She had heard it all before, every time that a visitor was taken round the garden; and just for a moment a wish passed through Maud's mind that her beautiful sister were not quite so fond of acting a part for the benefit of strangers! As a matter of fact, Lilias took less interest in the garden than any of the girls, yet she always gushed the most! The next moment she pulled herself up sharply, abashed to have cherished such uncharitable sentiments, and went on resolutely with the laying of the table. Spoons and forks had been neatly laid in their places before Nan's approaching footsteps could be heard ploughing upstairs to an accompaniment of jingling glass and steel. She had taken the warning to heart, apparently, for there was a noticeable pause between each footstep; but, alas! when the top of the stair was reached, there came a sudden and violent change in her procedure. Maud heard a gasp, and then, even as she started forward to investigate the cause, in rushed Nan, head foremost, the contents of the tray raining on the ground, while she stumbled helplessly forward, and finally collapsed on the floor in a nest of knives and broken glass, to lift up her voice in a wail of anguish.
"Oh, oh, oh! I caught my foot! That horrid braid tripped me up at the very last step, and sent me flying forward. What shall I do?"
"I told you,"—began Maud, but stopped abruptly, knowing by experience how trying it was to be reminded of past warnings. "Oh dear, the fright you gave me! To fall down with such a dangerous load. Nan, are you hurt?"
"I'm killed!" cried Nan, with a sniff. "Talk of your fright, indeed: I'm shaking all over. I'll run away and drown myself. Always make a mess of everything I do! What will mother say?"
"Don't worry about that, dear. You were trying to help, and being so good and kind, and half a dozen tumblers are not a deadly thing. That won't ruin us. It might have been far worse."
"It is!" sighed Nan. "Two water-bottles—the best ones, too. I thought they'd look so nice. Oh dear; oh dear; and just when I thought I was getting on so well! I came up so slowly, stopping at every step. You might have heard me—"
"I did; but you know, Nan, I said before—Never mind, it's done now, so it's no use groaning. You look so white, dear; I am afraid you have had a shock. Don't try to do anything more, but go to your room and take some sal volatile, and lie down until dinner."
But at that Nan rose to her feet with a laugh of derision.
"I! I act the fine lady, and go to bed for a fall? Not likely. I shall have to work harder than ever to make up for this. The knives might as well go in their places first, and then I'll go down and get something to brush up the glass. Don't you come: it's dangerous walking over here, and I can do it quite well."
"Nan, please leave it to me! I am sure you are hurt, though you won't acknowledge it. Sit down and rest, if it's only for five minutes."
But Nan would not be persuaded. She picked up the knives and hobbled round the table, laying them in their places and tossing her head with an air of triumph, oblivious of the fact that a drop of blood marked each stage of her progress, leaving a vivid stain on the fresh white cloth. A groan of dismay from Maud's lips aroused her attention, whereupon she flushed red with dismay, and stared down at her cut fingers with an air of shocked surprise.
It was really too aggravating, and even placid Maud felt aroused to irritation; but it is difficult to upbraid an offender who is herself overcome with penitence, and who lavishes such violent reproaches upon her own head, as Nan now proceeded to do.
"Oh, mussey me, I thought they felt queer! They are cut all over. Lockjaw, I suppose. I shall never be able to speak distinctly any more, but have to push all my food between my teeth, like poor Jane Smith. Oh, Maud, Maud, I wanted to help, and I've only made things worse than before! I always do. Do please scold and get cross. Don't look so wretched. Abuse me as I deserve!"
"What's the good?" sighed Maud dismally. "You didn't mean to do it, and it's done, and can't be undone. Come to my room and I'll bandage your hands. I'm not afraid of lockjaw, but you can't go about any longer like that. Then we must get a clean cloth, and begin again."
Poor Maud! She set her lips and went through the new duties without shirking or skimping, resolutely avoiding a look into the garden. There was no chance now of being able to join Ned before dinner, and as soon as the meal was over he would be obliged to hurry off to catch the last train. After all the longing and expectation, it seemed as though she were to meet with nothing but disappointment.
DOUBT AND DREAD.
Maud had just time to change her working attire for a dress which was suitable for the evening, though not sufficiently dressy to break the compact which had been made with the visitor, before the gong sounded, and she returned to the schoolroom to join the other members of the party. Ned was standing beside the fireplace, and greeted her with a pleasant smile as she entered.
"You didn't come out and join us in the garden," he said; and when she replied with a vague murmur, "Ah, well," he added lightly, "perhaps you were just as wise. There is a decided nip in the air still, and if you get out of the sun, you are apt to feel chilled."
Maud's eyes opened with a quick glance of surprise, but she made no remark. The words had chilled her as no east wind could have done. Did Ned really believe that she would have stayed indoors and sacrificed an hour of his society for fear of a slight discomfort? If he thought this, he was indeed unconscious of the true nature of her feelings towards him; and though Maud was the last girl in the world to wear her heart on her sleeve, she had been happy to believe that she and Ned understood each other, and could count on a mutual affection. She did not know which hurt the more, the suggestion of her own indifference or the unruffled serenity with which it was made. As she sat opposite Ned at dinner, she studied his face, to see if she could find there a reflection of the depression which was stealing over her own heart, but looked in vain. Truth compelled her to admit that she had never seen him brighter, more radiant, more full of life and animation. She tried her best to throw off the cloud on her own spirits and to enter into the conversation, but the effort was not a success. The hands of the clock on the mantelpiece held her in fascinated attention. Every stroke seemed, to sound the knell of the bright hopes with which she had looked forward to this meeting, every stroke brought the parting nearer.
If Maud did not speak, the other girls more than made up for her silence, talking all together in true Rendell fashion, and telling the news of the last few months in their usual breathlessly eager fashion. Until now, conversation had had no chance of becoming general, and each one had some personal items of information to offer which appeared to her to be of absorbing interest. Lilias had paid a visit to an old school friend, where she had had many pleasing adventures, which she related in characteristic manner. Her sisters often discussed what it was which gave to Lilias's stories such a suggestive and flattering atmosphere. It must have been something peculiar in the way in which they were told; for though she never said such a thing in so many words, the hearers were yet impressed by the fact that she had played a leading part, had been surfeited with admiration, and positively oppressed by the attentions which she had received! This evening was no exception to the rule; for as she spoke the listeners saw before them a picture of her own lovely figure moving like a queen through the scenes which she described, her humble vassals following in her wake. Lilias must be cleverer than most people supposed, Nan told herself sagely, as she watched the face of the visitor, to see how he was impressed by the recitals. Impossible to say! Ned stared fixedly at his plate, and made no remark. He very seldom looked at Lilias at all, Nan noticed. If it was not too absurd, she would have thought that he really avoided looking in her direction, while at every point in the conversation his eyes turned towards Maud, as if asking her sympathy in his enjoyment. Nan's spirit rose with a bound, and she burst into the conversation once more, talking every one down by her high, clear tones.
"Mr Talbot, do you realise that I've growed up since you saw me last? I've said good-bye to childish things, and blossomed into a society dame. I'm a lady growed. Didn't you notice it?"
Ned's eyes gleamed upon her with the deep, kindly glow which Maud knew and loved to see.
"I didn't, Nan; I'm sorry. I thought you looked exactly the same!"
"Never noticed my long skirts, or my done-up hair?"
"No!" Ned looked surprised, and tilted slightly back in his chair to obtain a better view of Nan's head. It was really rather puzzling to decide whether her curly mop was intended to be up or down; and the burst of laughter which followed showed how perfectly his uncertainty was appreciated. Nan made a grimace intended to express reckless indifference, and waved her bandaged hand in the air.
"Well, it is up! Don't pay any attention to those silly things. I ought to know best, for I've three separate hair-pins sticking into my scalp at the present moment. Jim took me to my first dance when he was at home for Christmas. It was s-imply lovely! I was awfully nervous, for I generally manage to make an idiot of myself if I get a chance; but I got on finely. I fell down full length as I was entering the room, but that was only because the floor was so beautifully polished. I danced every single dance—all waltzes, and the most ex-quisite music. I was introduced to an awfully nice man. He had ears like windmills, and the biggest mouth I ever saw; but he could dance! We went on, and on, and on, as long as the music lasted, and never stopped once; and when it came to an end I was as red as a lobster. It was simply lovely!"
Elsie smiled in an elderly and forbearing manner.
"More than you were, I expect. I can just imagine how you looked, with your hair all wild, and a crimson face above your white dress. You never think about your appearance, Nan."
"Hope I never may. I haven't one to think about, and that's a blessing! It would be so boring to be pretty, and to have to worry about clothes and complexion. I'm thankful there's none of that nonsense about me," cried Nan, beaming; and every one of the listeners thought how pretty she looked at that moment, as she tossed her saucy head and smiled her dimpling smile; but they would not for the world have said so, and spoilt the charm of her unaffected self-depreciation. Christabel seized the opportunity, and took up the thread of conversation before any one else had time to come forward.
