'Oh I was sure if she once saw the house and garden she would take it, because it is such a nice one!' cried Doreen.
Stella only smiled, but Vava whispered, 'I'm sure we shall come here. Stella never speaks until she is quite certain of a thing, and our landlord approves.'
And then, after a very dainty tea out of a silver teapot and fine porcelain, the four turned homeward, talking eagerly about 'our new home,' as they called it.
Stella Wharton and Amy Overall sat leaning back in opposite corners of the carriage, smiling at the grand plans of the two younger girls, who were arranging the rooms and furnishing them with ideal furniture, which changed every few minutes, as did the wall-papers, except Eva's bedroom, which always had a paper covered with roses. 'I have always dreamt of living in a cottage covered with roses; but, till I do, I am going to make shift with a bedroom covered with rose-pink roses climbing about everywhere in large bunches tied up with blue ribbons,' she affirmed.
'Roses don't climb about tied up with ribbons,' remonstrated Vava, and then they all laughed at Eva's mistake.
'Oh well, I meant hanging about; I have seen papers like that, all pink roses and blue ribbons, and longed to have one; and now that I can choose my own paper that's what I'm going to have.—And oh, Miss Wharton, do have a crimson hall; it makes you feel warm the minute you get into a house!' cried Eva.
'And what about summer—you want to feel cool then? I think a green paper would be best,' argued Vava, and in discussing the merits of the different colours the journey was soon at an end, and the four, as they often did, wound up the evening together at Bleak House, where the matron generally arranged a musical or card evening for the girls who boarded with her.
OFF TO A HOME AGAIN.
The mystery of Doreen's behaviour being cleared up, the two Whartons thought no more of Mr. James and his acquaintance with their movements. But a week later, when the little house was practically taken, Miss Wharton had a letter from Mr. Stacey which made her think that 'people' did interest themselves in her private affairs, and mingled with her gratitude was a feeling of resentment.
However, she read the letter to Vava, who by no means shared this resentment. 'Sending us some surplus furniture which is not wanted up there, and will nearly furnish our little house, is he? That's the Montague Joneses, you may be sure, Stella. How nice and thoughtful of them! I wonder if Mr. James Jones is any relation of theirs?'
Now this thought had come into Stella's mind too; but she replied, 'I don't think so. He would probably have mentioned it, and been rather proud of the fact that some of his family owned Lomore.'
'I don't believe he would mention it; he is too much of a gentleman,' maintained Vava stoutly.
'Mr. James Jones?' questioned Stella, lifting her eyebrows at this championship.
'Yes, and I want to know if he may teach me algebra?' continued Vava.
Stella, as has been said, was a slow thinker, and the junior partner as a mathematical master was a novel and strange idea which she did not take in at once. 'I don't understand. How can Mr. Jones teach you algebra?' she inquired at length.
'Quite well; he explained a difficult rule to me in about ten minutes last Saturday,' said Vava.
'You surely don't imagine that Mr. Jones has time to teach you mathematics in office hours? And he certainly can't teach you out of them,' objected Stella.
'He has plenty of time; he says he's always slack on Saturday mornings after he has given you the letters, and he will teach me for half-an-hour if you will let him,' explained Vava.
Miss Wharton did not like the idea somehow. She did not want to be under an obligation to her employer; nor did she like to own to herself, far less to Vava, that the reason of her objection was a feeling that it was 'because he thought she was pretty.' However, as she could not give this reason, and had no other, she said reluctantly, 'It is very kind of Mr. Jones, but you must not take advantage of his good-nature; you must only come occasionally, not every Saturday.' Stella consoled herself with the thought that when they were in their new house Vava would no longer want to come to the City with her, but would prefer to stay with Doreen Hackney. Again it occurred to her to wonder how Mr. Jones knew they were going to Blackstead, and she felt rather annoyed at his impertinent curiosity, in consequence of which her manner was so reserved, not to say forbidding, that Mr. Jones in his turn wondered what was the matter with his secretary, and whether she would never be more friendly with him.
'I don't want to be familiar, goodness knows; but really to work for hours every day with a person who treats you as if you were her deadly enemy, and won't allow you even to ask if she is cold, and would like the window shut or sit nearer the fire, is annoying, you must own?' he complained to his mother.
The latter laughed at his aggrieved expression. 'Girls don't generally treat you so badly, do they? Well, it won't do you any harm to be snubbed for once in your life, though it's only by a City clerk,' she replied.
'Only a City clerk? A disguised duchess would be nearer the mark! I 'm helping Vava with her sums—Miss Vava, I beg her pardon—one has to be careful with any one belonging to Miss Wharton. I am surprised that she allows me to give her sister algebra lessons, as Vava calls it. What a stupid thing pride is, and, above all things, pride of birth. Think how much more she would enjoy life if she would be friends with us, instead of keeping us at a distance as if we were dirt under her feet!' cried the young man with irritation.
'You would not take so much trouble if she were plain, and perhaps she feels that,' observed his mother.
'I should be civil to her, and she would be civil to me, which is more than Miss Wharton is,' observed Mr. James Jones, taking up his hat to go to his office.
His mother looked after him with troubled eyes. 'I am dreadfully afraid he is getting to like that girl,' she remarked to her husband.
'Then he'd better give it up, for she evidently doesn't care for him?' replied Mr. Jones.
'He's good-looking enough to please most girls,' said his wife.
'Yes, but Miss Wharton did not go to the City to flirt or fall in love, and I respect her all the more for it. I should like to ask her and that little sister of hers here; but I suppose it's no use, eh?' he inquired.
'Not a bit, especially as they are moving out of town; not but what I shall call upon them when they are settled at Blackstead, and I'll see if I can persuade them to come and dine here then,' she said.
Stella Wharton ought to have been much flattered at the desire for her society and the trouble these rich people were putting themselves to in order to make the acquaintance of their son's clerk; but it is to be feared that if she had known it would neither have flattered nor pleased her—poor proud Stella! But the kindness of the Hackneys pleased her, and she did not seem to mind accepting civilities from them.
It was Stella's house, taken in her name, and the other two were to share it for a year, furnishing their own rooms and a sitting-room; the rest was being furnished by Stella, chiefly from Lomore, where old 'nursie' was finding unexpected treasures.
'If only she could come herself, Stella!' said Vava wistfully.
But Stella replied decidedly, 'That is impossible; she could not possibly do the work of that house alone, and we cannot afford two servants.'
So Vava gave up all hope of seeing her old nurse until fate should take them north again.
The next time the youthful housekeepers went to Heather Road to measure rooms and windows, the exact sizes of which Mrs. Morrison wrote from Scotland that she wished to know, Mrs. Hackney as usual asked them to go in to tea with her, and, in the course of conversation with Stella, observed, 'If I may be allowed to make a suggestion, I should not get a servant at once; it will be amusing for a short time to do a little housework, and while everything is new and clean there will be no hard work to do. Besides, the Easter holidays are soon coming, and you want to go to the sea for a few days to bring the roses back to this young lady's cheeks.'
'Oh I think it will be change enough to come out here,' said Stella quickly.
'Then you will have plenty of time to do your own work,' agreed Mrs. Hackney, guessing that motives of economy prevented the girls from going away at Easter, and respecting Stella's sturdy independence and thrifty ways.
Stella, for her part liked and respected Mrs. Hackney, and she and Amy decided to take her advice, and do without a servant, for the present at least.
In spite of Vava's disappointment at not having 'nursie' at No. 2 Heather Road, she found herself counting the days until they moved.
Nor was Eva less enthusiastic. Indeed, her enthusiasm went rather too far; she was always buying something or other 'for her bedroom.'
'There won't be an inch of wall-paper to be seen, Eva,' Vava warned her, as she showed her the tenth picture she had bought for it.
'Oh yes, there will; it's wonderful what a lot you can get into a room, and pictures brighten up a place,' she argued.
But one day Eva came to the club in a state of great excitement. 'Girls!' she cried, including Stella in this familiar address, 'I have just bought myself the sweetest suite of furniture you ever saw!'
Every one was surprised at this, for only the day before Eva had announced in melancholy tones that she had spent her last penny, and could buy no more pictures, for which she had developed a mania.
'I thought you had no money?' said Vava, with her usual impulsive candour.
'Oh that's all right; the man does not want to be paid yet. I know you don't approve of that; but it is a case of Hobson's choice with me, and heaps of people do it,' she said, turning to Stella.
'I only disapprove of it for myself. What is your suite like?' inquired Stella with extra geniality, because she wished to put Eva at her ease.
This was very easily done, for things, as a rule, did not go deep with that young lady, and she replied, 'It is inlaid walnut, and the wardrobe has three cheval-glasses, so that you can see all sides of you at once and how your dress hangs, and that's a thing one never can see, and I do hate a skirt that dips at one side or is short in the front and draggles behind, so you can all come and look at yourselves in my glass before you go out; and the washing-stand is a dream too, with tiles hand-painted; so is the chest of drawers. You will all fall in love with it when you see it, as I did.'
'Was it very expensive?' asked Vava.
'No, not very, considering how beautiful it is,' replied Eva airily.
All this time Amy had said nothing, but looked rather grave, and now she inquired, 'Did you say you had bought it, Eva?'
'Yes—that's to say, I have ordered it, and it is to be sent down to 2 Heather Road on the 19th of March.'
This was the day before the girls were to move in; it was a Friday, and the Hackneys had offered to take in anything that was sent down beforehand, and suggested their coming in on the Saturday before quarter-day.
'It will prevent their breaking into another week's rent at their lodgings,' Mrs. Hackney had suggested to her husband. And as it was the most convenient day for them to move, it was decided to ask for a holiday from their various chiefs in the City, and start the new experiment on the 20th of March, and most of the furniture was being sent the day before.
But Amy looked hurt. 'Have you chosen it without me?' she asked.
