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Title: Fernley House
Author: Richards, Laura Elizabeth Howe, 1850-1943
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Fernley House" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



FERNLEY HOUSE



BOOKS FOR GIRLS

By Laura E. Richards


_The_ MARGARET SERIES

        Three Margarets
        Margaret Montfort
        Peggy
        Rita
        Fernley House


_The_ HILDEGARDE SERIES

        Queen Hildegarde
        Hildegarde's Holiday
        Hildegarde's Home
        Hildegarde's Neighbors
        Hildegarde's Harvest

        DANA ESTES & COMPANY
        Publishers
        Estes Press, Summer St., Boston

[Illustration: "HUGH AND MARGARET, ALL UNCONSCIOUS OF HER SCRUTINY, WERE
ENJOYING THEMSELVES EXTREMELY."]



FERNLEY HOUSE

BY
LAURA E. RICHARDS

AUTHOR OF "CAPTAIN JANUARY," "MELODY," "QUEEN HILDEGARDE," "GEOFFREY
STRONG," ETC.

Illustrated by
ETHELDRED B. BARRY

[Illustration]

        BOSTON
        DANA ESTES & COMPANY
        PUBLISHERS



        _Copyright, 1901_
        BY DANA ESTES & COMPANY

        _All rights reserved_

        FERNLEY HOUSE

        Colonial Press
        Electrotyped and Printed by C. H. Simonds & Co.
        Boston, Mass., U.S.A.



CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                                                           PAGE

      I. A DUET                                                       11

     II. MRS. PEYTON'S COMPANION                                      23

    III. AN ARRIVAL                                                   33

     IV. UNCLE JOHN'S IDEA                                            46

      V. A VISION                                                     58

     VI. ALI BABA                                                     70

    VII. MORE ARRIVALS                                                86

   VIII. HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF                                      100

     IX. ABOUT NOTHING IN PARTICULAR                                 114

      X. GRACE'S SYSTEM                                              128

     XI. THE MYSTERIES OF FERNLEY                                    143

    XII. THE EGG OF COLUMBUS                                         161

   XIII. IN THE TWILIGHT                                             168

    XIV. THE FIRE                                                    183

     XV. JEWELS: AND AN AWAKENING                                    195

    XVI. FOR AULD LANG SYNE                                          205

   XVII. IN THE GARDEN                                               217

  XVIII. UNCLE JOHN'S BIRTHDAY                                       225



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


                                                                    PAGE
  "HUGH AND MARGARET, ALL UNCONSCIOUS OF HER SCRUTINY,
    WERE ENJOYING THEMSELVES EXTREMELY"                    _Frontispiece_

  "MARGARET DID THE HONORS, STILL FEELING VERY SHY"                   29

  "AT THIS MOMENT POLLY APPEARED, RED-CHEEKED AND BREATHLESS"         33

  "SHE WAS A SLENDERER PEGGY, WITH THE SAME BLUE, HONEST EYES"        86

  "SHE LOOKED UP, AND SAW GRACE SITTING ON A BROAD, LOW BRANCH"      137

  "ON THE SECOND LANDING THEY PAUSED TO SALUTE THE OLD PORTRAITS"    148

  "A TALL, SLENDER FIGURE HALF RAN, HALF TOTTERED INTO THE ROOM"     181

  "'I PROPOSE . . . THE HEALTH OF THE BEST MAN . . . THAT LIVES
    UPON THIS EARTH TO-DAY; . . . THE HEALTH OF MY UNCLE JOHN!'"     238



FERNLEY HOUSE



CHAPTER I.

A DUET


"Well, Margaret!"

"Well, Uncle John!"

"Not a word to throw at a dog, as Rosalind says?"

"You are not a dog, Uncle John. Besides, you know all about it without
my saying a word, so why should I be silly, and spoil your comfortable
cigar? Dear children! They will have a delightful time, I hope; and of
course it is perfectly right that they should go to their father when he
wants them; and--the summer will pass quickly."

"Very quickly!" Mr. Montfort assented, watching his smoke rings float
upward.

"And Peggy is coming; and--oh, we shall be all right, of course we
shall; only--we do miss them, don't we, Uncle?"

"I should think we did! A house is a poor place without children; and we
flatter ourselves that our two--eh, Margaret?"

"Oh, they are the dearest children in the world," said Margaret with
conviction. "There is no possible doubt about that."

She sighed, and took up her work; Mr. Montfort blew smoke rings and
watched them melt into the air. There was an interval of sympathetic
silence.

The children, Basil and Susan D., Margaret's cousins, had hardly been
gone two hours, yet the time seemed already long to Margaret Montfort.
Fernley House, which only this morning had been so running over with joy
and sunlight, and happy noise and bustle, seemed suddenly to have become
a great empty barrack, full of nothing but silence. Margaret, after
putting away, sadly enough, the things that the children had left about,
had been glad to join her uncle on the pleasant back verandah that
overlooked the garden.

Fernley was in the full glory of early summer. The leaves were still
young, and too soft to rustle in the gently moving air; the laburnums
and honey-locusts were in blossom, and the bees came and went,
heavy-laden. The sombre, trailing branches of the great Norway spruces
touched the smooth green turf, starred here and there with English
daisies. Farther back, the tulip-trees towered stately, and the elm
branches swept the crest of the tall box hedges.

Margaret's eyes kept wandering from her work. How could she stitch, when
things were looking like this? There was the oriole, swinging on the
bough beside his nest, pouring out his song, "Joy! joy! joy!" The eggs
might be hatched to-day. Basil had begged her to promise that she would
let neither cat nor squirrel meddle with the young birds. What should
she do, if she saw a cat up there, forty feet from the ground? Dear
Basil! he never could understand why she could not climb trees as well
as he and Susan D. Dear Basil! dearest of boys! how nice he looked in
his new blue suit; and who would mend the first "barndoor" that he tore
in jacket or trousers?

And little Susan D.! the warm clasp of her arms seemed still about
Margaret's neck, in that last strangling hug of parting. She had grown
so dear, the little silent child! "I will be good," she whispered.
"Cousin Margaret, I will try not to die without you, and I will remember
the things you told me about papa; but don't make me stay very long,
because I haven't got enough goodness to last very long, you know I
haven't."

Margaret was roused from her reverie by her uncle's voice.

"When did you say Peggy was coming, my dear?"

"Next week, Uncle John. School closes on the eighteenth. Dear little
Peggy! think of her being a senior! it seems hardly possible. She is
afraid I shall tell her to put her hair up; I certainly shall not, at
least while she is here. I am sure you prefer the pigtail, don't you,
Uncle John?"

"Yes! oh, yes!" said Mr. Montfort, abstractedly. "Pigtail--yes, by all
means. And how will you and Peggy amuse yourselves, my dear? No Rita
this summer to electrify us all. You will not find it dull?"

"Dull, Uncle John? how could Fernley possibly be dull? Why, Peggy and I
are going to be as happy as possible. I have all kinds of plans made.
You see, it is time Peggy was learning something about housekeeping and
that sort of thing, and I thought this summer would be the very best
time to show her a little. Of course, when she is at home, she wants to
be doing twenty thousand things on the farm, just as she always has
done, and the time goes so quickly, she has not begun to think yet about
the indoor things; so I am going to be the Humdrum-major, Uncle, and
give her some lessons; if you approve, that is."

"Highly, my dear, highly. Every woman should be able to take care of her
own house, and the only way for her to learn is to begin upon some one
else's. I should think Peggy might make a vigorous little housekeeper,
if a chaotic one. Don't let her loose in the library, Margaret, that is
my only prayer."

"Uncle John, I really do believe that you think housekeeping consists
entirely in dusting and setting things to wrongs, as you call it."

"Well, my love, I confess that has always seemed to me a prime element
in the art. But I also confess my ignorance, and the depth and darkness
thereof. Am I humble enough? Now I must go and take the puppies for an
airing. Till dinner-time, May Margaret!"

Mr. Montfort strolled away, and Margaret bent with renewed energy over
her work, giving herself a little shake as she did so. Her uncle's words
still sounded in her ears: "You will not find it dull?" She had answered
out of the fulness of her heart, thinking it impossible that dulness
should come where Uncle John was, especially as he happened to be at
Fernley House, the most enchanting place in the world. Yet--and yet--it
was going to be very, very different, of course, from the life of the
past year, so filled full and running over with delight. It was not only
that she missed the children; it was that in the care of them, the
watching over the growing bodies and the eager minds, she was learning
so much herself, feeling the world grow, almost hourly, bigger and
brighter and sweeter. The mother-nature was strong in Margaret Montfort,
and the children were bringing out all that was best and strongest in
her. Well, she must do without that now for awhile; and there was no
doubt that the prospect seemed a little flat, even with Peggy to
brighten it. Dear Peggy! Margaret loved her fondly; but she was so grown
up now, so strong herself, so helpful and self-reliant, that there was
no question of taking care of her any more. "Why, she knows twenty times
as much as I do," said Margaret, "about most things, except history. I
don't suppose she will ever remember the difference between Mary Stuart
and Mary Tudor. But, foolish creature," cried Margaret to herself, "what
have you just been saying to Uncle John? Here is all the world of
housekeeping, about which Peggy knows little or nothing, and which,
thanks to Elizabeth and Frances, you do begin to understand a little. Is
it a small thing, I ask you, to teach the qualities and fine shades of
damask, and the high-lights of huckaback? or the different cuts of meat,
and when what is in season? I am ashamed of you, Margaret Montfort! And
then there are the puppies, too! Don't let me hear another word of
dulness from you, miss, do you hear? Perhaps you would like to be
weaving cotton in a factory this heavenly day, or selling yards of hot
stuffs in a shop? Go away!" and Margaret shook her head severely, and
was surprised at herself.

The puppies were two fine young setters, Nip and Tuck by name, which the
wise uncle had bought on purpose to soften the blow of the parting with
the children. Margaret had never known dogs before, and though Messrs.
Nip and Tuck were being strictly trained, and had to spend much of their
time in the stable-yard, she still had many a pleasant half-hour with
them, when her uncle took them for a run over hill and dale, or gave
them a lesson in the garden. Her one anxiety was lest they should meet
the Queen of Sheba, her great Angora cat, and there should be trouble;
for the Queen was a person of decided temper. Margaret had taken
infinite pains, ever since the arrival of the puppies, to keep them out
of one another's sight; but Mr. Montfort warned her that she was merely
putting off the inevitable, and that the day must come when cat and dogs
should meet.

It seemed a little hard that this meeting must take place when the
master was not present; but the finger of Fate pointed, and at this very
moment, while Margaret was sitting with her peaceful thoughts, Michael,
the stable-boy, chanced to drop the leash in which he was leading the
puppies to their master. Three minutes later, Nip and Tuck were
careering wildly around Margaret, leaping on her with frantic caresses,
and talking both at once, and very loud, as dear dogs will sometimes do.

"Down, Nip!" cried Margaret. "Tucky, do behave yourself. Now, boys,
however did you get away? Charge, do, like dear boys, and wait for the
master; he will be here in a minute."

Nip and Tuck explained breathlessly that they had just got out by the
luckiest chance in the world, that they loved her to distraction, and
that, upon the whole, they preferred her society to that of any one else
in the world, if only she would let them lick her nose. This Margaret
firmly refused to do, and they lay down panting for a moment, but only
for a moment. Again the finger of Fate pointed; and so it came to pass
that as Mr. Montfort came round one corner in search of his run-aways,
the Queen of Sheba came round the other. There seemed but one white
flash as the two puppies, recognizing their destiny on the instant, flew
to meet it, yelling like demons of the pit.

"Oh, Uncle John!" cried Margaret, starting up in distress. "My poor
Queen! my poor Sheba! they will--"

"I wouldn't worry, Margaret," said Mr. Montfort. "Sheba can take care of
herself, if I am not greatly mistaken."

The great cat stiffened herself into a bristling bow, and waited the
charge with gleaming eyes. The dogs' frenzied rush carried them within a
foot of her whiskers, and there they stopped. This was not what they had
looked for. They had seen cats before, and had chased them, with
infinite joy; their mother had taught them that cats were made to be
chased, with a special eye to the healthful amusement of good little
dogs. But this furry, glaring creature, radiating power and
menace,--could this be a cat?

Nip and Tuck put their heads on one side and considered. The Queen of
Sheba advanced one step, slowly; the puppies retired, too, and sat down,
wagging their tails. Perhaps, after all, it was a kind of dog; their
minds were cheerfully open to new impressions, and they were full of
good will toward all creation. Perceiving their innocence, the Queen of
Sheba, who had seen many generations of puppies, lowered her warlike
arch, and, sitting down opposite them, proceeded to wash herself
elaborately. Nip and Tuck looked on with open-mouthed admiration.
Presently Tuck, who was a bold dog, gave a short bark of decision, and,
stepping forward, began with infinite politeness to assist in the
washing. Sheba received the attention with regal condescension. Five
minutes later, all three walked off together, rubbing sides cordially,
and presumably in quest of rats.

Margaret drew a long breath. "Did you ever see anything like that?" she
cried. "Look, Uncle John; they are talking to one another; you can
almost hear the words. Isn't it wonderful?"

"Very pretty," said Mr. Montfort. "Now they'll be friends for life,
you'll see. Sheba will be of great assistance in their education. It
takes an intelligent cat to understand puppies, and Sheba is a
remarkably intelligent cat. Well, May Margaret, and now shall we take
our four-legged children for a walk?"

"Oh, Uncle John, I was so afraid you were not going to ask me! Will you
wait just half a minute while I get my hat? and on the way back I will
stop and see Mrs. Peyton. I have not been there since the dogs came or
the children went, and I ought to be ashamed."

Margaret ran up-stairs lightly, saying to herself as she ran, "Dull,
with that man? and Peggy and the puppies beside? Margaret Montfort, I
_am_ ashamed of you!"



CHAPTER II.

MRS. PEYTON'S COMPANION


"Dear me!" said Mrs. Peyton. "Here is Patience, down off her monument,
come all this way to smile at Grief! I am Grief, my dear; allow me to
introduce myself. Well, Margaret, and how do you get on without your
brats--I beg pardon! I mean your pets?"

"As well as could be expected," said Margaret, lightly, as she stooped
to kiss the ivory forehead. Mrs. Peyton was charming, but one did not
confide one's troubles to her. "We are behaving beautifully, Mrs. Peyton.
Not only have we dried our tears and hung our pocket-handkerchiefs
out to dry, but we have set up some new pets already."

"Not more children? Not another set of 'The Orphans of Fernley,' bound
in blue denim? That would be unendurable."

"No; four-legged pets this time. We have two dogs, Mrs. Peyton;
beautiful Gordon setters. I hope you are fond of dogs."

"Oh!--dogs? Yes, I like dogs. As a rule I like them better than
two-legged torments. You are a two-legged torment, Margaret, when you
move about the room in that exasperatingly light-footed manner. I don't
suppose you actually do it to make me feel my helplessness, but it has
that effect. Do sit down! you are not a bird. And don't, for pity's
sake, look patient! If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is to see
people look patient when I insult them. If I had only known--but John
Montfort always did like to thwart me, it's his nature--if I had only
known, I say, that those brats of yours were going away, I need not have
set up a menagerie of my own. It's too late now, the creature's coming."

"What do you mean, Mrs. Peyton?" asked Margaret, always prepared for any
whim of her whimsical neighbor. "Are you setting up a dog too?"

"No! nothing half so comfortable as a dog. A fox, or wolf, or hyena, or
something of that kind. Don't be stupid, Margaret; I am not up to
explanations to-day. A companion, simpleton! A Miss Fox or Miss Wolfe, I
can't remember which. I don't _think_ it was Miss Hyena, but it might
be. It's an unusual name, but she is recommended as an unusual person."

"Mrs. Peyton! you said you never would try it again. And you know I am
always ready to come and read to you."

"I know you are a little Fra Angelico angel, with your halo laid in your
top bureau drawer among your collars, for fear people should see it; but
I have a little scrap of conscience about me somewhere,--not much, only
about a saltspoonful,--and if you came every day it would get up and
worry me, and I can't be worried. Besides, the doctor ordered it,
positively."

"Doctor Flower? has he been out again?"

"Yes, he came on Monday. I thought I was going to die, and wanted him to
see how prettily I should do it. I'll never send for him again; he
always tells me to get up and do things. Tiresome man! I told him I was
perfectly exhausted by simply listening to him for half an hour. He
replied by ordering this Miss Fox, or whoever she is. I am to try her
for a month; I sha'n't probably keep her a week."

"A nurse?"

"No, not a trained nurse. She means to be one, goes to the hospital in
the autumn. He thinks she has a gift, or something. I detest people with
a gift. Probably she has a squint, too. You will have to receive her
when she comes, Margaret, and take the edge off her. I fancy her
unendurable, but I promised to try; I really must be going to die, I am
growing so amiable. Which of my gems do you want? I am going to make my
will this time. You needn't laugh, Margaret Montfort."

"I was laughing at your dying of amiability, Mrs. Peyton!" said
Margaret. "When is this young lady--I suppose she is young, if she is
going to study nursing--when is she coming?"

"To-morrow, I believe; or is it to-day? where is the note? Tuesday! Is
this Tuesday? It cannot be."

"Yes, this is Tuesday, and the three o'clock train--I suppose that is
the train she will come by--must be in by this time. Hark! there are
wheels this moment. Can she be coming now, Mrs. Peyton?"

"My dear, it would be exactly like the conception I have formed of her.
Go down and see her, will you, Margaret? Tell her I have a headache, or
Asiatic cholera, or anything you like. I cannot possibly see her to-day.
Her name is Fox--or Wolfe, I can't remember which. Bless you, child! you
save my life. Show her the Calico Room. Hand me the amethyst rope before
you go; I must compose my nerves."

With a smile and a sigh, Margaret ran down-stairs, and met the newcomer
on the doorstep. A tall, pale, grave-looking girl, with deep-set blue
eyes, and smooth bands of brown hair--a rather remarkable-looking
person, Margaret thought.

"Miss Fox?" she said, hurriedly, holding out her hand. "Oh, how do you
do? Pray come in. Mrs. Peyton asked me to receive you,--I am a friend
and neighbor,--and show you your room and make you comfortable. She has
a bad headache, and does not feel able to welcome you herself."

She led the way into the dining-room, and rang the bell. "You will have
lunch?" she said, "or would you rather have tea?"

"Tea, please," said the stranger; and her voice had a deep, musical
note, that fell pleasantly on Margaret's ear.

"I am sorry Mrs. Peyton is unable to see me. Is it a real headache, or
doesn't she want to?"

Margaret colored and hesitated. The blue eyes looked straight into hers
with a compelling gaze; a gleam of comprehension seemed to lurk in their
depths. Margaret was absolutely truthful, and, consequently, was
sometimes at a loss when speaking of her invalid friend.

"Doctor Flower told me somewhat about her," Miss Fox went on. "He
thinks--he wants me to rouse her to effort."

She spoke so quietly, her whole air was one of such calm and repose,
that Margaret looked at her wonderingly.

[Illustration: "MARGARET DID THE HONORS, STILL FEELING VERY SHY."]

"If Doctor Flower has explained the case to you," she said, at last,
"you probably know more about it than I do. Mrs. Peyton often seems to
suffer a great deal. She is fanciful, too, no doubt, at times; I
suppose most invalids are."

"I have just been staying with a woman who had had both feet cut off by
a train," said Miss Fox, tranquilly. "She was not fanciful."

It was a relief when the tea came. Margaret did the honors, still
feeling very shy, she could not tell why, before this grave person, who
could not be more than a year or two older than herself.

"Have you come far to-day, Miss Fox?" she asked, for the sake of saying
something. The stranger put her head on one side, and gave her a quaint
look. "Any addition to one's personal menagerie is always interesting,"
she said; "but one has one's favorites in the Zoo. If it is not taking a
liberty--why Fox?"

Margaret started, and blushed violently. "I _beg_ your pardon," she
said. "Mrs. Peyton was not sure--she could not remember--is it Miss
Wolfe, then? I hope you will forgive me, Miss Wolfe!"

"Please don't," said Miss Wolfe. She smiled for the first time, and
Margaret thought she had never seen so sweet a smile. "It is not your
fault that I am philologically quadruped, surely. So long as I am not
called Zebra, I really don't mind. I always associate Zebra with Zany,
don't you know? they were in my Alphabet together. But you were saying
something which I was rude enough to interrupt."

"I only asked if you had come far."

"Not very far, if you put it in miles; only from New York; if you mean
by impressions, a thousand leagues. It is at least that from that
maelstrom to this quiet green place. How should one have nerves in a
place like this? To sit here in peace and turn slowly into a
lettuce--that would be the natural thing; but life is not natural, if
you have observed."

Margaret laughed. "Mrs. Peyton is certainly not in the least like a
lettuce; I don't know whether you see any signs of the change in me; I
have only been here two years, though."

Miss Wolfe surveyed her critically. "N--no!" she said, slowly. "I see
nothing indicating lettuce--as yet. You are cool and green--no offence,
I hope! I pay you one of the highest compliments I know of when I call
you green; it is the color of rest and harmony; cool and green enough,
and pleasantly wavy in your lines, but you have too much expression as
yet, far too much. Placidity--absence of emotion--that is what
superinduces the lettuce habit." She waved her hand gracefully, and
seemed to fall into a reverie. Margaret surveyed her in growing wonder.

At this moment Mrs. Peyton's bell rang violently; and presently a maid
appeared to say that her mistress was feeling better, and would see the
lady now. Miss Wolfe rose and glanced significantly at Margaret.
"Curiosity overcomes distaste!" she said. "Are you coming?"

"No," said Margaret. "I think I'd better not. I will slip away quietly.
But I shall see you soon again. I will run over this evening, perhaps;
and you must come over to Fernley whenever Mrs. Peyton can spare you. It
is very near, just across the park."

"Fernley!" repeated Miss Wolfe, pausing and looking at Margaret with an
altered expression.

"Fernley House, Mr. Montfort's place. That is where I live. Why--I have
never introduced myself all this time, have I? I am Mr. Montfort's
niece; my name is Montfort, too, Margaret Montfort."

"Oh, my prophetic soul! my aunt!" exclaimed Miss Wolfe. "I beg your
pardon; nothing of the sort. I am somewhat mad at times. Good morning,
Miss Montfort; I am glad to know you. To be continued in our next!"

She nodded, kissed her hand gravely to Margaret, and turning, followed
the maid up-stairs.

Margaret looked after her for a moment in amazement. "What a _very_
extraordinary girl!" she said. "She seemed to know my name. I wonder
how."

She paused, shook her head, then went soberly home across the park,
wondering how the new venture would turn out.

[Illustration: "AT THIS MOMENT POLLY APPEARED RED-CHEEKED AND
BREATHLESS."]



CHAPTER III.

AN ARRIVAL


"What can the dogs be barking at, Elizabeth?" asked Margaret, looking up
from the table-cloth she was examining. "I'm afraid they have got a
squirrel again."

"I thought I heard the sound of wheels, Miss," said the sedate
Elizabeth, who had just entered, her arms full of shining damask. "Just
as I was coming up the stairs, Miss Margaret. I told Polly run and see
who it was, and send 'em away if they was a tramp. It do be mostly
tramps, these days; Frances says she'll poison the next one, Miss, but
she always feeds 'em so as they go off and send all their friends."

At this moment Polly appeared, red-cheeked and breathless. A gentleman
was below, asking for Mr. Montfort, and she couldn't find Mr. Montfort
nowhere in the house; so then he said could he see Miss Margaret?

"Is it any one I know, Polly?" asked Margaret.

"I don't know, Miss Marget; I niver see him. A lame gentleman with a
crutch; he looks just lovely!" added Polly, with effusion.

"Miss Margaret didn't ask you how he looked, Polly!" said Elizabeth,
severely. "You let your tongue run away with you."

"Tell him I will be down directly, Polly," said Margaret.

"Now, Miss Margaret, do you think you'd better?" asked Elizabeth. "If
it's not a tramp--"

"Indeed, and he's no tramp!" broke in Polly, indignantly. "He's a
gentleman, if ever I see one, Miss Margaret; and him in lovely white
clothes and all, just like young Mr. Pennyfeather as was here last
year."

"Polly, will you learn to speak when you are spoken to, and not
interrupt your elders?" demanded Elizabeth. "If he's not a tramp, I was
saying, Miss Margaret, he's likely an agent of some kind, and why
should you be annoyed, with all the linen to go over? He can call again,
most likely."

Elizabeth spoke with some feeling under her grave and restrained words.
The examination of the house-linen was to her mind the most important
event of the week, and already they had been disturbed once by a sudden
incursion of the dogs, bringing a dead squirrel.

"No, Elizabeth," said Margaret, "I must go down. Tell the gentleman I
will be down directly, Polly; show him into the library, please. Dear
Elizabeth, you can finish the table-cloths just as well without me. You
always did it before I came."

"Not at all, Miss," said Elizabeth, with patient resignation; "you'll
find me in the sewing-room, Miss, whenever you are ready for me. It's
best that you should go over the things yourself, and then you will be
satisfied, and no mistakes made."

Margaret nodded, with a little inward sigh over the rigidity of
Elizabeth's ideal of a perfect housekeeper; patted her hair hurriedly to
make sure that it was neat, confirmed the pat by a glance in the
mirror, and went quickly down-stairs.

A tall, slender figure rose, leaning on a stick, as she entered the
library. "What a sad face!" was Margaret's first thought; but, when the
stranger smiled, it changed to "What a beautiful one!"

"Cousin Margaret?" said the young man, inquiringly.

"Yes--I am Margaret," said the girl. "But who--oh! are you--can it be
Peggy's Hugh? It is, I see. Oh, how do you do, Cousin? I am so very,
very glad to see you."

They shook hands cordially, scanning each other with earnest and
friendly eyes.

"I should have known you, of course, from your picture, if not from
Peggy's ardent descriptions," said Hugh Montfort.

