She lingered in the hall a moment to look out on the moonlight, and on opening the drawing-room door she heard a few words in Geraldine's voice:
'Splendidly handsome—dangerously so, in my opinion; what do you think, mother?'
'Well, my dear, I have seldom seen a finer-looking young man; and then his manners are so nice. Some clever young people are always pushing themselves into the conversation; they think nothing of silencing older men. Mr. Blake seems very modest and retiring.'
'Yes, but he is too handsome,' was the regretful reply; and then Audrey joined them.
'I knew you would say so,' she observed, with quite a pleased expression. 'Handsome is hardly the word; Mr. Blake has a beautiful face—he is like a Greek god.'
Geraldine drew herself up a little stiffly.
'My dear Audrey, how absurd! do Greek gods have olive complexions? How Percival will laugh when I tell him that!'
'To be sure,' returned Audrey calmly; 'thank you for reminding me that you are married, Gage; I am always forgetting it. That is the worst of having one's sister married; one is never sure that one's little jokes and speeches are not repeated. Now, as my confidences are not intended for Percival, I will learn slowly and painfully to hold my tongue for the future.'
This very natural speech went home, as Audrey intended it should. With all her dictatorial ways and clever management, Geraldine had a very warm heart.
'Oh, Audrey dear,' she said, quite grieved at this, 'I hope you are not speaking seriously. Of course I will not repeat it to Percival if you do not wish it; but when you are married yourself you will know how difficult it is to keep back any little thing that interests one.'
'When I am married—I mean, if I be ever married,' substituted Audrey, blushing a little, as girls will—'I hope I shall be quite as capable of self-control and discrimination as in my single days. I have never considered the point very closely; but now I come to think of it, I would certainly have an understanding with my husband on the wedding-day. "My dear Clive," I would say to him—Clive is a favourite name of mine; I hope I shall marry a Clive—"you must understand once for all that, though I intend to treat you with wifely confidence, I shall only tell my own secrets—not other people's." And he will reply, "Audrey, you are the most honourable of women. I respected you before; I venerate you now."'
'Audrey, how you talk!' But Mrs. Harcourt could not help laughing. Audrey was looking very nice this evening; white always suited her. To be sure, her hair might have been smoother. 'There is some sort of charm about her that is better than beauty,' she thought, with sisterly admiration; and then she asked her mother if she did not think Percival looked a little pale.
'He works too hard,' she continued; 'and he will not break himself of his old bachelor habit of sitting up late.'
'Men like their own way; you must not be too anxious,' retorted Mrs. Ross tranquilly. 'When I first married, I worried myself dreadfully about your father; but I soon found it was no use. And look at him now; late hours have not hurt him in the least. No one has better health than your father.'
But the young wife was only half comforted.
'My father's constitution is different,' she returned. 'Percival is strong; but his nerves are irritable; his organisation is more sensitive. It is burning both ends of the candle. I tell him he uses himself up too lavishly.'
'I used to say much the same things to your father, but he soon cured me. He asked me once why I was so bent on bringing him round to my opinions. "I do not try to alter yours," I remember he said once, in his half-joking way. "I do not ask you to sit up with me; though, no doubt, that is part of your wifely duty. I allow you to go to bed when you are sleepy, in the most unselfish way. So, my dear, you must allow me the same liberty of action." And, would you believe it, I never dared say another word to him on the subject.'
'You are a model wife, are you not, mother?' observed Audrey caressingly.
'No, dear; I never deserved your father,' returned Mrs. Ross, with much feeling, and the tears started to her eyes. 'If only my girls could have as happy a life! I am sure dear Geraldine has done well for herself—Percival makes her an excellent husband; and if I could only see you happily settled, Audrey, I should be perfectly satisfied.'
'Are you so anxious to lose me?' asked the younger girl reproachfully. 'You must find me a man as good as father, then. I am not so sure that I want to be married; I fancy an old maid's mission will suit me best. I have too many plans in my head; no respectable man would tolerate me.'
'May I ask what you ladies are talking about?' asked Captain Burnett, as he sauntered lazily round the screen that, even in summer-time, shut in the fireplace, and made a cosy corner. Mr. Blake followed him.
Audrey looked at them both calmly.
'I was only suggesting my possible mission as a single woman. Don't you think I should make a charming old maid, Michael?' and Audrey folded her beautifully-shaped arms, and drew herself up; but her dimple destroyed the effect. Cyril Blake darted a quick look at her; then he crossed the room and sat down by Mrs. Ross, and talked to her and Geraldine until it was time for him to take his leave.
THE GRAY COTTAGE
'I think I love most people best when they are in adversity; for pity is one of my prevailing passions.'—MARY WOLSTONECRAFT GODWIN'S LETTER.
The next morning, as Captain Burnett was strolling across the tennis-lawn in search of a shady corner where he could read his paper, he encountered Audrey. She was walking in the direction of the gate, and had a basket of flowers in her hand.
She was hurrying past him with a nod and a smile, but he coolly stopped her.
'May I ask where you are going, my Lady Bountiful?' for this was a name he often called her, perhaps in allusion to her sweet, bountiful nature; but Audrey, in her simplicity, had never understood the compliment.
She hesitated a moment; and this was so unusual on her part, that Captain Burnett metaphorically pricked up his ears. To use his own language, he immediately scented the whole business.
'I am going into the town; but I have a great deal to do,' she returned quickly. 'Please do not detain me, Michael. I am not like you: I cannot afford the luxury of idleness.'
'Well, no; it is rather a dear commodity, certainly,' he replied pleasantly, though that hasty speech made him inwardly wince, as though someone had touched an unhealed wound. 'Luxury of idleness!' how he loathed it!
'If you are too long, I shall come and look after you,' he continued significantly; but to this she made no reply. She took herself to task as she walked on. She had not been perfectly open with Michael, but then he had no right to question her movements. She had spoken the truth; she certainly had business in the town—several orders to give—before she went to the Gray Cottage. Michael was her ally—her faithful, trusty ally. No knight sworn to serve his liege lady had ever been more zealous in his fealty. But even to Michael she did not wish to confess that the greater part of the morning would be spent at the Gray Cottage.
Audrey had no idea that her cousin had guessed her little secret—that he was smiling over it as he unfolded his paper. Her conscience was perfectly easy with regard to her motives. Pure compassion for those two poor children was her only inducement. There was no danger of encountering the elder brother.
The windows of the great schoolroom opened on the terrace, and as Audrey had passed to gather her flowers she had had a glimpse of a dark, closely-cropped head, and the perfect profile that she had admired last night, and she knew the new master would be fully occupied all the morning. Audrey felt a little needle-prick of unavailing compunction as she remembered her allusion to the Greek god yesterday.
'I wish I were not so foolishly outspoken!' she thought. 'I always say just what comes into my head. With some people it would not matter—with Michael, for example. He never misunderstands one's meaning. But poor dear Gage is so literal. Clever as she is, she has no sense of humour.'
Here she paused at the grocer's to give her orders, but directly she left the shop she took up the same thread again:
'I am always making resolutions to be more careful, but it never seems any use. The thoughts will come tumbling out like ill-behaved children just let out of school. There is no keeping them in order. I fancy Mr. Blake is outspoken, too, when he gets rid of his shyness. I was so surprised when he blurted out that little bit about his brother. He looked so sad over it, too. I think I must have made a mistake in supposing that he only cared for his mother. It was odd to make me his confidante; but, then, people always do tell me things. He is Irish, of course. Irishmen are always impulsive.'
But here another list of orders to be given at the ironmonger's checked these vague musings.
Audrey was fully expected at the Cottage. She had hardly lifted the latch of the gate before Mollie appeared in the doorway.
'I knew you would come,' she said shyly, as Audrey kissed her and put the flowers in her hands. 'Oh what lovely flowers! Are they for mamma, Miss Ross? Thank you ever so much! Mamma is so passionately fond of flowers, and so is Cyril.'
'And not Kester?'
'Oh yes; he loves them too,' burying her face in the delicious blossoms—'roses especially; they are his favourite flowers. But, of course, no one thinks of sending them to Kester; he is only a boy.'
'And I daresay you like them, too?'
Mollie vehemently nodded assent.
'Well, then, I shall bring you and Kester some next time. You are right in thinking those are for your mother. May I go in and speak to her?—for we have to be very busy, you know.'
'Mamma is not up yet,' returned Mollie; and as Audrey looked surprised, she added quickly: 'She and Cyril sat up so late last night. She was wanting to hear all about his evening, and it was such a lovely night that they were in the garden until nearly twelve o'clock, and so, of course, she is tired this morning.'
Audrey made no reply to this. Mrs. Blake was charming, but she was certainly a little erratic in her habits. No wonder there was so little comfort in the house when the mistress disliked early rising.
Mollie seemed to take it as a matter of course; besides, she was too much absorbed in the flowers to notice Miss Ross's reproving silence. She rushed off to find a jug of water, and Audrey turned into the dining-room, which presented the same aspect of confusion that it had worn yesterday. Kester was on his knees trying to unpack a hamper of books. It cost him a painful effort to rise, and he looked so pale and exhausted that Audrey at once took him in hand.
'My dear boy,' she said kindly, as she helped him to the sofa, 'how very imprudent! You have no right to try your strength in that way. How could Mollie let you touch those books!'
'She has everything to do, and I wished to help her,' he returned, panting with the exertion. 'Cyril wants his books so badly, and he has put up the bookcase, you see. He did that this morning—he had scarcely time to eat his breakfast—and then he asked Mollie if she would unpack the books.'
'I will help Mollie,' returned Audrey, laying aside her hat. 'Now, Kester, I want to ask you a favour. You will only be in our way here. Will you please take possession of that nice hammock-chair that someone has put outside the window? and we will just fly round, as the Yankee domestics say.'
Audrey spoke with such good-natured decision, with such assurance of being obeyed, that Kester did not even venture on a grumbling remonstrance—the poor fellow was too much accustomed to be set on one side, and to be told that he was no use. But Audrey had no intention of leaving him in idleness.
'By and by, when the room is a little clearer, you can be of the greatest help to us; for you can sit at the table and dust the books in readiness for us to arrange.' And Kester's face brightened up at that.
