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The Lark has all the charm and freshness which have made Nesbit's other novels so justly popular, and yet the story is entirely new and original. Two girls, Jane and Lucilla, are led by Jane's guardian to entertain high hopes. The fortune, however, which Jane should have inherited, has been lost by unlucky speculations, and the two girls have to set about earning their own livings. They experience many adventures and ups and downs of fortune before they meet with the two men who they hope will ensure their happiness and prosperity. This delightful story is an absolute joy, well worth reading.
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by E. Nesbit
First published in 1922.
This edition published by Reading Essentials.
All Rights Reserved.
"Wouldn't I? That's all you know!"
"You mustn't dare her," said a third voice anxiously from the top of the library steps; "if you dare her she'll do it as sure as Fate."
The one who must not be dared looked up and laughed. The golden light of midsummer afternoon falling through the tall library windows embroidered new patterns on the mellow Persian carpets, and touched to a dusky splendour the shelves on shelves of old calf and morocco, where here and there gilded lettering shone like rows of little sparks. It touched also the hair of the girl who must not be dared; she sat cross-legged on the floor among a heap of books, nursing a fat quarto volume with onyx-inlaid clasps and bosses, and touched the hair into glory, turning it from plain brown, which was its everyday colour, to a red gold halo which became her small white face very well.
"Fate, indeed!" she said. "Why, the whole thing's Fate. Emmeline asks us here—good old Emmy!—because we'd nowhere to go when everybody got mumps. I shall always respect mumps for getting us this extra month's holiday. I wish it had a prettier name—Mompessa, or something like that; we have the time of our lives amid all this ancestral splendour." She indicated the great beams and tall windows of the library with a gesture full of appreciation. "No, don't interrupt. I'm telling the story. Angel Emmeline protects us from the footman and doesn't let the butlertrample on us. She's given us the run of the baronial halls, and the stately ball-room, and the bed where Queen Elizabeth slept, and the library that came over with the Conqueror. We grub about and we findthis, and because this isn't the first library I've been in I happen to be able to read it." She thumped the book on her lap. "Don't tell me it's not Fate. Fate arranged it all. Fate meant me to try the spell. And I mean to. And as for not daring—pooh, my darling Emmeline, pooh! . . . Likewise pshaw!" she added pensively.
Emmeline smiled with calm indulgence. She was stout, squarely-made, plain-faced, kind-eyed, with a long, thick, mouse-coloured pigtail and small, white, well-kept hands. She began to pick up her books one by one and to put them back in their proper places on the shelves.
"It's all very well to say 'pooh!'" she said.
"'Andpshaw!'" the not-to-be-dared interpolated.
"My Aunt Emmeline tried it.Aspell—and I expect it was that very one; at least, she set out to try it, but she lost her way in the wood. The night was very dark, and she gave it up, and came back, and when she got to the garden gate she couldn't open it and couldn't find the handle. And then the moon came out, and she found it was the door of the mausoleum in the park she was trying to get in at."
"Shut up!" said the girl on the top of the steps, a long-legged, long-armed, long-nosed, long-chinned girl rather like a well-bred filly. "Jane, do say you won't do it. Not after that, will you?"
"It's a perfectly horrid story," said Jane, unmoved, "but you can't frighten me in that way, Emmeline. However, it decides me to have lights. Those fairy lights and Chinese lanterns you had for what you called the 'little' dance—I suppose they're somewhere about. Do you know where, exactly?" She urged the question with a firm hand-grasp.
"Don't pinch," said Emmeline, disengaging her ankle. "You can have the lights. But we shouldn't be allowed to do it."
"Who's going to be asked to allow anything?" Jane said innocently. "Hasn't Fate arranged it all? Aren't all the grown-ups going to the Duchess's grand fête and gala—fireworks and refreshments free?"
"They're going to Lady Hendon's garden-party and dance, if that's what you mean," said Emmeline, rather coldly.
"That's right—stand by your class. Ah, these old aristocrats!" said Jane.
"Lord Hendon was beer, wasn't he?" Lucilla asked from the steps. "Or was it bacon? He looks rather like a ham himself."
"Well, anyhow, beer or bacon or ham, all the grown-ups will be out of the way. We're too young for these frantic dissipations. By the way"—her straight forehead puckered itself anxiously—"I'm not too young to trythat, am I? It says nothing about age in the book. It just says 'any young maid or young bachelor.' I was fifteen last June."
"In James the First's time, when this book was born, girls were married at fifteen," Lucilla reassured her, "but I do hope you won't let that encourage you."
"I don't need encouragement. I'm just going to. I'll try that spell or I'll know the reason why. Don't be surly, Emmy; let's go down and arrange the lanterns now while the sun's shining, and get the candles and matches and have it all ready. Then we'll have that nice little quiet dinner your dear mother's ordered for us, and go to bed early just as she said. And then get up again. And then . . ."
"Don't," said Lucilla.
"But I shall," said Jane.
"Very well," said Lucilla with an air of finality, coming down the steps; "we have told you not to in at least seven different ways, because it was our duty, but if you really mean to—well, do, then! And I think it will be no end of a spree—if you don't walk into the mausoleum and begin to scream and bring the retainers down on us, or do anything else silly that'll get Emmy into rows."
"She won't do that," said Emmeline, "We shan't gobeyond the park. Nobody minds anything if we don't go outside. Besides, no one will know, if Jane manages it as well as she mostly does manage things."
