"What shall we do?"
It was Ruth who spoke, and at the sound of her words the shadow came back to Jack's brow.
"Yes, what shall we do? Think of it—three months—twelve weeks— eighty-four separate days to lounge away with the same question on your lips! I'd rather be sentenced to hard labour at once. Life is not worth living without work. I'd rather be a clerk on sixty pounds a year than stagnate as a country squire."
"You would be a very bad squire if you did stagnate!" cried Mollie spiritedly, throwing back her little head, and looking up at him with a flash of the grey eyes. "You would have your tenants to look after, and your property to keep in order, and the whole village looking to you to lead every scheme of pleasure or improvement, and the vicar looking to you to be his right hand, and all the growing boys looking to you to help them to a start in life, and the old people expecting you to make their last days easy. You would be the hardest-worked man in the country if you did half the work that was waiting for you, and it would be unselfish work, too—thinking of others, and not of yourself."
Jack looked at her, and his face softened.
"That's true," he said frankly. "I'm sorry! You are right, and I am wrong. I'm in a bad temper, and can't see things in their right light to-day. Of course, if one really settled down to it, there would be plenty to do; it's when one is only playing with the position that time drags."
"Well, it ought not to drag to-day, at all events. We must be very dull if we cannot amuse ourselves in surveying the domain, and seeing all there is to be seen. I am going to put on my hat this minute and examine the gardens, and go down to the stables to look at the horses. If anyone likes to come too, they may, but my plans are fixed," cried Mollie, nodding her saucy head; and at the magic word "stables," a ray of interest lit up the two masculine faces.
Ten minutes later the four young people were strolling down the drive, the girls with serge coats over their white blouses, and sailor-hats on their heads, the men wearing their cloth caps with an evident air of enjoyment. They turned the corner of the house, and coming round to the south side uttered simultaneous exclamations of surprise and delight.
Along the entire length of the house ran an enormously wide terrace edged with a balustrade, from the centre of which a flight of marble steps led to an Italian garden, its green sward and stiffly outlined flower-beds flanked by a quantity of curiously cut shrubs.
Beyond this garden the ground dipped sharply, showing first a glade of trees whose fresh spring foliage contrasted with the dark colours of the evergreens; then came a glimpse of a lake, a sweep of park; and beyond all a glorious, wide-stretching view over the countryside. Perched upon one of the highest sites for miles around, this terraced walk afforded such a panorama of beauty as is rarely to be found even in our well- favoured isles, and withal the beauty was of that peaceful, home-like nature which irresistibly endears itself to the heart.
The four young people stood in silence gazing from side to side, and into each mind, even that of the rebellious Jack himself, there crept the same thought. This was indeed a goodly heritage, whose owner would be an enviable person! The possibility of possessing it as a home was worth a far greater sacrifice than anything which had been demanded of themselves.
In those few minutes of silence dreams ran riot, and finally found vent in words.
"When the Court belongs to me I shall have an awning put up on this terrace and sit here all day long," said Mollie; as usual the first to break the silence.
"I shall have a table brought out, and breakfast here every fine morning," said Ruth.
"I'll smoke here after dinner!" said Victor.
"I'll do ditto in every case!" said Jack, then caught himself up sharply—"when I come to visit the Chosen, that is to say! Of course, I'm out of the running. What are you smiling at, Miss Mollie?" For, turning towards her, he had seen the grey eyes light up with a merry twinkle. She shook her head, however, refusing to gratify his curiosity, and sped rapidly down the broad marble steps.
"He is beginning to have qualms! The very first morning, and for a moment his resolution wavered. The spell is working," she told herself triumphantly; for, despite his lack of gallantry, both girls had already candidly admitted that upon Jack's going or staying depended a great part of the pleasure of the next three months. "Don't persuade him; don't mention the subject at all. Let him think we don't care how he decides. Men are contradictious creatures, and the less he is urged the more likely he is to give way," argued Ruth the experienced. And Mollie dutifully agreed.
A NOVEL EXPERIENCE.
Down the winding path, the visitors, as they walked together, came upon masses of daffodils, standing up erect and golden from the carpet of dead leaves which covered the ground. Not the ordinary common or garden daffodil, charming as it is, but named varieties of every description— white trumpeted Horsefieldi, stately yellow Emperors, Bari Conspicui with its dainty outline of orange; these, and a dozen others were growing in patches, not in dozens or scores, but in literal hundreds, beneath the budding trees. There were violets, too; and white and purple and golden saxifrages peeping out between the stones which bordered the trickling stream—a scene of enchantment, indeed, for City eyes accustomed to gaze only on bricks and mortar. The girls were wild with delight, and flitted about gathering specimens of the different flowers; while the two young men were content to watch them with an air of masculine superiority.
"What is the use of burdening yourselves with all those things at the very beginning of our walk?"
"They aren't a burden, they are a joy. Hold them for me, please, while I get some more," replied Mollie, laying a stack of long-stemmed beauties in Jack's arms, regardless of his look of dismay. "Don't crush them; I want them kept quite fresh."
"What are you going to do with them, if I might ask? There are plenty in the house. It's a pity to cut them just to waste."
"I wouldn't waste them for the world, the beautiful darlings! I'm going to send them home to mother. We will pack them in a box, and take them down to the post-office this afternoon. It will provide honest work for the afternoon," retorted Mollie.
She was too happy, too supremely happy, to be stiff and formal. As she darted from one flower-bed to another she looked like an incarnation of the bright spring morning. There was no room in her mind for doubts and fears. The future simply did not exist; the present was all-sufficient.
From the gardens the quartette strolled onwards past the lake, and across the wide park to the further gates; then, returning, paid a visit to the stables. The groom greeted them with a smile, which showed that he had anticipated their coming; and, like the other servants, hailed with delight a return to livelier days.
"The horses will get some work now, I hope, ma'am," he said, touching his forehead as he addressed himself to Ruth, as the head of the party. ("The Farrell eyebrows again!" said Mollie to herself.)
"They have had it far too easy for a long time back. The master's fond of horses, and we need a good many for driving up these steep hills, as everything has to be brought up from the station; but it's regular gentle exercise as suits 'em best. I've a nice little mare as would carry you, if you'd care to try her. She's in this box. Fanny, we call her. Whoa! Fanny, old girl, come and show yourself! Nice gentle creature, you see, miss: no temper in her."
"But I don't ride," began Ruth, smiling. "I should like to very much; and I don't think I should be nervous, but—"
"Oh, I'd love to ride! Is there a horse for me, too? And would you teach us—would you? Could we come down every day and have a lesson?" interrupted Mollie impetuously.
And the groom wheeled round to face her, and touched his forehead again, his face one smile of delight.
"Ay, would I, miss! Proud to do it. Many's the one I've taught to ride in my time. You settle any hour you like, and I'll have the horses ready for you, and take you a turn across the park. There's some old side-saddles put away in the loft. I'll have 'em down, and put in order for ye. And the gentlemen? You'll not be needing any lessons, I'm thinking."
"Oh no! I think I can manage to sit any horse you have here," replied Victor in a slightly superior tone.
Jack, however, shook his head, and said—
"No use for me. I can't ride, and it's no use beginning. I'm only here for a week."
The groom looked the surprise he was too well trained to express.
"Indeed, sir. Well, I can give you a mount if you change your mind. It wouldn't take long to get your seat; and it's pleasant exercise these spring days. The carriages are round this way, miss. There's a pretty little cart you might like to drive yourself."
He led the way forward; but while the others followed, Mollie hung behind, blocking Jack's way. Something prompted her to speak, an impulse too strong to be resisted.
"Do learn!" she cried entreatingly. "Learn with us. Why won't you? It would be such fun. You said you hated to be idle. It wouldn't be wasted time if you learnt a useful accomplishment."
"Hardly useful to me, I am afraid, Miss Mollie. I have no money for horses. My only acquaintance with them is from the top of a City omnibus."
"But you can't tell what might happen. We might go to war again, and you might want to volunteer. You might grow rich. Besides, you volunteered to come and stay with the 'Chosen,' and then you will certainly find it useful. So you will join us, won't you?"
Jack laughed and hesitated, looking down at the flushed, eager face. It seemed a very trifling matter. He could not tell that with the acceptance or refusal of this light request the whole of his future destiny was involved. He only thought that Mollie was a charmingly pretty girl, and that it would be amusing to practise riding by her side.
"Well! since you put it like that, I can't refuse," he answered laughingly. "We will learn together, Miss Mollie, and good luck to our efforts."
"But what about the riding-habits?" asked Ruth.
"We must get them," said Mollie.
"Where?" asked Ruth.
"At a tailor's," said Mollie. "Bond Street, for choice; only it would be difficult to arrange about fitting. I'm not at all sure that we shan't have to pay a visit to town on this matter of clothes. For the present I mean to consult that maid, and see what can be done until we can get habits well made for us. And—who knows?—there may be some old things stored away somewhere which will come in handy. Anyway, I'm going to begin lessons to-morrow, habit or no habit. You can do as you like."
As there was no time to be lost, the maid was summoned only to proclaim her inability to manufacture riding attire in the space of twenty-four hours, or to produce the same from the household treasures.
