"I shall try to be at the Marshalls' on Sunday afternoon, but I have nothing to say in reply to your letter. My views are unalterable.
Maggie did not read the letter after she had written it. She put it into an envelope and directed it. Here was a large and bold hand and the address was swiftly written
"GEOFFREY HAMMOND, ESQ.,
She stamped her letter and, late as it was, took it down herself and deposited it in the post-bag.
The next morning, when the students strolled in to breakfast, many pairs of eyes were raised with a new curiosity to watch Priscilla Peel. Even Maggie, as she drank her coffee and munched a piece of dry toast, for she was a very poor eater, could not help flashing a keen and interested glance at the young girl as she came into the room.
Prissie was the reverse of fashionable in her attire; her neat brown cashmere dress had been made by Aunt Raby. The hemming, the stitching, the gathering, the frilling which went to make up this useful garment were neat, were even exquisite; but then, Aunt Raby was not gifted with a stylish cut. Prissie's hair was smoothly parted, but the thick plait on the back of the neck was by no means artistically coiled.
The girl's plain, pale face was not set off by the severity of her toilet; there was no touch of spring or brightness anywhere, no look or note which should belong to one so young, unless it was the extreme thinness of her figure.
The curious eyes of the students were raised when she appeared and one or two laughed and turned their heads away. They had heard of her exploit of the night before. Miss Day and Miss Marsh had repeated this good story. It had impressed them at the time, but they did not tell it to others in an impressive way, and the girls, who had not seen Prissie, but had only heard the tale, spoke of her to one another as an "insufferable little prig."
"Isn't it too absurd," said Rosalind Merton, sidling up to Maggie and casting some disdainful glances at poor Priscilla, "the conceit of some people! Of all forms of conceit, preserve me from the priggish style."
"I don't understand you," said Maggie, raising her eyes and speaking in her lazy voice. "Are there any prigs about? I don't see them. Oh, Miss Peel"— she jumped up hastily— "won't you sit here by me? I have been reserving this place for you, for I have been so anxious to know if you would do me a kindness. Please sit down, and I'll tell you what it is. You needn't wait, Rosalind. What I have got to say is for Miss Peel's ears."
Rosalind retired in dudgeon to the other end of the room, and, if the laughing and muttering continued, they now only reached Maggie and Priscilla in the form of very distant murmurs.
"How pale you look," said Maggie, turning to the girl, "and how cold you are! Yes, I am quite sure you are bitterly cold. Now you shall have a good breakfast. Let me help you. Please do. I'll go to the side-table and bring you something so tempting; wait and see."
"You mustn't trouble really," began Prissie.
Miss Oliphant flashed a brilliant smile at her. Prissie found her words arrested, and, in spite of herself, her coldness began to thaw. Maggie ran over to the side-table and Priscilla kept repeating under her breath:
"She's not true— she's beautiful, but she's false; she has the kindest, sweetest, most comforting way in the world, but she only does it for the sake of an aesthetic pleasure. I ought not to let her. I ought not to speak to her. I ought to go away, and have nothing to do with her proffers of goodwill, and yet somehow or other I can't resist her."
Maggie came back with some delicately carved chicken and ham and a hot cup of delicious coffee.
"Is not this nice?" she said. "Now eat it all up and speak to me afterward. Oh, how dreadfully cold you do look!"
"I feel cold— in spirit as well as physically," retorted Priscilla.
"Well, let breakfast warm you— and— and— a small dose of the tonic of sympathy, if I may dare to offer it."
Priscilla turned her eyes full upon Miss Oliphant.
"Do you mean it?" she said in a choked kind of voice. "Is that quite true what you said just now?"
"True? What a queer child! Of course it is true. What do you take me for? Why should not I sympathize with you?"
"I want you to," said Prissie. Tears filled her eyes; she turned her head away. Maggie gave her hand a squeeze.
"Now eat your breakfast," she said. "I shall glance through my letters while you are busy."
She leaned back in her chair and opened several envelopes. Priscilla ate her chicken and ham, drank her coffee and felt the benefit of the double tonic which had been administered in so timely a fashion. It was one of Miss Oliphant's peculiarities to inspire in those she wanted to fascinate absolute and almost unreasoning faith for the time being. Doubts would and might return in her absence, but in the sunshine of her particularly genial manner they found it hard to live.
After breakfast the girls were leaving the room together when Miss Heath, the principal of the hall in which they resided, came into the room. She was a tall, stately woman of about thirty-five and had seen very little of Priscilla since her arrival, but now she stopped to give both girls a special greeting. Her manners were very frank and pleasant.
"My dear," she said to Prissie, "I have been anxious to cultivate your acquaintance. Will you come and have tea with me in my room this afternoon? And, Maggie, dear, will you come with Miss Peel?"
She laid her hand on Maggie's shoulder as she spoke, looked swiftly into the young girl's face, then turned with a glance of great interest to Priscilla.
"You will both come," she said. "That is right. I won't ask any one else. We shall have a cozy time together, and Miss Peel can tell me all about her studies, and aims, and ambitions."
"Thank you," said Maggie, "I'll answer for Miss Peel. We'll both come; we shall be delighted."
Miss Heath nodded to the pair and walked swiftly down the long hall to the dons' special entrance, where she disappeared.
"Is not she charming?" whispered Maggie. "Did I not tell you you would fall in love with Dorothea?"
"But I have not," said Priscilla, coloring. "And I don't know whether she is charming or not."
Maggie checked a petulant exclamation which was rising to her lips. She was conscious of a curious desire to win her queer young companion's goodwill and sympathy.
"Never mind," she said, "the moment of victory is only delayed. You will tell a very different story after you have had tea with Dorothea this evening. Now, let us come and look at the notice-boards and see what the day's program is. By the way, are you going to attend any lectures this morning?"
"Yes, two," said Prissie— "one on Middle History, from eleven to twelve, and I have a French lecture afterward."
"Well, I am not doing anything this morning. I wish you were not. We might have taken a long walk together. Don't you love long walks?"
"Oh, yes; but there is no time for anything of that sort here— nor——" Priscilla hesitated. "I don't think there's space for a very long walk here," she added. The color rushed into her cheeks as she spoke and her eyes looked wistful.
"What are your ideas in regard to space, Miss Peel? The whole of Kingsdeneshire lies before us. We are untrammeled and can go where we please. Is not that a sufficiently broad area for our roamings?"
"But there is no sea," said Priscilla. "We should never have time to walk from here to the sea, and nothing— nothing else seems worth while."
"Oh, you have lived by the sea?"
"Yes, all my life. When I was a little girl, my home was near Whitby, in Yorkshire, and lately I have lived close to Lyme— two extreme points of England, you will say; but no matter, the sea is the same. To walk for miles on the top of the cliffs, that means exercise."
"Ah," said Maggie with a sigh, "I understand you— I know what you mean."
She spoke quickly, as she always did under the least touch of excitement. "Such a walk means more than exercise; it means thought, aspiration. Your brain seems to expand then and ideas come. Of course you don't care for poor flat Kingsdeneshire."
Priscilla turned and stared at Miss Oliphant. Maggie laughed; she raised her hand to her forehead.
"I must not talk any more," she said, turning pale and shrinking into herself. "Forgive my rhapsodies. You'll understand what they are worth when you know me better. Oh, by the way, will you come with me to Kingsdene on Sunday? We can go to the three o'clock service at the chapel and afterward have tea with some friends of mine— the Marshalls— they'd be delighted to see you."
"What chapel is the service at?" inquired Priscilla.
"What chapel? Is there a second? Come with me, and you will never ask that question again. Get under the shade of St. Hilda's— see once those fretted roofs and those painted windows. Listen but once to that angel choir, and then dare to ask me what chapel I mean when I invite you to come and taste of heaven beforehand."
"Thank you," said Priscilla, "I'll come. I cannot be expected to know about things before I have heard of them, can I? But I am very much obliged to you, and I shall be delighted to come."
A NEW LIFE
THE vice-principal's room at Heath Hall was double the size of those occupied by the students. Miss Heath had, of course, a separate sleeping apartment. Her delightful sitting-room, therefore, had not the curtained-off effect which took slightly from the charm of the students' rooms. In summer Miss Heath's room was beautiful, for the two deep bay windows— one facing west, the other south— looked out upon smoothly kept lawns and flower-beds, upon tall elm trees and also upon a distant peep of the river, for which Kingsdene was famous, and some of the spires and towers of the old churches. In winter, too, however— and winter had almost come now— the vice-principal's room had a unique effect, and Priscilla never forgot the first time she saw it. The young girl stepped across the threshold of a new life on this first evening. She would always remember it.
It was getting dark, and curtains were drawn round the cozy bays, and the firelight blazed cheerfully.
Prissie was a little before rather than behind her time, and there was no one in the room to greet her when she entered. She felt so overmastered by shyness, however, that this was almost a relief, and she sank down into one of the many comfortable chairs with a feeling of thankfulness and looked around her.