Eva coloured up as she answered in rather a hurried way, 'I couldn't help it. I did it rather suddenly, and the man said he could not promise to keep it for me. Besides, I knew you would only object, now you've become so strait-laced and are furnishing your room out of packing-cases.'
Amy took no notice of this scornful accusation. 'But you can't have bought it alone? The man would never sell furniture on credit to a girl like you,' she protested.
Eva got very indignant. 'Why not? I suppose he knows he can trust me?' she said.
'But that is just what he cannot; you are only sixteen, and he could not recover from you if you did not pay. I can't understand it,' observed Amy.
'You are not wanted to; it's all arranged, and the suite will arrive on the 19th of March, and I shall pay so much a week honestly until I have paid up,' said Eva.
But Amy would not let the matter rest; and, failing to get any satisfaction out of Eva, she took counsel with Stella, rather to the latter's embarrassment. However, as Amy seemed to be really worried, Stella tried to comfort her without being false to her principles. 'It cannot be more than a few pounds. They get up these suites to look very pretty for a low sum, and if none of the drawers shut, as often happens, it will be a lesson to her; and as for the payments, fortunately she gets her money weekly, so she can pay regularly.'
'But she can only pay a few shillings a week, and that only by being very economical and self-denying, and Eva is neither by nature. Besides, I cannot get her to tell me where she bought it, nor what agreement she has signed,' said Amy.
'I think that may be because she knows we all disapprove of getting goods on credit,' suggested Stella.
'Still, there is something I do not understand about it; no reputable tradesman would enter into an agreement with a young girl like Eva. I hope—I do hope—she has not done anything foolish,' Amy said with a sigh.
Stella thought there was no doubt about that, though she did not say so, for she expected to see some showy, sham walnut suite which Eva had been inveigled into buying by some unscrupulous tradesman; but she only said, 'One learns by experience. I should not say any more about it; it is too late to stop her, and perhaps when we all live together she will be more open.'
But Amy had not told Stella her real fear, lest she should be shocked; but the truth was she was haunted by a horrid suspicion that Eva had bought the furniture in their names, or done something she was ashamed of; else why did she so obstinately refuse to say where she had bought it? But it was not much good asking herself these questions, for there was no answer to them for the present, and the answer when it did come was not pleasant.
In the meantime there was plenty to do, for they were to take possession of their new abode in a fortnight, and every minute was spent in running up casement cloth for curtains, hemming dusters, and shopping. Stella had not thought she could be so happy in this wilderness of bricks.
Mrs. Hackney was kindness itself, and yet she kept at a distance and never once came into the new house, which looked very pretty, with its papers, self-coloured in most of the rooms, though Eva had chosen a bright floral paper covered with pink roses.
Mr. Jones noticed the brighter looks of his secretary, though he made no remark, not even when she asked to be excused from coming to the office on the 20th of March, a request which he immediately granted.
And at last the eventful day came, and at the very early hour of six the four girls started from their respective houses. They travelled out by the same train, alighted at Blackstead, and set off for No. 2 Heather Road, where they arrived not long after seven o'clock to a series of surprises.
'I am tired already,' said Eva with a yawn, as they started from Blackstead Station to walk to Heather Road. It was not far, and it was too early for any cabs to be at the station.
'Take my arm,' said Vava with pretended sympathy.
But as Eva took it she sighed, instead of laughing, as she said, 'I feel dreadfully depressed, just as if something were going to happen.'
'So something is going to happen; we are going to have a home of our own again,' said Vava. 'But I don't see why that should make you so melancholy; it is not very flattering to us.'
'It's not that! You know I am just as keen about this house business as ever I was, and I consider I worked it very cleverly, for you would never have come here but for me. Confess now, would you?' said Eva.
'No, I don't suppose we should; but I don't know that you "worked it," as you call it, quite honestly,' replied Vava.
'If every one were as honest as you are, which means saying out just what you think, the world would be a very disagreeable place to live in,' retorted Eva.
Vava did not make any reply; she was beginning to feel a little of Eva's depression, for it did not seem promising to begin their new life together by quarrelling.
Presently Eva, who forgot what she had said five minutes after she had said it, remarked, 'You may laugh as much as you like.'
Vava was not laughing, but Eva did not notice that.
'But I have a presentiment that something will happen in this house. I woke up this morning with a dreadful weight on my mind, just as if some one were dead, and it's a dreadful feeling. Have you ever had it?'
'The feeling that some one were dead? Not unless it was true,' replied Vava.
'But it's not true now—at least as far as I know—so it must be a presentiment; or else why should I feel like this to-day of all days, when I was in such good spirits yesterday?' she demanded.
'Do you mean that you think that one of us is going to die?' inquired Vava in low tones. She was not superstitious, though like most Celts she had a vivid imagination.
But Eva was sorry when she saw how she had frightened Vava, and she said hastily, 'Of course not; I only felt as if things would go wrong. I dare say we shall find that some of the furniture has not arrived, or that your china has been broken on the way, or that the chimney smokes and we sha'n't be able to have any fire in the dining-room, or something horrid like that.'
'Well, you are a cheerful companion!' said Amy's voice from behind.
The two girls turned, and found that Stella and Amy had caught up to them and overheard Eva's prophecies about the state of things that awaited them.
'Eva has been having bad dreams or something, I think,' laughed Vava, who had recovered her spirits.
'I haven't. I only had a presentiment, and, mark my words, it will come true,' declared that young person.
'So have I a presentiment, and that is we shall find the fire lighted and a nice warm room to go into, thanks to Mrs. Hackney's kindness,' remarked Stella, as they turned the corner of the road.
The others looked at No. 2 Heather Road, which had come in sight; and, spying smoke come out of the chimney, laughed heartily at Stella's presentiment. So that it was a merry quartette, after all, which arrived at the new little house, and the sound of their young and joyous voices made Mrs. Hackney smile happily to herself.
'Oh mother, can't I just go in and bid them welcome? I do so want to see their faces and hear what they say when they see everything,' pleaded Doreen.
'No, Doreen; I will have no running in and out, and you are not to go near them to-day. I have left a message to say that if they want anything they are to come and ask for it; but they will have plenty to do and talk about without you?' declared her mother.
So Doreen, who had already been into No. 2 with flowers for the vases, gave a sigh, and had to content herself with looking out of the back window, in the hope that Vava would go into the garden, and she would see her from there.
Stella put the key into the door and turned the handle, but found that it was already unlocked; and, making their way to the sitting-room which was to be furnished for the Whartons for their own use, they found to their delight that not only was the fire lit, but the breakfast was laid, and the room quite tidy and furnished.
Amy and Eva were loud in their exclamations of delight; but Stella and Vava stood quite still, with lumps in their throats, for the room was furnished exactly like Stella's little boudoir at Lomore, with the same carpet, curtains, and all, and even the same pictures on the wall, with a single oil-painting of her mother over the mantelpiece.
Vava was the first one to recover herself. 'Stella, it's just like Lomore!' and as Stella had chosen a paper like her former one, it really was like the old room.
'It's very kind of them,' she said, rather doubtfully.
'Kind of them! I should think it is! And fancy Mrs. Hackney guessing where all the furniture used to go! Do you remember that bureau always stood on the left of the window, just like that, and the little table in the bow? I expect nursie or David wrote and told them!' exclaimed Vava.
'It is very kind,' repeated Stella in the same constrained voice.
Seeing that the two sisters were agitated at sight of the familiar objects, Amy and Eva, with tact, went upstairs to look at the latter's suite, and give them time to recover themselves.
'Kind! of course it is. What is the matter, Stella? You never seem to like people doing kind things. Aren't you pleased that David took the trouble to pack all these things so carefully that they are not a bit scratched or spoilt, and aren't you obliged to Mrs. Hackney for making the room like our old sitting-room at home?' demanded Vava half-impatiently.
'It was very good of David, and of course I am grateful to him; and Mrs. Hackney meant to be kind too, but I think she ought to have asked me before she unpacked my private things,' said Stella.
Vava looked thoughtful. She felt that Stella was in the right about this. 'But they are not private, Stella; they are only furniture, and she meant to be kind, and she has got all this nice breakfast ready. I think she is in the kitchen, for I can hear some one poking the fire. Do let's go and thank her, and please be nice and smile at her, Stella,' Vava begged her.
Stella smiled at this, and it was with smiles on their faces that they picked their way along the passage through packing-cases into the kitchen. But when they opened the door the smiles changed into wild cries of delight, and her English friends would have been surprised if they had seen the way in which the reserved and cold Miss Wharton threw her arms round the neck of the respectable middle-aged servant, who turned and held out her arms to her 'bairns.'
'You thought your old nursie was going to let you keep house all by yourselves, with no one to look after you, did you?' she said, as she smoothed their hair and petted them both as if they were little children.
'Then it was you who unpacked our things? Stella thought some one had been taking a liberty. Stella's dreadfully afraid of people taking liberties with her, nursie,' said Vava.
'And quite right too! Dearie me! if you knew how I've worried at the thought of you two lambs alone in this great city! But it's all right now; I'm here to look after you. And you've very decent neighbours, who know their place, and are very obliging without being forward at all,' said Mrs. Morrison, for she it was.
'Oh I forgot Doreen; I must just go and tell her how glad we are to see nursie. Fancy her never letting it out, for she must have known it, and Mrs. Hackney too!' cried Vava, preparing to rush off as she spoke.
'Hoots, Miss Vava, what can you be thinking of, running off without ever asking your elder sister's leave, and she your guardian and all?' said Mrs. Morrison reprovingly.
'I didn't think.—May I go, Stella?' she said.
'Yes, but don't stay, and thank Mrs. Hackney for ordering the coals and the gasman,' said Stella.
'You'd better say for all she has done, for she met me at the station, and brought me across London herself, or I doubt if I'd ever have got here; it fairly bewildered me,' said their old nurse.
'When did you come, nursie?' inquired Vava.
