The Fortunes of the Farrells
By Mrs George de Horne Vaizey Old Mr Bernard Farrell is known to be immensely rich. No one in his family has seen him for ages. Suddenly he turns up, and is invited to stay for a few days, as he isn't very well. His proposition is, that he would like various of his nephews and nieces to come and stay with him for quite a long time, so that he might gauge which of them should receive the greater part of his wealth after he dies.
The house-part duly convenes, and they don't find him a very agreeable host, but for the most part they persevere. He has made a preliminary will "in case of accident". He is trying to keep this will secret, and of course the young people are all agog to know what is in it. One day he accidentally leaves his desk open, and realises that someone has been at his desk, and has read the will. He calls all the young people to his bed, and asks them point-blank who it was. Of course he gets various kinds of answer, from the offended, to the frightened and cowed. But by chance he finds out exactly who had peeked into his desk and read the will. We won't spoil the story for you, but would say this: that it is as good a Horne Vaizey story as any, even the earlier Pixie books. NH
THE FORTUNES OF THE FARRELLS
BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY
FROM PRETENCE TO REALITY.
"Berengaria, what do you generally do with your old court trains? How do you use them up?"
The fire had died down to a dull red glow; only one tiny flame remained, which, flickering to and fro, showed a wide expanse of floor, and two easy-chairs drawn up before the fender, on which reclined vague, feminine figures. The voice which had asked the question was slow and languid, and breathed a wearied indifference to the world in general, which was more than equalled in the tone of the reply—
"Really, don't you know, I can't say! I put them away, meaning to use them for cloaks or evening-dresses; but I forget, or they get mislaid, or the maid confiscates them for her own purposes. I expect, as a matter of fact, she makes them up into Sunday blouses."
"You spoil that woman, dear! You are so absurdly easy-going that she robs you right and left. Do take my advice, and give her notice at once!"
"I couldn't, darling, even to please you! It bores me so to deal with strangers, and no one else could do my hair like Elsie. If it pleases her to use up a few of my garments, why shouldn't the poor soul have her pleasure like the rest? That reminds me, Lucille—are you going to the duchess's ball to-night? I suppose it is superfluous to ask, since no entertainment is complete without you nowadays."
"Oh, I suppose so! If I am not too fagged, that is to say. But I have a dinner first, and two At-homes, and people make such a fuss if you don't put in an appearance. One hardly feels up to dancing after struggling through two of the asphyxiating mobs dignified by the name of entertainments; still, I promised Arthur the cotillion, and he will be desolated if I play him false; and I have a new frock for the occasion which is really rather a dream. Silver tissue over satin, and shoulder- straps of diamonds. I had them reset on purpose. I spend quite a fortune on resetting jewels nowadays; but one must be original, or die!"
"My dear, you will be too bewitching! Lord Arthur will be more desperate than ever. My poor little self will be nowhere beside you! I'm going to be sweet and simple in chiffon and pearls. Paquin made the gown. Don't ask what it cost! I tore up the bill and threw it in the fire. Really, don't you know, it made me quite depressed! So perishable, too! I expect I shall be in rags before the evening is over. But it's quite sweet at present—all frilly-willys from top to toe. I do love to be fluffy and feminine, and my pearls really are unique! The princess examined them quite carefully when I met her last winter, and said she had rarely seen finer specimens. I wouldn't wear them at all unless they were good. I cannot endure inferior jewels!"
The speaker lolled still more luxuriously in her chair, then started forward, as the door opened with a bang, and a harsh voice accosted her by name—
"Miss Mollie, your mother wants to know if you have finished darning the socks? She is putting away the clean clothes, and wants to sort them with the rest."
The Lady Lucille—otherwise Mollie Farrell, the penniless daughter of an impoverished house—jumped up from her chair, and clasped her hands in dismay. In blissful contemplation of imagining chiffons and cotillions, the prosaic duties of reality had slipped from her mind, and recollection brought with it a pang of remorse.
"Misery me! I forgot the very existence of the wretched things! Never mind. Tell mother, Annie, that I'll set to work this minute, and put them away myself as soon as they are done. Tell her I'm sorry; tell her I'll be as quick as I possibly can!"
Annie stood for a moment in eloquent silence then shut the door and descended the stairs; while Mollie groped her way across the room, and Berengaria lifted herself from her chair with a sigh, and slipped her hand along the mantelpiece.
"I'll light the gas. How horrid it is, being dragged back to earth by these sordid interruptions! It's always the way—as soon as I begin to forget myself, and enjoy a taste of luxury, back I'm dragged to the same dull old life. I really saw that silver tissue, and felt the coldness of the diamonds against my shoulder; and then—socks! Those wretched, thick, ugly socks, with the heels all out, and the toes in rags! I think schoolboys ought to be obliged to darn their own clothes, just to teach them a little care!"
"Well, be aisy; you haven't to darn them, anyway. It's my work, which is the best of reasons why it is left undone. Hurry with the gas, there's a dear. There's no time for conundrums, if I am to finish to- night!"
Another sigh, the striking of a match, and the light sprang up, and showed a tall, girlish figure, clad in a blue serge skirt, and a flannel blouse, faded from repeated washing, and showing signs of a decided shortage of material.
Considered as a costume, it was a painful contrast to the silver and diamonds of the fair Berengaria; but the shabby garments looked their best on Ruth Farrell's slight form, and the face reflected in the strip of mirror above the mantelpiece had a distinct charm of its own. A low brow below masses of brown hair; a flush of carmine on the cheeks; soft lips, drooping pathetically at the corners; and—most striking feature of all—thickly marked eyebrows of almost jetty black, stretching in long, straight lines above the grey eyes. A pretty, almost a beautiful face, full of character, full of thought, full of a restless, unsatisfied yearning.
She threw the burnt-out match on to the fire, and turned to survey the room—surely the most motley and curious apartment that could be imagined! The sloping roof proved at a glance the position under the leads, and a peep at the outside of the door would have shown the word "Attica" painted in bold white letters on the top panel.
Attica—or the land of attic—constituted the boudoirs of the Ladies Berengaria and Lucille, the work-rooms and play-rooms, dens and havens of refuge, of Ruth and Mollie Farrell, and their young stepsisters, Trix and Betty Connor; for it was of generous proportions, measuring a square eight yards or more, and the floor was divided into four equal sections by lines of white paint against the brown of the original staining.
Each sister held an exclusive right to her own domain, and for another to enter therein without special invitation was held as an outrage against decency and good taste.
In the beginning of things, Ruth, as the eldest, had claimed the right of first choice, and, being a young woman who liked her comforts, had instantly and unhesitatingly appropriated the fireside.
Mollie, coming next in order, plumped for the window, it being her sunny habit to look forward to an endless summer; Trix, grumbling vigorously, appropriated the angle made by the blank walls nearest the fire; and poor Betty made her lair in the direct draught of the doorway, and enjoyed a permanent cold in the head from November to March.
A glance at the four corners of the room afforded a very fair idea of the characters of its inhabitants. Ruth's "Fireland" domain had an air of luxury of its own, though the draperies were of simple turkey-red, and the pictures mounted on home-made frames of brown paper. There was a row of shelves against the wall, holding quite a goodly show of volumes, ranged neatly side by side, while a curtained recess at one end contained tea-cups and canister, and a small metal kettle, as scrupulously bright as on the day when it had left the shop.
An old folding-chair had been painted green, and supplied with frilled cushions. There was a sensible little table, holding a hand-machine, and a work-basket—yawning apart, it is true, but neatly strapped to prevent accident; and on the mantelpiece a crowd of photographs, and a few oddments of blue china, all carefully dusted by the owner's hand, and set out with artistic effect.
Last, and crowning luxury of all, a screen stood behind the low chair, manufactured out of a clothes-horse flounced with turkey-red, which was at once the comfort and distraction of Ruth's soul; for while, from her point of view, it was an indispensable comfort, shutting out draughts from window and door, and giving to her little nook the last blessing of privacy, Trix denounced the innovation as the incarnation of selfishness, Betty's teeth chattered with a noise like castanets, and Mollie peered round the corner with her shoulders huddled in a shawl, and her face at once so cheerful, so unreproving, and so bleached with cold, that it was not in human nature to refuse the desired invitation.
Mollie's domain of "Bellevue" comprised the square-shaped window, on the sill of which she cultivated nasturtiums and mignonette in summer, and in the embrasure stood a window-seat covered with blue cloth, that was really the remains of an old winter skirt.
Visitors to "Bellevue" always paused to admire the sprays of flowers which were embroidered here and there on this blue background; and then Mollie "dissembled," as she called it, smiling sweet recognition of the praise, but never once breathing the secret that the whole being and intent of these flowers was to hide the joins beneath.
She also possessed a table and a work-basket; but the former was decidedly ancient and insecure as to legs, while the basket made no pretence of shutting, but looked on unabashed while its contents lay scattered over the rug.
A dressmaker's stand stood in the corner, on which a blouse, more or less complete, was invariably pinned, waiting for the moment when Mollie had time to devote to her favourite occupation. There were no book- shelves, but a litter of magazines behind a cushion on the window-seat, and innumerable photographs were secured to the wall by black-headed pins, to fade slowly but surely into unrecognition in the unbroken glare of light.
Mollie herself pined for curtains to mitigate the draught during the winter months, but the three other inmates of Attica loudly declared that they could not spare a fraction of light, so she gave way smiling, as her custom was. Mollie never grumbled; it was so dull, as she said, and she loved to be gay. An invincible cheeriness of heart carried her gallantly over the quicksands in which Ruth was submerged by reason of her moodiness, and Trix by her quick temper, and made it a physical impossibility to repine over the inevitable.
