She had made up her mind to pass Sunday at her boarding-house, and was greatly surprised when Lady Adela called on Saturday to take her to Northmoor for the Sunday.
'Now tell me about your uncle and aunt,' the good lady began, when Constance was seated beside her. 'Yes, I have heard from Mrs. Bury, but I want to know whether the place is tolerably comfortable.'
'Mrs. Bury has made it much better,' said Constance. 'And it is so beautiful, no one would care for comfort who was quite well.'
'And is your uncle well? Has he got over his headaches?' she asked solicitously.
In fact, the absence of Lord and Lady Northmoor had done more than their presence to make Lady Adela feel their value. She was astonished to find how much she missed the power of referring to him and leaning on his support in all questions, small or great, that cropped up; and she had begun to feel that the stick might be a staff; besides which, having imbibed more than an inkling of the cause of detention, she was anxious to gather what she could of the circumstances.
She was agreeably surprised in Constance, to whom the journey had been a time of development from the mere school girl, and who could talk pleasantly, showing plenty of intelligence and observation in a modest ladylike way. Moreover, she had a game in the garden which little Amice enjoyed extremely, and she and her little Sunday class were delighted to see one another again. It resulted in her Sundays being spent at Northmoor as regularly as before, and in Amice, a companionless child, thinking Saturday brought the white afternoon of the week.
CHAPTER XXI THE HEIR-APPARENT
'MY DEAR ADDIE,
'You have no doubt ceased from your exertions in the way of finding nurses, since the telegram has told you that the son and heir has considerately saved trouble and expense by making his appearance on Michaelmas morning. It was before there was time to fetch anybody but the ancient village Bettina. Everything is most prosperous, and I am almost as proud as the parents—and to see them gloat over the morsel is a caution. They look at him as if such a being had never been known on the earth before; and he really is a very fine healthy creature, most ridiculously like the portrait of the original old Michael Morton Northmoor in the full-bottomed wig. He seems to be almost equally marvellous to the Ratzes population, being the first infant seen there unswaddled—or washed. Bettina's horror at the idea of washing him is worth seeing. Her brown old face was almost convulsed, and she and our Frau-wirthin concurred in assuring me that it would be fatal to der kleine baron if he were washed, except with white wine and milk at a fortnight old; nor would they accept my assurance that my three daughters and seven grandchildren had survived the process. I have to do it myself, and dress him as I can, for his wardrobe as made here is not complete, and whatever you can send us will be highly acceptable. It is lucky that Northmoor is a born nurse, for the women's fear of breaking the child is really justifiable, as they never handled anything not made up into a mummy; moreover, they wish to let all the world up into Mary's room to behold the curiosity, I met the priest upon his way and turned him back! So we have pretty well all the nursing on our hands, and happily it is of the most satisfactory kind, with the one drawback that we have to call in the services of a 'valia'; but on the other hand we have all been so much interested in a poor little widow, Hedwig Grantzen, whose husband was lost last spring in a snow-storm, that it is pleasant to have some employment for her. Such a creature as came over on chance and speculation—a great coarse handsome girl, in exaggerated costume, all new, with lacy ribbons down her back; but I rode over to Botzen, and interviewed her parish priest about her, and that was enough to settle her. Every one is asleep except myself, and Mary's face is one smile as she sleeps.
'This is going to be posted by the last of the tourists, luckily a clergyman, whom we begged to baptize the boy, as there is a possibility that snows may close us in before we can get away.
'So he is named Michael Kenton, partly after my own dear brother as well as the old founder, partly in honour of the day and of Sir Edward Kenton, who, they say, has been their very kind friend. It really is a feast to see people so wonderingly happy and thankful. The little creature has all the zest of novelty to them, and they coo and marvel over it in perfect felicity. When you will be introduced to the hero, I cannot guess, for though he has been an earlier arrival than his mother's inexperience expected, I much doubt her being able to get out of this place while the way to Botzen is passable according to the prognostics of the sages. What splendid studies of ice peaks I shall have! Your affectionate cousin,
A telegram had preceded the letter. One soon followed by Mrs. Bury's promised note had filled Constance's honest little heart with rapture, another had set all the bells in Northmoor Church ringing and Best rejoicing that 'that there Harbut's nose was put out of joint,' a feeling wherein Lady Adela could not but participate, though, of course, she showed no sign of it to Constance. A sharply-worded letter to the girl soon came from her mother, demanding what she had known beforehand. Mrs. Morton had plainly been quite unprepared for what was a severe blow to her, and it was quite possible to understand how, in his shyness, Lord Northmoor had put off writing of the hope and expectation from day to day till all had been fulfilled sooner than had been expected.
It was the first thing that brought home to Constance that the event was scarcely as delightful to her family as to herself. She wrote what she knew and heard no more, for none of her home family were apt to favour her with much correspondence. Miss Morton, however, had written to her sister-in-law.
'Poor Herbert! I am sorry for him, though you won't be. He takes it very well, he really is a very good sort at bottom, and it really is the very best thing for him, as I have been trying to persuade him.'
Bulletins came with tolerable frequency from Ratzes, with all good accounts of mother and child, and a particular description of little Michael's beauties; but it was only too soon announced that snow was falling, and this was soon followed by another letter saying that consultation with the best authorities within reach had decided that unless the weather were extraordinarily mild, the journey, after November set in, was not to be ventured by Lady Northmoor or so young a child. There would be perils for any one, even the postmen and the guides, and if it were mild in one valley it might only render it more dangerous over the next Alp. Still Mrs. Bury, a practised and enterprising mountaineer, might have attempted it; but though Mary was rapidly recovering and the language was no longer utterly impracticable, the good lady could not bear to desert her charges, or to think what might happen to them, if left alone, in case of illness or accident, so she devoted herself to them and to her studies of ice and snow, and wrote word to her family that they were to think of her as hibernating till Easter, if not Whitsuntide.
CHAPTER XXII OUT OF JOINT
Constance had, of course, to spend her Christmas holidays at home, where she had not been for nine months.
Her brother met her at the London terminus to go down with her, and there, to her great joy, she also saw Rose Rollstone on the platform. Herbert, whose dignity had first prompted him to seek a smoking carriage apart from his sister, thereupon decided to lay it aside and enter with them, looking rather scornful at the girls' mutual endearments.
'Come, Conny, Miss Rollstone has had enough of that,' he said, 'and here are a lot going to get in. Oh my, the cads! I shall have to get into the smoking carriage after all.'
'No, don't. Sit opposite and we shall do very well.'
Then came the exchange of news, and—'You've heard, of course, Rosie?'
'I should think I had,' then an anxious glance at Herbert, who answered—
'Oh yes, mother and Ida have been tearing their hair ever since, but it is all rot! The governor's very welcome to the poor little beggar!'
'Oh, that's right! That's very noble of you, Herbert,' said both the girls in a breath.
'Well, you see, old Frank is good to live these thirty or forty years yet, and what was the good of having to wait? Better have done with it at once, I say, and he has written me a stunning jolly letter.'
'Oh, I was sure he would!' cried Constance.
'I'm to go on just the same, and he won't cut off my allowance,' pursued Herbert.
'It is just as my papa says,' put in Rose, 'he is always the gentleman. And you'll be in the army still?'
'When I've got through my exams; but they are no joke, Miss Rose, I can tell you. It is Conny there that likes to sap. What have you been doing this time, little one?'
'I don't know yet, but Miss Astley thinks I have done well and shall get into the upper form,' said Constance shyly. 'I got on with my German while I was abroad, trying to teach Uncle Frank.'
At which Herbert laughed heartily, and demanded what sort of scholar he made.
'Not very good,' owned Constance; 'he did forget so from day to day, and he asked so many questions, and was always wanting to have things explained. But it made me know them better, and Mrs. Bury had such nice books, and she helped me. If you want to take up French and German, Bertie—
He shrugged his shoulders.
'Don't spoil the passing hour, child. I should think you would be glad enough to get away from it all.'
'I do want to get on,' said Constance. 'I must, you know, more than ever now.'
'Oh, you mean that mad fancy of going and being a teacher?'
'It is not a bit mad, Herbert. Rose does not think it is, and I want you to stand by me if mamma and Ida make objections.'
'Girls are always in such a hurry,' grumbled Herbert. 'You need not make a stir about it yet. You won't be able to begin for ever so long.'
Rose agreed with him that it would be much wiser not to broach the subject till Constance was old enough to begin the preparation, though, with the impatience of youth to express its designs and give them form, she did not like the delay.
'I tell you what, Con,' finally said Herbert, 'if you set mother and Ida worrying before their time, I shall vote it all rot, and not say a word to help you.'
Which disposed of the subject for the time, and left them to discuss happily Constance's travels and Herbert's new tutor and companions till their arrival at Westhaven, where Constance's welcome was quite a secondary thing to Herbert's, as she well knew it would be, nor felt it as a grievance, though she was somewhat amazed at seeing him fervently embraced, and absolutely cried over, with 'Oh, my poor injured boy!'
Herbert did not like it at all, and disengaging himself rapidly, growled out his favourite expletive of 'Rot! Have done with that!'
