Forde, in Brookshire, although of wider extent and greater antiquity than many a little upstart town, is nevertheless content to be known as a village—secure in the consciousness of unquestioned age, and doubtless cherishing that lofty sentiment which inspires a commoner of long descent to decline a peerage.
An unusually wide thoroughfare lined with venerable red-faced houses, a fine thirteenth-century “restored” church and two historical coaching inns are its most prominent features. This ancient and respectable hamlet now boasts two postal deliveries, a notable garage, and the telephone, but otherwise remains as simple and countrified as of yore. Situated forty miles from London and at an inconvenient distance from the railway, Forde knows in its heart—the two bars—that it will never become a fashionable resort or the home of the Daily Breader, and to this fact it remains supremely indifferent. A collection of thin-skinned mansions, villas and shops have sprouted near the station of Little Forde, three miles away; this mushroom, which merely dates from the opening of a branch line, is nothing more than a stray London suburb, whilst Forde poses as “county,” yet does not disdain to avail itself of its neighbour’s well-stocked stores and daily consignment of fresh fish.
The wide coaching road which runs through the village is remarkable for its many posting inns, now modernized and turned into private houses, with low-panelled rooms, uneven floors, and unexpected steps, flanked by walled gardens justly celebrated for their fruit and flowers. The main street is bordered in an irregular fashion; houses, large and small, crowd elbow to elbow; shops are few, and although doing a brisk trade, appear to be anxious to avoid the public eye. The post office is established in a creeper-clad cottage with its back to the world; the butcher’s premises are secreted in a cul-de-sac; whilst the baker and coal merchant seek shelter behind the new garage.
The Horn and the Falcon inns, on the other hand, stand forth brazen and unashamed, facing one another across the main street—rivals for two centuries. The village thoroughfare is traversed by another; together they make the form of a cross, and the four diverging roads melt away into an undulating wooded country; they are in several instances guarded by the imposing entrances to famous estates, for the butcher and baker of Forde number an earl, a baron and the daughter of a duke among their faithful customers.
St. Swithins, a venerable edifice, towers over a spacious and well-kept graveyard full of clipped yews and luxuriant rose trees. The shady road which passes its gates is confined within uncompromising walls, behind which lurk exclusive residences surrounded by well-matured grounds.
As rents at Forde are (at present) moderate and the ancient brick-faced houses are both roomy and well built, there are a goodly number of tenants, mostly people of gentle birth and narrow means, who declare with one consent that they live at Forde because it is so healthy!
The most important resident was Lady Harriet Hackett, daughter of a duke, widow of a gallant general, and aunt of Lady Tranmere, of Tranmere Park, whose gates were within a mile. Lady Harriet lived alone; she had no family, would not tolerate a companion, and, though past seventy, was as youthful in mental capacity and outlook as any clever woman of half her age. She had travelled widely, mixed in the great world, and was now moored in a backwater, enjoying the role of looker-on: a handsome white-haired dame, wonderfully erect, and admirably groomed. Five servants, who had been years in her service, ran the house, whilst their mistress, so to speak, ran and dominated Forde. She was its law-giver, adviser and autocrat, a sympathetic ruler, with an ear ever lent to a tale of distress and—what does not always follow—a purse ready with assistance. Her ladyship was profoundly interested in the love affairs of young people, but detested scandal. She enjoyed hearing all the news—especially local items, the most insignificant folk and their trifling affairs excited her curiosity; she was an insatiable reader of newspapers, of novels, biographies and French literature, subscribed to the London Library, to Mudie’s, the Times and Spectator, and existed contentedly among her flowers, her books and her friends.
Her two grand-nieces at the Park, Hermione and Gwendoline, though fond of Aunt Harry, were a little in awe of her; she had such acute perceptions, a peremptory manner, and, when she chose, a sharp, sarcastic tongue. Nevertheless a week rarely passed without one or the other, or both, dropping in at Rosehill.
Another constant visitor was Jane Jessop, the rector’s only child and curate. The Rev. Harold Jessop, a widower, a ripe classical scholar, and an Oxford don, had been endowed with a delightful voice, was a fine preacher, and a benevolent and kindly priest. Outside the church and its services his energies languished; with regard to parish work he was undeniably indolent—he preferred reading a pamphlet or the Church Times to visiting his parishioners—and it was Jane, his only daughter, who herded his flock. Jane was a tall, muscular woman of forty, with a pleasant, florid countenance, a firm mouth, a clear head, and surprising administrative faculties—one who saw life in a large, tolerant, kindly way.
She taught in the school, controlled the choir, was treasurer and secretary to various local charities, attended mothers’ meetings, ran the local library, and got up musical competitions, concerts and plays in the dreary winter evenings and social outings in the long summer days.
A forcible speaker and ever generous with a piece of her mind; but for all her occasionally brusque manner Miss Jessop had a soft heart. Her weakness was Forde; she loved it as tenderly as if it were her child, and believed that she knew every one of its doings, misdoings and secrets.
Miss Jessop affected plain mannish clothes, was an accomplished cyclist, smoked many cigarettes—despite her father’s excited expostulations—was absolutely without fear, and ready at a moment’s notice to cope with a drunkard, a runaway, or a rat.
Everyone in Forde (including the errand boys) spoke of Miss Jessop as “Jane,” but never before her ruddy, good-natured face. Her time was so continually occupied, she rarely mixed in society, but nevertheless made a point of looking up her godmother, Lady Harriet, almost daily. The elder lady was fond of Jane, and much enjoyed her visits—nothing was too insignificant to be retailed; whether the porter at Little Forde had been discharged or the greengrocer had lost a box of oranges, all was fish that came into my lady’s net. She, too, was partial to the village; on one subject she and Jane were inflexibly firm: no undesirable or suspicious people, be they ever so smart, were to be suffered to find quarters there.
On a certain bleak afternoon early in March, as Lady Harriet and her blue Persian cat sat blinking over a fine log fire, the door opened and Jane entered, a little out of breath and obviously charged with important information.
“Ah! I see you have news!” said the old lady, staring hard as she spoke. “Nothing bad, I hope?”
“That’s as may be,” rejoined Jane. “The Shearings is let!”
“What!” exclaimed the other. “No—impossible! Why, it’s been empty for years and years. The roof must be unsafe, and it’s swarming with rats!”
“A true bill, your ladyship; and the garden is an overgrown wilderness—you can hardly struggle through it for branches, thistles and nettles—the dust in the house is almost knee deep.”
“So, then, you have been inside?”
Jane nodded assent.
“Ah, here comes tea,” as an elderly man-servant entered. “You’ll tell me all about it later. I must say you are a wonder for picking up news!”
“No wonder at all—consider my opportunities,” rejoined Jane, as she helped herself to buttered muffin. After a short interval of munching she resumed: “Barter told me he came up in the bus with two strange young ladies. I don’t suppose you remember our parlourmaid, Ellen Berry. She was at the Park as an underling, then with us for five years; she left rather suddenly and went off to London. Her people live near here.”
“Yes, yes,” assented her companion impatiently. “But what about the strange girls and The Shearings?”
“I’m coming to that. I met Ellen in the street outside Barter’s coal office. At first I believe she wanted to pass me, but I made her stand and deliver, and went with her back to the house.”
“Yes, I can see you! I know your strength of will—the poor woman was helpless.”
“You never beheld such a place as The Shearings,” continued Jane, ignoring this remark. “Paper peeling off the walls, cobwebs hanging down in black ropes, and as for the dust—we were nearly choked!”
“But who are these lunatics who have taken it?”
“The Misses Courtenay—two young girls. Ellen was their grandmother’s maid for years. The old lady is dead, and they have been doing war work—one a V.A.D., and the other at a buffet. They are badly off and orphans.”
“Then why come here of all places for strangers, and why The Shearings?”
“The house belongs to the elder girl; it was left, with all its contents, to her by her godfather as a sort of grim joke. Perhaps you have heard of a Mr. D’Aguilar—there is a brass to him in the church—he had property hereabouts, but lived in London.”
“Yes, I think so. I’ve a faint recollection of a disagreeable old man who lunched at the Park years ago. But do go on; tell me about these Courtenays.”
“The elder is three or four and twenty, the other a year or two younger. They were kept in good order by a dragon of a grandmother, and could hardly call their souls their own—at least, so I gather from Ellen.”
“Oh, I remember a Mrs. Courtenay, a gay, card-playing, extravagant old woman. I’ve met her once or twice in town.”
“The same, no doubt. She left these girls nothing but a little silver and some house linen; the debts swallowed up every farthing.”
“What an unprincipled old wretch! And so she was very strict with the young women?”
“She ruled with a rod of iron. They had no liberty for years, and now they are at large.”
“When are they coming?”
“As soon as Ellen can make the house a bit habitable. She has secured two ‘chars,’ the sweep, and a man to cut down the jungle in the garden; and Berry, of course, being a native, is a tremendous pull. She seems devoted to these Miss Courtenays, and says they are ready to turn their hands to anything—they have only eighty pounds a year between them!”
“Good gracious! Poor things. That won’t go far—even in Forde.”
“If they are nice creatures, we must all give them a hand,” suggested Jane.
“Yes, I know you will be getting up a fête or a pantomime for their benefit. You always run after the poor and needy.”
“Talking of running, I must run to church. As it is, I’m late for choir practice!” and as Jane spoke she jumped up, brushing the crumbs from her rough serge skirt, and with a hasty farewell hurried out of the house.
The description of The Shearings’ new tenants as given by Miss Jessop happened, strange to say, to be correct. The girls were born in India, and whilst still very young lost both parents from cholera. The little orphans were then consigned to their only near relative, a grandmother, who lived at Hove, and having no inclination for a nursery, and being entirely occupied with her own pursuits, consigned the orphan couple to the wife of a country rector who made a speciality of “Indian children.”
Ann and Petronella Courtenay spent some happy years in Devon, and when their ’teens began to loom were dispatched to a school at Scarborough. It appeared to be their grandmother’s aim to place them as far as possible beyond her own orbit. During the life of her husband, the late General Courtenay, C.B., she had been sternly kept under and repressed, and never enjoyed the command of money beyond a meagre dress allowance—always forestalled. When the general was carried off by gout in the stomach his fine pension expired with him. This made a considerable deficit in the family budget, but there still remained a comfortable income left to the widow for her life, and subsequently to her son and his children.
To be free, to be her own mistress, to do and say and spend what she pleased, was an intoxicating change for Mrs. “General” Courtenay, as the tradespeople called her. Although over sixty, her head was turned; she, so to speak, broke out and sowed a late crop of wild oats, gambled in shares on the Stock Exchange, backed horses—yes, who would believe it? though her neighbours wondered why Mrs. Courtenay was always so keen to get an evening paper!
She set up a smart brougham, refurnished the drawing-room at heavy cost, and as soon as she decently could do so received her friends to lunch and dinner, paid a cook seventy pounds a year, played bridge, took expensive jaunts to London and to Monte Carlo. In short, she was another personality; not the quiet, humble wife, but an energetic little widow, une femme qui se dépêche—greedy to snatch at pleasure and excitement ere it was too late.
Mrs. Courtenay was popular; her dainty dinners and bridge parties left nothing to be desired. Many old Indian acquaintances recalled themselves to her notice. She was a member of two bridge clubs, and her circle included not a few parasites and flatterers.
After a time money became scarce, creditors pressing, the local tradespeople somewhat frosty in their manner; but she had recently suffered a shocking loss on the Stock Exchange, a loss which actually frightened her. One of her trustees had died, and she cleverly persuaded the survivor to retire—to this, being an indolent old man, he agreed—and leave all the investments and income in her hands. She wound up her letter of appeal by saying:
“You can believe that I shall manage well, prove a faithful steward, and always put my granddaughters’ interests before my own.”
The two girls were now old enough to leave school and make their home with their grandmother. Hitherto their visits had been short and fitful; the old lady was not drawn to them, their presence irritated her, though they were pretty, amiable and affectionate. She bitterly envied them their youth—alas! this was “the age of youth”—and the lovers in the coming years, the interest and admiration her friends expressed until they realized that these were unwelcome to Mrs. “General.” Her rule was harsh. She particularly snubbed Ann, the elder; firstly, because she resembled her mother—whom she detested as her natural enemy—and, secondly, because she had exhibited a spirit of energy and independence—most undesirable in a girl of eighteen. Ann influenced her younger sister (who adored her) and was inclined to ask awkward questions, begged for her mother’s belongings, for her parents’ letters—these had been burnt years ago—and hinted that she and Pixie would be grateful for a fixed dress allowance.
To this request the old spendthrift replied:
“You can use my name and run up an account at Manton’s—get whatever you like—but don’t bother me. I don’t approve of girls handling money; time enough when you are one-and-twenty.”
The two sisters found their grandmother’s house a strange and uncomfortable residence—home it was not. Life was in such sharp contrast to that at St. Agatha’s. There was no method. The breakfast hours were late and uncertain—Grannie never appeared before twelve o’clock; the servants were slack, except the maid Ellen Berry. After a turn on the lawns or some shopping in Western Road came lunch, and subsequently bridge—Grannie’s craze. But she did not encourage young people to learn; in fact, it was, she declared, “No game for girls,” so the two sisters sat upstairs in their room or wandered about the lawns, whilst Grannie entertained and gambled.
She either received at home or went forth, returning for dinner, and frequently spent the evening playing cards at clubs or at the houses of her intimates. The neglected girls felt out of their element. They had few acquaintances—Grannie’s circle was composed of elderly people—and had little to do. Ann helped Berry with needlework, dusted the drawing-room, arranged flowers, and wrote notes. She hated idleness, and, being endowed with a full share of the family energy, made herself useful and her presence felt both upstairs and below.
As for Pixie, she practised for hours on a worn-out piano, did a little Italian, and lounged over the latest “sevenpenny.”
The sisters were undeniably pretty girls. Ann, tall, slim and dark, with a firm chin, modified by a pair of laughing eyes. Pixie was fair and shorter; she had dark blue eyes, curly brown hair, and an exquisite complexion—anyone could see that in a year or two this immature flapper would develop into a beauty.
Suddenly, like a thunderclap, came the war. The first low mutterings reached Hove on Friday, and presently the dread impending horror spread and closed in like a black fog.
Mrs. Courtenay, however, angrily refused to entertain the idea. “Just a scare got up to sell the papers! No woman in her senses would believe that England in the twentieth century would take part in a ‘Continental campaign.’”
On this topic she became unusually hot and excited, and argued violently in the face of solid facts—such as the calling up of the Yeomanry; and in spite of her passionate protestations war was declared. Hove was instantly seething with excitement, everyone anxious “to do something.” The Red Cross was started, working parties were established. For these the Courtenay girls eagerly volunteered, but their grandmother, who was much upset and shattered, would only suffer them to attend three times a week.
On other days Ann and Pixie sat at home, or on the beach, knitting socks and caps. No personal anxiety troubled them, for, though the daughters and granddaughters of officers, they had few connections, and not one in the service. Nevertheless their days were emotional, their nerves strained. England must win, was bound to, all would go well. Then by degrees black news began to filter in—and the wounded to arrive.
Despite her grandmother’s objurgations and shrill scolding, Ann volunteered, and was accepted, as a V.A.D. She was ready to wash, to scour, to do anything for our soldiers, and carried her point; whilst her sister was left tête-à-tête with an irritable, querulous old lady cut off from festal gatherings and cards, who presently fretted herself into an illness and established Pixie as nurse.
Mrs. Courtenay took up a little knitting, but could never turn the heel of a stocking—her mind was concentrated on the day’s news, and she lived in a condition of feverish expectancy and excitement. She was restless, sleepless, and hysterical—meeting her neighbours and exchanging scares and opinions that added fuel to the flame; the war had turned her little world upside down and indirectly killed her. A stroke from which she never recovered was her end.
Her granddaughters were overwhelmed with condolences, the funeral was well attended, and there was a fair number of wreaths.
After the funeral came the reading of the will, and also, for the legatees, the deluge.
It appeared that Mrs. Courtenay was on the eve of bankruptcy, being sorely pressed by creditors and money-lenders. Now the girls began to understand why Grannie was so unaccountably irritable after post-time and so furious at bills. One appalling discovery was disclosed. The unprincipled old woman had—once it was entirely in her power—made away with her granddaughters’ fortunes. She had nibbled and nibbled at their capital, always expecting that some big coup would help her to refund her borrowings. Unfortunately, this coup never came off, and the girls were almost penniless.
When Richard Woodward, a rising barrister, who was a distant connection, went through Mrs. Courtenay’s papers and liabilities his few remaining hairs nearly stood on end. The old lady’s correspondence, bankbook and finance were those of an optimistic lunatic; her methods those of robbing Peter to pay Paul; her extravagance boundless. The lease of the house was mortgaged, there was a “bill” on the furniture, her debts in Hove were shameless—to a butcher she owed £200, to a poor milkman £25; the very sweep had not been paid for three years—and yet all the time this woman had shown a bold front and held up her head as one of the most popular and prosperous matrons in the place. When everything came to be sifted it was found that the girls had £80 a year out of the wreckage—no home available, and no belongings.
One of Mrs. Courtenay’s intimates came forward and offered them a temporary refuge, and from there Ann materialized her plans for a flight to France. She was taken on at Etaples as a V.A.D., and Pixie, under the wing of a woman much older than herself, found a post at a buffet near Calais.
For nearly three years the sisters worked hard, saw an entirely new side of life, and accomplished their bit.
During those three black years the Courtenays never lost sight of Ellen Berry, their childhood’s champion and friend, who had so often intervened between them and the wrath of their grandmother, making excuses and hiding shortcomings. They corresponded regularly and had occasional meetings. Ellen worked in a munition factory, and when, after the armistice, she and her ladies were discharged, they forgathered in London, took cheap rooms in West Kensington, and settled down to hold a council of ways and means. The war had told on all three; there were many grey streaks in Ellen’s dark hair, but the most changed was Ann Courtenay. The happy smile had faded from her eyes; she looked grave for her years and as if only too conscious of her heavy responsibilities, of which not the least was a remarkably pretty young sister.
“You know all our money matters, Ellen,” she said, “even better than we do ourselves. There is that £80, and I have a little saved, and so has Pixie. I thought of going in for regular hospital training and starting as a probationer, but what would become of her?”
“I would never again consent to your cutting yourself off from me—I could not bear it—we must be together,” her sister protested.
“This knocks on the head governessing or acting as companion.”
“We might get an engagement in the same shop. You’d do splendidly as a mannequin! How you would sail round and show off gowns, with your air of dignity; and I’d tack linings and run messages!”
“No, no,” interposed Ellen, “that is foolish sort of talk! Miss Ann, have you ever cast a thought to your house down at Forde?”
“Never!” was the emphatic reply.
“Then the sooner you do the better. There you’ll be under your own roof.”
“Yes, if there is one! I believe the place is a ruin.”
“And no rent to pay—think of that. I come from nigh Forde myself; my people are there still. My first situation was at Lord Tranmere’s, then I was five years at the rectory. Forde is the pick of England for health and beauty.”
“Then why did you leave it—if you found it so delightful?” inquired Pixie.
“To tell you the truth and no lie, Miss, it was all along of my young man, who took up with another girl—and I could not bide in the same place, could I?”
“No, of course not.”
“All the same, I am ready to go back with you. I want no wages, I can save what I eat, and I know Forde to its bones.”
“Do you know the house?”
“And why not? The Shearings—a queer name they put on it; it’s the biggest in the street, and has a great garden, between two and three acres. We could work there and raise a nice crop of potatoes and vegetables, and sell them in Little Forde.”
“Yes,” assented Ann, “I let the garden for £5 a year to a man called Barter. But what about the house itself—has it a roof and floors?”
“Of course. It’s as strong as the Tower of London, being one of those William and Mary houses, and built to last. I’m not saying it’s clean. I expect it’s in an awful state; the chimneys choked with starlings’ nests, and dirt and dust everywhere. It will be different with plenty of soap and water and a couple of hard-working women.”
“And what about furniture? We have none, except plate, linen, a couple of clocks, and some books.”
“A clock is always homely and great company. As for furniture, I believe there are a few bits there—too old, they said, and not worth the trouble of shifting. I remember a table, a few chairs, and a tumble-down sideboard, and there was a great big wardrobe they could not get down the stairs, and so left it behind.”
“Oh, Ann, do let us go to Forde, live in your own house, and work the garden!” urged her sister.
“We might do worse, but I must consult Cousin Richard.”
“Believe me, you might do worse, Miss Ann; and you are in luck to have the place, for I know your grandmother did her best to sell or mortgage The Shearings.”
“Although it was not hers!”
“Although it was not hers,” repeated Berry. “You won’t be building too much on the house—it will be big and awkward to run. The garden was always famous for its fruit, wonderful soil, and sun; and Barter, as you know, rents it for £5 a year—a proper villain, I do say! He just picks and sells the pears and plums that does be breaking down branches—makes a mint of money, and never clears up or does a hand’s turn inside the walls. It’s take all and give none with him. I’m told The Shearings is in a frightful state. It was offered for the wounded—fine big airy rooms and grand open grounds—but the authorities would not even look at it. They suspicioned the drains. However, if you think well of my plan, I’ll go on ahead a day or two and make ready for you.”
“That will be very kind, Ellen. There is no harm in making an inspection. I suppose you will stay with your people?”
“I will so. I’ve not seen them for four years.”
“Are there any neighbours?” asked Pixie. “Any society, or a golf club, or tennis?”
As for that, Miss, Forde has the name of being mighty stand-off with strangers. They don’t take to outsiders or new people, and I’ve known folk there for years and not visited—only by the rector and Miss Jane.”
“It does not sound gay, but we will bring new life into the sleepy stuck-up hollow—won’t we, Ann?”
But Ann was busy with a pencil and paper, making calculations. Her enthusiasm had been kindled. Her own house, with a great wild garden—there would be lots for her to do, and occupation was her chief aim. Oh, how she dreaded empty hands and empty hours; and, being naturally energetic and practical, she threw herself into the new scheme with her whole heart and soul. But for all her enthusiasm Ann had a shrinking from the responsibility of establishing a home. True, the house was rent free, but she had no furniture, and there would be endless repairs; and, horrible thought, possibly the roof and drains would require overhauling, and how these two items would swallow up her small savings! So before actually taking measures for a move to Forde she decided to consult Cousin Richard, and sought him in his dingy rooms in the Temple, creating an agreeable stir as she mounted the stairs leading to his chambers.
Mr. Woodward did not smile on her project. Two girls setting up for themselves in an old barrack in a village on nothing a year! Such madness was not to be thought of. They would soon be faced by bankruptcy—if not starvation!
This was his verdict, which only had the effect of making Ann Courtenay more determined than ever to carry out her scheme.
Subsequently when Woodward discussed the affair with his wife, she expressed her warm approval, being nervously anxious that these good-looking, penniless connections should not be quartered on her.
“Girls are so independent now,” she urged; “they can manage for themselves—especially these two, who have been, so to speak, in the war, one a hospital nurse, the other working at a buffet. Why, they have witnessed sights it makes me shudder even to think of. That old house in Forde will be a nice change—and rest.”
“Rest! Why, it means slavery,” said Mr. Woodward. “It was left Ann by a cynical old rascal as a sort of white elephant joke. What can a girl do with a dilapidated property and a house of twenty rooms standing right on the village street? I believe it was let years ago, and the people who had it declared it was haunted.”
“Yes—by rats,” corrected his wife; “and after seeing the trench species, as large as cats, they won’t mind—anyway, they can borrow a dog.”
To Ann it had only required a little opposition to enhance the lure of The Shearings. She was young and strong, so was Pixie; together they would work hard and not spare themselves so as to put their own house into habitable order.
A week after Ann’s visit to her cousin, Ellen Berry arrived at Forde, merely accompanied by a yellow tin box. Nevertheless her coming was an important event, for it was she who thrust a rusty key into the front door of The Shearings and thus proclaimed possession.
Jebb, the driver of the ramshackle motor-bus which plied between Little Forde station and its namesake, was accosted at the bar of the Horn and invited to describe the new arrivals whom he had deposited at the Falcon.
“They be for The Shearings. Is that right?”
“Um—so folks say, and a sight too good-looking for that tumbledown old ruin. They come on the three o’clock, with a fair amount of luggage.”
“For which you have charged a tidy sum, eh, Tom?”
“Maybe I did. The tall one is, I take it, the eldest, and holds her chin high and looks the great lady; but she was all there, I tell ye, when we began to collect the parcels. Such a queer set-out! A guitar, a big kettle, a couple of garden rakes, and groceries, besides boxes and baskets and so on.”
“Did they talk at all?”
“Yes; the youngest one sat in front, and chattered like a daw the whole way, admiring everything down to the milestones and old brew-house. She’s as pink and white as if she were painted—like a girl in a story book!”
“Listen to Tom talking tosh!” exclaimed one of his pals.
“Old Ellen Berry thinks the world of these girls—says they did three years’ work in France. The eldest shows it in her face; she has come through trouble, I’ll lay. It’s she as owns The Shearings.”
“So she thinks. The rats will have her out of it within a month,” announced a black-browed listener.
“No; I bet you a bob,” said Jebb. “The lady is not that sort. She’s one that when she goes into a thing she sticks it.”
“You seem to know a deal about these girls.”
“Young ladies,” corrected Jebb.
“Well, young ladies can be girls, eh?”
“I know Ellen, who was their maid this fifteen year, and she says Miss Courtenay is not afraid of any damned thing that walks the earth—whether man or beast.”
“She must be cut on the same pattern as Jane!”
“And she might be worse,” growled a farm hand.
On the whole the general feeling was favourable to the strangers. The fact that the sisters had gone over the water to serve King and country appealed to a group of whom nearly every individual had faced death—and the Boche. No village in the district could rival Forde, who had sent all its young—ay, and middle-aged men—to fight in the great war. In almost every window was the printed notification that one or two, or three or four, of the family had enlisted.
As soon as Ann and Pixie had put away their small parcels, and had had a wash and a cup of tea, they hurried out, anxious to inspect their future home ere sundown. As they walked up the street they were impressed by its width and bright red and green colouring. All the houses were of deep brick, and over and between them great trees thrust their branches. Presently they came to a huge flat-faced, three-storeyed mansion vainly hiding behind four polled elms. These gave rise to the report that it had once in ages past been a country seat, standing in vast grounds which gradually had been engulfed by the rising village; but as it had several lesser contemporaries the idea was abandoned in favour of a former dower house, sold when the Tranmere fortunes were at a low ebb. The hall door of The Shearings, with a little jutting ledge, was undeniably mean and narrow, though it was built in the days of hoops! On the other hand, it was supported by two massive iron link holders and a solid mounting-block.
Within stood Berry, bare-armed, wearing a grimy apron and a broad smile of welcome. The long and resounding flagged passage led into a square hall, off which opened three large rooms and the kitchen premises.
“We’ve had a terrible job, Miss Ann,” said Berry, preceding her into a large room at the back. “I tell you I was so disheartened that I often felt like sitting down to cry. When I cleared off one bit of dirt and dust in a place it broke out in another. Howsomever, the women were a great help,” indicating the “chars,” who, with streaky faces and black hands, were hovering in the background.
“At any rate, you’ve done wonders!” said Ann, as she paused and considered the apartment—large and lofty, with a fine marble mantelpiece, and two long windows overlooking a great garden—that is to say, an expanse of grass and weeds and a confused mass of tangled fruit trees, among which an elderly labourer was hacking with vicious energy.
“The tennis ground!” suggested Pixie, with a beaming face, pointing to the stretch of holes and weeds.
“Tennis!” echoed her sister, with scorn. “Potatoes, you mean.”
The room was papered with a quaint old Chinese paper and partly furnished; a round table stood in the middle, on a piece of faded carpet; a decrepit sideboard, old as the house, minus several handles and one drawer, leant against a wall; there were various chairs of all sizes, and a badly spotted mirror in a gilt frame.
“I think you’ve done wonders, Berry—the room smells so clean!” said Ann, after an exhaustive inspection.
“More than it did a week ago! I’ve turned out another, and a bedroom, and given the stairs a wash down—and the kitchen is pretty fair.”
“Then we’ll come in and camp in a few days, as soon as the beds and crockery arrive. I am longing to set to work,” and Ann looked round thrilled with the sense of proprietorship, now tasted for the first time.
“Where did you get the carpet?”
“I borrowed it and a few small trifles from the Falcon. As for work, Miss Ann, the garden is your job more nor the house. At present it’s all sluicing, scrubbing and scouring on your knees and washing down the walls and woodwork.”
“But you forget that I was a V.A.D., accustomed to scrubbing, and I’ll enjoy it.”
“Then all I can say is, Miss, you’re easily pleased; but I can’t and won’t have you scrubbing here.”
“Oh, Ann, never mind talking,” interposed Pixie; “come and look over the house. I’ve been in the other rooms. The one like this has ivy growing across the windows and a big tree right in front.”
“We’ll soon settle the ivy and the big tree. Berry, shall we go upstairs?”
The house had a beautiful staircase, with shallow steps, low carved banisters, and a broad mahogany handrail. In ten minutes the inspection was complete. The sisters had visited a series of large and small bedrooms, swept, but still holding a lingering smell of soot and mushrooms. They discovered an imposing four-poster with ragged hangings and enticing steps for the benefit of would-be occupants.
“I made away with the bedding—’twas rotten,” explained Ellen; “but the bed itself is sound and might be cut down.”
(Oh! shades of Adams and Chippendale!)
“Here’s the big wardrobe,” she continued. “It had a chunk knocked off when they strove to get it through the door, and the lazy loons left it standing out in the middle of the floor, and we had a rare job to push it back to the wall.”
“It would hold all the clothes we ever had,” said Pixie admiringly. “There seems to be a lot of salvage. Old glasses, pictures, queer little cane-seated chairs with paintings on the back, a battered tallboy, and a dressing-table on two legs.”
As Pixie exclaimed at every unexpected find, Berry said:
“You see, Miss, it’s like this. Thirty or forty years ago, what the folk left was in their opinion just trash and rubbish not worth moving. Now, it’s the height of the fashion and brings in good money. If you were to sell that big wardrobe, Miss Ann, you’d get maybe ten pounds.”
“Yes, so I might, if it could be delivered; but, so far as I can judge, it will have to end its days on this landing. Now it is getting dark, and we must be moving off, though we have not seen the garden.”
“Yes, Miss, if you call it a garden!”
“Oh, we will restore it, you’ll see. We will go now, and return early to-morrow, bringing some food, and put in a good ten-hours day. I expect it is time for you to lock up, Berry; you look dead tired—you have worked miracles. It was your idea, our coming to The Shearings, so you have only yourself to thank!”
For the next week Ann and her sister slaved and were supremely happy, arranging their small stock of furniture, unpacking plate and linen, scrubbing, cooking with ardour, and spending occasional half-hours in the overgrown garden. They made their bedroom over the Chinese parlours, put up two iron bedsteads, stained the floors, cleaned the windows, and were deplorable objects, with tousled hair and grimy faces. One afternoon they were startled to hear a loud voice below and presently a man-like step upon the stair.
The door opened to frame Jane Jessop, who paused when she discovered Miss Courtenay on her knees, with her gown tucked up and sleeves rolled back, staining the floor with Jackson’s varnish, and her sister Pixie blackleading the grate.
“Excuse me, ladies,” she began, “and pardon this unceremonious intrusion—it is not a visit of ceremony. Let me present myself as Jane Jessop, daughter of the rector, and a native of Forde. I’m my father’s curate and right hand, and I’ve just looked in to see if I can be of any use in the way of lending or offering you advice.”
“It’s very kind of you, Miss Jessop,” replied Ann, surveying her first visitor, a squarely built, dark-eyed woman with a pleasant face, dressed in a rough tweed coat and skirt, a soft felt hat, and a white knitted muffler. She was well shod, her boots were neat and expensive, her feet equally neat. Ann, still kneeling, had a good view of the visitor’s extremities (evidently a lady who plunged on footgear and took but little interest in the remainder of her toilet).
“No, no,” protested Jane, seeing she was about to rise; “do go on before it dries—or let me take a hand. I love painting! Tell me—which of you is which?”
“I am the elder,” replied Ann. “That is my sister Petronella, or Pixie.”
Pixie put down the blacklead-brush and smiled as she held up a black hand.
“What a lovely girl!” said Jane to herself. “What eyes and complexion! The young ladies at the Park must look to their laurels.”
“I call it awfully sporting of you two to take on a job like this. Don’t you think you will be lost in this great empty house?”
“We will shut up most of the rooms and find plenty of work in the garden.”
“Oh, so you are gardeners!”
“No, not yet; indeed, few could be less experienced. We have generally lived in a town.”
“She knows a geranium from a bit of mignonette,” remarked Pixie, who had finished her job, and added, “I must just run and wash my hands if Miss Jessop will excuse me.”
Miss Jessop looked round for a chair, and, finding none, seated herself on the bed, saying;
“I’ve had a hard day’s work—four outlying farms, a case of measles, and a parish meeting —and I’m a bit done, but I felt I must not allow another day to pass without looking you up and offering you a welcome. I wonder how you will like The Shearings?”
“And I wonder how it came by such a name?” said Ann, with a smiling cross-question.
“It has been said that in the old roistering days of the Regency it was a notorious resort for gamblers. Bloods and dandies posted down from town—you see it lies well to the front on the coaching road—and its owner was a well known character, a gentleman of family. He would bet on anything. They say that he and his guests would toss pats of butter to the ceiling and bet on sticking or not sticking. They raced worms and snails for great sums. He squandered a fine fortune. I believe there is a picture of him here somewhere.”
