The prospect of Mrs Rollo's reception was so dazzling as to throw all other experiences into the shade; but the two intervening days were full of excitement, for Peggy was delighted to play "country cousin" for her friend's benefit, and the two girls drove about from one place of interest to another, from early morning until late at night. Westminster Abbey had, of course, special claims on the affections, and evoked that thrill of mingled awe and patriotism which all true-born Britons must feel on entering that glorious edifice. When the voices of the choristers rang out in the psalms for the morning, Mellicent shed tears on her Prayer-book, and felt icy-cold all the way down her spine, and Peggy's eyes flashed fire, and the rare colour burned in her cheeks.
When the service was over the two girls wandered about together gazing at the monuments, reading the inscriptions which recalled noble deeds, and exchanging ardent confidences the while.
"I should like to come here every day," said Mellicent softly, "every single day. I should like to be a verger, and spend my life in an abbey. I think I could be awfully good if I lived here always. It makes one feel so small and insignificant, that one wouldn't dare to be selfish, and think one's own happiness so important. I can't believe that it was ever built by men—ordinary common working men. It seems like a mountain—a great, wonderful thing that God must have made Himself, and given to His people."
Peggy looked at her with bright, astonished eyes.
"You dear thing, what a sweet idea! I feel the same about it; but perhaps, after all, it was better that men should have made it. It must have done them good. One cannot imagine that a workman in such a task could remain 'common.' I have read charming stories about men who have devoted their whole lives to little pieces of carving or ironwork, to be placed in insignificant corners of old Continental cathedrals. It did not trouble them that their work would not be seen; they were so impressed with the spirit of the place that they simply could not endure to do less than their very, very best, and were willing to remain poor all their lives in order to be able to do it. That's fine! That's grand! None of your miserable scamping spirit there. The place made the men, as well as the men the place."
"Yes, yes, that's just what I feel. I'd like to do something for it too, if it were only the dusting," sighed Mellicent, passing her finger along a ledge of wood, and pensively regarding the ridge of dust on her light kid gloves. "I assure you, Peggy, the shivers were running down my back the whole time of that service like a cold-water tap. I was freezing!"
"And I was tingling. Oh, to do something big enough—great enough—to be brought here when I die, and be laid among these fine old heroes! Isn't it maddening sometimes to be a woman, and feel penned in, in a wretched little body?" Peggy stood still and faced her companion with kindling eyes. "At this moment, my dear, the spirit of Hercules is within me—I feel as if I could lift mountains, and look at that." She held out her hand, staring with intense disfavour at the fragile little wrist. "That's my weapon! If I tried to lift that bench, I should sprain my wrist. If I work my brain for several hours on end, I have a sick headache I'm a lion in a cage, dear; a little, miserable, five-foot cage, and it's no use beating at the bars, for I'll never get out;" and Peggy stared miserably at the statue of the "third great Canning" which stood opposite, and sighed her heart out, to think how impossible it seemed that the name of Mariquita Saville would ever be emblazoned by his side.
From the Abbey the sightseers drove to the Academy, where they spent a couple of hours in making their way through the crowded rooms. Mrs Saville and her daughter were unaffectedly interested in the pictures, but Mellicent declared the study of them such a "neck-achey" process that she soon abandoned the effort, and contented herself with criticising the people instead. After living all one's life in provincial parishes where every inhabitant recognised and saluted the vicar's daughter, it was a little bewildering to find oneself surrounded by hundreds of absolutely strange faces; a trifle depressing too, to one-and-twenty, to realise afresh her own countrified appearance, as slim-waisted elegantes floated past in a succession of spring toilettes, each one more fascinating than the last. Mellicent sat down on one of the centre couches and gave herself up to despair.
"My sleeves aren't right, and my neck isn't right, and my back isn't right! My skirt sticks out where it should be flat, and is flat where it ought to stick out. My hat looks like the ark, and my gloves are too big. I ought to be superior like Esther, and not care a bit, but I do. I care frightfully. I feel a worm, and as it I'd like to crawl away and hide myself out of sight,"—and Mellicent's fair face clouded over with an expression of such hopeless melancholy, that Peggy, catching sight of it, came forward instantly to discover the reason.
"Tired?" she cried cheerily. "Never mind, we won't be long now, and then we'll drive home, and you shall be tucked up in bed, and have a comfy rest. Sight-seeing is tiring... Which do you like best?"
"The blue, I think, with the lace edgings. The body is so sweet, with all the tiny, lovely little tucks, and the colour would suit my hair," said Mellicent plaintively, all unconscious of the open-eyed wonder with which she was regarded.
"What has your hair to do with it, and how could a body be covered with tucks? You are sleepy, dear, and didn't hear what I said. I asked what picture you liked best."
"Oh-h, picture! I thought you meant dresses. I was thinking about the dresses—"
"Mellicent Asplin, I'm shocked at you! You remind me of the visitor to Paris who was asked how she liked the Louvre, and replied that the Bon Marche was cheaper for ribbons. To think that you could sit opposite some of the finest pictures of the year, and find more enjoyment in looking at frocks."
"I haven't enjoyed it at all. I've disenjoyed it horribly. You wouldn't like it yourself, if you saw seven hundred and fifty girls, and each one looked seven hundred times nicer than you did yourself. I detest them all, but I hate the blue one worst! Didn't you see her, Peggy—pale, pale blue, with white lace and—"
"Poor old Mill. Come along, dear, we'll go back to the hotel, and not worry about them any more. You shall come straight to my room, and I'll give you a tonic that will do you good."
"I hate tonics. They taste like rusty spoons. I'm quite well, and don't want it."
"We'll see about that. It's a new brand, warranted to be especially efficacious in the case of young females. It isn't in the least like a rusty spoon, and exercises an exhilarating effect on the spirits. You wait and see."
Peggy looked at her friend, and her eyes twinkled. It was evident that some mystery was in the air, and that the word 'tonic' was used in a figurative rather than a literal sense. Mellicent pondered, hit on the solution of chocolates, and being an inveterate sweet-tooth, found consolation in the prospect. Perhaps Peggy was going to present her with some of the treasures she had brought home from Cannes, in which case there would not only be the enjoyment of the bonbons themselves, but the case would remain as a permanent joy and pride. So fascinating did the idea appear that it was quite a shook to see a long narrow roll emerge from the wardrobe when the crucial hour arrived.
"Here is your tonic," said Peggy. "It has come all the way from India, and was ordered for you a whole year back. I didn't tell you what your present was the other night, for I wanted you to have the fun of opening it yourself. I do like opening my own parcels, don't you, and not knowing what I'm going to see!"
"Oh, I do! I love it!" agreed Mellicent rapturously, taking the roll in her arms, and prodding at it with the end of her fingers. "Peggy, how sweet of you! I know I shall like it... It's very hard, and so narrow... I can't imagine what it can be. Ordered a year ago—that sounds as if it had to be made. Is it—er—ornamental or useful?"
"Oh, useful! very, very useful!" cried Peggy, and chuckled with enjoyment at Mellicent's gallant attempt to hide disappointment beneath a pretence of satisfaction.
"Oh yes, how nice! Useful things are much more—useful, aren't they? I believe it's an umbrella, and yet it's rather thick for that. I can't imagine what it can be."
"Cut the string and look! That's the best way out of the difficulty," suggested Peggy; and Mellicent followed her advice, and slowly unrolled the parcel on the bed. Silver paper came first, rolls of silver paper, and a breath of that delicious aromatic perfume which seems an integral part of all Eastern produce, last of all a cardboard cylinder, with something soft and white and gauzy wrapped around it. Mellicent screamed aloud, and jumped about in the middle of the floor.
"It is! It is!" she cried rhapsodically. "It's a dress like yours— like the one that was burned in the fire, and that I loved so much. But prettier. Oh, Peggy, it's prettier! There are more of the lovely white silk flowers, and the muslin is softer and finer. You wicked, wicked girl, how dare you say it was useful!"
"Because it was true. You can let Carter make it up, and wear it over your white silk at the Rollos' on Thursday, and if that isn't useful, what is, I should like to know? I wish you could have seen your face when I said it was useful. It grew about a yard long."
"I knew it did, though I tried so hard to smile and look pleased. You see, Peg, I have nothing but useful things at home, for we can't afford anything else, and I do so dearly love a taste of luxury now and then. I simply hate useful presents, and when we get any sent to us they invariably are of that order, for people say to themselves, 'Poor things, they are not at all well off, better send them something that will be of use.' And I do assure you, my dear girl, that the Christmas before last I got four dozen handkerchiefs, and five separate pairs of gloves. Gloves I don't mind, for they are nicely useful; but I nearly spread out all the forty-eight handkerchiefs on the bed, and wept over them with sheer rage that they weren't something else... Oh, you ducky, darling dress! Sha'n't I look nice! Peggy Peggy, I do love you for thinking of it, and giving me such a pleasure. You can't think how I shall enjoy being really well-dressed for once in my life."
