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CHAPTER I. — A DISPERSION
CHAPTER II. — ROCKQUAY
CHAPTER III. — PERPETUAL MOTION
CHAPTER IV. — THE QUEEN OF THE WHITE ANTS
CHAPTER V. — MARBLES
CHAPTER VI. — SINGLE MISFORTUNES NEVER COME ALONE
CHAPTER VII. — AN EMPTY NEST
CHAPTER VIII. — GILLIAN'S PUPIL
CHAPTER IX. — GAUGING AJEE
CHAPTER X. — AUT CAESAR AUT NIHIL
CHAPTER XI. — LADY MERRIFIELD'S CHRISTMAS LETTER-BAG
CHAPTER XII. — TRANSFORMATION
CHAPTER XIII. — ST. VALENTINE'S DAY
CHAPTER XIV. — THE PARTNER
CHAPTER XV. — THE ROCKS OF ROCKSTONE
CHAPTER XVI. — VANISHED
CHAPTER XVII. — 'THEY COME, THEY COME'
CHAPTER XVIII. — FATHER AND MOTHER
CHAPTER XIX. — THE KNIGHT AND THE DRAGON
CHAPTER XX. — IVINGHOE TERRACE
CHAPTER XXI. — BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
CHAPTER XXII. — THE MAIDEN ALL FORLORN
CHAPTER XXIII. — FANGS
CHAPTER XXIV. — CONCLUSION
CHAPTER I. — A DISPERSION
'A telegram! Make haste and open it, Jane; they always make me so nervous! I believe that is the reason Reginald always will telegraph when he is coming,' said Miss Adeline Mohun, a very pretty, well preserved, though delicate-looking lady of some age about forty, as her elder sister, brisk and lively and some years older, came into the room.
'No, it is not Reggie. It is from Lily. Poor Lily! Jasper—accident—Come.'
'Poor dear Lily! Is it young Jasper or old Jasper, I wonder?'
'If it were young Jasper she would have put Japs. I am afraid it is her husband. If so, she will be going off to him. I must catch the 11.20 train. Will you come, Ada?'
'Oh no; I should be knocked up, and on your hands. The suspense is bad enough at home.'
'If it is old Jasper, we shall see in the paper to-day. I will send it down to you from the station. Supposing it is Sir Jasper, and she wants to go out to him, we must take in some of the children.'
'Oh! Dear little Primrose would be nice enough, but what should we do with that Halfpenny woman? If we had the other girls, I suppose they would be at school all day; but surely some might go to Beechcroft. And mind, Jane, I will not have you overtasking yourself! Do not take any of them without having Gillian to help you. That I stipulate.'
Jane Mohun seemed as if she did not hear as these sentences were uttered at intervals, while she stood dashing off postcards at her davenport. Then she said, on her way to the door—
'Don't expect me to-night. I will send Fanny to ask one of the Wellands to come in to you, and telegraph if I bring any one home with me.'
'But, Jane dear—'
However, the door was shut, and by the time Miss Adeline had reached her sister's room, the ever-ready bag was nearly packed.
'I only wanted to say, dear Jane, that you must give my love to dear Lily. I am grieved—grieved for her; but indeed you must not undertake anything rash.' (A shake of the head, as the shoes went into their neat bag.) 'Do not let her persuade you to stay at Silverfold in her absence. You cannot give up everything here.'
'Yes, yes, Ada, I know it does not suit you. Never fear.'
'It is not that, but you are much too useful here to drop everything, especially now every one is away. I would willingly sacrifice myself, but—'
'Yes, I know, Ada dear. Now, good-bye, and take care of yourself, and don't be nervous. It may mean only that young Japs has twisted his little finger.'
And with a kiss, Miss Mohun ran downstairs as fast and lightly as if her years had been half their amount, and accomplished her orders to Fanny—otherwise Mrs. Mount—a Beechcroft native, who, on being left a widow, had returned to her former mistresses, bringing with her a daughter, who had grown up into an efficient housemaid. After a few words with her, Miss Mohun sped on, finding time at the station to purchase a morning paper just come down, and to read among the telegrams—
'COLOMBO, Sept. 3rd.
'Lieutenant-General Sir Jasper Merrifield, G.C.B., has been thrown from his horse, and received severe injuries.'
She despatched this paper to her sister by a special messenger, whom she had captured by the way, and was soon after in the train, knitting and pondering.
At Silverton station she saw the pony carriage, and in it her niece Gillian, a girl not quite seventeen, with brown eyes showing traces of tears.
'Mamma knew you would come,' she said.
'You have heard direct, of course.'
'Yes; Claude telegraphed. The horse fell over a precipice. Papa's leg and three ribs are broken. Not dangerous. That is all it says; and mamma is going out to him directly.'
'I was quite sure she would. Well, Gillian, we must do the best we can. Has she any plans?'
'I think she waited for you to settle them. Hal is come; he wanted to go with her, but she says it will cost too much, and besides, there is his Ordination in Advent.'
'Has she telegraphed to your uncles?'
'To Beechcroft and to Stokesley; but we don't quite know where Uncle Reginald is. Perhaps he will see the paper.'
Gillian's tears were flowing again, and her aunt said—
'Come, my dear, you must not give way; you must do all you can to make it better for your mother.'
'I know,' she answered. 'Indeed, I didn't cry till I sat waiting, and it all came over me. Poor papa! and what a journey mamma will have, and how dreadful it will be without her! But I know that it is horrid of me, when papa and my sisters must want her so much more.'
'That's right—quite right to keep up before her. It does not sound to me so bad, after all; perhaps they will telegraph again to stop her. Did Claude ask her to come out?'
'Oh no! There were only those few words.'
No more could be learnt till the pony stopped at the door, and Hal ran out to hand out his aunt, and beg her privately to persuade his mother to take him, or, if she would not consent to that, at least to have Macrae, the old soldier-servant, with her—it was not fit for her to travel alone.
Lady Merrifield looked very pale, and squeezed her sister close in her arms as she said—
'You are my great help, Jenny.'
'And must you go?'
'Without waiting to hear more?'
