"Dear, dear," said the Doctor. "This is really embarrassing. I never thought that Polly's experience would upset the household economy in so marked a manner. I am really annoyed, for I certainly gave her leave to housekeep for a week."
"It isn't as I minds youth, Dr. Maybright," continued Mrs. Power. "I makes due allowances for the young, for I says to myself, 'Jane Power, you was once, so to speak, like an unfledged chick yourself;' but there's youth and youth, Dr. Maybright; and Miss Polly's of the kind as makes your 'air stand on hend."
"Poor Polly," said the Doctor.
"No, sir, begging your parding, if you was in the kitchen, it's 'poor Mrs. Power' you'd be a-saying. Now I don't say nothing agin Miss Nelly—she's the elder, and she have nice ways with her—she takes a little bit after my poor dear mistress; oh, what a nature was hers, blessed angel!"
Here Mrs. Power rolled her eyes skywards, and the Doctor, turning his back, walked to the window.
"Be brief," he said, "I am pressed for time."
"Sir, I was never one for long words; agen' Miss Helen I haven't a word to say. She comes down to the kitchen after breakfast as pretty as you please, and she says, 'Power,' says she, 'you'll advise me about the dinner to-day,' says she. 'Shall we have minced collops, or roast beef? And shall we have fruit tart with custard?' Pretty dear, she don't know nothink, and she owns it, and I counsel her, as who that wasn't the most hard-hearted would. But Miss Polly, she's all on wires like, and she bounds in and she says that I pepper the soup too strong, and that I ought to go to cookery schools, and ef I'll go with her that blessed minit she'll tell me what I wants in my own store-room. There's limits. Dr. Maybright, and Miss Polly's my limits; so, ef you'll have no objection, sir, I'll go this day month."
"But I have an objection," replied Dr. Maybright. "Even Polly's experiment must not cost me a valuable servant. Mrs. Power, I have promised my little girl, and I feel more than convinced that her week's trial will ensure to you the freedom you desire and deserve in the future. Listen, I have a plan. Suppose you go for a week's holiday on Monday?"
"Oh, my word, sir! And are you to be poisoned hout and hout?"
"That is unlikely. Maggie, your kitchen-maid, is fond of cooking, and she won't quarrel with Miss Polly. Let us consider it arranged, then. A week's holiday won't do you any harm, cook, and your expenses I will defray. Now, excuse me, I must go out at once. The carriage has been at the door for some time."
It was quite early on the following Monday morning when a light tap was heard outside the door of the room where Helen and Polly slept. It was a very light, modest, and uncertain tap, and it has not the smallest effect upon Helen, who lay in soft slumber, her pretty eyes closed, her gentle face calm and rounded and child-like, and the softest breathing coming from her rosy, parted lips.
Another little girl, however, was not asleep. At that modest tap up sprang a curly head, two dark, bright eyes opened wide, two white feet sprang quickly but noiselessly on to the floor, and Polly had opened the bedroom door wide to admit the short, dumpy, but excited little person of Maggie, the kitchen-maid.
"She's a-going, Miss Polly—she's a-packing her bandbox now, and putting the strap on. She's in a hawful temper, but she'll be out of the house in less than half an hour. There's a beautiful fire in the kitchen, Miss, and the pan for frying bacon is polished up so as you could 'most see yourself in it. And the egg-saucepan is there all 'andy, and the kettle fizzing and sputtering. I took cook up her breakfast, but she said she didn't want none of our poisonous messes, and she'd breakfast with her cousin in the village if we'd no objection. She'll be gone in no time now, Miss Polly, and I'm a-wanting to know when you'll be a-coming down stairs."
"I'm going to dress immediately, Maggie," said Polly. "I've scarcely slept all night, for this is an anxious moment for me. I'll join you in half an hour at the latest, Maggie, and have lots of saucepans and frying-pans and gridirons ready. Keep the fire well up too, and see that the oven is hot. There, fly away, I'll join you soon."
Maggie, who was only sixteen herself, almost skipped down the passage. After the iron reign of Mrs. Power, to work for Polly seemed like play to her.
"She's a duck," she said to herself, "a real cozy duck of a young lady. Oh, my word, won't we spin through the stores this week! Won't we just!"
Meanwhile Polly was hastily getting into her clothes. She did not wish to wake Helen, for she was most anxious that no one should know that on the first morning of her housekeeping she had arisen soon after six o'clock. Her plans were all laid beforehand, and a wonderfully methodical and well arranged programme, considering her fourteen years, was hers; she was all agog with eagerness to carry it out.
"Oh, won't they have a breakfast this morning," she said to herself. "Won't they open their eyes, and won't Bob and Bunny look greedy. And Firefly—I must watch Firefly over those hot cakes, or she may make herself sick. Poor father and Nell—they'll both be afraid at first that I'm a little too lavish and inclined to be extravagant, but they'll see by-and-by, and they'll acknowledge deep down in their hearts that there never was such a housekeeper as Polly."
As the little maid dreamed these pleasant thoughts she scrambled somewhat untidily into her clothes, gave her hair a somewhat less careful brush than usual, and finally knelt down to say her morning prayer. Helen still slept, and Polly by a sudden impulse chose to kneel by Helen's bed and not her own. She pressed her curly head against the mattress, and eagerly whispered her petitions. She was excited and sanguine, for this was to her a moment of triumph; but as she prayed a feeling of rest and yet of longing overpowered her.
"Oh, I am happy to-day," she murmured—"but oh, mother, oh, mother, I'd give everything in all the wide world to have you back again! I'd live on bread and water—I'd spend years in a garret just for you to kiss me once again, mother, mother!"
Helen stirred in her sleep, for Polly's last impulsive words were spoken aloud.
"Has mother come back?" she asked.
Her eyes were closed, she was dreaming. Polly bent down and answered her.
"No," she said. "It is only me—the most foolish of all her children, who wants her so dreadfully."
Helen sighed, and turned her head uneasily, and Polly, wiping away some moisture from her eyes, ran out of the room.
Her housekeeping apron was on, her precious money box was under her arm, the keys of the linen-press jingled against a thimble and a couple of pencils in the front pocket of the apron. Polly was going down stairs to fulfill her great mission; it was impossible for her spirits long to be downcast. The house was deliciously still, for only the servants were up at present, but the sun sent in some rays of brightness at the large lobby windows, and the little girl laughed aloud in her glee.
"Good morning, sun! it is nice of you to smile at me the first morning of my great work. It is very good-natured of you to come instead of sending that disagreeable friend of yours, Mr. Rain. Oh, how delicious it is to be up early. Why, it is not half-past six yet—oh, what a breakfast I shall prepare for father!"
In the kitchen, which was a large, cheerful apartment looking out on the vegetable garden, Polly found her satellite, Maggie, on the very tiptoe of expectation.
"I has laid the servants' breakfast in the 'all, Miss Polly; I thought as you shouldn't be bothered with them, with so to speak such a lot on your hands this morning. So I has laid it there, and lit a fire for them, and all Jane has to do when she's ready is to put the kettle on, for the tea's on the table in the small black caddy, so there'll be no worriting over them. And ef you please, Miss Polly, I made bold to have a cup of tea made and ready for you, Miss—here it is, if you please, Miss, and a cut off the brown home-made loaf."
"Delicious," said Polly; "I really am as hungry as possible, although I did not know it until I saw this nice brown bread-and-butter. Why, you have splendid ideas in you, Maggie; you'll make a first-rate cook yet. But now"—here the young housekeeper thought it well to put on a severe manner—"I must know what breakfast you have arranged for the servants' hall. It was good-natured of you to think of saving me trouble, Maggie, but please understand that during this week you do nothing on your own responsibility. I am the housekeeper, and although I don't say I am old, I am quite old enough to be obeyed."
"Very well, Miss," said Maggie, who had gone to open her oven, and poke up the fire while Polly was speaking; "it's a weight off my shoulders, Miss, for I wasn't never one to be bothered with thinking. Mother says as I haven't brains as would go on the top of a sixpenny-bit, so what's to be expected of me, Miss. There, the oven's all of a beautiful glow, and 'ull bake lovely. You was asking what breakfast I has put in the servants' 'all—well, cold bacon and plenty of bread, and a good pat of the cooking butter. Why, Miss Polly, oh, lor, what is the matter, Miss?"
"Only that you have done very wrong, Maggie," said Polly. "You would not like to have lots of good things going up to the dining-room, and have no share yourself. I call it selfish of you, Maggie, for of course you knew you would be in the kitchen with me, and would be sure to come in for bits. Cold bacon, indeed! Poor servants, they're not likely to care for my housekeeping if that is all I provide for them! No, Maggie, when I made out my programme, I thought of the servants as well as the family. I will just refer to my tablets, Maggie, and see what breakfast I arranged for the hall for Monday morning."
While Polly was speaking Maggie opened her eyes and mouth wider and wider and when the young lady read aloud from her tablets she could not suppress an expostulatory "oh!"
"Monday—kitchen breakfast," read Polly—"Bacon, eggs, marmalade, sardines. Hot coffee, fresh rolls, if possible."
"My word, but that is wasteful," said Maggie.
Polly's cheeks flushed. She glanced at her small handmaid, raised her hand in a reproving manner, and continued to read—
"Dining-room breakfast: Hot scones, baked muffins, eggs and bacon, deviled kidneys, scrambled eggs, a dish of kippered herrings, marmalade, honey, jam, tea and coffee. Oh, and chocolate for Firefly."
"My word, Miss," again exclaimed Maggie. "It's seven o'clock now, and the Doctor likes his breakfast sharp on the table at eight. If we has to get all this ready in an hour we had better fly round and lose no more time. I'll see to the 'all, bless your kind 'eart, Miss Polly, but we'd better get on with the dining-room breakfast, or there'll be nothing ready in anything like time. Will you mix up the cakes, Miss Polly, while I sees to the kidneys, and to the bacon and eggs, and the scrambled eggs, and the kippers. My word, but there'll be a power more sent up than can be eaten. But whatever goes wrong we should have the cakes in the oven, Miss Polly."
