THE PALACE BEAUTIFUL.
A STORY FOR GIRLS.
Author of "A World of Girls," "Scamp and I," "Daddy's Boy," &c., &c.
NEW YORK: WM. L. ALLISON CO., PUBLISHERS.
I. Early Days
II. The First Month of their Trouble
III. Miss Martineau
IV. To the Rescue
V. The Contents of the Cabinet
VI. Many Visitors
VIII. Thirty Pounds a Year
IX. A Strange Letter and a Proposed Visit to London
X. Ways and Means of Earning a Living
XI. Bread and Butter
XII. They Would Not be Parted
XIII. Mrs. Ellsworthy's Letter
XIV. Quite Contrary
XV. In Spite of Opposition
XVI. Penelope Mansion
XVII. Escorted by Miss Slowcum
XVIII. In St. Paul's Cathedral
XIX. A Bright Day
XX. Getting Lost
XXI. How to Paint China and How to Form Style
XXII. Cross Purposes
XXIII. Dark Days
XXIV. Dove's Joke
XXV. Daisy's Promise
XXVI. A Delightful Plan
XXVII. The Poor Doves
XXVIII. A Startling Discovery
XXIX. A Blessing
XXX. Voice of the Prince
XXXI. A "Continual Reader"
XXXII. Jasmine Begins to Soar
XXXIII. Visiting the Publishers
XXXIV. A Plan
XXXV. Their Quarter's Allowance
XXXVI. The Joy-Bell
XXXVII. Endorsing a Cheque
XXXVIII. Daisy's Request
XXXIX. The Journey
XL. A Bitter Disappointment
XLI. Mrs. Dredge to the Rescue
XLII. A New Employment
XLIII. In the Field
XLIV. Too Much for Dove
XLV. The Prince to the Rescue
XLVI. Delivered from the Ogre
XLVII. Almost Defeated
XLVIII. One Shoe Off and One Shoe On
XLIX. Spanish Lace
L. A Dazzling Day
LI. A Letter
LII. "I Love Mrs. Ellsworthy"
LIII. Telegraph Wires
LIV. A Discovery
LV. An Invitation for the Ladies of Penelope Mansion
LVI. A Palace Beautiful
THE PALACE BEAUTIFUL.
A STORY FOR GIRLS.
The three girls were called after flowers. This is how it came about:
When Primrose opened her eyes on the world she brought back a little bit of spring to her mother's heart.
Mrs. Mainwaring had gone through a terrible trouble—a trouble so dark and mysterious, so impossible to feel reconciled to, that her health had been almost shattered, and she had almost said good-bye to hope.
The baby came in the spring-time, and the soft, velvety touch of the little face, and the sight of the round baby limbs, had made Mrs. Mainwaring smile: had caused her to pluck up heart, and to determine resolutely to take this new blessing, and to begin to live again.
The baby came in the month of March, just when the primroses were beginning to open their pale and yet bright blossoms. Mrs. Mainwaring said that the child was a symbol of spring to her, and she called her Primrose.
The next girl was born in Italy, in the middle of a rich and brilliant summer. Flowers were everywhere, and the baby, a black-haired, dark-eyed little mite, had a starry look about her. She was called Jasmine, and the name from the very first suited her exactly.
The third and youngest of the sisters also came in the summer, but she was born in an English cottage. Her mother, who had been rich when Jasmine was born, was now poor; that is, she was poor as far as money is concerned, but the three little daughters made her feel rich. She called the child from the first her little country wild flower, and allowed Primrose and Jasmine to select her name. They brought in handfuls of field daisies, and begged to have the baby called after them.
The three girls grew up in the little country cottage. Their father was in India, in a very unhealthy part of the country. He wrote home by every mail, and in each letter expressed a hope that the Government under which he served would allow him to return to England and to his wife and children. Death, however, came first to the gallant captain. When Primrose was ten years old, and Daisy was little more than a baby, Mrs. Mainwaring found herself in the humble position of an officer's widow, with very little to live on besides her pension.
In the Devonshire village, however, things were cheap, rents were low, and the manners of life deliciously fresh and primitive.
Primrose, Jasmine, and Daisy grew up something like the flowers, taking no thought for the morrow, and happy in the grand facts that they were alive, that they were perfectly healthy, and that the sun shone and the sweet fresh breezes blew for them. They were as primitive as the little place where they lived, and cared nothing at all for fashionably-cut dresses; or for what people who think themselves wiser would have called the necessary enjoyments of life. Mrs. Mainwaring, who had gone through a terrible trouble before the birth of her eldest girl, had her nerves shattered a second time by her husband's death; from that moment she was more ruled by her girls than a ruler to them. They did pretty much what they pleased, and she was content that they should make themselves happy in their own way.
It was lucky for the girls that they were amiable, and had strength of character.
Primrose was delightfully matter-of-fact. When she saw that her mother allowed them to learn their lessons anyhow she made little rules for herself and her sisters—the rules were so playful and so light that the others, for mere fun, followed them—thus they insisted on their mother hearing them their daily tasks; they insisted on going regularly twice a week to a certain old Miss Martineau, who gave them lessons on an antiquated piano, and taught them obsolete French. Primrose was considered by her sisters very wise indeed but Primrose also thought Jasmine wise, and wise with a wisdom which she could appreciate without touching; for Jasmine had got some gifts from a fairy wand, she was touched with the spirit of Romance, and had a beautiful way of looking at life which her sisters loved to encourage. Daisy was the acknowledged baby of the family—she was very pretty, and not very strong, was everybody's darling, and was, of course, something of a spoilt child.
Primrose had a face which harmonized very well with her quaint, sweet name; her hair was soft, straight, and yellow, her eyes were light brown, her skin was fair, and her expression extremely calm, gentle, and placid. To look at Primrose was to feel soothed—she had a somewhat slow way of speaking, and she never wasted her words. Jasmine was in all particulars her opposite. She was dark, with very bright and lovely eyes; her movements were quick, her expression full of animation, and when excited—and she was generally in a state of excitement—her words tumbled out almost too quickly for coherence. Her cheeks would burn, and her eyes sparkle, over such trivial circumstances as a walk down a country lane, as blackberry-hunting, as strawberry-picking—a new story-book kept her awake half the night—she was, in short, a constant little volcano in this quiet home, and would have been an intolerable child but for the great sweetness of her temper, and also for the fact that every one more or less yielded to her.
Daisy was very pretty and fair—her hair was as yellow as Primrose's, but it curled, and was more or less always in a state of friz; her eyes were wide open and blue, and she was just a charming little child, partaking slightly of the qualities of both her elder sisters.
These girls had never had a care or an anxiety—when they were hungry they could eat, when they were tired sleep could lull them into dreamless rest—they had never seen any world but the narrow world of Rosebury, the name of the village where they lived. Even romantic Jasmine thought that life at Rosebury, with perhaps a few more books and a few more adventures must form the sum and substance of her existence. Of course there was a large world outside, but even Jasmine had not begun to long for it.
Primrose was sixteen, Jasmine between thirteen and fourteen, and Daisy ten, when a sudden break came to all this quiet and happy routine. Mrs. Mainwaring without any warning or any leave-taking, suddenly died.
THE FIRST MONTH OF THEIR TROUBLE.
There are mothers and mothers. Mrs. Mainwaring was the kind of mother who could not possibly say a harsh word to her children—she could not be severe to them, she could never do anything but consider them the sweetest and best of human beings. The girls ruled her, and she liked to be ruled by them. After her husband's death, and after the first agony of his loss had passed away, she sank into a sort of subdued state—she began to live in the present, to be content with the little blessings of each day, to look upon the sunshine as an unmitigated boon, and on the girls' laughter as the sweetest music. She had been rich in her early married life, but Captain Mainwaring had lost his money, had lost all his large private means, through a bank failure, and before Daisy came into the world Mrs. Mainwaring knew that she was a very poor woman indeed. Before the captain went to India he insured his life for L1000, and after his death Mrs. Mainwaring lived very placidly on her small pension, and for any wants which she required over and above what the pension could supply she drew upon the L1000. She did not care, as a more sensible woman would have done, to invest this little sum as so much capital; no, she preferred to let it lie in the bank, and to draw upon it from time to time, as necessity arose. She had no business friends to advise her, for the few acquaintances she made at Rosebury knew nothing whatever of the value of money. Like many another woman who has been brought up in affluence, neither had Mrs. Mainwaring the faintest idea of how fast a small sum like L1,000 can dwindle. She felt comfortable during the latter years of her life at the knowledge that she had a good balance in the bank. It never occurred to her as a possibility that she who was still fairly young could die suddenly and without warning. This event, however, took place, and the girls were practically unprovided for.
