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Lover or Friend
by Rosa Nouchette Carey
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'No,' replied Audrey, 'she may have spoken the truth; while there is life there is hope. Do not be disheartened, my dear friend; you have had great troubles, but God has helped you to bear them, and you are not without your blessings.'

'That's true,' he returned, looking round him; 'I would sooner live in this cottage than in a palace. I don't believe, as the Captain says, there is a prettier place anywhere. I like to think Susan lies so near me, in Brail Churchyard, and that by and by I'll lie beside her; and if I could only see my girl more cheerful——'

'Oh, you must give her time to live down her worries. There! I hear the carriage;' and Audrey went in search of her fur-lined cloak.

This conversation had taken place about eighteen months ago, and though Audrey had never alluded to it of her own accord, it touched her greatly to notice how, when he was alone with her, Mr. O'Brien would drop a few words which showed how clearly he remembered it.

'There is no one else to whom I can speak of Mat,' he said one day; 'Prissy never cared much about him—I think she dislikes the subject; as sure as ever I mention Mat she cries and begins to talk of Joe.'

Audrey was not at all surprised when Mr. O'Brien made that allusion as she was stroking the tortoise-shell cat in the sunshine. She could hear Mrs. Baxter laying the tea-things in the other parlour, where they generally sat, and the smell of the hot cakes and fragrant new bread reached them. The cuckoo's note was distinctly audible in the distance; a brown bee had buried himself in the calyx of one of the lilies; and some white butterflies were skimming over the flower-beds. The sweet stillness of the summer afternoon seemed to lull her into a reverie; how impossible it was to realise sin and sorrow and broken hearts and the great hungry needs of humanity, when the sky was so blue and cloudless, and the insects were humming in the fulness of their tiny joy! 'Will sorrow ever come to me?' thought the girl dreamily; 'of course, I know it must some day; but it seems so strange to think of a time when I shall be no longer young and strong and full of joy.' And then a wave of pity swept over her soft heart as she noticed the wrinkles in her old friend's face. 'I wish Mrs. Baxter were more cheerful,' she said inwardly; 'she has depressed him, and he has been missing me all these weeks.'

Audrey tried to be very good to him as they sat together for the next half-hour. She told him the Rutherford news, and then asked him all manner of questions. Audrey was a hypocrite in her innocent fashion; she could not really have been so anxious to know how the strawberries and peas were doing in the little kitchen garden behind the cottage, and if the speckled hen were sitting, or if Hannah, the new girl, were likely to satisfy Mrs. Baxter. And yet all these questions were put, as though everything depended on the answers. 'For you know, Mr. O'Brien,' she went on very seriously, 'Ralph declares that we shall have very little fruit this season—those tiresome winds have stripped the apple-trees—and for some reason or other we have never had such a poor show of gooseberries.'

'The potatoes are doing finely, though,' returned Mr. O'Brien, who had risen to the bait; 'after tea I hope you will walk round the garden with me, ma'am, and you will be surprised to see the way some of the things have improved.'

'Tea is ready, father,' observed Mrs. Baxter at this point. 'Miss Ross, will you take that chair by the window? you will feel the air there. I am going to ask a blessing, father: "For what we are going to receive the Lord make us truly thankful." Yes, Miss Ross, those are your favourite scones, and Hannah is baking some more; there's plum preserve and lemon marmalade and home-made seed-cake.' And Mrs. Baxter pressed one viand after another upon her guest, before she could turn her attention to the teapot, which was at present enveloped in a huge braided cosy.

'Dear me! I shall never be able to eat my dinner, Mrs. Baxter, and then mother will be miserable; you have no idea the fuss she makes if I ever say I am not hungry.'

'She is perfectly right, Miss Ross,' was the mournful answer; 'there is no blessing to equal good health, and health mainly depends on appetite. Where would father and I have been if we had not kept our health? It is a wonderful blessing, is it not, father, that I have been so strong? or I should have sunk long ago. But, as poor dear mother used to say, there is no blessing like a good constitution.'

Everyone has his or her style of conversation, just as all authors have their own peculiar style of writing. Mrs. Baxter, for example, delighted in iteration; she had a habit of taking a particular word and working it to death. Michael was the first person to notice this little peculiarity. After his first visit to Vineyard Cottage, as he was driving Audrey home in the dog-cart, he said to her:

'Did you notice how often Mrs. Baxter used the same word? I am sure she said "trouble" fifty times, if she said it once. She is not a bad-looking young woman, but she is a painfully monotonous talker. I should say she is totally devoid of originality.'

'I know nothing about health, Mrs. Baxter,' returned Audrey with aggressive cheerfulness. 'I am always so well, you see. I never had the doctor in my life, except when I had the measles.'

'And the whooping-cough, Miss Ross. Don't say you have not had the whooping-cough!'

'Oh yes; when I was a baby. But I hope you do not expect me to remember that.'

'I am glad to hear it, I am sure, for you gave me quite a turn. There is nothing worse than having the whooping-cough late in life—it is quite ruinous to the constitution. You know that, don't you, father?—for great-aunt Saunders never got rid of it winter and summer. She had a good constitution, too; never ailed much, and brought up a large family—though most of them died before her: they had not her constitution, had they, father? Great-aunt Saunders was a stout-built sort of woman; but with all her good constitution and regular living she never got rid of the whooping-cough.'

'Shall I give you a slice of this excellent cake?' asked Audrey politely, and with a laudable desire to hear no more of great-aunt Saunders' good constitution, and, to change the subject, she begged for a recipe of the seed-cake for her mother.

Mrs. Baxter looked almost happy as she gave it. She was an excellent cook, and her light hand for cakes and pastry, her delicious scones and crisp short-cake, must have been remembered with regret by the recusant Joe, and may have had something to do with his anxious claims. Mrs. Baxter forgot her beloved iteration; her monotonous voice roused into positive animation as she verbally weighed out quantities.

'A great deal depends on the oven, Miss Ross, as I tell Hannah. Many and many a well-mixed cake has been spoiled by the baking; you may use the best of materials, but if the oven is over-hot——' and so on, to all of which Audrey listened with that pleased air of intelligent interest which once made Michael call her 'the most consummate little hypocrite on the face of the earth.'

'For you were not a bit interested in listening to old Dr. Sullivan's account of those beetles,' he said on that occasion. 'You know nothing about beetles, Audrey. I saw you once yawning behind your hand—which was positively rude—and yet there you were making big eyes at the dear old man, and hanging on his words as though they were diamonds and pearls.'

'You are too hard on me, Michael,' returned Audrey, who was a little hurt at this accusation. She rarely quarrelled with Michael, but now and then his keen man's wit was too much for her. 'I was very much interested in what Dr. Sullivan was saying, although I certainly do not understand the habits of beetles, any more than I understand the Greek literature about which you are pleased to talk to me,' in a pointed tone. 'And if I yawned'—speaking still in an injured voice—'it was because I had been up half the night with poor little Patience Atkinson—and I don't like you to call me a hypocrite, when I only meant to be kind,' finished Audrey, defending herself bravely in spite of an inward qualm that told her that perhaps Michael was right.

Michael looked at her with one of his rare smiles; he saw the girl was a little sore.

'My dear,' he said, taking her hand, 'don't be vexed with me. You know we always speak the truth to each other. You must not mind my little joke. After all, your friends love you the better for your innocent hypocrisy. We all pretend a little; conventionality demands it. Which of us would have the courage to say to any man, "My good friend, do hold your tongue—you are simply boring me with these everlasting stories"?'

'But, Michael,' persisted Audrey, for she wanted to make this thing very clear to herself as well as to him, 'I think you are wrong in one thing: I am really very seldom bored, as you call it. Even if I do not understand things—if they are not particularly interesting—it pleases me to listen to people. Old Dr. Sullivan did look so happy with that row of nasty little beetles before him, that I was quite pleased to watch him. You know people always talk so well on a subject that interests them.'

'I know one thing—that there are very few people in the world so amiable as a certain young lady of my acquaintance. The world would be a better place to live in if there were more like her——' But here he checked himself, for he had long ago learnt the useful lesson that speech is silvern and silence is golden, and that over-much praise seldom benefited anyone.

When tea was over, Audrey accompanied Mr. O'Brien round his small domain, while he proudly commented on the flourishing state of his fruit and vegetables. Before she left the cottage she contrived to exchange a few words with Mrs. Baxter, who had remained in the house, and whom she found in the tiny kitchen washing up the best cups and saucers.

'Girls are mostly careless, Miss Ross,' she explained in an apologetic manner; 'and Hannah is no better than the rest, so I always wash up mother's china myself. It would worry me more than I am already if a cup were to be broken.'

'I am so sorry to hear your husband has been troubling you again, Mrs. Baxter.'

'Yes, indeed, Miss Ross, and it is a crying shame for Joe to persecute me as he does. Sometimes I feel I must just run away and hide myself, his visits put me into such a nervous state. It is so bad for father, too. He is not as young as he used to be, and since mother's death there has been a great change in him. Last time Joe came he put himself out terribly, and was for taking the stick to him. I was all in a tremble—I was indeed, Miss Ross—for Joe had been drinking, and father's a powerful man, and there might have been mischief.'

'I think your husband must be made to understand that he is to leave you alone.'

'Oh, you don't know what men are, Miss Ross. They are over-fond of their own way. Joe does not find things comfortable without me, and then he is always so greedy for money. The ways of Providence are very dark and mysterious. When I married Joe I expected as much happiness as other women. He was so pleasant-spoken, had such a way with him, that even father and mother were deceived in him; he never took anything but his tankard of home-brewed ale at our place, and he was so trim and so well set up that all the girls were envying me. But the day I wore my gray silk dress to go with him to church was the most unfortunate day of my life. Mother would far better have laid me in my shroud,' finished Mrs. Baxter, with a homely tragedy that was impressive enough in its way.

