The Love Affairs of Pixie, by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey.
Here we have yet again the lovable Pixie, the youngest child of the O'Shaughnessy family, who had all been brought up at Knock Castle, in Ireland, and about whom two previous books have been written. None of the family can quite get their minds round the fact that Pixie is now old enough to have affairs, and even to marry, especially as they are all aware how very plain she is.
But Pixie has other ideas. She becomes engaged to Stanor Vaughan, a very good-looking young rising businessman, whose very rich but disabled uncle is his guardian. The uncle suggests that Stanor should go to America for a couple of years, to become a bit more mature.
Meanwhile there is very nasty and sudden accident to little Jack, an angelic little boy, whom everybody adores. Will he survive?
Eventually Stanor returns to London. But things have sorted themselves out rather better than we would have thought after the first few chapters.
This book was printed in a very heavy type on thinnish paper. It was a mistake to scan it on the default brightness setting, and it was very difficult to clean out all the misreads. There may yet be a few, but not many, I hope. These will be taken out eventually, I hope.
THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF PIXIE, BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY.
THE QUESTION OF NOSES.
When Pixie O'Shaughnessy had reached her twentieth birthday it was borne in upon her with the nature of a shock that she was not beautiful. Hitherto a buoyant and innocent self-satisfaction, coupled with the atmosphere of love and admiration by which she was surrounded in the family circle, had succeeded in blinding her eyes to the very obvious defects of feature which the mirror portrayed. But suddenly, sharply, her eyes were opened.
"Did it ever occur to you, Bridgie, my dear, that I've grown-up plain?" she demanded of her sister, Mrs Victor, as the two sat by the fire one winter afternoon, partaking luxuriously of strong tea and potato cakes, and at the sound of such a surprising question Mrs Victor started as if a crack of thunder had suddenly pealed through the quiet room. She stared in amazement; her big, grey eyes widened dramatically.
"My good child," she demanded sternly, "whatever made you think of asking such a preposterous question?"
"'Twas borne in on me!" sighed Pixie sadly. "It's the way with life; ye go jog-trotting along, blind and cheerful, until suddenly ye bang your head against a wall, and your eyes are opened! 'Twas the same with me. I looked at myself every day, but I never saw. Habit, my dear, blindfolded me like a bandage, and looking at good-looking people all day long it seemed only natural that I should look nice too. But this morning the sun shone, and I stood before the glass twisting about to try on my new hat, and, Bridgie, the truth was revealed! My nose!"
"What's the matter with your nose?" demanded Mrs Victor. Her own sweet, delicately cut face was flushed with anger, and she sat with stiffened back staring across the fireplace as if demanding compensation for a personal injury.
Pixie sighed, and helped herself to another slice of potato cake.
"It scoops!" she said plaintively. "As you love me, Bridgie, can you deny it scoops?" And as if to illustrate the truth of her words she twisted her head so as to present her little profile for her sister's inspection.
Truly it was not a classic outline! Sketched in bare outline it would have lacerated an artist's eye, but then more things than line go to the making up a girlish face: there is youth, for instance, and a blooming complexion; there is vivacity, and sweetness, and an intangible something which for want of a better name we call "charm." Mrs Victor beheld all these attributes in her sister's face, and her eyes softened as they looked, but her voice was still resentful.
"Of course it scoops. It always did scoop. I like it to scoop."
"I like them straight!" persisted Pixie. "And it isn't as if it stopped at the nose. There's my mouth—"
Bridgie's laugh had a tender, reminiscent ring.
"The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky! D'you remember the Major's old name? He was proud of your mouth. And you had no chin as a child. You ought to be thankful, Pixie, that you've grown to a chin!"
"I am," cried Pixie with unction. "It would be awful to slope down into your neck. All the same, me dear, if it was my eyes that were bigger, and my mouth that was smaller, it would be better for all concerned." She was silent for some moments, staring thoughtfully in the fire. From time to time she frowned, and from time to time she smiled; Bridgie divined that a thought was working, and lay back in her seat, amusedly watching its development. "There's a place in Paris," continued Pixie thoughtfully at last, "an institute sort of place, where they repair noses! You sort of go in, and they look at you, and there are models and drawings, and you choose your nose! The manager is an expert, and if you choose a wrong style he advises, and says another would suit you better. I'd love a Greek one myself; it's so chic to float down straight from the forehead, but I expect he'd advise a blend that wouldn't look too epatant with my other features.—It takes a fortnight, and it doesn't hurt. Your nose is gelatine, not bone; and it costs fifty pounds."
"Wicked waste!" cried Mrs Victor, with all the fervour of a matron whose own nose is beyond reproach. "Fifty pounds on a nose! I never heard of such foolish extravagance."
"Esmeralda paid eighty for a sealskin coat. A nose would last for life, while if a single moth got inside the brown paper—whew!" Pixie waved her hands with the Frenchiness of gesture which was the outcome of an education abroad, and which made an amusing contrast with an Irish accent, unusually pronounced. "I'd think nothing of running over to Paris for a fortnight's jaunt, and having the nose thrown in. Fancy me walking in on you all, before you'd well realised I was away, smart and smiling with a profile like Clytie, or a sweet little acquiline, or a neat and wavey one, like your own. You wouldn't know me!"
"I shouldn't!" said Bridgie eloquently.
"Now let's pretend!" Pixie hitched her chair nearer to the fire, and placed her little feet on the fender with an air of intense enjoyment. In truth, tea-time, and the opportunity which it gave of undisturbed parleys with Bridgie, ranked as one of the great occasions of life. Every day there seemed something fresh and exciting to discuss, and the game of "pretend" made unfailing appeal to the happy Irish natures, but it was not often that such an original and thrilling topic came under discussion. A repaired nose! Pixie warmed to the theme with the zest of a skilled raconteur. ... "You'd be sitting here, and I'd walk in in my hat and veil—a new-fashioned scriggley veil, as a sort of screen. We'd kiss. If it was a long kiss, you'd feel the point, being accustomed to a button, and that would give it away, but I'd make it short so you'd notice nothing, and I'd sit down with my back to the light, and we'd talk. 'Take off your hat,' you'd say. 'In a moment,' I'd answer. 'Not yet, me dear, my hair's untidy.' 'You look like a visitor,' you'd say, 'with your veil drawn down.' 'It's a French one,' I'd say. 'It becomes me, doesn't it? Three francs fifty,' and you'd frown, and stare, and say, 'Does it? I don't know! You look— different, Pixie. You don't look—yourself!'"
The real Pixie gurgled with enjoyment, and Bridgie Victor gurgled in response.
"Then I'd protest, and ask what was the matter, and say if there was anything, it must be the veil, and if there was a change wasn't it honestly for the better, and I'd push up my veil and smile at you; smile languidly across the room. I can see your face, poor darling! All scared and starey, while I turned round s-lowly, s-lowly, until I was sideways towards you, with me elegant Grecian nose..."
"I'd not live through it! It would break my heart. With a Grecian nose you might be Patricia, but you couldn't possibly be Pixie. It's too horrible to think of!"
But Pixie had in her nature a reserve of obstinacy, and in absolutely good-natured fashion could "hang on" to a point through any amount of discouragement.
"Now, since you mention it, that's another argument in my favour," she said quickly. "It's hard on a girl of twenty to be bereft of her legal name because of incompatibility with her features. Now, with a Grecian nose—"
Bridgie sat up suddenly, and cleared her throat. The time had come to remember her own position as married sister and guardian, and put a stop to frivolous imaginings.
"May I ask," she demanded clearly, "exactly in what manner you would propose to raise the fifty pounds? Your nose is your own to do what you like with—or will be at the end of another year—but—"
"The fifty pounds isn't! I know it," said Pixie. She did not sigh, as would have seemed appropriate at such a moment, but exhibited rather a cheerful and gratified air, as though her own poverty were an amusing peculiarity which added to the list of her attractions.
"Of course, my dear, nobody ever dreamt for a moment it could be done, but it's always interesting to pretend. Don't we amuse ourselves for hours pretending to be millionaires, when you're all of a flutter about eighteen-pence extra in the laundry bill? I wonder at you, Bridgie, pretending to be practical."
"I'm sorry," said Bridgie humbly. A pang of conscience pierced her heart, for had it not been her own extravagance which had swelled the laundry bill by that terrible eighteen-pence? Penitence engendered a more tender spirit, and she said gently—
"We love your looks, Pixie. To us you seem lovely and beautiful."
"Bless your blind eyes! I know I do. But," added Pixie astonishingly, "I wasn't thinking of you!"
"Not!" A moment followed of sheer, gaping surprise, for Bridgie Victor was so accustomed to the devotion of her young sister, so placidly, assured that the quiet family life furnished the girl with, everything necessary for her happiness, that the suggestion of an outside interest came as a shock. "Not!" she repeated blankly. "Then—then—who?"
"My lovers!" replied Pixie calmly.
And looking back through the years, it always seemed to Bridgie Victor that with the utterance of those words the life of Pixie O'Shaughnessy entered upon a new and absorbing phase.
PIXIE'S VIEWS ON MARRIAGE.
