The POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL
by ELEANOR GATES
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers NEW YORK
The Poor Little Rich Girl
Halfway up the shining surface of the gilt-framed pier glass was a mark—a tiny ink-line that had been carefully drawn across the outer edge of the wide bevel. As Gwendolyn stared at the line, the reflection of her small face in the mirror grew suddenly all white, as if some rude hand had reached out and brushed away the pink from cheeks and lips. Arms rigid at her sides, and open palms pressed hard against the flaring skirts of her riding-coat, she shrank back from the glass.
"Oo-oo!" she breathed, aghast. The gray eyes swam.
After a moment, however, she blinked resolutely to clear her sight, stepped forward again, and, straightening her slender little figure to its utmost height, measured herself a second time against the mirror.
But—as before—the top of her yellow head did not reach above the ink-mark—not by the smallest part of an inch! So there was no longer any reason to hope! The worst was true! She had drawn the tiny line across the edge of the bevel the evening before, when she was only six years old; now it was mid-morning of another day, and she was seven—yet she was not a whit taller!
The tears began to overflow. She pressed her embroidered handkerchief to her eyes. Then, stifling a sob, she crossed the nursery, stumbling once or twice as she made toward the long cushioned seat that stretched the whole width of the front window. There, among the down-filled pillows, with her loose hair falling about her wet cheeks and screening them, she lay down.
For months she had looked forward with secret longing to this seventh anniversary. Every morning she had taken down the rose-embossed calendar that stood on the top of her gold-and-white writing-desk and tallied off another of the days that intervened before her birthday. And the previous evening she had measured herself against the pier glass without even a single misgiving.
She rose at an early hour. Her waking look was toward the pier glass. Her one thought was to gauge her new height. But the morning was the usual busy one. When Jane finished bathing and dressing her, Miss Royle summoned her to breakfast. An hour in the school-room followed—an hour of quiet study, but under the watchful eye of the governess. Next, Gwendolyn changed her dressing-gown for a riding-habit, and with Jane holding her by one small hand, and with Thomas following, stepped into the bronze cage that dropped down so noiselessly from nursery floor to wide entrance-hall. Outside, the limousine was waiting. She and Jane entered it. Thomas took his seat beside the chauffeur. And in a moment the motor was speeding away.
At the riding-school, her master gave her the customary lesson: She circled the tanbark on her fat brown pony—now to the right, at a walk; now to the left, at a trot; now back to the right again at a rattling canter, with her yellow hair whipping her shoulders, and her three-cornered hat working farther and farther back on her bobbing head, and tugging hard at the elastic under her dimpled chin. After nearly an hour of this walk, trot and canter she was very rosy, and quite out of breath. Then she was put back into the limousine and driven swiftly home. And it was not until after her arrival that she had a moment entirely to herself, and the first opportunity of comparing her height with the tiny ink-line on the edge of the mirror's bevel.
Now as she lay, face down, on the window-seat, she know how vain had been all the longing of months. The realization, so sudden and unexpected, was a blow. The slender little figure among the cushions quivered under it.
But all at once she sat up. And disappointment and grief gave place to apprehension. "I wonder what's the matter with me," she faltered aloud. "Oh, something awful, I guess."
The next moment caution succeeded fear. She sprang to her feet and ran across the room. That tell-tale mark was still on the mirror, for nurse or governess to see and question. And it was advisable that no one should learn the unhappy truth. Her handkerchief was damp with tears. She gathered the tiny square of linen into a tight ball and rubbed at the ink-line industriously.
She was not a moment too soon. Scarcely had she regained the window-seat, when the hall door opened and Thomas appeared on the sill, almost filling the opening with his tall figure. As a rule he wore his very splendid footman's livery of dark blue coat with dull-gold buttons, blue trousers, and striped buff waistcoat. Now he wore street clothes, and he had a leash in his hand.
"Is Jane about, Miss Gwendolyn?" he inquired. Then, seeing that Gwendolyn was alone, "Would you mind tellin' her when she comes that I'm out takin' the Madam's dogs for a walk?"
Gwendolyn had a new thought. "A—a walk?" she repeated. And stood up.
"But tell Jane, if you please," continued he, "that I'll be back in time to go—well, she knows where." This was said significantly. He turned.
"Thomas!" Gwendolyn hastened across to him. "Wait till I put on my hat. I'm—I'm going with you." Her riding-hat lay among the dainty pink-and-white articles on her crystal-topped dressing-table. She caught it up.
"Miss Gwendolyn!" exclaimed Thomas, astonished.
"I'm seven," declared Gwendolyn, struggling with the hat-elastic. "I'm a whole year older than I was yesterday. And—and I'm grown-up."
An exasperating smile lifted Thomas's lip. "Oh, are you!" he observed.
The hat settled, she met his look squarely. (Did he suspicion anything?) "Yes. And you take the dogs out to walk. So"—she started to pass him—"I'm going to walk."
His hair was black and straight. Now it seemed fairly to bristle with amazement. "I couldn't take you if you was grown-up," he asserted firmly, blocking her advance; "—leastways not without Miss Royle or Jane'd say Yes. It'd be worth my job."
Gwendolyn lowered her eyes, stood a moment in indecision, then pulled off the hat, tossed it aside, went back to the window, and sat down.
At one end of the seat, swung high on its gilded spring, danced the dome-topped cage of her canary. Presently she raised her face to him. He was traveling tirelessly from perch to cage-floor, from floor to trapeze again. His wings were half lifted from his little body—the bright yellow of her own hair. It was as if he were ready for flight. His round black eyes were constantly turned toward the world beyond the window. He perked his head inquiringly, and cheeped. Now and then, with a wild beating of his pinions, he sprang sidewise to the shining bars of the cage, and hung there, panting.
She watched him for a time; made a slow survey of the nursery next,—and sighed.
"Poor thing!" she murmured.
She heard the rustle of silk skirts from the direction of the school-room. Hastily she shook out the embroidered handkerchief and put it against her eyes.
A door opened. "There will be no lessons this afternoon, Gwendolyn." It was Miss Royle's voice.
Gwendolyn did not speak. But she lowered the handkerchief a trifle—and noted that the governess was dressed for going out—in a glistening black silk plentifully ornamented with jet paillettes.
Miss Royle rustled her way to the pier-glass to have a last look at her bonnet. It was a poke, with a quilted ribbon circling its brim, and some lace arranged fluffily. It did not reach many inches above the spot where Gwendolyn had drawn the ink-line, for Miss Royle was small. When she had given the poke a pat here and a touch there, she leaned forward to get a better view of her face. She had a pale, thin face and thin faded hair. On either side of a high bony nose were set her pale-blue eyes. Shutting them in, and perched on the thinnest part of her nose, were silver-circled spectacles.
"I'm very glad I can give you a half-holiday, dear," she went on. But her tone was somewhat sorrowful. She detached a small leaf of paper from a tiny book in her hand-bag and rubbed it across her forehead. "For my neuralgia is much worse to-day." She coughed once or twice behind a lisle-gloved hand, snapped the clasp of her hand-bag and started toward the hall door.
It was now that for the first time she looked at Gwendolyn—and caught sight of the bowed head, the grief-flushed cheeks, the suspended handkerchief. She stopped short.
"Gwendolyn!" she exclaimed, annoyed. "I hope you're not going to be cross and troublesome, and make it impossible for me to have a couple of hours to myself this afternoon—especially when I'm suffering." Then, coaxingly, "You can amuse yourself with one of your nice pretend-games, dear."
From under long up-curling lashes Gwendolyn regarded her in silence.
"I've planned to lunch out," went on Miss Royle. "But you won't mind, will you, dear Gwendolyn?" plaintively. "For I'll be back at tea-time. And besides"—growing brighter—"you're to have—what do you think!—the birthday cake Cook has made."
"I hate cake!" burst out Gwendolyn; and covered her eyes once more.
"Gwen-do-lyn!" breathed Miss Royle.
Gwendolyn sat very still.
"How can you be so naughty! Oh, it's really wicked and ungrateful of you to be fretting and complaining—you who have so many blessings! But you don't appreciate them because you've always had them. Well,"—mournfully solicitous—"I trust they'll never be taken from you, my child. Ah, I know how bitter such a loss is! I haven't always been in my present circumstances, compelled to go out among strangers to earn a scant living. Once—"
Here she was interrupted. The door from the school-room swung wide with a bang. Gwendolyn, looking up, saw her nurse.
Jane was in sharp contrast to Miss Royle—taller and stocky, with broad shoulders and big arms. As she halted against the open school-room door, her hair was as ruddy as the panel that made a background for it. And she had reddish eyes, and a full round face. In the midst of her face, and all out of proportion to it, was her short turned-up nose, which was plentifully sprinkled with freckles.
"So you're goin' out?" she began angrily, addressing the governess.
Miss Royle retreated a step. "Just for a—a couple of hours," she explained.
Jane's face grew almost as red as her hair. Slamming the school-room door behind her, she advanced. "I suppose it's the neuralgia again," she suggested with quiet heat.
The color stole into Miss Royle's pale cheeks. She coughed. "It is a little worse than usual this afternoon," she admitted.
"I thought so," said Jane. "It's always worse—on bargain-days."
"How dare you!"
"You ask me that, do you?—you old snake-in-the-grass!" Now Jane grew pallid with anger.
Gwendolyn, listening, contemplated her governess thoughtfully. She had often heard her pronounced a snake-in-the-grass.
Miss Royle was also pale. "That will do!" she declared. "I shall report you to Madam."
"Report!" echoed Jane, giving a loud, harsh laugh, and shaking her hair—the huge pompadour in front, the pug behind. "Well, go ahead. And I'll report you—and your handy neuralgia."
"It's your duty to look after Gwendolyn when there are no lessons," reminded Miss Royle, but weakening noticeably.