"Mr Talbot, I've been waiting to ask you a question. Do you know anybody called Vanburgh? The Grange is let at last, and the gentleman's name is Vanburgh. We are simply aching to get to know something about them. The furniture has arrived, but nobody is in the house yet, except the servants. We made up our minds that there would be a family of daughters, but we begin to have qualms." Chrissie was obviously pleased with the effect of that last expressive word, and repeated it once more with artistic relish. "Qualms, yes! Decided qualms. The furniture is so massive. We can't see anything at all that would suit a girl's room."
"I can't give you any help on that point, Chrissie. You can judge better than I; but Vanburgh is an uncommon name, so we ought to be able to find out something about them. Do you happen to know where they have been living till now?"
"Here, and there, and everywhere; wandering over the face of the globe! A great deal of the furniture comes from India and Egypt; and one of the workmen came over to ask cook for some hot water one day, and said he believed the master had been travelling abroad. I wanted cook to pump him to find out more, but she said mother had forbidden her to gossip about the neighbours. Such a nuisance! I love gossiping about my neighbours. I remember when I was a little girl, how I used to adore being in the drawing-room when callers came and discussed the affairs of the village. I knew I should be sent away if I appeared to listen, so I used to sit and pretend to play with a doll or a book, while my ears were fairly sticking out of my head with curiosity."
"You little hypocrite! I wouldn't have believed you could have been so deceitful. But do tell us if you know anything of the Vanburghs, Mr Talbot. Did you ever meet any one of the name?"
"I met a man once—a fellow about my own age. He was at Oxford with me, but not at the same college. I saw very little of him."
"That could not be the father, of course. He would have to be a son, and we never arranged for boys. What sort of man was he?"
"I beg your pardon."
"What does that mean? What sort of man is supposed to be represented by 'Humph!' may we ask?"
Silence! Ned Talbot screwed up his lips and shook his head with determined obstinacy. The girls stared at him in silence for a good two minutes. Then Maud spoke again.
"Do you decline to say anything but 'Humph' on the subject, Ned?"
"How very interesting!" Nan clasped her hands in delight. "How mysterious! How gloomy! How frightfully suspicious! I'm sure there's something very dreadful about him, and in that case he will be even more interesting than the girls."
"I can't help it. We know so many estimable people that it would be delightful to meet somebody bloodthirsty, for a change. Everything in Waybourne is so painfully commonplace that we are simply spoiling for a mystery, as the Americans would say. Now, Mr Talbot won't commit himself to a definite charge, but his silence is more impressive than words. I'm sure there's a mystery: something too gruesome and terrible to be divulged."
"You leap to conclusions, Nan. Perhaps I had better state at once that there is nothing at all mysterious about the man I mentioned—nothing of the kind, I assure you."
"Nor in the faintest shadow of a degree bloodthirsty."
"Nor thrilling, nor gloomy, nor terrible?"
"The farthest possible remove from such qualities."
Nan groaned with disappointment.
"What a blow! Another nonentity! I hope, then, that your Vanburgh has nothing to do with ours, for he sounds terribly uninteresting. Never mind; when you come down to see us in the summer, we shall have solved the mystery for ourselves; and you will be obliged to come down for our sale, you know. Have you heard anything about our sale?"
"I—er—yes; I heard something,"—began Ned hesitatingly. He half turned his head towards Lilias, and then once more stared down at his plate, while she continued for him, in her sweet flute-like voice—
"Oh yes; I told him about it. He has promised to come and help me when I get tired. I can't manage the punt all alone!"
Once again was noticed the subtle suggestiveness of Lilias's manner; but this time it was her pleasure to pose as a martyr—a poor, fragile martyr, to whom had been deputed a hard and ungrateful task, while her companions played in the sunshine. Nothing could be said against an unspoken accusation, especially in the presence of a stranger; but the sisters exchanged meaning glances across the table, and Nan stamped so violently upon Elsie's foot that that melancholy young person writhed on her seat. The best safeguard to the feelings of the family was to change the subject, which Chrissie at once proceeded to do.
"But sha'n't we see you again before midsummer?" she inquired eagerly. "Is this really the only visit you are going to pay us this time? Three skimpy hours! You generally come and stay over a Sunday at least. Can't you come again before you go north? Mother and father will be home on Thursday."
Ned Talbot flushed suddenly, and bit his lips under his moustache. He was evidently struggling with a spasm of nervousness; and Maud noticed as much, and wondered as to its meaning, even as she blessed Christabel in her heart for her welcome suggestion. Surely, surely Ned would not refuse!
"You are very kind," he said slowly. "I had thought of asking if I might come. I am anxious to talk to Mrs Rendell. If it would not be inconvenient to have me from Saturday till Monday so soon after her return, I should very much like to come." He looked inquiringly at Maud as he spoke, and she smiled a happy assent.
"I am quite sure it will be convenient; but I'll tell-mother the moment she returns, and she will write to you herself. You will probably hear on Friday."
"Thank you; I hope I may. This afternoon has been all too short, and I have not had time for anything. Not even a glance of 'Kittay.' It's absurd to pretend to have been to Waybourne when one has not seen 'Kittay'; isn't it, Christabel?"
Chrissie dropped her eyelids, and twisted her lip with an expression of supreme disdain.
"I do not say 'Kittay'; I say 'Kittee.' You are too sillay. Whatevah I say you mock me in this ridiculous mannah. I sha'n't speak to you at all next time."
Talbot made a gesture as of one heaping ashes on his head, and then, glancing at the clock, rose hurriedly from the table.
"I must go! Just time to catch the train. I had no idea it was getting so late. That comes of enjoying myself so much. I have had a jolly afternoon. Don't know when I have had such a good time." He held out his hand to Maud, and she took it, trying hard to smile as brightly as himself, but it was a difficult task. She would rather he had been less bright, less complacent. She could have been happier if he had gone away with a shadow of her own depression upon his brow. Poor Maud! she turned back from the door with an aching heart. The schoolroom seemed on a sudden unbearably grey and gloomy. Her former peace had given place to an aching doubt.
THE VANBURGHS ARRIVE.
The next day, when Kitty arrived at Thurston House, she was informed of Ned Talbot's visit, and promptly remarked that it was a "mean shame"— the shame consisting in the fact of the visit having been so timed that she herself had been deprived of the pleasure of seeing one who was honoured by her special approval. All interest in Ned and his doings was soon wiped away, however, by a piece of intelligence so exciting that the listeners could only gasp, and hold on to their chairs for support.
It was Maud who brought the news to the schoolroom. She had been in the kitchen interviewing the cook, and had received it straight from the lips of that authority.
"Children, children!" she cried breathlessly, "the Vanburghs have arrived! They came late last night, cook says. She saw the table laid for breakfast this morning, and the postman said he had taken some letters to the house."
"Arrived!" The girls stared at one another in mingled excitement and disgust. "And we never saw them! How simply disgusting, when we have been sitting staring out of this window for the last three weeks! Late at night! What sneaks! Why couldn't they come in the daylight, in a decent, honest fashion? They might be ashamed of themselves! How many are there, and what are they like?"
But Maud knew nothing beyond the mere fact of the arrival, and the schoolroom party were obliged to control their curiosity as best they might until lessons were over, and they were free to station themselves once more in their place of observation. If the Vanburgh family had ventured out of the house about noon, they would have been slightly disconcerted to see the row of heads in the window opposite, all craning forward to watch their slightest movement, and bobbing behind the curtains when they imagined themselves observed. But, alas! they did not come out. The nailed door remained closely shut, and the disappointed watchers tried to console themselves by inventing satisfactory reasons for their non-appearance.
"They are busy, you see. There is so much to unpack. Gabrielle is hanging her ball-dresses in the wardrobe and covering them over with muslin curtains."
"She wouldn't unpack for herself, silly! They have a French maid who does all that sort of thing for them!"
"I know they have; but Gabrielle is so particular! She can't bear any one to touch her dresses but herself; besides, Therese has enough to do attending to the other young ladies. Evangeline has a bad sick headache. She is lying down in that room where the curtains are drawn. Travelling always does make her ill!"
"Ermyntrude is arranging her treasures. Her bedroom looks out on the garden, and she is nailing up pictures, and draping the mantelpiece. She has piles and piles of photographs to arrange. They will keep her busy all day. It's ridiculous to suppose that they would go out the very first morning after their arrival. You know how it is with us when we come home after a few weeks' holiday! There are a thousand things to be done."
The girls unanimously agreed in this decision. Nevertheless, the hope that one of the four Miss Vanburghs might appear at the windows kept them glued to their own posts until it was time to start for the daily walk.
The conversation turned exclusively on the subject of the new neighbours, as the little procession of girls and governess filed dejectedly down the street, and great ingenuity was exhibited in expressing disappointment in the language which was the order of the day.
"C'est un horrible shame," sighed Kitty sadly. "C'est tout bien pour vous, parce que vous etes toujours ici; mais moi, je suis chez moi, et si elles sortez quand je ne suis pas ici, je serais mad!"
"J'expect qu'elles sorteraient quand nous sommes tous loin. C'est toujours le fashion!" sighed Chrissie, acutely conscious that her French was superior to that of her friend, but politely ignoring the fact. "Je demanderai a ma mere—er—er—(how do you say 'pay calls'?)—a faire une visite, aussitot que possible."