Bridgie Victor sat gazing at her sister in a numb bewilderment. It was the first, the very first time that the girl had breathed a word concerning the romantic possibilities of her own life, and even Bridgie's trained imagination failed to rise to the occasion. Pixie! Lovers! Lovers! Pixie! ... The juxtaposition of ideas was too preposterous to be grasped. Pixie was a child, the baby of the family, just a bigger, more entertaining baby to play with the tinies of the second generation, who treated her as one of themselves, and one and all scorned to bestow the title of "aunt."
There was a young Patricia in the nursery at Knock Castle, and a second edition in the Victor nursery upstairs; but though the baptismal name of the little sister had been copied, not even the adoring mothers themselves would have dreamed of borrowing the beloved pet name, Pixie's nose might not be to her approval; it might even scoop—to be perfectly candid, it did scoop—but it had never yet been put out of joint. The one and only, the inimitable Pixie, she still lived enthroned in the hearts of her brothers and sisters, as something specially and peculiarly their own.
So it was that a pang rent Bridgie's heart at the realisation that the little sister was grown-up, was actually twenty years of age—past twenty, going to be twenty-one in a few more months, and that the time was approaching when a stranger might have the audacity to steal her from the fold. To her own heart, Bridgie realised the likelihood of such a theft, and the naturalness thereof: outwardly, for Pixie's benefit she appeared shocked to death.
"L-lovers!" gasped Bridgie. "Lovers! Is it you, Pixie O'Shaughnessy, I hear talking of such things? I'm surprised; I'm shocked! I never could have believed you troubled your head about such matters."
"But I do," asserted Pixie cheerfully. "Lots. Not to say trouble, exactly, for it's most agreeable. I pretend about them, and decide what they'll be like. When I see a man that takes my fancy, I add him to the list. Mostly they're clean-shaved, but I saw one the other day with a beard—" She lifted a warning finger to stay Bridgie's cry of protest. "Not a straggler, but a naval one, short and trim; and you wouldn't believe how becoming it was! I decided then to have one with a beard. And they are mostly tall and handsome, and rolling in riches, so that I can buy anything I like, nose included. But one must be poor and sad, because that," announced Pixie, in her most radiant fashion, "would be good for my character. I'd be sorry for him, the creature! And, as they say in books, 'twould soften me. Would you say honestly, now, Bridgie, that I'm in need of softening?"
"I should not. I should say you were soft enough already. Too soft!" declared Bridgie sternly. "'Them,' indeed! Plural, I'll trouble you! Just realise, my child, that there are not enough men to go round, and don't waste time making pictures of a chorus who will never appear. If you have one lover, it will be more than your share; and it's doubtful if you ever get that."
"I doubt it," maintained Pixie sturdily. "I'm plain, but I've a way. You know yourself, me dear, I've a way! ... I'm afraid I'll have lots; and that's the trouble of it, for as sure as you're there, Bridgie, I'll accept them all! 'Twouldn't be in my heart to say no, with a nice man begging to be allowed to take care of me. I'd love him on the spot for being so kind; or if I didn't, and I saw him upset, it would seem only decent to comfort him, so 'twould end the same way. ... It breaks my heart when the girls refuse the nice man in books, and I always long to be able to run after him when he leaves the room—ashy pale, with a nerve twitching beside his eye—and ask him will I do instead! If I feel like that to another girl's lover, what will I do to my own?"
Bridgie stared aghast. Her brain was still reeling from the shock of hearing Pixie refer to the subject of lovers at all, and here was yet another problem looming ahead. With a loving grasp of her sister's character, she realised that the protestations to which she had just listened embodied a real danger. Pixie had always been "the soft-heartedest creature," who had never from her earliest years been known to refuse a plea for help. It would only be in keeping with her character if she accepted a suitor out of pure politeness and unwillingness to hurt his feelings. Bridgie was a happy wife, and for that very reason was determined that if care and guidance, if authority, and persuasion, and precept, and a judicious amount of influence could do it, Pixie should never be married, unless it were to the right man. She therefore adopted her elderly attitude once more, and said firmly—
"It's very wicked and misguided even to talk in such a way. When the time comes that a man asks you to marry him—if it ever comes—it will be your first and foremost duty to examine your own heart and see if you love him enough to live with him all his life, whether he is ill or well, or rich or poor, or happy or sad. You will have to decide whether you would be happier with him in trouble or free by yourself, and you'd have to remember that it's not always too easy managing a house, and— and walking about half the night with a teething baby, and darning socks, when you want to go out, and wearing the same dress three years running, even if you love the man you've married. Of course, some girls marry rich husbands—like Esmeralda; but that's rare. Far more young couples begin as we did, with having to be careful about every shilling; and that, my dear, is not agreeable! You need to be very fond of a man to make it worth while to go on short commons all your life. You need to think things over very carefully, before you accept an offer of marriage."
Pixie sat listening, her head cocked to one side, with the air of a bright, intelligent bird. When Bridgie had finished speaking she sighed and knitted her brows, and stared thoughtfully into the fire. It was obvious that she was pondering over what had been said, and did not find herself altogether in agreement with the rules laid down.
"You mean," she said slowly, "that I should have to think altogether of myself and what would suit Me and make me happy? That's strange, now; that's very strange! To bring a girl up all her life to believe it's her duty in every small thing that comes along to put herself last and her family in front, and then when she's a grown-up woman, and a man comes along who believes, poor thing! that she could help him and make him happy, then just at that moment you tell her to be selfish and think only of herself. ... 'Tis not that way I'll conduct my love affairs!" cried Pixie O'Shaughnessy. Her eyes met Bridgie's, and flashed defiance. "When I meet a man who needs me I'll find my own happiness in helping him!"
"Bless you, darling!" said Bridgie softly. "I am quite sure you will. ... It's a very, very serious time for a woman when the question of marriage comes into her life. You can't treat it too seriously. I have not thought of it so far in connection with you, but now that I do I'll pray about it, Pixie! I'll pray for you, that you may be guided to a right choice. You'll pray that for yourself, won't you, dear?"
"I will," said Pixie quietly. "I do. And for him—the man I may marry. I've prayed for him quite a long time."
"The ... the man!" Bridgie was so surprised as to appear almost shocked. "My dear, you don't know him!"
"But he is alive, isn't he? He must be, if I'm going to marry him. Alive, and grown-up, and living, perhaps, not so far away. Perhaps he's an orphan, Bridgie; or if he has a home, perhaps he's had to leave it and live in a strange town. ... Perhaps he's in lodgings, going home every night to sit alone in a room. Perhaps he's trying to be good, and finding it very hard. Perhaps there's no one in all the world to pray for him but just me. Bridgie! If I'm going to love him how can I not pray?"
Mrs Victor rose hurriedly from her seat, and busied herself with the arrangement of the curtains. They were heavy velvet curtains, which at night-time drew round the whole of the large bay window which formed the end of the pretty, cosy room. Bridgie took especial pleasure in the effect of a great brass vase which, on its oaken pedestal, stood sharply outlined against the rich, dark folds. She moved its position now, moved it back into its original place, and touched the leaves of the chrysanthemum which stood therein with a caressing hand. Six years' residence in a town had not sufficed to teach the one-time mistress of Knock Castle to be economical when purchasing flowers. "I can't live without them. It's not my fault if they are dear!" she would protest to her own conscience at the sight of the florist's bill.
And in truth, who could expect a girl to be content with a few scant blossoms when she had lived all her early age in the midst of prodigal plenty! In spring the fields had been white with snowdrops. Sylvia sent over small packing-cases every February, filled with hundreds and hundreds of little tight bunches of the spotless white flowers, and almost every woman of Bridgie's acquaintance rejoiced with her on their arrival. After the snowdrops came on the wild daffodils and bluebells and primroses. They arrived in cases also, fragrant with the scent which was really no scent at all, but just the incarnation of everything fresh, and pure, and rural. Then came the blossoming of trees. Bridgie sighed whenever she thought of blossom, for that was one thing which would not pack; and the want of greenery too, that was another cross to the city dweller. She longed to break off great branches of trees, and place them in corners of the room; she longed to wander into the fields and pick handfuls of grasses, and honeysuckle, and prickly briar sprays. Who could blame her for taking advantage of what compensation lay within reach?
This afternoon, however, the contemplation of the tawny chrysanthemums displayed in the brass vase failed to inspire the usual joy. Bridgie's eyes were bright indeed as she turned back into the room, but it was the sort of brightness which betokens tears repressed. She laid her hand on the little sister's shoulders, and spoke in the deepest tone of her tender Irish voice—
"What has been happening to you, my Pixie, all this time when I've been treating you as a child? Have you been growing up quietly into a little woman?"
Pixie smiled up into her face—a bright, unclouded smile.
"Faith," she said, radiantly, "I believe. I have!"
Bridgie rang the bell to have the tea-things removed and a message sent to the nursery that the children might descend without further delay. It was still a few minutes before the orthodox hour, but the conversation had reached a point when a distraction would be welcome, and Jack and Patsie were invariably prancing with impatience from the moment when the smell of hot potato cakes ascended from below.
