Annie's appearance on the scene diverted the whole party, and Boris eagerly asked her if she would like to become a member of the feud.
"I would immensely," replied Annie; "but it wouldn't be of any use, as I'm not a Lorrimer."
"I could marry you, and then you'd be one," said Boris, looking up at her with a great shining light in his eyes.
"So you could, you sweet," said Annie, bending down and kissing him, "and the day I marry you I faithfully promise to join the feud; but I must run off now to find Molly."
"She's somewhere in the tower packing books," screamed Kitty after her.
Accordingly Annie pursued her way round to that part of the house.
The tower was at least two hundred years older than the rest of the mansion, and, as Annie ran up the spiral stairs, she had to feel her way through thick darkness, for the Lorrimers never thought of spending money on illuminating the stairs and passages of this ancient building.
A dim light in the distance presently guided her steps, and she soon found herself standing, out of breath and a good deal blown, in the presence of Molly and Jane Macalister. They were both clothed from head to foot in long brown-holland aprons. Jane was vigorously dusting and brushing a heap of dilapidated books, which Molly was arranging in orderly piles on the floor. Jane looked up when she saw Annie and uttered a little scream.
"Now, what have you come about?" she said; "you see we are quite up to our eyes in work."
"Delightful," said Annie; "I'll help. Toss me an apron, Molly, do."
Off went Annie's hat, on went the brown-holland apron, and Jane found that she had secured a valuable assistant in the matter of dusting and brushing.
The work went on for two or three minutes in silence, then Molly said, "I hope there's nothing the matter with Nora, Annie? It seems so very late for you to come to pay us a visit."
"I have come here to stay for the night, if I may," replied Annie.
"Hoots! I don't know if that will be possible," interrupted Jane.
"Oh, I'll sleep anywhere; I'm not a bit particular. I want to talk to you, Molly; I've a great deal to say."
"There's no use in girls wasting their time with silly havering when work has to be done," snapped Jane. "I'm willing to grant that a heavy misfortune has come to this house, but come rain or sunshine the daily round must go on. Pass me that clean duster, Molly. These books have to be sorted and put in boxes before we either of us lie down to-night."
"But three pairs of hands make lighter work than two," rejoined Annie. "I'm willing to help; I mean to help; I am helping. Molly, pass me a duster, too. I'll talk to you, Molly, when the work is over."
"That's the time for sleep," said Jane.
"Oh, come, Jane, if Annie wants to talk to me, she must," said Molly in an almost fretful tone. "There's plenty of room for you in my bed, Annie, so that matter is settled; now let us fly along with the books."
Jane did not utter another word of remonstrance. In her inmost heart she had a great admiration for Annie, whom she always spoke of as a "bonny, capable lassie." The books were all sorted and packed in a little over an hour, and then the girls went downstairs to supper in the great hall. Supper consisted of porridge and milk, followed by great dishes of stewed fruit. The children all sat round a table, and Mrs. Lorrimer, with the air of a royal matron, dispensed the simple food.
Immediately afterwards, Annie slipped her hand through Molly's arm, and drew her out of doors on to the moonlit lawn.
"I can't wait another moment," she said. "I've oceans of things to ask you."
"I suppose you have come over on some special business," replied Molly. "Has Hester sent me a message?"
"No; Hester has had nothing to do with it. I came over because I really want a talk with you all by myself. I cannot tell you what I thought to-day when that dreadful Susy Drummond came with her sort of 'take possession' style into the house."
"And do you really imagine," answered Molly, "that Miss Drummond annoyed us in any way? for if you do you are greatly mistaken. We are in great trouble just now about father, and about dear Guy being cut out of his rightful inheritance, and naturally we shall all feel leaving the Towers, but if you think that girl makes any difference one way or other, you are quite wrong."
Annie was silent for a moment. Then she said in a low voice, "I'm glad you don't mind her; she would try me a good bit. How soon have you got to leave, Molly?"
"Mother would like us to be out in a month," replied Molly. "Mr. Drummond does not take possession for over five weeks, but mother thinks that when a very painful thing has to be done, the sooner it is over the better. And she has almost taken a roomy old cottage on the edge of Sharsted Common. She says the children must not be cooped up in a town house, and they will have plenty of room to run about on the common, and as Nortonbury is only a mile away, Guy and Harry can still go to school there."
"And will you still stay at home, Molly?"
"I don't know, all the future is a complete blank. I am not educated according to modern ideas, and I love my own people so deeply that it would be agony to leave them. At the same time, I know some of us must go away, for we shall be very poor; we'll have no money at all except the income from mother's little fortune, and that will go a small way. I have asked mother to let us do without a servant, for I quite love housework. But really, Annie, everything at present is simply in chaos."
"It is good of you to tell me," said Annie, in her caressing voice. "You know I am poor myself, and I dearly love poor people; they are fifty times more interesting than rich ones. Fancy what zest is added to life when you have to contrive and scrape, and patch and fit every one of your dresses."
"As to that," replied Molly, "I don't in the least care what I wear; but I must frankly say that patched and contrived dresses are, as a rule, very ugly. Now shall we come into the house?"
"Not yet," replied Annie; "it is lovely out. Let us take another turn just here in the moonlight. Have you heard anything about the Squire lately, Molly? Is he likely to come back to the Towers soon?"
"No; I'm afraid he won't come at all. The sudden necessity which obliged him to sell the old home has had the strangest effect upon him. We are very anxious about him—very, very unhappy. The state of his health is our keenest grief."
"And do you know where he is?"
"Oh, yes, in London. Mother writes to him to his club."
"It seems a great pity that he should be alone there," said Annie. "I wonder your mother likes to leave him."
"Mother is only carrying out his wishes. He has absolutely refused to come back to the Towers. He says he may come after we have all gone, but not before. I cannot tell you, Annie, how miserable we are about him. He is completely altered. He used to be the tenderest, the most unselfish of fathers, and now the whole burden of everything is put on poor mother's shoulders."
"What is the name of his club?" asked Annie.
"Have none of you any influence over him?"
"Nell has the most. She is a strange child, and has a way of seeing down into the very heart of things. Where her interests are aroused, she has such intense sympathy that it gives her wonderful tact. If father were at home, I believe Nell could manage him; but where is the use of talking? He is away, and we none of us can move him by letter or otherwise. Mother hopes that when we are really settled at the cottage, he will return; but oh, dear—oh, dear—I believe the changed life will shorten his days. There, Annie, I never thought to confide in you, but you see I have done so. Now let us come indoors."
"Mother," said Antonia, two days after the events mentioned in the last chapter, "I think we have been quite long enough at the Grange."
Mrs. Bernard Temple was taking a walk by herself round one of the lawns when Antonia swept up to her and made this remark.
"I thought you would be saying something erratic of this sort," replied her parent, a good deal of annoyance in her tone. "We have not been at the Grange a week yet and, as it is to be the future home of both of us, it does not seem at all inconsistent to spend a fortnight here now, particularly when we are enjoying ourselves so much."