Polly did not altogether approve of Maggie's tone, but time did press; the kitchen clock already pointed to five minutes past seven; it was much easier to write out a programme upstairs at one's leisure in the pleasant morning-room than to carry it out in a hurry, in the hot kitchen, particularly when one's own knowledge was entirely theoretical, not practical. Yes, the kitchen was very hot, and time never seemed to fly so fast.
"First of all, open the window, Maggie; it is wrong to have rooms so hot as this," said the young housekeeper, putting on her most authoritative air.
"No, Miss, that I mustn't," said Maggie, firmly. "You'd cool down the oven in less than five minutes. Now, shall I fetch you the flour and things from the store-room, Miss? Why, dear me, your cheeks has peonyed up wonderful. You're new to it yet, Miss, but you'll soon take it quiet-like. Cold bacon is a very nice breakfast for the 'all, Miss, and cooking butter's all that servants is expected to eat of. Now shall I fetch you the flour and the roller, and the milk, Miss Polly?"
"Yes, get them," said Polly. She felt decidedly annoyed and cross. "I wish you would not talk so much, Maggie," she said, "go and fetch the materials for the hot cakes."
"But I don't know yet what I'm to get, Miss. Is it a dripping cake, or is it a cream cake, or is it a butter-and-egg cake? I'll bring you things according, Miss Polly, if you'll be so good as to instruct me."
"Oh dear, oh dear," said Polly, "you make my head go round, when you mention so many kinds of cake, Maggie. I really thought you knew something of cooking. I just want hot cakes. I don't care what kind they are; oh, I suppose we had better have the richest to-day. Get the material for the butter-and-egg cake, Maggie, and do be quick."
Thus admonished, Maggie did move off with a dubious look on her face in the direction of the store-room.
"She don't know nothing, poor dear," she said to herself; "she aims high—she's eat up with ambition, but she don't know nothing. It's lucky we in the 'all is to have the cold bacon. I don't know how to make a butter-and-egg hot cake—oh, my word, a fine scolding Mrs. Power will give us when she comes back."
Here Maggie approached the store-room door. Then she uttered a loud and piercing exclamation and flew back to Polly.
"She's gone and done us, Miss Polly," she exclaimed. "She's gone and done us! Cook's off, and the key of the store-room in her pocket. There's nothing for breakfast, Miss Polly—no eggs, no butter, no marmalade, no sugar, no nothing."
Poor Polly's rosy, little face turned white.
"It can't be true," she said. And she flew down the passage to the store-room herself. Alas! only to peep through the key-hole, for the inhospitable door was firmly locked, and nowhere could the key be discovered.
A—WAS AN APPLE PIE.
The first day of Polly's housekeeping was long remembered in the household. In the first place, the breakfast, though fairly abundant, was plain. A large piece of cold bacon graced one end of the board, a brown loaf stood on a trencher in the center, and when Helen took her place opposite the tea-tray she found herself provided with plenty of milk and sugar, certainly, and a large tea-pot of strong tea, but the sugar was brown. No butter, no marmalade, no jams, no hot cakes, graced the board. The children spoke of the fare as severe, and the Doctor's dark brown eyes twinkled as he helped his family to abundant slices of cold bacon.
"Not a word," he said, in a loud aside to his boys and girls. "I did not think it was in Polly to be so sensible. Why, we shall get through indigestion week quite comfortably, if she provides us with plain, wholesome fare like this."
Polly took her own place at the table rather late. Her cheeks were still peonyed, as Maggie expressed it, her eyes were downcast, her spirits were decidedly low, and she had a very small appetite.
After breakfast she beat a hasty retreat, and presently the boys rushed in in great excitement, to announce to Helen and Katie the interesting fact that Polly was walking across the fields accompanied by Maggie, each of them laden with a large market-basket.
"They are almost running, both of them," exclaimed Bunny, "and pretty Poll is awful cross, for when we wanted to go with her she just turned round and said we'd have a worse dinner than breakfast if we didn't leave her alone."
"We ran away quickly enough after that," continued Bob, "for we didn't want no more cold-bacon and no-butter meals. We had a nasty breakfast to-day, hadn't we, Nell? And Poll is a bad housekeeper, isn't she?"
"Oh, leave her alone, do," said Helen. "She is trying her very best. Run out and play, boys, and don't worry about the meals."
The two boys, known in the family as "the scamps," quickly took their departure, and Katie began to talk in her most grown-up manner to Helen. Katie was a demure little damsel, she was fond of using long words, and thought no one in the world like Helen, whom she copied in all particulars.
"Poll is too ambitious, and she's sure to fail," she began. But Helen shut her up.
"If Polly does fail, you'll be dreadfully sorry, I'm sure, Katie," she said. "I know I shall be sorry. It will make me quite unhappy, for I never saw any one take more pains about a thing than Polly has taken over her housekeeping. Yes, it will be very sad if Polly fails; but I don't think she will, for she is really a most clever girl. Now, Katie, will you read your English History lesson aloud?"
Katie felt crushed. In her heart of hearts she thought even her beloved Helen a little too lenient.
"Never mind," she said to herself, "won't Dolly and Mabel have a fine gossip with me presently over the breakfast Polly gave us this morning."
Meanwhile the anxious, small housekeeper was making her way as rapidly as possible in the direction of the village.
"We haven't a minute to lose, Maggie," she said, as they trudged along. "Can you remember the list of things I gave you to buy at the grocery shop? It is such a pity you can't read, Maggie, for if you could I'd have written them down for you."
"It wasn't the Board's fault, nor my mother's," answered Maggie, glibly. "It was all on account of my brain being made to fit on the top of a sixpence. Yes, Miss, I remembers the list, and I'll go to Watson's and the butcher's while you runs on to the farm for the butter and eggs."
"You have got to get ten things," proceeded Polly; "don't forget, ten things at the grocer's. You had better say the list over to me."
"All right, Miss Polly, ten; I can tick one off on each finger: white sugar, coffee, rice, marmalade, strawberry jam, apricot jam, mustard, pickles—is they mixed or plain, Miss Polly?—raisins, currants. There, Miss, I has them all as pat as possible."
"Well, stop a minute," said Polly. "I'm going to unlock my box now. Hold it for me, Maggie, while I open it. Here, I'm going to take half-a-sovereign out of the grocery division. You must take this half-sovereign to Watson's, and pay for the things. I have not an idea how much they cost, but I expect you'll have a good lot of change to give me. After that, you are to go on to the butcher's, and buy four pounds of beef-steak. Here is another half-sovereign that you will have to pay the butcher out of. Be sure you don't mix the change, Maggie. Pop the butcher's change into one pocket, and the grocer's change into another. Now, do you know what we are going to have for dinner?"
"No, Miss, I'm sure I don't. I expect it'll sound big to begin with, and end small, same as the breakfast did. Why, Miss Polly, you didn't think cold bacon good enough for the servants, and yet you set it down in the end afore your pa."
Polly looked hard at Maggie. She suddenly began to think her not at all a nice girl.
"I was met by adversity," she said. "It is wrong of you to speak to me in that tone, Maggie; Mrs. Power behaved very badly, and I could not help myself; but she need not think she is going to beat me, and whatever I suffer, I scorn to complain. To-night, after every one is in bed, I am going to make lots of pies and tarts, and cakes, and cheesecakes. You will have to help me; but we will talk of that by-and-by. Now, I want to speak about the dinner. It must be simple to-day. We will have a beef-steak pudding and pancakes. Do you know how to toss pancakes, Maggie?"
"Oh, lor', Miss," said Maggie, "I did always love to see mother at it. She used to toss 'em real beautiful, and I'm sure I could too. That's a very nice dinner, Miss, 'olesome and good, and you'll let me toss the pancakes, won't you, Miss Polly?"
"Well, you may try, Maggie. But here we are at the village. Now, please, go as quickly as possible to Watson's, and the butcher's, and meet me at this stile in a quarter of an hour. Be very careful of the change, Maggie, and be sure you put the butcher's in one pocket and the grocer's in another. Don't mix them—everything depends on your not mixing them, Maggie."
The two girls parted, each going quickly in opposite directions. Polly had a successful time at the farm, and when she once again reached the turnstile her basket contained two dozen new-laid eggs, two or three pounds of delicious fresh butter, and a small jug of cream. The farmer's wife, Mrs. White, had been very pleased to see her, and had complimented her on her discernment in choosing the butter and eggs. Her spirits were now once again excellent, and she began to forget the sore injury Mrs. Power had done her by locking the store-room door.
"It's all lovely," she said to herself; "it's all turning out as pleasant as possible. The breakfast was nothing, they'd have forgotten the best breakfast by now, and they'll have such a nice dinner. I can easily make a fruit tart for father, as well as the pancakes, and won't he enjoy Mrs. White's nice cream? It was very good of her to give it to me; and it was very cheap, too—only eighteenpence. But, dear me, dear me, how I wish Maggie would come!"
There was no sign, however, of any stout, unwieldy young person walking down the narrow path which led to the stile. Strain her eyes as she would, Polly could not see any sign of Maggie approaching. She waited for another five minutes, and then decided to go home without her.
"For she may have gone round by the road," she said to herself, "although it was very naughty of her if she did so, for I told her to be sure to meet me at the turnstile. Still I can't wait for her any longer, for I must pick the fruit for my tart, and I ought to see that Alice is doing what I told her about the new curtains."
Off trotted Polly with her heavy basket once again across the fields. It was a glorious September day, and the soft air fanned her cheeks and raised her already excited spirits. She felt more cheerful than she had done since her mother died, and many brilliant visions of hope filled her ambitious little head. Yes, father would see that he was right in trusting her; Nell would discover that there was no one so clever as Polly; Mrs. Power would cease to defy her; Alice would obey her cheerfully; in short, she would be the mainstay and prop of her family.