Mrs. Mainwaring had never really worked for her children, but a mother who had worked hard for them, and toiled, and exerted all her strength to provide adequately for their future, might not perhaps have been loved so well. She died and her children were broken-hearted. They mourned for her each after her own fashion, and each according to her individual character. Primrose retained her calmness and her common sense in the midst of all her grief; Jasmine was tempestuous and hysterical, bursting into laughter one minute and sobbing wildly the next. Little Daisy felt frightened in Jasmine's presence—she did not quite believe that mother would never come back, and she clung to Primrose, who protected and soothed her; in short, took a mother's place to her, and felt herself several years older on the spot.
For a month the girls grieved and shut themselves away from their neighbors, and refused to go out, or to be in any measure comforted. A month in the ordinary reckoning is really a very short period of time, but to these girls, in their grief and misery, it seemed almost endless. One night Jasmine lay awake from the time she laid her head on the pillow till the first sun had dawned; then Primrose took fright, and began to resume her old gentle, but still firm authority.
"Jasmine," she said, "we have got our black dresses—they are made very neatly, and we have done them all ourselves. Staying in the house this lovely weather won't bring dear mamma back again; we will have tea a little earlier than usual, and go for a walk this evening."
Jasmine, whenever she could stop crying, had been longing for a walk, but had crushed down the desire as something unnatural, and disrespectful to dear mamma, but of course if Primrose suggested it it was all right. Her face brightened visibly, and as to Daisy, she sat down and began to play with the kitten on the spot.
That evening the three desolate young creatures put on their new black dresses, and went down a long, rambling, charming country lane. The air was delicious—Jasmine refused to cover her hot little face with a crape veil—they came back after their ramble soothed and refreshed. As they were walking up the village street a girl of the name of Poppy, their laundress's child, stepped out of a little cottage, dropped a courtesy, and said, in a tone of delight—
"Oh, Miss Mainwaring, I'm glad to see you out; and Miss Jasmine, darling, the little canary is all reared and ready for you. I took a sight of pains with him, and he'll sing beautiful before long. Shall I bring him round in the morning, Miss Jasmine?"
"Yes, of course, Poppy; and I'm greatly obliged to you," answered Jasmine, in her old bright tones. Then she colored high, felt a good deal ashamed of herself, and hurried after Primrose, who had pulled down her crape veil, and was holding Daisy's hand tightly.
That night the sisters all slept well; they were the better for the fresh air, and also for the thought of seeing Poppy and the canary which she had reared for Jasmine in the morning.
Sharp to the hour Poppy arrived with her gift; she was a pretty little village girl, who adored the Misses Mainwaring.
"The bird will want a heap of sunshine," she said; "he's young, and my mother says that all young things want lots and lots of sun. May I pull up the blind in the bay window, Miss Primrose; and may I hang Jimmy's cage just here?"
Primrose nodded. She forgot, in her interest over Jimmy, to remember that the bay window looked directly on to the village street.
"And please, miss," said Poppy, as she was preparing to return home, "Miss Martineau says she'll look in this evening, and that she was glad when she saw you out last night, young ladies, and acting sensible again."
Primrose had always a very faint color; at Poppy's words it deepened slightly.
"We've tried to act in a sensible way all through," she said, with gentle dignity. "Perhaps Miss Martineau does not quite understand. We love one another very much; we are not going to be foolish, but we cannot help grieving for our mother."
At these words Jasmine rushed out of the room and Poppy's round eyes filled with tears.
"Oh, Miss Primrose—," she began.
"Never mind, Poppy," said Primrose; "we'll see Miss Martineau to-night. I am glad you told us she was coming."
The neighbors at Rosebury were all of the most sociable type; the Mainwaring girls knew every soul in the place, and when their mother died there was quite a rush of sympathy for them, and the little cottage might have been full from morning till night. Primrose, however, would not have it; even Miss Martineau, who was their teacher, and perhaps their warmest friend, was refused admittance. The neighbors wondered, and thought the girls very extraordinary and a little stuck-up, and their sympathy, thrown back on themselves, began to cool.
The real facts of the case, however, were these: Primrose, Jasmine and Daisy would have been very pleased to see Poppy Jenkins, or old Mrs. Jones, who sometimes came in to do choring, or even the nice little Misses Price, who kept a grocery shop at the other end of the village street; they would also have not objected to a visit from good, hearty Mrs. Fry, the doctor's wife, but had they admitted any of these neighbors they must have seen Miss Martineau, and Miss Martineau, once she got a footing in the house, would have been there morning, noon and night.
Poor Jasmine would not have at all objected to crying away some of her sorrow on kind Mrs. Fry's motherly breast; Primrose could have had some really interesting talk which would have done her good with the Misses Price; they were very religious people, and their brother was a clergyman, and they might have said some things which would comfort the sore hearts of the young girls. Little Daisy could have asked some of her unceasing questions of Poppy Jenkins, and the three would really have been the better for the visits and the sympathy of the neighbors did not these visits and sympathy also mean Miss Martineau. But Miss Martineau at breakfast, dinner, and tea—Miss Martineau, with her never-ending advice, her good-natured but still unceasingly correcting tone, was felt just at first to be unendurable. She was sincerely fond of the girls, whom she had taught to play incorrectly, and to read French with an accent unrecognized in Paris, but Miss Martineau was a worry, was a great deal too officious, and so the girls shut themselves away from her and from all other neighbors for the first month after their mother's death.
Primrose was the soul of hospitality; having decided that Miss Martineau was to be admitted that evening, it occurred to her that she might as well make things pleasant for this angular, good-humored, and somewhat hungry personage. Primrose could cook charmingly, and when dinner was over she turned to her sisters, and said in her usual rather slow way—
"I am going to make some cream-cakes for tea; and Jasmine, dear, you might put some fresh flowers in the vases; and Daisy—"; she paused as she looked at her sister—the child's blue eyes were fixed on her, she noticed with a pang that the little face was pale, and the dimpled mouth looked sad.
"Daisy," she said, suddenly, "you can go into the garden, and have a romp with the Pink."
"The Pink" was Daisy's favorite kitten.
Daisy laughed aloud, Jasmine started up briskly from the dinner-table, and Primrose, feeling that she had done well, went into the kitchen to consult with Hannah, the old cook, over the making of the cream-cakes.
The result of all this was that when Miss Martineau, sharp at four o'clock (the hours were very primitive at Rosebury), arrived at the Mainwarings' door, the outward aspect of the house bore no tokens of violent grief on the part of its inmates—the blinds were drawn up, not quite to the top, for that would have been ugly, and Jasmine was full of artistic instincts, but they were drawn up to let in plenty of sunlight, the white muslin curtains were draped gracefully, some pots of fresh flowers could be seen on the window-ledge, and a canary in a rather battered cage hung from a hook above, and disported himself cheerfully in the sunlight.
Miss Martineau was very old-fashioned in her ideas, and she did not much like the look of the bay window.
She comforted herself, however, with the reflection that even under the direst afflictions blinds must be drawn up some time, and that she would doubtless find the poor dear girls in a state of tempestuous grief within. She imagined herself soothing Jasmine, holding Primrose's hand, and allowing Daisy to sit on her knee. Miss Martineau was most kind-hearted, and would have done anything for the three girls, whom she dearly loved, only, like many another good-hearted person, she would wish to do that anything or something in her own way.
"Good evening, Hannah," she said, as the old cook opened the door; "you have had a sad affliction—a terrible affliction. I hope the dear young ladies are—" Miss Martineau paused for a word, then she said—"tranquil."
"Oh yes, miss," answered Hannah. "Walk in, please, Miss Martineau—this way—the young ladies is hoping you'll take a cup of tea with them, miss." Miss Martineau found herself the next instant in one of the most cheerful sitting-rooms to be found at Rosebury—it had always been a pretty room—furnished daintily with the odds and ends of rich and choice furniture which had belonged to Mrs. Mainwaring in her wealthy days. Now it was bright with flowers, and the western sun poured in at one angle of the wide bay window. The three girls, in their very simple black dresses, with no crape, came forward in a little group to meet her. In their hearts they were slightly excited and upset, but rather than give way they put on an air of extra cheerfulness. Miss Martineau, fond as she was of them, felt absolutely scandalized—to keep her out of the house for a whole month, and then to admit her in this fashion—such a lot of sunlight—such a heap of flowers, no crape on the black dresses, and Jasmine's face quite bright and her hair as curly as usual. Miss Martineau began a little set speech, but Jasmine interrupted her.
"Do come, and have some tea," she said. "Primrose has made some delicious cream-cakes, and we are all so hungry, aren't we, Eyebright?" turning to her little sister as she spoke.
"Yes," replied Daisy; "Pink is hungry, too—I chased Pink about fifty times round the garden, and she's quite starving. May Pink have some cream in a saucer for her tea, Primrose?"
Primrose nodded, took Miss Martineau's hand, and led her to the place of honor at the table, and sitting down herself, began to pour out the fragrant tea.
