"You shan't catch me—you shan't," screamed the child. "I'm lighter than you. I'm going to creep on to the end of this bough; it will bear my weight, but it won't bear yours, Nora. Don't attempt to get on it, Nora; if you do the bough will break."
Kitty, as good as her word, crept on to a dead branch of the forest beech tree; it was high above the ground and nearly bare of leaves. It looked what it was, thoroughly rotten; but it bore Kitty's light weight without strain. She reached almost the end, and turned her flushed, laughing, defiant face towards Nora. Nora had reached the bough, but hesitated a moment before trusting herself on it.
"Who said I was going to be caught?" exclaimed Kitty. "Hurrah! hurrah! I'm safe enough."
"I will catch you!" exclaimed Nora. "You horrid, sneaking little cheat. This bough looks firm enough. It will hold me as well as you; anyhow, I'm going to try."
"Don't, don't!" screamed Kitty. She was really frightened now, for she saw the danger from the position where she was sitting far more plainly than Nora did. "Don't do it, Nora," she shrieked. "I'd rather come back to you. I would really, really. You'll be killed—we'll both be killed if you get upon this rotten bough. Oh, dear! oh, dear! Nora, are you mad? Are you mad?"
Blind passion had made Nora almost mad. She did not believe Kitty's words. The bare bough looked safe enough from her position. She stretched out one cautious hand, then another, and propelled herself slowly along. Her whole weight was now upon the bough. It was thoroughly rotten and very brittle. Kitty gave a shriek of terror, and, with a wild leap, managed to throw her arms over the bough just above. She was not a minute too soon. The rotten branch cracked and broke with a loud report, and poor Nora was hurled with great violence to the ground.
ALONE IN THE WOOD.
There was a dizzy moment for Kitty when she seemed to hang between heaven and earth, and everything swam in circles before her dazed eyes. Then, with a supreme effort, she managed to clutch the bough, to which she clung with a firmer grasp, and slowly but surely to drag herself up into safety on its broad, firm stem.
"I'm coming, Nora. I'll be down in a minute," she shouted.
She crept along the bough, and soon, much scratched and covered with moss and leaves, her dress torn, her face hotly flushed, she reached the ground and rushed to Nora's side.
Poor Nora had fallen from a height of nearly twenty feet. Her fall had been slightly broken by the rotten bough which had come to the ground with her; but, notwithstanding this fact, she lay now on her back, faint and sick and moaning, as if she were in great pain.
Poor Kitty's repentance was intense.
"Oh, Nora, Nora!" she sobbed, bending over her, "are you hurt badly? Can't you get up? Oh, dear! oh, dear! you do look ill, and it's my fault of course. Why did I have a secret? and why did I tease you? Oh, Nora!" she added, terror in her tone as she noticed the increasing whiteness of Nora's pretty face, "are you in dreadful, shocking pain?"
"I feel sick," said Nora, "and—and faint. Can't you fetch some water. Oh, everything seems miles away. What shall I do?"
"I'll go for mother," said Kitty. "Lie very still, Nonie, darling; you have got an awful shake from that fall, but you'll be all right soon—I'm sure you will; and, oh, here's some water in one of the picnic bottles."
Kitty sprang towards this welcome sight, wetted a handkerchief with part of the contents and put it on Nora's forehead, and then gave her a little to drink.
The cold refreshing water revived the poor girl; but when she attempted to sit up, she fell back groaning and very faint once more.
"You must let me fetch mother," said Kitty. "I won't be a minute. I'll go as if I were a bird. I'll be back in no time, really."
"No; I can't be left alone," said Nora. "It—it's awful. The pain in my back gets worse and worse. Kitty, don't leave me. Kitty, I'm frightened. I'm sorry I was so cross to you."
"And I'm sorry I aggravated you," said Kitty; "but, oh, dear! what's the use of being sorry? That won't mend your poor back. I wish you'd let me get mother."
"No, no; you mustn't leave me."
Nora tried to stretch out one of her hands, but the pain of the least movement was extreme, and she was forced to lie absolutely still, while Kitty wetted her lips at intervals with a few drops of the precious water left in the bottle.
Nora was in too great pain to care anything about the loneliness of their position. She was in too great suffering even to be keenly sorry for her own wrongdoing. The one only desire she had was to keep Kitty by her side. But poor Kitty's little heart was full of absolute terror. She had never seen anyone look so ill as Nora. Her face was white; her lips were blue; she was evidently in severe pain; but, with the pain, there was a strange faintness, which Kitty had never encountered before in the whole course of her ten sturdy years.
Many and many a fall had both Kitty and Boris had in the wild expeditions and daring feats which they performed in each other's company. Kitty knew of the fall which stings; of the fall which shakes you all over, which raises a great bump and causes great soreness of the injured part; she knew of the fall which scratches and even renders you giddy; but she had never before seen the effects of such a serious fall as poor Nora's.
Friar's Wood was a very lonely place, and when, in utter exhaustion and pain, Nora closed her eyes, poor Kitty felt almost as if she were sitting alone in this great solitude with a person who was dead.
Oh, suppose pretty Nora was dead. Pretty Nora, who had been so mocking and full of life only ten minutes ago. If this were the case, to her dying day Kitty would feel that she had killed her by tempting her on to a rotten bough. It was terrible, terrible to be here alone with Nora, who might be going to die. Why could not she slip away and fetch someone to her aid?
Nora had clutched a very tight hold of Kitty's hand when first the little girl had proposed to fetch her mother, but now, in the kind of torpor of pain into which she had sunk, she relaxed the firm grip, and Kitty found that by a very gentle movement she could release her hand altogether.
She did so, and rose slowly to her feet.
Nora felt the movement and spoke.
"You're not going away?"
"I'm only looking to see if there's anyone coming."
"Well, don't go away."
Nora's voice had sunk to a hoarse whisper, and Kitty's terrors and her certain fears that Nora was about to die became greater than ever.
She looked all around her, to right and left, before and behind.
No one was in sight. Not even the voice of a living creature broke the stillness. The birds were silent, the creatures of the wood seemed to be all asleep, the other members of the picnic had evidently wandered far afield; but, hark, what sound was that? Oh, joy! Who was this coming swiftly through the trees? Kitty's heart gave a bound of rapture, and then, forgetting all Nora's injunctions to keep by her side, she flew with lightning speed towards the figure of a horseman who was riding through the wood.
The man on horseback was Squire Lorrimer himself.
He had promised to join the children in time for dinner, but had not turned up. It was not his custom, however, on any occasion to disappoint his young people, and although late in the day he was now hastening to the scene of revelry.
Kitty's frantic speed in his direction by no means surprised him.
"Well, little woman," he said, pulling up the mare as he spoke. "Shall I give you a mount on Black Bessy's back? and where are all the others? I expected quite a swarm of you to rush forth. Where is Molly, and where is Nora, and where is the beautiful Annie Forest, whom everybody seems to rave about, and mother and Jane Macalister? Are they all hiding and ready to rush out upon me with wild whoops?"
Kitty panted visibly before she replied.
"No, father, it isn't that," she said. "I and Nora are alone, I—get down please, father, won't you?"
"Why, what's the matter with you child?" The Squire hastily dismounted. "Are you hurt, Kit? What a red, excited face."
"No, 'tisn't me, it's Nora. She fell; I think she'll die. It was my fault. The beech tree had a rotten bough, and I crept out on it, as I didn't wish to be caught; and Nora followed me, and the bough broke, and she's lying on her back now and she can't move, and I think she'll die, and they're all away—I don't know where—somewhere else in the wood, and I think she's going to die, and it's my fault."
"There, Kitty, keep your pecker up," said the Squire. "I'm glad I came round this way; it was a lucky chance. Wait a minute until I tie Black Bess to this tree. Where is Nora?"
"Over there, lying on that knoll of grass. I think she'll die."
"Tut, tut, monkey, what do you know about people dying? Give me your hand, and bring me to her."
Oh, the comfort to Kitty of that firm, cool, strong hand of father's—oh, the support of looking into his face. A burden as of black night was lifted from her. She ran in eager accompaniment to his great strides. He was bending over Nora in a minute.
"Now, my poor little maid, what is this?" he asked, dropping on one knee and trying to put his hand under her head as he spoke.
Nora opened her pretty, dark eyes.
"Oh, father, is it you? I'm glad," she said in a faint voice. "I've been naughty, father; I—I'm sorry."
"Well, you can't be more than sorry, can you, Nonie? Don't bother about anything now, but just tell me where you are hurt."
"Oh, it's my back. Oh, don't touch me; it's dreadful!"
Squire Lorrimer's face looked very grave.
"Where did she fall from, Kitty?" he asked.
Kitty pointed to the gash made in the beech-tree by the broken bough.
"Over twenty feet," murmured the Squire to himself. "God help my poor little girl!"
"Look here, Kitty," he said aloud, "Nora is in a good deal of pain; but I hope we'll soon have her easier. We must try and get her home somehow, and it would be a good thing if your mother were here; you had better fetch her. Don't frighten her, Kit, for Nora may not be badly hurt after all; but bring her here as quickly as you can, and Guy, too, and Molly; they are both strong, and have their wits about them. We must contrive a litter of some sort. Now, be quick and find the folks."
"Yes," replied Kitty, who was almost happy again under the influence of her father's encouraging words.
She was soon out of sight, and in less than half an hour Mrs. Lorrimer, Jane Macalister, and every other member of the picnic party, were gathered round the prostrate figure of little Nora.
