"She was very proud about him," thought Annie. "She did not wish to go to him at all. I'm afraid he's disagreeable. I'm afraid he's not the sort of man who would help a girl out of a difficulty. What shall I do? The ring must go to-morrow if Mrs. Willis is to do anything with it before she leaves Paris. It ought to have gone to-day, but to-morrow is the very last, the very last chance. We are all going to Nortonbury to-morrow to buy the materials for the dresses. Oh, suppose I go and see the pawnbroker and tell him of my difficulty, and assure him that I will honestly pay him back that money if he will only let me have the ring again. I have four shillings still in my purse, and father's sovereign will be certain to come sooner or later. I could show uncle father's letter, he would then see that I was not humbugging. I expect he would like me to call him uncle, as it seems to be the name. Yes, I really think I will go, but I must on no account whatever let Mrs. Martin or Molly or Hester know anything about this. I should rather like to confide in Nora, for she would think it no end of a lark; but if I did, the poor darling would know that I had got into all this trouble on account of her dresses, and that would simply never do. Yes, there seems nothing for it but to visit my uncle, the pawnbroker."
Annie presently laid her head on her pillow and went to sleep.
When she awoke in the morning she still thought an appeal to the pawnbroker the only available solution of her difficulty. The girls were much excited about their gay shopping, and the landau was ordered to be round at an early hour to convey Hester, Nan, Molly, and Annie to Nortonbury. Nora had to resign herself to the company of her nurse, but her thoughts were so full of pleasurable anticipations that under the circumstances she did not mind the loss of her favourite Annie.
Before starting, Annie ran quickly round to Mrs. Martin's rooms.
"Here I am," she exclaimed in her bright way. "I have just rushed up to say good morning to you before we start. You have heard of all the fun that we are going to have, haven't you, nursey?"
"Folly, I call it," said nurse. "Throwing away good money on fallals and wings and clouds. Miss Nan was up here last night so late that I thought I'd never get her to bed, bamboozling me with stories of all the children round the country being turned into fairies, which you know, Miss Annie, is sheer nonsense and impossible to do, and Miss Nora, who has narrowly escaped her death, is to lie on rose leaves with clouds under her. The folly of it is beyond belief, even if it can be done, which I sincerely hope it can't. In old days people took their pleasures properly. Children were kept in the nursery and were sent early to bed, and young ladies were presented to her Gracious Majesty the Queen, and then went to balls in good stiff silks and no wings nor clouds about 'em. They met the gentlemen they were to marry at the balls, and then there was a proper wedding breakfast and all the rest, as it should be. I don't hold with the scarum days of the present."
"Look here, nursey," exclaimed Annie, "the fairies will look lovely, and I'll show you myself how innocent and simple the clouds are, and as to the wings, I'll make a pair for you if you like."
"No, thank you, Miss Annie, I hope I know what's due to myself."
"Well, I must run away," continued Annie. "You know we're just off to Nortonbury."
"So I hear, miss."
"It was to Nortonbury you went when you sold my ring; you were a dear to do it."
"I wouldn't do it for no one else, miss, and I don't know even now how I came to demean myself by such a job."
"Was," said Annie in an almost trembling voice, "was the uncle very disagreeable, then?"
"Miss Forest, such a word oughtn't to pass your lips."
"Why so, nurse? I cannot imagine why you dislike such helpful people."
"We won't argue the point," said nurse; "the subject is not suited to the young."
Annie fidgeted. Nan's voice was heard down stairs shouting for her.
"Nurse," she said in sudden desperation, "I want to get the ring back; tell me the name of the uncle."
A look of relief came over Mrs. Martin's face.
"I'd be glad if you had that valuable ring again," she said. "Have you got the money for it? It would be thirty-two shillings; thirty shillings for the loan and two shillings interest."
"Annie, we're all waiting," shouted Nan.
"Oh, do tell me the address," said Annie.
"You had better let me get the ring out of pawn for you, miss."
"No, no, I must get it to-day."
"Have you got the money, Miss Forest?"
"What would be the use of going if I hadn't?" prevaricated Annie.
"Well, but you're not going to take my young ladies to a pawnbroker's?"
"No, I promise not to take any of them; I'll go alone, quite alone. You may trust me, really. Oh, nursey, nursey, I'm in such trouble."
Again the bright lovely eyes and sweet voice did their work.
Mrs. Martin fumbled for her keys, and taking a small piece of blue paper out of her work-box, put it into Annie's hand.
"There," she said. "I'm sorry I ever made or meddled with this thing. Mind you don't take one of my young ladies with you."
"I promise," said Annie. She thrust the paper into her pocket and rushed from the room.
POOR MRS. MYRTLE.
The girls spent a busy morning in Nortonbury, and if Annie had any care on her mind she certainly did not show it. She was a splendid girl to go shopping with. She could make up her mind quickly with regard to the exact material she required. Her choice was practically made before she entered a shop, her taste in colour and texture was excellent, and with her to guide them, Hester and Molly got through their business with great celerity. Many parcels were piled up on the front seat of the landau, but work as they would, the girls could not get through their necessary shopping in the morning. Hester therefore determined to lunch at a restaurant which she knew well, and to finish buying the rest of the materials for the fancy dresses before they returned to the Grange. It was while they were at lunch that Annie seized the opportunity to secure a few moments to herself. She had not yet had time even to glance at the address which nurse had given her on the little slip of blue paper. But it was now or never, if she were to seek the pawnbroker without the others discovering where she was going.
Hester had ordered a very tempting lunch, and Nan was attacking her nicely roasted chicken and bread sauce with appetite, when Annie, snatching up a sandwich, sprang suddenly to her feet.
"I'm not hungry," she exclaimed, "and as there is so much to be done, I won't waste time eating. Mrs. Willis wrote to me yesterday and asked me to send her a small parcel. It contains a ring which she lent me, and as it ought to be registered, I will go to the post-office now and get it done while you are at lunch."
"But you really must eat something first," exclaimed Hester. "You will be ill if you don't; the carriage is to call for us in a few minutes, and you may just as well drive to the post-office in it; you would do it in half the time."
"But I would rather walk," replied Annie. "I am perfectly sick of driving. I see by Nan's face that lunch will be quite an affair of half an hour, and I'll be back long before then."
She left the shop before Hester had time to remonstrate, and the next moment found herself in the street.
"Now for it," she exclaimed, a little catch of excitement in her breath. She took out her purse, opened it, and removing the slip of blue paper, looked at the words written on it. The address rather surprised her. It was a fancy goods shop, and was kept by a woman of the name of Myrtle.
"MRS. MYRTLE, "Haberdashery and Fancy Goods Warehouse, "30, Eden Street,"
was the address on the sheet of paper.
Annie had never in the course of her life come in contact with a live pawnbroker, but she had a vague idea that pawnbrokers were of the male species, and that they invariably had three gilt balls over their establishments.
She was relieved rather than otherwise to find that this pawnbroker was of the female sex, and fancied that it would be easier to deal with her on this account. A policeman directed her to Eden Street, which was a thoroughly respectable broad thoroughfare off the High Street.
Annie walked quickly until she came to number thirty. Then, raising her eyes and seeing Mrs. Myrtle's name over the door, she boldly entered. The shop was the sort that ladies delight in. One side of it was entirely devoted to the best class of haberdashery, the other was extremely attractive with coloured wools and silks, and all sorts of materials for crewel and other fancy works. A thin, pale girl, of about sixteen, was attending to the haberdashery department, and a little old lady, with pink cheeks, bright dark eyes and white hair, was busily serving several customers at the fancy goods side.
Annie had to wait until these customers had completed their business. The girl who had charge of the haberdashery asked if she could serve her.
"I wish to speak to Mrs. Myrtle," replied Annie in a decided tone. The little woman raised her head at hearing her own name pronounced, and said in a respectful voice—
"I'll be at leisure to serve you in a moment, miss."
"She seems very nice," said Annie to herself; "she has a decidedly kind face. What can there be objectionable in pawnbrokers, if she is one? Perhaps I'd better call her aunt; she'll be sure to like it."
In a couple of moments Mrs. Myrtle was at leisure, and Annie went up to the counter. Now that the critical instant had come, she felt her heart beating quickly, and knew that her cheeks were pale. Annie could look wonderfully pathetic when any emotion stirred her. She had a voice full of vibrations, and her eyes could assume the dumb pleading expression of a dog's.
"I want to speak to you about a very private matter," she said, looking full at Mrs. Myrtle.
The little woman could not help giving her a glance of great surprise. What could such a pretty, nicely-dressed young lady want with her; then suddenly it flashed through her mind that Annie must want to buy a present; perhaps the present was for her sweetheart; if so, the state of affairs was perfectly natural.
"Yes, miss," she said, in a cordial voice of sympathy, "but Netty, my niece, is a bit deaf and won't hear a word you're saying. I have got some really nice things, miss, and quite suitable; tobacco pouches made of different coloured plushes, and flowers traced very beautifully on them; you could work the pouch yourself, miss, and it would look most suitable; then I've got braces, too; they're quite the newest thing, and can be embroidered with any colour, and cases for gentlemen's evening ties, they really are very new; shall I show you some, miss?"
"Oh, no, thank you," said Annie in a choking voice. "I'm in an awful hurry and I don't want to buy any present for a gentleman; I don't know any gentleman except my father well enough to think of giving presents to. No, no, I don't want to buy anything, but I want—I want you to give me something, aunt."
Mrs. Myrtle looked at Annie as if she were now quite sure that the poor pretty young lady was not quite right in her head. She did not speak at all, but waited for Annie to continue.
"You're a female pawnbroker, are you not?" said Annie.
"A female what, my dear?" said Mrs. Myrtle, her face growing crimson. This was really the last straw. "I don't understand you, miss," she said in a stiff tone. "I have nothing whatever to do with the trade you indicate."