On her way through the kitchen-garden Polly picked up a number of fallen apples, and then she went quickly into the house, to be met on the threshold by Firefly.
"Oh, Poll Parrot, may I come down with you to the kitchen? I'd love to see you getting the dinner ready, and I could help, indeed I could. The others are all so cross; that is, all except Nell. Katie is in a temper, and so are Dolly and Mabel; but I stood up for you, Poll Parrot, for I said you didn't mean to give us the very nastiest breakfast in the world. I said it was just because you weren't experienced enough to know any better—that's what I said, Poll."
"Well, you made a great mistake then," said Polly. "Not experienced, indeed! as if I didn't know what a good breakfast was like. I had a misfortune; a dark deed was done, and I was the victim, but I scorn to complain, I let you all think as you like. No, you can't come to the kitchen with me, Firefly; it isn't a fit place for children. Run away now, do."
Poor Fly's small face grew longing and pathetic, but Polly was obdurate.
"I can't have children about," she said to herself, and soon she was busy peeling her apples and preparing her crust for the pie. She succeeded fairly well, although the water with which she mixed her dough would run all over the board, and her nice fresh butter stuck in the most provoking way to the rolling-pin. Still, the pie was made, after a fashion, and Polly felt very happy, as she amused herself cutting out little ornamental leaves from what remained of her pastry to decorate it. It was a good-sized tart, and when she had crowned it with a wreath of laurel leaves she thought she had never seen anything so handsome and appetizing. Alas, however, for poor Polly, the making of this pie was her one and only triumph.
The morning had gone very fast, while she was walking to the village securing her purchases, and coming home again. She was startled when she looked at the kitchen clock to find that it pointed to a quarter past twelve. At the same time she discovered that the kitchen fire was nearly out, and that the oven was cold. Father always liked the early dinner to be on the table sharp at one o'clock; it would never, never do for Polly's first dinner to be late. She must not wait any longer for that naughty Maggie; she must put coals on the fire herself, and wash the potatoes, and set them on to boil.
This was scarcely the work of an ordinary lady-like housekeeper; but Polly tried to fancy she was in Canada, or in even one of the less civilized settlements, where ladies put their hands to anything, and were all the better for it.
She had a great hunt to find the potatoes, and when she had washed them—which it must be owned she did not do at all well—she had still greater difficulty in selecting a pot which would hold them. She found one at last, and with some difficulty placed it on the kitchen-range. She had built up her fire with some skill, but was dismayed to find that, try as she would, she could get no heat into the oven. The fact was, she had not the least idea how to direct the draught in the right direction; and although the fire burned fiercely, and the potatoes soon began to bubble and smoke, the oven, which was to cook poor Polly's tart, remained cold and irresponsive.
Well, cold as it was, she would put her pie in, for time was flying as surely it had never flown before and it was dreadful to think that there would be nothing at all for dinner but potatoes.
Oh, why did not that wicked Maggie come! Really Polly did not know that any one could be quite so depraved and heartless as Maggie was turning out. She danced about the kitchen in her impatience, and began to think she understood something of the wickedness of those cities described in the Bible, which were destroyed by fire on account of their sins, and also of the state of the world before the Flood came.
"They were all like Maggie," she said to herself. "I really never heard of any one before who was quite so hopelessly bad as Maggie."
The kitchen clock pointed to the half hour, and even to twenty minutes to one. It was hopeless to think of pancakes now—equally hopeless to consider the possibilities of a beef-steak pudding. They would be very lucky if they had steak in any form. Still, if Maggie came at once that might be managed, and nice potatoes, beef-steak, apple-tart and cream would be better than no dinner at all.
Just at this moment, when Polly's feelings were almost reduced to despair, she was startled by a queer sound, which gradually came nearer and nearer. It was the sound of some one sobbing, and not only sobbing, but crying aloud with great violence. The kitchen door was suddenly burst open, and dishevelled, tear-stained, red-faced Maggie rushed in, and threw herself on her knees at Polly's feet.
"I has gone and done it, Miss Polly," she exclaimed. "I was distraught-like, and my poor little bit of a brain seemed to give way all of a sudden. Mother's in a heap of trouble, Miss Polly. I went round to see her, for it was quite a short cut to Watson's, round by mother's, and mother she were in an awful fixing. She hadn't nothing for the rent, Miss Polly, 'cause the fruit was blighted this year; and the landlord wouldn't give her no more grace, 'cause his head is big and his heart is small, same as 'tis other way with me, Miss Polly, and the bailiffs was going to seize mother's little bits of furniture, and mother she was most wild. So my head it seemed to go, Miss Polly, and I clutched hold of the half-sovereign in the butcher's pocket, and the half-sovereign in the grocer's pocket, and I said to mother, 'Miss Polly'll give 'em to you, 'cause it's a big heart as Miss Polly has got. They was meant for the family dinner, but what's dinner compared to your feelings.' So mother she borrowed of the money, Miss Polly, and I hasn't brought home nothink; I hasn't, truly, miss."
Maggie's narrative was interspersed with very loud sobs, and fierce catches of her breath, and her small eyes were almost sunken out of sight.
"Oh, I know you're mad with me," she said, in conclusion. "But what's dinner compared with mother's feelings. Oh, Miss Polly, don't look at me like that!"
"Get up," said Polly, severely. "You are just like the people before the Flood; I understand about them at last. I cannot speak to you now, for we have not a moment to lose. Can you make the oven hot? There are only potatoes for dinner, unless the apple tart can be got ready in time."
"Oh, lor'! Miss Polly, I'll soon set that going—why, you has the wrong flue out, Miss. See now, the heat's going round it lovely. Oh, what an elegant pie you has turned out, Miss Polly! Why, it's quite wonderful! You has a gift in the cookery line, Miss. Oh, darling Miss Polly, don't you be a-naming of me after them Flooders; it's awful to think I'm like one of they. It's all on account of mother, Miss Polly. It would have gone to your heart, Miss Polly, if you seen mother a-looking at the eight-day clock and thinking of parting from it. Her tears made channels on her cheeks, Miss Polly, and it was 'eart-piercing to view her. Oh, do take back them words, Miss Polly. Don't say as I'm a Flooder."
Polly certainly had a soft heart, and although nothing could have mortified her more than the present state of affairs, she made up her mind to screen Maggie, and to be as little severe to her as she could.
Dr. Maybright had reason again to congratulate himself when he sat down to a humble dinner of boiled potatoes.
"If this regimen continues for a week," he said, under his breath, "we must really resort to tonics. I perceive I did Polly a gross injustice. She does not mean to make us ill with rich living."
The doctor ate his potatoes with extreme cheerfulness, remarking as he did so on their nutritive qualities, and explaining to his discontented family how many people lived on these excellent roots. "The only thing we want," he said, "is a red herring; we might then have that most celebrated of all Irish dishes—'potatoes and point.'"
"Do tell us what that is, father," said Helen, who was anxious to draw the direful glances of the rest of the family from poor Polly.
"'Potatoes and point,'" said Dr. Maybright, raising his head for a moment, while a droll glance filled his eye, "is a simple but economical form of diet. The herring is hung by a string over the center of the board, and each person before he eats his potato points it at the herring; by so doing a subtle flavor of herring is supposed to be imparted to the potato. The herring lasts for some time, so the diet is really a cheap one. Poll, dear, what is the matter? I never saw these excellent apples of the earth better cooked."
Polly was silent; her blushing cheeks alone betrayed her. She was determined to make a good meal, and was sustained by the consciousness that she had not betrayed Maggie, and the hope that the apple-tart would prove excellent.
It certainly was a noble apple-pie, and the faces of the children quite cheered up at the sight of it. They were very hungry, and were not particular as to the quality of the crust. Mrs. White's cream, too, was delicious, so the second part of Polly's first dinner quite turned out a success.
After the meal had come to an end, Helen called her second sister aside.
"Polly," she said, "I think we ought to speak to father now about the strangers' coming. Time is going on, and if they come we ought to begin to prepare for them, and the more I think of it the more sure I am that they ought to come."
"All right," said Polly. "Only, is this a good time to speak to father? For I am quite sure he must be vexed with me."
"You must not think so, Polly," said Helen, kissing her. "Father has given you a week to try to do your best in, and he won't say anything one way or another until the time is up. Come into his study now, for I know he is there, and we really ought to speak to him."
Polly's face was still flushed, but the Doctor, who had absolutely forgotten the simplicity of his late meal, received both the girls with equal affection.
"Well, my loves," he said, "can I do anything for you? I am going for a pleasant drive into the country this afternoon. Would you both like to come?"
"I should very much," said Helen; but Polly, with a somewhat important little sigh, remarked that household matters would keep her at home.
"Well, my dear, you must please yourself. But can I do anything for either of you now? You both look full of business."
"We are, father," said Polly, who was always the impetuous one. "We want to know if Paul and Virginia may come."
"My dear, this is the second time you have spoken to me of those deserted orphans. I don't understand you."
"It is this, father," explained Helen. "We think the children from Australia—the children mother was arranging about—might come here still. We mean that Polly and I would like them to come, and that we would do our best for them. We think, Polly and I do, that mother, even though she is not here, would still like the strangers to come."
"Sit down, Helen," said the Doctor; the harassed look had once again come across his face, and even Polly noticed the dimness in his eyes.
"You must not undertake too much, you two," he said. "You are only children. You are at an age to miss your mother at every turn. We had arranged to have a boy and girl from Australia to live here, but when your mother—your mother was taken—I gave up the idea. It was too late to stop their coming to England, but I think I can provide a temporary home for them when they get to London. You need not trouble your head about the strange children, Nell."