"On week-days?" shrilled Jane. "Oh, don't try to fool me with any of your schemin'! I see. And I just laugh in my sleeve!"
Gwendolyn fixed inquiring gray eyes upon that sleeve of Jane's dress which was the nearer. It was of black sateen. It fitted the stout arm sleekly.
"This is the dear child's birthday, and I wish her to have the afternoon free."
"A-a-ah! Then why don't you take her out with you? You like the automobile nice enough,"—this sneeringly.
Miss Royle tossed her head. "I thought perhaps you'd be using the car," she answered, with fine sarcasm.
Jane began to argue, throwing out both hands: "How was I to know to-day was her birthday? You might've told me about it; instead, just all of a sudden, you shove her off on my hands."
Gwendolyn's eyes narrowed resentfully.
Miss Royle gave a quick look toward the window-seat. "You mean you've made plans?" she asked, concern supplanting anger in her voice.
To all appearances Jane was near to tears. She did not answer. She nodded dejectedly.
"Well, Jane, you shall have to-morrow afternoon," declared Miss Royle, soothingly. "Is that fair? I didn't know you'd counted on to-day. So—" Here another glance shot window-ward. Then she beckoned Jane. They went into the hall. And Gwendolyn heard them whispering together.
When Jane came back into the nursery she looked almost cheerful. "Now off with that habit," she called to Gwendolyn briskly. "And into something for your dinner."
"I want to wear a plaid dress," announced Gwendolyn, getting down from her seat slowly.
Jane was selecting a white muslin from a tall wardrobe. "Little girls ain't wearin' plaids this year," she declared shortly. "Come."
"Well, then, I want a dress that's got a pocket," went on Gwendolyn, "—a pocket 'way down on this side." She touched the right skirt of her riding-coat.
"They ain't makin' pockets in little girls' dresses this year," said Jane, "Come! Come!"
"'They,'" repeated Gwendolyn. "Who are 'They'? I'd like to know; 'cause I could telephone 'em and—"
"Hush your nonsense!" bade Jane. Then, catching at the delicate square of linen in Gwendolyn's hand, "How'd you git ink smeared over your handkerchief? What do you suppose your mamma'd say if she was to come upon it? I'd be blamed—as usual!"
"Who are They'?" persisted Gwendolyn. "'They' do so many things. And I want to tell 'em that I like pockets in all my dresses."
Jane ignored the question.
"Yesterday you said 'They' would send us soda-water," went on Gwendolyn—talking to herself now, rather than to the nurse. "And I'd like to know where 'They' find soda-water." Whereupon she fell to pondering the question. Evidently this, like many another propounded to Jane or Miss Royle; to Thomas; to her music-teacher, Miss Brown; to Mademoiselle Du Bois, her French teacher; and to her teacher of German, was one that was meant to remain a secret of the grown-ups.
Jane, having unbuttoned the riding-coat, pulled at the small black boots. She was also talking to herself, for her lips moved.
The moment Gwendolyn caught sight of her unshod feet, she had a new idea—the securing of a long-denied privilege by urging the occasion. "Oh, Jane," she cried. "May I go barefoot?—just for a little while. I want to." Jane stripped off the cobwebby stockings. Gwendolyn wriggled her ten pink toes. "May I, Jane?"
"You can go barefoot to bed," said Jane.
Gwendolyn's bed stood midway of the nursery, partly hidden by a high tapestried screen. It was a beautiful bed, carved and enamelled, and panelled—head and foot—with woven cane. But to Gwendolyn it was, by day, a white instrument of torture. She gave it a glance of disfavor now, and refrained from pursuing her idea.
When the muslin dress was donned, and a pink satin hair-bow replaced the black one that bobbed on Gwendolyn's head when she rode, she returned to the window and sat down. The seat was deep, and her shiny patent-leather slippers stuck straight out in front of her. In one hand she held a fresh handkerchief. She nibbled at it thoughtfully. She was still wondering about "They."
Thomas looked cross when he came in to serve her noon dinner. He arranged the table with a jerk and a bang.
"So old Royle up and outed, did she?" he said to Jane.
"Hush!" counseled Jane, significantly, and rolled her eyes in the direction of the window-seat.
Gwendolyn stopped nibbling her handkerchief.
"And our plans is spoiled," went on Thomas. "Well, ain't that our luck! And I suppose you couldn't manage to leave a certain party—"
Gwendolyn had been watching Thomas. Now she fell to observing the silver buckles on her slippers. She might not know who "They" were. But "a certain party"—
"Leave?" repeated Jane, "Who with? Not alone, surely you don't mean. For something's gone wrong already to-day, as you'll see if you'll use your eyes. And a fuss or a howl'd mean that somebody'd hear, and tattle to the Madam, and—"
Thomas said something under his breath.
"So we can't go after all," resumed Jane; "—leastways not like we'd counted on. And it's too exasperatin'. Here I am, a person that likes my freedom once in a while, and a glimpse at the shop-windows,—exactly as much as old you-know-who does—and a bit of tea afterwards with a—a friend."
At this point, Gwendolyn glanced up—just in time to see Thomas regarding Jane with a broad grin. And Jane was smiling back at him, her face so suffused with blushes that there was not a freckle to be seen.
Now Jane sighed, and stood looking down with hands folded. "What good does it do to talk, though," she observed sadly. "Day in and day out, day in and day out, I have to dance attendance."
It was Gwendolyn's turn to color. She got down quickly and came forward.
"Sh!" warned Thomas. He busied himself with laying the silver.
Gwendolyn halted in front of Jane, and lifted a puzzled face. "But—but, Jane," she began defensively, "you don't ever dance."
"Now, whatever do you think I was talkin' about?" demanded Jane, roughly. "You dance, don't you, at Monsoor Tellegen's, of a Saturday afternoon? Well, so do I when I get a' evenin' off,—which isn't often, as you well know, Miss. And now your dinner's ready. So eat it, without any more clackin'."
Gwendolyn climbed upon the plump rounding seat of a white-and-gold chair.
Jane settled down nearby, choosing an upholstered arm-chair—spacious, comfort-giving. She lolled in it, at ease but watchful.
"You can't think how that old butler spies on me," said Thomas, addressing her. "He seen the tray when I put it on the dumb-waiter. And, 'Miss Royle is havin' her lunch out,' he says. Then would you believe it, he took more'n half my dishes away!"
Jane giggled. "Potter's a sharp one," she declared. "But, oh, you should've been behind a door just now when you-know-who and I had a little understandin'."
"Eh?" he inquired, working his black brows excitedly. "How was that?"
Gwendolyn went calmly on with her mutton-broth. She already knew each detail of the forth-coming recital.
"Well," began Jane, "she played her usual trick of startin' off without so much as a word to me, and I just up and give her a tongue-lashin'."
Gwendolyn's spoon paused half way to her expectant pink mouth. She stared at Jane. "Oh, I didn't see that," she exclaimed regretfully. "Jane, what is a tongue-lashing?"
Jane sat up. "A tongue-lashin'," said she, "is what you need, young lady. Look at the way you've spilled your soup! Take it, Thomas, and serve the rest of the dinner, I ain't goin' to allow you to be at the table all day, Miss.... There, Thomas! That'll be all the minced chicken she can have."
"But I took just one little spoonful," protested Gwendolyn, earnestly. "I wanted more, but Thomas held it 'way up, and—"
"Do you want to be sick?" demanded Jane. "And have a doctor come?"
Gwendolyn raised frightened eyes. A doctor had been called once in the dim past, when she was a baby, racked by colic and budding teeth. She did not remember him. But since the era of short clothes she had been mercifully spared his visits. "N-n-no!" she faltered.
"Well, you look out or I'll git one on the 'phone. And you'll be sorry the rest of your life.... Take the chicken away, Thomas. 'Out of sight is'—you know the sayin'. (It's a pity there ain't some way to keep it hot.)"
"A bit of cold fowl don't go so bad," said Thomas, reassuringly. And to Gwendolyn, "Here's more of the potatoes souffles, Miss Gwendolyn,—very tasty and fillin'."
Gwendolyn put up a hand and pushed the proffered dish aside.
"Now, no temper," warned Jane, rising. "Too much meat ain't good for children. Your mamma herself would say that. Come! See that nice potatoes and cream gravy on your plate. And there you set cryin'!"
Thomas had an idea. "Shall I fetch the cake?" he asked in a loud whisper.
He disappeared—to reappear at once with a round frosted cake that had a border of pink icing upon its glazed white top. And set within the circle of the border were seven pink candles, all alight.
"Oh, look! Look!" cried Jane, excitedly, pulling Gwendolyn's hand away from her eyes. "Isn't it a beautiful cake! You shall have a bi-i-ig piece."
Those seven small candles dispelled the gloom. With tears on her cheeks, but all eager and smiling once more, Gwendolyn blew the candles out. And as she bent forward to puff at each tiny one, Jane held her bright hair back, for fear that a strand might get too near a flame.
"Oh, Jane," cried Gwendolyn, "when I blow like that, where do all the little lights go?"
"Did you ever hear such a question?" exclaimed Jane, appealing to Thomas.
He was cutting away at the cake. "Of course, Miss, you'd like me to have a bite of this," he said. "You know it was me that reminded Cook about bakin'—"
"Perhaps all the little lights go up under the big lamp-shade," went on Gwendolyn, too absorbed to listen to Thomas. "And make a big light." She started to get down from her chair to investigate.
"Now look here," said Jane irritably, "you'll just finish your dinner before you leave the table. Here's your cake. Eat it!"
Gwendolyn ate her slice daintily, using a fork.
Jane also ate a slice—holding it in her fingers. "There's ways of managin' a fairly jolly afternoon," she said from the depths of the arm-chair.