'On Wednesday. I wanted to get over the journey and the strangeness of things before you came, and to get things a bit straight; but I've only been able to settle the kitchen and your own sitting-room and one bedroom. I could not take it upon me to interfere with the two young leddies' rooms, and indeed I did not know where to put their furniture. There's only furniture for one bedroom between the two of them, though that's fine. They would have done better to have got two smaller sets, or a few pieces at a time, I'm thinking, instead of spending all that money on one suite, as the man called it,' remarked Mrs. Morrison.
'It belongs to one of them; the other is getting hers, a piece at a time, as you suggest,' said Stella.
'She'll be a sensible young lady. What are they like?' continued Mrs. Morrison.
Vava left Stella to describe their new house-mates, and also to talk things over with Mrs. Morrison, who had a great deal to tell her and ask her, and ran off to see Doreen, who was rewarded for her patience by Vava's delight.
'I'm just so happy I don't know what to do!' she cried, her eyes shining and her cheeks so rosy that Mrs. Hackney felt as if the sea-breezes could very well be done without.
'She is a nice old woman, your old nurse,' said Doreen.
'She's not old; she's only middle-aged.—And she says—at least Stella says—I am to thank you for all your kindness, and nursie is very grateful to you too,' said Vava to Mrs. Hackney.
'She is a treasure, and I am very glad you have her. Thank you for coming in Vava; and now run and have your breakfast; you ought to have a fine appetite for it after all this excitement, especially as you did not have much breakfast before you started, I expect,' said Mrs. Hackney.
'We did not have any. Our landlady said she could not get breakfasts at that unearthly hour, as she should not be up herself, so we just had some biscuits, and I am hungry. But, oh I am glad to have said good-bye to those horrid lodgings!' cried Vava with feeling.
'You have much to be thankful for,' observed Mrs. Hackney.
'Yes, and I am thankful,' said Vava simply. Then she went back to her new home, and found Stella, Amy, and Eva in the kitchen, talking happily to Mrs. Morrison, who quite approved of the two strangers, and was inclined to take them to her motherly heart when she found that they were orphans like her own bairns, and had been well brought up, and were well-mannered young ladies. Then the four went in to breakfast.
'What about your presentiment now?' cried Vava, turning to Eva, who had quite recovered her good spirits.
'It has come to pass. I said something was going to happen, and you see it has. Fancy your old nurse being here without your knowing anything about it!' cried Eva.
'You said you had a bad presentiment about something having gone wrong, and nursie's coming is not wrong at all; it has put things right,' persisted Vava.
'Oh well, I haven't got any presentiment now, so it's all right,' declared Eva.
'And presentiments are very foolish things,' said Stella rather primly.
The breakfast was a very good one. Mrs. Morrison had made porridge and hot scones, and had brought honey with her from the north, and the girls sat over their meal a long time, forgetting the work they had before them, until Amy started up, saying, 'We had better begin putting up the curtains and getting the rooms ready. My bedroom is chaos, and Eva's is not much better.'
Stella had noticed that Amy was very quiet during breakfast, and it occurred to her that perhaps the girl was disturbed at the arrival of Mrs. Morrison. It made it look as if the house and the ordering of it were to be entirely Stella's, whereas it had been arranged that she and Amy should share in the management. So, leaving Vava with Eva to clear away, she followed Amy to her room, which did indeed look chaotic.
Amy had bought a nice bed and a chest of drawers and washstand of light oak, very simple but quite pretty, and these, with one chair and some boxes and pictures, were all her furniture.
'We shall soon make this look pretty; and, if you will use it, there is an extra arm-chair which they have sent down from Lomore that I should like you to have,' said the Scotch girl.
'Thank you, I should like it very much, if you can spare it; but you must value anything that comes from your old home,' replied Amy, who seemed a little depressed.
'Yes, that is why it is such a pleasure to have Mrs. Morrison with us; she is almost like a mother to us. She was with my mother before she was married. I hope you don't mind her coming?' asked Stella.
'Mind? I am delighted; I like her already, and I don't mind saying that I was rather dreading the housekeeping and managing. It is all very well when you have nothing else to do, but it is difficult to do two things well. My City work gets rather heavy in spring, and I am often not home till late, and then I am too tired to do anything but sit quietly by the fire and read a book.'
'You will like her the more the more you know her,' said Stella, much relieved; and then added, 'I thought something had vexed you.'
'Oh it had nothing at all to do with Mrs. Morrison; it was only Eva's suite; but it's no use talking about it, or to her. The thing is done, and something has come over Eva lately; she is not a bit like what she used to be. I have been hoping that Vava would do her good; but they don't seem to get on quite as well as I hoped,' replied Amy.
'Vava is a little too outspoken, but I hope they will be friends; I think she will have a good influence over Eva, because she is so very frank. I am sorry you don't like the furniture Eva has bought. Is it very gimcrack?' inquired Stella.
'Gimcrack! I only wish it were; it's far too handsome. I don't know how much she paid for it, but it can't have cost less than twenty pounds at the least!' exclaimed Amy.
'Shall we go and look at it?' suggested Stella, who was curious to see this much-talked-of furniture, and the two went into Eva's room, where they found Vava admiring herself in the three cheval glasses of the wardrobe.
'Look, Stella, isn't this a lovely idea, and isn't it a lovely suite?' cried Vava, twisting and turning herself.
'Yes, it is very handsome,' said Stella, and said no more, and then, after a few polite remarks about the pictures, which Eva was just hanging, she left the room, and was followed by Amy.
'How on earth did the man give it her, and where do you think she has got it?' demanded Amy when they were back in her bedroom.
'I don't know. I am afraid it is a very expensive suite; but it is no good worrying about it. It seems so dreadful that a girl of sixteen should have no one to look after her, no near relation, and no guardian, except yourself, and you are only a friend, after all, and have no authority over her. We must just be as friendly as we can to her, and try and win her confidence, and if she won't give it, wait until the man turns up for his money, which he will soon do if she does not pay up.'
'Then he will remove it, and that will disgrace us all!' cried Amy.
'No, indeed, he will not; I shall not allow anything of that kind,' declared Stella with decision.
And then, though 'Eva's suite' was often in their minds, they dismissed the subject from their conversation, and started upon the putting in order of the new house.
VAVA'S BUSINESS LETTER.
Eva's presentiment was already a thing of the past, for she was the merriest of the four, and the day would not have been half such fun nor have passed so pleasantly and easily if she had not made a joke of all difficulties, and helped by her suggestions, which were very shrewd, in spite of their being mixed up with a great deal of nonsense.
Mrs. Morrison had made the Misses Whartons' large bedroom habitable, and in a very short time it was pronounced quite comfortable for the present; so there really were only the hall and staircase to arrange, about which Eva had numerous theories, which she propounded sitting on the top stair in an apron made of newspapers.
'Leave half a yard at each end for moving the stair-carpet up and down every week,' she observed.
'That is a very good idea, if we have enough,' replied Amy.
'If not, you must put mats at the turnings of the stair; it's most important; also, you must put a pad on each step, then you feel as if you were sinking into velvet,' came from Eva, still sitting at her ease and surveying the workers.
'What kind of pad?' asked Stella, who with Amy was laying the stair-carpet.
'Velvet,' said Eva, absent-mindedly.
'What nonsense, Eva! What do you mean?' demanded Amy.
Eva, who had been looking out of the staircase window, turned her head. 'I wasn't thinking of what I was saying—felt, I mean—or, failing that, folds of newspapers, and by so doing you double the life of your carpet,' she explained.
'Then, suppose you go and get that pile of newspapers that came from Scotland, and fold them into pads, instead of sitting there coolly and watching us work?' suggested her friend.
'I might, for a consideration,' agreed Eva, and help she did with such good-will that the house was quite comfortable by night.
Mrs. Morrison kept to her kitchen, and sent in a nice dinner, for which Vava laid the table, having spent her morning flitting in and out of the kitchen, helping 'nursie,' as she imagined, and it is doubtful which of them was the happier—the old Scotchwoman, who had her bairns with her again, or the child, who obeyed her old nurse more willingly than her elder sister.
'Vava, the post has just brought this. I wish you would sit down and answer it politely, and say that I am obliged by his kind offer, but that I shall be at the office on Monday morning at the usual time,' said Stella, coming into the kitchen with an open letter in her hand, which she handed to her younger sister.
Vava took it, and found that it was a very polite letter from the junior partner, saying, that as he understood they were moving and would be busy for a few days, he would be glad for her to take a holiday, and thought they would manage without her till Wednesday. 'He is kind, and I'm sure I don't know why, for you never smile at him, and till you do smile you really look disagreeable,' commented Vava.
'I am sorry, but I shall continue to look disagreeable then, for I have no intention of smiling at Mr. James Jones, or any other stranger with whom I have business,' observed Stella.
'Why don't you answer it yourself? It's got nothing to do with me,' grumbled Vava.
'Because I am busy; you can tell him that,' said Stella; who might have added, 'Because I do not choose to,' but she refrained.
'My lamb, you should not answer your sister as you do,' said Mrs. Morrison, when Stella had left the kitchen, her head very much in the air.
'She aggravates me with her airs and unfriendliness,' said Vava in an apologetic tone.
'And who are you to criticise your elders in that unbecoming way? What do you know of the world? Miss Stella is quite right not to be too friendly with strangers and to keep her bonny smiles for friends; and even if she were not right, it is not for you to question her doings or sayings, and she your guardian,' protested her old nurse with decision.
'She is not so very old after all—only seven years older than I am; last year she was an infant in the eye of the law,' announced the girl, who had read this piece of information somewhere.
'She is of age this year, at any rate, Miss Vava, and you had better do as she bids you; she knows what she is about, and you will understand it better in seven years' time—seven years make a great difference in a young girl; so write that letter like a good child, and don't worry Miss Stella, who has plenty to do without fashing herself about letter-writing,' admonished Mrs. Morrison.
'But you know, nursie, this is a business letter, and he is the man she gets her living by; she really might be civil to him. Suppose he gets offended and tells her to go? That would be a nice thing, just after we have got into a new house!' exclaimed Vava.