Audrey was quite in her element. As she often told her mother, she was robust enough for a housemaid. The well-ordered establishment at Woodcote, with its staff of trained domestics and its excellent matron, afforded little scope for her youthful activities. Mrs. Ross was her own housekeeper, and though she had contentedly relinquished her duties to Geraldine for the last few years, she had not yet offered to transfer them to Audrey.
Audrey pretended to be a little hurt at this arrangement, but in reality she was secretly relieved. Her tastes were not sufficiently domestic. She liked better to supplement her mother's duties than to take the entire lead. In her way she was extremely useful. She wrote a great many of the business letters, undertook all the London shopping, and assisted Mrs. Ross in entertaining her numerous visitors, many of whom were the boys' mothers; and though Mrs. Ross still regretted the loss of her elder daughter, and complained that no one could replace Geraldine, she was fully sensible of Audrey's efficiency and good-humoured and ready help.
'Audrey is as good as gold, and does all I want her to do,' she said to Geraldine, when the latter had questioned her very closely on the subject.
It was no trouble to Audrey to dash off half a dozen letters before post-time, or to drive into Sittingbourne to meet a batch of boys' relatives. She was naturally active, and hated an idle moment; but no work suited her so well as this Herculean task of evoking order out of the Blake chaos. Molly was so charmed with her energy, so fired by her example, that she worked like a dozen Mollies. The books were soon unpacked and on the table; then Biddy was called in to clear away the straw and hampers, and to have a grand sweep. Nothing more could be done until this had been carried out, so they left Biddy to revel in dust and tea-leaves, while they turned out another hamper or two in the kitchen; for in the course of their labours Mollie had confided to Audrey that certain indispensable articles were still missing.
'The best thing would be to get rid of as many of the hampers as possible,' replied Audrey; 'they are only in the way; let us pack them up in the yard, and then one can have room to move.'
When Biddy had finished her labours and all the dirt had been removed, Kester hobbled in willingly to dust the books, and Audrey and Mollie arranged them on the shelves. There were not so very many, but they were all well and carefully chosen—Greek and Latin authors, all Carlyle's and Emerson's works, a few books of history and philosophy, the principal poets, and some standard works of fiction: Dickens, Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scott—the latter bound very handsomely. Audrey felt sure, as she placed the books on the shelves, that this little library was collected by a great deal of self-denial and effort. The young student had probably little money to spare. With the exception of Sir Walter Scott and Thackeray, none of the books were handsomely bound; that they were well read was obvious, for a volume of Browning's poems happening to fall from her hand, Audrey could see profuse pencil-marks, and one philosophical book had copious notes on the margin.
'They are all Cyril's books,' observed Mollie, unconsciously answering Audrey's thought. 'Poor Cyril! it is such a trouble to him that he cannot afford to buy more books. When he was at Oxford he used to go without things to get them; he said he would sooner starve than be without books. Is it not sad to be so dreadfully poor, Miss Ross? But I suppose you don't know how it feels. Mamma bought him that lovely edition of Thackeray—oh, and Sir Walter Scott's novels too. Don't you like that binding? it is very expensive. Cyril was so vexed at mamma's spending all that money on him when Kester wanted things, I am afraid he hardly thanked her, and mamma cried about it.'
Mollie was chattering on without thinking until a bell made her start and hurry away. She did not come back for some time, and Audrey finished her task alone.
'I have been making mamma some coffee,' she said gravely; 'she had one of her headaches. She has sent you a message, Miss Ross; she is so delighted with the flowers. She wanted to get up at once and thank you, and then she thought she had better lie still until her headache was better; but she will be down presently.'
'Then we must make haste and finish the room before she comes. Mollie, I can do nothing with those pictures; we will put them up against the wall until your brother can hang them. Let me see; that corner behind the writing-table—no one can see them there. Quick! hand me another. Is this a portrait of your father?' stopping to regard a half-length figure of a fine-looking man in naval uniform.
'No, that is only an uncle of mamma's; I forget his name. Do you remember it, Kester? Papa was a merchant—at least, I think so.'
'Has he been long dead?'
'Oh yes; he died abroad when Kester and I were quite little; that is why we are so poor. Mamma has often told us that it is her money we are living on. I don't know how she managed to send Cyril to Oxford; but we had no house all that time, only poky little lodgings. Are we going to arrange the furniture now, Miss Ross? Oh, how comfortable the room begins to look, and how delighted Cyril will be when he comes home this afternoon! He says that Dr. Ross wants him after school, so he will not run home before dinner. How glad I am that Cyril will always have a nice dinner now! He does so hate Biddy's cooking; he declares everything tastes alike. You say so, too, don't you, Kester?'
Kester's answer was a shrug of the shoulders; he seemed more reserved than Mollie, who was chattering to her new friend with all the frankness and thoughtlessness of a very young girl.
'Mamma never minds what sort of dinner Biddy sends up, if only Cyril does not find fault. I think she would live on tea and dry bread all the year round if only Cyril could have nice things.'
Cyril—always Cyril! Audrey turned the subject by asking Mollie if she would like the couch in the window. Mollie clapped her hands delightedly at the effect.
'It looks beautiful; don't you think so, Kester? And how funny! Miss Ross has put your own particular little table beside it, just as though she guessed that it was to hold your desk and your books. There is Kester's little box of books, but he will unpack them himself by and by.'
'Mollie, have you ordered the dinner?' interrupted Kester a little anxiously—and poor Mollie's face fell.
'Oh dear, I am so sorry, but I have forgotten all about it; the butcher has not called, and there are only those potatoes and bread and cheese. Mamma is right when she says my head is like a sieve.'
'Why don't you send Biddy for some chops, my dear?' remarked Audrey very sensibly.
Kester had spoken in a loud whisper, but she had overheard every word. Mollie started off with a look of relief to hunt up the old woman, and when Audrey found herself alone with Kester she could not help saying to him:
'Mollie is a very young housekeeper—girls of fourteen are liable to forget sometimes;' but to her surprise he fired up at once:
'They all expect too much of her; I hate to see her slave as she does: it is not right, it is not fair—I tell Cyril so. She has no time to herself; all her lessons are neglected. If only mother would send Biddy away and get another servant!'
'Who teaches Mollie, then?' she asked, a little curiously.
'Oh, mother gives her lessons sometimes, but they are not very regular, and I help her with arithmetic and Latin. Cyril always gives me an hour or two in the evening, when his work is done, but of course Mollie does not care to learn Greek.'
'Do you mean that your brother gives you lessons when he has been teaching all day?'
'Yes, and he is awfully tired sometimes; but he never likes me to be disappointed. Mother often tries to make him take a walk instead; but Cyril is such a brick: he never will listen to her.'
Audrey felt a little glow of satisfaction as she heard this. What a kind brother Mr. Blake seemed to be—how truly estimable! she would never judge hastily of anyone again. Just then the clock struck one, and she told Kester that she must hurry away. She was disappointed that Mrs. Blake had not yet appeared—she wanted to see the face that had haunted her so persistently; but the bewitching widow had not shown herself.
'I am afraid I must go, or I shall be late for luncheon,' she said hurriedly.
'I will tell Mollie,' returned the boy; and then he said a little awkwardly: 'You have been awfully good to us, Miss Ross; I don't know how Mollie and I are to thank you. You must be quite tired out.'
'I am not so easily tired, Kester, and I am rather fond of this sort of work. Do you think your mother would mind if I were to look in to-morrow afternoon and help a little with the drawing-room? Mollie said something about it just now, and I half promised—she is to help Biddy put up the plates and dishes this afternoon; that will be as much as she can do.'
'I am sure mother will be only too delighted,' replied Kester gratefully; and then Audrey went in search of Mollie, and found her occupied with the chops, while Biddy cleaned the knives. Mollie turned a scorched cheek to her.
'Dear Miss Ross, thank you ever so much,' she said fervently as Audrey repeated her promise of looking in the next afternoon.
'Poor little soul! how interested Michael will be when I tell him all about her!' she thought as she walked briskly towards Woodcote.
Audrey had scarcely closed the green gate behind her before Mrs. Blake's foot sounded on the stairs. She looked pale and heavy-eyed, and walked into the room a little languidly; but if Audrey had seen her she would only have thought that her paleness invested her with fresh interest.
'Miss Ross has gone, mamma,' observed Mollie regretfully, as she followed her into the room.
'Yes, I know; I felt too jaded to face visitors this morning—Miss Ross looks at one so, and my nerves would not stand it. How are you, Kester?' kissing his forehead lightly; 'you look better than usual. I don't believe I closed my eyes until four o'clock. Dear me!' interrupting herself; 'there are Cyril's books nicely arranged—did you do them, Mollie? Why, the room looks quite comfortable and homelike. Miss Ross must have helped you a great deal.'
'Oh yes, mamma,' exclaimed Mollie and Kester eagerly; and they were about to expatiate on Audrey's wonderful goodness, when their mother checked them:
'Please don't speak so loud, children, or you will make my head bad again. I will tell you what we will do, Mollie. We will make those curtains, and then this room will be quite finished. There are only the hems and just the tops to do. We can have no difficulty in finishing them before Cyril comes home. The red tablecloth is at the top of the black box—if you will fetch it, Mollie—and I have arranged the flowers in that pretty green vase.'
'But, mamma,' pleaded Mollie, in a vexed voice, 'the room will do quite well without curtains for one day, and I promised Miss Ross to help Biddy with the plates and dishes. All the hampers are unpacked, and there is not a corner in the kitchen to put anything—and it does make Biddy so cross.'
'Nonsense, Mollie! Who minds about Biddy's crossness! I suppose I may do as I like in my own house. Let us have dinner, and then we will set to work at once—you and I—and Kester can read to us;' and, seeing that her mother's mind was fully made up, Mollie very wisely held her tongue, probably admonished thereto by a mild kick from Kester.
So, as soon as the chops had been eaten, Mollie produced her mother's work-basket and a shabby little cotton-box that was appropriated to her own use, and sewed industriously, only pausing at intervals to watch the white, slender fingers that seemed to make the needle fly through the stuff.
Mrs. Blake was evidently an accomplished seamstress, and long before four o'clock the curtains were put up, and duly admired by the whole family and Biddy.
'Measure thy life by loss instead of gain— Not by wine drunk, but by the wine poured forth; For love's strength standeth in love's sacrifice; And whose suffers most hath most to give.'