Just then some ladies, very good customers, entered the shop.
"You'll excuse me for a moment, miss," said Mrs. Myrtle; "but if you don't want to buy, I shall be obliged to leave you to attend to my customers. Good morning, Lady Dalgetty; what can I show your ladyship?"
Poor Annie found herself pushed into a corner. Lady Dalgetty and her suite occupied all Mrs. Myrtle's attention. Even the humble-looking Netty was busy serving out spools of cotton, needles, and pins to a prim-looking lady. Neither of the women in the shop had a moment to attend to Annie's sore need.
She began to think that Mrs. Myrtle was not so kind as she looked, and to understand a little of nurse's repugnance to the pawnbroker class.
"They must be low people," she murmured to herself; "for this woman won't even own to the fact that she is a pawnbroker."
The shop became empty once more; and Mrs. Myrtle, who was really quite as kind hearted as she looked, raised her eyes, and encountered a very forlorn glance from Annie.
"Poor, pretty young lady," she said to herself. "She's gone in the head without any manner of doubt, calling me aunt, and asking me if I'm a female pawnbroker; but I'd best humour her a bit, and try to find out who she belongs to."
Accordingly Mrs. Myrtle called Annie back to the counter in a kind voice.
"I can attend to you now, miss," she said; "but if you have anything to say, perhaps you'll say it quickly, for this is market day, and heaps of farmer's wives come in for no end of small matters."
"Do they pawn rings, and then take them out by degrees in instalments?" asked poor Annie in an eager voice.
"Poor, poor young lady, she's very, very bad," murmured Mrs. Myrtle to herself.
"I couldn't say for positive, miss," she replied, "that a farmer's wife has never pawned a ring; but if they are reduced to such straits, I know nothing about it."
"Then you are not a pawnbroker yourself?"
"I am not, miss. Wouldn't you like to come into my parlour and rest a bit if you're tired, and maybe you'll tell me your name?"
"She's getting quite kind again," thought Annie. "Of course she is a pawnbroker, but she doesn't like to own it; it evidently is a very disgraceful calling."
"My name is Annie Forest," she said; "and I'm not at all tired, thank you, aunt. You don't mind me calling you aunt, do you? for we always call the men in your trade uncles."
"I hope heaven will preserve my patience," muttered poor Mrs. Myrtle. "I must get this young lady to her friends whatever happens. Netty!"
"Oh, don't call Netty here," exclaimed Annie. "Now, look here, do you see this piece of blue paper?"
"Yes, miss. It's my address, sure and certain."
"Do you know the handwriting?"
"Well, I can't say that I do; it seems a sort of an ordinary hand, don't it, miss?"
"Is Mrs. Martin, who lives at the Grange, a friend of yours?" asked Annie suddenly.
Mrs. Myrtle's face glowed all over with pleased relief.
"Mrs. Martin of the Grange," she exclaimed, "old nurse to Miss Hester and Miss Nan Thornton? I should rather think she is a friend of mine. I have known her ever since we went to school together, and that's many a year ago."
"Oh, how glad I am," exclaimed Annie; "then I am sure, quite sure, you will be kind to me. You will do what I ask for the sake of your friend Mrs. Martin. You won't mind just confiding to me that you are a pawnbroker? I promise most faithfully not to call you aunt if you really dislike it."
"I'm afraid I don't understand you, Miss Forest. I am not a pawnbroker; not one of my belongings would own to such a trade; and if Patty Martin gave you to understand that I am, I'll quarrel with her, late as it is in the day."
"But she pawned a ring to you," said Annie; "an old-fashioned gold ring with one big diamond in the middle. You lent her thirty shillings on it, and the interest is two shillings. That ring is mine. She did pawn a ring to you, did she not?"
A light at last broke over Mrs. Myrtle's face.
"Well, well," she exclaimed; "I begin to see what you're driving at. Won't I have a crow to pick with Patty Martin for this. No, no, miss, she pawned no ring to me; but she gave me a diamond ring to keep for her early one morning about three weeks ago. 'And keep it safe until I ask for it, Martha Myrtle,' said she; and safe I will keep it until then, Miss Annie Forest."
"But it's my ring," said Annie in great distress. "You'll give it back to me now when I ask for it?"
"I'll give it back to Patty Martin, miss, and to no one else."
"Oh, but really, really, don't you understand? It's my ring."
"I've only your word for that, miss. It was given to me by Mrs. Martin."
"But I know Patty Martin would let you give it back to me. Why, she gave me your address and told me to go to you; and I thought, of course, you were a pawnbroker."
"Won't I have a crow to pluck with her for this?" exclaimed Mrs. Myrtle. "Pawnbroker, indeed! Why my poor mother who's dead would rise up from her grave if she thought I was called by such a name. No, miss, I'm sorry not to oblige, but Mrs. Martin gave me the ring to keep for her, and she must come herself to fetch it away, for to no one else will I give it."
Some farmers' wives, looking flourishing and handsome and full of purpose, now entered the shop. Mrs. Myrtle devoted all her energies to serving them, and poor Annie with sinking heart had to go away.
"THE WAY OF TRANSGRESSORS."
The week that followed passed all too quickly. There was no hitch whatever in the girls' plans. Mrs. Lorrimer wrote to Molly to express her complete satisfaction with the arrangement proposed by Hester. The workwomen who had now taken up their abode at the Grange were both efficient and clever. With Annie's help the different dresses began to assume form and completion with marvellous rapidity. Annie was the life and soul of the dressmaking. She sketched pictures of the proposed toilettes; she coloured these sketches; then she tried on and cut out, and basted, and tacked. She helped to hang draperies and to arrange the wings of the fairies. The women became interested themselves in such an artistic assistant, and did everything in their power to help her. At the Towers the ball-room began to show its noble proportions to the best advantage. Hester and Annie and Nan and Molly went backwards and forwards at all hours of the day. By Monday evening, the ball-room was in complete order. Every possible direction was given with regard to the different refreshments, and the last stitch in the pretty fancy dresses had been done. The news of Nan's fancy ball had spread far and wide. Almost every invitation met with an acceptance, and the Thornton and Lorrimer households were borne forward just at present on a full tide of victorious excitement. Even Molly felt herself obliged to enter into the full spirit of the fun. Not a murmur of anxiety from her father and mother in London reached her. Mrs. Lorrimer, in writing to Molly, had assumed as cheerful a tone as possible; she had alluded to no possible care, had hinted at no canker root of possible trouble. She had said, it is true, that it was rather unlikely that she and the Squire would return in time for the ball; but if this could not be managed, she hoped the children would enjoy themselves to the full in their absence; and finally, she said how heartily she rejoiced in the thought of their having such a delightful time. Hester also forgot the small worrying thought which came to her now and again about her father, in this week of rush and pleasure. Hester was by nature a very quiet-mannered girl, but she became nearly as lively now as Annie; she laughed, and joked, and danced, and skipped until Mrs. Martin, who watched her from the nursery window, began to shake her head gravely, and to say that such mirth was not "fey" as she expressed it, and that it surely forbode a season of gloom by-and-by.
Annie's high spirits being natural to her, no one specially noticed them, and according to her custom, she put dull care aside and was as lively as she looked.
It is true that she had been obliged to ignore Mrs. Willis's letter; it is true that the ring was still being jealously guarded by that dreadful Mrs. Myrtle, for Annie had not the courage to ask Mrs. Martin for it. The whole situation was now quite plain; Mrs. Martin had never gone near the pawnbroker's, but had lent Annie the money herself. Why she had parted with the ring under these circumstances was a problem which poor Annie could not attempt to fathom. All she could do now was to abide the issue of events as patiently as possible. All her life long she had found that, somehow or other, matters did right themselves for her, and she trusted to her usual good luck on this occasion.
The preparations were almost all completed for the fancy ball by Monday night. Nan's birthday would be on Wednesday. No second letter had arrived from Sir John Thornton, and Hester wondered whether he would be present on the birthday or not. The day was to be one long scene of triumph for the young birthday queen. Annie and Hester both stole out of bed at an early hour that morning, and going out into the garden, they picked baskets full of flowers with the dew on them, with which they made wreaths to decorate the breakfast table, and to cover the piles of presents which lay not only on Nan's plate, but all round it.
As soon as Nan appeared in the breakfast-room, Annie tripped up to her, bent on one knee as if to a liege lady, told her that she was her lawful sovereign for that entire day, and then begged leave to crown the birthday queen with flowers. Nan's cheeks were flushed already, and her eyes bright with excitement. Molly came in by-and-by, and Nora, who was now much better, was wheeled into the room on her sofa. She wore the white cambric dress which Annie had made for her. Her dark hair was swept back from her pretty, low forehead, her cheeks had roses in them, and her eyes sparkled.
"Molly, Molly," she exclaimed, "look at me, look at me. Now you know the secret of the locked door. Annie made me this frock; she had some bits of cambric over from dresses of her own, and she made this and a blue one, and a pink one also; I have the other two in my drawer; I know they are all sweetly becoming, aren't they? It's nearly as good as having a trousseau. Oh, do kiss me and congratulate me, Molly; you know how I have always longed for pretty dresses. Was not it perfectly darling of Annie to make them for me?"
Before Molly could reply a loud exclamation from Hester turned all eyes in her direction.
"What do you think?" she exclaimed. "The crowning bliss of our day is come. Nan, you will never guess. Annie, dear, how charmed you will be. Here is a letter from Mrs. Willis; she expects to reach Nortonbury by the mid-day train, and asks me to send to meet her. Oh, dear, this is lovely. I have not seen my dear Mrs. Willis for over a year. What a rest and comfort it will be to talk to her again. Molly, you will delight in her; she is just the woman to captivate you completely. Nora, you will lose your heart to her, too. I don't know what wonderful thing there is about her; she is so strong, so noble, so gentle, that she wins all hearts; it is impossible for anybody to be naughty when Mrs. Willis is in the house. Nan, the arrival of Mrs. Willis on your birthday is the happiest possible omen for the whole year. Oh, how truly rejoiced I am!"
