[Frontispiece: There she stood]
JULIE M. LIPPMANN
CHARLES R. CHICKERING
McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart
Publishers ——— Toronto
Copyright 1897 by
THE PENN PUBLISHING COMPANY
Copyright 1916 by
THE PENN PUBLISHING COMPANY
I NAN II NAN'S VISITOR III MR. TURNER'S PLAN IV THE GOVERNESS V GETTING ACQUAINTED VI WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS VII OPEN CONFESSION VIII NAN'S HEROINE IX HAVING HER OWN WAY X EXPERIENCES XI CHRISTMAS XII SMALL CLOUDS XIII ON THE ICE XIV CHANGES XV A TUG OF WAR XVI THE SLEIGH-RIDE XVII CONSEQUENCES XVIII "CHESTER NEWCOMB" XIX IN MISS BLAKE'S ROOM XX THROUGH DEEP WATERS XXI ANOTHER CHRISTMAS
There she stood . . . . . . Frontispiece
"I'll run away first!"
The little governess was beside her
"I have a little errand to do"
"Where are you going?"
"Over to Reid's lot."
"No, Ruthie, can't."
The little child's lip began to tremble. "I think you're real mean, Nan Cutler," she complained.
Nan shook her head. "Can't help it if you do," she returned, stoutly, and took a step on.
"Nannie," cried the child eagerly, starting after her and clutching her by the skirt, "I didn't mean that! Truly, I didn't. I think you're just as nice as you can be. Do please let me go with you. Won't you?"
Nan compressed her lips. "Now, Ruth, look here," she said after a moment, in which she stood considering, "I'd take you in a minute if I could but the truth is—oh, you're too little."
"I ain't too little!"
"Well, then, your mother doesn't like you to be with me, so there!" cried Nan, in a burst of reckless frankness.
Ruth hung her head. She could not deny it but at sight of her companion turning to leave her she again started forward, piping shrilly, "Nannie! Nannie! She won't care this time. Honest, she won't."
Nan stalked on without turning her head.
The hurrying little feet followed on close behind.
"See here, Ruth," exclaimed the girl, veering suddenly about and speaking with decision. "You can't come, and that's all there is about it. Your mother doesn't like me, and you ought not to disobey her. Now run back home like a good little girl."
The delicate, small face upturned to hers grew hardened and set, but the child did not move.
Nan gave her a friendly shove on the shoulder and turned on her way again. Immediately she heard the tap of hurrying little feet behind, like the echoing sound of her own hasty footsteps. She stopped and swung about abruptly.
"Are you going to be a good little girl and go back this minute?" she demanded sternly, calling to her assistance all the dignity of her fourteen years, and turning on the poor infant a severe, unrelenting eye.
The child gazed up at her reproachfully, but did not reply.
Nan felt herself fast losing patience. "Of all the provoking little witches!" she exclaimed, in an underbreath of irritation.
Ruth's rebuking eyes surveyed her calmly, but she made no response.
"Now be good and trot along back," cajoled Nan, changing her tactics and stroking the child's soft hair caressingly.
There was a visible pursing of the obstinate little lips, but no further sign of acknowledgment.
Nan dropped her voice to a tone of honey-sweetness. "See here, Ruthie, if you'll go home this minute I'll give you five cents. You can buy anything you like with it at Sam's, on the way back." She plunged her hand into her pocket and drew forth a bright new nickel, and held it alluringly aloft.
The azure eyes gazed at it appreciatively, but the hand was not outstretched to receive it. For a second Nan reviewed the situation in silence. Then she flung about with a movement of exasperation, and marched on stolidly, and the smaller feet hastened after her, keeping pace with difficulty, and often breaking into a little run that they might not be outstripped.
A chill autumn wind was sweeping up heavily from the northeast, and the air was cold and raw. Nan shuddered as she walked, and wished Ruth were safe and sound in her own warm home, which she never should have been permitted to leave this blustering day. A score of plans for ridding herself of her troublesome little follower crowded Nan's brain. She might run and leave the youngster behind. But then Ruth would cry, and Nan could not bear to inflict pain on a little child. She might take her up in her arms and carry her bodily back to her own door. Well, and what then? Why, simply, she would get the credit of abusing the little girl. There seemed no way out of it. She stalked on grimly, and when she came to Reid's lot she promptly and dexterously climbed its fence and continued her way in silence. But the fence proved an insurmountable obstacle to Ruth. She stood outside and wailed dismally. The sound smote Nan, and made her turn around.
"Ruth Newton, you deserve to be spanked!" she announced, severely.
The child uttered another wail of entreaty. Nan sprang up to the cross-bar of the palings, gathered her skirts about her knees, and leaped down.
"Here, let me boost you, since you will get over," she said sharply.
After they were both safely on the other side Ruth's spirit rose, and she capered about in the freedom of the open space as wildly as a young colt. Nan had come for chestnuts. She announced the same presently to Ruth. Ruth shouted gleefully.
"I'm going to climb the tree. You can stand underneath and pick up what I shake, only mind you don't get the burr-prickles in your fingers, for they hurt like sixty," warned Nan.
The child nodded her head and pranced over the brown, stubbly ground with dancing feet, her cheeks aglow and her eyes flashing with satisfaction.
She watched Nan with the liveliest interest, and when the older girl was once comfortably ensconced in the lofty branches, she executed a sort of war-dance underneath, and spread her tiny skirt to catch the rain of nuts that Nan shook down upon her from above. But presently this began to pall.
"I want to come up where you are, Nannie," she called, coaxingly.
"You'll have to want then," retorted Nan, carelessly munching nuts like a squirrel.
"I could climb's good as anything if only I had a boost," drawled the child ruefully.
Nan sprinkled a handful of shucks on her head.
"I'm going to try," ventured Ruth.
Ruth looked around, trying to discover some means by which she might accomplish her purpose. Nan felt so sure that the child could not do what she threatened that she made no effort to dissuade her. She, herself, passed from bough to bough as nimbly as a boy, in spite of her skirts, and in a very short time was almost out of sight among the upper spreading branches. She sat astride one of these, swinging to and fro and luxuriating in her sense of freedom and adventure. Peering down occasionally she saw Ruth standing beneath her and sent repeated showers of nuts spinning through the boughs to keep the child busy. But presently Ruth disappeared. She had spied an old piece of board and she immediately flew to get it, her silly little head filled with the idea of making it serve her as a ladder. She tugged it laboriously across the stubbly field, and her short, panting breaths did not reach Nan's ear, full of the near rustle of leaves and the hum of the scudding wind.
"Ahoy! below there!" she shouted nautically from above.
Ruth was too busy to respond. The board was heavy, and it took all the strength of her slight arms to get it in position.
"Shipmate ahoy!" repeated Nan.
By this time the board had been tilted against the tree and Ruth was scrambling up the unsteady inclined plane, too absorbed and scared in her adventure to reply. She actually managed to reach the top and to stand there tiptoeing the edge uncertainly, her small fingers clasping the tree-trunk convulsively and her arms trying to grapple with it for a surer hold. But suddenly she gave a piercing scream, and Nan, peering down through the branches in instant alarm, saw Ruth lying at the foot of the tree in a pitiful little motionless heap, and knew in a moment that she had tried to do what she had threatened and had failed.
It did not take Nan a minute to reach the ground. Her heart seemed to stand still with fear. She flung herself from bough to bough with reckless haste and dropped to the ground all in one breathless instant.
"Ruth," she cried, bending over the little prostrate figure in an agony. "Ruth, open your eyes! Get up! Oh, please get up!"
There was no answer. Nan wrung her hands in despair. The cold wind blew over the field in chilling gusts. It made her shudder, and instinctively she took a step toward her warm coat, which she had stripped off and cast aside before climbing the tree. At sight of it a new thought struck her. Ruth lying there on the frosty ground would surely take cold—perhaps die from it! In a twinkling the soft, woolly garment was wrapped securely about the child and Nan had her two stout arms around her and was half dragging, half carrying her in the direction of the distant fence. But they had not covered a dozen yards before she felt her strength begin to fail. She was lifting a dead weight, and it seemed to drag more heavily upon her every moment. Her arms pulled in their sockets and her breath came in painful gasps, and she knew that if she tried to keep on as she was it would be at the cost of increasing misery. Still she did not give up, and at last, after what seemed to her hours of agony and suspense, she actually reached the limit of the field. She laid Ruth gently upon the ground and straightened herself up to ease her aching back and regain her lost breath before taking up her burden again. But as she lifted her head her eyes fell on the high pickets before her, which seemed to confront her with as grim defiance as if they had been bayonets. How could she get Ruth over? The gate, which was at another end of the lot, was always kept padlocked, and even if she had remembered this at first and had carried the child there, she could not have undone the bolt. This was the last straw! She felt frustrated and defeated, and a low sob of complete discouragement broke from her. It was useless to dream of getting Ruth over alone. The only way that remained was to secure help, that was plain. She looked about wildly, but not a soul was in sight, and she knew in her heart that the chances were against her. The street at this point was near the city limits, and it had not been built up as yet. There would be nothing to call any one here unless it might be some boy who, like herself, had come out for chestnuts, and what use would a mere boy be? If only John Gardiner were here! John was tall and strong, and would lend a hand in a jiffy. But John also was miles away. Ruth's eyes opened for a second and then closed sleepily again. Nan's heart leaped up with new hope.
