Put like this, it sounded almost a favour to the chauffeur to let him get his business over first; though, perhaps, if they had had time to think, Stella at least would have bethought her that Brighton was slightly out of the way from the City to Westminster!
But Vava's cry of 'Oh do, Stella, do! I should so like to see the sea again,' settled it.
'There's plenty of rugs there, miss,' said the man, as he turned over the bridge with the same amused smile, and, as he had said, soon brought them into a better atmosphere, and finally to Brighton, where the sun was shining.
'If you'll let me know what time you wish to go back, miss, I'll meet you wherever you like,' said the chauffeur, touching his hat.
'As soon as your business is done, of course,' said Stella.
'Oh well'—here the man coughed—'yes, of course. Well, my business won't take long; but I haven't to get back for anything to-day, and my master said I could stop a bit. But, of course, if you are in a hurry'——he replied.
Stella looked doubtful, and consulted her watch. It was half-past three; they had another hour and a half of daylight, and it was very nice by the sea.
'There's no hurry at all, Stella; there's lots to see and do here.—You'll want to have some dinner, won't you?' Vava added, turning to the man.
'I'd be glad to see some friends I've got down here, and they'll look after me. Would seven o'clock suit you, young ladies?'
Again Stella agreed; but a feeling, which she could not define, that she was being managed somehow came over her. But she forgot it in the pleasure of the brisk walk by the sea, the visit to the aquarium, and, finally, listening to the band on the pier.
'Stella, I've come to the conclusion that we are wrong about London people,' announced Vava, as they sat in a sheltered corner listening to the music.
'How, Vava?' asked her sister.
'Nursie always used to say they were hard and selfish and suspicious, and I find that they are very kind. First there were the Montague Joneses, and now there's Mrs. Ryan and your Mr. Jones and this chauffeur, all being as kind as can be,' explained Vava.
'He's not my Mr. Jones,' said Stella sharply, taking up the offensive words. Then she continued, 'Yes, they are kind; but I do not much like accepting kindnesses we cannot return.'
'But we do return it by enjoying ourselves and thanking them, and you heard Mrs. Ryan say that the firm wanted to reward your good work, or, at least, that was what she meant, and you do work hard, and do overtime too sometimes; and I am going to knit a Shetland shawl for Mrs. Ryan, so that will be doing her a kindness in return,' declared Vava.
Stella sighed. 'I wish I were like you, able to enjoy everything, Vava,' she said half-sadly. To the proud, reserved girl, her present life was intolerable.
'Oh don't, Stella! Fancy, if you were like me, really! We should get into all sorts of muddles; besides, people would not be so kind to us!' she added shrewdly.
Stella refrained from asking her what she meant; for she knew too, and, funnily enough, resented the attention which her beauty brought her. However, Vava's words did good; and Stella, whatever she might say, did enjoy the trip. And she thanked the chauffeur so prettily that the man was quite captivated.
'I am sure, miss, it's been a pleasure, and I only hope I shall have the same pleasure again;' and he would have said more, but on the whole he thought it wiser not to do so.
'This has been the nicest day we have spent since we came to London,' Vava assured the man, smiling and nodding at him as he respectfully took his leave.
Stella looked very grave as she put her latch-key into the front-door of their lodgings. 'I am not sure that it is a wise thing to take these treats; it only seems to make you dissatisfied with the outings that I can afford.'
'Indeed it does not, only I liked seeing the sea, and I do love rushing through the country in a motor; but I enjoyed the Tower very much, and I shall enjoy the Houses of Parliament next Saturday all the more for having had a change in between. Besides, it was delightful to get out of that awful fog; we could not have done anything to-day if we had stayed in London except sit in this little room with the gas lit. It was kind of Mr. James.'
'Yes,' agreed Stella; but she did not think it necessary to tell Vava that she was not going to accept such kindnesses in future, however much Mrs. Ryan might say it was 'the custom of the firm.'
'Do you think you can walk to school by yourself this morning, Vava?' inquired Stella a little doubtfully as they stood at the parting of their ways one week-day morning in the City. Stella had always walked to the school-gates with her younger sister; but to-day she had work waiting her at the office, and she was anxious to get there early.
'Of course I can; I'm the only girl in the whole school who is taken to school like a kindergarten child, and some of them even come quite alone without their nurses or any grown-up person!' cried Vava, airing what was rather a grievance with her.
Stella put on her most dignified air. 'Very possibly; but I do not wish to be taught manners by your schoolfellows or their parents. That class of person does not go in for chaperons,' she said in her clear voice.
'Oh Stella!' cried Vava, flushing crimson and looking very vexed.
'What is the matter, Vava?' exclaimed Stella in astonishment.
'That was one of the girls in my form, and she heard you!' protested Vava.
Stella looked as vexed as Vava; she would not for worlds hurt any one's feelings willingly, and she knew too that she ought not to have said what she did; but pride was Stella's besetting sin, and she hated having to mix with people whom she considered her inferiors, and her present life and surroundings only made her prouder.
'I am sorry; I forgot we were so near the school. Perhaps she did not understand me. You say the girls find your Scotch accent difficult to follow?' suggested the girl.
'Well, good-bye,' said Vava; and went off one way, while Stella turned down the street leading to her office without further comment.
When she had left her sister, Stella thought no more of her unfortunate speech. It had been unwise; but, after all, it was quite true. And if the girl had overheard it all, the worst she could think was that Vava's sister was proud, and that she thought herself superior to the pupils of the City School for Girls, which last, Stella privately thought, they could see for themselves.
But Vava did not forget it, and looked very gloomy as she walked along, her eyes looking straight in front of her, not seeing any one.
'Hallo, Vava Wharton! Where are you—in the moon, wool-gathering?' inquired a hearty voice beside her, and a rather stout, common-looking girl, who, however, was nicely dressed and had a pleasant face, patted her on the back.
'Oh Doreen! you startled me. I was thinking!' ejaculated Vava.
'Not very pleasant thoughts, by the look of you,' said Doreen, with a sharp look at Vava's grave face.
'No, they were not,' admitted Vava.
'What's the row? Not any trouble at home, I hope?' asked the girl kindly, and her rough, boisterous voice grew quite gentle.
'I have no home,' said Vava.
'I'm sorry; but you have a sister, and, I say, isn't she a beauty? You're lucky to have her; I have no sister. If it's anything I can help about you may as well tell me; come, out with it. You'll be in the dumps all day if you've got it on your mind. Is it the lessons?'
'No, it's nothing to do with school; at least—well, it's something my sister said about school just now that is bothering me.'
'Doesn't she think you are getting on well, or working hard enough? Because, if that is all, you just introduce me to her to-morrow morning, and let me talk to her, and I'll soon teach her different,' said the girl cheerfully.
Vava thought to herself that Doreen would not have made this suggestion if she had overheard Stella's opinion of her schoolfellows, and she felt that, kind though she was, Doreen was the last girl she would like to introduce to her sister. 'It was just a stupid remark my sister made about the manners at school,' explained Vava.
'The manners at school? Why, we're supposed to have very good manners! I'm sure we're always being drilled in good manners by Miss Upjohn, and the inspectors and visitors always say there's such a good tone among the girls!' exclaimed Doreen, and she looked at Vava as if she suspected her of having taken some tales to her sister, or made some complaint about them. Then as Vava did not answer, for she could not very well explain the true facts of the case, Doreen went on, 'I suppose you think we are not too civil to you about your Scotch accent; but, if we laughed, we didn't mean it unkindly. It's no use being too thin-skinned in this world. I should think your sister was rather too delicate for roughing it in London; she looks as if she ought to be a duchess, not a City clerk.'
'That's just it!' burst forth Vava impulsively.
'Is that what's bothering you? Well, I shouldn't worry about that. Some rich man will come along and marry her before long, you'll see; she's far too pretty to remain single. But,' she added, as a thought struck her, 'why did you first say it was our bad manners that upset you, and then that it was your sister being a clerk?'
Then Vava told the whole story, adding, 'I hope you are not offended? Stella only meant'——
'She only meant that you are a cut above the rest of us, and it's quite true, and of course we know that. Why, the first day you came in with her we thought it was some grand visitor coming. I'm sorry Rosie Brown overheard it; she can be nasty when she likes, and she considers herself some one too, for her father is an alderman. Anyway, I'm glad you've told me, and I'll tackle her if she says anything,' declared Doreen, not letting Vava finish her apology.
'Oh I hope she won't; the girls will be so annoyed!' cried Vava in a fright.
'It's not your fault; they won't blame you; I'm sure you're pleasant and friendly enough with them all. Anyhow, as I said before, I'll give them a piece of my mind if they say anything, and I'll be your friend if you'll let me. Of course, I know you are a lady and I'm not, and I don't talk good grammar and you do, though you roll your "r's" and say "what" in a funny way; but I'd like to talk better if you'll learn me. You see, I am to be a teacher one day, and it'll stand in my way, and father says a good education is a fortune,' answered Doreen.