"You're speakin' of—er—?" asked Thomas, picking up cake crumbs with a damp finger-tip.
"A certain party would have to go along," he reminded.
"Of course. But a ride's better'n nothin'."
"Shall I telephone for—?" Thomas brought a finger-bowl.
Gwendolyn stood up. A ride meant the limousine, with its screening top and little windows. The limousine meant a long, tiresome run at good speed through streets that she longed to travel afoot, slowly, with a stop here and a stop there, and a poke into things in general.
Her crimson cheeks spoke rebellion. "I want a walk this afternoon," she declared emphatically.
"Use your finger-bowl," said Jane. "Can't you never remember your manners?"
"I'm seven to-day," Gwendolyn went on, the tips of her fingers in the small basin of silver while her face was turned to Jane. "I'm seven and—and I'm grown-up."
"And you're splashin' water on the table-cloth. Look at you!"
"So," went on Gwendolyn, "I'm going to walk. I haven't walked for a whole, whole week."
"You can lean back in the car," began Jane enthusiastically, "and pretend you're a grand little Queen!"
"I don't want to be a Queen. I want to walk.
"Rich little girls don't hike along the streets like common poor little girls," informed Jane.
"I don't want to be a rich little girl,"—voice shrill with determination.
Jane went to shake her frilled apron into the gilded waste-basket beside Gwendolyn's writing-desk. "You can telephone any time now, Thomas," she said calmly.
Gwendolyn turned upon Thomas. "But I don't want to be shut up in the car this afternoon," she cried. "And I won't! I won't! I WON'T!"
Jane gave a gasp of smothered rage. The reddish eyes blazed. "Do you want me to send for a great black bear?" she demanded.
At that Gwendolyn quailed. "No-o-o!"
Jane shot a glance toward Thomas. It invited suggestion.
"Let her take something along," he said under his breath, nodding toward a glass-fronted case of shelves that stood opposite Gwendolyn's bed.
Each shelf of the case was covered with toys. Along one sat a line of daintily clad dolls—black-haired dolls; golden-haired dolls; dolls from China, with slanted eyes and a queue; dolls from Japan, in gayly figured kimonos; Dutch dolls—a boy and a girl; a French doll in an exquisite frock; a Russian; an Indian; a Spaniard. A second shelf held a shiny red-and-black peg-top, a black wooden snake beside its lead-colored pipe-like case; a tin soldier in an English uniform—red coat, and pill-box cap held on by a chin-strap; a second uniformed tin man who turned somersaults, but in repose stood upon his head; a black dog on wheels, with great floppy ears; and a half-dozen downy ducklings acquired at Easter.
"Much good takin' anything'll do!" grumbled Jane. Then, plucking crossly at a muslin sleeve, "Well, what do you want? Your French doll? Speak up!"
"I don't want anything," asserted Gwendolyn, "—long as I can't have my Puffy Bear any more." There was a wide vacant place beside the dog with the large ears.
"The little beast got shabby," explained Thomas, "and I was compelled to throw him away along with the old linen-hamper. Like as not some poor little child has him now."
She considered the statement, gray eyes wistful. Then, "I liked him," she said huskily. "He was old and squashy, and it wouldn't hurt him to walk up the Drive, right in the path where the horses go. The dirt is loose there, like it was in the road at Johnnie Blake's in the country. I could scuff it with my shoes."
"You could scuff it and I could wear myself out cleanin', I suppose," retorted Jane. "And like as not run the risk of gittin' some bad germs on my hands, and dyin' of 'em. From what Rosa says, it was downright shameful the way you muddied your clothes, and tore 'em, and messed in the water after nasty tad-poles that week you was up country. I won't allow you to treat your beautiful dresses like that, or climb about, or let the hot sun git at you."
"I'm going to walk."
Silence; but silence palpitant with thought. Then Jane threw up her head—as if seized with an inspiration. "You're going to walk?" said she. "All right! All right! Walk if you want to." She made as if to set out. "Go ahead! But, my dear," (she dropped her voice in fear) "you'll no more'n git to the next corner when somebody'll steal you!"
Gwendolyn was silent for a long moment. She glanced from Jane to Thomas, from Thomas to Jane, and crooked her fingers in and out of her twisted handkerchief.
"But, Jane," she said finally, "the dogs go out walking—and—and nobody steals the dogs."
"Hear the silly child!" cried Jane. "Nobody steals the dogs! Why, if anybody was to steal the dogs what good would it do 'em? They're only Pomeranians anyhow, and Madam could go straight out and buy more. Besides, like as not Pomeranians won't be stylish next year, and so Madam wouldn't care two snaps. She'd go buy the latest thing in poodles, or else a fine collie, or a spaniel or a Spitz."
"But other little girls walk all the time," insisted Gwendolyn, "and nobody steals them."
Jane crossed her knees, pursed her mouth and folded her arms. "Well, Thomas," she said, shaking her head, "I guess after all that I'll have to tell her."
"Ah, yes, I suppose so," agreed Thomas. His tone was funereal.
Gwendolyn looked from one to the other.
"I haven't wanted to," continued Jane, dolefully. "You know that. But now she forces me to do it. Though I'm as sorry as sorry can be."
Thomas had just taken his portion of cake in one great mouthful. "Fo'm my," he chimed in.
Gwendolyn looked concerned. "But I'm seven," she reiterated.
"Seven?" said Jane. "What has that got to do with it? Age don't matter."
Gwendolyn did not flinch.
"You said nobody steals other little girls," went on Jane. "It ain't true. Poor little girls and boys, nobody steals. You can see 'em runnin' around loose everywheres. But it's different when a little girl's papa is made of money."
"So much money," added Thomas, "that it fairly makes me palm itch." Whereat he fell to rubbing one open hand against a corner of the piano.
Gwendolyn reflected a moment. Then, "But my fath-er isn't made of money,"—she lingered a little, tenderly, over the word father, pronouncing it as if it were two words. "I know he isn't. When I was at Johnnie Blake's cottage, we went fishing, and fath-er rolled up his sleeves. And his arms were strong; and red, like Jane's."
But Jane gestured impatiently. Then, making scared eyes, "What has that got to do," she demanded, "with the wicked men that keep watch of this house?"
Gwendolyn swallowed. "What wicked men?" she questioned apprehensively.
"Ah-ha!" triumphed Jane. "I thought that'd catch you! Now just let me ask you another question: Why are there bars on the basement windows?"
Gwendolyn's lips parted to reply. But no words came.
"You don't know," said Jane. "But I'll tell you something: There ain't no bars on the windows where poor little girls live. For the simple reason that nobody wants to steal them."
Gwendolyn considered the statement, her fingers still busy knotting and unknotting.
"I tell you," Jane launched forth again, "that if you run about on the street, like poor children do, you'll be grabbed up by a band of kidnapers."
"Are—are kidnapers worse than doctors?" asked Gwendolyn.
"Worse than doctors!" scoffed Thomas, "Heaps worse."
"Worse than—than bears?" (The last trace of that rebellious red was gone.)
Up and down went Jane's head solemnly. "Kidnapers carry knives—big curved knives."
Now Gwendolyn recalled a certain terror-inspiring man with a long belted coat and a cap with a shiny visor. It was not his height that made her fear him, for her father was fully as tall; and it was not his brass-buttoned coat, or the dark, piercing eyes under the visor. She feared him because Jane had often threatened her with his coming; and, secondly, because he wore, hanging from his belt, a cudgel—long and heavy and thick. How that cudgel glistened in the sunlight as it swung to and fro by a thong!
"Worse than a—a p'liceman?" she faltered.
"Than the p'liceman that's—that's always hanging around here?"
Now Jane giggled, and blushed as red as her hair. "Hush!" she chided.
Thomas poked a teasing finger at her. "Haw! Haw!" he laughed. "There's other people that's noticed a policeman hangin' round. He's a dandy, he is!—not. He let that old hand organ man give him a black eye."
"Pooh!" retorted Jane. "You know how much I care about that policeman! It's only that I like to have him handy for just such times as this."
But Gwendolyn was dwelling on the newly discovered scourge of moneyed children. "What would the kidnapers do?" she inquired.
"The kidnapers," promptly answered Jane, "would take you and shut you up in a nasty cellar, where there was rats and mice and things and—"
Gwendolyn's mouth began to quiver.
Hastily Jane put out a hand. "But we'll look sharp that nothin' of the kind happens," she declared stoutly; "for who can git you when you're in the car—especially when Thomas is along to watch out. So"—with a great show of enthusiasm—"we'll go out, oh! for a grand ride." She rose. "And maybe when we git into the country a ways, we'll invite Thomas to take the inside seat opposite," (another wink) "and he'll tell you about soldierin' in India, and camps, and marches, and shootin' elephants."
"Aren't there kidnapers in the country, too?" asked Gwendolyn. "I—I guess I'd rather stay home."
"You won't see 'em in the country this time of day," explained Jane. "They're all in town, huntin' rich little children. So on with the sweet new hat and a pretty coat!" She opened the door of the wardrobe.
Gwendolyn did not move. But as she watched Jane the gray eyes filled with tears, which overflowed and trickled slowly down her cheeks. "If—if Thomas walked along with us," she began, "could—could anybody steal me then?"
Jane was taking out coat, hat and gloves. "What would kidnapers care about Thomas?" she demanded contemptuously. "Sure, they'd steal you, and then they'd say to your father, 'Give! me a million dollars in cash if you want Miss Gwendolyn back.' And if your father didn't give the money on the spot, you'd be sold to gipsies, or—or Chinamen."
But Gwendolyn persisted. "Thomas has killed el'phunts," she reminded. "Are—are kidnapers worse than el'phunts?" She drew on her gloves.