Audrey was bent on keeping her promise to Mollie, but she found a great deal of finesse and skilful management were necessary to secure her afternoon from interruption.
First, there was a note from Hillside. Mrs. Harcourt had to pay a round of visits, and would be glad of her sister's company: and as Mrs. Ross evidently thought that a refusal was impossible under such circumstances, Audrey felt that she was in a dilemma.
'Gage will have the carriage,' she said, with a trace of annoyance in her tone. 'She cannot possibly require me, especially as she knows an afternoon spent in paying formal calls is my pet abomination.'
'But, my dear Audrey, you would surely not allow your sister to go alone,' began her mother in a voice of mild remonstrance. She very seldom interfered with Audrey—indeed, that young person was in most respects her own mistress—but when Geraldine's interests were involved Mrs. Ross could be firm. 'You are very good-natured,' she went on, 'and I am sure it is very good of you to take all that trouble for those poor neglected children'—for Mrs. Ross's motherly sympathies were already enlisted on behalf of Mollie and Kester—'but, of course, your first duty is to your sister.'
'But, my dear mother, a promise is a promise, and poor little Mollie is expecting me.' And then a bright idea came to Audrey. 'Why should you not go with Gage yourself? It is a lovely afternoon, and the drive will do you good. Gage would much prefer your company to mine, and you know how much she admires your new bonnet;' and though Mrs. Ross faintly demurred to this, she was in the end overruled by Audrey.
'Dear mother! she and Gage will enjoy themselves thoroughly,' thought Audrey, as she watched Mrs. Ross drive from the door, looking the picture of a well-dressed English gentlewoman.
Audrey had to inflict another disappointment before she could get her own way. Michael wanted her to go with him to the cricket-field. There was a match being played, and on these occasions Audrey was always his companion. She understood the game as well as he did, and always took an intelligent interest in it. Audrey was sorry to refuse him and to see him go off alone.
'Never mind; I daresay I shall only stay for an hour,' he said, as he took down his hat and walked with her to the gate of the Gray Cottage.
Mollie was on the watch for her, and darted out to meet her.
'Oh, Miss Ross,' she said excitedly, 'I have so much to tell you! Mamma has had to go up to London this morning on business, and she is so sorry because she did not see you yesterday; and I was to give you all sorts of messages and thanks. And now please do come into the kitchen a moment, and you will see how hard we have worked.'
Audrey followed her at once.
'Oh, Mollie, how could you have done so much!' she exclaimed in genuine surprise, as she looked round her.
The plates and dishes were neatly arranged on the dresser, the dish-covers and tins hanging in their places, the crate of glass and china emptied of its contents and in the yard. The floor had been scrubbed as well as the table, and Biddy stood by the side of her freshly-blackleaded stove, with the first smile Audrey had yet seen on her wrinkled face.
'It is not all Miss Mollie's doing,' she said, with a chuckle, as she carried off the kettle.
'Did your mother help you?' asked Audrey, for Mollie only looked mysterious.
'Mamma! Oh dear no! She was busy all the evening with the curtains. Oh, what fun! I do wish Kester were here, but he is studying his Greek. Dear Miss Ross, you do look so puzzled. It was not mamma, and it was not Biddy, though she cleaned the kitchen this morning; and of course it could not be Kester.'
'I will give it up,' returned Audrey, laughing. 'Some magician must have been at work—and a very clever magician, too.'
'Oh, I will tell Cyril that!' replied Mollie, clapping her hands. 'Why did you not guess Cyril, Miss Ross? He is clever enough for anything.'
'Do you mean Mr. Blake put up all these plates and dishes?' observed Audrey, feeling as much surprised as an Athenian damsel would have been if she had heard of Apollo turning scullion.
'Yes, indeed! I must tell you all about it,' returned Mollie garrulously, for she was an inveterate chatterbox. 'You know, I had promised to help Biddy because she was in such a muddle, and then mamma came down and said we must get the dining-room curtains ready, to surprise Cyril when he came home.
'Well, he was very pleased; but I am afraid mamma thought that he took more notice of the way his books were arranged than of the curtains; but he said it all looked very nice, and that we were getting to rights now; and then mamma said that, as she was in the mood for work, we might as well do the drawing-room curtains too.'
'But, my dear Mollie, the furniture is not yet arranged.'
'No, of course not; but you don't understand mamma. She never does things quite like other people. She likes either to work all day long, and not give herself time for meals even, or else to do nothing; she likes beginning things, but she hates being compelled to finish them. That is why I am obliged to wear this shabby old frock,' looking down at it ruefully. 'Mamma has two such pretty ones half done, and I don't know when she will finish them.'
'Does your mother make all your frocks, dear?'
'Yes; and she does work so beautifully—everyone says so. But she is not always in the mood, and then it troubles her; she was in the curtain mood last night. Cyril saw I was vexed about something, and when mamma went out of the room he asked me if I were tired; and I could hardly help crying as I told him about my promise to you; and then he called me a little goose, and pulled my hair, as he does sometimes, and told me to leave it to him.'
'Yes——' as Mollie paused from sheer want of breath.
'Of course Cyril can always manage mamma. He sent me into the kitchen, and in ten minutes he came after me, and asked what was to be done. Kester dusted all the glass, and Cyril and I did the rest. We were hard at work till ten o'clock; and Biddy was so pleased.'
'And now we must go upstairs,' returned Audrey, when Mollie's story was told. 'Perhaps Biddy will be good enough to help us.' And in a little while the three were hard at work.
Audrey and Mollie arranged the shabby furniture to the best advantage. One or two Oriental rugs were spread on the dark-polished floor; then the curtains were hung and draped in the most effective manner, and some old china, that Mollie said was her mother's special treasure, was carefully washed and placed on the shelves of an old cabinet.
'It really looks very nice,' observed Audrey contentedly, when Biddy had gone down to see after the tea. She had enjoyed her afternoon far more than if she had been paying those calls with Geraldine. 'I always liked this room so much;' and she gave a touch to the big Japanese screen and flecked some dust from the writing-table. 'I daresay your mother will alter the position of the furniture—people always have their own ideas. But I hope she will not move the couch; it stands so well in that recess. Do you think she will like this little table in the window, Mollie? I am sure this would be my favourite seat;' and Audrey took it for a moment as she spoke, and looked down at the old arches and the quiet courtyard, with its well-worn flagstones. The martins were twittering about the eaves; some brown, dusty sparrows were chirping loudly. The ivy-covered buildings round the corner were just visible; and a large gray cat moved stealthily between the arches, intent on some subtle mischief. Mr. Charrington's boys were all on the cricket-field, watching an exciting match between Rutherford and Haileybury, and the school-house was deserted.
'That must be your seat when you come to see us,' observed Mollie affectionately. 'Mamma was only saying this morning that she had taken a fancy to you, and hoped you would come very often; and Kester said he hoped so, too, because you were so very kind.'
'Did you have many friends at Headingly?' asked Audrey absently.
She was wondering to whom Kester was talking. She could hear his voice through the open window; it sounded bright and animated. It could not possibly be his brother; Mr. Blake would be with the boys on the cricket-field. Perhaps Mrs. Blake had returned from town.
'We had no friends at all,' returned Mollie disconsolately; 'at least, no real friends. People just called on us and left their cards. Mrs. Bryce was very kind to Kester, but mamma never got on with her. We none of us liked Headingly much, except Cyril. Everyone was nice to him, but when mamma fretted and said she was miserable, and that no one in the place cared for her, he seemed to lose interest, too; and when this vacancy occurred, he just said he had had enough of it, and that mamma would be happier in a fresh place, and so we came here, and now we have found you;' and Mollie's brown eyes were very soft as she spoke.
'Oh, you will find plenty of people to like at Rutherford,' replied Audrey. 'You have not seen my mother yet, Mollie; she is so good to everyone, and so is father. And then there is my cousin, Captain Burnett, who half lives with us; he is one of the nicest men possible.'
But as Audrey spoke, she had no idea that Michael was that minute talking to Kester. It fell out in this way: Michael found it slow on the cricket-field without Audrey; so many people came up and talked to him that he got quite bored. Captain Burnett was a general favourite with men as well as women; he had the reputation of being a hero: women pitied him for his ill-health and misfortunes, and men admired him for the cheerful pluck with which he endured them.
'Burnett is a pleasant fellow and a gentleman,' was one observation. 'Perhaps he is a bit solemn at times, but I fancy that confounded wound of his gives him trouble. Anyhow, he never plagues other people with his ailments. "Grin and bear it"—I fancy that is Burnett's motto.'
Michael found the cricket-field dull without Audrey's liveliness to give zest to the afternoon; she always took people away when he was tired. He had had enough of it long before the match was over. Just as he was sauntering homewards he encountered Mr. Blake, and in the course of brief conversation he learnt that Mrs. Blake was in town.
Michael thought he would call and see if Audrey were ready to come home—it would do no harm to inquire at the door; but Biddy, who was scouring the doorsteps, told him abruptly to step in and he would find the lady; and, half amused at his own coolness, he, nothing loath, accepted the invitation.
He found Kester alone in the dining-room busy over his lessons. He looked up in some astonishment at the sight of a strange gentleman, and Zack, the retriever, growled rather inhospitably at Booty. Perhaps the Dachs-hund's short legs affronted him.
'Am I disturbing you?' asked Michael in his most genial manner. And he looked at the boy's pale intelligent face with much interest. 'I have come to see after my cousin, Miss Ross. Is she anywhere about? My name is Captain Burnett.'
'Oh, I know,' returned Kester, flushing a little nervously under the scrutiny of those keen blue eyes; 'Cyril told us about you. Miss Ross is upstairs with Mollie; they are putting the drawing-room to rights, but they will be down to tea presently. Will you sit down,' still more nervously, 'or shall I call Mollie?'
'No, no; there is no hurry, unless I am interrupting you,' with a glance at Kester's books. 'You are doing Greek, eh?'
'Yes, I am getting ready for Cyril this evening; but I am too tired to do more.'
And Kester pushed away his papers with a movement that betrayed latent irritability. Michael knew that sign of weakness well.
'That is right; shut up your books,' he said with ready kindness. 'Never work when you are tired: it is bad economy; it is using up one's stock of fuel too recklessly—lighting a furnace to cook a potato. The results are not worth it. Tired work is bad work—I have proved it.'