He was greatly admired for his utter impatience of commiseration, but there was no doubt that the disappointment was far greater to his mother and Ida than to himself. He cared little for what did not make any actual difference to his present life, whereas to them the glory and honour of his heirship and the future hopes were everything—and Constance's manifest delight in the joy of her uncle and aunt, and her girlish interest in the baby, were to their eyes unfeeling folly, if not absolute unkindness to her brother.
'Dear little baby, indeed!' said Ida scornfully. 'Nasty little wretch, I say. One good thing is, up in that cold place all this time he's sure not to live.'
Herbert whistled. 'That's coming it rather strong.' And Constance, with tears starting to her eyes, said, 'For shame, Ida, how can you be so wicked! Think of Uncle Frank and Aunt Mary!'
'I believe you care for them more than for your own flesh and blood!' exclaimed her mother.
'Well, and haven't they done a sight deal more for her?' said Herbert.
'You turning on me too, you ungrateful boy!' cried Mrs. Morton.
'If it comes to gratitude,' he said, and looked significantly at the decorations.
'And what is it but the due to his brother's widow?' said Mrs. Morton. 'Just a pittance, and you may depend that will be cut down on some pretext now!'
'I should think so, if they heard Ida's tongue!' said Herbert.
'And Constance there is spitefulness enough to go and tell them—favourite as she is!' said Ida.
'I should think not!' said Constance indignantly. 'As if I would do such a mean thing!'
'Come, come, Ida,' said her mother, 'your sister knows better than that. It's not the way when she is only just come home, so grown too and improved, "quite the lady."'
Mrs. Morton had a mother's heart for Constance, though only in the third degree, and was really gratified to see her progress. She had turned up her pretty brown hair, and the last year had made her much less of a child in appearance; her features were of delicate mould, she had dark eyes, and a sweet mouth, with a rose-blush complexion, and was pleasing to look on, though, in her mother's eyes, no rival to the thin, rather sharply-defined features, bright eyes, and pink-and-white complexion that made Ida the belle of a certain set at Westhaven. The party were more amicable over the dinner-table—for dinner it was called, as an assertion of gentility.
'Are you allowed to dine late,' asked Ida patronisingly of her sister, 'when you are not at school?
'Lady Adela dines early,' said Constance.
'Oh, for your sake, I suppose?'
'Always, I believe,' said Constance.
'Yes, always,' said Herbert. 'Fine people needn't ask what's genteel, you see, Ida.'
That was almost the only breeze, and after dinner Herbert rushed out for a smell of sea, interspersed with pipe, and to 'look up the inevitable old Jack.'
Constance was then subjected to a cross-examination on all the circumstances of the detention at Ratzes, and all she had heard or ought to have heard about the arrival of the unwelcome little Michael, while her mother and sister drew their own inferences.
'Really,' said Ida at last, 'it is just like a thing in a book.'
Constance was surprised.
'Because it was such a happy surprise for them,' she added hastily.
'No, nonsense, child, but it is just what they always do when they want a supposititious heir.'
'Ida, how can you say such things?'
'But it is, Conny! There was the wicked Sir Ronald Macronald. He took his wife away to Belgrade, right in the Ukraine mountains, and it—'
'Belgrade is in Hungary, and the Cossacks live in the Ukraine in Russia,' suggested Constance.
'Oh, never mind your school-girl geography, it was Bel something, an out-of-the-way place in the mountains anyway, and there he pretended she had a child, just out of malice to the right heiress, that lovely Lilian, and he got killed by a stag, and then she confessed on her death-bed. I declare it is just like—'
'My dear, don't talk in that way, your sister is quite shocked. Your uncle never would—'
'Bless me, ma, I was only in fun. I could tell you ever so many stories like that. There's Broughton's, on the table there. I knew from the first it was an impostor, and the old nurse dressed like a nun was his mother.'
'I believe you always know the end before you are half through the first volume,' said her mother admiringly; 'but of course it is all right, only it is a terrible disappointment and misfortune for us, and not to be looked for after all these years.'
The last three Christmastides had been spent at Northmoor, where it had been needful to conform to the habits of the household, which impressed Ida and her mother as grand and conferring distinction, but decidedly dull and religious.
So as they were at Westhaven, perforce, they would make up for it, Christmas Eve was spent in a tumult of preparation for the diversions of the next day. Mrs. Morton had two maids now, but to her they were still 'gals,' not to be trusted with the more delicate cookeries, and Ida was fully engaged in the adornment of the room and herself, while Constance ran about and helped both, and got more thanks from her mother than her sister.
Ida was to end the day with a dance at a friend's house, but she was not desirous of taking Constance with her, having been accustomed to treat her as a mere child, and Constance, though not devoid of a wish for amusement, knew that her uncle and aunt would have taken her to church, where she would have enjoyed the festal service.
Her mother would not let her go out in the dark alone, and was too tired to go with her, so she had to stay at home, while Herbert disported himself elsewhere, and Constance underwent another cross-examination over the photographs she had brought home, but Mrs. Morton was never unkind when alone with her, and she had all the natural delight of youth in relating her adventures. Mrs. Morton, however, showed offence at not having been sent for instead of Mrs. Bury.—'So much less of a relation,' and Constance found herself dwelling on the ruggedness of the pass, and the difficulties of making oneself understood, but Mrs. Morton still persisted that she 'could not understand why they should have got into such a place at all, when there were plenty of fashionable places in the newspaper where they could have had society and attendance and everything.'
'Ah, but that was just what Uncle Frank didn't want.'
'Well, if they choose to be so eccentric, and close and shy, they can't wonder that people talk.'
'Mamma, you can't mean that horrid nonsense that Ida talked about! It was only a joke!'
'Oh, my dear, I don't say that I suspect anything—oh no,—only, if they had not been so close and queer, one would have been able to contradict it. I like people to be straightforward, that's all I have to say. And it is terribly hard on your poor brother to be so disappointed, after having his expectations so raised!' and Mrs. Morton melted into tears, leaving Constance with nothing to say, for in the first place, she did not think Herbert, as yet at least, was very sensible of his loss, and in the next, she did not quite venture to ask her mother whether she thought little Michael should have been sacrificed to Herbert's expectations. So she took the wiser course of producing a photograph of Vienna.
CHAPTER XXIII VELVET
Constance created quite a sensation when she came down dressed for church on Christmas Day in a dark blue velvet jacket, deeply trimmed with silver fox, and a hat and muff en suite, matching with her serge dress, and though unpretending, yet very handsome.
Up jumped Ida, from lacing her boots by the fire. 'Well, I never! They are spoiling you! Real velvet, I declare, and real silk-wadded lining. Look, ma. What made them dress you like that?'
'It wasn't them,' said Constance, 'it was Lady Adela. One Sunday in October it turned suddenly cold, and I had only my cloth jacket, and she sent up for something warm for me. This was just new before she went into black, when husband died, and she had put it away for Amice, but it fitted me so well, and looked so nice, that she was so kind as to wish me to keep it always.'
'Cast-off clothes! That's the insolence of these swells,' said Ida. 'I wonder you had not the spirit to refuse.'
'Sour grapes,' muttered Herbert; while her mother sighed—'Ah, that's what we come to!'
'Must not I wear it, mamma?' said Constance, who had a certain attachment to the beautiful and comfortable garment. 'She told me she had only worn it once in London, and she was so very kind.'
'Oh, if you call it kindness,' said Ida, 'I call it impertinence.'
'If you had only heard—' faltered Constance.
'No, no,' said their mother, 'you could not refuse, of course, my dear, and no one here will know. It becomes her very well too. Doesn't it, Ida?'
Ida made a snort. 'If people choose to make a little chit of a schoolgirl ridiculous by dressing her out like that!' she said.
'There isn't time now before church,' said Constance almost tearfully, 'or I would take it off.'
'No such thing,' said Herbert. 'Come on, Conny. You shall walk with me. You look stunning, and I want Westhaven folk to see for once what a lady is like.'
Constance was very glad to be led away from Ida's comments, and resolved that her blue velvet should not see the light again at Westhaven; but she did not find this easy to carry out; for, perhaps for the sake of teasing Ida, Herbert used to inquire after it, and insist on her wearing it, and her mother liked to see her, and to show her, in it. It was only Ida who seemed unable to help saying something disagreeable, till, almost in despair, Constance offered to lend the bone of contention; but Lady Adela was a small woman, and Constance would never be on so large a scale as her sister, so that the jacket refused to be transferred except at the risk of being spoilt by alteration; and here Mrs. Morton interfered, 'It would never do to have them say at Northmoor that "Lady Morton's" gift had been spoilt by their meddling with it.' Constance was glad, though she suspected that Lady Adela would never have found it out.
Then Ida consulted Sibyl Grover, who was working with a dressmaker, and with whom she kept up a sort of patronisingly familiar acquaintance, as to making something to rival it, and Sibyl was fertile in devices as to doing so cheaply, but when she consulted her superior, she was told that without the same expensive materials it would evidently be only an imitation, and moreover, that the fashion was long gone out of date. Which enabled Ida to bear the infliction with some degree of philosophy.