"And I ought to have known you, surely," cried Margaret; "only, not
knowing you were in this part of the country, you see--"

"Uncle John did not get my letter? It ought to have reached him some
days ago. I was coming on to Cambridge, and wrote as soon as I started.
No wonder you were surprised, being hailed as cousin by an unheralded
vagabond with a stick."

"Oh, why do you stand?" cried Margaret. "Sit down, Cousin Hugh; to think
of its being really you; I have wanted to see and know you ever
since--oh, for ever so long. Hark! there comes Uncle John now. How
delighted he will be!"

"Margaret, my dear!" called Mr. Montfort from the hall. "I have just had
a letter--most surprising thing--from--hallo! what's all this? Hugh, my
dear fellow, I'm delighted to see you. Got here before your letter, eh?
How did that happen? Never mind, so long as you are here now. Well,
well, well! sit down here, and let me look at you. This is a pleasure
indeed. Your father's eyes; I should know them in a Chinaman; not that
you look like a Chinaman. How are they all at home? How's your father?
When did you leave home? Have you had anything to eat? What would you
like? Margaret, my dear, get Hugh something to eat, he's probably
starved."

Hugh laughingly disclaimed starvation, and begged to wait till their
tea-time. "I am not hungry, truly I am not," he said. "There is so much
to say, too, isn't there, Uncle John? Father is very well and hearty. I
have a pipe for you in my bag. I brought a bag with me; do you suppose
you could put me up for a few days, Uncle?"

Reassured by Mr. Montfort's earnest assurance that he should keep him
all summer, Hugh leaned back in his chair, and looked about him with
eager eyes.

"This is the library!" he said. "Uncle John, ever since I learned to
read, one of my dreams has been to see this room. Father has always told
us about it, and where his favorite books were, and where you all used
to sit when you came here to read."

He rose and, crossing the room, took a book from a shelf without a
moment's hesitation. "Here is the 'Morte d'Arthur,'" he said; "you see I
knew where to find it. And Father used to sit on top of that
stepladder."

"So he did!" cried Mr. Montfort, delighted. "I can see him now, with one
leg curled under him, eating apples and shouting about Lancelot and
Tristram."

"And you sat in the great copper coal-hod--ah! there it is!--and read
Froissart, the great folio with the colored prints. I see it, just in
the place father described."

"Uncle John," said Margaret, reproachfully, "you never told me that you
sat in the coal-scuttle. I know papa's perch, the mantel-piece, because
he could get at the little Shakespeares from there."

Mr. Montfort laughed.

"Leave me some remnant of dignity, Meg," he said. "How can you expect me
to confess that I sat in the coal-scuttle? Have you no reverence for
gray hairs?"

"Oh, a very great deal, dear Uncle; but there were no gray hairs in the
coal-scuttle days; and my only regret about you is the not having known
you when you were a boy."

"Horrid monkey, I have been given to understand," said her uncle,
lightly. "Go on, Hugh; tell us some more of the things that Jim--your
father--remembers. Old Jim! it's a great shame that he never comes to
look up the old place himself."

"It is indeed, sir!" said Hugh. "I've always thought so, and now that I
see the place--oh, I shall send him, that's all, as soon as ever I get
home. There are the Indian clubs; oh, the carved one--is it true that
that was given to Grandfather Montfort by a Fiji chief, or was the Pater
fooling us? He sometimes makes up things, he acknowledges, just for the
fun of it."

"True enough, I believe!" said Mr. Montfort, taking down the great club,
covered from end to end with strange and delicate carving.

"Did he ever tell you how near he came to breaking my head with this
club? He may have forgotten; I have not. We used to keep it in our room,
the great nursery up-stairs, Margaret; you must show that to Hugh by and
by. I woke up one night, and was afraid the crow that I was taming in
the back garden might be hungry. I got out of the window and shinned
down the spout. The crow was all right; but when I came back, Jim woke
up, and took me for a burglar, and went for me with the club, thinking
it the chance of his life. I was only half-way through the bars when he
caught me a crack--I can hear my skull rattle with it now."

"Oh, Uncle John! and you held on?"

"My dear, I held on; it would have been rather unfortunate for me to let
go at the moment. I sung out, of course; and when I got through I fell
upon my friend James, and Roger had to wake up and come and drag us from
under the bed before he could separate us. Sweet boys! do you and your
brothers indulge in these little endearments, Hugh? Jim was a glorious
fighter."

Hugh laughed. "Jim and George used to have pretty lively scraps
sometimes," he said. "It wasn't so much in my line, but I took it out in
airs, I fancy. The poor fellows couldn't punch my head, and it must have
been hard lines for them sometimes. As for Max and Peter, they are
twins, you know. I doubt if either of them knows exactly which is
himself and which is the other, so they don't have real scraps, just
puppy-play, rolling over and over and pounding each other."

"Oh, what good times they would have with Basil and Susan D.!" cried
Margaret. "What a pity they cannot know one another, all these dear
boys!"

"So it is! so it is!" said Mr. Montfort, heartily. "We must bring it
about, one of these days; we must surely bring it about. Fond of dogs,
Hugh? I've got a pair of nice puppies here; like to go and see them
before tea, or shall Margaret show you your room?"

Hugh elected in favor of the puppies, and uncle and nephew walked off
together, well content. Margaret looked after them, thinking what a
noble pair they made. Hugh walked lame, to be sure, yet not
ungracefully, she thought; and though slender, still his shoulders were
square and manly.

Then her thoughts turned to matters of practical hospitality, and she
sped to the kitchen, to tell the good news to Frances.

"Oh, Frances, Mr. Hugh has come, my Uncle Jim's son; Miss Peggy's
brother, Frances! He has come all the way from Ohio, and I want you to
give him the very best supper that ever was, please!"

Now Frances had that moment discovered that her best porcelain saucepan
was cracked; she therefore answered with some asperity. "Indeed, then,
Miss Margaret, what is good enough for Mr. Montfort must be good enough
for his nephew or any other young gentleman. My supper is all planned,
and I can't be fashed with new things at this time of day."

"Now, Frances, don't be cross, that's a dear! I want you to see Mr.
Hugh. Look, there he is this minute, crossing the green with Uncle
John."

Frances looked; looked again, long and earnestly; then straightway she
fell into a great bustle. "Dear me, Miss Margaret, run away now, that's
a good young lady. How can I be doing, and you all about the kitchen
like a ball of string? He's lame, the beautiful young gentleman; you
never told me he was lame. I did think as how we might be doing with the
cold fowl, and French fried potatoes and muffins, but that's nothing to
show the heart. Run away now, Miss, and if you was going up-stairs, be
so good as send me Polly. She's idling her time away, I'll be bound, and
not a soul to help me with my salad and croquettes. Dear! dear! I be
pestered out of my life, mostly."

"Don't kill us, Frances!" cried Margaret, as she ran away, laughing. "I
really think the cold fowl will be quite enough."

Frances deigned no reply; and Margaret hastened up-stairs, to tell the
good news to Elizabeth. Elizabeth was in the sewing-room, waiting, with
plaintive dignity, till Margaret should please to go over the rest of
the table-cloths; but at the tidings of the advent of a dear and honored
guest, she dropped thimble and scissors, and rose hastily, declaring
that the Blue Room must be cleaned instantly, and put in order for Mr.
Montfort's nephew.

"But you swept it yesterday, Elizabeth, and I dusted all the ornaments
myself, and put them back in place. It only needs a few fresh flowers, I
am sure," said Margaret.

Elizabeth turned on her a face of affectionate reproach. "Miss Margaret,
you don't mean that. Mr. Montfort's own nephew, and the room not touched
to-day! I'll go this minute and see to it. But if you would pick out the
towels you think he would like best, Miss, please; gentlemen do be that
fussy about towels, as there's no pleasing some of them, though being
Mr. Montfort's nephew, likely he'll be different. Give him the finest
huckaback, and Mr. Montfort is easy satisfied, so long as there's no
fringes. He never could abide fringe to his towels, and there's no
person with sense as wouldn't agree with him. And if you would see to
the bureau-scarf and the flowers, Miss Margaret--there! she's gone, and
not a word about what table-napkins I am to use! I like to see them
young, so I do, but they're terrible heedless. I expect I'd best put the
finest out, for Mr. Montfort's nephew."



CHAPTER IV.

UNCLE JOHN'S IDEA


"Margaret, I have an idea!"

"I am so glad, Uncle John; your ideas are always pleasant ones,
especially when they make your eyes twinkle. Is this about more dogs?"

"No, no, child. Do you think I have no soul except for dogs? I was
thinking--why, you see,--this is a delightful fellow, this nephew of
mine."

"Isn't he, Uncle? I never saw a more interesting person, I think. How
well he talks, and how much he knows!"

"Yes, and right-minded, too; singularly right-minded. Jim has done well,
certainly, by his children, and is very fortunate in them. H'm! yes. Who
would have thought, thirty years ago, that things would have turned out
in this way? Old Jim!"

Here Mr. Montfort fell into a brown study, and only roused himself after
some time, to ask Margaret what were her orders for the day.

"Why, Uncle John! And you have never told me your idea."

"Bless me! so I haven't. Age, my dear child, age! Such a fine idea as it
is, too. Listen, then! as I was saying, Hugh Montfort is a charming
fellow."

"Yes, Uncle John."

"And Peggy Montfort is a charming girl."

"Certainly she is. Dear Peggy!"

"We may not unreasonably infer, therefore, that other members of the
family may be charming also. Now, my idea is this. Peggy is not going
home this summer; why would it not be a good plan to send for her
nearest sister--Jean, isn't she?--to come here and meet her brother and
sister, and all have a good time together? What do you say?"

"Uncle John! I say that you are the very cleverest person in the world,
as well as the dearest."

"A little house-party, you see," Mr. Montfort went on, beaming with
pleasure at the delight that shone in Margaret's face. "And--we shall
want another lad, it seems to me, possibly two lads. Why not ask young
Merryweather and his brother for a couple of weeks? You liked the young
fellow?"

"Oh, certainly, Uncle John!" Margaret suddenly became interested in
tying up the Crimson Rambler that was straying over the verandah-rail.
"Yes, indeed, I thought him very nice."

"And you like the idea? You don't think it would make too much work, too
much responsibility, my dear little niece?"

Margaret was still busy with the rose, which proved quite refractory,
but it was clear that she thought nothing of the sort. It would be
altogether delightful, she said; and as for care--why, she had been
longing for something to take her mind off missing the children, and--

"And to see Jean, too!" she cried, suddenly emerging from the rose-vine,
with an unusual flush on her delicate cheek, and her gray eyes shining;
"I have always wanted so to know the other Peggypods, as you call them,
Uncle John; and now to have Hugh here, and Jean coming--oh, Uncle John,
you are _so_ dear!"

"Then that is all right," said Uncle John; "and I will go and telegraph
to old Jim and tell him to send the little girl along. Shall we tell
Peggy, or leave it for a surprise, eh? What do you say?"

"The surprise, by all means; Peggy loves a surprise, you know. Oh, how
can I wait a whole week to see her?"

Mr. Montfort looked with pleasure at Margaret's sparkling eyes and rosy
cheeks. He had hit on the right thing, evidently. Young people wanted
young people; didn't he remember well enough--here he fell into a muse
again, and said "Rose!" to himself two or three times. Perhaps he was
thinking of the Crimson Rambler.

"Now, about rooms!" he said, waking up after a few minutes. "And we must
get more help, Margaret. Frances--"

"I'll tell Elizabeth first, I think," said Margaret, thoughtfully. "She
has a way of breaking things gradually to Frances, and taking the edge
off them; she is really very clever about it."

"Elizabeth is a treasure," said Mr. Montfort. "So is Frances, of
course, a treasure--only with dragon attachment."

"And as for the room, Uncle John--let me see! Peggy's own room is big
enough for her and Jean, and I am quite sure they would like to be
together. Then there are the two little east rooms that are very
pleasant--or we could give the two Mr. Merryweathers the big nursery."

"That's it!" said Mr. Montfort, decidedly. "Boys like the nursery; it
was made for boys. Nothing breakable in it except the crockery, and
plenty of room for skylarking. Yes, my dear, get the nursery ready for
them--if they come!" he added. "We are counting our chickens in fine
style, Margaret. Suppose we find that Jean is in San Francisco and the
Merryweathers in Alaska."

"Oh, they won't be!" cried Margaret. "They wouldn't have the heart to
spoil our party. I have read about house-parties all my life, and to
think that I am going to have one! Why, it is a fairy tale, Uncle John."

"So it is, my dear; so it is. You are the fairy princess, and I am the
old magician--or the bear, if you like better, that used to be a prince
when he was young."

"The king that used to be a bear would be more like it," said Margaret,
gaily. "How about John Strong, Mr. Montfort?"

"John Strong was a useful fellow!" said her uncle, gravely. "I had a
regard for John; he is getting lazy now, and rheumatic besides, and he
neglects his roses shamefully, but there are still points about John.
Bring me my old hat, and the pruning-shears, and you shall see him in
the flesh, Miss Margaret."

Margaret enjoyed nothing more than what she called a "rose-potter" with
her uncle. He was never weary of tending his favorite flowers, and
handled and spoke of them as if they were real persons. Coming now to
join him, with the great shears, and the faithful old straw hat in
which, as John Strong the gardener, she had first seen the beloved
uncle, she found him bending over a beautiful "La France" with anxious
looks.

"My dear, this lovely person is not looking well to-day. Something is
wrong with her."

"Oh, Uncle, I am sorry. She had her bath last night, I know, for I gave
it to her myself. What do you think is the matter? To me, she looks as
silvery-lovely as usual; but you have a special pair of eyes, I know,
for roses."

"I fear--I think--ah! here he is, the beast! Yes, Margaret; a
caterpillar, curled up--see him! Right in the heart of this exquisite
bud. No wonder the whole plant has sickened; she is very sensitive, La
France. There, Madame, he is gone. Now, a little shower of quassia, just
to freshen you up; eh? See, Margaret, how gratefully the beautiful
creature responds. Now, Jack here,"--he passed on to a Jacqueminot rose,
covered with splendid crimson blossoms,--"Jack is thick-skinned, quite a
rhinoceros by contrast with La France or the Bride. Here
are--one--two--five--my patience! here are seven aphides on his poor
leaves, and yet he has not curled up so much as the edge of one. Take
him for all in all, Jack is as good a fellow as I know. Responsive,
cordial, ready for anything--not expecting to have the whole world
waiting on him, as some of these people do--ah, Hugh! Finished your
letters? That's right!"

Hugh Montfort, who had come in unobserved, was leaning on his stick,
watching them with some amusement.

"Who is this Jack, if I may ask, Uncle John? He seems to be a rather
remarkable sort of chap."

Mr. Montfort looked slightly confused. "Only my fantastic way of
speaking of my roses," he said. "They seem like real people to me, and I
am apt to call them by their names. A shame, to be sure, to take such
liberties with the General. Permit me to present you in due form! M. le
Général Jacqueminot, I have the honor to present to you Mr. Hugh
Montfort, my nephew, and--may I say admirer? The General is sensitive to
admiration."

"You may indeed!" said Hugh, bowing gravely to the splendid plant.
"General, your most obedient servant! I have known others of your
family, some of them, I may say, intimately, and I can truly say that I
never saw a finer specimen of the race."

The General glowed responsive, and Mr. Montfort glowed too, with
pleasure. "Fond of roses?" he said; "that's good! that's good! why,
boy, you seem to have a great many of my tastes. How's that, hey? your
father never knew one flower from another."

There was a very tender light in Hugh's eyes as he returned his uncle's
look. "When I was a little chap, sir," he said, "my father used to tell
me a good deal about you and Uncle Roger, the two best fellows he ever
knew. I used to think--and I think still--that if I could be like them
in anything I should do well; so I took to flowers because you loved
them, and to books because they were Uncle Roger's delight. The big
things seemed pretty big, but I thought the little ones would be better
than nothing."

The glow deepened on John Montfort's cheek, and the light in his eyes;
in Margaret's eyes the quick tears sprang; and with one impulse she and
her uncle held out their hands. Hugh grasped them both, and there was a
moment of silence that was better than speech. Hugh was the first to
break it. "I have two new friends!" he said, in his sweet, cordial
voice. "This day is better than I dreamed, and that is saying a good
deal. But now, go on with the roses, Uncle John, please; there are
several kinds here that I do not know. What is this cream-colored
beauty?"

"Why, that, Hugh, is my special pride. That is a sport of my own
raising; Victoria, I call her. She took a first prize at the flower show
last year. We were proud, weren't we, Margaret?"

"Indeed we were, Uncle John. Think, Hugh, she had two hundred and seven
buds and blossoms when we sent her. She looked like a snow-drift at
sunrise; didn't you, Victoria?"

"Could you send a plant of this size without injury? Ah! I see; pot
sunk. Well, she is a marvel of beauty, certainly. I have some slips
coming from home for you, Uncle; the box ought to be here to-day or
to-morrow. There are one or two things that I think you may not have.
But you have a noble collection; what a joy a rose-garden is!"

"Mine used to be the greatest pleasure I had," said Mr. Montfort, "until
I took to cultivating another kind of flower, the human variety." He
pinched Margaret's ear affectionately, and she returned the pinch with
a confidential pat on his arm.

"For many years," he continued, "I lived something of a hermit life,
Hugh. There were reasons--no matter now--at all events I preferred
solitude, and save for my good aunt, your great-aunt Faith, about whom
Margaret will have a great deal to tell you, I saw practically no one
from year's end to year's end. Very foolish, as I am now aware;
criminally foolish. I have got beyond all that, thank Heaven! During
this secluded period, my garden, and my roses in particular, were my
chief resource, next to my books. Indeed, in summer time the books had
to take the second place, and it should be so. You remember Bacon, Hugh:
'God Almighty first planted a garden; it is the purest of human
pleasures,' etc. I used to know that essay by heart. In summer time, the
Great Book, sir, the Book of Nature, is opened for us, spread open by a
divine hand; it were thankless as well as stupid to refuse to study it.
So I studied my garden first, and after that, my fields and woods and
pastures. Great reading in a broken pasture! When I wanted human
companionship--apart from that sweet and gracious influence of her who
was my second mother--I found it in my friends between the covers, who
were always ready to talk or be silent, as my mood inclined. I thought I
did well enough with Shakespeare and Montaigne and the rest; I have
learned now that one living voice, speaking in love and kindness, is
worth them all for 'human nature's daily food.'"

Margaret listened, wondering. Her uncle had seldom said so much about
his own life even to her, his housemate and intimate companion these two
years; while Hugh, without a word, simply from some power of silent
sympathy that lay in him, had drawn out this frank speech a few hours
after their first meeting. She wondered; and then asked herself, why
should she wonder, since she herself felt the same drawing toward her
new-found relative. "This must be what it is like to have a brother!"
she said to herself; and felt her heart quicken with a new sense of
comfort and happiness. "Such a pleasant world!" said Margaret.



CHAPTER V.

A VISION


Hugh Montfort was having a delightful morning. He had been at Fernley
three days now, and already knew every nook and corner on the place.
With his uncle's consent he had appropriated for his own use the little
summer-house, covered with clematis and York and Lancaster roses, that
looked out over the south wall of the garden, and away toward the sea.
Here he had brought his desk (an old one belonging to his father, that
Margaret had found in the garret), and had tacked up a shelf for a few
favorite books; and here he was sitting, on the fairest of June days,
with a volume of Greek plays open before him, considering the landscape,
and enjoying himself thoroughly.

Hugh was no less delighted with his uncle and cousin than they with him.
Always and necessarily a student and observer rather than a man of
action, he felt an instant sympathy with the man and woman of books and
thought. He loved dearly his own family, active, strenuous people,
overflowing with strength and energy; but he often felt himself out of
place among them, and reproached himself with the frequent languor and
headache that so often kept him from sharing in their full-throated,
whole-hearted mirth. He had graduated from a Western university, and was
now going to study for a post-graduate degree at Harvard; he was tired,
and the quiet at Fernley, the sense of perfect congeniality with his
uncle, and Margaret's serene face and musical, even-toned voice, were
like balm to his over-strung nerves.

This morning his head ached, and he did not feel like study. The book
open before him gave him a kind of moral support, but he did hardly more
than glance at it from time to time. His eyes roved far and wide over
the lovely prospect that lay outside, broad stretches of sunny, rolling
meadows, dotted with clumps of trees, and framed in the arched opening
of the summer-house. This summer-house had been a favorite playhouse of
his father and uncles in their boyhood. He knew a dozen stories about
it; and now his eyes turned to the lattice walls, carved everywhere with
the familiar initials, and the devices of the four brothers Montfort:
John's egg and Jim's oyster, Roger's book and Dick's ship. What glorious
boys they must have been! This was where they used to play Curtius, and
Monte Cristo, and all manner of games; leaping over the wall into the
meadow below, deep in fern and daisies, or swinging themselves down by
the hanging branches of the old willow that peeped round one side of the
arch. Glorious boys! And then Hugh thought of his own brothers, and said
"Good old Jim!" under his breath.

Thus musing, he was aware of a voice under his latticed bower, as of
some one in the meadow below; a woman's voice, calm and melodious as
Margaret's own, but with a deeper and graver note in it.

"What did he want then, a Lovely Person? Did he want her to love him?
Well, she did, ardently; so that is all right."

A rustling followed, and the voice spoke again:

"No, he mustn't kiss her; that is not permitted. He may lie at her feet,
and gaze at her with his large, brown eyes, Philip her King, but no
kissing. She is surprised at his suggesting such a thing."

Hugh sat mute, in great perplexity. What interview was this, at which he
was unwillingly assisting? Were two rustic lovers below, taking their
ease under the old willow, whose twisted roots made an admirable seat,
as he knew? And, if so, should he be guilty of the greater offence by
keeping still, or by going away? He knew every board in the summer-house
floor, and there was not one that would not betray him with a loud
creak; on the whole, it seemed best to sit still; after all, they need
never know that any one was there. Hark! the young woman--the voice was
certainly young--was speaking again:

"He was perfectly beautiful, that was what he was. Yes! he had the
loveliest eyes in the world, without any exception; and his ears were a
dream of perfection, and, as for his coat and waistcoat, words fail her
to describe them. Now if he will sit still, she will tell him
something; no, not on her dress; a little farther off, a precious
Poppet!"

A curious sound followed; something between a loud sneeze and an equally
loud yawn, accompanied with lively and prolonged rustling of the willow
branches; but no articulate word from her companion. She seemed
satisfied, however, for she went on,--a delightful quality of voice;
Hugh felt it creeping in his ears like music:

"That is right. Yes, she understands perfectly; she knows all about it,
and she loves him to distraction. Well, Lovely One, that Lady is a Cat;
that is what she is."

Another sneeze and yawn, louder than before.

"Precisely; you think so, too. A cat! 'cat, puss, tit, grimalkin, tabby,
brindle; whoosh!' was he fond of Dickens, a Pink-nosed Pearl? She is no
more sick than you are, Beloved. She has been, no doubt, and now she has
forgotten how to be anything else, but she is liable to find out. Your
Aunt, beloved, proposes to put this lady through a Course of Sprouts.
Tu-whit! your Aunt has spoken. We may also remark, in this connection
only, tu-whoo!"

Her companion's only reply to this speech was a loud breathing, which
might be caused by emotion, or by heat and fatigue; at all events, he
did not seem inclined to speak. A thought flashed through Hugh's
mind,--the man might be a deaf-mute. What a terrible affliction! It was
bad enough to be lame; but to be deaf, and in company with a girl with a
voice like that! Hark! she was speaking again, slowly and meditatively,
rather as if talking to herself than to some one else:

"Your Aunt has not got her plan entirely laid out yet. She knows what
must finally happen: the patient must be got out of that house, and away
on a sea-voyage; but there will have to be various occurrences first.
Your Aunt's ingenuity, Adonis, will be put to a severe strain. At
present your Aunt is alone, and in difficulties. Many oxen come about
her, fat bulls of Bashan compass her on every side, as the Scripture
hath it; you are not acquainted with the Scripture, Adonis, so there is
no earthly use in your putting on that look of keen intelligence. But
there may be balm in Gilead; I think Gilead may be in this very place
above our head, my Popolorum Tibby. Now, what is the matter with him?"

At this moment a sound was heard,--a bark, distant at first, but coming
momently nearer; a loud, joyous, inquiring bark. It was answered from
below by a sound combining bark, sneeze, and snort; there was a violent
shaking of the branches, and, next moment, a brown and white setter
sprang out from under the wall, and stood at gaze. Another instant, and
a second dog, his exact image, appeared on the brow of the slope,
careering toward him. There was a rapturous duet of barking and
sneezing, and then the two swept away over the brow, and were gone.

"That is the most heartless puppy I ever saw," the voice said, slowly.
"A woodchuck, I suppose. 'Twas ever thus. The moral is, don't make love
to strange puppies, however beautiful; but he was lovely, and he
understood me. No more of him! The question is, what should I find at
the top of this beanstalk--I should say, willow-tree? There is
an--answer to--every question--if--you only ask it--quick enough!"

The last words were spoken so low that Hugh did not catch their import.
Alarmed, however, by the continued rustling of the willow branches, he
rose hurriedly to his feet, and was about to steal away as quietly as
might be; but at that moment a hand was laid on the coping of the
wall,--a brown hand, slender but muscular; the next moment an arm
followed, and a young woman swung herself across the opening, and,
leaning on the wall, looked full in his face.

It was the vision of an instant only; the lithe figure, the face full of
careless power, the deep-set blue eyes, startling into black as they met
his, while the slender brows met above them in angry amazement; then one
hand reached back to the willow branch, the girl dropped from sight, and
he heard her rustle from branch to branch, and then heard the light,
swift sound of running feet through the fern, and dying away in the
distance.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Is this a pleasant neighborhood, Margaret?" asked Hugh, as they sat on
the verandah after dinner. "Have you any pleasant--a--friends, of your
own age?"