She was more conscious now, and looked eagerly for one face, the solace of all sick children.
"Let Mummie hold my hand," she said.
Mrs. Lorrimer took it, bent down, and kissed her; Nora smiled as if a load had been lifted from her heart.
A rough litter was presently constructed, and with great difficulty the poor child was lifted into it. The pain of even this slight move, however, caused her to faint completely away.
It was at this juncture that Hester Thornton came forward with a suggestion.
"The Grange is nearly three miles nearer than the Towers," she said; "had not we better bring her there? And had not Guy better ride off at once to Nortonbury for the doctor?"
"That is a good idea," said Mr. Lorrimer. "Guy, mount on Black Bess's back and off with you. Bring Dr. Jervis back with you to the Grange if you can."
The merry little picnic party looked dismal enough as they slowly, and almost in funereal fashion, left the scene of festivity. The strongest of the party had to take turns to carry poor Nora's litter, for she could not endure any less easy movement.
Nan came up to Hester and took her hand.
"I don't know what the meaning of all this is," she said; "but, somehow or other, I think Annie must be at the bottom of it."
"Where is Annie?" queried Hester. "How completely she seems to have lost herself. Oh, how miserable poor little Kitty looks. Come here, Kitty, dear, and tell me all about the accident."
"I cannot," said Kitty. "Don't ask me; it's part of the secret."
"I knew Annie Forest was at the bottom of it," murmured Nan. "Oh, what a horrid, horrid, dreadful ending to the first of my holidays!"
"I BROKE MY WORD," SAID ANNIE.
In utter ignorance of the tragic events which were happening in Friar's Wood, Annie Forest and her two little companions were having a gay time at the Towers. Annie's old passion for children had not deserted her. She was often heard to say that she was happier with a frank, original child than she was with most grown people. Boris was certainly frank; Nell was certainly original. Annie's beauty and brightness had won Boris's heart from the moment of her arrival; Nell's affections went out to her also, but for a different reason. Nell lived in a world of romance, and Annie's conduct in giving up her own pleasure had seemed to Nell to fit in with her fairy tales and other story-books. The three were, therefore, supremely happy during that long afternoon. The picnic behind the laurustinus hedge being quite a thing of the past, they proceeded to explore the tower, the old ruined chapel, where services used to be held morning and night more than three hundred years ago, the dungeon under the chapel, and all the other places of historic interest. Then the children's gardens were visited; and, finally, Annie was persuaded to seat herself in the swing and be sent up into space as high as Boris's and Nell's united efforts could accomplish. In their turn they were swung by Annie; and then followed tea in the play-room, where Nell presided, sitting solemnly in front of the dolls' tea-service and helping Annie and Boris and herself to unlimited weak tea, with heaps of cream.
The heat of the day was over at last, a perfect summer's evening had set in.
"When are they all likely to be back?" asked Annie.
"Not until night, dark night," said Boris with a little sigh.
"What are you sighing for?" asked Annie. "You look quite sad, and I don't like you sad; I like you with your eyes smiling and your face puckered up with laughter. Nell looks pale and sad, too. What is it Nell? what is it Boris?"
"I'd like to be at the picnic now," said Boris, "I didn't mind it in the daytime when it was so hot; but now they're lighting another bonfire and they're going to have tea, and after tea Guy will tell stories."
"All about bogies," struck up Nell; "yes, I wish I were there."
Annie looked at them both reflectively. She never cared to be with children unless she could succeed in making them almost boisterously happy.
"But it doesn't matter a bit," said Nell, seeing the shadow cross her face; "I shouldn't be very happy in any case to-night."
"Why?" said Annie.
"I'd rather not say, please. You have been good to us; you have helped us to have a beautiful day; we are grateful to you, aren't we, Boris?"
"We love her," said Boris.
"You are two darlings," said Annie. "Well, now, suppose we have a bit of fun on our own account. How far is it from here to the Grange?"
"By the road, three miles," said Boris; "but across the fields, only a mile and a half."
"We'll go to the Grange across the fields," said Annie. "I heard Hester say this morning that she was going to try and induce you all to come back to the Grange to supper, so we three will join the rest of the party at supper, and if we start at once well be ready to welcome them when they arrive."
"What a spiffin' plan," said Boris; "do let's start at once."
Nell clapped her hands.
"Now I've made you happy again, that's all right," said Annie. She took a hand of each child, and they started on their pleasant walk. Boris was very messy and untidy, his face was stained with fruit and his hands were dirty. Nell's blue cotton frock was also considerably out at the gathers round the waist, but the children did not give a thought to their clothes or personal appearance in the sudden rapture with which they hailed Annie's suggestion.
The walk across the fields in the sweet freshness of the summer's evening was all that was delightful, and in an incredibly short space of time, the three found themselves at the other side of the turnstile which led into the grounds of the Grange.
"We'll be there long before the others," said Boris. "Suppose we light a great bonfire on the lawn to welcome them." But even wild Annie did not see the propriety of this suggestion.
"No, we won't do that," she said. "If the Grange were our own place we would. We'll just go and sit on the terrace and watch for them."
"Won't Kitty jump when she sees us?" said Boris, a look of satisfaction radiating all over his face. "She'll see that we have had our lark as well as the rest of them; oh, I call it real spiffin' fine."
They were walking rapidly through the shrubbery now, and as Boris finished his speech they came out on the broad sweep in front of the house.
Just before the entrance a brougham was standing, and instead of solitude they found themselves surrounded by familiar figures.
Kitty was the first to observe them. She gave a stifled sort of scream, and pushing aside Boris, who was prepared to rush into her arms, came up to Annie, took one of her hands, and looked into her face.
"I kept the secret true as true," she said; "but it almost killed me, and it has nearly quite killed Nora." Her poor little voice broke with these last words, and she burst into the frantic sobs which she had bravely kept back until now.
"What in the world is the matter?" said Annie, kneeling down and putting her arm round the excited child.
"Why, that's Dr. Jervis's carriage," shouted Boris. "What can be up?"
"Why are you back so early from the picnic?" asked Nell.
But Kitty sobbed on unable to reply.
She felt the comfort of Annie's arms round her, and presently she laid her hot, flushed, little face on Annie's neck and wetted her frill with her plentiful tears, but no information could be got at present from poor Kitty's lips.
"There's Molly, and there's Hester," exclaimed Boris, "they'll tell us; oh, and there's Nan, too. Hullo Nan, come here and tell us what the rumpus is about."
Nan rushed up excitedly.
"Nora is nearly killed," she said; "she fell from a tree over twenty feet from the ground, and her back is hurt awfully, and Hester said she'd better come here, and she's lying in the library and Dr. Jervis is there. I haven't the faintest idea how it happened," continued Nan; "only it seems to be your fault, Annie; it seems to have something to do with you and a secret, only Kitty won't tell."
Kitty ceased to cry; she raised her face and looked at Annie. Annie struggled to her feet.
She was about to reply to Nan when Hester came up and spoke to her.
"Oh, Annie," she said, "where have you been all day? We have been dreadfully anxious about you; and poor Nora has been hurt, and Kitty seems in trouble of some sort, and says that she won't tell her secret. What can it all mean?"
"Well, really!" said Annie. She paused a minute; the rich colour mantled her cheeks; her bright eyes seemed to flash fire.
"I'm awfully sorry about Nora," she said; "but I fail to see how I am to blame. From your manner, Nan, and yours, Hester, I seem to be accused of something. What is it, pray?"
"Oh, it's nothing, indeed," said Molly, who had come up now and joined Hester. "What does it matter, Hetty, when we are all so awfully wretched? Poor Annie did not mean anything. Do let her alone!"
"I did not mean anything?" echoed Annie. "I'm afraid I can't allow myself to be let alone. I must find out what I'm accused of. Kitty, you say you kept my secret safely. Speak now and tell everybody."
"I can't stay to listen," said Molly, turning away; "it's too—too trivial!"
Hester and Nan, however, still stood facing Annie, and the boys, Guy and Harry, also came and joined the group.
"Speak, Kitty," said Annie.
"You were kind," said Kitty; "it's wicked to say you weren't kind. You found out that Boris hadn't come to the picnic, and you said you'd go back for him; you'd walk back all in the heat, and you didn't mind the bull, nor the bull-dog, nor—nor—anything; and you said I wasn't to tell, and 'twould be a surprise when you came back with Boris and, perhaps, Nell, too—and I promised. Then we had dinner, and you weren't there, and everybody asked for you and everybody wondered where you could be; but Hester said you were a sort of 'centric girl, and that you was grown up and we needn't fret; and Nan said you was nothing if you wasn't unexpected; so nobody fretted, and I kept my secret locked up tight. But Nora wanted you more than the others, and she saw my lips shut tight and my eyes watching for you through the trees, and she guessed I had a secret; and I said I had, but I wouldn't tell; and she said she'd take me to mother, and that mother would make me tell, and so I climbed up into the beech-tree to get away from her; and I was naughty and cross, and she was naughty and cross, too, and she followed me up into the beech-tree, and I got out upon a rotten bough, where I thought she'd be sure not to come; but she did come, cause I was real naughty and I taunted her; and the bough broke and she fell, but I didn't fall 'cause I caught on to a bough higher up. It's been dreadful ever since," continued Kitty, pressing her hands tightly together. "Worse than when I forgot to give water to Harry's canary and it died, and worse than when I pulled up all Guy's canariensis in mistake for weeds; its been awful, but I did keep the secret."
"Is that all?" said Annie.
"Yes, that's all," replied Kitty. "I did keep the secret."