Jane sat down and held out the coat. It was of velvet. "Now be still!" she commanded roughly. "You'll go in the machine if you go at all. Do you hear that?"—giving Gwendolyn a half-turn-about that nearly upset her. "Do you think I'm goin' to trapse over the hard pavements on my poor, tired feet just because you take your notions?"
Gwendolyn began to cry—softly. "Oh, I—I thought I wouldn't ever have to ride again wh-when I was seven," she faltered, putting one white-gloved hand to her eyes.
"Stop that!" commanded Jane, again, "Dirtyin' your gloves, you wasteful little thing!"
Now the big sobs came. Down went the yellow head.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" said Thomas. "Little ladies never cry."
"Walk! walk! walk!" scolded Jane, kneeling, and preparing to adjust the new hat.
The hat had wide ribbons that tied under the chin—new, stiff ribbons.
"Johnnie Bu-Blake didn't fasten his hat on like this," wept Gwendolyn. She moved her chin from side to side. "He just had a—a sh-shoe-string."
Jane had finished. "Johnnie Blake! Johnnie Blake! Johnnie Blake!" she mocked. She gave Gwendolyn a little push toward the front window. "Now, no more of your nonsense. Go and be quiet for a few minutes. And keep a' eye out, will you, to see that there's nobody layin' in wait for us out in front?"
Gwendolyn went forward to the window-seat and climbed up among its cushions. From there she looked down upon the Drive with its sloping, evenly-cut grass, its smooth, tawny road and soft brown bridle-path, and its curving walk, stone-walled on the outer side. Beyond park and road and walk were tree-tops, bush-high above the wall. And beyond these was the broad, slow-flowing river, with boats going to and fro upon its shimmering surface. The farther side of the river was walled like the walk, only the wall was a cliff, sheer and dark and timber-edged. And through this timber could be seen the roofs and chimneys of distant houses.
But Gwendolyn saw nothing of the beauty of the view. She did not even glance down to where, on its pedestal, stood the great bronze war-horse, its mane and tail flying, its neck arched, its lips curved to neigh. Astride the horse was her friend, the General, soldierly, valorous, his hat doffed—as if in silent greeting to the double procession of vehicles and pedestrians that was passing before him. Brave he might be, but what help was the General now?
When Jane was ready for the drive, Gwendolyn took a firm hold of one thick thumb. And, with Thomas following, they were soon in the entrance hall. There, waiting as usual, was Potter, the butler. He smiled at Gwendolyn.
But Gwendolyn did not smile in return. As the cage had sunk swiftly down the long shaft, her heart had sunk, too. And now she thought how old Potter was; how thin and stooped. With kidnapers about, was he a fit guardian for the front door? As Potter swung wide the heavy grille of wrought iron, with its silk-hung back of plate-glass, Gwendolyn pulled hard at Jane's hand, and went down the granite steps and across the sidewalk as quickly as possible, with a timid glance to right and left. For, even as she entered the car, might not that band of knife-men suddenly catch sight of her, and, rushing over walk and bridle-path and roadway, seize her and carry her off?
She sank, trembling, upon the seat of the limousine.
Jane followed her. Then Thomas closed the windowed door of the motor and took his place beside the chauffeur.
Gwendolyn leaned forward for a swift glance at the lower windows, barred against intruders. The great house was of stone. On side and rear it stood flat against other houses. But it was built on a corner; and along its front and outer side, the tops of the basement windows were set a foot or more above the level of the sidewalk. To Gwendolyn those windows were huge eyes, peering out at her from under heavy lashes of iron.
The automobile started. Jane arranged her skirts and leaned back luxuriously, her big hands folded on her lap.
"My! but ain't this grand!" she exclaimed. Then to Gwendolyn: "You don't mind, do you, dearie, if Jane has a taste of gum as we go along?"
Gwendolyn did not reply. She had not heard. She was leaning toward the little window on her side of the limousine. In front of Jane was the chauffeur, wide-backed and skillful, and crouched vigilantly over his wheel. But in front of her was Thomas, sitting in the proudly erect, stiff position peculiar to him whenever he fared abroad. He looked neither to right nor left. He seemed indifferent that danger lurked for her along the Drive.
But she—! As the limousine joined others, all speeding forward merrily, her pale little face was pressed against the shield-shaped pane of glass, her frightened eyes roved continually, searching the moving crowds.
The nursery was on the top-most floor of the great stone house—this for sunshine and air. But the sunshine was gone when Gwendolyn returned from her drive, and a half-dozen silk-shaded lights threw a soft glow over the room. To shut out the chill of the spring evening the windows were down. Across them were drawn the heavy hangings of rose brocade.
There was a lamp on the larger of the nursery tables, a tall lamp, almost flower-like with its petal-shaped ruffles of lace and chiffon. It made conspicuous two packages that flanked it—one small and square; the other large, and as round as a hat-box. Each was wrapped in white paper and tied with red string.
"Birthday presents!" cried Jane, the moment she spied them; and sprang forward. "Oh, I wonder what they are! What do you guess, Gwendolyn?"
Gwendolyn followed slowly, blinking against the light. "I can't guess," she said without enthusiasm. The glass-fronted case was full of toys, none of which she particularly cherished. (Indeed, most of them were carefully wrapped from sight.) New ones would merely form an addition.
"Well, what would you like?" queried Jane, catching up the small package and shaking it.
Gwendolyn suddenly looked very earnest.
"Most in the whole world?" she asked.
"Yes, what?" Jane dropped the small package and shook the large one.
"In the whole, whole big world?" went on Gwendolyn—to herself rather than to her nurse. She was not looking at the table, but toward a curtained window, and the gray eyes had a tender faraway expression. There was a faint conventional pattern in the brocade of the heavy hangings. It suggested trees with graceful down-growing boughs. She clasped her hands. "I want to live out in the woods," she said, "at Johnnie Blake's cottage by the stream that's got fish in it."
Jane set the big package down with a thump. "That's awful selfish of you," she declared warmly. "For you know right well that Thomas and I wouldn't like to leave the city and live away out in the country. Would we, Thomas?"—for he had just entered.
"Cer-tain-ly not," said Thomas.
"And it'd give poor Miss Royle the neuralgia," (Jane and Miss Royle might contend with each other; they made common cause against her.)
"But none of you'd have to" assured Gwendolyn. "When I was at Johnnie Blake's that once, just Potter went, and Rosa, and Cook. And Rosa buttoned my dresses and gave me my bath, and—"
"So Rosa'll do just as well as me," interrupted Jane, jealously.
"—And Potter passed the dishes at table," resumed Gwendolyn, ignoring the remark; "and he never hurried the best-tasting ones."
"Hear that will you, Thomas!" cried Jane. "Mr. Potter never hurried the best-tastin' ones!"
Thomas gave her a significant stare. "I tell you, a certain person is growin' keen," he said in a low voice.
Jane took Gwendolyn by the arm. "Put all that Johnnie Blake nonsense out of your head," she commanded. "Folks that live in the woods don't know nothin'. They're silly and pokey."
Gwendolyn shook her head with deliberation. "Johnny Blake wasn't pokey," she denied. "He had a willow fishpole, and a string tied to it. And he caught shiny fishes on the end of the string."
"Johnnie Blake!" sniffed Jane. "Oh, I know all about him. Rosa told me. He's a common, poor little boy. And"—severely—"I, for one, can't see why you was ever allowed to play with him!...
"Now, darlin',"—softening—"here we stand fussin', and you ain't even guessed what your presents are. Guess something that's real fine: something you'd like in the city, pettie." She began to unwrap the larger of the packages.
"Oh," said Gwendolyn. "What I'd like in the city. Well,"—suddenly between her brows there came a curious, strained little wrinkle—"I'd like—"
The white paper fell away. A large, round box was disclosed. To it was tied a small card.
"This is from your papa!" cried Jane. "Oh, let's see what it is!"
The wrinkle smoothed. A smile broke,—like sudden sunlight after clouds, and shadow. Then there poured forth all that had filled her heart during the past months:
"I'd like to eat at the grown-up table with my fath-er and my moth-er," she declared; "and I don't want to have a nurse any more like a baby! and I want to go to day-school."
Jane gasped, and her big hands fell from the round box. Thomas stared, and reddened even to his ears, which were large and over-prominent. To both, the project cherished so long and constantly was in the nature of a bombshell.
"Oh-ho!" said Jane, recovering herself after a moment. "So me and Thomas are to be thrown out of our jobs, are we?"
Gwendolyn looked mild surprise. "But you don't like to be here," she reminded. "And you and Thomas wouldn't have to work any more; you could just play all the time." She smiled up at them encouragingly.
Thomas eyed Jane. "If we ain't careful," he warned in a low voice, "and let a certain party talk too much at headquarters—"
The other nodded, comprehending "I'll look sharp," she promised. "Royle will, too." Whereupon, with a forced change to gayety, and a toss of the white card aside, she lifted the cover of the box and peeked in.
It was a merry-go-round, canopied in gay stripes, and built to accommodate a party of twelve dolls. There were six deep seats, each lined with ruby plush, for as many lady dolls: There were six prancing Arab steeds—bay and chestnut and dappled gray—for an equal number of men. A small handle turned to wind up the merry-go-round. Whereupon the seats revolved gayly, the Arabs curvetted; and from the base of the stout canopy pole there sounded a merry tune.
"Oh, darlin', what a grand thing!" cried Jane, lifting Gwendolyn to stand on the rounding seat of a white-and-gold chair (a position at other times strictly forbidden). "And what a pile of money it must've cost! Why, it's as natural as the big one in the Park!"
The music and the horses appealed. Other considerations moved temporarily into the background as Gwendolyn watched and listened.
Thomas broke the string of the smaller package. "This is the Madam's present," he declared. "And I'll warrant it's a beauty!"