"Miss Jane Quested's Meretricious Magic. Manager, or General, Jane," said Jane, displaying herself as she rose with the square book under her arm. "I'm going to take this up to my room and learn the spell off by heart. It wouldn't do to have any mistakes, would it? I may take it?"
"You may take anything—but only on one condition," said Emmeline firmly.
"Conditions? How cautious and sordid! What condition?"
"That if you do see anything you'll tell us exactly what it was like. You never can tell what it will be that you see. Sometimes you see a shroud, or skeleton, or a coffin, I believe, if you're to die a maid."
"What a merry companion you are, Emmy; not a dull moment when you're about! Pity it's alone or not at all. I should have loved to have you with me to-night to keep my spirits up with your cheery chatter. But, alas! it can't be. Don't look so glum.
Come, Pallas, take your owl away, And let us have a lark instead!'"
"If you call this a lark," said Emmeline, "I don't."
"Now look here, Em," said Jane firmly; "if you don't want me to do it, really I won't. You've been such a brick to us. Say the word and I'll chuck it. I really will. Don't look so glum. I'm not wholly lost to all gratitude and proper feeling."
"0h, don't chuck itnow!" pleaded Lucilla, "just when Emmy and I have reconciled our yeasty consciences to the idea."
"Shall I chuck it, Emmy?" Jane persisted. "Shall I?"
"No," said Emmeline. "And stop talking about gratitude. And I won't have your old owls thrown in my face for the rest of my life. Let's have the lark."
If Jane, Lucilla, and Emmeline had not been debarred by their fifteen, fourteen, and sixteen years from the enjoyment of Lady Hendon's hospitality they would have had the pleasure of meeting—or at least, for it was a very big garden-party, they might have had the pleasure of meeting—the young man whom it is now my privilege to introduce to you.
John Rochester was young and, I am sorry to say, handsome. Sorry, because handsome men are, as a rule, so very stupid and so very vain. Still, there must be some exceptions to every rule. John Rochester was one of these exceptions: he was neither vain nor stupid. In fact he was more than rather clever, especially at his own game, which was engineering. Brains and beauty were not his only advantages. He had brains, beauty, and brawn—an almost irresistible combination. That is the bright side of the shield. The black side is this: he was not so tall, by three inches, as he could have wished to be, he had very big ambitions, very little money, very much less parsimony, and a temper.
He also had a mother who powdered too much, rouged rather too brightly, and appeared to govern almost her whole life by the consideration of "what people would say." She was quite a good mother in other respects, and John Rochester was quite fond of her. It was she who dragged him to this garden-party—that is to say, it was she who suggested it as an agreeable way of occupying the last day of the short holiday which he was spending with her. The young man himself would have preferred to loaf about in flannels and make himself useful by attacking the green-fly on the roses in his mother's garden with clouds of that smoke so hopefully supposed to be fatal to aphides. But Mrs. Rochester thought otherwise.
"You ought to go," she said at breakfast. "The Hendons may be very useful to you in your career."
"I wish these pork-butchers wouldn't use English Place-names," he said, taking more honey. "Why can't they stick to their age-old family names? I shouldn't mind Lord Isaacs, or Lord Smith, or Lord—what was this chap's name?—oh yes, Lord Hoggenheimer—but Lord Hendon! Yes, thank you, half a cup. This is a very jolly little place you've got here. Have you taken it for the whole of the summer?"
"Yes, dear, you know I have, so don't try to turn the subject. Even if his name were still Hoggenheimer, Lord Hendon might be useful to you. He's something very important in the city."
"Perhaps I shall meet him some other time, when he'll be able to realise my existence and be attracted by my interesting personality. He couldn't do that at a crowded garden-party, you know."
"You don't know Lord Hendon," she told him; "he could do anything anywhere. Why, he once bought a gold-mine from a man he met quite casually in the fish department of the Army and Navy Stores."
"Still keeps his old villa-dwelling habits? Brings home a little bit of fish to placate the missus when he's going to be late home. Now I respect him for that—most men bring flowers or diamonds."
"Don't be silly," said his mother serenely. "I want you to meet him, and that ought to be enough. Besides, I've got a new frock on purpose; crêpe-de-chine in about six shades of heliotrope and pink and blue."
"Oh," said John, "of course that settles it."
And indeed, he felt it did.
"And a new hat," she went on. "It really is a dream. So youwillgo?"
"All right, dear," he said, "I'll go, since you've set your heart and your frock and your hat on it. I must catch a train to-night, though, so I'll send my traps to the station,and then I can go straight from Lord Hoggenheimer's. I know you won't want to leave as long as there's a note left in the band."
"Yes, that will be best," she agreed; "and now that's settled comfortably,I want to have a little quiet talk with you."
"May I smoke?" he asked, at once plunged in dejection. He knew his mother's little quiet talks.
"Of course you may smoke, if it doesn't distract your attention, because what I've got to say is very serious indeed. I've been thinking things over for a long time; you mustn't suppose this is a new idea. You know, my darling boy, my little income dies with me. Yes, I know you are getting on very nicely in your profession, but it only advances you financially, and that very slowly. There's nosocialadvancement in it."
"I shall invent something some of these days, and then you can have all the social and financial advancement you want," he said rather bitterly.
"That's another point. You have notimefor your inventions—I'm sure you've often told me so. You want time, and you want money, and if you don't wantsocialadvancement your poor old mother wants it for you,"
"Well?" he said, now very much on his guard.
"Think what it would be like," she went on, "never to have to work for money—just to have that workshop you've so often talked about, and just look in and do a little inventing there whenever you felt inclined. No bothers, no interruptions—entirely your own master. And all the steel things you want always handy."
