All day Sunday they had raised the devil from attic to cellar; Mrs. Farren was in tears, Howker desperate. Not one out of the fifteen servants considered necessary to embellish the Seagrave establishment could do anything with them after Kathleen Severn's sudden departure the week before.
When the telegram announcing her mother's sudden illness summoned young Mrs. Severn to Staten Island, every servant in the household understood that serious trouble was impending for them.
Day by day the children became more unruly; Sunday they were demons; and Mrs. Farren shuddered to think what Monday might bring forth.
The day began ominously at breakfast with general target practice, ammunition consisting of projectiles pinched from the interior of hot muffins. Later, when Mrs. Farren ventured into the schoolroom, she found Scott Seagrave drawing injurious pictures of Howker on the black-board, and Geraldine sorting lumps of sugar from the bowl on the breakfast-tray, which had not yet been removed.
"Dearies," she began, "it is after nine o'clock and——"
"No school to-day, Mrs. Farren," interrupted Scott cheerfully; "we haven't anything to do till Kathleen comes back, and you know it perfectly well!"
"Yes, you have, dearie; Mrs. Severn has just sent you this list of lessons." She held out a black-edged envelope.
Geraldine, who had been leisurely occupied in dropping cologne on a lump of sugar, thrust the lump into her pink mouth and turned sharply on Mrs. Farren.
"What list?" she demanded. "Give that letter to me… . Oh, Scott! Did you ever hear of anything half so mean? Kathleen's written out about a thousand questions in geography for us!"
"I can't stand that sort of interference!" shouted Scott, dropping his chalk and aiming a kick at the big papier-maché globe. "I'm sorry Kathleen's mother is probably going to die, but I've had enough geography, too."
"Mrs. Severn's mother died on Friday," said the housekeeper solemnly.
The children paused, serious for a moment in the presence of the incomprehensible.
"We're sorry," said Geraldine slowly… . "When is Kathleen coming back?"
"Perhaps to-night, dearie——"
Scott impatiently detached the schoolroom globe from its brass axis: "I'm sorry, too," he said; "but I'm tired of lessons. Now, Mrs. Farren, watch me! I'm going to kick a goal from the field. Here, you hold it, Geraldine; Mrs. Farren, you had better try to block it and cheer for Yale!"
Geraldine seized the globe, threw herself flat on the floor, and, head on one side, wriggled, carefully considering the angle. Then, tipping the globe, she adjusted it daintily for her brother to kick.
"A little higher, please; look out there, Mrs. Farren!" said Scott calmly; "Harvard is going to score this time. Now, Geraldine!"
Thump! came the kick, but Mrs. Farren had fled, and the big globe struck the nursery door and bounced back minus half of South America.
For ten minutes the upper floors echoed with the racket. Geraldine fiercely disputed her brother's right to kick every time; then, as usual, when she got what she wanted, gave up to Scott and let him monopolise the kicking until, satiated, he went back to the black-board, having obliterated several continents from the face of the globe.
"You might at least be polite enough to hold it for me to kick," said his sister. "What a pig you are, Scott."
"Don't bother me; I'm drawing Howker. You can't kick straight, anyway——"
"Yes, I can!"
Scott, intent on his drawing, muttered:
"I wish there was another boy in this house; I might have a little fun to-day if there was anybody to play with."
There ensued a silence; then he heard his sister's light little feet flying along the hallway toward their bedrooms, but went on calmly with his drawing, using some effective coloured crayon on Howker's nose. Presently he became conscious that Geraldine had re-entered the room.
"What are you going to do to-day?" he asked, preoccupied.
Geraldine, dressed in her brother's clothes, was kneeling on one knee and hastily strapping on a single roller-skate.
"I'll show you," she said, rising and shaking the dark curls out of her eyes. "Come on, Scott, I'm going to misbehave all day. Look at me! I've brought you the boy you wanted to play with."
Her brother turned, considered her with patronising toleration, then shrugged his shoulders.
"You look like one, but you're no good," he said.
"I can be just as bad as any boy!" she insisted. "I'll do whatever you do; I'll do worse, I tell you. Dare me to do something!"
"You don't dare skate backward into the red drawing-room! There's too much bric-a-brac."
She turned like a flash and was off, hopping and clattering down-stairs on her single skate, and a moment later she whirled into the red drawing-room backward and upset a Sang-de-boeuf jar, reducing the maid to horrified tears and the jar to powder.
Howker strove in vain to defend his dining-room when Scott appeared on one skate; but the breakfast-room and pantry were forcibly turned into rinks; the twins swept through the halls, met and defeated their nurses, Margaret and Betty, tumbled down into the lower regions, from there descended to the basement, and whizzed cheerily through the kitchen, waving two skateless legs.
There Mrs. Bramton attempted to buy them off with tribute in the shape of cup-cakes.
"Sure, darlints, they do be starvin' yez," purred Mrs. Bramton. "Don't I know the likes o' them? Now roon away quietlike an' ladylike——"
"Like a hen," retorted Scott. "I want some preserves."
"That's all very well," said Geraldine with her mouth full, "but we expected to skate about the kitchen and watch you make pastry. Kindly begin, Mrs. Bramton."
"I'd like to see what's inside of that chicken over there," said Scott. "And I want you to give me some raisins, Mrs. Bramton——"
"I'm dying for a glass of milk," added Geraldine. "Get me some dough, somebody; I'm going to bake something."
Scott, who, devoured by curiosity, had been sniffing around the spice cupboard, sneezed violently; a Swedish kitchen-maid threw her apron over her head, weak with laughter.
"If you're laughing at me, I'll fix you, Olga!" shouted Scott in a rage; and the air was suddenly filled with balls of dough. Mrs. Bramton fled before the storm; a well-directed volley drove the maids to cover and stampeded the two cats.
"Take whatever is good to eat, Geraldine. Hurrah! The town surrenders! Loot it! No quarter!" shouted Scott. However, when Howker arrived they retired hastily with pockets full of cinnamon sticks, olives, prunes, and dried currants, climbing triumphantly to the library above, where they curled up on a leather divan, under the portrait of their mother, to divide the spoils.
"Am I bad enough to suit you?" inquired Geraldine with pardonable pride.
"Pooh! That's nothing. If I had another boy here I'd—I'd——"
"Well, what?" demanded Geraldine, flushing. "I tell you I can misbehave as well as any boy. Dare me to do anything and you'll see! I dare you to dare me!"
Scott began: "Oh, it's all very easy for a girl to talk——"
"I don't talk; I do it! And you know perfectly well I do!"
"You're a girl, after all, even if you have got on my clothes——"
"Didn't I throw as much dough at Olga and Mrs. Bramton as you did?"
"You didn't hit anybody."
"I did! I saw a soft, horrid lump stick to Olga!"
"Pooh! You can't throw straight——"
"That's a lie!" said Geraldine excitedly.
"If you say that again——"
"All right; go and get the boxing-gloves. You did tell a lie, Scott, because I did hit Olga!"
Scott hastily unstrapped his lone skate, cast it clattering from him, and sped up-stairs. When he returned he hurled a pair of boxing-gloves at Geraldine, who put them on, laced them, trembling with wrath, and flew at her brother as soon as his own gloves were fastened.
They went about their business like lightning, swinging, blocking, countering. Twice she gave him inviting openings and then punished him savagely before he could get away; then he attempted in-fighting, but her legs were too nimble. And after a while he lost his head and came at her using sheer weight, which set her beside herself with fury.
Teeth clenched, crimson-cheeked, she side-stepped, feinted, and whipped in an upper-cut. Then, darting in, she drove home her left with all her might; and Scott went down with an unmistakable thud.
"One—two—three—four," she counted, "and you did tell a lie, didn't you? Five—six—Oh, Scott! I've made your nose bleed horridly! Does it hurt, dear? Seven—eight——"
The boy, still confused, rose and instinctively assumed the classic attitude of self-defence; but his sister threw down her gloves and offered him her handkerchief, saying: "You've just got to be fair to me now, Scott. Tell me that I throw straight and that I did hit Olga!"
He hesitated; wiped his nose:
"I take it back. You can throw straight. Ginger! What a crack you just gave me!"
She was all compunction and honey now, hovering around him where he stood stanching honourable wounds. After a while he laughed. "Thunder!" he exclaimed ruefully; "my nose seems to be growing for fair. You're all right, Geraldine."
"Here's my last cup-cake, if you like," said his sister, radiant.
Embarrassed a little by defeat, but nursing no bitterness, he sat down on the leather divan again and permitted his sister to feed him and tell him that his disaster was only an accident. He tried to think so, too, but serious doubts persisted in his mind. There had been a clean-cut finish to that swing and jab which disturbed his boy's conceit.
"We'll try it again," he began. "I'm all right now, if you like——"
"Oh, Scott, I don't want to!"
"Well, we ought to know which of us really can lick the other——"
"Why, of course, you can lick me every time. Besides, I wouldn't want to be able to lick you—except when I'm very, very angry. And I ought not to become angry the way I do. Kathleen tries so hard to make me stop and reflect before I do things, but I can't seem to learn… . Does your nose hurt?"
"Not in the least," said her brother, reddening and changing the subject. "I say, it looks as though it were going to stop raining."
He went to the window; the big Seagrave house with its mansard roof, set in the centre of an entire city block, bounded by Madison and Fifth Avenues and by Ninety-fifth and Ninety-sixth Streets, looked out from its four red brick façades onto strips of lawn and shrubbery, now all green and golden with new grass and early buds.
It was topsy-turvy, March-hare weather, which perhaps accounted for the early April dementia that possessed the children at recurring intervals, and which nothing ever checked except the ultimate slumber of infantile exhaustion.
If anybody in the house possessed authority to punish them, nobody exercised it. Servants grown gray in the Seagrave service endured much, partly for the children's sakes, partly in memory of the past; but the newer and younger domestics had less interest in the past glories and traditions of an old New York family which, except for two little children, ten years old, had perished utterly from the face of the land.
The entire domestic régime was a makeshift—had been almost from the beginning. Mrs. Farren, the housekeeper, understood it; Howker, the butler, knew it; Lacy knew it—he who had served forty years as coachman in the Seagrave family.
For in all the world there remained not one living soul who through ties of kinship was authorised to properly control these children. Nor could they themselves even remember parental authority; and only a shadowy recollection of their grandfather's lax discipline survived, becoming gradually, as time passed, nothing more personal to them than a pleasant legend kept alive and nourished in the carefully guarded stories told them by Kathleen Severn and by Anthony Seagrave's old servants.
Yet, in the land, and in his own city of Manhattan, their grandfather had been a very grand man, with his large fortune, now doubled and still increasing; he had been a very distinguished man in the world of fashion with his cultivated taste in art and wine and letters and horses; he had been a very important man, too, in the civic, social, and political construction of New York town, in the quaint days when the sexton of Old Trinity furnished fashionable hostesses with data concerning the availability of social aspirants. He had been a courtly and fascinating man, too. He had died a drunkard.
Now his grandchildren were fast forgetting him. The town had long since forgotten him. Only an old friend or two and his old servants remembered what he had been, his virtues, his magnificence, his kindness, and his weakness.
But if the Seagrave twins possessed neither father nor mother to exercise tender temporal and spiritual suzerainty in the nursery, and if no memory of their grandfather's adoring authority remained, the last will and testament of Anthony Seagrave had provided a marvellous, man-created substitute for the dead: a vast, shadowy thing which ruled their lives with passionless precision; which ordered their waking hours even to the minutest particulars; which assumed machine-like charge of their persons, their personal expenses, their bringing-up, their schooling, the items of their daily routine.
This colossal automaton, almost terrifyingly impersonal, loomed always above them, throwing its powerful and gigantic shadow across their lives. As they grew old enough to understand, it became to them the embodiment of occult and unpleasant authority which controlled their coming and going; which chose for them their personal but not their legal guardian, Kathleen Severn; which fixed upon the number of servants necessary for the house that Anthony Seagrave directed should be maintained for his grandchildren; which decided what kind of expenses, what sort of clothing, what recreations, what accomplishments, what studies, what religion they should be provided with.
And the name of this enormous man-contrived machine which took the place of father and mother was the Half Moon Trust Company, acting as trustee, guardian, and executor for two little children, who neither understood why they were sometimes very unruly or that they would one day be very, very rich.
As for their outbreaks, an intense sense of loneliness for which they were unable to account was always followed by a period of restlessness sure to culminate in violent misbehaviour.
Such an outbreak had been long impending. So when a telegram called away their personal guardian, Kathleen Severn, the children broke loose with the delicate fury of the April tempest outside, which all the morning had been blotting the western windows with gusts of fragrant rain.
The storm was passing now; light volleys of rain still arrived at intervals, slackening as the spring sun broke out, gilding naked branches and bare brown earth, touching swelling buds and the frail points of tulips which pricked the soaked loam in close-set thickets.
From the library bay windows where they stood, the children noticed dandelions in the grass and snowdrops under the trees and recognised the green signals of daffodil and narcissus.
Already crocuses, mauve, white, and yellow, glimmered along a dripping privet hedge which crowned the brick and granite wall bounding the domain of Seagrave. East, through the trees, they could see the roofs of electric cars speeding up and down Madison Avenue, and the houses facing that avenue. North and south were quiet streets; westward Fifth Avenue ran, a sheet of wet, golden asphalt glittering under the spring sun, and beyond it, above the high retaining wall, budding trees stood out against the sky, and the waters of the Park reservoirs sparkled behind.
"I am glad it's spring, anyway," said Geraldine listlessly.
"What's the good of it?" asked Scott. "We'll have to take all our exercise with Kathleen just the same, and watch other children having good times. What's the use of spring?"
"Spring is tiresome," admitted Geraldine thoughtfully.
"So is winter. I think either would be all right if they'd only let me have a few friends. There are plenty of boys I'd like to have some fun with if they'd let me."
"I wonder," mused Geraldine, "if there is anything the matter with us, Scott?"
"Oh—I don't know. People stare at us so—nurses always watch us and begin to whisper as soon as we come along. Do you know what a boy said to me once when I skated very far ahead of Kathleen?"
"What did he say?" inquired Scott, flattening his nose against the window-pane to see whether it still hurt him.
"He asked me if I were too rich and proud to play with other children. I was so surprised; and I said that we were not rich at all, and that I never had had any money, and that I was not a bit proud, and would love to stay and play with him if Kathleen permitted me."
"Did Kathleen let you? Of course she didn't."
"I told her what the boy said and I showed her the boy, but she wouldn't let me stay and play."
"Kathleen's a pig."
"No, she isn't, poor dear. They make her act that way—Mr. Tappan makes her. Our grandfather didn't want us to have friends."
"I'll tell you what," said Scott impatiently, "when I'm old enough, I'll have other boys to play with whether Kathleen and—and that Thing—likes it or not."
The Thing was the Half Moon Trust Company.
Geraldine glanced back at the portrait over the divan:
"Do you know," she ventured, "that I believe mother would have let us have fun."
"I'll bet father would, too," said Scott. "Sometimes I feel like kicking over everything in the house."
"So do I and I generally do it," observed Geraldine, lifting a slim, graceful leg and sending a sofa-cushion flying.
When they had kicked all the cushions from the sofas and divans, Scott suggested that they go out and help Schmitt, the gardener, who, at that moment, came into view on the lawn, followed by Olsen wheeling a barrowful of seedlings in wooden trays.
So the children descended to the main hall and marched through it, defying Lang, the second man, refusing hats and overshoes; and presently were digging blissfully in a flower-bed under the delighted directions of Schmitt.
"What are these things, anyway?" demanded Scott, ramming down the moist earth around a fragile rootlet from which trailed a green leaf or two.
"Dot vas a verpena, sir," explained the old gardener. "Now you shall vatch him grow."
The boy remained squatting for several minutes, staring hard at the seedling.
"I can't see it grow," he said to his sister, "and I'm not going to sit here all day waiting. Come on!" And he gave her a fraternal slap.
Geraldine wiped her hands on her knickerbockers and started after him; and away they raced around the house, past the fountains, under trees by the coach-house, across paths and lawns and flower-beds, tearing about like a pair of demented kittens. They frisked, climbed trees, chased each other, wrestled, clutched, tumbled, got mad, made up, and finally, removing shoes and stockings, began a game of leapfrog.
Horror-stricken nurses arrived bearing dry towels and footgear, and were received with fury and a volley of last year's horse-chestnuts. And when the enemy had been handsomely repulsed, the children started on a tour of exploration, picking their way with tender, naked feet to the northern hedge.
Here Geraldine mounted on Scott's shoulders and drew herself up to the iron railing which ran along the top of the granite-capped wall between hedge and street; and Scott followed her, both pockets stuffed with chestnuts which he had prudently gathered in the shrubbery.
In the street below there were few passers-by. Each individual wayfarer, however, received careful attention, Scott having divided the chestnuts, and the aim of both children being excellent.
They had been awaiting a new victim for some time, when suddenly Geraldine pinched her brother with eager satisfaction:
"Oh, Scott! there comes that boy I told you about!"
"The one who asked me if I was too rich and proud to play with him. And that must be his sister; they look alike."
"All right," said Scott; "we'll give them a volley. You take the nurse and I'll fix the boy… . Ready… . Fire!"
The ambuscade was perfectly successful; the nurse halted and looked up, expressing herself definitely upon the manners and customs of the twins; the boy, who appeared to be amazingly agile, seized a swinging wistaria vine, clambered up the wall, and, clinging to the outside of the iron railing, informed Scott that he would punch his head when a pleasing opportunity presented itself.
"All right," retorted Scott; "come in and do it now."
"That's all very well for you to say when you know I can't climb over this railing!"
"I'll tell you what I'll do," said Scott, thrilled at the chance of another boy on the grounds even if he had to fight him; "I'll tell you what!" sinking his voice to an eager whisper; "You run away from your nurse as soon as you get into the Park and I'll be at the front door and I'll let you in. Will you?"
"Oh, please!" whispered Geraldine; "and bring your sister, too!"
The boy stared at her knickerbockers. "Do you want to fight my sister?" he asked.
"I? Oh, no, no, no. You can fight Scott if you like, and your sister and I will have such fun watching you. Will you?"
His nurse was calling him to descend, in tones agitated and peremptory; the boy hesitated, scowled at Scott, looked uncertainly at Geraldine, then shot a hasty and hostile glance at the interior of the mysterious Seagrave estate. Curiosity overcame him; also, perhaps, a natural desire for battle.
"Yes," he said to Scott, "I'll come back and punch your head for you."
And very deftly, clinging like a squirrel to the pendant wistaria, he let himself down into the street again.
The Seagrave twins, intensely excited, watched them as far as Fifth Avenue, then rapidly drawing on their shoes and stockings, scrambled down to the shrubbery and raced for the house. Through it they passed like a double whirlwind; feeble and perfunctory resistance was offered by their nurses.
"Get out of my way!" said Geraldine fiercely; "do you think I'm going to miss the first chance for some fun that I've ever had in all my life?"
At the same moment, through the glass-sheeted grill Scott discovered two small figures dashing up the drive to the porte-cochere. And he turned on Lang like a wild cat.
Lang, the man at the door, was disposed to defend his post; Scott prepared to fly at him, but his sister intervened:
"Oh, Lang," she pleaded, jumping up and down in an agony of apprehension, "please, please, let them in! We've never had any friends." She caught his arm piteously; he looked fearfully embarrassed, for the Seagrave livery was still new to him; nor, during his brief service, had he fully digested the significance of the policy which so rigidly guarded these little children lest rumour from without apprise them of their financial future and the contaminating realisation undermine their simplicity.
As he stood, undecided, Geraldine suddenly jerked his hand from the bronze knob and Scott flung open the door.
"Come on! Quick!" he cried; and the next moment four small pairs of feet were flying through the hall, echoing lightly across the terrace, then skimming the lawn to the sheltering shrubbery beyond.
"The thing to do," panted Scott, "is to keep out of sight." He seized his guests by the arms and drew them behind the rhododendrons. "Now," he said, "what's your name? You, I mean!"
"Duane Mallett," replied the boy, breathless. "That's my sister, Naida. Let's wait a moment before we begin to fight; Naida and I had to run like fury to get away from our nurse."
Naida was examining Geraldine with an interest almost respectful.
"I wish they'd let me dress like a boy," she said. "It's fun, isn't it?"
"Yes. They don't let me do it; I just did it," replied Geraldine. "I'll get you a suit of Scott's clothes, if you like. I can get the boxing-gloves at the same time. Shall I, Scott?"
"Go ahead," said Scott; "we can pretend there are four boys here." And, to Duane, as Geraldine sped cautiously away on her errand: "That's a thing I never did before."
"Play with three boys all by myself. Kathleen—who is Mrs. Severn, our guardian—is always with us when we are permitted to speak to other boys and girls."
"That's babyish," remarked Duane in frank disgust. "You are a mollycoddle."
The deep red of mortification spread over Scott's face; he looked shyly at Naida, doubly distressed that a girl should hear the degrading term applied to him. The small girl returned his gaze without a particle of expression in her face.
"Mollycoddles," continued Duane cruelly, "do the sort of things you do. You're one."
"I—don't want to be one," stammered Scott. "How can I help it?"
Duane ignored the appeal. "Playing with three boys isn't anything," he said. "I play with forty every day."
"W-where?" asked Scott, overwhelmed.
"In school, of course—at recess—and before nine, and after one. We have fine times. School's all right. Don't you even go to school?"
Scott shook his head, too ashamed to speak. Naida, with a flirt of her kilted skirts, had abruptly turned her back on him; yet he was miserably certain she was listening to her brother's merciless catechism.
"I suppose you don't even know how to play hockey," commented Duane contemptuously.
There was no answer.
"What do you do? Play with dolls? Oh, what a molly!"
Scott raised his head; he had grown quite white. Naida, turning, saw the look on the boy's face.
"Duane doesn't mean that," she said; "he's only teasing."
Geraldine came hurrying back with the boxing-gloves and a suit of Scott's very best clothes, halting when she perceived the situation, for Scott had walked up to Duane, and the boys stood glaring at one another, hands doubling up into fists.
"You think I'm a molly?" asked Scott in a curiously still voice.
"Yes, I do."
"Oh, Scott!" cried Geraldine, pushing in between them, "you'll have to hammer him well for that——"
Naida turned and shoved her brother aside:
"I don't want you to fight him," she said. "I like him."
"Oh, but they must fight, you know," explained Geraldine earnestly. "If we didn't fight, we'd really be what you call us. Put on Scott's clothes, Naida, and while our brothers are fighting, you and I will wrestle to prove that I'm not a mollycoddle——"
"I don't want to," said Naida tremulously. "I like you, too——"
"Well, you're one if you don't!" retorted Geraldine. "You can like anybody and have fun fighting them, too."
"Put on those clothes, Naida," said Duane sternly. "Are you going to take a dare?"
So she retired very unwillingly into the hedge to costume herself while the two boys invested their fists with the soft chamois gloves of combat.
"We won't bother to shake hands," observed Scott. "Are you ready?"
"Yes, you will, too," insisted Geraldine; "shake hands before you begin to fight!"
"I won't," retorted Scott sullenly; "shake hands with anybody who calls me—what he did."
"Very well then; if you don't, I'll put on those gloves and fight you myself."
Duane's eyes flew wide open and he gazed upon Geraldine with newly mixed emotions. She walked over to her brother and said:
"Remember what Howker told us that father used to say—that squabbling is disgraceful but a good fight is all right. Duane called you a silly name. Instead of disputing about it and calling each other names, you ought to settle it with a fight and be friends afterward… . Isn't that so, Duane?"
Duane seemed doubtful.
"Isn't it so?" she repeated fiercely, stepping so swiftly in front of him that he jumped back.
"Yes, I guess so," he admitted; and the sudden smile which Geraldine flashed on him completed his subjection.
Naida, in her boy's clothes, came out, her hands in her pockets, strutting a little and occasionally bending far over to catch a view of herself as best she might.
"All ready!" cried Geraldine; "begin! Look out, Naida; I'm going to throw you."
Behind her the two boys touched gloves, then Scott rushed his man.
At the same moment Geraldine seized Naida.
"We are not to pull hair," she said; "remember! Now, dear, look out for yourself!"
Of that classic tournament between the clans of Mallett and Seagrave the chronicles are lacking. Doubtless their ancestors before them joined joyously in battle, confident that all details of their prowess would be carefully recorded by the family minstrel.
But the battle of that Saturday noon hour was witnessed only by the sparrows, who were too busy lugging bits of straw and twine to half-completed nests in the cornices of the House of Seagrave, to pay much attention to the combat of the Seagrave children, who had gone quite mad with the happiness of companionship and were expressing it with all their might.
Naida's dark curls mingled with the grass several times before Geraldine comprehended that her new companion was absurdly at her mercy; and then she seized her with all the desperation of first possession and kissed her hard.
"It's ended," breathed Geraldine tremulously, "and nobody gained the victory and—you will love me, won't you?"
"I don't know—I'm all dirt." She looked at Geraldine, bewildered by the passion of the lonely child's caresses. "Yes—I do love you, Geraldine. Oh, look at those boys! How perfectly disgraceful! They must stop—make them stop, Geraldine!"
Hair on end, grass-stained, dishevelled, and unspeakably dirty, the boys were now sparring for breath. Grime and perspiration streaked their countenances. Duane Mallett wore a humorously tinted eye and a prehensile upper lip; Scott's nose had again yielded to the coy persuasion of a left-handed jab and the proud blood of the Seagraves once more offended high heaven on that April day.
Geraldine, one arm imprisoning Naida's waist, walked coolly in between them:
"Don't let's fight any more. The thing to do is to get Mrs. Bramton to give you enough for four to eat and bring it back here. Scott, please shake hands with Duane."
"I wasn't licked," muttered Scott.
"Neither was I," said Duane.
"Nobody was licked by anybody," announced Geraldine. "Do get something to eat, Scott; Naida and I are starving!"
After some hesitation the boys touched gloves respectfully, and Scott shook off his mitts, and started for the kitchen.
And there, to his horror and surprise, he was confronted by Mrs. Severn, black hat, crape veil, and gloves still on, evidently that instant arrived from those occult and, as the children supposed, distant bournes of Staten Island, where the supreme mystery of all had been at work.
"Oh, Scott!" she exclaimed tremulously, "what on earth has happened? What is all this that Mrs. Farren and Howker have been telling me?"
The boy stood petrified. Then there surged over him the memory of his brief happiness in these new companions—a happiness now to be snatched away ere scarcely tasted. Into the child's dirty, disfigured face came a hunted expression; he looked about for an avenue of escape, and Kathleen Severn caught him at the same instant and drew him to her.
"What is it, Scott? Tell me, darling!"
"Nothing… . Yes, there is something. I opened the front door and let a strange boy and girl in to play with us, and I've just been fighting with him, and we were having such good times—I—" his voice broke—"I can't bear to have them go—so soon——"
Kathleen looked at him for a moment, speechless with consternation. Then:
"Where are they, Scott?"
"In the—the hedge."
"Who are they?"
"Their names are Duane Mallett and Naida Mallett. We got them to run away from their nurse. Duane's such a bully fellow." A sob choked him.
"Come with me at once," said Kathleen.
Behind the rhododendrons smiling peace was extending its pinions; Duane had produced a pocketful of jack-stones, and the three children were now seated on the grass, Naida manipulating the jacks with soiled but deft fingers.
Duane was saying to Geraldine:
"It's funny that you didn't know you were rich. Everybody says so, and all the nurses in the Park talk about it every time you and Scott walk past."
"If I'm rich," said Geraldine, "why don't I have more money?"
"Don't they let you have as much as you want?"
"No—only twenty-five cents every month… . It's my turn, Naida! Oh, bother! I missed. Go on, Duane——"
And, glancing up, her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth as Kathleen Severn, in her mourning veil and gown, came straight up to where they sat.
"Geraldine, dear, the grass is too damp to sit on," said Mrs. Severn quietly. She turned to the youthful guests, who had hastily risen.
"You are Naida Mallett, it seems; and you are Duane? Please come in now and wash and dress properly, because I am going to telephone to your mother and ask her if you may remain to luncheon and play in the nursery afterward."
Dazed, the children silently followed her; one of her arms lay loosely about the shoulders of her own charges; one encircled Naida's neck. Duane walked cautiously beside his sister.
In the house the nurses took charge; Geraldine, turning on the stairs, looked back at Kathleen Severn.
"Are you really going to let them stay?"
"Yes, I am, darling."
"And—and may we play together all alone in the nursery?"
"I think so… . I think so, dear."
She ran back down the stairs and impetuously flung herself into Kathleen's arms; then danced away to join the others in the blessed regions above.
Mrs. Severn moved slowly to the telephone, and first called up and reassured Mrs. Mallett, who, however, knew nothing about the affair, as the nurse was still scouring the Park for her charges.
Then Mrs. Severn called up the Half Moon Trust Company and presently was put into communication with Colonel Mallett, the president. To him she told the entire story, and added:
"It was inevitable that the gossip of servants should enlighten the children sooner or later. The irony of it all is that this gossip filtered in here through your son, Duane. That is how the case stands, Colonel Mallett; and I have used my judgment and permitted the children this large liberty which they have long needed, believe me, long, long needed. I hope that your trust officer, Mr. Tappan, will approve."
"Good Lord!" said Colonel Mallett over the wire. "Tappan won't stand for it! You know that he won't, Mrs. Severn. I suppose, if he consults us, we can call a directors' meeting and consider this new phase of the case."
"You ought to; the time is already here when the children should no longer suffer such utter isolation. They must make acquaintances, they must have friends, they should go to parties like other children—they ought to be given outside schooling sooner or later. All of which questions must be taken up by your directors as soon as possible, because my children are fast getting out of hand—fast getting away from me; and before I know it I shall have a young man and a young girl to account for—and to account to, colonel——"
"I'll sift out the whole matter with Mr. Tappan; I'll speak to Mr. Grandcourt and Mr. Beekman to-night. Until you hear from us, no more visitors for the children. By the way, is that matter—the one we talked over last month—definitely settled?"
"Yes. I can't help being worried by the inclination she displays. It frightens me in such a child."
"Scott doesn't show it?"
"No. He hates anything like that."
"Do the servants thoroughly understand your orders?"
"I'm a little troubled. I have given orders that no more brandied peaches are to be made or kept in the house. The child was perfectly truthful about it. She admitted filling her cologne bottle with the syrup and sipping it after she was supposed to be asleep."
"Have you found out about the sherry she stole from the kitchen?"
"Yes. She told me that for weeks she had kept it hidden and soaked a lump of sugar in it every night… . She is absolutely truthful, colonel. I've tried to make her understand the danger."
"All right. Good-bye." Kathleen Severn hung up the receiver with a deep indrawn breath.
From the nursery above came a joyous clamour and trampling and shouting.
Suddenly she covered her face with her black-gloved hands.