They came with a rush, pattering down the staircase with a speed which made Bridgie gasp and groan, and bursting open the door entered the room at the double. Jack was five, and wore a blue tunic with an exceedingly long-waisted belt, beneath which could be discerned the hems of abbreviated knickers. Patricia was three, and wore a limp white frock reaching to the tips of little red shoes. She had long brown locks, and eyes of the true O'Shaughnessy grey, and was proudly supposed to resemble her beautiful aunt Joan. Jack was fair, with linty locks and a jolly brown face. His mouth might have been smaller and still attained a fair average in size, but for the time being his pretty baby teeth filled the cavern so satisfactorily, that no one could complain.
Both children made straight for their mother, smothered her with "Bunnie" hugs, and then from the shelter of her arms cast quick, questioning glances across the fireplace. There was in their glance a keenness, a curiosity, almost amounting to awe, which would at once have arrested the attention of an onlooker. It was not in the least the smiling glance of recognition which is accorded to a member of the household on meeting again after one of the short separations of the day; it resembled far more the half-nervous, half-pleasurable shrinking from an introduction to a stranger, about whom was wrapped a cloak of deepest mystery. As for Pixie herself she sat bolt upright in her seat, staring fixedly into space, and apparently unconscious of the children's presence.
Presently Jack took a tentative step forward, and Patsie followed in his wake. Half a yard from Pixie's chair they stopped short with eager, craning faces, with bodies braced in readiness for a flying retreat.
No answer. Still the rigid, immovable figure. Still the fixed and staring eye.
The eyes rolled; a deep, hollow voice boomed forth—
"I'm not Pixie!"
The expected had happened. They had known it was coming; would have been bitterly disappointed if it had failed, nevertheless they writhed and capered as though overcome with amazement.
"P-ixie, Pixie, Who—Are—You—Now?"
"I'm a wild buffalo of the plains!" answered Pixie unexpectedly, and as a wild buffalo she comported herself for the next half-hour, ambling on hands and knees round the room, while the children wreathed her neck with impromptu garlands made of wools from their mother's work-basket, and made votive offerings of sofa cushions, footstools, and india-rubber toys.
In the midst of the uproar Bridgie jumped from her seat and flew to the door, her ears sharp as ever to hear the click of her husband's latch-key. The greeting in the narrow hall was delightfully lover-like for a married couple of six years' standing, and they entered the drawing-room arm-in-arm, smiling with a contentment charming to witness. Captain Victor was satisfied that no one in the world possessed such an altogether delightful specimen of womanhood as his "bride." She was so sweet, so good, so unselfish, and in addition to these sterling qualities, she was so cheerful, so spontaneous, so unexpected, that it was impossible for life to grow dull and monotonous while she was at the head of the household.
He acknowledged tenderly, and with a shrug of the shoulders to express resignation, that she might have been a cleverer housekeeper and just a thought more economical in expenditure! but considering her happy-go-lucky upbringing under the most thriftless of fathers, the darling really deserved more praise for what she accomplished than blame for what was left undone.
Bridgie, on the contrary, considered that Dick worried his head ridiculously about ways and means. Not for the world and all that it contained would she have accused him of being mean: she merely shrugged her shoulders and reminded herself that he was English, poor thing! English people had a preference for seeing money visibly in their purses before they spent it, while she herself had been brought up in a cheerful confidence that it would "turn up" somehow to pay the bills which had been incurred in faith.
Captain Victor displayed not the faintest astonishment at discovering his sister-in-law on all fours, nor did he appear overcome to be introduced to her as a buffalo of the plains. He smiled at her almost as tenderly as at his own babies, and said—
"How do, Buff! Pleased to have met you. So kind of you to make hay in my drawing-room," which reproof brought Pixie quickly to her rightful position. That was another English characteristic of Dick Victor—he hated disorder, and was not appreciative of uproar on his return from a day's work. Therefore there were picture-books in waiting for his return, and after a few minutes parleying Pixie cajoled the children into the dining-room on the plea of a bigger and more convenient table for the display of their treasures, leaving the husband and wife alone.
Dick lay back in his easy chair, and stretched himself with an involuntary sigh of relief. He was devoted to his children, but a quiet chat with Bridgie was the treat par excellence at this hour of the day when he was tired and in need of rest. He stretched out a hand towards her, and she stroked it with gentle fingers.
"Ye're tired, dear. Will I get you a cup of tea? It's not long since it went out. If I poured some hot-water in the pot..."
"Thank you, ma'am, no! If I have any, I'll have it fresh, but I don't care about it to-day. It's nice just to rest and talk. Anything happened to you to-day?"
"There always does. It's the most exciting thing in the world to be the mistress of a household," said Bridgie, with relish. There were few days when Captain Victor was not treated to a history of accidents and contretemps on his return home, but unlike most husbands he rather anticipated than dreaded the recital, for Bridgie so evidently enjoyed it herself, taking a keen retrospective joy over past discomfitures.
The Victor household had its own share of vicissitudes, more than its share perhaps, but through them all there survived a spirit of kindliness and good fellowship which took away more than half the strain. Maidservants arriving in moods of suspicion and antagonism found themselves unconsciously unarmed by the cheery, kindly young mistress, who administered praise more readily than blame, and so far from "giving herself airs" treated them with friendly kindliness and consideration. On the very rare occasions when a girl was poor-spirited enough to persist in her antagonism, off she went with a month's money in her pocket, for the peace of her little home was the greatest treasure in the world to Bridgie Victor, and no hireling could be allowed to disturb it. The service in the little house might not be as mechanically perfect as in some others, the meals might vary in excellence, but that was a secondary affair. "If a bad temper is a necessary accompaniment of a good cook, then—give me herbs!" she would cry, shrugging her pretty shoulders, and her husband agreed—with reservations!
He was a very happy, a very contented man, and every day of his life he thanked God afresh for his happy home, for his children, for the greatest treasure of all, sweet Bridget, his wife!
To-day, however, the disclosure had nothing to do with domestic revolutions, and Bridgie's tone in making her announcement held an unusual note of tragedy.
"Dick, guess what! You'll never guess! Pixie's grown-up!"
For a moment Captain Victor looked as was expected of him—utterly bewildered. He lay back in his chair, his handsome face blank and expressionless, the while he stared steadily at his wife, and Bridgie stared back, her distress palpably mingled with complacence. Speak she would not, until Dick had given expression to his surprise. She sat still, therefore, shaking her head in a melancholy mandarin fashion, which had the undesired effect of restoring his complacence.
"My darling, what unnecessary woe! It's astounding, I grant you; one never expected such a feat of Pixie; but the years will pass—there's no holding them, unfortunately. How old is she, by the way? Seventeen, I suppose—eighteen?"
Bridgie's tone was tragic, and Dick Victor in his turn looked startled and grave. He frowned, bit his lip, and stared thoughtfully across the room.
"Twenty-one? Is it possible? Grown-up, indeed! Bridgie, we should have realised this before. We have been so content with things as they were that we've been selfishly blind. If Pixie is over twenty we have not been treating her fairly. We have treated her too much as a child. We ought to have entertained for her, taken her about."
Bridgie sighed, and dropped her eyelids to hide the twinkle in her eyes. Like most husbands Dick preferred a quiet domestic evening at the end of a day abroad: like most wives Bridgie would have enjoyed a little diversion at the end of a day at home. Sweetly and silently for nearly half a dozen years she had subdued her preferences to his, feeling it at once her pleasure and her duty to do so, but now, if duty suddenly assumed the guise of a gayer, more sociable life, then most cheerfully would Irish Bridgie accept the change.
"I think, dear," she said primly, "it would be wise. Esmeralda has said so many a time, but I took no notice. I never did take any notice of Esmeralda, but she was right this time, it appears, and I was wrong. Imagine it! Pixie began bemoaning that she was not pretty, and it was not herself she was grieving for, or you, or Me!"—Bridgie's voice sounded a crescendo of amazement over that last pronoun—"but whom do you suppose? You'll never guess! Her future lovers!"
It was just another instance of the provokingness of man that at this horrible disclosure Dick threw himself back in his chair in a peal of laughter; he laughed and laughed till the tears stood in his eyes, and Bridgie, despite herself, joined in the chorus. The juxtaposition of Pixie and lovers had proved just as startling to him as to his wife, but while she had been scandalised, he was frankly, whole-heartedly amused.
"Pixie!" he cried. "Pixie with a lover! It would be about as easy to think of Patsie. Dear, quaint little Pixie! Who dares to say she isn't pretty? Her funny little nose, her big, generous mouth are a hundred times more charming than the ordinary pretty face. I'll tell you what it is, darling,"—he sobered suddenly;—"Pixie's lover, whoever he may be, will be an uncommonly lucky fellow!"
Husband and wife sat in silence for some moments after this, hand in hand, as their custom was in hours of privacy, while the thoughts of each pursued the same subject—Pixie's opening life and their own duty towards it.
On both minds was borne the unwilling realisation that their own home was not the ideal abode to afford the experience of life, the open intercourse with young people of her own age which it was desirable that the girl should now enjoy. As a means of adding to his income Captain Victor had accepted the position of adjutant to a volunteer corps in a northern city, and, as comparatively new residents, his list of acquaintances was but small.
