On Saturday morning Sir John contributed vastly to the excitement and interest of the party by a certain piece of news which he read aloud to them from a letter he had just received from Mrs. Bernard Temple.
"My dear Hester," he said, looking down the length of the table at his daughter, "did not you once tell me that you had a schoolfellow at Lavender House of the name of Susan Drummond?"
"Sleepy Susy," exclaimed Hester with a smile. "I had almost forgotten her, although she managed to worry me a good deal at school. She was my room-mate for the first couple of terms. Oh, dear, oh, dear, shall I ever forget the trouble we used to have to wake her?"
"She left Lavender House a good many years ago; what of her?" exclaimed Mrs. Willis; "the fact is, I have quite lost sight of her."
"And so have I," said Hester; "frankly, I did not care about remembering her."
"Well, whether you like it or not, you are likely to hear a good deal more of her now," said Sir John, "for Susan's father is the new owner of the Towers, and Mrs. Bernard Temple wants to know if she may bring Susan as well as Antonia to-day, as Susan is naturally most anxious to see her new home. Have we a vacant bedroom, Hester?"
"Oh, yes," replied Hester, "but it seems——"
"What, my dear?"
"But me no buts," replied Sir John in a tone of irritation. "Nothing can be more natural than a young girl's wish to see her future home. I shall telegraph to Mrs. Bernard Temple to let her know that we shall be pleased to give Miss Drummond a hearty welcome."
Sir John rose from his chair as he spoke, and a moment later left the room.
"Poor Nora," exclaimed Hester, when the door had closed behind him. "Susy is certain to say something to hurt her dreadfully, for unless she has tremendously altered, I never saw a creature with less tact."
"We must hope for the best," said Mrs. Willis. "I am rather glad, my dear," she added, "that I am here, for I think Miss Susy will be on her best behaviour in my presence."
"Well, I think it's the most awful thing that ever happened," exclaimed Nan. "Fancy having a sleepy thing like that at the Towers, instead of Nell and Kitty and Boris."
The girls discussed the matter a little further, and then Hester went away to attend to Nora.
The shock of Molly's intelligence had really affected Nora to an almost painful degree. Her nerves had been terribly shaken by her serious fall, and she was so restless and miserable for the first twenty-four hours after the stunning blow had been given to her that the beloved Towers was no longer her home, that a doctor had to be sent for, who ordered her a soothing draught, and said that she ought to be kept extremely quiet.
By this time, however, Nora was not only better, but much interested in the strange new outlook. She had found her life often dull enough in the dear old home—for it was by this term she now invariably spoke of the Towers—she had longed to flutter her little wings in a larger and gayer world—she had fancied the small triumphs which might be hers, and had believed much in the charms of her own pretty face. She had dreamed dreams of herself in society, and felt sure that the fact of her being a Lorrimer of the Towers would insure her a passport into any circle. Now, of course, matters would be different, but still the new life must be, at least, more interesting than the old. It would be impossible any longer to have nothing to do in the day except to learn rather old-fashioned lessons under the tutorship of Jane Macalister, to contrive to dress out of almost nothing at all, and to listen for ever to Molly's slow talk about ways and means, and the children's chatter over their pets. Nora looked ahead with interest. She was sorry for Hester, of course, but she thought it would be very delightful to meet Mrs. Bernard Temple and Antonia, and even the news that Susan Drummond was coming, and that Susy's father was now the owner of the Towers, scarcely disturbed her equanimity.
"It's very kind of you to break it to me, Hetty," she said; "but of course I knew that someone had bought the Towers, and why not Mr. Drummond as well as another?"
"Why not, truly," replied Hester; "I am glad you are so sensible, Nora. I'll send Annie to you as soon as ever I can. Now I must run away, as there is a great deal to be done."
"How pale you look," said Nora, touched with a feeling of compunction at an indescribable something in Hester's face and voice. "Are you really, really fretting?"
"No, I hope not," replied Hester; "but I am really, really fighting, and that is hard work; now I must be off."
She left the room in a hurry, and as she went away to interview the housekeeper, some tears gathered in her eyes.
"Dear, dear Molly," she murmured to herself; "how very different she is from Nora; oh, how I wish Susy was not going to be settled at the Towers, it seems to be quite the last straw. 'As well Mr. Drummond as another,' says Nora; ah, but she would not say that if she really knew Susy."
The remaining hours which were to intervene before the arrival of the guests passed swiftly by. Sir John went alone in the landau to Nortonbury to meet them. An omnibus was sent for the luggage and for Mrs. Bernard Temple's and Miss Drummond's maids. Nan, flushed, excited, and defiant, stood in her white dress on the steps; Hester, also in white, stood by her little sister and held her hand with a firm pressure.
"Keep quiet, Nan—do keep quiet, for my sake," she whispered once in an emphatic voice.
"I'll vent it on Susy Drummond," exclaimed Nan: "she's the safety valve; I'm glad she's coming."
"Here they are," said Hester. She felt herself turning very pale, and laid her other hand on Nan's shoulder. The sound of wheels was distinctly audible, and the next moment the landau with its four occupants bowled rapidly up to the door. Mrs. Bernard Temple was all smiles and bows. She was a graceful, well-preserved woman, handsomely and fashionably dressed. Although the same age as Sir John, she looked years younger. Antonia was a dark-eyed, sallow-faced girl, difficult to say anything about at the first glance, and Susy Drummond was the well-known Susy Drummond of Lavender House. A little taller, a little fatter, a little more sleepy-looking, if that were possible, than she used to be in the old days, but still the Susy whom Hester had detested, and whose departure from the school was hailed with relief by everyone.
Before anyone else could speak she now raised her full, light blue eyes, fixed them on Hester, and drawled out, "Who would have thought of seeing you again, Prunes and Prism?"
Hester ran down the steps accompanied by Nan. There was a confused murmur of greeting and introduction. Mrs. Bernard Temple kissed Hester on her forehead, called her "dear child," and looked into her eyes in a way which made Hester long to shut them, patted Nan on her shoulder and hoped she was a good, obliging little girl, and then, followed by Antonia and Susy, who dropped a succession of wraps the whole way, entered one of the drawing rooms.
"My dear John, what a perfectly charming room," exclaimed Mrs. Bernard Temple, turning to her future husband and glancing down the long room with a critical eye. "Furniture just a little out of date—not enough Chippendale—old-fashioned, but not antique—we'll soon put that right, however. Antonia has a wonderful eye for colour. You see, she has been trained in an atelier in Paris."
The faintest perceptible frown might have been seen between Sir John's eyebrows. He took no special notice of Mrs. Bernard Temple's remark, but walking up the long and exquisitely proportioned room flung open some French windows which led into a flower garden, gay with every imaginable flower. There was a distant and very lovely view from this window.
"I think you will admire the landscape from this window," he said, turning and speaking with an air of great deference to his distinguished guest.
"In one moment, my love," she replied. "Antonia, what do you think of old gold curtains, and one of those dark olive-green papers for the walls? This light decoration is absolutely inadmissible."
"Old gold is quite out of date," replied Antonia, opening her lips for the first time. "I'm sick of old gold, it's not chic now. I'll look through some of my antique designs and sketch my idea of a drawing-room for you presently, mother; now pray attend to Sir John."
Mrs. Bernard Temple favoured her daughter with a glance which was returned in a very frank and determined manner by that young lady. She then sailed slowly up the room and condescended to admire the view pointed out by Sir John.
Hester was standing near one of the windows talking to Susy, who had already sunk into an easy chair, and was fanning herself with an enormous black fan which hung at her girdle. Antonia, after a moment's hesitation, came up to Hester.
"I'm very sorry we have come," she said, "but it really is not my fault. Mother is in a state of flutter at having caught Sir John. I'm disgusted about it all. I don't want a stepfather any more than you want a stepmother. I'm to be turned into a fine lady now, and I hate being a fine lady. I have a soul for art. I adore art. I'm all art. Art is sacred; it shouldn't be talked about the way mother speaks of it. When I was in Paris I was in my element. I wore a linen blouse all over paint; ah, that blouse—those happy days."
"Oh, Tony," suddenly burst from Susy's lips, "for pity's sake don't go off into a trance; you'll put Hester into a fit. Her face at the present moment is enough to kill anyone. For goodness sake, Hester, don't look like that; you'll make me laugh, and if I laugh immoderately it always wakes me up. I was looking out for a little nap before tea—forty winks, you know—I can't live without my forty winks, and now if you put on that killingly tragic face, I'll scream with laughter, I know I shall. Oh, dear, oh, dear, you must learn once for all never to mind a single thing Tony says; she's the oddest, most irrational creature—a genius of course—her pictures are simply monstrosities, which is a sure sign of genius."
"Would you like me to take you to your room?" said Hester, turning to Antonia when Susy had given her a moment of time to open her lips. "I'm sure you must be tired after your long journey."
"What should tire me?" asked Antonia, opening her big brown eyes in astonishment. "I travelled first-class from London, and drove out here in a landau; the whole journey was nothing short of effeminate. When I was in Paris I rose at four in the morning, and worked at my easel standing for five hours at a stretch; that was something like work. No, I'm not the least tired, thank you, and I don't want to be bothered tidying myself, for I may as well say frankly that I don't care twopence how I look."
"Tea will be ready in half an hour," said Hester. "Will you come out into the garden, then, for a stroll?"
"If you don't hate me too much to walk with me; but pray consider your own feelings if you do, for I don't in the least object to strolling about alone."