"I'm so pleased you are pleased. It's ever so much nicer to give than to receive. When my three French dresses came home, I was in a bad temper for the rest of the day, because the collars were too high and stuck into my chin, and the dressmaker had not carried out all my instructions; but I'm enjoying this as much as you are, and shall feel a reflected glory in your appearance on Thursday. I'm so glad Arthur will be there, for it will be a comfort to see one familiar face among the throng. I wish—"
"Nothing. It's lovely to be back again; but sometimes one feels a little lonely when people are all talking together, and going off into little groups. In Calcutta it was different, for we knew every one, and every one knew us. Is one always disappointed, I wonder, when a thing happens which one had longed for, for years and years? I don't know what I want, but I want something!" cried Peggy drearily, and pressed her hands to her brow, while her friend looked on with sympathetic gaze.
"It's tea!" she declared oracularly. "It is five o'clock, and you know, Peggy, you always did get melancholy if tea was later than usual. Let us go downstairs and order it at once."
Peggy slid her hand in her friend's arm with a soft explosion of laughter.
"So we will," she said cheerily. "It's a capital explanation. Tea! Oh, you sensible old Chubby!"
Two evenings later Peggy edged her way out of the crowd at Mrs Rollo's reception, and sat down in a corner with a gasp of relief. Eunice had been correct in prophesying a crush, for the suite of entertaining-rooms seemed a solid block of people, and the babel of voices almost drowned the music, which was being discoursed at intervals by a violinist with a shock head, a Signor with an Italian name and an English face, and a lady with an elaborate coiffure, who, in turn, warbled by herself, and joined in the rendering of impassioned Italian duets. The accompanist flourished up and down the piano, and the singers held their music at arm's length, half-acting the words as they alternately frowned and smiled, and having gone their separate ways throughout three whole pages, joined together in a conclusive burst of triumph. The babel of talk went on with even greater energy when the last note had died away, and Peggy pursed up her lips in doubtful compliment.
"That's over, thank goodness! I don't know what it was all about, but she said, 'Si,' 'Si,' a great many times over, and they seemed happy at the end, so that's satisfactory. It must be very exhausting to smile so hard, and sing so loudly at the same time, so I hope other people appreciated their efforts more than I did." Peggy sighed, and stifled a yawn. She was feeling just a trifle tired and depressed in spirits, for the day had been a busy one, and the process of dressing for the evening had been delayed by one of those careless tricks for which she was famous. Some trifling alteration having to be made to the belt of her sash, she had taken it in hand herself, and put it—where? That was the question. Nowhere in any of the three bedrooms could that belt be found, and while the brougham waited at the door, and an impatient male tramped up and down, four distracted females rushed to and fro, opening drawers, ransacking wardrobes, and burrowing beneath beds. Mrs Saville grew nervous and hysterical; her husband tugged at his moustache, and vowed his intention of sending away the brougham and spending the evening at home if this sort of "foolishness" went on much longer; and Mellicent was on the point of tears, when at last the missing treasure was discovered, squashed flat beneath a cushion, in company with a magazine, a handkerchief, an odd glove, and several stray needles.
Colonel Saville looked very fierce during the drive which followed. His light eyes sent out little sparks of fire, and the waxed ends of his moustache bristled with anger, while Peggy sat opposite him in a little heap in the corner of the carriage, with her eyebrows peaked into the old eave-like shape, and the corners of her lips drooping pensively downward. The meek little, "Yes, father!" "No, father!" which replied to his strictures, would have melted a heart of stone, and Mellicent was relieved to see the colonel's frown gradually giving place to the usual good-natured twinkle.
"But you must be more careful, child," he said, "or you and I will quarrel I can't stand disorderly ways. You ought to have a place for everything."
"I have, father, but it's generally in the other place!" sighed Peggy plaintively, whereat her father laughed, despite himself, and peace was restored. He was very tender to his little daughter during the hour which followed, as he invariably was after anything had occurred to cause a cloud between them; but though Peggy found no familiar faces in the throng, her parents were fortunate enough to discover several old- time friends, so it came to pass that she now found herself alone for the moment, and thankfully seized the opportunity of a rest.
Ten minutes earlier one of the younger men to whom she had been introduced had asked to be allowed to pilot her to the refreshment-room, but she had insisted on sending Mellicent in her stead, and now had the pleasure of beholding that young lady standing in a distant corner, enjoying an animated conversation, and looking so fresh and bonnie among the anaemic town-bred girls, that more than one admiring glance was cast in her direction. Peggy's little face softened into a very sweet expression of tenderness as she watched her friend, and hugged the thought that she had had some part in giving her the pleasure which she was now enjoying. In the pretty white dress, with her hair arranged by Carter's skilful hands, Mellicent had no cause to be dissatisfied, even in the midst of this fashionable throng, and the natural girlish pleasure in looking her best added zest to the evening's enjoyment. Peggy reflected once more that it was more blessed to give than to receive, and sitting perched on the ottoman with her little satin shoes braced against the floor which they barely touched, enjoyed a reflected pleasure in Mellicent's conversation, blissfully unconscious of the fact that every expression which flittered over her friend's face was faithfully reflected on her own. The worst of being born a mimic is that on occasions one acts a part without being in the least conscious of so doing, and so while Miss Peggy fondly imagined herself to be wearing an expression of dignified repose, in reality her features were never still for the fraction of a second. Mellicent smiled—she smiled also; Mellicent shook her head—she did the same, until all the little sprays of the white aigrette shook and quivered again; Mellicent appeared to question her companion—Peggy's eyebrows peaked themselves in an inquiring arch; Mellicent cast down her eyes and modestly studied the carpet—prunes and prisms were reflected on Peggy's face in an attack of the most virulent description. So it went on for five minutes on end, the little play being hidden from the surrounding gaze by a bank of palms, through the boughs of which the unconscious actress studied her part; but at the end of five minutes something happened which completely altered the current of Peggy's thoughts. Mellicent's partner called attention to something at the opposite end of the room, and the girl turning to look at it, her understudy naturally followed her example, and straight-way forgot Mellicent and her doings for the rest of the evening.
Some one was leaning up against the doorway, studying her in his turn, and at sight of him Peggy's heart gave a wild dance of agitation. The crowds of gaily dressed visitors whizzed round and round like pieces of glass in the old-fashioned kaleidoscope through which she used to gaze in the vicarage drawing-room; the branches of the palms swayed about in extraordinary fashion, and the face staring into her own grew dim and indistinct. But it was the same face. Oh yes! No one else could possibly possess those deep-set eyes, those rugged features, that heavy lock of hair across the brow. In spite of all reasons to the contrary, it was Rob himself, and the next moment his well-known voice sounded in her ear.
"Mariquita! Little Peggy! Is this really you?"
"Oh, Rob!" cried Peggy faintly, and could find no other word. He had taken the seat beside her, and each gazed into the other's face with eager eyes, noting the changes which the years had brought to the familiar features. Rob's skin was burnt brown by the burning sun of the lands through which he had travelled, his forehead showed deeply graven lines, and his cheeks had lost their boyish curve, but the atmosphere of strength and health and honest manliness remained, and exercised the old magnetic influence over his companion. It was like a breath of mountain air coming into the heated room, to see Rob's face, and hear his hearty voice. Peggy drew a deep sigh of contentment, and smiled a happy greeting.
"It is just as you said it would be, Rob, our meeting like this! How long had you been standing there? Did you recognise me at once? Why are you here at all? I thought you were in the country, and that you hated going out, and would never accept an invitation if you could help it!"
"Circumstances alter cases! I was at the vicarage the other day when Mellicent's letter arrived, saying you were to be here to-night, and a sudden temptation seized me to have a look at you, and see what manner of young lady the years had made of Peggy-Pickle. I came up this afternoon, astonished Rosalind by offering to accompany her, and wandered about the room staring curiously at every girl I met. I saw several in pink dresses that might possibly have been you, but if they had, I should have marched straight home without troubling for an introduction. Then I skirmished round to this door, and saw a little head bobbing about in a way that seemed familiar, and—"
"And please," inquired Peggy meekly, "how do you like me, now you have found me? Am I at all what you expected?"
She lifted her face to his in the old mischievous fashion, and Rob studied it with a thoughtful gaze. If she hoped to receive a compliment in reply to her question, she was disappointed. It was not Rob's way to pay compliments, and there was, if anything, a tinge of sadness in the tone in which he said:
"You have changed! It's inevitable, I suppose, but I have always thought of you as I saw you last, and don't seem to recognise the new edition. You have grown-up, but you've grown-up very small! There seems less of you than ever. Was the climate too much for you out there? I should have liked to have seen you looking stronger, Peg!"
"Oh, I'm a wiry little person!" said Peggy lightly. "You needn't be anxious about me;" but she coughed as she spoke, and lay back against the cushions, for really it was rather nice to have Rob anxious about her, and to see the troubled tenderness in his eyes! She fluttered her fan to and fro in a feeble, exhausted fashion, while Rob continued to stare and to frown.
"You look too much like the rest of 'em. That's what I complain of!" he said discontentedly, eyeing the details of her dress, and pointing with a long brown finger to the bracelets on her wrist. "All these fixings- up! Have you grown into a fashionable young lady, by any chance, Mariquita? Are you going to join the social treadmill, and spend your time in a rush after gaiety and enjoyment? or are you the same little girl I used to know, who had an ideal of her own, and wanted to do something grand and noble with her life? Which of the two is it? I can't decide!"