"Yes, it's awfully jolly of her to come," said Nan. "Of course I'm very fond of her, but I hope she won't remind me of my holiday task, for, frankly, I have not looked at it yet, and I don't mean to do so until the last week of the holidays. Now, do let's all begin breakfast; even though I am queen, I happen to have an appetite. Annie, what are you in a brown study about? Why, you look quite pale!"
"I expect Annie is so glad about Mrs. Willis that she can scarcely speak," said Hester, glancing at her friend in an affectionate manner. "Yes, we had better get breakfast through. I shall give Mrs. Willis the maple room, with that lovely west view. There is a little sitting-room which goes with it, where she can be quiet whenever she wants to be quiet. How glad nursey will be when she hears that dear Mrs. Willis is coming."
Hester began to perform the duties of tea-maker in a rather abstracted manner. As she kept on filling up cups of tea, she also glanced from time to time at the letter which gave her such delight.
"It is such a surprise," she said; "perhaps that is half the pleasure."
"Please don't put any more sugar into my tea," exclaimed Annie in an almost cross voice; "you know I never touch sugar, and that is the fourth lump."
"Oh, I am sorry," exclaimed Hester; "I'll take that cup and you shall have mine."
"You put five lumps into your own cup, I watched you; oh, dear, it doesn't matter, of course."
"No, it doesn't matter," said Hester, still reading her letter. "Molly, will you pass the tea on, please. Oh, yes, I'll have some honey; you can put a piece on my plate if you like."
"The only plate you have before you at present contains eggs and bacon," exclaimed Molly. "I think I won't help the honey for a few minutes."
"This is a delightful surprise," murmured Hester; "but, dear me, it is rather strange, Mrs. Willis says she wrote to you last week, Annie, and said that she would try to give us a couple of days at the Grange on her way back to Lavender House. How was it you never mentioned it?"
There was just a pause long enough to be noticed before Annie replied.
"I did not get the letter," she said then, in a steady voice.
She hated herself the moment she had uttered the words. She felt as if she had fallen from a height, and was lying maimed and bruised, bleeding and ugly in some dismal abyss; but all the time her eyes looked bright and her face was cheerful.
Hester exclaimed, "How strange! what a pity! How could the letter have gone astray?" but other thoughts soon chased this one from her mind.
Breakfast being over the young housekeeper had much to attend to.
Nora held out her hand to Annie, who stooped down and kissed her affectionately.
"Are you really glad that she is coming?" asked Nora.
"Of course I am, Nonie; she is—" a stab went through Annie's heart—"she is my best friend."
"Is she really as good as Hester says she is?" continued Nora.
"Yes, yes, better; no one quite knows how good she is."
"I shall be afraid of her," said Nora shuddering. "I hate such perfectly good people; they make me feel small and mean."
Annie took up a basket of flowers, and began deftly to form them into wreaths for the further decoration of the ball-room.
"It's dreadful to feel mean," she said almost in a whisper.
"You can't surely know what it means," replied Nora.
"Oh, can't I though; don't let's talk of it any more. I like you in white, Nora. White, toned with lace and coloured ribbons, makes a charming dress for you. You have such a pretty face. It is so full of esprit—so piquant. Some day you will be a beautiful woman."
"As beautiful as you are?" asked Nora. "I don't desire to be more beautiful than you."
"In some ways you will be more beautiful," replied Annie. "I don't pretend that I am not pretty, I know I am; but in some ways you will be superior to me. You will have a greater air of distinction. Noblesse oblige will be abundantly manifested in you. Oh, yes," continued Annie, "it is all very fine for us parvenus to despise race. We don't really despise it; we adore it, we envy it; we can never, never, never get what race confers."
"How excitedly you talk," said Nora; "you seem angry about something."
"I am angry with myself," said Annie; "my low ways and my meanness. Noblesse oblige has nothing to do with me. Now, look here, Nora, forget all this rubbishy talk; be thankful that you are a beautiful girl of good family, who could not do a shabby action. I must leave you now, for Mrs. Willis is coming, and I should like to go into Nortonbury to meet her."
Annie ran off to find Hester.
"Hester," she exclaimed, "may I go in the carriage to Nortonbury to meet Mrs. Willis?"
"That is an excellent idea," said Hester; "take Molly with you, the drive will do her good. I am so busy this morning that I can scarcely be spared from home. Yes, that is an excellent idea. I was wondering who would go to meet her."
Molly was very pleased to accompany Annie to Nortonbury, and Annie was glad of her company. Molly would be a sort of shield to her; not that it really mattered, for she had already quite made up her mind how to act.
The girls enjoyed their pleasant drive together. Mrs. Willis's train was punctual, and she was soon driving back to the Grange, Molly seated by her side and Annie on the seat facing her.
Mrs. Willis had the knack of making all girls perfectly at home with her. Molly felt sure that a certain feeling of restraint would come over her when she sat by the side of this excellent and adorable woman; but the moment she looked into Mrs. Willis's kind eyes, and Mrs. Willis returned her glance, and said in that full, rich, motherly voice of hers, "Oh, I have heard of you; you are Molly Lorrimer, you live at the Towers, and you have a great many brothers and sisters, and your schoolroom is reached by a spiral stair, and is somewhere up in the clouds. I have heard all about you many times from Nan." Then Molly laughed, and felt at home. She felt more than at home, for her heart gave a strange flutter, and then a curious sense of peace pervaded it. It was something like being near her mother, and yet it was something different. The magnetic influence of a good and great spirit was already making itself felt.
Annie sat opposite to the two with dancing eyes.
"How well you look my love," said Mrs. Willis. "I am delighted to see that the change has done you so much good."
Annie drooped her long lashes for a moment.
"I am as well as well can be," she said, "and as jolly as jolly can be, and you have just come in the nick of time to make everything perfect. Molly, do tell Mrs. Willis about our fancy ball to-night."
"I will listen to you in a moment, Molly," said Mrs. Willis; "but first of all I want to ask Annie a question. I hope you did not send the ring to Paris, Annie, for, if you did, I never received it."
"What ring?" asked Annie, looking up in pretended amazement. "Do you mean my mother's ring, Mrs. Willis, the—the one you lent me?"
"Yes, dear. I wrote to you last week about it. I was surprised at never hearing from you, for my letter was quite urgent. I wanted the ring for a special object, and was disappointed at its never coming."
"That must have been the letter you never got, Annie," exclaimed Molly.
"You never got my letter?" exclaimed Mrs. Willis. "How very, very strange! But I posted it myself, and I know I put the right address on it. I am relieved, of course, that you did not send the ring when it was too late; but it is odd about the letter."
"No, I didn't send the ring," said Annie in a light voice. "How could I?"
"Certainly not, dear, if you did not know that I wanted it."
"Hester was surprised this morning," continued Molly, taking up the thread of the narrative, and unconsciously giving Annie immense assistance. "You said, in your letter to her, that you had told Annie a week ago that you were coming. Then Annie said that she had never got your letter."
"It is very queer," said Mrs. Willis. "I must write to the post office in Paris and make inquiries. Well, I am glad the ring is safe."
"Of course, it is as safe as possible," said Annie. "It is too bad about the letter," she continued. "Did you want the ring very badly?"
"Yes, very badly; but it is not too late yet to manage matters. I want to have the ring copied as a wedding present for Margaret Cecil, but I have already spoken to a jeweller about it, and if I send him the ring to-day or to-morrow he will have it in time. Don't forget to give it to me, Annie, dear, when we get home."
"Oh, no," said Annie, "I won't forget."
A few moments later they arrived at the Grange, where Mrs. Willis was received with a kind of trembling joy by Hester, who took her into the house and showered every imaginable attention which her love could suggest upon her.
"Time, time," muttered Annie to herself as she rushed away. "Something must happen between now and to-morrow. I'll keep out of her way to-day, and in the fuss and excitement she'll forget about the ring. I have told one big lie about it, and I have insinuated a dozen more, and I vow and declare one thing—that I will not be discovered now. I'll go on to the bitter end now, come what will. Heigh-ho, is that you, Nan? What are you doing? Don't you know that Mrs. Willis has come? What is that you have in your hand?"
"It's a letter of yours," said Nan; "I found it in the garden under a rose bush; it's in Mrs. Willis's handwriting; didn't you say that you did not hear from her last week?"
"No more I did; give me that letter; it's quite an old one." Annie stretched out her hand, snatched the letter from Nan, and pushed it into her pocket.
"You didn't read it?" she asked.
"No, I'm not so mean; what is the matter with you?"
"I hate to have my letters read."
"They're not read by girls like me; you needn't be afraid."
Nan rushed off in a huff, and Annie walked slowly down the corridor. Her heart felt like lead. She fully believed that Nan had not read the letter, but Nan's eyes might have happened to glance at the postmark on it. That postmark contained a date only one week old. Nan was the last child to whom Annie felt she could confide her guilty secret.
"Oh, dear, dear," she murmured under her breath, "what a true saying it is, that 'the way of transgressors is hard.' I am a mean, low sort, not a doubt of that. Why, if the Lorrimers and Thorntons really knew me as I am, they wouldn't speak to me. Well, there's nothing for it now but to carry matters with a high hand, and to let nothing out. If Nan does happen to have noticed the date on the letter, I'll tell her she was mistaken. How could I have been so mad as to carry this letter about in my pocket? Well, to make all things sure, I'll destroy it now."
"Annie, Annie, we're just going to lunch," called out Hester; "what are you running into the garden for?"
"I'll be back in a minute," shouted Annie.