'I'll teach you, not "learn" you, if I can; for our governess did teach us grammar, and our father was very particular how we spoke, so I suppose we do speak better than a great many girls,' said Vava, laughing and looking quite bright again.
'And we'll be chums?' demanded the girl.
'Yes, if you like,' agreed Vava, not seeing very well how she was to get out of it, but wondering what Stella would say to her choice of a friend. As they entered the playground she saw Rosie Brown the centre of a little group of girls, who looked up as she came in, and then looked away again, without nodding good-morning as usual.
Vava's heart sank; but Doreen said in her loud cheery voice, 'Hallo, you there! What are you all confabbing about so mysteriously? Nice manners that!' she wound up purposely.
'Oh we can't all have the manners of your friend Lady Clara Vere de Vere! I wonder she condescends to talk to you or come to our school at all with the people of our class,' said one of the girls.
Vava's colour rose, but she walked on without taking the least notice of what was said.
Not so, Doreen. She stopped in front of them, and demanded loudly, 'What do you mean by that? I have no titled friend, because I'm only a tradesman's daughter, and very proud of the fact, for he earned every penny he's got honestly, which is more than you can say of some grand people.'
'We don't mean anything to do with you, Doreen; you don't give yourself airs or despise us; but if you knew what Vava Wharton thinks of you, you wouldn't walk with her!' said Rosie Brown.
'Wouldn't I? Well, I just should, then, for she's my chum, and any one who speaks against her speaks against me. And, pray, how do you know what she thinks of me? Has she been telling you?' inquired Doreen, standing square and uncompromising before the angry group.
'She thinks you're no class, as she does the rest of us,' said Rosie Brown.
Doreen turned on her. 'Does she? She's never shown any signs of it. No one could be nicer and more friendly than Vava Wharton has been ever since she has been here, and I shouldn't have thought she was one to go behind my back and say I was no class, especially to you, Rosie. Anyway, I've a right to know what she said about me,' demanded Doreen, who knew very well what Rosie meant, and that she was putting her in an awkward position.
'If she didn't, that stuck-up sister of hers did,' said Rosie sulkily.
'Well, I shouldn't call her stuck-up after she has been talking to you,' observed Doreen sarcastically.
'She talk to me! She wouldn't demean herself by addressing a word to any one under a duke. I happened to overhear a remark she made,' said Rosie, falling into the trap.
'And you repeated a private remark that you listened to? That's nice and honourable, anyway. I wonder what Miss Upjohn would say if she heard of it? But you mind one thing, all of you—if you choose to take any notice of anything heard by eavesdropping, you can. I call it playing it low down; but you're not going to annoy Vava Wharton, who is not to blame one bit, and if you do I'll just go straight to the head-mistress and tell her, and we'll see what she says about honour,' announced Doreen. Having said so, she turned on her heel and followed Vava into the cloak-room, leaving the little group of girls—to whom she had given 'a piece of her mind,' as she called it—looking rather crestfallen.
'All the same, she does consider herself better than us, or why does she say good-bye so quickly if she sees her sister, and sit next a mistress at lunch?' inquired Rosie.
'It's a free country, I suppose she can do as she likes. I believe she told me she had come from a lonely part of Scotland, and wasn't used to living in a great city, and that crowds rather frightened her,' observed a girl who looked rather ashamed of having listened to this tittle-tattle.
'It's all right. I've shut her up, mean eavesdropper, and made them all feel ashamed of themselves; so don't you worry about it any more,' Doreen whispered to Vava, as she took off her boots and put on school-shoes.
'Oh thank you,' was all Vava said, and she felt very grateful and friendly toward Doreen; but during the day she found herself wondering what Stella would say to this new friend, for she was sure Doreen would expect to be introduced to Stella if they met on the way to school, which they were pretty sure to do. And, grateful as she was to Doreen for her championship, she found herself wishing that the girl was a little more refined. However, Vava was no snob, and she determined to face facts and tell Stella she must be friends with Doreen, and so she did.
Stella heard her without making any remark, until Vava said, 'And, of course, you need not speak to her if she comes up to us in the street; she's sure to do that, because she has not very good manners.'
'She has very good principles and a good heart, which are more important, and I shall certainly stop and thank her for being so kind to you this morning,' remarked Stella.
Vava was so surprised that she stared at Stella. 'But—but she's not a lady, Stella, and she talks dreadful grammar sometimes; but she asked me to correct her, so she is trying to improve,' Vava observed.
'I don't suppose you will learn bad grammar from her, and as you only see her in school you will not be too much in her company.'
All the same, Vava was glad the next morning that they did not meet Doreen, and sorry the morning after when they did. To her surprise, Doreen only nodded when she caught sight of them, and walked on the other side of the street.
'Who is that, Vava?' inquired Stella, seeing her nod to some one.
'That is Doreen,' replied Vava.
'Tell her to come and speak to me; I should like to know her,' announced Stella.
Vava ran across to Doreen, and gave Stella's message.
'Does she really? May I really?' stammered Doreen, quite flustered.
'Yes, of course; she's not a bit stiff when you know her,' Vava assured her, for she guessed that Doreen was a little afraid of the stately lady in black.
But Stella gave her lovely smile, and Doreen forgot her fears as she gazed in frank admiration at Miss Wharton, who said, 'Thank you for being so nice to Vava yesterday. I ought not to have said what I did, for, after all, you showed better manners than I.'
'Oh but I didn't. I'd love to have manners like you; and father said, when I told him last night, that it was only a natural remark, and that people would always be divided into classes as long as the world lasted, and that it was very hard on you having to come down from your class and mix with us; but that you'd find we'd a lot of good in us, though we had no manners,' cried Doreen eagerly.
'I am sure of it,' said Stella, who did not seem to mind the girl's plain speaking.
Doreen looked at Stella suddenly, and gave a great sigh. She was quite at ease with her, Vava noticed with surprise, and with still greater surprise that Stella seemed to like her and not to notice her rough speech. 'Well, what was that sigh for?' Stella asked, smiling.
'You are so beautiful,' said Doreen bluntly.
Stella coloured a little, and laughed as she said, 'I am glad you think so; I don't think I am very different from other girls.' And then they said good-bye to each other.
'She is as different as chalk from cheese!' cried Doreen enthusiastically to Vava.
'I don't think she's proud of being pretty; she never seems to notice that,' said Vava; and she went into school much happier than she had felt the day before, and relieved to think that she might make friends with Doreen, whose fine character made her rather popular at school.
THE ENTERPRISE CLUB.
In one of the City of London's busiest thoroughfares, among the numerous plates bearing the names and callings of the occupants of the different chambers or offices in a certain big building, is a small plate with the words 'Enterprise Club.' That is all the outward sign of the fact that the only ladies' club in the City, a veritable haven of refuge for lady-clerks and secretaries, has its quarters here.
It was here that Stella sat one lunch-time, looking so worried that a ladylike-looking girl, to whom she had spoken once or twice, asked her if she had a headache.
'No, no, thank you; I am quite well,' replied Stella, her brows still knitted.
The girls at the Enterprise contented themselves with a nod of the head, or a 'Good-morning,' to Stella, whom they put down as proud and stuck-up. But this girl had gone a little farther, and had even elicited the fact that she had a younger sister; and to-day, seeing Miss Wharton look so grave, it occurred to her that it might be something connected with this younger sister that was troubling her, and she asked, 'Is your sister quite well? I have never seen her here. Doesn't she ever come?'
'My sister? No, she is not a member; she is only a schoolgirl. I did not think it would be allowed,' said Stella.
'She could come as a visitor, and I am sure if you asked the secretary she would make an exception and allow her to join. It would be so nice if she could stay and play cards or dominoes after office hours on these cold winter afternoons,' suggested the girl.
Stella's face brightened up so wonderfully that her companion guessed that this was the difficulty. 'If she could, I should be so glad; she is very good, but she feels the dullness of life in lodgings, and I am beginning to be quite anxious about her. She would like to come here sometimes, I am sure.'
'Then let us ask the secretary at once, and she can come this evening,' suggested the good-natured girl.
The secretary gave a ready consent, and that afternoon, instead of going straight home, Vava was brought into the Enterprise Club, and sank with a little exclamation of pleasure into one of the comfortable easy-chairs, and looked round the tastefully furnished room. She was soon invited to play a game of draughts by one of the younger girls, for Vava did not inspire awe as Stella did.
'If next Saturday is wet or horrid like last Saturday, I shall ask Stella to bring me here,' Vava announced, as she moved one of her 'men.'
'On Saturday! I should have thought you would want to get away from the City as soon as possible! I should, I know,' said the other.
