The Youngest Miss Mowbray

Chapter I

The Mowbrays of Thorlands Court had lived on their own estates since the reign of James the First, had weathered the Civil War without loss of lives or acres, subsequently married into wealthy families, and prospered exceedingly.

Thorlands, according to the fashion of ancient times, is situated in a valley surrounded by low hills; from the brow of one of these, an inquiring eye can discern the spreading demesne, with its magnificent timber, and, clearly defined against a dark-green background, the Court itself. It is built of red brick, outlined in white stone, has huge chimney-stacks, two ample wings, and presents an appearance, not merely picturesque, but dignified—in short, Thorlands claims to be counted amongst the stately homes of England. The interior of the Court is somewhat disappointing, much space being sacrificed to the principal apartments, whilst the servants’ accommodation belongs to the debased period of 1603.

The owner of such a fine inheritance as Thorlands was naturally a leader in its neighbourhood; an income of eight thousand a year, an unencumbered property, and an enviable pedigree, entitled Henry Mowbray to be a person of considerable importance in his own part of the world. He was a slight, good-looking, and extraordinarily active man of fifty; shooting, hunting, and constant occupation had kept him young and cheery; with his upright carriage and elastic gait, his closely cropped light hair (that shade so friendly to grey locks), gay blue eyes, and pleasant personality, a stranger might easily have taken him to be not a day more than thirty-eight—and yet this dapper, youngish looking squire was the father of two well-grown, well-known daughters (Augusta Mowbray, the elder, was twenty-six, and Rosabel, twenty-four). In appearance he was more like an elder brother than their parent, for his daughters had been but ill-served by Time—who had cruelly added to them the years subtracted from their father—and they seemed much older than their real age. For one thing, Augusta assumed the air of county hostess, patroness, and heiress, with a solemnity that placed her amongst the matrons. She enacted the part as seriously as if she were a crowned head, and not merely Miss Mowbray of Thorlands, wearing, beside much state and dignity, elaborate silks and velvets, and on all possible occasions, her late mother’s diamonds.

Mr. Mowbray had been a widower for more than twenty years; his wife, the Lady Augusta, was the portionless daughter of the Earl of Scantlands, and her mother—the most indefatigable matchmaker of her time—had caught and hustled the bashful young parti into matrimony with her remaining marketable girl, and, somewhat to his own surprise, Henry Mowbray found himself at twenty-three—a married man. His mother-in-law, the Dowager, had taken the education and management of his two orphan girls into her own hands—selected their masters and governesses (the latter warranted plain and elderly), and occasionally received them under her own roof. Thanks to their up-bringing, they were, as she proudly declared, “Scantlands to the backbone!” as well as in appearance. Augusta was a slender and elegant-looking woman, with thick sandy hair, a really beautiful aquiline nose, prominent hazel eyes, prominent white teeth, a small, contemptuous mouth, and an air of languid arrogance. Since her eighteenth birthday she had undertaken the entire control of her father’s household; here, well-drilled by her grandmother, she entertained guests; she also presided at bazaars and school feasts, and was a forcible personality in the parish and neighbourhood.

Certain people who took an affectionate interest in their friends’ concerns, declared that it was a grave mistake for Henry Mowbray to have delivered over the reins to a girl in her teens. Mothers with daughters, could not understand why he had never married again. Men, on the other hand, who had heard rumours of her late ladyship’s inflammable temper, quoted the old saw respecting “a wise child and the fire!”

Henry Mowbray was an indulgent and easygoing parent; he left the entire household management to Augusta, merely undertaking the paying of bills, the cellar, the stables, and the shooting—and these latter departments were in a condition of the highest efficiency. While time hung heavily on the ladies’ hands, no day was long enough for the master of the house. There was the home farm, the magistrates’ bench, the county cricket—in which he took the keenest interest—the judging at agricultural shows, correspondence, newspapers, the young birds, and, above all, the young horses, to engage his time. He was a prominent member of the Gladeshire Hunt, and a remarkably fine whip.

The Misses Mowbray did not ride; they had no taste for gardening or poultry rearing, and the days of prize dogs and cats had not dawned. They hated tramping about the wet fields with their father and his boisterous setters, and took no interest whatever in politics, or the burning questions of the day.

Then, it may be asked, what did appeal to them? Titled society—for although well born, they were snobs. They liked tennis, dancing, and driving out, and paying state calls on people of their own position; also they enjoyed a little gossip—-yes, even village gossip!—they liked fancy work, and pretty dresses, attention, flirting and patronage, also prolonged visits to Grandmamma Scantlands, in Queen’s Gate.

Rosabel was fair, with grey-green eyes, a delicate nose and complexion; indeed, by stretching your imagination a little, you might call her pretty. She was not clever, in fact she was rather silly, and rarely offered an opinion of her own (but echoed her sister); however when she had grasped an idea she stuck to it with a tenacity that nothing could shake. Rosabel was convinced that she was beautiful, and it is certain that she was vain, and evinced a devouring passion for dress and display.

The sisters were warmly attached to one another—-this single point in their favour was invariably pointed out by their friends, for, to tell the truth, they were not popular. Augusta had an overbearing manner, a cutting tongue, and a touch of the notable Scantlands temper. Moreover, the position and pedigree of every newcomer to the neighbourhood was most critically examined by the Misses Mowbray and their special friend, Mrs. Preedy (a wealthy widow, who rented a small place close to the village, and acted as the amiable censor of its morals and merits).

The ladies from the Court, or “Court ladies,” as they were termed, were not without admirers, and at the present moment Lord Lockfield, the owner of a fine adjoining estate, was paying somewhat spasmodic attentions to Augusta. He was a spare, rather reserved man, a great traveller, and the particular friend of Henry Mowbray.

Whilst the match, was, so to speak, smouldering, the entire neighbourhood looked on and approved. As for Lord Lockfield, it had been decided that it was time he was established permanently at home instead of roaming about the world. It was also agreed, on all hands, time that Augusta Mowbray was settled. Lockfield Park and Thorlands were actually adjoining; Augusta was her father’s heiress—the two places, therefore, would ultimately be one. Richard Lockfield was a cool-headed, cautious individual, and knew what he was about; his was also a grave and strong-willed character; he would keep Augusta in subjection, would rule her with an iron hand (in possibly a velvet glove), and oh, how all her friends would enjoy the spectacle! The neighbourhood would be delighted to see Augusta the arrogant deposed and kept in her place. Each year the Misses Mowbray spent several months with their grandmother, who received them in her London house (permitting her son-in-law to pay part of the rent, the hire of the carriage, her wine merchant’s bill, and a few other items). Mr. Mowbray disliked London, and revolted against “a house for the season.” But he had no objection to this compromise, since his mother-in-law declared that “it was absolutely necessary that the dear girls should be properly introduced; and it was simply wicked to keep them buried at Thorlands, from year’s end to year’s end.”

Accordingly the girls were duly brought out each season, and, after balls and parties, Ascot and Goodwood, were punctually returned to their parent, in time for a notable house-party which heralded the partridge shooting. Mr. Mowbray was thus left alone for several months, but he never felt solitary—indeed, he was conscious of an agreeable sensation of freedom, and of being complete master of his time and himself. He was a popular man, and welcome guest amongst his neighbours. He attended cricket matches and races, and people said he was twice as cheery when his daughters were from home. Then, every year, with unfailing regularity, he departed to Aix; this was his holiday, his season; here he enjoyed himself thoroughly. At Aix, he felt transformed from the elderly father of two dignified and self-conscious women, into one of the same species, as the crowd of well-bred, well-dressed men, who had gathered together for the “cure” (and perhaps a little gamble), and cast to the winds age, cares, and all domestic responsibilities.

Mr. Mowbray invariably occupied the same hotel and rooms; he was, in his way, an institution at Aix—where he had many acquaintances, and was in notable request. The handsome, clean-shaven, genial little Englishman, unencumbered, open-handed, and light-hearted, had various cordial associates and friends.

*  *  *

The Dowager Countess of Scantlands was not an attractive-looking old woman—no, not even when embellished by a chestnut wig and rouge, least of all, before she had made her morning toilette. At this period she was invisible to any but her confidential maid, and her indignation may be imagined when, in the midst of her letters and early cocoa, the door of her chamber was dashed open, and to her entered Augusta, in curling-pins, dressing-gown, and great disorder.

“Oh, Grannie,” she began, without apology. “Oh, Grannie!”

“Shut the door,” screamed the old lady. “Now, what’s all this about?”

“Father,” rejoined Augusta, with an hysterical laugh. “Read that,” and she tossed a letter on the counterpane. “Would you believe it—he is married!”

“Married? Of course he is. Is the girl mad?”

“Again—a second time,” explained his daughter, and her eyes and teeth seemed on the point of quitting their sockets. “Yes, and to a girl of twenty-two! An adventuress, who caught him at Aix. Oh, it’s incredible? I’d far rather he were dead than make such an awful spectacle of himself—he is disgraced!”

“Here, give me my glasses,” said the Dowager, who never, under any circumstances, lost her self-command. “Take some sal-volatile, Gussie, it’s on the mantelpiece, and I’ll just see what he has got to say for himself,” and she leisurely took up the letter.

Their cowardly parent had not ventured to break the news to his daughters by word of mouth; he hated scenes; physically bold as a lion, in the domestic arena he displayed a pitiful lack of moral courage. High words frightened him; Augusta recalled her mother, when she was neuralgic, or put out. Therefore he had written from Paris to announce to his children that he was about to provide them with a stepmother. Here is the letter:—

“Hotel Continental, Paris.

“Friday, 13th.

“My dear Girls,

“I must prepare you at once for a great surprise. You will be astonished to hear that I was married this morning, at the Embassy, to the most charming girl in the whole world—not even excepting my two daughters. Her name was Sybil Hilton. She is twenty-two years of age, a gentlewoman by birth, well educated, accomplished, and an orphan. Of late, Sybil has been most painfully situated in the household of a cruel old woman, to whom she was reader and companion. I pitied her—and you all know what pity leads to—I offered her the protection of my name and home, and I am proud to say that they were accepted. I have met her at Aix the last three seasons, and the more I saw of Sybil the more I admired her——”

“The old fool,” burst out the Countess.

“This marriage will make no difference to you. Sybil will be a sister, not a step-mother. She has not had a happy life, and I look to my two children to receive her with affection, and to help me to make her forget her past.”

“Bah!” again interrupted the Countess, “her past!”

“Circumstances have hurried me into this sudden step, but I feel confident that it is one which will bring much happiness to all of us. I shall write to your grandmother, and am desiring my man of business to put the announcement in the Times and Morning Post. We are going to Normandy for our honeymoon—Sybil speaks French like a native—and will be away at least a month. Sybil asks me to give you her love, and to tell you that she is longing to make your acquaintance.

“Your affectionate father,

“H. Mowbray.”

‘“Sybil, Sybil, Sybil! It’s all Sybil! Well,” cried Lady Scantlands, laying down the letter and removing her glasses, “I’m not surprised—no, I’m only astonished that it did not occur before. You know, I’ve always said, he should never have been permitted to go to Aix alone—and now, see what has happened! He is just one of those good-natured, easily attracted men that, seem to be brought into the world to be caught.” (Yes, she had captured him, when he was very young, for her Augusta, and that with almost contemptible ease.)

“I can’t believe it! No, I can’t realise it! “ cried Augusta hysterically.

No. That a man of her father’s age—fifty last birthday—a man who had outlived—or who ought to have outlived—sentiment and romance, who had a happy home and a capable manager, should take to himself a chit younger than his own daughters, a girl without money or connections; it seemed too wildly improbable a tale to be true. It was altogether such a horrible shock. Augusta would as soon have expected her grandmother to accept a second husband—it had never dawned on her mind that her father would marry again.

“I’m afraid you will find a serious change, my poor Gussie,” remarked the old lady, after an expressive silence.

“He says it will make no difference,” she answered, “but that, of course, is nonsense. I will no longer be the mistress of the house, and have all the keys, and give the orders and invitations.”

“If only you and Rosabel had been settled,” pursued the old woman, pinching up her lips, “but as it is, it’s awkward. Yes, very awkward. However,” added the venerable philosopher, “you must just make the best of it. But, of course, your position will be altered, and possibly, by and by, you will not be the heiress to the estates.”

“It is too dreadful altogether, Grannie,” sobbed Gussie. “Think of it—a step-mother, and at our age—a girl younger than ourselves.”

“Well, there may be compensations; if she is a quiet, dowdy little creature, you can easily hold your own. Your father is all for peace. He hates scenes. You must make friends with her.”

“No, no; she is an interloper, an adventuress and a schemer. I never, never could do that!” declared Augusta vehemently. “I feel that she and I will be enemies, always.”

Rosabel was as much overwhelmed as her sister. If Augusta was ambitious and managing, she was extravagant and vain; the sums she spent on her clothes were incredible; and, in spite of her handsome allowance and constant presents from her father, Rosabel was always in debt. Her career would be curbed; no more thirty and forty guinea evening gowns! Probably no maid all to herself, but one between her and her sister. What a hideous prospect!

The two ladies returned from London to Thorlands in a pitiable condition; if their father had been dying they could not have worn longer faces—perhaps not so long. They talked of this distressing affair—this dreadful marriage—among their intimates, and really with such eloquence that some people sincerely pitied the poor Mowbray girls—

“Fancy—a companion!” exclaimed Mrs. Preedy, with uplifted eyes, “after marrying for his first wife an earl’s daughter!”

Some declared that the poor man led a dull and rather lonely life, and was too much under the thumb of Miss Augusta, but that a pretty young bride would possibly set him free. Others maliciously whispered that they did not envy the prospects of the lady who had ventured to become step-mother to the Mowbray girls.

And, meanwhile, all the world awaited her coming with unaffected impatience.

Chapter II

In due time—it was the end of September—Mr. Mowbray brought his bride to Thorlands. There was no superfluous pageantry, or local demonstration; no arches with “God bless you” and “Welcome” awaited them in the village; for even the humbler folk felt a conviction that their popular Squire had made a fool of himself The opinion at the Court was naturally re-echoed in the cottages. The Misses Mowbray and Mrs. Preedy met daily, as if for mutual instruction and support; indeed, the good matron was well qualified to hold a class on precedence and pedigree, and when the three ladies foregathered, they talked over “her” for hours.

Although the villagers and retainers did not make any active demonstration, they were eager enough to have a look at the stranger; and as Mrs. Mowbray drove through the street on a sunny afternoon, behind a pair of spanking bay steppers, each cottage window was, if not illuminated, occupied, and every door framed several figures.

“Aye, but she was a pretty creature!” that was the general verdict. She seemed gay and happy, too; and as for the Squire, he might be five-and-twenty, he looked so fresh and smart!

The bride wore a large grey-feathered hat; she had beautiful dark eyes, roses in her cheeks, heaps of dark hair, and an enchanting smile.

She bestowed this smile generously on not a few, who bobbed or pulled off their caps, and became henceforth her slave.

Oh, she was quite different from the ladies of the Court! She seemed so pleased to see everyone, and leant forward in the carriage—not like her step-daughters, who sat bolt upright, “looking down their noses.” The Misses Mowbray received the new arrival in the drawing-room; they had debated the question of the hall door and the entrance, but finally had decided that it would be more suitable to their position, if their father brought his wife to them;—and as to kissing her—oh no!

They felt considerably surprised, not to say incredulous, when their parent, brimming over with pride, led into the drawing-room a slight, tall and elegant girl (no “chit” this), who was beautifully dressed, undeniably pretty, and perfectly self-possessed.

“Gussie, Rosie—this is Sybil,” said Mr. Mowbray, and before they could realise what occurred, she had kissed them both, one after the other, foreign fashion, on either cheek!

“I am so glad to see you,” she said, taking the initiative. “I do hope we shall all be very happy together.”

Looking at her and her husband’s radiant face a bystander would have said there was no doubt whatever about them; but the two Misses Mowbray’ remained stiff, chilly and disappointed.

She was not the least like the sketch which had been drawn by their imagination, but a picture of radiant youth, beauty and animation.

And Mrs. Mowbray was “good style.” Oh, great fact! she was at her ease; she was vivacious; she employed a French dressmaker. After some desultory talk, tea was served, and Augusta said, in a cool, sharp tone: “Of course, you must make it now!”

“But why? I have just come off a long journey, and am dying for a cup. Won’t you pour it out? Please, please, do not be formal with me,” and she drew off her gloves, and sat down beside Augusta on the sofa.

“You are not a bit like your father,” she remarked; “neither of you.”

“No; we are Scantlands,” said Rosabel, with a superior air; “so grandmamma always says——”

“Your grandmamma is alive?”

“Very much alive,” broke in Mr. Mowbray. “A wonderful woman for her age—she can sit up all night at a ball—drive about all day— travel—entertains—plays a good game of whist—goes to all the first nights at theatres, and is the best judge of a parti in England!”

“Really, father!” expostulated Gussie. “I just wish she heard you! I am immensely proud of Grannie, I must say; she is so active and so modern in her ideas, and enters into everything.”

“That is the best way to keep young,” said Sybil. “I am sure I should like your grandmother; and, as a rule, old ladies like me.” Then she looked over at her husband and smiled, and he answered:

“Yes, my dear, with one exception”—she coloured vividly—“and the one exception was an autocratic old wire-puller.”

By and by the flow of talk became a mere trickle; the personality of the Mowbray girls began to freeze the bright-faced new arrival, and she realised, with a sudden pang that these two silent, sandy-haired women, her stepdaughters, were pointedly cool: and that her presence, notwithstanding their letters, was anything but welcome. However, she made up her mind that she would gain them over; yes, and that in spite of their prejudice. She hoped to be their friend and companion—not step-mother—but as she looked at their pale, aristocratic faces, and listened to their formal “do keep your distance” remarks, the poor stranger realised that she had appointed to herself a most difficult task. It soon became evident that the spruce, middle-aged Squire was devoted to his second wife; there is a saying, whether true or not, that a man loves his second wife—a woman her first husband. However, there was no doubt that Henry Mowbray adored his young bride—and no wonder! She was like a ray of sunshine in the house—so sweet-tempered, unaffected and gay, and anxious to be friends with everyone, including the dogs, and not forgetting the gardener’s donkey, who drew the mowing-machine. Although she sat at the head of the table, she had implored Augusta to keep the keys.

“Keep them till you are married,” she whispered, with a bewitching smile. Alas! the smiling young woman had ruined poor Augusta’s matrimonial prospects; she was no longer the undisputed heiress of Thorlands Court; already the attentions of Lord Lockfield had waned. He had loved the Court—when he had courted Augusta.

Sybil Mowbray had come to Thorlands with the olive branch in her hand, and every good wish in her heart, determined to be friends with the two girls, her own contemporaries.

It had seemed almost incredible that Henry Mowbray, whom she had always looked on as unmarried, should have two great grown-up children. Undoubtedly the announcement had been a painful shock; but she had speedily assured herself that the daughters of Henry were bound to be delightful girls. They were by no means delightful to her. Their measured conversation, stiff manners, sharp, inquiring eyes, were anything but agreeable to this warm-hearted, impulsive, young step-mother, and she soon discovered that her olive branch, and her overtures, were both politely ignored.

The day after her arrival the bride had been formally conducted over the house by Augusta and Rosabel. They had anticipated this state procession with secret satisfaction, being certain that the sight of such a residence would cow the poor creature, and render her speechless. But the Court itself was by no means the strange and paralysing exhibition they had expected; it was a curious combination of large and small rooms huddled together, and had been altered repeatedly within, whilst the outer appearance was but little changed. There was a fine hall, supported by marble pillars, around which were the reception-rooms—few but spacious; dining-room, library, magistrate’s room, little drawing-room, billiard-room and white saloon; upstairs there were some good bedrooms and a number of dens; these had been cruelly squeezed, in order to make room for a great picture gallery. The sleeping accommodation was much beneath the pretensions of the house; There were certain stately guest chambers, but also numbers of unexpected steps, doors, and narrow dark passages, the scenes of grotesque entrances, bewilderment, and shocks.

The speciality of the house was its pictures: if alive, the Court would undoubtedly have been a greedy collector. There were pictures in every room, closely hung together; pictures on the stairs, in the dim passages, and in all the best bedrooms, and more than half of these were portraits of the Mowbrays—from a crude Henry Mowbray, with a ruff, a cap, and the ancestral nose, down to a fine life-size portrait of the present Henry Mowbray, in full hunting kit, which adorned the dining-room and was a presentation to him on his first marriage.

The Misses Mowbray, in solemn state, conducted the new mistress round the house; they were secretly furious to find how calmly the late “companion” received her first impressions of their historical home. She was not exclamatory, much less awestruck or dumb; even the glory of the Court, the great white saloon, failed to impress her, though, of course, she had never beheld anything approaching it in all her life.

“Fine and lofty,” she remarked; “too big for comfort, but capital for a dance,” and she made a few steps on the parquet floor. Undoubtedly it was a noble room; three immense windows overlooked the pleasure ground; above the mantelpiece and let into a panel was a splendid portrait by Vandyke—it represented a young woman, in a blue brocade gown, with a wide lace collar and pearls, a dress of the period of Charles the First, and was the portrait of Dulcibella, wife of Henry Mowbray, 1635.

“I rather like her face,” remarked the present Mrs. Mowbray. “What sad, dark eyes, and what a sweet mouth! Yes, she looks unhappy; the blue lady was certainly in the blues when she was painted.”

“Oh, everyone admires her!” rejoined Augusta; “and people come from all parts, even from America, to see our ‘blue lady’; she is priceless.”

“Are not her hands exquisite?” exclaimed Rosabel. “They say she brought them into the family,” and she glanced affectionately at her own.

Yes, indeed, Rosabel the vain had every reason to be proud of the Mowbray hand; it was small, tapered, and beautifully shaped—undeniably “a picture hand.”

Around the saloon walls were numerous portraits of men in doublet and hose, in armour, in ruff, and curly-headed, somewhat bold and shameless dames, of the court of Charles the Second. Augusta introduced each ancestor with overweening pride. This interloper should realise the great family into which she had thrust herself, and the interloper, a graceful figure, with her hands behind her back, her dark head uplifted, listened politely to the history of Robert, who had murdered his wife by strangling her with her hair; of Cosmo, who had been outlawed; of Aubrey, who had been killed in a duel, and Esmond, who had won a fortune at dicing. The furniture in the white saloon was chiefly French, of the period of Louis XIV. There were some tapestry panels, and also a fine screen, and in conspicuous position stood two valuable Oriental cabinets, on one of which was placed a Chinese vase, displaying a huge bunch of peacocks’ feathers.

“Oh, peacocks’ feathers!” exclaimed Mrs. Mowbray gaily. “How can you tolerate them! They are pretty, of course,” and her eyes sparkled; “but-of course you know the superstition?”

“What superstition?” demanded Augusta brusquely.

“It is said that they are unlucky—possibly something to do with their belonging to the sacred bird in the East. I am not a believer myself.”

“But what are the consequences of keeping peacock’s feathers?” asked Rosabel, and her tone was anxious.

“Oh, nothing very terrible—only that the ladies of the house never marry——”

“How ridiculous!” cried Augusta reddening.

“Surely such ideas must have come up from the kitchen, or are the pantry point of view!”

It was now Mrs. Mowbray who coloured, but quickly recovering herself said:

“I suppose we have finished this room; shall we go elsewhere? I should like to see the library,” walking towards the door as she spoke. After the library came the justice-room, the billiard-room, and the ante-room, with more tapestry and some wonderful Sèvres china.

“And where is the smoking-room? “ inquired the newcomer.

“Oh, there is none,” returned Augusta. “We cannot endure the smell of smoking indoors—and our mother never allowed it. Father smokes when he is out, or in the greenhouses—it is good for the plants. Now, let us take you upstairs.”

“Certainly they were a wonderful family for having themselves painted,” remarked the stranger. “They are everywhere—these Mowbrays—all over the passages, stairs, bedrooms. I suppose they are not in the servants’ hall, by any chance?” and she laughed.

“No,” rejoined Gussie, with a touch of sharpness; “our relations never liked low company, and as to their portraits, I daresay they thought that one could not have too much of a good thing.”

“Were they really ‘good things’ on the whole?” inquired Mrs. Mowbray, with dancing eyes.

“No, indeed,” broke in the ever truthful Rosabel; “I believe they were the wickedest race in Gladeshire, and that is saying much.”

“And perhaps they painted one another ‘pour passer le temps’ in the long dull days when there was no hunting or tennis. What place is this?” asked Mrs. Mowbray, as she stepped into a long corridor lined with pictures.

“It is called the haunted gallery,” replied Gussie, with her grandest air. “Of course, we have a ghost—or, rather, two ghosts.”

“I’m not surprised to hear that,” said Sybil Mowbray; “you like to do things handsomely—and I love ghost stories, though I could never love a ghost. Do please tell me about our apparitions.”

Our apparitions,” repeated Augusta to herself. “This Romney”—standing before a fine picture of two ladies—“really ought to be down below, but it was thought best to keep it out of the way. These girls are sisters—you see the one with her hand on the other’s shoulder.”

“Yes, the elder—the plainer, and protector——”

“I don’t know much about protecting. She murdered her sister in a big closet by here—stabbed her—hid the body, and escaped to France.”

“Oh, really! I conclude there was a lover in the case?”

“No doubt; there is generally a lover in such cases. At any rate, the ghosts are called ‘the wicked sisters’; they haunt this corridor, and the most dreadful scuffling and screaming is heard in the closet. No one passes through here after dark.”

“And nothing is seen?”

“Oh, sometimes the sisters appear in broad daylight.”

“In broad daylight,” echoed Mrs. Mowbray. “I do not call that playing fair.”

“And whenever they are seen—something unlucky happens—at least, so people say.”

“Well, of course, neither you nor I believe such nonsense,” declared the newcomer. “I shall certainly come up and patrol this corridor after dark. Yes, and write a ghost story for a Christmas number.”

“You don’t mean to say that you write!” exclaimed Rosabel aghast. Rosabel the brainless, who rarely perused even the mildest form of fiction, had an outspoken contempt, for all writing people, and looked on them as crazy paupers, entirely beyond the pale of society—if not actual outcasts from respectability. If this new inmate wrote stories, what a talk there would be—what sniggering, superior gossip!

“Oh, pray let me relieve your mind at once,” said Sybil vivaciously. “I am only joking—I often say things in joke. I know it is a shocking habit. I never mean half of what I say. I hope you will get used to me in time. Now, do tell me who this man is?” halting before a picture as she spoke; “I mean the one in the funny hat. Dear me, what a beautiful, wicked face!”

“He was our great-great-grandfather,” replied Augusta haughtily. Even so remote a relation must be spoken of with respect.

“But he was a fearful gambler,” added Rosabel.

“Yes! The family black sheep?”

Augusta’s expression became rigid, and she drew up her chin. How dared this young woman of no family call one of their ancestors names!

“Well, a black sheep who fought under Marlborough,” she answered, with smiling sharpness; “a man of the most cultivated taste. We have to thank him for the white saloon——”

“But he knocked down half the house to build it,” explained Rosabel, “and contracted enormous debts.”

“Oh, that sort of thing is. unfortunately still in the family! We enjoy getting into money scrapes,” and Augusta glanced at her sister with peculiar significance then added, with a sigh of relief: “Ah, thank goodness, there is the luncheon gong at last!”

Luncheon was a stiff and formal meal, over which a majestic butler and two footmen condescended to preside. The bride attempted to talk and laugh; she recounted continental experiences, asked questions respecting the neighbourhood, and the possibilities of tennis and croquet. Altogether she was so unaffected and charming, that the three men-servants carried to the lower regions an excellent report of the new mistress. She was not the least like them was the verdict, and for all her gay talk, she knew what was what, and was a lady. As to the Squire, he was just a boy again.

Mr. Mowbray, who had been occupied with his bailiff, came in fresh, smiling, irreproachably dressed, and full of home intelligence.

During the afternoon, he volunteered to accompany his wife on a progress round the grounds and gardens. Augusta and Rosabel watched the couple from the windows of the little drawing-room, as they strolled across the green turf.

“How well she walks!” remarked Rosabel; “and her dress is a perfect fit—Paris, of course.”

“Yes, one of the trousseau—for which, no doubt, father has paid.”

“She is not the least like what I expected,” resumed Rosabel, “talkative and lively, with wonderful spirits, and not at all overwhelmed or self-conscious—and so pretty.”

“She is not my style,” said Augusta. “I dislike easy manners, and dark beauties; she is always grinning. I really wonder what father saw in her?” she added, with a meditative air.

“What did she see in father?” said Rosabel. “That, I think, is far more astonishing—a man who is twenty-eight years older than herself—who was already married when she was born.”

“That question is easily answered,” rejoined her sister with decision; “she saw this,” indicating the park with a gesture.

But she never was here till yesterday!” remonstrated Rosabel.

“Stuff!” ejaculated Augusta impatiently. “How dense you are! She saw it with her mind’s eye! Most people have heard of Thorlands Court.” Indeed, in Augusta’s opinion, the world was divided into two classes: those who had seen Thorlands, and those who had not; and Rosabel, who humbly submitted herself to her elder sister’s opinions, was for the moment silenced and quenched.

“Now,” pursued Augusta, “I will ring and order the brougham, and we will go and see Mrs. Preedy. I promised that I would call to-day. Mrs. Preedy is so immensely interested, and simply dying to hear all about her.”

Chapter III

The Mowbray girls were received with open arms by Mrs. Preedy—“Mrs. Wilbraham-Preedy,” to give her her full title—a rich widow, who was enabled to devote the whole of her ample leisure to the management of her neighbours’ affairs. She resided in a comfortable, secluded house, surrounded by smooth lawns and a notable garden, and repeatedly announced that “she had cut herself off from the world!” It was an undeniable fact, that she held coldly aloof from the village. The doctor’s wife, the family of a retired major, even the rectoress, saw nothing of Mrs. Preedy—to be quite candid, she only visited “the county.”

In appearance, she was fair, fat, and forty; an upright, pompous woman, with a double chin, who looked good-natured. But fat people are not necessarily benevolent; they may love delectable dishes, and yet hate their neighbours, and Mrs. Preedy rarely felt more contented or exhilarated than when investigating a scandal or dissecting an acquaintance.

Her room resembled her, being furnished with fat chairs and cushions, soft carpets, and comfortable lounges. A bright fire was burning in the grate, the tea-table was plentifully spread.

“Oh, you poor, dear things!” she cried, extending two little fins, covered with rings, “do you know that I scarcely closed my eyes all night for thinking of you. Well”—drawing in her breath—“what is she like?”

“So pretty and animated, and anxious to be friends,” began Rosabel eagerly.

“Oh, you know Rosie, dear Mrs. Preedy,” cried Augusta, with a little scornful laugh. “She is no judge of character, or people.”

“No—sit down, Gussie—I want to hear your opinion.”

“I find her over-dressed and rather free and easy,” declared Miss Mowbray, sinking into a seat and removing her boa; “she takes everything as a matter of course.”

“She wouldn’t take the keys,” interrupted Rosie.

Her sister made an indignant gesture, and continued:

“She talks incessantly, and seems to have lived abroad; likes music, and riding, and tennis—so she says. Father is simply infatuated,” and Augusta nodded her head. “ She is actually going to allow him to smoke in the billiard-room, and to bring Ruff, the fox-terrier, indoors.” A pause, during which Mrs. Preedy cast up her eyes and her hands. Then Augusta continued: “Some may call her good-looking—I do not.”

“Have you found out who she is?” asked Mrs. Preedy, with much solemnity, “that is the main point!” and she suddenly began to pour out tea.

“No; there we are entirely in the dark,” admitted Miss Mowbray, “but Grannie is coming next month.”

Mrs. Preedy laughed maliciously; pausing, sugar-tongs in hand, she said:

“I doubt if people will call yet. I shall certainly be on the safe side—and wait.”

“She is a lady, I do assure you, Mrs. Preedy,” said impulsive Rosabel, “and does not seem to take anything on herself——”

“She laughed at our family portraits, and made fun of the ghosts!” said Augusta; “such bad form!”

“My milk-woman says she is a mere girl, and very handsome—she saw her last evening.”

“Oh, handsome, no doubt—in a milk-woman’s opinion,” sneered Augusta; “to me, her eyes are unpleasantly bold.”

“Oh, Gussie!” remonstrated her sister, “they are simply lovely!”

“For my own part,” resumed Mrs. Preedy, “I am curious to know what sort of impression she will make on the neighbourhood.”

Happily young Mrs. Mowbray had the good fortune to make a most favourable impression on the county. She was an elegant, unaffected young woman; her grace and easy manner, her delightful singing, and simple, but recherché toilettes, were all duly appreciated and admired. As she was cultivated and attractive, the neighbours apparently did not care two straws who she was—or whence she came. Mowbray had met her abroad, and known her for several years, and married, this time, not to gratify a shameless old matchmaker, but to please himself. Everyone who was anyone promptly called on the bride; parties were given in her honour, and in spite of her reluctance to be prominent, and her anxiety to share with them the general good-will, her step-daughters found themselves completely eclipsed. Even Mrs. Preedy called at last and issued invitations for an “At Home.” She shrewdly realised that Mrs. Henry Mowbray would be an important acquisition, and, after all, it is only in human nature to worship the rising sun!

Mrs. Mowbray was a fine horsewoman, an enthusiastic tennis-player, a capital whip. Where had she learnt these accomplishments? Mrs. Preedy put this question to her intimates with somewhat malignant significance.

“Certainly not when she was a companion to an old lady! Carrying shawls and attending a bath-chair would then have been her duties.”

Mr. Mowbray purchased a new stanhope phaeton, a smart affair with red wheels, and drove his young wife about the neighbourhood, thereby resigning to his daughters the family landau; and Augusta, with the use of the carriage and the charge of the keys, no longer felt herself absolutely deposed. To tell the truth, the young bride was not inclined for either display or responsibility, and had never once expressed a desire to see the celebrated Mowbray diamonds. They still remained in Gussie’s possession. Some day Gussie would be called on to relinquish them, but as yet her father had not sufficiently braced himself to hold the awful but necessary interview; and, meanwhile, Sybil was contented with a string of pearls. She enjoyed a gallop round the park, trying over the newest songs, or poking about the farm with her husband. State receptions, state manners, jewels and carriages, she gladly relinquished to Augusta. The villagers, and all old and poor people, soon became attached to the “new lady,” she was so different from them (meaning anything but a complimentary reference to her step-daughters). Her youth, sweet face, and simple, sympathetic manners, endeared her to the tenants on Thorlands estate.

Autumn passed into winter, but failed to wear away Augusta Mowbray’s dislike to what she mentally termed “the interloper.” Her visions of a splendid marriage had faded; gradually she began to realise that she was no longer a supremely important person. Supposing her father were to be surrounded with a large young family! Supposing that an heir was born? Miss Mowbray felt certain that the bells which rang for his birth would sound the knell to her hopes of being Lady Lockfield. Augusta was secretly implacable—she would never forgive the adventuress who had usurped her place and ousted her from the position of mistress in her father’s house. Who was she? No one had yet succeeded in discovering anything beyond the fact that she was a Miss Hilton, an orphan, without brothers or sisters, who had been educated at Brighton, and had lived abroad; to trace something tangible, something discreditable, was Gussie’s earnest hope, nay, almost her prayer. She laid, in conversation, a series of neatly constructed traps, but her step-mother was wary, and avoided all dangerous topics with incredible ease—an ease which seemed to indicate a considerable amount of practice.

Christmas brought the Dowager Lady Scantlands to the Court; she had come expressly to see her dear children, and to discover what description of young woman they had in their step-mother. The old lady was small and brisk; she held age at arm’s length, and wore an elaborate wig, the colour of ginger-bread, piquant little caps, and a good deal of rouge; an agreeable, worldly-wise dame, who proceeded to make friends with her pretty hostess, and immediately called her “Sybil.”

“Whoever she may be, she is charming!” she declared to her grand-daughters, as they sat awaiting a verdict over her bedroom fire, “and really, the house seems twice as lively and pleasant, as under your reign, Gussie. I like to see animals about, flowers everywhere, and people dropping in informally to tea. I am not surprised to hear she is popular—indeed, I was told so in town. Personally, I am fond of her already—she has looked after all my little creature comforts; this is a delightful easy chair, there is a reading-lamp by the bed, and a screen by the door.”

“Dearest Grannie, you forget that this sort of thing was her business,” protested Gussie; “she was companion to an old lady—and knows their tastes, but I am glad you think you will like her,” she added stiffly, “it is not often that you take a fancy to strangers.”

“Ah, well, I suppose I am fond of my ease,” admitted her grandmother, “and a little special attention goes a long way with me, now.”

Although Lady Scantlands was unexpectedly agreeable to the second Mrs. Mowbray, she was still consumed by a hungry curiosity respecting her past, and was anxious to find out all about her—and not merely anxious, but absolutely determined to succeed.

One wet, gloomy afternoon, as dusk was falling, when it was too soon for the lights, too dark to read, and too early for tea, her ladyship, who had been writing letters (she was a renowned scribe), suddenly remarked, with an air of almost oppressive benevolence:

“By the way, my dear Sybil, don’t you find it rather dull having no correspondence?”

“Oh, but I have,” she protested, “heaps of letters from shops, and dozens of neighbourly notes.”

“Ah, yes; but I don’t mean that—I mean from your relatives.” Here she cleared her throat. “Has it ever occurred to you, my dear, that we should be interested to hear of your belongings?”

“Yes, I think I have been able to grasp that fact”—was there a slightly sarcastic note in the voice?—“Henry knows all about me, and really there is so very little to disclose—but if you are curious, 1 will tell you the short story of my life.”

“Yes, please do,” said Rosabel, and she moved her chair nearer.

“Pray begin, my dear,” added Lady Scantlands, “I am naturally a most inquisitive old woman, and keenly interested in any story.”

Sybil Mowbray rose, went over slowly to the fire, which she poked, then, leaning against the chimney-piece, and looking down into the blaze, she gave a little sigh, and began:

“My mother died when I was born—I was born in India. My father was a major in the 25th Lancers, an only son; his people took charge of me while he was abroad. I believe he was fearfully extravagant, and when he was killed at polo I was left all but penniless. However, father’s sister—who had married a foreigner, was immensely wealthy, and had no children—adopted me. She sent me to school in England, and when I was eighteen, took me to live with her abroad.”

“As her companion?” broke in Augusta sharply.

“Yes, when she was cross, I was her companion; when she was pleased, I was her adopted daughter, but I was generally her companion, reader, and secretary.”

“Oh, then, she was not easy to please,” said Lady Scantlands.

“No, it was much easier to displease her. She had strange ideas, and was fond of formality, politics, and diplomatic intrigues; yet, in her way, she was kind to me. I had a liberal dress allowance, and a maid. We lived entirely on the Continent. My aunt had a villa at Cannes, and spent the summer in Lower Austria; her husband had been a Hungarian magnate; each season we went to Aix——” She paused.

“Ah, where you met Henry Mowbray?” supplemented Lady Scantlands.

“Yes, I met him three years running—but we were almost entirely in the foreign set, and, oh, I was so tired of foreign life! I longed to return to England. Aunt Sybilla loathed this country, and the climate, and she particularly wanted me to marry a foreigner, a husband of her own selection. I absolutely refused what she considered a great match, although all the preliminaries had been already arranged, and she brought a great deal of pressure to bear, but I would not yield; so she quarrelled furiously with me, and turned me out of her house. I have few other relations, and none of them dared to interfere—they are all so terribly afraid of Aunt Sybilla, she is so overbearing, and absolute, and rich.”

“And you married Henry!” exclaimed the old lady. “Pray, what did your aunt say to that?”

“I really do not know; she returned my letters unopened. I went with friends from Aix to Paris, and I was married there; then, at last, I came to England. Oh, I do love England; there is no place like England! Well, this is the end of my story, and I hope we may all live long, and as the fairy book says, be happy ever after!”

“What was your aunt Sybilla’s name? “ inquired Gussie, with loud-voiced emphasis, but the reply, which was lost in a sudden opening of the door, left only an impression of an unfamiliar foreign sound, and the appearance of visitors, followed immediately by lights and tea, concluded the conversation.

Chapter IV

Lady Scantlands found her quarters so comfortable, the house well warmed, the cook excellent, the hostess attentive, that she prolonged her visit until late in February. Her own home in Queen’s Gate was not half so attractive; there she had butcher’s bills, and taxes, and domestic worries; here everything went on wheels, and she spent half her days in a luxurious arm-chair with a novel (in large print) on her lap, talking, listening and enjoying herself. The dowager was resting on her oars, preparatory to the approaching London season, when she was resolved to strain every sinew in order to secure a husband for one, or both, of her grand-daughters; the sooner they were established in their own homes the better. Her ladyship was a bold, shrewd, but by no means bad-hearted old woman. In the battle of life she had fought, tooth and nail, for her family and herself; her daughters were dead, her sons were married (to women with good fortunes, who kept her at arm’s length), and all her energies were now concentrated on the Mowbray girls. At the same time, she was never averse to giving others a helping hand, and enjoyed managing, so to speak, “foreign affairs.” She was a wonderful woman on committees; organised bazaars and charity balls, and was frequently “called in” as an experienced, almost professional adviser, to settle awkward matters and help to smother scandals. Mrs. Preedy, who visited her constantly, venerated the Countess, and brought her, like a good retriever, all the local news; and sometimes the Countess lunched with Mrs. Preedy, who served all her meals with sauce piquante. She rarely spoke a good word of anyone, with her “les absents ont toujours tort.” It was astonishing how a woman with such a soft, white, good-natured face, could say so many hard things; no one was spared—not the Misses Mowbray—not even her ladyship. Her ladyship, for all her short stature, could be very much the grande dame, and never suffered Sybil Mowbray to be dissected; she did not care for spite, though she enjoyed amusing stories at other people’s expense, and if her hostess’s tongue became too sharp, she set it to work on pedigrees.

When Lady Scantlands returned to town, she was accompanied by her grand-daughters, and Sybil felt as if a cloud had been lifted from her sky. For the first time, she was the absolute mistress of her own house; she could venture to be late for a meal, to lounge in a comfortable chair with a book, to have the dogs in, to laugh and make merry with the Rectory girls, or her husband, without feeling that two pairs of small eyes were watching her with polite reproach.

During the early summer the long deserted nurseries were opened. An infant was born at Thorlands. To her father’s disappointment (and the relief of his eldest daughter) the baby was a girl; a fine, strong young person, with a loud voice and a pair of bright dark eyes. She was christened “Ella,” after Mr. Mowbray’s mother. (Augusta and Rosabel were names of note on the Scantlands side.) The christening was, in the opinion of the sisters, an unnecessarily grand affair. All the resources of the establishment were—the silver plate, the old china, finally the Mowbray diamonds; these looked to supreme advantage on the hair and neck of the second Mrs. Mowbray, who made a far more effective and successful hostess than Augusta had ever done. Augusta looked on with outward amiability, but the Spartan fox of fury was nibbling at her heart.

