"Whenever she saw me she scolded me, and she tripped over my dress several times."
"Oh, you dear, good, patient Rosalind, what a bore she must have been."
"No, she wasn't, for I scarcely saw anything of her. She amused herself capitally without me, I can tell you."
"Amused herself? Propriety amused herself? How diverting! Could she stoop to it?"
"She did. She stooped and— conquered. She secured for herself an adorer."
"Rosalind, how absurd you are! Poor, Plain Propriety!"
"As long as I live I shall hate the letter P," suddenly interrupted Annie Day, "for since that disagreeable girl has got into the house we are always using it."
"Never mind, Rosalind; go on with your story," said Miss Jones. "What did Plain Propriety do?"
Rosalind threw up her hands, rolled her eyes skyward and uttered the terse remark:
"Oh, Rosie! who would flirt with her? I suppose she got hold of some old rusty, musty don. But then I do not suppose you'd find that sort of man at the Elliot-Smiths'."
This remark came from Lucy Marsh. Rosalind Merton, who was leaning her fair head against a dark velvet cushion, looked as if she enjoyed the situation immensely.
"What do you say to a Senior Wrangler?" she asked in a gentle voice.
"Rosalind, what— not the Senior Wrangler?"
"Oh! oh! oh! what could he see— Geoffrey Hammond, of all people! He's so exclusive too."
"Well," said Hetty Jones, standing up reluctantly, for she felt it was time to return to her neglected studies, "wonders will never cease! I could not have supposed that Mr. Hammond would condescend to go near the Elliot-Smiths', and most certainly I should never have guessed that he would look at a girl like Priscilla Peel."
"Well, he flirted with her," said Rosalind, "and she with him. They were so delighted with one another that I could scarcely get Prissie away when it was time to leave. They looked quite engrossed— you know the kind of air— there was no mistaking it!"
"Miss Peel must have thanked you for taking her."
"Thanked me? That's not Miss Prissie's style. I could see she was awfully vexed at being disturbed."
"Well, it's rather shabby," said Polly Singleton, speaking for the first time. "Every one at St. Benet's know whom Mr. Hammond belongs."
"Yes, yes, of course, of course," cried several voices.
"And Maggie has been so kind to Miss Peel," continued Polly.
"Yes— shame!— how mean of little Propriety!" the voices echoed again.
Rosalind gave a meaning glance at Annie Day. Annie raised her eyebrows, looked interrogative, then her face subsided into a satisfied expression. She asked no further questions, but she gave Rosalind an affectionate pat on the shoulder.
Soon the other girls came up one by one to say good night. Rosalind, Annie and Lucy were alone. They drew their chairs together and began to talk.
PRETTY LITTLE ROSALIND
"I HAVE done it now," said Rosalind; "the estrangement will come about naturally. Propriety won't head a party at this college, for she will not have Miss Oliphant's support. My dear girls, we need do nothing further. The friendship we regretted is at an end."
"Did you take Priscilla Peel to the Elliot-Smiths' on purpose, then?" asked Miss Day.
"I took her there for my own purposes," replied Rosalind. "I wanted to go. I could not go alone, as it is against our precious rules. It was not convenient for any of my own special friends to come with me, so I thought I'd play Prissie a nice little trick. Oh, wasn't she angry! My dear girls, it was as good as a play to watch her face."
Rosalind lay back in her chair and laughed heartily. Her laughter was as melodious as the sound of silver bells.
"Well," said Miss Marsh after a pause, "I wish you would stop laughing and go on with your story, Rose."
Rosalind resumed her grave deportment.
"That's all," she said; "there's nothing more to tell."
"Did you know, then, that Mr. Hammond would be there?"
"No, I had not the least idea that piece of luck would fall in my way. Meta managed that for me most delightfully. You know, girls, how earnestly the poor dear Elliot-Smiths aspire, and how vain are their efforts, to get into what we are pleased to call the 'good set' here. It isn't their fault, poor things, for, though they really have no talent nor the smallest literary desires, they would give their eyes to be 'hail-fellows-well-met' with some of our intellectual giants. Well, Meta got to know Mr. Hammond at a tennis party in the summer, and when she met him last week she asked him to come to her house to-day. She told me she was dying to have him, of course, but when she asked him she could see by his face and manner that he was searching his brains for an excuse to get out of it. All of a sudden it flashed into her head to say, 'Some of our friends from St. Benet's will be present.' The moment she said this he changed and got very polite and said he would certainly look in for a little while. Poor Meta was so delighted! You can fancy her chagrin when he devoted himself all the time to Prissie."
"He thought he'd meet Maggie Oliphant," said Annie Day; "it was a shame to lure him on with a falsehood. I don't wonder at people not respecting the Elliot-Smiths."
"My dear," responded Rosalind, "Meta did not tell a lie. I never could have guessed that you were straight-laced, Annie."
"Nor am I," responded Annie with a sigh, which she quickly suppressed.
"The whole thing fitted in admirably with our wishes," continued Rose, "and now we need not do anything further in the matter. Rumor, in the shape of Hetty Jones' tongue and Polly Singleton's hints, will do the rest for us."
"Do you really think that Maggie Oliphant cares for Mr. Hammond?" asked Lucy Marsh.
"Cares for him!" said Rosalind. "Does a duck swim? Does a baby like sweet things? Maggie is so much in love with Mr. Hammond that she's almost ill about it— there!"
"Nonsense!" exclaimed the other two girls.
"She is, I know she is. She treats him shamefully, because of some whim of hers. I only wish she may never get him."
"He'd do nicely for you, wouldn't he, Rose?" said Annie Day.
A delicate pink came into Rosalind's cheeks. She rose to leave the room.
"Mr. Hammond is not in my style," she said. "Much too severe and too learned. Good night, girls. I must look over the notes of that wretched French lecture before I go to bed."
Rosalind sought her own room, which was in another corridor. It was late now— past eleven o'clock. The electric light had been put out. She was well supplied with candles, however, and lighting two on the mantel-piece and two on her bureau, she proceeded to stir up her fire and to make her room warm and cozy.
Rosalind still wore the pretty light silk which had given her such an elegant appearance at the Elliot-Smiths' that afternoon. Securing the bolt of her door, she pushed aside a heavy curtain, which concealed the part of her room devoted to her wardrobe, washing apparatus, etc. Rosalind's wardrobe had a glass door, and she could see her petite figure in it from head to foot. It was a very small figure, but exquisitely proportioned. Its owner admired it much. She turned herself round, took up a hand-glass and surveyed herself in profile and many other positions. Then, taking off her pretty dress, she arrayed herself in a long white muslin dressing-robe, and letting down her golden hair, combed out the glittering masses. They fell in showers below her waist. Her face looked more babyish and innocent than ever as it smiled to its own fair image in the glass.
"How he did scowl at me!" said Rosalind, suddenly speaking aloud. "But I had to say it. I was determined to find out for myself how much or how little he cares for Maggie Oliphant, and, alas! there's nothing of the 'little' in his affection. Well, well! I did not do badly to-day. I enjoyed myself and I took a nice rise out of that disagreeable Miss Peel. Now must I look through those horrid French notes? Need I?" She pirouetted on one toe in front of the glass. The motion exhilarated her, and, raising her white wrapper so as to get a peep at her small, pretty feet, she waltzed slowly and gracefully in front of the mirror.
"I can't and won't study to-night," she said again.
"I hate study, and I will not spoil my looks by burning the midnight oil."
Suddenly she clasped her hands and the color rushed into her cheeks.
"How fortunate that I remembered! I must write to mother this very night. This is Thursday. The auction is on Monday. I have not a post to lose."
Hastily seating herself in front of her bureau, Rosalind scribbled a few lines:
DEAREST, PRECIOUS MAMSIE: Whatever happens, please send me a postal order for 10 by return. One of the richest girls in the place is going to have an auction, and I shall pick up some treasures. If you could spare 15, or even 20, the money would be well spent, but ten at least I must have. There is a sealskin jacket, which cost at least eighty pounds, and such coral ornaments— you know, that lovely pink shade. Send me all you can, precious mamsie, and make your Baby happy.
"Your own little ROSE.
"P. S.— Oh, mamsie, such a sealskin! and such coral!"
This artless epistle was quickly enclosed in an envelope, addressed and deposited in the post-box. Afterward pretty little Rosalind spent a night of dreamless slumber and awoke in the morning as fresh and innocent-looking as the fairest of the babies she compared herself to.
SEALSKIN AND PINK CORAL
MONDAY arrived. It wanted now less than three weeks to the end of the term. A good many of the girls were talking about home and Christmas, and already the hard-worked, the studious, the industrious were owning to the first symptoms of that pleasant fatigue which would entitle them to the full enjoyment of their merited holiday.
Priscilla was now a happy girl. She had found her niche in the college; her work was delightful. Under Maggie's advice she became a member of the Debating Society and rather reluctantly allowed her name to be entered in the Dramatic Club. She felt very shy about this, but that was because she did not know her own power. To her astonishment, Priscilla found that she could act. If the part suited her she could throw herself into it so that she ceased to be awkward, ungainly Priscilla Peel. Out of herself she was no longer awkward, no longer ungainly. She could only personate certain characters; light and airy parts she could not attempt, but where much depended on passion and emotion Priscilla could do splendidly. Every day her friends found fresh points of interest in this queer girl. Nancy Banister was really attached to her, Maggie was most faithful in her declared friendship and Miss Heath took more notice of Priscilla than of any other girl in the hall. The different lecturers spoke highly of Miss Peel's comprehension, knowledge and ability. In short, things were going well with her, and she owned to her own heart that she had never felt happier in her life.