The next moment a servant entered with a lamp, covered with a gold silk shade. She placed it on a table near the fire, and lit a few candles, which stood on carved brackets round the walls. Then Prissie saw what made her forget Miss Heath and her shyness and all else— a great bank of flowers, which stretched across one complete angle of the room. There were some roses, some chrysanthemums, some geraniums. They were cunningly arranged in pots, but had the effect at a little distance of a gay, tropical garden. Prissie rushed to them, knelt down by a tall, white Japanese chrysanthemum and buried her face in its long, wavy petals.
Prissie had never seen such flowers, and she loved all flowers. Her heart swelled with a kind of wonder; and when, the next moment, she felt a light and very soft kiss on her forehead she was scarcely surprised.
"My dear child," said Miss Heath, "I am so sorry I was not in the room when you came in; but never mind, my flowers gave you welcome."
"Yes," said Prissie, standing up pale and with a luminous light in her eyes.
"You love flowers?" said Miss Heath, giving her a keen glance.
"Oh, yes; but I did not know— I could not guess— that any flower could be as beautiful as this," and she touched the great white chrysanthemum with her finger.
"Yes, and there are some flowers even more wonderful. Have you ever seen orchids?"
"Then you have something to live for. Orchids are ordinary flowers spiritualized. They have a glamor over them. We have good orchid shows sometimes at Kingsdene. I will take you to the next."
The servant brought in tea, and Miss Heath placed Prissie in a comfortable chair, where she was neither oppressed by lamplight nor firelight.
"A shy little soul like this will love the shade," she said to herself. "For all her plainness this is no ordinary girl, and I mean to draw her out presently. What a brow she has, and what a light came into her eyes when she looked at my white chrysanthemum."
There came a tap at the door, and Maggie Oliphant entered, looking fresh and bright. She gave Prissie an affectionate glance and nod and then began to busy herself, helping Miss Heath with the tea. During the meal a little pleasant murmur of conversation was kept up. Miss Heath and Maggie exchanged ideas. They even entered upon one or two delicate little skirmishes, each cleverly arguing a slight point on which they appeared to differ. Maggie could make smart repartees, and Miss Heath could parry her graceful young adversary's home thrusts with excellent effect.
They talked of one or two books which were then under discussion; they said a little about music and a word or two with regard to the pictures which were just then causing talk among the art critics in London. It was all new to Prissie, this "light, airy, nothing" kind of talk. It was not study; could it be classed under the head of recreation?
Prissie was accustomed to classify everything, but she did not know under what head to put this pleasant conversation. She was bewildered, puzzled. She listened without losing a word. She forgot herself absolutely.
Miss Heath, however, who knew Maggie Oliphant, but did not know Prissie, was observant of the silent young stranger through all the delights of her pleasant talk. Almost imperceptibly she got Prissie to say a word or two. She paused when she saw a question in Prissie's eyes, and her timid and gentle words were listened to with deference. By slow degrees Maggie was the silent one and Priscilla and Miss Heath held the field between them.
"No, I have never been properly educated," Prissie was saying. "I have never gone to a high school. I don't do things in the regular fashion. I was so afraid I should not be able to pass the entrance examination for St. Benet's. I was delighted when I found that I had done so."
"You passed the examination creditably," said Miss Heath. "I have looked through your papers. Your answers were not stereotyped. They were much better; they were thoughtful. Whoever has educated you, you have been well taught. You can think."
"Oh, yes, my dear friend, Mr. Hayes, always said that was the first thing."
"Ah, that accounts for it," replied Miss Heath. "You have had the advantage of listening to a cultivated man's conversation. You ought to do very well here. What do you mean to take up?"
"Oh, everything. I can't know too much."
Miss Heath laughed and looked at Maggie. Maggie was lying back in her easy-chair, her head resting luxuriously against a dark velvet cushion. She was tapping the floor slightly with her small foot; her eyes were fixed on Prissie. When Miss Heath laughed Maggie echoed the sound, but both laughs were in the sweetest sympathy.
"You must not overwork yourself, my dear," said Miss Heath. "That would be a very false beginning. I think— I am sure— that you have an earnest and ardent nature, but you must avoid an extreme which will only end in disaster."
"What do you mean?" she said. "I have come here to study. It has been done with such, such difficulty. It would be cruel to waste a moment. I mustn't; it wouldn't be right. You can't mean what you say."
Miss Heath was silent. She thought it kinder to look away from Prissie. After a moment she said in a voice which she on purpose made intensely quiet and matter of fact:
"Many girls come to St. Benet's, Miss Peel, who are, I fancy, circumstanced like you. Their friends find it difficult to send them here, but they make the sacrifice, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another— and the girls come. They know it is their duty to study; they have an ulterior motive, which underlies everything else. They know by and by they must pay back."
"Oh, yes," said Priscilla, starting forward and a flush coming into her face. "I know that— that is what it is for. To pay back worthily— to give back a thousandfold what you have received. Those girls can't be idle, can they?" she added in a gentle, piteous sort of way.
"My dear, there have been several such girls at St. Benet's, and none of them has been idle; they have been best and first among our students. Many of them have done more than well— many of them have brought fame to St. Benet's. They are in the world now and earning honorable livelihoods as teachers or in other departments where cultivated women can alone take the field. These girls are all paying back a thousandfold those who have helped them."
"Yes," said Prissie.
"You would like to follow their example?"
"Oh, yes; please tell me about them."
"Some of them were like you and thought they would take up everything— everything I mean in the scholastic line. They filled their days with lectures and studied into the short hours of the night. Maggie, dear, please tell Miss Peel about Good-night and Good-morning."
"They were such a funny pair," said Maggie. "They had rooms next to each other in our corridor, Miss Peel. They were both studying for a tripos, and during the term before the examination one went to bed at four and one got up at four. Mary Joliffe used to go into Susan Martin's room and say good morning to her. Susan used to raise such a white face and say, 'Good night, my dear.' Well, poor things, neither of them got a tripos; they worked too hard."
"The simple English of all this," said Miss Heath, "is that the successful girl here is the girl who takes advantage of the whole life mapped out for her, who divides her time between play and work, who joins the clubs and enters heartily into the social life of the place. Yes," she added, looking suddenly full at Priscilla, "these last words of mine may seem strange to you, dear. Believe me, however, they are true. But I know," she added with a sigh, "that it takes rather an old person to believe in the education of play."
Priscilla looked unconvinced.
"I must do what you wish," she said, "for, of course, you ought to know."
"What a lame kind of assent, my love! Maggie, you will have to gently lure this young person into the paths of frivolity. I promise you, my dear, that you shall be a very cultivated woman some day; but I only promise this if you will take advantage of all sides of the pleasant life here. Now tell me what are your particular tastes? What branch of study do you like best?"
"I love Latin and Greek better than anything else in the world."
"Do you truly?" said Maggie, suddenly starting forward. "Then in one thing we have a great sympathy. What have you read? Do tell me."
Miss Heath stepped directly into the background. The two girls conversed for a long time together.
ST. HILDA'S CHAPEL
"HERE we are now," said Maggie Oliphant, touching her young companion; "we are in good time; this is the outer chapel. Yes, I know all that you are thinking, but you need not speak; I did not want to speak the first time I came to St. Hilda's. Just follow me quickly. I know this verger; he will put us into two stalls; then it will be perfect."
"Yes," answered Priscilla. She spoke in an awed kind of voice. The cool effect of the dark oak, combined with the richness of the many shafts of colored light coming from the magnificent windows, gave her own face a curious expression. Was it caused by emotion or by the strange lights in the chapel?
Maggie glanced at her, touched her hand for a moment and then hurried forward to her seat.
The girls were accommodated with stalls just above the choir. They could read out of the college prayer-books and had a fine view of the church.
The congregation streamed in, the choir followed; the doors between the chapel and ante-chapel were shut, the curtains were dropped and the service began.
There is no better musical service in England than that which Sunday after Sunday is conducted at St. Hilda's Chapel at Kingsdene. The harmony and the richness of the sounds which fill that old chapel can scarcely be surpassed. The boys send up notes clear and sweet as nightingales into the fretted arches of the roof; the men's deeper notes swell the music until it breaks on the ears in a full tide of perfect harmony; the great organ fills in the breaks and pauses. This splendid service of song seems to reach perfection. In its way earth cannot give anything more perfect.
Maggie Oliphant did not come very often to St. Hilda's. At one time she was a constant worshiper there, but that was a year ago, before something happened which changed her. Then Sunday after Sunday two lovely girls used to walk up the aisle side by side. The verger knew them and reserved their favorite stalls for them. They used to kneel together and listen to the service, and, what is more, take part in it.
But a time came when one of the girls could never return to St. Hilda's and the other, people said, did not care to sit in the old seat without her. They said she missed her friend and was more cut up than any one else at the sudden death of one so fair and lovely.
When Maggie took her place in the old stall to-day more than one person turned to look at her with interest.
Maggie always made a picturesque effect; she wore a large hat, with a drooping plume of feathers; her dress was very rich and dark; her fair face shone in the midst of these surroundings like an exquisite flower.
