank Him for it."
"We never say anything at home," said Poppy, with childlike candour. "What do you say, Cousin Charlotte?"
"Put your hands together, dear, and bow your head, and you shall hear. It is very simple; you will be able to say it too in a day or so. Now," bowing her head reverently, "For what we are about to receive, O Lord make us truly thankful. Amen." Then Miss Ashe raised her head, and the children followed suit.
"I've read in some of my books of people who said grace," said Angela, "but I didn't know that people really did it."
Cousin Charlotte's face was very grave. "A great many do, and a great many more do not, but every one should. Don't you yourselves feel that you want to, dears? You say 'Thank you!' to any one who gives you even the least little trifle. You have just said 'Thank you!' to me for the cup of tea I handed you; then surely much more should you say it to the good God who gives you everything. Don't you see, darling?"
"Yes, I see," said Penelope soberly. "I wish I had thought of it before. How ungrateful we must seem to God! I wonder He goes on being good to people if they never seem grateful."
"God is so tender, and loving, and forgiving. He does not punish us because we are ungrateful, and forget Him; but, though what is done in ignorance is excusable, when we know and yet forget Him we are committing a sinful and ungrateful act."
Poppy sat drinking in eagerly all that was said. "I'll try to remember, Cousin Charlotte," she said seriously. And Cousin Charlotte smiled, and blinked her eyes rather hard for a moment and laid one hand on Poppy's tiny hand resting on the table by her. Then the meal began in earnest. And oh what a meal it was! The children were wildly hungry, and the new fare was so tempting compared with what they had been accustomed to at home. Then, when it was over, and that was not very quickly, and grace had been said, they all strolled out through the open window and down the steps to the sweet-scented garden, where they wandered about until it was time to go in and unpack their boxes, and put Poppy to bed.
It was great fun unpacking and laying away their things in the places meant for them, though there was so little to lay away it looked quite lost in the deep drawers and cupboards. Esther felt horribly ashamed as she wondered what Miss Ashe and Anna would think when they came and saw them. At the same time it was great fun running from room to room to look for missing articles. One of Poppy's shoes was in one box, and the other in the one Penelope was unpacking in her room. Then no nightgowns could be found until, after a long search, they were discovered at the very bottom of one of the boxes underneath the toys they had insisted on bringing.
"I don't think the boots ought to have been put in last," said Esther gravely. "Your old boots were right on top of my best hat, and the crown has been doubled right in. Look, Pen."
Penelope looked at it with serious consideration.
"What a pity! I believe," she added, after vainly trying again and again to make the crown stay up, "I believe you will have to pretend this is how it ought to be."
The Carroll children had had so little in the way of hats and clothes, and so seldom a pretty thing, they thought very little about dress, so the catastrophe did not affect them as it would have vainer children; and, in any case, their minds were too full now of other things to have much time to spare for trouble.
That night as soon as they were in bed they fell asleep, and slept like tops; their long day had tired them out, and the moor air made them sleepy, so sleepy that when morning came they slept on and on, in spite of the sun shining outside, and the birds calling, and the voices of the men and boys shouting 'Good mornin'!' 'Bootiful day,' to each other as they went on their way to their work.
When Esther did awaken at last it was to find Anna knocking at her door, and calling, "Time to get up, young ladies; it is half-past seven, and breakfast will be ready at half-past eight. Are you awake, missie?"
"Come in," called Esther in a very sleepy tone, stretching herself luxuriously in her comfortable bed. They had rarely known the luxury of being called—never, certainly, of having hot water brought them.
Anna opened the door, and her big person filled the aperture. When she caught sight of Poppy's dark head so still and quiet on the pillow, she came further in. "Well, I never!" she breathed softly, as she gently placed down the can of hot water, "how sound she do sleep, the pretty dear; it do seem a shame to wake her. P'r'aps she'd better 'bide on for a bit, and rest herself."
"Oh no," said Esther, rousing herself. "Poppy is all right, she is a dreadful sleepy-head. Poppy!" she called, raising herself on one elbow, "Poppy! Wake up! It will soon be breakfast time, and Cousin Charlotte will be awfully angry if you are late."
"Ah, now, it do seem crool to frighten her like that," said Anna, half smiling, half troubled.
Poppy stirred herself, opened her dark eyes, and then, recognising her new surroundings, sat bolt upright in bed, looking about her with deep interest, but no sign of alarm or fear.
"I couldn't think where I was, just at first," she exclaimed in a sleepy voice. "It's Tousin Charlotte's. Is it time to get up? Oh how lovely! Now we've got all day to go and look at where we are."
She was out of bed at once, dancing about on her little white toes, her short curls all tumbled about her pretty flushed face.
"Now I'm going on to call your sisters," said Anna. "The bath water is all ready, missie; you've only got to turn the tap to get it just to your liking. You know where the bathroom is, don't you?"
"Bags I bath first!" shouted Poppy, who, all the while Anna had been speaking had been edging nearer and nearer the door; and with a triumphant laugh she had flown along the corridor and shut herself in before any one could stop her.