Esmeralda, or to speak more correctly, Joan, the second daughter of the O'Shaughnessy family, as the wife of the millionaire, Geoffrey Hilliard, possessed a beautiful country seat not sixty miles from town, while Jack, the eldest brother, had returned to the home of his fathers, Knock Castle, in Ireland, on the money which his wife had inherited from her father, after he had become engaged to her in her character of a penniless damsel. Jack was thankful all his life to remember that fact, though his easy-going Irish nature found nothing to worry about in the fact that the money was legally his wife's, and not his own.
Both Esmeralda as a society queen, and Sylvia as chatelaine of Knock, had opportunities of showing life to a young girl, with which Bridgie in her modest little home in a provincial town could not compete. Nevertheless, the heart of the tender elder sister was loath to part from her charge at the very moment when watchfulness and guidance were most important. She fought against the idea; assured herself that there was time, plenty of time. What, after all, was twenty-one? In two, three years one might talk about society; in the meantime let the child be! And Captain Victor, in his turn, looked into the future, and saw his Bridgie left sisterless in this strange town, bereft all day long of the society of the sweetest and most understanding of companions, and he, too, sighed, and asked himself what was the hurry. Surely another year, a couple of years! And then, being one in reality as well as in name, the eyes of husband and wife met and lingered, and, as if at the sweep of an angel's wing, the selfish thoughts fell away, and they faced their duty and accepted it once for all.
Bridgie leaned her head on her husband's shoulder and sighed thankfully.
"I have you, Dick, and the children! 'Twould be wicked to complain."
And Dick murmured gruffly—
"I want no one but you," and held her tightly in his arms, while Bridgie sniffed, and whimpered, like one of her own small children.
"But if P-ixie—if Pixie is unhappy—if any wretched man breaks Pixie's heart—"
"He couldn't!" Dick Victor said firmly. "No man could. That's beyond them. Heart's like Pixie's don't break, Honey! I don't say they, may not ache at times, but breaking is a different matter. Your bantling is grown-up: you can keep her no longer beneath your wing. She must go out into the world, and work and suffer like the rest, but she'll win through. Pixie the woman will be a finer creature than Pixie the child!"
But Bridgie hid her face, and the tears rushed into her eyes, for hers was the mother's heart which longed ever to succour and protect, and Pixie was the child whom a dying father had committed to her care. It was hard to let Pixie go.
The immediate consequence of the Pixie pronouncement was a correspondence between her two elder sisters, wherein Bridgie ate humble-pie, and Esmeralda rode the high horse after the manner born.
"You were right about Pixie, darling. It is dull for her here in this strange town, where we have so few friends; and now that she is nearly twenty-one it does not seem right to shut her up. She ought to go about and see the world, and meet boys and girls of her own age. And so, dear, would it be convenient to you to have her for a few months until you go up to town? Your life in the country will seem a whirl of gaiety after our monotonous jog-trot, and she has been so useful and diligent, helping me these last years with never a thought for her own enjoyment, that she deserves all the fun she can get. I am sad at parting from her, but if it's for her good I'll make the effort. She has two nice new frocks, and I could get her another for parties." Thus Bridgie. Esmeralda's reply came by return—the big, slanting writing, plentifully underlined—
"At last, my dear, you have come to your senses. For a sweet-tempered person, you certainly have, as I've told you before, a surprising amount of obstinacy. In future do try to believe that in matters of worldly wisdom I know best, and be ruled by me!
"Pixie can come at once—the sooner the better, but for pity's sake, my dear, spare me the frocks. Felice can run her up a few things to last until I have time to take her to town. If I am to take her about, she must be dressed to please me, and do me credit.
"We have people coming and going all the time, and I'll be thankful to have her. I wouldn't say so for the world, Bridgie, but you have been selfish about Pixie! Never a bit of her have I had to myself; she has come for the regular Christmas visits, of course, and sometimes in summer, but it's always been with you and Dick and the children; it's only the leavings of attention she's had to spare for any one else. Now my boys will have a chance! Perhaps she can keep them in order—I can't! They are the pride and the shame, and the joy and the grief, and the sunshine and the—thunder and lightning and earthquake of my life. Bridgie, did you ever think it would feel like that to be a mother? I thought it would be all pure joy, but there's a big ache mixed in—
"Geoff was so naughty this morning, so disobedient and rude, and I prayed, Bridgie—I shut myself in my room and prayed for patience, and then went down and spoke to him so sweetly. You'd have loved to hear me. I said: 'If you want to grow up a good, wise man like father, you must learn to be gentle and polite. Did you ever hear father speak rudely to me?'—'Oh, no,' says he, quite simply, 'but I've often heard you speak rudely to him!' Now, what was a poor misguided mother to say to that? Especially when it was True! You are never cross, so your youngsters can never corner you like that; but I am—often! Which proves that I need Pixie more than you do, and she'd better hurry along."
Pixie came lightly into the dining-room, just as Bridgie was reading the last words of the letter. She was almost invariably late for breakfast, a fact which was annoying to Captain Victor's soldierly sense of punctuality. He looked markedly at the clock, and Pixie said genially, "I apologise, me dear. The young need sleep!" Then she fell to work at her porridge with healthy enjoyment. She wore a blue serge skirt and a bright, red silk shirt, neatly belted by a strip of patent-leather. The once straggly locks were parted in the middle, and swathed round a little head which held itself jauntily aloft; her eyes danced, her lips curved. It was a bare eight o'clock in the morning, a period when most people are languid and half-awake. But there was no languor about Pixie; she looked intensely, brilliantly alive. A stream of vitality seemed to emanate from her little form and fill the whole room. The dog stirred on the rug and rose to his feet; the canary hopped to a higher perch and began to sing; Dick Victor felt an access of appetite, and helped himself to a second egg and more bacon.
"This is Wednesday," announced Pixie genially, "and it's fine. I love fine Wednesdays! It's a habit from the old school-time, when they were half-holidays, and meant so, much. ... I wonder what nice thing will happen to-day."
Husband and wife exchanged a glance. They knew and loved this habit of expecting happiness, and looking forward to the joys rather than the sorrows of the future, which had all her life, been characteristic of Pixie O'Shaughnessy. They realised that it was to this quality of mind, rather than to external happenings, that she owed her cheerful serenity, but this morning it was impossible not to wonder how she would view the proposed change of abode.
"I've had a letter from Esmeralda," announced Bridgie baldly from behind the urn, and, quick as thought, Pixie's sharp eyes searched her face.
"But that's not nice. It's given you a wrinkle. Take no notice, and she'll write to-morrow to say she's sorry. She's got to worry or die, but there's no reason why you should die too. Roll it up into spills, and forget all about it."
"I can't—it's important. And she's not worrying. It's very—" Bridgie paused for a moment, just one moment, to swallow that accusation of selfishness—"kind! Pixie darling, it's about You."
"Me!" cried Pixie, and dropped her spoon with a clang. Bridgie had already pushed back her chair from the table; Pixie pushed hers to follow suit. Such a prosaic affair as breakfast had plainly vanished from their thoughts, but Captain Victor had by no means forgotten, nor did it suit him to face emotional scenes to an accompaniment of bacon and eggs.
"After breakfast, please!" he cried, in what his wife described as his "barracks" voice, and which had the effect in this instance of making her turn on the tap of the urn so hurriedly that she had not had time to place her cup underneath. She blushed and frowned. Pixie deftly moved the toast-rack so as to conceal the damage, and proceeded to eat a hearty breakfast with undiminished appetite.
It was not until Captain Victor had left the room to pay his morning visit to the nursery, that Bridgie again referred to her sister's letter, and then her first words were of reproach.
"How you could sit there, Pixie, eating your breakfast, as calm as you please, when you knew there was news—news that concerned yourself!"
"I was hungry," said Pixie calmly. "And I love excitement; it's the breath of my nostrils. All the while I was making up stories, with myself as heroine. I'm afraid it will be only disappointment I'll feel when you tell me. Truth is so tame, compared to imagination. Besides, there was Dick!" She smiled a forbearing, elderly smile. "You can't live in the house with Dick without learning self-control. He's so—"
"He's not!" contradicted Dick's wife, with loyal fervour. "Dick was quite right; he always is. It was his parents who were to blame for making him English." She sighed, and stared reflectively out of the window. "We ought to be thankful, Pixie, that we are Irish through and through. It means so much that English people can't even understand— seeing jokes when they are sad, and happiness when they are bored and being poor and not caring, and miserable and forgetting, and interested, and excited—"
"Every single hour!" concluded Pixie deeply, and they laughed in concert. In the contemplation of the advantages of an Irish temperament they had come near forgetting the real subject of discussion, but the sight of the letter on the table before her recalled it to Bridgie's remembrance. She straightened her back and assumed an air of responsibility, a natural dramatic instinct prompting her to play her part in appropriate fashion.