The service went on. During the prayers Maggie wept, but, when a great wave of song filled the vast building, she forgot all her sorrow; her voice rose with the other singers, clear, sweet and high. Her soul seemed to go up on her voice, for all the sadness left her face; her eyes looked jubilant.
Prissie had never been in any place like St. Hilda's before. It had been one of her dreams to go to the cathedral at Exeter, but year after year this desire of hers had been put off and put off, and this was the first time in her life that she had ever listened to cathedral music. She was impressed, delighted, but not overpowered.
"The organ is magnificent," she said to herself, "but not grander than the sea. The sea accompanies all the service at the dear little old church at home."
People met and talked to one another in the green quadrangle outside the chapel. Several other St. Benet girls had come to the afternoon service. Among them was Miss Day and that fair, innocent-looking little girl, Rosalind Merton.
Miss Day and Miss Merton were together. They were both stepping back to join Maggie and Prissie, when a tall, dark young man came hastily forward, bowed to Rosalind Merton, and, coming up to Maggie Oliphant, shook hands with her.
"I saw you in chapel," he said. "Are you coming to the Marshall's to tea?"
"I am. Let me introduce to you my friend, Miss Peel. Miss Peel, this is Mr. Hammond."
Hammond raised his hat to Prissie, said a courteous word to her and then turned to speak again to Maggie.
The three walked through the gates of the quadrangle and turned up the narrow, picturesque High Street. It would soon be dusk; a wintry light was over everything. Rosalind Merton and Miss Day followed behind. Maggie, who was always absorbed with the present interest, did not heed or notice them, but Priscilla heard one or two ill-bred giggles.
She turned her head with indignation and received scornful glances from both girls. The four met for a moment at a certain corner. Maggie said something to Annie Day and introduced Mr. Hammond to her. As she did so, Rosalind took the opportunity to come up to Priscilla and whisper to her:
"You're not wanted, you know. You had much better come home with us."
"What do you mean?" replied Prissie in her matter-of-fact voice. "Miss Oliphant has asked me to go with her to the Marshalls'."
"Oh, well— if you care to be in the——" resumed Rosalind.
Maggie suddenly flashed round on her.
"Come, Miss Peel, we'll be late," she said. "Goodby." She nodded to Rosalind; her eyes were full of an angry fire; she took Prissie's hand and hurried down the street.
The two girls walked away, still giggling; a deep color mantled Maggie's cheeks. She turned and began to talk desperately to Mr. Hammond. Her tone was flippant; her silvery laughter floated in the air. Priscilla turned and gazed at her friend. She was seeing Maggie in yet another aspect. She felt bewildered.
The three presently reached a pleasant house standing in its own grounds. They were shown into a large drawing-room, full of young people. Mrs. Marshall, a pretty old lady, with white hair, came forward to receive them. Maggie was swept away amid fervent embraces and handshakes to the other end of the room. Mrs. Marshall saw that Priscilla looked frightened; she took her under her wing, sat down by her on a sofa and began to talk.
Prissie answered in a sedate voice. Mrs. Marshall had a very gentle manner. Prissie began to lose her shyness; she almost imagined that she was back again with Aunt Raby.
"My dear, you will like us all very much," the old lady said. "No life can be so absolutely delightful as that of a girl graduate at St. Benet's. The freedom from care, the mixture of study with play, the pleasant social life, all combine to make young women both healthy and wise. Ah, my love, we leave out the middle of the old proverb. The girls at St. Benet's are in that happy period of existence when they need give no thought to money-making."
"Some are," said Prissie. She sighed and the color rushed into her cheeks. Mrs. Marshall looked at her affectionately.
"Helen," she called to her granddaughter who was standing near, "bring Miss Peel another cup of tea— and some cake, Helen— some of that nice cake you made yesterday. Now, my love, I insist. You don't look at all strong. You really must eat plenty."
Helen Marshall supplied Prissie's wants, was introduced to her, and, standing near, joined in the talk.
"I am so glad you know Miss Oliphant," said Mrs. Marshall. "She will make a delightful friend for you."
"And isn't she lovely?" said Helen Marshall. "I don't think I know any one with such a beautiful face. You ought to be very proud to have her as a friend. Aren't you very proud?"
"No," said Prissie, "I don't know that I am. I am not even sure that she is my friend."
"Of course she is— she wrote most affectionately of you to grandmother. You can't think how nicely she spoke. We were glad, we were delighted, because Maggie— dear Maggie— has had no great friends lately. Now, if you have had your tea, Miss Peel, I'll take you about the room and introduce you to one or two people."
Priscilla rose from her seat at once, and the two girls began to move about the crowded drawing-room. Helen Marshall was very slight and graceful; she piloted Prissie here and there without disturbing any one's arrangements. At last the two girls found themselves in an immense conservatory, which opened into the drawing-room at one end.
A great many of the guests were strolling about here. Priscilla's eyes sparkled at the sight of the lovely flowers. She forgot herself and made eager exclamations of ecstasy. Helen, who up to now had thought her a dull sort of girl, began to take an interest in her.
"I'll take you into our fern-house, which is just beyond here," she said. "We have got such exquisite maidenhairs and such a splendid Killarney fern. Come; you shall see."
The fern-house seemed to be deserted. Helen opened the door first and ran forward. Prissie followed. The fern-house was not large; they had almost reached the end when a girl stood up suddenly and confronted them. The girl was Maggie Oliphant. She was sitting there alone. Her face was absolutely colorless and tears were lying wet on her eyelashes.
Maggie made a swift remark, a passing jest, and hurried past the two into the conservatory.
Priscilla could scarcely tell why, but at that moment she lost all interest in both ferns and flowers. The look of misery on Maggie's face seemed to strike her own heart like a chill.
"You look tired," said Helen Marshall, who had not noticed Maggie's tearful eyes.
"Perhaps I am," answered Prissie.
They went back again into the drawing-room. Prissie still could see nothing but Miss Oliphant's eyes and the look of distress on her pale face.
Helen suddenly made a remark.
"Was there ever such a merry creature as Maggie?" she said. "Do look at her now."
Prissie raised her eyes. Miss Oliphant was the center of a gay group, among whom Geoffrey Hammond stood. Her laugh rang out clear and joyous; her smile was like sunshine, her cheeks had roses in them and her eyes were as bright as stars.
ANNIE DAY and her friend Rosalind ceased to laugh as soon as they turned the corner. Annie now turned her eyes and fixed them on Rosalind, who blushed and looked uncomfortable.
"Well," said Annie, "you are a humbug, Rose! What a story you told me about Mr. Hammond— how he looked at you and was so anxious to make use of you. Oh, you know all you said. You told me a charming story about your position as gooseberry.' You expected a little fun for yourself, didn't you, my friend? Well, it seems to me that if any one is to have the fun, it is Priscilla Peel."
Rosalind had rather a nervous manner. She bit her lips now; her baby-blue eyes looked angry, her innocent face wore a frown. She dropped her hold of Annie Day's arm.
Miss Day was one of the most commonplace girls at Heath Hall. She had neither good looks nor talent; she had no refinement of nature nor had she those rugged but sterling qualities of honesty and integrity of purpose which go far to cover a multitude of other defects.
"I wish you wouldn't speak to me in that way," said Rosalind with a little gasp. "I hate people to laugh at me, and I can't stand sneers."
"Oh, no! you're such a dear little innocent baby. Of course, I can quite understand. And does she suppose I'll ruffle her pretty little feathers? No, not I. I'd rather invent a new cradle song for you, Rosie, dear."
"Don't, don't!" said Rosalind. "Look here, Annie, I must say something— yes, I must. I hate Maggie Oliphant!"
"You hate Miss Oliphant?" Annie Day stood still, turned round and stared at her companion. "When did this revolution take place, my dear? What about Rose and Maggie sitting side by side at dinner? And Rose creeping away all by herself to Maggie's room and angling for an invitation to cocoa, and trying hard, very hard, to become a member of the Dramatic Society, just because Maggie acts so splendidly. Has it not been Maggie— Maggie— ever since the term began, until we girls, who were not in love with this quite too charming piece of perfection, absolutely hated the sound of her name? Oh, Rose, what a fickle baby you are. I am ashamed of you!"
"Don't!" said Rose again. She linked her hand half timidly in Miss Day's arm. Miss Day was almost a head and shoulders above the little, delicate, fairy-like creature. "I suppose I can't help changing my mind," she said. "I did love Maggie, of course I loved her— she fascinated me; but I don't care for her— no, I hate her now!"
"How vehemently you pronounce that naughty word, my fair Rosalind. You must give me some reasons for this grievous change in your feelings."
"She snubbed me," said Rosalind; "she made little of me. I offered to do her a kindness and she repulsed me. Who cares to be made little of and repulsed?"