"None of my own age," said Margaret. "Indeed, our only near neighbor is
Mrs. Peyton, an invalid lady, whom I go to see quite often. She is very
charming, but--no, there is no one else; the places are large and
scattered, you see, all about here. The next one on the other side
belongs to Miss Desmond, and she is always abroad, and has not been here
at all since I have."

"You don't think she may have returned lately, without your knowing it?"

"No, I am sure she cannot; I heard of her only a few days ago, in Egypt;
Uncle John had a letter from her. Why do you ask, Hugh?"

"Oh--idle curiosity; or curiosity, whether idle or not. And--there are
no other young girls?"

"None; that is why I missed Peggy and Rita so terribly, as I was telling
you last night. Then the dear children came, and they were my comfort
and joy; I shall have them again when the summer is over; happy day it
will be when they come back. But, you see, having first the girls and
then the children has rather spoiled Uncle John and me, and that is why
it was so very particularly nice of you to come, Cousin Hugh."

"Suppose we drop the 'cousin,' and be just Hugh and Margaret?" suggested
her cousin. "I am used to having sisters about me, you know, and don't
know how to get along without them; some day it may be 'Sister
Margaret.' Should you mind?"

Margaret colored high with pleasure, and again the foolish tears came
into her eyes. "I have wanted a brother all my life!" she said, simply;
and again Hugh's smile told her that he understood all about it. He was
certainly a most wonderful person.

They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes; then--"I did not tell
the exact truth," said Margaret, "when I said there were no young people
here. Just now it happens there is one, a newcomer, a girl of my own
age."

She paused. "Yes?" said Hugh, suggestively. "Some one you know?"

"Yes--and no! I have met her once. She is a Miss Wolfe, who has come to
be a sort of companion to Mrs. Peyton. A singular-looking girl, with a
most interesting face. I want to see her again; and yet,--somehow,--I am
rather afraid of her."

"Is she formidable, this she-wolf?"

"Not formidable, but--well, I don't know how to describe her. She
impresses me as different from anybody I have ever seen. Wild is not the
word; Rita was wild, but it was something totally different."

"Peggy is wild, too," said Hugh, "wild as a mountain goat, or was,
before you took her in hand, Margaret. Is this young lady like Peggy?"

"Oh, not in the very least. She is not shy, not a bit; not shy, and yet
not bold. She seems simply absolutely without self-consciousness; it is
as if she said and did exactly what she felt like doing, with no thought
as to whether it was--well, customary or not. I am afraid I am rather
conventional, Cousin--I mean Hugh; not in thought, I hope, but--in
temperament, perhaps. This girl strikes me very strangely; that is the
only way I can describe her. Yet she attracted me strongly, the only
time I saw her, which was the very day you came, by the way. I ought to
have gone over to see her before this. I think I will go this evening,
while you and Uncle John are having your after-supper smoke."

"I think I would," said Hugh Montfort.



CHAPTER VI.

ALI BABA


Margaret went over duly that evening, meaning to be very friendly to the
strange young woman; but it happened to be one of Mrs. Peyton's bad
times, and she sent down word that she needed Miss Wolfe, and could not
possibly spare her. Margaret left a civil message, and went home
disappointed, and yet the least bit relieved: she had rather dreaded a
long tête-à-tête with her new neighbor.

"How absurd you are, Margaret Montfort," she said, severely, as she
walked across the park. "Here you have been longing for a girl to talk
to, and the moment one comes, you are seized with what Peggy calls 'the
shyies,' just because she happens to be cut from a different pattern
from your own."

Hugh was on the verandah, waiting for her, and seemed really
disappointed when he heard that she had not seen Miss Wolfe; that
showed how wide and cordial his interest was, and how much thought he
took for others, Margaret told herself. What could he care about the
meeting of a cousin he had just begun to know with a girl whom he never
had seen?

Next day, however, she forgot all about Miss Wolfe, for the time being.
Gerald and Philip Merryweather had accepted Mr. Montfort's invitation
with amazing alacrity, and Jean had telegraphed her rapture of
anticipation from Ohio. Uncle John and Hugh were left to their own
devices, while she plunged, with Elizabeth and Frances and Polly, into
intricacies of hospitable preparation. Stores must be ordered, linen
examined, silver and china looked out. In regard to the silver, Margaret
had an experience that showed her that, even after two years, she did
not know all the resources of Fernley House. Her uncle called her into
his study after breakfast, and handed her a key of curious pattern.
"This is the key of the iron cupboard, Margaret," he said. Seeing her
look of surprise, he added, "You surely know about the iron cupboard, my
dear?"

"No, Uncle John. I remember hearing Aunt Faith speak of something of the
kind once, but I did not rightly understand, and, being shy then,--it
was before I knew our Dear so well,--I did not like to ask."

"Oh, there is no mystery, my child. No secret staircase this time, no
ghosts in velvet jackets. But in a house like Fernley, that has been
inhabited for many generations, there is necessarily an accumulation of
certain kinds of things, above all, silver. We keep out all that an
ordinary family would be likely to use, and the rest is stored in this
safe cupboard, in case of fire or robbery. Very stupid of me not to have
told my careful little housekeeper of this before. To tell the truth, I
forget all about this hoard most of the time, and might not have thought
of it now, if Elizabeth had not come to me with an important face and
asked me if I did not think Miss Margaret ought to have the opportunity
of putting out The Silver if she wished to do so, being as the house was
to be full of company. That meant that Elizabeth herself wanted to
display to the astonished eyes of Hugh and the Merryweather boys the
resources of the house that she and Frances rule (on the whole, wisely),
through you and me, their deputies and servants. I see no reason why the
good souls should not be gratified do you?"

"On the contrary, I see every reason why they, and I too, should be
gratified. Uncle John, I am glad I did not know about it before. It is
the most delightful thing about Fernley, that one never seems to come to
the end of it. I thought I knew everything by this time, and here is
another enchanting mystery; for say what you will, Uncle John, an iron
cupboard full of old silver, that nobody knows about,--or hardly
anybody,--_is_ a mystery. Now I am sure there are others, too; I shall
never feel again that I know all about the house. Some day, when I am
old and gray, I shall come upon another secret staircase, or a
trap-door, or a hidden jewel-casket, or a lost will."

"Why, as to jewel-caskets," said Mr. Montfort, smiling, "there is
perhaps something that might be said; but as you say, it would never do
to find out everything at once, May Margaret. Run away now, and examine
your tea-kettles; there are about forty, if I remember rightly."

"Uncle John! is there really a jewel-casket? What do you mean? There
cannot be any more than those Aunt Faith had, surely."

"Can't there?" said Mr. Montfort, with a provoking smile. "Doubtless you
know best, my dear." And not another word would he say on the subject;
but he told Margaret where to find the iron cupboard, and she ran off in
such a flutter that Peggy would hardly have known her model and mentor.
Old silver was one of Margaret's weak points; indeed, she had a strong
feeling about heirlooms of every kind, and treasured carefully every
scrap of paper even that had any association with past times.

Seeing Hugh in the library, she called to him. "Hugh! come with me and
see the Treasure Chamber of the Montforts. Don't you want to see the
ancestral silver?"

"Of course I do!" said Hugh, laying down his book and coming to join
her. "Ancestral silver? My mother went to housekeeping with six
teaspoons and a butter-knife, and thought herself rich. Uncle John
wanted to send a trunkful of family silver, I have been told, but the
Pater refused to be bothered with it. Poor Mother would have been glad
enough of it, I fancy, but in those days he was masterful, and bent on
roughing it, and would not hear of anything approaching luxury, or even
convenience. Where is this wonderful treasury?"

"Come, and you shall see. Uncle John has told me how to find it. Come
through this door; here we are in his own study, you see. Now--let me
see! I will light this lamp--for the cupboard is dark--while you look
and find Inigo Jones."

"Inigo Jones?"

"Yes. A tall blue morocco quarto, about the middle of the fourth shelf
of the bookcase behind Uncle John's desk. Ah! I see him!"

Springing forward, Margaret drew the stately volume from its place.
"Look!" she cried. "A keyhole. Hugh, isn't this exactly like the
'Mysteries of Udolpho?' 'Inigo Jones' is his joke, you see, or
somebody's joke. Do you mind if I turn the key, Hugh?"

"Turn away!" said Hugh, much amused at the excitement of his staid
little cousin.

With a trembling hand Margaret turned the key, and gave a pull, as she
had been told. A section of the bookcase, with its load of books, swung
slowly forward, revealing a dark opening. Margaret stepped in, and Hugh
followed, holding the lamp aloft.

"Well, upon my word!" he said. "I never heard of anything like this, out
of the 'Arabian Nights.'"

Margaret was looking about her, too much absorbed for words. The Iron
Cupboard was a recess some ten feet deep and seven or eight wide, lined
with shelves. These shelves were literally packed with silver, some in
boxes, much in bags, glimmering in the half-light like dwarfish ghosts;
but the greater part uncovered, glittering in tarnished splendor
wherever the lamplight fell. Rows upon rows of teapots, tall and squat,
round and oval, chased, hammered, and plain; behind them, coffee-pots
looking down, in every possible device. There were silver pitchers and
silver bowls; porringers and fruit-dishes, salvers and platters. Such an
array as might dazzle the eyes of any silversmith of moderate ambition.

"Well, Margaret," said Hugh, somewhat impressed, but more amused, at
sight of all this hoarded treasure, "what do you say? I shall leave the
expression of emotion to you."

But Margaret was in no jesting mood. With clasped hands she turned to
her cousin. "Oh, Hugh," she cried, "isn't it wonderful? to think of all
those beautiful things living here alone,--I don't mean alone, but all
by themselves--year after year, with no one to see them, or take them
out and polish them. Oh, I never saw such things! Look at this perfect
pitcher, will you? did you ever see anything so graceful? This must come
in, if nothing else does. The milk shall be poured from it from this day
forward, as long as I am the Mistress of Fernley. That is just a
play-name, of course," she hastened to explain, blushing as she did so.
"Uncle John gave it to me in sport, when I first began to try to keep
house."

"It seems to me a most appropriate name," said Hugh. "There has never
been another, has there? in this generation, I mean. Uncle John was
never married, was he?"

"No; isn't it a pity? I have so often wondered why. I asked Aunt Faith
once,--well, Hugh, of course she was Mistress of Fernley as long as she
lived, though she would always speak of herself as a visitor,--and she
only sighed and shook her head, and said, 'Poor John! poor dear lad!'
and then changed the subject. But--do you suppose any one can hear us
here, Hugh?"

"I do not, Margaret. I should say that you might safely tell me
anything, of however fearful a nature, in this iron-bound retreat."

"Oh, it really isn't anything--or perhaps it is not--but my own fancy. I
have built up a kind of air-castle of the past, that is all. You know
Uncle John's passion for roses? Well, and sometimes, when he is sitting
quietly and has forgotten that any one is near, he will say to himself,
'Rose! Rose!' softly, just like that, and as if it were something he
loved to say. I have wondered whether he once cared a great deal for
some one whose name was Rose.--What do you think, Hugh? and she died,
and that is why he has never married. There! I have never spoken of this
before, not even to Peggy. Don't tell any one, will you?"

She looked anxiously in her cousin's face, and met the grave, sweet look
that always made her feel safe and quiet; she did not know how else to
express it.

"Tell any one? No indeed, my dear little cousin. It is a young girl's
fancy, and a very sweet and graceful one."

"Then you don't think it may be true?" asked Margaret, disappointed.

"Certainly it may be true; I should think it highly probable that
something of the sort had happened, to keep a man like Uncle John single
all his days; but--well, I don't see that anything can be done about it
now, do you?"

"Hugh, I am afraid you are practical, after all!" said Margaret. "And I
was hoping you would turn out romantic."

Hugh only laughed, and asked her if she had chosen all the silver she
wanted. This question put a stop at once to Margaret's romantic visions.
Enough? but, she had only just begun, she said. Did he think she was
going to take one pitcher and leave all the rest of these enchanting
treasures?

"And we have not explored the boxes yet!" she cried. "See, they all
have dear little ivory labels. Do reach me down that fat square box,
please! 'Col. Montfort's Tankard, 1814.' Oh, that was our
great-great-grandfather, Hugh! Do let us open this!"

The black leathern box, being opened, revealed a stately glass-bottomed
tankard, with a dragon's curling tail for a handle. On the front was an
inscription, "Presented to Col. Peter Montfort, in token of respect and
affection, by the officers of his mess, July, 1814."

"His portrait is up in the long gallery," said Margaret. "Don't you
remember, with the high ruffled stock? I don't see how he could speak,
with his chin so very high in the air. Now I must have that oval green
case; I am sure that is something interesting. 'General Washington's
Gift.' Oh, Hugh!"

This time Hugh was as much interested as she, and both bent eagerly over
the box as Margaret opened it. The case was of faded green morocco,
lined with crimson satin. Within was an oval cup or bowl, of exquisite
workmanship; it was what is called a loving-cup, and Margaret looked in
vain for an inscription.

"There must be one!" said Hugh. "_Papa Patriæ_ would not have been so
unkind as to leave such a thing unmarked. Look on the bottom, Margaret!"

Margaret looked, and there, to be sure, was a tolerably long
inscription, in minute script.

"Hold the light nearer, please; I can hardly read this, it is so fine.
Oh, listen to this, Hugh! 'For my worthy Friend and Host, Roger Montfort
Esquire, and his estimable Lady, in grateful Recollection of my
agreeable Stay beneath their hospitable Roof. From their obliged Friend
and Servant, G. Washington. 1776.'"

"That _is_ a treasure!" said Hugh, handling the bowl with reverent care.
"I knew that General Washington had spent some days at Fernley, but I
never heard of this relic of his stay. Margaret, this is really
extremely interesting. Go on, and open more of them. Perhaps we shall
find tokens of all the Continental Congress. I shall look for at least a
model of a kite in silver, with the compliments of B. Franklin. Suppose
we try this next. It looks very inviting."

He took down an oblong box of curious pattern, and opened it. "What
upon earth--Margaret, what are these? Grape-scissors? Asparagus-tongs?
They don't look like either."

"I should think not!" said Margaret, taking the object from his hand.
"Why, it is a pair of curling-tongs. What queer things! No inscription
on these; there isn't room for one. Here is a piece of paper in the box,
though."

She took up a yellowish scrap, and read: "'My niece Jemima's
curling-tongs, with which she, being impatient to make a Show above her
Sisters, did burn off one Side of her Hair. Preserved as a Warning to
young Women by me, Tabitha Montfort. 1803.' Poor Jemima! She was
punished enough, without being held up to posterity in this way."

"She was an extravagant young lady," said Hugh, "with her silver tongs;
I think it may have been good for her soul, if not her hair, to suffer
this infliction. Are you going to keep these out, Margaret, for use? I
do hope you will be more careful than Aunt Jemima was. Your hair--excuse
me!--looks as if you had not used the irons for some time."

Margaret laughed, and patted the smooth waves of her hair. "It _is_
some time!" she said. "Yours, on the other hand, Hugh, has more curl
than may be altogether natural. I may have suspected you of the tongs,
but at least I have had the charity to keep my suspicions to myself."

"You are extremely good, Miss Montfort. What have you got hold of now?"

"'Dear Johnny's Rattle!'" said Margaret, reading the label on a small
box. "I wonder if that was Uncle John. See! silver bells; what a sweet
tone!"

She shook a merry peal from the tiny bells. Hugh, who had been rummaging
at the other end of the cupboard, replied with a clear blast blown on a
small silver trumpet, which he now held up in triumph. "Here we are!" he
cried. "This is the instrument for me. This was presented to Captain
Hugh Montfort of the navy. What on earth could the gallant commander do
with this at sea?"

"Whistle for a wind, of course," said Margaret, merrily. "What else?
Come here and look at Grandfather Montfort's gold-bowed spectacles; they
are big enough for an ox."

So the talk went on merrily, and box after box, bag after bag, was
opened, sometimes with astonishing results. The bygone Montforts seemed
to have been fond of silver, and to have vied with one another in their
ingenious applications of it to domestic uses.

Many of the objects had historic or personal interest, and the two
cousins might have spent the day there, if Mr. Montfort had not suddenly
appeared, asking whether he was to have any dinner or not. Margaret had
her arms full by this time, while Hugh was trying his best to carry a
splendid fruit-bowl, a salver, two pitchers, and three vases, all at
once. Mr. Montfort burst out laughing at sight of the pair. "Cassim and
Ali Baba!" he cried. "And I, the Robber Captain, with not a single one
of all the Forty Thieves at my back. Margaret, for charity's sake! you
are not going to bring all that rubbish into the house? Isn't there
enough already? I'm sorry I told you anything about it."

Margaret looked up, guilty but happy, from her effort at capturing a
fourth vase with her little finger, the only one left unencumbered.
"Dear Uncle, you never would be so cruel!" she said. "See! I have only
taken one chocolate-pot, and there are five, such beauties! Yes, I know
we don't drink chocolate, but some of our guests might, and you would
not have me neglect the guests, would you, Uncle John?"

"Sooner than have a guest take his chocolate from a china pot," said Mr.
Montfort, gravely, "I would go to the stake. At present, if you will
pardon a very old joke, my dear Margaret, I should prefer to go to the
beefsteak, which I have reason to think is on the table at this moment.
Come out, both of you young thieves, and let Inigo Jones go in again!"



CHAPTER VII.

MORE ARRIVALS


The great day came, the day of the arrivals. Jean was the first to come,
by an early train, having arrived in New York the night before, where
Hugh met her and brought her in triumph to Fernley. Margaret was at the
door to receive her, and Peggy's sister had no cause to complain of the
warmth of her reception. She was a slenderer Peggy, with the same blue,
honest eyes, the same flaxen hair and rosy cheeks. Her dress, however,
was far more tasteful and neat than Peggy's had been on her first
arrival. Margaret recalled the green flannel, all buttoned awry, and
looked with approval on Jean's pretty gray travelling-dress.

"Dear Jean!" she said, kissing her cousin warmly. "Most welcome to
Fernley, dear child! Oh, I am so glad to see you! I have been counting
the days, Jean."

[Illustration: "SHE WAS A SLENDERER PEGGY, WITH THE SAME BLUE, HONEST
EYES."]

"Oh, so have I!" said Jean, looking up with a shy, sweet smile,--Peggy's
very own smile. Margaret kissed her again for it. "The last day did seem
awfully long, Cousin Margaret--well, Margaret, then! I'm sure I never
call you anything but Peggy's Margaret when I think of you. Peggy hasn't
come yet?"

"Not yet. She will be here this afternoon, on the three o'clock train.
She knows nothing about your coming, Jean. In her very last letter, she
was talking about being glad to come here, and so on, and she said the
only thing wanting would be you."

"Oh, goody! I'm awfully glad--that she doesn't know, I mean. It will be
just lovely to surprise her. Dear old Peg!" Jean relapsed into bashful
silence when Margaret took her into the library to greet her uncle; but
Mr. Montfort's smile and cordial greeting soon put her at her ease.

"Isn't he just lovely?" she whispered to Margaret, as they went
up-stairs. "I was afraid he would be awful, somehow, but he isn't a bit;
he's just lovely."

Margaret assented, making a mental note of the fact that this child
seemed to have but two adjectives in her vocabulary. "Peggy will see to
that!" she said to herself. "Peggy has improved so wonderfully in her
English this last year. She will be quicker than I to notice and take up
the little mistakes."

This was not strictly true, though modest Margaret meant it so. Peggy
certainly had learned much at school, but her teachers had no
expectation of her becoming an eminent English scholar.

"I have put you with Peggy," said Margaret, leading the way into the
pretty room, hung with red-poppy chintz, where Peggy had spent a few sad
and many happy hours. "I thought you would rather be together."

"Oh, yes, indeed! You are awfully kind, Cous--Margaret. I haven't seen
Peggy for a year, you know. We missed her awfully at Christmas, of
course, but she had a lovely time here; and it would have been awful if
she had come home and got the measles, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, we did have a very good time. The children were here,--Basil and
Susan D.,--and they and Peggy were fast friends. Oh, yes, it was a
great holiday. Now, dear, you will want to rest a little, so I will
leave you. Peggy will not be here till after lunch, so you will have
time for a good rest, and to explore the garden, too, if you like. I am
going now to arrange my flowers."

"Oh, might I help? I am not a bit tired, and I just love to arrange
flowers. Do let me help, Margaret!"

"Very well," said Margaret, with a little inward sigh. She had her own
ideas, and very definite ones, about the arrangement of flowers, in
which she had exquisite taste; and her recollection of the way in which
Peggy used to squeeze handfuls of blossoms tight into a vase, without
regard to color or form, made her dread the assistance so heartily
proffered; but Jean was quicker than Peggy had been at her age, and one
glance at Margaret's first "effect," a rainbow combination of
sweet-peas, showering over the side of a crystal bowl, filled her with
ambition to emulate its beauty. The morning passed happily and busily,
the more so that Hugh came in presently, with a chapter of Thoreau that
Margaret "really must hear!" He read well, and his taste and Margaret's
being much alike, they spent many pleasant hours together, he reading
aloud, she with her flowers or her work. Jean, who had never heard of
Thoreau, and was not bookish, tried to listen, but did not make much of
it. She fell to meditating instead, and her bright eyes wandered
curiously from one intent face to the other. Hugh never thought of
reading aloud at home. To be sure, he was the only one who cared about
reading, or had time for it. He and Margaret seemed to know each other
very well, seeing what a short time he had been here. Jean, with all the
eager romance of fifteen, straightway began the building of an
air-castle, which seemed to her a fine structure indeed. Meantime, Hugh
and Margaret, all unconscious of her scrutiny, were enjoying themselves
extremely.

"'As polishing expresses the vein in marble and grain in wood, so music
brings out what of heroic lurks anywhere. . . . When we are in health,
all sounds fife and drum to us; we hear notes of music in the air, or
catch its echoes dying away when we awake in the dawn. Marching is when
the pulse of the hero beats in unison with the pulse of Nature, and he
steps to the measure of the universe; then there is true courage and
invincible strength.'"

"How beautiful that is!" said Margaret.

"Yes; that is the particular passage I wanted to read to you. Have you
ever had that feeling, fancying that you wake to the sound of music? I
often have, when I have been sleeping out in the open--never within
doors."

"No," said Margaret, "I don't think I ever have, Hugh; but what a
pleasant thing it must be! I have never slept in the open, but even if I
should, I fear my waking would be plain prose, like myself."

Hugh laughed, and glanced at her affectionately. "I haven't found much
prose about you, Margaret," he said. "If I had, I should not have read
you my secrets when Thoreau tells them for me. That reminds me, do you
sing? I have not heard you, have I?"

"No; I wish I did, for I love music very much. Oh, I sing a very little,
enough to join in a chorus--if there ever were a chorus at Fernley. I
used to enjoy Rita's singing intensely; she has a very sweet voice."

"Some one was singing last night," Hugh went on; "I don't know why, but
this passage reminds me--I heard a woman's voice singing,--a remarkable
voice."

"Indeed? Where were you? Not in your room? I am sure there is no one in
the house who sings."

"No; it was pretty warm, and the moon--well, you remember, it was all
you could do to go to bed yourself, Margaret. After Virtue, in the shape
of yourself and Uncle John, had gone to bed, Vice, in my shape, wandered
about the garden, I don't know how long. It was wonderful there, with
the trees, and the smell of the roses and box, and--and the whole thing,
you know. Down at the foot of the garden, over in the meadow below, some
one was singing; some one with a remarkable voice; rather deep-toned,
not loud, and yet full, with an extraordinary degree of melody; or, so
it seemed at a distance. I wondered who it was, that was all. You have
no idea, I suppose?"

"No! I wonder too, very much. No one from this house, I am sure of
that. Now that I think of it, though, Polly sings--Polly, the under
housemaid; she has a pretty little bird-like voice, but nothing such as
you describe. I'll make inquiries, though--"

"Oh, pray don't!" said Hugh, hastily, "I'd rather not! I--I mean, of
course, it is not of the smallest consequence, Margaret. It is pleasant
to hear singing at night, but perhaps all the pleasanter when the singer
is unseen and unknown. Now let us go on with our Thoreau."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Margaret! Margaret! Margaret!"

It was all Peggy could say at first. All the way up the avenue her heart
had been beating high; at sight of the brown chimney-stacks of Fernley,
it seemed to give a great jump up in her throat; and when the carriage
swept round the curve, and she saw the whole front of the great house,
and Margaret, her own Margaret, standing on the steps, with arms
outstretched to welcome her, there was nothing for it but to cry out,
with the full power of her healthy lungs. Almost before Bannan could
stop the horses, she had scrambled out, and was on her cousin's neck,
strangling her with hugs, and smothering her with kisses at the same
instant. "Margaret! Margaret! I am really here! Do you know that I am
really here?"

Speech was impossible for Margaret, but a voice from behind broke in:

"Come, come! what is all this? My niece done to death on my own
doorstep? Let go, Peggy, and come and kill me instead. I am older, and
shall be less missed."

Peggy loosed her hold, somewhat abashed, but received an embrace from
her uncle so warm that she brightened again instantly.

"Oh, Uncle John, how do you do? It was only that I was so glad to see my
darling Margaret. Did I hurt you, dearest? I have pulled all your lovely
hair down; Margaret, I am more clumsy than ever, I do believe."

"Dear Peggy! as if I cared whether you are clumsy or not! though it is
convenient to have the use of my windpipe, I confess. Well, and here you
are, indeed. Why, Peggy!"

"What is it, Margaret?"

"_Why, Peggy!_"

"Oh, dear! what is the matter? Is my hat wrong side before? I know my
necktie is crooked, but I couldn't help that, truly I couldn't,
Margaret; the strap is broken, and it will work round under my ear. I'll
mend it--"

"I wasn't looking at your necktie, child. Peggy, you are taller than I
am! How dare you, miss?"

