HotFreeBooks.com
That Stick
by Charlotte M. Yonge
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

It was a little dreary. The rooms looked large and empty. Miss Morton's belongings had been just what gave a homelike air to the place, and when these were gone, even the big fires could not greatly cheer the huge spaces. However, these two months had accustomed the new arrivals to their titles, and likewise to being waited upon, and they were less at a loss than they would have been previously, though to Mary especially it was hard to realise that it was her own house, and that she need ask no one's leave. Also that it was not a duty to sit with a fire. She could not well have done so, considering how many were doing their best to enliven the house, and finally she spent the evening in the library, not a very inviting room in itself, but which the late lord had inhabited, and where the present one had already held business interviews. It was, of course, lined with the standard books of the last generation, and Mary, who had heard of many, but never had access to them, flitted over them while her husband opened the letters he had found awaiting him. To her, what some one has called the 'tea, tobacco, and snuff' of an old library where the books are chiefly viewed as appropriate furniture, were all delightful discoveries. Even to 'Hume's History of England—nine volumes! I did not know it was so long! Our first class had the Student's Hume. Is there much difference?'

'Rather to the Student's advantage, I believe. Half these letters, at least, are mere solicitations for custom! And advertisements!'

'How the books stick together! I wonder when they were opened last!'

'Never, I suspect,' said he. 'I do not imagine the Mortons were much disposed to read.'

'Well, they have left us a delightful store! What's this? Smollett's Don Quixote. I always wanted to know about that. Is it not something about giants and windmills? Have you read it?'

'I once read an odd volume. He was half mad, and too good for this world, and thought he was living in a romance. I will read you some bits. You would not like it all.'

'Oh, I do hope you will have time to read to me! Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. All these volumes! They are quite damp. You have read it?'

'Yes, and I wish I could remember all those Emperors. I must put aside this letter for Hailes—it is a man applying for a house.'

'How strange it sounds! Look, here is such an immense Shakespeare! Oh! full of engravings,' as she fell upon Boydell's Shakespeare—another name reverenced, though she only knew a few selected plays, prepared for elocution exercises.

Her husband, having had access to the Institute Library, and spent many evenings over books, was better read than she, whose knowledge went no farther than that of the highest class, but who knew all very accurately that she did know, and was intelligent enough to find in those shelves a delightful promise of pasture. He was by this time sighing over requests for subscriptions.

'Such numbers! Such good purposes! But how can I give?'

'Cannot you give at least a guinea?' asked Mary, after hearing some.

'I do not know whether in this position a small sum in the list is not more disadvantageous than nothing at all. Besides, I know nothing of the real merits. I must ask Hailes. Ah! and here is Emma, I thought that she would be a little impatient. She says she shall let her house for the winter, and thinks of going to London or to Brighton, where she may have masters for the girls.'

'Oh, I thought you meant them to go to a good school?'

'So I do, if I can get Emma's consent; but I doubt her choosing to part with Ida. She wants to come here.'

'I suppose we ought to have her?'

'Yes, but not immediately. I do not mean to neglect her—at least, I do hope to do all that is right; but I think you ought to have a fair start here before she comes, so that we will invite her for Christmas, and then we can arrange about Ida and Constance.'

'Dear little Connie, I hope she is as nice a little girl as she used to be!'

'With good training, I think, she will be; and the tutor gives me good accounts of Herbert in this letter.'

'Shall we have him here on Sunday week?'

'Yes, I am very anxious to see him. I hope his master gives him more religious instruction than he has ever had, poor boy!'

Though not brilliant or playful, Lord and Lady Northmoor had, it may be perceived, no lack of good sense in their strange new surroundings. It was hard not to feel like guests on sufferance, and next morning, a Sunday, was wet. However, under their waterproofs and umbrellas trudging along, they felt once more, as Mary said, like themselves, as if they had escaped from their keepers. Nobody on the way had the least idea who the two cloaked figures were, and when they crept into the seat nearest the door they were summarily ejected by a fat, red-faced man, who growled audibly, 'You've no business in my pew!'

However, with the words, 'Beg your pardon,' they stepped out with a little amusement in their eyes, when a spruce young woman sprang up from the opposite pew, with a scandalised whisper—

'Mr. Ruddiman, it's his Lordship! Allow me, my Lord—your own seat—'

And she marshalled them up to the choir followed closely by Mr. Ruddiman, ruddier than ever, and butcher all over, in a perfect agony of apology, which Lord Northmoor in vain endeavoured to suppress or silence, till, when the guide had pointed to a handsome heavy carved seat with elaborate cushions, he gave a final gasp of, 'You'll not remember it in the custom, my Lord,' and departed, leaving his Lordship almost equally scarlet with annoyance at the place and time of the demonstration, though, happily, the clergyman had not yet appeared, in his long and much-tumbled surplice.

It was a case of a partial restoration of a church in the dawn of such doings, when the horsebox was removed, but the great family could not be routed out of the chancel, so there were the seats, where the choir ought to have sat, beneath a very ugly east window, bedecked with the Morton arms. In the other division of the seat was a pale lady in black, with a little girl, Lady Adela Morton, no doubt, and opposite were the servants, and the school children sat crowded on the steps. It was not such a service as had been the custom of the Hurminster churches; and the singing, such as it was, depended on the thin shrill voices of the children, assisted by Lady Adela and the mistress; the sermon was dull and long, and altogether there was something disheartening about the whole.

Lady Adela had a gentle, sweet countenance and a simple devout manner; but it was disappointing that she did not attempt to address the newcomers, though they passed her just outside the churchyard, talking to an old man. Lady Kenton would surely have welcomed them.



CHAPTER XII THE BURTHEN OF HONOURS

A fearful affair to the new possessors of Northmoor was the matter of morning calls. The first that befell them, as in duty bound, was that from the Vicar. They were peaceably writing their letters in the library, and hoping soon to go out to explore the Park, when Mr. Woodman was announced, and was found a lonely black speck in the big dreary drawing-room, a very state room, indeed, which nobody had ever willingly inhabited. The Vicar was accustomed to be overridden; he was an elderly widower, left solitary in his old age, and of depressed spirits and manner. However, Frank had been used to intercourse with clergy, though his relations with them seemed reversed, and instead of being patronised, he had to take the initiative; or rather, they touched each other's cold, shy, limp hands, and sat upright in their chairs, and observed upon the appropriate topic of early frosts, which really seemed to be affecting themselves.

There was a little thaw when Lord Northmoor asked about the population, larger, alas, than the congregation might have seemed to show, and Mary asked if there were much poverty, and was answered that there was much suffering in the winter, there was not much done for the poor except by Lady Adela.

'You must tell us how we can assist in any way.'

The poor man began to brighten. 'It will be a great comfort to have some interest in the welfare of the parish taken here, my Lord. The influence hitherto has not been fortunate. Miss Morton, indeed—latterly—but, poor thing, if I may be allowed to say so, she is flighty—and uncertain—no wonder—'

At that moment Lady Adela was ushered in, and the Vicar looked as if caught in talking treason, while a fresh nip of frost descended on the party.

Not that the lady was by any means on stiff terms with the Vicar, whom, indeed, she daily consulted on parochial subjects, and she had the gracious, hereditary courtesy of high breeding; but she always averred that this same drawing-room chilled her, and she was fully persuaded that any advance towards familiarity would lead to something obnoxious on the part of the newcomers, so that the proper relations between herself and them could only be preserved by a judicious entrenchment of courtesy. Still, it was more the manner of the Vicar than of herself that gave the impression of her being a formidable autocrat. After the frost had been again languidly discussed, Mr. Woodman faltered out, 'His Lordship was asking—was so good as to ask—how to assist in the parish.'

Lady Adela knew how scarce money must be, so she hesitated to mention subscriptions, and only said, 'Thank you—very kind.'

'Is there any one I could read to?' ventured Mary.

'Have you been used to the kind of thing?' asked Lady Adela, not unkindly, but in a doubting tone.

'No, I never could before; but I do wish to try to do something.'

The earnest humility of the tone was touching, the Vicar and the autocrat looked at one another, and the former suggested, 'Old Swan!'

'Yes,' said Lady Adela, 'old Swan lives out at Linghill, which is not above half a mile from this house, but too far off for me to visit constantly. I shall be very much obliged if you can undertake the cottages there.'

'Thank you,' said Mary, as heartily as if she were receiving a commission from the Bishop of the diocese.

'Did not Miss Morton mention something about a boys' class?' said Frank. 'I have been accustomed to a Sunday school.'

Mr. Woodman betrayed as much surprise as if he had said he was accustomed to a coal mine; and Lady Adela observed graciously, 'Most of them have gone into service this Michaelmas; but no doubt it will be a relief to Mr. Woodman if you find time to undertake them.'

This was the gist of the first two morning calls, and there were many more such periods of penance, for the bride and bridegroom were not modern enough in their notions to sit up to await their visitors, and thankful they were to those who would be at the expense of finding conversation, though this was not always the case; for much of the neighbourhood was of a description to be awed by the mere fact of a great house, and to take the shyness of titled people for pride. Those with whom they prospered best were a good-natured, merry old dowager duchess, with whom they felt themselves in the altitude to which they were accustomed at Hurminster; a loud-voiced, eager old squire, who was bent on being Lord Northmoor's guide and prompter in county business; also an eager, gushing lady, the echoes of whose communications made Frank remark, after her departure, 'We must beware of encouraging gossip about the former family.'

'Oh, I wish I had the power of setting people down when they say what is undesirable, like Miss Lang, or Lady Adela!' sighed Mary.

'Try to think of them like your school girls,' he said.

The returning of the calls was like continually pulling the string of a shower-bath, and glad were the sighs when people proved to be not at home; but on the whole, being entertained was not half so formidable as entertaining, and a bride was not expected to do more than sit in her white silk, beside the host.