If Miss Martineau had a weakness, it was for really good tea and for cream-cakes. She took off her gloves now, arranged her bonnet-strings, put back her veil, and prepared to enjoy herself. Instead of talking common-place condolences, she chatted on little matters of local interest with the sisters. Jasmine took care to supply Miss Martineau with plenty of cream-cakes—Primrose saw that her cup was well replenished. Miss Martineau was poor and very saving, and it occurred to her, as she partook of the Mainwaring's nice tea, that she might do without much supper by-and-by. This reflection put her into an excellent humor.
When the tea was over Primrose led her to a comfortable seat by the window.
"My dear," she said, "it is well that I should sit just here, within full view of the street?—your window is, well, a little too like seeing company, my loves, and if my bonnet is seen by passers-by you'll have everybody calling directly."
"Oh, we mean to see everybody now," said Jasmine "we—we—we think it best, don't we, Primrose?"
"Yes," said Primrose, in her gentle tones. "It does not make us think less of dear mamma to see people—and—and—we have decided to go on much as usual now."
"You might have admitted me before, dears," replied Miss Martineau—"I felt so intensely for you—I could never get you out of my head. I was a good deal hurt by your refusing to admit me, my dear girls, for in all respects I would have wished to be a mother to you."
"Please, don't," said Jasmine.
"We couldn't have another mother," said little Daisy, clinging close to Primrose, and looking up into her sister's sweet face.
Primrose stooped and kissed her.
"You may run into the garden, darling, and take the Pink," she said.
Miss Martineau had no intention of leaving the Mainwarings without speaking out her mind. It was one of this good lady's essential privileges to speak out her mind to the younger generation of the Rosebury world. Who had a better right to do this than she? for had she not educated most of them? had she not given them of the best of her French and her music? and was she not even at this present moment Jasmine's and Daisy's instructress? Primrose she considered her finished and accomplished pupil. Surely the girls, even though they had refused to admit her for a month, would turn to her now with full confidence. She settled herself comfortably in the arm-chair in which Primrose had placed her, and saying, in her high-pitched and thin voice—
"Now, my dears, you will take seats close to me—not too close, loves, for I dislike being crushed, and I have on my Sunday silk. My dear girls, I want us now to have a really comfortable talk. There is a great deal that needs discussion, and I think there is nothing like facing a difficult subject resolutely, and going through it with system. I approve of your sending Daisy into the garden, Primrose. She is too young to listen to all that we must go into. I purpose dears, after the manner of our school-hours, to divide our discourse into heads—two heads will probably be sufficient for this evening. First, the severe loss you have just sustained—that we will talk over, and no doubt mingle our tears together over; take courage, my dear children, such an unburdening will relieve your young hearts. Second—Jasmine, you need not get so very red, my dear—second, we will discuss something also of importance; how are you three dear girls going to live?"
Here Miss Martineau paused, took off her spectacles, wiped them, and put them on again. She felt really very kindly, and would have worked herself to a skeleton, if need be, for the sake of the Mainwarings, whom she sincerely loved. Jasmine's red face, however, grew still redder.
"Please, Miss Martineau—yes, Primrose, I will speak—please, Miss Martineau, we cannot discuss dear mamma with you. There is nothing to discuss, and nothing to tell—I won't—I can't—Primrose, I won't listen, and I won't talk."
Miss Martineau shook her head, and looked really angrily at Jasmine.
"Nothing to tell," she said, sorrowfully. "Is your poor dear mother then so soon forgotten? I could not have believed it. Alas! alas! how little children appreciate their parents."
"You are not a parent yourself, and you know nothing about it," said Jasmine, now feeling very angry, and speaking in her rudest tone.
Primrose's quiet voice interposed.
"I think, Miss Martineau," she began, "that the first subject will be more than Jasmine and I can quite bear—you must forgive us, even if you fail quite to understand us. It is no question of forgetting—our mother will never be forgotten—it is just that we would rather not. You must allow us to judge for ourselves on this point," concluded Primrose, with that dignity that suited her so well. Primrose, for all her extreme quietness and simplicity of manner and bearing, could look like a young princess when she chose, and Miss Martineau, who would have quarrelled fiercely with Jasmine, submitted.
"Very well," she said, in a tone of some slight offence; "I came here with a heart brimful of sympathy; it is repulsed; it goes back as it came, but I bear no offence."
"Shall we discuss your second subject, dear Miss Martineau?" continued Primrose. "I know that you have a great deal of sense and experience, and I know that you have a knack of making money go very far indeed. You ask us what our plans are—well, I really don't think we have got any, have we, Jasmine?"
"No," said Jasmine, in her shortest tones. "We mean to live as we always did. Why can't people leave us in peace?"
Miss Martineau cleared her throat, looked with some compassion at Jasmine, whom she thought it best to treat as a spoilt child, and then turned her attention to Primrose.
"My dear," she said, "I am willing to waive my first head, to cast it aside, to pass it over, and consider my second. My dear Primrose, the first thing to consider in making your plans—I take no notice of Jasmine's somewhat childish remarks—is on what you have to live."
Primrose knit her brows.
"I suppose," she said slowly, "we shall have what we always had—we spent very little money in the past, and, of course, we shall require still less now. We are fond of Rosebury; I think we shall do for the present at least just what Jasmine says, and stay on quietly here."
Miss Martineau cleared her throat again.
"My dear girl," she said, "even to live here you must have something to live on. Now, are you aware that your mother's annuity as a captain's widow ceases with her death? I believe something very trifling will still be allowed to you, as his orphans, but on that point I'm rather in the dark."
"Mother always did get ten pounds a year apiece for us," said Primrose.
"Well, yes, my dear, we will suppose, and trust, and hope that that small sum will still be continued; but even at Rosebury you three girls cannot live on thirty pounds a year."
"But there is the money in the bank," said Jasmine speaking in a more interested tone. "You remember Primrose dear, how whenever mother wanted some money she just wrote a cheque, and we took it down to Mr. Danesfield, and he gave us nice shining gold for it. Sometimes it was ten pounds, sometimes it was five pounds, and sometimes it was only two pounds; but whenever we went to Mr. Danesfield's bank with mother's cheque he gave us the money. I suppose, Primrose, you can have a cheque-book now, and Mr. Danesfield can give you the money."
"Yes," said Primrose, in a cheerful tone, "I forgot about the money in the bank; mother often told me there was plenty. Even if we can't quite live on our thirty pounds a year, we can manage with what money dear mamma had in the bank."
Miss Martineau's face had become extremely lined and anxious.
"My dears," she said, "I fear I've done a rude thing; I fear I've taken a liberty; but the fact is, you are so alone, poor darlings, and Mr. Danesfield is an old friend of mine—and—and—I took the liberty of asking him what your mother's balance was. He said, my dears—my poor dears—that it was not quite two hundred pounds."
TO THE RESCUE.
Miss Martineau told her news with considerable agitation. She considered it a terrible revelation. It seemed to her a very fearful and disastrous thing that three girls brought up like the Mainwarings, three girls still almost children, should be thrown on the world without any means for their support.
Simple and primitive as their lives had been at Rosebury, they still had been tenderly nurtured and warmly sheltered—no cold blast of unkindness or neglect had visited them—they had been surrounded ever by both love and respect. The love came principally from their mother and from one another, but the respect came from all who knew them. The Mainwaring girls, in their plain dresses and with their unsophisticated manners, looked like ladies, and invariably acted as such.
Soon after making her communication Miss Martineau took her leave; she hurried home, and sitting down in her dingy little parlor, began to think.
"No, thank you, Susan," she said to her little maid-of-all-work, "I shan't want any supper to-night. I have been at tea with my dear pupils, the Misses Mainwaring. You may bring the lamp presently, Susan, but not quite yet; it is a pity to waste the daylight, and there is quite another quarter of an hour in which I can see to knit. Yes, give me my knitting-basket; I can get on with Widow Joseph's mittens."
"And, if you please, ma'am," asked Susan, lingering for a moment at the door, "may I ask how, all things considering, the dear young ladies is?"
"On the whole, tranquil, Susan—yes, I may say it with confidence; my dear pupils may be considered in a resigned state of mind."
Susan closed the door after her, and Miss Martineau took up her knitting. Knitting woollen mittens is an occupation which harmonizes very well with reflection and while the old lady's active fingers moved her thoughts were busy.
"Thirty pounds a year," she said softly to herself, "thirty pounds certain, and a lump sum of two hundred in the bank. Doubtless they owe some of that for their mother's funeral and their own mourning. They probably owe quite thirty pounds of that, and to make it safe, I had better say forty. That leaves a balance of one hundred and sixty; just enough to put away for emergencies, illness, and so forth. My dear girls, my dear Primrose, and Jasmine, and my pretty little pet Daisy, you cannot touch your little capital; you may get a few pounds a year for it, or you may not—Mr. Danesfield must decide that—but all the money you can certainly reckon on for your expenses is thirty pounds per annum, and on that you cannot live."