Not very long after the christening party, Mr. Mowbray purchased a fine pair of horses for the stanhope. They were black and magnificent to look at, and had what dealers term, “extravagant action.” Mr. Mowbray never divulged (even to his head coachman) the price he had paid for them. That worthy, although admitting that there was nothing to match them in the county, added: “And unless I’m a fool, they are a pair of devils, and will take the Squire all he knows to drive them; they are a handful, and no mistake.” The Squire was delighted with his new purchases, and so was his wife, who had no nerves, and almost daily the Mowbray girls came out to the hall to witness “the start,” which was usually of a most sensational description, with much rearing and careering, plunging, scattering of gravel, and ultimately a departure, as sudden as it was swift. As they watched the stanhope flying down the avenue the ladies felt devoutly thankful that they were not passengers, and were about to take the air in the landau behind a pair of staid and stately blood bays. The Mowbray girls were naturally timid, and took after their mother, the town-bred Lady Augusta. Matinees, concerts, strolls in the Row, and crowded ballrooms were far more in their line than wild drives and rides, long walks, and in all weathers—such as their high-spirited step-mother enjoyed.

She had undoubtedly experienced some exciting moments behind the “new blacks,” as they were called in the yard, and had named them “Thunder” and “Lightning.” More than once she had said, in joke to her companion, “Henry, I should not be surprised if we have an awful smash some day. I never saw such a nervous pair—and they do pull, even you!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t give a pin for them if they did not go well up to their bits, and I know you wouldn’t stand a pair of old cows. You enjoy going a good pace.”

“Yes, and I’ve every confidence in you,” she answered. “But like a dear man, don’t let them run away with us. I don’t want to be killed.”

“Killed!” he echoed. “What an idea!”

“Well, you know I’m not a bit nervous. I’d drive them myself, if I could only hold them; but Sir Thomas Phipps said——”

“Oh, Sir Thomas is only fit for a bath-chair! They are going like lambs now.”

Ten minutes later, as these same lambs were turning a corner, they met that truly fearsome object—a traction engine, followed by five trucks. As it throbbed and grunted towards them, they halted for a second, paralysed; then wheeled about with one frantic plunge, all but overturning the stanhope, and tore away down the road like wild animals who were hotly pursued.

Mr. Mowbray, though pulling with might and main, with his feet set against the splash-board, was powerless; the maddened horses were beyond his control.

“The bridge, sir!” shouted the groom, who sat behind. “Mind the bridge! For God’s sake—the bridge!”

The bridge was still half a mile ahead, a narrow one, with high stone parapets. Would they steer clear of it? No, the horses were totally ungovernable, and every stride in their gallop brought the Mowbrays nearer to death.

Mr. Mowbray, with his arms fully extended, his face set and white, held the reins. His brave wife clung to him in silence. Suddenly she said:

“Oh, Henry, here it comes!” Then in a loud clear voice, “Good-bye!” and she covered her eyes with her hands, as they crashed into the stone wall.

There was a loud smash, a sound of violent kicking, struggling, hoofs, and all was over. Some country people who witnessed the catastrophe came running up and lifted Mrs. Mowbray. She had been flung out on her head and killed on the spot. Her husband appeared to be dead also. The carriage was in matchwood; cushions and rugs lay scattered in the dust. The groom had escaped with a bad shaking, one horse lay pumping out his life-blood with every respiration, the other had kicked himself clear of harness, and was probably in the next parish. It was altogether a terrible business; such a shocking carriage accident had never happened in those parts. A doctor was hastily summoned, two stretchers procured, and Mr. Mowbray was conveyed to a neighbouring farmhouse, for he still breathed. His wife was no longer “she.” Mrs. Mowbray had become “it,” and as such, was borne on the shoulders of some stout labourers, whilst the tragic news was carefully broken to the two young ladies.

At first they were naturally stunned by the awful suddenness of their step-mother’s summons; but after the first violent outbreak of emotion, they hurried to the farm to see their father. He was still insensible; everything possible had already been accomplished; the patient was in the hands of a first-rate surgeon, two nurses had been procured, and his own man was in attendance. There was nothing whatever for them to do; the sick-room was closed, and their immediate presence was unnecessary. At Thorlands the sisters sat together late into the night, endeavouring to realise the sudden change in their circumstances. The doctor held out small hopes of their father’s recovery; his injuries were such, that it would be unlikely for him to linger for more than a few days. And she was gone!—the unwelcome step-mother, who but a few hours previously had been far more full of life and activity than themselves. Her little belongings were littered about the drawing-room, and shocked them forcibly, in spite of the fact that this particular gap in the family circle afforded an unspoken relief. There, near by, lay an open book; the hand which had opened it was cold in death. On a table were a few gathered and forgotten flowers. On the open piano was a song—her song. Was it a mere coincidence that the title which stared at them half across the room in large black letters was, “Bid me good-bye”? Ruff, her fox-terrier, kept running to the door and back again, amazed and uneasy by his mistress’s absence. Finally, he curled himself into her favourite chair, and there went to sleep.

“Isn’t it awful?” said Rosabel to her sister, after a long silence. Augusta looked at her interrogatively and said:

“Yes, it is all awful; but what do you specially mean?”

“I mean sudden death,” said Rosabel. “Do you know,” she continued in an awestruck voice, “that before they could lay the body on the bed they had to remove all her evening things already laid out? She was to have worn”—here her voice dropped to a tremulous whisper—“a black dress.”

“Of course, that was a mere coincidence. What affects us most nearly is the state of poor father. The doctor said his case was most serious; he has wired for a specialist from London, who will be down to-night. A man so young for his age, so full of energy and activity, one can hardly believe that still, white shrunken man is father; it seems incredible!”

“Oh, I hope he will get better; he has a splendid constitution.”

“But if his injuries are fatal, and his spine is paralysed?”

A pause. “Then, Augusta, I suppose everything will go to—you? “

“Oh, but don’t let us talk of that yet!” protested Augusta, with uplifted hands. “While there is life there is hope.”

But as matters subsequently turned out, there was but little hope. Within a day or two Mr. Mowbray recovered consciousness. His mind proved to be as vigorous as his body was weak. Among his earliest visitors was the rector of the parish, who lost no time in preparing his old friend for the grave intelligence, that his days, if not his hours, were numbered, and that it behoved him to set his house in order without delay.

Since his marriage Mr. Mowbray had made no will. Under the circumstances, a fresh one was an imperative necessity, and Mr. Hawkins, the family lawyer, was summoned from London. There was not an hour to lose. In the new document, dictated by the dying man, Thorlands Court was left to his eldest daughter, with all its heirlooms and treasures. Rosabel’s share was £20,000, money well invested in shares and Consols. Ella, his youngest, a baby of six weeks old, was endowed with a fortune of £10,000, as she would have such a long minority, and her eldest sister was appointed sole guardian until she reached the age of one-and-twenty—or married. There were legacies to old servants, to old friends, to old charities; even favourite dogs and horses were not forgotten. For a man who was already standing on the threshold of another world, Henry Mowbray’s will was remarkably business-like, and complete.

Naturally the double tragedy at Thorlands Court had created a tremendous sensation in the neighbourhood. All day long, streams of friends and well-wishers came to the old redbrick farmhouse in the hollow, where Henry Mowbray lay. His two daughters spent most of their time in his vicinity, sitting idle and tearless in the stuffy best parlour, for by the doctor’s express orders their visits to the sick-room were of limited duration.

One afternoon Mr. Mowbray sent down a nurse to say that he wished to see his eldest daughter alone. Augusta, not a little nervous, entered the sick-room awestruck and on tiptoe. What had her father to say to her, that might not also be said to Rosabel? He was lying low among the pillows, on an ancient four-poster bed, enveloped in blue check curtains—to the end of her days a certain pattern of blue check recalled the scene to Augusta Mowbray.

“I wished to see you alone, Gussie,” murmured her parent, extending a wasted hand. “I have no time to lose,” and he looked with dying eyes into the face of his startled visitor.

“Oh, you must not talk like that!” she stammered. “The doctor says you have a wonderful constitution, and may rally and live for years.”

“As a cripple; but no—I feel I have not many hours or days to be here.”

“Oh, how can you talk like this? “ she protested hysterically, dragging out her handkerchief.

“Because I must,” he rejoined in a weak voice. “You are my heiress, Augusta. I want to speak to you about many things—especially about your poor little sister—doubly an orphan. I leave the child in your charge—yours and Rosabel’s—but chiefly to you. You will be a mother, as well as a sister, won’t you, Gussie? She is your own flesh and blood.”

Augusta bowed her head; she was moved to unusual emotion by the dying man’s pleading eyes, and was prepared to promise him anything, and even to feel a sudden glow of affection and compassion for her baby half-sister.

“Talk to her about her mother sometimes; tell her how beautiful and sweet she was; tell her how sorry I am to leave her; tell her to be truthful, and unselfish, and brave.”

“Oh, I will, indeed!” sobbed Augusta. “I will do my best to be a mother to her, my very best; but what about Sybil’s relations?”

A pause. “She was already dead to them when I married her, and she had but few. She, too, was an orphan. After all, Ella is a Mowbray, she is one of you,” and he extended his hand to his daughter, who took it, and held it tightly between her own.

“Augusta, I look to you, to uphold the traditions of the old family. You will be a power—use your power well. Be a liberal, just ruler; be good to the poor; keep up the old place.” A pause. “It is getting very dark,” he muttered, although the broad light of a summer’s evening was streaming between the check curtains. “Augusta,” and his voice was faint, “I have your promise about the—child.” Suddenly a tremor passed across his face, a death-like pallor spread over his pinched features; his eyes remained fixed on his daughter in a glassy stare. There was no struggle, no conflict, scarcely even a sigh, to mark the passing of a soul.

*  *  *

Augusta stood for some seconds with the dead man’s hand in hers, petrified, as if turned to stone. When she realised the fact that she was alone with a corpse, she rent the farmhouse with piercing shrieks, which brought her sister, the valet, and the nurse, all running to her assistance.

It was true, the patient’s words had proved prophetic, he had not lived many hours. Henry Mowbray, of Thorlands Court, was no more, and. Augusta, his daughter, reigned in his stead.

Chapter V

For weeks after the tragic death of Henry Mowbray and his young wife his daughters remained at Thorlands, plunged in grief, and, as far as Augusta was concerned, continuous and important business. She was her own mistress—mistress of the estates, and mistress of the fate of her infant sister, a little dark-eyed cherub, whose recent bereavement was an unknown calamity, and who crowed and smiled as if she still possessed two adoring parents, and as if all her young life and happiness was not dependent on that pale, long-faced lady in black—her eldest sister.

The family affairs were at last wound up. Mr. Hawkins’ letters and documents ceased to crowd the post-bag, and it was known far and wide that Augusta Mowbray was the enviable owner of a fine unencumbered estate, and that her sisters had been suitably provided for. A change of scene was considered essential for Augusta and Rosabel, and relatives eagerly recommended these hitherto untravelled damsels to spend a season on the Riviera. Their mourning was still too deep for them to see their friends, and under such circumstances, a winter in England would be a martyrdom.

*  *  *

The Misses Mowbray accordingly departed to the south of France, taking with them a large amount of luggage—portable baths, hot-water bottles, tea baskets, and two maids. They rented a sunny villa at Mentone, a villa standing in a garden of mimosa and orange-trees, through whose branches gleamed the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. The new arrivals were enchanted with their first visit to the Côte d’Azur, and gradually put off their mourning—black gowns seemed so out of place amid their gay surroundings. It is advisable, under certain circumstances, to mourn abroad, where there are no meddling intimates to recall dates, and where, within three months of a deep affliction, relatives may attend receptions, the opera, and even dances, free from criticism and reproof.

After the somewhat monotonous round of country life at Thorlands, the sisters felt as if they had discovered a delightful flowery land, an earthly paradise. They had opened the gate of another world and entered its precincts. Early training had taught them little beyond egoism and the need of novelty—and novelty was here. Their little half-sister had been put out to nurse with the wife of a respectable farmer, and throve in the amazing fashion peculiar to waifs and encumbrances. The first thing the child could remember was a low white house, with a duck-pond, and numbers of tiny yellow ducks, also a stout, merry-looking woman with ruddy cheeks. This was Mrs. Mallard, her foster-mother, with whom she made her home until she was six years old. Her earliest recollections were entirely of the country—cowslips and roses, milking and haymaking, a snug wooden cot with a gay patchwork quilt, close to Mrs. Mallard’s wide four-poster; and very tired and sleepy-eyed the child used to be when she was lifted into bed after running about all day. So far little Ella was supremely happy, and could imagine nothing better than the life at the farm. Her only cloud was represented by the state visit of two grand ladies, in silk dresses, who came to see her at long intervals, always in a beautiful carriage—which stopped below on the road, because the horses looked too proud to come up the lane.

“Your sisters is come,” Mrs. Mallard would announce, hurrying into the garden or hayfield and capturing the child with as much chasing and exertion as if she had been a young rabbit or a chicken.

“The nice ladies wanted to see her, and she must be a good girl, and behave pretty, and have her face washed, and put on a clean pinny.”

Unfortunately Ella was never disposed to shine on these occasions, but would enter the best parlour, slinking behind her kind protector, with a scowl on her face and her finger in her mouth. From her post behind “Mams” she would, in return for their cool and critical inspection, glare at her visitors with all the defiance at her command. She hated having to stand up straight, to take her finger out of her mouth and say, “How doth the little busy bee,” or “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.” Then she would be requested to walk across the room, in order that her sisters might see how much she had grown; these ladies meanwhile exchanging audible confidences, as if under the impression that the child was not merely stupid, but deaf.

“What a shock of hair; it is like tow!” exclaimed Rosabel. “She never got that from our side—eh, Gussie?”

“No. I confess I am disappointed. Certainly she has not much look of breeding,” declared Augusta in a voice of singular distinctness.

“Yes, I must say I am surprised. No, not a trace of the Mowbrays, and such awful, clownish manners!”

“She is probably at the ugly age,” suggested Rosabel. “She looks very healthy, at any rate.”

“Yes, but she has such a disagreeable, ill-tempered countenance.”

These flattering criticisms invariably took place in the absence of Mrs. Mallard, bent on hospitality; the ladies had come a long distance, and must be in need of refreshments. Her return, beaming behind a tray laden with homemade plum cake and elderflower wine, was the signal for discreet silence. Conversation was now restricted to the child’s clothes or shoes, her appetite and her ailments.

“Has she a good temper, Mrs. Mallard? There, Ella, you may run away,” said Miss Mowbray, almost in one breath. Ella, having accepted her release with unflattering alacrity, her sister continued:

“A good temper counts for so much, in my opinion.” Possibly because the poor woman had such an indifferent one herself.

“Temper,” echoed the farmer’s wife; “why, the child is an angel, as sweet as new hay; she never has been known to tell a lie, and she would give you the clothes off her back and the eye out of her head. She’s as brave as a lion, not afraid of any mortal thing—let alone the turkey-cock; but I will allow she’s a bit hot-tempered, and so much the better, to my mind; cool-blooded folks is like snails.”

Mrs. Mallard would never listen to a word against her nursling, who was also her idol, and had taken the place of her own child, who had died when a few weeks old. She loved her as if she were her flesh and blood; in her eyes Missy could do no wrong—Missy was perfection; perhaps Missy was unintentionally spoiled. But, alas for little Ella, her halcyon days were numbered; letters from abroad came to the farm, letters bearing the Canadian stamp; these were read and re-read, and pored over by Mr. and Mrs. Mallard. There was a great deal of grave talk and discussion round the logs those winter evenings. Friends and neighbours were summoned to give counsel, and their advice and Farmer Mallard’s wishes amounted to the same thing. His brother John was doing well in Manitoba, and he had invited him and his family to join him out there in the early spring. (“Yes,” declared Mallard, “before I become a worn-out, rheumatic old man, who comes on the parish.”) Times were hard for farmers in the old country; stock was down; there had been several bad, wet seasons. It was a laborious, uphill life, and finally the Mallards resolved to go to try their fortune on the other side of the world.

But it would be hard to part with Missy, who had taken root in their very hearts, and was a portion of their daily fives. She had been with them since she was three months old; had grown up among them, and learned to walk, and talk, and been as one of the family. If leaving her behind was painful to the Mallards, if the prospect of separation caused her good nurse to frequently catch her in her arms and smother her with kisses, what would the reality be to the child, who was about to be abandoned to strangers?

One bleak February morning Missy was dressed in her best and warmest clothes, although it was not Sunday—she could not be going to church; she was kissed many times by Jock and Zack, then mounted into the gig, placed on Mams’ lap, and driven off by Farmer Mallard himself. It was an unusual treat on a week-day; where were they going, she asked—to church?—was it Christmas again? “No, Missy was going home,” was the answer, “and Missy was to be a good, good girl; she would have her kitty to play with, it was in a basket under the seat.” This piece of information was unnecessary, for kitty was making herself heard.

The drive proved long, cold, and uninteresting. After asking dozens of questions, the child fell fast asleep, and did not awake until she found herself being lifted down from the gig at the door of a house with many windows, and placed in the arms of a stout woman with a black dress and fuzzy hair.

“So, Mrs. Mallard, this is the child,” she said, as she deposited her on the flags; then turned and looked at her critically. “She’s not a Mowbray, anyhow,” in a tone of contemptuous deprecation.

“No, and maybe that’s no loss,” retorted Mrs. Mallard. “Her sisters are no beauties—-and she’s a bonny girl—no one can deny that.”

“Well, well, we will not fall out about her looks. Handsome is that handsome does,” replied the other. “Come you in, Mrs. Mallard, and have a bit of dinner, and something warm after your perishing journey, and you, too, farmer. If you’ll just drive into the yard, there’s a man will take the horse. The family is away now, as you know; they spend most of the year abroad, and are not coming back this good while—so I have it all my own way.”

At first the invitation was declined, but after very pressing entreaties, and some whispering between the farmer and his wife, they agreed to remain and dine with the housekeeper.

Mrs. Taff led the way down a long stone passage into a comfortable sitting-room with a blazing fire, and a table laid for a meal. Missy was hungry and glad of food; she rapidly disposed of a plateful of Irish stew, and then looking about, noticed that Mrs. Taff drank a quantity of yellow stuff out of a bottle, and audibly asked Mams “if it was medicine to make her face red?”

Mams whispered back: “No; that it was for her health, and that little girls must not pass remarks.”

Ultimately she sat on Mams’ knee, with her kitten hugged in her arms, refusing cake and peppermints. The child had an instinctive fear that something was about to happen, and was firmly resolved that she would not stay in this big house, with the woman with the fuzzy hair, whom she surveyed with a mingling of sharp observation and distrust, although the woman was laughing and joking now, and seemed very good-humoured.

No, no, she would not let Mams out of her sight; where she went, Missy went. After a time the farmer and his wife were formally conducted round the state apartments; the great entrance hall, the white saloon, the picture gallery—Mrs. Taff temporarily loquacious, confidential, nay, even affectionate, to Mrs. Mallard.

“No,” in reply to a query that Missy did not overhear, though she clung like a limpet to Mams’ hand, “there’s no picture of her anywhere.”

She also imparted to her visitors that there was some talk of the eldest of them getting married, and making a great match, too—the news had come in a maid’s letter, and might be all lies—and there was a foreign prince after Miss Rosabel.

By and by Mrs. Taff and Mams withdrew together into a window, where they held a long conversation, and Mams cried a great deal, and appeared to be urging something on the other, who stared at Missy, and said out loud:

“Yes—and when I say Yes, you may take it that I mean it. I am a dependable woman, or I would not be where I am now.”

Then Farmer Mallard drew out his huge silver watch, and said:

“Now, Polly, we must be going; it will soon be dark. Best get it over, whilst I fetch the gig.”

In ten minutes’ time the gig was at the side door, the farmer was seated in it, and his wife turned to take leave of her foster-child.

“Good-bye, my blessed—God keep you!” she sobbed. “When you are a grand young lady, I know you won’t forget your old Mams, and as soon as you can write, you will send her a letter all the way to Canada. Be a good girl, my treasure, and Heaven keep you. I must go.”

“No, no—I am going, too!” screamed the child, clasping her tightly round the neck. “I’ll not stay here with the fuzzy-haired woman. Oh, don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”

But her tears and prayers were of no avail.

“Come along, Polly, come along—-you must, you know,” urged the farmer impatiently, and with all a man’s horror of a scene. So in the end Missy was dragged by main force from the neck of her beloved Mams, and Mrs. Taff’s vigorous arms restrained her, whilst her foster-mother, blinded with crying, groped her way into the gig, and was driven rapidly away. Then Missy was released, but in a second she had darted after the gig (being surprisingly fleet of foot), with her hands outstretched and her hair streaming in the wind; but needless to add, when Farmer Mallard caught sight of the little figure in pursuit, he drove remorselessly on; and when, utterly exhausted, and she could run no longer, the child relinquished the chase, she flung herself down on the hard wet gravel, and abandoned herself to a passion of tears and despair. After a time someone came and fetched her; not Mrs. Taff, but a fat, good-humoured girl, called Phoebe, who dragged her along by one arm, a limp, impassive figure, and pushing her into the housekeeper’s sanctum, said:

“There she is! She had run as far as the second gate. I wish you joy of her; a regular young wild cat!”

“Wild cat or not, she’s got to sleep with you, Phoebe,” resorted Mrs. Taff, with a loud laugh. “I make no doubt she’ll soon get over her tantrums. Give her some bread and butter and take her upstairs. I expect the ladies will be finely put out, when they hear she’s been left all of a sudden on their hands by them Mallards.”

The little unwelcome guest, indignantly refused to eat bread and butter—even bread and butter with nice brown sugar—and having been undressed and put to bed in Phoebe’s little back room, she sobbed herself to sleep.

“To the old, sorrow is sorrow. To the young, sorrow is despair.”

Chapter VI

Many a night little Ella cried herself to sleep, and cried herself to sleep with right good reason; no longer the baby and pet of a household, she was left to shift for herself as a nobody’s child. It was no one’s special business to look after Miss Ella; her sisters were spending the spring in a beautiful Italian villa, and had no immediate intention of returning home. The Dowager Lady Lockfield, their neighbour, was amiably disposed towards the Mowbray girls, especially towards Augusta, the owner of Thorlands, and she repeatedly assured her son that “Augusta was a well-bred young woman, with a fine property pinned to her apron, had excellent principles, and an unimpeachable pedigree.” Her ladyship constantly invited the sisters to her receptions and small select dinners—her wishes, and those of Augusta, were good friends.

Miss Mowbray, with her future position, and a coronet hanging, so to speak, in the balance, was too deeply absorbed in her own affairs to have time to think of her little half-sister. As she tossed the Mallards’ letter to Rosabel, she said:

“Read that, Rosie; is it not an awful bore, that these people are emigrating, and wish to know what they are to do with the little angel?”

“Well,” said Rosie, as she folded up the ill-spelt but warm-hearted epistle, “we cannot have the little angel out here—that is certain.”

“Yes, and she is too young to send to school, and a governess would be such a nuisance—what can I do?”

“She is nearly seven years old, is she not? Let Mrs. Taff take entire charge of her for the present, and engage a nursery-maid—a good one. It will only be temporary; something can be settled when we return in the summer.”

“Very well, I will write to Taff to-morrow,” agreed Augusta, and the consultation ended.

Seven years of disappointed hopes had not improved Augusta in mind or body—although they had added to her estate; and, unfortunately, she was one of those people to whom prosperity is a calamity. In the first flush of good resolutions, after her father’s death, she had intended to deal conscientiously with the child; and to find a suitable home, and good foster-mother for the infant, she had spared neither trouble nor expense. Those dying eyes seemed riveted on hers, she still felt the clasp of the dead hand—oh, yes, she would fulfil her promise to the letter.

But the attractions of foreign travel, foreign life, and novelty, had dazzled Miss Mowbray and lured her away from England. Memories do grow dim; the child being out of sight, was also out of mind—save on the rare occasions of the visits; and during these visits little Ella did not make an agreeable impression; she seemed spoiled, shy and stupid—not the least pretty or attractive, with her mane of light hair, small button nose, and audacious dark eyes.

When staying at Thorlands, it never occurred to Augusta to have her youngest sister with her, in order that they might become better acquainted. On the contrary, she and Rosabel agreed, that “it would be a dreadful nuisance to have a small child running loose all over the house, and that she was far better, for the present, at least, enthroned among her worshippers at the farm; besides, it was so much more healthy!” and with these arguments they silenced their consciences. To find that this little encumbrance had been unexpectedly restored to her relatives, was a most disagreeable piece of intelligence; however, Mrs. Taff was duly written to, and desired to seek a thoroughly competent nurse-maid to take charge of Miss Ella, and that on no account was Miss Ella to leave the park and go into the village, or to associate with other children.

Mrs. Taff engaged a young person from an alluring advertisement; the young person, duly arrived, was confidential with the housekeeper the first day, a bosom friend the second day, an embittered enemy the third, and departed after a violent quarrel, with a month’s wages. This young lady, as she called herself, was succeeded by a respectable elderly nurse, who remained exactly one month, and during this time, faithfully endeavoured to teach her charge pretty behaviour, words of three letters, and to keep her hair and clothes tidy. Ella was naturally a tomboy. She loved climbing trees and throwing stones, and rebelled against tubbing, combing, and formality. Parsons was a conscientious woman, and truly sorry for the neglected child, but she had her own character and affairs to consider, and it was impossible, in her opinion, for any self-respecting individual to remain in a situation under the authority of such a creature as Mrs. Taff. Therefore she also departed, having endowed little Ella with a copy of “Reading without Tears,” and a certain amount of excellent but futile advice.

She was succeeded by an attractive foreigner, who smoked cigarettes, lay in bed till twelve o’clock and drank brandy. “Mademoiselle” disappeared without even the formality of giving notice, carrying off a quantity of loot—for instance, certain lace flounces, the property of the late Lady Augusta Mowbray, foolishly exhibited by Mrs. Taff—a silver sugar-bowl, period George the First, and many other such portable little articles as spoons, and even Mrs. Taff’s purse and watch.

After this experience, the housekeeper relinquished the quest in despair, and mendaciously informed Miss Mowbray that no nurse would stay with Miss Ella, she was such a little “limb” (then she wrote “pest”, scratched that out, and ultimately put “tomboy”), but Phoebe, the under-housemaid, had undertaken to keep an eye on her, unless the ladies would prefer to take charge of her themselves, and have her sent out at once, to join them in Florence? When, after the departure of the foreign maid, Ella fell into Phoebe’s care, she more or less ran wild. Phoebe hustled her into meals in the housekeeper’s room, brushed her hair, and fastened her frock, she put her to bed, but otherwise left the child entirely to her own devices—for be it known that Phoebe had a sweetheart—one of the keepers, who naturally occupied the chief part of her thoughts and time. It was plain that no one wanted Missy, who was a sharp little thing, a veritable sensitive plant, and speedily realised this fact. How tired she was, of hearing “Oh, bother, here’s this child again,” or “There, now, Missy, here’s the skipping-rope for you—you run away and play—do.” How different to Mallard Farm, where the companionship of Missy was at a premium! Here Grant, the head-gardener, was as cross as two sticks, and always slammed the big gate in the child’s face when he saw her approaching. Job, the old family butler, who had served under the Countess of Scantlands (and who now lived in a nice two-storeyed cottage in the grounds), viewed her rambles about the house with grim disfavour. Unfortunately, she had the character of being “mischievous,” of poking her fingers and nose into forbidden places, and he generally chased her as if she were a stray animal, waving his chamois leather, and shouting:

“Get away, little Missy!—I’m feared of your breaking things—just look at your dirty shoes—get away, now, do!”

Jane, the cook pro tem.—-kitchen-maid when the house was occupied—was kind to the child, and often allowed her to sit beside the hearth in the kitchen on a creepy stool, and Tom, the under-groom, was also another ally; so she gradually descended from the housekeeper’s room, and found her level in the kitchen; and it came to pass that she spent most of her time downstairs. Once or twice Mrs. Taff had come across her, and had said:

“For goodness’ sake send that child out of the place! She has no business here,” but after a time Missy was suffered to remain unnoticed; she was not in the way, was no trouble, and Jane made her welcome. Although neglected by her sisters and their household, little Ella was by no means unhappy; she, as well as Phoebe and Mrs. Taff, had her own resources, and made pleasures for herself out of most unpromising surroundings. There was no one to drive her out of the library, and in this quiet place she passed many a long hour, curled up in a chair, looking at pictures, and wishing that she could read big words. She had her kitten, now almost a full-grown cat, who was companion and bedfellow; save for the cat, she slept all alone in the big nursery. Another child might have been afraid, for it was a lonely apartment, at some distance from rooms which were occupied, but Ella did not know what fear was, and went boldly up and down the empty, echoing house, and through the haunted gallery, in the dusk, or even in the dark, merely escorted by Kip, the cat.

She was familiar with the pictures, and had her own names for many of the portraits of her ancestors; the one which attracted her most was the wicked lady in white satin, who hung near the entrance to the blue, or haunted gallery. This picture had a special fascination for her. She would often stand before it and talk aloud and say:

“I do wonder what you have done? and why they say you are so wicked. I wish you could speak and tell me,” but the picture merely stared down at her with its pair of brooding, haughty eyes.

Ella had now passed her seventh birthday; she was tall and erect for her years, and knew every corner of the house, and nearly every corner of the park—for she had been six months at Thorlands, and had become a veritably wild, neglected child, who found outdoor amusement in herding cows, climbing trees, riding the carriage horses in front of Tom, and helping energetically in the kitchen and scullery.

Mrs. Taff’s addiction to the yellow bottle reduced her to a condition of chronic somnolence. When the house was empty, she seemed scarcely aware of Ella’s existence. Phoebe was idle, lazy, and an indefatigable flirt, who pertly informed Jane, in reply to a remonstrance, that “she was not hired as nurse-maid, she had plenty of her own work to do, instead of minding, and mending for a young wild animal.” Her work consisted in rather casual sweeping, some dilatory dusting, and in putting together a series of showy hats and gay garments for the subjugation of the new police constable, and Cooper, the underkeeper. Jane was the one friend of the “young wild animal”; she cobbled up her frocks, patched them, and let them down; her efforts were well meant, but somewhat ineffectual, for Jane, as she humbly confessed, was “a poor hand at the needle.” Also, she endeavoured to continue her education, and would help Missy to spell out such exciting sentences as “a fat cat sat on a mat.” She took the child to church with her on Sunday evenings, where they sat at the back in the free seats, and no one ever supposed for a moment that the shabby little girl, sitting with the Court kitchen-maid, was one of the Miss Mowbrays of Thorlands.

The former Rector had left, or undoubtedly he and his wife would gladly have befriended the orphan child of poor, pretty Mrs. Mowbray; the present incumbent and his family were ignorant of her existence. Such is life!—seven years is a long time for people to remember, even their own dead relations, not to mention those of other people.

It was the end of August, when there was a sudden stir and a waking up at the Court. A letter and four telegrams had been the cause of this unusual commotion. The Misses Mowbray, bringing with them numerous guests, had announced their return in a week’s time. Only seven days, and so much to be done in the house, the grounds, and the stables. Rooms were opened and aired, saving-covers removed, the garden walks and avenues were raked, and quantities of flowers and plants were sent in by surly Grant, to decorate the sitting-rooms. Everything was furbished up, carriages and horses, the plate and the silver. A number of job servants had been engaged, and in a week’s time the silent, shuttered mansion was absolutely transformed. In all directions articles were renovated, polished, and made presentable, and such a putting up of clean curtains was rarely witnessed, for Miss Mowbray, the mistress of Thorlands, was allowed to have remarkably sharp eyes, and a tongue to match.

It was amazing, that in the midst of all this fuss, energy, and anxiety to present a creditable appearance, the household entirely overlooked Missy, the child.

The truth was, that no one was individually responsible for her. Job was responsible for the silver, Jackson for the stables, Grant for the garden, Mrs. Taff for the house, but none of them were answerable for Missy. As the weather was splendid, Missy was rarely within doors; she wandered all day in the woods with her friends, the Nixons (children from the North Lodge, with whom she had scraped acquaintance, and with whom she often enjoyed a meal). Their mother, Mrs. Nixon, a respectable woman, who had once been second housemaid at the Court, was truly sorry for the lonely little creature, and although she knew that it was “not her place,” she invariable made her both happy and welcome. In these feverishly busy days, Missy was not even missed by Jane, who was driven to distraction between a smart London cook and an ignorant, impudent scullery-maid; the child had a plate of food left for her in the stillroom, and only that it was not laid upon the floor, it might have been awaiting some cat or dog. Here, too, was placed a cup of bread and milk. The little wanderer came in at her own hours—precisely like some domestic animal—devoured what was set aside for her, and hurried off again, to keep a tryst with the Nixons, then, at dusk or dark, climbed sleepily to bed.

Chapter VII

Missy returned home one afternoon from a long day’s nutting with the Nixons; she had torn her dress, and presented a deplorable, not to say disreputable, appearance; her locks hanging loosely over her shoulders, her straw hat with the crown unsewn, and a high tuft of hair protruding, her bare arms and neck tanned to mahogany, her pinafore stained with blackberries—and a rag. In this condition, she was suddenly laid hands on by a smart lady’s maid, a complete stranger, who hurried her just as she was into the little drawing-room, and the presence of three ladies. At a glance, she recognised Augusta and Rosabel; the former was making tea; there was also a little old woman with a big nose, a quantity of reddish curls, and a large eye-glass, whom she had never seen before.

“Gracious!” cried Augusta, laying down the cream-jug and rising as she spoke. “Who is this? What? You don’t mean to say, that this awful object is Ella?”

“Good God!” ejaculated the old lady, dropping her glasses. “Surely this shocking scarecrow is not your sister?” A dead silence gave assent to this question. Then Augusta glanced at her grandmother’s maid, who had closed the door, and stood before it as if on guard. It was by no means the first time that Martin had assisted at a disagreeable family scene, being what is termed a “confidential” servant.

“How disgraceful!” exclaimed Rosabel, standing up and surveying the spectacle. “The child looks like a beggar girl; it’s scandalous, Augusta.”

“Please, Miss Rosabel,” interposed the maid, “I have heard Mrs. Taff say she could do nothing with her; she is like a Red Indian, and tears the good clothes off her back. There’s no bearing her tantrums; no nurse would stay, she had three in five weeks; she’s a holy terror.”

“I am sure she looks it,” grimly assented Augusta. “What’s to be done? The people are coming to-morrow. Just imagine if anyone were to see her!” and at the mere thought, she changed colour.

“Oh, there’s no fear of that, miss,” said Martin consolingly. “She always lives down below, and keeps company with the stable boy, and the gate lodge children.”

“I declare I never heard of anything so outrageous!” said Lady Scantlands. “There has been criminal neglect somewhere. Really, I am surprised at you two girls; she ought to have been looked after; it’s not respectable. Think of what people will say—your own half-sister, living in the kitchen and associating with grooms!”

“Yes, Grannie,” admitted Augusta; “of course it is all too abominable, but I gave Taff strict directions to engage a really good nurse months ago—what else could I do? The child was unexpectedly thrust on my hands; we were all abroad—impossible to have her in Italy. I thought I had arranged very well, and Taff always wrote, that she was the picture of health, and all that sort of thing.”

Meanwhile the little tatterdemalion stood motionless in the middle of the room, upright and militant, looking sharply from one speaker to the other; one thing was certain, she was not afflicted with shyness. Now she glanced down at her soiled pinafore, her broken shoes, her arms and hands covered with scratches; again, she contemplated the four people who were so frankly discussing her: the prim maid in black silk near the door—the advocate of Mrs. Taff and lies; next, the thin old woman with diamonds on her fingers and curly, reddish hair; Augusta, looking thoughtfully and cross, with deep lines between her eyes; she was beautifully dressed in a lilac and white gown; Rosabel, still more remarkable in pale green lace, her hair arranged in puffs. To Ella they were like people from another world, and so they were—a world of luxury and scheming, ambition and display.

Lady Scantlands, a hale widow of seventy-five, had hastened to Thorlands to greet and chaperone her two prosperous grand-daughters, who, returning from a long foray on the Continent, were bringing with them, as captives of their bow and spear, an English earl and an Italian count. Yes, Lord Lockfield had shown symptoms of coming forward at last, and Rosabel was actually affianced to a member of the ancient but impoverished house of Rocca-Brune; for Rosabel had pretty hair, a fine skin—and a large fortune. Count Tormina considered himself a lucky man, and had pursued the courtship with all the ardour of a southerner—such a contrast to Lord Lockfield, a staid bachelor of five-and-forty, who had taken years to come to a decision respecting the choice of his future countess.

“She’s not a bit like her mother. Come here, child,” said the old lady at last. “I won’t venture to kiss you, or even to shake hands. Tell me something about yourself. Do you remember your sisters?”

“Yes,” and she nodded curtly.

“I am their grandmother, you know.”

“Are you my grandmother, too?”

“No, I don’t believe you have one. Can you read?”

“No, only little words, like pig and cat,” and she glanced at her relatives.

“What can you do?”

“I can blow birds’ eggs, and milk, and drive the lawn-mower, and clean knives.”

“Heavens!” exclaimed Lady Scantlands, putting up her glasses and staring at the child.

“Now come over here and let me look at you,” said Augusta authoritatively. The child walked forward, her hands behind her back, her eyes defiant, her heart swelling.

“You have been here quite a long time.”

She nodded.

Why are you such a dreadful little girl that your nurses run away from you?”

No reply, beyond a glare and frown.

“I am sure I cannot imagine what is to be done with you!” continued Augusta in a hopeless voice. “You will have to be sent to school.”

“Oh, she’s far too young,” objected Rosabel. “I daresay she’s not as black as she is painted.”

“Well, she’s very black indeed,” said Augusta.

“Did you ever see such hands and nails? We cannot get a maid at a moment’s notice.”

“Mayn’t I go to the Nixons at the North Lodge?” suggested the little girl in a clear, bold voice. “Toosie, and Bob, and Katie will have me for always.”

“No, certainly not,” said Lady Scantlands. “Look here, Martin,” turning about as she spoke, “you will have to take charge of Miss Ella, just for a week or ten days, until I go to town, and we can find a suitable person.”

Martin’s face suddenly became both long and glum.

“Oh, of course, we are not expecting you to undertake this for nothing; the child can have her meals with you in the old nursery, and you must absolutely guarantee to keep her with you and make her tidy. She must have proper boots, and frocks. You are, or were, accustomed to children once, and can manage all right. You know you haven’t much to do for me,” touching her wig; “and if you will look after Miss Ella, we shall all be obliged.”

“Very well, my lady.”

“Of course, she must never come into the sitting rooms or passages, or be seen by the company in her present condition—or, indeed, at all. The first thing she wants is a good bath. What do you think yourself, child?” turning to Ella.

“I think I want my supper,” was the unexpected reply.

“Oh, certainly! Pray, where did you dine?”

“Nowhere. Toosie Nixon gave me a piece of bread and dripping, and we had damsons.”

“Dear me, what a meal! What it is to be young—such a repast would kill me. Well, now, say good-night to everyone nicely; go and have something to eat, and be a good little girl.”

As Lady Scantlands spoke Martin had opened the door, and her charge stalked straight out without taking the smallest notice of her relations.

“What manners!” exclaimed Augusta. “A wild girl of the woods—a little savage.”

“I daresay the poor child knows no better,” said her grandmother indulgently. “Really, Augusta, I cannot compliment you on your half- sister.”

“No; she is a horror,” returned Miss Mowbray, with bitter emphasis; “a little millstone tied round my neck. How I wish she had never been born!”

Chapter VIII

Martin, Lady Scantlands’ maid, moved her quarters into the night nursery with obvious reluctance, and slept there with her young charge; for “the job,” as she termed it, she was to receive ten shillings a week extra, and was determined that the child should give her as little trouble as possible. She brought her her supper, gave her a hot bath, inducted her into a ragged nightgown, tucked her up, locked the door, and departed to enjoy herself in the housekeeper’s room. By and by little Ella scrambled out of bed in order to say her prayers; she had been too shy to say them before a stranger—who had entirely overlooked the omission. Kneeling down on the bare boards, in her ragged garment, with clasped hands and solemn face, she said the Lord’s Prayer, and subsequently added:

“Please, God, do take away all these people—my sisters, and the old lady with the eyeglass, and Martin—and send me back my Mams and Daddy, and Dan and Zack, for ever and ever. Amen.”

“Oh, Mams!” and she suddenly burst out sobbing, “why did you go away and leave me with these bad people? They don’t want me; they don’t like me; they call me names, and tell me to keep off, and not come near them, or to be seen; no one wants me now—at least, no one but the Nixons.”

By and by she crept back into bed and soon fell sound asleep. Some hours later, when Martin appeared to seek her couch, she tiptoed across the floor, and surveyed her companion with considerable interest. Shading the candle with her hands, she gazed at the little form lying outside the bedclothes, and recalled some gossip which another maid had imparted to her after supper.

The child was Miss Mowbray’s own half-sister, and had been brought up just anyhow, and was not a bad little girl at all. It was Mrs. Taff who was at the bottom of everything; no respectable nurse would live in the house with her; she was on her good behaviour now—the family being at home—but when they were away, she was just a scandal, and scarcely ever sober; sometimes these grand housekeepers were taken that way, and by all accounts, the Court was no place for a child—and that child an orphan. She was not ill-looking, this little girl, the youngest Miss Mowbray, though her face was tanned, her arms and legs covered with scratches and bruises and her hair a mop. There was something pretty in the shape of the face and the sweep of the long black lashes—likely she wasn’t such a young devil after all!

Two or three days of the child’s constant society confirmed this opinion. Martin realised that Miss Ella was by no means what she had been described; a bit wild and rough, as might be expected, but most affectionate and truthful—as grateful for a kind word as a dog for a bone; they made a compromise. Ella gave her word of honour—she had learnt the meaning of this term from Mams and Zack—never to enter the sitting-room, or to be seen in the great hall, staircase, or even avenue of the house. In return for this promise she was to be allowed to play with the Nixons, to resume her ramblings in the woods and her visits to Jane in the lower regions. Jane had not forgotten her protégée, and the grand London cook (a mother herself), was fond of children, and occasionally sent her a tart or a cake, and did not chase her away when she timidly ventured into her old haunts. There was a great deal for the household to do—the Court was crammed with visitors; carriages and luggage carts bore guests and their belongings from the station; there were masculine voices to be heard in the corridors, and the smell of cigars might be discerned, for since the Miss Mowbrays had been on the Continent they had permitted smoking on the premises. From the drawing-room came the sounds of the piano and singing; altogether the long-deserted house was animated and alive. The sisters were far too much occupied with their friends to give a thought to the child—presumably incarcerated in the nursery.

Rosabel’s time was absorbed by her lover, her presents, and her trousseau. Count Tormina was a handsome, swarthy little man, with a pair of eloquent eyes, a charming manner, and a fine baritone voice. As Augusta had not yet secured her prize—her mind was even more preoccupied than that of her younger sister. She was tormented with anxiety, and filled with an overwhelming determination that everything belonging to her should be seen at its best.

