White Lilac, by Amy Walton ___________ Mrs White had had several children before the birth of this one, but they had all died. This makes her quite determined to make sure that this one survives. She was telling a visitor that she thought of calling the baby Annie, in honour of the visitor, but she had just been saying how much she loved white lilacs, and her husband had brought a branch of it over from a nearby village. So the visitor said, call her Lilac White, as there were already too many Annie Whites in the village. Unfortunately the father dies shortly after, and the mother has to bring the child up on her own.
Now she is twelve, and a pretty child. A visiting artist asks if he may put her in one of his pictures. Lilac goes off with her cousin Agnetta, who believes she needs a new hair-do. Needless to say, the result is not attractive to the artist, who now refuses to put her in the picture.
Other characters in the story are Uncle Joshua, who is a good and well-loved man, and Peter, probably in his late teens, who is a farm worker, well-intentioned but clumsy. A big event in the village is May Day, and there is rivalry among the girls about which of them shall be Queen of the May. It is Lilac. Yet that very day her mother is taken ill and dies. She is taken to their home by a farmer and his wife, and taught the dairymaid arts such as butter and cheese making. In those days a girl such as Lilac would hope to be taken into domestic service and trained up to such high levels as house-keeper or cook. Lilac has some opportunities—will she or won't she take them up? A lovely book that takes us back to long-gone days in the pastoral England of the 1850s. NH ___________
WHITE LILAC, BY AMY WALTON
A BUNCH OF LILAC.
"What's in a name?"—Shakespeare.
Mrs James White stood at her cottage door casting anxious glances up at the sky, and down the hill towards the village. If it were fine the rector's wife had promised to come and see the baby, "and certainly," thought Mrs White, shading her eyes with her hand, "you might call it fine—for April." There were sharp showers now and then, to be sure, but the sun shone between whiles, and sudden rays darted through her little window strong enough to light up the whole room. Their searching glances disclosed nothing she was ashamed of, for they showed that the kitchen was neat and well ordered, with bits of good substantial furniture in it, such as a long-bodied clock, table, and dresser of dark oak. These polished surfaces smiled back again cheerfully as the light touched them, and the row of pewter plates on the high mantelshelf glistened so brightly that they were as good as so many little mirrors. But beside these useful objects the sunlight found out two other things in the room, at which it pointed its bright finger with special interest. One of these was a large bunch of pure white lilac which stood on the window sill in a brown mug, and the other was a wicker cradle in which lay something very much covered up in blankets. After a last lingering look down the hill, where no one was in sight, Mrs White shut her door and settled herself to work, with the lilac at her elbow, and the cradle at her foot. She rocked this gently while she sewed, and turned her head now and then, when her needle wanted threading, to smell the delicate fragrance of the flowers. Her face was grave, with a patient and rather sad expression, as though her memories were not all happy ones; but by degrees, as she sat there working and rocking, some pleasant thought brought a smile to her lips and softened her eyes. This became so absorbing that presently she did not see a figure pass the window, and when a knock at the door followed, she sprang up startled to open it for her expected visitor.
"I'd most given you up, ma'am," she said as the lady entered, "but I'm very glad to see you."
It was not want of cordiality but want of breath which caused a beaming smile to be the only reply to this welcome. The hill was steep, the day was mild, and Mrs Leigh was rather stout. She at once dropped with a sigh of relief, but still smiling, into a chair, and cast a glance full of interest at the cradle, which Mrs White understood as well as words. Bending over it she peeped cautiously in amongst the folds of flannel.
"She's so fast, it's a sin to take her up, ma'am," she murmured, "but I would like you to see her."
Mrs Leigh had now recovered her power of speech. "Don't disturb her for the world," she said, "I'm not going away yet. I shall be glad to rest a little. She'll wake presently, I dare say. What is it," she continued, looking round the room, "that smells so delicious? Oh, what lovely lilac!" as her eye rested on the flowers in the window.
Mrs White had taken up her sewing again.
"I always liked the laylocks myself, ma'am," she said, "partic'ler the white ones. It were a common bush in the part I lived as a gal, but there's not much hereabouts."
"Where did you get it?" asked Mrs Leigh, leaning forward to smell the pure-white blossoms; "I thought there was only the blue in the village."
"Why, no more there is," said Mrs White with a half-ashamed smile; "but Jem, he knows I'm a bit silly over them, and he got 'em at Cuddingham t'other day. You see, the day I said I'd marry him he gave me a bunch of white laylocks—and that's ten years ago. Sitting still so much more than I'm used lately, with the baby, puts all sorts of foolishness into my head, and when you knocked just now it gave me quite a start, for the smell of the laylocks took me right back to the days when we were sweetheartin'."
"How is Jem?" asked Mrs Leigh, glancing at a gun which stood in the chimney corner.
"He's well, ma'am, thank you, but out early and home late. There's bin poaching in the woods lately, and the keepers have a lot of trouble with 'em."
"None of our people, I hope?" said the rector's wife anxiously.
"Oh dear, no, ma'am! A gipsy lot—a cruel wild set, to be sure, from what Jem says, and fight desperate."
There was a stir amongst the blankets in the cradle just then, and presently a little cry. The baby was awake. Very soon she was in Mrs Leigh's arms, who examined the tiny face with great interest, while the mother stood by, silent, but eager for the first expression of admiration.
"What a beautifully fair child!" exclaimed Mrs Leigh.
"Everyone says that as sees her," said Mrs White with quiet triumph. "She features my mother's family—they all had such wonderful white skins. But," anxiously, "you don't think she looks weakly, do you, ma'am?"
"Oh, no," answered Mrs Leigh in rather a doubtful tone. She stood up and weighed the child in her arms, moving nearer the window. "She's a little thing, but I dare say she's not the less strong for that."
"It makes me naturally a bit fearsome over her," said Mrs White; "for, as you know, ma'am, I've buried three children since we've bin here. Ne'er a one of 'em all left me. It seems when I look at this little un as how I must keep her. I don't seem as if I could let her go too."
"Oh, she'll grow up and be a comfort to you, I don't doubt," said Mrs Leigh cheerfully. "Fair-complexioned children are very often wonderfully healthy and strong. But really," she continued, looking closely at the baby's face, "I never saw such a skin in my life. Why, she's as white as milk, or snow, or a lily, or—" She paused for a comparison, and suddenly added, as her eye fell on the flowers, "or that bunch of lilac."
"You're right, ma'am," agreed Mrs White with a smile of intense gratification.
"And if I were you," continued Mrs Leigh, her good-natured face beaming all over with a happy idea, "I should call her 'Lilac'. That would be a beautiful name for her. Lilac White. Nothing could be better; it seems made for her."
Mrs White's expression changed to one of grave doubt.
"It do seem as how it would fit her," she said; "but that's not a Christian name, is it, ma'am?"
"Well, it would make it one if you had her christened so, you see."
"I was thinking of making so bold as to call her 'Annie', and to ask you to stand for her, ma'am."
"And so I will, with pleasure. But don't call her Annie; we've got so many Annies in the parish already it's quite confusing—and so many Whites too. We should have to say 'Annie White on the hill' every time we spoke of her. I'm always mixing them up as it is. Don't call her Annie, Mrs White, Lilac's far better. Ask your husband what he thinks of it."
"Oh! Jem, he'll think as I do, ma'am," said Mrs White at once; "it isn't Jem."
"Who is it, then? If you both like the name it can't matter to anyone else."
"Well, ma'am," said Mrs White hesitatingly, as she took her child from Mrs Leigh, and rocked it gently in her arms, "they'll all say down below in the village, as how it's a fancy sort of a name, and maybe when she grows up they'll laugh at her for it. I shouldn't like to feel as how I'd given her a name to be made game of."
But Mrs Leigh was much too pleased with her fancy to give it up, and she smilingly overcame this objection and all others. It was a pretty, simple, and modest-sounding name, she said, with nothing in it that could be made laughable. It was short to say, and above all it had the advantage of being uncommon; as it was, so many mothers had desired the honour of naming their daughters after the rector's wife, that the number of "Annies" was overwhelming, but there certainly would not be two "Lilac Whites" in the village. In short, as Mrs White told Jem that evening, Mrs Leigh was "that set" on the name that she had to give in to her. And so it was settled; and wonderfully soon afterwards it was rumoured in the village that Mrs James White on the hill meant to call her baby "Lilac."
This could not matter to anyone else, Mrs Leigh had said, but she was mistaken. Every mother in the parish had her opinion to offer, for there were not so many things happening, that even the very smallest could be passed over without a proper amount of discussion when neighbours met. On the whole they were not favourable opinions. It was felt that Mrs White, who had always held herself high and been severe on the follies of her friends, had now in her turn laid herself open to remark by choosing an outlandish and fanciful name for her child. Lilies, Roses, and even Violets were not unknown in Danecross, but who had ever heard of Lilac?