Prissie, too, was looking forward to the Christmas holidays. She was to return home then, and her letters to her three little sisters, to Aunt Raby and to Mr. Hayes were full of the delights of her college life.
No one could have been more angry than poor Prissie during that miserable time at the Elliot-Smiths'. Many complaints did she resolve to make, and dire was the vengeance which she hoped would fall on Rose's devoted head. But, during her talk with Mr. Hammond, some of her anger had cooled down. He had touched on great subjects, and Prissie's soul had responded like a musical instrument to the light and skilled finger of the musician. All her intellectual powers were aroused to their utmost, keenest life during this brief little talk. She found that Hammond could say better and more comprehensive things than even her dear old tutor, Mr. Hayes. Hammond was abreast of the present-day aspect of those things in which Prissie delighted. Her short talk with him made up for all the tedium of the rest of that wretched afternoon.
On her walk home Priscilla made up her mind to have nothing further to say to Rose, but also not to make a complaint about her. She would pass the matter over in silence. If questioned, she would tell her own friends where she had been; if not questioned, she would volunteer no information.
Maggie and Nancy did ask her casually what had kept her out so long.
"I was at the Elliot-Smiths' with Miss Merton," replied Priscilla.
They both started when she said this and looked at her hard. They were too well-bred, however, to give utterance to the many comments which crowded to their lips. Prissie read their thoughts like a book.
"I did not like it at all," she said; "but I'd rather say nothing about it, please. After Mr. Hammond came I was happy."
"Mr. Hammond was there?" said Nancy in an eager voice. "Geoffrey Hammond was at the Elliot-Smiths'? Impossible!"
"He was there," repeated Prissie. She glanced nervously at Maggie, who had taken up a book and was pretending to read. "He came and he spoke to me. He was very, very kind, and he made me so happy."
"Dear Prissie," said Maggie suddenly. She got up, went over to the young girl, tapped her affectionately on the shoulder and left the room.
Prissie sat, looking thoughtfully before her. After a time she bade Nancy Banister "good night" and went off to her own room to study the notes she had taken that morning at the French lecture.
The next few days passed without anything special occurring. If a little rumor were already beginning to swell in the air, it scarcely reached the ears of those principally concerned. Maggie Oliphant continued to make a special favorite of Miss Peel. She sat near her at breakfast and at the meetings of the Dramatic Society was particularly anxious to secure a good part for Prissie. The members of the society intended to act The Princess before the end of the term, and as there was a great deal to work up and many rehearsals were necessary, they met in the little theater on most evenings.
Maggie Oliphant had been unanimously selected to take the part of the Princess. She electrified every one by drawing Miss Peel toward her and saying in an emphatic voice:
"You must be the Prince, Priscilla."
A look of dismay crept over several faces. One or two made different proposals.
"Would not Nancy Banister take the part better, Maggie?" said Miss Claydon, a tall, graceful girl, who was to be Psyche.
"No; Nancy is to be Cyril. She sings well and can do the part admirably. Miss Peel must be the Prince: I will have no other lover. What do you say, Miss Peel?"
"I cannot; it is impossible," almost whispered Prissie.
"'Cannot' is a word which must not be listened to in our Dramatic Society," responded Maggie. "I promise to turn you out a most accomplished Prince, my friend; no one shall be disappointed in you. Girls, do you leave this matter in my hands? Do you leave the Prince to me?"
"We cannot refuse you the privilege of choosing your own Prince, Princess," said Miss Claydon with a graceful curtsy.
The others assented, but unwillingly. Miss Oliphant was known to be more full of whims than any one else in the college. Her extraordinary and sudden friendship for Prissie was regarded as her latest caprice.
Rosalind Merton was not a particularly good actress, but her face was too pretty not to be called into requisition. She was to take the part of Melissa.
The society had a grand meeting on the day of Polly Singleton's auction. Matters were still very much in a state of chaos, but the rehearsal of some of the parts was got through with credit under the directions of the clever stage-manager, one of the nicest and best girls in the college, Constance Field. She had a knack of putting each girl at her ease— of discovering the faintest sparks of genius and fanning them into flame.
Priscilla had learned her speeches accurately: her turn came; she stood up trembling and began. Gradually the stony (or was it yearning?) look in Maggie's face moved her. She fancied herself Hammond, not the Prince. When she spoke to Maggie she felt no longer like a feeble schoolgirl acting a part. She thought she was pleading for Hammond, and enthusiasm got into her voice, and a light filled her eyes. There was a little cheer when Priscilla got through her first rehearsal. Nancy Banister came up to Rosalind.
"I do believe Maggie is right," she said, "and that Miss Peel will take the part capitally."
"Miss Oliphant is well known for her magnanimity," retorted Rosalind, an ugly look spoiling the expression of her face.
"Her magnanimity? What do you mean, Rose?"
"To choose that girl for her Prince!" retorted Rosalind. "Ask Mr. Hammond what I mean. Ask the Elliot-Smiths."
"I don't know the Elliot-Smiths," said Nancy in a cold voice. She turned away; she felt displeased and annoyed.
Rose glanced after her. Then she ran up to Maggie Oliphant, who was preparing to leave the little theater.
"Don't you want to see the auction?" she said in a gay voice. "It's going to be the best fun we have had for many a long day."
Maggie turned and looked at her.
"The auction? What auction do you mean?" she asked.
"Why, Polly Singleton's, of course. You've not heard of it? It's the event of the term!"
"You must be talking nonsense, Rose," she said. "An auction at St. Benet's! A real auction? Impossible!"
"No, it's not impossible. It's true. Polly owes for a lot of things, and she's going to pay for them in that way. Did you not get a notice? Polly declared she would send one without fail to every girl in the college."
"Now I remember," said Miss Oliphant, laughing. "I got an extraordinary type-written production. I regarded it as a hoax and consigned it to the wastepaper basket."
"But it wasn't a hoax; it was true. Come away, Miss Oliphant, do. Polly has got some lovely things."
"I don't think I even know who Polly is," said Maggie. "She surely is not an inmate of Heath Hall?"
"No, no— of Katharine Hall. You must know her by sight, at least. A great big, fat girl, with red hair and freckles."
"Yes, now I remember. I think she has rather a pleasant face."
"Oh, do you really? Isn't she awfully common and vulgar-looking?"
"Common and vulgar-looking people are often pleasant, nevertheless," retorted Maggie.
"You'll come to her auction?" insisted Rose.
"I don't know. She has no right to have an auction. Such a proceeding would give great displeasure to our principals."
"How can you tell that? There never was an auction at the college before."
"How can I tell, Rose? Instinct is my guide in a matter of this sort."
Maggie stepped back and looked haughty.
"Well," said Rose, "the principals won't ever know; we are taking good care of that."
"Oh! I hope you may be successful. Good night."
Maggie turned to walk away. She saw Priscilla standing not far off.
"Come, Prissie," she said affectionately, "you did admirably to-night, but you must have another lesson. You missed two of the best points in that last speech. Come back with me into the theater at once."
Rose bit her lips with vexation. She was wildly anxious to be at the auction. The sealskin might be put up for sale, and she not present. The corals might go to some other happy girl; but she had made a resolve to bring some of the very best girls in the college to this scene of rioting. Her reckless companions had dared her to do this, and she felt what she called "her honor" at stake. Nancy Banister had declined her invitation with decision; Constance Field had withered her with a look. Now she must secure Maggie.
"I wish you'd come," she said, following Maggie and Prissie to the door of the theater. "It will be an awful disappointment if you don't! We all reckoned on having you."
"What do you mean, Rose?"
"We thought you wouldn't be above a bit of fun. You never used to be, you know. You never used to be strict and proper and over-righteous, used you?"
Priscilla was startled to see the queer change these few words made on Maggie. Her cheeks lost their roses; her eyes grew big, pathetic, miserable. Then a defiant expression filled them.
"If you put it in that way," she said, "I'll go and peep at the thing. It isn't my taste nor my style, but goodness knows I'm no better than the rest of you. Come, Prissie."
Maggie seized Priscilla's hand; her clasp was so tight as to be almost painful. She hurried Prissie along so fast that Rose could scarcely keep up with them.
They entered the hall. Maggie seized a hat for herself and another for Prissie from the hat-stand; then the three girls crossed the garden to Katharine Hall. A moment or two later they had reached the scene of the evening's amusement
Loud voices and laughter greeted them; they entered a large room crowded to overflowing. The atmosphere here was hot and stifling and chaos reigned supreme. Pictures, ornaments of all kinds had been removed roughly and hastily from the walls; clothes and even jewels were piled on the tables, and a tall girl, standing on a chair, was declaiming volubly for the benefit of her companions.
When Maggie, Rose and Priscilla entered the room Polly was exhibiting the charms of a yellow silk dress somewhat the worse for wear. Laughter choked her voice; her bright blue eyes shone with excitement and amusement.
"Who'll try this?" she began. "It has a double charm. Not only has it reposed round this fair and lovely form, but the silk of which it is made was given to me by my mother's aunt, who had it from her mother before her. When I part with this, I part with a relic. Those who purchase it secure for themselves a piece of history. Who will buy, who will buy, who will buy? An historical dress going— such a bargain! Who, who will buy?"
"I'll give you five shillings, Polly," screamed a darkeyed girl who stood near.