Esther felt distinctly aggravated. She had considered herself obliged by politeness to remain in bed and give Anna her undivided attention while she was talking, and now Poppy, troubled by no such scruples, had taken this mean advantage. She would really have to be kept in better order, and taught to behave. Anna went away to call the others.
"Well, she hasn't got any towels, or sponge, or anything," said Esther, looking about the room. "Serve her right, she deserves—oh dear! I forgot the water would be hot; she's sure to scald herself, Or do something mad with the taps or the water. I must go and see to her."
At home the bathroom had had no bolt or lock on the door, and she would have gained admission at once by simply storming it. But here, as yet, she felt constrained to do things in a more gentle manner. So she crept softly along the corridor and tapped at the door lightly. "Poppy," she pleaded in an anxious whisper, "Poppy, do open the door, and let me get the bath ready for you. I am sure you will scald yourself, or swamp the house. Do let me in, dear; just think how angry Cousin Charlotte would be if any accident were to happen."
But no answer came to her pleading. "Poppy," more seriously, "do you hear me! Let me in at once, as I tell you." But the only response was a mighty rush of water and a great splashing, and Esther retreated, defeated, to nurse her wrath and await Miss Poppy's return.
"I do hope the children won't behave like savages," she muttered angrily, "and so disgrace us all." And a few moments later she had cause to echo this wish, for with a good deal of rattle and noise the bathroom door was flung open, and Poppy, having discovered nothing to dry herself with, flew dripping back to her bedroom, leaving a trail of wet footmarks all along the speckless carpets.
It really was enough to make Esther very cross, and it did, and Miss Poppy was rubbed dry with more vigour than she at all appreciated, a vigour which was not lessened by a rush from the other bedroom and the capture of the bathroom by Penelope. Esther felt very injured. As eldest she considered she had the first right. On her way back again, Penelope, unconscious of the state of feeling in the blue bedroom, unceremoniously opened their door and popped her head in. "How are you?" she asked, her face all beaming with smiles.
"I don't know how I am, but I know how I shall be," said Esther tartly. "I shall be late, and it won't be my fault."
To Penelope this seemed a matter too trifling to think of. "Isn't everything jolly?" she breathed loudly, remembering suddenly that Miss Charlotte was in the next room. "I couldn't think where I was when I woke up, it was so funny—"
"Go and dress," said Esther, "or you—oh, it really is too bad!" she exclaimed abruptly as a soft swish along the corridor and the click of a latch told her that she had been again forestalled, and Angela was now in possession of the bathroom. "I ought to go first, because I am the eldest, and Poppy last because she is the youngest."
Poppy chuckled, "I was first and you'll be last, to-day," she said aggravatingly.
"I didn't know it mattered, as long as we all got washed," said Penelope, and finding the atmosphere uncongenial, began edging away.
"It matters very much," said Esther with dignity. "I have to dress Poppy, and tidy the room. If I am dressed first I can—" but Penelope had melted away, and Poppy was kneeling by her bed, saying her prayers. Esther could have cried with annoyance.
She was ready in time after all, but barely. She was just fastening her frock when the bell rang, and her waistband she put on as she went down the stairs. A frown still rested on her face and she felt very cross. She had not said her prayers, and she had not been able to put her room tidy as she meant to, and she felt that her first morning, that she had thought would have been so lovely, was quite spoilt.
Poppy's boldness vanished when it came to going downstairs, and, though she had been ready so long, she waited for Esther after all. So did the others; they all felt rather shy at meeting Miss Charlotte again.
In the breakfast-room they found their cousin sitting at the table with some books before her. She looked up and smiled brightly when they entered, and beckoning to them, drew each in turn to her for a morning kiss. A quite unusual beginning to their day.
"Now, darlings," she said, "will you find seats for yourselves for prayers?"
The request startled them. They had never before heard of such a proceeding; but Esther, quickly recovering herself, tried to appear as though she were used to everything, though, with Poppy looking at her with such interested, astonished eyes, it was difficult.
"I've said mine," whispered Poppy, in rather an injured tone. Esther looked at her warningly. "Yes, I know, but Cousin Charlotte hasn't, and—and this is different. Lots of people do this. Sit there, and don't talk."
Poppy obeyed. Anything that her sisters approved was right, in her judgment. Penelope seated herself by the window, Angela on a little chair by the empty hearth, a grave, devout look on her pretty face. Then Anna came in, and Miss Ashe opened the Bible and read. She read only a few verses, but they were such as would appeal to the hearts of children. Then she closed the book and knelt down; at a sign from Esther they all knelt too, and Miss Ashe asked God's blessing on this new day and their new life, and thanked Him for His care and love, after which she began to repeat the Lord's Prayer.
"Oh, I know that," exclaimed Poppy delightedly. She repeated the prayer sentence by sentence; Anna did the same, and Esther and the others joined in; and to Esther, at least, as the sacred words were spoken, the whole world seemed to alter. The worry and irritability, the dread of she knew not what, all slipped away from her; and life seemed brighter and happier, and full of good things.