Fifteen-year-old Trix was in that stage when the Oxford examination seems the end-all and be-all of existence. Her section of Attica was proudly dubbed "The Study," and had its walls covered with maps, class lists, and "memos" of great variety. The desk was strewn with papers and exercise-books, and there lingered in the air that indescribable scent of sponge, slate, indiarubber, and freshly sharpened pencils which seem inseparable from youthful study.
Trix confessed to one weakness,—only one!—an overwhelming greed for pencil-boxes and sharpeners, and the contents of the wooden shelf above the desk testified to her indulgence in this craving. "The girls gave them to me!" she used to say when strangers exclaimed at the number of the piled-up boxes, but she blushed even as she spoke, knowing well that to keep sixpence in her pocket and pass a pencil-box of a new design, was a feat of self-denial beyond imagination.
Dear, chubby, placid Betty was only thirteen, and cared for nothing in the world but her relations, chocolate-creams, and scrambling through the day's classes with as little exertion as possible. She shivered in her corner, poor mite, sucking audibly, to the distraction of her elders, the while she skimmed over her lessons, and looked forward to the time when she would be free to devote herself to the hobby of the hour.
Sometimes it was postcards; sometimes it was stamps; sometimes it was penny toys collected from street vendors. It had once soared as high as autographs, and a promising beginning of three signatures were already pasted into the remaining leaves of an exercise-book. Whatever the collection might be, it lived in heaps on the uncarpeted floor; and when Betty had a tidy fit, was covered with a crochet antimacassar which had known better days, and had grown decidedly mellow in tint.
On this particular afternoon, the two younger sisters were taking tea with school friends, while their elders enjoyed an uninterrupted tete- a-tete, when they could indulge in a favourite game. When life was unusually flat and prosaic, when the weather was wet, invitations conspicuous by their absence, and the want of pocket-money particularly poignant, Mollie would cry ardently: "Let's be Berengaria and Lucille!" and, presto! the two girls were transplanted to another world—a world with the magic letter W added to its address, where empty purses and dyed dresses existed not, and all was joy, jewellery, and junketing.
Lucille had lately become the bride of a millionaire and adoring duke; the peerless Berengaria wrought havoc with the peace of Lord Arthur, and had more suitors than she could count on the fingers of both hands. It was a fascinating make-believe; but, as Ruth plaintively remarked, it did come with somewhat of a shock to be dragged back to earth by—socks!
She stood leaning against the mantelpiece, looking on with frowning brows while her sister collected together scattered materials, and carried them and the yawning basket back to the cosy corner in Fireland, where, for the hour, she was an invited guest.
"Quick's the word and sharp's the action!" cried Mollie cheerily. "Now for a grand old cobble; and if there are any heels out to-day, my fine young gentlemen, don't blame me if you have to tread on knots for the rest of the week! It's the strangest thing on earth that I can remember nice things year after year without an effort, and yet forget this horrid mending every Saturday as regularly as the day comes round."
"Carelessness!" replied Ruth shortly, and with the candour of near relations. "I couldn't forget if I tried. First thing when I wake in the morning I think of all the bothersome duties I have to do in the day, and the last thing at night I am thinking of them still. But you are so frivolous, Mollie!"
"And you are so morbid, my dear! You don't offer to help me, I observe; and since you are so conscientious as all that, I should think you might lend me a hand in my extremity. There! I'll give you Ransome's for a treat; he breaks out at the toes, but his heels are intact. It's playwork mending for him compared with the other boys."
She tossed a collection of brown woollen stockings into her sister's lap, and Ruth took them up, frowning heavily with her black brows, but never dreaming of refusing the request, though her own share of the household mending had kept her employed during the earlier part of the afternoon, while Mollie was amusing herself elsewhere. She took a darning-egg out of her basket, threaded a needle daintily, and set to work in the painstaking manner which characterised all her efforts; but she sighed as she worked, and Mollie sang, and that was the difference between them.
"Don't make such a noise, Mollie; you make my head ache. Another time, I wish you would do your mending when I do mine, and then we should get a chance of a rest. Just to-day, too, when the girls are out! I hate a large family, where there is never any privacy or repose. I wish the pater could afford to send the boys to a boarding-school. It would be the making of them, and such a blessing to us."
Mollie pursed her lips disapprovingly.
"I'd miss them horribly. They are naughty, of course, and noisy and tiresome, and make no end of work, but that's the nature of boys; on the other hand, they are full of fun and good-humour, if you take them the right way. And they are affectionate little ruffians, too; and so good- looking. I'm proud of them on Sundays, in their Eton suits."
"But there's only one Sunday, and six long days of shabbiness and patches! Bruce ought to have a new school suit; the one he is wearing has descended from the other two, and is disgracefully shabby. I spoke to mother about it to-day, and she said she had intended to buy one this month, but business was bad, and there was the coal bill to pay. The old story! Business always is bad, and the coal bill is ever with us!"
Mollie crinkled her brows, and for a fraction of a second her face clouded.
"There's no hope for me, then! I was going to plead for an extra sovereign to carry me to the end of the quarter, for I've spent my last cent, and there are one or two absolute necessities which I shall have to get by hook or by crook, or stay in bed until the next allowance is due. Well; something will turn up, I suppose! It's always the darkest the hour before the dawn, and, financially speaking, it's pitch black at the present moment. Let's pretend Uncle Bernard suddenly appeared upon the scene, and presented us each with a handsome cheque."
"I'm tired of Uncle Bernard! Ever since I was a child I have heard about him and his eccentricities, and his house, and his wealth, and that we were his nearest relatives, and that some day he would surely remember us, and break his silence; but he never has, so now I look upon him as a sort of mythological figure who has no real existence. If he cared anything about us he would have written long ago. I expect he has forgotten our very existence, and left all his money to charities."
"I expect he has, but it's fun to pretend. Suppose he remembered my birthday and sent me a ten-pound note! Fancy me, my dear, with a whole ten pounds to spend as I liked. What fun we'd have! Most of it would have to go in useful things, but we'd take a sovereign or two and have a reckless burst just to see what it was like. A hansom to town, lunch at a real swagger restaurant; and, after that, good seats at a matinee, ices between the acts, and another hansom home, instead of shivering at the corner waiting for omnibuses. Oh, bliss! Oh, rapture! If it could only come true! If uncle would once come to see us, he couldn't help liking us; could he?"
"He'd like me best, because I am pretty," said Ruth calmly.
"He'd like me best, because I am so nice!" contradicted Mollie. And then they looked at each other, and each made a little grimace, supposed to express scorn and contempt, but in reality there was so complete an understanding beneath the pretence that it was almost as expressive as a caress.
After this came a few minutes' silence, while the two needles were woven diligently to and fro; then—
"Mollie!" said Ruth suddenly, "I've come to a decision. I've been thinking it over for ages, so don't imagine it's a whim, or that I don't mean what I say. It's time that one of us turned out and earned some money on our own account, and, as I'm the eldest, I'm the one to go. Business gets worse and worse, and expenses increase, and must go on increasing, as the children grow up. Trix will be sixteen in summer; in less than two years she will leave school, and three grown-up daughters are not needed in any house when the mother is well and strong. I once thought of waiting until then; but I am twenty-two now, and, if I am to do any good, there is no time to waste. You could get along without me even now."
The half-darned sock fell on Mollie's knee, and for once the sunny face looked thoroughly shocked and startled.
"I couldn't—I couldn't! None of us could! What would happen if everything depended on me? You remind me, and keep me up to the mark, and help me out of scrapes. I should be at my wit's end without you. Mother consults you about everything, and the girls obey you, and the boys pay more attention to you than they do to anyone else. Ruth, everybody needs you?"
"They love you best," Ruth said quietly. And the dark brows wrinkled in wistful fashion.
It was the truth that she was speaking, no empty striving for compliments; but why was it the truth? She worked hard; Mollie idled. She was conscientious, self-sacrificing, and methodical; Mollie knew not the meaning of method, and was frankly selfish on occasions. She worried herself ill about ways and means, and kept sedulously within the bounds of her small allowance; Mollie took no heed for the morrow, and was in a chronic condition of penury or debt.
Despite these striking contrasts, the fact remained, however, that if any member of the household were ill, or had a secret to confide, or a favour to request, they betook themselves to the heedless Mollie, rather than to herself. Dearly as she loved her sister, Ruth felt a little rankling of soreness mingling with her mystification. She did not yet realise the magic power which cheerfulness wields in this world, or the charm of a sunny face and a ready rippling laugh. Hearts turn to the sun as instinctively as plants, and forgive much for the sake of the warmth and glow.
"They love you best," said Ruth, and honest Mollie did not contradict, but stretched out her hand, and laid it caressingly on her sister's arm.
"But I love you, and I can't do without you, Ruth! I couldn't live alone, for you and I belong to each other. The others are dears in their way; but they are only 'steps,' and we two seem so close together. Imagine Attica without you! Imagine going to bed alone, with no one to talk to about the events of the day! What does the horrid old money matter? We always have been poor, and we always shall be. As long as I can remember mother has been in despair about the bills; but we wriggle through somehow, and we shall go on wriggling. It's horrid of you to talk of going away! Think of me!"
"That's selfish, Mollie. You are the last person I ought to think of just now. Mother comes first, and the poor old pater, and all those children. It comes to this, that I can't stand the present state of affairs any longer. I feel ashamed of taking even the pittance we have; and I'm tired of the pittance, too, and want to make money for myself, and not have to think a dozen times over before spending a penny!"
Mollie laughed—a pert, derisive little laugh.
"Sounds well, my dear; but, if it comes to that, what can you do? You can't teach, for you are not accomplished enough for advanced pupils, nor patient enough for children. Do you remember trying to teach Drummond to read, and rapping his poor little knuckles till they were blue? Besides, talking of pittances, you'd get less than nothing if you did try it. I don't see what you could do to earn a living."