"There is the mistress's habit, of course, but that was locked away with her other clothes; and even if I could get at it I wouldn't dare to use it. Mr Farrell keeps everything she wore, and nobody touches them but himself. There's a very good tailor at Bexham, miss—only half an hour's rail from here. Many of the ladies go to him for their things."
"But we want something now—at once! Something to wear to-morrow. Surely you can think of something? Mr Farrell said we were to ask you for everything we wanted, and this is the first thing we have asked for. You must suggest something!" cried Mollie imperiously.
Thus adjured, Emma pursed up her lips, and wrinkled her forehead, leant her head on one side, and stared at the ceiling for inspiration. Presently it came, for the frown disappeared, the lips relaxed into a smile.
"Well, miss," she said, "there's the parson's young ladies; they are nearly as big as you, though they are still at school. They ride with the father in the holiday, for the squire let's them have a mount from the stables whenever they send up. Their habits will be at home, lying idle. They are not much for style, of course, but for a few days, until you have time to get fitted yourself—"
"Emma, you are an angel! It's a splendid idea! Mrs Thornton begged us to let her help in any way she could. We'll call this very afternoon, when we go down to post off the flowers, and I'm sure she will be delighted to lend them. Now we can have our first lesson to-morrow. That's glorious! I do hate to wait when I have planned anything nice."
At luncheon Mr Farrell made his appearance, and listened with polite indifference to the history of the morning's doings as volunteered by his guests. He asked no questions, made no suggestions, and retired into the library the moment the meal was over for his daily perusal of the Times. Here for the first time he discovered the inconvenience of the novel interruption to his solitude, for the newspaper was missing from its accustomed place, and, on ringing to make inquiries, he was informed that Mr Melland had carried it off to the billiard-room.
"Tell Mr Melland, with my compliments, I should be obliged if he would allow me to have it for the next hour—and order two copies for the future," he said grimly.
And five minutes later Jack appeared in person the bearer of the newspaper and frank apologies.
"I'm really awfully sorry! I did not know you had not seen it. Would you care for me to read aloud any article? I should be glad to be of use."
"Thank you. My eyes are still quite useful. I prefer to read for myself."
Jack had the good sense to depart without further protest, and Mr Farrell stretched himself on his big chair with a sigh of relief. He took no pleasure in his guests, whose bright young presence depressed him by reviving memories of happier days. If it had not been for the necessity of choosing an heir, he would have cherished his solitude as his dearest possession. He congratulated himself, however, that by reserving one room for his own use he could be still safe from interruption, and, turning to a leading article, read the first few paragraphs with leisurely enjoyment. The writing was excellent, the views irreproachable, in that they exactly coincided with his own. He turned with anticipatory pleasure to the article next in order, when the sound of a light tap-tap came to the door, and Ruth appeared upon the threshold, blushing shyly.
"Uncle Bernard, Mrs Wolff says that you always read the Times after luncheon... Would it be any help if I read aloud what you wish to hear? Sometimes, when pater is tired—"
"I am obliged to you. I require no help of the sort. Is there any other subject on which you wished to speak to me?"
The tone was so suggestive of concealed wrath that Ruth quailed before it, and the faltering "No" was hardly audible across the room. Mr Farrell lifted the paper from his knee so that his face was hidden from view.
"Then you will forgive my remarking that I prefer to be undisturbed. We shall meet in the drawing-room for tea."
Ruth shut the door, advanced a few steps into the hall, and stamped her foot violently upon the floor. The thick Turkey carpet reduced the noise to the faintest echo, but an answering laugh sounded from behind a screen, and Jack Melland's eyes looked quizzically into her flushed face.
"Allow me to sympathise. I was sent about my business a few minutes ago. Took back the Times by request, and ventured to offer to read aloud—"
"Oh, so did I! His eyes looked so tired, that I long to do something! It's like living in an hotel, to take everything and do nothing in return, but if he is so cross and glares like that I shall never dare to offer again. Do you suppose it will go on like this all the time? Will he avoid us entirely except at meal-times? Shall we never get to know him really? If it is like that, I don't think I can stand it. I shall run away and go home!"
Jack looked down at her with a kindly sympathy.
"Ah, well, it's early days to judge! I don't think it would be consistent with Mr Farrell's plans to remain a stranger. Opportunities are bound to arise as the days pass by. Don't worry about it, but enjoy yourself while you can.—I am going to sit out on the terrace. Will you come, too? It will be quite warm so long as the sun lasts."
They strolled away together, to make acquaintance in a quiet tete-a- tete, while once more interruption approached the library in the shape of Mollie, primed for battle. She rapped at the door, received a low growl by way of reply, and had no sooner crossed the threshold than an infuriated voice startled her ears.
"I tell you no! I want no help. I can read without assistance. Am I stone-blind that I cannot be left in peace to read my paper, as I have done these forty years? How many times over have I to answer the same question?"
"But—but—I haven't asked you anything yet!" gasped Mollie blankly. Eyes and lips alike were wide with amazement, but instead of retiring at full speed, as the other two visitors had done before her, she shut the door carefully and advanced towards the fire. "What did you think I was going to say?"
"I have already had two interruptions in the last half-hour; two offers to have my news read aloud—a thing I detest. I conclude you have come on the same mission?"
"No!" Mollie shook her head, half penitent, half amused. "Indeed such a thing never entered my mind. I was selfish enough to be thinking of myself—not you. Something is worrying me. May I sit down and talk to you about it, Uncle Bernard?"
She drew forward a chair even as she spoke, and Mr Farrell made no objection. The Times lay on his lap, his thin hands crossed above it, while his sunken eyes were fixed upon the girl's face with a curious scrutiny.
"If it is any argument about going or staying, I have already explained—"
"Ah, but it isn't! I am going to stay. I love staying! I don't know when I have been so happy in my life as I've been to-day, wandering about this sweet old place. It was the most curious feeling this morning before you were down—like living in an enchanted castle where the owner had disappeared! When I gathered the flowers I felt quite like Beau—" She drew herself up sharply—"They were such lovely flowers!"
A short laugh proved that the interruption had come too late.
"As I said before, Miss Mary, you are not overburdened with modesty! I am obliged for my part of the simile!"
But the speaker's eyes were twinkling with quite the most amiable expression Mollie had yet seen, and she laughed unabashed.
"Ah, well, one description is as exaggerated as the other. I didn't mean to say it; it just popped out. You know that I didn't mean to be rude. I wanted to speak to you about something very important—to us, at least. Ruth will be scandalised, but it's bound to come out sooner or later, and I want to understand our position... We told you this morning that we proposed to learn riding."
"And you made no objection."
"On the contrary, I quite approved. It is almost essential for your own comfort and convenience it you wish to enjoy a country life."
"Yes! so we thought. But there is one great objection. We have no habits."
"No; of course, we have never ridden at home."
"I presume not."
"And we cannot ride without habits. Emma, the maid, suggested that Mrs Thornton might lend us her daughters' just for a few days; but we cannot keep them long."
Mr Farrell made his remarks with an air of polite indifference, which was peculiarly baffling. It was evident that no lead was to be expected from him, and that Mollie would have to put her request in the plainest possible words. Her lips were pressed together in a momentary hesitation between embarrassment and laughter; then she thought of the lecture she would receive from Ruth if her errand ended in failure, and grew strong again. Her eyes met those of Uncle Bernard still fixed intently on her face.
"I wanted to ask you what we were to do about them, and about clothes altogether! You know we are very poor. Ruth and I have fifteen pounds a year to dress on. You have never been a girl, so you don't understand what that means; but though we can get along on that at home and could look respectable for a few days' visit, we can't manage as we are for three whole months, especially when you wish us to go about, and have parties here, and meet your friends on their own terms. We have only those black evening-dresses which you saw last night, and girls can't always wear the same things, as a man does his dress suit."
"I suppose not."
"No they can't. So—"
Mollie's cheek flushed with a dawning impatience.
"Uncle Bernard, don't you think you make it very hard for me? After all, it was your wish that we should stay, and we cannot put the pater to more expense. You said we were to have carte blanche. I want to know if that applies to clothes also?"
"I must say I had not anticipated anything of the sort when I made my remark."
"Well then, are you content to have us as we are? It won't be easy or pleasant, but I suppose we could rub along if you don't object. People would make remarks, and as they are your friends—"
"It is a great many years since I have troubled my head about what people say. That argument has no weight with me; but, as you say, you remain here and go into society at my invitation, and it is therefore only reasonable that I should make it possible for you to do so in comfort. I am in ignorance as to what is required. What sum, may I ask, would you consider sufficient to make up deficiencies?"
Mollie's smile of rapture was a sight to behold. The victory was won, and won so easily that there had been no fight worthy the name. Her mind flew to Ruth, picturing the scene between them when she retold the conversation; then turned at a tangent to gloat over the thought of fineries to come.
"Ah-ah! That's a difficult question to answer. We shall need riding- habits, and summer things, and evening-dresses, and hosts of etceteras. I could make myself look respectable for twenty pounds; I could look smart for fifty; I could be a vision for a hundred!" cried Mollie, clasping her hands ecstatically, while once again a faint twinkle showed itself in Mr Farrell's eyes. His words were, however, as a rule, decidedly damping in tone.
