'It has taken our mind off other worries,' announced Vava; and Stella, looking at her sister, noticed with a pang that the bright young face was paler and graver than it usually was, and realised that this week had been a trying one for her, though quite how trying she did not know, for Vava had not told her of her own private worry with Miss Briggs at school.
'We are going to have a very nice day, quite a long day of pleasure,' said Stella, smiling kindly at her sister.
'Yes,' agreed Vava, and she brightened up, for she had half-feared that Stella would either back out of the dinner on some excuse or another, or else go against her will and be stiff.
'I am afraid I shall be late for the prize-giving, for I cannot very well ask to be let off an afternoon the very first week I am with these people,' observed Stella.
'What a pity! But never mind, I will keep a seat for you,' replied Vava as she said good-bye.
However, the first thing her new employer said to her was, 'I shall not be here after lunch, Miss Wharton, so shall be glad if you will do this work for me before I go, and the rest of the day will be at your disposal, and next week I am taking a holiday, so I shall not require your services until Tuesday week.'
There had not been any arrangement made about Easter holidays, and Stella had quite made up her mind that she would only have the Bank Holidays, and was rather surprised. However, she did not imagine it was anything but a coincidence, or that her afternoon, like the Easter holidays, had been arranged by Mr. James Jones; which perhaps was just as well, or the perverse girl might not have enjoyed it as much.
As it was, she went off at one o'clock, having got through her work, shaking hands cordially with old Mr. Murchison, whom she liked very much; and, having had lunch, arrived at the City school just in time. The porter in his gorgeous City livery was so impressed by Stella's beauty and dignified carriage that he took her for some important person, and showed her up to one of the front seats, which were reserved for patrons and patronesses, and she found herself sitting next a very pleasant woman, who took a great interest in education, and told Stella what a high opinion she had of this school and its staff; and a little farther up was Mrs. Montague Jones, talking in a friendly way to a lady whom Stella had met once and knew to be a society woman, but had not expected to meet here.
The proceedings were rather lengthy. There was the usual school concert, which it is difficult to say who dislike most, performers or audience; then came the play, and Stella was converted on the spot.
'What a delightful Beatrice!' cried her neighbour; 'she has a noble face.'
Stella smiled as she replied, 'I am glad you approve of her, for she is my sister.'
This broke the ice still more, and the two had become quite friendly by the time Vava came up for her two prizes, which Mr. Montague Jones presented to her with a specially friendly hand-shake.
Then there were speeches, congratulations, and refreshments, and after that Mr. Jones said, 'These are very delightful functions, no doubt; but they are a little long, and somehow they always make me very hot and tired and headachy. What do you ladies say to taking a run out into the country for a couple of hours, and getting home just in time for dinner? You can't dress to-night, thank goodness, and so you can't expect me to either.'
As all three were willing, he gave the order to the chauffeur, and they went off, Stella in front with Mr. Jones, and Vava behind with his wife.
'Miss Wharton,' said the old man, when they had got some way out, 'I don't want to bother you with business out of business hours; but I must tell you how sorry I am you have left our firm.'
'Your firm, Mr. Jones?' exclaimed Stella in surprise.
'Yes! Surely James told you?' he replied.
'No, but it would have made no difference; I prefer to be where I am. I do not wish to be rude, Mr. Jones; but I think we had better not discuss the subject,' said Stella.
So Mr. Jones, finding he could do no good, changed the conversation, and talked so well on all sorts of topics that Stella, who had been excellently educated, and had been used to the society of a literary father, found her companion very entertaining.
Mrs. Montague Jones and Vava noted this with satisfaction. 'They are getting on very well,' said the former with a nod of her head.
'That's a blessing. Stella really is a very great trial to me,' announced Vava quite gravely.
Mrs. Montague Jones laughed heartily. 'I wonder what she would say if she heard you?' she replied.
'She would ask me quite solemnly what I meant, and I should not be able to tell her,' observed Vava.
'You ought to be proud to have such a beautiful sister; every one was asking me to-day who she was,' said Mrs. Jones.
'Beauty is a snare and a delusion for a City clerk, didn't they all say when you told them who she was?' asked Vava.
'I did not say what she did. I told them she was the daughter of a Scotch laird, and that you were her sister. They did not ask me her occupation; we are not so rude in the City,' answered Mrs. Jones.
Vava sighed. 'It was much nicer before,' she remarked.
Mrs. Jones looked sympathetically at Vava; she had no daughters, only the one son, and she would have liked nothing better than to adopt this girl if it had been possible; but as she knew it to be impossible she did not even speak of a plan she had in her head of taking them away for Easter, which silence cost her some self-denial.
