And before Lucy could thank him, the kindly old man was hurrying away through the garden and down the street.
But what changed feelings he had left behind him! Tired though she was, Lucy was on her feet in a moment and her face radiant. "Come, dear, we've got to bustle round now for a bit. You run and get some sticks and make a good fire, and I'll get out his clean, dry things. Then while I'm cooking the supper you can be laying the cloth."
While she spoke she was gathering up a lot of parcels which were lying scattered over the table.
"I'm longing to show you what I've bought."
"Yes," thought Mona, "and I am longing to see!"
"I wonder if you'll like what I've chosen for you."
"I wonder, too!" thought Mona.
"We'll have a good look at everything when we've had supper. Then we needn't be hurrying and scurrying all the time, and there'll be more room."
In spite of the upset to her feelings, Mona was interested, but all real pleasure was gone. She knew that probably there was something for her in one of the fat parcels, but the thought of taking any more kindness from Lucy, to whom she had behaved so badly, was painful. She wanted, instead, to make amends to replace the lost five shillings. She longed to have the money to pay back, but she had not one penny! All she could do was to work, and to go without things she wanted. She could do the first better than the last, and she would rather. She did not really mind working, but she did mind denying herself things she had set her heart on. "But I will, I will," she thought to herself while the shock of the theft was still on her.
Before very long the fire was burning brightly, the kettle was beginning to sing, and Lucy was cooking the sausages and bacon she had brought back with her from Baymouth. The savoury smell of them wafted through the kitchen and reached the hungry, weary man trudging heavily up the garden. Then Mona caught the sound of his coming, and rushed out, while Lucy stood behind her with radiant face and glowing eyes.
"You must be chilled to the bone, and dead beat," she cried. "Ain't you, father?"
"I thought I was—but I ain't now. It's worth everything just for the pleasure of coming back to a home like mine, my girl."
Mona was growing more and more impatient. "Grown-ups do take so long over everything," she thought irritably. "If it gets much later mother will say, 'there isn't time to open the parcels to-night, we must wait till morning!' Oh, dear!"
It was long past eight before they had sat down to their meal, and then, her father and mother both being very tired, they took it in such a leisurely fashion that Mona thought they never would have finished. They, of course, were glad to sit still and talk of their day's doings, but Mona, as soon as her hunger was satisfied, was simply longing to be up and examining the contents of the tempting-looking parcels which had waited so long on the side-table.
She fidgeted with her knife and fork, she rattled her cup and shuffled her feet, but still her father went on describing his adventures, and still Lucy sat listening eagerly. To them this was the happiest and most restful time of the day. The day's work was done, duty would not call to them again until morning. The kitchen was warm and comfortable. It was just the right time for a leisurely talk, but Mona did not realise this.
At last, disturbed by her restlessness, her mother and father broke off their talk and got up from the table.
"Now you have a pipe, father, while Mona and I put away the supper things. After that I'll be able to sit down and hear the rest of it. I expect Mona's tired and wants to be off to bed."
"No, I am not," said Mona sharply. In her heart she grumbled, "Work, work, always work—never a bit of fun." She had forgotten the hours she had spent playing on the quay only a little while before. She would not remind her mother of the parcels, but sulked because she had forgotten them. Lucy looked at her anxiously now and again, puzzled to know why her mood had changed so suddenly. She was still puzzling over the matter, when, in putting something back on the side-table, she saw the pile of parcels.
"Why, Mona," she cried, "I'd forgot all about my shopping, and the things I was going to show you. Make haste and dry your hands and come and look. We'll be able to have a nice, quiet little time now before we go to bed!"
Mona's face changed at once, and her whole manner too. It did not take her long after that to finish up and be ready.
"That," said Lucy, putting one big roll aside, "that's the blue wool for father. We needn't open that now. Oh, and this, is for you, dear," pushing a big box towards Mona. "I hope you will like it. I thought it sweetly pretty. Directly I saw it I thought to myself, now that'll just suit our Mona! I seemed to see you wearing it."
Mona's heart beat faster, her cheeks grew rosy with excitement. "Whatever can it be!" she wondered, and her fingers trembled so with eagerness, she was ever so long untying the string.
"If you don't like it," went on Lucy, busy untying the knots of another parcel, "Mr. Phillips promised he'd change it, if it wasn't damaged at all."
How tantalising Lucy was! Whatever could it be! Then at last the knot gave way, and Mona lifted the lid, and pushed the silver paper aside. "Oh, mother!" She clapped her hands in a rapture, her eyes sparkled with joy. "Oh, mother! It's—it's lovely. I didn't know, I didn't think you could get me a hat to-day—oh—h!"
"Then you like it?"
"Try it on, and let us see if it suits you. That's the chief thing, isn't it?" Lucy tried to look grave, but she was nearly as excited and delighted as Mona herself.
Mona put it on and looked at her mother with shy questioning. She hoped so much that it did suit her, for she longed to keep it.
Lucy gazed at her critically from all sides, then she nodded with grave approval. "Yes, I never saw you in one that suited you better, to my mind. Go and see for yourself—but wait a minute," as Mona was hurrying away to the scullery, where hung a little mirror about a foot square. "Don't treat that poor box so badly," as she rescued it from the floor, "there's something else in amongst all that paper. Look again."
Mona opened the box again, but her heart had sunk suddenly. Yes, there it was, the very thing she had dreaded to see—a wreath of blue forget-me-nots and soft green leaves! There was a piece of black ribbon velvet too, to make the whole complete.
It was a charming wreath. Compared with it, her own purchase seemed poor and common.
Mona held it in her hand, gazing at it with lowered lids. Then suddenly her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, mother," she stammered brokenly. There was such real pain in her voice that Lucy looked at her in anxious surprise. "Don't you like it?" she asked, disappointed. She had hoped for a rapturous outburst of pleasure, and, instead, Mona stood silent, embarrassed, evidently on the verge of tears.
"Don't you like it, dear?" she asked again. "I thought you would have been pleased. The blue on that silvery white straw looks so pretty, I think. Don't you?"
Mona nodded, but did not speak. "Mona, dear, what is it? Tell me what's wrong? I am sure there is something. Perhaps I can help you, if I know."
Tears had been near Mona's eyes for some moments, and the kindness in her mother's face and voice broke down all restraints. Tossing the hat one way and the wreath another, Mona ran into Lucy's arms, sobbing bitterly.
"Oh—I must tell. I can't keep it in any longer! Oh, mother, I've got a wreath already, I bought it myself, and I hate it—oh, I hate it! I—I can't tell you how bad I've felt about it ever since I got it!" And then the whole of the miserable story came pouring out. She kept nothing back. She told of her keeping the eighteenpence, of her dream, of her mortification in the shop. "And—and it seemed as if my dream came true," she said, when presently the worst was told. "I was so crazy for the forget-me-nots that I couldn't get, that I never thought anything of the wallflowers close beside me, and then, when I had got forget-me-nots, I was disappointed; and when I lost the wallflowers, I began to think all the world of them!"
Lucy, with her head resting against Mona's, as she held her in her arms, smiled sadly. "It's the same with all of us, dear. We're so busy looking into our neighbour's garden patch, envying them what they've got, that we don't see what we've got in our own, and, as like as not, trample it down with reaching up to look over the wall, and lose it altogether. Now, pick up your hat and your flowers and try to get all the pleasure you can out of them. I hoped they'd have brought you such a lot. Or would you rather change the wreath for another?"
But Mona would not hear of that. "Oh, no, I wanted blue forget-me-nots, and these are lovely. I'd rather have them than anything, thank you, mother."
"You couldn't have anything prettier," said Peter Carne, rousing suddenly from his nap.
Lucy laughed. "Now, father, whatever do you know about it! You go to sleep again. Mona and I are talking about finery." She was busy undoing a large parcel of drapery. "I've got the print here for your frocks," she turned to Mona again. "I'd have liked to have had both dark blue, but I thought you might fancy a pink one, so I got stuff for one of each. There, do you like them?"
"Like them! Oh, mother, are they really both for me! And what pretty buttons! Are those for me, too?"
"Yes, it's all for you, dear." Lucy's voice had begun to sound tired and faint. She had had a long, wearying day, and the parcels had been heavy. Mona, though, did not notice anything. She was busy arranging the wreath round the crown of her hat. "If I only had a white dress, wouldn't it look nice with this! Oh, I'd love to have a white dress. If I'd stayed with granny, she was going to get me one this summer."
Her father turned and looked across at them. "What've you bought for yourself, Lucy, my girl?" he asked suddenly. Lucy looked up in surprise. "I—oh, I didn't want anything, father," she said, somewhat embarrassed. "I don't need anything new this summer. My dove-colour merino is as good as it was the day I bought it. It seems foolish to—to buy new when one doesn't need it," she added hastily. "It is only a trouble to keep."
"Do you mean the one you were married in?" asked Peter shrewdly.
Lucy nodded. "Yes—the one you liked. I'll get myself a new pair of gloves. I can get those at Tamlin's."
"Um!" There was a deal of meaning in Peter Carne's 'Um.' "Well, you'll never get one that's prettier, but you ought to have something new and nice, too. And what about your medicine?"
"Oh!" Lucy coloured. "Oh, I—I'm trying to do without it. It isn't good for anyone to be taking it too often."
"That's what granny always says," chimed in Mona. "She says if people get into the way of taking medicine they get to think they can't do without it."
Lucy's pale cheeks flushed pink, and a hurt look crept into her eyes. Her husband was deeply annoyed, and showed it. "I think, my girl," he said, in a sterner voice than Mona had ever heard before, "you'd better wait to offer your opinion until you are old enough to know what you are talking about. You are more than old enough, though, to know that it's wrong to repeat what's said before you. After all your mother's bought for you, too, I'd have thought," he broke off, for Mona's eyes were once more full of tears. Never in her life before had her father spoken to her so severely.
"I—I didn't mean any harm," she stammered, apologetically.
"Then you should learn to think, and not say things that may do harm. If what's on your tongue to say is likely to hurt anybody's feelings, or to make mischief, then don't let it slip past your tongue. You'll get on if you keep that rule in your mind."
Lucy put her arm round her little stepdaughter, and drew her close. "I know that our Mona wouldn't hurt me wilfully," she said kindly. "She's got too warm a heart."