"A lovely and accurate picture of an inventor's life!" he laughed.
"It's nothing to laugh about," she said; "because I have an idea. Why shouldn't you marry? Some nice girl whom you really like and who has money."
"When I marry," he said, getting up and standing with his back to the ferns in the fireplace, "it won't be to live on my wife."
"Ofcoursenot," she agreed; "that would be dreadfully shocking I quite see that, darling. But just to begin with—till you bring off your first great invention—so that your mind could be quite free for wheels and cogs and springs and strains and levers and things. Then afterwards, when your royalties begin to come in, you could repay her a thousandfold for any little help she'd been able to give you."
You've thought it all out very thoroughly, and you put it very convincingly," he said, and laughed again. "But when I marry my dear mother, I think it would be more interesting to be in love with my wife."
"Then I'm afraid you'll never marry," she said very gravely You're twenty-five, and you've never been in love yet."
"You can't possibly know that," he said quickly. And still more quickly she answered:
"You can't possibly deny it."
He could not, it was true. There seemed to be nothing to do but to laugh again. So he laughed. Then he said:
"Then the time must soon come when I shall."
"I don't think so," said his mother, speaking as one who knows. Your dear father once told me he had never been in love in his life. Of course, he led me to believe otherwise when we first became engaged, and it is true that he was in one of his tempers when he said it. Buy it was true for all that. I knew it was true before he said it, if you understand, only until he said it I didn't know I knew it."
She got up rather hurriedly and walked to the window, and stood swinging the little ivory acorn that held the knob of the blind-cord. "You see, dear, I could always tell when he was telling the truth. He didn't always, I am sorry to say. No, you needn't say, 'Poor mother.' We were quite as happy as most people. Marriages aren't really unhappy when one of the people is kind and the other is loving. And I was quite fond of him. And in the marriage I hope you'll make there'll be plenty of love on one side at least."
"I'm quite sure of what I say." She turned and faced him, and her face shewed sharp and old under her powder. "You're exactly like your father. Your face, your voice, your foot-step, your temper—even that aggravating way you have of tilting your chair. . ."
The chair went down with a bang.
"There are some men who never fall in love. But they need companionship and a home. And here's a really good nice girl who worships the ground you walk on."
"Nonsense!" he put in, and almost felt as though he were blushing.
"Well, judge for yourself. Now I've told you, youcanjudge. You can make this nice girl happy and make yourself comfortable for life. Now don't say anything. All I want you to promise me is that you'll think it over. No, don't say anything. Don't speak. Think. Think hard. You'll never find a wife more suited to you in every way than Hilda Antrobus."
"Hilda Antrobus!——" he was beginning, but she came swiftly to him and put her hand over his mouth. A soft little hand, adequately ringed andscented with lavender.
"Not a word; just promise me you'll think it over. And when you see her, notice. She'll be there to-day."
"Oh Lord!" said John Rochester, looking towards the door.
"Say you'll think it over."
"You haven't said anything toherabout it?"
"My darling boy! As if I should! Now just promise to think it over,"
"Oh, very well, I'll think it over all right," he said. "And now let's drop it, shall we?"
"By all means—not another word!" she answered. "You're a dear, good, clever boy, and you deserve to be happy, if ever a boy did, and if you and that nice Hilda . . ."
But he had escaped.
He did not mean to think it over. But he found that he could think of nothing else; and when on the lawn atHendon Towers among the moving kaleidoscope of strangers he suddenly met Miss Antrobus, and saw the quite pretty blush and smile that lighted the quite plain face of Miss Antrobus as she greeted him, he felt that he had never really seen the girl before. Suppose he actually were like his father, in that respect as in others? Suppose he were the sort of man who cannot ever fall in love, and who yet wanted a home companionship—leisure too (that thought would slip in)? Supposing Hilda really cared? . . . Why then . . . why then . . .
Supposing she really cared? The thought touched him oddly. He had never been in love with any woman, but he had been, for long enough in love with love. He knew well enough what love must be; and if this girl cared . . . why then he could make her happy, make his mother happy and set free that caged bird in him that year in and year out beat its wings against the constraining bars of an enforced activity that was not the activity he longed for but one enforced by circumstances and the will of others If only the inventive genius that he felt penned in him could take free flight! Marrying for money had not a pleasant sound but this would be marrying for freedom and happiness—his freedom, her happiness, and, perhaps in the end, his own. To this her money would be a means. It would never be an end in itself. That was where baseness would have been.
Under the influence of these sentiments he found himself smiling kindly at Miss Antrobus in her simple, expense dress of unbecoming blue silk and saying, "How jolly to meet you here!"
It was the tenderest speech he had ever made to her; and, having made it, he could think of nothing else to say. A fleeting wonder crossed bis mind: what would it be like to sit at table for half a lifetime, opposite a woman to whom one could think of nothing to say? but she herself was speaking.
"Itisnice to see you," she said; "and what a beautiful day, too!"
The naiveté of her words touched him again.
"Come," he said, "let's get away from the crowd and explore. Do you know your way about?"
"I'm staying here," she said. "Come and see the ruins. Oh, they're not real ruins, but Lord Hendon thought they'd look pretty. And they do. I shouldn't like antiquarians and people like that to hear me say so; but they do, especially now the ivy's growing so nicely. Come and look."
They moved off. It was the happiest moment she had ever known.