A garden-party, with a tennis tournament, was to be one of the chief entertainments, and principally because Lord Lockfield was a notable player, despite his five and forty years, and evinced a particular interest in all the arrangements. Occasionally Ella had encountered her elder sister going her rounds, for the mistress of the house had, as was expected, taken everything into her own hands, and she invariably said:

“Pray, what are you doing down here? Where is Martin? Go away up to the nursery at once.” But the child proved useful for running messages, and was tolerated and secretly encouraged below stairs. She enjoyed the bustle, and was glad of employment—for Tom was too busy in the stables, and the little Nixons were not often to be lured into the park; they were overawed, and afraid of meeting some of the grand company.

Mrs. Taff was now kept busily engaged, and lived in abject terror of Augusta, whose tongue was sharper than ever. One afternoon, when she happened to be off her guard, she received an unexpected order to get out some valuable old china for the refreshment tables. It was the day of the tennis tournament; consequently Mrs. Taff had been, as she pathetically declared, “just run off her legs since daybreak,” and had felt obliged to recuperate. To tell the truth, she was not at the moment in a fit condition to handle delicate articles; nevertheless, she mounted the chair in the store closet, and reached down the things one by one to Phoebe, and Phoebe carried them away, whilst Ella remained, holding the chair, in order to keep it steady. Just as Mrs. Taff had laid hold of a beautiful and valuable centre-piece—a treasure that had been in the family for more than a century—she was suddenly startled by a quick step and a sharp voice. The voice upset her equilibrium, she staggered, and let slip the china; vainly she tried to recover it—vainly, indeed! She uttered a scream of dismay as it fell upon the stone flags and was smashed into a hundred pieces. As Augusta flung open the door, she stooped and said to Ella in a hoarse whisper:

“I’ll say you did it!”

Before the child could expostulate, Augusta was in the doorway, her face in a blaze, her eyes riveted on the fragments. Mrs. Taff, from her exalted position on the chair, pointed with a trembling finger to her scapegoat. In an instant Augusta had gripped her by the shoulder, her hard fingers pressing into her unprotected neck; with the other hand she hit the victim with an open palm, and with all her force upon the cheek; not content with this, she snatched up a yard measure, that, unfortunately, was lying on the table, and laid it about her hands and arms, exclaiming in a sort of blind fury:

“The Sèvres centre-piece! the Sèvres centrepiece! Two hundred pounds’ worth of china! You hateful little wretch. You did it on purpose!” More blows. Ella did not speak; she did not even cry out, while she acted as the whipping-girl of her enemy, who still stood on the chair as if petrified by the catastrophe and its consequences. At length Augusta’s arm was tired; she pushed her sister violently from her, and thrust her out of the room, saying:

“Begone! Don’t let me ever see you again!”

The little scapegoat, too proud to exculpate herself, and only too thankful to escape, fled straight out of the house into the park, and ran as hard as she could to one of her haunts—an ancient, ruined summer-house, tenanted by bats, ants and spiders—and here, leaning her throbbing head on her wealed and blistered arms, she sobbed as if her little heart would verily break. She wept for a long time, regardless of neighbouring ears; there were none to overhear her but the birds. No human being ever penetrated into that part of the pleasure ground; it was known as the Wilderness, and was situated outside the radius of the gardeners’ sphere. The path leading to the summer-house was grass-grown, and the summer-house itself almost concealed by an overgrowth of trees and shrubs. Here Ella and the Nixons had enjoyed many festivals; here they had eaten roast potatoes, cooked in a biscuit-tin upon the premises; and here had celebrated many weddings, christenings, and funerals. To Ella, this place had always seemed a kind of home. Now, with her arms resting on the rusty, dusty table, worn out with her emotions, she fell fast asleep, and forgot not only her troubles, but her midday meal. From a happy dream, she was abruptly summoned to wide-awake reality by the sound of voices and footsteps, and roused herself in time to see two figures darken the door; two men—no, a man and a boy.

“Hullo!” exclaimed the boy. “I say, what a tumble-down old shanty! “Then, as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, “What have we got here, Uncle Dick? A kid!”

Ella looked up and saw a middle-aged gentleman, with a stern but not unkindly face, and a tall youth. They were gazing at her with unmistakable curiosity.

“What are you doing here, little girl?” inquired the old gentleman, as she mentally called him; “I suppose you are one of the gardeners’ children?”

She stared at him stolidly, and maintained a dead silence.

“Hullo, so you’ve been crying!” added the boy, as his sharp eyes noticed her tear-stained face. “I say—come along outside—and tell us all about it,” and he held out an inviting hand. Much to her own astonishment, Ella accepted the invitation.

“What’s been the matter—what has happened?” he added, as they stood in the bright afternoon light.

“This, I should think,” replied his uncle, pointing to her face, which burned painfully, and the cheek on which was imprinted the red mark of five angry fingers.

“More likely that,” argued the youth. “I say, Uncle Dick, just look at her arms, all bruises and weals; someone has been thrashing her. You hear enough of wife-beating, but they don’t often lay on to kids like this! She looks half mad,” he added under his breath. “Come,” he continued, aloud, “what have you been doing to get yourself into a row, and make your father in such a wax? Tell us all about yourself—and I daresay we may help you out of the scrape.”

“I did nothing,” she answered, with a hard, dry sob, “nothing!”

“Oh I say, come, now,” expostulated the lad, in a tone of reproach, “draw it mild!”

“It was Mrs. Taff, the housekeeper,” she burst out passionately; “she dropped the china and said, ‘I’ll say it was you!’ and then Augusta came in and screamed out that it had cost two hundred pounds, and she hit me over the head and arms. See!” thrusting up her poor bruised shoulder, “but it wasn’t me—it was Mrs. Taff —and she’s a wicked, wicked woman, and I hope she’ll go to hell.”

“But who do you mean by Augusta?” inquired Lord Lockfield severely, “you surely don’t mean Miss Mowbray—because——”

“I mean my sister,” she interrupted.

“What!” he exclaimed. “What do you say, little girl? Tell me your name,” putting his hand under her chin as he spoke and holding up her face in order that he might study it.

“My name is Ella,” she returned, quickly interpreting the dubious glances cast upon her shabby frock, and poor, ill-cared-for appearance.

“Ella, what? What is your other name?”

“Ella Mowbray.”

Lord Lockfield glanced at his companion, and said in a low voice:

“Yes, I see the poor child is half-witted.” To Ella: “Where do you live, when you are at home, my dear?”

“In the house, down below—mostly in the kitchen,” she answered readily. Being brought up in the society of her elders had given her a glib and ready tongue. These gentlemen had nice voices and seemed kind and interested.

“Little Ella—and so you live in the kitchen,” exclaimed the youth. “Why, then, of course, your proper name is Cinderella! Do you know the story?”

“Oh yes, Daddy Mallard often told it to me, and all about the wicked sisters, and the glass slipper, and the prince.”

“But,” resumed the elder gentleman, in a judicial manner, “surely you are not telling the truth when you say that Miss Mowbray is your sister—now are you?”

“Yes, I am,” she answered defiantly, “you may ask them yourself—I never tell lies.”

The memory of Henry Mowbray’s second marriage suddenly flashed into Lord Lockfield’s mind, but he had always understood that the child had died. Evidently he had been mistaken, and here was the youngest Mowbray girl, and, although so forlorn and neglected, there was something refined in her dirty little tear-stained face.

“Oh, very well then,” he said, “come along with me,” taking Ella’s hand. He was determined to confront Augusta with her sister, and to learn the truth. If there was any foundation for this amazing story, it would entail serious consequences for Miss Mowbray and himself; but, naturally, Ella had no desire to be conducted to the presence of her irate relative. She held back and had almost to be dragged along by her new acquaintance, whose manner was kind but inflexibly authoritative.

As he proceeded out of the Wilderness he asked her several questions.

“Had she ever lived with her sisters?”

“No, never until now.”

“And where had she been brought up?”

“At the farm, with Mams.”

“How long had she been here?”

“She could not remember—but a long, long time.”

“Did she learn lessons?”

“No; but sometimes Jane, in the kitchen, heard her spelling—and read to her.”

“And where was her maid?”

She shook her head.

“And her playfellows?”

“Oh yes, she had playfellows—the Nixons at the North Lodge—she often had tea with them.” By this time Lord Lockfield was on the edge of the tennis ground, which was almost covered by a crowd of gay guests; in fact, all the élite of the neighbourhood. As the little party came nearer to the lawn, and out of the shelter of the shrubberies, the child halted abruptly and said:

“No, no, no—please, please—no further! Oh, kind gentleman, do let me go! Augusta said I was never to let her see me again,” and she made a desperate endeavour to wriggle away, but already someone had caught sight of the group and the struggle, and called out in a cheery voice:

“Hullo! what have you got hold of? What have you been doing, Lockfield?”

Augusta, who had been impatiently awaiting his lordship, now beheld him, to her speechless horror, emerge from the grounds on to the lawn, leading by the hand her hateful little step-sister—a truly sorry spectacle, with tear-stained face, tangled hair, and shabby frock, also with the mark of a blow on her left cheek.

“Miss Mowbray,” said Lord Lockfield, addressing Augusta, and the assembled, gaping crowd, “I have discovered a young lady up there in the Wilderness, who tells me that her name is Ella, that she lives in the kitchen—and is your sister.”

Here a loud titter was audible among some of the ladies, who evidently supposed that the whole thing was a joke, specially invented for their amusement, and were prepared to be easily, pleased—particularly since the jester was an earl and a bachelor. But the elder folks were grave. They suddenly recalled the second Mrs. Mowbray, her personal charm, her tragic, and premature death. Surely the child had not survived her! A dead pause ensued. Augusta could not speak, her throat seemed constricted; she felt as if she was going to be seized with some kind of fit.

“Surely it is a fairy-tale!” continued Lord Lockfield in his suavest manner, “the child is romancing—or—is she really your sister, Miss Mowbray?” and he looked into her face, with concentrated intentness.

Miss Mowbray’s face was a study in suppressed emotion. At last she answered, in a choked voice:

“Yes; she is the child of my father’s second wife.”

“And half-witted, poor little darling!” supplemented Lady Scantlands, coming forward, now as ever, prompt to deal with a critical situation. “I am sure I cannot imagine how she has managed to escape—or been allowed to stray away, but you know these sort of cases are so cunning. You will all, I am sure, understand,” looking round, as she spoke, with an air of great dignity, “and respect our feelings.”

Then the old lady in lavender silk and black lace suddenly swept forward, and, seizing the wretched bête noire by the hand, led her off the scene with a triumph and a determination that there was no resisting.

People stared furtively after the two figures; the energetic old woman rustling over the green sward, with the squalid little figure trotting beside her. And Augusta, who was startlingly white, said with a tremulous laugh:

“The child is absolutely harmless, good people! and I assure you there is no occasion for alarm. Grandmamma, as you perceive, understands how to manage her—and now, that you have seen our small sister, pray do not let us waste any more of this lovely afternoon, but commence the tournament at once!”

Everyone immediately began to talk, to pick up racquets, and to take places. They all (including Lord Lockfield) dissembled their feelings, and pretended that they had not caught a glimpse of the Mowbray family skeleton, but when the brilliant entertainment was over, when prizes had been distributed, and the neighbours had driven away, Lord Lockfield had a private interview with Augusta, who, fortified by a glass of sherry, stuck to her story with the courage of desperation. She had secretly resolved to have the child sent away within twenty-four hours—the whole thing, she had foolishly assured herself, would blow over. But Lord Lockfield was naturally a tenacious man. To him, the little girl had appeared perfectly sane, only neglected and ill-used. He instituted inquiries, and some plain and ugly facts were revealed. He took an unfavourable view of Augusta’s guardianship; undoubtedly she had abandoned the child to strangers and servants for seven years. Prevarications and generalities were useless against this plain and stubborn truth, and the upshot of it all was, that, thanks to his lordship’s untimely discovery in the old summer-house, he withdrew from Thorlands Court—also his pretensions to the hand of its owner—and departed, accompanied by his nephew, and ceased to hold any further communication with Cinderella’s sisters. His lordship had obtained a glimpse behind the scenes, and beaten a hasty retreat from the matrimonial paradise which awaited him. He had caught sight of a serpent in his future Eden.

It may be easily imagined how this terrible disappointment—of which she had been the cause—endeared Ella to her eldest sister. She was treated as a culprit, and kept a close prisoner in her room for a whole week, during which time, the Countess of Scantlands dispatched many letters and telegrams, and her maid worked incessantly at frocks and pinafores; a certain amount of clothing was hastily procured from London, and at the end of the time, a pale, well-dressed little girl, with neatly plaited hair, and her first long black stockings, was deported, under Martin’s escort, to a well-known school at Folkestone.

Chapter IX

Soon after the departure of the little step-sister a long suppressed stream of gossip respecting the Mowbrays oozed through the neighbourhood, and people began “to talk.” The Nixons at the gate lodge, and Jane at the Court, were conspicuously anxious that folks should know the truth, respecting the late Henry Mowbray’s youngest daughter, and the truth, after considerable length of time, passed out of the scullery and kitchen and figuratively walked upstairs, and shouted aloud in the drawing-rooms of the county, and finally upon the house-tops.

The Court itself was naturally the last to realise the tide of public feeling which had set in against it. Indeed, Miss Mowbray was entirely insensible to everything but her recent and bitter disappointment. Rosabel, for her part, was preoccupied with her lover, trousseau, and the preparations for the wedding. Presently the wedding took place, and the happy couple, having departed to spend the honeymoon at the Italian lakes, left Augusta and her grandmother to enjoy a tête-à-tête. As soon as the wedding excitement had somewhat abated, the outspoken old lady—who, though worldly wise, was not bad at heart—had an important conversation with her eldest grand-daughter.

“Now look here, Gussie,” she began abruptly, “you are walking about the house, looking as if the world was coming to an end. That your own match fell through, was entirely your fault.”

“Not at all,” she argued angrily.

“Yes, you behaved badly, and what is almost worse, foolishly, about that child.”

“I hate her!” she burst out with vehemence. “A thorn in my side ever since she was born!”

“Now, pray don’t talk nonsense to me, Gussie, for it is sheer waste of breath. You have scarcely seen Ella. You made over the baby to strangers, no doubt meaning well. But years have come and gone; your conscience is dumb; selfishness and indolence have got the better of you; you hated to be bothered, to have the worry of nurses, upbringing and education—in short, to undertake responsibility or any trouble; and now your sins have found you out! It was a sin, to neglect your orphan sister—poor Sybil’s child—and you have been well punished. Besides Lord Lockfield’s disapproval, are you aware that everyone is talking of you, and saying the most unpleasant things?”

“Oh, let them!” she answered recklessly. “I don’t care!”

“Did you happen to notice how many refusals you had for the wedding?” A pause. “How rarely anyone comes to call! How people, when you drive through the village, stare and whisper?” pursued the old lady remorselessly. “Well, I have seen it, and made mental notes, and now I will tell you what I advise you to do.”

“What?” asked Gussie, with passionate petulance.

“Let this place and the shooting and go abroad until the sensation and the gossip here subside. For instance, you might live in Nice, in an hotel near Rosabel’s villa. You know you like the Continent, and I’m sure Amelia Dacres would be delighted to join you. I will look after the little girl; but remember this, no money must be spared on her.”

“Oh, but Grannie, since Rosabel has married and taken her income with her, I am not nearly so well off,” protested Augusta, “and three of the farms are unlet.”

“That may be, but bear in mind that this girl has her own fortune. Hitherto her expenses have been nominal; now you must allow me at least four hundred a year, to be paid in to my man of business.”

“Grannie! Four hundred a year for that mite!”

“Certainly, and paid quarterly. Why, it is the child’s money. I am speaking in your own interests, for when people know that Ella is under my care and receiving a first-class education, their mouths may be stopped.”

After a long reflective silence, Augusta said:

“Well, I suppose there is truth in what you say. I know you are a wise old lady, and I will take your advice. I have an instinctive feeling that that child brings me bad luck, and I am willing to do anything to be rid of her.”

“But you are her guardian, Augusta!”

Yes, I know that, and if you will allow me, I will appoint you my deputy. You were always so clever about young people.”

Lady Scantlands nodded her head complacently.

“I had fully intended to look after Ella as soon as——”

“As soon as your own affairs were arranged?” supplemented Lady Scantlands.

“Yes.” A pause. “I need scarcely say that I had no idea Taff was so untrustworthy, until I found her in a shocking state of intoxication last week. Now that I have discovered this for myself, of course I am informed that it is her normal condition; and, you know, she used to be a most excellent person. Why, Grannie, you engaged her!”

“That is true, but absolute idleness, a lonely life, and being her own mistress, have changed the once trusty Taff into an abominable thieving wretch. She has, by all accounts, tampered with the cellar keys, and drunk up all the old port, besides pawning a quantity of silver and house-linen, and saying that the rats had made away with it. I am thankful she has departed, before we were all burnt in our beds!”

“Yes,” agreed Augusta, “for if I am to let the place, as you suggest, she would have put the people off, and told them stories about the roof, and the drains—anything, sooner than be disturbed from her comfortable nest.”

“Well, my dear, you have to thank me, for opening your eyes to Taff.”

“And also for taking Ella off my hands. Grannie, strictly between you and me, I simply detest children.”

“Then you may be certain that they will detest you. Young people seem to have a sixth sense; they are supernaturally sharp. I must say, Gussie, that your treatment of little Ella has been most injudicious. If I had not been abroad all this last year I would have taken her myself. Now, you are on everybody’s black books; but, thank Heaven, people have short memories!”

Gussie sat beating her foot meditatively on the floor; at last she said:

“And so you think I should let the Court, Grannie. It has never been let before, I am not sure that letting a place like this, is not rather infra dig.”

“What nonsense!” protested the old lady. “Why, everyone lets nowadays—only too thankful to get tenants. For instance, there is old Lady Cartwright, a countess, who tells me that she simply ‘lives to let, and lets to live.’ Yes, you must let the Court—furnished, of course, storing away all the good things, and selling the carriages and horses.”

“Very well; after all, I think I should like to feel free of it. I have begun to detest the people around here, who seem to think I have nothing to do but to subscribe to charities and entertain, and that is positively all I am good for. Personally, I want a little pleasure.”

“What is your idea of pleasure?”

“Oh, gay society, sunny skies, balls, music, receptions, picnics and delightful surroundings—such as Rosie has now.”

“Yes, my dear, but I hope you won’t follow her example, and marry a foreigner. The Count is delightful, I admit, but I am told that he gambles.”

“I must say, I enjoy a little gamble myself! Well, this matter is settled; I shall let the Court for some years. Perhaps you will arrange with agents. It ought to bring in a fine rent, with which I mean to enjoy myself, in my own way.”

The Court readily found a tenant—a wealthy Jew financier—and Gussie, with a cousin as companion, departed to the Continent.

Miss Mowbray remained abroad for some years, occasionally returning for a few weeks to visit her venerable grandmother, and to enjoy some London shopping. Rosabel had readily accepted the role of Countess Tormina, and gladly adopted the country of her husband. He was a charming, easy-tempered Italian, with irresistible manners, fond of Rosabel, of music, and of cards. As long as the Dowager Lady Scantlands lived she had never lost sight of little Ella, and had occasionally received her for her holidays; but she died when the child was twelve years old, almost immediately after she had placed her at an excellent school in Brussels. For all arrangements respecting Ella, her holidays, clothes, pocket money, and masters had been undertaken by this indefatigable and experienced matron. When Ella had first arrived at an English school, a white-faced, dark-eyed child, bringing with her a brand new wardrobe, and a very bad character, her companions and teachers received her with a certain amount of suspicion and constraint. To tell the truth, she looked as if she could “do” things, and be troublesome; her air was both confident and defiant; she could barely read; she could neither write nor sew, yet she had a far wider experience than many girls who were her senior by years. She openly boasted that she had often seen a tipsy woman, that she could cut bread and butter, fry eggs, dance the double shuffle, clean knives, and play the Jew’s-harp. Tom the stable-boy had taught her; he was her most particular friend.

At first, she seemed to be entirely on the defensive, and afraid of some unexpected trap or attack; but day by day she became more at home, and soon proved to be a surprisingly intelligent, and even well-behaved child. The maid who attended her had exclaimed at the bruises on her neck and arms, and inquired how she came by them? but this Ella would not divulge. She was ashamed to tell strangers that she had been beaten by her grown-up sister. These blows had also been seen by one of the Miss Pratts, who declared to her partner in private, that they had yet to hear (but they never did hear it) the child’s version of the story.

Ella was happy; she liked harmony, she liked companionship, and, in fact, everything about Berners House, down to the cook’s cat; consequently her schoolfellows liked her. She was so good-tempered, generous and obliging; a well-paying pupil, too, who was desired to have every extra, the best dancing lessons, the best music master, a room all to herself, and half a crown a week for pocket-money. One or two of the elder girls, who were not a little envious of the newcomer’s advantages and popularity, had put certain sharp questions in public, as to why no one ever wrote to her? why no one ever came to see her and take her out for the day? also, as to the precise locality of her home?

“I have no home,” she answered unabashed. “Old Lady Scantlands has me for a week sometimes, but I have no real place to live in, and I’m very glad. I did not like home; I like school a thousand times better!”

Now and then, for the sake of appearances, letters from the Riviera reached Ella. These were short and formal, merely hoping that she was well conducted, and improving, and taking advantage of her expensive lessons. They concluded: “Your affectionate sister, Augusta.” By the time Ella was twelve she was fairly proficient in arithmetic, composition and French. She played the piano surprisingly well; she was also a capital hockey player, had read everything she could lay hands on, and danced like a sylph. Then Lady Scantlands decided that she must go abroad, in order to complete her education and acquire a French polish. Accordingly she placed her in a school kept by an English gentlewoman in Brussels. Here Ella remained for four years, without returning to England, but during the holidays she had travelled in Switzerland; she had also become well acquainted with old Flemish and Dutch towns. She was an adaptable girl, and spoke French and German with ease, and had acquired, or rather inherited, her mother’s graceful manner.

At sixteen she was nice-looking, but not exactly pretty, being at the awkward, undeveloped age; but she had beautiful dark eyes, and a rather attractive smile.

During all these long years her two sisters had been steadily following their own pleasures, and that, unfortunately, was along the nice, easy road which ultimately leads to ruin. The Count—handsomest and most fascinating of men—having dispersed his fortune, soon began to make serious inroads on Rosabel’s thousands. His wife was devoted to him; she trusted him implicitly, and desired nothing better than a life of ease and amusement, of smiles and compliments, of being the Countess Tormina, a lady of consideration and importance. The Countess adored Monte Carlo; here each season they spent three gay, exciting and expensive months. The Count also gambled on the Bourse. In an evil moment he inoculated his sister Augusta with the same taste, and guaranteed to double her investments. The infatuated man was really sincere, and both eager and eloquent—so much so, that Augusta raised mortgages on Thorlands and delivered the money into his hands; ultimately this money was lost. She raised more, and yet more, with a true gambler’s optimism, until at last the property became most seriously encumbered. Meanwhile the sisters lived merrily and extravagantly together, closely surrounded by many flatterers and friends. Yes, it was all to come right some day! Ugo assured them on his honour that the investments would pay ten times over; only a little patience was required, that was all, just a little patience. “Pazienza.”

Rosabel was supremely indifferent with respect to the sources of her expenditure; as long as the money was there, it was enough. Money was abundant and she poured it forth with generous hands on entertainments, equipages but, above all, on her personal adornment. With Augusta it was different. When Count Ugo had encouraged her to have a little flutter at the tables, and more especially on the Bourse, he awoke the long slumbering demon of the Scantlands; in other words, their besetting weakness, the spirit of gambling. It was to this craze that the family had owed their impecunious and almost beggared condition. The late lord, Augusta’s grandfather, had staked almost all his remaining acres at Homburg, and on the turf. Before his time a great estate had been dissipated at Crockford’s, and it was a notorious fact that one of the Scantlands had once gambled for two nights and a day, until he and his companions were actually up to their knees in cards; many thousands had also been lost in the South Sea bubble.

Few of us know what we can accomplish until we try, and Augusta Mowbray was considerably over thirty years of age, before she realised that her one talent and her true vocation in life, was to be summed up in the word Finance.

She was speedily caught in the whirlpool of speculation, and threw herself into the Count’s wild-cat schemes with feverish enthusiasm; whilst Rosabel was studying fashion plates, or reading the latest French novel, her husband and sister were absorbed in the Stock Exchange list, and squandered a little fortune in telegrams, cablegrams and ciphers. Encouraged by her brother-in-law, Augusta had raised mortgages on the hitherto sacred Mowbray estates. The money thus procured was invested in schemes in various parts of the world, any one of which, if successful, would undoubtedly make Augusta rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Augusta and Count Ugo subscribed to most of the financial papers, were deluged with expensive-looking prospectuses, and conferred together on the subject nearest their heart for hours at a time.

The Countess was not by nature a gambler, like her sister and husband. When at Monte Carlo, in the crowded Casino, she would stand behind a croupier and put a casual five-franc piece on the red, but that was all. To see it swept away, or doubled, caused her but little emotion; she preferred to wander about the rooms in search of celebrities or acquaintances; or to find a seat near a thoroughfare, and make notes of smart dresses; but her companions were different, and took roulette seriously. They were generally early arrivals, and secured chairs in good time at their own particular tables; had each a special favourite. Then with cards, pencils, and little piles of money, they would follow the mad goddess Fortune for hours at a stretch; indeed, they never appeared to know when to leave off. For instance, if they lost, they were naturally anxious to win their money back; if, on the contrary, they won, they desired to increase their spoil, and follow up their so-called luck.

Occasionally they would reappear in the gardens or on the terrace with radiant faces and carry off Rosabel to a hat shop, and a lunch at Giro’s; at others, they would come forth gloomy, and empty-handed, eagerly comparing runs, and denouncing luck and losses. It must be admitted that Fortune sometimes smiled upon them. One season they won so largely that the Count invested in a fine “Panhard,” and Gussie bought a necklace that she had coveted for months. The Countess, for her part, although she had no active share in gathering these spoils, gave a series of brilliant dinners at the “Paris.” Occasionally Augusta’s and the Count’s investments fulfilled their hopes, and so they went on, alternately swimming, or keeping barely afloat, for several sunny seasons. The little household loved Monte Carlo, their visit there represented their yearly holiday. Yes, they adored Monte Carlo, with its unclouded sunshine, irregular eminences covered with hotels, villas, and flowery slopes, with their background of sharply-outlined mountains—but above and beyond the scenery, the hotels, the sun, and the sea, they adored the Casino.

Now and then the Count visited Paris and London, invariably returning in the highest spirits, and bearing with him the most brilliant expectations of their future prospects: the yachts they were to build and the castles they were to buy were seriously discussed; but unfortunately ready money was becoming just a little scarce. Suddenly Count Ugo was struck by a brilliant idea. There was the little girl’s dot, which was only bringing in a miserable four per cent. In Augusta’s hands lay the sole disposal of it for the next nine years. Would it not be doing the child a truly kind and sisterly action, to double or treble her fortune?

At first Miss Mowbray was not disposed to fall in with this suggestion, but after a few conversations, and a serious consideration of Count Ugo’s opinion, “that five thousand now invested to push some of their most glowing enterprises, would mean more than fifty thousand pounds in twelve months’ time,” she made up her mind that the Count was right, and so the deed was done.

By Augusta’s direction five thousand pounds of Ella’s fortune was sold out, and re-invested, and Count Ugo (the ever sanguine), prophesied great things; but, unfortunately, before his dreams were realised, Tormina died. The clever, fascinating, insinuating Ugo was carried off by pneumonia, after a few days’ illness.

When the first outbreak of grief was over his wife and his sister discovered, to their consternation, that they who had hitherto been so prosperous and so envied were next door to beggars. The capable Count, who had entirely managed their money affairs, had proved an effectual shield between them and disagreeables. To their great astonishment, it now appeared that they owed bills in all directions. A hint of the true state of affairs, was soon noised abroad, and within a week of the day on which the Count’s imposing funeral had left the Villa gates, the place was besieged by creditors.

It took the sisters some months to realise their position; but after a time, when it became insupportable, and the attitude of their tradespeople intolerable, they sublet the Villa, and hastened to London, in order to confer with their lawyer, and endeavour to put matters straight.

He was somewhat in the dark as to their affairs, recommending, in a general way, economy and a different scale of expenditure; but Miss Mowbray, who had no idea of not maintaining what she called “her position,” did little more than criticise the remedies suggested. But when Mr. Hawkins looked carefully into her affairs he was aghast at what he beheld. It was ruin! The Countess was penniless, save for her clothes, jewels, and about fifty pounds a year. Thorlands was mortgaged irredeemably.

It at present stood empty, an expensive white elephant; caretakers, coal and gardeners made terrible inroads upon Miss Mowbray’s scanty assets. There was no alternative but to sell it. When Augusta heard this verdict she burst into stormy tears.

“Luckily you are the last of the line,” remarked Mr. Hawkins, a fierce-looking old gentleman, with a mop of white hair.

“Sell it!” repeated Rosabel. “Impossible! The place has been in our family for over four hundred years; it would be nothing less than sacrilege.”

“Well, it is either that or bankruptcy and disgrace,” was the blunt announcement. “The pictures must go and the furniture. I only hope that I may be able to save you a couple of hundred a year—and the Dower House.”

“But what about all my shares?” cried Augusta excitedly. “Four thousand pounds in the New Airship Company—my broker has the highest opinion of them.”

“The broker is a fool, to call him by the mildest name; the shares are waste paper.”

“The underground tunnel between Gibraltar and Tangier——”


“The electric trams in Samoa—guaranteed twenty per cent.”

“Frauds, frauds, frauds, everyone of them!”

“And do you mean seriously to tell me, that for these wretched shares—mere bits of useless coloured paper, invested in schemes which you say are frauds—I must sell the great Mowbray estates?”

“You must,” said the lawyer, who was inwardly consumed with wrath, “if you wish to keep the good name of Mowbray clean. It is quite true that the property has gone down for nearly four hundred years from father to son,” here he leant his chin on his hand, and looked squarely at Augusta, as he added: “It remained for a woman to squander and disperse it.”’

“Oh, Mr. Hawkins!” she protested hysterically. “How can you speak to me in such a manner?”

“Well,” he continued, “I must say I am thankful your father did not live to see this day. If he had only had a son by his second marriage—by the way, where is the little girl?”

“She is at school in Brussels,” rejoined Gussie. “I allow her four hundred a year.”

“You allow her her own money. Well, at any rate, she is out of this deplorable business; I presume her ten thousand pounds is intact?”

Augusta suddenly became very red and glanced at her sister significantly. Mr. Hawkins intercepted the glance and said:

“Good Heavens! You don’t mean to say you have tampered with the child’s fortune?”

“Yes,” stammered Gussie; “but I declare to you most solemnly that I believed I did it for her good.”

“How much have you taken for her good?” he demanded, and his tone was savage.

“Five thousand pounds.”

“Do you know that you could be run in by your sister as a fraudulent trustee?”

No, it was not fraud; no fraud was intended. I acted for her precisely as I acted for myself.”

“And you have ruined both,” said Mr. Hawkins, “that is all. What possessed you?” he asked, fiercely. “Who were your advisers?”

Gussie looked at Rosabel again, and was silent.

“I believe you are legally bound to make up that five thousand pounds to your sister out of the wreck of the property,” resumed Mr. Hawkins.

“Do you mean, that she will have ten thousand pounds, and that I shall have nothing?” Gussie’s tone was hysterical.

“Yes; you have had your share—a very large one, too—you cannot have your loaf and eat it. I must speak as I feel—strongly. Steps will be taken immediately to secure the remainder of your sister’s fortune. Unluckily for her, your co-trustee, Lady Scantlands, died, otherwise, you could not have touched her money. I must say, you have made a terrible mess of everything, Miss Mowbray, I speak frankly. I was in your father’s confidence, and my firm have been legal advisers to the family for generations. Certainly I did hear vague rumours—rumours that made me uncomfortable—but I never imagined anything like the truth.”

Augusta sat dumb. Was this the beginning of her downfall? That a mere solicitor should venture to address her in such a manner! As for Rosabel, she merely snivelled into her cambric handkerchief and wept.

“However,” resumed Mr. Hawkins, standing up as he spoke, “I will see what I can do, for the sake of your father, and go through papers and deeds, and endeavour to keep the Dower House and a few pictures out of the market.”

The Dower House and a few pictures! Had the fortunes of the Mowbrays dwindled to this?

Chapter X

Mr. Hawkins, ever a man of his word, put his shoulder to the wheel, and did his utmost to lift the Mowbrays out of their difficulties. Although, personally, he was embittered against them both, he particularly disliked Augusta, with her high nose, gurgling voice, and commanding manner. “A woman with the airs and graces of a hen turkey!” so he mentally described her.

Liabilities were collected, bills called in, deeds and mortgages examined, and a few weeks after the sisters’ visit to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, an advertisement in the principal morning papers announced that Thorlands Court was for sale. If it had been Windsor Castle itself, the statement could not have created, in some circles, greater amazement and consternation; but there it was. “Extraordinary opportunity for Americans and millionaires. Historical mansion, in first-rate order, with all modern improvements and standing in a magnificent park of two thousand acres,” etc., etc.

There seemed considerable reluctance on the part of the public to benefit by this unparalleled occasion. Land had fallen in value, and the price was high. In these days, there is not much market for “sentiment,” and people expect to get the full worth of their money. There were, undoubtedly, a noble hall and saloon; yes, and a picture gallery—a picture gallery always added to the social status of a family—but where was the electric light, and the telephone?

After a period of rather anxious waiting, and a succession of nibbles which came to nothing, Lord Lockfield made an offer for the property, not on his own account, but for his nephew and heir—for he was still unmarried. His only brother’s widow, the Honourable Mrs. Howard-Leigh, was the daughter of an American millionaire, and it was her wish that a certain portion of this immense fortune should be invested in a fine English estate; what could be finer, more suitable, and more convenient, than Thorlands? Lord Lockfield’s dream would be at last accomplished, and that without the penalty of marrying Augusta Mowbray!

After much haggling, and a voluminous and even acrimonious correspondence, the bargain was struck. Lord Lockfield was a hard-headed peer. Mr. Hawkins was an admirable man of business, and, on the whole, he considered that he got good terms for his clients. The Court and estates fetched a fair sum (considering agricultural depression and foreign stock). Out of the wreckage, he secured the Dower House, some of the pictures, a sufficient amount of furniture, the library, the family seat in church, the plate, and the diamonds. So there would be no auction, no gaping, gossiping crowds to witness the scattering of the treasures and household gods of generations of Mowbrays. Mrs. Howard-Leigh, a woman of artistic taste, elected to purchase the contents of the Court—yes, even down to the kitchen saucepans! Her only son, Cecil, was of a roving disposition, he was but twenty-three, and not inclined as yet for a bucolic career, but he liked the Court, made pertinent inquiries with respect to the shooting, told his mother to do as she liked with the house and gardens, and went off to America, on a sporting trip out West.

Mrs. Howard-Leigh had been a Miss Van Lede, an American heiress with an almost fabulous fortune; she was also singularly attractive in appearance, charming in manners, and her toilettes were exquisite. During a London season, she met the Honourable Rupert Howard-Leigh, a handsome attaché; they fell in love and were married with immense display, and amidst the acclamations and congratulations of a thousand acquaintances. Mrs. Rupert Leigh was a notable society success—though born to no social eminence, she soon created a position for herself, and never betrayed any affinity with an undesirable ancestry.—It had been whispered that old Hans Van Lede had not come out of the struggle for millions with very clean hands.—At present the widow of Rupert Howard-Leigh was a beautiful woman of eight and forty, with delicate patrician features, interesting dark eyes, and becoming white hair. One of her chief interests in life was Cecil, her only child—a good-looking, unconventional young man—a dear boy in his mother’s opinion, who did not sufficiently appreciate his social importance, but combined her own features, eyes and spirits with the dogged obstinacy and blundering outspokenness of the Howard-Leighs. He was not a ladies’ man or society star; he enjoyed hunting, shooting, travelling, and an out-door free existence; but his mother all the time kept steadily before her the intention that he should marry into a race that should bring still further glory and honour to the Leigh-Van Lede connection.

The new mistress of Thorlands was given to sudden passionate enthusiasms—which invariably waned and died: at first, she was enchanted with the Court, it was a new toy (a somewhat expensive toy), and she summoned her friends and relatives to help her to play with it. Among these, the Dowager Marchioness of Cheltenham and her smart little daughter, Dulcie, were the most eager and capable assistants. They had the good sense to leave most of the old furniture alone; the saloon was not touched, and, indeed, by some queer clause in a Mowbray’s will, it was laid down that the Blue Lady, and several of her companion portraits, were never to leave the walls of Thorlands; consequently, there they remained, as did the cabinets and the Louis XIV. furniture. But elsewhere, there was papering and painting, and new chintzes and an installation of electric light. The gardens were re-organised, a garage was built, and the ladies, in a bright yellow motor, raised clouds of dust (and imprecations), along the roads for many miles. After a few months, Mrs. Howard-Leigh grew weary of the place. She was bored; she had nothing more to do; she had displayed her improvements to everyone, and it was getting on towards winter; she detested winter in a great empty country house. Her brother-in-law suggested guests. No, at present she preferred to be a guest herself. She would close the Court for a time, and leave him to manage the farms and to enjoy the shooting—and he asked for nothing better. The arrangements suited his lordship perfectly, and he made no further opposition to his sister-in-law’s departure.

In the meantime the Countess and Miss Mowbray had taken up their quarters in the Dower House—a gloomy, red-brick mansion at the opposite end of the park from the village—a house which, despite the energies of various agents, had remained unlet for years.

It was divided from the road by a row of white railings and a short gravel drive, and encompassed on either side by tall fir-trees. At the back was a spacious lawn and pleasure ground, which opened privately into the park by an iron gate. The mansion was much too large for ladies of small means; it was three storeys high, a Queen Anne house, with a door in the middle above a broad flight of steps, and rows of windows set in white stone, graduating in size, growing smaller as they neared the roof.

Considering its years of emptiness, the stout, well-built old house was not much out of repair; the roof was looked to, and the chimneys were swept, the rooms scrubbed down, and a few bolts and locks and fasteners replaced. To tell the truth there was no money to spare, and, after a short time, the ladies became accustomed to their quarters—to the ever-abiding smell of mushrooms and soot. They brought, beside the furniture, inlaid tables, mosaic work, alabaster figures and Florentine gilt frames; and in a minor degree the excitement of a new dwelling and a general move, occupied and pleased them as much as Mrs. Howard-Leigh. The place was soon made presentable and visitable—the drawing-room, with paintings, old china, tapestry and cabinets, was an undeniably impressive apartment.

The railings and hall door were painted, the gravel swept and raked, servants were engaged. First of all “young Henry,” as gardener, a man of sixty, who had been formerly employed at the Court: then Jane, now a widow, as cook; a housemaid, a footman, and a ladies’ maid—rather a large staff for two ladies, who had to educate a sister and maintain themselves on four hundred a year. But they had no idea of the value of money, and had never really experienced the want of it. From the Count, they had contracted the bad habit of running up bills without knowing—or, indeed, caring—how those bills were to be paid. It was their private opinion that tradespeople ought to be only too thankful for the gracious patronage of the Countess and Miss Mowbray. These accounts had been eventually settled by Mr. Hawkins, but they made a considerable hole in a sum of money which might have been invested for his entirely reckless and indifferent clients. These ladies were naturally antagonists to the purchasers of the Court—they looked upon Mrs. Howard-Leigh, and all her household and connections, as their malignant enemies and oppressors, and precisely as if they had usurped their home. This idea was deeply rooted in their minds, and nothing that Mr. Hawkins could say, or write, would ever eradicate it.

After a time the sisters made an official appearance at church and occupied (as per agreement) the family pew, whilst to the new people (who were absent) had been relegated the one appertaining to the Dower House. They were side by side with the Mowbray pew—which was really a sort of sitting-room, with a stove, a table, fat hassocks and well-padded seats; and above it and beside it, covering quite a space of wall, were monuments to dead Mowbrays of Thorlands, and the hatchment of the late Henry Mowbray was still depending in its place.

After this public appearance, people made their way to the Dower House, partly from curiosity, partly from sympathy with the fall of an ancient county family.

But the two ladies, splendidly dressed, held their heads as high as ever. Tea was served in the old Mowbray silver, a smart manservant waited, familiar pictures and properties were evident. Of course, the house was gloomy—there were too many trees peering into the windows, the wall-papers were hideous, but on the whole the Countess and Augusta did not seem so much to be pitied, after all. They tallied vaguely of “losses” and “frauds” and the agony of having to turn out of their dear old home for strangers. Poor Thorlands was bought with money which came from the Van Ledes—multimillionaires, who had probably made their fortune in pork, or oil.

“Well, at any rate, the boy is of good family, Augusta,” protested Mrs. Preedy, who was one of the first callers, “you must allow that. Lord Lockfield is his uncle, and he always had his eye upon the place.”

“Upon Augusta, you mean,” corrected the Countess, “and he has never married,” and she sighed profoundly. Rosabel was sentimental and she cherished the delusion that Lord Lockfield was still in love with her sister.

Mrs. Preedy smiled indulgently, and then continued:

“After all, you know, you have not been here for years—you quite deserted us.”

“Of course, Rosabel was obliged to live abroad with her husband, and you know we have never been parted.” Augusta drew herself up. “I hear a number of new people have come.”

“Yes, that is true; the old red house in the village is taken, and also the Bellamys’ cottage.”

“Oh, the village!” contemptuously. “I’m speaking of people in our own position, but whoever they may be, I do not intend to call on any newcomers.”

“But, my dear, you are a newcomer yourself!”

“What!” reddening violently. “I, who have been here four hundred years—a newcomer!”

“Four hundred years! Why, Augusta, I always thought you were much my junior. I should put you down as forty-four.”

“How can you be so ridiculous! I am not forty-four,” she gurgled, “and you know perfectly well what I mean. We are by far, the most important family in the county—no one will deny that. You have often said so yourself, ‘money may take our land; nothing can purchase birth, or a pedigree that goes back to Rufus.’”

“Yes,” rejoined Mrs. Preedy, who was divided between a desire to set Augusta down and teach her her proper place, and a repugnance to trample on the fallen. “But times have changed. There are some rather pretty girls in the neighbourhood now—by and by they will all be setting their caps at young Leigh.”

“Oh, indeed,” stiffly.

“What is he like?” inquired Rosabel.

“Dark and good-looking, quite like a prince in a fairy tale! His mother expects him to make a splendid match and settle down at Thorlands; she is such a wanderer herself.”

“Then he is sure to marry some nobody,” said Rosabel decidedly. “You remember, Gussie, the young Duke of Toscaro, and how all the best born girls were only waiting for him to throw the handkerchief—and he went and married a circus rider!”