'Oh, you must not say that,' returned Audrey hastily. 'Life will not always be so hard, I hope;' and then she shook hands with the poor woman.

Audrey enjoyed her walk back. It was a delicious evening, and the birds were singing from every brake and hedgerow. Once or twice she heard the harsh call of the corncrake mingled with the flute-like notes of the thrush; a lark was carolling high up in the blue sky—by and by she heard him descend. Audrey walked swiftly down the long grass lanes, and, as she neared Rutherford she could see a dim man's figure in the distance. Of course it was Michael coming to meet her, attended by his faithful Booty. Audrey smiled and quickened her pace. She was quite used to these small attentions, this brotherly surveillance on Michael's part—she was never surprised to find him at some unexpected point waiting patiently for her.

'Am I late?' she asked hastily, as he rose from the stile and slipped his book in his pocket. 'I have had such a nice afternoon. They were so pleased to see me, and made so much of me;' then, with a quick change of tone, 'You have walked too far to meet me, Michael—you are looking paler than usual this evening!'

'Nonsense,' he returned good-humouredly; 'I am all right. Was Mrs. Baxter as mournful as usual?' To which question Audrey returned a full explanatory answer.

Michael listened with his usual interest, but he made few comments. Perhaps his mind was on other things, for when she had finished he said somewhat irrelevantly:

'You are right, Audrey—Mrs. Blake is certainly a very pretty woman.'

In a moment Vineyard Cottage, Mr. O'Brien, and the mournful Priscilla vanished from Audrey's mind.

'Oh, Michael! have you really seen her?' she asked breathlessly.

'Well, I am not sure,' was the somewhat provoking answer. 'You were not there to introduce us, you know, and of course I could not swear that it was Mrs. Blake.'

'Dear me, how slow you are, Michael!' for he was speaking in a drawling manner. 'Why can't you tell me all about it in a sensible way?'

'Because there is not much to tell,' he returned calmly. 'I was just passing the Gray Cottage, when a lady in black came out of the gate. I was so close that I had to draw back to let her pass, and of course I just lifted my hat; and she bowed and gave me the sweetest smile—it haunts me now,' murmured Captain Burnett in a sort of audible aside.

'A lady in black coming out of the Gray Cottage?—of course it was Mrs. Blake, you foolish fellow!'

'You think so?' rather sleepily. 'Well, perhaps you are right. I certainly heard a window open, and a girl's voice called out, "Mamma, will you come back a moment? You have forgotten your sunshade." And the lady in black said, "Oh, how stupid of me, Mollie!" and then she whisked through the gate again.'

'Did you stand still in the middle of the road to hear all this, Michael?'

'No, my dear. There was something wrong with the lock of the school-house gate. It is sometimes a little difficult—I must tell Sayers it wants oiling.' Michael's face was inimitable as he made this remark.

'And so you saw her come out again. Oh, you deep, good-for-nothing Michael!'

'I saw her come out again, and she had the sunshade. She walks well, Audrey, and she has a pretty, graceful figure—and as for her face——'

'Well!' impatiently.

'I think I will keep that to myself,' he replied with a wicked smile. 'Do you fancy we could coax Cousin Emmeline to call soon? I begin to feel anxious to enlarge my stock of acquaintance, and you must allow that a bewitching widow is rather alluring——' He paused.

'Michael,' giving his arm a little jerk, 'a joke is a joke; but, mind, I will not have you falling in love with Mrs. Blake. Dear me! what would Gage say?'

And at this Michael laughed, and Audrey laughed too—though just for the moment she did feel a wee bit uncomfortable, for even the notion of Michael falling in love with any woman was not quite pleasant.

'Really, Michael, we must walk faster,' she said, recovering herself, 'or I shall not have time to dress for dinner.' And then they both quickened their footsteps, and no more nonsense was talked about the fascinating Mrs. Blake.



CHAPTER XI

'A GIRL AFTER MY OWN HEART'

'Be to their virtues very kind, Be to their faults a little blind, And put a padlock on the mind.'

ANON.

'I will go to the Gray Cottage this afternoon,' was Audrey's first thought the next morning when she woke; but she kept this intention to herself when Geraldine came in, after breakfast, to beg for some favourite recipes of her mother's that she had lost or mislaid. 'And if you have nothing better to do,' she said, turning to Audrey, who was filling the flower-vases, 'I shall be very glad of your company this afternoon, as Percival is going up to London.'

'Shall you be alone, Gage? I mean, are you expecting any special visitor?'

'Well, old Mrs. Drayton is driving over to luncheon with that deaf niece of hers; but they will go away early—they always do. Come up later, Audrey, and bring your work; and perhaps Michael will fetch you—it is so long since we have seen him. I will not ask you both to stay to dinner, as Percival is always a little tired after a journey to London, and a tete-a-tete dinner will suit him better; but we could have a long afternoon—you know you refused me yesterday because of the O'Briens.'

'I will come up to tea, Gage,' interrupted Audrey somewhat hastily; 'I would rather avoid Miss Drayton, and Miss Montague is simply terrible. You may expect me about half-past four, and I will give Michael your message.'

And Audrey carried off her vase to avoid any more necessary questioning. Gage seemed always wanting her now; was it all sisterly affection, Audrey wondered, or a clever device to counteract the Blake influence?

'By the bye, mother,' observed Mrs. Harcourt carelessly, as she gathered up sundry papers, 'I suppose you will soon be leaving your card on Mrs. Blake? Percival thought I had better call with you, and if you are disengaged next Tuesday or Wednesday——'

'Why, that is a week hence, my love!'

'Yes, mother dear, I know; but I have so many engagements just now that I am obliged to make my plans beforehand. Besides, we could not very well call before—you know what a muddle they were in.'

'Yes, I remember; and Audrey helped them so nicely to get straight. Very well, we will say Tuesday; and I really am very much obliged to Percival for his suggestion, for after all this talk, and the things Edith Bryce told you yesterday, I shall be quite nervous in calling alone.' But here a significant look from her daughter checked her, and she changed the subject rather awkwardly.

'So dear Edith has been talking again,' thought Audrey, as she stepped out on the terrace with her empty basket; 'I almost wish I had been at Hillside yesterday, and heard things with my own ears.' And then she stopped to cut off a dark crimson rose that grew under the schoolroom window, and as she did so she became aware that Mr. Blake had put down his book and was watching her. She gave him a smile and a nod, and walked to the other end of the garden.

'I always forget the schoolroom window,' she said to herself, with a slight blush, as she recalled that fixed look; 'Mr. Ollier generally sat with his back to the window and took no notice—he was as blind as a bat, too—but Mr. Blake is very observant.'

Mrs. Ross had arranged to drive into Dulverton after luncheon with her husband. When Audrey had seen them off, and had exchanged a parting joke with her father, she started off for the Gray Cottage. Things had arranged themselves admirably: she had two hours before Geraldine would expect her. Michael had consented to fetch her—Kester was coming to him early in the afternoon, and he had also promised to take a class for Dr. Ross; he would put in an appearance about half-past five. And Audrey professed herself satisfied with this arrangement.

Audrey met Kester on her way to the Cottage. The poor boy was dragging himself along rather painfully on his crutches; the heat tried him, he said, but he seemed bright and cheerful. Audrey looked pitifully at his shabby jacket and old boots; she noticed, too, the frayed edges of his wristbands. 'Is it poverty or bad management?' she thought; and then she asked Kester how he liked his new tutor. The boy flushed up in a moment.

'Awfully—I like him awfully, Miss Ross, and so does Cyril. You have no idea of the trouble he takes with me; I know nothing of mathematics, but I mean to learn. Why,' went on Kester, with an important air, 'I am so busy now, working up for Cyril and Captain Burnett, that I can hardly find time for Mollie's sums and Latin.'

Evidently Kester did not wish to be pitied for his additional labours.

'Poor fellow, how happy he looks!' Audrey said to herself, as she went on. 'Michael is doing good work there.' But somehow she could not forget those frayed wristbands all the remainder of the day; there was a button off his jacket, too—she had noticed the unsightly gap. 'I wish Mrs. Blake had a little more method,' she thought; 'Mollie and Kester are certainly rather neglected. How could poor Mollie go to chapel in that frock?'

Audrey let herself in at the green gate; but this time there was no Mollie on the threshold. She rang, and Biddy came hobbling out of the kitchen.

'The mistress is in there,' she said, with a jerk of her head towards the dining-room, and then she threw open the door. 'Here's Miss Ross, mistress,' she said unceremoniously.

Biddy was evidently unaccustomed to parlour work. Mollie, who was sewing in the window beside her mother, threw down her work with a delighted exclamation, and Zack gave a bark of recognition. Mrs. Blake welcomed her very cordially.

'My dear Miss Ross,' she said in her soft, pretty voice, 'we thought you had quite forsaken us; poor Mollie has been as restless as possible. I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see you again; I was half afraid you had disappeared altogether, after the fashion of a benevolent brownie.'

'I have so many friends,' began Audrey; but Mrs. Blake interrupted her:

'There, I told you so, Mollie. I said to this foolish child, when she was bemoaning your absence, "You may take my word for it, Mollie, Miss Ross has a large circle of friends and acquaintances—it is only to be expected in her position—and of course we must not monopolise her; especially as we are new-comers and comparative strangers."'

'Mollie thinks differently—don't you, Mollie? We are quite old friends, are we not?' and Audrey gave her a kind glance.