'I am generally tired,' returned Kester with a sigh. And it was sad to see the gravity that crept over the young face. 'It does not do to think too much of one's feelings; one has just to bear it, you know. I am ignorant enough as it is, and I must learn; I will learn!' setting his teeth hard.
Michael shot a quick glance at the lad; then he turned over the leaves of the book next him for a moment in silence.
'I must know more of this fellow,' he thought; 'Audrey is right; she is generally right about people.' Then in his ordinary quiet tone:
'I wonder your brother finds time for private tuition. I live at the lower school, you know, and so I understand all about the junior master's work. Mr. Blake has his evenings free generally, but there is dormitory work and——'
'Cyril says he will always give me an hour and a half,' interrupted Kester eagerly. 'Of course, it is not good for him to have any more teaching; but he says he would hate to see me grow up a dunce—and—and'—swallowing down some secret emotion—' I think it would break my heart not to know things.'
'And you want to be a classical scholar?' in the same grave tones.
'I want to learn everything;' and here there was a sudden kindling in the boy's eyes. 'I must do something, and my lameness hinders everything but that—perhaps, if I learn plenty of Latin and Greek, I may be able to help Cyril one day. We often talk about it, and even mother thinks it is a good plan. One day Cyril hopes to have a school of his own—when he is older, you know—and then I could take the younger boys off his hands and save him the cost of an usher; don't you think that would be possible?' looking anxiously at Michael, for somehow those steady clear eyes seemed so thoroughly to comprehend him.
'I think it an excellent plan,' retained Michael slowly; "knowledge is power"—we all know that. Do you know,' drawling out his words a little, 'that I have been working at Greek, too, for the last two years? I took it up as a sort of amusement when I was seedy; it would not be bad fun to work together sometimes. I daresay you are ahead of me in Greek, but I don't believe you could beat me in mathematics. We could help each other, and it would be good practice. I suppose your brother gives you lessons in mathematics.'
Kester shook his head.
'There is not time for everything, and Cyril always says mathematics are not in his line—he is a classical master, you see.'
'Oh yes, that is easily understood; but you can have more than one master. Come, shall we make a bargain? Will you read Greek with me? and I will give you an hour three times a week for mathematics, or anything else you like. I am an idle man, and any fixed occupation would be a boon to me.'
'Do you mean it?' was the breathless answer; and then he added, a little shyly: 'I am awfully obliged; I should like it of all things; but you are not strong, are you?—Miss Ross told us so.'
'Not particularly; I was rather knocked about by the Zulus, you know, and my leg gives me a good deal of trouble. I am pretty heavily handicapped—we are both in the same boat, are we not?—but we may as well make a fight for it.'
'Someone told me,' returned Kester, in a tone of great awe, 'that you have the Victoria Cross, Captain Burnett.'
Michael nodded; he never cared to be questioned on the subject.
'Will you let Mollie and me see it one day?' half whispered the boy. 'I hope you don't mind my asking you, but I have always so wanted to see it. I am afraid you won't tell us all about it, but I should dearly love to hear.'
No one had ever induced Michael to tell that story; the merest allusion to his gallantry always froze him up in a moment—even Dr. Ross, who was his nearest confidant, had never heard the recital from his own lips. But for once Michael let himself be persuaded; Kester's boyish eagerness prevailed, and, to his own surprise, Michael found himself giving the terrible details in a cool, business-like manner.
No wonder Kester forgot the time as he listened; the lad's sensitive frame thrilled with passionate envy at the narrative. At last he had met a hero face to face. What were those old Greek fellows—Ajax, or Hector or any of those gaudy warriors—compared with this quiet English soldier?
'Oh, if I could only be you!' he sighed, as Michael ended his recital; 'if I could look back on a deed like that! How many lives did you save, Captain Burnett?—you told me, but I have forgotten. I think you are the happiest man I know.'
Kester in his boyish reticence could not speak out his inmost thought, or he would have added: 'And the greatest and the grandest man I have ever seen.'
A dim, inscrutable smile flitted over Captain Burnett's features.
'My dear fellow, happiness is a purely relative term. I am not a great believer in happiness. A soldier without his work is hardly to be envied.'
Kester was young, but his life had already taught him many things. He was acute enough to detect a note of bitterness in his new friend's voice. It said, more than his words, that Captain Burnett was a disappointed man. He looked at him wistfully for a moment.
'Yes, I know what you mean. You would like to be back with your regiment. It is very hard—very hard, of course; but you are not suffering for nothing, like me. Don't you see the difference?'—dropping his voice. 'I have got this pain to bear, and no good comes of it; it is just bearing, and nothing else. But you have suffered in saving other men's lives. It is a kind of ransom. Oh, I don't know how to express myself, but it must be happiness to have a memory like that!'
Kester had spoken with a sort of involuntary outburst. For a moment Captain Burnett turned his head aside. He felt rebuked by this crude, boyish enthusiasm, which had gone so straight to the heart of things. Why was he, the grown man, so selfish, so impatient, when this poor lad acquiesced so meekly in his fate? Had Kester deserved his lot?
'You are right,' observed Michael, in a low tone. 'One ought only to be thankful, and not complain.'
And just at this moment Audrey came in, and stood on the threshold transfixed with amazement, until Michael rose and offered her a chair.
'You here!' she gasped. 'I thought I heard voices. Mollie, this is my cousin, Captain Burnett. I suppose we must let him stay to tea.'
Mollie gave her invitation very shyly. The poor child was thinking of her shabby frock, with the great rent in the skirt, so hastily cobbled up. The pale man with the reddish moustache was very formidable in Mollie's eyes. Mollie was sure her hand would tremble when she lifted the heavy teapot. She had been so looking forward to having a cosy tea with their dear Miss Ross, and now everything was spoilt.
When Mollie was shy she always looked a little sulky; but Michael, who noticed her embarrassment, set himself to charm it away.
Biddy had set the little tea-table under the acacia-tree; but as Mollie, blushing and awkward, commenced her arduous duties, she found herself assisted by the formidable Captain Burnett.
Before half an hour was over Mollie thought him quite the nicest man that she had ever seen. He was so kind, so helpful; he told such interesting stories. Mollie forgot her Cinderella rags as she listened. Her eyes sparkled; a pretty colour came to her face; her rough brown hair had gleams of gold in it. Mollie did not look plain or awkward then.
'Her eyes are nice, and she has a sweet voice and a ringing laugh,' thought Michael as he glanced at her.
How merry they all were! What nonsense they talked, as they sat there watching some pigeons circling among the arches! The little garden was still and pleasant. Zack was stretched out beside them, with Booty curled up near him. Audrey was the first to call attention to the lateness of the hour.
'We must go home now, Michael,' she said, in a tone of regret, which was loudly echoed by Mollie and Kester.
Mollie closed the green gate after them; then she rushed back to Kester.
'Do you like him—Captain Burnett, I mean?' she asked eagerly. 'I was so afraid of him at first; his eyes seem to look one through and through, even when he says nothing. But he is kind—very kind.'
'Is that all you have found out about him?' returned her brother contemptuously. 'That is so like a girl! Who cares about his eyes? Do you know what he is? He is a hero—he has the Victoria Cross. He has saved a lot of lives. Come here, and I will tell you all about it; it will make your hair stand on end more than it does now.'
But the story made Mollie cry, and from that hour she and Kester elected Captain Burnett to the position of their favourite hero.
'We must tell Cyril all about him when he comes home,' observed Mollie, drying her eyes. 'You are right, Kester. Captain Burnett is quite the best, and the nicest, and the bravest man I have ever seen.'
'Hear, hear!' interposed Cyril mischievously, thrusting his dark face out of the dining-room window. He had heard the whole story with a great deal of interest. And then, as Mollie darted towards him with a little shriek of assumed anger, he laughed, and sauntered out into the garden.
'Let us do our Greek out here, old fellow,' he said, throwing himself down on the grass, while Zack jumped on him. 'Have you got some tea for me, Mollie, or have you forgotten the teapot in your hero-worship? How late mother is!' He hesitated and looked at Kester. 'She would like me to meet her; it is such a long, lonely walk. But no'—as a cloud stole over Kester's face—'perhaps she will take the omnibus. Open your books and let me see your day's work;' and Cyril quietly repressed a yawn as he took a cup of cold tea from Mollie's hand.
He was tired. A walk through the dewy lanes would refresh him. He was in a restless mood; he wanted to be alone, to stretch himself and to think—perhaps to indulge in some youthful dream. But he was used to combating these moods; he would rather bear anything than disappoint Kester. And then he drank off his tea without a murmur, and the next moment the two brothers were hard at work.
'I HOPE BETTER THINGS OF AUDREY'
'Your manners are always under examination, and by committees little suspected—a police in citizen's clothes—who are awarding or denying you very high prizes when you least think of it.'—EMERSON.
Mrs. Harcourt had had a successful afternoon. All the nicest people had been at home, and a great many pleasant things had been said to her; her mother had been a charming companion. Nevertheless, there was a slight cloud on Mrs. Harcourt's face as she walked through the shrubbery that led to her house, and the fold of care was still on her brow as she entered her husband's study—a pleasant room on the ground-floor, overlooking the garden. Mr. Harcourt was reading, but he put down his magazine and greeted his wife with a smile. He was just rising from his seat, but she prevented him by laying her hand on his shoulder.
'Don't move, Percival; you look so comfortable. I will sit by you a minute. I hope I am not interrupting you.'
'Such an interruption is only pleasant, my dear,' was the polite answer. 'Well, have you and Audrey had a nice afternoon?'
'Mother came with me. Audrey had some ridiculous engagement with the Blakes. Percival, I am growing seriously uneasy at this new vagary on Audrey's part. Would you believe it?—she has been the whole afternoon at the Gray Cottage helping those children! and Michael has been there, too; we met them just now.'
Mr. Harcourt raised his eyebrows; he was evidently surprised at this bit of news, though he took it with his usual philosophy.
'Never mind, Jerry,' he said kindly, after a glance at his wife's vexed face, 'we cannot always inoculate people with our own common-sense. Audrey was always inclined to go her own gait.'