It proved a surprise. All paper shorn away, there stood revealed a green cabbage, topped by something fluffy and hairy and snow-white. This was a rabbit's head. And when Thomas had turned a key in the base of the cabbage, the rabbit gave a sudden hop, lifted a pair of long ears, munched at a bit of cabbage-leaf, turned his pink nose, now to the right, now to the left, and rolled two amber eyes.
"And look! Look!" shouted Jane "The eyes light up" For each was glowing as yellowly as the tiny electric bulbs on either side of Gwendolyn's dressing-table.
"Now what more could a little lady want!" exclaimed Thomas. "It's as wonderful, I say, as a wax figger."
The rabbit, with a sharp click of farewell, popped back into the cabbage. Gwendolyn got down from the chair.
"It is nice," she conceded. "And I'm going to ask fath-er and moth-er to come up and see it."
Neither Thomas nor Jane answered. But again he eyed the nurse, this time flashing a silent warning. After which she began to exclaim excitedly over the rabbit, while he wound up the merry-go-round. Then the ruby seats and the Arabs careened in a circle, the music played, the rabbit chewed and wriggled and rolled his luminous eyes.
An interruption came in the shape of a ring at the telephone, which stood on the small table at the head of Gwendolyn's bed. Jane answered the summons, and received the message,—a brief one. It worked, however, a noticeable change. For when Jane turned round her face was sullen.
Gwendolyn remarked the scowls. Also the fact that the moment Jane made Thomas her confidant—in an undertone—he showed plain signs of being annoyed. Gwendolyn saw the merry-go-round—cabbage and all—disappear into the large, round box without a trace of regret. So much ill-feeling on the part of nurse and man-servant undoubtedly meant that something of a decidedly pleasant nature was about to happen to herself.
It was a usual—almost a daily—occurrence for her to visit the region of the grown-ups at the dinner-hour. On such occasions she saw one, though more often both, of her parents—as well as a varying number of guests. And the privilege was one held dear.
She coveted a dearer. And her eyes roved to the larger of her two tables, where stood the tall lamp. There she ate all her meals, in the condescending company of Miss Royle. What if the telephone message meant that henceforth she was to eat downstairs?
Standing on one foot she waited developments, and concealed her eagerness by snapping her underlip against her teeth with one busy forefinger.
Her spirits fell when Thomas appeared with the supper-tray. And she ate with no appetite—for all that she was eating alone—alone, that is, except for Thomas, who preserved a complete and stony silence. Miss Royle had not returned. Jane had disappeared toward her room, grumbling about never having a single evening to call her own.
But at seven cheer returned with the realization that Jane was not getting ready the white-and-gold bed. Still in a very bad humor, and touched up smartly by a fresh cap and a dainty apron, the nurse put Gwendolyn into a rosebud-bordered mull frock and tied a white-satin bow atop her yellow hair.
"Where am I going, Jane?" asked Gwendolyn. (She felt certain that this was one of the nights when she was invited downstairs: She hoped—with a throb in her throat that was like the beat of a heart—that the supper just past was only afternoon tea, and that there was waiting for her at the grown-up table—in view of her newly acquired year and dignity—an empty chair.)
"You'll see soon enough," answered Jane, shortly.
Next, a new thought! Her father and mother had not seen her for two whole days—not since she was six. "Wonder if I show I'm not taller," she mused under her breath.
At precisely fifteen minutes to eight Jane took her by the hand. And she went down and down in the bronze cage, past the floor where were the guest chambers, past the library floor, which was where her mother and father lived, to the second floor of the great house. Here was the music-room, spacious and splendid, and the dining-room. The doors of this latter room were double. Before them the two halted.
Not only the pause at this entrance betrayed whereto they were bound, but also Jane's manner. For the nurse was holding herself erect and proper—shoulders back, chin in, heels together. Gwendolyn had often noted that upon both Jane and Thomas her parents had a curious stiffening effect.
The thought of that empty chair now forced itself uppermost. The gray eyes darkened with sudden anxiety.
"Now, Gwendolyn" whispered Jane, leaning down, "put your best foot forward." Her face had lost some of its accustomed color.
"But, Jane," whispered Gwendolyn back, "which is my best foot?"
Jane gave the small hand she was holding an impatient shake. "Hush your rubbishy questions," she commanded "We're goin' in!" She tapped one of the doors gently.
Gwendolyn glanced down at her daintily slippered feet. With so little time for reflecting, she could not decide which one she should put forward. Both looked equally well.
The next moment the doors swung open, and Potter, white-haired, grave and bent, stepped aside for them to pass. They crossed the threshold.
The dining-room was wide and long and lofty. Its wainscot was somberly stained. Above the wainscot, the dull tapestried walls reached to a ceiling richly panelled. The center of this dark setting was a long table, glittering with china and crystal, bright with silver and roses, and lighted by clusters of silk-shaded candles that reflected themselves upon circular table mirrors. At the far end of the table sat Gwendolyn's father, pale in his black dress-clothes, and haggard-eyed; at the near end sat her mother, pink-cheeked and pretty, with jewels about her bare throat and in her fair hair. And between the two, filling the high-backed chairs on either side of the table, were strange men and women.
Gwendolyn let go of Jane's hand and went toward her mother. Thither had gone her first glance; her second had swept the whole length of the board to her father's face. And now, without heeding any of the others, her look circled swiftly from chair to chair—searching.
Not one was empty!
The gray eyes blurred. Yet she tried to smile. Close to that dear presence, so delicately perfumed (with a haunting perfume that was a very part of her mother's charm and beauty) she halted; and curtsied—precisely as Monsieur Tellegen had taught her. And when the white-satin bow bobbed above the level of the table once more, she raised her face for a kiss.
A murmur went up and down the double row of chairs.
Gwendolyn's mother smiled radiantly. Her glance over the table was proud. "This is my little daughter's seventh birthday anniversary," she proclaimed.
To Gwendolyn the announcement was unexpected. But she was quick. Very cautiously she lifted herself on her toes—just a little.
Another buzz of comment circled the board. "Too sweet!" said one; and, "Cunning!" and "Fine child, that!"
"Now, dear," encouraged her mother.
Gwendolyn would have liked to stand still and listen to the chorus of praise. But there was something else to do.
She turned a corner of the table and started slowly along it, curtseying at each chair. As she curtsied she said nothing, only bobbed the satin bow and put out a small hand. And, "How do you do, darling!" said the ladies, and "Ah, little Miss Gwendolyn!" said the men.
The last man on that side, however, said something different. (He, she had seen at the dinner-table often.) He slipped a hand into a pocket. When it came forth, it held an oblong box. "I didn't forget that this was your birthday," he half-whispered. "Here!"—as he laid the box upon Gwendolyn's pink palm—"that's for your sweet tooth!"
Everyone was watching, the ladies beaming, the men intent and amused. But Gwendolyn was unaware both of the silence and the scrutiny. She glanced at the box. Then she looked up into the friendly eyes of the donor.
"But," she began; "—but which is my sweet tooth?"
There was a burst of laughter, Gwendolyn's father and mother joining in. The man who had presented the box laughed heartiest of all; then rose.
First he bowed to her mother, who acknowledged his salute graciously; next he turned to her father, whose pale face softened; last of all, he addressed her:
"Miss Gwendolyn," said he, "a toast!"
Gwendolyn looked at those bread-plates which were nearest her. There was no toast in sight, only some very nice dinner-rolls. Moreover, Potter and Thomas were not starting for the pantry, but were standing, the one behind her mother, the other behind her father, quietly listening. And what this friend of her father's had in his right hand was not anything to eat, but a delicate-stemmed glass wherein some champagne was bubbling—like amber soda-water. She was forced to conclude that he was unaccountably stupid—or only queer—or else indulging in another of those incomprehensible grown-up jokes.
He made a little speech—which she could not understand, but which elicited much laughter and polite applause; though to her it did not seem brilliant, or even interesting. Reseating himself, he patted her head.
She put the candy under her left arm, said a hasty, half-whispered Thank-you to him, went to the next high-backed chair, curtsied, bobbed the ribbon-bow and put out a hand. A pat on the head was dismissal: There was no need to wait for an answer to her question concerning her sweet tooth. Experience had taught her that whenever mirth greeted an inquiry, that inquiry was ignored.
When one whole side of the table was finished, and she turned a second corner, her father brushed her soft cheek with his lips.
"Did your dolls like the merry-go-round?" he asked kindly.
"Was there something else my little girl wanted?"
Now she raised herself so far on her toes that her lips were close to his ear. For there was a lady on either side of him. And both were plainly listening.
"If—if you'd come up and make it go," she said, almost whispering.
He nodded energetically.
She went behind his chair. Thomas was in wait there still. Down here he seemed to raise a wall of aloofness between himself and her, to wear a magnificent air, all cold and haughty, that was quite foreign to the nursery. As she passed him, she dimpled up at him saucily. But it failed to slack the starchy tenseness of his visage.
She turned another corner and curtsied her way along the opposite side of the table. On this side were precisely as many high-backed chairs as on the other. And now, "You adorable child!" cried the ladies, and "Haw! Haw! Don't the rest of us get a smile?" said the men.
When all the curtseying was over, and the last corner was turned, she paused. "And what is my daughter going to say about the rabbit in the cabbage?" asked her mother.
There was a man seated on either hand. Gwendolyn gave each a quick glance. At Johnnie Blake's she had been often alone with her father and mother during that one glorious week. But in town her little confidences, for the most part, had to be made in just this way—under the eye of listening guests and servants, in a low voice.
"I like the rabbit," she answered, "but my Puffy Bear was nicer, only he got old and shabby, and so—"
At this point Jane took one quick step forward.
"But if you'd come up to the nursery soon," Gwendolyn hastened to add. "Would you, moth—er?"
"Yes, indeed, dear."