"I could be a hospital nurse!"
"Perhaps you might—a bad one—for you don't like nursing, and would only do it for the sake of the pay. I should have no respect for you if you did that, Ruth. It would be too hard on the unfortunate patients?"
"I could be a companion—"
"People who want companions are old, or gouty, or mad; invariably disagreeable, or why have they to advertise for a friend? I think I see you shut up with a trying old lady, combing the lap-dog's hair, and winding wool! You wouldn't be a very agreeable companion, Ruthans dear. Better make the best of things, and stay where you are."
Ruth made no further protest, but her lips tightened with an expression of determination. Her mind being made up, she was not easily swayed from her purpose. She decided to talk to her mother on the subject on the following morning.
AN EVENING AT HOME.
The father of Ruth and Mollie Farrell had died when the latter was two years old, leaving his wife but a few hundred pounds with which to support herself and her children. She was a pretty, winsome creature, the sort of woman who attracts sympathy and love, but a most difficult person to help.
Friends came forward with suggestions and offers of assistance, and Mrs Farrell thanked them ardently, and wept, and agreed to all that they said. In words, she was ready to undertake any exertion, however arduous; but when it came to deeds, she was so weak, so incapable, so hopelessly confused, that the school, the boarding-house, and the home for Indian children ended successively in failure.
At the end of three years her scanty capital was almost exhausted; but at this critical moment the Fates—which seem to take special care of the helpless ones of the earth—sent Ernest Connor to play the part of rescuer. He was a round stone in a square hole, that is to say, a student by nature, who, by the exigencies of fortune, found himself doomed to a business life, wherein he was a painstaking but consistent failure.
Nervous and shy, he shrank from the society of women; but it was impossible to be shy with the irresponsible little widow, who confided all her troubles to him on the first day of their acquaintance, and asked his advice with tears in her pretty eyes. To his amazement, he found himself confiding his own troubles in return, and the ready sympathy accorded to them seemed the sweetest thing in the world. A month after their first meeting he asked her to be his wife, explaining honestly his financial position, and the uncertainty of improvement in the future.
"But you will help me!" he said. "The money will go twice as far when you hold the purse!"
And Mrs Farrell agreed with ardour, unabashed by previous failures. She went to her new home full of love and gratitude, and, let it be said at once, never had cause to regret the step in after years.
Ernest Connor was a devoted husband, and a most kindly father to the two little girls; but life was not easy. It was a constant strain to make ends meet, and as Trix, and Betty, and Drummond, and Ransome, and Bruce came in quick succession to fill the nursery, the strain grew even more and more acute.
The elder girls had been educated at a neighbouring high school, but left as soon as they were seventeen, and after that there was no money to spare for music and painting lessons, such as most girls continue as an interest and occupation long after schooldays are over.
Ruth and Mollie were kept busy teaching the babies and making clothes for the family—cutting down Trix's dress to do duty for Betty; laboriously planning little pairs of knickers out of trousers worn at the knees; patching, darning, covering-up, hiding over, turning and twisting; making up something out of nothing, with the lordly sum of fifteen pounds a year each for dress and pocket-money alike. They had never known the luxury, dear to girlish hearts, of choosing a garment simply because it was pretty or becoming. Dark, useful remnants were their lot; sailor-hats in summer, cloth toques in winter; stout, useful boots, and dogskin gloves which stood a year's hard wear.
Many a time over had Mollie stretched forth hands and feet for her sister's inspection, quoting derisively—
"'Her thickly—made country shoes could not conceal the slender contour of her ankles; her rough gloves served only to reveal the patrician beauty of her hands.' Look at that, my love—there's contour for you! There's patrician beauty! What rubbish those books do talk, to be sure!"
Many a time had the girls groaned together over their impecuniosity, and vaguely vowed to "do something" to remedy their condition, until at last Ruth's unrest had reached the point of action, and she determined to seize the first opportunity of a private conference with her mother.
It was not easy to secure a tete-a-tete in the house of Connor. On this particular evening, Trix was practising scales on the piano in the drawing-room, while Mollie read a novel, and Betty lolled on the rug; the three boys were busy at lessons, or, as they eloquently described it, "stewing," round the dining-room table. Mr Connor was smoking his pipe and reading the evening papers in his den at the back of the house; and the little, white-faced mother moved incessantly from room to room, no sooner settled in one place than she was seized with an anxious presentiment that she was needed elsewhere.
She was pretty still, in a pathetic, faded manner; and wherever she went she spoke loving, gentle words, and met loving glances in response: but, alas, her efforts seemed rather distracting than helpful! She stroked Drummond's hair, and asked if he was sure his throat was better, just as he was on the point of completing a difficult addition; she told her husband the tragic history of the cook's impertinence, and handed him a heavy bill, when the poor man was enjoying the first quiet rest of the day; she requested Mollie's advice about spare-room curtains at the moment when long-separated lovers were united, and it was agony to lift one's eyes from the page for the fraction of a second.
Husband and children alike answered gently and with courtesy, for, if there was little else, there was plenty of love in this shabby household, and the little mother was the central figure round which everything revolved; nevertheless, her departure was marked by half- involuntary sighs of relief, as if a disturbing element had been withdrawn.
Ruth knew that she would have to bide her time until the younger members of the family had retired to bed; but, too restless to settle down to any definite occupation, she drifted across the drawing-room to where Trix sat, her fingers scrambling up and down the notes of the piano. Trix was tall and lanky; she had grey eyes, set far apart, a retrousse nose, dotted over with quite a surprising number of freckles, and an untidy shock of light-brown hair.
In years to come it was possible that she might develop into a pretty girl; at the present moment she despised appearances, and certainly failed to make the best of her good points. Now, as she sat by the piano-stool, with shoulders hunched up and head poked forward, she looked so awkward and ungainly that Ruth's tried nerves suffered afresh at the sight.
"For pity's sake, sit up, Trix!" she cried sharply. "You look a perfect object, bent double like that! You might be deformed, to look at your back! If you go on like this, you will grow so round-shouldered that you won't be able to get straight again, and how will you like that?"
Trix deliberately finished her scale, then faced her sister, and retorted pertly—
"Very much indeed, thank you—if you will only realise that I can't help it, and leave me alone! I'd rather be a humpback at once, than be worried morning, noon, and night about deportment, as I am now. My back's my own; I can use it as I like!"
"It's wicked to talk like that, Trix, and very impertinent as well! Who is to tell you of your faults if we don't at home? Other people look on, and say, 'What a fright that girl looks! How shockingly she carries herself!' But they don't trouble to tell you about it, and it is not very pleasant for us when you take it like this. If we did not love you and care for your interests—"
"Oh dear me," sighed naughty Trix, "then I wish you'd love me a little less! I could bear it quite well if you lost your interest, and left me in peace. You and Mollie can do the beauty show for the family; I am content to represent 'intellect and common-sense.' If you want something to do, you might help me with a French exercise instead of nagging. It's simply awful to-day; and if I lose any more marks, it's all up with my chance of getting a prize. Now, then—will you, or won't you?"
Trix's method of asking favours was hardly as ingratiating as might be desired, and for a moment the chances seemed all in favour of a refusal. The colour flamed in Ruth's cheeks, and her black brows drew ominously near together. She was fighting a hard battle against pride and resentment; but, as was usually the case, the better self won. She nodded back at Trix, and said—
"I will! ... Run and bring your books. We won't venture into the dining-room, for the boys make such a noise that one can't hear one's own voice."
There was something very sweet in the absolute surrender of self-will, and Trix, who was the most warm-hearted of mortals, promptly bounded up from her stool and flung her arms round her sister's neck.
"You duck—you angel! You shall nag at me as much as ever you like, and I'll never be cheeky again. It's brickish of you to worry about me at all; but I'll always be a fright, so what's the use? You are pretty enough for the family, Ruth. Ella Bruce's brother watches behind the curtains every Sunday to see you pass, and he says you are the prettiest girl he knows, and are always so nicely dressed!"
"Poor, deluded mortal; may he be forgiven for his blindness! I'm the shabbiest creature in the parish! It's very nice of him to watch; but I wish he would come out from behind the curtains and let me see him. I have not so many admirers that I can afford to have them hidden from view. What is he like, Trix; handsome?"
"Oh, well enough! Ella thinks him a model, but he is too thin and lanky for my taste. He is not half good enough for you, Ruth, anyway. You ought to marry a duke, and retrieve the fortunes of the family!"
"I'm willing, my dear. Produce him, and I promise you I will not stand in the way. I could do quite easily with being a duchess. It would be so soothing to be called 'Your Grace,' and a coronet is peculiarly suited to my style of beauty. I won't have you for a bridesmaid, though, if you stoop like that. Get your book, Trix, and let us set to work. Better take advantage of my good mood while it lasts."
Trix departed obediently, and returned with a pile of books, which she dropped upon the table with a bang, which made the other occupants of the room start in their seats, and for the next hour the two girls wrestled with the difficulties of an advanced Brachet exercise. Truth to tell, Ruth was not much more expert than Trix herself; but she was infinitely more exact, and, by dint of hunting up back rules, and making endless references to the irregular verbs, the result achieved was fairly correct.
It was ten o'clock. Betty and the three boys had departed to bed; Mollie still sat gloating over her novel, with a forefinger thrust into either ear to shut out the sound of the disturbing discussion on moods and tenses. Trix collected her books with a sigh, and prepared to go upstairs in her turn. She looked white and tired, and the freckles on her nose seemed darker and more conspicuous than ever.
"Good-night, old Ruth! Thanks, most awfully! I'll do as much for you some day."