'There is no use in losing time. I cannot cross from Folkestone till the day after to-morrow, at night. I must go to London to-morrow, and sleep at Mrs. Merrifield's.'
'But this does not seem to me so very bad.'
'Oh, no, no! but when I get there in three weeks' time, it will be just when I shall be most wanted. The nursing will have told on the girls, and Jasper will be feeling weary of being laid up, and wanting to take liberties.'
'And what will you be after such a journey?'
'Just up to keeping him in order. Come, you have too much sense to expostulate, Jenny.'
'No; you would wear yourself to fiddle-strings if you stayed at home. I only want you to take Hal, or Macrae.'
'Hal is out of the question, I would not interfere with his preparation on any account. Macrae would be a very costly article; and, moreover, I want him to act major-domo here, unless you would, and that I don't dare to hope for.'
'No, you must not, Lily; Ada never feels well here, nor always at Brighton, and Emily would be too nervous to have her without me. But we will take as many children as you please, or we have room for.'
'That is like you, Jenny. I know William will offer to take them in at home, but I cannot send them without Miss Vincent; and she cannot leave her mother, who has had a sort of stroke. Otherwise I should try leaving them here while I am away, but the poor old lady is in no state for it—in fact, I doubt her living long.'
'I know; you have been governess by yourself these last weeks; it will be well to relieve her. The best way will be for us to take Mysie and Valetta, and let them go to the High School; and there is a capital day-school for little boys, close to St. Andrew's, for Fergus, and Gillian can go there too, or join classes in whatever she pleases.'
'My Brownie! Have you really room for all those?'
'Oh yes! The three girls in the spare room and dressing-room, and Fergus in the little room over the porch. I will write to Fanny; I gave her a hint.'
'And I have no doubt that Primrose will be a delight to her aunt Alethea, poor little dear! Yes, that makes it all easy, for in the holidays I know the boys are sure of a welcome at the dear old home, or Hal might have one or two of them at his Curacy.'
The gong sounded for the melancholy dinner that had to go on all the same, and in the midst all were startled by the arrival of a telegram, which Macrae, looking awestruck, actually delivered to Harry instead of to his mistress; but it was not from Ceylon. It was from Colonel Mohun, from Beechcroft: 'Coming 6.30. Going with you. Send children here.'
Never were twenty words, including addresses, more satisfactory. The tears came, for the first time, to Lady Merrifield's eyes at the kindness of her brothers, and Harry was quite satisfied that his uncle would be a far better escort than himself or Macrae. Aunt Jane went off to send her telegram home and write some needful letters, and Lady Merrifield announced her arrangements to those whom they concerned.
'Oh! mamma, don't,' exclaimed Valetta; 'all the guinea-pigs will die.'
'I thought,' said Gillian, 'that we might stay here with Miss Vincent to look after us.'
'That will not do in her mother's state. Mrs. Vincent cannot be moved up here, and I could not lay such a burthen on them.'
'We would be very good,' said Val.
'That, I hope, you will be any way; but I think it will be easier at Rockstone, and I am quite sure that papa and I shall be better satisfied about you.'
'Mayn't we take Quiz!' asked Fergus.
'And Rigdum Funnidos?' cried Valetta.
'And Ruff and Ring?' chimed in Mysie.
'My dear children, I don't see how Aunt Jane can be troubled with any more animals than your four selves. You must ask her, only do not be surprised or put out if she refuses, for I don't believe you can keep anything there.'
Off the three younger ones went, Gillian observing, 'I don't see how they can, unless it was Quiz; but, mamma, don't you think I might go to Beechcroft with Primrose? I should be so much quieter working for the examination there, and I could send my exercises to Miss Vincent; and then I should keep up Prim's lessons.'
'Your aunt Alethea will, I know, like doing that, my dear; and I am afraid to turn those creatures loose on the aunts without someone to look after them and their clothes. Fanny will be very helpful; but it will not do to throw too much on her.'
'Oh! I thought they would have Lois—'
'There would not be room for her; besides that, I don't think it would suit your aunts. You and Mysie ought to do all the mending for yourselves and Fergus, and what Valetta cannot manage. I know you would rather be at Beechcroft, my dear; but in this distress and difficulty, some individual likings must be given up.'
Lady Merrifield looked rather dubiously at her daughter. She had very little time, and did not want to have an argument, nor to elicit murmurs, yet it might be better to see what was in Gillian's mind before it was too late. Mothers, very fond of their own sisters, cannot always understand why it is not the same with their daughters, who inherit another element of inherited character, and of another generation, and who have not been welded together with the aunts in childhood. 'My dear,' she said, 'you know I am quite ready to hear if you have any real reasonable objection to this arrangement.'
'No, mamma, I don't think I have,' said Gillian thoughtfully. 'The not liking always meeting a lot of strangers, nor the general bustle, is all nonsense, I know quite well. I see it is best for the children, but I should like to know exactly who is to be in authority over them.'
'Certainly Aunt Jane,' replied Lady Merrifield. 'She must be the ultimate authority. Of course you will check the younger ones in anything going wrong, as you would here, and very likely there will be more restrictions. Aunt Ada has to be considered, and it will be a town life; but remember that your aunt is mistress of the house, and that even if you do think her arrangements uncalled for, it is your duty to help the others to submit cheerfully. Say anything you please fully and freely in your letters to me, but don't let there be any collisions of authority. Jane will listen kindly, I know, in private to any representation you may like to make, but to say before the children, "Mamma always lets them," would be most mischievous.'
'I see,' said Gillian. 'Indeed, I will do my best, mamma, and it will not be for very long.'
'I hope and trust not, my dear child. Perhaps we shall all meet by Easter—papa, and all; but you must not make too sure. There may be delays. Now I must see Halfpenny. I cannot talk to you any more, my Gillyflower, though I am leaving volumes unsaid.
Gillian found Aunt Jane emerging from her room, and beset by her three future guests.
'Aunt Jane, may we bring Quiz?'
'And Rigdum Funnidos and Lady Rigdum?'
'And Ruff and Ring? They are the sweetest doves in the world.'
'Doves! Oh, Mysie, they would drive your aunt Ada distracted, with coo-roo-roo at four o'clock in the morning, just as she goes off to sleep.'
