'Artificial, were they? that really is very odd! Can you account for that at all, now?'
'Of course I can't! You told me that they would drop out whenever I said anything to improve people—and I was always saying something improving! Aunt had a bandbox in her room quite full of them.'
'Ah, you've been very industrious, evidently; it's unfortunate your jewels should all have been artificial—most unfortunate. I don't know how to explain it, unless'—(and here the old lady looked up queerly from under her white eyelashes), 'unless your goodness was artificial too?'
'How do you mean?' asked Priscilla, feeling strangely uncomfortable. 'I'm sure I've never done anything the least bit naughty—how can my goodness possibly be artificial?'
'Ah, that I can't explain; but I know this—that people who are really good are generally the last persons to suspect it, and the moment they become aware of it and begin to think how good they are, and how bad everybody else is, why, somehow or other, their goodness crumbles away and leaves only a sort of outside shell behind it. And—I'm very old, and of course I may be mistaken—but I think (I only say I think, mind) that a little girl so young as you must have some faults hidden about her somewhere, and that perhaps on the whole she would be better employed in trying to find them out and cure them before she attempted to correct those of other people. And I'm sure it can't be good for any child to be always seeing herself in a little picture, just as she likes to fancy other people see her. Very many pretty books are written about good little girls, and it is quite true that children may exercise a great influence for good—more than they can ever tell, perhaps—but only just so long as they remain natural and unconscious, and not unwholesome little pragmatical prigesses; for then they make themselves and other people worse than they might have been. But of course, my dear, you never made such a mistake as that!'
Priscilla turned very red, and began to scrape one of her feet against the other; she was thinking, and her thoughts were not at all pleasant ones.
'Oh, fairy,' she said at last, 'I'm afraid that's just what I did do. I was always thinking how good I was and putting everybody—papa, mamma, Alick, Betty, Aunt Margarine, Cathie, Belle, and even poor cousin Dick—right! I have been a horrid little hateful prig, and that's why all the jewels were rubbish. But, oh, shall I have to go on talking sham diamonds and things all the rest of my life?'
'That,' said the fairy, 'depends entirely on yourself. You have the remedy in your own hands—or lips.'
'Ah, you mean I needn't talk at all? But I must—sometimes. I couldn't bear to be dumb as long as I lived—and it would look so odd, too!'
'I never said you were not to open your lips at all. But can't you try to talk simply and naturally—not like little girls or boys in any story-books whatever—not to "show off" or improve people; only as a girl would talk who remembers that, after all, her elders are quite as likely as she is to know what they ought or ought not to do and say?'
'I shall forget sometimes, I know I shall!' said Priscilla disconsolately.
'If you do, there will be something to remind you, you know. And by and by, perhaps, as you grow up you may, quite by accident, say something sincere and noble and true—and then a jewel will fall which will really be of value!'
'No!' cried Priscilla, 'no, please! Oh, fairy, let me off that! If I must drop them, let them be false ones to punish me—not real. I don't want to be rewarded any more for being good—if I ever am really good!'
'Come,' said the fairy, with a much pleasanter smile, 'you are not a hopeless case, at all events. It shall be as you wish, then, and perhaps it will be the wisest arrangement for all parties. Now run away home, and see how little use you can make of your fairy gift.'
Priscilla found her family still at breakfast.
'Why,' observed her father, raising his eyebrows as she entered the room, 'here's our little monitor—(or is it monitress, eh, Priscilla?)—back again. Children, we shall all have to mind our p's and q's—and, indeed, our entire alphabet, now!'
'I'm sure,' said her mother, kissing her fondly, 'Priscilla knows we're all delighted to have her home!'
'I'm not,' said Alick, with all a boy's engaging candour.
'Nor am I,' added Betty, 'it's been ever so much nicer at home while she's been away!'
Priscilla burst into tears as she hid her face upon her mother's protecting shoulder. 'It's true!' she sobbed, 'I don't deserve that you should be glad to see me—I've been hateful and horrid, I know—but, oh, if you'll only forgive me and love me and put up with me a little, I'll try not to preach and be a prig any more—I will truly!'
And at this her father called her to his side and embraced her with a fervour he had not shown for a very long time.
* * * * *
I should not like to go so far as to assert that no imitation diamond, ruby, pearl, or emerald ever proceeded from Priscilla's lips again. Habits are not cured in a day, and fairies—however old they may be—are still fairies; so it did occasionally happen that a mock jewel made an unwelcome appearance after one of Priscilla's more unguarded utterances. But she was always frightfully ashamed and abashed by such an accident, and buried the imitation stones immediately in a corner of the garden. And as time went on the jewels grew smaller and smaller, and frequently dissolved upon her tongue, leaving a faintly bitter taste, until at last they ceased altogether and Priscilla became as pleasant and unaffected a girl as she who may now be finishing this history.
Aunt Margarine never sent back the contents of that bandbox; she kept the biggest stones and had a brooch made of them, while, as she never mentioned that they were false, no one out of the family ever so much as suspected it.
But, for all that, she always declared that her niece Priscilla had bitterly disappointed her expectations—which was perhaps the truest thing that Aunt Margarine ever said.
A MATTER OF TASTE
It is a little singular that, upon an engagement becoming known and being discussed by the friends and acquaintances of the persons principally concerned, by far the most usual tone of comment should be a sorrowing wonder. That particular alliance is generally the very last that anybody ever expected. 'What made him choose her, of all people,' and 'What on earth she could see in him,' are declared insoluble problems. It is confidently predicted that the engagement will never come to anything, or that, if such a marriage ever does take place, it is most unlikely to prove a success.
Sometimes, in the case of female friends, this tone is even perceptible under their warmest felicitations, and through the smiling mask of compliment shine eyes moist with the most irritating quality of compassion. 'So glad! so delighted! But why, why didn't you consult me?'—this complicated expression might be rendered: 'I could have saved you from this—I was so pleased to hear of it!'
And yet, in the majority of cases, these unions are not found to turn out so very badly after all, and the misguided couple seem really to have gauged their own hearts and their possibilities of happiness together more accurately than the most clear-sighted of their acquaintances.
The announcement that Ella Hylton had accepted George Chapman provoked the customary sensation and surprise in their respective sets, and perhaps with rather more justification than usual.
Miss Hylton had undeniable beauty of a spiritual and rather exalte type, and was generally understood to be highly cultivated. She had spent a year at Somerville, though she had gone down without trying for a place in either 'Mods.' or 'Greats,' thereby preserving, if not increasing, her reputation for superiority. She had lived all her life among cultured people; she was devoted to music and regularly attended the Richter Concerts, though she could seldom be induced to play in public; she had a feeling for art, though she neither painted nor drew; a love of literature strong enough to deter her from all amateur efforts in that direction. In art, music and literature she was impatient of mediocrity; and, while she was as fond as most girls of the pleasures which upper middle-class society can offer, she reverenced intellect, and preferred the conversation of the plainest celebrity to the platitudes of the mere dancing-man, no matter how handsome of feature and perfect of step he might be.
George Chapman was certainly not a mere dancing-man, his waltzing being rather conscientious than dreamlike, and he was only tolerably good-looking. On the other hand, he was not celebrated in any way, and even his mother and sisters had never considered him brilliant. He had been educated at Rugby and Trinity, Cambridge, where he rowed a fairly good oar, on principle, and took a middle second in the Moral Science Tripos. Now he was in a solicitor's office, where he was receiving a good salary, and was valued as a steady, sensible young fellow, who could be thoroughly depended upon. He was fond of his profession, and had acquired a considerable knowledge of its details; apart from it he had no very decided tastes; he lived a quiet, regular life, and dined out and went to dances in moderation; his manner, though he was nearly twenty-six, was still rather boyishly blunt.
What there was in him that had found favour in Ella Hylton's fastidious eyes the narrator is not rash enough to attempt to particularise. But it may be suggested that the most unlikely people may possess their fairy rose and ring which render them irresistible to at least one heart, if they only have faith to believe in and luck to perceive their power.
So, early in the year, George had plucked up courage to propose to Miss Hylton, after meeting and secretly adoring her for some months past, and she, to the general astonishment, had accepted him.
He had a private income—not a large one—of his own, and had saved out of it. She was entitled under her grandmother's will to a sum which made her an heiress in a modest way, and thus there was no reason why the engagement should be a long one, and, though no date had been definitely fixed for the marriage, it was understood that it should take place at some time before the end of the summer.
Soon after the engagement, however, an invalid aunt with whom Ella had always been a great favourite was ordered to the south of France, and implored her to go with her; which Ella, who had a real affection for her relative, as well as a strong sense of duty, had consented to do.
This was a misfortune in one of two ways: it either curtailed that most necessary and most delightful period during which fiances discover one another's idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, or it made it necessary to postpone the marriage.
George naturally preferred the former, as the more endurable evil; but Ella's letters from abroad began to hint more and more plainly at delay. Her aunt might remain on the Continent all the summer, and she could not possibly leave her; there was so much to be done after her return that could not be done in a hurry; they had not even begun to furnish the pretty little house on Campden Hill that was to be their new home—it would be better to wait till November, or even later.
The mere idea was alarming to George, and he remonstrated as far as he dared; but Ella remained firm, and he grew desperate.
He might have spared himself the trouble. About the middle of June Ella's aunt—who, of course, had had to leave the Riviera—grew tired of travelling, and Ella, to George's intense satisfaction, returned to her mother's house in Linden Gardens, Notting Hill.
And now, when our story opens, George, who had managed to get away from office-work two hours before his usual time, was hurrying towards Linden Gardens as fast as a hansom could take him, to see his betrothed for the first time after their long separation.
He was eager, naturally, and a little nervous. Would Ella still persist in her wish for delay? or would he be able to convince her that there were no obstacles in the way? He felt he had strong arguments on his side, if only—and here was the real seat of his anxiety—if only her objections were not raised from some other motive! She might have been trying to prepare him for a final rupture, and then—'Well,' he concluded, with his customary good sense, 'no use meeting trouble halfway—in five minutes I shall know for certain!'
