Frances bit her lips hard.
"On the whole, then, you are pleased with what I have done," she said, in a constrained voice.
"Very much pleased, my dear. You have acted well, and really with uncommon sense for a woman. There is only one drawback that I can see to your scheme. While you are enjoying the luxuries and comforts of Arden, who is to take care of me at the Firs?"
"I have thought of that," said Frances. "I acknowledge there is a slight difficulty; but I think matters can be arranged. First of all, father, please disabuse yourself of the idea that I shall be in a state of comfort and luxury. I shall be more or less a close prisoner; I shall be in servitude. Make of that what you please."
"Yes, yes, my love—a luxurious house, carriages, and horses—an affectionate and most devoted friend in Lucilla Carnegie—the daintiest living, the most exquisitely furnished rooms. Yes, yes, I'm not complaining. I'm only glad your lot has fallen in such pleasant places, Frances. Still, I repeat, what is to become of me?"
"I thought Mrs. Cooper, our old housekeeper, would come back and manage matters for you, father. She is very skillful and nice, and she knows your ways. Watkins quite understands the garden, and I myself, I am sure, will be allowed to come over once a fortnight or so. There is one thing—you must be very, very careful of your money, and Watkins must try to sell all the fruit and vegetables he can. Fluff, of course, can not stay here. My next thought is to arrange a home for her, but even if I have to leave next week, she need not hurry away at once. Now, father, if you will excuse me, I will go out to Watkins, for I have a great deal to say to him."
"I have something to say to you, Fluff," said Frances.
The young girl was standing in her white dress, with her guitar hung in its usual attitude by her side. She scarcely ever went anywhere without this instrument, and she was fond of striking up the sweetest, wildest songs to its accompaniment at any moment.
Fluff, for all her extreme fairness and babyishness, had not a doll's face. The charming eyes could show many emotions, and the curved lips reveal many shades either of love or dislike. She had not a passionate face; there were neither heights nor depths about little Fluff; but she had a very warm heart, and was both truthful and fearless.
She had been waiting in a sheltered part of the garden for over an hour for Arnold. He had promised to go down with her to the river—he was to sketch, and she was to play. It was intensely hot, even in the shadiest part of the squire's garden, but by the river there would be coolness and a breeze. Fluff was sweet-tempered, but she did not like to wait an hour for any man, and she could not help thinking it aggravating of Arnold to go on pacing up and down in the hot sun by the squire's side. What could the squire and Arnold have to say to each other? And why did the taller and younger man rather stoop as he walked? And why was his step so depressed, so lacking in energy that even Fluff, under her shady tree in the distance, noticed it?
She was standing so when Frances came up to her; now and then her fingers idly touched her guitar, her rosy lips pouted, and her glowing dark-blue eyes were fixed reproachfully on Arnold's distant figure.
Frances looked pale and fagged; she was not in the becoming white dress which she had worn during the first few days of Arnold's visit; she was in gray, and the gray was not particularly fresh nor cool in texture.
"Fluff, I want to speak to you," she said.
And she laid her hand on the girl's shoulder—then her eyes followed Fluff's; she saw Arnold, and her cheeks grew a little whiter than before.
"Fluff misses him already," she whispered to her heart. "And he likes her. They are always together. Yes, I see plainly that I sha'n't do Philip any serious injury when I refuse him."
"What is it, Frances?" said Fluff, turning her rather aggrieved little face full on the new-comer. "Do you want to say anything to me very badly? I do call it a shame of Mr. Arnold; he and the squire have chatted together in the South Walk for over an hour. It's just too bad, I might have been cooling myself by the river now; I'm frightfully hot."
"No, you're not really very hot," said Frances, in the peculiarly caressing tone she always employed when speaking to her little cousin. "But I own it is very annoying to have to wait for any one—more particularly when you are doing nothing. Just lay your guitar on the grass, Fluff, and let us walk up and down under the shade here. I have something to say to you, and it will help to pass the time."
Fluff obeyed at once.
"You don't look well, Frances," she said, in her affectionate way, linking her hand through her cousin's arm. "I have noticed that you haven't looked yourself ever since the day you went to Martinstown—nearly a week ago now. Now I wonder at that, for the weather has been so perfect, and everything so sweet and nice; and I must say it is a comfort to have a pleasant man like Mr. Arnold in the house. I have enjoyed myself during the past week, and I greatly wonder you haven't, Frances."
"I am glad you have been happy, dear," said Frances, ignoring the parts of Fluff's speech which related to herself. "But it is on that very subject I want now to speak to you. You like living at the Firs, don't you, Fluff?"
"Why, of course, Frances. It was poor mamma's"—here the blue eyes brimmed with tears—"it was darling mother's wish that I should come here to live with you and the squire. I never could be so happy anywhere as at the Firs; I never, never want to leave it."
"But of course you will leave it some day, little Fluff, for in the ordinary course of things you will fall in love and you will marry, and when this happens you will love your new home even better than this. However, Fluff, we need not discuss the future now, for the present is enough for us. I wanted to tell you, dear, that it is very probable, almost certain, that I shall have to go away from home. What is the matter, Fluff?"
"You go away? Then I suppose that is why you look ill. Oh, how you have startled me!"
"I am sorry to have to go, Fluff, and I can not tell you the reason. You must not ask me, for it is a secret. But the part that concerns you, dear, is that, if I go, I do not see how you can stay on very well at the Firs."
"Of course I should not dream of staying, Francie. With you away, and Mr. Arnold gone"—here she looked hard into Frances's face—"it would be dull. Of course, I am fond of the squire, but I could not do without another companion. Where are you going, Frances? Could not I go with you?"
"I wish you could, darling. I will tell you where I am going to-morrow or next day. It is possible that I may not go, but it is almost certain that I shall."
"Oh, I trust, I hope, I pray that you will not go."
"Don't do that, Fluff, for that, too, means a great trouble. Oh, yes, a great trouble and desolation. Now, dear, I really must talk to you about your own affairs. Leave me out of the question for a few moments, pet. I must find out what you would like to do, and where you would like to go. If I go away I shall have little or no time to make arrangements for you, so I must speak to you now. Have you any friends who would take you in until you would hear from your father, Fluff?"
"I have no special friends. There are the Harewoods, but they are silly and flirty, and I don't care for them. They talk about dress—you should hear how they go on—and they always repeat the silly things the men they meet say to them. No, I won't go to the Harewoods. I think if I must leave you, Frances, I had better go to my old school-mistress, Mrs. Hopkins. She would be always glad to have me."
"That is a good thought, dear. I will write to her to-day just as a precautionary measure. Ah, and here comes Philip. Philip, you have tried the patience of this little girl very sadly."
In reply to Frances' speech Arnold slightly raised his hat; his face looked drawn and worried; his eyes avoided Frances's, but turned with a sense of refreshment to where Fluff stood looking cool and sweet, and with a world of tender emotion on her sensitive little face.
"A thousand apologies," he said. "The squire kept me. Shall I carry your guitar? No, I won't sketch, thanks; but if you will let me lie on my back in the long grass by the river, and if you will sing me a song or two, I shall be grateful ever after."
"Then I will write to Mrs. Hopkins, Fluff," said Frances. And as the two got over a stile which led down a sloping meadow to the river, she turned away. Arnold had neither looked at her nor addressed her again.
"My father has been saying something to him," thought Frances. And she was right.
The squire was not a man to take up an idea lightly and then drop it. He distinctly desired, come what might, that his daughter should not marry Arnold; he came to the sage conclusion that the best way to prevent such a catastrophe was to see Arnold safely married to some one else. The squire had no particular delicacy of feeling to prevent his alluding to topics which might be avoided by more sensitive men. He contrived to see Arnold alone, and then, rudely, for he did not care to mince his words, used expressions the reverse of truthful, which led Arnold, whose faith was already wavering in the balance, to feel almost certain that Frances never had cared for him, and never would do so. He then spoke of Fluff, praising her enthusiastically, and without stint, saying how lucky he considered the man who won not only a beautiful, but a wealthy bride, and directly suggested to Arnold that he should go in for her.
"She likes you now," said the squire; "bless her little heart, she'd like any one who was kind to her. She's just the pleasantest companion any man could have—a perfect dear all round. To tell the truth, Arnold, even though she is my daughter, I think you are well rid of Frances."
"I'm ashamed to hear you say so, sir. If what you tell me is true, your daughter has scarcely behaved kindly to me; but, notwithstanding that, I consider Frances quite the noblest woman I know."
"Pshaw!" said the squire. "You agree with Fluff—she's always praising her, too. Of course, I have nothing to say against my daughter—she's my own uprearing, so it would ill beseem me to run her down. But for a wife, give me a fresh little soft roundabout, like Fluff yonder."
Arnold bit his lip.
"You have spoken frankly to me, and I thank you," he said. "If I am so unfortunate as not to win Miss Kane's regard, there is little use in my prolonging my visit here; but I have yet to hear her decision from her own lips. If you will allow me, I will leave you now, squire, for I promised Miss Danvers to spend some of this afternoon with her by the river."
"With Fluff? Little puss—very good—very good—Ah!
'The time I've spent in wooing'
never wasted, my boy—never wasted. I wish you all success from the bottom of my heart."
"Insufferable old idiot!" growled Arnold, under his breath.
But he was thoroughly hurt and annoyed, and when he saw Frances, could not bring himself even to say a word to her.
The squire went back to the house to enjoy his afternoon nap, and to reflect comfortably on the delicious fact that he had done himself a good turn.
"There is no use playing with edge tools," he murmured. "Frances means well, but she confessed to me she loved him. What more likely, then, that she would accept him, and, notwithstanding her good resolutions, leave her poor old father in the lurch? If Frances accepts Arnold, it will be ruin to me, and it simply must be prevented at all hazards."
THE CUNNING LITTLE MOUSE.