"Five shillings! This lovely dress going for five shillings!" proceeded Polly.
"And sixpence," added another voice.
"This beautiful, historical robe going for five-and-sixpence," said Miss Singleton in her gay voice. "Oh, it's a bargain— it's dirt cheap! Who will buy? who will buy?"
The bids went up, and finally the yellow dress was knocked down to a rosy-faced country girl for the sum of thirteen shillings and ninepence.
Polly's various other possessions were one by one brought to the hammer, some of them fetching fairly large sums, for they were most of them good and worth having, and there were wealthy girls at the college who were not above securing a bargain when it came in their way.
At last the prize on which all Rose's hopes were set was put up for sale. Polly's magnificent sealskin jacket was held aloft and displayed to the admiring and coveteous gaze of many. Rose's face brightened; an eager, greedy look filled her eyes. She actually trembled in her anxiety to secure this prize of prizes.
Maggie Oliphant, who was standing in a listless, indifferent attitude near the door, not taking the smallest part in the active proceedings which were going forward, was for the first time aroused to interest by the expression on Rosalind's face. She moved a step or two into the crowd, and when one or two timid bids were heard for the coveted treasure, she raised her own voice and for the first time appeared eager to secure something for herself.
Rose bid against her, an angry flush filling her blue eyes as she did so. Maggie nonchalantly made her next bid a little higher— Rose raised hers. Soon they were the only two in the field; other girls had come to the limit of their purses and withdrew vanquished.
Rosalind's face grew very white. Could she have knock Maggie Oliphant down with a blow she would have done so at that moment. Maggie calmly and quietly continued her bids, raising them gradually higher and higher. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten pounds: Rose had come to the end of her resources. She stepped away with a bitter smile on her face. The sealskin jacket was Maggie Oliphant's property for ten guineas.
Maggie laid it carelessly on a table near, and returning once more to her position near the door, watched the sale proceed. One by one Polly Singleton parted with her dresses, her pictures, her furniture. At last, opening a case, she proceeded to dispose of some trinkets, none of which, with the exception of the pink coral set, was of very high value. This, which consisted of necklace, bracelets, and earrings, and some pretty pins for the hair, was most eagerly coveted by many. Several girls bid for the coral, and Maggie, who had not raised her voice since she secured the sealskin jacket, once more noticed the greedy glitter in Rosalind's eyes.
"I can't help it," she said, turning and speaking in a low voice to Priscilla, who stood by her side— "I can't help it, Prissie; I don't want that coral a bit— coral doesn't suit me: I dislike it as an ornament. But something inside of me says Rose Merton shall not wear it. Stay here, Prissie, I'll be back in a minute."
Miss Oliphant moved forward; she was so tall that her head could be seen above those of most of the other girls.
The bids for the coral had now risen to three pounds ten. Maggie at one bound raised them ten shillings. Rose bid against her, and for a short time one or two other girls raised their previous offers. The price for the coral rose and rose. Soon a large sum was offered for it, and still the bids kept rising. Rosalind and Maggie were once more alone in the field, and now any onlooker could perceive that it was not the desire to obtain the pretty ornaments, but the wish for victory which animated both girls.
When the bids rose above ten guineas Rosalind's face assumed a ghastly hue, but she was now far too angry with Maggie to pause or consider the fact that she was offering more money for the pink coral than she possessed in the world. The bids still went higher and higher. There was intense excitement in the room; all the noisy babel ceased. No sound was heard but the eager voices of the two who were cruelly fighting each other and the astonished tones of the young auctioneer. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen pounds were reached. Maggie's bid was fourteen pounds.
"Guineas!" screamed Rose with a weak sort of gasp.
Maggie turned and looked at her, then walked slowly back to her place by Priscilla's side.
The coral belonged to Rose Merton, and she had four guineas too little to pay for it.
A BLACK SELF AND A WHITE SELF
"IT is quite true, Maggie," said Nancy Banister. "It is about the auction. Yes, there is no doubt about that. What possessed you to go?"
Maggie Oliphant was standing in the center of her own room with an open letter in her hand. Nancy was reading it over her shoulder:
"Miss Eccleston and Miss Heath request Miss Oliphant and Miss Peel to present themselves in Miss Eccleston's private sitting-room this evening at seven o'clock."
"That is all," said Maggie. "It sounds as solemn and unfriendly as if one were about to be tried for some capital offense."
"It's the auction, of course," repeated Nancy. "Those girls thought they had kept it so quiet, but some one must have 'peached,' I suppose, to curry favor. Whatever made you go, Maggie? You know you have never mixed yourself up with that Day, and Merton, and Marsh set. As to that poor Polly Singleton, there's no harm in her, but she's a perfect madcap. What could have possessed you to go?"
"My evil genius," repeated Maggie in a gloomy tone. "You don't suppose I wished to be there, Nancy; but that horrid little Merton girl said something taunting, and then I forgot myself. Oh, dear, Nancy! what shall I ever do with that other self of mine? It will ruin me in the end. It gets stronger every day."
Maggie sat down on the sofa. Nancy suddenly knelt by her side.
"Dear Meg," she said caressingly, "you're the noblest, and the sweetest, and the most beautiful girl at St. Benet's! Why can't you live up to your true self?"
"There are two selfs in me," replied Maggie. "And if one even approaches the faintest semblance of angel-hood, the other is black as pitch. There, it only wastes time to talk the thing over. I'm in for the sort of scrape I hate most. See, Nancy, I bought this at the auction."
She opened her wardrobe, and taking out Polly Singleton's magnificent eighty-guinea sealskin jacket, slipped it on.
"Don't I look superb?" said Maggie. She shut the wardrobe-door and surveyed herself in its long glass. Brown was Maggie Oliphant's color. It harmonized with the soft tints of her delicately rounded face, with the rich color in her hair, with the light in her eyes. It added to all these charms, softening them, giving to them a more perfect luster.
"Oh, Maggie!" said Nancy, clasping her hands, "you ought always to be dressed as you are now."
Maggie dropped her arms suddenly to her sides. The jacket, a little too large for her, slid off her shoulders and lay in a heap on the floor.
"What?" she said suddenly. "Am I never to show my true and real self? Am I always to be disguised in sham beauty and sham goodness? Oh, Nancy, Nancy! if there is a creature I hate— I hate— her name is Maggie Oliphant!"
Nancy picked up the sealskin jacket and put it back into the wardrobe.
"I am sorry you went to the auction, Maggie," she repeated, "and I'm sorry still to find you bought poor Polly Singleton's sealskin. Well, it's done now, and we have to consider how to get you out of this scrape.
There's no time for you to indulge in that morbid talk of yours to-day, Maggie, darling. Let us consider what's best to be done."
"Nothing," retorted Maggie. "I shall simply go to Miss Heath and Miss Eccleston and tell them the truth. There's nothing else to be done. No hope whatever of getting out of the affair. I went to Polly Singleton's auction because Rosalind Merton raised the demon in me. I tried to become the possessor of the sealskin jacket because her heart was set on it. I won an eighty-guinea jacket for ten guineas. You see how ignoble my motives were, also how unworthy the results. I did worse even than that— for I will out with the truth to you, Nancy— I revenged myself still further upon that spiteful little gnat, Rosalind, and raised the price of her coveted coral to such an extent that I know by her face she is pounds in debt for it. Now, my dear, what have you to say to me? Nothing good, I know that. Let me read Aristotle for the next hour just to calm my mind."
Maggie turned away, seated herself by her writing bureau and tried to lose both the past and the present in her beloved Greek.
"She will do it, too," whispered Nancy as she left the room. "No one ever was made quite like Maggie. She can feel tortures and yet the next moment she can be in ecstasy. She is so tantalizing that at times you are almost brought to believe her own stories about herself. You are almost sure that she has got the black self as well as the white self. But through it all, yes, through it all, you love her. Dear Maggie! Whatever happens, I must always— always love her."
Nancy was walking slowly down the corridor when a room-door was gently opened and the sweet, childish, innocent face of Rosalind peeped out.
"Nancy, is that you? Do, for Heaven's sake, come in and speak to me for a moment."
"What about, Rosalind? I have only a minute or two to spare. My German lecture is to begin immediately."
"Oh, what does that signify? You don't know the awful trouble we've got into."
"You mean about the auction?"
"Yes— yes; so you have heard?"
"Of course I've heard. If that is all, Rosalind, I cannot wait to discuss the matter now. I am very sorry for you, of course, but as I said to Maggie, why did you do it?"
"Oh, you've been talking to Miss Oliphant? Thank goodness she'll have to answer for her sins as well as the rest of us."
"Maggie is my friend, so you need not abuse her, Rosalind."
"Lucky for her that she has got one true friend!" retorted Rosalind.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean what I say. Maggie is making such a fool of herself that we are all laughing at her behind her back."
"Indeed? I fail to understand you."
"You are being made a fool of, too, Nancy. Oh, I did think you'd have had more sense."
"How? Speak. Say at once what you want to say, Rosalind, and stop talking riddles, for I must fly to my work."
"Fly then," retorted Rosalind, "only think twice before you give your confidence to a certain person. A person who makes a fine parade of poverty and so-called honesty of purpose, but who can, and who does, betray her kindest and best friend behind her back. It is my private belief we have to thank this virtuous being for getting us into the pleasant scrape we are in. I am convinced she has tried to curry favor by telling Miss Heath all about poor Polly's auction."