She ran quickly out of the house and down the broad grass walk which led to the arbour at the farther end. By the side of the arbour lay a basket of tools. Annie snatched up a small trowel, and going to the back of the arbour, dug a hole for her letter. She tore it then into fragments and buried it, looked round her eagerly, saw that there was not a soul in sight, and then, with a certain sense of relief, hurried back to the house.
The ball was to begin at nine o'clock. The festive hour grew on apace. Mrs. Willis said nothing more about the ring, and Annie Forest heaved a deep sigh of relief.
"Reprieved until to-morrow," she murmured to herself; "and now for high frivolity."
The horses from the Thorntons' stables were in great request during that eventful day. Hester, who was most anxious to spare her friends all possible trouble, had decided that she and Nan, and all the rest of their party, should dress for the ball at the Grange, and come over in their separate characters prepared to act their different parts at once. Molly and Hester were to be the two hostesses for the occasion. Guy, who was a very gentlemanly boy, was to assist them to the best part of his ability. Annie promised to look after the refreshments, and also to establish Nora in a becoming attitude on her bed of rose leaves and clouds.
Nora made a most beautiful queen of the fairies. She was dressed in a sort of transparent white; her large, clear wings were very slightly toned with rose colour, and the whole dress was bespangled with light sprays of silver. Nora's hair was crimped, and hung in masses over her shoulders. The silvery dust also shone in her hair. Her eyes were dark and deep, and natural roses of happiness and excitement bloomed on her pretty round cheeks. To Annie's ingenuity and genius the whole of the charming dream-like effect of this fairy queen was due. Mrs. Willis, who insisted on coming to the ball in the part of the schoolmistress, "The only part which I shall ever play in life," she had said with a smile to Hester, was much delighted with the arrangement of everything. Mrs. Willis was in grey silk, with her favourite Honiton lace. She was a very striking and beautiful woman, and in her grand simplicity, made a perfect foil to the fantastic appearance of the younger members of the party.
Amongst the honoured guests on this occasion, Mrs. Martin shone conspicuous. Hester had insisted on her coming over early, and when the good woman entered the ball-room and saw Nora on her cloudy throne, she could not help muttering, in an almost angry tone of great excitement—
"Eh, eh, why this is almost witchcraft. I didn't believe in them wings and clouds till now, but sure enough there they are. Seein' is believin'. I don't hold with it, but I don't deny as it ain't clever."
"I'm glad you think it clever, Patty Martin," said a very gay voice in her ear.
She turned almost in alarm, to be confronted by the most impudent-looking, and yet the most charming gipsy lass she had ever looked at.
Mrs. Martin loathed gipsies.
"None of your sauce," she said in an angry voice. "This is no place for the like of you; get out at once or I'll let Miss Hester Thornton know."
"Oh, nursey, nursey, you'll kill me," exclaimed Annie in a voice choked with laughter. "Do you mean to say you don't know me?"
"My sakes alive, Miss Annie Forest!" exclaimed the old woman. "Who'd have thought you'd have been up to this folly? What are you doing, masquerading like them hateful gipsies? It's bad enough to have wings and clouds about; but gipsies—'tain't respectable; my word, no."
"This gipsy is eminently respectable," said Annie, with a sort of bitter emphasis. "Here, nursey, take my hand, and let me lead you up the ball-room. I have many strange characters to introduce you to. I see plainly that you won't recognise them without my kind assistance. Here, come along, be quick."
"My head is getting moithered, and that's the only word," said nurse Martin. "Dear, dear, what are the young coming to? And sakes alive, what in the world are those?"
The creatures thus apostrophised by the almost frightened nurse Martin, were a troop of fairies and brownies, who now rushed into the ball-room from every direction. The band struck up a merry waltz, and the fairies and brownies began to dance with vigour.
"Its past belief," said Mrs. Martin "and did you make all them wings, Miss Annie?"
"Oh, dear, no," replied Annie; "they were made by the mothers of the fairies—at least, I presume so. Now come into the supper-room and let me get you a comfortable seat."
Mrs. Martin was glad enough to comply. She said the slippery floor of the ball-room, and the uncanny creatures that were all round her, made her feel as if the top of her head would come off. She uttered a little shriek of terror as Jane Macalister, dressed as Minerva, glided fiercely by, and was glad to seat herself in a safe corner behind one of the long supper tables. Annie desired a servant to give her all the refreshment she required, and then ran off to attend to the other guests.
Fast and furious rose the fun. During the whole of the present century the old ball-room at the Towers had not reflected so gay and animated a scene. Grim ancestors of the house of Lorrimer looked down from their tarnished frames at the last Lorrimers as they danced away their precious time in this frivolous and yet enchanting manner. The grown people, who sat in the gallery and on benches near the walls, talked in whispers to one another about the lovely scene. The Lorrimers were popular in the county, and although rumours of coming trouble were rife about them, yet their friends and well-wishers augured happy results from this present gaiety.
But why was not the Squire present, and why was Mrs. Lorrimer absent?
Molly, who made the gentlest of shepherdesses, came up as these remarks passed the good people's lips. She stopped to speak to an old friend of her mother's.
"I'm so glad you were able to come," she said; "and how sweet your children look."
"It was very kind of you to ask us, my dear," responded this lady, "and the sight is a charming one—quite charming; but I am sorry to miss your mother."
"Mother is in London at present; she is away on special business. She is ever so sorry to be absent to-night."
"And the Squire, is he quite well?"
"Yes, thank you. He is in London with mother."
At this moment a brownie with a hot face and looking rather uncomfortable in his brown-velvet tights, accompanied by the most spiritual-looking fairy it was possible to see, revolved slowly round in the mazes of the waltz.
The brownie's honest face was raised to Molly's; his brown eyes were full of a question; the fairy by his side had a far-away look. They both floated away.
"Oh, what a charming little pair," said Mrs. Fortescue, Molly's friend. "Do you know who they are, Miss Lorrimer?"
"That poor, hot brownie is my brother, Boris," exclaimed Molly; "and that little girl is Nell, my sister."
The lady sat down again; and, Molly's partner coming up to claim her, she joined in the dance, and forgot the question in Boris's eyes.
There was a commotion near the entrance door. Hester was seen to move hastily forward. There was a call for Nan, who, accompanied by her partner, Little Boy Blue, rushed quickly across the room, and the next moment a tall, aristocratic-looking man was seen moving up the ball-room with Hester's hand on his arm. Sir John Thornton had kept his word. He had returned in time if not for the whole of Nan's birthday, at least to see it out.
The matrons who sat about the room remarked on his appearance, and said that they had never seen him look better, younger, or more cheerful. They said what an admirable thing it was for Sir John to have Hester at home; and, as Sir John himself was the best possible company in society, he soon made his presence agreeably felt all over the room. In the Squire's absence he naturally took the part of host; and no one could be a more polished or charming host than he.
One of the many delightful features of this great fancy ball was the presents which the fairy queen was to bestow upon her many subjects at the end of the festivities. These presents lay piled up in comical shapes all round her, and helped to form some of the billowy clouds on which she was supposed to be resting. The poor little fairy queen certainly looked most charming, and when the moment came for giving away the presents, she would enjoy herself to the full; but just now she could not help envying those fairies and brownies, who could jump about and skip and dance and have a very good time, without being in quite such a grand position as she was. On the queen fairy's head rested a spangled crown of light texture. She felt it almost heavy just now, and murmured to herself in a sentimental voice, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."
Boris, with his eyes still full of that unanswered question, came near and looked at her.
"Are you having an awfully dull time, Nonie?" he asked.
"Oh, it's all right," said Nora, who would have scorned to complain.
"You're going to give us our presents by-and-by."
"You'll feel jolly and hop o' my thumb, won't you?"
"Oh, I'll feel nothing special," replied Nora, who did not wish to encourage this brownie in his efforts after familiarity.
"How hot you look, Boris," she said, with a slight laugh.
"Hot?" echoed Boris. "I'm boiling. It's these abominations of tights. Nonie, I'd like to tell you something; it's very important, very."
"You can't possibly tell it to me now, Boris," replied Nora; "don't attempt to come too near, disarranging my clouds. Oh, what a naughty, troublesome boy you are; you have trodden upon that piece of white tarlatan, and it has all got out of shape. Do run away; do leave me alone."
Boris scampered off; he had suddenly caught a glimpse of the round, smooth face of the shepherdess, Molly, in the distance. If he could only catch her up, she would allow him to whisper in her ear. Nora was always rather a cross patch, but Molly was kind. Molly would be interested, even though she was a shepherdess. He trod on some long trains as he skimmed by. People called him a tiresome child and an awkward little worry, but he did not heed them; he was gaining on Molly, and Molly would be sure to listen to him. Everything would be all right when Molly knew. Now, he had all but reached her, but no, how tiresome—how more than tiresome—a shepherd came up and held out his crook to Molly, who held out hers to him, and then they joined hands, and then they danced away, away, away, far, very far from Boris and his question.
He turned round and stamped his pointed shoe in his vexation.
Nell suddenly came up and touched him.
"Did you find Molly? Have you told her?" she asked.
"No, I can't get to her," replied Boris; "she's dancing over there with that horrid shepherd; he's only Hugh Pierson, and he doesn't look a bit well. Let's dance by ourselves, Nell; let's forget; 'twasn't nothing but nonsense, I'm sure."
"I can't forget," replied Nell.
"Well, aren't you a little bit hungry? There's lobster and pink champagne in the supper-room. I'm going in for some; I heard Hugh Pierson say it was ripping; come and let's have some."
"I couldn't touch any," said Nell with a little shudder of disgust.
Boris looked at her and gave vent to the faintest of sighs.
"While I'm having my lobster, you could eat a jelly, couldn't you?" he said in the most insinuating of whispers.
"No, I couldn't; I couldn't touch anything. Go and eat if you want to, and then come back to me here. I'm going to stand by that window; perhaps he'll come back and take another peep."
