"Could you look twice as nice as you do now—really?" Hilliard laughed with happy incredulity. "Esmeralda, I don't believe it; but if you marry me you shall try! I am not so poor that I cannot afford to be a little extravagant for my wife, and I promise you faithfully that you shall never be worried about the bills. I'll protect you from that, and every other trouble, I hope, my darling!"
"It—it seems to me we are getting on very fast. I thought I said that nothing was decided. Oh, please talk of something else!" cried Esmeralda urgently; and Hilliard laughed once more, and obediently discussed the weather until the Castle gates were reached.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
It was six weeks later that the girls in Holly House heard a sharp, wailing cry from within the portals of Miss Phipps's private room, and looked at each other with eyes of sympathetic understanding. The knowledge that Pixie's father was seriously ill had leaked out among the elder pupils, and this afternoon, as they returned from their walk, a telegraph boy had met them in the drive, and Mademoiselle had turned pale and muttered below her breath. Miss Phipps called her aside on entering, and at tea-time there were unmistakable tear-marks round her eyes, and she was even more affectionate than usual in her manner to Pixie,—poor, unconscious Pixie, who was in radiant spirits, and quite puffed up with pride because she had suddenly remembered a favourite exploit as practised at Knock Castle, and had issued invitations to the fifth-form to come to the classroom before tea and play the part of spectators, while she made a circuit of the room without touching the ground.
"Without—touching—the—ground! Pixie O'Shaughnessy, are you demented?" demanded Flora incredulously. "You can't fly, I suppose? Then how on earth could you get round a room without touching the floor?"
"Come with me, me dear, and you shall see," returned Pixie graciously, and forthwith led the way into the big, bare room. There was no class being held at the time, so that the performer and her friends were the only persons present; the chairs were neatly ranged beside the desks, the matches and vases of spills which usually graced the mantelpiece were placed together on a corner bracket, otherwise no article had been moved from its place. Pixie sprang lightly on to a chair near the door, kissed her hand after the manner of the lady riders at the circus, and started off on her mad career.
From one chair to another, from chair number two to the shelf of the old bookcase which filled the middle space of the wall; from the bookcase, with a leap and a bound, on to the oak chest in which were stored drawing-books and copies; from the chest to another chair, and thence with a whoop and wildly waving hands to the end of an ordinary wooden form. Why that form did not collapse at once, and land the invader on the floor, no one of the spectators could understand! Flora gave a hollow groan and leant against the wall in palpitating nervousness; Kate shut her eyes, and Ethel pinched Margaret's arm with unconscious severity; but, after all, nothing happened! With instantaneous quickness Pixie had fallen forward on her knees, and so restored the bench to its normal position; and now she was off again with another kiss, another flourish, another whisk of those absurd short petticoats. Providentially there was a table close at hand which she could mount without difficulty, and so bring herself to the completion of the first half of her task, but the harder part was still to come.
It was easy enough to run along the blackboard, but what about that space between it and the shelves at the other side of the fireplace? "She can't do it!" cried Ethel confidently; but Pixie had not made her boast without counting the cost. What if there was no article of furniture within reach, there was a shelf overhead to which one could cling and work slowly along hand over hand until the coal-box offered a friendly footing! Then, when one had been accustomed to climb trees all one's life, what could be easier than to rest the elbows on the mantelpiece, and with the aid of one foot pressed lightly on that fat, substantial bell, (horrors! suppose it rang!) to wriggle upward until knees joined elbows, and a perpendicular position was once more possible! The gasps and groans from the doorway were even more encouraging than applause, and under their influence it was impossible to resist indulging in a few extravagances, such as standing poised on one leg, blowing more kisses, and bowing from side to side after the manner of that fascinating circus lady. Another bound sent her lightly on to the one substantial chair which the room possessed—Miss Phipps's seat when she came to take a class. It rocked, of course, but to balance it was child's play, compared with the really difficult feat with the form, and for the rest of the course the way was easy. Anyone could have run along the substantial dumb waiter, stepped down to the chair by its side, and so, with a leap, to the one from which the start had been made. Pixie stopped, panting, gasping, and smirking at her companions, expectant of adulation, but there was more reproach than praise in store.
"You are mad!" cried Ethel shortly. "Stark, staring mad! No thanks to you that every bone in your body isn't broken. I wonder what Miss Phipps would have said if she had come in, while you were pirouetting on the mantelpiece! It would have been your turn to be surprised then, my young friend."
