"But if I stayed upstairs—" cried Pixie eagerly, and then stopped short, with crimson cheeks, as if startled by the sound of her own words. "I mean I am the one they are vexed with; they want to punish me most. If I stayed upstairs in my own room, or was sent to bed, why shouldn't the others have their party? It would be an extra punishment to me to hear them dancing, wouldn't it now?"
Mademoiselle threw up her bands in an expressive silence. In all her experience of school life never before had she met a girl who pleaded in such coaxing terms for her own humiliation, and she was at sea as to what it might mean. Either Pixie was guilty, in which case she was one of the most arrant little hypocrites that could be imagined, or she was innocent, and a marvel of sweetness and charity. Which could it be? A moment before she had felt sure that the former was the case, now she was equally convinced of the latter. In any case she was gratified by the idea that she herself should plead for the breaking-up party, and was ready to promise that she would interview Miss Phipps without delay.
"And ye'll not say that ever I mentioned it," urged Pixie anxiously, "for maybe that would put her off altogether. Just ask as if it was a favour to yourself, and if she asks, 'What about Pixie?' 'Oh, Pixie,' says you, 'never trouble about her! Send her to bed! It will be good for her health. She can lie still and listen to the music, and amuse herself thinking of all she has lost.'"
The beaming smile with which this suggestion was offered was too much for Mademoiselle's composure, and, do what she would, she could not restrain a peal of laughter.
"You are a ridiculous child, but I will do as you say, and hope for success. I like parties too, but it will not be half so nice if you are not there, petite! See, I was angry at first, and when I am angry I say many sharp things, but I am not angry any more. If it had happened to anyone to break my bottle by mistake, she need no more be frightened to tell me. I would not be angry now!"
"Wouldn't you?" queried Pixie eagerly, but instantly her face fell, and she shivered as with dread. "But, oh, Miss Phipps would! She would be angrier than ever! The girls say so, and it is only a fortnight longer before the holidays, and then we shall all go home. If it is not found out before the holidays, it will be all over then, won't it? No one will say anything about it next term."
"I do not know, Pixie. I can't tell what Miss Phipps will do," returned Mademoiselle sadly. She felt no doubt at this moment that Pixie was guilty; but that only strengthened her in her decision to plead for the party, for it did indeed seem hard that twenty-nine girls should be deprived of their pleasure for the sake of one obstinate wrong-doer.
"Girls," announced Miss Phipps after tea, two evenings later, "I have something to tell you which I am sure you will be delighted, and also much touched to hear. You have, I suppose, taken for granted that no breaking-up party would be held this term, as I have unfortunately had to deprive you of all holidays and excursions. For myself, I had put the matter entirely aside, as out of keeping with our present position, but you have had an advocate whom I have found it impossible to refuse. Someone has pleaded your cause so eloquently that she has gained the day, and I have now to announce that your party will be held as usual on Wednesday next, a few days before we break up. Don't thank me, please! It is someone else who deserves your thanks. Can you guess who it is?"
The girls were jumping about in their seats, all excitement and delight. Ethel was tossing her curls, Flora beaming from ear to ear, Kate's eyes were dancing behind her spectacles, Margaret was looking across the table at Pixie with an anxious, scrutinising glance. Who could it be— this unknown champion? There were whispering and consulting on every side, but the first suggestions fell wide of the mark.
"Mrs Vane!" said one, mentioning the name of the giver of the "Alice Prize," which was held in such importance in the school. But no, it was not Mrs Vane. "Miss Ewing!" cried another, naming a friend of Miss Phipps, who on one memorable occasion had begged a holiday for the entire school; but it was not Miss Ewing. "Nearer home, nearer home! She is in this room now!" cried Miss Phipps, laughing; and then it was impossible to look at Mademoiselle's red cheeks and remain in doubt any longer.
The gasp of surprise, of gratitude, of admiration that went round the room was the most eloquent acknowledgment of the generosity which had prompted the request, and Mademoiselle grew redder than ever, as she reflected that she would not have deserved any thanks had it not been for the suggestion of another. She looked instinctively at Pixie, and met a smile which reached from ear to ear, and was fairly beaming over with exultation. No one in the room looked so beamingly happy, but the next moment the smile gave way to a startled expression, as Miss Phipps continued slowly—
"There is one girl whom I am unfortunately obliged to except in giving my invitation, and that is Pixie O'Shaughnessy. Whether she is guilty of really breaking Mademoiselle's scent-bottle or not, it is impossible for me to say, but a suspicion has rested upon her which she has persistently refused to remove. I cannot allow a girl who defies my authority to be among us on such an occasion, and though the fact that she is in disgrace will cast a shadow over our evening, I consider that I have no choice in the matter. On Wednesday night, then, Pixie, you will have tea by yourself in the schoolroom, and go up to bed at seven o'clock."
"I will, Miss Phipps," said Pixie faintly. She had blushed until her face was crimson from the roots of her hair to the tip of her chin, and her face stood out like a vivid peony among those of her companions. Everyone looked at her, and the glances were more kindly than they had been for many a day; for it is easy to be sympathetic when we get our own way, and have shifted the burden off our own shoulders on to those of another. When the Principal left the room, attention was almost equally divided between Mademoiselle and Pixie, who were each surrounded by a group of excited talkers.
"Oh, Maddie, I do call you an angel! It was simply sweet of you to plead for us when you have been the one to suffer. I'll love you for ever for this!"
"So shall I, Maddie, and you'll see how well I'll do my verbs! I'll never worry you any more, but be so good and industrious. Dance with me, do, the first waltz, and I'll be gentleman, and not let you bump into anybody!"
"Pixie dear, I'm so sorry, but you would rather the girls had their party even if you couldn't go, wouldn't you, dear?"—this from Margaret, while Lottie tossed her head and said—
"She needn't distress herself! There is nothing to make a fuss about. Party, indeed! A fine sort of party! No one comes, and it is just like any other night, except that you dance and wear your best things!"
"And have programmes, and trifles, and jellies, and crackers, and all sorts of good things, and sit up until ten o'clock! But I'm awfully sorry you can't come, Pixie. If I get a chance I'll bring you something upstairs from the supper-table. You can't put lumps of jelly in your pocket, but if there is anything dry, I'll bring it to you when I go to bed!"
"So will I, Pixie. My party frock has a baggy front, so I can carry a lot. I could get a whole cheese-cake in when no one was looking. Or would you rather have a mince pie?"
"I think I'd rather have—both," said Pixie sadly. "I shall be so hungry, lying alone repining! I have never been to a party except once, at Bally William, and that wasn't a party either, for there was only me and two other boys, and the girls of the house, but we had crackers all the same, and I got an elegant little fan. The same I offered to you, Lottie, when you went out last time!"
"I remember, but it didn't go with my dress. That's another thing, Pixie—you haven't a dress to wear, so it's just as well you aren't asked, after all! I managed to make you presentable for a half-term evening, but that old frock of yours would never do for a breaking-up party."
Well, Lottie evidently intended to be comforting, but she had an extraordinary tactless way of going about it, Kate reflected angrily. She herself had a much happier inspiration, when she said with an elaborate affectation of relief—
"And it's an ill wind that blows nobody good! What we should have done without you to help us to dress, I really don't know! Mind you come to me first now. Ethel doesn't need you half so much, for her hair curls naturally, and mine always takes an unruly turn when it sees my best dress, and refuses to lie as I want it."
The listeners opened their eyes significantly, for no one had ever seen Kate's hair untidy, and it was impossible to imagine the lank locks exhibiting roving propensities; but Pixie smiled, and that was all that had been desired. Pixie flicked the tears away and cried eagerly—
"I'll plait it in four, like I used to do Bridgie's when she went visiting. You wouldn't believe the style there is to ut. Esmeralda said no one would believe that it was really her own. It was for all the world as if she had bought a plait and stuck it on. I'll make yours look like that too, if you'll give me time!"
"Oh, I'll give you time!" laughed Kate pleasantly. Her conscience misgave her when she thought of her behaviour during the last days, and saw how ready the child was to forgive the cold contempt, with which she had been treated. It was pleasant, too, to hear again of Bridgie and Esmeralda, who had been so long unmentioned, and who must really be the funniest creatures! And now that the poor little scrap was to be punished in such drastic fashion, one might venture to show pity without being accused of encouraging wickedness. After all, she had so far been convicted of no worse crime than obstinacy.