Here Miss Martineau threw down her knitting, and began with some agitation to pace up and down her tiny room.
"What was to be done with these lonely and defenceless girls? how were they to meet the world? how were they to earn their living?"
Miss Martineau had never before found herself propounding so painful and interesting a problem; her mind worked round it, and tried to grapple with it, but though she stayed up far into the night, and even had recourse to figures, and marked down on paper the very lowest sum a girl could possibly exist on, she went to bed, having found no solution to this vexed question.
Even Miss Martineau, ignorant and narrow-minded as she was, could scarcely pronounce Primrose fit to do much in the educational world; Jasmine's, of course, was only a little giddy pate, and she required a vast amount of teaching herself; and pretty Daisy was still but a young child.
Miss Martineau went to bed and to sleep; she dreamed troubled dreams, but in the morning she awoke strengthened and restored, even by such restless slumbers, and quite resolved to do something.
"Sophia Martineau," she said—for living quite alone she was fond of holding conversations with herself—"Sophia Martineau, those girls are placed, to put it figuratively, at your door, and take them up you must. Gold you have none to bestow, but you can give interest; you can, in short, rouse others to help the helpless. This is your bounden duty, and you had better see to it at once."
Miss Martineau went briskly downstairs, ate her frugal breakfast, and then made her plans. These plans were decisive enough. At Rosebury no one thought of being so silly as to be over-educated. None of the young brains of the rising generation were over-forced or over-stimulated, and Miss Martineau felt no compunction whatever in writing a short note to each of six little pupils, and telling them that they need not come to her that morning, for she meant to give them a holiday.
Having done this, and sent Susan out with the notes, she went upstairs, and once more put on her black silk dress, her old-fashioned mantle, and her high poke bonnet. Thus attired, she started on an expedition which she trusted would lead to many happy results for the Mainwarings.
THE CONTENTS OF THE CABINET.
The uneasiness Miss Martineau felt was by no means shared by the girls. Primrose had in reality a very practical nature; she could housekeep well, and no baker or butcher who ventured to show his face in Rosebury would dream of cheating this bright young lady. No one could make half-a-crown, or even a shilling, go farther than Primrose could. No one could more cleverly convert an old dress into a new, but her little experiences ended here. She had kept the house for her mother, and been both thrifty and saving, but real responsibility had never been hers. The overpowering sensation of knowing that she must make so much money meet so many absolute necessities had never touched her young life. Miss Martineau's words had made her a little thoughtful, but by no means anxious. If she and her sisters could not live on thirty pounds a year there was still the money in the bank.
Primrose thought two hundred pounds, if not a large, at least a very comfortable sum. The only real effect that her old governess's words had on her was to make her a little extra saving.
Jasmine never liked Primrose when she was in a saving mood, and she grumbled audibly when, the morning after Miss Martineau's visit, her elder sister suggested that they should do without some black cotton dresses which the day before they had decided to buy and to make for themselves.
"Such nonsense!" said Jasmine, stamping her little foot impatiently; "you know we want the dresses, Primrose. You know poor Daisy can't run and play in the garden in her black cashmere frock, and I can't dig or weed. You know, when we decided to go on just as usual, just as if mamma—was—was—"
Here Jasmine paused, gulped down a sob, and said, hastily, "We want our print dresses, and we can't do without them. You are just frightened, Primrose, by what Miss Martineau said."
"I am not at all frightened," answered Primrose, calmly; "only I think we ought to be careful."
"And we are so rich, too," said Jasmine. "I never thought we had two hundred pounds in the bank. Why it's heaps and lots of money. Primrose, what are you so grave about?"
"Only," said Primrose, in her slow voice, "only Miss Martineau thought it very, very little money. She looked so grave when she spoke about it—indeed, she seemed almost sad. Jasmine, I really think Miss Martineau quite loves us."
"Perhaps," said Jasmine, in an indifferent tone. "Well, Rose, if you are quite determined to be shabby and saving, I may as well join Daisy in the garden."
Jasmine stooped down, kissed her sister lightly on the forehead, and then ran out of the room. A moment or two later Primrose heard laughing voices floating in through the open window. She was glad in her heart that Jasmine and Daisy were beginning to do things just as usual, and yet somehow their laughter gave her a pang.
The little cottage was a tiny place; it consisted downstairs of one long low room, with a bay window at the extreme end. This room the Mainwarings called the drawing-room, and it was really furnished with great daintiness and care. At one end was the bay window, at the other were glass doors which opened directly into the garden. The kitchen was at the other end of the narrow hall, and this also looked on the garden. Hannah, the one servant, was often heard to object to this arrangement. She gave solid reasons for her objections, declaring roundly that human nature was far more agreeable to her than any part of the vegetable kingdom; but though Hannah found her small kitchen rather dull, and never during the years she stayed with them developed the slightest taste for the beauties of Nature, she was sincerely attached to the Mainwaring girls, and took care to serve them well.
Upstairs were two bedrooms—one looking to the street, in which the girls slept, the prettiest room with the garden view being reserved for Mrs. Mainwaring. Hannah occupied a small and attic-like apartment over the kitchen.
When Jasmine ran into the garden Primrose slowly rose from her seat and went upstairs. It occurred to her that this was a fitting opportunity to do something which she longed and dreaded to accomplish.
Since her mother's death, since the moment when the three young girls had bent over the coffin and strewed flowers over the form they loved, the sisters had not gone near this room.
Hannah had dusted it and kept it tidy, but the blinds had been drawn down and the sun excluded. The girls had shrunk from entering this chamber; it seemed to them like a grave. They passed it with reverent steps, and spoke in whispers as they stole on tiptoe by the closed door.
It occurred, however, to Primrose that now was an opportunity when she might come into the room and put some of her mother's treasures straight. She unlocked the door and entered; a chill, cold feeling struck on her. Had she been Jasmine she would have turned and fled, but being Primrose, she instantly did what her clear common sense told her was the sensible course.
"We have made up our minds to go on as usual," she said to herself; "and letting in the sunlight and the daylight is not forgetting our dear mother."
Then she pulled up the blinds, and threw the window-sashes wide open.
A breath of soft warm air from the garden instantly filled the dreary chamber, and Primrose, sitting down by an old-fashioned little cabinet, slipped a key into the lock of the centre drawer, and opened it.
Mrs. Mainwaring had been by no means a tidy or careful person—she hated locks, and seemed to have a regular aversion to neatly-kept drawers or wardrobes, but this one little cabinet, which had belonged to the girls' father, was a remarkable exception to the general rule.
Mrs. Mainwaring never, even to Primrose, parted with the key of this cabinet. Whenever the girls were present it was locked—even Daisy could not coax mother to show her the contents of any of those tempting little drawers—"only mementoes, darling—only mementoes," the lady would say, but the girls knew that mother herself often in the dead of night looked into the locked drawers, and they generally noticed that the next day she was weaker and sadder than usual.
On the top of the cabinet a miniature painting of Captain Mainwaring was always to be found, and the girls used to love to keep a vase of the choicest flowers close to father's picture.
When Mrs. Mainwaring died, Jasmine cried nearly the whole of one night at the thought of the little old-fashioned cabinet—for now she felt quite sure that no one would ever dare to open it, "and I don't like to think of the mementoes being never seen again," she sobbed: "It seems cruel to them."
Then Primrose promised to undertake this dreaded task, and here was her opportunity.
Primrose was not at all a nervous girl, and with the soft summer air filling the chamber, and driving out all the ghosts of solitude and gloom, she commenced her task. She determined to look through the contents of the little cabinet with method, and she resolved to begin with the large centre drawer. She pulled it open, and was surprised to find that it was nearly empty.
A few papers, on which verses and quotations from Books of Sermons were copied in her mother's hand-writing, lay about; these, and one parcel which was carefully wrapped up in soft white tissue-paper, were the sole contents of the centre drawer. Primrose pulled the parcel from where it lay half-hidden at the back of the drawer. She felt self-possessed, but her fingers trembled slightly as she touched it. It was folded up most carefully—the wrappings were kept in their place by white satin ribbon, and on a slip of white paper which had been placed on the top of the parcel, and secured by the ribbon, Primrose read a few words:
"Arthur's little desk—for Primrose now."
She felt her color coming high, and her heart beating. Who was Arthur?—she had never heard of him—her father's name had been John. Who was the unknown Arthur, whose desk was now given to her?
She untied the parcel slowly, but with shaking fingers.
The little desk was a battered one, ink-stained, and of a slight and cheap construction. Inside it contained one treasure, a thick letter, with the words "For Primrose" written in her mother's writing on the envelope.
An unexpected message from those who are dead will set the strongest nerves quivering. At sight of this letter Primrose laid her pretty yellow head down on the little old cabinet, and sobbed long and bitterly.