Peter Carne patted Mona's shoulder tenderly. "I know—I know she has. We've all got to learn and you can't know things unless they are pointed out to you. I'm always thankful to them that helped me in that way when I was young. Mona'll be glad, too, some day."
"Grown-ups always say things like that," thought Mona, wistfully. She did not feel at all glad then. In fact, she felt so ashamed and so mortified, she thought gladness could never enter into her life again.
It did come, though, for the hurt was not as deep as she thought. It came the next day when her mother trimmed the new hat. Lucy had good taste, and when living at the Grange she had often helped the young ladies with their millinery.
"If I put the velvet bow just where the wreath joins, and let the ends hang just ever so little over the edge of the brim, I think it'll look nice and a little bit out of the common. Don't you, dear?" She held up the hat to show off the effect. Mona thought it was lovely.
"Then, as soon as ever I can I'll cut out your dresses, and, if you'll help me with the housework, I'll make them myself. It won't take me so very long, with my machine."
She spoke of it so lightly that Mona did not realise in the least what the fatigue of it would be to her.
"Oh, I'll do everything," she said, cheerfully. "You leave everything to me, mother, and only do your sewing, I can manage."
And she did manage, and well, too, in the intervals of trying on, and admiring, and watching the frocks growing into shape and beauty under Lucy's hands. They were quite plain little frocks, but in Mona's eyes they were lovely. She could not decide which of them she liked best.
Lucy finished off the pink one first, and as soon as it was completed Mona took it upstairs and put it on. New dresses very seldom came her way, and she was in a great state of excitement. She had never in her life before had one that she might put on on a week day and wear all day long. As a rule, one had to wait for Sunday, and then the frock might only be worn for a few hours, if the weather was fine, and as soon as ever church and Sunday school were over it had to be changed.
"Doesn't it look nice!" she cried, delightedly, running downstairs to show her mother. "And it fits me like a glove!" Her cheeks were almost as pink as her gown. Her blue eyes glowed with pleasure. She looked like a pretty pink blossom as she stood with the sunshine pouring in on her.
Lucy smiled at the compliment to her skill. "You do look nice, dear."
Holding out her crisp, pink skirt, Mona danced gaily round the kitchen, the breeze blowing in at the open door ruffled her hair a little. She drew herself up, breathless, and glanced out. Everything certainly looked very tempting out of doors. She longed to go and have a run, the breeze and the sunshine seemed to be calling her. She scarcely liked, though, to leave her mother, tired as she was, and still busy at the blue frock.
While she was standing looking out, her father appeared at the gate, a letter in his hand. He came up the path reading it. When he came to the porch he looked up and saw Mona.
"Oh, my! How smart we are!"
"Do you like it, father? Isn't it pretty?"
"Fine! And now I s'pose you're longing to go out and show it off!" He laughed, and pinched her cheeks. Mona felt quite guilty at his quick reading of her thoughts, but before she could reply he went on, more gravely, "I've got a letter from your grandmother. She sends her love to you." He went inside and put the letter down on the table before Lucy.
"She doesn't seem very well," he said, with a pucker on his brow, "and she complains of being lonely. I'm very glad she's got nice neighbours handy. They'd be sure to run in and see her, and look after her a bit if she's bad. I shouldn't like to feel she was ailing, and all alone."
Mona's face dropped, and her heart too. She felt horribly guilty. "Would Mrs. Lane go in and sit with her for company? Would she look after her if she was bad? Had they made up their quarrel?" she wondered, "or were they still not on speaking terms?" She did not know whether to tell her father of the quarrel or not, so she said nothing.
Lucy had been busy trying to frame an excuse for sending Mona out. She knew she was longing to go.
"Mona," she said, when at last they had finished discussing the letter and its contents, "would you like to go down to Mr. Henders' for some tea and sugar, and go on to Dr. Edwards for my medicine? He said it would be ready whenever anyone could come for it."
Mona beamed with pleasure. "I'll go and put on my hat and boots now this minute," and within ten she was ready, and walking, basket in hand, and very self-conscious, down the hill to the shops.
The church clock struck twelve as she reached the doctor's. In a few minutes the children would all be pouring out of school, and wouldn't they stare when they saw her! She felt almost shy at the thought of facing them, and gladly turned into Mr. Henders' out of their way. She would dawdle about in there, she told herself, until most of them had gone by.
She did dawdle about until Mrs. Henders asked her twice if there was anything more that she wanted, and, as she could not pretend that there was, she had to step out and face the world again. Fortunately, though, only the older and sedater girls were to be seen. Philippa Luxmore and Patty Row, each carrying her dinner bag, Winnie Maunders, and Kitty Johnson, and one or two Mona did not know to speak to.
Philippa and Patty always brought their dinner with them, as the school was rather far from their homes. Sometimes they had their meal in the schoolroom, but, if the weather was warm and dry, they liked best to eat it out of doors, down on the rocks, or in a field by the school.
When they caught sight of Mona they rushed up to her eagerly. "Oh, my! How nice you look, Mona. What a pretty frock! It's new, isn't it? Are you going to wear it every day or only on Sundays?"
"Oh, every day." Mona spoke in a lofty tone. "It's only one of my working frocks. I've got two. The other's a blue one. Mother's made them for me."
"Um! Your mother is good to you, Mona Carne! I wish I'd got frocks like that for working in. I'd be glad to have them for Sundays. Where are you going?"
"Oh, don't go home yet. Patty and me are going down to eat our dinner on the rocks. Come on down too. You won't hurt your frock."
"I don't think I can stay—I ought to go back. I've got mother's medicine here. It's getting on for dinner-time, too, and father's home to-day." Glancing up the road, she caught sight of Millie Higgins and another girl in the distance. She particularly did not want to meet Millie just then. She made such rude remarks, and she always fingered things so. Mona had not forgiven her either for leading her astray the day her mother went into Baymouth.
She hesitated a moment and was lost. She turned and walked away from her home. Philippa slipped her arm through hers on one side, and Patty on the other, and almost before she knew where she was she was racing with them to the shore.
The wind had risen somewhat, so it took them some minutes to find a nice sheltered spot in the sunshine and out of the wind, and they had to sit on the land side of the rocks, with their backs to the sea. It was very pleasant, though, and, once settled, Mona told them all about her new hat, and they gave her a share of their dinner.
After that they told her of the new summer frocks they were to have, and the conversation grew so interesting and absorbing, they forgot everything else until the church clock struck two!
With a howl of dismay, they all sprang to their feet, and then they howled again, and even more loudly.
"Oh, Mona, look! The tide's right in! We'll have to get back through the fields, and, oh, shan't we be late!" Patty and Philippa began to scramble back as fast as ever they could. "Good-bye," they called over their shoulders. "Oh, Mona, look out for your basket, it's floating."
They could not have stayed to help her, but it did seem heartless of them to run away and leave her alone to manage as best she could. Mona looked about her helplessly, her heart sinking right down, down. The tide at that point had a way of creeping up gently, stealthily, and then, with one big swirl would rush right in and around the group of rocks on which she stood. If the wind was high and the sea at all rough, as likely as not it would sweep right over the rocks and back again with such force that anyone or anything on them was swept away with it. There was not wind enough to-day for that. At least, Mona herself was safe, but her basket!—already that was swamped with water. At the thought of the ruined tea and sugar her eyes filled. Her mother's medicine was in the basket too. She would save that! At any rate, she would feel less guilty and ashamed if she could take that back to her. She made a dash to seize the basket before the next wave caught it, slipped on the slimy rock, and fell face forward—and at the same moment she heard the crash of breaking glass. The medicine was mingling with the waves, the basket was riding out on the crest of them!
Poor Mona! At that minute the hardest heart would have felt sorry for her. Her dress was ruined, her hands were scraped and cut, her mother's tonic was gone! The misery which filled her heart was more than she could bear. "I can't go home!" she sobbed. "I can't, I never can any more." Big sobs shook her, tears poured down her cheeks. "I can't go home, I can't face them. Oh, what shall I do! What shall I do!" She looked down over her wet, green-slimed frock, so pretty and fresh but an hour ago, and her sobs broke out again. "I'll—I'll run away—they won't want me after this, but p'raps they'll be sorry for me when they miss me. Oh, I wish I'd never come, I wish I'd never met Phil and Patty—they'd no business to ask me to come with them—it was too bad of them. I wish I'd gone straight home. If it hadn't been for Millie Higgins I should have, and all this would have been saved. Oh, what shall I do?"
As there was no one but a few gulls to advise her, she received no comfort, and had, after all, to settle the question for herself.
For a few moments all she did was to cry. Then, "I'll go to granny," she decided. "She'll be glad to have me, and she won't scold. Yes, I'll go to granny. Father and mother will be glad to be rid of me—I—I'm nothing but a trouble to them!" But, all the same, she felt so sorry for herself she could scarcely see where she was going for the tears which blinded her.
Mona's first thought was to avoid being seen by anyone who would recognise her; her second—that she must keep out of sight as much as possible until her dress was dry, and her face less disfigured, for anyone meeting her now would stop her to enquire if she had met with an accident.
By keeping along the shore for some little distance it was possible to get out on to the high road to Milbrook, but it was not an easy path to travel. It meant continued climbing over rocks, ploughing through loose, soft sand, or heavy wet sand, clinging to the face of a cliff and scrambling along it, or wading through deep water.
What her new pink frock would be like by the time she reached the road Mona did not care to contemplate. "It will be ruined for ever— the first time of wearing, too," and a sob caught in her throat as she remembered how her mother had toiled to get the material, and then to make the dress. Now that she was losing her she realised how much she had grown to love her mother in the short time she had lived with her, and how good and kind Lucy had been. It never occurred to her that she was doubling her mother's trouble by running away in this cowardly fashion. Indeed, she would have been immensely surprised if anyone had hinted at such a thing. She was convinced that she was doing something very heroic and self-denying; and the more she hurt herself clambering over the rough roads, the more heroic and brave she thought herself. And when, at last, she stepped out on the high road, and realised that she had seven miles to walk to her grandmother's house, she thought herself bravest of all, a perfect heroine, in fact.
Already she was feeling hungry, for breakfast had been early, and Patty and Philippa had only been able to spare her a slice of bread and butter and a biscuit.