"That is interesting to know, but something less bewildering than visions might be more in keeping with ordinary life. Very well, then, Miss Mary, order what you please, and tell your sister to do the same, and let the bills come in to me. You can run up to town for the day whenever it is necessary, and no doubt you will enjoy the variety. Is there anything more you wish to say?"
He took up the newspaper in sign of dismissal, but Mollie sat her ground, flushing and knitting her brows.
"Uncle Bernard, you are an angel, and I'm ever so much obliged, but please mightn't we have a fixed sum? It would be so much more comfortable! If it is left like this, we should not know what you would think reasonable or extravagant!"
"And in the other case, I should not know it of you! No; it must be left entirely to your discretion. Get what you please, and as much as you please. I make no restrictions. As I have said before, money is no object to me, but it is my great aim at present to understand your position as to it."
"I understand, but it's very awkward!" sighed Mollie. Her forehead was puckered with thought; she stroked her soft little chin in thoughtful fashion. "I should like to please you, but I am so completely in the dark. A man's ideas are so different from a girl's. If I get all I think necessary, you may think me extravagant!"
"Very possibly I may."
"And if I get less than the best, you might think me mean."
"Very possibly again."
Mollie made an involuntary gesture of impatience, then laughed and tossed her head.
"Uncle Bernard, it is hopeless to try to understand you. There is only one thing to be done; since I don't know how to please you, I must take extra good care to please myself."
"A most sensible conclusion! I congratulate you upon it. I have, however, one request to make. It is my wish that you and your sister should be independent of each other; each acting exactly as she thinks fit, without reference to the other's wishes. Is there anything more that you wish to say? If not, may I suggest that I am generally left free from interruption after lunch?"
"I'll never come again—I promise I won't, but there is a lot I should like to say if you would let me. I'd like to thank you and tell you how much fun and happiness we shall get out of your generosity; but, I suppose, if I did you would hate it, and call it gush. The best thing I can do is to go away at once; but you can't prevent me thanking you in my heart."
She looked at him half smiling, half wistful, longing for some sign of softening which might break down the barrier between them, but Mr Farrell did not even meet her glance. His eyes had already strayed towards his newspaper; he was settling himself in his chair and preparing to resume the interrupted reading. Mollie turned with a sigh and left the room.
LEARNING TO RIDE.
The riding-lessons duly began the next day, and, continuing each morning of the week, proved a veritable godsend to the four young people, in providing amusement for hours which might otherwise have hung somewhat heavily on their hands. The season was yet too young for outdoor games, and in the early stages of their mutual acquaintanceship it was difficult to keep up a perpetual flow of conversation. Some occupation of general interest was thus badly needed, and this was supplied by the delightful canters over the moors—delightful, despite the drawbacks which were inseparable from inexperience.
On the first morning the girls were kept sternly in hand by the careful groom, each taken in turn for an amble along a quiet road under his own supervision; while the other strolled about, feeling very fine and large as she held up the skirt of her habit, and nonchalantly flicked her whip to and fro.
From the safe vantage of the ground also it was amusing to watch Jack Melland's plungings to and fro, and offer him good advice as to the management of his steed. Jack, needless to say, disdained the groom's good offices, and set forth confident of being able to master any horse by the sheer force of his manhood. His seat was not elegant, certainly, and for once he was at a distinct disadvantage beside Victor, who looked his best on horseback, and was evidently an experienced rider.
On the third day the horses were led to the broad road, crossing the well-treed park, and, after half an hour's patient trotting to and fro, Ruth was started on her first independent canter, which was fated to have an ignominious end; for the horse, impatient of restraint, increased its pace to a gallop, which swiftly left the groom behind and sent its rider's composure to the winds. Her foot slipped from the stirrup, she dropped her whip, clung wildly to the pommel, and, regardless of dignity, screamed for help at the pitch of her voice. It seemed an eternity of time, but in reality it was only a couple of minutes, before Victor overtook her, and leaning forward, seized the reins and brought both horses to a halt.
The groom came running up behind, followed by Jack, jogging painfully up and down on his saddle, while Mollie puffed and panted in the rear. Their faces were all keen with alarm, but fear changed to amusement at the sight of Ruth with hat cocked rakishly at one side and a thick coil of hair hanging snake-like down her back. She looked piteously for comfort, and, meeting only smiles, drew herself up with what was intended to be an air of haughty disdain; but it is difficult to look haughty when with every moment fresh hairpins are falling to the ground, and with the descent of fresh coils your hat is continually assuming a still more impudent angle.
"You do look a sight!" cried Mollie with sisterly candour, and Ruth beckoned imperiously to the groom to help her to dismount.
"Take me down! I've had enough of this for one morning. You must give me another horse to-morrow, Bates. I'll never trust myself on this hateful creature again. No, thank you, I prefer to walk on my own feet." She jumped to the ground and stood twisting up her hair, her cheeks aflame with mingled fright and annoyance—a sight, indeed, as Mollie had remarked, though the young men's translation of the term was not perhaps precisely the same as her own.
"I'll put in a thousand hairpins next time," she said angrily, as she fastened the coils to the best of her ability, and straightened the rakish hat. "You had better see that your hair is safe, Mollie, before you have your turn. I am going to sit down on the grass and jeer at you for a change. It's so easy to be superior when you are doing nothing yourself!"
"I shan't hang on to my pommel, anyway, and I won't call, 'Help, murder, thieves!' whatever happens," cried Mollie lightly. "I am going round this curve, so you can all watch and see how well I do it!"
She flicked her horse's side as she spoke with quite a professional air of unconcern, and started off at a brisk canter, holding herself resolutely erect, despite the ever-increasing pain in the small of her back. Echoes of "Bravo! bravo!" followed her down the path and goaded her to increased exertion. A second flip on Prince's back sent him forward at such a surprising increase of speed that, involuntarily, she gripped the pommel; then, remembering her resolve, let go her hold to hang on more and more tightly to the reins.
Prince tossed his head and gave an expostulatory amble. Mollie set her lips and pulled the stronger. She was not conscious that the right hand pulled more strongly than the left, but that it did so was proved by the fact that the horse gradually abandoned the path and directed its course across the grass. The watchers behind gave cries of warning as they saw what was happening, but in her agitation Mollie mistook their meaning for more applause and dashed headlong on her way.
She was so much occupied in keeping her seat that she had no eyes to discover danger ahead, but the groom looked with dismay at the low- spreading trees on right and left, and raced across the grass to intercept her progress. He was too late, however. Maddened by the incessant dragging of the reins Prince galloped ahead, skirting so closely a clump of trees that it was only by crouching low over the saddle that Mollie escaped accident. The watchers drew deep breaths of relief, but renewed their anxiety as once more horse and rider disappeared from sight behind a giant elm, whose branches hung threateningly towards the ground.
Ruth gripped her habit in both hands and sped across the grass after the groom; the two young men galloped ahead; and from one and all came a second cry of alarm, as a moment later Prince sounded his appearance careering wildly along riderless and free.
What were they going to see? A helpless form stretched on the ground; a white unconscious face; a terrible, tell-tale wound? A dozen horrible pictures suggested themselves one after the other in those breathless seconds; but when the fatal spot was reached there was no figure upon the ground, senseless or the reverse; no Mollie was seen to right or left.
It seemed as if the earth had opened and swallowed her up, until a feeble squeak made the rescuers lift their eyes suddenly to the heart of the tree, where a black skirt and two small kicking feet were seen swinging to and fro in the air. Another step forward showed the whole picture, gauntleted hands clutching wildly to a bough, and a pink agonised face turned over one shoulder, while a little pipe of a voice called out gaspingly—
"Catch me! hold me! take me down! oh, my arms! I'm falling, falling, I'm falling! oh, oh, oh—I'm falling down!" And fall she did, so suddenly and violently that the groom, although a stoutly built man, tottered beneath her weight.
The ordinary heroine of fiction is so frail and ethereal in build that when she faints away, under a stress of emotion, the hero gathers her lovely form in his arms and carries her for a couple of miles with delightful ease; but Mollie Farrell was a healthy, well-grown girl; and for one agonising moment it appeared as if the sequel to the adventure was to be an ignominious tumble to the ground of rescuer and rescued.
The moment passed, the groom steadied himself with an involuntary "Whoa!" and Mollie turned to confront her friends, swaying painfully to and fro, with crossed hands pressing against each shoulder.
"Oh, my arms! my arms! They are torn out of their sockets! I know they are! The pain is really hideous!"
"What happened? How did you manage to perform such an acrobatic feat?" cried Jack, now that anxiety was appeased, unable to resist a smile at the remembrance of the pretty, comical picture, and the undignified descent to the ground; but Mollie snapped him up sharply, her sense of humour absolutely eclipsed by the pain she was suffering.
"It wasn't a feat! I saw the bough before me and I thought I should be killed, and I put out my hands to save myself and—I don't know how it happened; but the next moment that horrid, wicked animal slipped from under me, and my arms were jerked nearly out of my body, and I was left dangling in mid-air. It's perfectly hateful of you all to stand there and laugh! I might have been killed outright if it hadn't been for Bates."
"You were only a yard or so from the ground; you could have dropped down yourself without making a fuss. I kept my seat at any rate, and I didn't howl half so loudly!" said Ruth self-righteously. "What made you do anything so mad as to ride in among all those trees?"