"Moi aussi," assented Kitty. "Et puis vous savez, elle peut dit: 'J'espere, Madame Vanburgh, que vos mademoiselles seraient tres grand amies avec mes filles. Voulez vous permittez qu'elles venez a the mercredi prochaine?'"
"Oui, et puis elles nous inviteraient en retourn." Christabel tossed her mane over her shoulders and smiled in anticipation. She made up her mind then and there to decorate her bedroom with her most treasured nick-nacks on the afternoon of the Vanburghs' visit, and to keep her new hair ribbon unused for the occasion.
But no Miss Vanburghs appeared! The next day passed, and the next, and still another, and still no sign of a feminine presence lightened the dark windows of the Grange. The solemn butler flitted to and fro; the figure of a white-haired man could be dimly discerned, stretched upon a sofa, in the oak-panelled apartment immediately facing the porch-room of Thurston House; but that was all that the most unremitting scrutiny could discover. Nan shivered at an attic window for an hour on end, with no more exciting result than a glimpse of a tablecloth and a row of silver dishes; and the great nailed door remained persistently closed.
And then the blow fell!
There were no Miss Vanburghs! There was not even a Mrs Vanburgh! Could it be believed there was no woman in the family—no one but an old invalid gentleman, who spent his days on a sofa, or in a wheeled chair being slowly driven about the garden? A solitary man as tenant of the Grange! The finest house in the neighbourhood monopolised by an invalid! The ball-room, the billiard-room, the music-room, given over to the possession of one who would never use them; the stables unused; the gardens deserted! The Rendell girls could not believe it. It was too horrible to be true. Ermyntrude, Evangeline, and Gabrielle had no existence. The happy dreams which had been woven about them could never be fulfilled. It was indeed a cruel and crushing disappointment.
"What can he want with a house like that, the selfish, horrid creature?" demanded Agatha, nigh to tears. "If he is an invalid, what is the use of having a house big enough to hold a regiment of soldiers? There are hundreds of villas where he might have been as ill as he liked, without monopolising our only Grange! What is to become of us, if all the best houses in the country are sold to hermits, and invalids, and white- haired old patriarchs, with not a single child to boast of! Selfish! Inconsiderate!"
"I'm sorry his back is bad; but he had no business to come here," agreed Chrissie firmly. "We don't want invalids. We want a nice, big, lively family, with plenty of money and hospitable hearts. Oh dear! I'm lonely without Gabrielle. I'd taken such a fancy to her! This is worse than if the place had never been sold at all."
"But still, you know the old man may be nice!" Kitty suggested hopefully. "Wouldn't it be lovely if he took a fancy to us, and made us all his heirs? A million each! I'd buy a pony-cart and a phonograph—a friend of father has a phonograph at his home, and it's such fun listening to it. The cornet-solo is fine, and there's a cylinder of a baby crying which sounds just like a dog barking. The poor little soul was quite good, but its parents thought it would be nice to preserve its howls; so they pinched it and made it cry. Mean, I call it! Imagine her feelings when she is grown up, and this wretched thing is wound up to amuse strangers. So degrading! Parents ought to consider their children's feelings. I read an awful story once of a girl who was looking over old magazines with some friends, and she came upon a photograph of herself as an advertisement of Infants' Food! If that had happened to me, I should disown my parents and leave the country. Mr Vanburgh hasn't any children of his own, but he may like us all the more for that. It would be an interest in life for him to make us happy, and we should reward him by our devotion. It sounds like a book, and perhaps it may turn out for the best, after all. I believe it will!"
"Don't be so horribly resigned! I hate people who are resigned when I am miserable!" said Chrissie sharply. "I want some nice girls, and I don't care a rap about phonographs—silly, squeaky things! There was one on the parade at the seaside last year, and it irritated me beyond words! Besides, I don't think it's at all nice to make up to a person just because he is rich, and might leave you some money. I wouldn't do it. It's toadying; and if there is one thing I detest above anothah, it is—"
"I never said I would 'make up' to him. I never hinted at such a thing. We were not supposed to dream that he would leave us anything until he was dead, and then we would be overcome with surprise. I should hope I detest toadying as much as you! Toady, indeed!" and Kitty tossed her head and curled her lip in disdain. Both girls were upset by the sudden overthrow of their hopes, and therefore inclined to take offence more readily than usual. Christabel retired to the window in dignified displeasure, while Kitty wriggled into the corduroy jacket, stuck the Tam O'Shanter on her head at a rakish angle, and hitched her books under her arm in preparation to depart. Agatha's expressive frowns and smiles were of no avail towards a reconciliation, and the parting took place in forced and chilly manner.
Then the door banged, and Kitty went stalking home, to drown her woes in afternoon tea, and to have her ruffled feathers smoothed down by her mother's kindly sympathy.
Mrs Maitland regarded the disappointment from a personal standpoint, for the discovery that there was no Mrs Vanburgh was almost as great a blow to her as the absence of daughters had been to the schoolroom party. She agreed with Kitty that it was most officious of a solitary male to monopolise the Grange, and bemoaned the loss to the neighbourhood in a manner tragic enough to satisfy even her daughter's requirements.
"Oh dear! oh dear! and I was looking to her for so many subscriptions! I had put her down for two five-pound notes, and half a dozen guineas. I meant her to take half my stall at the hospital bazaar, and to be the secretary of the Mission. How useful I had made that woman, to be sure! and now she has vanished into thin air before my eyes. I'm terribly disappointed, Kit; but we must make the best of it. Poor, lonely old man! He will be bored to death in that silent house. Lies on his back, you say, and is wheeled about in a chair? That means paralysis, I suppose, or very bad rheumatism. It's sad to be old, and ill, and lonely." Mrs Maitland stared thoughtfully before her, cup in hand, and her eyes grew suddenly moist. She was thinking how blessedly well off she was in her cheery, sunny little home, with husband and child to love her, and good health to enable her to do her work, and to find pleasure in the doing; and the picture of the strange old man lying on his couch in the dim oak-panelled halls seemed by comparison gloomier than ever.
"We'll help him, Kit!" she said briskly. "We'll help him, you and I! We'll make his life brighter for him, and cheer him in every way we know!"
But, as it turned out, Mr Vanburgh was not anxious to be cheered, and Mrs Maitland found it more difficult than she expected to put her good resolves into practice.
On Thursday evening, Mr and Mrs Rendell returned home from their Continental trip. The house was spick and span, the girls were blooming in pretty evening dresses, and the travellers themselves looked immensely benefited by their holiday, so that the kissings and huggings of welcome were exchanged under the happiest conditions.
Nan was thankful to feel that no shade of displeasure lurked behind the tenderness of her mother's greeting, and before the evening was over actually screwed up courage to put a question concerning the discovery of the scattered rice.
The explanation was disappointingly simple. Mr and Mrs Rendell exchanged a smiling glance, and appeared much amused by the girls' discomfiture.
"Well, my dear, we had the carriage to ourselves as far as Dover, and your mother suggested in her thoughtful way that it would be wise to get some wraps ready, as it was often very cold on the pier. Obedient as ever, I unstrapped the bundle, and discovered your nice little plot. We lifted the cushions, poured all the loose rice on the seats, shook the cloaks out of the window, put down the cushions again, and had everything clear and tidy in ten minutes' time! It was a nice little diversion, which came just as we had finished reading our papers. Most thoughtful of you to provide it for us!"
"And you had no stray pieces left? None that caught in your clothes, and shook out afterwards?"
"I had a cloth brush in my bag, and I used it well. I am sorry to distress you; but we were not once mistaken for Edwin and Angelina. It was a brilliant inspiration on your part, and I sympathise with your disappointment. I said at once, 'This is Nan's doing!' and wished I was near, to pay you out for your audacity. I hope your other pranks afforded you more satisfaction. I expect you have been up to all manner of mischief while we were away!"
"I've been most industrious, father, and good, and docile. Ask Maud if I haven't. I had a few accidents: they will occur, you know! Trays, for instance, jumping out of my hand, and smashing the glass. It's a mercy I was not killed."
"Glass? What glass?" queried Mrs Rendell quickly; and Nan smiled back at her with infantile candour.
"Better tell her the first evening, when she can't find it in her heart to be cross," she had decided diplomatically; and there was certainly no nervousness apparent in the manner in which she made her confession.
"Oh, only some tumblers. Not so many. Seven or eight, perhaps. They were not the best ones; none of the best set were broken except two little water-bottles. Such a mercy, wasn't it?" She affected not to hear Mrs Rendell's groan of dismay, and spread out her scarred hands with an air of thanksgiving. "As for me, I can't imagine how I escaped. There were knives on the tray, and they fell in showers round me— literal showers—and dug into my hands! The blood—oh-oh!" Nan rolled her eyes to the ceiling, and shuddered dramatically. "Ask Maud! She wanted me to go to bed, but I struggled on. We were particularly busy that night, and wanted to help the servants."