"Good-night, young Trix! Mind you do. I shall remind you when the time comes."
The door opened and closed; Ruth rose wearily, and laid her hand on Mollie's shoulder. Such a charming face was lifted to meet her glance— so fresh, so bright, full of such dazzling youth and vigour! True, Mollie had been lazing all the evening while the others worked; but as Ruth stood looking down at her she wondered for the hundredth time how it was that so little was made of Mollie's beauty in comparison with her own.
The golden hair rippled back in a thick, soft wave; the grey eyes were large, and generously lashed; the laughing lips parted, to show white, even, little teeth; yet a stranger, looking for the first time at Mollie Farrell, rarely remarked upon her good looks.
"What a nice girl! What a dear girl! What a delightful creature!" they cried, according to their different degrees of enthusiasm. They wanted to know her, to have her for a friend, and forgot to think of mere outward appearance.
"What a noise you have been making, Ruth!" said Mollie lazily. "I can't think why you can't be quiet when you get a chance! This book is too exciting for words. I told you how the lovers quarrelled just after they were married, and he went abroad, thinking, of course, that she didn't love him any more; while, of course, she simply adored the ground he trod on, but thought that he had grown tired of her, while he was more madly in—"
Ruth gave an exclamation of impatience.
"Oh, what rubbish! I don't believe such things are possible! If they really loved each other, do you suppose they could keep on pretending while they lived together every day, and when it came to saying good-bye into the bargain? Nonsense! She'd break down and howl, and he would comfort her, and take off his coat. Look here, Mollie—go to bed! I've waited all the evening to have a talk with mother, and you are the only impediment left. Take your book with you if you like,—but go!"
Mollie rose, unwillingly enough.
"I know what you want to talk about," she said, looking into Ruth's face. "I know; and it's not a mite of use. Mother won't let you leave home; she needs you far too much. I shan't go to sleep, for I shall want to hear every single word when you come upstairs. I'll snoodle up to the hot bottle, and read till you come."
The programme sounded very attractive,—to snoodle up to the hot bottle, and lie at ease reading an interesting book,—much more attractive than to linger downstairs by the dying fire, and discuss disagreeable problems with an anxious mother. But Ruth did not waver in her decision, and a few moments later Mrs Connor was caught paying a round of visits to the children's bedrooms—"just in time," as Ruth thought whimsically, "to waken the poor souls from their first sleep!"—and escorted back to the chair which Mollie had vacated.
"Is anything wrong, dear?" she asked nervously. Poor little woman, if a surprise were in store, it seemed so much more likely that it should be disagreeable rather than bright! "You don't feel feverish, or ill, or—"
"No, no, my dear; I just want to talk to you about my own affairs. I'm quite well, and so strong and—and grown-up, don't you know, that it is time I grew independent, and began life on my own account. You have Mollie at home, and Trix and Betty growing up, and I think, mother dear, that I ought not to be dependent on the pater any longer. He has been very good and kind to us all these years; but, still—"
She hesitated, and Mrs Connor looked at her with anxious tenderness. She had honestly considered the welfare of her two little girls as much as her own when she decided to marry a second time, and it had been a constant joy to feel that her expectations had been fulfilled; yet here was Ruth, her firstborn darling, her right hand in household affairs, actually talking of leaving home!
"Aren't you happy, Ruth? Have you not been happy all these years? I thought you were quite content and satisfied."
She sighed; and Ruth gave an echoing sigh, and answered honestly—
"Quite happy, darling, as far as you and the pater are concerned. He could not have been kinder to us if we had been his very own daughters. But satisfied? Oh no, mother; never satisfied for a long time back! How could I be? I don't want to seem ungrateful; but I'm only twenty- one, and it has been all work and no play, and there are so many, many things that I want to do, and see, and feel. I've never been to a proper grown-up dance in my life, for if we have been asked we have not had decent clothes to go in, and we never invite anyone here, so now people have given over asking us even to quiet evenings. I hardly ever speak to a soul outside this house, and I get so tired of it all;—and only fifteen pounds a year for dress and pocket-money! Remember what your allowance was when you were a girl, and all the jolly times you had, and the parties, and the visits, and the trips abroad,—and then think of our lives. It is dull for us, isn't it, dear?"
Mrs Connor's pale cheeks flushed with a touch of offence. Not having sufficient insight into girls' natures to understand that there was nothing either undutiful or unnatural in Ruth's lament, she felt herself personally injured thereby.
"Mollie is happy—Mollie is content!" she said briefly.
And Ruth assented with a brief "Yes," and said no more.
If the difference between Mollie's nature and her own was not patent to their own mother, it was useless to enlarge upon it. She waited a moment or two to regain composure, then continued quietly—
"But that was not exactly the point. I did not mean to speak of my own troubles. What I feel is that when business is so bad, it is not right for two grown-up girls to stay at home. You could get on without me, with a little extra help for sewing, and in time I might earn enough, not only to keep myself but to help the others. Honestly, now, don't you think I am right? In my place, would you not feel it your duty to the pater to be independent, and lighten his responsibility, if even by a little?"
Mrs Connor sat silent, torn between two thoughts—dread of parting from Ruth, and a longing to help the overburdened husband, who had come as a rescuer in her own need. No one but herself guessed how it tore her heart to present him with fresh bills, or to ask for money for all the thousand-and-one needs of a growing family. Her very dread and nervousness made her choose inappropriate moments for her requests, and Mr Connor's aloofness from the ordinary workaday world made matters still more difficult. He probably considered fifteen pounds a year a lordly dress allowance for his two step-daughters; certainly he would not have noticed if they had worn the same garments every day for years on end. His own clothes lasted him for an incredible period, and were always neatly brushed and folded. It did not occur to him that girls needed more change than himself.
Mrs Connor sat and pondered. It was terrible to think of parting from Ruth, but the strain of making both ends meet was becoming so acute that some method of retrenchment must inevitably be found. It is easy for rich people to cut down expenses—to give up carriage and horses, dismiss two or three servants, and indulge in fewer pleasures and excitements; but it is a very different matter when there are no superfluities with which to part, but only, as it seems, the barest necessaries of life. Mrs Connor's eyes filled slowly with tears as she stretched out her hand and laid it over her daughter's. It was the signal of capitulation, and Ruth recognised it as such, and felt a sinking of the heart.
"You will let me go, mother?" she asked.
And Mrs Connor answered brokenly—
"If I must, I must! You would come home for the holidays: we should not lose you altogether. But oh, Ruth, not yet! Wait until the beginning of the term. Years ago, when things were at their very worst with me, and I did not know where to turn for help, God sent my dear husband to take care of me and you two babies. Perhaps—perhaps something may happen again. Perhaps, after all, it may not be necessary!"
They kissed each other silently, and parted for the night. Half-way upstairs Ruth remembered that her mother had not once inquired as to the nature of the work she intended to undertake, and smiled whimsically to herself. It was so very characteristic of the irresponsible little mistress of the household!
A PROPOSAL AND A REFUSAL.
It was tacitly understood in the household that after Easter Ruth was going to do "something" to retrieve the family fortunes, but what that "something" should be remained vague and undefined. Ruth herself debated the question morning, noon, and night, and, like many another poor girl in the same position, bitterly regretted an education which had given her no one marketable qualification. She could play a little, draw a little, speak French a little, speak German a little less, make her own clothes in amateur fashion, and—what else? Nothing at all that any able-bodied woman could not accomplish equally well. If she had concentrated her energies on one definite thing, and learnt to do it, not pretty well, nor very well, but just as well as it could possibly be done, what a different prospect would have stretched before her now!
If she decided to teach, she must be content to accept juvenile pupils and a poor salary; if she became a companion, she must sacrifice all spirit of independence, and become a dutiful drudge, while she knew in her inmost heart that it would be wrong to take up nursing, since she felt no real vocation for the task.
It was useless to ask advice of anyone at home, so, one afternoon, Ruth betook herself to almost the only intimate friend she possessed,—a middle-aged spinster who kept house for an adored doctor brother. The brother was a friend into the bargain—a tall, thin, clever—looking man of thirty-eight, engrossed in his practice, which was one of the most prosperous in the neighbourhood. Brother and sister were seated at tea together when Ruth was announced, and she looked round the pretty room with admiring eyes. Pink silk lamp-shades, luxurious cushions, bowls of spring flowers, a tea equipage, bright and dainty and complete,—oh, how delightful it all looked after the bare shabbiness of the room at home; and what fascinating clothes Eleanor was wearing!
Despite her affection, one-and-twenty was inclined to think pretty things thrown away upon an antediluvian creature of forty, but if Ruth could have had a glimpse of herself as "others saw her" at that moment, she might have been more content. The subdued lamp-light dealt kindly with the old blue serge coat and skirt, the pink scarf at her neck matched the colour on her cheeks, and the eyes underneath the black brows were unusually bright and animated. She was always a welcome guest at this hospitable house, and it was a pleasant variety to be petted and fussed over, provided with cushions and footstools, and tempted to eat by a fresh supply of hot buttered scones and a delectable chocolate cake studded over with walnuts. Ruth laughed, and dimpled into ever brighter beauty.
"It makes me feel so nice and young," she cried, "as if I were a spoilt only child, instead of the staid eldest daughter of a family! But I ought to be staid; I can't afford to frivol any longer, for I am going to take a most important step, and start life on my own account."
Brother and sister alike looked up with sharp inquiry, and Ruth, understanding, broke into a merry laugh.
"Oh, not that! Nothing half so interesting! Merely going to earn my living, and I came to ask your advice as to how I had best set about it. Nothing is decided so far, except that I am to earn enough money to keep myself, and contribute largely to home expenses. That's the end, but the puzzle is to find out the means."
