"Well, we went up to the door and rang the bell. It is not an ordinary everyday bell, but a quaint, wrought-iron handle, hanging on a chain from a sort of signpost arrangement, and I could hear it pealing away in most melodious fashion inside the house. The curtain inside the glass panels of the door was caught slightly back, and I could get a peep into the vestibule. The oak has been left untouched, and there are palms on either side sunk into great pots of copper with snakes and dragons and all kinds of uncanny animals standing out in relief. I was still peering through when the inner door was thrown open, and the butler appeared, upon which I straightened myself at once, and tried to look stately and dignified. I had just one minute to take in the inner hall, so cannot tell you much about it, except that it is a perfect museum of wonderful and beautiful things—pieces of tapestry hung on the walls, carved oak cabinets full of curios, a figure of a knight in armour, and curious Eastern-looking lamps burning dimly in the distance; but the butler looked so very solemn and imposing that I dared not stare as much as I should have liked. 'Is Mr Vanburgh at home?' I asked; and he inclined his head in a gracious bow. 'He is at home, madam, but is not receiving visitors.' I drew out my cards, and said, 'I am sorry to miss seeing him. I hope he is not more unwell than usual to-day?' He bowed again, like a mechanical figure, and said, 'Mr Vanburgh charges me to say, madam, that as he is unable to return visits, he must deprive himself of the pleasure of receiving them while in Waybourne.' I never felt so small in my life. Dismissed on the doorstep, and sent away like a child! I don't know how I looked, or what I said. My one idea was to get out of the man's sight as quickly as possible; and the door had no sooner closed on him than I began dreading Kit's disappointment. It was a most trying experience! Father has gone for a walk, and I came in to break the news to you!"
She looked appealingly at Kitty as she finished, and met a glance of blackest gloom. This was indeed a blow. Not only were there no Miss Vanburghs, but the only Vanburgh who was left refused to open his door to visitors!
"Piteous!" cried Chrissie; and Agatha struck her hands together in despair.
"There ought to be a law about it—a law to prevent hermits from buying the best houses in a neighbourhood. Does he mean to say that he will see nobody?" she cried. "Perhaps he didn't know who you were, Mrs Maitland. He takes an interest in us, we know, for we have seen him staring across. Perhaps if he had known you belonged to Kitty, it might have been different. Mother, you will go all the same, won't you? You won't give up without trying?"
Mrs Rendell shrugged her shoulders.
"I am not particularly anxious to be turned away from the door, and I see no reason why I should be treated better than Mrs Maitland. The servant is evidently entrusted with a general message. I think the best thing will be to send father across on Saturday afternoon, to see if the rule applies to ladies only. If Mr Vanburgh really wants to be quiet, we can't force ourselves upon him. I am sorry the Grange is not let to more interesting people, but we must make the best of it. It has evidently been chosen as a museum in which to store a collection of art treasures, and, after all, you must remember it is no more closed to us now than it has been for years past."
"Dear me, no! We can live without the Grange, I hope. Let the poor old dear shut himself up if he likes. He will be the loser, not we!" cried Mrs Maitland, laughing. That was the worst of grown-up people! They were so aggravatingly reasonable and resigned!
DIOGENES AT THE WINDOW.
After a storm comes a calm. As in Nature, so in the affairs of human life, and the Rendells found another example of the truth of the old adage in the month following Lilias's engagement. Nothing seemed to happen; even the interest which had been taken in the new occupant of the Grange died away after Mr Rendell's failure to gain admission, and one day jog—trotted away after another in monotonous fashion.
They were dreary days to Maud, but at the end of even the longest and dreariest she acknowledged to herself that the battle was not so hopeless as she had expected. The trouble was there, the difficult moments arose, the quick stabs of pain following happy memories, but she herself was strengthened to bear them in a manner which she could not have believed possible. Maud was one of the sweet, open characters who are religious by nature; but though she had asked for God's help every night of her life, she had never been conscious of its presence in such abundance as in this hour of trial. It almost awed her at times to realise her own strength, and this testing of the power of faith was a ray of light shining out of the darkness. Passages from the Bible which she had known all her life became suddenly instinct with new and wonderful meaning; the words of Christ went straight home to her sore heart and comforted it as no earthly power could do. The new communion had a joy and a sweetness which she had never known before, and her character grew daily stronger and deeper under the influence of sorrow nobly borne. Her mother's tenderness, moreover, manifested itself in a hundred little schemes for her distraction, and Nan's demonstrative affection heartened her for the fight. The world was not all lost because Ned had chosen another; and, so far from neglecting her old duties, Maud worked away more industriously than ever, finding her best medicine in a busy, occupied life.
Ned Talbot had gone back to the North, whence he could not return for two months to come, and Lilias settled down contentedly to play the interesting part of the fiancee. She did not fret for her lover, but seemed abundantly content to receive his letters, and pen lengthy answers; and though the date of her marriage was so far ahead, she began at once to make preparations for her future home. One rainy afternoon she shut herself in her bedroom, and rearranged all her belongings, leaving the lowest drawer in the wardrobe empty, and covered with fresh white paper. Then she wrote something at her desk, lingered outside the door for a minute, and finally rejoined her sisters, with a mischievous smile curving the corners of her pretty lips.
Presently Chrissie ran upstairs on some trifling errand, and came to a stand-still on the landing, uttering sharp cries of surprise; then Agatha followed to discover the cause of the excitement, and guffawed with laughter, when Nan and Elsie jumped from their chairs and ran helter-skelter in pursuit. They found the two younger girls leaning up against the wall, staring at the door of Lilias's room, on the centre of which was tacked a square of paper, neatly lined and lettered:—
TO ALL WHOM IT MAY CONCERN.
Miss Lilias Rendell desires to inform her friends and the public generally that she has just opened a Bottom Drawer, and that every description of household goods, useful and ornamental, will be gratefully accepted towards the furnishing of her future home.
NB—Carved oak articles especially welcome!
"That's one for me!" cried Nan, grimacing. "What is your especial fancy, my love—a side-board or a dining-room table? Don't be bashful, pray! Aim at the sky, and you may succeed in hitting the tree. I shouldn't wonder if I rose to a milking-stool, if you asked me nicely."
"And I'll work you a kettle-holder, sweet one, as soon as the sale is over, and Chrissie a—"
"Twine bag," said Chrissie, simpering; "but until July you might as well give up the idea, Lilias. Every moment we have, we must use for sale- work, and every penny we can save in to the bargain. We can't attend to you just yet."
"I thought perhaps you might start me with a few contributions from the things you have made," said modest Lilias. "The drawer looks lonesome with nothing in it, and I've made it so tidy! It would be a comfortable home for that little blue cushion, and the mats with the roses. And you would never miss them!"
"Wouldn't we just? The very best things we have! It is a pity your modesty doesn't equal your taste. I should miss the smallest thing we have made; and whenever I get low-spirited, I turn them all out of the box and gloat over the collection—eleven pin-cushions, three sets of mats, a table centre, three work-bags, two handkerchief sachets, six babies' shoes, and a nice wool shawl! It's not bad for a start, and there are lots of things on hand, besides Nan's carving and brass-work. It would be like tearing my heart out of my body to give anything away, and I don't think it would be at all a nice idea to start your collection by stealing from the poor!"
Lilias looked appalled at the suggestion, but all the same she was not too much shocked to seize on the chance of future spoils.
"Agatha, how can you? I am the last person in the world to think of such a thing. I suggested the sale, remember; you would not have had it at all but for me; but how could a little thing like a pin-cushion be called a theft? However, it's all right; don't give them me at present if you would rather not. After the sale there are sure to be some things left, and then—You would not mind giving them to me then, I suppose?"
"Certainly not. At least I am quite willing if the others are," said Agatha, looking round inquiringly; upon which Nan and Elsie nodded assent, and Chrissie bargained, "Unless I am engaged myself by that time, when, of course, they must be equally divided,"—a contingency so remote that Lilias congratulated herself on a good morning's work, and felt that so far as pin-cushions were concerned the future held no further anxiety.
Work for the sale had, indeed, been carried forward with great zest; and now that the days were lengthening, there was a good two hours after tea, when Kitty could join the party in the porch-room, and stitch away at some dainty task while carrying on that breathless stream of conversation which never seemed to run short, despite the daily meetings. Nan brought down her carving, and worked at a little table of her own; Elsie cut and planned with delicate, accurate fingers; and the three younger girls sewed away in characteristic fashion: Agatha bending double over the seam; Christabel, erect and stately, drawing her thread to its full length with leisurely, dignified movements; and Kitty, with her spectacles on the tip of her nose, peering over them from time to time in grandmotherly concern at the frivolity of her companions.