When they arrived at Belgrave Square, Vava, who as usual had made herself quite at home, went off with Mrs. Jones to get some flowers from the conservatory, and Stella was left in the drawing-room; but she had not been there two minutes when the door opened, and a tall, gentlemanly young man in evening-dress came in, saying to the footman who opened the door, 'Has Lord Rothery not come, then?'
Stella, shaken out of her reserve, started up as the junior partner of Baines, Jones & Co. came forward and shook hands gravely with her.
'Miss Wharton, you look surprised; surely you expected to see me here?' he asked.
'No, I did not; it was only this afternoon that I knew that Mr. Montague Jones had any connection with your firm. I did not know you were to be invited to meet me,' said Stella.
'Invited! I need no invitation to my father's house; but if you object to my presence I can easily dine at my club. I particularly told my mother to ask you if it made any difference, and I understood her to say it did not;' and then he wound up hotly, 'I do not know what I have done to make you think me such a cad as to intrude my presence upon you when I see it is so distasteful.'
Ten minutes later, when Mrs. Montague Jones and Vava came in laden with flowers, Stella was sitting on the sofa, and at their entrance Mr. James Jones, who was sitting beside her (as Vava noted with surprise), rose, and taking Stella's hand brought her to his mother, saying, 'Mother, this is my future wife.'
'It isn't! How dare you? Leave her hand alone!' cried Vava, starting forward, and then, as it dawned upon her that it was, she stood still and stared at them all; for Mrs. Jones, with a cry of delight, went forward to Stella, and Mr. Jones, who came in then, seemed to be just as delighted and not a bit surprised, though he said it was a pleasant surprise; and, oddest of all, Lord Rothery—who had cared for Stella himself once—now arrived on the scene, congratulated them both most heartily, and said, 'I was a true prophet. I guessed this would be the next news.'
This caused Vava to exclaim with indignation, 'How could you possibly, when I knew nothing about it, nor how they met—or anything? They'd quarrelled for ever a week ago!'
'Ah! that's a sure sign,' said Lord Rothery, teasing her. He had left the Jones family to make much of Stella, and took Vava to a window to console her, for he saw that she was more angry than pleased.
'I believe it's an awful mistake,' she confided to him.
'Not a bit of it; they are frightfully in love with each other. He's a splendid fellow, and quite a gentleman,' declared the young lord.
'Then they've been horridly deceitful about it, for Stella never would be decently civil to him while I was there, and left him last week; and now I suppose they have been meeting all this week and falling in love,' said Vava in tones of disgust.
'Not they, that was done before; it's what they call a Scotch wooing, and you ought to be glad about it, instead of being so disagreeable,' he protested.
A tear stole down Vava's face, but she would not give way, and only said, 'I don't see what is the use of her having taken a house when she meant to go and do this.'
'These are things one cannot foresee; one does not mean to do them; they do themselves. You'll do just the same when your time comes.'
'I shall not. If I were in love with you I should be civil to you, and let you see that I liked you,' declared Vava.
'All right; I'll remember that, and in the meantime I think you might be civil to your sister and Jamie.'
Vava made a little grimace. 'It's a hideous name, Jamie Jones!' she declared.
But that gentleman, thinking he had given his former friend time to get over her shock, came forward, and very soon managed to win her back to her old friendliness, as he gave her his arm to take her in to dinner. Poor Vava! she had so looked forward to this dinner; it had turned out so very different to what she had expected, and no one said anything about the play; so she made up her mind that they were going to 'fuss' over Stella all the evening and give up the play.
But Lord Rothery came to the rescue. 'I propose an amendment to the evening's programme. I suppose Jamie is going to cry off his engagement with me, so I vote you take me to the theatre in Stella's place, and leave her to rest here.'
This seemed a very good plan, and evidently suited the two most concerned; and to Vava's relief they started in good time for Henry VIII., and in spite of a little sore feeling at heart, she managed to enjoy it very much.
The Joneses drove Vava home after the theatre, and there she found 'nursie' and Stella sitting by the kitchen fire; and even Vava, much though she had admired her sister, thought she had never seen her look so beautiful as she did to-night.
'All's well that ends well, my bairns, and he's a braw young laddie,' said old nursie, lapsing into Scotch.
'Has he been to see you?' asked Vava.
'Yes, and wanted to know if I would trust him with my bairn. Eh, that I would!' she said.
'And what am I to do?' cried Vava, and burst into tears.
Stella had her arms round her sister in a moment. 'It won't make any difference, and we are going to stay where we are till the end of the year, and then you and nursie shall come and live with us,' she explained.
'We shall see,' put in nursie, who had her own ideas upon the subject, and proved to be right.
THINGS STRAIGHTEN OUT.