'The Rigdums make no noise but a dear little chirp,' triumphantly exclaimed Valetta.
'Do you mean the kittens? We have a vacancy for one cat, you know.'
Oh yes, we want you to choose between Artaxerxes and the Sofy. But the Rigdums are the eldest pair of guinea-pigs. They are so fond of me, that I know poor old Funnidos will die of grief if I go away and leave him.'
'I sincerely hope not, Valetta, for, indeed, there is no place to put him in.'
'I don't think he would mind living in the cellar if he only saw me once a day,' piteously pleaded Valetta.
'Indeed, Val, the dark and damp would surely kill the poor thing, in spite of your attentions. You must make up your mind to separation from your pets, excepting the kitten.'
Valetta burst out crying at this last drop that made the bucket overflow, but Fergus exclaimed: 'Quiz! Aunt Jane! He always goes about with us, and always behaves like a gentleman, don't you, Quizzy?' and the little Maltese, who perfectly well understood that there was trouble in the air, sat straight up, crossed his paws, and looked touchingly wistful.
'Poor dear little fellow!' said Aunt Jane; 'yes, I knew he would be good, but Kunz would be horribly, jealous, you see; he is an only dog, and can't bear to have his premises invaded.'
'He ought to be taught better,' said Fergus gravely.
'So he ought,' Aunt Jane confessed; 'but he is too old to begin learning, and Aunt Ada and Mrs. Mount would never bear to see him disturbed. Besides, I really do not think Quiz would be half so well off there as among his own friends and places here, with Macrae to take care of him.' Then as Fergus began to pucker his face, she added, 'I am really very sorry to be so disagreeable.'
'The children must not be unreasonable,' said Gillian sagely, as she came up.
'And I am to choose between Xerxes and Artaxerxes, is it?' said Aunt Jane.
'No, the Sofy,' said Mysie. 'A Sofy is a Persian philosopher, and this kitten has got the wisest face.'
'Run and fetch them,' suggested her aunt, 'and then we can choose. Oh,' she added, with some relief at the thought, 'if it is an object to dispose of Cockie, we could manage him.'
The two younger ones were gratified, but Gillian and Mysie both exclaimed that Cockie's exclusive affections were devoted to Macrae, and that they could not answer for his temper under the separation. To break up such a household was decidedly the Goose, Fox, and Cabbage problem. As Mysie observed, in the course of the search for the kittens, in the make-the-best-of-it tone, 'It was not so bad as the former moves, when they were leaving a place for good and all.'
'Ah, but no place was ever so good as this,' said poor Valetta.
'Don't be such a little donkey,' said Fergus consequentially. 'Don't you know we are going to school, and I am three years younger than Wilfred was?'
'It is only a petticoat school,' said Val, 'kept by ladies.'
'It is; I heard Harry say so.'
'And yours is all butchers and bakers and candlestick makers.'
On which they fell on each other, each with a howl of defiance. Fergus grabbed at Val's pigtail, and she was buffeting him vehemently when Harry came out, held them apart, and demanded if this were the way to make their mother easy in leaving them.
'She said it was a pet-pet-petticoat school,' sobbed Fergus.
'And so it ought to be, for boys that fight with girls.'
'And he said mine was all butchers and bakers and candlestick makers,' whined Valetta.
'Then you'd better learn manners, or they'll take you for a tramp,' observed Harry; but at that moment Mysie broke in with a shout at having discovered the kittens making a plaything of the best library pen-wiper, their mother, the sleek Begum, abetting them, and they were borne off to display the coming glories of their deep fur to Aunt Jane.
Her choice fell upon the Sofy, as much because of the convenience of the name as because of the preternatural wisdom of expression imparted by the sweep of the black lines on the gray visage. Mr. Pollock's landlady was to be the happy possessor of Artaxerxes, and the turbulent portion of the Household was disposed of to bear him thither, and to beg Miss Hacket to give Buff and Ring the run of her cage, whence they had originally come, also to deliver various messages and notes.
By the time they returned, Colonel Mohun was met in the hall by his sister. 'Oh, Reggie, it is too good in you!' were the words that came with her fervent kiss. 'Remember how many years I have been seasoned to being "cockit up on a baggage waggon." Ought not such an old soldier as I to be able to take care of myself?'
'And what would your husband say to you when you got there? And should not I catch it from William? Well, are you packing up the youthful family for Beechcroft, except that at Rotherwood they are shrieking for Mysie?'
'I know how good William and Alethea would be. This child,' pointing to Primrose, who had been hanging on her all day in silence, 'is to go to them; but as I can't send Miss Vincent, educational advantages, as the advertisements say, lie on the side of Rockstone; so Jenny here undertakes to be troubled with the rabble.'
'But Mysie? Rotherwood met me at the station and begged me to obtain her from you. They really wish it.'
'He does, I have no doubt.'
'So does Madame la Marquise. They have been anxious about little Phyllis all the summer. She was languid and off her feed in London, and did not pick up at home as they expected. My belief is that it is too much governess and too little play, and that a fortnight here would set her up again. Rotherwood himself thinks so, and Victoria has some such inkling. At any rate, they are urgent to have Mysie with the child, as the next best thing.'
'Poor dear little Fly!' ejaculated Lady Merrifield; 'but I am afraid Mysie was not very happy there last year.'
'And what would be the effect of all the overdoing?' said Miss Mohun.
'Mysie is tougher than that sprite, and I suppose there is some relaxation,' said Lady Merrifield.
'Yes; the doctors have frightened them sufficiently for the present.
'I suppose Mysie is a prescription, poor child,' said her aunt, in a tone that evoked from her brother—
'Well, Jane,' said Lady Merrifield, 'you know how thankful I am to you and Ada, but I am inclined to let it depend on the letters I get to-morrow, and the way Victoria takes it. If it is really an earnest wish on that dear little Fly's account, I could not withstand old Rotherwood, and though Mysie might be less happy than she would be with you, I do not think any harm will be done. Everything there is sound and conscientious, and if she picks up a little polish, it won't hurt her.'
'Shall you give her the choice?'