Unfortunately for Pixie, some of her companions took a different view of Miss Phipps's decision, seeing in it a proof that the Principal at least was convinced of her guilt, and so felt themselves bound to follow her example by ostracising the offender. Some of Lottie's followers were among the number, and that young lady found herself in the difficult position of being drawn two ways at once, for she had vowed to befriend Pixie, yet was loth to risk her popularity by acting in opposition to the general feeling. She took refuge in an easy neutrality, remaining silent when gibing words were passed from mouth to mouth, and avoiding every opportunity of coming into contact with Pixie herself. With so many girls about and the rush of examination work on hand, this was easy enough to accomplish, for Lottie was ambitious, and made special effort to come out in a good position on the list. Every evening she pored over books to "stew" up the subject of the next day's exam, and every morning seated herself before her desk, and became immediately immersed in the paper before her. Oh, those papers, what agony and confusion of spirit they brought to one poor scholar at least! Pixie had been informed that the secret of examination work was to carefully read over the list of questions, and then set to work at once on the one she could answer best, be it number one or six; but what was a poor girl to do when she was convinced that she could not answer one at all? No one had even imagined such a position, and yet it was the one in which she found herself over and over again during those last miserable days. She was so unused to examination work that the formal wording of the questions frequently disguised their meaning, and made her imagine ignorance when in reality she could have answered correctly enough; and oh, what misery to look around the room and see every other girl scribbling for her life, and looking as if the only difficulty was lack of time to write all she knew!
Pixie's mode of proceeding was to print an elaborate heading to her paper, and while away a quarter of an hour in adding ornamental flourishes to the double lines, and in elaborately darkening the down- strokes of her capitals. Then she would scribble on her blotting-paper, dropping intentional blots upon a clean page, and weaving them into a connected picture with no little skill and ingenuity. At this point a sharp reminder from teacher or scholar would bring her back to another melancholy perusal of the paper, and she would read and read the questions, in the melancholy hope of finding them grown more easy for the time of waiting.
Sometimes a query was put in so straightforward a form that it was possible to answer it in a single word, and then with glee Pixie would print "Question two" in ornamental characters, and write "Yes!" underneath it with a glow of exhilaration. At other times, as in the grammar paper, a question would make no calls on the memory, but would, so to speak, supply its own material, when she attacked it with more haste than discretion in her delight at finding something which she could really accomplish.
To give an example—Miss Bruce, the English teacher, quoted the sentence, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth is an ungrateful child!" and asked to have it paraphrased so as to show the two predicates which made it into a complex sentence. Pixie licked her lips over this opportunity, and squeak, squeak, squeak, went her pen along the paper, making the other girls look up and raise their eyebrows at one another in surprised comment. Writing at last, and so eagerly too! Pixie must surely have an inspiration at last; and so she had, for the big straggly writing set forth an extraordinary sentence: "How sharper it is to have an ungrateful child, than it is to have a serpent's tooth!"
"Humph!" mused Pixie, gnawing her pen, "there's a queer sound to it too. If I didn't know for sure it was right, I'd be just as certain it was wrong!" and so the paraphrase remained, to astonish the eyes of Miss Bruce, and give her a hearty laugh in the midst of the dreary work of reading examination papers that evening.
"Well, who comes out first in the exams it is impossible to say, but there is no doubt who will be last! I don't think Pixie O'Shaughnessy will get more than a dozen marks for a single paper she has written," was the remark of a certain Evelyn, one of the leaders of the anti-Pixie faction, on the day before the breaking-up party. "We used to think her clever, but it was only a bubble, which has collapsed utterly the last few weeks. A guilty conscience—that's my explanation! I call her a hardened little wretch, for she doesn't seem to mind a bit not being allowed to come down to-morrow. You might have thought that she would be perfectly miserable, but instead of that she really seems in better spirits than before."
"She does, and she likes to hear about the party, too! Just watch her when we are talking about it, and she is all eyes and ears. We saw some of the refreshments coming in to-day, and she positively beamed! I said, 'Those are for supper to-morrow!' and she said, 'Are they as nice as usual? Do you think it will be as grand as last year? Will you have every single thing just the same as if Miss Phipps hadn't been angry?' I said that if Miss Phipps did a thing at all, she would do it properly, and that I was quite sure it would be quite as 'grand,' and she chuckled with delight, just as if she were going herself. I can't make her out."
"Perhaps she thinks that Miss Phipps will relax at the last moment, but if she does, she is very much mistaken. There will be no pardon for her until she speaks the truth. As I said before, I believe she is just a hardened little wretch who doesn't care what happens to her, and that is why she doesn't show any sign of feeling."
"She has looked miserable enough until now. Why not give her the benefit of the doubt, and believe that, whether she is guilty or not, she is generous enough to be glad that the whole school is not to be punished?" asked Margaret gently. "Whatever Pixie has done, she is too warm-hearted to be called 'hardened,' and I think some of you girls make a great mistake in treating her as you do. You will never do any good by bullying, for she is so terrified at anything like unkindness that it makes it still more difficult to speak. You would have more influence if you were kinder to her."
"Oh, Margaret, you are so absurdly good-natured! It's always the same cry with you. You would forgive everybody, if you had your way!" cried Evelyn impatiently, and promptly flounced across the room, leaving Margaret and Lottie alone by the fire. They looked at each other in silence, and then Margaret summoned up courage to make an appeal which she had been meditating for some days past.
"They won't listen to me, Lottie, but they would if you asked them. It is really cruel to be always gibing and jeering as they are, and the older girls ought to set a better example. You are fond of Pixie too, and want to do the best for her. Can't you persuade your friends to treat her better for the rest of the term?"
Lottie shrugged her shoulders impatiently, and frowned in worried, discontented fashion.
"It is only three days longer. What is the use of making a fuss? It is idiotic of Pixie not to tell what she was doing in Mademoiselle's room, and I can't go about lecturing the whole school because she chooses to be obstinate! I am going to invite her to stay with me in the holidays, and will give her a good time to make up for all this. What's the good of worrying? The girls will be too busy packing and preparing for the party to think of her any more now."
This was true enough, so true that Margaret could say no more, though she could not suppress the reflection that Lottie might have given the clue weeks before, if she had been so disposed. "But, as she says, the worst is over. Nothing much can happen in three days," she told herself consolingly; wherein she was for something very exciting indeed was fated to happen before half that time had elapsed!
The next afternoon all was bustle and confusion in Holly House, servants setting the tables in the dining-room, and clearing the large classroom, in preparation for the party, and governesses and pupils dressing themselves with as much care as though they expected to meet a hundred strangers, instead of the everyday school set, without a single addition. Dresses which had not seen the light since the half-term- holiday were brought forth once more, with such additions in the shape of sashes, flowers, and gloves as befitted the greater importance of the occasion, and in her own bedroom Pixie O'Shaughnessy was whisking to and fro, attending to the wants of three exacting mistresses, who all seemed to require her at one and the same moment.
"Hi, Pixie, come here! This place is getting knee-deep in clothes. Just put them away."
"Now then, Pixie. I'm waiting for this hair-dressing! You make it look like an artificial plait, or there'll be trouble in this camp."
"Oh-h, bother! The more hurry the less speed. Now I've broken this tape. Has anyone got a bodkin? No, of course not! There never is a bodkin when I want one. You'll have to manage with a hairpin, Pixie, and be sharp about it. I shall be late for tea at this rate!" So on, and so on, and at each summons in rushed an eager little worker, so deft, so willing, so incredibly quick in her movements, that her mistresses were overcome with admiration.
"Your hands do you more credit than your brains, young woman!" pronounced Kate judicially. "You will never be a mistress of a High School; but you are a born lady's-maid, and you can come to me for a reference when you need it."
"That's what Esmeralda says. I am going to be her maid when she marries the duke. He comes down to hunt near Bally William, but he really lives in England, in the most beautiful palace, with peacocks on the lawn. Esmeralda's going to have the drawing-room papered in yellow, to suit her complexion, and to set the fashion of having little sisters to wait upon you, like pages in old story-books," returned Pixie, with her mouth full of hairpins, and there was a rustle of excitement in the different cubicles.
"Esmeralda engaged! You never told us! To a duke. Which duke? How lovely for her! When are they going to get married?"