How flushed and tired the poor child was looking! but she brightened up in a moment.

'Of course we are not strangers,' she returned, quite indignantly; 'mamma is only saying that because she wishes you to contradict her. Oh, Miss Ross,' nestling up to her, 'I have so wanted to see you—I have looked out for you every day!'

'I could not possibly come before, dear.'

'No—but now you will stay for a long time? Mamma, won't you ask Miss Ross to stay to tea? and Biddy will bake some scones. Biddy will do anything for Miss Ross; she said so the other day.'

'My dear child, I could not possibly stay; I am going to have tea with my sister—she lives in one of the Hill houses. Another time, Mollie,' as a cloud of disappointment passed over Mollie's face; and to divert her thoughts she took up the work: 'Why, what pretty stuff! is this for your new frock?'

Mollie's brow cleared like magic.

'Yes; is it not lovely? Cyril chose it; he bought it for my last birthday, only mamma was too busy to make it up. But both my frocks will be done to-night—mamma says she will not go to bed until they are finished.'

'Well, and I mean to keep my word,' returned Mrs. Blake good-humouredly; 'and your new hat will be trimmed, too, and then Cyril will not grumble any more about his sister's shabbiness. I have been working like a slave ever since I got up this morning, and yet this naughty child pretended she was tired because I wanted her to stitch the sleeves.'

'But, mamma, I had to iron all those handkerchiefs for Biddy.'

'Yes, I know—and it was terribly hot in the kitchen; she does look tired, does she not, Miss Ross? I have a good idea, Mollie: put down that sleeve, and I will finish it myself in a twinkling, and fetch your hat and go down to the cricket-field and bring Cyril back with you to tea—it will be a nice walk for you.'

'Oh, mamma!' protested Mollie; 'I would so much rather stay here with you and Miss Ross, and I don't care about the walk.'

'But if I wish you to go;' and there was a certain inflection in Mrs. Blake's soft voice which evidently obliged poor Mollie to obey. She rose reluctantly, but there were tears of vexation in her eyes. Audrey felt grieved for her favourite, but she was unwilling to interfere; she only took the girl's hand and detained her a moment.

'Mrs. Blake, could you spare Mollie to me to-morrow afternoon? I want to show her our garden—it is looking so lovely just now.'

'You are very kind,' hesitating slightly; 'but are you sure that it will be convenient to Mrs. Ross?'

'My mother has nothing to do with it—Mollie will be my visitor,' returned Audrey quietly; and then she continued diplomatically: 'I know my mother intends to call on you next week, Mrs. Blake; she and my sister were planning it this morning—they are only waiting until you are settled.'

Evidently Mrs. Blake was much pleased with this piece of intelligence; she coloured slightly, and her manner became more animated.

'That is very kind; I do so long to see Mrs. Ross: Cyril is charmed with her, and he thinks Mrs. Harcourt wonderfully handsome. Oh yes, I can easily spare Mollie; and her frock and hat will be all ready. Now off with you, child,' with laughing peremptoriness; and Mollie only paused to kiss her friend and whisper that she was quite happy now, as she would have her all to herself the next day.

'Mollie has got to a difficult age,' observed Mrs. Blake, stitching rapidly as she spoke; and Audrey again admired the lovely profile and finely shaped head; 'she is getting a little self-willed and wants her own way. And then she is such a chatterbox; she will hardly let me get in a word. Sometimes I like to have my friends to myself; you can understand that, Miss Ross?'

'Oh yes, that is easily understood,' returned Audrey, who nevertheless missed Mollie.

'I thought I could talk to you more easily without her this afternoon; I wanted to speak to you about your cousin—Captain Burnett is your cousin, is he not?'

'He is my father's cousin.'

'Ah, well, that is much the same. Is he a pale, slight-looking man with a reddish-brown moustache?'

'Certainly that description suits Michael. I think he has such a nice face, Mrs. Blake.'

'I daresay; he is not handsome, but he looks like a soldier. What keen, bright eyes he has! The children have talked about him so much that I was quite curious to see him.'

'It is certain that you have seen him; no one else in Rutherford answers to that description. It is odd how everyone makes that remark about Michael's eyes.'

'Yes, they are a little too searching. I have plenty of courage, but I am disposed to feel afraid of Captain Burnett. What I wanted to say, Miss Ross, is this—that I am truly grateful to your cousin for his kind interest in my poor boy.'

'Do you mean this as a message?'

'That is just as you think proper; but in my opinion he ought to know how much Kester's mother appreciates his kindness. When I first heard of the plan, I will confess to you honestly, Miss Ross, I was a little bit alarmed. Kester did not explain things properly—he would have it that Captain Burnett meant to give him lessons here, and I told Cyril that would never do. Cyril was a trifle bothered about it himself, until he had a talk with Captain Burnett and found out that Kester was to go to Woodcote.'

'Oh yes, of course; Michael intended that all along.'

'True, and I ought not to have flurried myself. But if you only knew what I went through at Headingly, and the unkind things that people said of me! A burnt child dreads the fire, and I was determined that no one should have an opportunity of speaking against me at Rutherford. What a hard world it is, Miss Ross! Just because I am—well'—with a little laugh—'what you call good-looking—why should I deny the truth? I am sure I care little about my looks except for Cyril's sake; but just because I am not plain, people take advantage of my unprotected position. Oh, the things that were said!' with a quick frown of annoyance at the recollection. 'I daresay some of them have reached your ears. Haven't you heard, for example, that I tried to set my cap at Dr. Forester, only his daughter grew alarmed and insulted me so grossly that I vowed never to speak to him again? Have you not heard that, Miss Ross?'

Audrey was obliged to confess that something of this story had reached her.

'But I did not believe it, Mrs. Blake, and I do not believe it now,' she continued hastily.

Mrs. Blake's eyes filled with indignant tears.

'It was not true—not a word of it!' she returned in a low vehement voice. 'You may ask Cyril. Oh, how angry he was when the report reached him! He came home and took me in his arms and said we should not stay there—no one should talk against his mother. They did say such horrid things against me, Miss Ross; and yet how could I help Dr. Forester calling on me sometimes? He was never invited—no one asked him to repeat his visits. Mollie will tell you I was barely civil to him. I suppose he admired me, that is the truth; and his daughter knew it, and it made her bitter. Well, after that, I declared that nothing would induce me to receive gentlemen again, unless they were Cyril's friends and he brought them himself.'

Audrey was silent. She had been very angry when Geraldine had told her the story. She had declared it was a pure fabrication—a piece of village gossip.

'Besides, if it were true,' she had continued, 'where is the harm of a wealthy widower, with one daughter, falling in love with a good-looking widow? And yet Edith Bryce seems to hint darkly at some misconduct on Mrs. Blake's part.'

'You are putting it too strongly, dear,' replied her sister. 'Edith only said she considered Mrs. Blake rather flippant in manner, and a little too gracious to gentlemen——' but Audrey had refused to hear more.

'I was utterly wretched at Headingly,' went on Mrs. Blake, in her sweet, plaintive voice; 'and Cyril grew to hate it at last—for my sake. He says he is sure it will be different here, and that people are so much nicer. I believe he thinks you angelic, Miss Ross, and your mother only a degree less so. Only last night he said to me, as we were walking up and down in the moonlight, "I am certain you will be happy at Rutherford, mother. You have one nice friend already, and——" But, there, I had better not repeat my boy's words.'

Audrey felt anxious to change the subject.

'Where did you live before you went to Headingly?' she asked abruptly, and Mrs. Blake was clever enough to take her cue.

'We were in lodgings in Richmond,' she answered readily. 'You know we were poor, and I was straining every nerve to keep Cyril at Oxford. I had been saving up every year for it, but I cannot deny we were sadly pinched. I had to send Biddy home for a year or two, and Mollie and Kester and I lived in three little rooms, in such a dull street. Cyril generally got a holiday engagement for the summer, but when he joined us—I procured him a bedroom near us—it used to make him very unhappy to see the way we lived. But I always comforted him by reminding him that one day he would make a home for us, and that cheered him up.'

'You were certainly very good to him. Some mothers would not have done half so much,' observed Audrey.

She was repaid for this little speech, as a smile, almost infantile in its sweetness, came to Mrs. Blake's lip.

'I wish Cyril could hear you say that. But he knows—he feels—I have done my best for him. Yes, my darling, I have indeed!' She clasped her hands and sighed. 'What did a little extra work, a few sacrifices, matter, when one looked to the future? We were very straitened—the poor children did not always have what they needed—but I don't think we were, any of us, unhappy.'

'I can so well understand that. I think people are too much afraid of being poor. I could never see, myself, why poverty should hinder happiness.'

'Do you not?' looking at her a little curiously; 'but you have not served my apprenticeship. You do not know how hard it is for a pleasure-loving nature to be deprived of so many sources of enjoyment—to have to stint one's taste for pretty things—to be perpetually saying "no" to one's self.'

'And yet you own that you were happy.'

'Well, yes, after a fashion. I think the poor children were, until Kester got so ill. Mollie and I used to walk about Richmond Park and build castles in the air. We planned what we would do if we were rich, and sometimes we would amuse ourselves by looking into the shop-windows and thinking what we should like to buy—like a couple of gutter children—and sometimes, on a winter's evening, we would blow out the candles and sit round the fire and tell stories.'

'And then you say Kester fell ill?'

'Well, it was not exactly an illness. But he seemed to dwindle and pine, somehow, and Cyril and I got dreadfully anxious about him. I don't think Richmond suited him, and I could not give him the comforts he needed; and he fretted so about his want of education. He seemed to get better directly we went to Headingly and Cyril began to give him lessons.'