Later in the day Miss Antrobus and Mrs. Rochester found themselves together on the slope of the beech wood. There is a wooden seat here from which you look out across the Kentish valley to the blue of the hills beyond. Away to the right was the house, its lawns gay with the many-coloured patchwork of the guests.
"Well, dear?" said the elder woman; her voice was both very gentle and very alert.
"Well?" said the girl awkwardly.
"He's been paying you a good deal of attention, hasn't he? You seem to have been a good deal together."
"He has been very kind," said Miss Antrobus, and put her gloved fingers to her burning cheeks. "Dear Mrs. Rochester—I feel so ashamed, I wish you'd never founds it out."
"Why should you be ashamed?" purred Mrs. Rochester suavely. "Ican only be proud that you care for my boy. And I know he likes you very much. And he has never cared for anyone else."
"You haven't said anything to him about it?" the heiress asked with quick suspicion.
"My darling girl! As if I should," the mother answered earnestly. "He's very. . . well, not exactly shy—and modest isn't exactly the word either. I mean he's not vain—he's not the sort of man who would think he could carry all before him; not one of our conquerors, you know. He'll need encouraging. No—I don't mean exactly that, but Idon't think you ought to disguise from him that youlikehim."
"I don't, really I don't," said Miss Antrobus, not knowing at all how truly she spoke.
"That's right; and don't let me see tears in those pretty eyes—there's nothing to be sad about. Life's just beginning for you, and I'm certain it will be a beautiful life, full of love and happiness."
"Youaregood to me," said the girl, and her tears brimmed over. She pulled out her handkerchief.
"Dabyour eyes, dearest," said Mrs. Rochester hastily, "don't rub. It makes them red. If you gently dab, those tears will only make them brighter."
"Youaregood to me," said Miss Antrobus, dabbing obediently at her red-rimmed wet pale blue eyes. And for the rest of the day his mother's words rang in her ears: "Your pretty eyes. Your pretty eyes."
John Rochester walked from Hendon Towers to the station. He walked through the woods, partly because the way was shorter and partly because it was quieter. Motors hooted and stank along the high road, and he had no fancy for being pursued by goggled acquaintances offering lifts. The way through the wood was shorter, but it was also sinuous. He missed his way, and, as a direct consequence, missed his train. He saw it coming, ran, saw it retreat, and arrived at the station with just enough breath left to say "Damn!"
The porters were sympathetic. Yes, that was the last train. And the Lechmere Arms was quite handy. Very good beds, they believed. Oh, the gentleman wanted to be in London early in the morning? Well, there was a goods train at 3.15, if the gentleman didn't mind travelling in the guard's van? The gentleman did not? Good; that would be all right then, and thank you very much sir, they were sure.
Rochester walked out of the station. He had no intention of returning to his mother's house. Miss Antrobuswho that morning had been little more than a name and a face to him, was now a person whom he did not want to discuss with his mother or anyone else. He was beginning to like her; hefelt that some day he might begin to feel affection for her. She was a straightforward, simple little soul. Not at all a bad sort.
And he knew now that she did care; which gave one quite a different feeling for her. He had felt nothing but a sort of awkwardness when his mother had told him this. But now that Miss Antrobus had told him with her own face and voice, and the light that shone in them at his presence, things were quite otherwise.
He would go back into the woods and think, perhaps rest on that thick moss under the big beech trees. The woods would be very beautiful under this rising moon. The night was hot, the roads dusty; the woods would be sweet and fresh. He got over the stile and passed under the arch of hazel and sweet chestnuts. The moonlight dappled the grassy ride ahead of him. The cool, fresh leaves brushed now and then against his hands. He did not sit down; he walked on thinking, thinking. And all his thoughts were of the ingenuous heiress to whom till now he had never given a thought. Yes, one might grow quite fond of her; he was sure of it. And the conviction seemed to wash him clean of sordid soil which the idea of "marrying for money" does beyond doubt bring with it. Supposing one grew to be honestly fond? He walked on, bareheaded, through the dew and the moonlight, keeping now to the straight rides and essaying no by-paths.
How still the wood was; how dark in its shadows; how greenly silver where the moonbeams touched it! Peace wrapped him like a cloak; perhaps love ought to be like that—quiet, unchanging affection, a community of interests, mutual kindness . . . none of that wild unrest, that passion of longing, that triumph of possession which men call love . . . but just mutual kindness—peace. He seemed to be learning much.
"Everything seems to be deciding itself here," he said, sinking deeper into the peace of those silent, moonlit woods.
And then suddenly he saw a light that was not moonlight—a mellow, yellow light deepening to orange. It was not the light from any house windows, it was too diffused. It was not the light of the festal illuminations at the Towers, it was too near. What we call idle curiosity turned his feet towards it. It gleamed through the leaves, almost vanished, reappeared. He made straight for it through the wood; briars tore at him, hazel switches stung hands and face; he pressed on, only to be checked at last by an oak fence. He vaulted it; and now were no more brambles, but smooth green sward under his feet; and no close-clinging woods, but space, set with trees and bushes in groups. He went towards the light, but cautiously, for he perceived that he was not now in a place where any and every one had a right to be. Under cover of a clump of huge rhododendron he drew quite near to the light, parted very carefully and silently the resilient boughs and peered through.
He saw a glade, ringed round with rhododendrons and azaleas, their big heads of bloom glistening in the wan light cast from the Japanese lanterns that hung like golden incandescent fruit from the branches of the fir-trees. In the middle of the glade a ring of fairy lights shining like giant glow-worms were set out upon the turf.