Fluff found her companion strangely dull. They reached the river, where Arnold, true to his promise, did stretch himself at full length in the long fragrant grass; and Fluff, true to her promise, touched her guitar gently, and gently, softly, and sympathetically sung a song or two. She sung about the "Auld acquaintance" who should never be forgot; she sung of "Robin Adair;" and, lastly, her clear little notes warbled out the exquisite Irish melody, "She is far from the land." Never had Fluff sung better. She threw feeling and sympathy into her notes—in short, she excelled herself in her desire to please. But when at the end of the third song Arnold still made no response, when not the flicker of an eyelid or the faintest dawn of a smile showed either approbation or pleasure, the spoiled child threw her guitar aside, and spoke pettishly.
"I won't amuse you any more," she said. "I don't like sulky people; I am going home to my darling Frances. She is often troubled—oh, yes, she knows what trouble is—but she never sulks, never!"
"Look here, Fluff," said Arnold. "I may call you Fluff, may I not?"
"I don't mind."
Fluff's big eyes began to dilate. She stretched out her hand to draw her guitar once more to her side. She was evidently willing to be reasonable.
"Look here," repeated Arnold. He rose hastily, and leaning on a low wall which stood near, looked down at the bright little girl at his feet. "Fluff," he said, "should you greatly mind if I threw conventionality to the winds, and spoke frankly to you?"
"I should not mind at all," said Fluff. "I don't know what you have got to say, but I hate conventionalities."
"The fact is, I am very much bothered."
"And I haven't a soul to consult."
Another "Oh!" and an upward glance of two lovely long-fringed eyes.
"And I think you have a kind, affectionate heart, Fluff."
"And you won't misunderstand a man who is half distracted?"
"I am sorry you are half distracted. No, I won't misunderstand you."
"That is right, and what I expected. I was thinking of all this, and wondering if I might speak frankly to you when you were singing those songs. That is the reason I did not applaud you, or say thank you, or anything else commonplace."
"I understand now," said Fluff. "I'm very glad. I was puzzled at first, and I thought you rude. Now I quite understand."
"Thank you, Fluff; if I may sit by your side I will tell you the whole story. The fact is, I want you to help me, but you can only do so by knowing everything. Why, what is the matter? Are you suddenly offended?"
"No," answered little Ellen; "but I'm surprised. I'm so astonished that I'm almost troubled, and yet I never was so glad in my life. You are the very first person who has ever asked me to help them. I have amused people—oh, yes, often; but helped—you are the very first who has asked me that."
"I believe you are a dear little girl," said Arnold, looking at her affectionately; "and if any one can set things right now, you are the person. Will you listen to my story? May I begin?"
"Remember, I am not going to be conventional."
"You said that before."
"I want to impress it upon you. I am going to say the sort of things that girls seldom listen to."
"You make me feel dreadfully curious," said Fluff. "Please begin."
"The beginning is this: Ten years ago I came here. I stayed here for a month. I fell in love with Frances."
"Oh—oh! darling Frances. And you fell in love with her ten years ago?"
"I did. I went to Australia. For five years I had an awful time there; my friends at home supposed me to be dead. The fact is, I was taken captive by some of the bushmen. That has nothing to say to my story, only all the time I thought of Frances. I remained in Australia five more years. During that five years I was making my fortune. As I added pound to pound, I thought still of Frances. I am rich now, and I have come home to marry her."
"Oh," said little Fluff, with a deep-drawn sigh, "what a lovely story! But why, then, is not Frances happy?"
"Ah, that is where the mystery comes in; that is what I want you to find out. I see plainly that Frances is very unhappy. She won't say either yes or no to my suit. Her father gives me to understand that she does not love me; that she never loved me. He proposes that instead of marrying Frances I should try to make you my wife. He was urging me to do so just now when I kept you waiting. All the time he was telling me that Frances never could or would love me, and that you were the wife of all others for me."
"Why do you tell me all this?" said Fluff. Her cheeks had crimsoned, and tears trembled on her eyelashes. "Why do you spoil a beautiful story by telling me this at the end?"
"Because the squire will hint it to you, Fluff; because even Frances herself will begin to think that I am turning my affections in your direction; because if you help me as I want you to help me, we must be much together; because I must talk very freely to you; in short, because it is absolutely necessary that we should quite understand each other."
"Yes," said Fluff. "I see now what you mean; it is all right; thank you very much." She rose to her feet. "I will be a sort of sister to you," she said, laying her little hand in his; "for I love Frances better than any sister, and when you are her husband you will be my brother."
"No brother will ever be truer to you, Fluff; but, alas, and alas! is it ever likely that Frances can be my wife?"
"Of course she will," said Fluff. "Frances is so unhappy because she loves you."
"Well, I think so, but I'll soon find out."
"You will? If you were my real sister, I would call you a darling."
"You may call me anything you please. I am your sister to all intents and purposes, until you are married to my darling, darling Frances. Oh, won't I give it to the squire! I think he's a perfectly horrid old man, and I used to be fond of him."
"But you will be careful, Fluff—a rash word might do lots of mischief."
"Of course I'll be careful. I have lots of tact."
"You are the dearest girl in the world, except Frances."
"Of course I am. That was a very pretty speech, and I am going to reward you. I am going to tell you something."
"What is that?"
"Frances is going away."
Arnold gave a slight start.
"I did not know that," he said. "When?"
"She told me when you were talking to the squire. She is going away very soon, and she wants me to go too. I am to go back to my old school-mistress, Mrs. Hopkins. Frances is very sorry to go, and yet when I told her that I hoped she would not have to, she said I must not wish that, for that would mean a great calamity. I don't understand Frances at present, but I shall soon get to the bottom of everything."
"I fear it is all too plain," said Arnold, lugubriously. "Frances goes away because she does not love me, and she is unhappy because she does not wish to give me pain."
"You are quite wrong, sir. Frances is unhappy on her own account, not on yours. Well, I'll find out lots of things to-night, and let you know. I'm going to be the cunningest little mouse in the world; but oh, won't the squire have a bad time of it!"
"LITTLE GIRLS IMAGINE THINGS."
The morning's post brought one letter. It was addressed to Miss Kane, and was written in a business hand. The squire looked anxiously at his daughter as she laid it unopened by her plate. Fluff, who was dressed more becomingly than usual, whose eyes were bright, and who altogether seemed in excellent spirits, could not help telegraphing a quick glance at Arnold; the little party were seated round the breakfast-table, and the squire, who intercepted Fluff's glance, chuckled inwardly. He was very anxious with regard to the letter which Frances so provokingly left unopened, but he also felt a pleasing thrill of satisfaction.
"Ha! ha!" he said to himself, "my good young man, you are following my advice, for all you looked so sulky yesterday. Fluff, little dear, I do you a good turn when I provide you with an excellent husband, and I declare, poor as I am, I won't see you married without giving you a wedding present."
After breakfast the squire rose, pushed aside his chair, and was about to summon his daughter to accompany him to the south parlor, when Fluff ran up to his side.
"I want to speak to you most particularly," she said. "I have a secret to tell you," and she raised her charming, rounded, fresh face to his. He patted her on the cheek.
"Is it very important?" he said, a little uneasily, for he noticed that Philip and Frances were standing silently, side by side in the bay-window, and that Frances had removed her letter from its envelope, and was beginning to read it.
"She'll absolutely tell that fellow the contents of the most important letter she ever received," inwardly grumbled the squire. "He'll know before her father knows." Aloud he said, "I have a little business to talk over with Frances just now, Ellen. I am afraid your secret must wait, little puss."
"But that's what it can't do," answered Fluff. "Don't call Frances; she's reading a letter. What a rude old man you are, to think of disturbing her! I'm quite ashamed of you. Now come with me, for I must tell you my important secret."
The squire found himself wheedled and dragged into the south parlor. There he was seated in his most comfortable chair, just as much sunlight as he liked best was allowed to warm him, a footstool was placed under his feet, and Fluff, drawing a second forward, seated herself on it, laid her hand on his knee, and looked at him with an expression of pleased affection.
"Aren't you dreadfully curious?" she said.
"Oh, yes, Fluff—quite devoured with curiosity. I wonder now what Frances is doing; the fact is, she has received an important letter. It's about my affairs. I am naturally anxious to know its contents. Tell your secret as quickly as possible, little woman, and let me get to more important matters."
"More important matters? I'm ashamed of you," said Fluff, shaking her finger at him. "The fact is, squire, you mustn't be in a hurry about seeing Frances—you must curb your impatience; it's very good for you to curb it—it's a little discipline, and discipline properly administered always turns people out delightful. You'll be a very noble old man when you have had a little of the proper sort of training. Now, now—why, you look quite cross; I declare you're not a bit handsome when you're cross. Frances can't come to you at present—she's engaged about her own affairs."
"And what may they be, pray, miss?"
"Ah, that's my secret!"
Fluff looked down; a becoming blush deepened the color in her cheeks; she toyed idly with a rosebud which she held in her hand. Something in her attitude, and the significant smile on her face, made the squire both angry and uneasy.
"Speak out, child," he said. "You know I hate mysteries."
"But I can't speak out," said Fluff. "The time to speak out hasn't come—I can only guess. Squire, I'm so glad—I really do think that Frances is in love with Philip."
"You really do?" said the squire. He mimicked her tone sarcastically, red, angry spots grew on his old cheeks. "Frances in love with Philip, indeed! You have got pretty intimate with that young Australian, Fluff, when you call him by his Christian name."
"Oh, yes; we arranged that yesterday. He's like a brother to me. I told you some time ago that he was in love with Frances. Now, I'm so delighted to be able to say that I think Frances is in love with him."
"Tut—tut!" said the squire. "Little girls imagine things. Little girls are very fanciful."
"Tut—tut!" responded Fluff, taking off his voice to the life. "Little girls see far below the surface; old men are very obtuse."
"Fluff, if that's your secret, I don't think much of it. Run away now, and send my daughter to me."
"I'll do nothing of the kind, for if she's not reading her letter she's talking to her true love. Oh, you must have a heart of stone to wish to disturb them!"