"I n-n-never did see such a sight in all my born days," stuttered Flora blankly. "You've made me feel quite ill. My heart is pumping like an engine. I thought every moment you would be killed. I call it mean and unkind to ask us to look on, while you play such tricks, for you know very well we should be blamed if anything went wrong! I'll never come again, so you needn't trouble to ask me!"
"Pixie dear, it really is most dangerous! You might have sprained your ankle a dozen times over. Promise me, promise me faithfully, that you will never do it again!" pleaded Margaret gently; but Pixie shook her head in obstinate fashion.
"Me dear, don't ask me! I'll tell you no stories. I've done it a dozen times at home, and so have Bridgie and Esmeralda. It was a fine handicap we had one night, boys against girls, and Bridgie the winner, being so light on her feet. You wouldn't wish to forbid what my own family approves." She drew herself up with an air of dignity as she pronounced the last words, and skipped out of the room, as the quickest way of closing the argument; but when tea-time arrived she was still abeam with complacency, and pleasantly conscious of being the object of an unusual amount of attention. The girls all looked at her and smiled so kindly when they met her eye; jam and scones were pressed upon her from half a dozen different quarters; Mademoiselle called her "cherie," and even Miss Phipps said "dear." "Are you having a good tea, dear?" "Won't you have another cup of tea, dear?" It was all very pleasant and gratifying, and she felt convinced that the fame of her exploit had spread over the school, and that even the teachers had been unable to resist it.
She was strutting out of the dining-room at the conclusion of the meal, when Miss Phipps laid a hand on her shoulder and said, "Come into my room, Pixie," and a moment later she stood within the boudoir, staring around with wide, astonished eyes. Mademoiselle had followed, and was twisting her hands together, trying vainly not to cry. Miss Phipps looked at her and made a little signal, but Mademoiselle only shook her head, and held out her hands with a helpless gesture, and then Miss Phipps began to speak herself, in such a gentle voice—a voice quite different from her usual brisk, decided accents.
"Pixie dear, I have something to tell you. God has been very kind to the dear father whom you love so much. He saw that he could never be well again—never able to move about, nor walk, nor ride, as he had done before, and instead of leaving him to lie helpless upon his bed for long weary years, as so many poor sufferers have had to do, He took him home at once, and made him well and strong again. You must not think of your father as dead, Pixie. He is alive and happy in heaven!"
But it was too early for the dead man's child to realise that beautiful truth, and Pixie burst into a passion of grief, and the girls without heard the long pitiful wails and nestled close to each other and sobbed in sympathy.
Miss Phipps talked on and on, saying comforting words in that new sweet voice, and Mademoiselle put her arms fondly round the little figure and said—
"You will be brave, cherie. You are always brave! All the O'Shaughnessys are brave—your Bridgie told me so, and said it was the pride of the family! You will not be the first to act like a coward. No!" But the shock was too sudden to be borne with resignation.
"We haven't got any family now! How can you have a family without a father? He wouldn't have died if I had been at home. He was always cheerful when I was with him, and he said himself I was better than a doctor. Oh, Major, Major! Oh, Bridgie, Bridgie! Me heart's broken! Me heart's broken!"
Pixie wept and wailed, and presently Miss Phipps stopped trying to console, and let her weep her fill, knowing well that the noisy grief is never the most lasting, and that when the first passion was exhausted she would be more ready for comfort. She had purposely delayed telling the sad news until tea was over, and presently it would be time for bed, when the sleep of childhood would drop its soothing curtain over grief. Pixie lay on the sofa, and cried until her face was swollen and she was too exhausted to cry any longer, and Miss Phipps was just about to propose a move to bed when, to her amazement, the child suddenly put her feet to the ground, sat up, and said faintly—
"I want to see the girls!"
Well, after all, it was a natural request, for the bent of a lifetime does not change in moments of grief, and Pixie was a sociable little creature, who must needs have someone in whom to confide on every occasion. Miss Phipps realised as much, and also that companions of her own age would be better comforters than the teachers, between whom and the pupils there was naturally a great gulf fixed; so she assented at once, saying only—
"I will come for you in ten minutes. You must not stay downstairs longer than that," and Pixie feebly tottered across the hall to the room where the elder girls were sitting. She chose to join them rather than the pupils of her own age, for, as she had previously explained, she had been accustomed to "grown-ups" at home, and felt more interest in their society. The girls raised their heads with starts of surprise as she entered, and came slowly forward to seat herself in a chair. They stared at her with melancholy eyes, but there was a dead silence, for no one knew what to say or how to say it, so they sat in a row facing her, and Pixie blinked and trembled, and screwed her fingers together in a tight little knot.