"Pray speak for yourself with regard to the enjoyment, mother," responded Miss Bernard Temple. "I must say that dreariness is no word for this place as far as I am concerned. These trim parterres, those undulating velvet lawns are abhorrence to me; but I am not thinking of myself at all when I say that I think it would be well for us to return to our rooms in town. I wish to do so for quite another motive. In the first place, I have got to take care of you, mother; you must not make yourself too cheap."
"Oh, my dear Antonia, what a horrid expression! I hope I understand what is due to my own dignity."
"Frankly, mother, you don't—not on all occasions; but now to revert to the more important business. I am anxious to be back in town because I want this matter with regard to the Towers to be carried into effect as soon as possible. By the way, have you spoken to Sir John Thornton on the subject?"
"Yes, oh, yes! for goodness sake don't you interfere, my dear."
"Of course I won't if you have done your duty. What did you say?"
"Oh, just what I thought necessary! I think I made up quite a moving story. Sir John listened attentively. Said he had the greatest possible respect for Squire Lorrimer; that it gave him considerable pain to feel that parvenus, like the Drummonds should reside at the Towers; but he said, further, that he could not quite tell how he was to interfere."
"Oh, I dare say!" answered Antonia. "I know enough of him to be certain that every step of the path to the rescue must be made clear by others. Did he give you to understand, mother, that he would be willing to help Squire Lorrimer if the occasion arose?"
"Well, my dear, I gathered that he would not be averse to doing so; but, really, the matter is one of extreme delicacy, and one which it is quite impossible for me to say much about."
"But I have not the least objection to talking about it," said Antonia. "It is one of my failings not to feel delicacy except with regard to art. I can talk to him if you like. I should recommend extreme bluntness. These obtuse people never see things unless they are put right up in front of their eyes."
"Really, Antonia, in addition to being eccentric, you are now becoming positively vulgar. What have I done to be afflicted with a daughter like you? I beg and beseech of you not to say a word to Sir John on the subject."
"All right, mother, I won't, if you will promise without fail to return to London to-morrow."
"Oh, dear, dear, it will be most inconvenient."
"But you'll come?"
"I see Sir John in the distance; he is smoking a cigarette, which will soothe him while I talk. If I talk to him, you needn't go to London so soon. Which shall it be?"
"Oh, London, London—anything better than that you should worry poor Sir John. Was there ever a woman so worried? You had better send Pinkerton to me."
"That's a good mother," said Antonia, bestowing one of her rare and wonderfully sweet smiles upon her parent. She rushed away to the house in her headlong style; met Hester in one of the corridors; stopped her to exclaim, "Cheer up, Hetty, the incubus is leaving by the first train in the morning," and then finding Pinkerton, despatched her for orders to Mrs. Bernard Temple.
A few moments later, Antonia had forced her way into Susy's presence.
"Mother and I leave to-morrow," she said. "I don't know if you feel inclined to stay here much longer?"
"I? No, I'm sure I don't," answered Susy. "I am sick of the place; they are all such a lot of slow coaches."
"County people, you know," said Antonia with a slight sneer, "are always a little slow to us parvenus; we're so wonderfully fresh, you know; not worn out like the poor county folk."
"You can call yourself a parvenu if you like," said Susy in a rage, "but I decline to allow the name to be applied to me; however, I think I'll go back to father to-morrow, and I may as well take advantage of your escort."
"That's what I thought. Get your maid to pack your things, for we shall be off by the first train, remember. By the way, did you hear from your father with regard to your letter?"
"Yes, I heard this morning."
"Well, what did he say?"
"He says he is sorry I don't like the Towers, but he doesn't see how he is to get out of the purchase now. He is to take possession in a little over a month."
"What a horrible future for you," said Antonia. "That musty old place—the ghost in the tower—the family feud——"
"What do you mean by the family feud?"
"Oh, a little arrangement lately entered into by the younger Lorrimers for your benefit. I'm not bound to repeat it, but I can truly say I shouldn't like the little formula they have made up to be chanted nightly about me. Frankly, Susy, I pity you. You must hate the idea of going to the Towers."
"Yes, I loathe it," said Susy.
"The best thing you can do is to see your father, and have a very serious talk. Its settled that you come back with us to-morrow. That's right. Ta-ta for the present."
Antonia left the room.
She stood for a moment by herself in one of the passages.
"Who would have thought," she murmured to herself, "that I, Antonia Bernard Temple, would devote myself to anything except the services of high Art. Here am I absolutely wearing myself out and devising the most horrible plots and stratagems, all for the sake of an ugly duckling. Shall I succeed? Yes, I think so. Matters move in the right direction. Susy hates going to the Towers; the Lorrimers hate leaving the Towers. Sir John Thornton has more money than he knows what to do with. Surely some scheme can be suggested to keep the old family in the old place. When we are in town, we can soon get to know Squire Lorrimer. Hurrah! I have an idea. Annie Forest and Nora shall both come up to town with us to-morrow. Annie is a capital kind of girl, although she did behave with want of fidelity as regards that ring. I must get it back for her somehow before we leave. Annie we must have, for she's a perfect jewel of tact, and so sweetly pretty, just like a red rose, while I'm a fierce—very fierce—tiger lily. Nora must come, too, because, of course, Squire Lorrimer will visit us for the sake of seeing his child. Mother shall propose to Sir John Thornton, and he will further suggest to Mrs. Lorrimer, that Nora would be the better for the best surgical advice. Hey presto! the thing is delightfully managed. Antonia, my dear, you begin to see daylight, don't you?"
Antonia skipped away in high good humour, and, wonderful to relate, her different little schemes for collecting a party to accompany her mother and herself to town were all carried out without hitch or difficulty. Annie, of course, was only too delighted to spend her last few days of holiday in London, and Nora, who had never been there, quite forgave Mrs. Bernard Temple for becoming Hester's stepmother when she heard that she was going to take her to the "Heart of the World," as she termed the great metropolis.
On the evening of that same day Antonia, having concluded, as she considered, an arduous campaign, stood for a moment in earnest contemplation. "There's only the ring," she said to herself. "I must get the ring for poor Annie before I go. Now, who will lend me thirty shillings? I'll try Pinkerton first."
She swept into the room where the tired maid was completing her somewhat laborious packing, for Mrs. Bernard Temple invariably carried nearly a houseful of dresses about with her.
"Well, Miss Antonia, what now?" said the maid. "I wish you'd take off that evening dress, miss, and let me lay it just over the others here in in this box."
"I can stuff it into my Gladstone bag," said Antonia; "don't trouble about it. Pinkerton, when were you paid your wages last?"
"Oh, wages, indeed!" said Pinkerton, with a sniff. "Don't talk of em, Miss Antonia. It's months and months I'm owed, but I suppose it will be all right when your ma is married to this rich gentleman."
"You haven't got about thirty-two shillings you could spare me?" said Antonia.
"I couldn't oblige you with thirty-two pence, miss."
Antonia drummed with her fingers on a chest of drawers near which she was leaning. "And it's such a paltry sum," she muttered—"not worth a fuss. You ought to have your wages, Pinkerton—it's a shame! I must speak to mother about them when my mind is a little less burdened. I have a good deal to think of just now, so good-night!"
