Mr. Wycherly's Wards - L. Allen Harker - ebook
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The village was thunderstruck. Nay, more; the village was disapproving, almost scandalised.It was astounded to the verge of incredulity when it heard that a man who had lived in its midst quietly and peaceably for five-and-twenty years was suddenly, and without any due warning whatsoever, going to remove to the south of England not only himself, but the entire household effects of a dwelling that had never belonged to him.It is true that the minister pointed out to certain of these adverse critics that by her will Miss Esperance had left both house and furniture to Mr. Wycherly in trust for her great-nephews; but people shook their heads: "Once the bit things were awa' to Oxford wha' kenned what he'd dae wi' them?"

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Table of contents

"THE FLITTIN'"

THE HOUSE OPPOSITE

THE PRINCESS

THE BEGGAR MAID

THEIR MEETING

MR. WYCHERLY ADDS TO HIS RESPONSIBILITIES

JANE-ANNE SWEARS FEALTY

JANE-ANNE ASSISTS PROVIDENCE

THE QUEST

FORTUNE'S WHEEL

THE CULT OF BRUEY

FOUND!

A FAR CRY

AN EXPERIMENT

THE PHILOSOPHY OF BEAUTY

THE PURSUIT CONTINUED

THE PHILOSOPHY OF EFFORT

GANTRY BILL

THE STARLING FLIES AWAY

ISBN: 9788892663497
Youcanprint Self-Publishing

"THE FLITTIN'"

