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Title: Margaret Montfort
Author: Richards, Laura Elizabeth Howe, 1850-1943
Language: English
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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 "Margaret Montfort" ***

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MARGARET MONTFORT



_Books by Laura E. Richards._


"Mrs. Richards has made for herself a little niche apart in the literary
world, from her delicate treatment of New England village
life."--_Boston Post._


THE CAPTAIN JANUARY SERIES.

=CAPTAIN JANUARY.= 16mo, cloth, 50 cents.

A charming idyl of New England coast life, whose success has been very
remarkable. One reads it, is thoroughly charmed by it, tells others, and
so its fame has been heralded by its readers, until to-day it is selling
by the thousands, constantly enlarging the circle of its delighted
admirers.

=SAME.= _Illustrated Holiday Edition._ With thirty half-tone pictures
from drawings by Frank T. Merrill. 4to, cloth, $1.25.


=MELODY.= The Story of a Child. 16mo, 50 cents.

"Had there never been a 'Captain January,' 'Melody' would easily take
first place."--_Boston Times._

"The quaintly pretty, touching, old-fashioned story is told with perfect
grace; the few persons who belong to it are touched on with distinctness
and with sympathy."--_Milwaukee Sentinel._

=SAME.= _Illustrated Holiday Edition._ With thirty half-tone pictures
from drawings by Frank T. Merrill. 4to, cloth, $1.25.


=MARIE.= 16mo, 50 cents.

"Seldom has Mrs. Richards drawn a more irresistible picture, or framed
one with more artistic literary adjustment."--_Boston Herald._

"A perfect literary gem."--_Boston Transcript._


=NARCISSA=, and a companion story, =IN VERONA=. 16mo, cloth, 50 cents.

"Each is a simple, touching, sweet little story of rustic New England
life, full of vivid pictures of interesting character, and refreshing
for its unaffected genuineness and human feeling."--_Congregationalist._

"They are the most charming stories ever written of American country
life."--_New York World._


=JIM OF HELLAS; or, IN DURANCE VILE=, and a companion story, =BETHESDA
POOL=. 16mo, 50 cents.


=SOME SAY=, and a companion story, =NEIGHBOURS IN CYRUS=. 16mo, 50
cents.


=ROSIN THE BEAU.= 16mo, 50 cents. A sequel to "Melody."


=ISLA HERON.= A charming prose idyl of quaint New England life. Small
quarto, cloth, 75 cents.


=NAUTILUS.= A very interesting story, with illustrations; uniquely
bound, small quarto, cloth, 75 cents.


=FIVE MINUTE STORIES.= A charming collection of short stories and clever
poems for children. Small quarto, cloth, $1.25.


=THREE MARGARETS.= One of the most clever stories for girls that the
author has written. 16mo, cloth, $1.25.


=MARGARET MONTFORT.= A new volume in the series of which "Three
Margarets" was so successful as the initial volume. 16mo, cloth,
handsome cover design, $1.25.


=LOVE AND ROCKS.= A charming story of one of the pleasant islands that
dot the rugged Maine coast, told in the author's most graceful manner.
With etching frontispiece by Mercier. Tall 16mo, unique cover design on
linen, gilt top, $1.00.


_Dana Estes & Company, Publishers, Boston._

[Illustration: MARGARET MONTFORT.]



MARGARET MONTFORT

BY

LAURA E. RICHARDS

        AUTHOR Of "CAPTAIN JANUARY," "MELODY,"
        "QUEEN HILDEGARDE," ETC.

Illustrated by

ETHELDRED B. BARRY

[Illustration]

  BOSTON
  DANA ESTES & COMPANY
  PUBLISHERS



        _Copyright, 1898_
        BY DANA ESTES & COMPANY

        Colonial Press

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



CONTENTS.


        CHAPTER                        PAGE

           I. PRESENT AND ABSENT         11

          II. DOMESTIC                   25

         III. THE UNEXPECTED             44

          IV. THE TRIALS OF MARGARET     61

           V. A NEW TYPE                 77

          VI. A LESSON IN GEOGRAPHY      96

         VII. THE DAUNTLESS THREE       114

        VIII. THE FIRST CONQUEST        129

          IX. A NEWCOMER                145

           X. "I MUST HELP MYSELF"      164

          XI. THE SECOND CONQUEST       179

         XII. THE VOICE OF FERNLEY      195

        XIII. WHO DID IT?               212

         XIV. BLACK SPIRITS AND WHITE   231

          XV. A DEPARTURE               249

         XVI. PEACE                     264



ILLUSTRATIONS.


                                                           PAGE

  MARGARET MONTFORT                                   _Frontispiece_

  "AFTERWARDS SHE SALLIED OUT INTO THE GARDEN"              63

  "'DID YOU BRING A BOOK TO READ TO ME, LITTLE GIRL?'"      84

  "THE LITTLE GIRL HAD NEVER STIRRED, BUT STOOD GAZING UP
     AT THE BIG MAN WHO HELD HER HANDS"                    120

  "MERTON WAS TEASING CHIQUITO"                            153

  "'WON'T YOU COME IN?'"                                   175

  A LIVELY GHOST                                           247

  "THE 'FLAIL OF THE DESERT'"                              268



MARGARET MONTFORT.



CHAPTER I.

PRESENT AND ABSENT.


"It shall be exactly as you please, my dear!" said Mr. Montfort. "I have
no wish in the matter, save to fulfil yours. I had thought it would be
pleasanter, perhaps, to have the rooms occupied; but your feeling is
most natural, and there is no reason why you should not keep your
present room."

"Thank you, uncle!" said the girl whom he addressed as Margaret, and
whom some of my readers may have met before. "It is not that I don't
love the dear rooms, nor that it would not be a joy to be in them, for
some reasons; but,--I think, just to go and sit there every day, alone
or with you, and think about her,--it seems as if that would be easier
just now, dear uncle. You always understand, Uncle John!"

Mr. Montfort nodded, and puffed thoughtfully at his cigar. The two,
uncle and niece, were sitting on the wide verandah of Fernley House; it
was a soft, fair June evening, and the fireflies were flitting through
the trees, and one or two late birds were chirping drowsily. There were
only the two of them at Fernley now, for one day, some two months ago,
the beloved Aunt Faith had fallen quietly asleep, and passed in sleep
away from age and weakness and weariness. Margaret missed her sadly
indeed; but there was no bitterness in her grieving, and she felt all
the more need of keeping the house cheerful and bright for her uncle,
who had lost the faithful and affectionate friend who had been for years
like a second mother to him. They talked of her a great deal, of the
beauty and helpfulness of the long life that had brought so much joy to
others; just now Mr. Montfort had proposed that Margaret should occupy
the White Rooms, which had been Mrs. Cheriton's special apartments in
the great rambling house; but he did not urge the matter, and they sat
in silence for a time, feeling the soft beauty of the evening wrap them
round like a garment of rest.

"And what have you been doing all day, while I was in town?" asked Mr.
Montfort presently. "You were not too lonely, May Margaret?"

"Oh, no, not a bit too lonely; just enough to make it very good to have
one's Uncle John come back. Let me see! After you went, I fed Chiquito,
and stayed with him quite a while, talking and singing. He is so
pitiful, poor old fellow! Then I took a walk, and dropped in to see how
Mrs. Peyton was; she asked me to come in the morning, you know, when I
could."

"And how was she? Superb as ever?"

"Just, Uncle John! Her dressing-jacket was blue this time, and there was
a new kind of lace on her pillows."

"Oh! she has lace on her pillows, has she, my dear?"

"Didn't I tell you, uncle? Pillows and sheets are trimmed with real
lace, most magnificent. To-day it was Valenciennes, really lovely
Valenciennes, to match her cap and the frills on her jacket. And
turquoise buttons and cap-pins; oh, she was a vision of beauty, I assure
you. The pale pink roses on the table by her bed gave just the right
touch to accentuate--if that is what I mean--all the blue. She is an
artist in effects. She must have been very beautiful, Uncle John? She is
beautiful now, of course, only so worn and fragile."