"I didn't! It was the horse; he would go, whatever I did," protested Mollie feebly: whereupon Bates shook his head with solemn disapproval.
"We've got to be very thankful as matters is no worse," said the alarmed groom. "I shall have a fine lecturing from the squire when he hears of this, but you will bear me witness as it was against my wishes. If I'd had my way you would never have ventured off by yourselves, for another week at least, but there was no gainsaying you. I'm thinking you'll have had about enough lesson for to-day, and I must look after those horses. To-morrow—"
"To-morrow we'll be good and docile, and do as you tell us. My nerves are too shaken to be disobedient; but don't be afraid; you shan't be scolded for what isn't your fault," said Ruth with her pretty smile. Bates touched his cap and walked off, mollified, while the girls turned sadly homeward. Jack and Victor offered their escort, but, finding it impossible to disguise all traces of amusement, were promptly snubbed and bidden to go and be superior by themselves.
"I do hate men! horrid, patronising creatures!" cried Mollie pettishly, as she limped onwards. "They think themselves so grand because they are stronger than we are, and have no tiresome skirts to hamper them. I don't like riding half as much as I expected. I'm so stiff and sore, I should like to go to bed for a month. I shall lie down this afternoon. I'll get a nice book, and pull the sofa up to the window, and have tea brought up to me; and I just hope it will rain and pour, and they will have nothing to do and be bored to death, and then they will miss me, and be sorry that they were so rude. Laughing, indeed, when I was in danger of my life, before their very eyes!"
"You were safe enough before they laughed, and you did look funny hanging in mid-air! You didn't think it was cruel to laugh at me, and I was just as much frightened as you were!" retorted Ruth; and thereafter a frigid silence was maintained until the Court was reached.
At lunch Mr Farrell appeared with a clouded brow, and vouchsafed only monosyllabic replies when addressed. It was evident that something had displeased him, and, though no reference was made to the adventures of the morning, the young people had discovered by now that he possessed a mysterious power of knowing all about their actions, in sight or out of sight, and felt correspondingly ill at ease. When the meal was over and the servants had left the room, the storm burst suddenly. The sunken eyes gleamed with an angry light, and the tired voice sounded unusually loud and threatening.
"Has neither of you two young men the sense or the prudence to prevent a lady from running a foolish risk? I am informed that Ruth was in danger of having a serious accident this morning. I am not personally able to look after her safety, and she was possibly ignorant of her own folly in attempting more than she could accomplish; but I had imagined that in my absence she had two sufficient protectors—one of whom, at least, I understand to be an accomplished horseman."
Victor flushed deeply, and the lids fell over his tell-tale eyes.
"No one regrets Miss Ruth's fright more than I do, sir. She had been such an apt pupil that I did not imagine that there was any danger in trying a little canter on her own account. Bates disapproved of it, but I am afraid I sided against him. I can only promise to be more careful in future."
"It was no one's fault but my own, Uncle Bernard," interrupted Ruth eagerly. "I was conceited and thought I could do anything I liked, and I have learnt a lesson—that's all! I was frightened, but I hung on so tightly to the pommel that I don't think there was any real danger of falling. I really will be careful not to run any more risks."
"I trust you will. I feel responsible for your safety while you are under my roof, and it will be a severe strain on my nerves if I cannot rely on your discretion. Are you feeling any ill effects from your fright? Can Mrs Wolff help you in any way, or perhaps the doctor—"
Ruth gave an involuntary exclamation of surprise and protest, and the colour rushed into her cheeks. It was so surprising, so extraordinary that Uncle Bernard should betray such concern for her safety and actually suggest sending for a doctor on her behalf. Her heart beat high with the conviction that she was, indeed, his favourite, his Chosen, and that therefore her safety was all-important for the success of his scheme.
She turned her grey eyes upon him with a liquid glance of gratitude, as she faltered out words of acknowledgment.
"Oh no, indeed, it is quite unnecessary! Thank you so much all the same. I am vexed with myself for having upset you by being so headstrong, and didn't hurt myself a bit."
"That is well, then!" Mr Farrell rose from the table and turned slowly towards the door. As he did so he found himself suddenly confronted by another face—a bright-eyed, mutinous girl's face, so transparently charged with speech that he stopped short, uttering an involuntary inquiry—
"Well! what is it? What have you got to say?"
Mollie's lips parted, her head tilted to the side.
"I was in danger, too! much more than she was. I did tumble off! I hung on to the branch of a tree. I might have been injured most dreadfully."
"Ah-ah!" said Mr Farrell slowly. He turned his head aside, and his lips twitched uncertainly. "You! But you, my dear Mary, can take such uncommonly good care of yourself!"
MOLLIE DEFENDS HER UNCLE.
Mr Farrell walked to the door, and shut it behind him. Everyone stood still, staring at Mollie, and Mollie stared ruefully back.
"Oh!" she cried breathlessly, "oh!" and pressed both palms to her now scorching cheeks. "I've never been snubbed like that in all my life." Then suddenly she laughed a bright, sweet-hearted laugh, utterly free from envy. "I'm nowhere, Ruth, when you are concerned; but there's one comfort, I can do as I like, and no one will interfere! If it is to be a choice between the two, I prefer freedom to riches."
She left the room to make her way upstairs, and Jack crossed the hall by her side. He looked intently at her as he walked, and when their eyes met he said simply—
"You took that well—very well indeed! I congratulate you on your self- control. I could not have kept my temper as you did."
"Oh, I don't know!" returned Mollie easily. "I brought it on my own head. It was stupid to speak of myself at all; but just for the moment I couldn't help feeling aggrieved, because, really and truly, I was in greater danger than she. Uncle Bernard is old, poor thing, and that makes him querulous."
"It ought not to. I call that a very poor excuse. When a man gets to his age he ought surely to have learnt to be patient, even if he imagines himself provoked."
"But he is ill as well. You say nothing about that. Should that make him patient too?"
"Certainly it should. Suffering has often a most ennobling effect."
Mollie stood on the first step of the staircase, her arm on the banister, looking with a challenging smile into the proud self-confident face on a level with her own.
"Have you ever been ill, Mr Melland?"
"I am thankful to say I have not."
"But you have surely had a pain, or an ache, for a few hours at a time? Ear-ache, when you were a child, or toothache later on?"
"Oh, certainly! I've had my share of toothache, and the smaller ailments."
"And when the spasms were on,—were you gentle and patient? Did you feel your character being ennobled, or did you rage and champ about like a mad bull?"
Jack laughed. It was impossible to resist it, at the sight of the mischievous face, and the sound of the exaggerated, school-girl simile.
"Well," he conceded magnanimously, "perhaps the champing was the more in evidence. I was not citing myself as a model, Miss Mollie. I know quite well that—that I might be more patient than I am."
"More patient! More! You are not patient at all. You are the most impatient person I ever met. If anyone dares even to have a different opinion from you, you can hardly contain yourself. I wish you could see your face! You look like this."
Mollie drew herself up, making a valiant attempt to draw her eyebrows together, send out lightning sparks from her eyes, inflate her nostrils, and tug the ends of an imaginary moustache at one and the same time; and succeeded in looking at once so pretty and so comical that, instead of being convicted, Jack laughed more heartily than before.
"As bad as that? Really? I must be ferocious! It's rather unkind of you to pitch into me like this, Miss Mollie, when I have just been paying you compliments. It's a good thing I am going away so soon, as I am such a desperate character. There is no saying to what lengths Mr Farrell and I might get if we were long together."
"Oh!" Mollie's face sobered, and a little chill came over her spirits. "You are still determined, then? Nothing has happened to make you change your mind?"
"What should have happened?" replied Jack the ungallant. "There has been nothing behind the scenes, Miss Mollie—nothing that you do not know of. Only I prefer to go back to my work—that's all. I consented to remain for a week to please Mr Farrell, but I don't see that I am called upon to make any further sacrifice. I have my life's work before me, and just now it needs all the attention I can give it. Besides, Mr Farrell and I would never get on; I should be a disturbing element which would not improve matters for any of you. Between ourselves, I think there is little doubt who will be the Chosen, as you express it. Your sister is evidently first in favour. Witness your experience a few minutes ago."
Mollie stared before her, thoughtful and absent-minded. One word in Jack's speech had detached itself from the rest and printed itself on her brain. Sacrifice! He had stayed at the Court for a week as a matter of necessity, and did not feel called upon to sacrifice his inclinations any further. Sacrifice, indeed! The word rankled the more as she realised how differently she herself had described the past five days, and how high Jack Melland's presence had ranked among the pleasures of the new life. When she projected her thoughts into the future, and imagined living through the same scenes without his companionship, it was extraordinary how flat and dull they suddenly became. But he called it a "sacrifice" to stay away from a dingy, dreary office, and preferred the society of his partner to all the Mollie Farrells in the world! He liked her, of course—she could not pretend to doubt that; but just as a grown man might care for an amusing child who served to while away an idle hour, but who was not worth the trouble of a serious thought.
"He thinks I am shallow," thought Mollie sorrowfully, and then suddenly inverted the sentence. "Am I shallow?" she asked herself, with an uneasy doubt creeping over her self-complacency. "I expect I am, for I am content with the surface of things, and like to laugh better than to think. But I'm twenty; I don't want to be treated as a child all my life. It's horrid of him to talk of sacrifices!"