"Oh, Rob!" cried Peggy piteously, and clapped her hands together. "Oh, Rob, it's both! I do want to be good more than anything else in the world. That wish is always there, at the very bottom of my heart, and at any moment, if I were called upon to choose, I would give up anything—anything! to do what was right. But I want to enjoy myself too, and to have some fun, and go about to everything that is going on, and wear pretty clothes, and be—be admired, and praised, and flattered! There! I couldn't say so to any one else, but I always did confide in you, Rob; and you won't be shocked. I seem to have two separate sides, and the worst side is often the strongest. Do you think it is very wrong of me, Rob? I'm so young, you see, so young, and so fond of amusement!"
"Poor little Peg!" said Rob tenderly. "Poor little Peg! You were always an honest little soul, and owned up about your failings. Well, there it is, and you must fight it out for yourself. No one can help you in a case like this, and you'll come out all right in the end, so long as you keep a true heart. I suppose it's only natural that you should want your fling. Most girls do, and find a mysterious pleasure in gadding about, and dressing themselves up like dolls." He scanned her once again with amused, half-angry admiration. "You are mighty smart, Miss Mariquita—a very fine bird! It must have taken a long time to put on all those feathers. Are those what you call your feet? Have you been going in for the binding system in India, may I ask?"
"What is the matter with my feet?" queried Peggy, in a tone of injury, as she stretched out two satin slippers, which seemed suddenly to become of Liliputian dimensions when contrasted with Rob's huge square-toed shoes. "They are very useful little feet, and can carry me about just as well as your great ironclads can carry you. You used to say yourself that I walked uncommonly well for a girl."
"I did, and I'm glad to find you have not outgrown the accomplishment. Do you remember the red Tam o' Shanter, Peggy? I found it on its peg when I went to the vicarage after you had left, and walked off with it in my pocket. There was a hue and cry when its loss was discovered, for it had been kept as a sort of fetish, but I refused to restore it. I'll give it back to you, though, if you will promise to wear it in the country when I can see you!"
"I will, with pleasure, every single day when it's not too hot. Dear old Tam! It will remind me of our old times together, when we were so happy, and thought ourselves so miserable, because lessons were hard, or our plans went wrong, or we couldn't agree. But you and I never quarrelled, Rob, we were always friends, and—"
"Partners!" said Rob softly; and Peggy stared fixedly across the room, and once again the floor described that curious upward tilt, and a kaleidoscope whirl of colour flew past.
Ten minutes later Peggy emerged from behind the cluster of palm-trees, and laid her hand on Rob's arm to accompany him to the refreshment-room below.
"You still retain your old weakness for ices, then?" he had asked her, and the "I—do—so!" which came in reply was so emphatic that it evoked a hearty laugh of approval. A group of people standing near at hand turned round to stare with amused curiosity at the tall man and his little partner who were on such good terms with each other, and one or two of the men, recognising Rob, bowed to him with an air of surprise. Then they passed into a second room, and Peggy was instantly aware that something unusual was in the air, for every one seemed flocking together in one corner and listening in charmed silence to the sound of one flute-like voice. Peggy had hardly time to catch the sound of a familiar lisp before there came a quick exclamation of surprise, and a radiant vision, all pink and white and glitter of diamonds, glided forward to meet her.
"It's Mawiquita! It is! Her own little self! A hundwed welcomes, Peggy! I've just returned to town, and was coming to see you to-morrow, the vewy first thing. Lady Norton—evewybody—please excuse me for running away, but Miss Saville is my vewy deawest fwiend, and I have not seen her for four whole years, so I really must take possession of her at once." Rosalind flashed a glance round the group of deserted admirers, and swept along by Peggy's side, smiling down from her superior altitude, and indulging in a string of demonstrative welcomes, at which Rob scowled with heavy eyebrows. As for Peggy, she could only stare, and gasp, and stare again, and blink her eyes, to discover if this vision were a veritable piece of flesh and blood, or some beautiful princess out of a fairy-tale, who would suddenly vanish from her sight. It was one thing to be told that Rosalind was a celebrated beauty, and to summon up her features in cold mental survey; it was another and more impressive experience to see the exquisite colouring of the lovely face, and meet the beguiling glance of the deep blue eyes. Peggy's heart went out towards the beautiful creature, and she felt a thrill of complacent pride in the knowledge that Rosalind had left her other friends on purpose to enjoy her own society. They sat down in a corner of the refreshment-room and smiled at one another shyly, while Rob went in search of ices, for though there was much to say, it was not easy to know where to begin, and after four years' separation there is a certain constraint between even the oldest of friends.
"So this is why Rob turned up to-night. I might have guessed as much!" cried Rosalind, laughing. "But really, Peggy, I have been so accustomed to thinking of you in India that I never gwasped the idea that you might be here, till I looked up and saw you walking acwoss the woom with your head in the air, and the old Mawiquita stwide. I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. You must come and stay with me, dear, and I'll tell you all my news, and we can go about together. When can you come? We shall be in town for some weeks yet, so any time that suits you will do for me."
"I'm afraid I can't make any promises at present, Rosalind, for we are house-hunting, and when we find what we want we shall be busy getting all in order. The only visit I mean to pay this summer is to Mrs Asplin at the vicarage, and I am going there with Mellicent in ten days' time. Mellicent is here to-night; she is staying with us at the hotel."
"You don't mean it! Mellicent Asplin here! How extwaordinary it seems!" Rosalind gave a chilly little laugh, and tilted her chin in the air. "You are vewy couwageous, Mawiquita. I should never have dared such an experiment. The Asplins are charming in the country, but they seem out of place in town. And your first season too! What possessed you to saddle yourself with such a hopeless burden as poor fat Mellicent?"
"Poor fat Mellicent is not hopeless at all; she is so much appreciated to-night that I've not had a chance of a word with her for the last hour. She is not fat, and looks far too bonnie to deserve any pity; besides, I wanted to see her badly, and didn't care a bit about her appearance. I love the Asplins, and would do anything I could to give them pleasure. They were unspeakably good to Arthur and to me. I don't know what we should have done without them all the time we were alone."
Rosalind's face sobered suddenly, and she gave a struggling sigh.
"You are just the same as ever, I can see, Mawiquita," she said slowly, "not changed a bit. I'm so glad you have come home, for I want to speak to you about—oh, lots of things! You don't know how often I have thought of you, and said to myself, 'I'll ask Peggy! I'll see what Peggy says!' I've never had a girl fwiend that I cared for so much as you, and I knew you would say just what you thought, however disagweeable it might be. I think it's vewy bwave to say disagweeable things, because even if people take your advice, they are always cwoss with you for giving it. I like people to like me, so I find out what they want to do, and tell them it is the vewy wisest plan, and they go away more pleased with me than ever; but I knew you wouldn't do that, unless you were vewy much changed. I wanted you to be the same, Peggy, and I heard some things about you lately which set my mind at rest on that point. You still use big words, I hear, and are vewy, vewy dignified when any one ventures to contwadict you, but not too dignified to pass your neighbour salt instead of sugar, or to pretend to arrange a fwiend's sash, and then tie it in such a way that the poor thing dwagged her chair with her when she twied to rise. Not too dignified to play your old twicks still, Peggy Saville."
"Who has been telling tales about me?" cried Peggy wrathfully. "A little bird, indeed! A great big bird, you mean. A big enough bird to have kept his own counsel. It's a poor thing, if one can't have a little innocent fun in mid-ocean without having it brought up in judgment against one in a London drawing-room. I'm disgusted with Hector! He might have kept silence out of gratitude, at least. I never took any liberties with him."
"Perhaps he would have liked it better if you had," said Rosalind slyly, and her eyes looked into Peggy's with a meaning glance. "It's a good thing I am so fond of you, my dear, or I should have gwown pwetty tired of your name during the last few weeks. It was extraordinary how every conversation with Hector worked wound to Peggy Saville. We could not even ask him to take a second cup of tea without being told how many cups Peggy Saville drank, and what were her views about cweam and sugar. I used to time him by my watch, and see how long it would be before he managed to intwoduce the subject, and seven and a half minutes was the wecord. The average was five."
"Very gratifying, I'm sure! Pleased to hear he has such good taste," laughed Peggy, trying to carry off her embarrassment by carelessness of manner. She was by no means deaf to Rosalind's insinuation, and the knowledge that haughty Hector had been so favourably impressed by her fascinations could not fail to be agreeable to a girlish heart. Hector prided himself on being the most supercilious of men, and it was a triumph to have roused him out of his usual indifference. The love of power was as strong as ever within Peggy's heart, and, it pleased her to feel that she could influence this experienced man of the world. There are many ways in which temptation comes to a young girl, and perhaps none more subtle than this, for in the beginning it seems so innocent, yet it leads so often to disastrous results. Peggy would have been horrified if she had been accused of an intention to flirt with Hector Darcy, and, to do her justice, she was entirely innocent of such a wish, but she did distinctly hug the thought that it was "fun" to manage him, and determined in her heart not to throw away the power which she had gained.
At that moment Rob came back with the ices which he had managed to steer safely across the room, and Peggy casting about in her mind for a change of subject, was not at all grateful to Rosalind for repeating her last remarks for her brother's benefit.
"I am just telling Mawiquita how incessantly Hector has talked about her since his weturn. It seems strange that they should know each other so well. Nearly two months you were together, weren't you, Peggy? Two months is a long time, especially when you are travelling. It is as good as two years at home. I dare say you feel as if you knew Hector much better than you do Rob, for it is really six years now since you two saw much of each other."