"When lo there came a rumour,A whispering to meOf the grey town, the fey town,The town where I would be." FRANCIS BRETT BRETT-SMITH. The village was thunderstruck. Nay, more; the village was disapproving, almost scandalised.It was astounded to the verge of incredulity when it heard that a man who had lived in its midst quietly and peaceably for five-and-twenty years was suddenly, and without any due warning whatsoever, going to remove to the south of England not only himself, but the entire household effects of a dwelling that had never belonged to him.It is true that the minister pointed out to certain of these adverse critics that by her will Miss Esperance had left both house and furniture to Mr. Wycherly in trust for her great-nephews; but people shook their heads: "Once the bit things were awa' to Oxford wha' kenned what he'd dae wi' them?"Such conscientious objectors mistrusted Oxford, and they deeply distrusted the motives that led Mr. Wycherly to go there in little more than a month after the death of his true and tried old friend.That it was a return only made matters worse, and the postman, who was also one of the church elders, summed up the feelings of the community in the ominous words: "He has gone back to the husks."Even Lady Alicia, who liked and trusted Mr. Wycherly, thought it was odd of him to depart so soon, and that it would have been better to have the boys up to Scotland for their Easter holidays.What nobody realised was that poor Mr. Wycherly felt his loss so poignantly, missed the familiar, beneficent presence so cruelly, that he dreaded a like experience for the boys he loved. The "wee hoose" in the time of its mistress had always been an abode of ordered cheerfulness, and Mr. Wycherly wanted that memory and no other to abide in the minds of the two boys.It was all very well to point out to remonstrating neighbours that March and not May is "the term" in England; that he was not moving till April, and that the time would just coincide with their holidays and thus save Edmund and Montagu the very long journey to Burnhead. Neither of these were the real reasons.The "wee hoose" had become intolerable to him. Hour by hour he found himself waiting, ever listening intently for the light, loved footstep; for the faint rustle that accompanies gracious, gentle movements; for the sound of a kind and welcoming old voice. And there came no comfort to Mr. Wycherly, till one day in a letter from Montagu at Winchester he found these words: "I suppose now you will go back to Oxford. Mr. Holt thinks you ought, and I'm sure Aunt Esperance would like it. She always said she hoped you would go back when she wasn't there any more. It must be dreadfully lonely now at Remote, and it would be easier for us in the holidays.""I suppose now you will go back to Oxford." All that day the sentence rang in Mr. Wycherly's head. That night for the first time since her death he slept well. He dreamed that he walked with Miss Esperance in the garden of New College beside the ancient city wall, and that she looked up at him, smiling, and said, "It is indeed good to be here."Next day, as Robina, the servant, put it, "he took the train," and four days later returned to announce that he had rented a house in Oxford and was going there almost at once.* * * * *If Mr. Wycherly's sudden move was made chiefly with the hope of sparing the boys sadness and sense of bereavement in this, their first holidays without their aunt, that hope was abundantly fulfilled.It was a most delightful house: an old, old house in Holywell with three gables resting on an oaken beam which, in its turn, was supported by oak corbels in the form of dragons and a rotund, festive-looking demon who nevertheless clasped his hands over "the place where the doll's wax ends" as though he had a pain.Two of the gables possessed large latticed windows, but the third was blank, having, however, a tiny window at the side which looked down the street towards New College.At the back was a long crooked garden that widened out like a tennis racquet at the far end.It was all very delightful and exciting while the furniture was going in and the three stayed at the King's Arms at the corner.Edmund and Montagu between them took it upon themselves to settle the whereabouts of the furniture and drove the removal men nearly distracted by suggesting at least six positions for each thing as it was carried in. But finally Mr. Wycherly was bound to confess that there was a certain method in their apparent madness. For as the rooms in Holywell filled up, he found that, allowing for difference in their dimensions and, above all, their irregularity of shape, every big piece of furniture was placed in relation to the rest exactly as it had been in the small, square rooms at Remote.Boys are very conservative, and in nothing more so than in their attachment to the familiar. They pestered and worried that most patient foreman till each room contained exactly the same furniture, no more and no less, that had, as Edmund put it, "lived together" in their aunt's house.Then appeared a cloud on the horizon. Lady Alicia, who loved arranging things for people, had very kindly written to a friend of her own at Abingdon, and through her had engaged "a thoroughly capable woman" to "do for" Mr. Wycherly in Oxford."She can get a young girl to help her if she finds it too much after you're settled, but you ought to try and do with one at first; for a move, and such a move—why couldn't you go into Edinburgh if you want society?