In the middle of the ring stood a girl, slender, still, silent. Her gown was white and straight and reached to her feet; her white, elfish face was set with stern resolution. On her dark hair shone a crown of starry golden flowers. On her faintly moulded breast lay a kindred blossom; two more golden star-flowers she held in her hands. She stood there, silent. There was no one else. Among the trees under the moon he and she were alone together.
He held his breath. A dull, heavy, resonant, metallic sound startled his heart to a quick fluttering. The repetition of the sound reassured him. It was the clock of Lechmere Church beating out the hour—midnight.
The sound had startled the girl-child within the ring of fairy lights. The resolution of her face broke up into fear that rippled quickly into something like the shadow of a smile. Then she stood listening, and, as the echo of the last bell-beat died away, she began to speak. Plain and distinct, her words came to him in the clearest, finest, most charming voice in the world.
"O, good Saint John, now condescend For to be a maiden's friend. On your feast a maid stands here With your weed in breast and hair. Good Saint John, now to me show Portents plain of weal or woe. If I am to die a maid. Let white flowers be round me spread; But if I a bride shall be, Let me now my true love see."
The voice ceased, and then, "Oh!" it said, with an indescribable inflection. Fear, surprise, pride, joy, and something else mingled in it. Then there was silence. She stood like a young fawn at gaze. And her eyes met his. For, as she had spoken her spell, he, in listening, had forgotten caution and had let his face pass the guard of the shining leaves and blossoms. So that now they stood looking at each other across the green sward and the little green lights. Her eyes were wide with wonder, and beautiful with the light of dreams come true. Still as a statue she stood, in her white robe and her golden garland. It was he who moved first. Slowly he drew back, slowly the leaves closed between his face and hers. Yet he could still see her, but she could no longer see him.
And when she could no longer see him the charm broke that had held her moveless. She put her hands to her head, drew a long breath, and called aloud:
"Emmy, Emmy, quick!"
And at that there was a sound of running footsteps, and almost at once two other girls came flying down the hill into the glade and ran to her. She clung to them without words.
"There," said one, with soothing voice and gentle pattings, "you've frightened yourself to death—I knew you would."
But the other said, "She has seen something."
Then said the first, "You promised to tell."
"I will tell," said the girl with the starry flowers and the starry eyes, and freed herself. "I've seenhim," she said in a strange little clear voice.
"You haven't! What was he like?"
"Like a . . . I don't know . . . not like anyone real. Like a Greek god . . ." said the child with the gold-flower crown.
And at that Rochester drew back and fled very quickly and quietly across the dewy turf.
He had meant to disclose himself, to beg pardon for his involuntary trespass, to scatter the mists of magic and bring everything back to the nice, sensible, commonplace that frightens no one—but he could not do it now. No man could. What man could walk out of a clump of rhododendrons at midnight into a magic circle of little green lamps and say, in cold blood, to a group of schoolgirls: "I am the Greek god to whom this lady has referred"? It was impossible. The only thing he could do was to go away as quietly and as quickly as might be. He crept along the fence till he found a narrow swing gate and squeezed through it. Then he looked back. The golden lights were gone. All was moonlight and silence. The whole thing might well have been a dream. To all intents and purposes it was a dream. He did not know who the girl was into whose eyes he had gazed—who had gazed into his and thought him a god. He probably would never know, would never see her again.
"Certainly I shall never see her again," he said. He also said: "But I will never marry Miss Antrobus."
Jane Questedwas a schoolgirl when the war began, and she was a schoolgirl when it ended. So was her cousin Lucilla. Explanations are tiresome, but inevitable. Even on the stage people draw their chairs together, and one tells the other—for your benefit—what both of them must know perfectly well, beginning, probably: "It was just such a stormy night as this, twenty years ago, my dear wife, when that mysterious stranger…" or "I often think of the secret marriage of the Duchess, when you and I—I her butler and you her maid—were sworn by Her Grace to eternal secrecy. The circumstances, you will remember, are these…" And then he tells you all about it. As I will now tell you. So let us face the explanations, which are really short and simple.
Jane Quested's father, who was also Lucilla's uncle, was in India. He had nothing but his pay, which he found insufficient. A great aunt had left Jane quite a pleasant little fortune—nothing dazzling, but enough to keep the wolf from the door of a reasonably prosperous home. This little fortune, in charge of a trustee, a solicitor, was tied up and secured by all those arts and crafts which lawyers could devise and execute to protect it from impecunious fathers. It was to be Jane's when she reached the age of reason as defined by law. To Lucilla the same relative had left the same competence.
When war broke out the cousins were at school in Devonshire, and to both father and trustee it seemed desirable that they should stay there for the duration of the war. The father had no wish that his daughter should undertake along and perilous journey merely to embarrass him in his Eastern housekeeping—and, to the trustee, school seemed, for a thousandreasons, the best place for Lucilla and Jane. So at school they had stayed, and knitted socks and sweaters for the army and navy, and heard selections from the papers read aloud by careful governesses, seeing and hearing as little of the war as any English-speaking young women in the world. Of course they thrilled at our disasters, triumphed in our successes, pitied and prayed for the poor soldiers and sailors, execrated our enemies, and idealised our Allies. But it was all to them very far away; it hardly came near them never touched them, till Jane's father died like a hero in Mesopotamia, leaving her his heroism to glorify her sorrow. Even then it was only as though an echo of the thunder of the waves of war had somehow reached the quiet, ordered house in Devonshire.