"Yes, she was extremely beautiful, in her way," said Mr. Montfort; "and
she was always, as you say, an artist in effects. And in a good many
other things," he murmured, half under his breath. "She was glad to see
you, no doubt, my child?"

"Oh, yes; she is always most cordial and kind. She made me tell her just
how you were looking,--she always does that; and what you were doing."

"Emily Peyton is a singular woman," said Mr. Montfort, thoughtfully.
"She suffers, no doubt, and I am glad if you can be a comfort to her,
Margaret; but be a little careful, my dear; be a little careful with
Mrs. Peyton! H'm! ha! yes, my love! and what else did you say you had
done to amuse yourself?"

"Why, Uncle John, do you think I have to be amusing myself all day? What
a frivolous creature you must think me! I practised after I came home;
and then I had lunch, and then I arranged the flowers, and then I made
some buttonholes, and all the rest of the afternoon I sat under the big
tulip-tree, reading 'Henry Esmond.' So you see, I have really had the
most delightful day, Uncle John."

"Especially the last part of it," said her uncle, smiling. "Esmond was
rather more delightful than the buttonholes, eh, Meg?"

"Well, possibly!" Margaret admitted. "He is rather more delightful than
almost anything else, isn't he? But not half so good as one's Uncle
John, when he comes home in the gloaming, with his pockets full of
bonbons and letters for his unworthy niece."

"Flatterer!" said Mr. Montfort. "Does this come of visiting Mrs. Peyton?
She used to be an adept in the art. But what do our two other Margarets
say? Has Peggy set the prairies on fire yet? She will some day, you
know."

"Do you think the mosquitoes would quite devour us if I brought the
small lamp out here? I really must read you the letters, and it is too
lovely to go in. Shall I try?"

Margaret brought the lamp, and, drawing a letter from her pocket, began
to read:

        "DARLING MARGARET:

        "I was so glad to get your letter. It was
        splendid, and I'm going to copy out a lot of
        the things you said, and pin them up by my
        looking-glass. My hair _will not_ part
        straight, because I have the most frightful
        cowlick--

"I don't believe you care for this part, do you, Uncle John? Poor little
Peggy's difficulties are very funny sometimes."

"Why, I like it all, Meg, if you think Peggy would not mind my hearing
it. It is all sweet and wholesome, I know; but leave out anything you
think I should not hear."

"Oh, there isn't anything, really. I'll go on, if you like. Where was I?
Oh!--

        "The most frightful cowlick. The reason I tried
        was because you said my forehead was nice. I
        hope you will not think me very vain, Margaret.
        And you know, no one is wearing bangs any more,
        not even curly ones. So I have put it straight
        back now, and Pa likes it, and says I look like
        his mother. Margaret, will you try to get me
        the receipt for barley soup, the way Frances
        makes it? Mother isn't well, and I thought I
        would try if I could make some. I think,
        Margaret, that I am going to find something I
        can really do! I think it is cooking! What do
        you think of that? Our cook went away to her
        brother's wedding last week, and Mother was
        sick, and so I tried; and Pa (I tried saying
        Father, but he wouldn't let me!) said the
        things tasted good, and I had a knack for
        flavouring. That made me feel so happy,
        Margaret! Because I had just gone ahead till I
        thought a thing tasted right. I did not want to
        be bothering 'round with cook-books, and
        besides, ours was lost, for Betsy can't read,
        so there was no use for one. I made an
        apple-pudding yesterday, and Pa had two helps,
        and all the boys wanted three, but there wasn't
        enough, though I made it in the big meat-pie
        pan. Darling Margaret, do please write again
        very soon, and tell me about everything at
        dear, darling Fernley. How is Chiquito, and
        does Uncle John ever speak of me? I miss him
        dreadfully, but I miss you most of all, darling
        Margaret,--I never get over missing you. I have
        a new dog, a setter, a perfect beauty. I asked
        Hugh to name him for me, and he named him
        Hamlet, because he was black and white, and
        Hugh thought he was going to be melancholy, but
        he grins and wiggles all over every time you
        look at him. I am teaching him to jump over a
        stick and he does it beautifully,--only the
        other day I stood too near the looking-glass,
        and he jumped into that, and smashed it, and
        frightened himself almost to death, poor puppy.
        Margaret, I read a little history every
        day,--not very much, but I think of you when I
        read it, and that makes it better. Pa says I am
        going to school next year; won't that be fun?
        Hugh is reading 'John Brent' to me in the
        evenings. Oh, how perfectly splendid it is! If
        I had a horse like Fulano, I would live with
        him all the time, and never leave him for five
        minutes. I want dreadfully to go out west and
        find Luggernel Alley. Hugh says perhaps we
        shall go some day, just him and me. That
        doesn't look right, Margaret, but I tried
        writing 'he and I' on a piece of paper, and it
        didn't look any better, so I guess I'll leave
        it as it is. Do you think I write better? I am
        trying to take a lot of pains. I try to think
        of all the things you tell me, dear Margaret.
        Mother thinks I am doing better, I know. Mother
        and I have real good talks together, like we
        never used to before, and she tells me what she
        used to do when she was a girl. I guess she had
        some pretty hard times. I guess I'm a pretty
        lucky girl, Margaret. Now I must go and get
        mother's supper. Give lots and lots of love to
        Uncle John, and some to Elizabeth and Frances,
        and say--I can't spell it, but the Spanish
        thing I learned--to poor Chiquito. But most
        love of all to your own, dear, darling self,
        Margaret, from

                                            "PEGGY."

Mr. Montfort curled his moustaches in silence for some minutes, when the
reading was over.

"Dear little girl!" he said at last. "Good little Peggy! So she will
learn to cook, will she? And she is getting hold of her mother! This is
as it should be, Margaret, eh?"

"Oh, yes!" cried Margaret. "Oh, Uncle John, this letter makes me feel so
happy about the child. At first, you know, she missed us all more than
she should have,--really. And--and I think that, except for Hugh,
perhaps they did not receive her in quite the way they might have,
laughing at her a good deal, and sneering when she tried to make little
improvements. I don't mean Aunt Susan or Uncle James, but the younger
children, and George, who must be--whom I don't fancy, somehow. And she
has been so brave, and has tried so hard to be patient and gentle. I
think our Peggy will make a very fine woman, don't you, uncle?"

"I do, my love. I have a great tenderness for Peggy. When she is at
school, she must come here for her vacations, or some of them, at
least."

"And she owes this all to you!" cried Margaret, with shining eyes. "If
she had never come here, Uncle John, I feel as if she might have grown
up--well, pretty wild and rough, I am afraid. Oh, she ought to love you,
and she does."

"Humph!" said Mr. Montfort, dryly. "Yes, my dear, she does, and I am
very glad of the dear little girl's love. But as for owing it all to me,
why, Margaret, there may be two opinions about that. Well, and what says
our Bird of Paradise?"

"Rita? Oh, uncle, I don't know what you will think of this letter."

"Don't read it, my dear, if you think it is meant for you alone. You can
tell me if she is well and happy."

"That is just it, Uncle John. She wants to go to Europe, and her father
does not approve of her going just at present, and so--well, you shall
hear part of it, at any rate.

        "Margaret, my Soul!"

"That sounds natural!" said Mr. Montfort. "That is undoubtedly Rita,
Margaret; go on! If you were her soul, my dear, my brother Richard would
have a quieter life. Go on."