It is three months later, a lovely evening in June, and the back garden of No. 2 Heather Road was a blaze of fine flowers, and under the apple-tree in the centre of the lawn sat four girls in dresses which looked a little too elaborate and costly for a quiet tea in a little suburban villa.
So apparently thought the thrifty old housekeeper, who came out in a plain alpaca gown, and said, 'Ah, my bairns, but you'll soil your beautiful frocks sitting on those garden-seats!'
'We can't possibly wear our ordinary frocks to-day, nursie; it would be a dreadful come down. Why! you have taken off your "silken gown," and it's Stella's wedding-day!' cried Vava merrily.
Evidently she had forgiven her sister the surprise she had given her on that eventful breaking-up day, for she looked the picture of happiness.
'And do you think I'm going to cook in a silk gown, whatever the day? No, indeed! it's safely packed away, as yours ought to be, young leddies!'
'We are going back to the workaday world to-morrow, nursie; let us stop in fairyland for to-day,' said Eva.
Mrs. Morrison smiled at her; they all called her nursie now, even Doreen had been allowed this privilege, and that was not the only privilege she had been allowed, for, to her amazement, she had been invited to be a bridesmaid to her goddess of beauty at the quiet wedding at a West-End church. Perhaps Vava was as surprised as Doreen; Amy and Eva she understood, but Doreen she had not expected to be asked, although the Stella of the last three months had been a Stella she had not known before.
Stella had explained it very simply. 'I should like to have those who have been good to me in my days of adversity,' she said, 'and among these were the Hackneys.'
And the four fashionably dressed girls were Stella's four bridesmaids, for Mr. James had begged for an early wedding; and when Stella demurred because of the new responsibilities she had taken upon her with the new house, Mrs. Morrison had come to the rescue, and offered to keep house for Amy and Eva.
'But, nursie,' Stella had said, 'we want you at Lomore; your rooms are there waiting for you, and why should you stay down here away from your home when there is no need?'
'There is need, Miss Stella; they need me, and I could not leave them just now. Your first duty is to your husband; mine is dead, and I am of use here; but I'll come up home for a holiday in the summer when my young leddies take theirs.'
Then Vava stoutly announced that if nursie stayed at No. 2 Heather Road so should she; and if she had not quite meant it, for Lomore was home to her too, the gleam of joy in Mrs. Morrison's eye at the suggestion decided her.
At this Stella protested still more strongly; but it was really a way out of a difficulty, for Vava was very happy at school and with Mrs. Morrison, and she would spend the long summer holidays at Lomore, and in the autumn Stella would be at her town house, and Vava could be constantly with her.
And so the tangled skein straightened itself out, and the little household at No. 2 Heather Road went on very happily.
Eva was acting up to her suggested motto of 'Save' to such good purpose that, thanks to overtime and rigid self-denial, encouraged by Mrs. Morrison, she had paid off half her debt.
'Fancy, fifteen pounds in three months! At that rate I shall soon be able to look the whole world in the face!' she cried as she handed the last instalment of the fifteen pounds to the kindly creditor.
Mrs. Morrison was as pleased as the girl; not that she was anxious to have the money back, but that she wanted Eva to be out of debt.
Stella, whom her short spell of poverty had made thoughtful on such matters, gave the bridesmaids their dresses, which meant best summer-frocks and hats for them all, and saved Eva that expense; and of pleasures they had no lack, for Mr. Montague Jones's car was always running down to Blackstead.
Mrs. Montague Jones could not adopt Vava, but she insisted on considering her a relation, and Vava never felt lonely, even while Stella was away on her honeymoon. And when she returned, on her way up north, she fetched Vava and Mrs. Morrison, and took them to Lomore with her that they might be with her when she went to the home of her fathers, and see the welcome she received.
And it was a warm welcome, a welcome to the late Laird's daughter and to the new young Laird, who had won for himself golden opinions during the short time he had reigned there, for his father had made over the property to his son when, unknown to Stella, and before he had been engaged to her, he had sought out her special protegees and assured them of his friendship.
'All that time ago!' commented Vava; but she thought it best to refrain from alluding to the time when Stella behaved so badly to her present husband that she (Vava) had pitied him. 'Grown-up people are odd. I prefer schoolgirls myself; you can understand them,' she said with emphasis.
BOOKS FOR GIRLS
BY MAY BALDWIN.
HOLLY HOUSE AND RIDGE'S ROW A CITY SCHOOLGIRL A SCHOOLGIRL OF MOSCOW TWO SCHOOLGIRLS OF FLORENCE PEG'S ADVENTURES IN PARIS THE SUNSET ROCK MURIEL AND HER AUNT LU MYSIE: A Highland Lassie