"Oh, Margaret! I really thought I had done something--why, yes, so I am
taller; but only just the least little bit, Margaret."

"And your shoulders--why, Peggy, you are a great big creature! How can
any one grow so in six months? We shall have to call you Brynhild."

"What's that?" asked Peggy, simply. "I haven't grown enough to
understand outlandish words, Margaret, so you need not try them on me.
Oh,"--she looked around her with delighted eyes,--"how beautiful
everything looks, Uncle John. Why, the yellow birch has grown as much as
I have; it is quite a fat tree. And--you have put out more chestnuts,
haven't you? And--oh, Uncle John, I haven't told you my great news! The
most wonderful news! I wouldn't write about it, because I wanted to
surprise you. Hugh, our Hugh, is coming East. He is--"

"What is he?" said another voice, and Hugh came forward laughing, and
took his sister in his arms. "Well, little girl,--big, enormous,
colossal little girl, how are you? Shut your eyes, Peg of Limavaddy, or
they will drop out, and then what should we do?"

"Hugh! what does it mean? When--how did you get here? You weren't to
start till next week."

"So I wasn't," said Hugh, composedly. "But you see I did. If you are not
glad to see me, Margaret will let me stay in the back kitchen, I am
sure, till you go away."

Peggy's only reply was a hug as powerful as the one she had given
Margaret; it set her brother coughing and laughing till the tears came
to his eye. "My dear sister," he said, "have you been studying grips
with a grizzly bear? I felt one rib go, if not two."

"Not really, Hugh? I didn't really hurt you?" cried Peggy, anxiously.

"No, no! not really. See now, Margaret wants you. Run along, Samsonina."

Peggy ran into the house, casting delighted glances all about her.

"How beautiful the hall looks! Oh, Margaret, what flowers! why, it is a
perfect flower show! Did you do them all yourself? for me? Oh, you
darling!" and again Margaret's breath was extinguished by a powerful
embrace. "And, oh, the surprise of seeing Hugh! You know I love a
surprise. You planned it for me, didn't you, darling Margaret? You are
the most angelic--"

"Peggy! Peggy! Peggy! no extravagance!"

"No, Margaret, I won't. Only how can I help it, when I am so happy, and
you are so--"

But here Margaret fairly laid her hand over Peggy's mouth. "I did not
plan Hugh's coming," she said. "I was as much surprised, and as
pleasantly, as you, Peggy. He came earlier than he had expected, on
account of some business for Uncle James. Only, we all agreed that we
would not tell you, because we knew your fondness for surprises. Do you
think you could bear another, Peggy, or is this enough for to-day?"

"What do you mean, Margaret? There can't be anything more. Nothing could
count after the joy of seeing Hugh. Oh, Margaret, isn't he dear? Don't
you love him?"

"Indeed I do!" said Margaret, heartily. "You never said half enough
about him, Peggy. Oh, we are such friends, Uncle John and Hugh and I.
But is there no other thing you can think of that you would like, Peggy,
dear? No one else you would like very, very much to see?"

They were now at the door of Peggy's room, and Margaret's hand was on
the door. Peggy turned and looked at her in wonder. "What do you mean,
Margaret? Why do you look like that?" At this moment a sound was heard
on the other side of the door, something between a cry, a sniffle, and a
sob.

"Who is in there?" cried Peggy, her eyes opening to their fullest and
roundest extent.

"Go in and see," said Margaret, and she opened the door and pushed Peggy
gently in, and shut it again.

She heard a great cry. "Jean! my Jean!" "Oh, Peggy! Peggy!" then kissing
and hugging; and then sounds which made her open the door and come
quickly into the room. Peggy and Jean were seated on the floor, side by
side, their heads on each other's shoulder, crying as if their hearts
would break.



CHAPTER VIII.

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF


"Well, Jean!"

"Well, Peggy!"

"What do you think of them?"

"Oh, I think they are just lovely. I like the tall one best, don't you?
Though the red-haired one is awfully nice, too."

"Goose! I didn't mean them. I meant Uncle John and Margaret. Aren't they
dear? Did I say half enough about them, Jean?"

"No, not half. Margaret is just too lovely for anything, and Uncle
John--well, of course, I am awfully afraid of him, but he is just
lovely, too."

"Look here, young one!" said Peggy the Venerable, gravely. "Can't you
say anything except 'awful' and 'lovely?' I would enlarge my vocabulary,
if I were you."

Jean opened her eyes to their roundest. "Vocabulary! What's that? Don't
tell me that you are going to set up for a school-teacher, Peggy. Why,
you used to say 'awful' yourself, all the time."

"Oh, no, Jean, not quite all the time."

"Well, awfully often, anyhow. I know you did."

"Oh, Jean, I know I did. But first Margaret told me about it, and then I
began to notice for myself. I've been taking Special English this year,
and I find I notice more and more. It's really a pity, as Margaret says,
to have only two or three words and work them to death, when there are
so many good ones that we never use at all. Grace used to call it
'Cruelty to Syllables.'"

"Well, what shall I say? I don't know anything else."

"Yes, you do; don't be absurd, child. Margaret made me a list of
adjectives and adverbs once, I remember, the first time I was here; I
was just your age then, Jean, and I have no doubt I _did_ say 'awfully'
most of the time; anyhow, I did it enough to trouble Margaret aw--very
much indeed. Let me see: there is 'very,' of course; 'remarkably,
extremely, uncommonly, exceedingly, and excessively;' then for
adjectives, 'charming, delightful, pretty, exquisite, pleasant,
agreeable, entertaining,'--well, there were a great many more, but that
is all I can think of now; all these will do instead of 'awful' and
'lovely,' Jean."

"Oh, Peggy, dear, you are a regular school-ma'am. Please don't let us
talk about all these horrid things, the first night I am here. I am
perfectly dying to know what you think about the two Mr. Merryweathers,
and about Hugh and Margaret."

"Why, I think the Merryweathers seem very nice boys indeed. I like the
funny one best, I think; Gerald, is his name? But the other one is nice,
too. He has such kind eyes, and such a pleasant voice. Somehow he looks
more like Gertrude than Gerald does, even though Gerald has her hair.
Oh, Jean, I wish you could see my Snowy Owl! She is so dear, and
beautiful, and strong; next to you and Margaret, she is the very dearest
girl in the world, except one."

"May I come in?" said Margaret's voice at the door. She was greeted by a
duet of "Come in, do!" and entering, found her two cousins seated on the
floor, hair-brush in hand, brushing out their long fair hair.

        "'Maud and Madge in their robes of white,
         The prettiest nightgowns under the sun!'"

quoted Margaret. "How comfortable you look, girls! May I do my hair
here, too? I knew you would be sitting up, chattering. Who is the very
dearest girl in the world except one, Peggy? And who is the one? I heard
the end of your sentence before I knocked."

"Yes, but you didn't hear the beginning," said Peggy, "or you would know
that you two here are the _very_ dearest, and that the others only come
after you. I was speaking of Gertrude Merryweather; oh! how you and she
will love each other, Margaret! I don't see how I can wait to have you
know each other. And by the 'except one,' I meant Grace Wolfe, our Horny
Owl, and our Goat, and a good many other things."

"Where is she now?" asked Margaret. "Have you heard from her lately?"

"No," said Peggy, sadly. "None of us have heard at school. She wrote
Miss Russell some time ago that she was going to try a new departure,
and expected either to go mad or make her fortune; but she didn't say
what it was. She never writes many letters, you know. We have all
written again and again, but it makes no difference. Hark! what is that
noise?"

"What noise? I heard nothing," said Margaret.

"I thought I heard some one speak, outside the window."

They listened for a moment, but all was quiet.

"It may have been Uncle John and Hugh in the garden," said Margaret. "It
is early yet, you know, not ten o'clock; they often walk about for an
hour and more after we come up. Speaking of Grace Wolfe, Peggy,--"

"Tu-whit!" said a voice. "In this connection only, I may be permitted to
remark, tu-whoo!"

"_Grace!_" cried Peggy, in such a voice that the other girls sprang to
their feet. Peggy was at the window before them, snatching back the
curtain. The night was warm, and the upper sash had been lowered
completely. Leaning over the sash was a slender figure shimmering white
in the moonlight. "Any admittance for the Goat?" said a deep, melodious
voice. "Peace, Innocent!" for Peggy was trying to drag her in over the
sash by main force.

"I address the mistress of the dwelling. Is there admittance for a
miscellaneous quadruped, Margaret Montfort?"

But now Margaret had her other hand, and laughing and crying, the girls
had her in, and again Peggy displayed the powerful development of her
muscles in a strangling embrace, from which Grace emerged panting, but
unruffled. Giving Peggy a sedate kiss, she turned to Margaret, who still
held her hand, gazing in wonder and bewilderment; for this was Mrs.
Peyton's companion.

"You pardon the informality?" she said; and her smile was like light in
the room. "I could not come to call on Peggy, or on Peggy's Margaret,
with my bonnet on. And it is a _great_ wall to climb!" she added,
wistfully. "I don't know when I have enjoyed myself so; there is little
climbing in these sad days. Now you see why I did not want to be Miss
Fox."

"Oh, my dear!" cried Margaret. "How could you keep me in the dark? How
stupid--how utterly stupid of me, not to know you! And yet, how could I
have guessed that Mrs. Peyton's companion was Peggy's own beloved Grace?
You must be my Grace, too, please; I will have neither wolves nor foxes,
but only Grace, or the Horned Owl."

She kissed Grace, who returned the kiss warmly. But now Peggy, who had
been silent for a moment in sheer amazement, broke in:

"What does this all mean?" she cried. "Have you dropped from the moon,
Grace Wolfe, or where do you come from? You and Margaret have met
before? Where, and how, and when? I must know all about it, this very
instant."

The situation was soon explained. Jean, who had hung back, shy and
frightened, was brought forward and introduced; and soon all four girls
were seated comfortably on the floor, talking as if nothing astonishing
had happened. Only every few minutes Peggy would put her hand out and
touch Grace's shoulder, as if to make sure that she was genuine flesh
and blood, and not some phantom conjured up out of the moonlight.

"I have tried twice to see you," Margaret said. "Both times I seemed to
have come just at the wrong moment. Do tell me how you are getting on,
Grace! How has Mrs. Peyton been since you have been there? It is very
seldom that I am so many days without seeing her."

"Singular lady!" said Grace. "Beautiful, but singular. She thinks me
mad, so matters are equal. Why, we get on--somewhere! I am not sure
where. At present, I am in disgrace. She did not like her chocolate this
morning, and being in a pet, bade me throw it out of window; I obeyed.
It appears the cup was valuable, which was a pity, as its bones are
scattered far and wide."

"You threw the cup, too? Grace!"

"Naturally I threw the cup. I am going on the principle of doing exactly
what she tells me to do; thus she may discover the unreason of her
conduct. Tu-whit! Yesterday she was displeased with an embroidered
muslin jacket, and said she never wanted to see it again. I tore it up;
she was displeased. To-night she took a dislike to my dress, and told me
not to come near her till morning. Behold me here; I think it probable
that at this moment she is raising the house for me and desiring greatly
to be rubbed. These things are instructive to her. I have put her to
sleep every night by rubbing, and now she will not sleep. Poor lady; so
sad for her!"

All this was said quietly, pensively, with an air of mild consideration.
Margaret looked at her, wondering. No one had ever crossed Mrs. Peyton
before. One "companion" after another had been engaged, been tyrannized
over for a few weeks, and then dismissed. What would be the effect of
this opposite treatment? Timid herself, she had always met the vagaries
of her beautiful friend with, at most, a gentle protest. If matters were
too bad, she stayed away for a week, and was sure to find the lady in
her most winning mood at the end of that time; but she had never
attempted any more severe measure than this.

"Do you think--do you feel as if you were getting hold of her at all,
Grace?" she asked. "She is really very fascinating, when she wants to
be."

"I am not fascinated!" said Grace; and for a moment the half-whimsical,
half-reckless look, which was her usual expression, gave way to one that
was stern enough. "Mrs. Peyton appears to me to be a wholly selfish
person; a thing rarely met with in such entirety. I have promised my
Good Physician that I will try to rouse her, and see if there is any
scrap of woman left inside this pretty shell; I am going to do my best.
I think it doubtful if there is, but I am going to do my best."

Peggy gazed at her with adoring eyes and felt absolute assurance that
Mrs. Peyton would shortly be converted into an angel. Did not Grace
always do what she undertook to do?

With one of her sudden movements, Grace turned to her, and put her hands
on her shoulders. "Behold my Innocent happy!" she said. "What of the
other Owls, Babe? Do they hoot happily, and flap friskily?"

"Oh, Grace, they want to hear from you so much! The Snowy is really
anxious. She is afraid you are sick, or--or something. Do write to her,
dear; won't you?"

"The Snowy," said Grace, "is one of the few wholly satisfactory persons
in the world. I have an immense respect for the Snowy, as well as a
strong affection. If I could write to anybody, I think it would be to
her. It may even be done, Innocent. Who knows?"

"She was afraid--" Peggy hesitated.

"She was afraid," said Grace, coolly, "that I was going on the variety
stage. Yes; but you see, I did not. But I admit there are grounds--yes,
I will write, Innocent. And now I must go," she added, rising. "I may
come again, Margaret? Tie a white ribbon on the window-tassel when you
do not want me. Good night!"

"Oh, but, my dear, you are not going out in that way!" cried Margaret,
in distress. "Why not go down-stairs and out of the door, like a
Christian?"

"There is nothing distinctively unchristian, I hold, in going by way of
the window," replied Grace, her hand already on the sash. "Consider, I
pray you, the rapture of the one method, the futile stupidity of the
other. Enough! I am gone."

She slipped lightly over the sill and was gone, leaving the others
staring at each other. Peggy ran to the window and looked after her.
"She is all right, Margaret!" she cried; for Margaret was visibly
distressed and alarmed. "The woodbine is very thick and strong, and
there is the spout, too. There! She is down now, all safe. Good night!
oh, good night, dear Goat!"

About this time, Hugh Montfort, having said good night to his uncle and
the two Merryweathers, sauntered down the garden walk, for one more
turn, one more look at the night. It was a wonderful night. The moon was
full, and Fernley lay bathed in a flood of silver light, that seemed to
transform the old brown house into a fairy palace, stately and splendid.
There was no wind, and no sound broke the stillness; yes, it might well
be an enchanted palace, where every living thing lay fast bound by some
mighty spell. The leaves drooped motionless from the branches; beyond
the dark masses of trees, the broad lawns lay in green and silver.

"It's more like something Greek!" said Hugh. "Tempe, or some such place.
If a dryad, now, were to come out from that great tulip-tree--good
heavens!"

He stopped short, in the deep shadow of a clump of chestnut-trees.
Something moved, behind the very tree he was looking at. A figure came
lightly out into the open; a woman's figure, slight and supple, clad in
shadowy white. A dryad? No! the girl he had seen in the summer-house. He
knew the face, as it shone upturned in the moonlight; knew the firm
mouth and chin, the blue eyes, the look of careless power; seen once
only, it was as if he had known the face all his life.

What was she doing? A smile lighted her grave eyes suddenly. She
extended her arms, her face still raised to the moon. Her whole figure,
light as thistle-down, began to sway, to drift hither and thither over
the silver-green lawn. Dancing, was she? It was no human dance, surely;
the name was too common for this marvel of motion. A wave cresting and
curling toward its break; a cloud blown lightly along a summer sky by a
gentle wind; a field of grain, bending and rippling under the same wind.
Hugh thought of all these things, and rejected each in turn, as unworthy
of comparison to this, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He
watched her, as if in a dream of delight; each moment it seemed that he
must wake, and find the lovely vision gone. It was too rare, too perfect
to be real. It seemed as if all the moonlight in the world were drawn to
this one spot, to shine on that white figure, dancing, swaying, hither
and thither--

Ah! it was over. She stopped; threw, it seemed, some words upward toward
the moon, accompanying them with a wave of her hand. Then she turned
away, and passed slowly out of sight, under the dark trees. As she went,
she began to sing; softly at first, a mere breath of sound; but as she
passed farther and farther on, her song rang out clear and sweet; the
voice and the song that he had heard the night before, in the field
beyond the wall:

        "Trois anges sont venus ce soir,
         M'apportaient de bien belles choses!"



CHAPTER IX.

ABOUT NOTHING IN PARTICULAR


"Jerusalem!" said Philip Merryweather.

"And Madagascar!" responded his twin brother. "Well, what did I tell
you, old Towser?"

"Yes, I know; but last night, you see, I was half-asleep, and didn't see
it all. This is what I call a room."

Phil sat up in bed, and looked about the great nursery, into which the
early sun was shining brightly.

"The bigness of it!" he said, "if nothing more. You could have quite a
track round this, do you know it? Most rooms are all walls; I hate
walls. Shove the furniture into the middle, and chalk a six-foot
track--hey? What do you say?"

"This!" replied Gerald, throwing a pillow with accurate aim. "Does it
occur to your arboreal, if not river-drift mind, that there are people
under this room? Heehaw! excuse me for not sooner addressing you in your
own language. Here, belay that! I want to know what you think of them
all."

"Jolly!" was Phil's brief but emphatic verdict. But Gerald seemed to
demand something more. "Isn't Mr. Montfort the most corking person you
ever saw?"

"Except three, I should say he was. That lame chap is a corker, too.
Reminds me a bit of the Codger, I don't know why."

"So he does!" said Gerald, eagerly. "I didn't see it before. Queer
stunt, too, because she always makes me think of Hildegarde."

"Who? Miss Peggy? I don't--"

"No, no! Who said anything about Miss Peggy? Miss Montfort, of course."

"They are all Miss Montforts. You mean Miss Margaret? Well--I see what
you mean. She hasn't Hildegarde's beauty, though. Very attractive,
but--"

"That's what I mean!" said Gerald, eagerly. "There's something of that
quiet way, that takes hold of you and--oh, I didn't mean that they
would be taken for sisters. Look here, Elderly Ape, was you thinking of
getting up, or should I bring his gruel, and feed him wiz a 'poon, a
pretty toddlekins?"

"A pretty toddlekins will break your pretty noddlekins," replied Philip.
"Avast there, and heave sponges!" And the conversation ended in a grand
splashing duet executed in two enormous bath-tubs that stood in
different corners of the great room.

It was a merry party that met at breakfast. John Montfort looked round
the table with pleasure, and wondered how he had ever sat here alone,
year after year, when this kind of thing was to be had, apparently for
the asking. Margaret's sweet face, opposite him, was radiant; it struck
Mr. Montfort that he had never seen her look so pretty before. The
delicate rose-flush on her cheek, the light in her eyes, an
indescribable air of gaiety, of lightness, about her whole figure--

"Why, this is what she needed!" said Mr. Montfort to himself. "The
children were all very well; I am all very well myself, for an old
uncle, but children and old uncles are not all that a lassie needs. Ah,
well, it is all as it should be. We remember, Rose!"

Gerald, at Margaret's left hand, was talking eagerly. If her face was
radiant, his was sparkling. For the first time in his life, it is
probable, he seemed to take little heed of his breakfast.

"Do you remember the thunder-storm, Miss Montfort? and the way that
little chap ran around the long corridor? He's going to make a great
runner some day. Cork--very nice little fellow. You say he isn't here
now? I'm sorry! I wanted the Ape to see him."

"The Ape?"

"The Old Un. My brother, Long-leggius Ridiculus. Christian name Philip,
but what has he done that I should call him that?"

Margaret laughed. She did not fully understand, but everything Gerald
said seemed to her funny. "What does he call you?" she asked. "Or do you
invent new names every day? Last night I heard you calling him--what was
it? Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus?"

"It might have been!" said Gerald, with modest pride. "I can 'gleek
upon occasion.' I can also sling a syllable with the next man. It is
only at monosyllables that I draw the line. When I call him Ape, I have
to tack an adjective to it, or things happen. Miss Montfort, you don't
know how glad I was to come. It was awfully kind of Mr. Montfort to ask
us. I've always wanted to come again, and I didn't know when I should
have a chance. There--there isn't any other place like this in the
world, I believe. I've told the Ape a lot about it, and he was keen to
see it, too. What a cork--that is, what an extremely fine fellow your
cousin appears to be."

"Do you mind if I ask," said Margaret; "is 'cork' a complimentary term?"

Gerald blushed. "Why, you see," he said, rather ruefully, "I made up my
mind that I would drop it when I came here. 'Corker,' and
'corking'--well, it means that a person is all right, don't you know?
That he's awfully jolly, and--and--corking, in short. It's the thing
fellows say nowadays. I get into the way of it, and then I go home, and
the Mater says things to me. She doesn't like slang, and of course you
don't either, Miss Montfort. I'll try not to do it again, truly I will."

"Oh, but I don't mind that kind of slang!" said Margaret; and she
wondered at herself even as she spoke. "It--it seems so funny, somehow.
I suppose when slang is really funny--"

She looked up and caught her uncle looking at her with an expression of
amusement. She blushed in her turn, stammered, and took refuge behind
her coffee-urn.

Meantime Peggy and Philip had fallen deep in conversation. He was the
brother of Gertrude Merryweather, the beloved Snowy Owl of Peggy's
happiest school-days; that was enough for Peggy. She was used to boys
and brothers, and felt none of the shyness that often made Margaret's
tongue trip and stammer in spite of her two years' advantage. Peggy was
full of eager questionings:

"How is she looking? dear lovely thing! Do you think she will go to
college this fall? Oh, do try to make her! I do so want to have her back
again,--near us, I mean. The Fluffy enters this fall, you know; the
Snowy ought to come, too. Do try to make her, won't you, Mr.
Merryweather?"

Phil looked grave. "Said the kangaroo to the duck, this requires a
little reflection!" he said. "The child Toots has her good points, as
you observe, Miss Montfort. She is a rather nice child, and we like to
have her at home. She has been at this old school three years, and I
don't see the good of sisters if they are somewhere else all the time.
Not that I should wish to stand in the way of the child Toots; but you
see, Bell is off, too, and the Mater has been having things the matter
with her,--rheumatism and that,--and the child Toots is useful at
home,--uncommon useful she is."

"Oh! but--of course I'm aw--dreadfully sorry your mother isn't well;
but--but Gertrude wants to come, doesn't she? Oh, well, I shall hope it
will be all right. And oh! what do you think, Mr. Merryweather? The most
astonishing thing happened last night. I must write and tell Gertrude
all about it. The Horny is near here."

"The Horny? Not--"

"Yes, Grace Wolfe. Think of it! Do you know her? Well, of course
Gertrude has told you all about her. She is the most wonderful person in
the world, and she is living close by here, taking care of some
one,--you know she means to be a nurse. You know how wonderful she was
when that poor girl was so sick at school--and she has been staying at
Doctor Flower's, and he persuaded her to come and take care of this
lady. You must see her,--I want everybody to see her. She isn't like
anybody else, you know. Why, just when you look at her you feel that; I
don't know what it is,--I can't explain,--but it's there. And then her
voice! When she sings, it's--it's like magic, somehow. Oh, dear! I wish
I could express myself; I never know how to say things."

"You are saying them beautifully!" said gallant Philip. "Besides, of
course, Toots has told me a good deal about your wonderful friend. Does
she still go climbing all about, disdaining doors and stairs, and using
windows instead?"

"Oh, hush!" said Peggy. "I don't know whether we are to speak of it or
not, but--she came up the wall, and in at our window last night."

"No!"

"Yes, she did. Don't tell anybody, because she might not like it. She
fluttered in like a bird, and stayed awhile, and then fluttered out
again. And then--we heard her singing in the distance as she went back,
and really and truly, it seemed like fairy music."

Something made Peggy look up at this moment, and she caught Hugh
Montfort's eyes fixed on her with so intent a gaze that she stumbled and
blushed, and thought she had said something wrong. "Don't ask me
anything about it," she murmured to her neighbor. "Perhaps--they may not
like to have people climb up the walls here; I wouldn't get Grace into
trouble for twenty worlds."

"Hugh," said Mr. Montfort, "I am going to get you to do the honors of
the garden and stables to these young gentlemen, as I am busy this
morning. The girls have a dozen plans, no doubt; but perhaps Peggy and
Jean would like to go with you and see the puppies, while Margaret sees
to her housekeeping. How does that suit you all?"

Every one acquiesced in the arrangement, and, as they went out into the
garden, Peggy managed to slip beside her brother.

"What did I say that was wrong, Hugh? You were looking at me as if I had
done all kinds of things. Would Uncle John mind her climbing up the
wall, do you think? She couldn't possibly hurt it; she is light as a
feather; and Margaret didn't say anything about her not doing it again."

A faint color crept into Hugh's brown cheek.

"My dear little Peggy," he said, "you must not be so imaginative. It is
a new trait in you. What possible objection could there be to a young
lady climbing up the wall if she enjoys it? It seemed--a little unusual,
I suppose, and so I was interested. Was I indiscreet? I hardly supposed
you would be having confidences with young Merryweather quite so soon."

"Hugh, don't be ridiculous. Then it's all right, and I am so glad! Thank
you, dear."

She was springing away, but Hugh called her back.

"One moment, Peggy. This--this friend of yours seems to be a remarkable
person. Has she other accomplishments besides climbing? Did I hear you
speak of singing?"

"Oh, Hugh, I wish you could hear her sing! You might have heard her last
night, if you had only been out. It was full moon, and the moon makes
her mad, she says. Anyhow, when the moon is out she is wilder than ever,
fuller of--whatever it is that she is full of; I don't know, something
like a spirit, or a bird. Once I saw her dance in the moonlight, and I
shall never forget it as long as I live."

"No more shall I," said Hugh, under his breath. "Thank you, Peggy," he
said aloud. "Don't let me keep you, my dear; or were you coming with
us?"

"Oh, I don't know, Hugh; I want to do so many things, all at once. I
want to show Jean the house, and the garden, and the summer-houses,
and--oh! oh, you darlings! you beauties! Hugh, do look at these lovely
duckies!"