"It is not that," said Polly. "We don't know them yet, so of course we don't love them, but we wish them to come here, because we wish for their money. It will be eight pounds a week; just what you spend on the house, you know, father."
"What a little economist!" said Dr. Maybright, stretching out his hand and drawing Polly to him. "Yes, I was to receive L400 a year for the children, and it would have been a help, certainly it would have been a help by and by. Still, my dear girls, I don't see how it is to be managed."
"But really, father, we are so many that two more make very little difference," explained Helen. "Polly and I are going to try hard to be steady and good, and we think it would certainly please mother if you let the strangers come here, and we tried to make them happy. If you would meet them, father, and bring them here just at first, we might see how we got on."
"I might," said the Doctor in a meditative voice, "and L400 is a good deal of money. It is not easily earned, and with a large family it is always wanted. That's what your mother said, and she was very wise. Still, still, children, I keep forgetting how old you are. In reality you are, neither of you, grown up; in reality Polly is quite a child, and you, my wise little Nell, are very little more. I have offended your aunt, Mrs. Cameron, as it is, and what will she say if I yield to you on this point? Still, still——"
"Oh, father, don't mind what that tiresome Aunt Maria says or thinks on any subject," said Polly. "Why should we mind her, she wasn't mother's real sister. We scarcely know her at all, and she scarcely knows us. We don't like her, and we are sure she doesn't like us. Why should she spoil our lives, and prevent our helping you? For it would help you to have the strangers here, wouldn't it, father?"
"By and by it would," answered the Doctor. "By and by it would help me much."
Again the troubled expression came to his face and the dimness was perceptible in his eyes.
"You will let us try it, father," said Helen. "We can but fail; girls as young as us have done as much before. I am sure girls as young as we are have done harder things before, so why should not we try?"
"I am a foolish old man," said the Doctor. "I suppose I shall be blamed for this, not that it greatly matters. Well, children, let it be as you wish. I will go and meet the boy and girl in London, and bring them to the Hollow. We can have them for a month, and if we fail, children," added the Doctor, a twinkle of amusement overspreading his face, "we won't tell any one but ourselves. It is quite possible that in the future we shall be comparatively poor if we cannot manage to make that boy and girl from Australia comfortable and happy; but Polly there has taught us how to economize, for we can always fall back on potatoes and point."
"Oh—oh—oh, father," came from Polly's lips.
"That is unkind, dear father," said Helen.
But they both hung about his neck and kissed him, and when Dr. Maybright drove away that afternoon on his usual round of visits, his heart felt comparatively light, and he owned to himself that those girls of his, with all their eccentricities, were a great comfort to him.
IN THE ATTIC.
There is no saying how Polly's week of housekeeping might have ended, nor how substantial her castle in the air might have grown, had not a catastrophe occurred to her of a double and complex nature.
The first day during which Polly and Maggie, between them, catered for and cooked the family meals, produced a plain diet in the shape of cold bacon for breakfast, and a dinner of potatoes, minus "point." But on the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of that week Maggie quite redeemed her character of being a Flooder, and worked under Polly with such goodwill that, as she herself expressed it, her small brains began to grow. Fortunately, Mrs. Ricketts, Maggie's mother, was not obliged to meet her rent every day of the week, therefore no more of Polly's four pounds went in that direction. And Polly read Mrs. Beaton's Cookery-book with such assiduity, and Maggie carried out her directions with such implicit zeal and good faith, that really most remarkable meals began to grace the Doctor's board. Pastry in every imaginable form and guise, cakes of all descriptions; vegetables, so cooked and so flavored, that their original taste was completely obliterated; meats cooked in German, Italian, and American styles; all these things, and many more, graced the board and speedily vanished. The children became decidedly excited about the meals, and Polly was cheered and regarded as a sort of queen. The Doctor sighed, however, and counted the days when Nell and Mrs. Power should once more peacefully reign in Polly's stead. Nurse asked severely to have all the nursery medicine bottles replenished. Firefly looked decidedly pasty, and, after one of Polly's richest plum-cakes, with three tiers of different colored icings, Bunny was heard crying the greater part of one night. Still the little cook and housekeeper bravely pursued her career of glory, and all might have gone well, and Polly might have worn a chastened halo of well-earned success round her brow for the remainder of her natural life, but for the catastrophe of which I am about to speak.
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday the family fared richly, and the household jogged along somehow, but on Friday morning Dr. Maybright suddenly surprised his girls by telling them that unexpected business would call him to London immediately. He could not possibly return before Monday, but he would get a certain Dr. Strong to see after his patients, and would start for town by the mid-day train.
The Doctor's portmanteau was quickly packed, and in what seemed a moment of time after the receipt of the letter he had kissed his family and bidden them good-by. Then her four younger sisters and the boys came round Polly with a daring suggestion.
"Let's sit up late, to-night, and have a real, jolly supper," they begged. "Let's have it at nine o'clock, up in the large garret over the front of the house; let it be a big supper, all kinds of good things; ginger-beer and the rest, and let's invite some people to come and eat it with us. Do Poll—do Poll, darling."
"But," said Polly—she was dazzled by this glorious prospect—"I haven't got a great deal of money," she said, "and Nurse will be very angry, and Helen won't like it. For you know, children, you two boys and Firefly, you are never allowed to sit up as late as nine o'clock."
"But for once, Poll Parrot," exclaimed the three victims; "just for once. We are sure father would not care, and we can coax Nell to consent; and Nurse, as to Nurse, she thinks of no one but baby; we won't choose the garret over baby. Do, do, do say 'yes,' darling Poll."
"The dearest cook in all the world!" exclaimed Bunny, tossing his cap in the air.
"The queen of cake-makers," said Bob, turning head over heels.
"The darlingest princess of all housekeepers," echoed Firefly, leaping on her sister, and half-strangling her with a fierce embrace.
"And we'll all subscribe," said the twins.
"And it will really be delightfully romantic; something to remember when you aren't housekeeper," concluded Katie.
"I'd like it awfully," said Polly, "I don't pretend that I wouldn't, and I've just found such a recipe for whipped cream. Do you know, girls, I shouldn't be a bit surprised—I really shouldn't—if I turned out some meringues made all by myself for supper. The only drawback is the money, for Mrs. White does charge a lot for cream, and I don't mind owning to you all, now that you are nice and sympathetic, that the reason you had only potatoes for dinner on Monday was because Maggie and I met with a misfortune; it was a money trouble," continued Polly, with an important air, "and of course children like you cannot understand what money troubles mean. They are wearing, very, and Maggie says she thinks I'm beginning to show some crow's feet around my eyes on account of them. But never mind, I'm not going to cast the shadows of money troubles on you all, and this thing is not to be spoken of, only it makes me very short now."
"But we'll help you, Poll," said all the eager voices. "Let's fetch our purses and see what we can spare."
In a twinkling many odd receptacles for holding money made an appearance, and the children between them found they could muster the noble sum of six shillings. All this was handed to Polly, who said, after profound deliberation, that she thought she could make it go furthest and make most show in the purchase of cream and ginger-beer.
"I'll scrape the rest together, somehow," she said, in conclusion, "and Maggie will help me fine. Maggie's a real brick now, and her brains are growing beautifully."
But there was another point to be decided—Who were to be invited to partake of the supper, and was Nurse to be told, and was Helen to be consulted?
Certainly Polly would not have ventured to carry out so daring a scheme without Helen's consent and cooperation, if it had not happened that she was away for the day. She had taken the opportunity to drive into the nearest town five miles away with her father, and had arranged to spend the day there, purchasing several necessary things, and calling on one or two friends.
"And it will be much too late to tell Nell when she comes back," voted all the children. "If she makes a fuss then, and refuses to join, she will spoil everything. We are bound too, to obey Helen, so we had much better not give her the chance of saying 'no.' Let us pretend to go to bed at our usual hour, and say nothing to either Nurse or Helen. We can tell them to-morrow if we like, and they can only scold us. Yes, that is the only thing to do, for it would never, never do to have such a jolly plan spoilt."
A unanimous vote was therefore carried that the supper in the garret was to be absolutely secret and confidential, and, naughty as this plan of carrying out their pleasure was, it must be owned that it largely enhanced the fun. The next point to consider was, who were to be the invited guests? There were no boys and girls of the children's own class in life within an easy distance.
"Therefore there is no one to ask," exclaimed Katie, in her shortest and most objectionable manner.
But here Firefly electrified her family by quoting Scripture.
"When thou makest a supper," she began.
All the others rose in a body and fell upon her. But she had started a happy idea, and in consequence, Mrs. Ricketts' youngest son and daughter, and the three very naughty and disreputable sons of Mrs. Jones, the laundress, were invited to partake of the coming feast.
The rest of the day passed to all appearance very soberly. Helen was away. The Doctor's carriage neither came nor went; the Doctor himself, with his kindly voice, and his somewhat brusque, determined manner, awoke no echoes in the old house. Nurse was far away in the nursery wing, with the pretty, brown-eyed baby and the children; all the girls and the little boys were remarkably good.
To those who are well acquainted with the habits and ways of young folks, too much goodness is generally a suspicious circumstance. There is a demure look, there is an instant obedience, there is an absence of fretfulness, and an abnormal, although subdued, cheerfulness, which arouses the watchful gaze of the knowing among mothers, governesses, and nurses.
Had Nurse been at dinner that day she might have been warned of coming events by Bunny's excellent behavior; by Bob's rigid refusal to partake twice of an unwholesome compound, which went by the name of iced pudding; by Firefly's anxiety to be all that a good and proper little girl should be. But Nurse, of course, had nothing to say to the family dinner. Helen was away, the Doctor was nearing the metropolis, and the little boys' daily governess was not dining with the family.
These good children had no one to suspect them, and all went smoothly; in short, the wheels of the house machinery never seemed more admirably oiled.