"I understand," said Annie. "I should have come back, of course. I did not remember that I might get you into trouble, Kitty; it did not occur to me that you were the plucky sort of child you are."
"Plucky?" echoed Guy with some scorn. "I don't call it plucky to be just decently honourable. We don't tell lies. Kitty would have told a lie if she had broken her word."
"And I promised to come back, and I broke my word," said Annie. "Yes, I fully understand; it's just like me."
She turned away as she spoke, and, plunging into the shrubbery, was lost to view.
"Leave her alone, children," said Hester to the astonished children, who were preparing to follow her. "I knew it would cut her to the heart, but it can't be helped. She'll be all right by-and-by, but she can't stand any of you now; you must leave her alone."
Boris came up to Kitty, put his arms round her neck, and kissed her. His kiss was of the deepest consolation to her; she walked away with him slowly, and Nell took Hester's hand. Nell's face was like a little white sheet; she was trembling in her agitation.
"Oh, what is the matter?" she gasped. "Is Nonie awfully hurt? Is it dangerous? Oh, Hetty, it's worse than the colts! Oh, I felt bad this morning, but it was nothing to this—nothing! May I stay with you for the present, Hetty?"
"Yes, darling," said Hester in her kindest voice. "Come into the house with me. We are all very anxious until we get the doctor's opinion. Your father and mother are both with Nora; and Dr. Jervis is there and Jane. Everything is being done that can be done, and we know nothing at present. Come, Nell, we must be brave—and here is Molly; she is just as anxious as you."
Nell looked at Molly, who was standing in the porch; she flew to her eldest sister's side, clasped her arms round her neck, and shed a few of those silent, rare tears which only came to her now and then, for Nell was no ordinary child, and rarely showed her deepest feelings.
"I don't know how I'm to live through this suspense," said poor Molly.
But even as she spoke it came to an end.
Mr. Lorrimer came out of the study, closing the door softly behind him. He strode quickly through the hall, and entered the porch where the three girls were standing. Molly stepped forward quickly and seized his arm.
"Well?" she asked.
He gave her a quick look; his face was very pale, and a sudden contraction of pain flitted across his brow.
"Well, my loves," he said, "we must all try to be as cheerful as we can and not break down; there isn't a bit of use in breaking down."
"But how is she, father?" asked Molly. "What does Dr. Jervis say?"
"He says, Molly, that poor Nora is very seriously hurt; but it is impossible to form a reliable opinion on her case so soon. He wishes us to get Dr. Bentinck from London to see her, and I am going to drive to Nortonbury to telegraph to him to come at once. Now, don't keep me, my dears. By the way, Molly, mother says you had better take the children home as soon as ever you can."
"Oh, may I not stay?" asked Molly.
"No, my dear, I think not; there must be some head at home. Jane Macalister will stay and help your mother to-night until we can get the services of a proper nurse. Take the children back as soon as you can, Molly. God bless you, my love."
The Squire stepped into the doctor's brougham and was driven rapidly away. Molly raised her hand to her forehead.
"I feel stunned," she said. "Nora was the gayest and the brightest and the prettiest of us all. Nothing ever seemed to happen to Nora, and now she is so ill that I may not even see her."
"She will be better to-morrow, I am sure," said Hester.
"Oh, Hetty, if I could only stay here," cried poor Molly.
"I wish you could, Molly, with all my heart."
"We'll know nothing of how she's getting on at the Towers," continued Molly. "I think it will drive me mad not to know."
"I'll come over very early in the morning and tell you, and perhaps something may be arranged to-morrow so that you can stay here."
"I might stay instead of Jane. I know I could help mother far better than Jane can. But there, I suppose I must have patience. Come, Nell."
AN AWFULLY FRIVOLOUS GIRL.
Dr. Bentinck, the great London surgeon, arrived early on the following morning. Poor Nora was quite conscious now, and in great pain. This pain, however, was considered rather a good sign than otherwise, for had the spine been much injured the little girl would have been numbed and stupid. Dr. Bentinck examined his little patient with great tenderness and care. His opinion, when it was given, was a great deal more favourable than anyone dared to hope. He thought that Nora would eventually be as well as ever again; but although he was sure that there was no permanent injury to the spine, there was a great deal of present distress and discomfort to be got through. The little girl must lie perfectly still on her back for many weeks, and it would be many a long day before the dancing, romping Nora of old would return to the Towers.
After the night of suspense and terror, however, which poor Mrs. Lorrimer, by Nora's bedside, and Molly in her lonely little bedroom at the Towers, had undergone, the great London doctor's news seemed all that was delightful. Hester hurried to the Towers to put Molly's anxious heart at rest, and Mrs. Lorrimer returned to the room where Nora was lying very white and still.
Nora had received a shock the day before which must influence her during all the remainder of her days. It seemed to shake all her little artificial affected nature off and to reveal the real Nora, who was frightened and weak and silly, and yet who had somewhere beneath her frivolous exterior a real little heart of gold. If there was one person whom Nora really adored, and in whose presence she was ever her truest and best, it was her mother. She looked at her mother now as she re-entered the room.
"Stoop down and tell me," she said in a whisper.
Mrs. Lorrimer bent over her.
"Yes, my love," she said. "What do you want to know?"
"Am I going to die, mother?"
"Die? not a bit of it, my darling. Dr. Bentinck has given us quite a cheerful opinion of you. He says there is no very serious injury, and that you will be your usual self by-and-by."
Nora's eyes brightened.
"I am very glad," she said. "I didn't want to die. I don't think I'm quite fit."
"My little daughter will have learnt a severe lesson by this accident," said Mrs. Lorrimer; "but now you must lie still, love, and think of nothing but how quickly you can get well again."
Nora closed her eyes, and Mrs. Lorrimer sat down in an easy chair by the bedside.
The next day the little girl was considerably better, and Mrs. Lorrimer proposed that she and Jane should return to the Towers and send Molly to look after Nora. A good surgical nurse had arrived from town the evening before; Molly's services, therefore, would only be of the lightest.
Mrs. Lorrimer went into the morning room, where Hester and Annie were sitting together.
The moment she did so Annie jumped up and came to her.
"How is Nora?" she asked.
"She is much better, my dear; in fact, almost quite like her old self to-day. She cannot, of course, move without the greatest pain, but when she lies perfectly still she is tolerably easy."
"Then I may go to see her, may I not?" asked Annie.
"If you will promise to be very quiet. It would not do to excite her in any way."
"There never was such a good nurse as Annie," exclaimed Hester. "She has a soothing influence over sick people which is quite marvellous. Did I ever tell you how she saved Nan's life years ago at Lavender House?"
"Oh, that's an old story," said Annie, laughing and reddening. "Well, granted that I possess a sort of mesmerism, may I use it for Nora's benefit?"
"Certainly, my love," said Mrs. Lorrimer, smiling affectionately at Annie's bright face.
She ran off, singing as she went.
Nora was lying perfectly flat on the little bed which had been hastily improvised for her in the study. The room was now turned into a comfortable bedroom, but was also in part a sitting-room. A large screen effectually shut away the bedroom part of the furniture and partly screened Nora also.
Annie had not gone straight to the sick room. She had rushed first into the conservatory and made frantic mad havoc amongst the roses there. The choicest blooms, any quantity of unopened buds, were cut by her reckless fingers. She gathered a whole quantity of maidenhair to mix with the roses, and then, a tender colour on her own cheeks, her dark eyes bright as well as soft, she appeared like a radiant vision before the tired, sad eyes of the sick child.
Nora was just well enough to feel the monotony of her present position, to think longingly of the life of active movement which was hers at the Towers. Even lessons in the old schoolroom, even that hateful darning and mending to which she had to devote a portion of her time each day, seemed delightful in contrast to her present inertia. She was thinking of Friar's Wood and of Annie's bright face just when Annie herself, looking like a bit of the summer morning, appeared in view.
"Now, don't get excited," said Annie smiling at her. "You'll see such a lot of me during the next few weeks that you need not get into a state just because I've come into the room. I feel that in a certain fashion I am to blame for your accident, so I am going to take your amusements upon my shoulders; and if you just allow me to manage matters, I'll promise that you shan't have a dull time while you are getting well. Have you a headache?"
"No, not a bit."
"That's all right; then you won't mind my talking. Are you fond of pretty things?"
"Yes, very fond."
"Well, I'll sit here, just where you can comfortably see the flowers and me. I expect we'll make a very pretty picture, but you need not say so. I wonder where there's a looking-glass. Oh, yes, in that corner, decently covered with an antimacassar. Well, then, glass, you have got to uncover for my benefit. I wish to see whether I look pretty or not."
Annie danced up to the glass; Nora could watch her each movement.
Her steps were as light as a sylph's, nothing rattled in the sick-room as she moved about it. She took up a comb and re-arranged her dark, curling hair. She placed a rose in her belt, nodded to her own bright image, and then, seating herself before a small table, began to arrange the flowers. "Nora, you can't think what a mass of roses there are in the green-house this morning. Of course the garden is full, too, but I did not wait to go to the garden to get these for you. You can watch me just as long as you fancy and then shut your eyes. These half-open buds are to be placed on a table close to you, where you can smell them. The other flowers we'll put here and there about the room. It's a good thing you were brought into this pretty study, for from where you lie you can fancy you are in a sitting-room, and that you are just having a stretch on the sofa to rest yourself. Fancy goes a long way, doesn't it?"
"I don't know," replied Nora. "I'm afraid I can't fancy that."
Tears filled her eyes as she spoke.