"Ned Talbot was here. He appeared suddenly, when we were laying carpets, and went down on his knees to help us. He seemed to expect to stay to dinner, so we gave him a scramble meal, and he left by the 8:30 train," explained Maud hurriedly. She, like Nan, had decided to give her own special piece of news on the evening of her parents' return; but though she appeared to be looking in an opposite direction, she was acutely conscious of her mother's searching glances.
"In-deed!" Mrs Rendell said slowly. "He is staying in town, then, I suppose? Is he to make a long visit? Shall we see him again this time?"
"He said of his own accord, mother, that he would like to come from Saturday until Monday if it would not inconvenience you so soon after your return. I promised to give you the message, and said you would probably write yourself."
"He said he wanted particularly to speak to you and father. I wonder what about! He doesn't generally care to be with you as much as with us; but he said it as if he meant it—he really did. I can't imagine what he wants!" said Agatha the tactless, blurting out her thoughts as usual, and beaming round the company, unconscious of the consternation which her words had caused.
Maud flushed crimson. Elsie and Nan blushed in sympathy for her confusion, and Chrissie from sheer rage and irritation, and longing to take the big, blind blunderer by the shoulder and administer a good shaking. Only Lilias remained cool and self-possessed, and came to the rescue with a change of subject, for which her sisters blessed her in their hearts.
No further reference was made to Ned Talbot that evening, nor was any letter forwarded to his London address; but next day, as Maud passed the morning-room on some domestic errand, a voice called her by name, and she entered, to find her mother seated before an open desk.
"I am writing to Ned Talbot," she said, "and I wanted to consult you before finishing. I think the time has come for plain speaking, Maud. Am I to tell this young fellow that we shall be pleased to see him or no? It has been easy to see that he has had a special attraction in this house for some years past; and now that his position is established, he may have made up his mind to state his wishes. I have little doubt what they will be, nor, I think, have you, so it lies with you to decide the question."
Maud laid down her bundle, and grasped the sides of the table to steady her trembling hands.
"Mother, I don't know—I'm not certain! I have only thought at times that perhaps—perhaps he cared—"
"Of course, dear. I understand that. He could not show his feelings too plainly while he was unprepared to speak. That is all right, I'm sure. What you have to consider is your own attitude. If you do not care for him, or do not wish to be hurried into a decision, we will postpone this visit until a future occasion. He himself doubted whether I could receive him so soon after our return, so that I can easily make an excuse. On the other hand, Maud, if you would like to see him—"
She paused significantly, and looked full into Maud's eyes. For a long silent minute that gaze continued, the mother sitting with raised head, the girl standing before her, flushed and shy, yet showing no sign of shrinking before her scrutiny.
"Yes, mother, I would. I'd rather you let him come!"
A quiver passed over Mrs Rendell's face, and her eyes dropped. No mother in the world can hear that her daughter's heart has gone beyond her keeping, without feeling a pang of pain mingling with the joy; and this was a peculiarly tender mother, despite her little airs of severity. There were a few minutes when she dared not trust herself to speak, then she held out her hand and drew the girl to her side.
"Bless you, my daughter! My good girl—my dear, kind helper. I'll miss you sorely; but I am glad of anything that makes for your happiness, now and always. You know that, don't you, darling?"
Maud put down her head and shed a few tears of happiness and excitement, which had in them no trace of bitterness. When the time arrived for leaving home, that would doubtless be a real trouble; but at present she could not realise the wrench, while her mother's certainty concerning Ned's love was the best medicine possible for the doubts which had been so distressing since the occasion of his last visit. In ten minutes' time she returned to her work, with no stain of tear-marks to tell of her recent emotion, but with a quiet illumination in her face which satisfied the mother that this attachment to Ned Talbot was no mere girlish fancy, but the deep faithful love which endures for a lifetime.
The important letter was posted, and the invitation which it contained accepted by telegram within an hour of its arrival, and half Friday night Maud lay with wide, bright eyes staring through the darkness, too excited, too happy, to sleep.
Ned arrived on Saturday afternoon. It was a glorious spring day, the sun shining so powerfully that for the first time in the year afternoon tea was carried out to the summer-house, while the family gathered around on various garden stools and chairs. They were hardly seated when Ned came walking across the lawn, a tall, handsome figure, in a spring-like suit, his dark face lit up with a smile of pleasure. Maud looked at him, aglow with love and pride; but as he drew nearer she busied herself with the teacups, and had only a casual word of welcome to offer. It would not do to appear too glad, she told herself; and when there were so many, an individual greeting was hardly noticed, nor was there any opportunity for tete-a-tete conversation.
When the tea-things had been carried away, however, and the girls began to wander about the garden in twos and threes, Maud found Ned by her side, waiting for her, and allowing the others to walk on ahead. She looked up with a questioning glance, and met a smile of frank affection.
"Well, have you finished your duties, and got five minutes' leisure for once? Come along, and have a walk with me. I never met such a girl for being busy all day long. Don't think I have ever seen you sitting with idle hands. You remember Jim's old nickname, 'Maud of all work'? A capital title! But he would have missed it badly if he had not had you to wait upon him. I used to tell him I envied him such a sister!"
Maud smiled vaguely and turned her head aside. It was all very kind, very flattering, very friendly, yet somehow it failed to satisfy; and even as she listened the old ache of uncertainty came back to her heart. It was difficult to say why, unless perhaps it was that Ned's manner was a little too friendly to be welcome. In the old days he had not been so much at his ease; they had talked merrily enough together while the others were present, but so soon as they had been left alone a constraint had been wont to fall upon them,—a silence, awkward, embarrassing, yet in some inexplicable way more eloquent than words. Maud thought of the past with a quick catching of breath, and through the whole of that afternoon and evening the vague depression deepened, and refused to be argued away. Ned, it was true, took advantage of every opportunity of being near her, yet the time had been when he had seemed shy of approaching; and she preferred the shyness to this open friendliness. He talked to her more than to any one of her sisters, yes! in frank, cheery words with unlowered voice, as a brother might talk to a sister, or a son to his mother. He looked at her with kindly affection, and the look chilled her heart. Once again Maud passed a sleepless night, but the darkness was no longer illumined by rosy dreams, but black with fear and dread.
Sunday was a glorious day, and Maud felt it another drop in her cup to be obliged to wear winter clothes instead of blossoming out in the pretty spring costume which she had hoped to possess. The dressmaker had proved faithless, like the rest of her kind, and, being unable to finish two dresses by the promised time, had followed her usual custom and sent home the one destined for the younger sister; for, in spite of her gentle manners, Lilias had "a way with her" which carried infinitely more weight than Maud's good-natured placidity.
The sisters were standing in the hall providing themselves with hymn- books from the pile laid out on the top of the oak bench, when Lilias came tripping downstairs in her pale grey draperies, a very incarnation of the beautiful spring morning. Maud looked at her with ungrudging admiration, then turned instinctively to see how Ned in his turn was affected by the charming vision. She saw him flash one quick glance at Lilias, and immediately turn on his heel and walk to the other end of the hall, and throughout the walk to church she puzzled over the meaning of such behaviour. Why should the sight of Lilias in her fresh beauty disturb Ned's equanimity? Was it possible he had taken a dislike to her, or felt a masculine disdain for her innocent vanity? Maud honestly hoped not; for, though she desired above all things to possess Ned's love for herself, it would be still necessary for her happiness that he should accept as his own her five beloved sisters.
The day passed without any important developments. Maud went off to teach her Sunday-school class in the afternoon, trying hard to conquer the spasm of envy which overcame her at the sight of Lilias seated in the garden hammock, swinging herself to and fro on the tips of her little shoes, while Ned mounted guard by her side, and Agatha and Chrissie paced lazily up and down. Maud was devoted to her "boys," but on this occasion there was no denying that it was an effort to tear herself from home, and she would gladly have welcomed a holiday. Her path led through the garden, and as she approached the gate the hope flitted through her mind that Ned might offer to accompany her on her walk. It would be an opportunity for a quiet tete-a-tete, which was rarely to be gained in the midst of such a large family; and if Mrs Rendell's surmises were correct, surely—surely! But Ned did not even rise from his seat beside the hammock: he only waved his hand and nodded an unclouded farewell. The twelve mischievous little boys behaved with unprecedented decorum that afternoon; for, in spite of their elfish ways, they were devoted to Maud, and the ringleader sent round an imperative message to the effect that "Teacher was bad, and must not be worried."
It was characteristic of Maud also that she did not allow the lesson to suffer because of her own depression, but rather put into it more than the usual earnestness. She had always felt a heavy sense of responsibility in taking this class, and every week, as she looked at the eager young faces, she was thrilled with a fresh longing to help them to grow up into strong, upright men, who would be a power for good in the world,—"gentlemen of Christ," as the grand old phrase has it. When they were indifferent or callous, after the manner of boys, she strengthened herself against disappointment by remembering how words committed to memory in her own careless youth remained indelibly printed on the brain, to be a strength and solace in after years. The hymns and chapters were learnt as lessons now, but in time to come their true meaning would be revealed; and she loved to combat the suspicion that the Bible was a dull, uninteresting book, by relating the histories of its heroes in a manner most calculated to arouse schoolboy enthusiasm. Brave, lovable David, with his chosen friend Jonathan, the type of princehood; the gloomy but majestic figure of Saul, trustful Abraham, and fearless Daniel. It was a joy to make them live in the boys' imagination, and see the bright interest on the listening faces!