—will about ruin you. And, remember, no English servant washes.""Oh, Lady Alicia, I'm sure you are mistaken there," Mr. Wycherly exclaimed, indignant at this supposed slur on his country-women. "I'm sure they look even cleaner and neater than the Scotch.""Bless the man! I'm not talking of themselves—I mean they won't do the washing, the clothes and sheets and things; you'll have to put it out or have someone in to do it. Is there a green?""There is a lawn," Mr. Wycherly said, dubiously—"it's rather a pleasant garden.""Is there a copper?""I beg your pardon?" replied the bewildered Mr. Wycherly, thinking this must be some "appurtenance" to a garden of which he was ignorant."There, you see, there are probably hundreds of things missing in that house that ought to be in it. You'd better put out the washing."Mr. Wycherly felt and looked distinctly relieved. The smell of wet soapsuds that had always pervaded Remote on Monday mornings did not appeal to him.And now, when all the furniture was in its place and the carpets laid; when the china and pots and pans had been unpacked by the removal men and laid upon shelves; when the beds had been set up and only awaited their customary coverings; on the very day that the "thoroughly capable woman" was to come and take possession of it all, there came a letter from her instead to the effect that "her mother was took bad suddint," and she couldn't leave home. Nor did she suggest any date in the near future when she would be at liberty to come. Moreover, she concluded this desolating intelligence with the remark, "after having thinking it over I should prefer to go where there's a missus, so I hopes you'll arrange according."Here was a knock-down blow!They found the letter in the box at the new house when they rushed there directly after breakfast to gloat over their possessions.The wooden shutters were shut in the two downstairs sitting-rooms; three people formed a congested crowd in the tiny shallow entrance, even when one of the three was but ten years old. So they went through the parlour and climbed a steep and winding staircase to one of the two large front bedrooms. There, in the bright sunlight of an April morning, Mr. Wycherly read aloud this perturbing missive."Bother the woman's mother," cried Edmund who was not of a sympathetic disposition. "Let's do without one altogether, Guardie. We could pretend we're the Swiss Family Robinson and have awful fun.""I fear," said Mr. Wycherly sadly, "that I, personally, do not possess the ingenuity of the excellent father of that most resourceful family.""Shall I telegraph to Lady Alicia?" asked Montagu, who had lately discovered the joys of the telegraph office. "She could poke up that friend of hers in Abingdon to find us an orphan.""No!" replied Mr. Wycherly with decision. "We won't do that. We must manage our own affairs as best we can and not pester our friends with our misfortunes.""How does one get servants?" asked Montagu.Nobody answered. Even Edmund for once was at a loss. None of the three had ever heard the servant question discussed. Old Elsa had lived with Miss Esperance from girlhood; dying as she had lived in the service of her beloved mistress. Robina had come when the little boys were added to the household and remained till Mr. Wycherly left for Oxford, when she at last consented to marry "Sandie the Flesher," who had courted her for nine long years.Mr. Wycherly sat down on a chair beside his bed immersed in thought. Montagu perched on the rail at the end of the bed and surveyed the street from this eminence. As there were neither curtains nor blinds in the window his view was unimpeded. Edmund walked about the room on his hands till he encountered a tin-tack that the men had left, then he sat on the floor noisily sucking the wounded member.It seemed that his gymnastic exercises had been mentally stimulating, for he took his hand out of his mouth to remark:"What's 'A High-class Registry Office for servants'?"Mr. Wycherly turned to him in some excitement."I suppose a place where they keep the names of the disengaged upon their books to meet the needs of those who seek servants. Why? Have you seen one?"Edmund nodded. "Yesterday, in yon street where you went to the bookseller. It was about three doors up, a dingy window with a wire blind and lots of wee cards with 'respectable' coming over and over again. They were all 'respectable' whether they were ten pounds or twenty-four. I read them while I was waiting for you.""Dear me, Edmund," exclaimed Mr. Wycherly admiringly, "what an observant boy you are. I'll go there at once and make inquiries. In the meantime I daresay we could get a charwoman to come in and make up the beds for us, and so move in to-morrow as arranged. They can't all be very busy yet as the men have not come up.""But there's only three beds," Edmund objected; "she can't make them all day.""She can do other things, doubtless," said Mr. Wycherly optimistically; "she'll need to cook for us and," with a wave of the hand, "dust, you know, and perhaps assist us to unpack some of those cases that are as yet untouched. There are many ways in which she could be most useful.""I'd rather have Swissed it," Edmund murmured sorrowfully."Shall we come with you?" asked Montagu, who had an undefined feeling that his guardian ought not to be left to do things alone."No," said Mr. Wycherly, rising hastily. "You might, if you would be so good, find the boxes that contain blankets and sheets and begin unpacking them. I'll go to that office at once."He hurried away, walking fast through the sunny streets, so strange and yet so familiar, till he came to the window with the wire blind that Edmund had indicated. Here he paused, fixed