Geraldine blushed; she always did when her husband called her Jerry. Not that she minded it from him, but if anyone else—one of the boys, for example—were to hear it, the dignified mistress of the house felt she would never have got over it. In her unmarried days no one had presumed to call her anything but Geraldine or Gage, and yet before three months were over her husband had invented this nickname for her.
'It is no use fretting over it,' he went on in the same equable voice; 'you and Audrey are very different people, my love.'
'Yes; but, Percy dear, it is so trying of Audrey to take up the very people that mother and I were so anxious to avoid. I declare I am quite sorry for mother; she said, very truly, how is she to keep an intrusive person like Mrs. Blake at a distance now Audrey has struck up this violent friendship with her? She has even taken Michael there, for of course he would never go of his own accord. I am so vexed about it all; it has quite spoilt my afternoon.'
'Burnett was on the cricket-field a great part of the afternoon,' returned Mr. Harcourt. 'I saw him talking to Charrington and Sayers.'
'Then she must have asked him to fetch her,' replied Geraldine, with an air of decision that evidently amused her husband; 'for Michael told us of his own accord that he had been having tea at the Cottage. It is really very foolish and incautious of Audrey, after Edith's hint, too! I wish you would tell her so, Percival, for she only laughs at my advice.'
'And you think she would listen to me?'—still with the same amused curl of the lip.
'I think she ought to listen to you, dear—a man of your experience and knowledge of the world—if you would give her a little of your mind. It is so absurd for a grown-up person to behave like an impulsive child. Michael is particular in some things, but he spoils Audrey dreadfully. He and father encourage her. It is your duty, Percival, to act a brother's part by her, and guide her for her own good.'
Geraldine was evidently in earnest, and Mr. Harcourt forbore to smile as he answered her:
'But if she refused to be guided by me, my dear?'
'Oh, I hope better things of Audrey,' replied Geraldine, in such a solemn voice that her husband laughed outright, though he drew down her face to his the next minute and kissed it.
'You are a good girl to believe in your husband. I don't envy Audrey's future spouse; he will have much to bear. Audrey is too philanthropic, too unpractical altogether, for a smooth domestic life. We are different people, as I said before. Come, cheer up, darling. If I find it possible to say a word in season, you may trust me to do so. Ah! there is the dressing-bell.'
And Mr. Harcourt rose and stretched himself, and began gathering up his papers as a hint to his wife that the subject was concluded.
Audrey was not so unreasonable as her sister supposed; she had no intention of placing herself in direct opposition to her family—on the contrary, she was somewhat troubled by Geraldine's chilling reception that afternoon. Michael had stopped the carriage and informed the two ladies of the manner in which he and Audrey had spent their afternoon.
'We have both been having tea at the Gray Cottage,' he said cheerfully. 'I hope you have spent as pleasant an afternoon, Gage. That youngster—Kester they call him—is a bright, intelligent lad, and Mollie is a nice child.'
'Oh, indeed!' was Geraldine's reply; 'I am afraid we are late, Michael, and must drive on;' and then she nodded to Audrey: but there was no pleasant smile on her face.
'Gage is put out with us both,' observed Audrey, as they turned in at Woodcote. 'I shall be in for another lecture, Michael.'
Audrey had no wish to be a bugbear to her family. For several reasons she thought it politic to avoid the Gray Cottage for a day or two: Mollie must not depend on her too much. When her mother and Geraldine had called, and Mrs. Blake was on visiting terms with them, things would be on a pleasanter footing. She was somewhat surprised, when Sunday came, to find Mr. Blake was the sole representative of his family in the school chapel. She had looked for the widow and her children in the morning, and again in the afternoon, and as she exchanged greetings with Cyril in the courtyard after service she could not refrain from questioning him on the subject.
'I hope Mrs. Blake has not another headache?' she asked rather abruptly as he came up to her, looking very handsome and distinguished in his cap and gown—and again Audrey remembered her unlucky speech about the Greek god.
Cyril seemed a little embarrassed.
'Oh no, she is quite well, only a little tired; she has rather knocked herself up. Kester had a touch of his old pain, so I told him not to come.'
'And Mollie?' But Cyril did not appear to hear the question.
'Will you excuse me?' he observed the next moment, rather hurriedly; 'I think Mrs. Charrington is waiting for me—she asked me to go to the school-house to tea.'
And as he left her, Audrey found herself obliged to join her sister and Mrs. Harcourt.
'Have you many people coming to you to-morrow afternoon?' asked Geraldine, as they walked on together.
'Only the Luptons and Fortescues and Mr. Owen and Herr Schaffmann—oh, and—I forgot, father asked Mr. Blake.'
Audrey spoke a little absently. They were passing the Gray Cottage—a blind was just then raised in one of the lower rooms, and a small pale face peeped eagerly out at the passers-by. Audrey smiled and waved her hand in a friendly manner, and a bright answering smile lighted up the girlish face.
'What an untidy-looking child!' remarked Geraldine carelessly; 'is that your protegee?' and then she continued, in a reproving tone: 'It is really disgraceful that none of the family were in chapel. Edith was right when she spoke of Mrs. Blake's mismanagement of her children; that poor girl had a most neglected look.'
Audrey did not answer; she thought it wiser to allow her sister's remark to pass unchallenged; she had a shrewd suspicion why Mollie was not in chapel—the shabby, outgrown frock had probably kept her at home.
'Poor little thing!' she thought, with a fresh access of pity, for Mollie had certainly looked very forlorn. And then she turned her attention with some difficulty to what Geraldine was saying.
Dr. Ross was famed for his hospitality, and both he and his wife loved to gather the young people of Rutherford about them.
On Monday afternoons during the summer there was always tennis on the Woodcote lawn; one or two of the families from the Hill houses, and perhaps a bachelor master or two, made up a couple of sets. The elder ladies liked to watch the game or to stroll about the beautiful grounds. Mrs. Ross was an excellent hostess; she loved to prepare little surprises for her guests—iced drinks or strawberries and cream. Geraldine generally presided at her mother's tea-table; Audrey would be among the players. Tennis-parties and garden-parties of all kinds were common enough in Rutherford, but those at Woodcote certainly carried off the palm.
Mr. Harcourt had always been considered one of the best players, but on the Monday in question he found himself ranged against no mean antagonist, and he was obliged to own that young Blake played superbly.
'You would have won every game this afternoon if you had had a better partner,' observed Audrey, as she and Cyril walked across the lawn. She had been playing with him the greater part of the afternoon, and had been much struck with his quiet and finished style. 'My brother-in-law has always been considered our champion player, but you certainly excel him.'
'I have had a great deal of practice,' returned Cyril modestly. 'I think you are wrong about our respective powers. Mr. Harcourt plays exceedingly well; being so much younger, I am a little more agile—that is all.'
'Yes; and you would have beaten him this last game, but for me. I have played worse than usual this afternoon.'
'You must not expect me to endorse that opinion, Miss Ross. I have never seen any lady play half so well. You took that last ball splendidly. Now we have exchanged these mutual compliments, may I ask you to show me the lake? Kester gave a tremendous description of it when he came home to-day. Captain Burnett put him in the punt, and he seems to have had a grand time altogether.'
'Oh, I heard all about it at luncheon.'
'It is good of your cousin to take all this trouble,' went on Cyril in a lower voice, as they walked down one of the terraces. 'I was quite taken aback when he spoke to me yesterday. I thought he could not be in earnest. You know he asked me to go up to his private room after luncheon, and we had a long talk until it was time to go to chapel.'
'Will it be possible for your brother to come here two or three times a week, Mr. Blake?'
'Oh yes; he can manage that short distance—at least, when he is pretty well; and the change will be so good for him. It is quite a load off my mind to know he will learn mathematics as well as Greek and Latin. You have no idea, Miss Ross, how clever that boy is. If he had only my opportunities, he would beat me hollow in no time. I tell my mother so, but she will not believe it; but she thinks with me that it is awfully good of your cousin to interest himself in Kester.'
'It will be a godsend to Michael,' returned Audrey. 'You see, my cousin's health is so bad that he cannot employ himself, and he is debarred from so much enjoyment. He helps my father a good deal with the boys when he is here, but sometimes the noise is too much for him. It will suit him far better to study quietly with your brother. Of course, he meant to be kind—he is always doing good to someone or other—but this time the kindness will benefit himself. He quite enjoyed his morning. He told me so in a tone as though he meant it.'
'And Kester looked ever so much brighter. What comfortable quarters Captain Burnett has! I had no idea he had a private sitting-room, and he tells me he has rooms in town as well.'
'Yes; but we do not let him use them oftener than we can help. It is so dull for him to be alone. My father is anxious for him to live altogether at Woodcote—he thinks the Rutherford air suits him so much better than that of town; but Michael cannot be persuaded to give up his rooms. I tell him it is all his pride, and that he wishes to be independent of us.'
'He is your father's cousin, you say?'
'Yes; and he is just like his son,' returned Audrey, wondering why Mr. Blake looked at her so intently. 'You know, I told you that we looked upon Michael as our own brother. Here we are at the pond—or lake, as we prefer to call it—and there are the swans, Snowflake and Eiderdown, as I have christened them.'
'It is a charming spot,' observed Cyril, leaning over the fence to look at the beautiful creatures. He was quite unaware, as he lounged there, that he added another picturesque effect to the landscape, his bright blue coat and peaked cap making a spot of colour against Audrey's white gown. 'So that is the island where Kester found the forget-me-nots for Mollie? It looks as though one could carry it off bodily in one's arms,' he continued, after a reflective pause.
'Mr. Blake, I will not permit such remarks,' returned Audrey, laughing. 'I have often paddled myself about the lake. At least, it is deep enough to drown one. Now tell me how Mollie is.'
'Mollie is inconsolable because she has not seen you for two whole days. She spent most of the morning at the window in the hope of seeing you pass.'
'Oh, it is a fact, I assure you. My mother told me so herself. Will there be any chance of your looking in to-morrow, Miss Ross? I am going back now, and I am sure such a message would make Mollie happy for the remainder of the evening.'
'I do not think I will send the message, Mr. Blake. I half thought of calling on some friends of mine who live a little way out of Rutherford, but if I have time——'
She paused, not quite knowing how to finish her sentence.
'Well, I will say nothing about it,' he returned quickly. 'You have been far too good to us already. Mollie must not presume on your kindness;' and then he took up his racket.