"Now indeed I can't tell you!" returned Pixie regretfully. She was proudly conscious of having made a sensation, and it did seem hard to be obliged to dispel it as soon as it was made! "There's nothing settled, for, to tell you the truth, he has never so much as seen her yet, but she was visiting old Biddy Gallagher when he drove past to the meet, and at lunch says she, 'He's the elegant creature, that duke! I'm thinking of marrying him myself!' and took Bridgie's advice on the trousseau that very afternoon. She says she won't be engaged until she is twenty-one, and that it's a pity to unsettle him about it yet awhile, as there's over two years to wait. He wouldn't want to wait if he saw her, for she's more beautiful than anyone you ever saw out of a picture, though it's himself I pity when the tantrums is on her. We often talk about it, and plan how we will spend his money, and if you want to put her in a good temper you've nothing to do but call her 'Your Grace!'"
"I never heard anything so silly!" cried Ethel scornfully. Kate gave a mild "He, he!" as she watched the process of hair-dressing in the mirror, and reflected pensively that spectacles seemed strangely out of keeping with evening dress. There was no doubt about it, she was astonishingly plain, and oh, how nice it must be to be beautiful like Esmeralda—so beautiful that even your own brothers and sisters admired you! It was a natural longing, for every girl wishes to be attractive to others, and feels a pang if obliged to realise that the tribute of admiration can never be hers; but Kate was too sensible to grieve long over impossibilities. "I shall have to be extra amiable to make up for it, that's all!" she told herself philosophically, as she lifted the hand-glass, and wriggled about before the glass to view the effect of the new coiffure. It was most elaborate and hairdresser-windowish in effect, and if it were not exactly becoming, that was perhaps more her own misfortune than the fault of the operator, who had bestowed such pains upon the erection. So she declared truthfully enough that she had never felt so fine in her life, and threatened to sit at the piano the whole of the evening, so that all beholders might have an opportunity of admiring her "back hair."
Her toilet was now finished, but Ethel's bows were waiting to be tied and smoothed out, and Flora had to be laced into her dress, and to be consoled when again visited with the dread of finishing her career as the fat woman in a show. Finally, the first bell for tea was heard pealing downstairs, and away ran the three girls, leaving poor Cinderella to tidy the cubicles, and almost forgetting to thank her for her services; for in truth they had been so cheerfully rendered as to appear a favour given, rather than received.
Left to herself, Pixie stole into the corridor and flattened herself into a doorway to watch the gay figures descending the staircase. The tidying away could wait for a few moments, but it was not often that one had the opportunity of watching so festive a scene. Doors opened on every side, and out they came, one girl after another, so smart and fine that one could hardly recognise them for the blue-serged damsels of ordinary school life. Down the stairs they tripped, with rustlings of silk and crinklings of muslin, dainty white shoes, looking daintier than ever against the well-worn carpet. Such a crowd of girls, and each one looking brighter and happier than the one before. Lottie in white, Margaret in blue, with her brown hair coiled round her head in a shining chestnut coronet, one after another, until at last there was no one left, and silence reigned in the corridor, broken only by a little sniff and sigh from the shadow of a doorway. "And one little p-ig stayed at h-ome," sighed Pixie, trying hard to laugh, and assiduously licking the tears from her cheeks, as she hung school skirts in the cupboards, and folded everyday garments on bedroom chairs, in readiness for use on the following day.
"Now they are all sitting down and beginning to eat! There'll be nothing but jam and cakes and elegant bread-and-butter—so thin you might eat a plateful, and starve upon it! I wonder what they'll be sending me upstairs. I couldn't look at a bit of plain food, but plum cake would be medicine to me. Me digestion was always delicate. Bridgie said so. 'The child needs tempting!' I've heard her say, over and over again, when the milk pudding came in at the door, and my appetite went out. I must go to the schoolroom now, I suppose, for Miss Phipps said I must be in my bed by seven. Ellen has the soft heart—I wouldn't wonder if she brought me something nice to cheer me spirits!"
Buoyed up by this hope, she ran off to the classroom, and there was Ellen herself at the door, looking at her with such kind, sorry-looking eyes, as if there was nothing she would like better than to carry her bodily downstairs.
"Your tea is ready, Miss Pixie. Miss Emily's orders were that I was not to bring you any cake, but I have brought something else that you will like better."
What could that be? Pixie rushed to the table, and oh, joy of joys, there lay a big fat letter with the Bally William postmark in the corner, and Bridgie's dear, well-known writing straggling over its surface. No one in the world wrote such sweet letters as Bridgie, and how dear of her to time this one to arrive at the moment of all others when it was most desired! Pixie gloated over it with sparkling eyes, kissed it, hugged it, poked at it with her fingers to discover exactly how many sheets it might contain, and finally devoured it and the bread- and-butter together in one long beam of delight.
"Littlest and dearest, do you want to see us all, and know what we are doing? It is eight o'clock, and we have had three dinners in succession, each lordly male waiting until the other had finished his meal before he could resign himself to come indoors, and at the third coming Molly sent for me to the kitchen to give warning for this day month, which same I took smiling, for it's never a bribe she would take to leave Knock Castle while an O'Shaughnessy was within its walls. It's Pat that's sitting at the table now, eating apples and cracking nuts as languid as if the day was his own, and Esmeralda frowning thunder at him because she wants the table to draw a sketch for the newest picture, which is to make all our fortunes yet. The Major is reading the newspaper, and groaning aloud at every comma, because the Government has no sense at all, and the only man who could put things straight is tied by the heel by half a dozen children. The dogs are sitting in a circle round Pat, watching every bite with such big, longing eyes, and myself writing on my knee by the fire, with the ink on the fender,—looking threatening at the rug! Says Esmeralda, 'Five days more, and we shall see her again,' meaning yourself, to whom I write. 'Will she be grown, I'm wondering! She's too small altogether, and yet we don't want our Pixie changed. And the mimic she is! Wait till we hear the fine English talk, and have her correcting us all, on account of our brogue!' Then Pat must up and say there was no room for him and an English accent in the Castle at the same time, and the Major rebuked him, and asked was it for pleasure he paid as much for schooling as could be spent sensibly on as fine a hunter as a man could wish, and besought us all to put ourselves at your feet, and learn what you could teach us. Then Esmeralda sighed and clasped her hands, and says she, 'It's tired to death I am of my own family, and longing to meet somebody who has seen more of the world than Bally William. Couldn't we tell the Pixie to bring home one of her friends with her, to divert us during the Christmas holidays?' and at that we all called out together, for we have been dull without you, little one, and looking forward to a frolic on Christmas. Last year we were all too sad thinking of the dear mother, but this year she will want to see us happy. I am sure she sees us, and often and often when I sit alone sewing as she used to do, I think about her, and feel she is near still, and it's only because my eyes are dim that I can't see her. Well then, dearie, think over your friends, and decide which it shall be! There's room at Castle Knock for anyone who has been kind to its baby, and it won't be our fault if she hasn't a happy memory of Old Ireland."
The letter went on for another sheet, but Pixie's mind was so full of this new idea that she was hardly able to take in the words, on which her eye rested. To take home a friend to Bally William! To give an invitation on her own account, and be able to show the glories of the dear old Castle! This was indeed a dazzling prospect, and the problem of deciding which friend it should be kept her occupied even when tea was over, and she was undergoing the humiliation of putting herself to bed in the chilly little cubicle. Should it be Margaret? No; for Margaret, with all her sweetness, had little sense of humour, and though Pixie could not reason out the matter for herself, she yet realised instinctively that she would be uncomfortable and out of place in the haphazard atmosphere of the Irish household. Should it be Kate? No, that would not do either, for at first sight Kate was not prepossessing, and the Major and the boys would certainly take a dislike to her straightway. Should it be Flora—dear, fat, good-tempered Flora? But what fun Esmeralda would make of her, to be sure, and how helpless she would be when attacked by the boys' badinage! Pixie grew quite tired and sleepy puzzling out the question; her eyelids drooped down and down until the lashes rested upon her cheeks, and her thoughts passed unconsciously into dreams.
Meantime, in the large classroom downstairs the other thirty pupils were enjoying themselves with a zest all the greater for the dullness of the weeks which had gone before. The floor had been sponged with milk until it was quite smooth and slippery, a table supplied with such refreshments as lemonade, ginger-beer, and sweet biscuits, was placed outside the door, and the violin pupils took it in turns to accompany the piano, so that nothing was lacking to enhance the grandeur of the occasion. Pretty little programmes were distributed around the room; blue for the ladies, pink for the "gentlemen," and after each dance the couples marched round and round the room, conversing together as if they were at "a real party," and tabooing the affairs of ordinary school life. Then the gentlemen deposited their partners on chairs, and inquired, "May I bring you a little refreshment?" until the last drop of lemonade was drained, and only crumbs remained in the cake-baskets. They were all flushed and panting with the vigour with which they had joined in the dance, and at last Miss Phipps thought it wise to call a halt.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, you must really sit down for ten minutes!" she cried laughingly. "If you get so overheated, you will be catching chills next, and I am sure you don't want to be invalided just before the holidays. Come and take your places round the room, and we will ask Lottie to dance her pretty scarf-dance for us, as she looks the only cool member of the party. There's your scarf, dear, in that drawer, and Miss Bruce will play for you. You dance so nicely that it is a pleasure to see it."