        "Hardly a week has passed since last I wrote,
        yet to-night I fly again in spirit to you,
        since my burning heart must pour itself out to
        some other heart that can beat with mine. It is
        midnight. All day I have suffered, and now I
        fain would lose myself in sleep. But no! My
        eyes are propped open, my heart throbs to
        suffocation, I enrage, I tear myself--how
        should sleep come to such as I? O Marguerite,
        there in your cool retreat, with that best of
        men, my uncle,--yours also,--a Paladin, but one
        whose blood flows, or rests, quietly, as yours,
        can you feel for me, for your Rita, who burns,
        who dissolves in anguish? Listen! I desire to
        go to Europe. I have never seen it, as you
        know. Spain, the home of my ancestors, the
        cradle of the San Reals, is but a name to me.
        Now I have the opportunity. An escort offers
        itself, perfection, beyond earthly desire. You
        recall my friend, my Conchita, who divides my
        heart with you? She is married, my dear! She is
        the Señora Bobadilla; her husband is noble,
        rich, devoted. Young, I do not say; brilliant,
        I do not pretend! Conchita is brought up in the
        Spanish way, my child; she weds a Spanish
        husband, as her parents provide him; it is the
        custom. Now! Marguerite, they offer to take me
        with them to Spain, to France, Italy, the
        world's end. It is the opportunity of a
        lifetime. I pine, I die for change. When you
        consider that I have been a year here, without
        once leaving home,--it is an eternity! I
        implore my father; I weep--torrents! I clasp
        his knees. I say, 'Kill me, but let me go!' No!
        he is adamant. He talks about the disturbed
        state of the country! Has it been ever
        undisturbed? I ask you, Marguerite! Briefly, I
        remain! The Bobadillas sail to-morrow, without
        me. I feel that this blow has crushed me,
        Marguerite. I feel my strength, never, as you
        know, robust, ebbing from me. Be prepared,
        Marguerite! I feel that in a few weeks I may be
        gone, indeed, but not to Europe; to another and
        a kinder world. The San Reals are a short-lived
        race; they suffer, they die! My father will
        realise one day that he might better have let
        his poor Rita have her way for once, when Rita
        lies shrouded in white, with lilies at her
        head and feet. Adios, Marguerite! farewell,
        heart of my heart! I have made my will,--my
        jewels are divided between you and Peggy. Poor
        Peggy! she also will mourn me. You will dry her
        tears, dearest! The lamp burns low--no more!
        For the last time, beloved Marguerite,

                          "Your unhappy
                 "MARGARITA MARIA DOLORES DE
                                   SAN REAL MONTFORT."

"Isn't that really pretty alarming?" said Margaret, looking up.
"Why--why, Uncle John! you are laughing! Don't laugh, please! Of course
Rita is extravagant, but I am afraid she must really be very unhappy.
Stay! Here is a postscript that I did not see before. Oh! Oh, uncle!
Listen!

        "Alma mia, one word! It is morning, in the
        world and in my heart. I go, Marguerite! My
        maid is packing my trunk at this instant. My
        father relents; he is an angel, the kindest,
        the most considerate of parents. We sail
        to-morrow for Gibraltar,--I shall be in Madrid
        in less than a month. Marguerite, I embrace you
        tenderly. Rejoice, Beloved, with your happy,
        your devoted

                                          "RITA."

"Thank you, my dear!" said Mr. Montfort, twirling his moustaches. "Poor
Richard! Poor old Dick! Do you know, my dear, I think Dick may have had
some experience of life."



CHAPTER II.

DOMESTIC.


Life was pleasant enough for Margaret Montfort, in those days. The hours
were still sad which she had been used to spend with Mrs. Cheriton, the
beloved Aunt Faith; but there was such peace and blessedness in the
thought of her, that Margaret would not have been without the gentle
sorrow. She loved to sit in the White Rooms, sometimes with her uncle,
but more often alone. In the morning, she generally walked for an hour
in the garden with Mr. Montfort, tending the rose-bushes that were his
special care and pride, listening to his wise and kindly talk, and
learning, she always thought, something new each day. It is wonderful
how much philosophy, poetry, even history, can be brought into the care
of roses, if the right person has charge of them. At ten o'clock he
generally went to town, and the rest of the morning was spent in
practising, sewing, and studying; the hours flew by so fast, Margaret
often suspected the clock of being something of a dishonest character.
She was studying German, with the delightful result of reading "Der
Trompeter von Säkkingen" with her uncle in the evening, when it was not
too beautiful out-of-doors. Then, in the afternoon, she could with a
clear conscience take up some beloved romance, and be "just happy," as
she called it, till Mr. Montfort returned in time for the walk or ride
which was the crowning pleasure of the day. And so the days went by, in
a golden peace which seemed too pleasant to last; and yet there seemed
no reason why it should ever change.

The morning after the reading of the letters, Margaret had been in the
White Rooms, arranging flowers in the vases, and putting little loving
touches to books and cushions, as a tidy girl loves to do, whether there
is need or not. The windows were open, and the orioles were singing in
the great elm-tree, and the laburnum was a bower of gold. It seemed
really too perfect a morning to spend in the house; Margaret thought she
would take her work out into the garden, not this sunny green parlour,
but the great shady garden outside, where the box swept above her head,
and the whole air smelt of it, and of moss and ferns and a hundred other
cool things. She passed out of the rooms, and went along a passage, and
as she went she heard voices that came through an open door at one side;
clear, loud voices that she could not have escaped if she would.

"These table-napkins is scandalous!" said Elizabeth. "I do wish Miss
Margaret would get us some new ones."

"Why don't you ask her?" said Frances, the cook, bringing her flat-iron
down with a thump. "The table-cloths is most worn out, too, this set.
Ask her to see to some new ones. She's young, you see, and she don't
think."

"I've been giving her one with holes in it, right along this two weeks,"
said Elizabeth, "hoping she'd notice, but she don't seem to. I thought
it'd be best if she found out herself when things was needed."

"Ah!" said Frances, "she's a sweet young lady, but she'll never make no
housekeeper. She hasn't so much as looked inside one of my closets since
Mis' Cheriton went."

"You wouldn't be over and above pleased if she looked much into your
closets, Frances; I know that!"

"Maybe I wouldn't, and maybe I would; but I'd like to have her know as
there was no need of her looking. Don't tell me, Elizabeth! So long as
she could walk on her feet, never a week but Mis' Cheriton would look
in, and take a peep at every shelf. 'Just for the pleasure of seeing
perfection, Frances,' she'd say, or something like that, her pretty way.
But if there had been anything _but_ perfection, I'd have heard from her
pretty quick."

"I think you're hard to please, I do!" Elizabeth answered. "I think Miss
Margaret is as sweet a young lady as walks the earth; so thoughtful, and
afraid of giving trouble, and neat and tidy as a pin. I tell you, Mr.
Montfort's well off, and so's you and me, Frances. Why, we might have
had one of them other young ladies, and then where'd we have been?"

"I don't know!" said Frances, significantly. "Not here, that's one sure
thing."

"Or Mr. Montfort might have married. Fine man as he is, it's a wonder he
never has."

"H'm! he's no such fool! Not but what there's them would be glad
enough--"

But here Margaret, with burning cheeks, fled back to the White Rooms. It
could not be helped; she had to hear what they were saying about
herself; she must not hear what they said about her uncle.

She sat down on the little stool that had always been her favourite
seat, and leaned her cheek against the great white chair, that would
always be empty now.

"I wish you were here, Aunt Faith!" she said, aloud. "I am very young,
and very ignorant. I wish you were here to tell me what I should do."

At first the women's talk seemed cruel to her. They had been here so
long, they knew the ways of the house so entirely, she had never dreamed
of advising them, any more than of advising her uncle himself. Frances
had been at Fernley twenty years, Elizabeth, twenty-five. What could she
tell them? How could she possibly know about the things that had been
their care and pride, year in and year out, since before she was born?
It seemed very strange, very unkind, that they should expect her to step
in, with her youth and ignorance, between them and their experience. So
she thought, and thought, feeling hot, and sore, and angry. She had
never had any care of housekeeping in her life. Old Katy, her nurse, who
had taken her from her dying mother's arms, had always done all that;
Margaret's part was to see that her own and her father's clothes were in
perfect order, to keep the rooms dusted, and arrange the books when she
was allowed to touch them, which was not often. As to table-cloths, she
had never thought of them in her life; Katy saw to all that; and if she
had attempted to suggest ordering dinner, Katy would have been apt to
send her to bed, Margaret thought. Poor, dear old Katy! She was dead
now, and Aunt Faith was dead, and there was no one to stand between
Margaret and the cares that she knew nothing about. Of course, Uncle
John must never know anything of it; he expected perfection, and had
always had it; he did not care how it was brought about. Surely these
women were unkind and unreasonable! What good could she possibly do by
interfering? They would not endure it if she really did interfere.