"Ruth! Ruth!" she called eagerly bending over her and stroking her cheek tenderly. But her hope was short-lived. The eyelids remained shut, and the child only breathed deeper than before. Nan's own heart seemed to stop in her anxiety for Ruth. Suddenly she sprang to her feet. Surely she had heard the rattle of wheels! Ever so far and indistinct to be sure, but still unmistakably wheels, clattering over some distant cobbles. She raised her voice and shouted; then held her breath to listen. The clatter grew more distinct; it drew nearer and nearer. She clambered up the fence and stood there waving her arms and shouting as madly as if she had been a shipwrecked mariner sighting a sail. She paused a moment to listen. The rattling wheels came nearer. She shouted again and then waited, listening intently. The rattling stopped. She set up a wild howl of dismay and kept it up till her ears seemed on the point of splitting. But now the clatter of wheels had begun again and she could see a milk cart rounding the corner of the street. She gave a long, shrill whistle and leaped down and ran frantically out into the road, straight for the horse's head.
It was a second or two before the astonished driver could be made to understand, but when he did, he bounded out of his cart willingly enough, vaulted over the fence and then bade Nan "stand hard" while he lifted Ruth into her arms. Her weight was nothing to the brawny fellow, and he had her safely stowed away on the seat of his cart, with Nan crouching on the floor beside her and himself clinging to the step outside, in less time than it takes to tell it.
Nan gave him the street and number in a trembling gasp of gratitude. He eyed her narrowly, and then seemed to sum up his conclusion in a low, keen whistle. Her hat was hanging by its elastic on her shoulders; her hair was blown out of all order by the wind; her dress was torn and her hands were bruised and none too clean. She had no coat on, and her cheeks were flaming with cold and excitement. She was an astonishing spectacle.
"Guess you're a sort of high-flyer, ain't you?" said he at last without a sign of ill-nature.
Nan set her jaws and did not reply.
"Oh, well, I don't want to hurt your feelings. Only you look sorter wild-like, you know, and as if your mother didn't know you was out."
Nan's teeth snapped. "I haven't got any mother," she returned curtly. "She's dead."
The milkman looked uncomfortable. He shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other and muttered something about being sorry. Then for some time there was silence.
"That's the house," announced Nan at length, jumping to the step and hanging to the rail above the dashboard. "That third one from the corner, on this side. Please let me out first. I want to run ahead and tell."
Almost before he could rein in his horse she was out on the pavement. She flew to the area gate and pressed the bell with all her might. She kept her finger on it, and the cook came flying to the door, looking flushed and angry at the continuous ringing.
"Well, I might o' known," she said, eying Nan with unconcealed disfavor. "Do you think a body's deaf that you ring like that?"
Nan flung back her head resentfully.
"Never mind what I think," she returned sharply. "Open the gate! Ruth is sick! She got hurt! Some one's bringing her in. Quick!"
The gate was flung open with a bang, and the woman rushed out, clutching Ruth from the milkman's arms and carrying her into the house, muttering mingled caresses and abuse all the while; the caresses for Ruth and the abuse for Nan.
The milkman turned on his heel and went his way unthanked, but by the time he got to the outer gate Nan had recollected herself, and had rushed after him, calling:
"Oh, please! I want to tell you—thank you ever so much!"
She was glad she had done it when she saw the gratified look on his face. When she got back to the area gate it was shut. Mary the chambermaid stood just inside it. She made no attempt to admit Nan. She simply stood there and looked her over from head to toe.
"Well, you're a pretty piece!" she remarked.
"None of your business if I am," retorted Nan. "Let me in. I want to see Mrs. Newton."
The maid took her hand from the knob and put it on her hip.
"Mrs. Newton don't want to see you, though, I guess," she returned. "By this time Bridget's told her all she wants to know."
"But I must see her! I must tell her!" Nan insisted, stamping her foot. "Bridget don't know anything about it. No one does but me. Let me in, I say!"
The girl laughed.
"Well, I'll go upstairs and tell Mrs. Newton. Then, if she wants to see you, she can," and she went inside and closed the door, leaving Nan to stand shuddering in the cold outside. Presently she came back, carrying the coat in her hands.
"Mrs. Newton says she hasn't time to see you now. She says she'll attend to you later. She says she can guess how it happened, and that if Ruth dies it'll be your fault. There, now, you know what's thought of you, and you can put it in your pipe and smoke it, you great, rough tomboy!"
The gate was thrust open a little way, the coat was flung out, and the door slammed to again, and once more Nan found herself in the area way alone. Burning tears of fury sprung to her eyes. She caught up her despised coat and dashed wildly out of the gate in a perfect tempest of anger and resentment.
She knew what was coming when the bell rang. She had been expecting it all the afternoon. But in spite of that her heart beat fast and her breath came hard as she heard the familiar sound. Not that she was afraid. She had nothing to be afraid of, she assured herself defiantly, and besides, fear was one of the things she despised. Whatever else she was, she was certainly not a coward. Still she sat in her room and waited in a state of mind that was not precisely what one would call tranquil.
She heard Delia mount the basement stairs and then she heard her ask the new-comer into the parlor. A moment later there was a tap upon Nan's bedroom door.
"Come in," she said carelessly, and pretended to be searching for some article lost in the confusion of her upper drawer.
"You're wanted in the parlor, Nan," began Delia at once. "It's a lady who says she lives on the block and she wouldn't give her name, but I think she's the one moved into Leffingwell's old house last spring—has that little girl with the long curls, you know the one I mean. Shall I help you put on another dress and braid your hair over? It's fearful mussy-lookin'. Or will I just go and say you'll be down in a minute while you do it yourself?"
Nan cast a glance at her torn dress and towzled head in the mirror. "No, Delia, I'll go as I am, and if the lady doesn't like it she can—oh, well, I'll go down as I am."
Delia pressed her lips together, as though trying to hold back the words of advice on the tip of her tongue. She knew it was worse than useless to try to argue with the girl. She had not lived in the house since Nan was born without learning better than to try to reason with her when she had once declared her mind. She stood beside the door, and allowed Nan to pass through it before her, without saying a word. Then she followed her quietly down stairs. At the parlor door Nan paused a moment, and Delia, who thought she was about to speak, paused too, but the girl only turned sharply into the room, pulling the door shut behind her. Once across the threshold she halted and stood irresolute. Whatever the result of this meeting might prove, depended not so much on Nan as on her visitor.
Nan, though standing in awkward silence, as stiff and as straight as a soldier on parade, was ready to be influenced by whatever course her caller chose to pursue; a kind word spoken at the start would melt her at once, where a harsh one would raise in her every sort of sullen hostility and obstinate resistance. She was, as Delia often said to herself, "as hard to manage as a kicking colt." Sometimes she was wonderfully docile, but her moods were variable, and oftenest she was headstrong and wilful, with a fierce repugnance to curb, or what she considered unwarrantable interference.
But it would have been difficult to convince the stranger at that moment that Nan could ever be won, or, in fact, that she had any tenderness to be appealed to. There she stood, looking as erect and impassive as a young Indian. Her brown hair was in a state of thorough disorder, and gave a sort of savage look to her sun-browned face. Her gray eyes were anything but soft at this moment; her mouth was set, and her whole attitude seemed to be one of imperturbable indifference. In reality, the girl was apprehensive and embarrassed. She set her lips to keep them from trembling. Her first impulse would have been to make a clean breast of everything, frankly and truthfully, but—something in her nature held her back. Was it obstinacy, or was it reticence?
Her visitor did not wait to discover. She decided the result of the interview in the first words she spoke.
"Is your name Nan Cutler?" she asked in a voice of stern authority.
"Yes, it is!" acknowledged the girl, instantly on the defensive.
"Then it is you who are accountable for the accident to Ruth Newton? You urged her to go with you, and when she fell—oh, you are a coward! It was detestable!"
Nan made no reply, but stood the picture of inflexibility, facing her accuser squarely.
