BOOKS FOR GIRLS By Laura E. Richards
The MARGARET SERIES
Three Margarets Margaret Montfort Peggy Rita Fernley House
The HILDEGARDE SERIES
Queen Hildegarde Hildegarde's Holiday Hildegarde's Home Hildegarde's Neighbors Hildegarde's Harvest
DANA ESTES & COMPANY Publishers Estes Press, Summer St., Boston
By LAURA E. RICHARDS
Author Of "Captain January," "Melody," "Queen Hildegarde," Etc.
Illustrated by ETHELRED B. BARRY
Boston Dana Estes & Company Publishers
Copyright, 1897 By Estes and Lauriat
Colonial Press: Electrotyped and Printed by C. H. Simonds & Co. Boston, Mass., U. S. A.
I. The Arrival 9 II. First Thoughts 21 III. The White Lady of Fernley 36 IV. Confidence 51 V. The Peat-bog 65 VI. The Family Chest 81 VII. The Garret 98 VIII. Cuba Libre 115 IX. Day by Day 131 X. Looking Backward 147 XI. Heroes and Heroines 163 XII. In the Saddle 187 XIII. In the Night 208 XIV. Explanations 220 XV. Farewell 237
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS. PAGE
Uncle John and the Young Cubans Frontispiece Aunt Faith's Room 43 Peggy at the Bog 73 In the Garret 105 "Cuba Libre" 125 Peggy Writes Home 143 Horseback 201 Rita's Apology 227
Long ago and long ago, And long ago still, There dwelt three merry maidens Upon a distant hill.
Christina G. Rossetti.
The rain was falling fast. It was a pleasant summer rain that plashed gently on the leaves of the great elms and locusts, and tinkled musically in the roadside puddles. Less musical was its sound as it drummed on the top of the great landau which was rolling along the avenue leading to Fernley House; but the occupants of the carriage paid little attention to it, each being buried in her own thoughts. The night was dark, and the carriage-lamps threw an uncertain gleam on the three figures leaning back in their corners, muffled and silent. The avenue was long,—interminably long, it seemed to one of the three travellers; and finally the silence so oppressed her that she determined to conquer her shyness and break it.
"What a very long avenue!" she said, speaking in a low, sweet voice.
There was no reply. She hesitated a moment, and then added timidly, "Don't you think that, as we are cousins, we might introduce ourselves and make acquaintance? My name is Margaret Montfort."
"Why, so is mine!" exclaimed the traveller opposite her. "And mine!" added the third, from the further corner.
The voice of the second speaker sounded as if it might be hearty, and as if only awkwardness gave it a sullen tone. The third spoke with a soft, languid utterance and the faintest shade of a foreign accent.
"How strange!" exclaimed the first Margaret Montfort. "Of course I knew that we had the same surname, as our fathers were brothers; but that we should all three be named—and yet it is not strange, after all!" she added. "Our grandmother was Margaret, and it was natural that we should be given her name. But how shall we manage? We cannot say First, Second, and Third Margaret, as they do on the stage."
"I am never called anything but Peggy," said the second girl, still in a half-sullen, half-timid tone.
And "My home name is Rita," murmured the third reluctantly; and she added something in an undertone about "short acquaintance," which the first Margaret did not choose to hear.
"Oh, how pretty!" she said cordially. "Then I may call you Peggy and Rita? About myself"—she stopped and laughed—"I hardly know what to say, for I have always been called Margaret, since I was a baby."
"But one of us might as well be Margaret," answered Peggy. "And somehow, your voice sounds as if you looked like it. If this road were ever coming to an end, we might see."
"Oh, I do see!" cried Margaret, leaning forward to look out of the window. "I see the lights! I see the house! We are really here at last!"
As she spoke, the carriage drove up before a long building twinkling with lights, and stopped at a broad flight of steps, leading to a stone-paved veranda. As the coachman opened the carriage-door, the door of the house opened too, and a cheerful light streamed out upon the three weary travellers. Two staid waiting-women, in spotless caps and aprons, were waiting to receive them as they came up the steps.
"This way, young ladies, if you please!" said the elder of the two. "You must be tired with your long drive. This is the library; and will you rest here a while, or will you be shown your rooms at once?"
"Oh, thank you!" said Margaret, "let us stay here a little while! What do you say, cousins?"
"All right!" said Peggy. The girl whose home name was Rita had already thrown herself down in an armchair, and seemed to think no reply necessary.
"Very well, miss," said the dignified waiting-woman, addressing herself markedly to Margaret. "Susan will come in ten minutes to show you the rooms, miss, and supper will be ready in half an hour. I am Elizabeth, miss, if you should want me. The bell is here in the corner."
Margaret thanked her with a cordial smile, the other two never glancing in her direction, and the woman withdrew.
"Just ten minutes," said Margaret, turning to her cousins, "to make acquaintance in, and find out what we all look like! Suppose we begin by taking off our wraps. How delightful the little fire is, even if we are in the middle of June. Let me help you, Peggy!"
Peggy was fumbling at her veil, which was tied in a hard knot; but in a few minutes everything was off, and the three Margaret Montforts stood silent, gazing at each other.
Nearest the fire stood the girl who was called Peggy. She was apparently about sixteen, plump and fair, with a profusion of blonde hair which looked as if it were trying to fly away. Her round, rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and pouting lips gave her a cherubic contour which was comically at variance with her little tilted nose; but she was pretty, in spite of her singularly ill-devised and ill-fitting costume of green flannel.
Reclining in the armchair next her, the Margaret who was called Rita was a startling contrast to the rosy Peggy. She was a year older, slight and graceful, her simple black gown fitting like a glove and saying "Paris" in every seam. Her hair was absolutely black, her eyes large and dark, her delicate features regular and finely cut; but the beautiful face wore an expression of discontent, and there were two fine vertical lines between the eyebrows. Her complexion had the clear pallor of a Cape Jessamine.
Facing these two, and looking with thoughtful eyes from one to the other, stood the girl whom we have spoken of as the first Margaret. She was seventeen, within two months of the age of her dark-eyed cousin. Lacking the brilliant colouring of the other two, her face had its own charm. Her eyes were dark gray, with violet shades in them, deepened by the long and heavy black lashes. The faint tinge of colour in her smooth cheeks was that of the wild rose; her wavy chestnut hair had glints of gold here and there in it, and though her nose was nothing in particular, she had the prettiest mouth in the world, and a dimple beside it. In conclusion, she was dressed in dark blue, simply, yet tastefully too.
"Well," said Peggy, breaking the silence with an embarrassed giggle, "I hope we shall know each other the next time we meet."
Margaret blushed. "I fear I have been staring rudely!" she said. "But I have never had any cousins before,—never seen any, that is, and I am really so glad to know you both! Let us shake hands, girls, and try to be friends!"
She spoke so pleasantly that Peggy's plump hand and Rita's delicate white fingers were at once extended. Holding them in her own, Margaret hesitated a moment, and then, bending forward, kissed both girls timidly on the cheek.
"Our fathers were own brothers," she said. "We must try to be fond of each other. And now," she added, "let us all tell our tells, as the children say. Rita, you shall begin. Tell us about yourself and your home, and anything else that you will."
Rita settled herself comfortably in her chair, and looked meditatively at the tip of her little boot.
"My home," she said, "is in Havana. My mother was a Spaniard, a San Real. My father is Richard Montfort. My mother died three years ago, and my father has lately married again, a girl of my own age. You may imagine that I do not find home particularly attractive now, so I was glad to accept my Uncle John's invitation to spend the summer here. As I have money in my own right, I was at liberty to do as I pleased; nor in truth did my father object, but the contrary. I have never seen my uncle."
"Nor I!" "Nor I!" exclaimed the other two.
"But I received this note from him a month ago."
She produced a note from her reticule, and read as follows.
"MY DEAR NIECE:
The thought has occurred to me that it would be well for you to make some acquaintance with the home of your fathers. I therefore invite you to spend the coming summer here, with the daughters of my brothers James and Roger, to whom I have extended a similar invitation. Business will unhappily prevent me from receiving you in person, but my cousin and yours, Mrs. Cheriton, who resides at Fernley, will pay you every attention.
Trusting that this plan will meet with your approval and that of your father,
I am, my dear niece, Your affectionate uncle, JOHN MONTFORT."
"Well, I never!" cried Peggy, drawing a long breath. "Why, it's word for word like my note."
"And like mine!" said Margaret.
The three notes were laid side by side, and proved to be exactly alike, even to the brief flourish under the signature; with the one difference that in Margaret's the words "and that of your father," were omitted.
"He must be a very methodical man!" said Margaret thoughtfully. "Isn't it strange that none of us has ever seen him? And yet one can understand how it has been. The other brothers, our fathers, left home when they were quite young,—that is what Papa has told me,—and soon formed ties elsewhere. Uncle John stayed with Grandfather till he died; then he went abroad, and was gone many years; and since he came back, he has lived here alone. I suppose he has grown a recluse, and does not care to see people. I know Papa often and often begged him to come and make us a visit, and once or twice the time was actually set; but each time something happened to prevent his coming, and he never did come. I think he would have come last year, when dear Papa died, but he had had some accident, and had injured his foot so that he could not walk."
"Pa read us the letter you wrote him then," said Peggy, with an awkward attempt at condolence. "He said he thought you must be a nice girl."
The tears came quickly to Margaret's eyes, and she turned her head to hide them. Peggy instantly plunged into a description of her nine brothers and sisters, and their life on the great Western farm where they lived; but she was hardly under way when the demure Susan tapped at the door, and said with gentle firmness that she had come to show the young ladies their rooms.