"You mean Priscilla Peel?" said Nancy in a firm voice. She forgot her German lecture now. "You have no right to say words of that kind. You have taken a dislike to Prissie, no one knows why. She is not as interesting nor as beautiful as Maggie, but she is good, and you should respect her."
Rosalind laughed bitterly.
"Good? Is she? Ask Mr. Hammond. You say she is not beautiful nor interesting. Perhaps he finds her both. Ask him."
"Rosalind, I shall tell Maggie what you say. This is not the first time you have hinted unkind things about Priscilla. It is better to sift a matter of this kind to the bottom than to hint it all over the college as you are doing. Maggie shall take it in hand."
"Let her! I shall only be too delighted! What a jolly time the saintly Priscilla will have."
"I can't stay any longer, Rosalind."
"But, Nancy, just one moment. I want to put accounts right with Polly before to-night. Mother sent me ten pounds to buy something at the auction. The coral cost fourteen guineas. I have written to mother for the balance, and it may come by any post. Do lend it to me until it comes! Do, kind Nancy!"
"I have not got so much in the world, I have not really, Rosalind. Good-by; my lecture will have begun."
Nancy ran out of the room and Miss Merton turned to survey ruefully her empty purse and to read again a letter which had already arrived from her mother:
MY DEAR ROSALIND: I have not the additional money to spare you, my poor child. The ten pounds which I weakly yielded at your first earnest request was, in reality, taken from the money which is to buy your sisters their winter dresses. I dare not encroach any further on it, or your father would certainly ask me why the girls were dressed so shabbily. Fourteen guineas for coral! You know, my dear child, we cannot afford this extravagance. My advice is to return it to your friend and to ask her to let you have the ten guineas back. You might return it to me in a postal order, for I want it badly. It was one thing to struggle to let you have it in the hopes that you would secure a really valuable garment like a sealskin jacket and another to give it to you for some rather useless ornaments. Your affectionate mother,
IN MISS ECCLESTON'S SITTING-ROOM
MISS ECCLESTON was a dark, heavy-looking person; she was not as attractive either in appearance or manner as Miss Heath. She was estimable, and the college authorities thought most highly of her, but her character possessed more hardness than softness, and she was not as popular with the girls and young lecturers who lived in Katharine Hall as was Miss Heath with her girls.
When Maggie entered Miss Eccleston's sitting-room that evening she found the room about half-full of eager, excited-looking girls. Miss Eccleston was standing up and speaking; Miss Heath was leaning against the wall; a velvet curtain made a background which brought out her massive and grand figure in full relief.
Miss Eccleston looked excited and angry; Miss Heath's expression was a little perplexed, and a kind of sorrowful mirth brought smiles to her lips now and then, which she was most careful to suppress instantly.
As Maggie made her way to the front of the room she recognized several of the girls. Rosalind Merton, Annie Day, Lucy Marsh were all present. She saw them, although they were standing hidden behind many other girls. Prissie, too, was there— she had squeezed herself into a corner. She looked awkward, plain and wretched. She was clasping and unclasping her hands and trying to subdue the nervous tremors which she could not conceal.
Maggie, as she walked across the room, singled Prissie out. She gave her a swift glance, a brilliant and affectionate smile and then stood in such a position that neither Miss Eccleston nor Miss Heath could catch a glimpse of her.
Miss Eccleston, who had been speaking when Maggie entered the room, was now silent. She had a note-book in her hand and was rapidly writing something in it with a pencil. Some one gave Maggie a rather severe prod on her elbow. Polly Singleton, tall, flushed and heavy, stood close to her side.
"You'll stand up for me, won't you, Miss Oliphant?" whispered Polly.
Maggie raised her eyes, looked at the girl, who was even taller than herself, and began to reply in her usual voice.
"Silence," said Miss Eccleston. She put down her note-book. "I wish for no conversation between you at the present moment, young ladies. Good evening, Miss Oliphant; I am pleased to see you here. I shall have a few questions to ask you in a minute. Now, Miss Singleton, if you please, we will resume our conversation. You have confessed to the fact of the auction. I wish now to ascertain what your motive was."
Poor Polly stammered and reddened, twisted her hands as badly as Prissie herself could have done and looked to right and left of her in the most bewildered and unhappy manner.
"Don't you hear me, Miss Singleton? I wish to know what your motive was in having an auction in Katharine Hall," repeated Miss Eccleston.
"Tell her the truth," whispered Maggie.
Polly, who was in a condition to catch even at a straw for support, said falteringly:
"I had the auction in my room because of dad."
Miss Eccleston raised her brows. The amused smile of sorrow round Miss Heath's mouth became more marked. She came forward a few steps and stood near Miss Eccleston.
"You must explain yourself, Miss Singleton," repeated the latter lady.
"Do tell everything," said Maggie again.
"Dad is about the only person I hate vexing," began Polly once more. "He is awfully rich, but he hates me to get into debt, and— and— there was no other way to raise money. I couldn't tell dad— I— couldn't keep out of debt, so I had to sell my things."
"You have made a very lame excuse, Miss Singleton," said Miss Eccleston after a pause. "You did something which was extremely irregular and improper. Your reason for doing it was even worse than the thing itself. You were in debt. The students of St. Benet's are not expected to be in debt."
"But there's no rule against it," suddenly interrupted Maggie.
"Hush! your turn to speak will come presently. You know, Miss Singleton— all the right-minded girls in this college know— that we deal in principles, not rules. Now, please go on with your story."
Polly's broken and confused narrative continued for the next five minutes. There were some titters from the girls behind her— even Miss Heath smiled faintly. Miss Eccleston alone remained grave and displeased.
"That will do," she said at last. "You are a silly and rash girl, and your only possible defense is your desire to keep the knowledge of your extravagance from your father. Your love for him, however, has never taught you true nobility. Had you that even in the most shadowy degree, you would abstain from the things which he detests. He gives you an ample allowance. Were you a schoolgirl and I your mistress, I should punish you severely for your conduct."
Miss Eccleston paused. Polly put her handkerchief up to her eyes and began to sob loudly.
"Miss Oliphant," said Miss Eccleston, "will you please account for the fact that you, who are looked up to in this college, you who are one of our senior students, and for whom Miss Heath has a high regard, took part in the disgraceful scenes which occurred in Miss Singleton's room on Monday evening?"
"I shall certainly tell you the truth," retorted Maggie. She paused for a moment. Then, the color flooding her cheeks, and her eyes looking straight before her, she began:
"I went to Miss Singleton's room knowing that I was doing wrong. I hated to go and did not take the smallest interest in the proceedings which were being enacted there." She paused again. Her voice, which had been slightly faltering, grew a little firmer. Her eyes met Miss Heath's, which were gazing at her in sorrowful and amazed surprise. Then she continued: "I did not go alone. I took another and perfectly innocent girl with me. She is a newcomer, and this is her first term. She would naturally be led by me, and I wish therefore to exonerate her completely. Her name is Priscilla Peel. She did not buy anything, and she hated being there even more than I did, but I took her hand and absolutely forced her to come with me."
"Did you buy anything at the auction, Miss Oliphant?"
"Yes, a sealskin jacket."
"Do you mind telling me what you paid for it?"
"Was that, in your opinion, a fair price for the jacket?"
"The jacket was worth a great deal more. The price I paid for it was much below its value."
Miss Eccleston made some further notes in her book. Then she looked up.
"Have you anything more to say, Miss Oliphant?"
"I could say more. I could make you think even worse of me than you now think, but as any further disclosures of mine would bring another girl into trouble I would rather not speak."
"You are certainly not forced to speak. I am obliged to you for the candor with which you have treated me."
Miss Eccleston then turned to Miss Heath and said a few words to her in a low voice. Her words were not heard by the anxiously listening girls, but they seemed to displease Miss Heath, who shook her head; but Miss Eccleston held very firmly to her own opinion. After a pause of a few minutes, Miss Heath came forward and addressed the young girls who were assembled before her.
"The leading spirit of this college," she said, "is almost perfect immunity from the bondage of rules. The principals of these halls have fully trusted the students who reside in them and relied on their honor, their rectitude, their sense of sound principle. Hitherto we have had no reason to complain that the spirit of absolute trust which we have shown has been abused; but the circumstance which has just occurred has given Miss Eccleston and myself some pain."
"It has surprised us; it has given us a blow," interrupted Miss Eccleston.
"And Miss Eccleston feels," proceeded Miss Heath, "and perhaps she is right, that the matter ought to be laid before the college authorities, who will decide what are the best steps to be taken."
"You do not agree with that view, do you, Miss Heath?" asked Maggie Oliphant suddenly.
"At first I did not. I leaned to the side of mercy. I thought you might all have learned a lesson in the distress which you have caused us, and that such an occurrence could not happen again."
"Won't Miss Eccleston adopt your views?" questioned Maggie. She glanced round at her fellow-students as she spoke.
"No— no," interrupted Miss Eccleston. "I cannot accept the responsibility. The college authorities must decide the matter."
"Remember," said Maggie, stepping forward a pace or two, "that we are no children. If we were at school you ought to punish us, and, of course, you would. I hate what I have done, and I own it frankly. But you cannot forget, Miss Eccleston, that no girl here has broken a rule when she attended the auction and bought Miss Singleton's things; and that even Miss Singleton has broken no rule when she went in debt."
There was a buzz of applause and even a cheer from the girls in the background. Miss Eccleston looked angry, but perplexed. Miss Heath again turned and spoke to her. She replied in a low tone. Miss Heath said something further. At last Miss Eccleston sat down and Miss Heath came forward and addressed Maggie Oliphant.