The squire, with some difficulty, pushed aside his footstool, hobbled to his feet, and walked to the window where the southern sun was pouring in. In the distance he saw the gray of Frances's dress through the trees, and Philip's square, manly, upright figure walking slowly by her side.
He pushed open the window, and hoarsely and angrily called his daughter's name.
"She doesn't hear you," said Fluff. "I expect he's proposing for her now; isn't it lovely? Aren't you delighted? Oh, where's my guitar? I'm going to play 'Sweethearts.' I do hope, squire, you'll give Frances a very jolly wedding."
But the squire had hobbled out of the room.
He was really very lame with rheumatic gout; but the sight of that gray, slender figure, pacing slowly under the friendly sheltering trees, was too much for him; he was overcome with passion, anxiety, rage.
"She's giving herself away," he murmured. "That little vixen, Fluff, is right—she's in love with the fellow, and she's throwing herself at his head; it's perfectly awful to think of it. She has forgotten all about her old father. I'll be a beggar in my old age; the Firs will have to go; I'll be ruined, undone. Oh, was there ever such an undutiful daughter? I must go to her. I must hobble up to that distant spot as quickly as possible; perhaps when she sees me she may pause before she irrevocably commits so wicked an act. Oh, how lame I am! what agonies I'm enduring! Shall I ever be in time? He's close to her—he's almost touching her—good gracious, he'll kiss her if I'm not quick! that little wretch Fluff could have reached them in a twinkling, but she won't do anything to oblige me this morning. Hear her now, twanging away at that abominable air, 'Sweethearts'—oh—oh—puff—puff—I'm quite blown! This walk will kill me! Frances—I say, Frances, Frances."
The feeble, cracked old voice was borne on the breeze, and the last high agonized note reached its goal.
"I am coming, father," responded his daughter. She turned to Arnold and held out her hand.
"God bless you!" she said.
"Is your answer final, Frances?"
"Yes—yes. I wish I had not kept you a week in suspense; it was cruel to you, but I thought—oh, I must not keep my father."
"Your father has you always, and this is my last moment. Then you'll never, never love me?"
"I can not marry you, Philip."
"That is no answer. You never loved me."
"I can not marry you."
"I won't take 'no' unless you say with it, 'I never loved you; I never can love you.'"
"Look at my father, Philip; he is almost falling. His face is crimson. I must go to him. God bless you!"
She took his hand, and absolutely, before the squire's horrified eyes, raised it to her lips, then flew lightly down the path, and joined the old man.
"Is anything wrong, father? How dreadful you look!"
"You—you have accepted the fellow! You have deserted me; I saw you kiss his hand. Fah! it makes me sick. You've accepted him, and I am ruined!"
"On the contrary, I have refused Philip. That kiss was like one we give to the dead. Don't excite yourself; come into the house. I am yours absolutely from this time out."
"Hum—haw—you gave me an awful fright, I can tell you." The squire breathed more freely. "You set that little Fluff on to begin it, and you ended it. I won't be the better of this for some time. Yes, let me lean on you, Frances; it's a comfort to feel I'm not without a daughter. Oh, it would have been a monstrous thing had you deserted me! Did I not rear you, and bring you up? But in cases of the affections—I mean in cases of those paltry passions, women are so weak."
"But not your daughter, Frances Kane. I, for your sake, have been strong. Now, if you please, we will drop the subject; I will not discuss it further. You had better come into the house, father, until you get cool."
"You had a letter this morning, Frances—from Spens, was it not?"
"Oh, yes; I had forgotten; your creditors will accept my terms for the present. I must drive over to Arden this afternoon, and arrange what day I go there."
"I shall miss you considerably, Frances. It's a great pity you couldn't arrange to come home to sleep; you might see to my comforts then by rising a little earlier in the morning. I wish, my dear, you would propose it to Mrs. Carnegie; if she is a woman of any consideration she will see how impossible it is that I should be left altogether."
"I can not do that, father. Even you must pay a certain price for a certain good thing. You do not wish to leave the Firs, but you can not keep both the Firs and me. I will come and see you constantly, but my time from this out belongs absolutely to Mrs. Carnegie. She gives me an unusually large salary, and, being her servant, I must endeavor in all particulars to please her, and must devote my time to her to a certain extent day and night."
"Good gracious, Frances, I do hope that though adversity has come to the house of Kane, you are not going so far to forget yourself as to stoop to menial work at Arden. Why, rather than that—rather than that, it would be better for us to give up the home of our fathers."
"No work need be menial, done in the right spirit," responded Frances.
Her eyes wandered away, far up among the trees, where Arnold still slowly paced up and down. In the cause of pride her father might even be induced to give up the Firs. Was love, then, to weigh nothing in the scale?
She turned suddenly to the father.
"You must rest now," she said. "You need not be the least anxious on your own account any more. You must rest and take things quietly, and do your best not to get ill. It would be very bad for you to be ill now, for there would be no one to nurse you. Remember that, and be careful. Now go and sit in the parlor and keep out of draughts. I can not read to you this morning, for I shall be very busy, and you must not call me nor send for me unless it is absolutely necessary. Now, good-bye for the present."
Frances did not, as her usual custom was, establish her father in his easy-chair; she did not cut his morning paper for him, nor attend to the one or two little comforts which he considered essential; she left him without kissing him, only her full, grave, sorrowful eyes rested for one moment with a look of great pathos on his wrinkled, discontented old face, then she went away.
The squire was alone; even the irritating strain of "Sweethearts" no longer annoyed him. Fluff had ceased to play—Fluff's gay little figure was no longer visible; the man who had paced up and down under the distant trees had disappeared; Frances's gray dress was nowhere to be seen.
The whole place was still, oppressively still—not a bee hummed, not a bird sung. The atmosphere was hot and dry, but there was no sunshine; the trees were motionless, there was a feeling of coming thunder in the air.
The squire felt calmed and triumphant, at the same time he felt irritated and depressed. His anxiety was over; his daughter had done what he wished her to do—the Firs was saved, at least for his lifetime—the marriage he so dreaded was never to be. At the same time, he felt dull and deserted; he knew what it was to have his desire, and leanness in his soul. It would be very dull at the Firs without Frances; he should miss her much when she went away. He was a feeble old man, and he was rapidly growing blind. Who would read for him, and chat with him, and help to while away the long and tedious hours? He could not spend all his time eating and sleeping. What should he do now with all the other hours of the long day and night? He felt pleased with Frances—he owned she was a good girl; but at the same time he was cross with her; she ought to have thought of some other way of delivering him. She was a clever woman—he owned she was a clever woman; but she ought not to have effected his salvation by deserting him.
The squire mumbled and muttered to himself. He rose from his arm-chair and walked to the window; he went out and paced up and down the terrace; he came in again. Was there ever such a long and tiresome morning? He yawned; he did not know what to do with himself.
A little after noon the door of the south parlor was quickly opened and Arnold came in.
"I have just come to say good-bye, sir."
The squire started in genuine amazement. He did not love Arnold, but after two hours of solitude he was glad to hear any human voice. It never occurred to him, too, that any one should feel Frances such a necessity as to alter plans on her account.
"You are going away?" he repeated. "You told me yesterday you would stay here for at least another week or ten days."
"Exactly, but I have changed my mind," said Arnold. "I came here for an object—my object has failed. Good-bye."
"But now, really—" the squire strove to retain the young man's hand in his clasp. "You don't seriously mean to tell me that you are leaving a nice place like the Firs in this fine summer weather because Frances has refused you."
"I am going away on that account," replied Arnold, stiffly. "Good-bye."
"You astonish me—you quite take my breath away. Frances couldn't accept you, you know. She had me to see after. I spoke to you yesterday about her, and I suggested that you should take Fluff instead. A dear little thing, Fluff. Young, and with money; who would compare the two?"
"Who would compare the two?" echoed Arnold. "I repeat, squire, that I must now wish you good-bye, and I distinctly refuse to discuss the subject of my marriage any further."
Arnold's hand scarcely touched Squire Kane's. He left the south parlor, and his footsteps died away in the distance.
Once more there was silence and solitude. The sky grew darker, the atmosphere hotter and denser—a growl of thunder was heard in the distance—a flash of lightning lighted up the squire's room. Squire Kane was very nervous in a storm—at all times he hated to be long alone—now he felt terrified, nervous, aggrieved. He rang his bell pretty sharply.
"Jane," he said to the servant who answered his summons, "send Miss Kane to me at once."
"Miss Kane has gone to Martinstown, sir. She drove in in the pony-cart an hour go."
"Oh—h'm—I suppose Mr. Arnold went with her?"
"No, sir. Mr. Arnold took a short cut across the fields; he says the carrier is to call for his portmanteau, and he's not a-coming back."
"H'm—most inconsiderate—I hate parties broken up in a hurry like this. What a vivid flash that was! Jane, I'm afraid we are going to have an awful storm."
"It looks like it, sir, and the clouds is coming direct this way. Watkins says as the strength of the storm will break right over the Firs, sir."
"My good Jane, I'll thank you to shut the windows, and ask Miss Danvers to have the goodness to step this way."
"Miss Danvers have a headache, sir, and is lying down. She said as no one is to disturb her."
The squire murmured something inarticulate. Jane lingered for a moment at the door, but finding nothing more was required of her, softly withdrew.
Then in the solitude of his south parlor the squire saw the storm come up—the black clouds gathered silently from east and west, a slight shiver shook the trees, a sudden wind agitated the slowly moving clouds—it came between the two banks of dark vapor, and then the thunder rolled and the lightning played. It was an awful storm, and the squire, who was timid at such times, covered his face with his trembling hands, and even feebly tried to pray. It is possible that if Frances had come to him then he would, in the terror fit which had seized him, have given her her heart's desire. Even the Firs became of small account to Squire Kane, while the lightning flashed in his eyes and the thunder rattled over his head. He was afraid—he would have done anything to propitiate the Maker of the storm—he would have even sacrificed himself if necessary.