“There are any number of dreadful morose-looking portraits all over the house. I should like to burn them!”
“Don’t! You might destroy something of priceless value. Why not a Rembrandt or a Romney?”
“Why not indeed!” and Ann burst into a hearty laugh. A handsome girl when her face lighted up, and what perfect teeth!
“As for what you say about The Shearings, I cannot believe that this prim, respectable old mansion was ever a wicked gambling hell. I must protect the reputation of my property. I believe it is all envious gossip. Don’t you think it looks more like the residence of a ladies’ school—a Miss Pinkerton’s, for instance?”
“And so it really is your property?” said Jane abruptly.
“Yes—that is why we came to Forde.”
“Well, I do hope your move will prove a happy one; but Forde is a dull hole for such a pretty girl as your sister. You won’t mind my calling her pretty, will you?”
“No indeed; why should I? She is the sort of girl who makes her own pleasures, and has a very sunny disposition. But do you mean that there is no society at all? Who live in all these red houses along the street?”
“Chiefly the old guard, who will not receive strangers, mostly aged or elderly people embedded in their groove.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Ann rather blankly. “Well, it was very kind of you to come and call, I must say, we being strangers, nobodies, and poor.”
“I am sure you are not nobodies, and I don’t think you will long be strangers. Most people in Forde are poor. I see you have nearly finished. How handy and quick you are!”
“I’ve been using my hands a good deal doing war work.”
“Over in the north of France as V.A.D. in a hospital. I drove an ambulance, too, for six months—my sister helped at a buffet near Calais. We were out of England for nearly three years.”
“Bravo! You make me wild with envy. I’ve done nothing but pack and collect comforts and woollies for the army. But, then, I’ve had the parish, and that’s rather a big job; it’s so scattered. My father is rheumatic, and cannot get far, and so I fly round on my bicycle. I did thirty miles to-day.”
“No wonder you are tired. Now I’m done. Shall we go downstairs, and I can give you a chair and a cup of tea?”
“Tea! Fancy your offering me hospitality! You who are barely ‘in.’”
“We call this the Chinese parlour,” said Ann as they entered, “on account of the queer paper.”
“It’s very old, beautiful and rare; and what a fine room! I expect they gambled here—and how wonderfully nice you have made it.”
“Yes, out of nothing,” added Pixie, entering with the tea-tray. “That is Ann all over. She mended that broken-down sofa—it’s guaranteed quite safe—and made the cover, and did up those old chairs, and brought down the long mirror to lighten that wall. Ann’s a genius!”
“Oh, do be quiet, my good trumpeter, and run and fetch the kettle.”
“The garden, too,” cried Jane, walking to the window; “ and do I see a walk?”
“Yes; our old man Rock is priceless. He takes a personal interest in his work, I think. He remembers this garden, and has an affection for it, and Pixie and I lend him a hand. I wish I had a mowing machine. Barter says he can get us a second-hand one dirt cheap.”
“He will make you pay the same as for a new one! Barter, for all his smiles and compliments, is a strong, hard man—without a grain of weakness or sentiment.”
“Miss Jessop, please come and have a cup of tea,” said Pixie. “Let us inaugurate The Shearings with the best Kanga Valley. You are our first guest.”
“It’s too good of you to have me,” said Jane, drawing up a chair, “you two industrious——” and she hesitated.
“Please don’t say fleas!”
“No—dears—and your blinds and carpets not even down.”
“I’m afraid there will be few blinds and no carpets just a rug or two to hide the nakedness of the land!”
“Oh, what delicious scones!” munching as she spoke. “You do yourselves well!”
“Berry does for us.”
“Yes, she did for me once—a capital servant. But about blinds and things. Generally, when people go into a new house, their friends come forward with offerings?” She paused interrogatively and looked at Ann.
“I am sorry to say our friends are few and not rich. We have scarcely any relatives. Father and mother were only children—they died when we were tiny mites.”
“Sometimes friends are more satisfactory than relations,” said Jane, passing her cup.
“Yes, no doubt, and we have those we made at school and in France.”
“And some, I hope, you will make here.”
After tea came an animated talk respecting where to deal and local prices, of the farms where eggs were to be bought at a moderate figure, and shops that were reliable. Then Jane suddenly burst into a eulogy of Forde.
“I do hope you will like Forde,” she said. “It makes such a difference if one takes to a place.”
“We have been so busy that we have seen very little of the village,” said Ann, “but so far we like it.”
“And I love it!” declared Jane, with enthusiasm. “I’ve lived here for twenty years, and I know it from end to end. Such good sort of people—not very demonstrative, but honest and sound. It is not everywhere—especially nowadays—that a man will return money and tell you that he is overpaid. What do you say?” appealing to Ann.
“I say that he should be framed and glazed and put in a museum!”
“Well, last week I gave a labourer half a crown—half a crown for a small job. Of course, I knew it was excessive, but everything is double now. For a long time he fumbled in his pocket, and at last produced a shilling, which he handed to me, saying, ‘Half a crown is too much! It bain’t worth it!’ and before I could stop him he was gone.” As Jane concluded she surveyed her listeners with a heightened colour and a look of irrepressible triumph. “You will find the people here very friendly,” she resumed, “ready to run messages and help—that’s their way. When a Forde woman is ill her neighbours nurse her and share the children. Then I must tell you that we are very ancient. One of our inns is Tudor—time of Henry the Eighth, they say—the rooms are dark and low, and you’ve got to know the staircase, but it is a curiosity in its way. Then we have a house in the street dated fifteen hundred; it has queer crooked chimneys—— Ah, now I’m off on my hobby. I’ll spare you and canter away!”
Then Jane, the antiquarian and enthusiast, suddenly rose and took leave. Her entrances and exits were unusually abrupt, and she always appeared to be in a hurry; but before she went home she made time to rush in and see Lady Harry and carry her a glowing description of the two Courtenays.
As soon as, what Berry called, “the big dirt” had been cleared off, the “chars” were dismissed and old Rock only employed three days a week, for Ann realized that she must draw in her horns and exercise the strictest economy. In spite of all the labour entailed in restoring such a neglected abode, she had begun to love The Shearings, partly because of the exertion it had cost her, partly because of its atmosphere of peace and dignity, but chiefly because it was her own.
The sisters now ventured to explore the village and make purchases, instead of dispatching Berry. They penetrated to an antique shop, and here Ann brought off, as she believed, a very successful deal, exchanging her ancient spotted mirror in a beautiful carved frame for two painted chests of drawers, a towel-horse, and a clothes basket. Tudor had the reputation of being an honest, fair-dealing man. He sent the carved Chippendale to a London dealer, and received in exchange thirty-five pounds. Perhaps wishing to soothe his conscience, he introduced the sisters to his cobwebby supplementary store, a picturesque, tumbledown house in an adjoining lane—the premises resembled old drawings of one’s childhood, with crooked chimneys and dangerously bulging roof. Here, indeed, were the remains and the refuse of auctions: broken chairs, broken tables, sofas without legs and chairs without arms, beds minus any belongings, trunks, cradles, and blue-mouldy harness.
Ann’s sharp eye picked out various bits of crockery, also chairs that Toms, the carpenter, could patch, and was greatly elated by her afternoon’s adventure. The sisters appeared at church, and were subsequently called on by the rector, a tall, handsome old man, with severely cut features and a pair of dreamy eyes. He expressed himself as amazed at the rapid transformation in The Shearings, admired the wall paper, invited the girls to help in the Sunday school, and volunteered the loan of books.
The next visitor was Mrs. Pringle, the doctor’s wife, and with her her distant connection, Miss Fisher. Mrs. Pringle was a quiet, ladylike woman, a little shy and silent; not so her companion, who was excessively animated and talked enough for two. She was smartly dressed, but high-shouldered and plain, with large features set in a small face. She had a somewhat decisive manner, yet at the same time was undoubtedly anxious to establish herself on an intimate footing with these new-comers, and hinted at walks and long bicycling excursions.
“I can show you the country—I know it for miles—and I’ve nothing else to do except practise my singing.”
“Oh, so you sing?” said Ann.
“Rather! You shall hear me before long. Do you sing?”
“No; only in a feeble way.”
“Miss Fisher has a beautiful voice,” put in Mrs. Pringle. “I hope you will come and have tea with me and hear it.”
“Thank you, it will give us much pleasure.”
“Then shall we say Saturday?”
Ann agreed to “say Saturday,” and as she sped her guests from the hall door she encountered Jane Jessop face to face.
“Oh, I’m so thankful I’ve missed them,” she began, “at least, Jessie Fisher.”
“She is poison to me. Jessie is always so busily idle!—cannot settle down to our humdrum life—the simple pleasures of existence make no appeal to her. She craves continual excitement and a strong limelight.”
“Which is not to be had in Forde, I imagine. She has taken a fancy to Pixie, and says she has been waiting to meet a girl like her for years.”
“What rubbish! Jessie always takes a fancy to a pretty girl and sticks to her like wax, for she knows that where beauty is there men will be. She likes men, and I will say this, she has a glorious voice which ought to accompany the face of an angel.”
“Does Miss Fisher belong to Forde?”
“Yes—and no. Her mother died, and not many years ago her father married again; she and her ‘step’ don’t agree. Her two sisters are settled, her brother is in India, and Jessie, not being particularly wanted at home, is a paying guest at the Pringles’. Her father pays one hundred pounds to be rid of her, and I’m afraid poor Mrs. Pringle, who has her on hand all the time, finds Jessie something of a burden —especially on a wet day.”
“I should not wonder!” assented Ann. “Miss Fisher struck me as not having many resources and being rather inquisitive. Why did we live here? Who had left us the house? What did we pay Rock? Had we any brothers? Such an odd question!”
“A question so like Jessie,” and Jane laughed. “She will always be dropping in, as, unfortunately, the doctor lives almost opposite.”
“We must contrive to keep her out.”
“Quite impossible! If you say you are out or at lunch or tea, she will come peering in and tapping at the window. Jessie Fisher is the bane of Forde, a useless, vain young woman. Am I not a spiteful cat?”
“No; but you are vexed with Miss Fisher because she refuses to be roped in to your working parties and other parish matters. Workers are scarce—and labourers are few.”
“There is no doubt a grain of truth in what you say, and perhaps the reason I’ve taken to you two is for your ready help in the school—you who really have your hands full, whilst Jessie strolls round with hers in her pockets,”
“What about her voice?” inquired Pixie.
“It is a well trained, almost perfect mezzo-soprano, warm, sweet, and full of sympathy. When Jessie sings one could believe it was another personality. She is the star at our concerts and penny readings, and a real asset. She loves applause——”
“I should love it too!” volunteered Pixie. “I acted for the Y.M.C.A. in France—small parts—and I did enjoy the clapping. Ann, would you mind if I went on the stage?” and she threw her sister a mischievous glance.
“Oh, no; I’m sure you can’t act for nuts. You would be howled off.”
“By the way,” said Jane, “I’ve brought you a message. Lady Harriet will be pleased if one of the Miss Courtenays will have tea with her on Wednesday.”
“That will be Ann! get the shivers when I think of this old lady who rules Forde. I only view her back in church, and that’s enough. I know she would not approve of me.”
“Then Ann it is! I’ll call, my dear, at four, and convey you under my wing.”
“Wednesday, tea with Lady Harriet; Saturday, with Mrs. Pringle, a long invitation, perhaps a party. How gay we are! Before you go, Jane, I must show you something, a most splendid gift, which arrived last night. Come into the front room, and see what you shall see! We feel quite overwhelmed—bouleversé—since it arrived and was unpacked. Look there!”
Spread in the centre of a great empty room was a large and beautiful Indian carpet.
“What do you think of it?” inquired the mistress of the house.
“Very handsome, and just the thing for the Chinese parlour, India and China being neighbours.”
“We cannot imagine who sent it—no name on the parcel, only our address. So it was intended for us, and will be the making of the drawing-room.”
“Have you any suspicion?”
“It might be a distant cousin—Richard Woodward, who wound up Grannie’s affairs, knows our indigence, and strongly objected to our coming here.”
“Did he offer an alternative?”
“Oh no—he never offers anything. He is a rising barrister, clever and rather close, though his wife has pots of money. I should think he could not bring himself to send us more than a pair of nutcrackers or a cheap blotter. Now, that carpet looks as if it had cost pounds and pounds. It will be the feature of The Shearings —the motif, the cachet of the entire establishment. I could almost go down on my knees and kiss it!”
“I am glad you are so pleased!”
“Pleased! What a feeble expression!—extravagantly grateful is more like it.”
Wednesday arrived, a fine April day, and Ann, wearing her best frock and hat, was escorted to Rosehill by Jane Jessop. The old lady accorded her a cool but civil reception and a long critical stare, but gradually thawed. She admired this reposeful, dark-eyed girl, her self-possession and ease of manner—a gentlewoman, yes. As they sipped tea they discussed the weather, Forde, and books. Ann was enjoying herself. She quite understood the old lady’s aloof and non-committal attitude, and liked being surrounded by all these beautiful things—old china, old pictures and rare editions, luxurious furniture and masses of hot-house flowers. They recalled her grandmother’s drawing-room in a faint degree, minus the gossip and cards.
Suddenly the door opened noiselessly, and the man-servant ushered in “Lord Tranmere and Captain Harland.” The old lady’s pale face flushed as she extended a delicate be-ringed hand.
“Fancy the two of you—what a delightful double surprise! George, you know Miss Jessop?”
“And I,” supplemented the young man, “know Miss Courtenay,” turning to Ann. “Fancy meeting you here! Sister Ann—surely you have not forgotten your patient at Etaples?”
“No. I hope you are all right now?”
“Yes; still a bit lame, but getting myself into trim for shooting. My leg is rather stiff. What are you doing here?”
“I live in Forde.”
“At The Shearings—the largest house in the street—been empty for years till now.”
“You don’t mean to say you’ve taken it?”
“Not exactly—it has taken us. The Shearings was left to me by a cantankerous old godfather. My sister and I have settled there.”
“May I come and see you?”
“I shall be very pleased.”
But Lady Harriet, listening with one ear, was not pleased that her good-looking nephew—the future Lord Tranmere—should renew his acquaintance with this penniless, handsome, young woman, who was sensible of a sudden chill in an atmosphere of cordiality. Her ladyship fidgeted and contradicted herself; finally, she summoned her nephew to come and sit beside her and tell her all his news.
“You are looking uncommonly fit, Aunt Harry. How’s the blue cat?”
“Very fit too. When did you come down?”
“Only last night! Well, I am flattered!”
Miss Jane, who could read her ladyship as readily as large print, noted her uneasiness and realized its cause, promptly decided to remove the “cause,” and rose to take leave. The hostess offered a limp handshake to Ann, and did not refer to a further meeting, but her nephew, as he accompanied the ladies to the door, said:
“I’ll look in to-morrow, if I may, Miss Courtenay. Biggest house in the street, so I can’t well miss it, can I?”
“I say, what a handsome girl!” remarked Lord Tranmere, as the visitors withdrew.
“And a rattling good nurse,” added Harland; “so firm—no nerves.”
“Were you long in her hands?” inquired Lady Harriet.
“About two months. Fancy her pitching her tent here! Just like her independence. Who is she, Grannie?”
“I really know very little about Miss Courtenay. I believe she comes of a military family. Her godless old grandmother squandered the little fortune of her and her sister, and left them paupers. They have settled down in Forde to exist—God knows on what! for they have hardly any money.”
“A pretty face is as good as a fortune,” suggested Lord Tranmere, a good-natured, indolent individual, who was much taken with Ann.
“Not in these hard times, my dear George, with everything so frightfully dear—milk a shilling a quart, wages double all round, and clothes anything! Lady Barrett, who was here yesterday, told me she was asked twenty pounds for a hat and sixty for a serge gown! I’ll stick to my old frocks.”
“Well, Aunt Harry, whatever you wear you always contrive to look la grande dame.”
“Blarney, my dear, blarney! It does not matter what an old woman wears.”
“There I don’t agree with you.”
“What are your mother and the girls doing to-day?”
“They have gone up to town to shop.”
“Poor things! I’m afraid they will receive some painful shocks!”
“Talking of shocks,” said Lord Tranmere, “I see a change in Jane Jessop—she looks old and weather-beaten and fagged; but, then, I have not come across her for ages.”
“That’s odd, for she’s here nearly every day, though you don’t honour me once in six months.”
“No; I’m so much in town and on committees and boards—a busy man, Aunt Harry, and no doubt Jane is busy too.”
“Jane’s overworked, and that’s a fact—the willing horse.”
“Is sometimes an ass,” supplemented Harland.
“Jane never spares herself. Her face may be changed, but her heart is all right—not physically. I’ve told the rector he must get a curate.”
“She who must be obeyed has spoken,” said her nephew, “and so the deed is done!”
The conversation now drifted into intimate family affairs, recent letters, and an impending divorce case.
Early next afternoon Ann took extra pains to arrange the drawing-room, now embellished with its grand carpet. She gathered flowers and grasses, ordered scones, and implored Ellen to be dressed by three, as she was expecting a gentleman to call. Perhaps he would induce his relations to follow his example, and it would make it so pleasant for Pixie. Ann never thought of herself. If she only knew the girls at Tranmere Park!
Pixie, in a serge skirt and a pretty silk blouse, looked excessively attractive, and was all on the qui vive to see Ann’s patient—and to hear about him too.
“He was in the Guards, the Grenadier Guards,” exclaimed his late nurse, “and is the only son of Lord Tranmere. Lady Harriet is his grandaunt—his mother’s aunt.”
“Is he good-looking?”
“Middling—nothing to write home about, but a well set up, well bred, nice fellow. One can judge a man’s character when he is ill and helpless. He was always so patient and cheery, though his wounds were serious. I believe he was recommended for the V.C., but did not get it—or wish for it—said he had not earned it. All the same, he carried a wounded man out of ‘No Man’s Land’ under terrific fire.”
“What luck, your meeting him again.”
“Yes, in a way; but I could see that Lady Harriet was vexed. She scarcely spoke to me after he came in, and seemed to be all prickles. I was thankful to come away. She is rather an alarming old dame, with such piercing eyes—and—— Here he is!” as a sharp rat-tat was sounded on the ancient knocker.
In another moment the visitor was in the room, shaking hands with his nurse and being presented to her sister.
“I say,” said Captain Harland, looking round, “how awfully comfortable you have made yourselves in this old house; your room is so pretty. How did you manage it in such a short time?”
“We worked as hard as two navvies—the prettiness is something between the wall-paper and the carpet.”
“And what a huge—er—shall I say garden?”
“Well, you may call it an enclosure for the present, but it will be a garden yet.”
“May I come and dig in it?”
“Certainly not,” she answered with decision. “You are not fit for manual labour.”
“I knew your sister in hospital, Miss Pixie,” turning to her and suddenly realizing her extraordinary good looks. “She kept me in order—such discipline! I must not do this, must not do that, and now when I volunteer—and I’m sure you want help—as usual she says No.”
“I expect she is right; she always is. But the garden is my province; the house is Ann’s. We have begun to put in seeds and, though it’s a bit late, potatoes. I hope in time to have a tennis lawn and a pergola. There are lovely pergolas in gardens round here; later on they will be clothed with roses.”
“I see you are ambitious, but I must warn you that your bit of grass and weeds won’t be any good for years.”
“Oh, why discourage us?”
“May I go out and walk round and report? Of course, I’ve never been here in my life.”
“Certainly you may explore, but at present there is barely room for one to get along the paths, much less two.”
“If you’ll allow me, and be my guide, I’ll venture. If we are lost, nurse,” turning to Ann, “you’ll send out a search party?”
“Put on your hat, Pixie,” said her sister, “and don’t stay more than five minutes, for tea is coming in.”
Thus dismissed, the pair went out by the glass door at the end of the hall and made their way across the rough grass by what was once the old rosery and into the vegetable plots, which were divided by one wide walk lined with gigantic box. It was a very old garden—older than the house—and had known many loves and emotions. The walls were of solid red brick, as high and forbidding as if they protected a convent, and were covered with fruit trees, plums, pears and figs, all wildly straggling—some dead, some broken, some thrusting their long grey arms into the faces of passers-by. Nevertheless these hoary trees bore wonderfully heavy crops, and The Shearings garden, thanks to soil and sunshine, was said to be the most prolific in all Forde. When Barter rented it for five pounds per annum he brought off a wonderful stroke of business. He took no interest in the place otherwise than as a means of supplying the London fruit market, and with this end in view re-planted the strawberry beds almost surreptitiously, being afraid that another might realize the value of his find, bid him up, and deprive him of a good thing.
Half-way down what had once been a gravelled walk Pixie halted and, waving a pretty sun-bonnet, said:
“Old Rock, our gardener, has done wonders in one month, cutting branches and digging out thistles. You would not believe how the place is improved.”
“There was room for improvement, no doubt,” said her companion, with a laugh.
“Please don’t be sarcastic. I know it was a jungle and looked hopeless. No one has been in the place for years and years, except Barter to pick and sell—and boys to pick and steal—the fruit.”
“Why did Barter, whoever he is, pick and sell your fruit?”
“Because he paid Ann five pounds a year for what he called ‘the run of the place.’ It is, for fruit, the best in Forde.”
“Then Barter made a rattling good thing out of it!”
“Yes, indeed he did. Our servant, who is a native of Forde, told us that the apples and pears were actually dropping off the trees, and the branches so laden that they broke. Sacks and wheelbarrows, and even cart-loads, of fruit went out of this garden every season—figs were a speciality. We have seven fine trees.”
“Figs a speciality! So I should suppose. And who is this long-headed Barter?”
“One of the prominent men in Forde. A coal agent, fruit seller, churchwarden, plumber, journalist in a small way, and altogether indispensable.”
“I expect he did not welcome your arrival!”
“Oh yes he did; he helped with getting in the furniture, and is so good-natured in lending, if we want a saw or spade or a wheelbarrow. I know he was sorry to lose the garden—he said so quite honestly—especially as he had put in a lot of new strawberry plants!”
“Sorry to lose the garden! So I can imagine. I expect he cleared a cool hundred a year.”
“Do you really think so? I hope I can make it pay.”
“You!” and he laughed derisively. “You make it pay! I expect you will be robbed right and left.”
“Not I. I am not so useless or simple as perhaps I look.”
“You don’t look one or the other. But what can you do?”
“Work—ten hours a day.”
“Yes; weeding, watering, cutting flowers, and gathering—and giving away the best figs.”
“No, indeed; real work. Do you know,” and her voice sounded strangely elated, “I’ve set most of the potatoes and all the onions!”
“No, not really?” be exclaimed with mock gravity.
“Yes; Rock showed me. He says I am not half bad. I shall just revel in the garden. It will be my job,” and she looked at him with sparkling eyes.
As Harland met them with his own steady gaze he realized that he was in the presence of something uncommon, and was sensible of the charm of an irresponsible personality and one whose enjoyment of life was distinctly infectious. What a gay, vivid, enthusiastic girl!
“Rock worked here in the Dark Ages,” she resumed, “and tells me that there are still great bushes of lavender, York and Lancaster roses, and even lilies.”
“That will give you something to start with.”
“Yes; and here,” pausing, “is where I’m going to put the pergola, if I can only get wood and labour. Tudor will perhaps lend a hand.”
“And why not the invaluable Barter?—or myself? I shall assist with pleasure.”
“You are laughing at my pitiful schemes, and of course I know wood will be a difficulty; but all I can say is, ‘Wait and see.’”
“But, seriously, Miss Pixie, I can supply wood. We have tons of it at the Park from thinning the plantations, and if you will allow me I’ll send down a load or two; then you can have pergolas all over the garden.”
“You are very kind,” she answered demurely, “but you must ask Ann.”
“And Sister Ann will, as usual, say ‘No,’ so I leave it to you.”
Pixie coloured, and there was a touch of shyness in her frank clear eyes. She made no reply, but stooped and busied herself with disentangling a maddeningly tenacious briar which had caught in her skirt. As her companion went to her assistance he could not help noticing the perfect symmetry of a pair of feet and ankles, and their neat and well cut shoes. For grace of form and beauty of colouring this girl might have served as a model; added to this was her bright and happy disposition, unspoilt youth, and flawless health.
Strange to say, the “little lady of the garden” was entirely unconscious of her endowments. Realizing that he was staring inexcusably, he turned his head, surveyed the great solid three-storied mansion that filled up the end of the vista, and said, by way of making some remark:
“I’m told your old house is the rendezvous of all the rats in Forde.”
“What a libel!—and a silly libel,” she answered with energy. “A rat is by no means stupid; in fact, they are notoriously clever—you know how they carry off eggs?”
“Yes, and leave a sinking ship.”
“There has not been a crumb in The Shearings for years, so, thank goodness, they have no inducement to come in.”
“Are you afraid of them?”
“Well, I don’t exactly like rats; but, of course, those here are nothing to the trench rats I saw in France—khaki colour, and they were nearly as large as rabbits. Ugh!” and she shuddered.
“So you have been over too?”
“Yes. When Ann was at Etaples I helped at a buffet near Calais.”
“Oh, did you? Rather fun, eh?”
“Sometimes; but generally a frightful scrimmage and rush—the men came in crowds. How I hated to see them going up! I felt so different when serving the ‘leave’ men, though I tried to be equally cheerful with both.”
“I should imagine you could not be anything else.”
“Well, then, I am sometimes steeped in the blues—indigo shade.”
“No doubt you came in for pretty bad raids?”
“Rather. We grew accustomed to them after a bit, went to ground in our cellars, and became used to the scream of the shells.”
“I suppose the buffet work was fairly light?”
“No, indeed; there was endless washing-up, and tea and cocoa to make, bread and cake to cut, poached eggs to serve, and lots of sausages and mashed. We were only four at my buffet, and worked in shifts; one broke down and had to ‘lie off.’ Sometimes I was so done and my head felt so buzzy after serving a big draft that I could not sleep. But please don’t suppose I’m grumbling; I’d be thankful to do it all twice over again for those boys. No one who has not been across can realize what we owe them.”
“I dare say some of them write to you?”
“Yes, a few; those that remembered me coming back gave me little souvenirs. But I fancy they all want to forget anyone or anything connected with the great war.”
“I suppose, though, at the base, you saw something?”
“I—I—saw the ambulance trains——” and her voice shook.
“I expect it was pretty bad sometimes.” Then, hastily turning the subject, “The men joined up from Forde in splendid style.”
“So they tell me. One recognizes them now—so smart and well drilled—no country slouch.”
“I am proud to belong to the same parish. At one time you could not see an able-bodied man here, only old fellows and school children. Now they are all back.”
“Not all,” she corrected. “Our old gardener, Rock, lost two sons, one at Ypres, one at Delville Wood,”
“Did he? Poor old chap! I was at Delville Wood too. I must find him out and have a jaw with him.”
“Delville Wood!” What a vision the name conjured up! He looked back into those dark days, seeing with his mind’s eye the smoking ruins, the horrors of carnage. Then with a flash his thoughts turned to the contrast of this lovely girl, with her open and joyous air, framed in a background of flowers and sunshine. That momentary vision was like a hideous dream—here no sound of shot or shell came to break through the peaceful stillness, the steady hum of bees, the buoyant song of a greenfinch.
“The scones are spoiling. I’ve called you twice. Do come in!” cried a high authoritative voice.
“We have got our orders, you see.”
“You mean I hear?”
“Why so sharp?”
“I’m sure I don’t know. It was an accidental! I’m rather stupid. Not like Ann, who is wonderful at mathematics and languages.”
“Yes, I can answer for her glib French. But you must have some accomplishments—some parlour tricks?”
“Nothing remarkable. I can dance, of course; I play the guitar and sing. I sang at our sing-songs to amuse the soldiers. They loved coon songs with catchy tunes, and simply roared the chorus. And here we are,” stepping into the hall as she spoke.
“Yes,” assented her sister, “at last. I thought you might be digging potatoes.”
“Not quite. They are barely planted.”
“We pulled them up to see if they were growing,” supplemented Harland.
“Have a scone—home-made,” said Ann, handing a piled-up plate.
“Your own manufacture?”
“No. We have a treasure, an old servant, a native of Forde. It was she suggested our coming here.”
“One for you and two for herself. I say, who’s that tapping at the window. Miss Fisher, by Jove!”
“Our treasure is out,” said Ann, rising, “and I must answer the door.”
“Don’t let her in, nurse, an you love me! If you do I’ll crawl under the table.”
Already Ann was in the hall. She opened the door wide, and there stood Jessie Fisher, evidently anxious to enter. She had marked down Captain Harland, and here was the coveted opportunity of making his acquaintance at last!
“Good afternoon, Miss Courtenay. As I was passing I thought I’d just drop in to see how you are getting on and remind you of Saturday.”
“How very good of you. We are all right, and have not forgotten Mrs. Pringle’s kind invitation.”
Here the visitor made a determined effort to advance, but for once she was foiled. Jessie had met her match.
“I am really sorry I cannot invite you in. We are at tea.”
“Oh, I’ve had mine.”
“But I have not, and so I must ask you kindly to excuse me,” and Ann closed the door with an air of polite finality.
“Splendid!” exclaimed Captain Harland, as she reappeared. “There she goes for once defeated. Miss Fisher is always prowling round the Park with collecting cards and charity lists. Whenever I see her coming I hide, and so does the pater, for if admitted she sits for hours,”
“She has any quantity of energy, but nothing to do, poor woman,” said Ann.
“Perhaps Satan has his eye on her?” suggested Harland.
“Oh, no. Why think of such a thing?”
“Why, indeed? Well, I must be off, or you will say I am as bad a sticker as Miss Fisher.”
“I’m afraid I was rather short and inhospitable. My conscience gives me sharp twinges.”
“Then your conscience is far too tender, and wants a starch bandage. Many a time you were short with me.”
“Because you were always asking for impossibilities, and you must remember that I was only a V.A.D., and of no great importance, even if I was short.”
“Somehow you managed to impress us all even more than the matron! Well, now, I’m really going. When I return from town I shall call again and come tapping at the window like the lady you figuratively flung off your door-step.”
“Oh, Captain Harland, I do wish you would not say such horrid things.”
“Well, I won’t! I was nearly forgetting to ask if I may present you with a pergola.”
“Yes. The wood to construct a pergola. We have tons.”
“It is a kind offer, but I don’t think we can accept.”
“What! Not a small offering from a grateful patient? Come now, Sister Ann. Anyway, I shall have the wood dumped before your door—or no, happy thought! I note you have a yard and gate, so be prepared. You are not out of the wood, I promise you. And that is not the worst. I should like to give you a dog. I know you love dogs, Nurse Courtenay—I remember your pals at the hospital.”
Ann nodded and murmured, “ Dear fellows!”
“In this great big empty house you really require a dog as a watch. Your sister says there are no rats, but I don’t mind betting that they will come as soon as the news goes forth that there is cooking at The Shearings. Now, I’ve got just the one and only animal to suit you. What do you say?”
“I’m afraid our one and only Ellen would object—she has no use for pets. Grannie had a dog, a woolly beast, a cross, greedy old thing. It was Berry’s business to wash, brush, feed and exercise the creature. I’m afraid this employment has embittered her as regards his species. What is yours like?”
“A fox terrier, very well bred, and awfully pleased with himself. If you were to see him you would be pleased with him too. His name is John, and he is three months old.”
“Just the bedroom-slipper age! No, I’m afraid he’d be too much for us. I know I should adore John and never have the heart to beat him even if he carried our sewing to the coal cellar and our hats into the street!”
“Well, remember if you change your mind, he is still on offer. I am leaving him at the stables, where the coachman’s wife will be a mother to him.”
“We would both be mothers to him only for Ellen,” said Pixie regretfully. “If there’s one thing in the world that I have a love for, it’s a nice little playful fat pup.”
“Your weakness takes a very moderate form. Some day you will find that your affections will not be so easily satisfied,” said Harland, with significance. “Well, now, I must be going. Au revoir, Miss Pixie; au revoir, Miss Courtenay,” and, with two brisk handshakes, he was gone.
“He is a wild, harum-scarum fellow!” exclaimed Ann, “but with the kindest heart. His infectious laugh did others no end of good, and no matter what he suffered—and he suffered a great deal—he kept it to himself.”
“How old is he?”
“Seven or eight and twenty.”
“Yes; see the peerage. I believe he is a keen officer, and has several hard-won bona fide decorations to his credit. I am sorry we could not accept the pup; it would have been such an amusing little companion and livened up this empty house. I suppose I must take the pergola—a stack of wood is not so personal a present as a dog. We must interview Rock about getting it put up at his convenience.”
“It will be a big job—too much for one old man, even with our help. I’ll see if Jebb can lend a hand in his slack time.”
“Yes; he will be only too glad to get the chance of making his peace with Ellen.”
“So it was Jebb who jilted her?”
“He says it was the other way about. But he married Ellen’s rival; no explaining that away, is there? I shall invite him to tea. This is her evening out, and for all I know they are now sauntering in the lanes discoursing of old times.”
“Do be cautious, Ann. Jebb is a widower. If he marries Ellen, where shall we be? Two swans on a turnpike not in it!”
“Oh, I’ll not encourage an immediate alliance, much less a runaway match; make your mind easy. Now come along and help me to wash up the tea things and get the supper.”