This jacket was not, however, Constance's only trouble. Her conscience was already uneasy at the impossibility of getting to evensong on Christmas Day. She had been to an early Celebration without asking any questions, and had got back before Herbert had come down to breakfast, and very glad she was that she had done so, for she found that her mother regarded it as profane 'to take the Sacrament' when she was going to have a party in the evening, and when Constance was in the midst of the party she felt that—if it were to be—her mother might be right.
It was a dinner first—at which Constance did not appear—chiefly of older people, who talked of shipping and of coals. Afterwards, if they noticed the young people, joked them about their imaginary lovers—beaux, as the older ladies called them; young men, as the younger ones said. One, the most plain spoken of all, asked Herbert how he felt, at which the boy wriggled and laughed sheepishly, and his mother had a great confabulation with various of the ladies, who were probably condoling with her.
Later, there were cards for the elders, and sundry more young people came in for a dance. The Rollstones were considered as beneath the dignity of the Mortons, but Herbert had loudly insisted on inviting Rose for the evening and had had his way, but after all she would not come. Herbert felt himself aggrieved, and said she was as horrid a little prig as Constance, who on her side felt a pang of envy as she thought of Rose going to church and singing hymns and carols to her father and mother, while she, after a struggle under the mistletoe, which made her hot and miserable, had to sit playing waltzes. One good-natured lady offered to relieve her, but she was too much afraid of the hero of the mistletoe to stir from her post, and the daughter of her kindly friend had no scruple in exclaiming—
'Oh no, ma, don't! You always put us out, you know, and Constance Morton is as true as old Time.'
'I am sure Constance is only too happy to oblige her friends,' said Mrs. Morton. 'And she is not out yet,' she added, as a tribute to high life.
If Constance at times felt unkindly neglected, at others she heard surges of giggling, and suppressed shrieking and protests that made her feel the piano an ark of refuge.
The parting speech from a good-natured old merchant captain was, 'Why, you demure little pussy cat, you are the prettiest of them all! What have yon lads been thinking about to let those little fingers be going instead of her feet? Or is it all Miss Ida's jealousy, eh?'
All this, in a speaking-trumpet voice, put the poor child into an agony of blushes, which only incited him to pat her on the cheek, and the rest to laugh hilariously, under the influence of negus and cheap champagne.
Constance could have cried for very shame, but when she was waiting on her mother, who, tired as she was, would not go to bed without locking up the spoons and the remains of the wine, Mrs. Morton said kindly, 'You are tired, my dear, and no wonder. They were a little noisy to-night. Those are not goings-on that I always approve, you know, but young folk always like a little pleasure extra at Christmas. Don't you go and get too genteel for us, Conny. Come, come, don't cry. Drink this, my love, you're tired.'
'Oh, mamma, it is not the being genteel—oh no, but Christmas Day and all!'
'Come, come, my dear, I can't have you get mopy and dull; religion is a very good thing, but it isn't meant to hinder all one's pleasure, and when you've been to church on a Christmas Day, what more can be expected of young people but to enjoy themselves? Come, go to bed and think no more about it.'
To express or even to understand what she felt would have been impossible to Constance, so she had to content herself with feeling warm at her heart, at her mother's kind kiss.
All the other parties she saw were much more decorous, even to affectation, except that at the old skipper's, and he was viewed by the family as a subject for toleration, because he had been a friend and messmate of Mrs. Morton's father. All the good side of that lady and Ida came out towards him and his belongings. He had an invalid granddaughter, with a spine complaint and feeble eyesight, and Ida spent much time in amusing her, teaching her fancy works and reading to her. Unluckily it was only trashy novels from the circulating library that they read; Ida had no taste for anything else, and protested that Louie would be bored to death if she tried to read her the African adventures which were just then the subject of enthusiasm even with Herbert! Ida was not a dull girl. Unlike some who do not seem to connect their books with life, she made them her realities and lived in them, and as she hardly ever read anything more substantial her ideas of life and society were founded on them, though in her own house she was shrewd in practical matters, and though not strong was a useful active assistant to her mother whenever there was no danger of her being detected in doing anything derogatory to one so nearly connected with the peerage.
Indeed, she seemed to regard her sister's dutiful studies as proofs of dulness and want of spirit. She was quite angry when Constance objected to The Unconscious Impostor,—very yellow, with a truculent flaming design outside—that 'she did not think she ought to read that kind of book—Aunt Mary would not like it.'
'Well, if I would be in bondage to an old governess! You are not such a child now.'
'Don't, Ida. Uncle Frank would not like it either.'
'Perhaps not,' said Ida, with an ugly, meaning laugh as she glanced again at the title.
Constance might really have liked to read more tales than she allowed herself. The House on the Marsh tempted her, but she was true to the advice she had received, and Rose Rollstone upheld her in her resolution.
Ida thought it rather 'low' in Herbert and Constance to care for the old butler's daughter, but their mother had a warm spot in the bottom of her heart, and liked a gossip with Mrs. Rollstone too much to forbid the house to her daughter, besides that she shrank from inflicting on her so much distress.
So during the fortnight that Rose spent at home the girls were together most of the morning. After Constance, well wrapped up, had practised in the cold drawing-room, where economy forbade fires till the afternoon, she sped across to Rose in the little stuffy parlour where Mr. Rollstone liked to doze over his newspaper to the lullaby of their low-voiced chatter. Often they walked together, and were sometimes joined by Herbert, who on these occasions always showed that he knew how to behave like a gentleman.
Herbert was faithfully keeping his promise not to bet, though, as he observed, he had not expected to be in for it so long. But it was satisfactory to hear that his present fellow-pupils did not go in for that sort of thing, and Constance felt sure that her uncle and aunt would be pleased with him and think him much improved.
CHAPTER XXIV THE REVENGE OF SORDID SPIRITS
'I am quite convinced,' said Ida Morton, 'it is quite plain why we are not invited.'
'My dear, you see what your aunt says; that Mrs. Bury's daughter's husband is ordered to India, and that having the whole family to stay at Northmoor gives them the only chance of being all together for a little while, and after their obligations to Mrs. Bury—'
'Ma, how can you be so green? Obligations, indeed! It is all a mere excuse to say there is not room for us in that great house. I see through it all. It is just to prevent us from being able to ask inconvenient questions of the German nurse and Mrs. Bury and all!'
'Now, Ida, I wish you would put away that fancy. Your uncle and aunt were always such good people! And there was Mrs. Bury—'
'Mother, you will never understand the revenge of sordid souls,' said Ida tragically, quoting from The Unconscious Impostor.
'Revenge! What can you mean?'
'Of course, you know, Mrs. Bury never forgave Herbert's taking her for a tramp, and you know how nasty uncle was about that white rook and the bets. Oh, it is quite plain. He was to be deprived of his rights, and so this journey was contrived, and they got into this out-of-the-way, inaccessible place, and sent poor Conny away, and then had no doctor or nurse—exactly as people always do.'
'Oh, Ida, only in stories! Your novels are turning your head.'
'Novels are transcripts of life,' again said Ida, solemnly quoting.
'I don't believe it if they put such things into your head,' said her mother. 'Asking Herbert to be godfather too! Such a compliment!'
'An empty compliment, to hoodwink us and the poor boy,' said Ida. 'No, no, ma, the keeping you away settles it in my mind, and it shall be the business of my life to unmask that!'
So spoke Ida, conscious of being a future heroine.
It was quite true that Herbert had been asked to stand godfather to his little cousin's admission into the Church, after, of course, a very good report had been received from his tutor. 'You are the little fellow's nearest kinsman,' wrote Lord Northmoor, 'and I trust to you to influence him for good.' Herbert wriggled, blushed, thought he hated it, was glad it had been written instead of spoken, but was really touched.
His uncle had justly thought responsibility would be wholesome, and besides, Herbert represented to him his brother, for whom he had a very tender feeling.
It was quite true that Northmoor was as full as it would hold. Mrs. Bury's eldest daughter was going out to India, and another had a husband in the Civil Service; the third lived in Ireland, and the only way of having the whole family together for their last fortnight was to gather them at Northmoor, as soon as its lord and lady returned, nor had they been able to escape from their Dolomite ravine till the beginning of May, for the roads were always dangerous, often impassable, so that there had been weeks when they were secluded from even the post, and had had difficulties as to food and fire.
However, it had done them no harm, and was often looked back upon as, metaphorically as well as literally, the brightest and whitest time in their lives. Frank had walked and climbed both with Mrs. Bury and on his own account, and had drunk in the wild glories of the mountain winter, and the fantastic splendours of snow and ice on those wondrous peaks. And, with that new joy and delight to be found in the queer wooden cradle, his heart was free to bound as perhaps it had never done before, in exulting thankfulness, as he looked up to those foretastes of the Great White Throne.
Never had he had such a rest before from toil, care, and anxiety as in those months in the dry, bracing air, and it was the universal remark that Lord Northmoor came back years younger and twice the man he had been before, with a spirit of cheerfulness and enterprise such as had always been wanting; while as to his wife, she was less strong than before, but there was a certain peaceful, yet exulting happiness about her, and her face had gained wonderfully in sweetness and expression.
The child was a fine plump little fellow, old enough to laugh and respond to loving faces and gestures. Mary had feared the sight might be painful to Lady Adela, and was gratified to find her too true a baby-lover and too generous a spirit not to worship him almost as devotedly as did Constance.