Hester and Antonia had now stepped out on the velvet lawn. They each gazed fully at the other.
"No," said Hester, speaking with a sudden swift intuition; "I don't hate you; I rather like you. I am glad you are frank."
"Oh, I hate pretence," said Antonia, with a shudder. "Fancy a priestess of art stooping to pretence. Well, if you don't detest me, let us walk about for a little. Have you no wild, uncultured spot to show me, which the hand of man has not defaced? My whole soul recoils from a velvet lawn."
"Oh, Tony, Tony, you're too killing to live," shrieked Susy from the other side of the window.
Antonia and Hester moved slowly away together; Hester was trying to think of some portion of the grounds which might be sufficiently full of weeds and thorns to satisfy the priestess of high art, and Susy lay back in her chair and wiped her eyes.
"This is rich," she murmured to herself. "To think of poor Prunes and Prism being thrown with Tony—to think of Tony as a sort of sister to Prunes and Prism. Well, this is a delicious lark. Hullo! is that you, Nan? Come along and speak to me at once, you pert puss. Why, do you know you've grown?"
"Well, I don't suppose I've stood still for the last five years," replied Nan, who could be intensely pert when she pleased. "I'm too busy to stay with you now, Susy; Nora wants me."
"Nora; who is Nora?"
"Nora Lorrimer, is she one of the Tower Lorrimers?"
"Yes; she wants me in a hurry; I must fly to her."
"Stay a moment, my dear child," Susy absolutely rose from her chair in her strong interest. "If this girl is one of the Tower Lorrimers, I had better know her at once; you had better bring her to me and I'll question her."
"I can't bring her to you; she has had a fall and is lying on her back; she can't walk."
"Dear me, what a nuisance; well, I'll go to her, then. Come along, Nancy, show me the way this minute."
"But really, really, Susy," began Nan, raising blue, imploring eyes. "Really, it is very sad about the Towers, you know."
"Sad; good heavens, are the drains wrong?"
"It's sad about the Lorrimers," continued Nan, stamping her foot and growing red with anger; "we love the Lorrimers; they are our dearest, our very, very dearest friends, and we hate their leaving the Towers. Perhaps Nora doesn't want to see you, Susy."
"Come along," said Susy in a firm voice; "I want to see her. What sentimental folly you talk, Nan. Squire Lorrimer was very glad indeed to find such a purchaser as my father for his tumbledown old place."
"The Towers tumbledown!" exclaimed Nan, "the beautiful, lovely, darling Towers! Susy, I hate you—I hate and detest you; I won't show you the way to Nora's room, so there!"
Nan pulled her frock out of Susy's detaining hand and rushed away.
Miss Drummond stood quite still for a moment where she had been left. Then she put up her hand to smooth her brow.
"This sort of thing would be ruffling to most people," she murmured, "but I really don't mind. Now, shall I have my forty winks before tea, or shall I poke round by myself until I find this blessed aggrieved Nora? That horrid little piece of impertinence has quite woke me up, so it's scarcely worth while to get soothed down again; I think I'll find Nora and ask for some information which I am anxious to write to father about, then after tea I can have a snooze until it is time to dress for dinner. Dear, dear, they might have the politeness to have tea ready on one's arrival. I expect my stay here will be precious slow, with their old-fashioned, prim ideas; if it weren't for Tony I'd die, but she'd really make a cat laugh; it will be better than a play to watch her at dinner to-night with Sir John. Now, then, for a search for the tearful Nora."
Susy, accordingly, in her usual ponderous, somewhat heavy mode of progress, wandered from one room to another until at last the sound of voices guided her to the pretty little boudoir, where Annie Forest and Nora had taken shelter, and where Nan was now standing, pouring out her tale of woe. A slight creak which the door made caused the girls to turn their heads, and there stood Susy, shedding articles of her wardrobe, as usual, as she walked. Her flaxen hair was partly unpinned and lay in a rough coil on her fat neck. She came with elephantine weight into the room, and ignoring Annie Forest altogether, held out a hand to Nora.
"Here I am," she said. "I'm Susy Drummond. 'Miss Susan Drummond, the Towers,' will soon be on my visiting cards. Isn't the place very ramshackle? Doesn't it want to be put into repair a good bit? I'm just dying to hear all about it. Oh, and here's an American swinging-chair—I just adore them. You don't mind if I see-saw gently while you talk to me. Nan, I bear no malice; fetch me a footstool, love, and let me know when tea is brought into the drawing-room. Annie, how do? I hope the female dragon is very well." Annie flushed crimson. Only a startled look on Nora's pretty face enabled her to control herself. She walked to the window and looked out.
Susy blinked her sleepy eyes after her.
"Never mind," she said, winking at Nora, "it's an old feud which I buried—I'm the most forgiving creature in Christendom—but if she chooses to dig up the hatchet, I can't help her. I always called that detestable Mrs. Willis the she-dragon. You don't know her, I suppose? You're in luck, I can tell you. Thank you, Nan, for the footstool. Now, this is most comfortable. You'll begin to tell me all you can about the Towers, won't you?" she continued, bending slightly forward and laying her fat hand on Nora's slim white arm; "and so you really are a Lorrimer? How profoundly interesting."
Nora fidgeted restlessly on her sofa.
"I'm a Lorrimer," she said at last in a steady voice. "I—I don't think I can tell you about the Towers; you'll probably go and see the place for yourself, either to-morrow or Monday."
"I shall certainly go to-morrow, and at an early hour, too; my father is most anxious to get my opinion on it."
"Well, then, you'll see it for yourself."
"So I shall—quite true, little Miss Rosebud; but, nevertheless, there is such a thing as curiosity, which, doubtless, you can gratify. Now, let's begin. I'm nothing if I'm not practical. How many bedrooms are there?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know? Are you simple? Have not you lived there all your life?"
"I have, but I don't really know. Perhaps if I count I can tell you. First, in the Tower, there's Jane Macalister's room, and Boris sleeps near her, and then there's Kitty—she has a room to herself—it's rather small, but she's immensely proud of it, and there's Nell and—"
Susy suddenly clapped her hands to her ears.
"For goodness sake stop," she exclaimed. "What do I care for your Macalisters, and Boris's, and Kittys? I want to know how many bedrooms there are—ten, twelve, twenty, thirty? Can't you count?"
"Yes, perfectly," replied Nora with spirit; "but I never troubled myself to count the number of bedrooms at the Towers; you can do so for yourself when you go to see it to-morrow."
"Thanks for nothing. If I'm anything I'm practical, and I shall not only count the bedrooms to-morrow, but measure them also. I shall take a measuring tape with me, and my maid Linette and a foot measure."
"How pleasant for Linette to be sandwiched between a measuring tape and a foot measure," exclaimed Annie, turning round from her position at the window and speaking for the first time.
Susy favoured her with a slow glance of intense dislike. Slightly turning her back she proceeded with her catechism of Nora.
"At least you can say something about the drawing-rooms. How many feet long is the principal drawing-room?"
Before poor Nora could reply, the door of the room was slowly opened and Mrs. Willis, with her usual calm, strong face, entered.
Susy Drummond gave such a start of dismayed surprise that Annie forgave her a good many of her sins on the spot.
Mrs. Willis came up to her and held out her hand.
"How do you do?" she said. "Sir John Thornton told us this morning at breakfast that we might have the pleasure of meeting you here. Are you well?"
"Oh, yes, I'm—I'm quite well, ma'am," replied Susy, stammering out her words in hopeless confusion.
"Nora, dear, you are looking very tired," continued Mrs. Willis. "I propose to have tea with you here alone, and to read to you for a little afterwards. Annie, will you take Miss Drummond to the drawing-room? I saw the tea equipage being taken in as I passed."
Susy shambled out of the room in Annie's wake.
HESTER SPEAKS HER MIND.
The next day was Sunday, and Susy, notwithstanding her strong inclinations, was forced to submit to Sir John Thornton's decree that she should not visit the Towers that day. Hester had sent a hurried note to Molly apprizing her of Susy's arrival, and begging of her, if she valued her peace of mind, not to come near the Grange on this dreadful Sunday.
It passed somehow. Poor Hester always, during the remainder of her life, looked back upon it as a day of hopeless worry and confusion of brain. Everyone seemed to be playing the game of cross-purposes with everyone else. Sir John kept on assuring himself that he was the happiest man in existence, while Mrs. Bernard Temple and Antonia evidently trod on his corns at each step he took. Susy, in her moments of wakefulness, was sly and watchful. Antonia was absolutely indifferent to everything but high art. Mrs. Bernard Temple was busy as busy could be making hay while the sun shone. She guessed shrewdly—perhaps her experiences with the late Mr. Bernard Temple helped her—that it was during the time of courtship when most of her wishes would be carried out. She insisted, therefore, on going carefully into the many alterations which she proposed to make in the Grange, and Sir John, notwithstanding his innate aversion to fuss of any kind, was forced to listen to her demands, and, as he was really attached to her, she soon got him to say yes to her different proposals.
Nan and Hester, Annie and Nora, kept as much together as possible. This was made easy for them by kind Mrs. Willis, who not only kept Susy in considerable awe, but contrived to interest Antonia by allowing her to talk art to her by the hour. Antonia used a jargon which Mrs. Willis did not in the least understand, but even Antonia was not proof against the gracious sympathy of this high-minded woman.