Rosalind spoke with a guileless sweetness of manner, and nothing could have been more innocent than the expression of her eyes; nevertheless Peggy suspected that a deliberate intention to annoy lurked behind the amicable manner, for it was evident that there was no more sympathy than of old between the brother and sister. She flushed indignantly, and was about to make a heated reply, when two tall figures appeared in the doorway, and waved an eager greeting. The older of the two was none other than Hector Darcy himself—(Tiresome creature! to put in an appearance at such an inopportune moment!)—and Arthur was his companion, looking well, what Arthur always did look in his sister's eyes—the handsomest and most distinguished man in the room. Peggy had seen him earlier in the evening, but through all the embarrassment of meeting Hector with his sister's words still ringing in her ears, she was acutely conscious of every detail of his meeting with Rosalind; her little rustling movement of agitation, the flash in his eyes, above all, the eloquent silence with which hand met hand. Alas, poor Arthur! no need to wonder any longer if he cared, with that look on his face, that tell-tale light in his eye! After the first quick glance his sister averted her eyes, as from something sacred, and poured out a flood of rapid, inconsequent talk to the new-comer. Hector was unaffectedly delighted at the meeting, and became unusually lively, as he retailed items of information about different passengers on board the steamer, whom he had met since his return to England, while Peggy in her turn had her own little histories to add to the store.
"You remember the old lady in the alpaca dress who called me a 'restful influence'? It appears she is the head of the millinery department in one of the Calcutta shops, and was on her way to Paris to study fashions. We ran across her in a restaurant there, and she told us all about it, and offered to get my hats at wholesale prices. I thanked her kindly, but taking note of the fact that she was wearing a purple toque with trimmings of crimson and green, politely but firmly refused."
"I should think so, indeed! Terrible old person! How you ever endured her as you did, I cannot understand. Remember young Chamberlain? Handsome fellow with big nose and square shoulders. I met him the other day in Piccadilly with a brand-new wife. Married the week he came back, after seven years' engagement. Introduced me to his wife with as much side as if no one had ever been married before!"
"How sweet of him! He was a really nice man. He always went into the services on Sunday, and joined ira the hymns, instead of lolling about at the other end of the deck, like many of the men. He had some friends travelling second-class, too, and wasn't a bit ashamed of it, but used to go and see them regularly. I hope he will be very, very happy. Was she pretty?"
"Not an atom! Might have been once on a time, perhaps, in the prehistoric ages, but she is too pale and faded nowadays. By no means in her first bloom, I assure you."
"Well, she has lost it in waiting for him, so he would be a mean wretch if he liked her any the worse. Such a joke! You remember that fat old man with the crimson face who was so furious with little Miss Muir when she spoke against Gladstone? He jumped up and down like a Jack in the Box, and said he was 'surprised, madam, that any one of your intelligence, madam, should be so blinded by prejudice, madam—' You remember how we looked on from afar, and christened him 'A Study in Scarlet'? Well, two days ago, mother had a letter from Miss Muir herself, and they are going to be married in August! It seems he never rested until he converted her to his own views, and then he was so pleased with her for agreeing with him that this is the result. She seems so happy, poor old dear, and says that though hot-tempered he has a warm and loving heart. I notice that people with especially violent tempers always take refuge behind the plea of loving hearts! Whom else have you seen?"
"I had an invitation to call upon the Shores, and went on Sunday week. Miss Eveline was in greater form than ever. I am sure you would have liked to see her."
Peggy shrugged her shoulders viciously.
"K-r-r-eature! Don't allude to her in my presence, please. No one shall hear me breathe a word about a member of my own sex, but of all the miserable, contemptible, mean little wretches that ever breathed, she was the worst! I'll never have anything to say to a girl who snubs her own mother before strangers, and makes fun of her poor old father, because he has given her a better education than he had himself. One day he was talking to me about the view, and enjoying himself so much—he really was a most affable old man—when she happened to come up and overhear him say something about the 'Hopen haspect!' She shrugged her shoulders and smiled at me, and I turned a basilisk countenance upon her and glared, lit-er-ally gl-ared with anger." Peggy turned her head with a delighted remembrance of her own severity, then once more softened into smiles.
"Any news of my dear friend, General Andrews? You have seen him, of course? Did he ask for my address?"
"I am afraid not. I really can't remember that he did."
"He promised me a tiger skin," she said sorrowfully, "and a brass tray, and some carved ivories, and a dressing-gown, and an elephant's foot! The elephant's foot was to be mounted for me, and he gave me the choice of how it was to be done, and said he would take it to a skilful man. I think he must have killed a whole herd of elephants, for he promised a foot to every girl on board. He was a most promising creature, and his intentions were admirable. I am sure that at the time he meant all he said, and I can't blame him for his forgetfulness, for my own memory is at times sadly defective."
She glanced roguishly in Rob's face as she concluded, as if recalling past mishaps, and he smiled in return, but in a strained, unnatural fashion which she was quick to notice. Rob knew none of the people of whom she had been talking with his brother, and could enter into none of the jokes which were associated with their names. It was only natural, therefore, that he should feel debarred from the conversation.
Peggy drew a long breath of dismay. What a strange world it was, and how differently things turned out from what one expected! To think that at this first meeting it should be Rob who was left out in the cold, and not Hector; Rob who stood aside and was silent, Hector who laughed and talked with the ease of intimate friendship! It gave her a miserable feeling of self-reproach that it should be so; and yet how was she to blame? The situation had arisen naturally enough.
She gave a little movement of impatience, and her thoughts went off at a tangent, while in appearance she was still listening attentively to Hector's reminiscences.
Rosalind and Arthur were whispering together with longer pauses between the sentences than is usual in the converse of friends. She was smiling into his face in her sweetest, most winsome manner, but he did not look happy. His face wore the same troubled, fighting expression which his sister had noticed on the evening of her arrival in London.
Hector's complacent serenity stood out in soothing relief at once from Arthur's strain and Rob's moody silence, for moody Rob looked indeed, with his closed lips and heavy brows. A vivid remembrance flashed into Peggy's mind of a schoolboy, raising his head from a microscope and scowling darkly at some unhappy wight who had incurred his displeasure, and with the remembrance a wild longing to be a school-girl again, in short frocks and pigtail, a scrap of a school-girl who could swing herself on to the table to pinch his arm, or mimic each gesture as it came, pulling her own sleek locks into an imitation of his shaggy crop, and scowling so darkly that, against his will, he was forced into laughter. Many a time in the days gone by had she smoothed the "black dog" off Rob's back in some such fashion; but now the age of propriety had dawned, and it was not permitted to take such liberties.
"I'm a lady growed, and I'll act according," said Peggy to herself; "but dear, dear me, what a handicap it is! He would enjoy it so much, and so should I. Well, at least I can say I want to go upstairs, and then we can have another nice talk. I haven't said half or a quarter of what is in my mind."
She rose from her seat, turning towards Rob to claim his escort; but before she had time to speak, Hector's arm was thrust forward, and Hector's voice protested eagerly:
"Let me take you. I have so much to tell you yet. Take my arm, and let me pilot you through the crowd."
Peggy stood hesitating and uncertain between the two tall brothers.
"But—" she began feebly, and then looked at Rob, waiting for him to finish the sentence.
So far Rob had made no protest, but the moment he met that glance, there came a sudden flash to the eye, a straightening to the back, which made a startling transformation in the aspect of the dreamy student.
As he stood thus, he was as tall as Hector himself; the rugged strength of his face made him an even more imposing figure.
"But Peggy came down with me," he said firmly, "and it is my place to take her back."
"Nonsense, my dear boy. You have had your talk. It's my turn now. Peggy and I have a great many things to say to each other, and—"
"Plenty of opportunities ahead in which to say them. To-night will not be your only meeting. Take my arm, Peggy," said Rob sternly; and Peggy gasped and took it, and marched away meek and blushing, conscious to the very curls on her neck of the amazed disgust with which Hector watched her retreat.
Outside, in the corridor, her eyes met Rob's, and she made a little grimace of alarm.
"Now you have done it! How furious he looked!"
"Serve him right," said Rob lightly. "And I'll do it again the very next time he comes interfering between you and me! There are some things, Mariquita, that a fellow can not be expected to stand!"
Peggy gave a happy little trill of laughter. After all, there were some good points about being grown-up. At that moment she had no hankering whatever for the days of pigtails and pinafores!
Rob went back to The Larches next day, faithful to a decision expressed to Peggy at the reception.
"I have seen you now, Peg," he said, "and have gratified my curiosity, so I shall go back to my work and the country, until such time as you deign to shed the light of your presence upon us. It's no use staying here, for you will be up to your ears in engagements all day long, and I'm never fit to speak to in London, in any case. I hate and detest the place, and feel in an abominable rage the whole time I am here."
"How strange—and I love it! I made father take me for a drive on the top of a City omnibus the other day, and it was just thrilling. I love the roar and rush and bustle, and the feeling that one is in the very centre of the world, and that inside those big bare buildings, and among those jostling crowds, the greatest men in the world are at work, making literature—making kingdoms—making history! I look at the different people as they pass, and wonder who they are, and what they are doing and feeling and thinking. It's like a big, wonderful puzzle, which one will never, never be able to solve, but which keeps one enthralled and wondering all the same."
