Linda and her friends, Rose and Mabel Armitage, with several other girls, formed quite a clique in the school against Stephanotie and what she termed her "set"; and now to think that this very objectionable American girl was to spend the next day at The Laurels because Molly, forsooth! wished it, was quite intolerable.
Linda thought for a moment, then went into the room where her mother was busy writing. Mrs. Hartrick had just finished her letter. She looked up when Linda approached.
"Well, darling?" she said. Mrs. Hartrick was very fond of Linda, and petted her a great deal more than Molly.
"Oh, mother! I am vexed," said Linda. "Is it quite settled?"
"Is what settled, my dear?"
"Is it quite settled that Stephanotie is to come to-morrow?"
"By the way, I was going to ask you about her, Linda. What sort of girl is she?"
"I do not wish to say anything against my schoolfellows, mother; but if you could only see her—"
Mrs. Hartrick raised her eyebrows in alarm.
"Molly has taken so violently to her," she answered, "and so has Nora; and I thought that just for once—"
"So you have given leave, mother?"
"Yes; I have."
"And my friends are coming—those two charming girls, the Armitages."
"Yes, dear; I greatly admire both the Armitage girls. I am glad they are coming; but why should not Miss Miller come also?"
"Only, she is not in their 'set,' mother—that is all. I wish—I do wish you would ask her to postpone her visit. If she must come, let her come another Saturday."
"I will think about it," said Mrs. Hartrick. "I have certainly promised and——But I will think about it."
Linda saw that she could not press her mother any further. She went away in great disquietude.
"What is to be done?" she thought. "If only mother would speak to Molly at once; but Molly is so impetuous; and once Stephanotie is asked, there will be no getting out of it. She is just the sort of girl to tell that unpleasant story about me, too. If mother knew that, why, I should at last be in her black books. Well, whatever happens, Stephanotie must not be asked to spend the afternoon here to-morrow. I must somehow contrive to put some obstacle in the way."
THE ROSE-COLORED DRESS.
Meanwhile Molly rushed off to Nora. "Linda means mischief, and I must put my foot down immediately," she said.
"Why, Molly, what is up?"
"Put on your hat, darling, and come with me as fast as ever you can."
"Mother has given in about Stephanotie. Linda will put her finger in the pie if she possibly can. I mean Stephanotie to get her invitation within the next five minutes. Now, then, come along, Nora. Do be quick."
Mrs. Hartrick never allowed the girls to go out except very neatly dressed; but on this occasion they were seen tearing down the road with their garden hats on and minus their gloves. Had anyone from The Laurels observed them, good-by to Molly's liberty for many a long day. No one did, however. Linda during the critical moment was closeted with her mother. When she reappeared the girls were halfway to the village. They reached it in good time, and arrived at the house of Miss Truefitt, Stephanotie's aunt.
Miss Truefitt was an old-fashioned and precise little lady. She had gone through a great deal of trouble since the arrival of her niece, and often, as she expressed it, did not know whether she stood on her head or her heels; but she was fond of Stephanotie, who, notwithstanding her wild ways, was very affectionate and very taking. And now, when she saw Molly and Nora appearing, she herself entered the hall and opened the door for them.
"Well, my dears," she said, "Stephie is in her bedroom; she has a headache, and wanted to lie down for a little."
"Oh, just let me run up to her. I won't keep her a minute," said Molly.
"Come in here with me," said Miss Truefitt to Nora. She opened the door of her neat little parlor. Nora entered. The room was full of gay pictures and gay books, and scattered here and there were very large boxes of bon-bons.
"How she can eat them all is what puzzles me," said Miss Truefitt; "she seems to live on them. The quantity she demolishes would wreck the health of any English girl. Ah, here comes Molly."
But Molly did not come downstairs alone; the American girl was with her. Stephanotie rushed into the room.
"I am going to The Laurels to-morrow, auntie. I am going quite early; this dear old Molly has asked me. You guess I'll have a good time. There will be a box of bon-bons for Nora, sweet little Irish Nora; and a box for dear little Molly, a true native of England, and a fine specimen to boot. Oh, we shall have a nice time; and I am so glad I am asked!"
"It is very kind of Mrs. Hartrick to send you an invitation, Stephie," said her aunt.
"Oh, bother that, Aunt Violet! You know perfectly well she would not ask me if Molly and Nora had not got it out of her."
"Well, we did try our best and most conoodling ways," said Nora in a soft voice.
"Ah, didn't you, you little Irish witch; and I guess you won, too. Well, I'm going; we'll have a jolly lark with Linda. If for no other reason, I should be glad to go to upset her apple cart."
"Dear me, Stephie! you are very coarse and vulgar," said Miss Truefitt.
"Not a bit of it, auntie. Have a bon-bon, do." Stephanotie rushed across the room, opened a big box of bon-bons, and presented one, as if it were a pistol, full in Miss Truefitt's face.
"Oh, no, thank you, my dear!" said that lady, backing; "the indigestion I have already got owing to the way you have forced your bon-bons upon me has almost wrecked my health. I have lost all appetite. Dear me, Stephie! I wish you would not be so dreadfully American."
"The process of Englishizing me is a slow one," said Stephanotie. She turned, walked up to the glass, and surveyed herself. She was dressed in rich brown velveteen, made to fit her lissome figure. Her hair was of an almost fiery red, and surrounded her face like a halo; her eyes were very bright china-blue, and she had a dazzlingly fair complexion. There were people who thought Stephanotie pretty; there were others who did not admire her at all. She had a go-ahead, very independent manner, and was the sort of girl who would be idolized by the weaker members of the school. Molly, however, was by no means a weak member of the school, nor, for that matter, was Nora, and they both took great pleasure out of Stephanotie.
"My bark is worse than my bite," said that young person. "I am something like you, Molly. I am a bit of a scorcher; but there, when I am trained in properly I'll be one of the best of good creatures."
"Well, you are booked for to-morrow now," said Molly; "and Jehoshaphat! if you don't come in time—"
"Oh, Molly!" whispered Nora.
"There, I won't say it again."
Poor Miss Truefitt looked much shocked. Molly and Nora bade her good-by, and nodded to Stephanotie, who stood upon the doorstep and watched them down the street; then she returned to her aunt.
"I did think," said Miss Truefitt slowly, "that the girls belonging to your school were ladylike; but to come here without gloves, and that eldest girl, Miss Hartrick, to use such a shocking expression."
"Oh, bless you, Aunt Vi! it's nothing to the expressions she uses at school. She's a perfect horror of a girl, and I like her for that very reason. It is that horrid little Linda would please you; and I must say I am sorry for your taste."
Stephanotie went upstairs to arrange her wardrobe for the next day. She had long wished to visit Molly's home. The Laurels was one of the prettiest places in the neighborhood, and Molly and Linda were considered as among the smartest girls at the school. Stephanotie wished to be hand-and-glove with Molly, not because she was supposed to be rich, or respectable, or anything else, but simply because her nature fitted to that of the wild, enthusiastic American girl. But, all the same, now that she had got the entree, as she expressed it, of the Hartricks' home, she intended to make a sensation.
"When I do the thing I may as well do it properly," she said to herself. "I will make them open their eyes. I have watched Mrs. Hartrick in church; and, oh dear me! have not I longed to give her a poke in the back. And as to Linda, she thinks a great deal of her dress. She does not know what mine will be when I take out my very best and most fascinating gown."
Accordingly Stephanotie rifled her trunk, and from its depths she produced a robe which would, as she said, make the members of The Laurels sit up. It was made of rose-colored silk, and trimmed with quantities of cream lace. The skirt had many little flounces on it, and each was edged with lace. The bodice was cut rather low in the neck, and the sleeves did not come down anything like as far as the wrists. The rose-colored silk with its cream lace trimmings was altogether the sort of dress which might be worn in the evening; but daring Stephanotie intended to appear in it in the morning. She would encircle her waist with a cream-colored sash, very broad, and with much lace upon it; and would wear many-colored beads round her neck, and many bracelets on her arms.
"The whole will have a stylish effect, and will at any rate distinguish me from everyone else," was her inward comment. She shook out the dress, and then rang the bell. One of the servants appeared.
"I want to have this robe ironed and made as presentable as possible," said Stephanotie; "see you have it all done and put in my wardrobe ready for wear tonight. I guess it will fetch 'em," she added, and then she rushed like a whirlwind into the presence of Miss Truefitt.
"Auntie," she said, "would you like to see me done up in style?"
"I don't know, I am sure, my dear," said Miss Truefitt, looking at her with nervous eyes.
"Oh, dear, Aunt Vi! if you were to see mother now you wouldn't know her; she is wonderfully addicted to the pleasures of the toilet. There is nothing so fascinating as the pleasures of the toilet when once you yield to its charms. She rigged me up pretty smart before I left New York, and I am going to wear my rose-colored silk with the cream lace to-morrow."
"But you are not going to an evening party, my dear."
"No; but I shall stay all the evening, and I know I'll look killing. The dress suits me down to the ground. It is one of my fads always to be in something red; it seems to harmonize with my hair."
Miss Truefitt uttered a deep sigh.
"What are you sighing for, Aunt Vi?"
"Nothing, dear; only please don't offer me a bon-bon. The mere sight of those boxes gives me a feeling of nausea."
"But you have not tried the crystallized figs," cried Stephanotie; "they are wonderfully good; and if you feel nausea a peppermint-drop will set you right. I have a kind of peppermint chocolate in this box which is extremely stimulating to the digestive organs."
"No, no, Stephie. I beg—I really do beg that you will take all the obnoxious boxes out of the room."
"Very well, auntie; but you'll come up to-morrow to see me in my dress?"
The next day was Saturday, a holiday of course. Stephanotie had put her hair into Hinde's curlers the night before, and, in consequence, it was a perfect mass of frizzle and fluff the next morning. Miss Truefitt, who wore her own neat gray locks plainly banded round her head, gave a shudder when she first caught sight of Stephanotie.
"I was thinking, dear, during the night," she said, "of your pink silk dress, and I should very much prefer you to wear the gray cashmere trimmed with the neat velvet at the cuffs and collar. It would tone down your—"
"Oh, don't say it," said Stephanotie; "my hair is a perfect glory this morning. Come yourself and look at it—here; stand just here; the sun is shining full on me. Everyone will have to look twice at me with a head like this."
"Indeed, that is true," said Miss Truefitt; "and perhaps three times; and not approve of you then."