Thoughts fly quickly, but, even so, the pause was long enough to be unusual. Jack looked inquiringly at the thoughtful face, and said smilingly—
"Why, Miss Mollie, you look quite sober! I never saw you so serious before. Is that because I said that your sister was preferred before you?"
That aroused Mollie to a flash of indignation.
"No, indeed; I am not so mean. I'd almost sooner Ruth had things than myself, for I'd have all the fun and none of the trouble. Besides, she wants it more than I do, and would be a hundred times more disappointed to do without. And then you must not blame Uncle Bernard too much. He had a good reason for saying what he did. I deserved it.—You will never guess what I did."
Jack looked amused and curious.
"Nothing very dreadful, I feel sure. You are too hard on yourself, Miss Mollie."
"I asked him for heaps of money to buy heaps of new clothes—"
Jack's whistle of amazement was too involuntary to be controlled. He tried his best to retrieve himself by an expression of unconcern, but the pretence was so apparent that Mollie laughed at the sight, albeit a trifle ruefully.
"Do you mean to tell me seriously that you asked Mr Farrell for money?"
"Yes, I did. I asked him on Wednesday. It seemed the only thing to do, as he wants us to entertain his friends, and go out whenever we are asked, and we hadn't enough clothes to go in. Ruth wouldn't ask, so I had to do it. We have no evening-dresses in the world except those black things that you see every night, and we can't live in them for three months like a man in his dress suit."
"They are very pretty dresses. I am sure you always look charming."
"Oh, don't feel bound to be flattering, I hate obvious compliments!" cried Mollie irritably. She was surprised to realise how irritable she felt. "I only told you because it was mean to let poor Uncle Bernard get the blame." She paused, and over her face flashed one of those sudden radiant changes of expression which were so fascinating to behold. Her eyes shone, her lips curled, a dimple dipped in her cheek. "But he did give it to me—he gave me more than I asked—carte blanche, to spend as much as I liked! Next Tuesday morning as ever is, we are going up to town to shop with Mrs Thornton as assistant. Think of it! Think of it! Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street—just to look in at all the windows in turn, and buy what one likes best. Hats,"—two eager hands went up to her head—"dresses"—they waved descriptively in the air—"coats; fripperies of all descriptions, delicious blouses for every occasion, and evening-dresses!—oh, chiffon and lace and sequins, and everything that is fascinating! I've never had anything but the most useful and long-suffering garments, though I have yearned to be fluffy, and now I shall be as fluffy as I can be made! Think of me, all in tulle and silver gauze, with a train yards long, all lined with frills and frills of chiffon!" cried Mollie ecstatically, tilting her head over her shoulder, and pushing out her short skirt with a little slippered foot as if it were already the train of which she spoke.
"Indeed, I will think of you! I wish I could do more than think; I should like to see you into the bargain. It is hard lines that I have to leave before the exhibition opens."
"Oh, pray don't pose as an object of pity! Whose fault is it that you are leaving at all?" retorted Mollie quickly. "You have made up your mind to go, and it's a matter of pride with you that nothing or nobody shall prevent you. My poor fineries would be a very weak inducement; but you will have to reckon with Uncle Bernard before you get away, and I don't think he will be easy to oppose."
Jack Melland straightened himself, and his nostrils dilated in characteristic, high-spirited fashion.
"When I make up my mind I never give way," he said slowly.
Mollie tossed her head defiantly.
"So you say; but there is something even stronger than will, Mr Melland."
"And that is—"
"Fate!" cried Mollie dramatically.
The blue eyes and the brown met in a flashing glance; then the girl dropped a demure curtsey, and ran lightly upstairs.
IN THE VILLAGE CHURCH.
The shopping expedition was, by common consent, postponed until the middle of the following week, when Jack Melland would have taken his departure.
"Let us make hay while the sun shines. Three is an abominable number, especially when you happen to be the third," said Mollie, sighing. "Mr Druce admires you very much, Ruth. I often see him staring at you when you are not looking; but when I appear upon the scene his eyelids droop, and he does not deign even to glance in my direction. He puzzles me a good deal, as a rule. I rather fancy myself as a judge of character, but I can't decide whether he is really a model of virtue, or a villain in disguise."
Ruth made a movement of impatience.
"How exaggerated you are, Mollie! Why must you rush off to extremes in that foolish fashion? Mr Druce is probably neither one nor the other, but just an ordinary combination of faults and virtues. He is kind and considerate to Uncle Bernard, and very chivalrous to us;—a hundred times more so than Jack Melland, who certainly does not err on the side of politeness. Personally, I don't think any the less highly of people because they are little reserved and uncommunicative at first. It will be time enough to judge Mr Druce's character when we have known him for weeks, instead of days."
"Humph! I believe in first impressions," insisted Mollie obstinately; "and so do you, really, or you would not bristle up when I dare to cast a doubt on his excellence. You are going to like him, Ruth, I can see that quite clearly, and he admires you; so, as I said before, I shall be the poor little pig who stays at home, while you two wander abroad together. It's not exactly the programme which my fancy painted when we came down; but if I devote myself to Uncle Bernard, and cut you both out, I shall have the best of it, after all. Perhaps, too I may make friends with someone in the neighbourhood,—there is always the chance of that, and I do love meeting new people. I suppose callers will begin to arrive after we have made our first public appearance at church to- morrow. I am quite excited at the prospect of seeing all the people— aren't you?"
"I am not going," said Ruth.
And when Mollie exclaimed and cross-questioned, she flushed uncomfortably, but did not refuse to answer.
"I have made up my mind to go to early service, but not again at eleven o'clock. It's not that I don't want to go; it's because I want to go so much—for the wrong reasons! Ever so many times during the last few days I have caught myself thinking about it, and imagining the scene— everybody staring at us, while we sit in the squire's pew trying to look unconscious, but really enjoying it all the time, and building castles in the air about the future, when we may have a right to be there. We should be thinking most of all of ourselves, and that's not a right spirit in which to go to church; so I'm not going. I'm disappointed, but I've made up my mind."
Mollie leant her head on her hand and gazed thoughtfully before her. The sisters were seated in the great round window of their bedroom, from which such a glorious view of the surrounding country could be obtained; and as Mollie's eyes wandered from the blue of the sky to the fresh green of the trees, and anon to the patches of golden daffodils among the grass, a wonderful sweetness softened her young face.
"But God understands!" she said gently. "He made girls, so He must know how they feel. This is a great occasion for us, and it is natural that we should be excited and a little bit self-engrossed. Mother would think it natural, and make excuses for us, even if we were carried away by our new importance; and God is kinder and more forgiving than mother. Perhaps, when one is quite old and staid, it is easy to sit through a service and never think of self; but it is difficult when one is young. I used to be miserable because every time I had a new hat or dress, or anything that was fresh, I couldn't help remembering it and being pleased that I looked so nice, and hoping that other people liked it too but when I thought it over I came to the conclusion that it was only natural. Look at that lovely view!" She waved her hand expressively from right to left. "When God made the world so beautiful and so full of colour, He must mean us to love pretty things without being ashamed of it; so now I just thank Him for the new things in my prayers, and remember them as some of the things to be thankful for. I'm sure it's the best way. It's cowardice to stay at home because we are afraid of a temptation. Surely it would be far better to go, to thank God for giving us this good time, and to ask Him to send us nice friends, and, if it be His will, to let Uncle Bernard leave us the Court, so that we may help them all at home!"
She broke off, looking round half timidly in Ruth's face, for it was reversing the usual roles to find herself laying down the law as to right and wrong to the serious-minded elder sister. Would Ruth be annoyed—shocked—disapproving? It appeared that she was not, for the troubled lines had gradually smoothed away from her forehead, and she cried heartily—
"Yes, you are right. I feel you are! Thank you for putting it so plainly, dear. I did want to go to church, and now my conscience will be clear, so I can go comfortably, feeling it is the right thing. But oh, Mollie, shall we all four be praying, one against the other, each one wanting to disappoint the others, and keep the Court for himself?"
"Jack Melland won't, for one; and I won't for another. I'm not sure that I want it and all the responsibility that goes in its train. I'd honestly rather it were yours, dear; then I could come and sponge upon you as often as I liked."
"Sponge!" echoed Ruth reproachfully. "As if it would be any pleasure to me if you were not here! What would become of poor Berengaria without her Lucille? We are so grand in real life now that we forget the dear old game; but, when we are back in Attica, we shall be able to play it better than ever, now that we really know what it feels like to be rich and have everything one wants!"
Mollie did not answer, and both girls sat silently gazing before them, while their thoughts wandered northwards to a shabby, crowded house, and to a sloping-roofed attic under the leads, in which so many hours had been spent. Mollie smiled, remembering the little make-shifts and contrivances, seeing the humour of them, and feeling again the glow of triumph with which each difficulty had been surmounted.
Ruth shuddered with a mingling of fear and repulsion.
Oh, how bare it was—how poor, and small, and unlovely! the few small rooms, the shabby furniture, the little plot of grass in front of the door which did duty as a garden. Could it be possible that in a few short months she might have to return and take up life once more under the old conditions? The thought of Dr Maclure's handsome house had been a distinct temptation to her when he had asked her to be his wife; then how much more the beautiful old Court?
