"Will it be safe for me to pat him?" asked Bessie, as she looked at the big tawny head and heavy jowl of the magnificent beast; but the brown sunken eyes had a friendly expression in them.
"Oh, yes, Leo will be as quiet as a lamb; and what is more, he will never forget you. You may go within the reach of his chain any day, and he will behave to you like a gentleman. Leo is an aristocrat, and never forgets noblesse oblige."
"He is a splendid animal," returned Bessie; and then she noticed the other dogs. They were all there: Gelert and Brand, and Juno and her puppies, and Spot and Tim.
"We have been for a long walk," observed Richard, as they turned their faces homeward. "The dogs have been wild with spirits, and I had some difficulty with them at first. You see, they make the most of their weekly holiday."
"What do you do on a wet Sunday?" asked Bessie curiously.
"Well, I smoke a pipe with them in the stable, and so give them the pleasure of my company. I do hate disappointing dumb animals, Miss Lambert—they have their feelings as well as we have, and I think we ought to behave handsomely to them. I remember when I was quite a little fellow my mother taught me that."
"Your mother!" in some surprise, for somehow Mrs. Sefton never gave Bessie the impression that her relations with Richard were of the motherly sort.
"Oh, I mean my then mother," he returned hastily, as though answering her unspoken thought. "I was very young when she died, but I have never forgotten her. She was not a lady by birth, you know; only a farmer's or yeoman's daughter, but there is not a lady living who is prettier or sweeter than she was."
"I am glad you feel like that to your mother," replied Bessie, in a sympathetic voice that seemed to ask for further confidence.
Richard Sefton had never spoken of his mother to any one before. What could have drawn the beloved name from his lips? Was it this girl's soothing presence, or the stillness of the hour and the quiet beauty of the scene round him? Richard was impressionable by nature, and possibly each of these things influenced him. It was a new pleasure to speak to a kindly listener of the memories that lay hidden in his faithful heart.
"Yes, and yet I was a mere child when I lost her," he went on, and there was a moved look on his face; "but I remember her as plainly as I see you now. She was so young and pretty—every one said so. I remember once, when I was lying in my little cot one night, too hot and feverish to sleep, that she came up to me in her white gown—it was made of some shining stuff, silk or satin—and she had a sparkling cross on her neck. I remember how it flashed in my eyes as she stooped to kiss me, and how she carried me to the window to look at the stars. 'Are they not bright, Ritchie?' she said; 'and beyond there is the great beautiful heaven, where my little boy will go some day;' and then she stood rocking me in her arms. I heard her say plainly, 'Oh, that I and my little child were there now!' And as she spoke something wet fell on my face. I have heard since that she was not happy—not as happy as she ought to have been, poor mother!"
"And is that all you can remember?" asked Bessie gently.
"Oh, no; I have many vague recollections of making daisy chains with my mother on the lawn; of a great yellow cowslip ball flung to me in the orchard; of a Sunday afternoon, when some pictures of Samuel, and David and Goliath, were shown me; and many other little incidents. Children do remember, whatever grown-up people say."
"I think it would be terrible to lose one's mother, especially when one is a child," observed Bessie, in a feeling voice.
"I have found it so, I assure you," replied Richard gravely. "My stepmother was young, and did not understand children—boys especially. I seemed somewhat in the way to every one but my father. A lonely childhood is a sad thing; no success nor happiness in after life seems to make up for it."
"I understand what you mean; father always says children claim happiness as a right."
"It is most certainly their prerogative; but I fear I am boring you with my reminiscences."
"Not at all; you are giving me a great pleasure, Mr. Sefton. I do like knowing about people—their real selves, I mean, not their outside; it is so much more interesting than any book. I think, as a rule, people shut themselves up too much, and so they exclude light and sympathy."
"One longs for sympathy sometimes," said Richard; but he turned away his face as he spoke.
"Yes; every one needs it, and most of us get it," replied Bessie, feeling very sorry for the young man in her heart. He was too manly and too generous to complain openly of his stepmother's treatment, but Bessie understood it all as well as though he had spoken.
"In a large family there is no complaint to be made on this score. When I have a grievance there is always mother or Hatty, or Christine and father. We take all our big things to father. Oh, at home, no one is left out in the cold."
"I think your home must be a happy one, Miss Lambert—but here we are at The Grange. I must bid you good-bye for the present, for I have an errand in the village."
But Richard did not explain that his errand was to sit with a crippled lad, whose life of suffering debarred him from all pleasure. If there were one person in the world whom Bob Rollton adored it was "the young squire."
"He is a real gentleman, he is," Bob would say; "and not one of your make-believe gentry. It is all along of him and Spot and the little 'un, Tim, that I don't hate Sundays; but he comes reg'lar, does the squire; and he brings some rare good books with him; and Tim curls himself up on my blanket, and Spot sits on the window-sill, making believe to listen, and we have a good old time."
Other people beside Bob could have cited instances of the young squire's thoughtfulness and active benevolence; but Richard Sefton was one who did good by stealth, and almost as though he were ashamed of it, and neither his stepmother nor Edna guessed how much he was beloved in the village.
Mrs. Sefton was one of those people who never believed in virtue, unless it had the special hall-mark that conventionality stamps upon it, and Richard's simple charities, his small self-denials, would have appeared despicable in her eyes. She herself gave largely to the poor at Christmas; blankets and clothing by the bale found their way to the East End. The vicar of Melton called her "The benevolent Mrs. Sefton," but she and Edna never entered a cottage, never sat beside a sick bed, nor smoothed a dying pillow. Edna would have been horrified at such a suggestion. What had her bright youth to do with disease, dirt and misery? "Don't tell me about it," was her usual cry, when any one volunteered to relate some piteous story. That such things should be allowed in a world governed by a merciful Providence was incredible, terrible, but that she should be brought into contact with it was an offence to her ladylike judgment.
Many a girl has thought like Edna Sefton, and yet a royal princess could enter a squalid cottage, and take the starving babe to her bosom; and from that day to this Princess Alice has been a type of loving womanhood.
Edna had not returned from the Athertons when Bessie entered the house, so she went alone to the evening service. As the service was at half-past six, an informal meal was served at a quarter past eight, to allow the servants to attend church. Bessie was rather surprised at this mark of thoughtfulness, but she found out afterward that Richard had induced his stepmother, with some difficulty, to give up the ceremonious late dinner. She urged as an objection that neither she nor Edna ever attended the evening service; but he overruled this, and carried his point.
Just before service commenced, Bessie was surprised to see him enter the church. She had no idea that he would come, but he told her afterward that it was his usual practice.
Just as they were starting for the homeward walk they were joined by a cousin of the Athertons. Bessie had seen her the previous day. She was a fair, interesting-looking girl, dressed in deep mourning. Her name was Grace Donnerton. Richard seemed to know her well. He had evidently waited for her to overtake them, and they all walked on happily together.
Bessie was much taken with her. She was the daughter of a clergyman, who had a large parish in Leeds, and she interested Bessie very much in her account of her own and her sister's work. They had lately lost their mother, and it was surprising to hear of the way in which these young creatures helped their father in his good work.
"When any one is ill, we generally help in nursing them," Grace had said, quite simply. "There are so many of us that we can easily be spared, and we are so fond of our poor people. We have all attended ambulance lectures, and Lizzie, that is my eldest sister, is now training for a year at a hospital. She is very strong, and so fond of nursing, and she hopes to be very useful when she comes home. There are five of us, and we take turns in being papa's housekeeper. Emma, who is very clever, manages the mother's meeting, and the rest of us do district work."
Bessie was so interested by all this that she was sorry when the walk drew to a close. After they had said good-bye to Miss Donnerton, Bessie said "What a nice girl! I am sure I should like to know more of her."
"Yes; I knew she would be your sort; that is why I waited for her," replied Richard, as he opened the gate.
Bessie wondered over this speech as she ran up to her room. "My sort! what could he have meant by that?" she said to herself. "I only wish I were like Miss Donnerton, for I am sure she is sweet and good. Well, it has been a lovely day. I have not wished myself at home once. Now I must devote myself to Edna."
Edna looked a little tired and bored, and Bessie did not find it easy to interest her. She appeared to be quite indifferent to Miss Donnerton's merits.
"Oh, Grace! so you like her, do you? Well, I must confess she is too good for me. I never found her say anything interesting yet, but then I did not talk to her about poor people," and Edna sneered slightly in a ladylike way. "I think all the girls were relieved when she went to church, for we could not get her to talk about anything."
Yes, Edna was decidedly impracticable that evening. She would not be induced to play or sing; she was not in the humor for sacred music; no, she did not want to read; and everything was slow and stupid.
Bessie coaxed her into the garden at last, and the soft evening air refreshed her in spite of herself.
"Don't you ever feel ennuyee and horrid?" she asked, in a sort of apologetic manner, presently.
"Oh, yes, I suppose so; at least, I don't quite know what you mean," returned Bessie; but she was not thinking of the question. The stars were glittering overhead, and Richard Sefton's words recurred to her. How clearly she could see it all! The little lonely boy in his cot, the young mother coming up to soothe him. She could picture her so plainly in the white shining gown and the sparkling cross, with the tears falling on the child's face. "Oh, that I and my little child were there now!" Oh, how sad it all sounded; and she had gone, and not taken the boy with her. "Poor Mr. Sefton!" thought Bessie, as she recalled the sad, quiet tones and the moved look on Richard's face.