"I'm an orphan!" she said faintly, and five separate sobs of sympathy sounded as replies.
"Poor little kid!" said Kate gruffly.
"D-arling!" sobbed Flora.
"But we all love you, Pixie! Everyone loves you! You can't be lonely, dear, when you have so many friends," said Margaret's soft voice; and a hand stretched out and clutched hers in convulsive energy. It was Lottie's hand, and Lottie's face was trembling as if she were going to cry, and a pulse on her temple was beating up and down, Pixie looked at her curiously, and realised that, sorry as the others were, she was somehow sorriest of all, and most anxious to comfort. Lottie had been much subdued and silent since the beginning of the term, and had seemed, if anything, to avoid the society of the girl whom she had treated so badly, but with her fine intuition Pixie had understood quite well that the avoidance arose from no lack of affection. She held Lottie's hand in a tight pressure while she continued her broken sentences.
"And I didn't know he was going to die. They never told me. Miss Phipps says they didn't want me to be unhappy, but I'd rather have known. He wasn't like other people's fathers. They are old, with grey hair; he was young—like a boy, and so handsome and gay. He always laughed, even if things went wrong, and I was the youngest, and he wouldn't have me thwarted. No one ever appreciated me like the Major. The very last words he spoke were praising me and saying what a daughter I'd been!"
"When you said 'Good-bye,' you mean. That's good to think of, isn't it, Pixie? He knew he would never see you again, and that afterwards you would remember all he said, and treasure it in your heart, and the sweetest thing of all is to know that you were a joy and pleasure to him. It is a comfort to think that he is well again, isn't it? Quite well and happy in heaven!"
"I want him on earth!" said Pixie, and the tears flowed down her cheeks. "We all want him. What is to become of us without our father? I feel as if I could never be happy again, but he said I must be. 'Be as happy as you can,' he said, 'and make other people happy too. Never trouble a bit about your lessons, but go on loving and making sunshine, and you'll do a great work in the world.' Those were the very last words I heard him speak."
It was a somewhat free translation, so far as lessons were concerned, and the girls realised as much, being accustomed to Pixie and her ways, but they allowed that part of the story to pass without comment, and referred only to what was obviously a literal repetition.
"Well, then, of course, you must obey his last words! It would not be like a good daughter if you didn't. You must go on loving us, and making us happy, and we shall all be wretched if we see you fretting. You do make us happy, you know, Pixie! We have been ever so much livelier since you came. I think it ought to cheer anyone to know that she can make thirty-three people happy, don't you, now?"
"Can I—can I really?" Pixie inquired wistfully. "I'm glad of that, and I will try, but I can't help fretting a little first! I don't think the Major would like it if I didn't fret for him." And at this moment Miss Phipps came into the room and put an end to the conference.
"I can't let you sit up a moment longer, you weary little girl! Say 'Good-night' at once, and one of the girls shall go upstairs with you, and help you to undress. Which will you have?"
Pixie looked from one to the other of her companions with uncertain gaze. Where everyone was so kind it was hard to choose. Ethel had not tossed her head once since she entered the room; Kate kept taking off her spectacles, and polishing them on her handkerchief; Flora looked so kind and comfortable; the "Bridgie's expression" was stronger than ever in Margaret's eyes; but there was a something in Lottie's face—a humble, wistful longing which was to be found nowhere else.
"Lottie, please!" she cried quickly; and the other girls realised at once that the cure had begun, for Pixie was already forgetting herself, and considering how she could make other people happy!
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
THE SISTERS' VISIT.
Pixie did not go home for the Easter holidays, for everything at the Castle was so sad and unsettled that Bridgie felt it advisable that she should stay away a little longer, and an invitation from Mr and Mrs Vane came as a happy alternative.