'Yes, I see;' and then Audrey took advantage of the pause to look at her watch. It was later than she thought, and she rose reluctantly to go. Mrs. Blake rose too.

'Don't you think me an odd, unconventional sort of person to tell you all this?' she asked a little abruptly. 'Do you know, Cyril often says that I make him very anxious, because I am so dreadfully impulsive and speak out everything I think; but I made up my mind that afternoon when Cyril told me that Mrs. Bryce was a connection of your sister's that I would talk to you about the Headingly worries on the first opportunity.'

'I am very glad you have spoken to me; I think it was very brave of you.'

'No, my dear Miss Ross, not brave, but cowardly. I was so afraid you would be prejudiced against me; and you must know that I have taken a great fancy to you. I am a very strange creature: I always like or dislike a person at first sight, and I never—perhaps I should say I scarcely ever—change my opinion.'

'I think that is a great mistake. It is impossible to read some people at first sight.'

'Perhaps so; but you were distinctly legible. When I looked out of my window and saw you setting out the little tea-table on the lawn with Mollie, I said to myself, "That is a girl after my own heart."'

Audrey laughed; but the little compliment pleased her. Somehow Mrs. Blake's manner made everything she said seem charming. Audrey felt more and more drawn to this fascinating woman.

'And I want you to come very often, and to be my friend as well as Mollie's,' with soft insistence.

'Yes; yours and Mollie's and Kester's,' replied Audrey in an amused voice.

'And not Cyril's? My dear Miss Ross, I hope you do not mean to exclude Cyril.'

'Oh, of course not,' rather hurriedly. 'But, Mrs. Blake, you must really let me go, or Geraldine will be waiting tea; as it is, I shall have to walk very fast, to make up for lost time.'

Audrey's thoughts were very busy as she walked swiftly up the Hill.

'I like her—I like her exceedingly,' she said to herself; 'I have never met a more interesting person: she is so naive and winning in her manner. I feel I shall soon love her; and yet all the time I see her faults so plainly. She is terribly unpractical, and manages as badly as possible. Edith Bryce was right when she said that. And she is foolish with regard to her eldest son—no mother ought to be so partial. I am afraid Kester must feel it; all his interests are secondary to his brother's. It is hardly fair. And Mollie, too—the child seems a perfect drudge. No, my dear woman, I admire you more than I can say, and I know I shall very soon get fond of you; but you are not blameless.'

And then a curious doubt crept into Audrey's mind: with all her impulsiveness, was not Mrs. Blake rather a clever woman, to tell that Forester story in her own way? Audrey had already heard a very different version. She knew Agatha Forester had lived in deadly terror of the charming widow. It was true that she had declined to believe the story, and that her sympathies were enlisted on Mrs. Blake's side; but, still, was it not rather a clever stratagem on Mrs. Blake's part to secure her as an ally? But Audrey dismissed this thought as quickly as it passed through her mind.

'Why, what nonsense!' she argued. 'I am accusing Mrs. Blake of being a little deep, when she herself owned frankly that she was anxious to prejudice me in her favour. Of course she knew Edith Bryce would talk to Gage, and it was only wise of her to tell me the truth. People must have treated her very badly at Headingly, or her son would not have taken her part. He seems to have plenty of common-sense, although he dotes on her. They are a wonderfully interesting family, and I seem to know them all so well already.' And this last reflection brought her to Hillside.



CHAPTER XII

MOLLIE GOES TO DEEP-WATER CHINE

'Well I know what they feel. They gaze, and the evening wind Plays on their faces; they gaze— Airs from the Eden of youth Awake and stir in their soul.'

MATTHEW ARNOLD.

Mollie arrived very punctually the next afternoon. Audrey, who was watching for her, hardly recognised the girl as she came slowly along the terrace. She wore a pretty gray stuff frock and a straw hat, trimmed very tastefully with the simplest materials; and her usually unkempt locks were neatly arranged in a broad glossy plait that reached to her waist.

Audrey felt quite proud of her appearance, and took her into the drawing-room to see her mother and sister; for Geraldine had just dropped in on her way down the town. Mrs. Ross received her very nicely; but Geraldine took very little notice of her. Mollie was rather shy and awkward, and answered all Mrs. Ross's questions in monosyllables. She seemed so hot and confused that Mrs. Ross's motherly heart took compassion on her.

'Do not let us keep you, my dear,' she said, addressing Audrey. 'I am sure Geraldine will excuse you; and it is far too fine to stay indoors.'

'In that case, we will go, Mollie,' returned Audrey in a relieved tone. 'Good-bye, Gage; I daresay I shall see you to-morrow. And, mother, let me know when tea is ready;' and then she beckoned Mollie to follow her.

Mollie was no longer silent when she found herself alone with her friend.

'Oh dear, Miss Ross, what a grand house you live in, and what a lovely garden! Ours must seem such a poor, poky little place after this, and yet we were all so pleased with it. I do like Mrs. Ross so; she is such a dear old lady'—Audrey had never heard her mother called a 'dear old lady' before—'and what a grand-looking person your sister is! I never saw anyone so handsome.'

But Mollie's tone was a trifle dubious.

'I hope you mean to like her too, Mollie.'

'I don't seem to know her yet,' replied Mollie evasively; 'but I liked looking at her. Somehow I could not talk before her. Where are we going, Miss Ross? There is no pond that I can see.'

'No lake,' corrected Audrey, with much dignity. 'No, Mollie; I am going to introduce you to the greenhouses and poultry-yard first; then there are the pigs, and the boys' play-ground—oh, a host of sights!—before we make our way down to the lake.'

'Ah, now you mean to be funny, because Cyril always calls it the pond—and Kester too. You must be very rich, Miss Ross, to live here and have all these fine things. Mamma was saying so to Cyril when he was telling us about it.'

'This is my favourite little bantam, Mollie,' interposed Audrey; and then Mollie gave herself up to enjoyment, there were so many things to see. Mollie wondered and exclaimed and admired, with flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, until Audrey told herself the child was positively pretty.

At last they found themselves by the tiny lake, with their hands full of bread for Snowflake and Eiderdown, while a little troop of rare foreign ducks hung somewhat timidly in the rear. Presently, to Mollie's intense delight, they got into the canoe, and Audrey, with much gravity, commenced their voyage.

'For you may laugh, Mollie,' she said severely, 'but you have no idea of the extent of the place. This island is called "The Swans' Nest." We need not land, because we can see it perfectly from the canoe; but you may perhaps notice a small wooden building somewhere in the recesses of the island.'

'Oh yes, I see it perfectly,' returned Mollie, with the utmost candour. 'I could almost cover the island with my pocket-handkerchief; but, of course, it is very pretty.'

Audrey gave her a withering glance.

'We will go on a little farther. You have a capital view of Woodcote now; the house is in fine perspective. There is Michael's Bench, so called after my cousin, Captain Burnett; and this, Mollie'—pointing to a pretty little thicket of trees and shrubs reaching down to the water—'is Deep-water Chine. With your permission, we will rest here a moment.'

'Have we got to the end of our voyage?' laughed Mollie. 'Oh dear, Miss Ross, how droll you are this afternoon! But it is pretty—sweetly pretty; and how lovely those swans are! How happy you must be to live in such a dear place!'

'I am very fond of it,' returned Audrey dreamily. 'Listen to those birds; father is so fond of them. You cannot admire the place more than I do, Mollie. To me Woodcote is the finest place in the world; it would be dreadful to leave it.'

'Why should you ever leave it, Miss Ross?'

'Why, indeed?' with an amused curl of her lip. 'I don't suppose I ever shall leave it, Mollie.'

'Not unless you married,' replied Mollie, in a serious voice. 'People are obliged to go away when they are married, are they not? But perhaps you will have as grand a place of your own.'

'I have half made up my mind that I will be an old maid,' returned Audrey lazily. 'Old maids lead such nice, useful, unselfish lives.' And then, as Mollie opened her eyes rather widely at this, she went on: 'What a pretty frock that is!—and that smocking is exquisitely done. I really must ask your mother to give me lessons—for it will be useful if I ever should have any nephews and nieces,' thought Audrey, who was practical in her own way.

'Mamma will be delighted to teach you; she is so fond of you, Miss Ross. She was talking about you half the evening. Do you know, she did not go to bed until past one o'clock; she was finishing my blue cambric. Cyril begged her to put it down half a dozen times, but she said no, she had made up her mind to finish it—and the hat, too. He had to go off to bed and leave her at last, and it was not really done until past one.'

Audrey made no comment. She was asking herself how far she ought to encourage Mollie's childish loquacity—she was very original and amusing.

'But if I do not check her,' thought Audrey, 'there is no knowing what she may say next. All the Blakes are so very outspoken.'

But Mollie was disposed to enlarge on a topic that interested her so closely. She had arrived at an age when a girl begins to feel some anxiety to make the best of herself. Her nice new frock was an important ingredient in the day's pleasure; she felt a different Mollie from the Mollie of yesterday. It was as though Cinderella, dusty and begrimed with her ashes, had suddenly donned her princess's robe.

'I am so glad you think my frock pretty,' she went on. 'I shall be able to go to chapel with Cyril next Sunday. This is my Sunday frock; my blue cambric is for every afternoon. It was very fortunate mamma was in her working mood yesterday, for she would never have allowed me to come in my old brown frock. She is so busy to-day; she made me bring her down a pile of Kester's shirts that want mending—"For the poor boy is in rags," she said. Stop! I think it was Cyril who said that. I thought it was funny for mamma to notice about Kester. Yes, it was Cyril.'

'Mollie, do you know your mother calls you a sad chatterbox?' observed Audrey at this point.