"Your words have been scarcely respectful, Miss Oliphant," she said, "but there is a certain justice in them which my friend, Miss Eccleston, is the first to admit. She has consented, therefore, to defer her final decision for twenty-four hours; at the end of that time the students of Katharine Hall and Heath Hall will know what we finally decide to do."
After the meeting in Miss Eccleston's drawing-room the affair of the auction assumed enormous proportions. There was no other topic of conversation. The students took sides vigorously in the matter: the gay, giddy and careless ones voting the auction a rare bit of fun and upholding those who had taken part in it with all their might and main. The more sober and high-minded girls, on the other hand, took Miss Heath's and Miss Eccleston's views of the matter. The principles of the college had been disregarded, the spirit of order had been broken; debt, which was disgraceful, was made light of. These girls felt that the tone of St. Benet's was lowered. Even Maggie Oliphant sank in their estimation. A few went to the length of saying that they could no longer include her in their set.
Katharine Hall, the scene of the auction itself, was, of course, now the place of special interest. Heath Hall was also implicated in it, but Seymour Hall, which stood a little apart from its sister halls, had sent no student to the scene of dissipation. Seymour Hall was the smallest of the three. It was completely isolated from the others, standing in its own lovely grounds on the other side of the road. It now held its head high, and the girls who belonged to the other halls, but had taken no part in the auction, felt that their own beloved halls were lowered, and their resentment was all the keener because the Seymour Hall girls gave themselves airs.
"I shall never live through it," said Ida Mason, a Heath Hall girl to her favorite chum, Constance Field. "Nothing can ever be the same again. If my mother knew, Constance, I feel almost sure she would remove me. The whole thing is so small and shabby and horrid, and then to think of Maggie taking part in it! Aren't you awfully shocked, Constance? What is your true opinion?"
"My true opinion," said Constance, "is this: it is our duty to uphold our own hall and our own chums. As to the best of us, if we are the best, going away because a thing of this sort has occurred, it is not to be thought of for a moment. Why, Ida," Constance laughed as she spoke, "you might as well expect one of the leading officers to desert his regiment when going into battle. You know what Maggie Oliphant is, Ida. As to deserting her because she has had one of her bad half hours, which she frankly confessed to, like the brave girl she is, I would as soon cut off my right hand. Now, Ida, my dear, don't be a little goose. Your part, instead of grumbling and growling and hinting at the place not being fit for you, is to go round to every friend you have in Heath Hall and get them to rally round Maggie and Miss Heath."
"There's that poor Miss Peel, too," said Ida, "Maggie's new friend— that queer, plain girl; she's sure to be frightfully bullied. I suppose I'd better stick up for her as well?"
"Of course, dear, you certainly ought. But as to Miss Peel being plain, Ida, I don't think I quite agree with you. Her face is too clever for that. Have you watched her when she acts?"
"No, I don't think I have. She seems to be very uninteresting."
"Look at her next time, and tell me if you think her uninteresting afterward. Now I'm off to find Maggie. She is sure to be having one of her bad times, poor darling."
Constance Field was a girl whose opinion was always received with respect. Ida went off obediently to fulfil her behests; and Constance, after searching in Maggie's room and wandering in different parts of the grounds, found the truant at last, comfortably established with a pile of new books and magazines in the library. The library was the most comfortable room in the house, and Maggie was leaning back luxuriously in an easy-chair, reading some notes from a lecture on Aristotle aloud to Prissie, who sat at her feet and took down notes of her own from Maggie's lips.
The two looked up anything but gratefully when Constance approached. Miss Field, however, was not a person to be dismissed with a light and airy word, and Maggie sighed and closed her book when Constance sat down in an armchair, which she pulled close to her. There were no other girls in the library, and Prissie, seeing that Miss Field intended to be confidential, looked at Maggie with a disconsolate air.
"Perhaps I had better go up to my own room," she said timidly.
Maggie raised her brows and spoke in an impatient voice.
"You are in no one's way, Priscilla," she said. "Here are my notes from the lecture. I read to the end of this page; you can make out the rest for yourself. Well, Constance, have you anything to say?"
"Not unless you want to hear me," said Miss Field in her dignified manner.
Maggie tried to stifle a yawn.
"Oh, my dear Connie, I'm always charmed, you know that."
"Well, I thought I'd like to tell you that I admired the way you spoke last night."
"Were you present?"
"No, but some friends of mine were. They repeated the whole thing verbatim."
"Oh, you heard it second-hand. Highly colored, no doubt, and not the least like its poor original."
Maggie spoke with a kind of bitter, defiant sarcasm, and a delicate color came into Miss Field's cheeks.
"At least, I heard enough to assure me that you spoke the truth and concealed nothing," she said.
"It is the case that I spoke the truth, as far as it went; but it is not the case that I concealed nothing."
"Well, Maggie, I have come to offer you my sincere sympathy."
"Thank you," said Maggie. She leaned back in her chair, folded her hands and a tired look came over her expressive face. "The fact is," she said suddenly, "I am sick of the whole thing. I am sorry I went; I made a public confession of my sorrow last night; now I wish to forget it."
"How can you possibly forget it until you know Miss Heath's and Miss Eccleston's decision?"
"Frankly, Constance, I don't care what decision they come to."
"You don't care? You don't mind the college authorities knowing?"
"I don't care if every college authority in England knows. I have been humbled in the eyes of Miss Heath, whom I love; nothing else matters."
When Maggie said these words Prissie rose to her feet, looked at her with a queer, earnest glance, suddenly bent forward, kissed her frantically and rushed out of the room.
"And I love that dear, true-hearted child, too," said Maggie. "Now, Constance, do let us talk of something else."
"We'll talk about Miss Peel. I don't know her as you do, but I'm interested in her."
"Oh, pray don't; I want to keep her to myself."
"Why? Is she such a rara avis?"
"I don't care what she is. She suits me because she loves me without question. She is absolutely sincere; she could not say an untrue thing; she is so clever that I could not talk frivolities when I am with her; and so good, so really, simply good that she keeps at bay my bad half-hours and my reckless moods."
Constance smiled. She believed part of Maggie's speech; not the whole of it, for she knew the enthusiasm of the speaker.
"I am going to Kingsdene," said Maggie suddenly. "Prissie is coming with me. Will you come, too, Constance? I wish you would."
"Thank you," said Constance. She hesitated for a moment. "It is the best thing in the world for Heath Hall," she thought, "that the girls should see me walking with Maggie to-day." Aloud she said, "All right, Maggie, I'll go upstairs and put on my hat and jacket and meet you and Miss Peel in the porch."
"We are going to tea at the Marshalls'," said Maggie. "You don't mind that, do you? You know them, too?"
"Know them? I should think so. Isn't old Mrs. Marshall a picture? And Helen is one of my best friends."
"You shall make Helen happy this afternoon, dear Constance."
Maggie ran gaily out of the room as she spoke, and a few minutes later the three girls, in excellent spirits, started for Kingsdene.
As they entered the town they saw Rosalind Merton coming to meet them. There was nothing in this, for Rosalind was a gay young person and had many friends in Kingsdene. Few days passed that did not see her in the old town on her way to visit this friend or that, or to perpetrate some little piece of extravagance at Spilman's or at her dressmaker's.
On this occasion, however, Rosalind was neither at Spilman's or the dressmaker's. She was walking demurely down the High Street, daintily dressed and charming to look at, in Hammond's company. Rosalind was talking eagerly and earnestly, and Hammond, who was very tall, was bending down to catch her words, when the other three girls came briskly round a corner and in full view of the pair.
"Oh!" exclaimed Priscilla aloud in her abrupt, startled way. Her face became suffused with a flood of the deepest crimson, and Maggie, who felt a little annoyed at seeing Hammond in Rosalind's company, could not help noticing Priscilla's almost uncontrollable agitation.
Rosalind, too, blushed, but prettily, when she saw the other three girls come up.
"I will say good-by now, Mr. Hammond," she said, "for I must get back to St. Benet's in good time tonight."
She held out her hand, which the young man took and shook cordially.
"I am extremely obliged to you," he said.
Maggie was near enough to hear his words. Rosalind tripped past her three fellow-students with an airy little nod and the faint beginning of a mocking curtsy.
Hammond came up to the three girls and joined them at once.
"Are you going to the Marshalls'?" he said to Maggie.
"So am I. What a lucky rencontre."
He said another word or two and then the four turned to walk down the High Street. Maggie walked on in front with Constance. Hammond fell to Priscilla's share.
"I am delighted to see you again," she said in her eager, agitated, abrupt way.
"Are you?" he replied in some astonishment. Then he hastened to say something polite. "I forgot, we had not ended our discussion. You almost convinced me with regard to the superior merits of the Odyssey, but not quite. Shall we renew the subject now?"
"No, please don't. That's not why I'm glad to see you. It's for something quite, quite different. I want to say something to you, and it's most important. Can't we just keep back a little from the others? I don't want Maggie to hear."
Now why were Miss Oliphant's ears so sharp that afternoon? Why, even in the midst of her gay chatter to Constance, did she hear every word of Priscilla's queer, garbled speech? And why did astonishment and even anger steal into her heart?
What she did, however, was to gratify Prissie immensely by hurrying on with her companion, so that she and Hammond were left comfortably in the background.
"I don't quite know what you mean," he said stiffly. "What can you possibly have of importance to say to me?"