"I have come to see you, not because you can undo the mischief you have done to my child, and not because I think I can affect you in the least, or make you sorry or ashamed, but simply to tell you that I intend to see that you are punished, as you deserve. I have put up with annoyance you caused me long enough. Your influence is bad. All the neighbors complain of you. You are noisy and careless, and rough and rude. When any one reprimands you, you give a pert retort, or else pretend not to hear—which is impudent. Unless we wish our children to be utterly ruined we must see that they are put beyond your influence at once. You do things that are absolutely vulgar and unbefitting a girl of your age; you must be fourteen, at least, you look older, you are certainly old enough to know better. You are not a proper playmate for our children. You are boisterous and unladylike. You—you—are a perfect hoyden!"
The stranger paused for breath, while Nan surveyed her with a look of calm indifference; an air of unconcern in anything she might say or think that seemed as insolent as it was exasperating.
"You are a perfect hoyden!" repeated the stern voice in rising anger. "Whatever you do is done in such a loud, violent fashion that it becomes perfectly unbearable. You play ball with boys. You climb fences and trees. You are continually flying up and down the street on your detestable roller-skates and shouting until the neighborhood seems like Bedlam, and you don't appear to have the vaguest idea that people's rights need not be infringed on in such a manner; that they have the right to peace and quiet in their own homes. Even if you would content yourself with your own disorderliness! But you are not satisfied with doing what you know must annoy others; you seem to take a malicious delight in bringing the little children under your influence and making them long to follow your example. You cannot have the first shadow of generosity or bravery in your nature, or you would not urge them to do what you know their parents would disapprove of. You teach them to disobey. My daughter never told an untruth in her life until the other day. I have no reason to doubt that you taught her to tell that untruth!"
Nan's cheeks suddenly became white, but she did not open her lips.
"If you cannot be restrained by your own people at home you shall be by some other means. They say your own people are respectable; how can you disgrace them so?"
Nan deigned no reply, but her lip curled contemptuously.
"They say your mother is dead."
Again no answer.
"Where is your father?"
"My father is in India. He is in Bombay," announced Nan, deliberately.
"Who has control of you in his absence?"
"No one!" declared the girl with decision.
Mrs. Newton surveyed the lank, overgrown, girlish figure with unconcealed scorn.
"Do you know," she said with bitter distinctness, "that you are the most shameless, unfeeling girl I have ever beheld? Any one else would show some remorse for what she had done, but you—young as you are, you are the hardest creature I have ever known. Hard, cruel, and cold. How can you stand there and look me in the face when you know how you have injured me? Tell me, does it not touch you at all that Ruth is hurt? Do you know or care that such a fall as she has had is enough to cripple a child for life? Many children have been hopelessly crippled through far less."
The mother's voice broke, and she set her lips to keep down a sob.
"How much is she hurt?" whispered Nan after a moment. She was trembling all over and cold and hot by turns, and she could not command her voice. It was almost more than she could do to keep from bursting into a violent fit of sobbing from her sense of injury and shame and indignation. But she simply would not permit herself to break down. No one should be allowed to think they intimidated her. But she could not hide her anxiety about Ruth.
"Is she much hurt?" she repeated.
There was a shade of softening in her visitor's face. "We can't tell yet. She has had a severe fall, and the chill coming after it may have very serious consequences, but we can tell nothing yet. However, I did not come here to inform you of her condition," the voice growing stern and the face severe again. "I came to tell you that if Ruth is injured I will hold you responsible. And not only that, but I warn you that I mean to take matters into my own hands now and see that you are permitted to do no further mischief. You shall be controlled. Who has charge of your father's affairs? Who has any sort of authority over you in his absence? He must have left you in somebody's care. He can't have gone away leaving you with no one to look after you. Who is your guardian? Tell me? If you don't I shall find out for myself, you may depend."
"I'm perfectly willing to tell you," declared Nan, with what seemed to be complete coolness. "It's Mr. Turner. He gives Delia the money to get me things and to keep the house. He comes here every once in a while to see me. My father has him for his lawyer. He's a friend of his. When Delia writes to him for money for me she sends the letter to 101 Blank Street. That's his office. I don't remember where his house is. Delia never writes to his house. He doesn't attend to me—that is, he isn't my guardian, but I guess he would do if you want to see some one."
Nan delivered herself of this information as casually as though it had been a report of the weather. As a matter of fact she was inwardly quivering, and every moment found it more and more difficult to control herself. Never in all her life before had she been so relentlessly, harshly accused. In trying to conceal her emotion she only gave herself the appearance of rigid inflexibility.
Her visitor regarded her stonily for a moment and then abruptly brushed past her toward the door. Nan made no attempt to intercept her, but suddenly the hard lines about her mouth relaxed, her eyes softened, and she held out her hands with an imploring gesture.
"Won't you please tell me where Ruth is hurt?" she cried. "Won't you let me do something for her? Let me—please let me! If you'll only listen a minute I'll tell you—"
But it was too late now. She was given no reply; permitted no chance to vindicate herself. Her visitor's hard lips quivered, but she uttered no syllable. In a moment she was gone.
After the door had closed upon her and it was quite certain that she would not come back, Nan turned and rushed headlong, like a young savage, upstairs and into her own room. What took place there it would have been impossible to discover, for the shades were jerked fiercely down, the door sharply shut and locked, and Delia, coming up some time later, could not make out a sound within nor get a reply to her requests to be admitted, though she stood outside and pleaded for an hour.
At twilight the door was opened and Nan came out quite composed, but bearing on her face the unmistakable traces of tears which, however, Delia was wise enough to let pass unremarked.
"Time for dinner?" asked the girl, curtly.
"No, not yet. It ain't but just six," replied the woman. "Are you hungry? I'll get you something if you are."
"No, I'm not hungry. But I feel kind of queer, somehow. There's an empty feeling I have that makes me uncomfortable. But I'm not hungry. O Delia!" she burst out, vehemently, "I wish—I wish—I had my mother. A girl needs—her mother—sometimes—"
"Always," declared Delia, with conviction.
For a little time there was silence between them. Then Nan said, "Look here, Delia—I want to tell you something. I feel just horribly. I never felt so unhappy in all my life. That lady who was here this afternoon is Ruth Newton's mother. She came to see me because this morning Ruth fell from the tree in Reid's lot and hurt herself, and Mrs. Newton thinks I made her do it. I didn't. Honestly, I didn't. I had climbed the tree myself, and it was fun and I liked it. Ruth would come. I tried to make her stay away, but she wouldn't, and when she teased to climb the tree too, I told her not to. She's so little and young, and her mother doesn't think it's ladylike, and I said if she wouldn't come with me in the first place I'd give her five cents. But she would tag on, and later she tried to climb the tree in spite of everything. She put a board up against the trunk and got on it and then scrambled up a little way, but she didn't get far, for the board slipped, or something, and down she went—smash! I guess she must have hit herself on the edge or somewhere, for when I dropped down she was lying on the ground, and she had her eyes closed and wouldn't speak. Then I didn't know what to do. I wanted to lift her, but it was awful work. There was no one in sight. At last I managed to tug her to the fence, but, of course, I hadn't the strength to get her over that alone. I couldn't leave her and run for help, and for a long time I did nothing but scream, in the hope that some one would come along and hear. And by and by I heard wheels. It was a milk cart, and I got the man to help me get her home. I went right to the Newton's as fast as I could, but when Bridget opened the door and saw who it was she was simply furious. They wouldn't let me in, and Mrs. Newton sent down word she wouldn't see me, but she'd attend to me later, and this afternoon when she called she just called me names and things, and I couldn't explain to her, I felt so choked. She talked to me so, I couldn't say a word. You don't know. When people say such things to me something gets in my throat, and I feel like strangling and doing all sorts of things. I seem to shut right up when they go at me like that. I can't speak. I just feel like—well, you don't know what I feel like. Mrs. Newton asked me where father is, and I told her, and then she asked about Mr. Turner, for she wants to have things done to me, and I told her about him. I wouldn't have her think I wanted to get out of it. She called me names and she thinks I taught Ruth to tell untruths; she said so. She says if Ruth doesn't get well it will be my fault. O Delia! I didn't do it. Honestly I wasn't to blame. But if Ruth is going to be sick and they think I did it—I want my mother! How can I bear it without my mother?"
Delia gently patted the dark head that had flung itself into her lap. Her heart ached for the girl, but her simple mind was not equal to the task of consolation in a case like this. She could not cope with its difficulties. She knew Nan was to blame for much, but she thought in her heart that Mrs. Newton had no right to vent her wrath upon the girl without first having heard her side of the story. She could not console Nan, she thought, without seeming to convict Mrs. Newton, and if she "stood up for" Mrs. Newton, Nan would think her lacking in sympathy for herself. But in the midst of her wondering, up bobbed the head from under her hand.