The girls had, therefore, plenty of time for self-pity. Annie was the very soul of sympathy, and it was a comfort to poor Nora and Hester to pour out their sorrows in her affectionate ears. As for Nan, she took refuge a good part of the time with Mrs. Martin, who shook her fists, when Nan was not looking, at the backs of Sir John and Mrs. Bernard Temple as they walked down one of the lawns side by side.
"She's his match!" murmured the old woman. "She'll give it to him; now he'll know what a selfish wife means! He have 'ad his turn of the other kind, and now he'll know what the selfish sort is. Serve him right, I say; serve him well right!"
At last the weary Sunday came to an end and on Monday, after breakfast, Susy announced her intention of going over to the Towers.
"I suppose I can have a carriage?" she said, turning to Sir John, who paused in his exit from the dining-room to give her his polite attention.
"I suppose I can have a carriage?" she repeated.
"The Towers is scarcely a mile away across the fields," she said.
"I don't think I can walk a mile," replied Susy; "my muscles are awfully weak—I dare not strain them."
"You can have a carriage with pleasure," said Sir John. "I will order one to be round at whatever hour you wish to name."
"At once, please," said Susy; "there's a good deal to be done. I've to measure all the rooms for carpets and druggets."
"You surely won't cover the rooms with carpets?" exclaimed Antonia. "I never heard of anything so Philistine. Oak parquetry, with rugs that slip about, is the only thing admissible. Better bare boards than carpets—carpets are simply atrocious!"
When Antonia began to speak, Sir John was heard to slam the door behind him; he had had quite enough of this young lady.
An eager discussion followed his departure, and it was finally decided that Susy, Hester, and Antonia, accompanied by Annie Forest, should drive over to the Towers.
"My part in the expedition will be this," exclaimed Annie, taking Hester aside for a moment. "I'll collect every single Lorrimer child I can lay hold of and carry them away to the most remote part of the grounds I can find, to be out of the reach of that detestable Susy and the torture she means to inflict. I should recommend you, Hester, to come with us."
"I'd like to very much," replied Hester, with a faint smile; "but I think I must stay with Mrs. Lorrimer and Molly. I don't know that I shall be the least comfort to them, but somehow I can't desert them."
A few moments later the little party drove off, and in the course of half-an-hour they arrived at the Towers. There was a winding and rather steep beech avenue, leading up to the older part of the mansion. Owing to the sad state of Squire Lorrimer's finances, this avenue was by no means in a state of complete repair. Hester turned her fleet little ponies—for she was driving—into it. They were spirited, but always well-behaved; on this occasion, however, they started violently, for Antonia was heard to utter a piercing shriek of rapture.
"Oh, those briars," she exclaimed—"those heavenly, heavenly, artistic briars! Stop the carriage, I beg of you, Miss Thornton! I must cut some without a moment's delay!"
"We can't stop on the side of a hill, Antonia," said Susy. "The ponies are fretting already, and nothing would induce them to stand still. You don't want us to be killed, I suppose, for the sake of an odious briar?"
The only answer Antonia made was to press her bony right hand with unnecessary force on Susy's right arm and vault from the carriage.
"Go on," she said, waving her hand to Hester; "I'll follow you presently. You don't suppose I'm going to lose a chance of this kind! I have brought my colour-box with me, and I mean to make a study of those briars before I go another step."
Suiting her action to her words, Antonia had already seated herself on a steep bank and was unfastening her portfolio.
"What a show she'll be when she does arrive," exclaimed Susy. "She'll probably bring three or four enormous briars into the house with her; but we may be thankful to be rid of her for a little, for she is so painfully positive. I place the greatest faith, of course, in her opinions, for she really is a magnificently ugly artist, and ugly art is, of course, the only correct thing now; but I do think we might have the bedrooms comfortable, don't you, Hester? With my tendency to forty winks at odd moments, I think it is scarcely safe to have every room covered with oak parquetry and rugs that slip about. The doctor says I am very deficient in muscle, and if I fell I might break a bone rather badly—don't you think so, Hester?"
"Yes, I do!" said Hester. "I think you had better furnish the Towers exactly as you please, and not take any opinions from Antonia!"
They had reached the brow of the hill now, and Hester was resting her ponies for a moment.
"How fiercely you speak," said Susy in an aggrieved tone. "Aren't you really interested in me and my future? Coming to the Towers is a very important step for me. I shall be the mistress, and in a position of great distinction. Father says I must entertain, and I hate entertaining, for it rouses one up so dreadfully; but I do think that you, as an old schoolfellow, might take a little interest in me."
"Listen to me for a moment," said Hester; "I want to say something."
"Oh, how appallingly solemn you are! I wish I had a lollipop to stop your mouth with."
"You must listen," said Hester in a firm voice; "I'm not joking. Times come in all lives when one cannot joke. I did not love you as my schoolfellow, Susy, and, frankly, I do not love you now; but, when you come to the Towers, I'll do everything in my power to help you, not because I like to do this, but because it's right. I can help you in many ways, for you don't know anything of county society; and, coming after such an old and popular family as the Lorrimers, people will be very apt to cut you if you are not careful. My father and I know everyone in the place, and we can get them to be kind to you if—if you deserve it; but that depends altogether on how you treat the Lorrimers now."
"Bravo," burst from Annie, who was sitting in the back seat, but who overheard Hester's words.
"Don't interrupt me, Annie, please," said Hester.
"The Lorrimers are my dearest friends," continued Hester. "Molly Lorrimer, whom you have not yet seen, and Annie, here, are the two greatest girl friends I have in the world. It is a great, great sorrow to the Lorrimers to leave the home where they and their people have lived before them for hundreds of years, and until they leave the place you ought not to talk before them of the way you mean to furnish the Towers when you are in possession. You ought to regard their feelings; and if you wish to please me, and if you wish me to help you by-and-by, you will. Remember, you are not in possession yet. The Towers is not your place yet."
"Well, I never!" exclaimed Susy. "Why, you've turned into an orator;" but Hester's words had subdued her a good deal, for if she had one source of envy, it was the envy which parvenus like her give to the old county people, and if there was an ambition in her stagnant soul, it was to be considered a county person herself.
Accordingly, when the party entered one of the drawing-rooms of the Towers, and Molly, looking pale and anxious, came forward, and Mrs. Lorrimer received Susy with that gentle kindness which always characterised her, the young lady had not a word to say. She sank down on an ottoman in the centre of the room and gazed vacantly around her.
A whoop from Boris was heard outside. Annie rushed to the door to be greeted by him and the other children, and carried away in their midst.
Mrs. Lorrimer asked Susy if she would like to see over the house.
"Yes, please," replied Susy; "I have brought the tapes and measures."
She stopped, for Hester had given her a heavy frown.
"If its really inconvenient, I needn't do anything to-day," she said, sinking back into her seat.
Mrs. Lorrimer looked puzzled, and Molly opened her brown eyes very wide.
Just then there came an interruption, in the shape of two individuals who entered the drawing-room by separate doors. One of them was Jane Macalister, who carried a duster in her hand, and had a large smut on her forehead. The other was Antonia, whose hat had fallen off, and who trailed two enormous briars behind her.
The priestess of high art and the priestess of domestic economy, met almost in the centre of the room.
"Good gracious me," exclaimed Jane Macalister, "who in the world are you, my dear, and what, in the name of all that's orderly, are you bringing those abominable briars into the house for?"
"Abominable?" exclaimed Antonia; "these briars abominable? Oh, what crass ignorance one comes across in this benighted land. My name is Antonia Bernard Temple, and I am an art student. I claim nothing higher. I shall be an art student as long as I breathe."
"And my name is Jane Macalister," replied poor Jane, her whole face growing scarlet with vexation, "and I claim nothing higher than the love of order and decent neatness. Give me those briars, child, and don't lumber the room with such messes."
Before Antonia could utter a word of remonstrance, Jane had whipped her duster round the briars and had rushed out of the room with them.
For a moment Antonia felt inclined to pursue her; but as she was preparing to move, her large gaze was attracted by a couple of huge Chinese dragons which were reposing under one of the tables.
"Oh, you loves! you darlings! you adorables!" she shrieked. "Here, indeed, is a prize."
She made a rush to the objects of her worship, and kneeling down on the floor opposite to them, whipped out her sketching materials preparatory to work.
"Tony, you must at least allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Lorrimer before you begin to sketch," said Susy, who had perfectly recovered her own equanimity in the amusement which Antonia's conduct afforded her.
"Yes, yes, anything," muttered Antonia "Oh, these dragons are a prize; they are a prize. Yes, Susy, what is it you want?"
"Get up," said Susy, "and come and be introduced."
She pulled Antonia by her sleeve, who rose in a sort of dream and approached Mrs. Lorrimer, looking like a person in a trance.
"This is my friend, Antonia Bernard Temple," exclaimed Susy, addressing Mrs. Lorrimer.
"I am glad to see you, my dear," said Mrs. Lorrimer in her sweet voice; "and I am pleased to find that you appreciate the old china."
"The dragons? Superb; Ruskinesque," exclaimed Antonia. "You don't mind if I go back to them? I must seize the opportunity of transferring them to my note book. Oh, what a heavenly room this is! Old, disorderly, worn, dim with the hue of ages. An artist might grovel in this room—grovel with delight!"
"Well, go back and grovel over the dragons," exclaimed Susy, giving her friend a playful poke.
Antonia hurried to obey. Her work instantly absorbed her; she saw nothing else.