WHITEFOOT IN REQUISITION.
Three days after this Bessie wrote the following letter—it was commenced on Wednesday, and finished on Thursday morning:
"MY DEAR LITTLE HATTIE: It is your turn for a regular long letter, as I have already written to mother and Christine. I don't write to father because he is so busy, and letters bother him; but you must tell him all the news. You cannot think how Edna laughs at my correspondence; she always says it is such waste of time; but you and I know better than that. It is just the one thing that I can do for you all, now that I am away, and I am not so selfish that I grudge an hour in the day. I know how disappointed one face looks when there is no letter from Bessie in the morning, and so I lay down my book and scribble away as I am doing now.
"I am having a lovely time. I do not think I have ever played so much in my life before. It is such a new thing, and yet it is rather nice, too, to hear Edna say in the morning, 'Now, what shall we do to-day?' as though one's whole duty were to amuse one's self. Father always says, 'Whatever you do, do it thoroughly,' and I am carrying out his maxim to the letter, for I do nothing but enjoy myself, and I do it thoroughly. On Monday I finished my letter to Crissy before breakfast, and afterward, as Edna was busy, I spent a long morning reading 'The Village on the Cliff.' I have finished it now, and think it lovely. I do enjoy these mornings in the garden; but I must not read too many stories, only Edna says I shall like 'Old Kensington,' and I must indulge myself with that. I assure you we make quite a picture. Mac lies at my feet, and Spot generally curls himself up on my lap. Tim prefers lying on the lawn and keeping an eye upon the kitten. She is such a droll little creature, and her antics quite distract me.
"Well, I had this delicious morning to myself, and in the afternoon we played tennis at the Athertons'. There were no visitors, but we girls played by ourselves, and I had a long talk with Grace Donnerton. I liked her better than ever; but just as she was talking to me about her sister's hospital, Maud Atherton disturbed us by telling us tea was ready.
"The next morning Edna drove me over to Kimberley—such a lovely drive; and the ponies were so frisky and went so well. We called at a beautiful old house, called Kimberley Hall—I never saw such a place—and had luncheon there. Mrs. Blondell, our hostess, is such a dear old lady, with pretty white curls, and such a sweet old face. Her husband is such a handsome old man; but he is quite deaf, and no one seems to make him hear anything except his wife, and she goes up and speaks to him in a low, distinct voice, and tells him things, and he brightens up at once. He is such a courtly old man, and pays little old-fashioned compliments. He took Edna's hand and said, 'We do not often see a pretty young face, my dear, but it is a very pleasant sight. I remember your mother when she was a girl, and a fine, handsome creature she was. I think her daughter does her credit, eh, Dolly?' And Dolly—that is the dear old lady's name—put her pretty old hand on his arm, and said, 'She does indeed, Rupert, and she has got a look of our Maisie about her;' and then they looked at each other in such a way.
"Edna explained it to me as we drove home. She said they had one child, a beautiful girl, who lived until she was seventeen, and then died of some wasting disease. She had been dead fifteen years, but the old couple had never got over her loss. 'I am there often,' Edna went on, 'but I have never once been without hearing Maisie's name mentioned; they are always talking about her. One day Mrs. Blondell took me upstairs and showed me all her things. There were her little gowns, most of them white, folded in the big wardrobe. 'She was to have worn this at her first ball,' said the poor woman, pulling down a lace dress; it looked quite fresh somehow, only the satin slip was a trifle discolored. There were the shoes, and the silk stockings, and a case of pearls, and the long gloves. 'She would have looked lovely in it,' she went on, smoothing out the folds with her tremulous fingers. 'Rupert says she would have made hearts ache. Thank you my dear, you are very kind,' for I could not help hugging the dear old thing. It made me cry, too, to hear her. 'I go there very often because they like to see me; they will have it I am like Maisie, but I am not half so pretty.' And Edna laughed, though her eyes were moist, and touched up Jill rather smartly.
"We had some people to dinner that evening, so Edna made me put on my Indian muslin, which she said looked very nice. She wore a soft white silk herself, which suited her admirably. She has some beautiful dresses which she showed me; she says her mother thinks nothing too good for her, and showers presents on her. She gets tired of her dresses before they are half worn out. I was half afraid she was going to offer me one, for she looked at me rather wistfully, but I made a pretext to leave the room. I enjoyed myself very much that evening. The curate took me in to dinner, and I found him very clever and amusing, and he talked so much that, though I was very hungry, I could hardly get enough to eat; but Edna, who declared that she had had no dinner either, brought me up a great plate of cake when we went to bed. Edna sang beautifully that evening, and the curate—his name is Horton—sung too, and Florence Atherton brought her violin. I had never heard a lady play the violin before, but Edna tells me I am old-fashioned, and that it is all the rage at present, and certainly Miss Atherton played extremely well.
"Good-bye for the present, dear Hatty; I will add more to-morrow. This is a sort of journal, you know, not a letter, and I shall write a little bit each day.
"'Do be nice and lengthy,' you said, and I am sure I am carrying out your wish."
"Well, here I am again sitting at my writing-table, pen in hand, and 'the top of the morning to ye, darlint,' as Biddy used to say; but my Hatty will be still asleep, I know, as she is not one of the strong ones, poor little Hatty! Such a wonderful thing happened to me yesterday—I actually had a riding-lesson. Do tell father that, for he knows how I used to envy Tom when Colonel Miles gave him a mount. It happened in this way. Edna was talking at breakfast time about her ride in the Row, and Mr. Sefton said suddenly, 'How would you like to learn to ride, Miss Lambert?' and not thinking he meant anything by the question, I said, 'I should like it of all things. I do long for a good gallop.'
"'Oh, you must not gallop before you trot,' he returned, quite seriously; 'Edna, if you still have your old habit by you, I don't see why I should not give Miss Lambert a lesson. Old Whitefoot is doing nothing for her living.'
"Well—would you believe it?—he was quite in earnest, and Edna, who is very good-natured, seemed to think it a good bit of fun, for she jumped up from the table and told her brother to bring Whitefoot round in half an hour; and then she made me go upstairs with her and put on a beautiful blue habit, which seemed to me quite new; but she said she had a much better one made for her last season. It fitted me tolerably, and only required a little alteration to be perfect—and I assure you I hardly knew myself in it, I looked so nice; but a dark habit is always so becoming. Edna looks like a picture in hers.
"Well, when we went downstairs, there was Whitefoot—such a pretty brown mare—with Mr. Sefton standing beside her, and Brown Bess was being brought round from the stable. I was just a little nervous at first, but Mr. Sefton was very kind and patient; he taught me how to gather up my reins, and how to hold myself; and he would not mount for some time, but walked beside me for a little distance, telling me things, and when he saw I felt less strange he jumped on Brown Bess, and we had a canter together.
"My dear Hatty, it was just delicious! I never felt happier in my life. But Mr. Sefton would not let me ride long; he said I should be very stiff at first, and that we should have a longer ride to-morrow, when Edna would be with us; and of course I had to submit.
"I was far too lazy to play tennis that afternoon, so Edna made me get into the hammock, and I had a nice, quiet time with my book, while she and the Athertons had their usual games, and bye and bye Grace Donnerton came and sat by me, and we had another nice talk.
"The next morning Edna said she would ride with us, so Mr. Sefton ordered the horses directly after breakfast, and we had a glorious ride for more than two hours. I found trotting rather difficult at first, but Mr. Sefton would not let Edna laugh at my awkwardness, and he encouraged me by telling me that I should soon ride well, and after that I did not mind a bit. Edna really rides perfectly; it was a pleasure to watch her. Once she left us and had a tearing gallop by herself over the common. The other horses got excited and wanted to gallop too, but Mr. Sefton held Whitefoot's reins, and managed to quiet them both with some difficulty. I thought Edna looked lovely as she rode back to us; she had such a beautiful color, and her eyes looked so bright I don't wonder people admire her so.
"Edna was going to an archery meeting that afternoon with the Athertons, but as there was no room for me in their wagonette, I stayed at home quietly with Mrs. Sefton, and managed to make myself useful, for several people called, and I had to make tea and help entertain them; but I got a quiet hour in my favorite garden seat. Edna brought Florence and Maud Atherton back to dinner, and we had a very merry evening, playing all sorts of games. Mr. Sefton came into the drawing-room for a little while, but he did not stay long. I think the girls quizzed him, and made him uncomfortable. It is such a pity that he is not more at his ease in society; people think he is stupid and cannot talk, but he is really very intelligent, and knows a great deal about a good many subjects. There is to be no ride to-morrow. Mrs. Sefton is going up to town on business, and Edna is to accompany her to the station, for, although Mr. Sefton suggested that I should go out with him for an hour, I could see that they did not second it.
"Now, darling, I have told you everything, and I think you will own that I am having a good time. I hope all this pleasure is not spoiling me, but I think of you all as much as ever, and especially of my Hatty. Are you very dull without me, dear? And how do you sleep? Write and tell me everything—how mother looks, and what Tom said in his last letter, and if father is busy. And if any of you want me very badly, you must say so, and I will come home at once, though I do want some more rides, and Edna has promised to drive me over to Kimberley again. But there is the gong, and I must run down to breakfast. Good-bye, my dearest Hatty.