Tea at the Pringles’ turned out to be a formal affair, ceremoniously summoned from “the street.” When the Courtenays entered, the drawing-room appeared to be crowded, chiefly owing to limited space and the generous dimensions of some of the guests.
The apartment, to the surprise of the sisters, was furnished with conspicuous taste and entirely in sympathy with the wainscoted interior of what had once been a fashionable posting inn. The straight-backed chairs and sofa were covered with a bold Jacobean pattern, a number of valuable old prints hung on the walls, and several fine pieces of furniture claimed admiration and respect. In short, Mrs. Pringle was a notable type of a “house-proud” matron—one of those who prefer to decorate their homes rather than themselves. Her figure was characterized by a peculiar flatness; her costumes were cheap and ill-fitting, and bore the stamp of “bargain” or “ready-made”; her hats were a standing joke in Forde; twice her old winter wrap had been sent to a rummage sale, and twice she reclaimed it. Nevertheless, money was never spared on the Red Lion—the cost of various bureaux and bookcases would have left Jane, and even Lady Harry, speechless.
Mrs. Pringle was an excellent housekeeper, and had seen to all arrangements for her tea; bicycled down to Little Forde, and ordered a choice selection of cakes and dainties. These would be augmented by scones and sandwiches. The best tea-service and silver urn were duly paraded on a shining mahogany table—dark as a trout pool—and in the dining-room all was ready for the guests. These included the rector, Jane, and the Bishop of Barminster—who was staying with the Jessops—also a new curate, a certain Mr. Leslie, who had come to Forde “on approval.” He was a slight, fair young man, with a well-knit figure, clean-cut features, and what is known as a “good” face; then there were the General and Mrs. Foss, an elderly couple of considerable pretensions. He had condescended to be present at this tea because he particularly wished to meet the new-comers and find out if they were related to his old friend, Dick Courtenay, of the Guides. Thanks to glib-tongued Berry, most of the street had heard that her young ladies were “the granddaughters of a general, and of very good family too—Somerset Courtenays.” General Foss did not patronize what he profanely termed “bun worries,” and Mrs. Pringle felt herself unexpectedly honoured by his presence. His lady wife was of such substantial dimensions that she nearly filled the sofa, and, anyway, no one had the hardihood to attempt to share it.
Mrs. Foss had a large white face framed in white hair; her little, roving eyes were a faded blue; her mouth was almost lipless, but to make up for this she had three chins. Her manners were distant, her expression watchful; she spoke but rarely, and was considered “stuck up.” She had money—“a good fortune,” so it was said, dressed handsomely, and was ruled by two old servants and a pug-dog.
Her husband, a spruce little general (a colonel retired with rank of major-general), was admirably turned out, rather deaf, and supremely self-satisfied. Armed with the invincible assurance not uncommon to his type, he looked on himself as the principal resident in Forde, took the chair at meetings and a prominent part in elections, and wrote long, dull, dogmatic letters to the county paper signed “M. M. Foss, Major-General.”
Mrs. Foss did not as a rule condescend to accept the invitations of Mrs. Pringle—her attitude towards unimportant acquaintances was one of chill detachment—but on the present occasion she had deigned to put in an appearance because she wished to inspect the strangers before calling, or not calling, as the case might be! She raised her tortoiseshell lorgnette and stared hard as she saw Mrs. Pringle welcoming the sisters—two pretty, well-dressed, ladylike girls. When presented to her, she accorded them a stiff bow from her fat neck and made no remark—her rich black satin lap and white gloves appeared to absorb her undivided attention. Such a reception was a little chilling!
General Foss, on the other hand, figuratively charged the pair with a number of questions respecting their grandfather, Richard Courtenay. Yes, it was the same. They were great pals, and had been quartered together in India.
Dick was a wonderful shot. Mrs. Courtenay, a quiet little woman, was kept on the chain; she never got her head. However, Dick left her fifteen thousand pounds and a very fat pension.
To these reminiscences Dick’s granddaughters listened with grave politeness.
“What became of the money?” demanded the little general. “Eh? What became of all the shares?” he shouted, being deaf.
Before an answer to this awkward question was forthcoming a smart servant announced that “Tea is served,” and they all trooped into the long, low dining-room, where they were herded into their several places by Jessie Fisher, who took upon herself to do the honours, whilst Mrs. Pringle proceeded to pour out tea into fourteen cups. The paying guest was in the highest spirits, pressing various delicacies on the company and keeping the conversation going at the same time. It was ever thus. On these festive occasions Mrs. Pringle was not suffered to be mistress in her own house.
Jessie, who had manoeuvred herself into a place between the bishop and Mr. Leslie, was entertaining her companions with an amusing story taken from an old newspaper, whilst Mrs. Pringle sat behind the urn, silent, tired and overlooked. This state of affairs was never realized by her husband, a popular doctor with an immense country practice and but little at home. He was glad under these circumstances that his wife should have a cheerful companion. Possibly Jessie talked too much, and her voice was loud and piercing, otherwise she was all right.
Mrs. Pringle would have liked to become better acquainted with the bishop, who should have been placed at her right hand. Various others mentally craved a few words with his lordship, notably Mrs. Foss—but she had no chance. Jessie appropriated and clung to him with a sort of fierce tenacity, and on the whole his lordship was well amused. The Bishop of Barminster was a stout, ruddy-faced individual, with a deep, rolling voice and a merry, roving eye, both of which served him well. This twinkling eye took the edge off many of his strictures. He was an earnest, active, despotic priest, one whose eloquence was equal to crowding the largest church. Mrs. Foss, having made an excellent meal, turned towards Petronella and unbent so far as to inquire “How they liked The Shearings?”
She looked blankly incredulous and disappointed when assured that “They liked it immensely.” No, “There were no complaints!”
“Don’t you feel lost in that great tumble-down barrack?”
(Mrs. Foss was jealous of its commanding appearance. Her own abode was low and squat. She would have liked to reside in the largest house in Forde. So long as it stood empty her envy had slumbered, now it was aroused and in flames.)
“No indeed!” replied Pixie with emphasis.
“But are not the drains in the most shocking condition? I always seem to get a peculiar odour when I pass the house, and put my handkerchief to my nose. I do think you and your sister are so rash to live there.”
“We have never observed anything unpleasant. I’m told the drains are quite safe.”
“Ah, of course, that’s Barter. He will say anything to please people.”
A pause, during which Mrs. Foss eyed the pretty girl beside her; then she said:
“Although I had not intended to increase my circle, I shall call on you and your sister.”
Pixie coloured, but did not know what to say. Silence was best.
Meanwhile the company were in full tide of conversation. Dr. Pringle and Ann exchanged a sort of semi-professional talk, and Miss Garton, a bright, middle-aged girl, figuratively snatched the new curate from Miss Fisher and embarked on the subject of tennis. At last Mrs. Pringle made a move, and the guests trailed out to the drawing-room, there to enjoy a bonne bouche in the shape of Miss Fisher’s songs. Jessie’s gift had not been exaggerated. She sang three moving love ballads in a voice of unusual quality, directing them at the Rev. Edgar Leslie. It seemed marvellous that this glorious endowment should be in the possession of such a mean and spiteful personality.
When the last song had ended in plaintive chords of lingering sweetness, and the bishop’s deep “Bravo!” and the murmur of applause had died down, Mrs. Foss, ponderous and slow-moving, rose to depart. Sailing over to Ann, she said in a patronizing voice:
“I shall hope to call on you some day, Miss—er—Courtenay.”
“Call! They must come and dine!” roared her husband. “Dick Courtenay’s granddaughters, God bless my soul! Many a time I’ve dined with him—yes, and stayed with him too, for weeks!”
His consort affected not to have heard this postscript to her announcement, and was already in the hall, so much annoyed and flustered that she carried off by mistake Jane Jessop’s brand-new umbrella.
It was evident to all that the Courtenays were to be received—at any rate by “the street,” and, therefore, Jessie hastened to cement their acquaintance.
“I’m so glad you liked my songs,” she said effusively. “We must see a great deal of one another. We are the only girls at this end, and I shall often run over to The Shearings. You must call me Jessie—not Miss Fisher,” and as she spoke she gave the startled Pixie a resounding kiss.
Mrs. Pringle’s tea was followed by a lunch at the rectory, a fine Georgian house lurking behind the church, sheltered with tall trees, surrounded by beautiful, well kept grounds, and furnished with rare old furniture. Everything was well done; there was an atmosphere of refinement, almost of luxury. It did not look the sort of residence likely to send forth a rough and ready Jane. As hostess, Jane was another being. Was it because she was without a hat, and her hair was so beautiful, her dress fashionable in style and becoming in colour?
She was quieter and more subdued, possibly on account of the presence of her father and the curate.
The table appointments were dainty, wonderful old silver, the flowers were tastefully arranged, the meal perfectly served, the conversation general and agreeable.
No; the Courtenays refused to believe Jessie’s spiteful tale that last summer, one hot night, Jane had been seen strolling about the rectory garden wearing pyjamas and smoking a pipe!
After lunch, when coffee had been served, the girls were conducted to Jane’s own sanctum, a businesslike room lined with books, containing files, a roll-top desk, and typewriter. As she lit a cigarette and motioned her friends into chairs she said:
“This is my workshop—my office—but now I can ease off a bit. Father has taken to Mr. Leslie, and he is a lamb; I like him ever so much. I shall make over the outlying district and some of the meetings; of course, I must stick to the maternity.”
“Of course,” assented Ann. “But now you should take a holiday; you look rather fagged.”
“It’s from yesterday. I had to go to London about a new school teacher and to select prizes. London and the noise kills me.”
“Forde is quiet enough, a peaceful spot, and a deliciously restful place,” said Ann, looking out on the rectory grounds with their green swards and sweeping cedars. “We might be miles from any village.”
“Yes; and the original owners believed they were! The land belonging to Garden Place—this was Garden Place—reached far; gradually the property was sold, and built over by greedy Forde. The ancient family of Usher became extinct—their bones lie in the churchyard.”
“So this is not the real rectory?”
“Oh yes, though to some, as it’s extra large, it would be a white elephant. There go father and Mr. Leslie on their rounds. You see, we have a short cut—a sort of cat-run—to the church through a postern door.”
“How young Mr. Leslie looks,” remarked Ann; “a mere boy!”
“Yes, because of his mild expression. But he is thirty-two years of age—only eight my junior.”
“Thirty-two! He might be twenty-two!” said Petronella.
“He no doubt has a clear, undisturbed conscience, a splendid digestion, and his heart is young. For all his mild expression, he is a live parson, and can be surprisingly outspoken, firm and stern. If you would like to go round the garden, I’ll take you, so come along. I’m due at a working club at four.”
To the visitors the garden proved a revelation. Expanses of good grass, gay herbaceous borders, a rock garden, and various cunningly placed rustic seats.
“Two swings!” exclaimed Petronella. “Why two?”
“One for father—one for me. No, but I don’t swing, nor does the rector, nor, as far as I know, Mr. Leslie. They are for the school-children, who come in and play round every Thursday. All the fêtes and open-air meetings take place here. This is a sort of local Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath—it would be too selfish if we closed it and kept it to ourselves.”
“How good of you!” exclaimed Pixie.
“Good! Not a bit of it; it’s just a privilege. You have a garden, and so you cannot realize the boon this is to children and their fagged-out mothers who live in the street. As to the parties we have had from the slums, their amazement, delight and ignorance were too pathetic. Imagine a little girl who had never seen a rose! I hope you admire my new pergola?”
From the rectory pergola the conversation veered to the pergola at The Shearings and its history.
Jane halted for a moment and looked gravely impressed.
“We found the wood stacked in the yard one morning, and we did not know how to send it back; and, if we had done so, old Rock, who was so excited and jubilant, would have given notice!”
So Osbert Harland had had tea with these girls and wandered round the garden with the beauty!
Possibly there was some reason for his mother’s uneasiness and Lady Harry’s determination to hold the Courtenays at arm’s length.
As time advanced the busy Courtenays suffered sorely from the daily incursions of Jessie Fisher. There was no hiding from her, as she lived opposite and watched their coming in and going out as closely as a terrier at a rat-hole. Frequently she would run over about tea-time, and sit for at least an hour, accompanying the sisters as they washed up or polished, swept, or worked in the garden, talking, talking—always talking, chiefly about herself, and asking endless questions. Clever as they were and efficient at expedients, they did not know how to deal with her.
“I suppose old Lady Harry has not called?” she asked, as she sat with her elbows on the table in the Chinese parlour devouring Ann with her eyes.
Ann shook her head.
“Nor her ladyship at the Park? They are awfully afraid of girls up there—girls such as you and me—on account of Osbert. I’m sure it would be better for him to marry a nice respectably brought up lady than a dancer from the halls; but they want an heiress with tons of money. The Tranmeres are not rich, and do a lot of private pinching; the girls have only a maid between them, and they have dropped a carriage groom and two gardeners.”
“I see you know all about it,” rejoined her listener dryly.
“I know a good deal. I know that Lady Tranmere is awfully extravagant, and runs up such enormous bills even here. He is very easy-going. I’ve ears and eyes, and I’ve lived three years in this dead-and-alive place, and know what it’s saying and thinking.”
No notice being taken of this amazing statement, she continued:
“I hate the look of Lady Tranmere, sitting bolt upright behind her high-stepping horses and driving through the village with her nose in the air, seeing nothing but the coachman’s back! Proud isn’t the name; and, after all, she was only a ‘Miss.’”
“‘A miss is as good as a mile,’” quoted Pixie, for something to say, as it seemed uncivil to be so silent and unresponsive.
“They never do anything at the Park, or if they do, leave out the village. This is a deadly hole!”
“I don’t think so,” rejoined Ann stoutly. “The country is lovely, with woods full of bluebells, long winding lanes, picturesque old villages and cherry orchards. Forde itself is charming, the people so friendly and simple, and——”
“And I dare say you wonder why I stay?” broke in Jessie. “I must live somewhere, and my father has fixed me on the Pringles, as they are connections. He married a poisonous woman—she and I don’t speak. My two sisters have rich husbands, who bar relations on long or even short visits. So here I am, with one ray of hope—my brother George.”
“I think you said he was in India?” said Petronella the polite.
“Yes; and I hope he will invite me to join him. I am the only one in the family who keeps up with George. I write regularly once a fortnight; I send him papers and magazines and ties.”
“Bread upon the waters!”
“Bread which, I hope, will come back to me. George and I were always pals. Oh, how I long and yearn and pray to go to India. I know I’d have a good time.”
“Well, I hope that your yearning for a good time will be satisfied,” said Ann, who had been darning a tablecloth, now rolling up her work. “I must go down to the grocer’s before it closes, if you will excuse me.”
“Oh, I’ll come with you,” volunteered Jessie. “Mrs. Pringle does not believe in my shopping. I always seem to bring the wrong thing or to have rows with the tradespeople—such swindlers! Mrs. Pringle gets a bit ratty and won’t trust me, and so I have nothing on earth to do,” and she accompanied the reluctant Ann to the village Harrods, listened to her meagre orders, and attended her to her own door, subsequently informing the Pringles that the Courtenays were buying tea by the ounce!
“Oh, if George Fisher would but send for his sister!” said Ann to herself; “and should Forde subscribe a thank-offering I will head the list.”
The next event at Forde was the charity fête at the rectory grounds, got up and promoted by the indefatigable Jane. The programme included a play by children, maypole dances, songs, a jumble sale, flower, vegetable and egg stall, tea and refreshments; entrance, one shilling (side shows extra). As Ann and Pixie were useful and active members of the community, they were called upon and promptly came forward to offer their ungrudging assistance in sorting and arranging. Gifts sent in for the rummage sale were of the most surprising description, varying from a Sheffield candelabra to a pair of worn night-socks. Every article had to be ticketed and numbered, and besides this heavy task the Courtenays ran up frocks for the children’s play, made sweets and cakes, and helped to construct a magnificent bran pie.
The afternoon of a glorious June day found both at their posts in the flower-embowered rectory grounds—and oh what a wealth of roses! (Forde was celebrated for its roses.) The air was scented with their perfume, and the pergolas, for which Forde was famous, were heavily draped in ramblers.
Petronella’s first duty was to take the money at the postern door, and Ann, having helped to lay the refreshments in the most approved buffet style, repaired to her own place, the flower and vegetable stall. Mrs. Pringle presided most effectively at the rummage sale, keeping the jealous eye of a purchaser on the candelabra. Mrs. Foss, her nominal assistant, reclined in an arm-chair, and turned over, criticized and belittled the array, among which she recognized many old friends: Miss Jessop’s neat brown boots, Miss Garton’s last summer’s blouses, Lady Harriet’s plaid shawl, and Jessie Fisher’s gaiters. Jessie Fisher strolled about, showing off her new summer dress and pink silk sunshade. She pretended to be offended because Jane had not offered her “the gate,” would undertake nothing else, and was, as usual, a “lady at large.”
Pixie was kept incessantly busy, for the company arrived in swarms, and her tin box and leather bag were heavy with silver. Giving change was a nuisance and caused considerable impatience and delay. Tiresome people with one-pound notes would expect nineteen shillings change, and when the entrance was blocked the crowds became impatient; but on the whole the gate-keeper kept a cool head and managed admirably.
The grandees arrived late. Sir James and Lady Cookson passed in majestically; then Lady Harriet, leaning heavily on an ebony stick. She recognized Ann, but her manner was coldly distant and without geniality. The next arrival was the bishop, who beamed and bowed to the pretty gate-keeper. He was followed by Lady Tranmere, slender, erect, and beautifully dressed, her eyes small and intent, her face wearing a dim smile. She was attended by her two nice-looking girls.
At a considerable interval, filled by lesser and belated folk who had come by train, Captain Harland put in a leisurely appearance. Petronella had only seen him once, and exchanged a few words coming out of church, since the day he had presented the pergola. In spite of her efforts she felt her face flame when he accosted her.
“This is a piece of luck!” he exclaimed, halting in the entrance.
“A shilling, please!” holding out her hand.
“I am delighted to see you. How are you getting on? How is the pergola?”
“I am getting on well, thank you, and so is the pergola. People have given us rose cuttings, and some unknown friend sent us a quantity of roses—only to our address—no name. I suppose you have no idea who it was?” and she eyed him gravely.
“Not I. I would have sent stacks of plants and things, only I was afraid of offending your sister. She can be a bit fierce, you know.”
“No indeed, I do not.”
Here Pixie paused to receive four shillings and exchange a note, and as she did so Harland surveyed her and came to the conclusion that Petronella Courtenay was far and away the prettiest girl he had ever seen!
The soft lilac dress and broad-brimmed hat were made to set off her matchless complexion and shade her lovely eyes.
“You have never asked me where I’ve been,” he said. “I’m afraid you are not interested in me.”
She coloured faintly and made no reply.
“I’ve been with the Army on the Rhine, and only got back last week.”
“Was it very lively at Cologne?”
“No; as far as I was concerned, it was deadly dull. Once you’ve done the cathedral, not much to see, unless you like going to the opera.
“I should have imagined it was delightful,” and she began to arrange her takings.
“There are no more coming,” he said. “Let me close and lock the door, and do you come along, and I’ll find you a nice shady seat and bring you tea.”
“Tea won’t be served for half an hour, and I’ve heaps to do. I’m helping at the buffet, and I must go and dress the children for the play.”
“Oh, must you! And what is to become of me? Can’t I help to dress the kiddies?”
“No, I think not; and surely you must have crowds of friends here?”
“No, not so many—I’ve been away a lot. Of course, there is Jane Jessop, a host in herself, and, I say, what a born organizer! She would have been priceless on the transport staff or the commissariat. I suppose she had a finger in this pie?”
“Yes; both hands. She gets up all sorts of shows, from a doll-dressing competition to a party of visiting pierrots! Last Christmas she had a rummage sale of real rubbish, and cleared ninety pounds.”
“Some one must have suffered!” said Harland, with a laugh.
“Well, I cannot idle any longer,” said Pixie, and she turned to walk away.
“Idle! When you’ve been gathering a heavy harvest of shillings,” he said, striding away beside her. “Where is your sister?”
“Selling at the flower and vegetable stall, where I hope you will make large purchases. Now I must really say good-bye,” and, indicating a clump of laurels—“This is the dressing-room. If you intrude I’ll call the rector.”
“Then look here! After all the tumult is over, will you let me have a look in—that is, come and sit out with me beyond the vortex and have a little talk?”
“I can’t promise anything. I’m on duty; you should know what that means,” she answered with a laugh as she disappeared among the shrubs.
Captain Harland, turning round disconsolately, found himself face to face with Jessie Fisher. She was selling buttonholes; on this occasion there was no escape. She tackled him at once, sold him a half-crown rosebud, and pinned it in his coat, chattering all the time. Miss Fisher was using some horrid scent, and he positively loathed her and her questions.
“When did you come back? Do tell me! How long are you going to stay? Will you come to the concert on Tuesday? I’m going to sing! Oh, do say you’ll come! You will, won’t you?”
“Need you ask?” was his crafty reply.
At last he shook her off and went and attached himself to Lady Harry. Miss Fisher dared not pursue him into her company—here at last he was safe!
“The children’s performance is coming on, a play and dancing, so let us go and get places,” said the old lady, taking his arm. She steered him to a sequestered green lawn around which were ranged chairs and forms. At the entrance stood a schoolmistress selling sweets and “programmes, sixpence each.”
The play was an immense success; everyone enjoyed it, especially the performers. Next came the dancing, and the light-footed little figures, clad in white, made a delightful picture against a dark background of laurels and rhododendrons.
When all was over and the last song had been sung, “the dressers,” somewhat warm and exhausted, “broke cover” and emerged on the lawn. These included Petronella, looking flushed but radiant.
“Who is that girl in the lilac dress?” inquired Lady Harry. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her, and yet she seems to be quite at home.”
“That is the younger Miss Courtenay,” replied Harland.
“Oh, is it?” and the old lady fell into a sudden meditative silence.
“Do you know her, Osbert?” she asked at last.
“Yes, I’ve met her twice. What do you think of her looks? You have had a wide experience and are bound to be a judge.”
“There can be but one opinion. Her features are as delicately wrought as a Japanese curio, her colouring is perfection, and her smile dazzling; but she is not the style that I admire.”
“No. How is that?”
“I’m a little tired with the glare and talking, so I’ll get you to say good-bye for me to Jane and take me home. I know this won’t cause you a pang, for you hate these shows!”
“All right, Aunt Harry, I’ll escort you with pleasure. We’ll go by the church and a short cut. There’s your stick, and here’s my arm.”
Pixie’s heart sank when she saw her friend being towed away by his formidable aunt. She felt a painful conviction that they would not meet again for ages, if ever; he was so seldom at home. But in twenty minutes’ time Captain Harland had returned, sought her out, and proceeded to help her to serve at the buffet.
“Makes one think of old times and the rattling of the men’s tins, doesn’t it?” said Harland, as he assisted with the teacups.
Their labours over, he beguiled his new acquaintance to a sheltered seat under the shade of a sweeping cedar, where they sat engrossed in one another’s words and looks—the world forgetting and by the world forgot.
The company at last began to move off, some carrying potatoes and turnips in bulging string bags, or even newspaper, others with dresses, frocks and trousers from the rummage counter slung over their arms, boasting of their bargains; one noted Jane’s neat boots in the hand of a huge countrywoman. Everyone was talking, and everyone seemed pleased with their purchases and their day.
Lady Tranmere, who had met some old friends, and was in high good humour, noticing the exodus, commanded one of her daughters to fetch Osbert.
“I have not seen him for ages, mother. You know this sort of thing bores him to death. Probably he has walked home.”
“Walked two miles with his bad leg—not likely,” replied her ladyship. “Just go and look round. He is probably talking to the bishop—he likes him tremendously.”
As the result of an exhaustive search, Miss Tranmere returned to her parent and announced:
“I found Osbert, and told him you were going.”
“Where was he?”
“Sitting under the big cedar with that pretty girl who sold at the refreshment stall. Evidently they are great friends. He has been hovering about her all the afternoon, and I know he called on those Courtenays the last time he was home.”
Lady Tranmere’s face changed; her expression became overcast and her lips tightened ominously. She had her own thoughts, and kept them to herself, but her daughters understood the look. Osbert was not a ladies’ man, nor was he impressionable. He mixed with women without singeing his wings; never, as far as she had known, had he had a “case.” She was anxious that he should settle and make a choice. Her own connection, Gwendoline Lynn, had a huge fortune, and was undoubtedly attracted by Osbert’s handsome face. Gwendoline, unfortunately, was plain. Nevertheless the matrimonial scheme was promising, though Osbert was always too fastidious—one girl had a horrid laugh, another ugly teeth. Gwendoline had large feet, but she had also a large estate and wonderful shooting. Osbert was yielding, and now, all of a sudden, he appeared to have thrown the handkerchief! Oh, what a pest were pretty faces and these two penniless nobodies coming and setting up in Forde!
If the worst came to the worst, and be was likely to be entangled, she would pull strings and get Osbert a staff job in Egypt or elsewhere.
St. Swithins was an outstanding, dignified edifice, and Forde was unaffectedly proud of its ancient and stately place of worship. Mushroom New Forde had nothing to compete with its tall, commanding tower, Norman arches and flying buttresses, its monuments, brasses, hatchments and celebrated stained glass—overlooked by the Roundheads as if by some miracle. Almost the first question put by a resident to a new-comer was:
“Have you seen the church?”
The congregation was fairly large, for St. Swithins was cool in summer and well heated in winter, and since Mr. Leslie had entered on his duties the attendance had increased and multiplied. In the first place he was a novelty, and, secondly, he only preached for fifteen minutes, thereby, said the housewives, showing a nice feeling for the Sunday roast! His sermons presented a curious contrast to the rector’s half-hour of elaborate and resonant instruction. He had none of the academic manner, but addressed his hearers in a friendly, colloquial fashion; pithy, short addresses, invariably containing some idea that remained in the memory, something that the simple country folk were able to carry away and discuss at their leisure. Moreover, the new curate had been endowed with a forcible personality, natural eloquence, and a directness of speech that appealed to all his hearers, although one querulous critic remarked:
“We did not get much of the Gospel to-day. It was mostly about crops, and industry, and helping one another.”
“Nay, it was grand stuff,” rejoined his companion. “I could have swallowed lots more. What I like about the young fellow is that he interests you. You can see what he is talking about, and you are nailed to your seat.”
The front pews facing the chancel were the heritage of two titled families, the Tranmeres and the Earls of Heronshaw. (Did not the bones of their ancestors lie in the family vaults immediately beneath them?)
Here the crème de la crème of the congregation had, so to speak, risen to the surface, and as the seats receded the importance of their occupants lessened accordingly. Directly behind the Tranmeres sat Sir James and Lady Cookson—if not in the row of honour, at least they had velvet cushions! The Cooksons were a wealthy childless couple who lived at Stavordale, a fine old place purchased by Sir James’s father, who had made a great fortune in corn-plasters. The Dales, who owned the estate for four centuries, had fallen on evil days and were figuratively “down and out”—the last of the line was reputed to be driving a tram in Buenos Ayres—and Sir James Cookson had bought the property a dead bargain. To the annoyance and indignation of the neighbourhood, this Goth had pulled down the fine old Tudor front, and replaced it with a fearful stucco erection, which, confronting the world with impudent assurance, looked at a distance as if it were made of pink cardboard. Other “improvements” would no doubt have followed, but, mercifully, the hand of death removed the first Sir James, and the remainder of Stavordale was spared.
The present occupants had received a superior education and had some natural taste. Sir James was an enthusiastic golfer. Lady Cookson was an ardent horticulturist, and the gardens were a sight for sore eyes. Flowers and flower shows were her chief interests; she never missed an important show, and was a well known and successful exhibitor. She specialized in bulbs, roses and begonias, and the “Lady Cookson” begonia was so widely famous that it ran the corn-plaster hard. Her principal excitement was a big show in Vincent Square, and her only literature consisted of catalogues, English and foreign. The croquet and tennis grounds at Stavordale, kept in admirable order, were the resort of numerous week-end visitors—the Cooksons’ relatives—whose lively activities made the old place awake as from a century of profound sleep. By degrees the neighbours accepted the second generation of the corn-plaster dynasty, partly on account of their liberality to local funds, their boundless good nature, and their splendid entertainments—generally inaugurated by young people, who introduced bands and suppers all the way from London—-expense no object.
Lady Harriet had promptly left a card on Stavordale—“no use in making two bites at a cherry.” Not so her niece, Lady Tranmere, who, to tell the truth, rarely visited her own aunt, as she considered her too democratic, too much given to picking up undesirable acquaintances —one never knew whom one would encounter in her drawing-room! The young folk at Tranmere and Stavordale were known to one another—from meeting on the golf course—but Lady Tranmere passed Lady Cookson with a stare that was magnificently vague; her pale and haughty ladyship was strongly entrenched behind an impregnable barrier of feudal tradition and caste privileges.
At Sunday services the Courtenays humbled themselves and took seats far from the front pews; in fact, they shared a sitting with Barter and his two smartly dressed, ambitious daughters. He had offered them this hospitality—which, for want of an alternative, they gratefully accepted, though they found Barter’s bumptious bass and his daughters patchouli rather overpowering. Being well at the back, they commanded a fine view of the church and congregation.
Pixie somehow could not fix her attention on her prayer-book; her eyes roved from monument to hatchment, hatchment to brasses. Why in old times did people receive such a wonderful send-off? Here to the left was a certain Ambrose Martin, whose description, after a tiresome list of virtues, concluded with, “Leaving behind him a great example of kindness to his relatives, fidelity to his friends, and charity to all who knew him.” Close by was a mere off-hand inscription, which announced on the part of John Clayton:
“With patience I have run my race,
Kind Death hath set me free,
And I am for another place,
This world is not for me.”
But Pixie’s attention, to be frank, was chiefly centred on the front seats. The Heronshaws were present—Lady Heronshaw, her two little girls and their governess—and all the Tranmere family—Lady Tranmere, with a wonderfully slim, upright figure; her daughters, dressed alike in pale blue; Osbert, and, next the door, his father, with his stout, slouching figure and weak, benevolent face.
The service was over, and the congregation were pouring forth; but the Courtenays found themselves blocked by the youngest Miss Barter, who had dropped a locket and was anxiously searching for it on hands and knees.
To Pixie this delay was maddening! She had hoped in her heart for a word or two with Osbert, and now when would she see him again? Alas! for poor Pixie, she had arrived at that stage when one meeting is no sooner over than she is calculating on the next.
By a certain amount of clever manoeuvring, Captain Harland had contrived to lag behind his relatives, and was waiting in the porch when the Courtenays at last emerged. His mother had hurried out to overtake and have a word with Lady Heronshaw respecting tickets for the opera. He accosted the sisters and inquired if they were going to the Stavordale dance.
“Yes,” replied Ann; “at least, Pixie is. Miss Jessop has offered to take her. Lady Cookson left cards. Wasn’t it kind of her? I cannot imagine why she invited us.” The simple truth was that the Cookson young people had noted and marked down the pretty new-comers, and had commanded their aunt to bid them to the ball—“and take no excuse.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Harland.
“Then, Miss Pixie, will you give me four dances and supper?”
“Fancy asking for dances in church!” she replied. They were still standing within the cool, deep porch.
“What harm? There is lots about dancing in the Bible.”
“We really must be moving,” interposed Ann, “or the verger will think we are waiting for the children’s service,” and she passed forth with a nod of farewell, for she felt in her bones that Lady Tranmere would be furious if she saw them detaining her son. But Harland was not to be shaken off. He boldly escorted the girls down the path, through the lych gate, ran the gauntlet of his mother’s angry eyes, and accompanied the pair to the door of The Shearings. Here he would no doubt have lingered if his parent had not dispatched a breathless footman to inform him that her ladyship was waiting.
The day of the Stavordale dance arrived. Jane called for Pixie in a local fly, and, amazing to relate, the delights of the evening transcended her highest expectations—a most unusual experience.
She had danced three times with Captain Harland—a capital performer, despite his game leg. In consideration of this same leg they sat out one dance on the veranda, where many an inquiring eye was cast upon the couple. Osbert Harland apparently engrossed in the society of the younger Miss Courtenay! Miss Courtenay smilingly appreciative.
“It’s an A1 dance. I can’t think how they have got all the people together,” he said. “Good floor, good band, good supper——” he paused, and his partner added:
“And one or two amusing extras!”
“What’s your idea of an amusing extra?”
“Well! this, for one: Lady Cookson and Mrs. Jellaby-Brown are tremendous rivals in the way of dress and display—at least, so says gossip. Imagine the two meeting face to face in the ball-room wearing exactly the same gowns! Of course, each was assured that her robe was the only model in Europe. Think of the shock!”
“I should not think anything of that,” said Harland. “I have often met a hundred men dressed exactly like myself, and never turned a hair. I suppose with women it is different, and in the present case an unfortunate coincidence.”
“An unfortunate coincidence,” repeated Pixie. “Think of those two poor ladies, who are not very amicable, going about all night dressed exactly like twins.”
“I am afraid you must look elsewhere for sympathy.”
“Well, I think Lady Cookson will have the sympathy of the whole neighbourhood. I should not care about being Mrs. Jellaby-Brown’s modiste; their next meeting will be stormy!”