"Isn't she killing?" exclaimed Susy, addressing poor surprised Mrs. Lorrimer. "She's to be a sort of sister to Hester in the future; she's to live at the Grange. She's the daughter of Sir John Thornton's fiancee. Don't you love the word fiancee? I do. Did you know that at school we called Hetty Prunes and Prism? Fancy Prunes and Prism and the Priestess together. Its almost too killing."
Mrs. Lorrimer, gentle as she was, was also the soul of quiet dignity. She made no reply whatever to Susy's outburst with regard to Antonia, but gently led the conversation to matters of every-day interest.
"This is our largest drawing-room," she said, "but we have two others leading into it. The farthest drawing-room takes you into the dining-room, and that again into the library and morning-room. All our reception-rooms open one into the other. You will notice that they are built round the central hall, which is almost octagon in shape. I am sure you would like to see the house, and I do not at all object to showing it to you. Ah! here comes Jane Macalister. I'm sure she will have great pleasure in taking you round. Jane, dear, come here."
Jane came up at once. She still wore her smut, but the duster was gone.
"Jane, let me introduce you to Miss Drummond. Her father is the new owner of the Towers; Miss Drummond would like to see over the house, if it would not trouble you too much to show her round."
"Trouble me," exclaimed Jane; "that doesn't trouble me. Come, child, this way. I'll go in front and you can follow. This is the smaller drawing-room. It was here that Charles the Second passed a night in the year of grace—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake," exclaimed Susy, stopping her ears, "don't go into dates; the whole thing is confusing enough without dates."
Jane favoured her with a quick, contemptuous glance.
"I shan't dream of instructing you if you don't wish it, my dear," she said. "Those who like ignorance, in ignorance they shall remain, as far as Jane Macalister is concerned. Well, then, here's a room with three windows and four walls and a ceiling and a floor. The furniture won't belong to you, so you needn't look at it. Now come on. This room we also use as a drawing-room, but you needn't unless you like."
"Do stop, pray!" exclaimed Susy. "I can't rush through the place like this. You are not a Lorrimer, are you?"
"No, I'm a Macalister, of the clan of——"
"Oh, please, I don't want to hear about the clan. What I wanted to say was this, that I have got the tapes and measures in my pocket; Hester tells me I mustn't use them on account of paining the Lorrimers, but as you are not one, of course you won't mind. I see you have got carpets on all the floors."
"Yes, why not? Carpets are put on most floors—at least they used to be when I was young."
"But Antonia says that we ought to have parquetry and slippery rugs."
"And do you mean to tell me," exclaimed Jane, "that you are going to heed the words of that poor daft lassie? It's nothing to me what you do, of course, but that poor girl has not got her proper wits, and if I were you I would try to follow someone with a grain of sense."
Susy laughed heartily.
"Antonia is as right as anyone else," she said "only she has a passion for art."
"Preserve me from such a craze," exclaimed Jane. "How much longer are we to stand in the middle of this floor while we talk about tapes and measurements and that silly girl?"
"But may I measure?"
"You may do anything you please, provided you don't injure the furniture."
"And it won't hurt your feelings?"
"No, you couldn't touch 'em. I'll sit here and wait till you have done."
Jane flung herself on a hard chair as she spoke, and drawing a long stocking out of her pocket, began to knit furiously.
Susy, who had about as much idea of measuring a room as she had of turning the heel of a stocking took her tapes out of her pocket and began an impossible task.
Jane watched her in silence for a moment or two, but Susy's futile attempts were too much for this deft, managing creature.
"Why don't you foot it?" she exclaimed. "My word, I never saw such a way to set to work. Here, you want the length of the room. I'll do it for you. Take your pencil and paper and jot down what I say. You haven't got any? That's a nice way of doing business. Well, then, I hope you have a good memory. I always measure a yard as I walk. Now, then, you count. Here I begin—one, two, three—are you counting?"
"No," said Susy; "I'm greatly obliged, but you confuse me awfully. I won't do any more measuring to-day; I shouldn't sleep for a week if I had to keep all that in my head. Some men must come down from Liberty's or Morris's. Antonia prefers Morris, she says he's the most chic."
"I don't know what you mean by chick," said Jane Macalister, "unless you allude in some mysterious way to the fowls; but I am glad you've got sense enough not to undertake what Providence has given you no aptitude for. Now, do you or do you not want to see the rest of the house? To a person like you, it's just like any other house, only nothing like so modern and nothing like so comfortable. There's a ghost in the tower——"
"A ghost," shrieked Susy; "I tremble at ghosts, I'm in terror at them; I won't go near the tower."
"I don't want to drag you there against your will. It's my private opinion that the ghost is made up of rats, but be that as it may, there's an awful scrimmage in the old tower at night. Now, then, will you see it, or will you not?"
"I think I won't," said Susy. "The Towers seems to be, from what you say, much like any other place. I hope my father has not been induced to pay too much for it."
"Hoots! he has got a place that mere money couldn't purchase unless the Lorrimers had come to grief. Don't you talk of what you know nothing about, child. The Towers is the Towers, sacred with memory and beautiful——; do you know why the Towers is beautiful, Miss Susy Drummond?"
"No, I'm sure I don't," said Susy, staring in astonishment at Jane, who had stalked up to her now and was staring her full in the face.
"Well, then, perhaps I'd better tell you, if it is for the last time. The Towers is beautiful because for hundreds of years brave men have been born here and gentle noble women have lived here, and their influence has got somehow into the walls and into the furniture, and it pervades the rooms inside and out. It's bad to go against that kind of spirit and you and your father had better be careful when you come here, or you may rake up ghosts that you won't much care about. Now, if you'll have the goodness to go back to the others—you'll find them in the front drawing room. I'll return to my duties, which at the present moment consist of shelling peas and chucking raspberries. That's your way, Miss Susan Drummond, through that door, and if you're wise you'll remember my words."
When Susan returned to the drawing room she saw no one there but Antonia, who, squatting on the floor, was absorbed heart and soul in copying her Chinese dragons. Susy was not in a humour to talk to Antonia, she therefore proceeded to go further afield. She was anxious to find Hester and Annie. The Towers, with its old-fashioned rooms and old-world furniture, had much disappointed her. It needs the sort of education which nothing could ever give to Susy Drummond, to appreciate a place like the Towers. Hester and Jane Macalister had also between them contrived to depress her, and it was a subdued and rather crestfallen Susy who now crossed the magnificent octagon hall in pursuit of the rest of her party.
Antonia meanwhile worked at her dragons with a will. If Susy were out of her element, Antonia was absolutely steeped in hers. The faded furniture, the subdued light, the rich colour of the magnificent china filled her really artistic nature with a sense of rejoicing. Behind all her affectations, Antonia had a soul. It had never been awakened yet. All her life hitherto poor Antonia had spent her time with the most empty-headed and frivolous people. Only art seemed great and glorious and satisfying. She loved it sincerely, and for itself alone; she had no ambitions with regard to it, ambition was not a part of her queer nature; she would all her life be a humble votary at a lofty shrine. She did not imagine that there could be anything greater than art in the whole world. As yet her soul had not been really aroused, but the time of awakening was near.
Having made a rough, and, in truth, a very distorted sketch of the dragons, she gathered up her colours and portfolio, and prepared to search farther afield for objects on which to expend her genius. She followed Susy into the octagon hall, but, seeing the wide front doors open, went out, and, crossing a by no means well-kept field, entered the paddock, where the colts, Joe and Robin, had disported themselves before their sale. The paddock was skirted by a copse of small fir-trees, and Antonia sniffed the air as she walked towards it. Antonia was in a rusty black dress, with very little material in the skirt, and an extremely long train, which she never held up. She had just got to the edge of the copse of young trees, and was preparing to make a sketch of their straight trunks with the delicate sunlight shining across them, when a strange noise attracted her attention. She dropped her colour box, uttered one of her affected little shrieks, and then dropped on her knees beside a child who was lying face downwards on the grass. The child's dark hair completely covered her face, but the sobs which shook her slender little frame were too violent to be inaudible. Whatever ailed the child, she was prostrated by such a tempest of grief that Antonia forgot high art in an honest wish to comfort human misery.
"Who are you?" she asked. "Can I do anything for you? What can be the matter with you? Have you lost your colour box?"
Antonia could understand grief at such a loss, hence her inquiry.
Nell turned a little when she was spoken to; dabbed her pocket-handkerchief into each eye, and then looked up at Antonia.
"I wish you'd go away," she said. "I don't want you. I have come away here to hide. I wish, I wish you'd go away!"
"I don't wish to trouble you in any way," replied Antonia, "but I can't go away, for I've come here to sketch. Your sobs don't disturb me now that I know there's nothing very serious the matter, so perhaps my presence won't disturb you. I'll sit here and not take the least notice of you. I must imprison that sunshine before it goes. You can sob away, I won't listen."
But to be told that you can sob as long as you like has generally the effect of stopping tears, and Nell, astonished at Antonia's appearance and words, presently sat up on the grass, and, flinging back her heavy mane of hair, watched the priestess of art with great interest. How could Antonia imprison a sunbeam? It sounded interesting! Nell blinked her eyes and looked at her solemnly.
"Well, child," said Antonia, pausing in her work, and giving her one of her slow glances, "I'm glad you're better; I never heard such distressing sobs. It's a great pity for you to cry so much, for you disfigure yourself; but I wish now that you are here you'd sit still, for I'd like to sketch you with that woebegone look. I never saw such a perfect ideal of true artistic beauty before."