But the return parties were an incubus on their minds. Only they were not to be till after Christmas.



CHAPTER XIII THE DOWER HOUSE

Over the hearth of the drawing-room of the Dower House, in the sociable twilight that had descended on the afternoon tea-table, sat three ladies—for Lady Adela and Miss Morton had just welcomed Mrs. Bury, who, though she had her headquarters in London, generally spent her time in visits to her married daughters or expeditions abroad.

Amice had just exhibited her doll, Elmira's last acquisition, a little chest of drawers, made of matchboxes and buttons, that Constance Morton had taught her to make, and then she had gone off to put the said Elmira and her companions to bed, after giving it as her grave opinion that Lady Northmoor was a great acquisition.

'Do you think so?' said Mrs. Bury, after the laugh at the sedate expression.

'She is very kind to Amice, and I do not think she will do her any harm,' said Lady Adela.

'Governessing was her metier,' added Bertha, 'so it is not likely.'

'And how does it turn out?'

'Oh, it might be a good deal worse. I see no reason for not living on here.'

'And you, Birdie?'

'No, I couldn't! I've been burning to get away these seven years, and as Northmoor actually seems capable of taking my boys, my last tie is gone. I'm only afraid he'll bore them with too much Sabbatarianism and temperance. He is just the cut of the model Sabbath-school teacher, only he vexes Addie's soul by dashes of the Ritualist.'

'Well,' said Mrs. Bury, 'the excellent Mr. Woodman is capable of improvement.'

'But how?' said Lady Adela. 'Narrow ritualism without knowledge or principle is a thing to be deprecated.'

'Is it without knowledge or principle?'

'How should an attorney's clerk get either?'

'But I understand you that they are worthy people, and not obnoxious.'

'Worthy!' exclaimed Bertha. 'Yes, worthy to their stiff backbones, worthy to the point of utter dulness; they haven't got enough vulgarity even to drop their h's or be any way entertaining. I should like them ever so much better if they ate with their knives and drank out of their saucers, but she can't even mispronounce a French word worse than most English people.'

'No pretension even?'

'Oh no; if there were, one could get some fun out of it. I have heard of bearing honours meekly, but they don't even do that, they just let them hang on them, like the stick and stock they are. If I were Addie, it would be the deadly liveliness that would drive me away.'

'Nay,' said Adela; 'one grows to be content with mere negations, if they are nothing worse. I could be driven away, or at least find it an effort to remain, if Lady Northmoor were like her sister-in-law.'

'Ah, now, that's just what would make it tolerable to me. I could get a rise or two out of that Mrs. Morton. I did get her to be confidential and to tell me how much better the honours would have sat upon her dear husband. I believe she thinks that if he were alive he would have shared them like the Spartan kings. She wishes that "her brother, Lord Northmoor" (you should hear the tone), "were more worldly, and she begs me to impress on him the duty of doing everything for her dear Herbert, who, in the nature of things, must be the heir to the peerage."'

'I am sure I hope not,' said Lady Adela. 'He is an insufferable boy. The people about the place can't endure him. He is quite insolent.'

'The animal, man, when in certain stages of development, has a peculiar tendency to be unpleasant,' observed Bertha philosophically. 'To my mind, Master Herbert is the most promising of the specimens.'

'Birdie! He is much worse than his uncle.'

'Promising, I said, not performing. Whatever promise there may have been in Northmoor must have been nipped upon the top of a high stool, but if he has sense enough to put that boy into good hands he may come to something. I like him enough myself to feel half inclined to do what I can towards licking him into shape, for the honour of the family! It is that girl Ida that riles me most.'

'Yes,' said Lady Adela, 'she behaved fairly well in company, but I saw her tittering and whispering with Emily Trotman in a tone that I thought very bad for Emily.'

'She's spoilt; her mother worships her,' said Bertha. 'I had a pleasing confidence or two about how she is already admired, or, as Mrs. Morton calls it, how the gentlemen are after her; but now she shall not put up with anything but a real gentleman, and of course her uncle will do something handsome for her.'

'Poor man! I wish him joy. Has he more belongings?'

'Providentially, no. We have the honour of standing nearest to him, and she seems to have none at all, unless they should be attracted by the scent.'

'That is not likely,' said Lady Adela; 'she was a clergy orphan, and never heard of any relations.'

'Then you really know no harm of them, in these four or five months?' said Mrs. Bury.

'No; except having these relations,' said Adela.

'Except being just sensible enough not to afford even the pleasure of laughing at them,' said Bertha. 'Nay, just worthy enough'—she said it spitefully—'not even to give the relief of a good grumble.'

'Well, I think you may be thankful!'

'Exactly what one doesn't want to be!' said Bertha. 'I like sensations. Now Letitia is going to come down with a prediction that they are to become the blessings of our lives, so I am off!'

And as the door closed on her, Lady Adela sighed, and Mrs. Bury said—

'Poor Birdie; is she always in that tone?'

'Yes,' said Lady Adela; 'there seems to be always a bitter spot in her heart. I am glad she should try to work it out.'

'I suppose living here with her father tended to brooding. Yet she has always done a good deal.'

'Not up to her powers. Lord Northmoor never ceased to think her a mere girl, and obstructed her a good deal; besides, all his interest being in horses, she never could get rid of the subject, and wounds were continually coming back on us—on her.'

'On you as well, poor Addie.'

'He did not understand. Besides, to me these things were not the raw scene they were to her. It has been a very sad time for her. You see, there is not much natural softness in her, and she was driven into roughness and impatience when he worried her over racing details and other things. And then she was hurt at his preferring to have me with him. It has been very good and generous in her not to have been jealous of me.'

'I think she was glad he could find comfort in you. And you have never heard of Captain Alder?'

'Never! In justice, and for the sake of dear Arthur's wishes, I should be glad to explain; but I wonder whether, as she is now, it would be well that they should meet.'

'If it is so ordained, I suppose they will. What's that?'

It was Lord and Lady Northmoor, formally announced, and as formally introduced, to Mrs. Bury.

They had come, the lady said, when they were seated, with a message from 'Old Swan,' to ask for a bit of my lady's plaster for his back to ease his rheumatism at night. His daughter was only just come in from work, so they had ventured to bring the message.

'Is any one coming for it?'

'I said we would bring it back,' replied Mary, 'if you would kindly let us have it.'

'Why, it is a mile out of your way!'

'It is moonlight, and we do so enjoy a walk together,' she answered.

'Well, Adela,' said Mrs. Bury, when they were gone with the roll of plaster, 'I agree that they might be worse—and by a great deal!'

'Did he speak all the time?'

'Yes, once. But there are worse faults than silence; and she seems a bonny little woman. Honeymooning still—that moonlight walk too.'

'I can fancy that it is a treat to escape from Mrs. Morton. She is depths below them in refinement!'

'On the whole, I think you may be thankful, Adela.'

'I hope I am. I believe you would soon be intimate with them; but then you always could get on with all sorts of people, and I have a shrinking from getting under the surface—if I could.'

And indeed, further intercourse, though not without shocks and casualties, made Mary Northmoor wish that Letitia Bury had been the permanent inhabitant; above all, when she undertook to come and give her counsel and support for that first tremendous undertaking—the dinner-party. Lady Kenton was equally helpful at their next; and Sir Edward gave much good advice to his lordship as to not letting himself be made the tool of the loud-voiced squire, who was anxious to be his guide, philosopher, and friend in county business—advice that made Frank's heart sink, for thus far he felt only capable of sitting still and listening.



CHAPTER XIV WESTHAVEN VERSIONS OF HONOURS

'Thank you, a bit of partridge, Mr. Rollstone, if you please.'

'Excuse me, Mrs. Grover. This is a grouse from Lord Northmoor's own moors, I presume,' replied Mr. Rollstone, to the tune of a peal of laughter from Herbert and exclamation—'Not know a grouse!'—for which Ida frowned at him.

'Yes, indeed,' said his mother; 'we had so much game up at my brother's, Lord Northmoor's, that I shall quite miss it now I am come away.'

'Flimsy sort of grub!' growled an old skipper. 'Only fit for this sort of a tea—not to make a real meal on, fit for "a man"!'

The young folk laughed. Captain Purdy was only invited as a messmate of Mrs. Morton's father.

'You'll excuse this being only a tea,' went on Mrs. Morton. 'I hope to have a dinner in something more of style if ever I return here, but I could not attempt it with my present establishment after what we have got accustomed to. Why, we never sat down to dinner without two menservants!'

'Only two?' said Mr. Rollstone. 'I have never been without three men under me; and I always had two to wait, even when the lady dined alone.'

Mrs. Grover, who had been impressed for a moment, took courage to say—

'I don't think so much of your grouse, Mrs. Morton. It's tasty and 'igh.'

'High game goes with high families,' wickedly murmured Herbert, causing much tittering at his corner of the table; and this grew almost convulsive, while another matron of the party observed—

'Mrs. Macdonald, Mr. Holt's sister in Scotland, once sent us some, and really, Mrs. Morton, if you boil them down, they are almost as good as a pat-ridge!'

'Oh, really now, Mrs. Holt! I hope you didn't tell Mrs. Macdonald so!' said Mrs. Morton. 'It is a real valuable article, such as my brother, Lord Northmoor, would only send to us, and one or two old friends that he wishes to compliment at Hurminster. But one must be used to high society to know how such things should be relished!'

'Are Lord Northmoor's moors extensive?' asked Mr. Rollstone.

'There's about four or five miles of them,' responded Herbert; 'and these grouse are awfully shy.'

'Ah, the Earl of Blackwing owns full twenty miles of heather,' said the ex-butler.

