'Oh no,' Miss Mouse replied, for she had no thought of concealment or deception, beyond her wish not to chatter about the Hervey children's affairs unnecessarily—what Justin called 'tell-taleing'—'oh no, auntie. I think it's the third time we've been there. The boys often go—old Nance is very good and kind, and she tells us such pretty stories.'
Mrs. Caryll felt a little perplexed. It seemed curious that Rosamond should never have spoken of these visits before—and yet—it was so impossible to think of the little girl as anything but frank and truthful that her aunt did not even like to repeat her question as to why she had kept silence about the cottage on the moor. It would seem like doubting Rosamond. So for a moment or two Aunt Mattie sat thinking without speaking.
She had not long to wait.
'Auntie,' said Rosamond, in a puzzled tone, 'it wasn't wrong of me not to tell you before about our going to see Nance, was it? It was only that Justin explained to me that boys are different from girls—they don't like every little thing they do to be told over at home, and I have seen for myself that Miss Ward is rather fussy. Justin and Pat call it "tell-taleing," so I thought I just wouldn't talk about them unless they did anything naughty, and even then I wouldn't have told without telling them I was going to tell, though I'm sure they wouldn't do anything naughty, not Pat and Archie, anyway. And I really don't see much of Jus—he doesn't care for stories, and he goes off with Bob and the ferrets.'
'Ferrets,' repeated Mrs. Caryll, 'have they got ferrets?'
'Yes,' Rosamond replied. 'I've not seen them, but I know they've got them. And they don't keep them at Moor Edge, because Mrs. Hervey doesn't like them. It isn't tell-taleing of me to have told you about them, is it, auntie?' she asked anxiously.
Mrs. Caryll felt distressed at the little girl's rather troubled tone.
'Of course not, dearie,' she said lightly. 'You may trust me not to make mischief. I quite see that it has been a little difficult for you.'
In her own mind she decided, however, that she would take measures to find out quietly, without involving little Rosamond, something more as to these very independent doings of her nephews, especially Justin.
'They had no right to take her to the Crags' cottage without special and distinct leave,' she thought to herself, 'though I feel pretty sure no harm would come to them through old Nance.'
For Aunt Mattie had often seen and talked to the old woman, and had a high opinion of her, though she thought it a pity that Nance kept on such distant terms with her neighbours, and she feared too that his grandmother was not quite strict enough with Bob, as there was no doubt that the prejudice against the boy's wild, untameable ways was doing him harm, and would do him still more harm in the future unless it could be got rid of.
'I will talk it over with Ted,' she said to herself. 'He always sees ways out of difficulties. Now it would be the very making of the boy if we could find a place for him in our stables under Peterson.'
Peterson was Mr. Caryll's coachman, and a very superior man, for he had travelled with his master at one time—not like Griffiths at Moor Edge, who, though most trustworthy in every way, had never been very many miles distant from home in his life, and was full of all the prejudices and even superstitions of that part of the country.
But Aunt Mattie kept all these thoughts in her own mind, and after a minute or two's silence she began to talk to Rosamond about other things, as she did not want the little girl to trouble herself about what she had told or not told of the boys' affairs.
'Next Saturday,' said Mrs. Caryll, 'I shall have to drive to Weadmere—there is a better toyshop there than at Crowley. Would you like to go with me and try if we can get a ball for little Ger like yours? And you have never been at Weadmere, I think—it would be a little change for you.'
Rosamond's face brightened up at once.
'Oh, thank you, auntie,' she said; 'yes, I should like very much to go and to see the toyshop, because, you know, there'll soon be Christmas presents to think about, and it would be a very good thing to find out in plenty of time where I could get them best. I did tell the boys I didn't think I could spend next half-holiday with them, because I was sure you wouldn't forget about the ball for Ger, auntie. I've got the money quite ready.'
She was again her own bright womanly little self, eager and delighted in the thought of doing something or anything for others.
'And I'm getting on nicely with my savings for Christmas,' she chattered on happily; 'you know, auntie, I don't wear out nearly so many gloves here as when I was with mamma in London and Paris, so I really can save a lot.'
'All right, darling,' said her aunt, 'we shall go to Weadmere on Saturday and you shall have a good look round. It is wise to prepare in plenty of time, for I shall be sending a box to your mother very soon, and the Christmas presents can go in it. By the bye, how is the lamp-mat you are making for her getting on?'