'I see no good in rending the poor child's mind between two affections, especially as there will be a very short time to decide in, for I shall certainly not send her if Victoria's is a mere duty letter.'
'You are quite right there, Lily,' said the Colonel. 'The less choice the greater comfort.'
'Well done, sir soldier,' said his sister Jane. 'I say quite right too; only, for my own sake, I wish it had been Valetta.'
'So no doubt does she,' said the mother; 'but unluckily it isn't. And, indeed, I don't think I wish it. Val is safer with you. As Gillian expressed it the other day, "Val does right when she likes it; Mysie does right when she knows it."'
'You have the compliment after all, Jane,' said the Colonel. 'Lily trusts you with the child she doesn't trust!'
There was no doubt the next morning, for Lady Rotherwood wrote an earnest, affectionate letter, begging for Mysie, who, she said, had won such golden opinions in her former visit that it would be a real benefit to Phyllis, as much morally as physically, to have her companionship. It was the tenderest letter that either of the sisters had ever seen from the judicious and excellent Marchioness, full of warm sympathy for Lady Merrifield's anxiety for her husband, and betraying much solicitude for her little girl.
'It has done her good,' said Jane Mohun. 'I did not think she had such a soft spot.'
'Poor Victoria,' said Lady Merrifield, 'that is a shame. You know she is an excellent mother.'
'Too excellent, that's the very thing,' muttered Aunt Jane. 'Well, Mysie's fate is settled, and I dare say it will turn out for the best.'
So Mysie was to go with Mrs. Halfpenny and Primrose to Beechcroft, whence the Rotherwoods would fetch her. If the lady's letter had been much less urgent, who could have withstood her lord's postscript: 'If you could see the little pale face light up at the bare notion of seeing Mysie, you would know how grateful we shall be for her.'
Mysie herself heard her destiny without much elation, though she was very fond of Lady Phyllis, and the tears came into her eyes at the thought of her being unwell and wanting her.
'Mamma said we must not grumble,' she said to Gillian; 'but I shall feel so lost without you and Val. It is so unhomish, and there's that dreadful German Fraulein, who was not at home last time.'
'If you told mamma, perhaps she would let you stay,' returned Gillian. 'I know I should hate it, worse than I do going to Rockstone and without you.'
'That would be unkind to poor Fly,' said Mysie. 'Besides, mamma said she could not have settling and unsettling forever. And I shall see Primrose sometimes; besides, I do love Fly. It's marching orders, you know.'
It was Valetta who made the most objection. She declared that it was not fair that Mysie, who had been to the ball at Rotherwood, should go again to live with lords and ladies, while she went to a nasty day-school with butchers' and bakers' daughters. She hoped she should grow horridly vulgar, and if mamma did not like it, it would be her own fault!
Mrs. Halfpenny, who did not like to have to separate Mysie's clothes from the rest after they were packed, rather favoured this naughtiness by observing: 'The old blue merino might stay at home. Miss Mysie would be too set up to wear that among her fine folk. Set her up, that she should have all the treats, while her own Miss Gillian was turned over to the auld aunties!'
'Nonsense, nurse,' said Gillian. 'I'm much better pleased to go and be of some use! Val, you naughty child, how dare you make such a fuss?' for Valetta was crying again.
'I hate school, and I hate Rockstone, and I don't see why Mysie should always go everywhere, and wear new frocks, and I go to the butchers and bakers and wear horrid old ones.'
'I wish you could come too,' said Mysie; 'but indeed old frocks are the nicest, because one is not bothered to take so much care of them; and lords and ladies aren't a bit better to play with than, other people. In fact, Ivy is what Japs calls a muff and a stick.'
Valetta, however, cried on, and Mysie went the length of repairing to her mother, in the midst of her last notes and packings, to entreat to change with Val, who followed on tip-toe.
'Certainly not,' was the answer from Lady Merrifield, who was being worried on all sides, 'Valetta is not asked, and she is not behaving so that I could accept for her if she were.'
And Val had to turn away in floods of tears, which redoubled on being told by the united voices of her brothers and sisters that they were ashamed of her for being so selfish as to cry for herself when all were in so much trouble about papa.
Lady Merrifield caught some of the last words. 'No, my dear,' she said. 'That is not quite just or kind. It is being unhappy that makes poor Val so ready to cry about her own grievances. Only, Val, come here, and remember that fretting is not the way to meet such things. There is a better way, my child, and I think you know what I mean. Now, to help you through the time in an outer way, suppose you each set yourself some one thing to improve in while I am away. Don't tell me what it is, but let me find out when I come home.' With that she obeyed an urgent summons to speak to the gardener.
'I shall! I shall,' cried little Primrose, 'write a whole copy-book in single lines! And won't mamma be pleased? What shall you do, Fergus? and Val? and Mysie?'
'I shall get to spin my peg-top so as it will never tumble down, and will turn an engine for drawing water,' was the prompt answer of Fergus.
'What nonsense!' said Val; 'you'd better settle to get your long division sums right.'
'That s girls' stuff,' replied Fergus; 'you'd better settle to leave off crying for nothing.'
'That you had!' said several voices, and Val very nearly cried again as she exclaimed: 'Don't be all so tiresome. I shall make mamma a beautiful crewel cushion, with all the battles in history on it. And won't she be surprised!'
'I think mamma meant more than that,' said Mysie.
'Oh, Mysie, what shall you do?' asked Primrose.
'I did think of getting to translate one of mamma's favourite German stories quite through to her without wanting the dictionary or stumbling one bit,' said Mysie; 'but I am sure she meant something better and better, and I'm thinking what it is—Perhaps it is making all little Flossie Maddin's clothes, a whole suit all oneself—Or perhaps it is manners. What do you think, Gill?'
'I should say most likely it was manners for you,' volunteered Harry, 'and the extra you are most likely to acquire at Rotherwood.'
'I'm so glad,' said Mysie.
'And you, Gill,' inquired Primrose, 'what will you do? Mine is a copy-book, and Fergus's is the spinning-top-engines, and rule of three; and Val's is a crewel battle cushion and not crying; and Mysie's is German stories and manners; and what's yours, Gill?'