“Talking about meetings, just now when I was getting your lemonade I pushed up against a fellow in the crowd at the buffet. The last time he and I stood elbow to elbow we were knee deep in a muddy dug-out. By the way,” and he glanced at her sharply, “do you ever come across any of the acquaintances you made over the seas?”
“If you mean officers—no. They did not come our way much. They were more in Ann’s line, at the base hospital, constantly passing in and out.”
“Yes, of course,” he assented. After a thoughtful pause: “Has you sister mentioned a Captain Brander?”
“No; I don’t think so.”
“No!” he repeated incredulously.
“She scarcely ever speaks of that time in France or of her patients.”
“I see. And yet I am sure that her patients often talk of her. I think your sister has changed. She is a reserved sort of girl, is she not?”
“Yes. It is the way we were brought up by Grannie—trained to be rarely seen and never heard. As you say, Ann is changed; I feel it myself.” (She felt a guilty twinge as she made this confession about her own sister to an almost complete stranger.) “I have an idea that something happened when she was at Etaples. After the first year she became so silent and grave and old for her age. We did not often meet, for, although we were not so very far apart, transport was difficult.”
“It is a good thing for your friends that you have not been endowed with the gift of silence.”
“This, I presume, is sarcasm!”
“Perish the thought!”
“Of course, I know that I am a chatterbox—if Ann talks too little, I talk too much, and I can’t help it—but I like to let my thoughts run loose and hear how they sound. Grannie was never so strict with me as with Ann. To her she was a merciless tyrant, because, I believe, Ann resembles our mother.”
“Ah, yes, the daughter-in-law. An angel from heaven would scarcely satisfy most mothers of sons.” He was, as it happened, thinking of his own parent. “Shall we go and take a stroll outside before the next dance?”
In another minute they were outside surveying the moonlight scene. Pixie’s eyes travelled enviously over the glories of the gardens. As she viewed the landscape, the serried masses of flowers, and inhaled the breath of thousands of roses she exclaimed:
“How I love the country!”
“Yes, so do I,” agreed her companion; “but I see mighty little of it. My job is in town.”
“Much more interesting and amusing, no doubt.”
“Not for me now. I can no longer play cricket or polo, my tennis is a farce, to ask a girl to dance is monstrous cheek.”
“Oh, no indeed,” she rejoined with flattering emphasis.
Waving his hand in repudiation of the compliment, he resumed:
“You see, it’s rather an aimless life, now that the war is over and the great upheaval has simmered down, just court-martial and guard to fill the days. Lots of fellows have chucked. Some gone into the City, some to Canada, some have taken up farming. I must say I feel rather drawn to the land. I expect it’s a throwback. My grandfather was a great man for raising cattle and horses, and made the thing pay hand over fist.”
“That was clever of him, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, I expect he was an enthusiast and gave all his mind to it. I sometimes wish my father would allow me to turn my sword into a plough-share. I know he has a fairly good farm standing idle. He does not understand land, and his agent has a bad manner and is, I think, a slacker.”
“What is his farm like?”
“Oh, a jolly place. I was there yesterday. An old red manor and five hundred acres. It is called ‘Heart’s Delight.’”
“What a charming name!”
“Yes. But the tenant called it ‘Heart Disease.’ I believe he was a poor farmer and had hardly a head of stock, and this at a time when cattle are worth their weight in coin. The house could be done up, and I’d get a clever bailiff and sit, so to speak, at his feet and work hard. After all, it would be an outdoor life, and I’d keep a lot of dogs.”
“How far is Heart’s Delight from Tranmere?”
“Four miles. But, of course, I’d live there.”
“But would you not find it terribly lonely?”
“Well, of course I’d not be alone—always.”
“One of your sisters “
“No fear!” he interrupted. “My sisters would be bored to tears, if not suicide. They are Londoners, and don’t know turnips from wheat! I’d engage a partner who liked the country, felt at home in it, had simple tastes—and—er—er—a turn for gardening.”
As he spoke he lowered his voice and looked at her steadily.
“Someone,” he continued, “who understood—all about potatoes!”
Pixie blushed vividly in the moonlight, and turned her head away.
“What do you say?” he urged eagerly.
“I say,” she hesitated, and then went on, “that your charming scheme of farming Heart’s Delight sounds like a castle in Spain.”
There seemed to have fallen a sudden stillness in the heat; one could detect the warm summer sweetness of roses and heliotrope. With the sultry silence and the scent of flowers an intimacy had invaded their conversation—it was the talk of two people on the verge of an outspoken understanding.
“Our dance, Miss Courtenay,” said a triumphant voice, and Sir James Cookson’s heir, who had noiselessly approached over the grass, stood before her. Certain magic words remained unspoken! The castle in the air was shattered.
As Pixie walked away with her new partner Harland’s mental language was entirely unfit for reproduction; and then his mind turned reluctantly to his own duties and his neglected lady.
“I’ll look in in a day or two,” said Harland, as he pressed Pixie’s hand after he had packed her and her chaperon into the rickety old fly. “You’ll take me round and show me the pergola—and——” But before she could reply, the Falcon steed, eager for its stable and unaccustomed to such late hours, had made a vigorous start.
A whole week passed without being marked by any remarkable incident or event. The indefatigable Courtenays worked diligently out of doors and exercised the strictest economy within. No butcher’s meat was ordered; they lived on bread and milk, porridge and eggs. Even so, Ann found it a painful and anxious struggle to make both ends meet—so many little unforeseen expenses were continually cropping up. She frequently glanced at the old sideboard which Jane had assured her was an “asset”—real Sheraton. She believed it was still valuable, even if on its last legs.
“Don’t barter it away to Tudor,” she implored. “Tudor will sell it for a high figure. Let nothing persuade you to allow him to have it for a few pounds.”
Nevertheless in her heart Ann was sorely tempted. Five pounds would settle some tiresome little bills and buy each of them a pair of stout shoes; but she had the fear of Jane before her eyes, and refrained.
One glorious June afternoon Pixie sallied forth bound for a farm in quest of eggs. The lanes round Forde were lovely, overhung here and there with noble trees, and having a liberal bordering of grass and tall thick hedges, a tangle of brier and brambles.
When near the farm, at a bend in the lane, Pixie espied a horseman rapidly approaching; he was mounted on a fine bay hunter. This rider turned out to be one who was continually in Pixie’s thoughts—in short, Captain Harland. Had her wishes summoned him? She had only seen him once since the dance. This was at a tea at the golf club given by Jane to inaugurate the conclusion of a grand tournament. Everyone was there, including Captain Harland and his two sisters. He had immediately singled out Pixie Courtenay, and, to quote Lady Foss, “paid her marked attention”—in fact, had no eyes for anyone else; and, to give the girl her due, she looked lovely.
After the prizes had been distributed and speeches made the crowd began to scatter, and Captain Harland, having supplied suitable escorts for his sisters, walked home in the face of the whole countryside with the two Miss Courtenays.
Before they met in Clover Lane he called out:
“Hallo, Miss Courtenay—fancy meeting you!” and dismounted. “What a piece of luck! I was just going to call, but this will be better.”
“Ann is at home,” she murmured, feeling a little frightened and bewildered by the suppressed intensity of his voice and the acute misery of his eyes.
“Yes, but it is you I wish to see. Where are you bound for?”
“Only to Clover Farm to get eggs.”
“Can you stop and talk to me for a few minutes?”
“Oh, I’m not in a great hurry.”
“I was on my way to say good-bye. I’m off to-morrow to—Melbourne.”
“To Melbourne!” she repeated mechanically.
“Seems a bit sudden, doesn’t it?” His voice sounded as if it had come from a long way off. “But the governor out there is an old friend of my father’s, and he cabled for me—-a case of now or never—to join him as aide-de-camp.”
“Yes,” she assented with an effort. “You will like that.”
“I don’t want to go, for several reasons. I’d ten times rather farm, but my father is dead against it, and I’m not up to etiquette and precedence and pairing off guests at dinner; but my people are deadly keen and say it is a fine chance. You see, I can’t get about much on account of my leg, and I hate soldiering in London, so as I’m at a loose end I’ve wired ‘Coming.’”
“Shall you be long away?” she asked with tremulous directness.
“A couple of years.” He paused. “If I’d got a post in Egypt, or even Bombay, I could run home, but Melbourne is a bit far.”
Pixie nodded assent. Somehow her throat felt dry.
And before I go—I want to tell you something. I hope—I won’t startle you too much?”
“No—what is it?”
“It is,” and he dropped his voice, “that I love you, Pixie.” Another pause. “And I wish you to know this.”
She moved her lips, but could utter no sound.
“I’ve only spoken to you six times, but I’ve loved you from that first day in the garden. Believe me, you are the only girl I shall ever care for—or marry. I’m not asking you to care for me. This sounds strange, because, even if you would, I cannot ask you to be my wife. There are reasons—I—I—cannot choose as I would. My family, who are hard up, have determined that my wife must be an heiress—no matter how the money is come by, profiteering or otherwise. If I take my own line, my father—though it is really my mother—will stop my allowance, and all I could offer a girl would be a half-share of the pay of a captain in the Guards, which in these days barely keeps one in boots. You—you understand?”
She nodded, though she did not understand. How could a little girl like Pixie Courtenay realize the terrible scenes which had taken place between Lady Tranmere and her husband, or how the poor man’s protest against Osbert’s exile had been fiercely beaten down by a long list of debts, mortgages, and expenses on every hand rising like a tide? The climax of their ruin would be when Osbert married a second-rate little nobody out of Forde, a girl without either money or connections. The affair should be nipped in the bud. He must cut Osbert’s allowance down to two hundred and fifty pounds—the other two hundred and fifty would do to dress the girls. An aide-de-camp had a fairly good screw, and Osbert, being a smart-looking fellow, might pick up an heiress in mutton or wool, and the family fortunes would be revived. Her ladyship was so determined, hard and insistent that she succeeded in browbeating her husband, talking down all his objections, and Osbert’s fate was sealed. That very same night his mother proceeded to pull wires.
“Since we last met all this has been put before me very plainly, so I made up my mind to explain. When half the world rolls between us, remember that every day I shall think of you.”
“And I of you,” she answered on a sudden impulse and with trembling lips.
“No—don’t! No, no. Perhaps, after all, I’d better have held my tongue, but I thought it could do a girl no harm to know that a fellow cares for her beyond anything in the whole world and, no matter what comes or goes, will never change. Will you give me some little trifle as a keepsake—that tiny horse-shoe brooch?”
Almost before he ceased to speak she had unfastened it with trembling fingers and put it in his hand.
“Oh, blow!” he exclaimed. “There are some people coming in a car. Dr. Pringle and the new curate.”
He moved on to the grass as, with lifted hats, they were whirled past.
“Well, I suppose we had better get it over. Good-bye. I should like to kiss you, Pixie, but I am leaving that out—it will be another fellow’s privilege—and yet after I am gone I know I shall feel inclined to hang myself for not taking what I believe you would grant me.” He paused and looked interrogatively into her wet eyes. Whatever he saw in those eyes must have given him encouragement, for in another second he had swept her into his arms and imprinted on her trembling lips what is known as the “first kiss.”
After Harland had mounted his horse and galloped away, Pixie, as she toiled homewards, wore a curiously changed expression; one would almost say that on her pretty face the light of youth had been extinguished.
For many days a silent Pixie went about her tasks with a dejected air; there was no longer a song as she worked in the house or garden; her brilliant colour had faded—the effect of sleepless nights. She assured inquirers that she was quite all right, never better, but in her heart she felt that “spring had vanished out of the year.” One night Ann, who was a light sleeper, was awakened by half-strangled sobs. It was Pixie crying, and why? What had the child to cry for? She rose and went over to her bedside and stood there, a tall, mysterious figure in the grey summer night.
“Pixie, what is it?” she asked. “Come into my bed, darling, and tell me all about it.”
Without a word Pixie crept in, still sobbing, as it were, under her breath, and was enfolded in Ann’s embrace. In a short time her sister was in possession of the facts of the interview in Clover Lane.
“My poor Pixie! I’m sorry he spoke; but perhaps it is a comfort, though you can never be anything to one another.”
“Of course, I know that,” murmured Pixie.
“My dear child, you have only met half a dozen times. You will get over it. Time is a wonderful healer, especially when things do not go deep. Did he send me any message?”
“No; but he spoke of you and asked if you had ever mentioned a Captain Brander.”
As she uttered the name she felt her sister give a violent start.
“And I said ‘No,’” she concluded, after a long silence.
“No, Pixie, for my trouble has been locked up in my own heart, and I thought there would be little kindness in telling you a terrible tale of grief and horror. But you shall hear it if you wish.”
“Yes, of course I wish! I’m sure it will relieve you to speak, as it has relieved me. I’ve known for the last two years that something had broken and that you were changed. You had lost your spirits and your infectious laugh and were not your old self.”
“Then listen,” and Ann put her sister from her, and, throwing on a dressing-gown, began to walk up and down the room. For some time there was silence, then at last she began in a low, tremulous voice:
“There was an officer in a Highland regiment, Captain Archie Brander. He came into hospital in my good gay days, and fell in love with me. I did not want to love him—I resisted with all my force—but I could not help myself. There was something in his smile and his eyes that drew most people to him. The men adored him, for he was the bravest of the brave. Three times wounded, yet he refused to take leave, and was clamouring to get back to the fighting-line, in spite of my being at the base. We became engaged, but no one was in our secret except one of his brother officers, Captain Harland, and the matron. Then came the day when he rejoined, and I somehow had a horrible presentiment that I’d never see his face again. Perhaps he shared this dread, for three times he came back to say good-bye, which I m told is so unlucky. At first I received cheerful field-cards and scraps of delightful letters; then fell a sudden blank silence—a silence which has never been broken.”
“Oh, poor Ann!” murmured Pixie, and burst into tears.
“Poor Ann indeed!” she repeated, when Pixie had recovered herself. “And there is worse to come. A wounded soldier of his platoon who came to the hospital informed me that he had been among the last to see him, that after hours of desperate hand-to-hand fighting they had driven the Germans out of a little French town, cleared it with bombs and at the point of the bayonet. That same evening, in order to make sure, they searched all over the courtyards and gardens. It was growing dark as they hurried along, and Captain Brander, always foremost, suddenly disappeared. He had fallen headlong into an open well—one of those old French wells, hundreds of feet in depth. His men ran up and shouted to him, and he answered as from a long way off:
“‘I’m half-way down, caught on a ledge. I can hold out for a quarter of an hour whilst you get a long stout rope. Hurry up!’”
Here her voice shook, but she resumed:
“The men dashed into the street, ransacked a shop, discovered a rope and a lantern, and returned. But they must have taken the wrong direction; call and search as they might, they never found the well.” She paused, and then added in a husky whisper: “Now, Pixie, can you wonder that I am no longer light-hearted and gay?”
As there was no reply and no movement, Ann lit a candle, to find Pixie was so overwhelmed by the recital of this tragedy that she had fainted.
In a day or two the village of Forde was ringing with notable tidings. Jessie Fisher was going to India as soon as she could get her things ready! It was Jessie herself who, looking radiant and almost pretty, carried the news to The Shearings. She read aloud to the Courtenays extracts of her brother’s letter, and when she folded it up asked with a beaming face:
“Am I not a lucky girl?”
“Yes, I believe you are,” assented Ann.
“To escape from this hateful sleepy place and Mother Pringle, who is always dusting or worrying about grease marks or ink spots and punctuality, and big Jane’s hinting that I am idle and useless. She actually told me I was a ‘cumberer of the ground’—as if it was any business of hers! By the way, I never heard till lately that Jane had money—her mother’s fortune. All the same, I can’t believe it. Why, look at her tailor-mades and her hats! That reminds me of my clothes. The pater means to come down handsomely, and I’m to stay with my sister Flora and get my outfit and boxes in London. Oh, I shall have a good time! I expect to be off in a fortnight.”
Here indeed was welcome intelligence for Forde! Forde would not miss the fashionably-dressed little figure who prowled aimlessly about the street “all dressed up and nowhere to go!”
She came once more to The Shearings to boast of her prospects and to say farewell.
“I don’t expect I’ll have time to run down again—I have such heaps to do—and I’m off to-morrow by the eleven o’clock. Oh, I’m going to have such a good time!”
Subsequently Jessie wrote her adieux on postcards, and Forde breathed a sigh of profound relief when it heard that she had actually sailed. There was an end to tappings at windows, impudent intrusions, insistent questionings, and spiteful gossip. With regard to the latter, before her departure Miss Fisher had circulated the intelligence that the Courtenay girls were hard up and nearly starving.
“I dropped in at tea-time,” she announced to a roomful at the Pringles’, “and they were both eating dry toast, and had no sugar in their tea. I must confess they gave me cake; still, I’m sure they are frightfully pinched. They can’t even afford to keep a cat!”
Such a tale came speedily to the ears of Jane, who hastened to descend upon her friends armed with a splendid idea. She discovered them working in the garden, putting in cabbage plants, and promptly opened her subject.
“Ann,” she began, then after a moment’s hesitation resumed, “I dare say you’d like to make some money and run this old barrack as a paying investment?”
“Would I not?” said Ann, standing up and stretching her aching back. “But I’m afraid there is no means of making money here, unless I drive a motor lorry or go out charing.”
“I can suggest something better than either, my dear. This is a fine, spacious, well-built house, you have a promising garden, bracing air, a good aspect. What do you say to taking paying guests?”
“Paying guests!” repeated Ann, and she burst out laughing.
“But why not?
“For dozens of reasons. We have no furniture, no experience, no anything. Your plan would be a failure and a farce, if not a fraud.”
“Not a bit of it! Now, come here, both of you, and sit on this old seat and listen to words of wisdom.”
The sisters obeyed in obedient silence.
“Please don’t hurl objections at my head till I’m done. Listen. Four or five guests would be as much as you could manage at first. You will charge two and a half guineas and three guineas a week, according to room, and you will have to get another servant. I know a nice girl that would suit. As for furniture; some you can ‘fake’ out of Tudor’s rubbish heap, but you will require more beds, a larger dining-room table, chairs, carpets and blinds. I believe I can get you a good price for the old sideboard, if I may take it in hand; this will pay for all the necessaries. There is an auction near here next week. We will go to it and bid, and no doubt pick up some bargains.”
“Oh, Jane, how sanguine you are!” exclaimed Ann. “You travel too fast for me to keep up with you.”
“Then, my dear Ann, the sooner you get into your stride the better. We will trot round together on a tour of inspection and select four bedrooms. I can lend you linen and some odds and ends. We are overstocked at the rectory; the lumber room is crammed.”
“Oh, we have plenty of linen, thank you, Jane, and I will certainly not plunder the rectory.”
“One would think you were a Bolshevist! This garden,” looking round, “will be a valuable asset—like another suite of rooms.”
“What about winter?”
“In winter you shall raise your terms, on account of fire and light.”
“Dear, kind Jane, you talk as if the plan were possible!”
“It is. Just leave it to me, and I shall carry it through. You must know that you two are my playthings and protégées. I am essentially a woman of expedients and make-shifts. I shall send one of our men to help old Rock to lay out a croquet ground; I’ll do my best to sell the broken-down sideboard; I’ll write out an irresistible advertisement. When you are fixed up, I think I can find you three P.G.’s actually here in Forde. Oh yes, you need not gape upon me with your mouths. Mr. Leslie is looking for lodgings. I can honestly recommend him; quiet, punctual, popular with the servants. In spite of his mild expression, he is a force, let me tell you, and, between ourselves, a bit of a Socialist. There are two elderly ladies at the Horn, a Mrs. Pechell and her cousin, Miss Jecks. They like Forde, but the Horn is too noisy—crowds of motoring week-enders. I’m sure the old ladies would jump at the chance of coming here.”
“How optimistic you are! If any stranger were to inspect and walk round our bare, out-at-elbows premises, how they’d jeer and laugh.”
“Perhaps they would now, but not in a week or two. I know you two can work, and we will all put our backs into this enterprise. I’ll write about the sideboard to-night. Mrs. Pringle shall come and value it; she is a first-rate authority on old furniture. With ready money in your hand, you can make a bold flying start.”
“Bold indeed! I wish I had some of your confidence, but I see the other side—furious boarders clamouring for what we can’t supply, threatening legal proceedings, and leaving in a body.”
“If so, you can replace them! The Shearings,” looking back at the house, “is ideal for a P.G. abode; thick walls, big, lofty rooms, well apart, and with an imposing air of dignity and repose—a house of rest. The atmosphere is worth an extra guinea a week. Well,” rising as she spoke, “now, girls, I must go. You need not ask me to stay to tea, for I am promised to Lady Harry.” As she kissed them both she added: “My scheme will prove a splendid success,” and with this comfortable prophecy upon her lips she departed.
The next afternoon beheld Lady Harriet’s bath-chair drawn up at The Shearings, the old lady herself being inside. Now that Osbert was safely banished, she felt at liberty to indulge an irrepressible curiosity and see with her own eyes how these girls to whom Jane was so partial lived when at home.
Wearing a large black hat tied under her chin with wide satin strings, her ebony cane in hand, she stumped along the narrow flagged passage, and was ushered into the Chinese parlour, where Pixie was busily engaged in manufacturing a blouse. She was startled and frightened by the unexpected descent of this black-hatted visitor, but contrived to conceal her feelings and bring forward their one and only comfortable chair.
“How charming you have made it!” remarked her ladyship, as, eyeglass to eye, she looked round the room appraising the contents. “A fine, well proportioned parlour—an Italian mantelpiece, I declare! I’ve never been in this house before; the last tenants were impossible. I believe they kept goats in some of the bedrooms and turned the garden into a hen run. Is your sister at home?”
“Yes; I expect she will be here presently.”
“Dear me!” exclaimed the visitor, leaning on her stick, and fixing her eye on her companion, “how pretty you are! A lovely girl—wasted on Forde.”
Pixie, who was given to blushing, coloured up to her hair.
“Oh, yes, I’m an impertinent old woman, I know, but I’ve always had an eye for beauty, whether it was a human face, a Sèvres plate, or a picture. What is your baptismal name? Surely not Pixie?”
At this moment Ann entered, and Pixie felt immediately reinforced and relieved. How she envied Ann, so supremely at her ease—Ann, who talked away to their guest about flowers, the choir, and the price of butter! After a pause she calmly asked:
“What news have you of my late patient, Captain Harland?”
Pixie’s heart thumped. How dared Ann!
“He is in Melbourne, aide-de-camp to Lord Grover. He was rather at a loose end. I expect he will fit into the place of an A.D.C., as he has an even temper, nice, easy manners, and is never embarrassed or out of countenance. He will be absent two years. I’m afraid his leg will never be sound. You did not make a good job of it, Miss Courtenay.”
“Please don’t accuse me, Lady Harriet. I had nothing to say to surgical work. I was only an amateur, just doing what I could.”
“No doubt, no doubt!” she protested impatiently. Then: “Don’t you find yourselves ridiculously overhoused in this large mansion?”
“I suppose we are. Why, of course we are!”
“How many bedrooms?”
“I think there are twelve.”
“Why don’t you let it?” and the old lady surveyed Ann with a wary eye.
“Easier said than done! No gas, no electric light, a poor supply of water. However, we gain one advantage; we pay no rent.”
“Forde is becoming quite fashionable; the air so reviving, the neighbourhood so picturesque, it has a nice green setting, and is an ideal spot for a rest cure. Of course, such a house is an absurd misfit for two girls. Why not take a little cottage in the country, and keep poultry and bees? I should think you’d easily find a tenant for The Shearings, or, if you like, I’ll speak to the house agent myself.”
“Thank you very much, but, although new-comers, we are both attached to Forde.”
“Oh, are you? Dear me, you amaze me! I can’t imagine what two young things like you see in a dull old village. Miss Fisher was delighted to shake the dust off her shoes.”
“Yes; but, then, she was idle and bored.”
“And you two are not?”
“No; but always busy—the days are not long enough for us.”
“Do tell me what you call ‘busy’?”
“We do house work and gardening, go errands, and sew. May I show you my fine-drawn linen tablecloth?”
“Yes, do; I am rather a judge of needle-work.”
In a short time Ann had unfolded and placed an exquisite teacloth before the old lady, who examined it critically through her tortoiseshell glasses.
“What work! Wonderful! It’s like what was done in the last generation—my grand-mother’s day. Their needlework shames me.”
“But they had not much else to do, had they? Ample time on their hands.”
“That’s true. A little tinkling on the spinet, a little poonah painting, and practising the minuet. Now women hunt and smoke and drive motor-cars.”
“But they are also really accomplished. I have a friend who plays the ’cello as well as any professional, and another whose portraits are in great demand.”
“Do you sell your work,” touching it, “for charity?”
“In a way—yes,” and Ann coloured as she added, “for the charity that begins at home!”
“Now I like that! No false shame. I should be glad to purchase this at your own price.”
“The price is four pounds.”
“Only four? What a bargain! How many weeks of strained eyesight have gone to this? It’s a lovely cloth, and I’ll take it away with me. No, never mind doing it up,” as she rose to her feet; “just as it is. I’m going straight home. Now will you two have tea with me one afternoon, and see it in use?”
“Then that is settled. Thursday, at four-thirty.”
“We shall be very pleased.”
“Now, Nurse Courtenay, you must come along and put me into my chair, for I’m very old and stiff, as you can see,” and, leaning heavily on Ann’s arm, Lady Harriet tottered back to her conveyance, was hoisted in, and presently wheeled away with the teacloth on her lap.
“We are really in Society at last!” exclaimed Ann, as she re-entered the Chinese parlour. “Behold us launched! I expect Jane will be pleased.”
“I expect Jane was the wire-puller of this visit and responsible for the honour. I hope it may not be repeated—that old woman frightens me. I declare I did not half like being alone with her. What piercing eyes—so dark and so compelling! I believe, if she’d insisted, I’d have gone down on my knees and told her everything that ever happened to me since I was born!”
“I see that the same old lady is anxious for us to strike our tents and leave Forde. I cannot imagine why—unless she thinks there are too many girls in the place already. Those are Mrs. Foss’s ideas. Their son is expected home on leave, and she will be on tenterhooks. He is not married.”
“If the son resembles his mother, I am not surprised. She always makes me think of cold boiled fish.”
“Oh, Pixie! Well, I did a good stroke of business with Lady Harry. I felt very shy in offering my work, and I had intended the tea-cloth for Jane; but four pounds is four pounds—‘needs must when the devil drives’!—and this money will just pay for the coal.
“Talking of coal, I met Barter in the street this afternoon. He stopped, and I thought he was going to remind me of his little account, but he said, ‘Oh, Miss, so I hear you are going to steal a leaf out of my book and take in paying guests.’ Isn’t it wonderful how these things ooze out?”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing; and he went on: ‘In summer I have always a couple of young fellows. They are out all day, so no trouble; and if they are musical, they give us a tune in the evening.’ As I wasn’t inclined to continue the conversation in the street, I just said, ‘It must be delightful,’ and moved on. I wish someone would move Barter on; he is getting to be intolerable. Last Sunday, after that stranger preached, he edged up to me in the porch and said: ‘Isn’t it monstrous that educated people like you and me, Miss Courtenay, have to sit and listen to such rubbish!’”
“And you—I can see you—gave him one of your blank looks, and no other reply.”
When Jane Jessop resolved on a certain plan, that plan was practically accomplished. By ungrudging effort and a fixed determination to succeed, she generally fulfilled her purpose. Thanks to Mr. Leslie’s praiseworthy activities, a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders, and she had now ample time to devote herself to the interests of her new friends. The sale of the sideboard was the first undertaking. This was arranged by Mrs. Pringle, who threw herself into the business with the zeal of a professional. The despised relic actually fetched seventy pounds, to the amazement of Ann and Pixie, as with glowing faces they examined the cheque, which Jane proposed to take charge of and cash. With capital in hand, they were in a position to make a start. Then came a quest for furniture, and with this object in view Miss Jessop and Ann attended two auctions, where the former undertook the bidding and carried off some startling bargains, notably a fine old bedstead for fifteen shillings, a solid mahogany dining-table for two pounds; but the sale happened to be in an out-of-the-way locality, far from the ken of dealers or “rings,” and Jane’s stern, determined air somewhat overawed other bidders. Chairs, tables, looking-glasses, carpets were among the spoil that the invaluable Barter (as carrier) transported to The Shearings.
The next proceeding was to select the four guest-chambers. Number one was lofty and spacious; its two windows overlooked the garden. Here the old bed was made up, here also stood the gigantic and immovable wardrobe, and as Jane looked round at the completed arrangements she said:
“Three guineas a week—not a penny less. The little room next door might go to a friend for two guineas. Mr. Leslie may have the corner one, and the cubby hole to write in—just a chair, a table, and a bit of carpet. He must have some place to himself, and I cannot bear to think of a man writing in his bedroom. Room number four will await a customer.”
To prepare the bedchambers had been no light task; the walls and ceilings were so shabby and discoloured. Mr. Leslie, pressed into service by the indomitable Jane, proceeded in his spare time to whitewash four ceilings—and himself; meanwhile Ann papered two rooms, whilst Jane and Pixie waited on both and stained floors.
At last all was ready. The rooms looked fresh, unpretending, and comfortable. Mrs. Pringle, who was summoned to inspect, expressed her amazement and warm approval.
“We have done the whole thing, including dining-table and six chairs, for fifty-eight pounds,” and there was a note of triumph in Jane’s voice.
“It’s wonderful—most wonderful!—as if some witch had waved a magic wand and transformed the whole place. And so you have hopes of those ladies at the Horn?”
“Yes; they are coming to call this afternoon. Four is our limit to start with.”
“I know of a man—retired military, elderly, and, I believe, a bachelor—who might suit,” and Mrs. Pringle looked at Ann.
“If The Shearings suited him. What is he like?”
“He is a gentleman, and belongs to a good club. I suppose he is about fifty-five. Tom knows him as a patient. I gather he has been knocking about the world a good deal, has no belongings, and, according to Tom, is not a bad sort. He talks with a drawl and fusses about his health—hot water to drink first and last thing.”
“Oh, we don’t mind that, if he is good pay!”
“Two guineas and a half—it’s much cheaper for him than London—and think of the fine air,” put in Jane.
“Perhaps the air will sharpen his appetite,” suggested Mrs. Pringle, with a laugh. It was noted that she had come out of her shell in a remarkable fashion since Jessie’s departure. “If you like, I’ll ask Tom to write to him.”
“Thank you,” said Ann. “It will be a great matter to get hold of people who are known to friends.”
Yes; otherwise you run the chance of taking in divorcees, drunkards, gamblers, and all sorts of undesirable folk,” added Jane, with an eye to the morals of Forde. “I think your elderly military acquaintance sounds as if he would make a solid corner-stone for the House of Rest, and, anyway, I am putting an advertisement in the Morning Post. Listen to this,” and she produced from her bag half a sheet of paper and read aloud with considerable unction:
“Comfortable quarters in a charming old village in Brookshire, where repose and quiet are guaranteed; three miles from station; near golf links; large Georgian house, delightful garden; a veritable home of rest. Terms from two and a half guineas a week.”
“How will that do?” inquired Jane, looking round.
“Oh, it’s too flattering,” protested Pixie. “We could never live up to the description. Think of all the disappointments—and complaints!”
“Every single word is true, and I shall send it off to-night,” said Jane, as she replaced it in her bag.
When Mr. Leslie entered the advertisement was read to him, and met with his cordial approval.
“There will be a run on The Shearings—an embarrassment of guests,” he said. “A home of rest sounds so alluring.”
“And supposing we all fight like cats?” suggested Pixie.
“I’m sure you could never fight, Miss Pixie —that is to say, scratch.”
“Oh, I have claws, though you might not think it.”
Then, as if claws and scratches had stirred some latent memory, Mr. Leslie turned to Mrs. Pringle and asked:
“Have you any news of Miss Fisher?”
“Yes; a letter this morning, with long descriptions of her servants, bungalow, and neighbours. Reading between the lines, I imagine she finds it dull.”
“Dull!” repeated Jane. “So perhaps after all she is not having such ‘a good time.’ Now, Mr. Leslie, come along. It’s nearly lunch time, and the rector will be expecting us.” Then, to Ann, “I’ll bring in those P.G.’s at four o’clock this afternoon. When I cough twice, offer to show them the rooms. Meanwhile, au revoir!”
Punctually at four o’clock Jane reappeared, bringing two ladies in her train. With due formality the party were ushered into the Chinese parlour by Berry.
The Chinese parlour, as Pixie declared, raised high hopes respecting the rest of the establishment, but the sparsely furnished dining-room was something of a come-down. Mrs. Pechell, a childless, well endowed widow of sixty, was stout, well dressed, and carried herself with an air of secure distinction. She had agreeable manners and the remains of considerable good looks, a well cut nose and fine grey eyes. These were qualified by a wrinkled skin and a discontented mouth. Since her husband’s death fifteen years previously the widow had roamed from hotel to hotel, boarding-house to boarding-house, attended by her cousin and slave, Miss Jecks, as she detested the trouble of housekeeping, or, indeed, any trouble whatever. Nevertheless she still took a certain amount of interest in her appearance and her food, and did her utmost to absorb the life of everyone within her orbit.