'But you are staying this evening,' Vava pointed out.
'That is because my chum Amy is working late; I always wait for her rather than go home alone; but on Saturdays we generally go for a long bicycle ride or something, to get some fresh air and fresh ideas,' announced the girl, hopping over two of Vava's 'men.'
'I wish I rode a bicycle; but we always rode horses in Scotland—at least Stella did; I had a pony,' explained Vava.
'This must be a change for you!' cried the other; but said no more, for the game absorbed her attention.
But the result of this conversation was that, the next Saturday being wet, Vava's opponent suddenly said to her chum, 'Amy, we can't cycle to-day; suppose we lunch at the Enterprise, and have some games with those two new girls in mourning?'
'Oh the Misses Wharton? Have you fallen in love with the beautiful Miss Wharton too?' replied the girl called Amy.
'Is that their name? But it isn't Miss Wharton I am thinking of; it's her younger sister. Fancy, they have been used to riding their own horses, and now they walk to the City and back! She wants to stay at the Enterprise on Saturday, so they can't have very nice "diggings,"' replied her companion.
'It's not a bad place to spend a wet afternoon in; so, if you like, we will lunch there; it's just as comfortable as Bleak House,' replied Amy.
'Yes, but one gets tired of living in a crowd. Oh how I wish we could afford a cottage in the country!' said the younger girl.
'But we cannot, Eva; so let us try to be contented with our lot,' replied Amy.
By way of showing her content, Eva grumbled loudly at it to Vava. The four were sitting at the same table, having lunch, and she found only too willing a listener in Vava Wharton to sympathise with her.
'Cheer up, Eva; things might be worse. Here we are sitting on a wet and bitterly cold afternoon in a pleasant, warm room, in comfortable chairs, surrounded by newspapers, magazines, and fashion papers! What more could you have if you were a fashionable young lady?' inquired her chum Amy.
'I could have this room as my own, and money to spend on the fashions I look at, and somewhere to show them off better than a stuffy office or Bleak House,' retorted Eva.
'Bleak House! That is the name of one of Dickens's books!' exclaimed Vava.
'It is the name of a large hostel or boarding-house for ladies who earn their own living, where Eva and I live, and it is really quite comfortable, only that it is not home,' said Amy, and she looked sympathetically at Eva, who was only sixteen, and had begun early to work for her daily bread.
There was silence for a moment, and the four young faces looked as grave as if they had the cares of the world upon their shoulders.
Suddenly Eva broke out, 'I wouldn't mind if I had something different to look forward to; but to think of going on for years the same dull grind and back to the same crowd of girls, who can talk of nothing but their office or else roller-skating; and Amy does not approve of going out to amusements every evening.'
'We wanted to take a house, but it is too expensive, and the one we looked at was dreadfully dear, although it had no garden. Oh how I would love a house with a garden! Some of the girls at school have gardens, and even greenhouses, for they bring leaves and flowers to school for our painting and botany lessons, and yet they are not rich,' observed Vava.
'All houses are not dear. Girls! I have an idea; let's take a house between us—the four of us!' cried Eva suddenly.
Stella looked up, startled at this abrupt suggestion; but Eva's chum Amy, who was used to her ways, only smiled, and said jestingly, 'Where do you mean to take a house, and how would you furnish it?'
'In the suburbs; and as for furnishing, we could do that on the hire-system. It shall have a garden and a lawn and a tree—I must have a tree; it's so ideal to sit and have tea in the garden under a tree, or read a book in a canvas-chair on a summer's day,' replied Eva.
'I don't care for the hire-system, and houses with gardens and lawns and trees are not to be found in London. I am afraid we must wait until we are old ladies, and can retire on our savings and live in some little country village,' said Amy, laying her hand upon Eva's and smiling at her.
Possibly the conversation would have ended here but for Vava, and something that she said. 'But couldn't we have a little house in an unfashionable part? All the girls at school have houses or flats of their own; it would be so nice to have a home.'
'So we will have a home. Why shouldn't we? Lots of families live on two hundred pounds a year, and that would be a pound a week each. Why, the Smiths are a family of five, and they have only about two hundred, and they have a garden and an arbour covered with ivy and creepers and things!' cried Eva.
'Oh where is that?' asked Vava eagerly, her eyes shining.
'My dear Eva!' protested Amy, looking apologetically at Stella, who was very grave and silent.
'Well, what is the matter?' demanded Eva.
'You do talk such nonsense. How can four people, who are strangers to each other, suddenly take a house and live together? Why, we do not even know each other's names!' said Amy, laughing.
'My name is Eva Barnes, and this is my greatest and best friend, Amy Overall,' said Eva promptly; and then, turning to Vava, she added, 'Let's talk it over by ourselves; old people are always cautious,' and she and Vava began to talk in low tones. Presently Eva took out a pencil and note-book, and began making elaborate calculations.
The two 'elders' smiled at them. They were not more than twenty-one and twenty-four respectively; but they let the younger ones whisper nonsense together, while they talked of books; and Stella found that Amy Overall had read the same sort of books that she had, which surprised her, for hers had been chosen for her by her literary father.
'My father was a professor at Cambridge, and that is why I have read these books,' explained Amy, delighted to find some one whose tastes were congenial; in fact, it is to be doubted which of the two was most pleased.
They were so interested in discussing a certain author that they took little notice of the other two. Every now and then a low laugh told them that the two younger girls were enjoying themselves as much as the 'old people,' as they called their elders.
'Now,' cried Eva, 'let us lay a statement of accounts before them!'
The elders stopped in their conversation, and looked at Eva and Vava, whose faces were flushed with excitement, and whose eyes were dancing as Stella had not seen Vava's dance since she left Lomore, not even on their motor drive.
Amy took the sheet of paper Eva handed her, saying, 'Eva is a great mathematician; she takes after her father.'
'Barnes! Did he write an arithmetic?' inquired Vava; and when Eva nodded, she added, 'Why, I use it at school!'
'What accounts have you been making out?' asked Stella in a friendly tone, for this last fact seemed a link between them as the daughters of literary men.
'Our new house and its expenses,' announced Vava.
Amy looked half-fearfully at Stella, for she thought she would be annoyed at the girl's persistence; but, to her surprise, Stella read the paper through with apparent interest.
'Rent, L34; taxes, L12; food, L90; firing and gas, L20; servant, L12; washing, L12, extras, L20—total, L200,' she read out.
'That's only the summary of it; here are the details. We have made out a menu for a week and washing for four people and household linen,' explained Eva.
'It is a step which requires consideration; we might not care for each other's company on closer acquaintance,' said Stella.
But Vava interrupted impulsively, 'We have arranged for that; we would have two sitting-rooms, and only come together when we liked; and, anyway, they couldn't be as disagreeable as our landlady. Fancy, she won't cook in the evenings, and she always wants to know if we are not going out to friends on Sunday, and it makes us feel as if we ought to go somewhere out of her way.'
Stella did not quite like Vava's frankness. Seeing which, Amy hastened to say, 'That was our experience in lodgings, and one of the reasons we gave them up. It is very difficult to know what to do; but at Bleak House we have not that difficulty. I should like you to see it. Would you'—here she hesitated and coloured—'would you and your sister give us the pleasure of your company to-morrow? We are so many that a few more make no difference, and we are encouraged to bring our friends.'
It would have been difficult to refuse an invitation so diffidently given; besides, Stella liked Amy Overall, and Vava's eyes were begging her to say 'Yes,' and she did so, and was rewarded by the evident pleasure which she had given every one.
'Stella, couldn't we do it, don't you think?' pleaded Vava on the way home.
'Take a house, do you mean? I don't know, Vava; we may some day—who knows?—but not yet awhile,' replied Stella, who was anxious not to damp her sister's delight in these castles in the air.
'If you only knew how horrid it is to hear the other girls talking of going home; they have all got homes but me,' said Vava wistfully.
Stella tried to comfort her, and began to talk of their visit next day, and of how they could get there after church, and Vava cheered up at the thought of a day with Eva, who was so little older than she that they got on very well together.
Amy meanwhile was taking Eva to task. 'You surely were not serious; and, if not, do you think it was kind to raise hopes and put ideas which can never be realised into that child's head?' she demanded severely.
'I was quite serious; it was a sudden inspiration, and, mark my words, it will be realised!' declared Eva.
'Not by me; I am not going to run into all sorts of expenses which a house always entails,' said Amy.
'Now, isn't that funny? It is always the unexpected that happens; one would have expected the cautious Scotch Miss Wharton to be the one to make objections, whereas she is inclined to risk it—I could see that in the corner of her eye—and you are the timid one,' declared Eva.
'On the contrary, Miss Wharton was only too polite to crush you. When she says she's ready to take a house with us I shall certainly be ready to agree,' replied Amy Overall, feeling certain that she would not be asked to do so.
