Chapter XX. Ivinghoe Terrace
On an east-windy Friday afternoon Valetta and Fergus were in a crowning state of ecstasy. Rigdum Funnidos was in a hutch in the small garden under the cliff, Begum and two small gray kittens were in a basket under the kitchen stairs, Aga was purring under everybody's feet, Cocky was turning out the guard upon his perch---in short, Il Lido was made as like Silverfold as circumstances would permit. Aunt Ada with Miss Vincent was sitting on the sofa in the drawing-room, with a newly-worked cosy, like a giant's fez, over the teapot, and Valetta's crewel cushion fully displayed. She was patiently enduring a rush in and out of the room of both children and Quiz once every minute, and had only requested that it should not be more than once, and that the door should neither be slammed nor left open.
Macrae and the Silverfold carriage were actually gone to the station, and, oh! oh! oh! here it really was with papa on the box, and heaps of luggage, and here were Primrose and Gillian and mamma and Mrs. Halfpenny, all emerging one after another, and Primrose, looking---oh dear! more like a schoolroom than a nursery girl---such a great piece of black leg below the little crimson skirt; but the dear little face as plump as ever.
That was the first apparent fact after the disengaging from the general embrace, when all had subsided into different seats, and Aunt Jane, who had appeared from somewhere in her little round sealskin hat, had begun to pour out the tea. The first sentence that emerged from the melee of greetings and intelligence was---
'Fly met her mother at the station; how well she looks!'
'Then Victoria came down with you?'
'Yes; I am glad we went to her. I really do like her very much.'
Then Primrose and Valetta varied the scene by each laying a kitten in their mother's lap; and Begum, jumping after her progeny, brushed Lady Merrifield's face with her bushy tail, interrupting the information about names.
'Come, children,' said Sir Jasper, 'that's enough; take away the cats.' It was kindly said, but it was plain that liberties with mamma would not continue before him.
'The Whites?' was Gillian's question, as she pressed up to Aunt Jane.
'Poor Mrs. White died the night before last,' was the return. 'I have just come from Kally. She is in a stunned state now---actually too busy to think and feel, for the funeral must be to-morrow.'
Sir Jasper heard, and came to ask further questions.
'She saw Alexis,' went on Miss Mohun. 'They dressed him in his own clothes, and she seemed greatly satisfied when he came to sit by her, and had forgotten all that went before. However, the end came very suddenly at last, and all those poor children show their southern nature in tremendous outbursts of grief---all except Kalliope, who seems not to venture on giving way, will not talk, or be comforted, and is, as it were, dried up for the present. The big brothers give way quite as much as the children, in gusts, that is to say. Poor Alexis reproaches himself with having hastened it, and I am afraid his brother does not spare him. But Mr. White has bought his discharge.'
'You don't mean it.'
'Yes; whether it was the contrast between Alexis's air of refinement and his private soldier's turn-out, or the poor fellow's patience and submission, or the brother's horrid behaviour to him, Mr. White has taken him up, and bought him out.'
'All because of Richard's brutal speech. That is good! Though I confess I should have let the lad have at least a year's discipline for his own good, since he had put himself into it; but I can't be sorry. There is something engaging about the boy.'
'And Mr. White is the right man to dispose of them.'
No more passed, for here were the children eager and important, doing the honours of the new house, and intensely happy at the sense of home, which with them depended more on persons than on place.
One schoolroom again,' said Mysie. 'One again with Val and Prim and Miss Vincent. Oh, it is happiness!'
Even Mrs. Halfpenny was a delightful sight, perhaps the more so that her rightful dominion was over; the nursery was no more, and she was only to preside in the workroom, be generally useful, wait on my lady, and look after Primrose as far as was needful.
The bustle and excitement of settling in prevented much thought of the Whites, even from Gillian, during that evening and the next morning; and she was ashamed of her own oblivion of her friend in the new current of ideas, when she found that her father meant to attend the funeral out of respect to his old fellow-soldier.