There was a sudden clutching of hats, cloaks, and bags, and the next moment the three maidens were ascending the wide staircase, casting looks of curiosity and wonderment about them.
"What beautiful twisted balusters!" whispered Margaret.
"And such queer old pictures!" said Peggy. "My! How they stare! Wondering who we are, I suppose."
Arrived in the wide upper hall, Susan threw open the doors of three rooms, two side by side, the third opposite.
"This is yours, Miss Montfort," she said. "This is the young lady's from the South, and this the other young lady's. Mr. Montfort arranged it all before he left."
"How kind and thoughtful!" cried Margaret.
"How precise and formal!" murmured Rita.
Peggy said nothing, but stared with round eyes. These rooms were not like the great whitewashed chamber at home, where she and her three sisters slept in iron bedsteads. These rooms were not large, but oh, so pretty and cosy! In each was an open fireplace, with a tiny fire burning,—"just for looks," Susan explained. Each contained a pretty brass bedstead, a comfortable chair or two, and curtains and cushions of flowered chintz. Rita's chintz showed deep red poppies on a pale buff ground; Peggy's was blue, with buttercups and daisies scattered over it; while Margaret's—oh, Margaret's was not chintz after all, but old-fashioned white dimity, with a bewilderment of tufts, and ball-fringe, and tassels. Candles were lighted on the trim dressing-tables; everything was spotless, fresh, and inviting, and the three tired girls sank each into her soft-cushioned easy chair with a delightful sense of being at home.
"The tea-bell will ring in half an hour, if you please," said Susan, and she closed the three doors.
"The eggs and the ham, And the strawberry jam; The rollicking bun, And the gay Sally Lunn."
"Ting! ting-a-ling!" the silver tinkle sounded cheerfully. Margaret was the first to leave her room, punctuality being the third virtue of her creed. She had changed her travelling-dress for a pretty dark red cashmere, which became her well; but Peggy, who came running down a moment later, still wore her ill-fitting frock of green flannel, the scant attractions of which were not enhanced by a soiled linen collar, which she had forgotten to change. The flyaway locks were indeed braided together, but the heavy braid was rough and uneven.
"Oh, you have changed your dress!" she cried, seeing Margaret. "How pretty you look! I didn't have time to do anything. Say," she added, lowering her voice, "I think you are sweet, but I just hate that other girl. We sha'n't be fond of each other, you may be sure of that!"
"My dear Peggy!" said Margaret, in gentle remonstrance. "You must not judge a person on ten minutes' acquaintance. I am sure I hope you and Rita will be very good friends. You certainly must admire her beauty."
"Oh, she's pretty enough!" rejoined Peggy; "but I think she's perfectly horrid!—there now! Stuck-up and conceited, and looking at other people as if they were stone posts. And I am not a stone post, you know."
"You certainly don't look like one," said Margaret, laughing; "nor feel like one," she added, putting her arm around her cousin's plump waist.
"But come! here is Elizabeth waiting to show us the dining-room. Elizabeth, we have had a good rest, and we are so hungry."
"This way, miss, if you please," said the grave Elizabeth. And she led the way across the hall. The dining-room was a pleasant square room, with crimson curtains closely drawn. There was no cloth on the dark table, which shone like a mirror, reflecting the blaze of the candles in mellow points of light. At the head stood a shining silver tea-service and a Dresden chocolate-pot, surrounded by the prettiest cups and saucers that ever were seen; and a supper was laid out which seemed to have been specially planned for three hungry girls. Everything good, and plenty of it.
"My!" whispered Peggy, "isn't this fine? But how funny to have no table-cloth! We always have a red one at supper."
"Do you?" said Margaret. "Papa always liked the bare table."
"Will you take the head of the table, miss?" asked Elizabeth. "I have set your place here, and Miss—"
"Miss Peggy's," suggested Margaret gently.
"Thank you, miss! Miss Peggy's at the side here."
"Very well," said Margaret. "We shall sit just where you put us, Elizabeth. And Miss Rita will sit opposite me and carve the chicken. Oh, here she is! Rita, are you accomplished in the art of carving?"
Rita, who now came gliding in, shook her head as she took the seat appointed her. "I have never attempted it," she said, "and don't think I care to try, thanks! Take this to the sideboard and carve it," she added, addressing Elizabeth in a tone of careless command. The woman obeyed in silence; but the quick colour sprang to Margaret's cheek, and she looked as much distressed as if the rude speech had been addressed to her.
Peggy stared. "Don't they say 'please' in Havana?" she said in a loud whisper to Margaret. But Margaret rattled the tea-cups, and pretended not to hear.
"Will you take tea, Rita, or chocolate?" she asked quickly.
"Chocolate, please," replied her cousin languidly. "I wonder if it will be fit to drink? One hears that everything of that sort is so frightfully adulterated in this country."
"It looks delicious," said Margaret, pouring out the smooth, brown liquid. "Do you see, girls, what lovely cups these are? Look, Rita, they are all different! I shall give you this delicate pink one, for it just matches your gown. Such a pretty gown!" she added admiringly, glancing at the pale rose-coloured silk and rich lace that set off the clear pallor of Rita's complexion in a wonderful way.
"It is only a tea-gown!" said the latter carelessly. "I have brought no clothes to speak of. Yes, the cup does match it rather well, doesn't it?"
"And you, Peggy," said Margaret, "shall have this blue darling with the gold arabesques. Surely, anything would taste good out of such cups,—take care! Oh, my dear!"
Margaret sprang up and tried to recapture the cup which had just left her hand. But it was too late! Peggy had taken it quickly, grasping the edge of the saucer. Naturally, the saucer tilted up, the cup tilted over, and a stream of chocolate poured over her hand and arm, and descended into her lap, where it formed a neat brown pool with green flannel banks. Moreover, an auxiliary stream was meandering over the table, making rapid progress towards the rose-coloured silk and white lace.
With an angry exclamation of "Bete!" Rita pushed her chair back out of danger. Poor Peggy, after the first terrified "Ow!" as the hot chocolate deluged her, sat still, apparently afraid of making matters worse if she stirred. Margaret, after ringing the bell violently to call Elizabeth, promptly checked the threatening rivulet on the table with her napkin, and then, seizing Peggy's, proceeded to sop up the pool as well as she could.
"I never!" gasped the unhappy girl. "Why, I didn't do a thing! it just tipped right over!"
"It is too bad!" said Margaret, as sympathetically as she could, though her cousin did look so funny, it was hard to keep from smiling. "Oh, here is Elizabeth! Elizabeth, we have had an accident, and I fear Miss Peggy's dress is quite ruined. Can you think of anything to take the stains out?"
Elizabeth surveyed the scene with a practised eye.
"Hot soapsuds will be the best thing," she said. "If the young lady will come up with me at once, and take the frock off, I will see what can be done."
"Yes, do go with Elizabeth, dear!" urged Margaret. "Nothing can be done till the dress is off."
And poor Peggy went off, hanging her head and looking very miserable.
Rita, as soon as her dress was out of danger, was able to see the affair in another light, and as her cousin left the room burst into a peal of silvery laughter.
"Oh, hush!" cried Margaret. "She will hear you, Rita!"
"And if she does?" replied Rita, drawing her chair up to the table again, and sipping her chocolate leisurely. "Acrobats expect to be laughed at, and certainly this was a most astonishing tour de force. Seriously, my dear," she added, seeing Margaret's troubled look, "how are we to take our Western cousin, if we do not treat her as a comic monstrosity? Is it possible that she is a Montfort? I shall call her Cousin Calibana, I think!"
She nibbled daintily at a macaroon, and went on: "It is a thing to be thankful for that the green frock is probably hopelessly ruined. I am quite sure it would have affected my nerves seriously if I had been obliged to see it every day. Do they perhaps cut dresses with a mowing-machine in the West?" and she laughed again, a laugh so rippling and musical that it was a pity it was not good-natured.
Margaret listened in troubled silence. What could she say that would not at once alienate this foreign cousin, who seemed now inclined to friendliness with her? And yet she could not let poor Peggy go undefended. At last she said gently, yet with meaning, "Dear Rita, you make me tremble for myself. If you are so very severe in your judgments, who can hope to pass uncriticised?"
"You, ma cousine!" cried Rita. "But there is no question of you; you are of one's own kind! You are altogether charming. Surely you must see that this young person is simply impossible. Impossible!" she repeated with decision. "There is no other word for it."
"No," said Margaret, bravely, "I do not see that, Rita! She is shy and awkward, and I should think very young for her age. But she has an honest, good face, and I like her. Besides," she added, unconsciously repeating the argument she had used in defending Rita herself against Peggy's animadversions, "it is absurd to judge a person on half an hour's acquaintance."
"Oh, half an hour!" said Rita lightly; "half a lifetime! My judgments, chere cousine, are made at the first glance, and remain fixed."
"And are they always right?" asked Margaret, half amused and half vexed.
"They are right for me!" said Rita, nodding her pretty head. "That is enough."
She pushed her chair back, and coming to Margaret's side, laid her hand lightly on her shoulder.
"Chere cousine," she said, in a caressing tone, "you are so charming, I do hope you are not good. It is detestable to be good! Avoid it, tres chere! believe me, it is impossible!"
"Are all the people in Havana bad?" asked Margaret, returning the caress, and resisting the impulse to shake the pretty, foolish speaker.