* * * * *
At the same moment Mrs. Hylton and her daughter Flossie, a vivacious girl in the transitionary sixteen-year-old stage, were in the drawing-room at Linden Gardens. It was the ordinary double drawing-room of a London house, but everything in it was beautiful and harmonious. The eye was vaguely rested by the delicate and subdued colour of walls and hangings; cabinets, antique Persian pottery, rare bits of china, all occupied the precise place in which their decorative value was most felt; a room, in short, of exceptional individuality and distinction.
Flossie was standing at the window, from which a glimpse could just be caught of fresh green foliage and the lodge-gates, with the bustle of the traffic in the High Street beyond; Mrs. Hylton was writing at a Flemish bureau in the corner.
'I suppose,' said Flossie meditatively, as she fingered a piece of old stained glass that was hanging in the window, 'we shall have George here this afternoon.'
Mrs. Hylton raised her head. She had a striking face, tinted a clear olive, with a high wave of silver hair crowning the forehead; her eyebrows were dark, and so were the brilliant eyes; the nose was aquiline, and the thin, well-cut mouth a little hard. She was a woman who had been much admired in her time, and who still retained a certain attraction, though some were apt to find her somewhat cold and unsympathetic. Her daughter Ella, for example, was always secretly a little in awe of her mother, who, however, had no terrors for audacious, outspoken Flossie.
'If he comes, Flossie, he will be very welcome,' she said, 'but I hardly expect him yet. George is not likely to neglect his duties, even for Ella.'
Flossie pursed her mouth rather scornfully: 'Oh, George is immaculate!' she murmured.
'If he was, it would hardly be a reproach,' said her mother, catching the word; 'but, at all events, George has thoroughly good principles, and is sure to succeed in the world. I have every reason to be pleased.'
'Every reason?—ah! but are you pleased? Mother, dear, you know he's as dull as dull!'
'Ella does not find him so—and, Flossie, I don't like to hear you say such things, even in Ella's absence.'
'Oh, I never abuse him to Ella; it wouldn't be any use: she's firmly convinced that he's perfection—at least she was before she went away.'
'Why? do you mean that she has altered?—have you seen any sign of it, Flossie?'
Mrs. Hylton made this inquiry sharply, but not as if such a circumstance would be altogether displeasing to her.
'Oh, no; only she hasn't seen him for so long, you know. Perhaps, when she comes to look at him with fresh eyes, she'll notice things more. Ah, here is George, just getting out of a hansom—so he has played truant for once! There's one thing I do think Ella might do—persuade him to shave off some of those straggly whiskers. I wonder why he never seems to get a hat or anything else like other people's!'
Presently George was announced. He was slightly above middle height, broad-shouldered and fresh-coloured; the obnoxious whiskers did indeed cover more of his cheeks than modern fashion prescribes for men of his age, and had evidently never known a razor; he wore a turn-down collar and a necktie of a rather crude red; his clothes were neat and well brushed, but not remarkable for their cut.
'Well, my dear George,' said Mrs. Hylton, 'we have seen very little of you while Ella has been away.'
'I know,' he said awkwardly; 'I've had a lot of things to look after in one way and another.'
'What? after your work at the office was over!' cried Flossie incredulously.
'Yes—after that; it's taken up my time a good deal.'
'And so you couldn't spare any to call here—I see!' said Flossie. 'George,' she added, with a sudden diversion, 'I wonder you aren't afraid of catching cold! How can you go about in such absurdly thin boots as those?'
'These?' he said, inspecting them doubtfully—they were strong, sensible boots with notched and projecting soles of ponderous thickness—'why, what's the matter with them, Flossie, eh? Don't you think they're strong enough for walking in?'
'No, George; they're the very things for an afternoon dance, and quite a lot of couples could dance in them, you see. But for walking—ah, I'm afraid you sacrifice too much to appearances.'
'I don't, really!' George protested in all good faith; 'now do I, Mrs. Hylton?'
'Flossie is making fun of you, George; you mustn't mind her impertinence.'
'Oh, is that all? Do you know, I really thought for the moment that she meant they were too small for me! You like getting a rise out of me, Flossie, don't you?'
And he laughed with such genuine and good-natured amusement that the young lady felt somehow a little small, and almost ashamed, although it took the form of suppressed irritation. 'He really ought not to come here in such things,' she said to herself; 'and I don't believe that, even now, he sees what I meant.'
Just at this point Ella came in, with the least touch of shyness, perhaps, at meeting him before witnesses after so long an absence; but she only looked the more charming in consequence, and, demure as her greeting was, her pretty eyes had a sparkle of pleasure that scattered all George Chapman's fears to the winds. Even Flossie felt instinctively that straggly-whiskered, red-necktied, thick-booted George had lost none of his divinity for Ella.
They did not seem to have much to say to one another, notwithstanding; possibly because Ella was called upon to dispense the tea which had just been brought in. George sat nursing the hat which Flossie found so objectionable, while he balanced a teacup with the anxious eye of a juggler out of practice, and the conversation flagged. At last, under pretence of renewing his tea, most of which he had squandered upon a Persian rug, he crossed to Ella: 'I say,' he suggested, 'don't you think you could come out for a little while? I've such lots to tell you and—and I want you to go somewhere with me.'
Mrs. Hylton made no objection, beyond stipulating that Ella must not be allowed to tire herself after her journey, and so, a few minutes later, Miss Hylton came down in her pretty summer hat and light cape, and she and George were allowed to set out.
Once outside the house, he drew a long breath of mingled relief and pleasure: 'By Jove, Ella, I am glad to get you back again! I say, how jolly you do look in that hat! Now, do you know where I'm going to take you?'
'It will be quietest in the Gardens,' said Ella.
'Ah, but that's not where you're going now,' he said with a delicious assumption of authority; 'you're coming with me to see a certain house on Campden Hill you may have heard of.'
'That will be delightful. I do want to see our dear little house again very much. And, George, we will go carefully over all the rooms, and settle what can be done with each of them. Then we can begin directly; we haven't too much time.'
'Perhaps,' he said with a conscious laugh, 'it won't take so much time as you think.'
'Oh, but it must—to do properly. And while I've been away I've had some splendid ideas for some of the rooms—I've planned them out so beautifully. You know that delightful little room at the back?—the one I said should be your own den, with the window all festooned with creepers and looking out on the garden—well——?'
'Take my advice,' he said, 'and don't make any plans till you see it. And as for plans, these furnishing fellows do all that—they don't care to be bothered with plans.'
'They will have to carry out ours, though. I shall love settling how it is all to be—it will be such fun.'
'You wouldn't call it fun if you knew what it was like, I can tell you.'
'But I do know. Mother and I rearranged most of the rooms at home only last year—so you see I have some experience. And what experience can you have had, if you please?'
Ella had a mental vision as she spoke of the house in Dawson Place when George lived with his mother and sisters—a house in which furniture and everything else were commonplace and bourgeois to the last degree, and where nothing could have been altered since his boyhood; indeed she had often secretly pitied him for having to live in such surroundings, and admired the filial patience that had made him endure them so long.
'I've had my share, Ella, and I should be very sorry for you to have all the worry and bother I've been through over it!'
'But when, George? How? I don't understand.'
'Ah, that's my secret!' he said provokingly; 'and you know, Ella, if we began furnishing now, it would take no end of a time, with all these wonderful plans of yours, and—and I couldn't stand having to wait till next November for you—I couldn't do it!'
'Mother thinks the marriage need not be put off now,' said Ella simply, 'and we shall have six weeks till then; the house can be quite ready for us by the time we want it.'
'Six weeks!' he said impatiently, 'what's six weeks? You've no idea what these chaps are, Ella! And then there are all your own things to get, and they would take up most of your time. No, we should have had to put it off, whatever you may say. And that would mean another separation—for, of course, you would go away in August, and I should have to stay in town: the office wouldn't give me my fortnight twice over—honeymoon or no honeymoon!'
Ella looked completely puzzled. 'But what are you trying to prove now, George?'
'I was only showing you that, even though you have come back earlier, we couldn't possibly have got things ready in time, if I hadn't——' but here he stopped. 'No, I want that to be a surprise for you, Ella; you'll see presently,' he added.
Ella's delicate eyebrows contracted. 'I like to be prepared for my surprises, please, George. Tell me now.'
They had turned up one of the quiet streets leading to the hill. They were so near the house that George thought he might abandon further mystery, not to mention that he was only too anxious to reveal his secret.
'Well, then, Ella, if you must have it,' he said triumphantly, 'the house is very nearly ready now—what do you think of that?'
'Do you mean that—that it is furnished, George?'
'Papered, painted, decorated, furnished—everything, from top to bottom! I thought that would surprise you, Ella!'
'I think,' she answered slowly, 'you might have told me you were doing it.'
'What! before it was all done? That would have spoilt it all, dear. I should have written, though, if you hadn't been coming home so soon. And now it's finished I must say it looks uncommonly jolly. I'm sure you'll be pleased with it—it looks quite a different place.'
She tried to smile: 'And did you do it all yourself, George?'
'Well, no—not exactly. I flatter myself I know how to see that the work's properly done, and all that; but there are some things I don't pretend to be much of a hand at, so I got certain ladies to give me some wrinkles.'
Ella felt relieved. She was disappointed, it is true—hurt, even, at having been deprived of any voice in the matter. She had been looking forward so much to carrying out her pet schemes, to enjoying her friends' admiration of the wonders wrought by her artistic invention. And she had never thought of George, somehow, as likely to have any strikingly original ideas on the subject of decoration, although she liked him none the less for that.
But it was something that he had had the good sense to take her mother and Flossie into his confidence: she knew she could trust them to preserve him from any serious mistakes.