"What about that dress, miss?"
"I can't give it to you at present. I'll stow it away somewhere. Good-night!"
Antonia closed the door behind her and ran downstairs. She must get the thirty-two shillings from somewhere. To whom could she apply? She suddenly found herself face to face with Sir John Thornton. An inspiration seized her. She rushed up to him and took one of his hands. He shuddered, but had the strength of mind to remain perfectly still.
"Can you lend me thirty-two shillings?" said Antonia. "You're as rich as Croesus, so you won't mind. I'll pay it back to you a shilling a week out of my dress allowance. Will you lend it? Say yes or no in a hurry, please."
"Yes," said Sir John, "... with pleasure." He moved back a step or two. "Here are two sovereigns," he said. "Pray don't mind the change. The change doesn't matter, I assure you. Oh, any time, of course, as regards repayment. I am happy to oblige you." He dropped the sovereigns into Antonia's large palm and prepared to fly.
"You are happy to oblige me?" she said with a sort of gasp. "Oh, do stay just a single moment. You have made me very happy. Thirty-two shillings must go for a special purpose, but eight blessed shillings remain. Don't you really want the change? May I really borrow the change?"
"Most certainly. I am rather in a hurry."
"I'd kiss you, but you wouldn't like it," said Antonia. "These eight shillings mean—do you know what they mean?"
"If they make you happy, my dear young lady, that is enough for me."
"They do, they do! Cobalt ... Indian red ... rose madder ... burnt sienna ... canvasses ... a new flat brush for the skies ... some drawing pins—Oh, he's gone! Dear old man. What an affliction I was to him; but how triumphant I feel!"
NELL IS IN TROUBLE.
All Antonia's plans were carried into effect. She paid Mrs. Martin thirty-two shillings and gave the old woman her address in town, begging of her to forward the ring there without an hour's delay. In due course it arrived, and Annie had it once more in her possession. Poor Annie turned pale when Antonia put the little box which contained it into her hand.
"I could cry as well as laugh," she said, looking at Antonia with tears springing to her eyes. "I have not behaved well about this ring, and I ought not to have it back like this. I ought to be properly punished. It does not seem fair that I should have the ring returned to me again in this easy manner."
"Undoubtedly you have been deceitful," replied Antonia, "and your conscience must feel ruffled. I can stand most things, but a ruffled conscience, I confess, is too much for me. I suppose you will soothe it in the only possible way?"
"What do you mean?" asked Annie.
"Confession is good for the soul," replied Antonia, in a sing-song voice. She went to the window as she spoke and looked out into the sunlit street.
The two girls were standing in the room which Antonia was pleased to call her studio. It was an attic at the top of the house, and had a dormer window with a north light. The dormer window had sides which were curtained with green. In Annie's opinion this room was simply hideous. Huge canvasses covered with great daubs of colour occupied the walls. A skeleton stood in one corner, and one or two draped figures were in others. Antonia had lured Annie up here for the purpose of taking her likeness in a white kerchief. Antonia was fired with an idea that Annie would look well as Marie Antoinette on her way to execution. She was not quite sure whether to make her Charlotte Corday or Marie Antoinette; but, on reflection, decided that the latter character would suit her best, as she did not think that Annie could ever get sufficient tragedy into her eyes for the former.
"I am going to paint myself some day for Charlotte," exclaimed Antonia. "I'll study before the glass whenever I've an odd moment, and I believe I shall do the fixity of purpose stare after another week of hard practice. Now, do stand still Annie—the bother of the ring is at an end, so you can forget it. Just turn your head a little to the left, I want to get a peep at your ear—you have got a good ear, quite shell-like. Now, for mercy's sake look tragical! Think of the guillotine, and the crowd looking on, and La Belle France and the Tuileries, and the horrid feeling when your head is separated from your trunk. Now, then, realise it—get it into your eyes. Are you realising it?"
"Frankly, I'm not," replied Annie. "I can't sit for Marie Antoinette any longer to-day. I really can't, Antonia. This room is so stiflingly hot, and I want to go out. I want to get into one of the parks. Are there any near this?"
"Oh, yes! Hyde Park is quite close; but you'll find it as dry as chips. Remember, it is September now. Hyde Park is not pretty in September."
"I wonder anyone can live in London," replied Annie.
"Do you? I don't. I hate this poky little house in the centre of detestable fashion; but if I could have an atelier, or a studio, I ought to say, in Gower Street, it would be nearly as good as Paris. Well, if you won't sit any longer, I suppose you won't. Now let us come downstairs."
The girls left the studio and entered the drawing-room. Here they found Mrs. Bernard Temple and Nora. Nora was lying on a sofa looking tired and pale, and Mrs. Bernard Temple was moving about the room in a bustling sort of fashion arranging flowers. The drawing-room was small and crowded with knick-knacks. Antonia seldom swept across this room without knocking a table over or flicking a paper on to the floor.
"Now, my dear, be careful!" exclaimed her parent. "That papier-mache table on which I have just arranged these lovely late roses, sent to me by dear Sir John, will not stand one of your lunges. I cannot imagine how you have got that peculiar walk, Antonia; its exactly as if you were on board ship."
Antonia lounged towards a chair, into which she flung herself.
"Dear me, it is hot!" she exclaimed, pushing back her thick black hair from her forehead. "Never mind about my walk, mother; let me hear the news. What did Sir Henry Fraser say of Nora?"
Mrs. Bernard Temple sank into another chair.
"The dear child!" she exclaimed. "She had a trying morning."
"Pray don't talk of it!" exclaimed Nora from her sofa. "It was too desperate."
"Why, did he hurt you?" exclaimed Antonia.
"Oh, no! he was kindness itself; but we had to wait so long before we saw him."
"Pooh!" answered Antonia. "Was that the dreadful part? Tell me what he said when you did see him? Are you likely soon to be quite well again?"
"With care," interrupted Mrs. Bernard Temple, "dear Nora will recover perfectly. Her back is still very weak, but there is no injury. She may walk a little daily, but must lie down a good deal."
"You're quite sure he wasn't anxious about you?" asked Antonia, fixing her eyes on Nora.
"No; what do you mean?" she said. "You quite startle me. Why should he be anxious?"
"Well, I almost wish he were. It would suit my purpose to have him anxious for a day or two. However, if he isn't, he isn't, and there's an end of it. Nora, don't you want to see your father very badly?"
"Oh, yes!" replied Nora. Her face grew pink and red. "Of course I'd like to see him, but I have not an idea where he is."
"He's in London, close to you, you goose."
"Antonia!" interrupted Mrs. Bernard Temple.
"Mother, she is a goose not to remember that Squire Lorrimer is in town. You ought to write to him, Nora, and ask him to come to see you."
"If he's in London I don't know his address," answered Nora.
"You can write to his club—the Carlton. Here, I'll find you paper and pen, or, if you are too tired to write after the doctor's examination, you can dictate a letter to me. Here, what do you want to say? I'm not a good hand at letter-writing, but you must know the sort of thing. You had better ask him to dinner to-night; there's not an hour to be lost."