"Poor lassie!" said Miss Maclure gently. She had a soft, Scotch burr in her voice, and her plain face was full of an almost motherly kindness as she looked at the pretty girl across the hearth. She had private means of her own, and her brother was a prosperous man; but she knew enough of the world to understand the nature of the struggle of which Ruth spoke so lightly.
"It's easier saying than doing, I'm afraid, dearie. There are so many women searching for work nowadays, and for many positions it is necessary to prepare by long and expensive training. We wanted a lady secretary for one of the societies in which I am interested, and we had hundreds of applicants who were expert typists and stenographers, and had all sorts of diplomas to show, but you have nothing of the kind."
"No, nor a penny to spend on training. I must be taken as I am, or not at all. Don't discourage me, Eleanor, please. Mollie runs the cold tap persistently at home, and I really need appreciation. There must be something that I can do, if I set my wits to work. I am not going to be a nurse, Dr Maclure, so don't think that I am leading up to a request that you should get me into a hospital. I don't like sick people unless they are my very own, and it would be almost as dull to be shut up in a hospital as to remain at home."
Miss Maclure looked a trifle shocked at this candid confession, but her brother laughed, and said approvingly—
"That's right! I admire your honesty. We have far too many nurses who take up the work without any real fitness, and I should be sorry to see you added to the number. Well, let me see! ... After hospital nursing, the next most popular resort is to turn author and write a novel. Have you any leaning in that direction?"
He looked across at Ruth with a humorous twitching of his clean-shaven lips. Once again she felt conscious that the Maclures looked upon her as a pretty child, to be petted and humoured rather than a serious woman of the world, and once again the knowledge brought with it a feeling of rest and comfort.
She crinkled her brows and smiled back at the doctor, answering frankly—
"Oh yes, plenty of leanings! I should love to write, and Mollie and I are always 'imagining' to make life more lively and exciting; but, when it comes to sitting down with a pen in my hand, my thoughts seem to take wing and fly away, and the words won't come. They are all stiff and formal, and won't express what I want. Mollie gets on better, for she writes as she talks, so it's natural at least. She wrote quite a long story once, and read it aloud to me as she went on, but it was never finished, and I don't think for a moment that any paper would have looked at it. The people were all lords and dukes and millionaires, and we don't know even a knight. I expect it was full of mistakes."
Dr Maclure smiled and rose from his seat.
"Well, I have some letters to write, so I will leave you to have your talk with Eleanor; but I am starting off again on my rounds in half an hour, and shall be driving past your house. It is a disagreeable evening. Will you let me give you a lift?"
Ruth consented eagerly. The blue serge coat felt none too warm in the bleak east wind, and it would be a relief to be spared the chilly walk, and be bowled along instead in the doctor's luxurious brougham. She drew her chair nearer to the fire, and proceeded to confide various whys and wherefores to the sympathetic Eleanor—sympathetic, but hardly responsive this afternoon for some mysterious reason. The while Ruth set forward one idea after another, Miss Maclure sat gazing at her with an intent, questioning gaze, as though too much occupied with her own thoughts to grasp the meaning of the conversation. Ruth felt chilled and disappointed, for during the last few days the constant thought in the background of her mind had been, "Eleanor will advise me! Eleanor will know what to do!"
Miss Maclure was a busy woman, whose name figured in a dozen committees. She knew everyone, went everywhere, and her word had weight in guilds, societies, and associations. What could be more easy than for her to find a pleasant and lucrative berth for a pet girl friend, and settle her in it without delay? Ruth had already imagined a touching scene wherein she had been introduced to her future sphere of work, while those in authority overpowered Miss Maclure with thanks for helping them to find the ideal person to fill the vacant post. But Eleanor said nothing, suggested nothing, only sat staring with those grave, questioning eyes!
It was almost a relief when the half-hour was over, and the doctor gave the summons for departure. Then Eleanor came back to the present once more, and was all that was kind and loving.
"Have you no wraps with you, dear? Is that all you have on?" she asked, as the girl buttoned her thin coat and pulled the scarf higher round her throat; and Ruth answered "Yes," in an irresponsive tone, which effectually put a stop to further remarks. She might speak of her own poverty, but not even Eleanor Maclure herself could be allowed to pity, or offer to supply a want. That was Miss Ruth's idea of proper pride, and she straightened her back, and held her head higher than ever as she crossed the hall and took her seat in the carriage.
Such a luxurious brougham it was, with its well-cushioned seats, its electric reading-lamp attached to the wall, its rack for books and papers, and cosy fur rug! Ruth tucked the rug securely in position, and, looking up, caught the reflection of her face in the strip of mirror opposite. The blue serge toque sat so jauntily on her head that it looked quite smart; the pink tie was undoubtedly becoming. Well, it was a comfort to be pretty, at least! To have been poor and plain would have been quite too depressing. She smiled back in approving fashion, to feel somewhat disconcerted a moment later as the mirror reflected Donald Maclure's face beside her own. He was staring at her with the same intent questioning which she had noticed in Eleanor's eyes, and surely he looked paler, older, more haggard than usual! She turned towards him, warmed into increased friendship by the presentiment that he was in trouble like herself.
"It's so good of you to take me home, Dr Maclure! It may seem curious to you, but it's quite a treat to me to drive about in this comfy carriage. I so seldom travel in anything but shaky omnibuses. I should not object to being a lady doctor, if I could have a brougham like this of my very own. There! We never thought of that when we were discussing my possible fields of labour!"
Dr Maclure bent forward, and glanced out of the window. His horse was travelling quickly to-night; in another ten minutes Mr Connor's house would be reached, and his opportunity over. He turned to face his companion, and said quietly—
"There is another possibility open to you, Ruth, which you have perhaps not considered. Have you ever thought of it, I wonder? Can you guess what I mean?"
The grey eyes stared into his in frankest bewilderment.
"No," cried Ruth—"no! What is it? Something nice? Tell me what it is."
"You have never guessed that I love you; that I have loved you for years, since you were a girl at school? You have never once guessed it all this time?"
He read his answer in the blank face and startled eyes, for Ruth was too utterly taken aback to feel the usual embarrassment. She sat perfectly still, gazing not at him but at the reflection of his face in the mirror opposite. Dr Maclure! Was she dreaming, or was it really his voice which she heard uttering these extraordinary words? Dr Maclure loved her—had loved her for years! It was too inconceivable to be grasped! He asked if she had not guessed his secret, but Ruth had not thought of him at all; he had not entered into her calculations except as "Eleanor's brother"—a nonentity who might be agreeable or the reverse, according as he drove her home on wet evenings, or interrupted a cosy tete-a-tete.
She did not reply to the question in words; but he was answered all the same, for she heard him sigh, and saw a quiver pass across the thin face.
"I am too old, Ruth—is that it? You never thought of me as a possible lover?"
"Oh no, never once! You always seemed so busy and occupied, and you have Eleanor to look after you. You have always been very kind to me, but you were kind to Mollie and Trix and Betty as well. I did not feel that you treated me differently from them. You are so clever; and you saw yourself, when we talked this afternoon, I can do nothing.—I don't see how you can possibly like me."
"Don't you?" he asked quietly. "But I do, Ruth; I care more than I can express. I have not spoken before, for you seemed too young. I should not have spoken to-day if you had not told us of this new move. You don't know how hard it is for a girl to go out into the world and earn her living; but I do, and I should like to save you from it, if it can be done. I could give you a comfortable home, and enough money to make life easy and pleasant. It would be my best happiness to see you happy. We could travel; you would be able to help Mollie and the rest. If you married me, your people would be my people, and I should be as anxious as yourself to let them share our good fortune; and I would love you very dearly, Ruth! I seem old to you, perhaps, but my love would be more proved and certain than if I were a boy of your own age. I am a prosperous man, but I want something more from life than I have had so far—something that you alone can give roe. You hold my key to happiness, Ruth!"
Ruth drew back into the corner of the carriage and turned her face into the shadow. She wanted to think. What an extraordinary change in the outlook at life to have happened in a few brief moments! Dr Maclure's wife! Here was an answer indeed to the question which had been occupying her thoughts for the last few weeks!
Suppose—suppose, just for one moment, that she said yes? Suppose that on getting home she walked into the dining-room and announced her engagement to a prosperous and charming man, who was already a family friend and favourite? What fun! What excitement! What pride on the part of the little mother; what transparent relief to the overtaxed pater! Mollie and Trix would begin at once to discuss bridesmaids' dresses, and there would be a trousseau to buy, and all the bustle and excitement of a first marriage in a family. And afterwards? A big, handsomely appointed house, pretty clothes, lots of money, the power to help those whom she loved...
It sounded good—very good indeed! Much more attractive than those nursery governess and companion schemes which she dreaded, despite all her resolutions. It would be delightful to be her own mistress, and do just as she liked...
And then a thought occurred. What of Eleanor? Ruth recalled the intent gaze which had mystified her so much during the afternoon, and felt convinced that Miss Maclure had guessed her brother's secret. What was her feeling in the matter? Was she jealous of a rival in her brother's affections, or loyally anxious for his happiness, regardless of how her own future might be affected? A spasm of curiosity found voice in a sudden question—
"But there is Eleanor. If you married, what would become of her?"
"There would be no difficulty about that. When we took up house together we made a solemn agreement that if either wished to marry in the future the other should not hinder in any possible way. Eleanor has her own income, and many interests in life to keep her happy and occupied. She would live near us, I hope, but you should be entire mistress of your home, Ruth."