'Gill is so grown up, she is too good to want an inside thing' announced Primrose.
'Oh, Prim, you dear little thing,' cried both elder brother and sister, as they thought with a sort of pang of the child's opinion of grown-up impeccability.
'Harry is grown up more,' put in Fergus; 'why don't you ask him?'
'Because I know,' said Primrose, with a pretty shyness, and as they pressed her, she whispered, 'He is going to be a clergyman.'
There was a call for Mysie and Val from upstairs, and as the younger population scampered off, Gillian said to her brother—
'Is not it like "occupy till I come"?'
'So I was thinking,' said Harry gravely. 'But one must be as young as Mysie to throw one's "inside things" into the general stock of resolutions.'
'Yes,' said Gillian, with uplifted eyes. 'I do—I do hope to do something.'
Some great thing was her unspoken thought—some great and excellent achievement to be laid before her mother on her return. There was a tale begun in imitation of Bessie Merrifield, called "Hilda's Experiences". Suppose that was finished, printed, published, splendidly reviewed. Would not that be a great thing? But alas, she was under a tacit engagement never to touch it in the hours of study. CHAPTER II. — ROCKQUAY
The actual moment of a parting is often softened by the confusion of departure. That of the Merrifield family took place at the junction, where Lady Merrifield with her brother remained in the train, to be carried on to London.
Gillian, Valetta, and Fergus, with their aunt, changed into a train for Rockstone, and Harry was to return to his theological college, after seeing Mysie and Primrose off with nurse on their way to the ancestral Beechcroft, whence Mysie was to be fetched to Rotherwood. The last thing that met Lady Merrifield's eyes was Mrs. Halfpenny gesticulating wildly, under the impression that Mysie's box was going off to London.
And Gillian's tears were choked in the scurry to avoid a smoking-carriage, while Harry could not help thinking—half blaming himself for so doing—that Mysie expended more feeling in parting with Sofy, the kitten, than with her sisters, not perceiving that pussy was the safety-valve for the poor child's demonstrations of all the sorrow that was oppressing her.
Gillian, in the corner of a Rockstone carriage, had time for the full heart-sickness and tumult of fear that causes such acute suffering to young hearts. It is quite a mistake to say that youth suffers less from apprehension than does age; indeed, the very inexperience and novelty add to the alarms, where there is no background of anxieties that have ended happily, only a crowd of examples of other people's misfortunes. The difference is in the greater elasticity and power of being distracted by outward circumstances; and thus lookers-on never guess at the terrific possibilities that have scared the imagination, and the secret ejaculations that have met them. How many times on that brief journey had not Gillian seen her father dying, her sisters in despair, her mother crushed in the train, wrecked in the steamer, perishing of the climate, or arriving to find all over and dying of the shock; yet all was varied by speculations on the great thing that was to offer itself to be done, and the delight it would give, and when the train slackened, anxieties were merged in the care for bags, baskets, and umbrellas.
Rockstone and Rockquay had once been separate places—a little village perched on a cliff of a promontory, and a small fishing hamlet within the bay, but these had become merged in one, since fashion had chosen them as a winter resort. Speculators blasted away such of the rocks as they had not covered with lodging-houses and desirable residences. The inhabitants of the two places had their separate churches, and knew their own bounds perfectly well; but to the casual observer, the chief distinction between them was that Rockstone was the more fashionable, Rockquay the more commercial, although the one had its shops, the other its handsome crescents and villas. The station was at Rockquay, and there was an uphill drive to reach Rockstone, where the two Miss Mohuns had been early inhabitants—had named their cottage Beechcroft after their native home, and, to justify the title, had flanked the gate with two copper beeches, which had attained a fair growth, in spite of sea winds, perhaps because sheltered by the house on the other side.
The garden reached out to the verge of the cliff, or rather to a low wall, with iron rails and spikes at the top, and a narrow, rather giddy path beyond. There was a gate in the wall, the key of which Aunt Jane kept in her own pocket, as it gave near access to certain rocky steps, about one hundred and thirty in number, by which, when in haste, the inhabitants of Rockstone could descend to the lower regions of the Quay.
There was a most beautiful sea-view from the house, which compensated for difficulties in gardening in such a situation, though a very slight slope inwards from the verge of the cliff gave some protection to the flower-beds; and there was not only a little conservatory attached to the drawing-room at the end, but the verandah had glass shutters, which served the purpose of protecting tender plants, and also the windows, from the full blast of the winter storms. Miss Mohun was very proud of these shutters, which made a winter garden of the verandah for Miss Adeline to take exercise in. The house was their own, and, though it aimed at no particular beauty, had grown pleasant and pretty looking by force of being lived in and made comfortable.
It was a contrast to its neighbours on either side of its pink and gray limestone wall. On one side began the grounds of the Great Rockstone Hotel; on the other was Cliff House, the big and seldom-inhabited house of one of the chief partners in the marble works, which went on on the other side of the promontory, and some people said would one day consume Rockstone altogether. It was a very fine house, and the gardens were reported to be beautifully kept up, but the owner was almost always in Italy, and had so seldom been at Rockstone that it was understood that all this was the ostentation of a man who did not know what to do with his money.
Aunt Adeline met the travellers at the door with her charming welcome. Kunz, all snowy white, wagged his tight-curled tail amid his barks, at sight of Aunt Jane, but capered wildly about the Sofy's basket, much to Valetta's agony; while growls, as thunderous as a small kitten could produce, proceeded therefrom.
'Kunz, be quiet,' said Aunt Jane, in a solemn, to-be-minded voice, and he crouched, blinking up with his dark eye.
'Give me the basket. Now, Kunz, this is our cat. Do you hear? You are not to meddle with her.'
Did Kunz really wink assent—a very unwilling assent?
'Oh, Aunt Jane!' from Val, as her aunt's fingers undid the cover of the basket.
'Once for all!' said Aunt Jane.
'M-m-m-m-ps-pss-psss!' from the Sofy, two screams from Val and Fergus, a buffeting of paws, a couple of wild bounds, first on a chair-back, then on the mantelpiece, where, between the bronze candlestick and the vase, the Persian philosopher stood hissing and swearing, while Kunz danced about and barked.