Who, truly, Rosie?— not even an innocent baby. Now then, my love, let me whisper a little secret to you. I have never loved Miss Oliphant. I have never been a victim to her charms. Time was when she and Miss Lee— poor Annabel!— ruled the whole of our hall. Those two girls carried everything before them. That was before your day, Rose. Then Miss Lee died. She caught a chill, and had a fever, and was dead in a couple of days. Yes, of course, it was shocking. They moved her to the hospital, and she died there. Oh, there was such excitement, and such grief— even I was sorry; for Annabel had a way about her, I can't describe it, but she could fascinate you. It was awfully interesting to talk to her, and even to look at her was a pleasure. We usedn't to think much about Maggie when Annabel was by; but now, what with Maggie and her mystery, and Maggie and her love affair, and Maggie and her handsome face, and her wealth, and her expectations, why she bids fair to be more popular even than the two were when they were together. Yes, little Rose, I don't want her to be popular any more than you do. I think it's a very unhealthy sign of any place to have all the girls sighing and groaning about one or two— dying to possess their autographs, and kissing their photographs, and framing them, and putting them up in their rooms. I hate that mawkish kind of nonsense," continued Miss Day, looking very virtuous, "and I think Miss Heath ought to know about it, and put a stop to it. I do, really."
Rosalind was glad that the gathering darkness prevented her sharp companion from seeing the blush on her face, for among her own sacred possessions she kept an autograph letter of Maggie's, and she had passionately kissed Maggie's beautiful face as it looked at her out of a photograph, and, until the moment when all her feelings had undergone such a change, was secretly saving up her pence to buy a frame for it. Now she inquired eagerly:
"What is the mystery about Miss Oliphant? So many people hint about it, I do wish you would tell me, Annie."
"If I told you, pet, it would cease to be a mystery."
"But you might say what you know. Do, Annie!"
"Oh, it isn't much— it's really nothing; and yet— and yet—"
"You know it isn't nothing, Annie!"
"Well, when Annabel died, people said that Maggie had more cause than any one else to be sorry. I never could find out what that cause was; but the servants spread some reports. They said they had found Maggie and Annabel together; Annabel had fainted; and Maggie was in an awful state of misery— in quite an unnatural state, they said; she went into hysterics, and Miss Heath was sent for, and was a long time soothing her. There was no apparent reason for this, although, somehow or other, little whispers got abroad that the mystery of Annabel's illness and Maggie's distress was connected with Geoffrey Hammond. Of course, nothing was known, and nothing is known; but, certainly, the little whisper got into the air. Dear me, Rosalind, you need not eat me with your eyes. I am repeating mere conjectures, and it is highly probable that not the slightest notice would have been taken of this little rumor but for the tragedy which immediately followed. Annabel, who had been as gay and well as any one at breakfast that morning, was never seen in the college again. She was unconscious, the servants said, for a long time, and when she awoke was in high fever. She was removed to the hospital, and Maggie had seen the last of her friend. Poor Annabel died in two days, and afterward Maggie took the fever. Yes, she has been quite changed since then. She always had moods, as she called them, but not like now. Sometimes I think she is almost flighty."
Rosalind was silent. After a while she said in a prim little voice, which she adopted now and then when she wanted to conceal her real feelings:
"But I do wonder what the quarrel was about— I mean, what really happened between Annabel and Maggie."
"Look here, Rosalind, have I said anything about a quarrel? Please remember that the whole thing is conjecture from beginning to end, and don't go all over the place spreading stories and making mischief. I have told you this in confidence, so don't forget."
"I won't forget," replied Rosalind. "I don't know why you should accuse me of wanting to make mischief, Annie. I can't help being curious, of course, and, of course, I'd like to know more."
"Well, for that matter, so would I," replied Annie. "Where there is a mystery it's much more satisfactory to get to the bottom of it. Of course, something dreadful must have happened to account for the change in Miss Oliphant. It would be a comfort to know the truth, and, of course, one need never talk of it. By the way, Rosie, you are just the person to ferret this little secret out; you are the right sort of person for spying and peeping."
"Oh, thank you," replied Rosalind; "if that's your opinion of me I'm not inclined to do anything to please you. Spying and peeping, indeed! What next?"
Annie Day patted her companion's small white hand.
"And so I've hurt the dear little baby's feelings!" she said. "But I didn't mean to— no, that I didn't. And she such a pretty, sweet little pet as she is! Well, Rosie, you know what I mean. If we can find out the truth about Miss Maggie we'll just have a quiet little crow over her all to ourselves. I don't suppose we shall find out, but the opportunities may arise— who knows? Now I want to speak to you about another person, and that is Maggie's new friend."
"What new friend?" Rosalind blushed brightly.
"That ugly Priscilla Peel. She has taken her up. Any one can see that."
"Oh, I don't think so."
"But I do— I am sure of it. Now I have good reason not to like Miss Priscilla. You know what a virtuous parade she made of herself a few nights ago?"
"Yes, you told me."
"Horrid, set-up minx! Just the sort of girl who ought to be suppressed and crushed out of a college like ours. Vaunting her poverty in our very faces and refusing to make herself pleasant or one with us in any sort of way. Lucy Marsh and I had a long talk over her that night, and we put our heads together to concoct a nice little bit of punishment for her. You know she's horridly shy, and as gauche as if she lived in the backwoods, and we meant to 'send her to Coventry.' We had it all arranged, and a whole lot of girls would have joined us, for it's contrary to the spirit of a place like this to allow girls of the Priscilla Peel type to become popular or liked in any way. But, most unluckily, poor, dear, good, but stupid, Nancy Banister was in the room when Prissie made her little oration, and Nancy took her up as if she were a heroine and spoke of her as if she had done something magnificent, and, of course, Nancy told Maggie, and now Maggie is as thick as possible with Prissie. So you see, my dear Rosalind, our virtuous little scheme is completely knocked on the head."
"I don't see—" began Rosalind.
"You little goose, before a week is out Prissie will be the fashion. All the girls will flock around her when Maggie takes her part. Bare, ugly rooms will be the rage; poverty will be the height of the fashion, and it will be considered wrong even to go in for the recognized college recreations. Rosie, my love, we must nip this growing mischief in the bud."
"How?" asked Rosalind.
"We must separate Maggie Oliphant and Priscilla Peel."
"How?" asked Rose again. "I'm sure," she added in a vehement voice, "I'm willing— I'm more than willing."
"Good. Well, we're at home now, and I absolutely must have a cup of tea. No time for it in my room to-night— let's come into the hall and have some there. Look here, Rosalind, I'll ask Lucy Marsh to have cocoa to-night in my room, and you can come too. Now keep a silent tongue in your head, Baby."
A GOOD THING TO BE YOUNG
IT was long past the tea-hour at Heath Hall when Maggie Oliphant and Priscilla started on their walk home. The brightness and gaiety of the merry party at the Marshalls' had increased as the moments flew on. Even Priscilla had caught something of the charm. The kindly spirit which animated every one seemed to get into her. She first became interested, then she forgot herself. Prissie was no longer awkward; she began to talk, and when she liked she could talk well.
As the two girls were leaving the house Geoffrey Hammond put in a sudden appearance.
"I will see you home," he said to Maggie.
"No, no, you mustn't," she answered; her tone was vehement. She forgot Prissie's presence and half turned her back on her.
"How unkind you are!" said the young man in a low tone.
"No, Geoffrey, but I am struggling— you don't know how hard I am struggling— to be true to myself."
"You are altogether mistaken in your idea of truth," said Hammond, turning and walking a little way by her side.
"I am not mistaken— I am right."
"Well, at least allow me to explain my side of the question."
"No, it cannot be; there shall be no explanations, I am resolved. Good night, you must not come any further."
She held out her hand. Hammond took it limply between his own.
"You are very cruel," he murmured in the lowest of voices.
He raised his hat, forgot even to bow to Priscilla, and hurried off down a side street.
Maggie walked on a little way. Then she turned and looked down the street where he had vanished. Suddenly she raised her hand to her lips, kissed it and blew the kiss after the figure which had already disappeared. She laughed excitedly when she did this, and her whole face was glowing with a beautiful color.
Prissie, standing miserable and forgotten by the tall, handsome girl's side, could see the light in her eyes and the glow on her cheeks in the lamplight.
"I am here," said Priscilla at last in a low, half-frightened voice. "I am sorry I am here, but I am. I heard what you said to Mr. Hammond. I am sorry I heard."
Maggie turned slowly and looked at her. Prissie returned her gaze. Then, as if further words were wrung from her against her will, she continued:
"I saw the tears in your eyes in the fern-house at the Marshalls'. I am very sorry, but I did see them."
"My dear Prissie!" said Maggie. She went up suddenly to the girl, put her arm round her neck and kissed her.
"Come home now," she said, drawing Prissie's hand through her arm. "I don't think I greatly mind your knowing," she said after a pause. "You are true; I see it in your face. You would never tell again— you would never make mischief."
"Tell again! Of course not." Prissie's words came out with great vigor.
"I know you would not, Priscilla; may I call you Priscilla?"
"Will you be my friend and shall I be your friend?"
"If you would," said Prissie. "But you don't mean it. It is impossible that you can mean it. I'm not a bit like you— and— and— you only say these things to be kind."
"What do you mean, Priscilla?"
"I must tell you," said Prissie, turning very pale. "I heard what you said to Miss Banister the night I came to the college."