On she trudged, and on, and on. A distant clock struck three, and just at the same moment she passed a sign-post with 'Milbrook, 6 miles,' painted on one arm of it, and 'Seacombe, 1 mile,' on another.
"Then she had six long tiresome miles to walk before she could get a meal!" she thought. "If she did not get on faster than she was doing, it would be dark night before she reached Hillside Cottage, and granny would be gone to bed. She always went to bed as soon as daylight began to go. How frightened she would be at being called up to let Mona in!"
The thought quickened her steps a little, and she covered the next mile in good time. She ran down the hills, and trotted briskly along the level. She got on faster in that way, but she very soon felt too tired to continue. Her legs ached so badly she had no heart left for running. Now and again she leaned back against the hedge for a little rest, and oh, how she did wish that it was the blackberry season! She was starving, or felt as though she was.
By and by, when she had quite despaired of ever reaching granny's that night, she caught sight of a cart lumbering along in the distance, and a man sitting up in it driving. It was the first sight of a human being that she had seen since she started, and she welcomed it gladly. "Perhaps it's going my way, and will give me a lift."
The thought so cheered her that she went back a little way to meet the cart. When she drew nearer she saw that it was a market cart, and that the driver was a kindly-looking elderly man. Every now and again he talked encouragingly to his horse to quicken its pace. Between whiles he sang snatches of a hymn in a loud, rolling bass.
As soon as he saw that Mona was waiting to speak to him, he stopped his singing and drew up the horse.
"Good evening, missie," he said civilly. "Are you wanting a lift?"
"Oh, please—I wondered if you would—I am so tired I can hardly walk."
"Um! Where were you thinking of going?"
"Um! You've got a brave step to go yet. We're a good three miles from Hillside. Have 'ee come far?"
"From Seacombe," Mona admitted reluctantly.
"My word! It's a brave long walk for a young thing like you to take alone. Why, you wouldn't reach Hillside till after dark—not at the rate you could go. You look tired out already."
"I am," sighed Mona, pathetically.
"Here, jump up quick, or my old nag'll fall asleep, and I'll have the works of the world to wake un up again."
Mona laughed. "Thank you," she said, eyes and voice full of gratitude as she clambered up the wheel, and perched herself on the high, hard seat beside her new friend. "I'm very much obliged to you, sir. I don't believe I'd ever have got there, walking all the way. I didn't know seven miles was so far."
"I don't believe you would. A mile seems like two when you ain't in good trim for it, and the more miles you walk, the longer they seem. Gee up, you old rogue you!" This to the horse, who, after much coaxing, had consented to move on again.
"I never felt so tired in all my life before," sighed Mona, in a voice so faint and weary that her companion looked at her sharply.
"Had any dinner?" he asked.
Mona shook her head. "No, I—I missed my dinner. I—I came away in a hurry."
"That's always a bad plan." He stooped down and pulled a straw bag towards him. "I couldn't eat all mine. My wife was too generous to me. P'raps you could help me out with it. I don't like to take any home—it kind of hurts my wife's feelings if I do. She thinks I'm ill, too. Can you finish up what's left?"
He unrolled a clean white cloth and laid it and its contents on Mona's lap.
"Could she!" Mona's eyes answered for her.
"Do you like bread and ham? It may be a trifle thick——"
"Oh!" gasped Mona, "I think bread and ham, thick bread and ham is nicer than anything else in the world!"
"Um! Peg away, then. And there's an orange, in case you're thirsty."
"Oh, you are kind!" cried Mona, gratefully. "And oh, I am so glad I met you, I don't believe I'd have got much further, I was feeling so faint."
"That was from want of food. Here, before you begin, hadn't you better put something about your shoulders. It's getting fresh now the sun's gone down, and when we get to the top of that hill we shall feel it. Have you got a coat, or a shawl, or something?"
"No, I haven't. I—I came away in a hurry—but I shall be all right. I don't mind the cold."
"I should think you were in too much of a hurry—to have forget your shawl, and your dinner, too. Wasn't there anybody to look after you, and see you started out properly?"
"You ain't an orphan, are you?"
"Oh, no, I've got a father and a stepmother——"
"Oh-h!" meaningly. "Is that the trouble?"
Mona fired up at once in defence of Lucy. "No, it isn't. She's just the same as my own mother. She's so kind to me—if she hadn't been so kind I—I wouldn't have minded so much. She sat up last night to—to finish making my frock for me." Her words caught in her throat, and she could say no more.
Her companion eyed first her disfigured face, and then her bedraggled frock. "It seems to have seen trouble since last night, don't it?" he remarked drily, and then the words and the sobs in Mona's throat poured out together.
"That's why—I—I'm here. I can't go home and show her what I've done. It was so pretty only this morning—and now——" Then bit by bit Mona poured forth her tale of woe into the ears of the kindly stranger, and Mr. Dodds sat and listened patiently, thoughtfully.
"And what about your poor father and mother and their feelings," he asked when Mona had done.
"Oh—oh—they'll be glad to be rid of me. They'll be better without me," said Mona, with the air and voice of a martyr.
"Um! If you're certain sure of that, all well and good, but wouldn't it have been better to have went back and asked them? It does seem a bit hard that they should be made to suffer more 'cause they've suffered so much already. They won't know but what you've been carried out to sea 'long with your poor mother's tonic."
Mona did not reply. In her inmost heart she knew that he was right, but she hadn't the courage to face the truth. It was easier, too, to go on than to go back, and granny would be glad to see her. She would be sorry for her, and would make much of her. Granny always thought that all she did was right.
In spite of her feelings, though, Mona finished her meal, and felt much better for it, but she presently grew so sleepy she could not talk and could scarcely keep on her seat. Mr. Dodds noticed the curly head sink down lower and lower, then start up again with a jerk, then droop again.
"Look here—what's your name, my dear?"
"Mona—Carne," said Mona, sleepily, quite oblivious of the fact that she had given away her identity.
"Well, Mona, what I was going to say was, you'll be tumbling off your seat and find yourself under the wheel before you know where you are; so I'd advise you to get behind there, and curl down into the straw. Then, if you draw my top-coat over you, you'll be safe and warm both."
Mona needed no second bidding. She almost tumbled into the clean, sweet-smelling straw. "Thank you," she was going to say, as she drew the coat up over her, but she only got as far as 'thank,' and it seemed to her that before she could say 'you,' she was roused again by the cart drawing up, and there she was at her grandmother's gate, with granny standing on the doorstep peering out into the dimness. She thought she had closed her eyes for only a minute, and in that minute they had travelled three miles.
"Is that you, Mr. Dodds?" Granny called out sharply. "Whatever made 'ee come at this time of night? 'Tis time your poor 'orse was 'ome in his stable, and you in your own house!"
"I've come on purpose to bring you something very valuable, Mrs. Barnes. I've got a nice surprise for 'ee here in my cart. Now then, little maid, you've come to the end of your journey—and I've got a brave way to go."
Mona was still so sleepy that she had to be almost lifted out of the cart.
"What! Why! Mona!" Then, as Mona stumbled up the path she almost fell into her grandmother's arms. "What's the meaning of it? What are they thinking about to send 'ee back at this time of night! In another few minutes I'd have been gone to bed. I don't call it considerate at all."
"They don't know," stammered Mona. "I wasn't sent, I came. Oh, granny, don't ask about it now—let me get indoors and sit down. I'm so tired I can't stand. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow."
But tired though she was, she turned back and thanked her rescuer. "I'd have been sleeping under a hedge to-night, if it hadn't been for you," she said gratefully.
"Oh, what I did isn't anything," he said amiably. "'Tisn't worth speaking about. I don't doubt but what you'd do as much for me, if I wanted it. Good night, Mrs. Barnes. Take care of yourself, ma'am, it's a bit fresh to-night. Good night, little maid. Gee-up, Nettle, my son."
What he had done was a mere nothing, as he said. But what he did do before the night was over was a very big something. Between two and three hours later he was in Seacombe, and knocking at Peter Carne's door.
"I knew you'd be anxious, so I thought I'd just step along and let 'ee know that your little maid's all right," he said quietly, making no mention of the seven long miles he had tramped after he had fed and stabled his horse for the night.
"Anxious!" Lucy lay half fainting in her chair. Peter's face was white and drawn with the anguish of the last few hours. Neither of them could doubt any longer that Mona had been swept off the rock and out to sea. Nothing else could have kept her, they thought. Patty and Philippa had told where they had last seen her, but it was four o'clock before they had come out of school and heard that she was missing. So the crowds clustering about the shore had never any hope of finding her alive.
Peter Carne almost fainted, too, with the relief the stranger's words brought him. The best he had dared to hope for when the knock came was the news that Mona's body had been washed in. The revulsion of feeling from despair to joy sent him reeling helpless into a chair.
Humphrey Dodds put out his arms and supported him gently. "I didn't know, I ought to have thought, and told 'ee more careful like."
"Where is she?" gasped Lucy.
"Safe with her grandmother—and there I'd let her bide for a bit, if I was you," he added, with a twinkle in his eye. "It'll do her good."
They tried to thank him, but words failed them both. They pressed him to stay the night, he must be so tired, and it was so late, but he refused. A walk was nothing to him, and he had to be at work by five the next morning. "But I wouldn't say 'no' to a bit of supper," he said, knowing quite well that they would all be better for some food.
Then, while Lucy got the meal ready, Peter went down to tell his good news, and send the weary searchers to their homes.
Over their supper Mr. Dodds told them of Mona's pitiful little confession. "It doesn't seem hardly fair to tell again what she told me, but I thought it might help you to understand how she came to be so foolish. It don't seem so bad when you know how it all came about."
When he had had his supper and a pipe, he started on his homeward way, with but the faintest chance of meeting anyone at that hour who could give him a lift over some of the long miles.
Little dreaming of the trouble she was causing, Mona, clad in one of her grandmother's huge, plain night-gowns, and rolled up in blankets, slept on the old sofa in the kitchen, as dreamlessly and placidly as though she hadn't a care on her mind.