Nothing more had been discovered about "Diogenes," as Mr Vanburgh had been nicknamed since his refusal to receive visitors; but on fine days his couch was wheeled close to the window, and as he lay looking out, it was inevitable that the movements of the girls in the sunny porch-room immediately opposite should attract his wandering attention. When they glanced across in their turn, he politely turned aside, and appeared engrossed in his book; but no sooner were they at work again than the tired eyes would be lifted once more, to dwell with wistful interest on the bright young faces. One afternoon in especial, as Nan sat bending over her carving, the conviction strengthened that she was observed. She peered under her eyelashes, smiled mischievously to herself, and suddenly leapt from her seat in a manner most startling to the nerves of her sisters. She hopped on one foot and waved her arms in the air; she swooped down on Chrissie's work and threw it wildly to the ceiling; she thrust her face into Elsie's and went off into a peal of maniacal laughter, which sent that nervous young person flying to the farthest corner. She seized a bundle of ribbons and danced an impromptu skirt dance, flourishing them to and fro, while he onlookers scuttled together like rabbits, and felt that their lives trembled in the balance. Finally, after succeeding in turning the room topsy-turvy, and raising the most powerful doubts as to her own sanity, Miss Nan tottered out on to the landing and collapsed in a breathless heap on the lowest stair, while her sisters looked on askance from a discreet distance.
"H-have some sal volatile! I'll get it from my room. Never mind, dear, you'll be better soon!" stuttered Elsie fearfully; but at that the crazy creature laughed afresh, though in a more restrained and natural fashion.
"Oh no; I am not mad! I did it for a purpose, my dear, as you shall hear. That poor old Diogenes was lying on his couch, looking across with such a dull, pathetic face, and I felt so sorry that the poor dear had nothing more exciting to amuse him. He must be precious dull when he takes so much interest in girls like us, and I felt grieved to think how little fun we had given him, sitting sewing day after day like so many machines. I says to myself, says I, 'It is in your power, Margaret Rendell, to infuse some brightness into the lot of this poor lonely sufferer, and you are going to do it! He shall have some excitement before the day is over, bless him!' Therefore, as you perceived, I executed a new and original war-dance for his benefit, and sent you all attitudinising about the room. That's the reason of this thusness, and Diogenes is now, no doubt, full of agitation, believing that one so young and fair has suddenly lost her wits, and imagining you all occupied in binding me to the bedpost till help arrives!"
"I don't know how he feels, but I feel extremely ill!" grumbled Elsie, her sympathy suddenly changed to resentment. "Sticking your face into mine and laughing in that crazy fashion. Never do it again! My heart is right up in my throat, and thumping like a steam-engine. I can't work any more. I am going to recover my equanimity in the garden!"
Poor Diogenes! It was baffling to curiosity that all the actors should have disappeared at the most exciting moment of the play; and the actors themselves were fully aware of the fact, and with child-like enjoyment determined to lengthen out the mystery. The porch-room was abandoned for the afternoon, and such sequestered nooks in the garden as were invisible from the Grange were chosen as resting-places, while Kitty willingly consented to walk an extra half-mile on her way home, so as to avoid going out by the front gate. Such a reversal of the usual comings and goings would, it was hoped, give the final touch to Mr Vanburgh's curiosity, and teach him a wholesome lesson on the folly of shutting himself up and holding no communication with the world. When Agatha suggested that the poor old dear might lie awake all night from agitation, Nan cold-bloodedly hoped that he would, since he, on his part, had been so cruel as to shut the doors of the Grange against his neighbours.
She would have been much surprised if she had known how, and for whom, those doors would first be opened!
A VISIT OF CEREMONY.
At the beginning of May the first returning ray of brightness came into Maud's life. A letter arrived from a friend of the family who had been living abroad for her daughter's education, and had now reached Paris, preparatory to returning to England in a month's time. It had been all work and no play for the girl during the winter, her mother wrote, and it had been long promised that the month in Paris should be entirely given over to pleasure-seeking. Mabel had drawn out a programme so lengthy and varied, that Mrs Nevins doubted whether she herself would have strength to go through it. One thing at least was certain, that the girl's enjoyment would be doubled by the presence of a companion of her own age, who would be able to share her ecstasies, as a tired-out, middle-aged woman could never do. Therefore, might Maud come? Could Maud be spared for a month to give Mabel the very great pleasure of her society? She should have every care, and be brought back to London early in June.
Mrs Rendell carried the letter up to Maud as she practised in her room, and handed it to her with a smile; and Maud flushed and paled, and laid her hand affectionately on her little mother's shoulder.
"Mummy! how much from you, and how much from Mrs Nevins? You have had something to do with this, I'm sure you have. The suggestion came from you in the first instance!"
"Pooh! What a child! Such notions as she takes!" cried Mrs Rendell laughingly. "How it comes about is little matter; you don't need to be told how truly delighted Mabel will be to have you. You can believe in that, at least. And Paris! You have always wanted to go to Paris, dear!"
"Yes, mother, I have. Oh yes, always!" Maud smiled bravely, trying hard to appear as pleased and elated as her mother expected. It was not the first, nor the second, nor the twentieth time that she had discovered schemes for her own benefit during the last few weeks. School friends had been invited on visits; books for which she had wished had opportunely arrived from town; concert tickets had been purchased with unprecedented frequency. Maud fully appreciated the kindly purpose of these attentions, and, to a certain extent, enjoyed the amusements provided; but she was conscious of a dreary regret that these long-wished-for pleasures should arrive at a time when it was impossible to throw herself into them with whole-hearted enjoyment. The regret was particularly keen at this moment, for to her, as to so many girls, the first trip abroad had been the dream of a lifetime, and a pang came with the realisation of how different from her expectations the realisation must be. The ache at her heart would cloud the brightness of the beautiful city,—she would look at everything, as it were, through a veil of crape. The tears rose to her eyes despite all her efforts, and she turned hastily aside, fearing that her mother might think her ungrateful for receiving the news in such churlish fashion. Mrs Rendell, however, affected to notice nothing unusual, and talked away in cheery accents, discussing various practical matters concerning the proposed visit, in which it was impossible not to feel an interest. Maud's tears dried gradually; she found herself suggesting amendments to the plans, and growing momentarily more interested and eager. She was to be entrusted with a sum of money with which to buy presents for her sisters, besides a well-filled purse for her own use. She and Mabel could choose their summer clothes together, amid the bewildering fascinations of Parisian fashions; and there was absolutely no limit in the amount of sight-seeing permissible. She could run the whole gamut, from the Louvre to the Catacombs, and get to know her Paris almost as well as she knew her London. What girl of twenty-three would not feel her woes assuaged by such a programme, especially in the company of a bosom friend to whom she had been devoted from childhood?
Mr and Mrs Rendell rejoiced to see Maud's brightening face, and to hear her voice raised to its old happy ring, as she busied herself with preparations for her journey; and Nan rejoiced as much as they, and racked her brains to discover how she could best assist in the same preparations.
"Let me do some sewing for you! Do let me help!" she pleaded, and proceeded to stitch up the seams entrusted to her with such unprecedented care and neatness, that Maud hid the garments at the bottom of her box, not having the heart to disclose that the seams were on the wrong side, and must needs be as laboriously unpicked! She upset a box of tooth-powder over a blue serge skirt; squeezed a bundle of boots on the top of a chiffon bodice, and went beaming downstairs, feeling that at last she had learned to be domesticated and to render efficient service!
Maud departed smiling and cheery, and all the members of the family drew a breath of relief as she drove off from the door. The secret consciousness of her suffering had been a cloud over their spirits for the past month, and now, as was only natural, a reaction set in, when restrained spirits found their vent.
Mr and Mrs Rendell went up to town for a couple of nights to attend a dinner-party and reception, and the girls discussed how they could best organise a little festivity on their own account. It was decided to hold the first picnic of the season, bicycling to a favourite spot in the woods, where primroses and bluebells were luxuriant, and to invite Mrs Maitland and Miss Phelps to drive up in a pony cart stored with provisions for an out-of-door tea. Everything was arranged—cakes were baked, sandwiches cut, cream and milk corked up in bottles, and a basket packed with every requisite—when, "of course," as Elsie had it, the rain descended in sheets, and the project was frustrated.
The usual scene of grumbling and ejaculating followed, before the girls could resign themselves to their fate. To settle down to practise and study seemed unbearably dreary after looking forward to such a charming excursion; but there was nothing else to be done, so they marched sulkily to their different occupations, and did not meet again until after four o'clock. Then the schoolroom party joined Lilias in the library, and were about to summon Nan from the attic, when Mary entered, bringing a card on a salver.
Some one had been brave enough to face the elements, and pay a call in the midst of a downpour of rain. Whom could it be? Lilias examined the card with curious eyes, and turned in surprise towards her sisters.
"Miss Thacker! Don't know her from Adam. Who in the world is Miss Thacker?"