Miss Jecks presented a remarkable contrast to her patroness—a shabby, little, bird-like woman of fifty, animated, amiable, a tireless talker, and miserably poor. Poverty, the iron-handed, chained her to her distant cousin, Augusta Pechell, whom she served as maid, secretary, confidante, and scapegoat. Dress was her passion, her sole weakness, a weakness which she was never in a position to indulge; but in the remnants and leavings of Mrs. Pechell’s cast-off wardrobe she contrived to make a gay and creditable appearance. At the moment, sitting on the edge of her chair, hands clutching a sunshade, this poor little woman of crushed individuality followed the pourparlers with feverish interest, being already drawn to this stately old mansion and its mistress. Ah, perhaps, she said to herself, here was a home of rest at last!
After a time Jane gave the signal, and the two ladies were conducted upstairs. Mrs. Pechell, secretly delighted with her apartments and surroundings, was nevertheless inclined to bargain in a genteel fashion.
“Three guineas—but no electric light—and no bathroom!”
Ann calmly admitted the deficiency, but remained firm as to terms.
“Three guineas—and two for Miss Jecks—that will be five!”
“Yes, dear,” assented her cousin. Then added in a burst of artless honesty, “But, you know, we are paying eight guineas at the Horn.”
“I am paying, you mean,” cruelly corrected her employer. “Well, then,” turning to Ann, “I suppose it must be so. We will come in to-morrow. Remember, I shall expect good attendance, plenty of hot water, early morning tea” and, looking round, “a sofa. It is so much better to have everything understood at first.”
“I cannot supply a sofa, but there is a comfortable arm-chair. As to service, we will do our best; but you know there is a difficulty about maids—a great scarcity.”
“Yes, so I’ve been told,” replied Mrs. Pechell, with magnificent indifference. “Thank goodness, I’ve been spared that annoyance. Well, now we must go. It’s getting on for tea time at the Horn, and we are charged whether there or not. Can you send for our luggage? I suppose you have a gardener?”
“Yes; but I’m afraid he is too busy.”
“Oh, is he?” said Mrs. Pechell, with a stare of incredulity. Then she turned and slowly descended the stairs; but Miss Jecks lingered for a moment, and, seizing Ann’s hand, whispered:
“You must not mind Mrs. Pechell. I feel certain that we shall be awfully happy here, and I’ll bring up the early morning tea.” Then, with another violent squeeze, she pattered down and soon overtook her portly companion.
“What do you think of them?” inquired Jane. “I hope you were firm about terms?”
“Yes, and I refused Mrs. Pechell a sofa.”
“That’s right. Mind you don’t allow her to encroach.”
“I like Miss Jecks,” volunteered Pixie.
“Yes, Miss Jecks! She will never be a trouble,” said Jane, with peculiar significance. “If Mrs. Pechell becomes tiresome, send for me.”
“I shall,” replied Ann. “You really are the originator and stage-manager of this enterprise.”
“Mrs. Pechell has money—I made it my business to inquire—and she will naturally be good pay. To-morrow they will be here to lunch, so you must prepare for them; and Mr. Leslie, now that you have two chaperons, will also arrive to-morrow. Mark this, the P.G.’s must settle weekly—on no account allow their bills to run on, or you will never know where you are!”
“No; Pixie is to be the cashier, and will see to that.”
“Oh, I shall hate it,” Pixie said, making a face.
“Yes. Imagine dunning Mrs. Pechell! Why, I’m afraid of her already; I am always afraid of old ladies.”
“Don’t give way to that idea. This is your home. If a P.G. is aggressive, give her a week’s notice. By the way, Ann, I’m sending over this evening a gas stove, as a loan, and a writing-table and chair I picked out of the lumber room. They will do for Mr. Leslie. Now, don’t bite my head off.” And, before Ann could protest, Jane had departed with her usual haste.
Within a week all had settled down. Mr. Leslie and Queenie Jecks were easy to deal with, and, indeed, proved to be agreeable inmates. He was out all day, and she almost painfully anxious to make herself useful. Mrs. Pechell, who assumed the air of one who is habitually a success in society, spent most of her time reading, writing, playing patience, or sitting in the garden devouring quantities of gooseberries and strawberries as supplied by her satellites. She admitted that she enjoyed the fruit, the good air, and her spacious room. She also enjoyed this lazy evasion of cares and responsibilities. The meals found favour in her sight; these were neatly served, set off by Grandmamma Courtenay’s old silver, fine linen, and tastefully arranged flowers. Ann assisted Ellen, and prepared dainty savouries, réchauffées and cheap cakes. Just at first eight guineas a week had seemed a fortune, but alas! this proved to be a mere domestic mirage.
Presently it turned out that Mrs. Foss and Mrs. Pechell had mutual friends; these wrote to intimate the latter’s arrival in Forde. Mrs. Foss made a state call, and invited Mrs. Pechell to tea—alone. Her absence for a couple of hours was a distinct relief, yet it could not be said that she was a disagreeable inmate—merely stolidly selfish. She was punctual at meals, during which she related numerous personal adventures, talked and argued with Mr. Leslie, and made searching inquiries respecting the neighbours.
“I have heard of Lady Tranmere,” she observed. “She was a beauty. We were contemporaries.”
“But, Augusta, she must be ten years younger than you are,” protested Queenie Jecks.
Augusta glared and took a sip of port.
“Age,” she said, “is a topic that well-bred people never discuss.”
And Queenie Jecks sat silenced.
“I am told that Lady Tranmere has three daughters, only one married, and one son. Where is he?”
“Abroad, I believe,” replied the curate. He glanced at Pixie, who, recalling Clover Lane, blushed deeply, a blush not lost on Mrs. Pechell, who said to herself:
“So then the young man has been flirting with pretty Miss Pixie! The little girl should make a fine match, but in a place like this she has no opportunities.”
As Mrs. Pechell was a woman of good birth, Mrs. Foss officiated as her social godmother, and not a few called, including Lady Harry, who came partly to see her and partly to inspect the Courtenay ménage. She went forth to pay visits and to teas, and dawdled about in the nearest lanes, attended by Miss Jecks carrying an umbrella and campstool, and was altogether comfortable and complacent.
Then one day Dr. Pringle appeared, accompanied by a stranger, whom he presented to Ann as Major Kane, who had run down to look at the golf links and see The Shearings.
Major Kane was a man between fifty and sixty, with a well set up military air, a reddish, weatherbeaten face, clipped red moustache, and small, restless eyes—a bachelor, with a mind and habits hardened by years of selfishness. His tweed suit was shabby but admirably built, and carried with it an atmosphere of good cigars. He looked round, saw his room, inspected the garden, and drawled out his approval.
“I’ll come on Monday about twelve,” he said. “I like the look of the place,” he added, his eyes fixed on Pixie. “I gather we shall be six—er—quite a nice little party,” and he took his hat and his departure.
“Three guineas—eleven a week!” said Ann.
“Riches!” ejaculated Pixie,
“No. Mrs. Pechell won’t touch margarine, or dried eggs, or New Zealand mutton. She implied the other day that we two and the servants were living on her! On the contrary, she is living on us! I hope Major Kane won’t be tiresome.”
No; Major Kane was not tiresome. He arrived with two battered portmanteaux, various coats and great bundles of golf sticks, and speedily, as he expressed it, “found his feet.” He played golf most of the day, helped to lay the croquet ground and clock golf, and restrained Mrs. Pechell from dominating the conversation at meals.
He was much impressed to hear of the titles in the immediate neighbourhood, and came home one evening beaming because he had played a round with Sir James Cookson. He was really at heart a bit of a snob, and would have abandoned Sir James for Lord Tranmere and Lord Tranmere for the Earl of Borrodale at short notice.
The garden was maintaining its reputation, and thanks to Barter (who was personally acquainted with every tree) the girls were able to dispose of the fruit—on commission. They made quite a good thing of figs, plums and pears. Nevertheless Barter, assuming an air of holy indignation, sounded a note of warning as he handed Ann a cheque for nine pounds.
“Look here, Miss, if you allow that lady lodger to bring in half Forde to eat fruit, you’ll have the place stripped bare as my hand. It’s not alone what you use in the house or what she eats herself, and she’s a holy terror for fruit, but I’ve seen Mrs. Foss coming out of this with a basket of the best plums. We all know you works hard, Miss, and it’s not for your time and labour to go to stuff the street. Be said and led by me—stop it!”
Before Ann had found an opportunity to open the subject Mrs. Pechell dropped a bomb. Coming into the Chinese parlour in her outdoor costume, a well-cut tailor-made and expensive hat (no war economies), she said:
“I’ve just been over to dear Mrs. Foss, and was telling her what an excellent cook you have and all about your lovely table appointments and old Georgian silver, and I’ve invited her and the General to dine on Saturday at half-past seven. Next week they expect their son, and three would be too many for the table.”
For a moment Ann stood speechless. It was bad enough for Mrs. Pechell to distribute the fruit with lavish generosity, but to issue invitations to dinner—no!
“Have you really invited them?” she inquired in an icy voice.
“Yes, I really have!” and Mrs. Pechell laughed complacently.
“Then in that case, of course, they must come; but will you excuse me if I mention that I do not expect my paying guests to invite others, and I hope this will not happen again.”
Mrs. Pechell’s complexion assumed the colour of beetroot, and she said:
“Dear me, what a ridiculous fuss about two people!”
“Yes, but it makes additional trouble and expense. As it is, I find it very hard to run the house with two servants.”
“Then get another,” suggested Mrs. Pechell, with an air of dismissing the subject.
“It is out of the question.”
“As for guests, do you mean to say that I may not invite people who are continually asking me to a cup of tea?”
“I don’t mind that occasionally—if you pay a shilling a guest.”
“Yes; tea, bread and butter, cake—no fruit. And that reminds me to beg you not to take friends into the garden to eat and carry away the figs and pears. We sell all we can spare. We are very poor, otherwise, as you may suppose, we would not be trying to run this house.”
“I expect you make a pretty penny!” declared Mrs. Pechell in her rudest manner.
“No, indeed! We barely pay expenses, and that with the most rigid economy. If all my guests gave dinner invitations and fruit, I should be obliged to close.”
Mrs. Pechell threw back her head like a cobra about to strike, and muttered “gross impertinence,” but a glance at Ann’s stern eyes effectually silenced an outbreak.
This stony-faced young woman might possibly give her a week’s notice, and she was more comfortable than she had been for years; cleanliness, good beds, good meals, and a wonderful fruit garden—the green figs actually melted in one’s mouth!
After a long pause, during which the opponents faced one another, as it were, lance in rest, she blurted out:
“Well, I’ll pay for the Fosses’ dinner!”
“All right. It will be five shillings each, and I’ll try and get some salmon in Little Forde.”
Mrs. Pechell nodded assent, apparently accepting the salmon as an olive branch, and Ann, leaving her to simmer down in solitude, hurried away to prepare tea.
July wore into August, a blazing August into September, and the weather continued glorious. Never had the oldest inhabitant remembered such a season for sun and fruit—or such a teeming harvest! In the long summer days life at The Shearings became easier for the Courtenays. There were no fires, fewer lights to attend to, and cold supper was welcome to all. Fruit picking proved a congenial and even hilarious employment, and the old red walls of the garden echoed jokes and chaff as the gatherers piled their bulging baskets.
Mrs. Pechell occupied a special wicker chair in a shady spot, with green spectacles on her nose, a footstool under her goloshes, enjoying alternately figs and literature, occasionally inviting a “gossip” to tea (on payment of one shilling), or hiring a taxi and taking a cautious drive among the deep country lanes and laden apple orchards.
During these broiling days most people remained within their gates and abode in their gardens. Even Major Kane deserted the links, and sauntered about the shadiest paths smoking “Oteros” at four shillings each—the generous gift of Sir James. It is a generally recognized fact that a garden has a tranquillizing and delightful influence, and peace and good will reigned at The Shearings.
During the summer Pixie had enjoyed an occasional game of tennis at Stavordale or a round of golf on the links—her sister was anxious that she should go out and amuse herself. As far as Ann was concerned, she required no relaxation. She liked work, and it was a blessed relief to see that Pixie had recovered her colour and her spirits, chiefly thanks to outdoor occupation; and, whether planting, watering or weeding, the enthusiast was steeped in the sheer physical pleasure of gardening.
The Shearings had presumed to give one or two croquet parties—just half a dozen neighbours—and there had been an at home at Lady Harry’s; but at this function neither Ann nor Pixie ventured to appear—in their hearts they feared to encounter Lady Tranmere, who on her side remained aloof in case she might meet and be made known to the detestable Courtenays.
Whether the weather was overpowering or otherwise, Mr. Leslie, like Ann, was indefatigably occupied. He started the Church Lads’ Brigade, cricket for the choir, a men’s club, with papers, books, games—he and Jane were collecting for a billiard table. Two such energetic workers, with their newfangled ideas, filled other parishes with envy and amazement.
By the middle of September the Courtenays had received a fifth guest at the house of rest, a certain Mrs. Hunter, a widow, who wrote that “hearing through friends of the comfort and seclusion of their home, and being in search of a restful retreat, she would be glad to know if there was a vacancy, also terms, which must be moderate.” Ann replied that a large room on the second floor was available, two and a half guineas a week, and, by Jane’s command, asked for references.
The reference was promptly received. It came from no less an address than Claridge’s Hotel, and was written by a certain Lady Scratten, warmly recommending her old friend Mrs. Hunter as a most desirable inmate who sought rest and retirement.
“I suppose it’s all right?” remarked Jane, to whom the reference was submitted. “One cannot be too careful in these days. Let us hope that Mrs. Hunter won’t be too grand,” and she turned over the sheet of coroneted paper, “and fastidious.”
Mrs. Hunter was neither grand nor fastidious, but, on the contrary, a dowdy, elderly woman, amazingly easy to please. She wore an ill-fitting brown wig, a black toque, a loose jacket, and was round-shouldered, ungainly and slow in her movements; her eyes, however, were quick, curiously light in colour, and quite unreadable. The new-comer’s luggage—two large boxes, suit-case, and dressing-case—were apparently brand-new, and she made no objection to Jebb’s audacious overcharge and even paid an extra shilling for his services in carrying her belongings to her appointed bower.
After a rest, Mrs. Hunter appeared in time for dinner, and looked rather shy and awkward as she was made acquainted with her fellow-guests. It was Mrs. Pechell’s self-imposed duty to draw out the stranger and induce her to give an account of herself. Between soup and sweet she had elicited the fact that Mrs. Hunter, a widow, had no family, disliked London—where she had been laid up for months, suffering from a bad breakdown (not mental), and was creeping slowly back to health. Her manner was subdued and almost apologetic as she added that “she only looked for undisturbed peace and rest, and by all accounts she would find both at The Shearings.”
“How did you hear of this place?” demanded Major Kane in an authoritative key. “It’s not advertised!” and he threw himself back in his chair and stared at the stranger.
Mrs. Hunter flushed under her powder and hesitated before she replied:
“My friend, Lady Scratten, knows some titled woman in this—er—neighbourhood.”
“Oh, we have several titled women in this neighbourhood!” he rejoined with an off-hand air. “Which is your friend’s friend?”
“I really can’t say,” she answered in a tremulous tone. “Lady Scratten made all arrangements for me, and I’ve been too—too prostrate to be worried. I am not feeling very well now,” hastily rising and glancing at Ann. “I think I’ll just go to my room.”
Mr. Leslie sprang up to open the door as she made her exit on the arm of Pixie, who escorted her to her apartment and offered to help her undress.
This offer was declined. “I shall be all right. Don’t mind me,” said the stranger. “I’ll get into my dressing-gown and rest.”
The dressing-gown proved to be unexpectedly gorgeous and by no means in keeping with Mrs. Hunter’s dingy brown coat and skirt. Pixie also noticed the elaborate tortoiseshell and silver toilet set.
“Ah! yes, are they not lovely!” observing her glance. “My friends are so good to me—too good to me. I do hope you will be kind,” and she looked at Pixie with a pair of moist eyes.
“We will do our best, you may be sure. We are very busy, however, and have not much time to be sociable. This is such a large house, and we help the servants——”
“Yes—yes, dear—and you can help me.
Pixie waited to hear further.
“Please don’t let people get asking me questions. Why do I do this, that, or the other? My memory is shaky, and I want peace, and not to think of troubles.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Now that man with the red moustache—what a foxy face, just hungry for gossip—I hate him!”
“Oh, Major Kane. He is not so bad. But he is idle—retired from the army—and has such loads of time on his hands. He asks questions for the sake of talking, and means nothing. He scarcely waits for an answer.”
“Then do persuade him to leave me alone! These cross-examining people get on my nerves and make me hysterical—my nerves are all to pieces. Well, dear, I’m awfully obliged, but I won’t keep you any longer. Good night,” and Pixie felt herself dismissed.
As soon as Polly, the parlourmaid, had left the room, Major Kane and Mrs. Pechell proceeded to discuss the new guest.
“Seems rather queer and emotional,” he began.
“Oh, she’s had a breakdown. It will wear off,” interposed Ann.
“She ate a good dinner. I must say I envy her appetite. Did you notice her hands?” said Mrs. Pechell. “Beautiful hands!”
“No, I didn’t,” rejoined Major Kane. “I got no farther than her white face and brown wig. I expect her head has been shaved. She’s had a mania of some kind, I’ll bet a shilling.”
“No, no, poor old thing. She has been ill,” urged Ann, “and we must all be kind to her.”
“I could never be kind to a woman with skin disease and a wig!” declared Major Kane, with heartless emphasis.
“Skin disease? Oh no!”
“Oh yes. That’s why her face is plastered with white powder. I can see through a stone wall as well as most people,” and Major Kane nodded his head, pushed back his chair, and swaggered out.
Major Kane proved to be as good as his word. He was rough and abrupt to the new P.G., and ignored her existence as far as possible. Mrs. Pechell, who loved patronage, took her under her wing and befriended her in her own majestic fashion, escorted her round the garden, introduced her to the most reliable apple trees, lent her the Daily Mail, instructed the stranger in the history of her fellow-guests, and gave lengthy chapters of her own autobiography.
The stranger proved an admirable listener. She had an irresistibly flattering manner and a smooth tongue, was unobtrusive and anxious to please, rarely went out, except to post a letter, and took exercise in the garden. In some ways she was a puzzle; had no special tastes, and apparently no relations. Her one accomplishment was needlework of an exquisite description—she worked as an artist, with all an artist’s fervour. Her solace, reading, took the shape of sixpenny fiction, with an accompaniment of peppermint. To a certain extent she cut out poor Miss Jecks, and was frequently bidden into Mrs. Pechell’s room and offered light refreshment of vermouth and biscuits, and in return kindly undertook the repair of some priceless Mechlin or Brussels lace for which Jecky’s fingers were far too clumsy.
On the whole, Mrs. Hunter was so soft-footed, soft-voiced and self-effacing that the other inmates hardly realized her presence in the house.
By degrees she produced some imposing “elderly” garments made of the best material and from the best houses, and as the evenings grew chilly she brought out a set of costly sables, on the strength of which Mrs. Pechell carried her over to tea with her dear friend, Mrs. Foss—in her opinion, one-hundred-guinea furs were an introduction in themselves.
The sight of these magnificent possessions excited the envy of poor, shabby Miss Jecks. Pixie had helped her to the best of her power. She had fathomed the poor woman’s passion for dress, her vain efforts to alter, patch and darn. But what could be done with such a scanty wardrobe—a threadbare coat and skirt, the remains of a black silk, and a couple of washed-out cottons? Efforts with coloured bows pinned on here and there only made deficiencies remarkable. At last Pixie had an inspiration. She “exchanged” a really respectable costume for one of Mrs. Pechell’s “cast offs,” a gorgeous black and green satin which had met with several “accidents” and was subsequently smuggled to a rummage sale. She presented Miss Jecks with a smart pink silk blouse and a lace fichu, trimmed up her hat, and made poor “Jecky” her friend for life.
“But, Jecky, there is one thing you must buy,” she said; “a pair of boots. Yours are like brown paper!”
“My dear, yes—they are awful—and I don’t know what I shall do in winter. How can I run messages in bare feet?”
“I expect you’d get a pair for twenty-five shillings.”
“Yes, dear, but where is the twenty-five to come from?”
“Excuse me for asking—does not Mrs. Pechell give you a salary?”
“Forty pounds a year.”
“Well, then?” Pixie paused expressively.
“Well, then, my dear, Augusta forgets. I’ve not had a penny since Christmas. I am a pauper.”
“Oh!” and Pixie gave a little gasp. “Could you not remind her?”
“No,” shaking her head. “Oh, you don’t know Augusta. She is odd—very odd. She has what is called a high temper, and when you rouse it—and nothing rouses it like asking for money—you never know where it may end, short of personal violence.”
In spite of non-payment, Miss Jecks was obliged to wait on her cousin, what is described as, “hand and foot,” and Mrs. Pechell’s wants were insatiable. What with her toilet, her mending, brushing and messages, there was little leisure for poor Miss Jecks to attend to her own wardrobe.
Hope springs eternal, and the foolish, infatuated lady had an impression that Major Kane admired her and might possibly make her an offer of marriage. Oh, if she only had a nice black gauze like Ann Courtenay and one or two silk blouses! Instead of ignoring her, as he did Mrs. Hunter, the major frequently talked with her, and when in a good humour chaffed her at meals. Rationing was still rigorous, and Ann, who had great difficulty in managing her limited supply, had actually seen Major Kane (officer and gentleman!), under the cover of his newspaper, subtract a lump of sugar from the dole of poor Miss Jecks. Mrs. Hunter saw it too, winked at Ann, and mouthed out the word “thief.” As far as Miss Jecks was concerned, the major was welcome, not merely to her sugar, but to her whole heart! Perhaps he had qualms about the sugar—he was fond of sugar, and the supply was pitifully scanty for he bought a large box of chocolates and presented it to poor Miss Jecks. Poor Miss Jecks! Her hopes soared high—that night in bed she lay awake for hours thinking out her trousseau!
The summer and autumn had been a wonderful season. Jane and Mr. Leslie had worn themselves out arranging means for their poorer neighbours to enjoy it. There were personally conducted char-a-banc excursions for mothers, fathers, children to various sights in the neighbourhood. Occasionally the parties were entirely made up of bachelors and benedicts—a lively crew, returning late through the village singing “We won’t go home till morning!”
The exertions of the two curates were such that but little was seen of them at The Shearings. Directly after meals Mr. Leslie disappeared, and he was in incessant request by parishioners, including women and boys. To the scouts he was as a king! His surpassing cricket had figuratively crowned him.
October was a lovely month—the autumn tints were extraordinarily brilliant, the air cool and invigorating—but November entered with a frown. The days were cold and wet, there was no sitting in the garden, all the fruit was gone, the leaves fell in showers, the street was empty and dreary, nothing more exciting to be seen than Barter on his bike or General Foss and his dog going for the evening paper, and kissing his hands to the girls if he saw them at the window. The old house, with its large rooms and flagged passages, now held an arctic atmosphere that penetrated to the very bone. Mrs. Pechell compared it to a vault—“only one small fire in a sitting-room, and such bad coal!”
Presently she announced that she had a chill, was subject to bronchitis, and took to her bed—with a fire and every comfort she could command. The fire was extra, and coal-carrying was a toil, but of toil and trouble on her behalf Mrs. Pechell never recked, being a self-centred, thankless old woman. She was an industrious letter-writer—post time was her hour of the day; then she subscribed to a library and got a good supply of books, and received long visits from Mrs. Foss and others. On the whole, she appreciated her winter quarters, and remained in her room for three whole months!
Poor Miss Jecks was completely worn out. She began to look and feel aged, the result of up and down stairs, down and up stairs from morning till night. And now a kind of blight seemed to have invaded The Shearings. The cold and damp, the pitiless grey skies, and difficulty of food; the long, dark evenings and scarcity of light—the lamps simply made darkness visible, and paraffin was so dear. Ann was often at her wits’ end, and would lie awake for hours trying to solve her difficulties.
Then there came various ailments of the season, such as bronchitis, chilblains and colds. Truly, it was “a winter of discontent.” Times were sadly changed; the sun had retired, marketing was a problem, it was impossible to keep the house warm, and Major Kane grumbled at the want of fuel and the monotonous menu. Miss Jecks was cheerful even in a black frost, whilst Mrs. Hunter hung over the one fire devouring penny trash and chocolates. As for Mr. Leslie, he was not like a stranger. In an unobtrusive fashion he identified himself with the Courtenays’ interests, never made trouble, but seemed ready to shoulder their burdens. When the cistern leaked, when oil ran short, when the laundry cart forgot to call, he came to the rescue; so much so that he was chaffed by Major Kane, and told that he had all the domestic resources of an old married man! At meals he was pleasant and tactful, changed subjects, turned awkward corners in conversation, and headed off dangerous topics. He was well read and travelled, a Rugby boy, an Oxford man, and had an amazing store of anecdote on which he drew when conversation flagged or discussion threatened to become acute.
Such material as was offered by The Shearings afforded an invaluable topic of conversation in Forde, and there was a certain amount of gossip and matchmaking. Mr. Leslie was coupled with Miss Courtenay, or Ann and Major Kane, or Mr. Leslie and Pixie—that girl had made a bold bid for Captain Harland, and been ignominiously and rightly chucked!—or Major Kane and Miss Jecks! The whole subject was like an amusing puzzle—two unmarried men, two good-looking girls. Why not a couple of weddings?
Ann and her sister continued to labour. They rose early, worked by candle-light, and began to look thin and worn. Mr. Leslie felt certain that there was something wrong, but was not permitted to share the secrets of their prison house much as he desired to do so. As the sisters sat together in the den conferring over domestic matters and comparing accounts, Ann said:
“You know that Mrs. Pechell has not paid for weeks! I’ve hinted till I am tired, I’ve written little notes—all no use. I spoke to Miss Jecks, and she says it’s Mrs. P.’s way; she has plenty of money, but won’t part. She hates signing cheques or even changing a one-pound note.”
“But we are getting into debt, and she is living at our expense. She has a fire all day—that costs a pound a week! How I wish I could talk to Jane, but just now she is so ill, and I don’t like to bother her with our troubles. Yesterday the grocer was quite short when I ordered tea, and asked in a very pointed manner if I’d received the book.”
“I expect he thinks we are going to smash. Oh, if we had only another sideboard to sell!”
“Yes; though it would be hard to dispose of our furniture for the benefit of Mrs. P. She sits up there, reclining among her pillows, in a nice warm room, and complains of the weather—but is very sweet to me. I am now ‘her darling girl.’ If only I dared to give her a week’s notice! Oh, if Jane were better and at home, what a comfort she would be.”
Major Kane, cut off from golf and Sir James, grumbled sotto voce at meals. One day at dinner he burst out:
“I say, Leslie, if you think it necessary to go on living, don’t try to eat this steak!” and he pushed away his plate with a gesture of repulsion.
“I’m sorry it’s so tough,” said Ann. “Just now meat is scarce, and we have only one butcher.”
“Why don’t you get the meat from London, like the Cooksons?”
Ann was silent. Surely reply was unnecessary.
“Eh?” he repeated. “Get your meat from town.”
“I’m afraid I could not manage that.”
“Then get poultry. We are in the country—in the country. If we cannot have fowl, what’s the use of living there?”
Ann shook her head and then said:
“Chickens are scarce—all the poultry goes to London—and the price is prohibitive.”
“Well, after all, one must eat something, and I bar American meat three years old.”
Ann coloured deeply, and this blush was her only reply.
Here Mr. Leslie interposed with his usual adroitness and turned the conversation. Subsequently he had it out with Major Kane.
“I say,” he began, “about the meat yesterday. It was certainly tough, but you were rough on poor Miss Ann. She has a hard struggle to cater for us, as it is, and to run this house—prices are fierce. I hear a good deal of grumbling as I go about the parish, and I think The Shearings is comfortable as times go.”
“Comfortable in the monastic style and mortifying to the flesh,” scoffed Kane. “This house is cold as a dungeon—never enough hot water. The bacon this morning was as salt as brine!”
“Well, the remedy is in your own hands.”
“Yes, I know. Once or twice I’ve thought of leaving,” drawled the other, “but the place has some advantages; it’s clean and regularly run. There’s no slackness, I’ll say that. Meals punctual. The golf links are an asset, and the good social neighbourhood. I’m dining with the Cooksons to-morrow.”
“Then for once you are bound to have a first-rate dinner.”
“No fear of that. I believe these girls were invited, but declined.”
“Of course. How could they cook at home and dine abroad? They have far too much to do.”
“Yes, now the old woman lives entirely upstairs, that’s a nuisance—carrying trays and so on. By Jove, the coal is not a woman’s job. Who takes that up?”
“I do,” was the unexpected reply.
“What! Well, I’m blowed!”
“But why not? Every night before I go to bed I carry up two scuttles—ever since I met Miss Ann on the stairs panting and struggling with a load. By bell, book and candle, I forbade her ever to touch a coal-scuttle again! It’s a tremendous puzzle how to help the Courtenays. They are so beforehand and proud.”
“Old Jecks dusts—I’ve seen her—yes, and cleaning the brasses too, but the Hunter woman never lifts a finger.”
“No; she’s not that sort. Other people’s domestic problems are not her affair.”
“She’s very quiet in the house and gives no extra trouble, but there is something odd about her. It would never surprise me if she had a past!”
“It’s only her present that concerns us.”
“There spoke the parson! Well, I’m off to bed, and will leave you to your coal-carrying.”
The present life of the Courtenays was much too full and strenuous to permit them to dwell on the past, but now and then Ann, ere falling into a sleep of exhaustion, saw distantly before her closed eyes that well in the French courtyard wherein lay buried her heart, her hopes, and her youth. When this agonizing mirage presented itself she would be awake till dawn, and rise unrefreshed to begin her daily round by sweeping down the stairs. With regard to Pixie, no black tragedy darkened her mind, but she experienced a hungry longing, a hopeless craving, of which she was ashamed, well knowing that it would never be fulfilled, and she endeavoured to thrust it out of her thoughts. There had been no sign from him—unless it was he who had sent a copy of Adam Gordon’s poems. But why should he send a sign? Why should she hope against hope? In time the wound would cease to ache, and she endeavoured to keep a bright face and manner for Ann’s sake. Meanwhile the casually mentioned name of “Harland” made her painfully conscious and brought to her thin, pale face a becoming and unwelcome blush.
Ann, who remained self-possessed under the most trying circumstances, generally presented a cheerful appearance, but her cheerfulness concealed many anxieties, and after the year had closed and January ended these anxieties increased and multiplied. There was the perpetual straining to make rations fit; nor was this the worst. There was a serious shortage of money. The shopkeepers, accustomed to weekly payments, appeared to be disagreeable and stiff. How could Ann accompany Barter at the concert knowing that she was still seven pounds in his debt? And how sing a lullaby to Mrs. James, the grocer’s wife, who glared at her from the front seats and seemed to say “Pay the book”?
The painful truth was that Mrs. Pechell (who had declined into an existence of ease and torpor) had not paid for two and a half months, and was apparently insensible of her enormity, ordering fowl, fresh eggs, coal, logs and extras with callous insistence. She was now out of bed, and, established in a luxurious arm-chair, sat writing by the fire, clad in a long, purple, wadded dressing-gown, while Miss Jecks ran her errands and obeyed her commands.
To add to the Courtenays’ troubles, Jane Jessop had been dangerously ill. Influenza of a particularly virulent type had invaded Forde—Dr. Pringle, Mr. Leslie and Jane were run off their feet—and Jane had caught it from nursing one of the worst cases. On account of infection she had avoided The Shearings, and when she was laid low had given special orders to bar out the two Miss Courtenays. They called daily at the rectory, but were never admitted; indeed, had they visited Jane, Mrs. Pechell, who was distracted with fear, would have forbidden them their own house. She lived in a condition of hysterical terror, sent out for bulletins, and deluged her room with eucalyptus.
In Jane’s case pneumonia had followed “flu,” her life hung by a thread for some days, and the village held its breath. However, as if by a miracle, she recovered. Later, the rector carried the wreck of his daughter to Torquay, Lady Harry also moved off, and on Mr. Leslie’s shoulders descended the entire weight of the parish.
These were evil days. Bitter weather, shortage of coal, of money, of people’s tempers, were a few of the trials. There was a bad leak in the roof, the garden looked dreary and unfriendly, and last, but not least, a ghost had joined the inmates! Polly had seen it late in the dark on the third landing—a woman in grey, with a shawl over her head, moving noiselessly, her face turned away. Polly flew downstairs, and fell into a chair in the kitchen in screaming hysterics. Ellen had laughed and scolded her out of her fears, but to Ann she said:
“Of course, I’m not letting on, and I faced down Polly, but I’ve heard long ago as there was something in The Shearings—someone who jumped out of a top window!”
“Then he or she should haunt the street,” said Pixie. “I’m not afraid,” she added boldly.
All the same she felt a little uncomfortable when, one evening, a silent shawled figure slipped past her on the stairs in the dusk. She told her sister of this encounter, and they agreed to keep silent—no need to add a ghost to their responsibilities and to start a train of discussion and speculation in the street.
Meanwhile, after dusk, there were mysterious sounds in the house, especially on the top story. Fortunately, no one appeared to have noticed this except the Courtenays themselves: stealthy footsteps, a creaking of boards, occasional distant visions of a shawled figure, and an impression that there was somebody listening at doors. Once Ann distinctly heard a heavy step in the room above her own—a room which she knew to be empty. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon, and yet she could not screw up her courage to dash upstairs and bring the ghost to bay. Poor Ann’s nerves had entirely gone to pieces; insufficient food, insufficient sleep, and the tragedy of her life had broken down a naturally brave and self-reliant character. She listened to these footsteps in breathless horror; there was something so uncannily “at home” about them, as if they had known The Shearings for years, and presently she crept downstairs.