"Mrs. Newton says I teach the children to do wrong. She says I'm a hoyden. She says I left Ruth in the cold and that I was a coward. She didn't give me time to tell her about how I tried to get Ruth home myself, and that when I couldn't, how I just howled for help. At least she didn't want to listen when I got so I could speak. She says everybody thinks I'm bad, and they want to have me attended to. She thinks I taught Ruth to tell lies. Think, Delia, lies! When she said that it was like knives! O Delia? I know you've been awfully good to me always, and taken care of me since mamma died and all, but if it is so dreadful to play ball and skate and do things like that, why did you let me in the first place? I hate to sew and do worsted work and be prim, but perhaps, if you had brought me up that way I might have got so I could stand it. Don't you think if you had begun when I was a baby I might have? I don't want to have people hate me—honestly, I don't. When they talk to me, and say I'm rowdyish because I walk fences and play ball with the boys and climb trees, I try not to show it, but it hurts me way deep down. I try to say something back so they'll think I don't care, and sometimes, if it hurts too much, I pretend not to hear, and that makes them madder than ever. They don't know how, when it's like that, I can't speak. Perhaps if you'd brought me up so, I might have liked dolls and thought it was fun to sit still and sew on baby clothes. But I don't like to, and I can't help it. Mrs. Newton thinks because I whistle and make a noise that I'm just mean and hateful and everything else. She thinks I don't care. Why, Delia! if anything happened to Ruth I'd feel exactly as if I didn't want to live another day. I—I—O Delia!"
For the first time she gave way, and, hiding her head in her arms, sobbed heavily.
By this time Delia had risen to a point of burning anger against her child's detractor. Her heart beat loyally for Nan, and she could scarcely restrain the words of resentment that rose to her lips, and that it would have been such unwisdom to have uttered.
"Never mind, Nannie lamb!" she said. "It'll be all right in the morning. The child will be all well in the morning. You'll see she ain't so bad as they think. And to-morrow I'll go and tell them all about it. And perhaps they'll see then it's better to be slow accusin' where the guilt ain't proved. Come, come! Don't cry so! Why, Nannie, child, you haven't cried like this since you were—I can't tell how little. You never cry, Nan. You're always so brave, and never give way. You'll have a headache if you don't stop. Dry your tears, and to-morrow it'll be all right."
So, little by little, she soothed the girl, and by and by Nan ate her dinner, and then, when it was later, she went to bed. But when everything was hushed and still a dark figure crept noiselessly down stairs and on into the outer darkness. Down the street it stole until it had reached a house, which, alone in all the row of darkened barrack-like dwellings, showed a dimly lit window to the night. There it halted. And there it stood, like a faithful sentinel, only deserting its post when the gray light of early morning rose slowly over the world and the city was astir once more.
MR. TURNER'S PLAN
"I am deeply sorry," said Mr. Turner, "and can only apologize in my friend's name for any annoyance his daughter may have caused you. Of course I cannot agree with you that she annoys you purposely. A child of William Cutler could not well be other than large-hearted and generous. She may be a little undisciplined perhaps, but it shall be attended to, Madam! I assure you the matter shall be attended to."
Mrs. Newton rose. She had called upon Mr. Turner to state her complaint against Nan Cutler. Now that was accomplished she would go; only she made a mental vow that if the lawyer were not as good as his word, if he did not take immediate steps toward rectifying the matter, she would follow it up herself and see that she was relieved of what, in her anger, she called "that common nuisance."
Meantime Nan herself was going about with a dead load of misery on her heart. Delia had gone to the Newton's house early in the morning to inquire after the sick child's condition and to repeat Nan's story to her mother, but that lady was "not at home," and Delia understood that to mean that Mrs. Newton declined to receive either her or her explanation. She went home angry and disappointed.
"I guess the little girl ain't much hurt," she announced to Nan. "She's in bed to be sure, but I guess that's more on account of her cold than anything else. She isn't going to be crippled, Nan, now don't you fret. She'll be all right. Now you see if she ain't."
Nan's own flushed cheeks and brilliant eyes, the result of her yesterday's chilly adventures, worried the good woman not a little. If she had dared she would have liked to "coddle her child," but Nan was not one of the coddling kind, and would have scorned being made a baby of. She went about the house in one of her unhappy moods, restless and wretched and unable to amuse herself, and finding the hours never-endingly long.
When the bell rang she welcomed the sound as a grateful diversion and ran to the balusters and hung over the railing to see who might be the new-comer. She was glad of any break in the monotony of such a miserable day.
When Delia opened the door and admitted Mr. Turner, Nan's heart gave a big leap. Visions of what might be in store for her, the result of Mrs. Newton's action against her, thronged her brain and made her shudder with apprehension. What if Mr. Turner had come to say that she was to be sent to the House of Correction, or some horrid boarding-school where one don't get enough to eat and where one couldn't poke one's nose outside the door. A set expression settled on the girl's face that did not augur well for her reception of whatever plan the lawyer might have to propose.
When Delia came to call her, she sighed. She saw plainly enough that Nan's "contrary fit" was on, and she wondered how much the lawyer would accomplish by his visit under the circumstances.
Nan went down to him sullenly determined to stand by her guns and absolutely refuse to be committed to either a reformatory or any other establishment of a similar character.
"How do you do, my dear?" was Mr. Turner's kindly greeting as the girl entered the room.
Nan replied, "Very well, sir," thinking, at the same time, that she would not be disarmed by kindness nor permit herself to be cajoled into doing anything she did not wish to do. No one really had the right to order her about, and she would resolutely oppose any one who assumed such a right.
But presently she found herself telling her father's friend the story of yesterday's disaster, quite simply and with entire willingness.
"So," Mr. Turner said at the conclusion, "I thought that the good lady must have made a mistake. I felt pretty sure your father's daughter would never be guilty of cowardice nor of deliberately planning to destroy the peace of any one. I knew you could not be the girl Mrs. Newton described. She seemed to think you were—why, my dear, she gave me to understand that you were quite wild and lawless; that you were a bad influence in the neighborhood, and that you were so with full consciousness of what you were doing. We must explain to Mrs. Newton! We must explain!"
"I don't lie!" declared Nan. "And I'm not a coward, and I don't try to make her mad or hurt her children, but I do climb trees and I do race and do figures on roller-skates, and I do do the rest of the things she says I do and that she doesn't like."
"And your school?" ventured the lawyer.
"I don't go any more," announced Nan. "I had a fight with one of the teachers, and so I left."
Mr. Turner gazed suddenly upon the floor.
"And this 'fight' with the teacher? Do you remember the cause of the disturbance?" he asked, looking up after a moment.
"She struck me with her ruler. I had a rubber baby doll, it was the weeniest thing you ever saw, and she wore false puffs, Miss Fowler did, and one day, when I was at the blackboard and she was looking the other way, I just dropped the baby doll into one of the puffs that the hair-pin had come out of, and that was standing up on end, and it looked so funny on her head, the puff with the baby doll standing in it, that all the girls laughed, and then she asked me what I had done, and I told her, and she struck me. I wouldn't have said anything if she had just punished me. I knew it was wrong to pop that doll on her head, but I just couldn't help it—it looked too funny. But when she struck me! Well, I won't be struck by any one—and so I left."
The lawyer meditated in silence for a moment. Then he said:
"Well, my dear, I think I understand the condition of things here. Without doubt it is high time something were done. Your father, when he went away, gave me full authority to make such arrangements for you as I might feel were necessary, but until now I have rather avoided taking upon myself any responsibility. Possibly I have neglected my duty toward you. But now all that shall be changed. Don't you think if I were to send you—"
Nan's eyes blazed. So it was as she had felt sure it would be! She was to be sent away! She did not wait for the sentence to be finished.
"Send me to the House of Correction? I won't go, sir! I'll run away first! Or a horrid boarding-school, neither. I guess my father didn't mean me to be made unhappy, Mr. Turner; I guess he didn't mean any one to have authority to send me to awful places just because Mrs. Newton says so, away from Delia and things. You needn't send me anywhere, for I'll run away as sure as you do."
"Slowly—slowly!" cautioned Mr. Turner. "You go too fast! If you had waited for me to finish my sentence you would have discovered that I meant to send you neither to the House of Correction," here his eyes twinkled with amusement, "nor to a 'horrid boarding-school.' What I was about to say was that I propose to send you a lady who will teach you here at home, who will be a friend and companion to you and whom you will be sure to love. It is rather a curious coincidence that just the other day I was talking to a lady who is anxious to procure just such a position as this with you, and I am rather inclined to think that she would be willing to come here and undertake it. At all events, I have written to her asking her to consider the plan and in a day or so I shall know her decision. If she concludes to come—if I can induce her to come—I shall feel that you are very fortunate. You will forgive me if I say that while I disagree with Mrs. Newton in most respects regarding you, I feel with her that you are somewhat—well, somewhat ungoverned and in need of just the sort of discipline that I am sure Miss—the lady I speak of can maintain."