When the war ended Jane was nineteen. She felt incredibly grown-up. For two years she and Lucilla had devoted the whole of their fortnightly letters to their trustee—now their guardian—to entreaties to be allowed to leave school.
"And he never takes the least notice," Jane said to Lucilla on the first day of the summer holidays; "he just sends boxes of chocs., and bottles of scent, and embroidered handkerchiefs, and books and things, and tells us to be good girls and complete our studies and fit ourselves for the battle of life. Not much battle, thank goodness! I heard the Head once asking Miss Graves, in that 'life is real, life is earnest' voice of hers, what she thought was the most beautiful thing in the world. And Gravy said, 'The most beautiful thing in the world? A small but settled income, I think. And no work.' The Head was sick."
"I don't mind work so much," said Lucilla, going on with her knitting, "so long as you don't have to do the sort of work other people say you must. If Ihadto do this I should hate it." She heaved up the lumpish grey mass on her lap. "As it is, I like it."
"I don't like anything here," said Jane; "we're wastingbut youth—our precious, golden, unreturning youth. I want to do things and see the world."
"Please, miss," said a maid at the door, "the post is in, and you're both to go and seeHer. I hope it ain't bad trouble," she added sympathetically; "and afterwards, if there's anything I can do . . . There's something up, miss. There was a letter for you, and she kep'it back at breakfast—and one for you, miss, too. It isn't safe to let 'em write by post, it really isn't."
"To let who write, Gladys?"
"The young men as you walks out with," Gladys explained kindly. "Atleast, of course you young ladies don't walk out, being kept alive in a cage, so to speak, but I expect it's the same at heart. I gets the confectioner's girl to take inmyletters," she added with simple pride. "It's best to be on the safe side in a house full of old cats like this here. Is he dark or fair, miss—yours I mean?" she suddenly asked Jane.
"Your young man."
"I don't know," said Jane. "I haven't got a young man yet."
"Then the letter can't be from him," said Gladys, with irresistible logic.
"No, it certainly can't. But it might be from somebody else. In fact it must. I wonder how long she means to keep us in suspense? When are we to go and see her? After dinner?"
"Ohno. She is looking forward to the blow-up she's getting ready for you to give her an appetite for dinner. Do you know, miss, I shouldn't wonder if it was a nonnymous letter from a true friend, or 'one who has only seen you in church but wants to know you better,' or 'a respectable admirer who picked up your umbrella.' Thursday week as you got off the tram. Oh,Isaw him, miss. It was my afternoon out."
"I always enjoy your conversation, Gladys," said Lucillagravely, "but have you no work to do this morning?"
"Oh, very well"; the round, pink face of Gladys clouded over, and she tossed her head. "Just asyouplease, miss, I'm sure. I can take a hint as well as anybody. I never intrude and I never say a word more than needful. If my room's preferred to my company I never linger. But oh, I say, miss, have either of you noticed the new baker's boy? He's just like a picture, blue eyes and golden curls, six feet high and four medals, and he can talk French. He says lots of it. I don't know exactly what it means, but he has such expressing eyes."
"Gladys, begone!" cried Jane; "but before you go just tell uswhenwe're to go to the Head."
"I've told you a dozen times, if once," said Gladys reproachfully, "that you're not to lose a moment. I shouldn't even wait to comb my hair or powder my nose if I was you, miss. She's waiting for you in her own room, and I was to tell you to go down at once. And my advice is, you go and get it over. Because why . . ."
They found the Headmistress in her sitting-room—the room so well adapted to the beguiling of parents, the room so tasteful and yet so learned-looking—books, flowers, autotypes from Watts and Burne-Jones, busts of Mozart and Socrates; "all kinds of cultivated tastes catered for" as Jane used to say.
The Head was not looking pleased. She held in her hand three letters, and said, "Be seated," without looking at her pupils. Then she tapped one of the letters, the open one, on the neat fumed-oak writing-table before her, looked out of her window, and asked:
"Had you any idea of this?"
"What?" Jane asked.
"Ofwhat," corrected the Head mechanically "Perhaps you had better read your letters." She handed a square hand-made envelope to each. There was the sound of torn and rustling paper. The canary in the window rustled sympathetically among his sand and groundsel.
"Well?" said the Head. "I suppose your letter contains the same news as mine?"
"I suppose so, Miss James," said Jane. "Mine—but you'd better read it, perhaps."
Miss James read it, aloud.
"Please take the 12 o'clock train to London on Wednesday. You will be met at Paddington. I have made all arrangements for you and enclose notes for expenses.
"I am writing to Miss James, and no doubt she will be willing to accept a term's fees instead of a term's notice. Bring all your luggage. You will not return to school.
Yours very truly,"Arthur Panton."
"Mine's the same," said Lucilla.
"And you had no idea of this?"
"No," said both the girls.
"It is very sudden," said the Head. "I feel it very much."
"Cheap!" said the canary.
"We should have had to leave some time," said Lucilla.
"You are now," began Miss James, leaning back comfortably, "going out into the world. You will no longer have the guiding hand, the mature mind, the affectionate heart of your teachers to rely on. You will be free . . . "
"Sweet, sweet, sweet!" said the canary.
". . . from all the restraints of school. Let it be your care . . ." Miss James went on. And we need not follow her further. Every girl who has left school knows exactly what she said. The last words were all that mattered.
"The matron will pack your boxes to-day. You had better assist her. And never forget in the rush of the battle of life that you are St. Olave's girls. Let that thought be your shield and your banner. Be proud of the school, andlet all your actions be such as shall make the school proud of you."
"Yes, Miss James," said the two girls meekly.