But the clouds rolled away, the sunshine came out. Fear vanished from the squire's breast, and when dinner was announced he went to partake of it with an excellent appetite. Fluff and he alone had seats at the board; Arnold and Frances were both away.
Fluff's eyes were very red. She was untidy, too, and her whole appearance might best be described by the word "disheveled." She scarcely touched her dinner, and her chattering, merry tongue was silent.
The squire was a man who never could abide melancholy in others. He had had a fright; his fright was over. He was therefore exactly in the mood to be petted and humored, to have his little jokes listened to and applauded, to have his thrice-told tales appreciated. He was just in the mood, also, to listen to pretty nothings from a pretty girl's lips, to hear her sing, perhaps to walk slowly with her by and by in the sunshine.
Fluff's red eyes, however, Fluff's disordered, untidy appearance, her downcast looks, her want of appetite, presented to him, just then, a most unpleasing picture. As his way was, he resented it, and began to grumble.
"I have had a very dull morning," he began.
"Indeed, sir? I won't take any pease, thank you, Jane; I'm not hungry."
"I hate little girls to come to table who are not hungry," growled the squire. "Bring the pease here, Jane."
"Shall I go up to my room again?" asked Fluff, laying down her knife and fork.
"Oh, no, my love; no, not by any means."
The squire was dreadfully afraid of having to spend as solitary an afternoon as morning.
"I am sorry you are not quite well, Fluff," he said, hoping to pacify the angry little maid; "but I suppose it was the storm. Most girls are very much afraid of lightning. It is silly of them; for really in a room with the windows shut—glass, you know, my dear, is a non-conductor—there is not much danger. But there is no combating the terrors of the weaker sex. I can fancy you, Fluff, burying that pretty little head of yours under the bed-clothes. That doubtless accounts for its present rough condition. You should have come to me, my love; I'd have done my best to soothe your nervous fears."
Fluff's blue eyes were opened wide.
"I don't know what you are talking about," she said. "I afraid of the storm, and burying my head under the bed-clothes, as if I were a baby or a silly old man! Yes, of course I knew there was a storm, but I didn't notice it much, I was too busy packing."
This last remark effectually distracted the squire's attention.
"Packing! good gracious, child, you are not going away too?"
"Of course I am; you don't suppose I am going to stay here without my darling Francie?"
"But what am I to do, Fluff?"
"I don't know, squire. I suppose you'll stay on at the Firs."
"Alone! Do you mean I'm to stay here alone?"
"I suppose so, now that you have sent Frances away."
"I have not sent her away. What do you mean, miss?"
"I'm not going to say what I mean," said Fluff. "Dear Frances is very unhappy, and I'm very unhappy too, and Philip, I think, is the most miserable of all. As far as I can tell, all this unhappiness has been caused by you, squire, so I suppose you are happy; but if you think I am going to stay at the Firs without Frances you are very much mistaken. I would not stay with you now on any account, for you are a selfish old man, and I don't love you any longer."
This angry little speech was uttered after Jane had withdrawn, and even while Fluff spoke she pushed some fruit toward the squire.
"You are a selfish old man," she continued, her cheeks burning and her eyes flashing; "you want your comforts, you want to be amused, and to get the best of everything; and if that is so you don't care for others. Well, here is the nicest fruit in the garden—eat it; and by and by I'll sing for you, if my singing gives you pleasure. I'll do all this while I stay, but I'm going away the day after to-morrow. But I don't love you any more, for you are unkind to Frances."
The squire was really too much astonished to reply. Nobody in all his life had ever spoken to him in this way before; he felt like one who was assaulted and beaten all over. He was stunned, and yet he still clung in a sort of mechanical way to the comforts which were dearer to him than life. He picked out the finest strawberries which Fluff had piled on his plate, and conveyed them to his lips. Fluff flew out of the room for her guitar, and when she returned she began to sing a gay Italian air in a very sprightly and effective manner. In the midst of her song the squire broke in with a sudden question.
"What do you mean by saying I am unkind to Frances?"
Fluff's guitar dropped with a sudden clatter to the floor.
"You won't let her marry Philip—she loves him with all her heart, and he loves her. They have cared for each other for ten long years, and now you are parting them. You are a dreadfully, dreadfully selfish old man, and I hate you!"
Here the impulsive little girl burst into tears and ran out of the room. The squire sat long over his strawberries.
"I HATE THE SQUIRE."
It was arranged that Frances should take up her abode at Arden on the following Friday, and on Thursday Fluff was to go to London, to stay—for a time, at least—under the sheltering wings of her late school-mistress, Mrs. Hopkins. With regard to her departure, Fluff made an extraordinary request—she earnestly begged that Frances should not accompany her to Martinstown. She gave no reason for this desire; but she enforced it by sundry pettings, by numerous embraces, by both tears and smiles—in short, by the thousand and one fascinations which the little creature possessed. A certain Mrs. Mansfield was to escort Fluff to London; and Frances arranged that the two should meet at the railway station, and catch the twelve-o'clock train for town.
"I don't want you to introduce her to me, darling," said Fluff. "I can't possibly mistake her, for she is tall, and has a hooked nose, and always wears black, you say. And you know what I am, just exactly like my name; so it will be impossible for us not to recognize each other."
Thus Fluff got her way, and Frances saw her off, not from the railway platform, but standing under the elm-trees where Fluff had first seen her and Arnold together.
When a turn in the road quite hid Frances Kane from the little girl's view she clasped her hands with a mixture of ecstasy and alarm.
"Now I can have my way," she said to herself, "and dear Frances will never, never suspect."
A cab had been sent for to Martinstown to fetch away Fluff and her belongings. The driver was a stranger, and Fluff thought it extremely unlikely that, even if he wished to do so he would be able to tell tales. She arrived in good time at the railway station, instantly assumed a business-like air, looked out for no tall lady with a hooked nose in black, but calmly booked her luggage for a later train, and calling the same cabman, asked him to drive her to the house of the lawyer, Mr. Spens.
The lawyer was at home, and the pretty, excitable little girl was quickly admitted into his presence. Mr. Spens thought he had seldom seen a more radiant little vision than this white-robed, eager, childish creature—childish and yet womanly just then, with both purpose and desire in her face.
"You had my letter, hadn't you?" said Fluff. "I am Ellen Danvers; Miss Kane is my cousin, and my dearest, and most dear friend."
"I have had your letter, Miss Danvers, and I remained at home in consequence. Won't you sit down? What a beautiful day this is!"
"Oh, please, don't waste time over the weather. I am come to talk to you about Frances. You have got to prevent it, you know."
"My dear young lady, to prevent what?"
"Well, she's not to go to Arden. She's not to spend the rest of her days with a dreadful, fanciful old woman! She's to do something else quite different. You've got to prevent Frances making herself and—and—others miserable all her life. Do you hear, Mr. Spens?"
"Yes, I certainly hear, Miss Danvers. But how am I to alter or affect Miss Kane's destiny is more than I can at present say. You must explain yourself. I have a very great regard for Miss Kane; I like her extremely. I will do anything in my power to benefit her; but as she chose entirely of her own free will—without any one, as far as I am aware, suggesting it to her—to become companion to Mrs. Carnegie, I do not really see how I am to interfere."
"Yes, you are," said Fluff, whose eyes were now full of tears. "You are to interfere because you are at the bottom of the mystery. You know why Frances is going to Mrs. Carnegie, and why she is refusing to marry Philip Arnold, who has loved her for ten years, and whom she loves with all her heart. Oh, I can't help telling you this! It is a secret, a kind of secret, but you have got to give me another confidence in return."
"I did not know about Arnold, certainly," responded Spens. "That alters things. I am truly sorry; I am really extremely sorry. Still I don't see how Miss Kane can act differently. She has promised her father now: it is the only way to save him. Poor girl! I am sorry for her, but it is the only way to save the squire."
"Oh, the squire!" exclaimed Fluff, jumping up in her seat, and clasping her hands with vexation. "Who cares for the squire? Is he to have everything. Is nobody to be thought of but him? Why should Frances make all her days wretched on his account? Why should Frances give up the man she is so fond of, just to give him a little more comfort and luxuries that he doesn't want? Look here, Mr. Spens, it is wrong—it must not be! I won't have it!"
Mr. Spens could not help smiling.
"You are very eager and emphatic," he said. "I should like to know how you are going to prevent Miss Kane taking her own way."
"It is not her own way; it is the squire's way."
"Well, it comes to the same thing. How are you to prevent her taking the squire's way?"
"Oh, you leave that to me! I have an idea. I think I can work it through. Only I want you, Mr. Spens, to tell me the real reason why Frances is going away from the Firs, and why she has to live at Arden. She will explain nothing; she only says it is necessary. She won't give any reason either to Philip or me."
"Don't you think, Miss Danvers, I ought to respect her confidence? If she wished you to know, she would tell you herself."
"Oh, please—please tell me! Do tell me! I won't do any mischief, I promise you. Oh, if only you knew how important it is that I should find out!"
The lawyer considered for a moment. Fluff's pretty words and beseeching gestures were having an effect upon him. After all, if there was any chance of benefiting Miss Kane, why should the squire's miserable secret be concealed? After a time he said:
"You look like a child, but I believe you have sense. I suppose whatever I tell you, you intend to repeat straight-way to Mr. Arnold?"
"Well, yes; I certainly mean to tell him."
"Will you promise to tell no one but Arnold?"
"Yes, I can promise that."
"Then the facts are simple enough. The squire owes six thousand pounds to a client of mine in London. My client wants to sell the Firs in order to recover his money. The squire says if he leaves the Firs he must die. Miss Kane comes forward and offers to go as companion to Mrs. Carnegie, Mrs. Carnegie paying her three hundred pounds a year, which sum she hands over to my client as interest at five per cent. on the six thousand pounds. These are the facts of the case in a nutshell, Miss Danvers. Do you understand them?"
"I think I do. I am very much obliged to you. What is the name of your client?"
"You must excuse me, young lady—I can not divulge my client's name."
"But if Philip wanted to know very badly, you would tell him?"