"Oh, come, auntie, you don't know how bewitching I look when I am got up in all my finery."
"She is hopelessly vulgar," thought poor Miss Truefitt to herself; "and I always supposed Agnes would have such a nice, proper girl, such as she was herself in the old days; but that last photograph of Agnes shows a decided falling off. How truly glad I am that I was never induced to marry an American! I would rather have my neat, precise little house and a small income than go about like a figure of fun. That poor child will never be made English; it is a hopeless task. The sooner she goes back to America the better."
Meanwhile Stephanotie wandered about the house, thinking over and over of the happy moment when she would appear at The Laurels. She thought it best to put on her rose-colored dress in time for early dinner. It fitted her well, but was scarcely the best accompaniment to her fiery-red hair.
"Oh, lor', miss!" said Maria, the servant, when she first caught sight of Stephanotie.
"You may well say, 'Oh, lor'!' Maria," replied Stephanotie, "although it is not a very pretty expression. But have a bon-bon; I don't mean to be cross."
She whirled across the room, snatched hold of one of her boxes of bon-bons, and presented it to Maria. Maria was not averse to a chocolate peppermint, and popped one into her mouth. The next instant Miss Truefitt appeared. "Now, Stephanotie," she said, "do you think for a single moment—Oh, my dear child, you really are too awful! You don't mean to say you are going to The Laurels like that?"
"Have a bon-bon?" was Stephanotie's response.
"You are downright rude. I will not allow you to offer me bon-bons again."
"But a fresh box of them has just arrived. I got them by the eleven o'clock post to-day," was Stephanotie's reckless answer; "and, oh, such beauties! And I had a letter from mother to say that I might order as many as ever I liked from Fuller's. I mean to write to them to ask them to send me ten shillings' worth. I'll ask for the newest varieties. There surely must be bon-bons which would not give you indigestion, Aunt Vi."
"I must ask you to take off that dress, Stephanotie. I forbid you to go to The Laurels in such unsuitable attire."
"Oh, lor'! and it's lovely!" said Maria, sotto voce, as she was leaving the room.
"What an unpleasant smell of peppermint!" said Miss Truefitt, sniffing at that moment. "You know, Stephanotie, how I have begged of you not to eat those unpleasant sweets in the dining room."
"I didn't," said Stephanotie; "it was only Maria."
Maria backed out of the room with another violent "Oh, lor'!" and ran down to the kitchen.
"I'll have to give notice," she said. "It's Miss Stephanotie; she's the most dazzlingly brilliant young lady I ever set eyes on; but mistress will never forgive me for eating that peppermint in her presence."
"Rinse the mouth out, and take no notice," was the cook's somewhat heartless rejoinder. "How do you say she was dressed, Maria?"
"Pink, the color of a rose, and that ravishing with lace. I never see'd such a dress," said Maria. "She's the most beautiful young lady and the queerest I ever set eyes on."
Stephanotie and her aunt were having a battle upstairs, and in the end the elder lady won. Stephanotie was obliged to take off the unsuitable dress and put on the gray cashmere. As subsequent events proved, it was lucky for her that she did do so.
By the post on the following morning there came two letters for Nora. She hailed them with a cry of delight.
"At last!" she said.
Mrs. Hartrick was not in the room; she had a headache, and did not get up to breakfast. Terence had already started for town. He had secured the post he desired in his uncle's office, and thought himself a very great man of business. Linda did not count for anything.
Nora flung herself into an easy-chair, and opened the first of her letters. It was from her mother. She was soon lost in its contents.
"MY DEAR NORA [wrote Mrs. O'Shanaghgan]: Be prepared for very great, startling, and at the same time gratifying, news. Your dear Uncle George, who has been spending the last three weeks with us, has made an arrangement which lifts us, my dear daughter, out of all pecuniary embarrassments. I will tell you as briefly as possible what has taken place. He had a consultation with your father, and induced him, at my suggestion, to unburden his mind to him. You know the Squire's ways. He pooh-poohed the subject and fought shy of it; but at last I myself brought him to task, and the whole terrible and disgraceful state of things was revealed. My dear Nora, my dear little girl, we were, it appears, on the brink of bankruptcy. In a couple of months O'Shanaghgan would no longer have been ours.
I cannot say that I should ever have regretted leaving this ramshackle and much-dilapidated place, but of course I should have shrunk from the disgrace, the exposure, the feeling that I was the cynosure of all eyes. That, indeed, would have cut me to the quick. Had your father consented to sell O'Shanaghgan and live in England, it would have been a moment of great rejoicing for me; but the place to be sold up over his head was quite a different matter. This, my dear Nora, seems to have been the position of affairs when your dear uncle, like a good providence or a guardian angel, appeared on the scene. Your uncle, my dearest Nora, is a very rich man. My dear brother has been careful with regard to money matters all his life, and is now in possession of a very large supply of this world's goods. Your dear uncle was good enough to come to the rescue, and has bought O'Shanaghgan from the man to whom your father owed the mortgage. O'Shanaghgan now belongs to your Uncle George."
"Never!" cried Nora, springing to her feet.
"What is the matter, Nora?" said Linda.
"Don't talk to me for the present, or I'll say something you won't like to hear," replied Nora.
"Really, I must say you are copying Molly in your manner."
"Don't speak to me," said Nora. Her face was crimson; she had never felt such a wild, surging sense of passion in the whole of her existence. Linda's calm gray eyes were upon her, however. She managed to suppress any more emotion, saw that her cousin was burning with curiosity, and continued the letter.
"Although, my dearest Nora, Castle O'Shanaghgan now belongs to your Uncle George, don't suppose for a single moment that he is going to be unkind to us. Far from it. To all appearance the place is still ours; but with, oh! such a difference. Your father is still, in the eyes of the tenants and of the country round, the owner of Castle O'Shanaghgan; but, after consulting with me, your Uncle George felt that he must not have the reins. His Irish nature, my dear—But I need not discuss that. You know as well as I do how reckless and improvident he is."
"Oh, mother!" gasped Nora. She clenched her little white teeth, and had great difficulty in proceeding with her letter. Linda's curiosity, however, acted as a restorative, and she went on with her mother's lengthy epistle.
"All things are now changed, and I may as well say that a glorious era has begun. Castle O'Shanaghgan is now your uncle's property, and it will soon be a place to be proud of. He is having it refurnished from attic to cellar; carpets, curtains, mirrors, furniture of all sorts have already begun to arrive from one of the most fashionable shops in Dublin. Gardeners have been got to put the gardens to rights, the weeds have been removed from the avenue, the grass has been cut, the lawns have been mown; the whole place looks already as if it had undergone a resurrection. My bedroom, dear Nora, is now a place suitable for your mother to sleep in; the bare boards are covered with a thick Brussels carpet. The Axminster stair carpets arrived yesterday. In the dining room is one of the most magnificent Turkey carpets I have ever seen; and your uncle has insisted on having the edge of the floor laid with parquetry. Will you believe me, Nora?—your father has objected to the sound of the hammering which the workmen make in putting in the different pieces of wood. You can scarcely believe it possible; but I state a fact. The stables are being filled with suitable horses; and with regard to that I am glad to say your father does take some interest. A victoria has arrived for me, and a pony-trap for you, dear; for it seems your Uncle George has taken a great fancy to you, my little Nora. Well, dear, all this resurrection, this wonderful restoration of Castle O'Shanaghgan has occurred during your absence. You will come back to a sort of fairyland; but it is one of your uncle's stipulations that you do not come back at present; and, of course, for such a fairy godfather, such a magician, no promise is too great to give. So I have told him, dear Nora, that you will live with your kind and noble Aunt Grace, and with your charming cousin Linda, and your cousin Molly—about whom I do not hear so much—as long as he wishes you to do so. You will receive the best of educations, and come back at Christmas to a suitable home. You must have patience until then. It is your uncle's proposal that at Christmas-time you and your cousins also come to O'Shanaghgan, and that we shall have a right good old-fashioned Christmas in this place, which at last is beautiful and worthy of your ancient house. You must submit patiently, therefore, dear Nora, to remaining in England. You will probably spend the greater portion of your time there for the next few years, until you are really accomplished. But the holidays you, with your dear cousins and your uncle and aunt, will always spend at O'Shanaghgan. You must understand, dear, that the house really belongs to your uncle; the place is his, and we are simply his tenants, from whom he nobly asks no rent. How proud I am of my dear brother, and how I rejoice in this glorious change!—Your affectionate mother,
The letter dropped from Nora's fingers.
"And was it I who effected all this?" she said to herself. "And I thought I was doing good."
The other letter lay unopened on her lap. She took it up with trembling hands, and broke the seal. It was a short letter compared to her mother's, but it was in the handwriting she loved best on earth.
"LIGHT O' THE MORNING [it began]: Why, then, my darling, it's done—it is all over. The place is mine no longer; it belongs to the English. To think I, O'Shanaghgan of Castle O'Shanaghgan, should live to write the words. Your mother put it to me, and I could not refuse her; but, oh, Nora asthore, heart of my life, I can scarcely bear to live here now. What with the carpets and the curtains, and the fuss and the misery, and the whole place being turned into a sort of furniture-shop, it is past bearing. I keep out most of my time in the woods, and I won't deny to you, my dearest child, that I have shed some bitter tears over the change in O'Shanaghgan; for the place isn't what it was, and it's heart-breaking to behold it. But your mother is pleased, and that's one comfort. I always did all I could for her; and when she smiles at me and looks like the sun—she is a remarkably handsome woman, Nora—I try to take a bit of comfort. But I stumble over the carpets and the mats, and your mother is always saying, 'Patrick, take care where you are going, and don't let the dogs come in to spoil the new carpets.' And the English servants that we have now taken are past bearing; and it's just as if I were in chains, and I would almost as lief the place had been sold right away from me as see it in its changed condition. I can add no more now, my child, except to say that, as I am under great and bitter obligations to your Uncle George,
I must agree to his request that you stay in England for the present; but Christmas is coming, and then I'll clasp you in my arms, and I'll have a grain of comfort again.—Your sorrowful old father,
Nora's cheeks flushed brighter than ever as she read these two letters. The first had cut her to the heart; the second had caused that desire for weeping which unless it is yielded to amounts to torture.
Oh! if Linda would not stay in the room. Oh! if she might crouch away where she, too, could shed tears over the changed Castle O'Shanaghgan. For what did she and her father want with a furniture-shop? Must she, for all the rest of her days, live in a sort of feather-bed house? Must the bareness, the space, the sense of expansion, be hers no more? She was half a savage, and her silken fetters were tortures to her.