When Mrs Rendell said good-night to her daughter, she was especially tender in her manner, for she vaguely felt that all was not going well, and took herself to task for having forced a confidence. Could it be be that she had taken too much for granted? that her motherly pride had given her an exaggerated idea of Ned Talbot's feelings? He had shown no anxiety to speak to her in private, and at one time it seemed as if he would go back to town without touching on any but impersonal topics; but on Monday morning, after wandering restlessly about the house for some time after breakfast, Ned seemed suddenly to take his courage in both hands, and, coming up to his hostess as she sat writing notes, begged the favour of a few minutes' private conversation.
Mrs Rendell looked up sharply, met an embarrassed yet steadfast glance, and felt a throb of relief.
"Certainly!" she said. "In ten minutes from now I shall have finished my household arrangements, and will meet you in the summer-house. Go into the garden and enjoy a smoke until I come."
Ned walked away obediently, and Mrs Rendell thrust the half-finished note under her desk, too agitated to complete it. She had shown no signs of surprise to the young man himself, but her heart was beating quickly, and she bundled away her writing materials in a haphazard fashion very unlike her usual methodical ways. Her first thought was for Maud, and most of the ten minutes of Ned's waiting were taken up in interviewing the girl, and deputing to her a dozen little shopping commissions which would keep her occupied in the village for an hour to come.
"I am going to have a talk with Ned in the summer-house. You will find us there when you return. Come straight to me, and tell me how you have succeeded."
These were her last instructions, and when she had given them she turned sharply aside, lest her face should betray the meaning that lay behind her words.
Ned was waiting for her with an evident nervousness mingling with his usual kindly courtesy. He made no attempt to open the conversation with meaningless commonplaces, and, after they were both seated, several moments passed in silence. Then suddenly the two pairs of eyes met; the young fellow flushed and paled, and laid a hand on his hostess's chair with a boy-like pleading gesture.
"Oh, Mrs Rendell," he cried, "I have a great favour to ask you!"
A TRAGIC SURPRISE.
Half an hour later, Nan Rendell let herself out of the front door, and ran hurriedly down the steps. Her sailor hat was perched uncertainly on the top of her heavy braids, the buttons of her jacket were unfastened, and she drew on her gloves as she walked, as if she had been in too much haste to finish dressing before leaving the house. Several acquaintances saluted her as they passed, but she rushed along unconscious of their greetings, and presently arrived at the point in the high road where houses stopped and the little township began. The shops which Mrs Rendell patronised were indiscriminately situated on either side of the road, which no doubt accounted for Nan's erratic dives to and fro. She peered her head round the corner of the draper's door, dashed across the road and craned through the grocer's window, stood on tip-toe to investigate the interior of the post office, then ran back once more, to interview the fishmonger, and ask if Miss Rendell had yet called to leave the morning order. It was in the confectioner's that Maud was run to earth at last. She was coming out of the doorway counting her change into her purse, when suddenly Nan's face confronted her, and she started back in surprise.
"Yes, it's me. I've been looking for you everywhere."
"But I thought your were going to work? I left you hard at it. Got a headache?"
"Fer-ightful!" said Nan; and her looks justified the word, for her cheeks were pale, and her eyes looked worn and strained. "I couldn't work any longer. I thought a little walk would do me good, so came out to meet you."
"But—er,"—Maud hesitated uncertainly. She did not wish to appear inconsiderate towards her beloved Nan, but, remembering her mother's instruction, she could not bring herself to stay away from home longer than was necessary. She looked at her sister appealingly, and slid a hand through her arm.
"But—I've finished my shopping, dear, and mother said I was to go straight back. Wouldn't it do just as well to sit in the garden? You would get the air without fatigue, and I'd make you so cosy in the deck chair. You know, Nan, I—I want to go back!"
Nan turned her head aside, and spoke in a queer, muffled tone.
"Very well; but we'll go round the back way. It's only five minutes longer, and it's quiet. I don't want to meet any one. You'll do that to oblige me, won't you, Maud, as you have finished your shopping?"
Of course she would. Maud gave a little grip to her sister's arm, and turned willingly enough up the side street which led off the high road. As in all small towns, the change from town to country came surprisingly quickly. Three minutes' walk took the sisters into a pretty lane running parallel with the High Street, and commanding a sweeping view over the countryside. Here were no houses, only an avenue of beeches, with here and there a seat in a position of welcome shade. Maud often returned home by this quieter route, and seated herself on one of the benches to make up her accounts and enjoy the view at one and the same time. It was a favourite spot; but after this morning she could never pass it without a shrinking of the heart, a sickly remembrance of misery. At the first seat Nan slackened her pace insinuatingly, while Maud marched ahead, intentionally obtuse; but at the second a hand was laid on her arm, and such a trembling voice besought her to stop, that she forgot herself in sympathetic alarm.
"Nan, you do look ill! As white as a sheet. Lean forward and put your head on your knee, as low as you can get it! That is the best thing to do if you feel faint. Sit still for a minute, and then we will make another dash for home. You ought to lie down!"
But Nan sat bolt upright, clasping her fingers in nervous misery.
"I'm not faint. I'm thinking of you, not myself!—Maud darling; it's been a mistake—we were all mistaken; but you are so good, you will be brave for our sakes, if not your own. It would break our hearts to see you suffer."
She stopped short with a little sob of agitation, and Maud stared at her with wondering eyes.
"Suffer! I? Why should I suffer?" Then the colour rushed in a sudden wave to her cheeks, and her voice broke in the single, stifled inquiry, "Ned?"
"Yes. It is Lilias! He has asked mother for Lilias. She came upstairs and sent me out to meet you, so that you might not hear it suddenly. She thought you would rather have it so."
"How kind of her! That was good of you both!" said Maud calmly. Her heart had stopped for a moment, and was now beating away at extraordinary speed; a singing noise was in her ears: it was as if some one had dealt her a violent blow, and she was as yet too stunned to realise its nature. She turned her head aside, and gazed vaguely up and down. A nursemaid wheeled a perambulator on the opposite pavement, while a little white-robed figure trotted at her side, tossing a ball in the air. Maud watched her movements with fascinated gaze. It seemed as though some tremendous issue depended on whether the ball was caught in those tiny, uncertain fingers.
"Ned wants to marry Lilias, does he?" Her voice sounded strange and far away, and she noted as much, and pondered on the peculiarity. "They will make a handsome couple. Lilias is so fair. She will look well beside him."
"Maud, don't! For pity's sake don't take it like that!"
The tears were raining down Nan's cheeks, and she seized her sister's hand in a passionate grasp.
"I know all about it. I am almost as wretched as you are. Don't pretend to me. Say what you feel to me, at least, and it will help you to bear it."
"But I don't feel anything," said Maud dully. "It seems like a dream. Lilias! He loves Lilias, and not me; he never loved me at all! He has been thinking of Lilias all this time. It's—very—strange! I think what I feel most is shame for my own conceit. I have been deceiving myself all along, and that is a miserable thought! You should not sympathise with me, Nan: you should scold me, and tell me to be ashamed of myself."
She spoke in the same dull, strangled note, and Nan continued to cry and clasp her hand in distress.
"I could never do that, or be anything but proud of you, darling! It was no conceit at all on your part, for we all thought the same. He always seemed to prefer being with you, and to be so shy and constrained with Lilias. I suppose that was a sign, but we did not recognise it. Even mother was sure it was you: every one was, except Lilias."
Maud gave a quick glance upward.
"Did Lilias guess? Did she know that this was coming?"
"I have not seen her; but from what mother said, I imagine she did."
"And she will—she cares for him too?"
It was a very low little yes, almost a whisper, but at the sound of it Maud shrank as at a blow, and her face became drawn with pain. For the first time a realisation of what the news meant, broke upon her, and she cried aloud in a voice sharp with misery—
"They will be engaged; they will be married; and I shall have to stay at home and look on! I shall have to take part, and pretend that I don't care. Oh, I can't—I can't do it! If it had been some one at a distance, some one I need never have seen, I could have borne it; but my own sister, living in the same house together all day long—that is too bitter! I'd rather die than face it!"
"Then I'll die too!" cried Nan hotly. "Whether Ned cares for you or not, you are all the world to me. You don't know how I love you, Maud! It would have broken my heart if you had married and gone away, and I never want to marry myself, if you and I can live together. No man could make up for you. I hate them all! Wretches! Nothing but misery wherever they come. I'll never fall in love, and you'll get over this in a few months, and we will look forward to having our own little house, and growing old together,—won't we, darling?"
"Yes, we will," assented Maud meekly. She looked at her sister and tried hard to smile; but the prospect seemed so dull—oh, so heart- breakingly dull!—after the rosy dreams of the past, that what was meant as comfort proved, after all, the last strain which was to break down her composure.
She threw up her hands to her face, and rocked to and fro in an abandonment of distress.