"How cool you look," she said presently, "and—and active and happy."
"It wouldn't do for me to look unhappy when I am with you, would it?" asked Annie. "Now tell me, do you like this dress?"
"Yes, it's very pretty. What stuff is it?"
"Only pink cambric, trimmed with pink embroidery. Would you like me to make you one?"
"What do you mean?"
Nora's eyes brightened perceptibly.
"What I say," replied Annie. "I made this dress for myself. I make all my dresses, for I am not at all well off; in short, I am poor, and Mrs. Willis is so sweet and dear that she gives me a couple of hours every day to devote to needlework. In consequence I have got some pretty things, although they cost next to nothing. Now, I think you and I are something alike. We are both dark, and we have both got bright colour. Oh, I don't mean that you have a bright colour just now, you poor little darling; but when you are well, you are sweet, like a wild rose. Suppose I make you a pink cambric frock, and a white one and a blue one? I have got a white and a blue. When you're well again you'll look quite lovely in them, Nora. What do you say?"
"I'd like it awfully," said Nora. "You are very good, very good; but I haven't got any money. I—I am even poorer than you."
"Are you? How delightful. I adore poor lady girls, because they are always contriving, and that's so interesting. We'll make the dresses out of odds and ends, and they shan't cost you a penny."
"It's very good of you," said Nora. She was too weak to argue and protest, and the vision of her pretty little self in alternate dresses of pink and white and blue cambric was decidedly refreshing.
She lay and looked at Annie and acknowledged to herself that she made a pretty, a beautiful, picture, and the discontented lines round her mouth vanished, and the time did not seem long.
That evening Molly, excited and in high spirits, arrived on the scene.
Molly was absolutely trembling as she came into the room where Nora was lying; but although her love was ten times deeper, she had not Annie's marvellous tact, and soon contrived to tire poor Nora dreadfully. The nurse seeing this sent her away, and Molly came back to Hester with a very crestfallen expression of face.
"I can't make out how it is," she said; "but Nora does not seem a bit glad to see me."
"Oh, nonsense," said Hester; "what do you mean?"
Annie was sitting in a corner of the room busily engaged over Henry Kingsley's novel, "Geoffrey Hamlyn." She did not raise her eyes, but bent her curly head still lower over the fascinating pages. Nan had gone to spend a few days at the Towers, and the great house at the Grange seemed very quiet and still.
Molly sank down into a chair near Hester.
"I have been so excited about this meeting," she said. "Nora is almost my twin-sister, and I have suffered so terribly about her. I cannot tell you the relief and joy of being allowed to come here to look after her, but now I fear I shall be next to no good."
"Well, you'll be no end of good to me," said Hester; "and, of course, Nora will like to have you by-and-by, but she is still very weak and cannot bear the least excitement."
"But nurse tells me that you, Annie, spent some hours in her room to-day."
At these words Annie sprang to her feet, and "Geoffrey Hamlyn" fell with a bang to the floor.
"I did spend hours in her room," she said, "and I don't think I tired her; but, then, perhaps you kissed her a lot, Molly?"
"Kissed her?" exclaimed Molly; "I should think so, at least a hundred times."
"Oh, good gracious, how dreadfully fatiguing for a sick person. Well, you see, I didn't kiss her once, nor even touch her."
"But you aren't her sister," said Molly.
"No, no; and that is the reason that I am a very good person to be with her, because I amuse her without exciting her. All I did to-day was to sit in the room where she could see me, and arrange some flowers and have a little talk about dressmaking."
Molly opened her eyes in astonishment. Nora had been at the brink of death. Had not Molly spent a whole night in fervent and passionate prayers for her recovery? Did not Nora love Molly, and did not Molly love Nora as only loving sisters can love? and yet Molly exhausted poor Nora, while Annie Forest, who was a stranger, soothed her.
Molly looked at Annie now without in the least comprehending her, and for the first time in all her gentle life a distinct sensation of jealousy was aroused within her.
Annie left the room a moment later, and Hester turned to Molly.
"I see you don't understand Annie," she said.
"Yes, I'm sure I do; what an awfully frivolous girl she must be. Fancy her talking of dress to Nora, and she so ill."
"But it did Nora heaps of good; nurse said she was quite jolly this afternoon, and that Annie was the companion of all others for her."
"Don't say that again, Hester," said Molly; "it makes me feel quite wicked."
"I know well," replied Hester, "that Annie is thoughtless."
"Thoughtless? I should think so; but for her Nora would never have been hurt."
"But she has the warmest heart in the world," continued Hester. "I did not understand her for a long time. Indeed, Molly, I don't mind telling you that once I hated her; but, oh, if you could only see Annie at her best. She can be—yes, she can be noble."
Molly stared in non-comprehension.
THE DIAMOND RING.
Those of my readers who have read "A World of Girls" will know all about the early story of Annie Forest; but, to those who have not, I may as well explain that she was a motherless girl, that she had been in her day a sad tomboy, that she had a father living, but that it was absolutely necessary for her before long to earn her own living. She was still at school, however, although she now occupied the post there of pupil-teacher. Mrs. Willis, the head-mistress of Lavender House, the school where Annie was educated, was her warm and devoted friend. Mrs. Willis loved all her pupils and had an extraordinary influence over them, but Annie was almost like her adopted child.
She stood now in the wide, cool hall at the Grange, and reflected for a moment as to what she should do. She then ran lightly up to her pretty bedroom, and, opening her trunk, began to rummage eagerly among its contents. Annie would not be Annie if she were not the most impulsive creature in the world. She meant to devote herself to Nora; she had a great gift for reading character, and a quick glance showed her how best she might amuse this little girl. Nora was pretty, but Nora was not richly endowed with pretty frocks. Annie felt sure that she would arouse the keenest sympathy in the sick girl if she used her skilful fingers to cover the defects in Nora's wardrobe. She had made her own cambric frocks, and imagined that she had plenty of stuff in her trunk to make similar ones for Nora; she saw, to her dismay, however, that she had left the cambric behind her at school; and, as Mrs. Willis was away, and Lavender House was shut up during the summer vacation, it would be impossible for her to send for it. She had only a few shillings in her purse; she was well aware that Nora was possessed of no money. How, then, could she redeem her promise? Annie could not bring herself to ask Hester to help her, and yet, at the same time, it would never, never do to disappoint Nora! Annie had brought herself to consider Nora her own special patient. She had spent an hour with her in the morning and nearly two hours in the afternoon, and during the afternoon visit the girls had talked a good deal about the frocks. It was arranged between them that they were to be surprise frocks, and that Mr. and Mrs. Lorrimer were to know nothing about them until they saw Nora well once more and arrayed in the prettiest of the three. Annie had hunted up some fashion-books, and had consulted Nora about the shape and the cut of the sleeves, and the way the skirt was to be hung and the embroidery sewn on. Both girls had been animated over the discussion, and Nora had been too interested to feel fatigue.
Well, that happened a few hours ago; now Annie, on her knees, bent over her empty trunk with an expression of keen dismay.
What was she to do? How could she possibly raise the money necessary to the purchase of the cambric? She calculated that the cambric and embroidery necessary for the making of three simple dresses would cost from twenty-five to thirty shillings This was not a large sum, but everything is by proportion, and for poor Annie, with five shillings in her purse and very little chance of any more money coming to her until the end of her visit to the Grange, thirty shillings seemed absolutely unattainable.
"But I must get it somehow!" she murmured, flinging herself on the floor by her open trunk as she spoke. "I'm not going to be beaten by a little paltry sum like that! I promised Nora the frocks, and she shall have them! I didn't care a bit for Nora yesterday—she didn't suit me, and I thought her affected; but if I hadn't been so desperately thoughtless, she'd have been well now; and, as I have been in part the cause of her accident, I'm simply bound to look after her. Have those frocks she must! Poor little bit of frivolity, nothing in the world will soothe her nerves so much as seeing me making them for her. But that money—that thirty shillings! Oh, dash that thirty shillings! Why should a mean little sum like that worry a girl almost into fits? Get it, I will; and ask Hester to help me, I won't! The frocks are to be a secret between Nora and me; the secret will be half the fun. Now, how am I to get the money? Have I anything to sell?"
Annie rose from the floor, where she had seated herself, and, going to a drawer, opened it. She took out a little leather box, and looked anxiously at its contents. There were a few treasures there, dear from association, but not of a valuable sort. There was a silver brooch, shaped like a horn, with a little bell attached; a schoolfellow had brought it to her from Switzerland; it probably cost a franc, and, although Annie admired it immensely on her neck, she did not believe any jeweller would give her sixpence for it. Then there was a basket beautifully carved out of an apricot-stone, and a narrow silver chain broken in many parts; and there was a bog-oak brooch and an old jet bracelet. Annie also possessed a gold locket and chain which she had won as a prize on a certain memorable occasion, but this treasure she had also stupidly left behind her. How provoking! She had really nothing she could sell for thirty shillings. But stay, she had forgotten. She coloured high as a memory came to her. She had one article of solid value—a ring. In one sense it was not hers; in another it was. It was a gold ring, with a single diamond; this ring had belonged to Annie Forest's mother. On her dying bed she had given the ring to Mrs. Willis. One day Mrs. Willis had shown it to Annie, had yielded to Annie's entreaties that she might borrow it for this visit to the Grange, and had told her that, although she could not part with her mother's last gift during her lifetime, she would leave the ring to Annie in her will.
With her dark eyes full of excitement, Annie now took the ring out of its little morocco case and looked at it.