Perhaps the heads of the family had never seen or participated in anything like the domestic mirth and enjoyment of that fortnight's visit; Bertha was with Lady Adela, and the intimacy and confidence in which Frank and Mary had lived with Mrs. Bury had demolished many barriers of shyness, and made them hosts who could be as one with their guests—guests with whom the shadow of parting made the last sunshine seem the more bright.
'I did not know what I was letting you in for,' said Bertha, in apology to Mrs. Bury.
'My dear, I would not have been without the experience on any account. I never saw such a refreshing pair of people.'
'Surely it must have been awfully slow—regular penal servitude!'
'You confuse absence of small talk with absence of soul, Birdie. When we had once grown intimate enough to hold our tongues if we had nothing to say, we got on perfectly.'
'And what you had to say was about Master Michael?'
'Not entirely; though I must say the mingled reverence and curiosity with which they regard the little monster, and their own fear of not bringing up their treasure properly, were a very interesting study.'
'More so than your snowy peaks! Ah, if the proper study of mankind is man, the proper study of womankind is babe.'
'Well, it was not at all an unsatisfactory study, in this case. And let me tell you, Miss Birdie, it is no bad thing to be shut in for a few months with a few good books and a couple of thoroughly simple-hearted people, who have thought a good deal in their quiet humdrum way.'
'Why, Lettice, you must have been quite an education to them!'
'I hope they were an education to me.'
'I hope your conscience is not going to be such a rampant and obstructive thing as that which they possess in common,' said Bertha.
'I wish it had been,' said Mrs. Bury gravely.
'At any rate, the deadly lively time has brisked you all up,' said Bertha, laughing.
Constance, on her Saturdays and Sundays, looked on with a kind of wonder. She was not exactly of either set. The children were all so young as to look on her as a grown-up person, though willing to let her play with them; and she was outside the group of young married people, and could not enter into their family fun; but this kind of playfulness and merriment was quite a revelation to her. She had never before seen mirth, except, of course, childish and schoolgirl play, that had not in it something that hurt her taste and jarred on her feeling as much as did Ida's screeching laughter in comparison with the soft ripplings of these young matrons.
Still, little Michael was her chief delight, and she could hardly be detached from him. She refreshed her colloquial German (or rather Austrian) with his nurse, who had much to say of the goodness of die Gnadigen Frauen. Poor thing, she was the youthful widow of a guide, and the efforts of the two Frauen had been in vain to keep alive her only child, after whose death she had found some consolation in taking charge of Lady Northmoor's baby on the way home. Constance hoped Ida might never hear this fact.
Some degree of prosperity was greeting the little heir. A bit of moorland, hitherto regarded as worthless, had first been crossed by a branch line, and the primary growth of a station had been followed by the discovery of good building stone, and the erection of a crop of houses of all degrees, which promised to set the Northmoor finances on a better footing than had been theirs for years, and set their conscientious landlord to work at once on providing church room and schools.
All this, and that most precious possession at home, combined to give Lord Northmoor an amount of spirit and life that enabled him to take his place in the county, emancipate himself from the squire, show an opinion of his own, and open his mouth occasionally. As Bertha observed, no one would ever have called him a stick if he had begun like this. To people like these, humbled and depressed in early life, a little happiness was a great stimulus.
CHAPTER XXV THE LOVE
It was not till Christmas that Ida had the opportunity of making her observations. By that time 'Mite,' as he was supposed to have named himself, had found the use of his feet, and was acquiring that of his tongue. In fact, he was a very fine forward child, who might easily have been supposed to be eighteen months old instead of fifteen, as Ida did not fail to remark.
He was a handsome little creature, round and fair, with splendid sturdy legs and mottled arms, hair that stood up in a pale golden crest, round blue eyes and a bright colour, without much likeness as yet to either parent, though Lord Northmoor declared that there was an exact resemblance to his own brother, Charles, Herbert's father, as he first remembered him. Ida longed to purse up her lips but did not dare, and was provoked to see her mother taken completely captive by his charms, and petting him to the utmost extent.
Indeed, Lady Northmoor, who was very much afraid of spoiling him, was often distressed when such scenes as this took place. 'Mite! Mite, dear, no!' when his fat little hands had grasped an ivory paper-cutter, and its blade was on the way to the button mouth. 'No!' as he paused and looked at her. 'Here's Mite's ball! poor little dear, do let him have it'—and Mite, reading sympathy in his aunt's face, laughed in a fascinating triumphant manner, and took a bite with his small teeth.
'Mite! mother said no!' and it was gently taken from his hand, but before the fingers had embraced the substituted ball, a depreciating look and word of remonstrance gave a sense of ill-usage and there was a roar.
'Oh, poor little dear! Here—auntie's goody goody—'
'No, no, please, Emma, he has had quite as many as he ought! No, no, Mite—' and he was borne off sobbing in her arms, while Ida observed, 'There! is that the way people treat their own children?'
'Some people never get rid of the governess,' observed Mrs. Morton, quite unconscious that but for her interference there would have been no contest and no tears.
But she herself had no doubts, and was mollified by Mary's plea on her return. 'He is quite good now, but you see, there is so much danger of our spoiling him, we feel that we cannot begin too soon to make him obedient.'
'I could not bear to keep a poor child under in that way.'
'I believe it saves them a great deal if obedience is an instinct,' said Mary.
It had not been Mrs. Morton's method, and she was perfectly satisfied with the result, so she only made some inarticulate sound; but she thought Frank quite as unnatural, when he kept Michael on his knee at breakfast, but with only an empty spoon to play with! All the tossing and playing, the radiant smiles between the two did not in her eyes atone for these small beginnings of discipline, even though her brother-in-law's first proceeding, whenever he came home, was to look for his son, and if the child were not in the drawing-room, to hurry up to the nursery and bring him down, laughing and shouting.
The Tyrolean nurse had been sacrificed to those notions of training which the Westhaven party regarded as so harsh. Her home sickness and pining for her mountains had indeed fully justified the 'rampant consciences,' as to the humanity as well as the expedience of sending her home before her indulgence of the Kleiner Freiherr had had time to counteract his parents' ideas, and her place had been supplied by the nurse whom Amice was outgrowing, so that Ida was disappointed of her intentions of examining her, and laid up the circumstances as suspicious, though, on the other hand, her mother was gratified at exercising a bit of patronage by recommending a nursery girl from Westhaven. The next winter, however, was not marked by a visit to Northmoor. Ida had been having her full share of the summer and early autumnal gaieties of Westhaven, and among the yachts who were given to putting in there was a certain Morna, belonging to Sir Thomas Brady, who had become a baronet by force of success in speculation. His son, who chiefly used it, showed evident admiration of Miss Morton's bright cheeks and eyes, and so often resorted to Westhaven, and dropped in at what she had named Northmoor cottage, that there was fair reason for supposing that this might result in more than an ordinary flirtation.
However, at the regatta, when she had looked for distinguished attention on his part, she felt herself absolutely neglected, and the very next day the Morna sailed away, without a farewell.
Ida at first could hardly believe it. When she did, the conviction came upon her that his son's attachment had been reported to Sir Thomas, and that the young man had been summoned away against his will. It would have been different, no doubt, had Herbert still been heir-presumptive.
'That horrid little Mite!' said she.
Whether her heart or her ambition had been most affected might be doubtful. At any rate, the disappointment added to the oppression of a heavy cold on the chest, which she had caught at the regatta, and which became severe enough to call for the doctor.
Thus the mother and daughter did not go to Northmoor. At a ball given on board a steam yacht just before Christmas Ida caught a violent cold on the chest, the word congestion was uttered, and an opinion was pronounced that as she had always weak lungs, a spring abroad would be advisable.
Mrs. Morton wrote a letter with traces of tears upon it, appealing to her brother-in-law to assist her as the only hope of saving her dearest child, and the quarries had done so well during the last year that he was able to respond with a largesse sufficient for her needs, though not for her expectations.
Mrs. Morton would have liked to have taken Constance as interpreter, and general aid and assistant; but Constance was hard at work, aspiring to a scholarship, at a ladies' college, and it was plain that her sister was not so desirous of her company as to make her mother overrule her wishes as a duty.
In fact, Ida had found a fellow-traveller who would suit her much better than Constance. Living for the last year in lodgings near at hand was a Miss Gattoni, daughter of an Italian courier and French lady's maid. As half boarder at a third-rate English school, she had acquired education enough to be first a nursery-governess, and later a companion; and in her last situation, when she had gone abroad several times with a rheumatic old lady, she had recommended herself enough to receive a legacy which rendered her tolerably independent. She was very good-natured, and had graduated in the art of making herself acceptable, and, as she really wished to go abroad again, she easily induced Mrs. Morton and Ida to think it a great boon that she should join forces with them, and as she was an experienced traveller with a convenient smattering of various tongues, she really smoothed their way considerably and lived much more at her ease than she could have done upon her own resources, always frequenting English hotels and boarding-houses.