"Oh—oh, the days, and weeks, and months! They will be so long; I can't realise it yet, but I know how I shall suffer. Oh, Nan, isn't it hard, after being so happy—after feeling so sure? I never had a doubt all these years except just this last week, and then I thought it was my own foolish imagining;—and now to have it end like this! I can't believe it! Are you sure, are you quite sure? It seems like a hideous mistake!"
Nan shook her head, and her face hardened.
"There's no mistake on my part, but there's one on his, and a big one too. He'll find it out, that's one comfort! He'll suffer for it! If he thinks Lilias is going to be the sort of wife he needs, he'll find out his mistake. He thinks himself well off because he has a few hundreds a year, and is as proud as a king because he has a house of his own in a dull little country town. Lilias's ideas of poverty and his of wealth will come to much the same thing. She hates the country, and flies off to town at the least excuse. Ned is quiet and book-wormy; and she wants some one who is fond of life, and likes gadding about. They don't suit each other in any one way that I can see, and before a year is over they will have found it out for themselves. Then he will be sorry!"
Maud cut her short with uplifted hand.
"Don't, Nan; you make it worse! You mean to be kind, but it doesn't comfort me to think that he will be disappointed. I love him, you see; and I can't change in a moment because I discover that he doesn't care for me. I want him to be happy. It would make me more miserable than ever if I thought it was a mistake. You are too hard on Lilias. She is very sweet and amiable, and if she really loves him she will not mind little things like that. We never spoke about him together, she and I, and she has only done what I did myself. No one is to blame—no one! It was my own foolish mistake, and I must bear the consequences."
"You are an angel, and too good to live!" cried Nan, with a gulp. "I blame everybody, and myself worst of all. Prided myself on being sharp- sighted, and couldn't save you from a blow like this! ... Maud, you don't want to go home? You would rather not see him this morning? Mother said she would give no definite answer before talking to father, but would let him see Lilias for half an hour, and then pack him off by the midday train. She was going to tell him that under the circumstances she would prefer that he did not stay to lunch, so there would seem nothing strange about it if you and I were not back before he left."
"No," agreed Maud softly. She drew her watch from her belt and looked at the hour. "Perhaps you are right, Nan. It would be better not to try my strength too much this morning. In a day or two I shall have gained a little courage, but this morning I—I've had rather a shock, and feel weak and nervous. We will sit here and wait until he is gone."
"Wouldn't you rather come for a walk? The time seems so long when you are sitting still. A nice brisk walk through the woods!" suggested Nan insinuatingly; but Maud drew back with a quiver of pain.
"No, no! Not this morning! I should remember it always. Every step of the path would bring back this wretched day in the future, and I do so love the woods. Let me keep them free from association, at least. It will be bad enough to dread this road, as I always shall after this."
"Just as you like, dear, just as you like; but what will you do? You can't sit still and think all the time!"
"I'll make up my accounts," said Maud simply; and, despite her sister's cry of protest, she insisted on doing as she said. Pencil and note-book came out of her pocket, and one item after another of the morning's shopping was jotted down, and the result compared with the change in the housekeeping purse.
How could she do it? Nan tried to imagine how she herself would have acted in similar circumstances, and felt her heart beat fast at the possibility. Rage, storm, despair; drown herself in the nearest stream; lie down beneath the express train; bid farewell to the world, and retire into a nunnery. All these alternatives seemed natural and easy; she could imagine taking refuge in any one of them. But to go on with ordinary, everyday work, to take up the "next duty" and perform it in quiet, conscientious fashion—that was impossible!—the last thing in the world that she could bring herself to do.
She did not realise that the bent of a lifetime is not reversed in a moment, and that even the pangs of slighted love must be borne according to the temperament of the sufferer. Dear, placid, domesticated Maud found her best medicine in the "trivial round, the common task."
Nan, looking over her shoulder, saw that the little rows of figures were as neat and accurate as ever, and caught a sigh of satisfaction when they were added together, and the change in the housekeeping purse was proved correct. Even in the midst of her distress, Maud was conscious of a distinct sense of satisfaction in balancing her accounts to a penny.
THE FIRST ENGAGEMENT.
The remaining hours of that day were the most painful which Maud had ever known. The sisters returned to find the household in a state of wild excitement, for such secrets seemed to leak out in the air, so that the very servants suspected the truth, and walked about the house with curious smiles. The housemaid confided to the cook that the missis had come in from the garden all of a tremble; had replied, "Yes! No! Certainly!" when asked for instructions, and had then sent Miss Lilias to see Mr Talbot in the drawing-room all by her very own self. What did that mean, she would like to know? And cook shook her head, and said it wasn't for nothing she had fallen up the cellar stairs the week before; and a very good thing too, if one of them did go off! When there were six of them waiting for their turns, the elders ought to hurry up and make room. Mary, the waitress, shed tears over her silver in the pantry, because there was a look about the back of Mr Talbot's head that reminded her of her young man, who had gone abroad to prepare a home; and all three flattened their noses against the window when Ned departed, in the hope of witnessing a tender and affecting farewell. They were disappointed, however, for Lilias did not leave the drawing- room, and only Mrs Rendell accompanied the young man to the door. She had put on her bonnet, and followed him slowly down the road, for ordinary duties must be attended to, even on the exciting occasion of the first engagement in the family, and on this particular morning there happened to be a committee meeting at the vicarage, which she felt bound to attend.
When Maud returned, therefore, only her sisters were at home to receive her, and she had barely entered the house before Agatha rushed forward, flushed and beaming, and drew her forcibly into the drawing-room.
"Maud, Maud, such news! Such excitement! Have you heard? Did Nan tell you? Isn't it lovely? The first engagement! Oh, how I have longed to have a wedding in the family, and now it's really coming off! It's too good to be true! Ned Talbot, too! Such a scrumptious brother! I always hoped he'd ask one of us, but I thought it was you. Funny, wasn't it? I said to Chrissie—"
"It was very bold and interfering of you to say anything of the sort, then; what business have you meddling with other people's love affairs?" interrupted Elsie sharply; and Maud glanced at her, and turned away quickly to avoid a look of sympathetic understanding. Elsie was old beyond her years, and had been quick to understand the true position of affairs; but Maud hardly knew which was more painful—Agatha's tactless speeches, or the other's undisguised commiseration. It was a relief to turn to Lilias and meet her lovely eyes, guilelessly free from any feeling but her own happiness. Lilias had little natural insight, and was, besides, so wrapped up in her own interests, that she was as blind as a bat to what was passing around. She came forward, smiling and blushing, and Maud kissed her, as was expected, and murmured words of congratulation, feeling meantime that this very unconsciousness would be her greatest assistance in the difficult time to come.
"I've heard all about it, Lilias. I hope you will be very happy. It is really all settled, and you are engaged?"
"Yes—no! Not formally, I mean. Mother won't consent to anything definite until she has consulted with father; but, of course, we,"— Lilias dimpled and smiled seraphically over the unaccustomed word—"we feel that it is settled. We are quite sure of ourselves, at least."
"Then I'd get married as soon as you could if I were you, in case you changed," said Agatha darkly. "You do change most awfully, Lilias, you know. When you bought your last hat you said it was a 'simple love,' and the next month you pulled it all to pieces. And you used to adore Fanny Newby, and now you go out of the side door when you see her coming. Get married in summer and have a rose wedding, and we'll all be bridesmaids. I pine to be a bridesmaid, with everything new from head to foot, and no nasty old clothes to wear out. That's the worst of being number five! I never have everything new at once. There's always a hat, or a jacket, or a blouse that has to be finished off. Let's sit down and talk about it now! There's half an hour before lunch, and it's impossible to do any work. Maud, sit down and take off your hat, and let's be comfy!"
"No, she can't. I want her! I don't care who is going to be married; I'm ill, and I want Maud to nurse me. My head is smashing. I believe it's sunstroke, for I sat out yesterday without a hat. I shall go crazy in a moment if somebody doesn't do something!" cried Nan loudly; and her sisters stared in dismay at her flushed, heated face. It was so evident that she was in pain that even Agatha submitted to a postponement of the longed-for "talk," and the conclave broke up for the time being, the sisters separating, to go off in various directions: Lilias to be petted and cross-questioned by the two schoolgirls; Elsie to indite a melancholy entry in her diary, beginning, "Yet another example of the strange intermingling of joy and pain": and Maud to lead Nan to her own room, and devote herself to the work of nursing, at which she was so clever. Perhaps Nan's head was really aching, perhaps the morning's excitement had brought on an attack of neuralgia, but whatever her ailment, she certainly made the worst of it, groaning and rolling her eyes to the ceiling as one in mortal agony; for she was wise enough to realise that nothing would take Maud so much out of herself as the necessity of waiting upon another.
When Mrs Rendell entered the room, and recognised the odours of eau-de- Cologne, menthol, and sal volatile, her first thought was of poor brokenhearted Maud; but, behold! it was Maud who was playing doctor, and buxom Nan who lay prone upon the bed.
A few inquiries and expressions of sympathy were spoken, and then a gesture bade Maud follow into another room. She went, shrinking from the ordeal, yet longing to have it over, and for a few minutes mother and daughter gazed at one another in silence. The girl's face was grave and set, but self-composed in comparison with that of Mrs Rendell, which was quivering with distress.