"Beauty?" said Nell, with a little laugh. "But I'm called 'the ugly duckling'!"
"Charming!" exclaimed Antonia. "I'll immortalise this 'ugly duckling.' She shall be the foreground for these pine trees, and the imprisoned sunbeams can light her up from behind."
Notwithstanding her sorrow, Nell found it intensely interesting to be made the foreground of a picture. She wondered how the imprisoned sunbeams would like their office of always shining round her head. Nell was by no means vain. She honestly believed herself to be a hideous little girl, but it was refreshing once, as a change, to be spoken of as a true artistic beauty. She thought that she would learn the phrase, and repeat it over when she looked at herself in the glass, or when Kitty and Harry became more than usually aggravating about her personal appearance.
Meanwhile, the artist dashed in her colours with fiery speed. Nell sat perfectly still, and gazed straight at Antonia. Suddenly a flood of colour spread itself all over her face. Was Antonia the new owner of the Towers? If so, she was the cause of poor Nell's heart-broken sobs.
The younger members of the Lorrimer household had solemnly vowed an undying feud against the new owner of the Towers. They had established this feud with the solemnity of a sacred rite. They had made a bonfire and stood round it in a circle and joined hands, and declared the following awful formula:—
"Neither I, nor my children, nor my grandchildren, nor any of my descendants, will ever speak a friendly word to the new owner of my ancestral home. I wish the ghost of my ancestor, Hugh Lorrimer, who died in the Wars of the Roses, to haunt the new owner and his family; and I solemnly declare that I never will have part or lot with him or his."
This jargon had been made up by Harry, but each member of the feud, as they termed themselves, had solemnly repeated it, even down to little two-year-old Philip.
Suppose this wonderful, queer lady, who was making a sketch of Nell, was the new owner. In that case, it was Nell's duty to leave her at once.
"I want to ask you a question," said Nell.
"Yes—don't stir, please—ask me anything you like."
"Are you the new owner of my home?"
"I the new owner?" exclaimed Antonia. "Heavens! no! I own nothing except this"—she clasped her colour-box and looked up with a face of ecstacy. "I only want this," she said, "and this," she continued, waving her hand with an impressive sweep which was meant to include both earth and sky.
She claimed a good deal, Nell thought; but, after all, that did not matter, as she had nothing to do with the feud.
"I'm glad you are not the owner," said Nell, "for, if you were, I should have been obliged to leave you."
"I and the others have sworn it solemnly round a bonfire."
The words were so unusual that Antonia was greatly amused.
"You don't like to leave the Towers, then?" she said.
"Like it?" replied Nell. "Would you, if you had lived here ever since the tenth century?"
"Mercy, child! how venerable I'd be!" exclaimed Antonia. She smiled in quite a tragic way—it was quite a new thing to see a smile on Antonia's face.
Nell looked at her very gravely. Her own sweet grey eyes grew full of tears.
"It will kill father," she said suddenly, in a smothered voice.
She swayed herself backwards and forwards as she spoke, in an ecstasy of pain. Strange to say, she seemed to understand Antonia, and, still stranger, Antonia understood her.
The priestess of art dropped her palette.
"Tell me about your father," she said, quickly; "tell me about yourself. You and your people have lived here for years—centuries—and it breaks your hearts to go? It's wonderfully artistic—it savours of mediaeval romance. And you go for a creature like Susan Drummond—shallow as a plate—no soul anywhere about her? She gets your rooms replete with memories, and your dear briary avenues and your fir trees, and this uncultured waste?"
"It's a paddock," interrupted Nell, who could not quite follow Antonia's imagery.
"It's a waste," said Miss Bernard Temple, with fire. "The Towers is untrammelled by man's vulgar restraint. Child, I do not even know your name, but I think I understand your grief."
"You cannot," said Nell, with gentle dignity—"you are not a Lorrimer. But I'm glad I didn't vow to hate you round the bonfire. Now I'm afraid I must go."
"One minute first," said Antonia. "Did you say that leaving this place would kill your father?"
"I'm afraid it will," said Nell. "He won't come home—mother can't get him to come back. He came the night he had sold the Towers, and Boris and I saw him; but I don't think he'll ever come back again. I think his heart is broken. But I cannot speak of it any longer, please—it hurts me so dreadfully here."
Nell had risen from the grass—she stood tall and thin and pale by Antonia's side. When she uttered the last words, she pressed her hand against her heart.
"Good-bye," she said solemnly. "Jane Macalister said I was to be in at twelve o'clock to help her with some darning. Good-bye."
Antonia held out one of her very long, very bony hands. She slipped it round Nell's waist, and drawing her close, kissed her gently between her eyebrows, then she let her go.
Nell left the paddock; but Antonia did not attempt to finish her interrupted sketch. She sat on, lost in a world of musing. At last she uttered some emphatic words aloud.
"I'm not much use," she said to herself; "nobody cares about me, and I care for no one. I love art with a divine passion; but art does not need such a poor, feeble disciple. Art can still exist and be glorious without Antonia. I am ugly I know, and I have no genius; but I have got one power—I can get my own way. All my life long, through a queer kind of persistence which is in me, I have got my way. I do not get it because people love me, for I don't honestly think a soul in the wide world loves me, but I get it because—because of something which I don't myself understand. It's a power I've got; it's my one gift. Did mother want me to study art in Paris? No; still I went. Did mother wish me to become grotesque, and to wear a dress like this? No; still I wear it. Did mother intend me to come with her on Saturday to the Grange? No, a thousand times no; still I came. I can twist mother round this finger. She appeals to me; I counsel her; she asks my advice; she is obliged to take it whether she likes or not. Mother is completely under my thumb. So it was with the professor who taught me; so it was with the students who worked with me; so it will be in the future with Hester, if I still wish it; and with Sir John Thornton, if I ordain it. They think very little of Antonia now; but wait until they feel my power; wait until I choose to direct them, and—hey, presto—they walk in my paths, not their own. Now I have made up my mind on one point. I have not the faintest idea how it is to be managed; but managed it shall be. Susan Drummond and her father are not to desecrate the Towers with their commonplaceness, their shallowness, and vulgarity. The Lorrimers are still to live here; and Nell's heart is not to be broken. For the sake of the ugly duckling I do this. How, I know not; but I turn all the power that is in me in that one direction from this hour forward.
"Poor, ugly duckling with the pathetic eyes. I do believe Antonia loves you."
TRUTH AND FIDELITY.
Hester and her party returned to the Grange in time for lunch. All the way back Antonia was silent. They drove home by another road; they passed a bog of extreme desolation, and some larger and wilder briars than ever; they skirted a melancholy common, but Antonia never made an observation; her whole gaze was turned inward; she was looking so intently at the picture of a sorrowful child, that she was blind to everything else. Susy was decidedly in a bad temper; Hester's brave heart was full of aches, doubts, and fears; and Annie was again going back to that unsolved problem of how she was to get back the ring for Mrs. Willis.
The return party was, therefore, a dull one; although no one noticed the other's dulness, each being so occupied with her own thoughts.
Mrs. Willis was to leave the Grange immediately after lunch, and Hester and Annie were to accompany her to Nortonbury in the landau.
Just as the carriage drove up to the house, Mrs. Willis remembered the ring and spoke to Annie.
"My dear," she said with a smile, "I am leaving the house without my ring. It is too late now to send it to Paris to be copied; but as I see you never wear it, I may as well take it back with me to Lavender House. You know, my love, how much I value that ring. I feel quite lonely without it."
Annie's pretty face turned pink.
"But I should like to wear it before I go back to school," she said, "and you promised that I might have it during the holidays."
"So I did; well, I will say nothing more. Be sure you take good care of it and give it back to me on the day of your return to Lavender House."
Annie promised with a light heart. The holidays were to last for another week, and what might not happen in a week? She laughed quite gaily, and springing lightly into the carriage, seated herself by Hester's side. As she did so, her eyes encountered the grave dark ones of Antonia fixed fully upon her. There was a curious expression round Antonia's mouth which puzzled Annie and gave her a momentary sense of discomfort.
The drive, however, through the pleasant summer air revived her spirits, and on the way home she had so much to talk over with Hester that she naturally forgot the ring and her anxieties with regard to it.
When the girls returned to the Grange they found the whole party out of doors enjoying afternoon tea on one of the lawns. Susy was swinging backwards and forwards in a large American chair. Nora was lying on a low couch slowly fanning herself. Mrs. Bernard Temple, looking very handsome and stately, was pouring out tea for the rest of the party and looking down at Sir John, who was lounging on the grass. Antonia was sitting with her back straight up against an oak tree, her eyes were half shut, and a very full cup of tea was on her lap—the tea was in extreme danger of being spilt, but Antonia cared nothing for any of these things.
As soon as ever Annie and Hester appeared in view Miss Bernard Temple sprang suddenly to her feet. Of course the cup of tea came to instant grief. Sir John uttered an exclamation of decided annoyance; Nora exclaimed, "Oh, Miss Bernard Temple, what a mess you have made of your dress!" and Susy roused herself sufficiently to shake a playful finger at Antonia.
"Oh, Tony, Tony, how killing you are," she said; Mrs. Bernard Temple looked aggrieved but said nothing, she knew Antonia too well.
"How am I killing?" exclaimed Antonia; "this will shake off: that is the good of a shabby black dress—it stands anything. Miss Forest, I particularly want to speak to you; I am glad you have come home."