his eyeglasses firmly on his nose and read the cards exhibited. Alas! they nearly all referred to the needs of the servantless, and only two emanated from handmaidens desirous of obtaining situations. Of these, one was a nursemaid, and the other "as tweeny," a species unknown to Mr. Wycherly, and as her age was only fourteen he did not allow his mind to dwell upon her possibilities.He opened the door and an automatic bell rang loudly. He shut the door, when it rang again, greatly to his distress. He seemed to be making so much noise.The apartment was sparsely furnished with a largish table covered with rather tired-looking ledgers; two cane chairs stood in front of the table, while behind it was a larger leather-covered chair on which was seated a stout, formidable woman, who glared rather than looked at Mr. Wycherly as he approached.She really was of great bulk, with several chins and what dressmakers would call "a fine bust." Her garments were apparently extremely tight, for her every movement was attended by an ominous creaking. Her hair was frizzed in front right down to her light eyebrows; at the back it was braided in tight plaits. She regarded Mr. Wycherly with small, hostile eyes.He had removed his hat on entrance, and stood before her with dignified white head bowed in deference towards her, courteously murmuring, "Good morning."As she did not make any response, he continued, "I am in need of a competent cook-housekeeper, and thought perhaps——""How many servants kep'?" she demanded with a fire and suddenness that startled Mr. Wycherly."I had thought of trying to do with one.""'Ow many in fambly?" and this alarming woman opened one of the books in front of her and seized a pen. There was in her tone such a dreadful suggestion of, "Anything you may say will be used against you," that when she dipped her pen into the ink Mr. Wycherly positively trembled; and grasped the back of one of the cane chairs as a support."For the larger portion of the year I shall be alone," he said rather sadly, "but during the holidays my two wards——""Male or female?""Really," Mr. Wycherly remonstrated, "what has that got to do with it? As a matter of fact my wards are boys."All this time she had been making entries in the ledger; now she looked up to fire off, abruptly as before:"The booking fee is one-and-six."Mr. Wycherly took a handful of silver out of his pocket and abstracted this sum and laid it upon the desk. She of the ledger ignored the offering and continued her cross-examination:"What wages?"Mr. Wycherly mentally invoked a blessing upon Lady Alicia's practical head as he replied quite glibly, "From twenty to twenty-five pounds, but she must be trustworthy and capable.""What outings?"Here was a poser! But the fighting spirit had been roused in Mr. Wycherly. He would not be browbeaten by this stout, ungracious person who took his eighteenpence, and so far had done nothing but ask questions, affording him no information whatsoever."That," he retorted with dignity, "can be arranged later on.""Your name and address?" was the next query, and when he furnished this information, carefully spelling his name, it pained him inexpressibly to note that she wrote it down as "Witcherby," at the same time remarking in a rumbling tone indicative of displeasure, "Very old 'ouses, most inconvenient, most trying stairs.... 'Ow soon do you want a general?""A what?" asked Mr. Wycherly, this time thoroughly mystified."A general, that's what she is if there's no more kep'. You won't get no cook-'ousekeeper unless she's to 'ave 'er meals along with you, and a little girl to do the rough work.""She can't possibly have her meals with me," cried Mr. Wycherly, crimson at the very thought. "It would be most unpleasant—for both of us.""Then as I said it's a general you wants.""And have you upon your books any staid and respectable young woman—preferably an orphan—" Mr. Wycherly interpolated, remembering Montagu's suggestion, "who could come to us at once?""Not, so to speak, to-day, I 'aven't; but they often comes in of a Monday, and I'll let you know. I could send 'er along; it isn't far."The ledger was shut with a bang as an intimation that the interview was at an end, and Mr. Wycherly fared forth into the street with heated brow and a sense that, in spite of his heroism in braving so dreadful a person, he was not much further on his quest. "Monday, she said," he kept repeating to himself, "and to-day is only Thursday."When he got back to Holywell, the boys were standing at the front door on the lookout for him. They rushed towards him exclaiming in delighted chorus: "We've got a woman. We thought we'd ask at the King's Arms, and they told us of one.""What? A servant?" asked Mr. Wycherly with incredulous joy."No, no, a day-body. The boots knew about her; she lives down Hell Lane, just about opposite.""Edmund!" Mr. Wycherly remonstrated. "However did you get hold of that name?""Hoots!" replied Edmund. "Everyone calls it that. Her name is Griffin, and she's coming at once. Have you got one?""No," said Mr. Wycherly, "not yet. Boys, it's a most bewildering search. Can either of you tell me since when maid-servants have taken to call themselves after officers in the army? The rather alarming person in charge of that office informs me that what we require is a 'general.' Do you suppose that if we should need a younger maid to help her we must ask for a 'sub-lieutenant'?""Perhaps they are called generals when they're old," said Montagu thoughtfully; "at that rate we ought to call Mrs. Griffin a field-marshal. She's pretty old, I can tell you, but she's most agreeable.""Probably," said