Mollie coloured up and looked perturbed.

'Oh, Miss Ross, did mamma tell you that really? Perhaps that was why she wanted to get rid of me yesterday, because I talk so much. Do you know'—dropping her voice and looking rather melancholy—'I never do seem to please mamma, however much I try; and I do try—oh! so hard. I never mind Cyril laughing at me, because he does it so good-naturedly; but when mamma speaks in that reproachful voice, and says that at my age I might help her more, I do feel so unhappy. I often cry about it when I go to bed, and then the next day I am sure to be more stupid, and forget things and make mistakes, and then mamma gets more displeased with me than ever.'

'My dear little Mollie, I am sure you work hard enough.'

'Yes, but there is so much to do,' returned Mollie, with a heavy sigh. 'Biddy is so old, she cannot make the beds and sweep and clean and cook the dinner without any help. Kester is always saying that if we had a younger and stronger servant we should do so much better. But mamma is so angry when she hears him say that; she declares nothing will induce her to part with Biddy—Biddy used to be mamma's nurse, you know. Sometimes I get so tired of doing the same things day after day, and I long to go out and play tennis, like other girls. But that is not the worst'—and here poor Mollie looked ready to cry; 'do you mind if I tell you, Miss Ross? I seem talking so much about myself, and I am so afraid of wearying you.'

'No, dear; you may tell me anything you like—about yourself, I mean,' corrected Audrey hastily.

'Yes, I know what you mean, and it will make me so comfortable to talk it all out—and I have only Kester, you know. I am so afraid, and Kester is afraid, too, that with all this rough work I shall never be as ladylike as mamma. She has such beautiful manners, and, then, have you noticed her hands, Miss Ross? they are so white and pretty; and look at mine!' and Mollie thrust out a brown, roughened little hand for inspection.

'You have a pretty hand, too, Mollie, though it is not quite soft at present; but if I were you, I should be proud to think that it was hard with good honest work for others.'

'Yes, if only Cyril would not notice it; he told me one day that no young lady ought to have hands like a kitchenmaid. Mamma heard him say it, and she begged me to use glycerine and sleep in gloves, but I could not do such things. I am afraid you think me very complaining, Miss Ross, but I have not got to the worst trouble of all, and that is—that I have so little time for my lessons.'

'Oh, I was going to ask you about that.'

'I fret about it dreadfully sometimes, and then Kester is so sorry for me. He does all he can for me, poor boy! but sometimes on a hot afternoon I am too sleepy and stupid to do my sums and Latin. I don't like sums, Miss Ross, or Latin either: I would so much rather read French and history with mamma—she reads so beautifully and teaches so well—but somehow she is so often too busy or too tired to attend to me.'

'And who teaches you music?'

'No one,' and here Mollie's face wore a look of the deepest dejection; 'we have no piano, and mamma does not play. When we lived at Richmond the lady in the drawing-room taught me my notes, and I used to practise scales and exercises in her room. She was such a funny old dear, with queer little pinned-up curls. Her name was Miss Foster—she had been a governess—and she used to be so kind to Kester and me. She would ask us into her room, and give us cake and nice things; but I don't think she liked mamma—she was always pitying us and calling us "poor children;" but I am sure we were very happy.'

'And she gave you music-lessons?'

'Yes, and I got on quite nicely. I am so fond of music, Miss Ross, and so is Cyril; he sings beautifully, and can play his own accompaniments. He talks of hiring a piano, and then perhaps I can practise my scales and exercises.'

Audrey made no answer for a moment—she was deep in thought—and then she said suddenly:

'Are you busy all the morning, Mollie? I mean, if you had a piano, when would you practise?'

This question seemed to puzzle Mollie.

'I hardly know, Miss Ross—in the morning, I think, when I had done helping Biddy. Kester generally wants me for an hour in the afternoon, and there is the chance, too, that mamma might call me to read history with her. I daresay I could get half an hour or so before dinner—luncheon, I mean.'

'Would you like to come to me twice a week for a lesson? Oh, Mollie dear, take care!' for the girl was starting up in her excitement; 'the water is very deep here, and if you upset us——'

'No, no, I will sit quite still; but I did so want to kiss you—it is such a lovely idea!'

'I am so glad you approve of it. I tell you what, Mollie, I will call one afternoon and settle it with your mother. The morning will suit me best; I generally go out after luncheon, unless we have a tennis-party at home; but with a little management I think I could contrive to spare you an hour twice a week—perhaps an hour and a half,' finished Audrey, whose busy brain had already suggested that a French exercise or half an hour's French reading might be thrown in after the music-lesson.

Audrey was a good linguist, and played very nicely; it made her quite happy to think that she could turn her accomplishments to account. And really the child was so disgracefully neglected—Audrey did not scruple a bit to use the word 'disgracefully.' It was strange how all her sympathy was enlisted on Mollie's behalf, and yet she could not like Mrs. Blake one whit the less for her mismanagement of the girl. On the contrary, Audrey only felt her interest quicken with every fresh side-light and detail; she longed to take the Blake household under her especial protection, to manipulate the existing arrangements, and put things on a different footing. Biddy should go—that should be the first innovation; a strong, sturdy Rutherford girl like Rhoda Atkinson should come in her place. Poor little Mollie should be set free from all but the lightest household duties—a little dusting or pastry-making; she should have regular hours for practising, for reading French, even for drawing. Geraldine was very good-natured, she drew beautifully—Audrey was quite sure that after a time she might be pressed into the service. Between herself, Gage, and Kester, Mollie might turn out an accomplished woman. Dreams, mere dreams, if Mrs. Blake could not be induced to part with Biddy; and here the thought of the little work-roughened hands gave Audrey a positive pang.

Mollie, on the contrary, sat and beamed at her young benefactress. She was that; she was everything perfect in Mollie's eyes. Mollie's cup of happiness was full to overflowing! to see her dear Miss Ross twice a week, to be taught by her, to study her beloved music; Mollie's heart sang for joy: the sunshine seemed to intoxicate her. She was in a new world—a world with swans and birds and bees in it—full of leafy shadows and rippling, tiny waves. The kind face opposite her broke into a smile.

'Well, Mollie, are you tired of sitting here? Shall we go back to the landing-place?'

'Miss Ross, there is Cyril looking for us!' exclaimed Mollie, almost beside herself with excitement. 'Yes, do please let us go back; he is waving to us.' And Audrey paddled across the pond.

Cyril lifted his straw hat rather gravely; but there was restrained eagerness in his manner as he helped them to alight.

'Mrs. Ross sent me to fetch you,' he said quietly. 'Tea is ready, and Miss Cardell and her brother are in the drawing-room. Mrs. Ross begged me to come back with you. Why, Mollie'—with a pleased look—'I should hardly have known you. She looks almost grown up, does she not, Miss Ross?'

His manner had changed in a moment. He looked bright and animated; his slight gravity vanished. It was Audrey who became suddenly embarrassed; the eager look with which the young man had greeted her had not been unnoticed by her. Cyril's dark eyes were very expressive. More than once during the last day or two Audrey had innocently intercepted those strange, searching glances, and they vaguely disturbed her.

'It is very good of you to take all this trouble with Mollie,' continued Cyril, as he walked beside her towards the house. 'I need not ask if she has been happy—eh, Mollie?'

'I have had a lovely time!' exclaimed Mollie, almost treading on Cyril's heels in her excitement. 'Oh, Cyril, do ask Miss Ross to take you in the canoe to Deep-water Chine! It is such a delicious place! The trees dip into the water, and the birds come down to drink and bathe; and we saw a water-rat and a water-wagtail, and there was the cuckoo; and we could hear the cooing of the wood-pigeons whenever we were silent; and, oh! it was paradise!'

'I can believe it,' returned Cyril, in a low voice.

'Mr. Blake,' asked Audrey hastily, 'why is it that you are not on the cricket-field with the boys?'

'Conybeare has taken my place. A lot of the boys were kept in, which means I was a prisoner too. I have only just opened the gaol-door to the poor wretches. If you want to see a heart-breaking sight, Miss Ross—one sad enough to touch the stoniest heart—go into the schoolroom on a half-holiday on a summer's afternoon when half a dozen boys are kept in for lessons returned. The utter misery depicted on those boys' faces is not to be described.'

'I should just shut up their books and tell them to be off.'

'I daresay you would,' with an amused look at her. 'I can well imagine that that would be Miss Ross's role. We masters have to harden our hearts; "discipline must be maintained," as that delightful old fellow in Bleak House used to say; bad work brings its own punishment.'

'You are as stern as Captain Burnett. By the bye, where is Michael?'

'He has gone out with Dr. Ross. That is why Mrs. Ross wants me to make myself useful'—and Cyril did make himself useful.

Some more visitors dropped in, Geraldine amongst them. She had finished her business in the town, had paid a couple of calls, and now looked in on her way home. Somehow, Woodcote was always on the way home; but, then, as everyone said, there were few daughters so devoted to their mother as young Mrs. Harcourt.

Audrey, who was presiding at the tea-table, saw her sister looking at Mr. Blake with reluctant admiration; she had never before noticed the quiet ease of his manners. He had lost his first shyness, and was now making himself exceedingly pleasant to Mrs. Ross's guests. Mr. Cardell, who was a stiff, solemn-faced young man, was placed at a decided disadvantage; clever and gentlemanly as he was, he looked positively awkward beside Mr. Blake. Mr. Blake seemed to see everything—to notice in a moment if a lady wanted her cup put down, if her tea were not to her taste; he carried sugar and cream to one, cake or bread and butter to another. He seemed to know by instinct when the teapot wanted replenishing, and was ready to lift the heavy kettle; but he never remained by Audrey's side a moment.