'Oh, quite well,' Miss Mouse replied. 'Miss Ward lets me do a little every day while we're reading aloud. It'll be finished very soon.'
'That's a good thing,' said Mrs. Caryll, and by her tone Rosamond felt satisfied that her aunt was quite pleased with her, and it was a very contented and light-hearted Miss Mouse who fell asleep that evening at Caryll after her usual pleasant half-hour or so with her uncle and aunt before bed-time.
Mrs. Caryll did not forget to talk over things with her husband when they were alone, and he listened attentively, as he knew Aunt Mattie was too sensible to imagine or exaggerate such matters, and he was really interested in the Hervey boys.
'Yes,' he said, 'it might be, as you say, the making of Bob Crag to get him into some good steady place where there would be no prejudice against him, and yet where he would be looked after with some strictness. I don't myself believe there's any harm in him. To tell you the truth,' and here he hesitated a little—'to tell you the truth I feel more anxious about Justin. There is a touch of the bully in him that I don't like, and— I don't feel sure that he is always quite straightforward and truthful.'
'That would be worse than anything,' said Aunt Mattie, rather sadly. 'I have tried to draw him and Pat more together, and I think Pat has been more companionable. But I don't feel happy about Justin, either. I don't like his trying to stop little Rosamond's innocent chatter—it is a pity to put it into a child's head that there can be such a thing as "tell-taleing" when children are simple and obedient.'
'Yes,' said her husband, 'I agree with you. I will think it over, and perhaps I may manage to have some talk with Justin one of these days. He will soon be going away to school, and if he has been getting out of good habits at home in any way, it will not be a strengthening preparation for the new trials and temptations of school life.'
And as Mrs. Caryll knew that she could depend upon Uncle Ted always to do more rather than less of anything he promised, she too went to bed that night with an easier mind, little thinking that a shock was on its way to startle selfish Justin far more than any words, however serious and earnest, of his uncle's.
On Saturday afternoon, as it was a fairly good day, though cold and not without signs of snow not very far away, Mrs. Caryll and Rosamond set off, as had been planned, for Weadmere, the other little town for shopping in the neighbourhood. It was rather a larger place than Crowley, though not so prettily placed, but Rosamond enjoyed the drive in a new direction, and was eager to pay a visit to the 'toy-and-fancy-shop,' as it was called.
In those days a half-holiday once a week for shop-keepers was not as generally the rule as it is now, but at Weadmere it had for long been the custom to close on Thursday afternoons. And Saturday was quite a lively day in the little town, as the country folk came in to make their purchases for the following week. So Rosamond found it very amusing; even at the draper's, where she went in with her aunt—and a draper's is not usually counted an interesting kind of shop by children—she was much entertained by watching and listening to the conversation of the farmers' wives and others over their purchases. The way they tugged at merino, and rubbed calico between their fingers to see that there was not too much 'dressing' in it, made her feel as if it would be very difficult indeed to be sure of a 'genuine article,' as the shopman called all his stuffs in turn.
At this shop and at the toyshop, where, to her great delight, Rosamond found just the kind and size of ball she had set her heart on for little Gervais, the proprietor made one of his boys go out to hold the pony. But after this Mrs. Caryll had to drive to a less busy part of the town, to order some wire baskets to hang ferns in, at a working tinsmith's. And here there was no odd boy in the shop. She did not like to leave Rosamond alone outside, as she was afraid of the pony starting, but just as she was looking about her what to do, she caught sight of a little fellow sauntering down the street, and called out to him. He ran up at once.
'Will you hold the pony for a few minutes?' she was saying, when Rosamond interrupted her.
'It's Bob, auntie,' she said, 'Bob Crag. Of course he'll hold Tony, and may I stay out? I'm quite warm, and I've got the parcels all nicely packed under the rug.'
'Very well,' replied Mrs. Caryll, for she knew the tinsmith's would not be interesting to her little niece, and with a friendly nod to Bob, who was tugging at his cap, she went into the shop, or workroom, for it was scarcely like a shop.
Miss Mouse was quite excited at meeting Bob.
'How funny for you to be here,' she said. 'Have you come to do some messages for your grandmother?'
'No thank you, miss,' said the boy, meaning to be very polite. 'Granny buys all she wants at Crowley; no, I didn't come here for no messages of hers.'
Something in the sound of his voice made the little girl look at him more closely, and she saw that he had been crying, though he turned away quickly and began fiddling at the pony's harness as an excuse for hiding his face. But Miss Mouse was not going to be put off like that.