The stress of accumulated debt became so intolerable that at last Ann appealed to Miss Jecks and said:
“Jecky, what am I to do? You know this is a cash household. Mrs. Pechell has not paid me for eleven weeks, and there s all the money for coal and eggs and milk besides.”
“Yes,” assented the other guiltily, “Augusta is like that—it gives no end of trouble. She has lots of money, and takes fits like a jibbing horse, and won’t pay—won’t even change a pound note, but borrows change from Mrs. Hunter.”
“How long does this phase last?” inquired Ann in a voice of despair.
“Months. People don’t understand that she will only pay when she likes, and so we have had horrid scenes and most unpleasant experiences. If you press her, she flies into a furious temper and screams and looks as if she would have a fit.”
“But I must ask her. I cannot go on like this.”
With this resolve Ann screwed up her courage, and, seizing what she believed to be an appropriate occasion, ventured a timid request; but Mrs. Pechell stared as if she had never owed a penny in her life. A hard, almost vicious gleam shone in her eye as she said in a peevish voice:
“Now, my dear girl, please don’t talk of money! My poor head won’t stand it! I’ll go into it some day—as soon as my dividends come in. I’m very short at present.” Then, hastily changing the subject: “By the way, will you get me a pheasant for dinner—a nice young bird?”
Mrs. Hunter was invariably to be found sharing Mrs. Pechell’s fire, and before her Ann did not venture to allude to business.
She was a prime favourite with the old lady and marvellously clever with her needle; she played patience; and as an acknowledgment for her sewing and her society was rewarded with nice sweet biscuits and cherry brandy from Mrs. Pechell’s own little store.
“I cannot move her, Pixie,” said Ann, after another abortive interview. “Mrs. Pechell is like a two-year child, and pretends not to understand, and yet I must have money.”
It is a well-known experience that misfortunes never come singly. The bad weather and lack of ready money were, one would, imagine, sufficient difficulties for the unfortunate Courtenays; nevertheless there was worse to come. The kitchen range went on strike.
Barter, who was called in, declared that a new one was essential, and would be costly. He would, and did, as a special favour, undertake to supply a second-hand article, but little used, for a certain round sum in ready money. After all, the kitchen range was the very heart of the establishment, and must be carefully restored; but Barter’s bill—thirty pounds—made an enormous hole in Ann’s finances. Then, as if the range were bewitched, Polly the clumsy upset a large pot of boiling water over her foot. Her cries were piercing, her agony terrible. Dr. Pringle was summoned by Miss Jecks, who ran out bareheaded, and he and Ann between them patched up the patient and conveyed her to the cottage hospital. And now came the question: Who was to take Polly’s place? Echo answered ”Who?”
There was not a girl to be had in all Forde. After considerable difficulty, Mr. Leslie secured a boy for a few hours daily, but the youth ate ravenously and broke so much in the way of glass and china that The Shearings was compelled to dispense with his services. Pixie took on the duties of parlourmaid, and Ellen managed to inveigle a “char” to come daily for three hours in consideration of her dinner and three shillings.
It was now the end of February. The Courtenays were almost worn out, though Miss Jecks, when she dared, gave them valiant help; but this her suspicious, selfish task-mistress begrudged, and kept her slaving for herself, going messages to New Forde station or unpicking old dresses or darning stockings. Mr. Leslie felt instinctively the strain on the sisters; he longed to be taken into their confidence; he also longed, and perhaps prayed, for the return of Jane. Why were they so hard up? Twelve pounds a week seemed a fair amount. But then he knew nothing of Mrs. Pechell’s defalcations or the bills for range, roof and coal.
Ann began to realize that in starting a boarding-house without capital, to quote the well known American expression, she had bitten off more than she could chew. It was impossible to run The Shearings properly with only Berry, who was very rheumatic, and herself; she spared Pixie as much as possible.
Mr. Leslie certainly helped in an unobtrusive fashion. With constant excuses about early service, he was nearly always the first to light the kitchen fire—it generally was a race between them. And what an insatiable range! The Chinese parlour, with its fine old-fashioned grate, was also very greedy in the matter of coal.
As for Mrs. Pechell, her fire had to be kept going night and day. Ann sometimes looked at Mr. Leslie and asked herself, with a smart pang, if he had enough to eat. Certainly, his face looked a little gaunt, his hands were thin and bony; but, then, it was Lent. He carved and faced her at table, and she believed, sheltered behind the joint, gave himself almost infinitesimal helpings. As far as she could judge, toast, margarine and potatoes were his chief fare. Now and then she ventured to offer him a cup of cocoa unknown to the rest of the guests. Mrs. Pechell, Mrs. Hunter and Major Kane never stinted themselves, and, although grumbling at the menu, nevertheless generally applied for two helpings.
As for poor Ann herself, she looked ill and depressed. Incessant hard work, insufficient food and gnawing anxiety had dissipated all her good looks, but not her good disposition. Whatever happened, she was self-possessed and resourceful, though secretly full of qualms and uneasiness. The spectre of short commons haunted her, and this spectre materialized when one day she surprised Jecky and Mr. Leslie on the first landing. They were sharing the contents of a paper bag which contained a few shrivelled-looking buns, and it would be difficult to say which were the more startled, the two feasters or Ann herself, as, refusing their offer with a hasty wave of her hand, she hurried downstairs. Poor Ann! She was now, as always, hungry; she would have thankfully accepted that dried-up bun, but noblesse oblige. Whoever proclaimed a craving for food, it was her duty to pretend that the rations were amply sufficient.
Seated in the den, she tried to pull herself together and to recall the dinner menu, resurrection pie, stewed onions, and rice pudding. As well as she could remember, the sharers of that surreptitious refreshment had eaten very sparingly.
One morning Ann sat in the Chinese parlour, her mind occupied with debt and difficulties. There was a long bill from the grocer, seemingly made up of insignificant items, maddening little charges for wood and matches and cocoa, and to the total was added: “An early settlement will oblige.” And then Ellen, the mainstay, had begun to complain of her legs and the standing; the kitchen, after all, had never been her province. If Ellen were to collapse and leave, what then? As it was, they were paying fifteen shillings a week for Polly, whose recovery promised to be a very tedious business.
“Oh, life was too hard!” and Ann, tired and run down, buried her face in her hands. Her attention was suddenly recalled by a violent tapping on the window. She looked up, and to her horror beheld the plain face and broad grin of Jessie Fisher.
Here indeed was the last straw!
At this moment Miss Jecks entered, and, descrying the face at the window, exclaimed:
“Why, I do declare if it is not Jessie Fisher! Oh, how amusin’!” and she flew to open the door, dropping a coloured bow en route.
“Aren’t you surprised to see me, Ann?” she asked, as she followed Miss Jecks. “Here I am again!” kissing her. “Only home for three weeks to get my trousseau!”
“Yes?” stammered Ann, who was struggling for speech and composure.
“And I’ve just spared Forde one day to see how you all are getting on.”
“I think you find us as usual.”
“Oh no. I hear you have a lot of P.G.’s—that’s new. I’ll come and dine to-night, and sample the lot.”
“But won’t the Pringles——?” began Ann.
“Not a bit of it! They have no cook, and since I’ve been to the ‘Shiny’ I’m accustomed to good food. None of your watery soup and resurrection pie!”
“I’m afraid you will not fancy our menu, but you must take pot luck. How do you like India?”
“Immensely. Just the country to suit me—lovely flowers, and sun, and nice, attentive society. I would not live in England for millions. I am going to marry a charming man—Arthur Tregarthen. He is of very old Cornish family, is in the Civil Service, and has a fine position. We will go to Simla every year. George won some money in a race lottery, and paid for my run home to get my trousseau and pay a visit to Arthur’s people, who are simply aching to see me. I go there next week between the fittings!” and she laughed. “Have you two any affairs on hand?”
Ann shook her head.
“Oh, you are so intolerably cautious! Has Pixie ever heard from young Harland?” transfixing her with a piercing look. “Oh, you are blushing! He was certainly dazzled—we all saw that—but, of course, he was not serious.”
“Of course not,” briskly assented Ann. “He was a mere acquaintance.”
“Well, Pixie is a clever little thing, and at one time I really thought he was hooked!”
Such a remark left Ann deprived of the power of utterance, and Jessie resumed: “What hour do you dine?”
“Well, I’m off now, and will come back in good time. So long!” and the visitor bustled out and closed the hall door with a bang.
At half-past seven Jessie made a punctual reappearance, in a gay evening gown and boisterous spirits.
During dinner she chattered incessantly and entirely dominated the table, including Mrs. Pechell. She ridiculed the name “House of Rest,” and said it should be called “the Dak Bungalow,” patronized the Courtenays, contradicted Mrs. Pechell—in fact, rubbed everyone up the wrong way, and presented a picture of conceit and complacency impossible to surpass. On the subject of missions she fell foul of Mr. Leslie; respecting India she brusquely corrected Major Kane, who had put in sixteen years’ service in the country.
“What about your singing?” interposed Ann diplomatically. “Are your neighbours appreciative?”
“Appreciative! My dear, they simply sit round and worship me!”
“And when you are not singing?” queried Major Kane, with grim significance.
“Ah—that would be telling!” and she smirked and looked arch. “I don’t mind confessing that I’ve had un grand succès!”
“Ah, yes—in a little place like Chutterbuldy.”
“No; I’d a ripping six weeks in the hills last hot weather. I lived in a whirl.”
“No doubt,” he growled. “I’ve noticed that you have an infinite capacity for taking pleasure. I suppose I’d see some changes in India?”
“How long since you were out?”
“Oh, then, you’re quite a back number!” Jessie rejoined in her most provocative manner, “and in these days the army has to take a back seat.”
“That it has never done yet!” rejoined Major Kane fiercely.
“Well, it’s looked down on now—awful third-rate people get into it—oh, such a shoddy lot!” said Jessie spitefully, recalling from her present vantage ground the major’s stony resistance to her allurements. “Anyway, the great change is in yourself.”
“A man does not change in ten years.”
“Oh, doesn’t he? I have seen very plainly that elderly people have no show in the East. I’m sure you’d find yourself dreadfully out of it.”
“What! In a mouldy little place like Chutterbuldy!” and he laughed derisively.
“Mouldy! It’s a civil station!”
“Generally an uncivil station. One of those little pot-hole places run by a ‘joint’ with his nose in the air.”
“If you mean a joint magistrate, I’ll thank you to remember you are speaking of my fiancé.”
“I assure you I’ve no desire to put his nose out of joint,” rejoined Kane, with deadly significance.
“I see you are ruder than ever—if that were possible.”
“Am I? Well, you began by abusing my cloth. After all, it’s the soldiers who hold India. Only for them your little tin gods would not exist—they’d be melted down into cooking-pots.”
Jessie, with flashing eyes, was about to retaliate when Mrs. Pechell interposed a clever question about her trousseau. (She had known Jessie when she lived at the Horn.)
“Oh, yes, it will be something extra, I can tell you! You see, I shall be at Simla, going to the Viceroy’s dinners and receptions, so I’m bound to wear smart frocks. My wedding gown is to have a train of silver brocade. I must dress suitably to my position, not as if I were about to be the wife of a poor starving subaltern on two hundred and fifty rupees a month.”
As Major Kane did not pick up the gage, but contented himself with a contemptuous grunt, she continued:
“I do feel so sorry for girls stuck in a hole like this—no change, no life, no chances!”
“Oh, we don’t mind. Pray don’t pity us!” said Ann. “We like Forde.”
“But evidently Forde does not like you!” she answered viciously. “You have both lost your colour and grown so shockingly thin and bony. You really look half starved!”
“It’s the rationing,” coolly explained Mr. Leslie. “We are all thin, and possibly the better for it. There’s Mrs. Ball, at the Falcon; she has lost three stone, and has come down to seventeen now.”
“Even so, she can hardly get in at the door,” said Major Kane; “her cottage is a size too small.”
“She should move into the haunted house—lots of room there,” said Jecky, “and I dare say she’d get it rent free.”
“Did you ever hear that this house was haunted?” asked Mrs. Pechell suddenly. Mrs. Pechell objected to being left out of the conversation.
“No,” replied Ann, and she glanced appealingly at Pixie.
“But there is something,” persisted Mrs. Pechell. “Your Polly told Regina, who told Queenie, who told me.”
“‘All houses wherein men have lived and died are haunted houses,’” quoted Mr. Leslie, hoping to trail a herring. “You know Longfellow?”
“It’s a woman with a shawl over her head,” resumed the chief speaker, coolly ignoring this interruption. “Polly saw her,” she concluded with emphasis.
“Polly must have been dreaming,” declared Ann. “It’s too bad of her to try to ruin the reputation of The Shearings.”
“And very ungrateful of Polly,” interposed Jecky, with heat, “considering all the money you have paid out for her for weeks in hospital.”
“Oh, this house is all right!” said Major Kane. “I have a sort of sixth sense. My mother was a Highlander, and I can tell whether there are ghosts hanging about or not. No; this house has a good atmosphere!”
“Bar the soot!” muttered Mrs. Pechell.
“No one will make me believe a ghost walks The Shearings,” announced Mr. Leslie, ever ready to add a word in the Courtenay interests. “I would spend a night alone in this house quite comfortably, and search it in the dark from garret to cellar.”
“Yes, but you are a parson, and it is well known that parsons are anathema to ghosts. They would lie low till you had departed, for fear of being exorcised.”
“Talking of ghosts,” said Mrs. Hunter, suddenly waking up, “can anyone tell us a real first-hand ghost story? I do love thrills—and Horrors, or a good murder or a ghost story.”
“I know one,” volunteered Major Kane, “if you’ll give me time. I have experienced the real thing.”
After a silence, and looking round to catch the eye of his audience, he began with impressive emphasis:
“A couple of years ago I was down in Devonshire, lodging in a queer old farmhouse miles off the main road, a weird, lonely sort of place. The lane which led to it had tremendously high perpendicular banks, like walls or the sides of a railway cutting. Well, I was hurrying home down this lane late one August evening, tired and hungry, when all of a sudden I heard the sound of pattering footsteps behind me. This is always an unpleasant sensation, and I turned sharply round; and what do you think I saw?” Here he paused dramatically. “Quite close to me was a gigantic red and white dog walking on its hind legs with its fore-paws crossed on its chest He was as tall as myself, with the eyes and expression of ‘something’—that was not a dog! One glance was enough. I’m not a coward, I hope, but I hurried on, shaking like a jelly—yes, with my heart pounding—afraid to run for fear the horrible beast should attack me. At last I ventured another look, and, behold, the thing was gone! But how—and where? It was impossible for a human to scale those banks. I ran the remainder of the way, and as I ran I made up my mind to question my landlady and get the truth out of her; but when I reached the farm I found the place in a terrible commotion. All the family were gathered round the old woman, who had died quite suddenly. Sitting by the window, she startled her daughter by suddenly throwing up her hands and exclaiming: ‘He is coming!’ She then shuddered violently from head to foot and expired. Well, I cleared out first thing the next morning, not sorry to escape from the scene of such an experience, and unwilling to bother the family with questions about the red and white horror which followed me in the lane.”
You have terrified me, Major Kane,” exclaimed Jessie. “I promised Mrs. Pringle to be back early, but I’m positively afraid to go up the street alone for fear I should hear the beast pattering behind me!”
And now ensued a truly unchivalrous struggle between Mr. Leslie and Major Kane as to which should not have the honour of escorting Miss Fisher home. The question was speedily settled by Jessie.
“I must have a double guard,” she announced. “I dare not leave this house unless I have one of you on each side to protect me.”
Miss Fisher had her way, and the two men were less reluctant when they realized that with a party of three there would be no chance of a tête-à-tête walk with this unpopular and dangerous young woman.
Jessie went off very jauntily, delighted to be able to announce the next day that “both Major Kane and Mr. Leslie simply insisted on walking home with me. It made me feel quite uncomfortable, taking away the only two men from The Shearings.”
However, Jessie’s statements were seldom accepted by her own people without the traditional grain of salt.
With the inmates of The Shearings the hour after tea was usually dedicated to rest and relaxation. Major Kane strolled across to the local reading-room, Mr. Leslie resumed his parish work, and Mrs. Hunter dozed over the fire. One evening Ann and Pixie were busy in the pantry when they heard a welcome voice in the hall; it was the voice of Jane, loud and strong as ever! To The Shearings she had the private entrée—merely turned the door handle and entered.
The sisters rushed out, and there indeed stood their best friend. By the one flickering gas jet they identified a thin and altered Jane, a shadow of herself, but apparently full of life and vitality. They embraced her rapturously—here was a treasure restored to them, one who had recently passed through the valley of the shadow of death.
“When did you come?” inquired Pixie. “We never heard you were expected!”
“I came just now. We are on our way from the station, but I thought I’d just look in for half a sec. The rector is in the car, so I can’t stop. I brought him home; he has not been at all well, poor old man. I’ve to watch him like a lynx. How are you, my two dears?”
“Delighted to see you—a sight for sore eyes!”
“Yes,” and she laughed ironically, “a sight indeed.”
At this moment there was a peevish call of “Jane! Jane!”
“There, I must be off, but I will come up to-morrow if I can.”
“Don’t do too much,” urged Ann. “You must rest to-morrow. We can wait,” and the girls escorted her to the entrance and shook hands with the rector, who was looking bent and aged. As the car moved off, Pixie turned to her sister and said:
“Oh, Ann, now that she is at home, I feel as if our troubles were over.”
Ann’s sole reply was an hysterical laugh.
It was late the following afternoon when Jane made her reappearance. She was met in the hall by Miss Jecks, who, after offering a warm welcome, said:
“Pixie is in the kitchen, ironing, and Ann is in the ‘Glory Hole,’ doing accounts.” She paused; evidently she wished to say more, but did not venture. She was a little afraid of Miss Jessop.
Jane steered straight for the latter, and found Ann sitting at a little table with her elbows resting on it, her head supported by her hand, her whole attitude expressive of utter dejection. As she raised her white face she met the eyes of Jane, and Jane, beholding her protégée in the searching light of day, could not stifle an exclamation.
Ann was shockingly altered. Her eyes were sunken, her cheek-bones were prominent, her complexion colourless. No one would call her pretty now. And then her poor hands!—all seamed and scarred like those of a charwoman—and she looked half starved into the bargain! After a moment’s paralysed silence, Jane turned to see that the door was closed and said:
“Now, Ann, tell me all about it! Begin, my dear, begin,” laying her hand on Ann’s shoulder. “I’ve been out of the place, and your letters told me nothing. They were miserable affairs—all about the weather and the Fosses’ dog.”
“We—we——” stammered Ann at last. “To tell you the plain truth, we hated to bother you; but, oh, Jane, we have got into awful difficulties and debt. I feel so miserable and ashamed.”
“What—don’t they pay?” demanded Jane.
“Yes, most do; but Mrs. Pechell owes us for eleven weeks.”
At hearing this announcement Jane, who had hitherto been standing, sank heavily into a chair.
“She won’t take a hint,” continued Ann, “and talks of waiting for her dividends; and she has expensive ‘extras’—eggs, cream, and poultry, a fire all day, and runs up such bills,” pointing to a rather soiled half-sheet, “and there is her book”—a little one, with a shiny back. “Even when I ask point-blank for something on account, she pretends to be deaf. She has got into the habit of never paying.
“A habit she must be broken of at once! How much does she owe you?”
“About seventy pounds, more or less. There is her account.”
“Seventy! Why, this is monstrous!”
“And she requires no end of attention coals and bath water. We have only Ellen now, you know.”
“Fancy you two poor creatures with one servant and five guests. No wonder you look worn out! Oh, here is Pixie!” as she entered.
After a momentary pause, Pixie exclaimed:
“I see Ann has been telling you of all our troubles?”
“Come and kiss me, my pretty one. Yes, and I look to you to give me further details. Ann was always close.”
These troubles were soon poured out—the tragic tales of the range, the roof, the coal bill—and as Jane listened her wrath was rising like a spring tide.
“And so that wicked old woman has been playing the leech, living on you and working the pair of you to death. What’s this? Her book and her bill,” glancing it over. “Chicken, cream, new-laid eggs, butter. Twenty-five shillings for one week! Mrs. Pechell’s day is ended. She shall pay—and go!”
“You will find she will not do one or the other,” said Ann in a melancholy tone.
“She frightens Ann,” supplemented Pixie. “You see, we have always been ruled by an old woman. We could make no stand against Grannie, and it’s the same with Mrs. P. She raises her voice and screams, her hands work, and her face becomes crimson, just like Grannie.”
“She won’t frighten me,” declared Jane, rising.
“No, no, Jane,” protested Ann. “You are not fit for scenes. I won’t allow you to go up.”
“Rubbish! Do you suppose I am likely to allow an old horse-leech to live on you two simple girls and work you to death like Jecky! A woman that spends half her time in bed, and demands chicken broth and sweetbreads, and owes you seventy pounds! I’ll tackle her now.”
“No, no, please, Jane!”
“Yes, yes; and I shall bring you a cheque that will pay her debts. Then I’ll settle with Barter. He has robbed you shamelessly over the second-hand range. Is he paid?”
“Oh, yes; he said he had expenses to meet and could not wait.”
“No; it’s only Miss Courtenay who waits and who should have bundled her old woman of the sea out of doors ages ago.”
“I’ve not the energy or courage to bundle out a beetle.”
“No, my poor dear girl; all your energies are expended on running this ‘House of Rest.’ You look so played out and run down that you are not far from a collapse.”
“In that case The Shearings will, so to speak, fall in!” said Pixie. “But you are right about Ann. She is down at six, races Mr. Leslie to get the kitchen fire lit before him, and is never in bed till after eleven. If you could find us another servant, Jane, your petitioner will ever pray.”
“I’ll get you a strong, able-bodied woman who can work, if I have to come myself.”
Ann gave one of her queer laughs.
“And the other P.G.’s?”
“Mrs. Hunter is quiet and harmless,” rejoined Pixie, “and hand in glove with Mrs. Pechell; she gives comparatively little trouble. Major Kane grumbles and growls, but stays on; I valet him beautifully and mend his socks. Mr. Leslie is splendid, and helps all he can, though he is so hard-worked and quite the mainspring of Forde. Jecky is an old dear; she dusts and polishes—when Mrs. P. is not watching her.”
“Do you mean she won’t allow her to lend a hand?”
“No, nor a foot, and soon poor Jecky will have hers worn off; she lives on the stairs or running messages—the old lady is a cruel task-mistress.”
“Well, I’m going to beard her in her den,” said Jane, rising.
“No, no, you are not fit to face her,” said Pixie, putting her back to the door, “and, besides, Mrs. Foss is with her.”
“So much the better!” reiterated Jane, whisking the slim girl out of her way; and in another moment Jane the invalid, spurred by righteous indignation, was nimbly ascending the stairs.
Jane, inspired by a firm and definite purpose, paused breathless outside the door of the best bedroom, then she knocked, and entered simultaneously with a shrill “Come in!”
Two ladies, with their round backs turned towards her, were drawn up cosily side by side, sitting over a roaring fire and evidently exchanging confidences.
“Oh, here is tea!” announced Mrs. Pechell, without moving her head. “I hope there is buttered toast, dear,” to Mrs. Foss. “You will stay?”
But Jecky, who had been sitting in the window, darning, sprang up.
“Why, it’s Miss Jessop! Oh,” hurrying to greet her, “I do hope you are better?”
“Miss Jessop, is it?” said Mrs. Pechell, raising a peevish and inhospitable countenance. She detested Jane, and had come up against her more than once when she endeavoured to impose on the Courtenays; also she did not think that the rector’s daughter recognized her ‘position’ or paid her a proper respect.
“Oh, so you are back, Miss Jessop?”
“Yes,” exchanging a greeting with Mrs. Foss, “after three months’ idleness, and ready to get into harness.”
“Ah—then we shall all have to mind our p’s and q’s!”
Miss Jecks brought forward a chair, which Jane accepted, saying as she did so:
“I’ve just come up for a little business talk with you, Mrs. Pechell.”
“I cannot imagine our having any mutual business,” said the old lady in her stiffest manner, “and kindly note that it is only my intimate friends I receive in my private apartment.”
“Oh, is that so?” rejoined Jane, unabashed. “I am the intimate friend of the owners of this room; it was I who persuaded them to start a paying guest business. I return after a long absence and find them mere shadows, worn out with incessant toil—the constant drudgery has told upon them cruelly.”
“They should keep more servants. It’s what I’m always saying to Mrs. Foss. Is it not, dear?”
“Keep more servants, when they are in money difficulties as it is—and nearly ruined!”
“Ruined,” repeated Mrs. Foss in an awe-struck whisper. Here indeed was a fine item of news! She had always been jealous of The Shearings and the girls’ apparent prosperity.
“Ruined—yes,” Jane replied, and a note in her voice seemed to threaten trouble. “Ruined by your friend, Mrs. Pechell, who has enjoyed a life of ease and torpor, and has not paid them a penny for three months.”
“That is my business, Miss Jessop,” said the old lady, blinking a pair of little angry eyes and taking her stand on high dignity. “And I must beg that you will not intrude into my private affairs—and—we—er—er—leave my room!”
Jane vouchsafed no notice of this command, but calmly reiterated her accusation.
“For three solid months you have lived on these unfortunate victims, and turned a deaf ear to their applications for payment. They have been obliged to incur heavy debts on your account.”
“My dividends,” began Mrs. Pechell, in a voice that shook with passion, “are uncertain—and people without capital have no right to set up a boarding-house.”
“It was to be weekly payment. I arranged that myself.”
“You! What have you to do with my agreement with the Courtenays?” demanded Mrs. Pechell, and she added, being now in a towering rage, “Everyone knows that you are the most meddlesome and mischievous woman in England!”
“It was I who introduced you to these girls, believing you were solvent, and I feel responsible to them,” and looking Mrs. Pechell straight in the face, “You leave here to-morrow.”
“Not I!” she rejoined with a snort. “I am thoroughly comfortable and satisfied; and, anyway, I shall remain till after the fruit season.”
Mrs. Foss, drinking in every word, had been enjoying herself enormously. Mrs. Pechell a defaulter—for all her boasting and her talk of a thousand a year—what a story for Forde! Mrs. Pechell turned out of The Shearings for debt!
“You leave to-morrow,” repeated Jane in an authoritative voice; and Mrs. Foss, realizing that the situation was becoming too acute, rose and, with a nod to her hostess, took her departure, creaking out of the room on tiptoe.
But Jane, the valiant champion, stood to her arms; also brave Jecky, determined to support the Courtenays’ deliverer.
“I shall not move!” declared Mrs. Pechell, “and I shall pay when I please.” Then, abandoning all restraint, she added: “It is shameful for the rector’s daughter to come making trouble and browbeating an old woman in bad health with a weak heart! Others have suffered,” she gabbled, her face distorted with fury, “all Forde has suffered, but I shall make a stand!”
“Yes, I dare say, but not here,” rejoined her visitor, with stern decision. “I feel miserably guilty when I think of those unfortunate girls and what I have let them in for; they are quite broken down in health and spirit. However, there is an end of that,” rising as she concluded: “This room will be let to-morrow to a guest who can pay—and who is solvent.”
“How dare you!” screamed Mrs. Pechell. “Everyone knows I’ve a thousand a year. Ask my bankers!”
“Your bankers are not my concern, but it is my business to see that you leave here to-morrow. Later you will be summoned for rent.”
“I shall not move. I have made my plans for the season, and I remain here the whole summer.”
“I don’t know how that will be! After twelve noon there will be no fire, food, or attendance. Your luggage will be put outside the hall door.”
At this critical moment the tea was brought in by Pixie. On the tray was a large plate of tempting buttered toast.
“Please take it away. Mrs. Pechell does not require any tea.”
Jane’s tone was emphatic. Mrs. Pechell had a crumpled look, her face was blotched in red patches, and though she angrily protested, Pixie heartlessly bore away the tea.
“You may have an egg for supper and a cup of tea in the morning,” said the lawgiver. “After that you must make your own arrangements.”
Mrs. Pechell now burst into a torrent of emotional language: “So you intend to starve me!”
“No; it is you who are starving my friends, and I intend to protect them. I see you owe them seventy-two pounds. Here is their book,” producing the little volume with the shiny cover. “You have selfishly and shamelessly imposed on these inexperienced ladies. They should have given you notice months ago. Miss Jecks”—to Jecky, who sat still as if a graven image—“I’ll depend on you to see that Mrs. Pechell’s boxes are packed and ready by twelve o’clock to-morrow. Jebb will remove them.”
“But where am I to go?” demanded Mrs. Pechell. “I am not fit to move in my state of health.”
“Your health is excellent for your age.”
After a long silence, during which Mrs. Pechell’s breathing almost reached a snore:
“What do you want me to do?” she whimpered.
To write now a cheque for seventy-two pounds made out to Ann Courtenay, and then to set about preparations for immediate departure. I cannot imagine how you allowed yourself to suppose you could settle down here and exist gratis.”
“Here, Jecks, bring me my dispatch-box and pen,” said the defeated old woman. She looked over the book, grumbling and muttering all the time, “I’ve never had this, or that. What a swindle!” But in the end, thanks to the faithful memory of Jecky, she signed a cheque, which she flung at Jane, saying, “Perhaps now you will allow me to have my tea?”
“I’ll see—but don’t you think you had better come downstairs?”
“No!” and she stamped a bedroom slipper.
“Well, you are bound to come down to-morrow. I’ll call on Jebb and tell him to be here at twelve sharp,” and Jane departed with all the honours of war.
As she entered the “Glory Hole” waving a cheque the sisters, who had waited in quaking suspense, rose as one girl.
“Yes, here is your money, paid up till to-night, “and I’ve given the old lady a good fright.”
“A fright? Oh, impossible!” said Ann.
“Yes. I left her shaking like a jelly, I told her she would be turned out and summoned and that she must leave this place by noon to-morrow.”
“Oh, Jane! Where is she to go?” said Pixie.
“Anywhere—back to the Horn. She cannot remain here. You can fill her room at once after it has been, like its tenant, turned out.”
“You must have had a terrible scene?”
“Yes, we had. I feel quite limp. I’ve not had such a battle since we were obliged to eject a woman from the cottage hospital. Mrs. Pechell was purple in the face and sometimes incoherent. Mrs. Foss was present, and I think we have given her occasion ‘furiously to think.’ The story will be all over Forde to-morrow.”
At this moment Miss Jecks hurried in breathless.
“Oh, girls,” she gasped, “I’ve been so frightened. I never saw Mrs. P. worsted before. She is utterly broken down and crying. She wants her tea and some fresh buttered toast.”
“Which she won’t get,” said Jane relentlessly. “Miss Jecks, I’m afraid you will be killed with packing. I’ll send over my maid to help you.”
“Must we really go?” pleaded Jecky, with tears in her eyes. “I’ve been so happy here.”
“And so has Mrs. Pechell,” grimly assented Jane.
“And now she has paid,” urged Jecky, glancing appealingly at Pixie the tender-hearted.
“We shall be very sorry to lose you, Jecky.”
“Look here, girls,” said Jane, “I have wheeled the old lady into line. If I insist on her coming downstairs to meals and paying weekly—according to a signed agreement—what then?”
“We will think it over,” said Ann cautiously. “Anyway, she need not go to-morrow. Is she alone?”
“No; Mrs. Hunter is there, comforting her, stroking her hand, and offering sympathy.
At this moment Mrs. Pechell’s piercing falsetto called down from the first landing:
After a storm a calm. In a few days the atmosphere cleared, matters at The Shearings had subsided, chiefly thanks to Mr. Leslie, who acted as go-between, also to Jane, who had put the business on a sound, practical footing. She secured a strong and capable countrywoman named Regina as house-parlourmaid, had a brisk passage at arms with Barter of the false, jovial manner, Barter who must learn that he could not be permitted to plunder with impunity. Then, as to Mrs. Pechell, after an emotional interview with Ann, whose clemency was chiefly due to the intercession of Jecky, she received a reprieve, ceased to hibernate upstairs, and rejoined the circle in a subdued character.
She was conscious that the major and the curate no longer looked up to her with the respect that had been her portion. Alas! she had fallen from her Olympian estate. Their manner was cool and reserved. No doubt they had been informed of her delinquencies and debt, and she must exert herself to restore her impaired prestige. But Mrs. Hunter made ample amends for the men’s shortcomings; she had also the sympathy of Mrs. Foss (secretly disappointed at the tame conclusion of a promising scandal), and to the Courtenays she presented the attitude of a martyr to whom cruel injustice has been meted out and who was incurably hurt. However, she now settled weekly, and was, as Pixie whispered, “much tamer than formerly.”
Since the return of Jane, affairs in Forde had begun to move and her vigorous personality had again made itself felt.
Ann and Pixie were relieved of many domestic tasks, and the former once more resumed her work in the cottage hospital. Altogether the two down-trodden slaves (long accustomed to an old woman’s yoke) were lifting up their heads and living down the memory of a mercilessly cruel winter. Bills had been settled, tradespeople once more smiled upon them, the weather was warmer—it was now the end of April—and the garden was recalling attention to itself—a summons responded to by Pixie. Money was still “tight.” The girls lacked a good many personal necessities, such as shoes, dresses, hats, bicycles too—but that was only a dream of wild extravagance—also several articles for the house and garden, apart from housekeeping funds, wages, etc. Where was the money to come from? Then Pixie had a brilliant idea, which she instantly imparted to her sister.