Outside her door they fell into each other's arms, breathless with whispered ecstasies.
"How quite too perfectly ripping!" said Jane.
"To-morrow!" said Lucilla. "It's like something in a book—a bolt from the blue."
"A bolt from the blue-stockings," said Jane. "Come away, or she'll catch us."
"I feel as if someone had left me a fortune . . ."
"I feel as if I were going to elope."
It was not till most of their books and work and little possessions had been collected and set ready for the packing that they were sufficiently sobered to question the future.
"I wonder where we're going to live, though?" Lucilla said over the pile of books she was carrying.
"What does that matter," said Jane, "so long as it's not here? When persons escape from the Bastille they never ask where they're going to live. With him, perhaps. Keep his house and entertain his clients. I say, Lucilla, let's keep a salon, and make dear Guardian's invitations the most sought after in London."
"I don't think!" said Lucilla. "I expect he's engaged a tabby to chaperone us. I hope she's an engaging tabby."
"Oh, don't let's bother," said Jane, turning a drawer full of ribbons and gloves on to the floor. "Help me to sort these. I nearly cried yesterday when all the other girls kept going away in cab after cab—to say nothing of the motors—and we left behind, and dear Emmie in Norway on her wedding tour and nobody to lend us a helping hand. And now ours very truly, Arthur Panton, has turned up trumps. May the choicest blessings——Look out, those chocs. are sticky. Don't let them loose among my collars!"
Glad as wild birds released from their cage, the cousins parted from Miss James. Their faces were serious and respectful, but each heart danced like the sea on a breezysunny morning. The world was before them: school was behind. They were travelling to London alone—no chaperone; they were no longer schoolgirls, they were young women. The matron saw them off at the station—a kind, stupid woman, but not stupid enough for it to be necessary for them to maintain the serious and respectful mask before her.
"I wish we'd seen Gladys to say good-bye," they said. "You might give her this for us." They pressed half-crowns on the matron. "Poor old Gladys, she——"
They were getting into the train, when a clatter of clumsy feet made them turn. It was Gladys, but panting and almost in tears.
"Thought I'd missed it," she exclaimed, thrusting a large box into the carriage. "It's a parting present, miss. For both of you."
"We shall prize it for ever, whatever it is," said Lucilla.
"I got it from me brother," said Gladys, "that's why I'm so late. It's just like him to live the other end of the town. I do wish you wasn't going! I don't know whatever I shall do now you've gone. For of all the old——"
"Shish!" said Jane.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, Miss Blake—I didn't see you were there. Oh, good-bye, Miss Jane dear, and you too, Miss Lucy, I'm sure! Good-bye!"
Miss Blake pulled her back. A porter banged the door and the train moved off.
They waved hands from the window till the station was out of sight. Then, withdrawing their heads from the window, they stumbled over Gladys's present.
"Let's see what it is," said Jane.
It was a fine black rabbit in a home-made hutch, not new.
"Well, perhaps it's lucky," said Jane; "like black cats, you know. We'll call it Othello. Poor old Gladys!"
It was a delicious journey. The wildest speculations concerning their future brightened every mile of it. AtPaddington they were met by a sour-looking man who announced himself as Mr. Panton's head clerk.
"But how do you know it's us?" Jane asked.
"I've been shown your photos," he said. "This way to the car."
It was a beautiful car. Behind it stood a taxi for their luggage.
"I feel like a duchess," said Jane in the car.
"Your hat's all on one side," said Lucilla beside her.
"That will be all then?" said the clerk at the window. "This is the address," and he thrust a paper at them. "The man knows where to go. And this," he said finally, dropping something cold into Lucilla's hand, "is the key. Drive on!"
And the car slid out of the station.
"The key! Whatever of?" Lucilla asked.
"Heaven alone knows. Perhaps we are being kidnapped. Oh, Lucy, how frightfully exciting."
"But what's it the keyof?"
"A house. Unless it's the key of a mausoleum, like Emmeline's great aunt battered at the door of."
"But why a key? Oh, Jane, suppose that dusty person at the station didn't really recognise us? Suppose he thought we were somebody else, and this is somebody else's key? Or suppose we're really being kidnapped? Held for ransom, you know, till our guardian shells out. The key—it's so heavy; it might be the key of a church."
"Whatever else it is, it's the key of our future. Don't let's get fluttered, Lucy, like two silly schoolgirls, Where's the paper with the address on it?"
They found it on the floor among their rugs and bags and umbrellas. Lucilla unfolded it.
"What does it say?" Jane asked.
It said "Hope Cottage," adding the names of a road and a suburb.
"There," said Jane, "that's all serene. It's Guardy's handwriting right enough. It's not a bad hand. Curiouswe've never seen him. He had very good taste in chocs. and books. I daresay he's quite a decent sort. I wonder if he'll let us travel by ourselves? Abroad, I mean?"
"Italy," said Lucilla.
"Egypt," said Jane,
"But about this key!" Lucilla began again, but Jane stopped her with a squeak of triumph.
"I know! This car is for us, and this is the key of the garage. How unspeakably splendid! Our guardian is one in a million! I wonder how much money Aunt Lucilla did leave us? It must be an awful lot if it runs to a car like this."
And all the time the car was worming its swift, gliding way through strange crowded streets, between unfamiliar rows of gloomy houses and brilliant shops. It crossed the Thames, and the roads became sordid. It left the sordidness behind and passed among villas whose gardens grew larger as they slipped past. Then came trees—fields—more villas.