'If he is a business man he'll not be so silly as to be offended because a young lady isn't too friendly; and if he is so foolish, the sooner she leaves his office and gets with sensible people the better. That will do for those currants, Miss Vava, they are quite clean now, and I'll make the pudding while you write that letter. You'll find paper and stamps and all in the bureau in the sitting-room,' said nurse.
Vava went off as she was told, and found that nurse had 'found up' a quantity of writing-paper and envelopes at Lomore, as well as stamps, all of which she had packed into the bureau and brought south with her, besides other treasures, the looking over which took Vava some time. But at last she set to work to write the letter; and, being very much excited by all the events of the day, she took a large sheet of paper, and wrote a long letter to the junior partner, which was likely to amuse him very much. It ran as follows:
'DEAR MR. JONES,—Thank you very much for offering to give my sister a holiday. She says to tell you she is very busy putting down the stair-carpet, so can't answer herself; but she will be quite able to come to the office on Monday morning at the usual time. She did not say she was putting down the stair-carpet, but she is; it's a horrid work, as you have to pad it. When I 'm rich I'll have workmen to do all that when I move house, and never go near it till it's quite tidy. I can't find a single thing.
'The other Joneses who have bought Lomore (I hope they are no relation of yours) have been very kind; they have sent down all the furniture of Stella's sitting-room, and lots and lots of things that they must want themselves, and I'm sorry I called them "horrid;" they have been very friendly to us, and even brought us to town in their motor. I only said that because I felt horrid at that moment to think of an English Jones being Laird of Lomore. Oh dear! I forgot your name was Jones; but I would not mind your being laird so much, you look a great deal more like one than old Mr. Montague Jones. But our old nurse, whom we found here this morning, says he has been very good to all the old servants, and is not turning out one, or changing anything; so things might have been worse. I must stop and help to put the house in order.—I remain, your sincere friend, VAVA WHARTON.
'P.S.—Please be sensible, and don't mind Stella being so stiff and stuck-up; it's being poor that makes her like that, and I'm sure she's grateful to you, really. V. W.'
Now, Vava was a very open child; but it never entered her head that she ought not to have written a letter like that to Mr. James Jones, nor that her sister would expect to see it. 'Nursie' had said that there were stamps there, and evidently meant her to write, close, and post the letter, so as to save Stella trouble, and this she accordingly did, as there happened to be a pillar-box just outside the front-gate.
Stella, who was still putting down the stair-carpet, heard the gate click, and observed, 'Oh dear, I hope that nobody is coming; they can't come through the hall.'
'No, it is only Vava; she is posting a letter,' replied Eva, who from the top stair, where she was folding newspapers to form pads, could see the front-gate and road.
Stella stopped abruptly in her work. 'I wouldn't'——she began; and then, dropping the hammer, she continued, 'I will be back in a minute, Miss Overall; I just want to speak to Vava,' and went into the sitting-room to await her sister.
Vava saw her through the bay-window, and went in to her, saying cheerfully, 'I've written the letter and posted it and everything.'
'Why did you not show it to me first?' demanded Stella.
'Why should I? I never thought of it. Besides, you never read my letters; you always say you trust me,' said Vava.
'So I do; but you do sometimes say things you had better not have said, and as this is my business I think you should have brought the letter to me. What did you say in it?'
Upon reflection, Vava was not sure that she wanted to tell Stella what she had written, and upon further reflection she began to doubt whether she ought to have written it. 'I told him you thanked him for his offer of holiday, and that you were busy putting down the stair-carpet, so had told me to write, and that you would be there on Monday at the usual time. That's all I said about you—I mean about your business. The rest of the letter was just a friendly one from myself,' she said.
This was just what Stella was afraid of, and she exclaimed, 'I never told you to say what I was doing.'
'I told him that,' interrupted Vava.
Stella was speechless for a moment; then she continued, in a tone of exasperation, 'Will you please tell me what you did say, Vava?'
'It's got nothing to do with you. Mr. Jones has been very kind to me, and I just wrote him a friendly letter; but it sounds silly repeated. Don't bother about it, Stella; if you were so particular about the letter you should have written it yourself,' retorted Vava.
'I wish I had—I wish to goodness I had!' she exclaimed, and went out of the room.
Vava felt rather uncomfortable for a time; and then, saying to herself that Stella made a great fuss about nothing, she went off to the kitchen to help Mrs. Morrison to prepare tea for them.
Stella seemed to have forgotten her annoyance when she came in to tea, for she was laughing heartily; but when Vava asked her if she were tired, she said, 'No,' very coldly, and addressed no more conversation to her.
Vava consequently talked to Eva; but this kind of thing could not go on, and after tea, when she found herself with Mrs. Morrison, she unburdened herself to her old nurse. 'And you see, nursie, I don't know what to do. If I don't tell Stella she will be horrid and cold with me; and if I do tell her she will be frightfully annoyed,' she explained.
But Mrs. Morrison would not sympathise with her. 'You ought not to write letters you do not wish your sister to see; you have done very wrong, and must go and tell Miss Stella so at once, and if she is angry and scolds you you must bear it,' she said decidedly.
'There was no harm in what I said, and—and, nursie, I simply can't tell Stella!' cried Vava, as her postscript came into her mind.
Mrs. Morrison looked at her gravely. 'What did you say, my lamb? Tell me,' she inquired.
Vava told her, as well as she could remember, all that she had said in the letter.
A grim look of amusement came over the good woman's face; but she turned away and poked the fire to prevent Vava seeing it, and when she turned round again she was quite grave as she replied, with a shake of her head, 'You should not have said that about Mr. Montague Jones being "horrid," you let your pen run on too fast, and you should not have written that bit about Miss Stella, and you may well say that she will be annoyed. But for all that, you must tell her what was in the letter, and it will be a lesson to you to mind what you write in future.'
Vava groaned, but went off obediently and told Stella, who listened in silence till she came to the postscript, whereat she gave an exclamation; but all she said when Vava had finished was, 'I am glad you told me, for I think I can prevent Mr. Jones getting that letter. I was so busy this morning that I forgot that to-day was Saturday, and that consequently the letter would not arrive any sooner than myself on Monday morning; so that you need not have written at all.'
'But, Stella, what will you do? You can't take away a letter addressed to Mr. Jones. The clerks may tell him how many there were, and he would miss it,' protested Vava.
'I have no intention of touching Mr. Jones's correspondence without his knowledge; but, as I get there before him, I shall ask him not to open that particular letter, and I shall tell him why,' replied Stella.
'Then he might as well read it!' cried Vava.
'I shall not tell him what you said,' replied Stella; and as she had evidently made up her mind on the subject, Vava said no more, but she wished with all her heart that she had never written the unfortunate letter.
However, Stella was friends with her again, and the first day at Heather Road ended happily enough; for, tired though they were, the four girls were able to go to bed in a tidy house, with carpets, curtains, and furniture in their proper places, which was really a comfortable home again.
A SUNDAY AT HEATHER ROAD.
'Stella! Stella! wake up! the sun is shining, and I can see a tree, and hear birds singing, and I feel so happy that I really must get up, although it is Sunday morning and we have not to go off to the City!' cried Vava the next morning.
Stella opened her eyes and looked at her sister, smiling. 'One might almost be in the country—everything looks so fresh and clean; we must try and keep it so, and help nursie as much as we can, for she is not used to much housework,' she replied.
'I don't mind how much I do to save her as long as we can have her with us. I think I had better get up and light the fire for her; I dare say she will be tired this morning,' observed Vava, sitting up in bed.
There was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Morrison, bearing a tray, came into the room with a cheery, 'Good-morning, young leddies!'
'Oh nursie, I meant to light the fire and get breakfast ready for you!' cried Vava.
'What would you do that for? I am not tired; it's you that must be worn-out, so here's your breakfasts for you, and you can just stay where you are for a while, and get up in time for the kirk, which is not far off, I hear,' replied Mrs. Morrison, unfolding their table-napkins, and waiting on them as she used to do when they were children.
Suddenly Vava exclaimed, 'Nursie, I must get up; the others will be hungry too!'
'And why will they be hungry, when they are eating their breakfasts quite comfortably?' inquired the good woman quietly.
'That is good of you, nursie; but you must not wait upon us strong people!' protested Stella.
'That's only for to-day, because you are all just worn-out, and I knew you would oversleep yourselves. Next week I'll be obliged if you will just make your own beds and tidy your own rooms a bit,' nurse answered.
'Have we overslept ourselves?' inquired Stella; and, taking out her watch, she exclaimed with surprise, 'A quarter to nine! How could we have slept so late?'
'I expect it's the quiet after the noise of Westminster and the exciting day we had yesterday,' said Vava, who was enjoying her breakfast in bed.
It was a very happy day. Stella, Vava, and Mrs. Morrison went to their own church, and Amy went to hers alone, for Eva was not up.
When Eva came down to dinner she said with a yawn, 'You are energetic, you good people; I hope you feel better for having been to church; you looked most frightfully righteous coming in with large prayer-books in your hands. For my part, I think one can be just as religious without ever going to church at all.'
'Perhaps, but I think if one can go to church one should, and I do feel better for having been this morning,' said Stella quietly.
When she found herself alone with Amy she asked her whether Eva really never went to church.
Amy looked worried as she replied, 'I am afraid she has got into bad habits lately. She says she is tired on Sunday mornings, and that it is the only day she can rest, and that she does not notice that people are any the better for going; in fact, she says, they generally come back cross and complaining of the heat or cold of the church or the length of the sermon.'
'That's the kind of things people always say when they want to defend themselves for not going to church. But if she is tired in the morning, surely she can go in the evening?' suggested Stella.
'Perhaps you will be able to persuade her; I cannot,' responded Amy.
But Stella shook her head. 'I shall not try; I do not believe in arguing about such things. We must try by our own example to make her see that churchgoing does make us feel better. I know it made me feel ashamed of my discontent these last three months. I have hated my life here and every one around me; and I certainly don't deserve things to have turned out so well,' she said humbly.