Mrs. Morton and Ida were of that order of tourists who do not so much care for sights as for being on a level with those who have seen them; and besides, Ida was scarcely well or in spirits enough for much exertion till after her first month at Nice, which restored her altogether to her usual self, and made her impatient of staying in one place.
It is not, however, worth while to record the wanderings of the trio, until in the next summer they reached Venice, where Ida declared her intention of penetrating into the Dolomites. There was an outcry. What could she wish for in that wild and savage country, where there was no comfortable hotel, no society, no roads—nothing in short to make life tolerable, whereas an hotel full of Americans of extreme politeness to ladies, and expeditions in gondolas, when one could talk and have plenty of attention, were only too delightful?
That peaks should be more attractive than flirtations was inexplicable, but at last in secret confabulation Ida disclosed her motive, and in another private consultation Mrs. Morton begged Miss Gattoni to agree to it, as the only means of satisfying the young lady, or putting her mind at rest about a fancy her mother could not believe in; though even as she said, 'it would be so very shocking, it is perfectly ridiculous to think my brother Lord Northmoor would be capable,' the shrewd confidante detected a lingering wish that it might be so!
Maps and routes were consulted, and it was decided that whereas to go from Venice through Cadore would involve much mule-riding and rough roads, the best way would be to resort to the railway to Verona, and thence to Botzen as the nearest point whence Ratzes could be reached.
CHAPTER XXVI IDA'S WARNING
Botzen proved to be very hot and full of smells, nor did Mrs. Morton care for its quaint old medieval houses, but Ida's heart had begun to fail her when she came so near the crisis, and on looking over the visitors' book she gave a cry. 'Ah, if we had only known! It is all of no use.'
'How?' she was asked.
'That horrid Mrs. Bury!'
'Of course she is. Only a week ago she was here. If she is at Ratzes, of course we can do nothing.'
'And the road is affreux, perfectly frightful,' said Mademoiselle. 'I have been inquiring about it. No access except upon mules. A whole day's journey—and the hotel! Bah, it is vilain!'
'If Ida is bent on going she must go without me,' said Mrs. Morton. 'I—I have had enough of those horrid beasts. Ida's nonsense will be the death of me.'
'I don't see much good in going on with that woman there,' said Ida gloomily. 'She would be sure to stifle all inquiry.'
'A good thing too,' muttered poor, weary Mrs. Morton.
Ida turned the leaves of the visitors' book till she found the names of Lord and Lady Northmoor, and then, growing more eager as obstructions came in her way, and not liking to turn back as if on a fool's errand, she suggested to Miss Gattoni that questions might be asked about their visit. The Tyrolean patois was far beyond her, and not too comprehensible to her friend, but there was a waiter who could speak French, and the landlady's German was tolerable.
The milord and miladi were perfectly remembered, as well as their long detention, but the return had been by way of Italy, so they had not revisited Botzen with their child the next spring.
'But,' said the hostess, 'there is a young woman in the next street who can tell you more than I. She offered herself as a nurse.'
This person was at once sent for. She was the same who had been mentioned by Mrs. Bury, but she had exchanged the peasant costume, which had, perhaps, only been assumed to please the English ladies, for the townswoman's universal endeavour at French fashion, which by no means enhanced her rather coarse beauty, which was more Italian than Austrian.
Italian was the tongue which chiefly served as a medium between her and Miss Gattoni, though hers was not pure enough to be easily understood. Mrs. Morton and Ida put questions which Miss Gattoni translated as best she could, and made out as much as possible of the answers. It was elicited that she had not been allowed to see the English miladi. All had been settled by the signora who came yearly, and they had rejected her after all her trouble; the doctor had recommended her, and though her creatura would have been just the right age, and that little ipocrila's child was older, ever so much older—she spread out her hands to indicate infinity.
'Ah!' said Ida, 'I always thought so.'
'Ask her how much older,' demanded Mrs. Morton.
The replies varied from nearly un sanestre to tre settimane—and no more could be made of that question.
'Where was the foster-child?'
Again the woman threw up her hands to indicate that she had no notion—what was it to her? She could not tell if it were alive or dead; but (upon a leading question) it had not been seen since Hedwige's departure nor after return. Was it boy or girl? and, after some hesitation, it was declared to have been un maschio.
There was more, which nobody quite understood, but which sounded abusive, and they were glad to get rid of her with a couple of thalers.
'Well?' said Ida triumphantly.
'Well?' echoed her mother in a different tone. 'I don't know what you were all saying, but I'm sure of this, that that woman was only looking to see what you wanted her to say. I watched the cunning look of her eyes, and I would not give that for her word,' with a gesture of her fingers.
'But, ma, you didn't understand! Nothing could be plainer. The doctor recommended her, and sent her over in proper time, but she never saw any one but Mrs. Bury, who, no doubt, had made her arrangements. Then this other woman's child was older—nobody knows how much—but we always agreed that nobody could believe Mite, as they call him, was as young as they said. And then that other child was a boy, and it has vanished.'
'I don't believe she knew.'
'No, I do not think she did,' chimed in Miss Gattoni. 'This canaille will say anything!'
'I believe the woman,' said Ida obstinately. 'Her evidence chimes in with all my former conclusions.'
The older ladies both had a strong misgiving that the conclusions had formed the evidence, and Mrs. Morton, though she had listened all along to Ida's grumbling, was perfectly appalled at the notion of bringing such a ridiculous accusation against the brother-in-law, against whom she might indeed murmur, but whom she knew to be truthful and self-denying. She ventured to represent that it was impossible to go upon this statement without ascertaining whether the Grantzen child was alive, or really dead and buried at Ratzes, and that the hostess of the inn would have been better evidence, but—
He that of purpose looks beside the mark, Might as well hoodwinked shoot as in the dark,
and Ida was certain that all the people at Ratzes had been bribed, and that no one would dare to speak out while Mrs. Bury kept guard there. Indeed, for that lady to guess at such suspicions and inquiries would have been so dreadful that Ratzes was out of the question, much to the relief of the elders, dragged along by the masterful maiden against their better judgment, though indeed Miss Gattoni gave as much sympathy in her tete-a-tetes with Ida as she did to her mother in their consultations.
They were made to interview the doctor, but he knew as little about the matter as the disappointed balia, and professed to know much less. In point of fact, though he had been called in after the accident, Mrs. Bury had not thought much of his skill, and had not promoted after-visits. There had not been time to summon him when the birth took place, and Mrs. Bury thought her experience more useful afterwards than his treatment was likely to be. So he was a slighted and offended man, whose testimony, given in good German, only declared the secretiveness, self-sufficiency, and hard-neckedness of Englander!
And Ida's state of mind much resembled that of the public when resolved to believe in the warming-pan.
CHAPTER XXVII THE YOUNG PRETENDER
The denunciation of the Young Pretender was not an easy matter even in Ida's eyes. It was one thing to have a pet grievance and see herself as a heroine, righting her dear injured brother's wrongs, and another to reproach two of the quietest most matter-of-fact people in the world with the atrocious frauds of which only a wicked baronet was capable.
She was not sorry that the return to England was deferred by the tenants of the house at Westhaven wanting to stay on; and when at length a Christmas visit was paid at Northmoor, Mite was an animated little personage of three and a quarter, and, except that he could not accomplish a k, perfect in speaking plainly and indeed with that pretty precision of utterance that children sometimes acquire when baby language has not been foolishly fastened. Indeed, his pet name of Mite was only for strictly private use. Except to his nearest relatives, he was always Michael.
Mrs. Morton was delighted with him, and would have liked to make up for her knowledge of Ida's suspicions by extra petting, and by discovering resemblances to all the family portraits as well as to his parents, none of which any one else could see. She lived upon thorns lest Ida should burst out with some accusation, but Ida had not the requisite impudence, and indeed, in sight of the boy with his parents, her 'evidence' faded into such stuff as dreams are made of.
There was some vexation, indeed, that Louisa the nursery-maid, whom Mrs. Morton had recommended, had had to be dismissed.
'I am sorry,' said Mrs. Morton, 'for, as I told you, her father was the mate aboard the Emma Jane, my poor father's ship, you know, and went down with poor pa and my poor dear Charlie. And her mother used to char for us, which was but her due.'
'Yes, I know,' said Mary; 'Frank and I were both very sorry, and we would have found her another place, but she would go home. You see, we could not keep her in the nursery, for we must have a thoroughly trustworthy person to go out with Michael.'
'What! Can't your fine nurse?'
'Eden? It is her one imperfection. It is some weakness of the spine, and neither she nor I can be about with Michael as long as it is good for him. I thought he must be safe in the garden, but it turned out that Louisa had been taking him down to the village, and there meeting a sailor, who I believe came up in a collier to Colbeam.'
'Oh, an old friend from Westhaven?'
'Sam Rattler,' suggested Ida. 'Don't you remember, mamma, Mrs. Hall said they were sweethearting, and she wanted to get her out of the way of him.'
'Perhaps,' said Lady Northmoor, 'but I should have forgiven it if she had told me the truth and not tempted Mite. She used to make excuses to Eden for going down to the village, and at last she took Mite there, and they gave him sweets at the shop not to tell!'
'Did he?' said Ida, rather hoping the model boy would have failed.