'You see,' said George, half apologetically, 'I would ever so much rather have waited till you came back, only I couldn't tell when that would be. I really couldn't help myself. You're sure you don't mind about it? If you only knew how I worked over it, rushing about from one place to another, as soon as I could get away from the office, picking up bits of furniture here and there, standing over those beggars of painters and keeping 'em at it, and working out estimates and seeing foremen and managers and all kinds of chaps! I used to get home dead-tired of an evening; but I didn't mind that: I felt it was all bringing you nearer to me, darling, and that made everything a pleasure!'
There was such honest affection in his look and voice; he had so evidently intended to please her, and had been in such manifest dread of any further separation from her, that she was completely disarmed.
'Dear George,' she said gently, 'I am so sorry you took all the trouble on yourself; it was very, very good of you to care so much, and I know I shall be delighted with the house.'
'Well,' said George, 'I'm not much afraid about that, because I expect our tastes are pretty much the same in most things.'
They were by this time at the house, and George, after a little fumbling with his as yet unfamiliar latchkey, threw open the door with a flourish and said, 'There you are, little woman! Walk in and you'll see what you shall see!'
No sooner was Ella inside the hall than her heart sank: 'Looks neat and nice, doesn't it?' said George cheerfully. 'You'd almost take that paper for real marble, wouldn't you? See how well they've done those veins. I like this yellowish colour better than green, don't you? It looks so cool in summer. That's a good strong hall-lamp—not what you call high art, exactly—but gives a rattling good light, and that's the main thing. Here, I'll light it up for you—confound it! they haven't turned the gas on yet. However, there's too much sunshine for it to show much, if they had. This linoleum is a capital thing: you might scrub as long as you liked and you'd never get that pattern out!'
'No,' Ella agreed, with a tragic little smile, 'it—it looks as if it would last.'
'Last! I should just think so! And here's a hatstand—you could almost swear it was carved wood of some sort, but it's only cast-iron painted; indestructible, you see; they told me that was the latest dodge—wonderful how cheaply they turn them out, isn't it?'
'I thought you said you were helped?'
'Oh, I didn't want any help here—this is only the passage, you know!'
Yes, it was only the passage—and yet she had been picturing such a charming entrance, with a draped arch, a graceful lamp, a fresh bright paper, a small buffet of genuine old oak, and so on. She suppressed a sigh as she passed on; after all, so long as the rooms themselves were all right, it did not so very much matter, and she knew that her mother's taste could be trusted.
But on the threshold of the dining-room she stopped aghast. The walls had been distempered a particularly hideous drab; the curtains were mustard yellow; the carpet was a dull brown; the mottled marble mantelpiece, for which she had been intending to substitute one in walnut wood with tiles, still shone in slabs of petrified brawn; there was a huge mahogany sideboard of a kind she had only seen in old-fashioned hotels.
'Comfortable, eh?' remarked George. 'Lots of wear in those curtains!'
Unhappily there was, as Ella was only too well aware. 'You did this room yourself too, then, George?' she managed to say, without betraying herself by her voice.
'Yes, I chose everything here. You see, Ella, we shall only use this room for meals.'
'Only for meals, yes,' she acquiesced with a shudder; 'but—George, surely you said mother had helped you with the rooms?'
'What! your mother? No, Ella; her notions are rather too grand for me. It was Jessie and Carrie I meant. Just come and see what they've made of my den.'
Ella followed. The window—which had commanded such a cheerful outlook into one of the pretty gardens, with a pink thorn, a laburnum-tree or two, and some sycamores which still flourish fresh and fair on Campden Hill—was obscured now by some detestable contrivance in transparent paper imitating stained glass.
'That was the girls' notion,' said George, following the direction of her eyes; 'they fixed it all themselves—it was their present to me. Pretty of them to think of it, wasn't it? I call it an immense improvement, and, you see, it's stuck on with some patent cement varnish, so it can't rub off. You get the effect better if you stand here—now, see how well the colours come out in the sun!'
If only they would come out! But what could she do but stand and admire hypocritically? Her eyes, in spite of herself, seemed drawn to that bright-hued sham intersected by black lines intended to represent leading; of the room itself she only saw vaguely that it was not unworthy of the window.
'Nothing to what they've done with the drawing-room!' said innocent George, beaming; 'come along, darling, you'll scarcely know the place.'
And Ella, reduced to a condition of stony stupor, followed to the drawing-room. She did not know the place, indeed. It was a quaintly-shaped, irregular room, with French windows opening upon the garden on one side and a deep bow-window on another; when she had last seen it, the walls were covered with a paper so pleasing in tone and design that she had almost decided to retain it. That paper was gone, and in its place a gaudy semi-Chinese pattern of unknown birds, flying and perching on sprawling branches laden with impossible flowers. And then the furniture—the 'elegant drawing-room suite' in brilliant plush and shiny satin, the cheap cabinets, and the ready-made black and gilt overmantel, with its panels of swans, hawthorn-blossom, and landscapes sketchily daubed on dead gold—surely it had all been transferred bodily from the stage of some carelessly mounted farcical comedy!
Ella's horrified gaze gradually took in other features—the china monkeys swinging on cords, the porcelain parrots hanging in great brass rings, huge misshapen terra-cotta jars and pots, dead grass in bloated drain-pipes, tambourines, beribboned and painted with kittens and robins, enormous wooden sabots, gilded Japanese fans, a woolly white rug and a bright Kidderminster carpet.
'Oh, George!' burst involuntarily from her lips.
'I knew you'd be pleased!' he said complacently; 'but I mustn't take all the credit myself. It was like this, you see: I felt all right enough about the other rooms, but the drawing-room—that's your room, and I was awfully afraid of not having it exactly as it ought to be. So I went to the girls, and I said, "You know all about these things—just make it what you think Ella will like, and then we can't go wrong!" We had that Grosvenor Gallery paper down first of all. "Choose something bright and cheerful," I said, and I don't think they've chosen badly. Then the pottery and china and all that—those are the girls' presents to you, with their best love.'
'It—it's very good of them,' said poor Ella, on the verge of tears.
'Oh, they think a lot of you! They were rather nervous about doing anything at first, for fear you mightn't like it; but I told them they needn't be afraid. "What I like, Ella will like," I said; and, I must say, no one could wish to see a prettier drawing-room than they've turned it into—they've a good deal of taste, those two girls.'
Ella stood there in a kind of dreary dream. What had happened to the world since she came into this house? What was this change in her? She was afraid to speak, lest the intense rebellious anger she felt should gain the mastery. Was it she that had these wicked thoughts of George—poor, kind, unsuspecting, loving George? She felt a little faint, for the windows were closed and the room stuffy with the odour of the new furniture and the atmosphere of the workshop; everything here seemed to her commonplace and repulsive.
'How about those plans of yours now, Ella, eh?' cried George.
This was too much; her overtried patience broke down. 'George!' she cried impulsively, and her voice sounded hoarse and strange to her own ear; 'George! I must speak—I must tell you!——' and then she checked herself. She must keep command of herself, or she could not, without utter loss of dignity, find the words that were to sting him into a sense of what he had done and allowed to be done. Before she could go on, George had drawn her to him, and was patting her shoulder tenderly. 'I know, dear little girl,' he said, 'I know; don't try to tell me anything. I'm so awfully glad you're pleased; but all the money and pains in the world wouldn't make the place good enough for my Ella!'
She released herself with a little cry of impotent despair. How could she say the sharp, cruel speeches that were struggling to reach her tongue now? It was no use; she was a coward; she simply had not the courage to undeceive him here, on the very first day of their reunion, too!
'You haven't been upstairs yet,' said George, dropping sentiment abruptly; 'shall we go up?'
Ella assented submissively, much as even this cost her; but it was better, she reflected, to get it over and know the very worst. However, she was spared this ordeal for the present; as they returned to the hall, they found themselves suddenly face to face with a dingy man, whose face was surrounded by a fringe of black whiskers and crowned by a shock of fleecy hair.
'Who on earth are you?' demanded George, as the man rose from the kitchen-stairs.
'No offence, sir and lady! Peagrum, that's my name, fust shop round the corner as you go into Silver Street, plumber and sanitry hengineer, gas-fittin' and hartistic decorating, bell-'anging in all its branches. I received instructions from Mr. Jones that I was to look into a little matter o' leakage in the back-kitchen sink; also to see what taps, if hany, required seein' to, and gen'ally to put things straight like. So I come round, 'aving the keys, jest to cast a heye over them, as I may term it, preliminry to commencing work in the course of a week or so, as soon as I'm at libity to attend to it pussonally.'
'Oh, the landlord sent you? All right, then.'
'Correct, sir,' said the plumber affably. 'While I've been 'ere, I took the freedom of going all over this little 'ouse, and a nice cosy little 'ouse you've made of it, for such a nouse as it is! You've done it up very tysty—very tysty you've done this little 'ouse up; and I've some claim to speak, seein' as how I've had the decoration throughout of a many 'ouses in my time, likewise mansions. You ain't been too ambitious, which is the error most parties falls into with small 'ouses. Now the parties as 'ad the place before you—by the name o' Rummles—well, I daresay they satisfied theirselves, but the 'ouse never looked right—not to my taste, it didn't!'
'George, get rid of this person!' said Ella rapidly, under her breath, in French. Unfortunately, George's acquaintance with that tongue was about on a par with the plumber's, and he remained passive.
The plumber now proceeded to put down his mechanic's straw-bag upon the hall-table, which he did with great care, as if it were of priceless stuff and contained fragile articles; having done this, he posed himself with one elbow resting on the post at the foot of the staircase, like a grimy statue of Shakespeare.
'Ah,' he said, shaking his touzled head, 'this ain't the fust time I've been 'ere in my puffessional capacity, not by a long way. Not by a long way, it ain't. Mr. Rummles, him as I mentioned to you afore, and a nice pleasant-spoken gentleman he was, too—in the tea trade—Mr. Rummles, he allus sent round for me whenever there was hany odd jobs as wanted doin', and in course I was allus pleased to get 'em, be they hodd or hotherwise.'