“I suppose there have been great changes since we were here,” said Augusta, languidly, “eight or nine years ago.”

“Well, yes, a good many.”

“Has the neighbourhood gone down?”

“No; rather the other way. Numbers of the young people have grown up—for instance, the Bellamys, and the Rectory boys and girls.”

“Oh yes, the old outsiders,” said Augusta impatiently; “are there no new people?”

“Yes; the Bottes have taken Lampton Hall—business people, with lots of money, made, I think, in plate powder.”

Augusta waved away the Bottes with a gesture of displeasure, and inquired:

“Who has taken old Miss Baldwin’s house along this road?”

“Her nephew, Major Baldwin, lives there. You may remember him, a nice-looking, fair man. He has retired from the army, and established himself at the Hatch.”

“Whom did he marry?” put in Rosabel.

“He is not married yet, I am thankful to say. The Major is our great catch. He has at least four thousand a year and comes down in the winter for hunting. He keeps six hunters, and is very keen. Mr. Lennox told me that when he spent a night with him, he sat up till two in the morning, talking about horses.”

“Really,” said Augusta, “I think I do remember him now—yes, rather a good-looking man, as you say, who used to stay with his aunt occasionally.”

“And perhaps you can also remember the bare-faced way all the girls in the neighbourhood crowded to call on her, when he was there.”

“Did they?” said Augusta, in her grandest manner. “We never called—we never knew old Miss Baldwin, did we, Rosie? There was something about a shop, wasn’t there? and, of course, people in our position were obliged to draw the line; but I always heard that the old woman was rather ladylike, and extremely amusing.”

“Yes, she was a clever old thing, and very witty. Major Baldwin and I are tremendous friends; he often drops in for a chat, when there is no hunting—now and then he dines with me. He says I have the best cook in the county! Like his aunt, he can be entertaining. I never know exactly whether he is serious or not—he says such funny things sometimes.”

“Oh, really,” said Rosabel, “what sort of things?”

“When I chaff him about a wife, he declares he has more fun as a bachelor, but when he is getting stiff and gouty, and can no longer ride to hounds, he intends to marry some nice, bright woman, who will be a comfort to him, and take care of him in his old age.”

“The idea!” ejaculated Augusta.

“I must say the Bellamys have been chasing him pretty hard.”

“How disgusting! That is the sort of thing that makes one so ashamed of one’s sex.—How old is Major Baldwin?”

“I should think somewhere about five and forty, but it is hard to tell—he looks both active and young.”

“Well, if he is really as amusing as you say”—a deliberate pause—“you might bring him to call on us, eh, Rosie?”

Mrs. Preedy surveyed Augusta with a world of comprehension in her eye—a glance more eloquent than speech.

“But he is not a calling man,” she protested, “he has given no end of offence through his laziness in this way. I believe I am almost the only woman he visits! However, as you wish,—I will put in a good word for you.”

Augusta reddened angrily, but before she could retaliate Mrs. Preedy continued:

“I am glad to see you are surrounded with so many of the dear old things; your losses were not nearly as serious as were reported.”

“Oh, they are bad enough!” protested Rosie, “but we can still see our friends—though we cannot manage a carriage just yet. Our man of business is so close-fisted.”

“They all are; however, I believe it’s a fault on the right side.”

“We will be at home every Thursday at four to tea. I hope you will often come out, and see us.”

“Yes, I will do my best, but you are a good bit farther off than the Court, you know—and there is no foot-path.”

“No, we must see about that,” said Augusta magnificently. “This is a by-road. Of course, we can go through the park, but we won’t—no, not even to use our own library!”

“What do you mean by your own library?”

“We have no room for the books, and we left them at the Court for ten years, but we can always have access to them whenever we please; it is in the agreement.”

“And if I know you, that won’t be often. You are, neither of you, great readers. Do you play bridge?”

“Yes, we are devoted to it—we must get up some weekly bridge parties, the same as at the Villa. Why, what’s this? A great carriage and pair, trying to drive in at the gate. If they do get in, they’ll never get out again. Just look!”

“Oh, it’s the Bottes,” explained Mrs. Preedy, rising, “the new people who have taken Lampton Hall. Bottes’ plate powder, you know—not bad!”

“Bad!” cried Augusta, going to the window with her glasses. “I never heard of such impertinence, as their daring to call on us! What is the world coming to?”

“At any rate, they’ve given up the attack with the carriage, and here is the footman with the cards.”

A violent ring now clanged through the house, resounding from cellar to garret.

“Oh, do stand back, Augusta!” cried Mrs. Preedy, distractedly. “They can see you—stand back!”

“I don’t care—I-hope they can—they want a lesson!” Then, in a loud voice to the manservant who had brought in the cards, “Not at home!”

There was positively a subdued air in the footman’s deportment as he returned to the carriage, and delivered this lying message; for Miss Augusta Mowbray’s gurgling speech had been distinctly audible in the hall.

As the carriage turned about and drove away, its two occupants—Mrs. Botte, a ladylike woman, and her pretty girl—beheld a sandy-haired female standing obtrusively in the window and surveying them through a pair of long-handled glasses.

“They are at home!” she exclaimed. “What a snub for poor you and me!”

“Well, Augusta, I really think——” began Mrs. Preedy.

“No matter what you think, my dear,” she broke in. “I’ve been most forbearing; I ought to have sent the woman out her cards and told her that this is not the tradesmen’s entrance.”

“Oh, those sort of ideas are entirely exploded,” retorted her visitor impatiently.

“Why, you yourself were the very greatest stickler for them!” gobbled Augusta. “I’m astonished at you. I always thought you were so consistent!”

“I must march with the times, and they go at express speed. I’ve been in a motor; I play bridge; I call on everybody who has money—and is respectable—that is understood. Even Lord Lockfield left cards on Mr. Botte.”

“If he had left a few H’s on him it would have been more to the purpose,” suggested Miss Mowbray, with withering scorn.

“And the Collinghams and Ffolliotts have asked them, and dined there; indeed, I have dined there myself, and got a first-rate dinner. You’ll find it awkward not knowing them—they go everywhere.”

“Well, they won’t be able to say that now!” cried Augusta viciously. “They are not received here; and, although I am no longer mistress of the Court, I consider that I am the leading woman in this part of the world still, and occupy a prominent social position.” Miss Augusta’s egotism was so massive and unconscious that it lost all the pettiness of everyday vanity; it not merely amused, it amazed!

“And what have you done with the little girl?” inquired Mrs. Preedy, changing the subject, as she began to draw on her gloves. “Where is she?”

“At school in Brussels, receiving a first-class education—a most expensive education.”

“I’m glad to hear that. She wanted all she could get, when last I saw her! She must be nearly seventeen.”

“Seventeen and six months,” said Rosabel; “she was born in June.”

“Then, I suppose, you will soon be having her home?”

“No, not for some time,” replied Augusta. “ She is very well where she is, and we don’t intend her to come out till she is twenty.”

“Do you mean to present her at Court?”

“Oh yes, of course; she is a Mowbray, when everything is said and done, and every Mowbray is presented to their sovereign. When I was presented, I had Queen Victoria herself! She smiled at me most graciously; I believe she knew, that I was Miss Mowbray of Thorlands, and that all my ancestors had been loyal to the crown!”

“Then she did not know of the Mowbray who came over with William of Orange, or the Mowbray who fled after the Monmouth rising! You see, I still read up pedigrees! Well, now I’m really off,” kissing the sisters with effusion. “I’ve enjoyed my afternoon so much. When will you come to tea—on Monday?”

A pause, and then Augusta drawled: “Are we engaged for Monday, Rosie? No—yes—delighted, dear—four o’clock.”

As Augusta watched Mrs. Preedy tucking up her skirts, and picking her way across the muddy road beyond the white railings, she remarked, “Well, Rosie, I think the least she could have done was to ask us to lunch. What do you say, dear?”

“I say that I agree with Mrs. Preedy—times are changed!”

Chapter XI

For some weeks the Dower House ladies were busily engaged in paying calls, and in organising “At Homes” and bridge parties. Domestic affairs went smoothly; there was no sensible lack of money; everything was “entered,” and Augusta’s arrogance, dignity, self-possession, and fine toilettes had obtained their due effect. People accepted Miss Mowbray at her own valuation, and Rosabel was undoubtedly a “countess”; everything that could possibly bear a stamp was ornamented with a coronet—even her bridge box and boot trees; coronets were scattered broadcast. Then by gradual degrees, there came a change; the village shop-people, though humbly sensible that they were being dealt with by the great Miss Mowbray, could not afford to wait for their money, and the books from Dower House were exceptionally heavy. Tradespeople are not disposed to exist on the memories of former good custom; and require payments in cash.

These requests for “settlement” were a trifle disconcerting, and then came the school bill from Brussels. It amounted to £175, including clothes, and holiday expenses.

“Hawkins must settle this,” cried Augusta, snapping her eye-glasses, and tossing the letter down. “I will forward it to-day. We have enough to do without paying for Ella, and he must send me down a cheque for these ungrateful wretches. Why, not to speak of the Court, even grandmamma, who lived here, dealt at the post office and with Towker. Well, they have lost my patronage. Nothing will induce me to deal with them again! I’ll go and write to Hawkins at once.”

The effect of the letter and account was to bring Mr. Hawkins himself upon the scene. He announced his visit by wire, and arrived one day in the only station cab just in time for lunch. He was a wealthy old bachelor, and rather rheumatic; this expedition was hateful to him, but he had too much regard for the memory of dead and gone Mowbrays to suffer these two mad women, as he termed them, to entirely ruin themselves and their unfortunate sister.

He noted the manservant with a very grim expression. As soon as he entered, Augusta, who had put on a smart gown and her sweetest manners, rose and received him with an air of familiar affection. She had an insane idea that if she was very nice to the old bear—horribly unmannerly, presuming old man!—he might produce a pleasant sum of money! Her thoughts flew to a brougham; yes, to an electric brougham. Surely all the thousands from the estate could not have been swallowed up by the “Whirlpool” Gold Mines, the “Bottomless Pit” Syndicate, the “No Man’s Land” Exploration, and the Air-ships!

“Now we won’t talk a word of business, till you have had your lunch,” she declared in her most sprightly manner. “I do think it is so very sweet of you to come all this way, this horrid November day, to talk to us. After lunch——” she nodded archly.

“All right,” he growled. “What I have to say will keep for an hour. I must, however, catch the four o’clock train from Brookside station, and I have desired the cabman to wait.”

“Oh, you dreadful extravagant man!” cried Augusta playfully. “Well, now, come along, you must be starving,” and she led the way to a most appetising meal.

Mr. Hawkins was hungry, and he was not averse to a good lunch. He talked of the weather, the journey, the roads, the news of the morning papers, and other appropriate topics; but after cheese, port, and a cup of fragrant coffee, he suddenly declared that he could no longer—with many thanks for their hospitality—waste time, for “time, to a man over seventy, was precious.”

“Let us go elsewhere,” he said rising, “unless you would prefer to remain here?”

“No, no, the drawing-room is the proper place,” said Augusta; “and I’ll tell Wain to say we are not at home to anyone.”

As soon as Mr. Hawkins had closed the door he began, without preamble: “The first thing I’ve got to say is—that you must get rid of Wain!”

“Of Wain!” echoed Augusta. “We have no fault to find—a most respectable man; he was with the Countess of Claire. Why get rid of him?”

“Because you can’t afford him.” A pause, and then Augusta began to gurgle, as she always did, when affronted, or feeling unusually important.

“I do not understand,” she said, and her eyebrows went up.

“Yes, that is evident,” rejoined Mr. Hawkins with a toss of his bushy white hair, beginning to pace the room. “You don’t understand that beyond this house and its contents, you have exactly one hundred pounds a year between you! Tell me, Miss Mowbray”—here he stood still—“if you honestly suppose you can live in this style, keep a gardener and a manservant, on forty shillings a week? You must have curious ideas of the value of money.”

We have nearly five hundred a year!” protested Augusta. “I’m sure I’ve understood that, and we cannot live in a simpler manner than we are doing. We have only the one maid between us, and keep one manservant. We have always been accustomed to three footmen and a butler. I am sure we are only too moderate, considering the style we have been accustomed to ever since we were born.”

The two faded ladies, beautifully dressed, sat in straight-backed arm-chairs, holding handscreens, and at either side of the fire, and the tall, gaunt, angry lawyer stalked up and down between the fire and the door with his hands behind his back. For a long time he remained silent. He was struggling with his feelings, which were violent. He must be calm and impressive, and endeavour to drive the nail of sense into these two wooden heads. At last he said:

“Of the estates, all that is left is this house—and I had a fight for it—some furniture, pictures, the diamonds, silver, the library, and one hundred pounds a year. Your sister Ella has three hundred a year now, thanks to my exertions, strictly secured to her. Do you realise that you cannot touch one penny of it legally? And you seem to me like a couple of children as far as outlay is concerned. You, Miss Mowbray, write and ask me to send you a cheque to pay the tradespeople, who are getting tiresome—a cheque for a hundred pounds—and you are only here three months. Where is that hundred pounds to come from? You have already spent your entire annual income.”

“Pray, how are we to live?” gurgled Augusta. “What do you suggest?”

“Sell some of the diamonds, and buy an annuity.”

“Never! I’d sooner die!” throwing down her hand-screen with violence.

“Well, then, I’m afraid I really cannot help you. These bills will have to be paid—and the servants’ wages. You won’t like to be summoned in the County Court, or to have the bailiffs in; but that will certainly be your fate if you go on as you have begun. For muddle-headed recklessness, commend me to women!”

“Thank you,” rejoined Augusta, deep down in her thorax.

“Yes”—now turning on her furiously—“the estates have stood racing, and even the gambling debts of some wild young Mowbrays; but they could not hold out against a woman’s insane scattering of thousands and thousands on mad Stock Exchange bubbles! You know the old saying of Thorlands, ‘Lost by a woman—-by a woman gained.’”

“But tell me,” interrupted Rosabel, “what we are to do now? My poor darling Ugo meant all for the best—he did, indeed! He never dreamt of this dire want. He hoped to improve our circumstances.”

“But this is not dire want,” looking about him. “One servant, and a scarcity of meat, and coals, and lights—even that is not dire want. You don’t know the meaning of dire want.”

“Oh, but we must have necessaries,” broke in Augusta. “I will never see the Countess without a maid—never!”

“Then you have a lamentable future before you, ladies—bankruptcy, and possibly the workhouse.”

“The workhouse!” shrieked Augusta. “How dare you come here to insult us, you odious old man!” she cried with blazing cheeks. When Miss Mowbray was deeply moved her nose became white as a chicken’s breast-bone—her cheeks crimson.

“I am here at great personal inconvenience,” he answered imperturbably, “to save you from yourselves, and to solemnly warn you that you are on the road to what you won’t relish—public charity.”

There was nothing for it but the very plainest speaking. He was determined to frighten these two arrogant paupers into common-sense.

“Do you realise that forty shillings a week won’t go far?”

“I cannot tell you,” said Augusta. “All my life, I’ve never had to think of money. When my father was alive, he paid the bills, I merely gave the orders; and almost ever since, I have been living with my sister, and paid her so much a year. I have always said I would not be worried with details about money,” and she looked thoroughly proud of her sentiment.

“You have some advice to give us, I know,” put in Rosabel, who was very pale. Possibly she had heard more of duns and financial troubles than the imperial Augusta. “How are we to live?”

“You must live on your young sister,” he rejoined, and walked to the door and back. “Yes, let her come home and cast in her lot with you. She will bring three hundred pounds to add to your income. Or, would you take in paying guests?”

“No,” answered Augusta in her shrillest key (Augusta, saturated with the prejudices of her class). “Lodgers! I’d rather go at once to the workhouse than do that.”

“Then send for your sister—have her home by Christmas; it is your sole alternative.”

The sisters looked at one another over their hand-screens, and at last Rosabel said, “A disagreeable alternative indeed. I suppose, since you say so, it must be done; but we are not accustomed to young people.”

“Very well, I’ll settle up her school bill, and forward the money for expenses. And let me recommend you to get rid of your superfluous servants at once. I’ll advance a sum for their wages. Two women will be ample to run this house, if you shut up half the rooms.”

“The Countess has always been accustomed to her maid,” reiterated Augusta excitedly; “she must have a maid.”

“Oh, never mind my maid,” broke in Rosabel hysterically. “You shall do my hair, Gussie, and we will dress one another. Mr. Hawkins is right—we are living much too fast—we must keep in future well within our income. I remember father saying that he could not afford to owe money, and Ugo used to laugh and say, ‘The want of money is the root of all evil.’ Well, Mr. Hawkins, we will take your lecture in good part—won’t we, Gussie?”

“Oh, certainly,” in a biting tone; “it is the role of one’s solicitor to speak disagreeable truths.”

“And,” added the Countess, “we will begin to economise without loss of time.”

“Talking of time,” he cried, pulling out his watch, “I must be off at once. Please ring for my cab; my coat and gloves are in the vestibule. No, pray don’t come out in the cold. Good-bye, good-bye,” and he hurried to the door.

As he was driven away in the dull, drizzly afternoon, he glanced back at the gloomy red house and the two gloomy faces in the windows, and said, half aloud:

“I’m sure I don’t envy that unfortunate child over in Brussels; it’s hard that she must be sacrificed to support her two unsupportable half-sisters. I spoke of the workhouse, but in my own opinion the eldest is qualifying for the county asylum!”

Chapter XII

It was a few weeks after the New Year, a peculiarly black, wet night; the rain was streaming down steadily; one could hear it pouring out of the gutters and splashing on the stone steps, and the pines around the Dower House were sighing and moaning a dismal lamentation.

The two sisters, seated on either side of the drawing-room fire, were momentarily expecting Ella. The thin-toned old hall clock quavered out nine strokes; the traveller was late. It had been a long, long dreary day; Augusta had gradually ceased her querulous grumbling and dozed off, but Rosabel was wide awake, with a book in her lap, and her delicate, satin-shod feet resting on the fender—she was wearing out her ball slippers and other finery, for she still adored dress; but for once her thoughts were not engaged with their principal object, they were busy with her youngest sister.

Little Ella was a complete stranger, and if she could recall the past, must see terrible changes.

For instance, in their own surroundings: the Court and its luxuries gone for ever—the pride of the Mowbrays beaten to the dust. Certainly Augusta, poor girl, had meant all her speculations for the best, and the Thorlands estate was her own; there was no entail. She had nothing to show for her youth and good looks—not like herself (reflected Rosabel), who had been a wife, an adored wife; moreover, she was a countess, and took the “pas” of her eldest sister, as well as of many other ladies. Yes, there was solid satisfaction in the fact that she had not come out of the struggle for success altogether empty-handed—not like poor dear Gussie; and Gussie might marry yet; she was but forty-four, and in these days women married rather late in life. Lord Lockfield was still unmated; possibly he was waiting for Augusta! Certainly he had left cards (unluckily they were out when he called), and several times he had sent offerings of game and grapes. Undoubtedly there was hope for Gussie still—gazing critically at her sister across the hearth—she was an aristocratic-looking woman; her figure was pretty, and her hair a becoming transformation. Miss Mowbray was dozing with her mouth open, and snoring with gentle regularity. Well, no; this was not precisely the moment to see her at her best, but in her pale, oyster-white satin, with the family diamonds, Augusta looked magnificent. She had worn the diamonds at the Carringtons’ dinner, just to show that there was life in the old dog yet. Oh, she did sincerely hope, that Gussie would “get on” with this girl Ella, and not be too hard on her; quarrels were so detestable! She had already urged a peaceful attitude, and that they should remember the child was young, and no doubt full of all kinds of new up-to-date fancies, which must be tolerated. Her coming at all was a most shocking infliction, but one which could not be avoided. No song—no supper; no step-sister—no dinner!

Here Gussie slowly opened her eyes, yawned, and said:

“Dear me, I wish she’d come! I’m tired of waiting and listening.”

“Ma cherie, you’ve been asleep.”

“Nonsense!” tartly. “Asleep yourself, most likely.”

“No, I’ve been sitting here and thinking of things, and of how nice it would be, if you were to marry Lord Lockfield.”

“I daresay,” with a little resentful laugh. “Why, the man must be nearly sixty.”

“Still, Augusta, you were fond of him once; come, now, and only for an unfortunate circumstance——”

“Hark! there’s the cab! I hear the gate,” rising as she spoke.

“Yes, but pray don’t go out into the hall—it’s a bitter night—sit still.”

The hall door was opened by Jane, who received the perished, hungry girl with unaffected rapture.

“Lord love you, Miss Ella! You don’t remember me; but I’m Jane, your old Jane.”

“Why, Jane, of course! and I’m very glad to see you,” she looked about anxiously. “Where are my sisters?”

“Oh, they are in the drawing-room, and afraid to come out here and catch cold, being used to heat in Italy. Here, Sam,” to the cabman, “just leave the boxes”—these were numerous—“and I’ll get them taken up; and if you’ll drive round, I’ll give you something to warm you.” When he had departed, she turned to Ella and said in a low, impressive voice, “Don’t you be frightened, Missy, dear, but just stand up to them; it will be the better for all parties; begin, as you mean to go on.”

Ella was nervous; she had an instinctive fear and dread of Augusta. She always seemed, when she thought of her, to see that red, angry face, that uplifted stick; figuratively, it was falling on her arms and shoulders now! The beating of her heart almost choked her, but with an effort, she braced herself and held up her head, as Jane flung open the door and announced,

“Miss Ella.”

The two sisters rose simultaneously and came forward with their little mincing steps.

“Why, how late you are!” said Augusta in

a querulous key, giving her a sort of poke on her cold cheek.

“We are so very glad to see you,” added Rosabel, following suit. “You must be perished, my dear.”

“I am rather cold,” she admitted in a clear voice. “The train was late, and it simply crawled.”

“Come and warm your hands,” urged the Countess; “supper will be served directly— or will you go upstairs? Jane will show you your room. Would you prefer that?”

“Thank you, yes; I am rather tired.”

“But let us have a look at you first,” interposed Gussie. “Now, who is she like?” And the sisters stood together, arm in arm, and stared at her critically.

Ella was tall—taller than Rosabel—and very slight; her thick fair hair in one long plait hung down her back; she had pretty brown eyes and a smiling mouth, held herself well, and looked a lady. She was dressed in a well-made dark serge, a fur coat, cap and muff.

“Expensive things,” noted the Countess, with the quick glance of an expert.

As there was no reply to Augusta’s question, the girl answered it herself, and said with a smile:

“I know I am like a very dirty, untidy girl, who has been travelling for fourteen hours. We had a dreadful crossing; I feel as if I could not look at supper. May I go to my room and have just a glass of milk and go to bed?”

“Certainly,” said Rosabel, “and I’ll go with you.”

“No, no, dearest Rosie, do think of the draughts about the house, and do be careful. I’ll see after Ella myself,” protested Augusta. To Ella: “The Countess is so delicate, and feels this change.”

“Yes,” said Ella, “I’m sure it must be a sad change after the Court, and the hot-water pipes up and down the passages. I used to love standing on them, I remember.”

“So you have a good memory, then,” remarked Augusta significantly; “but I was alluding to Italy—we spent many years there, and this is our first winter in England for a long time.”

“Italy must have been delightful. Really, I won’t take either of you out of this warm room. I’m sure Jane will show me my quarters.”

“Very well, then, we will let you find your way. There is a good fire in your bedroom—but remember, it is not to be a habit,” added Augusta, with a shake of her head.

“Oh, no, I’m not accustomed to a fire,” rejoined the new arrival cheerily; “but now I will say good-night and go,” and she went.

Ella, lighted by the faithful Jane, toiled slowly up the shallow oak stairs; the atmosphere of the half-warmed house was chilly—nearly as chilly as the welcome she had received from her sisters. How strange it sounded—“sisters,” these two faded women, with touched-up complexions, elaborate coiffures, and delicately picturesque tea-gowns. They seemed so out of keeping in connection with carpetless lobbies and dim, cheap lights. For the reign of economy had commenced in earnest. Mr. Hawkins’ visit had borne fruit. Jane was installed housekeeper; she paid the bills weekly—and Augusta was actually out of debt! She even enjoyed “saving;” it was such a new sensation. Ella’s bedroom, large, cheerful, and bare, had two windows overlooking the hall door. It contained a tent bed, a fine old chest of drawers and wardrobe, a faded carpet on the middle of the floor, and a beautiful but rickety Louis Seize toilette table. An inviting log fire was roaring up the chimney.

“Here, let me have a sight of you, Missy!” cried Jane, putting down the candle. “Aye, it’s just the same little laughing, tricksey face! You are, I’m sure, dying with cold and hunger and sleep. Let me pull off your boots, dearie! Give me the coat and cap, and do sit down and warm yourself. I have a cup of hot soup waiting for you—and while you drink it up, I’ll unpack.”

“It’s delicious, Jane,” said the girl after a pause; “I feel ten years younger already.”

“I think you’d better stay at the age you are, Missy; leastways, while you’re here; the ladies don’t like young children.”

“Yes, I know that,” she answered, placing two pretty arched feet on the fender and staring hard into the fire. “I’m afraid they won’t care for me, young or old.” She was very pale, and her large dark eyes looked misty and dim.

“Poor ladies! They can’t help their queer, wizened-up nature, and strange notions of themselves; they were born different to most people, and have only half a heart between them—and the Countess has most of it. You must bear with them like little children. It’s what I do. I see to all the housekeeping, bills and ordering, and never mind a scolding. I just take my way, and do my best.”

“And so the Court is sold. Do you know why, Jane?”

“Because Miss Mowbray went through all the property. She got throwing money to things called ‘shares,’ or ‘snares,’ and they ate up every acre. They are now very ill off, and don’t believe it. They started with five servants, and talked of a carriage. Now there is only me and Polly Wake, a girl from the village. Most of the rooms is shut up, and the fires are cut down, and the candles and everything—and——”

“What are you, Jane?”

“I’m cook, and butler, and boot-boy, and housemaid. Do you remember how you used to help me—washing up?”

“Yes, and I will help you now. I enjoy housekeeping, and gardening; it’s like a game, and I’m not at all a bad cook. I used to have great fun in the holidays, and was treated as one of the family at the Château Bellevue.”

“And was sorry to come away, I’ll lay?”

“Yes, and so surprised too. I wonder why I was sent for. Do you happen to know?”

“Yes, and I’ll tell you all about it some day. Well, I’ll tell it now—it was because they could not spare the money for your schooling. Now, dear child, let me unplait and brush your hair as I used to long ago. Then you shall say your prayers, and get into bed.”

“What time is breakfast—early?”

“There is early morning tea, and the ladies have breakfast in their own rooms about eleven. They say it’s a foreign fashion, and I’m glad of it; it keeps them out of the way.”

“But not the fashion where I come from. I will be down early, Jane, and help you, as I used to do—it will seem like old times.”

“Old times!” she echoed. “Very well, my child, the Lord love you. May I give you one kiss?”

“Yes, dear, good old Jane—a dozen,” and she held out her arms.

Then Jane closed the door very gently, and stole downstairs.

“Well, what do you think of her, Gussie?” inquired the Countess as soon as the stranger had departed. “ Is she as pretty as you expected?”

I never expected her to be pretty,” said Gussie tartly, “and she is not.”

“Oh, well, I think she is—and she will be lovely in a year or two. Of course, now she is too thin and springy, like a young colt; but she has a fine complexion; she takes after me in that. I’ve heard poor Ugo say that a good skin carried a woman further than anything in the world.”

“Not so far as impudence!” corrected her sister. “The girl is thoroughly self-possessed—not the least shy or retiring, but ready to talk and laugh. Just like her mother!”

“She is not much like her in appearance, except about the eyes; Ella is a Mowbray.”

“Mowbray! A fiddlestick!” said Augusta, with passionate impatience.

“Come, come, Gussie! if you are going to be cross, I shall go to bed. What is the matter?”

“I’ve an idea that this girl will take a great deal on herself.”

“Oh no, I’m sure she won’t; she is so young.”

“She is of the up-to-date present-day school, and is, no doubt, full of ideas about independence; there is, however, one comfort, she won’t expect to go into society, and society will not expect her. No one will notice a girl in a short frock and pig-tail.”

“And how is she to pass the long days?”

“I suppose she can sew—-there will be lots of mending—and, well, she can practise the piano, and garden, and run messages. Those errands to the village take up Jane’s time—and the girl is not to be trusted.”

“I’m afraid Ella will find this a dull life.”

“It’s not worse for her than for us—-nor half so bad. She has never known better days. She is lucky, when you come to think of it, to be a Miss Mowbray of Thorlands. It’s not everyone who can boast of such good blood on her father’s side.”

“Yes, and her mother was well bred, and born too.”

“Nonsense, Rosabel! The more I think of that Aix business, and the story of the aunt—the more I am certain that it was just a romance, trumped up on the spur of the moment, for the benefit of grandmamma and ourselves. Sybil was neither more nor less than a clever, ladylike, adventuress.”

“Dear Gussie, you are really too hard; I will never admit that—never!”

“Oh, well, I won’t argue with you! It’s time for bed and candles,” and seizing the bellrope, she gave it such a violent jerk, that it rebounded with great violence and swept half a dozen costly ornaments into the fender.

“Oh, Gussie, Gussie!” screamed the Countess; “the little Capo di Monti cup and saucer, and the old Bristol figure! Oh, how—how dreadful!” and she lifted up her hands in horror.

Gussie also surveyed the wreckage in genuine dismay.

“Well, I am sorry,” she said. “I can’t think how I did it. I scarcely touched the bell-rope.”’

“Yes, you did; you are always so rough and quick in your movements—you dragged at it like this,” returned the Countess, suiting the action to the word, and in another instant, there again descended an avalanche of egg-shell china! the fender, rug and carpet were covered with precious fragments.

After sustained mutual recriminations and vociferous explanations, they gradually and painfully collected the debris, and with many ejaculations and regrets, stowed them away into an old bureau, and locked it up.

“We must put some figures from the cabinet here,” suggested Rosabel, who was re-arranging the mantelpiece, and pushing forward various little articles to fill up gaps. “Jane will wonder what has happened. It was only yesterday, you gave her such a scolding for breaking a tumbler.”

“Don’t tell the girl about it,” said Gussie, “she would think it quite a joke, and I see no reason why we should be her laughing stock.”

“Oh, Gussie, dear, I hope you have not taken one of your prejudices already?” said Rosabel, turning from the task of refurnishing the scene of the disaster.

“I hope not. I shall know for certain, by the end of the week!”

Chapter XIII

Ella slept the sleep of the weary, the young, and the just. It was late when Jane called her and brought her a cup of tea and opened the heavy old shutters.

“Oh, Jane!” she exclaimed, “you must not spoil me. I intend to be up and doing and I hate lying in bed.” (“Then you are not like your sisters,” muttered Jane to herself.) “I shall be down in half an hour. I’m dying to see the place by daylight.”

“At present there’s not much daylight and this never was much of a place. There’s no great hurry, dear.”

“I’m always in a hurry, Jane. I think one gets twice as much out of life, don’t you?”

“Lord love you, child! it’s little you know of life yet—anyhow, there is no life here.”

“Except me. I intend to be the life of this house!” and the new arrival subsequently fulfilled her bold intention to the letter.

Before her sisters had appeared, cold and pinched and out of sorts, Ella had examined the mansion, from top to bottom, visited all the old powdering closets and cupboards, hurried round the damp garden and the wintry lawn, and made acquaintance with Polly Wake and “Young Harry”—who came twice a week to rake the leaves and tidy up the outside premises. He touched his hat and grinned, exclaiming: “Well, to be sure, is this Missy? Her do be grown—a fine young lady.”

“Yes, I’m going to help you in the garden, Harry, as soon as the spring comes. I love flowers. And is this the gate into the park?”

“Aye, it be,” unlocking it, “and there’s the house you was born in, below, in the hollow.”

“How far is it from here?”

“Well, by the short cut, which I’ll show you, you could run it in ten minutes; but there’s no coming and going between the two houses now, not like in your grandmamma’s time. Anyhow, the Court is shut up, the people is away—and no loss.”

The two elder sisters found a considerable amount of interest and entertainment in superintending the unpacking of Ella’s boxes. She had nice clothes—well chosen, and sensible—and a quantity of gifts and photographs (with sentimental inscriptions) from her school friends. These made quite a show in her somewhat bare bower; and there were many books, and a pile of black-looking, difficult music.

After this inspection, and hundreds of questions from sister Rosabel as to where such a thing was made, and what it cost, Ella was called upon to exhibit her accomplishments, to show her drawings—which were but feeble—and “to play them something.” This she did so magnificently that her performance actually drew Jane and Polly from the kitchen up into the hall.

“My, ain’t it grand!” whispered the latter. “Who’d a thought she’d all that in her fingers? and as for the noise, I guess ye can hear it across the park!”

Ella as a musician was a revelation to her relatives, and as a consequence, rose mightily in their respect. Such a girl was an acquisition; she could do something thoroughly well and would be a remarkable feature at their little tea parties.

Ella’s music would be an inducement to assemble the neighbours; she must, of course keep it up, and practise—but not in the drawing-room. Oh no; and Jane and Old Harry were desired to wheel the instrument into a large empty apartment, overlooking the grounds and the park. Here, Ella often spent hours; she locked the door on herself and the old piano, and confided to it many secrets.

The new arrival exhibited the same amount of energy and enterprise that distinguished her as a child. She was never idle—she could not bear to sit with her hands before her, and as she was a capable needlewoman, and mended lace beautifully, her sisters soon found ample employment for her clever fingers.

The weather was wet and cold—there was no going out. The Countess and Miss Mowbray dared not brave the climate, or suffer Ella to go into the village alone, so they sat all day by the fire, reading the daily paper, and talking, talking, talking—usually of such trivial things, certainly of no interest to anyone but themselves. The close atmosphere, the dull, monotonous hours; mutton-chops for dinner one day, beefsteak the next—the sole variety. Ella could not endure it, and would put on a cloak and rubbers and steal out for a ramble in the park. Here, although she had to struggle against the depression of grey skies and a dead leaf-strewn environment, even this change did her good. At the end of ten days came a glorious Sunday, and with much fuss and bustle the ladies were equipped and started off to walk to church. Church was in the village, and a mile away—a pretty old Norman edifice, much more dignified than its surroundings, and standing in a well-filled churchyard. It had a large congregation, many of the “county” coming to Thorlands, as they liked the rector, the services, and the stately old building.

The Mowbray seat, in the centre aisle, was conspicuous in every way, as befitted the pew of the family; and when Augusta stalked up the cocoanut matting to her “chief place,” she was momentarily happy; for a brief hour, she seemed to have entered again into her lost estate. It is doubtful if otherwise—supposing their place had been at the back, among the free sittings, Augusta would have tramped for a mile to “worship” almost every Sunday.

The first lesson was being read, when Miss Mowbray and the Countess entered, immediately followed by a nice-looking girl, with a fair plait hanging down her back, the insignia of immaturity. “So,” thought the spectators, instantly removing their attention from the parson, “this is the little sister!—only she is tall—the girl who has never been visible all these years!”

It was strange to see this pretty, bright, yet childish face sitting vis-à-vis to two elderly women—her sisters. There was something incongruous about it; she seemed more like the daughter of one of them. Ella, for her part, was not a whit abashed, but looked about her during the hymns, and recalled the old church—which she had attended with Jane—and noticed the family monuments, including those of Horace Mowbray, who fell at Edgehill, and Henry, “accidentally slain by a cart.” The latter had been erected to the memory of Henry, her father, and Sybilla, his wile. Sybilla was her own mother, and but a name to her. How strange! “Yes,” and her lips trembled, “how sad!” She was young, too, aged twenty- three years. And Ella also noticed the veil- dressed, fashionable congregation, the handsome furs of the women, the number of young people; it was a comfort to see a girl again; she hoped she would get to know the pretty girls in dark-blue hats. It will be seen that, despite the rector’s eloquence, the stranger’s attention had wandered a good deal.

Afterwards, in the porch, there was a general talk and greeting of neighbours, as carriages were brought up. Augusta generally held a sort of reception on Old Job Smith’s flat tombstone—which lay right across the path. She presented Ella to Lady Brownjohn, to Mrs. Preedy, to the rector’s wife, and the rector’s wife invited them all in to early dinner: but Miss Mowbray declined, to Ella’s intense disappointment. The girls with the blue hats proved to be the rector’s daughters—Bessie and Evie Fane, aged respectively seventeen and nineteen. She longed to make their acquaintance. As the party strolled down to the lychgate she found herself between the two girls, and the eldest said:

“So you have just come from school, have you not?”

“Yes, ten days ago.”

“I wonder how you will like living at the Dower House. It must be strange, after a crowd of girls.”

“I suppose I shall get used to it; but I do miss the others. I had a number of friends.”

“Were you long at school?”

“Well, yes; I’ve been at school since I was seven.”

“Goodness! and you are now as old as I am.”

“I am seventeen and a half.”

“Nine years’ lessons! You must be accomplished!”

“Oh, not more than others. I can play, and embroider, and dance, and speak French.”

“There are lots of Christmas parties coming off all round—trees, you know—shall you be at them? The Bottes are having a splendid one.”

“I’m afraid I shall not be allowed to go; you see, I am not grown up—I wish I were.”

“You are tall enough, and in a long dress you’d look twenty. But these are mixed affairs—children and big people—great fun,” said Bessie. “I always dance with gentlemen—it’s like a real ball.”

“Oh, Bessie is a dreadful flirt already!” answered her sister Evie. “Do you think you can come in and see us? We live quite close, you know,” pointing to the Vicarage. “You and Bessie are the same age.”

“I should love to come, if I may, thank you.”

“Now, Ella,” said her eldest sister, sharply, “don’t you see, that we are waiting,” and she hurriedly shook hands with her companions, and ran after her relations.

Ella gradually settled down into her new state of life; she was a sweet-tempered, bright girl, and soon made herself necessary to her relatives, and became, as she had prophesied, “ of the house.” She sewed, and sang, and helped Jane; dusted, cleaned silver, washed the breakfast things, carried up the trays and ably assisted the Countess at her toilet. She had slipped into her place as young lady help, with the ease of an old glove, and as every moment was occupied, she had no time to be unhappy. The sisters found her essential to their comfort—although they did not notify this fact to one another— and to quote Jane, when she was conferring with her intimates, “it was real extraordinary, how well the child managed—them.”

Chapter XIV

Major Baldwin, late of the Corkers, had been correctly described as a wealthy but elusive bachelor, and a hunting man. Charles Baldwin had knocked about the world a good deal, particularly between India and Home Service, and was, in the broadest sense of the word, an experienced campaigner.

He was not a little surprised to find that at the age of forty-four he had a flair for country life, and to discover that he could make himself—for at least six months—contented at The Hatch, his old aunt’s place, about two miles from Thorlands village. His first impulse and intention, had been to dispose of the property by auction; but when he came down to look into matters, he realised that the house was admirably found—comfort, not show, the rule; chairs and beds were soft as whipped cream; there were no smoky chimneys, no draughts, no drawbacks; a dignified, well-trained staff—in short, his late aunt’s treasures anticipated every wish. Then the stabling was undeniably good, the situation central; indeed, before Miss Baldwin’s tenancy, it had been a notable hunting-box. After mature reflection, and the consumption of three cigars, Major Baldwin, to use his own expression, changed his mind, and resolved to “sit tight.”

The Hatch was a good-sized residence, not too large, or in the very least imposing; just a solid grey, box-shaped house, situated with its back to the road, from whence it was jealously secluded by a high brick wall, overtopped by fir-trees, which gave the effect of something with a long red neck and curly black locks. Undoubtedly this old maid’s lair was an ideal hunting quarter, and early in the season the new owner entered into possession, in company with six sound hunters, a trapper, a dog-cart, and three grooms.

Major Baldwin was a slight, wiry little man, who had once ridden in the regimental steeplechases, and who now rode eleven stone eight. He had a nice clean tanned face, a moustache two or three shades lighter than his complexion, a pair of twinkling blue eyes, and an agreeable voice. Now and then he invited old comrades down to stay with him; these he mounted, and to use their expression, “did” them well. He rode hard, and on off days, rather to his own astonishment, took a keen interest in the gatekeeper’s children, the bulbs and vines, and even the gardener’s pigs. In the evenings, when he had disposed of the papers and the latest novel, he generally played patience, or amused himself with bridge problems. Surely a man so situated, should be looking out for a wife? On fine Sundays he walked to church, but he did not appear anxious to mix in local society; in fact, with the exception of our dear Mrs. Preedy, his acquaintance outside the hunting field was strictly limited. Old Miss Baldwin, with the family “twinkling eye,” had urgently commended Mrs. Preedy to his notice. She declared that “Mrs. P.” was an amusing character study, and would entertain him with far more thrilling fiction than half of the most warranted “hundred thousand copy” novels. She had a delightfully sharp tongue, and a really dramatic way of retailing insignificant events. Therefore, on off days, when the frost held, and Major Baldwin felt that a little exercise would be good for his liver, he would stroll over to The Nook and hear all the news. It saved him, he reflected, the expense of a weekly society paper.

It was true, that Mrs. Preedy could not always comprehend her visitor; nevertheless, they were steady, and even confidential friends, and shortly after the lady’s visit to the Dower House, Major Baldwin was in possession of the latest intelligence respecting the Court ladies, as well as a faint resume of their past history.

“I told them about you,” said the hostess, significantly, “and they said, they hoped you would call.”

“Now, my dear madam,” demanded the excellent parti, who was standing on the hearthrug with his coat-tails under his arm, “do I ever call—excepting on yourself and one or two others? Calling is a wife’s business, and I have not got one.”

“Pray, whose fault is that?” she asked. “Besides, the Mowbrays actually live on your road—or you on theirs—whichever way you like to put it.”

“There is one serious obstacle,” he said; “I should be meeting them every day, and compelled to stop and talk, or take off my hat in cold weather. Besides, from what you tell me of the Court ladies, I fancy they are not a little bit in my line.”

“Pray, what is your line—or lines?” she asked in a tone of banter.

“I like them to lie in pleasant places,” he rejoined, “with women, who are young, lively, and pretty, or middle-aged, amusing, and hospitable. I gather that your friends are something between the two.”

“Um!” said Mrs. Preedy reflectively. “Yes, I’m afraid they do not quite correspond with your requirements—you want so much.”

“Not at all; there you are mistaken. All I ask is, good sport, a good cook, and to live in peace and amity with all mankind.”

Mrs. Preedy was persistent—verily an importunate widow! and almost in spite of himself, Major Baldwin one day found himself ringing the somewhat creaky bell of the Dower House and inquiring, “If the Countess Tormina and Miss Mowbray were at home.”

