Chapter I. A Dispersion
'A telegram! Make haste and open it, Jane; they always make me so nervous! I believe that is the reason Reginald always will telegraph when he is coming,' said Miss Adeline Mohun, a very pretty, well preserved, though delicate-looking lady of some age about forty, as her elder sister, brisk and lively and some years older, came into the room.
'No, it is not Reggie. It is from Lily. Poor Lily! Jasper--- accident---Come.'
'Poor dear Lily! Is it young Jasper or old Jasper, I wonder?'
'If it were young Jasper she would have put Japs. I am afraid it is her husband. If so, she will be going off to him. I must catch the 11.20 train. Will you come, Ada?'
'Oh no; I should be knocked up, and on your hands. The suspense is bad enough at home.'
'If it is old Jasper, we shall see in the paper to-day. I will send it down to you from the station. Supposing it is Sir Jasper, and she wants to go out to him, we must take in some of the children.'
'Oh! Dear little Primrose would be nice enough, but what should we do with that Halfpenny woman? If we had the other girls, I suppose they would be at school all day; but surely some might go to Beechcroft. And mind, Jane, I will not have you overtasking yourself! Do not take any of them without having Gillian to help you. That I stipulate.'
Jane Mohun seemed as if she did not hear as these sentences were uttered at intervals, while she stood dashing off postcards at her davenport. Then she said, on her way to the door---
'Don't expect me to-night. I will send Fanny to ask one of the Wellands to come in to you, and telegraph if I bring any one home with me.'
'But, Jane dear--'
However, the door was shut, and by the time Miss Adeline had reached her sister's room, the ever-ready bag was nearly packed.
'I only wanted to say, dear Jane, that you must give my love to dear Lily. I am grieved---grieved for her; but indeed you must not undertake anything rash.' (A shake of the head, as the shoes went into their neat bag.) 'Do not let her persuade you to stay at Silverfold in her absence. You cannot give up everything here'
'Yes, yes, Ada, I know it does not suit you. Never fear.'
'It is not that, but you are much too useful here to drop everything, especially now every one is away. I would willingly sacrifice myself, but--'
'Yes, I know, Ada dear. Now, good-bye, and take care of yourself, and don't be nervous. It may mean only that young Japs has twisted his little finger.'
And with a kiss, Miss Mohun ran downstairs as fast and lightly as if her years had been half their amount, and accomplished her orders to Fanny---otherwise Mrs. Mount---a Beechcroft native, who, on being left a widow, had returned to her former mistresses, bringing with her a daughter, who had grown up into an efficient housemaid. After a few words with her, Miss Mohun sped on, finding time at the station to purchase a morning paper just come down, and to read among the telegrams---
'COLOMBO, Sept. 3rd.
'Lieutenant-General Sir Jasper Merrifield, G.C.B., has been thrown from his horse, and received severe injuries.'
She despatched this paper to her sister by a special messenger, whom she had captured by the way, and was soon after in the train, knitting and pondering.
At Silverton station she saw the pony carriage, and in it her niece Gillian, a girl not quite seventeen, with brown eyes showing traces of tears.
'Mamma knew you would come,' she said.
'You have heard direct, of course.'
'Yes; Claude telegraphed. The horse fell over a precipice. Papa's leg and three ribs are broken. Not dangerous. That is all it says; and mamma is going out to him directly.'
'I was quite sure she would. Well, Gillian, we must do the best we can. Has she any plans?'
'I think she waited for you to settle them. Hal is come; he wanted to go with her, but she says it will cost too much, and besides, there is his Ordination in Advent.'
'Has she telegraphed to your uncles?'
'To Beechcroft and to Stokesley; but we don't quite know where Uncle Reginald is. Perhaps he will see the paper.'
Gillian's tears were flowing again, and her aunt said---
'Come, my dear, you must not give way; you must do all you can to make it better for your mother.'
'I know,' she answered. 'Indeed, I didn't cry till I sat waiting, and it all came over me. Poor papa! and what a journey mamma will have, and how dreadful it will be without her! But I know that it is horrid of me, when papa and my sisters must want her so much more.'
'That's right---quite right to keep up before her. It does not sound to me so bad, after all; perhaps they will telegraph again to stop her. Did Claude ask her to come out?'
'Oh no! There were only those few words.'
No more could be learnt till the pony stopped at the door, and Hal ran out to hand out his aunt, and beg her privately to persuade his mother to take him, or, if she would not consent to that, at least to have Macrae, the old soldier-servant, with her---it was not fit for her to travel alone.
Lady Merrifield looked very pale, and squeezed her sister close in her arms as she said---
'You are my great help, Jenny.'
'And must you go?'
'Without waiting to hear more?'
'There is no use in losing time. I cannot cross from Folkestone till the day after to-morrow, at night. I must go to London to-morrow, and sleep at Mrs. Merrifield's.'
'But this does not seem to me so very bad.'
'Oh, no, no! but when I get there in three weeks' time, it will be just when I shall be most wanted. The nursing will have told on the girls, and Jasper will be feeling weary of being laid up, and wanting to take liberties.'
'And what will you be after such a journey?'
'Just up to keeping him in order. Come, you have too much sense to expostulate, Jenny.'
'No; you would wear yourself to fiddle-strings if you stayed at home. I only want you to take Hal, or Macrae.'
'Hal is out of the question, I would not interfere with his preparation on any account. Macrae would be a very costly article; and, moreover, I want him to act major-domo here, unless you would, and that I don't dare to hope for.'
'No, you must not, Lily; Ada never feels well here, nor always at Brighton, and Emily would be too nervous to have her without me. But we will take as many children as you please, or we have room for.'
'That is like you, Jenny. I know William will offer to take them in at home, but I cannot send them without Miss Vincent; and she cannot leave her mother, who has had a sort of stroke. Otherwise I should try leaving them here while I am away, but the poor old lady is in no state for it---in fact, I doubt her living long.'
'I know; you have been governess by yourself these last weeks; it will be well to relieve her. The best way will be for us to take Mysie and Valetta, and let them go to the High School; and there is a capital day-school for little boys, close to St. Andrew's, for Fergus, and Gillian can go there too, or join classes in whatever she pleases.'
'My Brownie! Have you really room for all those?'
'Oh yes! The three girls in the spare room and dressing-room, and Fergus in the little room over the porch. I will write to Fanny; I gave her a hint.'
'And I have no doubt that Primrose will be a delight to her aunt Alethea, poor little dear! Yes, that makes it all easy, for in the holidays I know the boys are sure of a welcome at the dear old home, or Hal might have one or two of them at his Curacy.'
The gong sounded for the melancholy dinner that had to go on all the same, and in the midst all were startled by the arrival of a telegram, which Macrae, looking awestruck, actually delivered to Harry instead of to his mistress; but it was not from Ceylon. It was from Colonel Mohun, from Beechcroft: 'Coming 6.30. Going with you. Send children here.'
Never were twenty words, including addresses, more satisfactory. The tears came, for the first time, to Lady Merrifield's eyes at the kindness of her brothers, and Harry was quite satisfied that his uncle would be a far better escort than himself or Macrae. Aunt Jane went off to send her telegram home and write some needful letters, and Lady Merrifield announced her arrangements to those whom they concerned.
'Oh! mamma, don't,' exclaimed Valetta; 'all the guinea-pigs will die.'
'I thought,' said Gillian, 'that we might stay here with Miss Vincent to look after us.'
'That will not do in her mother's state. Mrs. Vincent cannot be moved up here, and I could not lay such a burthen on them.'
'We would be very good,' said Val.
'That, I hope, you will be any way; but I think it will be easier at Rockstone, and I am quite sure that papa and I shall be better satisfied about you.'
'Mayn't we take Quiz!' asked Fergus.
'And Rigdum Funnidos?' cried Valetta.
'And Ruff and Ring?' chimed in Mysie.
'My dear children, I don't see how Aunt Jane can be troubled with any more animals than your four selves. You must ask her, only do not be surprised or put out if she refuses, for I don't believe you can keep anything there.'
Off the three younger ones went, Gillian observing, 'I don't see how they can, unless it was Quiz; but, mamma, don't you think I might go to Beechcroft with Primrose? I should be so much quieter working for the examination there, and I could send my exercises to Miss Vincent; and then I should keep up Prim's lessons.'
'Your aunt Alethea will, I know, like doing that, my dear; and I am afraid to turn those creatures loose on the aunts without some one to look after them and their clothes. Fanny will be very helpful; but it will not do to throw too much on her.'
'Oh! I thought they would have Lois---'
'There would not be room for her; besides that, I don't think it would suit your aunts. You and Mysie ought to do all the mending for yourselves and Fergus, and what Valetta cannot manage. I know you would rather be at Beechcroft, my dear; but in this distress and difficulty, some individual likings must be given up.'
Lady Merrifield looked rather dubiously at her daughter. She had very little time, and did not want to have an argument, nor to elicit murmurs, yet it might be better to see what was in Gillian's mind before it was too late. Mothers, very fond of their own sisters, cannot always understand why it is not the same with their daughters, who inherit another element of inherited character, and of another generation, and who have not been welded together with the aunts in childhood. 'My dear,' she said, 'you know I am quite ready to hear if you have any real reasonable objection to this arrangement.'
'No, mamma, I don't think I have,' said Gillian thoughtfully. 'The not liking always meeting a lot of strangers, nor the general bustle, is all nonsense, I know quite well. I see it is best for the children, but I should like to know exactly who is to be in authority over them.'
'Certainly Aunt Jane,' replied Lady Merrifield. 'She must be the ultimate authority. Of course you will check the younger ones in anything going wrong, as you would here, and very likely there will be more restrictions. Aunt Ada has to be considered, and it will be a town life; but remember that your aunt is mistress of the house, and that even if you do think her arrangements uncalled for, it is your duty to help the others to submit cheerfully. Say anything you please fully and freely in your letters to me, but don't let there be any collisions of authority. Jane will listen kindly, I know, in private to any representation you may like to make, but to say before the children, "Mamma always lets them," would be most mischievous.'
'I see,' said Gillian. 'Indeed, I will do my best, mamma, and it will not be for very long.'
'I hope and trust not, my dear child. Perhaps we shall all meet by Easter---papa, and all; but you must not make too sure. There may be delays. Now I must see Halfpenny. I cannot talk to you any more, my Gillyflower, though I am leaving volumes unsaid.
Gillian found Aunt Jane emerging from her room, and beset by her three future guests.
'Aunt Jane, may we bring Quiz?'
'And Rigdum Funnidos and Lady Rigdum?'
'And Ruff and Ring? They are the sweetest doves in the world.'
'Doves! Oh, Mysie, they would drive your aunt Ada distracted, with coo-roo-roo at four o'clock in the morning, just as she goes off to sleep.'
'The Rigdums make no noise but a dear little chirp,' triumphantly exclaimed Valetta.
'Do you mean the kittens? We have a vacancy for one cat, you know.'
Oh yes, we want you to choose between Artaxerxes and the Sofy. But the Rigdums are the eldest pair of guinea-pigs. They are so fond of me, that I know poor old Funnidos will die of grief if I go away and leave him.'
'I sincerely hope not, Valetta, for, indeed, there is no place to put him in.'
'I don't think he would mind living in the cellar if he only saw me once a day,' piteously pleaded Valetta.
'Indeed, Val, the dark and damp would surely kill the poor thing, in spite of your attentions. You must make up your mind to separation from your pets, excepting the kitten.'
Valetta burst out crying at this last drop that made the bucket overflow, but Fergus exclaimed: 'Quiz! Aunt Jane! He always goes about with us, and always behaves like a gentleman, don't you, Quizzy?' and the little Maltese, who perfectly well understood that there was trouble in the air, sat straight up, crossed his paws, and looked touchingly wistful.
'Poor dear little fellow!' said Aunt Jane; 'yes, I knew he would be good, but Kunz would be horribly, jealous, you see; he is an only dog, and can't bear to have his premises invaded.'
'He ought to be taught better,' said Fergus gravely.
'So he ought,' Aunt Jane confessed; 'but he is too old to begin learning, and Aunt Ada and Mrs. Mount would never bear to see him disturbed. Besides, I really do not think Quiz would be half so well off there as among his own friends and places here, with Macrae to take care of him.' Then as Fergus began to pucker his face, she added, 'I am really very sorry to be so disagreeable.'
'The children must not be unreasonable,' said Gillian sagely, as she came up.
'And I am to choose between Xerxes and Artaxerxes, is it?' said Aunt Jane.
'No, the Sofy,' said Mysie. 'A Sofy is a Persian philosopher, and this kitten has got the wisest face.'
'Run and fetch them,' suggested her aunt, 'and then we can choose. Oh,' she added, with some relief at the thought, 'if it is an object to dispose of Cockie, we could manage him.'
The two younger ones were gratified, but Gillian and Mysie both exclaimed that Cockie's exclusive affections were devoted to Macrae, and that they could not answer for his temper under the separation. To break up such a household was decidedly the Goose, Fox, and Cabbage problem. As Mysie observed, in the course of the search for the kittens, in the make-the-best-of-it tone, 'It was not so bad as the former moves, when they were leaving a place for good and all.'
'Ah, but no place was ever so good as this,' said poor Valetta.
'Don't be such a little donkey,' said Fergus consequentially. 'Don't you know we are going to school, and I am three years younger than Wilfred was?'
'It is only a petticoat school,' said Val, 'kept by ladies.'
'It is; I heard Harry say so.'
'And yours is all butchers and bakers and candlestick makers.'
On which they fell on each other, each with a howl of defiance. Fergus grabbed at Val's pigtail, and she was buffeting him vehemently when Harry came out, held them apart, and demanded if this were the way to make their mother easy in leaving them.
'She said it was a pet-pet-petticoat school,' sobbed Fergus.
'And so it ought to be, for boys that fight with girls.'
'And he said mine was all butchers and bakers and candlestick makers,' whined Valetta.
'Then you'd better learn manners, or they'll take you for a tramp,' observed Harry; but at that moment Mysie broke in with a shout at having discovered the kittens making a plaything of the best library pen-wiper, their mother, the sleek Begum, abetting them, and they were borne off to display the coming glories of their deep fur to Aunt Jane.
Her choice fell upon the Sofy, as much because of the convenience of the name as because of the preternatural wisdom of expression imparted by the sweep of the black lines on the gray visage. Mr. Pollock's landlady was to be the happy possessor of Artaxerxes, and the turbulent portion of the Household was disposed of to bear him thither, and to beg Miss Hacket to give Buff and Ring the run of her cage, whence they had originally come, also to deliver various messages and notes.
By the time they returned, Colonel Mohun was met in the hall by his sister. 'Oh, Reggie, it is too good in you!' were the words that came with her fervent kiss. 'Remember how many years I have been seasoned to being "cockit up on a baggage waggon." Ought not such an old soldier as I to be able to take care of myself?'
'And what would your husband say to you when you got there? And should not I catch it from William? Well, are you packing up the youthful family for Beechcroft, except that at Rotherwood they are shrieking for Mysie?'
'I know how good William and Alethea would be. This child,' pointing to Primrose, who had been hanging on her all day in silence, 'is to go to them; but as I can't send Miss Vincent, educational advantages, as the advertisements say, lie on the side of Rockstone; so Jenny here undertakes to be troubled with the rabble.'
'But Mysie? Rotherwood met me at the station and begged me to obtain her from you. They really wish it.'
'He does, I have no doubt.'
'So does Madame la Marquise. They have been anxious about little Phyllis all the summer. She was languid and off her feed in London, and did not pick up at home as they expected. My belief is that it is too much governess and too little play, and that a fortnight here would set her up again. Rotherwood himself thinks so, and Victoria has some such inkling. At any rate, they are urgent to have Mysie with the child, as the next best thing.'
'Poor dear little Fly!' ejaculated Lady Merrifield; 'but I am afraid Mysie was not very happy there last year.'
'And what would be the effect of all the overdoing?' said Miss Mohun.
'Mysie is tougher than that sprite, and I suppose there is some relaxation,' said Lady Merrifield.
'Yes; the doctors have frightened them sufficiently for the present.
'I suppose Mysie is a prescription, poor child,' said her aunt, in a tone that evoked from her brother---
'Well, Jane,' said Lady Merrifield, 'you know how thankful I am to you and Ada, but I am inclined to let it depend on the letters I get to-morrow, and the way Victoria takes it. If it is really an earnest wish on that dear little Fly's account, I could not withstand old Rotherwood, and though Mysie might be less happy than she would be with you, I do not think any harm will be done. Everything there is sound and conscientious, and if she picks up a little polish, it won't hurt her.'
'Shall you give her the choice?'
'I see no good in rending the poor child's mind between two affections, especially as there will be a very short time to decide in, for I shall certainly not send her if Victoria's is a mere duty letter.'
'You are quite right there, Lily,' said the Colonel. 'The less choice the greater comfort.'
'Well done, sir soldier,' said his sister Jane. 'I say quite right too; only, for my own sake, I wish it had been Valetta.'
'So no doubt does she,' said the mother; 'but unluckily it isn't. And, indeed, I don't think I wish it. Val is safer with you. As Gillian expressed it the other day, "Val does right when she likes it; Mysie does right when she knows it."'
'You have the compliment after all, Jane,' said the Colonel. 'Lily trusts you with the child she doesn't trust!'
There was no doubt the next morning, for Lady Rotherwood wrote an earnest, affectionate letter, begging for Mysie, who, she said, had won such golden opinions in her former visit that it would be a real benefit to Phyllis, as much morally as physically, to have her companionship. It was the tenderest letter that either of the sisters had ever seen from the judicious and excellent Marchioness, full of warm sympathy for Lady Merrifield's anxiety for her husband, and betraying much solicitude for her little girl.
'It has done her good,' said Jane Mohun. 'I did not think she had such a soft spot.'
'Poor Victoria,' said Lady Merrifield, 'that is a shame. You know she is an excellent mother.'
'Too excellent, that's the very thing,' muttered Aunt Jane. 'Well, Mysie's fate is settled, and I dare say it will turn out for the best.'
So Mysie was to go with Mrs. Halfpenny and Primrose to Beechcroft, whence the Rotherwoods would fetch her. If the lady's letter had been much less urgent, who could have withstood her lord's postscript: 'If you could see the little pale face light up at the bare notion of seeing Mysie, you would know how grateful we shall be for her.'
Mysie herself heard her destiny without much elation, though she was very fond of Lady Phyllis, and the tears came into her eyes at the thought of her being unwell and wanting her.
'Mamma said we must not grumble,' she said to Gillian; 'but I shall feel so lost without you and Val. It is so unhomish, and there's that dreadful German Fraulein, who was not at home last time.'
'If you told mamma, perhaps she would let you stay,' returned Gillian. 'I know I should hate it, worse than I do going to Rockstone and without you.'
'That would be unkind to poor Fly,' said Mysie. 'Besides, mamma said she could not have settling and unsettling for ever. And I shall see Primrose sometimes; besides, I do love Fly. It's marching orders, you know.'
It was Valetta who made the most objection. She declared that it was not fair that Mysie, who had been to the ball at Rotherwood, should go again to live with lords and ladies, while she went to a nasty day-school with butchers' and bakers' daughters. She hoped she should grow horridly vulgar, and if mamma did not like it, it would be her own fault!
Mrs. Halfpenny, who did not like to have to separate Mysie's clothes from the rest after they were packed, rather favoured this naughtiness by observing: 'The old blue merino might stay at home. Miss Mysie would be too set up to wear that among her fine folk. Set her up, that she should have all the treats, while her own Miss Gillian was turned over to the auld aunties!'
'Nonsense, nurse,' said Gillian. 'I'm much better pleased to go and be of some use! Val, you naughty child, how dare you make such a fuss?' for Valetta was crying again.
'I hate school, and I hate Rockstone, and I don't see why Mysie should always go everywhere, and wear new frocks, and I go to the butchers and bakers and wear horrid old ones.'
'I wish you could come too,' said Mysie; 'but indeed old frocks are the nicest, because one is not bothered to take so much care of them; and lords and ladies aren't a bit better to play with than, other people. In fact, Ivy is what Japs calls a muff and a stick.'
Valetta, however, cried on, and Mysie went the length of repairing to her mother, in the midst of her last notes and packings, to entreat to change with Val, who followed on tip-toe.
'Certainly not,' was the answer from Lady Merrifield, who was being worried on all sides, 'Valetta is not asked, and she is not behaving so that I could accept for her if she were.'
And Val had to turn away in floods of tears, which redoubled on being told by the united voices of her brothers and sisters that they were ashamed of her for being so selfish as to cry for herself when all were in so much trouble about papa.
Lady Merrifield caught some of the last words. 'No, my dear,' she said. 'That is not quite just or kind. It is being unhappy that makes poor Val so ready to cry about her own grievances. Only, Val, come here, and remember that fretting is not the way to meet such things. There is a better way, my child, and I think you know what I mean. Now, to help you through the time in an outer way, suppose you each set yourself some one thing to improve in while I am away. Don't tell me what it is, but let me find out when I come home.' With that she obeyed an urgent summons to speak to the gardener.
'I shall! I shall,' cried little Primrose, 'write a whole copy-book in single lines! And won't mamma be pleased? What shall you do, Fergus? and Val? and Mysie?'
'I shall get to spin my peg-top so as it will never tumble down, and will turn an engine for drawing water,' was the prompt answer of Fergus.
'What nonsense!' said Val; 'you'd better settle to get your long division sums right.'
'That s girls' stuff,' replied Fergus; 'you'd better settle to leave off crying for nothing.'
'That you had!' said several voices, and Val very nearly cried again as she exclaimed: 'Don't be all so tiresome. I shall make mamma a beautiful crewel cushion, with all the battles in history on it. And won't she be surprised!'
'I think mamma meant more than that,' said Mysie.
'Oh, Mysie, what shall you do?' asked Primrose.
'I did think of getting to translate one of mamma's favourite German stories quite through to her without wanting the dictionary or stumbling one bit,' said Mysie; 'but I am sure she meant something better and better, and I'm thinking what it is---Perhaps it is making all little Flossie Maddin's clothes, a whole suit all oneself---Or perhaps it is manners. What do you think, Gill?'
'I should say most likely it was manners for you,' volunteered Harry, 'and the extra you are most likely to acquire at Rotherwood.'
'I'm so glad,' said Mysie.
'And you, Gill,' inquired Primrose, 'what will you do? Mine is a copy-book, and Fergus's is the spinning-top-engines, and rule of three; and Val's is a crewel battle cushion and not crying; and Mysie's is German stories and manners; and what's yours, Gill?'
'Gill is so grown up, she is too good to want an inside thing' announced Primrose.
'Oh, Prim, you dear little thing,' cried both elder brother and sister, as they thought with a sort of pang of the child's opinion of grown-up impeccability.
'Harry is grown up more,' put in Fergus; 'why don't you ask him?'
'Because I know,' said Primrose, with a pretty shyness, and as they pressed her, she whispered, 'He is going to be a clergyman.'
There was a call for Mysie and Val from upstairs, and as the younger population scampered off, Gillian said to her brother---
'Is not it like "occupy till I come"?'
'So I was thinking,' said Harry gravely. 'But one must be as young as Mysie to throw one's "inside things" into the general stock of resolutions.'
'Yes,' said Gillian, with uplifted eyes. 'I do---I do hope to do something.'
Some great thing was her unspoken thought---some great and excellent achievement to be laid before her mother on her return. There was a tale begun in imitation of Bessie Merrifield, called "Hilda's Experiences". Suppose that was finished, printed, published, splendidly reviewed. Would not that be a great thing? But alas, she was under a tacit engagement never to touch it in the hours of study.