True, had any one listened very closely there might have been heard the stealthy sound of shoeless feet ascending the rickety step-ladder which led to the large front garret. Shoeless feet going up and down many, many times. Trays, too, of precious crockery were carried up, baskets piled with evergreens and flowers were conveyed thither, the linen cupboard was ruthlessly rifled for snowy tablecloths and table napkins of all descriptions. Then later in the day a certain savory smell might have been perceived by any very suspicious person just along this special passage and up that dusty old ladder. For hot bread and hot pastry and hot cakes were being conveyed to the attic, and the sober twins themselves fetched the cream from the farm, and the ginger beer from the grocer's.
No one was about, however, to suspect, or to tell tales if they did suspect.
Helen came home about seven o'clock, rather tired, and very much interested in her purchases, to find a cozy tea awaiting her, and Polly anxious to serve her. The twin girls were supposed to be learning their lessons in the school-room, Katie was nowhere to be seen, and Helen remarked casually that she supposed the young ones had gone to bed.
"Oh, yes," said Polly, in her quickest manner.
She turned her back as she spoke, and the blush which mantled her brown face was partly hidden by her curly dark hair.
"I am very hungry," said Helen. "Really, Polly, you are turning out an excellent housekeeper—what a nice tea you have prepared for me. How delicious these hot cakes are! I never thought, Poll, you would make such a good cook and manager, and to think of your giving us such delicious meals on so little money. But you are eating nothing yourself, love, and how hot your cheeks are!"
"Cooking is hot work, and takes away the appetite," said Polly.
She was listening in agony that moment, for over Helen's head certain stealthy steps were creeping; they were the steps of children, leaving their snug beds, and gliding as quietly as possible in the direction of the savory smells and the dusty ladder and the large dirty, spidery—but oh, how romantic, how fascinating—front attic. Never before did Polly realize how many creaky boards there were in the house; oh, surely Helen would observe those steps; but, no, she cracked her egg tranquilly, and sipped her tea, and talked in her pleasantest way of Polly's excellent cooking, and of her day's adventures.
Time was going on; it would soon be eight o'clock. Oh, horrors, why would the Rickettses and Mrs. Jones's three boys choose the path through the shrubbery to approach the house! The morning room, where Helen was taking her tea, looked out on the shrubbery, and although it was now quite dark in the world of nature, those dreadful rough boys would crack boughs, and stumble and titter as they walked. Polly's face grew hotter and her hands colder; never did she bless her sister's rather slow and unsuspicious nature more than at this moment, for Helen heard no boughs crack, nor did the stealthy, smothered laughter, so distinctly audible to poor Polly, reach her ears.
At ten minutes to eight Helen rose from the table.
"I'm going up to Nurse to show her what things I have bought for baby," she said. "We are going to short-coat baby next week, so I have a good deal to show her, and I won't be down again for a little bit."
"All right," said Polly, "I have plenty to do; don't worry about me till you see me, Nell."
She danced out of the room, and in excellent spirits joined a large and boisterous party in the front attic. Now, she assured her family and her guests, all would go well; they were safely housed in a distant and unused part of the establishment, and might be as merry and as noisy as they pleased; no one would hear them, no one would miss them, no one would suspect them.
And all might have gone according to Polly's programme, and to this day that glorious feast in the attic might have remained a secret in the private annals of the house of Maybright, but for that untoward thing which I am about to tell.
At that very moment while the Maybrights, the Rickettses, and the Joneses were having delightful and perfectly untrammeled intercourse with each other, a very fidgety old lady was approaching the Hollow, being carefully conducted thither in a rickety fly. A large traveling trunk was on the box seat of the fly, and inside were two or three bandboxes, a couple of baskets, a strap bursting with railway rugs, cloaks, and umbrellas, and last, but not least, a snarling little toy terrier, who barked and whined, and jumped about, and licked his mistress's hand.
"Down, Scorpion," exclaimed Mrs. Cameron; "behave yourself, sir. You really become more vicious every day. Get in that corner, and don't stir till I give you leave. Now, then, driver," opening the window and poking her head out, "when are we getting to Sleepy Hollow? Oh! never, never have I found myself in a more outlandish place."
"We be a matter of two miles from there, ma'am," said the man. "You set easy, and keep yourself quiet, for the beast won't go no faster."
Mrs. Cameron subsided again into the depths of the musty old fly with a groan.
"Outlandish—most outlandish!" she remarked again. "Scorpion, you may sit in my lap if you like to behave yourself, sir. Well, well, duty calls me into many queer quarters. Scorpion, if you go on snarling and growling I shall slap you smartly. Yes, poor Helen; I never showed my love for her more than when I undertook this journey: never, never. Oh! how desolate that great moor does look; I trust there are no robbers about. It's perfectly awful to be in a solitary cab, with anything but a civil driver, alone on these great moors. Well, well, how could Helen marry a man like Dr. Maybright, and come to live here? He must be the oddest person, to judge from the letter he wrote me. I saw at once there was nothing for me but to make the stupendous effort of coming to see after things myself. Poor dear Helen! she was a good creature, very handsome, quite thrown away upon that doctor. I was fond of her; she was like a child to me long ago. It is my duty to do what I can for her orphans. Now, Scorpion, what is the matter? You are quite one of the most vicious little dogs I have ever met. Oh, do be quiet, sir."
But at that moment the fly drew up with a jolt. The driver deliberately descended from his seat, and opened the door, whereupon Scorpion, with a snarl and bound, disappeared into the darkness.
"He's after a cat," remarked the man, laconically. "This be the Hollow, ma'am, if you'll have the goodness to get out."
"Sleepy Hollow," remarked Mrs. Cameron to herself, as she steadily descended. "Truly I should think so; but I am much mistaken if I don't wake it up."
"Ef you please, Miss Helen," said Alice, the neat housemaid, putting in her head at the nursery door, "there's a lady downstairs, and a heap of luggage, and the nastiest little dog I ever saw. He has almost killed the Persian kitten, Miss, and he is snarling and snapping at every one. See, he took this bit out of my apron, miss. The old lady says as her name is Mrs. Cameron, and she has come to stay; and she'd be glad if you'd go down to her immediately, Miss Helen."
"Aunt Maria!" said Helen, in an aghast voice. "Aunt Maria absolutely come—and father away! Nursie, I must fly down—you will understand about those flannels. Oh! I am sorry Aunt Maria has come. What will Polly say?"
Helen felt a curious sinking at her heart as she descended the stairs; but she was a very polite and well-mannered girl, and when she went up to Mrs. Cameron she said some pretty words of welcome, which were really not overdone. Mrs. Cameron was a short, stout person; she always wore black, and her black was always rusty. She stood now in the middle of the drawing-room, holding Scorpion in her arms, with her bonnet-strings untied, and her full, round face somewhat flushed.
"No, my dear, you are not particularly glad to see me," she said, in answer to Helen's gentle dignified greeting. "I don't expect it, child, nor look for it; and you need not waste untruths upon me, for I always see through them. You are not glad to see me, and I am not surprised, for I assure you I intend to make myself disagreeable. Helen, your father is a perfect fool. Now, my dear, you need not fire up; you would say so if you were as old as me, and had received as idiotic an epistle from him."
"But I am not as old as you, and he is my father," said Helen, steadily. "I don't tell untruths, Aunt Maria, and I am glad to see you because—because you were fond of mother. Will you come into the dining-room now, and let me get you some tea?"
Helen's lips were quivering, and her dark blue eyes were slightly lowered, so that Aunt Maria should not notice the tears that filled them. The old lady, however, had noticed these signs of emotion, and brave words always pleased her.
"You aren't a patch on your mother, child," she said. "But you remind me of her. Yes, take me to my room first, and then get me a good substantial meal, for I can tell you I am starving."
Helen rang the bell.
"Alice," she said to the parlor maid, who speedily answered the summons, "will you get the rose room ready as quickly as possible? My aunt, Mrs. Cameron, will stay here for the night. And please lay supper in the dining-room. Tell Mrs. Power—oh, I forgot—see and get as nice a supper as you can, Alice. You had better speak to Miss Polly."
"Yes, Miss," said Alice. Then she paused, hesitated, colored slightly, and said, in a dubious manner, "Is it the rose room you mean, Miss Helen? That's the room Miss Polly is getting ready for Miss Virginy, and there ain't no curtains to the window nor to the bed at present."
"Then I won't sleep in that bed," said Mrs. Cameron. "I must have a four-poster with curtains all round, and plenty of dark drapery to the windows. My eyes are weak, and I don't intend to have them injured with the cold morning light off the moor."
"Oh, Aunt Maria, the mornings aren't very light now," answered Helen. "They are——"
But Mrs. Cameron interrupted her.
"Don't talk nonsense, child. In a decent place like Bath I own the day may break gradually, but I expect everything contrary to civilized existence here. The very thought of those awful commons makes me shiver. Now, have you, or have you not, a four-poster, in which I can sleep?"
Helen smothered a slight sigh. She turned once again to Alice.
"Will you get my father's room ready for Mrs. Cameron," she said, "and then see about supper as quickly as possible? Father is away for a few days," she added, turning to the good lady. "Please will you come up to Polly's and my room now to take off your things?"
"And where is Polly?" said Mrs. Cameron. "And why doesn't she come to speak to her aunt? There's Kate, too, she must be a well-grown girl by now, and scarcely gone to bed yet. The rest of the family are, I presume, asleep; that is, if there's a grain of sense left in the household."
"Yes, most of the children are in bed," replied Helen. "You will see Polly and Katie, and perhaps the twins, later on, but first of all I want to make you comfortable. You must be very tired; you have had a long journey."
"I'm beat out, child, and that's the truth. Here, I'll lay Scorpion down in the middle of your bed; he has been a great worry to me all day, and he wants his sleep. He likes to get between the sheets, so if you don't mind I'll open the bed and let him slip down."
"If you want me to be truthful, I do mind very much," said Helen. "Oh, you are putting him into Polly's bed. Well, I suppose he must stay there for the present."