"What a lovely way to begin a day," she thought. "I hope we always have prayers. She got up and helped Poppy to her feet, and, after a moment or two, they all drew up to the table. Poppy looked about her with frank interested eyes.
"Oh, what a lovely breakfast!" she sighed, apparently overwhelmed by the loveliness, and every one was obliged to laugh. It was what they were all thinking, but the elder ones did not like to put their thoughts into words. Yet it was a simple enough meal; but the clean white cloth and shining silver, the flowers and fruit, and the dainty neatness of everything made it seem perfectly beautiful to little people accustomed to Lydia's untidy, careless ways, to soiled and ragged cloths, badly washed silver and dirty knives, and food put down anyhow, and often not enough of it. This was what Esther had always instinctively yearned for; to the others it came as a surprise.
"I've been thinking, children," said Cousin Charlotte—who had indeed been lying awake half the night, realising for the first time all she had undertaken, and trying to grasp all her duties. "I have been thinking you had better perhaps have a few days' holiday to begin with, so as to get accustomed to your new surroundings, and then by and by we must begin to think about lessons. I am expecting to hear from your mother or father as to their views on the subject of your education. I expect they are anxious that you two elder ones should go to a good school at once. And that is one of my greatest difficulties, and the greatest drawback to your coming here, for there is no good school within reach, and I am puzzled to know what to do. It is so important that you should have every advantage now."
Esther's heart sank, for Cousin Charlotte's sake as much as anything. She knew as well as possible that Cousin Charlotte would have to settle this matter for herself, and bear the responsibility entirely. She knew, too, that the importance of it appealed as little to her mother as it did greatly to her cousin. Mrs. Carroll was one of those happy-go-lucky persons, so difficult to deal with, who think that 'sufficient for the day is the evil thereof,' and 'the future will take care of itself,' so what is the use of worrying—something is sure to turn up, and everything will turn out right, somehow.
It never occurred to her that her four children's future depended almost entirely on the education given them now; or to ponder what, poor and ill-educated, their future would be.
"Oh, something will be sure to happen," she would have answered. "What is the use of planning, no one knows what the future may bring." Miss Ashe's idea, on the other hand, was that with a good education any child had, at any rate, one strong weapon with which to fight her way.
At Dorsham the post did not come in until ten o'clock, so that there was no correspondence to discuss over the breakfast-table. Not that the children expected any letters; they had never received one in their lives.
Breakfast over, Miss Ashe was a little at a loss to know what to do with her charges; her life had suddenly become so changed and complicated, that the little lady had difficulty in grappling with it all at once. "I think you may like to go out and look about you," she said at last. "You can come to no harm, I am sure, if you keep away from the river. You may play in the garden, or wander on the moor a little way. But if you go beyond the garden, take Guard with you; he will be a companion and protector. Don't go very far, dears; I want you all to come back at eleven for some milk and biscuits."
The children were enchanted. This was a happy life indeed! As quickly as ever they could they got on hats and boots and started. They had never a doubt as to where they would go. The garden was very nice, but the moor! —a heaven-sent playground, miles of freedom, and all to themselves. The thought of having to return at eleven was the only thing that marred their perfect joy; they felt they wanted to have the whole long day before them to cover all the ground and make all the discoveries they wanted to. Guard, a proud and delighted protector, rushed about as excitedly as any of them. The new interest that had come into his life promised to be all that he could desire.
"I do want to get to the very top of that mountain," said Penelope, gazing earnestly at what was really a very modest hill, and apparently at no great distance from them.
"Well, let's," said Esther encouragingly, "it can't be very far away," and off they started. But the grey tor seemed to possess the power of gliding backwards, and the more the children walked, the further it seemed to recede; until at last, when, on scaling what they thought was the last height, they saw still a long stretch of moorland before them, with more deceptive dips and rises, they gave in and postponed their climb for another day. Moor air has a way of increasing the appetite at an alarming rate.
"I am afraid it must be past eleven," said Esther as they gave up the quest, and sat down to rest before turning homewards. "I wish I had put on my watch; but I was afraid of losing it."
Esther had a silver watch of her very own, one she had earned for herself. She had won it as a prize in a competition offered by a magazine the children took in. Her success had come as a surprise to them all, but most of all to herself, and the proudest moment of her life had been that when a carefully sealed-up jeweller's box had come directed to 'Miss E. J. Carroll,' and she had lifted out her prize under the admiring eyes of Lydia and the children, and the astonished gaze of her mother.
Mrs. Carroll was doubly astonished, firstly because she had not considered Esther capable, secondly because she had not grasped the fact that Esther was really seriously competing; but when she saw this proof of her labours, she made her a present of a pretty silver chain, with two little silver tassels at the end, and Esther's cup of joy overflowed.
From that moment she would have bodices to her frocks that buttoned up in front, that she might pass the little silver bar through the buttonhole; and she set herself to make watch-pockets in all her skirts, which she managed by cutting slits in them just below the waistband, and sewing to the slits on the inside little pockets like small bag purses. Lydia showed her how to do it; and if the work was somewhat rough, and not quite finished, the pocket answered very well, and we cannot all reach perfection at once.