How long she might have wept she could never say, but her tears were suddenly brought to an abrupt termination. When she entered her mother's room she had not locked the door, and now a voice sounded at her elbow:
"Eh!—my word—dear, dear, deary me! Now, Miss Primrose, to think of you creeping up like this, and 'worriting' yourself over the secrets in the little bit of a cabinet. Your poor mamma knew what she was about when she kept that cabinet locked, and for all the good they'll ever do, she might well have burnt the bits of fallals she kept there. There, darling, don't spoil your pretty eyes crying over what's dead and gone, and can never be put right again—never. Shut up the cabinet, Miss Primrose, and put your hair a bit straight, for Mrs. Ellsworthy, from Shortlands, is down in the drawing-room, and wanting to see you most particular 'bad.'"
Miss Martineau's plans had been full of directness. Having made up her mind, she wasted no precious moments. The girls must be helped; she could only give them counsel, but others could do more. Miss Martineau determined to go at once to the fountainhead. In short, she would attack the one and only rich person who lived in the neighborhood of Rosebury. Shortlands was a big place, and the Ellsworthys were undoubtedly big people. Money with them was plentiful. They considered themselves county folk; they lived in what the Rosebury people believed to be royal style.
Miss Martineau had for one short blissful week of her life spent the time at Shortlands. She had been sent for in an emergency, to take the place of a nursery governess who was ill. Her French had been of little account in this great house, and her music had not been tolerated. The poor old lady had indeed been rather snubbed. But what of that? She was able to go back to her own intimate friends, and entertain them with accounts of powdered footmen, of richly-dressed London ladies, of a world of fashion which these people believed to be Paradise.
Twice during her week's sojourn she had been addressed by Mrs. Ellsworthy. No matter; from that day she considered herself one of the great lady's acquaintances. Miss Martineau could be heroic when she pleased, and there was certainly something of the heroic element about her when she ventured to storm so mighty a citadel at eleven o'clock in the morning.
Her very boldness, however, won her cause. The footman who opened the door might look as supercilious as he pleased, but he was obliged to deliver her messages, and Mrs. Ellsworthy, with a good-humored smile, consented to see her.
Their interview was short, but Miss Martineau, when she launched on her theme, quite forgot that she was poor and her auditor rich. Mrs. Ellsworthy, too, after a few glances into the thin and earnest face of the governess, ceased to think of that antiquated poke bonnet, or the absurdly old-fashioned cut of that ugly mantle.
The two who talked so earnestly were women—women with kind and large hearts, and their theme was engrossing.
Mrs. Ellsworthy bound herself by no promises, but she contrived to send the governess away with a heart full of hope.
Mrs. Ellsworthy had never yet called on any of the people who lived in the straggling village of Rosebury. Therefore, when her carriage, with its prancing horses and perfect appointments, drew up at the Mainwarings' door, the old-fashioned little place felt quite a flutter through its heart.
Poppy Jenkins, the laundress's pretty daughter, came out into the street, and stared with all her eyes. The doctor's wife, who lived at the opposite side of the street, gazed furtively and enviously from behind her muslin blinds. The baker and the butcher neglected their usual morning orders; and Hannah, the Mainwarings' servant, felt herself, as she expressed it, all of a tremble from top to toe.
"Let me brush your hair, Miss Primrose," she said, when she had at last succeeded in inducing her young lady to dry her tears; "and are your hands nice and clean, Miss Primrose? and your collar, is it neat? It's very condescending of Mrs. Ellsworthy to call."
"I wonder what she has come about," said Primrose; "she never knew my mother."
Primrose felt at that moment the great lady's visit to be an intrusion.
"I'll just run into the garden and stop Miss Jasmine and Miss Daisy rushing into the drawing-room all in a mess," said Hannah. "Oh! sakes alive! why, the young ladies will be seen anyhow from the French window."
Hannah hurried off, wondering if she could smuggle these troublesome members of her flock out of sight through the kitchen.
Alas! she was too late—when Primrose, slim and graceful, and with her pretty eyes only slightly reddened by her crying fit, entered the drawing-room, she saw the French doors open, and her guest pacing tranquilly round the garden, hold the Pink in her arms, while Daisy danced in front of her, and Jasmine, chattering volubly, walked by her side.
"I'm so glad you like those carnations," Jasmine was saying. "Mamma was very fond of them. Shall I set some slips for you? I will with pleasure."
"If Pink ever has a kitten you shall have it," said Daisy solemnly.
At this moment Primrose joined her sisters.
"Oh, Primrose—something so delightful!" began Jasmine.
"She thinks the Pink a perfect beauty. She wants another pussy just like it," burst from Daisy's pretty dimpled lips.
Mrs. Ellsworthy, still keeping the Pink in her arms, held out her other hand to Primrose.
"I have introduced myself to your sisters, dear Miss Mainwaring. I am Mrs. Ellsworthy, of Shortlands—a near neighbor. You must not consider my visit an intrusion."
Before Primrose could reply Jasmine exclaimed volubly—
"Indeed we don't—we are quite delighted; we were feeling ourselves awfully dull. Miss Martineau said every one would call now she had been. We did not want to see every one, but you are different."
"You are delightful," echoed Daisy.
Primrose felt herself almost cross. "Girls, do stop chattering," she said. "Mrs. Ellsworthy, I hope you will excuse my sisters; and won't you come into the drawing-room?"
"I am charmed with your sisters," answered the great lady—"they are fresh, they are original. Dear Miss Mainwaring, why need we leave this delightful garden? can we not have our little talk here?"
"With pleasure," said Primrose, but her stiffness did not disappear; she still had a slightly sore feeling at the bottom of her heart, and the thought that Mrs. Ellsworthy never took the trouble to know dear mamma kept recurring.
Mrs. Ellsworthy was quite woman of the world enough to read Primrose, and to guess what was in her heart. She saw at a glance that the girls were ladies, and would not be patronized. Her task had seemed easy enough when she assured Miss Martineau that the poor young Mainwarings must be helped. When she ordered her carriage and drove into Rosebury she made up her mind to discuss their affairs boldly with them, and to offer them practical advice, and, if necessary, substantial assistance. The eldest girl, if she was at all presentable, might be got into some family as a nursery governess or companion, and she felt quite sure that she had sufficient interest to procure admissions for Jasmine and Daisy into some of the schools especially started to educate the orphan daughters of army men.
But in the garden, although it was a very shabby little garden, this programme did not seem quite so easy. Jasmine and Daisy were delightful children; they hailed her instantly as a comrade; they thought nothing whatever of her wealth or her position. Shortlands conveyed no meaning to their unsophisticated minds; they fully believed that Mrs. Ellsworthy envied them their carnations, and would have been made happy by the possession of a kitten similar to the Pink. Primrose, on the contrary, was proud and shy, and had no idea of treating any stranger in a confidential manner.
Mrs. Ellsworthy chatted on, but she never got beyond commonplaces; she invited the girls to visit her at Shortlands, and Primrose, reading a great desire in Daisy's blue eyes, answered simply, "Thank you; we shall like to come very much."
"I'll manage it when I get them to my own house," thought Mrs. Ellsworthy; "it's quite absurd to be baffled by three little chits, but I'll settle everything in a satisfactory fashion when I get them to Shortlands."
Aloud she said, "My dears, I shall be very glad to see you—and can you come to-morrow? To-morrow I shall be quite alone."
"Primrose," burst from Daisy, "there's a Newfoundland dog, and a mastiff, and two English terriers at Shortlands. The Newfoundland is black and woolly and the mastiff is tawny, like a lion."
"Will you really show us over your beautiful conservatories?" asked Jasmine. "Primrose, she was telling us about her flowers; and they must be lovely."
"I'll show you everything, and take you everywhere," responded Mrs. Ellsworthy, stooping down to kiss Jasmine's upturned face. "You'll bring your sisters to-morrow, Miss Mainwaring," she continued, turning to the grave Primrose.
"Thank you—yes. It is kind of you to ask us," answered Primrose.
Mrs. Ellsworthy drove away in state, and the sisters saw her off from their door-steps. They made a pretty group as they stood together—Daisy's arms clasped her elder sister's waist, and Jasmine shaded her dark eyes from the full blaze of the sun with her little white dimpled hand.
As the great lady drove away Jasmine had actually the audacity to blow a kiss to her.
The neighbors at the opposite side of the street felt quite scandalized, and said to themselves that surely the poor young ladies had seen the last of Mrs. Ellsworthy, after such a piece of impertinence. But the lady of Shortlands was really delighted.
"To think of my being here all these years, and never knowing those charming creatures," she soliloquized. Just then she saw Miss Martineau crossing the street, and she ordered her coachman to draw up.
"I have been with them, dear Miss Martineau—they are delightful—so fresh—and so—so pretty! They are coming to Shortlands to-morrow. Good-bye—warm morning, is it not? Home, Tomlinson."