He paused a moment, but when he saw that Nan made no comment or objection he continued placidly:
"You will hear from me in the course of a day or so, as soon as I receive word from the lady herself. As I said, you will be very fortunate if I can secure her services for you—more fortunate than she will be, I fear," he said to himself, catching a glimpse of Nan's set mouth and flashing eyes as he made his way to the door. Later, when he recalled her expression, he was almost inclined to hope that the lady would decide to refuse the office. He thought her acceptance of it might involve her in rather more serious difficulties than he had foreseen when he wrote to her in the first place.
As a matter of fact, Nan was in a rage at the thought of a stranger coming into the house to interfere with her and Delia, to teach her what she did not want to learn, and to govern her when her sole idea of happiness was to be free and untrammeled. Even Delia resented the new-comer's intrusion. Had she managed the house for fourteen years now, ever since Mrs. Cutler's death, only to be set aside and ruled over by the first stranger who chose to imagine her position of governess to Nan gave her the right to interfere in household affairs? For of course she would interfere. Nan had drawn a vivid mental picture of the governess, which through her persistence in repetition, had begun to seem an actual description to herself and Delia.
"She's tall and thin and lanky and old!" declared the girl whenever the governess, who had accepted the appointment, was mentioned. "She has horrid sharp eyes that spy out everything, and she wears glasses. She'll never laugh because she'll say 'giggling is frivolous,' that's what Miss Fowler used to say, and she'll talk arithmetic and grammar and geography the whole blessed time. She'll snoop in your closets, Delia, and into my bureau drawers, and she'll find out everything we don't want her to know. Her hair is black and shiny, and I guess she parts it in the middle and makes it come to the back of her head in a little hard knot. Oh! I know just how she looks! I can see her every time I shut my eyes—the horrid thing! Just like Miss Fowler at school! And how I'll hate her! I'll hate her just as much as I did Miss Fowler. I'll hate her more, because I can never get rid of her: she'll always be here. Don't you fix up her room a single bit, Delia. Make it look as awful as you can. Then perhaps she won't like it and'll leave. I guess after a little while she won't think it agrees with her to live here. Then we two'll be alone again, and I tell you, won't we be glad, Delia?"
In her heart Delia thought they would. She did not follow Nan's advice to make the governess' room look "as awful as she could." She swept and dusted it thoroughly, and set all the furniture in place, as she had been accustomed to do for the last fourteen years, and when she had finished the place was as uninviting as even Nan could have desired. In fact, there was nothing attractive in the whole house. The furniture was all good and substantial, but Delia had a way of ranging it against the walls in a manner that made it seem stiff and uncompromising. When a piece needed repairing, and with Nan about, many a piece needed repairing often, it was stowed out of sight in the trunk-room, or the cellar, and the carpets, which had been rich and fashionable in their day, were allowed to lie now long after they had become threadbare and faded. Delia kept the handsome paintings veiled in tarlatan winter and summer, and she never removed the slip-covers from the parlor sofas and chairs, whatever the season might be. Nan did not care, because she knew nothing different, and there was no loving, artful hand to make the best of the things and turn the house into a home.
Mrs. Newton had shivered as she entered the place; it seemed dark and cold and forbidding to her, and she felt the mother-want at every turn, but this had not made her any more lenient with Nan. Perhaps the governess would make no allowances either. Delia made up her mind that if things really came to the pass where Nan was being abused, she in person would "just step in and say her say, if it lost her her place." She often talked of things losing her her place when the fact was that she herself was the place: if it had not been for her the house must have been closed, and Nan sent to boarding-school. Mr. Cutler would never have trusted the care of his girl to a strange servant.
"Yes, Ma'am," Delia said to herself, as she pushed the governess' bed flat up against the wall. "Yes, Ma'am! if I see her going for to abuse Nan, I'll set to and give her a piece of my mind such as she ain't likely to have got in one while, I tell you that," and she gave the bureau a vicious tweak and pulled down the shade with a resentful jerk.
When Nan saw the room she was disgusted.
"Why, Delia Connor! you haven't done a single thing I told you to," she cried out angrily.
"I've swept and dusted it and that's all there was to do," retorted Delia.
"It looks perfectly lovely," resumed Nan, stamping her foot. "Do you s'pose I want her to think we're glad to have her, and that we've prepared for her? Well, I guess not! If she once gets into as good a room as this she'll never go—she'll just hang on and on, and nothing in the world will make her budge."
"What do you want me to do?" asked Delia with irritation.
Nan looked at her scornfully for a moment. "Do? Why, what I told you to do! Make the room look awful—perfectly hideous. Make it so she can't help but see we don't want her here. Make it a hint—and a strong one too."
Delia folded her arms deliberately. "Well, whatever you want to act like, Nan," she said, "I can tell you I ain't going to do anything unladylike, so there!" and she stalked out of the room with dignity.
Nan surveyed the place in silence. What was to be done? If she removed all the furniture but the bed and the bureau and left the governess nothing to sit down on, it would only reflect discreditably upon the family's supply of household goods. If she carefully sifted back the dust Delia had just removed, it would merely prove that the people in this house were of a slovenly and careless habit, and that they were sadly in need of some one to oversee their work. Moreover, would a person as dull of feeling as this governess must be, appreciate the hint conveyed in so delicate and indirect a manner? No. She would be sure to lose the point. Nan felt it would never do to take any risk of her misunderstanding. Whatever she did must be unmistakable and absolutely direct.
She racked her brain to discover just the right thing, but she was rewarded by no brilliant idea, and she felt crosser than ever by the time noon had arrived. But suddenly, at the luncheon table, she gave a wild leap from her chair and clapped her hands frantically, while Delia almost let a dish fall in her surprise at this sudden and unexpected demonstration.
"For the land's sake, what is it now?" she demanded, while Nan caught her around the waist and whirled her about the room, vegetable dish and all.
"I've got it! I've got it!" screamed the girl, convulsed with inward laughter. "I've got the best scheme in the world. Delia, you old duck! Oh, won't it settle her though! Won't it settle her?" But she would not reveal who was to be settled, nor how, though Delia pleaded earnestly to be enlightened and even offered to help her make caramels as a bribe.
"No, thank you, Ma'am! I wouldn't have time to boil 'em. I'm going to be as busy as a beaver all the afternoon, so no matter what happens don't you disturb me," continued Nan, importantly.
Delia shrewdly suspected that the scheme afoot had something to do with the governess, but she did not dare suggest it.
"Oh, well, what I don't know I can't cry over," she said to herself, "and when Nan's like this, all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't stop her, so I might as well hold my tongue. But I'll say this much, I don't envy that governess her job, whoever she may be."
Meanwhile Nan had gone to her own room and shut and locked the door. Her next move was to take her night-dress from its hook and slip it over her head.
"Now I'm going to rehearse," she announced to her reflection in the glass. "First I must get my eyes to seem kind of wide and starey. No! not this way. They must look like licorice-drops in milk. There! that's better! All expressionless, and that kind of thing. I s'pose I might shut 'em, some somnabulists do; but then I'd be sure to trip over the furniture and stub my toes, and give the whole business away. No, I must keep my eyes open; that's certain. Then I must glide when I walk. My step must be light and ghostly and noiseless. I must be sure to have it ghostly and noiseless. Now—eyes staring—one, two, three—step ghostly and noiseless—Oh, bother! What business had that footstool in my way? If I knock things over like that I'll wake the house, and Delia would know in a minute what I was up to. There! get into the corner, you old thing! Now again! Eyes staring—step ghostly—and noiseless—voice low and mournful, but I must manage to make her understand every word. Now once more—voice low and mournful—
"Alas! alas! why did she come?—why did she come? (No, I can't say that! It sounds too much like 'Why did he die! Why did he die?' But the alas is good! That sounds real creepy and weird.) Now then—Alas! alas! This is the worst thing that ever happened to me in all my life! My dear, old home! To think that anybody who isn't wanted should come and push herself like this into my dear, old home! O father! father! come home from Bombay, and save me from this awful woman. Turn her out of the house! Make her go back where she came from! Her hated form haunts me in my sleep, and I dream all night of her as I see her in the daytime—tall—and thin—and lanky—with her hair all dragged into that ugly little knob behind at the back of her head! O father! father! her eyes are like needles! They prick me when she looks. Save me!—save me! My heart will break if some one doesn't come and rescue me from this terrible person. Take her away—take her away! Ah—I see her! I see her! Get away—get away! You awful creature! Don't you know you are causing an innocent girl to perish in her youth? Alas, she won't go! Then listen, reckless woman! and remember this warning—'the way of intruders is hard!'