On the whole she spent a happy three weeks, thoroughly enjoying the luxury of her surroundings and the attention lavished upon her by every member of the household. Mr Vane still remained grey and serious, but he was unfailingly kind; while his wife belonged to the type designated by schoolgirls as "simple darlings," and seemed to find no greater pleasure in life than in making young people happy. It was evident that they were both devoted to their only remaining child, though there was a reserve in their manner which seemed to Irish Pixie perilously allied to coldness. She was all unconscious that her own fearless intimacy of manner made a precedent for little demonstrations of affection which had hitherto been unknown in the household; but so it was, and her host and hostess felt that they owed her a second debt of gratitude, whenever Lottie volunteered a caress, or added a second kiss to the morning greeting. Perhaps, in their determination to overcome their daughter's faults, they had erred on the side of firmness, and so brought about another temptation in the girl's terror of discovery; and if this were so, what better instrument could have been found to draw them together than fearless, loving, audacious Pixie?
When the time came to return to school, she received many pressing invitations to return to a home where she would always be welcome, and was able truthfully to assure the girls at Holly House that Lottie had been "an angel" to her throughout the holidays.
After that the ordinary routine went on for a few weeks, broken by nothing more exciting than the weekly letters from home; then came an episode of thrilling interest, when Geoffrey Hilliard was shown into the drawing-room, and Miss O'Shaughnessy summoned from her class and sent upstairs to brush her hair, before going to interview him. He was leaning against the mantelpiece as she entered, looking very tall and handsome in his long frock coat, and he was smiling to himself with a curious shiny look in his eyes, which at once arrested Pixie's attention.
"How are you, Pixie? How are you, dear little girl?" he cried gushingly.
Pixie remarked that she was in excellent health, privately not a little taken aback by his fervour. "He seems mighty fond of me, all of a sudden. Over at Bally William he didn't care half so much. I suppose he missed me, after I'd gone!" She smiled at him encouragingly. "And you are looking very well yourself. I'm pleased to see you!"
"I am very well, Pixie. Happiness agrees with me. I'm very happy—the happiest man in the world! Do you know why? I am going to be married. I came on purpose to tell you. Can you guess who 'She' is?"
"How could I guess? I don't know your friends. There's no one at all that it could be, unless, perhaps—"
Pixie stopped short suddenly, as certain memories darted into her mind. The extraordinary manner in which Mr Hilliard was always appearing at Knock Castle during the Christmas holidays; his interest in everything Esmeralda did and said; the fixity of his gaze upon the beautiful face. She gasped and blinked with surprise. "Not—not Esmeralda?"
"Yes, yes, yes! Esmeralda, of course! Clever girl to guess so well! It was settled only last Wednesday, and she sent me across to tell you first thing, and ask your consent, as she couldn't be properly engaged without it. You see this is an important matter for me, so you really must be kind, for I can't give up Esmeralda, after waiting for her so long. Will you have me for another brother, and let me do all I can to make you happy?"
"I'm glad it isn't Bridgie," sighed Pixie irrelevantly; then, fearing that she had failed in politeness, "But Esmeralda is nice too," she added quickly. "She can't help having a temper, but she won't show it to you, like she did to her brothers and sisters. And she is beautiful! I've seen photographs of people they call beautiful here, and they are frights compared with her. I suppose I can have her room after she's married! It's got one of the turret windows, and I always wanted it because of the view. I hope you will be happy, Mr Hilliard. It was very kind of you to come and tell me. I'll write and ask Esmeralda if I may be a bridesmaid."
Hilliard laughed, and muttered something about "sisterly candour." He did not seem in the least alarmed at the thought of Esmeralda's temper, and settled the bridesmaid question there and then with the utmost confidence.
"Of course you shall be bridesmaid. The wedding will be in the summer holidays, but you will see your sisters before then. You knew, of course, that they were trying to let the Castle for a few years, until Jack makes his fortune, and goes back to live there himself. Well, I am glad to say a tenant has been found through a lawyer, and that everything is satisfactorily arranged. He takes possession on the first of September, and Bridgie is coming to live in London with Jack and the boys, in a nice little flat, where you can spend your holidays. She said I was to tell you that, and to say that you were not to fret for the Castle, for you would see much more of each other than if she had remained over there. She is coming to town in summer to look for the flat, and Esmeralda is coming too, to buy fineries for the wedding, and then we will all return to Ireland and have a quiet little wedding, and you shall keep Bridgie company when I carry Esmeralda away. That's the summer programme. I hope you approve!"