'Barren stuff!' growled the skipper; 'breeding nothing worth setting one's teeth into!'

'There are seven farms besides,' put in Mrs. Morton. 'My brother is going to have an audit-day next week.'

'You should have seen the Earl's audits,' said Mr. Rollstone. 'Five-and-twenty substantial tenant-farmers, besides artisans, and all the family plate on the sideboard!'

'Ah, you should see the Northmoor plate!' said Mrs. Morton. 'There are racing cups, four of them—not that any one could drink out of them, for they are just centre-pieces for the table. There's a man in armour galloping off headlong with a girl behind him— Who did your uncle say it was, Conny?'

'The Templar and Rowena, mamma,' said Constance.

'Yes, that was the best—all frosted. I liked that better than the one where the girl with no clothes to speak of was running like mad after a golden ball. They said that was an heirloom, worth five hundred—'

'Lord Burnside's yachting cups are valued at five thousand,' said Mr. Rollstone. 'I should know, for I had the care of them, and it was a responsibility as weighed on my mind.'

So whatever Mrs. Morton described as to the dignities and splendours of Northmoor, Mr. Rollstone continued to cap with more magnificent experiences, so that, though he never pretended to view himself in the light of a participator in the grandeur he described, he continued, quite unintentionally, so to depreciate the glories of Northmoor, that Mrs. Morton began to recollect how far above him her sphere had become, and to decide against his future admission to her parties.

The young ladies, as soon as tea was over, retired into corners in pairs, having on their side much to communicate. Rose Rollstone was at home for a holiday, after having begun to work at an establishment for art and ecclesiastical needlework, and it was no small treat to her and Constance to meet and compare their new experiences. Rose, always well brought up by her father, was in a situation carefully trained by a lady head, and watched over by those who deepened and cultivated her religious feeling; and Constance had to tell of the new facilities of education offered to them. Ida was too delicate for school, their mother said, and was only to have music lessons at Brighton, or in London whenever the present house could be parted with; but Herbert had already begun to work with a tutor for the army, and Constance was to go to the High School at Colbeam and spend her Sundays at Northmoor, where a prettily-furnished room was set apart for her. She described it with so much zest that Rose was seized with a sort of alarm. 'You will live there like all the lords and ladies that papa talks of, and grow worldly and fashionable.'

'Oh no, no,' cried Constance, and there was a girlish kissing match, but Rose seemed to think worldliness inevitable.

'The Earl my papa lived with used to bet and gamble, and come home dreadfully late at night, and so did my lady and her daughters, and their poor maid had to sit up for them till four o'clock in the morning. Then their bills! They never told his lordship, but they sold their diamonds and wore paste. His lordship did not know, but their maid did, and told papa.'

Constance opened her eyes and declared that Uncle Frank and Aunt Mary never could do such things. Moreover, she averred that Lady Adela was always going about among the cottages, and that Miss Morton had not a bit of pride, and was going to live in London to teach the dust-pickers and match-box makers. 'Indeed, I don't think they are half as worldly in themselves,' she said, 'as Ida is growing with thinking about them.'

'Ah, don't you remember the sermon that said worldliness didn't depend on what one has, but what one is?'

'Talking of nothing better than sermons!' said Herbert, coming on them. 'Have you caught it of the governor, Con? I believe he thinks of nothing but sermons.'

And Constance exclaimed, 'I am sure he doesn't preach!'

'Oh no, nothing comes out of his mouth that he can help; trust him for that.'

'Then how do you know?'

'By the stodgy look of him. He would be the awfullest of prosers if he had the gift of the gab.'

'You are an ungrateful boy,' said Rose. 'I am sure he must be very kind to you.'

'Can't help it,' said Herbert. 'The old fellow would be well enough if he had any go in him.'

'I am sure he took you out hunting,' exclaimed Constance indignantly, 'the day they took us to the meet. And he leapt all the ditches when you—'

He broke in, 'Well, what was I to do when I've never had the chance to learn to sit a horse? You'll see next winter.'

'Did you hurt yourself?' asked Rose, rather mischievously.

To which Herbert turned a deaf ear and began to expatiate upon the game of Northmoor, till other sounds led him away to fall upon the other tete-a-tete between Ida and Sibyl Grover. In Ida's mind the honours of Northmoor were dearly purchased by the dulness and strictness of the life there.

'My uncle was as cross as two sticks if ever Herbert or I were too late for prayers, and he said it was nonsense of Herbert to say that kneeling at church spoilt his trousers—kneeling just like a school child! It made me so faint!'

'And it looks so!'

'I tried, because Lady Adela and Miss Bertha and all do,' said Ida, 'and they looked at me! But it made me faint, as I knew it would,' and she put her head on one side.

'Poor dear! So they were so very religious! Did that spoil it all?'

'Well, we had pretty things off the Christmas-tree, and we lived quite as ladies, and drove out in the carriage.'

'No parties nor dances? Or were they too religious?'

'Ma says it is their meanness; but my aunt, Lady Northmoor, did say perhaps it would be livelier another year, and then we should have had some dancing and deportment lessons. I up and told her I could dance fast enough now, but she said it would not be becoming or right to Lady Adela's and Miss Morton's feelings.'

'Do they live there?'

'Not in the house. Lady Adela has a cottage of her own, and Miss Morton stops with her. Lady Adela is as high and standoffish as the monument,' said Ida, pausing for a comparison.

'High and haughty,' said Sibyl, impressed. 'And the other lady?'

'Oh, she is much more good-natured. We call her Bertha; at least, she told us that we might call her anything but that horrid Cousin Bertha, as she said. But she's old, thirty-six years old, and not a bit pretty, and she says such odd things, one doesn't know what to do. She thought I made myself useful and could wash and iron,' said Ida, as if this were the greatest possible insult, in which Sibyl acquiesced.

'And she thought I should know the factory girls, just the hands,' added Ida, greatly disgusted. 'As if I should! But ma says low tastes are in the family, for she is going to live in London, and go and sit with the shop-girls in the evening. Still I like her better than Lady Adela, who keeps herself to herself. Mamma says it is pride and spite that her plain little sickly girl hasn't come to be my Lady.'

'What, doesn't she speak to them?' said Sibyl, quite excited.

'Oh yes, she calls, and shakes hands, and all that, but one never seems to get on with her. And Emily Trotman, she's the doctor's daughter, such a darling, told me such a history—so interesting!'

'Tell me, Ida, there's a dear.'

'She says they were all frightfully dissipated' (Ida said it quite with a relish)—'the old Lord and Mr. Morton, Lady Adela's husband, you know, and Miss Bertha—always racing and hunting and gambling and in debt. Then there came a Captain Alder, who was ever so much in love with Miss Bertha, but most awfully in debt to her brother, and very passionate besides. So he took him out in his dog-cart with a fiery horse that was sure to run away.'

'Who did?'

'Captain Alder took Mr. Morton, though they begged and prayed him not, and the horse ran away and Mr. Morton was thrown out and killed.'

'Oh!' with extreme zest. 'On purpose?'

'Miss Bertha was sure it was, so that she might have all the fortune, and so she told him, and flung the betrothal ring in his face, and he went right off, and never has been heard of since.'

'Well, that is interesting. Do you think he shot himself?'

'No, he was too mean. Most likely he married a hideous millionaire: but the Mortons were always dreadful, and did all sorts of wicked things.'

'I declare it's as good as any tale—like the sweet one in the Young Ladies' Friend now—"The Pride of Pedro." Have you seen it?'

'No, indeed, uncle and aunt only have great old stupid books! They wanted me to read those horrid tiresome things of Scott's, and Dickens's too, who is as old as the hills! Why, they could not think of anything better to do on their wedding tour but to go to all the places in the Waverley novels.'

'Why, they are as bad as history! Jim brought one home once, and pa wanted me to read it, but I could not get on with it—all about a stupid king of France. I'm sure if I married a lord I'd make him do something nicer.'

'I mean ma to do something more jolly,' said Ida, 'when we get more money, and I am come out. I mean to go to balls and tennis parties, and I shall be sure to marry a lord at some of them.'

'And you will take me,' cried Sibyl.

'Only you must be very genteel,' said Ida. 'Try to learn style, do, dear. It must be learnt young, you know! Why, there's Aunt Mary, when she has got ever so beautiful a satin dress on, she does not look half so stylish as Lady Adela walking up the road in an old felt hat and a shepherd's-plaid waterproof! But they all do dress so as I should be ashamed. Only think what a scrape that got Herbert into. He was coming back one Saturday from his tutor's, and he saw walking up to the house an awfully seedy figure of fun, in an old old ulster, and such a hat as you never saw, with a knapsack on her back, and a portfolio under her arm. So of course he thought it was a tramp with something to sell, and he holloaed out, "You'd better come out of this! We want none of your sort." She just turned round and laughed, which put him in such a rage, that though she began to speak he didn't wait, but told her to have done with her sauce, or he would call the keepers. He thinks she said, "You'd better," and I believe he did move his stick a little.'

'Ida, have done with that!' cried Herbert's voice close to her. 'Hold your tongue, or I'll—' and his hand was near her hair.

'Oh, don't, don't, Herbert. Let me hear,' cried Sibyl.

'That's the way girls go on,' said Herbert fiercely, 'with their nonsense and stuff.'

'But who—?'

'If you go on, Ida—' he was clutching her braid.

Sibyl sprang to the defence, and there was a general struggle and romp interspersed with screams, which was summarily stopped by Mr. Rollstone explaining severely, 'If you think that is the deportment of the aristocracy, Miss Ida, you are much mistaken.'

'Bother the aristocracy!' broke out Herbert.

Calm was restored by a summons to a round game, but Sibyl's curiosity was of course insatiable, and as she sat next to Herbert, she employed various blandishments and sympathetic whispers, and after a great deal of fuss, and 'What will you give me if I tell?' to extract the end of the story, 'Did he call the keeper?'