She had meant to wear it proudly on her finger during her stay at the Grange; but, in the excitement of passing events, had forgotten to do so up to the present time. The ring was of value; no one had seen it on her finger, therefore no one would miss it. It occurred to Annie that she might ask a jeweller to lend her thirty shillings on the ring. With this thirty shillings she could buy the stuff for Nora's frocks; and as her father always sent her a pound on her birthday, and that birthday was only a little over a month away, she thought that she might manage to scrape together thirty shillings to redeem the ring before she returned to school.
Annie's mind was quickly made up. She would pawn the ring to someone, and trust to her lucky star to get it back before she returned to Lavender House. She knew well that Mrs. Willis would ask her for it as soon as ever she went back to school. Mrs. Willis was a person who never forgot: big things and small things alike found a place in her memory; but long before then Annie would, of course, have the ring in her possession.
Having made up her mind to sell it, she wondered how she could accomplish this feat. She would have not only to sell the ring, but also to buy the cambric and embroidery without anyone knowing anything about it. The secret would lose half its fascination if anybody guessed. Annie thought anxiously for a moment, then an idea came to her. Nan had talked a good deal about her old nurse. Annie was a prime favourite with nurse, who always considered that she owed Annie a good deal for having rescued her darling from the gipsies some years ago. Perhaps nurse would help Annie now; she resolved to go and sound the old woman.
Putting the ring in its morocco case, she opened the baize door which led to the nursery part of the house, and soon found herself in Mrs. Martin's apartments. Mrs. Martin was known by three different appellations: to Hester she was nurse, or nursey, to Sir John Thornton she was Patty, but to the servants and to strangers she was always spoken of as Mrs. Martin. She was extremely punctilious as to the manner in which she was addressed; and now, as Annie entered her room she wondered which of her three titles would best propitiate her.
"Well, my dear, what do you want?" said the old lady, looking up with a pleased smile from her knitting as Annie's pretty head was pushed roguishly round the door. "Oh, come now, Miss Forest; I know your collogueing ways. But you ought to be in bed, my dear, for it's past ten o'clock."
"And so ought you to be in bed, you dear, naughty, old thing," said Annie; "but you know people don't always do what they ought. If going to bed is what I ought to do at the present moment, you ought to do the same, nursey. May I call you nursey?"
"Well, Miss Annie, you're almost like one of the family; but still I'm properly only nurse to my own two bairns—Miss Hetty and Miss Nan."
"And this is a motherless bairn who would like you to be nursey to her," said Annie, seating herself on a low hassock at the old woman's feet and looking into her face.
"Well, and nursey it shall be," said Mrs. Martin. "Eh, but God has given you a very bonny face, my love."
Annie took up one of the horny hands, and rubbed it affectionately against her soft cheek.
"Nurse," she said, "I am quite in trouble. I wonder if I might tell you a secret?"
"Well, dear, if you like to trust me, safe it shall be. Inviolate it shall be kept, Miss Annie, and you know that violet's the colour of truth."
"Of course I do, you dear old thing. What a wonderful comfort it is to talk to you. I knew you'd let me confide in you, and it will be such a load off my mind."
"My dear, I hope you haven't been at any mad pranks. The young ladies of the present day are wonderful for audaciousness."
"I wish I wasn't audacious," she said; "and I wish I wasn't thoughtless and reckless. I'm always meaning to be kind to people, and somehow or other I'm always kind in the wrong way; it's very, very trying."
Annie's pretty eyes filled with real tears of contrition.
"You're but young, my bairn," said Mrs. Martin, "and the heart's in the right place; anyone can see that who looks at you, Miss Annie."
"Nurse, you are a comfort to me. Now I will tell you my trouble. At the picnic the other day I got into a state of mind because little Boris Lorrimer had not come, and I confided in Kitty Lorrimer and went off to fetch him, and Kitty promised she would not tell where I had gone until I had brought him back; but when I got to the Towers I was very hot—very, very hot with my long walk, and I found that Boris did not wish to come back with me, and I forgot all about my promise to Kitty, and stayed at the Towers for the rest of the day; but poor Kitty kept her word and did not tell, and Nora got cross with her, and climbed up the beech tree after her, and crept out on to the rotten bough, and so got the dreadful fall which has made her so ill. Nora would not have met with this terrible accident but for me; so I have taken upon myself to amuse her, and I promised to make her three dresses."
"Sakes alive! Three?" interrupted Mrs. Martin; "and why three, Miss Annie? Wouldn't one be enough to content her?"
"No, nursey, no; three cambric dresses or nothing. I promised to make them, and I thought I had the cambric and embroidery in my trunk, but when I looked I found I had left it all behind me at school. You can't think how upset I am about it, for I must keep my promise to Nora, and Nora has got no money, and I have only five shillings, which I must keep for stamps and odds and ends; and I would not ask Hester or Nan to lend me sixpence for the world."
"But why not, my dear? I am sure Miss Hetty would be proud to oblige."
"No, nurse, it must not be," said Annie; "Hester is to know nothing about the frocks, and Nan is to know nothing and Molly is to know nothing. The fun of the thing is its being a great, great secret. Why, the making of those frocks in the room with Nora and only Nora knowing; why, the mystery of the thing will almost cure her, it will, really. Oh, nursey, nursey," patting Mrs. Martin excitedly as she spoke, "you must, you shall help me."
"And you want me to lend you the money, my pet?"
"No; how can you imagine such a thing. But I'll tell you what I want you to do. I want you to get up early to-morrow morning, quite early, and to make one of the grooms drive you into Nortonbury."
"Sakes alive! What for? I'm not used to the air without my breakfast."
"I'll get up and get you your breakfast. I'll boil the kettle here, and make your tea and toast your bread. You must go to Nortonbury, and you must be back between ten and eleven o'clock."
"And when I go what am I to do there, my dear? Oh, dear, dear, the ways of the young of the present day are masterful beyond belief. You make me all of a quiver, Miss Annie."
"I knew you'd rise to it," said Annie. "I felt if there were a soul in this world who would pull me out of the horrid scrape I have got myself into, it would be you, nursey."
"Well, my love, you have got a blarneying tongue, and no mistake; but now, when I do get to Nortonbury, what am I to do?"
Annie pulled the morocco case out of her pocket. She opened it, and slipped the ring on Mrs. Martin's little finger.
"You are to sell that," she said; "or, rather—no, you are not to sell it for the world—but you are to borrow thirty shillings on it."
"My word! Is it to the pawn-shop you expect me to go, Miss Forest?"
"How nasty of you to say Miss Forest. I'm Annie Forest, in great trouble, and looking to you as my last comfort. You are to borrow thirty shillings on that beautiful diamond ring. I don't mind where you get it; and then you are to buy me seven yards of pink cambric, and seven yards of white cambric, and seven yards of blue cambric. These shades, do you see? And I want embroidery to match. I have put the number of yards on this slip of paper, and a list of buttons and hooks and waistbands and linings. Oh, and, of course, cottons to match. Now, will you or won't you? Will you be an angel or won't you? That's the plain question I have got to ask."
"It's the pawn-shop that gets over me, Miss Annie."
"Oh, please don't let it get over you. What can the pawnbroker do to you? Most people call him uncle, so I expect he's awfully good-natured."
"Uncle, indeed," exclaimed Mrs. Martin, tossing her head; "it's a word you shouldn't know, Miss Annie Forest."
"But why shouldn't I? I never heard that uncles were wicked, except the one who killed the babes in the wood. Now you will go; you will be an angel! I know this special uncle who is to lend money on my ring will be delightful!"
THE LAND OF PERHAPS.
There are some people who always get their way in life. They are by no means the best people, nor the most amiable, nor the most thoughtful. Sometimes, and not a very rare sometimes either, the poor, thoughtful people go to the wall, when the thoughtless and impulsive and careless come triumphantly out of their difficulties.
There never was a girl who got into a greater number of scrapes than Annie Forest; but neither was there ever a girl who managed to right herself more quickly. She knew the art of twisting other people round her little finger. Having performed this feat to perfection on Mrs. Martin, alias Patty, alias nursey, she went happily to bed, knowing that all would be right for the present, and never giving a thought to the evil but still distant hour when she must return her mother's ring to Mrs. Willis.
Annie rose in good time in the morning, and took upon herself the preparing of Mrs. Martin's breakfast. She lit a fire in the old lady's sitting-room, and toasted her bread with her own fair hands, and made the tea for her to drink.
Mrs. Martin started on her journey to Nortonbury with many fervent blessings from Annie, who then returned in a high state of content to her own room.
The parcel of cambric arrived in due time, and Annie cut out the first of the three frocks that morning.
In order to keep their secret quite to themselves, Nora and Annie decided to keep the door of the library locked while they were at work. This arrangement was delightful to Nora, but it irritated Molly not a little. When she came to see her sister, to be greeted by a locked door—and to hear Annie's clear voice singing out from within, "Oh, we're so busy, you darling of a Molly asthore. Don't disturb us for the present, there's a love," and when this remark was followed by silvery laughter from Nora—poor Molly felt herself decidedly out in the cold.
Jealousy was for the first time fiercely stirred in her gentle breast and she shed some tears in secret over the change in Nora, who had hitherto clung to her and loved her better than anyone else in the world.
But what will not a rather frivolous little heart do for the sake of a pretty dress?
Nora in her own way was as thoughtless as Annie, and it never occurred to either of them as even possible that Molly should be pained by the fact of the locked door.