Lottie blushed with pleasure at such words of praise, and took her place in the centre of the room with smiling alacrity, and the watchers whispered admiringly to each other as they looked at the dainty, satin- clad figure. Lottie was not really pretty, but she was always so charmingly dressed that she gave the effect of beauty, and to-night in her gala frock she certainly looked her best. She danced gracefully and modestly, waving her chiffon scarf in the air, and moving it to and fro in a manner which looked easy enough, but which was in reality extremely difficult, and required no little effort of strength, so that by the time the dance was finished she was as flushed as her friends, and her breath came in quick, short pants. Poof—how hot she felt, and how tired! It was a relief to give the scarf into Mademoiselle's outstretched hands, and be free to feel for a handkerchief with which to wipe the moisture from her brow. There was a little difficulty in finding her pocket, and the girls watched her fumbles with amused attention. It was a little pause in the evening's entertainment, and for want of something better to do all eyes were fixed upon the figure which stood so prominently in the middle of the room. "Try again!" they cried encouragingly, and Lottie made yet another dive downwards. This time she was successful, for her hand disappeared into her pocket, and presently jerked upwards, bringing with it a small lace handkerchief rolled up into a ball, as if it had lain forgotten since the last time that the dress was worn. She flicked it in the air, and at that something flew out and clattered on the floor near her feet. Mademoiselle stooped to pick it up, and threw up her hands with a cry of dismay. It was a piece of glass, about half an inch in size, and in one corner was clearly discernible the end of an engraved letter—the letter "T!"
"Pixie, awake! awake! Oh, Pixie, open your eyes! Get up, dear, get up! We want you downstairs!"
Margaret bent over Pixie's bedside, tears shining in her eyes, and lifting the slight figure in her arms, shook it to and fro, until the grey eyes opened in astonishment, and a sleepy voice murmured—
"Is't morning? Time get up?"
"Morning, no! It is not nine o'clock, and Miss Phipps thought you would certainly be awake, with so much music going on; but it's no use, I must wake you, whatever happens! Here's your dressing-gown. Here are your bedroom slippers. You have to come downstairs with me this minute!"
"Am I the queen?" asked Pixie, waking up all in a moment, and peering mischievously into Margaret's face. "When you are wakened up in the middle of the night, and taken downstairs in your dressing-gown and slippers, it's either a fire, or you are the queen, and the courtiers are waiting to kiss your hand. You know it is, Margaret! You have seen it in the pictures!"
"Yes, I've seen it? and perhaps there may be courtiers waiting for you, Pixie; and kisses too, and a dear little crown to put on that shaggy head! Great excitements have happened since you went to bed, and we know now that it was not you who broke Mademoiselle's scent-bottle. We are almost certain that it was Lottie herself, and Miss Phipps has sent for you to help us!"
Pixie gave a start of dismay, and the laughter died out of her face, leaving it scared and white. Her fingers tightened round Margaret's arm, and she hung back trembling as they neared the schoolroom door. Another moment and they stood within the threshold, looking round on what seemed suddenly to have taken upon itself the aspect of a court of justice. The girls were as before ranged round the walls, and at the end of the room stood a row of teachers; Fraulein and Miss Bruce flushed and excited, Mademoiselle with tears in her eyes, Miss Phipps with an awful sternness of expression, which gave place to a momentary softness as she looked at the new-comers. Pixie glanced at them all, one after the other, and from them to the figure standing in the centre of the room, like a prisoner at the bar, her face white as her dress, her eyes full of terror and despair. She gave a sharp cry of distress, and rushed forward with outstretched arms.
"Lottie, Lottie, I didn't tell! I never told—Lottie, Lottie, I kept my word!"
A deep murmur sounded through the room as each hearer drew her breath in a sob of mingled conviction and regret, and of all the number Lottie seemed the most affected. She burst into a paroxysm of tears, clasped Pixie in an hysterical embrace, then, thrusting her aside, turned eagerly towards Miss Phipps.
"Oh, I will tell—I will! It was all my fault—Pixie had nothing to do with it—I will tell you all about it."
"It is more than time, Lottie. Begin at once, and pray calm yourself until you have finished!" returned Miss Phipps coldly; and Lottie wiped away her tears, and struggled to keep back the rising sobs.
"It was the night of the term-holiday—I was going out—I was dressed and going along the passage, and Mademoiselle's door stood open, and I saw the light shining upon the gold of the scent-bottle. I had no scent of my own, and I thought I would go in and take a little of Mademoiselle's. I knew she would give it to me if I asked, and if I told her next day there wouldn't be any harm. But I was in a hurry, and I heard Pixie calling, and I put the bottle down too quickly, and the glass struck the corner of the table and fell into pieces in my hand. I was so frightened—and there was no time to think, for Pixie was running along the passage, so I just mopped up the scent with my handkerchief, and flew to the door. I suppose the piece of glass must have got in then, for the handkerchief has never been out of my pocket until to- night. Pixie said, 'Oh, what a smell of scent!' and I said something—I forget what—about its being rude to make remarks, and ran downstairs as quickly as I could go. I was so wretched all the evening I didn't know what to do. I thought when it was found out Pixie would be sure to tell; but when I came home the girls all said how lucky I was to have been out, for no one could suspect me, and I said nothing. And I saw Mademoiselle crying, and I said nothing, and then I was afraid to speak, for it was too late! Pixie came to me next morning and said, 'Lottie, they think I broke the bottle because I was the only girl in Mademoiselle's room last night; but I know that you were there too, and that you had been taking some scent!' and I begged and prayed her not to tell anyone else. I was so confused that I let her see I had broken it, but I said if she told I should get into trouble with my father, and she promised at once. She was so willing, that I didn't feel as uncomfortable as I expected, but I was miserable when everyone blamed her, and she was punished. I comforted myself by thinking that I would ask her to stay with me in the holidays, and make it up to her then. She never told me what she was doing in Mademoiselle's room—I tried to believe that she was really to blame. She might have cracked the bottle, and that was why it broke so easily!"
"And so the best reward you could give to the friend who shielded you at her own expense was to suspect her of deceit! That will do, Lottie! You can go to your own room now. I will deal with you to-morrow. Now we will hear what Pixie has to say!"
Miss Phipps paused impressively for a moment, and then spoke again in tones so sweet and gentle that it was difficult to recognise them as coming from the same voice which had spoken but a moment before.
"Pixie, you have heard Lottie's explanation. I will speak about that later on, but now I have a favour to ask you. For my sake, dear—for all our sakes—to help us to get at the whole truth of this unhappy affair, I ask you to tell me frankly what you were doing in Mademoiselle's room when Ellen saw you there?"
Pixie hung her head, and her cheeks grew am scarlet as the scarlet dressing-gown itself. She lifted one little slippered foot and stood perched on the other like a funny little ruffled stork in the midst of the shining floor, and the watching faces of the girls were pretty to see with their expressions of tender amusement and sympathy.
"Please, Miss Phipps," said Pixie hoarsely, "I was doing nothing. I was only after putting in the hot bottle!"
Miss Phipps stared, Mademoiselle gave a sharp exclamation of surprise, and turned impetuously to her Principal.
"The 'ot bottle! It is true. I 'ave one every night, but I thought that Ellen—that one of the maids—"
"We have put no hot bottle in your bed, Mademoiselle. It is Miss Emily's rule that any of the young ladies may have bottles of their own, if they take the trouble to fill them in the bathroom as they go to bed, and to put them back there in the morning. We never put one in a bed unless in the case of illness," said Ellen, who stood in a corner of the room, one of the most anxious and interested of the spectators; and at that Miss Phipps turned once more to Pixie.
"Then are we to understand that it was your own bottle of which you are talking? And what made you think of lending it to Mademoiselle?"
"She told me that she was always cold," said Pixie faintly. "I didn't like to think of her lying there shivering. Bridgie gave me the bottle when I came away in a little red flannel cover. 'You're such a frog!' says she, 'maybe this will warm you,' but I just roll my feet in my nightgown and hug them in my hands until they are warm. I thought perhaps Mademoiselle couldn't do that. Ye can't bend so easy when you're old, so she needed the bottle most."