Gwendolyn went up to Jane, who was waiting, rooted and rigid, close by. The reddish eyes of the nurse-maid fairly bulged with importance. Her lips were sealed primly. Her face was so pale that every freckle she had stood forth clearly. How strangely—even direly—the great dining-room affected her—who was so at ease in the nursery! No smile, no wink, no remark, either lively or sensible, ever melted the ice of her countenance. And it was with a look almost akin to pity that Gwendolyn held out a hand.
Jane took it with a great show of affection. Then once more Potter swung wide the double doors.
Gwendolyn turned her head for a last glimpse of her father, sitting, grave and haggard, at the far end of the table; at her beautiful, jeweled mother; at the double line of high-backed chairs that showed, now a man's stern black-and-white, next the gayer colors of a woman's dress; at the clustered lights; the glitter; the roses—
Then the doors closed, making faint the din of chatter and laughter. And the bronze cage carried Gwendolyn up and up.
There was a high wind blowing, and the newly washed garments hanging on the roofs of nearby buildings were writhing and twisting violently, and tugging at the long swagging clothes-lines. Gwendolyn, watching from the side window of the nursery, pretended that the garments were so many tortured creatures, vainly struggling to be free. And she wished that two or three of the whitest and prettiest might loose their hold and go flying away—across the crescent of the Drive and the wide river—to liberty and happiness in the forest beyond.
Among the flapping lines walked maids—fully a score of them. Some were taking down wash that was dry and stuffing it into baskets. Others were busy hanging up limp pieces, first giving them a vigorous shake; then putting a small portion of each over the line and pinching all securely into place with huge wooden pins.
It seemed cruel.
Yet the faces of the maids were kind—kinder than the faces of Miss Royle and Jane and Thomas. Behind Gwendolyn the heavy brocade curtains hung touching. She parted them to make sure that she was alone in the nursery. After which she raised the window—just a trifle. The roofs that were white with laundry were not those directly across from the nursery, but over-looked the next street. Nevertheless, with the window up, Gwendolyn could hear the crack and snap of the whipping garments, and an indistinct chorus of cheery voices. One maid was singing a lilting tune. The rest were chattering back and forth. With all her heart Gwendolyn envied them—envied their freedom, and the fact that they were indisputably grown-up. And she decided that, later on, when she was as big and strong, she would be a laundry-maid and run about on just such level roofs, joyously hanging up wash.
Presently she raised the window a trifle more, so that the lower sill was above her head. Then, "Hoo-hoo-oo-oo!" she piped in her clear voice.
A maid heard her, and pointed her out to another. Soon a number were looking her way. They smiled at her, too, Gwendolyn smiled in return, and nodded. At that, one of a group snatched up a square of white cloth and waved it. Instantly Gwendolyn waved back.
One by one the maids went. Then Gwendolyn suddenly recalled why she was waiting alone—while Miss Royle and Jane made themselves extra neat in their respective rooms; why she herself was dressed with such unusual care—in a pink muslin, white silk stockings, and black patent-leather pumps, the whole crowned by a pink-satin hair-bow. With the remembrance, the pretend-game was forgotten utterly: The lines of limp, white creatures on the roofs flung their tortured shapes about unheeded.
At bed-time the previous evening Potter had telephoned that Madam would pay a morning visit to the nursery. The thought had kept Gwendolyn awake for a while, smiling into the dark, kissing her own hands for very happiness; it had made her heart beat wildly, too. For she reviewed all the things she intended broaching to her mother—about eating at the grown-up table, and not having a nurse any more, and going to day-school.
Contrary to a secret plan of action, she slept late. At breakfast, excitement took away her appetite. And throughout the study-hour that followed, her eyes read, and her lips repeated aloud, several pages of standard literature for juveniles that her busy brain did not comprehend. Yet now as she waited behind the rose hangings for the supreme moment, she felt, strangely enough, no impatience. With three to attend her, privacy was not a common privilege, and, therefore, prized. She fell to inspecting the row of houses across the way—in search for other strange but friendly faces.
There were exactly twelve houses opposite. The corner one farthest from the river she called the gray-haired house. An old lady lived there who knitted bright worsted; also a fat old gentleman in a gay skull-cap who showed much attention to a long-leaved rubber-plant that flourished behind the glass of the street door. Gwendolyn leaned out, chin on palm, to canvass the quaintly curtained windows—none of which at the moment framed a venerable head. Next the gray-haired house there had been—up to a recent date—a vacant lot walled off from the sidewalk by a high, broad bill-board. Now a pit yawned where formerly was the vacant space. And instead of the fascinating pictures that decorated the bill-board (one week a baby, rosy, dimpled and laughing; the next some huge lettering elaborately combined with a floral design; the next a mammoth bottle, red and beautiful, and flanked by a single gleaming word: "Catsup") there towered—above street and pit, and even above the chimneys of the gray-haired house—the naked girders of a new steel structure.
The girders were black, but rusted to a brick-color in patches and streaks. They were so riveted together that through them could be seen small, regular spots of light. Later on, as Gwendolyn knew, floors and windowed walls and a tin top would be fitted to the framework. And what was now a skeleton would be another house!
Directly opposite the nursery, on that part of the side street which sloped, were ten narrow houses, each four stories high, each with brown-stone fronts and brown-stone steps, each topped by a large chimney and a small chimney. In every detail these ten houses were precisely alike. Jane, for some unaccountable reason, referred to them as private dwellings. But since the roof of the second brown-stone house was just a foot lower than the roof of the first, the third roof just a foot lower than the roof of the second, and so on to the very tenth and last, Gwendolyn called these ten the step-houses.
The step-houses were seldom interesting. As Gwendolyn's glances traveled now from brown-stone front to brown-stone front, not one presented even the relief of a visiting post-man.
Her progress down the line of step-houses brought her by degrees to the brick house on the Drive—a large vine-covered house, the wide entrance of which was toward the river. And no sooner had she given it one quick glance than she uttered a little shout of pleased surprise. The brick-house people were back!
All the shades were up. There was smoke rising from one of the four tall chimneys. And even as Gwendolyn gazed, all absorbed interest, the net curtains at an upper window were suddenly drawn aside and a face looked out.
It was a face that Gwendolyn had never seen before in the brick house. But though it was strange, it was entirely friendly. For as Gwendolyn smiled it a greeting, it smiled her a greeting back!
She was a nurse-maid—so much was evident from the fact that she wore a cap. But it was also plain that her duties differed in some way from Jane's. For her cap was different—shaped like a sugar-bowl turned upside-down; hollow, and white, and marred by no flying strings.
And she was not a red-haired nurse-maid. Her hair was almost as fair as Gwendolyn's own, and it framed her face in a score of saucy wisps and curls. Her face was pretty—full and rosy, like the face of Gwendolyn's French doll. Also it seemed certain—even at such a distance—that she had no freckles. Gwendolyn waved both hands at her. She threw a kiss back.
"Oh, thank you!" cried Gwendolyn, out loud. She threw kisses with alternating finger-tips.
The nurse-maid shook the curtains at her. Then—they fell into place. She was gone.
The next moment she heard voices in the direction of the hall—first, Thomas's; next, a woman's—a strange one this. Disappointed, she turned to face the screening curtains. But she was in no mood to make herself agreeable to visiting friends of Miss Royle's—and who else could this be?
She decided to remain quietly in seclusion; to emerge for no one except her mother.
A door opened. A heavy step advanced, followed by the murmur of trailing skirts upon carpet. Then Thomas spoke—his tone that full and measured one employed, not to the governess, to Jane, to herself, or to any other common mortal, but to Potter, to her father and mother, and to guests. "This is Miss Gwendolyn's nursery," he announced.
Beyond the curtains were persons of importance!
She shrank against the window, taking care not to stir the brocade.
"We will wait here,"—the voice was clear, musical.
"Thank you." Thomas's heavy step retreated. A door closed.
There was a moment of perfect stillness. Then that musical voice began again:
"Where do you suppose that young one is?"
A second voice rippled out a low laugh.
Gwendolyn laughed too,—silently, her face against the glass. The fat old gentleman in the gray-haired house chanced to be looking in her direction. He caught the broad smile and joined in.
"In the school-room likely,"—it was the first speaker, answering her own inquiry—"getting stuffed."
Stuffed! Gwendolyn could appreciate that. She choked back a giggle with one small hand.
Someone else thought the declaration amusing, for there was another well-bred ripple; then once more that murmur of trailing skirts, going toward the window-seat; going the opposite way also, as if one of the two was making a circuit of the room.
Presently, "Just look at this dressing-table, Louise! Fancy such a piece of furniture for a child! Ridiculous!"
Gwendolyn cocked her yellow head to one side—after the manner of her canary.
"Bad taste." Louise joined her companion. "Crystal, if you please! Must've cost a fabulous sum."
One or two articles were moved on the dresser. Then, "Poor little girl!" observed the other woman. "Rich, but—"
Gwendolyn puckered her brows gravely. Was the speaker referring to her? Clasping her hands tight, she leaned forward a little, straining to catch every syllable. As a rule when gossip or criticism was talked in her hearing, it was insured against being understood by the use of strange terms, spellings, winks, nods, shrugs, or sudden stops at the most important point. But now, with herself hidden, was there not a likelihood of plain speech?
The voice went on: "This is the first time you've met the mother, isn't it?"
"I think so,"—indifferently. "Who is she, anyhow?"
"Nobody at all—absolutely. You know, they say—" She paused for emphasis.
Now, Gwendolyn's eyes grew suddenly round; her lips parted in surprise. They again!
"Yes?" encouraged Louise.
Lower—"They say she was just an ordinary country girl, pretty, and horribly poor, with a fair education, but no culture to speak of. She met him; he had money and fell in love with her; she married him. And, oh, then!" She chuckled.
"Made the money fly?"
The two were coming to settle themselves in chairs close to the side window.