"All!" replied Rita cheerfully; "enchanting, delightful people; all bad! Oh, of course when one is old, that is another matter! Then one begins—"
"Was your mother bad, Rita?" asked Margaret quietly.
"My mother was an angel, do you hear? a saint!" cried the girl. And suddenly, without the slightest warning, she burst into a tropical passion of tears, and sobbed and wept as if her heart would break.
Poor Margaret! Decidedly this was not a pleasant evening for her. By the time she had soothed Rita, and tucked her up on the library sofa, with a fan and a vinaigrette, Peggy had come down again, in a state of aggrieved dejection, to finish her supper. A wrapper of dingy brown replaced the green frock; she too had been crying, and her eyes were red and swollen.
"I wish I was at home!" she said sullenly, as she ate her chicken and buttered her roll. "I wish I hadn't come here. I knew I should have a horrid time, but Pa made me come."
"Oh, don't say that, Peggy, dear!" said Margaret. "You are tired to-night, and homesick, that is all; and it was very unlucky about the dress, of course. To-morrow, when you have had a good night's rest, you will feel very differently, I know you will. Just think how delightful it will be to explore the house, and to roam about the garden, where your father and mine used to play when they were boys. Hasn't your father told you about the swing under the great chestnut-trees, and the summer-houses, and—"
"Oh, yes!" said Peggy, her eyes brightening. "And I was to look in the long summer-house for his initials, cut in the roof. Uncle Roger stood on Uncle John's shoulders, and Pa on his; and when he was finishing the tail of the M, Pa gave such a dig with his knife that he lost his balance, and they all tumbled down together; and Pa has the mark of the fall now, on his forehead."
Margaret felt that the bad moment had passed.
"Tell me about your father, and all of you at home," she said. "Think! I have never even seen a picture of Uncle James! He is tall, of course; all the Montforts are tall."
"Miles tall," said Peggy; "with broad shoulders, and a big brown beard. So jolly, Pa is! He is out on the farm all day, you know, and in the evening he sits in the corner and smokes his pipe, and the boys tell him what they have been doing, and they talk crops and cattle and pigs by the hour together."
"The boys?" inquired Margaret. "Your brothers?"
Peggy nodded, and began to count on her fingers.
"Jim, George, Hugh, Max, and Peter, boys; Peggy, Jean, Bessie, Flora, and Doris, girls. Oh, dear! I wish they were all here!"
"Ten whole cousins!" cried Margaret. "How rich I feel! Now you must tell me all about them, Peggy. Is Jim the eldest?"
"Eldest and biggest!" replied Peggy, beginning on the frosted cake. "Jim is twenty-five, and taller than Pa,—six feet four in his shoes. He has charge of the stock, and spends most of his time on horseback. His horse is nearly as big as an elephant, and he rides splendidly. I think you would like Jim," she said shyly.
"I am sure I should!" said Margaret heartily. "Who comes next?"
"George," said Peggy. "George isn't very nice, I think; I don't believe you'd like him. He has been to college, you know, and he sneers and makes fun of the rest of us, and calls us countrified."
Margaret was sure that she should not like George, but she did not say so. "He's very clever," continued Peggy, "and Pa is very proud of him. I s'pose I might like him better if he didn't tease Hugh, but I can't stand that."
"Is Hugh your favourite brother?" Margaret asked softly.
"Of course. Hugh is the best of us all. He is lame. Jim and George were fighting one day, when he was a little baby, just beginning to walk; and somehow, one of them fell back against him and threw him downstairs. He hurt his back, and has been lame ever since. Hugh is like an angel, somehow. You never saw anybody like Hugh. He does things—well! Let me tell you this that he did. He never gets into rows, but the rest of us do, all the time. Jim and George are the worst, and when they are at it, you can hear them all over the house. Well, one day Hugh was sick upstairs, and they had an awful row. Pa was out, and Ma couldn't do anything with them; she never can. Hugh can generally stop them, but this time he couldn't go down, you see. I was sitting with him, and I saw him getting whiter and whiter. At last he said, 'Peggy, I want you—' and then he stopped and said, 'No, you are too big. Bring little Peter here!' I went and brought Peter, who was about four then. 'Petie,' said Hugh, 'take brother's crutch, and go downstairs, and give it to Brother Jim and Brother George. Say Hugh sent it.' And then he told me to help Petie down with the crutch, but not go into the room. I did peep in through the crack, though, and I saw Petie toddle in, dragging the crutch, and saw him lay it down between them, and say, 'Brudder Hugh send it to big brudders.' They stopped and never said another word, only Jim gave a kind of groan. Then he kissed Petie and told him to thank Brother Hugh; and he went out, and didn't come back for three days. He rides off when he feels bad, and stays away on the farm somewhere till he gets over it."
"And George?" asked Margaret.
"Oh! George just went into his room and sulked," said Peggy. "That's his way! I do declare, he's like—" Here she stopped suddenly, for a vision appeared in the doorway. Pale and scornful, with her great dark eyes full of cold mockery, Rita stood gazing at them both, her rose-coloured draperies floating around her.
"I am truly sorry," she said, "to interrupt this torrent of eloquence. I merely wish to say that I am going to bed. Good night, chere Marguerite! Senorita Calibana, je vous souhaite le bon soir! Continue, I pray you, your thrilling disclosures as long as my cousin's ears can contain them!" And with a mocking courtesy she swept away, leaving the other two girls with an indefinable sense of guilt and disgrace. Poor Peggy! She had been so happy, all her troubles forgotten, pouring out her artless recital of home affairs; but now her face darkened, and she looked sullen and unhappy again.
"Hateful thing!" she muttered. "I wish she was in Jericho!"
"Never mind, Peggy dear!" said Margaret as cheerfully as she could. "Rita is very tired, and has a headache. It has been delightful to hear about the brothers, and especially about Hugh; but I am sure we ought to go to bed too. You must be quite tired out, and I am getting sleepy myself."
She kissed her cousin affectionately, and arm in arm they went up the great staircase.
THE WHITE LADY OF FERNLEY.
Margaret was waked the next morning by the cheerful and persistent song of a robin, which had perched on a twig just outside her window. She had gone to bed in a discouraged frame of mind, and dreamed that her two cousins had turned into lionesses, and were fighting together over her prostrate body; but with the morning light everything seemed to brighten, and the robin's song was a good omen.
"Thank you, Robin dear," she said aloud, as she brushed her long hair. "I dare say everything will go well after a while, but just now, Robin, I do assure you, things have a kittle look."
She was down first, as the night before; but Peggy soon appeared, rubbing her eyes and looking still half asleep.
Breakfast was ready, and Peggy, at sight of the omelette and muffins, was about to fling herself headlong into her chair; but Margaret held her back a moment.
"Elizabeth," she said, hesitating, "is Mrs. Cheriton—is she not here? I see you have put me at the head of the table again."
"Mrs. Cheriton seldom leaves her own rooms, miss," replied Elizabeth. "She asked me to say that she would be glad to see the young ladies after breakfast. And shall I call the other young lady, Miss Montfort?"
Before Margaret could reply, a clear voice was heard calling from above, in impatient tones:
"Elizabeth! somebody! come here this moment!"
Elizabeth obeyed the imperious summons, and as she reached the foot of the stairs, Rita's voice broke out again.
"Why has no coffee been brought to me? I never saw such carelessness. There is no bell in my room, either, and I have been calling till I am hoarse."
"I am very sorry, miss!" replied Elizabeth quietly. "We supposed you would come down to breakfast with the other young ladies. Shall I bring you a cup of tea now? There is no coffee in the house, as Mr. Montfort never drinks it."
"No coffee!" cried Rita. "I have come to a wilderness! Well—bring the tea! and have it strong, do you hear?" And the young Cuban swept back into her room, and shut the door with more vehemence than good breeding strictly allowed.
Margaret listened in distressed silence to this colloquy. Peggy giggled and chuckled. "Aha!" she said, "I'm so glad she didn't get the coffee. Greedy thing! Please hand me the muffins, Margaret. How small they are! The idea of her having her breakfast in bed!" and Peggy sniffed, and helped herself largely to marmalade.
"Perhaps her head aches still," said peace-loving Margaret.
"Don't believe a word of it!" cried Peggy. "She's used to being waited on by darkeys, and she thinks it will be just the same here. That's all!"
Margaret thought this was probably true, but she did not say so, preferring the safer remark that it was a delightful day.
"When you have finished your breakfast," she said, "we will go out into the garden. I can see a bit of it from here, and it looks lovely. Oh! I can just catch a glimpse of the swing. I wonder if it is the same old one. I love to swing, don't you?"
"I like shinning better!" said Peggy, putting half a muffin in her mouth. "Can you shin?"
"Shin! what—oh! up a tree, you mean. I'm afraid not."
"I can!" said Peggy triumphantly. "I can beat most of the boys at it, only Ma won't let me do it, on account of my clothes. Says I'm too old, too; bother! I'm not going to be a primmy, just because I am fifteen. How old are you, Margaret?"
"Seventeen; and as two years make a great difference, you know, Peggy, I shall put on all the airs of an elder sister. You know the Elder Sister's part,—
"Good advice and counsel sage, And 'I never did so when I was your age!'"
"All right!" said Peggy. "I'll call you elder sister. Ma always says I ought to have had one, instead of being one."
"Well, first comes something that we must both do; that is, go and see Mrs. Cheriton; and if you will let me, dear, I am going to tie your necktie for you."