The white linen cover of the chair was smooth and cool; Margaret pressed
her cheek against it, and a sense of comfort stole over her insensibly.
She began to turn the matter over, and try to look at the other side of
it. There always was another side; her father had taught her that when
she was a little child. Well, after all, had they really said anything
unkind? Frances's words came back to her, "I'd like to have her know as
there was no need of her looking."

After all, was not that perfectly natural? Did not every one like to
have good work seen and recognised? Even Uncle John always called her to
see when he had made a particularly neat graft, and expected her praise
and wonderment, and was pleased with it. And why did she show him her
buttonholes this morning, except that she knew they were good
buttonholes, and wanted the kindly word that she was sure of getting?
Was the trouble with her, after all? Had she failed to remember that
Elizabeth and Frances were human beings, not machines, and that her
uncle being what he was, she herself was the only person to give them a
word of deserved praise or counsel?

"My dear," she said to herself, "I don't want to be hasty in my
judgments, but it rather looks as if you had been a careless, selfish
goose, doesn't it now?"

She went up to her own room,--the garden seemed too much of an
indulgence just now,--and sat down quietly with her work. Sewing was
always soothing to Margaret. She was not fond of it; she would have
read twelve hours out of the twenty-four, if she had been allowed to
choose her own way of life, and have walked or ridden four, and slept
six, and would never have thought of any time being necessary for
eating, till she felt hungry. But she had been taught to sew well and
quickly, and she had always made her own underclothes, and felled all
the seams, and a good many girls will know how much that means. She sat
sewing and thinking, planning all kinds of reforms and experiments, when
she heard Elizabeth stirring in the room next hers. It was the linen
room, and Elizabeth was putting away clean clothes, Margaret knew by the
clank of the drawer-handles. Now! this was the moment to begin. She laid
down her work, and went into the linen room.

"May I see you put them away, Elizabeth?" she asked. "I always like to
see your piles of towels,--they are so even and smooth."

Elizabeth looked up, and her face brightened. "And welcome, Miss
Margaret!" she said. "I'll be pleased enough. 'Tis dreadful lonesome,
and Mis' Cheriton gone. Not that she could come up here, I don't mean;
but I always knew she was there, and she was like a mother to me, and I
could always go to her. Yes, miss, the towels do look nice, and I love
to keep 'em so."

"They are beautiful!" said Margaret, with genuine enthusiasm, for the
shelves and drawers were like those she had read about in "Soll und
Haben." She had loved them in the book, but never thought of looking at
them in reality. "Oh, what lovely damask this is, Elizabeth! It shines
like silver! I never saw such damask as this."

"'Tis something rare, miss, I do be told," Elizabeth replied.

"Mr. Montfort brought them towels back from Germany, three years ago,
because he thought they would please his aunt, and they did, dear lady.
Hand spun and wove they are, she said; and there's only one place where
they make this weave and this pattern. See, Miss Margaret! 'Tis roses,
coming out of a little loaf of bread like; and there was a story about
it, some saint, but I don't rightly remember what. There! I have tried
to remember that story, ever since Mis' Cheriton went, but it seems I
can't."

"Oh, oh, it must be Saint Elizabeth of Hungary!" cried Margaret, bending
in delight over the smooth silvery stuff. "Why, how perfectly
enchanting!"

"Yes, miss, that's it!" cried Elizabeth, beaming with pleasure. "Saint
Elizabeth it was; and maybe you'll know the story, Miss Margaret. I
never like to ask Mr. Montfort, of course, but I should love dearly to
hear it."

Margaret asked nothing better. She told the lovely story as well as she
knew how, and before she had finished, Elizabeth's eyes as well as her
own were full of tears. One of Elizabeth's tears even fell on the towel,
and she cried out in horror, and wiped it away as if it had been a
poison-spot, and laid the sacred damask back in its place. Margaret felt
the moment given to her.

"Elizabeth," she said, "I want to ask you something. I want to ask if
you will help me a little. Will you try?"

Elizabeth, surprised and pleased, vowed she would do all she could for
Miss Margaret, in any way in her power.

"You can do a great deal!" said Margaret. "I--I am very young,
Elizabeth, and--and you and Frances have been here a long time, and of
course you know all about the work of the house, and I know nothing at
all. And yet--and yet, I ought to be helping, it seems to me, and ought
to be taking my place, and my share in the work. Do you see what I mean,
Elizabeth? You and Frances could help me, oh, so much, if you would; and
perhaps some day I might be able to help you too,--I don't know just
how, yet, but it might come."

"Oh, miss, we will be so thankful!" cried Elizabeth. "Oh, miss, Frances
and me, we'd been wishing and longing to have you speak up and take your
place, if I may say so. We didn't like to put ourselves forward, and
we've no orders from Mr. Montfort, except to do whatever you said; and
so, when you'll say anything, Miss Margaret, we feel ever and ever so
much better, Frances and me. And I'll be pleased to go all over the work
with you, Miss Margaret, this very day, and show you just how I've
always done it, and I think Mr. Montfort has been satisfied, and Mis'
Cheriton was, Lord rest her! and you so young, and with so much else to
do, as I said time and again to Frances, reading with Mr. Montfort and
riding with him, and taking such an interest in the roses, as his own
daughter couldn't make him happier if he had one. And of course it's
nature that you haven't had no time yet to take much notice, but it
makes it twice as easy for servants, Miss Margaret, where an interest is
took; and I'm thankful to you, I'm sure, and so will Frances be, and
you'll find her closets a pleasure to look at."

Elizabeth stopped to draw breath, and Margaret looked at her in wonder
and self-reproach. The grave, staid woman was all alight with pleasure
and the prospect of sympathy. It came over Margaret that, comfortable
and homelike as their life at Fernley was, it was not perhaps exactly
thrilling.

"We will be friends, Elizabeth!" she said, simply; and the two shook
hands, with an earnestness that meant something. "And you are to come
to me, please, whenever there is anything that needs attention,
Elizabeth, and I will do my best, and ask your advice about anything I
don't understand. Don't--don't we--need some new napkins, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth was eloquent as to their need of napkins. In a couple of
washes more, there would be nothing but holes left to wipe their hands
on.

"Then I'll order some this very day," said Margaret. "Or better still,
I'll go to town with Uncle John to-morrow, and get them myself. And now,
Elizabeth, I am going down to see Frances, and--and perhaps--do you
think she would like it if I ordered dinner, Elizabeth?"

"Miss Margaret, she'd be pleased to death!" cried Elizabeth.

Returning from the kitchen an hour later, a sadder and a wiser girl (for
Frances's perfection seemed unattainable by ordinary mortals, even with
the aid of Sapolio), Margaret heard the sound of wheels on the gravel
outside. Glancing through the window of the long passage through which
she was going, she saw, to her amazement, a carriage standing at the
door, a carriage that had evidently come some way, for it was covered
with dust. The driver was taking down a couple of trunks, and beside the
carriage stood a lady, with her purse in her hand.

"I shall give you two dollars!" the lady was saying, in a thin, sharp
voice. "I consider that ample for the distance you have come."

"I told the gentleman it would be three dollars, mum!" said the man,
civilly, touching his hat. "Three dollars is the regular price, with one
trunk, and these trunks is mortal heavy. The gentleman said as it would
be all right, mum."

"The gentleman knew nothing whatever about it," said the sharp-voiced
lady. "I shall give you two dollars, and not a penny more. I have always
paid two dollars to drive to Fernley, and I have no idea of being
cheated now, I assure you."