He evidently thought she had looked upon his sister's presence in the house as a hindrance to her happiness, but, in truth, Ruth felt a chilly sinking of heart at his reply. The thought of the big house was not half so attractive, shorn of the figure of the sympathetic friend. The library with no Eleanor sitting writing at her desk; the drawing-room with no Eleanor in the deep-cushioned chair; the dining-room with no Eleanor at the head of the table—how blank it all seemed! How dreadfully dull to be alone all day, with only the doctor to break the monotony! Only the doctor! The blood rushed in a flood to Ruth's cheeks as she realised the significance of that one word. She turned impetuously towards her companion, and gripped his arm with nervous pressure.
"Don't tempt me!" she cried earnestly—"don't tempt me! There are so many things that I should like, and I keep thinking of them, when I should think only of you.—I'd love to be rich, and have a nice house, and play Lady Bountiful at home! I'd love to travel about and see the world, instead of jogging along in one little rut; and, really and truly, I dread turning out to work, and am a coward at heart—but,— that's all! I have always liked you very much as a friend, but I can't imagine ever feeling any different. When I was thinking over things just now, I—don't be angry! I don't want to hurt you, only to be quite, quite honest—I thought more of Eleanor than of you! I hardly thought of you at all."
The doctor's thin face looked very drawn and pained, but he smiled in response to her pleading glance.
"I'm not angry, dear. Why should I be? It is not your fault that you do not care, and it is best for us both to know the truth. I feared it might be so. I am too old and staid to attract a bright young girl, but I even now cannot bring myself to regret my love. It has given me the happiest hours of my life, and I hope you will always let me help you in any way that is possible. I think you owe me that privilege, don't you, Ruth?"
"Oh, I do—I do! If it is any pleasure to you, I promise faithfully to come to you whenever I need a friend, and I should like you to help me. That means a great deal, for I am horribly proud. There are very few people from whom I can accept a favour."
He smiled again, but with an evident effort, and Ruth, peeping at his averted profile, felt a pang of real personal suffering at the sight of his pain. It seemed dreadful that she should have such power to affect this strong man; to take the light out of his face and make it old and worn and grey!
The carriage was nearing home; in a few minutes' time the drive would be over, and she would have no chance of continuing the conversation. With a sudden swelling of the heart she realised that she could not part without another expression of regret.
"I am so sorry, so dreadfully sorry to have grieved you! But you would not like me to marry you just for what you could give me; you would not have been satisfied with that, would you, Dr Maclure?"
His eyes met hers with a flash of determination.
"No," he cried—unhesitatingly—"never! I want a wife who loves me, or no wife at all! One never knows what lies ahead in this world, and if dark days come I should like to feel that she cared for me more, rather than less. It would be hard for us both if she valued only my possessions, and they took to themselves wings and fled. And there is your own future to consider. Love will come to you some day, and you must be free to welcome him. Don't distress yourself about me, Ruth; I have my work for consolation. Before I get home to-night I shall have seen so much suffering that I shall be ashamed to nurse my own trouble."
"Yes," said Ruth faintly.
His words seemed to place her at an immense distance, as if already he had accepted his burden and put it resolutely out of sight. She felt chilled and humiliated, for in the depths of her heart she knew that if Dr Maclure had been persistent in his request, and had condescended to "tempt" her, to use her own expressive phrase, she would very probably have succumbed to the temptation, however much she might have regretted her decision later on. But Donald would have none of her; he wanted a wife who cared for himself, and not for his possessions. Ruth felt almost as if it were she herself who had been refused. It was not an agreeable sensation to experience after a first proposal.
One bright spring afternoon about a week after Ruth's visit to Miss Maclure, Mollie went out to execute some shopping commissions, and on her way home took a short cut through the park, which was the great summer resort of the northern town in which her lot was cast.
She was an ardent lover of Nature, and it was a joy to see the tiny green buds bursting into life on trees and hedges, and to realise that the long winter was at an end.
"Nasty, shivery, chilblainey thing,—I hate it!" said Mollie to herself, with a shiver of disgust. "It might be very nice if one had lots of furs, and skating, and parties, and fires in one's bedroom. People who can enjoy themselves like that may talk of the 'joys of winter,' but, from my point of view, they don't exist. Give me summer, and flowers at a penny a bunch! This dear old park and I have had many good times together. I think I have sampled most of the seats in my time!"
It was, indeed, a favourite summer custom of the Farrell girls to repair to a shady bench under a tree with such portable sewing as happened to be on hand, for when the sun shone in its strength the temperature of Attica was more like that of an oven than a room. The winding paths were, therefore, familiar to Mollie; but they were apt to be puzzling to strangers who, like herself, wished to take a short cut from one side of the park to another.
To-day as she approached the junction of four cross-ways, she saw before her the figure of an old man, glancing irresolutely from side to side, then turning round, as though in search of someone whom he could consult in his perplexity. Besides Mollie herself, there was no one in sight, so she quickened her pace and approached the stranger with the bright, frank smile which came so readily to her lips. Mollie was nothing if not sociable; she never lost a chance of talking if it came in her way; even to direct wandering old gentlemen was more amusing than nothing, and this one had such a curious old-world appearance!
"Can I help you?" she asked brightly; and the old man planted his stick more firmly on the ground, and stared at her with grim disfavour.
"In what way, may I ask, do I appear to be in need of help?"
It was decidedly a snub, but some people are not easily quelled, and Mollie Farrell was one of the number. Instead of being annoyed, she was simply amused, and her grey eyes twinkled with mischief. He was a cross old dear, and proud too! quite amazed that anyone should suppose it possible that he should need assistance of any kind.
"I'm sorry," she replied; "I thought you had lost your way, and that I might be able to direct you. Please forgive me for seeming to interfere."
She took a step forward, but the old man's eyes seemed to hold her back. He was looking at her fixedly beneath his heavy brows; such bushy, black eyebrows they were, and she fancied that the grim expression softened for a moment as he replied—
"You are right. I have lost my way! My cabman brought me to the park gates, and as he said there was a direct path across, I thought I should like the walk. As a result, I find myself completely out of my reckoning. It is a stretch of imagination to call this a direct path."
"Oh, it's direct enough when you know it," said Mollie easily, "ever so much nicer than going round by the streets. It is a beautiful park, and we are very proud of it. When the trees are in blossom, it is like fairyland—you can't imagine how beautiful it is."
"Possibly not," returned the stranger curtly. "In the meantime, however, there is nothing particularly alluring in the scene, and you will excuse my reminding you that we are standing in a direct draught. I should be obliged if you could direct me to Langton Terrace without further delay."
Mollie laughed merrily.
"That is just what I have been waiting to do, but you would not tell me where you were bound. I am walking in that direction myself, and if you will allow me I will show you the shortest cut. I know the park so well that I can dodge about from one path to another, and cut off some of the corners. It is cold just here, but the cross-roads are sheltered even now."
The stranger shrugged his shoulders, and said "Humph" in an incredulous manner, and that was his sole reply in words. He turned, however, and walked by Mollie's side, leaning heavily on his stick, and taking such short, laboured steps, that it was evident that the exercise was almost too much for his strength. Mollie longed to offer him the support of her strong arm, but even her audacity failed at the sight of the grim face. She looked inquiringly at his feet, for the symptoms of temper all hinted to the explanation of gout. But no! there were no cloth shoes to be seen, only the trimmest of well-polished boots.
"Perhaps he is just recovering from an attack, or sickening for another," said Mollie to herself. "Anyway, he is ill, poor old fellow, for his face looks quite grey, just like that poor Mr Burgess before he died. I expect he can't help being cross. I should be horrid myself if I were always in pain. I remember that day I had on those new boots that hurt my feet, I quarrelled with Ruth all the way home... The question is, shall I talk, or let him alone? If it were me, I'd like to be amused, to make the time pass. I'll try anyway, and see how he responds."
They had entered one of the smaller paths by this time, and to the right lay the wide, grey surface of a lake dotted over by little islands, the largest of which was connected with the shore by an ornamental bridge. Mollie felt a kind of possessive pride in the scene, and pointed out the beauties thereof as eagerly as though she were the owner of all she surveyed.
"It's the largest lake in any of the parks in the north; some people say it is nearly as big as the Serpentine. I don't know, for I have never been in London. In summer-time hundreds of men come and sail boats— quite great big boats—from side to side. It looks so pretty to see all the white sails floating about in the sunshine."
("Doesn't care for boats. I'll try something else.") "Do you see that big island, the biggest of all?" pursued the indefatigable Mollie aloud. "It is full of peacocks. There are dozens and dozens of peacocks! You can see them sometimes strutting about with their tails spread out, and roosting right up in the trees. People say that peacocks are the laziest birds in existence. They go to rest earlier, and get up later than anything else."
Still grimmer silence; still slower and more halting footsteps. Presently the stranger stopped short and asked abruptly—
"How far are we still from Langton Terrace? Five minutes' walk—ten minutes? We are more than half-way, I suppose?"
"Not quite, I am afraid. If you are tired, would you not rest on this seat for a few minutes? It is really quite sheltered behind the trees. If you can tell me which end of the terrace you want to reach, it will make a little difference in the way we ought to take. There are three blocks of houses, which are all known by the same name. You wanted to go to—"
"Number 7," said the stranger; and sat down heavily upon the seat. He leant both hands on his stick and rested his chin upon them, as though thankful for the support; and Mollie stood before him staring fixedly at his face.
Aquiline features, sharpened by suffering into yet finer lines, closely- set lips drooping out into lines of fretful impatience, sunken eyes beneath overhanging brows. She studied them one by one, until, struck by her silence, the old man looked up in surprise.
"Number 7, I said. If you live in the neighbourhood, you may know the house, and possibly its inmates?"
"Yes, I know them all; they are nice people and very kind to me. I've known them quite a number of years."
"Mr and Mrs Connor have a large family, I believe—a number of young children."