Peggy submitted meekly, while Margaret pulled the crumpled white tie round to the front, re-tied, patted, and poked it. Then her hair must be coaxed a little—or not so very little!—and then—
"What have you done to your frock, child? it is buttoned all crooked! Why, isn't there a looking-glass in your room?"
"Oh, yes!" said Peggy. "But I hate to look in the glass! There's sure to be something the matter, and I do despise fussing over clothes."
By this time Margaret had rebuttoned the dress, with a sigh over the fact that the buttons did not match it, and that one sleeve was put in wrong. Now she declared that they must go without more delay, and Elizabeth came to show them the way.
Peggy hung back, muttering that she never knew what to say to strangers; but Margaret took her hand firmly, and drew her along.
Perhaps Margaret may have felt a little nervous herself about this strange lady, who never left her rooms, and yet was to entertain and care for them, as her uncle's note had said. Both girls followed in silence, as Elizabeth led them through the hall, past a door, then down three steps and along a little passage to another door, at which she knocked.
"Come in!" said a pleasant voice. Elizabeth opened the door and motioned the girls to enter.
"The young ladies, ma'am!" she said; and then shut the door and went away.
The sudden change from the dark passage to the white room was dazzling. It was a small room, and it seemed to be all white: walls, floor (covered with a white India matting), furniture, and all. The strange lady sat in a great white armchair. She wore a gown of soft white cashmere, and her hair, and her cap, her hands, and her face, were all different shades of white, each softer than the other. Only her eyes were brown; and as she looked kindly at the girls and smiled, they thought they had never seen anything so beautiful in their lives.
"Why, children," she said; "do you think I am a ghost? Come here, dears, and let me look at you! I am real, I assure you." She laughed, the softest little laugh, hardly more than a rustle, and held out her hand. Margaret came forward at once, still dragging Peggy after her,—Peggy, whose eyes were so wide open, it looked as if she might never be able to shut them again.
Mrs. Cheriton took a hand of each, and looked earnestly from one to the other.
"How are you called?" she asked. "I know that you have the same name."
"We thought I had better be Margaret," was the timid reply from the girl who was able to speak, "and this is Peggy."
"I see!" said the old lady, putting her hand on Peggy's flaxen mane. "You look like Peggy, little one! I used to call my sister Peggy. And where is the third Margaret?"
"She has not come down yet; she had a headache last night," said Margaret, losing all shyness before the kindly glance of those soft brown eyes. "She is called Rita, and she is very beautiful."
"That is pleasant!" said Mrs. Cheriton. "I like pretty people, when they are good as well. You are a Montfort, Margaret! You have the Montfort mouth, and chin; but this child must look like her mother." Peggy nodded, but could not yet find speech.
"And now," the old lady went on, "I am sure you are longing to know who I am, and why I live here by myself, like an old fairy godmother. Sit down, my dears, and be comfortable! Here, Margaret, the little rocking-chair is pleasant; Peggy, child, take the footstool! So! now you look more at home.
"Well, children, the truth is, I am very old. When my next birthday comes, I shall be ninety years old; a very great age, my dears! Your grandfather was my cousin; and when, five years ago, I was left alone in the world by the death of my dear only son, John Montfort, your uncle, like the good lad he is, found me out and brought me home with him to live. He is my godson, and I loved him very much when he was a little child; so now, when I am old and helpless, he makes return by loving me."
She paused to wipe her eyes; then went on.
"When one is nearly ninety years old, one does not care to move about much, even if one is perfectly well, as I am. John knew this (he knows a great deal), and he fitted up these pleasant rooms, in the warmest and quietest corner of the house, and here he put me, with my little maid, and my books, and my cat, and my parrot; and here I live, my dears, very cheerfully and happily. On pleasant days I go out in my garden, and sit under the trees. Look out of the window, girls, and see my green parlour. Is it not pretty?"
The girls knelt on the broad window-seat, and looked out. Before them was a square, grassy place, smooth and green as an emerald. The house enclosed it on two sides; the other two were screened by a hedge of Norway fir, twenty feet high, and solid as a wall. Over this the sunbeams poured in, flecking the green with gold. In one corner stood a laburnum-tree, covered with yellow blossoms; under a tall elm near by was a rustic seat.
"How do you like my kingdom?" asked the old lady, smiling at their eager faces.
"It is like a fairy place!" said Margaret. "You are quite sure you are real, Mrs. Cheriton?" They smiled at each other, feeling friends already.
"'Mrs. Cheriton' will never do, if we are to see each other every day, as I hope we are. How would you like to call me Aunt Faith?"
"Oh, the lovely name!" cried Margaret. "Thank you so much! Now we really belong to some one, and we shall not feel strange any more; shall we, Peggy?"
"I—s'pose not!" stammered Peggy. "I shall like it ever so much."
The girls sat a little longer, chatting and listening. Mrs. Cheriton told them of her parrot, who was old too, and who spoke Spanish and French, and did not like English; she showed them her books, many of which were bound in white vellum or parchment. "It is a fancy of John's," she said, "to have all my belongings white. I think he still remembers his Aunt Phoebe. Do you know about your Great-aunt Phoebe?"
The girls said no, and begged to hear, but Mrs. Cheriton said that must be for another time.
"I must not keep you too long," she said, "for I want you to come often. I will call Janet, and she shall show you the way through my green parlour to the garden. The Fernley garden is the pleasantest in the world, I think."
She touched the bell, and told the pretty rosy-cheeked maid who appeared to take the young ladies by the back way, and introduce them to Chiquito; and they took their leave regretfully, begging that they might come every day to the white chamber.
Chiquito's cage hung in the porch, and Chiquito was hanging in it upside down. He swore frightfully at the sight of strangers, and bit Peggy's finger when she tried to stroke him; but at a word from Janet he was quiet, and said, "Me gustan todas!" in a plaintive tone, with his head on one side.
"What does that mean?" asked Peggy. "He's horrid, isn't he?"
Janet's feeling were hurt. "He doesn't mean it!" she said. "And he always wants to be pleasant when he says that. Something out of a Spanish song, Mrs. Cheriton says it is, and means that he likes folks. You do like folks when they like you, don't you, poor Chico?"
"En general!" said the bird, cocking his yellow eye at Peggy. "Me gustan todas en general!"
"Well, I never!" said Peggy. "I think he's a witch, Margaret."
They went through a low door cut in the green wall, and found themselves in the great shady garden, a place of wonder and mystery. The trees and plants had been growing for two hundred years, ever since James Montfort had left the court of Charles II. in disgust, and come out to build his home and make his garden in the new country, where freedom waited for her children.
The great oaks and elms and chestnuts were green with moss and hoary with lichens, but the flower-beds lay out in broad sunshine, and here were no signs of age, only of careful tending and renewal. Margaret was enchanted with the flowers, for her home had been in a town, and she knew little of country joys. Peggy glanced carelessly at the geraniums and heliotropes, and told Margaret that she should see a field of poppies in bloom.
They came across the gardener, who straightened himself at sight of them, and greeted them with grave politeness. He was a tall, strongly made man, with, grizzled hair and bright, dark eyes.
"May we pick a few flowers?" asked Margaret in her pleasant way.
"Surely, miss; any, and all you like, except these beds of young slips here, which I am nursing carefully. I hope you will be often in the garden, young ladies!" and he saluted again, in military fashion, as the girls walked away.
"What a remarkable-looking man!" said Margaret. "I wonder if I can have seen him anywhere. There is something about his face—"
"Oh, there is the swing!" cried Peggy. "Come along, Margaret; I'll race you to that big chestnut-tree!" and away flew the two girls over the smooth green turf.
"What are you doing, tres chere?" asked Rita, suddenly appearing at Margaret's door. "How is it you pass your time so cheerfully? how to live, in this deplorable solitude? You see me fading away, positively a shadow, in this hideous solitude!"
Margaret looked up cheerfully from her work.
"Come in, daughter of despair!" she said. And Rita came in and flung herself on the sofa with a tragic air.
"You are doing—what?" she demanded.
"I have rather a hopeless task, I fear," said Margaret. "Peggy's hat! She dropped it into the pond yesterday, and I am trying to smarten it up a little, poor thing! What do you advise, Rita? I am sure you have clever fingers, you embroider so beautifully."
"I should advise the fire," said Rita, looking with scorn at the battered hat. "Put it in now, this moment. It will burn well, and it can do nothing else decently."
"Ten miles from a shop," said Margaret, "and nothing else save her best hat. No, my lady, we cannot be so extravagant. If you will not help me, I must e'en do the best I can. I never could understand hats!" she added ruefully.
"Why do you do these things?" Rita asked, sitting up as suddenly as she had flung herself down. "Will you tell me why? I love you! I have told you twenty times of it; but I cannot understand why you do these things for that young monster. Will you tell me why?"
"In the first place, she is not a monster, and I will not have you say such things, Rita. In the second place, I am very fond of her; and in the third, I should try to help her all I could, even if I were not fond of her."
"Because it is a duty."
"Duty?" Rita laughed, and made a pretty little grimace. "English word, ugly and stupid word! I know not its meaning. You are fond of Calibana? Then I revere less your taste, that is all. Ah! what do you make there? That cannot be; it cuts the soul!"
She took the hat hastily from Margaret's hand. Had the latter been a little overclumsy on purpose? Certainly her dimple deepened a little as she relinquished the forlorn object. Rita held it on her finger and twirled it around.
"The fire is really the only place for it," she said again; "but if it must be preserved, do you not see that the only possible thing is to turn this ribbon? It was not wet through; the other side is fresh."