"Ma petite!" cried Mademoiselle. "Ma cherie!"—and she would have rushed forward and taken Pixie into her arms straight away, had not Miss Phipps held her back with a restraining touch.
"One more question, Pixie, and remember I place absolute reliance on what you say, for you have given proof that you are to be trusted. You heard Lottie's insinuation that you might have had some share in the accident! Had you touched the scent-bottle at all that night?"
"I had not, Miss Phipps!" The grey eyes looked into the face of the questioner with a steady light. "I never noticed it at all until the girls began talking about it, and then said I, 'I must have a look at that bottle before I'm much older,' and so I did that very same evening, but never a finger did I lay upon it. I put me hands behind me back and just doubled meself over the table—like this!—looking at it all I knew, but not daring as much as to breathe upon it, and from that hour I was never within yards of its presence."
"I understand! But why, dear, have you refused to give us this simple explanation all these weeks? It was surely only to your credit that you had thought of Mademoiselle's comfort before your own, so there was no reason for being so secret about it. Did you not see that it would have helped your cause to have given this explanation?"
"I—didn't—like!" said Pixie, twisting her finger in and out in embarrassed fashion. "It was this way—that first night you were all so cross and so certain that it was me, because I had been in the room, that I was shy about telling. You see Mademoiselle would have been obliged to be pleased with me, and she wasn't feeling disposed to be pleased just then, and it would seem as if I were trying to get off blame, by boasting of what I'd done. I can't explain my feelings, but I couldn't tell! The next day it would have been different, but Lottie begged me not to say what I knew, and we never told tales of each other at home. The boys would have been cut in pieces before they had rounded on each other, so of course I had to give my word. It was very miserable, because no one loved me, and in my home we have very affectionate ways, the one with the other; but Lottie said it was only a little time to the holidays, and after that all would be forgotten. She did say she would ask me to visit her, and I wouldn't hurt her feelings by saying No, so I just wrote and told Bridgie to say I couldn't be spared, for I can't go anywhere but my own home. And she said her father would be so angry with her if he knew, that never another happy moment would she have, and I knew my people wouldn't mind!"
"And did you tell your people how unhappy you were? Did you tell them what trouble you were in?" queried Miss Phipps softly, and at that Pixie shook her head with great emphasis.
"I did not, Miss Phipps—I wouldn't dare! They would be so terribly angry!"
"But you said a moment ago that they 'wouldn't mind'! Then how could they be angry with you, dear?" asked Miss Phipps, smiling, and Pixie bent her head with a quick propitiatory bow.
"'Deed, it was yourself they would be angry with,—not me! If the two Houses of Parliament were walking up to Knock Castle and telling them that Pixie had told a lie and stuck to it for a month on end, they would only be calling shame upon them, to have nothing better to do than take away a lady's character, and the Major would say, 'Twelve years have I known her, and never the day that she wasn't up to her neck in mischief, but no child of mine ever looked in my face and gave me the lie, and Pixie's not the one to begin.' So never a word did I say, but just that the examinations were coming on, and we were not allowed to go out."
"Pixie, come here!" cried Miss Phipps; and when the girl approached she received her with outstretched arms and framed the thin little face with her hands. "Little Pixie," she said softly, "never say again that no one loves you in this house. I have loved you from the first, and have felt it a real trouble to be obliged to doubt you, and now I love you a hundred times more for your loyalty and unselfish consideration for your friend. You would have been wiser to be more candid about your own doings, but I appreciate your scruples, and the school code of honour has so many good points that I cannot bring myself to say that it should have been broken. As for the conduct of a girl who would let another suffer as you have done rather than bear the consequences of her own misdoing, I have no words to express my horror and indignation, especially when she is a senior and you one of the youngest in the school. It shows a want of principle which makes me despair of her future. A sudden slip or disobedience I could pardon, but not deliberate deceit, and I am too fond of my girls, and too anxious about their welfare, to allow such an influence to remain in their midst."
Like the shiver of wind among the trees, the word "Expelled!" came from a dozen quivering lips, and Pixie O'Shaughnessy clasped her hands in horrified appeal.
"Oh, ye wouldn't—ye wouldn't send her away! Ye wouldn't give her over to her father, and him so stern and cruel with her! If she's been bad now, she was good before. The girls were fond of her, and she was kind to meself, lending me her lace collar and all the fixings for the party. If it's for making me miserable you are after punishing her, I'll be more miserable than ever, and the girls will be miserable too—ask them if they won't! Lots of them think there isn't another to touch her in the school, and they couldn't do that if she was all bad. Punish her some other way, but oh, don't, don't send her away! What's the use of me taking all the trouble if it's to be no good after all?"
A smile came to Miss Phipps's lips at the innocent directness of the question, but she grew grave enough the next moment, and her voice sounded both sad and troubled as she replied—
"You certainly give us a lesson in the way to forgive our enemies, Pixie, and I should be sorry to do anything that would make you 'miserable'; but I must think of Lottie's good before our own preferences. Mr Vane is too good and just a man to treat her unkindly, and is only stern because he has realised the weakness of her character. He is too anxious about her welfare to make it right for me to conceal anything from him, especially so flagrant a breach of honour; but perhaps—I don't know—if the feeling of the girls themselves is in her favour, I may consent to give her another chance. I am glad to hear that she has been kind—"
"Lottie is very good-natured, Miss Phipps. She is a favourite with the girls. They would be sorry to lose her. I think it would be a punishment to her to feel that she had fallen so much in their opinion, and we would all like to give her another chance," said Margaret timidly, and Miss Phipps nodded kindly in reply.
"Ah, well, we can decide nothing to-night. It will need careful thinking over, and meanwhile we will banish the subject and make the most of the time that is left. I am very sorry for the interruption, although in one sense we are glad of it too, for it has brought Pixie back amongst us. She must go upstairs and dress quickly, and then we will have supper and put away unpleasant thoughts, and Mademoiselle must really dry her eyes, for I cannot have any more crying to-night."
"If Peexie will forgeeve me!" cried Mademoiselle, stretching out her arms and clasping Pixie in so tight an embrace that when her little snub nose came again in sight, it bore the pattern of a steel button plainly stamped upon it. "I won't forgeeve myself that I was so 'arsh and cross. It was a poor thanks, cherie, for your kindness to me all these weeks when I have been so warm and comfortable. I am ashamed to remember what I have done."
"Small blame to you if you were mad when you believed I was telling a lie to your face! But ye weren't half so nasty as ye think ye were," said Pixie, beaming upon her in sweetest condescension. "Sometimes ye were quite agreeable. There was one day I was in with a cold, and ye came and cheered up me spirits until I hardly knew meself for the same creature."
Mademoiselle lifted her hands with an eloquent gesture, as a sudden remembrance darted into her mind.
"Ah, yes! It is true. And now I have something else to tell you, you girls! It is Pixie whom you have to thank for this party, not me. It was she who begged me to supplicate Miss Phipps for you. She said, 'She will say Yes if it is you who ask, but not to me, therefore you must not say my name at all; but if she will not give the party because I am to be punished, tell her to send me to bed and let the rest be 'appy.' The dear child has thought of you when you were all so cross with her!"
There was an outburst of cheering from all corners of the room, in the midst of which Evelyn fell back in her chair and tugged with both hands at her long dark locks.
"And I called her a hardened little sinner! I abused her like a pickpocket, and called her an ungrateful serpent! Bring some sackcloth and ashes, somebody, quickly! I shall go in mourning for the rest of my life!"
AN UNEXPECTED INVITATION.
"That child Pixie is more wonderful than ever. What do you think she asks me next?" said Mademoiselle to Miss Phipps early the next morning. "The dear Breedgie has told her to invite a friend to return 'ome with her for the holidays, and she gives me the letter to read, and asks that it shall be me! I have laughed, but it is no use; she is still in earnest. I have said, 'I am not a schoolgirl, and too old for you, my dear.' She stares in my face, and asks, ''Ow old are you then? Not more than forty, are you?' Ah, dear! If someone else had said that, I had been furious, for one does not like to be made ten years too old, but one cannot be angry with that child. Then I said, 'Your sister will expect a girl like yourself, and will be disappointed to see me, and that would be uncomfortable for both.' But she would not listen to that either, but declared it would be still better for them, for they had wished for someone who had seen the world. Nothing that I can say will convince her, but you know it is impossible that I should go!"