"Your loving "BESSIE."
Bessie had written out of the fullness of her girlish content. She wanted to share her pleasure with Hatty. Happiness did not make her selfish, nor did new scenes and varied experiences shut out home memories, for Bessie was not one of those feeble natures who are carried out of themselves by every change of circumstances, neither had she the chameleon-like character that develops new tendencies under new influences; at The Grange she was just the same simple, kindly Bessie Lambert as she had been at Cliffe.
After all, she was not disappointed of her ride. Jennings, the groom, had a commission to do at Leigh, and Richard proposed to his stepmother that Bessie should ride over there too. Jennings was an old servant, and very trusty and reliable, and she might be safely put in his charge. To this Mrs. Sefton made no objection, and Bessie had a delightful morning, and made good progress under Jennings' respectful hints. Bessie had just taken off her habit, and was preparing for luncheon, when Edna entered the room.
"What dress are you going to wear this afternoon, Bessie?" she asked rather abruptly, and her manner was a little off-hand. "I shall be in white, of course, and I shall wear my gray dust cloak for the roads, but——"
"What dress!" returned Bessie, rather puzzled at the question; she was hot and tired from her long ride, and had been looking forward to an afternoon of delicious idleness. "Is any one coming? I mean, are we going anywhere?"
"Why, of course," replied Edna impatiently, and she did not seem in the best of tempers; "it is Thursday, is it not? and we are engaged for the polo match. You must make haste and finish dressing, for we must start directly after luncheon."
"Do you mean that Mr. Sefton is going to drive us over to Staplehurst, after all?" asked Bessie, feeling very much astonished at Richard's change of plan; he had not even spoken on the subject at breakfast-time, but he must have arranged it afterward.
"Richard!" rather contemptuously. "Richard is by this time lunching at the Fordham Inn, with half a dozen stupid farmers. Have you forgotten that he flatly refused to drive us at all? Oh, I have not forgotten his lecture, I assure you, though it does not seem to have made much impression on you. Well, why are you looking at me with such big eyes, Bessie, as though you found it difficult to understand me?"
"Because I don't understand you Edna," replied Bessie frankly. "You know both your mother and brother objected to Captain Grant's invitation; you cannot surely intend to go in opposition to their wishes."
"Their wishes! I suppose you mean Richard's wish, for mamma never opened her lips on the subject; she just listened to Richard's tirade."
"But she did not contradict him; and surely you must have seen from her face that she agreed with every word." Bessie did not dare to add that Mrs. Sefton had expressed her strong disapproval of Captain Grant to her. "She was looking at you so anxiously all the time."
"Oh, that is only mamma's fussiness. Of course I know she does not want me to go. I don't mean to pretend that I am not aware of that, but mamma knows that I generally have my own way in this sort of thing, and she did not actually forbid it."
"Oh, Edna! what can that matter when you know her real wishes?"
"My dear, don't preach; your words will not influence me in the least. I told Richard, before mamma, that I should go, and I mean to carry out my word. You are a free agent, Bessie; I cannot oblige you to go with me, but as the Athertons are all engaged, I could not get one of them in your place."
"But if I say I cannot go, what will you do then?" asked Bessie anxiously.
"In that case I should go alone," returned Edna coldly; "but I should think you were unkind to desert me."
"I should have to bear that," replied Bessie rather sadly; "it is not what you would think of me, but what I ought to do. Oh, Edna, you are placing me in a very difficult position. I do not know how to act, and the whole thing distresses me so. Do give it up for my sake, and just to please me; do Edna, dear."
"I cannot give it up," was Edna's answer; "but I will not argue any more about it. Make up your mind quickly, Bessie, for there is no time to lose." And so saying, she left the room, and a moment afterward Bessie heard her ringing for her maid.
Bessie had never felt more distressed; she was so tired and so perplexed how to act, that she could almost have cried from worry. "If I go with her, will not Mrs. Sefton and Mr. Richard have a right to be offended with me?" she thought. "They will not know that I have tried to turn Edna from her purpose; they do not know me well enough to be sure of my motives. Edna told him that I wanted to see polo played; they may believe that I was willing to go. I cannot bear to put myself in this position; and yet, will it be right to let her go alone? Will they not blame me for that, too? Oh, how I wish I could speak to Mr. Sefton; but he is away. What shall I do? I must decide. It seems such a little thing to pray about, and yet little things bring big consequences. No, I can't moralize; I am too worried. Why can I not see the right thing to do at once?"
Bessie sat and reflected a moment, and then a sudden impulse came to her, and she opened her blotting-case, and wrote a few hurried lines.
"Dear Mrs. Sefton," she wrote, "I am so troubled, I hardly know what to do. Edna has just told me that she intends to drive over to Staplehurst after luncheon to see polo played, and has asked me to accompany her. I cannot induce her to give it up. Please do not think that I have not tried. I know how much you and Mr. Sefton were against it; but I do not think you would wish me to stay behind. She ought not to go alone. I feel you will be less anxious if I go with her." Bessie dashed off these few lines, and then dressed herself hurriedly; but before she had half finished the gong sounded.
As she ran downstairs she met Dixon, the butler, coming out of the dining-room, and putting the note in his hand, begged that he would give it to his mistress directly she returned.
"Certainly, ma'am," replied Dixon civilly; and it struck Bessie that he looked at her in an approving manner. He was an old servant, too, and most likely was accustomed to his young mistress' vagaries. "We expect my mistress home at six, and I will take care she gets the note," he continued, as he opened the door for her.
BESSIE SNUBS A HERO.
"So you are going, after all?" was the only remark made by Edna, as she caught sight of Bessie's gray gown. "Well, be quick; I have nearly finished my luncheon. I thought you were never coming, and there was no time to lose."
"I will not keep you waiting," returned Bessie, whose healthy young appetite failed her for once. "I am not hungry."
"Nonsense?" said Edna, with restored good-humor. "You will find this mayonnaise excellent. You have had a long ride, and the drive to Staplehurst will take nearly an hour. We shall have a lovely afternoon for our expedition."
Edna was chatting in her old lively fashion. She really looked exquisitely pretty this afternoon, and she seemed to take a delight in her own naughtiness. Her eyes sparkled mischievously every time she looked at Bessie's grave face. She was as frisky as a young colt who had just taken his bit between his teeth and had bolted. Her spirits seemed to rise during her long drive, and she talked and laughed without intermission.
Bessie tried to respond and to make herself agreeable, but her efforts failed signally. She looked forward to the afternoon as a long martyrdom to be endured; the thought of Mrs. Sefton's and Richard's reproachful faces came between her and all enjoyment. Edna took no notice of her unusual gravity; she had gained her end, and obliged Bessie to bear her unwilling company, and so she was satisfied. It was almost a relief to Bessie when the drive was over, and they found themselves at Staplehurst.
Polo was to be played in a large park-like meadow belonging to Staplehurst Hall. As they drove in at the gate, two or three of the officers who were to play were walking about in their bright silk jerseys, while their ponies followed them, led by their grooms. One came up at once, and greeted the young ladies.
"I was on the lookout for you, Miss Sefton," he observed, with a smile that he evidently intended to be winning, but which Bessie thought was extremely disagreeable. "I knew you would not disappoint me, even if Sefton proved obdurate."
"Richard had some stupid farming engagement," returned Edna, "so I brought Miss Lambert instead. Is your mother on the ground, Captain Grant?"
"Yes; let me take you to her," he replied, with alacrity; but it was some time before Jack and Jill made their way to the central point where the ladies were sitting. Several of the officers joined Captain Grant, and there was quite a triumphal procession through the field. Edna sat like a little queen guiding her ponies, and distributing smiles and gay speeches. Admiration and pleasure were as the breath of life to her; she was at once peremptory and gracious; she looked down at her escort with a sort of benign amusement. When Captain Grant handed her out of the low chaise, she made her way through the ladies with the air of a princess.
A tall, high-colored woman, with dark hair, and dressed in rather bad taste, held out her hand and welcomed her warmly.
"My dear, I am so glad to see you; Jem told me you were sure to come. Is this Miss Lambert? Put those chairs closer, Jem. And so your mother could not come. Never mind; I am used to chaperoning young ladies, though I never had girls of my own."
Edna answered civilly, but Bessie soon perceived that Mrs. Grant's conversation was not exactly to her taste. She spoke in a loud voice, and as most of her remarks were about her boy Jem, as she called him, his extraordinary cleverness and good luck at polo, and his merits as a son and officer, it was extremely desirable that they should not be overheard, but Mrs. Grant seemed quite indifferent to the amused looks of the ladies round her, and her broad, good-natured face beamed with smiles as Jem made a fine stroke and won the goal.
"He rides better than any of the men," she exclaimed proudly. "I'll back my boy against any of them. Oh, look, Miss Sefton, Singleton has hit the ball away—no, Jem is galloping after him, he means to carry it. Yes—no—yes! they are through! Bravo, Jem, bravo!" and Mrs. Grant clapped her hands excitedly.