'Take her down, Gillian,' said Aunt Jane; and Gillian, who had some presence of mind, accomplished it with soothing words, and, thanks to her gloves, only one scratch.
Meantime Miss Mohun caught up Kunz, held up her finger to him, stopped his barks; and then, in spite of the 'Oh, don'ts,' and even the tears of Valetta, the two were held up—black nose to pink nose, with a resolute 'Now, you are to behave well to each other, from Aunt Jane.
Kunz sniffed, the Sofy hissed; but her claws were captive. The dog was the elder and more rational, and when set down again took no more notice of his enemy, whom Valetta was advised to carry into Mrs. Mount's quarters to be comforted and made at home there; the united voice of the household declaring that the honour of the Spitz was as spotless as his coat!
Such was the first arrival at Rockstone, preceding even Aunt Adeline's inquiries after Mysie, and the full explanation of the particulars of the family dispersion. Aunt Ada's welcome was not at all like that of Kunz. She was very tender and caressing, and rejoiced that her sister could trust her children to her. They should all get on most happily together, she had no doubt.
True-hearted as Gillian was, there was something hopeful and refreshing in the sight of that fair, smiling face, and the touch of the soft hand, in the room that was by no means unfamiliar, though she had never slept in the house before. It was growing dark, and the little fire lighted it up in a friendly manner. Wherever Aunt Jane was, everything was neat; wherever Aunt Adeline was, everything was graceful. Gillian was old enough to like the general prettiness; but it somewhat awed Val and Fergus, who stood straight and shy till they were taken upstairs. The two girls had a very pretty room and dressing-room—the guest chamber, in fact; and Fergus was not far off, in a small apartment which, as Val said, 'stood on legs,' and formed the shelter of the porch.
'But, oh dear! oh dear!' sighed Val, as Gillian unpacked their evening garments, 'Isn't there any nice place at all where one can make a mess?'
'I don't know whether the aunts will ever let us make a mess,' said Gillian; 'they don't look like it.'
At which Valetta's face puckered up in the way only too familiar to her friends.
'Come, don't be silly, Val. You won't have much time, you know; you will go to school, and get some friends to play with, and not want to make messes here.'
'I hate friends!'
'All but Fly, and Mysie is gone to her. I want Mysie.'
So in truth did Gillian, almost as much as her mother. Her heart sank as she thought of having Val and Fergus to save from scrapes without Mysie's readiness and good humour. If Mysie were but there she should be free for her 'great thing.' And oh! above all, Val's hair—the brown bush that Val had a delusion that she 'did' herself, but which her 'doing' left looking rather worse than it did before, and which was not permitted in public to be in the convenient tail. Gillian advanced on her with the brush, but she tossed it and declared it all right!
However, at that moment there was a knock. Mrs. Mount's kindly face and stout form appeared. She had dressed Miss Ada and came to see what she could do for the young people, being of that delightful class of old servants who are charmed to have anything young in the house, especially a boy. She took Valetta's refractory mane in hand, tied her sash, inspected Fergus's hands, which had succeeded in getting dirty in their inevitable fashion, and undertook all the unpacking and arranging. To Val's inquiry whether there was any place for making 'a dear delightful mess' she replied with a curious little friendly smile, and wonder that a young lady should want such a thing.
'I'm afraid we are all rather strange specimens of young ladies,' replied Gillian; 'very untidy, I mean.'
'And I'm sure I don't know what Miss Mohun and Miss Ada will say' said good Mrs. Mount.
'What's that? What am I to say?' asked Aunt Jane, coming into the room.
But, after all, Aunt Jane proved to have more sympathy with 'messes' than any of the others. She knew very well that the children would be far less troublesome if they had a place to themselves, and she said, 'Well, Val, you shall have the boxroom in the attics. And mind, you must keep all your goods there, both of you. If I find them about the house, I shall—'
'Oh, what, Aunt Jane?'
'Confiscate them,' was the reply, in a very awful voice, which impressed Fergus the more because he did not understand the word.
'You need not look so much alarmed, Fergus,' said Gillian; 'you are not at all the likely one to transgress.'
'No,' said Valetta gravely. 'Fergus is what Lois calls a regular old battledore.'
'I won't be called names,' exclaimed Fergus.
'Well, Lois said so—when you were so cross because the poker had got on the same side as the tongs! She said she never saw such an old battledore, and you know how all the others took it up.'
'Shuttlecock yourself then!' angrily responded Fergus, while both aunt and sister were laughing too much to interfere.
'I shall call you a little Uncle Maurice instead,' said Aunt Jane. 'How things come round! Perhaps you would not believe, Gill, that Aunt Ada was once in a scrape, when she was our Mrs. Malaprop, for applying that same epithet on hearsay to Maurice.'
This laugh made Gillian feel more at home with her aunt, and they went up happily together for the introduction to the lumber-room, not a very spacious place, and with a window leading out to the leads. Aunt Jane proceeded to put the children on their word of honour not to attempt to make an exit thereby, which Gillian thought unnecessary, since this pair were not enterprising.
The evening went off happily. Aunt Jane produced one of the old games which had been played at the elder Beechcroft, and had a certain historic character in the eyes of the young people. It was one of those variations of the Game of the Goose that were once held to be improving, and their mother had often told them how the family had agreed to prove whether honesty is really the best policy, and how it had been agreed that all should cheat as desperately as possible, except 'honest Phyl,' who couldn't; and how, by some extraordinary combination, good for their morals, she actually was the winner. It was immensely interesting to see the identical much-worn sheet of dilapidated pictures with the padlock, almost close to the goal, sending the counter back almost to the beginning in search of the key. Still more interesting was the imitation, in very wonderful drawing, devised by mamma, of the career of a true knight—from pagedom upwards—in pale watery Prussian-blue armour, a crimson scarf, vermilion plume, gamboge spurs, and very peculiar arms and legs. But, as Valetta observed, it must have been much more interesting to draw such things as that than stupid freehand lines and twists with no sense at all in them.