"I don't want Maggie to hear," repeated Prissie in her earnest voice. She knew far too little of the world to be in the least alarmed at Hammond's stately tones.
"What I want to say is about Maggie, and yet it isn't."
"About Miss Oliphant?"
"Oh, yes, but she's Maggie to me. She's the dearest, the best— there's no one like her, no one. I didn't understand her at first, but now I know how noble she is. I had no idea until I knew Maggie that a person could have faults and yet be noble. It's a new sort of experience to me."
Prissie's eyes, in which even in her worst moments there always sat the soul of a far-reaching sort of intelligence, were shining now through tears. Hammond saw the tears, and the lovely expression in the eyes, and said to himself:
"Good heavens, could I ever have regarded that dear child as plain?" Aloud he said in a softened voice, "I'm awfully obliged to you for saying these sorts of things of Miss— Miss Oliphant, but you must know, at least you must guess, that I— I have thought them for myself long, long ago."
"Yes, of course, I know that. But have you much faith? Do you keep to what you believe?"
"This is a most extraordinary girl!" murmured Hammond. Then he said aloud, "I fail to understand you."
They had now nearly reached the Marshalls' door. The other two were waiting for them.
"It's this," said Prissie, clasping her hands hard and speaking in her most emphatic and distressful way. "There are unkind things being said of Maggie, and there's one girl who is horrid to her— horrid! I want you not to believe a word that girl says."
"What girl do you mean?"
"You were walking with her just now."
"Really, Miss Peel, you are the most extraordinary—"
But Maggie Oliphant's clear, sweet voice interrupted them.
"Had we not better come into the house?" she said. "The door has been open for quite half a minute."
Poor Prissie rushed in first, covered with shame; Miss Field hastened after, to bear her company; and Hammond and Maggie brought up the rear.
THE Marshalls were always at home to their friend on Friday afternoons, and there were already several guests in the beautiful, quaint old drawing-room when the quartet entered. Mrs. Marshall, her white hair looking lovely under her soft lace cap, came forward to meet her visitors. Her kind eyes looked with appreciation and welcome at one and all. Blushing and shame-faced Prissie received a pleasant word of greeting, which seemed in some wonderful way to steady her nerves. Hammond and Maggie were received as special and very dear friends, and Helen Marshall, the old lady's pretty grand-daughter, rushed forward to embrace her particular friend, Constance Field.
Maggie felt sore; she scarcely knew why. Her voice was bright, her eyes shining, her cheeks radiant in their rich and lovely bloom. But there was a quality in her voice which Hammond recognized— a certain ring which meant defiance and which prophesied to those who knew her well that one of her bad half-hours was not very far off.
Maggie seated herself near a girl who was a comparative stranger and began to talk. Hammond drew near and made a third in the conversation. Maggie talked in the brilliant, somewhat reckless fashion which she occasionally adopted. Hammond listened, now and then uttered a short sentence, now and then was silent, with disapproval in his eyes.
Maggie read their expression like a book.
"He shall be angry with me," she said to herself. Her words became a little wilder. The sentiments she uttered were the reverse of those Hammond held.
Soon a few old friends came up. They were jolly, merry, good-humored girls, who were all prepared to look up to Maggie Oliphant and to worship her beauty and cleverness if she would allow them. Maggie welcomed the girls with effusion, let them metaphorically sit at her feet and proceeded to disenchant them as hard as she could.
Some garbled accounts of the auction at St. Benet's had reached them, and they were anxious to get a full report from Miss Oliphant. Did she not think it a scandalous sort of thing to have occurred?
"Not at all," answered Maggie in her sweetest tones; "it was capital fun, I assure you."
"Were you really there?" asked Miss Duncan, the eldest of the girls. "We heard it, of course, bur could scarcely believe it possible."
"Of course I was there," replied Maggie. "Whenever there is something really amusing going on, I am always in the thick of it."
"Well!" Emily Duncan looked at her sister Susan. Susan raised her brows. Hammond took a photograph from a table which stood near and pretended to examine it.
"Shall I tell you about the auction?" asked Maggie.
"Oh, please, if you would be so kind. I suppose, as you were present, such a thing could not really lower the standard of the college?" These words came from Susan Duncan, who looked at Hammond as she spoke. She was his cousin and very fond of him.
"Please tell us about the auction," he said, looking full at Maggie.
"I will," she replied, answering his gaze with a flash of repressed irritation. "The auction was splendid fun! One of our girls was in debt, and she had to sell her things. Oh, it was capital! I wish you could have seen her acting as her own auctioneer. Some of us were greedy and wanted her best things. I was one of those. She sold a sealskin jacket, an expensive one, quite new. There is a legend in the college that eighty guineas were expended on it. Well, I bid for the sealskin and it was knocked down to me for ten. It is a little too big for me, of course, but when it is cut to my figure, it will make a superb winter garment."
Maggie was clothed now in velvet and sable; nothing could be richer than her attire; nothing more mocking than her words.
"You were fortunate," said Susan Duncan. "You got your sealskin at a great bargain. Didn't she, Geoffrey?"
"I don't think so," replied Hammond.
"Why not? Oh, do tell us why not," cried the sisters eagerly.
He bowed to them, laughed as lightly as Maggie would have done and said in a careless tone: "My reasons are complex and too many to mention. I will only say now that what is objectionable to possess can never be a bargain to obtain. In my opinion, sealskin jackets are detestable."
With these words he strode across the room and seated himself with a sigh of relief by Priscilla's side.
"What are you doing all by yourself?" he said cheerfully. "Is no one attending to you? Are you always to be left like a poor little forsaken mouse in the background?"
"I am not at all lonely," said Prissie.
"I thought you hated to be alone."
"I did, the other day, in that drawing-room; but not in this. People are all kind in this."
"You are right. Our hostess is most genial and sympathetic."
"And the guests are nice, too," said Prissie; "at least, they look nice."
"Ay, but you must not be taken in by appearances. Some of them only look nice."
"Do you mean—" began Prissie in her abrupt, anxious voice.
Hammond took alarm. He remembered her peculiar outspokenness.
"I don't mean anything," he said hastily. "By the way, are you fond of pictures?"
"I have scarcely ever seen any."
"That does not matter. I know by your face that you can appreciate some pictures."
"But, really, I know nothing of art."
"Never mind. If the painter who paints knows you——"
"The painter knows me? I have never seen an artist in my life."
"Nevertheless, there are some artists in the world who have conceived of characters like yours. There are some good pictures in this house. Shall I show you one or two?"
Prissie sprang to her feet.
"You are most kind," she said elusively. "I really don't know how to thank you."
"You need not thank me at all; or, at any rate, not in such a loud voice, not so impressively. Our neighbors will think I have bestowed half a kingdom upon you."
Prissie blushed and looked down.
"Don't be shocked, with me," said Hammond. "I can read your grateful heart. Come this way"
They passed Maggie Oliphant and her two or three remaining satellites. Prissie looked at her with longing and tripped awkwardly against her chair. Hammond walked past Maggie as if she did not exist to him. Maggie nodded affectionately to Priscilla and followed the back of Hammond's head and shoulders with a supercilious, amused smile.
Hammond opened the outer drawing-room door.
"Where are we going?" asked Priscilla. "Are not the pictures here?"
"Some are here, but the best are in the picture gallery— here to the left and down these steps. Now, I'm going to introduce you to a new world."
He pushed aside a heavy curtain, and Prissie found herself in a rather small room, lighted from the roof. It contained in all about six or eight pictures, each the work of a master.
Hammond walked straight across the gallery to a picture which occupied a wall by itself at the further end. It represented a summer scene of deep repose. There was water in the foreground, in the back tall forest trees in the fresh, rich foliage of June. Overhead was a sunset sky, its saffron and rosy tints reflected in the water below. The master who painted the picture was Corot.
Hammond motioned Priscilla to sit down opposite to it.
"There is summer." he said; "peace, absolute repose. You have not to go to it; it comes to you."
He did not say any more, but walked away to look at another picture in a different part of the gallery.
Prissie clasped her hands; all the agitation and eagerness went out of her face. She leaned back in her chair. Her attitude partook of the quality of the picture and became restful. Hammond did not disturb her for several moments.
"I am going to show you something different now," he said, coming up to her almost with reluctance. "There is one sort of rest; I will now show you a higher. Here stand so. The light falls well from this angle. Now, what do you see?"
"I don't understand it," said Prissie after a long, deep gaze.
"Never mind, you see something. Tell me what you see."
Priscilla looked again at the picture.
"I see a woman," she said at last in a slow, pained kind of voice. "I can't see her face very well, but I know by the way she lies back in that chair that she is old and dreadfully tired. Oh, yes, I know well that she is tired— see her hand stretched out there— her hand and her arm— how thin they are— how worn— and——"
"Hard worked," interrupted Hammond. "Any one can see by the attitude of that hand, by the starting veins and the wrinkles that the woman has gone through a life of labor. Well, she does not occupy the whole of the picture. You see before you a tired-out worker. Don't be so unhappy about her. Look up a little higher in the picture. Observe for yourself that her toils are ended."
"Who is that other figure?" said Priscilla. "A woman too, but young and strong. How glad she looks and how kind. She is carrying a little child in her arms. Who is she? What does she mean?"