A fortnight passed away. The pink dress and the white were both finished and the blue was rapidly approaching completion, when one day the whole party at the Grange were considerably electrified and their attention turned into a completely new quarter by a letter which arrived for Hester from Sir John Thornton.
After writing on various subjects, he concluded his lengthy epistle as follows:—
"I shall not be home for another week. For some reasons I am sorry for this delay; but when I explain matters to you, my dear Hester, on the occasion of my return, you will, I am sure, agree with me that my absence from home is, under the circumstances, allowable. In the meantime, I have not forgotten that Nan's birthday is on the 15th of August, and that that date is only a week distant. If in any way possible, I shall return either on the fifteenth or the evening of the day before; but, meanwhile, I give you carte blanche to celebrate the auspicious event in any manner you like. You need spare no expense to make the day as truly festive to yourself and your young friends as you possibly can. I enclose in this letter a blank cheque to which I have affixed my signature. You may fill it in for any sum within reason, and then if you take it to the bank at Nortonbury it will be cashed for you. Buy Nan a handsome present from me, and please choose presents for Annie Forest and all the Lorrimer children. I am sorry to hear bad rumours with regard to the Squire, and that there is a possibility of the Towers being soon in the market; but I trust these rumours are either grossly exaggerated or without any foundation. I am sorry, also, to hear that Nora Lorrimer has met with an accident, but am glad that you are taking care of her, as I know by experience that no one could have a kinder nurse than my good little Hetty. Get every possible thing you can want, my love, for Nan's birthday. Make it a festival to be long remembered by you all. Set your wits to work to make the day a really brilliant one, and expect your loving father, if not to share in the whole of the festivity, at least to be present at a portion of it.
"Now good-bye, my dear Hester; give my love to Nan, and remember me kindly to your young friend, Miss Forest.—Believe me, your affectionate father,
Hester received this letter at breakfast time. She read it through gravely—not once, but twice. Annie's gay voice, her peals of merry laughter, and her gay and irresistibly funny speeches were diverting the attention of Molly, and to a certain extent of Nan; but Nan knew the handwriting on the envelope. She was also well aware of the fact that the birthday, when she would have the glorious privilege of counting nine years as her own, was close at hand. When Hester, therefore, folded up the letter, she called to her from the other end of the table.
"Toss it over, Hetty," she said. "I know it's from the Dad; let us hear what he says."
"Yes, it is from father," replied Hester in a grave voice.
"May not I read what he says?"
"The beginning part is business."
"Well, I'll skip the business; you can point out where the fun begins. What are you looking so mysterious and solemn about? Why may not I read the letter?"
Nan looked almost cross; Hester was disturbed. She showed this by slipping the letter into her pocket. This fact aroused Annie's curiosity, who looked at her with sparkling eyes full of mischief.
"You are a cross-patch," exclaimed Nan in her most spoilt tone. "I never knew such a thing. Is not a father's letter meant for one child as well as for another?"
"No, Nan, dear, not on this occasion," said Hester in a firm tone. "Now, try not to be silly; finish your breakfast, and I will speak to you afterwards."
"When is Sir John coming back, Hester?" inquired Molly.
"In about a week," replied Hester.
"A week," shouted Nan suddenly recovering her good humour. "Hurrah! my birthday will be in a week. My dear, good girls all of you, I am getting elderly as fast as possible. I'll be nine in a week; isn't that scrumptious? Did Dad say anything about my birthday in that mysterious letter, Hetty?"
"He is coming home for your birthday," replied Hester.
"Good, kind, considerate old gentleman," responded Nan in her most flippant voice. "Did he say anything more about that great and auspicious event, Hetty?"
"He said a great deal more about it; in fact, the largest part of his letter was about it; but I'm not going to talk it over now. I propose that we all go to Nora's room after breakfast and discuss the letter. There is a good deal to discuss, and it is very exciting," continued Hester, a flush of brilliant colour coming into her cheeks.
The news that there was a good deal to discuss of an exciting character restored even Nan's good humour. Breakfast was hurried over, and Annie Forest and Nan rushed off to Nora's room to prepare her for the fact that she was soon expected to hold a levee, and that the subject under discussion was likely to be of a very rousing character.
Molly lingered behind in the breakfast-room; she looked anxiously at Hester, who avoided her eyes. Hester did not wish to say anything to make Molly unhappy, and she knew that her father's allusion to the possible sale of the Towers would fill the poor little girl's heart with the most acute misery.
Making a great effort, therefore, to fight down a nameless apprehension on her own account, for what important business could be keeping Sir John so long away from home, she said in a cheerful voice—
"Now, Molly, we're not going to croak, nor spend the day imagining all kinds of unpleasant things. Father has written me a long letter, and there are some things in it which I don't quite like; but I am not going to talk them over at present. All the end of the letter is taken up with Nan's birthday, and that is the matter we have to discuss just now. Come along now to the library, and let's get it over."
Nora was still lying flat on her back; but all pain had long left her, and she was practically quite well.
The subject of the letter was therefore discussed with intense animation by the five eager girls.
Unlimited money, any amount of presents, and carte blanche how to spend the birthday in the most agreeable way was surely enough to turn the brains of most people.
Many and wild were the plans which Nan proposed.
They would start for a picnic at six in the morning. They would order ices from Nortonbury to arrive by special messenger at some impossible place at an unearthly hour. They would have bonfires on the top of every hill within a reasonable distance. Although it was not Christmas time, they would end up with the largest Christmas tree ever seen, and it should stand in the centre of the lawn, and every poor child for miles round should be invited to see it and to share the wonderful presents which should hang from every branch and twig.
Nan's cheeks were flushed and her eyes bright while she made these suggestions; but, after all, it was Annie's proposal in the end which carried the day.
"Let's have the picnic by all means," she said; "and let all who will go to it. If Nan wishes to be charitable, and to think of others rather than herself, let her do so; and let all the school children be taken in waggons and waggonettes to Friar's Wood or any other beautiful place in the neighbourhood, and let Nan herself give them presents before they go home. All that, of course, will be very delightful; although, of course, neither Nora nor I can be present."
"What do you mean by your not being present?" asked Molly, her brown eyes growing dark with anger. "I suppose if anyone is to stay with Nora, it ought to be me."
"No, it oughtn't," said Nora. "I wish for Annie; she's more fun."
"And I can't do without you, Molly, darling," interrupted Hester. "You always are my right hand when anything important is going on; and then you know all the school children by name, which, frankly, I do not."
"Well, now, do hear me out," said Annie; "I have not half done. What I say is this, that as Sir John Thornton is so generous, and as he wishes everyone in the house to be happy on the day of Nan's birthday, I think something should be done to make it up to Nora and me. Now, why shouldn't we have a real glorious time in the evening? You have a billiard-room in this house, haven't you?"
"Can't we have a ball there?"
"What are we to do with the table?" said Hester.
"Oh," exclaimed Nora, her eyes sparkling, "we have such a heavenly ball-room at the Towers; a great enormous room, never used and full of rubbish, which can easily be turned out."
"Is there a gallery to that room?" interrupted Annie.
"Yes, at one end."
"Then the whole thing is complete," continued Annie. "We'll have a children's fancy ball in the evening, and Nora shall look on from the gallery. Nora shall be, in a sort of way, princess of the ceremonies. We'll make her up the sweetest dress, and everyone shall come up and talk to her; and if presents are to be given away at the end, she shall give them. What do you say, girls? Could anything be more perfectly lovely than a children's fancy ball in the old ball-room at the Towers? Oh, I hope it will be a moonlight night, and the whole place will look like fairyland!"
This suggestion was so daring and brilliant that it carried Nora away on a storm of enthusiasm immediately. Nan clapped her hands and screamed with glee; and even the more sober Hester and Molly could find no objections to raise. The ball-room was certainly at the Towers; it contained a gallery where the musicians could be, and where, if necessary, Nora might rest; it contained what seemed to the children like unlimited space, and if to unlimited space unlimited money could be added, what brilliant results must be produced!
"If I consent to this," said Hester—"and I think my consent is essential—it must be on condition that not a single Lorrimer is put to even a shilling's worth of expense. The ball must be Nan's ball; the Lorrimers will most kindly give her a room to hold it in, all the rest will be our affair. Do you clearly understand, Molly? Do you, Nora?"
"Oh, I understand fast enough," said Nora quickly.
"Yes, I understand," replied Molly in a graver tone.
"Do you agree?"
"Yes," answered Molly.
"Well, your consent being obtained," continued Hester, "I will go with you to the Towers this morning, Molly, and look at the ball-room, and see Mrs. Lorrimer on the subject."
"The worst of it is," continued Annie, "that we have such a very short time to prepare—only one week to make all our fancy dresses and to see to all the other arrangements!"
"Fancy dresses!" exclaimed Nora from her sofa. "What am I to wear?"
"You are to be dressed as Queen of the Fairies. You shall lie on a bed of rose-leaves, and have gossamer, cloudy sort of drapery all around you. Never fear, Nora, you will look lovely—leave it to me."
Nora's eyes sparkled.
"Annie, you're a darling!" she exclaimed, with enthusiasm.
"And what character am I to be, Annie?" cried Nan, pouting her full lips. "I'm not jealous, and I don't mind Nora being Queen of the Fairies; but please remember that it's my party, and I am really the queen of the day."
"So you are, you sweet!" exclaimed Annie. "Don't think for a moment that I'll forget you; but you must really give me a little time to think the characters over. Suppose I consider everything carefully and jot down a few ideas, and suppose we discuss them to-night; and then to-morrow we can go to Nortonbury to buy the materials for the dresses."