"It will kill him," she murmured. She said the words aloud.
"What will kill him? What is wrong? Do, please, tell me," said Linda.
Nora looked at her with flashing eyes.
"How bright your cheeks are, Nora, and how your eyes shine! But you look very, very angry. What can be the matter?"
"Matter? There is plenty the matter. I cannot tell you now," said Nora.
"Then I'll go up and ask mother; perhaps she will tell me. It has something to do with that old place of yours, I have not the slightest doubt. Mother has got a very long letter from Ireland; she will tell me perhaps."
"Yes, go; and don't come back again," said Nora, almost rudely.
"She gets worse and worse," thought Linda as she slowly mounted the stairs. "Nora is anything but a pleasure in the house. At first when she came she was not quite so bad; she had a pretty face, and her manners had not been coarsened from contamination with Molly. Now she is much changed. Yes, I'll go to mother and talk to her. What an awful afternoon we are likely to have with that American girl here and Nora changing for the worse hour by hour."
Linda knocked at her mother's door. Mrs. Hartrick was not well, and was sitting up in bed reading her letters.
"My head is better, Linda," she said. "I shall get up presently. What is it, darling?"
"It is only the usual thing," said Linda, with a deep sigh. "I am always being rubbed the wrong way, and I don't like it."
"So it seems, my pet. But how nicely you have done your hair this morning! How very neat and ladylike you are becoming, Linda! You are a great comfort to me, dear."
"Thank you, mother; I try to please you," said Linda. She seated herself on her mother's bed, suppressed a sigh, then said eagerly:
"Nora is awfully put out. Is there bad news from that wild place, Castle O'Shanaghgan?"
"Bad news?" cried Mrs. Hartrick. "Has the child had letters?"
"Yes, two; she had been reading them instead of eating her breakfast, and the sighs and the groans, and the flashing eyes and the clenched teeth, and the jumping to her feet and the flopping herself down again have been past bearing. She won't let out anything except that she is downright miserable, and that it is a burning shame."
What can she mean, mother? Is the old place sold? I always expected they were terribly poor."
"The best, most splendid news," said Mrs. Hartrick. "My dear Linda, you must be mistaken. Your father says that he has given your aunt and uncle leave to tell Nora everything. I thought the child would be in the seventh heaven of bliss; in fact, I was almost dreading her arrival on the scene, she is so impetuous."
"Well, mother, she is not in any seventh heaven of bliss," replied Linda; "so perhaps they have not told her. But what is it, mother dear? Do tell me."
"It is this, darling—your father has bought Castle O'Shanaghgan."
"Oh! and given it to the O'Shanaghgans. Why did he do that?"
"He has bought it, but he has not given it to the O'Shanaghgans. Some day, if Terence turns out worthy, the old place will doubtless be his, as we have no son of our own; but at present it is your father's property; he has bought it."
"Then no wonder poor Nora is sad," said Linda. "I can understand her; she is fond of the old place."
"But why should she be sad? They are not going; they are to stay there, practically owners of all they possess; for, although the property is really your father's, he will only exercise sufficient control to prevent that poor, wild, eccentric uncle of yours from throwing good money after bad. To all intents and purposes the O'Shanaghgans still hold possession; only now, my dear Linda, they will have a beautiful house, magnificently furnished. The grounds are carefully attended to, good gardeners provided, English servants sent for, and the whole place made suitable for your father's sister."
"But does Nora know of this?"
"I suppose so. I know your father said she was to be told."
"She is very miserable about something. I cannot understand her," said Linda. "I tell you what, I'll just go down and tell her. Perhaps those two letters were nothing but grumbles; and the O'Shanaghgans did not know then the happiness that was in store for them."
"You can tell her if you like, dear."
"I will, I will," said Linda. She jumped off her mother's bed and ran downstairs.
Nora was standing in the conservatory. She was gazing straight before her, not at the great, tall, flowering cactus nor the orchids, nor the mass of geraniums and pelargoniums of every shade and hue—she was seeing a picture of a wild, wild lonely place, of a bare old house, of a seashore that was like no other seashore in the world. She was looking at this picture with all the heart of which she was capable shining in her eyes; and she knew that she was looking at it in imagination only, and that she would never see the real picture again, for the wild old place was wild no longer, and in Nora's opinion the glory had departed. She turned when Linda's somewhat mincing voice fell upon her ears.
"How you startled me!" she said. "What is it?"
"Oh, good news," said Linda. "I am not quite so bad as you think me, Nora, and I am delighted. Mother has told me everything. Castle O'Shanaghgan is yours to live in as long as ever you care to do so. Of course it belongs to us; but that does not matter, and it is furnished from attic to cellar most splendidly, and there are English servants, and there are—"
"Everything abominable and odious and horrible!" burst from Nora's lips. "Oh, don't keep me; don't keep me! I am smothered at the thought—O'Shanaghgan is ruined—ruined!"
She ran away from her cousin out into the air. At headlong speed did she go, until at last she found herself in the most remote and least cultivated part of the plantation.
Oh, to be alone! Now she could cry, and cry she did right bitterly.
THE BOX OF BON-BONS.
It occurred to Stephanotie that, as she could not wear the rose-colored dress, as she must go perforce to the Hartricks' in her dove-colored cashmere, with its very neat velvet collar and cuffs, she would at least make her entrance a little striking.
"Why not take a box of bon-bons to Mrs. Hartrick?" she said to herself. "There's that great big new box which I have not opened yet It contains dozens of every kind of sweetmeat. I'll present it to her; she'll be pleased with the attention."
The box was a very large one; on its lid was painted a picture of two or three cupids hovering in the air, some of them touching the shoulders of a pretty girl who was supposed to be opening a box of chocolates. There was a good deal of color and embossed writing also on the cover, and altogether it was as showy and, in Stephanotie's opinion, as handsome a thing as anybody could desire.
She walked through the village, holding the box, tied with great bunches of red ribbon, in her hand. She scorned to put a brown-paper cover over it; she would take it in all its naked glory into the midst of the Hartrick household.
On her way she met the other two girls who were also going to spend an afternoon at The Laurels. Rose and Mabel Armitage were the daughters of a neighbouring squire. They were nice girls, but conventional.
There was nothing original about either of them; but they were very much respected in the school, not only on account of their father's position—he represented the county in the House—but also because they were good, industrious, and so-called clever. The Armitages took prizes at every examination. Their French was considered very nearly Parisian in accent; their drawings were all in absolutely perfect proportions. It is true the trees in Rose's landscapes looked a little stiff; but how carefully she laid on her water-colors; how honestly she endeavored to copy her master's smallest requirements! Then Mabel played with great correctness, never for a single moment allowing a wrong note to appear; and they both sang, very prettily, simple little ballads; and they were dressed with exquisite neatness and propriety in very quiet colors—dark blues, very dark reds, pretty, neat blouses, suitable skirts. Their hair was shiny, and sat in little tight tendrils and pretty curls round their heads. They were as like as two peas—each girl had a prim little mouth with rosy lips; each girl possessed an immaculate set of white teeth; each girl had a little, straight nose and pretty, clear gray-blue eyes; their foreheads were low, their eyebrows penciled and delicately marked. They had neat little figures; they were neat in every way, neat in soul too; admirable little people, but commonplace. And, just because they were commonplace, they did not like fiery-red-haired Stephanotie; they thought Molly the essence of vulgarity; they secretly admired beautiful Nora, but thought her manners and style of conversation deplorable; and they adored Linda as a kindred spirit.
Seeing them walking on in advance, like a little pair of doves, Stephanotie quickened her steps until she came up to them.
"Hallo!" she said; "you guess where I'm off to?"
"I am sure I cannot say," answered Rose, turning gently round.
Mabel was always Rose's echo.
"I cannot say," she repeated.
"Well, I can guess where you're going. You're going to have a right down good time at The Laurels—guess I'm right?"
"We are going to spend an afternoon at The Laurels," said Rose.
"An afternoon at The Laurels," echoed Mabel.
"And so am I—that's the best of the fun," said Stephanotie; "and I mean to give her something to remember me by."
"Whom do you mean?" said Rose.
"Why, my good, respected hostess, Mrs. Hartrick."
"What do you mean to give her?" asked Rose.
"This. How do you like it? It's full of bon-bons."
Rose, notwithstanding her virtuous and commonplace mind, had a secret leaning toward bon-bons. She did not dare to confess it even to Mabel; for Mabel also had a secret leaning, and did not dare to confess it to Rose. It was not comme il faut in their family for the girls of the house to indulge in bon-bons; but still, they would have liked some of those delicious sweets, and had often envied Stephanotie when she was showing them to her companions.
Of course, not for worlds would they have been friendly with the terrible American girl; but they did envy her her boxes of sweets.
"How gay!" said Rose, looking at the startling cover, with its cupids and its greedy-looking maiden.
"How jolly," said the American girl—"how luscious when you're eating them! Would you like to see them inside?"
"Oh, I think not," said Rose.
"Better not," said Mabel.
"But why better not?" continued Stephanotie. "It's natural that girls like us should like sweetmeats, bon-bons, or anything of that sort. Here, there's a nice little bit of shelter under this tree, and there's no one looking. I'll untie the ribbons; just hold the box, Rose."
Rose held it. Stephanotie hastily pulled off the red ribbons and lifted the cover. Oh, how delicious the inside did look!—rows upon rows of every imaginable sweet—cream-colored sweets, rose-colored, green, white; plums, apples, pears, figs, chocolates; every sort that the heart of girl could desire lay before them in rows on rows.
"They are, every one of them, for Mrs. Hartrick," said Stephanotie, "and you mustn't touch them. But I have got two boxes in my pocket; they make it bulge out; I should be glad to get rid of them. We'll tie this up, but you'll each have one of my boxes."
In a jiffy the big box was tied up again with its huge crimson bows, and each of the Armitage girls possessed one of the American girl's boxes of bon-bons.
"Aren't they pretty? Do have some; you don't know how long you may be kept waiting for your tea," said Stephanotie as she danced beside her companions up the avenue.
In this fashion, therefore, did the three enter the house, for both of the Armitages had yielded to temptation, and each girl was just finishing a large bon-bon when they appeared on the scene.
Mrs. Hartrick was standing in the great square central hall, waiting for her guests.
Stephanotie ran up to her.