"That woman, so grand and strong, represents Death, but not under the old metaphor. She comes with renewed life— the child is the type of that— she comes as a deliverer. See, she is touching that poor worn-out creature, who is so tired that she can scarcely hold her head up again. Death, with a new aspect and a new, grand strength in her face is saying to this woman, 'Come with me now to your rest. It is all over,' Death says: all the trouble and perplexity and strife. Come away with me and rest. The name of that picture is 'The Deliverer.' It is the work of a painter who can preach a sermon, write a book, deliver an oration and sing a song all through the medium of his brush. I won't trouble you with his name just now. You will hear plenty of him and his wonderful, great pictures by and by, if you love art as I do."
"Thank you," said Prissie simply. Some tears stole down her cheeks. She did not know she was crying; she did not attempt to wipe them away.
"I DETEST IT"
SHORTLY after the girls got home that evening they received letters in their rooms to inform them that Miss Heath and Miss Eccleston had come to the resolution not to report the affair of the auction to the college authorities. They would trust to the honor of the students at St. Benet's not to allow such a proceeding to occur again and would say nothing further on the matter. Prissie's eyes again filled with tears as she read the carefully worded note. Holding it open in her hand she rushed to Maggie's room and knocked. To her surprise, instead of the usual cheerful "Come in," with which Miss Oliphant always assured her young friend of a welcome, Maggie said from the other side of the locked door:
"I am very busy just now— I cannot see any one."
Priscilla felt a curious sense of being chilled; her whole afternoon had been one of elation, and Maggie's words came as a kind of cold douche. She went back to her room, tried not to mind and occupied herself looking over her beloved Greek until the dinner-gong sounded.
After dinner Priscilla again looked with anxious, loving eyes at Maggie. Maggie did not stop, as was her custom, to say a kind word or two as she passed. She was talking to another girl and laughing gaily. Her dress was as picturesque as her face and figure were beautiful. But was Priscilla mistaken, or was her anxious observation too close? She felt sure as Miss Oliphant brushed past her that her eyelids were slightly reddened, as if she had been weeping.
Prissie put out a timid hand and touched Maggie on the arm. She turned abruptly.
"I forgot," she said to her companion. "Please wait for me outside, Hester; I'll join you in a moment. I have just a word to say to Miss Peel. What is it, Prissie" said Maggie then, when the other girl had walked out of hearing. "Why did you touch me?"
"Oh, for nothing much," replied Prissie, half frightened at her manner, which was sweet enough but had an intangible hardness about it, which Priscilla felt, but could not fathom. "I thought you'd be so glad about the decision Miss Heath and Miss Eccleston have come to."
"No, I am not particularly glad. I can't stay now to talk it over, however; Hester Stuart wants me to practise a duet with her."
"May I come to your room later on, Maggie?"
"Not to-night, I think; I shall be very busy."
Miss Oliphant nodded brightly and disappeared out of the dining-hall.
Two girls were standing not far off. They had watched this little scene, and they now observed that Prissie clasped her hands and that a woe-begone expression crossed her face.
"The spell is beginning to work," whispered one to the other. "When the knight proves unfaithful the most gracious lady must suffer resentment."
Priscilla did not hear these words. She went slowly upstairs and back to her own room, where she wrote letters home, and made copious notes from her last lectures, and tried not to think of the little cloud which seemed to have come between her and Maggie.
Late, on that same evening, Polly Singleton, who had just been entertaining a chosen bevy of friends in her own room, after the last had bidden her an affectionate "good night," was startled at hearing a low knock at her door. She opened it at once. Miss Oliphant stood without.
"May I come in?" she asked.
"Why, of course. I'm delighted to see you. How kind of you to come. Where will you sit? I'm afraid you won't find things very comfortable, for most of my furniture is gone. But there's the bed; do you mind sitting on the bed?"
"If I want to sit at all the bed is as snug a place as any," replied Maggie. "But I'm not going to stay a moment, for it is very late. See, I have brought you this back."
Polly looked, and for the first time observed that her own sealskin jacket hung on Maggie's arm.
"What do you mean?" she said. "My sealskin jacket! Oh, my beauty! But it isn't mine, it's yours now. Why do you worry me— showing it to me again?"
"I don't want to worry you, Miss Singleton. I mean what I say. I have brought your jacket back."
"But it is yours— you bought it."
"I gave a nominal price for it, but that doesn't make it mine. Anyhow, I have no use for it. Please take it back again."
Poor Polly blushed very red all over her face.
"I wish I could," she said. "If there has been anything I regretted in the auction, besides getting all you girls into a mess, it has been my sealskin jacket. Dad is almost certain to ask me about it, for he never made me such a handsome present before. Poor dad! he was so proud the night he brought it home. He said, 'Look here, Poll, I paid a whole sheaf of fivers for this, and although it cost me a good round eighty guineas, I'm told it's cheap at the price. Put it on and let me see how you look in it,' he said. And when I had it on he twisted me round, and chucked me under the chin, and said I was a 'bouncer.' Poor old dad! He was as proud as Punch of me in that jacket. I never saw anything like it."
"Well, he can be as proud as Punch of you again. Here is the jacket for your very own once more. Good night."
She walked to the door, but Miss Singleton ran after her.
"I can't take it back," she said. "I'm not as mean as all that comes to. It's yours now; you got it as fair as possible."
"Listen, Miss Singleton," said Maggie. "If I keep that jacket I shall never wear it. I detest sealskin jackets. It won't be the least scrap of use to me."
"You detest sealskin jackets? How can you? Oh, the lovely things they are. Let me stroke the beauty down."
"Stroke your beauty and pet it as much as you like, only let me say 'Good night' now."
"But, please, Miss Oliphant, please, I'd do anything in the world to get the jacket back, of course. But I've ten guineas of yours, and honestly I can't pay them back."
"Allow me to lend them to you until next term. You can return me the money then, can you not?"
Polly's face became on the instant a show of shining eyes, gleaming white teeth and glowing cheeks.
"Of course I could pay you back, you— darling," she said with enthusiasm. "Oh, what a relief this is to me; I'd have done anything in all the world to have my jacket back again."
"It's a bargain, then. Good night, Miss Singleton."
Maggie tossed the jacket on Polly's bed, touched her hand lightly with one of her own and left the room. She went quickly back to her own pretty sitting-room, locked her door, threw herself on her knees by her bureau and sobbed long and passionately.
During the few days which now remained before the end of the term no one quite knew what was wrong with Miss Oliphant. She worked hard in preparation for her lectures and when seen in public was always very merry. But there was a certain hardness about her mirth which her best friends detected and which caused Nancy Banister a good deal of puzzled pain.
Priscilla was treated very kindly by Maggie; she still helped her willingly with her Greek and even invited her into her room once or twice. But all the little half-beginnings of confidence which, now and then, used to burst from Maggie's lips, the allusions to old times, the sentences which revealed deep thoughts and high aspirations, all these, which made the essence of true friendship, vanished out of her conversation.
Priscilla said to herself over and over that there was really no difference— that Miss Oliphant was still as kind to her, as valued a friend as ever— but in her heart she knew that this was not the case.
Maggie startled all her friends by making one request. Might they postpone the acting of The Princess until the middle of the following term?"
"I cannot do it justice now," she said. "I cannot throw my heart and soul into my part. If you act the play now you must allow me to withdraw."
The other girls, Constance Field in particular, were astonished. They even felt resentful. All arrangements had been made for this special play. Maggie was to be the Princess herself; no one could possibly take her place. It was most unreasonable of her to withdraw now.
But it was one of the facts well known at St. Benet's that, fascinating as Miss Oliphant was, she was also unreasonable. On certain occasions she could even be disobliging. In short, when Maggie "took the bit between her teeth," to employ an old metaphor, she could neither be led nor driven. After a great deal of heated discussion and indignant words, she had her will. The play was deferred till the following term, and one or two slight comedies, which had been acted before, were revived in a hurry to take its place.
A BLACK SATIN JACKET
VERY active preparations were being made in a certain rather humble little cottage in the country for the heroine's return. Three small girls were making themselves busy with holly and ivy, with badly cut paper flowers, with enormous texts coarsely illustrated, to render the home gay and festive in its greeting. A little worn old woman lay on a sofa and superintended these active measures.
"How soon will she be here now?" said Hattie the vigorous.
"Do stay still, Hattie, and don't fidget. Don't you see how tired Aunt Raby looks?" exclaimed Rose. "Prissie can't be here yet, and you are such a worry when you jump up and down like that, Hattie."
Rose's words were quite severe, and Hattie planted herself on the edge of a chair, folded her plump hands, managed to get a demure look into her laughing eyes and dimpled mouth and sat motionless for about half a minute. At the end of that time she tumbled on the floor with a loud crash and Aunt Raby sprang to her feet with some alarm.
"Good gracious, child! are you hurt? What's the matter?"
Hattie was sitting on the floor in convulsions of mirth.
"I'm not hurt," she exclaimed. "I slipped off the chair. I didn't mean to; I couldn't help it, really. I'm sorry I woke you, Aunt Raby."
"I wasn't asleep, child." Miss Peel walked across the room and vanished into the kitchen, from which very savory smells issued.
Hattie and Rose began to quarrel and argue, and Katie, who was more or less of a little peacemaker, suggested that they should draw up the blind and all three get into the window to watch for Prissie.
"I wonder how she will look?" said Rose when they were all comfortably established.
"I hope she won't talk in Latin," exclaimed Hattie.
"Oh, it is nice to think of seeing Prissie so soon," murmured Katie in an ecstasy.
"I wonder," began Rose in her practical voice, "how soon Prissie will begin to earn money. We want money even more than when she went away. Aunt Raby isn't as well as she was then, and since the cows were sold——"
"Hush!" said Hattie. "You know we promised we wouldn't tell Prissie about the cows."