"I would do anything to get it!" thought poor Ruth desperately. "Oh, if I could only find out what Uncle Bernard wants! It is terrible to be in the dark like this!"
The next day was Sunday, and the ordeal of church-going proved to be much less trying than had been expected, for the congregation was mainly composed of villagers, who looked too stolid and sleepy to trouble themselves about the appearance of strangers, even when seated in the squire's pew. The pew, moreover, was situated in the front of the chancel, so that it was all the easier to pay whole-hearted attention to the service. Coming out through the churchyard, the girls were conscious of glances of interest directed towards themselves by various little parties who plainly composed the gentlefolk of the neighbourhood.
At the gate one or two carriages were waiting in readiness to convey their owners home, the best appointed of which was presently occupied by an old lady and gentleman, whom Ruth recognised from Mrs Thornton's description as being the couple whom the renowned Lady Margot Blount was about to visit. She said as much to Mollie, when the carriage had passed by, and the four young people were strolling together in easy country fashion along the road.
"Did you notice, Mollie? Those must be Mr and Mrs Blount, who live at the Moat. I should know them anywhere from Mrs Thornton's description. I wonder whether they will call, and if Lady Margot Blount will come with them? She was expected this week, I think."
She was interrupted by a sharp exclamation, and turned with her two companions to stare in amazement into Victor Druce's transformed face. For once amazement had broken down the veil which gave a tinge of mystery to his personality; his sallow cheeks showed a streak of colour, and his eyes were wide open and eager.
"Lady—Margot—Blount!" he repeated incredulously. "Here, in this village! You say she is expected to meet those people who have just driven past? Is it possible? Who told you about her?"
Ruth stared at him, amazed in her turn by his energy of manner.
"Mrs Thornton told us so, the night she dined at the Court. We asked her what girls were in the neighbourhood, and among the number she spoke of Lady Margot as a constant visitor to her uncle and aunt. Why are you so surprised? Do you know her in town? Is she a friend of yours?"
Victor hesitated, biting the ends of his moustache.
"I can hardly call her a friend. We are not in the same set; but I saw a good deal of her last autumn. Some people I know were getting up tableaux for a charity bazaar, and asked us both to take part. There were a good many rehearsals, so that we grew for the time pretty intimate; but she went off to Egypt for the winter, and I have heard nothing of her since the night of the performance."
"But have thought a good deal all the same!" said Mollie shrewdly to herself, looking at the dark face, which looked so handsome in its unaccustomed animation.
If Victor Druce often looked like that, he would be a fascinating companion. To have the power so to influence him and excite his interest would be perilously attractive. A few hours before, Mollie had been almost prepared to declare that she distrusted and disliked this new acquaintance; now she was conscious of a distinct feeling of envy towards the unknown Margot.
"How interesting that you have met already! Mrs Thornton was so enthusiastic in her praise, that she roused our curiosity to fever- pitch. Do tell us what she is like! We are longing to know."
But Victor did not appear inclined to be communicative. The heavy lids fell over his eyes, and he murmured a few non-committal sentences. It was difficult to describe a girl so as to give any real idea of her appearance. He was not skilled at word-painting. If Lady Margot was so soon expected, would it not be better to wait and judge for themselves? Mollie shrugged her shoulders impatiently, and forthwith began her catechism.
"Er—medium; not small, not too tall."
"The perfect mean? I understand! Dark or fair?"
"Dark eyes, chestnut hair."
"Oh, that's not right. She has no right to monopolise the beauties of both complexions. And chestnut hair, too, the prettiest shade of all! Is she a real, true beauty, or only just pretty, like ordinary folk?"
"That must be a matter of personal opinion, mustn't it, Miss Mollie? Ideas vary so much on these subjects."
"Checkmate!" sighed Mollie to herself. "He won't say what he thinks, and I can't be so rude as to ask directly, though it's just what I'm dying to know." Aloud, she said carelessly, "Oh, I've no doubt I shall think her lovely, and adore her as I do all lovely people; that is, if she doesn't scare me too much. Is she formidable and grande dame, or lively and easy-going?"
"That again must surely depend upon circumstances," replied Victor sententiously, whereat Mollie tossed her head, declaring that he was as aggravating as Uncle Bernard himself, and almost as enigmatical.
As for Ruth, she walked along with compressed lips and frowning brows. It was not possible for a girl to find herself thrown into close companionship with two young men, and not wonder in the recesses of her heart if perchance friendship might not eventually develop into something warmer. Ruth and Mollie had both thought and dreamed, and to each it had occurred that possibly some such ending of the great problem might have occurred to Mr Farrell himself. There was no barrier of near relationship to prevent two of the young people making a match, if they were so disposed; and while Uncle Bernard, so far, seemed to favour his elder niece, he had expressly stated that he would prefer a male heir. Ruth's favour was not easily won, but as both young men appeared agreeable, gentlemanly, and good-looking, it had been a distinctly pleasant experience to look forward and wonder if he,—if I,—if perhaps some day, long ahead, when we know each other well... All girls have such dreams, and understand how their existence adds savour to a situation. It was not a little trying, then, when Jack Melland insisted on returning to town, and Victor Druce, in his turn, must needs betray an undoubted interest in another girl.
"Tiresome thing!" murmured Ruth to herself; referring, needless to say, not to Victor, but to the innocent Margot herself. "I knew I should dislike her from the moment when Mrs Thornton mentioned her name. Why couldn't she be happy in town, with all her grand friends, instead of rushing down here to interfere with us the moment we arrive? She is sure to hear the reason why we are here—everyone knows it; and if she is mercenary she will like Victor better now that he has a chance of inheriting the Court, and, when he knows her connection with the neighbourhood, she will seem to him more desirable than ever. Uncle Bernard would be pleased, and think her a suitable mistress for the Court, and they will get everything, and we'll get nothing, and go home as failures... Mother will be disappointed, and everything will be duller and pokier than ever..."
So on and so on, conjuring up one gloomy vision after another, as was her unhappy custom, until at length she saw herself stricken in years, broken in health, lonely and unloved, with nothing in prospect but a pauper's grave. A strange ending, indeed, to that first public appearance from which so much had been expected!
When Sunday evening arrived Jack Melland was surprised to feel a distinct strain of regret in realising that it was the last evening he should spend at the Court. He was still not only determined but eager to return to his work at the beginning of the week, and had counted the hours until his release should arrive; but, as the days passed by, he had become increasingly alive, not only to the beauty of his surroundings but to the unusual charm of feminine society. After a lonely life in London lodgings, it was an agreeable experience to come downstairs to a perfectly appointed meal, set against a background of tapestry and oak, to be greeted by bright girlish faces, and kept amused and interested from morning till night.
Mollie was a fascinating little creature—witty, audacious, and sweet— hearted, though, as yet, too much of a school-girl to be taken seriously. As for Ruth, she was a beauty, and might become dangerous to a man's peace of mind on a longer acquaintance. That was an additional reason why Jack was set on leaving the Court, for, as she was obviously first favourite, it would be a distinct stroke of diplomacy for a man to link his chances with hers. Jack's nostrils inflated in characteristic manner as he told himself, that this would not be his fashion of going a-wooing, but he was less scrupulous in prophesying for his neighbour. "Druce will make love to her! she'll marry Druce!" he told himself confidently; and his thoughts flew ahead to the time when the young couple would reign over the Court, and dispense the favours which were now in Bernard Farrell's hands.
Well, it was a goodly heritage! Even in seven short days several scenes had printed themselves upon his memory. The drive across the park, with the great north front of the house lying grey and chill in the distance; the south terrace flooded with sunshine; the gardens sloping to the level of the lake; and beyond them the open stretch of country. And in all probability Druce was to be the master of it all. He seemed a good enough fellow, but was he worthy of the position, and of the wife who would go with it? Would he make her happy?—the sweet, beautiful thing! Happiness did not come easily to her as it did to her sister. If her husband neglected her, or fell short of her ideal, the wistful expression, which was one of her charms, would soon develop into a settled melancholy. Jack conjured up a vision of Ruth's face—emaciated and woebegone—and felt a pang of regret, allied with something curiously like remorse. It seemed as if by going away he were deliberately leaving her to Druce's tender mercies, so certain did he feel as to the result of the three months' companionship. For the first time a rankling doubt of the wisdom of his decision disturbed his complacency. When he was back in his dingy lodgings would he think longingly of the Court, and reproach himself for having thrown aside the chance of a lifetime; and if the business failed, despite all his efforts, and he found himself thrown adrift on the world, how should he feel then, remembering what might have been?
These reflections brought a frown to Jack's brow, but he was too proud to show any sign of wavering to his companions; and in the old man's presence was careful to make no allusion to the coming departure. On Monday morning the subject was to be officially discussed; but, until the prescribed hour arrived, it would have been a brave man or woman who dared open it in Mr Farrell's presence.
As for Mr Farrell himself, so far from looking forward to the interview with foreboding, he seemed in an unusually amiable frame of mind as he took the head of the table on Sunday evening, actually deigning to question his guests as to the day's doings, and the impressions which they had received. In their replies the young men were, as usual, brief and practical, Ruth tactfully reserved, and Mollie unflatteringly honest. But to-night Mr Farrell seemed determined to take no offence, and even vouchsafed a grim smile at the sound of the quaintly vigorous language.