'Er-exactly,' said George, as soon as he could put in a word; 'but you see, this lady and I——'
The plumber, however, did not abandon his position, and seemed determined that they should hear him:
'I know, sir—I see how things were with you with 'arf a glance; but afore we go any further, it's right you should know 'oo I am and all about me. Jest 'ear what I'm goin' to tell you, for it's somethink out of the common way, though gospel-truth. It's a melinkly reflection for a man in my station of life, but'—and here he lowered his voice to a solemn pitch—'I've never set foot inside of this 'ere 'ouse without somethink 'appens more or less immejit. Ah, it's true, though. Seems almost like as if I brought a fatality in along o' me. Don't you interrupt; you wait till I'm done, and see if I'm talking at random or without facks to support me. Well, fust time as ever I was sent for 'ere was in regard to drains, as they couldn't flush satisfactory. I did my work and come away. Not three weeks arter, Miss Rummles, the heldest gell, was took ill with typhoid. Never the same young lady again—nor yet she never won't be neither, not if she lives to a nundered. "Nothing very hodd about that?" says you. Wait a bit. Next time, it was the kitching copper as had got all furred up like. I tinkered that up to rights, and come away. Well, afore I'd even made out my account, that identical copper blew up and scalded the cook dreadful! "Coppers will play these games," you sez. All right, then; but you let me finish. Third time there was a flaw in one of the gas-brackets in the spare room. I soddered it up and I come away. Soon arterwards, a day or two as it might be, Mrs. Rummles 'ad 'er mar a-stayin' with her, and the old lady slep in that very room, and was laid up weeks! "Curus," says I, when I come to 'ear of it, "very curus!" and it set me a-thinkin'. Last time but one—'ere, lemme see—that was a bell-'anging job, I think—no, I'm wrong, it was drains agen, so it were—drains it was agen. And the next thing I 'eard was that Mrs. Rummles was a-layin' at death's door with the diffthery! The last time—ah, I recklect well, I was called in to see if somethink wasn't wrong with the ballcock in the top cistin. I see there was somethink, and I come away as usual. That day week, old Mr. Rummles was took with a fit on the floor in the back droring-room, which broke up the 'ouse!
'Now, I think, as fair-minded and unprejudiced parties, you'll agree with me that there was something more'n hordinary coinside-ency in all that. I declare to you!' avowed the plumber, with a gloomy relish and a candour that was possibly begotten of beer, 'I declare to you there's times when I do honestly believe as I carry a curse along with me whenever I visits this 'ere partickler 'ouse! and, though it's agen my own hinterests, I deem it on'y my dooty, as a honest man, to mention it!'
Under any other circumstances, the plumber's compliments on her taste and his lugubrious assumption of character of the Destroying Angel would have sorely tried, if not completely upset, Ella's gravity; as it was, she was too wretched to have more than a passing and quite unappreciative sense of his absurdity. George, having the quality of mind which makes jokes more readily than sees them, took him quite seriously.
'Well,' he answered solemnly, 'I hope you won't bring us bad luck, at all events!'
'I 'ope so, sir, I'm sure. I 'ope so. It will not be by any desire on my part, more partickler when you're just settin' up 'ousekeepin' with your good lady 'ere. But there's no tellin' in these matters. That's where it is, you see—there's no tellin'. And, arter all my experence, with the best intentions in the world, I can't go and guarantee to you as nothink won't come of it. I wish I could, but, as a honest man, I can't. If it's to be,' moralised this fatalistic plumber, 'it is to be, and that's all about it, and no hefforts on my part or yours won't make hany difference, will they, sir?'
'Well, well,' said George, plainly ill at ease, 'that will do, my friend. Now, Ella, what do you say—shall we go upstairs?'
'Not now,' she gasped, 'let us go away—. Oh, George, take me outside, please!'
'Dash that confounded fool of a plumber!' said George, irritably, when they were in the street again; 'wonder if he thinks I'm going to employ him after that! Not that it isn't all bosh, of course—— Why, Ella, you're not tired, are you?'
'I—I think I am a little—do you mind if we drive home?'
Ella was very silent during their short drive. When they reached Linden Gardens she said, 'I think we must say good-bye here, George. I feel as if I were going to have a headache.'
'You poor little girl!' he said, looking rather crestfallen, for he had been counting upon going in and being invited to remain for dinner, 'it's been rather too much for you, going over the house and all that—or was it that beastly plumber with his rigmaroles?'
'It wasn't the plumber,' she said hurriedly, as the door was opened, 'and—good-bye, George.'
'How easily girls do get knocked up!' thought George, as he walked homeward, 'a little pleasant excitement like this and she seems quite upset. She was delighted with the house, though, that's one blessing, and I mustn't forget to tell the girls how touched she was by their presents. What a darling she is, and how happy we shall be together!'
Once safely at home, Ella hastened upstairs to her own room, where, if the truth must be told, she employed the half-hour before dinner in unintermittent sobbing, into which temper largely entered. 'He has spoilt it all for me! How could he—oh, how could he?' ran the burden of her moan. At the dinner-table, though pale and silent, she had recovered composure.
'A pleasant walk, Ella?' inquired her mother, with rather formal interest.
'Yes, very,' replied Ella, trusting she would not be questioned further.
'I believe I know where you went!' cried indiscreet Flossie. 'You went to look at your new home—now, didn't you? Ah, I thought so! I suppose you have quite made up your minds how you mean to do the rooms?'
'We might go round to all the best places to-morrow,' said Mrs. Hylton, 'and see some papers and hangings—there were some lovely patterns in Blank's windows the other day.'
'And, Ella,' added Flossie, 'I've been out with Andrews after school several times, to Tottenham Court Road, and Wardour Street, and Oxford Street—oh, everywhere, hunting up old furniture, and I can show you where they have some beautiful things—not shams, but really good!'
'You know, Ella,' said Mrs. Hylton, observing that she did not answer, 'I want you to have a pretty house, and you and George must order exactly what you like; but I think you will find I may be some help to you in choosing.'
'Thank you, mother,' said Ella, without any animation; 'I—I don't think we shall want much.'
'You will want all that young people in your position do want, I suppose,' said Mrs. Hylton, a little impatiently; 'and of course you understand that the bills are to be my affair.'
'Thank you, mother,' murmured Ella again. She didn't feel able to tell them just yet how this had all been forestalled; she felt that she would infallibly break down if she tried.
'You seem a little overdone to-night, my dear,' said her mother frigidly; she was naturally hurt at the very uneffusive way in which her good offices had been met.
'I have such a dreadful headache,' pleaded Ella. 'I—I think I overtired myself this afternoon.'
'Then you were very foolish, after travelling all yesterday, as you did. I don't wonder that George was ashamed to come in. You had better go to bed early, and I will send Andrews in to you with some of my sleeping mixture.'
Ella was glad enough to obey, though the draught took some time to operate; she felt as if no happiness or peace of mind were possible for her till George had been persuaded to undo his work.
Surely he could not refuse when he knew that her mother was prepared to do everything for them at her own expense!
And here it began to dawn upon her what this would entail! George's words came back to her as if she heard them actually spoken. Did he not say that the house had been furnished out of his savings?
What was she asking him to do? To dismantle it entirely; to humiliate himself by going round to all the people he had dealt with, asking them as a favour to take back their goods, or else he must sell them as best he could for a fraction of their cost. Who was to refund him all he had so uselessly spent? Could she ask her mother to do so? Would he even consent to such an arrangement if it was proposed?
Then his sisters—how could she avoid offending them irreparably, perhaps involving George in a quarrel with his family, if she were to carry her point?
As she realised, for the first time, the inevitable consequences of success, she asked herself in despair what she ought to do—where her plain duty lay?
Did she love George—or was it all delusion, and was he less to her than mere superfluities, the fringe of life?
She did love him, in spite of any passing disloyalty of thought. She felt his sterling worth and goodness, even his weaknesses had something lovable in them for her.
And he had been planning, spending, working all this time to give her pleasure, and this was his reward! She had been within an ace of letting him see the cruel ingratitude that was in her heart! 'What a selfish wretch I have been!' she thought; 'but I won't be—no, I won't! George shall not be snubbed, hurt, estranged from his family on my account!'
No, she would suffer—she alone—and in silence. Never by a word would she betray to him the pain his well-intentioned action cost her. Not even to her mother and Flossie would she permit herself to utter the least complaint, lest they should insist upon opening George's eyes!
So, having arrived at this heroic resolve, in which she found a touch of the sublime that almost consoled her, the tears dried on her cheeks and Ella fell asleep at last.
Some readers, no doubt—though possibly few of our heroine's sex—will smile scornfully at this crumpled rose-leaf agony, this tempest in a Dresden teacup; and the writer is not concerned to deny that the situation has its ludicrous side.
But, for a girl brought up as Ella Hylton had been, in an artistic milieu, her eye insensibly trained to love all that was beautiful in colour and form, to be almost morbidly sensitive to ugliness and vulgarity—it was a very real and bitter struggle, a hard-won victory to come to such a decision as she formed. Life, Heaven knows, contains worse trials and deeper tragedies than this; but at least Ella's happy life had as yet known no harder.
And, so far, she must be given the credit of having conquered.
Resolution is, no doubt, half the battle. Unfortunately, Ella's resolution, though she hardly perceived this at present, could not be effected by one isolated and final act, but by a long chain of daily and hourly forbearances, the first break in which would undo all that had gone before.
How she bore the test we are going to see.
She woke the next morning to a sense that her life had somehow lost its savour; the exaltation of her resolve overnight had gone off and left her spirits flat and dead; but she came down, nevertheless, determined to be staunch and true to George under all provocations.
'Have you and George decided when you would like your wedding to be?' asked her mother, after breakfast, 'because we ought to have the invitations printed very soon.'