'Oh yes. The dear little fellow did not understand keeping things back, and when his papa was giving him his nightly sugar-plum, he said, "Blue man gave me a great striped sweet, and it stuck in my little teeth"; and then, when we asked when and where, he said, "Down by Betty's, when I was out with Cea and Louie"; and so it came out that she had taken him into the village, met this man, brought him into the grounds by the little gate, and tried to bribe Mite to say nothing about it. Cea told us all about it,—the little girl who lives with Miss Morton. Of course we could never let him go out with her again, and you would hardly believe what an amount of falsehoods she managed to tell Eden and me about it.'
'Ah, if you had lived at Westhaven you would have found out that to be so particular is the way to make those girls fib,' said Mrs. Morton.
'I hope not. I think we have a very good girl now, trained up in an orphanage.'
'Oh, those orphanage girls are the worst of all. I've had enough of them. They break everything to pieces, and they run after the lads worst of all, because they have never seen one before!'
To which Mary answered by a quiet 'I hope it may not turn out so.'
There were more agitating questions to be brought forward. Herbert had behaved very fairly well ever since the escapade of the pied rook; the lad kept his promise as to betting faithfully in his uncle's absence, and though it had not been renewed, he had learnt enough good sense to keep out of mischief.
Unfortunately, however, he had not the faculty of passing examinations. He was not exactly stupid or idle, but any kind of study was a bore to him, and the knowledge he was forced to 'get up' was not an acquisition that gave him the slightest satisfaction for its own sake, or that he desired to increase beyond what would carry him through. Naturally, he had more cleverness than his uncle, and learning was less difficult to him, but he only used his ability to be sooner done with a distasteful task, which never occupied his mind for a moment after it was thrown aside. Thus time after time he had failed in passing for the army, and now only one chance remained before being reduced to attempting to enter the militia. And suppose that there he failed?
He remained in an amiable, passive, good-humoured state, rather amused than otherwise at his mother's impression that it was somehow all his uncle's fault, and ready to be disposed of exactly as they pleased provided that he had not the trouble of thinking about it or of working extra hard.
Mrs. Morton was sure that something could be done. Could not his uncle send him to Oxford? Then he could be a clergyman, or a lawyer or anything. Oh dear, were there those horrid examinations there too? And then those gentlemen that belonged to the ambassadors and envoys—she was sure Mr. Rollstone had told her any one who had connection could get that sort of appointment to what they called the Civil Service. What, examinations again? connection no good? Well, it was shame! What would things come to? As Mr Rollstone said, it was mere ruin!
Merchant's office? Bah! such a gentleman as her Herbert was, so connected! What was his uncle thinking of, taking him up to put him down in that way? It was hard.
And Lord Northmoor was thankful to the tears that as usual choked her, while he begged her at present to trust to that last chance. It would be time to think what was to come next if that failed.
Wherewith the victim passed the window whistling merrily, apparently perfectly regardless of his doom, be it what it might, and with Mite clinging to his hand in ecstatic admiration.
Constance too was in question. Here she was at eighteen, a ladylike, pleasant, good girl, very nice-looking, sweet-faced, and thoughtful, having finished her course at the High School with great credit, but alas! it was not in the family to win scholarships. She did things well, but not so brilliantly as cleverer girls, having something of her uncle's tardiness of power.
Her determination to be a governess was as decided as ever, and it was first brought before her mother by an offer on Lady Adela's part to begin with her at once for Amice, who was now eleven years old.
'Really, now!' said Mrs. Morton, stopping short to express her offence.
'That is—' added Ida, equally at a loss.
'But what do you mean, mamma?' said Constance. 'I always intended to be a teacher; I think it noble, useful work.'
'Oh, my poor child! what have they brought you to? Pretending such affection, too!'
'Indeed, mamma, I have meant this always. I could not be dependent all my life, you know. Do listen, mamma; don't Ida—'
'That my Lady Adela should insult us that way, when you are as good as she!'
'Nonsense, Ida! That has nothing to do with it. It is the greatest possible compliment, and I am very much pleased.'
'Just to live there, at her beck and call, drudging at that child's lessons!' sneered Ida.
'Yes, and when I made sure, at least after all the fuss they have made with you, that your aunt would present you at Court, and make you the young lady of the house, and marry you well, but there's no trust to be placed in them—none!'
'Oh, mamma, don't cry. I should not feel it right, unless Aunt Mary really needed me, and, though she is so kind and dear, she does not really. My only doubt is—'
'You have a doubt, then?'
'Yes. I should be so much fitter if I could go to one of the ladies' colleges, and then come back to dear little Amice, but now I have failed, I don't like to let Uncle Frank spend all that money on me, when I might be earning eighty pounds for myself.'
'Well, you are a strange girl, with no proper pride for your family,' said her mother.
And Ida chimed in: 'Yes. Do you think any one will be likely to marry you? or if you don't care about yourself, you might at least think of me!'
Mrs. Morton shed her ready tears when talking it over with Lady Northmoor.
'You see,' said Mary gently, 'I should like nothing better than to have dear little Conny to live with me like a daughter, but, for one thing, it would not be fair towards Ida, and besides, it would not be good for her in case she did not marry to have wasted these years.'
Mrs. Morton by no means appreciated the argument. However, Lord Northmoor put off the matter by deciding to send Constance to St. Hugh's Hall, thinking she really deserved such a reward to her diligence.
CHAPTER XXVIII TWO BUNDLES OF HAY
Ida was, as all agreed, much improved in looks, style, and manners by her travels. Her illness had begun the work of fining her down from the bouncing heartiness of her girlhood, and she really was a handsome creature, with dark glowing colouring; her figure had improved, whether because or in spite of her efforts in that way might be doubtful; and she had learnt how to dress herself in fairly good taste.
Though neither Mademoiselle Gattoni nor the boarding-house society she had frequented was even second-rate in style, still there was an advance over her former Westhaven circle, with a good deal more restraint, so that she had almost insensibly acquired a much more ladylike air and deportment.
Moreover, the two years' absence had made some changes. The young men who had been in the habit of exchanging noisy jests with Ida had mostly drifted away in different directions or sobered down; girl companions had married off; and a new terrace had been completed with inhabitants and sojourners of a somewhat higher grade, who accepted Mrs. and Miss Morton as well connected.
Mr. Rollstone's lodgings were let to Mr. Deyncourt, a young clergyman who had come full of zeal to work up the growing district. He had been for a short time in the Northmoor neighbourhood, and had taken the duty there for a few weeks, so that he heard the name of Morton as prominent in good works, and had often seen Lady Adela and Constance with the Sunday-school. As Mr. Rollstone was not slow to mention the connection, he was not slow to call on Mrs. Morton and Miss Morton, in hopes of their co-operation, and as Mr. Rollstone had informed them that he was of 'high family' and of good private means, Mrs. Morton had a much better welcome for him than for his poor little predecessor, who lived over a shoemaker's shop, and, as she averred, never came except to ask subscriptions for some nonsense or other.
Mr. Deyncourt was a tall fine-looking man, and did not begin by asking subscriptions, but talked about Northmoor, Constance, and Lady Adela, so that Ida found herself affecting much closer knowledge of both than she really had.
'I found,' he said, 'that your sister is most valuable in the Sunday-school. I wonder if you would kindly assist us.'
Mrs. Morton began, 'My daughter is not strong, Mr. Deyncourt.'
And Ida simpered and said, hesitating, 'I—I don't know.'
If poor Mr. Brown had ever been demented enough even to make the same request, he would have met with a very different answer.
'I do not think it will be very fatiguing,' said Mr. Deyncourt. 'Do you know Mrs. Brandon? No! I will ask her to call and explain our plans. She is kind enough to let me meet the other teachers in her dining-room once a week to arrange the lessons for the Sunday. There are Miss Selwood and Mrs. and Miss Hume.'
These were all in the social position in which Ida was trying to establish her footing, and though she only agreed to 'think about it,' her mind was pretty well made up that it would be a very different thing from the old parish school where Rose Rollstone used to work among a set of small tradesmen's daughters.
When she found herself quite the youngest and best-looking of the party, she was entirely won over. There was no necessity for speaking so as to betray one's ignorance during Mr. Deyncourt's instructions, and she was a person of sufficient force and spirit to impose good order on her class; and thus she actually obtained the gratitude of the young clergyman as an efficient assistant.
Their domiciles being so near together, there were many encounters in going in and out, nor were these avoided on either side. Ida had a wonderful amount of questions to ask, and used to lie in wait to get them solved. It was very interesting to lay them before a handsome young clergyman with a gentle voice, sweet smile, and ready attention, and religion seemed to have laid aside that element of dulness and moping which had previously repelled her.
She was embroidering a stole for Easter, and wanted a great deal of counsel for it; and she undertook to get a basket of flowers for Easter decorations from Northmoor, where her request caused some surprise and much satisfaction in the simple pair, who never thought of connecting the handsome young mission priest with this sudden interest in the Church.
And Mr. Deyncourt had no objection to drop in for afternoon tea when he was met on the sands and had to be consulted about the stole, or to be asked who was worthy of broth, or as time went on to choose soup and practise a duet for the mission concert that was to keep people out of mischief on the Bank-holiday.