She still frowned at the hat, but her fingers began to move here and there, twisting and turning in a magical way. In five minutes the hat was a different object, and Margaret gave a little cry of pleasure.
"Rita, you are a dear! Why, it looks better than it did before the wetting, ever and ever so much better! Thank you, you clever creature! I shall bring all my hats to you for treatment, and I am sure Peggy will be so much obliged when I tell her—"
"If you dare!" cried Rita. "You will do nothing of the sort, I beg, ma cousine. What I have done, was done for you; I desire neither thanks nor any other thing from La Calibana. That she remain out of my sight when possible, that she hold her tongue when we must be together,—that is all I demand. Reasonable, I hope? If not—" She shrugged her shoulders and began to hum a love-song.
Margaret sighed. "If you could only see, my dear," she began gently, "how much happier we should all be, if you and Peggy could only make up your minds to make the best of it—"
"The best!" cried Rita, flashing into another mood, and coming to hover over her quiet cousin like a bird of paradise. "Do I not make the best? You are the best, Marguerite. I make all I can of you—except a milliner; never could I do that."
"Listen!" she added, dropping on the floor by Margaret's side. "You see me happy to-day, do you not? I do not frown or pout,—I can't see why I should not, when I feel black,—but to-day is a white day. And why? Can you guess?"
Margaret shook her head discreetly.
"I cannot do more than guess," she said, "but you seemed very much pleased with the letter that came this morning."
Rita flung her arms round her. "Aha!" she cried. "We perceive! We drop our dove's eyes; we look more demure than any mouse, but we perceive! Ah! Marguerite, behold me about to give you the strongest proof of my love: I confide in you."
She drew a bulky letter from her pocket. Margaret looked at it apprehensively, fearing she knew not what.
"From my friend," Rita explained, spreading the sheets of thin blue paper, crossed and recrossed, on her lap; "my Conchita, the other half of my soul. You shall hear part of it, Marguerite, but other parts are too sacred. She begins so beautifully: 'Mi alma'—but you have no Spanish yet; the pity, to turn it into cold English! 'My soul' has a foolish sound. 'Saint Rosalie, Saint Eulalie, and the blessed Saint Teresa, have you in their holy keeping! I live the life of a withered leaf without you; my soul flies like a mourning bird to your frozen North, where you are immured'—oh, it doesn't sound a bit right! I cannot read it in English." Indeed, Margaret thought it sounded too silly for her beloved language, but she said nothing, only giving a glance of sympathetic interest.
"She tells me of all they are doing," Rita went on. "All day they sit in the closed rooms, as the sun is too hot for going out; but in the evening they drive, and Conchita has been allowed to ride on horseback. Fancy, what bliss! Fernando was with her!"
Rita stopped suddenly, and Margaret, feeling that she must say something, echoed, "Fernando?"
"Her brother," said Rita, and she cast down her eyes. "Also a friend of mine,—a cousin on my mother's side; the handsomest person in Havana, the most enchanting, the most distinguished! He sends me messages,—no matter about those; but think of this: he is leaving Havana, he is coming to New York, he will be in this country! Marguerite! think of it!"
"What shall I think of it?" asked Margaret, raising her eyes to her cousin's; the gray eyes were cool and tranquil, but the dark ones were full of fire and light.
"Is he a friend of your father's, too, Rita?"
Rita's face darkened. "My father!" she cried impatiently. "My father is a knight of the middle ages; he demands the stiff behaviour of fifty in a youth of twenty-one. He, who has forgotten what youth is!" She was silent for a moment, but the shadow remained on her beautiful face.
"After all, it is no matter," she said, rising abruptly; "I was mistaken, Marguerite. The letter is for me alone; you would not care for it,—perhaps not understand it. You, too, have the cold Northern blood. Forget what I have said."
"Oh, but, my dear," cried Margaret, fearful of losing her slight hold on this creature of moods, "don't be so unkind! I want to know why they must sit in the house all day, and what they do from morning till night. I have always longed to know about the life you live at home. Be good now, wild bird, and perch again."
Rita wavered, but when Margaret laid her cool, firm hand on hers, she sank down again, though she still looked dissatisfied.
"We sit in the house," she said, "of course, in the heats,—what else could we do? Only at night is it possible to go out. No, we do not read much. It is too hot to read, and Cuban women do not care for books; oh, a romance now and then; but for great, horrible books like those you raffole about downstairs there,—" she shook her shoulders as if shaking off a heavy weight. "We sew a great deal, embroider, do lace-work like that you admired. Then at noon we sleep as long as possible, and in the evening we go out to walk, drive, ride. To walk in the orange-groves by moonlight,—ah! that is heaven! One night last month we slipped out, Conchita and I, and—you must never breathe this, Marguerite—and met my brother and Fernando beneath the great orange-tree in the south grove—"
"Your brother!" exclaimed Margaret. "You never told me you had a brother, Rita!"
"Hush! I have so much the habit of silence about him. He is with the army. My father is a Spaniard. Carlos and I are Cubans." Her eyes flashed, and she looked like the spirit of battle.
"My father will not hear him named!" she cried. "He would have Cuba continue a slave, she, who will be the queen and goddess of the sea when the war is over! Ah, Marguerite! my heart is on flame when I speak of my country. Well,—we met them there. They are both with the army, the insurgents, as the Spaniards call them. We walked up and down. The orange-blossoms were so sweet, the fragrance hung like clouds in the air. I had a lace mantilla over my head,—I will show it to you one day. We talked of Cuba libre, and they told us how they live there in the mountains. Ah! if a girl could fight, would I be here? No; a sword should be by my side, a plume in my hat, and I would be with Carlos and Fernando in the mountains. Well,—ah, the bad part is to come! Carlos had been wounded; his arm was in a sling. Folly, to make it of a white handkerchief! The senora—my father's wife—must have seen it shining among the trees; we know it must have been that, for we girls wore black dresses of purpose,—a woman thinks of what a man never dreams of. She called my father; he came out, raging. We had a fine scene. Burning words passed between my father and Carlos. They vowed never to see each other more. They went, and Conchita and I go fainting, dying, into the house. Three days after comes my uncle's letter,—behold me here! Marguerite, this is my story. Preserve it in your bosom, it is a sacred confidence."
Margaret hardly knew whether she were in real life, or in a theatre. Rita's voice, though low, vibrated with passion; her eyes were liquid fire; her little hands clenched themselves, and she drew her breath in through her closed teeth with a savage sound. Then, suddenly, all was changed. She flung her arms apart, and burst into laughter.
"Your face!" she cried. "Marguerite, your face! what a study of horror! You, cool stream, flowing over white sands, you have never seen a rapid, how much less a torrent. You, do you know what life is? My faith, I think not! I frighten you, my cousin."
Margaret was indeed troubled as well as absorbed in all she had heard. What a volcano this girl was! What might she not do or say, in some moment of passion? This was all new to Margaret; her life had been so sheltered, a quiet stream indeed, till her father's death the year before. She had known few girls save her schoolmates, for the most part quiet, studious girls like herself. She had lived a great deal in books, and knew far more about Spain in the sixteenth century than Cuba in the nineteenth. What should she do? How should she learn to curb and help these two restless spirits, so different, yet both turning to her and flying in detestation from each other?
Pondering thus, she made no reply for a moment; but Rita was in no mood to endure silence.
"Statue!" she cried. "Thing of marble! I pour out my soul to you, and you have no words for me! And we have been here a week, a mortal, suffering week, and I know nothing of your life, your thought. Tell me, you, how you have lived, before you came here. I frighten you, I see it; try now if you can tame me."
She laughed again, and shook all her pretty ribbons and frills. Every day she dressed as if for a fete, and took a mournful pleasure in reflecting how her toilets were all wasted.
"How did I live?" said Margaret vaguely. "Oh, very quietly, Rita. So quietly, I don't think you would care to hear about my days."
"I burn to hear!" cried Rita. "I perish! Continue, Marguerite."
"I lived with my dear father." Margaret spoke slowly and reluctantly. Her memories were so precious, she could not bear to drag them out, and expose them to curious, perhaps unloving, eyes.
"Our house was in Blankton, a tiny little house, just big enough for Father and me; my mother died, you know, a good many years ago, and Father and I have been always together. He wrote a great deal,—historical work,—and I helped him, and wrote for him, and read with him. Then—oh, I went to school, of course, and we walked every afternoon, and in the evening Father read aloud while I worked, and I played and sang for him. You see, Rita, there really is not much to tell."
Not much! yet in the telling, the girl felt her heart beat high and painfully, and the sobs rise in her throat, as the dear, happy, peaceful days came back to her; the blessed home life, the love which hedged her in so that no rough wind should blow on her, the wise, kindly, loving companionship of him who had been father and mother both to her. The tears came to her eyes, and she was silent, feeling that she could not speak for the moment. Rita was thoughtful, too, and when she spoke again, it was in a softened tone.
"I can picture it!" she said. "It is a picture without colour; I could not have borne such a life; but for you, Marguerite, so tranquil, demanding so little, with peace in your soul, it must have been sweet. And now,—after this summer here, only not horrible because in it I learn to know my dear Marguerite,—after this summer, what do you do? what is your life?"
"I hope to get a position as teacher," said Margaret. "Then, when I have earned something, I shall go to the Library School, and learn to be a librarian; that has been my dream for a long time."