'Why are you leaving us so early, Mr. Blake? There is surely time for another game?'
'Thanks; I must not stop any longer now. My mother asked me to take her for a walk, and, as Kester can do without me this evening, I promised that I would.'
'And you will take Mollie? There is such a pretty walk across the fields to Everdeen Wood, if Mrs. Blake does not mind a few stiles. Mollie will not, I am sure.'
'I think Mollie will prefer to stay with Kester,' he replied quickly. 'I am sorry to leave so early, Miss Ross, but one does not like to disappoint other people.'
'I begin to think you are one of the unselfish ones,' thought Audrey, as she gave him her hand. Then aloud: 'You must come to us next Monday, Mr. Blake, for I am sure my brother-in-law will want his revenge. Oh, there is Booty, so of course his master is not far off. I will go and meet him.'
Then she nodded to Cyril, and turned off into a side-path just as Captain Burnett came in sight.
'Are they still playing, Michael?'
'No. Harcourt wants to be off; he and Gage are to dine at the Fortescues', so they have agreed to break up earlier. Why is Blake leaving us so soon? Your father proposed that he should be asked to dinner.'
'I don't think he would be persuaded,' she replied, wishing that she had not taken him so easily at his word. 'He has promised to take his mother for a walk. He is really a very good son. Most young men care only about their own pleasure.'
'I think I like him,' returned Michael, in his slow, considering tone. 'We had a smoke together yesterday up in my room, and I confess he interested me. He seems to feel his responsibility so with respect to that poor boy. He was very grateful to me for my proposed help, and said so in a frank, manly fashion that somehow pleased me.'
'I am so glad you like him, Michael!' and Audrey's tone expressed decided pleasure.
'Oh, we shall hit it off very well, I expect; but I daresay we shall not see very much of each other. He goes in for cricket, and makes tremendous scores, I hear, and the Hill houses will soon monopolise him. He is too good-looking a fellow not to be a favourite with the ladies—eh, Audrey?'
'I am sure I don't know,' returned Audrey, who could be a trifle dense when she chose. 'I do not think Mr. Blake is a lady's man, if that is what you mean. Don't you detest the genus, Michael?'
'Do I not!' was the expressive answer; and then he went on: 'I am quite of your opinion that Blake is a nice, gentlemanly fellow; but I think that brother of his is still more interesting. Poor little chap! he has plenty of brains; he is as sharp as some fellows of nineteen or twenty. Blake is clever enough, but one of these days Kester will make his mark. He has a perfect thirst for knowledge. I drew him out this morning, for we only made a pretence at work. You should have heard him talk.'
'That is exactly his brother's opinion,' returned Audrey; and she repeated Cyril's words.
Michael was evidently struck by them.
'He seems very fond of him, and, for the matter of that, the poor boy is devoted to his brother. I suppose that accident has made a link between them. I do not know that I ever took so much interest in your proteges before. By the bye, what has become of the O'Briens, Audrey?'
'I am going to see them to-morrow. I know what that inquiry means, Michael. You think that I am always so much taken up with new people that I forget my old friends; but you are wrong.' And then she added, a little reproachfully: 'That you of all people should accuse me of fickleness!'
Captain Burnett smiled a little gravely.
'You are investing my words with too large a meaning. I do not think you in the least fickle; it is only your headlong sympathies that carry you away.' But as Audrey looked a little mystified over this speech, he continued: 'I would not have you neglect Mr. O'Brien for the world. I only wish Vineyard Cottage were a mile or two nearer, and I would often smoke a pipe in that earwiggy bower of his. I have a profound respect for Thomas O'Brien. I love a man who lives up to his profession, and is not above his business. A retired tradesman who tries to forget he was ever behind the counter, and who goes through life aping the manners of gentlefolk, is a poor sort of body in my eyes; he is neither fish, fowl, nor good red herring. Now Mr. O'Brien is as proud of being a corn-chandler as'—he paused for a simile—'as our drummer-boy was of belonging to the British army.'
'Poor old man! he has seen a peck of trouble, as he calls it.'
'There, you see,' interrupting her delightedly, 'his very language borrows its most powerful imagery from his past belongings! Do you or I, Audrey, in our wildest and most despairing moments, ever talk of a peck of trouble? Depend upon it, my dear, when Thomas made that speech, he was among his bins again; in his mind's eye he was measuring out his oats and beans. I think I hear him repeating again what he once said to me: "It is such a clean, wholesome business, Captain. I often dream I am back in the shop again, with my wife laying the tea in the back-parlour. I can feel the grain slithering between my fingers, and even the dropping of the peas on the counter out of the overfilled bags is as plain as possible. Mat always did his work so awkwardly."'
'I don't think he has ever got over the loss of his wife, Michael.'
'Of course not. Is he likely to do so, with Mrs. Baxter's lugubrious countenance opposite him morning, noon, and night? I don't wonder her husband ran away from her; it would take a deal of principle to put up with such a trying woman.'
'Michael, I will not have you so severe on my friends! Mrs. Baxter is a very good woman, and she takes great care of her father. We cannot all be gifted with good spirits. Poor Priscilla Baxter is a disappointed woman.'
Michael shrugged his shoulders, but he was spared making any reply, as just then they encountered Geraldine and her husband. They were evidently looking for Audrey.
'Are you going, Gage?' observed Audrey serenely. 'I was just coming up to the house to wish you good-bye, only Michael detained me.'
'I thought you were with Mr. Blake,' returned her sister, in a puzzled tone. 'I wish you would come up to luncheon to-morrow—I have scarcely spoken two words to you this afternoon. Edith is coming.'
'It will be a pity to interrupt your tete-a-tete,' returned Audrey pleasantly; 'Mrs. Bryce has always so much to say, and she comes so seldom.' And, as her sister's face clouded, she continued: 'I will run up for an hour on Wednesday, but I really cannot neglect Mr. O'Brien any longer—he will have been looking for me day after day.'
'Oh, if you are going to Vineyard Cottage,' in a mollified tone that Audrey perfectly understood, 'you will have tea there, of course.'
'Do you think Mrs. Baxter would let me come away without my tea?' returned Audrey quickly.
She was inwardly somewhat annoyed at this questioning. She had meant to go to the Gray Cottage on her way; but now she must give that up: Mollie must watch for her a little longer. Perhaps she could go to Hillside in the morning and keep her afternoon free. And as she came to this conclusion, she bade her sister an affectionate good-bye. But as Geraldine took her husband's arm in the steep shrubbery walk, she said, in a dissatisfied tone:
'I am glad we found her with Michael; but, all the same, she and Mr. Blake were partners all the afternoon.'
'My dear Geraldine,' returned Mr. Harcourt with assumed solemnity, 'I think Audrey may be trusted to manage her own little affairs—she is two-and-twenty, is she not? When you have daughters of your own, my love, I am quite sure you will manage them excellently, and no young man will have a chance of speaking to them; but with Audrey it is another matter.' And then, in a tragic undertone: 'Have you forgotten, wife mine, a certain afternoon when you did me the honour of playing with me three whole sets, and then we cooled ourselves down by the lake, until your father hunted us out?'
Geraldine pressed her husband's arm gently; she remembered that afternoon well, and all Percival had said to her—they had just come to an understanding when her father interrupted them. For one moment her face softened at the sweet remembrance, and then she roused herself to remonstrate.
'But, Percy dear, this is utterly different. Audrey would never dream of falling in love with Mr. Blake. Fancy a girl in her position encouraging the attentions of a junior master. No, indeed; I was only afraid of a little flirtation. Of course Audrey declares she never flirts, but she has such a way with her—she is too kind in her manner sometimes.'
'It is to be hoped that she will not break as many hearts as a certain young person I know—eh, Jerry?' and Geraldine blushed and held her peace.
She never liked to be reminded of the unlucky wooers who had shaken off the dust of Woodcote so sorrowfully. As for Mr. Harcourt, he delighted in these proofs of conquests. Geraldine had not been easy to win—she had given her lover plenty of trouble; but she was his now, and, as he often told himself, no man had ever been more fortunate in his choice. For Mr. Harcourt, in spite of his delight in teasing, was very deeply in love with his beautiful wife.
'Sympathy or no sympathy, a man's love should no more fail towards his fellows than that love which spent itself on disciples who altogether misunderstood it, like the rain which falls on just and unjust alike.'—MARK RUTHERFORD.
Vineyard Cottage, where the retired corn-chandler had elected to spend the remnant of his days, was no pretentious stucco villa; it was a real old-fashioned cottage, with a big roomy porch well covered with honeysuckle and sweet yellow jasmine, and a sitting-room on either side of the door, with one small-paned window, which was certainly not filled with plate-glass. It was a snug, bowery little place, and the fresh dimity curtains at the upper windows, and the stand of blossoming plants in the little passage, gave it a cheerful and inviting aspect. The tiny lawn was smooth as velvet, and a row of tall white lilies, flanked with fragrant lavender, filled up the one narrow bed that ran by the side of the privet hedge.
As Audrey unlatched the little gate she had a glimpse of Mr. O'Brien in his shirt-sleeves. He was smoking in the porch, and so busily engaged in reading his paper that Audrey's light tread failed to arouse him, until a plaintive and fretful voice from within made him turn his head.
'Father, aren't you ashamed to be sitting there in your shirt-sleeves when Miss Ross has come to call? And it is 'most four o'clock, too—pretty near about tea-time.'
'Miss Ross—you don't say so, Prissy!' returned Mr. O'Brien, thrusting an arm hastily into the coat that his daughter was holding out in an aggressively reproachful manner. 'How do you do, Miss Ross? Wait a moment—wait a moment, until I can shake hands with you. Now, then, the other arm, Prissy. You are as welcome as flowers in May—and as blooming too, isn't she, Prissy?' and Mr. O'Brien enforced his compliment with a grasp of the hand that made Audrey wince.
'I expected a scolding—I did indeed,' laughed Audrey, 'instead of this very kind welcome. It is so long since my last visit; is it not, Mr. O'Brien?'
'Well, ma'am, tell the truth and shame the devil; that's my motto. I'll not deny that Prissy and I were wondering at your absence. "What's become of Miss Ross?" she said to me only to-day at dinner, "for she has not been near us for an age."'