"You forget that we are going to the theatre to-night," said Mrs. Bernard Temple.
"Oh, what does that matter. Nora can't go, with her weak back."
"Yes she can. I have taken a box, and she shall have my air-cushion to lean against."
"And I want to go to a theatre awfully," said Nora.
"Well, well, so much for filial affection. Ask him to come to lunch to-morrow. Write any way—show that you're a daughter, a loving daughter."
"Of course I'm a loving daughter, but I——"
"For goodness sake don't have any more buts. Write or dictate, whichever you please."
"I'll write if I must, but really—I don't suppose father will care to come."
"Doesn't he care for you, then?"
"Care for me? What a thing to say. Of course he cares for me."
"Then he'll come. Now, I give you five minutes. Write the letter, and I'll take it out and post it."
Nora muttered and grumbled, but Antonia's perfectly motionless figure, as she sat in an easy chair facing her, was too much to be resisted. She took up a pen, dipped it in ink, and began to write.
"Do it lovingly," said Antonia; "put heart into it; show that you're a daughter."
Mrs. Bernard Temple motioned Annie to come and sit near her.
"Really," she said in a whisper, "poor Antonia becomes more peculiar and trying each day. She simply bullies us all. Look at that poor dear little Nora, submitting to her caprice as gently as a lamb. I don't know why she wants Squire Lorrimer to come here. I am not acquainted with him, and it will be really painful for me to see him in his present afflicted condition. I am a very cheerful person by nature, and hate depressing circumstances."
"I am sorry you are not sympathetic," answered Annie.
Mrs. Bernard Temple raised her brows.
"Sympathetic," she exclaimed; "my dear, I'm the soul—the very soul of sympathy; but where's the use of wasting emotion? I can do nothing for Squire Lorrimer, and it will only pain poor Nora to see him. Really, really, Antonia is beyond anything afflicting. Now, my love, where are you going?"
The latter part of this speech was addressed to Miss Bernard Temple, who was leaving the room. "Where are you going, Antonia, my love?" repeated her mother.
"Out, mother; to post this letter."
"I beg of you to do nothing of the kind. I can send it by William, when next he goes for a message."
William was a very diminutive, and much overworked, page-boy.
"Thanks," said Antonia; "but I prefer to go myself."
She left the room, shutting the door rather noisily; and Mrs. Bernard Temple looked for sympathy to the two girls.
"Is not she trying?" she repeated. "With my mind so preoccupied with thoughts of my approaching marriage, and of dear Sir John, and those sweet girls, Hester and Nan; it is really too much to be worried by Antonia's whims."
"Oh, but she means everything splendidly," said Annie. "I admire her beyond anything. If you will let me, Mrs. Bernard Temple, I will go out with her."
"Oh, certainly, my dear. I see you are under her spell, so I have nothing to say. Dear Nora and I will try to make ourselves happy together."
Annie left the room, and met Antonia in the hall.
"Wait one moment, Antonia," she said; "I'll go with you."
She ran upstairs, fetched her hat and gloves, and joined Antonia. The two girls went into the street.
"I'm determined that no pranks shall be played with this letter," said Antonia; "so I intend not to post it, but to take it to the Carlton myself."
"Antonia, is that right?"
"Right—what can there be wrong in it? There is no one who will eat me at the Carlton. I shall simply give the letter to the hall-porter, and desire him to put it into Mr. Lorrimer's hands the moment he appears. Now, come on, if you are coming. You can stay in the street while I interview the porter."
"But the post seems safer and easier," said Annie.
"Well, I don't think so. Come, come; what are you loitering for?"
As was universally the case, Antonia's strong will prevailed.
She knew London thoroughly, and followed by the somewhat breathless Annie, in due course reached the Carlton Club.
She had run up the steps, entered the hall, interviewed the porter, delivered her letter, and once more joined Annie, when the latter said to her in a voice of suppressed excitement—
"There is Squire Lorrimer; that man with the bent head and hat pushed over his eyes. He passed the club while you were within. There he is, just turning the corner."
"Run after him and stop him," exclaimed Antonia. "Quick, quick—I'll fetch the letter out while you're catching him up."
"Oh, I don't like to," said Annie.
"What a goose you are—then I'll do it—he'll be lost to view if we wait another instant arguing. Is it that rather old man who walks slowly? Yes, yes, I see him. Stay where you are and I'll bring him back to you."
Before Annie could interfere, Antonia had hastened forward with long strides, which she soon quickened into a run. She reached Mr. Lorrimer, and gave one of his coat sleeves a fierce tug.
He started, took off his hat instinctively, and then stared in amazement at the wild-looking girl, whose face was completely unknown to him.
"Oh, yes, you think I'm mad," said Antonia, "but I'm not. I'm about as sane as anyone in England. You are Mr. Lorrimer, and you're afraid to go home, and your family are in dreadful trouble. I'm Antonia Bernard Temple; yes, it's a long unwieldy sort of name, but I have the misfortune to own it. If I'm a diamond at all, I'm a rough sort; very rough and uncouth, but I mean well. My mother is engaged to Sir John Thornton, and we have been staying at the Grange, and I have seen your magnificent untrammelled old place, with its briars, and dragon china, and I, in short—I have seen Nell. Nell is in trouble, and my heart has gone out to her; and Nora is in town staying with us, with my mother and me, and she wants to see you, naturally; so please come home with me now. Please turn round and come to the Carlton first. There's a letter there for you from Nora. Come and see her, and hear about Nell and Molly."
There was the queerest mixture of every sort of emotion in Antonia's wild, disjointed speech; but above it all was an overpowering earnestness, which somehow attracted the poor, forlorn-looking Squire.
"You are a very queer young lady," he said.
"Oh, they all say that," exclaimed Antonia clasping her hands. "I beg of you not to be commonplace; do come home with me."
"But somehow you seem to know all about my people," he continued. "Is it possible that Nora is in town? Yes, I'll go and see her. Where is she?"
"Come with me and I'll take you to the house. It's in a most poky, fashionable part—an odious locality, where poor Art hides her head. Just walk back with me to meet Annie Forest, and to get your letter. You know Annie Forest, don't you?"
"I have met her."
"Well, she's waiting close to the Carlton Club for us both; and we can't leave her there, you know; come quickly."
The Squire turned.
His step was slow. The look of depression on his face was painful; his grizzled hair was nearly white, and his once keen, hawk-like blue eyes were now dim and dull. Antonia had never seen him before, but Annie started when he held out his hand to her.
He walked in almost silence back with the two girls, and in a little more than half an hour, Antonia had the pleasure of introducing him to her mother and Nora, who were enjoying afternoon tea together in great contentment and peace of mind. Nora uttered a little shriek when she saw her father. He took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly. Annie did not follow the Squire into the drawing-room.
"Come, mother," said Antonia, going up to her parent.
"Where?" asked Mrs. Bernard Temple in astonishment.
"Out of the room—come."
THE LION AND MOUSE.