Overhead, Grannie Barnes moaned and groaned, and tossed and heaved on her bed, but Mona slept on unconcerned and happy. Even the creaking of the stairs when granny came down in the morning did not rouse her. The first thing that she was conscious of was a hand shaking her by the shoulders, and a voice saying rather sharply, "Come, wake up. Don't you know that it's eight o'clock, and no fire lit, nor nothing! I thought I might have lain on a bit this morning, and you'd have brought me a cup of tea, knowing how bad I've been, and very far from well yet. You said you did it for your stepmother. It's a good thing I didn't wait any longer!"
Mona sat up and stretched, and rubbed her eyes. "Could this be granny talking? Granny, who had never expected anything of her!"
No one feels in the best of tempers when roused out of a beautiful sleep, and to be greeted by a scolding when least of all expecting it, does not make one feel more amiable.
"I was fast asleep," she mumbled, yawning. "I couldn't know the time if I was asleep. You should have called me." She dropped back on her pillow wearily. "Oh, I'm so tired and I am aching all over. I don't believe I'll ever wake up any more, granny. Why—why must I get up?"
"To do some work for once. I thought you might want some breakfast."
This was so unlike the indulgent granny she had known before she went away, that Mona could not help opening her eyes wide in surprise. Then she sat up, and, as granny did not relent, she put her feet over the edge of the sofa and began to think about dressing.
"What frock can I put on, granny?" It suddenly struck her that it would not be very pleasant to be living in one place while all her belongings were in another.
"The one you took off, I s'pose."
"But I can't. It isn't fit to wear till it has been washed and ironed. It wants mending, too. I tore it dreadfully."
"Um! And who do you think is going to do all that?"
Mona stared again at her granny with perplexed and anxious eyes. There used to be no question as to who would do all those things for her. "I don't know," she faltered.
"Well, I can't. I haven't hardly got the strength to stand and wash my own few things, and I'm much too bad to be starching and ironing frocks every few days. Better your stepmother had got you a good stuff one than such a thing as that. If she had, it wouldn't have been spoilt by your falling on the seaweed. Nonsense, I call it!" Granny drew back the curtains sharply, as though to give vent to her feelings. The perplexity in Mona's mind increased. She was troubled, too, by the marked change in her grandmother. In the bright morning light which now poured in, she noticed for the first time a great difference in her appearance as well as in her manner. She was much thinner than she used to be, and very pale. Her face had a drawn look, and her eyes seemed sunken. She seemed, somehow, to have shrunken in every way. Her expression used to be smiling and kindly. It was now peevish and irritable.
For the first time Mona realised that her grandmother had been very ill, and not merely complaining.
"I'll light the fire, granny, in a minute—I mean, I would if I knew what to put on."
"There's one of your very old frocks upstairs, hanging behind the door in your own room. It's shabby, and it's small for you, I expect, but you'll have to make it do, if you haven't got any other."
"It'll do for the time, till my pink one is fit to wear again."
"Yes—but who's going to make it fit? That's what I'd like to know. Can you do it yourself? I s'pose you'd have to if you was with your stepmother."
"No, I can't do it. Do you think Mrs. Lane would? I'd do something for her——"
Her grandmother turned to her with a look so full of anger that Mona's words died on her lips. For the moment she had forgotten all about the quarrel.
"Mrs. Lane! Mrs. Lane! After the things she said about you—you'd ask her to do you a favour? Well, Mona Carne, I'm ashamed of you! Don't you know that I've never spoken to her nor her husband since that day she said you'd pulled down the faggots that threw me down, and then had left her cats to bear the blame of it. I've never got over that fall, and I've never got over her saying that of you, and, ill though I've been, I've never demeaned myself by asking her to come in to see me. I don't know what you can be thinking of. I'm thankful I've got more self-respect."
Mona's face was crimson, and her eyes were full of shame. Oh, how bitterly she repented now that she had not had the courage to speak out that day and say honestly, "Granny, Mrs. Lane was right, I did pull over the faggots and forgot them. It was my fault that you tripped and fell— but I never meant that the blame should fall on anyone else."
She longed to say it now, but her tongue failed her. What had been such a little thing to start with had now grown quite serious.
When her father had wanted her to come home, he had consoled himself for taking her from granny by the thought that she had neighbours and friends about her for company, but now it seemed that she would rather die alone than ask their help, or even let them know that she was ill.
Mona turned despondently away, and slowly mounted the stairs. "If you do ever so little a thing wrong, it grows and grows until it's a big thing! Here's granny all alone, 'cause of me, and mother all alone, 'cause of me, and worrying herself finely by now, I expect, and—and I shouldn't wonder if it makes her ill again," Mona's eyes filled at the thought, "and—and I never meant to be a bad girl. I—I seem to be one before I know it—it is hard lines."
She unhung her old frock from behind the door, and in the chest of drawers she found an old apron, "I shall begin to wonder soon if I've ever been away," she thought to herself, as she looked at herself in the tiny mirror.
"Puss, puss, puss," called a voice. "Come along, dears. Your breakfast is ready."
Mona stepped to the window and peeped out. Mrs. Lane was standing with a saucer of bread and milk in each hand. At the sound of her voice her two cats came racing up the garden, chattering as they went, and she gave them their meal out there in the sunshine. As she turned to go back to the house she glanced up at Granny Barnes', and at the window where Mona stood. Perhaps she had been attracted by the feeling that someone was looking at her, or she may have heard something of Mona's arrival the night before.
For a second a look of surprise crossed her face, and a half-smile—then as quickly as it came it vanished, and a look of cold disapproval took its place.
Mona felt snubbed and hurt. It was dreadful to have sunk so low in anyone's opinion. It was worse when it was in Mrs. Lane's, for they used to be such good friends, and Mrs. Lane was always so kind to her, and so patient, and, oh, how Mona had loved to go into her house to play with her kittens, or to listen to her stories, and look at the wonderful things Captain Lane had brought home with him from some of his voyages.
Captain Lane, who had been a sailor in the Merchant Service, had been to all parts of the world, and had brought home something from most.
Mona coloured hotly with the pain of the snub, and the reproof it conveyed.
"I can't bear it," she thought. "I can't bear it—I'll have to tell."
She went down to the kitchen in a very troubled state of mind. Life seemed very sad and difficult just now.
Granny was sitting by the fire, a few sticks in her hand. "It's taken me all this time to get these," she said pathetically, "and now I can't stoop any more. What time we shall get any breakfast I don't know, I'm sure, and I'm sinking for the want of something."
"I'll get you a cup of tea soon. I won't be any time." It cheered her a little to have something to do, and she clutched at anything that helped her not to think. She lighted the fire, swept the hearth up, and laid the cloth. Then she went out to sweep the doorstep. It was lovely outside in the sweet sunshine. Mona felt she could have been so happy if only—— While she was lingering over her task, Mrs. Lane came out to sweep her step and the tiled path, but this time she kept her head steadily turned away.
"I'll go right in and tell granny now this minute," thought Mona, her lip quivering with pain. "Then, perhaps, we'll all be friends again. I can't bear to live here like this."
But when she turned into the kitchen the kettle was boiling, and her grandmother was measuring the tea into the pot. "Get the loaf and the butter, child, I feel I can eat a bit of bread and butter this morning."
Mona got them, and the milk, and some more coal to make up the fire, and all the time she was saying over and over to herself different beginnings of her confession. She was so deeply absorbed in her thoughts that she did not notice the large slice of bread and butter that her grandmother had put on her plate.
"Don't you want it?" Granny asked sharply. "Why, how red you are, child! What have you been doing to make your colour like that. You haven't broken anything, have you?"
Her tone and her sharpness jarred on Mona cruelly, and put all her new resolutions to flight. "No, I haven't," she said, sullenly. "There wasn't anything to break but the broom, and you saw me put that right away."
Granny looked at her for a moment in silence. "Your manners haven't improved since you went home," she said severely. "If I'd spoken to my grandmother like that, I'd have been sent to bed."
A new difficulty opened before Mona's troubled mind. If she was rude, or idle, or disagreeable, the blame for it would fall upon Lucy, and that would be an injustice she could not bear. Now that she had lost her she realised how good Lucy had been to her, and how much she loved her. For her sake, she would do all she could to control her temper and her tongue.
She had coloured again—with indignation this time—hot words had sprung to her lips in defence of Lucy, but she closed them determinedly, and choked the words back again. She felt that she could say nothing; she felt, too, that Lucy would not wish her to say anything. She could not explain so as to make her granny understand that it was not Lucy's fault that she was rude and ill-tempered. It was by acts, not words, that she could serve Lucy best. And for her sake she would try. She would try her very hardest to control her temper and her tongue. The determination brought some comfort to her poor troubled heart. At any rate, she would be doing something that Lucy would be glad about.
Her confession, though, remained unspoken.
Mona did try to be good, she tried hard, but she was very, very unhappy. She missed her home, she missed Lucy, and her father, and her freedom. She longed, too, with an intolerable longing, for the sight and the sound of the sea. She had never, till now that she had lost them, realised how dearly she loved the quaint little steep and rambling village, with the sea at its foot, and the hills behind it. She was always homesick.
Perhaps if she had been sent to Hillside, and it had been her plain duty to live there, and nowhere else, she might have felt more happy and settled. Or, if granny had been the same indulgent, sympathetic granny as of old, but she had placed herself where she was by her own foolish, unkind act, which she now bitterly repented; and she was there with a cloud resting on her character and motives. She had shown herself ungrateful and unkind; she had played a coward's part, and had bitterly pained her father and Lucy.
They did not reproach her—she would have felt better had they done so— but she knew. And, after all, granny did not want her, or so it seemed!
Mona did not realise that her grandmother was really seriously unwell, and that her irritability she could not help. Mrs. Barnes did not know it herself. Mona only realised that she was almost always cross, that nothing pleased her, that she never ran and fetched and carried, as she used to do, while Mona sat by the fire and read. It was granny who sat by the fire now. She did not read, though. She said her eyes pained her, and her head ached too much. She did not sew, either. She just sat idly by the fire and moped and dozed, or roused herself to grumble at something or other.
The day after she came to Hillside, Mona had written to her mother. She told her where she was, and why, and tried to say that she was sorry, but no reply had come, and this troubled her greatly.
"Were they too angry with her to have anything more to say to her? Was Lucy ill?"