"It's very good of you indeed to ask me," she said; "and please accept this—won't you? It's from an American girl, a trophy to remember her by."
"Indeed?" said Mrs. Hartrick, flushing very brightly. She stepped back a little; the huge box of bon-bons was forced into her hands.
"Jehoshaphat!" exclaimed Molly.
"Molly!" said her mother.
Linda uttered a little sigh. Rose and Mabel immediately became as discreet and commonplace and proper as they could be; but Stephanotie knew that the boxes of bon-bons were reposing in each of their pockets and her spirits rose higher than ever.
"Where is Irish Nora?" she said. "It's she that is fond of a good sweet such as they make for us in the States. But have the box—won't you, Mrs. Hartrick? I have brought it to you as a token of my regard."
"Indeed? Thank you very much, Miss Miller," said Mrs. Hartrick in a chilly voice. She laid the box on a side-table.
The girls went out into the grounds. The afternoon happened to be a perfect one; the air was balmy, with a touch of the Indian summer about it. The last roses were blooming on their respective bushes; the geraniums were making a good show in the carefully laid out beds. There were clumps of asters and dahlias to be seen in every direction; some late poppies and some sweet-peas and mignonette made the borders still look very attractive, and the chrysanthemums were beginning to appear.
"In a week's time they will be splendid," said Linda, piloting her two friends through the largest of the greenhouses.
"Do come away," said Molly; "when Linda speaks in that prim voice she's intolerable. Come, Nora; come, Stephie—we'll just have a run by ourselves."
Nora was still looking rather pale. The shock of the morning had caused the color to fade from her cheeks; she could not get the utterly changed O'Shanaghgan out of her head. She longed to write to her father, and yet she did not dare.
Stephanotie looked at her with the curious, keen glance which an American girl possesses.
"What is it? Do say," she said, linking her hand inside Nora's. "Is it anything that a bon-bon will soothe, or is it past that?"
"It is quite past that; but don't ask me now, Stephie. I cannot tell you, really."
"Don't bother her," said Molly; "she has partly confided in me, but not wholly. We'll have a good time by ourselves. What game do you think we had best play, Stephie?"
"I'm not one for games at all," answered Stephanotie. "Girls of my age don't play games. They are thinking seriously of the business of life—the flirtations and the jolly time they are going to have before they settle down to their staid married life. You English are so very childish."
"And we Irish are childish too," said Nora. "It's lovely to be childish," she added. "I hate to put away childish things."
"Oh, dear! so that is the Irish and English way," said Stephanotie. "But there, don't let us talk nationalities; let's be cozy and cheerful. I can tell you I did feel annoyed at coming here such a dowd; it was not my fault. I meant to make an impression; I did, really and truly. It was very good of you, Molly, to ask me; and I know that proud lady, your mother, didn't want to have me a bit. I am nothing but Stephanotie Miller, and she doesn't know the style we live in at home. If she did, maybe she would open her eyes a little; but she doesn't, and that's flat; and I am vulgar, or supposed to be, just because I am frank and open, and I have no concealment about me. I call a spade a spade."
"Oh, hurrah! so do I," said Molly, the irrepressible.
"Well, my dear, I don't use your words; they wouldn't suit me at all," said the American girl. "I never call out Jehoshaphat the way you do, whoever Jehoshaphat is; but I have my little eccentricities, and they run to pretty and gay dresses—dresses with bright colors and quantities of lace on them—and bon-bons at all hours, in season and out of season. It's easy to content me, and I don't see why my little innocent wishes should not be gratified."
"But you are very nicely dressed now," said Nora, looking with approval at the gray cashmere.
"Me nicely dressed!" screamed Stephanotie. "Do you call this dress nice? Why, I do declare it's a perfect shame that I should be made such a spectacle. It don't suit my hair. When I am ordering a dress I choose shades of red; they tone me down. I am fiery to-day—am I not, Molly?"
"Well, you certainly are," said Molly. "But what—what did you do to it?"
"To my locks, do you mean?"
"Yes. They do stick out so funnily. I know mother was shocked; she likes our heads to be perfectly smooth.'
"Like the Armitages', for instance," said Stephanotie.
"Well, yes; something like theirs. They are pretty girls, are they not?"
"Yes," said Stephanotie; "but don't they give you the quivers? Don't you feel as if you were rubbed the wrong way the moment you speak to them?"
"I don't take to them," said Molly; "but I think they're pretty."
"They're just like what O'Shanaghgan is now," thought Nora, who did not speak. "They are all prim and proper; there's not a single wildness allowed to come out anywhere."
"But they're for all the world like anybody else," said Stephanotie. "Don't they love sweeties just! If you' had seen them—the greedy way they took the bon-bons out of the little boxes I gave them. Oh, they're just like anybody else, only they are playing parts; they are little actors; they're always acting. I'd like to catch them when they were not. I'd like to have them for one wild week, with you, Molly, and you, Nora. I tell you there would be a fine change in them both."
"There's a telegraph-boy coming down the avenue," cried Molly suddenly. "I'll run and see what is the matter?"
Nora did not know why her heart beat. Telegrams arrived every day at The Laurels. Nevertheless she felt sure that this was no ordinary message; she stood now and stared at that boy as though her eyes would start from their sockets.
"What is the matter?" said Stephanotie.
"You're vexed about something. Why should you be so distant with me?"
"I am not, Stephie. I am a little anxious; it is difficult always to be just the same," said Nora.
"Oh, don't I know it, my darling; and if you had as much to do with Aunt Vi Truefitt as I have, you would realize how often my spirits turn topsy-turvy. I often hope that I'll be Englishized quickly, so that I may get back to my dear parents. But there, Molly is coming back."
"The telegram was for mother," she said. "Do let us play."
Nora looked at Molly. Her face was red; it was usually pale. Nora wondered what had brought that high color into her cheeks. Molly seemed excited, and did not want to meet her cousin's eyes.
"Come, let us have a race," she said. "I don't want to put away childish things. I want to have a good game while I am in the humor. Let us see who will get first to the top of that hill. I like running uphill. I'm off; catch me who may!"
Molly started. Her figure was stout, and she ran in a somewhat awkward way. Nora flew after her. She soon reached her side.
"There, stop running," she said. "What is up?"
"What is up?" echoed Molly.
"Yes; what was in that telegram?"
"The telegram was for mother."
"But you know what was in it. I know you do."
"Nothing—nothing, Nora. Come, our race isn't over yet. I'm off again; you cannot catch me this time."
Molly ran, panting as she did so.
"I cannot tell her; I won't," she said to herself. "I wish her eyes were not so sharp. She is sure to find out; but I have begged and prayed of mother not to tell her, at least until after Stephanotie and the others have gone. Then, I suppose, she must know."
Molly reached the top of the hill. She was so blown that she had to fling herself on the grass. Nora again reached her side.
"Tell me, Molly," she said; "there is something the matter?"
"There is a telegram for mother, and I cannot tell you anything whatever about it," said Molly in a cross voice. "There, I'm off once more. I promised Linda that I would help her to look after the Armitage girls. Prim and proper as they are, they are sometimes a little bit too much for my dainty sister Linda. You take care of Stephie; she's right good fun. Let me go, Nora; let me go."
Molly pulled her hand almost roughly out of her cousin's grip, and the next moment was rushing downhill as fast as she could in the direction of the summer-house. There she knew she would find Linda and her two friends.
Notwithstanding all the efforts of at least five merry girls, there was a cloud over the remainder of that afternoon. Nora's face was anxious; her gay laugh was wanting; her eyes wore an abstracted, far-away look. The depression which the letters of the morning had caused was now increased tenfold. If she joined in the games it was without spirit; when she spoke there was no animation in her words. Gone was the Irish wit, the pleasant Irish humor; the sparkle in the eyes was missing; the gay laughter never rose upon the breeze. At tea things were just as bad. Even at supper matters had not mended.
Molly now persistently avoided her cousin. Stephanotie and she were having a wild time. Molly, to cover Nora's gloom, was going on in a more extravagant way than usual. She constantly asked Jehoshaphat to come to her aid; she talked of Holy Moses more than once; in short, she exceeded herself in her wildness. Linda was so shocked that she took the Armitage girls to a distant corner, and there discoursed with them in low whispers. Now and then she cast a horrified glance round at where her sister and the Yankee, as she termed Stephanotie, were going on together. To her relief, toward the end of the evening, Mrs. Hartrick came into the room. But even her presence could not suppress Molly now. She was beside herself; the look of Nora sitting gloomily apart from the rest, pretending to be interested in one of Sir Walter Scott's novels, was too much for her. She knew that a bad time was coming for Nora, and her misery made her reckless. Mrs. Hartrick, hearing some of her naughtiest words, said in an icy tone that Miss Truefitt had sent a maid for Stephanotie; and a few moments afterward the little party broke up.
As soon as the strange girls had departed, Mrs. Hartrick turned immediately to Molly.
"I am shocked at your conduct," she said. "In order to give you pleasure I allowed Miss Miller to come here; but I should have been a wiser and happier woman if I had taken dear Linda's advice. She is not the sort of girl I wish either you or Nora ever to associate with again. Now, go straight to your room, and don't leave it until I send for you."
Molly stalked off with a defiant tread and eyes flashing fire; she would not even glance at Nora. Linda began to talk in her prim voice. Before she could utter a single word Nora had sprung forward, caught both her aunt's hands, and looked her in the face.
"Now," she said, "I must know. What did that telegram say?"
"What telegram, Nora? My dear child, you forget yourself."
"I do not forget myself, Aunt Grace. If I am not to go quite off my head, I must know the truth."
"Sit down, Nora."
"I cannot sit; please put me out of suspense. Please tell me the worst at once."
"I am sorry for you, dear; I really am."
"Oh, please, please speak! Is anything—anything wrong with father?"
"I hope nothing serious."
"Ah! I knew it," said Nora; "there is something wrong."
"He has had an accident."
"An accident? An accident? Oh, what? Oh! it's Andy; it must be Andy. Oh, Aunt Grace, I shall go mad; I shall go mad!"
Mrs. Hartrick did not speak. Then she looked at Linda. She motioned to Linda to leave the room. Linda, however, had no idea of stirring. She was too much interested; she looked at Nora as if she thought her really mad.
"Tell me—tell me; is father killed?"
"No, no, my poor child; no, no. Do calm yourself, Nora. I will let you see the telegram; then you will know all that I know."
"Oh, please, please!"