The girls had entered the little house, cheered by Mrs. Ellsworthy's visit. Primrose, it is true, did not share her younger sisters' enthusiasm, but even she was pleased, and owned to herself that Mrs. Ellsworthy was a very different neighbor from the village folk.
Primrose's mind, however, was a good deal absorbed by what she had discovered in her mother's little old-fashioned cabinet. A letter directed to herself lay there unopened. She longed to break the seal, and to acquaint herself with the contents of this message from the dead. She longed to read the letter, but she knew she could only do so at some quiet moment. She must peruse those beloved words when she was alone and quite sure of being undisturbed. She thought she might slip away into a little glade at the back of the house that afternoon, and there read her letter, and ponder over its contents.
Events, however, were to occur which would prevent Primrose carrying out this scheme.
Immediately after dinner Miss Martineau's well-known knock was heard at the hall-door, and Miss Martineau herself, bristling with excitement and curiosity, invaded the girls in their drawing-room.
"Now, my dears, tell me all about her. Is she not fascinating? She is greatly pleased with you three—you have made a most proper impression; and you are to go to spend the day at Shortlands to-morrow. Now, my loves, tell me what arrangements she has come to—I am so deeply interested, my poor darlings."
Miss Martineau, as she spoke, kept her eyes fixed on Primrose; but that young lady only gave her a puzzled look, and, after a short pause, said quietly—
"I don't understand you. We have made no special arrangements. Mrs. Ellsworthy was friendly, and she asked us to come and see her at Shortlands; and we are going. Miss Martineau, I am so very busy this afternoon; will you forgive me if I run away?"
Primrose left the room, and Miss Martineau, turning to Jasmine, clasped her hands in some excitement.
"Oh, my dear!" she exclaimed, "I do hope Primrose won't spoil everything by those little proud airs of hers; they really are—yes, I am grieved to be obliged to say it—but they really are affected. Now, Jasmine darling, a great deal depends on this visit—yes, a great deal. You and Daisy must be on your very best behavior. You have never been in a great house like Shortlands, and it is only right that I, your instructress, should tell you how you are to behave. You must take no liberties, dear; and you must not speak too much, or too fast; and you must look very grateful when Mrs. Ellsworthy notices you, loves. Oh, my poor dears! I feel over anxious, for so much depends on to-morrow."
It was now Jasmine's turn to stare, and to begin to say—"I don't understand you." But Daisy burst out volubly—
"We are going up to Shortlands to run about—she said so. She said we were to see the dogs—the black woolly Newfoundland and the tawny mastiff; and she has got a snow-white Persian kitten, only she likes the Pink best; and I promised her that if ever the Pink had a little kit of her own she should have it. Mrs. Ellsworthy didn't say a word about being horrid, and proper, and waiting until you are spoken to. I won't go to Shortlands if I have to behave like that, I won't," concluded spoiled Daisy, pouting her lips.
Jasmine bent forward and kissed her. "You may do just what you like, darling little Eyebright," she said.
"Oh, Miss Martineau, really Mrs. Ellsworthy is not at all what you picture her. I should say she was the kind of lady who likes a real romp. Anyhow, she does not at all want people to be stiff with her. Daisy, and she, and I were as jolly as possible until Primrose came downstairs, and I suppose Primrose agreed with you, and thought it was manners to be formal. But, poor dear, she did not like it a bit. We three were having such a chatter before Primrose came. She is going to show me all her conservatories to-morrow, and she took a great fancy to my carnations. I promised her some slips. Oh dear! oh dear! who is that knocking at the hall door? Daisy, run and peep from behind the curtain, and let me know."
Daisy started off on the instant, and returned in a moment with the intelligence that Mr. Danesfield, the manager of the bank, was standing on the steps, and that his face was very red.
On hearing this intelligence poor Miss Martineau's face also became suffused with a deep flush, and she pushed her poke bonnet a little backward in her excitement. An awful idea had suddenly darted through her brain.
Perhaps Mr. Danesfield had called to announce some misfortune. Perhaps the two hundred pounds was lost; perhaps there was no balance at the bank!
When the good gentleman was ushered into the room she glanced at him mysteriously, and even while he was shaking hands with Jasmine and Daisy, began letting fall short, but mysterious sentences—
"Mrs. Ellsworthy has called—much pleased—inclined to take them up. They are to spend to-morrow at Shortlands." Mr. Danesfield raised his eyebrows, pulled Daisy to stand between his knees; and, staring at Miss Martineau over his gold-rimmed glasses, said—
"Eh! eh!—Shortlands—Ellsworthy's—worthy folk!" here he laughed, pleased with his pun; "yes, Miss Martineau, a good opportunity, undoubtedly!"
At this moment Primrose came into the room, and Miss Martineau, judging that she might best serve her cause by retiring from the scene of action, went away.
Mr. Danesfield did not pay a long visit. He had known the Mainwarings, although not very intimately, for years. He was a good-hearted, kind, and very busy man, and during their mother's lifetime he had taken but little notice of the girls.
To-day, however, he seemed to regard them with fresh interest. He assured Primrose that if he could assist her in any business capacity he would only be too pleased to do so. "Our good friend Miss Martineau assures me that your means are likely to be a little straitened, my dear. I am sincerely sorry, although there are worse troubles—yes, assuredly, far worse troubles. It cannot do a healthy girl any harm to work. Yes, come to me for advice if you care to, and look on me as an old friend. And hark ye, Miss Primrose, I am glad Mrs. Ellsworthy has called. Make the most of your opportunity at Shortlands, my dears. Yes; I'll look in another day with pleasure. Good-bye, good-bye."
When Mr. Danesfield went away the two elder sisters looked at each other. What did it all mean? What mystery was there in the air? Jasmine thought both Miss Martineau and Mr. Danesfield very disagreeable but Primrose pondered these things and felt anxious.
"A most extraordinary thing has happened," said Mrs. Ellsworthy that evening to her husband. "We have lived for several years at Shortlands, and except when we have people in the house I have actually been without any society. My dear Joseph, you will forgive my counting you as nobody at all. Well, we have lived here, and I have often been dull beyond words, and yet the nicest creatures have been within a stone's throw of me."
Mr. Ellsworthy was at least twenty years older than his wife—a reserved individual, with a rather long and melancholy face. Mrs. Ellsworthy was plump, and round, and pretty—kittenish some people called her.
She was certainly fond of emphasizing her words, and of going into raptures, and her husband now only raised his eyebrows, and said, "Well, Kate?" in a somewhat lethargic voice.
Mrs. Ellsworthy left her seat, and drew a small easy-chair close to the fire, for though the weather was hot Mrs. Ellsworthy always insisted on indulging in this evening luxury.
Planting herself luxuriously in this chair, the little lady began her narrative.
"Now, Joseph, I will tell you my story. Do you remember that outlandish-looking governess who came up here for a week to try to keep Frankie in order before we sent him to school? Oh, what a blessing it is to have that boy at school! Do you remember Miss Martineau, Joseph?"
"There was an authoress of the name, my love; but surely she died before we came to Shortlands?"
"Joseph, how stupid you are! I mean a dear, obsolete creature in the village. However, it is not the slightest matter whether you remember her or not. She came here again this morning, and begged of me to interest myself in the cause of three destitute orphans who lived in a little house in the village. She spoke most kindly about them, but said they were a little unfinished, and not, in her opinion, very capable; but she described them as pretty and young, and, oh, so appallingly poor! And somehow the good old creature touched my heart, and I said I would certainly help them. I ordered the carriage and drove into the village. I expected to see—well, you know, the sort of girl who is likely to be found in a little village like Rosebury, Joseph—the awkward and shy young miss. I imagined them as being so grateful for my notice; indeed, a little overpowered; for, you know, I don't know the Rosebury folk. Well, my dear, what do you think I found?"
"It is really difficult to tell, Kate. I should judge, however, from your excited manner and your unusual enthusiasm, that you found young ladies."
"Joseph, you are a genius. I did. In the funniest, pokiest, queerest little house that you can possibly imagine; I discovered three charming, well-bred girls. The two youngest made friends with me in their shabby little garden. They greeted me, I assure you, with the most delightful frankness and ease. I told them who I was, and they were not the least impressed; on the contrary, the one they called Jasmine—oh! she is a pretty creature—fancied I was dying for some carnations like hers, and the little one holds out hopes that some day I may possess a kitten similar to the one she thrust into my arms. They were as shabbily dressed as possible, but who could look at them, dear pets, and think twice about their dresses? We got on most pleasantly, and found we had many interests in common, for the little one shared my love for animals, and the elder my passion for flowers. On this scene the eldest sister made her appearance. I assure you, Joseph, it is almost too absurd, but it is a fact; she actually contrived to snub me. I read as plainly as possible in those pretty, serene eyes of hers the question, 'How is it that you, who never condescended to know my mother, intrude upon us now, in our loss?' She was most gentle and most dignified, but I could as soon take liberties with her as with—with—you, Joseph, when you choose to exert your authority. After Miss Mainwaring came, I thought it best to run away; but before I went I extracted a promise from the three darlings to come and spend the day here to-morrow. Really, Joseph, I have had a surprising day; but I remember now that Miss Martineau did say something about these children being well born."