'Bob,' she said. He pretended not to hear her.
'Bob,' again more loudly and determinedly this time.
'Beg pardon, miss, did you speak?' said the boy.
'Yes, Bob, I did, and you heard me. You were only pretending not to, because you didn't want me to see that there's something the matter with you. Look at me, Bob,' and he dared not disobey. When Rosamond spoke in that queenly way she was very awe-inspiring.
'I see,' she said, 'you have been crying, Bob. Now what is the matter? Have you been doing anything naughty, or what is it?'
He brushed his coat sleeve across his eyes, and tried to choke down a sob.
'No, miss,' he managed at last to get out; 'leastways I never meant to do anything wrong— I never did, for certain sure, I never did. And I dursn't tell you, miss, for fear of worser trouble— I really dursn't, unless——' he looked up, his eyes brimming over—his sweet, pathetic dark eyes; and Rosamond's tender heart grew very sore.
'Unless what?' she said.
''Twouldn't be right to say it, I don't think,' he replied hesitatingly; ''twas only if you'd not mind promising not to tell—it'd make such a trouble up to Moor Edge. I dursn't try to see Master Justin, and I don't believe he can do aught to put it right. But poor granny, she'd be that worrited, and I know she's a bit short just now.'
'Short of what? What do you mean?' asked the little girl.
'Short of money, miss, to be sure,' replied Bob. 'I dursn't ask her for it—it'd put her about so, and she'd worry terrible about it all.'
'But I don't understand what it is,' said Rosamond. 'I do wish you'd explain quickly.' Then, as a sudden idea flashed into her mind—'Oh,' she exclaimed, 'can it be about the ferrets? Have you got into trouble about them? If you have, it's all Justin's fault, and he should get you out of it.'
Again Bob brushed his sleeve across his eyes.
'He's done all he could, he has indeed, miss,' he said. 'It's them I bought the creatures from that's making all the trouble—there's stories about, you see, again' me—that I've been ferreting for rabbits—and that'd be stealing; and the man who sold them to me says he'll have me up for it if I don't pay all that's still owing very first thing to-morrow morning. And he's put on to the price—he has for sure, though he says he hasn't. It's six shilling still to pay, and how or where I'm to get it, goodness only knows,' and here Bob's feelings entirely overcame him, and he burst into tears.
Miss Mouse had hard work to keep back her own—she could not bear to see the change in the poor boy, who had always before seemed so full of life and spirits. And she knew that all he had done and risked had been out of his unselfish devotion to Justin. Half unconsciously her hand went into her pocket, where, safely nestling, was her little purse; but she did not draw it out, for she remembered that it only contained sixpence. Miss Mouse was a careful little person; she kept her money in a tiny cash-box, and only took out what she needed to use. The ball for Gervais had cost a shilling, and she had brought eighteenpence with her.
'Six shillings,' she repeated, 'it's a lot of money!'
'That it is,' said Bob, with despair in his voice.
Miss Mouse considered. She had been hoping to have ten shillings for her Christmas presents. There was still to come her December pocket-money, out of which she was expected to buy her gloves, and in the country, as she had told Aunt Mattie, gloves last much longer, so that she was not far off her goal. But six shillings! That would leave her at most only four. It was something very like a sob that the little maiden choked down before she spoke again.
'Bob,' she said, 'I'll— I'll lend it you—or give it you, for I don't see how you can ever pay it me back, unless—unless Justin does,' and, to tell the truth, she had small hopes of Justin. He was selfish and thoughtless.
Bob looked up at her with brimming over eyes.
'Miss— O miss!' was all he could say.
'Yes,' she repeated, 'I'll give it you. I couldn't bear you to get into trouble, or for poor Nance to be unhappy. She's been so good to us. I haven't got the money with me. We must plan how you can fetch it, for I suppose you must have it to-night?'
'Or to-morrow morning, miss, so early that I couldn't disturb you. Yes, to-night would be best, and I will pay it you back, miss, first earnings as ever I get. You'll see—but—but won't your folk—beg pardon—won't the lady and gentleman at Caryll Place be angry with you, miss?'
'No,' she replied, 'it's my very own money. But don't trouble about that part of it, Bob. I'll take care not to get you into any fresh trouble, nor,' with a little smile, 'myself either.'