'Oh yes, the old beast! His name's Best, but it ought to be Beast! He guffawed ever so much worse than she did!'

'Well, but who was it?'

And after he had tried to make her guess, and teased his fill, he owned, 'Mrs. Bury—a sort of cousin, staying with Lady Adela. She isn't half a bad old party, but she makes a guy of herself, and goes about sketching and painting like a blessed old drawing-master.'

'A lady? and not a young lady.'

'Not as old as—as Methuselah, or old Rolypoly there, but I believe she's a grandmother. If she'd been a boy, we should have been cut out of it. Oh yes, she's a lady—a born Morton; and when it was over she was very jolly about it—no harm done—bears no malice, only Ida makes such an absurd work about every little trifle.'



CHAPTER XV THE PIED ROOK

Constance Morton was leaning on the rail that divided the gardens at Northmoor from the park, which was still rough and heathery. Of all the Morton family, perhaps she was the one who had the most profited by the three years that had passed since her uncle's accession to the title. She had been at a good boarding-house, attending the High School in Colbeam, and spending Saturday and Sunday at Northmoor. It had been a happy life, she liked her studies, made friends with her companions, and enjoyed to the very utmost all that Northmoor gave her, in country beauty and liberty, in the kindness of her uncle and aunt, and in the religious training that they were able to give her, satisfying longings of her soul, so that she loved them with all her heart, and felt Northmoor her true home. The holiday time at Westhaven was always a trial. Mrs. Morton had tried Brighton and London, but neither place agreed with Ida: and she found herself a much greater personage in her own world than elsewhere, and besides could not always find tenants for her house. So there she lived at her ease, called by many of her neighbours the Honourable Mrs. Morton, and finding listeners to her alternate accounts of the grandeur of Northmoor, and murmurs at the meanness of its master in only allowing her 300 pounds a year, besides educating her children, and clothing two of them.

Ida considered herself to be quite sufficiently educated, and so she was for the society in which she was, or thought herself, a star, chiefly consisting of the families of the shipowners, coalowners, and the like. She was pretty, with a hectic prettiness of bright eyes and cheeks, and had a following of the young men of the place; and though she always tried to enforce that to receive attentions from a smart young mate, a clerk in an office, a doctor's assistant, or the like, was a great condescension on her part, she enjoyed them all the more. Learning new songs for their benefit, together with extensive novel reading, were her chief employments, and it was the greater pity because her health was not strong. She dreamt much in a languid way, and had imagination enough to work these tales into her visions of life. Her temper suffered, and Constance found the atmosphere less and less congenial as she grew older and more accustomed to a different life.

She was a gentle, ladylike girl, with her brown hair still on her shoulders, as on that summer Saturday she stood looking along the path, but with her ears listening for sounds from the house, and an anxious expression on her young face. Presently she started at the sound of a gun, which caused a mighty cawing among the rooks in the trees on the slopes, and a circling of the black creatures in the sky. A whistling then was heard, and her brother Herbert came in sight in a few minutes more, a fine tall youth of sixteen, with quite the air and carriage of a gentleman. He had a gun on his shoulder, and carried by the claws the body of a rook with white wings.

'Oh, Herbert,' cried Constance in dismay, 'did you shoot that by mistake?'

'No; Stanhope would not believe there was such a crittur, and betted half a sov that it was a cram.'

'But how could you? Our uncle and aunt thought so much of that poor dear Whitewing, and Best was told to take care of it. They will be so vexed.'

'Nonsense! He'll come to more honour stuffed than ever he would flying and howling up there. When I've shown him to Stanhope, I shall make that old fellow at Colbeam come down handsomely for him. What a row those birds kick up! I'll send my other barrel among them.'

'Oh no, don't, Bertie. Uncle Frank has one of his dreadful headaches to-day.'

'Seems to me he is made of headaches.'

'Yes, Aunt Mary is very anxious. Oh, I would have done anything that you had not vexed them now and killed this poor dear pretty thing!' said Constance, stroking down the glossy feathers of the still warm victim, and laying them against her cheek, almost tearfully.

'Well, you are not going to tell them. Perhaps they won't miss it. I would not have done it if Stanhope had not been such a beast,' said Herbert.

'I shall not tell them, of course,' said Constance; 'but, if I were you, I should not be happy till they knew.'

'Oh, that's only girl's way! I can't have the old Stick upset now, for I'm in horrid want of tin.'

'Oh, Bertie, was it true then?'

'What, you don't mean that they have heard?'

'That you were out at those Colbeam races!'

'To be sure I was, with Stanhope and Hailes and a lot more. We all went except the little kids and Sisson, who is in regular training for as great a muff as the governor there. Who told him?'

'Mr. Hailes, who is very much concerned about his grandson.'

'Old sneak; I wonder how he ferreted it out. Is there no end of a jaw coming, Con?'

'I don't know. Uncle Frank seemed quite knocked down and wretched over it. He said something about feeling hopeless, and the old blood coming out to be your ruin.'

'Of course it's the old blood! How did he miss it, and turn into the intolerable old dry fogey that he is, without a notion of anything fit for a gentleman?'

'Now, Herbert—'

'Oh yes. You should just hear what the other fellows say about him. Their mothers and their sisters say there is not so stupid a place in the county, he hasn't a word to say for himself, and they would just as soon go to Portland at once as to a party here.'

'Then it is a great shame! I am sure Aunt Mary works hard to make it pleasant for them!'

'Oh yes, good soul, she does, she can't help it; but when people have stuck in the mud all their lives, they can't know any better, and it is abominably hard on a fellow who does, to be under a man who has been an office cad all his life, and doesn't know what is expected of a gentleman! Screwing us all up like beggars—'

'Herbert, for shame! for shame! As if he was obliged to do anything at all for us!'

'Oh, isn't he? A pretty row my mother would kick up about his ears if he did not, when I must come after him at this place, too!'

'I think you are very ungrateful,' said Constance, with tears, 'when they are so good to us.'

'Oh, they are as kind as they know how, but they don't know. That's the thing, or old Frank would be ashamed to give me such a dirty little allowance. He has only himself to thank if I have to come upon him for more. Found out about the Blackbird colt, has he? What a bore! And tin I must have out of him by hook or by crook if he cuts up ever so rough. I must send off this bird first by the post to confute Stanhope and make him eat dirt, and then see what's to be done.'

'Indeed, Bertie, I don't think you will see him to-night. His head is dreadful, and Aunt Mary has sent for Mr. Trotman.'

'Whew! You have not got anything worth having, I suppose, Conny?'

'Only fifteen shillings. I meant it for— But you shall have it, dear Bertie, if it will only save worrying them.'

'Fifteen bob! Fifteen farthings you might as well offer. No, no, you soft little monkey, I must see what is to be made of him or her ladyship, one or the other, to-day or to-morrow. If they know I have been at the place it is half the battle. Consequence was! Provided they don't smell out this unlucky piebald! I wish Stanhope hadn't been such a beast!'

At that moment, too late to avoid her, Lady Northmoor, pale and anxious, came up the path and was upon them. 'Your uncle is asleep,' she began, but then, starting, 'Oh, Conny. Poor Whitewing. Did you find him?'

Constance hung her head and did not speak. Then her aunt saw how it was.

'Herbert! you must have shot him by mistake; your uncle will be so grieved.'

Herbert was not base enough to let this pass. He muttered, 'A fellow would not take my word for it, so I had to show him.'

She looked at him very sadly. 'Oh, Herbert, I did not think you would have made that a reason for vexing your uncle!'

The boy was more than half sorry under those gentle eyes. He muttered something about 'didn't think he would care.'

She shook her head, instead of saying that she knew this was not the truth; and unable to bear the sting, he flung away from her, carrying the rook with him, and kicking the pebbles, trying to be angry instead of sorry. And just then came a summons to Lady Northmoor to see the doctor.

Yet Herbert Morton was a better boy than he seemed at that moment; his errors were chiefly caused by understanding noblesse oblige in a different way from his uncle. Moreover, it would have been better for him if his tutor had lived beyond the neighbourhood of Northmoor, where he heard, losing nothing in the telling, the remarks of the other pupils' mothers upon his uncle and aunt; more especially as it was not generally the highest order of boy that was to be found there. If he had heard what the fathers said, he would have learnt that, though shy and devoid of small talk, and of the art of putting guests together, Lord Northmoor was trusted and esteemed. He might perhaps be too easily talked down; he could not argue, and often gave way to the noisy Squire; but he was certain in due time to see the rights of a question, and he attended thoroughly to the numerous tasks of an active and useful county man, taking all the drudgery that others shirked. While, if by severe stress he were driven to public speaking, he could acquit himself far better than any one had expected. The Bishop and the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions alike set him down on their committees, not only for his rank, but for his industry and steadiness of work. Nor had any one breathed any imputation upon the possession of what used to be known as gentility, before that good word was degraded, to mean something more like what Mrs. Morton aspired to. Lord and Lady Northmoor might not be lively, nor a great accession to society, but the anticipations of either amusement or annoyance from vulgarity or arrogance were entirely disappointed. No one could call them underbred, or anything but an ingrain gentleman and lady, while there were a few who could uphold Lady Northmoor as thoroughly kind, sweet, sensible, and helpful to her utmost in all that was good.

All this, however, was achieved not only unconsciously but with severe labour by a man whose powers could only act slowly, and who was not to the manner born. Conscientiousness is a costly thing, and Strafford's watchword is not to be adopted for nothing. The balance of duties, the perplexities of managing an impoverished and involved estate, the disappointment of being unable to carry out the responsibilities of a landlord towards neglected cottagers, the incapacity of doing what would have been desirable for the Church, and the worry and harass that his sister-in-law did not spare, all told as his office work had never done, and in spite of quiet, happy hours with his Mary, and her devoted and efficient aid whenever it was possible, a course of disabling neuralgic headaches had set in, and a general derangement of health, which had become alarming, and called for immediate remedy.