Mr. Wycherly, "in time to come they will get tired of the army and take to the nomenclature of the Universities. Then we shall have provosts and deans and wardens. But I'm glad that you have been more successful than I have. I've no doubt we can manage with Mrs. Griffin until we get a maid of our own.""I think it was mean of that body with the mother," said Edmund; "she didn't even say she'd come as soon as she could. But I think the Griffin will be fun, and if she can't do it all we'll get the Mock-Turtle to help her.""Was it very high-class, that registry?" he continued; "it didn't look at all grand outside.""I cannot judge of its class, I have never been to such a place before and I earnestly hope I may never be called upon to go there again, for it is a species of inquisition, and they write your answers down in a book. A horrid experience." And Mr. Wycherly shuddered.By this time they had reached the house and he was sitting, exhausted, in his arm-chair in his own dining-room. The boys had opened the shutters and casement, and in spite of a thick coating of dust everywhere it looked home-like and comfortable."Richly built, never pinchingly" is as true of ancient Oxford houses as of her colleges. There seemed some mysterious affinity between the queer old furniture from Remote and that infinitely older room. The horse-hair sofa with the bandy legs and slippery seat that stood athwart the fireless hearth was in no way discordant with the beautiful stone fireplace and shallow mantelshelf.Mr. Wycherly surveyed the scene with kind, pleased eyes; nor did he realise then that what made it all seem so endearing and familiar was the fact that on the horse-hair sofa there sprawled—"sat" is far too decorous a word—a lively boy of ten, with rumpled, curly, yellow hair and a rosy handsome face from which frank blue eyes looked forth upon a world that, so far, contained little that he did not consider in the light of an adventure.While balanced on the edge of the table—again "sat" is quite undescriptive—another boy swung his long legs while his hands were plunged deep in his trouser pockets. A tall, thin boy this, with grave dark eyes, long-lashed and gentle, and a scholar's forehead.Montagu, nearly fourteen, had just reached the age when clothes seem always rather small, sleeves short, likewise trousers: when wrists are red and obtrusive and hair at the crown of the head stands straight on end.Neither of the boys ever sat still except when reading. Then Montagu, at all events, was lost to the world. They frequently talked loudly and at the same time, and were noisy, gay and restless as is the usual habit of their healthy kind.Strange companions truly for a scholarly recluse! Yet the boys were absolutely at ease with and fearless of their guardian.With him they were even more artlessly natural than with schoolfellows of their own age. Their affection for him was literally a part of their characters, and, in Montagu's case, passionately protective. The elder boy had already realised how singularly unfitted Mr. Wycherly was, both by temperament and habit, to grapple with practical difficulties."Ah'm awfu' hungry," said Edmund presently, in broadest Doric."Edmund," remarked his guardian, "I have noticed on several occasions since you returned from school that you persist in talking exactly like the peasantry at Burnhead. Why?""Well, you see, Guardie, for one thing I'm afraid of forgetting it. And then, you know, it amuses the chaps. They admire it very much.""But you never did it in Scotland," Mr. Wycherly expostulated."Oh, didn't I. Not to you and Aunt Esperance, perhaps, but you should have heard me when I got outside——"I don't like it, Edmund, and I wonder your masters have not found fault with you.""They think I can't help it, and it makes them laugh—you should hear me say my collect exactly like Sandie Croall——""Indeed I wish to hear nothing of the kind," said Mr. Wycherly in dignified reproof. "I can't think why you should copy the lower classes in your mode of speech.""I'm a Bethune," Edmund replied in an offended voice. "I want people to know I'm a Scot.""Your name is quite enough to make them sure of that," Mr. Wycherly argued, "and you may take it from me that Scottish gentlemen don't talk in the least like Sandie Croall."At that particular moment Edmund was busily engaged in doing a handspring on the end of the sofa, so he forebore to reply. The fact was, that like the immortal "Christina McNab" Edmund had, early in his career at school, decided that to be merely "Scotch" was ordinary and uninteresting, but to be "d—d Scotch" was both distinguished and amusing, and he speedily attained to popularity and even a certain eminence among his schoolfellows when he persisted in answering every question with a broadness of vowel and welter of "r's" characteristic of those whom Mr. Wycherly called "the peasantry of Burnhead." Moreover, he used many homely and expressive adjectives that were seized upon by his companions as a new and sonorous form of slang. Altogether Edmund was a social success in the school world. His report was not quite equally enthusiastic, but, as he philosophically remarked to Montagu, "It would be monotonous for Guardie if we both had good reports, and your's makes you out to be a fearful smug."Whereupon Montagu suitably chastised his younger brother with a slipper, and the subject was held over to the next debate.Presently there came a meek little tinkle from the side-door bell."That'll be the Griffin," cried Edmund joyfully; "I'll open to her."It was the Griffin, and their troubles began in earnest.