"Oh—er—er—Wait a moment and I'll remember!" cried Agatha, ruffling her hair in reflection. "I've heard the name, I'm sure—I know! She's the creature who's come to Willow Cottage. She called once before, and mother said she could not for the life of her decide whether she was quite mad, or only three-quarters. What can she want?"
"Have to go and see, I suppose. Or stay, I'll bring her in here, to have some tea, and then you can help me to entertain her; but whatever you do, don't laugh! It's awfully bad form to make fun of a visitor." And Lilias left the room, to return followed by a tall female figure, which certainly approached perilously near the grotesque in appearance.
An old-fashioned poke bonnet and a gauze veil shaded a solemn white face, braids of red hair fell over the cheeks, horn-rimmed spectacles covered the eyes, while the absence of two front teeth gave a singularly blank and unpleasant expression to the mouth. A merino shawl was folded across the shoulders, and a venerable silk skirt dripped with rain upon the carpet. An extraordinary-looking figure indeed; and it would appear that eccentricity was not confined to appearance only, for the stranger returned the girls' salutations with wriggles of the body, and began at once to talk in a soft guttural voice, running her words together without any stops, and at such express train speed that every now and then she was obliged to stop short, and give a deep gasp of exhaustion.
"S-S-Sorry your mother is from mome me dears quite counted on finding her rat ome. Said to myself at lunch must go and see Mrs Rendell s'afternoon such a kind woman full of sympathy for rothers! Hurried out and thought as had come so far might come in and see Miss Rendell as servant said at tome and disengaged!"
The big mouth opened in a gasp for breath, which was heard throughout the room, and Lilias stammered out a dismayed assent.
"Certainly—of course. So glad you did. If I can do anything I shall be most pleased—"
"Of course, my dear. Your mother's daughter. Knew it by your face. Not tany tea, thank you, bad for digestion enjoyed bad health for many years and can only stay a minute. Called at four rouses already to-day with no result. Breaks your rart to see the callous sardness of the human race, every luxury and ease themselves and cold as sice to others. Wouldn't believe it unless you were present to see rebuffs si get. Ladies not a mile from this souse—could mention names but won't—pay pounds and pounds for gloves and dats and not talf-a-crown to spare for crying need, but said to myself all day, Mrs Rendell will help! I'll get ta welcome there!"
"Oh yes, I'm sure mother would be pleased," stammered Lilias, more and more puzzled to understand the drift of the strange woman's remarks. From the farther end of the room a little squeaky sound was heard, elaborately turned into a cough. Lilias grew hot with embarrassment, and Miss Thacker peered suspiciously over her spectacles as she produced a circular from her satchel and handed it over for inspection. It bore the heading "Waybourne Home for Incurables," and set forth a plea for help with which the girl was already familiar. She read it over, however, once and yet again, puzzling her head meantime as to what to do next. To refuse to give a donation was to class one's self at once among those whose "callous sardness" had been denounced, and Lilias's love of appreciation was so intense, that even before this unlovely stranger she could not bear to appear in an unfavourable light. She determined to delay the evil moment, and leave to her mother the unpleasant task of refusal; for it seemed in the last degree unlikely that Mrs Rendell would desire to supplement her ordinary subscription by a gift to an unauthorised collector.
"I am very sorry you should have had your walk in the rain," she said sweetly, "but, of course, in mother's absence I can make no promises. She will be home the day after to-morrow, if you could call again to see her."
She flattered herself that she had evaded the difficulty very cleverly, but Miss Thacker rounded on her in unexpected fashion.
"Shouldn't dream of asking you my love. Too much respect for your dear mother but wished to appeal to young and generous sarts like self and sisters! Any contribution however small! Every little helps. Most grateful I am sure, subscription or donation?"
"But—but," Lilias heard three separate gasps of dismay from the window, and realising that no help was forthcoming from that quarter, nerved herself to the unpleasant task.
"We should like to subscribe very much indeed, if we could, but we have only a small allowance, and at present are doing all we can to assist another charity. I fear that we cannot spare any more money—"
Miss Thacker peered at her solemnly through her spectacles, and shook her head from side to side.
"Ah, yes, my dear, can if you will! Every luxury and comfort, cup overflowing, only Will is lacking. Look into your rart and ask yourself what can I deny myself for rothers? Some worldly bauble, some article of adornment which you had planned to get, which you could do without, and reap pa rich reward. What is a hat, a dress, a fan, compared to the succour rof suffering garts?"
Now, as it happened, Lilias was bound for town the very next day to buy a supply of those fineries which her soul loved, so that this suggestion was so aptly timed as to strike her dumb with confusion. She could have gushed over the poor incurables for an hour on end; was ready to shed tears at a recital of their woes; but to give up a new hat in order to devote the money to their use, this was a flight of generosity to which Miss Lilias Rendell could never attain! She grew hot with anger at the inconsiderateness of the stranger in proposing such a sacrifice, hotter than ever at the thought of the three young sisters agape to hear her answer. Here was a pretty alternative, to consent and go without some detail of her summer outfit, or to refuse and be branded as vain and selfish? Lilias chose a middle course, and, extracting half a crown from her purse, handed it over with melancholy resignation.
"I shall be pleased to give you a small donation, but I would rather my name did not appear in your list. Put it down as from a friend."
"Or a Giver—a Cheerful Giver!" cried Miss Thacker, with an accent on the adjective which brought the blood into Lilias's cheeks. The wretched woman seemed to have fathomed her reluctance, and to be scoffing at her beneath a pretence of approval; but surely, now that she had got what she wanted, she would take her departure, and end this most trying scene. She made a little movement of dismissal, whereupon Miss Thacker glanced appealingly at the window.
"And our rother dear young friends," she was beginning, when suddenly she put her hands up to her face and made a curious spluttering noise, at sound of which the sisters started in dismay. She recovered herself at once, and continued her harangue with redoubled energy; but suspicion had been aroused, and could not easily be allayed. That laugh! It had been so like, so extraordinarily like; and yet that hair—that complexion—those missing teeth! It could not be! Chrissie drew nearer and nearer, staring at the stranger with searching scrutiny, met a direct glance of the eyes, and straightway flew upon her, wrenching off bonnet and veil, and twitching the horn-rimmed glasses from her nose. She squeaked and struggled, and fought the air with her woollen gloves, but it was of no avail: there she sat, discovered and exposed, with Nan's dark tresses streaming down behind the auburn front, Nan's dimpling smile breaking over the whitened face.
"Such callous sardness! Dragged my hair out by the roots! Is that the way you treat your visitors, my dear young friends?" she stuttered; but her dear young friends had no sympathy for her woes, and crowded round her, breathless with indignation.
"Wretched, miserable girl, so it was you all the time! What made you do it?"
"Wanted to amuse you on a wet day, and couldn't think of anything better. Did I do it well?"
"Abominably well! I could never have believed we should have been so deceived. How you managed to disguise your voice I can't think, and to make yourself look so awful. You are as white as a clown; and your teeth, Nan! What has become of your teeth?"
"Covered them with black sticking-plaster, that's all. Not even for your benefit, my dears, could I extract my two front molars. I smeared my face with cold cream, and then rubbed in flour. Sticky, but efficacious, and sucked a chocolate all the time, to make my voice thick. I'll swallow it now." Nan gulped, and rolled her eyes in expressive enjoyment. "When I was dressed, I stole downstairs, let myself out of the side gate, and rang at the bell as bold as brass. Mary did not recognise me, so I felt I was safe; but my one terror was lest you should go upstairs to call me down."
"And you found all the clothes in the dressing-up box! It is so long since we used it that I had almost forgotten the dear old things. The shawl and skirt I recognise, of course, but you have trimmed the bonnet yourself. I will say for you, my dear, that you made the most appalling old woman I have ever encountered."
"But I don't quite approve of making fun of anything so very, very sad as those dear incurables!" said Lilias solemnly. "Well, perhaps you didn't make fun of them exactly, but it was not quite a nice subject to choose for a practical joke. We ought to think of them tenderly.—By the by, I want that half-crown, Nan. Give it back to me!"
"N-ay!" drawled Nan, shaking her head, and speaking in broad, North- country dialect, "N-ay, lass! I'll none give it oop. It mun bide with me till I dee! I'll give you back good coin of the realm instead, but this precious piece is mine, and shall be pierced with a hole, and chained to my side, to commemorate the occasion. It will be good for you as well as for me. You can look at it, and remember how generous you were!"
"Humph!" said Lilias, and turned to the tea-table to pour out the long- delayed tea. It was too strong to drink; and when Mary appeared in response to the bell, it was a treat to see her stagger back at the sight of the dishevelled figure in the arm-chair, and to watch the smile of benign condescension with which Nan wrinkled up her face and inclined her red-brown head.