"Your nightmare!" cried Rita. "What dreadful things even to think about, Marguerite! But it shall not be; never, I tell you! You shall come back with me to Cuba, and be my sister. I have money—oceans, I believe; more than I can spend, try as I will. You shall live with me; we will buy a plantation, orange-groves, sugar-cane,—you shall study cultivation, I will ride about the plantation—"
"By moonlight?" asked Marguerite mischievously.
"Always by moonlight!" cried Rita. "It shall be always moonlight! Carlos shall be our intendant, and Fernando—"
"I think Fernando would much better stay in the mountains!" said Margaret decidedly.
It was a great relief to Margaret to carry her perplexities to Aunt Faith and talk them over. Mrs. Cheriton's mind and sympathies were as quick and alert as if she were still a young woman, instead of being near the rounding of the completed century. She listened with kindly interest, and her wise and tender words cleared away many of the cobwebs of anxiety that beset Margaret's sky.
"Let patience have her perfect work!" she was fond of saying. "Neither of these children is to be led by precept, I think. Make your own ways, ways of pleasantness as well as paths of peace, and soon or late they will fall into them. You cannot expect to do much in a week, or two weeks, or three weeks. Or it may be," she would add, "that you are not to do it after all; it may be that other things and persons will be called in. The ordering is wise, but we cannot often understand it, for it is written in cipher. Do you only the best you can, my child, and keep your own head steady, and you will find the others settling into harness before long."
"It distresses me," Margaret said, "to have Rita so rude to the servants. I cannot speak to her about that, I suppose; but it is really too bad. Elizabeth is so sensible, I am sure she understands how it all is; but—well, the gardener, Aunt Faith! John Strong! Why, any one can see that he is an uncommon man; not the least an ordinary labouring man. Do you know how much he knows?"
Mrs. Cheriton nodded. "John Strong is a very remarkable man," she said; "you are right there, Margaret. And Rita is uncivil to him? Do you know, I should not trouble myself about that if I were you. If Elizabeth can understand that Rita has been brought up without learning any respect for the dignity of labour, John Strong will understand it twice as well, for he has more than twice the intelligence."
"Thank you, Aunt Faith! You are so comforting! He—he has been here a long time, has he not? I should think my uncle must have great confidence in him; and he has such beautiful manners!"
"His manners," said Mrs. Cheriton emphatically, "are perfect." Then she said, changing the subject rather hastily, "And where are the two other girls to-day, my dear? They do not incline to come to me often, I perceive. It is not strange; many very young people dislike the sight of extreme age; you have been taught differently, my dear,—Roger Montfort was always a thoughtful, sensible lad, like John. No, I do not blame them in the least for keeping away, but I like to know what they are doing."
"I—I don't really know, just now," and Margaret hung her head a little; "Peggy wanted me to go to walk with her an hour or so ago, but I was just reading a book that Papa had always told me about,—'The Fool of Quality,' you know it?—and I did not want to leave it. I ought to have gone; I will go now, and see where they both are. Dear Aunt Faith, thank you so much for letting me come and talk to you; you can't think what a relief it is when I am puzzled."
The old lady's sweet smile lingered like a benediction with Margaret, as she went back to the main house, carefully closing the door that shut off the white rooms. Surely she had been selfish to stay indoors with a book, instead of going out with her cousin; but oh, the book understood her so much better, and was so much more companionable! Now, however, she would be good, and would go and see what both the cousins were doing. They were not together, of course; Rita was very likely asleep at this hour; but Peggy, what had Peggy been doing?
What had Peggy been doing?
She had sauntered out rather disconsolately, on Margaret's refusing to accompany her. She was so used to being one of a large, shouting, struggling family, that she felt, perhaps more than any of the three girls, the retirement and quiet of Fernley. She wanted to run and scream and make a noise, but there was no fun in doing it alone. If Jean were only here!
She went through the garden, and found some consolation in a talk with John Strong, who, always the pink of courtesy, leaned on his hoe, and told her many valuable things concerning the late planting. Her questions were shrewd and intelligent, for Peggy had not lived on a farm for nothing, and she already knew more about the possibilities of Fernley than Margaret or Rita would learn in a year.
"Where shall I go for a walk?" she asked, when John Strong showed signs of thinking about his work again. "I hate to go alone, but no one would come with me. I have been over the hill and into the oak woods. What is another nice way to go, where there will be strawberries?"
John Strong considered. "About two miles from here, miss, you'll find a very pretty strawberry patch. Go through the oak woods and along beside the bog; but be careful not to step into the bog itself, for it is a treacherous bit."
"What kind of a bog? Why don't you drain it?" asked Peggy.
"It is a peat-bog," returned the gardener. "It would be a very costly matter to drain it, but I believe Mr. Montfort is thinking of it, miss. A short way beyond the woods you'll come upon the strawberry meadow; it is the best I know of hereabouts. Good morning, miss."
Off went Peggy, swinging her hat by the ribbon, a loop of which was coming off, and thinking of home and of Jean, her most intimate sister. She loved Margaret dearly already, but one had always to be on one's good behaviour with her, she was so good herself. Oh, how delightful it would be to have Jean here, and to have a race through the woods, and then a good, jolly romp, and perhaps a "spat," before they settled down to the business of strawberry-picking! She could have spats enough with that horrid, spiteful Cuban girl, but there was no fun in those; just cold, sneering hatefulness. Thinking of her cousin Rita, Peggy gave her hat a twist and a fling, and sent it flying across the green meadow on which she was now entering.
"There!" she said, "I just wish that was you, Miss Rita,—I do! I wouldn't help you up, either."
Then, rather ashamed of her outburst, she went to pick up the hat again; but, setting foot on the edge of the green meadow, she drew it back hastily.
"Aha!" said Peggy. "The peat-bog! Now I've been and gone and done it!"
She whistled, a long, clear whistle that would have done credit to any one of her brothers, and gazed ruefully at the hat, which lay out of reach, resting quietly on the smooth emerald velvet of the quaking bog.
"Oh, bother! Now I suppose I shall have to fish the old thing out. It will never look fit to be seen again, and Margaret retrimmed it only the other day. Well, here goes!"
Looking about carefully, Peggy pulled a long bulrush from a clump that grew at the side of the bog. Then she walked along the edge, skirting with care the deceitful green that looked so fair and lovely, till she came to where a slender birch hung its long drooping branches out over the bog. Clinging to one of these branches, Peggy leaned forward as far as she dared, and began to angle for her hat. "He rises well," she muttered, "but he doesn't bite worth a cent."
Twice she succeeded in working the end of the bulrush through the loop of ribbon that perked cheerfully on the top of the hat; twice the loop slipped off as she raised it, and the hat dropped back. The third time, however, was successful, and the skilful angler had the satisfaction of drawing the hat toward her, and finally rescuing it from its perilous position. Not all of it, however; the flower, the yellow rose, once Peggy's pride and joy, had become loosened during the various unaccustomed motions of its parent hat, and now lay, lonely and lovely, a golden spot on the bright green grass. Peggy fished again, but this time in vain; and finally she was obliged to give it up, and go off flowerless in search of her strawberries.
Meanwhile, Margaret had been searching high and low for Peggy. John Strong could have told her where she was, but he had gone to a distant part of the farm, and no one had seen the two talking together.
"A search for Calibana?" said Rita, when her cousin inquired for the wanderer. "My faith, why? If she can remain hidden for a time, Marguerite, consider the boon it would be!"
But Margaret turned from her impatiently, seeing which, Rita was jealous, and said, "I had hoped you would take a walk with me, ma cousine. I perish for air! I cannot go alone through these places,—I might meet a dog."
Margaret could not help laughing.
"I think you might," she said. "And what then?"
"I should die!" said Rita simply. Then, linking her arm in her cousin's with her most caressing gesture, she said, "Come with me, alma mia. We walk,—very likely we find La Calibana on our way. She cannot have strayed far, it is too near dinner-time; and she has a clock inside her; you know it well, Marguerite."
Margaret could not refuse the offered company, and they set out in the same direction that Peggy had taken. Margaret had been in the oak woods several times with Peggy, and thought she might very likely find her there; but no one answered her call; only the trees rustled, and the hermit-thrush called in answer, deep in some thicket far away. Presently, as they walked, there shot through the dark oak branches a sunny gleam, a flash of green and gold. They pressed forward, and in another moment stood on the edge of the quaking bog. But they had not been warned; neither had they Peggy's practised eye, which would have told her even without the warning that this was no safe place.
"Oh, what a lovely meadow!" cried Margaret. "I always wondered what lay beyond these woods, but have never come so far before. Shall we cross it, Rita? or does it look a little damp, do you think?"
"It may be damp," said Rita indifferently. "I care not for damp, tres chere. Let us cross, by all means. And look! see the golden flower; what can it be?"
"I don't know, I am sure!" said Margaret, gazing innocently at the yellow muslin rose which had been under her hands only the day before. "It looks—I don't know what it looks like, Rita. But I am afraid the grass is very wet. Don't you see the wet shining through?"
"Pouf!" said Rita. "Wait thou here, faint heart, while I bring the flower; that, at least, I must do, even if we go no further."
She stepped over the grass so lightly and quickly that she had gone some steps before her feet began to sink in the black, oozy bog. Margaret saw the water bubbling up behind her, and cried to her in alarm to come back; and Rita, finding the earth plucking at her feet, turned willingly toward the solid ground; but return was impossible. She tried to lift her feet, but the bog held them fast, and with the effort, she felt herself sinking, slowly but surely.
"Ah," she cried, "it is bad ground! It is a pit, Marguerite! Do not move, do not come near me! Run and get help!" For Margaret was already stepping forward with outstretched hands.