"It couldn't have been him, Nell; you know it couldn't; he's away in London, you know."
"I tell you it was him."
"Has he brought back my dove, do you think?"
"No, no; who cares about a dove just now?"
"Nell, I really do care, and my cage is most beautiful and clean. I put in fresh seed and water only this morning; wasn't it lucky?"
"Well, the dove hasn't come," said Nell; "you know it was 'perhaps' about the dove, and about the pony, and about all the jolly things—you're always forgetting that it was 'perhaps.' There, go and eat your lobster, and come back to me when you have done; don't drink too much champagne, or maybe you'll turn giddy. I'll wait here by this window."
Boris, looking decidedly depressed, hesitated for a moment; then seeing that Nell was resolute, he decided that, even if disappointment were in store, he could all the rest of his life reflect that he had sat up late and eaten lobster salad for supper. He accordingly sidled away in the direction of the supper-room, and Nell, with a light movement, sprang on one of the benches and then into the deep recess of a window. Here, with her cloudy hair all about her, her little face as white as her dress, her eyes big and spiritual in the trouble which vaguely stirred her sensitive soul, she looked out into the night. Her large wings shielded her little form, and nobody noticed that one fairy was not joining in the revels.
"I did see him," murmured Nell; "I saw his face just for a minute; he pressed it up against the pane and looked in; his hair was all ruffled, and his eyes, his eyes—oh, the thought of his eyes makes me ache so badly. Why doesn't he come in? What is he doing out in the garden? I know he has come back. I know he's not in London; he has come back and he is in the garden, and we are all so jolly, and he so sad. What is the matter? Oh, I know quite well; it's perhaps; and the pony, and the dove, and the rabbits have not come home. Wings—I thought I'd be so happy when I had wings, but I'm just mis'ribble I'm just mis'ribble."
There was a little noise behind Nell; she turned her head to see Boris scrambling up into the seat by her side.
"I had two plates of salad," he began; "'twasn't so very nice, not so nice as—why, what's the matter, Nell?"
"Come," said Nell, taking his hand, "quick, jump down, he's under the oak tree, just where the shadow is thickest; I saw him move; that's him; let's go to him, Boris; take my hand; let's run to him."
Boris's hot hand clutched Nell's. They ran quickly along by the comparatively empty space near the wall, reached the entrance, and flew swiftly across the moonlit grass.
FAIRY AND BROWNIE.
Perhaps it was not the first time that the moon had looked down on a fairy and a brownie running across that old, old lawn. No one could say anything for certain on this point. We all of us have a sort of undying belief in fairies, so perhaps they did exist once, before our hearts had grown too cold and our natures too worldly to understand them. Children know most about them, but even children don't quite believe in them now, in the good old-fashioned way of long ago.
A very pretty fairy and brownie were out now. The moon silvered Nell's wings and put a sort of unearthly radiance into her hair, and Boris, with his bright locks standing almost upright on his head, in his quaint little costume, with his upturned toes and ruffled hands, looked quite like a true denizen of fairy land. Certain it is that the man who stood under the shadow of the oak gave a perceptible start when he saw the fairy and brownie. For a moment the old belief of his early childhood flashed through his brain, then he recognised Nell and Boris, and coming to meet them, he took a hand of each.
"What is it, father?" exclaimed Boris; "what are you standing out of doors for? I know it's a very warm night, but we want you dreadfully, dreadfully, in the house."
Boris rubbed himself against his father's knee as he spoke. Nell clutched Squire Lorrimer's other hand, and raising it to her lips, kissed it passionately. Nell did not speak at all.
"Come in, father, come in," repeated Boris; "and where's mother, and what are you doing out here under the oak tree?"
"Looking at you little people; you make a gay sight," said the Squire.
In spite of himself, his voice was quite hollow.
"But why don't you come in?"
"I'm not coming in; I'm going back to London again to-night."
"Why, father?" asked Nell, opening her lips for the first time, and looking at him with great intentness.
The Squire stooped and lifted Nell into his arms.
"I did not want you to see me," he said. "I knew you were having your big party to-night, and I had to come to the Towers on—on business. What are you trembling for, Nell? You ought not to be out; you must run back to the house at once; why, you are cold, child."
"I'm not cold, and I will stay and kiss you."
Nell's arms were pressed tightly round the Squire's neck. Her little soft lips pressed kiss after kiss on his somewhat grisly cheek.
Boris, standing on the ground, and looking up at Nell in her fathers arms, thoroughly realised for the first time that he had gone to useless trouble in cleaning the dove's cage.
"Now, Nell, you must be sensible," said her father. "I was obliged to come to the Towers to-night to—to fetch something. I knew from Molly's letters that you were going to have a big ball. I thought I'd like to see how the ball-room looked. We have not had a ball, a very big ball, in that room since the days of my great-grandmother. My grandmother has told me about that ball, and about the very window where my great-grandfather stood when he asked my great-grandmother to be his wife. He asked her to marry him at that ball, so of course she never could forget it; and the story of the green dress she wore—apple green—with her golden locks falling over her shoulders, and the story of the window where he proposed to her, have been handed down in the family ever since. To-night, in that same window, the little great-great-grandchild sat, and looked out, and I saw her; now, you must run back, Nell. Boris, you run back, too; run and enjoy yourselves; be happy—God, God bless you."
"Why don't you come in, father?" asked Boris.
Nell felt as if she could not say a word. There was so much meaning in fathers words; there was so much that he said with his eyes, and with the tight pressure of his arms, which the rather commonplace words he uttered seemed to have nothing to do with. Nell understood, and her heart ached so, she seemed to be turned dumb.
The Squire put Nell firmly on the grass.
"Run in, both of you," he said. "I must go back to the railway station at once, or I shall miss my train. I am returning to town to-night. Say nothing of this to anyone until the ball is over, then you may tell Molly, if you like, that she will probably see her mother to-morrow. Good night, chicks."
"Won't we see you to-morrow, father?"
But the Squire's only reply was to stride softly away under the trees.
"Why, he's gone," exclaimed Boris with a little cry.
"Yes. Didn't you know he was going, Boris? What is the use of making a fuss?" said Nell. She found she could speak quite well again now. "Take my hand and come back to the house; let's do what he said."
"Do you think he's put out about anything?" asked Boris. "He seemed dumpy, like; I couldn't say anything about the dove; I knew it hadn't come. Do you think father was sad about anything, Nell?"
"He didn't say he was, did he?" asked Nell.
"Well, let's come back and dance, or people will miss us. Father said we weren't to say anything until the ball was over, and then only to Molly."
"But if Molly goes back to the Grange?"
"She mustn't; she must stay here. I'll dance with you now, Boris, if you like."
The time had sped faster than the children had any idea of while they were out. But the dancing still continued and went on until a late hour. Then the moment when expectation must yield to a delightful reality arrived. Towards the end of one of the prettiest figures of the cotillion, the fairies and brownies assumed new characters. Either a fairy or a brownie conducted one of the many personages who figured in the fancy ball up to the fairy queen, who, assisted by a number of satellites, bestowed upon each a gift carefully selected in advance to meet the requirements of the special child in question. Each child was expected to drop on one knee to receive the fairy queen's benediction with her gift; they then filed one by one into the supper-room, where refreshments of a particularly ethereal, grateful character awaited them. This scene really ended the never-to-be-forgotten fancy ball. Hasty departures followed. Carriages rolled away with many sleepy and happy little folk, and at last the two carriages which were to convey Sir John Thornton and his party back to the Grange, appeared.
Nora was to return with them, and Annie Forest had arranged to specially attend to her comforts. Molly, who intended to come back to the Towers in a day or two, was also wrapping a white shawl round her shoulders preparatory to departure, when a brownie rushed quickly from one of the ante-rooms, flung his arms round her neck, and whispered in her ear.
"Oh, Molly, what are you waiting for?" exclaimed Nan. "We're all perfectly dead with sleep, Boris, you naughty boy; you know you have nothing whatever to say; what are you keeping Molly for now?"
"I have something to say," replied Boris. "Something most 'portant, I can tell you." His face flushed with anger; he dragged Molly into the ante-room.
"There she is, Nell," he exclaimed; "now you can tell her."
"What is the matter, Nell, darling?" exclaimed Molly, struck by the expression on her little sisters face.
"Molly, Molly," exclaimed Nell, with a sort of gasp in her voice.
"What is it, Nell, dear? Do speak; they're all waiting for me and I must go."
"Oh, must you go? Do stay, do stay; I have something very important to say; its a message."
"A message!" exclaimed Molly; anxiety stealing quickly into her voice; "is it anything about—about father and mother?"
"Yes, yes; and nobody else is to know; you will stay?"
"Yes, I'll stay. Wait there a minute, and I'll be back with you."
Molly ran up to Hester, who was waiting for her in the entrance hall.
"Good-bye, Hetty," she said, kissing her; "I'm not going back with you."
"What in the world do you mean, Molly?" exclaimed Hester. "You know you have promised to stay with us for another day or two, and I want you to know more of Mrs. Willis, and—why, what's the matter, dear?"
"Nell is not quite well, I think," replied Molly; "anyhow, I must stay here to-night; don't say anything to make Nora anxious; good-night."
"I am afraid, Hester, that we must not keep the horses waiting any longer," said Sir John in his most measured tones. "Good-night, Molly, we shall be pleased to see you at the Grange to-morrow if you can tear yourself away from domestic cares."
Hester went away, the carriage door was shut, and a moment later the last of the visitors had departed.
Molly rushed back for one moment to Nell.
"I am here," she said, "but if you have a secret to tell me, I can't talk to you for the present without exciting the curiosity of the whole house. Go upstairs and get into bed, and I'll be with you as soon as I can. I daresay my bed is not ready for me, so I'll sleep with you to-night."
A ghost of a smile of pleasure flitted across Nell's face as she glided away.