"That depends on the reason he gave for requiring the information."
"I think it is all right, then," said Fluff, rising to her feet. "Good-bye, I am greatly obliged to you. Oh, that dear Frances. Mr. Spens, I think I hate the squire."
If there was a girl that was a prime favorite with her school-fellows, that girl was Ellen Danvers. She had all the qualifications which insure success in school life. She was extremely pretty, but she was unconscious of it; she never prided herself on her looks, she never tried to heighten her loveliness by a thousand little arts which school-girls always find out and despise. She had always plenty of money, which at school, if not elsewhere, is much appreciated. She was generous, she was bright, she was loving; she was not sufficiently clever to make any one envious of her, but at the same time she was so very smart and quick that not the cleverest girl in the school could despise her.
When Fluff went away from Merton House the tribulation experienced on all sides was really severe. The girls put their heads together, and clubbed to present her with a gold bangle, and she in return left them her blessing, a kiss all round, and a pound's worth of chocolate creams.
The school was dull when Fluff went away; she took a place which no one else quite held. She was not at all weak or namby-pamby, but she was a universal peace-maker. Fluff made peace simply by throwing oil on troubled waters, for she certainly was not one to preach; and as to pointing a moral, she did not know the meaning of the word.
It was with great rejoicing, therefore, that the young ladies of Mrs. Hopkins' select seminary were informed on a certain Thursday morning that their idol was about to return to them. She was no longer to take her place in any of the classes; she was to be a parlor boarder, and go in and out pretty much as she pleased; but she was to be in the house again, and they were to see her bright face, and hear her gay laugh, and doubtless she would once more be every one's confidante and friend.
In due course Fluff arrived. It was late when she made her appearance, for she had missed the train by which Frances had intended her to travel. But late as the hour was—past nine o'clock—Fluff found time to pay a visit to the school-room, where the elder girls were finishing preparations for to-morrow, to rush through the dormitories, and kiss each expectant little one.
"It's just delicious!" whispered Sibyl Lake, the youngest scholar in the school. "We have you for the last fortnight before we break up. Just fancy, you will be there to see me if I get a prize!"
"Yes, Sibyl, and if you do I'll give you sixpennyworth of chocolate creams."
Sibyl shouted with joy.
The other children echoed her glee. One of the teachers was obliged to interfere. Fluff vanished to the very select bedroom that she was now to occupy, and order was once more restored.
Fluff's name was now in every one's mouth. Didn't she look prettier than ever? Wasn't she nicer than ever? Hadn't she a wonderfully grown-up air?
One day it was whispered through the school that Fluff had got a lover. This news ran like wildfire from the highest class to the lowest. Little Sibyl asked what a lover meant, and Marion Jones, a lanky girl of twelve, blushed while she answered her.
"It isn't proper to speak about lovers," said Katie Philips. "Mother said we weren't to know anything about them. I asked her once, and that was what she said. She said it wasn't proper for little girls to know about lovers."
"But grown girls have them," responded Marion, "I think it must be captivating. I wish I was grown up."
"You're much too ugly, Marion, to have a lover," responded Mary Mills. "Oh, for goodness' sake, don't get so red and angry! She's going to strike me! Save me, girls!"
"Hush!" exclaimed Katie, "hush! come this way. Look through the lattice. Look through the wire fence just here. Can you see? There's Fluff, and there's her lover. He's rather old, isn't he? But hasn't he l'air distingue? Isn't Fluff pretty when she blushes? The lover is rather tall. Oh, do look, Mary, can you see—can you see?"
"Yes, he has fair hair," responded Mary. "It curls. I'm sorry it is fair and curly, for Fluff's is the same. He should be dark, like a Spaniard. Oh, girls, girls, he has got such lovely blue eyes, and such white teeth! He smiled just now, and I saw them."
"Let me peep," said Marion. "I haven't got one peep yet."
But here the voices became a little loud, and the lovers, if they were lovers, passed out of sight behind the yew hedge.
"That's it," said Fluff when she had finished her story; "it's all explained now. I hope you're obliged to me."
"No brother could love you better, nor appreciate you more than I do, Fluff."
"Thank you; I'll tell you how much I care for those words when you let me know what you are going to do."
Arnold put his hand to his forehead; his face grew grave, he looked with an earnest, half-puzzled glance at the childish creature by his side.
"I really think you are the best girl in the world, and one of the cleverest," he said. "I have a feeling that you have an idea in your head, but I am sorry to say nothing very hopeful up to the present time has occurred to me. It does seem possible, after your explanation, that Frances may love me, and yet refuse me; yes, certainly, that does now seem possible."
"How foolish you are to speak in that doubting tone," half snapped Fluff (certainly, if the girls had seen her now they would have thought she was quarreling with her lover). "How can you say perhaps Frances loves you? Loves you! She is breaking her heart for you. Oh! I could cry when I think of Frances's pain!"
"Dear little friend!" said Arnold. "Then if that is so—God grant it, oh, God grant it—Frances and I must turn to you to help us."
Fluff's face brightened.
"I will tell you my plan," she said. "But first of all you must answer me a question."
"What is it? I will answer anything."
"You said you would call me Philip."
"Oh, well, Philip—I rather like the name of Philip—Philip, are you a rich man?"
"That depends on what you call riches, Fluff. I have brought fifteen thousand pounds with me from the other side of the world. I took five years earning it, for all those five years I lived as a very poor man, I was adding penny to penny, and pound to pound, to Frances's fortune."
"That is right," exclaimed Fluff, clapping her hands. "Frances's fortune—then, of course, then you will spend it in saving her."
"I would spend every penny to save her, if I only knew how."
"How stupid you are," said Fluff. "Oh, if only I were a man!"
"What would you do, if you were?"
"What would I not do? You have fifteen thousand pounds, and Frances is in all this trouble because of six thousand pounds. Shall I tell you, must I tell you what you ought to do?"
"Please—pray tell me."
"Oh, it is so easy. You must get the name of the old horror in London to whom the squire owes six thousand pounds, and you must give him six out of your fifteen, and so pay off the squire's debt. You must do this and—and—"
"Yes, Fluff; I really do think you are the cleverest little girl I ever came across."
"The best part is to come now," said Fluff. "Then you go to the squire; tell him that you will sell the Firs over his head, unless he allows you to marry Frances. Oh, it is so easy, so, so delightful!"
"Give me your hand, Fluff. Yes, I see light—yes. God bless you, Fluff!"
"There is no doubt she has accepted him," reported Mary Mills to her fellows. "They have both appeared again around the yew hedge, and he has taken her hand, and he is smiling. Oh, he is lovely when he smiles!"
"I wish I was grown up," sighed Marion, from behind. "I'd give anything in all the world to have a lover."
"It will be interesting to watch Fluff at supper to-night," exclaimed Katie Philips. "Of course she'll look intensely happy. I wonder if she'll wear an engagement-ring."
The supper hour came. Fluff took her seat among the smaller girls; her face was radiant enough to satisfy the most exacting, but her small dimpled fingers were bare.
"Why do you all stare at my hands so?" she exclaimed once.
"It's on account of the ring," whispered little Sibyl. "Hasn't he given you the ring yet?"
"Who is 'he,' dear?"
"Oh, I wasn't to say. His name is Mr. Lover."
Mrs. Carnegie could scarcely be considered the most cheerful companion in the world. There was a general sense of rejoicing when Frances took up her abode at Arden, but the victim who was to spend the greater part of her life in Mrs. Carnegie's heated chambers could scarcely be expected to participate in it. This good lady having turned her thoughts inward for so long, could only see the world from this extremely narrow standpoint. She was hypochondriacal, she was fretful, and although Frances managed her, and, in consequence, the rest of the household experienced a good deal of ease, Frances herself, whose heart just now was not of the lightest, could not help suffering. Her cheeks grew paler, her figure slighter and thinner. She could only cry at night, but then she certainly cried a good deal.
On a certain sunny afternoon, Mrs. Carnegie, who thought it her bounden duty on all occasions to look out for grievances, suddenly took it upon herself to complain of Frances's looks.
"It is not that you are dull, my dear," she remarked. "You are fairly cheerful, and your laugh is absolutely soothing; but you are pale, dreadfully pale, and pallor jars on my nerves, dear. Yes, I assure you, in the sensitive state of my poor nerves a pale face like yours is absolutely excruciating to them, darling."
"I am very sorry," replied Frances. She had been a month with Mrs. Carnegie now, and the changed life had certainly not improved her. "I am very sorry." Then she thought a moment. "Would you like to know why I am pale?"
"How interesting you are, my love—so different from every other individual that comes to see me. It is good for my poor nerves to have my attention distracted to any other trivial matter? Tell me, dearest, why you are so pallid. I do trust the story is exciting—I need excitement, my darling. Is it an affair of the heart, precious?"
Frances's face grew very red. Even Mrs. Carnegie ought to have been satisfied for one brief moment with her bloom.
"I fear I can only give you a very prosaic reason," she said, in her gentle, sad voice. "I have little or no color because I am always shut up in hot rooms, and because I miss the open-air life to which I was accustomed."
Mrs. Carnegie tried to smile, but a frown came between her brows.
"That means," she said, "that you would like to go out. You would leave your poor friend in solitude."
"I would take my friend with me," responded Frances. "And she should have the pleasure of seeing the color coming back into my cheeks."
"And a most interesting sight it would be, darling. But oh, my poor, poor nerves! The neuralgia in my back is positively excruciating at this moment, dearest. I am positively on the rack; even a zephyr would slay me."
"On the contrary," replied Frances in a firm voice, "you would be strengthened and refreshed by the soft, sweet air outside. Come, Mrs. Carnegie, I am your doctor and nurse, as well as your friend, and I prescribe a drive in the open air for you this morning. After dinner, too, your sofa, shall be placed in the arbor; in short, I intend you to live out-of-doors while this fine weather lasts."
"Ah, dear imperious one! And yet you will kill me with this so-called kindness."