'And I was right, father, and it is an age since Miss Ross honoured us with a visit,' replied his daughter in the plaintive tone that seemed natural to her. 'It was just five weeks ago, for Susan Larkins had come up about the bit of washing her mother wished to have, so I remember the day well.'
'Five weeks!' responded Audrey with a shake of her head; 'what a memory you have, Mrs. Baxter, and, dear me, how ill you are looking; is there anything the matter?' looking from one to the other with kindly scrutiny.
Mr. O'Brien and his daughter were complete contrasts to each other. He was a stout, gray-haired man with a pleasant, genial countenance, though it was not without its lines of care. Mrs. Baxter, on the contrary, had a long melancholy face and anxious blue eyes. Her black gown clung to her thin figure in limp folds; her features were not bad, and a little liveliness and expression would have made her a good-looking woman; but her dejected air and want of colouring detracted from her comeliness, and of late years her voice had grown peevish as well as plaintive, as though her troubles had been too heavy for her. Audrey had a sincere respect for her; but she certainly wished that Mrs. Baxter took a less lugubrious view of life. At times she would try to infuse a little of her own cheerfulness; but she soon found that Mrs. Baxter was too closely wrapped in her melancholy. In her own language, she preferred the house of mourning to the house of feasting.
'Oh, I hope there is nothing fresh the matter!' repeated Audrey, whose clear-sighted sympathy was never at fault.
She thought that Mr. O'Brien's genial face looked a shade graver than usual.
'Come and sit down, Miss Ross, and I will be hurrying the girl with the tea,' observed Mrs. Baxter mournfully, for she was never too lachrymose to be hospitable, and though she shed tears on slight occasions, she was always disposed to press her hot buttered cakes on her guests, and any refusal to taste her good cheer would have grievously wounded her bruised sensibilities. 'Father, take Miss Ross into the best parlour while I help Hannah a bit.'
And as Mr. O'Brien laid aside his pipe and led the way into the house, Audrey followed him, nothing loath.
'Joe's been troubling Priscilla again,' he observed, as Audrey seated herself on the little horsehair sofa beside the open window, and Buff, a great tortoise-shell cat, jumped uninvited on her lap and began purring loudly.
'Joe!' repeated Audrey in a shocked voice; she knew very well who was meant. Joe was the ne'er-do-well of a son-in-law whose iniquities had transformed the young and comely Priscilla into the meagre and colourless Mrs. Baxter. 'He has no right to trouble her!' she went on indignantly.
'He has been worrying for money again,' returned Mr. O'Brien, ruffling up his gray hair in a discontented fashion; 'he says he is hard up. But that is only one of Joe's lies; he tells lies by the peck. He had a good coat on, and looked as thriving as possible, and I know from Atkinson, who has been in Leeds, that he is a traveller to some house in the wine trade. And yet he comes here, the bullying rascal! fretting the poor lass to skin and bone with pretending he can take the law of her for not living with him, and that after all his ill-usage.'
'I am so sorry,' returned Audrey, and her tone said more than her words. 'He is a bad man, a thoroughly heartless and bad man—everyone knows that; and she must never go back to him. I hope you told him so.'
'Ay, I did,' with a touch of gruffness; 'I found him bullying, and poor Prissy crying her eyes out, and looking ready to drop—for she is afraid of him—and I just took down my big stick. "Joe," I said, as he began blustering about her being his true and lawful wife, "you just drop that and listen to me: if she is your wife, she is my daughter, our only one—for never chick nor child had we beside Priscilla—and she is going to stop along with me, law or no law."
'"I'll claim my own. There's two to that bargain, father-in-law," he says, with a sneer; for, you see, he was turning a bit nasty.
'"And you'll claim something else as well, son-in-law!" I replied, getting a good grip of the stick; for my blood was up, and I would have felled him to the ground with all the pleasure in life, only the girl got between us.
'"No, father—no violence!" she screeches out. "Don't make things worse for poor, unhappy me. Joe is not worth your getting into trouble on his account. Go along with you, Joe, and Heaven forgive you; but horses wouldn't drag me under your roof again after the way you have treated me."
'Well, I suppose we made it too hot for him, ma'am, for he soon beat a retreat. Joe was always a coward. I would have hurried him out with a kick, but I thought it better to be prudent; and Priscilla went and had a fit of hysterics in her own room, and she has been looking mortal bad, poor lass! ever since.'
'I wish we could save her these trying scenes, Mr. O'Brien; they get on her nerves.'
'Ah, that is what her mother said! "Prissy will never have a day's health if we can't hinder Joe from coming to plague her"—I remember my Susan saying that. Why, it was half for Prissy's sake we gave up the shop. "What is the good of filling our purse, Tom, when we have plenty for ourselves and Priscilla!" she was always saying to me. But there, I was fond of the shop—it is no use denying it—and it takes a special sort of education to fit one for idleness. Even now—would you believe it, ma'am?—I have a sort of longing to finger the oats and peas again.'
'But you are very fond of your cottage and your garden, Mr. O'Brien. Captain Burnett says it is the prettiest little place about here.'
'Ah, I have been forgetting my manners, and I have never asked after the Captain, though he is a prime favourite of mine. Oh yes, he always has his little joke. "What will you sell it for, O'Brien, just as it stands? Name your own price." Well, it is a snug little place; and if only my little woman were here and I had news of Mat——' And here Mr. O'Brien pushed his hand through his gray hair again, and sighed as he looked out on his row of lilies.
Audrey sat still in sympathising silence. She knew how her old friend loved to unburden himself. He talked to no one else as he did to this girl—not even to the Captain. He liked to enlarge in his simple way on his old happy life, when Prissy was young and he and his wife thought handsome Joe Baxter a grand lover for their girl, with his fine figure and soft, wheedling tongue.
'But we were old enough to know better—we were a couple of fools, of course; I know that now,' he would say. 'But he just talked us over—Joe is a rare hand at talking even now. He can use fine words; he has learnt it in his business. I think our worst time was when Prissy's baby died and she began to droop, and in her weakness she let it all out to her mother. I remember my little woman coming into the shop that day, with the tears running down her face. "Tom," she says, "what have we ever done to be so punished? Joe is treating Prissy like a brute, and my poor girl's heart is broken." Dear, dear! how I wanted Mat then!'
Audrey knew all about this Mat—at least, the little there was to know. One day, soon after Mr. O'Brien had lost his wife, and she had found him sitting alone in the porch, he had begun talking to her of his own accord of a young brother whom he called Mat, but to no one else had he ever mentioned his name. Audrey had been much touched and surprised by this confidence, and from time to time Mr. O'Brien had continued to speak of him, until she was in possession of the main facts.
Thomas O'Brien had lost his parents early, and his brothers and sisters had died in infancy, with the exception of the youngest, Matthew, or Mat, as he was generally called. There was so much difference between their ages that Mat was quite a plaything and pet to his elder brother. From all accounts, he was a bright, engaging little fellow, and developed unusual capacity.
'He was a cut above us, and people took notice of him, and that spoiled him,' observed Mr. O'Brien one day.
Audrey, piecing the fragments of conversation together, could picture the clever, handsome lad learning his lessons in the little back parlour, while honest Tom served in the shop. But Mat was not always so studious: he would be sliding with the Rector's boys, or helping them to make a snow man; sometimes he would be having tea at the Rectory, or with his master, or even with the curates. One of the curates was musical, and Mat had an angelic voice. One could imagine the danger to the precocious, clever boy, and how perhaps, on his return, he would gibe a little in his impertinent boyish fashion at thickheaded, clumsy Tom among his cornbins and sacks of split peas.
Mat did not wish to be a corn-chandler. When Tom married the daughter of a neighbouring baker, Mat was heard to mutter to one of his intimates that Tom might have looked higher for a wife. He grew a little discontented after that, and gave the young couple plenty of trouble until he got his way—a bad way, too—and went off to seek his fortunes in London.
Tom missed the lad sadly; even his Susan's rosy cheeks and good-humour failed to console him for a while. Not until Prissy made her appearance—and in clamorous baby fashion wheedled her way into her father's affections—did his sore heart cease to regret the young brother.
Susan used to talk to her husband in her sensible way.
'It is no use your fretting, Tom,' she would say; 'boys will be boys, and anything is better for Mat than hanging about here with his hands in his pockets and doing nothing but gossip with the customers. He was growing into idle ways. It was a shame for a big fellow like Mat to be living upon his brother; it is far better for him to be thrown on himself to work for his bread,' finished Susan, rocking her baby, for she was a shrewd little person in her way.
'I don't like to think of Mat alone in London,' returned Tom slowly; but as he looked into his wife's innocent eyes he forbore to utter all his thoughts aloud. Tom was old enough to know something of the world; he could guess at the pitfalls that stretched before the lad's unwary feet. Mat was young, barely eighteen, his very gifts of beauty and cleverness might lead him into trouble.
'I wish I had him here,' muttered Tom, as he went off to serve a customer. 'Peterborough is a better place for him than London;' for they were living at Peterborough then.
Tom cheered up presently, when Mat wrote one of his flourishing letters; he was a fine letter-writer. He was in luck's way, he told Tom, and had fallen on his feet; at his first application he had obtained a clerkship in some business house, and his employer had taken a fancy to him.
'I feel like Dick Whittington,' wrote Mat, in his happy, boastful way; 'all night long the bells were saying to me, "Turn again, turn again, Mat O'Brien, for fortune is before you." I could hear them in my dreams—and then the next morning came a letter from Mr. Turner. Dear old chap, you won't bother about me any more, for I mean to stick to my work like a galley slave. Give my love to Susan, and kiss the little one—couldn't you have found a better name than that Puritan Priscilla, you foolish Tom?'—and so on. Audrey once read that letter, and a dozen more of the same type; she thought them very affectionate and clever. Every now and then there were graphic descriptions of a day's amusement or sight-seeing. What was it they lacked? Audrey could never answer that question, but she laid them down with a dim feeling of dissatisfaction.
Mat used to run down for a day or two when business permitted, and take possession of his shabby little room under the roof. How happy honest Tom would be on these occasions! how he would chuckle to himself as he saw his customers—female customers especially—cast sidelong glances at the handsome dark-haired youth who lounged by the door!