'All right; that's a promise of which I shall remind you before long, you will see,' said Eva; and then talked of the morrow and what they should do with their visitors.
BLEAK HOUSE HOSTEL.
'What are we going to do with those two girls to-day, Amy?' demanded Eva at breakfast, which, being Sunday, they were having late.
'Entertain them,' responded Amy.
'Don't be tiresome; you know quite well what I mean. What are we to do to entertain them? They will get here at half-past twelve, after they have been to church. We can't go to church in the afternoon; besides, we don't know what kind of church they go to, and dinner can't last longer than a quarter to two, because the servants like to have the tables all cleared by two o'clock, and I suppose they won't go away till after tea at four o'clock,' argued Eva.
'I hope they won't go away until after supper. I want them to have a nice day; they are very lonely, Eva. You know what we felt like when we first came to town, and how we determined we would always be friendly to other lonely girls from the country, and I thought you liked the Misses Wharton so much that you wanted to live with them!' cried Amy Overall in surprise at this change of front.
'That's just it, I do want to live with them; at least I want to have a house to myself again.'
'A house to yourself! Is that your latest? That is more ridiculous than your last idea, and still less likely to come about,' said Amy.
'It is the same idea. I call it "to myself," with only three others in it, especially when I am part-owner; and the reason I don't want the Whartons to stay too long to-day is for fear that they should be bored, and find that we are not their sort, and not want to take a house with us after all,' explained Eva.
'Well, really, Eva, your way of looking at things does surprise me sometimes; and I hope you won't be angry, but it does not always seem to me to be quite straight.'
'What isn't quite straight?' demanded Eva, flushing up.
Amy was a little slow in expressing herself; but she said hesitatingly, 'I mean that it would be honest, in my opinion, to face facts, and if we were likely to bore each other to find it out before we entered upon a plan which would throw us together for a great many Sundays as well as other days.'
'That is quite a different thing. We shall not have to entertain each other for a whole day; we shall go our own ways, and read books, or write letters; but we can't ask the Misses Wharton to read books to-day, and one can't talk for hours together—at least I can't; perhaps you can, as you are so very righteous,' retorted Eva, who was annoyed.
'I thought we might go to a picture-gallery after dinner, and then come back for tea and a talk, and there is always some nice music here in the evening,' suggested Amy, taking no notice of Eva's last remark.
Eva recovered her temper as quickly as she lost it. 'That will be a good plan; but—they are Scotch, and I don't believe they allow music on Sundays,' she suddenly bethought herself.
'You are thinking of that story we read the other day. Those were strict people; I don't believe the Whartons are like that.' But she looked rather doubtful.
Eva smiled wickedly. 'So perhaps, after all, we shall have to talk all the time.'
'I don't think Miss Wharton and I will get tired of each other, even if such a dreadful thing happened as our being obliged to entertain each other for a few hours,' said Amy calmly.
But when the Whartons came it turned out that they had no objection to music nor to a picture-gallery, provided they had been to church first.
Vava and Eva paired off, and the latter began at once, 'Tell me, are you as sick of lodgings as ever?'
'Yes, of course; I should never like them. But why do you ask?' demanded Vava, who looked so pretty in her prettily made Sunday-frock that Eva was more than ever attracted to her.
'Because Amy and I have decided that we are quite ready if you two are,' said Eva.
Vava flushed with pleasure. 'Really? Then Miss Overall doesn't think it a mad idea? Stella did not believe you were serious, or that Miss Overall would like it; but if she does I shouldn't wonder if Stella would agree to doing it. She said it might be possible some day; but not yet, of course.'
'Some day may mean years hence, when we are all dead, or too old to enjoy a garden of our own. Just fancy sowing flower-seeds and watching them growing every day, and having our own vegetables! We could have salad every evening in the summer, and lettuces freshly picked from a dear little bed!' urged Eva.
Vava listened with growing enthusiasm. 'It would be almost like home again. I have grown radishes in my little garden, because nursie liked them for tea. If only nursie were with us I should be quite happy, I think!' she exclaimed.
The two younger girls were in Eva's little bedroom, taking off Vava's outdoor things, a process which they had prolonged so as to talk confidentially together. Stella Wharton and Amy Overall, on the contrary, had long since gone down to the big drawing-room, where about thirty girls of various ages were sitting about, reading or talking.
It seemed to Stella, who was not used to crowds, that the babel was terrific, and Amy, seeing this, rose, saying, 'If you don't mind staying here alone for a few minutes I will ask the housekeeper to let us have a private sitting-room for an hour or so? We can talk better there.'
Amy had arranged for the private sitting-room, and was just going to tell Vava and Eva that there was no need for them to sit in a cold bedroom, when Eva appeared in the passage.
'I was just coming to you, Amy. I want to speak to you alone for a moment,' said Eva hurriedly, taking her friend's arm; and, turning back with her to the latter's room, she added, 'What do you think, Amy, the Whartons are quite ready to start housekeeping if only you will, and as they are cautious Scotch people it's sure to be all right!'
'Who told you that, Eva? You mean that Vava is quite ready, don't you? I can scarcely believe that Miss Wharton, who really seems a very thoughtful, serious person, has said she is ready to start a house with strangers. It seems incredible!' objected Amy, and she looked rather curiously at Eva.
'There's nothing so incredible in wanting to live in a house instead of horrid lodgings. They are miserable where they are, and jump at the thought of making other arrangements, which they can only do if you chum with them. And, after all, what's all the fuss and caution about? What is there so very serious in taking a little house for a year? Of course we may get tired of it and each other, though I don't think that likely; but twelve months is not so long to put up with what we don't like, and, anyway, it will be great fun at first. What is your objection now?' demanded Eva, who poured out all this eloquence so rapidly and energetically as to overwhelm the slow-thinking Amy.
'It's—it's not such a light or easy matter, Eva. There are the weekly bills to be thought of, and the furnishing, and the rent, and a servant, and—oh! a hundred things,' wound up the elder girl, with knitted brows.
'The weekly bills won't come to more than we can pay weekly, and as for a servant—what do we want with one? We will each do our own room before we start, and we are out all day, and only sleep there, except on Saturday and Sunday; and then, among the four of us, surely we can manage a little house. We will lead the simple life; every one is talking about the simple life, and how one goes in for too many luxuries and is over-civilised, and we will just go back to primitive ways. Now, Amy, be a Christian and say "Yes." You are always telling me that one must be self-sacrificing in this world; sacrifice yourself, and make those two lonely girls happy, to say nothing of me, who am stifled in this crowded barracks of a place,' declared Eva.
Eva did not look very stifled, and in justice to the ladies' hostel it should be stated that it was not in the least crowded or stifling; this was a mere figure of speech on Eva's part, who, as will have been seen, was apt to turn things round to suit herself. She was only sixteen; very young to be thrown upon the world and her own resources. With the exception of Amy, she was unfortunately not under very good influences, and when she wanted to believe a thing was true she generally managed to do so, and though she would have scorned to tell a lie she made things appear to be what she wished them to be. At any rate, she managed to deceive both Vava and Amy, and make each of them believe that consent had been given on both sides; and, as unfortunately often happened, she succeeded in getting her own way.
However, for the moment there was no talk about future plans; it would not have been possible in the public dining-room, and almost immediately after early dinner the four went off to the Tate Gallery, and the talk turned upon pictures, and Eva noticed with satisfaction that the elders were getting on famously.
'Do you know what I have been thinking?' inquired Eva of Vava.
They were standing before a picture by Burne-Jones as she said this. Vava replied promptly, 'I don't know, unless it is that the ladies in this picture have all got the same mouths.'
'Oh the picture! I wasn't thinking about it at all; I don't care very much for art. Amy does, and she is always dragging me here with her, so that I know them all by heart, and am quite sick of them. No, what I was thinking was that those two are getting on A1, and that it's all providential!' announced Eva.
Vava looked puzzled for a minute, and then laughed as she said, 'You mean that it is providential that they like one another? Then, I suppose, it's providential that we get on together, or that any one ever likes any one else?'
'I mean that, as we want to live together, it's a good thing we suit each other,' replied Eva.
'Oh but that may not be for a long time; still, we can be friends, can't we?' asked Vava.
'Yes, but why need it be a long time? Your sister is quite ready; so is Amy'——she began.
But Vava interrupted her in surprise. 'Stella quite ready! To take a house with you, do you mean? Oh is she really?'
'Why, of course she is! Didn't you tell me so?' cried Eva.
'I?' replied Vava, in such tones of astonishment that Eva coloured up.
'You certainly said that if Amy would agree your sister would, and that she thought it a good idea. And as Amy does agree—why, your sister will too,' she affirmed.
Eva had quite persuaded herself that the two elder girls were ready, and that it only needed some keeping up to the mark on her part to bring the new plan about.