"Well, really, Therese, I wish you would!" returned Miss Phipps, laughing. "It has been a weight on my mind to think of your remaining here alone during the holidays; and I cannot stay with you, for I am bound to go to my old aunt. As for Pixie taking one of the girls home with her, that is out of the question at this hour of the day. If Miss O'Shaughnessy had sent an invitation even a fortnight ago, it might have been arranged, but now there is no time to write, and get permission, and make the necessary plans. It is only in a case like yours, when there is no one else to consult, that such a very Irish invitation could be accepted; so either you go with Pixie, or she returns alone. And that reminds me of another thing. It would be a comfort to me if you could look after the child on the journey, for I have had a letter from the brother to say that he cannot decide definitely on what day he will cross. How would it be if you accepted the invitation for one week, took the child safely home, and just left it to circumstances to decide what to do after that?"
"You think I might venture—really?" asked Mademoiselle eagerly. Her eyes brightened, and a flush of colour came into her cheek. "If it would not be too absurd, I should like it ver' much! We have heard so much of those dear sisters that we seem to know them already, and I should be glad of the change. If, for example, you would write and say you would be more comfortable if I accompanied the child, and that I would stay a few days—that would perhaps make it easier!"
"Certainly, with pleasure; and I shall be so glad if it ends in a nice holiday for you, dear! The last part of the term has been so trying that we all need cheering up; and, from all we hear, I should think the household at Knock Castle must be a delightful study. Young Mr O'Shaughnessy has promised to call this afternoon, so you had better come down and talk to him yourself. I am sure you will find that he is as cordial as Pixie herself."
This, indeed, proved to be the case, and greatly charmed was Mademoiselle with the handsome youth, who beamed upon her with Pixie's own smile, and who was so much warmer and more enthusiastic in his manner than his English brothers. Jack, indeed, was an apt disciple of the Blarney Stone, and could pay compliments with any man in Ireland. He gazed at Mademoiselle with an expression in his eyes which seemed to say that never, no, never, had he met so charming a woman; his voice gurgled with emotion as he seconded his sister's invitation, and he bade her welcome to Knock Castle with the graciousness of a prince of the blood. So handsome he looked, too, that Pixie's heart swelled with pride, as she beheld him seated on the sofa, in his frock coat and freshly creased trousers, looking, as she mentally expressed it, as if he never "gave a thought to money," which in good truth was the case, though in another sense to that in which she meant it. The West End tailor would have a weary time to wait before Mr Jack troubled himself to pay for all his fine new clothes!
Jack declared that it would be of all things the most helpful if Mademoiselle would escort Pixie home, for he himself would have to leave his journey until the very last moment before Christmas, when travelling would be both difficult and unpleasant. He offered to telegraph to his sisters, prophesied that Mademoiselle would receive an immediate response, so that before he left the house the matter was virtually settled, and the extraordinary news spread through the school that Mademoiselle was going home with Pixie O'Shaughnessy to pay a visit to her relatives. Surprise was the first feeling, envy the next, and the elder pupils were urgent in their demands for letters.
"Write to us, Maddie, do! Promise you will! We are all dying to hear what they are like. Tell us if Esmeralda is really as beautiful as Pixie says, and what Bridgie is like, and the boys, and 'the Major,' and the Castle itself. And tell us all you do, and exactly what happens when you arrive. Write one really long, detaily letter, and we will send it the round of the class, so that we will all get the benefit. You will, Maddie, won't you? We do want so badly to know about Pixie's home!"
Mademoiselle laughed merrily. It was astonishing how bright and young she looked in the prospect of the unexpected holiday. She was in such a good temper that it seemed really impossible for her to say No.
"I will tell you what I can, but you know it is not comme il faut to criticise the house, in which you stay. I will write all the pleasant things, but for the jokes—the contretemps, no! Pixie shall do that if she will, I must keep them to myself. If they are all as nice as the son whom I have seen, they must be charming. I have never met a more pleasant youth."
The girls wagged their heads in meaning fashion.
"We saw him!" they said meaningly—"we saw him! Pixie said he was coming about four, so we kept a lookout, and were obliged to go to the window to read some small print, just as he happened to walk up the steps. Ethel heard the bell, and stopped practising five minutes before the time, and strolled casually downstairs to meet him. He stood aside to let her pass, and she says he smiles with his eyes, just like Pixie! Oh, of course, we don't expect you to tell tales, but just to ease our curiosity. We do take such an extraordinary interest in that family!"
"There is another family in which I take an even greater interest just now, and that's the Vanes!" remarked Kate meaningly. "Miss Phipps wrote to Mr Vane, and I met poor Lottie just now with eyes all magenta with crying over a letter she had just received from him. She saw I was sorry for her, and I think she was thankful to have someone to talk to, for she asked me to read it." She threw up her hands with a gesture of dismay. "Well, I don't know what I should do if my father wrote me a letter like that!"
"Ow-w-ow!" Ethel shivered dramatically. "How horrible! What did he say? Was it terribly furious?"
"It wasn't furious at all, not even angry; but oh, so sad and solemn that it made you turn cold to read it! 'It had tears in it,' as Fraulein said of Margaret's singing, and you could tell he was so bitterly, bitterly disappointed! Lottie felt that more than if he had been cross, for she does so love to be loved and fussed over; and if ever there was a poor thing scared out of her wits at the thought of to- morrow, it is herself at this moment. He comes to take her away, you know, and instead of the holidays being a relief, as she expected, she is longing for them to be over. She says now that she would rather not come back here, but go to some fresh school where no one knows about this trouble; but her father thinks it would be good for her to suffer the humiliation of losing her position among us, and says if Miss Phipps will have her, she must try to regain our esteem. Ah, well, I was as disgusted with her as anyone could be, and felt inclined never to speak to her again when I thought how she had treated the Pixie; but I am dreadfully sorry for her now, when I compare her home-going with my own. I do have such a time! The family is one beam of delight when I arrive; the children quarrel who shall sit by me at table, and I have all my favourite puddings. My room looks so sweet with flowers on the dressing-table, and I sit up till ten o'clock, and mother comes to see me in bed and gives me a lovely hug. Fifty-two more hours! I'm so happy I couldn't be angry with my deadliest enemy!"
"I saw Mr Vane once, and he looks a regular grey man," said Ethel in reply. "Clothes, and hair, and eyes, and skin—all the same washed-out grey. I don't wonder Lottie is in awe of him, and I'm thankful I am not mixed up in the business, so that he can't ask to interview me. I believe he will want to see Pixie, though. It would seem only natural. I wouldn't say so to her for the world, but don't you think Miss Phipps will send for her when he comes?"
Some of the girls thought no, others thought yes, and events proved that the latter were in the right; for the next afternoon Pixie was summoned to the drawing-room in the middle of her packing, and entered to find Miss Phipps in earnest conversation with a tall, grave-looking man, while Lottie stood miserably by the window. She looked tall and womanly in her travelling-cloak, and the pained glance which Mr Vane turned from her to the new-comer showed that he felt all an Englishman's horror at the idea of cruelty to the weak.
"Is this—this surely can't be Pixie?" he asked anxiously. "I did not expect to see anyone so—small. She is surely very young!"
He was really speaking to Miss Phipps, but as he held Pixie's hand in his, she felt it her duty to answer for herself.
"No—I'm really quite old, but I'm stunted. I'm twelve!" she said, smiling up at him, with the confiding look which was her best introduction to a stranger. She was about to enlighten him still further as to the respective heights of the different members of her family, but a curious quiver passed over the grey face, and scared her into silence.
"Twelve, are you, and Lottie is sixteen! I sent for you, Pixie, to tell you how bitterly grieved Mrs Vane and I are to think of all you have suffered through our daughter's cowardice. I wish it were in our power to do something for you in return, but I hope at least that Lottie has expressed her regret before leaving, and begged your forgiveness!"
"No, she didn't beg anything. She just cried, and hugged me, and I cried, and hugged her back. I knew she was sorry from the beginning; and it was worse for her, because she knew all the time that she was wrong, and I was quite comfortable inside. And she was very kind to me before that. I liked her very much. She gave me an elegant little brooch that she didn't want any longer."
Mr Vane turned aside, and looked into Miss Phipps's face, and Miss Phipps looked back at him with a glance half smiling, half tearful, and withal wholly proud, as though justified in something about which she had previously been inclined to boast.
"Pixie finds no difficulty in forgiving, Mr Vane, and I think the best thanks you could give her would be an opportunity of befriending Lottie still further, and helping her to regain her position in the school. I think it is an encouraging omen for the future that it is the girls themselves who have persuaded me to take her back."