'And the funny part of it is that Eva has really been the person to bring it about, and—I don't like saying so—she managed to twist what I said, and what you said, so as to make us each believe that the one was quite willing for the move and was only kept back by the other,' observed Amy, who had resented this management when she found it out.
'It has happened to answer in this case, but it does not generally answer, and I am sorry for her sake that she has succeeded in getting her way by rather crooked means,' said Stella.
The girls had yet to learn that 'the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,' and that the experiment which had started in so promising a manner might turn out a failure, and that Eva had time yet to repent of her 'clever management.' At present, however, everything was couleur de rose, and after tea they all sat round the fire in the Whartons' sitting-room, while Stella played hymns on her piano, and Eva, who had a very pretty voice, joined in very heartily, to Mrs. Morrison's delight.
'Let's go for a walk; I've got my presentiment again,' announced Eva, shutting up her hymn-book and jumping up from her chair.
Mrs. Morrison looked at her over the top of her spectacles. 'What might you have?' she inquired, thinking that Eva was complaining of not feeling well.
'The hump, Mrs. Morrison, and I want a walk to shake it off,' she replied.
Mrs. Morrison did not understand this slang; but she understood that Eva felt depressed, and said, 'A walk will do you all good, and you will just have time to go over the hill yonder before church.'
Eva did not like to say that she was not going to church, but she privately decided to return home and amuse herself by trying over some waltzes while the rest were all at church.
The four accordingly set out for their walk; and, as Eva was a very entertaining companion, Vava enjoyed the walk with her. Amy and Stella were becoming such fast friends that they had dropped the formal 'Miss' in speaking to each other, and they enjoyed the walk. Mrs. Morrison had told them she should go straight to church. On the way back they passed the Presbyterian Church; and the two Whartons, remarking that they were only five minutes too early, turned in there.
'Won't you come to church with me, Eva?' asked Amy as the two walked on together.
'No, thank you; I have something to do at home. It's so jolly having a home that I prefer to stay in it. I sha'n't plague you to come to the pictures every night now,' replied Eva, going off.
But Eva had counted without her host, as Mrs. Morrison, having supposed that they would all go to church, had locked up and gone out, taking the key with her. As they were not on a main road, the door was not kept latched, and so they had no latchkeys. There was a light in the hall, and Eva turned the handle of the door, expecting it to open; but in vain. Then it flashed upon her that she was locked out, and must either wait there for an hour and a half or else go to church; neither of which things did she wish to do. A thought then struck her, and she knocked at the Hackneys' door; but they were all out, it appeared, for she knocked in vain. So turning away in annoyance, Eva sauntered back to the main street where Amy had gone to church.
'I believe that Scotchwoman did it on purpose; she thought I ought to go to church, and so she locked me out of my own home. But if she thinks she's going to manage me she's very much mistaken, as she will find, and I'll just show her that,' she said to herself; for she had just come to a brilliantly lighted kinematograph show, and made up her mind to go in there.
It was the first time she had gone there on Sunday, and to make herself feel more comfortable she had to remind herself that she must put her foot down and not be dictated to by strangers; and soon the music and the scenes before her distracted her thoughts, and this was what Eva really wanted. For some of her thoughts were troubling her, and she wanted to banish them.
But unfortunately the pictures could not last for ever, and when they were over there was Mrs. Morrison to face; and though Mrs. Morrison had a very kindly face, and had been very friendly and nice to Eva, whom she liked, the latter had a feeling that she could be very stern, and that she would disapprove of going to an entertainment on Sunday evening. To her surprise, when she came out there were no churchgoers to be seen in the streets, and when she passed Amy's church it was in darkness, and she guessed that it must be past nine o'clock, and that the others would be home.
'That comes of leaving my watch at home and trusting that man, who said we should be out before nine,' she muttered to herself, and hurried to Heather Road.
'Here she is!' cried a voice as Eva opened the gate; and Vava, who was standing looking out of the bow-window, came running to the door to greet her.
'We are so very sorry you were locked out! Mrs. Morrison understood you were both going to church, and she hurried home so as to be back before you. But it will not happen again; we will have a latch put on, and have our own keys,' said Stella, apologising.
'It doesn't matter. I had a headache, so did not go to church,' said Eva.
'And have you been walking about all this time in the dark by yourself? How horrid; nursie will be vexed!' cried Vava.
'I enjoyed myself very much, thank you,' said Eva, escaping upstairs to take off her hat and coat.
She had not said where she had been; and though Amy, who knew her, did not believe she had walked for more than two hours after their long walk, and guessed what she had done, no one asked any questions. For that Eva was thankful, and in spite of a bad conscience, which should have pricked her, she enjoyed the pie which Mrs. Morrison had made the day before and left in the oven to heat up along with baked potatoes.
'Sunday's dinner and supper always cook themselves,' she explained.
As a kind of amends for her un-Sunday-like day, Eva went into the kitchen and asked Mrs. Morrison if she might help her to wash-up.
It was on the tip of the good woman's tongue to refuse, and tell her that she must be too tired to stand about any more; but a glance at Eva's face showed that the girl was not tired, and some intuition told her that she had better accept the offer and try and make friends with this girl, who, after all, was only sixteen, and had no one to keep her in order. So she said, 'Thank you kindly, Miss Barnes, my dear; if you take this mop you will not put your hands in the water so much, and as I never use soda they will not get spoilt, and here 's a nice apron for you.'
Eva accordingly, enveloped in a large apron, stood at the tub and conversed with the Scotchwoman, who watched her quick movements with interest and admiration, for she was very graceful, and she did her work in a very business-like manner, which pleased the methodical housekeeper.
'There's a right way and a wrong way of doing everything, but you've got the right way of washing-up, and it makes a deal of difference, though folk won't believe it. I can't bear to see a young girl doing a few things at a time, and then going to find some more, and putting in the greasy things first, and the glasses and silver last,' she observed.
'My mother taught me that; once a week we went into the kitchen to learn how to do cooking and kitchen-work,' said Eva, and she gave a sigh.
'She must have been a wise woman and a good mother. Have you lost her long, my poor bairn?' inquired the housekeeper.
'A year and a half, but it feels like ten,' said Eva; and then she began to tell Mrs. Morrison about her past life at the pretty home in Cambridge, of which she had never spoken to Vava. 'Things were very different then,' she wound up.
'But they are not so bad now, and you have your old friends. Do you never see them or hear from them?' inquired the housekeeper.
'They have written, but I don't care to answer them. They have asked me to go and stay with them, and wanted to come and see me; but I had not a nice place to ask them to come to, and I won't stay with people I can't ask back.'
'I think you are wrong there; anybody would like to have a bright young leddie like you as a visitor, and you would like to see your old friends again, I'm sure. At any rate, now you have a nice home, and we'll soon have your sitting-room fit to receive a queen,' said Mrs. Morrison.
'I'll write to Mrs. Croker. She often comes to town, and she has a daughter just my age, only she is still at school and going on to college, and I am working for my living and not learning anything,' said Eva, a little bitterly.
'But you should be learning; you can get books anywhere, and can always improve yourself in the evenings. You shouldn't let Miss Croker get before you,' said Mrs. Morrison.
The good woman's interest touched Eva, and had its effect; for she delighted Mrs. Croker by writing to her and telling her where she was, and what she was doing; and Mrs. Croker said to her husband, 'I am so glad she has written. I was so vexed at losing sight of her, but she seemed to want to drop us all.'
'People do when they are poor, and she felt having her education stopped. You must ask her down for Easter. She has a few days then, I suppose?' replied the professor.
So the first Sunday at Heather Road did them all good in different ways.
STELLA'S SURPRISING REQUEST.
'I shall breakfast a little earlier than usual to-morrow morning, Vava,' said Stella when they were going to bed that night.
'Doreen says she catches the 8.40, so we shall be in plenty of time if we have breakfast at eight o'clock,' objected Vava.
'You can go with Doreen by that train, but I shall take the 8.20,' replied her sister.
Vava coloured up, for she remembered in a flash that it was to secure that unlucky letter of hers that her sister was going up to town so early. 'Oh that letter!' she said, in such dejected tones that Stella was sorry for her.
'Never mind, Vava; I will not let Mr. Jones have that letter, so you need not worry,' she said.
'Don't you think I had better come with you?' suggested Vava.
'No! What for? I shall know your handwriting; there is no need for you to be there, and I should think it would be rather uncomfortable for you,' said Stella, lifting her eyebrows.
'I sha'n't feel uncomfortable. I feel quite at home with Mr. Jones, and I think I could ask for the letter back much better than you,' persisted Vava.
'Why?' inquired Stella, getting annoyed at her sister's persistence.
'Because it is my letter, and one has more right to ask for one's own letter than for other people's. Perhaps he'll refuse to give it to you; he'll think it will get me into a row,' suggested Vava.
'In that case I shall walk straight out of his office,' declared Stella, very angry at this last suggestion of Vava's.
'For goodness' sake don't do that, Stella! Leave the letter alone. Mr. Jones is much too gentlemanly to take any notice of what I said; besides, he knew it all before,' said Vava.
But Stella, who had calmed down, ignored this advice. 'You did not mean any harm, Vava, and it must be very difficult for an impulsive girl like you to think before you say or do things; you will know better when you are older,' was all she said.
But Vava saw her sister start off with many misgivings, which she imparted to the housekeeper. 'Mr. Jones won't like Stella going and looking over his private correspondence. You know City men don't like their lady-clerks taking liberties of that kind,' she declared.
'Miss Stella is not one to take a liberty,' affirmed the housekeeper.
'She may not think it a liberty, but it is one, and I should not be surprised if they quarrelled over it, because she really is rather disagreeable to him; and I don't see why she need have made all that fuss, nor why she would not let me go myself,' argued Vava.