"Stop where you are!" cried Rita imperiously. "Do you not see that if you come in, we are both lost? I tell you there is no ground here, no bottom! I sink, I feel it sucking me down, down! Ah, Madre! go, Marguerite, fly for help!"
Poor Margaret turned in distraction. Whither should she fly? They were more than a mile from home. How could she leave her cousin in this dreadful plight? Before help could come, she might be lost indeed, drawn bodily under by the treacherous ooze. She turned away, but came running back suddenly, for she heard a sound coming from the opposite direction, a cheerful whistle.
"Oh, Rita!" she cried; "help is near. I hear some one whistling, a boy or a man. Oh, help! help! Come this way, please!"
The whistle changed to a cry of surprise, uttered in a familiar voice. The next minute, Peggy came running through the wood, her hands and face red with strawberry juice.
Margaret could only gasp, and point to Rita, for her heart seemed to die within her when she saw that the newcomer was only a girl like herself,—only poor, awkward Peggy.
They were no better off than before, save that now one could go for help, while the other could stay to cheer poor Rita. Rita was now deadly white; she had ceased to call. The black ooze had crept to her knees, and she no longer made any effort to extricate herself. Margaret was turning to run again, but Peggy stopped her. "Stand still!" she said. "I'll get her out."
Ah, poor, awkward, ill-dressed Peggy, your hour has come now! Not for nothing were you brought up on a prairie, your eyes trained to quickness, your arms strong as steel, your wits ever on the alert where there is danger! Poor Peggy, this is your hour, and the haughty beauty and the gentle student must own you their superior.
Peggy cast a keen glance around; she was looking for something. Spying a stout stake that had been broken off and was lying on the ground, she caught it up, and the next moment had thrown herself flat on her face. Lying flat, she began slowly and cautiously to wriggle out across the surface of the quaking bog. The black water seethed and bubbled under her; but her weight, evenly distributed, did not bear on any one spot heavily enough to press her down. Slowly, carefully, she worked her way out, while the other girls held their breath and dared not speak. Once, indeed, Rita moaned, and cried, "No, no, one is enough! Go back! I cannot let you come!"
But Margaret had seen that in Peggy's eyes and mien which kept her silent. She stood trembling, with clasped hands, praying for both. She could do no more.
"Lie down now, Rita!" Peggy commanded. "Lie flat, just as I am! Stretch out your arms,—so! Now, catch hold!"
Rita obeyed to the point. It was terrible to lie down in that awful black slough that was to be her grave, perhaps, but she obeyed without a word. Stretching her arms as far as they would go, she touched the end of the stake,—touched, grasped, held fast; and now Peggy, still holding fast to her end, began to wriggle back, slowly, cautiously, moving by inches.
"Kneel down on the edge, Margaret!" she said; "don't come over, but reach out and give us a haul in when you can touch. It's getting pretty deep here!"
Margaret knelt and reached out her arms; could she touch them? Peggy was sinking now, but she still moved backward, dragging Rita with her; they were close by,—she had hold of Peggy's skirt. The stout gathers held,—which was a miracle, Peggy said afterward,—and the next moment all three girls were sitting on the safe, dry ground, crying and holding each other tight.
THE FAMILY CHEST.
Little was said on the homeward walk. Rita walked between her two cousins, holding fast a hand of each. She seemed hardly conscious of their presence, however; she sobbed occasionally, dry, tearless sobs, and murmured Spanish words to herself. Margaret caught the word "Madre!" repeated over and over, and pressed her cousin's hand, and spoke soothing words; but Rita did not heed her. Peggy walked quickly, head in air, cheeks glowing, and eyes shining. All the awkwardness, the hanging head and furtive air, was gone, and Margaret looked at her in wonder and admiration. But both girls were a piteous sight as regarded their clothes. From head to foot they dripped with black mud, thick and slimy. Peggy's dress gave no hint of the original colour in the entire front, and Rita's was little better. Their very faces were bedabbled with black, and they left a black trail behind them on the grass. In this guise they met the astonished gaze of John Strong as he passed through the garden on his way to the seed-house. He came hurrying toward them with anxious looks.
"My dear children," he cried, "what has happened?" Then, in a different tone, "I beg your pardon, young ladies! I was startled at seeing you,—there has been some accident?"
But Rita was herself again now in an instant. Her eyes blazed with angry pride.
"Keep your place, John Strong!" she said haughtily. "When we address you, it will be time for you to speak to us." She swept past him into the house, her superb bearing presenting a singular contrast to her attire; and Peggy followed her, already beginning to giggle and look foolish again. But Margaret lingered, distressed and mortified.
"Oh, John," she said, "there has been an accident! You will understand,—Miss Rita got into that terrible bog, and might have been drowned there before my eyes, if Miss Peggy had not come by, and drawn her out so cleverly." And she told him the whole story, dwelling warmly upon Peggy's courage and presence of mind, and blaming herself for not having perceived the danger in time.
"It is I who am to blame, Miss Margaret!" said John Strong. "Very, very much to blame. Every one about here knows that peat-bog, and avoids it; I had warned Miss Peggy, but did not think of your going so far in that direction. I am very much to blame."
He seemed so much disturbed that Margaret tried to speak more lightly, though she was still pale and trembling; but the gardener kindly begged her to go in and rest, and she was glad enough to go.
John Strong stood looking after her a moment.
"I ought to be shot!" he said to himself. "And that is the lassie for me! Good stuff in both the others, as I supposed, but this is the one for me." And shaking his head, he went slowly on his way.
Margaret went straight to Peggy's room, but found it empty, and passing by Rita's found the door shut, and heard voices within. She paused a moment, wondering. Should she go in? No; she remembered Mrs. Cheriton's words, "It may be that you are not to do it, after all," and she went into her own room and shut the door.
It might have been half an hour after that she heard a whispering in the hall outside, and then a knock at her door. She ran to open it, and stood amazed. There was Peggy, blushing and smiling, looking as pleased as a little child, arrayed in the rose-coloured tea-gown whose existence she had endangered on the night of her arrival; and there beside her, holding her hand, was Rita, in pale blue and swansdown,—Rita, also smiling, but with the mockery for once gone from eyes and mouth, and with traces of tears on her beautiful face. She now led Peggy forward, and presented her formally to Margaret, with a sweeping courtesy.
"Miss Montfort," she began, "this is my sister. I desire for her the honour and privilege of your distinguished acquaintance. She kisses your hands and feet, as do I myself."
Then suddenly she threw herself upon Margaret's neck, still holding Peggy's hand, so that all three were wrapped in one embrace.
"Marguerite," she cried, "behold this child! I have been a brute to her, you know it well—" and Margaret certainly did. "A brute, a devil-fish, what you will! and she—she has saved my life! You saw it, you heard it; another moment, and I should have gone—" she shuddered. "I cannot speak of it. But now, Marguerite, hear me swear!"
"Oh my!" ejaculated Peggy, in some alarm.
"Hear me swear!" repeated Rita passionately; "from this moment Peggy is my sister. You are not jealous, no? You are also my own soul, but you are sufficient to yourself; what do you need, piece of Northern perfection that you are? Peggy needs me; I take her, I care for her, I form her! so shall it be!" And once more she embraced both cousins warmly.
Margaret's eyes filled with happy tears.
"Dear Peggy! Dear Rita!" was all she could say at first, as she returned their embraces. Then she made them come in and sit down, and looked from one to the other. "It is so good!" she cried. "Oh, so good! You can't imagine, girls, how I have longed for this! It did seem so dreadful that you should not have the pleasure of each other—but we will not speak of that any more! No! and we will bless the black bog for bringing you together."
But Rita shuddered again, and begged that she might never hear of the bog again.
"Do you observe Peggy's hair?" she asked. "What do you think of it?"
The fair hair was brought smoothly up over the well-shaped head, and wound in a pretty, fluffy Psyche knot. The effect was charming in one way, but—
"It makes her look too grown-up," Margaret protested. "It is very pretty, but I want her to be a little girl as long as she can. You don't want to be a young lady yet, do you, Peggy?"
"Oh, no!" cried Peggy. "Indeed I don't! But Rita thought—"
"Rita thought!" cried that young lady, nodding her head sagely. "Rita thought wrong, as usual, and Margaret thought right. It is too old; but what of that? We will try another style. Ten, twenty ways of dressing hair I know. Often and often Conchita and I have spent a whole day dressing each other's hair, trying this effect, that effect. Ah, the superb hair that Conchita has; it sweeps the floor,—and soft—ah, as a bat's wool!"
A few hours ago, Peggy would have sniffed scornfully at all this; but now she listened with interest, and something of awe, as her beautiful cousin discoursed of braids and puffs, and told of the extraordinary effect that might sometimes be produced by a single small curl set at the proper curve of the neck. It sounded pretty frivolous, to be sure, but then, Rita looked so earnest and so lovely, and it was so new and delightful to be addressed by her as an equal,—and a beloved equal at that; Peggy's little head was in evident danger of being turned by the new position of affairs.
Margaret, feeling that there were limits, even to the subject of hairdressing, presently proposed a visit to Aunt Faith, and for once neither cousin made any objection. Peggy was mortally afraid of the white old lady, and Rita said frankly that she did not like old people, and saw no reason why she should put herself out, simply because her uncle, whom she had never seen, had chosen to saddle himself with the burden of a centenarian. But to-day, Rita was shaken and softened out of all her waywardness, and she readily admitted the propriety of telling Mrs. Cheriton what had happened.