Mrs. Hartrick took it out of her pocket. Nora clutched it very hard, but her trembling fingers could scarcely take the little flimsy pink sheet out of its envelope. At last she had managed it. She spread it before her; then she found that her dazed eyes could not see the words. What was the misery of the morning to the agony of this moment?
"Read it for me," she said in a piteous voice. "I—I cannot see."
"Sit down, my dear; you will faint if you don't."
"Oh! everything is going round. Is he—is he dead?"
"No, dear; nothing very wrong."
"Read—read!" said Nora.
Mrs. Hartrick did read. The following words fell upon the Irish girl's ears:
"O'Shanaghgan was shot at from behind a hedge this, morning. Seriously injured. Break it to Nora."
"I must go to him," said Nora, jumping up. "When is the next train? Why didn't you tell me before? I must go—I must go at once."
Now that the worst of the news was broken, she had recovered her courage and some calmness.
"I must go to him," she repeated.
"I have telegraphed. I have been mindful of you. I knew the moment you heard this news you would wish to be off to Ireland, so I have telegraphed to know if there is danger. If there is danger you shall go, my dear child; indeed, I myself will take you."
"Oh! I must go in any case," repeated Nora. "Danger or no danger, he is hurt, and he will want me. I must go; you cannot keep me here."
Just then there came a loud ring at the hall-door.
"Doubtless that is the telegram," said Mrs. Hartrick. "Run, Linda, and bring it."
Linda raced into the hall. In a few moments she came back with a telegram.
"The messenger is waiting, mother," she said.
Mrs. Hartrick tore it open, read the contents, uttered a sigh of relief, and then handed the paper on to Nora to read.
"There," she said; "you can read for yourself."
"Better. Doctor anticipates no danger. Tell Nora I do not wish her to come. Writing.
"There, my dear, this is a great relief," said Mrs. Hartrick.
"Oh! I am going all the same," said Nora.
"No; that I cannot possibly allow."
"But he wants me, even if he is not in danger. It was bad enough to be away from him when he was well; but now that he is ill——You don't understand, Aunt Grace—there is no one can do anything for father as I can. I am his Light o' the Morning."
"His what?" said Mrs. Hartrick.
"Oh, that is what he calls me; but I have no time to explain now. I must go; I don't care."
"You are an ungrateful girl, Nora. If you had lived through the misery I have lived through the last few hours this telegram would fill you with thankfulness. It is your duty to stay here. You are under a promise to your kind uncle. He has rescued your father and mother from a most terrible position, and your promise to him saying that you would stay quietly here you cannot in all honor break. If your father were in danger it would be a different matter. As it is, it is your duty to stay quietly here, and show by your patience how truly you love him."
Nora sat silent. Mrs. Hartrick's words were absolute. The good lady felt that she was strictly following the path of duty.
"I can understand the shock you have had," she continued, looking at the girl, who now sat with her head slightly drooping, her hands clasped tightly together, her attitude one of absolute despair.
"Linda," she said, turning to her daughter, "fetch Nora a glass of wine. I noticed, my dear, that you ate scarcely any supper."
Nora did not speak.
Linda returned with a glass of claret.
"Now drink this off, Nora," said her aunt; "I insist."
Nora was about to refuse, but she suddenly changed her mind.
"I shall go whether she gives me leave or not," was her inward thought. "I shall want strength." She drank off the wine, and returned the empty glass to her cousin.
"There now, that is better," said Mrs. Hartrick; "and as you are unaccustomed to wine you will doubtless sleep soundly after it. Go up to your bedroom, dear. I will telegraph the first thing in the morning to O'Shanaghgan, and if there is the slightest cause for alarm will promise to take you there immediately. Be content with my promise; be patient, be brave, I beg of you, Nora. But, believe me, your uncle knows best when he says you are not to go."
"Thank you, Aunt Grace," said Nora in a low voice. She did not glance at Linda. She turned and left the room.
Molly was standing by the open window of her room when Nora came in. She entered quite quietly. Every vestige of color had left her face; her eyes, dark and intensely blue, were shining; some of her jet-black hair had got loosened and fell about her neck and shoulders. Molly sprang toward her.
"Oh, Nora!" she said.
"Hush!" said Nora. "I have heard; father is hurt—very badly hurt, and I am going to him."
"Are you indeed? Is mother going to take you?" said Molly.
"No; she has refused. A telegram has come from my uncle; he says I am not to go—as if a thousand telegrams would keep me. Molly, I am going."
"But you cannot go alone."
"I am going."
"When?" said Molly.
"Now—this very minute."
"What nonsense! There are no trains."
"I shall leave the house and stay at the station. I shall take the very next train to town. I am going."
"But, Nora, have you money?"
"Money?" said Nora. "I never thought of that."
"Mother won't give you money if she does not wish you to go."
"I'll go to my room and see." Nora rushed away. She came back in a few moments with her purse; she flung the contents on Molly's bed. Molly took up the silver coins as they rattled out of Nora's purse. Alack and alas! all she possessed was eight shillings and a few coppers.
"You cannot go with that," said Molly; "and I have nothing to lend you, or I would; indeed, I would give you all I possess, but mother only gives me sixpence a week. Nothing would induce her to give me an allowance. I have sixpence a week just as if I were a baby, and you can quite understand I don't save out of that. What is to be done?"
Nora looked nonplused. For the first time the vigorous intention, the fierce resolve which was bearing her onward, was checked, and checked by so mighty a reason that she could not quite see her way out of the present difficulty. To ask her Aunt Grace for money would be worse than useless. Nora was a sufficient reader of character to be quite certain that Mrs. Hartrick when she said a thing meant it. She would be kind to Nora up to a certain point. Were her father in what they called danger she herself would be the first to help Nora to go to him.
"How little they know how badly he wants me!" thought the girl; "how all this time he is pining for me—he who never knew illness in his life—pining, pining for me! Nothing shall keep me from him. I would steal to go to him; there is nothing I would not do."
"Nora, how queer you look!" said Molly.
"I am thinking," said Nora. "I wonder how I am to get that money? Oh, I have it. I'll ask Stephanotie to lend it to me. Do you think she would?"
"I don't know. I think it very likely. She is generous, and she has heaps of money."
"Then I'll go to her," said Nora.
"Stay, Nora; if you really want to run away——"
"Run away?" said Nora. "If you like to call it so, you may; but I'm going. My own father is ill; my uncle and aunt don't hold the same position to me that my father holds. I will go to him—I will."
"Then I tell you what it is," said Molly, "you must do this thing carefully or you'll be locked up in your bedroom. Mother would think nothing of locking the door of your bedroom and keeping you there. You don't know mother when once her back is up. She can be immensely kind up to a certain point, and then—oh! I know it—immensely cruel."
"What is to be done?" said Nora. "I hate doing a thing in this kind of way—in the dark, as it were."
"You must listen to me," said Molly; "you must be very careful. I have had some little scampers in my time, and I know how to manage matters. There is only one way for you to go."
"What is that?"
"You and I must go off and see Stephanotie; but we cannot do so until everyone is in bed."
"How can we go then?"
"We can easily climb down from this window. You see this pear-tree; it almost touches the window. I have climbed down by it more than once; we can get in again the same way."
"Oh, yes. If we must sneak out of the house like thieves," said Nora, "it's as good as any other way."
"I tell you it's the only way," said Molly. "We must be off on our way to London before mother gets up tomorrow morning. You don't know anything whatever about trains."
"But I can look them out," said Nora.
"Well, go back to your room. Mother will not be going to bed for quite an hour. We cannot help it; we can do nothing until she is safe in bed. Go away at once, Nora; for if she finds you here talking to me she will suspect something. I cannot tell you what mother is when once her suspicions are aroused; and she has had good cause to suspect me before now."
"But do you really mean to say you'll come with me?"
"I certainly mean to say I won't let you go alone. Now then, go away; just pack a few things, and slip back to me when I knock on the wall. I know when mother has gone to bed; it is necessary that she should be asleep, and that Linda should be asleep also; that is all we require. Leave the rest to me."
"And you are certain Stephanotie can lend us the money?"
"We can but ask her. If she refuses we must only come back again and make the best of things."
"I will never come back," said Nora. "I will go to the first pawnbroker's and pawn everything of value I possess; but go to my father I will."
"I admire your courage," said Molly. "Now then, go back to your room and wait for my signal."
Nora returned to her room. She began to open and shut her drawers. She did not care about being quiet. It seemed to her that no one could keep her from her father against her will. She did not recognize the all-potent fact that she had no money herself for the journey. Still, the money must be obtained. Of course Stephanotie had it, and of course Stephanotie would lend it; it would only be a loan for a few days. When once Nora got to Ireland she would return the money immediately.
She opened her drawers and filled a little black bag which she had brought with her from home. She put in the trifles she might need on her journey; the rest of her things could stay; she could not be bothered with them one way or the other. Then she sat quite still on the edge of her bed. How earnestly she wished that her aunt would retire for the night, that Linda would be quiet! Linda's room adjoined Nora's—it opened into Nora's—and Linda, when occasions roused her suspicions, could be intensely watchful. She did not seem to be going to bed; she kept moving about in her room. Poor Nora could scarcely restrain herself from calling out, "Oh, do be quick, Linda! What are you staying up for?" but she refrained from saying the fatal words. Presently she heard the creak of Linda's bed as she got into it. This was followed by silence.
Nora breathed a sigh of relief, but still the dangers were not past. Her little black bag lay quite ready on the chair, and she herself sat on the edge of her bed. Mrs. Hartrick's steps were heard coming up the stairs, and the next moment the door of Nora's room was opened and the good lady looked in.
"Not in bed, Nora," she said; "but this is very wrong."
"Oh, I could not sleep," said Nora.
Mrs. Hartrick went up to her.
"Now, my dear child," she said, "I cannot rest until I see you safe in bed. Come, I must undress you myself. What a wan little face! My dear girl, you must trust in God. Your uncle's telegram assures us that there is no danger; and if there is the smallest occasion I will take you myself to your father tomorrow."
"Oh! if you would only promise to take me," said poor Nora, suddenly rising to her feet, twining her arms round her aunt's neck, and looking full into her face. "Oh! don't say you will take me to my father if there is danger; say you'll take me in any case. It would break my heart to stay away. I cannot—cannot stay away from him."
"Now, you are talking in an unreasonable way, Nora—in a way I cannot for a moment listen to. Your uncle wishes you to stay where you are. He would not wish that if there was the least occasion for you to go to Ireland."
"Then you will not take me tomorrow?"