Every day she went to meet the postman, her heart throbbing with eager anxiety, and day after day she went back disappointed. If it had not been for very shame, she would have run away again and gone home, and have asked to be forgiven, but she could not make up her mind to do that. Probably they would not want her at home again, after all the trouble and expense she had been to them. Perhaps her father might even send her back to Hillside again. The shame of that would be unbearable!
She was uncomfortable, too, as well as unhappy. She wanted her clothes, her brush and comb, her books, and all her other belongings. She had, after a fashion, settled into her old room again, but it seemed bare and unhomelike after her pretty one at Cliff Cottage.
Then one day, after long waiting and longing, and hope and disappointment, her father came. For a moment her heart had leaped with the glad wild hope that he had come to take her back with him. Then the sight of the box and parcel he carried had dashed it down again. He had brought her all her possessions.
"Well, Mona," he said quietly, as she stood facing him, shy and embarrassed. "So you prefer Hillside to Seacombe! Well, it's always best to be where you're happiest, if you feel free to make your choice. For my own part, I couldn't live away from the sea, but tastes differ."
"But—mine—don't differ," stammered Mona. "I am not happier." She was so overcome she could hardly speak above a whisper, and her father had already turned to Mrs. Barnes.
"Well, mother," he cried, and poor Mona could not help noticing how much more kindly his voice sounded when he spoke to granny. "How are you? You don't look first rate. Don't 'ee feel up to the mark?" He spoke lightly, but his eyes, as they studied the old woman's face, were full of surprise and concern. Granny shook her head. "No, I ain't well," she said, dully. "I'm very, very far from well. I don't know what's the matter. P'raps 'tis the weather."
"The weather's grand. It's bootiful enough to set everybody dancing," said her son-in-law cheerfully, but still eyeing her with that same look of concern.
"P'raps 'tis old age, then. I'm getting on, of course. It's only what I ought to expect; but I seem to feel old all of a sudden; everything's a burden to me. I can't do my work as I used, and I can't walk, and I can't get used to doing nothing I'm ashamed for you to see the place as it is, Peter if I'd known you was coming I'd have made an effort——"
"That's just why I didn't tell 'ee, mother. I came unexpected on purpose, 'cause I didn't want 'ee to be scrubbing the place from the chimney pots down to the rain-water barrel. I know what you are, you see."
Poor old Granny Barnes smiled, but Mona felt hurt. She did her best to keep the house clean and tidy, and she thought it was looking as nice as nice could be. "What I was, you mean," said granny. "I don't seem to have the strength to scrub anything now-a-days."
"Oh, well, there's no need for 'ee to. You've got Mona to do that kind of thing for 'ee."
Mona's heart sank even lower. "Then he really had no thought of having her home again!"
"I've brought your clothes, Mona," he said, turning again to her. "Lucy was troubled that they hadn't been sent before. She thought you must be wanting them."
"Thank you," said Mona, dully, and could think of nothing more to say, though she knew her father waited for an answer.
"I've brought 'ee some fish, mother," picking up the basket. "It come in last night. I thought you might fancy a bit, and Lucy sent a bit of bacon, her own curing, and a jelly, or something of that sort." Granny's face brightened. Though she had not approved of Mona's being given a stepmother, she appreciated Lucy's kindness, and when they presently sat down to dinner and she had some of the jelly, she appreciated it still more. Her appetite had needed coaxing, but there had been nothing to coax it with. "It tempts anyone to eat," she remarked, graciously. "When one is out of sorts, one fancies something out of the common."
"Lucy'll be rare and pleased to think you could take a bit," said Peter, delighted for Lucy's sake.
"Yes, thank you. She's made it very nice. A trifle sour, perhaps, but I like things rather sharpish."
"Mother," said Peter suddenly, "I wish you'd come to Seacombe to live. It'd be nice to have you near." His eyes had been constantly wandering to his mother-in-law's face, and always with the same anxious look. The change in her since last he had seen her troubled him greatly. Her round cheeks had fallen in, her old rosiness had given place to a grey pallor. She stooped very much and looked shrunken too.
"Oh, granny, do!" cried Mona, eagerly. It was almost the first time she had spoken, but the mere suggestion filled her with overwhelming joy and relief.
"Then I could look in pretty often to see how you was, and bring you in a bit of fresh fish as often as you would care to have it. Lucy would take a delight, too, in making 'ee that sort of thing," nodding towards the jelly, "or anything else you fancied. We'd be at hand, too, to help 'ee if you wasn't very well."
Granny Barnes was touched, and when she looked up there were tears in her eyes. The prospect was tempting. She had felt very forlorn and old, and helpless lately. She had often felt too that she would like:
"A little petting At life's setting."
"It's good of you to think of it, Peter," she said, hesitatingly. Then, fearing that he might have spoken on the impulse of the moment, and that she was showing herself too anxious for his help and Lucy's, she drew herself up. "But—well, this is home, and I don't fancy I could settle down in a strange place, and amongst strangers, at my time of life."
"You'd be with those that are all you've got belonging to you in this world," said Peter. But granny's mood had changed. She would not listen to any more coaxing, and her son-in-law, seeming to understand her, changed the subject.
Poor Mona, who did not understand so well, felt only vexed and impatient with the poor perverse old woman, for not falling in at once with a plan so delightful to herself. Mona learned to understand as time went on, but she was too young yet.
"But, granny, it would be ever so much nicer than this dull old place, and—and you'd have mother as well as me to look after you. I like Seacombe ever so much better than Hillside. Why won't you go, granny?"
Peter Carne groaned. Mona, by her tactlessness, was setting her grandmother dead against such a plan, and undoing all the good he had done. Granny Barnes would never be driven into taking a step, but she would see things in her own time and in her own way, if she felt that no one was trying to force her. He held up his hand for silence.
"Your grandmother knows best what'll suit her. It isn't what you like, it's what's best for her that we've all got to think about."
But granny's anger had been roused. "It may be a dull old place, but it's home," she said sharply. "You can't understand what that means. You don't seem to have any particular feeling or you wouldn't be so ready to leave first one and then the other, without even a heartache. I wonder sometimes, Mona, if you've got any heart. Perhaps it's best that you shouldn't have; you're saved a lot of pain." Granny began to whimper a little, to her son-in-law's great distress. "Anyway, you were ready enough to run to the 'dull old place' when you were in trouble," she added, reproachfully, and Mona had no answer.
She got up from the table, and, collecting the dishes together, carried them to the scullery. "Oh, dear!" she sighed, irritably, "I seem to be always hurting somebody—and somebody's always hurting me. I'd better go about with my mouth fastened up—even then I s'pose I'd be always doing something wrong. People are easily offended, it's something dreadful."
She felt very much aggrieved. So much aggrieved that she gave only sullen words and looks, and never once enquired for Lucy, or sent her a message, or even hinted at being sorry for what she had done.
"She didn't send any message to me," she muttered to herself, excusingly. "She never sent her love, or—or anything, so why should I send a message to her?" She worked herself up into such a fine state of righteous anger that she almost persuaded herself that her behaviour had been all that it should be, and that she was the most misunderstood and ill-treated person in the whole wide world.
In spite, though, of her being so perfect, she felt miserably unhappy, as she lay awake in the darkness, and thought over the day's happenings. She saw again her father's look of distress as she snapped at her grandmother, and answered him so sulkily. She pictured him, too, walking away down the road towards home, without even a smile from her, and only a curt, sullen, good-bye! Oh, how she wished now that she had run after him and kissed him, and begged him to forgive her.
A big sob broke from her as she pictured him tramping those long lonely miles, his kind face so grave and pained, his heart so full of disappointment in her.
"Oh how hateful he will think me—and I am, I am, and I can't tell him I don't really mean to be," and then her tears burst forth, and she cried, and cried until all the bitterness and selfishness were washed from her heart, and only gentler feelings were left.
As she lay tired out, thinking over the past, and the future, a curious, long cry broke the stillness of the night.
"The owl," she said to herself. "I do wish he'd go away from here. He always frightens me with his miserable noise." She snuggled more closely into her pillow, and drew the bedclothes up over her ear. "I'll try to go to sleep, then I shan't hear him."
But, in spite of her efforts, the cry reached her again and again. "It can't be the owl," she said at last, sitting up in bed, the better to listen. "It sounds more like a person! Who can it be?"
Again the cry came, "Mo—na! Mo—o—na!"
"Why, it's somebody calling me. It must be granny! Oh, dear! Whatever can be the matter, to make her call like that."
Shaking all over with fear, she scrambled out of bed, and groped her way to the door. As she opened it the cry reached her again.
"Mo—na!" This time there could be no doubt about it. It came from her grandmother's room.
"I'm coming!" she called loudly. "All right, granny, I'm coming." She ran across the landing, guided by the lights shining through the chinks in her grandmother's door.
"What's the matter?—are you feeling bad, granny? Do you want something?"
"Yes, I'm feeling very bad. I'm ill, I'm very ill—oh, dear, oh dear, what shall I do? Oh, I've no one to come and do anything for me. Oh, dear, oh what can I do?" Granny's groans were dreadful. Mona felt frightened and helpless. She had not the least idea what to do or say. What did grown-ups do at times like this? she wondered. She did not know where, or how, her grandmother suffered, and if she had she would not have known how to act.
"Do you want me to fetch the doctor? I'll go and put on my clothes. I won't be more than a minute or two, then I'll come back again——"
"No—no, I can't be left alone all the time, I might die—here, alone; oh dear, oh dear, what a plight to be left in! Not a living creature to come to me—but a child! Oh, how bad I do feel!"
"But I must do something, or call somebody," cried Mona desperately. She had never seen serious illness before, and she was frightened. Poor old Mrs. Barnes had always been a bad patient, and difficult to manage, even when her ailments were only trifling; now that she really felt ill, she had lost all control.
"Granny," said Mona, growing desperate. "I must get someone to come and help us, you must have the doctor, and I can't leave you alone, I am going to ask Mrs. Lane to come, I can't help it—I can't do anything else. I'll slip on my shoes and stockings, I won't be more than a minute."
Granny Barnes stopped moaning, and raised herself on her elbow. "You'll do no such thing," she gasped.
"But granny, I must—you must have help, and you must have somebody to go for the doctor, and—and, oh, granny, I'm afraid to be here alone, I don't know what to do, and you're looking so bad."