Mrs Greenways said so, and she had a right to speak, not only because she lived at Orchards Farm, which was the biggest in the parish, but because her husband was Mrs White's brother. She said it at all times and in all places, but chiefly at "Dimbleby's", for if you dropped in there late in the afternoon you were pretty sure to find acquaintances, eager to hear and tell news; and this was specially the case on Saturday, which was shopping day.
Dimbleby's was quite a large shop, and a very important one, for there was no other in the village; it was rather dark, partly because the roof was low-pitched, and partly because of the wonderful number and variety of articles crammed into it, so that it would have puzzled anyone to find out what Dimbleby did not sell. The air was also a little thick to breathe, for there floated in it a strange mixture, made up of unbleached calico, corduroy, smockfrocks, boots, and bacon. All these articles and many others were to be seen piled up on shelves or counters, or dangling from the low beams overhead; and, lately, there had been added to the stock a number of small clocks, stowed away out of sight. Their hasty ceaseless little voices sounded in curious contrast to the slowness of things in general at Dimbleby's: "Tick-tack, tick-tack,—Time flies, time flies", they seemed to be saying over and over again. Without effect, for at Dimbleby's time never flew; he plodded along on dull and heavy feet, and if he had wings at all he dragged them on the ground. You had only to look at the face of the master of the shop to see that speed was impossible to him, and that he was justly known as the slowest man in the parish both in speech and action. This was hardly considered a failing, however, for it had its advantages in shopping; if he was slow himself, he was quite willing that others should be so too, and to stand in unmoved calm while Mrs Jones fingered a material to test its quality, or Mrs Wilson made up her mind between a spot and a sprig. It was therefore a splendid place for a bit of talk, for he was so long in serving, and his customers were so long in choosing, that there was an agreeable absence of pressure, and time to drink a cup of gossip down to its last drop of interest.
"I don't understand myself what Mary White would be at," said Mrs Greenways.
She stood waiting in the shop while Dimbleby thoughtfully weighed out some sugar for her; a stout woman with a round good-natured face, framed in a purple-velvet bonnet and nodding flowers; her long mantle matched the bonnet in stylishness, and was richly trimmed with imitation fur, but the large strong basket on her arm, already partly full of parcels, was quite out of keeping with this splendid attire. The two women who stood near, listening with eager respect to her remarks, were of very different appearance; their poor thin shawls were put on without any regard for fashion, and their straight cotton dresses were short enough to show their clumsy boots, splashed with mud from the miry country lanes. The edge of Mrs Greenways' gown was also draggled and dirty, for she had not found it easy to hold it up and carry a large basket at the same time.
"I thought," she went on, "as how Mary White was all for plain names, and homely ways, and such-like."
"She do say so," said the woman nearest to her, cautiously.
"Then, as I said to Greenways this morning, 'It's not a consistent act for your sister to name her child like that. Accordin' to her you ought to have names as simple and common as may be.' Why, think of what she said when I named my last, which is just a year ago. 'And what do you think of callin' her?' says she. 'Why,' says I, 'I think of giving her the name of Agnetta.' 'Dear me!' says she; 'whyever do you give your girls such fine names? There's your two eldest, Isabella and Augusta; I'd call this one Betsy, or Jane, or Sarah, or something easy to say, and suitable.'"
"Did she, now?" said both the listeners at once.
"And it's not only that," continued Mrs Greenways with a growing sound of injury in her voice, "but she's always on at me when she gets a chance about the way I bring my girls up. 'You'd a deal better teach her to make good butter,' says she, when I told her that Bella was learning the piano. And when I showed her that screen Gusta worked— lilies on blue satting, a re'lly elegant thing—she just turned her head and says, 'I'd rather, if she were a gal of mine, see her knit her own stockings.' Those were her words, Mrs Wishing."
"Ah, well, it's easy to talk," replied Mrs Wishing soothingly, "we'll be able to see how she'll bring up a daughter of her own now."
"I'm not saying," pursued Mrs Greenways, turning a watchful eye on Mr Dimbleby's movements, "that Mary White haven't a perfect right to name her child as she chooses. I'm too fair for that, I hope. What I do say is, that now she's picked up a fancy sort of name like Lilac, she hasn't got any call to be down on other people. And if me and Greenways likes to see our girls genteel and give 'em a bit of finishing eddication, and set 'em off with a few accomplishments, it's our own affair and not Mary White's. And though I say it as shouldn't, you won't find two more elegant gals than Gusta and Bella, choose where you may."
During the last part of her speech Mrs Greenways had been poking and squeezing her parcel of sugar into its appointed corner of her basket; as she finished she settled it on her arm, clutched at her gown with the other hand, and prepared to start.
"And now, as I'm in a hurry, I'll say good night, Mrs Pinhorn and Mrs Wishing, and good night to you, Mr Dimbleby."
She rolled herself and her burden through the narrow door of the shop, and for a moment no one spoke, while all the little clocks ticked away more busily than ever.
"She's got enough to carry," said Mrs Pinhorn, breaking silence at last, with a sideway nod at her neighbour.
"She have so," agreed Mrs Wishing mildly; "and I wonder, that I do, to see her carrying that heavy basket on foot—she as used to come in her spring cart."
Mrs Pinhorn pressed her lips together before answering, then she said with meaning: "They're short of hands just now at Orchards Farm, and maybe short of horses too."
"You don't say so!" said Mrs Wishing, drawing nearer.
"My Ben works there, as you know, and he says money's scarce there, very scarce indeed. One of the men got turned off only t'other day."
"Lor', now, to think of that!" exclaimed Mrs Wishing in an awed manner. "An' her in that bonnet an' all them artificials!"
"There's a deal," continued Mrs Pinhorn, "in what Mrs White says about them two Greenways gals with their fine-lady ways. It 'ud a been better to bring 'em up handy in the house so as to help their mother. As it is, they're too finnicking to be a bit of use. You wouldn't see either of them with a basket on their arm, they'd think it lowering themselves. And I dare say the youngest 'll grow up just like 'em."
"There's a deal in what Mrs Greenways's just been saying too," remarked the woman called Mrs Wishing in a hesitating voice, "for Mrs James White is a very strict woman and holds herself high, and 'Lilac' is a fanciful kind of a name; but I dunno." She broke off as if feeling incapable of dealing with the question.
"I can't wonder myself," resumed Mrs Pinhorn, "at Mrs Greenways being a bit touchy. You heard, I s'pose, what Mrs White up and said to her once? You didn't? Well, she said, 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and you'll never make them girls ladies, try all you will,' says she. 'Useless things you'll make 'em, fit for neither one station or t'other.'"
"That there's plain speaking!" said Mrs Wishing admiringly.
Mr Dimbleby had not uttered a word during this conversation, and was to all appearance entirely occupied in weighing out, tying up parcels, and receiving orders. In reality, however, he had not lost a word of it, and had been getting ready to speak for some time past. Neither of the women, who were well acquainted with him, was at all surprised when he suddenly remarked: "It were Mrs Leigh herself as had to do with the name of Mrs James White's baby."
"Re'lly, now?" said Mrs Wishing doubtfully.
"An' it were Mrs Leigh herself as I heard it from," continued Dimbleby ponderously, without noticing the interruption.
"Well, that makes a difference, don't it now?" said Mrs Pinhorn. "Why ever didn't you name that afore, Mr Dimbleby?"
"And," added Dimbleby, grinding on to the end of his speech regardless of hindrance, like a machine that has been wound up; "and Mrs Leigh herself is goin' to stand for the baby."
"Lor'! I do wish Mrs Greenways could a heard that," said Mrs Pinhorn; "that'll set Mrs White up more than ever."
"It will so," said Mrs Wishing; "she allers did keep herself to herself did Mrs White. Not but what she's a decent woman and a kind. Seems as how, if Mrs Leigh wished to name the child 'Lilac', she couldn't do no other than fall in with it. But I dunno."
"And how does the name strike you, Mr Snell?" said Mrs Pinhorn, turning to a newcomer.
He was an oldish man, short and broad-shouldered, with a large head and serious grey eyes. Not only his leather apron, but the ends of his stumpy fingers, which were discoloured and brown, showed that he was a cobbler by trade. When Mrs Pinhorn spoke to him, he fingered his cheek thoughtfully, took off his hat, and passed his hand over his high bald forehead.
"What name may you be alludin' to, ma'am?" he enquired very politely.
"The name 'Lilac' as Mrs James White's goin' to call her child."
"Lilac—eh! Lilac White. White Lilac," repeated the cobbler musingly. "Well, ma'am, 'tis a pleasant bush and a homely; I can't wish the maid no better than to grow up like her name."