In spite of her uneasiness, it was impossible for Bessie not to become first interested and then absorbed in the game, and for a little while she forgot all about The Grange. She had never seen polo played before, and she was carried away by the excitement of that fascinating but perilous game; the mad rush of the horses across the grass, the quick strokes of the players, the magnificent riding, and the ease and grace with which the officers guided their ponies and leaned over their saddles to strike the ball; the breathless moment when young Singleton rode alone with all the others pursuing him wildly; no wonder Bessie felt enthralled by the novelty of the sight. She uttered a little scream once when the horses and riders all crushed together in a sort of confused melee.
"Is any one hurt?" she exclaimed in much distress; but Edna and Mrs. Grant only laughed.
"You must come with me and have some tea," observed Mrs. Grant, when the match was over. "My lodgings are just by."
Edna hesitated for a moment, and Bessie touched her arm.
"It is already five," she whispered. "Do you see those dark clouds? We shall have a thunder-shower soon; I think it would be better to start for home."
"And be caught in the rain," replied Edna, with a shrug. "And we have no umbrellas nor waterproofs. No, Bessie; we must take refuge at Mrs. Grant's until the shower is over. Come along; don't make a fuss. I do not want to go any more than you do, but it is no use getting wet through; we cannot help it if we are late for dinner." And so saying, Edna again joined the talkative Mrs. Grant.
Bessie said no more, but all her uneasiness returned as she followed Edna. Mrs. Grant had temporary lodgings in the High Street, over a linen-draper's shop. She ushered her young guests into a large untidy looking room with three windows overlooking the street. One or two of the other ladies joined them, and one officer after another soon found their way up the steep little staircase, for Mrs. Grant was noted for her hospitality. She called Edna to help her at the tea-table, and Bessie seated herself by one of the windows. No one took much notice of her; her good-natured partner at tennis, Leonard Singleton, was not among Mrs. Grant's guests.
Captain Grant brought her some tea, and offered her cake and fruit, but he soon left her to devote himself exclusively to Miss Sefton. Bessie felt very dull, and out in the cold, and yet she had no wish to join the gay group round the tea-table. The room felt close and oppressive; the first heavy drops were pattering on the window; two or three children were running down the street with a yellow dog barking at their heels.
"You will get wet; shall I close the window?" observed a voice behind her, and Bessie started and looked round at the tall, solemn-looking young officer who had been introduced to her two hours previously as "Captain Broughton, not of ours, Miss Lambert."
"Oh, no, I prefer it open, it is so warm," replied Bessie hastily.
"Oh, ah, yes! Are you fond of polo?"
"I never saw it played until this afternoon; it is very exciting, but I am sure it must be dangerous."
"Nothing to speak of; an accident now and then—man half killed last Thursday, though."
"Oh, dear, how dreadful!"
The solemn-faced officer relaxed into a smile.
"Well, he might have been killed outright in battle, don't you know; accidents will happen now and then; it is just luck, you see, and Owen always is such an unlucky beggar."
Bessie refuted this with some vivacity. She explained that though it might be a man's duty to die for his country, it was quite another thing to imperil a valuable life on a mere game; but she could make no impression on the solemn-faced captain.
"But it is an uncommonly good game, don't you know," he persisted; and Bessie gave up the point, for Captain Broughton's mind seemed as wooden as his face.
"It was no good talking to such a man," she observed to Edna, as they drove home; "he said 'Don't you know' at the end of every sentence, and seemed so stupid."
"Are you talking about Captain Broughton?" asked Edna calmly. "My dear Daisy, it is not always wise to judge by appearances. Captain Broughton is not specially amusing in conversation, but he is a brave fellow. Do you know, he wears the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in saving a wounded soldier; only a private too. Yes; though he was wounded himself, he carried him off the field. He was a village lad—one of his own tenants—who had followed him out to India, and when another ball struck him he just staggered on."
"Oh, dear," groaned Bessie; "this is a punishment to me for judging too quickly. To think I had the opportunity for the first time in my life of talking to a hero, and that I called him stupid! This is a case of entertaining angels unawares. But if one could only know they were angels."
Edna only laughed at this; but Bessie found food for uncomfortable reflection all the way home. The rain had ceased at last, but not before Edna had grown secretly conscious of the lateness of the hour. It was nearly seven before the weather allowed them to start, and for the last half hour she had stood at the window quite oblivious of Captain Grant's entreaties that she would make herself comfortable, and evidently deaf to his unmeaning compliments for she answered absently, and with a manner that showed that she was ill at ease.
The moment the rain ceased, she asked him peremptorily to order her pony-chaise round.
"Mamma will be getting anxious at this long delay," she said, so gravely that Captain Grant dare not disobey her.
"You will come over next Saturday and see our match with the Hussars," he pleaded, as she gathered up the reins.
"Perhaps; but I will not promise," she returned, with a nod and a smile. "Oh, dear; how tiresome these last two hours have been. You have not enjoyed yourself a bit. Bessie. I am so sorry!"
"Oh, never mind." returned Bessie wearily, and then they had both been silent. Neither was in the mood to enjoy the delicious freshness of the evening; that clear shining after the rain that is so indescribable, the wet, gleaming hedges, the little sparkling pools, the vivid green of the meadows; for Edna was feeling the reaction after her excitement; and Bessie, tired out with conflicting feelings was thinking regretfully of her unsatisfactory conversation with Captain Broughton.
"It serves me right, after all," she thought penitently. "Father always says that we ought to take trouble to please even the most commonplace, uninteresting person, not to let ourselves be bored by anyone, however uncongenial they may be, and of course he is right. I was just fidgeting about the weather, and how we were to get home, and so I did not try to be entertaining." And here Bessie made a mental resolution to be more charitable in her estimate of people.
She had no idea that Captain Broughton had said to himself as he left her, "Nice little girl, no nonsense about her; not a bad sort, after the women one sees; can talk to a man without looking for a compliment; like her better than Miss Sefton."
Just as the drive was drawing to a close, Bessie roused up from her unwonted depression. They had turned out of the narrow lane, and a wide sweep of country lay before them, bathed in the soft tints of the setting sun. A mass of golden and crimson clouds made the western heavens glorious, the meadows were transfigured in the yellow radiance, every hedgerow and bush seemed touched by an unearthly finger, a sense of distance, of mystery, of tranquil rest seemed to pervade the world.
"Oh, Edna, how beautiful! If only one were an artist to try and paint that."
"Yes; it is a fine evening," remarked Edna carelessly.
"Thank goodness, there is The Grange at last. Yes, there is Richard, evidently on the lookout for us. So I suppose they have finished dinner."
"Did you think we were lost?" she asked with a little air of defiance, as her brother came forward and patted the ponies.
"No," he said gravely; "I told my mother the rain must have detained you. It is a pity you went, Edna. Sinclair has been here two hours. He came down in the same train with mother."
"Neville here!" And Edna's look changed, and she became rather pale. "What has brought him, Richard?"
Richard shrugged his shoulders, and replied that he had not the least idea. He supposed it was a whim. It was evident that Edna was not too well pleased at the news. A little hardness came into her face, and she walked into the house without taking any notice of Bessie.
As Bessie stood hesitating for a moment in the hall, Richard followed her. He had not even looked at her, and poor Bessie felt sure that his manner expressed disapproval.
"Will you not go into the drawing-room, Miss Lambert?"
"Oh, no. Mr. Sinclair is there, is he not? I would rather go upstairs and take off my things. I am very tired." And here Bessie faltered a little.
But to her surprise Richard looked at her very kindly.
"Of course you are tired. You had that long ride; but Edna would not think of that. Take off your things quickly and come down to the dining-room. Dixon will have something ready for you. There is some coffee going into the drawing-room. You will like some?"
"Oh, yes, please," returned Bessie, touched by this thoughtfulness for her comfort. After all, he could not be angry with her. Perhaps she would have time to explain, to ask his opinion, to talk out her perplexity. How comfortable that would be! Bessie would not stay to change her dress, she only smoothed her hair, and ran down.
Richard was waiting for her, and Dixon had just brought in the coffee. When he had gone out of the room she said eagerly:
"Oh, Mr. Sefton, I am so glad to be able to ask you a question. You were not vexed with me for going to Staplehurst with your sister?"
"Vexed!" returned Richard, in a tone that set her mind at rest in a moment. "You acted exactly as I expected you to act. When mother showed me your note I only said, 'I never doubted for a moment what Miss Lambert would do; she would go, of course.'"
"Yes; I only hesitated for a moment; but, oh! what a miserable afternoon it has been!" And as she touched on the various incidents, including her tete-a-tete with Captain Broughton, Richard listened with much sympathy.
"I never dreamed for a moment that Edna would go after all, but it was just a piece of childish bravado. The foolish girl does not think of consequences. It is a most unfortunate thing that Sinclair should turn up at this moment; he is a little stiff on these subjects, and I am afraid that he is terribly annoyed."
"Did Mrs. Sefton tell him all about it?"
"My mother? No; she would have given worlds to hide it from him. Edna told him herself that she was going in her last letter. Oh, you don't know Edna," as Bessie looked extremely surprised at this; "her chief virtue is truthfulness. She will defy you to your face, and trample on all your prejudices, but she will never hide anything."