"Dick and I have been feeling, my dear, that as you are now really grown-up, you ought to be having a livelier time than we can give you in this strange town, and Esmeralda has been saying the same thing for years past. She feels we have been rather selfish in keeping you so much to ourselves, and thinks that it is her turn to have you to live with her for a time. We think so too, Pixie. Not for altogether, of course. For three or four months, say; and then you might go over to Knock, and come back to us again for Christmas. Of course, darling, you understand that we don't want you to go!"
Pixie stared silently across the table. She had grown rather white, and her brows were knitted in anxious consideration.
"Bridget Victor," she said solemnly, "is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth you are telling me, or is it just an excuse to get me out of the way? If there's any trouble, or worry, or illness, or upset coming on, that you want to spare me because I'm young, you'd better know at once that it will only be the expense of the journey wasted, for on the very first breath of it I'd fly back to you if it was across the world!"
"I know it," said Bridgie, and blinked back a tear. "But it's the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Pixie, that we are the happiest, and the healthiest, and the contentedest little family in the country, and there's no need to worry about us. We were thinking only of you, and you are free in this instance to think only of yourself."
"That's agreeable!" was Pixie's comment. The frown left her brow and she smiled, the wide lips parting to show brilliantly white little teeth, teeth very nearly as pretty and infantile as those belonging to the small Patsie upstairs. Beholding that smile, Bridgie had no doubt as to the verdict which she was about to hear, and suffered an unreasoning pang of disappointment.
"Then I'll confess to you, my dear," continued Pixie affably, "that I find myself just in the mood for excitement. So long as you are well there's nothing on earth I'd love so much at this moment as to go off on a junket. If Esmeralda wants to give me a good time, let the poor thing have her way—I'll not hinder her! I'll go, and I'll love it; but I'll not promise how long I shall stay—all sorts of things may happen."
"Yes," said Bridgie dreamily, "all sorts of things!"
And so Pixie O'Shaughnessy went forth to meet her fate.
IN MARBLE HALLS.
Mrs Geoffrey Hilliard, nee Joan O'Shaughnessy, was the second daughter of the family, and had been christened Esmeralda "for short" by the brothers and sisters of whom she had been alternately the pride and the trial. The fantastic name had an appropriateness so undeniable that even Joan's husband had adopted it in his turn for use in the family circle, reserving the more dignified "Joan" for more ceremonious occasions.
"Esmeralda" had been a beauty from her cradle, and would be a beauty if she lived to be a hundred, for her proud, restless features were perfectly chiselled, and her great grey eyes, with the long black lashes on the upper and lower lid, were as eloquent as they were lovely. When she was angry, they seemed to send out veritable flashes of fire; when she was languid, the white lids drooped and the fringed eyelashes veiled them in a misty calm; when she was loving, when she held her boys in her arms, or spoke a love word in her husband's ear, ah! Then it was a joy indeed to behold the beauty of those limpid eyes! They "melted" indeed, not with tears, but with the very essence of tenderness and love.
"Esmeralda's so nice that you couldn't believe she was so horrid!" Pixie had declared once in her earlier years, and unfortunately there was still too much truth in the pronouncement.
Seven years of matrimony, and the responsibility of two young sons, had failed to discipline the hasty, intolerant nature, although they had certainly deepened the inner longing for improvement. Joan devotedly loved her husband, but accepted as her right his loyal devotion, and felt bitterly aggrieved when his forbearance occasionally gave way.
She adored her two small sons, and her theories on motherhood were so sweet and lofty that Bridgie, listening thereto, had been moved to tears. But in practice the theories were apt to go to the wall. To do Joan justice she would at any time have marched cheerfully to the stake if by so doing she could have saved her children from peril, but she was incapable of being patient during one long rainy afternoon, when confinement in the house had aroused into full play those mischievous instincts characteristic of healthy and spirited youngsters; and if any one imagines that the two statements contradict each other, he has yet to learn that heroic heights of effort are easier of accomplishment than a steady jog-trot along a dull high-road.
Joan Hilliard's reflections on the coming of her younger sister were significant of her mental attitude. "Pixie's no trouble. She's such an easy soul. She fits into corners and fills in the gaps. She'll amuse the boys. It will keep them in good humour to have her to invent new games. She'll keep Geoff company at breakfast when I'm tired. I'll get some of the duty visits over while she's here. She'll talk to the bores, and be so pleased at the sound of her own voice that she'll never notice they don't answer. And she'll cheer me up when I'm bored. And, of course, I'll take her about—"
Pixie's amusement, it will be noticed, was but a secondary consideration to Joan's own ease and comfort; for though it may be a very enjoyable experience to be a society beauty and exchange poverty for riches, no one will be brave enough to maintain that such an experience is conducive to the growth of spiritual qualities. Sweet-hearted Bridgie might possibly have come unscathed through the ordeal, but Esmeralda was made of a different clay.
Pixie started alone on the three hours' journey, for the Victor household possessed no maid who could be spared, and husband and wife were both tied by home duties; moreover, being a modern young woman, she felt perfectly competent to look after herself, and looked forward to the experience with pleasure rather than dread. Bridgie was inclined to be tearful at parting, and Pixie's artistic sense prompted a similar display, but she found herself simply incapable of forcing a tear.
"It's worse for you than for me," she confessed candidly, "for you've nothing to do, poor creature! But go home to cold mutton and darning, while I'm off to novelty and adventure. That's why the guests sometimes cry at a wedding, out of pity for themselves, because they can't go off on a honeymoon with a trousseau and an adoring groom. They pretend it's sympathetic emotion, but it isn't; it's nothing in the world but selfish regret. ... Don't cry, darling; it makes me feel so mean. Think of the lovely tete-a-tete this will mean for Dick and you!"
"Yes—in the evenings. I'll love that!" confessed Bridgie, with the candour of her race. "But oh, Pixie, the long, dull days, and no one to laugh with me at the jokes the English can't see, or to make pretend!—"
"Ah!" mourned Pixie deeply, "I'll miss that, too! The times we've had, imagining a fortune arriving by the afternoon post, and spending it all before dinner! All the fun, and none of the trouble. But it's dull, imagining all by oneself! And Dick's no good. He calls it waste of time! I shall marry an Irishman, Bridgie, when my time comes!"
"Get into the train and don't talk nonsense!" said Bridgie firmly. She felt it prophetic that on this eve of departure Pixie's remarks should again touch on husbands and weddings, but not for the world would she have hinted as much. She glanced at the other occupant of the carriage—a stout, middle-aged woman, and was on the point of inviting her chaperonage when a warning gleam in Pixie's eyes silenced the words on her lips. So presently the train puffed out of the station, and Bridgie Victor turned sadly homewards even as Pixie seated herself with a bounce, and smiled complacently into space.
"That's over!" she said to herself with a sigh of relief, glad as ever, to be done with painful things and able to look forward to the good to come. "She thinks she's miserable, the darling, but she'll be as happy as a grig the moment she gets back to Dick and the children. That's the worst of living with married sisters! They can manage so well without you. I'd prefer some one who was frantic if I turned my back—"
She smiled at the thought, and met an ingratiating smile upon the face of her travelling companion. The companion was stout and elderly, handsomely dressed, and evidently of a sociable disposition. It was the height of her ambition on a railway journey to meet another woman to whom she could shout confidences for hours upon end, but it was rarely that her sentiments were returned. Fate had been kind to her to-day in placing Pixie O'Shaughnessy in the same carriage.
"The young lady seemed quite distressed to leave you. Is she your sister?"
"She is. Do you think we are alike?"
"I—I wouldn't go so far as to say alike!" the large lady said blandly; "but there's a look! As I always say, there's no knowing where you are with a family likeness. My eldest girl—May—takes after her father; Felicia, the youngest, is the image of myself; yet they've been mistaken for each other times and again. It's a turn of the chin.—Is she married?"
"Who? Bridgie—my sister? Oh yes—very much. Six years."
"Dear me! She looks so young! My May is twenty-seven. She has had her chances, of course. Any children?"
"Wh—" Pixie's mind again struggled after the connection. "Oh, two—a boy and a girl. They are called," she added, with a benevolent consciousness of sparing further effort, "Patrick and Patricia."
"Irish, evidently," the large lady decided shrewdly. "Rather awkward, isn't it, about pet names, and laundry marks, and so forth? However. ... And so you've been paying her a visit, I suppose, and are returning to your home?"
"One of my homes," corrected Pixie happily. "I have three. Two sisters and one brother. And they all like to have me. My parents are dead." Her tone showed that the loss referred to was of many years' standing; nevertheless, the stout lady hurriedly changed the conversation, as though fearful of painful reminiscences.
"I have been having a morning's shopping. We live quite in the country, and I come to town every time I need a new gown. I have been arranging for one this morning, for a wedding. So difficult, when one has no ideas! I chose purple."
Pixie cocked her head on one side and thoughtfully pursed her lips.
"Very nice! Yes, purple's so—portly!" She surprised a puckering of the large lady's face, and hastened to supplement the description. "Portly, and—er—regal, and duchessy, don't you think? I met a duchess once—she was rather like you—and she wore purple!"
The large lady expanded in a genial warmth. Her lips opened in a breathless question—
"How was the bodice made?"
Pixie reflected deeply.