The "lovely duckies" were Nip and Tuck, who came leaping and dancing up
the walk, wagging and sneezing, with every demonstration of frantic joy.

"Which is which? Nip, oh, you dear! Give a paw! Do they know how to
give a paw, Hugh?"

"They know how to fetch," said Hugh. "Here, Tuck! here, boys! What have
I got?"

He held up a stick; straightway the dogs went mad, and yelled and
danced, sneezed and yapped, like wild creatures. "Fetch!" said Hugh,
throwing the stick. Together the puppies flashed off in pursuit; fell
upon the stick and each other, and rolled over and over, still in
frenzied voice and motion; finally came to an understanding, and, taking
each an end in his mouth, came cantering abreast up to Hugh, and, laying
the stick at his feet, looked up and asked for more, as plainly as ever
did Oliver Twist. Here was a pleasant amusement for young people. The
grave Hugh and the gay Merryweathers, Peggy and Jean, all became
absorbed in picking up sticks and throwing them. There was no end to the
puppies' enthusiasm, apparently; they yelled, and rushed, and yelled and
rushed again; and when Margaret came out an hour afterward, anxious lest
her guests should find time hang heavy on their hands, she found one
and all flushed and breathless, hurling sticks and stones, and making
almost half as much noise as the dogs themselves. At sight of Margaret,
cool and pearly in her white dress, Gerald and Peggy dropped their
sticks, and looked abashed; but Hugh called to her merrily: "Margaret,
they are making great progress. I think my pupil has got farther than
yours, though. Miss Margaret and I are training them for a prize
contest," he added, turning to Gerald. "This is an extension of their
usual practice, that is all."

"Hurrah!" said Gerald, much relieved. "I was afraid she would think--I
didn't know whether she would approve," he concluded, somewhat lamely.

It _was_ amazing. It was rather as if the Venus of Milo had begun to
sing light opera, Gerald thought; but after all, how much pleasanter if
she should, than to stand there all day and wonder how she was going to
eat her breakfast without any arms. With this shocking reflection,
Master Gerald betook himself once more to the throwing of sticks, and
the sport went on till Margaret called the puppies off, declaring that
they would be too tired for their afternoon run.

"She takes care of everything, you see!" said Gerald, aside to his
brother. "All without any fuss; that's just like Hilda, too."

"Yes," said Phil. "Appears to be a corker!"

"I wish you wouldn't talk so much slang, Phil!" said Gerald. "What kind
of word is that to use in speaking of Miss Montfort?"

Philip looked up in amazement, and saw his brother flushed, and
evidently annoyed in earnest.

"Well, may I be split and buttered!" said Phil.

"I wish you were!" said Gerald, forcing a laugh. "Come along, and don't
be an ass!"



CHAPTER X.

GRACE'S SYSTEM


"Margaret!"

"Yes, Mrs. Peyton."

"Is that door shut? lock it, will you? and--just go and look out of the
window, please. No one there? Thank you!"

She sank back on her pillows with a sigh of relief.

"What is it?" asked Margaret, soothingly. "What troubles you, dear Mrs.
Peyton?"

"I am frightened!" said Emily Peyton.

"Frightened?"

"Yes. I am afraid of that girl, Margaret."

"What girl? You cannot possibly mean Grace?"

Mrs. Peyton glanced around her. Evidently she did mean Grace.

"She behaves so!" she said, in a low voice. "I don't think she is in her
right mind, to begin with; it is terrible to be with a person who may
break out into madness at any moment."

"My dear," said Margaret, "you are absolutely and wholly mistaken. Grace
is as sane as I am. She is one of the sanest persons I have ever known,
it seems to me. Of course she is singular--eccentric, if you like. But
what has she been doing, to disturb you so?"

Mrs. Peyton glanced around her again, with an apprehensive glance.
"Well!" she said, "I--I suppose I may as well tell you, Margaret. I have
been ill so long, I may have become--a little unreasonable. There is
nobody who cares; I never saw any reason why I should be reasonable.
Having to lie here, it is a pity if I may not have my own way, don't you
think so? I have had it, at any rate; I don't say that it has always
been a sensible way; I detest sensible things and people. I can't
imagine how I have endured you so long. I should not, if you were not
pretty and prim."

"Thank you!" said Margaret, soberly.

"Don't interrupt me! This has been on my mind for two weeks, and I want
to get rid of it. There is nobody else I can tell. Doctor Flower, like
a veritable fiend, after sending me this firebrand, goes off to Europe.
A physician should be indicted for going to Europe. Well--I don't know
what to tell you, or where to begin. She--she frightens me, I say. I
never know what she is going to do next. Yesterday--I felt wretchedly
yesterday, Margaret; I was in acute pain all day. I suppose I was pretty
impatient. I--well, I threw something out of the window in a pet,--my
amethyst rope it was,--and she stood and looked at me quietly, as if she
were taking notes of my appearance. I couldn't bear it; I told her to go
after it. Just a little impatient cry, it was. My dear, in an instant
she was out of the window. Gone, out of sight like a flash. I shrieked;
no one heard me. I--you will not believe this, Margaret--I got out of
bed, and dragged myself to the window, expecting to see her dead and
shattered at the bottom. There she stood, cool as crystal, shaking the
leaves from her dress. She looked up and saw me, and if ever I saw an
elfish look--do you believe in witchcraft, Margaret? my nurse did; she
told me some strange tales when I was a child."

"No need of witchcraft in this case," said Margaret, smiling. "Grace is
as active as a cat, and her special delight is to climb up and down
walls. There is a grape-vine under this window, isn't there? That would
be quite enough for the Goat, as they called her at school."

"That isn't all," said Mrs. Peyton. "She's not right, I tell you; not
canny, as Nurse used to say. You may laugh, Margaret Montfort. I tell
you, lying here year after year, one gets to thinking all kinds of
things. I could tell you--who knows the old woman was not right after
all?--listen to this. Yesterday, this very yesterday, she was standing
there by the mantel-piece, talking as quietly as we are talking now.
Suddenly, without a word, down she falls in a swoon, or trance, or
something unearthly. I had let the maids go out; we two were alone in
the house. There she lay, and I thought she was dead. I got up again! No
one knows what it cost me, Margaret. I have forgotten how to walk; I
merely dragged myself across to where she lay. She was breathing; I
could not see that she was paler than usual--she never has any color,
you know. I called and screamed; I raved and wept, I believe; you cannot
fancy how terrible it was, that living, breathing form, lying there, the
lips almost smiling, but no sign, no twitching of an eyelid, only the
beating of the heart, to tell me that she was not dead. Hush! do you
know the story of Christy Moran? My nurse's grandmother used to know
her. She was--I don't know what she was--but she used to do this very
thing. They would find her sitting in her chair, breathing, but without
speech or motion, and afterward they would hear of some devilish act or
other, committed at that very hour, in some distant town or village, by
a figure wearing her likeness. Don't laugh! don't laugh! I tell you, we
don't know everything in this civilization that we talk so much about. I
tried to say a prayer, Margaret,--I used to say them regularly,--but--and
I had hardly begun before she opened her eyes and smiled at me like a
child. 'Did you ever hear of catalepsy?' she says, and she went out of
the room without another word, and left me to get back to bed as best I
could."

Margaret was silent, not knowing what to say. She had no doubt that
Grace was acting upon some theory of her own, and was playing these wild
pranks in the hope of rousing her patient to action and exercise.
Certainly, to get Mrs. Peyton out of bed twice in two days was no small
feat; still, Margaret's gentle mind shrank from the thought of forcing
one so frail, so enfeebled by years of invalidism, into sudden activity
which might be injurious, or even fatal to her. She could not betray
Grace--what should she say? But there was no need of her saying
anything, for Mrs. Peyton went on, hurriedly, hardly glancing at her
auditor. Evidently it was a relief to her to free her mind.

"Why don't I send her away, you may ask. Margaret, I ask myself the same
question twenty times a day. My dear, she is too fascinating! She
interests me so! Have you heard her sing, and tell stories? I have not
been so interested for years. She makes me restless, I tell you; she
makes me think of things I had forgotten, or that I said good-by to
years and years ago. Look! she sits down on the floor here, beside the
bed--in the night, often, when I cannot sleep, and she has been rubbing
me--that is another reason why I do not let her go, Margaret; her touch
is like healing balm; there is magic in it, I tell you. She sits down
there, with her long hair falling all about her, in the moonlight,
looking like nothing earthly, and she talks--or chants, rather,--there
isn't anything like it, so I don't know what to call it--about foreign
countries. She has never seen them, or she says she never has. That is a
little matter to her; she knows all about them, twenty times as much as
I do, though I used to travel till I hated the sight of a railway or a
steamer. She tells me things about Sicily, and Norway, and the
Hebrides,--old Icelandic legends,--about Burnt Njal, and those people;
she makes me want to see the places, actually. There are plenty of
places I have not seen. She says Iceland is a flower-garden in summer.
Margaret, don't laugh at what I am going to say!"

"Indeed, I am not laughing, dear Mrs. Peyton."

"She says--this girl says--she thinks I could--get up. Get up and do
things, I mean, like other people. Did you ever hear of such nonsense?"

Mrs. Peyton laughed; but she looked eagerly at Margaret, and there was
something in her eyes that had never been there before.

Margaret leaned over her, and kissed the beautiful forehead. "I am sure
you could!" she said; and at the moment she did feel sure. Something of
Grace's spirit seemed to pass into her, and she felt a hope, a
confidence, that had never come into her mind before. Why not? Why
should it not be? Mrs. Peyton was still in middle life; she ought to
have years of life before her. Why might she not be roused, be taught
over again how to live, and to enjoy the good and glorious earth?
Margaret's eyes kindled.

"I am sure you could!" she repeated. "Let us try! Let me help Grace, and
let us all try our very best, dear Mrs. Peyton. Just think how wonderful
it would be to get well; to go about again, and be alive among live
people. Oh, my dear, let us try!"

But the lady's mood changed. In a flash, even as Margaret was gazing at
her with eager, loving eyes,--eyes in which stood tears of affection
and anxiety,--she changed. The mocking smile crept back to her lips, the
light of interest died from her eyes.

"Bah!" she said. "Little goose, what do you know about life and live
people? It was to get away from them that I took to my bed, do you hear?
There, go away! I have been talking great nonsense; forget all about it!
Sick folks often talk nonsense. Give me something to play with, and go
away! I had a new toy yesterday, an amber ball. It's in the top drawer.
Ah! isn't that a beauty? Give it to me! See, how smooth and cool it is,
Margaret! Do you think an amber necklace would be becoming to me? I can
wear yellow, you know; blondes of my type rarely can, but it always
suited me. Do you remember a story about the Amber Gods? It is one of
the few stories I ever cared for. To-morrow I'll order a set of amber
jewelry, bracelets and necklace, and--"

She stopped suddenly, seeing the grave compassion in Margaret's eyes.

[Illustration: "SHE LOOKED UP, AND SAW GRACE SITTING ON A BROAD, LOW
BRANCH."]

"Don't speak to me!" she cried, angrily. "You are thinking--I know
what you are thinking--that I cannot wear necklaces in bed. You think I
am a wretched, helpless, faded old woman. I hate you! Go away!" and
Margaret went.

As she passed along the garden-walk with bent head, musing soberly
enough, something struck her lightly on the head,--a cherry, which fell
at her feet. She looked up, and saw Grace sitting on a broad, low
branch.

"Come up!" said the Goat.

Margaret smiled, and shook her head. "My dear Grace, I never climbed a
tree in my life. I should not know where to begin."

"Time you learned!" said Grace, gravely. "There is no knowing when the
race will return to arboreal habits. Come, Margaret, I want you!"

Margaret hesitated, and was lost. She looked about, half fearing, half
hoping that somebody was in sight. No! no gardener came with his
watering-can, no boy with his wheelbarrow. She turned back, to meet once
more the compelling glance, and see the hand stretched out to help her.
How it was accomplished, Margaret never knew, but, after a breathless
moment, she found herself seated on the branch, too, clinging fast to
the rugged bark, and not daring to look below.

"All right!" said Grace, composedly. "See, now, what good cherries these
are! I have permission from Madame to kill myself with them, and am
doing my best. They are white oxhearts, the finest cherry that grows!"

"Oh, but I daren't let go my hold of the branch," said poor Margaret;
"and my head is so dizzy. Dear Grace, how shall I ever get down again?
Won't you help me?"

"Not now! Now it is necessary that you should stay for a space, and
learn to accept this, as other situations. Begin gradually to look down
and about you. Fix your eye on that apple-tree, the one with the
hump-back; then let your eyes travel slowly, slowly, over the ground,
till they come here, under our feet. There! you see it is easy. Is the
dizziness gone?"

"It is certainly much better. I think perhaps, in a little while, I may
get used to it, but I am quite sure I never shall like it. Why do you
like to climb so, Grace? Why is it more comfortable to sit in a tree
than on a pleasant, safe seat on the grass?"

Grace shrugged her shoulders. "Who can say?" she said. "I have always
supposed that the soul of my grandam inhabited a bird. Shakespeare! And
you know I am an owl myself in regular, if not in good, standing. What
would you? It is my nature. And how do we find the Patient to-day? Did
she tell you that she left her bed twice yesterday?"

"Yes. Grace, it frightens me, all this wild work. Are you sure what you
are doing?"

"I am sure that there is nothing the matter with this lady. I think she
can be brought back to health by foul means, but not by fair. I think
that in this case the end justifies the means. _Voilà!_"

Margaret looked at her earnestly; she met a gaze so full, so clear, so
brave, that her own spirit rose to meet it.

Suddenly Grace held out her hand. "Come!" she said. "Trust me, Margaret!
I am not a hobgoblin, though I may pose as one now and then. Trust me;
and--by and by--try to love me a little, for I loved you before ever I
saw you."

Margaret took the slender hand and pressed it cordially. "I will trust
you!" she said. "I have doubted, Grace, I confess; doubted and feared;
but now I shall not fear any more. Only--oh, my dear, don't frighten her
more than you have to. She really thinks you are--not right; and some of
the things she told me were certainly rather terrifying. That trance, or
whatever it was--well--what was it, Grace?"

Grace laughed, a laugh so merry and clear that the robins left off
eating cherries to see what the sound might be. "What was it? My child,
it was nothing. I fell down, I shut my eyes--again, _voilà_! Her mind
was prepared for the marvellous, and she found it. Nothing simpler than
that."

"But you said something about--catalepsy! the very sound of that word
always frightens me, because of a story I read once. I don't wonder it
frightened Mrs. Peyton."

"I asked her if she had ever heard of it. A simple question! Apparently
she had. Come, let us eat cherries, and strive to approximate the
lettuce. Do you feel any green crinkles in your veins yet? And how is
the Innocent to-day? I love that child."

"Dear Peggy! I left her trying to teach Tuck to keep a biscuit on his
nose while she counted twenty. When I left, he could not get beyond ten,
when it was devoured with yelps of joy. But I have no doubt Peggy will
succeed in time; she has plenty of patience, and plenty of
perseverance."

Grace nodded sagely. "Plenty of patience and plenty of perseverance!"
she repeated. "Great qualities, Margaret. I wonder if I have them. I am
going to find out. Now--who is the tall person who is lame, and sits in
a summer-house?"

Margaret laughed. "He doesn't sit in a summer-house all the time," she
said. "That is Peggy's brother, Hugh Montfort. I want you to know him,
Grace; he is so delightful; I know you will be friends. Come over to tea
this evening, won't you? Mrs. Peyton promised me you should; you know we
have been trying for you ever since Peggy came. Do come! Uncle John is
planning something for us; he will not tell me what, but it is sure to
be something delightful. Promise that you will come; and then you must
really help me get down, my dear, for the girls will be wondering where
I am."

"Your hands here--so! Let yourself swing clear--don't be afraid; hang
still--now drop easily! There! was that so very dreadful? Good-by, cool,
green, lovely one! I will come to-night; good-by!"

"What will Rita say," Margaret questioned herself as she took her way
homeward, "when I write her that I have been climbing cherry-trees, and
getting down from them without a ladder?"



CHAPTER XI.

THE MYSTERIES OF FERNLEY


"Now, Uncle John!"

"Now, Margaret!"

"Don't be tormenting, sir! You know that you promised us a new Mystery
of Fernley, if we would all be good. We have been good; virtue shines
from every one of us, doesn't it, Hugh?"

"My eyes are dazzled," replied her cousin. "Most of it seems to come
from the feminine side of the house, though, I fear. All that the boys
and I have done has been to abstain from actual crime."

"Oh, cherries!" said Phil.

        "Up into the tree of cherry,
         Who should climb but little Jerry?"

"Pooh! pooh!" said Mr. Montfort. "What are cherries for except to eat, I
should like to know? Yes, you have all been good children, and it is
true that I promised--something. Sit down now, all of you, and I will
tell you the story of the Lost Casket."

The young people clustered about him, sitting on the floor, on cushions
and footstools, on anything rather than the prosaic seat of an ordinary
chair. Mr. Montfort looked around on their bright, eager faces. Margaret
sat next him, his own Margaret, fair and sweet in her white dress, with
the bright, joyous look that had grown so habitual to her of late. Next
to her was Gerald Merryweather; it struck Mr. Montfort suddenly that
Gerald Merryweather usually was beside Margaret. Beyond them again,
Peggy and Jean, with Phil between them; Phil, who as yet preferred his
sister Gertrude's society to that of any girl he had ever seen. At the
other side of the ring, Grace Wolfe, sitting a little apart, with the
curious air of solitariness that seemed to surround her even in company.
Hugh Montfort was not far off, though, and his deep brown eyes were
gazing at her intently.

"Once upon a time," Mr. Montfort began, and was greeted with a chorus of
disappointment. "Oh, Uncle John! You said it was true."

"Not a fairy story this time, sir, please; give us the real thing!"

"Will you be quiet, you impetuous creatures?" asked Uncle John. "It is
true, so far as I know. And if you interrupt me again--"

"We will not!"

"Hear us swear!" cried the young people.

"Once upon a time, then, some hundred and fifty years ago, there lived
here at Fernley Mr. Peter Montfort, the great-great-grandfather of some
of you. He was a worthy gentleman, with a pretty taste for engravings;
that Raphael Morghen print of the Transfiguration, Margaret, that you
are so fond of, is from his collection. He travelled about Europe a good
deal, buying engravings; that is the only thing I know about him, except
the fact that he married twice; and on this marrying twice hangs our
story. Listen now, and you shall hear. His first wife (she was a Miss
Rhinefels) died, leaving him with an only daughter, Christina Montfort.
The only time the name Christina appears, I believe, in the family
annals. At the time of her mother's death Christina was a woman grown;
a handsome person, to judge from her miniature, and of strong feelings.
She kept house for her father, and expected to do so all her days, as an
early disappointment had disinclined her for marriage. When, after a
couple of years, her father, being then a man of seventy, brought home a
wife of twenty-five, Christina was, not unnaturally, incensed. She
refused to speak to the newcomer, shut herself up in her own apartments,
and had a special servant to wait upon her. This uncomfortable state of
things continued for some time, when she sickened of some acute
distemper, and died in a short time. She possessed some fine jewels,
which she had inherited from her mother, and she was heard to say
repeatedly that her stepmother should never lay a finger on one of them.
It is supposed that she, or her servant acting under her orders, hid the
casket containing these jewels somewhere in this house; at all events,
they were never found after her death, and have never, it is said, been
seen to this day."

"Oh, Uncle John! but has any one looked for them?"

"My dear Peggy, every one has looked for them. I cannot tell you how
many Montfort ladies, in all these generations, have fretted their
nerves and worn out their finger-nails, hunting for this Lost Casket. I
specially requested your Aunt Faith, Margaret, not to mention it to you
or your cousins when you were here together. I had seen so many vain
searches, and heard of so many heart-burnings, in connection with it,
that I thought it best to defer the information till--till later. This,
however, seems a very favorable time. You are all too sensible, girls,
to be unhappy if you do not find it. To tell the truth, I used to hunt
for it when I was a boy. But you can have a grand game of hide and seek,
with an object, imaginary or actual, at the end of it; and I wish you a
merry game, young people, and I return to my conversation with the Sieur
de Montaigne."

He was surrounded in an instant, kissed, caressed, and thanked till he
declared his life was in danger, and threatened to take up the
hearth-broom in self-defence; finally they trooped off, to hold a
consultation in the hall.

"Shall we divide our forces and go in small parties?" inquired Hugh,
looking at Grace.

"I say we go just as it happens," said Peggy. "I think that will be much
more exciting."

"Perhaps it will," said Hugh, becoming resigned, as he saw Peggy link
her arm in Grace's. "Come on, then, girls and boys! Suppose we begin
with the garret; Margaret has been promising to show me its wonders ever
since I came."

On the second landing they paused to salute the old portraits, and Hugh
must point out this or that one that had a familiar look.

"This might be Margaret's self, I always think, Miss Wolfe; this
sweet-faced lady in the silvery green gown. See! she has the same clear,
quiet, true eyes, and her hair is the same shade of soft brown. A lovely
face."

"Are you looking at the Sea-green Me?" asked Margaret over his shoulder.
"Our dear Rita liked it, and used to call it her Sea-green Margaret. But
come now and look at the glorious Regina, who actually has a look of
Rita herself. And I want Grace to see Hugo, too."

[Illustration: "ON THE SECOND LANDING THEY PAUSED TO SALUTE THE OLD
PORTRAITS."]

She passed on, and Grace was about to follow, but Hugh detained her.
"Just one moment," he said, speaking low. "This is a fine collection,
Miss Wolfe, but I see no portrait of the Wood-nymph."

"The Wood-nymph?"

"Yes. Do you not know that a dryad haunts this garden of Fernley?
Sometimes she is not seen, only heard in the dusk, singing magical
songs, that fill whoever hears them with a strange feeling akin to
madness. But sometimes--sometimes she leaves her tree, and comes out in
the moonlight, and--dances--"

He paused. Grace had started, and now looked up at him with a curious
expression, in which anger, mirth, and fear seemed struggling for the
upper hand. Before she could reply, a terrific scream rang through the
gallery, startling the whole party. Turning, they saw Jean, who had run
on before the rest in her eagerness to explore, standing at the farther
end of the corridor, with open mouth and staring eyes, the very image of
terror.

"My dear child," cried Margaret, running toward her, "what is it? Are
you hurt?"

"What is it, Jeanie?" said Peggy, who was the first to reach her sister,
and already had her in her arms. "Jean, don't gasp so! You have seen
something; is that it? Margaret, what did I always tell you?"

Jean nodded, still gasping, and clung to Peggy with eager, trembling
hands. "Oh!" she moaned. "Peggy, save me! take me away! the closet; oh,
the closet!"

"What closet, dear? This one? Why, this is the broom closet. There is
nothing here to frighten you, Jean."

"The woman!" murmured Jean. "The dreadful dead woman! Peggy, I saw her
eyes, and her long hair. Oh, I shall die, I know I shall!"

"Oh, you poor lamb!" cried Margaret, laughing in spite of her
compassion. She hurried to the closet and flung the door wide open. "It
is only Mrs. Body!" she said. "Come and look again, Jean; it is the
lay-figure, dear, nothing else in the world."

"Lay figure?" faltered Jean, still trembling and hanging back.

"Yes, the model. Grandmother Montfort used to paint a great deal, and
she had this creature made to stand for the figure. Come and look at it,
dear child."

Gently and persuasively she drew the trembling girl forward; the others
all pressed behind her.

There on the floor of the closet lay a figure which might at the first
glance have alarmed a stouter heart than fifteen-year-old Jean's,--the
figure of a woman, scantily draped in white. The arms were stretched out
stiffly, the face, with its staring eyeballs, over which fell some lank
wisps of hair, was turned toward the door. No wonder Jean was terrified.

"I am so sorry!" said Margaret. "The children, Basil and Susan D., found
her in the garret last winter. They begged to be allowed to have her for
a plaything, so they kept her in here, and had great fun with her. Her
name is Mrs. Body, but she can take any part, from Ophelia to Simple
Susan. She took tea with us once, when Uncle John was away, and she
behaved beautifully; so you see you really must not mind her, Jean,
dear."

"It's no wonder she was frightened, though," said Gerald. "My right arm
cleaves to the roof of my mouth, even now that I know who she is. Mrs.
Body, my respects to you, ma'am, and I desire you of less acquaintance."

While they were all laughing over Mrs. Body, and commenting upon her
various points, Gerald slipped round to Margaret's side.

"Miss Montfort," he said, speaking in a low tone, "do you remember the
roarer?"

"Indeed I do, Mr. Merryweather. Do you know, you never showed me the
place. You had to go away the next day, you remember."

"That is just what I was thinking," said Gerald. "I have never forgotten
that burning moment when Mrs. Cook and I foregathered in the dark. I was
thinking, what if the Lost Casket should happen to be somewhere about
that place in the wall? and anyhow, it would be fun to explore it, and I
promised to show it to you, and I like to keep my promises, because
virtue is my only joy. Won't you come with me now, and let the rest go
on? Awfully nice in the garret, I am sure, but--won't you come,
please?"

"Oh," said Margaret, "that would be delightful! But--it is quite dark,
isn't it? and they have all the candles."

"All except this," said Gerald, drawing a slender cylinder from his
pocket. "Electric candle; you have seen them, of course. I brought it
with me, intending some such exploration, if permitted. I ran up and got
it, at Mr. Montfort's first word of this search. Come! the down-stairs
hall. This way; oh, please, this way."

Margaret hesitated, looking doubtfully at him. "I--don't know if I
ought," she said. "I should like it of all things, if I thought--"

"Don't think!" said Gerald, hastily. "Great mistake to think; wastes the
tissues awfully. Action first, thought afterward! aphorism! Or if you
must indulge in the baneful pursuit, think how much poor Jerry wants
you. Poor Jerry! child of misfortune!"