Vava was quite silent for a time; she was very impulsive and outspoken, but she was also very straightforward, and somehow it struck her that Eva's speech was not so. In spite of her impulsiveness, she could on occasion hold her peace, and she did so now.
'Of course, if you've changed your mind, and don't care so much for me, now that you know me better, that ends the matter; we must go on living in our barracks, and you in your dirty lodgings!' Eva cried, vexed at Vava's silence.
Vava was half-inclined to be angry at Eva's plain speaking; but, after all, the lodgings were dirty, and it was she herself who had told Eva so, and, besides, it was rather flattering to be wanted as a house-mate. So she forgot her suspicion as to Eva's truthfulness, and answered heartily enough, 'I do want to live with you, and I am just as tired of our dirty lodgings as you can be of your hostel, which is ever so much nicer than where we live, if only there wasn't such a noise all the time with people talking all at the one time. And as for Stella, I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong idea. She is not one to make up her mind in a hurry—we Scotch never are, I think; but I will try and persuade her.'
Eva said no more; privately she thought her own persuasion would be more powerful. They were now called by the other two to come with them, as the gallery was just closing.
'And I haven't seen half the pictures!' exclaimed Vava.
'Never mind; I will bring you again another day,' said Stella, smiling; and Vava thought she had not seen her look so bright and happy since they had left Lomore.
'We might make it our next Saturday treat,' agreed Vava.
'We had another plan for Saturday,' replied Stella, smiling again in a half-ashamed manner.
'Another treat? Are we going anywhere all together?' Vava inquired, looking from Stella to Amy.
'We are going house-hunting,' announced Amy, who looked pleased at the demonstration of delight the announcement called forth.
'House-hunting?' echoed Vava, while Eva gave a little cry of delight; then, having got over their surprise, the two younger girls began asking eager questions.
'We have not made our calculations yet; but we are going to have a council of war, or rather of peace, at the Enterprise Club next week to talk things over. At any rate, we can just go and look at some little houses in a suburb which Miss Overall thinks possible,' Stella observed.
There was little else talked of till they parted; and Amy said after they were gone, 'I hope I have done right. Miss Wharton did not seem quite so ready when I spoke to her. I suppose upon reflection her Scotch caution came to the fore, and indeed I am half-frightened myself; but their gratitude at our being so friendly was reward enough for running a little risk, and we are not pledged to anything even now,' she wound up.
'Oh but you mustn't draw back; you are really doing a kind deed, and it will turn out splendidly, you will see!' cried Eva quickly.
Vava meanwhile walked home with her sister in the gayest of spirits, and yet a doubt would keep coming into her mind. Hadn't Eva rather managed them all, and hadn't she rather twisted what she (Vava) had said? Then the remembrance of Eva's affectionate parting made her ashamed of her doubts, and she banished them from her mind.
'Anyway, we sha'n't get tired of them, for we have spent a whole day doing nothing but talk to each other, and if you can do that you can spend your whole life with any one nearly; at any rate, you can live in the same house, especially when you are all out in separate parts all the day,' opined Vava.
'We can but try; and, at any rate, it is not settled, and I shall do nothing without consulting Mr. Stacey,' declared Stella as they said good-night to each other.
'THE RANK IS BUT THE GUINEA'S STAMP.'
'Hallo, Vava!' said a voice behind her, as Vava Wharton was on her way to school a few days after the Sunday she and her sister had spent at the ladies' hostel.
There was no doubt as to the speaker, for this was Doreen Hackney's invariable greeting, and, as usual, Vava turned and said pleasantly, 'Good-morning, Doreen.'
'What's the row—matter, I mean? You look down in the dumps. I say, are you moping for the country? You don't seem to be half the girl you were when you first came; you don't make any jokes, and when I meet you in the morning you have a face as long as a fiddle,' remarked Doreen in her loud, cheerful tones.
'I was only thinking. I didn't know my face was long. We are thinking of moving—into a house, my sister and I—and I was thinking about that, and I suppose it made me look grave,' explained Vava.
'What on earth is there to be grave about in that? You haven't got anything to do with the moving, have you? We moved last year, and it didn't make me grave till mother said I'd got to burn some of what she called my "rubbish." I think it's rather fun moving; you have all new wall-papers and a new garden, and it makes a change. Where are you going to move to?' inquired Doreen.
'Oh I don't know; we haven't got a house yet. I believe we are going to look at one in Blackstead,' said Vava.
'Blackstead! That's where we live. There are some nice houses there; cheap too, because it is not a fashionable suburb. I hope you will come there, because then you and I can come to school together—that is, if your sister would not mind. Mother says I am not to push myself into your society, because you are a lady; and I'm very rough, I know. Mother's always telling me about my manners; she says I talk so loud and laugh so loud. I wish you would tell me about it when I do; you talk so soft and ladylike,' observed Doreen.
Vava laughed. 'I! Why, the girls couldn't understand me when I first came,' she protested.
'Oh well, there were some words you used that we'd never heard before, but I like it now. I say, if you do move our way I wish you'd let me help,' Doreen said very earnestly, for she concluded that it was the moving which was causing Vava to look so worried.
'Thank you,' said Vava, and laughed.
'It won't be so bad, you know; the men move so cleverly now, mother says; you start in the morning, and in the evening you are all to rights. I dare say when you get back from school you'll find it quite shipshape, and even if you're not you can sleep the night at our place; so don't you worry about that,' said Doreen.
'It's not that at all; I don't care if we are not shipshape for a week; it's the girls we are going to take a house with that are worrying me—if I am worrying, as you say,' replied Vava.
Then Vava told her the story of their plan, and finished up by saying, 'I don't quite like Eva—at least I can't help liking her, because she is so lively and such fun to talk to, and she has been awfully nice to us; but I feel as if I can't quite believe in her somehow. And if we are going to live together we shall have to be friends.'
Doreen whistled, and then seeing that Vava looked a little put out at her schoolfellow's manners, and the attention they attracted in the street, she apologised, saying in a lower tone, 'Beg your pardon, but I'm sorry for what you tell me, because there's nothing so horrid as to have to do with any one that is not quite straight. Why don't you believe in her? Doesn't she tell the truth?'
'I—I don't know; I don't like to say anything against her, because she is very nice to me, and seems to like me, and she has never told me a real story. But it's the things she says, they make me feel uncomfortable. And yet I do so want to live in a house again, and we can only do it if we chum with them!'
'Well, you needn't see much of her even if you live in the same house; you'll be out all day, and so will she, and you will have your lessons and practising in the evenings. After all, they're only new friends; they can't expect you to live as if you were one family, and—and you know I'm straight—if you do come to Blackstead we might do our lessons together?' suggested Doreen, by way of comforting Vava.
But, as it happened, it had not quite the desired effect; for, much though Vava liked Doreen, she remembered her sister's resolution that if they could not have friends of their own class they would have none; and as she declined to know the Montague Joneses she would certainly not have anything to do with the Hackneys. However, that was not a thing she could say to Doreen; and, as she did not want to throw cold water on her kindness, she said, 'Thank you, you are kind, and of course you are straight, and I am very glad you are my chum, especially in school; out of school Stella is my chum.'
'Yes, of course, and a jolly good one too,' said Doreen heartily; and if she guessed that Vava meant that they would not see much of each other out of school, she did not show it, but observed, 'And you know, even if that Eva is not always quite square in her way of looking at things, you can do her good.'
'Miss Briggs said the other day that "evil communications corrupt good manners," and that if a girl's conversation made us feel uncomfortable, or feel that we should not like our parents to hear it, we were to shun her as we should the plague,' observed Vava.
'I know she did, but I don't agree with her,' remarked Doreen calmly.
Vava looked at Doreen in astonishment. She often questioned her sister's authority, but not Miss Briggs's, who was a very clever young mistress. 'Do you mean that if a girl isn't nice you don't care?' she asked.
'No, I mean that you ought to make her shut up. Sometimes a girl talks rot because she is silly; but you can soon stop her, and if one were to avoid every one who did or said anything wrong, why one might as well live in a desert island. Look at Belle Reed! You couldn't believe a word that girl said when she first came to our school; but she soon dropped it when she found we couldn't stand liars.'
Doreen had got interested in what she was saying, and unconsciously raised her voice, and one of the mistresses who happened to pass at the moment turned and looked with disapproval at her. She then glanced at her companion, and looked still more displeased.
'That is not very nice language for the street, Doreen,' she said severely.
'Bother! That was Miss Briggs! Why need she have passed at that particular minute?' observed the girl.
'Why need you talk so loudly?' remarked Vava. Then they both passed into school, and thought no more about it.
But next morning at breakfast Stella received a letter which seemed to annoy her a good deal, and she said to Vava, 'I hear you have made friends with an undesirable girl at school.'