Mr. Ellsworthy again raised his eyebrows.
"I had an acquaintance once of the name," he said, "but I lost sight of him years ago. It is a good name. Well, Kate, you will do what you can for your protegees. I am glad you have found some objects of interest close to your own gates."
Here Mrs. Ellsworthy dropped her slightly frivolous tone, and rising from her seat, went up to her husband.
"Joseph," she said, "I want you to contrive to be at home for lunch to-morrow. I want you to see my girls, and to advise me how best to help them. Primrose is so proud and so inexperienced; the two younger ones, of course, know nothing of either poverty or riches; they live as the flowers live, and are happy for the same reason. Do you know, Joseph, that the eldest of these sisters is not seventeen, and the youngest only ten; that they seem to be absolutely without relations, almost without friends, and that between them they have only a Government grant of thirty pounds a year."
Here Mrs. Ellsworthy's pretty bright blue eyes filled with tears, and her husband, stooping down, kissed her.
"I will make a point of seeing those girls to-morrow Kate," he said. "I am glad you have come across them."
Then he went off to his library, where he sat, and read, and lost himself in great thoughts far into the night. It is to be feared that during these hours he forgot the Mainwarings and their troubles.
Mrs. Ellsworthy had appointed noon the next day to receive her young guests, and punctual to the moment the three walked into her drawing-room.
Daisy instantly commented on this fact. "There's the last stroke of twelve striking from the church clock," she exclaimed. "Oh, please! where's the Persian kitten?"
"I have brought you all the carnations that were in flower," said Jasmine. "Smell them; aren't they delicious? Mamma used to love them so—I would not give them to any one but you."
Mrs. Ellsworthy stooped and kissed Jasmine, and taking her hand, gave it a little squeeze. "Thank you, my love," she said—"I value your beautiful flowers—you shall arrange them yourself in this amber vase."
"They are such a vivid crimson, they would look best against white," answered Jasmine, raising her eyes a little anxiously. "I like to arrange flowers to look like a picture. Mamma always allowed me to arrange the flowers, and Primrose will in the future." Here Jasmine went up to Primrose, and took her hand, and the elder sister smiled at her with great affection, and said, looking at Mrs. Ellsworthy, "We call Jasmine our artist at home."
"And our poet—she makes poetry about the Pink at home," said Daisy. "Oh, dear!" she continued, giving a deep sigh, "I can't see the Persian kitten anywhere. I do hope what Miss Martineau said is not true."
"What did she say, my dear?" asked the lady of Shortlands.
"Oh, a lot of nonsense—that this was a great house, and we were to sit on chairs, and not speak unless you spoke to us, and we were not to play with the Persian kitten, nor see the dogs. She said you were a very grand lady, and that was the proper way to go on—we didn't agree with her, did we, Jasmine?"
"No, of course we didn't," said Jasmine; "we knew better."
"We said you were a romp," continued Daisy. "You seemed like it in our garden. I wouldn't have come if I thought you were one of those ladies who wanted little girls to sit on chairs. Oh! do say you are a romp."
Here there was a laugh heard behind them, and Mr. Ellsworthy came up and joined the group. He greeted the girls kindly, and very soon discovered that their father had been the old acquaintance whom he had known of the name. Then he and Primrose went off together, and Mrs. Ellsworthy took the two young girls' hands.
"My darling," she said, "with the single exception of my only son, Frankie, who is at present at school, I am the greatest romp in existence. Now let us come out into the sunshine and enjoy ourselves."
The few hours the girls spent at Shortlands passed only too quickly for Jasmine and Daisy. Mrs. Ellsworthy laid herself out to be charming, and no one could be more charming than she when she chose. She had naturally a good deal of sympathy, and taking her cue from the little ones, she entered into their lives, and became one with them. Jasmine and Daisy became quite merry. An indiscriminating observer would have said: "How shocking to hear such merry laughter—their mother has only been dead a month." But Mrs. Ellsworthy had far too kind a heart to do these children such an injustice. She knew that the dark lines under Jasmine's bright eyes were caused by the passion of a great grief; but she also knew that with such a nature sunshine must follow storm. Daisy in the midst of her play, too, began suddenly to cry.
"What is the matter, my little one?" asked the lady of the house. The child put her arms round her neck, and whispered through sobs: "I am so happy now; but I know I'll be miserable bye-and-bye. I'll want so badly to tell mamma about you, and mamma won't be there."
Primrose was also serenely happy—she was glad to hear her sisters' laughter, and she liked to walk about the beautiful place, and to feel the soft summer air on her cheeks.
The village of Rosebury lay low; but Shortlands stood on rising ground, and the more bracing air did Primrose good. When she saw how happy Mrs. Ellsworthy made her sisters she forgave her for not calling on her mother.
Mr. Ellsworthy took a good deal of notice of Primrose, and showed her some of his pet books, and talked to her in a sensible grown-up way. Jasmine and Daisy were young for their years, but Primrose was old, and she liked to ask practical questions. Had she known Mr. Ellsworthy a little better she might have even consulted him as to the best way of laying out thirty pounds per annum, so as to cover all the expenses of three girls who wished to live as ladies; but she was both shy and reserved; and when Mr. Ellsworthy, goaded on by certain looks from his wife, referred to the subject of money, Primrose started aside from it like any frightened young fawn.
The day, the happy day for all three, passed only too quickly, and it was Mrs. Ellsworthy at last who determined to plunge boldly into the heart of the subject which was uppermost in her thoughts.
"Primrose," she said, taking the elder sister aside, "you must forgive me for speaking plainly to you, dear. I call you Primrose, because you do not seem to me altogether a stranger, and my husband knew your father. I may call you Primrose, may I not, love?"
"Please, do," said Primrose, with that sweet smile which came only rarely to her quiet face; "I like it—it is my name. When people say Miss Mainwaring I feel—lonely."
"You are Primrose, then, to me, dear. Now, Primrose, take my hand, and sit quietly in this chair. I am going to confess something to you. I called to see you and your sisters yesterday morning, intending to patronize you."
"To patronize us—why?" asked Primrose.
Mrs. Ellsworthy laughed in a slightly nervous manner.
"My dear child, we won't go into the whys and the wherefores. I found I could not do it, that is all. I have not, however, half finished my confession. I called to see you because Miss Martineau asked me to."
Here Primrose flushed a very rosy pink, and Mrs. Ellsworthy saw a displeased look fill her eyes.
"You must not be angry with Miss Martineau, Primrose. She loves you three girls very much. She is most anxious about you. She—my dear, she told me of your poverty."
Here Primrose rose from her seat and said, in the quietest tone—
"We are certainly poor, but I don't think that is anybody's concern. We don't mind it ourselves—at least, not much. You see, we have never known riches, and we cannot miss what we have never had. It would be a great pity for people to try to make us discontented. I think it was ill-bred of Miss Martineau to mention our private affairs to you; but still, as we have got to know you through these means, I forgive her. You are a very delightful friend. Mrs. Ellsworthy, I think you must let us go home now—Daisy is not accustomed to being up so late."
"Of all the tiresome, hard-to-be-understood young people I ever came across, Primrose Mainwaring beats them," thought Mrs. Ellsworthy to herself; but aloud she said very sweetly—
"Yes, dear—and you shall drive home in the carriage I could not hear of your walking."
THIRTY POUNDS A YEAR.
Miss Ellsworthy thought Primrose both tiresome and obtuse, but here she was mistaken.
Miss Martineau's solemn looks, Mr. Danesfield's emphatic injunctions to make the most of their visit to Shortlands, and, above all, the expression of deep distress on Mrs. Ellsworthy's charming face when she spoke of their poverty, were by no means thrown away on her.
She felt very grave as the three sisters were driven home in the Ellsworthys' luxurious carriage. She scarcely joined at all in Jasmine's chatter, nor did she notice Daisy's raptures over a tiny white pup—Mrs. Ellsworthy's parting gift.
On their arrival at home the Pink greeted this unlooked-for addition to the family with a furious assault; and Jasmine, Daisy, and Hannah were all intensely excited over the task of dividing the combatants; but Primrose felt but small interest, and owned that she had a slight headache.
Nevertheless, when the younger girls retired to bed she sat up, and, taking out an account-book, began an impossible task. Even all the resources of this young and vigorous brain could not make thirty pounds cover a year's expenses. Again and again Primrose tried. The rent of the cottage was twelve pounds a year. She pronounced this extravagant, and wondered if they could possibly get a cheaper dwelling.