And in her own mind Miss Mouse decided that once she was sure poor Bob was safe, she would tell Aunt Mattie 'all about it.' 'I don't think that would be a wrong kind of tell-taleing,' she decided. 'It wouldn't be right not to tell, for Justin shouldn't have risked poor Bob's getting into trouble. I'll tell auntie everything, and then she'll know how to do without making Justin angry with Bob.'
And when Mrs. Caryll came out of the tinsmith's Bob was standing quietly by the pony's head—he had quite left off crying. She thanked him with a pleasant nod and smile, and hoped she had not kept him waiting too long.
'I didn't give him anything for holding Tony,' she said to Rosamond. 'I think perhaps it would have hurt his feelings.'
'Oh, I'm sure he'd rather do it for nothing, auntie,' answered the little girl.
But she said no more about Bob. She meant to do right, and she thought she was doing right, but yet it gave her a rather unhappy feeling not to be able at once to tell her aunt the whole story.
She had planned with Bob to meet him that very evening with the money, so she was glad that Mrs. Caryll, finding it a little later than she thought, drove home at a good pace.
OUT ON THE MOOR
Uncle Ted was on the look-out for them when they got home.
'It's cold, isn't it?' he said. 'Still I don't think we shall have snow just yet,' and he glanced up at the sky. 'I want you, as soon as you can spare me a few minutes, Mattie, to look over these letters we were speaking about.'
'I shall be down directly,' said Mrs. Caryll. 'Run off, Rosamond dear, and get ready for your tea. It is pretty sure to be ready for you.'
And so it was. Everything seemed to fit in for the little girl's plans. The maid who waited on her was not in Rosamond's own room when she went upstairs, so Miss Mouse contented herself with taking off her hat and jacket, keeping on her boots to be ready for her expedition to meet Bob. She also got out a fur-lined cloak, which had been put away as too shabby for anything but a wrap, and a little close-fitting fur cap to match. These she carried downstairs and hid them in a corner of the sofa in the small breakfast-room which was considered her own quarters. And safe in her pocket nestled her oldest purse—Miss Mouse liked to have 'best' and 'common' among nearly all her possessions—containing the exact sum, six shillings, which she had promised Bob.
She ate her tea quickly; her little heart was beating faster than usual with excitement, some fear, and a good deal of real regret at having to part with her precious savings, though, on the other hand, there was a feeling of great pleasure at being able to get poor Bob out of trouble, and to save his kind old grandmother the distress of mind she would certainly have felt.
For, as I have said before, Miss Mouse was a very sensible little girl. She quite understood that any trouble of the kind would have done special harm to poor Nance and her grandson, on account of the prejudice already felt against them.
Her heart began to beat still more quickly when she found herself out of doors, and though she was so warmly wrapped up, a queer cold feeling ran down her back, and her arms seemed all shivery.
'I'll take a good run,' she thought. 'That will make me feel better, and I've scarcely walked or run at all to-day.'
So it did. She was a strong little girl in many ways, and accustomed to plenty of exercise, and the keen fresh air soon made her glow all over, as she ran along the smooth, hard road.
Bob had fixed on a certain corner as the best meeting-place. This was the end of a short lane, which led on to the moor at a point Rosamond had never come out at. But it was easy to find, and a short distance farther on, by following one of the small paths in a line with the lane, the boy had explained to her that she would soon come to a sort of dip in the ground, where there was a thick clump of shrubs.
'And there, missie, if I don't meet you before, you'll be certain sure to see me a-comin' over from the other side, as fast as I can get along. It won't be dark by then—and p'raps it'll be a moonlight night, unless the clouds thicken up for snow.'
It did seem, all the same, rather gloomy in the lane—'because of the trees and the hedges,' thought Miss Mouse—and certainly when she got to the end and came out on the moor, it looked a little lighter.
She stood still and looked about her, drawing a deep breath. But she felt a little disappointed; the moor here seemed quite different from up at Moor Edge—it was so much lower, more like a rough field.
'I don't care for it a bit down here,' she thought. 'And then it's so much, much farther to get to, than at the boys'. Why, there you run almost straight out of the garden on to the dear real moor. I quite know the way Archie and the others feel about it.'