She went straight up to Annie and tucked one bony hand through her arm. "Come," she said, "let us retire somewhere—I am anxious to talk to you."
"But I want my tea first," said Annie. "I am really very thirsty."
"How material," exclaimed Antonia; "well, I'll wait—be quick."
She marched a step or two away, and leant against the wide trunk of the oak tree.
Annie felt provoked. Antonia's queer glance returned uncomfortably to her memory.
She took her tea, therefore, in greater haste than usual and then, going up to Miss Bernard Temple, told her she was ready to listen to anything she had to say.
"Come, then," said Antonia; "we must have solitude. Where is the most solitary spot?"
"We can walk up this rise," said Annie—"here, where the path is. There is a summer-house at the top of this hill, where we can sit. But I cannot imagine what you have to say to me."
"It's simple enough," said Antonia; "I wish just to inform you that I know something."
"I expect you do," said Annie, with a light laugh; "several things, most probably."
"Something about you," pursued Antonia, in a firm, hard voice.
"Indeed? How interesting!" Annie's tone was not quite so comfortable now.
"I'll tell you what it is," continued Antonia, standing still, facing round and turning her melancholy gaze full on Annie: "you have not got the ring."
"What ring? What do you mean?"
"The ring Mrs. Willis asked you to return to her. You did not return it, because you had not got it You would have returned it if you had it—you are not the girl to care enough about rings just to keep it for the sake of wearing it. I know what has happened—you have sold or pawned the ring."
"How can you know?" exclaimed Annie, in a voice almost of fear; "how is it possible for you to tell? You don't know anything whatever about me—how can you tell?"
"Intuition," replied Antonia, in a light voice. "I can see farther than most people when I choose to see. Intuition and experience. Do you imagine that I, in my chequered career, have never had to part with a jewel. Once, when in Paris, I sold my hair. I had no money to buy canvas and colours, so I went to a barber, and he cut it quite short and gave me a napoleon for it. Ah! that nap, that darling nap, how I loved it!"
"You are a very queer girl," said Annie.
"That's neither here nor there," replied Antonia. "I didn't take you away from the others to speak of myself. I have watched you since I came here, and I can see that you are a very bright, clever girl; also, that you are pretty, according to modern ideas. You are not true art, by any means; but what of that? I know that you are in trouble about that ring, so you may as well confide in me."
"But will you tell?" asked Annie.
"Tell!" said Antonia, with scorn. "I don't ask for confidences to repeat them again—that is not Antonia Bernard Temple. Art is my mistress—art exacts both truth and fidelity from her disciples. You need not fear that I will tell."
"You are a queer girl," replied Annie. "I'm sure you will not tell. Yes, I am in trouble about the ring, and I don't mind confiding the trouble to you."
"Sit down here, then, on the bank," said Antonia, flinging herself on the grass as she spoke, "and state the case as briefly as possible. Where and when did you pawn the ring?"
"Oh, I didn't pawn it—it wasn't done by me; and, as things have turned out, it wasn't really pawned at all. This is the story."
Annie told it in a few forcible words; Antonia listened attentively, taking in all the facts.
"And thirty-two shillings would get you out of this scrape?" she said, in conclusion, looking fixedly at Annie.
"Oh, yes, indeed. If I had thirty-two shillings, I would pay Mrs. Martin and get the ring back, and when I return to Lavender House I would tell everything to Mrs. Willis. I would tell her what I have done, and how badly I have acted. At present there is a cloud between us; and she is my best, my kindest, my most valued friend. What I cannot bear to do—what I cannot stand—is to have to tell her that I pawned what was not my own, and at the same time not to be able to give her back the ring."
"I partly understand," said Antonia in a slow voice; "I partly grasp your meaning. The pawning of the jewel is to me a mere nothing. I have had chequered times when the tea-pot and even the coffee-pot have been sold for the sake of a quarter of a cake of cobalt or of rose-madder, but then the tea-pot and the coffee-pot and the hair which grew on my head were undoubtedly my own. I cannot understand your taking another's property, nor your being deceitful about it. The paths of deceit are shut doors to me, naturally, who am a disciple of the great and divine Art. I mention this as an incident, but whether I understand you or not scarcely affects the case. I am willing to help you if you will help me. I can manage to get you thirty-two shillings, perhaps not to-day and perhaps not to-morrow, but certainly before you return to your school."
"Oh, you are good!" exclaimed Annie, whose pretty cheeks were like peonies, for Antonia had managed to make her feel terribly small and contemptible.
"No, I am not good," replied Miss Bernard Temple, "and I am not doing this in any sense for you. I do it because I wish to be in your confidence, as I think you can be a useful ally. I have a delicate mission before me, and I see that you may be very useful."
"A mission?" said Annie, looking up in surprise.
"Yes; there is a great deal at stake, but I believe that, difficult as the undertaking is, I may be permitted to succeed. I want to wrest the Towers from the hand of the Philistines."
"What do you mean?" exclaimed Annie.
"In other words," continued Miss Bernard Temple, "I want to keep the Lorrimers in the home of their ancestors and to make those shallow Drummonds stay in their own place."
"I suppose we all want that," said Annie; "but how can you possibly do it? You have no power."
"So you think, but you are mistaken; I have a great deal of power. Now, will you help me?"
"To do this? Yes. With all my heart and soul."
"That is good. I don't wish to say anything to Hester Thornton nor to Nora Lorrimer, nor to any of the Lorrimers, nor least of all to Susan Drummond. I think I can manage Susy, for I am up to some of her pretty little vagaries. I can also manage mother, and mother has a good deal of influence in a certain quarter just now. You are a sort of outsider, and yet you are very friendly with everybody, so you can render me very important help; but, of course, you clearly understand that fidelity is my motto, and you know also that your mission will be one of extreme delicacy."
"I have plenty of tact," said Annie. "I most faithfully promise to reveal nothing, and I will do everything in my power for you. I begin to believe in you. I think you are a wonderful girl."
"Don't say that," said Antonia, with solemn impressiveness; "if there is one thing more than another that gives me intense pain, it is praise. I am but the meanest disciple of great Art. I am doing this in the cause of Art. Now, I am not going to tell you what my plan of campaign is, at least, not to-day, but I want you to make certain inquiries for me. I want you to try and discover all you can from Hester with regard to her father's wealth, and all you can from Molly with regard to the Lorrimers' difficulties; and you are somehow or other to get the address in London where Squire Lorrimer is now staying. Have all this information ready for me by to-morrow morning. Now you can return to the others; I am going back to the house."
A WET SPONGE.
Antonia walked slowly in the direction of the house, trailing her long skirt behind her. She entered by a side door, and went straight up to her own room. The bedroom set apart for Miss Bernard Temple opened into the large and stately bedroom occupied by the future mistress of the Grange. Both rooms were dainty and fresh in the extreme. Mrs. Bernard Temple's maid was now sitting in Antonia's room mending a long rent in that young lady's brown Liberty velveteen evening dress.
"You have made an awfully jagged rent, Miss Antonia," said the girl.
"Have I?" said Antonia; "why mend it, then? I never expect to have my clothes mended. Of course, if you are good enough to occupy your time over me, Pinkerton, I am much obliged to you, but I don't expect your services, so clearly understand the position."
"Lor'!" answered Pinkerton, who had a round, country face and a somewhat brusque manner, "what a show you'd be, Miss Antonia, if someone didn't make you and mend you."
Antonia went over to the open window, and, flopping herself down on her knees, leant her two elbows on the window-sill and looked out.
"I wish you'd let me know if Miss Drummond is having forty winks in her room," she said suddenly. "She generally does go to her own room about this hour, does she not?"
"I believe so, miss. I'll inquire if she's there now."
Pinkerton soon returned with the information that Miss Drummond's door was locked, that she could not see her maid anywhere, but that she heard sounds proceeding from within the room which led her to infer that the forty winks were being enjoyed.
"But there's no use in your going to her, Miss Antonia," said Pinkerton, "for she won't hear you however hard you knock."
"I'll see about that," said Antonia. "Do you happen to know, Pinkerton, if Miss Drummond's window is open?"
"Sure to be, miss; every window in the house is kept open during this sultry weather."
"There's no time to be lost," murmured Antonia; "I must scale the wall."
She left her own bedroom in a hurry, and ran downstairs.
"Nan," she shouted, catching sight of Nan's white frock in the distance, "come here."
Nan ran up to her rather unwillingly. Antonia was detestable in her eyes as belonging to the dreadful new stepmother.
"Why do you frown at me like that, child?" said Antonia; "it isn't pretty."
"Tell-tale tit," answered Nan rudely; "you'll be making up stories of me in the future, won't you?"
"I?" said Antonia, with a careless rise of her brows. "No; I shan't have time. Now, can you tell me if there's a ladder about?"
"No, I can't," answered Nan.
"Are there no ladders to be found in this benighted and over-cultivated region?"
"Plenty; but I can't tell you where they are."
Antonia knitted her brows. Nan gazed at her curiously. It was really interesting to have something to do with a person who wanted a ladder. What was she going to do with it?
"I must climb without," said Antonia. "I wonder are there creepers."
"What do you want with it?" said Nan in quite a friendly tone.
"I want to get into Susan Drummond's room by her window."
"Oh, dear, what fun!" Nan's eyes danced.
"She is sound asleep," pursued Antonia, "and I propose to use the wet sponge with effect."
"They did that at school," replied Nan. "How lovely! Oh, how perfectly lovely! I'm sure I can help you to find a ladder. Come round with me to the farmyard."