"Is that the way you get everything you want?" said Margaret, laughing,
as she followed him half-reluctantly down-stairs.

"One way; there are others. This is the best, since it procures me your
company. See, now! in this niche here, behind the big picture!"

He passed his hand along a panel; it swung back, revealing blackness.

Margaret stared. "I never knew that was a door!" she said. "Mr.
Merryweather, do you know, I think the person who built this house must
have been a smuggler, a magician, and a detective, all in one."

"Fine combination!" said Gerald. "I should like to have known the old
codg--I mean gentleman. No deep mystery here, though, beyond the secret
door. He did love secret doors, that ancestor of yours. He may have been
an architect, and have thought door-handles unsightly, as they are. But
see!"

They were now standing in a deep recess, and he waved his candle to and
fro. "This would appear to have been originally used as a kind of
store-room, or drying-room. See those hooks; probably for hams--if not
for hanging," he added. "If you prefer tragedy, Miss Montfort, you shall
have it. There is room for ten persons to hang here, without touching.
Their ghastly upturned faces, their blood-stained robes, glimmering
spectral white in the--"

"Oh, don't!" said Margaret. "You really frighten me. Yes, they must be
for hams; now I think of it, I have heard Frances speak of the
drying-closet. This wall is warm; it must be close against the kitchen
chimney."

"Jerusalem!" exclaimed Gerald. "Here are steps, Miss Montfort. Stone
steps, leading down to a trap-door. Shall I help you down, or--no, I
will go alone. When I open the door, a hollow groan will be heard, and
the clank of iron fetters. Would you rather have me descend to Hades
with a loud squeak, or shall a headless spectre arise, grinning and--beg
pardon! anatomy at fault; grinning requires a head. That's the way! my
genius is always checked in its soaring flight, and pulled back to earth
by idiot facts."

Running on thus, Gerald descended the stone steps, Margaret following to
their top, timidly. Sure enough, there was a trap-door at the bottom,
with a ring in it; a perfectly orthodox trap-door, suitable for the
Arabian Nights or anything else. Gerald took hold of the ring, prepared
for a vigorous pull; then paused, and looked at his companion. "I hear
voices!" he said. "Hark!"

They listened. A low murmur came up from below; the voices were muffled,
by distance or intervening substances, and could not be distinguished.

"Oh, do you think we'd better open it?" said Margaret, who had such a
wholesome awe of the Mysteries of Fernley that she was prepared for
anything in the way of the marvellous.

"That is what I think!" said Gerald, cheerfully. "That's what it was
made for, you see. A door that does not fulfil its destiny might just as
well be something else, skittles, or a pump, or--other things. Now
this--"

As he spoke, he gave a vigorous pull; the door lifted, but at the same
instant the candle slipped from his hand, and fell rattling into some
unseen depth below, leaving them in blank darkness. Margaret uttered a
cry of alarm. "Don't fall! Oh, pray be careful, Mr. Merryweather!"

"All right!" said Gerald. "Stay just where you are, for a moment, while
I explore this--aperture. Ha! the steps continue. You don't mind if I
leave you in the dark for just a minute, Miss Montfort?"

Margaret did not mind, once assured that her companion was not engaged
in the congenial pursuit of breaking his neck. She began feeling about
her in the darkness, darkness so thick it was like black velvet, she
said to herself. She found the wall; it was warm, as she said; she began
passing her hand mechanically along the bricks, counting them.

A cheerful voice came up from below: "I have found the doughnuts--good
ones!--and the--seem to be--yes! sweet pickles. Corking! And--now you've
done it, my son! Jam, by all that's adhesive! Put my whole hand in.
Jerusalem and Mad--"

At this instant there was a sound as of a door thrown violently open; a
flood of light filled the place; light, and an angry voice.

"Who's this here in my pantry? Come out of that, ye rascal, before I set
the dogs on ye!"

Gerald Merryweather uttered a yell of delight. "Destiny!" he shouted.
"My fate cries out. Quits, Mrs. Cook, quits! Come to my arms!"

And Margaret, peeping fearfully down through the trap-door, beheld her
guest waving one hand, a crimson one, in the air, and with the other
embracing the ample form of Frances the cook; while behind them the
grave Elizabeth looked wide-eyed, shading her candle with her hand.

"For shame, sir!" said Frances. "Do behave, now, Mr. Gerald! I never see
such a bold boy since born I was."

"No, no! not bold; don't say bold, Mrs. Cook! Witness my blushing eyes,
my tearful cheek, my stammering nose! Hush, listen, there's a good soul.
Your doughnuts are food for the gods; also for Jerry. Poor Jerry; never
had enough doughnuts in his life. You weep for him; let him dry the
starting tear!"

Drawing out his pocket-handkerchief, he gravely applied it to Frances's
eyes and went on. "We are looking for the Lost Casket, Miss Montfort and
I. If you can help us to it, Mrs. Cook,--

        "I'll dress thee all in pongo silk,
         And crown thee with a bowl of milk;
         And hail thee, till my last breath passes,
         The queen of sugar and molasses.

A poet, as you observe. Nothing to what I can do, give me time and a
yard measure. Now tell me--"

Margaret's voice from above interrupted him.

"Mr. Merryweather, there is a loose brick here. I can pull it quite out;
and--yes--there is a space behind it, and--oh, can you bring the light?"

To snatch the lamp from Frances's hand, blow her a kiss, and scramble up
the steps again, was the work of an instant with Gerald. He found
Margaret pale, with shining eyes, holding something in her hands.

"No!" cried Gerald. "I say, you haven't--you have! eccentric Jiminy, you
have found it!"

"I think I have!" said Margaret, who was fairly trembling with
excitement. "Look! the letters on the lid! oh, Mr. Merryweather!"

The object she held was a box some eight inches square, of ebony or some
other dark wood, banded with silver. On the lid were inlaid, also in
silver, the letters C. M.

"Christina Montfort!" said Margaret. "Oh, to think of my being the one
to find it!"

"I should like to know who else had the right to find it!" said Gerald.
"Punch their--I mean, of course, if they were fellows; I beg your
pardon, Miss Montfort."

"It is locked," said Margaret. "We must wait, and try some of Uncle
John's keys."

"Take care!" exclaimed Gerald. "The bottom is dropping out. Hold your
hand under it!"

As he spoke, the bottom of the box, which was of some soft wood and had
rotted through, dropped, and something rolled out and fell into
Margaret's hand. She held it up to the light. It was a hawk's egg,
neatly blown.



CHAPTER XII.

THE EGG OF COLUMBUS


"Why, yes!" said Mr. Montfort. "It is my egg, certainly."

"Oh, Uncle John!"

"Well, sir, then--"

"Then you know all the--"

"Was it--"

"Did you--"

"Tell am what--"

Mr. Montfort put his hands resolutely over his ears, and shut his eyes.
"When you are still," he said, "I will tell you all about it; till then
I am a blind deaf-mute, with no benefit of modern instruction."

A swift rustle, followed by dead silence. Cautiously opening his eyes,
Mr. Montfort saw the whole company seated on the floor around his chair,
gazing at him with imploring eyes, but motionless and mute. He laughed
heartily, and threw himself back in his chair.

"I promised you a merry game," he said. "Have you had it?"

The young people nodded like mandarins, but uttered no sound.

"I promised you nothing more. In fact, I warned you not to expect
anything more. On your own heads be egg and emptiness.

"Well, well!" he added, "since you are so good and dutiful, you shall
have the whole truth. I found the box some forty years ago, when I first
stumbled on that closet. My dear mother was timid, and had a great dread
of the Mysteries of Fernley, imagining a secret staircase in every wall,
and an oubliette under every floor. Somebody had frightened her when she
came here as a child, by showing her I forget what dark passage or
closet. So we were never officially told of the various pleasant places
devised by the eccentric old ancestor, Peter, who, I have always
believed, was a smuggler before he was a patriot, and hid kegs as well
as commanders in his smoke-closet. You know the story of General
Blankley and the hams, Hugh? Remind me to tell you some day. Well, this
being so, of course we youngsters were keen set on discovery; and we
formed a league, called the Hovering Hawks. Each of us had his private
totem or sign; and when he made a discovery, he left a totem to tell
that he had been there. Jim's was an oyster-shell, because he considered
the world his oyster; Dick's was a ship, because he always meant to be a
sailor; Roger's was a book, of course, for obvious reasons; and mine was
an egg, Columbus's egg, because I meant to find things out. You see
there was no overstock of modesty among us, more than there is among
most healthy boys. We were ready for anything and everything. I dare say
some of you may have found oyster-shells about, in various inaccessible
places?"

Grace started, and blushed; then hung her head. "I--I found one," she
admitted. "It was in a cubbyhole in the parapet of the roof. I thought
of bringing it away, but it seemed as if some one had wanted to leave it
there, so I didn't touch it."

"Jim's Retreat," said Mr. Montfort. "He stayed up there two days once,
in a fit of sulks, and frightened my poor dear mother almost into an
illness. Father Montfort was away from home the first day; the second
day he came home, and went up after Master James. He was a powerful man,
Father Montfort, and an excellent climber. Yes, poor old Jim! he did not
climb again for several days. Well, as I was saying, after all this very
egotistical digression, I found the box in question some forty years
ago. I withdrew the--a--contents--and substituted for them my totem. The
contents I put--elsewhere."

He looked round the circle, smiling. Margaret, gazing earnestly at him,
saw his face, for the second time since she had known him, change from
that of a grave, thoughtful man into that of a mischievous boy, the
eager eyes alight with fun, the lips twitching with laughter.

"Wouldn't--you--like--to--know?" he began slowly, his eyes turning from
one to the other. Suddenly he broke off.

"There! the play is over, children. Margaret, you found the casket, you
shall find the--run your hand along the back of my chair here, my dear;
where it feels cold, press downward."

Margaret obeyed. A long narrow box or drawer shot out from the rolling
back of the great mahogany chair. Obeying Mr. Montfort's gesture,
Margaret lifted out of the nest of silky cotton something that sparkled
and glittered in the firelight. There was a long-drawn sigh from the
girls, a grunt of surprise from the men, but still no one spoke.

"The pearls are for you, Margaret. I always meant them for you, my dear.
I have taken them out every birthday and Christmas and looked at them,
but there was always something else I wanted to give you just then, so I
put the pretty playthings back again. Peggy, these pink topazes were
made expressly for you, even if they have been waiting some time. No
earrings, thank heaven! I could not see my girls in earrings. The
diamonds I sent to Rita as a wedding present; you remember them,
Margaret. Deceitful, was I, not to tell you their history? My child, I
said they were family jewels, and so they were. The turquoises must be
Jean's; put them on at once, little girl! Very pretty; very becoming.
Now,--any more? It seems to me I remember one more article--ah!"

Margaret drew out a long, delicate, glittering chain. At sight of it,
Grace uttered a low cry of delight. "What is it?" she said. "I never saw
anything so beautiful. Water and moonlight? What are the stones, Mr.
Montfort, please?"

"Aquamarine," said Mr. Montfort. "They are beautiful, though not of
great value. Now what shall I do with this last trinket, I wonder?"

"There is only one person who can possibly wear it," said Hugh, under
his breath. His uncle heard him, and shot a keen, quizzical glance at
him, which caused the philosopher to retire suddenly behind the shadow
of the curtain. Margaret glided to her uncle's side, and whispered in
his ear. Mr. Montfort nodded, smiling. "Just what I was thinking,
Margaret," he said. "You read my thoughts accurately. My dear Miss
Grace--by the way, isn't it time for me to leave off the 'Miss,'
considering my age, and how well we know each other? 'Miss Grace'
suggests 'disgrace,' which can have no possible connection with you. My
dear Grace, then, as Margaret and others have said, there is only one
person present who ought to wear this chain, and that person is
yourself. Will you accept it as a little gift from Margaret and me, and
from Cousin Christina?"

Grace drew back, her eyebrows coming together in a look Peggy knew well.
"I--You must excuse me," she began; but Mr. Montfort, going to her, took
her hand kindly: "My child, do not refuse me this little pleasure. You
surely do not expect me to wear the chain myself? and Margaret has more
trumpery than is good for her already. Besides, as I said, the thing was
manifestly made for you, and for you alone. And, besides, again,
Grace,"--he drew her nearer, and spoke low,--"besides, again, you are an
explorer, too; if you had lived twenty-five years ago, we should have
had great excursions together. Take it, my dear, if for no other reason,
because it is the gift of the boy who put the egg in the box!"



CHAPTER XIII.

IN THE TWILIGHT


"How strange it seems without the boys!" said Jean.

"And Uncle John!" said Margaret.

"And Hugh!" said Peggy. "I wish they hadn't gone."

"Oh, no, you don't, Peggy!" said Margaret. "It was such a great chance,
to have the day on that wonderful yacht. Just think what a good time
they are having! I only wish you could have gone too, but it is a
bachelor party, you see."

"Of course! Oh, I want them to have the fun, and it was very good of
Captain Storm to let Uncle John take them all. Yes, they will have a
glorious time; only--well, we miss them so horribly. Dear me, Margaret,
isn't it strange that you should get to know people so well in such a
short time? Why, I seem to know Gerald and Phil as well--better, in
some ways, than I know Hugh. But then, I never feel as if I understood
Hugh, he is so--he knows so much. Margaret, dear, it makes me happy all
through to have you and Hugh know each other, and be such friends."

"Indeed, it cannot make you so happy as it does me, Peggy," said
Margaret, smiling. "He is a wonderful person, that brother of yours.
Yes, he does know a most amazing amount, but he never makes one
uncomfortable with his knowledge, as some clever people do. He is like a
delightful book, that you can read when you want to, and when you don't
it stays quiet on its shelf. When I want to know about anything, and
Uncle John is somewhere else, or is busy, I just turn over a page of
Hugh, and there I have it. Oh, by the bye, Grace, what was that stanza
he was quoting to you this morning, just before he went away? Don't you
remember? we were coming through the orchard, he and I, and we met you,
and he said this. I have been trying all day to recall it."

"Keats!" said Grace, briefly.

"Yes, I know that; it was from 'La Belle Dame sans Merci,' but I cannot
get the whole stanza. Won't you repeat it? I know you have almost the
whole of Keats by heart."

Grace hesitated, and murmured something about "a time for everything,"
but finally, half-reluctantly, she repeated the stanza:

        "'I met a lady in the meads,
           Full beautiful, a fairy's child;
         Her hair was long, her foot was light,
           And her eyes were wild.'"

"Yes," said Margaret. "Well--thank you, Grace! I just wanted to hear it
in your voice; what I was thinking of was, that Hugh always knows just
what to say about everything and everybody. He has the whole Golden
Treasury in his head, and he always turns the right page. Do you
remember the other day, when Michael was so stupid!"

"Michael is always stupid!" said Jean.

"Poor Michael! He is not very clever." (Michael was the stable-boy at
Fernley, a new importation from Ireland, with a good deal of peat-bog
still sticking to his brains.) "Well, the other day he was more stupid
than usual, for he was sent in town to get some rolled oats that
Frances wanted. Well, he brought back just plain oats; and when Frances
wanted to know what he meant by that, he said, 'Sure, it's meself can
rowl 'em about for yez, as well as that feller in the white jacket.'
Frances explained the situation to him with more force than amiability.
She was in a perfect storm, and poor Michael stood meekly, feeling of
his ear as if she had actually boxed it, though really she only
threatened to, and wondering what it was all about. Well, Hugh and I
came along, and Hugh just looked at him, and said:

        "'The ass upon the pivot of his skull
         Turned round a long left ear!'

There is no other quotation in the English language that would have
fitted the case so perfectly."

"You and Grace seem to know Hugh about a hundred times as well as Peggy
and I do," said Jean, pouting a little.

"Because they are clever, my dear, and we are not," said Peggy,
cheerfully. "If you would learn things, Jean, English literature and
all that, you might be able to talk to Hugh. As it is--"

"Well, I think Phil and Gerald are ever so much more fun, anyhow!" said
Jean, saucily. "Hugh is poky!"

Seeing an elder-sisterly cloud gathering on Peggy's brow, Margaret
hastened to interfere. "Girls," she said, "I have a confession to make.
I was just going to make it, when the quotations turned me off the
track. You know what Peggy was saying, about our all getting to know
each other so well from staying in the house together. That reminded me
of something, something I am very much ashamed of; and I think it would
be good for my soul to confess it. But you must promise never to tell."

"We promise! We promise!" cried all the girls.

"Margaret," said Grace, "I have been looking for your sins ever since I
came, but you were too clever for me; now I shall learn."

"Not my fault," said Margaret, merrily, "if you are a bat as well as a
dozen other animals, my dear. Well, girls--oh, I am ashamed, and it
really is most astonishingly virtuous of me to tell you about it.
Peggy, just before you came, I was very blue; deeply, darkly, most
unbeautifully blue!"

"Margaret! you, blue?"

"Hear Peggy making rhymes! Yes, I, blue. You see, the children were
gone, and I did miss them so, I hardly knew how to bear it. It is
impossible for any one to have any idea, girls, how children, children
that are little enough to need one's care, you know, and--and watching,
and thinking about, and all--how they get inside your heart and just
live there, all curled up in it, bless them! and these particular
children are the very dearest ones that ever lived, I do believe. Well,
so they were gone, and my heart seemed empty; wickedly and abominably
empty, for there was my own dearest uncle, and there were you, my own
Peggy, coming to spend the whole summer with me, and as if that were not
joy enough for three people, let alone one, I made all kinds of plans,
about studying, and teaching you housekeeping, and embroidery, and all
kinds of things. We were going to read so many hours a day, and work so
many hours,--my poor Peggy! you would have had an unmerciful kind of
time!--and everything was going to be quiet and regular and cheerful; I
never got beyond cheerfulness in my brightest dreams of the summer. But
even the cheerfulness was far ahead, and just then--before you came--I
really had difficulty sometimes in keeping a cheerful face for Uncle
John when he came in. Why--must I tell the whole?"

"Yes, Margaret, every word!"

"I used to go up to Susan D.'s room and cry over her little pinafores
and things. As for my pincushion, I fairly soaked it with tears when I
first found it. I told you about the pincushion, didn't I? Why, that
little lamb, for days before she went, was working away at something,
she would not let me see what. After she was gone, I went up to my room
for a quiet cry, and there was a gorgeous new pincushion, and 'I love
you,' on it in pins. My dear little girl! Well, girls, so--that was the
way I felt, and the way I acted, most absurdly; and then--all this
happened. First Hugh dropped from the skies; and then Uncle proposed the
house party, and you came, Jean, and the Merryweathers; and then you,
Peggy; and we discovered our dear Grace; and so, instead of a quiet,
rather humdrum summer, I am having the most enchanting, Arabian-nights
kind of time that ever was. And how do you think I feel?"

"Phil would say 'like thirty cents!'" said Jean, who was certainly a
little inclined to be pert.

"If I hear you say anything of the kind, young one, I'll swat--"

"Peggy, dearest!" murmured Margaret, softly.

"I'll speak to you very severely. I am ashamed of you, Kidderminster!"

"Look here, Peggy, I won't stand that!" said Jean. "You promised me,
when I first came, that you wouldn't call me that."

"Then don't behave like a kid!" retorted Peggy. "There, that's enough.
Yes, Margaret, it has all been perfectly delightful and fairy-like; and
then the Mysteries, too, and the hunting, and the Silver Closet, and
all. Oh, I am so glad we didn't find out everything that first summer. I
suppose Uncle John thought we were too young and silly then; not that
you were ever silly, you dear darling thing. But, Margaret, there is one
thing wanting to it all, and only you and I know what that is."

Margaret nodded. "Yes," she said, with a little sigh. "We want our
Princess, Peggy. Oh, Grace, if you only knew our Rita! How you and she
would love each other! Peggy, you said that just at the right moment,
for I have her last letter in my pocket, on purpose to read to you, and
I am sure the others would like to hear it, too. Would you, girls?"

There seemed no possible doubt on the subject. All the girls gathered
about Margaret, sitting on the floor, as they liked best to do. Margaret
herself took possession of her favorite low chair, and drawing the
letter from her pocket, began to read:

        "BELOVED MARGUERITE:--I am of return only
        yesterday from an expedition to the hills, and
        I find your precious letter waiting for me. No
        need to tell you that I pressed it to my heart,
        covered it with kisses. Jack says your letters
        are the sole thing of which he is jealous. I
        grieve to hear that you must lose those little
        ones whom you love so well, even for a short
        time; but courage, _Margarita mia_; there are
        other flowers besides roses, and summer is a
        pleasant time. You will have Peggy with you,
        dear Peggy! She sends me a photograph, which
        shows her little changed in the face; still the
        dimples, still the soft roundness of cheek and
        chin. Best of Peggys; if I had her here, what
        great joy! But I must tell you of our ride. We
        went, Jack and I, up to the hill camp, where we
        went last year, after the terrible ride you
        know of. There we spent three happy days,
        camping in the green hollow among the hills,
        with only Juan to cook for us and care for the
        horses. Ah, Marguerite, what a time was that!
        We visited every spot made sacred to us by our
        love. The hiding-place, near poor Don
        Annunzio's house, where I first saw my hero,
        swinging in his hammock. Have I told you that I
        thought him a skulker, a coward hiding to
        escape warfare? How often we have laughed over
        that! Then we passed along the road, so
        peaceful now, so wild and horrent then (how is
        this word, 'horrent,' Marguerite? I find it in
        a poem, it seems to me noble; I tell Jack, he
        laughs, and says something like 'high falu--' I
        cannot tell what!). We paused to weep over the
        gray heap where once smiled the _residencia_,
        where that kind old woman and her good vast
        husband sheltered the wandering maiden,
        protected her at the risk of their own lives,
        and--one of them, as you know--died to save her
        and others. Then farther, to Carlos's old camp,
        where Manuela and I lived, and where I first
        learned to be of a little use in the world. Ah,
        the memories, how they came crowding back! I
        have told you that Manuela is married to Pepe?
        Yes; two months ago. The wedding was charming!
        I gave her her wedding-gown, of finest muslin,
        suitable to her condition,  with plenty of
        lace and ribbons, which the poor child values
        highly, and I dressed her hair (poor Manuela!
        She would have done it far better herself; she
        has a wonderful gift. My present maid is a poor
        creature, but Manuela is to give her lessons),
        and arranged the veil and wreath. She was a
        vision of enchantment, and really thrown away
        on poor Pepe, who never looked at either dress
        or veil. Jack says 'neither did he.' My dear,
        these men! To what purpose do we adorn
        ourselves, exhaust the treasure of our souls,
        in efforts to please them? But I wander from my
        story. My child, this expedition, carrying back
        heart as well as body to the scenes of before
        our marriage, has told me over again the story
        of my happiness. Marguerite, how to deserve it,
        this wonderful bliss? I study, I try, the dear
        Saint teaches me always many things--in vain! I
        am debtor to the whole world, and how much more
        to the gracious Power above worlds! But enough
        of this, my Pearl! Your time will come; till
        then you know nothing of it. I pant for your
        awakening, I burn, Marguerite, but I am
        powerless. If I had you here, there is a friend
        of ours, a paladin, a Roland, second only to my
        Jack--no! This makes you laugh, I feel it, I
        see your cool, pearly smile. I am angry with
        you for laughing, yet I laugh, too. So! now of
        other things. I think of you always; Jack also;
        I have told him so much, he assassinates
        himself with desire to see you all. The time
        will come! Marguerite--no matter! One word
        only! Our beloved Uncle's birthday; I remember
        the day, the Fourteenth. You will honor it, I
        know, as such a day should be honored, the day
        which blessed the earth with the best
        man--except  one--that breathes mortal breath.
        Marguerite, if on that day a trifle should come
        from the far-away cousins, you will receive it
        kindly? Ah, how well I know the answer! Bless
        you, my treasure! I must go to my housekeeping.
        Dear Donito Miguelito is staying with us now;
        you can fancy the joy of tending this saintly
        old man in his feebleness. I prepare myself the
        little dishes that please him; it is a sacred
        task; it is like feeding a holy butterfly.

               "Adios, my Marguerite!
                           "Ever and ever your devoted
                                             "RITA.

        "You ask of Concepcion. She is married to Diego
        Moreno, and, as I hear, is very unhappy. Poor
        woman, I compassionate her!"

After the reading of the letter, Grace slipped away to return to her
patient, and the three cousins sat together, talking in low tones of
Rita, and of Grace herself. Jean maintained stoutly that Rita could not
be so fascinating as Grace. Peggy and Margaret insisted that, though
totally different in quality, neither could outdo the other in amount of
charm.

"They are both the kind of girls you would do anything for!" said Peggy;
"just anything in the world, no matter how foolish, just because they
wanted you to. It isn't a thing you can describe; it just _is_, and
nobody can help it."

"Well, I should think the difference would be in the kind of thing they
would ask you to do," said Jean, with wisdom beyond her years. "Grace
wouldn't ask you anything foolish, and I should think Cousin Rita
might."

"Grace!" exclaimed Peggy; and then checked herself loyally. "Grace
wasn't always so wise as she is now, young one!" she said, simply.

"Well, she's a dear, anyhow; I think Mrs. Peyton might have let her stay
all night. It's horribly poky, with Uncle John and the boys and
everybody away. Why, Margaret, there isn't a single man about the place,
is there? Bannan drove them over, and then he was going to the
cattle-show, and so was Michael. Suppose there should be robbers, or
anything!"

"Suppose there should!" said Peggy, coolly. "If Frances and I and the
dogs could not arrange matters with a robber, it would be a pity.
Margaret--what is this queer light? Has everything turned red, all of a
sudden?"

[Illustration: "A TALL, SLENDER FIGURE HALF RAN, HALF TOTTERED INTO THE
ROOM."]

"The moon rises late to-night," said Margaret. "I have no idea what
time it is now. It seems an hour since Grace went."