CHAPTER XVI WHAT IS REST?

'Rest, there is nothing for it but immediate rest and warm baths,' said Lady Northmoor to Constance, who was waiting anxiously for the doctor's verdict some hours later. 'It is only being overdone—no, my dear, there is nothing really to fear, if we can only keep business and letters out of his way for a few weeks, my dear child.'

For Constance, who had been dreadfully frightened by the sight of the physician's carriage, which seemed to her inexperienced eyes the omen of something terrible, fairly burst into tears of relief.

'Oh, I am so glad!' she said, as caresses passed—which might have been those of mother and daughter for heartfelt sympathy and affection.

'You will miss your Saturdays and Sundays, my dear,' continued the aunt, 'for we shall have to go abroad, so as to be quite out of the way of everything.'

'Never mind that, dear aunt, if only Uncle Frank is better. Will it be long?'

'I cannot tell. He says six weeks, Dr. Smith says three months. It is to be bracing air—Switzerland, most likely.'

'Oh, how delightful! How you will enjoy it!'

'It has always been a dream, and it is strange now to feel so downhearted about it,' said her aunt, smiling.

'Uncle Frank is sure to be better there,' said Constance. 'Only think of the snowy mountains—

Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains; They crown'd him long ago On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds, With a diadem of snow.'

And the girl's eyes brightened with an enthusiasm that the elder woman felt for a moment, nor did either of them feel the verse hackneyed.

'Ah, I wish we could take you, my dear,' said Lady Northmoor; then, 'Do you know where Herbert is?'

'No,' said Constance. 'Oh, aunt, I am so sorry! I don't think he would have done it if the other boys had not teased him.'

'Perhaps not; but, indeed, I am grieved, not only on the poor rook's account, but that he should have the heart to vex your uncle just now. However, perhaps he did not understand how ill he has been all this week. And I am afraid that young Stanhope is not a good companion for him.'

'I do not think he is,' said Constance; 'it seems to me that Stanhope leads him into that betting, and makes him think it does not signify whether he passes or not, and so he does not take pains.'

Herbert was not to be found either then or at dinner-time. It turned out that he had taken from the stables the horse he was allowed to ride, and had gone over to display his victim to Stanhope, and then on to the bird-stuffer; had got a meal, no one wished to know how, only returning in time to stump upstairs to bed.

He thus avoided an interview with his uncle over the rook, unaware that his aunt had left him the grace of confession, being in hopes that, unless he did speak of his own accord, the vexatious knowledge might be spared to one who did not need an additional annoyance just then.

Lord Northmoor was not, however, to be spared. He was much better the next day, Sunday, a good deal exhilarated by the doctor's opinion; and, though concerned at having to break off his work, ready to enjoy what he was told was absolutely essential.

The head-keeper had no notion of sparing him. Mr. Best regarded him with a kind of patronising toleration as an unfortunate gentleman who had the ill-hap never to have acquired a taste for sport, and was unable to do justice to his preserves; but towards 'Mr. Morton' there was a very active dislike. The awkward introduction might have rankled even had Herbert been wise enough to follow Miss Morton's advice; but his nature was overbearing, and his self-opinion was fostered by his mother and Ida, while he was edged on by his fellow-pupils to consider Best a mere old woman, who could only be tolerated by the ignorance of 'a regular Stick.'

With the under-keeper Herbert fraternised enough to make him insubordinate; and the days when Lord Northmoor gave permission for shooting or for inviting his companions for a share in the sport, were days of mutual offence, when the balance of provoking sneer and angry insult would be difficult to cast, though the keeper was the most forbearing, since he never complained of personal ill-behaviour to himself, whereas Herbert's demonstrations to his uncle of 'that old fool' were the louder and more numerous because they never produced the slightest effect.

However, Best felt aggrieved in the matter of the rook, which had been put under his special protection, and being, moreover, something of a naturalist, he had cherished the hope of a special Northmoor breed of pied rooks.

So while, on the way from church, Lady Adela was detaining Lady Northmoor with inquiries as to Dr. Smith, Best waylaid his master with, 'Your lordship gave me orders about that there rook with white wings, as was not to be mislested.'

'Has anything happened to it?' said Frank wearily.

'Well, my lord, I sees Mr. Morton going up to the rookery with his gun, and I says to him that it weren't time for shooting of the branchers, and the white rook weren't to be touched by nobody, and he swears at me for a meddling old leggings, and uses other language as I'll not repeat to your lordship, and by and by I hears his gun, and I sees him a-picking up of the rook that her ladyship set such store by, so it is due to myself, my lord, to let you know as I were not to blame.'

'Certainly not, Best,' was the reply. 'I am exceedingly displeased that my nephew has behaved so ill to you, and I shall let him know it.'

'His lordship will give it to him hot and strong, the young upstart,' muttered Best to himself with great satisfaction, as he watched the languid pace quicken to overtake the boy, who had gone on with his sister.

Perhaps the irritability of illness had some effect upon the ordinary gentleness of Lord Northmoor's temper, and besides, he was exceedingly annoyed at such ungrateful slaughter of what was known to be a favourite of his wife; so when he came upon Herbert, sauntering down to the stables, he accosted him sharply with, 'What is this I hear, Herbert? I could not have believed that you would have deliberately killed the creature that you knew to be a special delight to your aunt.'

Herbert had reached the state of mind when a third, if not a fourth, reproach on the same subject on which his conscience was already uneasy, was simply exasperating, and without the poor excuse he had offered his aunt and sister, he burst out that it was very hard that such a beastly row should be made about a fellow knocking down mere trumpery vermin.

'Speak properly, Herbert, or hold your tongue,' said his uncle. 'I am extremely displeased at finding that you do not know how to conduct yourself to my servants, and have presumed to act in this lawless, heartless manner, in defiance of what you knew to be your aunt's wishes and my orders, and that you replied to Best's remonstrance with insolence.'

'That's a good one! Insolent to an old fool of a keeper,' muttered Herbert sullenly.

'Insolence is shameful towards any man,' returned his uncle. 'And from a foolish headstrong boy to a faithful old servant it is particularly unbecoming. However, bad as this is, it is not all that I have to speak of.'

Then Herbert recollected with dismay how much his misdemeanour would tell against his pardon for the more important act of disobedience, and he took refuge in a sullen endeavour at indifference, while his uncle, thoroughly roused, spoke of the sins of disobedience and the dangers of betting. Perhaps the only part of the lecture that he really heard was, 'Remember, it was these habits in those who came before us that have been so great a hindrance in life to both you and me, and made you, my poor boy, so utterly mistaken as to what becomes your position. How much have you thrown away?'

Herbert looked up and muttered the amount—twelve pounds and some shillings.

'Very well, I will not have it owed. I shall pay it, deducting two pounds from your allowance each term till it is made up. Give me the address or addresses.'

At this Herbert writhed and remonstrated, but his uncle was inexorable.

'The fellows will be at me,' he said, as he gave Stanhope's name.

'You will see no more of Stanhope after this week. I have arranged to send you to a tutor in Hertfordshire, who I hope will make you work, and where, I trust, you will find companions who will give you a better idea of what becomes a gentleman.'

In point of fact, this had been arranged for some time past, though by the desire of Herbert's present tutor it had not been made known to the young people, so that, coming thus, there was a sound of punishment in it to Herbert.

The interview ended there. The annoyance, enhanced in his mind by having come on a Sunday, brought on another attack of headache; but late in the evening he sent for Herbert, who always had to go very early on the Monday. It was to ask him whether he would not prefer the payment being made to Stanhope and the other pupil after he had left them. Herbert's scowl passed off. It was a great relief. He said they were prepared to wait till he had his allowance, and the act of consideration softened him, as did also the manifest look of suffering and illness, as his uncle lay on the couch, hardly able to speak, and yet exerting himself thus to spare the lad.

'Thank you, sir,' actually Herbert said, and then, with a gulp, 'I am sorry about that bird—I wish I'd never told them, but it was Stanhope who drove me to it, not believing.'

'I thought it was not your better mind,' said his uncle, holding out his hand. 'I should like you to make me a promise, Herbert, not to make a bet while I am away. I should go with an easier mind.'

'I will, uncle,' said Herbert, heartily reflecting, perhaps, it must be owned, on the fewer opportunities in that line at Westhaven, except at the regatta, but really resolving, as the only salve to his conscience. And there was that in his face and the clasp of his hand that gave his uncle a sense of comfort and hope.



CHAPTER XVII ON THE SURFACE

Lady Adela, though small and pale, was one of the healthy women who seem unable to believe in any ailments short of a raging fever; and when she heard of neuralgia, decided that it was all a matter of imagination, and a sort of excuse for breaking off the numerous occupations in which she felt his value, but only as she would have acknowledged that of a good schoolmaster. Their friendly intercourse had never ripened into intimacy, and was still punctiliously courteous; each tacitly dreaded the influence of the other on the Vicar-in-Church matters, and every visit of the Westhaven family confirmed Lady Adela's belief that it was undesirable to go below the surface.

Bertha, who came down for a day or two to assist at the breaking-up demonstration of the High School at Colbeam, was as ever much more cordial. The chief drawbacks with her were that cynical tone, which made it always doubtful whether she were making game of her hearers, and the philanthropy, not greatly tinged with religion, so as to confuse old-fashioned minds. She used to bring down strange accounts of her startling adventures in the slums, and relate them in a rattling style, interluded with slang, being evidently delighted to shock and puzzle her hearers; but still she was always good-natured in deed if not in word, and Lord Northmoor was very grateful for her offer of hospitality to Herbert, who was coming to London for his preliminary examination.