Aunt Faith listened with deep interest, and was as shocked and distressed as heart could desire. The peat-bog, she told them, did not belong to their uncle; he had in vain tried to buy the land, in order that he might drain or fence it, but the proprietor refused to sell it. There was a terrible story, she said, of a man's being lost there, many years ago; it was a dreadful place.
Then, seeing Rita shudder again, she changed the subject, and spoke of the charming contrast of the pale blue and rose-colour, in the two girls' dresses. "The pink suits you well, little Peggy," she said. "I have not seen you in a delicate colour before."
"This isn't mine," said honest Peggy; "it is Rita's—" but Rita laid her hand over her mouth.
"It is hers!" she said; "a nothing! a tea-gown of last year! One is ashamed to offer such a thing, not fit to scour floors in—"
"Certainly not!" said Mrs. Cheriton, laughing. "Ah, Rita! you have the Spanish ways, I see. I have heard nothing of that sort since I was in Spain sixty years ago."
"What, you have been in Spain!" cried Rita, with animation. "Ah, I did not know! Please tell us about it."
"Another time. You would like to hear, I think, about the winter I spent in Granada, close by the Alhambra. But now I have something else to say. Your pretty dresses remind me that there is a chest of old gowns here that it might interest you to look over. Some of them are quite old, two hundred years or more."
Then, while the girls uttered cries of delight, she called Janet and bade her open the cedar chest in the next room.
"This way, my dears!" and she led the way into a bedroom, as white and fresh and dainty as the sitting-room. Janet was already on her knees before a deep chest, quaintly carved, and clamped with brass. Now, at her mistress's request, she began to lift out the contents.
"Oh! oh! oh!" cried the three girls, positively squeaking with rapture and wonderment. The old lady looked from them to the dresses with a pleased smile. "They are handsome!" she said.
And they were! They must have been stately dames indeed, the Montfort ladies who wore these splendid clothes! Here was a crimson damask, so heavily embroidered in silver that it stood alone when Janet set it up on the floor; here, again, a velvet, somewhat rubbed by long lying in the chest, but of so rich and glowing a purple that only a queen could have found it becoming. Here were satins that gleamed like falling water; one, of the faint, moonlight tint that we call aqua-marine, another with a rosy glow like a reflected sunset. And the peach-coloured silk! and the blue and silver brocade! and the amber velvet!
Before the bottom of the chest was reached, the girls were silent, having exhausted their stock of words.
At last Margaret cried, "Who were these people, Aunt Faith? Were they princesses, or runaway Indian begums, or what? They certainly cannot have been simple gentlewomen!"
Mrs. Cheriton laughed her soft, rustling laugh.
"It is a curious old Montfort custom," she said; "it has come down through many generations, I believe. The women have had the habit of keeping the handsomest gown they had, or one connected with some special great event, and laying it in this old chest. Some of them are wedding-gowns,—those two satins, for example, and that white brocade with the tiny rosebuds,—that was your Grandmother Montfort's wedding-gown, my dears, and she looked like a rose in it; I was bridesmaid at her wedding. But others,—ah! hand me the blue and silver brocade, Janet! Yes, here is an inscription that will, I think, amuse you, my children. This was my own mother's contribution to the family chest."
She beckoned the girls to look, and they bent eagerly forward. Under the rich lace in the neck of the splendid brocade, a piece of paper was neatly stitched, and on the paper was written: "This Gown was worne at Madam Washington's Ball. I danced with Gen. Washington, the Court Minuet, and he praised my dancing. Afterwards the Gen. spilled Wine uppon the Front Peece, but I put French Chalks to it, and now the Spotte may hardly be Seen."
"Oh," sighed Margaret, "how enchanting! how perfectly delightful! Are they all marked, Aunt Faith?"
"Not all, but a good many of them. See! Here is something on this sea-green cloak; notice the sleeves, Rita: they are something in the Spanish style, as it was in my youth. Let us see what is written here, for I forget."
They bent over the yellow writing; in this case it was pinned on the hanging sleeve, and read as follows: "This Cloak, with the flowered satin Gown, was worn by me, Henrietta Montfort, the last time I went to a worldly Assemblage. I lay them away, having entered upon a Life of Retirement and Meditation since the Death of my deere Husband. Mem. The Cloake was lined with Sabels, which I have removed, lest Moth and Rust do corrupt, and have made them into Muffs for the Poor."
"I believe she became a great saint," said Mrs. Cheriton, "and a very severe one. I have heard that in the coldest winter weather she would not let her servants build fires on Sunday because she did not consider it a necessary work. There is a story that one bitter cold Sunday some one came to call, and found the whole family in bed, servants and all, trying to keep warm. I know they never had any warm victuals on that day."
"How pleasant to live now," said Margaret, "instead of then! Aren't you glad, girls?"
"My faith!" said Rita, "I would have made a fire with the house, and burned her in it; then I should have been warm. But what is this, Aunt Faith? If I am truly to call you so, yes? What horror is this? Look at the beautiful satin, all destroyed! Cut!—it is cut with knives, Marguerite! Look!"
Janet held up a white satin gown, of quaint and graceful fashion. Sure enough, it was cut and slashed in every direction, the sleeves hanging in ribbons, the skirt slit and gashed down its entire length. Mrs. Cheriton shook her head in answer to the girls' looks of amazement and inquiry.
"I am sorry you saw that, Rita!" she said. "It recalls a sad story, which might better be forgotten. However—well, that gown belonged to my poor Aunt Penelope. She was a beautiful girl, but headstrong, and she married, against her parents' wishes, a handsome, good-for-nothing man, who made her desperately unhappy, and finally left her. She lost her mind, poor soul, from sorrow and suffering. When her father brought her home to Fernley, she took this, her wedding-gown, and cut it up in this strange fashion that you see, and laid it so in the chest; as a warning, she told her mother. She died very soon after her return; poor Aunt Penelope!"
She signed to Janet to lay the tattered gown back; and it seemed to the girls as if the poor lady herself were being laid back in her coffin to rest after her troubled life.
"Does—does she walk?" asked Peggy, in an awestruck voice.
"Walk?" repeated Mrs. Cheriton. "I don't—oh, yes! her ghost, you mean, Peggy? No, my dear. I fancy she was too tired to think of anything but resting. There is only one Montfort ghost that I ever heard of, and that one is not a woman's."
"Oh, tell us! Tell us, please!" cried all three girls eagerly. "A real ghost? How thrilling!"
"I did not say it was a real ghost, you impetuous children. I do not believe in ghosts myself, and I never saw this one. But people used to think that the spirit of Hugo Montfort haunted one of the rooms. He died suddenly, in great trouble about some family papers that had been lost, and the family tradition is that he comes back from time to time to hunt once more through desks and drawers, in hope of finding them. He has never done so, I believe; but then, he has never been here since I came to Fernley. Your Uncle John is no ghost-lover, any more than I am, and I fear poor Hugo may feel the lack of sympathy. And now," she added, "this is positively enough of old-time gossip. I do not know when I have talked so much, children; you make me young and frivolous once more."
"Oh," cried Peggy, who had listened open-mouthed to the last tale; "but just tell us what he looks like, when any one does see him. I have wanted all my life to be where there was a ghost. Is he—is he in white?"
"Oh, dear, no! Hugo Montfort is no hobgoblin ghost in a white sheet, with a pumpkin head! He was a very elegant gentleman in his time, and I believe his favorite wear is black velvet. By the way, his portrait is in the long gallery upstairs. Have you been there, my dears? There are some curious old portraits. And there is the garret; you have surely visited the garret?"
But the girls had not, they confessed. There had been so much to do, the days had gone so rapidly. Margaret alone realised, and she perhaps for the first time, how little they had really seen of the house itself. There was so much to see out of doors, and when indoors she was always drawn irresistibly to the library and its entrancing folios and quartos. Peggy had, one rainy day, proposed to "see if there wasn't a garret or some place where they could have some fun." But Margaret, as she now remembered with a pang, had just discovered the "Hakluyt Chronicles," and was conscious of nothing in the world save the volume before her, and the longing wish for her father to enjoy it with her.
"We will go this very afternoon!" she cried, with animation. "Is it unlocked? May we roam about wherever we like, Aunt Faith? It sounds like Bluebeard! Are there no doors that we may not open?"
"None among those that you will see there," said Mrs. Cheriton. And Margaret fancied that she looked grave for a moment. "You will find more trunks there," she added quickly, "full of old trumpery, less valuable than these dresses, and which you may like to amuse yourselves with. Here are the keys of some of them—the wig trunk, the military trunk; yes, I think you may be sure of an afternoon's amusement if you are as fond of dressing up as I was at your age. Now we must say good-bye, my dear children; Janet is shaking her head at me, and it is true that I must not talk too long."
She kissed them all affectionately, and they sped away, Margaret only lingering to look back with one parting glance at the beautiful old figure in its white chair.
"The garret! the garret!" cried Rita. "Hurrah!" shouted Peggy. And they flew up the stairs like swallows.
On the wide landing of the second story, the girls paused to draw breath and look about them. The long gallery ran around three sides of the house, with the stairs forming the fourth. It was hung with pictures, save where two or three doors broke the wall-space. Singular pictures they were, mostly family portraits, it was evident. Some of them were very good, though the gems of the collection, the Copleys and Stuarts, and the precious Sir Joshua Reynolds, were in the drawing-rooms below. The girls ran from one to the other, and great was their delight to recognise here and there one of the very gowns they had been admiring in the Family Chest.