Ida had a voice, and music was the one talent she had cared to cultivate; she had had good lessons during her second winter abroad, and was an acquisition to the amateur company. Besides, what she cared for more, it was a real pleasure and rest to the curate to come in and listen to her or sing with her. She had learnt what kind of things offended good taste, and she set herself to avoid them and to school her mother into doing the same.
What Mr. Deyncourt thought or felt was not known, though thus much was certain, that he showed himself attentive enough to this promising young convert, and made Mrs. Brandon and other prudent, high-bred matrons somewhat uneasy.
And in the midst the Morna put in at Westhaven, and while Ida was walking home from Mrs. Brandon's, she encountered Mr. Brady, looking extremely well turned-out in yachting costume and smoking a short pipe.
There was something very flattering in the sound of the exclamation with which he greeted her; and then, as they shook hands, 'I should not have known you, Miss Morton; you are—' and he hesitated for a compliment—'such a stunner! What have you been doing to yourself?'
At the gate of the narrow garden, Mr. Deyncourt overtook them, carrying Ida's bag of books for her. She introduced them, and was convinced that they glared at each other.
And there ensued a time of some perplexity, but much enjoyment, on Ida's part. Mr. Brady reviled the parson and all connected therewith in not very choice language, and the parson, on his side, though saying nothing, seemed to her to be on the watch, and gratified, if not relieved, when she remained steady to her parochial work.
And what was her mind? Personally, she had come to like and approve Mr. Deyncourt the most, and to have a sense that there was satisfaction in that to which he could lead her, while the better taste that had grown in her was sometimes offended, almost insulted, by Tom Brady's tendency to coarseness, and to treating her not as a lady, but as the Westhaven belle he had honoured with his attentions two years before. Yet she had an old kindness for him as her first love. And, moreover, he could give her eventually a title and very considerable wealth, a house in London, and all imaginable gaiety. While, as to Mr. Deyncourt, he was not poor and had expectations, but the utmost she could look to for him with confidence was Northmoor Vicarage after Mr. Woodman's time, and anywhere the dull, sober, hard-working life of a clergyman's wife!
Which should she choose—that is, if she had her choice, or if either were in earnest? She was not sure of the curate, and therefore perhaps longed most that he should come to the point, feeling that this would anyway increase her self-esteem, and if she hesitated to bind herself to a life too high, and perhaps too dull, there was the dread, on the other hand, that his family, who, she understood, were very grand people, would object to a girl with nothing of her own and a governess sister.
On the other hand, the Bradys were so rich that they had little need to care for fortune—only, the richer people were, the greater their expectations—and she was more at ease with Tom than with Mr. Deyncourt. They would probably condone the want of fortune if she could write 'Honourable' before her name, or had any prospect of so doing, and the governess-ship might be a far greater drawback in their eyes than in those of the Deyncourts. 'However, thank goodness,' said she to herself, 'that won't begin for two or three years, and one or other will be hailed long before that—if— Oh, it is very hard to be kept out of everything by an old stick like Uncle Frank and a little wretch like Mite, who, after all, is a miserable Tyrolese, and not a Morton at all! It really is too bad!'
CHAPTER XXIX JONES OR RATTLER
When Lord Northmoor had occasion to be in London he usually went alone, for to take the whole party was too expensive, and not good for little Michael. Besides, Bertha Morton had so urgently begged him to regard her house as always ready for him, that the habit had been established of taking up his quarters there.
Some important measures were coming on after Easter, and he had some other business, so that, in the form of words of which she longed to cure him, he told her that he was about to trespass on her hospitality for a week or fortnight.
'As long as ever you please,' she said. 'I am glad to have some one to sit opposite to me and tell me home news,' and they met at the station, she having been on an expedition on her own account, so that they drove home together.
No sooner were they within the house door than the parlour-maid began, 'That man has been here again, ma'am.'
'What, Jones?' said Bertha, in evident annoyance.
'Yes, ma'am, and I am sorry to say he saw little Cea. The child had run down after me when I answered the door, and he asked her if she did not know her own father, and if she would come with him. "No," she says, "I'm Miss Morton's," and he broke out with his ugly laugh, and says he, "You be, be you, you unnatural little vagabond?"—those were his very words, ma'am—"but a father is a father, and if he gives up his rights he must know the reason why." He wanted me, the good-for-nothing, to give him half a sovereign at once, or he would take off the child on the spot, but, by good luck, she had been frightened and run away, the dear, and I had got the door between me and him, so I told him to be off till you came home, or I would call for the police. So he was off for that time.'
'Quite right, Alice,' said Miss Morton, and then, leading the way upstairs and throwing herself down on a chair, she exclaimed, 'There, it ought to be a triumph to you, Northmoor! You told me that I should have trouble about poor little Cea's father, the brute!'
'Is he levying blackmail on you?'
'Yes. It is horribly weak of me, I know, and I can scarcely believe it of myself, but one can't abandon a child to a wretch like that, and he has the law on his side.'
'Are you quite sure of that? He deserted her, I think you said. If you could establish that, or prove a conviction against him—'
'Oh, I know she might be sent to an industrial school if I took it before a magistrate, but if the other alternative would be destruction, that would be misery to her. See—' and there was a little tap at the door. 'Come in, Cea. There, make your curtsey to his lordship.'
A pretty little fair-haired pale-cheeked girl, daintily but simply dressed, came in and made her curtsey very prettily, and replied nicely to Lord Northmoor's good-natured greeting and information that Michael had sent her a basket of primroses and a cowslip ball, which she would find in the hall.
'What do you say, Cea?' said Bertha, anxious to demonstrate her manners.
'Thank you, my lord, and Master Michael,' she uttered, but she was evidently preoccupied with what she had to tell Miss Morton. 'Oh'm, there was such a nasty man here! And he wanted me, and said he was my father, but he wasn't. He was the same man that gave Master Mite and me the bull's-eyes when we were naughty and Louisa went away.'
'Are you sure, Cea?' both exclaimed, but to the child of six the very eagerness of the question brought a certain confusion, and though more gently Lord Northmoor asked her to describe him, she could not do it, and indeed she had been only five when the encounter had taken place. The urgency of the inquiry somehow seemed to dispose her to cry, as if she thought she had been naughty, and she had to be dismissed to the cowslip ball.
'If the child is right, that man cannot be her father at all,' said Lord Northmoor. 'That man's name is Rattler, and he is well known at Westhaven.'
'Should you know him?'
'I never saw him, but I could soon find those who have done so.'
'If we could only prove it! Oh, what a relief it would be! I dare not even send the child to school—as I meant to do, Northmoor, for indeed we don't spoil her—for fear she should be kidnapped; and I don't know if the school-board officer won't be after her, and I can't give as a reason "for fear she should be stolen by her father."'
'Not exactly. It ought to be settled once for all. Perhaps the child will tell more when you have her alone.'
'Is not Rattler only too like a nickname, or is he a native of Westhaven?'
This Lord Northmoor thought he could find out, but the dinner was hardly over before a message came that the man Jones had called again.
'Perhaps I had better see him alone,' said the guest, and Bertha was only too glad to accept the offer, so he proceeded to the little room opening into the hall, where interviews with tradesfolk or petitioners were held.
The man had a blue jersey, a cap, and an evidently sailor air, or rather that of the coasting, lower stamp of seaman; but he was tall, rather handsome, and younger-looking than would have been expected of Cea's father. He looked somewhat taken aback by the appearance of a gentleman, but he stood his ground.
'So I understand that you have been making demands upon Miss Morton,' Lord Northmoor began.
'Well, sir, my lord, a father has his feelings. There is a situation offered me in Canada, and I intend to take the little girl with me.'
'Oh, indeed!' And there was a pause.
'Or if the lady has taken a fancy to her, I'd not baulk her for a sum down of twenty or five-and-twenty, once for all.'
'Oh, indeed!' again; then 'What do you say is the child's name?'
'Jones, my lord.'
'Her Christian name, I mean?'
He scratched his head. 'Cissy, my lord—Celia—Cecilia. Blest if I'm sure!' as he watched the expression of the questioner. 'You see, the women has such fine names, and she was always called Baby when her poor mother was alive.'
'Where was she baptized?'
'Well, you see, my lord, the women-folk does all that, and I was at sea; and by and by I comes home to find my poor wife dead, and the little one gone.'
'I suppose you are aware that you can have no legal claim to the child without full proof of her belonging to you—the certificate of your marriage and a copy of the register of her birth?'
The man was scarcely withheld from imprecations upon the work that was made about it, when Miss Morton had been quite satisfied on a poor fellow's word.
'Yes, ladies may be satisfied for a time, but legally more than your word is required, and you will remember that unless you can bring full proof that this is your child, there is such a thing as prosecution for obtaining money on false pretences.'
'And how is a poor fellow to get the fees for them register clerks and that?' said the man, in a tone waxing insolent.
'I will be answerable for the fees, if you will tell me where the certificates are to be applied for.'
'Well, how is a cove to know what the women did when he was at sea? She died at Rotherhithe, anyway, so the child will be registered there.'
'And the marriage? You were not at sea then, I suppose?'