'Not yet,' faltered Ella, and the words might have passed either as an answer or an appeal.
'I think it should be some time before the end of next month, or people will be going out of town.'
'I suppose so,' was the reply, so listlessly given that Mrs. Hylton glanced keenly at her daughter.
'What do you feel about it yourself, Ella?'
'I? oh, I—I've no feeling. Perhaps, if we waited—no, it doesn't matter—let it be when you and George wish, mother, please!'
Mrs. Hylton gave a sharp, annoyed little laugh: 'Really, my dear, if you can't get up any more interest in it than that, I think it would certainly be wiser to wait!'
It was more than indifference that Ella felt—a wild aversion to beginning the new life that but lately had seemed so mysteriously sweet and strange; she was frightened by it, ashamed of it, but she could not help herself. She made no answer, nor did Mrs. Hylton again refer to the subject.
But Ella's worst tribulations had yet to come. That afternoon, as she and her mother and Flossie were sitting in the drawing-room, 'Mrs. and the Miss Chapmans' were announced. Evidently they had deemed it incumbent on them to pay a state visit as soon as possible after Ella's return.
Ella returned their effusive greetings as dutifully as she could. She had never succeeded in cultivating a very lively affection for them; to-day she found them barely endurable.
Mrs. Chapman was a stout, dewlapped old lady, with dull eyes and pachydermatous folds in her face. She had a husky voice and a funereal manner. Jessie, her eldest daughter, was not altogether uncomely in a commonplace way: she was dark-haired, high-coloured, loud-voiced—generally sprightly and voluble and overpowering; she was in such a hurry to speak that her words tripped one another up, and she had a meaningless and, to Ella, highly irritating little laugh.
Carrie was plain and colourless, content to admire and echo her sister.
After some conversation on Ella's Continental experiences, Jessie suddenly, as Ella's uneasy instinct foresaw, turned to Mrs. Hylton. 'Of course, Ella told you what a surprise she had at Campden Hill yesterday? Weren't you electrified?'
'No doubt I should have been,' said Mrs. Hylton, who detested Jessie, 'only Ella did not think fit to mention it.'
'Oh, I wonder at that! I hope I wasn't going to betray the secrets of the prison-house?' Jessie was fond of using stock phrases to give lightness and sparkle to her conversation. 'Ella, the idea of your keeping it all to yourself, you sly puss! But tell me—would you ever have believed Tumps'—his sisters called George 'Tumps'—'could be capable of such independent behaviour?'
'No,' said Ella, 'I—indeed I never should!'
'Ha, ha! nor should we! You would have screamed to see him fussing about—wasn't he killing over it, Carrie?'
'Oh, he was, Jessie!'
'My son,' explained Mrs. Chapman to Mrs. Hylton, 'is so wonderfully energetic and practical. I have never known him fail to carry through anything he has once undertaken—he inherits that from his poor dear father.'
'I don't quite gather what your brother George has been doing, even now?' said Mrs. Hylton to Jessie.
'Oh, but my lips are sealed. Wild horses sha'n't drag any more from me! Don't be afraid, Ella, I won't spoil sport!'
'There is no sport to spoil,' said Ella. 'Mother, it is only that—that George has furnished the house while I have been away.'
'Really?' said Mrs. Hylton politely; 'that is energetic of him, indeed!'
'Poor dear Tumps came home so proud of your approval,' said Jessie to Ella, 'and we were awfully relieved to find you didn't think we'd made the house quite too dreadful—weren't we, Carrie?'
'Yes, indeed, Jessie.'
'Of course,' observed the latter young lady, 'it's always so hard to hit upon another person's taste exactly—especially in furnishing.'
'Impossible, I should have thought,' from Mrs. Hylton.
'I hope Ella is of a different opinion—what do you say, dearest?'
'Oh,' cried Ella hastily, with splendid mendacity, 'I—I liked it all very much, and—and it was so much too kind of you and Carrie. I've never thanked you for—for all the things you gave me!'
'Oh, those! they ain't worth thanking for—just a few little artistic odds and ends. They set off a room, you know—give it a finish.'
'Young people nowadays,' croaked old Mrs. Chapman lugubriously in Mrs. Hylton's courteously inclined ear, 'think so much of luxury and ornament. I'm sure when I married my dear husband, we——'
'Now, mater dear, you really mustn't!' interrupted the irrepressible Jessie; 'Mrs. Hylton is on our side, you know. She likes pretty things about her—don't you, Mrs. Hylton? And, talking of that, Ella, I hope you thought our glyco-vitrine decoration a success? We were perfectly surprised ourselves to see how well it came out! Just transparent coloured paper, Mrs. Hylton, and you cut it into sheets, and gum it on the window-panes, and really, unless you were told or came quite close, you would declare it was real stained glass! You ought to try some of it on your windows, Mrs. Hylton. I'll tell you where you can get it—you go down——'
'I'm afraid I'm old-fashioned, my dear,' said Mrs. Hylton, stiffly; 'if I cannot have the reality, I prefer to do without even the best imitations.'
'Why, you're deserting us, I declare! Ella, you must take her to see the window, and then perhaps she will change her opinion.'
'I always tell my girls,' said Mrs. Chapman, in her woolly voice, 'when I am dead and gone they can make any alterations they please, but while I am spared to them I like everything about the house to be kept exactly as it was in their poor father's lifetime.'
'Isn't she a dear conservative old mummy?' said Jessie to Ella in an audible aside. 'Why, I do believe she won't see anything to admire in your little house—at least, if she does, the dear old lady, she'd sooner die than admit it!'
The Chapmans went at last, and before they were out of the house Mrs. Hylton, with an effort to seem unconcerned, said: 'And so, Ella, you and George have done without my help? Of course you know your own affairs best; still, I should have thought—I should certainly have thought—that I might have been of some assistance to you—if only in pecuniary matters.'
'George preferred that you should not be troubled,' stammered Ella.
'I am not blaming him. I respect him for wishing to be independent. I own to being a little surprised that you should not have told me of this before, though, Ella. But for that chattering girl, I presume I should have been left to discover it for myself. I wonder you cannot bring yourself to be a little more open with your mother, my dear.'
'Oh, mother!' cried Ella in despair, 'indeed I was going to tell you—only, I did not know myself till yesterday. At least, that is——' she broke off lamely, fearing to reflect on George.
'I find it hard to believe that George would act without consulting you in any way. It is strange enough that he should have undertaken to furnish the house in your absence.'
'But if I couldn't be there!' pleaded Ella—'and I couldn't.'
'Naturally, as you were on the Continent, you couldn't be on Campden Hill at the same time; you need not be absurd, Ella. But what I want to know is this—have you had a voice in the matter, or have you not?'
'N—not much,' confessed Ella, hanging her head.
'So I suspected, and I think George ought to be ashamed of himself. I never heard of such a thing, and I shall make a point of seeing the house and satisfying myself that it is fit for a daughter of mine to inhabit.'
'Mother!' exclaimed Ella, springing up excitedly, 'you don't understand. Why should you choose to suppose that the house is not pretty? It is not done as you would do it, because poor George hadn't much money to spend; but if I am satisfied, why should you come between us? And I am satisfied—quite, quite satisfied; he has done it all beautifully, and I will not have a single thing altered! After all, it is his house—our house—and nobody else has any right to interfere—not even you, mother!'
Mrs. Hylton shrugged her shoulders. 'Oh, my dear, if that is the way you think proper to speak to me, it is time to change the subject. Pray understand that I shall not dream of interfering. I am very glad that you are so satisfied.' And by-and-by she left the room majestically.
When she had gone, Flossie, who had been listening open-eyed to all that had taken place, came and stood in front of Ella's chair.
'Ella, tell me,' she said, 'has George really furnished the house exactly as you like—really now?'
'Haven't I said so, Flossie? Why should you doubt it?'
'Oh, I don't know; I was wondering, that was all!'
'Really!' cried Ella angrily, 'anyone would think poor George was a sort of barbarian, who couldn't be expected to know anything, or trusted to do anything!'
'I'm sure I never said so, Ella. But how clever of him to choose just the right things! And, Ella, do all the colours and things go well together? I always thought most men didn't notice much about all that. And are the new mantelpieces pretty? Oh, and where did he go for the papers and the carpets?'
'Flossie, I wish you wouldn't tease so. Can't you see I have a headache? I can't answer so many questions, and I won't! Once for all, everything is just what I like. Do you understand, or shall I tell you again?—just, just what I like!'
'Oh, all right,' returned Flossie, with exasperating good-humour; 'then there's nothing to lose your temper about, darling, is there?'
And this was all that Ella had gained by her loyalty to George so far.
It was the morning after the Chapmans' visit. Ella had seen her mother and Flossie preparing to go out, but, owing to the friction between them, they neither invited her to accompany them, nor did she venture to ask where they were going. At luncheon, however, the unhappy girl divined from the expression of their faces how they had employed the forenoon. They had been inspecting the Campden Hill house! Her mother's handsome face wore a look of frozen contempt. Imagine a strict Quaker's feelings on seeing his son with a pair of black eyes—a Socialist's at finding a peerage under his daughter's pillow—a Positivist's whose children have all joined the Salvation Army, and even then but a faint idea will be reached of Mrs. Hylton's utter dismay and disgust.
Flossie, though angry, took a different view of Ella's share in the business; she knew her better than her mother did, and consequently refused to believe that she was a Philistine at heart. It was her absurd infatuation for George that made her see with his eyes and bow down before the hideous household gods he had chosen to erect. On such weakness Flossie had no mercy.
'Well, Ella, dear,' she began, 'mother and I have seen your house. George has quite surpassed our wildest expectations. Accept my compliments!'
'Flossie,' said her mother severely, 'will you kindly choose some other topic? I really feel too seriously annoyed about all this to bear to hear it spoken of just yet. I think you shall come with me to the Amberleys' garden-party this afternoon, and not Ella, as we are dining out this evening. You had better stay at home and rest, Ella.'