No one could be in a more terrible state of complete collapse than poor Mr. Lorrimer. The blow he had most dreaded had overtaken him. He had been as plucky an English gentleman as ever walked. As true-hearted and affectionate a husband and father, as kind and considerate a landlord—as honourable as man could be in all his dealings—a keen sportsman, a lover of horses—in short, an ideal squire of the old school; but the Towers had been his backbone; now that circumstances for which he was scarcely to blame deprived him of the home of his fathers, he found himself unable to stand up against the blow. He had made a gallant fight up to the last moment, but when he saw plainly that the tide had set in dead against him, he ceased to fight and allowed himself to drift. He made up his mind that his last memory of the Towers should be that evening when the old ball-room was full of light and movement, and when two little fairy-like figures had flitted across the lawn to greet him. That fairy and that brownie had comforted him on that night of keen desolation, and their memory lingered with him still. He lived in cheap lodgings near his club, ate what was put before him, read nothing, moped away the long hours, and was fast reaching a stage when serious breakdown of some sort or other was imminent. He desired all letters to be sent to him to the Carlton, and not only refused to allow his wife to come to him, but would not let her know where he was lodging. He promised, however, to join his family when the move from the Towers had been made.
On the day when Antonia met him, he was feeling more wretched even than usual. He had never hitherto been a weak or undecided man, but now he was completely limp—there was no other word to describe his condition. Antonia's firmness compelled him to obey her, and he found himself against his will in Nora's company. Nora was not his favourite child; she was not like Molly to him, nor like Nell and Boris, still she was one of his children, and his heart throbbed with a great wave of pain when he saw her.
"My poor little girl," he said, kissing her tenderly, "my poor dear little girl. I have been a bad father to you, my little Nora."
"Oh, no, no, father," said Nora, sobbing now, and much overcome. "No, no, dear, darling father; I'm so delighted, so delighted to see you again."
The Squire sat down on the sofa near Nora, and putting his arm round her, drew her pretty head to rest on his breast.
"So you are staying in town," he said, "quite close to me; and how—how are the others, my dear?"
"Quite well," replied Nora "only fretting about you."
"About me? They needn't do that—I'm not worth it. You're sure your mother is quite well, Nora?"
"Yes, quite well."
"And the young 'uns, Nell and Boris?"
"Oh, they're well, only Nell frets a good bit."
"Poor child, poor child; bless her, she's a loving little soul. I suppose Guy is awfully cut up, eh, Nonie?"
"Oh, father, indeed he's not. Guy is too much of a man—he's splendid, he is, really. I wish you'd go back again, father, that's all they want. It's you they want, not the Towers—you are more to them than the Towers."
"You're a good child to say so," said the Squire; "but I can't go back at present. When I think of that place going out of the family, I feel like an unfaithful steward. It was committed to me to keep and to hand on intact to my boy, and I've lost him his inheritance. You none of you know what it means; but I can't go back—not at present."
"May I write and tell mother where you are?"
"No; she writes to me to the Carlton—I'm all right; don't you worry about me, pet."
"You don't look all right—you look very ill."
"See here, Nora, don't you write home and tell them that—promise."
The Squire's manner grew quite fierce. He looked at Nora out of his bloodshot eyes. "Promise," he said. "I won't have it done—do you hear?"
"No, father, of course I won't if it vexes you."
"It does, my child, it does," the Squire's manner became tenderer than ever. "I'm worried and in trouble at present, and I am best alone; I am best all by myself for a bit. God knows, I suppose I shall pull round after a bit, and face you all—that poor boy whom I've ruined, and the rest of you—but I must get time—that's only reasonable—I must get time. Now I'm off; I'm glad to see you looking well, Nora."
"But you'll come and see me again, father; you promise, do promise that you'll come and see me again."
"Yes, my child, if you wish it."
"To-morrow; promise you'll come to-morrow. Antonia made me write to ask you to come to lunch, and I sent the letter to the Carlton. Will you come to lunch to-morrow?"
"No; I can't do that, but I'll look in some day. Good-bye, Nora, good-bye, my pet."
The Squire put his arms again round Nora, kissed her on her lips and brow, and left the house.
Antonia, who was trying to keep her mother quiet in the dismal dining-room, heard him slam the hall door after him, and rushed to the window to watch him down the street.
Mrs. Bernard Temple went and peeped over her daughter's shoulder.
"I am glad he has gone," she said. "It's so trying to be turned out of one's drawing-room. He's very seedy about his clothes, but he has an aristocratic walk. I suppose I may go back now, Antonia, to finish my cup of tea."
"Oh, yes, mother, all in good time. What does tea signify when you see a man broken with an awful grief of that sort? Why, he looks like a captive lion. Mother, cant you get enthusiastic on the subject? Can't you try?"
"I'm sure, my dear, I have tried, but I cannot really see that it will injure the Lorrimers for me to finish my tea. With all I am undergoing on my own account at present—but of course, Antonia, you have no sympathy for your mother."
"Oh, yes, I have when you need it, but you don't just now; you are perfectly happy. However, you must of course have your tea, and I won't worry you any more after you have sent off the telegram."
"The telegram! Oh, you erratic, perverse child; what next?"
"You have to telegraph to Sir John, mother, to beg of him to come here immediately. Things have gone much farther with Squire Lorrimer than I had the least idea of. He must be put out of his pain as quickly as possible or something bad will happen. We must get my new father that is to be on the spot to-night, and if you don't telegraph for him I shall myself take the next train to Nortonbury, and tackle him on the subject. I don't in the least mind which it is, but one or other must be done directly."
"Antonia, you quite terrify me. Sir John will be seriously angry."
"What of that. Let him be angry."
"But I assure you, my dear, he is not a man to be trifled with."
"Oh, I'll manage him, mother, if you're nervous."
"I really think you must. I have not the courage to make or meddle in this matter; in short, I wash my hands of it."
Antonia clapped hers.
"Hurrah!" she said. "I can manage much better all by myself. All I ask you now, dear, good mother, is to trust me. Be sure that nothing whatever will happen to injure you, and simply give me leave to say, when I am telegraphing, that you would like to see Sir John."
"Well, naturally, I always like to see him, dear, devoted fellow."
"That's all right. Now you shall go back to your tea, and I'll be as mum as a mouse for the rest of the day."
Mrs. Bernard Temple left the room, relieved at any sort of truce with her troublesome daughter. Antonia addressed the telegraph form to ... Sir John Thornton, The Grange, Nortonbury, and filled in the following words:—
"Mother wants to see you without fail this evening. Take next train. Important. Antonia. Reply paid."
The words went hard with the enthusiastic girl, for her precious eight shillings were nearly exhausted, and she knew that she must deny herself some sadly-needed cobalt if she sent that telegram.
"Never mind," she said, as she let herself out of the house, and rushed off to the nearest post-office. "You must do without that background of blue sky which I so wanted for your picture, Marie Antoinette. It is odd, but I never did think that I would allow Art to suffer in the cause of an ugly duckling."
Antonia sent off her telegram and watched anxiously for the reply. It came in the course of an hour and a half, and was addressed to her mother.
"Expect me by the train which reaches Waterloo at nine o'clock,"
wired the gallant Sir John.