Aunt Ada, being subject to asthmatic nights, never came down to breakfast, and, indeed, it was at an hour that Gillian thought fearfully early; but her Aunt Jane was used to making every hour of the day available, and later rising would have prevented the two children from being in time for the schools, to which they were to go on the Monday. Some of Aunt Jane's many occupations on Saturday consisted in arranging with the two heads of their respective schools, and likewise for the mathematical class Gillian was to join at the High School two mornings in the week, and for her lessons on the organ, which were to be at St. Andrew's Church. Somehow Gillian felt as if she were as entirely in her aunt's hands as Kunz and the Sofy had been!
After the early dinner, which suited the invalid's health, Aunt Jane said she would take Valetta and Fergus to go down to the beach with the little Varleys, while she went to her district, leaving Gillian to read to Aunt Ada for half an hour, and then to walk with her for a quiet turn on the beach.
It was an amusing article in a review that Gillian was set to read, and she did it so pleasantly that her aunt declared that she looked forward to many such afternoon pastimes, and then, by an easier way than the hundred and a half steps, they proceeded down the hill, the aunt explaining a great deal to the niece in a manner very gratifying to a girl beginning to be admitted to an equality with grown-up people.
'There is our old church,' said Aunt Ada, as they had a glimpse of a gray tower with a curious dumpy steeple.
'Do you go to church there!'
'I do—always. I could not undertake the hill on Sundays; but Jane takes the school-children to the St. Andrew's service in the afternoon.'
'But which is the parish church?'
'In point of fact, my dear; it is all one parish. Good morning, Mr. Hablot. My niece, Miss Gillian Merrifield. Yes, my sister is come home. I think she will be at the High School. He is the vicar of St. Andrew's,' as the clergyman went off in the direction of the steps.
'I thought you said it was all one parish.'
'St. Andrew's is only a district. Ah, it was all before your time, my dear.'
'I know dear Uncle Claude was the clergyman here, and got St. Andrew's built.'
'Yes, my dear. It was the great work and thought with him and Lord Rotherwood in those days that look so bright now,' said Aunt Ada. 'Yes, and with us all.'
'Do tell me all about it,' entreated Gillian; and her aunt, nothing loth, went on.
'Dear Claude was only five-and-twenty when he had the living. Nobody would take it, it was such a neglected place. All Rockquay down there had grown up with only the old church, and nobody going to it. It was a great deal through Rotherwood. Some property here came to him, and he was shocked at the state of things. Then we all thought the climate might be good for dear Claude, and Jane came to live with him and help him, and look after him. You see there were a great many of us, and Jane—well, she didn't quite get on with Alethea, and Claude thought she wanted a sphere of her own, and that is the way she comes to have more influence than anyone else here. And as I am always better in this air than anywhere else, I came soon after—even before my dear fathers death. And oh! what an eager, hopeful time it was, setting everything going, and making St. Andrew's all we could wish! We were obliged to be cautious at the old church, you know, because of not alarming the old-fashioned people. And so we are still—'
'Is that St. Andrew's? Oh, it is beautiful. May I look in?'
'Not now, my dear. You will see it another time.'
'I wish it were our church.'
'You will find the convenience of having one so near. And our services are very nice with our present rector, Mr. Ellesmere, an excellent active man, but his wife is such an invalid that all the work falls on Jane. I am so glad you are here to help her a little. St. Andrew's has a separate district, and Mr. Hablot is the vicar; but as it is very poor, we keep the charities all in one. Rotherwood built splendid schools, so we only have an infant school for the Rockstone children. On Sunday, Jane assembles the older children there and takes them to church; but in the afternoon they all go to the National Schools, and then to a children's service at St. Andrew's. She gets on so well with Mr. Hablot—he was dear Claude's curate, you see, and little Mrs. Hablot was quite a pupil of ours. What do you think little Gerald Hablot said—he is only five—"Isn't Miss Mohun the most consultedest woman in Rockquay?"'
'I suppose it is true,' said Gillian, laughing, but rather awestruck.
'I declare it makes me quite giddy to count up all she has on her hands. Nobody can do anything without her. There are so few permanent inhabitants, and when people begin good works, they go away, or marry, or grow tired, and then we can't let them drop!'
'Oh! what's that pretty spire, on the rise of the other hill?'
'My dear, that was the Kennel Mission Chapel, a horrid little hideous iron thing, but Lady Flight mistook and called it St. Kenelm's, and St. Kenelm's it will be to the end of the chapter.' And as she exchanged bows with a personage in a carriage, 'There she is, my dear.'
'Who? Did she build that church?'
'It is not consecrated. It really is only a mission chapel, and he is nothing but a curate of Mr. Hablot's,' said Aunt Ada, Gillian thought a little venomously.
She asked, 'Who?'
'The Reverend Augustine Flight, my dear. I ought not to say anything against them, I am sure, for they mean to be very good; but she is some City man's widow, and he is an only son, and they have more money than their brains can carry. They have made that little place very beautiful, quite oppressed with ornament—City taste, you know, and they have all manner of odd doings there, which Mr. Hablot allows, because he says he does not like to crush zeal, and he thinks interference would do more harm than good. Jane thinks he ought not to stand so much, but—'
Gillian somehow felt a certain amusement and satisfaction in finding that Aunt Jane had one disobedient subject, but they were interrupted by two ladies eagerly asking where to find Miss Mohun, and a few steps farther on a young clergyman accosted them, and begged that Miss Mohun might be told the hour of some meeting. Also that 'the Bellevue Church people would not co-operate in the coal club.'
Then it was explained that Bellevue Church was within the bounds of another parish, and had been built by, and for, people who did not like the doctrine at the services of St. Andrew's.
By this time aunt and niece had descended to the Marine esplanade, a broad road, on one side of which there was a low sea wall, and then the sands and rocks stretched out to the sea, on the other a broad space of short grass, where there was a cricket ground, and a lawn-tennis ground, and the volunteers could exercise, and the band played twice a week round a Russian gun that stood by the flagstaff.
The band was playing now, and the notes seemed to work on Gillian's feet, and yet to bring her heart into her throat, for the last time she had heard that march was from the band of her father's old regiment, when they were all together!