"You will have to curb that rebellious tongue of yours, my dear Mary, if you are to get through the next few weeks without trouble. The good people about here are not accustomed to such picturesque exaggerations, and will take everything you say as literal fact, so you had better beware. You will probably have a number of visitors this week, so it would be as well to arrange to be at home as much as possible in the afternoons. Calling is a more serious business in the country than in town; and when people have taken the trouble to drive eight or nine miles, it is a disappointment to find nobody at home." He turned towards Jack, and continued: "Of course, this restriction does not apply to you, or to Druce. Your presence will not be expected; and if you agree with me, the further afield you can be, the better you will be pleased. There are some charming excursions which you could manage in an afternoon's ride, and, from what I hear, your horsemanship has improved so rapidly that you could easily manage them. Bates will be happy to give you any directions you may require; or, still better, to accompany you as guide."
These remarks were so markedly addressed to Jack, that no one but himself could venture to reply, and his self-will was so much ruffled by the deliberate ignoring of his expressed determination that he was instantly aflame with wrath. His nostrils curved, his brows arched, his lips opened to pronounce a sharp disclaimer, when suddenly he caught sight of Mollie's face gazing at him across the table; and if ever a face cried "Don't!" with all the eloquence of pleading eyes and parted lips, Mollie's said it at that moment. The message was so unmistakable and ardent that it demanded obedience, and to his own surprise Jack found himself murmuring conventional words of thanks, instead of the heated disclaimer which he had intended.
Later on in the evening he followed Mollie into a corner of the drawing- room to demand a reason for her unspoken interference.
"It was not honest to seem to agree when I have no intention of being here for a single afternoon. Why wouldn't you let me speak?" he demanded; whereupon Mollie pursed her lips, and said thoughtfully—
"I hardly know. You were going to be cross, and it is Sunday—our first Sunday here. I didn't want it to be spoilt by angry words. If you must disappoint the old man, do it gently. Don't answer back, even if he is annoying. You will be glad afterwards—when he is dead, and you have nothing to regret."
Jack looked down at her in silence. Was this the pert school-girl, whom he had just deemed unworthy of serious consideration? The face into which he looked seemed of a sudden that of a woman rather than that of a child—soft and sweet, grave-eyed, with lovely, serious lips. The very voice was altered, and had an added richness of tone. It was like catching a glimpse into the future, and beholding the woman that was to be, when girlhood's bright span was over. Instinctively Jack's manner altered to meet the change. The supercilious curve left his lip, his keen eyes softened.
"Thank you, Miss Mollie," he said gravely. "You are quite right. I'll remember!"
She thanked him with a luminous glance, and turned away; but he wanted to see her again, to hear her speak once more in that beautiful new voice. Before she had taken three steps he called to her eagerly—
"Miss Mollie! One moment! I expect I shall be packed off, bag and baggage, as soon as I have announced my decision; but Mr Farrell does not make his appearance until lunch-time, so we have a whole morning left still. Will you come for a last ride with me after breakfast?"
"Yes," said Mollie simply.
Her heart beat high with pleasure, because Jack had assented so readily to her request, because he had wished to spend his last hours in her society. For the moment she forgot the blank which would follow his departure, and was wholly, unreservedly happy. It was the old, sparkling, girlish face which was turned upon him—the vision had disappeared.
The next day neither Ruth nor Victor offered to join the riding-party, though they had not any settled plans for the forenoon. Mollie had told her sister of Jack's invitation of the evening before, and Ruth was too proud to make a third unless she were specially asked to do so. She strolled into the grounds to interview the gardener about sending in an extra supply of plants and flowers to beautify the house for the expected callers, while Victor shut himself in the library to write letters.
Jack looked well on horseback, as tall, upright men always do, and Mollie glanced at him admiringly, and thought regretfully of her new habit, which was even now in the tailor's hands. It did seem hard that she should have to wear a shabby, ill-fitting coat while he was here, and that the new one should come home almost as soon as he had departed. Her sigh of self-commiseration brought his eyes upon her, and he sighed in echo as he cried—
"Last times are melancholy occasions! I hate them, even when the experience has not been altogether pleasant. There is a sadness about turning over the leaf and ending another chapter of life. This chapter has been a very short one, but uncommonly jolly. Don't think that I haven't appreciated it, because I am going away. I have enjoyed every hour of this week, and when I am back on the treadmill I shall think longingly of you all many times over. I hope we may often meet again."
"It is not very likely, is it? You will go your way, and we will go ours. Ruth and I have never been in London, nor you in Liverpool. We may all live until we are old and bald, and never meet again," said Mollie dismally; whereupon Jack looked at the shining plaits which were coiled at the back of her head, and laughed reassuringly.
"I can't imagine you bald, nor old either, and I expect to see you many times over before you have the chance of changing. The Chosen, whoever he or she may be, must surely have the good manners to invite the rest of us to visit a house which might have been our own; and I have a special claim, for by retiring from the lists I increase your chances. Personally, I have made up my mind to spend many holidays here—shooting and riding, and enjoying myself generally. I hope you won't object, if you happen to be the chatelaine?"
"Ah, but I shan't! I have no chance against the other two; but I also intend to spend my holidays here, and I tell Ruth she must send home hampers every week. It has always been my ambition to get hampers, and she could send such splendid ones from the Court—game and poultry and eggs, and nice out-of-season fruits and vegetables, which would be such a help in the housekeeping! I am afraid sometimes that we count too much on Uncle Bernard's fancy for Ruth's eyebrows, for if he changed his mind and left everything to Mr Druce, it would be a terrible disappointment. And there are three months before us still. He may change a dozen times yet."
"I think most probably he will. Better stick to your resolution, to have a good time, and not bother your head about the future. I shall be most anxious to know how things go. Druce has promised to send me a line now and then. Will you jog his memory in case he forgets?"
Mollie promised, all the more readily that Victor's letter would naturally bring a return, which would serve to bridge over the separation. It seems curious to remember that little over a week ago she had not known of Jack Melland's existence. He had made but a brief appearance upon the scene, but it would not be easy to forget him, or to fill the vacant place.
Both riders relapsed into silence as they neared home; but, as they clattered into the stable-yard, Jack turned towards Mollie with rather a forced air of triumph, and cried—
"Do you remember your warning, Miss Mollie, that Fate was stronger than will? Ever since we set out this morning the words have been ringing in my ears, and I have been expecting some accident to happen which would keep me here in spite of myself. I have looked for it at every turn of the road as if it were bound to come."
Mollie shivered nervously.
"Oh, how horrid! I am glad you did not tell me. I should have been nervous, too, for I am superstitious about presentiments. They so often come true."
"Well, this one at least has not. Here we are safe and sound, and all risk is over!" cried Jack, dropping his reins, and jumping lightly from the saddle without waiting for the groom to come to the horse's head.
He was anxious to assist Mollie to dismount before Bates came up; but even as his feet touched the ground he slipped, staggered uncertainly for a moment, and sank to the ground with a groan of pain. The groom rushed forward; Mollie leapt inelegantly but safely to the ground, and bent over him with anxious questioning. His face was drawn with pain, and he bent forward to grip his foot with both hands.
"My—ankle! I slipped on something, or came down on the side of my foot. I don't know how it was done; but I've given it a bad wrench, if nothing worse. You'll have to cart me up to the house, Bates. I'm afraid it's hopeless to try to walk."
"No, indeed, sir! Don't you trouble. I've got an old bath-chair stored away in the stables. We'll lift you into that in no time, and take you up as easy as possible."
He turned off as he spoke, and Jack and Mollie were left alone. For a moment she stood silently by his side; then their eyes met, and he said wearily—
"Kismet! Fate is too much for me. For better or worse, Miss Mollie, it is evidently ordained that I must stay on at the Court!"
The village doctor came to doctor Jack Melland's damaged ankle, and the patient fumed and fretted beneath his old-fashioned treatment.
"Bandaging me and laying me up by the heels for weeks at a time; it's folly!" he declared angrily. "The man is twenty years behind the times. If I were in town I should have had one of those Swedish fellows to massage it, and be about in half the time. Just my luck to go in for an accident in a place where one can't get proper attention!"
"But you groan if anyone comes near your foot; wouldn't it hurt dreadfully much to have it massaged?" Mollie asked.
Whereupon the invalid growled impatiently—
"Hurt? Of course it would hurt! What has that to do with it, pray?"
"Lots," returned Mollie, unabashed. "I should think so, at least, if it were my ankle. I can't endure pain."
"I'm not a girl," growled Jack the ungracious, between his teeth.
There was no denying the fact that he did not make an agreeable invalid. In the first realisation of his accident he had meekly bowed his head to Fate; but ever since he had, figuratively speaking, kicked against the pricks, and repaid the kindness of his companions by incessant grumblings and complaints. He hated having to give up his own way; he hated being tied to a sofa and a bath-chair; he resented offers of help as if they had been actual insults, and hindered his recovery by foolhardy attempts at independence.
"How would you like to be an invalid for life?" Mollie asked him severely after one of these outbursts. "There was a young man in mother's district, every bit as strong and big as you, and a sack of something fell on his back while they were trying to haul it up into a warehouse. He was taken to the hospital, and they told him that he would never walk again, never even sit up again. As long as he lived he would be a helpless cripple. And he was just going to be married, too!"