In this, and countless other ways, was Ella made to feel that she was in disgrace.
Nor did Flossie spare her sister when they were alone. 'Poor dear mother!' she said, 'I quite thought that house would have broken her heart—oh, I'm not saying a word against it, Ella, I know you like it, and I'm sure it looks very comfortable—everything so sensible and useful, and the kitchen really charming; mother and I liked it best of all the rooms. Such a horrid man let us in; he was at work there, and he would follow us all about, and tell mother his entire history. I don't think he could have been quite sober, he would insist on turning all the taps on everywhere. I suppose, Ella, it's ever so much cheaper to furnish as you and George have done; that's the worst of pretty things, they do cost such a lot! I'd no idea you were so practical, though,' and so on.
On Sunday George came to luncheon. He was delighted to hear from Flossie that they had been to the house, and gave a boisterously high-spirited account of his labours. 'It was a grind,' he informed them, 'and, as for those painter-fellows, I began to think they'd stay out the entire lease.'
'Art is long, George,' observed Flossie, wickedly.
'Oh yes, I know; but they promised faithfully to be out in ten days, and they were over three weeks!'
'But look at the result! George, how did you find out that Ella liked grained doors?'
'Well, to tell you the truth, Flossie, that was a bit of a fluke. The man told me that graining was coming in again, and I said, "Grain 'em, then"—I didn't know!'
In short, he was more provokingly dense than ever to-day, and Ella found herself growing more and more captious and irritable that afternoon; he could not understand why she was so disinclined to talk; even the dear little house of which she was so soon to be the mistress failed to interest her.
'You have told me twice already that you got the drawing-room carpet a great bargain, and only paid four pounds ten for the table in the dining-room,' she broke out. 'Can't we take that for granted in future?'
'I forgot I'd told you; I thought it was the mater,' he said; 'and I say, Ella, how about pictures? Jessie's promised to do us some water-colours—she's been taking lessons lately, you know—but we shall want one or two prints for the dining-room, shan't we? You can pick them up second-hand very cheap.'
'Oh yes, yes; anything you please, George!... No, no; I'm not cross, I'm only tired, especially of talking about the house. It is quite finished, you know, so what is there to discuss?'
During the days that followed, Flossie devised an ingenious method of tormenting Ella; she laid out her pocket-money, of which she had a good deal, on the most preposterous ornaments—a pair of dangling cut-glass lustres, bead mats, a trophy of wax fruit under a glass shade, gaudy fire-screens and flowerpots, all of which she solemnly presented to her suffering sister. This was not pure mischief or unkindness on Flossie's side, but part of a treatment she had hit upon for curing Ella of her folly. And at last the worm turned. Flossie came in one day with a cheap plush and terra-cotta panel of appalling ugliness.
'For the drawing-room, dear,' she observed blandly, and Ella suddenly burst into a flood of tears.
'You are very, very unkind to me, Flossie!' she sobbed.
'I!' exclaimed Flossie, in a tone of the most innocent surprise. 'Why, Ella, I thought you would be charmed with it. I'm sure George will. And, you know, it will go beautifully with the rest of your things!'
'You might understand ... you might see——'
'I might see what?'
'How frightfully miserable I am!' said Ella, which was the very admission Miss Flossie had been seeking to provoke.
'Suppose I do see,' she said; 'suppose I've been trying to get you to act sensibly, Ella?'
'Then it's cruel of you!'
'No it's not. It's kind. How am I to help you unless you speak out? I'm younger than you, Ella, but I know this—I would never mope and make myself miserable when a word would put everything right!'
'But it wouldn't, Flossie; it is too late to speak now. I can't tell him how I really feel—I can't!'
'Ah, then you own there is something to tell?'
'What have I said? Flossie, forget what I said; it slipped out. I meant nothing.'
'And you are perfectly happy and satisfied, are you? Now, I know how people look when they are perfectly happy and satisfied.'
'It's no use!' cried Ella, suddenly. 'I've tried, and tried, and tried to bear it, but I can't. I must tell somebody ... it is making me ill. I am getting cross and wicked, and unlike what I used to be. Flossie, I can't go and live there—I dread the thought of it; I shrink from it more and more every day! It is all odious, impossible—and yet I must, I must!'
'No, you mustn't; and, what's more, you shan't!'
'Flossie, you mean you will tell mother! You must not, do you hear? If you do, it will only make matters worse. Oh, why did I tell you?' cried Ella, in shame at this lapse from all her heroism. 'Promise me you will say nothing to mother—it is too late now—promise!'
'Very well,' said Flossie reluctantly; 'then I promise. But, all the same, Ella, I think you're a great goose!'
'I didn't promise I wouldn't say anything to George, though,' she reflected; and so, on the very next occasion that she caught him alone, she availed herself of an innocent allusion of his to Ella's low spirits to give him the benefit of her candid opinion, which was not tempered by any marked consideration for his feelings.
Ella was in the morning-room alone—she had taken to sitting alone lately, brooding over her trials. She was no heroine, after all; her mind, it is to be feared, was far from superior. She was finding out that she had undertaken too heavy a task; she could not console herself for her lost dream of a charmingly appointed house. She might endure to live in such a home as George had made for her; but to be expected to admire it, to let it be understood that it was her handiwork, that she had chosen or approved of it—this was the burden that was crushing her.
Suddenly the door opened and George stood before her. His expression was so altered that she scarcely recognised him; all the cheery buoyancy had vanished, and his stern, set face had a dignity and character in it now that were wanting before.
'I have just had a talk with Flossie,' he began; 'she has shown me what a—what a mistake I've been making.'
Ella could not help feeling a certain relief, though she said, 'It was very wrong of Flossie—she had no right to speak.'
'She had every right,' he said. 'She might have done it more kindly, perhaps, but that's nothing. Why didn't you tell me yourself, Ella? You might have trusted me!'
'I couldn't—it seemed so cruel, so ungrateful, after all you had done. I hoped you would never know.'
'It's well for you, and for me too, that I know this while there's still time. Ella, I've been a blind, blundering fool. I never had a suspicion of this till—till just now, or you don't think I should have gone on with it a single minute. I came to tell you that you need not make yourself miserable any longer. I will put an end to this—whatever it costs me.'
'Oh, George, I am so ashamed. I know it is weak and cowardly of me, but I can't help it. And—and will it cost you so very much?'
'Quite as much as I can bear.'
'No; but tell me—about how much? More than a hundred pounds?'
'I haven't worked it out in pounds, shillings, and pence,' he said grimly; 'but I should put it higher myself.'
'Won't they take back some of the things? They ought to,' she suggested timidly.
'The things? Oh, the furniture! Good Heavens, Ella! do you suppose I care a straw about that? All I can think of is how I could have gone on deceiving myself like this, believing I knew your every thought; and all the time—pah, what a fool I've been!'
'I thought I should get used to it,' she pleaded. 'And oh, you don't know how hard I have tried to bear it, not to let anyone see what I felt—you don't know!'
'And I would rather not know,' he replied, 'for it's not exactly flattering, you see, Ella. And at all events, it's over now. This is the last time I shall trouble you; you will see no more of me after to-day.'
Ella could only stare at him incredulously. Had he really taken the matter so seriously to heart as this? Could he not forgive the wound to his vanity? How hard, how utterly unworthy of him!
'Yes,' he continued, 'I see now we were quite unsuited to one another. I should never have made you happy, Ella; it's best to find it out before it's too late. So let us shake hands and say good-bye, my dear.'
She felt powerless to appeal to him, and yet it was not wholly pride that tied her tongue; she was too shaken and stunned to make the least effort at remonstrance.
'Then, if it must be,' she said at last, very low—'good-bye, George.'
He crushed her hand in his strong grasp. 'Don't mind about me,' he said roughly. 'You've nothing to blame yourself for. I daresay I shall get over it all right. It's rather sudden at first—that's all!' And with that he was gone.
Flossie, coming in a little later, found her sister sitting by the window, smiling in a strange, vacant way. 'Well?' said Flossie eagerly, for she had been anxiously waiting to hear the result of the interview.
'It's all over, Flossie; he has broken it off.'
'Oh, Ella, I'm so glad! I hoped he would, but I wasn't sure. Well, you may thank me for delivering you, darling. If I hadn't spoken plainly——'
'Tell me what you said.'
'Oh, let me see. Well, I told him anybody else would have seen long ago that your feelings were altered. I said you were perfectly miserable at having to marry him, only you thought it was too late to say so. I told him he didn't understand you in the least, and you hadn't a single thought or taste in common. I said if he cared about you at all, the best way he could prove it was by setting you free, and not spoiling your life and his own too. I put it as pleasantly as I could,' said Flossie naively, 'but he is very trying!'
'You told him all that! What made you invent such wicked, cruel lies? Flossie, it is you that have spoilt our lives, and I will never forgive you—never, as long as I live!'
'Ella!' cried the younger sister, utterly astonished at this outburst. 'Why, didn't you tell me the other day how miserable you were, and how you dared not speak about it? And now, when I——'
'Go away, Flossie; you have done mischief enough!'
'Oh, very well, I'm going—if this is all I get for helping you. Is it my fault if you don't know your own mind, and say what you don't mean? And if you really want your dearly beloved George back again, there's time yet; he hasn't gone—he's in the drawing-room with mother.'
How infinitely petty her past misery seemed now! for what trifles she had thrown away George's honest heart! If only there was a chance still! at least false pride should not come between them any longer: so thought Ella on her way to the drawing-room. George was still there; as she turned the door-handle she heard her mother's clear resonant tones. 'Not that that is any excuse for Ella,' she was saying.
Ella burst precipitately into the room. She was only just in time, for George had risen and was evidently on the point of leaving. 'George,' she exclaimed, panting after her rapid flight, 'I—I came to tell you——'
'My dear Ella,' interrupted Mrs. Hylton, 'the kindest thing you can do for George now is to let him go without any more explanations.'