"I can't exactly say! But it was years ago. It would be quite demode. For a wedding, of course, you must be up to date. Weddings make a fuss for months, and are so soon over—I mean for the guests. They are not much fun."
"Where did you meet the Duchess?"
"Oh, at my sister's—the one I am going to now. In her town house, at a reception one afternoon. She had a purple dress with lace, and a Queen Victoria sort of bonnet with strings, and little white feathers sticking up in the front; and she had a—" Pixie smiled into space with reminiscent enjoyment—"beautiful sense of humour!"
The large lady looked deeply impressed, and, beginning at the topmost ribbon on Pixie's hat, stared steadily downward to the tip of the little patent-leather shoe, evidently expecting to find points of unusual interest in the costume of a girl whose sister entertained a duchess in her town house. The train had rattled through a small hamlet and come out again into the open before she spoke again.
"Do you see many of them?"
"Which? What? Bonnets? Feathers? I don't think I quite—"
"Duchesses!" said the large lady deeply. And Pixie, who still preserved her childish love of cutting a dash, fought with, and overcame an unworthy temptation to invent several such titles on the spot.
"Not—many," she confessed humbly, "But, you see, I'm so young—I'm hardly 'out.' The sister with whom I've been living has not been able to entertain. Where I'm going it is different. I expect to be very gay."
The large lady nodded brightly.
"Quite right! Quite right! Only young once. Laugh while you may. I like to see young things enjoying themselves. ... And then you'll be getting engaged, and marrying."
"Oh, of course," assented Pixie, with an alacrity in such sharp contrast with the protests with which the modern girl sees fit to meet such prophecies, that the hearer was smitten not only with surprise but anxiety. An expression of real motherly kindliness shone in her eyes as she fixed them upon the girl's small, radiant face.
"I hope it will be 'of course,' dear, and that you may be very, very happy; but it's a serious question. I'm an old-fashioned body, who believes in love. If it's the real thing it lasts, and it's about the only thing upon which you can count. Health comes and goes, and riches take wing. When I married Papa he was in tin-plates, and doing well, but owing to American treaties (you wouldn't understand!) we had to put down servants and move into a smaller house. Now, if I'd married him for money, how should I have felt then?"
Pixie wagged her head with an air of the deepest dejection. She was speculating as to the significance of tin-plates, but thought it tactful not to inquire.
"I hope—" she breathed deeply—"I hope the tin-plates—" and her companion gathered together her satchel and cloak in readiness for departure at the next station, nodding a cheerful reassurance.
"Oh, yes; quite prosperous again! Have been for years. But it only shows. ... And Papa has attacks of gout. They are trying, my dear, to me, as well as to himself; but if you love a man—well, it comes easier. ... Here's my station. So glad to have met you! I'll remember about the purple."
The train stopped, and the good lady alighted and passed through the wicket-gate, and her late companion watched her pass with a sentimental sigh.
"'Ships that pass in the night, and signal each other in passing.' She took to me, and I took to her. She'll talk about me all evening to May and Felicia, and the tin-plate Papa, and ten chances to one we'll never meet again. 'It's a sad world, my masters!'" sighed Pixie, and dived in her bag for a chocolate support.
The rest of the journey brought no companion so confidential, and Pixie was heartily glad to arrive at her destination, and as the train slackened speed to run into the station, to catch a glimpse of Esmeralda sitting straight and stately in a high cart ready to drive her visitor back to the Hall. Motors were very well in their way—useful trainlets ready to call at one's own door and whirl one direct to the place where one would be, but the girl who had hunted with her father since she was a baby of four years old was never so happy as when she was in command of a horse. As the new-comer climbed up into the high seat the beautiful face was turned towards her with a smile as sweet and loving as Bridgie's own.
"Well, Pixie! Ah, dearie, this is good. I've got you at last."
"Esmeralda, darling! What an angel you look!"
"Don't kiss me in public, please," snapped Esmeralda, becoming prosaic with startling rapidity at the first hint of visible demonstration. She signalled to the groom, and off they went, trotting down the country lane in great contentment of spirits.
"How's everybody?" asked Esmeralda. "Well? That's right. You can tell me the details later on. Now, you have just to forget Bridgie for a bit, and think of Me. I've wanted you for years, and I told Bridgie to her face she was selfish to keep you away. If I'm not a good example, you can take example by my faults, and isn't that just as good? And there's so much that I want you to do. You always loved to help, didn't you, Pixie?"
"I did," assented Pixie, but the quick ears of the listener detected a hint of hesitation in the sound. The dark eyebrows arched in haughty questioning, and Pixie, no whit abashed, shrugged her shoulders and confessed with a laugh: "But to tell you the truth, my dear, it was not so much for helping, as for having a good time for myself, that I started on this trip. Bridgie said I'd been domestic long enough, and needed to play for a change, and there's a well of something bubbling up inside me that longs, simply longs, for a vent. Of course, if one could combine the two..."
Joan Hilliard looked silently into the girl's bright face and made a mental comparison. She thought of the round of change and amusement which constituted her own life, and then of the little house in the northern city in which Pixie's last years had been spent; of the monotonous, if happy, round of duties, every day the same, from year's end to year's end, of the shortage of means, of friends, of opportunities, and a wave of compunction overwhelmed her. Esmeralda never did things by halves; neither had she any false shame about confessing her faults.
"I'm a selfish brute," she announced bluntly. "I deserve to be punished. If I go on like this I shall be some day! I'm always thinking of myself, when I'm not in a temper with some one else. It's an awful thing, Pixie, to be born into the world with a temper. And now, Geoff has inherited it from me." She sighed, shook the reins, and brightened resolutely. "Never mind, you shall have a good time, darling! There's a girl staying in the house now—you'll like her—and two young men, and lots of people coming in and out."
Pixie heaved a sigh of beatific content.
"To-night? At once? That's what I love—to tumble pell-mell into a whirl of dissipation. I never could bear to wait. I'm pining to see Geoffrey and the boys, and all your wonderful new possessions. You must be happy, Esmeralda, to have so much, and be so well, and pretty, and rich. Aren't you just burstingly happy?"
Joan did not answer. She stared ahead over the horse's head with a strange, rapt look in the wonderful eyes. An artist would have loved to paint her at that moment, but it would not have been as a type of happiness. The expression spoke rather of struggle, of restlessness, and want—a spiritual want which lay ever at the back of the excitement and glamour, clamouring to be filled.
Pixie looked at her sister, just once, and then averted her eyes. Hers was the understanding which springs from love, and she realised that her simple question had struck a tender spot. Instead of waiting for an answer she switched the conversation to ordinary, impersonal topics, and kept it there until the house was reached.
Tea was waiting in the large inner hall, and the girl visitor came forward to be introduced and shake hands. She was a slim, fair creature with masses of hair of a pale flaxen hue, swathed round her head, and held in place by large amber pins. Not a hair was out of place—the effect was more like a bandage of pale brown silk than ordinary human locks. Her dress was made in the extreme of the skimpy fashion, and her little feet were encased in the most immaculate of silk shoes and stockings. She looked Pixie over in one quick, appraising glance, and Pixie stared back with widened eyes.
"My sister, Patricia O'Shaughnessy," declaimed Esmeralda. Whereupon the strange girl bowed and repeated, "Miss Pat-ricia O'Shaughnessy. Pleased to meet you," in a manner which proclaimed her American birth as unmistakably as a flourish of the Stars and Stripes.
Then tea was brought in, and two young men joined the party, followed by the host, Geoffrey Hilliard, who gave the warmest of welcomes to his little sister-in-law. His kiss, the grasp of his hand, spoke of a deeper feeling than one of mere welcome, and Pixie had an instant perception that Geoffrey, like his wife, felt in need of help. The first glance had shown him more worn and tired than a man should be who has youth, health, a beautiful wife, charming children, and more money than he knows how to spend; but whatever hidden troubles might exist, they were not allowed to shadow this hour of meeting.
"Sure, and this is a sight for sore eyes!" he cried, with a would-be adaptation of an Irish accent. "You're welcome, Pixie—a hundred times welcome. We're overjoyed to see you, dear."
Pixie beamed at him, with an attention somewhat diverted by the two young men who stared at her from a few yards' distance. One was tall and fair, the other dark and thick set, and when Esmeralda swept forward to make the formal introductions it appeared that the first rejoiced in the name of Stanor Vaughan, and the second in the much more ordinary one of Robert Carr.
"My sister Patricia," once more announced Mrs Hilliard, and though the young men ascribed Pixie's blush to a becoming modesty, it arose in reality from annoyance at the sound of the high-sounding title which had been so persistently dropped all her life. Surely Esmeralda was not going to insist upon "Patricia!"
For a few moments everybody remained standing, the men relating their experiences of the afternoon, while Esmeralda waited for some further additions to the tea-table, and Pixie's quick-seeing eyes roamed here and there gathering impressions to be stored away for later use. She was too excited, too interested, to talk herself, but her ears were as quick as her eyes, and so it happened that she caught a fragment of conversation between Miss Ward and the tall Mr Vaughan, which was certainly not intended for her ears.