Rob's dark face softened tenderly as he looked at the little figure sitting so erect by his side, with the flush of excitement on her cheeks, and her young eyes aglow with enthusiasm.
"Or a story-book?" he said gently. "You used always to compare life to a story-book, Peggy, and comfort yourself in tribulation by the reflection that it would all work out right in the third volume. Well, you find your most interesting chapters in the City, and I find mine under the hedges in a country lane. It's all a matter of taste, but you have as much right to your opinion as any one else."
"Oh, but I love the country, too," cried Peggy quickly. "You know I do! We want to have our home in the country, and I intend to have the most beautiful garden in the county. I have never yet seen a garden which came up to my ideal, and I mean to show how things should be managed, and to enjoy myself ever so much in planning it out. All the same, it must be near town, so that we can run up when we feel inclined. People first, and Nature second—them's my sentiments! I could not be happy separated from my fellow-creatures."
Rob smiled in a patient, forbearing manner.
"Women are by nature gregarious. They can't help themselves, poor things! Whatever they do, they need an audience. It's no satisfaction to them to possess anything, unless they can show it off to a so-called friend and make her green with envy. 'What is the good of a nice house? No one sees it!' That is Rosalind's cry, when by any chance we are without visitors for a week at a time. 'What is the use of wearing pretty clothes? Nobody sees them!' The idea of enjoying a thing for itself alone is unattainable to the feminine mind."
"Don't be superior, please! It's so easy to sneer and be sarcastic at other people's expense. I could scorch you up at this moment if I chose, but I refrain. Snubbing is a form of wit which has never made any appeal to my imagination," cried Peggy grandiloquently, and Rob chuckled to himself with delighted appreciation.
"Bravo, Mariquita! Score for you! I hide my diminished head. Look here, though, I've got an idea which I present as a peace-offering. If you don't succeed in getting a house near town, what do you say to Yew Hedge, in our neighbourhood? It's to be sold, and you used to admire it in the old days, I remember. It's a quaint, old-fashioned place, with a drawing-room out of which you could make great things; six acres of land, and some fine trees. Altogether you might do worse, and although it is further in the country than you wish, there are several human creatures in the neighbourhood who would be delighted to welcome you!"
"Rob, you admirable person! You have the most delightful ideas! Yew Hedge! I have never been inside the house itself, but I remember peeping over the hedge and admiring the grounds, and it would be just scrumptious to be near you all. I'll speak to father about it at once, and it will be a comfort to have something in the background, to keep up our spirits if our search continues to be as unsuccessful as it is at present."
Another week's house-hunting proved the truth of Peggy's words, for if it had not been for the thought of Yew Hedge, the wanderers would have begun to think that there was no resting-place for them within their native land. House after house was visited, and house after house proved unsuitable or, in those rare instances when all requirements were fulfilled, so far beyond Colonel Saville's purse as to transform perfection into aggravation, pure and simple. It seemed as though Fate were shutting every avenue in order to advocate the claim of Yew Hedge; but, though Peggy secretly rejoiced over the fact, she could not induce Arthur to share her feelings.
"It's a charming old place, I grant you," he said, on one of the precious, too rare occasions when brother and sister found an opportunity for a confidential chat, "and, personally, I think nothing of the distance. When you are once settled in the train, you might as well have an hour and a half's journey as forty or fifty minutes', but there are other considerations. For my own sake I wish the house had been situated anywhere in the kingdom but just where it is—within half a mile's distance of the Darcys'."
Peggy looked up quickly, for this was the nearest approach to a confidence which Arthur had made, and though she did not wish to force him into speech, she was equally anxious not to miss an opportunity.
"You mean, Arthur, you mean because of—"
Arthur rose from his seat, and paced restlessly up and down the room.
"I mean, Peg, that I want to be with you dear people as much as possible, and at the same time to see as little as possible of—other people! When one is perfectly conscious of a temptation, the wisest plan is to keep out of its way. It is no use deliberately playing with fire, and then praying to be 'delivered.' I've thought out that subject for myself through some pretty hard times these last few years, and have come to a final conclusion. We must do our own share in keeping away from the danger, and not trifle away the strength we ask for. This is a little confidence for yourself alone, dear. I don't care to worry the parents with my affairs, or to influence their choice, but I want you to know the reason if I don't enter into your plans so heartily as you expect."
"But, Arthur dear, it seemed—it struck me that 'other people' seemed to find it a temptation too! Surely if you both—"
"Then I must think for both, and be the more careful. The hardest temptation of all, Peg, is one that seems just within grasp, but of which conscience says one should not take advantage. Think what this means! I have a hundred or two a year from the dear old godfather, and a few more for my salary—in all about as much as a fashionable lady would spend on clothes and jewellery. Even with what my father and— hers might be willing to add, it would mean comparative poverty for years to come, and some people are not made for poverty, and could not be happy under such conditions."
"There are things which are worth more than money!"
"To you and me, yes, Peg, a thousand times, but not to every one! The bent of a lifetime does not easily alter. One may think it does under the stress of strong feeling, but it is a very difficult matter when it comes to living a restricted life day after day, month after month, and to giving up the luxuries and pleasures to which one has been accustomed. It is better to face a definite sorrow, than life-long regret and repining." Arthur's face hardened into a determination which had in it a sadness which Peggy was quick to understand. The bitterest drop in the poor fellow's cup was the consciousness that the girl whom he loved was neither strong nor unselfish enough to value happiness before worldly prosperity, and his sister's heart grew hot with indignation at the thought that any one dared to think herself too good for Arthur Saville!
"I hope and pray, Arthur, that when the time comes for you to marry, your wife will realise that she is a most blessedly fortunate woman, and not harbour any delusions about making a martyr of herself! You are perfectly right in wishing to keep out of the way under the circumstances, and I will do the same. I never wish to see 'other people' again, or to speak to her, or to have anything whatever to do with her."
"If you want to please me, you will see as much of her as you can, for you can help the poor girl more than any one else. She is fond of you, and knows that you return her affection."
"I don't! I won't! How can I be fond of her when she makes you unhappy? If you are not grand enough for her, then neither am I; but I have yet to learn that the Savilles are unworthy of any alliance which they may choose to make. I can't be a hypocrite even to please you, Arthur, and I'll have nothing more to say to Rosalind Darcy from this hour!" protested Peggy violently, then suddenly melted into tears, and laying her head on Arthur's shoulder, proceeded to contradict every word she had spoken. "Yes, I will! I'll do anything you want, but, oh, why did you do it? Why did you fall in love at all? Why couldn't you go on loving me best, and being happy and comfortable?"
Peggy wept and moaned, and Arthur shook her by the shoulder with all a man's horror at the sight of tears.
"Hold hard, Peg! Hold hard! For pity's sake don't cry! Your eyes will be crimson in another moment, and the Rollos will be coming in to tea, and wondering what on earth is the matter. So unbecoming, too! What a funny little fright you do look, to be sure!" said Arthur shrewdly, and chuckled in triumph as Peggy stopped short in the middle of a sob, and, with two tears in the very act of rolling down her nose, rushed to the nearest mirror and began dabbing at her face with a minute pocket- handkerchief.
"Horrors! They do look red. I'll go up to my room and stand in a draught, and you must keep the visitors occupied till I come down. Don't let father get impatient. I'll come back the moment I am respectable," she cried, and flew breathlessly from the room, just in time to avoid Mrs and Miss Rollo, who entered by another door.
The "country cousin" sight-seeing had been carried on with much gusto in the intervals of house-hunting, and more than once Eunice Rollo had been included in the party, for, like many Londoners born and bred, she had neglected to visit places close at hand, and was delighted to have so pleasant an opportunity of making their acquaintance.
The three girls spent an afternoon in the British Museum, and discussed Mollusks and Lepidoptera with surreptitious pauses to yawn behind the glass cases, until the first barriers of formality were broken down by the fascination of Egyptian mummies, and the thrilling, imaginary histories which Peggy wove concerning their life on earth. They went over the Tower, and enlivened the tedium of a Beefeater's life by discussing in his presence how best to steal the treasured Koh-i-nor; and finally, they visited the National Gallery, and on their return Mellicent and Eunice sat on Peggy's bed, while that young person represented some of the celebrated portraits for their benefit, with the aid of such properties as the room afforded.
"Portrait of a young girl, by Sir Peter Lely," announced the clear voice; and the audience turned their heads, to behold a demure visage framed by braided hairy a white towel pinned severely across the shoulders, and a milk-white blossom held in a mittened hand. The chintz curtain with its bouquets of flowers made an admirable background for the youthful figure, and the lamb-like innocence of expression was touching to behold. Eunice gripped her companion's arm and pointed breathlessly to the feet peeping out beneath the short white skirt. The flat black shoes with the sandal-like crossings were the exact counterpart of those in the picture; but how in the name of mystery had Peggy managed to produce them? Eunice discussed the question with Mellicent in the pause during which they were requested to "look the other way," and had reached the solution of goloshes and ribbon, when "Gloriana, by Rubens!" was introduced to their notice.
Miss Peggy reclined against a background of cushions, beamingly conscious of a transformation so complete as to be positively startling to behold. A trio of sponges pinned round the head gave the effect of an elaborate coiffure, above which was perched a scarlet turban decorated by half-a-dozen brooches, holding in position as many feathers; a blue dressing-gown opened over an underskirt composed of an eiderdown quilt, which gave an appropriately portly air to the figure, and by some mysterious process a double chin had been produced for the occasion! Gasps of delight from the bed greeted this masterpiece; but the third impersonation was most successful of all, when the audience shrieked aloud to behold Lady Macbeth glaring upon them from a yard's distance, enveloped in bath sheets, and wearing such an expression of horror on her face as chilled the blood to behold!