"Why, you wouldn't for sure wish her to grow up homely, would you now, Mr Snell?" said Mrs Wishing with a feeble laugh.
"I would, ma'am," replied Mr Snell, turning rather a severe eye upon the questioner, "I would. For why? Because to be homely is to make the common things of home sweet and pleasant. She can't do no better than that."
Mrs Wishing shrank silenced into the background, like one who has been reproved, and the cobbler advanced to the counter to exchange greetings with Mr Dimbleby, and buy tobacco. The women's voices, the sharp ticking of the clocks, and the deeper tones of the men kept up a steady concert for some time undisturbed. But suddenly the door was thrown violently back on its hinges with a bang, and a tall man in labourer's clothes rushed into their midst. Everyone looked up startled, and on Mrs Wishing's face there was fear as well as surprise when she recognised the newcomer.
"Why, Dan'l, my man," she exclaimed, "what is it?"
Daniel was out of breath with running. He rubbed his forehead with a red pocket handkerchief, looked round in a dazed manner at the assembled group, and at length said hoarsely: "Mrs Greenways bin here?"
"Ah, just gone!" said both the women at once.
"There's trouble up yonder—on the hill," said Daniel, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder, and speaking in a strange, broken voice.
"Mary White's baby!" exclaimed Mrs Pinhorn.
"Fits!" added Mrs Wishing; "they all went off that way."
"Hang the baby," muttered Daniel. He made his way past the women, who had pressed up close to him, to where the cobbler and Dimbleby stood.
"I've fetched the doctor," he said, "and she wants the Greenways to know it; I thought maybe she'd be here."
"What is it? Who's ill?" asked the cobbler.
"Tain't anyone that's ill," answered Daniel; "he's stone dead. They shot him right through the heart."
"Who? Who?" cried all the voices together.
"I found him," continued Daniel, "up in the woods; partly covered up with leaves he was. Smiling peaceful and stone dead. He was always a brave feller and done his dooty, did James White on the hill. But he won't never do it no more."
"Poachers!" exclaimed Dimbleby in a horror-struck voice.
"Poachers it was, sure enough," said Daniel; "an' he's stone dead, James White is. They shot him right through the heart. Seems a pity such a brave chap should die like that."
"An' him such a good husband!" said Mrs Wishing. "An' the baby an' all as we was just talking on," said Mrs Pinhorn; "well, it's a fatherless child now, anyway."
"The family ought to allow the widder a pension," said Mr Dimbleby, "seeing as James White died in their service, so to speak."
"They couldn't do no less," agreed the cobbler.
The idea of fetching Mrs Greenways seemed to have left Daniel's mind for the present: he had now taken a chair, and was engaged in answering the questions with which he was plied on all sides, and in trying to fix the exact hour when he had found poor James White in the woods. "As it might be here, and me standing as it might be there," he said, illustrating his words with the different parcels on the counter before him. It was not until all this was thoroughly understood, and every imaginable expression of pity and surprise had been uttered, that Mrs Pinhorn remembered that the "Greenways ought to know. And I don't see why," she added, seizing her basket with sudden energy, "I shouldn't take her up myself; I'm goin' that way, and she's a slow traveller."
"An' then Dan'l can go straight up home with me," said Mrs Wishing, "and we can drop in as we pass an' see Mrs White, poor soul. She hadn't ought to be alone."
Before nightfall everyone knew the sad tidings. James White had been shot by poachers, and Daniel Wishing had found him lying dead in the woods.
As the days went on, the excitement which stirred the whole village increased rather than lessened, for not even the oldest inhabitant could remember such a tragical event. Apart from the sadness of it, and the desolate condition of the widow, poor Jem's many virtues made it impressive and lamentable. Everyone had something to say in his praise, no one remembered anything but good about him; he was a brave chap, and one of the right sort, said the men, when they talked of it in the public-house; he was a good husband, said the women, steady and sober, fond of his wife, a pattern to others. They shook their heads and sighed mournfully; it was strange as well as pitiful that Jem White should a been took. "There might a been some as we could mention as wouldn't a been so much missed."
Then came the funeral; the bunch of white lilac, still fresh, which he had brought from Cuddingham, was put on Jem's newly-made grave, and his widow, passing silently through the people gathered in the churchyard, toiled patiently back to her lonely home.
They watched the solitary figure as it showed black against the steep chalky road in the distance.
"Yon's an afflicted woman," said one, "for all she carries herself so high under it."
"She's the only widder among all the Whites hereabouts," remarked Mrs Pinhorn. "We needn't call her 'Mrs White on the hill' no longer, poor soul."
"It's a mercy she's got the child," said another neighbour, "if the Lord spares it to her."
"The christening's to be on Sunday," added a third. "I do wonder if she'll call it that outlandish name now."
There was not much time to wonder, for Sunday soon came, and the Widow White, as she was to be called henceforth, was at the church, stern, sad, and calm, with her child in her arms. It was an April morning, breezy and soft; the uncertain sunshine darted hither and thither, now touching the newly turned earth of Jem's grave, and now peering through the church window to rest on the tiny face of his little daughter in the rector's arms at the font. All the village had come to see, for this christening was felt to be one of more than common interest, and while the service went on there was not one inattentive ear.
Foremost stood Mrs Greenways, her white handkerchief displayed for immediate use, and the expression in her face struggling between real compassion and an eager desire to lose nothing that was passing; presently she craned her neck forward a little, for an important point was reached—
"Name this child," said the rector.
There was such deep silence in the church that the lowest whisper would have been audible, and Mrs Leigh's voice was heard distinctly in the farthest corner, when she answered "Lilac."
"Not that it matters," said Mrs Greenways on her way home afterwards, "what they call the poor little thing—Lilac White, or White Lilac, or what you will, for she'll never rear it, never. It'll follow its father before we're any of us much older. You mark my words, Greenways: I'm not the woman to discourage Mary White by naming it to her now she's so deep in trouble, but you mark my words, she'll never rear that child."
"For the apparel oft proclaims the man."—Shakespeare.
But Mrs Greenways was wrong. Twelve more springs came and went, cold winds blew round the cottage on the hill, winter snow covered it, summer sun blazed down on its unsheltered roof, but the small blossom within grew and flourished. A weak tender-looking little plant at first, but gathering strength with the years until it became hardy and bold, fit to face rough weather as well as to smile in the sunshine.
It was twelve years since James White's death, twelve years since he had brought the bunch of lilac from Cuddingham which had given his little daughter her name—that name which had once sounded so strangely in Mrs White's ears. It had come to mean so much to her now, so many memories of the past, so much sweetness in the present, that she would not have changed it for the world, and indeed no one questioned its fitness, for as time went on it seemed to belong naturally to the child; it was even made more expressive by putting the surname first, so that she was often called "White Lilac."
For the distinguishing character of her face was its whiteness—"A wonderful white skin", as her mother had said, which did not tan, or freckle, or flush with heat, and which shone out in startling contrast amongst the red and brown cheeks of her school companions. This small white face was set upon a slender neck, and a delicately-formed but upright little figure, which looked all the straighter and more like the stalk of a flower, because it was never adorned with any flounces or furbelows. Lilac was considered in the village to be very old-fashioned in her dress; she wore cotton frocks, plain in the skirt with gathers all round the waist, long pinafores or aprons, and sunbonnets. This attire was always spotless and freshly clean, but garments of such a shape and cut were lamentably wanting in fashion to the general eye, and were the subject of constant ridicule. Not in the hearing of the widow, for most people were a good deal in awe of her, but Lilac herself heard quite enough about her clothes to be conscious of them and to feel ashamed of looking "different." And this was specially the case at school, for there she met Agnetta Greenways every day, and Agnetta was the object of her highest admiration; to be like her in some way was the deep and secret longing in her mind. It was, she knew well, a useless ambition, but she could not help desiring it, Agnetta was such a beautiful object to look upon, with her red cheeks and the heavy fringe of black hair which rested in a lump on her forehead. On Sundays, when she wore her blue dress richly trimmed with plush, a long feather in her hat, and a silver bangle on her arm, Lilac could hardly keep her intense admiration silent; it was a pain not to speak of it, and yet she knew that nothing would have displeased her mother so much, who was never willing to hear the Greenways praised. So she only gazed wistfully at her cousin's square gaily-dressed figure, and felt herself a poor washed-out insignificant child in comparison.