'I suppose you mean Doreen; but why should you say you "hear" it? There's no need for you to go to other people to hear what I do, or what friends I have; I always tell you what happens at school, and I thought you liked Doreen Hackney. Of course I know she is not very ladylike outwardly, but she is agreeable,' said Vava, championing her friend rather hotly.
'Doreen Hackney? Is that the girl I spoke to the other day?' asked Stella, referring to the letter and looking puzzled.
'Yes, that is her name. Who has been writing against her to you? Why can't people mind their own business?' cried Vava.
'Vava, do not speak so rudely, or I shall think what I am told is true. It is Miss Briggs, who says she is not an improving companion for you, and that her language is very vulgar. But I can't believe you could learn harm from that girl; she has such a nice, open face,' said Stella.
'So she has. All she said was that she couldn't stand liars, and I suppose that shocked Miss Briggs; but I believe in calling a spade a spade,' announced Vava.
'You are not to call people liars, and you had better tell Doreen that I object to such strong language; there is no need for it. It is quite enough to say "an untruth." I hope Doreen was not calling any one names?' inquired Stella.
'No, only people in general,' said Vava.
Stella laughed. 'Well, tell her not to do so in future.' But she did not say anything about her being an undesirable friend for Vava, to the latter's relief. Stella opened her next letter, which happened to be from the house-agent at Blackstead, and this interested her so much that she forgot about Doreen and her strong language.
'There is a house at Blackstead which sounds ideal, Vava. Listen: "Four bedrooms, three reception-rooms, kitchen, bath (h. and c.), and garden with fruit-trees—forty pounds, but perhaps less to a good tenant, as the landlord lives next door and is very particular about his neighbours, and has refused good 'lets' already,"' Stella read out.
She was the least busy of the four, and the only one with capital, so it had been decided that she should do the correspondence, and by Mr. Stacey's advice she was to take the house in her own name, as 'you can then get rid of your new acquaintances if you wish, and you will be responsible for the rent, or rather I will, which your landlord will prefer, as I hold your securities.'
'Do you know, Stella, I have come to the conclusion that people never do what you expect them to do; anyway, you and Mr. Stacey don't,' announced Vava when she heard Mr. Stacey's advice.
'I don't? What have I done or not done that you expected?' said Stella, amused at Vava's moralising, though she understood and agreed with her surprise at Mr. Stacey's ready approval of their taking a small house, instead of remaining in lodgings; it did not seem like his usual caution nor the advice he gave them before they left Lomore.
'You don't disapprove of Doreen, though she is not a lady and a little rough sometimes and loud in her way of speaking in the street, so that I feel ashamed at the attention she attracts, though I like her most awfully; and yet you don't like the Montague Joneses, who behave quite like a lady and gentleman; and now Mr. Stacey, who was so horrid, telling us we must go into poky lodgings and be saving, quite approves of our taking a house with some people we don't know very well! It's rather funny of him, but I believe I know the reason,' announced Vava, nodding her head.
Stella thought she knew too, but her guess was a different one to Vava's. She imagined that her remarks about her younger sister's flagging health and spirits influenced the old lawyer, as well as the fact at which he hinted that their income would be a little larger than he anticipated, thanks to the sum paid for the hire of their furniture and a rise in some shares. Whereas Vava had an idea that the Montague Joneses were somehow at the bottom of his change of front; but neither imparted her opinion to the other, and Stella did not ask Vava for hers, because she was occupied with thoughts of the new scheme.
The Montague Joneses had called on a wet Saturday afternoon, having chosen that time as very likely to find them at home; but the Misses Wharton were at the Enterprise Club, and came home to find their visitors' cards.
'Such a nice lady and gentleman and such a splendid car; they are grand friends for you to have,' the landlady said.
Stella made no reply, but passed on to her own little sitting-room.
Vava looked wistfully at Stella, but the latter did not catch the look, or she might have spoken otherwise. 'We must leave cards in return; but I shall not go on their "At Home" day,' she said.
Vava did not argue. She had known they were going to call; but if Stella had made up her mind it was no use arguing, and the thought of the ideal house, with a garden and fruit-trees, was consoling her for many things. Besides, old Mr. Montague Jones had told her on one of their expeditions while coming south that he meant to be their friend by hook or by crook, sooner or later. 'And what Monty Jones means comes to pass, as most people have found, and as you will find,' he had said as he patted Vava's arm kindly; and Vava had faith in the old man's word.
However, there was no chance of their being friends at present, as she saw, for she and Stella duly called on the wrong day, and Mrs. Jones was, according to the gorgeous footman who opened the door, 'not at home,' at which news Stella smiled in a satisfied way, and remarked, 'We have done our duty, and that ends the matter!'
It did not end the matter, as will be seen; but it was some time, and after other events had taken place, before the Whartons met their kind friends again.
'I have made such a wonderful discovery,' observed Eva to Stella Wharton, as she sat with the Wharton sisters and Amy Overall at the little table which was now left by common consent for these four friends at the Enterprise Club.
Miss Wharton rather liked Eva, who was bright and amusing, and her frank liking for the sisters flattered the lonely Scotch girl. Moreover, Stella was not so good a judge of character as her younger sister, and did not notice a want of candour in the girl. So she smiled and said pleasantly, 'Well, what is this wonderful discovery?'
'It is a motto. Vava says they have a special motto each term at her school, and I found a motto for our new house, and it is formed by our four names,' explained Eva.
The other three all looked interested, and Vava asked, 'How do you mean? By jumbling all the letters up? Because "Wharton, Overall, Barnes" does not make much sense.'
'No, but we might get something out of those names, such as "Union over all ills," or something of that kind. Let's try and work it out!' exclaimed Eva, whose mind turned easily from one subject to another. In a moment she had her note-book open, and was setting down all the letters of Wharton and Barnes to try and make suitable words out of them.
But the other stopped her, and Amy said, 'Let us hear your motto first, Eva; we have not too much time to waste, and, after all, a motto is not a very important thing.'
'Oh my motto—I forgot; it is a very important thing—it is "Save,"' she answered.
This remark was received with silence, and then the elder Miss Wharton said, with hesitation, 'I don't quite understand. Save whom or what?'
'Save money,' replied Eva.
'That's all very well as a precept; but what has that to do with our names, and how did you make that out of them?' demanded Amy.
'It's a very good motto; but never mind about it. I have got a better one; it is "Live and let live,"' put in Vava hastily.
Stella looked reprovingly at her sister, and said with grave politeness, 'I don't know that it is better; but Miss Barnes was going to explain to us how she got our names down to make "Save." That is a result of a mathematical mind; perhaps she can reduce even names to their lowest common denominator.' Stella's strong point was not mathematics, nor indeed was she very quick at any subject; though her knowledge was solid and reliable on the subjects she had studied.
'It's easy enough—S A V E, the initials of Stella, Amy, Vava, Eva,' said Eva airily.
Stella coloured, but said nothing. Amy, after looking at her, said, 'How absurd you are, Eva! Besides, you should not take liberties with other people's names.'
Then, seeing that Eva looked very crestfallen, Stella repented her of the proud reserve which had made her resent this same liberty, and said, 'It may be a good omen; and, after all, it is my motto for the present.'
Vava looked relieved, and remarked, 'It's funny that you are the first to "save" or in "Save."'
'I wish you would all begin to save time,' remonstrated Amy. 'We have so much to talk over and arrange, and we have only these meetings at the club for the purpose.'
So the four young heads drew closer together as they talked over ways and means, and argued and calculated, till a hasty movement by Eva, who was the most enthusiastic of the four, was followed by a loud clatter on the floor, which made them all start.
'I'm sorry; it's only my frying-pan,' she said, as she dived under the table and brought out a parcel, off which the brown paper had fallen, disclosing to view a large iron frying-pan.
Stella opened her beautiful eyes wide as she looked at it in wonder. Amy only smiled; but Vava, impulsive as usual, exclaimed, 'What are you doing with that old frying-pan? Do you have to cook your own dinner in your office?'
'I should think not, indeed! I should like to see our boss's face if we started making smells like that; besides, we don't need to; we get very good lunches at this club,' cried Eva, trying to pack the despised frying-pan up again in the paper; a futile attempt, as the wrapping was all torn.
'Then what on earth are you carrying such a thing about with you for?' demanded Amy, looking half-annoyed and half-amused.
'I brought it to show you all; it is for the new house!' she exclaimed triumphantly.
'Which we have not got yet,' put in Amy.
'But it's old—old and dirty,' objected Vava, who had been looking at it with disgust.
'That's only rust; it will clean off. I got it for threepence at an East-End market; it is a tremendous bargain, and is the beginning of our "save"—pots and pans are a most expensive item in house-furnishing; and I am going to undertake that part of it myself, and get one article each day. There was a splendid big iron kettle, with a hole in it, for sixpence'——she said.