"Not exactly. Haven't you heard what's the matter with her?"
Gwendolyn's face paled a little. There was something the matter with her mother?—her dear, beautiful, young mother! The clasped hands were pressed to her breast.
"Ambitious?" hazarded Louise, confidently.
"It's no secret. Everybody's laughing at her,—at the rebuffs she takes; the money she gives to charity (wedges, you understand); the quantities of dresses she buys; the way she slaps on the jewels. She's got the society bee in her bonnet!"
Gwendolyn caught her breath. The society bee in her bonnet?
"Ah!" breathed Louise, as if comprehending. Then, "Dear! dear!"
"She talks nothing else. She hears nothing else. She sees nothing else."
"Bad as that?"
"Goes wherever she can shove in—subscription lectures and musicales, hospital teas, Christmas bazars. And she benches her Poms; has boxes at the Horse Show and the Opera; gives gold-plate dinners, and Heaven knows what!"
"Ha! ha! You haven't boosted her, dear?"
"Not a bit of it! Make a point of never being seen anywhere with her."
Gwendolyn swallowed. He was her father.
"Well, it has kept the poor fellow in harness all the time, of course. You should have seen him when he first came to town—straight and boyish, and very handsome. (You know the type.) He's changed! Burns his candles at both ends."
Gwendolyn blinked with the effort of making mental notes.
"You haven't heard the latest about him?"
"Trying to make some Club?"
Whispering—"On the edge of a crash."
"Who told you?"
"Oh, a little bird."
Up came both palms to cover Gwendolyn's mouth. But not to smother mirth. A startled cry had all but escaped her. A little bird! She knew of that bird! He had told things against her—true things more often than not—to Jane and Miss Royle. And now here he was chattering about her father!
"It's the usual story," commented Louise calmly, "with these nouveaux riches."
"Sh!" A moment of stillness, as if both were listening. Then, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"
"I—er—read it fairly well."
"Oh, oui! Oui!"
"Allors." And there followed, in undertones, a short, spirited conversation in the Gallic.
Gwendolyn made a silent resolution to devote more time and thought to the peevish and staccato instruction of Miss Du Bois.
The two were interrupted by a light, quick step outside. Again the hall door opened.
"Oh, you'll pardon my having to desert you, won't you?" It was Gwendolyn's mother. "I didn't intend being so long."
Gwendolyn half-started forward, then stopped.
"Why, of course!"—with sounds of rising.
"Differences below stairs, I find, require prompt action."
"I fancy you have oceans of executive ability," declared Louise, warmly. "That Orphans' Home affair—I hear you managed it tremendously!"
"Really, my dear,"—it was the other woman—"to be quite frank, we must confess that we haven't missed you! We've been enjoying our glimpse of the nursery."
"It's simply lovely!" cried Louise.
"And what a perfectly sweet dressing-table!"
"Have you seen my little daughter?—Thomas!"
"There's a draught coming from somewhere—"
"It's the side window, Madam."
Instinctively Gwendolyn flattened herself against the wood-work at her back.
Three or four steps brought Thomas across the floor. Then his two big hands appeared high up on the hangings. The next moment, the hands parted, sweeping the curtains with them.
To escape detection was impossible. A quick thought made Gwendolyn raise a face upon which was a forced expression that bore only a faint resemblance to a smile.
"Boo!" she said, jumping out at him.
Startled, he fell back. "Why, Miss Gwendolyn!"
"Gwendolyn?" repeated her mother, surprised. "Why, what were you doing there, darling?"
"Gwendolyn!"—this in a faint gasp from both visitors.
Gwendolyn came slowly forward. She did not raise her eyes; only curtsied.
"So this is your little daughter!" A gloved hand was reached out, and Gwendolyn was drawn forward. "How cunning!"
Gwendolyn recognized the voice of Louise. Now, she looked up. And saw a pleasant face, young, but not so pretty as her mother's. She shook hands bashfully. Then shook again with an older woman, whose plain countenance was dimly familiar. After which, giving a sudden little bound, and putting up eager arms, she was caught to her mother.
Cheek caressed cheek.
"She's six, isn't she, my dear?" asked the plain, elderly one.
"Oh, she's seven." A soft hand stroked the yellow hair.
"As much as that? Really?"
The inference was not lost upon Gwendolyn. She tightened her embrace. And turning her head on her mother's breast, looked frank resentment.
The visitors were not watching her. They were exchanging glances—and smiles, faint and uneasy. Slowly now they began to move toward the hall door, which stood open. Beside it, waiting with an impressive air, was Miss Royle.
"I think we must go, Louise."
"Oh, we must,"—quickly. "Dear me! I'd almost forgot! We've promised to lunch with one or two people down-town."
"I wish you were lunching here," said Gwendolyn's mother. She freed herself gently from the clinging arms and followed the two. "Miss Royle, will you take Gwendolyn?"
As the governess promptly advanced, with a half-bow, and a set smile that was like a grimace, Gwendolyn raised a face tense with earnestness. Until half an hour before, her whole concern had been for herself. But now! To fail to grow up, to have her long-cherished hopes come short of fulfillment—that was one thing. To know that her mother and father had real and serious troubles of their own, that was another!
"Oh, moth-er! Don't you go!"
"Mother must tell the ladies good-by."
"What touching affection!" It was the elder of the visiting pair.
Miss Royle assented with a simper.
"Will you come back?" urged Gwendolyn, dropping her voice. "Oh, I want to see you"—darting a look sidewise—"all by myself."
There was a wheel and a flutter at the door—another silent exchange of comment, question and exclamation, all mingled eloquently. Then Louise swept back.
"What a bright child!" she enthused. "Does she speak French?"
"She is acquiring two tongues at present," answered Gwendolyn's mother proudly, "—French and German."
"Splendid!" It was the elder woman. "I think every little girl should have those. And later on, I suppose, Greek and Latin?"
"I've thought of Spanish and Italian."
"Eventually," informed Miss Royle, with a conscious, sinuous shift from foot to foot, "Gwendolyn will have seven tongues at her command."
"How chic!" Once more the gloved hand was extended—to pat the pink-satin hair-bow.
Gwendolyn accepted the pat stolidly. Her eyes were fixed on her mother's face.
Now, the elder of the strangers drew closer. "I wonder," she began, addressing her hostess with almost a coy air, "if we could induce you to take lunch with us down-town. Wouldn't that be jolly, Louise?"—turning.
Gwendolyn's mother looked down. A sudden color was mounting to her cheeks. Her eyes shone.
"We-e-ell," she said, with rising inflection.
It was acceptance.
Gwendolyn stepped back the pink muslin in a nervous grasp at either side. "Oh, won't you stay?" she half-whispered.
"Mother'll see you at dinnertime, darling. Tell Jane, Miss Royle."
Louise led the way quickly, followed by the elderly lady. Gwendolyn's mother came last. A bronze gate slid between the three and Gwendolyn, watching them go. The cage lowered noiselessly, with a last glimpse of upturned faces and waving hands.
Gwendolyn, lips pouting, crossed toward the school-room door. The door was slightly ajar. She gave it a smart pull.
A kneeling figure rose from behind it. It was Jane, who greeted her with a nervous, and somewhat apprehensive grin.
"I was waitin' to jump out at Miss Royle and give her a scare when she'd come through," she explained.
Gwendolyn said nothing.
It was a morning abounding in unexpected good fortune. For one thing, Miss Royle was indisposed—to an extent that was fully convincing—and was lying down, brows swathed by a towel, in her own room; for another, the bursting of a hot-water pipe on the same floor as the nursery required the prompt attention of a man in a greasy cap and Johnnie Blake overalls, who, as he hammered and soldered and coupled lengths of piping with his wrench, discussed various grown-up topics in a loud voice with Jane, thus levying on her attention. Miss Royle's temporary incapacity set aside the program of study usual to each forenoon; and Jane's suddenly aroused interest in plumbing made the canceling of that day's riding-lesson seem advisable. It was Thomas who telephoned the postponement. And Gwendolyn found herself granted some little time to herself.
But she was not playing any of the games she loved—the absorbing pretend-games with which she occupied herself on just such rare occasions. Her own pleasure, her own disappointment, too,—these were entirely put aside in a concern touching weightier matters. Slippers upheld by a hassock, and slender pink-frocked figure bent across the edge of the school-room table, she had each elbow firmly planted on a page of the wide-open, dictionary.
At all times the volume was beguiling—this in spite of the fact that the square of black-board always carried along its top, in glaring chalk, the irritating reminder: Use Your Dictionary! There was diversion in turning the leaves at random (blissfully ignoring the while any white list that might be inscribed down the whole of the board) to chance upon big, strange words.
But the word she was now poring over was a small one. "B-double-e," she spelled; "Bee: a so-cial hon-ey-gath-er-ing in-sect."
She pondered the definition with wrinkled forehead and worried eye. "Social"—the word seemed vaguely linked with that other word, "Society", which she had so fortunately overheard. But what of the remainder of that visitor's never-to-be-forgotten declaration of scorn? For the definition had absolutely nothing to say about any bonnet.
She was shoving the pages forward with an impatient damp thumb in her search for Bonnet, when Thomas entered, slipping in around the edge of the hall door on soft foot—with a covert peek nursery-ward that was designed to lend significance to his coming. His countenance, which on occasion could be so rigorously sober, was fairly askew with a smile.
Gwendolyn stood up straight on the hassock to look at him. And at first glance divined that something—probably in the nature of an edible—might be expected. For the breast-pocket of his liveried coat bulged promisingly.
"Hello!" he saluted, tiptoeing genially across the room.
"Hello!" she returned noncommittally.
Near the table, he reached into the bulging pocket and drew out a small Manila bag. The bag was partly open at the top. He tipped his head to direct one black eye upon its contents.