Then there were Hannah's wages. Well, of course, they could do without Hannah—it would be very painful to part with her, but anything would be better than the humiliating conclusion that Mrs. Ellsworthy and Miss Martineau considered them too poor to live. Then, of course, they could do without meat—what did healthy girls want with meat? Only—and here Primrose sighed deeply—Daisy was not very strong. Eggs were cheap enough in Rosebury, and so was butter, and they could bake their own bread; and as to clothes, they would not want any more for a long time. Here Primrose again felt herself pulled up short, for Jasmine's walking-shoes were nearly worn through.
She went to bed at last, feeling very depressed and anxious. Thirty pounds was really a much smaller sum of money than she had given it credit for being. Try as she might, it would not stretch itself over the expenses of even the humblest establishment of three. She was much comforted, however, by the reflection that there remained a large sum to their credit in the bank. Primrose found her faith shaken in the capacities of an income of thirty pounds a year; but a sum total of two hundred pounds she still believed to be almost inexhaustible. She resolved to go and consult Mr. Danesfield on the morrow.
Mr. Danesfield was generally to be found in his private room at the bank by ten o'clock in the morning. Very soon after that hour on the following day a clerk came to say that one of the young ladies from Woodbine Cottage wanted to see him. "The eldest young lady, and she says her business is very pressing," continued the man.
The bank at Rosebury was only a branch office of a large establishment in the nearest town. It happened that that morning Mr. Danesfield was particularly busy, and anxious to get away to the large bank at an early hour. For more reasons than one, therefore he felt annoyed at Primrose's visit.
"Poor child," he said to himself, "I have certainly nothing very good to tell her; and I have undoubtedly no time to waste over her this morning."
Aloud, however, he said to his clerk—
"Ask Miss Mainwaring to step this way—and, Dawson, order my trap to be at the door in ten minutes."
"I won't keep you very long, Mr. Danesfield," began Primrose, in a quick and rather nervous manner for her.
Mr. Danesfield was always the soul of politeness, however irritable he might feel.
"Sit down, my dear young lady," he said; "I am delighted to see you, and I can give you exactly five minutes."
"I want to ask you two questions," began Primrose. "The questions are short. They are about money; and you understand all about that."
"Not all, my dear girl—money is far too great a theme to be wholly comprehended by one single individual."
Primrose tapped her foot impatiently—then, after a brief pause, she raised her clear brown eyes, and looked full at the banker.
"How much money have we in the bank, Mr. Danesfield?"
"My dear child, not much—very little, scarcely anything. 'Pon my word, I am sorry for you, but your entire capital does not amount to quite two hundred pounds."
Primrose received this information calmly.
"Thank you," she said—"I just wanted to know from yourself. Now, I have one other question to ask you, and then I will go. My sisters and I have thirty pounds a year to live on. By drawing a little on our capital, say, taking ten or fifteen pounds a year from it, can we live, Mr. Danesfield?"
Mr. Danesfield rose from his seat, and coming over to Primrose, laid his hand on her shoulder—
"Live! my poor, dear child; you and your sisters would starve. No, Miss Mainwaring, there is nothing for you three girls to do but to turn to and earn your living. Your friends, I doubt not, will help, and you must take their help. I shall be delighted to give advice. Now, my dear child, my trap is at the door, and I must go. Good morning—good morning."
A STRANGE LETTER AND A PROPOSED VISIT TO LONDON.
Primrose was always direct in her movements—she made up her mind quickly; from her earliest childhood she was in the habit of acting with decision.
After her short interview with Mr. Danesfield she went straight home, and without paying any attention to the clear voice of her pet Daisy, who called to her from the garden, or to Jasmine's little impatient—"Sister, I want you to help me to arrange the trimming on my new black skirt," she ran upstairs, and locked herself into her mother's room.
There she once more opened the old davenport, and took from it the thick packet, which contained a shabby little desk, inside of which lay a letter directed to herself.
Now at last she opened the letter, and in her own great perplexity read the message from the grave.
The letter was dated about three months back, and was in her mother's neatest and most easily read writing.
"My dear daughter," it began, "I have no present reason to suppose that my life will be cut short, therefore I cannot tell whether this letter will be read by you now, while you are young, or years hence, when your youth is over.
"One thing I have resolved—you shall not know the little secret it contains during my lifetime. I keep it from you, my darling, because I could not bear you to speak of it to me, because at the time it gave me such agony that I have locked it up in my heart, and no one, not even my own child, must open the doors where my dead secret lies.
"Primrose, whenever I die, this letter will reach you—you will find it in the ordinary course of things in my cabinet; but even in this letter I cannot tell you all the story—you must go to Hannah for particulars—she has been with me all my married life, and knows as much as I do.
"Once, when you were a little child of only six years old, I came into the room where you slept, and I heard her saying to you, as she tucked you up for the night—
"You must be very good to your mamma, Miss Primrose, for she has known trouble."
"Neither you nor she saw me, and you raised your dear eyes to her face, and I heard you say—
"'What is trouble, nursey Hannah?'
"'Trouble is a burden too heavy to be borne,' Hannah answered, 'but when you came, Missy, it went away—you were like the spring to my missus, and that is why she called you Primrose.'
"That night I called Hannah aside, and I made the faithful creature promise that she would never again allude to my trouble to any of my children. She promised, and kept her word.
"Now, darling, you shall learn what nearly broke my heart; what would have quite broken it had God not sent me my three girls.
"Primrose, something more bitter than death came to your mother. Your father is dead—I know where his bones lie—I know that I shall meet him again, and I don't rebel. My other trouble was far, far worse than that—
"Darling, you are not my eldest child—you are not the first bonny baby who lay in my arms. Years before you were born I had a son. Oh! how can I speak of him?—he seemed to be more beautiful than any other child—he had ways—he had looks—Primrose, I can't go on, you must ask Hannah to tell you what my boy was like. I had him for five years, then I lost him; he did not die—he was stolen from me. Can you wonder now that your mother sometimes looks sad, and that even you and Jasmine and Daisy fail now and then to make me smile?
"My bonny boy was stolen. I never saw him dead; I never could go to his grave to put flowers there—twenty years ago now he was taken from me, and I have had neither trace nor tidings of him.
"Hannah will tell you particulars, Primrose, for I cannot. My trouble far surpassed the bitterness of death. Only for you three, I could not have lived—
"Your mother, "Constance Mainwaring."
Primrose had scarcely finished reading this letter, and had by no means taken in the full meaning of its contents, when light, soft footsteps paused outside the room, and she heard the handle of the door being very softly turned.
Cramming the letter into her pocket, and shutting the lid of the little cabinet, she ran and unlocked the door. Jasmine was standing without.
"I looked for you everywhere, Primrose, and I did not mean really to disturb you here; I thought you might be here, and I tried the handle very softly, meaning to steal away again. Are you very busy, Primrose?"
"I can come with you if you want me for anything, Jasmine," answered Primrose, putting her hand to her head in a dazed sort of way.
Jasmine's brow cleared, and her face grew bright instantly.
"It's rather exciting," she said; "I'm so glad you can come. It is about Poppy Jenkins—Poppy is downstairs—she is going away—she has come to say good-bye. Do you know, Primrose, that she is actually going to London?"
Jasmine looked so delighted and eager that Primrose could not help smiling, and taking her sister's hand, they ran downstairs together.
Poppy, who had very black eyes, cheeks with a brilliant color, and hair like a raven's wing, was standing in the drawing-room twisting her apron strings and chatting volubly to Daisy. She had known the girls all her life, and not only loved them dearly, but respected them much. To Poppy Jenkins there never were three such beautiful and altogether charming young ladies as the Misses Mainwaring.
When Primrose appeared she dropped her a curtsey—perhaps she respected Primrose the most, and loved her the least.
"It's to say good-bye, miss," she began, "I called in, hoping for last words with you three dear young ladies. I is summoned to London, Miss Primrose."
Nothing could exceed the air of modest pride with which Poppy made this declaration; she quite expected Primrose to be both startled and dazzled, and said afterwards that it was rather like a little stream of cold water trickling down her back when Miss Mainwaring replied quietly—
"London is a long way off, Poppy—why are you going there?"
"I has an aunt in the boarding-house way, Miss Primrose—she keeps a very select establishment; and most particular; don't admit no gentlemen. It's for ladies only, aunt's boarding-house is, miss, and she wrote to mother that it's a flourishing concern, and she wants a girl who will be honest, and handy, and country-bred, to help wait on the ladies. She has offered the situation to me, miss, as in duty bound, I being her own niece, and mother is pleased to accept. I calls it a dazzling prospect, Miss Primrose."
"I am delighted," began Primrose; but Jasmine interrupted her. "Dazzling," she repeated, "of course it is dazzling, Poppy. I am so very glad you are going. I only wish I were going. If there is a wonderful, delightful, charming place, it is London. I have read about it, and I have dreamed about it, and I have pictured it. What fun you will have! Of course your aunt will take you to see all the sights. Oh, do sit down. Primrose, we ought to tell her about the places she should see, ought we not?"