Just then a distant sound of wheels was heard. The little girls began to jump and shout; a moment later and Priscilla stood in the midst of her family. A great excitement followed her arrival. There were kisses and hugs and wild, rapturous words from the affectionate little sisters. Aunt Raby put her arms round Priscilla and gave her a solemn sort of kiss, and then the whole party adjourned into the supper-room.
The feast which was spread was so dainty and abundant that Katie asked in a puzzled sort of way if Aunt Raby considered Prissie like the Prodigal Son.
"What fancies you have, child!" said Aunt Raby. "The Prodigal Son, indeed! Thank Heaven, I've never had to do with that sort! As to Priscilla here, she's as steady as Old Time. Well, child, and are you getting up your learning very fast?"
"Pretty well, Aunt Raby."
"And you like your grand college and all those fine young-lady friends of yours?"
"I haven't any fine young-lady friends."
"H'm! I dare say they are like other girls; a little bit of learning and a great deal of dress, eh?"
"There are all sorts of girls at St. Benet's," she said after a pause. "Some are real students, earnest, devoted to their work."
"Have you earned any money yet, Prissie?" exclaimed Hattie. "For if you have, I do want— look——" She thrust a small foot, encased in a broken shoe, prominently into view.
"Hattie, go to bed this minute!" exclaimed Aunt Raby. "Go up to your room all three of you little girls. No more words— off at once, all of you. Prissie, you and I will go into the drawing-room, and I'll lie on the sofa while you tell me a little of your college life."
"Aunt Raby always lies on the sofa in the evenings now," burst from Hattie the irrepressible.
Miss Peel rushed after the plump little girl and pushed her out of the room.
"To bed, all of you!" she exclaimed. "To bed and to sleep! Now, Prissie, you are not to mind a word that child says. Come into the drawing-room and let us have a few words quietly. Oh, yes, I'll lie on the sofa, my dear, if you wish it. But Hattie is wrong; I don't do it every night. I suffer no pain either, Prissie. Many a woman of my age is racked with rheumatics."
The last words were said with a little gasp. The elder woman lay back on the sofa with a sigh of relief. She turned her face so that the light from the lamp should not reveal the deathly tired lines round it.
Aunt Raby was dressed in a rough homespun garment. Her feet were clad in unbleached cotton stockings, also made at home; her little, iron-gray curls lay flat at each side of her hollow cheeks. She wore list slippers, very coarse and common in texture. Her whole appearance was the essence of the homely, the old-fashioned, even the ungainly.
Priscilla had seen elegance and beauty since she went away; she had entered into the life of the cultivated, the intellectually great. In spite of her deep affection for Aunt Raby, she came back to the ugliness and the sordid surroundings of home with a pang which she hated herself for feeling. She forgot Aunt Raby's sufferings for a moment in her uncouthness. She longed to shower riches, refinement, beauty upon her.
"How has your dress worn, Prissie?" said the elder woman after a pause. "My sakes, child, you have got your best brown cashmere on! A beautiful fine bit of cashmere it was, too. I bought it out of the money I got for the lambs' wool."
Aunt Raby stretched out her hand, and, taking up a fold of the cashmere, she rubbed it softly between her finger and thumb.
"It's as fine as velvet," she said, "and I put strong work into it, too. It isn't a bit worn, is it, Prissie?"
"No, Aunt Raby, except just round the tail. I got it very wet one day and the color went a trifle, but nothing to signify."
A vivid picture rose up before Priscilla's eyes as she spoke of Mrs. Elliot-Smith's drawing-room, and the dainty, disdainful ladies in their gay attire, and her own poor, little forlorn figure in her muddy cashmere dress— the same dress Aunt Raby considered soft and beautiful as velvet.
"Oh, Aunt Raby," she said with sudden impulse, "a great many things have happened to me since I went away. On the whole I have had a very good time."
Aunt Raby opened her mouth to emit a prodigious yawn.
"I don't know how it is," she said, "but I'm a bit drowsy to-night. I suppose it's the weather. The day was quite a muggy one. I'll hear your news another time, Priscilla; but don't you be turned with the vanities of the world, Priscilla. Life's but a passing day: you mind that when you're young, and it won't come on you as a shock when you are old. I'm glad the cashmere has worn well— aye, that I am, Prissie. But don't put it on in the morning, my love, for it's a sin to wear through beautiful fine stuff like that. And, even if the color is gone a bit round the hem, the stuff itself isn't worn, and looks don't signify. You'll have to make up your mind to wear the cashmere for best again next term, Prissie, for, though I'm not pinched in any way, I'm not overflush either, my love."
Priscilla, who had been sitting in a low chair near her aunt, now rose to her feet.
"Ought we not to come to bed?" she said. "If you don't feel tired, you look it, Aunt Raby. Come upstairs, do, and let me help you to take your things off and put you into bed. Come, Aunt Raby, it will be like old times to help you, you know."
The girl knelt by the old woman, took one of her withered hands, raised it suddenly to her lips and kissed it. Aunt Raby's face was still turned from the light.
"Don't you keep kneeling on your cashmere," she said. "You'll crease it awfully, and I don't see my way to another best dress this term."
"You needn't, Aunt Raby," said Priscilla in a steady voice. "The cashmere is quite neat still. I can manage well with it."
Aunt Raby rose slowly and feebly from the sofa.
"You may help me to get into bed if you like," she said. "The muggy day has made me wonderfully drowsy, and I'll be glad to lie down. It's only that. I'll be as pert as a cricket in the morning."
The old woman leaned on the girl's strong, young arm and stumbled a bit as she went up the narrow stairs.
When they entered the tiny bedroom Aunt Raby spoke again:
"Your dress will do, but I have been fretting about your winter jacket, Prissie. There's my best one, though— you know, the quilted satin which my mother left me; it's loose and full, and you shall have it."
"But you want it to go to church in yourself, Aunt Raby."
"I don't often go to church lately, child. I take a power of comfort lying on the sofa, reading my Bible, and Mr. Hayes doesn't see anything contrary to Scripture in it, for I asked him. Yes, you shall have my quilted satin jacket to take back to college with you, Prissie, and then you'll be set up fine."
Priscilla bent forward and kissed Aunt Raby. She made no other response, but that night before she went to sleep she saw distinctly a vision of herself. Prissie was as little vain as a girl could be, but the vision of her own figure in Aunt Raby's black satin quilted jacket was not a particularly inspiriting one. The jacket, full in the skirts, long in the shoulders, wide in the sleeves and enormous round the neck, would scarcely bear comparison with the neat, tight-fitting garments which the other girl graduates of St. Benet's were wont to patronize. Prissie felt glad she was not attired in it that unfortunate day when she sat in Mrs. Elliot-Smith's drawing-room; and yet— and yet— she knew that the poor, quaint, old-world jacket meant love and self-renunciation.
"Dear Aunt Raby!" whispered the girl.
Tears lay heavily on her eyelashes as she dropped asleep, with one arm thrown protectingly round her little sister Katie.
THE FASHION OF THE DAY
A THICK mist lay over everything. Christmas had come and gone, and Priscilla's trunk was packed once more— Aunt Raby's old-world jacket between folds of tissue-paper, lying on the top of other homely garments.
The little sisters were in bed and asleep and Aunt Raby lay on the sofa. Prissie was accustomed to her face now, so she did not turn it away from the light. The white lips, the chalky gray tint under the eyes, the deep furrows round the sunken temples were all familiar to the younger "Miss Peel." She had fitted once more into the old sordid life. She saw Hattie in her slipshod feet and Katie and Rose in their thin winter jackets, which did not half keep out the cold. She saw and partook of the scanty meals and tried to keep warm by the wretched fires. Once more she was part and parcel of the household. The children were so accustomed to her that they forgot she was going away again.
To-night, however, the fact was brought back to her. Katie cried when she saw the packed trunk. Hattie pouted and flopped herself about and became unmanageable. Rose put on her most discontented manner and voice, and finding that Prissie had earned no money during the past term, gave utterance to skeptical thoughts.
"Prissie just went away to have a good time, and she never meant to earn money, and she forgot all about them," grumbled the naughty little girl.
Hattie came up and pummeled Rose for her bad words. Katie cried afresh, and altogether the scene was most dismal.
Now, however, it was over. The children were in the land of happy dreams. They were eating their Christmas dinner over again and looking with ecstasy at their tiny, tiny Christmas gifts and listening once more to Prissie, who had a low, sweet voice and who was singing to them the old and beloved words:
"Peace and goodwill to men."
The children were happy in their dreams, and Prissie was standing by Aunt Raby's side.
"Why don't you sit down, child? You have done nothing but fidget, fidget for the last half-hour."
"I want to go out, Aunt Raby."
"To go out? Sakes! what for? And on such a night, too!"
"I want to see Mr. Hayes."
"Prissie, I think you have got a bee in your bonnet. You'll be lost in this mist."
"No, I won't. I missed Mr. Hayes to-day when he called, and I must see him before I go back to St. Benet's. I have a question or two to ask him, and I know every step of the way. Let me go, auntie, please, do!"
"You always were a wilful girl, Priscilla, and I think that college has made you more obstinate than ever. I suppose the half-mannish ways of all those girls tell upon you. There, if you must go— do. I'm in no mood for arguing. I'll have a bit of a sleep while you are out: the muggy weather always makes me so drowsy."