Nan held out her hand, which Antonia grasped. They rushed across the lawn helter-skelter, and in an incredibly short space of time a ladder was leaning up against Susy's window. Nan held it from below while Antonia climbed. The next moment she had entered the room.
"Thank you heartily, Nan," she called to the little girl.
She made a good deal of noise, but Susy, lying on her back in the centre of the big bed, was impervious to sound. Antonia filled the sponge with cold water, and, standing at the foot of the bed, dashed it at Susy. The first application only made the sleeper groan and snore heavily, but at the second she opened her eyes, and at the third she sat up.
"Now, what is the matter?" she exclaimed. "Am I back at that detestable school with the she-dragon once more? Oh, Antonia, what in the world are you doing here?"
"Sponging you," said Antonia. "I have something to say, so wake up."
"Wake up?" replied Susy. "I should think I am awake. Who could stand such barbarous treatment? I was so comfortable, and I had locked the door to make all things perfectly safe. How in the world did you get into the room?"
"By a ladder, through the open window. Now pray don't waste any more time over trivial details. I have come here to have a serious talk with you."
"Why serious, Tony? You know how I hate grave subjects."
"I have come to have a quiet talk with you about the Towers; you can sit there, just where you are. Don't dry your hair, or you'll get sleepy again. I'll keep a basin of cold water near me and sponge you whenever you wink an eyelid. Now then, what do you think of the Towers?"
"I have scarcely seen it yet."
"You must have a first impression; what is it?"
"Really, Tony, you needn't have awakened me and gone to the trouble of a ladder, and an open window, and a sponge, for the sake of hearing my first impressions."
"That's neither here nor there," answered Antonia. "What do you think of the Towers?"
"Oh, it's well enough; it seems to be a very old place."
"Didn't it strike you that the rooms were musty?"
"Well, yes; now that you mention it, I thought they were decidedly musty."
"It will be impossible," said Antonia, "for you to turn the Towers into a proper Moresque or Libertyesque house."
"I thought you liked the place; you seemed so delighted with the briars."
"The briars are well enough, and so is the china; it's the rooms I complain of; they never can be reduced to high art—your sort of high art, I mean, Susy. But now, tell me, did you do much measuring?"
"No, I didn't; a dreadful woman came with me; she quite frightened me, and spoke a lot about the Lorrimers, and a ghost in the tower."
"Well, of course there'd be a ghost in the tower," continued Antonia; "an old place like that couldn't exist without its ghost."
"I don't believe a bit in ghosts," said Susy. "No sensible people believe in them; there are no such things. You know that, of course, Antonia."
Susy looked uncomfortable while she spoke, and Antonia knew well that she was an arrant coward.
"You don't believe in ghosts either," continued Susy; "do you now, Tony?"
"Oh, but I do," answered Antonia; "I believe in them profoundly. I have Shakespeare for my authority on the subject."
"And you really think that—that the Towers is haunted?"
"No doubt whatever on the subject. If you don't want to be convinced against your will, you must choose a bedroom in the most modern part of the house, and avoid the old tower, with its funny, quaint little rooms. Frankly, I am disappointed in the Towers as a place for you—the rooms are not your sort—you want great, lofty, bright, modern rooms. I don't like that musty smell either; it points to damp somewhere. Then, it is scarcely likely that the water supply is perfect; those old wells are full of danger, and you once had typhoid, don't you remember? Your father will have to spend a lot on the place before he makes it anything like what your sort of high art requires; and when all is said and done, you'd be lonely there. You know I'm perfectly frank; you know that well, don't you?"
"Yes, Tony," answered poor Susy in a most melancholy voice. "Oh, please don't throw any more sponges at me; I am quite shivering, and your words make me feel so melancholy. But why should I be lonely at the Towers; there are plenty of neighbours all around?"
"That is true, but I don't believe you'll care for them, nor they for you: they are the Lorrimer sort, and the Miss Macalister sort, and the Hester Thornton sort. You know you don't care for those sorts of people, do you?"
"I'm sure I don't. I hate them. I wish father hadn't bought the Towers without consulting me."
"Can't he back out of it?"
"Back out of his bargain? What do you mean?"
"I mean what I say; can't he get out of it? The Towers isn't a bit the sort of place for you; it isn't even healthy for a girl like you. There's a ghost there, and ground damp, and bad water, and the neighbours aren't sociable, and you'll be moped to death."
"How perfectly miserable you make me, Tony, but I won't be quite friendless, for you'll be here most of the time now, won't you?"
"Not I; I am going back to my atelier in Paris. Do you think I'd live in a poky corner of the world like this?"
"What shall I do?" echoed Susy. "I think you're very unkind to make me so wretched and to depress me in the way you are doing. The Towers is bought now, and we must make the best of it."
"I only hope you won't suffer the consequences of this piece of folly," retorted Antonia with spirit. "The Towers is not the place for you, and you ought to persuade your father to get out of that bargain. Let him take a nice cheerful villa at Richmond; that's where you ought to live."
"I wish he would," said Susy; "but it's a great deal too late, a great deal too late to draw back now. Besides, we did so want to be county people."
"You'll never be county people, whatever that jargon means—that is, you'll never be like the Lorrimers and the Thorntons. You don't want to be, do you?"
"Good gracious, no; they are a depressing set."
"Then that's what county people are, so why should you kill yourself to be one of them? Aren't you going to write to your father to tell him what you think of the Towers?"
"I would if I were you. You might suggest——"
"Yes; do you think it would be any use?"
"There is no saying—it's your own affair. If you choose to die of ennui, don't tell me that I haven't warned you. Now I see you are wide awake, so you may dry your hair and get up."
"Oh, dear, oh, dear," sighed Susy after Antonia had swung herself out of the room, "I'm chilled to the bone and every scrap of spirit taken out of me. I hate that awful Towers—why did father buy it?"
One of Antonia's great ideas was on all occasions to strike while the iron is hot. It was her plan to leap over obstacles or to push them vigorously aside. She had no respect for people's corns. Their preconceived prejudices were nothing to her. Having succeeded in disturbing Susy, she now went straight to her mother's room. Mrs. Bernard Temple was seated in an easy chair by the open window, enjoying a quiet ten minutes for thought and rest before It was time for her to dress for dinner. Pinkerton was moving about putting the different accessories for her mistress's toilet in order. Antonia pushed her almost rudely aside as she swept across the room.
"Go away, Pinkerton," she said, "I want to speak to mother by herself."
"Oh, really, not at present, Antonia," said Mrs. Bernard Temple, with a look of alarm spreading over her high-class features. "I have gone through a great deal to-day and am quite tired, and I shall have to begin to dress for dinner in a few minutes. Sir John is very particular about my appearance, and I wish Pinkerton to try the effect of arranging my hair in a new manner. I thought, Pinkerton, that you might pile it up high on a sort of cushion—it has a very old-picture effect."
"You ought to wear a cap," said Antonia, standing in front of her parent; "it would be much more suitable and appropriate, and would save you a lot of trouble."
"A cap!" almost screamed Mrs. Bernard Temple. "To hear you speak, Antonia, one would think that I was advanced in years."
"As it's only I who think that, it doesn't matter, mother," said Antonia. "You shall wear your hair any way you please, only I really must have a little talk with you first. The sooner I begin my talk the sooner it will be over, so please go away at once, Pinkerton."
Pinkerton knew Antonia too well to dream of disobeying her. She left the room, slamming the door behind her, and Mrs. Bernard Temple looked up at her resolute daughter with a frown between her brows.
"Now, out with it, whatever it is," she said. "You have got something at the back of your head, and you can say it in ten words as well as twenty. What do you want me to do?"
"You have great influence with Sir John Thornton, haven't you, mother?" asked Antonia, kneeling down as she spoke by the open window, and leaning one pointed elbow on the sill. Mrs. Bernard Temple permitted herself to smile agreeably.
"A man's fiancee has generally influence over him," she said in a sentimental voice.
"That's what I thought," said Antonia. "I'll never be anybody's fiancee—the mere thought would make me ill—but that's neither here nor there. Granted that you have influence over Sir John, I want you to use it in my way—now, do you understand?"
"Really, Antonia, really,"—Mrs. Bernard Temple looked quite alarmed—"Sir John cannot bear erratic people, he tells me so from morning to night. I am afraid you have managed to displease him very seriously, my dear. When you spilt your tea in the garden this evening, he acknowledged, when I pressed him on the subject, that it gave him quite a sense of nausea. You see, Antonia, how careful you ought to be. The comforts of the home I have provided for you may be jeopardised if you are too erratic. You know I did not wish you to come to the Grange until after my wedding. The fact is, Sir John is very much annoyed about you. He has spoken to me most seriously on the subject of your extraordinary manners, and has asked me why I permit you to do the things you do. When I tell him that I have not the smallest scrap of influence over you, he simply does not believe me; and then he has such an aggravating way of drawing comparisons between you and that icy-mannered girl, Hester."
"Oh, I'm not a patch upon Hester," said Antonia; "she is a very nice, well-bred, English young lady. I'm Bohemian of the Bohemians. I'm nobody—nobody at all. I extinguish myself at the shrine of great Art. I love to extinguish myself. I adore being a shadow."
"I think, Antonia, you are quite mad."
"Think it away, my dearest mother, only grant my request; influence Sir John in my way."
"Oh, you terrible, terrible child! Well, what do you want me to do?"