Molly went back to the rest of her brothers and sisters. Jane Macalister, still true to her Minerva costume, was seated at the supper table, eating a large slice of cold game pie.
"I am famished," she said; "it was the most fatiguing thing I ever did, and the dressmaker has made the sleeves of this horrid dress a great deal too tight, and the neck chokes me. Now, I hope this is the last folly of the kind that we shall have here for many a long day. I, for one, refuse to be laced up in this heathen mythology style again. Now then, my dears, all of you to bed. Molly, what in the world are you staying here for? We didn't expect you, and your room isn't ready."
"Oh, I'll sleep with Nell," replied Molly.
"Very inconsiderate indeed," replied poor Minerva. "Nell's bed is only large enough for herself, and she's like a feathers weight—with those dark circles under her eyes too. I saw her flying about and absolutely going out on to the lawn this evening. Nell is a great deal too excitable, and certainly her sleep ought not to be disturbed."
"I promise not to disturb it," replied Molly; "you know, Jane, I'm not an exciting sort of person."
"No more you are, my dear; but it frets me to have my arrangements put out by fads. However, off with you to bed now. Dear me, I am famished. If Minerva felt as I do, I pity her, poor soul. I'll have a glass of stout; there's nothing like it when you're worn out. Good night, Molly."
Molly ran eagerly away. She was waylaid by more than one brother and sister on her way upstairs, but at last she found herself in Nell's room.
Nell was sitting on the side of the bed; she had not attempted to undress.
"Oh, come, this will never do," said the practical Molly; "why, you're ready to drop with fatigue, you poor mite. Here, let me undress you, and you can talk while I'm doing it. Now, what's the trouble?"
"It's about father."
"What about him?"
"He came back to-night; he stood under the oak tree at the end of the lawn. I saw him first, because he pressed his face up against one of the windows and looked in, and afterwards he stood under the oak tree; Boris and I ran out to him."
"Yes, yes; go on, Nell."
Molly's fingers were trembling now, but they did not cease their busy task of unfastening Nell's clothes.
"Go on," she said; "what did he say, and why, why didn't you call me?"
"Boris tried to catch you up, but you would dance with Hugh Pierson. We ran out to father and he talked to us. The 'perhaps' has come true, Molly; oh, Molly, the 'perhaps' has come quite true."
"How do you know, Nell? Don't tremble so, Nell, dear."
"Father wouldn't come in," continued Nell, making a brave effort to recover herself. "He told us about our great-great-grandmother and her apple-green dress, and he said that he had come back to fetch something, and that he must return to London to-night; and then he said,'God—God bless you,' and his voice shook just a tiny bit, and he said that mother would be home to-morrow, and——"
"Yes, Nell, and——"
"Boris said 'Will you come home?' and—but——"
"What did he say to that?"
"He said nothing to that; he walked away very soft and quick. Molly, what does it mean?"
"I don't know," said Molly. "Now, Nell, you must get into bed. You are quite cold and shivery. I am going downstairs to fetch you a little hot wine and water, and then I'll put my arms round you until you sleep."
Nell was glad to submit to Molly's most comforting ministrations.
"But I think I do know what it means," murmured the elder girl as she listened to the gentle breathing of her little sister by-and-by.
THE LORRIMERS OF THE TOWERS.
The morning post brought a letter from Mrs. Lorrimer, which set all curiosity at rest. This letter was addressed to Jane Macalister, who read it through first, with feverish haste and brows drawn darkly together, then again straight from the beginning more slowly, and then a third time, during which she surreptitiously wiped her eyes, and hoped the children had not seen her do so.
Jane was seated before the tea equipage at the head of the long breakfast table. Molly was helping her brothers and sisters to porridge, cups of milk, and bread and jam, in her usual deft fashion. Jane raised her eyes and encountered the brown ones of Molly.
"Well, Jane," said the young girl in a steady voice; "what is the news?"
"It's for you all to know, my dears," said Jane Macalister in a steady voice. "Your mother has asked me to break it to you all. It's just a question whether you shall all hear it together, or whether Molly shall hear it by herself first. I think Molly must decide that point."
"I'll hear it with the others," said Molly.
As she spoke she went and sat down in a vacant chair near Nell.
"Perhaps it is not such news to Nell and me as you think," she said. "Anyhow, we are prepared to hear it."
"It's 'perhaps' come true," said Nell in a faint voice, looking at Molly with the ghost of a smile.
"Dear, dear," exclaimed Kitty, "whatever it is, let's out with it. I don't suppose we are a set of cowards, any of us. I'm going to guess what it is beforehand; it's that father's mare has broken her knees; that's about the worst thing that could happen. Father sent for the mare to London a week ago; don't you remember, Guy, and when he was riding her in the park she fell and broke her knees; that's it, you bet."
"Do shut up," exclaimed Guy.
"You bet I'm right," replied Kitty, flushed and defiant.
Under no other possible circumstances would Kitty have dared to say "you bet" in the presence of Jane Macalister.
"Well, my dears," said poor Jane, looking round at all the eager faces, "I'd better read your mother's letter aloud. I've read it three times to myself, and have got over the choky business; so now I can read it aloud without breaking down. This is what your mother says, children. If I stand up, my loves, you'll all hear it better."
Jane Macalister stood up at the end of the long table. All the children dropped their spoons, and knives, and forks, as they listened to her.
"MY DEAR JANE," she began.
Here she paused.
"Your mother and I," she said, "have been Jane and Lucy to each other ever since we were children."
"Who cares about that rot now?" murmured angry Kitty. Harry gave her a pinch which make her scream.
"You shut up," she said back to him. "I must say something or I'll 'splode."
"MY DEAR JANE," continued the governess,
"I must ask you to break the news as you best can to the poor children. The Squire and I have done all that lay in the power of mortals to avert the blow. But it has been God's will that we should not succeed. You can tell Molly by-and-by how it is that her dear father has got into such terrible money difficulties, but now the all-important thing for the children to know is this.... The Towers is sold, and we must all go away from the dear home we have loved so long. The Squire is terribly upset, and cannot bring himself to come back just at once, but I am returning to-morrow. There is nothing for us now but to bear up and make the best of things. It is not so hard on any of us as it is on the Squire.—Believe me, dear Jane, your affectionate friend,
There was dead silence after the letter had been read. Then quite suddenly the terrible and unexpected sound of Nell's weeping filled the room.
"Oh, father," sobbed Nell. "Oh, father's face; oh, father's face."
She hid her head on Molly's shoulder and moaned in the most broken-hearted way. Boris, too, looked very pale. He remembered the pressure of the hand which had held his the night before. He heard the words which were commonplace enough, once again, and he saw the haggard lines round the lips and round the kindly eyes.
Boris slipped away from his own side of the table. He went up to Nell and began to kiss her.
"I know," he said. "I understand. I saw him, too; but he'll be all right by-and-by. It's like a big battle, but he'll not flinch; father's made of the stuff that soldiers have in them. He'll be all right by-and-by."
"I wish you'd let me look at that letter, Jane Macalister," said Guy.
Guy was the heir of the Towers. It was his property and all his future, which that letter seemed suddenly to deprive him of. He was the last boy in the world to think first of himself; but now his head did feel a little dizzy. If, it seemed to him up to this moment, there was a solid fact in all the world, it was that in due time he should step into his father's shoes and become Squire Lorrimer of the Towers.
Molly instantly understood the tone of Guy's voice. She started up, and going to Jane took the letter; then she went to Guy, and put her arm round his neck.
"Let's come into the garden and read it together," she said.
He stumbled up and went with her as if he were blind. They went out through the open window and down the lawn, and Molly read the letter aloud once again.
"Well, it's all up," she said when she had finished. "I have been expecting it for a long time—a long time; haven't you, Guy?"
"No," answered Guy. "That's the awful part to me; it's such a sudden blow. I knew, of course, there were money difficulties; but, then, somehow or other, most fellows' fathers seem to have got them; and I was so busy with my books and keeping ahead of the other fellows in form that I didn't fret specially. I never wanted to think of myself specially; but sometimes the thought used to cross my mind that there might be a difficulty about my going to Cambridge by-and-by, and, of course, I knew that Eton was quite out of the question; but that was the worst, the very worst, that I thought could happen to me, and now—now."
"Poor Guy," said Molly. "You'll never be Squire Lorrimer of the Towers."
"Oh, of course, that doesn't matter," said Guy, in a would-be careless tone. "They can never take my real birthright from me. I'm the son of a gentleman, and I come of the real old stock. It's thinking of father that floors me, though, Molly. Why, this will just kill him."
"I'm awfully anxious about him," said Molly.
"How did he contrive to get into a scrape of this sort? I'm sure we never were extravagant; we didn't care a bit what we wore nor what we ate; and I know the grammar school at Nortonbury is cheap enough, and I really don't think Jane Macalister gets ten pounds a year. I'm sure she never has a new rag to her back; and as to you girls, of course I'm not blind; but if you were dressed like other fellows' sisters, you and Nora would look far and away the prettiest girls in the place."
"No, no, that's humbug," said downright Molly. "I'm not a bit pretty, and what's more I don't want to be. Of course, Nora is different. I acknowledge that she has a beautiful face."
"And you acknowledge another thing," said Guy; "that very little money has been spent. How in the world has father got into this scrape?"
"Well, of course, we can't understand that," said Molly; "only I think I can guess a little bit. Of course, these are bad times for all landlords, and half the farmers don't pay their rents properly; and you remember, Guy, last autumn, the lease of the Sunny Side farm fell in, and father hasn't been able to let it since, because the whole place is so fearfully out of repair that no one will take it until it is put in order; but the real thing which has made it necessary to sell the Towers is, that father went security a long time ago for a very large sum of money, and all the other sureties have died or lost their money, and so father has to pay. I know there was a great fear of that, because mother told me of it more than a year ago. She said that father always intended, if the worst came, to try and borrow the money. I suppose he has failed to do so, and that must be the reason why the Towers has to be sold."