"Not unless your father is worse. Come, I must help you to get your things off."
Nora felt herself powerless in Mrs. Hartrick's hands. The good lady quickly began to divest her of her clothes, soon her night-dress was popped on, and she was lying down in bed.
"What is that black bag doing here?" said Mrs. Hartrick, glancing at the bag as she spoke.
"I was packing my things together to go to father."
"Well, dear, we must only trust there will be no necessity. Now, goodnight. Sleep well, my little girl. Believe me, I am not so unsympathetic as I look."
Nora made no reply. She covered her face with the bedclothes; a sob came from her throat. Mrs. Hartrick hesitated for a moment whether she would say anything further; but then, hoping that the tired-out girl would sleep, she went gently from the room. In the passage she thought for a moment.
"Why did Nora pack that little bag?" she said to herself. "Can it be possible—but no, the child would not do it. Besides, she has no money."
Mrs. Hartrick entered her own room at the other end of the corridor and shut the door. Then stillness reigned over the house—stillness absolute and complete.
No light had been burning under Molly's door when Mrs. Hartrick had passed. Molly, indeed, wiser than Nora, had got into bed and lay there, dressed, it is true, but absolutely in the dark. Nora also lay in her bed; every nerve was beating frantically; her body seemed to be all one great pulse. At last, in desperation, she sprang out of bed—there came the welcome signal from Molly's room. Nora struck a light and began to dress feverishly. In ten minutes she was once more in her clothes. She now put on the dark-gray traveling dress she had worn when coming to The Laurels. Her hat and jacket were quickly put on, and, carrying the little black bag, she entered Molly's room.
"What hour is it?" said Nora. "It must be long past midnight."
"Oh, no; nothing of the kind. It is not more than eleven o'clock."
"Oh! I thought it was one or two. Do you know that your mother came to see me and insisted on my getting into bed?"
"You were a great goose, Nora. You should have lain down as I did, in your clothes; that would have saved a little time. But come, mother has been quite quiet for half an hour and more; she must be sound asleep. We had better go."
"Yes, we had better go," said Nora. "I packed a few things in this bag; it is quite light, and I can carry it. My money is in it, too—eight shillings and fivepence. I do trust Stephanotie will be able to lend us the rest."
Molly had not been idle while Nora was in her room. She had taken care to oil the hasp of the window; and now, with extreme caution, she lifted it up, taking care that it did not make the slightest sound as she did so. The next moment both girls were seated on the window-ledge. Molly sprang on to the pear-tree, which creaked and crackled under her weight; but Mrs. Hartrick was already in the land of dreams. Molly dropped on to the ground beneath, and then it was Nora's turn.
"Shall I shut the window before I get on to the pear-tree?" whispered Nora.
"No, no; leave it open. Come just as you are."
Nora reached out her arms, grasped the pear tree, and slipped down to the ground.
"Now then, we must be off," said Molly. "I hope Pilot won't bark." She was alluding to the big watchdog. "But there, I'll speak to him; he is very fond of me."
The girls stole across the grass. The dew lay heavy on it; their footsteps made no sound. Presently they reached the front of the house, and Pilot, with a deep bay, flew to meet them.
"Pilot! Pilot! quiet; good dog!" said Molly. She went on her knees, flung her arms round the dog, and began to whisper in his ear.
"He understands," she said, looking up at Nora. The great creature seemed to do so; he wagged his feathery tail from side to side and accompanied the girls as far as the gate.
"Now, go home, go home," said Molly. She then took Nora's hand, and they ran down the road in the direction of the village.
"If it were not that you are so miserable I should enjoy this awfully," said Molly.
"But how do you mean to wake Stephie?" asked Nora at last.
"Well, luckily for us, her aunt, Miss Truefitt, is rather deaf. Miss Truefitt has a bedroom at the back of the house, and Stephanotie sleeps in front. I shall fling gravel at the window. There is not a soul, as you see, in the streets. It's well that it is such a quiet place; it will serve our purpose all the better."
They now found themselves outside Miss Truefitt's house. Molly took up a handful of gravel and flung it in a great shower at Stephanotie's window. Both girls then waited eagerly for a response. At first there was none; once again Molly threw the gravel.
"I do hope she will wake soon," she said, turning to Nora; "that gravel makes a great noise, and some of the neighbors may pop out their heads to see what is the matter. There! I saw a flicker of light in the room. She is thinking it is thieves; she won't for a single moment imagine that we are here. I do hope Miss Truefitt won't awaken; it will be all up with us if she does."
"No, no, it won't," said Nora; "there's not a person in this place I could not get to help me in a cause like this. The one who is absolutely invulnerable, who cannot be moved, because she imagines herself to be right, is your mother."
"There's Stephie at the window now," said Molly. A little figure in a night-dress was seen peeping out.
"It's us, Stephie. Let us in; it's most awfully important," whispered Molly's voice in deep sepulchral tones from below.
"But say, what's the matter?" called Stephanotie, opening her window and popping out her curly head.
"I can't talk to you in the street. Slip down and open the hall-door and let us in," said Molly. "It's most vital."
"It's life or death," whispered Nora. There was something in Nora's tremulous tones which touched Stephanotie, and at the same time stimulated her curiosity to such an extent that she flew into her clothes, dashing about perfectly reckless of the fact that she was making a loud noise; but, luckily for her, Miss Truefitt was deaf and the servants slept in a remote part of the old house. Soon Stephanotie was tumbling downstairs, the chain was taken off the door, and the two girls were admitted.
"Where shall I take you?" said Stephanotie. "It's all as dark as pitch. You know Aunt Vi won't hear of gas in the house. But stay, we can go into the dining room. I suppose you can tell me by the light of a solitary glim." As she spoke she pointed to the candle which she was holding high above her head.
"Yes, yes, or with no light at all," said Nora.
Stephanotie now opened the door of the dining room, and the three girls entered. Stephanotie placed the candle on the table and turned and faced them.
"Well," she said, "what's up? What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to lend me all the money you have," said Nora.
"All the money I have—good gracious!"
"Oh, Jehoshaphat! be quick about it," said Molly. "We cannot stand here talking; we want to catch the very next train to town."
"But why should I lend you all the money I have?"
"Oh, I'll tell her, Nora; don't you speak," said Molly. "Nora's father has been awfully hurt; he was shot at from behind a hedge by some scoundrel in Ireland. A telegram came to-day about him to mother, and mother won't take Nora to Ireland unless her father is in danger, and Nora is determined to go."
"I guess I'd about do the same," said Stephanotie, nodding her head. "If poppa was shot at from behind a hedge, I guess there's nothing would keep me away from him. But is it for that you want the money?"
"Yes," said Nora, plunging her hands into the depths of her black bag; "there's only eight shillings and five-pence here, and I can't get to Ireland with that."
"Haul out the spoil," said Molly; "make no bones about it. I'm going with Nora, because the child isn't fit to travel alone."
"You coming with me?" said Nora. "I didn't know that."
"I don't mean to leave you, my dear, until I see you safe in the midst of your family; besides, I have a bit of curiosity with regard to that wonderful old place of yours."
"Oh, it's lost, the place is quite lost," said Nora, remembering for the first time since the blow had fallen the feather-bed condition of Castle O'Shanaghgan.
"Well, lost or found, I'd like to have a peep at it," said Molly; "so fork out the spoil, Stephie, and be quick."
"I will, of course," said Stephanotie. "But how much do you want?"
"All you possess, my dear; you cannot give us more than all you possess."
"And when am I likely to have it back?"
"Oh, as if that mattered," said Molly; "the thing is to get Nora home. You won't be any the worse for this, if that is what you mean."
"Oh, I am not really thinking of that; but my school fees have to be paid, and the money only came from America two days ago for the purpose. You know Aunt Vi is very poor."
"Poor or rich, don't keep us waiting now," said Molly. "Look at Nora. Do you think for a single moment that your school bills matter when her heart is breaking?"
"And you shall have the money back, Stephie, every farthing, if I die to get it for you," said Nora with sudden passion.
"I don't doubt you, darling," said the generous-hearted American girl. "Well, I'll go up to my room and see what I can do." She left the room, ran upstairs, and quickly returned with a fat purse. It contained gold and notes; and very soon Molly found, to her infinite delight, that it would be by no means necessary for her and Nora to take all Stephie's wealth.
"Ten pounds will be sufficient," said Molly. "I have not the slightest idea what the fares to Ireland are, but I have no doubt we shall do nicely with this sum. May we have these two five-pounds notes, Stephie?"
"You may and welcome," said Stephanotie. "I have nearly thirty pounds here; but it's on account of the school bills. As a rule, poppa is not quite so generous. He says it is better for young girls like me not to have too much money. I guess I'd eat too many bon-bons if I had a lot of money at my disposal. But had you not better take it in gold? It is much easier to change."
"To be sure," said Molly. "Holy Moses! it's you that have got the sense, Stephie."
"Thank you for the compliment," replied Stephanotie. "Well, then, here you are—ten sovereigns. Good luck to you both. What do you mean to do?"
"Go to the station and find out about the trains, and start the very first moment possible," said Molly.
"I do wish I was going with you. It would be no end of a lark."
"Why don't you come?" asked Molly.
"I wish I might; but there, I suppose I had better not. I must look perfectly innocent to-morrow, or I may get into an awful scrape for this. You must both go now, or Aunt Vi when she turns in her sleep may wake. She turns in her sleep about three times during the night; and whenever she turns she wakes, so she tells me. I guess it's about time for her first turn now, so the sooner you are off the better."
"Oh, thank you, Stephie! I shall never, never forget your kindness," said Nora. She flung her arms impulsively round Stephanotie's neck, and the next moment the girls left the house.
ADVENTURES—AND HOME AGAIN.
The girls now went straight to the railway station; the hour was a quarter to twelve. They entered and asked at once if there was a train up to town. Yes; the last train would be due in ten minutes. Molly now took the management of affairs; she purchased a third-class ticket for herself and another for Nora.
"If we go third-class we shall not be specially remarked," she said. "People always notice girls who travel first-class."
The tickets being bought, the girls stood side by side on the platform. Molly had put on her shabbiest hat and oldest jacket; her gloves had some holes in them; her umbrella was rolled up in such a thick, ungainly fashion that it looked like a gamp. Nora, however, exquisitely neat and trim, stood by her companion's side, betraying as she did so traces of her good birth and breeding.
"You must untidy yourself a bit when we get into the train," said Molly. "I'll manage it."