"I hate the man who's coming to Knock," said Pixie sadly; "but I am glad Bridgie will be near, and it will be lovely on holidays. It must feel strange to live in a flat; like being in a cage. I am sorry for the people beneath, when the boys get romping round. If I were Bridgie, I'd take a house, and then we could make as much noise as we liked. It's no use pretending that we are a quiet family, because we're not. You might think it was an army, to hear us tramp downstairs!"
"I—I think myself that a house would be more suitable!" said Hilliard, smiling his humorous twisted smile; then he asked to see Mademoiselle, and when he said to her in her turn that he had a piece of news to impart, she nodded her head gaily, and cried, "So, so! I 'ope you will be very 'appy!" and could not be induced to say that she was in the least surprised. Pixie hoped that none of the girls would ask about the new brother's business; for, after boasting of possible dukes, it was really rather humiliating to come down to glue! What a comfort that Lottie had turned over a new leaf, and abandoned her snobbish, inquisitive questionings!
After that it was a case of counting the days until the arrival of the sisters, and Pixie's companions were almost as excited as herself at the prospect of seeing the much-talked-of Bridgie and Esmeralda in the flesh. Miss Joan announced her intention of taking advantage of the July sales to buy her trousseau—a delightful arrangement, for by the time that dressmakers had done their work the holidays would begin, so that the girls could be present at the great breaking-up festival, and afterwards act as companions on the journey home. Pixie's elastic spirits went up with a bound, and every week they grew higher and higher, until at last it became a question of days, and Bridgie's letter must needs be addressed to Jack's lodgings instead of Knock Castle, for by the time it was delivered the dear visitors would have arrived in town.
"Please come to see me soon," ran the letter, "and be sure to look your nicest, because of the girls! They all want to see you, and I've told them such lots about you. Please ask Miss Phipps to let me come out often. Wednesday is the best day, because it's half-holiday, only I should like other days better, because I should get off prep. Please wear your best clothes!"
The two sisters laughed heartily over this missive, but Pixie's word was law, and as usual they obeyed her instructions to the letter. A telegram was sent off next morning to announce the hour in the afternoon at which they hoped to call, and the morning was spent to such good purpose that two most elegant and fashionable-looking young ladies drove up to Holly House shortly before four o'clock. The third-form girls were, to a man, peeping through the curtains of their classroom; Ethel had left her music in the drawing-room, and rushed downstairs to reclaim it the moment the door-bell rang; Kate suddenly felt it impossible to live without a clean handkerchief, and on her way upstairs waited round the corner of the hall until she could meet the visitors face to face; Flora peeped through the banisters, and snored so loudly in her excitement that she was in instant danger of discovery; and Pixie rushed like a whirlwind from the top of the house, and flung herself into Bridgie's arms.
They hugged and kissed, and kissed and hugged again, and fell apart to gaze with eyes that suddenly brimmed with tears. No need to ask the cause! The remembrance of the Major was in each heart, but Bridgie dried her eyes, and said, as if answering the unspoken lament—
"But we have so much to be thankful for! Such a splendid let for the Castle, and Jack so good, trying to find work for the boys, and Geoffrey like another brother, and Esmeralda so happy."
No question about that! Esmeralda was radiant, more beautiful than ever, and astonishingly grand. So was Bridgie! The little sister gazed from one to the other with kindling eyes. Black dresses with tails to them; fluffy gauze boas with ends floating to the knees; hats that were not hats, but crinkled, brimless things like the Surbiton ladies wore in the afternoons, and so light and gauzy that they might have been blown away with a breath.
"You are fine!" she gasped, and the girls laughed and cried merrily.
"We had our instructions, you see! We dared not come down until we had bought new hats and gloves; and we put on our very best clothes for the girls' benefit."
"And jewellery!" added Esmeralda; and Pixie looked at her with an even more critical scrutiny. There was a little diamond brooch sparkling among the laces at her throat. "Geoffrey gave me that!" There was a gold bangle round her wrist, with a heart-shaped locket dangling from the clasp. "Geoffrey gave me that!" There was a dainty little watch pinned on to her dress. "Geoffrey gave me that!"
"Deary me," quoth Pixie at last, "it must be rather nice being engaged."