She had come up to call, determined to be of use to them, and she had experience enough of travelling to be very helpful. Finding that they shuddered at the notion of fashionable German 'baden,' she exclaimed—

'I'll hit you off! There's that place in the Austrian Tyrol that Lettice Bury frequents—a regular primitive place with a name—Oh, what is it, Addie, like rats and mice?'

'Ratzes,' said Adela.

'Yes. The tourists have not molested it yet, and only natives bathe there, so she goes every year to renovate herself and sketch, and comes back furbished up like an old snake, with lots of drawings of impossible peaks, like Titian's backgrounds. We'll write and tell her to make ready for the head of her house!'

'Oh, but—' began Frank, looking to his wife.

'Would it not be intruding?' said Mary.

'She will be enchanted! She always likes to have anything to do for anybody, and she says the scenery is just a marvel. You care for that! You are so deliciously fresh, beauties aren't a bore to you.'

'We are glad of the excuse,' said Frank gravely.

'You look ill enough to be an excuse for anything, and Mary too! How about a maid? Is Harte going?'

'No,' said Mary; 'she says that foreign food made her so ill once before that she cannot attempt going again. I meant to do without.'

'That would never do!' cried Bertha. 'You have quite enough on your hands with Northmoor, and the luggage and the languages.'

'Is not an English maid apt to be another trouble?' said Mary. 'I do not suppose my French is good, but I have had to talk it constantly; and I know some German, if that will serve in the Tyrol.'

'I'll reconcile it to your consciences,' said Bertha triumphantly. 'It will be a real charity. There's a bonny little Swiss girl whom some reckless people brought home and then turned adrift. It will be a real kindness to help her home, and you shall pick her up when you come up to me on your way, and see my child! Oh, didn't I tell you? We had a housemaid once who was demented enough to marry a scamp of a stoker on one of the Thames steamers. He deserted her, and I found her living, or rather dying, in an awful place at Rotherhithe, surrounded by tipsy women, raging in opposite corners. I got her into a decent room, but too late to save her life—and a good thing too; so I solaced her last moments with a promise to look after her child, such a jolly little mortal, in spite of her name—Boadicea Ethelind Davidina Jones. She is two years old, and quite delicious—the darling of all the house!'

'I hope you will have no trouble with the father,' said Frank.

'I trust he has gone to his own locker, or, if not, he is only too glad to be rid of her. I can tackle him,' said Bertha confidently. 'The child is really a little duck!'

She spoke as if the little one filled an empty space in her heart; and, even though there might be trouble in store, it was impossible not to be glad of her present gladness, and her invitation was willingly accepted. Moreover, her recommendations were generally trustworthy, and Mary only hesitated because, she said—

'I thought, if I could do without a maid, we might take Constance. She is doing so very well, and likely to pass so well in her examinations, that it would be very nice to give her this pleasure.'

'Good little girl! So it would. I should like nothing better; but I am afraid that if you took her without a maid, Emma would misunderstand it, and say you wanted to save the expense.'

'Would it make much difference?'

'Not more than we could bear now that we are in for it, but I fear it would excite jealousies.'

'Is that worse than leaving the poor child to Westhaven society all the holidays?'

'Perhaps not; and Conny is old enough now to be more injured by it than when she was younger.'

'You know I have always hoped to make her like a child of our own when her school education is finished.'

Frank smiled, for he was likewise very fond of little Constance.

There was a public distribution of prizes, at which all the grandees of the neighbourhood were expected to assist, and it was some consolation to the Northmoors, for the dowager duchess being absent, that the pleasure of taking the prize from her uncle would be all the greater—if—

The whole party went—Lady Adela, Miss Morton, and all—and were installed in chairs of state on the platform, with the bright array of books before them—the head-mistress telling Lady Northmoor beforehand that her niece would have her full share of honours. No one could be a better or more diligent girl.

It quite nerved Lord Northmoor when he looked forth upon the sea of waving tresses of all shades of brown, while his wife watched in nervousness, both as to how he would acquit himself and how the exertion would affect him; and Bertha, as usual, was anxious for the credit of the name.

He did what was needed. Nobody wanted anything but the sensible commonplace, kindly spoken, about the advantages of good opportunities, the conscientiousness of doing one's best. And after all, the inferiority of mere attainments in themselves to the discipline and dutifulness of responding to training,—it was slowly but not stammeringly spoken, and Bertha did not feel critical or ashamed, but squeezed Mary's hand, and said, 'Just the right thing.'

One by one the girls were summoned for their prizes, the little ones first. Lord Northmoor had not the gift of inventing a pretty speech for each, he could do no more than smile as he presented the book, and read its name; but the smile was a very decided one when, in the class next to the highest, three out of the seven prizes were awarded to Constance Elizabeth Morton, and it might be a question which had the redder cheeks, the uncle or the niece, as he handed them to her. It was one of the few happinesses that he had derived from his brother's family!

After such achievements on Constance's part, it was impossible to withhold—as they drove back to Northmoor—the proposal to take her with them, and the effect was magical. Constance opened her eyes, bounded up, as if she were going to fly out of the carriage, and then launched herself, first on her uncle, then on her aunt, for an ecstatic kiss.

'Take care, take care, we shall have the servants thinking you a little lunatic!'

'I am almost! Oh, I am so glad! To be with you and Aunt Mary all the holidays! That would be enough! But to go and see all the places,' she added, somehow perceiving that the desire to escape from home was, at least ought not to be approved of, and yet there was some exultation, when she hazarded a supposition that there was no time to go home.



CHAPTER XVIII DESDICHADO

Home—that is to say, Westhaven—was in some commotion when Herbert came back and grimly growled out his intelligence as to his own personal affairs. Mrs. Morton had been already apprized, in one of Lord Northmoor's well-considered letters, of his intentions of removing his nephew to a tutor more calculated to prepare for the army, and she had accepted this as promotion such as was his due. However, when the pride of her heart, the tall gentlemanly son, made his appearance in a savage mood, her feelings were all on the other side, and those of Ida exaggerated hers.

'So I'm to go to some disgusting hole where they grind the fellows no end,' was Herbert's account of the matter.

'But surely with your connection there's no need for grinding?' said his mother.

Herbert laughed, 'Much you know about it! Nobody cares a rap for connections nowadays, even if old Frank were a connection to do a man any good.'

'But you'll not go and study hard and hurt yourself, my dear,' said his mother, though Herbert's looks by no means suggested any such danger, while Ida added, 'It is not as if he had nothing else to look to, you know. He can't keep you out of the peerage.'

'Can't he then? Why, he can and will too, for thirty or forty years more at least.'

'I thought his health was failing,' said Ida, putting into words a hope her mother had a little too much sense of propriety to utter.

'Bosh, it's only neuralgia, just because he is such a stick he can't take things easy, and lark about and do every one's work—he hasn't the least notion what a gentleman ought to do.'

'It is bred in the bone,' said his mother; 'he always was a shabby poor creature! I always said he would not know how to spend his money.'

'He is a regular screw!' responded Herbert. 'What do you think now! He was in no end of a rage with me just because I went with some of the other fellows to the Colbeam races; and one can't help a bet or two, you know. So I lost twelve pound or so, and what must he do but stop it out of my allowance two pound at a time!'

There was a regular outcry at this, and Mrs. Morton declared her poor dear boy should not suffer, but she would make it up to him, and Herbert added that 'it had been unlucky, half of it was that they were riled with him, first because he had shot a ridiculous rook with white wings that my lady made no end of a fuss about.'

'Ah, then it is her spite,' said Ida. 'She's a sly cat, with all her meek ways.'

Herbert was not displeased with this evening's sympathy, as he lay outspread on the sofa, with the admiring and pitying eyes of his mother and sister upon him; but he soon began to feel—when he had had his grumble out, and could take his swing at home—that there could be too much of it.

It was all very well to ease his own mind by complaining, but when he heard of Ida announcing that he had been shamefully treated, all out of spite for killing a white rook, his sense of justice made him declare that the notion was nothing but girl's folly, such as no person with a grain of sense could believe.

The more his mother and her friends persisted in treating him as an ill-used individual, the victim of his uncle's avarice and his aunt's spite, the more his better nature revolted and acknowledged inwardly and sometimes outwardly the kindness and justice he had met with. It was really provoking that any attempt to defend them, or explain the facts, were only treated as proofs of his own generous feeling. Ida's partisanship really did him more good than half a dozen lectures would have done, and he steadily adhered to his promise not to bet, though on the regatta day Ida and her friend Sibyl derided him for not choosing to risk even a pair of gloves; and while one pitied him, the other declared that he was growing a skinflint like his uncle.

He talked and laughed noisily enough to Ida's friends, but he had seen enough at Northmoor to feel the difference, and he told his sister that there was not a lady amongst the whole kit of them, except Rose Rollstone, who was coming down for her holiday.

'Rose!' cried Ida, tossing her head. 'A servant's daughter and a hand at a shop! What will you say next, I wonder?'

'Lady is as lady acts,' said Herbert, making a new proverb, whereat his mother and sister in chorus rebuked him, and demanded to know whether Ida were not a perfect lady.

At which he laughed with a sound of scoffing, and being tired of the discussion sauntered out of the house to that inexhaustible occupation of watching the boats come in, and smoking with old acquaintances, who were still congenial to him, and declared that he had not become stuck-up, though he was turned into an awful swell! Perhaps they were less bad for him than Stanhope, for they inspired no spirit of imitation.

When he came back a later post had arrived, bringing the news of Constance's successes and of the invitation to her to share the expedition of her uncle and aunt. There was no question about letting her go, but the feeling was scarcely of congratulation.