"And she actually told Mr. Sinclair?"
"Yes she did it to tease him, I believe, because his last letter did not please her. Sinclair has to put up with a good deal, I can tell you, but he wrote back in a great hurry, begging her not to carry out her plan. Sinclair told us both this evening that he could not have written a stronger letter. He told her that he had good reasons for wishing her to see as little as possible of Captain Grant. And when he came down just to give her a pleasant surprise, as he had a leisure evening, it was quite a shock to him to find his entreaties had been disregarded, and that she had actually gone after all. He is excessively hurt, and no wonder, to find Edna has so little respect for his wishes."
"It was a grievous mistake," returned Bessie sorrowfully. "I don't believe Edna enjoyed herself one bit."
"No; it was just a freak of temper, and she chose to be self-willed about it. I hope she will show herself penitent to Sinclair; she can turn him around her little finger if she likes; but sometimes she prefers to quarrel with him. I really think Edna enjoys a regular flare up," finished Richard, laughing. "She says a good quarrel clears the air like a thunder-storm; but I confess that I don't agree with her."
"SHE WILL NOT COME."
Bessie did not enter the drawing-room that evening; she felt that her presence would be decidedly de trop under the circumstances. She made the pretext of fatigue the reason for retiring to her room early, and Richard accepted the excuse as though he believed in it.
"Well, I dare say you will be more comfortable," he agreed. "My mother will be sure to come up and wish you good-night. Confess now, Miss Lambert, are you not wishing yourself at home this evening?"
"No; of course not," replied Bessie briskly. "Have you not promised me another ride to-morrow?" But all the same, as she went upstairs, she thought a talk with her mother and Hatty would have been very soothing. She was sitting by her window, thinking over things in general, when there was a tap at her door, and Mrs. Sefton entered.
"Richard told me you were tired and had gone up to bed," she said, more kindly than usual. "I am so sorry, my dear, that you have had such an uncomfortable afternoon. Edna has been very naughty—very naughty indeed; but Richard and I feel very grateful to you for accompanying her."
"I thought it was the right thing to do, Mrs. Sefton."
"Yes, of course; there was nothing else to be done; but it was a foolish freak on Edna's part." Mrs. Sefton spoke in a worried voice, and her face looked tired and harassed. Bessie said as much, and she replied:
"Oh, yes; I am worried enough. I have had a fatiguing day in town, and then when Neville and I entered the house, expecting a welcome, there was Richard's moody face and your note to greet us. And now, to make things worse, Edna chooses to be offended at Neville's coming down in this way, and declares he meant to be a spy on her. She won't say a civil word to him, and yet it is for him to be displeased; but I think he would waive all that if she would only own that she has acted ungenerously to him. I must say Neville is behaving beautifully. He speaks as gently as possible; but Edna is in one of her tempers, and she will not listen to reason."
"I am sorry," replied Bessie, looking so full of sympathy that Mrs. Sefton relaxed from her usual cold dignity.
"Oh, my dear," she said, and now there were tears in her eyes, "I am afraid it is all my fault. I have indulged Edna too much, and given her her own way in everything; and now she tyrannizes over us all. If I had only acted differently." And here the poor woman sighed.
Bessie echoed the sigh, but she could think of nothing to say that could comfort Mrs. Sefton; she was evidently reaping the effects of her own injudicious weakness. She had not taught her child to practice self-discipline and self-control. Her waywardness had been fostered by indulgence, and her temper had become more faulty. "What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?" asked the Divine Teacher; and yet there are many parents who offer these stony gifts to their children, loading them with false kindness and indulgence, leaving evil weeds unchecked, and teaching them everything but the one thing needful.
"Oh, how different from mother!" thought Bessie, when she was left alone, and recalled the time when her young will had been over strong, and there had been difficult points in her character, and yet, how sensibly and how tenderly her mother had dealt with them.
She had never been blind to one of her children's faults, and up to a certain age it had been her habit on the eve of their birthdays, to talk quietly to them, pointing out their failings and defective habits, and giving her opinion on the year's improvement. "On a birthday one ought to begin afresh," she would say, "and make a new start." How well Bessie could remember these talks, and the gentle words of praise that generally closed them. She was almost sorry when she was too grown up for them, and quiet self-examinations took the place of those fond maternal admonitions.
When Bessie joined the family at breakfast she found Mr. Sinclair helping Edna with the urn. He accosted Bessie with much friendliness, and seemed pleased to see her again. She had been prepossessed with him at their first meeting, and she thought his manner still pleasanter on this second occasion, and she was struck afresh with his air of quiet refinement. He took part in the conversation with much animation, and talked more to Richard than to any one else.
Edna did not appear to have recovered herself; she took very little notice of anybody, and received her fiance's attention rather ungraciously. Bessie thought she looked as though she had not slept well; her eyes had a heavy look in them, as though her head ached. Bessie had her ride directly afterward, and as Richard assisted her to mount, Mr. Sinclair stood on the steps and watched them.
"What are you and Edna going to do with yourselves?" asked Richard presently.
Mr. Sinclair smiled.
"I shall do whatever Edna likes; perhaps she will drive me somewhere; she looks as though the fresh air would do her good. I shall have to go back to town this evening, so I must make the most of my day in the country."
The house was so still when they returned that Bessie thought they had started for the drive, when she ran upstairs to take off her habit. She seated herself presently by one of the drawing-room windows with her work, wondering what everyone was doing.
Her work interested her, and she was quietly enjoying herself when she heard quick footsteps in the hall outside, and a moment afterward a door slammed.
"They have come back, I suppose," thought Bessie; and she worked on, until the drawing-room door opened and Mr. Sinclair came in alone. He seemed surprised to see Bessie, but the next minute he had crossed the room hastily.
"Miss Lambert, will you do me a favor? I cannot find Mrs. Sefton, and I have no one else to ask."
"Certainly," returned Bessie, and she rose at once.
Mr. Sinclair looked pale and troubled, and his manner was extremely nervous.
"Then will you be so good as to beg Edna to come down to me for a moment; she has misunderstood—that is, I wish to speak to her—there is a slight misconception. Edna has gone to her own room."
"I will go at once," exclaimed Bessie, feeling convinced by his manner that something was very wrong. Edna must have quarrelled with him again. She ran upstairs and knocked on Edna's door, but received no answer; it was not locked, however, and after a moment's hesitation she entered.
Edna had evidently not heard her; she was standing by the window in her walking-dress. As Bessie spoke to attract her attention, she turned round and frowned angrily; something in her face made Bessie breathless with apprehension.
"What do you want?" she asked harshly.
"Mr. Sinclair sent me," pleaded Bessie; "he is very anxious to speak to you; he begs that you will come downstairs. He thinks that there is some mistake."
"No, there is no mistake," replied Edna slowly; "you may tell him so for me."
"Why not tell him yourself, Edna?"
"Because I have had enough of Mr. Sinclair's company this morning. Because nothing would induce me to speak to him again. I thought I had locked my door to prevent intrusion; but I suppose I forgot. Please give him my message that there is no mistake—oh, none at all."
Bessie hesitated, but another look at Edna's face showed her that any entreaty at this moment would be in vain, so she went out of the room without another word.
Mr. Sinclair was standing just where she had left him; he looked at her anxiously. Bessie shook her head.
"She will not come," she said sorrowfully.
"Will not? Did she give no reason—send no message?"
"Only that there was no mistake; she repeated that more than once. Perhaps she will change her mind in a little while."
But Mr. Sinclair did not seem to hear her.
"No mistake! Then she meant it—she meant it!" he muttered, and his face became quite changed. He had walked to the window, but he came back again.
"Thank you, Miss Lambert. I am very much obliged to you," he said, as though feeling he had been deficient in politeness; but before she could reply he had left the room.
The gong sounded for luncheon directly afterward, but Bessie found the dining-room empty, so she sat down to her work again, and bye and bye Dixon brought her a message that his mistress was waiting. Mrs. Sefton was in the room alone; she motioned Bessie to a seat, and began to carve the chicken before her. No one else made their appearance; but Mrs. Sefton did not apologize for their absence. She scarcely eat anything herself, and made no attempt to sustain the conversation. She looked preoccupied and troubled, and as soon as the meal was over she begged Bessie to amuse herself, as she had some important business to settle, and left the room.
Bessie passed a solitary afternoon; but though her book was interesting her attention often wandered. She was sure something was seriously wrong, and she felt vaguely unhappy on Edna's account. She could not forget Mr. Sinclair's face when she had brought him that message. It was as though he had received a blow that he scarcely knew how to bear.
Dixon brought her some tea, and told her that his mistress and Miss Edna were having theirs in the dressing-room. Later on, as she went indoors to prepare for dinner, she encountered Richard; he had just driven up to the door in his dog-cart, and Brand and Gelert were with him.
"Where is Mr. Sinclair?" she ventured to ask, as he smiled at seeing her.
"He has gone," he replied. "I have just driven him to the station. Do you know where my mother is to be found?"
"I have not seen her since luncheon," answered Bessie. "I think she is with Edna."
"Very likely. I will go and see." And Richard sprung up the staircase three steps at a time. Bessie thought he looked tired and worried, too; and to add to the general oppression, a storm seemed gathering, for the air felt unusually still and sultry.