"Oh, never mind about my looks; the thing is to get off," said Nora. "I'm not a scrap afraid," she added; "if Aunt Grace came to me now she could not induce me to turn back; nothing but force would make me. I have got the money, and to Ireland I will go."
"I admire you for your determination," said Molly. "I never knew that an Irish girl could have so much spunk in her."
"And why not? Aren't we about the finest race on God's earth?"
"Oh, come, come," said Molly; "you mustn't overdo it. Even you sometimes carry things a trifle too far."
Just then the train came in. There was the usual bustle of passengers alighting and others getting in; the next moment the girls had taken their seats in a crowded compartment and were off to town. They arrived in London between twelve and one o'clock, and found themselves landed at Waterloo. Now, Waterloo is not the nicest station in the world for two very young girls to arrive at midnight, particularly when they have not the faintest idea where to go.
"Let us go straight to the waiting room and ask the woman there what we had best do," said Molly, who still immensely enjoyed taking the lead.
Nora followed her companion quite willingly. Her worst fears about her father were held in abeyance, now that she was really on her way to him. The girls entered the waiting room. A tired-looking woman was busy putting out the gas, and reducing the room to darkness for the night. She turned round as the girls came in.
"I'm shutting up, ladies," she said.
"Oh, but please advise us," said Molly.
"How so, miss? What am I to do?"
"You'll be paid well," said Molly, "so you need not look so angry. Can you take us home to your place until the morning?"
"What does this mean?" said the woman.
"Oh, I'll explain," said Molly. "We're two runaways. I don't mind telling you that we are, because it's a fact. It is important that we should leave home. We don't want to be traced. Will you give us lodging?—any sort. We don't mind how small the room is. We want to be at Euston at an early hour in the morning; we are going to Holyhead."
"Dear, dear!" said the woman; "and does this really mean money?"
"It means five shillings," said Molly.
"Ten" was on Nora's lips; but Molly silenced her with a look.
"There's no use in overpaying her; she won't be half as civil," whispered Molly to Nora.
"It's five shillings you'll get," she repeated in a firm voice. "Here, I have got the change; you can look in my purse."
"Molly opened her purse as she spoke. The woman, a Mrs. Terry by name, did look in. She saw the shine of gold and several half-crowns.
"Well, to be sure!" she said. "But you'll promise not to get me into a scrape?"
"We won't even ask you your name. You can let us out of the house in time for us to catch the first train from Euston. We shall be off and away before we are discovered."
"And we'll remember you all our lives if you'll help us," said Nora. Then she added, tears filling her pretty eyes, "It's my father, please, kind woman; he has been shot at and is very ill."
"And who wants to keep you from your father, you poor thing?" said the woman. "Oh, if it's that, and there's no lovers in the question, I don't mind helping you both. It don't do for young girls to be wandering about the streets alone at night. You come with me, honeys. I can't take you for nothing, but I'll give you supper and breakfast, and the best bed I can, for five shillings."
Accordingly, in Mrs. Terry's company, the two girls left Waterloo Station. She walked down a somewhat narrow side-street, crossed another, and they presently found themselves in a little, old-fashioned square. The square was very old indeed, belonging to quite a dead-and-gone period of the world. The woman stopped at a house which once had been large and stately; doubtless in days gone by it had sheltered goodly personages and had listened to the laughter of the rich and well-to-do; but in its old age the house was let out in tenements, and Mrs. Terry owned a couple of rooms at the very top.
She took the girls up the dirty stairs, opened the door of a not uncomfortable sitting room, and ushered them in.
"There now, honeys," she said; "the best I can do for you both is the sofa for one and my bed for the other."
"No, no," said Nora, "we would not dream of taking your bed; and, for that matter, I could not sleep," she added. "If you will let me have a couple of chairs I shall lie down on them and wait as best I can until the morning. Oh, I have often done it at home and thought it great fun."
"Well, you must each have a bit of supper first; it don't do for young girls to go to bed hungry, more particularly when they have a journey before them. I'll get you some bread and cheese and a glass of milk each—unless, indeed, you would prefer beer?"
"Oh, no, we would much rather have milk," said Molly.
The woman bustled about, and soon came in with a jug of milk, a couple of glasses, some bread, and some indifferent butter.
"You can have the cheese if you really want it," she said.
"No; this will do beautifully," answered Nora.
"Well then, my dears, I'll leave you now for the night. The lamp will burn all night. It will be lonely for young girls to be in the dark; and I'll promise to call you at five o'clock. There's a train leaves Euston between six and seven that you had better catch, unless you want them as is hindering you from flight to stop you. I am interested in this poor young lady who wants to see her father."
"Oh, thank you; you are a perfect darling!" said Nora. "I'll come and see you some day when I am happy again, and tell you all about it."
"Bless your kind heart, honey! I'm glad to be able to do something for those who are in trouble. Now then, lie down and have a bit of sleep. I'll wake you sure and certain, and you shan't stir, the two of you, until you have had a hot cup of tea each."
Mrs. Terry was as good as her word. She called the girls in good time, and gave them quite a comfortable breakfast before they started. The tea was hot; the bread was good—what else did they want?
Nora awoke from a very short and broken slumber.
"Soon I shall be back again," she thought. "No matter how changed and ruined the place is, I shall be with him once more. Oh, my darling, my heart's darling, I shall kiss you again! Oh! I am happy at the thought."
Mrs. Terry herself accompanied them to Euston. It was too early to get a cab; she asked them if they were good walkers. They said they were. She took them by the shortest routes; and, somewhat tired, but still full of a strange exultation, they found themselves at the great station. Mrs. Terry saw them into their train, and with many loudly uttered blessings started them on their journey. She would not touch anything more than the five shillings, and tears were in her eyes as she looked her last at them.
"God bless them, and particularly that little Irish girl. Haven't she just got the cunningest, sweetest way in all the world?" thought the good woman. "I do hope her father will be better when she gets to him. Don't she love him just!"
Yes, it had been the most daring scheme, the wildest sort of adventure, for two girls to undertake, and yet it was crowned with success. They were too far on their journey for Mrs. Hartrick, however much she might wish it, to rescue them. She might be as angry as she pleased; but nothing now could get them back. She accordingly did the very best thing she could do—telegraphed to Mr. Hartrick to say that they had absolutely run away, but begged of him to meet them in Dublin. This the good man did. He met them both on the pier, received them quietly, without much demonstration; but then, looking into Nora's anxious face, his own softened.
"You have come, Nora, and against my will," he said. "Are you sorry?"
"Not a bit, Uncle George," she answered. "I would have come against the wills of a thousand uncles if father were ill."
"Then I have nothing to say," he answered, with a smile, "at least to you; but, Molly, I shall have something to talk to you about presently."
"It was very good of you to meet us, father. Was mother terribly angry?"
"What could you expect her to be? You have behaved very badly."
"I don't think so. I did the only possible thing to save Nora's heart from breaking."
"It seems to me," said Mr. Hartrick slowly, "that you all think of nothing but the heart of Nora. I am almost sorry now that I ever asked her to come to us in England."
"Oh, it's home again; it's home again!" cried the Irish girl as she paced up and down the platform. "Molly, do listen to the brogue. Isn't it just delicious? Come along, and let's talk to this poor old Irish beggar."
"Oh, but he doesn't look at all pleasant," said Molly, backing a little.
"Bless the crayther, but he is pleasant," said Nora. "I must go and have a chat with him." She caught hold of Molly's hand, and dragged her to the edge of the pavement, where an old man, with almost blind eyes, was seated in front of a large basket of rosy apples.
"And how are you this morning, father?" said Nora.
"Oh, then, it's the top of the morning to yez, honey," was the instant reply. "And how is yourself?"
"Very well indeed," said Nora.
"Then it's I that am delighted to see yez, though see yez I can't. Oh, then, I hope that it's a long life and plenty you'll have before you, my sweet, dear, illigant young lady—a good bed to lie on, and plenty to eat and drink. If you has them, what else could ail yez? Good-by to yez; good-by to yez."
Nora slipped a couple of pence into his hand.
"The blessings of the Vargin and all the Saints be on your head, miss. Oh! it's I that am glad to see yez. God's blessing on yez a thousand times."
Nora took the old man's hand and wrung it. He raised the white little hand to his lips and kissed it.
"There now," he said, "I have kissed yez; and these lips shan't see wather again for many a long day—that they shan't. I wouldn't wash off the taste of your hand, honey, for a bag of yellow gold."
"What an extraordinary man!" said Molly. "Have you known him all your life?"
"Known him all my life!" said Nora. "Never laid eyes on him before; that's the way we always talk to one another. Oh, I can tell you we love each other here in Ireland."
"It seems so," answered Molly, in some astonishment. "Dear me! if you address a total stranger so, how will you speak to those you really love?"
"You wait and see," answered Nora, her dark-blue eyes shining, and a mist of tears dimming their brightness; "you wait and see. Ah, it's past words we are sometimes; but you wait and you'll soon see."
Mr. O'Shanaghgan was pronounced better, although Mr. Hartrick had to admit that he was weak and fretful; and, now that Nora had come, it was extremely likely that her presence would do her father a sight of good.
"I knew it, Uncle George," she answered as they seated themselves in the railway carriage preparatory to going back to O'Shanaghgan—"I knew it, and that was why I came. You, uncle, are very wise," she added; "and yours is a beautiful, neat, orderly country; and you are very kind, and very clever; and you have been awfully good to the Irish girl—awfully good; and she is very ignorant; and you know a great deal; but one thing she does know best, and that is, the love and the longing in the heart of her own dear father. Oh, hurrah! I'm home again; I'm home again! Erin go bragh! Erin go bragh!"
THE WILD IRISH.
The somewhat slow Irish train jogged along its way; it never put itself out, did that special train, starting when it pleased, and arriving when it chose at its destination. Its guard, Jerry by name, was of a like mind with itself; there was no hurry about Jerry; he took the world "aisy," as he expressed it.
"What's the good of fretting?" he used to say. "What can't be cured must be endured. I hurry no man's cattle; and my train, she goes when she likes, and I aint going to hurry her, not I."
On one occasion Jerry was known to remark to a somewhat belated traveler:
"Why, then, miss, is it hurrying ye are to meet the train? Why, then, you can take your time."
"Oh, Jerry!" said this anxious person, fixing her eyes on his face in great excitement, "I forgot a most important parcel at a shop half a mile away."