"There! that ends it off with a sort of threatening dreadfulness that ought to scare her stiff. After I've said that in a whisper to freeze her blood, I'll turn silently from her bedside and glide noiselessly from the room, wringing my hair and tearing my hands; no, I mean just the other way, and if that doesn't fix her, why—I'll have to go over it all again, of course, so I won't forget. Perhaps it would be a good idea to write it down and learn it off by heart."
The idea in fact recommended itself so thoroughly to her that she followed her own suggestion without further delay and wrote off the entire harangue at once, making it, if possible, even more eloquent and harrowing than it had been in the original. It seemed a very long, wearisome task, to commit it all to memory, but she did not grudge the trouble. She had never attempted anything that looked like study with so much willingness. The afternoon slipped away like a dream, and as soon as dinner was over she set to work again, and by bed-time had the thing pretty well under control. Whenever she halted or stumbled she went over it all again with the most patient perseverance.
"I suppose if I had stuck to things at school like this I'd have been at the head of the class," she said to herself with a whimsical sense of her own perversity.
Delia was completely nonplused. She could not imagine what "that child was up to." There were no evidences anywhere of the means she was going to employ in the governess' initiation. Her room was in perfect order, and in Nan's own chamber nothing was unusually amiss. She got no satisfaction from the girl herself, who kept her lips tightly closed, except when she was mumbling over her harangue. It was terribly perplexing—and ominous.
"Good land!" thought Delia in real anxiety, "I only hope she ain't going to do anything too dreadful. I declare, if it weren't that I'm so soft where Nannie is concerned I'd say I'd be glad that some one's coming who may be up to managin' her. I'm free to confess I ain't. If only her mother had lived! Or, if only my dear Miss Belle hadn't gone off to the ends of the earth—! Miss Belle could have managed her! No one could resist Miss Belle, bless her! Ah, dear me, dear me! It's fifteen years, and to think, I'll never see her face again!"
The morning of the expected governess' arrival dawned cold and dreary. Rain fell in torrents, and the streets were drenched and slippery with slush. All day Nan moped in unhappy expectation of her anticipated thralldom. At every sound of rumbling wheels before the door she would fly to the window, torturing herself with the belief that this was the hack which was conveying the tyrant-governess to the victim-pupil, and she felt a curious sort of disappointment when no such vehicle appeared and no such personage arrived, for always the rumbling wheels belonged to some grocer's cart or butcher's wagon, and by evening the invader had still not appeared. Then Nan plucked up courage.
"I shouldn't wonder if she had been switched off the road," she said to Delia, inclining to be quite jolly at the mere thought of such a grateful possibility. And she pictured to herself an accommodating engine whizzing the unwelcome guest off into some remote region from which she would never see the desirability of returning. Nan wished her no ill, but she did not wish herself ill either. She ate her dinner quite contentedly, and was just going to settle down comfortably to some thrilling tale of adventure when Br—r—r! went the bell, and she knew her fate had descended upon her.
She flew to the parlor and hid behind the folding-door. She heard Delia ascend the basement stairs. She heard her come along the hall, and then—it was very strange, but Nan really thought she heard her give a smothered exclamation that was instantly followed by the word of warning, "Hush!"—but she must have been mistaken, for it was only Mr. Turner who was speaking. He was asking for Nan herself. She slipped from behind the door with the hope at her heart that even now, at the last minute, the governess had "backed out." Certainly it looked as if she had, since she saw only the lawyer standing by the hat-stand. She held out her hand to him with a real smile of greeting when—he stepped aside and there stood the governess.
At first Nan thought it must be some little girl, so small and slender looked the figure beside that of the tall man. The eyes beneath the rain-soaked brim of the governess' hat were soft and dark; her hair was brown, and the damp wind had blown it into innumerable little curls and tendrils about her temples, where it took on a ruddy sheen in the gas light. Her nose was delicate and short; her mouth, which was not small, was fascinating from the fact that the parting lips disclosed two rows of perfect teeth. She had two dimples that came and went as she smiled, and in her chin was a small cleft that was quivering a little, Nan noticed. She thought the governess looked as if she were going to cry. Her eyes seemed somewhat "teary round the lashes," and there was no doubt about it—her chin was quivering.
"Pooh!" thought Nan. "I might have saved myself all that worry. She's as afraid as she can be. I guess I'll be able to manage her as easy as pie."
But now Mr. Turner was addressing her.
"Nan," he was saying, "this is Miss Blake. Can't you welcome her to her new home, my dear?"
Nan hung back in awkward silence, but the new governess did not give her the opportunity to make the moment an embarrassing one. She stepped forward, and, taking the girl's hand in her own, said softly:
"Mr. Turner has told me all about you. I hope we shall be very happy together."
She did not attempt to kiss her.
Nan murmured an indistinct "Yes'm," and shrank back against the wall. Delia stood beside the new governess with a very curious expression on her face. For a moment there was silence, and then Mr. Turner broke in upon it with:
"I think it would be well if Miss Blake were to be shown to her room at once. She is drenched with the rain and must be cold and hungry. Will you be good enough, Delia, to get her something to eat while Nan takes her upstairs?"
Nan started forward quickly at the note of rebuke in the lawyer's voice.
"Oh, won't you come to your room?" she asked.
She vaguely wondered what made Delia look so strange and act in such a dazed, uncertain fashion. She thought she must be a sad "'fraid-cat" to be overawed by such a little personage as the new governess.
"Now I will say good-night," said Mr. Turner to Miss Blake, as she started to follow Nan above. "I hope," he added in an undertone, taking her hand, "that you will be happy. Don't become discouraged. Send for me whenever you need me. I am always at your service."
She silently bowed her thanks. Somehow she found it difficult to speak just then. She had been tired and cold before she entered the house, but it seemed to her she had not known weariness or chill until now. She felt herself shiver as she turned away from the lawyer and heard the door close behind him. He seemed to be leaving her alone with an enemy.
Nan certainly looked anything but amicable.
"Here's your room," she announced, as they reached the upper landing. She flung open a door, and the new governess found herself stepping forth into utter darkness, where Nan herself was groping about for matches. The air of the place was cold and damp. It had the feel of a room that was unused. It was barren and cheerless. But in the second preceding Nan's discovery of the matches Miss Blake hoped that when the gas was lit it would seem more inviting. But it did not. It was bare and undecorated, and presented anything but an attractive appearance.
The stranger drew two long pins from her hat without saying a word. Nan turned on her heel and made to leave the room.
"Will you please tell me where I can find some warm water?" inquired Miss Blake.
"Washstand in that little dressing-room. Left-hand faucet," announced Nan, curtly, and marched away.
The governess gently closed the door.
Perhaps if Nan had remained there to see she would have wondered if Miss Blake were quite in her right mind. Her behavior was certainly extraordinary. The tears rained down her cheeks, and she did not try to stop them. She just stood in the middle of the floor and gazed about at the awkwardly-placed furniture, the faded carpet, the bare walls, and the ugly mantel-piece as if she could not take her eyes from them. She turned slowly from one thing to another, and presently, in a sort of timid, hungry way, she stretched out her hand and touched each separate object with her caressing fingers, crying very hard the while and murmuring to herself in so low a voice that no one could have overheard.
Even Nan must have softened to her as she stood there crying softly and smiling through her tears at this bare and unfamiliar room. Even Nan must have been moved to wonder what Miss Blake had suffered that she was so glad to get into such an uninviting shelter as this.
But Nan was down stairs in the basement watching Delia prepare a dainty supper for the governess, and scowling at her as she saw to what trouble she went to make it appetizing and delicate.
"There, Delia Connor!" she burst out resentfully, "you're the worst turn-coat I ever saw in my life! This very afternoon you looked black as thunder when you thought she had come, and now you are just dancing attendance on her, as if she was the best friend you ever had!"
"Perhaps she is," responded Delia, placing sprigs of parsley neatly about the sliced chicken and setting the coffee-pot on the range.
Nan tossed her head scornfully. "Well, I like that! I should think you'd be ashamed! A perfect stranger like her!"
Delia did not answer. She was crushing ice for the olives, and as Nan spoke she bent her face over the table and pounded away in silence. But when she had finished, she lifted her head and said, amiably:
"Oh, you can't tell. By the looks of her I should think she is a good-natured little body. She has the true eyes. When you see eyes like that you can mostly be sure they've an honest soul behind 'em. I shouldn't wonder if she'd be a good friend to any one who'd let her."
"Huh!" sneered Nan, wrathfully, "that means, I s'pose, that you intend to let her. Never talk to me of turn-coats any more, Delia Connor!"
Delia caught up a coal-hod and strode deliberately off toward the cellar stairs. When she came back she was laden down with kindlings and coal.