The man was still grumbling, when Elizabeth opened the door. She looked
grave, but greeted the newcomer with a respectful curtsey.

"Oh, how do you do, Elizabeth!" said the strange lady. "How is Mr.
Montfort?"

"Mr. Montfort is very well, thank you, mum!" said Elizabeth. "He is in
town, mum. He'll hardly be back before evening. Would you like to see
Miss Montfort?"

"Miss Montfort? Oh, the little girl who is staying here. You needn't
trouble to call her just now, Elizabeth. Send for Willis, will you, and
have him take my trunks in; I have come to stay. He may put them in the
White Rooms."

"I--I beg pardon, mum!" faltered Elizabeth. "In the Blue Room, did you
say? The Blue Room has been new done over, and that is where we have put
visitors lately."

"Nothing of the sort!" said the lady, sharply. "I said the White Rooms;
Mrs. Cheriton's rooms."

Margaret stayed to hear no more. A stranger in the White Rooms! Aunt
Faith's rooms, which she could not bear to occupy herself, though her
uncle had urged her to do so? And such a stranger as this, with such a
voice,--and such a nose! Never! never, while there was breath to pant
with, while there were feet to run with!

Never but once in her life had Margaret Montfort run as she did now;
that once was when she flew up the secret staircase to save her cousin
from burning. In a flash she was in her own room--what had been her
room!--gathering things frantically in her arms, snatching books from
the table, dresses from the closets. Down the back stairs she ran like a
whirlwind; down, and up, and down again. Had the girl gone suddenly mad?

Ten minutes later, when Elizabeth, her eyes smarting with angry tears,
opened the door of the White Parlour,--Willis the choreman behind her,
grunting and growling, with a trunk on his shoulder,--a young lady was
sitting in the great white armchair, quietly reading. The young lady's
cheeks were crimson, her eyes were sparkling, and her breath came in
short, quick gasps, which showed that what she was reading must be very
exciting; what made it the more curious was that the book was upside
down. But she was entirely composed, and evidently surprised at the
sudden intrusion.

"What is it, Elizabeth?" asked Margaret, quietly.

"I--I--I beg your pardon, Miss Montfort!" said Elizabeth, whose eyes
were beginning to brighten, too, and her lips to twitch dangerously.
"I--I didn't know, miss, as you had--moved in yet. Here is Miss
Sophronia Montfort, miss, as perhaps you would like to see her."

The strange lady was already glaring over Willis's shoulder.

"What is this?" she said. "What does this mean? These rooms are not
occupied; I was positively told they were not occupied. There must be
some mistake. Willis--"

"Yes, there is a mistake!" said Margaret, coming forward, and holding
out her hand with a smile. "Is this Cousin Sophronia? I am Margaret,
Cousin Sophronia. Uncle John asked me to take these rooms, and I--I feel
quite at home in them already. Would you like the Pink, or the Blue
Room? They are both ready, aren't they, Elizabeth?"

"Yes, Miss Montfort," said Elizabeth, "quite ready."

The strange lady's eyes glared wider and wider; her chest heaved; she
seemed about to break out in a torrent of angry speech; but making a
visible effort, she controlled herself. "How do you do, my--my dear?"
she said, taking Margaret's offered hand, and giving it a little pinch
with the tips of her fingers. "I--a little misunderstanding, no doubt.
Willis,--the Blue Room,--for the present!" But Willis was suffering from
a sudden and violent fit of coughing, which shook his whole frame, and
made it necessary for him to rest his trunk against the wall and lean
against it, with his head down; so that it was fully five minutes before
Miss Sophronia Montfort's trunk got up to the Blue Room.



CHAPTER III.

THE UNEXPECTED.


When Mr. Montfort came home that afternoon, Margaret was waiting for
him, as usual, on the verandah; as usual, for she was determined to keep
the worry out of her face and out of her voice. But as her uncle came up
the steps, with his cheery "Well! and how's my lassie?" he was
confronted by Miss Sophronia Montfort, who, passing Margaret swiftly,
advanced with both hands held out, and a beaming smile.

"My dearest John! my poor, dear fellow! Confess that I have surprised
you. Confess it, John!--you did not expect to see me."

"Sophronia!" exclaimed Mr. Montfort. He stood still and contemplated the
visitor for a moment; then he shook hands with her, rather formally.

"You certainly have surprised me, Sophronia!" he said, kindly enough.
"What wind has blown you in this direction?"

"The wind of affection, my dear boy!" cried the strange lady. "I have
been planning it, ever since I heard of Aunt Faith's death. Dearest Aunt
Faith! What a loss, John! what an irreparable loss! I shall never
recover from the shock. The moment I heard of it, I said--William would
tell you, if he were here--I said, 'I must go to John! He will need me
now,' I said, 'and go I must.' I explained to William that I felt it as
a solemn duty. He took it beautifully, poor, dear fellow. I don't know
how they will get on without me, for his wife is sadly heedless, John,
and the children need a steady hand, they do indeed. But he did not try
to keep me back; indeed, he urged me to come, which showed such a
beautiful spirit, didn't it? And so here I am, my dearest boy, come to
take Aunt Faith's place, and make a home for you, my poor lonely cousin.
You know I have always loved you as a sister, John, and you must
consider me a real sister now; sister Sophronia, dear John!"

The lady paused for breath, and gazed tenderly on Mr. Montfort; that
gentleman returned her gaze with one of steady gravity.

"I shall be glad to have a visit from you, Sophronia," he said. "I have
no doubt we can make you comfortable for a few weeks; I can hardly
suppose that William can spare you longer than that. We have no children
here to need your--your ministrations."

The lady shook her head playfully; she had thin curls of a grayish
yellow, which almost rattled when she shook her head.

"Always self-denying, John!" she cried. "The same unselfish, good,
sterling fellow! But I understand, my friend; I know how it really is,
and I shall do my duty, and stand by you; depend upon that! And this
dear child, too!" she added, turning to Margaret and taking her hand
affectionately. "So young, so unexperienced! and to be attempting the
care of a house like Fernley! How could you think of it, John? But we
will make that all right. I shall be--we can hardly say a mother, can
we, my dear? but an elder sister, to you, too. Oh, we shall be very
happy, I am sure. The drawing-room carpets are looking very shabby,
John. I am ready to go over the dear old house from top to bottom, and
make it over new; of course you did not feel like making any changes
while dear Aunt Faith was with you. Such a mistake, I always say, to
shake the aged out of their ruts. Yes! so wise of you! and who is in the
neighbourhood, John?"

"I hardly know," said Mr. Montfort. "You know I live rather a hermit
life, Sophronia. Mrs. Peyton is here; I believe you are fond of her."

"Sweet Emily Peyton!" exclaimed Miss Sophronia, with enthusiasm. "Is
that exquisite creature here? That will indeed be a pleasure. Ah, John,
she should never have been Emily Peyton; you know my opinion on that
point." She nodded her head several times, with an air of mysterious
understanding. "And widowed, after all, and once more alone in the
world. How does she bear her sorrow, John?"

"I have not seen her," said Mr. Montfort, rather shortly. "From what I
hear, she seems to bear it with considerable fortitude. Perhaps you
forget that it is fully ten years since Mr. Peyton died, Sophronia. But
Margaret here can tell you more than I can about Mrs. Peyton; she goes
to see her now and then. Mrs. Peyton is something of an invalid, and
likes to have her come."

"Indeed!" cried Miss Sophronia. "I should hardly have fancied--Emily
Peyton was always so mature in her thought, so critical in her
observations; but no doubt she is lonely, and glad of any society; and
sweet Margaret is most sympathetic, I am sure. Sympathy, my dear John!
how could we live without it, my poor dear fellow?"

"I am going to walk," said Mr. Montfort, abruptly. "Margaret, will you
come? Sophronia, you will be glad of a chance to rest; you must be tired
after your long drive."