"Oh, dozens!" replied Mollie easily. She was enjoying herself intensely, but trying to preserve an appearance of innocent calm. "What an adventure," she was saying to herself—"oh, what an adventure. What fun to tell it all to Ruth and the girls! I must remember every word, so as to repeat it in style!" Aloud, she added carelessly, "There are two girls, and lots of little boys. It seems as if there were boys, boys everywhere, wherever you turn all over the house; but they are ubiquitous creatures, so perhaps there are not quite so many as it seems. They are handsome little fellows, and I believe clever too. Mrs Connor is a very pretty woman, and always kind and gentle. Everybody likes her. Mr Connor is nice too. I don't think he is at all strong, and he has to work very hard for that big family."
"Indeed!" The strange old man did not display the slightest sign of sympathy for Mr Connor's anxieties. He relaxed his hold of the stick, and sank wearily against the back of the seat. "There are two step- daughters, I believe—the two Miss Farrells?"
"Ah!" exclaimed Mollie deeply. It was quite a tragic note, as who should say, "Now we are beginning to talk! Now, at last, we reach the real point of the discussion! Just that deep 'Ah,' and no more, until perforce another question must be asked.
"You know the Miss Farrells also?"
"And find them as attractive as the rest of the family?"
"Oh, more—much more! They are darlings!" cried Mollie, with unction, "especially the younger. Her name is Mary, but they call her Mollie, because it suits her better. Don't you always imagine a Mollie very sweet, and charming, and attractive?"
"I can't say that I have devoted any attention to the subject. So Mary is the younger of the two, is she? And the elder?"
"Ruth! she's pretty and serious, and very, very nice; but Mollie is nicer, all the same. When you get to know them, you must promise to like Mollie best, for my sake! I'm so fond of her, that I want everybody to be the same. I like her better than anyone I ever knew!"
The old man smiled grimly.
"You appear to be of an enthusiastic temperament; I fancy I shall prefer to judge for myself when I make the young lady's acquaintance. We had better be getting on now. I am sorry to hinder your progress, but it is not possible for me to move more quickly at present. I should not have attempted the walk if I had known that it was so long; but the cab jolted insufferably, and the sunshine was tempting. Well,—there is nothing for it but to make another effort!"
He pressed his hands on the seat to lighten the effort of rising, but before he had got any further, Mollie stepped forward eagerly, and laid a hand on his shoulder. Her cheeks were flushed with colour, her eyes a-sparkle with excitement.
"Unless you will let me help you! ... I'm very strong; I could support you easily, if you would take my arm and lean on me. I'd love to do it. Do let me? Won't you,—Uncle Bernard?"
The old man fell backward on the seat with an exclamation of keenest surprise. His sunken eyes stared into Mollie's face as she bent over him; at the golden hair curling beneath the dark toque, the grey eyes, the curving lips. Each feature in turn was scrutinised as if he were searching for something familiar which had so far escaped notice. Apparently it was not discovered, for the expression of amazement deepened upon his face, and he asked sharply—
"What did you say? What did you call me? I don't understand what you can mean!"
Mollie sat down on the bench, and smiled brightly into his face.
"Uncle Bernard! You are Uncle Bernard Farrell! I knew you the moment you said that you were going to Number 7, and asked if I knew the Connors. Of course I know them, because I am—" She hesitated, and Mr Farrell finished the sentence for her.
"You are one of Mr Connor's daughters. The eldest, I presume. I have not the pleasure of knowing your name."
"No-o! I am not Trix. She is a child, only fifteen. I was nineteen on my last birthday. I am,"—for once in her life Mollie had the grace to blush, and looked a trifle discomposed—"I'm Mollie Farrell."
The glance which the old man cast upon her was the reverse of flattering.
"You are Mollie Farrell, are you?" he repeated coldly. "Evidently modesty is not one of your failings, young lady. It might have been wiser if you had allowed me to discover your attractions for myself. Do you consider it quite honest—we will not discuss the question of good taste—to play a double part, and criticise your relations to any stranger whom you may meet in your walks?"
"You asked me; you began it! I should not have mentioned them if you had not asked that question. Then I recognised you, and thought it would be fun. You were not a stranger, you see; you were Uncle Bernard."
"That may be my name, but as I have never seen you before, I can hardly rank as a friend. May I ask how you came to recognise me at all?"
"Oh yes! We have your portraits at home, and mother often talks of you, and the happy times she had when she used to visit you with father when they were engaged. When we were children it was a favourite game for one of us to be Uncle Bernard, and the other guests staying at the Court, and we used to go through all the adventures which father had as a boy,—fall into the mill-stream and be rescued by the dog, and be chased by the bull in the long meadow, and ride on the top of the waggons at the harvest home. We know all about the house, and the tapestry in the hall, and the funny wooden pictures of the Dutch ancestors, and the long gallery where you used to dance at night. Mother loves talking about it. She has not much fun in her life now, poor dear, and that makes her think all the more of her youth. We envy her, Ruth and Trix and I, because we have a very quiet time at home. We are poor, you see. You can't have much fun if you are poor."
"You think that riches are the one thing needful; that if you had enough money your happiness would be assured?"
"Ah!" sighed Mollie rapturously. "How happy I should be! I've never had enough money for my wants in all my life, so I can't even imagine the bliss of it. I should not know how to be happy enough."
The old man looked at her silently. She saw that he was about to speak, but the words were long in coming. A cloud had drifted across the sun, and the stretch of park looked suddenly grey and bare. Mollie drew her shoulders together with an involuntary shiver. Something had suddenly damped her ardour of enthusiasm; but it was not so much the bleak wind as the sight of the face gazing into her own, with its set lips, and bleached, joyless expression. For years to come Mollie could recall that moment, and feel again the chill in her veins with which she listened to his reply.
"All my life long," said Bernard Farrell slowly, "all my life everything that I have touched has turned to gold, and everyone I have loved,"—he paused, lingering on the word, and again Mollie shivered in sympathetic understanding—"everyone whom I have loved has died!" The wind seemed to take up the word, and repeat it in melancholy echo. "Died! died! died!" wailed the trees, tossing drearily to and fro. "Died!" shivered the ripple over the cold grey lake. The clouds gathered in a pall overhead.
"I'm sorry!" gasped Mollie faintly—"I'm so sorry!" But Mr Farrell stopped her with a hasty gesture.
"Please spare me protestations of sympathy. They were the last thing I wished to evoke. I merely wished to impress upon you that I am in a unique position for judging the worth of riches.—Is it your pleasure that we continue our journey? The afternoon is growing chill."
Mollie rose in confusion, but she did not reply, nor make any further offer of support. There was something in the old man's voice which forbade familiarities. He was no longer merely cross and unamiable; she had caught a glimpse into the secret of a desolate heart, and the sight sobered her youthful spirits.
"First his wife," she said to herself, as she led the way onward—"pretty Aunt Edna, whom mother loved so much. He adored her, and they were never parted for a day till she took typhoid, and died. The little girl died the year after, and he had no one left but Ned. Mother says he was the handsomest boy she ever met, and the cleverest, and the best. Even now, after all these years, she can't speak of the day he was drowned without crying... I always hated to hear that story!
"She says the real Uncle Bernard died with Ned. He seemed to disappear from that day, and an entirely different person appeared in his place. He had been kind and hospitable, fond of having people around him and making them happy; but after that he shut himself up and became a regular hermit. Then he went abroad, and since he came back four years ago and reopened the Court, he has written to nobody, and nobody has seen him. But he has come to see us to-day of his own free will. I wonder why? Something has happened to make him break the silence. What can it have been?"
She dared not ask the question; but, as the feeble steps endeavoured to keep pace with her own, a possible explanation darted into Mollie's mind. The poor old man was ill, very ill; there was an expression on the grey, sunken face which was eloquent even to her inexperience. Death was coming forward to meet him, coming very near; standing upon the very threshold! Strong, happy nineteen shuddered at the thought, and felt an overpowering pity for the waning life.
Mollie longed to comfort the old man with the assurance that there were many still left who could help and minister to his declining days; but her previous overtures had met with so little success that she was afraid of meeting yet another rebuff, and, with unusual prudence, decided to await a better opportunity.
Langton Terrace was reached at last, and Mollie produced a key and opened the door of Number 7. In a household where there are so many children and so few servants, the latchkey was in constant use, and thus it happened that she could bring her guest unnoticed into the house and escort him to her stepfather's sanctum, which was sure to be unoccupied at this hour of the afternoon. She drew forward an armchair, poked the fire into a blaze, and laid Mr Farrell's hat and stick on the table, while he lay wearily against the cushions. He looked woefully exhausted, and Mollie's kind heart had a happy inspiration.
"I shan't tell anyone that you are here until you have had a rest," she said assuringly. "This is the pater's den, and his private property after four o'clock, so you will be quite undisturbed. Just tell me what will refresh you most—tea, coffee, wine? I can bring what you like quite quietly."
"Tea, please—tea, and ten minutes' rest. I shall be better then," Mr Farrell said wearily.
Mollie left the room to prepare a dainty little tray in the pantry, and beg a private pot of tea from the kitchen. The idea of waiting in secret upon Uncle Bernard was delightfully exciting; it was almost as good as running the blockade, to creep past the dining-room door where her mother and sisters were assembled, and listen to the murmur of voices from within.
If they knew—oh, if they knew! She had prepared some crisp slices of toast, skimmed the cream off the milk in defiance of cook's protests, and made sure that the water in the little covered jug was boiling, and not only moderately warm, as the custom was. It was the simplest of meals, but at least everything was as tempting as hands could make it, and Mollie had the satisfaction of pouring out two cups of tea, and seeing the last slice of toast disappear from the rack. She took nothing herself, and preserved a discreet silence until Mr Farrell replaced cup and plate on the table, and condescended to smile approval.