“There’s Grandmamma’s silver!”
“Yes? It’s all in the powder closet off the big front room.”
“Let us sell some of it.”
This was an audacious suggestion. The Courtenay silver had always been held sacred and respected as a thing apart, even by squandering Grandmamma.
“I’m afraid we cannot do that.”
“Pray why not?”
“Heirlooms, my dear. Some of the pieces date from the time of James I and Charles I,” replied Ann.
“So much the better—it will fetch a lot. As for heirlooms, are we not the heirs, or heiresses? It’s all we have—the family plate—and we want so much, and there is money’s worth, hundreds of pounds, locked up in that old black box in the powder closet.”
Ann, who had more than her share of family pride, clung to the family silver as to the last straw. Her character was patrician to the finger-tips, and even when she cleaned boots and knives she felt that nothing could demean a woman whose ancestors had been prominent at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Pixie did not share her sister’s sentiments. She was hail fellow well met with all the world—her smiling eyes and curving lips brought her many friends.
For a long time the question of the plate was amicably debated, and Pixie’s eloquence waxed warm:
“After we die who is to get the plate? We are the last of the Osborne-Courtenays.”
“You may marry, Pixie.”
“Not I!” recalling a certain meeting in Clover Lane. “Why not—you——” She bit her lips on the edge of a pitfall, then continued hurriedly: “Let us even take a few spoons and forks of the Georgian silver, not any of the show pieces, and get enough money to give us a little start. We really must have new serge suits, decent Sunday hats, shoes and gloves. We look like a couple of scarecrows—and you know we had very little ‘mufti’ to start with.”
“Yes, that’s true. My V.A.D. cottons have come in useful.”
“Some glass is wanted since the boy’s smashes, and a wheelbarrow—I’m not going to borrow Barter’s again—and if we get a really good price, why not a bike between us—second-hand?”
“No, no, new; it is safer. These second-hand ones have tricks. But it would cost twenty pounds.”
“And if we are hard up we can sell it.”
“Oh, Pixie, how you run ahead!”
“There are the two-pronged forks—a dozen—uncomfortable to eat with, but, I fancy, valuable. Let us sell them.”
“Yes, but how?”
“Mr. Leslie is going to London on Wednesday to attend some big clerical meeting—he would manage it. He has done no end for us. Only for him, I don’t believe we’d ever have struggled through this awful winter.”
“Yes; he knew some of the secrets of the prison house and suspected others. He was simply dying to lend us money—it was in his eye and on his tongue—but he did not dare.”
“He would dare anything if you were to ask him,” boldly declared Pixie.
“Pixie! What on earth do you mean?”
“I mean that he likes you much the better of the two,” was the diplomatic reply. “I am too giddy. I’m not sure that he approves of me or my telling funny stories to the boys in my Bible class.”
“Rubbish! He would do it himself. He is all for interesting people and raising the tone of Forde. Look at his debates and meetings—secular and political; they have cleared the air, emptied the bars, and done no end of good.”
“Yes; he generally speaks well and keeps the peace as chairman. But to return to business. Supposing he took the forks. How can he dispose of them? He has no experience among pawnbrokers.”
“No. Mrs. Foss says he is quite well off, good private means, no belongings, and never, of course, was short of a sixpence. You ask him. You’ll find he will manage all right, and bring you a fat cheque.”
“Well, I’ll think it over.”
“No; you must act, and you and I will have a grand day’s shopping and go on a regular ‘bust.’”
“None of your buffet slang, Pixie! Go now upstairs and bring down the forks—only the forks, mind you. Here,” handing a bunch, “the key, a queer stumpy one, is on this—you can’t miss it.”
Pixie was off in a moment, but her return was surprisingly delayed.
At last she entered with a grave face, closed the door carefully, and said in a low voice:
“Ann, the forks are not in the box.”
“What! Why, I put them in myself, wrapped up in blue paper.”
“Neither blue paper nor forks are to be seen. I think other things are gone—there is a sort of hollow in the middle.”
This was more than enough for Ann, who rose from her chair and flew upstairs, followed by Pixie with the keys.
After a prolonged and anxious examination, Ann said: “Yes, the forks have been stolen, and an old Queen Anne sugar-bowl, and a little salver. Who?” turning to her sister.
“Impossible to say. There is Regina, the new-comer, but she can’t know much about anything such as old silver.”
“She has a baby out at nurse, so Jane said, otherwise she is most respectable—but——”
“But you think a girl who has a baby to provide for will take anything?”
“I never said so, but she is the only new-comer. The question is, what shall we do?”
“Continue what the thief has begun. Take out some of the silver—and sell it.”
“Really, Pixie, how can you! You have not a grain of sentiment.”
“No, and the forks would have been the thin end of the wedge. There are these rat-tailed spoons,” lifting up a parcel, “two dozen, two sauce boats, and a mustard pot. These we can sacrifice—it’s either them or us. I’ll clean them up and pack them to-night. As for the box, you and I will drag it away presently—it will be rather a big job—and I’ll go over to the rectory and ask Jane to take charge of it.”
“Shall you tell her?”
“Yes; it is always better to have no secrets from Jane. If she had known about Mrs. Pechell, think what a difference that would have made,” and Pixie glanced at her scarred hands.
“I believe you are right. The silver is not safe here. Ask Jebb to call for it. And I suppose we must—as you are so keen—sell some articles. It’s heart-breaking to begin to scatter what has been for generations in a family.”
“That is not my idea. I have, as you say, no sentiment, and to me it is ten times more heart-breaking to want a decent pair of shoes and to be so shabby that to maintain respect I can only venture out in the shades of night!”
“Well, now I have collected all the things, and so we will lock the box.”
“Shall I ask Ellen to lend a hand?”
“No; I think we can bump it down between us.”
The sound of the “bumping down” brought Mrs. Hunter on to the landing, where she paused for a moment with uplifted hands.
“What are you doing? Shall I help you?” she inquired.
“No, thanks; I think we can manage between us.”
“Dear me, what a funny old box! It looks as if it had come out of the Ark. What are you going to do with it?”
“I am not quite sure,” said Pixie. “Oh, here is Mr. Leslie—he is as strong as two—let him help us, Ann.”
“Hallo! What’s all this about?” he inquired. “Why did you not ask me to move this antique possession? It’s pretty heavy too,” taking hold as he spoke.
The noise and the talking brought Mrs. Pechell and Jecky out on the landing, and in the presence of a small crowd the Courtenay silver was manoeuvred downstairs, and subsequently removed to the rectory wine cellar.
The summer which had brought sun and flowers to Forde brought something else not altogether so welcome—in short, the amazing and unexpected return of Miss Jessie Fisher!
It will be necessary to turn a few pages and give a faithful sketch of her visit to India in order to explain this surprising situation.
The removal of Jessie to the East was a matter of sincere rejoicing in the Fisher family, where she was not beloved. She had an almost clairvoyant faculty of discovering one’s particular weak point—the little joint in the armour—and exposing it with the most ruthless cruelty. She made mischief and “repeated” things, and in all her life had never shown any kindness or affection to a living soul except herself.
Her father welcomed the prospect of the hundred a year paid for Jessie’s board being returned to the family purse; her dress allowance he must continue, but in future George would be bound to “keep” his youngest sister. Fisher père was grateful, as he expressed it, that “George had come forward,” and he felt that it was his duty to emulate his son. Accordingly, he paid for Jessie’s passage and gave a handsome cheque towards her outfit, for, as his wife declared, “the girl wanted a lot of dressing, and if she was smartly turned out, in really good clothes, the chances were that she might ‘go off.’” Her aunts and sisters also “came forward.” They were delighted to assist in speeding a relation whose uncertain future and uncertain temper had always been a difficulty.
Therefore, behold Jessie, with a nice collection of useful frocks, smart hats, shoes and other requisites, voyaging out to Calcutta with hope in her heart.
The trip proved to be unexpectedly dull. Her father had secured her passage in a cheap line; the greater part of her companions were missionaries, and one and all were married.
The station at which Jessie arrived offered yet another bitter disappointment. It was a small, out-of-the-way, sun-dried cantonment, almost as dull as Forde. Her brother, whom she resembled in appearance, received her with a warm welcome, and drove her home in his office gharry—as yet there was not a motor-car in the place. George’s bungalow, approached by an avenue of cork trees, was large, rambling, and considerably dilapidated. In the porch a number of poultry roosted; the veranda, usually such a gay feature in India, was empty save for one long cane chair and some pots of dead geraniums; but, after Jessie had rested, she and George walked round together, inspected the house and compound, and considered their possibilities.
“I intend to collect some furniture, after I’ve got rid of the white ants,” he explained, “but I thought I’d wait until you came out, and you’ll make it all right. We must give a few dinners; I owe no end.”
“Are there many people in the place?” she inquired.
“No. There’s the doctor—he has a dark wife—that’s to say she’s Eurasian; the police officer, and his wife—I can’t say I fancy her; there’s Burns, a fellow who has a sort of factory, with a wife and two dressy daughters; I’ve a couple of young assistants—mere boys; and there’s Mr. Tregarth, the collector. He’s not here much, but he’s our big man, our boss, and a bachelor.”
Swiftly casting her mind over her brother’s description, Jessie decided that this “boss” would probably be her fate. Apparently it lay between him and one of the young men whom George had alluded to as “boys.”
Jessie Fisher, when her own interests were in question, was a capable young woman, and had at last found a field for her atrophied energies. In an astonishingly short time she had got rid of the live poultry and dead geraniums, had set her house in order, and made the acquaintance of the whole station. The doctor’s handsome, indolent wife, cunning in all manner of housekeeping and artful in dealing with native servants and the bazaar, gave her many valuable tips, including a sure process for eliminating the white ants, which were eating away the old bungalow. Being the senior lady in the station, she took the new-comer under her ample wing, and Jessie, for her part, laid herself out to be effusively agreeable and to make friends. She lent patterns of her new gowns to the police officer’s wife; to the Burns girls of the factory she offered the latest cheap novels and fashion books. Yet, on the whole, the station was rather disappointed in the new “spin.” From the photograph they had seen, they were unprepared for her large nose and prominent teeth; however, she was uncommonly good-natured and was doing wonders with the bungalow. Her brother picked up some second-hand furniture, including a fairly well preserved Schiedmayer piano, and the dinners to which he had alluded began to take place, and soon acquired a reputation. At one of these the collector made his appearance. He was a handsome, loose-limbed, dreamy sort of individual, with dark blue eyes and coal-black hair.
He came from Cornwall, and was said to “write things” and to have the artistic temperament. At any rate, he had a nice tenor, and when he and Miss Fisher sang duets the audience were enraptured.
“Her voice will do it!” said the doctor to his wife. “Your fiddle-headed friend will sing herself into Tregarth’s affections—and he’ll marry her as sure as my name is Thomas.”
It was a fact that the collector frequently strolled over to the Fishers’ bungalow after dinner;—indeed, he often dined with them—and he and Jessie would make music by the hour. Never had he heard a voice whose notes stirred him so profoundly; he loved this heavenly organ, but he did not love Jessie Fisher. And yet at times his attentions were marked. He ordered new songs for her from England or Bombay, he brought her rare plants and books of poetry, for which she assumed a spurious admiration. Then he went away into the district, and, alas! when he returned, the whole weary affair had to be begun all over again! Now that Jessie had more money and liberty, her appearance was agreeably improved. She studied the best style in which to do her hair, the most becoming colours, and, with the prospect of Tregarth’s society, ordered an expensive evening frock from Mrs. Phelps in Calcutta. There was tennis, and singing, and sittings out in the moonlight, and then Tregarth departed to the hills once more without a sign.
Jessie and her brother also took a trip to evade the hot weather, but their resort was in every respect on a lower plane. However, here Miss Fisher entered upon a new world. Her gift secured her a certain amount of celebrity and importance—her glorious voice brought her into the middle of the picture. She was in great demand for concerts and musical comedies. Oh, if her aunts could have seen her in these latter, grease-painted and figuring about in scanty skirts! She had improved in tennis, acquired a certain amount of glib repartee, and become in a surprisingly short time a bold and accomplished flirt. However, at the end of her brother’s sixty days’ leave she found that as far as her matrimonial hopes were concerned there was “nothing doing,” and returned to the station, almost simultaneously with the collector, fully determined to make a last desperate effort for his capture.
By a surprising piece of luck she caught Tregarth at a rebound. In the hills a very pretty girl had encouraged and led him on, exhibited her capture before all her friends, and then turned him down. Naturally, the poor victim was feeling both angry and sore—and Jessie realized that he had received some painful set-back or disappointment. Yes, undoubtedly Tregarth had many wounds to lick; her task it should be to heal them, and she quickened her efforts. As Tregarth sat in the dusk in the Fishers’ drawing-room, listening to her delicious soprano with its fervent, highly vitalized expression, he felt irresistibly drawn towards her, and suddenly made up his mind to secure this pleasure for a permanence. Acting on the impulse of the moment, as soon as the last inspiring note had ceased, he went straight across the room and asked Jessie to become his wife. Here was a great piece of news for the station—and oh! what a triumph for this plain, unattractive “spin,” who was not in the least in love with Tregarth, only with his pay, position and pension.
“It must have been all flattery,” declared one of the Burns girls. “Of course, she laid it on pretty thick—and he’s very vain.”
“There may have been a little of that,” assented her sister, “but what carried the day was her voice. I always knew he was in love with that.”
Arrangements for a speedy wedding were soon set on foot. The collector ordered extra furniture for his bungalow, also a motor-car and a new piano. Then George Fisher drew a big prize in a racing lottery. It was for a large sum of money, and he was so elated that in a sudden burst of generosity he gave his sister a cheque to enable her to run home for a month, buy herself a trousseau, see her people (and Tregarth’s). This was all settled up, as so frequently happens in India, in a couple of days.
Naturally, Jessie was received with rapture by the relations, but the welcome accorded her in Cornwall was not quite so enthusiastic. Tregarth’s mother and sisters proved stiff and critical—they privately lamented their brother’s choice. On the strength of making such a fine match and becoming an Indian “Burra Mem,” Miss Fisher gave herself overpowering airs. She patronized her married sisters, she bullied her aunts, and at the end of a month started for Calcutta with a certain number of substantial wedding presents and a smart trousseau. George’s liberal cheque had run to a return passage in a P. & O., which happened to be a very full boat bound for Australia. Miss Fisher’s voice made her immediately prominent among the passengers, and her love of attention and excitement caused her to forget for the time being her fiancé. A big, good-looking Australian paid her immense attention. Her vanity was aflame. How handsome he was! What thick, long lashes, sleepy blue eyes, and the clean-cut profile of an Apollo! Before they had reached Malta he had asked her to marry him/ She, of course, informed him of her engagement, but the announcement sat very lightly upon her companion, who calmly said:
“Oh, throw him over! You’ll have a far better time with me. Instead of stuffing on the hot plains of India in dull little out-of-the-way stations, I can give you a fine house and establishment near Melbourne, and your voice will make Melba look to her laurels!”
The attractive Australian continued his ardent attentions, and was so experienced and insinuating in his love-making (and Tregarth had been but a poor, timid lover), that before they had reached Aden the faithless Jessie had decided to cast in her lot with her new acquaintance.
“Tregarth will get over it,” she said to herself. “He never was really in love with me—nor I with him. It was just our duets that brought us together. With Anthony Wilde it’s different—I do really adore him. He tells me he has five thousand a year and one of the largest houses in Toorak—the big Melbourne suburb.”
Jessie had found a sympathetic confidante in Miss White, who shared her cabin, and who, like herself, was going to India to be married. To her she confided her history and prospects—being naturally boastful and garrulous—almost before they were out of the Channel. But by the time they reached Gibraltar the confidante saw how the wind was setting, and admonished and remonstrated with Jessie. It was not only that the big Australian was always hanging over Miss Fisher at the piano, that his chair was placed beside hers on deck, and the same rug covered their knees, but they occasionally climbed up and sat in the boats (far from the madding crowd), and were almost the last to descend to their cabins.
It was arranged that Wilde and Jessie were to be married at Colombo, spend the honeymoon in Kandy, join the next steamer (due in a fortnight), and continue their voyage to Australia.
Arrived at Colombo, she and her cabin companion, having collected their belongings, took leave of their acquaintances and prepared to depart. Jessie looked round among the passengers, but could not see a sign of her future bridegroom, who no doubt had gone on ahead to make the necessary arrangements. On inquiring from his cabin steward, she was informed that “Mr. Wilde had gone ashore a couple of hours previously, and immediately after they had finished coaling they were off.” Accordingly, Miss Fisher and Miss White landed, and drove to the Galle Face Hotel, from where Wilde had arranged they were to be married as soon as he had fixed up matters. But even here there was no trace of him. Jessie noticed that her companion looked nervous and uneasy, but never for a moment dreamed that this was connected with her affairs. For fully half an hour the bride-elect waited; no doubt Anthony was interviewing the chaplain and purchasing the ring. She made up her mind to be married in a very pretty grey muslin, one of her trousseau frocks, and she knew where she could put her hand upon it without much trouble.
The gong now boomed for tiffin, and she bethought herself of going into the hall and asking the porter if a Mr. Wilde had registered for rooms.
“No, Madame,” he replied. “He came here early this morning and left a note to be delivered to a lady. Is your name Fisher?”
“Yes,” she answered, and seized upon it eagerly.
Then she hurried into the lounge, tore it open, and read:
“My dear Jessie,—I know you will hate me for what I am going to write, but I find that our plan would not work. You have given me a delightful time, and I shall never forget your voice. I think you too enjoyed our acquaintance, which, if it exceeded the conventional board-ship friendship, you must forgive me, for you have another string to your bow, and can now re-embark and make happy your expectant Indian civilian.”
For a moment Jessie closed her eyes and sat as if stunned. Her head was whirling.
“What has happened?” inquired her companion.
For all answer this shameless, cruel letter was thrust into her hand.
“Oh, how abominable—how wicked!” exclaimed Miss White. “But I had a hint of this this morning, and I did not know whether to break it to you or not.”
“Hint—what hint?” she asked hysterically.
“One of the ship’s officers told me that Wilde is a well-known character—his board-ship love affairs are notorious. It seems that when he heard that you were engaged to some man in India, he made a bet that you would be engaged to him before you reached Colombo. He has won his bet, and will go on in the ship as if nothing had happened—and treat the whole affair as a joke.”
“A joke!” broke in Jessie, whose face was so white it looked like a mask. “But what is to become of me?”
“Why, you’ll proceed to India and marry Mr. Tregarth. He will never know about this affair—ignorance is bliss—all will be precisely as before.”
“No,” broke in Jessie breathlessly. “What do you think I did? I wired him from Aden: ‘Cannot marry you. Am engaged to Mr. Wilde, an Australian. Forgive me. —Jessie.’ So you see that door is closed— and now I don’t know what to do or where to turn!”
“The first thing for you to do is to have some tiffin,” suggested her sensible friend.
“I could not touch a morsel!”
“You can—and you must. Try and pull yourself together. Don’t give way. Send Mr. Tregarth another wire, and tell him that the one from Aden was a joke.”
“He would not believe that. No; I’ve lost him!”
“See, there is a liner going out,” said a voice, and looking towards the harbour, her two late passengers saw the stately Cymric gliding from the harbour. The sight proved too much for Jessie Fisher, who now broke down completely and had to be conducted to her room, where she lay collapsed on her bed, her mind in a fog of misery, soothed and tended by her kind-hearted shipmate.
Jessie found a cool reception awaiting her at Chutterbuldy. Her brother was furious and the station sternly indignant.
“And where,” everyone asked, “was the Australian lover?” Echo answered “Where?”
Mr. Tregarth had contrived a prompt exchange and left Chutterbuldy for good. Nor was this the only news. Her brother George was engaged to be married to one of the factory girls! As there was no room for a third in their ménage, in a surprisingly short time Miss Fisher once more found herself on the high seas bound for her former home, where she received a reception so chilly that it put that of Chutterbuldy entirely in the shade. At Forde it was agreed on all hands that Jessie Fisher merited her downfall, and had no one to thank but herself. After enjoying every opportunity and advantage, after having been twice out to India, behold her once more returned like the traditional “bad penny.”
Mrs. Pringle, politely firm, declined to receive her; overtures to The Shearings had no better result, though Jessie urged her case with eloquence and protestations, but Ann was inflexible and refused with chill civility to suffer her to inflict herself upon the household.
Deeply astonished and affronted, Jessie was compelled to return to London, where she subsequently established herself as the plague of a long-suffering boarding-house in Bloomsbury.
Although they now kept two servants and had no fires to stoke, no trays to carry, Ann and Pixie found ample occupation for their never-idle hands. They were sitting in the den one afternoon, Ann shelling peas, Pixie polishing a tea-pot, when the door burst open, and Mrs. Pechell, livid and trembling, reeled into the room, evidently about to have some sort of seizure. The first thing she did was to stagger to a chair, the next to gasp out the word “Brandy!”
“I’m awfully sorry, but we have none in the house,” said Ann. “Ellen will run over to the Horn.”
“No, no, never mind that,” interposed Jecky, who had hurried in looking unusually pink and excited; “she has three bottles in her wardrobe. Here are the keys,” seizing the old lady’s handbag. “I’ll be back in half a sec.”
As soon as Mrs. Pechell had been somewhat restored she gasped out:
“Your diamonds,” repeated Ann, who was not aware that the old lady had possessed any.
“They are gone—stolen! Oh, good heavens! To think of it! I was getting them out for Mrs. Foss to see—an old promise; I never wear them, and I’ve not looked at them for months. All the cases are empty; and the Pechell family diamonds are valued at three thousand pounds!”
Here Mrs. Pechell paused, unable to articulate another syllable.
At this moment the door again opened, and Mr. Leslie looked in.
“What about choir practice?” he inquired, then came to a full stop on beholding the faces of his housemates. “Is anything the matter?”
“Yes,” replied Ann. “Mrs. Pechell has just come to tell us that her diamonds are missing.”
“Stolen,” she corrected. “Someone has false keys. I’ve long suspected a thief. Little things are snapped up, such as buttonhooks and scissors—but family diamonds!” As she threw up her hands her expression was tragic.
“Do tell me, what shall I do?” she asked, looking round helplessly.
“Keep your loss within these four walls,” advised Mr. Leslie, “otherwise we shall never catch the thief.”
“Keep such a loss to myself!” repeated the old lady in a high, querulous key. “Impossible —impossible! After all, I am only flesh and blood, and I know that I should bring it all out at dinner.”
“Then in that case you had better dine in your own room,” said Mr. Leslie, “for under the circumstances silence is golden. I’ll go out now and telephone to Scotland Yard, and ask them to send down a smart officer early to-morrow morning.”
“Ah, that’s a capital idea.”
“No use in calling our local policeman—anyway, just yet. This is not his sort of job.”
“No, indeed!” assented Mrs. Pechell. “I dropped my gold glasses in the street, and never got them, though I offered a reward of half a crown.”
“How long is it since you saw the diamonds?” inquired the curate.
“About six months, and I have a very secure case, with a Chubb’s key, but the case has been cut open at the back.”
“I see—the thief was evidently an old hand. There is no time to lose—I’ll be off now. The great thing is to keep the affair a dead secret and behave as if nothing had happened.”
“Then I’ll dine upstairs,” declared Mrs. Pechell. “There’s nothing else for it. I know I could not help talking of my shocking loss,” and she began to cry.
At dinner the Courtenays and Mr. Leslie were unusually silent—they felt like a trio of conspirators—and gave rather random answers to Major Kane’s persistent questions. Later the curate had confided to his confederates that an officer from Scotland Yard would arrive by eleven o’clock the next morning, and punctually at that hour a smart, clean-shaven, well-dressed man with a somewhat hard expression rapped on The Shearings old brass knocker and asked to see Miss Courtenay. Subsequently he had an interview with Mrs. Pechell, and submitted her to such a searching examination that it left her both flustered and flushed. After this achievement he expressed a desire to meet the rest of the household, and saw Mr. Leslie, Ellen, Regina, Jecky, and Major Kane, who was about to go golfing. Mrs. Hunter happened to be in the garden picking plums. As she entered the hall with a well filled basket she encountered the officer face to face, and would have walked past him (having, as her associates said, “a great nerve”).
“By Jove, this is luck, Mrs. Wyley!” he said, blocking the way. “This is a piece of luck.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she answered, depositing her basket on the hall table and surveying him with a glare of defiance. No one could say now that her eyes lacked expression.
“I mean that I am here to find Mrs. Pechell’s diamonds, which have disappeared—or, in other words, been stolen. This,” turning to the Courtenays and a little crowd, “is a notoriously successful hotel thief, and extraordinarily clever. She has made away with a vast amount of jewellery, which has never been traced, and has done time.” Ann and Pixie exchanged glances, and the detective continued: “No doubt you have all heard of the great Morton case. Well, your paying guest was in that,” he concluded impressively.
Mrs. Hunter now took a seat on a hall chair, philosophically recognizing that “the game was up.”
“She put in two years in Pentonville,” resumed Mr. Steele, “and came out last September; then she vanished, and we could not imagine where she had got to. Although we had nothing against her at the moment, it is our business to keep our eye on such a professional as Mrs. Wyley. I see she has run to earth here—a nice retired establishment, where she has had time to lie low and let her hair grow, and no questions asked.”
“But Mrs. Hunter had a good reference,” put in Pixie.
“Did you happen to see the reference, Miss?”
“No; but she was a lady of rank.”
“More likely a crook! What’s a forged letter to the likes of Lizzie Wyley! She has been educated, is very neat-fingered, and her usual lay is that of a lady’s maid. Now,” suddenly turning to her, “please take off your hat.” With the deepest reluctance the culprit removed her garden mushroom.
“Go on!” he commanded. “Now for the wig.”
In obedience to his request she raised the wig, and revealed a head of thick, close-cut, black hair which entirely altered her appearance. She looked years younger.
“You can stick to the hump,” said Mr. Steele, with the air of making a great concession. “Your make-up was not half bad, but there is no mistaking your identity.”
“You cannot prove that I took the diamonds,” she burst out.
“I expect I can prove a good deal after we have searched your boxes.”
Then he went to the hall door and whistled, and another officer, who had been lying perdu in the taxi, now came in, and was presently ushered upstairs by Ellen—who had always had her doubts of the woman in the wig.
Meanwhile Mrs. Wyley was removed to the dining-room while her boxes were being turned out. These boxes contained false keys and an immense correspondence in cipher and otherwise, various trifles which had long been missing—for instance, Major Kane’s fountain pen, Ann’s pet scissors, several silver thimbles, an ermine stole and muff (owner unknown), a pair of Mrs. Pechell’s earrings (fine brilliants, which she had evidently reserved for herself), and also a Queen Anne sugar-bowl (no doubt annexed as a souvenir of the Courtenays). Here was ample proof of Mrs. Wyley’s guilt and her activities during the last seven months.
“You can take a small bag, and pack it now,” said Mr. Steele, addressing her, after some of her loot had been exposed upon the dining-room table. “We will catch the one o’clock up train. I have kept the taxi.”
Under the stern eye of Ellen, Mrs. Hunter put a few things together, including the tortoise-shell toilet set, and came downstairs minus her wig and closely veiled.
The whole household at The Shearings were bewildered and upset by such an unexpected and disturbing event. The Courtenays did not reappear; only Mr. Leslie and Major Kane were in attendance in the hall when the lady thief passed through to the taxi, which was surrounded by a small crowd. The news had spread like wildfire up and down the street that two officers from Scotland Yard had come to arrest one of the Misses Courtenay’s paying guests—and, oh, what a story for the village and neighbourhood! It was said that she was a well known thief, and had spent years in gaol. One or two, anxious to colour the picture, hinted that she had been implicated in a murder—a nice specimen to bring into Forde! And so Mrs. Hunter was driven away from The Shearings escorted by two police officers, and, soothing her feelings with a cigarette, was never again seen by any of her former associates. She who had breakfasted in The Shearings would have dinner in Pentonville.
On the present occasion her term was for eighteen months, and most of Mrs. Pechell’s diamonds—thanks to the activities of an insurance company—were recovered.
After such an “exposure,” as Mrs. Foss termed it, the House of Rest lay under a cloud, which the girls’ friends did their utmost to disperse.
Lady Harry called twice, left her chair outside for a long time to advertise her visit, invited them to tea, and was markedly gracious and agreeable; and Mr. Leslie secured a nice, respectable old professor, who stepped into the shoes of the notorious Mrs. Hunter.
A few sharp speeches, innuendoes and pin-pricks were the lot of Ann and Pixie. Among the latter a letter from Jessie Fisher may be included. It said:
“Dear Ann,—I have heard of the really awful scandal at The Shearings; it was in the local paper which Mrs. Foss posted to me. How more than thankful I am that I was not one of your P.G.’s! I was telling the story of your having a convicted thief among your guests, and all the people here said that if such a thing had occurred in this hotel they would walk out in a body. I suppose some of yours still hang on—and, of course, the Rev. E. Leslie will stick like a burr!—Yours truly, Jessie Fisher.”
It had been regretfully observed that the rector of Forde was failing fast; he took less and less part in the services and had long ceased to preach. The warm weather tried him severely, and each Sunday he seemed to look whiter and more fragile. Mr. Leslie, too, in spite of his youth and vitality, had begun to show marks of wear and tear. He laboured without ceasing, held classes, ran social evenings, invaded the bars, played cricket, camped with the boy scouts, made friends with the farm hands, and more or less encroached on Jane’s borders. Nevertheless, they continued to be the best of friends. Jane liked Edgar Leslie, who, in spite of his smooth face and fair complexion (he had a square jaw), she knew to be a resolute character and real live man. In constant good works the two pulled together like two thoroughbred horses, and as he remarked, “He took on the men and boys—the womenkind were her show.”
He was an athlete, a keen cricketer, and had been in his time in his college eleven, where he was known as a remarkably fast bowler. His well-knit figure looked active and graceful in immaculate white flannels. He awakened the dormant cricketers of Forde, bought nets and bats, and started practice, coached the young men, who soon caught fire from his enthusiasm, and in a surprisingly short time the Forde eleven became a most promising team, which included a fine natural bowler. Forde played two neighbouring parishes, and gave each a handsome beating, much to their astonishment, for hitherto Forde, run by an apathetic old man, had been notoriously sluggish as regards outdoor sports.
Supper was over—it was a warm, sultry evening in August—and Mr. Leslie, who had had a heavy day and felt completely fagged out, strolled into the garden to escape the fumes of rank tobacco and to get a breath of air. He sauntered along for some time in what he believed to be solitude, and then came in view of a white skirt half hidden behind some bushes. It was Ann, sitting on a reversed potato basket, cutting great bunches of lavender. He halted and remarked:
“Not very busy. It was too hot to come out in the middle of the day, and I am making bags of lavender for the Cooksons’ bazaar.”
“What a nice clean smell it has,” he remarked, “a sort of old-fashioned Puritan perfume. Hallo, someone is playing in the next house.”
“Yes; the Gartons have a friend with them who is a first-rate pianist. How I wish we had some sort of piano, for music is Pixie’s special gift. She has a delightful touch, and made such surprising progress that our music master suggested she should become a professional. But the mere idea gave Grannie fits, and she never would allow Pixie to practise—she could only do it by stealth when Grannie was out.”
“Ah, there’s the ‘Moonlight Sonata,’” exclaimed Leslie. “How appropriate to this lovely night.”
“Yes, but what a scorching day; even in the house we felt broiled.” Then suddenly looking up into his worn, haggard face, she added, “I see you are tired—dead beat?”
“I am just a bit played out. I took a long round, and my bicycle was irritable; it had two punctures, and on a blazing hot day on a road without shelter mending a puncture is no joy.”
“I can well believe that, but you do too much. You burn the candle at both ends, what with preaching, and the services, and parish business.”
“It’s not the preaching, or the services, or the parish business that tire me,” he interrupted. “You’ll laugh when I tell you it’s the visiting!”
“Not really! I should have thought that was a sort of rest, a dissipation!”
“No, just the other way on—after seven or eight parochial calls, I feel done. You see, there is the meeting with various personalities, each with a different interest, into which you must endeavour to throw yourself heart and soul; then there is conversation in the family circle, when I sit and dredge my mind for ideas.”
“I suppose you are often asked for advice—religious advice?”
“Yes; unworthy as I am to offer it. Some come to tell me that their faith is tottering—they seem to have lost their way—the war has affected them most painfully.”
“Yes, I know,” she assented. “What do you do?”
“It’s no good to argue or preach. I just offer them sympathy, implore them to have patience, and light will come. Then there are worldly matters. I am invited to listen to complaints and to patch up family and matrimonial quarrels, to read and witness wills, help one to a situation, prevent another from enlisting, and, above all, to take a hand in love affairs. I hope you won’t think I dislike visiting,” he went on. “It would be all right if it were two or three calls at a time, but this is a large parish, and I don’t leave anyone out if I can help it.”
“I know you have your hands full,” said Ann, “and I must say I cannot see you interfering in a love affair or taking the smallest interest in les affaires de coeur.”
“Can’t you?” and a faint colour invaded his white face. “All the same, I’m remarkably successful in that line—it’s my strong suit. I helped on the Martin match.”
“No! You do amaze me. At one time it looked hopeless. How did you manage?”