"Am I?" nervously. "Well—if I've got to die alone and helpless, I will, but I won't ask Mrs. Lane to come to me. Do you think I'd—ask a favour of her, after all her unneighbourliness—not speaking to me for weeks and weeks——"
Mona burst into tears, confession had to come. "Granny," she said, dropping on her knees beside the bed. "I—I've got to tell you something—Mrs. Lane was right——"
"What!" Granny's face grew whiter, but she said no more. If she had done so, if she had but spoken kindly and helped her ever so little, it would have made things much easier for poor Mona.
"I—I—it was me that pulled the faggots down that night, and not Mrs. Lane's cats, and she won't look, or speak to me because I didn't tell, and I let her cats bear the blame. I—I didn't mean to do any harm, I was in such a hurry to light up the fire, and the old things all rolled down, and I forgot to go out and pick them up again. I didn't think you'd be going out there that night, but you went out, and—and fell over them. If you hadn't gone out it would have been all right, I'd have seen them in the morning and have picked them up."
But Granny Barnes was not prepared to listen to excuses, she was very, very angry. "And fine and foolish you've made me look all this time, Mona Carne, and risked my life too. For bad as I was a little while back, I wouldn't bring myself to ask Mrs. Lane to come to me, nor Cap'en Lane to go and fetch the doctor, and—and if I'd died, well, you know who would have been to blame!"
Granny's cheeks were crimson now, and she was panting with exhaustion. "Now what you've got to do is—to go in—and tell her the truth yourself."
"I'm going," said Mona, the tears streaming down her face. But as she hurried to the door, the sight of her, looking so childlike and forlorn in her nightgown, with her tumbled hair and tear-stained face, touched her grandmother's heart, and softened her anger.
"Mona," she cried, "come back—never mind about it now, child——" But Mona was already in her own room tugging on her shoes and stockings. Granny heard her come out and make her way stumbling down the stairs; she tried to call again, but reaction had set in, and she lay panting, exhausted, unable to do anything but listen. She heard Mona pulling back the heavy wooden bolt of the front door, then she heard her footsteps hurrying through the garden, growing more distant, then nearer as she went up Mrs. Lane's path. Then came the noise of her knocking at Mrs. Lane's door, first gently, then louder, and louder still—and then the exhausted, over-excited old woman fainted, and knew no more.
Mona, standing in the dark at Mrs. Lane's door, was trembling all over. Even her voice trembled. When Mrs. Lane at last opened her window and called out "Who's there?" it shook so, she could not make herself heard until she had spoken three times.
"It's me—Mona Carne. Oh, Mrs. Lane, I'm so frightened! Granny's very ill, please will you—come in?—I—I don't know what to do for her."
"Mona Carne! Oh!" Mona heard the surprise in Mrs. Lane's voice, and feared she was going to refuse her. Then "Wait a minute," she said, "I'll come down."
Mona's tears stopped, but she still trembled. Help was coming to granny— but she still had her confession to make, and it seemed such an awful ordeal to face. All the time she stood waiting there under the stars, with the scent of the flowers about her, she was wondering desperately how she could begin, what she could say, and how excuse herself.
She was still absorbed, and still had not come to any decision, when the door behind her opened, and a voice said kindly, "Come inside, Mona, and tell me what is the matter," and Mona stepped from the starlit night into the warm, dimly lighted kitchen, and found herself face to face with her old kind friend.
"Now, tell me all about it," said Mrs. Lane again catching sight of Mona's frightened, disfigured face. "Why, how you are trembling, child, have you had a shock? Were you in bed?"
Mona nodded. "Yes, I'd been in bed a good while when I heard a cry, such a funny kind of cry! At first I thought it must be the owl, but when I heard it again and again I thought it must be granny, and I got up and went to her. And, oh, I was frightened, she was lying all crumpled up in the bed, and she was groaning something dreadful. She was very ill, she said, and she must have the doctor—but she wouldn't let me go to fetch him, 'cause she was afraid to be left alone. I was frightened to be there by myself, and I didn't know what to do for her and I said I'd run in and ask you to come—but she said she'd rather die—she said I mustn't because—because—oh you know," gasped Mona, breathless after her outpouring of words, "and—and then—I—told her—about—about that—that 'twas me pulled down the faggots, and you were right, and she looked—oh she looked dreadful, she was so angry! And then I came in to tell you; and, oh Mrs. Lane, I am so sorry I behaved so, I—I never meant to, I never meant Tom and Daisy to have the blame. And, please Mrs. Lane, will you forgive me, and speak to me again? I've been so—so mis'rubble, and I didn't know how to set things right again." But here Mona's voice failed her altogether, and, worn out with the day's events, and the night's alarm, and all the agitation and trouble both had brought, she broke down completely. Mrs. Lane was quite distressed by the violence of her sobs.
"There, there, don't cry so, child, and don't worry any more," she said gently, putting her arm affectionately round Mona's shaking shoulders, "It's all over now! and we are all going to be as happy and friendly again as ever we used to be. Mona, dear, I am so glad, so thankful that you have spoken. It hurt me to think that I had been deceived in you, but I know now that you were my own little Mona all the time. There, dear, don't cry any more; we must think about poor granny. Come along, we will see what we can do to help her."
They stepped out into the starlit night, hand in hand, and though her grandmother's illness filled Mona with anxiety, she felt as though a heavy care had been lifted from her heart, a meanness from her soul; and, as she hurried through the scented gardens, she lifted up her face to the starry sky, and her heart to the God who looked down on her through Heaven's eyes.
In the house, when they reached it, all was as she had left it, except that now a deep, deep silence reigned; a silence that, somehow, struck a chill to both hearts.
"How quiet it is! She was making such a noise before," Mona whispered, hesitating nervously at the foot of the stairs.
"I expect she has fallen asleep, I'll go up first and see; you light the lamp in the kitchen, and bring me up a glass of cold water. Or would you rather come with me?"
"I—I will come with you." She could not rid herself of the feeling that her granny was dead—had died angry with her, at the last. She felt sure of it, too, when she saw her lying so still and white on her pillow.
Mrs. Lane placed her hand over the tired, faintly-beating heart. "She is only faint," she said assuringly, a note of intense relief in her voice. "She is coming round. Run and fetch me some water, dear, and open that window as you pass."
So granny, when she presently opened her eyes and looked about her, found Mona on one side of her and her old friend on the other; and both were looking at her with tender anxious eyes, and faces full of gladness at her recovery.
The old feud was as dead as though it had never existed.
"It's like going to sleep in a world of worries and waking up in a new one." The poor old soul sighed contentedly, as she lay with the stars looking in on her, and the scent of the flowers wafting up to her through the open window. "It was too bad, though, to be calling you up in the night—out of your bed. I'm very much obliged to you, Mrs. Lane, I—I'm very glad to see you."
"Not as glad as I am to come, I reckon," her neighbour smiled back at her, "we are all going to start afresh again from to-day, ain't we? So it's as well to begin the day early, and make it as long as we can!"
Granny was much better, and was downstairs again, but she was weak and very helpless still. She was sad too, and depressed. The last few weeks had shaken her confidence in herself, her spirit was strong enough still, but more than once lately her body had failed her. When, in her old way, she had said that she would do this, or that, or the other thing, she had found out after all, that she could not. Her body had absolutely refused to obey her.
"I ain't dependent on other folks yet!" she had said sharply, and had afterwards found out that she was, and the discovery alarmed her. It saddened her, and broke her spirit.
"I ought to be in a home. I'd rather be in one, or—or be dead, than be a burden on other folks," she moaned.
Granny was very hard to live with in those days. Even a grown-up would have found it difficult to know what to say in answer to her complainings.
"Granny, don't talk like that!" Mona would plead, and she would work harder than ever that there might be nothing for granny to do, or to find fault with. But however hard she worked, and however nice she kept things, she always found that there were still some things left undone, and that those were the very things that, in granny's opinion, mattered most.
As for reading, or play-time, Mona never found any for either now, and oh, how often and how longingly her thoughts turned to the Quay, and to the rocks, and the games that were going on there evening after evening! Sometimes it almost seemed that she could hear the laughter and the calls, the voice of the sea, the rattle of the oars in the rowlocks, the cries of the gulls, and then she would feel as though she could not bear to be away from them all another moment. That she must race back to them then and there; never, never to leave them any more!
The loneliness, and the hard work, and the confinement to the house told on her. She became thin, the colour died out of her cheeks, and the gladness from her eyes, and all the life and joyousness seemed to go out of her. She grew, and grew rapidly, but she stooped so much she did not look as tall as she really was.
Granny Barnes, looking at her sweeping out the path one day, had her eyes suddenly opened, and the revelation startled her. She did not say anything to Mona, she just watched her carefully, but she did not again blame her for laziness; and while she watched her, her thoughts travelled backwards. A year ago Mona had been noisy, lively, careless, but cheerful, always full of some new idea. She had been round and rosy too, and full of mischief. Now she was listless, quiet, and apparently interested in nothing.
"Have you got a headache, Mona?"
"No," said Mona indifferently, "I don't think so."
"Is your back aching?"
"It always is."
"Then why didn't you say so, child?"
"What's the good? The work has to be done."
"If you're bad you must leave it undone. You can't go making yourself ill."
"I ain't ill, and I'd sooner do the work. There's nothing else to do."
"Can't you read sometimes? You used to be so fond of reading."
"If I read I forget to do things, and then——" She was going to say "there's a row," but she stopped herself just in time. "I've read all my books till I know them by heart nearly." Even while she spoke she was getting out the ironing cloth, and spreading it on the table. The irons were already hot on the stove.
Granny Barnes did not say any more, but sat for a long time gazing into the fire, apparently deep in thought. Mona looking up presently, attracted by the silence, was struck by her weary, drooping look, by the sadness of the tired old eyes. But she did not say anything. Presently granny roused herself and looked up. "Put away your ironing, child," she said kindly, "and go out and have a game of play. The air will do you good."
"I don't want to go out, granny. There's no one to play with—and I'm afraid to leave you; what could you do if you were to faint again?"
Granny sighed. The child was right. "I—I could knock in to Mrs. Lane, perhaps," she said, but there was doubt in her voice, and she did not press Mona any further.