"What I said to Miss Banister? What did I say?"
"Oh, can't you remember? The words seemed burnt into me: I shall never forget them. I had left my purse in the dining-hall, and I was going to fetch it. Your door was a little open. I heard my name, and I stopped— yes, I did stop to listen."
"Oh, what a naughty, mean little Prissie! You stopped to listen. And what did you hear? Nothing good, of course? The bad thing was said to punish you for listening."
"I heard," said Priscilla, her own cheeks crimson now, "I heard you say that it gave you an aesthetic pleasure to be kind, and that was why you were good to me."
Maggie felt her own color rising.
"Well, my dear," she said, "it still gives me an aesthetic pleasure to be kind. You could not expect me to fall in love with you the moment I saw you. I was kind to you then, perhaps, for the reason I stated. It is very different now."
"It was wrong of you to be kind to me for that reason."
"Wrong of me? What an extraordinary girl you are, Priscilla— why was it wrong of me?"
"Because I learned to love you. You were gentle to me and spoke courteously when others were rude and only laughed; my whole heart went out to you when you were so sweet and gentle and kind. I did not think— I could not possibly think— that you were good just because it gave you a sort of selfish pleasure. When I heard your words I felt dreadful. I hated St. Benet's; I wished I had never come. Your words turned everything to bitterness for me."
"Did they really, Priscilla? Oh, Prissie! what a thoughtless, wild, impulsive creature I am. Well, I don't feel now as I did that night. If those words were cruel, forgive me. Forget those words, Prissie."
"I will if you will."
"I? I have forgotten them utterly."
"Thank you, thank you."
"Then we'll be friends— real friends; true friends?"
"You must say Yes, Maggie.'"
"That is right. Now keep your hand in my arm. Let's walk fast. Is it not glorious to walk in this semi-frosty sort of weather? Prissie, you'll see a vast lot that you don't approve of in your new friend."
"Oh, I don't care," said Priscilla.
She felt so joyous she could have skipped.
"I've as many sides," continued Maggie, "as a chamelon has colors. I am the gayest of the gay, as well as the saddest of the sad. When I am gay you may laugh with me, but I warn you when I am sad you must never cry with me. Leave me alone when I have my dark moods on, Prissie."
"Very well, Maggie, I'll remember."
"I think you'll make a delightful friend," said Miss Oliphant, just glancing at her; "but I pity your side of the bargain."
"Because I'll try you so fearfully."
"Oh, no, you won't. I don't want to have a perfect friend."
"Perfect. No, child— Heaven forbid. But there are shades of perfection. Now, when I get into my dark moods, I feel wicked as well as sad. No, we won't talk of them; we'll keep them away. Prissie, I feel good to-night— good— and glad: it's such a nice feeling."
"I am sure of it," said Priscilla.
"What do you know about it, child? You have not tasted life yet. Wait until you do. For instance— no, though— I won't enlighten you. Prissie, what do you think of Geoffrey Hammond?"
"I think he loves you very much."
"Poor Geoffrey! Now, Prissie, you are to keep that little thought quite dark in your mind— in fact, you are to put it out of your mind. You are not to associate my name with Mr. Hammond's— not even in your thoughts. You will very likely hear us spoken of together, and some of the stupid girls here will make little quizzing, senseless remarks. But there will be no truth in them, Prissie. He is nothing to me nor I to him."
"Then why did you blow a kiss after him?" asked Priscilla.
Maggie stood still. It was too dark for Priscilla to see her blush.
"Oh, my many-sided nature!" she suddenly exclaimed. "It was a wicked sprite made me blow that kiss. Prissie, my dear, I am cold: race me to the house."
The two girls entered the wide hall, flushed and laughing. Other girls were lingering about on the stairs. Some were just starting off to evening service at Kingsdene; others were standing in groups, chatting. Nancy Banister came up and spoke to Maggie. Maggie took her arm and walked away with her.
Prissie found herself standing alone in the hall. It was as if the delightful friendship cemented between herself and Miss Oliphant in the frosty air outside had fallen to pieces like a castle of cards the moment they entered the house. Prissie felt a chill. Her high spirits went down a very little. Then, resolving to banish the ignoble spirit of distrust, she prepared to run upstairs to her own room.
Miss Heath called her name as she was passing an open door.
"Is that you, my dear? Will you come to my room after supper to-night?"
"Oh, thank you," said Prissie, her eyes sparkling.
Miss Heath came to the threshold of her pretty room and smiled at the young girl.
"You look well and happy," she said. "You are getting at home here. You will love us all yet."
"I love you now!" said Prissie with fervor.
Miss Heath, prompted by the look of intense and sincere gladness on the young face, bent and kissed Priscilla. A rather disagreeable voice said suddenly at her back:
"I beg your pardon," and Lucy Marsh ran down the stairs.
She had knocked against Prissie in passing; she had witnessed Miss Heath's kiss. The expression on Lucy's face was unpleasant. Prissie did not notice it, however. She went slowly up to her room. The electric light was on, the fire was blazing merrily. Priscilla removed her hat and jacket, threw herself into the one easy-chair the room contained, and gave herself up to pleasant dreams. Many new aspects of life were opening before her. She felt that it was a good thing to be young, and she was distinctly conscious of a great, soft glow of happiness.
CAUGHT IN A TRAP
COLLEGE life is school life over again, but with wide differences. The restraints which characterize the existence of a schoolgirl are scarcely felt at all by the girl graduates. There are no punishments. Up to a certain point she is free to be industrious or not as she pleases. Some rules there are for her conduct and guidance, but they are neither many nor arbitrary. In short, the young girl graduate is no longer thought of as a child. She is a woman, with a woman's responsibilities; she is treated accordingly.
Miss Day, Miss Marsh, Miss Merton and one or two other congenial spirits entered heartily into the little plot which should deprive Priscilla of Maggie Oliphant's friendship. They were anxious to succeed in this, because their characters were low, their natures jealous and mean. Prissie had set up a higher standard than theirs, and they were determined to crush the little aspirant for moral courage. If in crushing Prissie they could also bring discredit upon Miss Oliphant, their sense of victory would have been intensified; but it was one thing for these conspirators to plot and plan and another thing for them to perform. It is possible that in school life they might have found this easier; opportunities might have arisen for them, with mistresses to be obeyed, punishments to be dreaded, rewards to be won. At St. Benet's there was no one especially to be obeyed, and neither rewards nor punishments entered into the lives of the girls.
Maggie Oliphant did not care in the least what girls like Miss Day or Miss Marsh said or thought about her, and Priscilla, who was very happy and industrious just now, heard many innuendoes and sly little speeches without taking in their meaning.
Still, the conspirators did not despair. The term before Christmas was in some ways rather a dull one, and they were glad of any excitement to break the monotony. As difficulties increased their ardor also deepened, and they were resolved not to leave a stone unturned to effect their object. Where there is a will there is a way. This is true as regards evil and good things alike.
One foggy morning, toward the end of November, Priscilla was standing by the door of one of the lecture-rooms, a book of French history, a French grammar and exercise-book and thick note-book in her hand. She was going to her French lecture and was standing patiently by the lecture-room door, which had not yet been opened.
Priscilla's strongest bias was for Greek and Latin, but Mr. Hayes had recommended her to take up modern languages as well, and she was steadily plodding through the French and German, for which she had not so strong a liking as for her beloved classics. Prissie was a very eager learner, and she was busy now looking over her notes of the last lecture and standing close to the door, so as to be one of the first to take her place in the lecture-room.
The rustling of a dress caused her to look round, and Rosalind Merton stood by her side. Rosalind was by no means one of the "students" of the college. She attended as few lectures as were compatible with her remaining there, but French happened to be one of the subjects which she thought it well to take up, and she appeared now by Prissie's side with the invariable notebook, without which no girl went to lecture, in her hand.
"Isn't it cold?" she said, shivering and raising her pretty face to Priscilla's.
Prissie glanced at her for a moment, said Yes, she supposed it was cold, in an abstracted voice, and bent her head once more over her note-book.
Rosalind was looking very pretty in a dress of dark blue velveteen. Her golden curly hair lay in little tendrils all over her head and curled lovingly against her soft white throat.
"I hate Kingsdene in a fog," she continued, "and I think it's very wrong to keep us in this draughty passage until the lecture-room is opened. Don't you, Miss Peel?"
"Well, we are before our time, so no one is to blame for that," answered Priscilla.
"Of course, so we are." Rosalind pulled out a small gold watch, which she wore at her girdle.
"How stupid of me to have mistaken the hour!" she exclaimed. Then looking hard at Prissie, she continued in an anxious tone:
"You are not going to attend any lectures this afternoon, are you, Miss Peel?"
"No," answered Priscilla. "Why?"
Rosalind's blue eyes looked almost pathetic in their pleading.
"I wonder"— she began; "I am so worried, I wonder if you'd do me a kindness."
"I can't say until you ask me," said Priscilla; "what do you want me to do?"