But a chorus of laughter stopped her in her list of bargains.
'I don't think I care about eating things fried in a pan coming from an East-End market,' remarked Vava.
'And I don't see much good in a kettle with a hole in it,' said Stella; but instead of being shocked, as Vava evidently was, she seemed rather amused.
'It can easily be mended with solder, and sixpence is dirt-cheap for a large iron kettle,' observed Eva.
'I should call it "cheap dirt," if you will excuse the bad joke; and, seriously, Eva, it is very foolish spending your money on such rubbish; shillings soon run away in that manner, and we want all our spare shillings just now,' protested Amy Overall.
'You are an ungrateful set,' said Eva; but she put the frying-pan out of sight, and listened seriously while the two elder girls talked over the different houses proposed, and Miss Wharton said finally, 'The only one that really suits is this one at Heather Road, Blackstead.'
'Then let us go there first,' agreed Amy.
'I expect the name attracted you, Miss Wharton,' said Eva, with a twinkle in her eye.
Stella laughed. 'It is an attractive name to us; but I am not so foolish as that, I hope; and it has fruit-trees in the garden, which do attract me, and I thought would attract you,' she replied.
'So they do, and it sounds too good to be true. Forty pounds, and the man would come down to thirty-eight. Let's go there on Saturday,' agreed Eva.
'There is one thing that I wanted to say,' observed Stella, looking a little uncomfortable, 'and that is, that I—I mean we—would rather have a very little furniture at first, and get it by degrees. We only need a bed and a washstand in our bedroom, and we have only enough money to furnish a sitting-room and half what is necessary for the kitchen and hall.'
'Oh but you need not worry about that. We can furnish on the hire-system; they will let you have any amount!' cried Eva.
'I would rather not,' persisted Stella.
Amy looked grave. 'I don't see how we are to manage without hiring, and I don't think our landlord would feel satisfied if we had no furniture to speak of, and I have only ten pounds to spend, and Eva has less, I believe.'
'I should think that the landlord would be better satisfied if we did not run into debt,' said Stella.
'I'd sooner go to a workhouse than live in a room with only a bed and a washstand! Where would you hang your clothes or keep your linen? Why, it would not be a home at all,' protested Eva.
'Of course I did not mean to dictate to you,' said Stella hastily; 'but Vava and I will be quite satisfied with a comfortable sitting-room, and we shall receive the landlord there, not in our bedroom,' she added with a smile.
'That is true, and as long as we have pretty curtains and blinds there is no need to furnish completely at once; besides, we have nearly two months to quarter-day, and we can save a few pounds if we are very economical,' agreed Amy.
'We will save in advance,' agreed Eva; but on the way home she observed to her friend Amy, 'Those two Wharton girls are as narrow-minded as possible, and I am going to have a proper suite in my room, whatever they say; I should never feel comfortable unless I had looked at myself in a long glass before I went out.'
'I think they are right, and I shall not get anything I cannot pay for,' announced Amy.
'Well! you are easily led; but you won't lead me, for I am not going to be the talk of the neighbours because we have no decent furniture. I shall get a handsome satinwood bedroom suite, and that will give a tone to the place at any rate,' said Eva.
Amy laughed, but did not try to turn the girl, who, in spite of being only sixteen years old, was very determined in her opinions; and as unfortunately she was an orphan and independent of every one, it was not easy to control her, and her friend had always found it better to leave her alone until she had cooled down a little in her enthusiasm for anything, and then reason with her, and this she hoped to do now. So no more was said about buying furniture, about which it would be folly to think until the house had been taken and they knew the size of the rooms and other details.
The next day, when Vava left her sister at the usual point in the City, she saw Doreen Hackney coming up out of the Metropolitan Station. She came up by the train arriving at 9.20, and as the Whartons were very punctual, and arrived at this time, they almost invariably met her; but this morning, although she was almost certain Doreen had seen her, the latter walked on without turning her head.
But Vava knew Doreen too well to believe she did not wish to see her, and ran after her. 'Doreen! Doreen! wait a minute!' she panted. At the sound of her voice, Doreen stopped and apologised for having made her run. 'Are you blind? Didn't you see me when you came out of the station?' cried Vava.
Doreen gave her a very funny look. 'Yes-s,' she said hesitatingly; and then, seeing Vava's look of astonishment, she added lamely, 'I was in a hurry to get to school.'
'How absurd; we have plenty of time, and I want to tell you something. We are perhaps going to live at Blackstead, for we have heard of a lovely little house there with a garden and fruit-trees—at least, so the agent says, though Stella says it may only be a tiny apple-tree, with no apples on it, because they always exaggerate in advertisements,' observed Vava.
'Oh but there are fruit-trees—apples and pears and plums!' exclaimed Doreen, and then stopped abruptly.
'Are there such gardens in London suburbs? But there may not be in this one. Do you know the part—it is Heather Road, Blackstead?'
'Oh yes, I know it,' said Doreen in rather a reserved tone.
Vava had been so full of her news that she had not noticed Doreen's manner, or rather had put it down to discomfort at having been rude in not stopping for her; but it struck her at last that her friend was not like herself, and she asked suddenly, 'What is the matter, Doreen?'
'Nothing—nothing,' said Doreen hastily.
'Then what do you know about the house? Isn't it in a nice part?' inquired Vava, as a thought struck her.
'Oh yes, the part is all right; it's very open; you will like it very much if you come, and I do hope you will,' said Doreen so cordially that Vava was relieved.
'I hope we shall, then. Is it very far from you?' inquired Vava.
No; it's—it's quite near. But, you know, in London one need not know one's next-door neighbour unless one likes. We never said anything more than "Good-morning!" to the people we lived next door to for three years. Mother is not one of those who is always talking over the wall to her neighbour; so you need not be afraid of that,' observed Doreen.
'But we don't mind knowing our next-door neighbour; in fact, we shall know him, because he is our landlord, and a very honest, nice man, the agent says; not educated'——
'Vava, was that the bell?' interrupted Doreen abruptly.
Doreen's manners were certainly very bad, and Vava said severely, 'You are rude, Doreen, and if I did not know you I should think you took no interest in our new house.'
'I do, and I hope very much you will come to Heather Road; I know you will like it and be happy there.'
'Where do you live? We may pass your house to-morrow, because we are going to Heather Road to look at this house, and I will look out for you in case you are at the window,' said Vava.
To Vava's astonishment, Doreen did not answer her, but appeared not to have heard, and called out in her loud way to two girls who were on the other side of the road. It took a good deal to offend Vava, but this morning she felt decidedly ruffled; and as she did not particularly care for the new-comers, she walked on alone in a slightly aggrieved mood.
But Doreen seemed quite unconscious of having given offence in the morning, and was more attentive and friendly than usual to Vava as they walked down the road after school. When she said good-bye to her at the Metropolitan Station she called after her, 'I say, I do hope you'll come to Heather Road; you'll like it awfully, I know.'
But when Vava turned round to reply, no Doreen was to be seen; she had disappeared into the station. Vava, recounting the tale to her sister, observed, 'She has such bad manners, but she doesn't mean it.'
'Perhaps she had to run to catch her train?' suggested Stella.
'Oh no, she hadn't; she always has ten minutes to wait. She generally waits and tries to make me loiter and talk to her; but to-day she didn't, and she never told me where she lives, though she knew that I wanted to look out for her house to-morrow. I was just going to ask her how far it was from Heather Road when off she went. I almost think she must be ashamed of her home, and doesn't want me to know where it is,' declared Vava.
'Then you had better not ask her again,' said Stella.
Whether this was true or not will be seen in the next chapter, when the four young house-hunters went to look at No. 2 Heather Road.
It had become a custom that Vava should accompany her sister to the City on Saturdays and sit in the housekeeper's room, and on these occasions Mr. James would drop into Mrs. Ryan's room on some pretext or another, and ask how she was getting on at school or how she liked London.
This morning she had her algebra to do, and was puzzling over a difficult problem, for mathematics was not her strong point, when the junior partner appeared, and seeing her occupation, exclaimed, 'Well, Miss Vava, how are you? And how's the algebra getting on?'
'I'm quite well, thank you, Mr. Jones; but my algebra isn't. Miss Courteney says I have not a mathematical brain, and I don't know how I am to get one,' replied Vava.
'I shouldn't bother about a mathematical brain. I don't see what women want with mathematics myself; but as for that problem, I'll show you how to do it,' said the good-natured young man, sitting down beside her and patiently explaining the difficulty.
'Thank you ever so much. I wish you taught me mathematics—by myself, I mean. Miss Courteney is a very good teacher; but, you see, she has thirty of us, so she can't explain each sum to each girl as you have explained this to me. Besides, the others don't seem to want so much explanation as I do,' cried Vava, delighted at understanding at last a difficult rule.