"It's a bad business," said Guy, "and I can't realise it a bit yet; of course we young ones must be as plucky as we can about it, that goes without saying, but I can't take it in yet. I'm glad it's holiday time, and I needn't go to school. I couldn't face the other fellows just for a bit."
"I know you'll be splendid about it, Guy darling," said Molly looking affectionately at her brother; "and now do you mind coming with me to the Grange, for, of course, poor Nonie must be told? We won't stay there long, for we must do what we can to help mother when she comes home."
"Yes, I'll come with you," said Guy; "we'd best start at once, it's not too early."
"Stay where you are, then, for a moment," said Molly. "I'll run into the house and tell them we are going."
She went back to the breakfast-room, where an animated conversation was going on.
Nell was lying on a sofa with a shawl over her, and Jane Macalister was sitting by her side and holding her hand. Harry, Boris, and Kitty were standing in a little knot by the open window eagerly discussing a subject which was causing them intense pain, and obliging them to use many bickering words. They were feverishly anxious about the removal of their several pets.
"I know the big rabbit will die," exclaimed Boris. "Unless we can take the hutch which is built into the wall he'll die. He never will sleep anywhere except in that one corner of his hutch. It makes him ill, I know it does, to sleep anywhere else. He'll die if he's moved."
"No he won't die," said Kitty roundly; "rabbits have got no souls, and you can't be affectionate and fond of a thing if you haven't got a soul."
"Oh, what a lie," interrupted Harry; "and you mean to tell me that my dormice aren't fond of me, and that they don't prefer me to you—you clumsy monkey."
Kitty looked nonplussed for a moment.
"That's only because you feed them," she said then. "If you didn't feed them, they'd love me just as well. Ah, yah; who's right? You can't answer me now, can you? It's only cupboard-love animals have got, and that proves that they have no souls."
"It seems to me," said Harry, in a would-be sarcastic voice, "that very much the same thing may be said of some girls. Who caught you stealing a peach a week ago? Ha, ha, Miss Kitty."
"Oh, for pity's sake, children, don't quarrel," exclaimed Molly.
"That's what I'm telling 'em," said Boris in a tearful voice; "and I think my big rabbit has a soul, and I'm awful 'feared it will kill him if he leaves his corner of the hutch."
"Jane," interrupted Molly, "Guy and I are going over to the Grange to tell poor Nora about mother's letter, but we'll both be home before mother returns."
"Very well, my dear," replied Jane Macalister. "You'd better not have Nora back, though, Molly, for she's quite certain not to be sensible about matters, and that's the only thing left to us now. For heaven's sake, I say, let us keep our senses and not give way to sentiment at a crisis like this. Go, my dear; tell her that she must take it in a quiet, matter-of-fact way, and not consider herself in the very least. The Squire and your mother, and Guy are the three victims; the rest of us are of no consequence; go, Molly."
Jane blew her nose very hard after uttering this oration, and there were suspicious red rims round her eyes.
Molly joined Guy, and they started on their walk to the Grange.
Guy had now quite got over the stunned feeling which oppressed him. There was a great deal of grit in all the Lorrimers, and Guy and Molly had both even a larger amount of this most valuable quality than the younger children. The ground, therefore, no longer swam under the brave boy's feet, and Molly, now that she was obliged to act, and now that she knew exactly what was going to happen, felt really less unhappy than before the blow had fallen.
It was little after ten o clock when the children reached the Grange. They found Hester and Annie out in the garden picking flowers, and Nora, looking very happy and very pretty in her new pink cambric, was lying under a shady tree on the lawn.
"Hullo, what have you come over so early for?" she asked of the two, as, dusty and hot, they came up to her side. Mrs. Willis was sitting near Nora, and reading aloud to her. Nora felt immensely flattered by her attentions, and yet at the same time not absolutely at home with her. Mrs. Willis could read character at a glance. She had taken an immense fancy to Molly, and pitied Nora without admiring her.
"She is a shallow little thing," she murmured to herself. "Pretty, of course, but nothing will ever make her either great or wise. Sweet Molly is one of the angels of the world."
She rose now to greet the brother and sister as they approached. The trouble round Guy's handsome eyes was not lost upon her. Poor Molly looked untidy, and quite worn and old.
"Oh, how the ball has fagged you!" exclaimed Nora; "see how fresh I am, and kind Mrs. Willis is reading me a charming story."
"I won't read any more at present, my dear," said Mrs. Willis, "as no doubt your brother and sister want to talk to you."
"Oh, I'm sure they don't," said Nora; "they can't have anything at all particular to say, and I am so immensely interested. I want to know how Lucile conquered her difficulties with the French grammar. I have such a fellow feeling for her, for I always detest grammar. Please, Mrs. Willis, don't go away."
"I'll come back presently," said Mrs. Willis; she crossed the lawn as she spoke, leaving the fascinating book open on Nora's sofa.
"How tiresome of you both to come and interrupt," said Nora in her crossest tone. "Molly, you look positively dishevelled; and Guy, you needn't wear those worn-out tennis shoes when you come to the Grange. You really, neither of you, have the least idea of what is due to our position."
"Our position be hanged," growled Guy. "Look here, we have come to say something, and as it's particularly unpleasant, you had better listen as quietly as you can."
"Then I'm sure I don't want to hear it; I hate and detest unpleasant things. You know I do, don't you, Molly?"
"Yes, darling," said Molly, kneeling down by her; "but sometimes bad things must come and we must be brave and bear them."
She knelt down by Nora as she spoke, and laid her hot, and not too clean hand, on Nora's pretty fresh sleeve.
"I do think its unkind of you to rumple up my frock like that," said Nora; "if you don't care to look nice, I do, and if you've got unpleasant news, you shouldn't tell it to me; for the doctor says that I'm not to be worried at present. I'm getting well nicely, but I'll be thrown back awfully if I'm worried."
"That can't be helped," said Guy in a firm voice. "Sometimes unpleasant things have to be borne. It's no worse for you than for the others."
"Oh, Nonie, Nonie," sobbed Molly, burying her head on her sister's shoulder; "it's this, it's this: Guy, you mustn't be cruel; remember she is weak. Nora, darling, we wouldn't tell you if we could help it, but you must know, because everyone else will know. The Towers is sold. The dear old home is ours no longer. We are not the Lorrimers of the Towers any more."
While Guy and Molly were in vain endeavouring to comfort Nora, who, after uttering shriek after shriek, closed her eyes and lay perfectly still, so much so, that Molly thought for a moment that she had fainted, Sir John Thornton left his own private study, where he had been busily writing letters, and stepping out on the lawn, approached the spot where Hester and Annie, in their cool white dresses, were picking flowers to replenish the vases in the different sitting-rooms. The girls made a pretty picture, and Sir John always admired beauty in any form and under any guise.
"Really, Hester is becoming quite distinguished looking," he said to himself; "she inherits a good deal of her mother's grace, and although she will never be exactly pretty, she is very aristocratic in appearance. She has a good figure, too—graceful and lithe. Even beside Miss Forest, who is a regular beauty of the piquant gipsy order, she quite shows to advantage. Presently we may be able to get her presented, and, if necessary, we must have a house in town for three months in the season. (I shall detest it, but Laura says it is inevitable.) Yes, I'm sure I have done right. Hester is such a sensible girl that she will probably be glad of my news; yes, it is evidently my duty to take Hester into society, and Laura is just the woman to take all the care and worry off my hands. I should never have thought of marrying again if it were not for Hester and Nan, but no one can say that I shirk a father's duties. Now I must break it to Hetty, for Laura says she will be here on Saturday. I would rather she did not bring her daughter with her, but she evidently has not the least intention of coming anywhere without Antonia. Dear, dear, I hope Hester will be sensible. I don't want a bad quarter of an hour."
Sir John had now reached the two girls. He had quite forgotten his dislike to Annie, and smiling at her, asked her in his gracious way why she did not offer him a rosebud.
She picked one at once, and he got her to place it in his button-hole.
"Thank you," he said with a smile; "your taste is admirable, and now I have a favour to ask of you."
"Granted, of course," said Annie with a smile.
"I want to deprive you of Hetty's company for a quarter of an hour. I have some domestic matters to discuss with my fair housekeeper."
"You can arrange the flowers, Annie," called Hester, dropping her basket as she spoke, and going up to her fathers side.
He drew her hand through his arm and they walked across the lawn together.
"I have just been admiring you and your friend," he said. "Do you know, Hester, that you really grow very nice looking."
Hester flushed with a strange mingling of irritation and elation.
To be praised by her fastidious father was something to be remembered, but she always shrank from having her personal appearance commented upon.
Sir John turned round now and smiled into her blushing face.
"Come down this shady walk with me," he said. "I have a good deal to talk over with you. Hester, you and Nan have always found me a kind, indulgent father, have you not?"
"You have been very good to us," replied Hester.
"Oh, perhaps not so good as some fathers, but good according to my lights, eh?"
"You have been very good to us," repeated Hester.
"And you are a good, dear daughter," replied Sir John, with almost enthusiasm; "you never complain of the dull life I give you at the Grange."
"The life is not dull, father."
"My dear, my dear," Sir John patted Hester's long slim fingers as they rested on his arm, "I was young once myself and I know what youth wants, and I have seen other girls, and I know what my girl requires. Hester, I am not unmindful of you; and the step—the step I am about to take is taken not wholly, but mainly, on your account and Nan's."
Hester suddenly withdrew her hand from Sir John's arm. A kind of intuition told her what was coming. Like a flash a sword seemed to pierce right through her heart. She had a memory of her mother, of the loving eyes now closed—the voice so full of sympathy now silent. Was her mother to be supplanted and because of her? For once passion got the upper hand of prudence.