"Run and fetch it, then, honey," replied Jerry, "and I'll keep her a bit longer."
This the lady accordingly did. When she returned, the heads of all the other angry passengers were out of the windows expostulating with Jerry as to the cause of the delay.
"Hurry up, miss," he said then. He popped her into a compartment, and she, as he called the train, moved slowly out of the station.
At times, too, without the smallest provocation, Jerry would stop this special train because a little "pigeen" had got off one of the trucks and was running along the line. He and the porter shouted and raced after the animal, caught it, and brought it back to the train. On another occasion he calmly informed a rather important passenger, "Ye had best get out here, for she's bust." "She" happened to be the engine.
Into this train now got English Molly and Irish Nora. Mr. Hartrick pronounced it quite the vilest service he had ever traveled by. He began to grumble the moment he got into the train.
"It crawls," he said; "and it absolutely has the cheek to call itself an express."
But Nora, with her head out of the window, was shouting to Jerry, who came toward her full of blessings, anxious to shake her purty white hand, and telling her that he was as glad as a shower of gould to have her back again in the old country.
At last, however, the slow, very slow journey came to an end; and just after sunset the party found themselves at the little wayside station. Here a sight met Nora's eyes which displeased her exceedingly. Instead of the old outside car which her father used to drive, with the shabby old retainer, whose livery had long ago seen its best days, there arrived a smart groom, in the newest of livery, with a cockade in his hat. He touched his hat respectfully to Mr. Hartrick, and gave a quick glance round at Nora and Molly.
"Is the brougham outside, Dennis?" was Mr. Hartrick's response.
"Yes, sir; it has been waiting for half an hour; the train is a bit late, as usual, sir."
"You need not tell me that this train is ever in time," said Mr. Hartrick. "Well, girls, come along; I told Dennis to meet us, and here we are."
Molly thought nothing at all of the neat brougham, with its pair of spirited grays; she was accustomed to driving in the better-class of carriage all her life; but Nora turned first pale and then crimson. She got into the carriage, and sat back in a corner; tears were brimming to her eyes.
"This is the first. How am I to bear all the rest?" she said to herself.
Mr. Hartrick, who had hoped that Nora would be pleased with the brougham, with Dennis himself, with the whole very stylish get-up, was mortified at her silence, and, taking her hand, tried to draw her out.
"Well, little girl," he said, "I hope you will like the improvements I have made in the Castle. I have done it all at your instigation, remember."
"At my instigation?" cried Nora. "Oh, no, Uncle George, that you have not."
He looked at her in some amazement, then closed his lips, and said nothing more. Molly longed to get her father alone, in order to explain Nora's peculiar conduct.
"It is difficult for an Englishman to understand her," thought Molly. "I do, and I think her altogether charming; but father, who has gone to this enormous expense and trouble, will be put out if she does not show a little gratitude. I will tell her that she must; I will take the very first opportunity."
And now they were turning in at the well-known gates. These gates were painted white, whereas they had been almost reduced to their native wood. The avenue was quite tidy, no weeds anywhere; but Nora almost refused to look out. One by one the familiar trees seemed to pass by her as she was bowled rapidly along in the new brougham, as if they were so many ghosts saying good-by. But then there was the roar—the real, real, grand roar—of the Atlantic in her ears. No amount of tidiness, nothing could ever alter that sound.
"Oh, hurrah for the sea!" she said. She flung down the window and popped out her head.
Mr. Hartrick nodded to Molly. "She will see a great deal more to delight her than just the old ocean," he said.
Molly was silent. They arrived at the house; the butler was standing on the steps, a nice, stylish-looking Englishman, in neat livery. He came down, opened the carriage door, let down the steps, and offered his arm to Nora to alight; but she pushed past him, bounded up the steps, and the next moment found herself in her mother's arms.
"How do you do, my dear Nora?" said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan. "I am glad to see you, dear, but also surprised. You acted in your usual headstrong fashion."
"Oh, another time, mother. Mummy, how are you? I am glad to see you again; but don't scold me now; just wait. I'll bear it all patiently another time. How is the dad, mummy?—how is the dad?"
"Your father is doing nicely, Nora; there was not the slightest occasion for you to hurry off and give such trouble and annoyance."
"I don't suppose I have given annoyance to father," said Nora. "Where is he—in his old room?"
"No; we moved him upstairs to the best bedroom. We thought it the wisest thing to do; he was in considerable pain."
"The best bedroom? Which is the best bedroom?" said Nora. "Your room, mummy?"
"The room next to mine, darling. And just come and have a look at the drawing room, Nora."
"I will go to father first," said Nora. "Don't keep me; I can't stay."
She forgot Molly; she forgot her uncle; she even forgot her mother. In a moment she was bounding upstairs over those thick Axminster carpets—those awful carpets, into which her feet sank—down a corridor, also heavily lined with Axminster, past great velvet curtains, which seemed to stifle her as she pushed them aside, and the next instant she had burst open a door.
In the old days this room had been absolutely destitute of furniture. In the older days again it had been the spare room of Castle O'Shanaghgan. Here hospitality had reigned; here guests of every degree had found a hearty welcome, an invitation to stay as long as they pleased, and the best that the Castle could afford for their accommodation. When Nora had left O'Shanaghgan, the only thing that had remained in the old room was a huge four-poster. Even the mattress from this old bed had been removed; the curtains had been taken from the windows; the three great windows were bare of both blinds and curtains. Now a soft carpet covered the entire floor; a neat modern Albert bed stood in a recess; there were heavy curtains to the windows, and Venetian blinds, which were so arranged as to temper the light. But the light of the sunset had already faded, and it was twilight when Nora popped her wild, excited little face round the door.
In the bed lay a gaunt figure, unshaven, with a beard of a week's growth. Two great eyes looked out of caverns, then two arms were stretched out, and Nora was clasped to her father's breast.
"Ah, then, I have you again; may God be praised for all His mercies," said the Squire in a great, deep hoarse voice.
Nora lay absolutely motionless for nearly half a minute in his arms, then she raised herself.
"Ah," she said, "that was good. I hungered for it."
"And I also hungered for it, my darling," said the Squire. "Let me look at you, Light o' the Morning; get a light somehow, and let me see your bonny, bonny, sweet, sweet face."
"Ah, there's a fire in the grate," said Nora. "Are there any matches?"
"Matches, bedad!" said the Squire; "there's everything that's wanted. It's perfectly horrible. They are in a silver box, too, bedad! What do we want with it? Twist up a bit of paper, do, Nora, like a good girl, and light the glim the old way."
Nora caught at her father's humor at once. She had already flung off her hat and jacket.
"To be sure I will," she said, "and with all the heart in the world." She tore a long strip from the local paper, which was lying on a chair near by, twisted it, lit it in the fire, and then applied it to a candle.
"Only light one candle, for the love of heaven, child," said the Squire. "I don't want to see too many of the fal-lals. Now then, that's better; bring the light up to the bed. Oh, what I have suffered with curtains, and carpets, and—-"
"It's too awful, father," said Nora.
"That's it, child. That's the first cheery word I have heard for the last six weeks—too awful I should think it is. They are smothering me between them, Nora. I shall never get up and breathe the free air again; but when you came in you brought a breath of air with you."
"Let's open the window. There's a gale coming up, We'll have some air," said Nora.
"Why, then, Light o' the Morning, they say I'll get bronchitis if the window is opened."
"They! Who are they?" said Nora, with scorn.
"Why, you wouldn't believe it, but they had a doctor down from Dublin to see me. I don't believe he had a scrap of real Irish blood in him, for he said I was to be nursed and messed over, and gruels and all kinds of things brought to my bedside—I who would have liked a fine potato with a pinch of salt better than anything under the sun."
"You'll have your potato and your pinch of salt now that I am back," said Nora. "I mean to be mistress of this room."
The Squire gave a laugh.
"Isn't it lovely to hear her?" he said. "Don't it do me a sight of good? There, open the window wide, Nora, before your mother comes in. Oh, your mother is as pleased as Punch, and for her sake I'd bear a good deal; but I am a changed man. The old times are gone, never to return. Call this place Castle O'Shanaghgan. It may be suitable for an English nobleman to live in, but it's not my style; it's not fit for an Irish squire. We are free over here, and we don't go in for luxuries and smotherations."
"Ah, father, I had to go through a great deal of that in England," said Nora. "It's awful to think that sort of life has come here; but there—there's the window wide open. Do you feel a bit of a breeze, dad?"
"To be sure I do; let me breathe it in. Prop me up in bed, Nora. They said I was to lie flat on my back, but, bedad! I won't now that you have come back."
Nora pushed some pillows under her father, and sat behind him to support him, and at last she got him to sit up in bed with his face turned to the wide-open window.
The blinds were rattling, the curtains were being blown into the room, and the soft, wild sound of the sea fell on his ears.
"Ah, I'm better now," he said; "my lungs are cleared at bit. You had best shut the window before your lady-mother comes in. And put the candle so that I can't see the fal-lals too much," he continued; "but place it so that I can gaze at your bonny face."
"You must tell me how you were hurt, father, and where."
"Bedad! then, I won't—not to-night. I want to have everything as cheerful as possible to-night. My little girl has come back—the joy of my heart, the light of my eyes, the top of the morning, and I'm not going to fret about anything else."
"You needn't—you needn't," said Nora. "Oh! it is good to see you again. There never was anybody like you in all the world. And you were longing for Nora?"
"Now, don't you be fishing."
"But you were—wern't you?"
"To be sure—to be sure. Here, then, let me grip hold of your little hand. I never saw such a tiny little paw. And so they haven't made a fine English lady of you?"
"No, not they," said Nora.
"And you ran away to see your old dad? Why, then, you have the spirit of the old O'Shanaghgans in you."
"Horses would not have kept me from you," said Nora.
"I might have known as much. How I laughed when your mother brought in the telegram from your Aunt Grace this morning! And weren't they in a fuss, and wasn't your Uncle George as cross as he could be, and your mother rampaging up and down the room until I said, 'If you want to bring on the fever, you'll go on like that, Ellen; and then she went out, and I heard her talking to your uncle in the passage. Clap, clap went their tongues. I never knew anything like English people; they never talk a grain of anything amusing; that's the worst of it. Why, it's the truth I'm telling you, darling; I haven't had a hearty laugh since you left home. I'll do fine now. When they were out of the room didn't I give way! I gave two loud guffaws, that I did, when I thought of the trick you had played them. Ah, you're a true daughter of the old race!"