Rockquay had outgrown its churchyard, and had a cemetery half a mile off, so that people had to go in carriages. Mr. White had made himself responsible for expenses, and thus things were not so utterly dreary as poverty might have made them. It was a dreary, gusty March day, with driving rushes of rain, which had played wildly with Gillian's waterproof while she was getting such blossoms and evergreen leaves as her aunt's garden afforded, not out of love for the poor Queen of the White Ants herself, but thinking the attention might gratify the daughters; and her elders moralised a little on the use and abuse of wreaths, and how the manifestation of tender affection and respect had in many cases been imitated in empty and expensive compliment.
'The world spoils everything with its coarse finger,' said Lady Merrifield.
'I hope the custom will not be exaggerated altogether out of fashion,' said Jane. 'It is a real comfort to poor little children at funerals to have one to carry, and it is as Mrs. Gaskell's Margaret said of mourning, something to prevent settling to doing nothing but crying; besides that afterwards there is a wholesome sweetness in thus keeping up the memory.'
Sir Jasper shared a carriage with Mr. White, and returned somewhat wet and very cold, and saying that it had been sadly bleak and wretched for the poor young people, who stood trembling, so far as he could see; and he was anxious to know how the poor girls were after it. It had seemed to him as if Kalliope could scarcely stand. He proved to be right. Kalliope had said nothing, not wept demonstratively, perhaps not at all; but when the carriage stopped at the door, she proved to be sunk back in her corner in a dead faint. She was very long in reviving, and no sooner tried to move than she swooned again, and this time it lasted so long that the doctor was sent for. Miss Mohun arrived just as he had partially restored her, and they had a conversation.
'They must get that poor girl to bed as soon as it is possible to undress her,' he said. 'I have seen that she must break down sooner or later, and I'm afraid she is in for a serious illness; but as yet there is no knowing.'
Nursing was not among Jane's accomplishments, except of her sister Ada's chronic, though not severe ailments; but she fetched Mrs. Halfpenny as the most effective person within reach, trusting to that good woman's Scotch height, strong arms, great decision, and the tenderness which real illness always elicited.
Nor was she wrong. Not only did Mrs. Halfpenny get the half- unconscious girl into bed, but she stayed till evening, and then came back to snatch a meal and say---
'My leddy, if you have no objection, I will sit up with that puir lassie the night. They are all men-folk or bairns there, except the lodger-lady, who is worn out with helping the mother, and they want some one with a head on her shoulders.'
Lady Merrifield consented with all her heart; but the Sunday morning's report was no better, when Mrs. Halfpenny came home to dress Primrose, and see her lady.
'That eldest brother, set him up, the idle loon, was off by the mail train that night, and naething wad serve him but to come in and bid good-bye to his sister just as I had gotten her off into something more like a sleep. It startled her up, and she went off her head again, poor dearie, and began to talk about prison and disgrace, and what not, till she fainted again; and when she came to, I was fain to call the other lad to pacify her, for I could see the trouble in her puir een, though she could scarce win breath to speak.'
'Is Alexis there?'
'Surely he is, my leddy; he's no the lad to leave his sister in sic a strait. It was all I could do to gar him lie down when she dozed off again, but there's sair stress setting in for all of them, puir things. I have sent the little laddie off to beg the doctor to look in as soon as he can, for I am much mistaken if there be not fever coming on.'
'Indeed! And what can those poor children do?'
'That's what I'm thinking, my leddy. And since 'tis your pleasure that the nursery be done awa' wi', and I have not ta'en any fresh work, I should like weel to see the puir lassie through wi' it. Ye'll no mind that Captain White and my puir Halfpenny listed the same time, and always forgathered as became douce lads. The twa of them got their stripes thegither, and when Halfpenny got his sunstroke in that weary march, 'twas White who gave him his last sup of water, and brought me his bit Bible. So I'd be fain to tend his daughter in her sickness, if you could spare me, my leddy, and I'd aye rin home to dress Missie Primrose and pit her to bed, and see to matters here.'
'There's no better nurse in the world, dear old Halfpenny,' said Lady Merrifield, with tears in her eyes. 'I do feel most thankful to you for proposing it. Never mind about Primrose, only you must have your meals and a good rest here, and not knock yourself up.'