"There's a girl at Kingsdene, a Miss Forbes. She makes my dresses now and then; I had a letter from her last night, and she is going to London in a hurry because her mother is ill. She made this dress for me. Isn't it pretty?"
"Yes," answered Priscilla, just glancing at it. "But what connection has that with my doing anything for you?"
"Oh, a great deal; I'm coming to that part. Miss Forbes wants me to pay her for making this dress before she goes to London. I can only do this by going to Kingsdene this afternoon."
"Well?" said Priscilla.
"I want to know if you will come with me. Miss Heath does not like our going to the town alone, particularly at this time of year, when the evenings are so short. Will you come with me, Miss Peel? It will be awfully good-natured of you, and I really do want poor Miss Forbes to have her money before she goes to London."
"But cannot some of your own friends go with you?" returned Priscilla. "I don't wish to refuse, of course, if it is necessary; but I want to work up my Greek notes this afternoon. The next lecture is a very stiff one, and I sha'n't he ready for it without some hard work."
"Oh, but you can study when you come back. Do come with me. I would not ask you, only I know you are so good-natured, and Annie Day and Lucy Marsh have both to attend lectures this afternoon. I have no one to ask— no one, really if you refuse. I have not half so many friends as you think, and it would be quite too dreadful for poor Miss Forbes not to have her money when she wants to spend it on her sick mother."
Priscilla hesitated for a moment. Two or three other girls were walking down the corridor to the lecture-room; the door was flung open.
"Very well," she said as she entered the room, followed by Rosalind, "I will go with you. At what hour do you want to start?"
"At three o'clock. I'm awfully grateful. A thousand thanks, Miss Peel."
Prissie nodded, seated herself at the lecture-table and in the interest of the work which lay before her soon forgot all about Rosalind and her troubles.
The afternoon of that day turned out not only foggy but wet. A drizzling rain shrouded the landscape, and very few girls from St. Benet's were venturing abroad.
At half-past two Nancy Banister came hastily into Priscilla's room.
"Maggie and I are going down to the library," she said, "to have a cozy read by the fire; we want you to come with us. Why, surely you are never going out, Miss Peel?"
"Yes, I am," answered Prissie in a resigned voice. "I don't like it a bit, but Miss Merton has asked me to go with her to Kingsdene, and I promised."
"Well, you sha'n't keep your promise. This is not a fit day for you to go out, and you have a cough, too. I heard you coughing last night."
"Yes, but that is nothing. I must go, Miss Banister,", I must keep my word. I dare say it won't take Miss Merton and me very long to walk into Kingsdene and back again."
"And I never knew that Rosalind Merton was one of your friends, Prissie," continued Nancy in a puzzled voice.
"Nor is she— I scarcely know her; but when she asked me to go out with her, I could not very well say no."
"I suppose not; but I am sorry, all the same, for it is not a fit day for any one to be abroad, and Rosalind is such a giddy pate. Well, come back as soon as you can. Maggie and I are going to have a jolly time, and we only wish you were with us."
Nancy nodded brightly and took her leave, and Priscilla, putting on her waterproof and her shabbiest hat, went down into the hall to meet Rosalind.
Rosalind was also in waterproof, but her hat was extremely pretty and becoming, and Priscilla fancied she got a glimpse of a gay silk dress under the waterproof cloak.
"Oh, how quite too sweet of you to be ready!" said Rosalind with effusion. She took Prissie's hand and squeezed it affectionately, and the two girls set off.
The walk was a dreary one, for Kingsdene, one of the most beautiful places in England in fine weather, lies so low that in the winter months fogs are frequent, and the rain is almost incessant, so that then the atmosphere is always damp and chilly. By the time the two girls had got into the High Street Prissie's thick, sensible boots were covered with mud and Rosalind's thin ones felt very damp to her feet.
They soon reached the quarter where the dressmaker, Miss Forbes, lived. Prissie was asked to wait downstairs, and Rosalind ran up several flights of stairs to fulfil her mission. She came back at the end of a few minutes, looking bright and radiant.
"I am sorry to have kept you waiting, Miss Peel," she said, "but my boots were so muddy that Miss Forbes insisted on polishing them up for me."
"Well, we can go home now, I suppose?" said Prissie.
"Ye— es; only as we are here, would you greatly mind our going round by Bouverie Street? I want to inquire for a friend of mine, Mrs. Elliot-Smith. She has not been well."
"Oh, I don't mind," said Priscilla. "Will it take us much out of our way?"
"No, only a step or two. Come, we have just to turn this corner, and here we are. What a dear— quite too good-natured girl you are, Miss Peel!"
Prissie said nothing. The two started forth again in the drizzling mist and fog, and presently found themselves in one of the most fashionable streets of Kingsdene and standing before a ponderous hall-door, which stood back in a portico.
Rosalind rang the bell, which made a loud peal. The door was opened almost immediately; but, instead of a servant appearing in answer to the summons, a showily dressed girl, with a tousled head of flaxen hair, light blue eyes and a pale face, stood before Rosalind and Prissie.
"Oh, you dear Rose!" she said, clasping her arms round Miss Merton and dragging her into the house; "I had almost given you up. Do come in— do come in, both of you. You are more than welcome. What a miserable, horrid, too utterly depressing afternoon it is!"
"How do you do, Meta?" said Rosalind, when she could interrupt this eager flow of words. "May I introduce my friend, Miss Peel? Miss Peel, this is my very great and special friend and chum, Meta Elliot-Smith."
"Oh, you charming darling!" said Meta, giving Rose a fresh hug and glancing in a supercilious but friendly way at Prissie.
"We came to inquire for your mother, dear Meta," said Rose in a demure tone. "Is she any better?"
"Yes, my dear darling, she's much better." Meta's eyes flashed interrogation into Rose's: Rose's returned back glances which spoke whole volumes of meaning.
"Look here," said Meta Elliot-Smith, "now that you two dear, precious girls have come, you mustn't go away. Oh, no, I couldn't hear of it. I have perfect oceans to say to you, Rose— and it is absolutely centuries since we have met. Off with your waterproof and up you come to the drawing-room for a cup of tea. One or two friends are dropping in presently, and the Beechers and one or two more are upstairs now. You know the Beechers, don't you, Rosalind? Here, Miss Peel, let me help you to unburden yourself. Little Rose is so nimble in her ways that she doesn't need any assistance."
"Oh, but indeed I can't stay," said Prissie. "It is quite impossible! You know, Miss Merton, it is impossible. We are due at St. Benet's now. We ought to be going back at once."
Rosalind Merton's only answer was to slip off her waterproof cloak and stand arrayed in a fascinating toilet of silk and lace— a little too dressy, perhaps, even for an afternoon party at Kingsdene, but vastly becoming to its small wearer.
Priscilla opened her eyes wide as she gazed at her companion. She saw at once that she had been entrapped into her present false position, and that Rosalind's real object in coming to Kingsdene was not to pay her dressmaker but to visit the Elliot-Smiths.
"I can't possible stay," she said in a cold, angry voice. "I must go back to St. Benet's at once."
She began to button up her waterproof as fast as Miss Elliot-Smith was unbuttoning it.
"Nonsense, you silly old dear!" said Rosalind, who, having gained her way, was now in the best of spirits. "You mustn't listen to her, Meta; she studies a great deal too hard, and a little relaxation will do her all the good in the world. My dear Miss Peel, you can't be so rude as to refuse a cup of tea, and I know I shall catch an awful cold if I don't have one. Do come upstairs for half an hour; do, there's a dear Prissie!"
Priscilla hesitated. She had no knowledge of so-called "society." Her instincts told her it was very wrong to humor Rose. She disliked Miss Elliot-Smith and felt wild at the trick which had been played on her. Nevertheless, on an occasion of this kind, she was no match for Rose, who knew perfectly what she was about, and stood smiling and pretty before her.
"Just for a few moments," said Rosalind, coming up and whispering to her. "I really won't keep you long. You will just oblige me for a few minutes."
"Well, but I'm not fit to be seen in this old dress!" whispered back poor Prissie.
"Oh, yes, you are; you're not bad at all, and I am sure Meta will find you a secluded corner if you want it— won't you, Meta?"
"Yes, of course, if Miss Peel wants it," answered Meta. "But she looks all right, so deliciously quaint— I simply adore quaint people! Quite the sweet girl graduate, I do declare. You don't at all answer to the role, you naughty Rosalind!"
So Prissie, in her ill-made brown dress, her shabbiest hat and her muddy boots, had to follow in the wake of Rosalind Merton and her friend. At first she had been too angry to think much about her attire, but she was painfully conscious of it when she entered a crowded drawing-room, where every one else was in a suitable afternoon toilet. She was glad to shrink away out of sight into the most remote corner she could find; her muddy boots were pushed far in under her chair and hidden as much as possible by her rather short dress; her cheeks burnt unbecomingly; she felt miserable, self-conscious, ill at ease and very cross with every one. It was in vain for poor Priscilla to whisper to herself that Greek and Latin were glorious and great and dress and fashion were things of no moment whatever. At this instant she knew all too well that dress and fashion were reigning supreme.