"They are very good! You are all very good," he said sadly. "I need hardly say how much I appreciate your kindness. Good-bye, then, little Pixie O'Shaughnessy, and I hope we may meet again under happier circumstances. May you have happy holidays!"
"I'm going home," said Pixie eloquently. Her radiant face made such a striking contrast to that other bleached, frightened-looking visage that the father's heart softened as he looked from one to the other. He took Lottie's hand and drew it tenderly through his arm.
"And so is Lottie, and if her parents seem stern with her, it is only because they are anxious for her good. She perhaps hardly realises the bitter pain it gives them to see her unhappy."
"Father!" cried Lottie eagerly, and now for the first time she clung to him instead of shrinking out of sight, and seemed to find comfort in the touch of his hand. The fifth-form girls, peeping cautiously out of the window a few minutes later, were amazed to see her descend the steps holding tightly to his arm, but they were too much engrossed with their own exciting preparations to have time to ponder over the phenomenon. Only Miss Phipps and Pixie knew that the "grey man" had a tender heart despite his sternness, and that Lottie had fallen into wise and loving care.
The next morning all was excitement and bustle, cabs and omnibuses driving up to the door of Holly House to convey parties of pupils to the station, gushing farewells and promises to write taking place on the staircase, mysterious bundles, "not to be opened until Christmas morning," slipped into trunks at the last moment, and such racings up and down stairs in search of things forgotten as can be better imagined than described when thirty girls half-mad with excitement are on the point of starting for home.
Mademoiselle and Pixie were among the first to leave, and, despite the very early hour of their departure, came in for such a magnificent "send off" that they felt quite like royal personages as they drove away from the door. Meals would be supplied on train and boat, but they were laden with other comforts for the long journey in the shape of sweets, scent, books to read, and, alas! specifics against sea-sickness. Mademoiselle looked pensive whenever she thought of the hours on board the boat, but for the rest she was as gay as one of the girls themselves, and much interested in the country through which they flew. One great town after another appeared, and was left behind as they roared through the stations, seeing nothing but a blur of white faces and undecipherable letters upon a board. Hour after hour and never a stop, morning changing into afternoon, and still no slackening of that wonderful onward rush. Two o'clock, and then, just as Pixie was beginning to nod after her lunch, a sudden cry of admiration came from Mademoiselle by her side, and there, close at hand, so near that but a step would have taken them upon the beach, lay the beautiful, mysterious sea, its waters shining in the winter sunshine, the breakers making a ridge of white along the yellow shore. The bathing vans were drawn up on the shingle, and there were no active little figures running to and fro digging castles on the sands, no nigger minstrels and gingerbread stalls and swarms of donkey-boys. All was still and bare and lifeless, and as the short day closed in there was an eeriness about the scene which made the travellers glad to draw the curtains over the windows, and which gave an added cheeriness to the prospect of tea. When Holyhead was reached, Mademoiselle lifted her bag and walked on board the steamer with the air of a martyr marching to the stake, and, to Pixie's dismay, laid herself down at once with an utter disregard of the tables spread out in the saloon. She waited in what patience she could command until they were well on their way and the preparations for the evening meal grew more advanced, and then it was impossible to remain silent any longer.
"Would ye not be taking something to warm ye, Mademoiselle?" she inquired anxiously. "There's a lovely smell of cooking—two smells. One of them is cabbage, and the other smells like gravy spilt in the oven. Doesn't it make you hungry, that nice greasy smell?"
But Mademoiselle only groaned and bade her eat a biscuit and be silent; so for mere occupation's sake the wisest thing seemed to be to go to sleep, which she proceeded to do with extraordinary quickness. Such an amount of groanings and clanking of chains mingled with her dreams that they naturally took the shape of confinement within prison walls, where she suffered many and wonderful adventures, and from which she was on the point of escaping under the most romantic circumstances when she was seized in the grasp of the jailer, as she at first supposed, but it turned out to be Mademoiselle herself—such a haggard, dishevelled Mademoiselle!—who bade her get up and put on her hat, for the sea was crossed at last, and they were anchored at the quay at Dublin. Pixie felt as if roused in the middle of the night, and altogether it was a most dejected-looking couple who went shivering across the gangway in the pouring rain and made their way to the train for the third and last stage of the journey. Neither spoke, but just lay prone against the cushions of the railway carriage, so much asleep as to be uncomfortably aware that they were awake, so much awake as to long hopelessly for sleep. Mademoiselle determined drearily to send for her aged father, and spend the rest of her life in enforced exile on this grey, rain- swept island, since never, never again could she summon up courage to cross that dreadful sea, and the night seemed half over when Bally William was reached at last.
The station clock was pointing to eleven, and a broken-down fly was waiting to convey the travellers to their destination. In the dim light the surroundings looked both poor and squalid, but porter and flyman vied with one another in a welcome so warm that it went far to dissipate the cheerlessness of the scene.
Pixie discoursed with them in animated fashion the while the trunks were being hoisted to their places.
"Has anyone been here from the Castle to-day, Dennis? They are all quite well, I suppose?"
"They are so, Miss Pixie, and Miss Joan down upon us this morning, hinting of what would happen if Jock was forgetting the fly. You mind the night the lady was arriving, and having to find her way in the dark while he was snoring in his bed? It's a fine flow of language Miss Joan has of her own. It's as good as a sermon to listen to her when she's roused, and Jock was getting the benefit of it this day!"
"There's a fine tale he's spinning!" exclaimed the defaulting Jock, grinning in unabashed complacency. "Don't you be after believing a word of it, Miss Pixie dear. It would be a cold bed that would keep Jock Magee from driving ye home this night. And the size of ye too. You've grown out of knowledge! It's a fine strapping lass you will be one of these days." And Jock gazed with simulated amazement at the elf-like figure as it stepped forward into the lamplight. "My Molly was biddin' me give you her duty, and say her eyes are longing for the sight of you again."
"I'll come to-morrow, as soon as I can get away. Give Molly my love, Jock, and say I was often thinking of her. He is a decent fellow, Jock Magee!" she explained to her companion, as the ramshackle vehicle trundled away in the darkness. "A decent fellow, but he has been terrible unlucky with his wives. They fall ill on him as soon as they're married, and cost him pounds in doctors and funerals. This one has asthma, and he expects she will die too before very long. He says it doesn't give a man a chance; but he's the wonderful knack for keeping up his spirits!"
He had indeed. Mademoiselle found it difficult to think of the jovial, round-faced Jehu as the victim of domestic afflictions, and for the hundredth time she reflected that this Ireland to which she had come was a most extraordinary place. Nothing could be seen from the windows of the fly save an occasional tree against the sky, but ever up and up they climbed, while the wind blew round them in furious blasts. Then suddenly came a bend in the road, and a vision of twinkling windows, row upon row, stretching from one wing to the other of a fine old building, and each window glowing with its own cheery welcome.
"It's illumined!" cried Pixie wildly, pinching Mademoiselle's arm in her excitement. "It's illumined! Oh, Bridgie, Bridgie, did I ever see! Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle, did ye ever have a castle illumined for you before? Did they ever give you such a welcome in your own country?"
"Never, never!" cried Mademoiselle. She was almost as excited as Pixie herself, craning forward to peer out of the windows, counting breathlessly the long line of lights, and reflecting that she had not sufficiently realised the grandeur of the household, to which she was coming. Another moment and a still brighter light shone through an opened doorway, and a chorus of voices sang out welcome. Then the fly stopped, someone helped her to alight, a hand clasped hers affectionately, and a rich, soft voice spoke in her ears.
"Are you destroyed? The journey you've been having, poor creatures, in the wind and the rain! Are you destroyed altogether?"
This was Castle Knock indeed, and Bridgie O'Shaughnessy's fair face beamed a welcome upon her.
KNOCK CASTLE ONCE MORE.
Mademoiselle was so exhausted that she begged to retire at once, and was forthwith escorted to a huge cavern of a room, which boasted tapestried walls, an oaken ceiling, and a four-poster bed large enough to have accommodated the whole fifth-form at a pinch. It looked cheery enough, however, in the light of a great peat fire, and the visitor was feeling so unwell after her stormy crossing that her one overpowering desire was to lay her head upon the pillows, and revel in the consciousness that her journeyings were at an end. Her tact suggested also that this affectionate family would be glad to have their baby to themselves for the first meeting; but when she woke up refreshed and vigorous the following morning, she was full of eagerness to get downstairs, and make the acquaintance of the O'Shaughnessys in their own home. The night before she had been so faint and dazed that she had gone automatically through the various introductions, and as the lights inside the rooms were by no means as bright as those at the windows, even the very faces seemed seen through a mist. But Bridget had mentioned eight o'clock as the breakfast-hour, so Mademoiselle leaped out of bed, and, wondering a little why no one appeared to bring tea, hot water, or a bath, made the best work of her toilet which was possible under the circumstances.