Edna did not join them at dinner, and the meal was hardly more festive than the luncheon had been. Mrs. Sefton hardly opened her lips, and Richard only made a few general remarks.
Bessie expected that her evening would be as solitary as her afternoon, but, rather to her surprise, Mrs. Sefton beckoned her to sit down beside her.
"My dear," she said, "you are feeling very uncomfortable, I can see, and you do not like to ask questions; you think something is the matter, and you are right. Edna is making us all very unhappy. She has quarrelled with Neville, and has broken off her engagement with him, and nothing that Richard or I can say to her will induce her to listen to reason."
"Oh, Mrs. Sefton, how dreadful!"
"Yes, is it not heart-breaking? Poor Neville! and he is so devoted to her. They were to have been married next spring, but now Edna declares that nothing would induce her to marry him. She will have it that he is jealous and monopolizing, and that he distrusts her. Over and over again she told us both that she would be the slave of no man's caprice. Of course it is all her temper; she is just mad with him because he is always in the right, and she knows how ungenerously she has acted; but bye and bye she will repent, and break her heart, for she is certainly fond of him, and then it will be too late."
"And she has really sent him away?"
"Yes; she told him to go, that she never wanted to see him again; and he has gone, poor fellow! Richard drove him to the station. He says he never saw a man so terribly cut up, but he told Richard, just at the last, that perhaps it might prove the best for them in the end, that they were not suited to each other, and never had been, but that Edna had never shown him her temper quite so plainly before."
"Oh, Mrs. Sefton, how terrible it all seems! Can nothing be done?"
"Nothing," in a voice of despair. "Richard and I have talked to her for hours, but it is no use. She declares that it is a good thing she and Neville at last understand each other, that she will never repent her decision, and yet all the time she looks utterly wretched. But she will not own it; it is just her pride and her temper," finished the unhappy mother, "and I must stand by and see her sacrifice her own happiness, and say nothing."
"May I go up to her, Mrs. Sefton? Do you think she would care to see me?"
"I think she will see you now, and it is not good for her to be alone; but you will find her very hard and impracticable."
"I shall not mind that, if she will only let me be with her a little; but I cannot bear to think of her shut up with only miserable thoughts to keep her company;" and here Bessie's eyes filled with tears, for she was very sympathetic and soft-hearted.
"Then go to her, my dear, and I hope you may do her some good." And Bessie went at once.
Just outside the door she met Richard; he was on his way to the drawing-room.
"I am going up to Edna," she said, as he looked at her inquiringly. "Oh, Mr. Sefton, I am so sorry for her! She is making herself and every one else miserable."
"I am more sorry for Sinclair," he returned, and his face looked very stern as he spoke. "She has treated him abominably. Wait a moment, Miss Lambert," as she seemed about to leave him; "there is no hurry, is there? and I have not spoken to you to-day. Do you think you are wise to mix yourself up in this? My mother is thinking more of Edna than of you, but you will do no good, and only make yourself miserable. Leave Edna alone to-night, and come and play to me instead."
"Mr. Sefton, I never thought you could be so selfish."
He laughed outright as Bessie said this very seriously.
"Never trust any man; we are all of us selfish. But to tell you the truth, I was not thinking of my own enjoyment at that minute. I wanted to save you an hour's unpleasantness, but I see you prefer to make yourself miserable."
"I think I do in the present instance," returned Bessie quietly.
"Very well, have your own way; but if you take my advice, you will not waste your pity upon Edna. She is flinging away her happiness with her eyes open, just to gratify her temper. You see I can speak plainly, Miss Lambert, and call things by their right names. Just out of pride and self-will, she is bidding good-bye to one of the best fellows living, and all the time she knows that he is a good fellow. She won't find another Neville Sinclair, I tell her."
"No; and it is just because she is doing it herself that I am sorry for her," replied Bessie. "Please don't keep me, Mr. Sefton; you do not understand—how can you? If he had died, if anything else had separated them, it would be so much easier to bear, but to do it herself, and then to be so sorry for it afterward—oh, how miserable that must be!" and Bessie's voice became a little unsteady as she hastily bade him good night.
A NOTE FROM HATTY.
Bessie knew that she would find Edna in her mother's dressing room—a large, comfortable room, much used by both mother and daughter when they were tired or indisposed. Mrs. Sefton generally used it as a morning-room, and it was fitted up somewhat luxuriously.
Bessie found Edna lying on a couch in her white tea-gown, with a novel in her hand. The pink shade of the lamp threw a rosy glow over everything, and at first sight Bessie thought she looked much as usual; her first words, too, were said in her ordinary tone.
"So you have found your way up at last," she exclaimed, throwing down her book with an air of disgust and weariness; "my head ached this afternoon, and so mamma thought I had better stay here quietly."
"Is your head better now?"
"Yes, thanks; only this book is so stupid. I think novels are stupid nowadays; the heroes are so gaudy, and the heroines have not a spark of spirit. You may talk to me instead, if you like. What have you been doing with yourself all day?"
Bessie was dumb with amazement. Was this pride or was Edna acting a part, and pretending not to care? She could break her lover's heart one minute and talk of novels the next. Bessie's simplicity was at fault; she could make nothing of this.
"Why are you looking at me in that way?" asked Edna fretfully, on receiving no answer; and as she raised herself on the cushions, Bessie could see her face more plainly. It looked very pale, and her eyes were painfully bright, and then she gave a hard little laugh that had no mirth in it. "So mamma or Richard has been talking to you! What a transparent little creature you are, Bessie! You are dreadfully shocked, are you not, that I have sent Neville about his business?"
"Oh, Edna, please don't talk about it in that way."
"If I talk about it at all it must be in my own way. If Neville thought I could not live without him, he finds himself mistaken now. I am not the sort of girl who could put up with tyranny; other people may submit to be ordered about and treated like a child, but I am not one of them."
"Edna, surely you consider that you owe a duty to the man you have promised to marry."
"I owe him none—I will never owe him any duty." And here Edna's manner became excited. "It is mamma I ought to obey, and I will not always yield to her; but I have never given Neville the right to lecture and control me; no man shall—no man!" angrily.
"Edna, how can you bear to part with Mr. Sinclair, when he is so good and loves you so much?"
"I can bear it very well. I can do without him," she replied obstinately; "at least I have regained my liberty, and become my own mistress."
"Will that console you for making him miserable? Oh, Edna, if you had only seen his face when I gave him your message, I am sure you must have relented. He has gone away unhappy, and you let him go."
"Yes, I let him go. How dare he come down here to spy on my movements? Captain Grant, indeed! But it is all of a piece; his jealously is unbearable. I will no longer put up with it. Why do you talk about it, Bessie? You do not know Mr. Neville—Mr. Sinclair, I mean. He is a stranger to you; he has given me plenty to bear during our engagement. He has a difficult nature, it does not suit mine; I must be treated wholly or not at all."
"Will you not let your mother explain this to him and send for him to come back?" But Edna drew herself up so haughtily that Bessie did not proceed.
"I will never call him back, if I wanted him ever so; but I am not likely to want him, he has made me too miserable. No one shall speak to him; it is my affair, and no one has any right to meddle. Mamma takes his part, and Richard, too. Every one is against me, but they cannot influence me," finished Edna proudly.
"Mrs. Sefton was right; I can do no good," thought Bessie sorrowfully; "it seems as though some demon of pride has taken possession of the girl. Mr. Sinclair is nothing to her to-night; she is only conscious of her own proud, injured feelings." And Bessie showed her wisdom by ceasing to argue the point; she let Edna talk on without checking her, until she had exhausted herself, and then she rose and bade her good night.
Edna seemed taken aback.
"You are going to leave me, Bessie?"
"Yes, it is very late; and your mother will be coming up directly. I can do you no good; no one could to-night. I shall go and pray for you instead."
"You will pray for me! May I ask why?"
"I will not even tell you that to-night; it would be no use, the evil spirits will not let you listen, Edna; they have stopped your ears too; to-night you are in their power, you have placed yourself at their mercy; no one can help you except One, and you will not even ask Him."
"You are very incomprehensible, Bessie."
"Yes, I dare say I seem so, but perhaps one day you may understand better. You want us not to think you unhappy, and you are utterly miserable. I never could pretend things, even when I was a child. I must say everything out. I think you are unhappy now, and that you will be more unhappy to-morrow; and when you begin to realize your unhappiness, you will begin to look for a remedy. Good-night, dear Edna. Don't be angry at my plain speaking, for I really want to do you good."
Edna made no answer, and yielded her cheek coldly to Bessie's kiss. If something wet touched her face she took no apparent notice, but Bessie could not restrain her tears as she left the room.
"Oh, why, why were people so mad and wicked? How could any one calling herself by the sacred name of Christian suffer herself to be overmastered by these bitter and angry passions? It is just temper; Mrs. Sefton is right," thought Bessie; and her mind was so oppressed by the thought of Edna's wretchedness that it was long before she could compose herself to sleep.
But she rose at her usual early hour, and wrote out of the fullness of her heart to her mother, not mentioning any facts, but relieving her overwrought feelings by loving words that were very sweet to her mother.