“I talked over the old man and put plain facts before him, and then I interviewed the girl.”
“How I wish I could have heard you!” and Ann’s face broke into smiles.
“I am glad you did not, for no doubt I talked a lot of rubbish—Martin is a very decent fellow.”
“That is to say, a capital cricketer!”
“Yes, and the other thing too. I married him to Rosie Holt with the greatest satisfaction.”
“And we had been told that he drank!”
“Many libels run about the street. Old Farmer Hutton has his knife into Martin; he wanted to marry Rosie himself—he is rich and influential.”
“And sixty—and a slanderer!” supplemented Ann.
“Well, he is wealthy and spiteful, at any rate, and Martin is as sober as I am.”
“I see your sympathies are with the lovers!”
“Why not? I was not going to stand by and see Rosie Holt, one of my parishioners, sell herself for a motor and a fur coat.”
“Oh, Mr. Leslie,” exclaimed Ann, “what a way to put it!”
“Well, perhaps I’ve expressed myself rather strongly, but you know what I mean.”
She nodded assent as she turned to face him with her huge bunch of lavender.
“You and I generally do understand one another, don’t we?” His eyes expressed significance, and Ann found herself blushing. Dared he say more? The vicinity of the girl he loved, the spell of the moonlight, and the soft strains of Gounod’s “Si vous n’avez rien à me dire” which came floating over from the next garden, all these combined, urged him to speak, to put his fate to the test. Never again would he have such a splendid opportunity, for it was almost impossible to find Ann alone. He had been in love with her for many months, and the more he saw of her the more he loved her. But with regard to Ann’s feelings for himself he was entirely in the dark. If he spoke he would be taking a fearful leap in the dark.
As he stood making up his mind, with his eyes fixed on the ground, he became aware of the approaching pattering of running footsteps. In another moment Jecky appeared, calling out:
“Oh, Mr. Leslie, you are wanted by a man in a desperate hurry. It’s got something to do with a marriage licence. He says he hasn’t a minute to spare, as he has to catch his train.”
In another moment Mr. Leslie was hurrying up the garden, leaving Jecky and Ann tête-à-tête.
“It’s funny,” said Jecky, “that Mr. Leslie, who is so mixed up with weddings and banns, has never thought of getting married himself. Mrs. Foss says he ought to marry, and that perhaps there will be a match between him and Jane Jessop.”
Ann burst into a hearty and enjoyable laugh.
“Yes, I laughed too.” Then Jecky broke off a sprig of lavender and held it meditatively to her nose, gave two or three sniffs, and announced: “Ann, if Mr. Leslie ever marries anyone, it will be you!”
“Oh, Jecky—what will you say next?”
“I say that you are a lucky girl, and that he has been in love with you for months!
This was the first time the idea had been introduced to Ann; her mind had been too full of other things to think of love. She knew instinctively that Mr. Leslie liked her, and that he was always trying to help in an unobtrusive fashion, but Jecky had opened her eyes—she experienced a queer, unexpected sensation of exaltation—for the second time that evening she felt the blood racing up to her cheeks as she buried her face in the great bunch of lavender and followed her companion indoors.
“Miss Ann, there is a lady below asking for you,” said Ellen, putting her head into Ann’s room, where she was engaged in turning a dress.
“I don’t know. She gave no name, but she had yours pat.”
“Where is she?”
“In the dining-room.”
“Because she smelt so strong of spirits, I thought she was a dining-room lady.”
“I suppose I had better go and see what she wants,” and Ann shook some threads off her skirt and ran downstairs.
She found the visitor seated, with her back to the light, in a high-backed chair. She looked about forty-five, had a pale, wax-like face, and a pair of blinking eyes, was neatly dressed in a black coat and skirt, and wore a small, close-fitting toque. She made no efforts to rise as Ann entered and asked:
“You wish to see me?”
“Yes—I am Mrs. Kane!”
“Are you Major Kane’s wife?”
“What else?” she demanded truculently. “Do I look like his mother?”
“Of course not—but we never knew he was married.”
“No; he is hiding from me, the mean sneak—we have been married these twenty years!”
“Really,” said Ann, who was trying to realize Major Kane as a Benedict.
“Yes. We have had our tiffs, of course, and now and then I lose him, but I am always ready to kiss and make friends.”
Mrs. Kane wore no gloves, and Ann could not help noticing how her hands were trembling.
“This time be has done himself extra well—same house as two pretty girls, near golf links, and in tip-top society.”
“I think that’s the major now,” said Ann. “I’ll bring him in.”
Going into the hall, she met Pixie and Ellen, who were evidently conferring together in a state of suppressed excitement.
“Oh, Ann,” said her sister breathlessly, “Ellen has been telling me that this person has been over at the Horn drinking raw whiskey, and making such a row that they turned her out!”
To this information Ann made no reply, but re-entered the dining-room, where she found Mrs. Kane, on her knees, struggling to open the lock of the sideboard. With Ann’s assistance she struggled to her feet, entirely unabashed, and proved to be a tall, thin woman of uncertain equilibrium. Once more the hall door banged, and this time, when Ann went forth, she found Major Kane, looking unusually ruddy and cheerful after his round of golf.
“Someone has called for you,” she announced gravely.
“For me—oh, yes—the fellow about my boots.”
“No, it’s a lady—who says she is Mrs. Kane.”
“My God!” he exclaimed, staggering against the wall. His ruddy colour had faded; in a moment he seemed to have aged by ten years.
“She says she is your wife,” pursued Ann.
“Yes, in name; but we are legally separated. That woman has ruined my life. Was she sober?”
“I really don’t know. Had you not better go and see her?”
At this moment the dining-room again opened, and Mrs. Kane was upon them.
“Oh, you scoundrel!” she screamed, “carrying on here with this good-looking minx. So I’ve found you! And a nice lot of trouble I’ve had.”
“That will do, Emma. Come in here,” said Major Kane, taking her firmly by the arm and leading her back into the dining-room. Subsequently the commotion and uproar within those respectable walls could almost be heard in the street. It sounded precisely as if Mrs. Kane were throwing chairs at her husband, or as if he were dragging her about by her hair—certainly her screams would have justified this supposition. After a time, by Ann’s request, Mr. Leslie entered, hoping to pour oil upon the troubled waters. Presently the noise moderated. Mr. Leslie had an air of natural authority, and bad evidently effected a truce. More than this, he had actually persuaded Mrs. Kane to remove herself. Here was a triumph! What had he promised her? Whilst he ran over to the garage to order a taxi, she followed him into the street, looking wildly about her. All at once she descried a heap of bricks—part and parcel of some building operations. Before anyone could interfere, she pounced upon half a dozen of these, with which she proceeded to shatter the lower windows of The Shearings—one she flung through the open door, and this narrowly missed the head of Pixie. Here was really a case for Forde’s one policeman, for the damage was considerable—Mrs. Kane might be drunk, but she was not incapable. Just at this crisis the taxi rolled up. Into this her husband and Mr. Leslie handed her, in spite of her violent struggles, and, accompanied by the two men, Mrs. Kane was conveyed away, her unrestrained shrieks bringing half the village to their doors. Major Kane, in some mysterious way, disposed of his wife in London, and he and Mr. Leslie did not return until a late hour that night. As the two tramped the three miles from the station in the dark, no conveyance being available, he said:
“Leslie, I’ll never forget what you have done for me to-day. You have seen and faced my skeleton—to-morrow she goes to a home; my solicitors will arrange all that. Of course, I shall leave The Shearings. I am most awfully sorry to have had this infernal scene under Miss Courtenay’s roof. I have been happier there than for years; it has been a veritable House of Rest for me. You shall hear my story,” he continued, “and then you can tell as much as you like to the girls.”
“All right,” assented his companion, “go ahead.”
“I married in India, after a very short acquaintance, but Emma’s people, with whom she was on a visit, were going home, and the wedding was a hurried one—I understood why later. My wife was handsome and attractive, I was fairly rich and in a crack regiment, and on the whole it was considered a very suitable match. We went to the hills, and soon the honeymoon waned, and Emma began to carry on with boys. A friend had warned me before I married and urged me to break it off.
“‘Better,’ he said, ‘a breach of promise case than to marry Emma Flood and be sorry all your life.’
“I soon discovered that my wife was a confirmed dipsomaniac—she had controlled herself during our engagement, her brother and his wife had shielded her in every way, her family being exceedingly anxious to get her married—and now that she was firmly established as Mrs. Kane she, so to speak, let herself go. She disgraced me by being intoxicated at race meetings and balls, and on more than one occasion she was carried out insensible. Then I got a hint to go—to leave the regiment I had joined as a boy and looked on as my home. It nearly broke my heart, but I could see that I had no alternative, so I exchanged and went home, pinning my hopes on doctors, hypnotism, and the climate. But it was all useless; she became worse than ever, so I sent in my papers, and got a legal separation. I could have got a divorce, but I shied at the exposure, and her family, who I consider had treated me abominably, were frantic at the idea; they were all for ‘hushing things up.’ Over and over, Emma has tracked me, and I have threatened to stop her allowance. This time I believed I was safe, Forde being so quiet and out of the world, and the House of Rest attracted me. I believe I’ll go off to Australia for a bit, but I shall often be here in the spirit—on the links or in The Shearings. And those two girls—where can you match them for sense, spirit, and looks? Of course, they will marry some day, the house will be let, and you, my boy, will have to find other quarters.”
“I suppose so,” assented Leslie.
“Why don’t you marry one of them yourself?”
“I am afraid there will be two words to that!”
“And the two words would be’ Yes—yes.’ If you bring it off you will be a lucky fellow. You know the girl, from living in the same house for a year; not like me, who plunged into matrimony blindfold. And here we are,” looking up at The Shearings as he spoke. “I see they have all gone to bed. You’ve got a latch-key?”
“Yes,” assented Leslie. “Kane, I’d like you to know I’m most awfully sorry for you! This dipsomania is a disease—I’ve seen something of it in my parochial work, and know, how rough it is on a man with a tainted wife. I’ll tell the girls as little as possible—I know they will be sorry for you, and I am sure they won’t want you to leave.”
“Oh, but I must!” said Major Kane emphatically. “Think of the talk and gossip. It would really be too hard on The Shearings.”
After much anxious searching of pockets, Mr. Leslie had at last found the latchkey, and in another moment the two figures had disappeared, swallowed up in the dim interior of The Shearings.
Mrs. Kane’s visit was hushed up, as far as it was possible to hush up anything in Forde. It was said that a relation of Major Kane’s (a lunatic) had made a disturbance and broken windows, and that the Courtenays had given him notice to leave, but few knew the truth. These few included Lady Harry and Jane, whilst Mrs. Foss gave it as her opinion that the sooner those girls closed a house notorious for convicts and drunken brawls the better it would be for the community.
The departure of Major Kane was postponed for some time. It would never do for him to be associated with the visit of the woman in black, and, surprising fact! public opinion was somewhat hazy as to whether the female lunatic had come to see him or Mr. Leslie! It was Mr. Leslie who had run for the taxi, Mr. Leslie who accompanied her, Mr. Leslie who had paid the driver.
In a few days the attention of Forde was directed to another matter. The list of honours distributed on the King’s birthday included a K.C.B. to General Foss! It was some years since he had left the army. Why this tardy recognition of his war service? His friends said, “Better late than never—he well deserves it,” being an officer who had served with great distinction in India; but those who were the deadly enemies of his wife hinted that “the decoration had been given by mistake!”
With his honours still fresh upon him—in short but a day old—he and Mrs. Foss called at The Shearings one morning before twelve o’clock—an amazing and unorthodox proceeding. From the elated expression of the visitors it was evident that something remarkable had occurred.
“Heard about me?” asked the general, accosting Ann at the top of his voice.
“Yes. Mr. Leslie has just told us. He saw it in the paper. A hundred congratulations—and to you, Mrs. Foss.”
“Lady Foss, if you don’t mind,” she corrected, swelling with indescribable importance, and Ann noticed that she was wearing her Sunday toque. “Now I’m the same as Lady Tranmere—‘My lady’ and ‘Her ladyship’—the maids have it quite glib already. I must confess I was surprised.”
“So was I,” broke in her husband; “and I am not sure that I wouldn’t rather be just General Tom Foss—it shows my old profession. As for Sir Thomas, I might as well be a soap boiler! Well, anyhow, her ladyship likes it—and the servants are pleased!”
“Oh, Tom, how can you?” she protested.
“Well, it’s a fact, so why not say so?”
“We are bound for the post office to send off some wires,” announced Lady Foss, “and thought we’d just look in and let you be the first to hear our news.”
“Most kind of you indeed,” said Mrs. Pechell stiffly. Mrs. Pechell—to whom the news was anything but welcome—had hitherto patronized Mrs. Foss on the strength of her income, her connections, and her diamonds. Now the situation would be reversed, and within five minutes she had conceived a violent animosity for her former confidante and friend.
“Now come along, Sir Thomas, come along; this is a busy day,” and, without any formal leave-taking, her ladyship waddled out.
“He is a dear old thing,” said Pixie, watching the pair from the window, “and deserves a peerage and a motor—but she will be insufferable. However,” looking round on her companions with a smile, “isn’t it nice to know that the servants are pleased!”
By degrees Major Kane broke it to his associates on the links and in the club that he was leaving Forde for Australia. “He wanted to see more of the world before he grew too old.” Ann cordially invited him to remain—she had grown accustomed to “The Major,” and was sincerely sorry for him—but he was immovable, and said:
“It’s awfully good of you, and I’d much rather be here than anywhere in the world; but I’ve been shamed and disgraced, as I’ve been before, and I’ve brought a certain amount of talk and scandal on your home, so I feel that I must go—I’ve no alternative.”
The Shearings was sorry to lose the major. For all his brusque manners, tiresome questions, and love of sugar, he was well liked, having many good qualities, was liberal in his dealings, honourable, and kind to the aged and to animals.
When the hour arrived for him to take leave, all the household assembled in the hall to wish him God-speed.
“It’s not good-bye,” said Ann. “We shall expect you to come and stay with us when you return. You shall have your old room—and you’ll write?”
“Of course I’ll write. What,” turning to her, “can I do for you, Miss Pixie?”
“Bring me a nice young kangaroo to run loose in the garden.”
“A kangaroo! No wall in Forde would hold him. Perhaps I’ll bring you something more suitable to run about the garden—a sweetheart?” and his expression was so significant that Pixie coloured and looked down.
Could he have heard whispers about Captain Harland? What wicked little bird had carried the tale from Clover Lane? However, there was no time now to investigate the mystery; already the departing guest was on the door-step, in another five minutes the bus, piled with his luggage and golf sticks, had turned the corner of the street and disappeared.
“How we shall miss the major!” said Jecky, winking away two tears.
“I shall be thankful to miss the smell of his poisonous tobacco,” said her patroness; then, aside to Ann, “The man had no manners—you’d not suppose he’d been in the army—he never got up to open a door when I was leaving a room—such a bear!”
The rector of Forde was slowly fading away, like the autumn leaves, and The Shearings saw but little of Jane, who spent all her time with her father. Ann and Pixie visited the rectory turn about, and the former read to the old man for hours at a time. She had a charming voice—such a contrast to Jane’s rather rough organ (which the rector could not endure, and made no secret of his opinion). Therefore, Ann went daily to the rectory, and read the Bible and Morning Prayers, and long articles in heavy magazines, and episcopal papers, such as the soul of her listener loved.
One afternoon as she and Pixie were leaving the rectory and entered the street they realized that something unusual was going on or was expected. People were collected in groups or crossed the street to accost one another.
Had there been an accident? Was a circus about to pass through Forde? At this moment Barter, looking hot, shiny, and important, hurried towards them.
“Oh, Miss Courtenay,” he began, “such a thing! I thought you’d like to hear the news—Lord Tranmere is dead.”
“Dead!” she repeated.
“Yes; killed this morning in a street accident in Piccadilly. The wire came an hour ago. Of course we are all shocked and upset.”
“Oh, poor man, how dreadfully sudden!”
“Yes. His lordship had a way of mooching along and never looking where he was going, whether in his money affairs or on the road. He was an easy landlord, I’ll say that for him, but some of the shop debts are cruel.”
Barter spoke so rapidly it was impossible to interrupt him. His speech poured out like a torrent—he was full of information.
“The young lord will be coming home now and taking a hand. He’s a fine fellow. There will be great changes—and——”
“Yes, I suppose so,” interrupted Ann, impatient of Barter’s garrulity. “Good evening,” and she would have passed on, but Barter, who had been having a glass at the Falcon, accompanied her, pouring out information till the door of The Shearings closed on his red face.
“What a sudden death!” exclaimed Ann, as she removed her hat. “It will make a change in many ways,” and she surveyed her sister with grave eyes.
“No change to me, Ann, so please don’t build castles in the air.”
“Time will tell.”
“If you are thinking of your former patient—he has forgotten me long ago.”
“Again I say, time will tell. He can’t be back under a month or six weeks.”
“Oh, my dear Ann, I do beg you won’t let your mind run on Captain Harland—you will only be disappointed. Lady Tranmere won’t be much missed, but he was a nice, good-natured sort of man, though we never knew him. I had a sort of idea he’d have liked to know us. That would have been an easy matter, only her ladyship has always held us at arm’s length. I’m sorry for the poor fellow; think of it—alive and well this morning, and now dead. Lady Harry will be cut up, though she says old folk have no feeling—their emotions wither, their hearts ossify with age.”
“She says things she does not mean. You should go and see her, Pixie; she likes you, and always gives you a warm welcome. By the way, let us pull down the front blinds.”
The funeral, which followed the inquest on Lord Tranmere, was stately and imposing.
Many wreaths and vehicles were forthcoming. But after the funeral, the deluge. The affairs of the late owner of Tranmere Park were found to be in a state of chaos impossible to describe.
Wherever the trustees looked they were confronted with mortgages and debts. For most of these her ladyship was responsible; she held her head as high as ever, although her account at the bank was largely overdrawn and she had only three shillings in her purse. To all questions and inquiries she made the same peevish reply:
“Don’t trouble me—I’ve nothing to say to business. Osbert will settle everything,” thus shuffling off her troubles on to the shoulders of her son. To Aunt Harry she said: “The girls and I will live in London in future—I will never return to the Park.”
“No, of course not,” said her aunt, sharply (she had heard of her ladyship’s mountainous debts). “Mr. Grigg, the lawyer, says the place must be let or sold.”
“Mr. Grigg is an odious man, and always makes the worst of things.”
“He tells me there are heavy mortgages and debts, not only to tradespeople, but to money-lenders.”
“How can he possibly know so soon?”
“He and the trustees have gone over the papers. There will have to be an auction.”
“I dare say some of the pictures will fetch good prices.”
“Oh, no, they can’t be sold—family portraits. Osbert must buy them in.”
“Where is the money to come from?”
Lady Tranmere looked round on her aunt’s treasures—everyone knew that Lady Harry was a wealthy widow, who did not spend half her income, and was fond of Osbert.
“You have a handsome jointure—you will have to allow it to be reduced. Surely you can’t let Osbert face ruin alone?”
“Aunt Harry, you are talking like a shilling novelette! Osbert is not clever, but he is well able to look after himself. A rich wife will set him on his legs.”
“I don’t think Osbert will go heiress-hunting.”
“I wonder if he still has a penchant for that detestable girl in the street?”
“I cannot say. I rather hope so.”
“Hope so! Why, it would mean social extinction. If he marries her I’ll cut him off with a shilling.”
“You talk as if shillings were plentiful.”
“But can you imagine a girl who has peeled potatoes and blacked grates stepping into my shoes?” demanded the hard-lived woman who had eaten her cake.
“What are your plans after you leave this?” inquired the old lady, calmly ignoring the question.
“I shall take a large flat in Mayfair, and furnish it out of the dower house, and spend the winters abroad.”
“Yes, but I really can’t see where your income is to come from! According to the trustees and Grigg, the estate is on the verge of bankruptcy. If Osbert has £600 a year when all is cleared off, it will be the most he can reckon on at present. You will have heard that drastic measures are to be taken at once, otherwise the mortgagees will foreclose. The auction will await Osbert, but meanwhile the servants will be dismissed, the house closed, and the gardens let, and the shooting.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” agreed her ladyship, impatiently. “I shall not wait. I shall clear out on Monday.”
“Do you realize it is a regular smash, and only by the strictest economy can the place be saved? Tell me, had you no idea of the state of affairs?”
“Yes, in a way. I’m a natural and incurable spendthrift, I confess; it’s in the family. Tranmere never understood business, and gave me a free hand. I never ask prices—just order—and when I saw that the funds were running low, I continued as usual, for I said to myself, ‘As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.’”
“Après moi le déluge,” muttered her venerable aunt, as her visitor rose to depart. Lady Harry was a philosopher in her way, and usually prepared to accept the inevitable. She was not ignorant of the state of affairs between her nephew and Pixie Courtenay; sentences in his letters had shown her which way the wind blew, and she resolved to make a virtue of necessity and keep the discovery to herself—a secret which was known to the entire village, for, as it often happens, a tale which is openly canvassed and discussed by the so-called lower orders in a village, may be a sealed book to their pastors and masters. Lady Harry’s maid was niece of the farmer’s wife in Clover Lane; she had been out milking on a certain afternoon, and the lovers’ meeting had come under her notice and been graphically and lengthily described. Lady Harry had soon extracted the secret from her maid, and made her plans accordingly—from what she knew of Osbert, since he was in petticoats, he had always known what he wanted and never varied in his aim. His first ambition had been the possession of a grey flannel donkey, which slept with him and shared his meals; his next, a toy pistol, but this was not so easily procurable. After long waiting, arguing and violent fits of obstinacy, he obtained it. Now his heart was set upon a pretty girl, and nothing in this life would change him. Her ladyship had seen him with other damsels—the self-assured, agreeable young officer; his manner to Pixie was entirely different, being that of the humble, anxious lover. And, after all, why not Pixie? She was well born and bred, and would make a capital wife for a poor man such as Osbert was bound to be. Appalling tales of debt and difficulties were no novelty to Lady Harry, who actually held two mortgages on the Tranmere property. In a flexible readiness to adapt her attitude to any new idea, her heart went out to this bona fide love affair. To Osbert she vouchsafed a word respecting the Courtenays, and in casual conversation with Pixie she occasionally introduced the name of her nephew. In this manner she kept a knowledge of them. Not that this was necessary as far as Osbert was concerned; his character was strong, and he was a young man to stick to a girl, or to anything on which his heart was fixed, and Pixie Courtenay was lovely and not easily to be forgotten.
Lord Tranmere arrived in London after a speedy overland journey, visited his mother—who was temporarily installed in a luxurious hotel—had an important interview with his solicitors, got his hair cut, dined at his club, and, early the next day, travelled down to Forde, where he was to be the guest of Lady Harry, as the Park was closed. The same afternoon, shortly after his arrival, saw him walking up to The Shearings, the cynosure of many eyes. The door was opened by a flustered Regina, who did not recognize him, and had a visitor of her own awaiting her in the kitchen.
“Are the Misses Courtenay at home?” he inquired.
“Yes, sir,” she answered, as she threw open the door of the Chinese parlour and ushered him into the presence of Mrs. Pechell, who, with her feet on a chair, was engaged in winding some white wool. She stared hard, then hastily rose, anxiously hoping that this new Lord Tranmere had not noticed her shapeless old slippers, and offered him the most cordial welcome.
“This is indeed an unexpected pleasure,” she said. “Allow me to welcome you home.”
“Thank you very much,” he replied, and looked round, evidently in search of other acquaintances.
“The girls are out,” explained Mrs. Pechell. “Do sit down and wait. Ann is at the rectory—she is there for hours.”
Then followed a little talk about the weather, and his journey, and the illness of the rector.
“As you are doing nothing,” she said unexpectedly, “would you mind holding this wool for me—otherwise I am afraid I shall get it into a frightful tangle?”
The reluctant young man had no alternative save to hold out a pair of languid hands, and in another moment the white wool shackles were passed over him and he was manacled. Thus secured, he was put to the torture of questions. The old lady loved a lord, and exerted all her efforts to entertain him. “How long was he going to stay with Lady Harry?” “Was the Park to be permanently closed?” Then, not very tactfully, she touched on the subject of the auction and the impending sale of pictures, “family portraits too—what a pity! We have had the same sacrifices.” Then the door opened, and Pixie entered. She had no idea that Mrs. Pechell was entertaining a visitor; in another second she recognized—Osbert Harland.
The meeting was formal and conventional—a look and a handshake—but Harland vowed to himself that he would make up for this later. How were they ever to get rid of Mrs. Pechell? Could the old woman’s colossal vanity imagine for a moment that he had come to see her? How were they to make their escape? This was a question that seemed unanswerable. Mrs. Pechell was dilating on a certain miniature in her family when Jecky came in. In a moment she realized the situation. There sat her cousin Augusta, full of reminiscent talk and importance—the other two apparently silent and helpless. A sudden bright thought struck her.
“Cousin Augusta,” she said, “there is someone in the dining-room who particularly wants to see you.”
“See me?” she repeated querulously. “Then send them in here.”
“No; it’s rather important business—private, I believe.”
As Mrs. Pechell rose, Lord Tranmere jumped up, rushed to the door, and flung it wide. Now here was a really polite young man! As Mrs. Pechell entered, the dining-room appeared to be empty save for herself and Jecky. Looking round, she demanded:
“Where is this person? Who is it that wants me?”
“I do,” was Jecky’s bold rejoinder. “It was just a ruse to get you out of the Chinese parlour.”
“A ruse!” she repeated, with rising colour, and she was about to fly at Jecky, who, momentarily brave, stood her ground and said:
“Cousin Augusta, did you not realize that you were terribly de trop, and that those two were dying to talk to one another?”
“Dying! What rubbish!”
“Don’t you understand that he is in love with Pixie—has always been in love with her? He comes here first, you see. He only arrived in Forde about an hour ago. Pixie is the future Lady Tranmere.”
“Lady Tranmere!” repeated Mrs. Pechell, collapsing into a chair. “Well, then, I don’t believe it. Lord Tranmere marry a girl who takes in lodgers! Nonsense!”
“Yes, it is perfectly true. Pixie is of good birth, and has a beautiful character and a beautiful face; she would make a far better Lady Tranmere than the dowager—a cold-blooded, selfish spendthrift—who is detested in Forde.”
As soon as the door had closed upon Mrs. Pechell’s broad back Lord Tranmere exclaimed:
“If she had stayed much longer, I’m afraid I’d have murdered her! I needn’t tell you, Pixie, that I’ve only come here to see you. I have returned to you at last. You have not forgotten me, have you?”
“No,” she murmured. She was actually trembling.
“Are you glad to see me?” he asked, taking her hand. “You were never out of my thoughts all the time I’ve been away—and I’ve been in such an awful state for fear some other fellow should come along and carry you off.”
“I think there was not much danger of that here,” she said, finding her tongue at last.
“Aunt Harry kept me going with her letters—she is a brick—and now and then she put in a little word about you. She is a clever old lady, and can spot a love affair sooner than most.”
Presently there was a loud rattling of the handle of the door, and Mrs. Pechell entered; she had come for her wool, which she had forgotten. This Pixie found and handed to her, and as she took a very leisurely departure she eyed the couple with the most piercing curiosity. For once Jecky was right—there was something in it!
“If you’ve got a wrap in the hall, let us go out into the garden, Pixie,” said Tranmere, who had again sprung to open the door; “I have so much to say to you, and also I want to see the pergola.”
It was a crisp autumn afternoon, but this young couple did not feel the cold as they paced the central walk to and fro (whilst Mrs. Pechell watched them surreptitiously from the landing window), he eagerly describing his plans to Pixie, and she protesting that she was not fit for the high station he wished her to occupy.
“I shall be always doing queer things,” she said, “running to open the door, putting on coal, digging potatoes. For the last two years I’ve been something between a general and a lady help—of course, I was only too thankful to be able to work and give the old House of Rest a lift.”
“Yes, and I hear you have had a hard fight. This house has been too much for you girls!”
“Oh, well, we have managed somehow, and, thank goodness, have kept out of debt, and don’t owe a penny; but it was a struggle.”
Lord Tranmere thought of his mother and her mountainous debts, and his lips tightened, but he made no reply beyond giving Pixie’s arm a sympathetic squeeze.
“After two years of cooking and washing up and making beds, I really am not fit for what is called smart society. I’ve given up music and dancing—I rarely have time to open a book.”
“That will all come right,” he said. “You’ll be quite smart enough for Heart’s Delight. I am going to pitch my tent there. The Park will be let, furnished, for four or five years, also the shooting, and if I can get a pretty good price for the pictures and some of the old prints and china, we shall be able to keep our heads above water; but we shall be very poor. However, I know you won’t mind that.”
“No. What I do mind, and what everyone else will mind, is the fact that being, as you say, poor, you want to saddle yourself with a penniless wife.”
“Are you afraid to face the situation, Pixie?”
“No; we have faced a much more difficult one, but Jane, our guardian angel, helped us to pull through. Heart’s Delight will be the lap of luxury for me. I am thinking of you and what the world will say, especially your own people. I am sure that your mother will not receive me.”
“The loss will be hers!” he answered shortly. “I will tell you one who will be delighted to welcome you, and that is Lady Harry. Shall I tell you my plans? She nodded assent, and Mrs. Pechell noted that they were now walking arm in arm.
“I have a nice little nest-egg of five thousand pounds,” he began.
“A legacy?” she inquired.
“No; its history is this. I won a few hundreds at a race meeting, and there I came across an old schoolfellow who had a flourishing up-country run and was a wealthy man. He asked me to spend a few days with him, to see something of the back blocks and a kangaroo hunt. Talking over old times, I described the nakedness of the land so far as I was concerned, and he suggested that I should speculate with my few hundred pounds and put it into wool. The speculation was successful, thanks to my long-headed pal, so now you know all about it. With this capital I propose to stock Heart’s Delight. I picked up a few useful ideas in the Colonies. I will take on the land under a bailiff, you the garden and the hens, and I should not be surprised if we made a good thing out of it. My poor father was always very anxious that I should marry and settle, and I don’t think he would be hurt if I were to take a wife within three months of his death. There really will be nothing for us to wait for, and the sooner we get to work the better.”
“Oh, Osbert, I don’t think that would ever do. No, no, no!”
“There is only one thing that puzzles me a little. What about Ann? She could never carry on this great big house by herself—of course, she could live with us.”
“You need not be anxious about Ann,” rejoined Pixie. “She has only to lift her finger, and Mr. Leslie will take her off our hands; he has been in love with her for a long time. I like him immensely.”
“She likes him also—much better than she imagines—but, of course, you know of the first affair?”
“Yes, he was a rare good sort. That was,a dreadful business. However, I don’t believe that Brander would have wished Ann to remain an old maid for his sake.”
At this moment the window-glass door opened, and Ann herself stepped forth and advanced towards them.
“Welcome home,” she called out. Lord Tranmere’s reply was to take her by the hand and kiss her.
“Are these colonial manners?” she asked, drawing back with a heightened colour.
“No,” he rejoined, “but they are the manners of your future brother-in-law, who asks for your approval and good wishes!”
The following afternoon Lady Harry paid a state visit to The Shearings. She was accompanied by her nephew. After a short delay, during which good wishes and congratulations were heaped on Pixie, she said: “Now, my child, you must come back with me to tea, and we will have a confidential talk. I advise you to leave your affairs in my hands. You cannot discuss family matters here, as we are so liable to interruptions. Of course,” looking at Ann, “you will have to give up The Shearings.”
“And what is to become of me?”
“Oh, I think you will probably fall on your feet!” Turning to her nephew, she said, “I suppose you know that my dear old friend the rector is sinking fast—he has been unconscious for a week. Mr. Leslie has been doing his duty for many months and working hard without a day’s rest—a faithful and invaluable shepherd. I understand that he is to have the offer of the living.”
“I call that rather premature,” said Lord Tranmere, “since our old friend is still in the land of the living.”
“Premature or not, it is a fact—and Edgar Leslie will be, for once, the right man in the right place. Now we will make a start. I want my tea.”
Once more established in her luxurious bath-chair, the old lady was rolled down the street, with two companions at her chariot wheels—on one side Lord Tranmere, and on the other Miss Pixie Courtenay. This triumphal procession was witnessed by a staring and awestruck community, who realized that the romantic alliance would have the entire approval of the family.
Three months had elapsed since this triumphal procession through Forde, and during those three months there had been great changes in the village. The rector had died, and Mr. Leslie had succeeded to his living; both Ann and Pixie were married—a very quiet wedding on the same day. The Shearings was empty, save for a caretaker, but it was rumoured that Miss Jessop intended to establish herself there, and, with Miss Jecks as her right hand, open a hostel for maimed soldiers.
Mrs. Pechell was greatly annoyed at being compelled to leave The Shearings; in fact, she made as much noise as an old hen being driven off her nest. She was once more an inmate of the Falcon, and was having tea with Lady Foss about a month after the double wedding.
“Although the whole thing was such a tame affair, they had lovely presents,” remarked Lady Foss.
“Yes. Lady Harry gave Pixie a piano and a motor, and to Ann, they say, a handsome cheque. I sent each of them a blotter.”
“And quite enough too! When I think of those two young women coming here a couple of years ago, very shabby, poor and complete strangers, and look at them now—one married to the rector, the other to a peer—if you ask me, I consider that the Courtenay girls did extremely well for themselves out of The House of Rest.”