"It is, my dear. Quite nice! And he gave us these boas too,—insisted upon buying them when he came shopping with us this morning. He said boas were the fashionable thing, and he really dared not allow us to face 'the girls' without them. He is very extravagant, but he says he will only be engaged once, and after we are married he will be as careful as I like. It was through his lawyer that we found our tenant. Geoffrey told him about the place, and it seemed that it was just exactly what a client had been wanting. We have not seen him yet, but he is tremendously interested in old places, and is going to spend a lot of money putting things into repair, which, of course, is a very good thing for us. He has taken it for ten years, and by the end of the lease Jack hopes he may be able to go back himself, for part of the year, at any rate. It is hard to leave Knock, but not so hard as we expected, for I am to be married, and the rest of you will be together, and able to enjoy seeing the sights, and all the fun and bustle of town life."
"And it will be so good for the boys! They were idling away their time, but now they will have to set to work in earnest to make their way in the world. It will be the making of them, so even if we do feel homesick at times it will be a light price to pay for their good," said Bridgie hastily, for the tears were beginning to rise again in Pixie's eyes at the thought of leaving the dear old home. "Dear me, I am longing to see 'the girls'! Aren't we going to see 'the girls'? What is the use of our dressing up like this if we are not to see 'the girls'?"
"Come along! Come along! Miss Phipps said I was to take you round before she came in to give you tea. Come along, and see them now," cried Pixie, prancing to the door with eager steps, and forgetting everything else in the excitement of the coming introduction, as it had been intended that she should do. Bridgie and Joan followed close behind, smiling in anticipation; but it was rather an embarrassing occasion, when the door of the big classroom was thrown open, and fifteen girls rose to their feet and stood staring with unblinking eyes, while Fraulein smiled and bowed from the end of the long table. Bridgie wanted to say something graceful and appropriate, but could only blush, and smile, and stammer feebly. "Oh-h! How do you do? Is there anyone here that I know by name? Flora—Margaret—Kate? Are any of your special friends here, Pixie? Please introduce me."
"That's Flora!" said Pixie, pointing barefacedly across the room. "The fat one. Kate is next to Fraulein—with specs. Margaret is having her music lesson. That's Ethel in the middle, with the frizzy hair. This is my sister Bridgie that I've told you about."
The faces of the girls thus singled out for special notice were wooden in stolidity. Not a flicker of animation lit up their features; they stood like pokers staring blankly before them, as if they had heard no word of what was passing, and poor Bridgie murmured more disconnected nothings, while Esmeralda looked from one to the other with her haughty, patronising smile. It was quite a relief when the door was shut, and the presence of Mademoiselle in classroom number two insured one listener at least who would speak in reply. The greeting was a warm one on both sides, but conversation was deferred until tea-time, when Mademoiselle had been asked to join the party in the drawing-room, and after just a minute's wait a move was made upstairs to the room where Pixie slept. Here there were photographs to exhibit, and a number of tiny ornaments which had been gifts from other girls.
"Ethel gave me that the day that I was ill.—Fanny bought me that when she went out for the day. It cost threepence. Wasn't it dear? Dora Ellis and Vera Knowles clubbed together and bought me that at the bazaar. It's supposed to be for matches. I am going to give it to Jack at Christmas. That's Ethel's mother! She is really awfully nice, though you wouldn't think so. That's Flora's little brother. Isn't he like Mellin's Food? Ethel has silver brushes. I wish I might have silver things. She is awfully proud of her dressing-table. If I stand on my pillow I can just see over the curtain between our beds. I painted eyes on my forehead one night, and tied my hair round it. It looked lovely,—just like a monkey! and then I crept up quietly, and put it over for Ethel to see. She did howl! Shall we go downstairs now? You'll have a scrumptious tea. Visitors always do. That's one reason why it's so nice having them coming to see you."
Miss Phipps and Mademoiselle were waiting in the drawing-room, and, to the amusement of her sisters, Pixie became a model of decorum the moment she entered their presence, and handed about cake and tea in the most staid and deliberate fashion. To see her stand with her heels drawn neatly together in the first position; to hear her demure, "Yes, Miss Phipps!" "No, Miss Phipps!" was almost too much for Esmeralda's composure, and she was glad to leave the house with the promise of having Pixie to spend a long day in town at the beginning of the following week, while that young lady herself was so eager to return to her companions and hear their criticisms on her visitors that she bore the parting with wonderful resignation.