Ella stopped; again her mind became a blank. What had she come for; what was it she felt she must say? While she hesitated, George was already at the other door; he seemed anxious to avoid hearing her; in another second he would be gone.
She cried to him piteously. 'George, dear George, don't leave me!... I can't bear it!'
'This is too ridiculous!' exclaimed her mother angrily. 'What is it that you do want, Ella?'
'I want George,' she said simply. 'It was all a mistake, George. Flossie mistook—— Oh, you don't really think that I have left off caring for you? I haven't, dear, indeed I haven't—won't you believe me?'
'I had better leave you to come to an understanding together,' said Mrs. Hylton, not in the best of tempers, for she had been more sorry for George than for the rupture he came to announce, and she swept out of the room with very perceptible annoyance.
* * * * *
'I thought it was all up with me, Ella; I did indeed,' said George, a minute or two later, his face still pale after all this emotion. 'But tell me—what's wrong with the furniture I ordered?'
'Nothing, dear, nothing,' she answered, blushing. 'Don't think about it any more.'
'No? But your mother was talking about it too,' he insisted. 'Come, Ella, dear, for heaven's sake let us have no more misunderstandings! I see now what an ass I was not to wait and let you choose for yourself; these aesthetic things are not in my line. But I'd no idea you'd care so much!'
'But I don't now—a bit.'
'Well, I do, then. And the house must be done all over again, and exactly as you would like it; so there's no more to be said about it,' said George, without a trace of pique or wounded vanity.
'George, you are too good to me; I don't deserve it. And indeed you must not—think of the expense!'
His face lengthened slightly; he knew well enough that the change would cost him dear.
'I'll manage it somehow,' he declared stoutly.
Would her mother help them now? thought Ella, and felt more than doubtful. No, in spite of her own wishes, she must not allow George to carry out his intentions.
'But you forget Carrie and Jessie,' she said; 'we shall hurt their feelings so if we change now.'
'By Jove! I forgot that,' he said. 'Yes, they won't like it—they meant well, poor girls, and took a lot of trouble. Still, you're the first person to be considered, Ella. I'll try and smooth it over with them, and if they choose to be offended, why, they must—that's all. And I tell you what. Suppose we go and see the house now, and you shall tell me just what wants doing to make it right?'
She would have liked to decline this rather invidious office, especially as she felt no compromise to be possible; but he was so urgent that she finally agreed to go with him.
As they gained Campden Hill and the road in which their house stood, George stopped. 'Hullo!' he said, 'that can't be the house—what's the matter with it?'
Very soon it was pretty evident what had been the matter—the walls were scorched and streaming, the window sashes were empty, charred and wasted by fire, the door was blistered and blackened, a stalwart fireman in his undress cap, with his helmet slung at his back, was just opening the gate as they came up.
'Can't come in, sir,' he said, civilly enough. 'No one admitted.'
'Hang it!' exclaimed George, 'it's my own fire—I'm the tenant.'
'Oh, I beg your pardon, sir—it's been got under some hours now. I was just going off duty.'
'Much damage done?' inquired George laconically.
'Well, you see, sir,' said the man, evidently considering how to prepare George for the worst, 'we didn't get the call till the house was well alight, and there was three steamers and a manual a-playing on it, so—well, you must expect things to be a bit untidy-like inside. But the walls and the roof ain't much damaged.'
'And how did it happen?—the house isn't even occupied.'
'Workmen,' said the man. 'Someone was in there early this morning and left the gas escaping somewheres, and as likely as not a light burning near—and here you are. Well, I'll be off, sir; there's nothing more to be done 'ere. Good-day, sir, and thank ye, I'm sure.'
'Oh, George!' said Ella, half crying, 'our poor, poor little house! It seems like a judgment on me. How can you laugh! Who will build it up for us now?'
'Who? Why, the insurance people, to be sure! You see, the firm are agents for the "Curfew," and as soon as I got all the furniture in I insured the whole concern and got a protection note, so we're all right. Don't worry, little girl. Why, don't you see this gets us out of our difficulty? We can start afresh now without offending anybody. Look there; there's that idiot of a plumber who's done all the mischief—a nice funk he'll be in when he sees us!'
But Mr. Peagrum was quite unperturbed; if anything, his smudgy features wore a look of sombre complacency as he came towards them. 'I'm sorry this should have occurred,' he said,'but you'll bear me out that I warned yer as something was bound to 'appen. In course I couldn't tell what form it might take, and fire I must say I did not expect. I 'adn't on'y been in the place not a quarter of a hour, watering the gaselier in the libery—the libery as was, I should say—when it struck me I'd forgot my screw-driver, so, fortunately, as things turned out, I went 'ome to my place to get it, and I come back to see the place all in a blaze. It's fate, that's what it is—fate's at the bottom o' this 'ere job!'
'Much more likely to be a lighted candle,' said George.
'I was not on the premises at the time, so I can't say; but, be that 'ow it may, there's no denying it's a singler thing the way my words have been fulfilled almost literal.'
'Confound you!' said George. 'You take good care your prophecies come off. Why, man, you're not going to pretend you don't know that it's your own carelessness that's brought this about! This isn't the only house you've brought bad luck into, Mr. What's-your-name, since you've started in business!'
'You can't make me lose my temper,' replied the plumber with dignity. 'I put it down to ignirance.'
'So do I,' said George. 'And if I know anyone who's anxious for a little typhoid, or wants his house burnt down at a moderate charge, why, I shall know whom to recommend. Good-day.'
He turned on his heel and walked off, but Ella lingered behind. 'I only just wanted to tell you,' she said, addressing the astonished plumber, 'that you have done us a very great service, and I, at least, am very much obliged to you.' And she fluttered away after her fiance.
The plumber—that instrument of Destiny—looked after the retreating couple, and indulged in a mystified whistle.
''E comes a bullyragging of me,' he observed to a lamp-post, 'and she's "very much obliged"! And I'm blowed if I know what for, either way! Cracked, poor young things, cracked, the pair on 'em—and no wonder, with such a calamity so recent. Ah, well, I do 'ope as this is the end on it. I 'ope I shan't be the means of bringing no more trouble into that little 'ouse—that I kin truly say!'
And—human gratitude having its limits—it is highly probable that this pious aspiration will not be disappointed, so long, at least, as Mr. and Mrs. Chapman's tenancy continues.
DON; THE STORY OF A GREEDY DOG
A TALE FOR CHILDREN
'Daisy, dearest,' said Miss Millikin anxiously to her niece one afternoon, 'do you think poor Don is quite the thing? He has seemed so very languid these last few days, and he is certainly losing his figure!'
Daisy was absorbed in a rather ambitious attempt to sketch the lake from the open windows of Applethwaite Cottage, and did not look up from her drawing immediately. When she did speak her reply might perhaps have been more sympathetic. 'He eats such a lot, auntie!' she said. 'Yes, Don, we are talking about you. You know you eat too much, and that's the reason you're so disgracefully fat!'
Don, who was lying on a rug under the verandah, wagged his tail with an uneasy protest, as if he disapproved (as indeed he did) of the very personal turn Daisy had given to the conversation. He had noticed himself that he was not as active as he used to be; he grew tired so very soon now when he chased birds (he was always possessed by a fixed idea that, if he only gave his whole mind to it, he could catch any swallow that flew at all fairly); he felt the heat considerably.
Still, it was Don's opinion that, so long as he did not mind being fat himself, it was no business of any other person's—certainly not of Daisy's.
'But, Daisy,' cried Miss Millikin plaintively, 'you don't really mean that I overfeed him?'
'Well,' Daisy admitted, 'I think you give way to him rather, Aunt Sophy, I really do. I know that at home we never let Fop have anything between his meals. Jack says that unless a small dog is kept on very simple diet he'll soon get fat, and getting fat,' added Daisy portentously, 'means having fits sooner or later.'
'Oh, my dear!' exclaimed her aunt, now seriously alarmed. 'What do you think I ought to do about it?'
'I know what I would do if he was my dog,' said Daisy, with great decision—'diet him, and take no notice when he begs at table; I would. I'd begin this very afternoon.'
'After tea, Daisy?' stipulated Miss Millikin.
'No,' was the inflexible answer, 'at tea. It's all for his own good.'
'Yes, dear, I'm sure you're right—but he has such pretty ways—I'm so afraid I shall forget.'
'I'll remind you, Aunt Sophy. He shan't take advantage of you while I'm here.'
'You're just a tiny bit hard on him, Daisy, aren't you?'
'Hard on Don!' cried Daisy, catching him up and holding him out at arm's length. 'Don, I'm not hard on you, am I? I love you, only I see your faults, and you know it. You're full of deceitfulness' (here she kissed him between the eyes and set him down). 'Aunt Sophy, you would never have found out his trick about the milk if it hadn't been for me—would you now?'
'Perhaps not, my love,' agreed Miss Millikin mildly.
The trick in question was a certain ingenious device of Don's for obtaining a double allowance of afternoon tea—a refreshment for which he had acquired a strong taste. The tea had once been too hot and burnt his tongue, and, as he howled with the pain, milk had been added. Ever since that occasion he had been in the habit of lapping up all but a spoonful or two of the tea in his saucer, and then uttering a pathetic little yelp; whereupon innocent Miss Millikin would as regularly fill up the saucer with milk again.
But, unfortunately for Don, his mistress had invited her niece Daisy to spend part of her summer holidays at her pretty cottage in the Lake District, and Daisy's sharper eyes had detected this little stratagem about the milk on the very first evening!
Daisy was fourteen, and I fancy I have noticed that when a girl is about this age, she not unfrequently has a tendency to be rather a severe disciplinarian when others than herself are concerned. At all events Daisy had very decided notions on the proper method of bringing up dogs, and children too; only there did not happen to be any children at Applethwaite Cottage to try experiments upon; and she was quite sure that Aunt Sophy allowed herself to be shamefully imposed upon by Don.