Her aunt was very kind, and talked to her affectionately and encouragingly of the hopes that her mother would find her father recovering, and that it would turn out after all quite an expedition of pleasure and refreshment. Then she said how much she rejoiced to have Gillian with her, as a companion to herself, while her sister was so busy, and she was necessarily so much left alone.
'We will read together, and draw, and play duets, and have quite a good account of our employment to give,' she said, smiling.
'I shall like it very much,' said Gillian heartily.
'Dear child, the only difficulty will be that you will spoil me, and I shall never be able to part with you. Besides, you will be such a help to my dear Jane. She never spares herself, you know, and no one ever spares her, and I can do so little to help her, except with my head.'
'Surely here are plenty of people,' said Gillian, for they were in the midst of well-dressed folks, and Aunt Ada had more than once exchanged nods and greetings.
'Quite true, my dear; but when there is anything to be done, then there is a sifting! But now we have you, with all our own Lily's spirit, I shall be happy about Jane for this winter at least.
They were again interrupted by meeting a gentleman and lady, to whom Gillian was introduced, and who walked on with her aunt conversing. They had been often in India, and made so light of the journey that Gillian was much cheered. Moreover, she presently came in sight of Val and Fergus supremely happy over a castle on the beach, and evidently indoctrinating the two little Varleys with some of the dramatic sports of Silverfold.
Aunt Ada found another acquaintance, a white moustached old gentleman, who rose from a green bench in a sunny corner, saying, 'Ah, Miss Mohun, I have been guarding your seat for you.'
'Thank you, Major Dennis. My niece, Miss Merrifield.'
He seemed to be a very courteous old gentleman, for he bowed, and made some polite speech about Sir Jasper, and, as he was military, Gillian hoped to have heard some more about the journey when they sat down, and room was made for her; but instead of that he and her aunt began a discussion of the comings and goings of people she had never heard of, and the letting or not letting of half the villas in Rockstone; and she found it so dull that she had a great mind to go and join the siege of Sandcastle. Only her shoes and her dress were fitter for the esplanade than the shore with the tide coming in; and when one has just begun to buy one's own clothes, that is a consideration.
At last she saw Aunt Jane's trim little figure come out on the sands and make as straight for the children as she could, amid greetings and consultations, so with an exclamation, she jumped up and went over the shingle to meet them, finding an endeavour going on to make them tolerably respectable for the walk home, by shaking off the sand, and advising Val to give up her intention of dragging home a broad brown ribbon of weed with a frilled edge, all polished and shiny with wet. She was not likely to regard it as such a curiosity after a few days' experience of Rockquay, as her new friends told her.
Kitty Varley went to the High School, which greatly modified Valetta's disgust to it, for the little girls had already vowed to be the greatest chums in the world, and would have gone home with arms entwined, if Aunt Jane had not declared that such things could not be done in the street, and Clem Varley, with still more effect, threatened that if they were such a pair of ninnies, he should squirt at them with the dirtiest water he could find.
Valetta had declared that she infinitely preferred Kitty to Fly, and Kitty was so flattered at being adopted by the second cousin of a Lady Phyllis, and the daughter of a knight, that she exalted Val above all the Popsys and Mopsys of her present acquaintance, and at parting bestowed on her a chocolate cream, which tasted about equally of salt water and hot hand—at least if one did not feel it a testimonial of ardent friendship.
Fergus and Clement had, on the contrary, been so much inclined to punch and buffet one another, that Miss Mohun had to make them walk before her to keep the peace, and was by no means sorry when the gate of 'The Tamarisks' was reached, and the Varleys could be disposed of.
However, the battery must have been amicable, for Fergus was crazy to go in and see Clement's little pump, which he declared 'would do it'—an enigmatical phrase supposed to refer to the great peg-top-perpetual-motion invention. He was dragged away with difficulty on the plea of its being too late by Aunt Jane, who could not quite turn two unexpected children in on Mrs. Varley, and had to effect a cruel severance of Val and Kitty in the midst of their kisses.
'Sudden friendships,' said Gillian, from the superiority of her age.
'I do not think you are given that way,' said Aunt Jane.
'Does the large family suffice for all of you? People are so different,' added Aunt Ada.
'Yes,' said Gillian. 'We have never been in the way of caring for any outsider. I don't reckon Bessie Merrifield so—nor Fly Devereux, nor Dolores, because they are cousins.'
'Cousins may be everything or nothing,' asserted Miss Mohun. 'You have been about so much that you have hardly had time to form intimacies. But had you no friends in the officers' families?'
'People always retired before their children grew up to be companionable, said Gillian. 'There was nobody except the Whites. And that wasn't exactly friendship.'
'Who were they?' said Aunt Jane, who always liked to know all about everybody.
'He rose from the ranks,' said Gillian. 'He was very much respected, and nobody would have known that he was not a gentleman to begin with. But his wife was half a Greek. Papa said she had been very pretty; but, oh! she had grown so awfully fat. We used to call her the Queen of the White Ants. Then Kally—her name was really Kalliope—was very nice, and mamma got them to send her to a good day-school at Dublin, and Alethea and Phyllis used to have her in to try to make a lady of her. There used to be a great deal of fun about their Muse, I remember; Claude thought her very pretty, and always stood up for her, and Alethea was very fond of her. But soon after we went to Belfast, Mr. White was made to retire with the rank of captain. I think papa tried to get something for him to do; but I am not sure whether he succeeded, and I don't know any more about them.'
'Not exactly friendship, certainly,' said Aunt Jane, smiling. 'After all, Gillian, in your short life, you have had wider experiences than have befallen your old aunts!'
'Wider, perhaps, not deeper, Jane,' suggested Miss Adeline.
And Gillian thought—though she felt it would be too sentimental to say—that in her life, persons and scenes outside her own family had seemed to 'come like shadows and so depart'; and there was a general sense of depression at the partings, the anxiety, and the being unsettled again when she was just beginning to have a home.CHAPTER III. — PERPETUAL MOTION
If Fergus had not yet discovered the secret of perpetual motion, Gillian felt as if Aunt Jane had done so, and moreover that the greater proportion of parish matters were one vast machine, of which she was the moving power.