Mrs. Cameron was never considered an unamiable person; she was well spoken of by her friends and relations, for she was rich, and gave away a great deal of money to various charities and benevolent institutions. But if ever any one expected her to depart in the smallest particular from her own way they were vastly mistaken. Whatever her goal, whatever her faintest desire, she rode roughshod over all prejudices until she obtained it. Therefore it was that, notwithstanding poor Helen's protest, Scorpion curled down comfortably between Polly's sheets, and Mrs. Cameron, well pleased at having won her point, went down to supper.
Alas, and alas! the supper provided for the good lady was severe in its simplicity. Alice, blushing and uncomfortable, called Helen out of the room, and then informed her that neither Polly nor Maggie could be found, and that there was literally nothing, or next to nothing, in the larder.
"But that can't be the case," said Helen, "for there was a large piece of cold roast beef brought up for my tea, and a great plate of hot cakes, and an uncut plum cake. Surely, Alice, you must be mistaken."
"No, Miss, there's nothing downstairs. Not a joint, nor a cake, nor nothing. If it wasn't that I found some new-laid eggs in the hen-house, and cut some slices from the uncooked ham, I couldn't have had nothing at all for supper—and—and——"
"Tut, tut!" suddenly exclaimed a voice in the dining-room. "What's all this whispering about? It is very rude of little girls to whisper outside doors, and not to attend to their aunts when they come a long way to see them. If you don't come in at once, Miss Helen, and give me my tea, I shall help myself."
"Find Polly, then, as quick as you can, Alice," exclaimed poor, perplexed Helen, "and tell her that Aunt Maria Cameron has come and is going to stay."
Alice went away, and Helen, returning to the dining-room, poured out tea, and cut bread-and-butter, and saw her aunt demolishing with appetite three new-laid eggs, and two generous slices of fried ham.
"Your meal was plain; but I am satisfied with it," she said in conclusion. "I am glad you live frugally, Helen; waste is always sinful, and in your case peculiarly so. You don't mind my telling you, my dear, that I think it is a sad extravagance wearing crape every day, but of course you don't know any better. You are nothing in the world but an overgrown child. Now that I have come, my dear, I shall put this and many other matters to rights. Tell me, Helen, how long does your father intend to be away?"
"Until Monday, I think, Aunt Maria."
"Very well; then you and I will begin our reforms to-morrow. I'll take you round with me, and we'll look into everything. Your father won't know the house when he comes back. I've got a treasure of a woman in my eye for him—a Miss Grinsted. She is fifty, and a strict disciplinarian. She will soon manage matters, and put this house into something like order. I had a great mind to bring her with me; but I can send for her. She can be here by Monday or Tuesday. I told her to be in readiness, and to have her boxes packed. My dear, I wish you would not poke out your chin so much. How old are you? Oh, sixteen—a very gawky age. Now then, that I am refreshed and rested, I think that we'll just go round the house."
"Will you not wait until to-morrow, Aunt Maria? The children are all asleep and in bed now, and Nurse never likes them to be disturbed."
"My dear, Nurse's likes or dislikes are not of the smallest importance to me. I wish to see the children asleep, so if you will have the goodness to light a candle, Helen, and lead the way, I will follow."
Helen, again stifling a sigh, obeyed. She felt full of trepidation and uneasiness. Why did not Polly come in? Why had all the supper disappeared? Where were Katie and the twins? How strangely silent the house was.
"I will see the baby first," said Mrs. Cameron. "In bed? Well, no matter, I wish to look at the little dear. Ah, this is the nursery; a nice, cheerful room, but too much light in it, and no curtains to the windows. Very bad for the dear baby's eyes. How do you do, Nurse? I have come to see baby. I am her aunt, her dear mother's sister, Maria Cameron."
"Baby is asleep, ma'am," she said. "I have just settled her in her little crib for the night. She's a good, healthy child, and no trouble to any one. Yes, ma'am, she has a look of her dear blessed ma. I'll just hold down the sheet, and you'll see. Please, ma'am, don't hold the light full in the babe's eyes, you'll wake her."
"My good woman, I handled babies before you did. I had this child's mother in my arms when she was a baby. Yes, the infant is well enough; you're mistaken in there being any likeness to your late mistress in her. She seems a plain child, but healthy. If you don't watch her sight, she may get delicate eyes, however. I should recommend curtains being put up immediately to these windows, and you're only using night-lights when she sleeps. It is not I that am likely to injure the baby with too much light. Good evening, Nurse."
Nurse muttered something, her brow growing black.
"Now, Helen," continued Mrs. Cameron, "we will visit the other children. This is the boys' room, I presume. I am fond of boys. What are your brothers' names, my dear?"
"We call them Bob and Bunny."
"Utterly ridiculous! I ask for their baptismal names, not for anything so silly. Ah! oh—I thought you said they were in bed: these beds are empty."
So they were; tossed about, no doubt, but with no occupants, and the bedclothes no longer warm; so that it could not have been quite lately that the truants had departed from their nightly places of rest. On further investigation, Firefly's bed was also found in a sad state of deshabille, and it was clearly proved, on visiting their apartments, that the twins and Katie had not gone to bed at all.
"Then, my dear, where are the family?" said Mrs. Cameron. "You and that little babe are the only ones I have yet seen. Where is Mary? where is Katharine? Where are your brothers? My dear Helen, this is awful; your brothers and sisters are evidently playing midnight pranks. Oh, there is not a doubt of it, you need not tell me. What a good thing it is that I came! Oh! my poor dear sister; what a state her orphans have been reduced to! There is nothing whatever for it but to telegraph for Miss Grinsted in the morning."
"But, my dear auntie, I am sure, oh! I am sure you are mistaken," began poor Helen. "The children are always very well behaved—they are, indeed they are. They don't play pranks, Aunt Maria."
"Allow me to use my own eyesight, Helen. The beds are empty—not a child is to be found. Come, we must search the house!"
Helen never to her dying day forgot that eerie journey through the deserted house, accompanied by Aunt Maria. She never forgot the sickening fear which oppressed her, and the certainty which came over her that Polly, poor, excitable Polly, was up to some mischief.
Sleepy Hollow was a large and rambling old place, and it was some time before the searchers reached the neighborhood of the festive garret. When they did, however, there was no longer any room for doubt. Wild laughter, and high-pitched voices singing many favorite nursery airs and school-room songs made noise enough to reach the ears even of the deafest. "John Peel" was having a frantic chorus as Helen and her aunt ascended the step-ladder.
"For the sound of his horn brought me from my bed, And the cry of his hounds which he ofttimes led, Peel's 'View Hulloo!' would awaken the dead, Or the fox from his lair in the morning."
"Very nice, indeed," said Aunt Maria, as she burst open the garret door. "Very nice and respectful to the memory of your dear mother! I am glad, children, that I have come to create decent order in this establishment. I am your aunt, Maria Cameron."
There are occasions when people who are accused wrongfully of a fault will take it patiently: there was scarcely ever known to be a time when wrongdoers did so.
The children in the garret were having a wild time of mirth and excitement. There was no time for any one to think, no time for any one to do aught but enjoy. The lateness of the hour, the stealthy gathering, the excellent supper, and, finally, the gay songs, had roused the young spirits to the highest pitch. Polly was the life of everything; Maggie, her devoted satellite, had a face which almost blazed with excitement.
Her small eyes twinkled like stars, her broad mouth never ceased to show a double row of snowy teeth. She revolved round her brothers and sisters, whispering in their ears, violently nudging them, and piling on the agony in the shape of cups of richly creamed and sugared tea, of thick slices of bread-and-butter and jam, and plum cake, topped with bumpers of foaming ginger-beer.
Repletion had reached such a pass in the case of the Ricketts brother and sister that they could scarcely move; the Jones brothers were also becoming slightly heavy-eyed; but the Maybright children fluttered about here and there like gay butterflies, and were on the point of getting up a dance when Aunt Maria and the frightened Helen burst upon the scene.
It required a much less acute glance than Aunt Maria's to point out Polly as the ringleader. She headed the group of mirth-seekers, every lip resounded with her name, all the other pairs of young eyes turned to her. When the garret door was flung open, and Aunt Maria in no measured tones announced herself, the children flew like frightened chickens to hide under Polly's wing. The Rickettses and Joneses scrambled to their feet, and ran to find shelter as close as possible to headquarters. Thus, when Polly at last found her voice, and turned round to speak to Aunt Maria, she looked like the flushed and triumphant leader of a little victorious garrison. She was quite carried away by the excitement of the whole thing, and defiance spoke both in her eyes and manner.
"How do you do, Aunt Maria?" she said. "We did not expect you. We were having supper, and have just finished. I would ask you to have some with us, only I am afraid there is not a clean plate left. Is there, Maggie?"
Maggie answered with a high and nervous giggle, "Oh, lor', Miss Polly! that there ain't; and there's nothing but broken victuals either on the table by now. We was all hungry, you know, Miss Polly."
"So perhaps," continued Polly, "you would go downstairs again, Aunt Maria. Helen, will you take Aunt Maria to the drawing-room? I will come as soon as I see the supper things put away. Helen, why do you look at me like that? What's the matter?"
"Oh, Polly!" said Helen, in her most reproachful tones.
She was turning away, but Aunt Maria caught her rather roughly by the shoulder.
"Do all this numerous party belong to the family?" she said. "I see here present thirteen children. I never knew before that my sister had such an enormous family."
Helen felt in far too great a state of collapse to make any reply; but Polly's saucy, glib tones were again heard.
"These are our visitors, Aunt Maria. Allow me to introduce them. Master and Miss Ricketts, Masters Tom, Jim, and Peter Jones. This is Maggie, my satellite, and devoted friend, and—and——"
But Aunt Maria's patience had reached its tether. She was a stout, heavily made woman, and when she walked into the center of Polly's garrison she quickly dispersed it.