THE HOUSE OPPOSITE

"Still on the spire the pigeons flutter;Still by the gateway flits the gown;Still on the street, from corbel and gutter,Faces of stone look down.Faces of stone, and other faces...."A. T. QUILLER-COUCH. Mrs. Griffin was not in the least like her name. She was a sidling, snuffling, apologetic little woman, who, whenever a suggestion was made, always acquiesced with breathless enthusiasm, gasping: "Yessir; suttingly sir; anythink you please sir."That night they dined at the comfortable King's Arms for the last time and moved in after breakfast on the morrow. Mrs. Griffin did not shine as a cook. Their first meal consisted of burnt chops, black outside and of an angry purple within, watery potatoes and a stony cauliflower. This was followed by a substantial apple dumpling whose paste strongly resembled caramels in its consistency, while the apples within were quite hard. Even the lumpy white sauce that tasted chiefly of raw flour, hardly made this an appetising dish.She had, it is true, by Mr. Wycherly's order, lit fires in all four front rooms. The bedrooms were over the two living-rooms, and, like them, were wainscotted, irregular in shape, and fairly large, light and well-proportioned, each with wide casement window. Except the study, every room in the house had at least two doors, and between the two front bedrooms there was yet another, in a delightful, passage-like recess. In Mr. Wycherly's study, which was on the first floor at the back—with a high oriel window that looked forth on the garden—no fire had been put as yet, for his books were not unpacked but stood in great wooden cases, stacked against the wall, one on the top of the other, three deep. Wisps of straw and pieces of paper still lay about; and where his books were concerned Mr. Wycherly was quite practical.During the day Mrs. Griffin, as she put it, "swep' up the bits" in the other rooms (Mr. Wycherly locked the study and carried the key), and volunteered to go out and "get in some stores" for the morrow. This offer he gratefully accepted, entrusting her with a couple of sovereigns to that end. It took her the whole afternoon, and she seemed to have patronised a variety of shops, for Mr. Wycherly, who remained in the house to look after it, was kept busy answering the side door and receiving parcels.He had sent the boys to explore Oxford. They found the river and didn't get back till tea-time, a meal where the chief characteristics consisted of black and bitter tea and curiously bad butter.They supped on tinned tongue and dry bread, and even the boys were glad to go to bed early in their grand new room.The night before Mr. Wycherly left for England the minister came to see him. At first they talked of the move; of Oxford; of the great change it would make in the lives of the three most concerned. Then it was borne in upon Mr. Wycherly that Mr. Gloag was there for some special purpose and found it difficult to come to the point.At last he did so; cleared his throat, looked hard at his host, and then said gravely: "I hope you fully realise, that in undertaking the sole guardianship of those two boys you must carry on the excellent religious training given them by Miss Esperance. There must be no break, no spiritual backwardness....""I assure you," Mr. Wycherly interposed, "that there is no lack of religious training in our English schools; it forms a large part....""That's as it may be," the minister interrupted. "It's the home religious training to which I referred, and it is that counts most in after life. For instance, now, did not Miss Esperance daily read the Bible with those boys when they were with her?""I believe she did," Mr. Wycherly replied meekly."Well, then, what is to prevent you from doing the same and so carrying on her work?""I will do my best.""Remember," said the minister, "we are bidden to search the scriptures, and the young are not, as a rule, much given to doing it of their own accord.""That is true," Mr. Wycherly agreed, wishing from his heart that they were, for then he would not be required to interfere."Then I may depend upon you?" asked the minister."As I said before, I will do my best," said Mr. Wycherly, but he gave no promise.And now as he sat in his dusty dining-room—Mrs. Griffin's ministrations were confined to "the bits" and did not extend to the furniture—on this, the first evening in their new home, he heard the scampering feet over his head as the boys got ready for bed, and the minister's words came back to him. "He's right," he thought to himself, "it's what she would have wished," and spent as he was he went upstairs.Their room was in terrible confusion, for both had