"But we can't possibly make our own dresses," exclaimed Hester.
"Oh, yes, we can; they'll be twice as original. If you can get in a couple of good workwomen to help us, the dresses can easily be made at home," exclaimed Annie, her eyes sparkling.
"Hester!" cried Molly, suddenly springing to her feet, "if we are to go to the Towers this morning, don't you think we had better start?"
Hester stood up.
"The day is such a delightful one," she said, "that I think we will just walk across the fields. I'll run up to my room and fetch my hat and gloves, and bring yours down at the same time, Molly."
Five minutes later the two girls had set off. It was now holiday time at the Towers, and almost immediately on their arrival they were greeted by a whole bevy of children, who rushed up the avenue in a state of breathless excitement.
"What do you think, Molly?" exclaimed Kitty, stammering almost in her eagerness. "Oh, you'll never guess, for it is so uncommon and unexpected—father and mother both went to London this morning?"
"Both—to London?" exclaimed Molly, stepping back a pace or two, while a look of surprise, and even consternation, spread itself over her round, fair face.
"Dear me, yes!" exclaimed Nell.
"And they were awfully jolly about it," exclaimed Boris; "and mother has promised to bring me a rabbit."
"And me a dove," screamed Kitty.
"And perhaps I'm to have a shaggy pony all to myself," exclaimed Nell; "but it's only perhaps. It's perhaps, too, with you, Boris, and you, Kitty; you oughtn't to forget that."
"Oh, bother perhapses!" exclaimed Kitty. "I know I'm to have my rabbit; he's to have lop-ears and long fur, and he's to be snow-white, if possible. I described him fully to mother last night when she came to tuck me up. I kept pulling my eyes open to stay awake for the purpose."
"And I told mother that I wished for a ring-dove," said Boris. "I want a ring-dove awfully, for there's an empty cage in the attic that will just fit it. Oh, I do hope, I do hope, that it will come!"
He looked almost sad as he spoke and glanced at Nell, who was not looking at him.
"Nell, come here," exclaimed Molly suddenly. "Hester, you can explain to Boris and Kitty what you have come about, and they can take you round and show you the ball-room. Come along, Nell, I want to talk to you."
Molly put her arm round Nell and drew her down a side walk.
"Now, Nell," she said, "you must explain all this to me. Why has mother gone to London? I am not so much surprised about father; father does go sometimes, but mother. Why has she gone? Answer me, Nell; tell me what you know."
"I don't know anything," said Nell. "Father was out all day yesterday, and mother looked very sad. She didn't cry or anything of that sort, of course; but she looked sad, and then father came home about tea-time quite jolly and in high spirits, and he said something to mother and they went into the study together; and then father shouted to Jane Macalister to come to them, and Jane went; and presently we were told that father and mother were to go to London this morning, and that they'd be away perhaps a week, perhaps ten days. Jane told us that, and then mother came into the room and she said the same thing, and she looked kind of pretence-merry you know, and said that perhaps she'd bring us back things. It was then Kitty asked for the rabbit, and Boris for the dove, and Guy wanted Star-Land and Harry some new carpenter's tools, and mother promised everything with a perhaps tacked on; but I don't think anyone noticed the perhaps except me, and all the time she kept smiling with her lips, but her eyes were so sad."
"And you asked for a pony, Nell?"
Nell coloured crimson.
"No, I didn't," she replied; "but mother turned to me and put her arm round me and said, 'If the others get their things you shall have the wish of your heart, a shaggy pony.'"
"And what did you say to that, Nell?"
"I whispered back to her that I didn't want her to spend her money; and then she kissed me very hard."
"And did father promise things?"
"He said that the house should be refurnished, and that we should go to the sea, and he would buy new horses and a lovely carriage for mother. Father was lively; I never saw him so gay."
"And they went off this morning?"
"Yes, very early; I wasn't even dressed, but I jumped out of bed and ran to the window and saw them driving away."
"And that's all you know, Nell?" exclaimed Molly.
"Yes, that's all I know."
"Now, tell me what you think."
"What I think?" replied Nell. "I—" she hesitated. "No, I'd rather not."
"You must, Nell, you must. Remember I'm your own cosy old Moll; remember I understand you, and I'm the eldest girl and mother's right hand. There's something that you think very, very hard, Nell, and you have wise thoughts, though you are so young. Tell me what they are; tell me at once."
Molly knelt on the grass as she spoke and put her arms round Nell, who leant up against her and laid her head on her shoulder.
"Now, Nell, speak."
Nell rubbed her cheek against Molly's, as if she found great comfort in the contact.
"I think that mother is unhappy," she said, "and that, that we won't get the presents."
"Come along and let's find Jane Macalister," exclaimed Molly suddenly. She caught Nell's hand and rushed with her towards the house.
When Jane was not teaching, she was, generally, cooking, or mending clothes, or putting the store-room in order. Jane never wasted a moment of her time, and she was extremely fond of taking up all the loose threads of work which other people had dropped. When the girls, therefore, now found themselves in the great central hall, and Nell's clear, high voice shouted for Jane, the single word, "store-room," seemed to echo back to them from somewhere in the clouds.
The store-room, where the largest supply of preserves and dried goods was kept, was high up in the old tower—higher up even than the schoolroom.
"You stay downstairs, Nell," exclaimed Molly; "I wish to see Jane alone." She reached the spiral stairs, which she began to mount quickly. By-and-by with panting breath she arrived at the store-room. The door was open, but there was no Jane.
"Where are you, Jane Macalister?" called Molly.
"Linen press," called Jane from still higher up.
Molly mounted once more. Jane, with an old pillow-case pinned round her head and a huge apron on, was on her knees sorting feathers.
"What are you doing?" exclaimed Molly.
"Don't speak to me for a moment, Molly; I'm in a perfect rage," exclaimed Jane. "There stand out of the draught, child, or you'll get all this fluff into your hair. I have just discovered that the feathers put into these last pillows were not properly cured, so I've been obliged to take them all out, and I'm sprinkling them with lime. Faugh, what a mess the place is in. This is what comes of taking in an incompetent kitchen-maid like Susan Hicks. She did not half do the work of sorting and curing these feathers. Now, what is it you want, Molly? You can see for yourself that I'm up to my eyes in work."
"I can," said Molly. "Well, I'll wait for a moment."
"You'll wait for a moment!" screamed Jane. "I tell you I shan't have done for hours. There are at least a dozen pillows to be unpicked and their contents well sorted, and sprinkled with lime. I brought up a sandwich in my pocket, and don't mean to come downstairs until the job is done, and well done, too. Nothing frets me like half-finished work, and these pillows would get on my brain at night if I didn't see to them."
Molly slowly crossed the linen-press room, and stood by the window.
"There, child," exclaimed Jane, "you're exactly in my light. If you have anything to say, say it and have done with it. By the way, how is Nora? I hope they're not spoiling her at the Grange."
"Nora is getting on nicely, thank you."
"It was a lucky chance for her," continued Jane, "that she happened to be near the Grange when she got hurt. Hester Thornton is sure to give her every comfort. Molly, you're exactly in my light."
Molly moved to one side of the window.
Jane Macalister went on vigorously with her work, the fluff from the feathers rose in the air, the smell of the lime was pungent.
"Faugh," continued Jane; "here's a lump for you. Susan Hicks, you'd better keep out of my way for the present. 'Pon my word! look at this quill, why I could make a pen with it; disgraceful, perfectly disgraceful. Molly, I wish you wouldn't fidget. What in the world do you want to say to me?"
"I want to ask you this," said Molly. "Why has mother gone to London?"
Jane bent low over her work, some fluff got into her nose and made her sneeze.
"Look here, Molly," she exclaimed; "your mother went to London with your father because she wished to, I suppose."
"Yes, but why did she wish it?"
"That I am not prepared to tell you, my dear."
Molly stamped her foot.
"I wish you'd look at me, Jane," she said, "and leave off fiddling with those horrid, detestable feathers. When—when one is quite wretched, what do feathers matter? I have come home to find father and mother gone."
"And me over the feathers," interrupted Jane. "Well, I suppose people want pillows, whether they're happy or miserable. I never knew before, at least, that they didn't."
"Jane," said Molly, "you're hiding something from me."
Jane Macalister suddenly rose to her feet. She came up to Molly and took her hand. "I didn't know you'd come over this morning, my love," she said. "I have been told certain things, and what I'm told in confidence cart-ropes won't drag from me. Your father and mother have gone to London because there is a hope, just a hope, that terrible trouble may be averted. It's all uncertainty, and it's all suspense at present, Molly; and those who are cowards will bear it badly, and those who are brave will bear it well. That's all I can tell you, my love; and now let me get back to the feathers, or I won't have them done by night."
THE FANCY BALL.
The best cure for anxiety, short of removing it altogether, is plenty of work. Molly came down from her interview with Jane Macalister with a sickening sense of coming disaster filling her heart. Hers was not a particularly hopeful nature. By nature she was inclined to look at the dark side rather than at the bright. She had plenty of courage and was unselfish to a fault; but when she arrived in the hall now and found all the rest of the children gathered round Hester and was greeted by peals of excited laughter and shouts of excited joy, she would have given a great deal to have been able to run away and hide herself.
This was impossible, however; she was dragged into the eager group of children, and was obliged not only to listen to their remarks, but to make suggestions of her own. In the absence of Mr. and Mrs. Lorrimer, Molly had to decide whether the ball-room could be used or not. She would have given the world to say no, but scarcely dared to do this with all those eager delighted faces gazing at her.