Mary was an old friend of the family, and on sufficiently intimate terms to express her opinion in terms unchequered by forms of politeness. She wished to be informed what Miss Nan would be up to next, and repeated with unction her own description of the "Hugliest old woman you ever set eyes on," as given to cook in the kitchen, ten minutes earlier. "We've been talking about you ever since, and wondering what you were after."
This was fame indeed! The girls shared in the reflected glory of Nan's performance, and only regretted that it had not been witnessed by a larger audience, while Chrissie, in especial, bewailed the absence of her alter ego.
"Kitty will never forgive us if she doesn't see you," she declared. "Oh, Nan, do go and call upon Mrs Maitland! Then Kitty would see you, and you might get some more money from her! It would be the most splendid fun. Oh, Nan, do! I'll love you for ever, if you will!"
Elsie and Agatha swelled the chorus by groans of appeal, and Nan visibly wavered. She could do nothing until she had had tea, she declared, but after that, if the rain grew less heavy, she would consider the matter; and hesitation being taken for assent, she was plied with cake and waited upon with obsequious attention. The elements seemed in favour of the scheme, for, by the time that tea was finished, the downpour was exchanged for a gentle drizzle, which could afford no excuse to a weather-proof creature like Nan Rendell. She was therefore shawled and bonneted once more, escorted to the front door by a giggling and excited quartette, and set off forthwith to tramp half a mile of muddy high road, half abashed at finding herself abroad in such a strange guise, altogether delighted at the madcap nature of the expedition.
The visit to Mrs Maitland was a huge success, for Kitty sat staring solemnly over her spectacles, while her mother had obviously much ado not to laugh outright at the eccentricities of her visitor. In the matter of donations she presented a firmer front than Lilias had done, but Nan would not allow herself to be foiled without a struggle. When Mrs Maitland said bravely, "I cannot see my way to giving anything more at present," she bridled as with indignation, and replied—
"But you must not consider yourself, you must consider Me! Here am I, tramping through mud and mire, drenched with rain, and chilled with cold; here rare you in your comfortable home, surrounded with luxury and dease, and you turn a deaf ear to the cause si plead, and let me toil in vain. No! I cannot gaze upon your good, kind face, and believe in such callous sardness ... The smallest trifle, if it be but half a crown—"
Well, it seemed a cheap price to pay to get rid of the terrible creature! Like Lilias, Mrs Maitland meekly handed over the desired coin, and rose to her feet with an air of determination.
"And now, if you will excuse me! I am rather busy, and—"
Nan bowed and smirked, then suddenly swooped across the room to where Kitty sat, her arms stretched wide in invitation.
"And will the dear child give me a sweet kiss before ri go?"
The consternation of the "dear child" and her mother can be imagined; but discovery came with the next moment, together with such shriekings of delight, such shakings and scoldings, such questionings and exclaimings, as were proper to the occasion. Nan returned home in high glee, chuckling over the success of the afternoon's escapade, and far from suspecting that the chief adventure still was to come. Such was the fact, however, and this is the way in which it happened.
She had passed along the high road in safety, meeting few inhabitants, owing to the inclemency of the weather, and looking forward with delight to the welcome which she would receive from her sisters. Presently Thurston House came in view, and, sure enough, there were four excited heads bobbing to and fro at the window, four broad beams of amusement to testify to the grotesqueness of her appearance. Nan lifted a solemn glance in return, and Chrissie, seized with a sudden demon of mischief, pointed a forefinger at the door opposite, and gesticulated violently in its direction. As plainly as words could speak, that forefinger said, "Call at the Grange! There's an adventure for you, if you like! Beard the lion in his den. I dare you to do it! You dare not go!"
It was done on the impulse of the moment, and on the impulse of the moment Nan turned and skipped obediently across the street. She never thought of possible consequences; her one idea was to horrify her sisters by pretending to carry out the suggestion, and the sight of their agitated faces pressed against the pane was sufficient encouragement to sustain her courage, as a pull at the bell sent a pealing chime through the house. The appearance of the old butler in the doorway did indeed evoke a thrill of nervousness, but then, what mattered? Visitors were never admitted, and she would certainly be dismissed, even as the others had been before her!
She quite prided herself upon the sang-froid with which she made the usual inquiry—
"Mr Vanburgh is at home, I presume? Will he be able to see me this afternoon?"
"Certainly, madam. Will you walk in? Mr Vanburgh is quite at liberty."
The horror of it seemed to take away all power of resistance. Did the man drag her in by force, or did she obey him of her own accord? Nan could not tell. The awful truth remained that the next moment she stood within the hall, and the door was shut behind her!
DIOGENES AT HOME.
"This way, please, ma'am. Will you come up-stairs?" said the butler; and Nan stumbled blindly forward, past the branching palms, the Indian cabinets, the knight in his glittering armour, past a hundred treasures, with never an eye to notice one of them, and a heart beating fast with agitation. The ascent seemed to last for a year, yet it would be over far too soon; the dreaded moment of introduction would arrive, and, in the name of all that was horrifying and perplexing, what should she do then? By what name should she be announced? What should she state as the object of her visit? What excuse could she offer for her intrusion?
"If I ever get out of this alive, I'll first pay out Miss Chrissie, and then turn over a new leaf for life! No more practical jokes for me!" said Nan to herself, and pulled her bonnet resolutely over her face. The butler had paused, and was looking at her inquiringly as he threw open the door of his master's room, and waited to announce her name. She croaked at him,—there is no other word to describe the inarticulate sound which issued from her lips,—then swept forward, and the man retired, no doubt thinking the stranger's manner on a par with her appearance.
Left to herself, Nan took a few steps forward and stopped abruptly, finding herself in a room which was at once the most beautiful and the most extraordinary which she had ever beheld. In every direction in which she turned her eyes, they were greeted by some quaint treasure, which had been brought from the ends of the earth to be stored against a background of tapestry and carved oak panel. It was like stepping back hundreds of years, and finding one's self in an old baronial castle; and the occupant of the room was in keeping with his surroundings. He lay on his couch, staring at her with sunken eyes, a picturesque-looking old man, with a complexion of bleached transparency; a white head, covered by a velvet skull-cap, and a wasted form, wrapped in a dressing—gown of embroidered Oriental silk. He looked both sad and suffering, and Nan recognised as much with a pang of regret for all the hard terms she had lavished upon his want of hospitality. Yes, indeed! he looked too ill to receive visitors; too weary to be troubled with the commonplaces. What could she say to explain her own visit? What in the world should she find to talk about?
"Won't you sit down?" said a melodious voice. "Pray take a seat! I cannot wait upon you myself, as you see, but I can recommend that old saddle-bag. It is most comfortable." As he spoke, the invalid waved his hand towards a chair near his own, and Nan seated herself upon it in silence, glancing timidly in his face. This dumbness was appalling. She racked her brains to think of something to say, but no ideas were forthcoming; she could only twist her fingers in embarrassment, and wait another lead.
"It is most kind of you to come to see me on such a tempestuous afternoon," Mr Vanburgh continued politely. "I did not expect any callers. Ladies, as a rule, are not fond of venturing out in the rain, unless they have special business on hand."
Bravo! Here was a lead at last! What could be better than to follow up the suggestion of a business call? Nan asked herself eagerly. Mrs Maitland had regretted the loss of subscriptions upon which she had counted from the wealthy owner of the Grange: would it not be a good action if she could draw Mr Vanburgh's attention to the needs of the Incurables, and induce him to promise a subscription? She would not take the money, but leave the address of the secretary, to whom it could be forwarded. Oh, it was admirable—an admirable idea! The afternoon's escapade would lead to good after all. Nan's elastic spirits rose with a bound, and she smiled upon her companion with restored equanimity.
"I have a special business. I did not come merely to pay a call, but to ask your help for a cause in which I am much interested. I hoped that you might feel inclined to give a subscription, and can assure you that any sum which you may decide to give—"
To her dismay, the benevolent expression upon the watching face disappeared, as she spoke, to give place to one of suspicion and distrust. Mr Vanburgh moved himself on his pillows, so as to face her more fully, and stared at her fixedly, beneath frowning brows.
"You want a subscription! You have come here to beg—to ask for money?"
"But not for myself!" explained Nan eagerly. The scrutiny bent upon her was so searching that she felt bound to protest against a personal interest. "It was for a charity, a local hospital, which is in want of funds. It was thought—I thought that, as a newcomer to the neighbourhood, you might like to hear about the various organisations, and to give some support. There is a large poor population at Sale, a mile from here, and the committee is always short of funds. Many of the old residents have left, and the new ones don't—don't always."—Her remembrance of odd sentences heard at committee meetings came to a sudden end, and the voice trailed off in inarticulate murmurings.