"Do it," she said, suddenly flashing round upon Sir John; "do it, certainly, if you wish, but do not do it for Nan's sake and mine. Nothing in all the wide world could pain us more."
Sir John looked as astonished as if Hester had suddenly slapped him in the face.
"Your words are extremely vigorous, my dear," he said in a voice of ice; "and I am not aware that I have yet told you what I mean to do."
"Oh, I know, I know," answered Hester; "you are going to marry again. Oh, don't do it for our sakes; that is all I have to say."
Sir John was quite silent for nearly a minute. Then he said quietly: "As you have been so clever as to guess my intention, you have of course saved me the trouble of breaking my news to you. Young girls sometimes resent the presence of a stepmother, but as a rule they appreciate the advantage of one when once they have become accustomed to the change. The lady who has honoured me by promising to accept my hand is Mrs. Bernard Temple. She is about my own age and has one daughter of seventeen—your age, Hester—whose name is Antonia. I have not yet seen Antonia, but I am told that she is a most charming, ladylike girl. Mrs. Bernard Temple has written to me to say she will come here on a visit on Saturday with Antonia. This is Thursday, and I expect you, Hester, in the meantime, to break the news to Nan, and to get everything ready for the honoured guests who will then arrive. I expect this is a surprise to you, my dear, so I forgive the excited words you have just made use of. You will doubtless have reason to rejoice yet at my decision. You are too young to be at the head of a great establishment like this, Hetty. I am doing wisely in removing such a burden from such young shoulders."
"I have never felt it a burden," said Hester in a choked voice.
"No; you have been good, very good, and now you will reap your reward. My marriage will probably take place in October, and my wife and I will return to the Grange for Christmas. Next season we shall probably have a house in town, when my dear Laura will present you and Antonia at one of the drawing-rooms."
Hester made no remark.
"I think that is all, my love," said Sir John; "you can now return to your friends. I have several letters to attend to."
"May I tell Mrs. Willis, and—and the others?" asked Hester.
"You may tell everyone; it is no secret."
Sir John took out his cigar case as he spoke, and Hester, with a sinking heart, turned away.
Annie, full of trouble on her account, dreading inexpressibly the moment when Mrs. Willis should ask her for the ring, was sauntering up and down, lost in anxious thought in front of the house.
She caught sight of Hester coming slowly towards her.
"Good gracious, Hetty, whatever is the matter?" she exclaimed. "I never saw your pale face with peonies on it before, and your eyes look as if you had been crying. I cannot imagine what has come to everyone," continued Annie; "the whole place seems to be in a ferment. Nora, I know, has been crying about something, and Molly's face looks positively blotchy."
"Oh, I should like to see Molly; is she here?" exclaimed Hester.
"Yes, she's on the lawn talking to Nora, and Guy is with them, and Mrs. Willis joined them half an hour ago. I was running up to them, but Nora shrieked out to me to keep away. What can be the matter? There seems to be an earthquake everywhere."
"So there is as far as I am concerned," replied Hester. "There is an awful earthquake, and I don't know at the present moment whether I am standing on my head or my heels."
"Dear me, you are on your heels," replied Annie; "but you look rather top-heavy, so do be careful."
"My father is going to marry again in October," continued Hester, "and my future stepmother is coming here on Saturday, and there is a girl called Antonia coming with her—her daughter, and—and Antonia will live at the Grange in the future, and Annie, I cannot realise it; oh, Annie, I cannot bear it."
"You poor darling," said Annie. She put her arm round Hester's neck and kissed her hot cheeks.
"What a horrid old man Sir John is," murmured Annie to herself; "what in the world is he making a goose of himself for?"
Aloud she said in a faint voice, "Oh, I am bitterly sorry for you. I don't know what I'd do to my dear old rough-and-ready father if he dared to give me another mother. And Hetty, Hetty, if these new people are coming on Saturday, must I go away?"
"No, of course not, Annie; it would make me much more wretched even than I am now not to have you in the house; oh, I really don't know how I dare tell Nan; she is so excitable, and Mrs. Martin has put her against stepmothers already."
"It doesn't matter half as much for her," said Annie, "for she will be at school most of the time. Would you like me to tackle her? I think I can get her to behave with outward propriety at least."
"I wish you would tell her," said Hester.
"Very well, I'll search for her right away; and shall I send Molly to you?"
"Dear Molly; yes, I'd rather see her than anyone."
"I'll fly round and tell her you're here," replied Annie.
She had now a reason for joining the group on the lawn, which not even Nora's frantic wavings of the hand to her to keep away could prevent her attending to.
"Molly," she said, not coming too near, but shouting from a little distance; "Hester is on the lawn at the back of the house and wants particularly to see you for a minute or two."
Molly stood up and shook out her crumpled holland frock.
"Very well," she said, "I'll go to her."
"Stay here, Guy," she continued, laying her hand on her brother's shoulder. "I won't stay long with Hetty, but she would think it unkind if I did not tell her. I wonder if she has heard anything. I won't be long away, for we must go back to the Towers before lunch, in order to be sure to be in time to meet mother."
Molly went slowly away, her poor dejected little figure showing only too plainly the weight of sad care which filled her heart.
Hester Thornton was, however, for once so self-centred that she could think of no sorrow but her own. She noticed nothing particular in Molly's lagging step, and guessed of no special sorrow in her tear-dimmed brown eyes.
Hester ran up to Molly and clutched her arm with feverish force.
"Oh, Molly," she gasped, "how can I bear it? my worst, worst fears are realised. My father is going to marry again."
These words gave Molly a shock; she turned quite white for a moment.
"Hester," she said, "oh, Hester, and I remember your mother, your sweet mother. I was only a very little girl when I saw her last. She was ill at the time and she died soon afterwards, but I cannot forget her face nor her words; she seemed something like an angel."
"So she was," said Hester. "A beautiful, dear angel—too good for this world."
Hester's courage gave way; she began to sob brokenly.
"Come into the field at the back of the house," said Molly; "we'll be quite alone there, and then you can tell me everything and I can tell you everything."
"Oh, have you bad news too?" said Hester. "Annie seemed to think you had; she said your face was blotchy, and that Nora had been crying. Oh, Molly dear, Molly dear, how selfish I am; I have been absolutely swallowed up in this dark cloud, and can think of no one but myself. I notice now how red your eyes are, and how sad your mouth. Poor, dear Molly, what is it? Is Nell really ill? Was that why you did not come back with us last night?"
"It isn't Nell," said Molly in a trembling voice; "it's—Hester—it's what we feared. We had a letter from mother this morning, and it's all over—it's all over, Hetty—the Towers is sold."
"And my father is going to marry again," said Hester; "it seems to me as if the world were turning topsy-turvey. Oh, Molly, what are we both to do?"
"Jane Macalister would say that we are not to think of ourselves," said Molly with a wan attempt at a smile, "but somehow I don't feel like following her advice just at present."
"Nor I either," replied Hester; "I never, never in the whole course of my life felt more horrid and wicked, and rebellious, and selfish."
THE NEW OWNERS.
It is surprising how soon, at least when we are young, the greater number of us get accustomed to things. The news of the sale of the Towers, and of Sir John Thornton's approaching marriage, had electrified the Lorrimers and the Thorntons on Thursday. Had electrified them to such a degree that even the common observances of life seemed queer and out of place. It seemed wrong to eat when one was hungry; inhuman to smile; and even when one was sleepy, it seemed necessary to go to bed with a sort of apology. Nevertheless, the hungry people had to be fed, smiles had now and then to chase away tears, and in youthful slumber sorrow was for a time forgotten.
By Saturday life was going on much as usual in the two households. The Lorrimers were not to leave the Towers for six weeks. There was no immediate necessity, therefore, for the younger members of the household to think about moving the pets. Six weeks seemed something like for ever to them. The anxious consultations of the elders were not shared by them. Mother had come home, and mother kissed them just as tenderly as ever at night, and petted them just as much in the morning, and coddled them just as persistently when there was the least scrap of anything the matter. Whenever they went away, mother would go with them, and that, after all, was the main thing. In their secret hearts, they became rather excited about the move, the packing, and the new home. Boris, it is true, sometimes woke at night with a start and a hot remembrance of the clutch the Squire had given his hand when he stood under the oak tree, and Nell sobbed out piteously once or twice, "Oh, father's face, oh, father's face;" but father was not with them and mother was, and the sun rose and set as usual, and the fruit ripened in great plenty, and the pets were all well, and it was holiday time, and mother earth was specially tranquilising and kind. By Saturday, Boris, Kitty, and Nell were to all appearance just as they were before, and even the elder members of the family behaved, as Jane Macalister expressed it, "like sensible Christians."
In the Thornton household, too, the first overwhelming shock of Sir John's approaching marriage had passed by. Nan had stormed and raged, and flung her arms round nurse's neck, and sobbed herself at last to sleep on her breast, but Nan's passion was over now, and she was even a little curious to see what sort of woman Mrs. Bernard Temple was, and what sort of girl Antonia would be. Hester, whether her heart was heavy or light, was forced to attend to many household cares, and Annie was happy once more, for Mrs. Willis had not yet asked her for the ring. Mrs. Willis had yielded to Hester's strong entreaties to remain at the Grange until Monday. She was deeply interested in the Lorrimers, and was most anxious to help Molly in any way in her power; she was also desirous of seeing Hetty through the difficult ordeal of her first introduction to her future stepmother; she resolved, therefore, at some personal sacrifice, to prolong her visit at the Grange for a few days. No events less absorbing would have made her forget the ring. The exciting events of Thursday had, however, put it completely out of her head. On Friday, it is true, she did think of it, but Annie was not present at the time, and she now resolved not to trouble herself to have the ring copied, but to buy another present for her ex-pupil.
Annie knew nothing of this intention, but delay had made her bold, and, as usual, she had great faith in her own good luck.