She trotted on—straight on, as Bob had directed, and before very long she came to the little hollow with the clump of bushes in the centre which he had described. But there was no Bob there, and at first her heart went down a little—supposing he had not been able to come, supposing the people he owed the money to had refused after all to wait till to-morrow morning, and had done something dreadful—put him in prison, perhaps, for Miss Mouse's ideas as to what might or might not be done to people, poor boys especially, who owed money, were very vague, or gone to frighten old Nance—oh dear, dear, what a pity it was, thought the little girl, that she had not taken her purse and all her riches with her to Weadmere that afternoon. Then she might have given Bob the six shillings at once, and not run any risk of delay, or have needed to come out to meet him in the—yes, it was almost getting to be the dark—and Rosamond gave a little shiver. But at that moment a welcome sound fell on her ears—the sound of rapidly running feet. She heard the boy before she saw him, but he it was. A small dark figure, darker than the dusky ground, soon became visible, running as fast as he could, and, as soon as he caught sight of her, calling out breathlessly, 'O miss, O miss, have you been waiting long?' and as soon as he came nearer, out poured a torrent of explanations as to how they had kept him waiting and waiting for the things he had been at Weadmere to fetch for the 'missus' at the farm where he worked.
'Well, never mind now,' said sensible Miss Mouse, 'I've got the money all right. Here it is, Bob, just exactly six shillings. I did it up into a little packet inside my purse, but you can count it if you like.'
'No, no, thank you, miss,' said the boy. 'I'm sure it's all right, and as like's not if we undid it, it'd drop out, and we'd have hard work to find it again in this brushwood. No, it's sure to be all right—and I'll never be able to thank you enough, that I won't, not if I live to be as old as gran herself.'
He was intensely grateful, there was no mistake about that, and already the little girl felt rewarded for the sacrifice she had made. Bob was evidently anxious too to get off, as he was still carrying the packages he had been to fetch, having come by this very roundabout way from the town, and he was anxious, too, to get 'miss' home, for fear of her being 'scolded' through what she had so kindly done for him.
They turned to go.
'I wish you could come home with me, Bob,' said Rosamond, 'it does look so dark. I don't mind here or on the road. It's the bit of lane that's so dark.'
Bob looked about and considered.
'I'm afraid I just dursn't go round by your place, miss,' he said. 'I must run all the way or the missus'll be terrible put out, though——'
'No, no,' interrupted the little lady. 'I wouldn't let you. Why, it would be worse than owing the money for the ferrets if you got scolded and lost your place perhaps——'
'I have it,' exclaimed the boy. 'If you don't mind comin' out a bit farther up the road, you needn't have no lane at all. And I daresay it'll be quicker in the end, for you'd almost have to feel your way along the lane by now—it is a very dark bit, I know. And I can run with you till I put you on the straight path to the road.'
'Oh yes,' said Rosamond gladly, 'I'd far rather do that. Come along quick then, Bob.'
He set off, running, though not nearly as fast as before, in front of her, looking back every moment or two to see if she was following all right. Neither spoke, as Rosamond did not want to waste either her own or her companion's breath.
'I shall have to run as fast as ever I can when I get on to the smooth road,' she thought.
So for upwards of a quarter of a mile the two trotted on in silence, till Bob pulled up.
'Miss,' he said, 'this is where I have to turn.' As a matter of fact he had been out of his way till now. 'If you go straight on, you can't miss now. See,' and he pointed before him in the gloom, 'the hedge stops a bit farther on, and there's a clear piece of grass on to the road.'
'Ye-es,' said Miss Mouse, peering before her, 'I think I see.'
'Anyway you'll see it all right as soon as you come to it, and you go straight till then.'
'Yes, yes,' said Rosamond, anxious to see him off. 'Take care of the money, Bob, and the first time we go to see your grandmother I shall expect to hear from you that it's all right. Now, run off as fast as you can and I will too.'
He started at a good pace, and as Miss Mouse trotted in the opposite direction, from time to time she looked over her shoulder, till the ever-lessening black speck that she knew to be Bob had altogether melted into the gloom. Bob's eyes were keener than hers; as he ran, he too kept glancing backwards to watch the little figure of the child towards whom his wild but true heart was bursting with gratitude. He distinguished her for some distance, and when he lost sight of her it seemed to be rather suddenly, and for a moment or two, hurried though he was, he stood still with a slight misgiving.
'I saw her half a minute ago,' he thought. 'She must have set to running very fast. I hope nothing's wrong. She can't have fallen and hurt herself,' and at the mere idea he had to put force on himself not to rush back again to see. 'Oh no, it can't be that—why, if she'd hurt herself, she'd have called out and I'd have heard her. It's got so still—and oh, my, it's cold. I shouldn't wonder if it started snowing before morning.'