"...A sister!" he was repeating in tones of incredulous astonishment. "A sister! But how extraordinarily unlike! She must have thrown in her own beauty to add to Mrs Hilliard's share!"
"Oh, hush!" breathed the girl urgently. "She heard!"
Stanor Vaughan lifted his head sharply and met Pixie's watching eyes fixed upon him. His own glance was tense and shamed, but to his amazement hers was friendly, humorous, undismayed. There was no displeasure in her face, no hint of humiliation nor discomfiture— nothing, it would appear, but serene, unruffled agreement.
Stanor Vaughan had not a good memory: few events of his youth remained with him after middle life, but when he was an old, old man that moment still remained vivid, when, in the place of rebuke, he first met the radiance of Pixie. O'Shaughnessy's broad, sweet smile.
A TALK ABOUT MEN—AND PICKLES.
Stanor Vaughan was deputed to take Pixie in to dinner that evening, an arrangement which at the beginning of the meal appeared less agreeable to him than to his partner. He cast furtive glances at the small, plain, yet mysteriously attractive little girl, who was the sister of the beautiful Mrs Hilliard, the while she ate her soup, and found himself attacked by an unusual nervousness. He didn't know what to say: he didn't know how to say it. He had made a bad start, and he wished with all his heart that he could change places with Carr and "rot" with that jolly Miss Ward. All the same, he found himself curiously attracted by this small Miss O'Shaughnessy, and he puzzled his handsome head to discover why.
There was no beauty in the little face, and, as a rule, Stanor, as he himself would have expressed it, had "no use" for a girl who was plain. What really attracted him was the happiness and serenity which shone in Pixie's face, as light shines through the encircling glass, for to human creatures as to plants the great necessity of life is sun, and its attraction is supreme. Walk along a crowded street and watch the different faces of the men and women as they pass by—grey faces, drab faces, white faces, yellow faces, faces sad and cross, and lined and dull, faces by the thousand blank of any expression at all, and then here and there, at rare, rare intervals, a live face that speaks. You spy it afar off—a face with shining eyes, with lips curled ready for laughter, with arching brows, and tilted chin, and every little line and wrinkle speaking of life.
That face is as a magnet to attract not only eyes, but hearts into the bargain; the passers-by, rouse themselves from their lethargy to smile back in sympathy, and pass on their way wafting mental messages of affection.—"What a dear girl!" they cry, or "woman," or "man," as the case may be. "What a charming face! I should like to know that girl." And the girl with the happy face goes on her way, all the happier for the kindly, thoughts by which she is pursued.
When strangers were first introduced to Pixie O'Shaughnessy they invariably catalogued her as a plain-looking girl; when they had known her for an hour they began to feel that they had been mistaken, and at the end of a week they would have been prepared to quarrel with their best friend if he had echoed their own first judgment. The charm of her personality soon overpowered the physical deficiency.
Stanor Vaughan was as yet too young and prosperous to realise the real reason of Pixie's attraction. He decided that it was attributable to her trim, jaunty little figure and the unusual fashion in which she dressed her hair. Also she wore a shade of bright flame-coloured silk which made a special appeal to his artistic eye, and he approved of the simple, graceful fashion of its cut.
"Looks as if she'd had enough stuff!" he said to himself, with all a man's dislike of the prevailing hobble. He pondered how to open the conversation, asking himself uneasily what punishment the girl would award him for his faux pas of the afternoon. Would she be haughty? She didn't look the kind of little thing to be haughty! Would she be cold and aloof? Somehow, glancing at the irregular, piquant little profile, he could not imagine her aloof. Would she snap? Ah! Now he was not so certain. He saw distinct possibilities of snap, and then, just as he determined that he really must make the plunge and get it over, Pixie leaned confidentially toward him and said below her breath—
"Please talk! Make a start—any start—and I'll go on. ... It's your place to begin."
"Er—er—" stammered Stanor, and promptly forgot every subject of conversation under the sun. He stared back into the girl's face, met her honest eyes, and was seized with an impulse of confession. "Before I say anything else, I—I ought to apologise, Miss O'Shaughnessy. I'm most abominably ashamed. I'm afraid you overheard my—er—er—w-what I said to Miss Ward at tea—"
"Of course I heard," said Pixie, staring. "What could you expect? Not four yards away, and a great bass voice! I'm not deaf. But there's no need to feel sorry. I thought you put it very nicely, myself!"
"Nicely!" He stared in amaze. "Nicely! How could you possibly—"
"You said I had given Esmeralda my share. I'd never once looked at it in that way; neither had any one else. And it's so soothing. It gives me a sort of credit, don't you see, as well as a pride."
She was speaking honestly, transparently honestly; it was impossible to doubt that, with her clear eyes beaming upon him, her lips curling back in laughter from her small white teeth. There was not one sign of rancour, of offence, of natural girlish vanity suffering beneath a blow.
"Good sport!" cried Stanor, in a voice, however, which could be heard by no one but himself. His embarrassment fell from him, but not his amazement; that seemed to increase with each moment that passed. His glance lingered on Pixie's face, the while he said incredulously—
"It's—it's wonderful of you. I've known heaps of girls, but never one who would have taken it like that. You don't seem to have a scrap of conceit—"
"Ex-cuse me," corrected Miss O'Shaughnessy. For the first time she seemed to be slightly ruffled, as though the supposition that she could be bereft of any quality, or experience common to her kind was distinctly hurtful to her pride. "I have! Heaps! But it's for the right things. I've too much conceit to be conceited about things about which I've no right to be conceited. I'm only conceited about things about which I'm—"
"Conceited enough to know are worth being jolly well conceited about," concluded Stanor, and they laughed together in merry understanding.
"That's it," agreed Pixie, nodding. "I used to be conceited about being plain, because it was so unusual in our family that it was considered quite distinguished, and my father used to boast at the hunt that he had the ugliest child in the county, though it was himself that said it. But," she gave the slightest, most ephemeral of sighs, "I've lived through that. I'm conceited now about—other things."
"Lots of them, I'm sure. There must be lots," agreed Stanor, with a sincerity which condoned the banality of the speech. "About your good nature for one thing, I should say, and your generosity in forgiving a blundering man, and your jolly disposition which makes you smile when another girl would have been wild. I can understand all those and a lot more, but, just as a matter of curiosity, I should like to know what are you conceited about most?"
Pixie O'Shaughnessy smiled. There was evidently no doubt in her own mind as to her reply. The slim figure straightened, the little head tilted in air. Quick and crisp came the reply—
"I can make people do what I like!"
"Can you, though!" exclaimed Stanor blankly. The statement seemed to threaten a mysteriously personal application, and he relapsed into a ruminating silence, the while his companion employed herself cheerfully with her dinner and the looks and conversation of her companions.
It was one of Pixie's special gifts to be able to do at least three things at the same time with quite a fair amount of success. She could, for instance, write a business-like letter while carrying on an animated conversation with a friend, and keeping an eye on a small child tottering around the room. Brain, eyes, and limb were alike so alert that what to slower natures would have been impossible, to her involved no effort at all.
Therefore, when about two minutes later Stanor opened his lips again to utter a short, urgent "How?" she had not the slightest difficulty in switching back to the subject, though she had been at the moment in the midst of an absorbing calculation as to the number of yards of lace on a dress of a lady farther down the table, and in drawing mental designs of the way it was put on, to enclose to Bridgie in her next letter home.
"I understand them," said Pixie deeply. "You can open any door if you have the key, but most people go on banging when it's shut. I wait till I find my key, and then I keep it ready until the moment arrives when I wish to get in."
Stanor's broad shoulders gave an involuntary movement which might almost have been taken for a shiver. Once again he felt a mysterious conviction of a personal application. All his life long the phrase had rung in his ears, "I don't understand you!" "If I could once understand you!" and for lack of that understanding there had been trouble and coldness between himself and his nearest relative. Proverbially he was difficult to understand; and he had prided himself on the reputation. Who wanted to be a simple, transparent fellow, whom any one could lead? This was the first time in his life that he had come into contact with a girl who announced herself an expert understander of human nature. He wondered vaguely what, given the initial success, Pixie would wish him to do, hesitated on the point of inquiry, thought better of it and turned the conversation to impersonal topics.
After dinner Pixie sat on a sofa in the drawing-room enjoying a temporary tete-a-tete with the other girl visitor. Miss Ward's hair was, if possible, smoother than ever, and she wore a velvet dress almost exactly matching it in shade, which seemed to Pixie's unsophisticated eyes an extraordinarily sumptuous garment for a young girl to wear. Her eyes were brown, too—bright, quick-glancing eyes full of interest and curiosity. When she spoke her nationality became once more conspicuous.
"Miss Pat-ricia O'Shaughnessy, I guess you and I have got to be real good friends! I've been spoiling for another girl to enjoy this trip with me. If you're having a good time, it makes it twice as good to have a girl to go shares, and compare notes, and share the jokes. You look to me as if you could enjoy a joke."
"I was brought up to them," Pixie affirmed. "I couldn't live without. There's nothing to eat, nor to drink, nor to do, nor to have that I couldn't give up at a pinch, but a sense of humour I—must have! If you feel the same, we're friends from this minute. ... Would you mind telling me as a start just exactly who you are?"