"This once, yes, dearest John!" said the lady. "This once you must go
without me. I am tired,--so thoughtful of you to notice it! There is no
sofa in the Blue Room, but I shall do very well there for a few days.
Don't have me on your mind in the least, my dear cousin; I shall soon
be absolutely at home. Enjoy your walk, both of you! After to-day, I
shall always be with you, I hope. I ordered tea an hour earlier, as I
dined early, and I knew you would not mind. Good-bye!" and the lady
nodded, and smiled herself into the house.

Margaret went for her hat in silence, and in silence she and her uncle
walked along. Mr. Montfort was smoking, not in his usual calm and
dignified manner, but in short, fierce puffs; smoking fast and
violently. Margaret did not dare to speak, and they walked a mile or
more without exchanging a word.

"Margaret," said her uncle, at last.

"Yes, Uncle John."

"Not in the least, my dear!"

"No, Uncle John."

They walked another mile, and presently stopped at the top of a breezy
hill, to draw breath, and look about them. The sun was going down in a
cheerful blaze; the whole country smiled, and was glad of its own
beauty. Mr. Montfort gazed about him, and heaved a long sigh of
content.

"Pretty! Pretty country!" he said. "Spreading fields, quiet woods, sky
over all, undisturbed. Yes! You are very silent, my dear. Have I been
silent, too, or have I been talking?"

"What a curious question!" thought Margaret.

"You--you have not said much, Uncle John," she replied.

"Well, my love, that may be because there isn't much to say. Some
situations, Margaret, are best met in silence."

Margaret nodded. She knew her uncle's ways pretty well by this time.

"And yet," continued Mr. Montfort, "it may be well to have just a word
of understanding with you, my dear child. Sophronia Montfort is my own
cousin, my first cousin."

"Yes, Uncle John," said Margaret, as he seemed to pause for a reply.

"Ri tumpty,--that is to say, there is no gainsaying that fact,--my own
cousin. And by natural consequence, Margaret, the own cousin of your
father, and by further consequence, your first cousin once removed. It
is--a--it is many years since she has been at Fernley; we must try to
make her comfortable during the time--the short time--she is with us.
You have put her in the Blue Room; that is comfortable, is it, and
properly fitted up,--all the modern inconveniences and abominations,
eh?"

Mr. Montfort's own room had a bare floor, a bed, a table, a chest of
drawers, and a pitcher and basin and bath that might have been made for
Cormoran or Blunderbore, whichever was the bigger.

"Everything, I think, uncle," faltered Margaret, turning crimson, and
beginning to tremble. "Oh! Oh, Uncle John! I have something to tell you.
I--I don't know how to tell you."

"Don't try, then, my dear," said Uncle John, in his own kind way.
"Perhaps it isn't necessary."

"Oh, yes, it is necessary. I shall have no peace till I do, uncle,--you
remember you asked me to take the White Rooms; you surely asked me,
didn't you?"

"Surely, my child," said Mr. Montfort, wondering much. "But I wished
you to do as you pleased, you know."

"Yes! Oh, uncle, that was it! When Cousin Sophronia came, she--she told
Elizabeth to have her trunks carried into the White Rooms."

"So!" said Mr. Montfort.

"Yes, uncle! I was in the passage, and heard her give the order, and
I--I could not bear it, Uncle John, I could not, indeed. I flew
up-stairs, and brought down some of my things,--all I could carry in two
trips,--and, when they came in with the trunk, I--I was sitting there,
and--and wondering why they came into my room. Uncle John, do you see?
Was it very, very wicked?"

For all reply, Mr. Montfort went off into a fit of laughter so prolonged
and violent, that Margaret, who at first tried to join in timidly,
became alarmed for him. "Ho! ho! ho!" he laughed, throwing his head
back, and expanding his broad chest. "Ha! ha! ha! so you--ho! ho!--you
got in first, little miss! Why wasn't I there to see? Oh, why wasn't I
there? I would give a farm, a good farm, to have seen Sophronia's face.
Tell me about it again, Margaret. Tell me slowly, so that I may see it
all. You have a knack of description, I know; show me the scene."

Slowly, half frightened, and wholly relieved, Margaret went through the
matter from beginning to end, making as light as she could of her own
triumph, of which she really felt ashamed, pleased as she was to have
achieved it. When she had finished, her uncle sat down under a tree, and
laughed again; not so violently, but with a hearty enjoyment that took
in every detail.

"And Willis had a fit of coughing!" he exclaimed, when Margaret had come
to the last word. "Poor Willis! Willis must see a doctor at once.
Consumptive, no doubt; and concealed under such a deceptive appearance
of brawn! Ho! Margaret, my dear, I feel better, much better. You have
cleared the air for me, my child."

"You--are not angry, then, Uncle John? You don't think I ought to have
put Cousin Sophronia in the rooms?"

"My love, they should have been burned to the ground sooner. There was
only one person in the world whom your Aunt Faith could not endure, and
that person was Sophronia Montfort. You did perfectly right, Margaret;
more right than you knew. If she had got into the White Rooms, I should
have been under the necessity of taking her forcibly out of them
(nothing short of force could have done it), and that would have created
an unpleasantness, you see. Yes! Thank you, my dear little girl! I feel
quite myself again. We shall worry through, somehow; but remember,
Margaret, that you are the mistress of Fernley, and, if you have any
trouble, come to me. And now, my love, we must go home to tea!"

When the gong rang for tea, Margaret and her uncle entered the
dining-room together--to find Cousin Sophronia already seated at the
head of the table, rattling the teacups with intention.

"Well, my dears!" she cried, in sprightly tones. "You walked further
than you intended, did you not? I should not have sat down without you,
but I was simply famished. I always think punctuality such an important
factor in the economy of life. It is high time you had some steady head
to look after you, John!" and she shook her head in affectionate
playfulness. "Sit down, John!"

Mr. Montfort did not sit down.

"I am sorry you were hungry, Sophronia," he said, kindly. "I cannot
think of letting you wait to pour tea for me, my dear cousin. Margaret
does that always; you are to sit here by me, and begin at once upon your
own supper. Allow me!"

Margaret hardly knew how it was done. There was a bow, a courtly wave of
the hand, a movement of chairs; and her own place was vacant, and Cousin
Sophronia was sitting at the side place, very red in the face, her eyes
snapping out little green lights; and Uncle John was bending over her
with cordial kindness, pushing her chair in a little further, and
lifting the train of her dress out of the way. With downcast eyes,
Margaret took her place, and poured the tea in silence. She felt as if a
weight were on her eyelids; she could not lift her eyes; she could not
speak, and yet she must. She shook herself, and made a great effort.

"How do you like your tea, Cousin Sophronia?" she asked, in a voice that
tried to sound cheerful and unconcerned. And, when she had spoken, she
managed, with another effort, to look up. Cousin Sophronia was smiling
and composed, and met her timid glance with an affectionate nod.

"Weak, my dear, if you please,--weak, with cream and sugar. Yes,--that
will be excellent, I have no doubt. I have to be a little exact about my
tea, my nerves being what they are. The nights I have, if my tea is not
precisely the right shade! It seems absurd, but life is made up of
little things, my dear John. And very right and wise, to have the dear
child learn to do these things, and practise on us, even if it is a
little trying at first. Is that the beef tea, Elizabeth? Thank you. I
told Frances to make me some beef tea, John; I knew hers could be
depended on, though I suppose she has grown rusty in a good many ways,
with this hermit life of yours,--so bad for a cook, I always think.
Yes, this is fair, but not quite what I should have expected from
Frances. I must see her in the morning, and give her a good rousing; we
all need a good rousing once in awhile. Frances and I have always been
the best of friends; we shall get on perfectly, I have no doubt. Ah! The
old silver looks well, John. Where did that sugar-bowl come from? Is it
Montfort, or Paston? Paston, I fancy! The Montfort silver is heavier,
eh?"

"Possibly!" said Mr. Montfort. "That sugar-bowl is neither one nor the
other, however. It is Dutch."

"Really! Vanderdecken? I didn't know you had any Vanderdecken silver,
John. Grandmother Vanderdecken left all her silver, I thought, to our
branch. Such a mistake, I always think, to scatter family silver. Let
each branch have _all_ that belongs to it, I always say. I feel very
strongly about it."

"This is not Vanderdecken," said Mr. Montfort, patiently. "I bought it
in Amsterdam."

"Oh! in Amsterdam! indeed! boughten silver never appeals to me. And
speaking of silver, I have wished for years that I could find a trace of
the old Vanderdecken porringer. You remember it, surely, John, at
Grandmother Vanderdecken's? She had her plum porridge in it every night,
and I used to play with the cow on the cover. I have tried and tried to
trace it, but have never succeeded. Stolen, I fear, by some dishonest
servant."

"I beg your pardon, Cousin Sophronia," said Margaret, blushing. "I have
the old Vanderdecken porringer, if it is the one with the cow on the
cover."

"_You!_" cried Miss Sophronia, opening her eyes to their fullest extent.

"Yes," Margaret replied. "There it is, on the sideboard. I have eaten
bread and milk out of it ever since I can remember, and I still use it
at breakfast."

Speechless for the moment, Miss Sophronia made an imperious sign to
Elizabeth, who brought her the beautiful old dish, not without a glance
of conscious pride at the wonderful blue polish on it. There was no
piece of plate in the house that took so perfect a polish as this.

Miss Sophronia turned it over and over. Her eyes were very green.
"Margaret Bleecker. On the occasion of her christening, from her
godmother," she read. "Yes, this is certainly the Vanderdecken
porringer. And may I ask how you came by it, my dear?"

"Certainly, Cousin Sophronia. Aunt Eliza Vanderdecken gave it to me at
my christening; she was my godmother, you see."

"A most extraordinary thing for Eliza Vanderdecken to do!" cried the
lady. "Eliza Vanderdecken knew, of course, that she was meant to have
but a life-interest in the personal property, as she never married. I
cannot understand Eliza's doing such a thing. I have longed all my life
for this porringer; I have associations with it, you see, lifelong
associations. I remember my Grandmother Vanderdecken distinctly; you
never saw her, of course, as she died years before you were born."

"Yes," said Margaret, gently, but not without intention. "And I, Cousin
Sophronia, associate it with Aunt Eliza, whom I remember distinctly, and
who was my godmother, and very kind to me. I value this porringer more
than almost any of my possessions. Thank you, Elizabeth; if you would
put it back, please. Will you have some more tea, Cousin Sophronia?"

"Let me give you another bit of chicken, Sophronia!" said Mr. Montfort,
heartily. "I think we have had enough about porringers, haven't we?
There are six or seven, I believe, in the strong closet. One of 'em was
Adam's, I've always been told. A little gravy, Sophronia? You're eating
nothing."

"I have no appetite!" said Miss Sophronia. "You know I only eat to
support life, John. A side-bone, then, if you insist, and a tiny bit of
the breast. William always says, 'You must live,' and I suppose I must.
Cranberry sauce! Thank you! I am really too exhausted to enjoy a morsel,
but I will make an effort. We _can_ do what we _try_ to do, I always
say. Thank you, dearest John. I dare say I shall be better to-morrow."



CHAPTER IV.

THE TRIALS OF MARGARET.


Margaret woke early the next morning, and lay wondering where she was.
Her eyes were used to opening on rose-flowered walls and mahogany
bed-posts. Here all was soft and white, no spot of colour anywhere. She
came to herself with a start, and yesterday with its happenings came
back to her. She sighed, and a little worried wrinkle came on her smooth
forehead. What a change, in a few short hours! Was all their peaceful,
dreamy life over, the life that suited both her and her uncle so
absolutely? They had been so happy! Was it over indeed? It seemed at
first as if she could not get up and face the cares of the day, under
the new conditions. Indolent by nature, Margaret dreaded change, and
above change unpleasantness; it seemed as if she might have plenty of
both. She rose and dressed in a despondent mood; but when her hair was
pinned up and her collar straight, she took herself to task. "I give you
three minutes!" she said, looking at herself in the glass. "If you can't
look cheerful by that time, you can go to bed again."

[Illustration: "AFTERWARDS SHE SALLIED OUT INTO THE GARDEN."]

The threat, or something else, carried the point, for it was an entirely
cheerful young woman who came into the library, with a rose for Uncle
John's buttonhole. Miss Montfort was already there, and responded with
sad sprightliness to Margaret's greeting. "Thank you, my dear! I was
just telling your uncle, it is a mere matter of form to ask if I have
slept. I seldom sleep, especially if I am up-stairs. The servants over
my head, it may be,--or if not that, I have the feeling of
insecurity,--stairs, you understand, in case of fire. Dear William had
my rooms fitted up on the ground floor. 'Sophronia,' he said, 'you must
sleep!' I suppose it is necessary, but I am so used to lying awake. Such
frightful noises in the walls, my dear John! Rats, I suppose? Has the
wainscoting been examined lately, in the room you have put me in? Not
that it matters in the least; I am the person in the world most easily
suited, I suppose. A cot, a corner, a crust, as William says, and I am
satisfied."

It took several crusts to satisfy Miss Sophronia at breakfast.
Afterwards she sallied out into the garden, where Mr. Montfort was
enjoying his morning cigar, with Margaret at his side. "You dear child,"
said the sprightly lady, "run now and amuse yourself, or attend to any
little duties you may have set yourself. So important, I always say, for
the young to be regular in everything they do. I am sure you agree with
me, dearest John. I will be your uncle's companion, my love; that is my
duty and my pleasure now. I must see your roses, John! No one in the
world loves roses as I do. What do you use for them? I have a recipe for
an infallible wash; I must give it to you, I must indeed."

Margaret went into the house; there was no place for her, for the lady
was leaning on Mr. Montfort's arm, chattering gaily in his ear. Margaret
was conscious of an unpleasant sensation which was entirely new to her.
She had always been with people she liked. Rita had often distressed
her, but still she was most lovable, with all her faults. Cousin
Sophronia was--not--lovable, the girl said to herself.

It was a relief to visit the kitchen, and find Frances beaming over her
bread-pan. The good woman hailed Margaret with delight, and received her
timid suggestions as to dinner with enthusiasm.

"Yes, Miss Margaret, I do think as a chicken-pie would be the very
thing. I've a couple of fowl in the house now, and what would you think
of putting in a bit of ham, miss?"

"Oh!" said Margaret. "Is that what you usually do, Frances? Then I am
sure it will be just right. And about a pudding; what do you think,
Frances? You know so many kinds of puddings, and they are all so good!"

Well, Frances had been thinking that if Miss Margaret should fancy
apple-fritters, Mr. Montfort was fond of them, and they had not had them
this month. And lemon-juice with them, or a little sugar and wine; which
did Miss Margaret think would be best? This was a delightful way of
keeping house; and after praising the bread, which was rising white and
light in the great pan, and poking the bubbles with her little finger,
and begging that she might be allowed to mix it some day soon, Margaret
went back in a better humour to the White Rooms, and sat down resolutely
to her buttonholes. There would be no walk this morning, evidently;
well, when she had done her hour's stint, she would go for a little
stroll by herself. After all, perhaps Uncle John would, when the
strangeness had worn off a little, enjoy having some one of his own age
to talk to; of course she was very young, too young to be much of a
companion. Still,--

Well, she would be cheerful and patient, and try to make things pleasant
so far as she could. And now she could only go and wish Uncle John
good-bye when he started for town, and perhaps walk to the station with
him, if he was going to walk.

While she sat sewing, glancing at the clock from time to time, Cousin
Sophronia came in, work-bag in hand.

"He is gone!" she said, cheerfully. "I saw him off at the gate. Dearest
John! Excellent, sterling John Montfort! Such a pleasure to be with him!
Such a joy to feel that I can make a home for him!"