"On the contrary, I will make you a strong woman if I can. Now I am going to ring to order the carriage."
She bustled about, had her way, and to the amazement of every one Mrs. Carnegie submitted to a drive for an hour in an open carriage.
All the time they were out Frances regaled her with the stories of the poor and suffering people. She told her stories with great skill, knowing just where to leave off, and just the points that would be most likely to interest her companion. So interesting did she make herself that never once during the drive was Mrs. Carnegie heard to mention the word "nerves," and so practical and to the point were her words that the rich woman's purse was opened, and two five-pound notes were given to Frances to relieve those who stood most in need of them.
"Positively I am better," explained Mrs. Carnegie, as she ate her dainty dinner with appetite.
An hour later she was seated cosily in the arbor which faced down the celebrated Rose Walk, a place well known to all the visitors at Arden.
"You are a witch," she said to Frances; "for positively I do declare the racking, torturing pain in my back is easier. The jolting of the carriage ought to have made it ten times worse, but it didn't. I positively can't understand it, my love."
"You forget," said Frances, "that although the jolting of the carriage might have tried your nerves a very little, the soft, sweet air and change of scene did them good."
"And your conversation, dearest—the limpid notes of that sweetest voice. Ah, Frances, your tales were harrowing!"
"Yes; but they were more harrowing to be lived through. You, dear Mrs. Carnegie, to-day have relieved a certain amount of this misery."
"Ah, my sweet, how good your words sound! They are like balm to this tempest-tossed heart and nerve-racked form. Frances dear, we have an affinity one for the other. I trust it may be our fate to live and die together."
Frances could scarcely suppress a slight shudder. Mrs. Carnegie suddenly caught her arm.
"Who is that radiant-looking young creature coming down the Rose Walk?" she exclaimed. "See—ah, my dear Frances, what a little beauty! What style! what exquisite bloom!"
"Why, it is Fluff!" exclaimed Frances.
She rushed from Mrs. Carnegie's side, and the next moment Miss Danvers's arms were round her neck.
"Yes, I've come, Frances," she exclaimed. "I have really come back. And who do you think I am staying with?"
"Oh, Fluff—at the Firs! It would be kind of you to cheer my poor old father up with a visit."
"But I'm not cheering him up with any visit—I'm not particularly fond of him. I'm staying with Mr. and Mrs. Spens."
Frances opened her eyes very wide; she felt a kind of shock, and a feeling almost of disgust crept over her.
"Mr. Spens? Surely you don't mean my father's lawyer, Mr. Spens, who lives in Martinstown, Fluff?"
"Yes, I don't mean anybody else."
"But I did not think you knew him."
"I did not when last I saw you, but I do now—very well, oh, very well indeed. He's a darling."
"Fluff! How can you speak of dull old Mr. Spens in that way? Well, you puzzle me. I don't know why you are staying with him."
"You are not going to know just at present, dearest Francie. There's a little bit of a secret afloat. Quite a harmless, innocent secret, which I promise you will break nobody's heart. I like so much being with Mr. Spens, and so does Philip—Philip is there, too."
"Philip? Then they are engaged," thought Frances. "It was very soon. It is all right, of course, but it is rather a shock. Poor little Fluff—dear Philip—may they be happy!"
She turned her head away for a moment, then, with a white face, but steady, quiet eyes, said in her gentlest tones:
"Am I to congratulate you, then, Fluff?"
"Yes, you are—yes, you are. Oh, I am so happy, and everything is delicious! It's going on beautifully. I mean the—the affair—the secret. Frances, I left Philip at the gate. He would like to see you so much. Won't you go down and have a chat with him?"
"I can not; you forget that I am Mrs. Carnegie's companion. I am not my own mistress."
"That thin, cross-looking woman staring at us out of the bower yonder? Oh, I'll take care of her. I promise you I'll make myself just as agreeable as you can. There, run down, run down—I see Philip coming to meet you. Oh, what a cold wretch you are, Frances! You don't deserve a lover like Philip Arnold—no, you don't."
"He is not my lover, he is yours."
"Mine? No, thank you—there, he is walking down the Rose-path. He is sick of waiting, poor fellow! I am off to Mrs. Carnegie. Oh, for goodness' sake, Francie, don't look so foolish!"
Fluff turned on her heel, put wings to her feet, and in a moment, panting and laughing, stood by Mrs. Carnegie's side.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," she exclaimed when she could speak. "I know who you are, and I am dear Frances's cousin, Fluff. I know you would not mind giving the poor thing a chance, and allowing me to stay and try to entertain you for a little."
"Sit down, my dear, sit down. You really are a radiant little vision. It is really most entertaining to me to see anything so fresh and pretty. I must congratulate you on the damask roses you wear in your cheeks, my pretty one."
"Thank you very much; I know I have plenty of color. Do you mind sitting a little bit, just so—ah, that is right. Now we'll have our backs to the poor things, and they'll feel more comfortable."
"My dear, extraordinary, entertaining little friend, what poor things do you mean?"
"Why, Frances and—"
"Frances—my companion—Frances Kane?"
"Yes, your companion. Only she oughtn't to be your companion, and she won't be long. Your companion, and my darling cousin, Frances Kane, and her lover."
"Her lover! I knew there was a love affair. That accounts for the pallor! Oh, naughty Frances; oh, cruel maiden, to deceive your Lucilla! I felt it, I guessed it, it throbbed in the air. Frances and her lover! My child, I adore lovers—let me get a peep at him. Dear Frances, dear girl! And is the course of true love going smoothly, miss—miss—I really don't know your name, my little charmer."
"My name is Fluff—please don't look round. It's a very melancholy love affair just at present, but I'm making it right."
"My little bewitching one, I would embrace you, but my poor miserable nerves won't permit of the least exertion. And so Frances, my Frances, has a lover! It was wrong of her, darling, not to tell of this."
"She gave him up to come to you."
"Oh, the noble girl! But do you think, my child, I would permit such a sacrifice? No, no; far rather would Lucilla Carnegie bury her sorrows in the lonely tomb. Lend me your handkerchief, sweet one—I can't find my own, and my tears overflow. Ah, my Frances, my Frances, I always knew you loved me, but to this extent—oh, it is too much!"
"But she didn't do it for you," said Fluff. "She wanted the money to help her father—he's such a cross, selfish old man. He wouldn't let her marry Philip, although Philip loved her for ten years, and saved all his pence in Australia to try and get enough money to marry her, and was nearly eaten himself by the blacks, but never forgot her day or night—and she loved him beyond anything. Don't you think, Mrs. Carnegie, that they ought to be married? Don't you think so?"
"My child, my little fair one, you excite me much. Oh, I shall suffer presently! But now your enthusiasm carries that of Lucilla Carnegie along with you. Yes, they ought to be married."
"Mrs. Carnegie, they must be married. I'm determined, and so is Philip, and so is Mr. Spens. Won't you be determined too?"
"Yes, my child. But, oh, what shall I not lose in my Frances? Forgive one tear for myself—my little rose in June."
"You needn't fret for yourself at all. You'll be ever so happy when you've done a noble thing. Now listen. This is our little plot—only first of all promise, promise most faithfully, that you won't say a word to Frances."
"I promise, my child. How intensely you arouse my curiosity! Really I begin to live."
"You won't give Frances a hint?"
"No, no, you may trust me, little bright one."
"Well, I do trust you. I know you won't spoil all our plans. You'll share them and help us. Oh, what a happy woman you'll be by and by! Now listen."
Then Fluff seated herself close to Mrs. Carnegie, and began to whisper an elaborately got-up scheme into that lady's ear, to all of which she listened with glowing eyes, her hands clasping Fluff's, her attention riveted on the sweet and eager face.
"It's my plot," concluded the narrator. "Philip doesn't much like it—not some of it—but I say that I will only help him in my own way."
"My dear love, I don't think I ever heard anything more clever and original, and absolutely to the point."
"Now did you? I can't sleep at night, thinking of it—you'll be sure to help me?"
"Help you? With my heart, my life, my purse!"
"Oh, we don't want your purse. You see there's plenty of money; there's the fortune Philip made for Frances. It would be a great pity anything else should rescue her from this dilemma."
"Oh, it is so sweetly romantic!" said Mrs. Carnegie, clasping her hands.
"Yes, that's what I think. You'll be quite ready when the time comes?"
"Oh, quite. More than ready, my brightest fairy!"
"Well, here comes Frances—remember, you're not to let out a word, a hint. I think I've amused Mrs. Carnegie quite nicely, Francie."
Frances's cheeks had that delicate bloom on them which comes now and then as a special and finishing touch, as the last crown of beauty to very pale faces. Her eyes were soft, and her dark eyelashes were still a little wet with some tears which were not unhappy ones.
"Philip wrung a confession out of me," she whispered to her little cousin. "No, Fluff—no, dear Fluff, it does no good—no good whatever. Still, I am almost glad I told him."
"You told him what?"
"I won't say. It can never come to anything."
"I know what you said—you have made Philip very happy, Frances. Now I must run away."
THE FIRS OR FRANCES?
It is necessary for some people to go away to be missed. There are certain very quiet people in the world, who make no fuss, who think humbly of themselves, who never on any occasion blow their own trumpets, who under all possible circumstances keep in the background, but who yet have a knack of filling odd corners, of smoothing down sharp angles, of shedding the sunshine of kindness and unselfishness over things generally. There are such people, and they are seldom very much missed until they go away.
Then there is a hue and cry. Who did this? Whose duty was the other? Where is such a thing to be found? Will nobody attend to this small but necessary want? The person who never made any talk, but did all the small things, and made all the other people comfortable, is suddenly missed, and in an instant his or her virtues are discovered.
This was the case at the Firs when Frances on a certain morning drove away.
Watkins missed her—the stable-boy, the house-servant—the cat, the dog—many other domestic pets—and most of all, Squire Kane.
He was not neglected, but he had a sense of loneliness which began at the moment he awoke, and never left him till he went to sleep again.