And off set Bob again, with a lighter heart than if he had yielded to his impulse and run back, setting his 'missus's' scolding at defiance, to see that no misadventure had happened to his generous little lady.
Alas! this was what had happened—in the gloom, fast turning into night, even out here on the open ground it was impossible to see clearly where one was going. It was even more dangerous in a sense than if it had been quite dark, for then Miss Mouse would have stepped more cautiously. But as all was open before her she ran fearlessly, forgetting that here and there across the white sandy path the low-growing little plants which mingled with the heather and bracken sent a trail across to the other side, in which nothing was easier than to catch one's foot. Once or twice she nearly did so, but no harm coming of it, she paid no attention to the momentary trip up, and ran on again fearlessly, even faster than before. So that when a worse catch came—a long, sturdy branch sprawling right across, which clutched at the dainty little foot, refusing to let it go—she fell, poor darling, with a good deal of violence, twisting her ankle as she did so in a way which hurt her terribly. At first she thought she had broken her leg, but the pain went off a little after she had lain still for a few minutes, and she began to take heart again and managed to get up. It was really not a bad sprain—scarcely a sprain at all—but she was tired and cold and a little frightened, for it was now so dark, and the fall had jarred her all over; her head felt giddy and confused.
What happened was not, I think, to be wondered at—poor Miss Mouse took a wrong path, and instead of keeping straight on in the line Bob had started her, she turned, without knowing it, almost directly sideways. For two of the little paths crossed each other, as ill-luck would have it, close to where she had fallen.
Her ankle was not so very painful; with care not to turn her foot in one particular way, she found she could hobble on pretty well. But, oh dear, how far off the road seemed! And Bob had told her she would reach it in a few minutes. And how cold it was—were those flakes of snow falling on her face? She wished now that she had called out very loudly when she fell— Bob might have heard her; but she had been afraid of getting him into great trouble at the farm if he had run back to her and made himself so late. Now she began to feel as if that wouldn't have mattered—Uncle Ted would have put it right somehow for him—nothing would matter much if she could but get to the road and know that home was straight before her. Perhaps some cart would come past and she would get the man to stop and take her in—for oh, she was so tired! She walked more and more slowly, and at last—
'I must sit down and rest for a minute,' she thought, 'even if it is cold, and p'raps if I can unfasten my boot, it wouldn't hurt so.' Yes—it was delicious to sit still, even for a minute, and—were those snow-flakes again, or leaves? No—it couldn't be leaves; there were no trees about here—how stupid of her to think—to think what? Of course it couldn't be leaves, or flakes—she was in bed. They—they couldn't get in through the window, could they? She must be dreaming—how silly she was—how——
* * * * *
'What is the matter? What do you say?' asked Mr. Hervey that evening about eight o'clock, when, with a startled face, the footman came into the drawing-room, where he and Mrs. Hervey and the three elder boys were sitting.
'It's a groom from Caryll Place, if you please, sir,' the man replied. 'They've sent over to say as Miss Rosamond, little Miss Caryll, can't be found, and do the young gentlemen know anything about it?'
All the Herveys started to their feet, with different exclamations of distress.
'Rosamond, little Rosamond,' cried Mrs. Hervey.
'Miss Mouse lost!' exclaimed the boys, while Mr. Hervey went to the door, and called to the Caryll Place groom, who was standing, anxious and uneasy, at the door which led to the offices.
'What's all this?' he inquired.
The man came forward and told all there was to tell. Miss Rosamond had been at Weadmere with Mrs. Caryll that afternoon, had driven home, had her tea as usual, etc. All that we know already. But when the time came for her to be dressed to go down to the dining-room, she was not to be found. They had searched the house through, thinking she might be playing some trick, though it wasn't like her to do so; then the grounds, making inquiries at the cottages about—all in vain; and now he had been sent off here with some hope—what, he did not know—that at Moor Edge he might hear something.
'Of course not,' Mr. Hervey replied impatiently, for he was very troubled and it made him cross, 'we should not have kept her here without sending word at once.'
He glanced at the boys—they were all three standing there, pale-faced and open-mouthed, Archie on the point of tears.
'Go back at once, and say we know nothing,' Mr. Hervey went on, 'but that I am following with Mr. Justin to help in the search.'
'Papa, papa, mayn't we come too?' Pat and Archie entreated, but their father shook his head, and in five minutes he and Jus were off in the dog-cart to Caryll.
Justin was very silent.