"The moon isn't red, anyhow!" said Peggy. "I believe--"

As she spoke, she rose and went to the window. "Girls!" she cried.
"There is a fire somewhere near. Come and look!"

Margaret and Jean pressed hastily forward to the window. It was a
strange scene on which they looked. All of a sudden, the world seemed
turned to red and black. A crimson light suffused the sky; against it
the trees stood black as ebony. Even as they looked, a crest of flame
sprang up above the tree-tops, wavered, and broke into a shower of
sparks; at the same instant their nostrils were filled with the acrid,
pungent smell of wood smoke.

"Oh, what is it? Where can it be?" cried Margaret.

"Maybe it's only a bonfire!" said Jean.

Peggy shook her head. "Too big for a bonfire!" she said. "I'll go out
and see, Margaret. What a pity the boys should miss it! I'll come back
and let you know--mercy! what's this?"

The door opened, and a tall, slender figure half ran, half tottered
into the room. "Margaret!" cried a wild voice of terror. "Margaret
Montfort, save me!"

"Good heavens! Mrs. Peyton!"

"Yes, Emily Peyton. My house is burning. I ran all the way here. I--"

Margaret and Peggy caught her as she fell forward, and laid her on the
sofa, and while Jean ran for water and Elizabeth, chafed her hands and
her temples, looking the while anxiously at each other.

"Can you tell us what happened?" asked Margaret, trying to keep her
voice quiet and even, for Mrs. Peyton was in the wildest agitation. "You
escaped, thank Heaven! but--is the fire serious? Who is there now? Where
is Grace Wolfe?"

"Don't leave me!" said the sick woman, with a ghastly look. "Margaret,
if you leave me I shall die. She--she went back for the jewels. She is
in the house now."



CHAPTER XIV.

THE FIRE


The three girls reached the door in the same instant, but Mrs. Peyton
followed, and still held Margaret's arm in a desperate clutch.

"Don't leave me!" she repeated. "Margaret, don't leave me to die!"

But Margaret put the clinging hands away. "You are not going to die,"
she said. "You are going to sit down in this chair, Mrs. Peyton, and be
quiet till I come back. See, here is Elizabeth, with water and cologne,
and everything comfortable. By and by you shall go up-stairs, but rest
here now; nothing can happen to you, and I will come back as soon as I
can."

Wondering at her own hardihood, Margaret ran out, shunning the wild
pleading of the beautiful eyes which she knew were bent upon her. Jean
was waiting for her on the step, but Peggy had disappeared.

"She said we were to go on," said Jean, "and she would catch us up.
Which way, Margaret? I don't know the way."

Margaret led the way through the garden, running as she had never run
before. They had not gone a hundred yards when Peggy was at their side.
She had a coil of rope slung over her arm.

"It may be wanted," she said. "I remembered where it always hung. Oh, if
the boys were only here!"

They ran on in silence, Margaret echoing the cry in her heart. At every
step the glare grew brighter, the rolling smoke thicker. Margaret
noticed, and wondered at herself for noticing, that the under side of
some of the leaves above her head shone red like copper, while others
were yellow as gold. Every patch of fern and brake, every leaf of box or
holly, stood out, clear as at noonday.

On, down the long cedar alley, the dew dripping from the branches as
they closed behind them; over the sunk fence, and across the lower
garden to the summer-house, Hugh's summer-house. Once Margaret would
have shuddered at the drop into the meadow below, but Grace's climbing
lessons had not been given in vain, and, without a moment's hesitation,
she followed Peggy down the old willow-tree, landing knee-deep in fern
below.

Now they could hear the roar of the flames, the crackling and snapping
of burning wood, and, looking up, they saw on the brow of the rise
beyond, the flames tossing and beckoning over the dark firs of
Silverfield.

Five minutes more, and, breathless with running, they stood on the lawn
before the burning house.

The side facing them was already wrapped in flames. Long wavering
tongues shot through the open windows, and curled round the woodwork,
lapping it; they purred and chuckled like live creatures over their
food; they leaped up toward the roof, running along its edge, feeling
their way higher and higher, while now and then one sprang aloft,
tossing its scarlet crest over the rooftree itself. Evidently the fire
had started in the upper story, for in the lower one, though the smoke
poured dense and black through the open windows, there were no flames
to be seen yet. Furniture, books, and knick-knacks of every description
were scattered about the lawn in wild confusion, and two men, half
stifled with smoke, were struggling frantically with a grand piano, one
hacking at the window-frame with an axe to widen the opening, the other
trying desperately to unscrew the legs, as if that would mend matters.
Seven people out of ten, at a fire, will leave untouched pictures and
books that can never be replaced, and spend their time and energies in
trying to save the piano.

The group of frightened women huddled together on the lawn had made
their attempt, too, to save some of their mistress's property. Even in
her terror and anguish, Margaret could hardly keep back the thought of a
smile at their aspect. One clasped a sofa-pillow, one a pair of vases. A
stout woman, evidently the cook, had a porcelain kettle on either arm,
and another on her head, while her hands clutched a variety of spoons,
ladles, cups, and dippers. She evidently had her wits about her more
than the others, and she was scolding the parlor-maid, a trembling,
weeping creature, who was holding a small china bowl in both hands, as
if it were a royal treasure.

"She likes her malted milk in it, you know she does, Mary," said the
girl. "Only yesterday she was telling me never bring her any bowl except
this. It's cruel of you to harry me for trying to save what she likes."

"You green goose! What will she want wid the bowl and you not leaving
her a spoon to sup wid! Where is the key of the safe, I'm askin' ye!
Maybe James could get it out yet."

"Oh, I don't know! I don't know! I expect I dropped it. I was going to
get the silver myself; I'd ha' got all of it, without you telling me,
but when I opened the pantry door, the fire leapt out at me, roaring
like the pit, and I dropped the key and run. I'm awful sorry, but I've
got the bowl, and I do wish you'd let me be."

A little apart stood Antonia, the French maid, bearing on her
outstretched arms a superb tea-gown of violet velvet, embroidered with
pearls. On it lay a pile of costly laces, slightly blackened by smoke,
but uninjured. Antonia had done her best, and had saved the treasure of
her heart. Margaret ran up to her.

"Antonia, where is Miss Wolfe?"

The woman did not seem to hear the question, but burst into agitated
speech. "Oh, mademoiselle, mademoiselle!" she cried. "Ah, the tragedy!
of all the robes arrived from Paris last week, but only last week, this
only remaining! It was all I could save, all! I tried; I burned myself
the hands, mademoiselle, to rescue the others, the blue crape, the
adorable lace _jacquettes_, the _satin rose-thè_--in vain, all gone, all
devoured! _Mon Dieu_, and madame had not even had them on! But the lace,
Mademoiselle Montfort, the point d'Alençon, the Valenciennes, all, I
have it safe. See, mademoiselle, regard for yourself, _un peu noirci_, a
leetle blackened, _voilà tout_! It is without price, the point
d'Alençon, you know, Mademoiselle Marguerite."

"Antonia, do you hear me? What do I care about the laces? Where is Miss
Wolfe?"

"She's mazed, miss!" said Mary, the cook. "She can't talk about nothin'
but that stuff. Sure Miss Wolfe is at Fernley wid the mistress. It's
wondher ye didn't meet them on the way, miss. She went wid Mrs. Peyton,
and me and the other girls stopped behind to see what we could save."

"Oh, no!" cried Margaret. "Mrs. Peyton came alone. She said Miss Wolfe
came back--for the jewels. She said she was in the house now."

"Lord help her then!" said the parlor-maid. "If she's in the house now,
she's as good as dead, and worse, too. The stairs has fallen in; Thomas
seen 'em fall. Oh, dear! oh, dear! what an awful time!"

"Be still, Eliza!" said the cook. "Where's Jenny? She was in the
sewing-room, next to Miss Wolfe's; maybe she'd know something. Who saw
Jenny since we come out? Good Lord, where is the child? I thought she
come with me."

"Oh, Jenny's all right!" moaned Eliza. "She'll have gone straight home.
She was going home to spend the night anyway, Mary; don't be scaring us
worse. It's bad enough to lose Miss Wolfe, poor young lady, and she so
bold and daring!"

"_Hold your tongue!_" said Peggy. "Listen to me, girls, and answer
plainly, and not all at once like a flock of foolish sheep. Did any one
see Miss Wolfe go into the house?"

"No, miss, no; we see her go with Mrs. Peyton, and we never thought but
she was all right."

"She may not be there after all!" said Peggy. "Her room is on the other
side, isn't it, Margaret? Come on!"

They ran round to the other side of the house. This was apparently still
untouched, though the fiery tongues came darting over the rooftree every
now and then, hissing and lapping, and the roof itself was covered with
sparks and great patches of burning tinder, fragments of the costly
stuffs and tissues that the house-owner had so dearly prized. The
windows were closed and silent, but all was bright as day in the red
glare of the fire.

"Call, Peggy!" whispered Margaret. "I have no voice."

Even as she spoke, a window in the second story was thrown up, and there
stood Grace herself, very pale, but quiet as usual.

"There's a young woman faint here," she said. "Too much smoke. The
stairs are gone. Is there a ladder, Peggy? Ah, rope! Much better. Clever
child! When I say three--throw!"

Oh, the good days on the Western farm, when little Peggy, on her rough
pony, scampered here and there, lassoing the sheep and calves, and
getting well scolded in consequence! Oh, the other good days at school,
where nerve and muscle learned to follow the quick eye, so that thought
and action seemed to flash together!

The rope hissed upward like a flying snake, but a cloud of smoke drove
past the window, and the outstretched hands missed it. Again it flew,
and this time it was caught, drawn up, and knotted tight inside the
window.

"Now if I had a ladder!" muttered Peggy.

"I saw one," cried Margaret; "I am sure I did. Wait!"

She flew off, and returned followed by a boy with a ladder. It proved
short by several feet.

"Oh, what shall we do!" cried Margaret.

"Hold the ladder steady!" said Peggy. "She'll see to that end, and I
can manage this. Hold it!"

Margaret and the boy grasped the ladder; Peggy ran up it, and stood on
the top rung, holding the lower end of the rope.

"All ready, Goat!" she called.

"Ay, ay!" said the quiet voice within. "Coming, Innocent!"

The women had followed Margaret and Peggy, and now a cry broke from
them.

"She's got her!"

"'Tis Jenny! She was in there all the time!"

"She's dead!"

"She's not; she's living, I see her move. Oh, Mother of Mercy, they'll
both be killed before their own eyes!"

What was Grace doing? The form she held in her arms was that of a slight
girl of fifteen or so. She was knotting something round her, under arms
and over breast; something half sling, half rope; towels, perhaps, tied
strongly together. Now she brought the ends over her own shoulders,
bending forward.

"Now, Peggy!"

"Now!"

With the unconscious child bound to her back, Grace leaned out and
grasped the rope; another moment and she was swinging on it, clinging
with hands and feet, the old school way.

Margaret covered her face with her hand and prayed. Peggy, steadying the
rope with one hand, held out the other, and waited.

Down, hand over hand! Slender hands, to bear the double burden. Delicate
shoulders, to carry the dead weight that hangs on them. Are they elastic
steel, those fingers that grip the rope, never slipping, never relaxing
their hold?

Down, hand over hand! the hands are bleeding now; no matter! the white
dress is black with smoke, and blood drips on it here and there; what of
that? it is nearly over.

"Now?" Peggy asked, quietly.

"Now!"

Steadying herself, Peggy left the rope, and received the burden in her
arms. Grace, holding the rope with one hand, with the other loosed the
knot, and laid the limp arms over Peggy's neck.

"All right?" she said.

"All right!"

"_Ainsi long!_" and as Peggy carefully slowly descended the ladder,
Grace turned and began quickly and steadily to climb the rope again.

"Grace! Grace!" cried Margaret. "For God's sake, what are you about?
Come down! There is no time to lose; come down!"

"And behold, all is vanity!" said Grace; and she disappeared inside the
burning house.

But Margaret could bear no more. She helped to take the senseless girl
from Peggy's arms and lay her on the grass; then the world seemed to
slip from her, and she dropped quietly with her head on Jenny's
shoulder.



CHAPTER XV.

JEWELS: AND AN AWAKENING


"Are you better?" said Gerald. "Are you truly better, Miss Margaret? I
am going to drown myself anyhow in the first bucket I find, and if you
don't feel better I shall make it a dipper, and that would be so
inconvenient, don't you know?"

Margaret looked at him, only half hearing what he said.

"Yes, I am better; I am very well, thank you. What happened? Did I
faint?"

"Yes! you fainted, just as we came up. They wanted to pour water over
you, but I always think it's such a shame, in books, to spoil their
clothes, and you have such pretty clothes. So I wouldn't let them. It
wasn't Peggy, it was a lot of fool cooks and things."

"Did something hurt me?" asked Margaret, vaguely, still feeling that
she was somebody else making friendly inquiries about herself.

"Yes, I--I pinched you, you dear, sweet, pretty--at least, I don't mean
that! at least I do mean it, every word, only highly improper under the
circumstances, but I don't care so long as you are better."

Making a strong effort, Margaret sat up and looked about her. She was
still on the Silverfield lawn, but some one had drawn her away from the
neighborhood of the burning house, now a shapeless mass, though still
burning fiercely, and had pillowed her head on a rolled-up coat. Her
companion was in his shirt-sleeves, so it was evident whose coat it was.

As she gazed at the blazing ruins, memory came back in a flood.

"Grace!" she cried, wildly. "Where is Grace?"

"Safe," said Gerald, quickly. "Safe and sound. Not a hair singed, though
it sounds impossible. Most astonishing person I ever saw in my life.
Came down the rope like a foretopman, hung all over with jewels:
brooches, chains, and owches, you know,--Scripture,--kind of
rope-walking Tiffany. You never saw such a thing in your life. Hadn't
much more than touched the ground, when the roof fell in. Standing luck
of the British Army, I call that!"

"Oh, thank God! thank God! but where is she? where are they all?"

"Mostly gone to take the fainted girl home. She didn't come to just
right; choked with the smoke, Hugh thought. Phil and Peggy are carrying
her, and Miss Wolfe giving moral support. Hugh has gone for the nearest
doctor. The fool cooks have gone in search of their wits, I suppose;
they didn't seem to be anywhere round here."

"And--Jean? she was here too; is she all right?"

Gerald hung his head. "She was left to take care of you," he said. "I
told her I was a medical man, which is strictly untrue, and asked her to
go back to Fernley to get something, cologne, or rum, or mustard,--I
forget what I did say. The women bothered and made a noise, so I advised
them to proceed in the direction of Jericho. Great place, Jericho! They
went--there or elsewhere. Don't get up yet, please don't! it's always
better to lie still after a fire, or a faint; how much more after both
combined!"

"Oh, I must!" said Margaret. "I must go home at once, Mr. Merryweather,
truly. Oh, thank you, but I can get up perfectly well--only my head is
queer still. I wish--why did you send Jean away?"

"I didn't want her," said Gerald, meekly. "You looked so pretty--"

"Please don't talk nonsense!"

"I'm not. It's my truthful nature. It comes out in spots, like measles,
in spite of me. When I was only six years old, I told my nurse she was a
hideous old squunt, and she was. Fact, or at least justifiable fiction.
If you must get up, won't you take poor Jerry's arm? just once, before
he drowns himself? it's your last chance!"

"What _do_ you mean? Why should you drown yourself?"

"Because I missed all the fun, and let you faint, and Miss Wolfe get
nearly burned up, and Miss Peggy a sight to behold with smoke and
water, and Hugh all tied up in t l k's, and all for a day's yachting.
Not that it wasn't great yachting, but there is a sense of proportion."

"What are t l k's?" asked Margaret, smiling faintly. She was recovering
her composure, and Gerald noted with inward thankfulness her returning
color. His running fire of nonsense, kept up in the hope of rousing her
to interest, covered an anxious heart, but he gave no sign.

"T l k's? true lover's knots! none of my business, of course, but the professor
appears to be interested in the fairacrobat--acrobatess--acrobatia--what
you will! Give you my word, when he came round the corner and saw her
coming down that rope, I thought he would curl up into knots himself.
Jolly stunt! when I first came I was awfully afraid--" Gerald pulled
himself up suddenly, and blushed scarlet.

"Afraid?" said Margaret, innocently. "Afraid of what?"

"Of bats! When they squeak, I desire to pass away."

"Mr. Merryweather!"

"If you call me Mr. Merryweather any more, I _shall_ pass away, without
benefit of buckets. Say Gerald! just try it, and see how pretty it
sounds. Gerald! 'tis a melting mouthful! Sentimental, if you will, but
what then?"

Margaret laughed in spite of herself. "I must say, as Frances did, I
never see such a bold boy since born I was!" she said. "Well, Gerald,
then; and now, Gerald, here we are at the house, and would you please go
round the north way, and not come into the library just now? Thank you
ever so much for helping me! No, I must go in, I truly must."

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs. Peyton was sitting bolt upright on the sofa on which they had laid
her. Her face was absolutely colorless; it might have been an ivory
statue, but for the ghastly look of the blue eyes. She fixed her eyes on
Margaret, but said nothing. Margaret ran to her, and put her arms round
her. "Oh, how could they leave you alone?" she cried. "She is safe;
every one is safe, dear Mrs. Peyton. No one hurt, only Jenny overcome
with the smoke a little. I thought Jean would have told you."

The ivory figure began to tremble. With shaking hands she tried to put
Margaret away from her; then, with a sudden revulsion of feeling, she
clung to her and burst into tears.

"I sent them away!" she whispered through her sobs. "I would not have
them look at me. Margaret--are you sure? that girl, is she truly safe?"

"Truly and honestly, dear Mrs. Peyton. It was a most marvellous escape,
but she is absolutely unharmed, and she saved another life beside her
own. But for Grace, poor little Jenny must have been lost. She is a
heroine, our Grace!"

"I did not mean to kill her!" said the poor woman. "I did not realize
what it meant. I said, 'My jewels! my jewels!' and I don't know what
other nonsense. She never said a word, just turned and went back.
Then--oh! then, when you were all gone, I understood, I saw, that I had
sent her to her death for those--those horrible things. Never--never let
me see them again! I have been sitting here--years, it seems to
me--waiting to hear that she was dead; perhaps to see her body brought
in, all--"

"Oh, hush, hush, Mrs. Peyton! You will make yourself ill. You are only
distressing yourself beyond all need. She is safe, I tell you. In a few
moments you will see for yourself--"

At this moment the door opened, and Grace stood before them. She was a
strange figure indeed. Black with smoke, her fair hair gray with ashes,
her dress torn and discolored; but sparkling with jewels as never was
any ballroom belle. Superb necklaces of diamond and emerald hung around
her neck; her arms glittered with bracelets, her fingers were loaded
with rings, while ropes of amethyst and pearl were wound around her head
and even about her waist.

"All the way over," said Grace, "I have been pitying the robber who
didn't meet me, and so lost the great chance of his life. So sad for
him!"

Margaret recalled Gerald's expression, "a rope-walking Tiffany," and
could not help smiling in spite of her anxiety; but Mrs. Peyton hid her
face in her hands.

"Take them away!" she said. "Take them off, Grace! I never want to see
them again. Horrible things, all blood and flame! who knows how many
other lives they have cost? and it is no fault of mine that they have
not cost yours. No fault of mine!"

This was so true, that neither Grace nor Margaret spoke. Mrs. Peyton
rose, and moved restlessly about the room.

"Incidentally," she said, "I have got well."

Grace glanced at Margaret, but still neither spoke. Mrs. Peyton gave
Grace a strange look. "You didn't set fire to the house deliberately, I
suppose?" she said.

"I did not!" said Grace, bluntly. "To be honest, I have thought of
it--thought, I mean, of the effect it might produce; but it isn't a
thing one does in general society."

"I remember!" said Mrs. Peyton, dreamily. "I remember. I did it myself."

"Did it yourself?" cried Margaret, aghast. Grace was silent.

"I threw the candle down. I had been looking in the glass, and I found a
new wrinkle, a horrible one. I threw the candle down, and it fell on a
roll of cotton wool. How it went! I can hear the sound now, and see the
fire run--run!"

"I wouldn't talk about it any more," said Grace, quietly.

"I must. I must tell it all. She--Grace, there--found me; it had caught
my bed, and the curtains were blazing. She carried me out of the room
and down the stairs herself. What is she made of? She isn't so tall as
I. Then--at the door--she set me down and told me to run, and I ran. We
ran together, till the devil brought these things into my mind, and I
sent her back to be burned up for my vanity."

"I wasn't burned up," said Grace, composedly; "and as you remarked just
now, Mrs. Peyton, you have got well. Do you want to know what I think?"

"Yes, Grace--"

"I think--that the game was worth the candle!"



CHAPTER XVI.

FOR AULD LANG SYNE


"Confess that I have surprised you, John Montfort!" said Mrs. Peyton.

"I do confess it, Emily," Mr. Montfort answered, gravely. "But I am
truly glad that my house has been able to afford you shelter when you
were in need of it."

"That is as much as to say, that under other circumstances--never mind!
I am not going to quarrel with you, John."

"I trust not," said Mr. Montfort, still speaking with grave courtesy.

If Margaret had been present, she would have wondered at the change in
her uncle's face. The warmth, the genial light of kindness, was clean
gone out of it; it was an older and a sterner man who sat in the great
armchair and looked steadily and quietly at his visitor.

Mrs. Peyton smiled, then frowned; at last she sighed.

"I never meant to hurt you, John," she said, softly. "Thirty years is a
long time to hate a person who--who never hated you."

"I have never hated you, Emily," said Mr. Montfort, not unkindly. "Our
paths have not crossed--"

Mrs. Peyton laughed. "No, they have not crossed. You took care of that.
They have only run alongside each other--with the garden wall between."

"And nothing else?" said John Montfort.

She was silent for a moment. Then, "I never meant to make trouble
between you and Rose!"

"You never did," said Mr. Montfort, tranquilly.

"I know! but--you thought I tried. I did tell you a lie that night, when
I said she would not see you. How could I know that she was going to die
before you came back from the West? I--I wanted to see you myself; that
was no such dreadful sin, was it? I was sorry--sorry, I tell you, when I
heard of her death. Thirty years ago, and I have never been able to
speak to you alone till to-day. I--I had to burn my house down to get a
chance to make my peace with you, John Montfort. No, I don't mean that I
did it on purpose, though I am not sure that it wouldn't--aren't you
going to forgive me, John, after all these years?"

Mr. Montfort rose. He was very pale, but he spoke steadily. "Emily, it
is hardly strange that I do not care to open old wounds. If I have been
unkind, I am sorry for it. I do forgive you, fully and freely. Now, let
the past alone. What can I do for you in the present, and how help you
to provide for the future? I have not been a good neighbor, I confess
it; I will try to prove myself a better one henceforward."

Mrs. Peyton laughed her little mocking laugh. "It will be easier than
you think, John. I am going to Europe, and I don't know whether I shall
ever come back."

"Going to Europe, Emily? Are you strong enough?"

"I am perfectly well!" said Mrs. Peyton, simply. "Doctor Flower has been
telling me for several years that there was nothing really the matter
with me any more, and that I could be well if I wanted. Grace Wolfe made
me feel the same thing. Well, now I do want it. The fire lighted up a
good many things for me, and showed me the way. I have no house to live
in; I am alone in the world; I may as well be doing things as staying in
bed, of which I am really very tired. I am writing to my man of business
to take places for Antonia and me on next week's steamer for Paris. I've
half a mind to take Grace Wolfe, too, if she will go."

"I have asked Grace to make her home with us for the present," said Mr.
Montfort, quickly. "Next year I expect to take her and Margaret abroad
together."

Mrs. Peyton laughed again. "I can't even have her! Well--never mind. I
love her, but she frightens me. She might have catalepsy again,--though
I rather think that was a clever device for getting me out of bed,--and
I want to forget everything connected with sickness. But--John--there is
something you can do for me. This girl risked her life to save my
jewels, the playthings I have tried to amuse myself with these many
years. I want you to sell them for me, and give her the money."

"Sell your jewels, Emily!"

"Yes. I never want to see them again." She shuddered slightly, but her
voice was firm and steady.

"They are all here, in this basket. Lock them up now, and the next time
you go to town sell them, and invest the money for Grace Wolfe. Will you
do this for me, John? It is the only thing I shall ever be likely to ask
you."

"Indeed I will, Emily!" said Mr. Montfort, speaking with much more
warmth than he had hitherto shown. "It will be a grateful commission.
Shall I look?--these things are of great value, Emily. There are
thousands of dollars' worth of trump--of trinkets here."

"So much the better for Grace!"

"There is nothing you would like to keep? None of these diamonds?"

"No; I detest diamonds! When a complexion begins to go--never mind!
Stay, though! Margaret liked that pink pearl; sweet little prim
Margaret, who has given me most of the little pleasure I have had these
last three years. You'll let her have it, John? I beg you to let me
give it to her!"

"Surely, surely, my dear Emily. It is a beautiful gem, and I am glad
that my Margaret should have something to remember you by while you are
gone. And now shake hands, for I must be off."

"You are going away?"

"For the night only. I was to have spent two or three days in town on
business, but hurried home on hearing of the fire. I shall be back
to-morrow, or next day at latest."

"And--I may stay here till then, John?"

"My dear Emily, I earnestly beg that you will stay as long as it is
convenient to you. You must have many things to arrange; pray consider
Fernley as your own house until you have everything comfortably
settled."

"Thank you, John! I heard your own voice then, the kindest voice
that--good-by, John Montfort!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Gone, you say, Margaret? When did she go? I fully expected to see her
again."

"This afternoon, Uncle John. We could not persuade her to stay longer.
Her man of business came down this morning early, and arranged
everything with the farmer and the servants, and finally took her and
Antonia back with him. It is very sudden! I should be frightened at her
attempting the voyage, but Grace says it is just what Doctor Flower has
been wishing and hoping for. Poor Mrs. Peyton! I shall miss her very
much, Uncle John. She is very, very lovable; and, somehow, these few
days have so softened and changed her--I hardly know how to put it, but
it is as if her heart had waked up after a long sleep."