"There, now, Antonia," said Mrs. Bernard Temple, "you have only yourself to blame. What is to be done? We shall be at the theatre at nine o'clock."
"Nothing could possibly be better, mother; I shan't go. I shall wait here for Sir John; we'll have a nice quiet time."
"My dear, I'm afraid he'll be terribly offended."
"No, mother, he won't; at least, not with you. Now, do go the theatre and be happy. Take Annie and Nora, and let them enjoy themselves. I promise you that you shall have serene skies on your return. Can't you trust me? Did you ever find me fail you yet when I promised you anything?"
"No, I never did, you queer, queer creature."
Mrs. Bernard Temple was restored to good humour. Dinner passed off pleasantly, and immediately afterwards a cab conveyed three of the party to the Lyceum.
Antonia had donned her rusty brown velveteen dress, and sat with her hands folded in front of her in a deep armchair.
Her black hair was combed high over her forehead; her eyes were bright. Anxiety had brought a slight colour into her cheeks; she looked almost handsome.
At about twenty minutes past nine a cab was heard to stop at the door, and a moment later Sir John Thornton was ushered into the drawing-room.
"How do you do?" he said, in a stiff voice, to Antonia. "Where is your mother? Her telegram has startled me a good deal."
"It was my telegram," said Antonia, in a calm voice.
"Well, that does not matter. Will you have the goodness to inform your mother that I am here?"
"I can't very well at the present moment, for she is enjoying herself at the Lyceum."
Sir John's face grew scarlet. He drew himself up to his stiffest attitude, and compressed his lips firmly together.
"Perhaps you feel annoyed," said Antonia, "and I don't think I am surprised. Will you sit down and let me explain matters?"
"Pray do nothing of the kind. I can wait until Mrs. Bernard Temple comes home. When is the play likely to be over?"
"I expect mother and Annie and Nora back about half-past eleven. It is now half-past nine. Have you had dinner?"
"Will you come downstairs, and let me give you something to eat?"
"No, thank you. As your mother is not at home, I shall dine at my club, and come back later on."
"No, you won't," said Antonia.
She started up, and placed herself between Sir John and the door. He felt himself groaning inwardly. Was that awful girl mad? What did her strange telegram mean? And why, if Mrs. Bernard Temple sent for him in a hurry, had she not the civility to wait at home to see him? This was really taking matters with a free-and-easy hand with a vengeance. The proud Sir John had never felt more thoroughly angry in his life. He stalked up to Antonia now, and endeavoured to pass her, but she dodged him successfully.
"I know you are a gentleman," she said; "and a gentleman always listens to what a lady has got to say, even when he is angry with her. I'm an awful personage in your eyes, but if you will listen to me to-night, I will promise to be as good and unobtrusive as girl can be in the future. I'll even wear ordinary dresses when I come to visit you, and I won't talk of my sacred Art when you are in the room. There, can girl promise more?—can she?"
"Will you have the goodness to let me pass?" said Sir John.
"I will in a moment or two. You shall go and dine at your club after you have heard why I sent for you."
"Why you sent for me?" exclaimed Sir John.
"Oh, yes; it was all my doing."
"But the message certainly came in your mother's name."
"Yes, because you would not have come otherwise. It was I, Antonia, who really sent for you. You have come up to town in this violent hurry on my account. Now, will you come down to eat a very nice little dinner which has been prepared, and which the cook is waiting to send upstairs, and let me talk to you while you are enjoying it? Or will you listen to me here, and then go afterwards to your club? You must do one or other, unless you are rude enough to take me by main force and move me away from the door."
Sir John Thornton might be very angry, but he was the pink of propriety, and the idea of lifting the bony Antonia from the neighbourhood of the door was too repellent even to be thought of for a moment.
"You have got me into a trap," he said, "and I am deeply offended. Your mother must explain the position of affairs to me when she chooses to return home. I suppose I must listen to you, whether I wish it or not. I only beg of you to be brief."
"Now you are delightful," said Antonia. "Won't you sit down?"
"I prefer to stand."
"Well, I'll sit, if you don't mind, for I've a good deal to say."
"I must again beg of you to be brief."
"Very well; I'll put it into a few words, but they'll be strong, I promise you."
Sir John made no response. He folded his arms and looked down at Antonia. His face looked very cold and satirical; his lips were so tightly shut as to appear like a straight line. Antonia's face, all enthusiasm and fire, gazed up at him.
"Can I melt that iceberg?" she said inwardly. "Now for the tug of war."
"This is the heart and kernel of my reason for wishing to see you," she said. "I have taken up the cause of the Lorrimers. The Lorrimers are leaving the Towers because Squire Lorrimer has got into money difficulties. I don't know how, and I don't know why. He is obliged to sell the beautiful and noble home of his ancestors to clear himself of these difficulties. The children are all sorry to go—Molly loses the freshness of her youth when she leaves the Towers; Guy loses his rightful inheritance; the younger children are embittered by an unnatural feud which I need not trouble you about, but which will sour their characters; Nell is not strong, and simple grief may shorten her days; and the Squire, the Squire himself is so cut up, so heart-broken, that he cannot bring himself to say good-bye to the old place. He is in town, here, close to us; he is hiding somewhere near us because his proud old heart is broken. His hair is white ... his head is bowed and his eyes are dim."
"What does all this mean?" interrupted Sir John.
"What does it mean?" exclaimed Antonia, springing like a young lioness from her chair. "It means that you are to come to the rescue. Why should all that family be made wretched? and why should the Towers go to strangers when you can put things right? Take your money out of the bank, or wherever you have placed it—it will be the finest deed you ever did in your life—and buy back the Towers and give it to Squire Lorrimer and to Guy for their own place again. Yours is the talent buried in the ground. Take it out and save the Squire, and you'll be so happy you won't know yourself. Why, you'll be all on fire and alive with gladness. There, that's what I telegraphed to you for; you know now. You'll do it ... of course you'll do it. I have spoken now. You know what I want."
Antonia sank down into her chair again. She was trembling visibly through all her slender figure. Sir John gazed at her in amazement. Her eyes met his fully, and then her heart gave a leap in her breast. He was not angry. She guessed then that she had won her cause.
"You certainly are a queer girl," he said, sitting down near her. "You amaze me. I never heard of a girl who would take up a thing in this way ... and the Lorrimers are not even your friends. Oh, no! I am not angry ... not now. Hester frets morning, noon, and night, at the thought of parting with Molly; but Hester never thought of this. It is fine of you—quite impossible, of course; but I always admire real bravery when I see it."
"Never mind praising me," said Antonia; "tell me why you call it impossible."
"My dear young lady, do you think for a single moment Squire Lorrimer would accept a gift of this sort from me? Do you think the Towers would be of the least value to him won back in such a way? Noblesse oblige would prevent his accepting such an offer."
"I have thought of all that," said Antonia. "I guessed that there would be a good deal of pride to overcome. Fortunately I am not bothered with noblesse oblige; but I guessed that you county people would worry over it. We art lovers never think of it; we rise above it; we go back to the old, old, old, times, when those who loved each other had all things in common."