'Miss Vava, my bairn, you think too much of yourself and your wits. I know you are quicker than your elder sister, but that's not to say you have more brains; and, even if you had, you have not as much knowledge as she has,' Mrs. Morrison admonished her.
Vava was just going to say that she had more sense about some things, but happily she abstained; and having finished her breakfast she went to the window to look out for Doreen, who had promised to call for her.
The other two girls went to town by a later train; so Vava, seeing Doreen coming out of her gate, called out good-bye to Amy and Eva, and went to meet her friend.
'Isn't Miss Wharton coming with us?' Doreen inquired, rather disappointed, for she admired Stella greatly.
'She has gone; she had some business to do at the office, so she went early,' explained Vava.
'She does work hard, and so do you. Miss Courteney said the other day that we might take an example from you in that; you do what you have to do with all your might, and so quickly too, and yet you are not a bit serious by nature,' commented Doreen.
Vava was very pleased at this praise; but, remembering nursie's lecture on not thinking too much of herself, she replied, 'I can't do things by halves, I suppose because I have too much energy. I wish sometimes I did not go at things so hard. I don't take time to think, and so I make a lot of mistakes.'
'We all make mistakes; I've made some mistake in this problem, and I can't get it right,' said Doreen, taking out her algebra.
'I can tell you how to do that,' said Vava, for it was one Mr. Jones had helped her with; and the two were soon deep in algebra, which lasted them until they got to the City.
'What a short journey!' said Vava as they alighted at the City station.
And yet that morning Stella had said to herself what a long journey it was. All the same, when she got out at that City station she wished she were just leaving home. To the proud, sensitive girl the business before her was very unpleasant, and she had magnified its importance till she felt as if she must get that letter or leave the office.
Mrs. Ryan was dusting the office when she arrived, and was surprised to see her. 'Mr. Jones did not expect you to-day, miss. He stopped late on Saturday answering a lot of letters himself, and said he should not be here till late this morning, as you would not be coming,' she told Stella.
'There was no need for me to stay at home, as we got the house nearly straight on Saturday. We had a delightful surprise; our old nurse and housekeeper was there. She is going to keep house for us, so we shall be very comfortable,' said Stella, smiling.
'I am glad to hear that; she will look after you, and it's much better to have some older person with you, for you are all very young to be householders,' said the old woman, going on with her dusting.
'Have the letters come, Mrs. Ryan?' inquired Stella anxiously.
'Yes, they get here by eight o'clock; they are in the letter-box,' replied the housekeeper.
'Where is the letter-box?' asked Stella.
Mrs. Ryan looked a little surprised at the question as she replied, 'On the door.'
Stella looked at the door, but saw none.
'Not that door; the door of the outside office,' explained Mrs. Ryan.
Stella was a little uncomfortable, but she felt she must get Vava's letter before any one came in, and she went to the letter-box, which, of course, was locked, as she might have expected if she had but thought a little. But Stella Wharton was not easily turned from a purpose she had formed; and, coming back to the housekeeper, she asked the woman if she had the key or knew where it was kept.
If Mrs. Ryan had been surprised before she was doubly surprised now, and said in rather shocked accents, 'No, I have not the key, nor do I know where Mr. Jones keeps his; and, if you'll excuse my saying so, Miss Wharton, I should not tell you if I did know, for City gentlemen don't care to have their correspondence meddled with. I know you only want to get to your work; but I know more about City ways than you, and I advise you not to do more than is your work. The head-clerk always unlocks the letter-box, and brings the letters into Mr. Jones when he arrives.'
Stella listened to this speech in silence. She did think of taking the good woman into her confidence; but a dislike of talking about her private concerns prevented her, so she said nothing. Going to her room, she took off her hat and coat, and sat down to wait until the head-clerk should appear and she should hear him unlocking the letter-box, a noise she remembered hearing about ten o'clock every morning. The half-hour seemed very long, and she grew so nervous that she gave a great start when she heard a step, and presently two or three more, and then the sound of the letter-box being opened.
She waited a moment, and then, summoning up her courage, she went up to the head-clerk, to whom, as it happened, she had never spoken, and asked him politely if she might have Mr. James Jones's letters.
The man, who had been in the employment of the firm for twenty-five years, stood, his hands full of letters, and stared at her. In all his years of service such a request had never been made to him. He had been rather flattered by Stella speaking to him at all, for she appeared, as a rule, not to be aware of the existence of any of them; but this request was so unusual that the man did not answer at once.
'Did Mr. James give you orders to open his correspondence?' he then asked; for every one in the office had such a high opinion of Stella that they would not have been surprised at any token of trust, and this occurred to the head-clerk as the possible explanation.
'Oh no, I do not want to open them,' said Stella, colouring and looking embarrassed.
They were standing just within the door of the large general office; but the head-clerk, after glancing at the other clerks, several of whom had arrived and were listening with curiosity, stepped outside the door, and, leading the way to Stella's office, said, 'May I speak to you for a moment, Miss Wharton?'
Stella, with her proudest and coldest manner, said, 'Yes.'
The man entered and shut the door. He still had the packet of letters in his hand as he said, 'Excuse me, Miss Wharton, but I do not quite understand what you want.'
'I wanted Mr. Jones's letters; the letters addressed to Mr. James Jones, the junior partner,' replied Stella.
'By whose authority do you ask? I am sorry to appear rude; but, you see, this is a serious matter. I should not like to refuse a request of yours, as the firm have a very high opinion of you, and, I know, trust you implicitly; but it is against all rules and regulations to give the letters of the partners into any hands but their own. Trade secrets, you know, Miss Wharton,' he wound up, with a smile.
Stella wished she had never asked for the letters, and replied in her coldest voice, 'I did not know it was against the rules. I have not Mr. James Jones's authority to ask for his correspondence, and of course I do not wish you to give it to me. I will wait till he comes, thank you;' and, so saying, she uncovered her typewriter as a sign that the conversation was at an end.
But the head-clerk stood there perplexed. Why had she asked for the letters? Ought he to give them? Would Mr. James be annoyed if he refused them? 'If you think Mr. James would wish you to have them'——he began doubtfully.
But Stella cut him short. 'It is of no consequence, thank you,' she said.
The head-clerk still lingered. 'Is it some special letter'——he began.
Stella interrupted him. 'That is my business,' she said curtly.
'I only thought you might have some letter that you were expecting which wanted answering,' he said, half-offended, for Stella's manner was not conciliatory.
'No, thank you; I will wait until Mr. James comes,' she repeated.
It was evidently no good talking to Stella, whom the head-clerk designated to himself a haughty young woman. And, vexed that this first encounter with her should have been such an unfortunate one, he went away, but decided to take counsel with one of the other heads of the firm if he should arrive first; or, if not, to see Mr. James and make his peace with him, if necessary, before Stella made any complaint.
As fortune would have it, the senior partner, Mr. Baines, arrived soon after, and to him the head-clerk took his tale.
Mr. Baines heard him in silence. 'Mr. James says she's a very good clerk, and I should imagine she is trustworthy; but one never knows. I've never seen the young lady myself. They say she is good-looking and very proud,' he remarked at last.
'She is both, sir; in fact, she's the prettiest young lady I've ever seen in my life. But proud!—proud isn't the word for it; she positively freezes you up. She looked so odd when I asked her why she wanted the letters that, upon my word, I didn't half like it; one never knows with women, not the best of them, sir,' said the head-clerk.
Mr. Baines laughed. 'Anyway, I should not worry about it; you did quite right not to give the letters to her, and if Mr. James says anything to me about it I shall take your part. If he had wished her to open his correspondence he should have given her his written authority; it would never do if any clerk who liked could ask for our letters, and so I shall tell him,' he declared.
The head-clerk went away, and hoped that he had done right. And Stella waited, with what patience she could, for Mr. James Jones's arrival, which was not until half-past ten, when she heard his step along the passage—there was no mistaking it, because it was so light and springy, the step of a man who loved and lived as much as was possible in the country. In fact, Stella had owned to herself that if she had met him in society she should have taken him for a country gentleman or a sailor, certainly not for a business man, which he clearly was from choice, since Mrs. Ryan said that he was very rich, and that he could retire from business to-morrow.
THE JUNIOR PARTNER.
Some months later it would have seemed impossible to Stella that she had worked herself into a state about such a trifle as a foolish letter from Vava to the junior partner, which, as she owned to herself, said nothing but the truth, for she knew she was stiff and proud, and that poverty made her stiffer and prouder, and that Mr. Jones knew it, and was far too friendly with Vava to resent her familiarity. But this morning the one thought that possessed her was that she must get that letter whatever happened. She could never face Mr. Jones after he had been asked by her younger sister to put up with her stiffness because she was poor and could not help it. So when his step was heard she just waited until he was in his office and had time to take off his hat and coat, and then she knocked at the door.
There was a murmur of voices within, and then the head-clerk opened the door, and said to Mr. Jones, 'Miss Wharton, sir.'
'Oh come in, Miss Wharton. I am late this morning, and your letters are not ready for you yet,' he replied.
'I should like to speak to you before you open them, if you please,' she said.
'Certainly, come in and sit down.—I'll see you in a few minutes, Leighton,' he added to the head-clerk.
'Excuse me, sir, but I want to speak to you too, and perhaps my twenty-five years' service may give me the right of precedence,' said Mr. Leighton, who was not very tactful.
'Not of a lady, Leighton. I expect your business can wait,' said Mr. Jones, turning civilly to Stella.
'I'm afraid it can't, sir; it has to do with Miss Wharton'——he began.
Stella had always thought the junior partner one of the easiest-going and most good-tempered of men, and she was startled by the look of anger that came into his face and his stern voice as he replied, 'You can have nothing to do with this lady. I thought I made that understood.—I hope you have not been annoyed in any way?' he continued to Stella.
But Stella, though she was annoyed with the senior clerk for his persistence, and rather angry that he should be there to complain of her, was too just not to know that it was her own fault, and she said in her proud way, 'Not in the least, thank you. On the contrary, I am afraid I annoyed your clerk by asking for your letters. I did not know it was against the rules.'