Meta Elliot-Smith was elusive, loud and vulgar, but she was also good-natured. She admired Rosalind, but in her heart of hearts she thought that her friend had played Prissie a very shabby trick. She brought Prissie some tea, therefore, and stood for a moment or two by her side, trying to make things a little more comfortable for her. Some one soon claimed her attention, however, and poor Prissie found herself alone.
IN THE ELLIOT-SMITH'S DRAWING-ROOM
THE fun and talk rose fast and furious. More and more guests arrived; the large drawing-rooms were soon almost as full as they could hold. Priscilla, from her corner, half-hidden by a sheltering window curtain, looked in vain for Rosalind. Where had she hidden herself? When were they going away? Surely Rosalind would come to fetch her soon? They had to walk home and be ready for dinner.
Dinner at St. Benet's was at half-past six, and Prissie reflected with a great sensation of thankfulness that Rosalind and she must go back in good time for this meal, as it was one of the rules of the college that no girl should absent herself from late dinner without getting permission from the principal.
Prissie looked in agony at the clock which stood on a mantel-piece not far from where she had ensconced herself. Presently it struck five; no one heard its silver note in the babel of sound, but Priscilla watched its slowly moving hands in an agony.
Rose must come to fetch her presently. Prissie knew— she reflected to her horror that she had not the moral courage to walk about those drawing-rooms hunting for Rose.
Two or three exquisitely dressed but frivolous-looking women stood in a group not far from the window where Priscilla sat forlorn. They talked about the cut of their mantles and the price they had given for their new winter bonnets. Their shrill laughter reached Prissie's ears, also their words. They complimented one another, but talked scandal of their neighbors. They called somebody— who Prissie could not imagine—" a certain lady," and spoke of how she was angling to get a footing in society, and how the good set at Kingsdene would certainly never have anything to do with her or hers.
"She's taking up those wretched girl graduates," said one of these gossips to her neighbor. Then her eye fell upon Prissie. She said "Hush!" in an audible tone, and the little party moved away out of earshot.
The minute hand of the clock on the mantel-piece pointed to nearly half-past five. Poor Prissie felt her miseries grow almost intolerable. Tears of mortification and anguish were forcing themselves to her eyes. She felt that, in addition to having lost so many hours of study, she would get into a serious scrape at St. Benet's for breaking one of the known rules of the college.
At this moment a quiet voice said, "How do you do?"
She raised her tearful eyes. Geoffrey Hammond was standing by her side. He gave her a kind glance, shook hands with her and stood by her window uttering commonplaces until Priscilla had recovered her self-possession. Then, dropping into a chair near, he said abruptly:
"I saw you from the other end of the room. I was surprised. I did not suppose you knew our hostess."
"Nor do I really," said Priscilla with sudden vehemence. "Oh, it's a shame!" she added, her face reddening up woefully; "I have been entrapped!"
"You must not let the people who are near us hear you say words of that kind," said Hammond; "they will crowd around to hear your story. Now, I want it all to myself. Do you think you can tell it to me in a low voice?"
To poor Hammond's horror Prissie began to whisper.
"I beg your pardon," he said, interrupting her, "but do you know that the buzzing noise caused by a whisper carries sound a long way? That is a well authenticated fact. Now, if you will try to speak low."
"Oh, thank you; yes, I will," said Prissie. She began a garbled account. Hammond looked at her face and guessed the truth. The miseries of her present position were depriving the poor girl of the full use of her intellect. At last he ascertained that Priscilla's all-absorbing present anxiety was to be in time for the half-past six dinner at St. Benet's.
"I know we'll be late," she said, "and I'll have broken the rules, and Miss Heath will be so much annoyed with me."
Hammond volunteered to look for Miss Merton.
"Oh, thank you," said Prissie, the tears springing to her eyes. "How very, very kind you are."
"Please don't speak of it," said Hammond. "Stay where you are. I'll soon bring the young truant to your side."
He began to move about the drawing-rooms, and Prissie from her hiding-place watched him with a world of gratitude in her face. "Talk of my stirring from this corner," she said to herself, "why, I feel glued to the spot! Oh, my awful muddy boots. I daren't even think of them. Now I do hope Mr. Hammond will find Miss Merton quickly. How kind he is! I wonder Maggie does not care for him as much as he cares for her. I do not feel half as shy with him as I do with every one else in this dreadful— dreadful room. Oh, I do trust he'll soon come back and bring Miss Merton with him. Then, if we run all the way, we may, perhaps, be in time for dinner."
Hammond was absent about ten minutes; they seemed like so many hours to anxious Prissie. To her horror she saw him returning alone, and now she so far forgot her muddy boots as to run two or three steps to meet him. She knocked over a footstool as she did so, and one or two people looked round and shrugged their shoulders at the poor gauche girl.
"Where is she?" exclaimed Prissie, again speaking in a loud voice. "Oh, haven't you brought her? What shall I do?"
"It's all right, I assure you, Miss Peel. Let me conduct you back to that snug seat in the window. I have seen Miss Merton, and she says you are to make yourself happy. She asked Miss Heath's permission for you both to be absent from dinner to-day."
"She did? I never heard of anything so outrageous. I won't stay. I shall go away at once."
"Had you not better just think calmly over it? If you return to St. Benet's without Miss Merton, you will get her into a scrape."
"Do you think I care for that? Oh, she has behaved disgracefully! She has told Miss Heath a lie. I shall explain matters the very moment I go back."
Priscilla was not often in a passion, but she felt in one now. She lost her shyness and her voice rose without constraint.
"I am not supposed to know the ways of society," she said, "but I don't think I want to know much about this sort of society." And she got up, prepared to leave the room.
The ladies, who had been gossiping at her side, turned at the sound of her agitation. They saw a plain, badly dressed girl, with a frock conveniently short for the muddy streets, but by no means in tone with her present elegant surroundings, standing up and contradicting, or at least appearing to contradict, Geoffrey Hammond, one of the best known men at St. Hilda's, a Senior Wrangler, too. What did this gauche girl mean? Most people were deferential to Hammond, but she seemed to be scolding him.
Prissie for the time being became more interesting even than the winter fashions. The ladies drew a step or two nearer to enjoy the little comedy.
Priscilla noticed no one, but Hammond felt these good ladies in the air. His cheeks burned and he wished himself well out of his present position.
"If you will sit down, Miss Peel," he said in a low, firm voice, "I think I can give you good reasons for not rushing away in this headlong fashion."
"Well, what are they?" said Prissie. Hammond's voice had a sufficiently compelling power to make her sit down once more on her window-ledge.
"Don't you think," he said, seating himself in front of her, "that we may as well keep this discussion to ourselves?"
"Oh, yes; was I speaking too loud? I wouldn't vex you for anything."
"Pardon me; you are still speaking a little loud."
"Oh!" Poor Prissie fell back, her face crimson. "Please say anything you wish," she presently piped in a voice as low as a little mouse might have used.
"What I have to say is simply this," said Hammond: "You will gain nothing now by rushing off to St. Benet's. However hard you struggle, you cannot get there in time for dinner. Would it not be best, then, to remain here quietly until Miss Merton asks you to accompany her back to the college? Then, of course, it will remain with you to pay her out in any way you think well."
"Thank you; perhaps that is best. It is quite hopeless now to think of getting back in time for dinner. I only hope Miss Merton won't keep me waiting very long, for it is very, very dull sitting here and seeing people staring at you."
"I would not look at them if I were you, Miss Peel; and, if you will permit me, I shall be only too pleased to keep you company."
"Oh, thank you," said Prissie. "Then I sha'n't mind staying at all."
The next half-hour seemed to pass on the wings of the wind.
Priscilla was engaged in an animated discussion with Hammond on the relative attractions of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey;" her opinion differed from his, and she was well able to hold her ground. Her face was now both eloquent and attractive, her eyes were bright, her words terse and epigrammatic. She looked so different a girl from the cowed and miserable little Prissie of an hour ago that Rosalind Merton as she came up and tapped her on the shoulder, felt a pang of envy.
"I am sorry to interrupt you," she said, "but it is time for us to be going home. Have you given Mr. Hammond his message?"
"What do you mean?" asked Priscilla. "I have not any message for Mr. Hammond."
"You must have forgotten. Did not Miss Oliphant give you a letter for him?"
"Certainly not. What do you mean?"
"I felt sure I saw her," said Rosalind. "I suppose I was mistaken. Well, sorry as I am to interrupt a pleasant talk, I fear I must ask you to come home with me now."
She raised her pretty baby eyes to Hammond's face as she spoke. He absolutely scowled down at her, shook hands warmly with Priscilla and turned away.
"Come and bid Mrs. Elliot-Smith good-by," said Rosalind, her eyes still dancing. "She is at the other end of the drawing-room; come, you can follow me."
"How disgracefully you have behaved, Miss Merton!" began Priscilla at once. "You cannot expect me ever to speak to you again, and I shall certainly tell Miss Heath."
They were walking across the crowded drawing-room now. Rosalind turned and let her laughing eyes look full at Prissie.