'Can you think of anywhere she can be?' asked his father, 'or any explanation? The child can't be stolen—what good would it do any one to steal her?'
Justin was in some ways a slow-witted boy.
'I can't think of anything, I'm sure,' he said. But a confused feeling was working at the back of his mind. Could it have anything to do with Bob and the ferrets? He knew that Bob was getting anxious as to paying the rest of the money, though he did not know how bad this anxiety had become—he knew, too, that he himself had been selfish and to some extent deceitful in the matter. But he could not see clearly how the two troubles could be mixed up, so he put the idea out of his mind, not sorry to do so—that was Justin's way.
'No, I can't think of anything,' he repeated.
It had been snowing lightly, and now again a few flakes began to fall.
'Do you think it's coming on to snow, papa?' he inquired, partly to change the subject, partly because it came into his mind—for he was not a heartless boy—that if Miss Mouse was lost anywhere out of doors a snowstorm would certainly not mend matters.
Mr. Hervey looked up with some anxiety.
'No,' he said, 'I think not, and I certainly hope not if that poor child is by any chance out of doors.'
They were soon at Caryll Place. Here all was miserable anxiety, for so far no traces of the poor little girl were to be found, though there were men out in all directions. Mr. Caryll had been out some distance himself, but had just come back for a moment to see Aunt Mattie before driving off to Weadmere to speak to the police. Aunt Mattie, choking down her tears, repeated to Justin's father all there was to tell—how Miss Mouse must have gone out of her own accord, as her warm cloak and cap were missing, and how she had evidently not wanted any one to know, adding, 'The only thing at all unusual to-day was our meeting Bob Crag in the town, and Rosamond may have been talking to him while I was in the shop. Can he have anything to do with it? Justin, you know him well?'
She looked keenly at Justin, and she fancied he grew red. He hesitated before answering.
'I— I don't see how, auntie,' he said at last. Then he went on more courageously. 'Bob is quite a good boy—he really is, though people speak against him. I'm sure he never would have tried to get money from—from Miss Mouse, in any naughty way, or anything like that,' and, in spite of himself, his voice faltered as he uttered the pet name of their little friend.
His father turned upon him sharply.
'Get money from her,' he repeated. 'What do you mean? What put such a thing in your head?'
'I— I don't——' Justin was beginning, when Uncle Ted interrupted.
'I think we are wasting time,' he said; 'the whys and wherefores can be gone into afterwards—the thing to do first is to find our poor darling. If there is the least chance of the Crags knowing anything about her some one had better go there at once. Mattie, I wonder you did not mention the boy, Bob, having spoken to her this afternoon, before?'
'It only now came into my mind,' she replied gently. She was too unhappy to feel hurt at Uncle Ted's tone; she knew he was so terribly unhappy himself. Justin felt himself growing more and more miserable.
'Uncle Ted,' he exclaimed, 'may I go to the Crags? I can run very quickly, and——.' But his uncle and father had already left the hall, where they had all been standing, and had gone off again, probably to give fresh orders in the stables. Only Aunt Mattie was still there, and she had sat down on a chair by the large fire and was shading her eyes with her hand. She was feeling dreadfully tired and more and more wretched.
'If the darling has been out in the cold all this time,' she was saying to herself, 'it is enough to kill her, even if no accident has happened to her,' and all sorts of miserable thoughts came into her mind—of the letters that might have to be written to Rosamond's father and mother, telling—oh, it was too dreadful to think of what might not have to be told! She sat there motionless, except that now and then she shivered, though not with cold. Justin saw that she was not thinking of or noticing him at all, and he suddenly made up his mind to wait no longer. He crossed the hall softly, and in another moment was out in the dark drive in front of the house, unseen by any one. But once there, he turned quickly, and ran, at the top of his speed, his eyes, as he went, growing accustomed to the gloom, in the direction of the bit of lane leading towards the moor, which Miss Mouse had traversed a few hours earlier. Thence—as Justin knew well, even by the little light there was—he could, by careful noticing of some landmarks, make his way to the 'real' moor, as the boys called it, for the more or less grassy part nearer Caryll Place they did not think worthy of the name, and reach the Crags' cottage more quickly than it could be got to by the road.
He ran, steadily and not too fast, for he had a good deal of common sense and did not want to exhaust his 'wind' before he had reached his goal. And well it was that he kept his pace moderate and was able to look about him as he ran, for it was lighter out here and he had good eyes. What was that? A dark thick clump of—of what? No, there was something different about this object, and, eager as he was to get to his destination, the boy slackened his pace, hesitated, then dashed off, at full speed this time, in the direction of the something that had caught his sight.