'Well, little Conny knows how to play her cards!'

'Stuff—child wouldn't know what it meant,' said Herbert glumly.

'Well,' said his sister, 'she always was the favourite, and I call it a shame.'

'What, because you've been such a good girl, and got such honours and prizes?' demanded Herbert.

'Nonsense, Herbert,' said his mother. 'Ida's education was finished, you know.'

'Oh, she wasn't a bit older than Conny is now.'

'And I don't hold with all that study, science and logic, and what d'ye call it; that's no use to any one,' continued his mother. 'It's not as if your sisters had to be governesses. Give me a girl who can play a tune on the piano and make herself agreeable. Your uncle may do as he pleases, but he'll have Constance on his hands. The men don't fancy a girl that is always after books and lectures.'

'Not of your sort, perhaps,' said Herbert, 'but I don't care what I bet that Conny gets a better husband than Ida.'

'It stands to reason,' Ida said, almost crying, 'when uncle takes her about to all these fine places and sets her up to be the favourite—just the youngest. It's not fair.'

'As if she wasn't by a long chalk the better of the two,' said Herbert.

'Now, Bertie,' interposed his mother, 'I'll not have you teasing and running down your sister, though I do say it is a shame and a slight to pick out the youngest, when poor Ida is so delicate, and both of you two have ever so much better a right to favours.'

'That's a good one!' muttered Herbert, while Ida exclaimed—

'Of course, you know, aunt has always been nasty to me, ever since I said ma said I was not strong enough to be bothered with that horrid school; and as to poor Herbert, they have spited him because he shot that—'

'Shut up, Ida,' shouted Herbert. 'I wouldn't go with them if they went down on their knees to me! What should I do, loafing about among a lot of disputing frog-eaters, without a word of a Christian language, and old Frank with his nose in a guide-book wanting me to look at beastly pictures and rum old cathedrals. You would be a fish out of water, too, Ida. Now Conny will take to it like a house afire, and what's more, she deserves it!'

'Well, ma,' put in the provoked Ida, 'I wonder you let Conny go, when it would do me so much good, and it is so unfair.'

'My dear, you don't understand a mother's feelings. I feel the slight for you, but your uncle must be allowed to have his way. He is at all the expense, and to refuse for Conny would do you no good.'

'Except that she will be more set up than ever,' murmured Ida.

'Oh, come now! I wonder which looks more like the set-up one,' said Herbert, whose wider range had resulted in making him much alive to Ida's shortcomings, and who looked on at her noisy style of flirtation with the eye of a grave censor. Whatever he might be himself, he knew what a young lady ought to be.

He triumphed a little when, during the few days spent in London, Constance wrote of a delightful evening when, while her uncle and aunt and Miss Morton had gone to an entertainment for Bertha's match-box makers, she had been permitted to have Rose Rollstone to spend the time with her, the carriage, by their kind contrivance, fetching the girl both in going and coming.

The two young things had been thoroughly happy together. Rose had gone on improving herself; her companions in the art embroidery line were girls of a good class, with a few ladies among them, and their tone was good and refined. It was the fashion among them to attend the classes, Bible and secular, put in their way, and their employers conscientiously attended to their welfare, so that Rose was by no means an unfitting companion for the High School maiden, and they most happily compared notes over their very different lives, when they were not engaged in playing with little Cea, as the unwieldy name of Miss Morton's protegee had been softened. She was a very pretty little creature, with big blue eyes and hair that could be called golden, and very full of life and drollery, so that she was a treat to both; and when the housemaid, whose charge she was, insisted on her coming to bed, they begged to superintend her evening toilet, and would have played antics with her in her crib half the night if they had not been inexorably chased away.

Then they sat down on low stools in the balcony, among the flowers, in convenient proximity for the caresses they had not yet outgrown, and had what they called 'a sweet talk.'

Constance had been much impressed with the beauty of the embroidery, and thought it must be delightful to do such things.

'Yes, for the forewoman,' said Rose, 'but there's plenty of dull work; the same over and over again, and one little stitch ever so small gone amiss throws all wrong. Miss Grey told us to recollect it was just like our lives!'

'That's nice!' said Constance. 'And it is for the Church and Almighty God's service?'

'Some of it,' said Rose, 'but there's a good deal only for dresses, and furniture, and screens.'

'Don't you feel like Sunday when you are doing altar-cloths and stools?' asked Constance reverently.

'I wish I did,' said Rose; 'but I don't do much of that kind yet, and one can't keep up the being serious over it always, you know. Indeed, Miss Grey does not wish us to be dull; she reads to us when there is time, and explains the symbols that have to be done; but part of the time it is an amusing book, and she says she does not mind cheerful talk, only she trusts us not to have gossip she would not like to hear.'

'I wonder,' said Constance, 'whether I should have come with you if all this had not happened? It must be very nice.'

'But your school is nice?'

'Oh yes. I do love study, and those Saturdays and Sundays at Northmoor, they are delicious! Uncle Frank reads with me about religion, you know.'

'Like our dear Bible class?'

'Yes; I never understood or felt anything before; he puts it so as it comes home,' said Constance, striving to express herself. 'Then I have a dear little class at the Sunday school.'

'I am to have one, by and by.'

'Mine are sweet little things, and I work for them on Saturdays, while Aunt Mary reads to me. I do like teaching—and, do you know, Rose, I think I shall be a High School teacher!'

'Oh, Conny, I thought you were all so rich and grand!'

'No, we are not,' said Constance lazily; 'we have nothing but what Uncle Frank gives us, and I can't bear the way mamma and Ida are always trying to get more out of him, when I know he can't always do what he likes, and nasty people think him shabby. I am sure I ought to work for myself.'

'But if Herbert is a lord?'

'I hope he won't be for a long long time,' cried Constance. 'Besides, I am sure he would want all his money for himself! And as to being a teacher, Aunt Mary was, and Miss Arden, who is so wise and good, is one. If I was like them I think it would be doing real work for God and good—wouldn't it, Rose? Oh dear, oh dear, there's the carriage stopping for you!'



CHAPTER XIX THE DOLOMITES

The summer was a very hot one, and the travellers, in spite of the charm of new scenes, and the wonders of everything to their unsophisticated eyes, found it trying. Constance indeed was in a state of constant felicity and admiration, undimmed except by the flagging of her two fellow-travellers in the heated and close German railway cars. Her uncle's head suffered much, and Lady Northmoor secretly thought her maid's refusal to accompany them showed her to be a prudent woman. However, the first breath of mountain air was a grand revival to Lord Northmoor, and at Innsbruck he was quite alive, and walked about in fervent delight, not desisting till he and Constance had made out every statue on Maximilian's monument. His wife was so much tired and worn-out, that she heartily rejoiced in having provided him with such a good little companion, though she was disappointed at being obliged to fail him, and get what rest she could at the hotel. But then, as she told him, if he learnt his way about it now, he would be able to show it all to her when they had both gained strength at Ratzes.

Bertha had obtained full instructions and a welcome for them from Mrs. Bury, a kindly person, who, having married off her children while still in full health and vigour, remained at the service of any relation who needed her, and in the meantime resorted to out-of-the-way places abroad.

The railway took them to Botzen, which was hotter still, and thence on to Castelruth, whence there was no means of reaching Ratzes but by mule or chaise a porteux. Both alike were terrible to poor Mary; however, she made up her mind to the latter, and all the long way was to her a dream of terror and discomfort, and of trying to admire—what she knew she ought to admire—the wonderful pinnacle-like aiguilles of the Schern cleaving the air. For some time the way lay over the great plateau of the Scisser Alp—a sea of rich grass, full of cattle, where her husband and niece kept on trying to bring their mules alongside of her to make her participate in their ecstasy, and partake of their spoils—mountain pink, celestially blue gentian, brilliant poppy, or the like. Here the principal annoyance was that their mules were so obstinately bent on not approaching her that she was in constant alarm for them, while Constance was absolutely wild with delight, and even grave Frank was exhilarated by the mountain air into boyish spirits, such as impressed her, though she resolutely prevented herself from lowering them by manifesting want of sympathy, though the aiguilles that they admired seemed to her savage, and the descent, along a perilous winding road, cut out among precipices, horrified her—on, on, through endless pine forests, where the mules insisted on keeping her in solitude, and where nothing could be seen beyond the rough jolting path. At last, when a whole day had gone by, and even Constance sat her mule in silence and looked very tired, the fir trees grew more scanty. The aiguilles seemed in all their wildness to be nodding overhead; there was a small bowling-green, a sort of chalet in two divisions, united by a gallery: but Mary saw no more, for at that moment a loose slippery stone gave way, and the bearers stumbled and fell, dragging the chair so that it tipped over.

Constance, who had ridden on in front with her uncle, first heard a cry of dismay, and as both leaped off and rushed back, they saw her aunt had fallen, and partly entangled in the chair.

'Do not touch her!' cried Frank, forgetting that he could not be understood, and raising her in his arms, as the chair was withdrawn; but she did not speak or move, and there was a distressing throng and confusion of strange voices, seeming to hem them in as Constance looked round, unable to call up a single word of German, or to understand the exclamations. Then, as she always said, it was like an angel's voice that said, 'What is it?' as through the crowd came a tall lady in a white hat and black gown, and knelt down by the prostrate figure, saying, 'I hope she is only stunned; let us carry her in. It will be better to let her come round there.'

The lady gave vigorous aid, and, giving a few orders in German, helped Lord Northmoor to carry the inanimate form into the hotel, a low building of stone, with a high-pitched shingle roof. Constance followed in a bewilderment of fright, together with Lenchen, the Swiss maid, who, as well as could be made out, was declaring that a Swiss bearer never made a false step.