"Do not always come forward in their place. Just so! And I am to understand that you are deputed by these various charities and organisations to plead their cause and collect subscriptions?"
Nan cleared her throat vigorously. It was the only way she could think of by which to gain time, and decide how to evade the question.
"They are most grateful for all they can get. The committee would send you an acknowledgment of your subscription. It would be better to send it direct, instead of giving it to me. I just wish to call your attention—to tell you particulars and enlist your interest—"
"Just so!" said Mr Vanburgh again; and Nan fancied that there was a slight softening in the watching eyes. "Just so. And for what special charity do you wish to plead to-day?"
"For the Home for Incurables!"
"Ah!" The word came with a hiss from between closed teeth. "Indeed! You choose your object well, madam! I congratulate you on your discretion. The cause is truly fitting."
She had made a false move this time, there was no doubt about it, for the old man's voice was sharp with displeasure; but blundering Nan could not even now imagine wherein lay the offence.
She gaped at him, with a stammering—
"Fitting! Why fitting? I don't understand what you mean!"
"Only that being incurable myself, I need your charity every whit as much as those for whom you come asking help—"
"Incurable! You won't get better! Never get better until you—"
"Die? Precisely! That is what it means. I shall spend my life upon this couch, or being wheeled about in a bath-chair, suffering torments of pain and weariness until death comes to set me free—the kindliest friend that could step inside my door!"
"Oh!" cried Nan sharply. "Oh!" The tears rushed to her eyes, and she trembled from head to foot. It was terrible to listen to those words, terrible to her youth and strength to hear death spoken of in those yearning tones; her heart—Nan's big loving heart—went out in a rush of sympathy towards the lonely sufferer. She stretched her hand towards him, and cried brokenly, "I'm sorry! Oh, I'm sorry! We knew, of course, that you were ill, but we never thought it was as bad as that."
"We! Who are we?" Mr Vanburgh's fingers closed over her hand, and he held it firmly in his own, while he gazed at her with a gentleness of mien before which Nan's resolution died a sudden death.
"My—my sisters!" she stammered humbly. "Oh, Mr Vanburgh, forgive me. I'm Nan Rendell. I live in the house just across the road. I'm not an old woman at all, only a stupid girl dressed up. I never meant to come, but Chrissie dared me, and I thought I would come to the door and ring, to give her a fright. I never thought you would let me in. You had refused to see all other visitors. My father and mother called, and Mr and Mrs Maitland—"
"They did, and many others. It was very kind, but I felt too ill to receive them. With you, however, it was different, for I seemed to know you already. I had seen so much of your life through 'my study window'—"
"Saw me! Then you knew all the time who I was? You knew—"
"I did! Yes. It was very interesting. I wondered how long you could keep it up."
Mr Vanburgh smiled quietly.
"My couch is placed near the window, and during my long lonely days I devote a good deal of attention to the passers-by. About three o'clock this afternoon I observed a black robed figure steal out of your side gate and approach the front door. I saw her admitted by the servant. I saw her go out once again, and, like her sisters, kept watch for her return."
"And you saw Chrissie point across to your door, and heard my ring?"
"I did. And rang myself, to give orders that you should be admitted. That is the true and authentic account of the mystery. It is not so mysterious after all, is it?"
"It's very embarrassing!" Nan was suddenly overcome by a consciousness of how ridiculous she must have appeared in her assumed character, and collapsed into feeble laughter, "What must you think of me?"
"To tell the truth, I prefer your ordinary appearance. It is difficult to recognise you in this attire. Would you think it a liberty if I asked you to resume your ordinary guise? Please!" and he waved his hand with an appeal which had in it an element of authority, despite all its courtesy. Nan felt very small, very much like a mischievous child who has spilt the ink-bottle, and is sent upstairs to be washed and tidied; but, all the same, she was not sorry to remove the ugly trappings, and appear in her true guise once more. Bonnet, veil, spectacles, and cloak came off in succession; her dark hair curled in little rings round her forehead, and the round young throat rose like a pillar above the quaintly-cut bodice. If Lilias had been in her sister's place, she would have reflected that her antique costume was appropriate to her surroundings, but such thoughts as these never occurred to honest Nan. She was merely concerned to see that the last remains of powder were wiped away, and, being satisfied on this point, smiled at Mr Vanburgh in friendly fashion.
"That's better!" he said cheerfully. "I begin to recognise you again. I have seen you only from a distance so far, but I seem to know you very well. You are 'Nan,' you say, and you are what—number three, I suppose? The young lady who went away the other day is the elder sister, and after her comes the fair one with the golden locks."
"Lilias! Yes; she is the beauty of the family; I come next, and then Elsie, the little one, with big, dark eyes. We call her 'Mrs Gummidge,' because she is melancholy, and feels things 'more than others.' Then comes Agatha; you know Agatha! the great big girl with the huge feet and the rosy cheeks; and Christabel, the youngest—"
"Oh yes, I know Christabel!" said Mr Vanburgh, smiling, "and her friend who comes to lessons every day: the brown-legged stork, with the red cap and the curly locks. I like that child. She looks honest and straightforward! Who is she?"
"Why, that's Kitty!" replied Nan, in a voice of surprised reproof, for surely every one in Waybourne must know an important personage like Kitty! "Her name is really Gwendoline Maitland, but everybody calls her Kitty; and she was longing to know you, and made her mother come to call in her new spring clothes, with a promise to bring in her name at every turn of the conversation; and then, after all, you would not receive her!"
"That was very sad! I am afraid I must have appeared churlish; but, as a matter of fact, I came down to Waybourne to avoid old friends, rather than make new ones. I am too ill to be sociable. It is a trial to me, nowadays, to meet strangers."
"And yet I wished to see you! That seems rather a contradiction, does it not? But I have always been fond of young people, and I seemed to have made your acquaintance in spite of myself. Perhaps you are hardly aware how plainly one can see into your sitting-room from here."
Nan smiled and bent forward to look across the street, in response to a wave of the invalid's hand.
The porch-room was exactly opposite, and the three-sided windows did indeed allow an extraordinarily clear view of the interior. The girls had always believed themselves out of range of vision when they were seated at the table; but at this moment Nan could distinctly discern four anxious faces scanning the opposite house, catch Agatha's craning movements, and Lilias's waving hands. The sight provoked an irresistible chuckle of amusement, and Mr Vanburgh's eyes turned towards her in wistful scrutiny.
"You seem very merry together, you young people. Life is full of happiness to you!"
"Oh, we have our trials!" said Nan quickly. "We are awfully happy together; but still, of course, it isn't all as we should wish. Each one of us has a grievance, and could talk about it for hours at a time, if we had a chance. Sometimes we have dreadful fits of dumps. Elsie has them chronically, but the rest of us are up and down. I'm generally up myself; but still, I have my moments!"
"I should think they are very rare! Would it be indiscreet to ask what is your peculiar cross?"
Nan pondered with raised brows and an expression which grew more and more uncertain.
"It's rather difficult to say straight off, isn't it? There is something, I know, but I forget what it is. I am always making stupid mistakes for one thing, and that is so awkward, now that I am supposed to be grown up. I'm eighteen, so I ought to know better. I went out to my first dinner-party this winter, and the most awful thing happened. A stupid male creature took me in, with a collar about a foot high, and such an affected drawl that I could hardly understand a word he said. However, I talked away and tried to be pleasant. I have a habit of waving my hands when I talk; we all have—perhaps you have noticed it! I was telling a story, and came to a point where it seemed necessary to lift my hand suddenly, to give emphasis to what I was saying. Well, I did it, and at that crucial moment if the waiter didn't go and hand a sauce-bowl over my partner's shoulder! My hand met the bowl, and ... Maud was sitting opposite, and she said that never in all her life had she seen anything so appalling! The bowl flew up in the air, turned a somersault, and the sauce rained down in showers upon his knees! He had his serviette spread open, of course, but still it was bad enough. There was silence all round the table. He sat stock still, staring at his hands, all brown and dripping; then he said, in a very small, exhausted voice, 'I think I had bettaw—go up-sta-ahs!'"
Mr Vanburgh lay back against his cushions and pressed his hands to his mouth. His shoulders heaved, and a curious muffled sound emerged from his lips. He tried to strangle it, tried to frown, to choke the inclination in his throat, but it was of no avail: laugh he must, and laugh he did, his slight form shaking with merriment, the tears rising in the tired eyes and streaming down his cheeks. Nan laughed afresh at the comical spectacle, and as she looked a door behind the couch was pushed gently open, and a startled face peered round the corner. It was the face of the dark-skinned foreigner who was the invalid's attendant, and his master greeted him with affectionate freedom.
"Yes, Pedro! Yes! It is quite true! I was laughing! It is a long time since you have heard such a sound from my lips. No wonder you are startled. It is this young lady who has wrought the miracle."
The dark eyes rested on Nan's face with a glow of gratitude which made the girl's heart beat fast with pleasure. The eloquent Southern glance conveyed many meanings, but he said simply, "The signorina is welcome! I hope the signorina comes again!" and left the room in the same quiet, unobtrusive manner in which he had entered.
THE CURTAINED PICTURES.
When Mrs Rendell returned home and heard of Nan's latest escapade, she was breathless with horror and consternation.
"I don't know what I am to do with you, child," she cried. "Every time I go away there is a fresh outbreak, and you seem to grow worse instead of better. It is useless to warn you!"
"Oh, mummy dear!" Nan's voice was full of protest, and she stared with reproachful eyes in her mother's face. "It's not fair to say that! I always do as you tell me. I never do what you have forbidden. You can't think of a single instance where I have played a trick the second time, when you have cautioned me against it!"
"But what is the good of that, when you immediately hit on something even worse?" queried her mother despairingly. "What sane woman would ever dream of forbidding a girl of eighteen to walk about the streets in disguise, and go begging for subscriptions at strange houses? It takes away my breath, even to think of it! All sorts of things might have happened!"
"But only nice things did happen, dear! I always fall on my feet, you know, and Mr Vanburgh is an old love. He sent his respects to you, and hoped you and father would do him the favour of paying a second call, as he would much like to make the acquaintance of my parents! It was the first time in my life that I had heard you spoken of as adjuncts of my noble self, and I can tell you I felt proud. Really and truly, it was a blessing I went, for you can't think how he enjoyed seeing me. I said good-bye three times over before he would let me go, and I told him every single thing about our family!"
"I've no doubt you did!" Mrs Rendell groaned aloud, and stared helplessly at the ceiling. "Please add to your list of prohibitions for the future, my dear, that you are forbidden to go outside the door in an assumed costume; and do try to behave like a reasonable creature, instead of a hare-brained schoolboy! I can't make any promise about calling again until I see what father says."
Nan was comfortably secure that her father would do as he was told, and had little difficulty in persuading the good man that, above all things in the world, he desired to make the acquaintance of his neighbour. There was little fear that the visit would be deferred too long; for with five daughters vying with each other to introduce the subject on every possible opportunity, and to discuss times and seasons at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it speedily became an object to get the call paid as soon as possible.
On the very next Saturday afternoon, therefore, Mrs Rendell attired herself in calling array, was carefully surveyed by a critical audience, pronounced to be a "credit to the family," and despatched to the Grange, with a score of divergent instructions as to what to do, what to say, and, above all, how to lay the foundation-stone of a future intimacy.
Perhaps, if the truth were known, Mrs Rendell was scarcely less excited than her daughters at the prospect of being admitted into the presence of the mysterious stranger; but if this were so, she was doomed to disappointment, for the invalid seemed too weary and dispirited to enter into conversation, and it was only by a most apparent effort that he roused himself to reply to her remarks. Mrs Rendell would have felt repelled by his coldness of manner, had it not been for one redeeming point—his unaffected interest in her children! The wan face brightened into a smile at the mention of Nan's name, and he begged that the girl might be allowed to come over to see him "often—as often as possible," in a tone of unmistakable sincerity. Mrs Rendell assented graciously; and, mindful of the reproaches which would be hurled at her head if she returned without doing her best for every member of the family, suggested that perhaps Mr Vanburgh would like to make the acquaintance of the other girls also! He hesitated for a moment, but looked gratified by the suggestion.
"If they would not find it too dull. I am fond of young people, but am always afraid of boring them by my company. Our lives lie so far apart. Perhaps they would come over at different times, and let me make their acquaintance by degrees. The two younger ones especially—your own daughter and the little girl who is her friend."
On the score of this distinction, Christabel and Kitty were the first couple to take advantage of the invitation and cross the road to interview Diogenes in his den. They confided in each other that they were "simply dying of fright," but contrived to conceal their expiring condition beneath haughty and dignified exteriors. The manner in which Chrissie requested the old butler to inform his master of their advent would have done credit to a princess of the blood, while Kitty stalked upstairs behind her with majestic gravity. Outside the dreaded door, however, it was impossible to resist exchanging a grimace of agitation, and it was another instance of the contrariety of men that the butler should turn his head at that inopportune moment, and discover them so employed. Chrissie grew red with mortification, and Kitty spluttered with laughter; so, after all, it was in the guise of two blushing, giggling schoolgirls that they made Mr Vanburgh's acquaintance, instead of that of self-possessed women of the world, as they had fondly hoped would be the case. He looked from one to the other as they sat before him—big, bonnie, well-grown girls, with flaming locks and fresh complexions, and there was a great wistfulness in his gaze. The girls felt it; and though the meaning thereof was a mystery, they understood that here was an understanding, sympathetic soul, and immediately lost their feeling of shyness.
In ten minutes' time they had confided to him their dream of the "Select Academy," and he had promised to recommend the school to his friends, with a seriousness which was balm to their vanity. Nothing is more annoying to mature women of fourteen than to be treated as if they were children; and when Mr Vanburgh discussed at length various points of management on which the future partners were at variance, and gave valuable suggestions on architectural designs, Christabel screwed up her eyes at him with her most approving smile, and reflected that seldom, if ever, had she met a grown-up person with so much common sense! Tea was brought in for the girls' benefit, and Kitty poured it out, spilling the milk over the cloth, and covering the wet spot with the muffin dish with admirable presence of mind. She felt so much at home that she helped herself to cake a second time without being asked, drank three cups of tea, and only refrained from a fourth because the pot was drained. After tea, conversation turned on hobbies, and it being discovered that one girl had a mania for miniature jugs, and the other for foreign post- cards, the Italian servant was summoned, and received instructions in his own tongue, which resulted in an addition being made to each collection: Kitty returned home hugging "a little d-arling" jug of Italian pottery, while Chrissie exhibited a Chinese post-card, and pictures of Mongolian belles printed on transparent rice paper. The glories of the interview lost nothing from their descriptions; and Lilias and Elsie sighed continuously until the time came for their own visit.
In each heart the thought lay concealed that if Mr Vanburgh had been so kind to the other girls, he must of a surety extend a still greater favour to herself. The mirror assured Lilias that she was a sight to "make an old man young"; while Elsie shook her head over the reflection that only those who have suffered themselves can sympathise with the woes of others. But, alas! disappointment awaited them; for, strange to relate, the invalid found Lilias's fragile charms less attractive to his eye than the healthful vivacity of her sisters; while condolence was so distasteful to his ears, that he fairly scowled down Elsie's plaintive assurances of sympathy. As a matter of fact, it was brightness and amusement of which the recluse was in need; and as the last visitors were the least humorous members of the family, it followed that their presence was least welcome. Awkward silence recurred at intervals; and when the girls rose to say good-bye, no request was made for a further visit, though a message was sent to Nan, begging her to come by herself on the first convenient occasion. Elsie made a public announcement in the schoolroom that evening that she washed her hands of Mr Vanburgh, finding in him a cold and unresponsive soul; but Lilias was not so easily discouraged. It rankled in her mind that she had failed where others had succeeded, and she determined to break down Mr Vanburgh's prejudice and win the post of favourite, cost what it might. She had not had a fair chance when Elsie was present. The members of one's own family are apt to betray surprise at injudicious moments, to check one's innocent rhapsodies by counter-assertions, and even to quote words used on previous occasions, as a proof that conduct does not coincide with theory. There were a dozen pretty little speeches she had been longing to make, but it was impossible to deliver them when Elsie was sitting there, listening with all her ears, ready to repeat them to a schoolroom audience, or even commit them to the surer testimony of her diary. Some day she would make excuse to go alone, and then—! Lilias nodded her head in assured self-confidence, and watched Nan's air of proprietorship with a smile, convinced that her own triumph was at hand. She was beginning to realise that a declared understanding was less exciting than an incipient love affair; the thirst for fresh conquest was upon her, and in default of any more interesting prey, she determined to turn her attention to Mr Vanburgh, and raked her silly little head to devise schemes for subjection.
Honest Nan had no scheme at all, nothing but the kindliest desire to cheer a lonely old man, and was so entirely her bright merry self at the second interview, that again, and yet again, the sound of laughter broke the silence of the room. She discovered that the old man had a keen sense of humour, though it had long lain dormant; and as it seemed to please him to hear her chat away in unconstrained fashion, chat she did, with such an accompaniment of sparkling eyes, waving hands, and sunny smiles, as was a positive tonic to behold. She told stories of her own adventures or misadventures, which Mr Vanburgh capped by remembrances of his own boyhood; they compared notes as to their mutual sensations at critical moments, and so sympathetic did they appear, that the girl was forced into an expression of astonishment.
"You remember so well! Most old people seem to forget how it feels to be young, especially people who have not had any children of their own. How have you managed to remember all these things?"