This was very much Agnetta's own view of the case; but nevertheless there were occasions when she was glad of this insignificant creature's assistance, for she was slow and stupid at her lessons, books were grief and pain to her, and Lilac, who was intelligent and fond of learning, was always ready to help and explain. This service, given most willingly, was received by Agnetta as one to whom it was due, and indeed the position she held among her schoolfellows made most of them eager to call her friend. She lived at Orchards Farm, which was the biggest in the parish; her two elder sisters had been to a finishing school, and one of them was now in a millinery establishment in London, where she wore a silk dress every day. This was sufficient to excuse airs of superiority in anyone. It was natural, therefore, to repay Lilac's devotion by condescending patronage, and to look down on her from a great height; nevertheless it was extremely agreeable to Agnetta to be worshipped, and this made her seek her cousin's companionship, and invite her often to Orchards Farm. There she could display her smart frocks, dwell on the extent of her father's possessions, on her sister Bella's stylishness, on the last fashion Gusta had sent from London, while Lilac, meek and admiring, stood by with wonder in her eyes. Orchards Farm was the most beautiful place her imagination could picture, and to live there must be, she thought, perfect happiness. There was a largeness about it, with its blossoming fruit trees, its broad green meadows, its barns and stacks, its flocks of sheep and herds of cattle; even the shiny-leaved magnolia which covered part of the house seemed to Lilac to speak of peace and plenty. It was all so different from her home; the bare white cottage on the hillside where no trees grew, where all was so narrow and cold, and where life seemed to be made up of scrubbing, sweeping, and washing. She looked longingly down from this sometimes to the valley where the farm stood.
But other eyes, and Mrs White's in particular, saw a very different state of things when they looked at Orchards Farm. She knew that under this smiling outside face lay hidden care and anxiety; for her brother, Farmer Greenways, was in debt and short of money. Folks shook their heads when it was mentioned, and said: "What could you expect?" The old people remembered the prosperous days at the farm, when the dairy had been properly worked, and the butter was the best you could get anywhere round. There was the pasture land still, and a good lot of cows, but since the Greenways had come there the supply of butter was poor, and sometimes the whole quantity sent to market was so carelessly made that it was sour. Whose fault was it? Mrs Greenways would have said that Molly, the one overworked maid servant, was to blame; but other people thought differently, and Mrs White was as usual outspoken in her opinions to her sister-in-law: "It 'ull never be any different as long as you don't look after the dairy yourself, or teach Bella to do it. What does Molly care how the butter turns out?"
But Bella tossed her head at the idea of working, as she expressed it, "like a common servant", or indeed at working at all. She considered that her business in life was to be genteel, and to be properly genteel was to do nothing useful. So she studied the fashion books which Gusta sent from London, made up wonderful costumes for herself, curled her hair in the last style, and read the stories about dukes and earls and countesses which came out in the Family Herald.
The smart bonnets and dresses which Mrs Greenways and her daughters wore on Sundays in spite of hard times and poor crops and debt were the wonder of the whole congregation, and in Mrs White's case the wonder was mixed with scorn. "Peter's the only one among 'em as is good for anything," she sometimes said, "an' he's naught but a puzzle-headed sort of a chap." Peter was the farmer's only son, a loutish youth of fifteen, steady and plodding as his plough horses and almost as silent.
It was April again, bright and breezy, and all the cherry trees at the farm were so white with bloom that standing under them you could scarcely see the sky. The grass in the orchard was freshly green and sprinkled with daisies, amongst which families of fluffy yellow ducklings trod awkwardly about on their little splay feet, while the careful mother hens picked out the best morsels of food for them. This food was flung out of a basin by Agnetta Greenways, who stood there squarely erect uttering a monotonous "Chuck, chuck, chuck," at intervals. Agnetta did not care for the poultry, or indeed for any of the creatures on the farm; they were to her only troublesome things that wanted looking after, and she would have liked not to have had anything to do with them. Just now, however, there was a week's holiday at the school, and she was obliged to use her leisure in helping her mother, much against her will. Agnetta had a stolid face with a great deal of colour in her cheeks; her hair was black, but at this hour it was so tightly done up in curl papers that the colour could hardly be seen. She wore an old red merino dress which had once been a smart one, but was now degraded to what she called "dirty work", and was covered with patches and stains. Her hands and wrists were very large, and looked capable of hard work, as indeed did the whole person of Agnetta from top to toe.
"Chuck, chuck, chuck," she repeated as she threw out the last spoonful; then, raising her eyes, she became aware of a little figure in the distance, running towards her across the field at the bottom of the orchard.
"Lor'!" she exclaimed aloud, "if here isn't Lilac White!"
It was a slight little figure clothed in a cotton frock which had once been blue in colour, but had been washed so very often that it now approached a shade of green; over it was a long straight pinafore gathered round the neck with a string, and below it appeared blue worsted stockings, and thick, laced boots. Her black hair was brushed back and plaited in one long tail tied at the end with black ribbon, and in her hand she carried a big sunbonnet, swinging it round and round in the air as she ran. As she came nearer the orchard gate, it was easy to see that she had some news to tell, for her small features worked with excitement, and her grey eyes were bright with eagerness.
Agnetta advanced slowly to meet her with the empty basin in her hand, and unlatched the gate.
"Whatever's the matter?" she asked.
Lilac could not answer just at first, for she had been running a long way, and her breath came in short gasps. She came to a standstill under the trees, and Agnetta stared gravely at her with her mouth wide open. The two girls formed a strong contrast to each other. Lilac's white face and the faded colour of her dress matched the blossoms and leaves of the cherry trees in their delicacy, while about the red-cheeked Agnetta there was something firm and positive, which suggested the fruit which would come later.
"I came—" gasped Lilac at last, "I ran—I thought I must tell you—"
"Well," said Agnetta, still staring at her in an unmoved manner, "you'd better fetch your breath, and then you'll be able to tell me. Come and sit down."
There was a bench under one of the trees near where she had been feeding the ducks. The two girls sat down, and presently Lilac was able to say: "Oh, Agnetta, the artist gentleman wants to put me in a picture!"
"Whatever do you mean, Lilac White?" was Agnetta's only reply. Her slightly disapproving voice calmed Lilac's excitement a little.
"This is how it was," she continued more quietly. "You know he's lodging at the 'Three Bells?' and he comes an' sits at the bottom of our hill an' paints all day."
"Of course I know," said Agnetta. "It's a poor sort of an object he's copyin', too—Old Joe's tumble-down cottage. I peeped over his shoulder t'other day—'taint much like."
"Well, I pass him every day comin' from school, and he always looks up at me eager without sayin' nothing. But this morning he says, 'Little gal,' says he, 'I want to put you into my picture.'"
"Lor'!" put in Agnetta, "whatever can he want to paint you for?"
"So I didn't say nothing," continued Lilac, "because he looked so hard at me that I was skeert-like. So then he says very impatient, 'Don't you understand? I want you to come here in that frock and that bonnet in your hand, and let me paint you, copy you, take your portrait. You run and ask Mother.'"
"I never did!" exclaimed Agnetta, moved at last. "Whatever can he want to do it for? An' that frock, an' that silly bonnet an' all! He must be a crazy gentleman, I should say." She gave a short laugh, partly of vexation.
"But that ain't all," continued Lilac; "just as I was turning to go he calls after me, 'What's yer name?' And when I told him he shouts out, 'What!' with his eyes hanging out ever so far."
"Well, I dare say he thought it was a silly-sounding sort of a name," observed Agnetta.
"He said it over and over to hisself, and laughed right out—'Lilac White! White Lilac!' says he. 'What a subjeck! What a name! Splendid!' An' then he says to me quieter, 'You're a very nice little girl indeed, and if Mother will let you come I'll give you sixpence for every hour you stand.' So then I went an' asked Mother, and she said yes, an' then I ran all the way here to tell you."
Lilac looked round as she finished her wonderful story. Agnetta's eyes were travelling slowly over her cousin's whole person, from her face down to the thick, laced boots on her feet, and back again. "I can't mek out," she said at length, "whatever it is that he wants to paint you for, and dressed like that! Why, there ain't a mossel of colour about you! Now, if you had my Sunday blue!"
"Oh, Agnetta!" exclaimed Lilac at the mention of such impossible elegance.
"And," pursued Agnetta, "a few artificials in yer hair, like the ladies in our Book of Beauty, that 'ud brighten you up a bit. Bella's got some red roses with dewdrops on 'em, an' a caterpillar just like life. She'd lend you 'em p'r'aps, an' I don't know but what I'd let you have my silver locket just for once."
"I'm afraid he wouldn't like that," said Lilac dejectedly, "because he said quite earnest, 'Mind you bring the bonnet'."
She saw herself for a moment in the splendid attire Agnetta had described, and gave a little sigh of longing.
"I must go back," she said, getting up suddenly, "Mother'll want me. There's lots to do at home."
"I'll go with you a piece," said Agnetta; "we'll go through the farmyard way so as I can leave the basin."