A red-armed girl with a torn apron informed him that they were out, but might be back at any moment. His heart gave a leap of relief, as he handed his card and hurried down the steps and the sweep, in abject terror lest he should encounter the strangers. On Sunday, after church, he was captured by Mrs. Preedy, and compelled to make the acquaintance of the Court ladies, and subsequently his worst anticipations were fulfilled; for whether he went forth on horseback or on foot, he seemed to be always coming across them—especially Miss Mowbray, who accosted him like a twentieth century highwayman, “Your money and your name!” Would talk to him, and flatter him for ten minutes at a time, in her most sprightly manner, wearing her youngest and most becoming hat. These informal meetings were so frequent, that a suspicious soul might have supposed that the lady lay in wait to intercept her neighbour! The drawing-room window had a capital view down the road; there was generally time to “run up, and put on one’s things,” and casually to appear, as a distant figure from The Hatch came within speaking distance of the Dower House.

Rosabel had mentally decided that the Major would make a suitable husband for her dear Gussie, and ventured to chaff her mildly on this score; and Gussie would simper and bridle, when having assumed her most becoming gown, she stood in the drawing-room window for an hour—as on a watch-tower—enacting the part of Sister Anne. Poor Major Baldwin! in his secret heart it may be that he cursed Mrs. Preedy. He was obliged to execute elaborate manoeuvres in order not to be compelled—as he mentally expressed it—“to walk home with the Dower House,” and many a day he returned to The Hatch by a circuitous footpath, or a back road.

At an early stage of his acquaintance with the Court ladies Mrs. Preedy had invited them to meet at dinner. She was, as we know, unemployed, and she felt it her duty to arrange a match for the Major. Augusta was middle-aged, but well preserved; she had also been so fortunate as to “keep her figure.” She was well born and highly connected, and when all was said and done (much had been said and much had been done), Miss Mowbray of Thorlands.

Major Baldwin, on the other hand, made no secret of the lamentable fact that he was the grandson of a linen-draper; that the old person was of the Quaker persuasion was certainly a mitigation; all the same, a shop was a shop, and it was undoubtedly from this source that the Baldwins had derived a handsome income. Now here was an opportunity for this agreeable nobody to ally himself with a woman of good birth! Indeed, there was a strong consensus of opinion in the neighbourhood that Major Baldwin ought to marry; matrimony had clearly marked him for her own. The Hatch seemed to be crying aloud for a mistress, and Mrs. Preedy had already selected that mistress, in the person of Gussie Mowbray.

It never for a moment occurred to her, that Charles Baldwin might prefer a younger bride, or even one of the pretty Bellamy girls. No; Augusta was an old friend, and she had made up her mind that Gussie should have the first chance. Animated by this benevolent intention, Mrs. Preedy organised a select little dinner and bridge party—just three tables—and invited Major Baldwin—who in all ignorance walked into the trap—Sir Thomas and Lady Brownjohn, the two Fane girls, their brother from Oxford, Captain Prentiss, Mr. Bell the curate, and his mother. Major Baldwin had the honour of escorting Miss Mowbray in to dinner; a fashionable, smartly-dressed woman, with wonderful diamonds and agreeable maimers. He found her easy to talk to—Monte Carlo—to which he repaired each March—was well known to Miss Mowbray—and they discussed the climate, the Casino, “runs on red,” and great coups at “Trente et Quarante.” Augusta was also his partner at bridge, and their combination proved fortunate; whereas Captain Prentiss and Evie Fane lost; and Captain Prentiss, who considered himself a first-class player, held tragic “post-mortems “ over every hand, and said, between whiffs of his cigarette (Mrs. Preedy allowed smoking in the drawing-room):

“Now, if you had only done this, you know,” or, “if you had only done that,” or, “I say, what possessed you to?” and Evie, who had

known him since she had been in pinafores, argued back, and boldly upheld her own play. Meanwhile, Major Baldwin and Augusta glanced across at one another and exchanged smiles—such smiles make strides in an acquaintance!

“Four aces in dummy’s hand!” cried Evie. “ Well, really Miss Mowbray, I call it wicked! Remember, you can’t have your luck in another respect.”

“I don’t know what you mean!” said Augusta, in her grandest manner. “I think it is pretty widely known that I have never had any luck at all.”

Miss Mowbray had an exasperating and combative style of putting down her cards with a quick jerk of the wrist, and an accompanying glance, as much as to say, “Now, you see what I can do!” She was an extraordinary card holder, and complacently interpreted her good fortune as first-class play. (It is said that of a hundred bridge players, ninety-five believe that they are experts, but only about five really know the game.) Meanwhile poor Evie Fane, with a succession of “black” hands, not to speak of “Yarboroughs” and “Chicane,” was struggling desperately with misfortune, and the prospective loss of ten shillings. “To see old Miss Mowbray,” as she subsequently declared, “staring over at Major Baldwin, and making eyes and simpering, and showing off her rings and bracelets, was ridiculous to the last degree!” Miss Mowbray, having pocketed twelve shillings and sixpence, assured Evie that she was not improving in her play, and having warmly congratulated her own partner, presently took her leave. Major Baldwin was induced to walk home with the sisters; it was a fine frosty night, the only fly horse in the place was sick—and they were all going in the same direction.

“You will, I hope, come in and see us in a friendly way,” urged Augusta, “and have a game of bridge. I can collect some really good players, and when there is no hunting, we might begin at three o’clock. What a pity it is, that that girl Evie Fane blocks her suits, and loses her temper; it makes it so uncomfortable for others.”

“Well, you know, she had beastly bad luck,” said Major Baldwin. “I must say, it’s rather trying never to hold a card. I don’t believe she was able to make trumps once the whole time.”

“I suppose you are hoping for a thaw?” said Rosabel.

“I should rather think so, with six horses eating their heads off, and going lame for want of work.”

“There will be crowds down for Christmas; all the big houses round here will be filled up and the young people home from school. We always had the meet of the season at the Court on St. Stephen’s Day—such dozens of children on ponies.”

“Oh yes, and an infer—an awful nuisance,” said Major Baldwin. “Don’t I just know ’em!—‘the mince-pie brigade!’ I’m always in a deadly funk of riding over one of the little beggars—scouring about like rabbits, all mud and enthusiasm! The Fane boy, on the mowing-machine pony, is the most dangerous obstruction of all, thrusting in front of everyone at gates and fences; the lawn mower plunging in the air! I assure you that no anxious mamma looks out for the end of the holidays, as eagerly as I do.”

The acquaintance between The Hatch and the Dower House had reached an unsatisfactory stage before the arrival on the scene of the youngest Miss Mowbray. By the time she had appeared Major Baldwin, in just alarm, had taken to skulking home by byways, and even shirking church. Indeed, the ladies now saw him so seldom, that they had come to the conclusion that he had anticipated his usual trip to Monte Carlo by a couple of months, and gone abroad.

Ella had, as was foretold, relieved Jane of some duties; she went all the messages to and from the village; her sisters wisely decided that “the girl must have exercise,” and exercise was provided in abundance.

One afternoon late in February Ella was returning to the Dower House laden with parcels; she carried a packet of borrowed books, a red-knitted bag full of groceries, an umbrella, and a piece of bacon (which was genteelly disguised as a brown-paper parcel).

Major Baldwin was riding home on a tired splashed hunter, when he descried this said brown-paper parcel lying in the middle of the road. At first he determined to pass on; he was cold and muddy, and he wanted his tea; moreover, he was always afraid that they might descend upon him, or that he might fall into an ambush. However, on the impulse of the moment, he dismounted, picked up the parcel—which weighed about three pounds—and holding it on his finger by the string loop, proceeded on his way. He had not gone more than a quarter of a mile, when he overtook a tall girl, heavily laden.

“Here we are!” he said to himself. “Excuse me,” he added aloud, pulling up beside her, and exhibiting his find, “did you happen to lose anything—is this yours?”

The girl turned a very pretty face towards him. Colouring with surprise, and dismay, she exclaimed:

“Oh yes—that is mine—my property. How careless of me!” holding out a neatly-gloved hand; “but I am afraid I have undertaken a lazy man’s load, and to save myself a double journey I have attempted too much.”

“Too much!” echoed Major Baldwin, as his keen blue eyes, contemplated the slight girlish figure. “I should rather think so. If you are going my way, may I not be your porter?”

“No, oh no, thank you,” she replied, “I would not dream of such a thing!”

“Do you live far off?” he inquired.

“No,” she answered, “within five minutes’ walk. I live at the Dower House.”

“The Dower House!” he repeated to himself. “Who could she be?” Although not a servant, she was evidently laden like one. She wore her bright fair hair in a thick pigtail.

“At least, you will allow me to carry this,” exhibiting the bacon, “as far as your gate?”

“If you can manage it—it will be very kind.” Then, in a different voice: “I hope you have had a good day?”

“Oh yes, the scent lay well, but I missed my second horse, and this has brought me home rather early. I am a neighbour of yours,” he added; “I live at The Hatch.”

“Oh, do you? I thought an old lady lived there.”

“Yes, once upon a time,” he answered; “and now,” with a smile, which showed his strong white teeth, “it is occupied by an old gentleman.”

This announcement brought them to the Dower House gate; handing her the parcel, and lifting his hat, Major Baldwin trotted briskly away. All that evening his mind wandered from the Field, the Times, and Patience; he was wondering who the pretty girl was who lived at the Dower House? He could not bring himself to ask his confidential manservant—of course, they knew all about her in the “room”—everything was known there. He could not even in an off-hand way make inquiries of his housekeeper—once upon a time the confidential maid of his late aunt, Miss Margaretta Baldwin. No; the only alternative was Mrs. Preedy.

“So much for living down in the country like this,” he said to himself. “How it narrows one’s ideas and interests! Now, if I had picked up the parcel belonging to a pretty girl in Piccadilly, I would have gone in to my dinner at the Naval and Military, and never given her another thought. Fool and idiot that I am. Here, my head is full of this girl! I never saw a more lovely pair of eyes, and that’s a fact.”

The next day Major Baldwin dropped in on Mrs. Preedy on his way home from hunting.

“I thought as I was passing, I would report myself and see how you are getting on, and ask for a cup of tea.”

“I am getting on very well,” she answered, “and I was just going to write and thank you for the grapes you sent me down this morning. They are a treat—so late, or rather, so early in the year. You are not going to walk home, are you?” and rising as she spoke, she rang for tea.

“My dear lady, not likely—in these boots! Evans has my horse outside. I only came in for a moment.”

The experienced matron, who had a quick insight, now began to what is vulgarly termed “smell a rat,” and presently the animal popped out.

“I had a little adventure on the road yesterday,” he remarked. “I picked up a brown-paper package, and then, later on, I picked up the young lady who had dropped it. She was carrying as many boxes as the parcel post. She told me that she lived at the Dower House—I want to know who she is?”

“Was she pretty, with dark eyes and fair hair?” He nodded. “She is the youngest Miss Mowbray.”

“What!” exclaimed the visitor, and he burst into a loud, incredulous laugh.

“Certainly; it must have been Ella Mowbray—the little step-sister, who has been all her life at school.”

“Never heard of her till this moment.”

“No, she never has been heard of—or seen— until now. She returned from Brussels about six weeks ago.”

“And lives with them?”


“I shouldn’t wonder if she found it a bit dull.”

“I think she’s too young to notice that, and I daresay it’s better than school. She is a pretty girl, and is, unless I am mistaken, a young woman with a future.”

Having gleaned the information he desired, and imbibed two cups of excellent tea, Major Baldwin took leave of Mrs. Preedy and made his way home. The Wildflower Road had no terrors for him now. As he rode along he was always looking out for a tall slim figure with a great plait of fair hair. Once or twice subsequently he had the good fortune to encounter and even to exchange a few words with the beauty; in his opinion, this girl was lovely—lovely! Mrs. Preedy was right. She would shine anywhere. Oh, what a pity that so much beauty and simplicity should be buried in that old Dower House! She was never to be seen, but on the way to the village, for, as she assured him with a delightful smile, she was not yet “out.” Major Baldwin called upon the inmates of the Dower House; on this occasion they were at home. He made himself particularly agreeable to Augusta; he encouraged her hopes, he talked to her of Monte Carlo, whither he was soon departing, and to which she sent her love. Also he invited the ladies of the Dower House and Mrs. Preedy to tea at The Hatch. This was a most unprecedented occasion, and they accepted with enthusiasm—all but Ella. In answer to his question, and face of blank disappointment, Augusta smilingly assured him “that her little sister was still a schoolgirl, and never went into society.”

To tell the truth—Ella was in the Dower House pantry, engaged in cleaning the silver. A day or two after Major Baldwin’s select “at home,” he departed for the South of France. He would have liked to have seen more of the youngest Miss Mowbray, and Miss Mowbray’s eldest sister would have liked to have seen more of him—so they were both a prey to disappointment.

To all invitations, which included “their little girl,” the Countess and Miss Mowbray invariably returned a polite negative; if they happened to be formal parties, they announced that Miss Ella Mowbray was not yet grown up; if they were entertainments inaugurated for children, again they declined. It meant a dull evening for them, and the expense of a cab and gloves. Besides, they did not wish to accept hospitalities that they could not adequately return. In fact, the sisters were well supplied with a large stock of excuses; but they made an exception in favour of the Vicarage. Ella was present at the Sunday School concert, and proved of great assistance, and she was grudgingly allowed to join the Vicarage hockey team; so life had some pleasures. The dull dark days wore into spring, and summer, and like the flowers, Ella’s vitality expanded. After her housework was over she spent much of her time out of doors, gardening violently with “Young Harry,” mowing grass, cutting down shrubs, weeding and watering. She still continued to run errands to the village—sometimes as often as three times a day—and had now become a well-known figure—this pretty tall girl, with her long fair plait, and ready smile.

Scandal declared that the Court ladies at the Dower House had turned their poor step-sister into a servant; that she made beds and dusted, and mended, and acted as their maid. It was evident that she had not much time for amusement, and could but rarely spare an afternoon for a game of tennis at the Rectory. By and by the “talk “ reached the ears of good-natured Lady Brownjohn, who thought it her duty to pay a visit of remonstrance to Augusta. The duty was by no means agreeable, and as Lady Brownjohn walked out to the Dower House, she almost felt as if she was on her way to visit the dentist; but considering the friendship between Sir Thomas and Henry Mowbray, and their admiration for the unfortunate girl, Henry’s second wife, the old lady considered that “somebody must speak to Augusta, and that ‘somebody’ herself.”

Augusta was still as selfish, as arrogant, and as unreasonable as formerly; she had affronted most of the newcomers, quarrelled with several old friends, and her visiting list was sadly contracted. It was hard that Ella should be cut off from society just as she was growing up.

“I met Ella as I was walking out,” began Lady Brownjohn, after some desultory talk, “going in to pay the weekly books.”

“Yes, she manages all that,” replied Rosabel indifferently.

“It is the second time she was in the village to-day.”

“Oh, she likes walking,” said Augusta, “and the butcher had forgotten the suet.”

“Are you going to allow her to play at the Charity Concert on the 26th?”

“Oh no, she is much too young to be brought before the public.”

“Well, but the public see her tramping daily to and fro, carrying parcels,” argued the visitor.

Augusta reddened; her temper was more inflammable than ever.

“I think you might allow her to oblige, for she really is an artiste, and would prove a draw. The people would gladly give five shillings to hear Ella, and I’m sure she would enjoy herself.”

“Well, she won’t have a chance! I don’t approve of children being brought forward.”

“She is past seventeen—it is really time her frocks were let down and her hair put up.”

“I am quite competent to look after my own family affairs, thank you, Lady Brownjohn.”

“Oh, well, when you speak in that voice, Augusta,” rising, “I know you want to quarrel, and so I shall take my departure. No, I won’t wait for tea. I merely came over in a friendly way to put in a good word for the little girl. She has a desperately dull time here, running messages, and acting as sewing maid for you and Rosabel. Whenever she’s invited out, she is either too old or too young. She might go trips with the Fanes, if she only had a bicycle.”

“A bicycle!” echoed Augusta, in a key of angry contempt. “Do you take her for a servant?”

“I declare, Gussie, you will soon not be on terms with anyone but me!” expostulated the Countess tremulously.

“There is no one in the neighbourhood fit to speak to,” she snapped. “Lady Brownjohn is a horrid, meddling old cat. I intend to use my own judgment about Ella.”

“You try her too hard, Gussie, always scolding and fault-finding; no matter what she does, you are never pleased. I am sure, she is a dear, sweet-tempered child, always so busy and so obliging.”

“Oh yes, you praise her, because she does your hair and washes your lace; but she is so restless, she gets on my nerves, always wanting to do something new. Do you know her last request? She wishes to go over to the Court, now the family are away, and read in the library.”

“And why not? They are our books. We have very few here, and do not subscribe to a library. She says she is fond of reading. Where’s the harm?”

“Well, I suppose I must say Yes, as it costs nothing, and there she will meet no one, and be out of harm’s way.”

“You’ve said ‘No’ to so many things—the Fanes’ picnic, the cricket match, the tennis tournament—though the Fane girls walked over on purpose to fetch her.”

“She sees too much of the Fanes. They stuff her head with nonsense and ideas. Just fancy—she has been asking for pocket money, and says her shoes are worn out.”

“I am not surprised at that—for she is always running about! Well, I’ve a pair that will fit her; she has a small foot. And as to the Fanes, if she is in the Court library she won’t see so much of them. Let her go in the afternoon, and she will miss visitors. I’ll run up now and look out those shoes. I got them in Monte Carlo, I remember.”

“Yes, and paid sixty francs for them. They pinched you across the toes. They will never fit Ella—she is not a Cinderella!”

Chapter XV

The library at Thorlands Court was a source of supreme enjoyment to Ella, although it was filled with subtle recollections of bygone days, the days of her unhappy childhood, when it had so frequently proved a sanctuary, and haven of refuge. She well remembered the occasion when she had crept under a certain old carved sofa, in order to hide from Mrs. Taff, and when she had wrapped herself in the velvet window-curtain, and thus baffled the searching Phoebe. Her heart beat even now with the mere memory of these alarms.

The library was a noble room, situated at a corner of the house, with four great windows; two of these overlooked the Italian garden, and were not more than ten feet above the ground.

With chilling dignity, Miss Mowbray had accompanied her youngest sister, introduced her to the caretaker at the Court, and formally acquainted him with the fact that Miss Ella Mowbray desired to make use of the library—the contents of which were still the property of “the family.”

“My sister will come when the house is empty—and only when the house is empty, you understand,” she said, transfixing the man with her cold, light eyes, “and if you will be so good as to hand over the key of the door at the garden end of the passage, she will not give you the trouble of admitting her.”

“The trouble,” he assured Miss Mowbray, “would be a pleasure,” but he seemed strangely reluctant to part with the key. Dawson, the caretaker, was a portly and retired butler, who had been half a lifetime in the service of the Lockfield family, and was intimately acquainted with their private affairs—and those of Miss Mowbray to boot.

Soon after this interview, Ella had entered into possession of the library, where she occasionally spent some happy hours; indeed, in this library she felt at home. It all seemed so familiar; the great framed pedigree tree, with the funny men hanging from the branches, the big portfolios full of ancient prints, and the musty leather volumes in unfamiliar black letter. One particular tome was a great Bible, which had always attracted her on account of its gorgeous scarlet cover and heavy silver clasps—unwitting of such sacrilege she had utilised it as a doll’s dinner-table—and there it lay, in exactly the same place as formerly. Ella opened it, turned over the leaves, and read the faded inscription.

“This in every way excellent book, was presented by my honoured uncle, Henry Mowbray, to his incomparable lady, my aunt, and bestowed upon me, as a noble memorial of my being nearly related to one whom he loved so well. 1675.”

It was the opinion of eighteen, that the nephew of Henry Mowbray was somewhat of a prig.

There were many unguessed-at treasures buried in the library—one of the Mowbrays had been a collector, and here were to be found first editions of Milton and Spenser, and actually an incomplete copy of Boccaccio, 1471. There were quantities of other volumes of more modern date, and in a deep arm-chair, with her back to the light, Ella greedily devoured history, poetry, and novels—some of which bore the autograph of “Cecil Howard-Leigh.” Absorbed in romance, she soon forgot the gloomy Dower House, her continuous domestic work, her cross and arbitrary elder sister. Sometimes, when tired of reading, she roamed about the Court, accompanied by her slave, Dawson, or his wife, Mary Anne (a pious person, who possessed a harmonium and sang Moody and Sankey hymns in the housekeeper’s room, to the awe and edification of her understudy from the village).

Ella visited every one of the old rooms, including the great, bare nursery, where she had endured so many miserable hours; she noticed changes everywhere. There was gay, new wall-paper, and white paint and telephones. Thorlands Court had been brought thoroughly up to date. Dawson had long relinquished the key of the side door, and the youngest Miss Mowbray came and went as she pleased. She often wandered about the grounds, and gardens, thinking what a pity it was that there was no one else to see them in all their summer bloom—Thorlands was celebrated for its rhododendrons. Great banks of rose colour, and mauve and white flowers blazed unadmired, and unnoted except by herself. Ella enjoyed her rambles, but was sometimes haunted by the dread of running across some of the new people. Privately, she detested them, and was bitterly jealous of their possession—unreasonably jealous, she knew. She had prevailed on Dawson to give her his solemn promise, that he would acquaint her at the earliest moment of their possible arrival, and also, that if by chance she were ever seen, he would not divulge her name. But, in spite of these precautions, she was discovered, and caught napping. Young Cecil Leigh, who had returned from his travels, was staying with his uncle for the partridge shooting. They had had a drive over a part of Thorlands, when, after lunch, he left the others, announcing that he wished to go down to the Court and look for something in the big smoking-room. (There was a smoking lounge in the Court in these days!) It was a warm September afternoon, the great hall door stood wide open, he walked in, accompanied by a brown spaniel, who flopped and flapped his tail triumphantly, as he followed his master through the empty rooms. Everything was in order—precisely as if the family were hourly expected; no speck of dust was to be descried anywhere, but there was not a soul to be seen; positively it was like the palace of the Sleeping Beauty! thought Cecil Howard-Leigh—but without the servants and courtiers. With this idea uppermost in his mind, he turned the handle of the library door, entered, and—paused.

“By Jove, here was the Sleeping Beauty herself!” Exactly in front of him, within a few yards, a pretty fair-haired girl lay fast asleep in an arm-chair. Her book had tumbled at her feet and lay open on the floor. The head of the dreaming princess rested on her hand, her eyelashes were dark and long, her skin was dazzlingly fair; she was undoubtedly at home—her attitude proclaimed the ease of custom. “Who the dickens was she?” he asked himself. “Where had she dropped from?” As he stood staring and speculating, the brown spaniel, who had lost his way, came blundering in in great excitement, and after a second’s hesitation, bounced into the girl’s lap.

Instantly she awoke with a half-stifled scream, pushed away the dog, and stared about her in a dazed manner. Her eyes fell on the intruder; she gazed at him for a second, then rose to her feet, rushed across the room, jumped lightly out of the open window, on to the smooth green turf below, and ran away like the wind.

Cecil Leigh hurried to the window and watched her as she fled—her hair, which hung loosely down her back, streaming behind her. Should he follow, and question her? Whilst he debated this momentous matter, the white dress and floating hair had flashed into a shady walk, and vanished. Whoever she was, one thing was certain, she knew her way about the place well; and what had she been reading? He went back, and picked up the book. Oh, “La Morte d’Arthur”—not in his line! He laid it on the table and returned to the window. She had jumped out too—not half a bad jump for a girl, he reflected, as he followed her example. She was light on her feet, light as thistledown.

He strolled slowly across the green sward, then stooped to pick up a something that looked out of place there. What was it? Oh, such a pretty little high-heeled shoe! He turned it over and examined it carefully. A French shoe, and not much worn; black glacé kid, with a smart silver buckle—a dainty little slipper—his hand would not nearly fit inside it.

And so the Sleeping Beauty bought her shoes at Monte Carlo! Here was, indeed, a startling fact; she had looked such a simple rustic milk-and-roses sort of maiden. He thrust the shoe deliberately into his pocket, returned to the house by the hall door, and rang the bell.

Dawson, who was stout, flustered up breathless, in a white linen coat and apron.

“Yes, sir,” he exclaimed, with the aplomb of an experienced servant, precisely as if he had only seen his master an hour previously, instead of twelve months.

“I am staying at the Park, Dawson; I hope you are all right and Mrs. Dawson?”

“Yes, thank you, sir.”

“We have been shooting round the Home Farm and so I have just dropped in.” As he spoke he walked into the inner hall, down the corridor, into the library, immediately attended by the butler. “I say, Dawson, is this place supposed to be haunted?” and he smiled.

“Um—yes, sir—they do make out that two parties—I mean, ladies—walk in the gallery, but I can’t say, as I’ve seen nothing myself, or Mrs. Dawson, either—if she had, she’d have let me know, for sure!”

“You say, that there are two ladies who are supposed to walk in the gallery, Dawson! Is there,” looking at him steadily, “anything about one lady—who sleeps in the library?”

“No, sir,” reddening suddenly, “not as I’ve ever heard of.”

“But you’ve seen her, Dawson—come, now?”

“Well, I have, Mr. Cecil,” he admitted, “and that’s a fact.”

“And a stubborn thing, too! And apparently you are not afraid of her, or Mrs. Dawson. Who is she?”

“Please, sir, if you’ll excuse me, I’d rather not say.”

“What!” cried the young man, affecting indignation, “I come in unexpectedly and find a stranger fast asleep in my own chair in the library, and you know who she is and ‘would rather not say’!”

“Well, I’ll say this much, sir,” rejoined Dawson, with the air of one making a concession, “the young lady had every right to be there, more right, in a way, than most.”

“Is this a riddle, my good Dawson?”

“And she asked me very particular not to give her away, if anyone saw her. She won’t come here no more—you won’t see her in the library again, sir—you can make no mistake about that!”

“I am not at all sure that this is good news. I should rather like to see her in the library again. Do you know this?” putting his hand in his pocket, and producing the shoe.

“Can’t say as I do, sir,” examining it closely.

“It’s not the property of Mrs. Dawson, I conclude?”

“Oh, Lord, no, sir!” with unnecessary emphasis.

“Then it must belong to the young lady who was here just now. I intend to find out who she is.”

“Oh, well, as long as you don’t ask me, sir, it’s all right.”

“A right to be here, I think you said. Was there not some clause?—yes, I have it, what a duffer I am! She must be one of the Mowbrays; but I thought they were elderly women.”

“Not all of them, sir.”

“Indeed! Well, I have made a most unexpected discovery—and now I must be off; This place seems spick and span, Dawson. I’ll report to my mother when I see her.”

“Aye, do sir, and not a soul here to enjoy it; and the garden, and the fruit a rare sight.”

“Oh, are they? I say, you might send some flowers, and fruit, to the Dower House a couple of times a week, will you? By the way, we shall all be here in November for the pheasants.”

“I’m real glad of that, sir, I am sure.”

“Then good-bye, Dawson; if you should hear of any lady looking for a shoe, you might let me know,” and young Howard-Leigh sprang down the steps, and, followed by the spaniel, walked away.

To his uncle and the house party, he, that same evening, proudly exhibited the shoe. The prize was immensely admired.

“Hullo! I say, where did you find that?” inquired a man eagerly, stretching out his hand.

“On the lawn, about three hundred yards from the Court.”

“By George!” said the other, turning it over critically, and speaking between two puffs of tobacco smoke, “I declare, I could fall in love with this sweet little shoe, and marry the woman that it fitted!”

“So could I,” replied the finder, “and perhaps some day the wedding, like the slipper, will come off!”

*  *  *

Ella Mowbray, who had been dreaming of knights in armour and fair ladies, was startled out of her wits, when suddenly awakened by a big dog plunging into her lap she found herself confronted by a young man in a shooting suit, with a handsome, tanned face, and a pair of quizzical eyes. She recognised him instantly as Cecil Howard-Leigh; his picture, by Sergeant, hung in the morning-room, and had, it must be confessed, excited her admiration. This was the most terrible thing that could have happened! That he should discover her thus, making herself absolutely at home in his mother’s house, and for all she knew to the contrary, in his pet arm-chair! Her sisters invariably spoke of him and his mother as “the usurpers,” as if they themselves were some wrongly deposed royal line—this view of the situation was not only misleading, but foolish. The Howard- Leighs had paid a substantial sum for a property which had been for sale in the open market.

As Ella flew across the pleasure grounds in her high-heeled shoes (Rosabel’s donation), the grass being somewhat damp the heel of one of these stuck fast, and she had lost it; no time to stop—he might be following her—she dared not venture to look behind, and dashed in among the laurels with one foot shod, and breathlessly waited for a sign. There was no demonstration for an age—or for what seemed an age. At last she saw a figure jump from the window, leisurely stroll across the turf, and presently discover her lost shoe. Then, with bated breath, she crept home and, ten minutes later, limped into the Dower House grounds.

Here she discovered her sisters, sitting out under an old plum-tree, drinking tea with Lady Brownjohn—once more reinstated in favour. This good woman was full of pleasurable excitement, and unfolded a large budget of news. “Major Baldwin had returned, and was staying at Lockfield Park just now for the shooting.”

“Oh, he doesn’t generally come back so early, does he?” said Rosabel, and she glanced significantly at Augusta, whose face had suddenly become pink.

“Well, he’s always here for the cub-hunting,” replied Lady Brownjohn, “but Major Baldwin’s arrival is an everyday matter. I have a much finer piece of news. Mrs. Howard-Leigh will be at the Court all this winter. I know it for a fact from Mrs. Preedy, who met the housekeeper yesterday in the post office. The family are expected in November, and there will be a succession of house parties. I understand that Mrs. Howard-Leigh is going to give theatricals and a ball, and is determined to wake up this neighbourhood!

Miss Mowbray, whose agreeable smile had faded, made no remark, but merely gave a little incredulous sniff.

“Shall you call, Augusta?” inquired Lady Brownjohn, “or will it be too painful?”

“Oh, I suppose I must call,” she answered, after a moment’s reflective silence. “You know I never shrink from my duties, whatever others may do, and I have no doubt Mrs. Howard-Leigh would feel mortified it she were unnoticed and ignored by the Mowbray family.”

Lady Brownjohn disagreed with this description of Mrs. Howard-Leigh’s sensations, but remained prudently silent.

“At any rate we will leave cards,” declared Augusta—and her air was magnanimous. “Good Heavens! what has happened to Ella!” who now hobbled in through the gate; “she is lame. Have you hurt yourself?” she called out.

“No”; suddenly sitting down on the grass and thrusting out a stockinged foot, “but I have lost my shoe in the park!”

“Not one of the beautiful shoes Rosabel gave you last week!” cried Augusta indignantly.

“Yes, indeed, I am most awfully sorry. I haven’t had such a nice pair for ages and ages, and I can’t put two feet into one shoe!”

“Where did you lose it?” asked her sister authoritatively.

“Somewhere on the lawn—near the Court.”

“And may I inquire why you did not go back and look for it? If it had been a hairpin I could understand you—but not a shoe!”

“It would not have been of the least use,” said Ella, remembering that she had seen it picked up by young Howard-Leigh, and thrust into his pocket, “I should never have found it!”

“What nonsense!” said Augusta. “Of course you never find anything. I shall send Polly Wake down to have a good hunt for it the first thing to-morrow morning.”

Polly Wake looked all over the grounds, as desired, in anxious quest of Miss Ella’s lost shoe. She even searched a portion of the park, but subsequently returned with empty hands, and gave it as her opinion, that “the sheep had eaten it.”

Chapter XVI

The people at the Dower House and in Thorlands village saw nothing of the shooting party at Lockfield, nor was there any sign of animation at the Court; however, Major Baldwin had taken up his autumn quarters at The Hatch, and it was on The Hatch that Augusta Mowbray’s interests were concentrated. Happily the interest now appeared to be reciprocated, for The Hatch no longer evaded the Dower House; in plain English, Major Baldwin had become a frequent visitor, and was not unduly alarmed when he encountered a Miss Mowbray upon the Wildflower Road. This Miss Mowbray was not Augusta—but another.

“It was wonderful,” he said to himself, “how this girl had improved in six months. She seemed to have expanded like some beautiful flower.” (Her hair no longer hung down her back. Lady Brownjohn’s remonstrances had effected this change; the pigtail had given place to the grown-up coil.) After his day’s hunting Major Baldwin occasionally dropped in at the Dower House, and Augusta’s expectations urged her to wear her best dress almost every afternoon, and to sit near the window, where, installed at her ease, she could command the road. In frosty weather, there were hot cakes for tea—as Major Baldwin’s appearance was a certainty. He was a tea-drinking man, and the Dower House was a mile nearer to The Hatch than poor deserted Mrs. Preedy. With good reason, Augusta’s hopes now ran high. Major Baldwin sent offerings of partridges, new books, bouquets of orchids; finally, he had endowed the establishment with a dog—a black Aberdeen terrier, of a certain age and an uncertain temper, late the property of Miss Margaretta Baldwin.

“I don’t know why you don’t have a dog,” said Major Baldwin one day. “This is rather a lonely spot. I can make you a present of one, if you like—Toby, who belonged to my aunt. He was brought up all his life among women, and he is entirely out of his element under the present régime. He simply loathes me, and he would be happy if he could find himself once more elevated into the society of ladies.”

“How kind of you!” said Augusta rapturously. “I shall be only too delighted to have him!” This offering of a dog was indeed a marked attention—a notable advance along the primrose path.

“He will keep off burglars, at any rate,” said the Major. “He will bite a man at a moment’s notice; or, indeed, without any provocation at all. Oh, he is quite a ladies’ dog!”

“I am sure we will make him a great pet,” said Rosabel, with effusion.

“You cannot pet him more than he will consider his due; he will expect to be nursed in your lap, to lie on your bed, to have cream in his tea, and the liver wing of the chicken.”

Augusta listened in silence; she was no dog lover, as we are aware. In former days, she had always declared that dogs should not be allowed in a house; their proper place was the stable yard; and here was a man offering her a dog, who would expect to lie on her lap, who liked the liver wing of the chicken, and cream in his tea—two things to which she was herself particularly partial. However, the dog was presented by Major Baldwin. He was, in his way, a gage d’amour, and must be treated accordingly, so Toby arrived the next morning, with all his luggage—basket, blanket, coat, collar, chain and dish—and took up his quarters in his new home without demur, but with the attitude of one who is conferring a favour. It was extraordinary how soon he accommodated himself to his new abode, of which he became practically the master. He lost no time in selecting his own arm-chair and bed, adopting for his companion Augusta, who was vastly flattered. Ella, though a dog lover, was not particularly enthusiastic with respect to Toby, and did not admire his character.

“I know him quite well,” she remarked. “I have often met him on the road, and in the village with Major Baldwin’s cook; he is a most selfish, churlish beast. You will belong to him—not he to you. All the dogs in Thorlands hate him, and he hates them; and what is more, he hates their owners.”

“Dear me, what nonsense you are talking!” said Augusta in a tone of contemptuous irritation. It was but too plain, that Ella was jealous because Major Baldwin had not offered the dog to her.

“It is true, what I am saying,” replied Ella. “Toby gets on all right with the Fanes, who have no dogs; but whenever he meets Mrs. Preedy, or Lady Brownjohn, he simply tiptoes round them, threatening and growling. He is a narrow-minded creature, and carries his dislikes from his own species to their owners. I shouldn’t wonder if you have many a scene with Toby. 1 doubt if he will ever let the Bellamys inside this door, after the fearful fight he had with their Irish terrier.”

As Augusta sat with Toby in her lap (he weighed twenty-eight pounds), her mind naturally dwelt upon his late master—Major Baldwin. Certainly he meant something? Yes, in Rosabel’s opinion, his intentions were serious; a brace of pheasants, four magazines, and two visits within ten days—visits from Major Baldwin were rare as auk’s eggs. “No doubt this would come all right,” she reflected, as she gently stroked Toby, the tangible proof of his affection. By and by, she fell into an agreeable reverie. She would certainly have bow windows thrown out at The Hatch, white paper in the drawing-room, and a stained glass window on the landing. All this was easily arranged.

After mature consideration, she decided to be married in her travelling dress—cloth and sables —and to spend the honeymoon in Sicily. It could not be possible that Major Baldwin admired Ella. (Sometimes this idea had hovered grimly on the outskirts of her mind.) No, Ella was a mere child—eighteen last birthday. Major Baldwin was old enough to be her father, and a man of sense. A woman of position such as herself, the granddaughter of the Earl of Scantlands, was a more suitable partner. When he did speak to Ella, it was always in a joking way—much as a man would talk to a little girl. Oh! she might certainly dismiss all anxiety on that score. Rosabel had always said, that she was too imaginative, too sensitive!

As for Major Baldwin, he had, to his own astonishment, lost his somewhat leathery and world-worn heart to the youngest Miss Mowbray; but he had laid his plans with the wariness of an old campaigner, and had borne in mind the old motto: “One must make love to the child, for the sake of the nurse.” In the present instance, by a curious transposition, Augusta was the child, her young sister represented the nurse. He had carefully avoided (oh, most deceitful man!) any sign or symptom of interest in Ella in the presence of her guardian and chaperone, but when he occasionally encountered the young lady on the road, in the village, or at Mrs. Preedy’s, his manner was by no means so paternal. He was agreeable, amusing and kind. It seemed to Ella that no one had ever been so kind. She had no suspicion of the real condition of her neighbour’s mind, or that he had before him the story of her own father and mother. The difference in their ages had been as great, yet by all accounts their marriage had been an ideal one. Oh, as soon as he began to see his way a little, he resolved to speak, and rescue his pretty Ella from the dismal Dower House and from hard labour, and instal her at The Hatch, with carriages, horses, diamonds, and smart clothes. He would carry her up to London, and abroad, and let his old friends see the wonderful treasure, the radiant beauty, that he had discovered in a quiet village.

On Sunday afternoons, Miss Mowbray was always “at home,” and when it was fine, friends from the village sometimes walked out to the Dower House to tea and hot cakes—for which Jane had an established reputation.

One bright afternoon, towards the end of October, Augusta raised her head from the book she had been reading, as she listened to a loud double knock.

“It’s Mrs. Preedy,” explained Ella. “I know her rat-tat; it always sounds as if she were being chased; and wanted to get into the house before she was attacked by a mad cow!”

“She is chased, in the present instance,” said Augusta, going to the window, and looking through her glasses; “for here come Evie Fane, Aggie, Tom, and Captain Prentiss—yes, and Major Baldwin. I see him in the distance.” (Augusta now turned to a mirror and patted her fringe.)

“I only hope Jane will have enough hot cakes,” said Ella. “I will just rush down and inquire into the state of the larder. Think of six people to tea!”

“Mind we have the silver tray!” screamed Rosabel, as her sister vanished.

The hot cakes proved to be both plentiful and excellent; quite a large and animated company were gathered round Miss Mowbray’s tea-table. Mrs. Preedy and her nephew, Captain Prentiss, were both indefatigable talkers, and naturally Augusta was not inclined to be left out of the conversation in her own drawing-room. Major Baldwin and young Fane, who was home on leave from a Ghoorka regiment, talked a little shop, and Toby circulated round Mrs. Preedy’s chair, and occasionally interrupted her conversation, with short, yet combative barks.

By the time the tea-tray—silver—had been carried out, and people were beginning to think of departing, the weather had broken badly. A violent gust of wind shook thousands of dead leaves from the trees surrounding the Dower House, and presently the rain descended in torrents.

“I see we are in for a regular wet evening,” said Major Baldwin, strolling to the window, with his hands in his pockets.

“Oh no, I think not,” argued Mrs. Preedy, who flattered herself that she was a weather prophet. “This storm will probably last for an hour, and then it will clear off.”

“You must not dream of going out in this deluge—any of you,” said the Countess, who had a profound respect for good clothes.

“No, especially as we brought no umbrellas,” added Aggie Fane; “it was such a beautiful, deceitful afternoon.”

“Well, if you don’t mind, Augusta,” said Mrs. Preedy, “and can put up with us for another hour, we will sit round your fire, and talk.”

The mere fact of being supposed to sit round the fire and talk seemed to have a damping effect upon everyone’s spirits. Most of the six guests remained tongue-tied—all but Major Baldwin and Tom Fane, who, when they heard the wind and rain lashing the windows, mutually recalled an Indian monsoon. Ella ordered up the lamps, and had the windows closed.

“Oh, please don’t let us have lights yet,” urged Mrs. Preedy, who had a painful remembrance of one of the Mowbray lamps, which smoked horribly. “We will sit round this beautiful log fire.”

“If it were not Sunday,” said Augusta, “we might play bridge—we could make up two tables.”

“But surely you never play bridge on Sunday, Miss Mowbray?” said Evie Fane, the Rector’s daughter.

“Certainly not,” rejoined Augusta, with overwhelming dignity. “Not because I think it wrong, nor really worse, in my opinion, than playing golf,” and she glanced significantly at Captain Prentiss, “but on account of the example to the servants.”

“Oh, I daresay lots of servants play cards on Sunday,” rejoined Captain Prentiss, in a tone of repressed antagonism.

“Not in my house,” declared Miss Mowbray, and her voice was sharp.

“I can tell you a game they are said to be very keen on,” put in young Fane. “Miss Botte told me—such a lark! She declares, for a positive fact, that in the evenings after dinner, when everyone is quietly settled at bridge, the maids bring down the waste-paper baskets, and piece the letters together. Whoever joins one first, gets a penny; and if it is a love-letter, sixpence. Oh, I tell you, it is grand sport!”

“I say, come,” expostulated Major Baldwin, “that’s a libel; ’pon my soul, it’s too bad!” He was thinking of his own immaculate staff.

“Yes, isn’t it too bad?” echoed Evie Fane, remembering that she had a dangerous habit of leaving her letters about.

“What astonishing secrets and revelations they must discover!” exclaimed Mrs. Preedy, and her little eyes glistened. Was it with envy at the thought?

“Oh, I expect they know a great deal too much!” said Captain Prentiss; “how much one eats; how much one owes—we are more or less in their power. I am only astonished, that they don’t play upon our fears.”

“But they do!” declared his aunt. “I know, from good authority, that they make up stories of haunted rooms, in order to save themselves sweeping and dusting.”

“I suppose you are aware that you have a ghost here,” said Evie Fane, addressing the Countess.

“No, indeed,” said Rosabel; “you are quite mistaken.”

“But I always understood that the reason this house was never let, was that it already had a tenant in the shape of a ghost.”

“Ghost!” exclaimed Captain Prentiss. “No one believes in such rot nowadays!”

“I don’t know about that,” rejoined Rosabel.

“The Court is undoubtedly haunted. We are rather proud of our apparitions.”

“Did you ever see anything?” he asked.

“No, never, thank goodness!”

“Well,” said Mrs. Preedy, “I agree with somebody who said that they didn’t believe in ghosts, but were very much afraid of them.”

“I believe in ghosts,” announced Rosabel, who was keenly interested in such matters as palmistry, spiritualism, table-turning; in short, anything at all bordering on the supernatural.

“Then, Countess,” said Aggie Fane, “I propose that you tell us a ghost story, pour passer le temps. I know you can, if you will.”

“Do!” echoed Ella. “It would be delightful in this room, all dark corners, and yet we are such a large party, that we need not be afraid—the creepier, and the more cold water running down one’s back effect, you can get, the better!”

“Oh yes, Countess,” urged Captain Prentiss. “Come along, we are all ears, and attention.”

He was joined by a chorus of others, and Rosabel, delighted to find herself once more the centre of attraction, cleared her throat, and looking complacently round the little circle, without further hesitation, proceeded to relate the following tale.

“Of course, you all know,” she began, “that my dear husband was an Italian. He believed in the supernatural, like myself, and this story which I am about to tell you was related to him by a friend, who had a most unpleasant experience, which he swore was true. This friend, Count Baldi, was staying with some people in a beautiful old palace on one of the Italian lakes. It was situated just above the shore; flights of white marble steps descended to the water’s edge, through gardens which were a mass of roses and rhododendrons. By all accounts, it was a most lovely spot. This Count Baldi, who had a touch of malaria, remained at home while all the rest of the party set out on a long expedition. He felt cold, and shivered over a fire at the end of one of the great apartments, which overlooked the garden; and had drawn up an armchair and settled himself before it, with a book and a cigar, and was prepared to spend a comfortable afternoon, when he noticed the door at the far end of this great apartment slowly open. It opened to its full width, but nothing entered. After staring at this curious phenomenon, for some time, he reluctantly got up, walked down the length of the marble pavement, and closed the door.

“Scarcely had he resumed his seat and his book when the door slowly opened once more. He rose, in natural irritation, and on this occasion, not only closed the door, but turned the key in the lock. After this, he resumed his seat and his book. By and by he became aware that an icy cold blast of damp air was blowing on him from some direction, and looking up, he saw, to his astonishment, that the door again stood wide. As he sat gazing and wondering, he was sensible of the smell of stale, stagnant water—horrible! More than this, he was conscious that something he could not see had entered the apartment, and was deliberately approaching him, all the way up the long saloon, with the sound of wet, bare feet! ‘Flip flop, flip flop,’ they came, accompanied by the gentle splash of dripping water. The Count declared that, as he listened to his ghastly and unseen visitor, his hair seemed to rise on his head, and he felt his skin breaking into a cold perspiration as he sat awaiting the approaching footsteps in a condition of clammy expectation. Yes, of clammy expectation,” repeated Rosabel, who was rather pleased with her description. “Nearer came the noisome, damp atmosphere, nearer the bare-footed, dripping thing; now it was close behind him. It paused at the back of his chair, and a wet, unseen hand was laid on his—cold as death itself. He flung it off, as if he had been stung, struggled out of his seat, and cried:

“‘In the name of God, what are you?’

“The thing appeared to hesitate, and presently began to withdraw; the footsteps slowly retreated towards the entrance. With horrible evident reluctance, they seemed to drag themselves away! As the Count stood, paralysed with fear, and listening with sensations as novel as they were indescribable, the door, of its own accord, silently closed.”

“Ugh!” exclaimed Aggie Fane. “How creepy! If I had been there, I should simply have died!”

“When the Count’s host and party returned from their expedition,” resumed Rosabel, staring pointedly at her interrupter, “they found the sick guest more dead than alive. He related his experience, and assured them that nothing would induce him to spend another day in a palace, which was subject to such a hideous visitation. They all expressed their deep sorrow, and sympathy, and admitted that the experience had been terrible; but that it was now, by all accounts, of rare occurrence.

“The explanation, or rather the story, was that many years previously a young Italian nobleman, whose family owned the palace, had been killed in a duel in the neighbourhood; it was said there had been foul play—at any rate, the other parties in the duel mysteriously disappeared, as well as the remains of the young man. The body, however, was subsequently discovered in the lake, borne home, and laid in that very room, awaiting interment. The footsteps were now heard but seldom, but still they undoubtedly came at intervals, and that was one reason why the palace had been unoccupied for years, and subsequently disposed of at a great sacrifice.”

“What a horrible story!” said Ella and Evie Fane, in one breath. “Rosabel, I suppose you did not make it up?” said her younger sister.

“Certainly not,” she answered indignantly; “it is not at all in my line, as you may know, to make things up.” A perfectly true statement—the only thing Rosabel ever “made up” was her own complexion.

At the conclusion of the tale, Toby, who had abandoned his close investigation of Mrs. Preedy, suddenly threw back his head, and broke into a heartrending howl.

“Surely this is most appropriate!” said Major Baldwin. “We shall all be in the blues, presently. Toby, of course, being a Highland dog, has second sight. My mother was a Scotchwoman,” he added, “and she firmly believed in all that sort of thing.”

“And now, Major Baldwin,” said Rosabel, in her sprightly manner, “I have told my story, and I believe it is my privilege to call upon someone else. The rain is pouring as hard as ever. No one will be able to start yet, therefore, I request you to tell us a tale about second sight.”

“Well, at second hand,” he said, “if you don’t mind that; and I must preface my tale—which was told to me—by telling you, that I don’t believe a word of it!” and he looked over at Ella, and laughed.

“I do hope it will be something nice and gruesome,” she said.

“It is something nice and commonplace,” he answered, and Augusta, having picked up Toby, and settled him comfortably in her lap, Major Baldwin began:

“Well, then, here goes! Anyone who likes to laugh has my full permission to do so. Some years ago a doctor, who lived in a well-known town in the Highlands, was returning from a professional visit in a dogcart, with a nervous young horse between the shafts. His daughter sat beside him, the manservant at the back. It was a bright evening, a little after six o’clock; there was a new moon in the sky, and as they came to a cross-road, the groom leant over and said:

“‘I think you had better take the upper road, sir, for the traction-engine is likely to be on the lower turnpike, and if we came across it, it might scare the horse.’

“‘But it’s not likely to be working now,’ replied his master. ‘It is twenty minutes after six o’clock, and I have another call to make near the town. I’ll take the shortest road—engine or no engine,’ and he turned to the left at a brisk pace. He seemed scarcely to have gone more than a hundred yards, when, as he subsequently described it, the traction-engine was on them! It was really motionless, at a corner under some old ash-trees, but it seemed so grim, black, and formidable, like some hideous monster who was lying in wait, that somehow, for some inexplicable reason, its appearance struck terror into the hearts of the three human beings.

As for the dumb animal, one bound had carried him across the road; then, with another violent plunge, which almost upset the dog-cart, he threw up his head and bolted; galloping like the wind, or a creature frantic with terror! Fortunately, the harness was new and sound, the wheels and springs and shafts were stout, and there was no accident; but for three mad miles, the doctor never got a pull—no, not until they were almost in the town. By the time they had reached the outskirts, the animal had calmed down to a canter. When they arrived at home, a good deal shaken, the horse was found to be trembling violently, and dripping with sweat; precisely as if he had been through a river.

“‘I thought he might, perhaps, shy a little’ remarked the groom, ‘but I never could have believed he would take it like a crazy beast. He has somehow had a sore fright—as if he had seen something.’

“‘You superstitious Highland-man—what could he see?’ said the doctor. ‘Take him round, and give him a good rubbing down, and a warm mash.’

“‘Sometimes animals have a power that’s not with us,’ said the groom; ‘ye ken that well yersel’, doctor.’

“‘I know one thing: this new horse has nearly been the death of the three of us,’ he said.

“‘Aye, ‘I’m thinkin’ that maybe he saw—-death—or its shadow,’ and having secured the last word the groom led the animal away.

“The next morning, a strange thing occurred; a lad arrived in breathless haste in search of the doctor; he said that a dreadful accident with the traction-engine had happened away out in the country. The doctor drove the messenger back with him; on this occasion the dogcart was drawn by horse number two—who was old and sober.

“’Yes, the traction-engine had killed her driver; at least, they were afraid he was dead,’ so said the boy. ‘Andy Gow had been working on the front, and slipped, and it had gone over him.’ Then he began to explain the scene of the tragedy.

“‘I believe I know where it happened,’ said the doctor,’ for we passed the engine on that very spot last night.’

“‘Well, no, sir,’ replied the lad; ‘you couldn’t well do that, for the engine was working in the town yesterday till six o’clock, and only went out on the Crieff Road this morning at eight. I got a ride on her myself.’

“‘But I can tell you the exact spot,’ argued the doctor; ‘it’s by a corner, near three old ash trees.’

“‘Well, that is so,’ assented the other; ‘you’re right there.’

“‘And so, you see, you are wrong,’ but to this the boy made no reply. They were driving fast, and in a short time reached the identical spot where the doctor had seen the engine the previous evening. It stood there now, jauntily triumphant, and by the side of the road an awestruck little crowd surrounded a prone figure, covered with a coat. It was the body of a dead man, who had been horribly crushed.

“‘Poor Andy! he never moved or spoke,’ explained a bystander; ‘still, doctor, we thought it right to send for you.’

“The doctor nodded his head, and made an examination. Death had been instantaneous; it had also been accidental; nothing could be done.

“‘When did it happen?’ he inquired.

“’About ten o’clock this morning—ye see, she took a good while to work up from the town.’

“‘But she was here yesterday evening,’ said the doctor; ‘three of us saw her, on this very spot—we can swear to that.’

“‘Well, sir,’ replied the man, ‘ye may be right, though I don’t know how that can be, for as many as a hundred people saw her going out o’ town this morning.’ A cloud of witnesses, indeed! The doctor was puzzled, and yet he could not doubt the evidence of his own senses.

“‘She’s a nasty, dour-tempered thing,’ said the man, ‘and poor Andy had always a scared-like feelin’ of her. He told me one day, that he believed she had it in her to do him a mortal turn, and that she was no all reel. He’d have given her up long ago, but for work being so scarce. I’ll uphold, they’ll have a job to get another driver, for I’ve heard it said she was no just lucky, and had been made up of bits like of an engine, that was in an awfu’ accident years back. They do say, too, that whiles back she killed a man down by Loch Tay, and so the Corporation got her cheap.’”

“What an extraordinary story!” said Ella; “a traction-engine giving warning of its intentions to kill its driver—such a commonplace, machine-made subject. Come, now, Major Baldwin, confess that you made it up!”

“I am not going to confess anything,” he replied, with a decisive gesture. “I was asked to tell you all a story, and there it is—the traction-engine’s wraith.”

After a little talk, and some murmured compliments from Augusta, Major Baldwin and Captain Preedy went into the hall, opened the door, and took a joint observation of the weather. The rain had ceased, the sky had cleared.

“Mrs. Preedy,” said Major Baldwin, returning to the room, “permit me to congratulate you; in future, I shall come to you to inquire about a thaw. Ladies and gentlemen, it is only twenty minutes past six o’clock, and you will be all in nice time to get home for dinner.”

“Twenty minutes past six o’clock!” echoed Ella, as they began to troop into the hall. “I sincerely hope, that everybody will reach home safely, and that no one will meet the traction-engine on the way.”

Chapter XVII

Early in November Thorlands Court came to life—servants, pet dogs, pet birds, carriages, horses, luggage, and vans, all passed through the village and disappeared within the great gates. Poor Mrs. Preedy was kept standing in a draughty lobby window on duty for hours at a stretch, counting and noting the coming and going. “Three motors, a private omnibus, two station broughams—why, the stable-yard must be like that of some great country hotel!” Presently the handsome, dark face of Mrs. Howard-Leigh might be seen flying round the country, half-concealed by her motor veil, and needless to add, she was never alone.

There were numerous guests at the Court, and various bridge, dinner, and shooting parties. Although young Howard-Leigh had not yet returned, the country hastened as one woman to call on a hostess who had announced that she was determined to keep the place alive and give a ball, private theatricals, and a bridge tournament.

Miss Mowbray and the Countess duly waited on the new arrival, and left cards; somewhat to their relief the lady was not at home. However, she promptly returned their visit, having declared to her intimates that she was positively dying to see these Mowbrays, who gave themselves such ridiculous airs, and were a byword for arrogance and incivility. To her they proved charming—despite Augusta’s threat of being exceedingly cool, and formal; they actually exhibited some of their miniatures and family treasures, and even discussed the rehanging of various famous portraits, now at the Court.

Augusta could be philosophical when it suited her, and, “after all,” as she said to her sister, “there is no earthly reason why we should cut off our noses in order to spite our faces.” Accordingly, they graciously accepted an invitation to dine at their former home, and promptly bespoke the station fly.

It was merely in casual conversation that Mrs. Howard-Leigh gathered the information that there was yet another Miss Mowbray—by all accounts, a remarkably pretty girl in her teens. She apologised profusely to Augusta for omitting to invite her sister, and Augusta replied:

“Oh, dear, Mrs. Leigh, you are really too kind! but the child is still in short frocks and won’t be presented for a couple of years.”

But the child was more than eighteen, and nourished a most natural desire to share in the gaieties of the season. She had let down her dresses and coiled up her hair, as a broad hint to her sisters that she considered herself full-grown. Her sisters, however, remained peevishly incredulous; they had decided that Ella must be kept in the background for at least another twelve months.

Far from avoiding the Court (as had been anticipated) Miss Mowbray and the Countess eagerly took advantage of every occasion to visit it. Augusta was not now thinking of Lord Lockfield, she could afford to treat him with the contempt he deserved. She had another string to her bow, in Major Baldwin, the intimate friend of her hostess; the two had various pleasant reminiscences in common—a winter in Cairo, a month in the same hotel at Cannes, a voyage to America—all these little links had forged a chain of friendship, and Major Baldwin had, so to speak, come out of his shell. His dogcart was often to be seen spanking past the Dower House of an evening, carrying its owner to dinner, and bridge, at Thorlands Court. Here he would encounter Augusta, invariably in her best temper, and wearing her smartest clothes; and the Countess, her confidante and adviser, kept Augusta’s flame of hope amply supplied with fuel.

“When Major Baldwin meets you in the home of your ancestors, surrounded by their portraits, and sitting in their very chairs, I can see, that, as he looks at you, he is enormously impressed.”

Although the village had not much share in the diversions of the leading house in the neighbourhood, nevertheless they had their humbler amusements. A certain sum of money was required for new music, and surplices for the choir, and Lady Brownjohn thought it would be a capital idea if the young people were to get up some unpretentious tableaux in the school-house, and make the sum required. It would be capital fun for them, these long, dull evenings (they might meet at her house and talk it over, and she would lend them anything); even if they earned ten pounds, after the expenses of printing and lighting, it would be a great matter! Lady Brownjohn’s suggestion was seized upon with enthusiasm—all her young friends were only too delighted to come forward and support her. The Bellamys, their well-preserved mother, and the Major; the Fanes, and their brother; the Rector volunteered readings; the organist, of course, would play the overture and incidental music. They could have the school-room for nothing.

Major Baldwin—who, in his youth, had taken an active part in regimental theatricals—was pressed into service; and, naturally, the Dower House followed the example of The Hatch. After two meetings, and much anxious discussion, a programme was drawn up and printed, and handbills were distributed to a announce that:


There will be an Entertainment given at Thorlands Schoolhouse, under the distinguished patronage of Countess Tormina and Miss Mowbray, Sir Thomas and Lady Brownjohn, Rev. Christopher and Mrs. Fane, Major Baldwin, Major and Mrs. Bellamy, Mrs. Wilbraham-Preedy, and Captain Prentiss, 2nd Batt. Royal Scorchers.


On November 20th.

Prices as follows:—

Chairs, half-a-crown. Forms (one seat), one shilling. Programmes, one penny.

To commence at 8 o’clock sharp.

Carriages may be ordered at 10.30.

Tickets to be obtained at the post office.

Immediately after this advertisement, rehearsals were commenced with wonderful activity. There was a little quarrelling, but really nothing to speak of—not to be mentioned in the same breath with the combustible elements, which occasionally ignite private theatricals. Most of the committee were taking part in the tableaux; it had been agreed that there was to be no outlay, but all had generously volunteered to contribute “properties.” A heterogeneous collection of these was on view in one of the class-rooms. All sorts of articles were here, as if it was a rummage sale—from Augusta Mowbray’s court train, and Mrs. Preedy’s spare-room carpet, to Major Baldwin’s top boots, and a gramophone, the property of the village innkeeper.

On the evening of the great event, the improvised dressing-rooms of the school-house presented a scene of unrivalled confusion; half of the performers were unable to find their costumes, the other half did not know (or care) what they were to wear. Altogether it seemed to be a hopeless assembly of irresponsible gaiety. However, Major Bellamy, an experienced old hand, was working at the stage, and had arranged the necessary black gauze and framework, and Lady Brownjohn was the moving spirit among the ladies, young and old. Dressed in her last summer’s foulard, hot, indefatigable, and energetic, she slaved behind the scenes, and was at everybody’s beck and call—full of resource, presence of mind, and even daring. Early in the proceedings young Fane had accosted her with a face of abject despair:

“I say, Lady B., I am one of the young men belonging to the ‘Three Young Maids of Lea,’ but I have no kit—not a blessed thing! so I’m afraid I must chuck!”

“What nonsense!” she exclaimed. “Haven’t you your brown cords and top boots, and tail-coat, and a black scarf for a stock? What more do you want? A waistcoat? Bring it to me; I’ll tack on some coloured chintz—you’ll be splendid, and cost about threepence!”

It must be confessed, that subsequently young Fane’s appearance justified her prophecy. A little later she was surrounded by an excited mob in the ladies’ dressing-room.

“Lady Brownjohn!” said two voices, speaking at once, “there’s no more rouge—it’s all given out! What are we to do!”

“Oh, that will be all right,” said this resourceful woman. “Here, Maria” (to her maid, who was busily running up something on one of the Maids of Lea), “run over to the house, and fetch the cherry tooth paste—there’s a lot of it; it will answer just as well.”

No matter what occurred, however staggering the deficiency, or appalling the catastrophe, Lady Brownjohn was never nonplussed or abashed. She would have been, in another sphere, and of another sex, a distinguished campaigner—and, although the means and wardrobe were inadequate, the results of her efforts with respect to the different costumes proved to be extraordinarily successful.

Meanwhile, long before half-past seven, there had been a rush to the school-house entrance. By eight o’clock the building was crammed to the windows, and a large written card was boastfully displayed, announcing “House Full.”

Carriages had deposited some of the half-crown people (including several patrons and patronesses from the Court, and a large contingent of the Bottes). Lady Brownjohn and Major Fane were still hurrying about behind the scenes, giving a touch here, and a twitch there; whilst in front, the expectant assemblage gazed upon a quantity of fine foliage plants—sent over by Major Baldwin—and a drop scene, which did not completely cover the stage, being at least a yard too narrow, consequently a good deal of the “business” was enacted in public; and this made “the wait” unexpectedly novel and interesting—legs and arms, petticoats, ladders and properties, being ruthlessly exposed.

As for the drop scene itself, it was so unintelligible and mysterious, that no one was agreed as to the subject. Some thought it was a fjord in Norway; some were positive that it represented a storm in the Atlantic; others declared that it was upside down. But before any definite decision could be arrived at, the object of discussion was gradually pulled up, clutching with it one of Mrs. Preedy’s best drawing-room palms, and its pot. This little matter, was, however, speedily remedied, and the scene revealed a charming picture of the “Three Young Maids of Lea” (the two Fanes and Ella Mowbray), with their tresses dressed so high, that they resembled “castles in the hair,” and pretty, short-waisted muslin gowns. These gowns were, in truth, three art muslin curtains, the property of Mrs. Bellamy, the wide silk sashes also belonging to the same obliging lady; the effect, however, from the front was enchanting. The three young lovers to match—leaning over a wall—were Captain Prentiss, George Fane, and Tom Bellamy. Their costumes consisted of top boots and cords, evening dress coats, and waistcoats covered with bright chintz—cheap, but undeniably effective.

The next scene represented “Three Old Maids,” with knitting, spectacles and caps. The properties were two cats, and the grocer’s parrot—kindly lent for the occasion—who delighted the audience by her piteous, unrehearsed cries for “Mamma” and “Papa,” as if in bodily fear of her companions.

After this scene came Queen Eleanor and Rosamund. Fair Rosamund’s long, pointed headdress, composed of cardboard and covered with pink calico and silver paper, had a magnificent effect, and Mrs. Bellamy, with a medicine bottle, a glass, a black wig, and a cardboard crown, looked as wicked as could be desired.

Some delay now occurred before the so-called “curtain” rose upon the great feature of the evening, “Pygmalion and Galatea.” This tableau was superb! A murmur of applause gradually rippled from the half-crown seats, and broke with a kind of roar among the back benches.

Ella Mowbray, in a carefully draped and damped white garment of “butter” muslin, her hair powdered—also her arms—presented a statuesque and beautiful figure. Pygmalion was undertaken by Major Baldwin, who had actually volunteered for the part, declaring that he had done it before with considerable success in an Indian hill station. To his suggestion, Augusta had at first demurred; she had suggested various other girls for the role of Galatea, and had offered many absurd objections.

“I do not approve of Ella’s feet being bare! I call it quite indelicate,” she said; “she certainly must wear stockings!”

“But whoever saw stockings on a statue?” remonstrated Mrs. Fane, “and Ella has such a pretty foot.”

“Well, at least,” continued Augusta, “since my young sister is to be so prominent, I really do request that Pygmalion may be a married man.”

To this proposal there was a unanimous outcry; the only two available men in the company were the Rector and Major Bellamy. Major Bellamy was inclined to embonpoint; the Rector was as bald as an ostrich egg, and wore a patriarchal beard; so at last poor Augusta was obliged to submit to public opinion, and see her own familiar friend enacting the part of lover at the bare feet of her pretty step-sister. Major Baldwin made a most impressive Pygmalion; indeed, it had been whispered that he had procured the costume from Nathan’s, in London—which was not exactly playing the game, when it was taken into consideration that many of the other performers were wearing pasteboard and window curtains.

The critical party from the Court—who had been convulsed with laughter at the drop scene and other little discrepancies—were silenced and astounded by the super-excellence of this tableau. The two figures were absolutely motionless. “Who was the girl?” they inquired. “She was perfectly lovely! What grace! What a classical profile! What heaps of hair (if it were all her own!)” After a certain amount of whispering and reaching over from one line of chairs to another, it was ascertained, at last, that this exquisite creature was said to be the youngest Miss Mowbray.

This most successful picture was succeeded by the well-known and popular tableau of “Bluebeard’s Wives.” Here Major Bellamy—mildest of all husbands—made a most truculent Bluebeard, and the heads that hung along the wall by their long tresses were easily recognisable as belonging to various married ladies in the neighbourhood.

After Bluebeard, came the great “Cleopatra” scene. It was thought such a pity not to utilise Sir Thomas’ splendid tiger skins—though why Cleopatra should be associated with tiger skins no one could exactly explain. Still, there were the skins—and they were so effective.

Cleopatra was represented by Augusta Mowbray, transformed by a black wig, and wrapped in a velvet court train, her shapely arms bare to the shoulder, and loaded with jewels; in her hand, she held the fatal asp! (artfully composed of green chenille). The general effect was undeniably impressive; never had Augusta looked better; in fact, many people entirely failed to identify her, and kept nudging one another and saying:

“Who is it?” “Now, who’s that one?”

That Miss Mowbray should have condescended to exhibit herself as Egypt’s queen, stretched at full length on a piano case and a tiger skin, before the gaping villagers, seemed too incredible for belief. The next scene represented a most beautiful Circassian captive—recently purchased for a Turkish harem; the dress of a Turkish lady being simple, dressing-gown or tea-gown, and yashmak. A crowd of figures appeared in this, the last tableau. The Circassian beauty was represented by Evie Fane, who really looked a most saleable article.

The curtain descended on a triumphant success; the organist and the gramophone played “God Save the King,” and the audience stood up, then filed out, assuring one another, in various keys, that it had been “a capital show for the money, and really great fun.” There was still greater fun behind the scenes, where, at the far end of the playground (in a disused room), Lady Brownjohn had thoughtfully provided refreshments for the numerous performers—mulled claret, soup, coffee, sandwiches.

And here a right merry multitude were gathered round the buffet, wearing, by general consent, their costumes. Among the throng were several Turkish ladies, still disguised, and it was considered a clever feat to guess at their identity. Major Baldwin was confident that he had discovered Ella Mowbray—both she and Augusta were ladies of the harem. He recognised Ella’s voice, and had squeezed his way to the refreshment table on her behalf, returning with a sandwich, which she accepted in silence—and mysteriously devoured.

“Now, I’m sure you must be tired, standing,” he remarked; “suppose we go and sit down somewhere—all the chairs are in the school-room.”

She nodded in reply, and Pygmalion, in his smart velvet tunic, carefully piloted the Turkish damsel to the door. As they stumbled across the playground, he said:

“I say, you had better take hold of my arm. It is as dark as pitch!”

“I don’t know how it is,” he continued, when he felt a little hand creeping along his sleeve, “but somehow, latterly, I never get an opportunity of seeing you—or having a word with you alone.”

A gentle pressure assured him of his companion’s sympathetic assent.

“I have been hoping for a chance,” he went on, “but they are always to the fore.”

Again his arm received a gentle squeeze, and a low, unintelligible sentence was lost in the folds of the yashmak.

“I say,” he continued, “I—er—want to know your opinion—er—about something. Do you think it would be possible for a girl——” he hesitated for a moment, “ever really to care for a fellow—much older than herself?”

To this question there was no answer, and the hand on his arm was abruptly withdrawn.

“Do you?” he persisted in a low voice. “I want so much to know.” But the Turkish lady, holding herself stiffly erect, merely whisked up the stairs before him, and stood in the lighted classroom momentarily fumbling with her hands. She dragged off the long jelly-bag which had concealed the lower part of her face and Major Baldwin, to his horror, found himself confronted by Augusta Mowbray!

For a second he felt stunned; the next instant he was sensible of the bracing effect of a shock upon the wits. He had all but proposed to the wrong woman! However, Charles Baldwin knew how to bear himself in difficult situations, and speedily recovering, he said, in a brisk, every-day tone:

“Here, let me get you a chair.”

“Thank you,” muttered Augusta, sitting down heavily. Fortunately a remnant of the old Mowbray pride had come to her support on this historic occasion, otherwise she would certainly have gone off into screaming hysterics. Her hopes had been rudely shattered (the matrimonial hopes of a woman of forty-four). For the second time, her step-sister had intervened and dashed her cup of happiness to the ground! Augusta’s face had become white and rigid as a piece of carved deal; little beads of perspiration broke out upon her upper lip; she hastily pressed a handkerchief to her mouth, and bit it severely. At last she spoke, with a supreme effort.

“Major Baldwin, I believe you have been mistaking me for someone else!”

“Oh, have I?” he answered jauntily. “Then that’s all right! You know we are all someone else this evening—are we not?” he asked with creditable ingenuity. “I am Pygmalion,” laying his hand on his heart which was still thumping somewhat irregularly, “you are Cleopatra—you looked splendid! Who do you think I supposed you to be?” he inquired with foolhardy courage. Happy thought! Perhaps she had not caught what he said.

“You supposed me to be my sister Ella,” she replied with fierce, stifled emphasis. “You like her—you admire her—don’t you?”

The question trickled forth slowly, and icily, as if from some frozen cavern.

“Certainly I do,” he answered promptly, “but who does not?”

“And she likes you,” continued Augusta, who was filled with a vindictive desire (a very human wish) to humiliate her companion. “Only yesterday I heard her saying to Bessie Bellamy——” she paused expressively.

“Well, what did she say?” he asked, with a short laugh—but his voice betrayed anxiety.

“Oh, I really don’t think I shall tell you!”

“Not tell me! Well, I call that hard lines!”

“Then,” drawing a long breath, “she said you were the nicest old gentleman she had ever met, and she liked you even better than Sir Thomas Brownjohn.” (With regret it must be confessed that this spiteful speech was manufactured on the spot.) Major Baldwin’s pleasant bronzed face became suddenly red. He drew back a step as if he had received a blow, but immediately recovering, said:

“Nice old gentleman——” then he gave a loud, forced laugh. Well, it’s better than being a horrid old bore, isn’t it? And, of course I am ancient, in comparison to her.” He might have given Augusta a stab in return—they were born in the same year—but he had his feelings under discipline, and forbore.

“A nice old gentleman!” The expression rankled; as Major Baldwin had surveyed himself in his tunic and buskins he had complacently supposed that he looked both presentable, and youthful!

Here Captain Prentiss and Evie Fane suddenly entered the schoolroom, immediately followed by the Countess and Mrs. Preedy.

“What are you doing here, Augusta?” cried her sister. “ I have been searching for you everywhere.”

“Where is Ella?” said Miss Mowbray, answering, as was her custom, one question with another. (Whilst Major Baldwin was foraging for sandwiches Ella had been suddenly carried off to settle a question between George Fane and Bessie Bellamy, and Augusta had figuratively and unconsciously, stepped into her sister’s shoes.)

“Oh, Ella,” replied the Countess, “has, I think, taken leave of her wits! I left her trying to persuade Sir Thomas to have this room cleared, just for one dance. Mr. Benson, the organist, has promised to play a waltz.”

“Dance!” echoed Augusta in her shrillest key. “ Oh no, I am going home—I have neuralgia,” and holding her yashmak up to her face, and without another glance at Major Baldwin, Augusta walked off to the ladies’ dressing-room.

It was subsequently reported that Miss Mowbray (as Cleopatra) had caught a bad chill at the popular and successful tableaux vivants, in which she had taken such a prominent part. At any rate, she did not appear downstairs for one whole week, and, although game and books were still received from The Hatch, Major Baldwin, strange to say, did not pay his usual Sunday visit. An interesting chapter in Augusta’s life had now been closed.

Chapter XVIII

At the end of a week, Augusta Mowbray had sufficiently recovered from her slight indisposition to be able to fulfil her social engagements. One afternoon, when she and the Countess walked over to the Court for a bridge- and tea-party, Ella, who had accompanied them part of the way, carrying cloaks and umbrellas, went for a ramble in the outer woods—such as she used to enjoy in the days of her childhood with her friends the Nixons (long since departed from the North Lodge).

It was a fine clear day early in December, and as she wandered along, she indifferently noted the robins, the thick holly berries, and other signs of approaching Christmas. Alas! there would be no Christmas gifts for her this season—and she had no money to purchase them for others. It was really dreadful to have but five shillings a week for dress and pocket money, and it was always so difficult to obtain it. When she timidly ventured to remind Augusta that her allowance was a month overdue, Augusta generally flew into a rage. She wondered if she would be allowed to go to the Brownjohns’ dance. Only a young people’s affair; there would be no sit-down supper, and no band. She had a nice white frock—at least, it had been nice in Brussels—and a pair of almost new white-satin shoes. How she longed for a smooth floor and a good waltz!

Just as she was reflecting that she had not danced for twelve months, she was startled by a faint shout. It came from some distance, but although she had heard, “Hullo! I say! Coo-ee!” there was not a soul to be seen.

Ella stood listening intently; the call was repeated, a still louder “Coo-ee!” It came from the middle of a thick plantation of laurels and laurestinas. Another girl might possibly have been frightened and fled, but Ella, like her mother, had no acquaintance with the word “fear.” (The only person in the world she was afraid of was Augusta—Augusta, who had imprinted her blows on a young and too sensitive memory.)

She instantly thrust aside the laurels, and undergrowth, and pushed her way into the grove. Here were some pieces of thick but crumbling old walls, and she suddenly remembered the spot from the days of her games with the Nixons. The walls were said to be the remains of an ancient castle, built by the Danes, and she and her playfellows had always pretended that a dreadful ogre lurked among the ruins in this plantation.

“Hullo! hullo! Coo-ee! coo-ee!” came a voice now almost at her feet. She started, and stood still; it was very dark among the branches.

“What is the matter?” she called out.

“Who are you, and where are you?”

“I’m down here, in this beastly well,” was the answer. “I say, mind you don’t fall in too!”

Ella looked about her carefully. When her eyes became more accustomed to the dim light, she descried, almost at her feet, a hole, partly overgrown; it was, in fact, the mouth of an old well. From about forty feet below her came the voice. The voice now lit a match, and by means of this illumination, she was able to discern a young man, with a brown dog, and she suddenly recoiled.

“I say!” he shouted—it was young Howard-Leigh—“you are not going to run away, are you?”

“No,” once more peeping down; “but why are you down there?”

“I am here, because I can’t help myself; surely you don’t think I am exploring for pleasure, do you?”

“Are you hurt?”

“Nothing to speak of. I shot a woodcock—my dog went after it, and tumbled into this confounded—I beg your pardon—unnecessary well. I climbed down after him, and find I am his fellow prisoner. Like the immortal starling, I can’t get out—and my mater is having a big dinner-party to-night.”

“Shall I run and tell someone?” said Ella; “or do you think I could help you up alone?”

“Well, the sooner I am in a fresher atmosphere, the better; and Bob, too—I’m afraid he has broken his leg. What do you propose to do for us?”

“I have an old shawl here” (Augusta’s garden shawl); “I could tear it up into four strips, and knot them together, and let it down— how would that be?”

“It would be first-class! I will pass you up Bob, but you could never haul me up.”

“I can tie the shawl to a tree here, and have a try, and you might help yourself by sticking your toes in the stones—can’t you?”

“I say, you seem to know all about it,” he answered. Then, as he heard her tearing something: “It’s rather hard lines on your shawl, isn’t it?”

“Oh, it’s only an old thing of my sister’s. Here, I have knotted it tightly; will you catch hold?”

“All right,” he called out; then, after a pause: “I say, look out—I’ve made up Bob in a parcel, so haul away—gently does it—easy —go—easy.” Presently the brown dog, looking sincerely sorry for himself, came to the surface, and was unloosed.

“Now for me—pay out the shawl,” shouted his master cheerily. “Mind you, I weigh eleven stone—steady does it. I can make out some foothold, but, for Heaven’s sake, don’t tumble in too,” as the girl nearly overbalanced with her exertions. When her catch had got a sort of start, the young man, who was remarkably active, proceeded to climb up by his own ‘exertions, and presently emerged breathless.

“A thousand thanks!” he gasped out, as he unfastened the shawl. “I’m rather a big fish to land, but I declare you couldn’t have done it better if you had been a man. Where did you get hold of your resourceful ideas?”

“From reading books of adventure, I think.”

“Ah,” lifting up the brown dog in his arms, pushing back some branches, and advancing into daylight; “Bob and I would not mind being cast away with you!”

“I should hate being cast away with anybody,” she answered ungraciously.

“Would you?” looking at her attentively, in the waning light, and recognising the lady of the slipper. “For my part, I think it would be splendid fun!”

“Well, I have noticed that they never seem to have any soap, or towels; no tea, or books, or bed! not even in the best castaway localities.”

“Ah, I see you are a Sybarite.”

“Indeed, I am not,” with a touch of indignation; “quite the reverse. Do you think I could splice up your dog’s leg? I have learnt first aid to the wounded.”

“Come along, then; I’ll sit down and hold him, and you shall get the splint, and my handkerchief—by the way, no, it’s down the well. Yours will do for a bandage—you see, we are gradually appropriating the whole of your wardrobe.”

The girl laughed as she proceeded to select two bits of wood, and to operate on the case with deft and capable fingers.

“That well must be filled up at once,” said the dog’s master. “It’s awfully dangerous. I suppose not a soul knows that it is there?”

“I knew—after I had come into the grove,” said Ella. “I had forgotten it, but I used to play about among those ruins, when I was a small child.”

Young Leigh looked up at her sharply, and said, “Then you are the youngest Miss Mowbray?”

She nodded.

“And we have known one another for years. Let me see—eleven and a half years—almost a lifetime.”

“I think not,” she said stiffly, as she finally settled the bandage, and rose from her knees. “You are mistaking me for someone else.”

“No, I am not. Not likely!—don’t you remember an old summer-house, and a boy finding you there—there was a man with him.”

“Yes, yes—but——” colouring, “were you the boy? Oh, you must forget that dreadful day!” she added imperiously.

“I should be delighted to oblige you, if I could, but I have called you Cinderella ever since. Do you remember that you told us your name was Ella, and that you lived in the kitchen?”

“Oh, but only for a short time. I’m afraid I was a naughty little girl, and devoted to the life below stairs. I have got over that now.”

“You needn’t tell me that! I say, when my Uncle Dick presented you to the Upper Ten—as the youngest Miss Mowbray—-oh, by Jove!”—and he burst into a laugh—“I can’t help roaring when I think of it; it was a rare scene!”

“Was it? I am glad you were amused! Well, I must be going,” she said, turning away.

“And so must I, Miss Mowbray,” he said deliberately. “As you know the park so well—I shall expect you to see me safely home. “

Ella burst into a fit of irrepressible laughter. “You will have to get a courier—a guide. Dawson knows the place.”

“Dawson? Yes, but he’s so stout—he’d never get through the woods without an axe. He is a friend of yours?”

“What do you mean by a friend?”

“Well, one who sticks by one—never gives one away—does not—er—tell people’s names— but I found out yours—no thanks to him.”

“I’m so sorry I fell asleep in your library. I must have seemed dreadfully cool, but you know we have permission to read there, when the family is away.”

“And the family came back, and were charmed to find you. By the family, I allude to Bob, and myself. But why did you fly out of the window like poverty? No, by Jove! I believe it was love!”

“Why? Because I was so anxious to escape?”

“Yes, I had no difficulty in grasping that fact. We both lost something that day.”

“Yes,” she paused and looked at him inquiringly. “I saw you pick up my shoe—will you give it back to me? It is of no use to you, you know.” Her voice was serious, and she looked at him with troubled gravity.

The young man burst into a laugh, and glanced at his neat shooting boot. “Do you think I might wear them as slippers—if I had the other?”

“No, but really—joking apart—I do want it badly; and you might let me have it, please,” there was an expression of appeal in her lovely eyes.

“But it is such a dear little shoe, and I want it very badly too—in fact—it would break my heart to part with it,” he declared.

“Don’t you think you are rather ungrateful?”


“Oh, well,” with a little foreign gesture of = her hand, “of course, if I have to tell you—why——”

“You mean, that you hauled me out of the well,” he answered. “Yes, and I might have been sitting there, like Truth, for a couple of days; there was no foothold at all for about ten feet. Your shawl was the saving of me;, in fact, I might call it a comforter. But, bar all jokes, I am awfully grateful—and I shall never forget what you did for me—my mother, too——”

“Please don’t tell her anything about me,” interrupted Ella; “don’t tell anyone,” she reiterated. “This is all the thanks I will accept.”

“Not really?” and he stared incredulously.

“Yes, I really mean it,” she answered, as she came to a standstill, where a pathway led in the direction of the Dower House. “And so, you won’t give me back my shoe?”

He shook his head. “Why do you want it so particularly?”

Needless to say, it was impossible to tell him that she was too poor to replace it, and—like Augusta—met his query with another.

“What did you lose that day?”

“Can’t you guess?” he asked suddenly.

“No—how could I?” she replied, looking back into his handsome dark face, with the innocence of a child.

Cecil Leigh had met many fascinating girls in society, where he was made much of, and flattered as the grandson of a millionaire, and the heir to Lord Lockfield. Although he was barely twenty-four, his mother was exceedingly anxious to find him a wife, being assured that matrimony would keep him at home.

He felt, with a force amounting to conviction, that, as far as he was concerned, the quest was ended; he had seen the one girl in the world for him. As Ella put out her hand to say good-bye, he said:

“When shall we three meet again? When?” more gravely. “Am I not to see you at our dance?”

“No, oh no—not at any dance, unless I may be at the Brownjohns’ children’s party.”

“But do you never go anywhere?”

“Oh yes—into the village every day, and sometimes to hockey—but I have heaps to do at home.”

You,” with an incredulous smile. “What do you do, may I ask?”

She blushed vividly, and then broke into a laugh as she replied:

“No, no—you really want to know too much,” and with a nod of farewell she turned away.

Chapter XIX

The neighbourhood of Thorlands was unusually gay this winter. Whether this was due to the rumours of entertainments to be given at Bratton Castle (the Duke of Bolingbroke’s country seat), or merely a coincidence, all the big houses were crammed, and a round of parties was the result. Dinners, dances, luncheons, teas, and, above all, bridge. The ladies at the Dower House were, as we know, ardent devotees of the game, and the station cab was now in reckless demand.

They were invited out a good deal by former associates, who felt sorry for the Mowbrays, living in that gloomy Dower House, with no carriage and no fun. Ella was an unknown quantity to these old friends of the family, and, like the little pig, she stayed at home. However, she had the pleasure of adorning her relatives, of arranging their hair and ornaments, of wrapping them up, and being confidently assured, that “some day it would be your turn.” About this time Jane, the household treasure, fell ill with a complaint called “the quinsy,” and all the nursing and a great portion of the housework descended upon the shoulders of poor Cinderella. Polly Wake certainly did her best, but she sadly lacked what is called “a head;” nevertheless, she and Ella ran the house between them, for at this period of the year (approaching Christmas) outside help was impossible to obtain. The sisters grumbled, and bewailed the loss of Jane, and their own imaginary discomforts. The Countess was obliged to undertake her own hair and mending, and Augusta’s numerous errands to the village were curtailed. Ella was absent from the public eye, even on Sunday at morning service. Someone was obliged to remain at home and look after the invalid, and naturally, that someone was herself.

Mrs. Howard-Leigh and her party glanced curiously at the Mowbray seat in search of the young girl whom rumour declared was pretty, and who played the piano like an angel, but she was not there. Cecil Leigh was, needless to remark, a thousand times more disappointed than his companions, and after some hesitation, walked over and called on the Dower House, a step which filled the sisters with astonishment and satisfaction, for it was well known that his formal visits were represented by two cards left in the hall by his mother. He had the good fortune to find Ella in the drawing-room, engaged in pouring out tea; her sisters were present as well as Lady Brownjohn, Mrs. Preedy, Captain Prentiss, and also the two Miss Bellamys—quite a party, and all talking together, and making a noise like so many jackdaws.

The last comer was instantly annexed by the Countess, who was charmingly dressed and coloured; assuming her most fascinating manners, she asked him many questions. The wretched young man could not get a word with Ella, who was presently herded to the piano by her elder sister. She played, however, without any reluctance, and divinely, snatches of wild Hungarian dances, impromptus, and nocturnes. Her music was masterly, an unexpected revelation. Could this complete mistress of the instrument, this superb pianist, whose notes were as clear as dewdrops, her pathos and execution equally wonderful, be the same girl who had dragged him out of the well and lost her slipper in the pleasure grounds? Here was a more dignified, but not a less charming young lady. When the glorious flood of melody had ceased, there was a loud murmur of applause, and Rosabel and Augusta beamed with complacency, as if confident that they had been responsible for the performance. Then immediately talk, to discuss future events, past pleasures, new arrivals.

“The Bottes have a most amazing collection of guests,” remarked Mrs. Preedy, as she helped herself to a jam sandwich. “I really can compare them to nothing so heterogeneous as the party of animals who accompanied Noah into the Ark.” Here she paused and took a mouthful of her sandwich. “There is a Norwegian doctor, a well-known French novelist, an Irish M.P., and a Japanese officer—-and the ladies are varied and assorted.”

“The Beauvilles have the smartest party of all,” added Ida Bellamy; “They have caught a princess.”

“Now where did they get hold of her?” inquired Captain Prentiss.

“Oh, somewhere abroad. She is English, I believe—married to some foreign nobleman, and is said to be enormously rich.”