'Old Mrs. Stevenson took him for a gentleman,' Tom remarked to Susan once, rubbing his hands over the joke. 'Mat is so well set up, and wears such a good coat; just look at his boots!—and his shirts are ever so much finer than mine; he looks like a young lord in his Sunday best,' went on Tom, who admired his young brother with every fibre of his heart.
Mat was quite aware of the sensation he made among his old friends and neighbours; he liked to feel his own importance. He came pretty frequently at first; he was tolerant of Susan's homeliness and sisterly advice, he took kindly to Prissy, and brought her a fine coral necklace to wear on her fat dimpled neck; but after a year or two he came less often.
'Leave him alone,' Susan would say when Tom grumbled to her over his pipe of an evening; 'Mat has grown too fine for the shop; nothing pleased him last time. He wanted napkins with his food because of his moustache, and he complained that his bed was so hard he could not sleep on it. It is easy to see that our homely ways do not suit him. I wish your heart were not set on him so much, Tom; it is thankless work to cling to a person who wants to get rid of his belongings.'
'Nay, Susan, you are too hard on the lad,' her husband remonstrated; 'Mat will never cut us—he has an affectionate heart. He is only having his fling, as lads, even the best of them, will at times. By and by he will settle down, and then we shall see more of him.'
But in spite of Tom's faith, that time never came. By and by Mat wrote with a greater flourish than ever.
'Wish me joy, my dear Susan and Tom,' he wrote, 'for I am going to be married, and to the prettiest and the dearest girl in the world. Just fancy, Tom, her uncle is a Dean! what do you think of your brother Mat now? "Turn again, turn again, Mat O'Brien"—that is what the bells said to me, and, by Jove! they were right. Haven't I had a rise this Christmas?—and now my dear little Olive has promised to take me for better or worse. Oh, Tom, you should just see her—she is such a darling! and I am the luckiest fellow in the world to get her! I can see Susan shaking her head and saying in her wise way that I am young to take the cares of life on my shoulders; but when a fellow is head over heels in love, he cannot stop to balance arguments. And after all, we are not so imprudent, for when the Dean dies, and he is an old man, Olive will have a pretty penny of her own. So wish me joy, dear Tom, and send me your blessing.'
Tom fairly wept over this letter; he carried it about with him and read it at intervals during the day.
'If only she makes the lad happy!' he said to Susan. 'To think of our Mat marrying a gentlewoman, for of course a Dean's niece is that;' and Susan, whose knowledge of the world was small, supposed so too.
Tom was hoping that Mat would bring his young wife down to receive his brotherly congratulations in person; but there was always some excuse for the delay. Olive was delicate; she could not travel; Mat could not leave her to come himself, and so on. Tom never doubted these excuses; he even made his little joke about the lad becoming a family man; but Susan, who was sharper than her husband, read between the lines. Mat was ashamed of bringing the Dean's niece down to see the shop; it was possible, but here Susan almost shuddered at the awfulness of the thought, that he might not have told his wife that he had a brother.
'Mat is as weak as water, with all his cleverness,' she said to herself; 'if he has not told her yet, he will put it off from day to day. There is nothing easier than procrastination if you once give in to it. Few people speak the truth like my Tom, bless him!'
Susan would not grieve her husband by hinting at these suspicions, though they grew stronger as time went on. Mat never brought his wife to see them; he seldom wrote, unless to tell them of the birth of a child, and then his letters were brief and unsatisfactory. Tom once wrote and asked him if he were happy, 'for somehow Susan and I have got into our heads that things are not quite square,' wrote the simple fellow. 'Do come and let us have a chat together over our pipes. Prissy is getting quite a big girl; you would hardly know her now.'
Perhaps Mat was touched by this persistent kindness on his brother's part, for he answered that letter by return of post.
'One must not expect too much happiness in this crooked old world,' he wrote; 'but you and Susan are such old-fashioned people. Olive and I have as much enjoyment of life as ordinary folk. We quarrel sometimes and make it up again. I was never a very patient mortal—eh, old chap?—and one's temper does not improve with age.' And then after a little talk about the children, who had been ill with scarlatina, the letter wound up by begging the loan of a five-pound note.
Tom did not show this letter to Susan. For the first time in his life he kept a secret from the wife of his bosom. He put two five-pound notes in an envelope, and sent them with his love to Olive and the children. A pang of remorse must have crossed Mat's heart at this fresh act of kindness; but though he acknowledged the gift with the utmost gratitude, he neither came nor wrote again for a long time.
Some time after that Tom took an odd notion in his head: he would go up to London and see Mat and his wife and children; he was just hankering for a sight of the lad, as he told Susan. To be sure, Mat had never invited him—never hinted at such a thing in his letters; he could not be sure of his welcome. Susan tried to dissuade him, but to no purpose; for once Tom was deaf to his little woman's advice. He left her in charge of the shop one fine spring morning and started for London and Bayswater, where Mat lived.
He came back earlier than Susan expected, and there was a sad look in his eyes as he sat down and filled his pipe. Susan forbore to question him at first; she got him some supper and a jug of the best ale, and presently he began to talk of his own accord:
'There were other people living in No. 23 Mortimer Terrace. The O'Briens had left more than a year ago, and no one knew where they were. Fancy Mat leaving and never giving me his address!' finished Tom with an air of deep depression.
He was evidently much wounded at this want of brotherly confidence.
'But surely you know his business address, dear?' Susan asked quietly.
No; Tom did not know even that. He reminded her that Mat had long ago left his old employers, and had set up for himself; but Tom did not know where his office was.
'I always wrote to his private address, you know, Susan,' he went on. 'Mat told me that no one ever opened his letters but himself; but how am I to find him out now if he chooses to hide himself from his only brother?'
And though Tom said no more, he moped for many a day after that fruitless expedition.
By and by the truth leaked out—Mat was in trouble, and in such trouble that no fraternal help could avail him. One awful day, a day that turned Tom's hair gray with horror and anguish, he heard that Mat—handsome, brilliant Mat—was in a felon's cell, condemned to penal servitude for a long term of years. In a moment of despair he had forged the name of one of his so-called friends, and by this terrible act had obtained possession of a large sum of money.
Tom's anguish at this news was not to be described; he cried like a child, and Susan vainly tried to comfort him.
'My father's name,' he kept repeating—'he has disgraced our honest name! I will never forgive him; I will have nothing more to do with him—he has covered us all with shame!'
And then the next moment he relented at the thought of Mat, beaten down and miserable, and perhaps repentant, in his wretched cell.
'How many people are busy in this world in gathering together a handful of thorns to sit upon!'—JEREMY TAYLOR.
Audrey never forgot the day when she first heard this sad story. It was on a winter's afternoon, and she and Mr. O'Brien were alone in the cottage. She remembered how the setting sun threw ruddy streaks across the snow, and how the light of the fire beside which they sat later on in the twilight illumined the low room and flashed out on the privet hedge, now a mass of sparkling icicles. She and Geraldine had driven into Brail, and by and by the carriage was coming back to fetch her.
They had been talking of Mat, and Mr. O'Brien had shown her some of his letters; and then, all at once, his face had grown very white and troubled, and in a few husky sentences he had told her the rest of the story; and as Audrey listened there was a gleam of a teardrop on her long lashes.
'But you went to see him—surely you went to see him?' she asked tremulously, as he came to a sudden pause; but he shook his gray head very sorrowfully.
'I would have gone, ay, willingly, when my anger had burnt out a bit. I just hungered to see the poor lad—he was still a lad to me—and to shake him by the hand; for all he had done, he was still Mat, you see; but he would not let me: he begged and prayed of me not to come.'
'Ah, that was cruel!'
'Nay, he meant no unkindness; but he was pretty nearly crazed, poor chap! I have the letter now that he wrote to me; the chaplain sent it, but no eye but mine must ever see it. I have written it down in my will that it is to be buried with me: "Don't come unless you wish me to do something desperate, Tom; I think if I saw your honest face in my cell I should just make away with myself. No, no, dear old chap; let me dree my weird, as Susan used to say. I have shamed you all, and my heart is broken; try to forget that you ever had a brother Mat." Eh, they were desperate words for a man to write; but I do not doubt that he meant them.'
'Did he mention his wife and children?'
'No, never a word of them. I wrote to him more than once, but he never answered me. He was such a long way off, you see; they send them to Dartmoor now. As far as I know, Mat may be dead and buried. Well, it is hard lines, and I have known a peck of troubles in my time. There, you know it all, Miss Ross; it beats me why I've told you, for no one in the world knows it but Prissy—you have drawn it out of me somehow; you've got a hearty way with you that reminds me of my Susan, and I never had but that one secret from her—when I sent Mat the two five-pound notes.'
'Your story is safe with me, my dear old friend,' returned Audrey, laying her hand on his arm; 'you must never regret telling me. I have heard so many sad histories—people always tell me their troubles; they know they can trust me. I am fond of talking,' went on Audrey, in her earnest way, 'but I have never betrayed a person's confidence; I have never once repeated anything that my friends have told me—their troubles are as sacred to me as my own would be.'
'I am bound to believe you,' returned Mr. O'Brien, looking thoughtfully at the girlish face and steadfast eyes; 'Prissy says it always gives her a comfortable feeling to talk out her troubles to you. It is a gift, I am thinking; but you are young to have it. Did I ever tell you, Miss Ross, what Susan said to me when she was dying?'
'No, I am sure you never told me that.'
'Well, Prissy had gone to lie down, and I was alone with Susan. It was the room above us where she died. I was sitting by the fire, thinking she was having a fine sleep, and would surely be better for it, when she suddenly spoke my name: "Tom," she said, "I know just what you are thinking about: you have got Mat in your mind." Well, I could not deny that, and Susan was always so sharp in finding me out; and then she begged me to sit by her a bit: "For you are very low about everything, dear Tom," she went on; "you've got to lose me, and there's Prissy, poor girl! with her bad husband; and when you have nothing better to do you think about Mat. Sometimes I wish you were back in the shop, when I see you looking at the fire in that way."
"I was only wondering whether I should ever see the poor lad again," I returned, with a sigh; "that was all my thought, Susan."
"I am sure you will see him again," she replied very earnestly, with a kind of solemnity in her voice; "I don't know why I think so, Tom, but they say the dying are very clear-sighted, and it is strong upon me that Mat will one day seek you out." Now, wasn't that strange, Miss Ross?'