"Now you're becoming reasonable," said Antonia, "and I really won't keep you from your hair a moment longer than I can help. I went to the Towers this morning, mother; it's really a heavenly old place; quite steeped in the best sort of mediaeval art. In the house, old china and low ceilings; out of doors, nature untrammelled. Think of a place like the Towers in the possession of Susy Drummond and her father, the ex-coal-merchant. Mother, it is not to be."
"My dear Antonia, I can't listen to you another moment." Mrs. Bernard Temple rose as she spoke. "Pinkerton, come at once," she called.
Pinkerton turned the handle of the door.
"Go away, Pinkerton!" shouted Antonia. "Now, mother, sit down; there's oceans of time."
"Really, really, my dear! Oh, what a trial one's children sometimes are. The Drummonds have bought the Towers. The whole thing is an accomplished fact."
"It is not too late," pursued Antonia. "I have been giving a spice of my mind to Susy, and she hates and detests the place, and will do what she can to get her father to back out of his bargain. Well, the Lorrimers are almost dying at the thought of going. The ugly duckling told me the whole story to-day, and I never listened to anything more piteous; and Squire Lorrimer is hiding in London because of his poor feelings. In short, the moment for strong measures has arrived; and if you won't speak to Sir John, I will."
Mrs. Bernard Temple turned white.
"If you speak to him, Antonia," she said, "he will break off the match, and we shall be ruined—ruined."
"Very well, mother; you must have a conversation with him. One or other of us must have it, that is certain."
"Oh, you most terrible child! What am I to say to him?"
"Say this, and say it firmly. Say that you won't marry him unless he goes to see Squire Lorrimer, and makes an arrangement to lend him sufficient money to stay on at the Towers. The Drummonds will be delighted to get out of their bargain, and the Lorrimers will be saved. That's the plan of campaign. Either I undertake to see it through, mother, or you do. Now, which is it to be?"
"You must give me until to-morrow morning to think over your wild words. Really, my poor head is splitting."
Antonia went up and kissed her mother.
"You can come now, Pinkerton," she called out.
Hester was a good deal astonished that same day, when, just before dinner, Annie Forest came up to her with a request.
"I don't want to dine here to-night," she said. "I want to go to the Towers to have a good long talk with Molly."
"But, really, Annie," replied Hester, "is it necessary for you to go to-night? I did not know—I mean I did not think that—that you and Molly——"
"That we were special friends?" interrupted Annie. "Oh, yes, we are quite friendly enough for the little talk I mean to have. You'll spare me, won't you, Hetty, and if Molly offers me a bed, I'll sleep there and be back quite early in the morning."
"I can't refuse you, of course," said Hester, "but that won't prevent my missing you. It will be rather a dreadful dinner party, with only Mrs. Bernard Temple and Antonia and that dreadful, sleepy Susy. You are so full of tact and so bright, Annie, that you generally make matters go off fairly well. But to-night there won't be anyone to stem the current. Oh, dear, I do trust that Antonia won't talk too much high art."
As Hester spoke, she looked at her friend with an expression of great anxiety on her face. Under ordinary circumstances this look would have completely overmastered Annie, who would immediately have yielded up her own wishes to please Hester, but now she remained quite obdurate.
"I am sure you will manage very well," she said, in an almost hard voice for her. "You know, Hetty, you won't always have me, and you will have Mrs. Bernard Temple and Antonia."
"It is too dreadful," sighed Hester. "When my father thought of marrying again, why did he not think of someone more congenial?"
"I suppose Mrs. Bernard Temple is congenial to him," replied Annie, "and that he doubtless considers of the first importance. After all, Hetty, I'm sure she will let you have your own way in everything, and I don't really think that Antonia is half bad. If I were you I would try and make friends with her."
"It is not in my nature to make friends easily," replied Hester.
She was standing in her pretty bedroom as she spoke, and Annie was leaning by the open window, swinging her garden hat in her hand.
"Hester," she said, suddenly, "forgive me if I ask you rather a rude question. Is your father a very rich man?"
Hester looked surprised.
"I suppose so," she answered; "to tell the truth, I have never thought about it. Oh, yes, I conclude that he is quite well off."
"But I want him to be more than well off. Is he rich—very rich? so rich that he would not miss a lot of money if he had suddenly to—to lose it?"
"What a very queer question to ask me, Annie," replied Hester. "I am really afraid I cannot reply to it. I think my father must be rich, but I don't know if he is rich enough to be able to afford to lose a lot of money—I don't think anyone is rich enough for that."
"Oh, yes, some people are," answered Annie. "Well, good-bye, Hetty, keep up your heart. I'll be back early to-morrow morning."
"I must get that question of Sir John Thornton's wealth clearly answered somehow or other," thought Annie, "for there is no manner of use in Antonia stirring up a lot of mischief if there is no money to be found. I wonder if nursey could help me. I think I'll just have a word with her before I go to the Towers."
Mrs. Martin was alone when Annie entered the room.
"Well, my dear, and why ain't you at dinner?" asked the old woman. She was still fond of Annie, whom she invariably spoke of as "a winsome young body," but recent events had soured her considerably, and as she herself expressed it, the keenest pleasure now left to her in life was to "mope and mutter."
"Moping and muttering eases the mind," she said; "it's a wonderful relief not to have to sit up straight and smiling when you feel crooked and all of a frown."
Accordingly Mrs. Martin received Annie Forest with brief displeasure.
"I have no heart for dinner," said Annie, who took her cue at once from the old woman's face. "I know you are miserable, Nurse Martin, but you need not look at me so scornfully, for I am trying to mend matters."
"You," exclaimed nurse, "a child like you! Now, Miss Annie, I would try and talk sensibly, I would, really."
"Well, I'm going off to the Towers for the night," said Annie, "and if you weren't so cross I'd like to say good-bye and give you a kiss before I started."
"Eh, dear," replied nurse, her countenance visibly softening however; "kisses, however sweet they be, don't heal sore places."
"But you'll take one, won't you, nursey?"
"Eh, my bairn, you have a winsome way, but don't you come canoodling me now, when my heart is like to break about my own dear children; and the young ladies at the Towers, too, in such a muck of trouble."
"Dear nursey," exclaimed Annie; "dear, loving, faithful, true-hearted nursey."
She stroked the old woman's brow and rubbed her soft cheek against hers.
"Out with it now, my pet," said Nurse Martin. "What is it you want me to do? If it's the pawn-shop again—once for all, no, I won't."
"It isn't the pawn-shop," said Annie; "it's just to ask you a simple question. I asked Hester, but she couldn't tell me. Is Sir John Thornton a rich man?"
"Is he rich?" echoed nurse; "do you think she'd be after him if he wasn't?"
"I don't know. Is he rich, nursey?"
"Yes, he's rich," replied nurse.
"Very, very rich? Dear Nurse Martin, please say yes."
"He's rich," replied nurse in an emphatic voice. "He has got his gold and his lands, and not a debt anywhere, and small expenses compared to his means. Yes, he's rich. More shame to him for taking the money from Miss Hester and Miss Nan to provide a new wife and an outlandish stepdaughter."
"If he lost a lot of money, a great lot, would he be a beggar?" pursued Annie.
"Well, really, Miss Annie, it isn't for me to say; but I think it would be a very big sum that would beggar Sir John. What are you after, Miss? I don't understand you at all."
"I'm thinking of the outlandish stepdaughter," replied Annie.
"Oh, Miss Annie Forest, don't name her to me. She turns my heart sick. Its in an asylum she should be. The messes she carries about with her, and the dress she wears, and the whole look of her! It isn't fit for Miss Hester and Miss Nan to have anything to do with her."
"You don't know her yet," replied Annie. "She has beautiful thoughts and grand resolves."
"Preserve me from 'em," said nurse. "There, now, miss, if you re going, you'd better go. I don't want to hear anything more about that girl, for lady she ain't."
"Good-bye, nurse," said Annie. "I am glad you are certain that Sir John Thornton is rich."
"I'd be glad if I was as certain that Miss Hester and Miss Nan were going to be happy," replied the old woman.
Annie blew a kiss to her and ran away.
The task Antonia had set her was quite to her heart. If, in addition to helping the Lorrimers, she could by this means get out of her own scrape, why, so much the better. It was one of Annie's gifts to be able to discriminate character with great nicety; and while Antonia spoke to her, she acknowledged a sudden respect and even admiration for the power which this queer girl possessed.
It was almost night when Annie set off on her walk across the fields to the Towers. She could not help singing to herself as she skipped lightly over the ground. She felt somehow, she could scarcely tell why, as if a great load had been lifted off her mind. One part of Antonia's mission she had already accomplished. She had found out from a very trustworthy source that Sir John Thornton was really a rich man. The second half of her task, the discovery of the present address of Squire Lorrimer, would surely not be impossible of fulfilment.
The Lorrimer children were out as usual. Whenever was a Lorrimer within doors, when he or she could be out? When Annie approached they were dismally employed, for Harry had inaugurated weekly meetings of the feud during the remainder of their stay at the Towers; and the children were now dancing solemnly round the bonfire, and repeating the solemn dirge which was to work evil consequences to the new-comers. Harry was spokesman on the occasion. He repeated the words to a sort of chanting air, and all the others repeated them after him with immense unction and smacking of lips. Kitty said afterwards that the dirge made her feel nearly as bloodthirsty as a Red Indian, and Boris openly wished that he could live in a wigwam and wear scalps.