Miss Ward's face fell. Her white brows knitted in a frown.
"I'm an Amurrican," she announced. "Mr and Mrs Hilliard had an introduction to my people when they visited the States, and when I came over to Europe they invited me here. I'm proud to death of being an Amurrican; that's of course! But there's something else. You might as well know it first as last." She straightened herself and drew a fluttering breath. "I'm in trade! I'm Ward's Unrivalled Piquant Pickles!"
"Wh-what?" Pixie stammered in confusion, as well she might, for the announcement was unusual, to say the least of it.
"Pickles! Cauliflower, and cabbage, and little snippets of vegetables floating in piquant sauce, in fat, square bottles. I make them in my factory. If you went over to the States you'd see my placards on every wall, and inside magazines, and on the back sheets of newspapers—a big, fat man eating a plate of cold meat with Ward's unrivalled piquants by his side. They used to be my father's: now they're mine. I am the Unrivalled Piquant Pickles. I run the factory. The profits grow more e-normous every year. There's no other partners in it, only Me!"
If at the beginning of her speech the speaker had made an affectation of humility, she certainly ended on a note of pride, and Pixie's admiration was transparently evident.
"Think of that now! A whole factory, and pickles, too! I adore pickles, especially the fat, cauliflowery bits. And to see one's own name on the hoardings! I'd be so proud!"
"Honest Injun, you would? You don't feel proud and lofty because I'm in trade, and had a grandfather who couldn't read, while your ancestors have been grandees for centuries? Many English people do, you know. They have a way of looking at me as if I were a hundred miles away, and stunted at that. And others who do receive me don't trouble to hide that it's for the sake of the dollars. A girl likes to be cared for for herself: she wants people should judge her by what she is. It's a big handicap, Pat-ricia, to be too rich."
"I'll take your word for it, me dear, having no experience," said Pixie graciously; "but I'd like to be tried. As for caring—no one could help it. I do already, and I've only known you three hours, and Esmeralda said you were nice enough to be Irish, and it isn't the easiest thing in the world to please her fancy."
"She's a beautiful princess. She's been real sweet to me over here. I'm crazy about her!" Honor affirmed in the slow, dragging voice which went so quaintly with her exaggerated language. "But one Mrs Hilliard don't make a world. You've got to be just as good to me as you know how, Pat-ricia, for I've got no one belonging to me on this side nearer than an elderly cousin, twice removed, and it's a lonesome feeling.
"You see, it isn't only what people think of me, it's the mean, suspicious feelings I've gotten towards them, as the result of being brought up an heiress. If I could tell you all I've endoored! The things I've been told! The things I've overheard! Twenty-three men have asked me to marry them, and there wasn't an honest heart among the crowd. I'm not a new-fashioned girl: I'm made so's I'd love my own home; but sure as fate I'll die an old maid, for I run away from fortune-hunters, and the honest men run away from me. If a man happened to be poor and proud, it would be a pretty stiff undertaking to propose to the biggest pickle factory in the world, and I guess I don't make it any easier. You see it's like this: the more I'm anxious that—that, er—er," she stammered uncertainly for a moment, then with forcible emphasis brought out a plural pronoun, "they should care for me really and truly for myself, the more I think that they only think—"
"Exactly!" interrupted Pixie, nodding. "I quite understand." And indeed she looked so exceedingly alert and understanding that Honor flushed all over her small, pale face, and made haste to change the conversation.
"How did you get on with your partner at dinner? Pretty well, eh? He can be real charming when he likes, and there's no doubt but he's good to look at. I've met him quite a good deal since I've been over here, for he's been staying at several houses at the same time. From a European point of view, we seem quite old friends, and I've a kind of fellow-feeling for him, poor boy, for he's a sufferer from my complaint of being too well off for his own good."
Pixie nodded several times without speaking, her lips pursed in knowing, elderly fashion.
"That accounts for it," she said, and when Honor queried eagerly as to her meaning, her reply had a blighting insinuation.
"I'm accustomed to soldiers—men who can fight."
"That's not fair!" cried Honor sharply. She straightened herself and tilted her head at an aggressive angle. "That's not fair. I guess Stanor Vaughan and I have to go through our own military training, and it's a heap more complicated than marching round a barrack yard! We're bound to make our own weapons, and our enemies are the worst that's made—the sort that comes skulking along in the guise of friends. There aren't any bands playing, either, to cheer us along, and when we win there are no medals and honours, only maybe an aching heart!"
She drew herself up with a startled little laugh.
"Mussy! Listen to me sermonising.—I guess I'd better get back to facts as fast as I know how. ... When I said Stanor was too well off, I didn't mean money exactly, but things are too easy for him all round. He's handsome, and strong, and clever, and charming, and there's an uncle in the background who plays fairy godfather and plans out his life ahead, so that he has nothing to worry about like other young men. He's not an old uncle really: he's almost young, but he had an accident as a boy which laid him up for quite a spell, and turned him into a shy recluse. Then when at last he recovered, he was lame, so of course he was cut off from active life, and I guess from what I've heard that he's sensitive about it. Anyway, he lives all alone, and has adopted Stanor as a kind of son, and fusses over him like a hen with one chick—a bit more than the young man appreciates, I fancy."
"How fuss? In what way?"
"Oh! Ambitious, don't you know," Miss Ward explained vaguely. "All the things he ever wanted to be and to do, and couldn't, he is determined that Stanor shall do for him. He is clever, and studious, and serious, so he is set on it that the poor boy should be a book-worm, too, and put study before everything else, and have serious ideas on—er—er—the responsibility of property." Honor frowned at the tips of her small satin shoes. "Drains, you know, and cottages, and overcrowding the poor. Of course that kind of thing comes easy enough when you are thirty-five and lame, but poor Stanor is only twenty-four, and as handsome as paint. It's difficult to be serious-minded at twenty-four, and patient with people who fuss!"
Pixie knitted her brows with an air of perturbation.
"But I hope he is nice to his uncle. It would be so hard to be hurt in your body and hurt in your mind at the same time. It's bad enough for him, poor creature, to have to sit still and live his life through another. His heart is not crippled, nor his mind, nor his will, and fancy, me dear, going on being patient, day after day, year after year, while your body held you back, and you longed, and couldn't, and felt the spirit to move a mountain, and were obliged to lie still on a sofa!" Pixie bounced in a characteristic fashion on her own sofa corner, and whisked a minute pocket-handkerchief to her eyes. "Excuse me, me dear, will you change the conversation? I was always soft-hearted, but red eyes at a dinner party are not a la mode. ... Let's talk about pickles!—"
PIXIE IS DULL.
Geoffrey Hilliard and his two guests entered the drawing-room, and Pixie's eyes turned to greet them with a smile. She was longing to talk to each one of them in turns, and with her usual complacency was assured that each would reciprocate the wish. But the next moment brought with it a jar, for Geoffrey crossed the room to join his wife, and the two younger men made a bee-line for the chair by the other side of the sofa, whereon Honor sat ensconced!
It was only a minute, less than a minute, before Stanor had established a lead, and Mr Carr's deviation to the left was a triumph of smiling composure; nevertheless, Pixie's sharp eyes had seen and understood, and her heart felt a natural girlish pang. At twenty it is hard to accept with resignation the part of second fiddle, and Pixie's generosity had its limits—as whose has not? She had looked at Honor's pretty face and costly gown, had heard of her wealth and independence with the purest and most ungrudging pleasure, but when it became a case of superior popularity, that was a very different matter! Positively, it was quite an effort to twist her lips into a smile to greet Mr Carr, and it made matters no better to perceive the artificiality of his response.
He was a man several years older than the handsome Stanor, and his type of face was so essentially legal that his profession as barrister could be guessed even before it was known. His chin was the most pronounced feature of the face—it was really interesting to discover just how assertive a chin could be. It was a prominent, deeply indented specimen, which ascribed to itself so much power of expression that even the eyes themselves played a secondary part. The tilt of it, the droop of it, the aggressive tilt forward were each equally eloquent, and, one felt sure, must make equal appeal to a British jury.
At this moment, however, there was no jury at hand—only Pixie O'Shaughnessy, feeling very small and snubbed in her corner of the sofa, and robbed for the moment of her accustomed aplomb by the blighting consciousness that she was not wanted.
Robert Carr's chin was leaning very dejectedly forward; he would have voted his companion a tongue-tied little bore if Stanor Vaughan had not taken the opportunity of a moment when his host was absent from the dining-room to recount her "sporting" forgiveness of his own faux pas.
"That's the right sort. I like that girl!" had been Robert's reply, and the good impression was strong enough to withstand a fair amount of discouragement.
So he discoursed to Pixie on the subject of pictures, of which she knew nothing; and she switched the conversation round to music, of which he knew less; and she cast furtive glances of longing towards the other couple, who were laughing and chattering together with every appearance of enjoyment, and he kept his eyes rigorously averted, while his chin drooped ever lower and lower in growing depression. Later on the whole party played several rather foolish games, of which Pixie had never heard before, and in which she consequently did not shine, which was still another depressing circumstance to add to the list.