begun to unpack, and got tired of it. Thus, garments were scattered on every chair and most of the floor. There were plenty of places to put things; all the deep old "presses" and wardrobes had come from Remote, and the house abounded in splendid cupboards; but so far nobody ever put anything away, and Mr. Wycherly wondered painfully how it was that Remote had always been such an orderly house.He sat down on Edmund's bed. "Boys," he said, "you used always to read with Miss Esperance, didn't you?""Yes, Guardie," Montagu answered; then, instantly understanding, he added gently: "Would you like us to do it with you?""I should," said Mr. Wycherly gratefully; "we'll each read part of the Bible every day, and I'd like to begin now. Can you find your Bibles?"This entailed much searching and more strewing of garments, but finally the school Bibles were unearthed."Let's begin at the very beginning," Edmund suggested, "then it'll take us years and years only doing it in the holidays.""Oh, but we'll read a good bit at a time," said Montagu, who disliked niggardly methods where books were concerned. "It won't take so long really.""Well, anyway, Guardie, we can miss the 'begats,' can't we? and the 'did evils in the sight,'" Edmund said beseechingly."We'll see when we come to them," Mr. Wycherly answered. "Who will begin?"Edmund elected to begin, and read Chapter I. of Genesis.Montagu read Chapter II. and Mr. Wycherly Chapter III.; but he got interested and went on to Chapter IV. He had just reached the verse, "And Cain talked with Abel, his brother: and it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him," when the book was pulled down gently by a small and grubby hand, "Thank you, Guardie, dear," Edmund said sweetly, "I don't want to tire you, and you know we never did more than one chapter with Aunt Esperance. One between the three of us!""I always sympathise with Cain," Montagu remarked thoughtfully. "I'm perfectly certain Abel was an instructive fellow, always telling him if he'd only do things some other way how much better it would be. Younger brothers are like that," he added pointedly, looking at Edmund."That view of the case never struck me," said Mr. Wycherly."It always strikes me every time I hear it," Montagu said bitterly. "It's just what Edmund does. He makes me feel awfully Cainish sometimes, I can tell you; always telling me I ought to hold a bat this way, or I'd jump further if I took off that way, or something.""Well, you're such an old foozle," cried Edmund with perfect good nature. "So slow.""I do things differently from you, but I do most of 'em every bit as well.""So you ought, you're so much older.""All the more reason for you to shut up."The conversation threatened to become acrimonious, so Mr. Wycherly intervened by asking mildly: "Is there anything either of you would like me to explain?""Oh, dear, no," Edmund exclaimed heartily. "Not till we come to Revelations. Then it's all explanation. It takes Mr. Gloag an hour to explain one wee verse, so I fear we'll only be able to do about a word at a time.""But you must not expect me," Mr. Wycherly cried in dismay, "to be able to explain things as fully as Mr. Gloag, who is a trained theologian.""We shouldn't like you to be as long as Mr. Gloag, Guardie dear; we shouldn't like it at all," Montagu answered reassuringly.Whereupon, much relieved, Mr. Wycherly bade his wards good-night, and departed downstairs again where he sat for some considerable time pondering Montagu's view of the first fratricide. "It seems to me," he said to himself, "that it is I who will be the one to receive enlightenment."It was three days since they had, as Mr. Wycherly put it, "come into residence," and during that time Mrs. Griffin's cooking had not improved. Neither had the house become less dusty or more tidy. The time was afternoon, about five o'clock, and they sat at tea; a singularly unappetising tea.Smeary silver, cups and plates all bearing the impress of Mrs. Griffin's thumb, two plates of thick bread-and-butter and a tin of bloater-paste were placed upon a dirty tablecloth. Neither Mr. Wycherly nor the boys liked bloater-paste, but Mrs. Griffin did. Hence it graced the feast.Edmund was tired of bad meals. The novelty, what he at first called the "Swissishness," was wearing off, and as he took his place at table that afternoon there flashed into his mind a vivid picture of the tea-table at Remote. Aunt Esperance sitting kind and smiling behind the brilliant silver teapot that reflected such funny-looking little boys; the white, white napery—Aunt Esperance was so particular about tablecloths—laden with scones, such good scones, both plain