"As long as we live in the world," said Sir John, "the men of the world must adhere to its usages. It is not the custom for one man to present another with the sort of gift you propose that I should favour Squire Lorrimer with."
"Then you must not give it in the form of a gift. You must go to your solicitor and consult him about the matter. I happen to know that Susy Drummond hates the Towers, so I am quite sure that Mr. Drummond would be very glad to be out of his bargain. The Squire wants a certain sum of money; you must lend it to him on very easy terms. Oh! of course you know how to manage! You must make it possible for him to stay at the Towers whatever happens. Oh! I know you'll do it! I know you'll be clever enough and kind enough to do it. You'll think of a way, and in all the world no man will ever have a more faithful daughter than I'll be to you. Dear me! how dead tired I am! Are you going out to your club to dinner? If so, I'll go to bed."
GOD BLESS ANTONIA.
Mrs. Bernard Temple waited up for Sir John that night; but he did not appear. When he left Antonia he went straight to his club, ordered dinner, and ate it with his usual refined and somewhat languid appetite. He then went up to his room, and being tired thought he would go early to bed. He did go to bed—he even went to the length of shutting his eyes, preparatory for a peaceful night's slumber. Up to that point he was the Sir John of old. The calculating, reserved, cold-natured Englishman; but beyond that point he was different, altogether different from what he had been before. Between him and his accustomed night's rest came the eager face and passionate words of a girl—a lanky, untidy, and, in his opinion, most disagreeable girl. Still, she had roused him as he had never yet been roused. She had absolutely awakened a sort of conscience in him. For the first time in his whole existence, he carefully considered the question, who is my neighbour?
Certainly Squire Lorrimer was his neighbour. Their estates joined; they had been good friends from boyhood upward; they had been lads at the same school, and afterwards men of the same college. His children and Squire Lorrimer's children loved each other dearly. He had noticed of late how often Hester's eyes had been red as if with tears. She had been very good about his own proposed marriage, but she had cried when the Lorrimers were mentioned Nan had been sulky and disagreeable and defiant, and this was also on account of the Lorrimers. He was very sorry for his children, and very sorry also for the Lorrimers, but never until to-night had it entered into his head to help the Lorrimers out of their trouble.
He could do so, of course—he was a very rich man—he was also a careful man, never living up to his large yearly income. By no means extravagant in his tastes, not specially fond of hoarding money, but being really possessed of more than his wants required. He lay awake, and thought and thought, and after an early breakfast the next morning he did adopt Antonia's suggestion, and went to see his solicitor. From there he wrote a brief note to Mrs. Bernard Temple.
"As she had not, after all, required his presence in town," he wrote, "he would not come to see her. He happened to be particularly engaged, and wanted to return to the Grange that evening."
This letter was delivered at Mrs. Bernard Temple's house by a Commissionaire. It made that good lady very uneasy, but when Antonia read it she proceeded to skip up and down the drawing-room with such energy that two papier-mache tables were knocked over and a valuable china cup and saucer smashed.
"Don't speak to me, mother," she exclaimed. "I have nothing whatever to say, only if I don't give vent to my feelings in some sort of exercise I shall go mad."
The next day or two passed without anything special occurring, but on the third day Mrs. Bernard Temple received a letter which astonished her very much.
It was from Sir John, begging of her to come back to the Grange, and especially asking that Antonia should accompany her.
"Dear old man," murmured Antonia when she received this message. "I knew he'd rise to it; I knew he would. Mother, which is the most fashionable shop in London?"
"For what, my dear?"
"For an up-to-date costume. I must go at once and be rigged up. You had better order a hansom—never mind the extravagance—it will be untold torture, but it is a promise, and it must be done. Annie, love, you are exquisite on the subject of dress; come and see Antonia made fashionable."
"Yes, go with her, Annie," said Mrs. Bernard Temple. "I cannot imagine what this queer thing portends, but anything to make Antonia look like an ordinary girl I willingly agree to. Don't be extravagant, my love, for my purse is not too heavy; but anything under ten pounds I will willingly spend to make you presentable."
"It's appalling to think of the waste of money," said Antonia. "Oh, what would not ten pounds do in the cause of Art? But a promise is a promise. Come along, Annie, we'll go to Regent Street and choose."
Five minutes later, the two girls set off. Antonia's face was wreathed with wonderful smiles, but she was mute as to the subject of her thoughts, even to Annie.
"I suppose I must have a respectable hat," she said, suddenly; "and I suppose it must sit in the correct way on my head; therefore, the first thing is to go to a hairdresser's. I must be fringed, and curled, and frizzed."
"Oh, Antonia, no, no;" said Annie. "Your beautiful hair—it would be a sin to put a pair of scissors near it."
"A promise is a promise," said Antonia. "Which is the best hairdresser?"
They stopped at one in Bond Street, and half an hour later Antonia left the shop, very stiff about the head and red about the face.
"The hairpins are sticking into me all over," she gasped, "and the weight of the fringe is like a furnace on my forehead; but never mind."
"It isn't at all becoming either," said Annie.
Antonia looked at her with large eyes of reproach.
"Do you think I want it to be becoming?" she said. "That would be the final straw."
The fashionable dress was not only bought, but put on, and Mrs. Bernard Temple scarcely knew her daughter when she saw her back again.
"I'm in misery," said Antonia; "but a promise is a promise. My dear mother, when you are married to Sir John, that dear, dear old man, you need not expect to see me often at the Grange."
"I really do not see, Antonia, why you should speak of your future father as so very old."
"He's old to me," said Antonia. "I always speak of people as I find them."
"You are a most extraordinary girl," remarked her mother.
But she made this remark so often that Antonia did not think it necessary to reply.
By a late train in the afternoon the whole party were conveyed back to the Grange, where Hester received them with rather a puzzled expression on her face. As soon as possible she drew Annie aside, and began to speak to her.
"I cannot imagine what is the matter," she said; "father is going on in a most extraordinary way. You won't mind my speaking frankly, Annie, but he seemed really quite relieved when you all went away. Then he got that telegram from Mrs. Bernard Temple, and rushed off to town in a hurry. He came back the following evening completely altered—very silent and absorbed, but with a kind of change over him which Nan and I could not help noticing. I asked him if he had seen anything of Squire Lorrimer, and he looked hard at me and said—'I wonder if you are in it, too.'"
"Oh, I know, I know," said Annie softly, rubbing her hands; "dear Antonia, dear Antonia."
"Oh, for pity's sake, Annie, don't you get mysterious," exclaimed Hester, almost fretfully. "What can Antonia have to say to Squire Lorrimer? Let me finish my story. I asked father if he had seen him, and he replied, 'I have heard and seen enough of Lorrimer to fill all my thoughts.' He would not tell me another word; but he went to town again the next morning, and came back absolutely excited in the evening. Fancy my father in a state of excitement! He was ever so nice to me; and when Nan said that she must go to school almost immediately, he said that Mrs. Willis should be invited to come back to the Grange, for he wanted us all to have a happy meeting before his wedding. And he has been telegraphing to all kinds of people all day, and I believe all the Lorrimers are coming here to-morrow. Father said he wanted to have a real, jolly time, and that everyone of the Lorrimers, even to little Phil, and, of course, Jane Macalister, were to be asked. I ventured to remind him that dear Molly and all of them were not just in the mood for festivities at present, but he would not listen to me for a moment. He said, that on such an auspicious occasion he must have his own way, and that he would engage that they would be jolly enough when the time came."