Fortunately for all, approval was unanimous, and the girls declared in a breath that never, no never, had they seen anyone so "simply sweet" as Bridgie, so "frightfully pretty" as Esmeralda. Bridgie was a darling; her eyes were so kind and loving and sorry for you, and didn't she look an angel when she smiled? Esmeralda was like a queen; they could quite imagine that she had a temper, but when she laughed she had the sweetest dimples! Did her hair curl naturally? Fancy! She was really and truly like a picture, and not a bit like a person who was alive. Didn't they look ducks together—one so fair, and one so dark? So on, and so on, until Pixie was one big beam of joy and contentment.
During the next fortnight Pixie spent no less than three days with her sisters, and had the felicity of helping to choose the little house, in which they were to begin the new life. After an inspection of various flats Bridgie was quite of one mind with her youngest sister in believing that either they themselves or every other tenant in the building would have to give notice within a week of their arrival. It was so preposterous to think of creeping on tiptoe in consideration for your neighbours below, and speaking in hushed tones because of your neighbours above, while, in spite of high rents, the passages seemed so cramped, oh, so painfully cramped and narrow! Even a little house was a castle, comparatively speaking; and in due time one was found which promised to be healthy and convenient, and was put in the hands of painters and paper-hangers to be ready for the removal in autumn.
THE PRIZE IS WON.
When the breaking-up gathering was held, Pixie was proud indeed, for if other girls had fathers and mothers present, she had two sisters and Jack and Geoffrey Hilliard into the bargain, and there was no doubt that they were the handsomest and most attractive of all the guests. There was only one drawback to her happiness, and that was that there was no chance of being called forward to receive a prize, and so cover herself with glory. She devoutly hoped that the class lists might not be read aloud, to betray how very, very near the bottom she was to be found, and heaved a deep sigh of relief when little Beatrice Ferrars marched up to receive her certificate, and so end the list of honours. But it appeared that it was not quite finished, for Miss Phipps rose to her feet and began to speak amid a general murmur of excitement.
"We now come to perhaps the most interesting item on our programme—the bestowal of a prize by the girls themselves, instead of by the teachers. For the benefit of those who have not been present at one of these gatherings before, I must briefly explain that this prize consists of five pounds to be expended in books, and is the gift of the father of one of the pupils. Its object is to encourage among the girls a spirit of kindliness and consideration, a readiness to hold out a helping hand, to assist another to overcome a weakness, and, in short, to befriend, in the best sense of the word. The prize is given once a year at the end of the summer term, and, as I have said, is awarded by the vote of the girls themselves. As they have the best opportunity of judging, it is only right that the decision should come from them, and it is pleasant to know that this year at least there is absolute unanimity among them. I have gone over your voting papers, girls, and have pleasure in telling you that, with the natural exception of the winner herself, the same name was given by all. There is one girl who, whatever may be her faults and shortcomings, has never failed to show the most generous and unselfish friendship, one girl who has put her own interests aside and been content to suffer for the sake of others, one girl who has ever been on the watch to do a kindly act or speak a loving word, a girl whom everyone loves, who counts every member of the household among her admirers, and that girl's name is—"
She paused and looked smilingly at her pupils, and on the instant came the loud answering cry. The girls waved their hands in the air, they drummed on the ground with their feet. "Pixie!" they cried, "Pixie O'Shaughnessy!" and "Pixie!" once again, "Bravo, Pixie!" "Three cheers for Pixie!" until they were hoarse with shouting, and Miss Phipps held up her hand for silence.
It was really a most exciting scene. Every eye was riveted on Pixie herself, who had applauded as violently as her companions when Miss Phipps first asked her question, and whose shrill cry of "Margaret! Margaret!" had been frozen on her lips by the sound of her own name. There she sat with her mouth agape, too much overcome by surprise to have any thought for appearances, and there sat Bridgie looking on and crying copiously with happiness, and Esmeralda blinking the tears away and laughing furtively at Jack, who was grunting to himself, "Silly fuss! Silly fuss!" and putting on a great appearance of boredom to distract attention from the tears on his eyelashes. There sat Mr and Mrs Vane, too, beaming with pleasure that their prize should have gone to Pixie of all people, and Lottie rubbing her hands and growing hysterical in delight. Then Pixie was marched up to the desk to be presented with the envelope containing the crisp new note, and when she had taken it she must needs turn round and face the audience, instead of scuttling back to her seat in abashed, self-conscious fashion like other girls, and even address a word of acknowledgment for the applause bestowed upon her. "I'm very much obliged to ye!" she said in the broadest of Irish accents, and all the fathers and mothers lay back in their chairs and laughed until they were tired, and clapped so enthusiastically that it was a marvel that their beautiful light kid gloves did not split an halves.