"My dear child! What can I say to you? I can never forgive myself for my part in this disappointment. I should not have spoken as I did the other day, but I thought at the time that it was the right thing to do, and I had no doubts on the subject. What can I do to help you, dear, through this difficult time?"
"Speak as little as possible about it, mother, please," said Maud softly. She pressed her lips together, wincing with pain, and Mrs Rendell's eyes flashed a look of approval in reply.
Of Spartan bravery herself, it delighted her to see her daughter bracing herself up to bear her trouble without useless outcry and repining.
"I quite agree, darling," she said warmly. "After to-day we will never mention the subject; but there are one or two things which must be said first. To begin with, Ned has no suspicion of our mistake. I took care of that; and it may help you to know that, after all, we were not so very far from the truth. He spoke quite openly, and it seems that for the first two or three years you were the attraction! He said he had been sincerely attached to you, but that he saw you regarded him simply as a friend. Then Lilias came home, with her more demonstrative ways; he turned to her for comfort, and now,"—She stopped with a little eloquent gesture, while Maud gave a groan of pain.
"Oh, mother, that is hard—to think that it came so near, and that I spoiled my life by my own mistake! I suppose my very anxiety not to show how much I cared made me seem stiff and constrained; but I never meant him to take it in that way. It makes it worse than ever, and yet I'm glad too. It's a comfort to feel it was not all imagination."
"I thought you would feel it so; that is why I told you. But you must not talk of your life being spoiled, dear. These are early days, and I hope there are many, many blessings which still remain open to you. It is a great mistake to think that marriage is the only gate to happiness. A single woman may have a most full and useful life."
"Yes, mother!" assented Maud dutifully. Poor Maud! her heart died down within her as she spoke, and her thoughts flew away to old Mary Robins in her lodging, and Miss Evans in her stuffy little cottage, and she wondered if it were really, really possible that she—Maud Rendell— could ever grow like them, and feel satisfied with the duties and pleasures which constituted their lives! "Full and useful!" It sounded estimable enough; but her young heart hungered for happiness also, and at the moment that seemed lost for ever. The downcast face was so pitiful that the tears came into Mrs Rendell's eyes as she watched it.
"Don't think of the future, dear," she said fondly. "Take each day as it comes, and try to bear it bravely, and I'll help you in every way I can. Ned will come down pretty often, for I must consider Lilias as well as you, and we cannot consent to have a formal engagement until they know each other more intimately than at present; but it will not be so hard as you expect. You must be at home sometimes, for the last thing we want to do is to arouse suspicion; but I will arrange that you have as many changes as possible; and in any way that I can help I am at your service, dear, if you will only let me know!"
"Thank you, mother," said Maud again, and made a little involuntary movement towards the door, whereupon Mrs Rendell dismissed her, after a lingering embrace. She saw that it was misery to the girl to discuss her disappointment, and realised that it would be the truest kindness to allow the subject to drop. It was only natural that Maud should find it easier to talk to a friend of her own age, and Nan would be able to help more than any one else in these first painful days. Later on her own turn would come; and all day long the mother's mind was busy weaving plans by which Maud could be shielded from suffering, and her life made bright and interesting during the months ahead.
Lessons came off badly that afternoon, for the girls were too much absorbed in the excitement of the prospective wedding to be able to fix their attention on the problems of arithmetic and geography. When the great problem of the hour was to decide the number of bridesmaids and what kind of frocks they should wear, how could they be expected to feel any interest in discovering how many yards of paper it would take to cover the walls of a problematical chamber, or in describing the eccentricities of the Gulf Stream? Miss Roberts realised the impossibility of the situation, and shortened the hours in considerate fashion; and no sooner had she taken her departure than the three girls rushed to the porch-room, surrounded Lilias in a whirlwind of excitement, and dragged her to a chair in their midst.
"At last we can talk! Such a pity Nan is ill, and won't let Maud leave the room; but we can have it all over again with them to-morrow. Talk! I feel as if I could talk for ever! Oh, Lilias, how do you feel? If I were engaged, I don't know what would happen to me! I should go stark, staring mad with excitement."
"How nice for him! You would have another person to consider then, remember," said Lilias prettily. "I am not at all inclined to go mad, though I am certainly very much excited. It is difficult to describe my feelings. I can't realise it yet, and feel all—"
"Jumbled up!" suggested Agatha sympathetically. "Of course you do. I should myself. Oh, Lil, do have them in yellow! I've been thinking about it all the afternoon, and I think yellow would be sw-eet! With bouquets of daffodils! Very few people have yellow, and it would be so uncommon, and make us look much paler too. I shall have a face like a beetroot with excitement; I know I shall."
"I daresay! And how should I look, I'd like to know?" queried Christabel loftily. "Sea green, my dear. I'm sallow enough as it is, but imagine my appearance in a yellow dress! I should present a shocking spectacle! Nothing is so nice as pink: it suits every one, and is so bright and pretty. Pink silk dresses, with Leghorn hats."
Elsie grimaced in disapproving fashion.
"So commonplace! Every one has pink. We must have something altogether unique and striking. No use deciding now, for we will change our minds a dozen times before the time arrives. When are you to be married, Lilias? What is the date?"
"My dear, I've no notion! I am not even properly engaged yet, so how could we begin talking about marriage? I believe we are to be put on probation for some months, so it will certainly not be this year at any rate."
"What a bore! I'm longing to stay with you in your own house. It's my idea of happiness to go and stay with you girls when you are married. You will ask us all in turns, won't you? I'd like to come with Chrissie; and then, if you and Ned get too affectionate, we can amuse ourselves in another room. It will be lovely having no grown-up person in the house. Oh, well, of course, you are grown-up, if it comes to that, but only young grown-up, and that makes all the difference. You won't make us do things because they are 'good for us'—send us a walk when we don't feel inclined, for instance, or to bed early, or make us eat 'good plain food.' When I come to stay with you, I should like never to go out unless I have something special to do, and to have tea for lunch, and nice rich cake, and laze about from morning till night, just as I felt disposed."
"And you'll ask people to meet us, won't you, Lil, and take us about, and give us all your old gloves and ribbons? Marie Elder's sister is engaged, and he won't let her wear any gloves that are the l-east little bit soiled; so Marie gets them all. I hope Ned will be fussy about your things, too. What shall you call your house? I hope it's a nice one. Florrie Elder is going to have a blue drawing-room, and Marie is working her a cushion of the most ex-quisite ribbon-work you ever did see. Florrie says she would quarrel with her nearest and dearest if he dared to lean against it. If you like, I'll ask her for the pattern, and do one for you. It wouldn't matter having them the same, when you live so far apart."
"What will Jim say? Ned and he vowed that they would be bachelors all their lives, and live together when they were old. Now he will be obliged to marry himself, in revenge. How I shall detest the girl! She won't be half nice enough for him, and he will like her better than us, and that will be horribly exasperating. I don't envy her when he brings her to see us, that's all! Six sisters all glaring at her in a row, and saying to themselves, 'I don't like her nose!' 'I don't like her eyes!' 'What a hat!' 'However could he fall in love with her!' And mother all icy kind, and father smirking behind his moustache. That's what will happen to you one of these days, Lilias, when you go north, 'on view,' to Ned's people."
Lilias rolled her eyes, and affected to tear her hair in despair.
"Oh, don't! I pray you, don't! I shall die with nervousness. Poor little me! His parents are reserved and undemonstrative, like most North-country people, he says, but are very tender-hearted at bottom. That means, I suppose, that they would be stiff and polite all the time I was there, and begin slowly to unbend just as I was coming away. Frederica, the girl, goes in for higher education, and doesn't care a bit about going about with other girls. I know they will be disappointed with me. Ned is so silly, and he is sure to tell them."— She stopped, sweetly simpering, and the hearers had little difficulty in guessing what it was that Ned would tell his people. He would say that his fiancee was the loveliest girl in the world; that she had hair like spun gold, a complexion of milk and roses, and eyes soft and dewy as a violet. Then Lilias would arrive in person, and his people would think that he had not said half enough. Each of the three hearers had a vision of Lilias advancing to meet the new relatives with lifted eyes, and a smile that would melt a heart of stone; each one saw in imagination the sudden thaw on the watching faces, and beheld Lilias installed forthwith as the pride and darling of the household. They smiled at one another in furtive amusement, but discreetly avoided putting their thoughts into words, for Lilias fished so transparently for compliments, that it had become an unspoken law never on any condition to encourage her by giving the desired assurance.
Agatha turned aside to hide her amusement, and, the next moment, gave a jump of astonishment.
"Keep still! Don't move! For your lives don't look out of the window! Sit where you are, and go on talking. My dears, he is watching us! The Vanburgh! I distinctly saw him lean forward and stare across. He is in the room directly opposite, and he dodged back the moment I looked. Fancy his being as much interested in us as we are in him! How exciting!"