"So they will, I am sure," said Annie. "Did you say Mrs. Willis was here, Hester?"
"Yes, she came an hour ago. She is in her room. She says she will take you and Nan back with her to Lavender House the day after to-morrow."
Annie's face, which had been very bright a moment before, grew suddenly grave. She murmured something half aloud.
"I won't be outdone by Antonia," she said.
"Really, really, Annie," exclaimed Hester, "I shall get to hate Antonia, if you allude to her in that sphinx-like way any longer."
Annie looked hard at Hester with dilating eyes and paling cheeks.
"Do you remember," she said, suddenly coming up to her friend, "the old Annie of Lavender House?"
"How can I forget her," said Hester; "when she is my dearest friend?"
"Do you remember," continued Annie, "the heaps and heaps of scrapes she used to get into, and how there was no peace for her, and no way out of them at all except by confession?"
"Yes, I remember," said Hester, gravely.
"Well, I am going to confess now."
"To confess! But you have done nothing wrong, Annie darling."
"Oh, haven't I; I've been just at my old pranks—just as heedless, as impetuous, as mad, as I have ever been. Hester, I have done wrong, but as it does not concern you, I won't tell you, dear. Only before I go to Mrs. Willis, I should like to congratulate you."
"To congratulate me? On what?" asked poor Hester.
"On having the chance of such a girl as Antonia for your sister."
"Now, really, I wont listen to another word," said Hester. "I have quite made up my mind to endure Antonia, and to be patient with her, but if, in addition, I am to congratulate myself, I'm just afraid I can't rise to it. Run away if you want to, Annie, and when you cease to be mysterious I will talk to you again."
Annie left the room and went slowly upstairs to Mrs. Willis's bedroom. She knocked and was admitted. What she said—what words passed between the two were never known, but when Annie left that room there was a look on her face which reminded those who saw her of the best of Annie in the old days, and Mrs. Willis was more affectionate than ever to her dear pupil that evening.
The next day dawned bright and splendid. The trees were beginning to put on their autumn tints, but the air was still full of summer. The Lorrimers at the Towers were busy making preparations to come over to the Grange. They had been invited to the festival by no less a personage than Sir John Thornton himself, and he had couched his epistle in gay and pleasant words.
"As if we had any heart for it," murmured Molly to herself.
"It is over a week now since we have had even a line from father," whispered Nell to her own heart; "how can we care to go and laugh at the Grange?"
"We are going from the dear old place in a week," thought Guy. "I don't believe anyone can draw a smile out of me to-day."
But Boris was happy enough to go, for he was so young that any change was delightful; and as his pets were also leaving the Towers, and he and Kitty had just thought of a splendid way to prepare them for their journey, he felt quite light-hearted once again, and that he would be happy in his new home.
When Jane Macalister heard of the invitation, she flatly refused to accept it.
"Go, if you choose to," she said, with a wave of her hand to the assembled children; "you are young, and it's good for the young to forget. But I shall take the opportunity of sewing up the feather beds in their brown-holland cases. I vowed and declared that when this move had to be made no outsider should come in to pack, so my hands are full, and I have neither time nor heart for frivolity."
"But, Jane, you are specially asked; you are mentioned by name," said Kitty.
"By name, am I?" asked Jane. "Who invited me? That chit of a Hester?"
"No, indeed; the great, magnificent Sir John himself."
"Hoots!" exclaimed Jane; "he's cracked over his second marriage, or he wouldn't bother about an old body like me. I'll none of it. Go away children, and let me get on with my work."
The children withdrew, apparently discomfited, but they guessed that when the time came Jane would go with them, and it proved that they were right.
She made no remark as she joined the group, only at intervals as they all walked across the fields, the single expression, "Hoots!" passed her lips.
In due course they all crossed the stile and entered the grounds of the Grange. They had gone a little way, when Boris uttered a short, sharp cry.
"Why, there's father!" he exclaimed. The others all looked up at this, and then there was a rush and a helter-skelter, and Squire Lorrimer, looking just like the Squire of old, no longer bent nor bowed, nor broken hearted, was surrounded by his family.
Boris mounted on his father's shoulder, and Nell clasped the Squire's hand and looked into his face. Mrs. Lorrimer came close to her husband's side, and Molly stood behind him.
"Where's Guy?" said the Squire in a hoarse kind of voice. "Come here, my boy, I want to say something. It was Sir John's will that I should tell you the good news here, or you'd have all heard from me before I came down to meet you by this path, and we'll all go up and thank him presently."
"For what, father?" asked Molly.
"Why, the most wonderful thing," replied the Squire. "It seems that a girl called Antonia—a strange girl whom I have only met once—put a thought into my old friend's head, and he has acted on it in such a way that, without anything being done which I could not accept, I am enabled to continue as owner of the Towers."
"Oh, father!" said Guy, with a great gasp.
"Yes, my boy," continued the Squire, "I need not sell now. Sir John has lent me money to get over my difficulties, and on such easy terms that it will be possible to pay him back in the course of years without ruining any of us. Drummond was glad to be out of his bargain, so the whole thing was settled last night. We'll be poor enough still, but we need not leave the Towers; and if we are all careful, and I let my farms well—by the way, Sir John is going to take two of them—I have not the least doubt that the debt will be cleared away by the time you are of age, Guy. Anyhow, I feel like a new man. I can hold up my head once more, and all I can say is, God bless Antonia!"
"What's the matter, Jane?" exclaimed Boris.
"Hoots!" said Jane, whose face was nearly purple. "I felt this morning that I needn't go on sewing up those feather beds."
She turned her head aside, and, to the amazement of everyone, burst into tears.
Those tears of Jane's seemed to loosen all tongues. Eyes grew bright, eager voices flew, lips were wreathed in smiles. All the Lorrimers in a body went up to the Grange, where Sir John and his family came out to meet and welcome them.
"And where's Antonia?" asked the Squire.
Everyone else, even Mrs. Bernard Temple, was present, but Antonia was not to be found. Annie volunteered to go and look for her.
After a long search she found her at last busily painting some huge dock leaves, which she had found in her morning ramble, and pulled up by the roots.
"Come, Antonia, you are wanted," said Annie.
"What for?" said Antonia. "Pray don't stand in my light, Annie."
"But they're all waiting for you, every one of them—the Lorrimers, and Hester, and Sir John, and the rest. They want to thank you; it was your doing, you know."
"Of all things in the world," replied Antonia, "I hate being thanked most of all. I did nothing. It was all dear old Sir John. And look what he has given me, Annie. This magnificent paint-box. Oh, the darling! the beauty! Oh, the rapture of possessing it! I'll go if I must when I have finished my dock leaves, but not before."