As Audrey busied herself among her teacups she was amused by overhearing a fragment of conversation behind her. Emily Cardell, a plain, good-natured sort of girl, had seated herself beside Geraldine.

'Mr. Blake seems a decided acquisition,' she observed, in a loud whisper that was distinctly audible. 'We ought all to be very much obliged to Dr. Ross. He is very young, but so distinguished-looking. Poor Oliver is quite cast in the shade.'

'I don't know about that, Emily.'

'I suppose you think comparisons are odious? But, all the same, I am sure you must admire Mr. Blake.'

'I think he is very gentlemanly and pleasant.'

'Dear me, Geraldine! that is very moderate praise. I never saw anyone with more finished manners.'

Here Audrey moved away, but her lip curled a little. Would Geraldine's tone have been so utterly devoid of enthusiasm if she had not known her sister was within earshot?

Just then Mollie touched Audrey on the arm.

'Miss Ross, Cyril says that I have been here long enough, and that he is going to take me away.'

'Are you sure that I worded it quite so ungraciously?' observed Cyril, who had followed her. 'All the same, I think you will endorse my opinion, Miss Ross. Mollie has been here all the afternoon.'

'It has been a very pleasant afternoon,' returned Audrey, with one of her kind looks at Mollie; 'and I hope we shall have many more. Mollie and I mean to see a good deal of each other.' And then she bade them good-bye and turned to the other guests, who were also making their adieux.

Geraldine remained behind to exchange a few confidential words with her mother, and Audrey stepped out on the terrace. As she did so, she was surprised to see Michael sitting just outside the drawing-room window. He had evidently been there some time.

As she sat down beside him she was struck by his air of dejection.

'Oh, Michael, how tired you look! have you had your tea?'

He shook his head.

'Then I will go and fetch you some. Do let me, Michael;' for he had stopped her.

Michael's hand was very thin and white, but when he cared to put out his strength it had a grasp like iron; and that firm, soft grip on Audrey's wrist kept her a prisoner.

'No, don't go; it is so late that I would rather wait for dinner. I heard the teacups, but I was too lazy to move, and to judge from the voices, the room must have been pretty full.'

'Yes; the Cardells and the Fortescues and Gage were there.'

'Mr. Blake, too, was he not?'

'Yes, mother asked him—she wanted him to help entertain the Cardells.'

'Yes, I see; and he seems disposed to be friendly—your father has asked him to dinner to-morrow night to meet the Pagets.'

'Indeed!' and Audrey tried to suppress the pleasure she felt at this intelligence. 'Have you any objection?' She asked the question in a joking manner; to her surprise her cousin answered her quite gravely:

'Well, I think it will be a pity to take too much notice of him—he is young enough to be spoilt. People are glad to have a good-looking fellow like Blake at their parties; and, then, I hear he has a magnificent voice. I expect half the young ladies of Rutherford will be in love with him—Miss Emily Cardell among them; eh, Audrey?'

'I am sure I don't know,' returned Audrey coldly; 'Mr. Blake's good looks are nothing to me.' She spoke with unusual petulance, as though something in her cousin's remarks had not pleased her. 'Well, if you will not have some tea, Michael, I must just go back to mother and Gage;' and as Michael said no word to detain her, she moved away so quickly that she did not hear the half-stifled sigh with which Michael took up his paper again.



CHAPTER XIII

GERALDINE GIVES HER OPINION

'We must be as courteous to a man as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light.'—EMERSON.

'She has a most winning manner and a soft voice.'—The Abbot.

Audrey was able to fulfil her promise to Mollie the very next day, when she encountered Mrs. Blake unexpectedly some little way from the town. She was just turning down a lane where one of her protegees, a little lame seamstress, lived, when Zack suddenly bounded round the corner and jumped on her, with one of his delighted barks, and the next moment she saw a lady in black walking very quickly towards her. She wore a large shady hat that completely hid her face, but there was no mistaking that graceful figure. Mrs. Blake had a peculiar walk: it was rapid, decided, and had a light skimming movement, that reminded Audrey of some bird flying very near the ground; and she had a singular habit as she walked of turning her head from side to side, as though scanning distant objects, which deepened this resemblance.

'What a charming surprise!' she exclaimed, quickening her pace until it became a little run; 'who would have thought of meeting you, my dear Miss Ross, in this out-of-the-way corner? Some errand of mercy has brought you, of course,' with a glance at Audrey's basket. 'That dainty little white cloth reminds me of Red Riding Hood; I would wager anything that under it there are new-laid eggs and butter. Down, Zack! you are sniffing at it just as though you were that wicked wolf himself.'

'I am going to see Rhoda Williams,' returned Audrey; 'she is lame, poor girl! and has miserable health besides, but she works beautifully. Geraldine and I employ her as much as possible. I suppose you and Zack have been having a walk.

'My dear Miss Ross,' with extreme gravity, 'I am not taking an ordinary constitutional—I have come out in the hope of preserving my reason. I have been enacting a new version of Hood's "Song of the Shirt"; for the last two days it has been "Stitch, stitch, stitch,"—how do the words run on?—until I was on the brink of delirium. An hour ago I said to Mollie: "If you have any love for your mother, carry away that basket and hide it; do not let me see it again for twenty-four hours—nature is exhausted;" and then I put on my hat, and, at the risk of spoiling my complexion, came out into this blessed sunshine.'

Audrey laughed; there was something so droll, so mirth-provoking in Mrs. Blake's tone. Any other woman would have said, in a matter-of-fact way: 'I was tired of work, and so I put on my bonnet;' but Mrs. Blake liked to drape her sentences effectively.

'It is very fortunate that we have met,' returned Audrey, when she had finished her laugh, 'for I want to ask you a great favour;' and she detailed her little scheme for Mollie.

Mrs. Blake was evidently surprised, but she testified her gratitude in her usual impulsive way.

'How good, how kind of you, my dear Miss Ross! Indeed, I do not know how to thank you; no one has ever taken so much notice of my poor Mollie before, except that droll old creature Miss Foster; but she could not bear me—a compliment I reciprocated; so we always quarrelled when we met.'

'And you will spare Mollie to me for an hour or so twice a week?'

'Will I not! Do you suppose I am such an unnatural mother that I could refuse such a generous offer? I really am ashamed to tell you, Miss Ross, that I do not know a note of music. When I was a girl I was very perverse, and refused to learn, because I said I had no ear; but in reality I hated the trouble of all those scales and exercises. Of course I am sorry for it now: Cyril is so musical, and has such a delightful voice, and even poor little Mollie has picked up her notes as cleverly as possible.'

'I am so glad you have not refused me. I am sure I shall enjoy teaching Mollie. I think we had better begin as soon as possible. Let me see: this is Friday; will you ask her to come to me on Monday morning? I will be ready for her by half-past eleven.'

'Thank you a thousand times! I will certainly give her your message. What a blessing that new cambric is finished! Cyril will be so pleased when I tell him about your kindness. He worries dreadfully about Mollie sometimes: he says her education is so desultory; but I tell him he cannot alter his mother's nature. I never was methodical; it drives me crazy to do things by rule. Mollie sometimes says to me: "Mamma, I do so wish I had a fixed hour for lessons, that I knew exactly when you could read with me;" and my invariable answer is, "Good gracious, Mollie! don't you know me by this time? am I that sort of person?" I wish for my children's sake that I were different; but they must just put up with me as I am. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.'

'My dear Mrs. Blake, what an odd comparison!'

'Oh, it just came into my head, you know; it is rather strong, but it is very expressive. By the bye, I was going to ask you something. Have you any idea on which day your mother and sister intend to call on me?'

'I believe Geraldine said Tuesday or Wednesday; I really forget which—Wednesday, I think.'

'But it might be Tuesday. Thanks. I would not willingly be out, so I will keep in those two days. Now, I positively must not keep you standing under this hedge any longer; but I feel all the better for this nice little talk.' And after a few more parting words Mrs. Blake went on her way, and Audrey unlocked the gate of Mrs. Williams' cottage.

The short interview with Mrs. Blake had been satisfactory; her request had been granted without demur or difficulty. Mrs. Blake had shown herself in a sensible light. Audrey's benevolence had now a new object; she would spare no pains or trouble with this poor neglected child. To meditate fresh acts of kindness always stirred Audrey's pulses as though she had imbibed new wine. Her sympathetic temperament felt warmed, vivified, exhilarated, as she stooped to enter the low room where Rhoda Williams was expecting her.

Audrey looked forward rather anxiously to her mother and Geraldine's visit. She watched them set out with secret perturbation. They were to call at one or two places besides, but Mrs. Ross assured her very seriously that they would be back to tea; and as Geraldine seemed to consider this as a matter of course, Audrey got over her own business as soon as possible, so as to be back at Woodcote at the same time.

Michael had gone up to town for two or three days, and was not expected home until Monday. Dr. Ross rarely made his appearance in his wife's drawing-room until late in the evening, and, as no casual visitors dropped in, Audrey would be able to cross-examine them to her heart's content. But she knew her mother well enough to be sure that no questions would be needed. Even if Geraldine were inclined to be reserved, to keep her opinions for her husband's ear, Mrs. Ross would be sure to discourse very readily on her own and Geraldine's doings.

'Well, my dear,' she said in her cheery way, as she entered the room, 'here we are, as punctual as possible, and quite ready for a nice cup of tea. Of course Mrs. Fortescue was out—she always is—and Mrs. Cardell was just going out, so we would not detain her; and Mrs. Charrington had her room full of visitors, so we would not stay long there.'