Lady Northmoor was carried into a bedroom, and Constance was shut out into a room that photographed itself on her memory, even in that moment—a room like a box, with a rough table, a few folding-chairs, an easel, water-coloured drawings hung about in all directions, a big travelling-case, a few books, a writing-case, Mrs. Bury's sitting-room in fact, which, as a regular sojourner, she had been able to secure and furnish after her need. From the window, tall, narrow, latticed, with a heavy outside shutter, she saw a village green, a little church with a sharp steeple, and pointed-roof houses covered with shingle, groups of people, a few in picturesque Tyrolese costume, but others in the ordinary badly cut edition of cosmopolitan human nature. There was a priest in a big hat and white bordered bands discussing a newspaper with a man with a big red umbrella; a party drinking coffee under a pine tree, and beyond, those strange wild pointed aiguilles pointing up purple and red against the sky.

[Picture: There was a priest in a big hat . . .]

How delightful it would all have been if this quarter of an hour could be annihilated! She could find out nothing. Lenchen and the good-natured-looking landlady came in and out and fetched things, but they never stayed long enough to give her any real information, the landlady shouting for 'Hemzel,' etc., and Lenchen calling loudly in German for the boxes, which had been slung on mules. She heard nothing definite till her uncle came out, looking pale and anxious.

'She is better now,' he said, with a gasp of relief, throwing himself into a chair, and holding out his hand to Constance, who could hardly frame her question. 'Yes, quite sensible—came round quickly. The blow on the head seems to be of no consequence; but there may be a strain, or it may be only the being worn out and overdone. They are going to undress her and put her to bed now. Mrs. Bury is kindness itself. I did not look after her enough on that dreadful road.'

'Isn't there a doctor?' Constance ventured to ask.

'No such thing within I know not how many miles of these paths! But Mrs. Bury seems to think it not likely to be needed. Over-fatigue and the shake! What was I about? This air and all the rest were like an intoxication, making me forget my poor Mary!'

He passed his hand over his face with a gesture as if he were very much shocked and grieved at himself, and Constance suggested that it was all the mule's fault, and Aunt Mary never complained.

'The more reason she should not have been neglected,' he said; and it was well for the excluded pair that just then the boxes were reported as arrived, and he was called on for the keys, so that wild searching for things demanded occupied them.

After a considerable time, Mrs. Bury came and told Lord Northmoor that he might go and look at his wife for a few moments, but that she must be kept perfectly quiet and not talked to or agitated. Constance was not to go in at all, but was conducted off by the good lady to her own tiny room, to get herself ready for the much-needed meal that was imminent.

They met again in the outer room. There was a great Speise saal, a separate building, where the bathers dived en masse; but since Mrs. Bury had made the place her haunt, she had led to the erection of an additional building where there was a little accommodation for the travellers of the better class who had of late discovered the glories of the Dolomites, though the baths were scarcely ever used except by artizans and farmers. She had this sitting-room chiefly made at her own expense with these few comforts, in the way of easy folding-chairs, a vase of exquisite flowers on the table, a few delicate carvings, an easel, and drawings of the mountain peaks and ravines suspended everywhere.

Besides this there were only the bedrooms, as small as they well could be.

They were summoned down to the evening meal, and the maid Lenchen was left with Lady Northmoor. There was only one other guest, a spectacled and rather silent German, and Constance presently gathered that Mrs. Bury was trying to encourage and inspirit Lord Northmoor, but seemed to think there might be some delay before a move would be possible.

They sent her to bed, for she was really very tired after the long walk and ride, and she could not help sleeping soundly; but the first thing she heard in the morning was that the guide had been desired to send a doctor from Botzen, and the poor child spent a dreary morning of anxiety with nothing to do but to watch the odd figures disporting themselves or resting in the shade after their baths, to try a little sketching and a little letter-writing, but she was too restless and anxious to get on with either.

All the comfort she got was now and then Mrs. Bury telling her that she need not be frightened, and giving her a book to read; and after the midday meal her uncle was desired by Mrs. Bury, who had evidently assumed the management of him, to take the child out walking, for the doctor could not come for hours, and Lady Northmoor had better be left to sleep.

So they wandered out into the pinewoods, preoccupied and silent, gazing along the path, as if that would hasten the doctor. Constance had perceived that questions were discouraged, and did her best to keep from being troublesome by trying to busy herself with a bouquet of mountain flowers.

The little German doctor came so late that he had to remain all night, but his coming, as well as that of a brisk American brother and sister, seemed to have cheered things up a good deal. Mrs. Bury talked to the German, and the Americans asked so many questions that answering them made things quite lively. Indeed, Constance was allowed to wish her aunt good-night, and seeing her look just like herself on her pillows, much relieved her mind.



CHAPTER XX RATZES

Things began to fall into their regular course at Ratzes, Lady Northmoor was in a day or two able to come into Mrs. Bury's sitting-room for a few hours every day; but there she lay on a folding chaise-longue that had been arranged for her, languid but bright, reading, working, looking at Mrs. Bury's drawings, and keeping the diary of the adventures of the others.

Her husband would fain never have left her, but he had to take his baths. These were in the lower story of the larger chalet. They were taken in rows of pinewood boxes in the vault. He muttered that it felt very like going alive into his coffin, when, like others, he laid himself down in the rust-coloured liquid, 'each in his narrow cell' in iron 'laid,' with his head on a shelf, and a lid closing up to his chin, and he was uncheered by conversation, as all the other patients were Austrians of the lower middle class, and their Tyrolean dialect would have been hard to understand even by German scholars. However, the treatment certainly did him good, and entirely drove away his neuralgia, he walked, rode, and climbed a good deal with Constance and a lad attached to the establishment, whose German Constance could just understand. And while he stayed with his wife, Mrs. Bury took Constance out, showed her many delights, helped her crude notions of drawing, and being a good botanist herself, taught the whole party fresh pleasures in the wonderful flora of the Dolomites.

Now and then an English traveller appeared, and Lord Northmoor was persuaded to join in expeditions for his niece's sake, that took them away for a night or two. Thus they saw Caprile Cadore, St. Ulrich, that town of toys, full of dolls of every tone, spotted wooden horses, carts, and the like. They beheld the tall points of Monte Serrata, and the wonderful 'Horse Teeth,' with many more such marvels; and many were the curiosities they brought back, and the stories they had to tell, with regrets that Aunt Mary had not been there to enjoy and add to their enjoyment.

So the days went on, and the end of Constance's holidays was in view, the limit that had been intended for the Kur at Ratzes; but Aunt Mary had not been out of doors since their arrival, and seemed fit for nothing save lying by the window.

Constance had begun to wonder what would be done, when she was told that a good-natured pair of English travellers, like herself bound to school terms, would escort her safely to London and see her into the train for Colbeam, just in time for the High School term.

'This will be the best way,' said her aunt, kissing her. 'You have been a dear good girl, Conny, and a great pleasure and comfort to us both.'

'Oh, auntie, I have not done anything, Mrs. Bury has done it all.'

'Mrs. Bury is most kind, unspeakably kind, but, my dear dear girl, your companionship has been so much to your dear uncle that I have been most thankful to you. Always recollect, dearest Conny, you can be more comfort to your uncle than anybody else, whatever may come. You will always be a good girl and keep up your tone, and make him your great consideration—after higher things; promise me.'

'Oh yes, indeed, auntie dear,' said the girl, somewhat frightened and bewildered as the last kisses and good-byes were exchanged. Since the travellers were to start very early the next morning on their mules for Botzen, whither Mrs. Bury meant to accompany them in order to make some purchases, Lord Northmoor went with the party to the limits of his walking powers, and on the slope of the Alp, amid the fir-woods, took his leave, Mrs. Bury telling him cheerfully that she should return the next day, while he said that he could not thank her enough. He bade farewell to his niece, telling her that he hoped she would by and by be spending her holidays at Northmoor if all went well.

Constance had begun to grow alarmed, and watched for an opportunity of imploring Mrs. Bury to tell her whether Aunt Mary were really very ill.

Mrs. Bury laughed, and confided to her a secret, which made her at once glad, alarmed, and important.

'Oh, and is no one to know?' said little Constance, with rosy cheeks.

'Not till leave is given,' said Mrs. Bury. 'You see there is still so much risk of things going wrong, that they both wish nothing to be said at present. I thought they had spoken to you.'

'Oh no. But—but—' and Constance could not go on, as her eyes filled with tears.

'Is there special cause for anxiety, you mean, my dear? Hardly for her, though it was unlucky that she was as unknowing as you, and I don't see how she is to be taken over these roads into a more civilised place. But I shall stay on and see them through with it, and I daresay we shall do very well. I am used enough to looking after my own daughters, and nobody particularly wants me at home.'

'That's what Aunt Mary meant by saying you were so very good!'

'Well, it would be sheer inhumanity to leave them to themselves, and the mercies of Ratzes, and there seems to be no one else that could come.'

'I'm glad I know!' said Constance, with a long breath. 'Only what shall I do if any one asks me about her?'

'Say she had a nasty fall, which makes it undesirable to move her just yet. It is the simple truth, and what you would have naturally said but for this little communication of mine.'

'I suppose,' said Constance, in a tone Mrs. Bury did not understand, 'it will be all known before my Christmas holidays?'

'Oh yes, my dear, long before that. I'll write to you when I have anything to tell.'

For which Constance thanked her heartily, and thenceforth felt a great deal older for the confidence, which delighted as well as made her anxious, for she was too fond of her uncle and aunt, as well as too young and simple, for it to have occurred to her how the matter might affect her brother.

After seeing much more on her road than she had done before, and won golden opinions from her escort for intelligence and obligingness, she was safely deposited in the train for Colbeam, without having gone home.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse