The kettle sat on the hob, and Mona sat on the floor, both as idle as idle could be.
"I will just wait till the kettle begins to sing," thought Mona; and became absorbed in her book again.
After a while the kettle, at any rate, seemed to repent of its laziness, for it began to hum softly, and then to hum loudly, and then to sing, but Mona was completely lost in the story she was reading, and had no mind for repentance or anything else. She did not hear the kettle's song, nor even the rattling of its cover when it boiled, though it seemed to be trying in every way to attract her attention. It went on trying, too, until at last it had no power to try any longer, for the fire had died low, and the kettle grew so chilly it had not even the heart to 'hum,' but sat on the black, gloomy-looking stove, looking black and gloomy too, and, if kettles have any power to think, it was probably thinking that poor old granny Barnes' tea would be scarcely worth drinking when she came home presently, tired and hungry, from her walk to Milbrook, for Mona, even if she realised that the water had boiled, would never dream of emptying it away and filling the kettle afresh, as she should do.
But Mona had no thought for kettles, or tea, or granny either, for her whole mind, her eyes, her ears, and all her senses were with the heroine of the fascinating story she was absorbed in; and who could remember fires and kettles and other commonplace things when one was driving through a lovely park in a beautiful pony carriage, drawn by cream-coloured ponies, and seated beside an exquisitely dressed little lady who had more money than she could count, and insisted on sharing all with her companion?
Mona certainly could not. She never could manage to remember two things at the same time; so, as all her thoughts were absorbed by her golden-haired friend in the blue silk frock, granny in her old black merino and heavy boots was forgotten as completely as the fire, and it was not until someone came stumbling up the garden path and a tired voice said, "Well, dearie, I'm come at last, how have you got on since I've been gone?" that she remembered anything about either; and when she did she felt almost sorry that granny had come quite so soon, for if she had only been a few minutes later Mona might just have finished the chapter.
"Oh, I'm so tired!" groaned granny, dropping wearily into her arm-chair. "I have been longing for a nice cup of tea for this hour and more." Then, as her eyes fell on the black grate, her voice changed to one of dismay. "Why, Mona!" she cried, "the fire's gone clean out! Oh, dear! oh, dear!" Granny's voice was full of disappointment. With anyone but Mona she would have been very cross indeed, but she was rarely cross with her. "I daresay it'll catch up again quickly with a few sticks," she added patiently.
Mona, really ashamed of herself, ran out to the little wood-rick which stood always in the back-yard. "Stupid old fire," she muttered impatiently, "of course it must go out, just to spite me because I wanted to have a little read," and she jerked out the sticks with such force that a whole pile of faggots came tumbling down to the ground. She did not stay, though, to pick them up again, for she really was sorry for her carelessness, and wanted to try and catch up the fire as quickly as possible. She had fully meant to have a nice fire, and the tea laid, and the kettle on the point of boiling, and everything as nice as could be by the time her grandmother got back from the town. But one never got any credit for what one meant to do, thought Mona with a feeling of self-pity.
By the time she got back to the kitchen her grandmother had taken off her bonnet and shawl and was putting on her apron. "My feet do ache," she sighed. "The roads are so rough, and it's a good step to Milbrook and back—leastways it seems so when you're past sixty."
Mona felt another pang of shame, for it was she who should have gone to the town to do the shopping; but she had not wanted to, and had complained of being tired, and so granny had gone herself, and Mona had let her.
"Let me unlace your boots, granny, and get your slippers for you." She thought she would feel less guilty if she did something to make her grandmother more comfortable. "You sit down in your chair, I'll do all that's got to be done."
Mrs. Barnes leaned back with a sigh of relief. "Bless the dear child," she thought affectionately, "how she does think for her old granny!" She had already forgotten that Mona had let the fire go out, and neglected to make any preparations for her home-coming; and Mona, who could be very thoughtful and kind if she chose, knelt down and unlaced the heavy boots, and slipped the warm, comfortable slippers on to the tired old feet, laughing and chattering cheerfully the while.
"Now you are to sit there, gran, and not to dare to move to do one single thing. I'm going to talk to that fire, and you'll see how I'll coax him up in no time, and if that kettle doesn't sing in five minutes I'll take the poker to him." And, whether it was because of her coaxing or not, the fire soon flamed cheerfully, and the kettle, being already warm, began to sing almost as soon as Mona had got the cloth spread.
While she waited for it to come to boiling point, she sat down on her little stool by the fire, and took up her book again. "Just to have a little look at the pictures for a minute," she explained. "Oh, granny, it is such a lovely story, I must tell you about it."
"Yes, dear, I'd like to—some day."
But Mona did not hear the 'some day.' She was already pouring into granny's ear all she had read, and granny interjected patiently, "Yes, dearie," and "Oh my!" and "How nice!" though she was so faint and weary she could not take in half of Mona's chatter.
Presently the kettle boiled again, but Mona was once more lost to everything but her story, and it was granny who got up and made the tea.
"It's all ready, dearie," she said, as she sank into her chair once more. "You must tell me the rest while you are having it. Oh, there's no butter out." She had to get up again and drag her aching feet to the little larder for the butter, and as soon as she had settled herself again she had to get up and get a teaspoon. Mona had forgotten a half of the things she should have laid, and she had forgotten, too, that granny was tired.
"And oh, granny," she went on breathlessly, "on her birthday Pauline wore a muslin dress, with blue forget-me-nots worked all over it, and a blue sash, and—and a hat just covered with forget-me-nots."
"She must have looked like a bed of them," remarked Granny.
"Oh, I think she looked perfectly sweet! I'd love to have clothes like she had. Of course, she didn't have to do any work—nothing at all all day long."
"Well, I know a little girl who doesn't do much," remarked granny quietly, but Mona did not hear her.
"Granny, do you think I'll be able to have a new hat this summer? Mine is ever so shabby—and shall I have forget-me-nots on it? I'd rather have forget-me-nots than anything. I suppose I couldn't have a blue sash to wear with it, could I, Gran? I don't think they cost very very much. Millie Higgins, in at Seacombe, had a plaid one, and she was sure it didn't cost a great deal, she said. Her uncle brought it to her, but Millie never wears it. She doesn't like plaid; she wishes it was pink. I'd wear it if 'twas mine, but I'd rather have a blue one. Do you think I can have a new hat, granny?"
"We will see. If your father is able to send some more money for you I might be able to manage it; but with your stepmother always ailing his money seems to be all wanted for doctor's bills and medicines. It does seem hard."
Mona's face fell. "And I don't suppose the medicine does any good, do you, granny?"
"Some folks believe in it, and I s'pose if you believe in it it does you good. For my own part, I never had but two bottles in my life, and I don't see that I'm any the worse for going without. In fact, I——"
Mona, who always sat at the side of the table facing the window, sprang to her feet excitedly. "Why, it's the postman! and he's coming in here," she interrupted, and was at the door to meet him before he had power to knock. She came back more slowly, carefully studying the one letter she held. "It's from father," she said eagerly, as she at last handed it to her grandmother. "Oh, granny! I wonder if he has sent any money?"
Granny was evidently surprised. "A letter from your father! Whatever can he be writing about? I haven't written to him since I had his last. I hope he isn't having more trouble."
"Perhaps he has written to know why you haven't," said Mona shrewdly.
"Oh, granny, do make haste and open the letter, I am longing to know what's inside!"
But letters did not come every day to Hillside Cottage, so when they did they must be made the most of. Mrs. Barnes examined the envelope back and front; the handwriting, the stamp, the postmark; then she had to go to a drawer to get a skewer with which to slit the envelope, then her spectacles had to be found, polished, and put on, and at long last she took out the letter and began to read.
Mona chafed with impatience as she watched her. Her eyes looked ready to pop out of her head with eagerness. "Why don't you let me read it to you?" she cried at last, irritably, and regretted her words as soon as they were spoken. Granny laid the letter on the table beside her and fixed her eyes on Mona instead. "I am not got past reading my own letters yet," she said sternly, looking out over the tops of her spectacles at her. Mona was dreadfully afraid they would fall off, and then the polishing and fixing process would all have to be gone through again, but she had the wisdom to hold her tongue this time, and granny took up the letter again, and at last began to read it, while Mona tried hard to read granny's face.
She did not utter aloud one word of what she was reading, but presently she gave a little half-suppressed cry.
"Oh, granny, what's the matter?" Mona could keep quiet no longer.
"Oh, dear! oh, dear! Here's a pretty fine thing. Your father wants you to go home."
Mona's face fell again. Then he had not sent any money, and she would not be able to have her hat! For the moment nothing else seemed to matter.
"What does he want me home for?" she asked sullenly.
"Your stepmother has been ill again, and the doctor says she mustn't be left alone, and must have someone to help her. She's terrible nervous when your father's away to the fishing, so you've got to be fetched home." Mrs. Barnes spoke resentfully. Her daughter, Mona's mother, had died when Mona was a sturdy little maiden of ten, and for eighteen months Mona had run wild. Her father could not bear to part with her, nor would he have anyone to live with them. So Mona had been his housekeeper, or rather, the house had kept itself, for Mona had taken no care of it, nor of her father's comforts, nor of her own clothes, or his. She just let everything go, and had a gloriously lazy, happy time, with no one to restrain her, or make her do anything she did not want to do.
She was too young, of course, to be put in such a position; but she did not even do what she might have done, and no one was surprised, and no one blamed her father—no one, at least, but Mrs. Barnes—when at the end of eighteen months he married pretty, gentle Lucy Garland, one of the housemaids at the Squire's.
Mrs. Barnes, though, resented very strongly anyone being put in her dead daughter's place, with control over her daughter's child, and she had written angrily enough to Peter, demanding that Mona should be given up to her. And though he doubted the wisdom of it, to please and pacify her, Peter Carne had let her have the child. "Not for good," he said, "for I can't part with her altogether, but for a long visit."
"If she puts Mona against Lucy, it'll be a bad job," he thought anxiously, "and mischief may be done that it'll take more than I know to undo."
However, Mona felt none of the dislike of her stepmother that her grandmother felt. In fact, she was too happy-go-lucky and fond of change to feel very strongly about anything. She had got her father's home and all his affairs into such a muddle she was not sorry to go right away and leave it all. She was tired of even the little housework she did. She hated having to get up and light the fire, and, on the whole, she was very glad for someone else to step in and take it all off her shoulders. And as she had left her home before her stepmother came to it, she had not experienced what it was to have someone in authority over her.
So Mona felt no real grievance against her stepmother, and, with all her faults, she was too healthy-minded to invent one. Her grandmother's not too kind remarks about her had fallen on indifferent ears, and, fortunately, had had no effect except to make Mona feel a sort of mild scorn for anyone so constantly ailing as Lucy Carne was.
She felt no sympathy for the cause of the ill-health, even though she knew that it all began one bitter, stormy night when Lucy and the wives of the other men who were out at sea stood for hours watching for the first signs of the little storm-tossed boats, in the agony of their hearts, deaf and blind, and entirely unconscious of the driving sheets of rain and the biting east wind which soaked and chilled them to the bone.
When at daybreak the storm lulled, and the boats, with all safe on board, were seen beating up before the wind, all the misery and wet and cold were forgotten as they hurried joyfully home to make up big fires and prepare hot food for the exhausted men. But more than one woman paid heavily for the night's experience, and Lucy Carne was among them.
For days she had lain writhing in the agony of rheumatic fever. For days she had lain at the gates of death, and when at last she came back to life again, it was such a wreck of her old self that she was scarcely able to do anything. And this in Granny Barnes' eyes had been an added grievance.
It was a greater grievance than ever now, for it meant that her grandchild, her very own daughter's child, was to be taken from her, to work for the stranger who had taken her daughter's place.
Fortunately, Mona had no such foolish thoughts. Her only grievance was that the money which might have been spent on a new hat would have to be spent on the carrier. "And nobody will be any the better for it, except Mr. Darbie, and he's got lots already. They say he has a whole bagful in a box under his bed."
"Your stepmother will be better off. She'll have you," said Granny Barnes crossly. "Well, the letter's spoilt my tea for me. Anyway, I don't want anything more. I've had enough for one while."
Mona looked surprised. "Oh, has it! I thought you were hungry, granny. I am," and she helped herself to another slice of bread and butter. "I wonder which day I'd better go?—and I must wear my best frock, mustn't I? Such a lot of people go by the van, and you've got to sit so close you can't help seeing if anybody's clothes are shabby."
"Um, you seem to have thought it all out, but you don't seem to think anything of leaving me, nor of what my feelings may be. You'd better wear your best frock and your best hat too, then your father and your stepmother will see that you want something new for Sundays. It's as well folk should learn that all the money can't be spent on doctors and physic—that there's other things wanted too!"
But this speech only sent Mona's expectations higher, and lessened her regrets at leaving. If going home to Seacombe and her new mother meant having a new hat and dress, she would only be the more pleased at having to go. She was so occupied with these thoughts that she did not notice her grandmother rise and leave the kitchen, nor did she see the tears in the sad old eyes. But her dreams of a journey, clad all in her best, were suddenly broken in upon by a sharp scream. The scream came from the backyard. Mona flew out at once. It was getting dark out of doors now, but not too dark for her to see her grandmother stretched on the ground with faggots of wood lying all around her.
For a moment Mona's heart seemed to stand still with fear. She thought her grandmother was killed, or, at any rate, had broken her leg. Then, to her intense relief, Mrs. Barnes groaned, and began to rouse herself.
"However did these things come scattered about like this, I should like to know," she cried angrily. But in her relief at knowing she was able to move and speak Mona did not mind granny's crossness.
"Didn't you pull them down?"
"I pull them down." Granny's voice was shrill with indignation. "It was they pulled me down! I wonder I wasn't killed outright. It must have been those cats that knocked them over. They are always ranging all over the yard. I shall tell Mrs. Lane if she can't keep them in she'll have to get rid of them. Oh, dear, what a shaking I've had, and I might have broke my leg and my head and everything. Well, can't you try an' give me a hand to help me up?"
But Mona was standing dumb-stricken. It had come back to her at last. It was she who had pulled down the faggots and left them. She had meant to go out again and pick them up, and, of course, had forgotten about them, and she might have been the cause of a terrible accident! She was so shocked and so full of remorse, she could not find a word to utter. Fortunately, it was dark, and her grandmother was too absorbed to notice her embarrassment. All her time was taken up in getting on to her feet again and peering about her to try and catch sight of the cats.
Perhaps if granny had been less determined to wage war on the cats, Mona might have found courage to make her confession, but while she waited for a chance to speak her courage ebbed away. She had done so many wrong things that afternoon, she was ashamed to own to more, and, after all, she thought, it would not make it better for granny if she did know who really scattered the faggots. So in the end Mona held her tongue, and contented herself with giving what assistance she could.
"This is Black Monday for me!" she said to herself as she helped her grandmother into the house again. "Never mind, I'll begin better to-morrow. There's one good thing, there's no real harm done."
She was not so sure, though, that 'no harm was done' when she woke the next morning and heard loud voices and sound of quarrelling coming from the garden. She soon, indeed, began to feel that there had been a great deal of harm done.
"Well, what I say is," her grandmother cried shrilly, "your cats were nearly the death of me, and I'll trouble you to keep them in your own place."
"And what I say is," cried her neighbour, "my cats were never near your faggot rick. They didn't go into your place at all last night; they were both asleep by my kitchen fire from three in the afternoon till after we'd had our supper. Me and my husband both saw them. You can ask him yourself if you like."
"I shan't ask him. I wouldn't stoop to bandy words about it. I know, and I've a right to my own opinion."
"Do you mean to say you don't believe what I say?" cried Mrs. Lane indignantly. "Do you mean to tell me I'm telling an untruth? Well, Mrs. Barnes, if you won't speak to my husband, and won't believe me, perhaps you'll ask your Mona! I daresay she can tell you how the faggots got scattered. She was out there, I saw her from——"
"That's right! Try and put it off on the poor child! Do you expect me to believe that my Mona would have left those faggots——"
"Ask her, that's all," said Mrs. Lane, meaningly. "And now I've done. I ain't going to have anything more to say. You're too vi'lent and onreasonable, Mrs. Barnes, and I'll trouble you not to address me again till you've 'pologised."
Granny laughed, a short sarcastic laugh. "'Pologise!" she cried shrilly, "and me in the right too! No, not if I lived next door to you for fifty years, I wouldn't 'pologise. When you've 'pologised to me, Mrs. Lane, I'll begin to think about speaking to you again."
Mona, standing shivering by the window, listened to it all with a sick feeling of shame and dismay. "Oh, why does granny say such dreadful things! Oh, I wish I'd spoken out at once! Now, when granny asks me, I shall have to tell her, and oh," miserably, "won't she be angry?"
But Mona escaped that ordeal. Her grandmother did not mention the subject, for one reason; she felt too unwell; an outburst of anger always made her ill; and for another, she was already ashamed of herself and of what she had said. Altogether, she was so uncomfortable about the whole matter, and so ashamed, and vexed, she wanted to try to forget all about it.