"I think it is good to go away sometimes from one's belongings," wrote Bessie; "absence makes one realize one's blessings more. I don't think I ever felt more thankful that I had such a mother than last night, when Edna was talking in a way that troubled me."
When Bessie went downstairs after finishing her letter, she was much surprised to see Edna in her usual place pouring out the coffee. She looked a little pale and heavy-eyed; but no one could have detected from her manner that there was anything much amiss. A slight restlessness, however, an eagerness for occupation and amusement, and a shade of impatience when any one opposed her, spoke of inward irritability. Now and then, too, there was a sharpness in her voice that betrayed nervous tension; but none dared to express sympathy by look or word. Once when she announced her intention of joining Bessie and Richard in their ride, and her mother asked her if she were not too tired, she turned on her almost fiercely.
"I tired, mamma! What an absurd idea; as though riding ever tired me! I am not an old woman yet. Bessie," turning to her, "the Athertons are coming this afternoon, and I have written to the Powers to join them. We must have a good practice, because we have to go to the Badderleys' to-morrow, and Major Sullivan will be my partner; he is our best player, and we have Captain Grant and Mrs. Matchett against us."
It was so in everything. Edna seemed bent all that day on tiring herself out. She rode at a pace that morning that left the others far behind, but Richard took no notice; he continued his conversation with Bessie, and left Edna to her own devices.
In the afternoon she played tennis in the same reckless fashion; once Bessie saw her turn very pale, and put her hand to her side, but the next minute she was playing again.
"What spirits Edna is in!" Florence said once. "Really I do not know what we shall all do next spring when she gets married, for she is the life and soul of everything;" for none of the girls had noticed that the diamond ring was missing on Edna's finger; some brilliant emerald and ruby rings had replaced it.
Edna continued in this unsatisfactory state for weeks and not once did she open her lips, even to her mother, on the subject of her broken engagement. Every morning she made her plans for the day. It seemed to Bessie as though air and movement were absolutely necessary to her. When the morning ride was over she would arrange to drive her mother or Bessie to some given place, and the intervening hours were always spent in tennis or archery. When the evening came she would often lie on the drawing-room couch in a state of exhaustion, until she compelled herself to some exertion.
"Oh, how stupid every one is!" she would say, jumping up in a quick, restless manner. "Ritchie, why don't you think of something amusing to do? Bessie, I hate those dreamy old ballads; do come and play some game. Mamma," she exclaimed, one evening, "we must have a regular picnic for Bessie; she has never been at a large one in her life. We will go to Ardley, and Florence shall take her violin, and Dr. Merton his cornet, and we will have a dance on the turf; it will be delightful."
Well, to please her, they talked of the picnic, and Richard good-naturedly promised to hire a wagonette for the occasion, but she had forgotten all about it the next day, and there was to be an archery meeting in the long meadow instead.
"Bessie, she is killing herself," exclaimed Mrs. Sefton, for in those days she found Bessie a great comfort. "Do you see how thin she is getting? And she eats next to nothing; she is losing her strength, and all that exercise is too much for her. The weather is too hot for those morning rides. I must speak to Richard."
"She does not really enjoy them," replied Bessie; "but I think she feels better when she is in the air, and then it is something to do. Mrs. Sefton, I want to speak to you about something else. I have been here nearly a month, and it is time for me to go home."
"You are not thinking of leaving us," interrupted Mrs. Sefton, in genuine alarm. "I cannot spare you, Bessie; I must write to your father. What would Edna do without you? My dear, I cannot let you go."
"Hatty is not well," observed Bessie anxiously. "She always flags in the warm weather. I don't believe Cliffe really suits her; but father never likes to send her away. Christine wrote to me yesterday, and she said Hatty had had one of her old fainting fits, and had been very weak ever since. I cannot be happy in leaving her any longer, though they say nothing about my coming home."
"But she has your mother and Christine. You are not really wanted," urged Mrs. Sefton rather selfishly, for she was thinking of her own and Edna's loss, and not of Bessie's anxiety.
"Hatty always wants me," returned Bessie firmly. "I think I am more to her than any one else, except mother. I have written to father this morning to ask what I had better do. I told him that I had had a long holiday, and that I was ready to come home at once if Hatty wanted me."
"Oh, very well, if you have made your plans," returned Mrs. Sefton, in rather a chilling manner; but Bessie would not let her proceed.
"Dear Mrs. Sefton," she said, much distressed at her obvious displeasure, "you must not think that I leave you willingly. I have been so happy here; it has been such a real holiday that I am afraid I am not a bit anxious to go home, but if father thinks it is my duty——"
"Your father is a sensible man. I don't believe he will recall you, anyhow. I will write to him myself, and tell him how anxious we are to keep you. That will do no harm, eh, Bessie?"
"No," hesitated the girl; "I dare say he will only think you are all too kind to me." She did not like to offend her hostess by begging her not to write. Her father knew her well enough; he would not misunderstand her. He knew her love for Hatty would never let pleasure stand in the way if she required her. "All the enjoyments in the world would not keep me from Hatty if she really needed me, and father knows that; we are both quite safe with him."
Bessie was perfectly comfortable in her own mind; she was sure of her own motives, and she had implicit faith in her father; but she would not have been quite so easy if she had known that Mrs. Sefton intended to send a little note to Hatty as well. It was only a kindly worded note, full of sympathy for Hatty's little ailments, such as any friendly stranger might write; but the closing sentence was terribly damaging to Bessie's plans.
"Please do not let your father recall Bessie unless it be absolutely necessary. We are all so fond of her, and my poor girl, who is in sad trouble just now, is dependent on her for companionship. Bessie is so happy, too, that it would be cruel to take her away. She is becoming a first-rate horsewoman under my son's tuition, and is very much liked by all our friends; indeed, every one makes much of her. If you can spare her a little longer, I shall be truly grateful, my dear Miss Lambert, for my poor child's sake."
And then followed a few kindly expressions of goodwill and sympathy.
Bessie was rather surprised to receive a letter from Christine the following morning, with a little penciled note from Hatty inside.
"Father was too busy to write," Christine said. "He had a very anxious case on hand, but he hoped Hatty was rather better that day, and he thought they could do without Bessie a little longer, as her friends seemed to need her so much. He was sorry to hear Miss Sefton had broken off her engagement; it was a very serious thing for any young lady to do, and he hoped none of his girls would act so dishonorably to any man."
Hatty's note was short and much underlined.
"DARLING BESSIE: You are not to come home on my account. Chrissy is very nice, and does everything for me, and I won't have your pleasure spoiled, and Miss Sefton's too, poor thing, just because I was stupid enough to faint. It is only the hot weather—oh, it is so hot and glaring here! Chrissy and I cannot imagine how you can ride and play tennis in such heat; but perhaps it is cooler in the country. Now, remember, I mean what I say, and that I don't want you one bit. At least that is a fib in one way, because I always want my Betty; but I am quite happy to think you are enjoying yourself, and cheering up that poor girl—she must be very miserable. Write to me soon again. I do love your letters. I always keep them under my pillow and read them in the morning. Good-bye, darling; you are my own Betty, you know.
"Your loving little "HATTY."
"I suppose I must stop a week or ten days longer," thought Bessie, laying down her letters with rather a dissatisfied feeling. "I wish father could have written, himself, but I dare say he will in a day or two. I will try not to fidget. I will wait a little, and then write to mother and tell her how I feel about things. When she understands how difficult it is for me to get away without giving offense, she will be sure to help me, and six weeks are enough to satisfy Mrs. Sefton."
Bessie spoke of her letters at luncheon-time. Edna heard her with languid attention, but Mrs. Sefton was triumphant.
"I knew they could spare you, Bessie," she said, with a look of amusement that made Bessie feel a little small.
Richard glanced at her without speaking, and then busied himself in his carving. But that evening, as Bessie was pausing in the hall to look out at the dark clouds that were scurrying across the sky, she found Richard at her elbow.
"There is going to be a storm," he said quietly. "I have been expecting it all day. Edna is always nervous; she hates the thunder. What was that my mother was saying at luncheon, Miss Lambert? Surely you do not intend leaving us?"
"Not just yet—not for another week," returned Bessie, much surprised by the gravity of his manner. "They will want me at home after that."
"They will not want you as much as some of us do here," he returned, with much feeling. "Miss Lambert, do not go unless you are obliged. My sister needs you, and so—" He broke off abruptly, colored, and finally wished her good-night.
"I wonder why he did not finish his sentence?" thought Bessie innocently, as she went up to her room.
"TROUBLE MAY COME TO ME ONE DAY."
Bessie had hardly fallen asleep before the storm broke. A peal of thunder crashing over the house woke her; the next minute a flash of lightning seemed to fill her room with white light.
"What a terrific clap! It must have woke Edna," she thought; and just as she was summoning up resolution to cross the dark passage in search of her, there was a hasty tap at the door, and Edna entered, fully dressed, and with a candle in her hand.
"Edna! what does this mean? You have not been to bed at all?" exclaimed Bessie, regarding her friend with dismay. Edna's pale, disordered looks excited her alarm.
"No," she returned, in a tone of forced composure, as she put down the candle with a shaking hand; "I was too nervous to sleep. I knew the storm was coming, and I sat up and waited for it; but I could not stop by myself any longer. Did I wake you, Bessie?"