"My dear Miss Peel, pray reserve any little scolding you intend to bestow upon me until we get out into the street, and please do not tread upon my dress!"
MISS DAY was having quite a large party for cocoa in her room. She had invited not only her own chosen friends from Heath Hall, but also two or three congenial spirits from Katharine Hall. Five or six merry-looking girls were now assembled in her room. Miss Day's room was one of the largest in the college; it was showily furnished, with an intention to produce a Japanese effect. Several paper lanterns hung from the ceiling and were suspended to wire supports, which were fastened to different articles of furniture.
In honor of Miss Day's cocoa, the lanterns were all lit now, and the effect, on fans and pictures and on brilliant bits of color, were grotesque and almost bizarre.
Miss Day thought her room lovely. It was dazzling, but the reverse of reposeful.
The girls were lounging about, chatting and laughing; they were having a good time and were absolutely at their ease. One, a red-haired girl, with frank, open blue eyes and a freckled face, an inmate of Katharine Hall, was sending her companions into fits of laughter.
"Yes," she was saying in a high, gay voice, "I'm not a bit ashamed of it; there's never the least use in not owning the truth. I'm used up, girls: I haven't a pennypiece to bless myself with, and this letter came from Spilman to-night. Spilman says he'll see Miss Eccleston if I didn't pay up. Madame Clarice wrote two nights ago, declaring her intention of visiting Miss Eccleston if I didn't send her some money. I shall have no money until next term. There's a state of affairs!"
"What do you mean to do, Polly?" asked Lucy Marsh in a sympathizing tone.
"Do? My dear creature, there's only one thing to be done. I must have an auction on the quiet. I shall sell my worldly all. I can buy things again, you know, after dad sends me his next allowance."
"Oh, Polly, but you cannot really mean it!" Miss Marsh, Miss Day and two or three more crowded around Polly Singleton as they spoke.
"You can't mean to have an auction," began Miss Day; "no one ever heard of such a thing at St. Benet's. Why, it would be simply disgraceful!"
"No, it wouldn't— don't turn cross, Annie. I'll have an auction first and then a great feed in the empty room. I can go on tick for the feed; Jones, the confectioner, knows better than not to oblige me. He's not like that horrid Spilman and that mean Madame Clarice."
"But, Polly, if you write to your father, he'll be sure to send you what you want to clear off those two debts. You have often told us he has lots of money."
"My dears, he has more tin than he knows what to do with; but do you think I am going to have the poor old dear worried? When I was coming here he said, Polly, you shall have thirty pounds every term to spend as pocket money; not a penny more, not a penny less. And you must keep out of debt on it; mind that, Polly Singleton.' I gave the dear old dad a hug. He's the image of me— only with redder hair and more freckles. And I said, I'll do my best, dad, and, anyhow, you sha'n't be put out whatever happens.'"
"Then you didn't tell him you'd keep out of debt?"
"No, for I knew I'd break my word. I've always been in debt ever since I could remember. I wouldn't know how it felt not to owe a lot of money. It's habit, and I don't mind it a bit. But I don't want dad to know, and I don't want Miss Eccleston to know, for perhaps she would write to him. If those old horrors won't wait for their money till next term, why there's nothing for it but an auction. I have some nice things and they'll go very cheap, so there's a chance for you all, girls."
"But if Miss Eccleston finds out?" said Miss Day.
"What if she does? There's no rule against auctions, and, as I don't suppose any of you will have one, it isn't worth making a rule for me alone. Anyhow, I'm resolved to risk it. My auction will be on Monday, and I shall make out an inventory of my goods tomorrow."
"Will you advertise it on the notice-board in your hall, dear?" asked Lucy Marsh.
"Why not? A good idea! The great A. will be held in Miss Singleton's room, from eight to ten o'clock on the evening of Monday next. Great Bargains! Enormous Sacrifice! Things absolutely given away! Oh, what fun! I'll be my own auctioneer."
Polly lay back in her armchair and laughed loudly.
"What is all this noise about?" asked a refined little voice, and Rosalind Merton entered the room.
Two or three girls jumped up at once to greet her.
"Come in, Rosie; you're just in time. What do you think Miss Singleton is going to do now?"
"I can't tell; what?" asked Rosalind. "Something outre', I feel certain."
Polly made a wry face and winked her eyes at her companions.
"I know I'm not refined enough for you, Miss Merton," she drawled. "I'm rough, like my dad, rough and ready; but, at any rate, I'm honest— at least, I think I'm honest. When I owe money, I don't leave a stone unturned to pay what I owe. Having sinned, I repent. I enter the Valley of Humiliation and give up all. Who can do more?"
"Oh, dear, Polly, I don't think I'd call owing a little money sinning," said Lucy Marsh, whose ideas were known to be somewhat lax.
"Well, my dear, there's nothing for those in debt but to sell their possessions. My auction is on Monday. Will you come, Rosalind?"
"You don't mean it," said Rose, her blue eyes beginning to sparkle.
"Yes, I do, absolutely and truly mean it."
"And you will sell your things— your lovely things?"
"My things, my lovely, lovely things must be sold."
"But not your clothes? Your new sealskin jacket, for instance?"
Polly made a wry face for a moment. Putting her hand into her pocket, she pulled out Spilman's and Madame Clarice's two bills.
"I owe a lot," she said, looking with a rueful countenance at the sum total. "Yes, I even fear the sealskin must go. I don't want to part with it. Dad gave it me just before I came here."
"It's a lovely seal," said Annie Day, "and it seems a sin to part with it; it's cut in the most stylish way too, with those high shoulders."
"Don't praise it, please," said Polly, lying back in her chair and covering her eyes with her hand. "It cuts like a knife to part with dad's last present. Well, I'm rightly punished. What a fool I was to get all those Japanese things from Spilman and that fancy ball-dress for the theatricals. Oh, dear! Oh, dear!"
"Perhaps you won't want to part with your seal, dear," said Lucy, who was not so greedy as some of the other girls and really pitied Polly. "You have so many beautiful things without that, that you will be sure to realize a good bit of money."
"No, Lucy, I owe such a lot; the seal must go. Oh, what a worry it is!"
"And at auctions of this kind," said Rosalind in her low voice, "even beautiful things don't realize much. How can they?"
"Rosalind is after that seal," whispered Lucy to Annie Day.
"The seal would swallow you up, Rosie," said Annie in a loud voice. "Don't aspire to it; you'd never come out alive."
"The seal can be brought to know good manners," retorted Rose angrily. "His size can be diminished and his strength abated. But I have not said that I want him at all. You do so jump to conclusions, Miss Day."
"I know what I want," said a girl called Hetty Jones who had not yet spoken. "I'm going in for some of Polly's ornaments. You won't put too big a price upon your corals, will you, Poll?"
"I shall bid for your American rocking-chair, Polly," exclaimed Miss Day.
"I tell you what you must do, Miss Singleton," shouted another girl, "you must get those inventories ready as soon as possible, and send them around the college for every one to read, for you have got such nice things that there will be sure to be a great rush at your auction."
"Don't sell any of the college possessions by mistake, my dear," said Lucy Marsh. "You would get into trouble then. Indeed, as it is, I don't see how you are to keep out of it."
Polly pushed her hands impatiently through her bright red hair.
"Who's afraid?" she said, and laughed.
"When are we to see your things, Polly?" asked Miss Jones. "If the auction is on Monday, there must be a show day, when we can all go round and inspect. I know that's always done at auctions, for I've been at several in the country. The show day is the best fun of all. The farmers' wives come and pinch the feather-beds between their thumbs and forefingers and hold the blankets up to the light to see if the moths have got in."
"Hetty, how vulgar!" interposed Miss Day. "What has Polly's auction of her recherche' things to do with blankets and feather-beds? Now the cocoa is ready. Who will help me to carry the cups round?"
"I had some fun to-day?" said Rosalind, when each of the girls, provided with their cups of cocoa, sat round and began to sip. "I took Miss Propriety to town with me."
"Oh, did you, darling? Do tell us all about it!" said Annie Day, running up to Rosalind and taking her hand.
"There isn't much to tell. She behaved as I expected; her manners are not graceful, but she's a deep one."
"Anybody can see that who looks at her," remarked Lucy Marsh.
"We went to the Elliot-Smiths'," continued Rosalind.
"Good gracious, Rosie!" interrupted Hetty Jones. "You don't mean to say you took Propriety to that house?"
"Yes; why not? It's the jolliest house in Kingsdene."
"But fancy taking poor Propriety there. What did she say?"
"Say? She scolded a good deal."
"Scolded! Poor little proper thing! How I should have liked to have seen her. Did she open her purse and exhibit its emptiness to the company at large? Did she stand on a chair and lecture the frivolous people who assemble in that house on the emptiness of life? Oh, how I wish I could have looked on at the fun!"
"You'd have beheld an edifying sight then, my dear," said Rosalind. "Prissie's whole behavior was one to be copied. No words can describe her tact and grace."
"But what did she do, Rosie? I wish you would speak out and tell us. You know you are keeping something back."