Mona went on with her ironing, and granny went on staring into the fire, and neither spoke again for some time. Not until Mona, going over to take up a fresh hot iron, saw something bright shining on her grandmother's cheek, then fall on to her hand.
"Are you feeling bad again, granny?" she asked anxiously. The sight of the tear touched her, and brought a note of sympathy into her voice, and the sympathy in her voice in turn touched her granny, and drew both together.
"No—I don't know that I'm feeling worse than usual, but—but, well I feel that it'd be a good thing if my time was ended. I'm only a trouble and a burden now—no more help for anybody."
"Granny! Granny! You mustn't say such things!" Mona dropped her iron back on the stove again, and threw herself on the floor beside her grandmother. "You mustn't talk like that! You're weak, that's all. You want to rest for a bit and have some tonics. Mrs. Lane says so."
"Does she? I seem to want something," leaning her weary head against Mona's, "but it's more than tonics—it's a new body that I'm needing, I reckon. I daresay it's only foolishness, but sometimes I feel like a little child, I want to be took care of, and someone to make much of me, and say like mother used to, 'Now leave everything to me. I'll see to it all!' It seems to me one wants a bit of petting when one comes to the end of one's life, as much as one does at the beginning—I don't know but what a little is good for one at any age."
Mona slipped down till she sat on the floor at her granny's feet, her head resting against granny's knee. "I think so too," she said wistfully. Silence fell between them, broken only by the crackling of the fire within and the buzz of insects, and the calling of the birds, outside in the garden.
"Mona, how would you like it if we went into Seacombe to live?"
Mona was up in a moment, her face alight with eagerness, but some instinct stopped her from expressing too much delight. In the softened feeling which had crept into her heart, she realised that to her grandmother the move would mean a great wrench.
"She must love Hillside as much, or nearly as much as I love Seacombe," she told herself. Aloud she said, "I'd like it, but you wouldn't, would you, granny?"
"I think I would. I'd like to be nearer your father, and—and you would be happy there, and perhaps you'd feel stronger. I'm getting to feel," she added after a little pause, "that one can be happy anywhere, if those about one are happy. Or, to put it another way, one can't be happy anywhere if those about one ain't happy."
Mona felt very guilty. "Granny," she said, but in rather a choky voice, "I'll be happy here, if you'd rather stay here—I will really. I do love Hillside—it's only the sea I miss, and the fun, and—and the excitement when the boats come in—but I shall forget all about it soon, and I'll be happy here too, if you'd like to stay."
She did try to put aside her own feelings, and speak cheerfully, and she succeeded—but, to her surprise, her grandmother did not jump at her offer.
"No, child, I wouldn't rather stay. I'd like to go. I feel I want to be near my own, and your father and you are all I've got. I think I'll ask him if he can find a little house that'll suit us."
"Won't you live with us, granny? You can have my room."
But granny would not hear of that. "I've always had a home of my own, and I couldn't live in anybody else's," she said decisively. "Your stepmother's too much of an invalid herself too, to be able to look after another."
"Then you'd want me to live with you?" asked Mona, with a little break in her voice. She was disappointed, but she tried not to show it.
"Yes, dearie," her eyes scanning Mona's face wistfully, "wouldn't you like that?"
Mona hesitated for only a second, then "Yes, granny, I should," she said, and then as the idea became more familiar, she said more heartily, "Yes, I'd love to, and oh, granny, if we could only get one of the little houses down by the Quay it would be lovely! I'm sure you'd like it——"
"I couldn't live down by the Quay," granny interrupted sharply, "I wouldn't live there if a house was given me rent free. It is too noisy, for one thing, and you feel every breath of wind that blows."
"But you're close, when the boats come in——"
"Aye, and when they don't come in," said granny. "I ain't so fond of the sea as you are, and I should never know any rest of mind down close by it. Every time the wind blew I'd be terrified."
Mona looked vexed. "It isn't often that there's any place at all to let," she said crossly. "If we don't take what we can get, we shall never go at all."
But Granny Barnes was not alarmed. "Don't you trouble yourself about that. Your father'll find us something for certain. He'd got his eye on a little place when he was here, he wanted me to take it then. I almost wish I had, now. Never mind, I'll write to him to-night or to-morrow. If I was well I would go in by John Darbie's van and have a look about for myself."
All this sounded so much like business, that Mona sat up, all her glumness falling from her. When Granny Barnes once made up her mind to do a thing, she did not let the grass grow under her feet. There was, after all, much of Mona's nature in her, and when once she had made up her mind to leave her old home, it almost seemed as though she could not get away quickly enough.
Perhaps it was that she felt her courage might fail her if she gave herself much time to think about things. Perhaps she felt she could not face the pain and the worry if she gave herself time to worry much. Or, it may have been that she really did feel anxious about Mona's health and her own, and wanted to be settled in Seacombe as soon as possible.
At any rate she so managed that within a fortnight all her belongings were mounted on to two of Mr. Dodd's waggons and were carried off to the new home, while she and Mona followed in John Darbie's van, seen off by Mrs. Lane. Mrs. Lane was very tearful and sad at parting with them.
"I know it's for the best for both of you—but I feel as if I can't bear the sight nor the thought of the empty home." Then she kissed them both, and stood in the road in the sunshine, waving her hand to them till they were out of sight.
"Wave your handkerchief to her, Mona; blow another kiss to her, child." But granny kept her own head turned away, and her eyes fixed on the bit of white dusty road which lay ahead of them. Neither could she bear the sight of the empty house, nor of the neighbour she was leaving.
Mona's eyes were full of tears, but granny's were dry, though her sorrow was much deeper than Mona's. John Darbie tactfully kept his tongue quiet, and his eyes fixed on the scenery. He understood that his old friend was suffering, and would want to be left alone for a while. So, for the first part of the way, they jogged along in silence, except for the scrunching of the gravel beneath the wheels, and the steady thud, thud of the old horse's hoofs, Granny Barnes looking forward with sad stern eyes, and a heart full of dread; Mona looking back through tears, but with hope in her heart; the old driver staring thoughtfully before him at the familiar way, along which he had driven so many, old and young; happy and sad, some willing, some unwilling, some hopeful, others despondent. The old man felt for each and all of them, and helped them on their way, as far as he might travel it with them, and sent many a kind thought after them, which they never knew of.
"I suppose," he said at last, speaking his thoughts aloud, "in every change we can find some happiness. There's always something we can do for somebody. So far as I can see, there's good to be got out of most things."
Mrs. Barnes' gaze came back from the wide-stretching scene beside her, and rested enquiringly on the old speaker. "Do 'ee think so?" she asked eagerly. "'Tis dreadful to be filled with doubts about what you're doing," she added pathetically.
"Don't 'ee doubt, ma'am. Once you've weighed the matter and looked at it every way, and have at last made up your mind, don't you let yourself harbour any doubts. Act as if you hadn't got any choice, and go straight ahead."
"But how is anyone to know? It may be that one took the way 'cause it was the easiest."
"Very often it's the easiest way 'cause it's the way the Lord has opened for us," said the old man simply, and with perfect faith. "Then I count it we're doubting Him if we go on questioning."
The look of strained anxiety in Granny Barnes' eyes had already given way to one more peaceful and contented.
"I hadn't thought of that," she said softly, and presently she added, "It takes a load off one's mind if one looks at it that way."
Mona, who had been listening too, found John Darbie's words repeating themselves over and over again in her mind. "There's always something we can do—there's good to be got out of most things." They set themselves to the rhythm of the old horse's slow steps—"There is always something— there is always something—we can do—we can do, there is always something we can do."
Throughout that long, slow journey on that sunshiny day they rang in her head, and her heart chanted them. And though in the years that followed she often forgot her good resolutions, and many and many a time did wrong and foolish things, knowing them to be wrong and foolish, though she let herself be swayed by her moods, when she should have fought against them, she never entirely forgot old John Darbie's simple, comforting words, nor the lesson they had taught her that day, and unconsciously they helped her on her life's road, just as he himself helped her along her road to her new home.
There was indeed a great deal that she could do, as she discovered presently, when the van deposited them and their parcels at the door of their new home, for the furniture had arrived but a couple of hours earlier, and though her father and the man had lifted most of the heavier things into their places, and Lucy had done all that she could to make the little house look habitable, there was much that Mona, knowing her grandmother's ways as well as she did, could do better than anyone else.
As soon as the van drew near, Lucy was at the door to greet them, and in the warmth and pleasure of her welcome, Mona entirely forgot the circumstances under which they had last parted: and it never once occurred to her to think how different their meeting might have been had Lucy not been of the sweet-tempered forgiving nature that she was.
Lucy had forgotten too. She only remembered how glad she was to have them there, and what a trying day it must have been for poor old Granny Barnes. And when, instead of the stern, cold, complaining old woman that she had expected, she saw a fragile, pale-faced little figure, standing looking forlorn, weary, and half-frightened on the path outside her new home, Lucy quite forgot her dread of her, and her whole heart went out in sympathy.
Putting her arms round her, she kissed her as warmly as though it had been her own mother, and led her tenderly into the house.
"Don't you trouble about a single thing more, granny, there are plenty of us to see to everything. The fire is burning, and your own armchair is put by it, and all you've got to do is to sit there till you're rested and tell us others what you'd like done."
Granny Barnes did not speak, but Lucy understood. She took up the poker and stirred the coals to a more cheerful blaze. "It's a fine little stove to burn," she said cheerfully, "and it is as easy as possible to light."
Granny was interested at once, "Is it? How beautiful and bright it is. Did you do that, Lucy?"
Lucy nodded. "I love polishing up a stove," she said with a smile, "it repays you so for the trouble you take. Don't you think so?"
"Yes, I used to spend hours over mine, but I don't seem to have the strength now. Mona does very well though. Where's Peter? Out fishing?"
"No, he's upstairs putting up your bed. He has nearly done. Mona's is up already. You've got a sweet little room, Mona. You'll love it, I know."
Mona ran upstairs at once to inspect. She was bubbling over with excitement and happiness. Her room was, she knew, at the back of the house, so she went to it straight. It was in a great muddle, of course, but the bed was in place, and the chest of drawers. The walls had been newly papered, the paper had little bunches of field daisies all over it, white and red-tipped, each bunch was tied with a blade of green grass. Mona thought it perfectly exquisite, but it was the window which took her fancy captive. It was a lattice window, cut deep in the wall, and before it was a seat wide enough for Mona to sit in—and beyond the window was the sea!