"Not all the spices of Arabia can sweeten this little hand!" hissed Peggy, shaking her little paw in the air, while Mellicent screamed with delight and pounded the ground with her heels, and Eunice lay prone against the bedpost in a silent paroxysm of laughter. To see Eunice Rollo laugh was a delightful experience, and one which was worth some trouble to enjoy. Not a sound issued from her lips, not an exclamation marked her enjoyment; like a helpless image she sat, and shook, and trembled, and quivered from head to foot, while her face grew pink, and the tears rose in her eyes, and streamed unheeded down her cheeks. The sight of her, dumb, shaking, weeping—roused the other girls to uncontrollable mirth, and the louder they laughed, the more did Eunice weep; the more violently did they gesticulate and prance about the room, the closer did she hug her bedpost, the more motionless she appeared.
To be forced into laughter, real, honest, uncontrollable laughter, as opposed to the forced guffaw of society, seemed a new experience to this only child of busy and pre-occupied parents; and it needed only Arthur's assurance that he had never seen the girl so bright and animated to put the final touch to Peggy's growing liking.
On the present occasion Eunice and her mother had come to tea at the hotel, and as Rosalind and Hector were also expected within the next half-hour, it was quite necessary that Peggy should get her eyes in order without delay. She was not in a mood to give a cordial welcome to the destroyer of her brother's happiness, and, despite her efforts to the contrary, there was a chill in her manner which Rosalind was quick to note. It worried her, as it had worried her in the old girlish days when Peggy Saville had refused to pay the homage which she expected from her companions, and now, as then, she put forth all her fascinations in order to subdue the unruly spirit. The princess in the fairy-tale seemed again the only creature to whom to compare her as she sat enthroned on the sofa, her lovely face alight with smiles and dimples. Eunice Rollo looked like a little grey mouse beside her, the very colour seeming to be absorbed from her face by the brilliancy of the contrast, while bonnie Mellicent appeared of a sudden awkward and blousy.
"Rosalind makes every one else look a fright, the moment she comes into a room. I shudder to think of the guy I must appear. Poor dear Arthur! I don't wonder at his devotion. She is so lovely that she fascinates one in spite of oneself!" sighed Peggy, trying to harden herself against the glances of the sweet caressing eyes, and feeling her heart softening with every moment that passed.
All her thoughts were centred on Rosalind and Arthur, and she presided over the tea-tray with a sublime absence of mind which afforded Hector Darcy much amusement. His own cup was filled last of all, and seating himself beside her he gravely extracted from it six separate lumps of sugar, which he ranged in a neat little row on a plate.
"Seeing that you asked me twice over if I took sugar, and on hearing that I did not, immediately ladled in the largest pieces you could find, I conclude that there is something weighing on your mind," he said markedly. "What is it? Nothing unpleasant, I hope—nothing serious?"
"A bad habit of thinking of several things at the same time, coupled with the fatigues of a London season. That is the explanation!" sighed Peggy, patting the discarded lumps into a pulp with her spoon, and moulding them into pyramid shape with as earnest an air as if her life depended on the operation. "We have been terribly energetic—flying about all day long and living in a perfect whirl of excitement."
"And yet I never meet you. I look out for you every day, but in vain. We never seem to go to the same places."
"Ah, you are among the rank and fashion, you see, and we are country cousins doing the sights. You visit the real people, and we stare at the images at Madame Tussaud's. You attend private views, and we go in with the rabble. You go to luncheon parties at The Star and Garter, and we have buns and tea in an ABC shop, and pay an extra penny for cream. We move in different circles, Major Darcy," cried Peggy, with a toss of the head which contradicted the humility of her words. "It is not to be expected that we should meet. To-morrow morning we are going to the Zoo."
The big officer looked down at her with admiring eyes, paused just long enough to give added effect to his words, and then said deliberately:
"May I go with you?"
"Certainly not!" replied Peggy promptly; and when Hector demanded her reason, "You would be too great a strain upon us," she explained. "We should have to behave properly if you were there, and that would spoil the fun. You would be shocked at our behaviour, or if you were not shocked, you would be bored, and that would be even more disastrous."
"Try me and see. There is no fear of my being bored, and I promise faithfully to be so far from shocked that I will do every single thing that you do yourself."
"Go round with the crowd and see the animals feed?"
"Certainly, if you wish it."
"Give biscuits to the elephants?"
"With pleasure! I'd do anything for an elephant. Finest beast you can find."
"And nuts to the monkeys?"
"Er—is that a necessary condition? I really cannot face the monkey- house in this weather."
"Walk round the parrot-house and examine every cage, and offer your finger to be bitten?"
"I would wait outside until you came back."
"That's shirking. If I let you off the monkeys, I should insist upon the parrots; but the most important of all is the dromedary. Will you have a penny ride with us round the grounds on the back of a dromedary?"
"My dear Peggy! Anything in reason to enjoy the pleasure of your society, but really—"
"Nobody shall come with us to the Zoo who is too proud to ride on the dromedary," said Peggy firmly. "I told you you would be shocked, and you see I was right; but Mellicent and I have no pride at all where animals are concerned, and we intend to do every possible thing that can be done. We will have to defer our next meeting for another occasion, Major Darcy."
"Not longer than Fwiday, I hope, Peggy," interrupted Rosalind sweetly. "I want you to keep Fwiday afternoon disengaged, and come with us to Lady B's garden-party, which will be one of the things of the season. The Pwince and Pwincess will be there, and everybody who is in town, and there is to be a pastowal play beneath the trees, so that altogether it will be worth seeing. You will come, won't you, Peggy? You really must pwomise to come."
"The Prince and Princess! Oh, how lovely! I'm simply dying to see the Princess! Only yesterday I said that I could not bear to go away without seeing her. If she were at a garden-party, we could get quite near, and see her face, and her clothes, and hear her speak. How simply lovely!" ejaculated Mellicent rapturously. "Oh, we must go, we must manage it! We have no engagement for Friday, Peggy, have we? Nothing that could not be put off?"
The idea that she herself might not have been included in Rosalind's invitation had never occurred to Mellicent's innocent mind. Since her arrival in town she had been treated as an honoured guest, and if on any occasion it had been impossible for both girls to enjoy a pleasure, it had been Peggy who stayed at home and gave place to her friend. Mellicent had wondered more than once when Rosalind Darcy intended to do her share towards the entertainment of her vicar's daughter, and now was aglow with delight on receiving the invitation which of all others she had most desired. She was too much excited to notice Rosalind's discomfited surprise, but awakening came all too soon.
"Dear Mellicent, I am sowwy, but I cannot take more than one fwiend," she murmured caressingly. "Evewybody is asking for invitations, and it would not do to encroach too far on Lady B's hospitality. Another time, when Peggy is not going, I should be delighted to take you with me—"
"But, Rosalind, I can't go on Friday. I am dreadfully disappointed, for it is just the sort of thing I should love, and if I had only an ordinary engagement I would put it off, but it is not. An old school- friend of mother's is coming up from the country especially to see us, and we could not possibly put her off, as we have already had no end of difficulty to fix a day. Letters and telegrams have been flying to and fro, and if we altered the date there is no saying when we should meet. I am very, very sorry, but it is impossible to go with you."
"But surely you could be spared for the afternoon! You would see your fwiend in the morning, and at dinner—"
"She won't arrive until lunch-time, and must leave again at six o'clock. She will travel four hours in the train just to spend the afternoon with us, so I could not possibly go out; but there is no reason why Mellicent should stay in too. She could go instead of me."
Peggy would not have ventured to make such a suggestion had not Rosalind's own protestations opened the way, but as it was she felt no diffidence in making it, and the change from despair to rapture on her friend's expressive face went far to console her for her own disappointment. But if Mellicent's expression was significant, Rosalind's was even more so. Her lips tightened, the colour deepened in her cheeks, and her eyes sent forth an unmistakable gleam of vexation. She hated being forced into an unpleasant position, but there was one thing which she would hate even more—to be obliged to take a dowdily dressed, countrified-looking visitor to one of the social events of the season, and at all risks this must be avoided. Mellicent would probably be offended, Peggy furious, Arthur pained and disappointed—she knew it beforehand, and lamented the knowledge; but, as Arthur had said, the bent of a lifetime is too strong to be overcome in a moment. Rosalind would have been ready to protest that she cared a hundred times more for her friends' feelings than for her own dignity, but when it came to the test she sacrificed them without hesitation in the interest of selfish pride.
"I am sowwy, but if you cannot go, Peggy, I think we had better leave it alone for the pwesent. Some day we may all be able to arrange to go together, but Lady B's will be a gweat cwush, and I shall meet many fwiends, and be so much engrossed. Mellicent would not enjoy herself without you. She would know nobody."