'So it is, Mr. Jones, without your authority,' began Mr. Leighton, anxious to defend himself.
But Mr. Jones cut him short. 'It's all right, Leighton; I quite understand how the mistake arose. Miss Wharton wished to get on with her letters; and, knowing she has our complete confidence, she thought she could ask for such a simple thing. If she ever makes any request in future, remember she has my authority,' he said.
Mr. Leighton left the room with a 'Very good, sir.' But he was far from thinking that it was very good, and might have been heard muttering in his own room about a 'pretty face' being the very mischief in a City office, and a nice thing for them all if she was to be allowed to ask for what she liked, and have it too. 'A proud minx!' he wound up viciously.
Meanwhile, Stella, being left with the junior partner, began to explain. 'It was not your business correspondence I wished to see, Mr. Jones, but a private letter.' She stopped, for really it sounded very odd; and then she continued, 'May I just look at the addresses of the letters, please?'
'Certainly,' said Mr. Jones, handing her his letters, with a perfectly grave and business-like face. Not a sign of surprise nor annoyance at this truly extraordinary request was to be seen on his face, nor even a gleam of amusement in his eyes.
Stella took the letters and looked them through; but in vain! Vava's letter was not amongst them! She looked a second time, and then handed them back, with a worried air, to Mr. Jones, who apparently waited for an explanation, which Stella did not find easy to give. She could not understand the non-arrival of the letter, unless, indeed, Vava had addressed it wrongly. Then it occurred to her that it might have been delayed and come by the next post; and even as the thought passed through her mind a clerk brought in some more letters.
'You might open those to save time, as we are late to-day, while I go through these,' said the junior partner, seeing that Stella was not ready with an explanation.
But neither among this pile was there one with Vava's childish handwriting. If Stella had not herself seen the letters delivered she would have thought that Mr. Jones might have received the letter and hidden it from her; but she saw them in the head-clerk's hands when she came in, and watched him lay them on the desk before the junior partner. Still, there was just a chance that it had been taken before she came in, being a very unbusiness-like letter, and likely to have been noticed and put on the top, and she felt she must put her mind to rest; so she asked, 'Excuse me, Mr. Jones, but are these all the letters that have arrived this morning?'
'To the best of my knowledge, yes; at least, they are all that I have received,' he replied; but still he did not ask why.
And, for the life of her, Stella could not get herself to tell him why, but began mechanically opening the letters and reading them without taking in what they were about, until, with a start, it dawned upon her that she was reading a private letter of invitation from some people she knew. She gave an exclamation of surprise and annoyance at her carelessness, which made Mr. Jones look up.
'I beg your pardon, I did not think of what I was doing,' she said, handing him the letter.
'Oh that's all right; there's nothing private in that. Rothery often writes to me here; he says he has a better chance of being answered,' he observed.
Lord Rothery was a neighbour, and had been a great admirer of Stella, and he was a friend of the junior partner. Wonders would never cease! Stella was perturbed at the information, for the letter said that he should be up in town that day, and was coming to see Mr. Jones in his office to fix up dates for their yachting.
'I know—I knew Lord Rothery,' she said at last in desperation, for she felt that she could not meet him in Mr. Jones's office.
'Ah, yes, of course, he was a neighbour of yours. I am sure he will be delighted to meet you again, Miss Wharton,' said the junior partner politely.
'But I don't want to meet him!' Stella exclaimed impulsively, and then stopped. This morning was going all wrong; she had meant to be very polite, but more reserved than ever, and here she was, on the contrary, having more conversation with her employer than she had had all the time she had been with him.
Mr. Jones seemed to understand at once; and, in spite of herself, Stella could not help being grateful to him. 'In that case I had better come and dictate my letters to you in your room, for Rothery has a light-hearted way of bursting in upon me without waiting to be announced; he won't take my business seriously, and persists that I come here for amusement, as I can't want to make more money,' he says.
But when they were in her room, and she had taken down all her notes, and Mr. Jones got up to go, she summoned up all her courage and said, 'I wish to explain to you that my little sister wrote you a foolish letter on Saturday, and that I would rather you did not read it.'
'So you meant to abstract it from my letters?' he said, looking at her very straight.
But Stella lifted her head, and looked back just as straight as she replied, 'I meant to do no such thing. I simply meant to give you the letter, which I should know by the handwriting, and ask you as a gentleman not to read it.'
A gleam came into James Jones's eyes as she said this; but he replied quietly, 'I think you might trust me, Miss Wharton, as a gentleman, not to take any notice of what a child like Vava said. You know, or rather you don't know, that business men can behave honourably and be gentlemen as well as the bluest-blooded among you.'
'I hope I have not implied the contrary, and I do not suppose you would pay any attention to what Vava said; but I should be very much obliged, all the same, if you would give me the letter unopened,' remarked Stella.
'I am afraid that is impossible,' he said gravely.
'Impossible!' said Stella, and then her pride and anger got the better of her. 'I fail to see why it is impossible, nor why you should persist in wishing to read a letter which I tell you I did not wish my sister to write to you. If it is some mistaken sense of loyalty to Vava, I may as well tell you that she has told me what was in it, and knows that I am asking for it back unread,' she said.
Mr. Jones looked undecided for a moment, and then he observed, 'I am sorry that she told you the nonsense she wrote, and I am very sorry that you have taken it so seriously. I would not refuse a request of yours for the world, Miss Wharton, and I only wish I could make your life here less distasteful to you'——he began.
Stella interrupted him. 'Then why not promise to give me the letter when it comes, without reading it?' she said eagerly.
Mr. Jones thought if Stella had been pretty before she had never looked so beautiful as she did at this moment, as she laid aside her pride for a moment, to plead for the unlucky letter. He would have given a good deal to have been able to gratify her. 'Miss Wharton,' he said, 'you really are exaggerating this matter, and, if you will excuse my speaking plainly, you are not very just or polite to myself in objecting to my receiving a friendly letter from your little sister. After all, I am not a cad or such an objectionable person that you need mind her writing foolish confidences to me. I hope you will believe that I shall in no way take advantage of them?'
'That is not the point; but as you refuse to return me the letter I have only one course open to me, and that is to resign my post in your office,' said Stella, looking very white and angry.
'I have no wish to keep you here against your will, and as I am so obnoxious to you perhaps you will be happier in another office; and, as it happens, I know of a post that is vacant, and that you can have on my recommendation. You will allow me to say that we shall regret your departure very much, for it will be difficult to replace you,' he observed, and left the room.
Stella sat for a moment doing nothing; then she took up her letters and began transcribing them, and so the morning passed away, and she thought she had never passed such a miserable one. On her way to lunch she took her letters to the junior partner's room and knocked at his door; but instead of his usual cheery, 'Come in!' he came hastily to the door, and, only opening it a few inches, took the letters with a polite 'Thank you.'
And as she turned away, Stella heard Lord Rothery's hearty laugh, and she understood Mr. Jones's thought for her, and felt a little ashamed of herself; but stay there after his refusal of her request she could not, and she thought sadly of having to face strangers again in a new office, and wondered whether she would receive as much consideration there as she had done at Baines, Jones & Co.'s, and she could not help thinking that it had been very kind of the junior partner to assure her of another berth immediately on leaving him. 'He knows I should miss the money,' she said bitterly to herself.
However, that afternoon when she went to his room he was as civil as ever, though very grave. He said nothing about Lord Rothery, nor about her leaving until she was going out of the room, and then he observed, 'I would rather you had not known this, Miss Wharton, and I am sorry your sister told you what she had written. Of course I should have returned the letter if it had been possible; I certainly wouldn't have read it if I had known what you feel about it.'
'I really don't understand. I made it clear this morning; but since you have read it there is no more to be said,' she replied in tones of scorn.
'It is very easy to understand; the letter arrived on Saturday afternoon, and I happened to be here and opened it. I only laughed, and liked the child better for her openness. I have it here; you can take it and read it if you like, unless you will do me the honour to believe that there is nothing in it which makes me respect either of you less, and to let me keep the letter.'
Stella struggled with many emotions during this speech, and then she said in a subdued voice, 'Pray, keep it,' and turned to leave the room.
'And may we consider your resignation withdrawn?' he asked.
'Certainly,' said Stella, and she could not help feeling somehow that she had made herself very ridiculous, and it gave her an unwonted feeling of humility as she went home, which Vava's conversation did not help to allay.
'Well,' was her greeting, 'what did Mr. Jones say?'
'He got the letter on Saturday afternoon, so I was too late to prevent his opening it,' Stella replied.
'O-oh! But you needn't really mind, Stella; he would not think any the less of you for it,' she observed.
'He was very polite about it,' said Stella in a reserved tone.
Vava looked inquiringly at her sister. 'I hope you were polite, because he's a most awfully nice man to be with, and you don't half-appreciate it,' she said with her usual candour.
And then Doreen, who was buying a book at the bookstall, joined them, and the subject was dropped, to Stella's relief; and Vava, who would have liked to know what Mr. Jones said, finding her curiosity was not to be gratified by Stella, privately made up her mind to ask Mr. Jones on Saturday when he helped her with her algebra.
What satisfaction she got out of him will be told later on; but, though the storm had blown over this time, it was not the last quarrel between Stella and her employer, and Vava declared to Mrs. Morrison that it was 'no good, for Stella would never get on with Mr. James Jones, who really was the nicest man she had ever met, and quite a gentleman.' Whether this was a true prophecy time will show.
VAVA ON FRIENDS.
Both the sitting-rooms at 2 Heather Road were rarely used at the same time, for Vava learnt her lessons either with Doreen or with Mrs. Morrison in the kitchen, which, the girl declared, was 'the most comfortable room in the house,' and which, at any rate, was always spotlessly clean, and had a bright fire burning, and certainly looked inviting enough with the kindly, gray-haired woman sitting in the wooden arm-chair at the table knitting stockings for her 'young leddies' or mending their clothes. So that Stella would have been alone if she had not sat with the two others, who were only too glad to have her, not only because they both liked her, but because they did not care to be left alone either.