“And I hope, young and beautiful,” put in Cecil Leigh.

“No, quite old—so Dolly Beauville says—tall and stately and very autocratic. They are all afraid of their lives of her.”

“But why did they invite her?”

“Oh, she’s some distant connection of Mr. Beauville’s, and, besides, they like to have her on show. Her jewels are a sight. I believe she scarcely sleeps, or eats—she is a sort of marble statue, who smokes cigarettes by the dozen, and corresponds with crowned heads.”

“What is her name?” inquired Cecil Leigh.

“The Princess Rosengarde.”

“A foreign princess is not nearly so grand as she sounds!” declared Mrs. Preedy, with an air of authority. “A small princeling on the Continent may have a dozen sons and daughters, and they are all princes and princesses; some of them not half as well-born, or as well-to-do, as many of our untitled county families; unless belonging to Royal houses, these titles mean nothing.” As she spoke, she finished the sandwich.

Meanwhile Rosabel had become every moment more stiff about the back of her neck, and more pink in the face. She was particularly sensitive with regard to her title, and expected to be treated as a member of the aristocracy. While she was preparing to launch a shaft at Mrs. Preedy—whom she always secretly disliked—Cecil Leigh turned suddenly to Ella, and seating himself beside her, said:

“Have you taken the vow of seclusion—do you never go out?”

“Oh yes, I do—in the garden—but just now we have a sick servant.”

“And of course you are bound to nurse her— first aid, as usual.”

“Yes, I’m not a bad nurse, and Jane is nearly convalescent. By the way, how is Bob?”

“Oh, well on the mend, thanks to you. I say, are you coming to this party of the Brownjohns’? It’s for children.”

“Yes, I hope so,” glancing over at the lady. “Lady Brownjohn insists—she came out to see Augusta this afternoon on purpose. She is a perfect dear.”

“Then I’ll be a child again, and fish for an invitation. Will you give me the first dance?”

“Yes, if you like.”

“And three or four more,” looking at her as he spoke, “and supper?”

“There won’t be supper,” she corrected, “only soup and sandwiches and sweets. I am so glad—it must be such waste of time.”

“Some people think it’s the other way about, and go for that alone. I could name two or three in this room who would look uncommonly blue if they went to a dance and found there was no supper. Well,” rising, “I see the others moving, and I suppose I must take my departure. Mind you keep your promise; I’m going to walk back with Lady Brownjohn, and put in for my invitation.”

“There will be very few grown-ups, you know,” said the girl.

“So much the better—I shall be of all the more importance.”

“I should have thought you would have had enough of that sort of thing.”

“Well, maybe I have,” he admitted smiling, “and a bit over. Good-bye. I mean, Au revoir.”

As he walked down the road between the two much flattered Bellamys, followed by Mrs. Preedy and Captain Prentiss, the latter said: “I say, it strikes me that young Leigh is going in for that little Mowbray girl.”

“What absurd nonsense!” she exclaimed, in indignant astonishment. “She is a child. Really, Horace, you are too funny.”

“I see nothing funny in it, only that a rich young fellow, who may please himself, has taken a fancy to a remarkably pretty girl.”

“But she is not much more than seventeen——”

“Sweet seventeen! and I’m told she was eighteen last June.”

“She hasn’t a farthing,” objected his aunt.

“He has.”

“Her mother was a mere nobody—companion to some old woman.”

“Well, her father had pedigree enough for two. Aunt Maria, I don’t mind betting you a shilling that it will come off!”

“Never! He hasn’t any idea of her.”

“What brought him tramping out to the Dower House?”

“To pay a call on the other sisters.”

“Hm, likely! and so they seem to think. For my part I positively can’t stand old Gussie. I am sure she supposes that if she does not live for the world now, as she declares—the whole world is living for her. I say, let us come on and catch up the others. I don’t see why Leigh is to appropriate all the pretty girls!”

Chapter XX

Sir Thomas and Lady Brownjohn lived at The Firs, a pretty, old-fashioned place, at the further end of the village from the Dower House; and if Mrs. Preedy acted as censor and police to the morals and manners of the neighbourhood, the Brownjohns were, figuratively speaking, the kind and indulgent grand-parents of the community. They were wealthy and leisured; their participation in life’s great battle was ended, and now, like members of the Red Cross Society, they were engaged in benevolently assisting the sick and wounded. Sir Thomas had seen much service in the East. He was a K.C.B. with an enviable record, and a number of medals and decorations—a short, wiry man, with a tremendous white moustache, a pair of hawk eyes, and a heart as soft as a pincushion.

Lady Brownjohn was a stout little woman, with a low voice, pretty eyes, an enormous fund of sympathy and magnetism, and consequently the universal repository of secrets, sorrows, and love affairs. The couple were never so happy as when surrounded by young people, and chief among the winter functions were the Brownjohns’ hockey parties, and the Brownjohns’ children’s dance. This latter invariably took place two days before Christmas, and, in spite of the absence of a real band and a sit-down supper, was always a pronounced success. It was a sort of boy and girl party; all holiday children came in great force, as well as a remarkable number of grownups. The “children’s” party was so deservedly famous that it was not an uncommon thing to see three grown-ups, or even four, audaciously arrive in the train of one small child! Two children had been offered as an excuse for the appearance of an entire family. On the present occasion, among the many guests—who, by no stretch of imagination, could present themselves as infants—were Major Baldwin, Cecil Howard-Leigh, and Captain Prentiss.

The large, low drawing-room was the ballroom, profusely decorated with holly and ivy, the floor well chalked. The village organist presided at the piano, accompanied by two fiddles; tea and refreshments were served in the dining-room, soup and ices in Sir Thomas’s study, hats and cloaks were relegated to the library, and, with regard to “sitting out,” there were facilities in the hall, the conservatory, and on the stairs—the latter resort being remarkably popular. Here, at The Firs, was far more enjoyment, and whole-souled dancing, than is to be seen at many a London ball—which has cost thousands; for one thing, the guests were young, and not in the least blasé. They had, as a rule, known one another from infancy, and had many interests and tastes in common; as yet no love worries—no anxious watching of the door for the one face which made or marred the evening. Quite small children were present in numbers, and were the most indefatigable of performers—always, if possible, with the oldest and largest partner!

Lady Brownjohn, gowned in black satin, with gold Swami ornaments, was in extraordinary demand. Surely she must have recalled the days of her youth, when she was the belle of Government House balls in Calcutta! But, alas! even already, some of the little girls had “ideas.” One small boy, in blue-satin breeches, was asked by Aggie Fane if he would not like a partner? and as he nodded assent she caught a pretty butterfly, in fluffy skirts and red silk stockings, and said:

“I say, Mab, come and dance with this little fellow.”

Mab looked him over critically—-he was three years her junior—gave a toss to her thick crêpe mane, and drawled out:

“Thanks, I am tired—and I’m sitting this out!”

Just at the moment a gallant of fourteen came up—an Eton boy with a smart white tie—and said:

“Hullo, Mab! Come along and take a turn,” and away they went. The despised little boy, who was most manfully hurt and bitterly indignant, became very red, and said:

“Nasty little girl! I’m sure I don’t want to dance with her—she’s too ugly!” and he stuck his hands in his pockets and marched away, to console himself with his eighth strawberry ice.

Again, a youth in a black velvet suit and lace collar, who was lounging against the wall, ordered a small satellite to bring him a partner—a big one. The chum resisted at first, but was angrily pushed and punched.

“Go and bring me the Mowbray girl!” commanded his patron, “I want to dance with her.”

“But I don’t know her,” protested the other.

“I must, and will, and shall, dance with her,” declared the gentleman in black velvet, aged seven; “if you don’t go and obey my orders, I will shout out all my bad words—dickens, devil, damn!” and he stamped his neat little buckled foot. And, indeed, the boy in black velvet was not the only partner who was anxious to dance with the Mowbray girl. Ella was undoubtedly the star of the evening; her waltzing was the poetry of motion, and her spirits were those of a girl who had been cut off from her own contemporaries for a whole year, and was enchanted to find herself again in their midst. She felt as if she were once more at the breaking up at Brussels, and flew round the room with all sorts and conditions of partners—boys, large and small, young men, and old gentlemen. Her eyes were dancing, too, and her smile was radiant. This was really Ella’s debut, did she but know it. Among the elders, people asked:

Who is the pretty girl in white, with her hair down?”

“A Miss Mowbray.”

“Impossible! How is it that we never see her? She is quite a beauty; so graceful and natural. Do look at her dancing with that small child in the quadrille, and his importance—it’s magnificent!”

“Yes,” added another, “and kindly note the unmistakable envy of the young fellow who is sitting behind them in the window seat.”

“I see,” said George Fane, “and I agree with Cecil Leigh, there should be an age limit; it’s preposterous to find oneself cut out by the nursery!” As he spoke his eyes followed Ella; he realised her buoyant vitality; she seemed to radiate the spirit of merriment within her.

“The girl has not left the nursery so long herself,” said a thin lady, with a spiteful mouth.

“I believe she is eighteen,” said the youth. “I saw her as Galatea in the school-house tableaux —she was simply ripping.”

“Did you think so?” remarked the other, pinching her lips together. “Did you notice her foot? It looked to me as if it had been rouged!”

“Oh, come, I say!” expostulated the boy. “I did not notice that; it looked so small and shapely. I should have liked to kiss it! Where has she been hidden all this time?”

“At school until last year—and now in the old Dower House.”

“She certainly arrests the eye at once,” observed a kindly dowager; “like some bright bit of colour, or a beautiful butterfly, and, although she has all the men and boys worshipping her, she appears perfectly indifferent to her own success.”

“Perhaps that is just as well,” said the soured lady, “as her temporary success must last her for some time. She is not supposed to be out, or allowed to go to a dance; her sisters are rather strict.”

“Half-sisters,” corrected the dowager, “are they not? I remember the pretty young second wife when I was down here years ago—it seems like yesterday. She was just such another light-hearted, charming creature—and this is her girl!”

Ella owed but little of her attraction to her toilette; it was plain but well-made crêpe de chine, obviously let down. Augusta had insisted that for this occasion her hair should also be let down, in order that no one might be deceived into supposing her to be “out.” A thick mass of soft, fair hair, fell to her waist; her dress was off the ground, and afforded a charming view of a pair of pretty feet and ankles, clad in white-silk stockings and white-satin shoes; both, like the frock, from a well-known establishment in La Montagne de la Cour. Her arms were thin, but well shaped; she wore long gloves and carried a little green fan.

The dance had begun at six, and was kept up vigorously until half-past eleven, when it concluded with an uproarious “Sir Roger,” and cups of soup. Twelve o’clock struck the knell of the ball, cabs and carriages were in waiting, and crowds of muffled-up, sleepy children were packed into these and dispatched home. There was no conveyance for Ella Mowbray—it had been arranged that she was to return on foot (goloshed), escorted by the faithful Jane carrying a lantern. She looked remarkably attractive as she stood in the hall in her long, red-hooded cloak, with a white cloud over her hair; and keen, indeed, was the competition among her partners for the honour of escorting her. Young Cecil Leigh, however, carried the day, and the lantern—and as Jane tramped in their wake, carrying her lady’s shoes and fan, she built some fine castles in the air—but kept their erection entirely to herself.

The young couple walked at a moderate pace that frosty, starlit night, but they conducted a brisk conversation. Part of the time, they discussed the forthcoming ball at Bratton.

“Of course, you are going?” he said eagerly.

“No, indeed—this is my only dance. Well,” with a little sigh, “ I have enjoyed it!”

“Surely not so much, as not to enjoy another?”

“There isn’t the slightest use in thinking of another.”

“But why not? If you set your mind hard to wish for a thing, you get it—that’s my own experience. Wish hard, and I will wish too.”

“It would be waste of brain power,” she answered, “but it is very kind of you to offer to wish for me!”

“If our combined wishes succeed, will you give me three dances?”

Three!” she repeated with a laugh. “Oh yes, I think I may safely promise you any amount!”

“Then that’s a bargain—three; with power to add to their number.”

“Major Baldwin asked me, too, and so did Captain Prentiss—but I told them, I would not be at the ball.”

“Oh, that fellow Prentiss!” exclaimed the young man contemptuously, “he’s just like a cheap toy animal that turns his head and says ‘Ba-a.’”

“Certainly he hasn’t much to say,” she admitted, “but he waltzes delightfully.”

“And so that’s all you care about?” and the tone implied jealousy.

“At a ball—-yes.”

“Is one partner the same as another?” he inquired, with a glance more expressive than words.

“I cannot answer that—you see, I have not been to a ball, yet.”

“Oh, you evasive young lady! Now, tell me, what do you think of Major Baldwin?”

“He can’t dance a little bit—but I like him immensely.”

“And he must like some one at the Dower House; I hear he is there every other day.”

“Every other week,” she corrected, “or every other fortnight.”

“I suppose he is rather a pal of your sisters?”

“Oh yes,” assented Ella, “he is a great friend of Augusta’s.”

“Baldwin’s a good sort,” remarked the young man with a sense of relief. (No, it could not be possible that he was thinking of making up to a child like Ella Mowbray, although he had noticed him hanging about the doorways that evening, and taking a conspicuous interest in her proceedings. Why, he must be thirty years older than she was!)

“Yes, Baldwin’s a nailing good rider, and, considering his age, rather a smart-looking chap.”

“Is he?—oh yes, I suppose so,” she answered dreamily.

“Ah, I see your thoughts are miles away—do tell me one of them?”

“I was only thinking, how happy I felt,” she replied, “and wishing that to-night were coming over again.”

“No such luck!” he said; “nice things never happen twice. The first is always the best.”

“Ah, well, you know—and I do not. I have not had so many ‘nice things’—still, I adored my first opera, my first novel, and my first long frock. They were all different sensations.”

“And you have yet to experience your first ball, your first motor ride, your first love, and——” after a moment’s hesitation, he boldly added, “your first kiss!”

“At any rate,” she answered with composure, “you have got over all these experiences years ago.”

“Not all.”

“Really—-not the ball, or the motor?”

“No—may I tell you? The first kiss. Ella,” lowering his voice to a whisper, “will you keep that for me?”

“Mr. Leigh,” and she laughed with provoking merriment, “you really are—so very odd!—so quaint! But you must not treat me like a little girl, although I have just been to a children’s dance. Do you know that I was eighteen last June, and have left off strapped shoes and embroidered frocks? Now, here we are at the gate—thank you so much for walking back with me; but, you know, it was not the least little bit necessary.”

“Then you’d rather I had not come?” and his tone was reproachful.

“Oh no, indeed,” eagerly. “I was glad of your company.”

“Well, look here, mind you keep those dances for me—and——” holding her hand tightly in his, he added under his breath, “the other thing!”

Jane had duly relieved him of the lantern, and now stood awaiting his departure at the gate. She looked inexorably grim. It was nearly one o’clock, and a cold, frosty night. These two had actually taken three-quarters of an hour to walk an English mile! Her rheumatics would undoubtedly remind her of this night ere long. Seeing the word “depart” plainly written in Jane’s eyes, and again pressing the young lady’s hand, Cecil Leigh said “good-night” and left her,—running back to the village at the top of his speed; they could hear his ringing footsteps a long way down the road.

Ella had undoubtedly turned the heads of several partners, old and young. “She was so jolly and unaffected, had lots to say for herself, and was a screaming good dancer!” was the verdict.

Indeed, young Botte raved about her to his mother so continuously, that that tormented lady was actually compelled to send a card of invitation for her young people’s dance, to her enemies at the Dower House (which card the said enemies instantly placed in the fire). Neighbours looked at one another significantly, and inquired, if they had noticed how young Leigh had hung about the little Mowbray girl, clamouring for dances? and how, during a whole set of lancers, he and Ella Mowbray had sat together at the top of the second flight of stairs—where no one dreamt of looking! Really, it was rather a shame for young Leigh, to flirt with the child, and put ideas into her head.

On Christmas morning Ella, who had expected nothing beyond a few cards and letters, was agreeably surprised by receiving a number of gifts. Augusta presented her with a string of pearls and two gold bangles—which had belonged to her own mother. Rosabel endowed her with a fan—once upon a time it had been clean and costly. The Fanes sent her a sachet, Lady Brownjohn, a little clock, and Jane’s gift was a silver brooch. The post invariably was late on Christmas morning; when it arrived it brought a goodly collection of foreign letters for “Miss E. Mowbray “ and also a parcel.

Ella, needless to say, opened the parcel first, and discovered a beautiful rose-coloured satin box. In the box—not chocolates—as she had anticipated, but oh—and she gave a little scream—such a pair of shoes! They were made of silver brocade, with high silver heels, and, instead of the usual bow or rosette, each was ornamented with a tiny diamond star! They were exquisite and must have cost a fortune; although unaccompanied by name or card Ella instantly guessed at the donor—they were modelled on her long-lost slipper.

“Shoes!—silver shoes, of all things in the world! What a present for you, Ella, who have to walk to your dances! I’m sure they were intended for someone else,” and Rosabel extended her foot, and kicked off a shabby slipper. “I never saw anything so pretty,” she continued. “I must try them on,” which she immediately proceeded to do.

“E-f-f-f-f-f! Oh, they are tight—I really couldn’t bear it! Augusta, you have a tiny foot—now let us see them on you!”

Augusta, who had been carefully examining the wrappers (no, the address was not in Major Baldwin’s handwriting), sat down, extended a condescending hand, and had a trying on. But no, the shoes were too tight across the instep; and at last Ella was permitted to handle her own property. They proved to be a perfect fit; indeed, they might have been made for her. The glittering silver shoes had a most quaint effect under the well-worn blue-serge skirt, but, notwithstanding, Ella looked down upon them with heartfelt admiration.

“They cost thirty pounds if they cost a franc!” remarked Rosabel, scrutinising them through her glasses; “that is to say, if those diamonds are real—and they come from Paris——”

“Parisian diamonds, of course!” sneered Augusta. “Ella, whoever sent them would have shown far more sense and kindness if they had given you half a dozen pair of gloves—those shoes are a regular white elephant.”

“But I can wear them at my first ball,” suggested the girl.

“Which won’t come off for eighteen months, and by that time, I daresay the shoes will not fit—your feet will have grown, or spread. Well, well, put them away now, child, and let us get ready for church.”

For once, the Mowbrays were in good time for the morning service, and had the interest of watching other arrivals—the Bottes, the Howard-Leighs, the Beauvilles; the latter brought a large party which overflowed the family pew. Prominent in the front, and almost facing the Mowbrays, sat Mrs. Beauville, three ladies, and a middle-aged man, with a fur collar to his coat. The visitor at the top of the pew was tall (even when sitting she towered above the others). She wore a pile of grey hair turned off her forehead and had piercing, light eyes and a haughty and arrogant expression. This guest was magnificently dressed in sables and velvet; in her ears shone two enormous pearls; she had walked to her place with the aid of an ebony stick—nevertheless, she stood all through the Psalms. She was by no means an attentive worshipper, for, although her features remained absolutely immovable, her quick, light eyes roved in all directions, and finally settled with a steady gaze upon the monuments above the Mowbray pew. After a time they slowly descended to the Mowbrays themselves, and there remained, fixed in a kind of basilisk stare during the greater part of the service. Outside the church, the usual (and more than usual) crowd lingered, talking and exchanging Christmas greetings, and the tall lady in sables, with the gold-mounted cane, held majestically aloof, looking on, and obviously taking notes.

“Tell me, Maud,” she said, as she and Mrs. Beauville bowled away in a comfortable single brougham—the remainder of the party being relegated to the family omnibus—“tell me about some of the congregation. I suppose those were the Mowbrays—the two supercilious affected women in the front pew. They seemed to carry all the family honours and great deeds upon their own shoulders.”

“Yes, the Countess Tormina and Miss Mowbray,” replied Mrs. Beauville; “they used to live at Thorlands Court—but now, they have come down in the world.”

“And the pretty girl is the Countess’s daughter?” suggested the Princess.

“Oh dear no, the Countess has no children. She is another Mowbray. Henry Mowbray married a second wife—actually younger than his daughters. Imagine their delight! He met her abroad somewhere; she was pretty and quite popular, I understand, though a mere nobody. I never saw her; she was at Thorlands before my time.”

“Do you mean to tell me, that this girl is her child?” said the Princess hoarsely, leaning a heavy hand on her companion’s knee, and looking at her in a kind of terror.

“Certainly I do.”

The other suddenly sank back in the carriage, and closed her eyes. Her face had become ghastly, her lips and nostrils twitched.

“Are you ill, dearest Princess?” inquired Mrs. Beauville in great alarm, bending towards her and anxiously scrutinising her face.

“No, no,” making an effort, and fumbling for her scent bottle. After a moment’s silence she said:

“But I always understood—that the child had died!”

You understood!” repeated Mrs. Beauville in bewilderment, and her glance was interrogative. “I did not know——”

“Listen,” interrupted the Princess impatiently. “Pray don’t say anything yet—-but the ‘nobody’ you mention was—my niece!”

“What!” gasped her companion. “How could she be your niece?”

“She was the daughter of my brother, Colonel Hilton; she was his only child, Sybil.”

“Dear me—-how extraordinary!”

“Extraordinary,” said the Princess, “not a bit! and she—she—I mean the girl in the pew, has a look of her mother. I saw the likeness, and I could not understand it. Sybil Hilton lived with me. I brought her up as my daughter, and intended her to make a splendid match; but she had her own ideas and upset all my plans, after I had arranged for her marriage, with the Duc de Borodeno.”

“But wasn’t he rather an awful person?” asked Mrs. Beauville. “Did he not become insane?”

“Yes—yes—Sybil had a sure instinct, as it turned out; but I was proud of her, and ambitious—I have always been that, you know. When she absolutely refused, what I believed to be a splendid parti, we had a desperate quarrel and I—so to speak—cast her off. I regretted it, of course; but it was not for me to make advances, and almost immediately after this disagreement, she went and married a trim little talkative, elderly man.”

“But a man of good character and large property,” protested her companion, “and the master of a famous old home—you lunched there on Tuesday.”

“I did,” admitted the Princess, “and I gathered, then, that his daughter—that peacock-nosed, sandy woman—ran through the entire estate, gambling on the Stock Exchange! and she doesn’t look the least little bit ashamed of herself—quite the contrary! In my opinion, she ought to be put to hard labour for life. Pray, tell me, what has she done for her sister, my niece?”

“I believe the child has been well educated; she left school a year ago, but I think I should mention, that the sisters never cared for her, or had her to live with them, till now.”

“Oh; and now?”

“Now they are so badly off, and cannot afford to support a prejudice.”

“Badly off! They don’t look it.”

“It is true; they live in a gloomy old house about a mile from the village and keep Ella much at home. Gossip says—but gossip no doubt exaggerated—‘that she does the work of a servant!’”

“What do you mean?” demanded the Princess, and her tone was furious.

“They say she runs the messages, and maids the Countess—dusts and mends and gardens—of course, it may be only village lies and tittle-tattle.”

“Does no one interfere?”

“No; we are wonderful people in this part of the world for minding our own affairs—and Ella’s sisters are her guardians.”

“You mean her gaolers! I suppose she is never allowed to go to balls, or amusements, like other young people?”

“No; in the first place, I fancy there is not much money, and in the next, she is quite young—eighteen, I think.”

“And I was married then!”

After an eloquent silence—during which the Princess was gazing out of the window—she turned about, and said:

“Maud, if you don’t mind, I will stay on with you a little longer, and keep an eye on my next-of-kin—my grand-niece—but I wish the fact that she is related to me, to remain a secret between us. Tell me some more about Ella.”

“I really cannot tell you much, for I rarely meet the Mowbrays now, and when I called the girl was not visible. I have heard that she plays the piano magnificently—there is also a whisper that young Leigh admires her; but, of course, his mother is ambitious; she expects him to marry both position and money.”

“And beauty, youth, good blood, and brains, and accomplishments, amiability, and taste and tact,” added the Princess breathlessly. “Oh yes, I know what she expects; but we don’t always realise our anticipations. Now my grand-niece must make a great match—I will see to that. Once more, I shall have a hand to play! I do hope the girl won’t be stiff-necked, like her mother. Unfortunately for us both, her mother had some of my own force of character—-I treated her harshly, but sooner than have admitted it, I’d have been broken on the wheel! I returned her letters unopened, and when my mortification and disappointment had burnt out, and I was prepared to accept the olive branch, I found that she had married this English squire! Now, Maud, look here. I want you to manage, that I may see the little girl. informally—incognito, so to speak; trump up some excuse, and let us have the Mowbrays over at Beauville.”

“The sisters will come—not Ella,” objected Mrs. Beauville.

“Very well, then; you must take me there! Try and think of some pretext. What can I pretend to wish to see—beside the girl?”

“Now, let me think,” said her companion reflectively, “the house is simply hideous. There is some old French tapestry, one piece of real Beauvais, some Sèvres vases in gros bleu and gold, and they have one or two splendid portraits—a Romney, a Raeburn, and two Vandykes—also some wonderful miniatures and cabinets which they carried away from the Court after much unseemly squabbling. You might express a desire to inspect these well-known treasures—and I will write, and state your wishes.”

“That will do capitally,” agreed the Princess. “I am, for the moment, crazy about tapestry and pictures; write to-day and fix an early date—why not to-morrow?”

“Very well, I think we have no engagement for to-morrow afternoon, and I will send off a note at once.”

Owing to the extraordinary perversity of cross-country posts, this note only reached Miss Mowbray the morning after the Princess had called; it would appear that the nearer the destination for delivery, the longer the delay.

Chapter XXI

The sisters had departed in the station cab to attend a large gathering at some distance, and Ella remained at home and alone as usual; having rearranged the drawing-room, and poked up the fire, she seated herself comfortably in Rosabel’s arm-chair, and was engaged in mending a pair of Rosabel’s pink silk stockings, when she heard a loud ring at the hall door.

This was no doubt Aggie Fane, come to arrange about a hockey match at the Brownjohns’. Ella glanced at the tea-tray, just brought in—a black battered one, on which was laid a brown tea-pot and some thick slices of bread and butter—and resolved to ask for another cup and some jam. The door opened, and Polly, looking scared and untidy, bellowed out, in a loud, nervous voice:

“The Princess Rosengarde and Mrs. Beauville,” and immediately a tall stately lady in furs came into the room, followed by her hostess.

“Oh, Ella,” said the latter, “the Princess has come to see some of the pictures. Princess, this is Ella Mowbray—no—no,” to Ella, “pray don’t hustle away your mending. We wrote your sister a note yesterday, announcing our visit.”

“I’m sure she never received it,” said Ella. “My sisters have gone to an ‘at home’ at the Shores’. I know they will be disappointed to miss you. Won’t you sit down? I can show you the pictures, if you like.”

“Very well,” said the Princess, looking hard at Ella, and settling herself in Augusta’s chair. “I daresay we shall find you a capital cicerone. I see you are having tea—pray, don’t let us disturb you!”

Ella blushed for the black tray, and meagre appointments, as she stammered:

“May I give you some?”

“Yes, you may, my dear,” said the old lady unexpectedly, “but no milk or sugar—just a squeeze of lemon.”

“I’m afraid there is not a lemon in the house,” said Ella, ringing the bell as she spoke.

“It is of no consequence, then. I will take it au natural.”

“Not any for me,” said Mrs. Beauville. “I drink hot water. Are you the housekeeper?”

“Yes,” said Ella, rising to hand the Princess her tea, but not daring to offer the thick bread and butter. “I order the things and pay the weekly books, and lodge complaints!”

“I see you are a needlewoman,” said the Princess. “May I look at your darning?” and she put up her glasses. “Ah, very good —very nice, indeed—quite the foreign style. Are these your own smart silk stockings?”

“No,” said Ella, as she received her work, “they are Rosabel’s; she wants them for the ball.”

“Ball! Oh, you mean the one at Bratton, on Twelfth Night,” said Mrs. Beauville. “It is to be a grand affair—are you going, my dear?”

“No,” looking at her with a rather wintry smile, “but I was invited,” and she indicated a printed card, on which was inscribed the names of the Countess Tormina and the Misses Mowbray. “I am sorry to say I am not out yet, but I love dancing.”

“I wonder if we could persuade your sisters,” said the Princess. “I believe it is going to be done on a wonderful scale—you ought not to miss it—it will be talked of for years.”

“I am sure it will,” sighed Ella. “People can talk of nothing else now; but even if Augusta would take me, I have no dress,” she announced, with a laugh and a blush. “The one I wore at the Brownjohns’ children’s party is torn past mending.”

“And you would like to go very much?”

“Oh, very much, more than anything; but I must not think of it—it only makes it worse.”

“Dear me, what a philosophical young lady!” exclaimed the Princess. “I see you consider things from a detached point of view.”

“I am afraid I am not as wise as I pretend to be,” she confessed, with the piteous look of a child.

“Well, I sincerely wish I could give you my place,” declared the visitor, who made no effort to disguise her personal interest in the girl; “it is nice to see young people happy.”

“Oh, but please don’t think I am not happy,” eagerly protested Ella. “May I give you another cup of tea?”

“Thank you, no; but I will tell you what you may give me—a little music. I am fond of music, and I am told that you play well.”

“If you wish,” said the girl, standing up and glancing interrogatively at Mrs. Beauville; then, urged by a glance, she opened the piano and said: “What shall I play, Grieg or Chopin?”

“Something Hungarian,” said the Princess, and without further prelude she struck a Hungarian dance, by Brahms. The girl played brilliantly, and with exquisite sympathy; the wild, weird music rang through the room with astonishing vigour and actuality. The Princess listened with tightly closed lips, and her hands folded over her ebony cane.

“Good!” she said, as the last chord crashed out and died away. “Now give me a waltz—a German waltz.”

“Princess, I do call that the refinement of cruelty!” expostulated her companion.

“No, no,” protested a voice from the instrument, “please do not mind me. I like playing waltzes, next to dancing them. I played the other night at the Brownjohns’, when the music was at supper,” and she played “Soldaten Lieder” with wonderful spirit and swing. When the last chord had died away, Mrs. Beauville rose, and said:

“Thank you, Ella, you have given me a great treat, and now I am afraid we must go. I dare not keep the horses any longer.”

“That’s the best of a motor,” remarked the Princess; “it does not catch cold.”

“Oh, but the pictures,” said Ella eagerly; “you have not seen the pictures. How stupid of me not to have thought of them sooner! See!” hastily holding up a lamp; “this is a Romney, over the mantelpiece—Drusilla Mowbray and child. I believe she was our great-great-grandmother.”

“Um I yes,” muttered the Princess, putting up her glasses; “a nice face—ugly little child—and the usual portrait painter’s stock hand.”

“It is the celebrated ‘Mowbray’ hand,” explained Mrs. Beauville.

“Then let me look at yours, young lady,” said the Princess, turning to her suddenly. Ella extended it rather timidly; it was a little rough from work and sewing.

“Ah,” turning it about, “I would not call this after the Mowbray model! Probably it is the family hand on your mother’s side” (which was a fact).

“Do you think so? Oh, I hope it is! but I have never seen anyone belonging to her.” The Princess remained silent for a moment, and stood looking at Ella with an intentness that would have been disconcerting if it had not been so curiously absent-minded, At last she said:

“Have you a picture of her anywhere?”

Ella shook her head. A pause, and then the Princess said:

“Well, now, Maud, I won’t keep your men and horses any longer. I am going,” and to Ella, “Pray give my compliments to your sisters, and say that I was sorry Mrs. Beauville’s note missed fire, but that you have done the honours very nicely. I think,” and she stared at the girl with her cold, grey eyes, “that you and I will be friends—you may kiss me, child;” stooping her head, she offered a cheek as wrinkled as a piece of wash-leather, upon which the girl imprinted her fresh young lips. Subsequently, leaning on Mrs. Beauville’s arm, and supported by her cane, she was driven away.

An hour later the Countess and Augusta returned home, both cold and cross. The party had been dull, such a queer lot of new people, including Mrs. Botte, “and I was actually next to her on the sofa—so very awkward and unpleasant,” said Augusta, “and Marjory Shore, who could not understand that I didn’t wish to know the woman, kept talking to me, and dragging her into the conversation; and the Princess was not there, after all. It’s really unpardonable to be invited under false pretences. I didn’t think it the least likely, that she would go to the Shores’, and the cab has cost us seven-and-sixpence.”

“But what will you say,” said Ella eagerly, “when I tell you that the Princess has been here—here in this very house?”

“Nonsense,” cried Augusta; “what are you talking about?”

“But she really has,” said Ella, and she proceeded to relate the whole story with unusual vivacity.

“Wrote to ask if she might call to see the pictures. Well, of course a note from Horley takes two days, and was she pleased—did she admire them?” inquired Augusta excitedly.

“Well, not much; it was curious that she scarcely looked at them, after all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Yes, the funny thing is that she seemed to forget all about them, until she was just going away.”

“And you say she had tea with you!” said Rosabel; “and there was no cake—only brown cooking sugar, and the old japanned tray—how awful!” and she cast up her eyes and hands.

“Yes, they were in the room almost before I could turn round, or I would have hidden the things under the sofa “

“And you so shabby, too, in that horrible plaid—imagine your doing the honours with the brown teapot and an old school frock. Polly should certainly have said ‘not at home,’ for of course no one comes to call on you, except the girls out of the village; she might have known that, and that you don’t count.”

“I’m afraid Polly lost her head.”

“That’s a matter of course,” sneered Gussie.

“I wish she was as sure of losing her appetite; I declare she eats as much as two men.”

“But what put it into the head of the Princess to call on us?” said the Countess, who was evidently much moved by the occurrence. “Everyone knows that the best pictures are at the Court—including the Blue Lady. Do you think, Gussie,” and she rose and put her hand on her sister’s shoulder, “that it had anything to do with my—er—rank?”

“I really cannot say; I understand that she has not called anywhere. She is so exclusive. She met us abroad, you remember, and was an iceberg. At home, she realises our position—and treats us as—equals. Dear me, how thunderstruck Mrs. Preedy will be, and the Shores, and Mrs. Leigh!” Gussie’s tone was exultant.

“Oh, but she lunched at the Court one day last week!”

“And she has had tea here—such as it was; really, I feel quite excited, Rosabel, don’t you? I am longing to get her letter to-morrow.”

“I suppose we must return the call,” said the Countess.

“Must we? Well, if we do, it will be another seven shillings, and if we go to the ball, and keep the cab all night, Higgs will charge a pound. That man has no conscience.”

“How I wish I might go to the ball, Gussie,” said Ella.

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” quoted her sister.

“This beggar would have a motor,” declared Ella, with a laugh; “a bright yellow one, like Mrs. Howard-Leigh’s. But joking apart, Gussie, if I were to get some white crêpe de chine and mend up my dress, and go with you in the cab, it would cost nothing, and it is to be such a ball; it will be talked of for years and years!”

“And you and your patched gown, and dirty gloves, would be talked of for years and years; a pretty sort of figure you would look! When a Mowbray makes her debut she must be properly turned out.”

“But, Gussie——”

“There, there, say no more; that’s enough on the subject,” said Gussie, and collecting her boa and gloves she went out of the room.

*  *  *

Mrs. Leigh was visibly agitated, when her son brought her the intelligence that he had at last met the girl he wished to marry.

“And who is she?” inquired his mother, and hope flamed high within her.

“Ella Mowbray, who lives at the Dower House with her half-sisters.”

“What! that mere child?” she exclaimed. “Cecil, you must be mad! An utter nobody, that hasn’t a second frock to her name—and whom nobody ever sees!”

“That is not her fault, mother; she is kept in the background by her sisters. At any rate, I have seen her, and she is, if she will accept me, the future Mrs. Cecil Leigh.”

If she will accept you!” repeated Mrs. Leigh, with angry scorn. “You have not said a word to her, I hope?”

“Not a word.”

“Then I must request you to remain silent for the present; she is the last girl in the world that I could approve of, and I do not know what your Uncle Richard will say, when he hears that you have taken a fancy to a Mowbray! He was within an ace, if all tales be true, of marrying one of them himself.”

“Oh, you mean Augusta,” said Cecil, “and he was well out of that, but Ella is different; she is everything that is good, and simple, and lovely.”

Mrs. Leigh gave a short, disagreeable laugh. “Of course, that is understood—your opinion of to-day may not be your opinion in six months’ time; you have just been caught by a fresh childish face—a contrast to most of your acquaintances. Before you go further I should like to see the young lady.”

“So should I, but the sisters never give me a chance of meeting my poor little Cinderella. I have only spoken to her five times in my life.”

“Five times too many, in my opinion, and Cinderella, indeed! Wasn’t she the small child who used to live in the kitchen here, and wash plates? and is it not true, that at present she is only a sort of upper servant—and, of course, has manners to correspond?”

“Her manners are perfect,” protested young Leigh, “and she has had a first-rate education.”

“Indeed! Pray, what are her accomplishments?”

“She is a marvellous musician, and she dances like a—a dream.”

“Pooh! A girl from a music hall can do as much as that!”

Cecil grew suddenly white, but made no reply. He looked his mother squarely in the face, then rose deliberately, and walked out of the room.

Chapter XXII

Mrs. Howard-Leigh, after much reflection, decided to call upon the family and beard them in their den. If those Mowbray women supposed they were going to re-capture their property by a brilliant stroke of diplomacy, they were vastly mistaken. Cecil was not his own master until he was five-and-twenty; he was now twenty-four, and she would certainly never suffer him to become engaged to this insignificant little pauper—no, not so long as it lay in her power to prevent it. He was from home at present, by great good luck, and she would take time and opportunity by the forelock. The wife to suit Cecil (and her) was Lady Mittenham’s girl. This marriage would further cement the life-long friendship between the Marchioness and herself. Dulcie was pretty, smart, and popular, with nice connections, and a little money. She and Hilda Mittenham had skirted cautiously round the subject more than once, and though nothing exactly definite had been said, they understood one another, and now her foolish boy wanted to establish an understanding with Ella Mowbray—a shabby little nobody!

It was a sharp afternoon; the sisters were seated one at either side of the fire, talking trivialities as usual, when they noticed Mrs. Howard-Leigh’s motor at the gate. She did not owe them a visit—what had brought her? was their first thought. There was a loud, bold knock, and shortly afterwards Mrs. Howard-Leigh entered the room. There was no love lost between Augusta and the handsome, haughty widow, who now stood in what had once been her place. In Augusta’s opinion, she was brusque, uncertain, overbearing, and she made no secret of her opinion, that the Van Ledes (Mrs. Leigh’s relations) were really Dutch people of low origin, who had made a fortune in the pig trade. These remarks had somehow reached the ears of the Honourable Mrs. Howard-Leigh, and had not increased her affection for Augusta Mowbray. She had also heard her criticisms of the way in which the house had been done up, and the vulgarity of the taste, and the folly of many arrangements. Then Augusta’s airs, sharp tongue, and unquenchable arrogance, had made her enemies. Many amusing stories were in circulation respecting her rudeness and absolute indifference to standing with all her weight on other people’s toes. Mrs. Howard-Leigh, wealthy and spoiled, but practical, despised these squandering, foolish, Mowbray women, from the bottom of her worldly heart.

“Dear me! So kind of you to drop in in this informal way!” said Augusta, half rising. “We had the same sort of unceremonious call from the Princess only last evening.”

“Indeed!” looking round for a chair, and seating herself. “Why, I thought I saw you both, at the Shores’ ‘At Home.’”

“Yes, I am sorry to say the Princess missed us. She took us unawares; owing to our dreadful local post, we did not receive her note till today. It was too bad.”

“I presume she called with some object?” A pause. “An object has brought me to-day, and I may also take you unawares.”

Mrs. Leigh was resolved not to lose time, or to beat about the bush; the girl and the tea might enter at any moment!

“It’s not another bazaar, I trust?” bleated Rosabel. “For really, really, Mrs. Leigh——”

“Oh no,” hastily interrupting, “nothing of that sort. To tell you the truth, I am confident you will both be as amazed as I am. My son assures me that he has set his affection upon your little sister. Did you ever hear of anything so preposterous?” and she fixed them with a penetrating gaze.

“What—do you mean Ella?” cried Augusta, colouring with surprise.

“Yes. It has not got into the serious stage, thank goodness!. He has not said a word to her; he only informed me yesterday, and I came off here, without a day’s delay, to tell you that of course the affair must be nipped in the bud at once. Yes, at once,” she reiterated with emphasis.

Here Mrs. Leigh paused for breath, and Augusta repeated, in a dazed manner, “nipped in the bud!”

“Why, certainly,” rejoined the visitor, brusquely. “I would never countenance such a match——”

Miss Mowbray straightened her back, and figuratively drew her sword from the scabbard. Who was this woman, who was talking as if an alliance with a Mowbray was not one of the greatest honours that could possibly be conferred!

“Oh, do pray let me speak!” resumed the other, seeing she was about to interrupt. “My son is only twenty-four—he does not really know his own mind. A stupid, impulsive boy—he has just been caught by a pretty childish face——”

“For my part, I don’t believe your son has ever seen our sister Ella,” said Rosabel, who sat in frozen erectness; “certainly not more than once.”

“Pardon me, they have met in the park, and at a dance, and here, in this very house. Now, I really must beg you, not to countenance the affair, for it is an engagement I shall never sanction. My son must marry a young lady accustomed to the ways of society, and——” A pause.

“You need not be in the least alarmed,” broke in Augusta, now falling upon her adversary. “The Mowbray family are much too proud—and justifiably proud—to stoop to a marriage with the grandson of a Dutch Jew!”

Mrs. Leigh became crimson; this was hitting hard, with a vengeance.

“We may be poor,” pursued Augusta, “and we have been unfortunate, but no one can ever say that we are not highly born! When the Lockfields were ennobled, a hundred years ago, and raised, it was said, from coal—the Mowbrays had been gentry and lords of the soil for generations. And yet the widow of one of these very Lockfields dares to come to me in my own drawing-room, and forbid a marriage between her family and mine! The world is coming to a pretty pass!”

“Now, Gussie, Gussie, don’t excite yourself,” pleaded Rosie tremulously. She was a mere spectator, and much alarmed.

For Gussie was livid and trembling with passion.

“But yet Miss Mowbray is not too well bred, or even too well born, to resist insulting a guest in her own house,” said Mrs. Leigh in a biting tone. “I came here as a mother, and in my son’s best interests.”

“And I sit here as guardian, in my sister’s best interests,” broke in Augusta. “She shall never speak to your son again.”

“Thank you, that’s all I require,” rejoined Mrs. Leigh, with an enraging smile. “I am perfectly satisfied.”

“The key into the park shall be returned,” gobbled Augusta. “If your son calls here he will never be admitted, and I will order Ella to cut him dead—precisely as I shall cut his mother dead, and turn her out of my house,” and here she seized the bell-rope, and reckless of consequences, dragged at it furiously. Gussie had never been bearded before, and was almost beside herself.

The match was nothing—that might go! She had in her wildest moments never contemplated such a thing; nor would it be altogether agreeable to her, to see her young half-sister ruling in her former place; but to be told that they were undesirable, that because they were Mowbrays the alliance could not be entertained, was to touch Gussie in her tenderest part, to rouse the furious demon of family pride.