There was a dead silence. Hector stared at his shoes; Peggy gave a short, staccato cough; and Arthur looked swiftly across the room, to see how Mellicent bore herself beneath this unmerited snub. She was seated on the sofa beside Eunice Rollo, slightly in advance of himself, so that only a crimson cheek was visible, and a neck reddened to the roots of the hair, but Arthur saw something else, which touched him even more than his old friend's distress—a little grey-gloved hand which shot out from its owner's side and gripped the broad waist; a little hand that stroked, and patted, and pressed close in sympathetic embrace. Arthur's lips twitched beneath his moustache, but he said no word; and presently Rosalind rose and took her departure, feeling the atmosphere too charged with electricity to be agreeable.
Contrary to his usual custom, Arthur did not accompany her downstairs, so that he returned from the door in time to hear the explosion of indignation which followed her departure. Mellicent stamped up and down the floor, breathless and tearful; Eunice stared at the floor; and Peggy sat erect as a poker, with a bright spots of colour on either cheek, and lips screwed into a tight little button of scorn.
"Don't speak to me!" she was saying. "Don't ask my opinion. I am bereft of speech. Never, in all my existence, have I ever beheld such an exhibition of snobbish disloyalty—"
"Mellicent, my mother has a ticket," put in Eunice. "You can go with her and take my place. I have seen the Princess scores of times. Oh, please don't cry, it isn't worth it, indeed it isn't!"
"I'd scorn to cry. I wouldn't condescend to shed a tear for the nasty horrid thing!" cried Mellicent, mopping with her handkerchief at the continuous stream which rolled down her cheeks. "It is she who should cry, not I. If I am poor and shabby, I know how to behave. I'm a lady, and Rosalind Darcy is a c-cad. She is, and I don't care who hears me say it! I've known her all my life, and she's ashamed to be seen with me. I'll go home to-morrow, I will! I'll stay at home where people love me, and don't choose their friends for the cl-clothes they wear!"
Mellicent burst into fresh tears, and Peggy looked anxiously into Arthur's face. It was drawn and fixed, and his lips were set, as if in endurance of actual physical pain.
Four days before Peggy left town she had an amusing encounter with one of her old friends. The little party had divided, and while Mrs Saville and Mellicent shopped in the West End, the colonel and his daughter drove into the City to visit a collection of the pictures of one of the old masters. They were sauntering through the second room when Peggy's attention was attracted by a group standing at a few yards' distance—a lady, a gentleman, and two little boys with Eton collars and round-about jackets—a family group for a ducat, yet surely, surely there was something familiar in the figure and bearing of the supposed mother! She was tall and dignified, her clothes were quite miraculously tidy, and the smooth, fair hair was plaited in Puritan fashion round the head.
"Can it—can it be?" queried Peggy to herself; then, catching sight of a long grave face, "It is!" she cried with a flash of joy, and walking forward, planted herself deliberately in the stranger's path. What she anticipated came precisely to pass, for the lady stepped back from her position, collided violently with herself, and began hurriedly to apologise.
"I beg your pardon! I did not see—I hope I have not hurt you." So far in fluent unconsciousness; then suddenly she stopped short, gasped, hesitated, stared hard at the face before her, and ejaculated a breathless, "Peggy—Saville!"
"Esther Asplin! I knew it was you! I knew no one else in the world could possess that back hair! How extraordinary to come across you here! It's a marvel that Mellicent was not with me, but we were both looking forward to seeing you at the vicarage at the end of the week!"
"I am on my way home now. I go down by the six o'clock train, and took the opportunity of bringing the boys into town to see some of the sights. They are such dears, Peggy. The one with the red hair is a genius. You should see his Latin prose! The fat one is a lovable little soul, but terribly stupid and lazy; a great trial to my patience. I suppose Mellicent has told you all about my work, and how happy I am? The parents are such charming, cultivated people. The mother is a sister of Professor Reid, the gentleman who is with us now." She rolled her eyes meaningly towards the cadaverous-looking man who had fled to the end of the room at Peggy's approach. "He was one of our lecturers at Girton, and recommended me to his sister when I left. Such an honour for me, for he is one of the finest men in the 'Varsity'—So wonderfully learned and clever!"
"He looks it," remarked Miss Peggy, regarding the lanky, stooping figure with a crinkle of disdain in her saucy little nose. "Just exactly my idea of a learned professor. Does he ever brush his coat?"
Esther flushed, and bridled with displeasure.
"I never inquired," she returned coldly. "In conversation with Professor Reid one has something better to do than discuss coats. He was kind enough to offer to meet us in town, and to take the boys home after I leave to-night, and it is a privilege to go about with him. I'll introduce you to him if you like, and—"
"You'd better not. I am sure he wouldn't like it. Let me introduce you to father instead. He is wondering what new friend I have discovered, and will be so much interested when he knows who it is."
Colonel Saville came forward in response to his daughter's summons, and greeted her friend with much cordiality, while Peggy was agreeably surprised to note the easy self-possession with which Esther sustained her part in the conversation. Contact with the world had rubbed away the rusticity of manner which still characterised Mellicent, and though by no possibility could Esther be called pretty, there was an undeniable attractiveness about the tall, neat figure and intellectual face. Peggy knew that her father was agreeably impressed, for the colonel had a tell-tale expression, and could by no possibility manage to hide his feelings. If he were bored, dreariness feebly described his appearance; if he were annoyed, his eyes sent out little sparks of fire, and every hair in his moustache bristled on its own account; if he were sad, he lost in five minutes the last remnant of youth, and appeared a wan old man; while if he were pleased, he might have passed as Arthur's brother, so alert and beaming was his demeanour. On the present occasion he was all smiles and bows, and joked elaborately with the little pupils, who were brought up and introduced, when, to Peggy's amusement, the genius preserved a stolid demeanour, while the fat, little dunce displayed an agreeable animation.
"An exceedingly sensible, pleasant young woman," was the colonel's verdict as he left the room; and Peggy peered round over her shoulder, and beheld the sensible young woman rearranging the fat boy's tie while the professor cautiously retraced his steps towards her.
A few days later Peggy scrambled her possessions together to prepare for her visit to the vicarage. Carter, Mrs Saville's maid, had departed to pay a visit to her relatives in the country, and in her absence her young mistress complacently folded her dressing-gown on top of muslin dresses, pressed a jewel-box over a chiffon bodice, and remarked, with a sigh of satisfaction, that it was a blessing to be able to wait on oneself, and to be beholden to no outsider; after which she straight-way left her keys on the dressing-table, and drove off to the station in blissful unconsciousness. Mellicent was divided between grief at leaving dear, beautiful, exciting London and anticipation of the reflected glory with which she would shine at home as the restorer of Peggy to the household; and in the vicarage itself all was excitement and expectation, the old cook concocting every dainty she could think of in a kitchen heated up to furnace-heat; Mr Asplin mowing the lawn in hot haste, because the daisies would spring up in impertinent fashion in the hot dry weather; Mrs Asplin flying from one room to another, patting cushions into shape, and artfully placing little tables over worn spots on the carpet; and Miss Esther laying out clean towels, and flicking infinitesimal grains of dust from the chairs and tables. The sight of disorder was a positive pain to Esther's orderly eyes. It was reported of her that in the midst of a Latin examination she had begged to have a blind put straight, since its crooked condition distracted her mind; and therefore it may be surmised that on the present occasion Robert Darcy met with no very cordial reception, when he was discovered stamping about the newly swept rooms in a pair of dusty shoes, scattering fragments of leaves and stubble behind him.
"Bless the child, it will seem all the more home-like to her if it's not all spick and span! Don't pick them up, Esther. I like to see them. It was good of you to come over, Rob, for I'm not myself at all without a boy in the house, and it does me good to see your dear dirty boots," cried Mrs Asplin, and blinked her eyes, trying hard to keep down the tears which would rise at the thought of Max in his far-off home, and all the train of mischievous, happy-hearted lads who had been under her care, and who were now fighting the world for themselves. Every morning as she woke, and felt the tired pressure at her head, she felt a pang of relief at the remembrance that there was no longer the old necessity to be up and doing. Every evening as she rested on the old sofa she remarked afresh to her husband how sweet it was to be alone, and to have the rest and peace of a quiet house; but between the two ends of the day there came a dozen other moments, when she longed for the cheery bustle, the clamour of youthful voices, the presence of the merry young band. Such a moment came to her now, and the tears were already glistening in the sweet grey eyes when the sound of wheels crunched up the drive, the vicar dashed into the house to shed his alpaca coat, and his wife and daughter flew excitedly into the garden. The carriage stopped, a blue- robed damsel leapt out of either door, and for the next two minutes four female figures were so inextricably mixed together that it would have been difficult to an onlooker to say which was which, or to apportion the waving arms and bobbing heads to their proper owners. The vicar stood in the background, looking on with a comical gleam of amusement on his long face, while Rob shrugged his shoulders and looked bored and superior, as men are fond of doing when women enjoy themselves in a way which they themselves cannot understand. Presently, however, the kaleidoscope-like mass dissolved into its component parts, and a young lady advanced towards the vicar with a pretty flushed face beneath a French hat, and two little hands stretched out in greeting. Mr Asplin looked at her critically. Was it Peggy? For a moment memory was baffled by the sight of the elegant young lady, but a second glance revealed the well-known features—the arched brows and kitten-like chin. For the rest, the hazel eyes were as clear and loving as ever, and the old mischievous gleam shone through the tears.