"I am sure mother will consent," she said after a pause. "I will write to her to-day and ask her; but I think we may act as if her consent were already given. Now, shall we come to the ball-room and see what is necessary to be done?"
"Oh, what a darling Molly you are," exclaimed all the other Lorrimers in a breath. She found herself whirled in their midst to the old ball-room, and the rest of the morning was spent in eager and animated discussion.
This magnificent old room was apart from the rest of the house. It was entered by a covered way from one of the drawing-rooms; but this entrance had long been closed, and the room itself—since the family purse had become so low—was only made use of as a play-room for the children in wet weather, and as a place for all kinds of lumber and rubbish. Hester and Molly were neither of them artistic in their tastes or ideas, but they were intensely practical in all they said and did. Molly proposed that the room should be first cleared out and thoroughly cleaned, and that early on the following morning Annie Forest should come and see it. The room was lit by seven tall Gothic windows, and had a high arched roof of oak. Round the windows the thick ivy which only years can produce hung in heavy masses. Some of this must be cleared away, and some light draperies must relieve the dark tone of the walls. The gallery was pronounced sufficiently sound for the band to stand there, and Annie's original idea of placing Nora in the gallery as a sort of queen of the ceremonies was superseded by a better one. She was to have a special throne made for her at the other end of the ball-room. There she would not only see perfectly, but would also be seen. It seemed simple enough to have a ball in such a lovely room, and Hester arranged to send some men over that very afternoon to begin the work of clearing out the rubbish.
"We don't wish to take possession of the Towers," she said. "We only want the loan of the ball-room, and of this delightful lawn just beyond, where we can put up a marquee or tent."
"No, no," exclaimed Molly, "it must be all or nothing. You know how big our entrance hall is, Hester, and those great half-empty drawing rooms. The whole ground floor is to be at your disposal. If we do it at all, let it be a real merry-making. It will be nice to have a merry-making once again at the Towers."
Molly sighed as she spoke. Hester glanced at her, and the remark in her father's letter flashed through her brain.
While the others were planning and talking at least twenty words to the dozen, Nell was looking solemnly up at the tall windows with an expression of ecstacy on her small face. Boris came up presently and pulled her hand.
"What are you in a brown study for?" he asked.
"Oh, Boris," she exclaimed, flashing round on him; "it is more a white dream than a brown study. Fancy this room all lit with Chinese lanterns and the moon outside, and us sitting up until twelve o'clock, and music, Boris, and everybody dancing. The story books will have come true—oh, it will be too lovely."
"I'm thinking of the supper," said Boris. "I expect I'll get awful peckish sitting up so late. I hope there'll be jellies—I love jellies; don't you, Nell?"
"Yes; I heard Hester say there was to be a real band. I wonder if they'll play any of the airs out of Faust. I do so love the Soldier's Chorus, don't you?"
"Yes; I'll march to it when I'm big. Nell, do you think I'll be allowed to have as many cakes as I wish, and pate de foie gras? I tasted it once and 'twas ripping."
"I like it, too, rather," said Nell in a contemplative voice. "I mean to be a fairy in the dance, though, and I'll have wings. Wings! how I wish they'd bear me upward."
"Oh, do come out," exclaimed Boris. "I want to show you my dove's cage; it was ever so musty, but I've cleaned it out, and it's as sweet as a nut now."
The children left the room, and a few moments later Hester and Molly returned to the Grange.
That evening Annie Forest had a very comprehensive scheme drawn out with regard to the proposed characters which the different members of the party were to adopt. Molly would make an ideal shepherdess. Hester was to be in white, and was to represent St Agnes. Nora was to be Queen of the Fairies, and Nan little Bo-Peep. Annie had not yet decided on her own character, but was strongly inclined to act the part of a gipsy. Annie further suggested that it would save a great deal of trouble and have a decidedly pretty effect if all the girls under twelve years of age were dressed as white fairies, with wings, and all the boys of the same age as brownies. She considered that so many fairies and brownies would have a very picturesque effect, and would help to throw up the gay bizarre colours of the older girls and boys.
Her suggestion was immediately adopted, and Hester and Molly sat down then and there to write invitations.
Besides the Lorrimers, about a hundred and forty other children were invited, and the girls expected that quite sixty or seventy of these would take the parts of fairies and brownies.
"You don't know how relieved the mothers will be," exclaimed Annie. "When people have no imagination it is the most difficult thing in the world to think of a dress for a fancy ball which has not been adopted dozens and dozens of times before. Please keep the notes open for a moment, Hester, for I mean to slip into each of them some very simple directions with regard to the dress, which will insure our having a certain amount of uniformity."
Annie was in her element now, and even Molly was constrained to admire the absolute genius which she showed in all matters which required tact and brisk, quick work. Annie could write fluently, and her little slips of paper, with their simple and plain directions, were soon ready, and Molly and Hester set to work making copies of them as fast as they could. The letters of invitation were all posted before they went to bed that night. Nora shut her eyes to dream of herself as queen of the fairies, and Molly and Hester sat down to write letters which required a little more thought than the invitations which had just been got through. Hester wrote—
"I am sorry you are still away; I like to feel that I am of use to you. Whenever you come back you will have a hearty welcome from me. We are all well here and the weather is splendid; even Nora is quite well, although the doctor says she must lie on her back for some weeks longer. Annie is still with us, and Molly has been staying here to help look after Nora; not that she is wanted much for that post, for Annie is the most indefatigable nurse, and Nora simply adores her. But Molly is great company for me and I am delighted to have her, she is such a dear girl. I hope what you say about Squire Lorrimer is not true. I can see that Molly is very anxious, and the Squire and Mrs. Lorrimer have just gone to London, which is quite unusual. There is evidently something the matter, but none of the children have been told what it is. How I wish you could help the Squire, father. I know you are very very rich, and oh, it will break Molly's heart if they have to leave the dear old Towers. Now, I must talk to you about Nan's birthday. We are going to have a children's ball in the old ball-room at the Towers. It is going to be quite lovely. Annie is designing our dresses. She makes us all quite enthusiastic, she has such exquisite taste. I hope you will come home in time to see us in our pretty dresses. I am to be St. Agnes, and Annie says that I shall look like a dream! Did you ever think that your sensible Hetty would talk such folly?—Your affectionate daughter,
Hester finished her letter, folded it up, and addressed it. She then glanced towards Molly, whose fair head was bent low over the sheet of paper which she was filling. She wrote—
"I went to the Towers this morning with Hester and found that you had gone. Is anything the matter? Oh, if I had been at home you might have told me. I can't bear either you or father to have a burden that I don't share. I feel anxious and unhappy, but I will try very hard to be brave. Nonie is getting on so nicely, and Annie Forest is very kind to her. Mother, darling, there is going to be a great big party on the fifteenth, Nan's birthday, and Hester and Nora and Annie and I are very anxious that it should be a children's ball—a fancy ball, you know, mother, and that it should be held in our beautiful old ball-room. It is the Thorntons' party, and they will go to all the expense, but they haven't a big room like ours, so I thought we might lend them the big hall and the drawing-rooms and the ball-room, and they are beginning preparations already. If by any chance you or father object, will you send me a telegram to-morrow? I wish I could kiss you good-night.—Your most loving
Molly's letter was also directed and stamped, and when these important epistles had been taken to the post, the whole household went to bed.
That is, with one exception.
Annie Forest, notwithstanding her gaiety and the high spirits she had been in all day, had a care upon her mind.
It was three weeks now since the day when Mrs. Martin had pawned Mrs. Willis's beautiful ring for the small sum of thirty shillings. That thirty shillings had purchased cambric and embroidery and lace, and even a few knots of coloured ribbon, to make three charming frocks for Nora Lorrimer, but alack and alas, though the frocks lay neatly folded up in their drawer waiting to be worn on the first festive occasion, poor Annie had not the faintest idea how to get back the ring. That morning's post had certainly been an important one. It had not only brought a letter for Hester which had nearly turned the heads of two households, but had brought Annie two epistles of a profoundly and painfully interesting character. One was from her father, telling her that he must postpone sending her her usual birthday present for a time, and the other was from Mrs. Willis herself. Mrs. Willis wrote from Paris. She was staying there for a short time on her way home, and asked Annie to send her the diamond ring without delay by registered post. The ring was of a very antique pattern and she wished to have it copied for a wedding present for one of her pupils.
"Try and post it to me at once, dear," she said, "for I shall not be in Paris after Saturday. I return to London that day and shall very likely accept Hester Thornton's invitation to come to the Grange for a few days. You shall then have the ring back to make your finger look smart for the remainder of your visit. I am writing in great haste in order to catch this post, so do not fail me, my love. The ring will be perfectly safe if you register it. My dear love to Hester and Nan, and much to yourself.—Your affectionate
Annie had glanced her eyes quickly over the contents of this disquieting letter at breakfast time, but it was only now, in the solitude of her own room, that she ventured to take it out and study it. What was she to do? How could she possibly get the ring out of pawn without any money to redeem it? She dared not confide this trouble to Mrs. Martin. She thought and thought until her head ached and her bright eyes looked dull.
What kind of man was the pawnbroker? Why were pawnbrokers called uncles? Was it because they were really good-natured and helpful? She wondered if it might be possible for her to induce the pawnbroker to let her have the ring out on condition that she paid for it by instalments? If he really was quite a good-natured order of uncle, he might consent to such an arrangement. Annie felt, however, that it would be useless to get Mrs. Martin to make such terms with him.