'Is that so? I will teach you, if you like to bring your work to me, for half-an-hour on Saturdays; I'm generally slack the first half-hour after I have given your sister her letters,' he said.
'Oh I wish I could; but I don't know if Stella will let me, she's so'——Vava stopped suddenly.
'So what?' demanded Mr. Jones, laughing.
'So afraid of my troubling you, and she does not like my making friends with people,' explained the girl; and then, to change the conversation, she told about the new house they were going to see.'
'I should think it would be a very good plan, and a great deal more comfortable than your present lodgings,' said Mr. Jones promptly.
'How do you know?' asked Vava, opening her eyes, for Mr. Jones had never been to their lodgings, and she had never mentioned them to him, for Stella had forbidden her to speak about them or complain of discomforts.
'Lodgings are mostly uncomfortable,' said Mr. Jones, 'and Blackstead is a very healthy suburb.'
Here Vava looked more astonished still.
'How did you know it was Blackstead?' she cried, for she had not mentioned that either.
'Didn't you tell me? Oh well, some one did, and I suppose it is no secret, is it?' he replied, looking a little annoyed.
'Oh no; only I wondered how you knew the name,' said Vava, and she took no more notice of his knowledge, and chattered on gaily about the new house, adding, 'Stella and I are not going to get anything on the hire-system; she says she could not enjoy sitting in an arm-chair that had not been paid for.'
Mr. Jones nodded approval. 'That's quite right, and just what I should expect from your sister. It's not a good way of setting up house; save first and furnish afterwards is my motto. I have known many cases of young householders starting in this way and getting deeper and deeper into debt as expenses increased. But I think it is a good move, and will not be much more expensive; only you must have some elderly person to look after you. If I may give a piece of advice, it is to get no furniture yet.'
'Stella says she will only get simple, light furniture, because we have our own furniture at home, only it is too big to bring down, and some horrid people have it now.'
Mr. James looked very grave. 'Why do you call them horrid? Have they spoilt the furniture, or are they horrid themselves?' he demanded.
'Oh no; they are not really horrid, and they have not used the furniture yet. They are only horrid because they have taken our house from us, and Stella says that's not their fault. But I don't agree with her; I call it mean to take advantage of another person's not being business-like to win his property from him, and that's how my father lost his.'
Mr. Jones did not reply to these remarks, and Vava, who liked to be agreed with, persisted, 'Don't you think it was rather a mean thing to do?'
'I don't know all the facts of the case; but I hope it was a fair and square deal, and I should think it was,' he replied at last; but he did not seem to want to talk about it, and after finishing the lesson he got up and went away.
But Stella was horrified when Vava repeated this conversation to her. 'How many times am I to tell you not to talk of our private concerns to strangers?' she exclaimed.
'Well, you must have been talking about them yourself, or how did Mr. Jones know we were going to take a house at Blackstead?' retorted Vava.
'You must have mentioned the name yourself, and you ought not to have done so. I certainly never did; besides, we are going to view a house, not take it,' corrected her sister.
'As it happens, I could not remember the name, and that's why I was so surprised when Mr. Jones said it,' observed Vava.
Stella was thoughtful for a moment, and then she said, 'I don't know who can have told him, for only Mr. Stacey knows, unless he heard it from some one at your school. He is a governor, and sometimes goes there, and I suppose asked about you, and heard so.'
'I never thought of that; of course that's it!' cried Vava; and then they met the other two and lunched together.
'Have some pepper?' said Eva suddenly, and produced a quaint little pepper-pot from her bag.
'Is this another piece of furniture?' demanded Stella, smiling.
'Yes, it cost a halfpenny,' said Eva.
'It looks it,' said Amy severely.
'It will have to go into the kitchen; I won't eat out of it,' declared Vava, pushing it away with pretended scorn.
'People don't eat out of pepper-pots,' remarked Eva, shaking some on to her plate.
'It's full! Did you get the pepper and all for a halfpenny?' they cried.
But Eva shook the pepper steadily out till her plate was covered and the other three were sneezing. 'You seem to have colds,' she observed at last.
'Eva, you are a perfect plague with your purchases,' said Amy, laughing.
'I got it at a penny bazaar—two for a penny; here is the other,' said Eva, producing a second, and preparing to empty it.
But Vava made a dart at it, and after a struggle secured it. 'No more of that, thank you,' she declared.
'You need not have excited yourself; it's empty,' said Eva.
Amy pushed her chair back. 'If you have finished, Miss Wharton, I think we had better start. I know what Eva is like when she gets into one of these moods, and she is better when she is moving and her mind occupied.'
As Stella had finished, she willingly agreed to set off, and they were soon in the train for Blackstead and on their way to No. 2 Heather Road.
'Oh Stella, do let's live here! It feels so fresh, and the trees are beginning to bud, and these are quite nice gardens!' cried Vava.
'We will see. The house may be damp or very small and dark, or quite unsuitable,' said Stella cautiously.
But when they came to the semi-detached villa it was none of these things, but a pretty bow-windowed house, with a nice little garden in front, and there was a very pretty garden next door, where they knocked and asked for the key, which was handed to them by a maid, who said, 'The master will be round in ten minutes to see if you like the place.'
'By the way, I don't know the name of the landlord,' said Stella, as she took the key and walked off with the others.
'That's awkward. Wasn't it on the order to view?' inquired Amy.
Stella laughed guiltily. 'I believe it was; but, to tell the truth, I did not look. It was very unbusiness-like of me. However, we shall know if it comes to anything.'
'But we sha'n't know what to call him,' said Eva.
'It doesn't matter. Let's go over the house—it looks lovely to me.—Oh Stella, there is a tiny lawn, and a tree in the middle, and fruit-trees round the sides, and an arbour with a little table in it. Oh we must take this house; I should love to live here!' cried Vava with enthusiasm.
'You can't live in the arbour; let us go and look at the house,' said Stella; but Vava and Eva had opened the back-door, which led into the garden, and their voices were heard exclaiming in delight as they found primrose and violet plants and an early snowdrop, and fruit-trees which might be apples or pears or plums.
From the next-door drawing-room window a girl watched them, but kept well behind the curtain. 'They like it, mother; I believe they will take it,' she said to some one within the room.
'I hope they will; they will be very nice, quiet neighbours; but, mind, I will not have you running in and out and intruding upon them.'
Meanwhile Stella and Amy were looking over the house, and they found a large bedroom, three smaller ones, a nice bathroom, and two sitting-rooms, one looking on the garden and one on the road, and a kitchen, 'which is almost the pleasantest room in the house,' said Stella.
'Yes, and it is all on two floors. I do hope the landlord will agree to our taking it together,' said Amy.
At that moment the landlord rang the front-door bell, and the two girls who went to meet him were agreeably surprised to see such a fine, dignified man.
After some talk, the man said, 'I fancy you do not know who I am?'
'No-o, I forgot to read your name,' Stella admitted.
'And my daughter did not tell you either, for some foolish reason. My name is Hackney,' said the man.
But Stella looked puzzled. 'Your daughter? Do I know her?' Then a light dawned upon her. 'Is Doreen Hackney your daughter? I had forgotten her name. That is very nice for Vava, as they are great friends at school.'
Amy was surprised to see the pleased and relieved look on Mr. Hackney's face. 'So Doreen says, and I hope we may come to terms. Your lawyer seemed satisfied. I suppose you know he wrote to me? I can only say I will do all I can; and now, if you will accept a cup of tea my wife will be honoured.'
Stella did not know Mr. Stacey had written, but accepted the invitation very simply. She liked this simple, straightforward man, and called the two girls in from the garden to come to tea at the landlord's.
'Mrs. Hackney has kindly asked us to have tea with her,' she said; but she had no time to say more, for they were at the house, and Mr. Hackney took them into the drawing-room, where they found Mrs. Hackney and Doreen.
'Doreen!' cried Vava, and stood still in astonishment, and then, as Doreen came forward, she added mischievously, 'Please, Stella, I don't think we had better stay, as Doreen does not approve of knowing her next-door neighbour.'
Mrs. Hackney laughed; and though Stella was a little shocked at Vava's want of manners, she smiled at sight of the two girls' pleasure and the amount they had to say to each other.
'Doreen is an only child, and was very delicate, though she looks strong now, and we sent her to a farm for a couple of years, where she has learnt rough ways. It has been a great thing for her your sister making friends with her; but it must just go as far as you wish out of school,' said Doreen's mother.
'It may go as far as you like; I could not wish for a nicer companion for Vava,' said Stella.
And Vava heard her with surprise. 'You are a naughty girl, Doreen, and you annoyed me very much yesterday; and now I should think you have learnt that honesty is the best policy,' she said to her friend.
'I was so dreadfully afraid your sister would not come if she knew,' said Doreen.
'Then what would have been the use of her coming, only to refuse when she did know?' inquired Vava with some reason.