"What you going to do with those?" demanded Nan, imperatively.
"Build a fire in the library. I guess a spark'll look good to the poor little soul—coming in out of the cold and wet."
This was the last straw. Nan's eyes flashed, and she tore after Delia upstairs, scolding as fast as the words would come.
"The idea! The idea! A fire! 'Poor little soul!' And many's the time I've come in out of the cold and you haven't even as much as lit the gas! Oh, no; never mind me! I can come in out of the cold till every tooth in my head chatters, and you wouldn't care a straw. Why, Delia Connor, we never have that fire lit. You just know we don't! There hasn't been a fire in that grate since daddy went away! You know very well there hasn't, and now the first thing you do is to light it for that horrid governess-woman that's going to boss you 'round like anything, and make me do all sorts of hateful things. I tell you what it is, Delia Connor, you don't care a single thing about me. I know just how 'twill be. You'll help her to do anything she wants to, and you'll never stand up for me a bit. It's mean of you, Delia! It's downright mean of you. And it's just because she's got those dimples and things, and smiles at you as if you were her best friend. But she needn't think she can manage me. I'm not going to be ordered about by her, if she has got a soft voice and shiny eyes!"
Nan and the fire sputtered and blazed as though they were trying to see which could outdo the other, and Delia stood by looking first at this one and then at that with a good deal less fear of the sparks from the grate than of those from Nan's eyes.
She knew better than to try to pacify the girl when her temper was at such a white-heat, and she inwardly wondered what would happen if the governess should come down while it was yet at its worst. As if in answer to her question they heard the sound of an opening door above, and immediately after Miss Blake's light steps upon the stairs. Nan bit a word off square in the middle and set her lips tightly together. Delia removed the "blower" from the grate and the dancing flames leaped high up the chimney and sent a ruddy glow about the room. The only sounds to be heard were the comfortable ticking of the tall clock in the corner and the low purring of the fire behind its bars. Miss Blake came down the hall and paused on the library threshold.
"Oh, how jolly!" she cried, clapping her hands like a delighted child and running forward eagerly to the hearth. "How perfectly jolly! Don't you think an open fire is the most comfortable thing in the world? And I always loved this one particularly—I mean this kind," she corrected herself quickly.
Nan made no response. She sat in her father's study-chair as stiff and stolid as a lay-figure in a shop window, with her lips drawn primly over her teeth.
Miss Blake was, or pretended to be, unconscious of her attitude, however, and went on talking as easily as though she had the most appreciative of listeners.
"When I was a little girl I used to love to cuddle down here on the hearth-rug—I mean I used to love to cuddle down on the hearth-rug and look into the burning coals. I used to see all sorts of wonderful things in the flames. They used to tell me I'd 'singe my curly pow a-biggin' castles in the air,' but I didn't mind, did I—I mean I didn't mind," she caught herself up quickly.
Delia coughed behind her hand and hurriedly left the room in order to get Miss Blake's supper, which she meant to serve upstairs for the occasion.
As soon as she was gone the new governess turned toward Nan in a strange apologetic sort of way and said:
"I think, if you'll excuse me, I'll just cuddle down on the rug as I used to do when—when I was a little girl. It seems so good to get back—to an open fire that it makes me quite homesick. You won't mind, will you?"
Nan gave a grunt that was meant for "No," and the new governess plumped down upon the floor with her chin in her palms and her elbows on her knees, looking so much like a little girl that for a second Nan had a wild impulse to plump down beside her and inquire, by way of opening the acquaintance—
"Say, does your hair curl like that naturally—or does your mother put it up at night?" or something equally introductory and to the point. But of course she did no such thing, and when Delia reappeared she found them regarding the fire in perfect silence.
At the sound of her step Miss Blake lifted her head and gave Nan a bewildering smile.
"How stupid I have been! Do forgive me!" she said. "We have been having what the Germans call 'an English conversation,' haven't we? I was thinking so hard I quite forgot you—and myself. Ah, what a pretty supper! But I put you to so much trouble," and she turned on Delia two very grateful eyes, while she jumped to her feet with the lightest possible ease.
Delia beamed down upon her beatifically and gave an extra touch to the dainty tray. Nan from her chair scowled darkly upon the whole performance. Delia had deserted her cause; had gone over bodily to the enemy—that was plain. But she needn't flaunt her defection in Nan's very face. Why, it was positively disgraceful the way Delia fetched and carried for this person already, and looked, all the while, as if she could hardly keep from dancing for very joy at the privilege. Well, this governess needn't think that Nan was the kind to be won over by a few smiles and some flickering dimples. When Nan said a thing she meant it and she stuck to it, too. She wasn't a turn-coat like some folks she knew.
"'Alas, alas! my dear old home—! To think that anybody who isn't wanted should come and push herself like this into my dear old home! Oh, father, her eyes are like—' Good gracious! all that description part would have to be changed!" Nan pulled herself together with a visible jerk. How could she speak of "needly eyes" when those of the governess were so deep and soft and gray that they made you feel like—no, they didn't either; but they weren't needly all the same. No! That whole description part would have to be changed. Bother! Well, if it came to that she guessed she could do it! "Her hated form haunts me in my sleep, and I dream of her all night as I see her in the daytime—little and dear, with her hair all shimmery and soft and her eyes kind of kissing you softly all the time, and—" Goodness! that would never do! Why it would be crazy to call on one's father to rescue one from a person like that. Well, she'd leave out the description altogether, that's what she'd do. She—
"Did you speak?" asked the governess, in her musical voice, turning toward Nan inquiringly, and then the girl suddenly realized that she had been mumbling her thoughts aloud.
"No, I didn't," she responded, with irritation. "It was too bad," she declared to herself it was, "that after all the trouble she had taken to learn the thing by heart, she should be pestered to death by having to make changes in it this way—at the last minute, too. Why wasn't Miss Blake tall and lanky and needly-eyed and a fright, she'd like to know? It was just like her, though! So contrary! To change about and upset all Nan's plans. Well, as long as there was so much fuss about the thing, she s'posed she'd give it up."
"She's so little, it'll be easy enough to manage her. I guess it isn't worth while. I can just say, to-morrow or next day, 'Miss Blake, I've come to the conclusion you don't suit,' and she'll go right off. She may cry a little, but I won't mind that; and if she begs to stay, I'll say, 'Now there's no use teasing! When I once say a thing I mean it!' and that will settle her once for all."
Delia was pressing the governess to take more supper when Nan again waked to what was going on about her.
"Why, you don't eat any more than you used—I mean than a bird. Do take a little more chicken, do! And a cup of coffee, nice and hot, that's a good—lady!"
It was really too humiliating! It was more than Nan could bear. She sprang to her feet and without a word—with nothing but a glance of withering scorn at Delia—swept out of the room and upstairs to bed.
Miss Blake looked after her with strange, wondering eyes, but made no attempt to follow her. She just turned to Delia and stretched out her hands.
"O Delia! Delia!" she faltered, brokenly.
The woman came to her and took both the little hands in hers. "Bless you, dearie!" she cried. "That I ever lived to see the day! There, there, lamb, don't cry so, Allanah! See, I'm not crying, am I now?" sobbed she, kneeling beside the stranger and hugging her knees wildly. "Oh, but it's glad I am to see your dear face again! Now tell me all about it—how you came to know we need you so bad?"
Nan, in spite of the fact that she assured herself her heart was broken, fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow. She slept heavily customarily but to-night her rest was fitful and troubled. She kept dreaming strange dreams that caused her to twitch in her sleep and give queer little cries of distress and moans of fretfulness. Sometimes she seemed to be trying to overtake something that was constantly eluding her. First it was a long, lank creature with piercing eyes and a knob at the back of its head which it seemed to be Nan's duty, not to say pleasure, to shoot off with a paper of needles. Then it was something she must recollect or be put to death for forgetting; some awful harangue that she had been doomed to deliver before Delia and a vast crowd of other people, all of whom were staring at her regretfully and murmuring to one another that it was a shame such a hoyden should be allowed to live; and again it was some dainty little creature with tender eyes and shining hair that Nan longed to follow but could not because of something inside her breast that held her back and would not let her call.
Miss Blake did not go to her room until very late. She and Delia kept up a steady stream of conversation until long after midnight, and even then the governess would not have paused if Delia had not been struck with sudden compunction.
"Dear heart alive!" she cried, scrambling to her feet hastily as the clock chimed twelve. "Here you've been wore out with tiredness and excitement and I keep you up till all hours pressin' you with questions that you ain't fit to answer, just as if we wouldn't have time an' to spare together for the rest of our lives, please Heaven! Now go to bed, dearie, so you'll be all rested and fresh in the morning."