'Of course, as Lady Mountjoy was there, no one else had a chance of getting a word with Mrs. Charrington,' observed Geraldine, with rather a discontented air.

'My love, I am sure Mrs. Charrington was as nice as possible to you; you know what a favourite you are with her. But a person like Lady Mountjoy is always so embarrassing to a hostess. She is so very big, Audrey, and seems to take up so much more room than other people; and, then, she is such a talker!'

'So she is, mother. I don't wonder poor Mrs. Charrington found herself unable to talk to Gage.'

'No; so we did not stay long. What was the use? Well, my dear, I daresay you wonder how we got on at the Gray Cottage? We had a very pleasant visit, on the whole—an exceedingly pleasant visit.'

Audrey's face brightened; this was better than she expected.

'Mrs. Blake was in. I think, from her manner, that she was expecting us.'

'Yes; certainly we were expected,' put in Geraldine, in rather a decided voice.

'She was in the drawing-room, and everything was as nice as possible; and the old servant is very respectable-looking. Mrs. Blake was doing some lovely embroidery in a frame. How exquisitely she works, Audrey! and she selects her own shades, too. That dear little Mollie was reading to her—French history, I think. They did look so comfortable! You are certainly right, my dear: Mrs. Blake is a most charming woman; she has very taking manners, and is altogether so bright and expressive.'

'She is certainly very handsome,' observed Geraldine—'a most striking-looking person, as Edith says. Mother and I agreed that her son is very like her; but, for my own part, I prefer Mr. Blake's quiet manners.'

'But you like her, Gage?' and Audrey looked a little anxiously at her sister.

'I am not quite sure,' was the cautious answer. 'Mother liked her; but, then, mother likes everyone. She was friendly and pleasant—pointedly so; but, in my opinion, she is too impulsive, too outspoken altogether. It is not quite good form. A grown-up person should have more reticence. To me, Mrs. Blake is wanting in dignity.'

'I think you are rather severe on her, Gage. You and Mrs. Blake are very different people.'

'You need not tell me that. Mrs. Blake and I are at the antipodes as far as temperament and sympathy are concerned. You are very impulsive yourself, Audrey, and often speak without thought; but I do not think you are quite so outspoken as Mrs. Blake.'

'Well, perhaps not.'

'It was so unnecessary for her to tell mother, for example, that she was too poor to indulge her social tastes, and that she hoped her Rutherford neighbours would be very sparing of their invitations. It was not as though we had led up to it. Nothing of the sort had been said to prompt such an extraordinary statement. I am sure Percival would have called that bad form.'

'How I do hate that expression!' exclaimed Audrey, rather pettishly. She thought Geraldine more than usually trying this afternoon.

'Still, I am sure you would have agreed with me that it was most uncalled for. Mother was quite taken aback for a moment. She told me so afterwards—did you not, mother?'

'Yes, dear; and, of course, it put me in a difficult position. I am sure I do not know what we were talking about, Audrey. I think I was saying something about Rutherford being a sociable little place.'

'Yes; and then she interrupted you, mother, and said, in an abrupt sort of way, that its sociability would matter very little to her, for, dearly as she loved gaiety, she could not afford to indulge in it. "So I hope no kind neighbours will ask me to dinner, or to any kind of evening entertainment, for I should be obliged to refuse." Now, do you call that quite in good taste, Audrey?'

'I think that it was, at any rate, very honest. I can see none of that pretentiousness that Edith Bryce led us to expect.'

'I don't know,' rather doubtfully. 'Mrs. Blake is certainly not a humble person; she thinks a great deal of herself. At times her manner was almost patronising. She talks a great deal too much about her son. Of course she has a right to be proud of him; but it was a pity to be quite so gushing.'

'It is useless to talk to you, Gage,' returned Audrey impatiently. 'Edith Bryce has prejudiced you too much. You are judging Mrs. Blake very unfairly.'

'I hope not. I do not wish to be unfair to anyone; but I must own that I am sorry that you have such an infatuation for her.'

'I don't know about that; but I am certainly very much interested in the whole family.'

'Yes; and I could not help observing to mother that I thought it a great pity. They evidently look upon you as a close friend. It was "dear Miss Ross" every minute from one or other of them.'

'Audrey has been so good to them, you see,' returned Mrs. Ross, whose soft heart had been much touched by her daughter's praises. 'I am quite sure, Geraldine, that Mrs. Blake meant every word she said; there were tears in her eyes once when she mentioned how unused they were to such kindness. Audrey, my dear, I have asked Mrs. Blake to waive ceremony and come to us on Monday, and I assure you she was quite pleased. She said it was such a treat to her to watch tennis, and that she loved to see her son play. And now, of course, we must ask Mr. Blake.'

'Oh yes, I suppose so.' Audrey spoke with studied indifference. 'It is a pity you are engaged'—turning to her sister—'for we shall have quite a large party.'

'Yes, I am thoroughly vexed about it,' returned Geraldine, 'for Mrs. Charrington is coming too. I wish Mrs. Sheppard would not always fix Monday;' and then, after a little more talk about the arrangements for the tennis-party, she took her leave—Audrey, as usual, accompanying her to the gate.

'I suppose Michael will be back for it?' was her parting question.

Audrey supposed so too, but she was not quite certain of Michael's movements. He had said something about his intention of coming back on Monday, but he might alter his mind before that. Michael had not seemed quite like himself the day before he went to town; she was sure something had harassed him. Geraldine hoped fervently that this was not the case; she never liked dear old Michael to be troubled about anything. And then the two sisters kissed each other very affectionately. Audrey always forgave Geraldine her little vexing proprieties and tiresome habit of managing everyone when she felt her loving kiss on her cheek.

'After all, there are only we two,' she thought, as she walked back to the house. 'I must not magnify Gage's little faults, for she is a dear woman.'

And Geraldine's thoughts were quite as affectionate.

'I hope I have not vexed her too much about this new protegee of hers,' she said to herself, 'but one cannot pretend to like a person. Audrey is a darling, and I would not hurt her for the world. After all, she is a much better Christian than I am;' and then she had a long, comfortable talk with her husband, in which she indemnified herself for any previous restraint.

'It is so nice to be able to tell you everything, Percy dear!' she exclaimed, as the dressing gong warned her to close the conversation.

'That is the good of having a husband,' he replied, as he put his books together and prepared to follow her.

Michael did not return in time for the tennis-party, but Audrey could only give him a regretful thought—so many people were coming that her hands were quite full. She was busy until luncheon time, and Geraldine good-naturedly came down from Hillside to offer her help, and had to submit to an anxious lecture from her mother on her imprudence in coming out in the heat. Audrey had scarcely time to change her dress before the first guest arrived. Mrs. Blake came early; her son was still engaged with his scholastic duties, and would make his appearance later; but he had not allowed her to wait for him. Audrey saw her coming through the gate, and went at once to meet her.

'Well, Miss Ross, I am making my debut,' she said gaily; 'have I come too early? Do tell me which is the schoolroom window; I want to know where my boy sits; he said he should look out for me.'

Audrey suggested rather gravely that they should walk along the terrace: her mother was on the lawn with Mrs. Charrington. She thought Mrs. Blake looked exceedingly nice in her thin black dress and little close bonnet; nothing could be simpler, and perhaps nothing would have suited her half so well. Audrey felt sure that everyone would admire her; and she was right. Mrs. Charrington fell in love with her at first sight, and to Audrey's great amusement her father paid her the most marked attention.

'My dear, do tell me who that lady in black is,' inquired Gertrude Fortescue, catching hold of Audrey's arm; 'she is perfectly lovely. What magnificent hair she has, and what a sweet smile! Papa is talking to her now, and Mrs. Charrington is on her other side.'

'Oh, that is Mrs. Blake—you know her son, Gertrude.'

'Mr. Blake's mother! why, she looks quite young enough to be his sister. I wish you would introduce me, Audrey; I have quite lost my heart to her.'

'I have brought you another admirer, Mrs. Blake,' observed Audrey mischievously, while Gertrude Fortescue turned red and looked foolish. Mrs. Blake received the young lady with one of her charming smiles.

'Everyone is so kind,' she murmured; 'I am having such a happy afternoon, Miss Ross. I won't tell you what I think of Dr. Ross—I positively dare not; and Mrs. Charrington, too, has been as nice as possible.'

'And now Gertrude means to be nice, too,' returned Audrey brightly. 'Good-bye for the present; I have to play with Mr. Blake, and he is waiting for me;' and she hurried away.

What a successful afternoon it was! Mrs. Blake was certainly making her mark among the Rutherford people; no one in their senses could have found fault with her manners. She was perfectly good-humoured and at her ease; she had a pleasant word and smile for everybody.

'One would have imagined that all these strangers would have made her nervous,' thought Audrey; but it needed a close observer to detect any mark of uneasiness in Mrs. Blake's voice or manner. Now and then there might be a slight flush, an involuntary movement of the well-gloved hands, a quick start or turn of the head, if anyone suddenly addressed her; but no one would have noticed these little symptoms.

'Your mother seems to be enjoying herself,' observed Audrey, as she joined Cyril and they walked across the lawn together.

'Yes,' he returned, with a pleased look; 'she is quite happy.'

'Let us sit where we can see my son and Miss Ross play!' exclaimed Mrs. Blake, rising as she spoke. 'Look! there are chairs on that side of the lawn. What a well-matched couple they are!—both play so well. Miss Ross is not as handsome as her sister—Mrs. Harcourt is an exceedingly fine young woman, and one seldom sees such a complexion in the present day—but, in my humble opinion, Miss Ross is far more charming.'