"Is it Mariquita?" he cried, and Peggy stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, and hung on to the lapels of his coat, saying tremulously:
"No, it's Peggy! I never was Mariquita, you know, unless I was going to be scolded in the study; and you couldn't possibly scold me the first day. Are you half as pleased to see me as I am to be back again?"
"God bless you, child!" he said softly, and laid a tender hand on her cheek. The bud had blossomed into a flower; the little school-girl whom he had loved so well had grown into a woman, and her early grace and charm were sweet in the old man's sight. He thanked God for them, as he thanked Him for all beautiful things—the sunshine which gave colour to the flowers, the green restfulness of the land, the song of the birds in the trees. "You are very welcome, dear. It does me good to see you among us once again."
"And looking so well. You are quite blooming, Peggy; and so smart as she is too! Deary, deary me, is that what they call the fashion?" cried Mrs Asplin, holding the girl in outstretched arms, and turning her slowly round and round, to take in the details of her attire. "You look so spruce, child, that I hardly knew you; but there, it won't be long, I expect, before the true Peggy peeps out. Come in, darling. There's a new rug in the hail; don't trip over it! We have been saying we needed it for five years back, but it was bought only last week, to smarten the house for your coming. Those are Esther's certificates in the corner, and you must see the new cretonne in the drawing-room. All the chairs are recovered. We finished them only last week."
"Tut, tut!" cried Peggy, and shook her head in dismay at such reckless extravagance. She had not had a chance of exchanging any further greeting with Rob than a smiling nod, while she and Esther cast curious glances at one another across the room, renewing the impressions of their first meeting. Peggy thought it one of the prettiest sights in the world to see Mrs Asplin hang on to the vicar's arm and drag him with her about the house, forgetful of everything but her instinctive desire to be near him in her rejoicing; the prettiest thing in the world to see the tenderness in his eyes. She looked at them mischievously, and then of a sudden her own eyes began to blink, for all those four years of absence had left their mark on the dear faces; they had changed as well as herself; but with them it was not the blossoming of the bud into the flower, it was rather the losing of those last leaves which had lingered from life's summer. The vicar's shoulders were more bowed; the lines on his face more deeply graven; his wife's hair had grown silvery about the temples, and the pathetic, tired look in the grey eyes must surely be permanent nowadays, since not even the excitement of meeting could chase it away. She was even sweeter-looking than of old, but had she always been so thin, so transparently delicate in colour? Do what she would, Peggy could not keep back her tears, and Mrs Asplin caught sight of them, and produced her own handkerchief in instant response.
"Ah, Peg, I know what you are thinking. The old home is not like itself without the boys. I feel it too, dear, I feel it too. Not a single boy would we have had in the place, if Rob had not taken pity on us, bless him! It seems so strange after having had so many of them all these years."
"It seems very quiet and peaceful, if you ask me! and if I'm not a boy, I've been away, and I do think I deserve a little attention!" cried Mellicent, aggrieved. "If it had been Max who had come home, you wouldn't all be crying and moaning for the girls. You would forget there were such things in the world. It's not our fault that we happen to be girls, and we have our feelings all the same. No one speaks to me! No one says they are pleased to see me! No one makes the slightest fuss because I am home!"
"Darling!" cried her mother, and rushed to take her in her arms. "My precious baby, I'm just delighted to have you back; but you know how it is—the thought of old times made me sad for the moment. We seemed such a small party without the boys."
Mellicent grimaced and hitched her shoulders in petulant fashion. Then she looked at Peggy, and a flash of amusement passed from eye to eye.
"Let's have tea!" she said shortly. "It's good for the spirits, and we are both hungry. It's to be in the schoolroom, I suppose, mother, as we asked. Peggy died to have tea there again, and was so afraid that it would be laid out in style in the drawing-room that she made me ask you to have it exactly the same as in the old times. I told her it was no use, that you would have out all the best things, whatever we said."
"But you didn't, Mrs Asplin, did you? There are halfpenny buns, aren't there, and scones, and damson jam, and the old thick cups and saucers?"
"Bless me, no, child! The very best china; cakes from Buzzard's, with icing on the top, strawberries and cream, and every luxury you can imagine. The schoolroom, yes; but you don't suppose I'd feed my prodigal on halfpenny buns! Come and see all the good things that are waiting;" and Mrs Asplin led the way towards the schoolroom, with the complacent air of a housekeeper who has reason to be satisfied with her preparations, while the two girls followed with elbows in suspiciously close proximity. Another moment and the door was thrown open, when Mrs Asplin immediately gave a shriek of surprise, and fell prone against the wall. There stood the long table, set out with flowers and silver, and, in the centre seat, sat a handsome frock-coated figure, with every dish and plate of edibles massed around him in a solid circle of temptation. The silver cake-basket was in the centre, plates of scones, macaroons, and biscuits bordered each side; while the interstices were filled in with bowls containing jam and fruit. On his own plate there were piled at one and the same moment, a meringue, a slice of plum cake, two biscuits, and a jam tart, and, in default of tea, he had filled his cup from the cream jug, and was even at this moment wiping the tell-tale drops from his moustache.
"That blessed boy!" cried Mrs Asplin, clasping her hands in delight. "There never was any one like him. He guessed how I should feel—he always did guess! I might have known that he would come. But how? When? Where? He was not in the carriage with the girls."
"Got out at the gate, mater, and came in at the window. Wanted to get a start of you all at tea," said Arthur, coming forward, serviette in hand, to receive the kiss and hug of welcome which he was never too old to enjoy. He had divined that Peggy's advent would make the gap in the household even more felt than usual, and his kindly instinct had been to fill that gap as much as possible; but no other reason would he acknowledge for his presence than the necessity of escorting two frivolous young women who could not be trusted to take a journey on their own account, and his hosts were too full of delight at his appearance to dispute the point.
"Second fiddle!" sighed Peggy with a shrug. "It's meself that's second fiddle this moment, when 'twas the whole orchestra I expected to be. Take me away, somebody, before I break down altogether, and show me some of the old haunts until tea is ready."
"Peggy, don't be absurd!" Esther said solemnly; but Peggy marched determinedly out of the room, and, with the exception of Mr and Mrs Asplin and Arthur, every one followed and stood looking on while she pushed open the swing door of the cloak-room, and poked her little head round the corner.
"Where's my peg?" she cried. "If I find any other wretched creature's clothes hanging on my peg, I'll—" then she stopped suddenly, darted forward with a squeal of delight, and closed the door behind her. She was not hidden more than a minute, but in effect it seemed to have been a long, long time, for when the door reopened, the French hat had disappeared, and it was the real old Peggy-Pickle who smiled and nodded and peaked her brows beneath the scarlet cap.
"The Tam o' Shanter! Rob has brought it back after all these years. He kept it until you could wear it again. Goodness, how touching! I never thought you would turn sentimental, Rob!" cried Mellicent the tactless, and the next moment devoutly wished she had held her peace, as Rob scowled, Esther pinched her arm, and Peggy trod on her toe with automatic promptness. She turned on her heel and strode back to the dining-room, while Peggy flicked the cap off her head, trying hard to look unconscious, and to continue her investigations as if nothing embarrassing had occurred.
"There's the old stain on the floor where I spilt the ink, and the little marks all the way upstairs where the corners of my box took off the paint. Dear, dear, how home-like they look! I must see cook after tea, and Diddums, my sweet little kitten. How is the darling? As pretty and fluffy and playful as ever?"
"Peggy dear, do not be silly!"
"Esther dear, I cannot help it! I'm too happy to be sensible. Let me be silly for just one day. What, is that Diddums? That ugly, lanky, old cat? You've aged terribly, Diddums, since I saw you last. Ah me, ah me, the years tell on us all! Tell me, dear—be faithful!—are you as much shocked at the change in me?"
Peggy looked up archly, and met Rob's deep, earnest gaze. She put down the cat, rose suddenly, and thrust her hand through Esther's arm. Her cheeks were very pink, her eyes astonishingly bright. Esther looked at her critically, and pursed up her lips in disapproving fashion.
Certainly Peggy had grown into a very pretty girl, but it was a thousand pities that she had not yet outgrown the eccentricities of her youth.
When Peggy had been staying a week at the vicarage, her parents came down from town on a two days' visit, especially arranged to give them an opportunity of looking over Yew Hedge. Colonel Saville's scant supply of patience was fast giving out beneath the strain of disappointment, and he declared his intention of buying the first habitable house he saw, while his wife and daughter were reluctantly forced to the conclusion that it was impossible to procure an ancestral estate at the price of a suburban villa. Yew Hedge, therefore, appeared the refuge of the destitute, and a fly being hired from the village inn, and Mrs Asplin invited to take the fourth seat, the little party drove off to inspect the house in mingled hope and fear.
The thick hedge which gave the name to the house skirted the country road for some hundreds of yards, while a carriage drive of commonplace propriety led up to a square stone house, which could by no possibility have been termed either beautiful or picturesque. Mrs Saville's face fell into an expression of martyr-like despair, and the colonel looked fierce and frowning; but, like many good things, and people also, Yew Hedge showed its worst points on the surface, and modestly hid its Virtues out of sight. There was a large flower and vegetable garden behind the house, the entrance hall was roomy with an old-fashioned fireplace in the corner, the drawing-room contained an abundance of those nooks and corners beloved of modern decorators, and Peggy fairly capered about with exultation when she entered the dining-room and beheld panelled oak walls and a frescoed ceiling.