In the drawing-room afterwards Pixie was quite the heroine of the occasion, and was greeted on all sides, and warmly congratulated on her success. Mr and Mrs Vane asked especially to be introduced to Bridgie and her party, and eventually sat down an the same corner to partake of tea. Pixie could not hear all that they said, but they looked at her as they spoke, and their faces were very kindly, so that she was pleasantly conscious of being the subject of conversation. Then Mrs Vane began to speak of the contemplated removal to town, and made many kind offers of help and hospitality, while her husband put in a word about the dear old Castle.
"Your sister showed me some photographs when she was with us, and I was much impressed by them. It is a fine old place, and I can understand your attachment to it. You are fortunate to have secured such a good tenant. Curiously enough, I was mentioning your name to my lawyer, who was dining with me the other night, and he told me he had negotiated the lease for your new tenant. The young fellow is able to pay for his hobbies, and is evidently keen on putting the place in repair. It is not every day that a millionaire comes to the rescue just when he is wanted, but this Mr Hilliard certainly seems the right man in the right place. Wonderful what glue can accomplish, isn't it, Miss O'Shaughnessy? it makes one almost wish to be in trade oneself!"
Jack was wont to say in later years that he had never admired Bridgie more than at this moment of surprise and shock. She turned white, it was true, but her voice was as calm as usual, and the manner in which she replied so full of quiet dignity, that neither then nor at any other time had Mr Vane the slightest idea of the sensation which he had created.
As for Esmeralda, she did not know the meaning of control; what she felt she was obliged to show, and that forthwith, so within two minutes of Mr Vane's disclosure she became suddenly overcome with heat, and demanded Geoffrey's escort to the ball without. There they stood and faced each other, he all downcast and abashed, as who should say, "Please forgive me for not being poor!" she, flashing with indignation, which said as plainly, "How dare you be a millionaire!" There was silence for a minute, then she asked imperiously, "Is this true?" and he made a gesture of impatience.
"I wish that chattering old fellow was at the bottom of the sea. Yes, it's true, darling. I'm your tenant. I have more money than I know what to do with, and we are going to live at Knock half the year, you and I, and amuse ourselves by putting it in repair, and have Bridgie and the rest over to stay with us whenever you like. Don't be angry with me, please. I meant it all so well!"
Esmeralda drew a quick breath, and pressed her hands tightly together. Oh, dear old home! oh, dear old Castle! was it possible that it need not be left after all? need never pass into the hands of strangers? Was it really, really possible that she herself was to reign as Lady Bountiful, and see order replace disorder, beauty restored where ruin had walked barefaced? It was an effort to preserve an appearance of severity, but she would not give in so soon, so held her head erect, and demanded haughtily—
"Why was this kept from me? Why was I never told?"
"Jack knew," said Hilliard humbly. "Your father knew. I told him before his death. But, Esmeralda darling, I have been run after for my money all my life, and it was so sweet to me to think that you believed me poor, and would still marry me for my own sake, that I could not bear to put an end to the delusion. Then I thought I would wait until we were married, and give you the lease of the Castle as a wedding-present. I meant it to be such a happy surprise, and that grey man has spoiled it all! What a comfort it would be if people would mind their own business! Do you remember pitying me for being dependent on glue, and taking for granted I must be poor? How I did enjoy that walk, and our talk together! But you see, darling, it is a more valuable commodity than you thought. My old uncle made a fortune by it, and I make a fresh fortune every year. You said once that you would like to be rich, but I haven't found it altogether a bed of roses. I need your help at least as much as if I were a poor man, and we will try together to use our money so as to make other people happier and better. First of all come your own brothers. I can help them on, and Bridgie and Pixie will be like my own sisters. You are pleased, Esmeralda; I can see it in your face. You are not angry with me any more? What are you thinking of, darling, with that far-away gaze?"
"I am thinking of father," said Esmeralda softly. "How happy he would be! There will still be an O'Shaughnessy at dear Knock Castle."