"I'll be able to sit there, and read, and sew, and watch the boats going by," she thought delightedly, "and I'll have little muslin curtains tied back with ribbons, and a flounce of muslin across the top. Oh, I shall love it up here! I shall never want to go out. It's nicer even than my room at father's, and ever so much nicer than the 'Hillside' one!"
A sound of hammering and banging came from the other side of the tiny landing.
"That must be father, putting up granny's bed," she hurried out, and across to him. He had just finished, and was pushing the bed into place. Two great bundles tied up in sheets filled up most of the rest of the floor. One held Granny Barnes' feather-tie, the other her pillow-cases, sheets and blankets.
"I do hope your grandmother'll be well and comfortable here," he said anxiously, "and happy. If it rests with us to make her so, she shall be. Mona, you'd better make up her bed soon. Don't leave it for her to do herself. She'll most likely be glad to go to bed early to-night, she must be tired. There's no moving round the room, either, with those great bundles there. I'll lift the feather-tie on to the bed for you."
"All right—in a minute, father."
Granny's bedroom window looked out on the hill. Further up the hill, on the opposite side, was Cliff Cottage. It could be just seen from granny's new home. How small and strange it all looked, thought Mona, and how narrow the hill was, but how homelike and beautiful.
While she gazed out Millie Higgins and Philippa Luxmore appeared, they were coming down the hill together. Millie had on a pink dress almost exactly like Mona's.
"Why—why, she's copied me!" thought Mona indignantly, a wave of hot anger surging up in her heart. "She's a regular copy-cat! She can't think of a thing for herself, but directly anyone else has it, she must go and copy them. I'd be ashamed if I was her. Now I shan't like my pink frock any more!"
As though attracted by the gaze on her, Millie looked up at the window, and straight into Mona's eyes, but instead of feeling any shame, she only laughed. She may not have remembered her own frock, or Mona's, she was probably not laughing at Mona's annoyance, it is very likely that she was amused at something she and Philippa were talking about, but Mona thought otherwise, and only glared back at her with angry, contemptuous eyes. She saw Millie's face change, and saw her whisper in Philippa's ear, then she heard them both laugh, and her heart was fuller than ever of hatred, and mortification. Mortification with herself partly, for allowing Millie to see that she was vexed.
Oh, how she wished now, that instead of letting Millie see how she had annoyed her, she had acted as though she did not notice, or did not mind.
"Mona, give me a hand here a minute, will you?" Her father's voice broke in on her musings, "that rope is caught round the bedpost."
Mona went over, and released the rope, but returned again to the window.
"If you don't bustle round, little maid, we shall never be done," said her father. "I want to get it all as right as I can before I go, or your grand-mother'll be doing it herself, and making herself ill again. You can look out of window another day, there'll be plenty of time for that."
"I'm tired," grumbled Mona sulkily, "I can't be always working."
Her father straightened his back, and looked at her. His eyes were reproachful and grieved. Mona's own eyes fell before them. Already she was sorry that she had spoken so. She did not feel in the least as she had said she did. She was put out about Millie, and Millie's frock, that was all.
"Mona, my girl," he said gravely, "you put me in mind of a weather-cock in a shifty wind. Nobody can tell for half an hour together what quarter it'll be pointing to. 'Tis the shifty wind that does the most mischief and is hardest to bear with. When you came in just now, I'd have said you were pointing straight south, but a few minutes later you've veered right round to the north-east. What's the meaning of it, child? What's the matter with 'ee. It doesn't give 'ee much pleasure to know you're spoiling everybody else's, does it?"
Mona gulped down her tears. "No—o, I—I—it was Millie Higgins' fault. She's been and got a dress——" And then she suddenly felt ashamed of herself, and ashamed to repeat anything so petty, and she gulped again, and this time she swallowed her bad temper too. "No—I'm—I'm 'set fair' now, father!" she added, and, though there was a choke in her voice, as though her temper was rather hard to swallow, there was a smile in her eyes, and in a very little while granny's feather-bed was shaken up as soft and smooth as ever granny herself could have made it, and the bed was made up. And then by degrees everything in the room was got into place just as its mistress liked it, so that when granny came up later on and saw her new room, she exclaimed aloud in pleased surprise:
"Why, it looks like home already," she cried, "and that's our Mona's doing, I know!"
Mona sat reading, curled upon the window seat in her bedroom. She spent a great deal of her time there. Sometimes sewing, but more often either reading, or looking out at the view. For a few days she had been busy making curtains for her window, and a frill to go across the top, and, as granny had firmly refused to buy wide pink ribbon to fasten back the curtains, Mona had hemmed long strips of some of the print left over from her own pink dress.
But all this was done now, and Mona was very proud of her handiwork. The frill was a little deeper on one side than the other, but that was a trifle. Mona thought that the whole effect was very smart; so smart, indeed, that she sometimes wished that her window was in the front of the house, so that people going up and down the hill might see it. "But I s'pose one can't have everything," she concluded, with a sigh.
Granny's window, which did look out on the hill, was anything but smart, for she had had neither time nor strength to make her curtains, and Mona had not offered to make them for her.
Granny had gone up to Lucy's that very afternoon, and taken them with her, hoping to work at them a little while she talked. She often went up to sit with Lucy. Perhaps she found it dull at home, with Mona always shut up in her own room. Lucy's garden delighted her too. She had none herself that could compare with it. In the front there was a tiny patch close under her window, and there was a long strip at the back, but only a very few things had the courage to grow there, for the wind caught it, and the salt sea-spray came up over it, and blighted every speck of green that had the courage to put its head out. Lucy's garden and Lucy's kitchen both delighted her. She said the kitchen was more cheerful than hers, but it was really Lucy's presence that made it so. Lucy was always so pleased to see her, so ready to listen to her stories, or to tell her own, if granny was too tired to talk. She always listened to her advice, too, which was quite a new experience to Mrs. Barnes.
This afternoon, while granny was talking, and taking a stitch occasionally, Lucy picked up the other curtain and made it. It was not a very big matter; all the windows in Seacombe houses were small. Then she put on the kettle, and while it was boiling she took the other curtain from granny's frail hand and worked away at that too. The weather was hot, and the door stood wide open, letting in the mingled scents of the many sweet flowers which filled every foot of the garden. A sweet-brier bush stood near the window, great clumps of stocks, mignonette and verbenas lined the path to the gate.
"I didn't mean to stay to tea," said granny, realizing at last that Lucy was preparing some for her. "I was going to get home in time."
"Mona won't have got it, will she?"
"Oh, no, she won't think about it, I expect. She has got a book, and when she's reading she's lost to everything. I never knew a child so fond of reading."
"You spoil her, granny! You let her have her own way too much."
Then they both laughed, for each accused the other of 'spoiling' Mona.
"I don't like her to work too hard," said granny. "She'd got to look very thin and delicate. I think she's looking better, though, don't you?"
"Yes, ever so much," Lucy reassured her, and granny's face brightened.
Mona, meanwhile, went on reading, lost, as granny said, to everything but her book. She did not even look out to sea. She heard no sound either in the house or out. Heart and mind she was with the people of the story. She was living their life.
The baker came and knocked two or three times; then, opening the door, put a loaf on the table, and went away. Then presently came more knocking, and more, but none of it reached Mona's brain. She was flying with the heroine, and enjoying hairbreadth escapes, while running away from her wicked guardian, when her bedroom door was flung open, and Millie Higgins—not the wicked guardian—appeared on the threshold.
Mona gave a little cry of alarm, then immediately grew angry with herself for having let Millie see that she had startled her.
"What are you doing up here?" she demanded, bluntly. "Who told you to come up? Granny isn't in, is she?"
Millie laughed. "If your grandmother had been in I should have been at the other end of the street by this time. I've no fancy for facing dragons in their caves."
"Don't be rude," retorted Mona, colouring with anger. Millie always laughed at Mrs. Barnes, because she was old-fashioned in her dress and ways. "How did you get in, and why did you come? If granny didn't send you up, you'd no right to come. It's like your cheek, Millie Higgins, to go forcing your way into other people's houses!"
"It's like your carelessness to shut yourself up with a story-book and leave your front door open. I ain't the first that has been in! Wouldn't your grandmother be pleased if she knew how trustworthy her dear, good little Mona was."
Mona looked frightened, and Millie noticed it. "What do you mean, Millie?"
Millie had seen the baker come, knock, open the door, and leave again after depositing a loaf on the table. She had also seen Mrs. Barnes comfortably settled in Lucy Carne's kitchen, and she determined to have some fun. She loved teasing and annoying everyone she could.
"Come down and see what they've done. At any rate, you might be civil to anyone who comes in to warn you before any more harm is done."
Mona, still looking alarmed, slipped from the window-seat and followed Millie down the stairs.
While she stood at the foot of them, glancing about her anxiously, Millie stepped over and shut the house door.
"Where?—What?—I don't see anything wrong," said Mona. Millie burst into mocking laughter. "I don't suppose you do! Silly-billy, cock-a-dilly, how's your mother, little Mona! Why, how stupid you are! Anyone can get a rise out of you! I only wanted to frighten you and get you downstairs. You're going to ask me to tea now, and give me a nice one, too, aren't you?"
Mona was trembling with mortification and anger. "No, I am not," she said, "and if you don't go out of here in a minute I'll—I'll——"
"Oh, no—you won't, dear. You couldn't if you wanted to—but you don't really want to, I know. Now poke up the fire and get me some tea. I hope you have something nice to eat."
Mona stood by the dressers, her thoughts flying wildly through her brain. What could she do? Millie was taller, older, and stronger than herself, so she could not seize her, and put her out by force. Mona knew, too, that she would not listen to pleading or to coaxing.
"Oh, if only someone would come!" She made a move towards the door, but Millie was too quick for her, and got between her and it.
"Millie, you've got to go away. You'll get me into an awful row if you are found here, and—and I can't think how you can push yourself in where you ain't wanted."
"Oh, fie! Little girls shouldn't be rude—it shows they haven't been properly brought up."
Mona did not answer. She was trying to think what she could do. If she went out of the house would Millie follow?