The old man looked at her quietly. The smile left his face, and the lines round his lips and eyes seemed to deepen in sudden, mysterious fashion. Nan divined that she had touched a hidden wound, and waited anxiously for his reply. It was a long time in coming, and then it was altogether a surprise. Mr Vanburgh touched the bell which lay near at hand, and spoke a word of direction to the Italian, who appeared at the summons.
"Take this young lady into the study and show her—my pictures!" he said slowly; and Nan followed Pedro out of the room in perplexity of spirit. The man's dark eyes studied her face critically, but no words were said until the room was reached, and they stood together before a curtained alcove.
"It is his sorrow, the sorrow of his life," murmured the soft voice plaintively, as the curtain was drawn back, and Nan gazed with awed eyes upon four portraits hung against a fluting of crimson cloth. The rich frames, the carved table beneath, with its bank of white flowers, gave the alcove the appearance of a shrine; and a shrine it was indeed, dedicated to the memory of a lost happiness.
The first portrait was of a man, the second of a woman, with a beautiful and gentle face, which bore so strange a likeness to those of a boy and a girl on either side that it was easy to trace the relationship between them.
The girl bade fair to become as lovely as her mother; the boy was a magnificent fellow, with waving locks, thrown back from a noble brow, and such an air of pride and candour in the carriage of the head and the flash of the eyes as would have filled a parent's heart with pride to behold. Nan's eyes passed by the other two portraits to dwell on this with wondering admiration; and something in the appearance of the beautiful young lad seemed strangely familiar. Family likeness is a marvellous thing, revealing itself in the most unexpected fashions; and though at first sight no two people could have been more unlike than this incarnation of youth and strength, and the bleached and weary invalid in the next room, it was certainly of Mr Vanburgh, and no other, that Nan was reminded at this moment. The shape of the eyes was the same, the curve of the lips, the growth of the hair on the forehead. She looked back at the first picture, and gave a start of recognition. She had not realised it at first, but yes! that handsome, happy, self- confident face had once belonged to Mr Vanburgh himself; it was his own portrait at which she looked. Nan wheeled round to the servant with an agitated question:
"It is himself! But why is he here? They are dead, these others, but he—"
"He also is dead, signorina," the man replied, and bent his head as if in obeisance before the picture. "He died with those he loved. Something lived on, perhaps, but not my master. He lies buried with them—his wife—his son—his daughter. All that he had. Ah, what a tragedy! One day all happiness and love; the next it is done, it is over, his heart is broken! We were out yachting together, and my master and I have gone on shore on business—to make purchases, to buy provisions. We should join them again next day; and meantime they went a little cruise to pass the time—an excursion to a bay which the signora wished to visit. It was all calm when they started, but those are treacherous seas; a squall sprang up, and they were driven on the rocks. The gale lasted two days, and at the end pieces of wood were washed ashore from the wreck. There was nothing else—no, nothing! We were like madmen both, searching about, and waiting, always waiting, year after year. ... They might have been picked up, and landed at some far-away port; they might for a time have lost their minds and been unable to remember. Such things have been; and why not again? But at last hope died away, and strength with it. He took no rest, no care for himself, and so the illness came which ends as you see. Then I took him away, for the living must come before the dead, and I had my duty to him to remember. We have wandered over the world, signorina, in search of health and peace, but they come not with money. Everything else,"—he waved his hand round the exquisite room, with its paintings, its carvings, its china, its treasures of ancient art—"everything else, but not these. So at last we came home, to rest—and die!"
Nan trembled and was silent. She had no words in which to express her passion of pity, but the Italian understood, with the quick insight of his race, and flashed a grateful glance upon her.
"It is not every one to whom he shows these pictures. They are covered with a curtain, so that they are hidden from the stranger; but every morning we come together, he and I, and put fresh flowers. It is a great sign of his favour to the signorina that he should have sent her here. He has opened his heart to her as is not usual with him, and she can help him if she will."
"Oh, I will! I will! I long to help him," murmured Nan brokenly. She stood gazing at the pictures until the curtain dropped once more, and she found herself being escorted back to her seat.
Mr Vanburgh looked at her silently. It was not possible for him to be whiter than usual, but his lips were contracted in a nervous pressure, and a nerve was throbbing visibly at his temples. Nan stretched out her hand impetuously and laid it over his; the fingers were icy cold to her touch, and she rubbed them between her own with tender care.
"Thank you!" he whispered breathlessly, and looked at her with kindly eyes.
"You are a wise child. You understand how to console. Words are too weak. You judged too quickly, you see, in taking for granted that I had always been alone. Fifteen years ago—you saw their portraits?"
"Yes. They are all beautiful; and oh, the boy!"
"My son!" sighed the father softly. "Yes, if you could have seen my son. It was not only I, but every one who met him said the same thing: that they had never seen his equal. All that I did was for him, to prepare for the time when he should succeed me. He was so strong, so full of life; it seemed impossible that he could die."
"Mr Vanburgh, how did you bear it? How can people go through such trials and live? To lose everything at once, and live on, and keep one's reason—I can't understand it. You must be very good!"
The old man smiled sadly.
"No, child, I am not good. I had my time of madness and rebellion, and my old self died, never to revive again; but I have kept my faith in God. I could not afford to lose that, as well as everything else. He has taken from me all that made life beautiful—first my dear ones, and then the strength which might have made it possible to find fresh interests; but such discipline must be for some great end, and I am growing nearer and nearer to the time when I shall know the reason. There is an explanation ready for me, and I am waiting to hear it. You will never have a trouble sent to you in life, child, without the strength to bear it; and the greater the trial the greater may be the reward. Even in this life I have had compensations; when the sun of prosperity is shining we do not realise our need of God, but when the clouds gather, we turn homewards like tired children, and the help never fails. In my loneliness I have learned to know Christ, and the peace which is His gift to those who trust Him!"
He shut his eyes and remained silent for a long time, while Nan studied the emaciated face with anxious gaze; but when he looked up again he was calm and collected, almost smiling.
"My little friend, I have shown you my Holy of Holies, but we will never speak of it again. You know my sorrow, and we will understand each other without words. I have learned to be thankful for the unexpected blessings which come into my life, of which your companionship is one. You will always be welcome when you can spare an hour to sit with a lonely old man; and I am glad to have made the acquaintance of some young people for another reason. My nephew, my heir,"—he drew his brows together with a frown of pain,—"is coming next month to pay me a visit. He will be with me for some time, and if you will be kind enough to extend your friendship to him I shall be grateful!"
"We will! We will! But oh, I wish he were a girl! Are you sure you have no girl nieces that you want to invite as well?"
"More girls?" Mr Vanburgh smiled faintly. "I should have thought you had enough, with five sisters of your own. A boy would surely be more change, though, as far as that, Gervase is more than a boy now. It is three years since he left Oxford, and he is quite a man of the world by this time."
Nan groaned deeply.
"I know them! I know them well, and I detest them! Really old men are quite sensible and humble, but the young ones put on as many airs as if they owned the world, and didn't think much of it at that. I like schoolboys immensely—mischievous, grubby little schoolboys, who keep white mice in their bedrooms, and are full of pranks and jokes; but no young men for me, thank you! Jim, our brother, is the only really nice one I know, and even he thinks that the world was made for his convenience. No one dares to contradict him; and it is the most maddening thing in the world to argue with him, for he never even takes the trouble to answer, but simply chuckles in condescending fashion, and chucks you under the chin. We know another very nice man, too—Ned Talbot; but for a clever man who has taken degrees and scholarships and appointments above everybody else, you wouldn't believe how stupid and blundering he is. As blind as a bat. He—but never mind! I didn't mean to speak about him, only to say that if your nephew is coming down at all, do have him in June instead of next month! Jim is coming home then, and Ned will be here, and we have all sorts of plans in the air. It would be nicer for him when there would be some men to take him about, and he would have a really good time. Don't you think he could come in June?"
"He could probably arrange to stay on a little longer. He will be with me for some considerable time, as there is a great deal of business which we must do together. I will tell him what you say when I write, and impress upon him that June is a period of special attraction!"
"And then he will be at our sale!" said Nan gleefully to herself; and the same thought occurred to each of her sisters, when this latest piece of news was unfolded.
"How lovely!" gushed Agatha. "Now he can buy my shaving-case! Father said it was a useless bauble; but a rich young man can afford baubles, and I feel sure he would like the look of it upon his dressing-table. I'll mark it 'Sold,' and say I kept it specially for him."
"I don't believe he will come at all. Men detest bazaars; but if he does, we must make him buy far more than that," said Elsie firmly. "If we can't sell that veil-case, we will pretend it is for ties, and that no gentleman's wardrobe is complete without it. And we'll raise all the prices whenever he comes near!"