"It's almost real country," said Lucilla. "I hope Hope Cottage is bowered in roses and jasmine. It must be a big cottage to have a garage."
"I should like it thatched," said Jane, "but I suppose that's too much to expect."
More big gardens—a road that was almost a lane, with fields on one side and cabbage-fields on the other—some half-built houses—some trees—another cabbage-field—and then suddenly the motor stopped, purring, before a little yellow brick house as square as the rabbit-hutch itself and almost as small.
The chauffeur got down and opened the door. He had quite a nice face, Lucilla thought.
"This is Hope Cottage," he said. And, indeed, a black inscription on its white gate said so in plain capitals.
They gathered their belongings together and got out. The chauffeur unlatched the gate for them, and they passed up a tiled path to a narrow green door.
"Oh, Jane, this can't be right!" Lucy a whispered.
"Where's the key?" said Jane.
A large key-hole invited it. It turned easily, and the door opening showed a vision of a narrow carpeted passage and steeply-rising stairs.
"Good afternoon, miss," said the chauffeur "the taxi is paid for."
"But here—I say, stop a minute!" said Lucilla.
"Sorry—another appointment," he said. "You'll find it's quite all right. This is Hope Cottage," and he turned to his machine still pulsing loudly.
"No you don't!" cried Jane, and, springing to the gate, caught him by the arm. A look of positive terror came over his face.
"My dear young lady," he said, "surely you won't detain me by force?"
"Yes, I will," said Jane. "You can't go off and leave us like this."
"Mr. Panton told me to bring you here, miss. I assure you its all quite as he arranged. You need be under no apprehension."
"I'm not," she said shortly. "But I'm going to let you go till you've helped to get the boxes in. How on earth do you suppose that taxi man's going to get all those boxes up these stairs? Or do you expectusto do it?"
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I never thought of that. Of course I will," and he turned t0 waiting taxi and began to haul at a suit-case.
"You must take them all upstairs. There's no room in this passage for luggage."
"Certainly," said the chauffeur; "Please don't worry. I'll manage everything."
He did. When motor and taxi had died away into silence Jane said:
"That chauffeur was a gentleman. Did you notice his voice? And towards the end he quite forgot to call us 'miss.' I thought he had an awfully nice face, didn't you?"
"We've got something to think of besides chauffeurs' faces," said Lucilla. "There are no shops for miles, I expect, and I'm absolutely starving."
"Perhaps there's something to eat in the house."
"Not likely," said Lucilla.
"Well, let's look over the house. It's no use standing in the passage all night saying how hungry you are," said Jane impatiently.
There were two little sitting-rooms, one on each side of the front door. The first was furnished primly in Middle-Victorian walnut and faded satin. It had a piano with a fluted yellow silk front, and glass lustres to the mantelpiece. A vase of roses stood on a table in the window.
"Nothing to eat here!" said Lucilla bitterly.
But Jane had opened the door of the other room.
"Oh, Lucy!" she called. "Come her!"
The second room was a little dining-room, with mahogany cheffonier and maple-framed engravings of the Monarch of the Glen, the Maid of Saragossa, and Bolton Abbey in the olden time. In the middle of the room stood a table—almost it seemed to beckon, with its white cloth, its gleams of silver and glass.
"Cold chicken!" said Lucilla. "Salad—raspberries—tea-things—milk—bread, butter, jam—everything! Oh, and cream! Oh, Jane!"
"Here's a letter," said Jane. It wasn't really a letter; just a slip of paper in the well-known handwriting of Mr. Arthur Panton.
"Unavoidably called away. Please make yourselves completely at home.—A. P.
"P.S.—Kettle and spirit-stove in the kitchen. Tea in caddy in cheffonier."
The two girls looked at each other.
"Well!" they said simultaneously, and Lucilla added, "Never mind about tea. Can you carve a chicken?"
"I can try,"
"Try, then, in the name of the Prophet!" said Lucilla. "I can cut bread. If you can't carve, chop; our lives are saved. I prefer the liver wing. I've never had one, but the important people in books always have the liver wing. You can have all the legs. Oh, our guardian is really a gem. Isn't it the loveliest supper? He must be a man of perfect taste and sensibility. Pass the salad, please. This doesn't look like a wing, it looks all bone; give me some off the top—yes, that white part. No, I don't want to wash my hands first. I don't want to do anything but eat for quite a long time."
When they had eaten, they went all over the little house and found a tiny kitchen and scullery, and upstairs three small bedrooms choked with their luggage. From the windows they saw a large garden, painted with many bright flowers and rich with the promise of fruit-trees. "It's rather a dear little bandbox," said Lucilla. "I wonder if our mysterious guardian will come to-night or to-morrow?"
When they had explored every hole and corner and shelf and cupboard, and had tried the piano and gone all over the garden, they sat down to wait.
"We won't go to bed till twelve," said Jane, "in case he comes. And if he doesn't, it will be rather a lark to sit up till twelve anyway."
But by twelve o'clock he had not come, so they went to bed. They were roused at eight o'clock by a knocking at the door, which repeated itself as they hastily dressed after shouting "Coming!" through the window. Through the glass of the hall door they saw a manly figure.
"Here he is!" they both said. And so he was. But he was only the postman. He had one letter—a very large, fat, registered one. It was addressed to Miss Jane Quested and Miss Lucilla Craye, and they both signed the green receipt for it.
"It's his writing," said Lucilla, as the postman stumped away. "You open it."
The stout envelope yielded several long, legal-looking papers and a bank pass book. Also a letter.
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