"We must look very ridiculous, sitting here in a row, chattering and waving our hands as if we were mad. I don't wonder he stared, but I do want to stare back. Let us take it in turns to peep beneath our eyelashes, while the others go on talking," suggested Elsie; and the proposal was carried out forthwith, each girl watching till the coveted glimpse had been obtained, and informing her companions of her success by groans and exclamations.
"I see him, I do! He is staring across. He looks very ill. His hair is quite white. Poor old man, how dull he must be!"
When it came to Chrissie's turn she stared across with undisguised curiosity, and refused to accept her sisters' reproaches when the white head was hurriedly withdrawn from view.
"I was the last! You had all had your turns, so I have not deprived you of anything," she maintained. "I only meant to smile at him in a kind, neighbourly fashion. He will look out again in a few minutes, never fear!"
But Mr Vanburgh's face appeared no more at the window, and it seemed as if the knowledge that he had been observed had been so unwelcome as to put an end to his scrutiny. The girls could only comfort themselves with the remembrance that their mother had promised to call at the Grange during the next few weeks, when, no doubt, first-hand information would be forthcoming about its occupant.
NOT AT HOME!
After due consultation, Mr and Mrs Rendell decided to sanction a private engagement between Lilias and Ned Talbot for a year to come, with the understanding that if the young people remained of the same mind, no objection would then be put in the way of their speedy marriage; and as they would be allowed to correspond, and to meet as often as opportunity offered, the decision was received with satisfaction by the lovers. Lilias complacently settled to be married in fifteen months' time, and was resigned to a probation sweetened by the receipt of constant letters, presents, and adulation; while Ned, with characteristic honesty, confessed in his own heart that he had no very deep acquaintance with his beloved's character, and that he could not be better employed than in the study of the same. Lilias's exquisite girlish beauty had so dazzled his senses, that he had been shy and ill at ease in her presence, and their conversations together had been of the lightest, most impersonal nature. It would be an entrancing occupation to discover all the hidden charms possessed by this sweetest of created beings; for, like most young men, Ned was convinced that a lovely body must needs be an index to a lovely mind, and that beauty of face was but a reflection from the soul within. Every month that passed would draw Lilias and himself more closely together, as each came to know and understand the depths of the other's nature. So Ned told himself happily, as he came down to Thurston House for his first visit in the new character, a week after the all-important interview.
Lilias met him at the door, and led him into the drawing-room, all fragrant with spring flowers and plants. She looked like a flower herself, with her soft pink and white colouring, and to the last day of his life Ned Talbot could never inhale the fragrance of a narcissus or a hyacinth without a spasm of painful remembrance. It brought back so vividly the intoxicating joy of that meeting. They talked together in lover-like fashion, Lilias alternately shy and reticent, and queening it over him with absurd little airs of authority, at which he laughed with a lover's delight, until presently a tap came to the door, and Agatha's face peeped round the corner to announce that tea had been taken out to the garden, and to ask if the lovers would rather come out, or, have it sent to them indoors.
"Here, please," said Lilias.
"Oh, we'll come out certainly," cried Ned in the same moment, and then turned to her with a smile of apology.
"If you don't mind, dear! I want to see Maud. She was out when I left the other day, you remember, and I can't feel that I am really received into the family until Maud has given me her blessing."
"Just as you wish, of course. It does seem a pity to stay indoors when the weather is so glorious!" assented Lilias readily. Though inwardly annoyed that she should have appeared more anxious than Ned for an extension of their tete-a-tete, she was far too proud to show her vexation. Nothing could have appeared more ready or more natural than the manner in which she rose from her seat and slipped her hand through Agatha's arm; but even while she smiled and chatted she was registering a vow to punish Mr Ned on the first opportunity.
Out in the garden Maud sat, busying herself with the teacups and nerving herself to face the dreaded moment, as footsteps approached nearer and nearer her seat.
"Maud!" cried Ned, and gripped her hand with affectionate fervour, "I was longing to see you. It seemed too bad going away without a word from you the other day. We have so much to say to one another!"
"Yes, indeed; but meantime I must pour out the tea! Are you going to make yourself useful and hand round the cups?" replied a laughing, self- possessed voice, which Maud hardly recognised as her own. It was easier to play a part than she had expected: the looking forward had been worse than the reality; and, as she met her mother's smile and Nan's approving glance, she even began to feel a dreary pride in her own composure. Lilias had seated herself between two of her sisters, an intentional revenge for the slight which she considered herself to have received, and Ned was therefore left free to devote himself to his old friend.
"Of course you saw—you knew what was coming," he whispered confidentially, when the general conversation made it possible to exchange a quiet remark. "I realised that I gave myself away by my awkwardness and stupidity whenever she was present, but I was powerless to prevent it. And you were so good to me, Maud, always doing your best to help and make things easy. I can never be grateful enough for your friendship. I am so thankful to feel that you are at home still. It seems an assurance of safety; for you'll look after her, and see that she gets into no danger through all this long year of waiting."
He looked at her appealingly, and she gave a forced little laugh.
"Oh yes, I'll ward off the beasts of prey. There are so many, you know, roving about this sleepy place. She will meet so many dangers!"
"Don't laugh at me! I can't help being anxious. She is so young and child-like, and there are dangers everywhere. Illness, accident, infection. I shall think of them when I am far away, and worry myself to death. But you are a bulwark of strength, Maud, and if you will take her in charge—"
Maud laughed again. It seemed so ridiculous to think of any of her sisters promising to take Lilias in charge! Lilias, the most cool- headed, independent, and self-confident member of the family. She was infinitely more capable of taking care of the whole family than the family was of influencing her movements; but Ned could not be expected to realise as much, and he was obviously wounded by the absence of expected sympathy.
An exclamation from Christabel, calling attention to Kitty Maitland's figure crossing the lawn, came as a welcome interruption, and Ned took the opportunity to cross to a seat on the other side of the group, while Maud watched his departure with mingled relief and concern.
"He thinks I am hard and prosaic, and is disappointed in me. Well, better so! He won't confide his rhapsodies in my ear any more, and that would be really more than I could bear. The old days are over, and he must look elsewhere for sympathy."
Meantime Kitty had seated herself on the grass, and was proceeding to account for her appearance.
"Please I hope you don't object to my coming back so soon! Mummy has gone with father to call on Mr Vanburgh, and I walked with them to the Grange, and came in here to wait until she comes out. She put on all her new things, and looks a perfect duck. I expect he will like her awfully, and I told her to introduce my name into the conversation as often as possible. 'My daughter likes this'; 'My daughter likes that'; 'As my little girl says to me';—that sort of thing, don't you know, just to attract his attention. Perhaps he will tell her to bring me with her next time she calls, or even ask me to tea by myself. He may have nieces or grandchildren who will come to stay, and then it would be useful to know a girl in the neighbourhood. I think he is certain to ask me—"
"Mother!" interrupted Chrissie shrilly; and her voice was so sharp with distress that every one stopped talking, to listen to what she had to say. "Mother, Mrs Maitland has gone to see Mr Vanburgh before you! I asked you to go! I had set my heart on your being the first caller; and now it's too late, and you can only be second. I told you so! I said how it would be!"
Mrs Rendell lifted her brows with the little surprised air of reproof which Chrissie knew so well.
"I regret to have disappointed you, my dear," she replied, with elaborate politeness; "but I fear I should hardly have been the first caller, even if I had gone the day after my return, and I have been too much occupied this week to pay outside visits. I am sure you will be delighted to hear Mrs Maitland's report, and will not grudge Kitty the pleasure, if she makes Mr Vanburgh's acquaintance before yourself."
Chrissie collapsed into silence; but, veiled by her thickly-flowing hair, she grimaced to herself and scowled at her friend, who was regarding her with that air of enjoyment which it is impossible not to feel when a companion receives a nice little snub for her pains!
Agatha and Elsie had already begun to invent forecasts of the news which Mrs Maitland would have to tell, when, to the amazement of all, who should appear round the corner of the house but that lady herself! She carried her card-case in her hand, and waved her hand in greeting; but, for once in their lives, the girls were too much overcome with surprise to respond.
Back already, when she had barely had time to go up to the door and retrace her steps! What did it mean? Not at home? But Mr Vanburgh was always at home. According to report, his farthest expedition was into the garden, where surely he would be able to receive a visitor on a bright spring afternoon. Surprise held them dumb, until Mrs Maitland had reached speaking distance, when, with one accord, they deafened her with inquiries, to which she did her best to reply after the first greetings were over.
"How do you do, Mrs Rendell? Good afternoon, Mr Talbot. I am one of the privileged few who have been told your secret, and I wish you every happiness, and dear Lilias also. I tell every engaged couple I meet that I hope they may only be as happy as I am. My dear children, don't pull me to pieces; this is my very best dress! I'll tell you all about it in a minute. I am so glad to have this opportunity of seeing you all together, for I was longing to come over. May I sit here? Well, then, to begin at the beginning..."
She put her card-case on her lap, and clasped her hands together in preparation, and the girls watched her with approving eyes, for Mrs Maitland was a most satisfactory story-teller. She began at the beginning—the very smallest possible beginning—instead of halfway through the narrative, as other grown-up people had a habit of doing, and went straight through to the end, noticing every detail, and describing it in racy, picturesque language.