“I must confess, that I came here not believing all I had heard about Miss Mowbray’s manners,” said Mrs. Leigh, in a high, clear voice. “I now realise that the tales were only too flattering. If anything could make me more determined against my son entering this family—a family known to be weak, extravagant, and degenerate—it would be the fact, that this exhibition of temper has awakened me to the conviction, that there is insanity in the race. The only possible way in which to account for such an amazing outbreak—is to attribute it to madness.”

Polly was standing at the door, and her mistress, with a dramatic gesture, gurgled, “Show this lady out, and never admit her into this house again!”

Mrs. Howard-Leigh, who was perfectly collected, obtained the honours attributed to “the last word,” for she slowly rose up, and said, with a smile of deliberate insolence, “I have gained my point, and accomplished my errand, although the business has been horribly disagreeable. I can scarcely suppose, that when you have collected yourself, and recovered from this fit—you will imagine for a second that I could ever be seen here again. I shall have the gate into the park blocked up, and the books in the library carted here without delay. Yes, pedigree and all!” and with a bow she sailed forth.

That there had been a terrible scene in the drawing-room was evident to Polly, who had overheard some of the conversation; and before nightfall scraps of exciting intelligence were floating about the village. “Awful ructions” between Miss Mowbray and Mrs. Leigh, and Miss Mowbray had ordered her out, and she went away smiling! And Miss Mowbray had to have raw brandy, and the Countess was all upset and crying, and they both turned on Miss Ella, as soon as she came in, and laid the whole blame on her shoulders, and said every bit of it was her fault—that was always their way, to blame, everyone but themselves.

Chapter XXIII

When the avalanche of reproach first descended upon Ella (who was unconscious of the conflict of which she was the exciting cause), she was too bewildered to understand. She had never seen her relations in such an excited condition; indeed, Augusta gurgled so continuously that she was almost unintelligible. Then both sisters talked together, and said, “Such an awful experience, and such outrageous insolence! The woman must have been intoxicated, and it was all your fault, Ella; we never had to put up with such insults on our own account. No, even the impertinent letter the butcher wrote about his bill, was nothing like it—nothing! Nothing!” and Augusta wrung her hands.

“But I have no idea what it’s all about,” protested the poor girl helplessly. “What have I done? I’m not aware of anything——”

“It’s not what you have done—but what young Leigh wishes to do.”

“Young Leigh,” and she blushed furiously.

“Yes, indeed! you may well blush!” and Augusta looked at her closely. “So you’ve been meeting him in the park, miss.”

“Only once, and I do assure you, it was by accident—in fact, he met with an accident. He fell down the well near the ruins, and I heard him shouting, and I helped him out, and that’s all! I could not well leave him there, could I?”

“I wish to goodness you had!” cried Gussie. “He has been telling his mother that he supposes himself to be in love with you.”

“With me!” colouring to her hair. “Oh, he must have been joking!”

“No; young men don’t make those sort of jokes with their parents—whatever they may do with the girl. And she—as he is away—came here in a violent hurry to say that the affair must be stopped at once, for she will never sanction it. You are much too young—and inferior. You are not to go into the park, or to meet him, and she asked us not to allow you to see him if he calls here “

“And I hope you said yes,” cried Ella breathlessly.

“Certainly I did, and I promised, that you should cease to know him—cut him, in fact.”

A dead silence.

“Had you any idea that he liked you, Ella?”

Yes, I thought he liked me.”

“Why so?”

“He danced with me at the Brownjohns’, and I think he sent me those silver shoes.”

“Then they go back to-morrow by parcel post.”

“Oh, but Gussie! supposing he had not sent them!” interposed Rosabel. “Think how awkward that would be! Ella would then have made him a present of a pair of silver shoes.”

“And we should have another visit from Mrs. Leigh,” added Ella, with a queer laugh. “She need not be frightened, for although I like her son; and he has been very kind to me, I will not speak to him in future; it will be easy, to keep out of his way.”

“Especially as he is generally in America,” supplemented Augusta. “For all we know, he may be in the pickling business out there.”

“There is one thing certain,” said Ella, “I will never trespass in the park again.”

“You could not trespass, if you would,” replied Augusta, and her tone was fierce; “she is going to brick up the entrance.” A pause. Then Ella said:

“Let us do it first—we will shut them out. Happy thought! I will run out to young Harry now, and ask him to bring up a bricklayer tomorrow morning.”

“Capital idea!” said Rosabel, with animation. “I am glad to see that you are a true Mowbray.”

Yes, fired with pride and indignation, Ella kept up her own heart, and her sisters’ spirits. Gussie was inclined to be depressed—she was secretly ashamed of some of her violent speeches—especially the one about the Dutch Jew—remorsefully realised that she had been violent and unladylike; but her easily aroused temper had escaped all control. When Ella went up to her cold, fireless room, and reviewed the recent scene as related, she sat with her elbows planted on the dressing-table, staring into the glass, and her own dark, troubled eyes. She noticed that they looked rather dim—why? Was it possible that she cared for Cecil Leigh all the time? The colour crept into her cheeks, and her heart thumped; she recalled how he had pressed her hand when he said good-bye; how eager he had been to dance with her at the party, and how, whichever way she turned her head, she inevitably encountered his gaze; it was certain that he would have no chance of looking at her again, nor she at him, and as she realised this undoubted fact, her under-lip quivered. Well! She must not be silly any longer, nor sit staring at herself in the cold; she would go to bed and sleep, and endeavour to forget unpleasant things.

Morning brings reason; it also brought a mason from the village to brick up the gateway into the park. Yes! there was no doubt that the Mowbrays were first in the field, first to take action after the battle. Augusta despatched a hasty note to Lady Brownjohn, requesting her to come out to lunch, as she had something of the greatest importance to impart to her.

And Lady Brownjohn, in spite of a heavy cold, was carried out to the Dower House by the sheer force of her own active curiosity.

When Lady Brownjohn arrived, she was received with unusual empressement; she felt at once sensible that there was something electrical in the atmosphere. Augusta was nervous, and though a most abstemious woman, gulped down at lunch two glasses of sherry! Ella, usually so bright, looked pale, and was silent; it was Rosabel, who kept the ball rolling by talking of the ball.

Naturally Lady Brownjohn had not been invited out to discourse of such trumpery, the true subject was elsewhere: she read it in Ella’s appetite, and Augusta’s spasmodic sentences. As soon as the meagre meal was ended—cold mutton, hot chutney, mashed potatoes and mince-pies—the latter served up in her ladyship’s honour—Augusta rose and led the way into the drawing-room, with an air of majestic dignity. With her own hand, she closed the door and locked it; then, turning impressively to her visitor, said, “I want no interruptions—I have something most serious to tell you.”

Lady Brownjohn seated herself in the third best chair, and breathlessly awaited further information.

“Mrs. Howard-Leigh——” began Rosabel.

“Be quiet, Rosie—I will speak—Mrs. Howard-Leigh, who did not owe us a visit, came here yesterday and nearly killed me!”

“What?” said the visitor, half rising from her seat.

“I mean that her violent language was such that I’ve had a palpitation of the heart, and never shut my eyes all night. I’m most dreadfully upset!”

“But what was she violent about?”

“Her son—yes, Cecil Leigh, and Ella—she declares that he is in love with Ella.”

“I think it would be a most excellent match,” said Lady Brownjohn, “and it has my hearty consent.”

“It is more than it has mine—or that woman’s. She was furious at the idea! She said we had angled for the heir of Thorlands, and it was a nice easy way to recover the property; but she would never countenance it—the estate had been bought with her money, and would never be enjoyed by a rough, uncultivated chit, whose mother was a nobody, and her sister a bankrupt!”

“Oh, she never said all that!”

“Yes, and much more—ask Rosie? She let herself go, just like some creature in Whitechapel, and I lost my temper, and said all sorts of true things to her. I think I got under her skin, tough as it is! I stood up, of course, for my family, and declared that my sister should never enter hers—precisely what she wanted—and I solemnly promised that Ella should never meet her precious son again. Then I rang the bell, and ordered her out of the house.”

“So it is war!” exclaimed Lady Brownjohn, after an expressive pause. “I must say, I am truly concerned that it has come to an open breach and high words. A violent quarrel between two families is such a bad example, and so awkward for the neighbourhood. What can you do if you both meet—say, in the Rectory drawing-room? What an appalling situation for poor Mrs. Fane!”

“No fear of that. I shall remain at home till the woman has taken herself out of the county. I believe she hates the Court, now she has altered it, and finds the neighbourhood tediously dull.”

“She won’t find it dull, if she pays visits on the same lines as yesterday,” declared Rosabel. “She will never lack excitement. She looked to me as if she enjoyed fighting.”

“I won’t give her a chance of fighting with me,” said Lady Brownjohn; “Tom and I are all for peace——”

“But you don’t want to be trampled on, do you? I would not stand it—I crushed her.” Miss Augusta herself looked, as if a moral steamroller had passed over her.

“Don’t you think, I did right to ring the bell and have her shown out?” inquired Miss Mowbray. She had suffered many qualms in consequence of this un-Mowbray-like proceeding.

“I thought the other night at our little party that young Leigh admired Ella—he certainly singled her out,” rejoined Lady Brownjohn, evading a direct answer. “More than one remarked it. He is a nice, well-spoken young man, as simple and unaffected as possible. Sir Thomas likes him.”

“But that is all beside the question——”

“I don’t know—it strikes me that he looks as if he could hold his own, and if he wishes to marry Ella——”

“It’s preposterous talking of Ella and marriage in the same breath.”

“And she likes him,” resumed her ladyship doggedly. “If I were you, I would not interfere, but let the course of true love run its own way. Young Leigh is of age; he is independent, and can marry without his mother’s consent.”

“But,” said Augusta, drawing herself up, “not without our consent—and that will never be accorded.”

“Accorded,” was a well-sounding term, and she repeated it. “No—’twill never be accorded.”

“Then what do you propose to do? How can you stand in his way, and hers?”

“For one thing, I’m having the park entrance bricked up. Ella will never enter it again.”

“Nonsense! You don’t say so?”

“For another, I wrote to him last night before I went to bed, and sent the letter off at eight this morning. You saw the letter, Rosabel;” turning to her sister. “tell Lady Brownjohn what you thought of it.”

“It was most dignified, and stated that Mrs. Howard-Leigh had called here and forbade any acquaintance between him and Ella, that we were entirely of the same opinion, and begged to inform him that—well, he was to keep away. To tell you the truth, Gussie was so excited and tremulous when she wrote it, that I could not make out more than half the words; luckily the address is stamped on the paper, so he will at least know where it came from.”

“And amidst all this talking and writing—what does Ella say?” demanded Lady Brownjohn.

“Nothing. What has she to say to it?”

“A good deal, I should imagine.”

“Why! She is a child—she has only seen the young man four or five times.”

“There is such a thing as love at first sight—and he certainly is most attractive-looking. I never saw a handsomer young fellow—he is rather like his mother.”

“Oh, Heaven forbid! Well, now you know what I had to say to you,” said Gussie. “I always consider you our staunch friend, and I wrote a line to beg you to come out, as I thought I would like you to hear our side of the story—and to ask your advice.”

“My dear Augusta, asking my advice now is locking the stable door when the horse is stolen. You have quarrelled with Mrs. Howard-Leigh to the death—I think I would not have done that.”

“Oh yes, you would, if she had tried to grind you into the very earth—even you are not a worm.”

“I tell you what I should advise—keep this scene of yesterday to yourselves; do not mention it to a soul.”

“Pray, why not?” cried Augusta, who was already panting to relate the affair to all her circle.

“It will be much more dignified to keep silent; you don’t want to be the subject of talk in every house and cottage in the county—you don’t want Ella to be brought into it. Besides, putting the present suitor on one side, it would certainly go against her future chances of making a brilliant match. She is a beautiful girl. Sir Thomas admires her immensely, and he is a good judge, and I don’t think you and Rosabel half realise the sensation she would make, if she were properly introduced.”

“But if Mrs. Howard-Leigh goes about telling her story, and abusing us,” said Gussie, deaf to the praises of Ella.

“You have the satisfaction of knowing that you ordered her out of your house, and have closed up the gate of communication with the park. These facts may leak out—but silence is best. Pray do be guided by me for once, girls.”

It was a painful deprivation, an unexpected request, but eventually, the sisters gave their reluctant consent.

In spite of Lady Brownjohn’s precaution, the story did ooze out, and the neighbourhood were soon in possession of a faint sketch of the facts.

There had been a disagreement between the Court and the Dower House—some said a row about a right of way; some said about a love affair between the young people in the different establishments. Curiosity was not gratified by the Mowbrays—generally so loquacious respecting their proceedings—but it was known that Mrs. Howard-Leigh had described Augusta as a “scheming, venomous, vanquished, vulgarian.”

Some of the highly ornamented versions of the story came to the ears of the Princess Rosengarde; she was far too dignified and self-centred to take interest in the gossip, which would circulate through a small district in England. State affairs and secrets, wire-pulling, and diplomatic whispers relating to big European questions were more likely to interest her ears; all the same, the talk about the quarrel at the Dower House impressed her. Evidently Mrs. Howard-Leigh was alarmed, and was determined to fight with all her strength against a union with a Mowbray. As she had purchased the property with hard cash, it was not to be supposed that one of the family should recover it by means of a mere pretty face! It was an amusing fact that Mrs. Howard-Leigh was now but little in evidence, and that Augusta Mowbray remained cloistered at home. Malicious people declared that the ladies confined themselves to their own domains, being in mortal fear of a public encounter!

When Cecil Leigh received Miss Augusta’s furious scrawl, he was from home; in fact, he had gone to visit a sick friend in the South of France. The letter, however, recalled him within a few hours, and soon after his return to the Court, he had a grave interview with his mother. He was quiet, but forcible; he repeated his intention to marry Ella Mowbray—if he could. There was something new and undefinable in his manner that filled his mother with apprehension; he was her only child—ought she to oppose him? Yes, undoubtedly she should. For hours at a time she argued, wept and pleaded; ultimately she brought his uncle to wrestle with him, and so made a stubborn fight. After all, she had been defeated by Cecil’s coolness, patience and good-humour, and she reflected, with uneasiness, that even if she cut off her son’s allowance, he had still a comfortable income, and he was the heir to the Lockfield estates.

“I will, however, give you one guarantee, mother. The girl may refuse me,” he said. “The sisters have possibly instilled into her mind a portion of their poisonous pride, and in that case, your mind may be at ease. If I do not marry her—I shall not marry at all.”

“What absurd nonsense! That is what all young men threaten!” scoffed Mrs. Howard-Leigh. “I will venture to say that in a year’s time, you will have forgotten the girl’s existence. And now, I also will make a concession. When Miss Ella Mowbray comes to me with a fortune, and a distinguished relation—not a Mowbray—I assure you, on my word of honour, that I will welcome her with open arms.”

“You know you have made a very safe bargain,” said Cecil; “she has not a relative, as far as anyone knows, upon her mother’s side, and as for fortune, her face represents that. Well,” standing up, “we seem to be talking in a circle. You know my mind, mother, and I know yours. I am sorry that with regard to the most important matter in my whole life, we seem to be as far apart as the poles.”

“You will not see her, of course,” said his mother authoritatively.

“On the contrary, my dear mother, I will see her as much and as often as I can. I make no promise,” was his bold and unexpected reply.

Chapter XXIV

Amidst all this seething undercurrent of hopes and fears, of love and pride, and wrath, the preparations for the Duchess’s ball went forward with spirit; and, indeed, the event, the discussion of dress and means of transport, the question of people who had received invitations, and who had not; of those who had been asked to bring others, and found “and party” inscribed on their cards, and those who had no such privilege; amidst all this commotion there was not much space for local gossip, or for thoroughly sifting or thrashing out the great Mowbray-Howard-Leigh campaign. Even Augusta and the Countess were temporarily distracted from the contemplation of their wrongs, by the excitement of preparing to make a fitting appearance on Twelfth Night. Old ball-dresses (still sufficiently fine), had been produced, and critically examined by broad daylight—selections and alterations were made. Ella and a girl from the village were set to work on the necessary repairs.

Poor Cinderella sewed many thoughts into the stitches, and devoutly wished that she, too, was going to the ball—were it but to look on from a doorway. Her sisters graciously assured her that they were not likely to dance much, and would bring home their programmes, and an account of all the dresses—so that she would almost feel as if she had been at the function herself.

“Indeed,” said Augusta, in a sudden burst of good-nature, “if you had had a dress I really think I might have taken you, after all!”

Certainly Ella had grown to be unexpectedly pretty, and perhaps it was a mistake to keep her so much in the background. Lady Brownjohn had, over and over again, dinned into their ears her opinion that the girl’s beauty was so fresh, so exquisite, and so rare, that it was a pity to waste it at home.

Quite early in the evening of the ball the two ladies retired to dress, attended by Ella. She commenced operations with her eldest sister, arranged her hair, put in her diamond stars, fastened her dress, and buttoned her gloves; at last she was finished—and kindly expressed her entire satisfaction with her own appearance. But Ella had still the most difficult task before her—the toilette of Rosabel. On this occasion the Countess’s hair seemed particularly intractable, and had to be taken down no less than three times. In lacing up her gown Ella missed an eyelet-hole and was obliged to begin all over again; but this was not the worst! When half-way through the operation the lace broke! Rosabel, maddened by Augusta’s shrill calls from below stairs of, “Are you never coming, Rosabel?” “ =The cab is waiting!” “We shall be late!” actually stamped her foot, and clenched her hands. If she had only known a good swear word, great would have been her relief. At last the Countess was dressed. Ella attended her to the hall—her labours ended; here she critically surveyed her two sisters and their toilettes—the result of her handiwork. They really made a brave appearance; their gowns were fashionable and up-to-date, their jewels splendid, their complexions brilliant—it seemed extraordinary to see two such magnificent women ensconcing themselves and their finery in the shabby station fly, and they were compelled to depart in unfashionably good time “as the driver had another fare.” After they had driven away, Ella, returned upstairs, gathered together scattered finery, tidied the dressing-tables, blew out the candles, and repaired to the drawing-room, where she sat down to rest after her exertions, and to think.

Her reflections were not particularly cheerful; she wished she was twenty; she wished, even more vehemently, that Augusta and Mrs. Howard-Leigh had not quarrelled, and about her, and oh, she wished she might see Cecil—only just once more. What happiness to dance with him to-night! How she envied his partners! What was that? A loud ring at the hall door. She jumped to her feet, and stood, startled, listening. Had they by any chance been upset, and returned? She hurried out into the hall, and was amazed to behold two cloaked figures—not Gussie and Rosabel, but strangers. To her still greater amazement she recognised the Princess Rosengarde, enveloped in a long, fur cloak. She was accompanied by a maid, and behind her stood a manservant, carrying a huge dress basket; outside, in the darkness, she noted the glare of big carriage lamps, and the outline of an equipage, and a pair of horses.

“Come, child. Evans, put down the box and wait in the hall,” and the Princess walked quickly into the drawing-room, noted the dying fire and smoky lamp, shut the door, then, turning to the astonished girl, she said:

“My dear, I have come to take you to the ball. I am the fairy godmother—your aunt, Sybilla Rosengarde! Now,” in reply to an exclamation, “there is no time to be lost—you can talk in the carriage to your heart’s content—not now——”


“But—show us upstairs at once,” interrupted the Princess authoritatively, “and ring for plenty of candles.”

“My sisters do not wish me to go—at least, Augusta said to-night, that she might have allowed it, if I had a dress.”

“Well, I have brought the dress,” announced the visitor; “your sisters’ opinions must now give way to mine. I am your mother’s aunt.”

“My mother’s aunt,” repeated the girl breathlessly.

“Yes, and I intend to claim you—your days as Cinderella are ended. My dear, I was severe with Sybil, I shall probably be indulgent to you; I have heard strange stories of your life here, and will relieve your sisters of your society. I know all about the scene with Mrs. Leigh—oh yes, I really am a witch! and propose to present you to the world to-night, at the Bratton ball, as my niece, adopted daughter, and heiress. It will be a delightful coup de théâtre—will you come with me, Cinderella?”

Ella stared at her companion fixedly, to see if she was in earnest. There was something in the Princess’s expression which swept aside all her fear and reluctance.

“Yes,” she answered, “I will go with you with pleasure,” and tears of excitement stood in her eyes.

In five minutes’ time Cinderella’s toilette had been commenced in Augusta’s room. Jane brought up fresh candles and gazed in speechless adoration and admiration, while her beloved Missy was quickly transformed into a beautiful picture. The Princess’s capable French maid speedily arranged her abundant hair; silk petticoat and stockings were put on, and then the dress—white, spangled with silver, simple but exquisite—a fan and cloak, and gloves were all forthcoming from that same wonderful box. When the attiring was complete Ella gravely contemplated her reflection in the glass (whilst her three companions waited silently). Her colour was brilliant, her eyes were sparkling; surely this was another girl!—she did not recognise herself.

“But how did you manage about the fit?” she asked, turning to the Princess, who sat resting her chin on her hand, her hands on her stick, and contemplated her relative with critical eyes.

Yes, she was certain to create a sensation, this exploit was entirely to the old lady’s taste; a surprise, a satisfaction, a triumph, all in one. How the wicked sisters would stare when they saw Cinderella; also the Prince, and the Prince’s mother—and the neighbours. She had not anticipated that such a poignant sensation had still remained to her in her old age.

“Oh,” answering the question after a long, reflective silence. “ She,” pointing to Jane, “was in the secret. She stole your white school frock—and it went to Paris days ago!”

“I cannot imagine why you are so good to me!” exclaimed Cinderella, as she stepped into the waiting carriage, and took her place beside the Princess. Then the door banged, the horses sprang forward, and they were off, the light from the open hall of the Dower House outlined a watching, waving figure.

“My dear child,” said the Princess, “I am merely, as usual, good to myself—also you are my own kinswoman, and anything I may offer you is in the form of restitution. I treated your mother harshly—though I brought her up as my daughter, I was tyrannical and capricious. You won’t understand what I am talking about, my little country mouse, but I endeavoured to make her a pawn in my game. Her high spirit would not suffer this. She upset the board—that is to say, my plans—and I turned her out in a rage. I regretted this later—but pride tied my tongue—she died—and ever since, I have been groping in the dark for something that I miss!”

Here the Princess paused, and remained silent for a long time; her austere, aristocratic profile being turned steadily away from Ella. “I was given to understand that her baby had died,” she resumed at last, in a husky voice; “I know that it was never spoken of when I met your sisters abroad. Partly a desire to see Sybil’s home and grave brought me to this neighbourhood, where, to my astonishment I found you, my little grand-niece, Cinderella.”

“Oh, I am not really that,” protested the girl, loyal to her sisters. “We are poor, and I am young, and I had never been accustomed, like them, to ease and luxury—and I can’t bear sitting idle, when there is so much to do.”

“But surely you like amusement, and meeting other people of your own age—and having pretty clothes?”

“Yes, I do, indeed, but——”

“But now there will be a change. I touch you with my wand,” here she touched her with her stick, “and you will see a grand transformation scene.”

“Well, really, I feel so happy and excited, as it is, that I could almost fly out of the carriage window.”

“You may fly through the carriage door, for here we are.” As the Princess spoke they came into line between burning flambeaux, and in sight of a brilliantly lit entrance.

“Remember, you are to call me Aunt Sybilla,” she said. “Ah, I see we are rather late, but so much the better—I believe in an effective entrée.”

The ball had already commenced, the state quadrille had taken place; people were sitting round the great room or standing in groups; benched for the evening were Augusta and the Countess; their programmes without a single pencil mark. They, however, found ample amusement in looking on and criticising the other guests, their dress, deportment, and partners.

At the upper end of the ballroom stood the Duchess and some of her house-party. She presented a magnificent appearance, in tomato-coloured velvet, and a high diamond crown. To her entered the Princess, a tall, imperial figure in lace and brocade, wearing an enormous tiara and a chain of pearls the size of eggs—in short, the renowned Rosengarde jewels. She was received by her hostess with much empressement, and immediately introduced her companion, a beautiful sylph in white, with clouds of fair hair.

To the surrounding spectators the girl had a look of Ella Mowbray. When she moved so as to face them directly, it was either an optical delusion, or Ella herself! Yes, Ella—a lovely, shining vision, in white and silver, chaperoned by the Princess Rosengarde—what did it mean?

Everyone seemed to be gazing at her, and the Princess was smiling and chatting to Mrs. Leigh, who seemed to be rather disconcerted; and, yes, bowed to Ella Mowbray, smiled and spoke—what was happening? Was the world coming to an end? There was Ella, being led out for the waltz just beginning, by no less a partner than the Duke of Bolingbroke himself! He was an indefatigable dancer, and his companion proved to be one after his own heart. Malicious eyes now turned to the sisters, and studied them with a stare of unrelenting curiosity. The whisper began to circulate, that the youngest Miss Mowbray had turned out to be the grandniece of the Princess Rosengarde—and certainly the Princess had shown astounding skill in the art of effecting a surprise! From the dim shadows of the Dower House, she had suddenly produced this truly exquisite creature, and had taken away the breath of the county—an almost incredible achievement! The girl’s loveliness, grace, and radiant youthfulness were the theme of every tongue; her dancing was the poetry of motion—partners besieged her. At first, Mrs. Leigh had listened and looked on in a silence as cold as winter. Of course, she was aware that she must succumb to such a victory; the girl was the niece of a Princess—no obscure pauper—also, it was hinted, a great heiress—and it was impossible to close one’s eyes to the fact that hers was a personality of the kind which absorbed and engulfed attention. Mrs. Leigh could see that all the men were at the débutante’s feet; it did not lie in her power to stem the tide of triumph—nor would she. The girl was lovely, simple, yet patrician. She could withdraw her veto without delay—no truer saying was ever inscribed than “Nothing succeeds like success.”

Cecil Leigh had been absent from the ballroom. He was in low spirits, and had been dragged to the function by moral force, sorely against his will; he was now sitting out with one of the Fanes—a sensible, silent companion, who did not demand either small talk or dancing. When they re-entered the ballroom, he became instinctively aware of some great but indescribable change; people were whispering and looking in one direction, and at what? The Duke, during a pause in the waltz, stood at the end of the room with a girl on his arm. The beauty and star of the evening was—Ella Mowbray! In one sweeping glance he caught sight of the two sisters, huddled together and glowering in the background—for, as yet, they were uninformed of the great fact, and the Princess’s relationship to their step-sister; of his mother, who boldly met his eyes, nodded, smiled and beckoned to him with her fan—and as he crossed over to her she thought how handsome and distinguished he looked in his scarlet hunt coat.

“Such a sensation!” she began. “Have you heard that it turns out Ella’s mother was niece to the Princess—her adopted daughter? The girl is her mother’s successor—it—it—makes all the difference, Cecil——”

“To you, mother,” he said, after a moment’s astonished silence, “but not to me. To me, she is just the same; in her old garden frock and shabby shoes. I am going to ask her for a dance.”

Cecil Leigh was figuratively the local Prince—a great prize in the eyes of many girls and their mothers. He went straight over to Ella, and, halting before her, programme in hand, said:

“So, Miss Mowbray, you have come, after all! And you will give me, I hope—those three dances?”

She glanced at him, and blushed deeply—then held out a card, already half covered with names.

“All gone but the next, I see, and the supper dance!”

As he said “the next” the music ceased.

The Duke, a discriminating man, bowed to Ella and thanked her with the gratitude incidental to favours to come—he had the promise of a another waltz—and Cecil Leigh, in the presence of all their little world, succeeded to his place.

It seemed an enchanted moment, as they stood together under a brilliant electric star at the end of the room. The eyes of many were on Cinderella and the Prince, and presently, as the band again struck up, they drifted away to the strains of “First Love Waltz.” So charming was the spectacle, so attractive the youth and good looks of the pair, that many of the dancers paused to watch them.

“Now, do tell me what it all means,” asked Cecil, as later they sat in a secluded corner of the conservatory; “the dress, the ball, and the fairy godmother?”

“Well,” and she laughed—a little breathless laugh; “the Princess appeared, just as in the fairy tale—with the dress, and the carriage; she said she was my own aunt, and brought me here—and here I am; I feel completely dazzled! Oh, I wonder if all my pleasure will fall to pieces when the clock strikes twelve! Do you think I shall find myself back at the Dower House, asleep in an arm-chair in the drawing-room—with the fire and the candles out? Listen!” she added, with a quick gesture, “there is twelve striking now!”

“So it is; and here you remain. It is no dream—you are a beautiful vision from fairyland, but all the same to me—whether in silver, or everyday stuff.”

Cinderella was startled; there was no doubting his earnestness. She looked down, and played with her fan, then she said abruptly:

“Do you know that your mother, who ordered me never to speak to you again, spoke to me to-night herself. What does it mean?”

“It means peace,” he answered; “there has been war between the House and the Court—it means a flag of truce, and perhaps——” his voice sank, and he looked rather white, “an alliance. Cinderella, you know that I don’t value you one pin more, because you happen to be the niece of a Princess. I value you for yourself—but you are so young, you may not yet know your own mind, or your own value; some day, perhaps, you may care for me. Do you think that day will ever come—Princess Cinderella?”

Cinderella dropped her eyes, and gravely studied the marble floor, but made no reply. Then he whispered:

“In six months? I don’t want to hustle you.” No answer.

“Well, then, a year—I will wait a year,” he urged impetuously. “What do you say?”

Ella looked up suddenly, and as she met his appealing eyes a great blush rose, and dyed her cheeks and ears.

“Why, you foolish Cecil Leigh, I do care for you,” she said, “but let me be engaged for a long, long time—-a year, or two, or three——”

The light of triumph flashed over his face, as, leaning forward eagerly, he said:

“At any rate, we will be engaged now,” and, seizing her white gloved hand, he kissed it with fervour.

“I believe this is our dance, Miss Mowbray,” murmured a smart young Lancer, consulting his card, as he stood before them; he was sorry or poor old Cecil—and to spoil such a pretty scene; but he was not going to lose a waltz with a girl who seemed to float on air—a girl who was the beauty of the evening! No, by Jove, not for all the lovers in Christendom! and Cecil, blessing him most heartily, was compelled to rise, and depart in search of his own partner.

Chapter XXV

And so the ball proceeded, the hours wore on, bearing with them delight and disappointment, gaiety, and depression. Our friends from the village of Thorlands appeared to be enjoying themselves conspicuously. The Fanes and the Bellamys had found plenty of partners. Lady Brownjohn, wearing a new black velvet, and all her best ornaments—lost in indiscriminate and uncritical inspection—radiated satisfaction. Sir Thomas had discovered an old officer of his own standing and service; they had been boys together at Addiscombe; floating along on the tide of reminiscences the old comrades were absolutely happy.

The arrangements for the ball were splendid: decorations, lighting, supper and band, were unequalled in perfection; even Mrs. Preedy’s criticisms were silenced. Major Baldwin had taken her in to have refreshments, and she admitted to him, that she had never tasted such iced coffee, and that everything was magnificent.

Major Baldwin had found no opportunity to speak to Ella alone, since the immortal occasion when he had mistaken her sister Augusta for herself. “A nice old gentleman!” It seemed almost incredible, that she could think of him as such; yet he never supposed for a moment that Augusta could have uttered deliberately, what was in all respects, a barefaced lie. Undoubtedly he was five-and-twenty years older than Ella Mowbray—it was rather a long start in life. He had carefully considered and reviewed those of his acquaintance, and married friends, who were older than their wives, and recalled two cases in which there was a great disparity, and yet the couples appeared to jog along happily together. He thought, after all, that he would have a shot; that he would, so to speak, try his luck, but he had arrived at this decision before he was present at the ball at Bratton, where, with the shrewd eye of an experienced man of the world, he made a mental note of many matters.

He had been a witness of the triumphal entrance of the Princess Rosengarde, attended by her grand-niece; and as he subsequently lounged with his back to the wall, and watched Ella floating round the room in the arms of young Leigh—with a sudden flash of light he realised that his case was hopeless.

Whatever prospect he might have had in days when the girl was household drudge, and carrier, now that she had found an important relative (and, it would also seem, an acceptable and suitable lover), his chance was over; his little spark of opportunity had been ruthlessly extinguished. He particularly noticed Cecil Leigh and Ella, as they stood not far from him, during a pause in the dance, eagerly talking together. It needed no wizard to read the story, which was written on their happy faces, and Major Baldwin, with an involuntary sigh, admitted to himself that the young fellow was a far more suitable match for the lovely girl than a little battered officer, a quarter of a century her senior. And as he was something of a philosopher, Major Baldwin accepted the inevitable without further mental struggle; as he stood watching the whirling crowd go by, the eyes of his mind were looking into the past. Once more, he was at a great official ball in the Indian hills, where a charming girl in her teens—as it might be Ella Mowbray—had attracted him more than anyone but herself had ever guessed. The ball was not by any means their first meeting; it was the climax to a short but most interesting acquaintance. She was eighteen, and lately out from home; he was but four-and-twenty, and naturally susceptible. At that very dance, he remembered how he had been almost on the brink of a proposal, only that the band had struck up at a critical moment and drowned his stammering sentences. He remembered, too, how she had given him a flower from her bouquet, and how they had made an appointment to meet one another the next afternoon, and survey a sunset on the snows. But when the next morning came, it brought with it cold and heartless wisdom, which assured him, that to saddle himself with a pretty, penniless wife, would be sheer madness. To marry now, would ruin his future prospects; even to enter into an engagement would be hanging a millstone round his neck. No! With a desperate effort he thrust aside the charming vision of the previous evening, and resolved to withdraw from a dangerous neighbourhood. Long before the afternoon, he sent the lady a hurried note (by coolie) to inform her that he had been suddenly summoned to headquarters—a most ignoble excuse. He had felt ashamed of himself, as he wrote it; he had felt ashamed of himself, as he bumped down the Ghat in the mail tonga, making his escape from a pair of eloquent brown eyes, and a terrible temptation. Was it a punishment for this neglected opportunity, that here, after twenty years, he found the cases reversed! The girl who would then have married him was now the portly and genial wife of a senior army chaplain (and had undoubtedly forgotten him years ago), and the girl whom he would now have married, had been suddenly snatched out of his reach. In his youth, he had chosen life as he saw it, and through the medium of ambition—and now love, and real life, escaped him.

Major Baldwin was recalled from the young lady of the past by finding the young lady of the present pausing for an instant beside him—a girl who had within the last hour dawned upon the social horizon like a summer sunrise, in her young splendour.

“Capital ball,” he said to her, “is it not? You couldn’t have made a better beginning.”

She nodded gaily, and he added:

“I am glad to see you are enjoying yourself. La jeunesse n’a qu’un temps, and I hope you will make the most of it.”

In another moment, she and her partner had been swept back into the whirlpool. As they disappeared, Major Baldwin drew himself up and gave a long but subdued sigh. Then he went out to the buffet and asked for a cigar and a whisky-and-soda, and was presently bowling homewards behind his fast trapper, Dick Turpin.

“Supper, and cotillion—oh no!”

Chapter XXVI

Shortly before the supper-room was opened, Lady Brownjohn made her way to Ella’s sisters, and whilst Sir Thomas convoyed the Countess to refreshments, she remained, and murmured a piece of intelligence into Miss Mowbray’s incredulous ears.

“Sybil, the niece of Princess Rosengarde,” said Augusta, catching her breath in amazement. “I simply don’t believe a word of it. Why, we always understood that she was some old lady’s companion, but nothing more; there must be some mistake.”

“I do not see how that can be, when the Princess comes forward, and declares that the late Mrs. Henry Mowbray, your step-mother—was her own niece.”

“Her own niece!” repeated Augusta, and she opened her eyes wide. “Sybil never mentioned it. How astonishing! Of course, she had always a ladylike, and high-bred air. I wonder Ella has not been to tell me this amazing news herself.”

“I think that her grand-aunt is the person to inform you. It seems that she believed the child was dead—otherwise she would have adopted her long ago; in fact, she told me so herself just now. After all, she is an agreeable old woman, although she does look as if she had swallowed the fender and fire-irons.”

“I wish to goodness she had adopted Ella!” said Augusta, with passionate emphasis.

“Well, she is prepared to make up for lost time now, although I fancy she won’t have her society for long—young Howard-Leigh is a candidate.”

“No,” said Augusta, with a flushed face, “ I will never give my consent to that—never!”

“They went into the library together ten minutes ago,” continued Lady Brownjohn, with ill-concealed complacency, “and, I imagine, it is all arranged. Do let the young people settle such affairs for themselves—Augusta, you had better succumb gracefully to fate.”

“Fate!” echoed Augusta.

“Yes, fate—don’t you see it yourself? Thorlands will go back to a Mowbray.”

“Not with my sanction, and I fancy Mrs. Howard-Leigh will have something to say too—hateful woman! Do look at her, enthroned beside the Duchess, as if she fancied herself to be royalty. These sort of people should stay in their own country, keep to their Republican customs, and not come over, and play at being aristocrats. I will never forgive her for her insolence to me, and I shall take care that Ella never enters her family.”

“My dear Augusta,” protested Lady Brownjohn, “please do not be so dreadfully excitable. I’m sure, when you come to consider matters quietly, you will not stand in the light of the child’s happiness. I warn you, if you do, there will be such an outcry, that you will have to fly the country.”

“I only wish I could fly the country,” she snapped. “I loathe England!”

“For my own part,” continued Lady Brownjohn, “ I think it would be a splendid thing for the Court, to be restored to the Mowbrays.”

“But it won’t,” snapped Gussie. “If the worst comes to the worst, I shall shut up the Dower House, and take Ella abroad.”

“No, no, Augusta—do for once be sensible and accept the good the gods provide. I tell you, candidly, that you will only make yourself ridiculous if you attempt to stand in the way of fate, as represented by the old Princess. Now here comes Sir Thomas; I see he has been telling Rosabel, and she looks quite pleased. Now you must let him take you in to supper, and give you some good advice and a glass of champagne. Major Bellamy will look after me.”

*  *  *

Thanks to the offices of Lady Brownjohn and the Fanes, nobly reinforced by the two young people, an armistice was arranged between Thorlands Court and the Dower House. Powerless to control the march of events, the combatants apparently forgave one another in a gracious, worldly fashion. For the sake of appearances, they exchanged visiting cards, and teas; but neither side ever forgot the blows and scratches that had been dealt in the Mowbrays’ drawing-room.

Soon after Easter, the Princess Rosengarde went abroad, taking with her her grand-niece, and attended by Cecil Leigh. The good fairy did not approve of boy-and-girl marriages, and Ella was twenty-one, and had seen something of the world when she became Mrs. Howard-Leigh, of Thorlands, for her mother-in-law was weary of the place, and had departed to decorate, improve (and inevitably detest) another fine old family seat.

Augusta Mowbray, although she had felt aggrieved that little Ella should be the future mistress of the Court, was constrained to forgive her, since she had not consented to become Mrs. Baldwin of The Hatch—that she never would have pardoned (moreover, Ella had unconsciously avenged her elder sister—for which service her elder sister was secretly grateful). When her engagement to Cecil Leigh was announced, and Major Baldwin had called at the Dower House to offer his congratulations, he seemed as pleasant, as cheery, and as unconcerned, as if he had never given Ella a thought; and Augusta actually began to cherish an insane hope that he might yet turn to her for consolation! Did he not still continue to offer game, magazines, and hothouse flowers? But alas! after a time—a considerable time, certainly—he unexpectedly succumbed to the attractions of Bessie Bellamy, and Bessie has, by all accounts (even under the microscopic investigations of Mrs. Preedy), made the owner of The Hatch entirely happy.

Augusta now concentrated all her spare affections on Toby—“Toby Baldwin,” as he was generally called. She was devoted to him, and shared with him both chicken and cream, and she carried him with her when she ultimately went abroad. There was no doubt that there was something responsive in their natures, a gentle chord of sympathy, which drew the pair together; perhaps it was because they were both fond of luxury, both ill-tempered, prone to dislike many people, and calmly indifferent to the effect of their sentiments. But whatever was at the root of their affection, no one could deny that the lady and the dog were faithfully attached. Occasionally, to intimates the Countess Tormina would point to Toby, and mysteriously insinuate that a tragic love affair had once been connected with that truculent and unmannerly animal. Yes, his former master had been madly in love with Gussie, but Gussie was so “difficile,” so peculiar! Rosabel was not in her sister’s confidence with regard to this particular incident, and in her sentimental heart, she cherished a belief that Major Baldwin had proposed to Augusta on a certain night in the school-house—where he had been firmly but tenderly refused. Her belief was, moreover, sustained by the fact that for a long time after that historical evening, Major Baldwin’s feelings had been too painful to permit of his visits at the Dower House. In some respects it must be confessed that ignorance is bliss.

When Ella’s future had been arranged, and the Princess had taken possession of her grandniece, the ladies of the Dower House received an annuity, and a release, with respect to their step-sister’s fortune. They returned, with a short delay, to their beloved Italy, where in a certain imposing palace they maintain considerable state, and exhibit their jewels, their smart clothes, and their dignity to some of their former circle.

The ladies are now more prudent; age and experience have brought wisdom. Augusta no longer speculates—although she still hungrily devours the share lists, and hopes against hope with regard to the Airship Company. Rosabel has ceased to make extravagant purchases without first asking their price, and the result is, that they are now enjoying what are called “easy circumstances.” The ladies play bridge; they play at being somebodies, and are contented with their lot. Whenever they wish to particularly impress strangers, they introduce into the conversation their sister, Mrs. Leigh, of Thorlands Court, and also the Princess Rosengarde, their aunt—their aunt! How proud and gratified the Princess would be!

The Dower House has not been closed, but is well aired and looked after. Jane is caretaker; she has married young Harry, and no doubt they will support one another during their declining years. The bricked-up archway has been pulled down, the ancient well has been filled up. Cecil Leigh has become a busy country gentleman, a J.P., a master of hounds, and a popular landlord. His pretty wife (a most efficient helpmate) has acquired the reputation among the poor, of being “a lady that, despite her grand house, and all her money, is very simple in her tastes, and can always turn her hand to anything.” Each year the Princess Rosengarde visits Thorlands. Although she is now verging on eighty, she is still surprisingly active, and every autumn Ella and her husband spend some weeks on the great Rosengarde estates.

The Brownjohns flourish, as they deserve, and are, as always, the benefactors and confidantes of the entire community. The Fanes also prosper, and Evie is engaged to Captain Prentiss (a match that was made, on dit, at the Court, now the rendezvous of the whole neighbourhood). Yes, there the Bottes are welcomed, and entertained; even the local censor—temporarily indulgent—can find no cause for complaint, unless it be that “the Leighs are very young, and that the wages they pay their cook are positively sinful!”

Possibly the question of wages may yet be submitted to Mrs. Preedy—-more unlikely things have come to pass. And with respect to the other objection, it will be undoubtedly dealt with in due course, by the inevitable hand of Time.

The End