"Thank you, Miss Mollie; I am obliged to you for securing me this rest. Judging from my first impressions of your character, I should not have expected so much common-sense. I feel quite refreshed, and ready to see your mother when it is convenient."
Mollie lifted the tray, and stood for a moment looking down with an air of triumph.
"I'm so glad! I talk a lot of nonsense, but I can be quite sensible if I like, and I did want to help you, Uncle Bernard; I'll send mother in here, where you can have your talk in peace. It's the only chance of being uninterrupted."
Mr Farrell made no reply, and Mollie made haste to deposit the tray in the pantry, and rush for the dining-room door. The secret had been kept so long that she felt sore—absolutely sore with the strain. It seemed incredible that her mother and sisters should be sitting munching bread- and-butter as calmly as if it were an ordinary day, when nothing extraordinary had happened to break the monotonous routine. She leant against the lintel of the door and called her mother by name—"Muv! you are wanted at once in the Den. Somebody wants to speak to you!"
Mrs Connor's brow furrowed into the usual anxious lines as she prepared to hear a story of fresh disaster from her husband's lips; but at the doorway two magic words were whispered into her ear which brought the blood into the white cheeks, and sent her trotting down the hall on eager feet. Then came the delicious moment to which Mollie had looked forward ever since the meeting at the cross-roads. She walked back into the room, while Ruth looked up with weary curiosity, and Trix with unconcealed wrath.
"You might have let mother finish her tea in peace! She has been slaving all day, and was just enjoying a rest!"
"What is it, Mollie? Why did the pater come home so early? Is he ill?"
"It isn't pater, my dear. Guess again! A friend of mine, whom I met in the park and brought home to tea. He was rather tired, so I, gave him a private little feed in the study, instead of bringing him straight in here. Considerate of me, wasn't it? He was quite touched."
"He?" repeated Ruth breathlessly. "Mollie, what are you talking about? Don't make a mystery out of nothing! Why can't you say at once who it is?"
"I'm afraid of your nerves, dear. I want to break it to you by degrees. Sudden shocks are dangerous for the young. My own heart is quite palpitating with all I have undergone to-day. I was walking along,—all innocent and unsuspicious,—gazing upon the fair spring scene, when suddenly, glancing ahead, I beheld a figure standing at the junction of the cross-roads. 'Tis ever thus, my love! Fate stands waiting for us where the paths diverge, to point out the way in which we should go. End of volume one ... Do you feel excited?"
Trix grinned broadly, Ruth looked tired and impatient.
"Oh, thrilled, of course! So many interesting people come to see us that it's difficult to choose between them. The piano-tuner, perhaps; or the gasman, to look at the meter."
"I should have walked home with them, shouldn't I, and given them tea in the study? A little higher in the social scale, please!"
"The curate calling for a subscription?"
"Cold; quite cold! Try again! Someone you have often wished to see, but who has never displayed any great anxiety to make your acquaintance in return."
"Uncle Bernard, I presume?" said Ruth sarcastically, not for one moment believing the truth of her words, though her mind instantly reverted to the personage of that mythical uncle who had played so large a part in her mental life. She did not even trouble to look at Mollie as she spoke; but Trix did, and bounded to her feet in excitement.
"Is it—is it? Oh, Mollie, not really! He hasn't really and truly appeared after all these years? You don't seriously mean it? Look at her, Ruth! I believe it is true!"
Ruth looked, and flushed the loveliest of pinks. It seemed almost incredible that Trix was right, yet something very much out of the usual course of events must have happened to excite Mollie so keenly. Her cheeks were burning as though with a fever, the hand resting on the table was actually trembling. "Tell me, Mollie!" she pleaded; and Mollie nodded her head in triumph.
"Uncle Bernard himself! The real, genuine article sitting in solid flesh and blood in our very own study, and I'm the one who brought him here. What do you think of that for an adventure? I saw an aged, aged man a-leaning on a stick, as the poem says, and I went up and asked him if I could help him in any way. I once read about an old man whose nose suddenly began to bleed in an omnibus. He searched for a pocket- handkerchief, but had evidently forgotten to bring one, and the other passengers began to smile and titter, all except one girl, who opened her bag and presented him with a nice clean one of her own. The old man died soon afterwards, and left her a million pounds as a token of gratitude. I think it's just as kind to escort a stranger through a lonely park when he has lost his way! If Uncle Bernard adopts me and gives me a million, I'll treat you both to a nice new hat.—I asked where he was going, and he said to Number 7 Langton Terrace, and I looked at him. And, Ruth, do you know what I thought of? I thought of you! He had black eyebrows like yours, and he scowls, as you do (only when you are cross, dear, not when you're in a good temper), and his lips droop like yours, too. I thought, 'I have seen that face before!' and then I remembered the photographs, and it burst upon me all in a moment. Then he asked me if I knew the Connors, and I said I'd known them for years, and the step-daughters, too, and that they were a charming family, but Mollie was the nicest of all."
"Mollie, you didn't!"
"I did! Why not? It's true, isn't it? When I revealed myself to him, however, he seemed to think that I was rather vain. I must leave it to time to prove the truth of my assertion."
"You are in earnest? You really mean it? Mollie, what has he come for? What has made him remember us after all these years? Has something happened that we know nothing about?"
"I can't tell you. There's only one thing certain,—he is very old and ill, and if he wants to see us at all there isn't much time to spare. He is not at all like the Uncle Bernard mother remembers, but very cross and irritable, and his poor old face looks so miserable that it goes to your heart to see him. I wanted to put my arms round his neck and kiss him, but I would as soon have attempted to embrace a tiger. He snubbed me the whole time. Oh, talk of adventures! What an afternoon I have had!"
"If you met him walking across the park he can't have any luggage, and if he hasn't any luggage he can't intend to sleep here to-night," reasoned Ruth thoughtfully. "Perhaps he will just stay to dinner. Pea- soup, cold beef, and apple-pie—that's all there is, and he is accustomed to half a dozen courses, and two men-servants to wait upon him. Poor dear mother will be in despair because she didn't order a fresh joint for to-day. Shall I go to the kitchen and see if there is anything that can be made into a hot dish?"
Mollie pursed up her lips, but, before she had time to reply, the sound of footsteps was heard from without, and Mrs Connor appeared in the doorway, followed by the tall, gaunt figure of Uncle Bernard. The girls rose from their seats as he entered the room, and Ruth and Trix approached him with diffident smiles, while Mrs Connor introduced each by name.
"This is my eldest girl, Ruth; you saw her last when she was a baby in arms. This is Beatrice Connor; she knows you quite well by name, don't you, Trix dear?"
But Mr Farrell betrayed not the faintest interest in Trix or her memories, and barely touched the hand which she extended towards him. All his attention seemed concentrated on Ruth, as she stood before him with her beautiful, flushed face raised to his own.
"This is Ruth!" he repeated slowly. "She is not at all like her sister. I am glad that one of your girls takes after her father's family, Mary. This one is an unmistakable Farrell!"
Mollie turned aside with an expressive grimace.
"I'm cut out already," she told herself. "Ruth's black brows have walked straight into his affections! I might as well resign myself to play second fiddle forthwith."
Mr Farrell accepted an invitation to stay for the family dinner, but it cannot truthfully be said that his presence added to the gaiety of the meal. Mrs Connor was nervous and ill at ease, regretting, as her daughter had foretold, that she had not ordered a hot joint for to-day, and allowed the cold meat to be used on the morrow.
She looked gratefully at Ruth when a small dish of curry made its appearance, in addition to the scanty menu; but Uncle Bernard had spent some years of his life in India, and his ideas of curry evidently differed from those of the plain cook downstairs, for after the first taste he laid down his fork and made no further pretence of eating.
Mr Connor made several attempts to introduce interesting subjects of conversation, but receiving only monosyllabic replies, relapsed in his turn into silence. With every moment that passed, the girls felt less able to imagine the reason for the appearance of a visitor who showed so little interest in the affairs of the family; for Mr Farrell asked no questions, paid no attention to the general conversation, and, for the greater part of the time, appeared lost in his own thoughts.
The three little boys alone were unaffected by the general tension, and chattered about their school adventures in their usual noisy fashion. On another occasion Mrs Connor would have checked them, but anything was better than the dead silence which at one time had threatened the whole table; so she left them unreproved, and Uncle Bernard scowled at them beneath his bushy brows in a manner the reverse of approving.
It happened that Betty occupied the seat immediately opposite the visitor, and it was one of Betty's idiosyncrasies to repeat the grimaces of others with an imitation as faithful as it was unconscious. When, for example, Mollie was speaking, Betty tossed her head, tilted her chin, and arched her brows, to the delight and amusement of the family; and now, there she sat—good, kind, most inoffensive of creatures— drawing her wisps of eyebrows together in a lowering scowl, and twisting her lips into an expression of sour distaste.
The three boys nudged each other and tittered together, and Mr Farrell looked round to discover the reason of their mirth, and beheld Betty's transformed face peering into his own. His glance of indignation made her flush with what appeared to be conscious guilt, though, in truth, the poor child had no idea of the nature of her offence. Mrs Connor beheld the incident with petrified horror, Ruth registered a determination to lecture Betty out of so dangerous a habit, but warm- hearted Mollie rushed headlong into the breach.
"Uncle Bernard, Betty did not mean to be rude! Please do not think she was intentionally disrespectful. She has a habit of imitating people, without knowing what she is about, and I am afraid we laugh at her for it, because it is so funny to watch; but she would be dreadfully sorry to be rude to anyone, wouldn't you, Betty dear?"