and currant! Shortbread in a silver cake-basket; and jam, crystal dishes full of jam, two kinds, topaz-coloured and ruby.Somehow the sight of that horrid tin of bloater-paste evoked a poignantly beatific vision of the jam. It was the jam broke Edmund down.He gave a dry sob, laid his arms on the table and his head on his arms, wailing: "Oh, dear! oh, dear! I wish Aunt Esperance hadn't gone and died."Mr. Wycherly started up, looking painfully distressed. Montagu ran round to his little brother and put his arm round his shoulder—at the same time he murmured to his guardian: "It's the butter, it really is very bad.""It's all bad," lamented Edmund; "we shall starve, all of us, if it goes on. One morning that bed-making body will come in and she'll find three skeletons. I know she will."Mr. Wycherly sat down again. "Edmund, my dear little boy," he said brokenly, "I am so sorry, I ought not to have brought you here yet....""Look, look at poor Guardie," whispered Montagu.Edmund raised his head."Would you like me to telegraph to Lady Alicia and ask her to have you for the rest of the holidays? I know she would, and by-and-bye, surely, by-and-bye we shall find some one less incompetent than that—than Mrs. Griffin."Edmund shook himself free of his brother's arm and literally flung himself upon his guardian, exclaiming vehemently: "No, no, I want to stay with you. It's just as bad for you."It was worse, for Mr. Wycherly could not restore exhausted nature with liberal supplies of Banbury cakes and buns. For the last three days he had eaten hardly anything and was, moreover, seriously concerned that the boys were assuredly not getting proper food. He would have gone back with them to the King's Arms immediately he discovered how extremely limited were Mrs. Griffin's powers had it not been that just then he received the furniture removers' bill, and, as Lady Alicia had warned him, it was very heavy.He had come in to tea with a sore heart that afternoon, for Mrs. Griffin had half an hour before informed him that she could not come on the morrow; so that now even her poor help would be lost to them. She was going, she said, to her "sister-in-law" at Abingdon for Sunday, as she needed a rest."So much cookin' and cleanin' is what I ain't used to; no, not if it was ever so; and I can't keep on with it for long at a stretch. I'll come on Monday just to oblige you if so be as I'm up to it.""I wish you had told me this sooner," Mr. Wycherly remonstrated, "then perhaps I might have been able to obtain help for to-morrow elsewhere."But what they were to do on the morrow was no concern of Mrs. Griffin's. It was an easy and lucrative place and she wanted no interlopers. But she also wanted her outing to Abingdon, and she was going.Mr. Wycherly poured out the black tea and Edmund attacked a piece of bread-and-butter.The red rep curtains from the dining-room at Remote were hung in the dining-room at Oxford, but they in no way shrouded its inmates from the public gaze except when they were drawn at night. The house stood right on the pavement; even a small child could see in, and a good many availed themselves of the privilege.Over this room was the boys' bedroom. Here there were no "fixtures" on which to suspend curtains, nor did it strike either of the three most concerned that blinds or curtains were an immediate necessity. They had all lived in a house that stood so far from other houses (as its name signified) that such a contingency as prying neighbours never occurred to them and it never entered their heads to concern themselves with those on the other side of the road.Presently Mrs. Griffin brought in a note held gingerly between her finger and thumb, remarking that it was from the "lady as lives hopposite."Mr. Wycherly opened it hastily, found he had mislaid his glasses, and handed it to Montagu to read.Edmund immediately rushed round to assist Montagu, thinking it was probably an invitation, and Edmund liked invitations.Montagu read it slowly and impressively as follows:—"DEAR SIR,"I think it only right to inform you that I can see the young gentlemen performing their ablutions and dressing and undressing both when the light is on and in the morning. Such publicity is most distressing, and I venture to suggest that blinds or curtains should be affixed in their room without delay."Yours faithfully,"SELINA BROOKS."Mr. Wycherly sank back in his chair with a groan. "I quite forgot curtains and blinds," he exclaimed in bitter self-reproach. "There are none in my room either; do you suppose the people in the next house can see me?""Sure to!" cried Edmund gleefully; "they'll be writing next that they can see an old