Some snow had fallen, and now again flakes began to show themselves on his jacket. There were white dashes, too, on the strange, motionless shape he was making for. Was it setting in for a snowstorm? the boy asked himself with a curious anxiety, for there are times at which our thoughts seem to run before our reason. If so—and if—no, he would not think of such dreadful things; he would first—he was running now too fast to think—and—a minute more and he was stooping over the silent, dead-still figure of the faithful little girl. For it was Miss Mouse, her face as white as the snow, which, had it fallen already, as it was now beginning to do, would have covered her more completely than the robins covered the long-ago baby pair in the old forest; would have hidden her till it was indeed too late.
'Thank God,' whispered Justin, as he thought this; and perhaps it was the very first time he had felt what these two words mean. But then terror seized him again, was it already too late?
He rubbed her little hands, he called her by name, his hot boy's tears fell on her cold white face. He did not yet understand how it had all come about, but something seemed to tell him that his selfish thoughtlessness had to do with it. But there was no answer, no movement.
'She will die,' he thought, 'if she is not dead. I must carry her.'
He lifted her, though with difficulty, and glanced about him. Oh, joy! they were nearer Bob's cottage than he had thought; he stood still and whistled, the peculiar 'call' his brothers and he used for each other, and that Bob, too, knew. Then he moved on again, though but slowly—now and then it seemed scarcely more than a totter, his legs trembled so, and Rosamond was so strangely heavy. But it was not for long in reality, though it seemed to him hours, before help reached him. A figure came rushing across the moor, and a voice called out loudly,
'Who is it? What is the matter? It's not—oh, Master Justin, is it you? And—no, no, don't say it's the little lady— I've killed her, I've killed her. It's all my fault.'
* * * * *
It was in kind old Nance's cottage that the little girl came back to consciousness. Bob's grandmother was clever and skilful, and, though sadly alarmed at first, soon saw that the two boys' very natural terror was greater than need be. The child was in a sort of stupor from cold and fright and pain too, for her ankle had swelled badly by this time, from the pressure of her boot. But careful management brought her round, and she was soon able to look about her and to drink the wonderful herb tea of some kind which Nance prepared. And then she sat up and explained what she could of how the misadventure had come to pass, helped by Bob, whom she glanced at doubtfully, till he said out manfully,
'Tell it all, miss, tell it all. It's me that's to blame, only me.'
But no, it was not only at poor Bob's door that lay the blame, and so Justin well knew, and so Justin had the honesty to confess when the anxiety and distress were to some extent past, though for a few days great care had to be taken of little Rosamond.
It would be difficult to describe the joy with which Uncle Ted carried her off to the carriage waiting at the nearest point on the road, wrapped up in his strong arms so that she couldn't get chilled again, or Aunt Mattie and the Herveys' delight at the happy news of the little lost one being found. These things are more difficult to tell than to picture to oneself.
So, too, it would be difficult to relate the change in Justin which those who cared for him always dated from the night on which Miss Mouse was lost—the night of which, had worse come of it to the kind little girl, he would never have been able to think without misery beyond words.
The ferrets were paid for, of course, though not with Rosamond's money, which was now happily spent on her Christmas presents. But though paid for, Justin's pets were soon sold again, and replaced by some more lovable and attractive creatures, whom his mother and Miss Mouse and everybody could take pleasure in too. I rather think the new treasures were some particularly pretty guinea-pigs—curly-haired ones; though to be quite sure of this I should have to apply to some boys and girls of my acquaintance whose grandfather has often told them the long-ago story of Miss Mouse and the good that came of her gentle influence on him and his brothers when they were all children together.
And dear Miss Mouse herself—what of her? Where is she now? It is so many years ago, is she still alive?
Yes. I have nothing sad with which to end my little story. She is now, what most of you, I daresay, would consider a very old lady, for her hair is quite white, though her pretty gray eyes are as clear as ever. Not that they have not known tears, those kind eyes, many tears, I daresay, for the sorrows of others more than for her own, perhaps. Life would not be what it has to be, what God means it to be, without tears as well as smiles.
And Bob Crag. You will not be surprised to hear that Uncle Ted took him thoroughly in hand, and that the wild but affectionate boy grew up to be a good and useful man.
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