It was a sad fact which Amy had come to realise, that Eva no longer made a friend of her, but shut herself up within herself, and only opened out to Mrs. Morrison, and even to her she only spoke about her life before she came to London, since which, she explained, she had only existed. She never spoke of the present time.
As for Vava, she avoided Eva's society rather than sought it. Stella allowed her to be as much with Doreen as she liked, and she took advantage of the permission not only to do her lessons with her, but to invite her to learn knitting or hear tales of the Highlands from Mrs. Morrison, when, if she liked, Eva was free to join them, and was welcomed.
This seemed quite natural; but when Vava had spent two or three whole Saturdays with Doreen, for she did not often go to the City on that day now, Stella woke up to the fact that Eva was rather out of it. She and Amy were great friends, and though they always invited Eva to come with them on their outings, they knew that she felt it dull, for their conversation was all of books which Eva had never read. So Stella took Vava to task.
'How is it you never go out with Eva, Vava? She has two or three times had to go for a walk by herself, because you were busy, so she said, and then you go off a little later with Doreen!' she protested.
'Of course I go with Doreen; she is in my class, and we do everything together, and I have more to say to her,' said Vava.
'But that is rather selfish; Eva is living in the same house with you, and yet you take no notice of her except at meal-times, and the poor girl is lonely,' expostulated Stella.
'She can go out with you and Amy. Amy was her friend before she came to live with us, why shouldn't she be friends with her still?' argued Vava.
'I am afraid I have rather taken possession of Amy; but I thought as you two were much of an age you would fraternise, and I find Amy's society very congenial,' said Stella.
'And so do I find Doreen's society very congenial, and you can't be friends with people just because it is convenient; but I don't mind asking her to come with Doreen and me next Saturday,' replied Vava.
Fortunately Eva did not hear this condescending remark, and accepted the invitation, and the three went botanising some miles out of town.
Stella elected to stay at home, as Amy had letters to write, and she was sitting alone in their pretty sitting-room when a motor drove up to the door, and looking out of the bow-window in which she was sitting she saw Mrs. Montague Jones alight. As she had been seen, there was nothing for it but to receive her visitor civilly when Mrs. Morrison ushered her in. But before the old Scotchwoman did this, she stopped to have quite an animated conversation in the hall with the visitor. Stella had never been annoyed with her old nurse before, but she felt quite cross at this odd behaviour. The motor was throbbing so noisily outside that she could not hear what they were saying, but they were evidently on very good terms with each other.
This may have helped to make her manner colder than usual; for Mrs. Montague Jones almost made up her mind to give up any further attempts to be friendly with this unfriendly girl. However, she had strong reasons besides kind-heartedness for persevering, and persevere she did. Fortunately Stella, who, to do her justice, was quite unaware of her cold manner, remembered that it was to Mrs. Jones's kind thoughtfulness that she had that pretty sitting-room, and she hastened to thank her.
'Indeed we were only too glad for you to have it, as we have plenty of sitting-rooms besides that, and we had settled, my husband and son and I, that we would not use your rooms at Lomore—yours and Vava's,' said Mrs. Jones.
The Joneses were showing very kindly feeling, which surprised Stella, who answered lamely, 'You are very kind; but it does not matter, as they are not our rooms now.'
'But we hope to see you there some day; in fact, you will always be most welcome to occupy them. At any rate, my son would not have them used, and insisted on the furniture being sent down here,' said Mrs. Jones.
'It is very kind of your son; but please explain to him that the place is no longer ours, nor have we any connection with it now, and that we are never likely to see it again. I hope you will not think me rude, Mrs. Jones, but I could never go to Lomore again,' Stella said; and she could not help the tears rising to her eyes, much to her annoyance.
'Indeed I understand that, and I feel that you must hate us, and if it were not that my husband is so taken with Vava and with you, if you will forgive my saying so, I would not intrude my acquaintance upon you; but I must give you his message. He wants me to ask if you and your sister will not come home with us and dine after the breaking-up at the City school on Friday week, and let us go and see Henry VIII. acted afterwards; Vava is studying it at school. My husband has to take the chair and make a speech at the breaking-up, and I shall have to go with him. You are going of course?'
'I do not know, but I dare say I shall be able to get away from the office. I am not a free agent, you know; but I will ask my employer's leave to have the afternoon off,' said Stella.
'Of course you can have the afternoon, and you will come back and dine with us, won't you—you and your sister? I should like you to know my son better,' Mrs. Jones begged her.
Stella thought this rather an odd way of speaking, as she did not know the aforesaid son, 'better or worse,' nor had she any desire to know him, and was sure that she could picture him as a young edition of his bullet-headed, commonplace-looking father; but she felt that she could not refuse the invitation to dinner, and accepted it with her pretty smile, which made Mrs. Jones forgive a good deal.
'My son will be very pleased,' was her reply, which made Stella almost repent of her acceptance, and she was surprised at Mrs. Jones's continual and tactless references to her son and heir, as Stella bitterly felt. She understood, or thought she understood, that in a way Mrs. Jones and this son felt that they had ousted her from her inheritance, and wanted to make amends to her. 'As if they could!' she said with some scorn.
However, it was impossible to remain untouched by such kindness, and when Mrs. Morrison brought in hot scones she said quite friendlily, 'This is in your honour, Mrs. Jones; nursie does not make scones for every one, and I don't think I should have been favoured this afternoon, as Vava is out.'
So Mrs. Jones went away quite satisfied with her visit, and told her husband, with a sigh of relief, 'She's actually coming; but upon my word, Monty, I doubt if the game's worth the candle. It's more exhausting to try and get on with that young woman than any number of haughty dowagers, and really I should be sorry for our boy to fall in love with her; it would be slow work having a statue for a wife.'
'She would not be a statue if she were a happy wife; the City has petrified her,' said Mr. Jones.
'I don't remember that she was particularly unbending at Lomore before the City had time to chill her,' said Mrs. Montague Jones dryly.
'No, but adversity had done that,' her husband reminded her; and he was as pleased as his wife at Stella's acceptance of their invitation.
But this was nothing to Vava's delight. 'And you actually are going? I am so glad, and you are going to see Henry VIII. also! Nursie must make haste and finish my black embroidered silk, and I must finish reading the play. Mr. Jones says it's splendidly staged!' she exclaimed.
'When did you see Mr. Jones?' inquired Stella.
'In the office yesterday, when I came to fetch you. He told me where to go botanising this afternoon,' explained Vava.
'Oh,' said Stella, 'that Mr. Jones!' and it flashed across her mind that the two Joneses certainly knew each other, and very probably were related, and that, also very probably, at the office Mr. Jones had mentioned the fact of Vava's interest in Henry VIII. and that she was going botanising without her (Stella), who would consequently be at home alone. Well, after all, it did not matter; they meant to be kind, and she would accept their kindness in the spirit it was given.
'Do you know life's very funny? I mean, the way things happen are funny,' observed Vava, breaking in upon her sister's thoughts.
'What is that apropos of?' inquired her elder sister, smiling.
'Why, this afternoon. I thought it was going to be spoilt for me because Eva was coming with us for our walk, and then I come home and find a delightful invitation waiting for me—a motor drive, a dinner-party, and the theatre; and I dare say we shall go and have ices at some nice restaurant afterwards. Mr. Jones knows I love ices,' observed Vava.
'Don't be greedy, Vava; I think you are getting spoilt. Why should Eva's going with you spoil your walk? I hope Doreen is not making mischief between you? You liked Eva at first, I thought?' said Stella in a tone of reproof.
'Doreen is above such a thing; it's Eva's own fault; besides, I do like her, only I don't always like the way she talks,' said Vava rather hotly.
'She talks a great deal better than Doreen, as a matter of fact. What has she done to offend you? You had better tell me, for I think she feels that you avoid her, and it is very unkind unless you have some good reason,' persisted Stella.
'I haven't anything against her; it is just that Doreen and I don't approve of her,' announced Vava.
'Pray, what business have you and Doreen to judge other people?' exclaimed Stella. 'What do you disapprove of? I insist upon knowing.'
'You don't approve of her yourself, Stella,' said Vava.
'I don't remember ever having said so.'
'You said you did not approve of her buying that suite of furniture,' Vava reminded her.
'I beg your pardon, I said I did not approve of getting furniture on the hire-system for myself; but I never criticised Eva. I know nothing of her private affairs, nor do I wish to pry into them, and you and Doreen have nothing to do with them either; so if that is all you have against her you had better put it out of your mind.'
'It isn't only that. She never goes to church'——began Vava.
'Vava, I am ashamed of you! Eva may well say that churchgoing does not seem to make people better. What right have you to set yourself up to judge other people in that pharisaical manner? It is a most unchristian spirit. I know I am not a very good example, for I am not at all humble; but I think if we want Eva to go to church and be better we shall only do it by being very nice to her, and not by treating her unkindly and making her feel that we think ourselves superior,' said Stella very gravely.
Vava listened with equal gravity, but made no reply. If she had spoken what was in her mind she would have said that those were not the only two reasons for disapproving of Eva; but she abstained, and when she saw Doreen that evening she informed her that she was going to be nice to Eva.
'I think we are nice to her; we took her for a walk with us on Saturday, though she doesn't care a bit about botany, and wanted to be at the skating-rink or the pictures, and talked bosh.' She paused, and then added, 'By the way, does your sister know what silly stuff she talks?' she asked.
'No, I did not tell her. Stella is particular, and if she knew some of the things Eva says she would be very angry; in fact, she would probably not let me speak to her at all; and then I don't know what would happen, for we could not go on living in the same house like that,' remarked Vava.
'Anyway, I don't believe my mother would let me be friendly with her if she knew. I don't know what to do,' said Doreen.