Truth to tell, the room did not appear so attractive in the light of a dark December morning, aided by one flickering candle upon the dressing- table. The tapestry was worn into holes, the carpet was threadbare, and the silk curtains had faded to a dull grey hue. The general aspect was so grim and dull, both within the room and outside in the wind-swept park, that the sun-loving Mademoiselle made all speed she could to get downstairs to the cheering influences of breakfast and fire. The sound of voices guided her when she reached the ground floor, and she entered a room on the right of the hall, hoping to see the family already assembled to meet her.
What a disappointment! Not one welcoming face did she see, not a sign of breakfast upon the table, and but a flicker of light on the huge grate, before which knelt one untidy maid, while another stopped short in her dusting operations to stare at the new-comer with unconcealed amazement.
"Was this perhaps not the room where breakfast was held?" Mademoiselle inquired politely, but it appeared that this was the room. And she had understood Miss O'Shaughnessy to say that the hour was eight o'clock. Had she been mistaken in her impression?
Molly laughed, and shook her duster in the air, so that the atoms which she had swept together were instantly dispersed afresh.
"'Deed, you were right enough. The hour is eight, but you'll be in fine time if you're down by nine," she replied encouragingly; and poor Mademoiselle felt her heart sink at the thought of the weary hour which stretched between her and the longed-for meal. Nothing solid to eat since one o'clock yesterday, and now to have to sit shivering and watching the provisions slowly taking their place on the table, deterred by politeness from helping herself to as much as a slice of bread. She felt intensely sorry for herself, but, after all, the prospect was the worst part of the business, for the kindness of the Irish heart came to her rescue, and while Molly blew at the fire with a pair of huge leather bellows, her companion scuttled upstairs into the room where Bridgie lay sweetly sleeping, to bring her out of bed with a bound with the information that the "foreign lady was in her clothes, and after inquiring for her breakfast."
In an incredibly short space of time Bridgie appeared downstairs, and as she broke into vehement apologies, Mademoiselle had an opportunity of studying her face, and came to the conclusion that the little sister had, if anything, understated its charms. Surely never did sweeter grey eyes shelter behind curling black lashes, and look out of a broader, fairer brow. The waving hair was of purest flaxen, and the careless coiffure was as becoming as if arranged by the most skilful of hairdressers. What if the mouth were large, and the nose of no classical outline, no one who looked into Bridget O'Shaughnessy's eyes had either time or inclination to look further.
"I'm ashamed to think of you sitting here all by yourself!" she cried, holding both Mademoiselle's hands in hers, and smiling into her face with a beguiling sweetness. "We always call the breakfast-hour eight; because, if we said nine, it would be ten, and ye must be punctual in arranging for a family. But it's all for the best, for I've told Molly to bring something in at once, and you and I will have a cosy meal before the rest appear. And you are looking quite fresh and bright this morning—that's good! My heart was broken for you last night, when you came in all perished with cold. And it was so good of you to take the long journey to give us this pleasure. You don't know the excitement there was in this house when Jack's telegram arrived! If we were pleased to think of having a child for the holidays, imagine our delight when it was a girl like ourselves—a companion for Esmeralda and me!"
"A girl like ourselves!" Oh, Bridgie, Bridgie, you must have had a taste of the Blarney Stone too, to have ignored so completely the ten years which separated you from your visitor; but, needless to say, Mademoiselle bore you no grudge for your short-sightedness, and was only too happy to be classed as a girl once more.
They sat down to breakfast together, and presently one member after another of the family strolled in, and took their share in entertaining the stranger. The Major put on his most fascinating air, and revived recollections of an old visit to "Paree," and Pat and Miles stared unblinkingly at every morsel she put between her lips. They were both handsome lads, but Pat in especial had such languishing eyes, such an air of pensive melancholy, that he seemed almost too good for this wicked world, and as far as possible removed from the ordinary mischievous schoolboy. Mademoiselle wondered what beautiful poetic fancies were passing through his brain as he lay back in his chair and pushed the curls from his forehead. Then his eyes met hers, and he smiled angelic questioning.
"Do you have frogs for breakfast in your home in France, Mademoiselle?"
"Pat, be quiet! That's very rude."
"It is not, Bridgie; it's thirst for information. Or snails, Mademoiselle? Have you often eaten snails?"
"Never once, nor frogs neither. We have a breakfast much as you have here. Rolls of bread, and honey, and butter, and coffee—ver' good coffee!" and there was a regretful tone in Mademoiselle's voice, as she struggled womanfully to swallow the grounds of chicory which seemed to constitute the leading feature of coffee as served at Knock Castle. She did not intend to show her distaste, but the Major exclaimed in eager agreement with the unspoken criticism.
"And this stuff is not fit to drink! If you will teach my girls to make coffee as you have it in France, Mademoiselle, you will be doing me a lifelong favour. I suppose you can cook by instinct, like most of your countrywomen?"
"I think I can—pretty well, but I do not often get the chance. If Miss Breegie will let me teach her some of our favourite dishes, it will be a pleasure to me too! I used to be very happy cooking tempting things for my father to eat!"
"Hark to that now, Bridgie! There's no better ambition for a young girl than to wait upon her father and see to his comfort!" cried the Major solemnly; and a merry laugh rang out from the doorway as Esmeralda came forward, and standing behind his chair, clasped her arms round his neck, the while she sent her bright, inquiring glances round the table.
"The whole duty of woman is to wait upon man! and a good long time she has to wait too, if the man is anything like yourself, me dear! We will make him an omelette for his lunch this very day, Mademoiselle, if he'll promise to eat it when he returns an hour past the proper time! I hope you're well, and had a good sleep after your travels."
Mademoiselle murmured something in reply, but what, she scarcely knew, so absorbed was she in studying the charming picture made by father and daughter, the Major with his hair scarcely touched with grey, his charming smile and stalwart figure, and above him Esmeralda, in all her wonderful, gipsy-like beauty. Her hair was as dark as Bridgie's was fair, and stood out from her head in a mass of curls and waves, her features were perfect in their haughty, aquiline curves, and the bloom of youth was on her cheeks. With such hair and colouring it would have been natural to expect brown eyes, but what gave to her face its note of distinction was the fact that they were grey, and not brown—wonderful clear grey eyes, which gave the beholder a thrill of mingled surprise and admiration every time she lifted her curled black lashes and turned them upon him. Mademoiselle stared in speechless admiration, and Esmeralda's brothers and sisters stared at her in their turn, well pleased at the effect produced; for what was the use of groaning beneath the whims and tyrannies of "the beautiful Miss O'Shaughnessy," if one could not also enjoy a little honour and glory once in a while?
It was easy to see that if Pixie were the pet, Esmeralda was the pride of her father's heart, and exercised a unique influence over him. She seated herself by his side at the table, and they teased and joked together more like a couple of mischievous children than a staid, grown- up father and his daughter. The girl was quick and apt in her replies, and Mademoiselle was conscious that the Major kept turning surreptitious glances towards herself, to see if she were duly impressed by the exhibition. He evidently delighted in showing off Esmeralda's beauty and cleverness, and that in a wider circle than home, for presently he said meaningly—
"The hounds meet at Balligarry on Monday, Joan. It will be the best run we have had yet, and the whole county will be there. You'll arrange to come with me, of course."
"I'd love to, but—" Esmeralda raised her brows, and looked across the table with a glance half appealing, half apologetic—"it's Bridgie's turn! I went with you the last time."
"And the time before that!" muttered Miles into his cup; but the Major waved aside the suggestion with his accustomed carelessness. "Oh, Bridgie would rather stay at home. She'll be too much taken up with Mademoiselle to have any time to spare."
Mademoiselle looked, as she felt, decidedly uncomfortable, but the first glance at Bridgie's face sufficed to restore her complacency, for the smile was without a shadow of offence, and the voice in which she replied was cheerfulness itself.
"Indeed that's true! We can get hunting for half of the year, but it's not every day we have a visitor in the house. You go with father, Esmeralda, and don't think of me! We will have a fine little spree on our own account, Mademoiselle and I! Maybe we'll drive into Roskillie and have a look at the shops!"