"Say, Miss Gwendolyn," he began, "you like old Thomas, don't you?"
Gwendolyn's nostrils widened and quivered, receiving the tempting fragrance of fresh-roasted peanuts. At the same time, her eyes lit with glad surprise. Since her seventh anniversary, she had noted a vast change for the better in the attitude of Miss Royle, Thomas and Jane; where, previous to the birthday, it had seemed the main purpose of the trio (if not the duty) to circumvent her at every turn—to which end, each had a method that was unique: the first commanded; the second threatened; Thomas employed sarcasm or bribery. But now this wave of thoughtfulness, generosity and smooth speech!—marking a very era in the history of the nursery. Here was fresh evidence that it was continuing.
Yet—was it not too good to last?
"Why, ye-e-es," she answered, more than half guessing that this time bribery was in the air.
But the fragrant bag resolved itself into a friendly offering. Thomas let it drop to the table.
Casting her last doubt aside, Gwendolyn caught it up eagerly. Miss Royle never permitted her to eat peanuts, which lent to them all the charm of the forbidden. She cracked a pod; and fell to crunching merrily.
"And you wouldn't like to see me go away, would you now," went on Thomas.
Her mouth being crammed, she shook her head cordially.
"Ah! I thought so!" He tore the bag down the side so that she could more easily get at its store. Then, leaning down confidentially, and pointing a teasing finger at her, "Ha! Ha! Who was it got caught spyin' yesterday?"
The small jaws ceased grinding. She lifted her eyes. Their gray was suddenly clouded—remembering what, for a moment, her joy in the peanuts had blotted out. "But I wasn't spying," she denied earnestly.
"Then what was you doin'?—still as mice behind them curtains."
The mist cleared. Her face sunned over once more. "I was waving at the nurse in the brick house," she explained.
At that, up went Thomas's head. His mouth opened. His ears grew red. "The nurse in the brick house!" he repeated softly.
"The one with the curly hair," went on Gwendolyn, cracking more pods.
Thomas turned his face toward the side window of the school-room. Through it could be seen the chimneys of the brick house. He smacked his lips.
"You like peanuts, too," said Gwendolyn. She proffered the bag.
He ignored it. His look was dreamy. "There's a fine Pomeranian at the brick house," he remarked.
"It was the first time I'd ever seen her," said Gwendolyn, with the nurse still in mind. "Doesn't she smile nice!"
Now, Thomas waxed enthusiastic. "And she's a lot prettier close to," he declared, "than she is with a street between. Ah, you ought—"
That moment, Jane entered, fairly darting in.
"Here!" she called sharply to Gwendolyn. "What're you eatin'?"
"Peanuts, Jane,"—perfect frankness being the rule when concealment was not possible.
Jane came over. "And where'd you git 'em?" she demanded, promptly seizing the bag as contraband.
Sudden suspicion flamed in Jane's red glance. "Oh, you must've did Thomas a grand turn," she observed.
Thomas shifted from foot to foot. "I was—er—um—just tellin' Miss Gwendolyn"—he winked significantly—"that she wouldn't like to lose us."
"So?" said Jane, still sceptical. Then to Gwendolyn, after a moment's reflection. "Let me close up your dictionary for you, pettie. Jane never likes to see one of your fine books lyin' open that way. It might put a strain on the back."
Emboldened by that cooing tone, Gwendolyn eyed the Manila bag covetously. "I didn't eat many," she asserted, gently argumentative.
"Oh, a peanut or two won't hurt you, lovie," answered Jane, kneeling to present the bag. Then drawing the pink-frocked figure close, "And you didn't tell him what them two ladies had to say?"
"No." It was decisive, "I told him about—"
"I didn't ask her," interrupted Thomas. "No; I talked about how she loves us. And a-course, she does.... Jane, ain't it near twelve?"
But Gwendolyn had no mind to be held as a tattler. "I told him," she continued, husking peanuts busily, "about the nurse-maid at the brick house."
Jane sat back.
"Ah?" She flashed a glance at Thomas, still shifting about uneasily mid-way between table and door. Then, "What about the nurse-maid, dearie?"
It was Gwendolyn's turn to wax enthusiastic. "Oh, she has such sweet hair!" she exclaimed. "And she smiles nice!"
Jealousy hardened the freckled visage of the kneeling Jane. "And she's taken with you, I suppose," said she.
"She threw me kisses," recounted Gwendolyn, crunching happily the while. "And, oh, Jane, some day may I go over to the brick house?"
"Some day you may—not."
Gwendolyn recognized the sudden change to belligerence; and foreseeing a possible loss of the peanuts, commenced to eat more rapidly. "Well, then," she persisted, "she could come over here."
Jane stared. "What do you mean?" she demanded crossly. "And don't you go botherin' your poor father and mother about this strange woman. Do you hear?"
"But she takes care of a rich little girl. I know—'cause there are bars on the basement windows. And Thomas says—"
"Oh, come" broke in Thomas, urging Jane hallward with a nervous jerk of the head.
"Ah!" Now complete understanding brought Jane to her feet. She fixed Thomas with blazing eyes. "And what does Thomas say, darlin'?"
Thomas waited. His ears were a dead white.
"There's a Pomeranian at the brick house," went on Gwendolyn, "and the pretty nurse takes it out to walk. And—"
"And Thomas is a-walkin' our Poms at the same time." Jane was breathing hard.
"And he says she's lots prettier close to—"
A bell rang sharply. Thomas sprang away. With a gurgle, Jane flounced after.
The next moment Gwendolyn, from the hassock—upon which she had settled in comfort—heard a wrangle of voices: First, Jane's shrill accusing, "It was you put it into her head!—to come—and take my place from under me—and the food out of my very mouth—and break my hear-r-r-rt!" Next, Thomas's sonorous, "Stuff and fiddle-sticks!" then sounds of lamentation, and the slamming of a door.
The last peanut was eaten. As Gwendolyn searched out some few remaining bits from the crevices of the bag, she shook her yellow hair hopelessly. Truly there was no fathoming grown-ups!
The morning which had begun so propitiously ended in gloom. At the noon dinner, Thomas looked harassed. He had set the table for one. That single plate, as well as the empty arm-chair so popular with Jane, emphasized the infestivity. As for the heavy curtains at the side window, which—as near as Gwendolyn could puzzle it out—were the cause of the late unpleasantness, these were closely drawn.
Having already eaten heartily, Gwendolyn had little appetite. Furthermore, again she was turning over and over the direful statements made concerning her parents. She employed the dinner-hour in formulating a plan that was simple but daring—one that would bring quick enlightenment concerning the things that worried. Miss Royle was still indisposed. Jane was locked in her own room, from which issued an occasional low bellow. When Thomas, too, was out of the way—gone pantry-ward with tray held aloft—she would carry it out. It called for no great amount of time: no searching of the dictionary. She would close all doors softly; then fly to the telephone—and call up her father.
There were times when Thomas—as well as the two others—seemed to possess the power of divination. And during the whole of the dinner his manner showed distinct apprehension. The meal concluded, even to the use of the finger-bowl, and all dishes disposed upon the tray, he hung about, puttering with the table, picking up crumbs and pins, dusting this article and that with a napkin,—all the while working his lips with silent speech, and drawing down and lifting his black eye-brows menacingly.
Meanwhile, Gwendolyn fretted. But found some small diversion in standing before the pier glass, at which, between the shining rows of her teeth, she thrust out a tip of scarlet. She was thinking about the discussion anent tongues held by her mother and the two visitors.
"Seven," she murmured, and viewed the greater part of her own tongue thoughtfully; "seven."
The afternoon was a French-and-music afternoon. Directly after dinner might be expected the Gallic teacher—undesired at any hour. Thomas puttered and frowned until a light tap announced her arrival. Then quickly handed Gwendolyn over to her company.
Mademoiselle Du Bois was short and spare. And these defects she emphasized by means of a wide hat and a long feather boa. She led Gwendolyn to the school-room. There she settled down in a low chair, opened a black reticule, took out a thick, closely written letter, and fell to reading.
Gwendolyn amused herself by experimenting with the boa, which she festooned, now over one shoulder, now over the other. "Mademoiselle," she began, "what kind of a bird owned these feathers?"
"Dear me, Mees Gwendolyn," chided Mademoiselle, irritably (she spoke with much precision and only a slight accent), "how you talk!"
Talk—the word was a cue! Why not make certain inquiries of Mademoiselle?
"But do little birds ever talk?" returned Gwendolyn, undaunted. The boa was thin at one point. She tied a knot in it. "And which little bird is it that tells things to—to people?" Then, more to herself than to Mademoiselle, who was still deep in her letter, "I shouldn't wonder if it wasn't the little bird that's in the cuckoo clock, though—"
"Ma foil!" exclaimed Mademoiselle. She seized an end of the boa and drew Gwendolyn to her knee. "You make ze head buzz. Come!" She reached for a book on the school-room table. "Attendez!"
"Mademoiselle," persisted Gwendolyn, twining and untwining, "if I do my French fast will you tell me something? What does nouveaux riches mean?"
"Nouveaux riches," said Mademoiselle, "is not on ziss page. Attendez-vous!"
Miss Brown followed Mademoiselle Du Bois, the one coming upon the heels of the other; so that a loud crescendo from the nursery, announcing the arrival of the music-teacher, drowned the last paragraph of French.
To Gwendolyn an interruption at any time was welcome. This day it was doubly so. She had learned nothing from Mademoiselle. But Miss Brown—She made toward the nursery, doing her newest dance step.
Miss Brown was stocky, with a firm tread and an eye of decision. As Gwendolyn appeared, she was seated at the piano, her face raised (as if she were seeking out some spot on the ceiling), and her solid frame swaying from side to side in the ecstasy of performance. Up and down the key-board of the instrument her plump hands galloped.