There was perhaps some excuse for Miss Millikin, for Don was a particularly charming specimen of the Yorkshire terrier, with a silken coat of silver-blue, set off by a head and paws of the ruddiest gold. His manners were most insinuating, and his great eyes glowed at times under his long hair, as if a wistful, loving little soul were trying to speak through them. But, though it seems an unkind thing to say, it must be confessed that this same soul in Don's eyes was never quite so apparent as when he was begging for some peculiarly appetising morsel. He was really fond of his mistress, but at meal times I am afraid he 'put it on' a little bit. Of course this was not quite straightforward; but then I am not holding him up as a model animal.
How far he understood the conversation that has been given above is more than I can pretend to say, but from that afternoon he began to be aware of a very unsatisfactory alteration in his treatment.
Don had sometimes felt a little out of temper with his mistress for being slow to understand exactly what he did want, and he had barked, almost sharply, to intimate to the best of his powers—'Not bread and butter, stoopid—cake!' So you may conceive his disgust when she did not even give him bread and butter; nothing but judicious advice—without jam. She was most apologetic, it is true, and explained amply why she could not indulge him as heretofore, but Don wanted sugar, and not sermons. Sometimes she nearly gave way, and then cruel Daisy would intercept the dainty under his very nose, which he thought most unfeeling.
He had a sort of notion that it was all through Daisy that they were just as stingy and selfish in the kitchen, and that his meals were now so absurdly few and plain. It was very ungrateful of her, for he had gone out of his way to be polite and attentive to her. When he thought of her behaviour to him he felt strongly inclined to sulk, but somehow he did not actually go so far as that. He liked Daisy; she was pretty for one thing, and Don always preferred pretty people, and then she stroked him in a very superior and soothing manner. Besides this, he respected her: she had been intrusted with the duty of punishing him on more than one occasion, and her slaps really hurt, while it was hopeless to try to soften her heart by trying to lick the chastising hands—a manoeuvre which was always effective with poor Miss Millikin. So he contented himself with letting her see that though he did not understand her conduct towards him, he was willing to overlook it for the present.
'What a wonderful improvement in the dear dog!' Miss Millikin remarked one morning at breakfast, after Don had been on short commons for a week or two. 'Really, Daisy, I begin to think you were quite right about him.'
'Oh, I'm sure I was,' said Daisy, who always had great confidence in her own judgment.
'Yes,' continued her aunt, 'and, now he's so much better—just this one small bit, Daisy?' Don's eyes already had a green glitter in them and his mouth was watering.
'No, Aunt Sophy,' said Daisy, 'I wouldn't—really. He's better without anything.'
'I wish that girl was gone!' reflected poor Don, as he went sulkily back to his basket. 'It's enough to make a dog steal, upon my tail it is! I'm positively starved—no bones, no chicken, only beastly dry dog-biscuits and milk twice a day! I wish I could rummage about in gutters and places as Jock does—but I don't think the things you find in gutters are ever really nice. Jock does—but he's just that low sort of dog who would!'
Jock was a humble friend of his down in the village, a sort of distant relation to the Dandie Dinmonts; he was a rough, long-backed creature, as grey as a badger, and with a big solemn head like a hammer. Don was civil to him in a patronising way, but he did not tell him of the indignities he was subject to, perhaps because he had been rather given to boast of his influence over his mistress, and the high consideration he enjoyed at Applethwaite Cottage.
Now Daisy used to go up for solitary rambles on the fells sometimes, when she generally took Don as a protector. He was becoming very nearly as active as ever, and now there was a stronger motive than before for pursuing the swallows—for he had a notion that they would be rather good eating. But one morning she missed him on her way back through the village by the lake; she was sure he was with her on the pier, and she had only stopped to ask some question at the ticket-office about the steamboat times; and when she turned round, Don was gone.
However, her aunt was neither angry nor alarmed. Miss Millikin was not able to walk as much as Don wished, she said, so he was accustomed to take a great deal of solitary exercise; he was such a remarkably intelligent dog that he could be trusted to take care of himself—oh, he would come back.
And towards dusk that evening Don did come back. There was a curious air about him—subdued, almost sad; Daisy remembered long afterwards how unusually affectionate he had been, and how quietly he had lain on her lap till bedtime.
The next morning, when her aunt and she prepared to go for a walk along the lake, Don's excitement was more marked than usual; he leaped up and tried to caress their hands: he assured them in a thousand ways of the delight he felt at being allowed to make one of the party.
After this, it was a painful surprise to find that he gave them the slip the moment they reached the village. But Miss Millikin said he always did prefer mountain scenery, and no doubt it was tiresome for him to have to potter about as they did. And Master Don began to give them less and less of his society in the daytime, and to wander from morn to dewy eve in solitude and independence; though whether he went up mountains to admire the view, or visited ruins and waterfalls, or spent his days hunting rabbits, no one at Applethwaite Cottage could even pretend to guess.
'One good thing, Aunt Sophy,' said Daisy complacently one evening, a little later, 'I've quite cured Don of being troublesome at meals!'
'He couldn't be troublesome if he tried, dear,' said Miss Millikin with mild reproof; 'but I must say you have succeeded quite wonderfully—how did you do it?'
'Why,' said Daisy, 'I spoke to him exactly as if he could understand every word, and I made him thoroughly see that he was only wasting his time by sitting up and begging for things. And you got to believe it at last, didn't you, dear?' she added to Don, who was lying stretched out on the rug.
Don pricked the ear that was uppermost, and then uttered a heavy sigh, which smote his mistress to the heart.
'Daisy,' she said, 'it's no use—I must give him something. Poor pet, he deserves it for being so good and patient all this time. One biscuit, Daisy?'
Even Daisy relented: 'Well—a very plain one, then. Let me give it to him, auntie?'
The biscuit was procured, and Daisy, with an express intimation that this was a very particular indulgence, tendered it to the deserving terrier.
He half raised his head, sniffed at it—and then fell back again with another weary little sigh. Daisy felt rather crushed. 'I'm afraid he's cross with me,' she said; 'you try, Aunt Sophy.' Aunt Sophy tried, but with no better success, though Don wagged his tail feebly to express that he was not actuated by any personal feeling in the matter—he had no appetite, that was all.
'Daisy,' said Miss Millikin, with something more like anger than she generally showed, 'I was very wrong to listen to you about the diet. It's perfectly plain to me that by checking Don's appetite as we have we have done him serious harm. You can see for yourself that he is past eating anything at all now. Cook told me to-day that he had scarcely touched his meals lately. And yet he's stouter than ever—isn't he?'
Daisy was forced to allow that this was so. 'But what can it be?' she said.
'It's disease,' said her aunt, very solemnly. 'I've read over and over again that corpulence has nothing whatever to do with the amount of food one eats. And, oh! Daisy, I don't want to blame you, dear—but I'm afraid we have been depriving him of the nourishing things he really needed to enable him to struggle against the complaint!'
Poor Daisy was overcome by remorse as she knelt over the recumbent Don. 'Oh, darling Don,' she said, 'I didn't mean it—you know I didn't, don't you? You must get well and forgive me! I tell you what, aunt,' she said as she rose to her feet, 'you know you said I might drive you over in the pony cart to that tennis-party at the Netherbys to-morrow. Well, young Mr. Netherby is rather a "doggy" sort of man, and nice too. Suppose we take Don with us and ask him to tell us plainly whether he has anything dreadful the matter with him?'
Miss Millikin consented, though she did not pretend to hope much from Mr. Netherby's skill. 'I'm afraid,' she said, with a sigh, 'that only a very clever veterinary surgeon would find out what really is the matter with Don. But you can try, my dear.'
The following afternoon Miss Millikin entrusted herself and Don to Daisy's driving, not without some nervous misgivings.
'You're quite sure you can manage him, Daisy?' she said. 'If not, we can take John.'
'Why, Aunt Sophy!' exclaimed Daisy, 'I always drive the children at home; and sometimes when I'm on the box with Toppin, he gives me the reins in a straight part of the road, and Paul and Virginia pull like anything—Toppin says it's all he can do to hold them.'
Daisy was a little hurt at the idea that she might find Aunt Sophy's pony too much for her—a sleepy little 'slug of a thing,' as she privately called it, which pattered along exactly like a clockwork animal in urgent need of winding up.
Don seemed a little better that day, and was lifted into the pony-cart, where he lay on the indiarubber mat, sniffing the air as if it was doing him good.
Daisy really could drive well for her age, and woke the pony up in a manner that astonished her aunt, who remarked from time to time that she knew Wildfire wanted to walk now—he never could trot long at a time—and so they reached the Netherbys' house, which was five miles away towards the head of the lake, well under the hour, a most surprising feat—for Wildfire.
It was a grown-up tennis-party, and Daisy, although she had brought her racket, was a little afraid to play; besides, she wanted to consult young Mr. Netherby about Don, who had been left with the cart in the stables.
Mr. Netherby, who was a good-natured, red-faced young soldier, just about to join his regiment, was not playing either, so Daisy went up to him on the first opportunity.
'You know about dogs, Mr. Netherby, don't you?'
'Rath-er!' said Mr. Netherby, who was a trifle slangy. 'Why? Are you thinking of investing in a dog?'
'It's Aunt Sophy's dog,' explained Daisy, 'and he's ill—very ill—and we can't make out what's the matter, so I thought you would tell us perhaps?'
'I'll ride over to-morrow and have a look at him.'
'Oh, but you needn't—he's here. Wait—I'll fetch him—don't you come, please.'
And presently Daisy made her appearance on the lawn, carrying Don, who felt quite a weight, in her arms. She set him down before the young man, who examined him in a knowing manner, while Miss Millikin, and some others who were not playing just then, gathered round. Don was languid, but dignified—he rather liked being the subject of so much notice. Daisy waited breathlessly for the verdict.