'Do you think so? We are all very fond of Geraldine, and—oh yes, Audrey is very nice too,' returned Miss Fortescue a little absently. She was considered handsome herself, and it struck her with some degree of wonderment that the afternoon was half over and Mr. Blake had not asked her to play tennis.



CHAPTER XIV

'I AM SORRY YOU ASKED THE QUESTION'

'Thou must not be hurt at a well-meaning friend, though he shake thee somewhat roughly by the shoulder to awake thee.'

Quentin Durward.

Half an hour later Audrey had finished her game, and had resisted all her partner's pleadings to give their opponents their revenge. She might feel tempted—Mr. Blake played so splendidly—but she knew her duty to her guests better than that.

'You must get another partner,' she said, with something of her sister's decision. 'Here is Miss Fortescue; she has been sitting out a long time, and she is a very good player. Gertrude'—raising her voice—'Mr. Blake wants a partner. I am sure you will take pity on him.' And in this manner Gertrude obtained her wish.

Perhaps she would rather have had her desire gratified in a different manner—if Mr. Blake had asked her himself, for example. She was not quite pleased at the tone in which he professed himself delighted to play with Miss Fortescue; he fetched her racket a little reluctantly, when Audrey pointed it out, and there was certainly no enthusiasm visible in his manner as he suggested that Miss Cardell and her partner were waiting for them.

'Do you know where my mother and Miss Ross have gone?' he asked, as they took their place.

'Mrs. Blake asked Miss Ross to show her the pond. They are waiting for you to serve, Mr. Blake;' and then Cyril did consent to throw himself into the game. Miss Fortescue was a good-looking girl, and played well, but she was not Miss Ross; nevertheless, Cyril had no intention of accepting a beating, and he was soon playing as brilliantly as ever.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Blake was talking after her usual rapid fashion.

'What beautiful grounds! and so tastefully laid out, too. I have never seen such a garden. I do love this succession of terraces, and those trees with white leaves just striped with pink—what do you call them, Miss Ross?'

Audrey told her they were white maple.

'Dear me! Did Dr. Ross plant them? They do look so well against that dark background of trees. Everything is in such perfect taste and order, and Cyril says it is the same in the house. The Bryces' establishment was not half so well regulated. He declares Dr. Ross has a master-mind, and, now I have talked to him, I am quite sure Cyril is right.'

'You must not expect me to contradict you. I think there is no one like my father.'

'I daresay not. He is charming—positively charming! So this is the pond Kester and Mollie rave about? What a sweet little place—so still and so retired! But of course you can see the house from it. Is not that your cousin, Captain Burnett?'—as they came in sight of the bench. 'It is very much like him.'

'Yes, of course it is Michael!' and Audrey quickened her steps in surprise. 'My dear Michael, when did you get back? No one knows of your arrival.'

'I daresay not,' he returned somewhat gravely, as he shook hands with her and bowed to Mrs. Blake. 'I only got in half an hour ago, and, having no mind to mingle with the crowd, I sat here to get cool.'

'Have you had some tea, Michael?'

'Oh yes; Parker brought me some. Never mind me. How have you been getting on?' looking at her attentively.

'Oh, very well.' But Audrey blushed a little uneasily under that kind look. 'Mrs. Blake, I believe you have not met my cousin before?'

'I think we have met, Audrey.'

'To be sure we have!' responded Mrs. Blake, with her brightest smile. 'I am so glad of this opportunity of speaking to you, Captain Burnett. I hope Miss Ross gave you my message?'

'I don't believe I have had any message—have I, Audrey?' And Audrey laughed a little guiltily; she did not always remember people's messages.

Mrs. Blake shook her head at her.

'Oh, you traitress!' she exclaimed playfully. 'And I thought you, of all people, were to be trusted. Captain Burnett, I must give my own message. I want to thank you for your kindness to my poor boy.'

'He is not poor at all,' he replied lightly; but his keen blue eyes seemed to take the measure, mental and physical, of the graceful-looking woman before him. 'He is a very clever fellow, and will make his mark. I can assure you I quite envy him his brains.'

'It makes me so proud to hear you say that. I often wonder why my children are so clever; their father'—she checked herself, and then went on in a more subdued key—'my poor husband had only average talents, and as for me——' She left her sentence unfinished in a most expressive way.

'Mollie says you are clever too, Mrs. Blake.'

'My dear Miss Ross, then Mollie—bless her little heart!—is wrong. Is it my fault if those foolish children choose to swear by their mother? Cleverness does not consist in chattering a little French and Italian—does it, Captain Burnett? You and I know better than that, and it will always be a lasting wonder to me why I have a son like my Cyril.'

'You have two sons, Mrs. Blake.'

Something indefinable in Michael's tone made Mrs. Blake redden for a moment; then she recovered herself.

'Yes, thank God! I have; but a widow's eldest son is always her prop. Kester is a mere boy; he cannot help his mother much yet.'

'Kester is nearly sixteen, and will soon be a man; he is already very thoughtful for his age. I am sure you will permit me to say that I already take great interest in him; he has a wonderful thirst for knowledge. I showed one of his translations to Dr. Ross, and he was quite struck by it. You know, Dr. Ross is a fine Greek scholar.'

Mrs. Blake seemed much impressed; she was evidently taken aback. She was generally so absorbed in her eldest son that she failed to give Kester his due. The boy was shy and retiring with her; very likely he felt himself unappreciated. Anyhow, it was certain that he sought sympathy from everyone but his mother; and yet, in her own way, she was kind to him.

Audrey was a little disappointed to find Michael so grave in his manner to her charming friend—for such she already considered Mrs. Blake. Michael was generally so nice and genial with people; he did not seem in the least aware that he was talking to a pretty woman. In Audrey's opinion, he seemed disposed to pick holes in Mrs. Blake's words and to find matter for argument. Not that this would be apparent to anyone but herself; but then she knew Michael so well. She could always tell in a moment if he approved or disapproved of anyone. One thing was clear enough to her, that Mrs. Blake was not at her ease. She lost her gay fluency, and hesitated for a word now and then; and when they left the lake and walked towards the tennis-ground, and Cyril intercepted them, she gave him an appealing look to draw him to her side. But for once Cyril was blind to his mother's wishes. He shook hands with Captain Burnett, and then fell behind to speak to Audrey.

'Do you mean to say that you have finished your game already?' she asked, in some surprise.

'No, indeed; only Mrs. Fortescue discovered that it was late, and took her daughter away, and, of course, I could not beat them single-handed—Wheeler is a crack player—so we made up our mind to consider it a drawn game. You ought not to have thrown me over, Miss Ross,' dropping his voice; 'it was hardly kind, was it?'

'Would you have me play with you and neglect all my other guests?' she returned, smiling. 'I think you owe me some gratitude for providing you with a partner like Gertrude Fortescue. She is one of our best players.'

'I would rather have kept the partner I had,' he replied, with unwonted obstinacy; 'even in tennis one prefers one's own selection. I played the first set far better.'

'I believe you are a little cross with me, Mr. Blake.'

'I!' startled by this accusation, although it was playfully made, and reddening to his temples; 'I have no right to take such a liberty. No man in his senses could be cross with you for a moment.'

'You are wrong. Michael is often cross with me.'

'Is he?' slackening his pace, and so compelling her to do the same, until there were several yards between them and the couple in front. 'Captain Burnett seems to me far too good-natured; I should have said there was not a spark of temper about him. I am rather hasty myself.'

'I am so glad you have warned me in time, Mr. Blake.'

'Why, do you meditate any special provocation?' Then, catching sight of her dimple, his own face relaxed. 'I see you are laughing at me. I am afraid I was not properly gracious to Miss Fortescue. I will make up for it on Thursday at the Charringtons', and ask her to play. You will be there?' with a note of anxiety in his voice.

'Oh yes; I shall be there, of course.'

'We must have one set together; you will promise me that?' and Cyril's dark eyes looked full into hers.

'Yes, certainly.' But Audrey blushed a little. She felt a sudden desire to hurry after the others; but her companion evidently held a different opinion.

'Do you know Mrs. Charrington has asked my mother to come too?'

'No, indeed; but I am so glad to hear it.'

'She was most kind about it: she has promised to call on her to-morrow. My mother is so pleased. Does she not look happy, Miss Ross? She is so fond of this sort of thing—a dull life never suits her. She nearly moped herself to death at Headingly; we were all uncomfortable there.'

'I think she will get on with the Rutherford people.'

'Indeed I hope so. Miss Ross, do you know, I am so vexed about something my mother said the other afternoon, when Mrs. Ross and Mrs. Harcourt were calling on her.' And as Audrey looked mystified, he went on slowly: 'She actually told them that she would accept no evening engagements, and that she hoped no one would invite her to dinner.'

'Oh yes, I remember.'

'I am afraid they must have thought it very strange. I tell my mother that she is far too frank and outspoken for our civilised age, and that there is not the slightest need to flaunt our poverty in our neighbours' faces.'

Cyril spoke with an air of unmistakable annoyance, and Audrey good-naturedly hastened to soothe him. Her fine instinct told her that his stronger and more reticent nature must often be wounded by his mother's indiscreet tongue.

'I am afraid you are a little worldly-minded, Mr. Blake. I consider your mother was far more honest.'

'Thank you,' in a low tone; 'but all the same,' returning to his usual manner, 'it was premature and absurd to make such a statement. My mother has to do as I like,' throwing back his handsome head with a sort of wilfulness that Audrey thought very becoming, 'and I intend her to go out. Miss Ross, I am going to ask you a very odd question, but there is no other lady to whom I can put such an inquiry. Does it cost so very much—I mean, how much does it cost—for a lady to be properly dressed for the evening?'

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