This was a longer way home for Lilac than across the fields, but she never thought of disputing Agnetta's decision, and the cousins left the orchard by another gate which led into the garden. It was not a very tidy garden, and although some care had been bestowed on the vegetables, the flowers were left to come up where they liked and how they liked, and the grass plot near the house was rank and weedy. Nevertheless it presented a gay and flourishing appearance with its masses of polyanthus in full bloom, its tulips, and Turk's head lilies, and lilac bushes. There was one particular bed close to the gate which had a neater appearance than the rest, and where the flowers grew in a well-ordered manner as though accustomed to personal attention. The edges of the turf were trimly clipped, and there was not a weed to be seen. It had a mixed border of forget-me-not and London pride.
"How pretty your flowers grow!" said Lilac, stopping to look at it with admiration.
"Oh, that's Peter's bed," said Agnetta carelessly, snapping off some blossoms. "He's allays mucking at it in his spare time—not that he's got much, there's so much to do on the farm."
The house was now in front of them, and a little to the left the various, coloured roofs of the farm buildings, some tiled with weather-beaten bricks, some thatched, some tarred, and the bright yellow straw ricks standing here and there. Between these buildings and the house was a narrow lane, generally ankle-deep in mud, which led into the highroad.
Lilac was very fond of the farmyard and all the creatures in it. She stopped at the gate and looked over at a company of small black pigs routing about in the straw.
"Oh, Agnetta!" she exclaimed, "you've got some toiny pigs; what peart little uns they are!"
"I can't abide pigs," said Agnetta with a toss of her curl-papered head; "no more can't Bella, we neither of us can't. Nasty, vulgar, low-smelling things."
Lilac felt that hers must be a vulgar taste as Agnetta said so, but still she did like the little pigs, and would have been glad to linger near them. It was often puzzling to her that Agnetta called so many things common and vulgar, but she always ended by thinking that it was because she was so superior.
"Here, Peter!" exclaimed Agnetta suddenly. A boy in leather leggings and a smock appeared at the entrance of the barn, and came tramping across the straw towards them at her call. "Just take this into the kitchen," said his sister in commanding tones. "Now," turning to Lilac, "we can go t'other way across the fields. The lane's all in a muck."
Peter slouched away with the basin in his hand. He was a heavy-looking youth, and so shy that he seldom raised his eyes from the ground.
"No one 'ud think," said Agnetta as the girls entered the meadow again, "as Peter was Bella's and Gusta's and my brother. He's so dreadful vulgar-lookin' dressed like that. He might be a common ploughboy, and his manners is awful."
"Are they?" said Lilac.
"Pa won't hear a word against him," continued Agnetta, "cause he's so useful with the farm work. He says he'd rather see Peter drive a straight furrow than dress himself smart. But Bella and me we're ashamed to be seen with him, we can't neither of us abide commoners."
Common! there was the word again which seemed to mean so many things and yet was so difficult to understand. Common things were evidently vulgar. The pigs were common, Peter was common, perhaps Lilac herself was common in Agnetta's eyes. "And yet," she reflected, lifting her gaze from the yellow carpet at her feet to the flowering orchards, "the cherry blossoms and the buttercups are common too; would Agnetta call them vulgar?"
She had not long to think about this, for her cousin soon introduced another and a very interesting subject.
"Who's goin' to be Queen this year, I wonder?" she said; "there'll be a sight of flowers if the weather keeps all on so fine."
"It'll be you, Agnetta, for sure," answered Lilac; "I know lots who mean to choose you this time."
"I dessay," said Agnetta with an air of lofty indifference.
"Don't you want to be?" asked Lilac.
The careless tone surprised her, for to be chosen Queen of the May was not only an honour, but a position of importance and splendour. It meant to march at the head of a long procession of children, in a white dress, to be crowned with flowers in the midst of gaiety and rejoicing, to lead the dance round the maypole, and to be first throughout a day of revelry and feasting. To Lilac it was the most beautiful of ceremonies to see the Queen crowned; to join in it was a delight, but to be chosen Queen herself would be a height of bliss she could hardly imagine. It was impossible therefore, to think her cousin really indifferent, and indeed this was very far from the case, for Agnetta had set her heart on being Queen, and felt tolerably sure that she should get the greatest number of votes this year.
"I don't know as I care much," she answered; "let's sit down here a bit."
They sat down one each side of a stile, with their faces turned towards each other, and Agnetta again fixed her direct gaze critically on her cousin's figure. Lilac twirled her sunbonnet round somewhat confusedly under these searching glances.
"It's a pity you wear your hair scrattled right off your face like that," said Agnetta at last; "it makes you look for all the world like Daisy's white calf."
"Does it?" said Lilac meekly; "Mother likes it done so."
"I know something as would improve you wonderful, and give you a bit of style—something as would make the picture look a deal better."
"Oh, what, Agnetta?"
"Well, it's just as simple as can be. It's only to take a pair of scissors and cut yer hair like mine in front so as it comes down over yer face a bit. It 'ud alter you ever so. You'd be surprised."
Lilac started to her feet, struck with the immensity of the idea. A fringe! It was a form of elegance not unknown amongst the school-children, but one which she had never thought of as possible for herself.
There was Agnetta's stolid rosy face close to her, as unmoved and unexcited as if she had said nothing unusual.
"Oh, Agnetta, could I?" gasped Lilac.
"Whyever not?" said her cousin calmly.
Lilac sat down again. "I dursn't," she said. "I couldn't ever bear to look Mother in the face."
"Has she ever told you not?"
"N-no," answered Lilac hesitatingly; "leastways she only said once that the girls made frights of themselves with their fringes."
"Frights indeed!" said Agnetta scornfully; "anyhow," she added, "it 'ull grow again if she don't like it." So it would. That reflection made the deed seem a less daring one, and Lilac's face at once showed signs of yielding, which Agnetta was not slow to observe. Warming with her subject, she proceeded to paint the improvement which would follow in glowing colours, and in this she was urged by two motives—one, an honest desire to smarten Lilac up a little, and the other, to vex and thwart her aunt, Mrs White; to pay her out, as she expressed it, for sundry uncomplimentary remarks on herself and Bella.
"And supposing," was Lilac's next remark, "as how I was to make up my mind, I couldn't never do it for myself. I should be scared."
This difficulty the energetic Agnetta was quite ready to meet. She would do it. Lilac had only to run down to the farm early next morning, and, after she was made fashionable, she could go straight on to the artist. "And won't he just be surprised!" she added with a chuckle. "I don't expect he'll hardly know you."
"You're quite sure it'll make me look better?" said Lilac wistfully. She had the utmost faith in her cousin, but the step seemed to her such a terribly large one.
"Ain't I?" was Agnetta's scornful reply. "Why, Gusta says all the ladies in London wears their hair like that now."
After this last convincing proof, for Gusta's was a name of great authority, Lilac resisted no longer, and soon discovered, by the striking of the church clock, that it was getting very late. She said good-bye to Agnetta, therefore, and, leaving her to make her way back at her leisure, ran quickly on through the meadows all streaked and sprinkled with the spring flowers. After these came the dusty high-road for a little while, and then she reached the foot of the steep hill which led up to her home. The artist gentleman was there as usual, a pipe in his mouth, and a palette on his thumb, painting busily: as she hurriedly dropped a curtsy in passing, Lilac's heart beat quite fast.
"Me in a picture with a fringe!" she said to herself; "how I do hope as Mother won't mind!"
That afternoon, when she sat quietly down to her sewing, this great idea weighed heavily upon her. It would be the very first step she had ever taken without her mother's approval, and away from the influence of Agnetta's decided opinion it seemed doubly alarming—a desperate and yet an attractive deed.
Now and then for a moment she thought it would be better to tell her mother, but when she looked up at the grave, rather sad face, bent closely over some needlework, she lacked courage to begin. It seemed far removed from such trifles as fringes and fashions; and though, as Lilac knew well, it could have at times a smile full of love upon it, just now its expression was thoughtful, and even stern.
She kept silence, therefore, and stitched away with a mind as busy as her fingers, until it was time to boil the kettle and get the tea ready. This was just done when Mrs Wishing, who lived still farther up the hill, dropped in on her way home from the village.
She was an uncertain, wavering little woman, with no will of her own, and a heavy burden in the shape of a husband, who, during the last few years, had taken to fits of drinking. The widow White acknowledged that she had a good deal to bear from Dan'l, and when times were very bad, often supplied her with food and firing from her own small store. But she did not do so without protest, for in her opinion the fault was not entirely on Dan'l's side. "Maybe," she said, "if he found a clean hearth and a tidy bit o' supper waitin' at home, he'd stay there oftener. An' if he worked reg'lar, and didn't drink his wages, you'd want for nothin', and be able to put by with only just the two of you to keep. But I can't see you starve."