"March!" she said, laying her hand heavily on the girl's shoulder. "To your room this instant. Come, I shall see you there, and lock you in. You are a very bad, wicked, heartless girl, and I am bitterly ashamed of you. To your room this minute. While your father is away you are under my control, and I insist on being obeyed."
"Oh, lor'!" gasped Maggie. "Run," she whispered to her brother and sister. "Make for the door, quick. Oh, ain't it awful! Oh, poor dear Miss Polly! Why, that dreadful old lady will almost kill her."
But no, Polly was still equal to the emergency.
"You need not hold me, Aunt Maria," she said, in a quiet voice, "I can go without that. Good night, children. I am sorry our jolly time has had such an unpleasant ending. Now then, I'll go with you, Aunt Maria."
"In front, then," said Aunt Maria. "No loitering behind. Straight to your room."
Polly walked down the dusty ladder obediently enough; Aunt Maria, scarlet in the face, stumped and waddled after her; Helen, very pale, and feeling half terrified, brought up the rear. All went well, and the truant exhibited no signs of rebellion until they reached the wide landing which led in one direction to the girl's bedroom, in the other to the staircase.
Here Polly turned at bay.
"I'm not going to my room at present," she said. "If I've been naughty, father can punish me when he comes home. You can tell anything you like to father when he comes back on Monday. But I'm not going to obey you. You have no authority over me, and I'm not responsible to you. Father can punish me as much as he likes when you have told him. I'm going downstairs, now; it's too early for bed. I've not an idea of obeying you."
"We will see to that," said Aunt Maria. "You are quite the naughtiest child I ever came across. Now then, Miss, if you don't go patiently, and on your own feet, you shall be conveyed to your room in my arms. I am quite strong enough, so you can choose."
Polly's eyes flashed.
"If you put it in that way, I don't want to fuss," she said. "I'll go there for the present, but you can't keep me there, and you needn't try."
Aunt Maria and Polly disappeared round the corner, and poor Helen stood leaning against the oak balustrade, silently crying. In three or four minutes Aunt Maria returned, her face still red, and the key of the bedroom in her pocket.
"Now, Helen, what is the matter? Crying? Well, no wonder. Of course, you are ashamed of your sister. I never met such a naughty, impertinent girl. Can it be possible that Helen should have such a child? She must take entirely after her father. Now, Helen, stop crying, tears are most irritating to me, and do no good to any one. I am glad I arrived at this emergency. Matters have indeed come to a pretty crisis. In your father's absence, I distinctly declare that I take the rule of my poor sister's orphans, and I shall myself mete out the punishment for the glaring act of rebellion that I have just witnessed. Polly remains in her room, and has a bread and water diet until Monday. The other children have bread and water for breakfast in the morning, and go to bed two hours before their usual time to-morrow. The kitchen-maid I shall dismiss in the morning, giving her a month's wages in lieu of notice. Now, Helen, come downstairs. Oh, there is just one thing more. You must find some other room to sleep in to-night. I forbid you to go near your sister. In fact, I shall not give you the key. You may share my bed, if you like."
"I cannot do that, Aunt Maria," said Helen. "I respect you, and will obey you as far as I can until father returns, and tells us what we really ought to do. But I cannot stay away from Polly to-night for any one. I know she has been very naughty. I am as shocked as you can be with all that has happened, but I know too, Aunt Maria, that harsh treatment will ruin Polly; she won't stand it, she never would, and mother never tried it with her. She is different from the rest of us, Aunt Maria; she is wilder, and fiercer, and freer; but mother often said, oh, often and often, that no one might be nobler than Polly, if only she was guided right. I know she is troublesome, I know she was impertinent to you, and I know well she did very wrong, but she is only fourteen, and she has high spirits. You can't bend, nor drive Polly, Aunt Maria, but gentleness and love can always lead her. I must sleep in my own bed to-night, Aunt Maria. Oh, don't refuse me—please give me up the key."
"You are a queer girl," said Aunt Maria. "But I believe you are the best of them, and you certainly remind me of your mother when you speak in that earnest fashion. Here, take the key, then, but be sure you lock the door when you go in, and when you come out again in the morning. I trust to you that that little wild, impertinent sister of yours doesn't escape—now, remember."
"While I am there she will not," answered Helen. "Thank you, auntie. You look very tired yourself, won't you go to bed now?"
"I will, child. I'm fairly beat out. Such a scene is enough to disturb the strongest nerves. Only what about the other children? Are they still carousing in that wicked way in the garret?"
"No. I am sure they have gone to bed, thoroughly ashamed of themselves. But I will go and see to them."
"One thing more, child. Before I go to bed I should like to fill in a telegraph form to Miss Grinsted. If she gets it the first thing in the morning she can reach here to-morrow night. Well, Helen, again objecting; you evidently mean to cross me in everything; now what is the matter? Why has your face such a piteous look upon it?"
"Only this, Aunt Maria. Until father returns I am quite willing to obey you, and I will do my best to make the others good and obedient. But I do think he would be vexed at your getting Miss Grinsted until you have spoken to him. Won't you wait until Monday before you telegraph for her?"
"I'll sleep on it, anyhow," replied Mrs. Cameron. "Good night, child. You remind me very much of your mother—not in appearance, but in the curious way you come round a person, and insist upon having everything done exactly as you like. Now, my dear, good night. I consider you all the most demoralized household, but I won't be here long before matters are on a very different footing."
The bedroom door really closed upon Aunt Maria, and Helen drew a long breath.
Oh, for Monday to arrive! Oh, for any light to guide the perplexed child in this crisis! But she had no time to think now. She flew to the garret, to find only the wreck of the feast and one or two candles flickering in their sockets. She put the candles out, and went next to the children's bedrooms. Bob and Bunny, with flushed faces, were lying once more in their cribs, fast asleep. They were dreaming and tossing about, and Nurse stood over them with a perplexed and grave face.
"This means nightmare, and physic in the morning," said the worthy woman. "Now, don't you fret and worry your dear head, Miss Helen, pet. Oh, yes, I know all about it, and it was a naughty thing to do, only children will be children. Your aunt needn't expect that her old crabbed head and ways will fit on young shoulders. You might go to Miss Firefly, though, for a minute, Miss Helen, for she's crying fit to break her heart."
Helen went off at once. Firefly was a very excitable and delicate child. She found the little creature with her head buried under the clothes, her whole form shaken with sobs.
"Lucy, darling," said Helen.
The seldom-used name aroused the weeping child; she raised her head, and flung two thin arms so tightly round Helen's neck that she felt half strangled.
"Oh, it's so awful, Nell; what will she do to poor Polly! Oh, poor Polly! Will she half kill her, Nell?"
"No, Fly—how silly of you to take such an idea into your head. Fly, dear, stop crying at once—you know you have all been naughty, and Polly has hurt Aunt Maria, and hurt me, too. You none of you knew Aunt Maria was coming, but I did not think you would play such a trick on me, and when father was away, too."
"It wasn't Polly's fault," said Firefly, eagerly. "She was tempted, and we were the tempters. We all came round her, and we did coax, so hard, and Polly gave way, 'cause she wanted to make us happy. She's a darling, the dearest darling in all the world, and if Aunt Maria hurts her and she dies, I—I——"
The little face worked in a paroxysm of grief and agony.
"Don't, Fly," said Helen. "You are much too tired and excited for me to talk calmly to you to-night. You have been naughty, darling, and so has Polly, and real naughtiness is always punished, always, somehow or another. But you need not be afraid that any real harm will happen to Polly. I am going to her in a moment or two, so you need not be in the least anxious. Now fold your hands, Fly, and say 'Our Father.' Say it slowly after me."
Firefly's sobs had become much less. She now lay quiet, her little chest still heaving, but with her eyes open, and fixed with a pathetic longing on Helen's face.
"You're nearly as good as mother," she said. "And I love you. But Polly always, always must come first. Nell, I'll say 'Our Father,' only not the part about forgiving, for I can't forgive Aunt Maria."
"My dear child, you are talking in a very silly way. Aunt Maria has done nothing but her duty, nothing to make you really angry with her. Now, Fly, it is late, and Polly wants me. Say those dear words, for mother's sake."
There was no child at Sleepy Hollow who would not have done anything for mother's sake, so the prayer was whispered with some fresh gasps of pain and contrition, and before Helen left the room, little Lucy's pretty dark eyes were closed, and her small, sallow, excitable face was tranquil.
DR. MAYBRIGHT versus SCORPION.
Dr. Maybright returned to his home on Monday evening in tolerably good spirits. He had gone up to London about a money matter which caused him some anxiety; his fears were, for the present at least, quite lulled to rest, and he had taken the opportunity of consulting one of the greatest oculists of the day with regard to his eyesight. The verdict was more hopeful than the good Doctor had dared to expect. With care, total blindness might be altogether avoided; at the worst it would not come for some time. A certain regimen was recommended, overwork was forbidden, all great anxiety was to be avoided, and then, and then—Well, at least the blessed light of day might be enjoyed by the Doctor for years to come.
"But you must not overwork," said the oculist, "and you must not worry. You must read very little, and you must avoid chills; for should a cold attack your eyes now the consequences would be serious."
On the whole this verdict was favorable, and the Doctor returned to Sleepy Hollow with a considerable weight lifted from his mind. As the train bore him homeward through the mellow, ripened country with the autumn colors glorifying the landscape, and a rich sunlight casting a glow over everything, his heart felt peaceful. Even with the better part of him gone away for ever, he could look forward with pleasure to the greeting of his children, and find much consolation in the love of their young hearts.