Miss Blake shook her head. "No, not all the rest of our lives together, Delia," she cried, hurriedly; "it can only be for a year at most. You said it would be a year, didn't you? Well, then, you know I could not stay after that."
"Go to bed, dearie," was Delia's sole response. "And may you sleep easy and have no dreams."
She took her upstairs herself, just as if the governess had been a little girl; and was not satisfied until she had brushed out the masses of shining hair and woven them into a long, ruddy braid behind. Then she smoothed the pillow lovingly and with another hearty "sleep well" went down stairs to "do up" her dishes and get the house closed for the night.
When she finally stole up to her own room through the pitchy halls she was glad to see that there was no light in the governess' room and that all was darkness and silence within.
"Good! She's asleep by this time, the dear!" murmured the faithful soul, and was soon snoring peacefully herself, quite worn out with the excitement of the evening.
But Miss Blake was not asleep. Her eyes stared widely into the darkness and her brain was spinning with all sorts of teasing thoughts. She listened to the ticking of her watch beneath her pillow—to the muffled chime of the tall clock in the room below—to the gentle rattle of plaster inside the walls where some hidden mouse was scuttling in search of a stolen supper, and tried to soothe herself into a doze but failed and tried and failed again.
Suddenly she sat bolt upright in bed. The sound she heard now was a new one, and one that caused her flesh to tingle. It was the sound of a stealthy hand upon her door. The knob turned noiselessly, the hinges gave a faint whine, and there on the threshold stood a white-robed figure, ghastly and spectral in the pallid light that fell upon it from the cloud-freed moon outside. Miss Blake did not utter a sound and the apparition glided forward with slow, measured steps until it stood beside her bed. Its eyes were staring and wide and fixed.
"It's Nan!" thought Miss Blake, not daring to speak aloud.
The apparition did not remove its gaze. Presently it sighed. Then it raised its head and spoke and its voice was weirdly low and mournful.
"Alas, alas!" it wailed. "This is the worst thing that ever happened to me in all my life. My dear old home! To think that anybody who isn't wanted should come and push herself like this into my dear old home! What does she know of the way I feel? I can never tell her how I hate to have her here, for that would be unladylike. But oh, how I hate it! No, I must keep my lips closed and bear her persecution in silence."
Two white hands were raised and wrung in a way that was truly tragic.
"O father, father!" groaned the ghost, making wild grabs at its hair, "come home from Bombay and save me from this awful woman. Turn her out of the house. Make her go back where she came from. Her hated form haunts me in my sleep and I dream all night of her as I see her in the daytime."
Miss Blake caught her breath in a struggling gasp of dread as to what would come next.
"Tall and thin and lanky, with hair all dragged into that ugly little hard knob at the back of her head!"
The ghost paused, and its uneasy hands clasped each other convulsively while it showed plainly that it was confused in its mind and struggling to grasp a thought it could not express.
Miss Blake breathed a deep sigh of relief. She had really begun to suspect that it was a vision of herself that was haunting Nan in her nightmare. Of course now she knew better. For surely she was not "tall and lanky," and her hair was certainly not "dragged into an ugly little knob at the back of her head." How grateful she was it had not proved to be herself.
"O father! her eyes are like needles."
Miss Blake could have shouted for joy. But who could this awful bugbear be?
"They prick me when she looks! Save me! Save me! my heart will break if some one doesn't come and rescue me from this terrible person. Take her away! She's coming at me with her needly eyes! Daddy! Daddy!"
The uneasy spirit rocked backward and forward in the intensity of its emotion. It stretched out its arms and wagged a threatening forefinger, while it mumbled some unintelligible warning in a voice that faltered and wavered, and then frayed off to a mere wheeze that sounded suspiciously like a snore.
Miss Blake would have risen if she had dared, but she dreaded the effect even the slightest shock might have upon Nan, in what she never doubted was a somnambulistic trance. But when the white-robed figure turned slowly about and retraced its steps to the threshold, she started up and noiselessly followed after to make sure that the girl arrived safely in her own bed and showed no sign of further wandering that night.
Never was a passage from room to room made more deliberately, and when the bed was reached the phantom scrambled into it, dragged the blankets closely about her shoulders and with a sigh of satisfaction settled herself to slumber.
The governess crept back to her own room, thoroughly chilled and shivering with nervousness. It was an hour or more before she felt herself growing drowsy, but at last she dropped asleep and slept heavily until long past the usual rising hour.
Nan waked at her accustomed time, feeling tired and irritable. She found Delia in the kitchen, preparing a tempting breakfast with more than her habitual care.
"Huh!" grunted the girl. "We have hot muffins every morning, don't we? And griddle-cakes! and eggs, and scallops, and fried potatoes, too! Oh, no! we're not making any fuss for the governess. Oh, no! none at all! If I were you I'd be ashamed of myself, Delia Connor!"
Delia pursed her lips together and made no retort.
It did not improve Nan's temper to have to wait for her breakfast until Miss Blake should appear. But Delia made no attempt to serve her, and she was too proud to ask. Happily the delay was not too serious, and the governess appeared at the dining-room door just in time to prevent the muffins from falling and Nan's temper from rising.
"Good morning!" said the cheery voice.
"—morning!" snapped Nan.
"I overslept," continued the governess apologetically; "and I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. I beg your pardon. But I was very tired. I did not sleep over-well the first part of the night."
"You're not late—or—or anything," said Nan. "I never get up till I feel like it."
Miss Blake made no comment.
"And how did you sleep?" she asked after a moment, her eyes laughing mischievously as though in spite of her, while her face remained quite sober.
"All right," responded Nan, uncommunicatively.
The girl shook her head non-committally.
"Now, I wonder whether I could tell you your dream," ventured the governess, the light fading a little in her eyes.
Nan did not encourage her to try.
"You were being pursued by some awful creature—oh, quite a gorgon, I should say!"
The girl lifted her head.
"This relentless creature was deaf to all your appeals, though you appealed to her touchingly, something after this style: Alas, Alas! this is the worst thing that ever happened to me in all my—"
"Stop!" cried Nan, suddenly, with blazing eyes, "I didn't! I didn't! Delia listened. She told on me. You're making fun of me, and you're both of you just as mean as you can be, so there!"
She started up from her chair, which she thrust behind her so roughly that it fell to the ground with a bang, and rushed toward the door in a fury of anger and mortification.
Miss Blake sprang from her place and tried to detain her, crying:
"Nan, Nan! What do you mean? I was only in sport! Come back, dear, and let me tell you all about it." But the girl fled past her, flinging her hand passionately away and spurning her attempt at explanation. A moment later the street door flung to with a loud slam.
The quick tears sprang to the governess' eyes, but she crushed them back.
"Don't mind her, dearie," said Delia, consolingly, but with an effort and a sigh. "She ain't always like this. She's sorter upset just now. She don't mean any harm, and she'll be sorry enough for what she's done come lunchtime. Now, you see."
"But I don't understand," Miss Blake cried. "She said you listened and that you told me, and that we were both making fun of her. She thinks we are in league against her. What can she mean? Why, I was only repeating some nonsense she said in her sleep last night, and I thought she would be amused to hear an account of it. She came into my room and orated in the most tragic fashion. What does she mean by saying you listened and told me?"
Delia shook her head. What she privately thought on the subject she would not have told Miss Blake for worlds.
"If you take my advice," she ventured, "you won't mind what Nan says. She's quick as a flash, but she's got a good, big heart of her own, and it's in the right place, too. Just let her be."
"Let her be?" interrupted Miss Blake, hastily, "not if this is the way she is going to be. That is not what I am here for. I am here to educate her, Delia, and I intend to do it."
Delia could see that she meant what she said. There was a determined expression about her mouth that would have surprised Nan if she had seen it. But at noon, when she returned, the governess' face was as placid as ever. She and Delia were discussing the price of butter in the most intimate fashion possible, and Nan snorted audibly as she heard them agree that it was ruinously high.
Delia had played a poor enough part before, "kow-towing" to the enemy the first thing, but now she had deliberately betrayed her—Nan. Had "gone back on her" in the most flagrant fashion. It was the meanest thing she had ever heard of and she'd pay Delia back, you see if she wouldn't! To listen at key-holes and then go and tell-tale!
"Have you had a pleasant morning?" Miss Blake asked, affably, as Nan entered the room.
She got a grudging affirmative, but nothing daunted she continued: "It is so cold now there ought to be good skating. Perhaps you and I can take a spin some day. Do you skate?"
Again Nan answered "Yes," but this time there was a gleam of interest in her tone.
"When my trunk comes I must show you my skates. I think them particularly fine: altogether too fine for one who skates as indifferently well as I do. I am sure you will prove a much better skater than I am. Somehow I fancy you are very proficient."