"Perhaps it has!" said Mr. Montfort, thoughtfully. "Poor Emily! she has
had an unhappy life; yet when she was your age, Margaret, Emily
Silverton thought she had the world at her feet. Life is instructive, my
child. Did she tell you what she had done about Grace?"

Margaret shook her head. "She said you would have something to tell me,
but she would not say anything more. She was bent on keeping control
over her nerves, I think, so I tried just to keep things quiet and
cheerful, and I saw that was what she wanted. What is it about Grace?"

Thereupon Mr. Montfort told the story of the jewels, and how he had
taken them to town with him the day before. "It will be a great change
for our Grace," he said. "She has had very little money, I think you
told me, Margaret?"

"Oh, almost none, Uncle John. She has had a very, very hard time; and
since her father died last year--she seems to have no other
relations--she has supported herself entirely. Oh, this is a kind thing
of Mrs. Peyton; and I understand just how she feels and why she wants to
do it. Aren't the jewels worth a good deal, Uncle John?"

"Guess how much, little girl!"

"How can I? Perhaps as much as a thousand dollars? Oh, Uncle John!"

"Perhaps, Margaret; my child, Tiffany's head man thinks,--he could not
price them all exactly,--but, roughly speaking, he thinks--that this
collection is worth--fifty thousand dollars. Grace is, comparatively
speaking, a rich woman."

Margaret stood speechless, in utter amazement. At this moment there was
a sound, as of a book falling to the ground, and a smothered
exclamation. Both started and looked round, as Hugh Montfort rose from
the corner where he had been seated and came slowly forward. He was very
pale, and seemed to bear more heavily on his stick than usual.

"You knew I was here, Margaret?" he said, with a look that tried to be
unconcerned. "I trust I have not overheard anything that I should not. I
was writing, and thought you saw me when you came in."

"No secrets, my boy, no secrets!" said Mr. Montfort, heartily. "You
heard this great piece of news about our little friend, did you? She
does not know it herself yet; Margaret must tell her. Margaret, you have
deserved this pleasure, my dear, and I rejoice in making it over to
you."

The good man was glowing with pleasure and good will; but for once he
met no response from Hugh, who, pale and gloomy, stared before him as if
he had seen a ghost.

"My dear fellow," cried Mr. Montfort, changing his tone at once, "you
are not well. How pale you are! or--you have had no bad news, Hugh?
Nobody ill at home, eh? Your father--"

"No, no, sir, all well! Father is in perfect trim; I have just been
reading a letter from him, Uncle John; you must hear it, sometime when
you are not busy. Don't look at me like that, Margaret! I--my head aches
a little, if I must confess. Did you never see any one with a headache
before?"

Was it possible that Hugh was out of temper? Neither Mr. Montfort nor
Margaret could believe it at first; both gazed at him, expecting the
usual kindly smile to begin in his eyes and break gradually over his
face; but no smile came. Mr. Montfort, who had lived many years and seen
many things, was the first to recover himself; he passed Hugh with a
friendly pat on the shoulder, and, nodding to Margaret, went out of the
room. Margaret remained still, looking earnestly in her cousin's face,
unconscious of offence.

"Dear Hugh," she said, affectionately, "I am so sorry! Let me get you
something--one of those tablets that relieved you last time."

"No, no!" said Hugh. "It is nothing, Margaret, nothing at all. So Miss
Wolfe is a rich woman, is she, and spoilt for life? And you are glad,
you and Uncle John! Well, I am sorry, for my part; sorry from the bottom
of my heart. It is an iniquity."

"Hugh!"

"It is! She will grow into an idle fine lady, like this very Mrs.
Peyton, who throws about her gewgaws at every whim. Her life will be
frittered away over dresses and frippery and fashion. Instead of a
worker, a real woman, with a woman's work and aims, you will have a
butterfly, pretty and useless, fluttering about in the sunshine, unable
to bear rough weather. A fine piece of work it will be, the ruining of a
girl like that."

Margaret stood aghast, and for a few moments found no words. Her
cousin's face showed that he was only too deeply in earnest; his eyes
glowed with sombre fire, and a dark red spot burned in his cheek. When
Margaret did speak at last, her eyes were tender, but her voice was
grave, almost stern. "Hugh," she said, "I hardly know you; and I see
that you do not know Grace in the least. I thought--I thought you
did--understand her, better perhaps than any one else did; but if you
can say such things as these, I see I was utterly mistaken. She, spoiled
by a little prosperity? Oh, how can you? For shame, Hugh!"

Hugh looked up at her suddenly. "Oh, Margaret!" he said. "Margaret, have
patience with me! I--I am not myself to-day. My head--there is something
wrong with me."

"Yes, dear," said Margaret, tenderly. "Go and lie down, Hugh, won't you?
And I'll bring you some cracked ice. That always helps a little."

"I don't want to lie down, and I don't want any cracked ice; thank
you all the same, good little sister-cousin! I'll go out into the
garden, I think. The trees will be the best thing for me to-day.
And--Margaret--forget what I said, will you? It is none of my business,
of course; only--good-by, little girl!"



CHAPTER XVII.

IN THE GARDEN


"But, Grace--"

"But-ter, Margaret!"

"My dear, please don't be absurd!"

"My angel, I am not half so absurd as you are. Why, in the name of all
that is incongruous, should I take this lady's money? Is thy servant a
dog, that she should do this thing?"

"Listen, Grace! You are wholly, utterly wrong. Listen to me! Let us sit
down here by the summer-house and have it out. No, you have said enough;
it is my turn now. You talk about yourself, and your independence and
freedom, and I don't know what. My dear, I want you to forget yourself,
and think of her."

"Of her? What difference does it make to her?"

"All the difference in the world, it may be. What is that noise?"

"It is I!" said Hugh, emerging from the summer-house. "I seem fated to
be an eavesdropper, and yet I am not one by nature. Pardon me, young
ladies!"

He was about to pass them with a formal bow, but Margaret, with a sudden
inspiration, caught his arm. "No!" she cried, "I want you to hear what I
am going to say. You, too, misunderstand--sit down, Hugh, and listen!
Please!" she added, in the tone that seldom failed to win any heart.

Hugh hesitated, but finally sat down, looking very grim, and stared at
the box-tree in front of him. Margaret went on, hurriedly, moved for
once out of her gentle calm.

"This lady--I must speak plainly, though she is my friend--has lived a
selfish, empty, idle life. She was very beautiful and very rich, really
one of the great beauties and heiresses, and--and that was all. She was
brought up by a worldly aunt--her mother died when she was little--and
married to some one whom she cannot have cared for very much, I am
afraid; and she never had any children. Then came all this ill health.
Oh, Grace, I can't help it if it wasn't all real, she certainly has
suffered a great deal; and through it all she has been alone, loving no
one, and with no one to love her. She will not see any of her own
people, cousins--she has no one nearer; she says they are all mercenary.
I don't know, of course, but it is one of the terrible things about
having a great deal of money, that you think everybody wants it, whether
they do or not. Now, at last, before it was too late,--oh, I am so
thankful for that,--the change has come. She has waked up, and it is all
owing to you, Grace. Yes, it is! I have been fond of her, and she has
petted me, and been very good to me, and given me things, but I never
could open her eyes, try as I would. Now, you have done it, dear. You
not only saved her life actually--yes, you did, Grace; she told me all
about it; she never would have got out of that room alive but for
you--you not only saved her life, but you have given her some idea of
how to live. She wants to do something in return. It is the first time,
I do believe, that she has wanted _really_ to help some one else. When
she gave me prettinesses, it was because it amused her to do it, not
because I needed them, nor because she was thinking specially about me.

"Grace, if you refuse this; if you shut back the kindly impulse, the
desire to help some one, I tell you you will be doing a wrong thing. It
is nothing in the world but pride, selfish pride, that is speaking in
you. Tell me again--tell Hugh, what Mrs. Peyton said to you when she
went away."

"She said--" Grace's voice had not its usual cool evenness, but was
husky, and faltered now and then--"she said, 'Do not refuse my last
wish! I do not tell you what it is, for fear you should refuse at once,
and shut me up with myself again. Do not refuse, for the sake of
Christian kindness, of which I have known nothing hitherto, but which I
mean to learn something about if I can.'"

"And then?"

"And then--she kissed me--Margaret, it is brutal of you to make me tell
this!--she kissed me twice, and said--" Grace's voice broke.
"I--cannot!" she faltered.

Margaret rose to her feet with a sudden impulse. "Hark!" she said. "Is
that Uncle John calling me? Wait here, please, both of you!" and she
ran off, never looking behind her. It was the first and last deceitful
act of Margaret Montfort's life.

There was a long silence. Hugh Montfort stared at the box-tree. Grace
cried a little, quietly; then wiped away her tears, not noticing them
much, and observed an ant running along the path. At last, "Well?" said
Hugh.

"Well!" said Grace. "I am sorry to have made such a spectacle of myself.
Is there anything to say?"

Hugh plucked a box-leaf and scrutinized it carefully.

"They make these things so even!" he said.

"Machinery never could--Let me tell you a story. Do you mind? Once upon
a time there was a man--or--well, call him a man! He was part of one,
anyhow, as much as accident allowed. He was not strong, but he could
work, and he meant to work, and do things he cared about, and lead as
good a life as he knew how. He had been a good deal alone, somehow,
though he had dear good people of his own; he was an odd stick, I
suppose, as odd as the one he walked with."

He stopped, glanced at his stick, with its handle worn smooth as glass;
then he went on.

"He had never seen much of women, except his own family; never thought
about them much as individuals, though always in his mind there was a
dream--I suppose all men have it--of some one he should meet some day,
who would turn the world from gray to gold. One day--he saw a vision;
and--after that--he learned, not all at once, but little by little, that
life was not full and rounded, as he had thought it, but empty and
one-sided and unprofitable, if this vision could not be always before
his eyes; if this one woman could not come into his life, to be his
star, his light, his joy and happiness. She was poor, like himself. He
thought of working for her, of sharing with her the honest, laborious,
perhaps helpful life he had planned, the life of a Western forester,
living among the woods and mountains, studying the trees he loved,
learning the secrets of nature at first hand, teaching his beloved all
the little he knew, and learning more, a thousandfold more, from every
look of her eyes, every tone of her wonderful voice.

"Well--while he dreamed--something happened. Suddenly, by a wave of a
wand, as in the fairy tales, his maiden was transformed. Instead of the
orphan girl, working bravely with her brave hands to earn her bread, he
saw--a rich woman! saw the woman he loved condemned by the idle whim of
an idle pleasure-seeker to sit with folded hands, or play with toys and
trinkets. He was filled with rage; he hated the very sound of the word
money, because--it seemed to him that this money would rob him of his
darling. I--he--"

Hugh broke off suddenly. "I am the greatest fool in the world!" he said.
"Grace, do you understand me? Do you know what I am trying to say?"

It was the merest whisper that replied, "I don't--know--"

"Yes, you do." Hugh caught the slender hands, and held them close. "You
know, you must know, that I have cared for you ever since that first
wonderful moment, when you broke through the leaves like sunshine, and
I saw the face I had dreamed of all my life. You must have felt it, all
these weeks. Oh, Margaret is right, I suppose. All she says is true
enough; if you can help this poor woman by taking her wretched money, I
suppose you will have to do it. But--but I lose my princess, before ever
I could win her. I can't ask a rich woman to be my wife."

While Hugh was speaking, Grace's head had drooped lower and lower, as if
she shrank under the weight that was laid upon her; but now she looked
up bravely, with a lovely light in her eyes. "Can't you, Hugh?" she
said. "It's a pity you can't, Hugh, because--you could have her for the
asking."



CHAPTER XVIII.

UNCLE JOHN'S BIRTHDAY


If Timothy Bannan has had scant mention in these pages, it is not
because he was not an important personage at Fernley. King of the
stable, governor of the dogs, chief authority on all matters pertaining
to what Gerald called "four-leggers," he was as much a part of the
establishment as Frances herself. In person he was a small man, with
reddish-gray whiskers, an obstinate chin, and a kindly twinkling eye. He
usually wore a red waistcoat with black sleeves, and he was suspected of
matrimonial designs on Elizabeth.

One morning, not long after the events of which I have been telling,
Bannan approached his master, who was tying up roses, Margaret, as
usual, attending him with shears and ball of twine.

"If you please, sir," said Bannan, touching his hat, "would it be
convenient for me to take a horse this evening, sir?"

Mr. Montfort straightened himself, and looked with friendly interest at
his retainer.

"A horse, Bannan? Certainly! What horse do you want?"

Bannan looked embarrassed. "I was thinking of taking Chief, if you was
anyways willing, sir." Now Chief was the pride of the Fernley stable.
Mr. Montfort opened his eyes a little.

"Going far, Bannan?"

"N--not so very far, sir. I was wishful to try him with the new cart, if
you had no objections."

The new cart was a particularly stylish and comfortable wagonette,
bought for Margaret to take her young friends out in, and Mr. Montfort's
eyes opened still wider.

"Well, Bannan--of course you will be careful. You want to take some
friends out, eh?"

This simple question seemed to embarrass Bannan strangely. He reddened,
and taking off his cap, turned it round and round in his hands. "No,
sir, I shouldn't presume--that is to say, not exactly friends, sir, and
yet not anyways the reverse. But if it's not agreeable to you, sir,
I'll take the old mare and the Concord wagon."

"No, no," said Mr. Montfort, kindly. "Take Chief and the cart by all
means, Bannan. I wish you a pleasant drive with your--friends." Bannan
thanked him and withdrew, and Mr. Montfort turned to Margaret with a
smile and a sigh. "Does that mean Elizabeth and matrimony, Margaret?
What will Frances say?"

"Indeed, Uncle, I am quite sure that Elizabeth would disapprove as much
as Frances of Bannan's taking Chief and the wagonette. You are too
indulgent, dear sir."

"I suppose I am," said Mr. Montfort. "I suppose, also, that I am too old
to change. But I never knew Bannan to do such a thing before."

Meanwhile, Bannan was standing at the kitchen door, fuming. "If ever I
do sich a thing again, Frances, you may cut me up and serve me in a
gravy-boat."

"Nobody'd touch ye!" said Frances. "Ye've got to have juice to make
gravy, ye little bones-bag. I told ye let me see to it; men-folks
always messes when they try to manage nice things. It's like as if you
started to whip cream with a garding hose."

"I don't care!" said Bannan. "'Twas me the telegram come to, and 'twas
me they expected to see to it. You'd like to boss everything and
everybody on the place, Frances."

"I'll boss you with this mop, little man, if you give me any sauce,"
said Frances, with massive calm. "Go away now and feed your beasts; it's
what you're best at."

"But you'll have the supper ready and all, Frances? If I can feed
beasts, you can feed their masters, I'm bound to own that," said Bannan,
presenting this transparent sop with an air of hopeful diffidence.

"Go 'long with ye!" said Frances, loftily, yet with a suggestion of
softening in her voice. "I've kep' Mr. John's birthday for twenty years,
but I reckon you'd better tell me how to do it this time."

"And you'll tell nobody about--them--"

But here Frances raised the mop with such a businesslike air that Bannan
took himself off, grumbling and shaking his head.

Left alone, Frances fell into a frenzy of preparation, and when Margaret
found her half an hour later, she was beating eggs, stoning raisins, and
creaming butter, apparently all at the same moment. An ardent
consultation followed. What flavor would Mr. John (Frances would never
say Mr. Montfort) like best for the ice-cream? and the cake--would a
caramel frosting be best, or a boiled frosting with candied fruits
chopped into it? and for the small cakes, now, and the tartlets?

Mr. Montfort's birthday came, as most birthdays do, once a year.
Considering this, it was a singular thing that he, the most methodical
of men, who turned his calendar as regularly as he wound his watch,
never seemed to remember it. He never failed to be astonished at
Margaret's morning greeting. More than this, he apparently forgot it as
soon as it was over, for he always had a fresh stock of astonishment on
hand for the health-imperilling feast that Frances was sure to arrange
for the evening. To-day he took no notice of the fact that wherever he
went he came upon some girl or boy carrying armfuls of flowers and
ferns, or arranging them in bowls, jars, and vases. When he found his
desk heaped with a tangle of clematis and wild lilies,--Peggy had
dropped them there "just for a minute," half an hour before,--this
excellent man merely said "Charming," and rescued his pet Montaigne from
the wet sprays which covered it. In the course of the morning, Fernley
House was transformed into a bower of greenery, lit up with masses of
splendid color. Everywhere drooped or nodded clusters of ferns, the
ostrich fern and the great Osmunda Regalis, with here and there masses
of maiden-hair, most delicate and beautiful of all. In the library,
especially, the ferns were arranged with all the skill and care that
Margaret possessed. They outlined the oaken shelves, their delicate
tracery seeming to lie lovingly against the rich mellow tints of morocco
and vellum; they waved from tall vases of crystal and porcelain; they
spread their lace-like fronds in flat bowls and dishes. "I don't see how
there can be any left," said Peggy; "it seems as if we had all the ferns
in the world, and yet in the woods it didn't seem to make any
difference. Oh, Jean, isn't it just splendid!"

"Corking!" said Jean.

"Jean, I won't have you say that."

"Well, the Merryweathers say it all the time, Peggy. They never say
anything else, except when Margaret is round; you know they don't."

"The Merryweathers are boys, and you are a girl, and there is all the
difference in the world," said Peggy, loftily. "Jean, it is high time
you went to school."

"Oh, bother school! I have two ponies to break this fall, and Pa has
promised to let me drive the reaper around the hundred-acre field."

Peggy said nothing, being a wise as well as an affectionate elder
sister; but she resolved to consult Hugh, and to write to "Pa" without
delay.

So the morning passed in preparation and mystery. Then in the afternoon
came a drive in the great open car, a delightful vehicle, holding eight
people comfortably. Peggy sat on the box--happy Peggy!--and drove the
spirited black horses. Uncle John was by her side, and they recalled
merrily the day when, as John Strong, he took his first drive with her,
and decided that she was to be trusted with a horse.

"Oh, what fun we did have that summer!" cried Peggy. "Only--we had no
Uncle John. Oh, Uncle, if we had Rita here, wouldn't it be too
absolutely perfect for anything?"

"It would be very delightful," said Mr. Montfort. "I would give a good
deal to see that dark-eyed lassie and her gallant Jack. I think I must
take you and Margaret to Cuba one of these days, Peggy, to see them. How
would you like that, Missy?"

"Oh, Uncle John!" cried Peggy; and she almost dropped the whip, in the
effort to squeeze his arm and turn a corner at the same moment.

But the best of all was when the whole family assembled in the library
before supper, the girls in their very prettiest dresses, with flowers
in their hair, the lads brave in white duck waistcoats, with roses and
ferns in their buttonholes. Then the girls presented the gifts they had
made for the beloved uncle; Margaret's book, a fine old copy of the
"Colloquies of Erasmus," bound by her own hands in gold-stamped brown
leather, Peggy's mermaid-penwiper, with a long tail of sea-green sewing
silk, and the pincushion on which Jean had spent many painful hours in
her efforts to make the ferns look like ferns instead of like green hen
feathers. Grace had woven a basket of sweet rushes, of quaint and
graceful pattern, which Mr. Montfort declared was what he had dreamed of
all his life, while Hugh produced a box of wonderful cigars, which had a
history as mysterious and subtle as their fragrance. Lastly, the
Merryweathers, declaring that they had no gift but themselves, and that
if Mr. Montfort would be graciously pleased to accept them, they were
his, proceeded to go through a series of acrobatic performances, which
brought cries of admiration from all the beholders.

While this was going on, Margaret took advantage of the interlude
(though she was loth to lose one of Gerald's graceful postures) to run
out and see if supper was ready. She came back with a rueful
countenance, and whispered to Peggy, "Supper will not be ready for ten
minutes yet, and Frances is in a most frightful temper. She actually
drove me out of the kitchen; said she would not be bothered with foolish
children, and she would not send supper in till Bannan came back, if it
cost her her place."

"Bannan? What has Bannan to do with supper?"

"Bringing something, I suppose; some extra frill she has prepared as a
surprise. She is always savage when she has a surprise on foot. Hark!
There are wheels now. Listen! Yes, they are going round to the back
door. Bannan has come, then, and we may hope for food. Oh, do look at
those boys! Did you ever see anything like that?"

All eyes were fixed on the twins, who, after every variety of separate
antic, now proceeded to perform what they called a patent reversible
waltz. Standing on their hands, they twined their feet together in the
air, and revolved gracefully, moving in unison, and keeping time to the
waltz they whistled. The whole company was watching this proceeding with
such absorbed attention that no one saw the door at the back of the hall
open silently; no one noticed the figure that stole noiselessly
through, and now stood motionless in the doorway. A young woman,
slender, richly dressed, beautiful exceedingly; with a certain foreign
grace, which struck the eye even more than her beauty. But it was
neither the grace nor the beauty that was first to be seen now; it was
the light of love in the large dark eyes, the soft fire of joy and
tenderness and mirth that shone from them, and seemed to irradiate her
whole figure as she stood there, erect, yet seeming to sway forward, her
hand on the door, her eyes bent on the group before her. Her gaze
wandered for a moment to the guests: the revolving boys, Grace and Hugh
in their quiet corner together, Jean staring with open eyes and mouth;
but after a wondering look, it came back and settled again on the
central group, Mr. Montfort, in his great armchair, Peggy and Margaret
each on a stool beside him, leaning against his knees. Was the group
complete? or was there room for another by that good man's side?

Jean was the first to look up and see the newcomer. She started
violently. "My goodness!" she cried, "who is that?" The next instant a
cry rang out, as Margaret and Peggy sprang forward, "Rita! Rita!"

But Rita was too quick for them. Before they were well on their feet she
had them both in her arms, and was weeping, sobbing, laughing, and
kissing, all in a breath. With the next breath she had sunk at Mr.
Montfort's feet, and, seizing his hand, pressed it passionately to her
lips.

"My dear child," cried Uncle John, blushing like a girl, and drawing
away his hand in great discomposure. "Don't, my love; pray don't. Rita!
is it possible that this is really you? What does it mean?"

"What does it mean, my uncle? It means that even in Cuba we know the
days of the month. Dearest and best of men, I wish you a thousand
returns of the day,--five, ten thousand returns, and each one more
blissful than the last. Marguerite, my angel, you are more beautiful
than ever. Angel is no longer the word; you are a seraph! Embrace me
again! Peggy, you are a mountain; but a veritable mountain of roses and
cream! Dear little huge creature, I adore you. But where, then, is the
rest of me? Jack! Figure to yourself a husband who skulks in doorways at
a moment like this! Come forth, thou!"

Jack Del Monte advanced laughing; behind him in the passage the three
conspirators, Frances, Elizabeth, and Bannan, peered triumphant. "My
dear," said Jack, "I was merely waiting for my cue. You would not have
had me spoil your entrance, you know you would not. Uncle John--I may
say Uncle John? thanks!--I hope you will forgive Rita's little stratagem
for the sake of the pleasure it has given her."

"My dear nephew," said Uncle John, "you have brought me the most
enchanting birthday gift that ever a man had. Let me look at you again,
Rita! If ever happiness agreed with a person--but I must not begin upon
compliments now. I want you to know these cousins and friends. Here is
Hugh Montfort and Jean; here is Grace Wolfe, who is to be your cousin
one of these good days; and here are our friends Gerald and Philip
Merryweather. You have all heard of one another; let us all be friends
at once, without further ceremony, and keep this joyful feast
together."

"Supper is served, sir," said Elizabeth.

A joyful feast it was indeed. The table, decked with ferns and roses,
was covered with every good thing that Frances could think of, and she
could think of a good many. The candles shed their cheerful light on
all, though the faces hardly needed the artificial light. Amid general
mirth, Rita told of her plan; her letter of inquiry to Frances and
Elizabeth, asking if all were well, and if their coming would make any
inconvenience. Then the telegram to Bannan, and the arrival, to find him
awaiting them with the best horse the stable afforded; and, finally,
their stealthy entrance at the back door. All had been triumphantly
successful, and as Rita told her story, she laughed and clapped her
hands with the glee of a child, while every face glowed responsive.

[Illustration: "'I PROPOSE . . . THE HEALTH OF THE BEST MAN . . . THAT
LIVES UPON THIS EARTH TO-DAY; . . . THE HEALTH OF MY UNCLE JOHN!'"]

"And now," said Rita Del Monte, springing to her feet, and lifting high
her glass, "I wish to propose a toast--the only fitting toast for this
night. I propose, dear friends, and dear strangers whom I hope to
have for friends, the health of the best man--ah, Jack, you have not had
time yet, nor you others; but courage, time is before you!--of the best
man, I say, that lives upon this earth to-day; the dearest, the
kindest--oh, all please drink to the health of my Uncle John!"

One and all were upon their feet; all bending forward, glass in hand,
eager and joyous, their eyes shining with love and admiration; and from
one and all came the same glad cry, "Uncle John!"

"Because if one hasn't the luck to be really his nephew," said Gerald,
"the least one can do is to make a bluff at it."

And here, at this happy moment, let us leave our friends. Good-by,
Margaret--dear Margaret! Good-by, Peggy and Rita, Hugh and Grace, Gerald
and Phil,--we may see you again, boys,--Jean and Jack! Good-by, and good
luck to you! Last of all, good-by to you, John Montfort. If you are not
the best man in the world, you are at least a good one! Wise and strong,
courteous and kindly, brave and true, long may you live, as now you sit,
in your own beautiful home, surrounded by those you love best in the
world. Love, kindness, and truth; having these, what more do you lack?
Good-by, John Montfort.


THE END.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

Obvious punctuation errors repaired.

Page 45, "be" changed to "am" (I am to use)

Page 233, "delared" changed to "declared" (which Mr. Montfort declared)





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