"After all, there never were girls quite like Helen and Polly," he said to himself. "They both in their own way take after their mother. Helen has got that calm which was always so refreshing and restful in her mother; and that little scapegrace of a Polly inherits a good deal of her brilliancy. I wonder how the little puss has managed the housekeeping. By the way, her week is up to-day, and we return to Nell's and Mrs. Power's steadier regime. Poor Poll, it was shabby of me to desert the family during the end of Indigestion week, but doubtless matters have gone fairly well. Nurse has all her medicine bottles replenished, so that in case of need she knew what to do. Poor Poll, she really made an excellent cake for my supper the last evening I was at home."
The carriage rolled down the avenue, and the Doctor alighted on his own doorsteps; as he did so he looked round with a pleased and expectant smile on his face. It was six o'clock, and the evenings were drawing in quickly; the children might be indoors, but it seemed scarcely probable. The little Maybrights were not addicted to indoor life, and as a rule their gay, shrill voices might have been heard echoing all over the old place long after sunset. Not so this evening; the place was almost too still; there was no rush of eager steps in the hall, and no clamor of gay little voices without.
Dr. Maybright felt a slight chill; he could not account for it. The carriage turned and rolled away, and he quickly entered the house.
"Polly, where are you? Nell, Firefly, Bunny," he shouted.
Still there was no response, unless, indeed, the rustling of a silk dress in the drawing-room, a somewhat subdued and half-nervous cough, and the unpleasant yelping of a small dog could have been construed into one.
"Have my entire family emigrated? And is Sleepy Hollow let to strangers?" murmured the Doctor.
He turned in the direction of the rustle, the cough, and the bark, and found himself suddenly in the voluminous embrace of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Cameron.
"My dear Andrew, I am pleased to see you. You have been in the deep waters of affliction, and if in my power I would have come to you sooner. I had rheumatism and a natural antipathy to solitude. Still I made the effort, although a damper or more lonely spot would be hard to find. I don't wonder at my poor sister's demise. I got your letter, Andrew, and it was really in reply to it that I am here. Down, Scorpion; the dog will be all right in a moment or two, my dear brother, he is only smelling your trousers."
"He has a very marked way of doing so," responded the Doctor, "as I distinctly feel his teeth. Allow me, Maria, to put this little animal outside the window—a dog's bite given even in play is not the most desirable acquisition. Well, Maria, your visit astonishes me very much. Welcome to Sleepy Hollow. Did you arrive to-day? How did you find the children?"
"I came here on Friday evening, Andrew. The children are as well as such poor neglected lambs could be expected to be."
Dr. Maybright raised his eyebrows very slightly.
"I was not aware they were neglected," he said. "I am sorry they strike you so. I also have a little natural antipathy to hearing children compared to sheep. But where are they? I have been away for four days, and am in the house five minutes, and not the voice of a child do I hear? Where is Helen—where is my pretty Poll? Don't they know that their father has arrived?"
"I cannot tell you, Andrew. I have been alone myself for the last two or three hours, but I ordered your tea to be got ready. May I give you some? Shall we come to the dining room at once? Your family were quite well three hours ago, so perhaps you and I may have a quiet meal together before we trouble about them any further. I think I may claim this little indulgence, as only properly respectful to your wife's sister, Andrew."
"Yes, Maria, I will have tea with you," said the Doctor. The pleased, bright look of anticipation had altogether now left his face; it was careworn, the brow slightly puckered, and many lines of care and age showed round the lips.
"I will just go upstairs and wash my hands," said Dr. Maybright. "Then I will join you in the dining-room."
He ran up the low stairs to his own room; it was not only full of Aunt Maria's possessions, but was guarded by the faithful Scorpion, who had flown there in disgust, and now again attacked the Doctor's legs.
"There is a limit," he murmured, "and I reach it when I am bitten by this toy terrier."
He lifted Scorpion by his neck, and administered one or two short slaps, which sent the pampered little animal yelping under the bed; then he proceeded down the passage in search of some other room where he might take shelter.
Alice met him; her eyes glowed, and the color in her face deepened.
"We are all so glad you are back, sir," she said, with an affectionate tone in her voice. "And Miss Helen has got the room over the porch ready, if you'd do with it for a night or two, sir. I've took hot water there, sir, for I saw the carriage coming up the drive."
"Thank you, Alice; the porch room will do nicely. By the way, can you tell me where all the children are?"
But Alice had disappeared, almost flown down the passage, and the Doctor had an uncomfortable half suspicion that he heard her sob as she went.
Dr. Maybright, however, was not a fanciful person—the children, with the exception of baby, were all probably out. It was certainly rather contrary to their usual custom to be away when his return was expected, still, he argued, consistency in children was the last thing to be expected. He went downstairs, therefore, with an excellent appetite for whatever meal Mrs. Cameron might have provided for him, and once more in tolerably good spirits.
There are some people who habitually, and from a strong sense of duty, live on the shady side of life. Metaphorically speaking, the sunshine may almost touch the very path on which they are treading, but they shrink from and avoid it, having a strong preference for the shade, but considering themselves martyrs while they live in it. Mrs. Cameron was one of these people. The circumstances of her life had elected plenty of sunshine for her; she had a devoted and excellent husband, an abundant income, and admirable health. It is true she had no children, and it is also true that she had brought herself by careful cultivation to a state of chronic ill-temper. Every one now accepted the fact that Mrs. Cameron neither wished to be happy, nor was happy; and when the Doctor sat down to tea, and found himself facing her, it was with very somber and disapproving eyes that she regarded him.
"Well, Andrew, I must say you look remarkably well. Dear, dear, there is no constancy in this world, that is, amongst the male sex."
Here she handed him a cup of tea, and sighed lugubriously. The Doctor accepted the tea with a slight frown; he was a peaceable man, but as he said, when chastising Scorpion, "there are limits."
"If you have no objection, Maria," he said, curtly, "we will leave the subject of my personal appearance and the moral question which you have brought forward out of our conversation."
Then his voice and manner changed; he put on a company smile, and continued, without any pause, "How is your husband? Is he as great an antiquary as ever? And do you both continue to like living in Bath?"
Mrs. Cameron was a strong and determined woman, but she was no match for the Doctor when he chose to have his own way. For the remainder of the meal conversation was languid, and decidedly commonplace; once only it brightened into animation.
"I wonder where Scorpion can be?" said the good lady; "I want to give him his cream."
"I fear he is under punishment," said the Doctor. "If I judge of him aright, Scorpion is something of a coward, and is not likely to come into the same room where I am for some time."
"What do you mean? Surely you have not been cruel to him?"
"Cruel to be kind. Once again he attempted to eat my legs, and I was obliged to administer one or two sharp slaps—nothing to hurt; you will find him under your bed. And now I really must go to look for my family."
Dr. Maybright left the room, and Mrs. Cameron sat still, scarlet with annoyance and indignation.
"How could Helen have married such a man?" she said to herself. "I never can get on with him—never. How cowardly it was of him to hurt the little dog. If it was not for the memory of poor dear Helen I should leave here by the first train in the morning; but as it is, I will not stir until I have established Miss Grinsted over this poor, misguided household. Ah, well! duty is ever hard, but those who know Maria Cameron are well acquainted with the fact that she never shirked it. Yes, I will stay; it will be very unpleasant, but I must go through it. What very abrupt manners the Doctor has! I was just preparing to tell him all about that wicked Polly when he jumped up and left the room. Now, of course, he will get a wrong impression of the whole thing, for the other children all take her part. Very bad manners to jump up from the tea table like that. And where is Helen?—where are they all? Now that I come to think of it, I have seen nothing of any one of them since the early dinner. Well, well, if it were not for poor Helen I should wash my hands of the whole concern. But whoever suffers, dear little Scorpion must have his cream."
Accordingly Mrs. Cameron slowly ascended the stairs, armed with a saucer and a little jug, and Scorpion forgot the indignities to which he had been subjected as he lapped up his dainty meal.
Meanwhile, the Doctor having explored the morning room and the schoolrooms, having peeped into the conservatory, and even peered with his rather failing sight into the darkness outside, took two or three strides upstairs, and found himself in the presence of Nurse and baby.
"Well, Pearl," he said, taking the little pure white baby into his arms, looking into its wee face earnestly, and then giving it a kiss, which was sad, and yet partook of something of the nature of a blessing.
"Baby goes on well, Nurse," he said, returning the little creature to the kind woman's arms. Then he looked into her face, and his own expression changed.
"What is the matter?" he said, abruptly. "You have been crying. Is anything wrong? Where have all the children vanished to?"
"You have had your tea, sir?" said Nurse, her words coming out in jerks, and accompanied by fresh sobs. "You have had your tea, and is partial rested, I hope, so it's but right you should know. The entire family, sir, every blessed one of them, with the exception of the babe, has took upon themselves to run away."
WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?
Nurse's news astonished the Doctor very much. He was not a man, however, to show all he felt. He saw that Nurse was on the verge of hysterics, and he knew that if he did not take this startling and unpleasant piece of information in the most matter-of-fact way, he would get nothing out of her.
"I hope matters are not as bad as you fear," he said. "Sit down in this chair, and tell me what has occurred. Don't hurry yourself; a few moments more or less don't signify. Tell your tale quietly, in your own way."
Thus administered, Nurse gasped once or twice, looked up at the Doctor with eyes which plainly declared "there never was your equal for blessedness and goodness under the sun," and commenced her story in the long-winded manner of her class.
The Doctor heard a garbled account of the supper in the attic, of the arrival of Mrs. Cameron, of the prompt measures which that good lady took to crush Polly, of Firefly's grief, of the state of confusion into which the old house was thrown. She then went on to tell him further that Polly, having refused to submit or repent in any way, Mrs. Cameron had insisted on her remaining in her own room, and had at last, notwithstanding all Helen's entreaties, forbidden her to go near her sister. The housekeeping keys were taken away from Polly, and Mrs. Cameron had further taken upon herself to dismiss Maggie. She had sent a telegram to Mrs. Power, who had returned in triumph to Sleepy Hollow on Saturday night.