"Well, I'm not, thank goodness!" cried Jack bluntly. "Why do you tell me such gruesome stories? My own troubles are quite enough just now. I don't want to hear any more horrors."
"It was just to distract your mind from yourself that I did tell you. Once upon a time I met a man who read me a beautiful lecture upon the dangers of being selfish and self-engrossed. I'll tell you his very words, if you like. They made a deep impression upon me at the time," said Mollie naughtily. But instead of being amused, Jack was only irritated afresh.
In these first days of invalidism Mollie's influence was the reverse of soothing, for Jack was not in the mood to be teased, and if his inner determination could have been put into words it would have been that he objected to be cheered up, refused to be cheered up, and insisted upon posing as a martyr; therefore, it followed that Ruth's gentle ministrations were more acceptable than her sister's vigorous sallies. If he could have seen again the Mollie of whom he had caught a glimpse on Sunday evening, Jack would have chosen her before any other companion; but, as she had made place for a mischievous tease, he preferred to look into Ruth's lovely anxious eyes, and to dilate at length upon his symptoms to her sympathetic ear.
Mr Farrell's behaviour at this critical juncture did not throw oil upon the troubled waters. He took care that Jack should have every attention, and inquired as to his progress with punctilious regularity; but he plainly considered a sprained ankle a very trivial affair, which, needless to say, did not coincide with the invalid's views of the case; moreover, he absolutely refused to believe that the accident was responsible for keeping Jack at the Court.
"It is only right to tell you, sir, that I had finally made up my mind that I must return home to-day, as I could not agree with your conditions," Jack informed him on their first interview after the doctor had paid his visit; whereupon the old man elevated his eyebrows with that air of ineffable superiority which was so exasperating, and said—
"And I, on the contrary, had made up my mind that you should stay. It is satisfactory to me that the question is decided in my favour."
"By an accident, sir. By an accident only. If I'd been able to move—"
Mr Farrell held up his hand with a deprecatory gesture.
"In that case I should have called your attention to certain arguments which would have brought about the same result. Believe me, my dear Jack, it would have made no difference."
Jack's face flushed angrily. He forgot Mollie's entreaty, forgot his own promise, and answered hotly—
"I cannot imagine any arguments that could keep me here against my will. As soon as I can get about again I must return to my work. This accident is only delaying my departure for a few weeks longer."
"So!" Could anything be more aggravating than that little bow and smile which accompanied the word. "In a few weeks, my dear Jack, many things may happen; therefore, it is superfluous to discuss the subject at present. When the time arrives I shall be ready to meet it."
He turned and left the room, while Jack raged in helpless fury upon the sofa. It was insufferable to be treated as if he were a boy who could be ordered about against his will. When John Allen Ferguson Melland said a thing, he meant it, and not all the old men in the world should move him from it, as Bernard Farrell would find out to his cost before many weeks were past.
For three whole days Jack's ill-temper continued, and, like most angry people, he punished himself even more than his companions, refusing to sit in the drawing-room to see callers, and insisting on remaining all day long in a dull little room at the back of the house. He grew tired of reading. His head ached with the unusual confinement; just because he was unable to move he felt an overpowering desire for half a dozen things just out of reach, and the day stretched to an interminable length. On the fourth morning depression had taken the place of ill- temper, and he was prepared to allow himself to be petted and waited upon, when, to his dismay, Victor came to his bedroom with the news that the girls had gone up to town, accompanied by Mrs Thornton.
"They said, as you preferred to be alone it would be best to keep to their plans," said Victor cruelly. "I am off for a ride, and shall probably make a day of it, and lunch en route. I was thinking of going to Barnsley. It is quite a decent-sized place. Would you like me to try if I could find a masseuse for your foot?"
Jack looked up sharply; but Victor looked as he usually did. His face was set and expressionless, as it always was when his eyes were hidden. It was natural enough that he should make such a suggestion, seeing that he had heard many lamentations on the subject, natural and kindly into the bargain, yet Jack felt an instinctive unwillingness to accept the offer.
"He wants me out of the way," came the leaping thought, while he bit his lip, and appeared to ponder the question.
A few days before he himself had heartily echoed the sentiment; but now that Fate—or was it something else?—had interfered to keep him at the Court, Jack's views had slowly altered. It might be that there was a duty waiting for him here, some duty which was even more important than his work in town; and, if he shirked it, the consequences might fall upon others besides himself. The two girls' faces rose before him,— Ruth's shy and anxious, Mollie audaciously reckless,—children both of them in the ways of the world, though innocently confident of their own wisdom. If by staying on at the Court he could safeguard their interests, it would be well-spent time which he should never regret.
To Victor's astonishment his offer was quietly but firmly refused, and he set out on his ride marvelling what had happened to bring about such a sudden change of front.
Meantime, Ruth and Mollie were enjoying their first experience of that most delightful feminine amusement—shopping in London. They drove to the doors of world-famed establishments, entered with smiling self- confidence, and gave their orders, unperturbed even by the immaculate visions in black satin who hastened forward to receive them; so marvellous and inspiring are the effects of a purse and a cheque-book behind it!
Mrs Thornton was purse-bearer, and, to do her justice, enjoyed the occasion as much as the girls themselves. She had been personally interviewed by Mr Farrell and coached for her part, which was to chaperon the girls, take them to the best places in which to procure their various requirements, but on no account whatever to direct the purchases, or limit their extent.
"It is a good test; I wish to study it," said the old man, which speech being repeated, Ruth looked grave, and Mollie laughed, and cried—
"There is only one question I shall ask you, 'Do I look nice?' and one piece of advice, 'Which suits me best?' and you are free to answer them both. In the present instance these hats are all so fascinating that it would be a sin to choose between them. I shall take them all!"
"Mollie, don't be absurd. You shall do nothing of the kind. Four hats, and you have two already! It would be wicked extravagance!" protested Ruth vigorously.
But Mollie persisted, and the attendant volubly declared that indeed "madam" was wrong. Six hats was a very moderate allowance. Madam would need different hats for different occasions,—for morning and afternoon, for fine and wet weather, for ordinary and dress occasions. Would she herself not be persuaded to try on this charming model, the latest French fashion, "ridiculously cheap at three guineas?"
"Thank you, I'll take the white hat, and the black chiffon. They will answer all my purposes," declared Ruth frigidly.
She was shocked at Mollie's wanton extravagance, and all the more disapproving that she herself badly wanted to be extravagant too, and wear dainty colours for a change, instead of the useful black and white, if only her sensitive conscience could have submitted to the outlay.
If hats had been a pitfall, dresses were even worse, for here the prices were largely increased. It was a new experience to be ushered into what looked more like a luxurious house than a shop, and to find oneself confronted by a row of tall, willowy young women dressed in tightly fitting black satin garments, so marvellously representing dress-stands that they might have been mistaken for them had it not been for the elaborately dressed heads.
"This is a very expensive place—just for your very best dresses," Mrs Thornton ventured to explain; and the order, "Summer gowns for these young ladies," having been given, presto! the animated dress-stands disappeared through a doorway, to return a few minutes later to promenade slowly up and down the floor before the dazzled eyes of the beholders, each one attired in a different costume. Blue, green, white, lavender, and yellow—perfect of cut, distracting of make—it was, indeed, a problem to choose between them! And while they hesitated, lo! another disappearance, and another triumphal entrance even more gorgeous than the first.
"If I thought I should look as nice as they do, I'd have four at least, but I shan't; my waist is twice as big, and I never learnt to glide," sighed Mollie humbly. "How much is the blue, please? I think that would suit me best."
The price of that simple—looking frock gave Ruth an electric shock. It was actually more than the whole of her yearly allowance. She looked it over, making a rapid estimate of the cost of material and trimming, and felt convinced she could have bought them all out of a five-pound note. And then it could be made at home. Ah, no, that was just the difficulty! The material was a detail, in the making-up thereof lay all the charm and effect. She came out of her calculations to hear Mollie say calmly—
"And I shall want them both home by the end of a week! Now my sister will choose, and after that we will see some evening gowns."
Ruth took her courage in both hands, ordered one dress, and took advantage of the first moment of solitude to rebuke Mollie in irritable undertones.
"Do think what you are about! I'm the eldest, and it's most unsuitable for you to be better dressed. You ought to let me decide, and follow my example."
"But I promised Uncle Bernard that that was just what I would not do."
"Even if you did, he never intended you to order a whole trousseau. How will he feel when he sees the bills?"
"I don't know; I think he will feel nice when he sees my clothes. Oh, Ruth, do enjoy yourself when you have the chance! He gave you carte blanche—why on earth can't you take it?"
But that was just exactly what Ruth could not do. The fear of the bill—the fear of Uncle Bernard's displeasure, loomed so largely before her eyes, that she dared not indulge her longing for needless fineries. In every shop the same story was repeated, Mollie giving a lavish order with beams of satisfaction, Ruth reducing hers by half, and feeling sore and aggrieved. Each appealed in turn to Mrs Thornton for support and approval, until that good lady became quite dazed and bewildered, and was thankful to find herself once more in her quiet home.