But the man averred that there were so many churches that there was no telling one from another, and with a knowing look declared that the gals were so keen after a man that they put up the banns and hauled him where they would.
He was at last got rid of, undertaking to bring the proofs of his paternity, without which Lord Northmoor made it clear to him that he was to expect neither child nor money.
'I greatly doubt whether you will see any more of him,' said Lord Northmoor when describing the interview.
'Oh, Frank,' cried Bertha, calling him thus for the first time, 'I do not know how to thank you enough. You have done me an infinite kindness.'
'Do not thank me yet,' he answered, 'for though I do not in the least believe that this fellow is the child's father, he may find his way to the certificates or get them forged; and it would be well to trace what has become of the real Jones, as well as to make out about this Rattler. Is it true that the wife died at Rotherhithe?'
'Quite true, poor thing. I believe they had lived there since the marriage.'
'I will run down there if you can give me the address, and see if I can make out anything about her husband, and see whether any one can speak to his identity with this man.'
'You are a man of gold! To think of your taking all this trouble!'
'I only hope I may succeed. It is a return to old habits of hunting up evidence.'
Bertha was able to give the address of the lodging-house where poor Mrs. Jones had died, and the next morning produced another document, which had been shut up in the Bible that had been rescued for the child, namely the marriage lines of David Jones and Lucy Smith at the parish church of the last Lord Northmoor's residence in town.
To expect a clergyman or clerk to remember the appearance of a bridegroom eight years ago was too much, even if they were the same who had officiated; but Bertha undertook to try, and likewise to consult a former fellow-servant of poor Lucy, who was supposed to have abetted her unfortunate courtship. Frank, after despatching a letter of inquiry to his sister-in-law about 'Sam Rattler,' set forth by train and river steamer for Rotherhithe.
When they met again in the evening, Bertha had only made out from the fellow-servant that the stoker was rather small, and had a reddish beard and hair, wherewith Cea's complexion corresponded.
The Rotherhithe discoveries had gone farther. Lord Northmoor had penetrated to the doleful den where the poor woman had died, and no wonder! for it seemed, as Bertha had warned him, a nest of fever and horrible smells. The landlady remembered her death, which had been made memorable by Miss Morton's visits; but knew not whence she had come, though, stimulated by half-a-crown, she mentioned a small grocery shop where more might be learnt. There the woman did recollect Mrs. Jones as a very decent lady, and likewise her being in better lodgings until deserted by her husband, the scamp, who had gone off in an Australian steamer.
At these lodgings the inquiry resulted in the discovery of the name of the steamer; and there was still time to look up the agent and the date approximately enough to obtain the list of the crew, with David Jones among them. It further appeared that this same David Jones had fallen overboard and been drowned, but as he had not entered himself as a married man, his wife had remained in ignorance of his fate. It was, however, perfectly clear that the little girl was an orphan, and that Bertha might be quite undisturbed in the possession of her.
And thus Lord Northmoor came home a good deal fagged, and shocked by the interior he had seen at Rotherhithe, but quite triumphant.
Bertha was delighted, and declared herself eternally grateful to him; and she could not but entertain the hope that the soi-disant parent would make another application, in which case she was quite prepared to give him into custody; and she proceeded to reckon up the number of times that he had applied to her, and the amount that he had extracted, wondering at herself for not having asked for proofs, but owning that she had been afraid of being thus compelled to give up the child to perdition.
The applications had all been within the last year, so that the man had probably learnt from Louisa Hall, the nursery-maid, that Cea was the child of a deserted wife.
A letter from Mrs. Morton gave some of the antecedents of Sam Rattler, as learnt from Mrs. Hall, the charwoman, whose great dread he was. His real surname was Jones, and he was probably a Samuel Jones whose name Lord Northmoor had noted as a boy on board David's ship. He belonged to a decent family in a country village, but had run away to sea, and was known at Westhaven by this nickname. He had a brother settled in Canada, who had lately written to propose to him a berth on one of the Ontario steamers, and it was poor Mrs. Hall's dread that her daughter should accompany him, though happily want of money prevented it. As to his appearance, as to which there had been special inquiries, he was a tall fine-looking man, with a black beard, and half the girls at Westhaven were fools enough to be after him.
All this tallied with what had been gathered from the child, and this last had probably been a bold attempt to procure the passage-money for his sweetheart.
He never did call again, having probably been convinced of the failure of his scheme, and scenting danger, so that every day for a fortnight Bertha met her cousin with a disappointed 'No Rattler!'
CHAPTER XXX SCARLET FEVER
There was a meeting of one of the many charitable societies to which Bertha had made Lord Northmoor give his name, and she persuaded him to stay on another day for it, though he came down in the morning with a sore throat and heavy eyes, and, contrary to his usual habits, lay about in an easy-chair, and dozed over the newspaper all the morning.
When he found himself unable to eat at luncheon, she allowed that he was not fit for the meeting, but demurred when he declared that he should go home at once that afternoon to let Mary nurse his cold. The instinct of getting back to wife and home were too strong for Bertha to contend with, and he started, telegraphing to Northmoor to be met at the station.
Perhaps there were delays, as in his oppressed and dazed state he had mistaken the trains, for he did not arrive at home till nine o'clock instead of seven, and then he looked so ill as he stumbled into the hall, dazzled by the lights, that Mary looked at him in much alarm.
'Yes,' he said hoarsely, 'I have a bad cold and sore throat, and I thought I had better come home at once.'
'Indeed you had! If only you have not made it worse by the journey!'
Which apparently he had done, for he could scarcely swallow the warm drinks brought to him, and had such a night, that when steps were heard in the house, he said—
'Mary, dear, don't let Mite come in. I am afraid it is too late to keep you away, but if I had felt like this yesterday, I would have gone straight to the fever hospital.'
'Oh no, no, what should you do but come home to me? Was it that horrible place at Rotherhithe?'
'Perhaps. It is just a fortnight since, and I felt a strange shudder and chill as I was talking. But it may be nothing; only keep Mite away till I have seen Trotman. My Mary, don't look like that! It may be nothing, and we have been very happy—thank God.'
Poor Mary, in a choking state, hurried away to send for the doctor, and to despatch orders to Nurse Eden to confine Master Michael to the nursery and garden for the present, her sinking and foreboding heart forbidding her to approach the child herself.
The verdict of the doctor confirmed these alarms, for all the symptoms of scarlet fever had by that time manifested themselves. Mary had gone through the disease long before, and had nursed through more than one outbreak at Miss Lang's, so her husband might take the comfort of knowing that there was little anxiety on her account, though the doctor, evidently expecting a severe attack, insisted on sending in a trained nurse to assist her.
As the little boy had fortunately been in bed and asleep long before his father came home, there was as yet no danger of infection for him, though he must be sent out of the house at once.
Lady Adela was not at home, and Mary would have doubted about sending him to the Cottage, even if she had been there; so she quickly made up her mind that Eden and the young nursery-maid should take him at once to Westhaven, to be either in the hotel or at Northmoor Cottage, according as his aunt should decide.
How little she had thought, when she heard him say his prayers, and exchanged kisses with him at the side of his little bed, that it was the last time for many a long day; and that her hungry spirit would have to feed itself on that last smile and kiss of the fat hand, as she looked out of her husband's window as the carriage drove away.
Lady Adela knew too well what it was to be desolate not to come home so as to be at hand, though she left her little daughter at her uncle's. Bertha came on the following day.
'I feel as if it were all my doing,' she said. 'I could not bear it, if it does not go well with him, after being the saving of poor little Cea.'
'There is nothing to reproach yourself with,' said sober-minded Lady Adela. 'Neither you nor he could guess that he was running into infection.'
'No,' said Bertha; 'of course, one never thinks of such things with grown-up people, especially one whom one has always thought of as a stick, and to whom perhaps ascribed some of its toughness,' she added, smiling; 'but he did come home looking very white and worn-out, and complained of horrible smells. No, dear man, he was far too punctilious to use the word, he only said that he should like to send the Sanitary Commission down the alley. I ought to have dosed him with brandy on the spot, for of course he was too polite to ask for it, so I only gave him a cup of tea,' said Bertha, with an infinite tone of scorn in the name of the beverage.
'Will it be any comfort to tell you that most likely it would have been too late even if he would have accepted it? Come, Bertha, how often are we told that we are not to think so much of consequences as of actions, and there was nothing blameworthy in the whole business.'
'Except that I was such a donkey as not to have begun by asking for the man's proofs, but I was so much afraid that he would pounce on the child that I only thought of buying him off from time to time. I did not know I was so weak. Well, at any rate, with little Mite to the fore, the place will be left in good hands. I like Herbert on the whole, but to have that woman reigning as Madame Mere would be awful.'
'Nay, I trust we are not coming to that! Trotman says it is a thoroughly severe attack, but not abnormally malignant, as he calls it. It is a matter of nursing, he tells me, and that he has of the best—a matter of nursing and of prayer, and that,' added Adela, her eyes filling with tears, 'I am sure he has.'
'And yet—and yet,' Bertha broke off.
'Ah, you are thinking how we prayed before! And yet, Birdie, after these six years of seeing his rule and recognising what mine would have been, I see it was for the best that my own little Michael was taken to his happy home.'