Mrs Wishing fluttered in at the door, and, as she thought probable, was asked to have a dish of tea. Lilac bustled round the kitchen and set everything neatly on the table, while her mother, glancing at her now and then, stood at the window sewing with active fingers.
"Well, you're always busy, Mrs White," said the guest plaintively as she untied her bonnet strings. "I will say as you're a hard worker yourself, whatever you say about other folks."
"An' I hope as when the time comes as I can't work that the Lord 'ull see fit to take me," said Mrs White shortly.
"Dear, dear, you've got no call to say that," said Mrs Wishing, "you as have got Lilac to look to in your old age. Now, if it was me and Dan'l, with neither chick nor child—" She shook her head mournfully.
Mrs White gave her one sharp glance which meant "and a good thing too", but she did not say the words aloud; there was something so helpless and incapable about Mrs Wishing, that it was both difficult and useless to be severe with her, for the most cutting speeches could not rouse her from the mild despair into which she had sunk years ago. "I dessay you're right, but I dunno," was her only reply to all reproaches and exhortations, and finding this, Mrs White had almost ceased them, except when they were wrung from her by some unusual example of bad management.
"An' so handy as she is," continued Mrs Wishing, her wandering gaze caught for a moment by Lilac's active little figure, "an' that's all your up-bringing, Mrs White, as I was saying just now to Mrs Greenways."
Mrs White, who was now pouring out the tea, looked quickly up at the mention of Mrs Greenways. She would not ask, but her very soul longed to know what had been said.
"She was talkin' about Lilac as I was in at Dimbleby's getting a bunch of candles," continued Mrs Wishing, "sayin' how her picture was going to be took; an' says she, 'It's a poor sort of picture as she'll make, with a face as white as her pinafore. Now, if it was Agnetta,' says she, 'as has a fine nateral bloom, I could understand the gentleman wantin' to paint her.'"
"I s'pose the gentleman knows best himself what he wants to paint," said Mrs White.
"Lor', of course he do," Mrs Wishing hastened to reply; "and, as I said to Mrs Greenways, 'Red cheeks or white cheeks don't make much differ to a gal in life. It's the upbringing as matters.'"
Mrs White looked hardly so pleased with this sentiment as her visitor had hoped. She was perfectly aware that it had been invented on the spot, and that Mrs Wishing would not have dared to utter it to Mrs Greenways. Moreover, the comparison between Lilac's paleness and Agnetta's fine bloom touched her keenly, for in this remark she recognised her sister-in-law's tongue.
The rivalry between the two mothers was an understood thing, and though it had never reached open warfare, it was kept alive by the kindness of neighbours, who never forgot to repeat disparaging speeches. Mrs White's opinions of the genteel uselessness of Bella and Gusta were freely quoted to Mrs Greenways, and she in her turn was always ready with a thrust at Lilac which might be carried to Mrs White.
When the widow had first heard of the artist's proposal, her intense gratification was at once mixed with the thought, "What'll Mrs Greenways think o' that?"
But she did not express this triumph aloud. Even Lilac had no idea that her mother's heart was overflowing with pleasure and pride because it was her child, her Lilac, whom the artist wished to paint. So now, though she bit her lip with vexation at Mrs Wishing's speech, she took it with outward calmness, and only replied, with a glance at her daughter:
"Lilac never was one to think much about her looks, and I hope she never will be."
Both the look and the words seemed to Lilac to have special meaning, almost as though her mother knew what she intended to do to-morrow; it seemed indeed to be written in large letters everywhere, and all that was said had something to do with it. This made her feel so guilty, that she began to be sure it would be very wrong to have a fringe. Should she give it up? It was a relief when Mrs Wishing, leaving the subject of the picture for one of nearer interest, proceeded to dwell on Dan'l and his failings, so that Lilac was not referred to again. This well-worn topic lasted for the rest of the visit, for Dan'l had been worse than usual. He had "got the neck of the bottle", as Mrs Wishing expressed it, and had been in a hopeless state during the last week. Her sad monotonous voice went grinding on over the old story, while Lilac, washing up the tea things, carried on her own little fears, and hopes, and wishes in her own mind. No one watching her would have guessed what those wishes were: she looked so trim and neat, and handled the china as deftly as though she had no other thought than to do her work well. And yet the inside did not quite match this proper outside, for her whole soul was occupied with a beautiful vision—herself with a fringe like Agnetta! It proved so engrossing that she hardly noticed Mrs Wishing's departure, and when her mother spoke she looked up startled.
"Yon's a poor creetur as never could stand alone and never will," she said. "It was the same when she was a gal—always hangin' on to someone, always wantin' someone else to do for her, and think for her. Well! empty sacks won't never stand upright, and it's no good tryin' to make 'em."
Lilac made no reply, and Mrs White, seizing the opportunity of impressing a useful lesson, continued:
"Lor'! it seems only the other day as Hepzibah was married to Daniel Wishing. A pretty gal she was, with clinging, coaxing ways, like the suckles in the hedge, and everyone she come near was ready to give her a helping hand. And at the wedding they all said, 'There, now, she's got the right man, Hepzibah has. A strong, steady feller, and a good workman an' all, and one as'll look after her an' treat her kind.' But I mind what I said to Mrs Pinhorn on that very day: 'I hope it may be so,' I says, 'but it takes an angel, and not a man, to bear with a woman as weak an' shiftless as Hepzibah, and not lose his temper.' And now look at 'em! There's Dan'l taken to drink, and when he's out of himself he'll lift his hand to her, and they're both of 'em miserable. It does a deal o' harm for a woman to be weak like that. She can't stand alone, and she just pulls a man down along with her."
The troubles of the Wishings were very familiar to Lilac's ears, and, though she took her knitting and sat down on her little stool close to her mother, she did not listen much to what she was saying.
Mrs White, quite ignorant that her words of wisdom were wasted, continued admonishingly:
"So as you grow up, Lilac, and get to a woman, that's what you've got to learn—to trust to yourself; you won't always have a mother to look to. And what you've got to do now is, to learn to do your work jest as well as you can, and then afterwards you'll be able to stand firm on yer own two feet, and not go leaning up against other folk, or be beholden to nobody. That's a good thing, that is. There's a saying, 'Heaven helps them as helps themselves'. If that poor Hepzibah had helped herself when she was a gal, she wouldn't be such a daundering creetur now, and Dan'l, he wouldn't be a curse instead of a blessin'."
When Lilac went up to her tiny room in the roof that night, her head felt too full of confusing thoughts to make it possible to go to bed at once. She knelt on a box that stood in the window, fastened back the lattice, and, leaning on the sill, looked out into the night. The greyness of evening was falling over everything, but it was not nearly dark yet, so that she could see the windings of the chalky road which led down to the valley, and the church tower, and even one of the gable windows in Orchards Farm, where a light was twinkling. Generally this last object was a most interesting one to her, but to-night she did not notice outside things much, for her mind was too busy with its own concerns. She had, for the first time in her life, something quite new and strange to think of, something of her own which her mother did not know; and though this may seem a very small matter to people whose lives are full of events, to Lilac it was of immense importance, for until now her days had been as even and unvaried as those of any daisy that grows in a field. But to-morrow, two new things were to happen—she was to have her hair cut, and to have her picture painted. "A poor sort of picture," Mrs Greenways had said it would be, and, no doubt, Lilac agreed in her own mind Agnetta would make a far finer one—Agnetta, who had red cheeks, and a fringe already, and could dress herself so much smarter. Would a fringe really improve her? Agnetta said so. And yet—her mother—was it worth while to risk vexing her? But it would grow. Yes, but in the picture it would never grow. The more she thought, the more difficult it was to see her way clear; as the evening grew darker and more shadowy, so her reflections became dimmer and more confused; at last they were suddenly stopped altogether, for a bat which had come forth on its evening travels flapped straight against her face under the eaves. Thoroughly roused, Lilac drew in her head, shut her window, and was very soon fast asleep in bed.
Night is said to bring counsel, and perhaps it did so in some way, although she slept too soundly to dream, for punctually at eleven o'clock the next morning she was at the meeting-place appointed by Agnetta at the farm.
This was a loft over the cows' stables, the only place when, at that hour, they could be sure of no interruption.
"The proper place 'ud be my bedroom," Agnetta had said, "where there's a mirror an' all; but it's Bella's too, you see, an' just now she's making a new bonnet, and she's forever there trying it on. But I'll bring the scissors and do it in a jiffy."
And here was Agnetta armed with the scissors, and a certain authority of manner she always used with her cousin.
"Tek off yer bonnet and undo yer plaits," she said, opening and shutting the bright scissors with a snap, as though she longed to begin.
Lilac stood with her back against a truss of hay, rather shrinking away, for now that the moment had really come she felt frightened, and all her doubts returned. She had the air of a pale little victim before her executioner.
"Come," said Agnetta, with another snap.
"Oh, Agnetta, do you really think they'll like it?" faltered Lilac.
"What I really think is that you're a ninny," said the determined Agnetta; "an' I'm not agoin' to wait here while you shilly-shally. Is it to be off or on?"
"Oh off, I suppose," said Lilac.
With trembling fingers she took off her bonnet, and unfastened her hair from its plait. It fell like a dark silky veil over her shoulders.
"Lor'!" said Agnetta, "you have got a lot of it."
She stood for a second staring at her victim open-mouthed with the scissors upraised in one hand, then advanced, and grasping a handful of the soft hair drew it down over Lilac's face.
"Oh, Agnetta," cried an imploring voice behind the screen thus formed, "you'll be careful! You won't tek off too much."
"Come nearer the light," said Agnetta.
Still holding the hair, she drew her cousin towards the wide open doors of the loft. "Now," she said, "I can see what I'm at, an' I shan't be a minute."
The steel scissors struck coldly against Lilac's forehead. It was too late to resist now. She held her breath. Grind, grind, snip! they went in Agnetta's remorseless fingers, and some soft waving lengths of hair fell on the ground. It certainly did not take long; after a few more short clips and snips Agnetta had finished, and there stood Lilac fashionably shorn, with the poor discarded locks lying at her feet.
It was curious to see how much Agnetta's handiwork had altered her cousin's face. Lilac's forehead was prettily shaped, and though she had worn her hair "scrattled" off it, there were little waving rings and bits which were too short to be "scrattled", and these had softened its outline. But now the pure white forehead was covered by a lump of hair which came straight across the middle of it, and the small features below looked insignificant. The expression of intelligent modesty which had made Lilac look different from other girls had gone; she was just an ordinary pale-faced little person with a fringe.
"There!" exclaimed Agnetta triumphantly as she drew a small hand-glass from her pocket; "now you'll see as how I was right. You won't hardly know yerself."
Lilac took it, longing yet fearing to see herself. From the surface of the glass a stranger seemed to return her glance—someone she had never seen before, with quite a different look in her eyes. Certainly she was altered. Was it for the better? She did not know, and before she could tell she must get more used to this new Lilac White. At present she had more fear than admiration for her.
"Clump! clump!" came the sound of heavy feet up the loft ladder. Lilac let the glass fall at her side, and turned a terrified gaze on Agnetta.
"Oh, what's that?" she cried. "Let me hide—don't let anyone see me!"
Agnetta burst into a loud laugh.
"Well, you are a ninny, Lilac White. Are you goin' to hide from everyone now you've got a fringe? You as are goin' to have your picture took. An' after all," she added, as a face and shoulders appeared at the top of the ladder. "It's only Peter."
Peter's rough head and blunt, uncouth features were framed by the square opening in the floor of the loft. There they remained motionless, for the sight of Agnetta and Lilac where he had been prepared to find only hay and straw brought him to a standstill. His face and the tips of his large ears got very red as he saw Lilac's confusion, and he went a step lower down the ladder, but his eyes were still above the level of the floor.
"Well," said Agnetta, still giggling, "we'll hear what Peter thinks of it. Don't she look a deal better with her hair cut so, Peter?"
Peter's grey-green eyes, not unkindly in expression, fixed themselves on his cousin's face. In her turn Lilac gazed back at them, half-frightened, yet beseeching mutely for a favourable opinion; it was like looking into a second mirror. She waited anxiously for his answer. It came at last, slowly, from Peter's invisible mouth.
"No," he said, "I liked it best as it wur afore." As he spoke the head disappeared, and they heard him go clumping down the ladder again. The words fell heavily on Lilac's ears. "Best as it wur afore." Perhaps everyone would think so too. She looked dismally first at the locks of hair on the ground and then at Agnetta's unconcerned face.
"Well, you've no call to mind what he says anyhow," said the latter cheerfully. "He don't know what's what."
"I most wish," said Lilac, as she turned to leave the loft, "that I hadn't done it."
As she spoke, the distant sound of the church clock was heard. There was only just time to get to the foot of the hill, and she said a hurried good-bye to Agnetta, tying on her bonnet as she ran across the fields. She generally hated the sun-bonnet, but to-day for the first time she found a comfort in its deep brim, which sheltered this new Lilac White a little from the world. She almost hoped that the artist would change his mind and let her keep it on, instead of holding it in her hand.
"Let each be what he is, so will he be good enough for man himself, and God."—Lavater.
Whilst all this was going on at the farm, Mrs White had been busy as usual in the cottage on the hill—her mind full of Lilac, and her hands full of the Rectory washing. It was an important business, for it was all she and her child had to depend on beside a small pension allowed her by Jem's late employers; but quite apart from this she took a pride in her work for its own sake. She felt responsible not only for the unyielding stiffness of the Rector's round collars, but also for the appearance of the choristers' surplices; and any failure in colour or approach to limpness was a real pain to her, and made it difficult to fix her attention on the service. This happened very seldom, however; and when it did, was owing to an unfortunate drying day or other accident, and never to want of exertion on her own part.
There was nothing to complain of in the weather this morning—a bright sun and a nice bit of wind, and not too much of it. Mrs White wrung out the surplices in a very cheerful spirit, and her grave face had a smile on it now and then, for she was thinking of Lilac. Lilac sweetened all her life now, much in the same way that the bunch of flowers from which she took her name had sweetened the small room with its fragrance twelve years ago. As she grew up her mother's love grew too, stronger year by year; for when she looked at her she remembered all the happiness that her life had known—when she spoke her name, it brought back a thousand pleasant memories and kept them fresh in her mind. And she looked forward too, for Lilac's sake, and saw in years to come her proudest hope fulfilled—her child grown to be a self-respecting useful woman, who could work for herself and need be beholden to no one. She had no higher ambition for her; but this she had set her heart on, she should not become lazy, vain, helpless, like her cousins the Greenways. That was the pitfall from which she would strain every muscle to hold Lilac back. There were moments when she trembled for the bad influence of example at Orchards Farm. She knew Lilac's yielding affectionate nature and her great admiration for her cousins, and kept a watchful eye for the first unsatisfactory signs. But there were none. No one could accuse Lilac of untidy ways, or want of thoroughness in dusting, sweeping, and all branches of household work, and even Mrs White could find no fault. "After all," she said to herself, "it's natural in young things to like to be together, and there's nothing worse nor foolishness in Agnetta and Bella." So she allowed the visits to go on, and contented herself by many a word in season and many a pointed practical lesson. The Greenways were seldom mentioned, but they were, nevertheless, very often in the minds of both mother and daughter.
This morning she was thinking of a much more pleasant subject. "How was the artist gentleman getting along with Lilac's picture? He must be well at it now," she thought, looking up at the loud-voiced American clock, "an' her looking as peart and pretty as a daisy. White-faced indeed! I'd rather she were white-faced than have great red cheeks like a peony bloom. What will he do with the picture afterwards?" Joshua Snell, through reading the papers so much, knew most things, and he had said that it would p'r'aps be hung up with a lot of others in a place in London called an exhibition, where you could pay money and go to see 'em. "If he's right," concluded Mrs White, wringing out the last surplice, "I do really think as how I must give Lilac a jaunt up to London, an' we'll go and see it. The last holiday as ever I had was fifteen years back, an' that was when Jem and me, we went—Why, I do believe," she said aloud, "here she is back a'ready!"
There was a sound of running feet, which she had heard too often to mistake, then the click of the latch, and then Lilac herself rushed through the front room.
"Mother, Mother," she cried, "he won't paint me!"
Mrs White turned sharply round. Lilac was standing just inside the entrance to the back kitchen, with her bonnet on, and her hands clasped over her face. To keep her bonnet on a moment after she was in the house struck her mother at once as something strange and unusual, and she stared at her for an instant in silence, with her bands held up dripping and pink from the water.
"Whatever ails you, child?" she said at length. "What made him change his mind?"
"He said as how I was the wrong one," murmured Lilac under her closed hands.
"The wrong one!" repeated her mother. "Why, how could he go to say such a thing? You told him you was Lilac White, I s'pose. There's ne'er another in the village."
"He didn't seem as if he knew me," said Lilac. "He looked at me very sharp, and said as how it was no good to paint me now."
"Why ever not? You're just the same as you was."
"I ain't," said Lilac desperately, taking away her hands from her face and letting them fan at her side. "I ain't the same. I've cut my hair!"
It was over now. She stood before her mother a disgraced and miserable Lilac. The black fringe of hair across her forehead, the bonnet pushed back, the small white face quivering nervously.
But though she knew it would displease her mother, she had very little idea that she had done the thing of all others most hateful to her. A fringe was to Mrs White a sort of distinguishing mark of the Greenways family, and of others like it. Not only was it ugly and unsuitable in itself, but it was an outward sign of all manner of unworthy qualities within. Girls who wore fringes were in her eyes stamped with three certain faults: untidiness, vanity, and love of dressing beyond their station. Beginning with these, who could tell to what other evils a fringe might lead? And now, her own child, her Lilac whom she had been so proud of, and thought so different from others, stood before her with this abomination on her brow. Bitterest of all, it was the influence of the Greenways that had triumphed, and not her own. All her care and toil had ended in this. It had all been in vain. If Lilac "took pattern" by her cousins in one way she would in another—"a straw can tell which way the wind blows." She would grow up like Bella and Agnetta.
Swiftly all this rushed into Mrs White's mind, as she stood looking with surprise and horror at Lilac's altered face. Finding her voice as she arrived at the last conclusion, she asked coldly:
"What made yer do it?"
Lilac locked her hands tightly together and made no answer. She would not say anything about Agnetta, who had meant kindly in what she had done.
"I know," continued her mother, "without you sayin' a word. It was one of them Greenways. But I did think as how you'd enough sense and sperrit of yer own to stand out agin' their foolishness—let alone anything else. It's plain to me now that you don't care for yer mother or what she says. You'll fly right in her face to please any of them at Orchards Farm."
Still Lilac did not speak, and her silence made Mrs White more and more angry.
"An' what do you think you've got by it?" she continued scornfully. "Do those silly things think it makes 'em look like ladies to cut their hair so and dress themselves up fine? Then you can tell 'em this from me: Vulgar they are, and vulgar they'll be all their lives long, and nothing they can do to their outsides will change 'em. But they might a left you alone, Lilac, for you're but a child; only I did think as you'd a had more sense."
Lilac was crying now. This scolding on the top of much excitement and disappointment was more than she could bear, but still she felt she must defend the Greenways from blame.
"It was my fault," she sobbed. "I thought as how it would look nicer."
"The many and many times," pursued Mrs White, drying her hands vigorously on a rough towel, "as I've tried to make you understand what's respectable and right and fitting! And it's all been no good. Well, I've done. Go to your Greenways and let them teach you, and much profit may you get. I've done with you—you don't look like my child no longer."
She turned her back and began to bustle about with the linen, not looking towards Lilac again. In reality her eyes were full of tears and she would have given worlds to cry heartily with the child, for to use those hard words to her was like bruising her own flesh. But she was too mortified and angry to show it, and Lilac, after casting some wistful glances at the active figure, turned and went slowly out of the room with drooping head.
Pulling her bonnet forward so that her forehead and the dreadful fringe were quite hidden, she wandered down the hill, hardly knowing or caring where she went. All the world was against her. No one would ever look pleasantly at her again, if even her mother frowned and turned away. One by one she recalled what they had all said. First, Peter: "I liked it best as it wur afore." Then the artist—he had been quite angry. "You stupid little girl," he had said, "you've made yourself quite commonplace. You're no use whatever. Run away." And now Mother—that was worst of all: "You don't look like my child." Lilac's tears fell fast when she remembered that. How very hard they all were upon her! She strayed listlessly onwards, and presently came to a sudden standstill, for she found that she was getting near the bottom of the hill, where the artist was no doubt still sitting. That would never do. At her right hand there branched off a wide grass-grown lane, one of the ancient roads of the Romans which could still be traced along the valley. It was seldom used now, for it led nowhere in particular; but here and there at long distances there were some small cottages in it, and in one of these lived the cobbler, Joshua Snell.
Now, Uncle Joshua, as she called him, though he was no relation to her, was a great friend of Lilac's, and the thought of him darted into her forlorn little mind like a ray of comfort. He would perhaps look kindly at her in spite of her fringe. There was no one else to do it except Agnetta, and to reach her the artist must be passed, which was impossible. Lilac could not remember that Joshua had ever been cross to her, even in the days when she had played with his bits of leather and mislaid his tools—those old days when she was a tiny child, and Mother had left her with him "to mind" when she went out to work. And besides being kind he was wise, and would surely find some way to help her in her present distress. Perhaps even he would speak to Mother, who thought a deal of what he said, and that would make her less angry. A little cheered by these reflections Lilac turned down the lane, quickened her pace, and made straight for the cobbler's cottage.
It was a very small abode, with such a deep thatch and such tiny windows that it looked all roof. At right angles there jutted out from it an extra room, or rather shed, and in this it was possible, by peering closely through a dingy pane of glass, to make out the dim figure of Joshua bending over his work. This dark little hole, in which there was just space enough for Joshua, his boots and tools and leather, had no door from without, but could only be approached through the kitchen. As he sat at work he could see the fire and the clock without getting up, which was very convenient, and he was proud of his work-shed, though in the winter it was both chilly and dark. Joshua lived quite alone. He had come to Danecross twenty years ago from the north, bringing with him a wife, a collection of old books, and a clarionet. The wife, whose black bonnet still hung behind the kitchen door, had now been dead ten years, and he had only the books and the clarionet to bear him company. But these companions kept him from being dull and lonely, and gave him besides a position of some importance in the village. For by dint of reading his books many times over, and pondering on them as he sat and cobbled, he had gained a store of wisdom, or what passed for such, and a great many long words with which he was fond of impressing the neighbours. He was also considered a fine reader, and quite a musical genius; for although he now only played the clarionet in private, there had been a time, he told them, when he had performed in a gallery as one of the church choir.
It was now about four o'clock in the afternoon, and he sat earnestly intent on making a good job of a pair of boots which had been brought to him to sole. He was also anxious to make the most of the bright spring sunshine, a stray beam of which had found its way in at his little window and helped him greatly by its cheerful presence. All at once a shadow flitted across it, and glancing up he saw a well-known figure run hurriedly in at the cottage door. "It's White Lilac," he said to himself with a smile but without ceasing his work, for Lilac was a frequent visitor, and he could not afford to waste his time in welcoming his guests. He did not even look round, therefore, but listened for her greeting white his hammer kept up a steady tack, tack, tack. It did not come. Joshua stopped his work, raised his head, and listened more intently. The kitchen was as perfectly silent as though it were empty. "I cert'nly did see her," said he, almost doubting his eyesight; "maybe she's playing off a game." He got up and looked cautiously round the entrance, quite expecting Lilac to jump out from some hiding-place with a laugh; but a very different sight met his eyes. Lilac had thrown herself into a large chair which stood on the hearth, her head was bent, her face buried in her hands, and she was crying bitterly.
"My word!" exclaimed Joshua, suddenly arrested on the threshold.
He rubbed his hands in great perplexity on his leather apron. It was quite a new thing to see Lilac in tears, and they fell so fast that she could neither control herself nor tell him the cause of her distress. In vain he tried to coax and comfort her: she would not even raise her head nor look at him. Joshua looked round the room as if for counsel and advice in this difficulty, and fixed his eyes thoughtfully on the tall clock for some moments; then he winked at it, and said softly, as though speaking in confidence: "Best let her have her cry out; then she'll tell me."
"See here," he continued, turning to Lilac and using his ordinary voice. "You've come to get Uncle's tea ready for him, I know, and make him some toast; that's what you've come for. An' I've got a job as I must finish afore tea-time, 'cause the owner's coming for 'em. So I'll go and set to and do it, and you'll get the tea ready like a handy maid as you are, and then we'll have it together, snug and cosy."
When he had settled himself to his work again, and the sound of his hammer mingled with the ticking of the tall clock as though they were running a race, Lilac raised her head and rubbed her wet eyes. There was something very soothing and peaceful in Uncle Joshua's cottage, and his kind voice seemed to carry comfort with it. She had a strong hope that he would help her in some way, though she could not tell how, for he had never failed to find a remedy for all the little troubles she had brought to him from her earliest years. Her faith in him, therefore, was entire, and even if he had proposed to make her hair long again at once, she would have believed it possible, because he knew so much.
Gradually, as she remembered this, she ceased crying altogether, and began to move about the room to prepare the tea, a business to which she was well used, for she had always considered it an honour to get Uncle Joshua's tea and make toast for him. The kettle already hung on its chain over the fire, and gave out a gentle simmering sound; by the time the toast was ready the water would boil. Lilac got the bread from the corner cupboard and cut some stout slices. Uncle liked his toast thick. Then she knelt on the hearth, and shielding her face with one hand chose out the fiercest red hollows of the fire. It was an anxious process, needing the greatest attention; for Lilac prided herself on her toast, and it was a matter of deep importance that it should be a fine even brown all over—neither burnt, nor smoked, nor the least blackened. While she was making it she was happy again, and quite unconscious of the fringe, for the first time since she had felt Agnetta's cold scissors on her brow.