He had his meals regularly; he was called in good time in the morning; the new housekeeper lighted his candle and brought it to him at night; his favorite fruit and his favorite flowers were still set before him, and the newspaper he liked best always lay by his plate at breakfast-time. Watkins was really an excellent gardener, and the ribbon border still bloomed and flourished, the birds sung in the trees as of yore, the lawn was smoothly kept. It was early September now, but the old place never looked gayer, sweeter, brighter. Still, somehow or other the squire was dull. His newspaper was there, but there was no one to cut it, no one to read it aloud to him. The flowers were making a wonderful bloom, but there was no special person to talk them over with. He had no one to tell his thoughts to, no one to criticise, no one to praise, and—saddest want of all to a nature like his—not a soul in the world to blame.
Really, Frances was very much missed; he could not quite have believed it before she went, for she was such a quiet, grave woman, but there wasn't the least doubt on the subject. She had a way of making a place pleasant and home-like. Although she was so quiet herself, wherever she went the sun shone. It was quite remarkable how she was missed—even the Firs, even the home of his ancestors, was quite dull without her.
Frances had been away for five weeks, and the squire was beginning to wonder if he could endure much more of his present monotonous life, when one day, as he was passing up and down in the sunny South Walk, he was startled, and his attention pleasingly diverted by the jangling sweet sound of silver bells. A smart little carriage, drawn by a pair of Arab ponies, and driven by a lady, drew up somewhere in the elm avenue; a girl in white jumped lightly out, and ran toward him.
"Good gracious!" he said to himself, "why, it's that dear little Fluff. Well, I am glad to see her."
He hobbled down the path as fast as he could, and as Fluff drew near, sung out cheerily:
"Now this is a pleasing surprise! But welcome to the Firs, my love—welcome most heartily to the Firs."
"Thank you, squire," replied Fluff. "I've come to see you on a most important matter. Shall we go into the house, or may I talk to you here?"
"I hope, my dear, that you have come to say that you are going to pay me another visit—I do hope that is your important business. Your little room can be got ready in no time, and your guitar—I hope you've brought your guitar, my dear. It really is a fact, but I haven't had one scrap of entertainment since Frances went away—preposterous, is it not?"
"Well, of course I knew you'd miss her," said Fluff in a tranquil voice. "I always told you there was no one in the world like Frances."
"Yes, my dear, yes—I will own, yes, undoubtedly, Frances, for all she is so quiet, and not what you would call a young person, is a good deal missed in the place. But you have not answered my query yet, Fluff. Have you come to stay?"
"No, I've not come to stay; at least, I think not. Squire, I am glad you appreciate dear Frances at last."
"Of course, my love, of course. A good creature—not young, but a good, worthy creature. It is a great affliction to me, being obliged, owing to sad circumstances, to live apart from my daughter. I am vexed that you can not pay me a little visit, Fluff. Whose carriage was that you came in? and what part of the world are you staying in at present?"
"That dear little pony-trap belongs to Mrs. Carnegie, of Arden; and her niece, Mrs. Passmore, drove me over. I am staying with Mr. and Mrs. Spens, at Martinstown."
"Spens the lawyer?"
"Yes, Spens the lawyer. I may stay with him if I like, may I not? I am a great friend of his. He sent me over here to-day to see you on most important business."
"My dear Fluff! Really, if Spens has business with me, he might have the goodness to come here himself."
"He couldn't—he has a very bad influenza cold; he's in bed with it. That was why I offered to come. Because the business is so very important."
"How came he to talk over my affairs with a child like you?"
"Well, as you'll learn presently, they happen to be my affairs too. He thought, as he couldn't stir out of his bed, and I knew all the particulars, that I had better come over and explain everything to you, as the matter is of such great importance, and as a decision must be arrived at to-day."
Fluff spoke with great eagerness. Her eyes were glowing, her cheeks burning, and there wasn't a scrap of her usual fun about her.
In spite of himself the squire was impressed.
"I can not imagine what you have to say to me," he said; "but perhaps we had better go into the house."
"I think we had," said Fluff; "for as what I have got to say will startle you a good deal, you had better sit in your favorite arm-chair, and have some water near you in case you feel faint."
As she spoke she took his hand, led him through the French windows into his little parlor, and seated him comfortably in his favorite chair.
"Now I'll begin," said Fluff. "You must not interrupt me, although I'm afraid you will be a little startled. You have mortgaged the Firs for six thousand pounds."
"My dear Ellen!"—an angry flush rose in the squire's cheeks. "Who has informed you with regard to my private affairs? Frances has done very—"
"Frances has had nothing to say to it; I won't go on if you interrupt me. You have mortgaged the Firs for six thousand pounds, to some people of the name of Dawson & Blake, in London. Frances lives at Arden, in order to pay them three hundred pounds a year interest on the mortgage."
"Yes, yes; really, Frances—really, Spens—"
"Now do stop talking; how can I tell my story if you interrupt every minute? Messrs. Dawson & Blake were very anxious to get back their money, and they wanted to sell the Firs in order to realize it. Mr. Spens had the greatest work in the world to get them to accept Frances's noble offer. He put tremendous pressure to bear, and at last, very unwillingly, they yielded."
"Well, well, my dear"—the squire wiped the moisture from his brow—"they have yielded, that is the great thing—that is the end of the story; at least, for the present."
"No, it is not the end of the story," said Fluff, looking up angrily into the old man's face. "You were quite satisfied, for it seemed all right to you; you were to stay on quietly here, and have your comforts, and the life you thought so pleasant; and Frances was to give up Philip Arnold, whom she loves, and go away to toil and slave and be miserable. Oh, it was all right for you, but it was bitterly all wrong for Frances!"
"My dear little Fluff, my dear Ellen, pray try and compose yourself; I assure you my side of the bargain is dull, very dull. I am alone; I have no companionship. Not a living soul who cares for me is now to be found at the Firs. My side is not all sunshine, Fluff; and I own it—yes, I will own it, Fluff; I miss Frances very much."
"I am glad of that; I am very glad. Now I am coming to the second part of my story. A week ago Mr. Spens had a letter from Messrs. Dawson & Blake to say that they had sold their mortgage on the Firs to a stranger—a man who had plenty of money, but who had taken a fancy to the Firs, and who wished to get it cheap."
The squire sat upright on his chair.
"Mr. Spens wrote at once to the new owner of the mortgage, and asked him if he would take five per cent. interest on his money, and not disturb you while you lived. Mr. Spens received a reply yesterday, and it is because of that I am here now."
The squire's face had grown very white; his lips trembled a little.
"What was the reply?" he asked. "Really—really, a most extraordinary statement; most queer of Spens not to come to me himself about it. What was the reply, Fluff?"
"I told you Mr. Spens was ill and in bed. The stranger's reply was not favorable to your wishes. He wishes for the Firs; he has seen the place, and would like to live there. He says you must sell; or, there is another condition."
"What is that? This news is most alarming and disquieting. What is the other condition—the alternative?"
Fluff rose, yawned slightly, and half turned her back to the squire.
"It is scarcely worth naming," she said, in a light and indifferent voice; "for as Frances loves Philip, of course she would not think of marrying any one else. But it seems that this stranger, when he was poking about the place, had caught sight of Frances, and he thought her very beautiful and very charming. In short, he fell in love with her, and he says if you will let him marry her, that he and she can live here, and you need never stir from the Firs. I mention this," said Fluff; "but of course there's no use in thinking of it, as Frances loves Philip."
"But there is a great deal of use in thinking of it, my dear; I don't know what you mean by talking in that silly fashion. A rich man falls in love with my daughter. Really, Frances must be much better-looking than I gave her credit for. This man, who practically now owns the Firs, wishes to release me from all difficulties if I give him Frances. Of course I shall give him Frances. It is an admirable arrangement. Frances would be most handsomely provided for, and I shall no longer be lonely with my daughter and son-in-law residing at the Firs."
"But Frances loves Philip!"
"Pooh! a boy-and-girl affair. My dear, I never did, and never will, believe in anything between Frances and Arnold. I always said Arnold should be your husband."
"I don't want him, thank you."
"Frances was always a good girl," continued the squire; "an excellent, good, obedient girl. She refused Philip because I told her to, and now she'll marry this stranger because I wish her to. Really, my dear, on the whole, your news is pleasant; only, by the way, you have not told me the name of the man who now holds my mortgage."
"He particularly wishes his name to be kept a secret for the present, but he is a nice fellow; I have seen him. I think, if Frances could be got to consent to marry him, he would make her an excellent husband."
"My dear, she must consent. Leave my daughter to me; I'll manage her."
"Well, the stranger wants an answer to-day."
"How am I to manage that? I must write to Frances, or see her. Here she is at this moment, driving down the avenue with Mrs. Carnegie. Well, that is fortunate. Now, Fluff, you will take my part; but, of course, Frances will do what I wish."
"You can ask her, squire. I'm going to walk about outside with Mrs. Carnegie."
"And you won't take my part?"
"I won't take anybody's part. I suppose Frances can make up her own mind."
When Miss Kane came into her father's presence her eyes were brighter, and her lips wore a happier expression than the squire had seen on them for many a long day. She stepped lightly, and looked young and fresh.
Fluff and Mrs. Carnegie paced up and down in the South Walk. Mrs. Carnegie could walk now, and she was certainly wonderfully improved in appearance.
"Beloved little fairy," she whispered to her companion, "this excitement almost overpowers me. It was with the utmost difficulty I could control myself as we drove over. Our sweet Frances looks happy, but I do not think she suspects anything. Dear little one, are you certain, quite certain, that the hero of the hour has really arrived?"
"Philip? I have locked him up in the dining-room," said Fluff, "and he is pacing up and down there now like a caged lion. I do hope the squire will be quick, or he'll certainly burst the lock of the door."
The two ladies paced the South Walk side by side.
"We'll give them half an hour," said Fluff.
When this time had expired, she took Mrs. Carnegie's hand, and they both approached the open windows of the squire's parlor. When the squire saw them he rose and confronted them. Angry red spots were on his cheeks; his hands trembled. Frances was seated at the table; she looked very pale, and as the two ladies approached she was wiping some tears silently from her eyes.