"The thunder woke me, and I thought of you. I am not a bit frightened; but one cannot sleep in such a noise. Hark at the rain; a perfect deluge! Come and lie down beside me, Edna, dear. You look quite wan and exhausted.
"I have been thinking myself stupid, but I am still too restless to lie down. I feel as though I never want to sleep again, and yet I am so tired. Ah, you don't know the feeling! One seems on wires, and all sorts of horrid, troublesome thoughts keep surging through one's brain, and there seems no rest, no peace anywhere." And she shivered, and hid her face on the pillow as another peal broke over the house.
Bessie did not speak for a minute, and then she said very tenderly:
"Edna, dear, I know all about it. I am quite sure that you are miserable; I have known it all the time. Pride does not help you a bit now; in your heart you are sorrowful and repentant. You would give all you have in the world to bring him back again."
But Edna silenced her. "Don't, Bessie, you are torturing me. I cannot bear sympathy; it seems to madden me somehow. I want people to think I don't care—that it is all nothing to me."
"Ah, but you do care, Edna."
"Yes, I know I do," in a despairing voice. "I will own, if you like, that I am very miserable, but you must not take advantage of me. I am weak to-night, and I seem to have no strength to brave it out. Don't be hard upon me, Bessie; you have never been in trouble yourself. You cannot put yourself in my place."
A great pity rose in Bessie's heart as she listened to Edna's sad voice. "No," she said gently, "I have never known real trouble, thank God, except when Frank died. Mine has been a very happy life; but trouble may come to me one day."
"Yes, but not through your own fault," replied Edna, in the same dreary hopeless voice. "There is no trouble so hard to bear as that. To think that I might have been so happy, and that my own temper has spoiled it all. Let me tell you all about it, Bessie; it will be a relief, even though you cannot help me, for to-night the misery is more than I can bear." And here she hid her face in her hands, and gave vent to a few choking sobs.
Bessie only answered by a quiet caress or two, and after a few moments Edna recovered herself.
"I was unreasonably angry with Neville that day, but I never guessed that my passion would overmaster me to that extent. Oh, Bessie! why, why was I never taught to control my temper? Why was my mother so cruelly kind to me? If I had been brought up differently—but no, I will only reproach myself. If Neville had been more masterful—if he had shown more spirit; but there again I am ungenerous, for nothing could exceed his gentleness; but it only exasperated me. I was bent on quarrelling with him, and I fully succeeded; and I worked myself up to such a pitch that I almost hated the sight of him. I wanted to be free—I would be free; and I told him so. I was still in the same mind when you brought me that message, but, all the same, something seemed to whisper to me that I should live to repent that day's work; but I would not listen to this inward prompting—I would be firm. Bessie, I verily believe some evil spirit dominated me—I felt so cold, so inexorable, so determined on my own undoing. For one moment I quailed, and that was when I saw Neville drive away from the house. I saw his face, and it looked so pale and sad. Something within me said, 'Call him back, and he will come even now;' but I was too proud to give the sign. I wanted to do it, but my demon would not suffer me, and in a moment he was gone. Oh, Bessie, how I suffered that night and the night after! But my pride was strong. I would not let people see how unhappy I was. But I want him back now. There is no one in the world like Neville—so gentle, and brave, and good; but I have lost him, and I deserve to lose him, for I was never worthy of his love." And here Edna broke into bitter weeping, and for a little while there was no comforting her.
"Oh, how selfish I am!" she exclaimed at last, starting up. "I have only made you miserable; and, after all, no one can do me any good. Don't look at me so reproachfully, Bessie; you are very dear and good to me, but you cannot put yourself in my place."
"You are wrong," returned Bessie quickly. "Though I have never been through your experiences, I can still sympathize with you. If I were in your position, Edna, I would not speak as you are doing now, as though there were no hope for you, as though everything were only black and miserable. The Lord Jesus is always able and willing to help all who penitently and trustfully look to Him for pardon. There are no depths of human suffering deep enough to hide us from His tender sympathy and forgiving love."
"Oh, but I am not religious, Bessie. I am not good, like you."
"Please don't talk so, Edna; it only pains me to hear you. Let me tell you how I think I should try to feel in your place. I would try to bear my trouble bravely, knowing that it had come through my own fault. If we do wrong, we must surely take our punishment. Oh, I know it is easy to talk, but all the same this is how I would strive to carry my burden."
"Ah, but such a burden would crush any girl."
"You must not let it crush you, Edna. You must not let it lead you to despair. However heavy the burden, and however much we deserve the suffering which our follies and mistakes and sins bring, there is one all-sufficient way of deliverance. Jesus, by His death on the cross, has made it possible for us to be freely forgiven; and if we come to Him in faith and prayer, the Holy Spirit will lead us into the full experience of salvation and peace. Your will is very strong; why do you not will this one thing—to become worthy of the love of a true man like Mr. Sinclair? I do not say that things will be the same between you; I know too little about the world to guess how a man acts under such circumstances; but if you care for him really—if indeed he stands so high in your estimation as a good man whom you have misunderstood and wronged, then, even if you lead your lives apart, you may still try to live nobly that he may think of you with respect. You may still let the influence of this trial guide you to a higher and better life. Would not this make things more bearable?"
Bessie's words, spoken with intense earnestness, seemed to stir Edna's mind, rousing it from its bitter apathy of hopeless remorse and grief; a faint light came into her eyes.
"Do you think I could grow better—that Neville would ever hear of me? Oh, I should like to try. I do so hate myself, Bessie. I seem to grow more selfish and horrid every year. I thought Neville would help me to be good, but without him——" And here the tears came again.
"Without him it will be doubly hard. Yes, I know that, Edna dear; but you must lean on a stronger arm than his—an arm that will never fail you. Cast all your burden upon the loving sympathy and tender heart of the Lord Jesus, and He will lead and comfort you. Now you are utterly exhausted, and the storm is quite lulled; do go back to your room; you will be able to sleep, and it is nearly three o'clock."
"And I have kept you awake all this time," remorsefully. "Well, I will go; the pain is a little easier to bear now. I will think over your words; they seem to have a sort of comfort in them. Yes, I deserve to be unhappy for making Neville so wretched. Good-bye, dear Bessie; you are a real friend to me, for you tell me nothing but the truth."
Bessie kissed her affectionately, and then Edna left the room; but Bessie found it difficult to resume her interrupted dreams; the splash of the raindrops against her windows had a depressing sound, the darkness was dense and oppressive, a vague sadness seemed to brood over everything, and it was long before she could quiet herself enough to sleep. Strangely enough, her last waking thoughts were of Hatty, not of Edna, and she was dreaming about her when the maid came to wake her in the morning.
Edna did not come down to breakfast; the storm had disturbed her, Mrs. Sefton said. "I think it must have kept you awake, too," she observed, with a glance at Bessie's tired face.
Bessie smiled and said a word or two about the wild night, but she did not speak of Edna's visit to her room. Afterward she went up to prepare for her ride, but during the next hour Richard noticed she was not in her usual spirits, and questioned her kindly as to the cause of her depression. Bessie made some trifling excuse; she had slept badly, and her head ached; but in reality she could find no reason for her vague discomfort.
The morning was fresh and lovely, and bore no signs of last night's storm. Whitefoot was in frisky spirits, but she found herself looking at everything with melancholy eyes, as though she were looking her last at the pleasant prospect. In vain she strove to shake off the uncanny feeling, and to answer Richard's remarks in her usual sprightly fashion. The very effort to speak brought the tears to her eyes, and she had the vexed feeling that Richard saw them and thought something was amiss, for he told her very kindly to be sure and rest herself that afternoon.
Edna was in the front garden when they returned; she was standing at the gate evidently watching for them. Bessie thought she looked very pale. As Richard lifted her down Edna opened the gate.
"You have had a longer ride than usual, have you not, Richard? Bessie looks very tired. Will you take off your habit, or will you go into the drawing-room? Your brother has just arrived, Bessie."
"My brother? Do you mean Tom? Oh, what does he want with me? Hatty must be worse." And here Bessie's numb, unaccountable feelings quickened into life. "Oh, Edna, speak—what is it?" And then Bessie grew pale with apprehension.
"Hatty is not very well," replied Edna gently; "but Mr. Tom will tell you himself."
"Yes, go to him," whispered Richard; "your brother will be your best informant; don't wait to ask Edna."
And Bessie needed no further bidding. Oh, she knew now what that vague presentiment meant! That was her last ride—her last everything, she told herself, as she hurried into the house. Of course, Hatty was ill, very ill—dying perhaps—she always knew she would die. Tom's boyish face looked unusually grave as he caught sight of Bessie. She walked up to him and grasped his arm.
"What is it, Tom?" she said almost clinging to him.
Poor Tom was hardly equal to the occasion. He was young, and hated scenes, and Mrs. Sefton was looking at them both, and he felt uncommonly choky himself; but Edna, who had followed Bessie, said promptly:
"Don't be afraid of telling Bessie, Mr. Lambert; she knows that Hatty is not so well. You have come to fetch her—have you not?—because Hatty had another bad fainting fit, and your father thinks her very ill."