"I don't suppose he'll eat toffee, but he must hand round the tea and make himself useful. We can keep him busy at our stall," said Chrissie; while Lilias stared into space, and smiled in a soft, dreamy fashion. "After all," she said thoughtfully, "after all, I think he had better help me, instead of Ned! Ned knows quite a number of the people, and could make himself agreeable going about and talking; but this poor fellow will know nobody but us. Yes! yes! he shall be my assistant in the punt!"
A BUDGET OF LETTERS.
One bright May morning Mrs Rendell sat by her desk ostensibly busy with accounts, but in reality watching the movements of her daughter Lilias, who lounged on the window seat reading the letters which had just been delivered by the second post. Mrs Rendell herself had brought these letters into the room, and consequently knew full well who were her daughter's correspondents, and which envelope contained the separate effusions. The dainty grey, with its edging of white, came from Lilias's bosom friend, a certain Ella Duckworth, whose sayings and doings were so constantly quoted in the schoolroom that her very name had become the signal for groans of disapproval; the fat white packet bore the magic name of the Bon Marche, Paris, and contained patterns of material for the frock in which Lilias intended to array herself at the garden parties of the coming season; and the narrow envelope, with its bold, even writing, was a familiar object in the Rendell household, whose authorship required no explanation.
Mrs Rendell handed this letter to her daughter with a smiling remembrance of the days when such letters used to come to herself—of her eagerness and delight, her insatiable appetite for more. As she added up her weekly bills and balanced her accounts, soft little trills of laughter greeted her ears from the other end of the room, and she smiled again in enjoyment of her child's happiness, and lifted her head to regard the pretty picture. The sun shone on Lilias's fair head, transforming it into an aureole of gold; pink and white were the colours of her morning dress, pink and white was her face, and the blossom on the hawthorn tree which shaded the window seemed made on purpose to form a background to the charming figure. Mrs Rendell's eyes softened with motherly pride; but the next moment her brows contracted and her expression grew troubled, for there on the seat lay Ned Talbot's letter unopened, while Lilias smiled and dimpled in enjoyment of her friend's effusion. It seemed strange that a girl should show so little eagerness to read a lover's letter; but Mrs Rendell reflected that perhaps Lilias preferred to leave the greater treat to the last, and comforted herself thereby. When Ella's letter had been read, then of course Ned's would be even more eagerly devoured; but no! Lilias regretfully folded away the sheet in its envelope, regarded the two unopened envelopes with languid indecision, and finally selected the packet from Paris as more worthy of attention. If she had looked up at that moment and caught the flash in the watching eyes, Miss Lilias would have been on her guard; but, as it was, she complacently settled herself to the study of patterns, holding up the little squares of gauze to the light, laying them against her dress, and pleating them in her fingers with an absorption which rendered her unconscious of her surroundings. Five minutes passed, ten minutes, and still she turned from one novelty to another, unable to make a choice among so many temptations; and still her mother watched from her corner, the pencil stayed in her busy hands. The irritation had faded from Mrs Rendell's face, and given place to an expression of anxious tenderness; for Lilias's indifference to Ned's letter was but another strengthening of the growing conviction that the girl's feeling for her lover fell short of what it should rightly be. A dozen signs, too subtle to be put into words, but none the less eloquent, had attracted Mrs Rendell's attention within the last few weeks, and sent a chill to her heart. Above all things it was imperative that Lilias should love her future husband with all the strength of which she was capable, for Lilias's mother knew that no other power but love could develop a selfish nature, and make a noble woman out of a vain and thoughtless girl. Love has wrought this miracle before, and will again; and through all her grief for Maud's disappointment, Mrs Rendell had comforted herself by the reflection that Lilias was the one of all her children who was most in need of a softening influence, the one to whom the love of a good man might be most valuable. Dear, sweet Maud could not be selfish if she tried, but an early engagement might be the only means of saving Lilias from the injurious effect of flattering and worldly friends. So the mother had reasoned with herself; but her arguments would lose all their force if Lilias herself had no love in her heart for her future husband. A loveless marriage is a catastrophe for any girl, but for Lilias it would mean moral suicide: a deliberate settling down into a selfish, self- seeking life! Was it possible that she had accepted Ned for no higher motive than a love of excitement, and the puny triumph of making the first marriage in the family? Mrs Rendell would not judge the girl so harshly without unmistakable proof, but, her suspicions being aroused, she could not be content until she grasped the true position of affairs. A broken engagement was the last thing which she desired to have in her family, but better that, a thousand times over, than that two lives should be wrecked for ever!
She waited patiently until, at last, Lilias deigned to read her lover's letter, watching her face with scrutinising eyes. It was evident that something in the closely-written sheet did not commend itself to the girl's approval; for as she read the white forehead grew fretted with lines, and the lips took a sullen droop. The smiles faded away, and it was a very blank, dejected edition of Miss Lilias Rendell who looked up at last, to meet her mother's glance.
"Well, what is it, dear? You seem troubled. No bad news, I hope?"
"Oh no—nothing serious, at least. Ned seems worried. Things don't go smoothly in the new Works, and he has such high-flown ideas. It seems to me he makes troubles, by expecting every one else to be as quixotic as himself. He is not likely to find high-flown notions among ordinary business men!"
"And since when, my dear, have you become acquainted with the feelings of business men?" inquired Mrs Rendell sharply; then, in a softer tone, "My dear child, I implore you not to begin your engagement to Ned by discouraging his highest motives. Men, as a rule, are not overburdened with sentiment, and it is the duty of a wife to encourage all that is good and generous. You would be grieved, I am sure, to feel that your influence had a sordid or worldly direction!"
"Oh, mother!" protested Lilias, shocked beyond words at the possibility of such a charge, as we are all shocked when our secret thoughts are put into words, and we see them before us in all their naked hideousness. "Oh, mother, as if I could do anything so dreadful. Ned says I am his good angel; of course, of course, I want him to be good; but it is depressing, isn't it, when as soon as one gets engaged business begins to go wrong, and every letter brings news of some fresh worry or unpleasantness? It is enough to make one feel melancholy!"
"Yes, dear, it is, and I'm sorry for you. It is a disappointment to us all to hear that Ned is so unhappy in his new position, for it seemed to promise so well six months ago. Father is anxious to have a talk with him on the subject, and see if he can help to smooth the way, so the sooner he can come the better it will be. Does he make any suggestion in his letter as to the date that will suit him best?"
"Y-es!" said Lilias; and her face clouded once more. "He wants to come on the twentieth; and it is so awkward, for the Duckworths want me to go to them for that very week. They are having a tennis party, and their first day on the river, and several teas and dinners. It would be such a delightful week! I thought, perhaps, Ned might put off his visit until June. Maud would be home by that time, and they would both be sorry to miss each other if he came earlier."
Mrs Rendell looked at her with a mingling of exasperation and relief— relief that she should be so ignorant of Maud's feelings, exasperation that it should be possible for one sister to be so oblivious to the sufferings of another. She could not but realise also that Lilias would prefer a week of gaiety at Richmond to a visit from Ned Talbot; and her distress at the thought made her voice sound somewhat sharp as she replied—
"There is some one else to be considered besides yourself, my dear. You forget that your father and I would prefer to see Ned at once, and would not approve of postponing his visit. It is you, and not Maud, whom he comes to see; and you would surely not choose to spend the time in frivolity which might be given to helping and comforting the man you have promised to marry?"
"No—no, of course not, mother!" cried Lilias, shocked once more at the suggestion of her own selfishness. "I'll write at once, and say that the twentieth will suit us all." She gathered her letters together as she spoke, and rose to leave the room, holding her head well in the air, and keeping up an appearance of composure so long as she was in her mother's sight, but once outside the door the tears of disappointment rushed to her eyes, and she brought down her foot on the floor with a stamp of irritation. She felt jarred and disappointed, and thoroughly ill-used into the bargain. Only two months engaged, and already involved in trouble and anxiety, and expected to give up her own pleasure in order to condole with a dejected lover! She had imagined that it would be Ned's place to console her; and if his fears should prove well founded, surely it would be she who needed consolation in the prospect of a long, uncertain engagement. Lilias had known one or two girls who had waited year after year while their fiances struggled against adverse circumstances, and she was by no means anxious to follow their example. They lost their beauty, and grew thin and pale; people spoke of them with expressions of commiseration; the subject of marriage was studiously avoided in their presence. Lilias grew hot at the thought that any one might possibly regard her in such a fashion. When she had become engaged to Ned Talbot, the future had appeared couleur de rose, and she had sunned herself in the prospect of increased importance at home, and the honour which would be paid to the beautiful young bride by her husband's friends and relatives. How miserable, how humiliating, if all these dreams came to naught, and she found herself bound to an unsuccessful man, with all her ambitions nipped in the bud!