"Yes, look at her," said the squire, who was almost choking with anger. "She refuses him—she absolutely refuses him! She is satisfied that her poor old father shall end his days in the work-house, rather than unite herself to an amiable and worthy man, who can amply provide for her. Oh, it is preposterous! I have no patience with her; she won't even listen to me. Not a word I say has the smallest effect."
"No, Frances, I won't listen to any of your 'becauses.' But never, never again even profess to care for your father. Don't waste words, my child; for words are empty when they are not followed by deeds."
"I must take an answer to Mr. Spens to-day," said Fluff. "Perhaps, if Frances thought a little, she would change her mind."
These words seemed to sting Frances, who rose quickly to her feet.
"You know why I can not help my father in this particular," she said. "Oh, I think, between you all, you will drive me mad."
"Perhaps," said Fluff, suddenly—"perhaps if you saw the gentleman, Frances, you might be able to give a different answer. He really is very nice, and—and—the fact is, he's very impatient. He has arrived—he is in the dining room."
"The gentleman who has purchased the mortgage is in the dining-room!" said the squire.
He rubbed his hands gleefully.
"Excellent! Frances will never be so rude as to refuse a rich man to his face. I look upon him already as our deliverer. I, for my part, shall give him a hearty welcome, and will assure him, if he will only give me time, that I will not leave a stone unturned to overcome my daughter's absurd infatuation. Frances, do you hear me? I desire you to behave politely to the stranger when he comes."
"Perhaps I had better go away," said Frances.
"No, no, dear Frances; do stay," pleaded Fluff. "I'll go and fetch the gentleman; I know him; he is really very nice."
She darted away.
Frances turned her back to the window.
"You know, father, all I have done for you," she said, her beautiful eyes shining and her slim figure very erect. "I have loved Philip—oh, so deeply, so faithfully!—for ten years. For five of these years I thought he was in his grave; and my heart went there, too, with him. Then he came back, and I was very happy; for I found that he had loved me, and thought of me alone, also, all that long, long time. I was happy then, beyond words, and no woman ever more fervently thanked God. Then—then—you know what happened. I gave Philip up. I consented to let my light, my hope, and my joy die out. I did that for you; but I did not consent to let my love die; and I tell you now, once and for all, that my love will never die; and that, as I so love Philip, I can never, even for your sake, marry any one but Philip!"
"Oh, Francie! Francie!" suddenly exclaimed a joyful little voice. "No one in all the world wants you to marry any one else! The stranger isn't a stranger. Say 'Yes' to your father and to Philip at the same time."
Frances turned; Arnold stepped in through the open window and put his arm round her.
"Now, sir," he said, holding Frances's hand, and turning to the squire, "which am I to have—the Firs or Frances?"
Of course everybody present knew the answer, so there is no need to record it here.
MONSIEUR THE VISCOUNT'S FRIEND.
A TALE IN THREE CHAPTERS
"Sweet are the vses of aduersitie Which like the toad, ougly and venemous, Weares yet a precious Iewell in his head."
AS YOU LIKE IT: A.D. 1623.
It was the year of grace 1779. In one of the most beautiful corners of beautiful France stood a grand old chateau. It was a fine old building, with countless windows large and small, with high pitched roofs and pointed towers, which, in good taste or bad, did its best to be everywhere ornamental, from the gorgon heads which frowned from its turrets to the long row of stables and the fantastic dovecotes. It stood (as became such a castle) upon an eminence, and looked down. Very beautiful indeed was what it looked upon. Terrace below terrace glowed with the most brilliant flowers, and broad flights of steps led from one garden to the other. On the last terrace of all, fountains and jets of water poured into one large basin, in which were gold and silver fish. Beyond this were shady walks, which led to a lake on which floated waterlilies and swans. From the top of the topmost flight of steps you could see the blazing gardens one below the other, the fountains and the basin, the walks and the lake, and beyond these the trees, and the smiling country, and the blue sky of France.
Within the castle, as without, beauty reigned supreme. The sunlight, subdued by blinds and curtains, stole into rooms furnished with every grace and luxury that could be procured in a country that then accounted itself the most highly-civilized in the world. It fell upon beautiful flowers and beautiful china, upon beautiful tapestry and pictures; and it fell upon Madame the Viscountess, sitting at her embroidery. Madame the Viscountess was not young, but she was not the least beautiful object in those stately rooms. She had married into a race of nobles who (themselves famed for personal beauty) had been scrupulous in the choice of lovely wives. The late Viscount (for Madame was a widow) had been one of the handsomest of the gay courtiers of his day; and Madame had not been unworthy of him. Even now, though the roses on her cheeks were more entirely artificial than they had been in the days of her youth, she was like some exquisite piece of porcelain. Standing by the embroidery frame was Madame's only child, a boy who, in spite of his youth, was already Monsieur the Viscount. He also was beautiful. His exquisitely-cut mouth had a curl which was the inheritance of scornful generations, but which was redeemed by his soft violet eyes and by natural amiability reflected on his face. His hair was cut square across the forehead, and fell in natural curls behind. His childish figure had already been trained in the fencing school, and had gathered dignity from perpetually treading upon shallow steps and in lofty rooms. From the rosettes on his little shoes to his chapeau a plumes, he also was like some porcelain figure. Surely, such beings could not exist except in such a chateau as this, where the very air (unlike that breathed by common mortals) had in the ante-rooms a faint aristocratic odor, and was for yards round Madame the Viscountess dimly suggestive of frangipani! Monsieur the Viscount did not stay long by the embroidery frame; he was entertaining to-day a party of children from the estate, and had come for the key of an old cabinet of which he wished to display the treasures. When tired of this, they went out on to the terrace, and one of the children who had not been there before exclaimed at the beauty of the view.
"It is true," said the little Viscount, carelessly, "and all, as far as you can see, is the estate."
"I will throw a stone to the end of your property, Monsieur," said one of the boys, laughing; and he picked one off the walk, and stepping back, flung it with all his little strength. The stone fell before it had passed the fountains, and the failure was received with shouts of laughter.
"Let us see who can beat that," they cried; and there was a general search for pebbles, which were flung at random among the flower-beds.
"One may easily throw such as those," said the Viscount, who was poking under the wall of the first terrace; "but here is a stone that one may call a stone. Who will send this into the fish-pond? It will make a fountain of itself."
The children drew round him as, with ruffles turned back, he tugged and pulled at a large dirty-looking stone, which was half-buried in the earth by the wall. "Up it comes!" said the Viscount, at length; and sure enough, up it came; but underneath it, his bright eyes shining out of his dirty wrinkled body—horror of horrors!—there lay a toad. Now, even in England, toads are not looked upon with much favor, and a party of English children would have been startled by such a discovery. But with French people, the dread of toads is ludicrous in its intensity. In France toads are believed to have teeth, to bite, and to spit poison; so my hero and his young guests must be excused for taking flight at once with a cry of dismay. On the next terrace, however, they paused, and seeing no signs of the enemy, crept slowly back again. The little Viscount (be it said) began to feel ashamed of himself and led the way, with his hand upon the miniature sword which hung at his side. All eyes were fixed upon the fatal stone, when from behind it was seen slowly to push forth, first a dirty wrinkled leg, and then half a dirty wrinkled head, with one gleaming eye. It was too much; with cries of, "It is he! he comes! he spits! he pursues us!" the young guests of the chateau fled in good earnest, and never stopped until they reached the fountain and the fish-pond.
But Monsieur the Viscount stood his ground. At the sudden apparition the blood rushed to his heart, and made him very white, then it flooded back again and made him very red, and then he fairly drew his sword, and shouting, "Vive la France!" rushed upon the enemy. The sword if small was sharp, and stabbed the poor toad would most undoubtedly have been, but for a sudden check received by the valiant little nobleman. It came in the shape of a large heavy hand that seized Monsieur the Viscount with the grasp of a giant, while a voice which could only have belonged to the owner of such a hand said in slow deep tones,
"Que faites-vous?" ("What are you doing?")
It was the tutor, who had been pacing up and down the terrace with a book, and who now stood holding the book in his right hand, and our hero in his left.
Monsieur the Viscount's tutor was a remarkable man. If he had not been so, he would hardly have been tolerated at the chateau, since he was not particularly beautiful, and not especially refined. He was in holy orders, as his tonsured head and clerical costume bore witness—a costume which, from its tightness and simplicity, only served to exaggerate the unusual proportions of his person. Monsieur the Preceptor, had English blood in his veins, and his northern origin betrayed itself in his towering height and corresponding breadth, as well as by his fair hair and light blue eyes. But the most remarkable parts of his outward man were his hands, which were of immense size, especially about the thumbs. Monsieur the Preceptor was not exactly in keeping with his present abode. It was not only that he was wanting in the grace and beauty that reigned around him, but that his presence made those very graces and beauties to look small. He seemed to have a gift the reverse of that bestowed upon King Midas—the gold on which his heavy hand was laid seemed to become rubbish. In the presence of the late Viscount, and in that of Madame his widow, you would have felt fully the deep importance of your dress being a la mode, and your complexion a la strawberries and cream (such influences still exist); but let the burly tutor appear upon the scene, and all the magic died at once out of brocaded silks and pearl-colored stockings, and dress and complexion became subjects almost of insignificance. Monsieur the Preceptor was certainly a singular man to have been chosen as an inmate of such a household; but, though young, he had unusual talents, and added to them the not more usual accompaniments of modesty and trustworthiness. To crown all, he was rigidly pious in times when piety was not fashionable, and an obedient son of the church of which he was a minister. Moreover, a family that fashion does not permit to be demonstratively religious, may gain a reflected credit from an austere chaplain; and so Monsieur the Preceptor remained in the chateau and went his own way. It was this man who now laid hands on the Viscount, and, in a voice that sounded like amiable thunder, made the inquiry, "Que faites-vous?"