"Gone!" echoed Margaret, looking up in dismay. "Why, surely it is not
train time!"

"An early train, my love," the lady explained. "Your dear uncle felt
obliged to start an hour earlier than usual, he explained to me. These
busy men! And how are you occupying yourself, my dear? Ah! buttonholes?
Most necessary! But, my love, you are working these the wrong way!"

"No, I think not," said Margaret. "This is the way I have always made
them, Cousin Sophronia."

"Wrong, my dear! Quite wrong, I assure you. Impossible to get a smooth
edge if you work them that way. Let me--h'm! yes! that is fairly even, I
confess; but the other way is the correct one, you must take my word for
it; and I will show you how, with pleasure. So important, I always say,
to do things just as they should be done!"

In vain Margaret protested that she understood the other way, but
preferred this. She finally, for quiet's sake, yielded, and pricked her
fingers, and made herself hot and cross, working the wrong way.

Miss Sophronia next began to cross-question her about Mrs. Cheriton's
last days. Such a saintly woman! Austere, some thought; perhaps not
always charitable--

"Oh!" cried Margaret, indignant. "Cousin Sophronia, you cannot have
known Aunt Faith at all. She was the very soul of charity; and as for
being austere--but it is evident you did not know her." She tried to
keep down her rising temper, with thoughts of the sweet, serene eyes
that had never met hers without a look of love.

"I knew her before you were born, my dear!" said Miss Sophronia, with a
slightly acid smile. "Oh, yes, I was intimately acquainted with dear
Aunt Faith. I have never thought it right to be blind to people's little
failings, no matter how much we love them. I always tell my brother
William, 'William, do not ask me to be blind! Ask me, expect me, to be
indulgent, to be devoted, to be self-sacrificing,--but not blind;
blindness is contrary to my nature, and you must not expect it.' Yes!
And--what was done with the clothes, my dear?"

"The clothes?" echoed Margaret. "Aunt Faith's clothes, do you mean,
Cousin Sophronia?"

"No. I meant the Montfort clothes; the heirlooms, my dear. But perhaps
you never saw them?"

"Oh, yes, I have seen them often," said Margaret. "They are in the cedar
chest, Cousin Sophronia, where they have always been. It is in the deep
closet there," she nodded towards an alcove at the other end of the
room.

Miss Sophronia rose with alacrity. "Ah! I think I will look them over.
Very valuable, some of those clothes are; quite unsuitable, I have
thought for some years, to have them under the charge of an aged person,
who could not in the course of nature be expected to see to them
properly. I fear I shall find them in a sad condition."

Her hand was already on the door, when Margaret was able to speak.
"Excuse me, Cousin Sophronia; the chest is locked."

"Very proper! Entirely proper!" cried the lady. "And you have the key?
That will not do, will it, my love? Too heavy for these dear young
shoulders, such a weight of responsibility! I will take entire charge of
this; not a word! It will be a pleasure! Where is the key, did you say,
love?"

"Uncle John has the key!" said Margaret, quietly; and blamed herself
severely for the pleasure she felt in saying it.

"Oh!" Miss Montfort paused, her hand on the door; for a moment she
seemed at a loss; but she went on again.

"Right, Margaret! Very right, my love! You felt yourself, or your uncle
felt for you, the unfitness of your having charge of such valuables.
Ahem! I--no doubt dear John will give me the key, as soon as I mention
it. I--I shall not speak of it at once; there is no hurry--except for
the danger of moth. An old house like Fernley is always riddled with
moth. I fear the clothes must be quite eaten away with them. Such a sad
pity! The accumulation of generations!"

Margaret hastened to assure her that the clothes were looked over
regularly once a month, and that no sign of moths had ever been found in
them. Miss Sophronia sighed and shook her head, and crocheted for some
minutes in silence; she was making a brown and yellow shoulder-shawl.
Margaret thought she had never seen a shawl so ugly.

"Has Cousin William Montfort any daughters?" she asked, presently,
thinking it her turn to bear some of the burden of entertainment.

"Four, my dear!" was the prompt reply. "Sweet girls! young, heedless,
perhaps not always considerate; but the sweetest girls in the world.
Amelia is just your age; what a companion she would be for you! Dear
Margaret! I must write to William, I positively must, and suggest his
asking you for a good long visit. Such a pleasure for you and for
Amelia! Not a word, my dear! I shall consider it a duty, a positive
duty! Amelia is thought to resemble me in many ways; she is the image
of what I was at her age. I am forming her; her mother is something of
an invalid, as I think I have told you. The older girls are away from
home just now,--they make a good many visits; I am always there, and
they feel that they can go. If they were at home, I should beg dear John
Montfort to invite Amelia here; such a pleasure for him, to have young
life in the house. But as it is, William must ask you. Consider it
settled, my love. A--what was done with Aunt Faith's jewels, my dear?
She had some fine pearls, I remember. Vanderdecken pearls they were
originally; I should hardly suppose Aunt Faith would have felt that she
had more than a life interest in them. And the great amethyst necklace;
did she ever show you her jewels, my love?"

Margaret blushed, and braced herself to meet the shock. "I have them,
Cousin Sophronia!" she said, meekly. "Aunt Faith wanted me to have all
her jewels, and she gave them to me before--before she died." Her voice
failed, and the tears rushed to her eyes. She was thinking of the frail,
white-clad figure bending over the ancient jewel-box, and taking out
the pearls. She heard the soft voice saying, "Your great-grandmother's
pearls, my Margaret; they are yours now. Wear them for me, and let me
have the pleasure of seeing them on your neck. You are my pearl,
Margaret; the only pearl I care for now." Dear, dearest Aunt Faith. Why
was she not here?

Before Miss Sophronia could recover her power of speech, a knock came at
the door.

"I beg your pardon, Miss Margaret!" said Elizabeth, putting her head in,
in answer to Margaret's "Come in!" "The butcher is here, miss, and
Frances thought perhaps, would you come out and see him, miss?"

"Certainly!" said Margaret, rising; but Miss Sophronia was too quick for
her.

"In a moment!" she cried, cheerfully. "Tell Frances I will be there in a
moment, Elizabeth! Altogether too much for you, dear Margaret, to have
so much care. _I_ cannot have too much care! It is what I live for; give
the household matters no further thought, I beg of you. You might be
setting your bureau drawers in order, if you like, while I am seeing
the butcher; I always look over Amelia's drawers once a week--"

She glided away, leaving Margaret white with anger. How was she to
endure this? She was nearly eighteen; she had taken care of herself ever
since she was seven, and had attained, or so she fancied, perfection, in
the matter of bureau-drawers, at the age of twelve. To have her precious
arrangements looked over, her boxes opened, her--oh, there could be,
there _was_ no reason why she should submit to this! She locked the
drawers quietly, one after the other, and put the key in her pocket. She
would be respectful; she would be civil always, and cordial when she
could, but she would not be imposed upon.

By the time Miss Sophronia came back, Margaret was composed, and greeted
her cousin with a pleasant smile; but this time it was the lady who was
agitated. She came hurrying in, her face red, her air perturbed.
"Insufferable!" she cried, as soon as the door was closed. "Margaret,
that woman is insufferable! She must leave at once."

"Woman! what woman, Cousin Sophronia?" asked Margaret, looking up in
amazement.

"That Frances! She--why, she is impertinent, Margaret. She insulted me;
insulted me grossly. I shall speak to John Montfort directly he returns.
She must go; I cannot stay in the house with her."

Go! Frances, who had been at Fernley twenty years; for whom the new
kitchen, now only fifteen years old, had been planned and arranged!
Margaret was struck dumb for a moment; but recovering herself, she tried
to soothe the angry lady, assuring her that Frances could not have meant
to be disrespectful; that she had a quick temper, but was so good and
faithful, and so attached to Uncle John; and so on. In another moment,
to her great discomfiture, Miss Sophronia burst into tears, declared
that she was alone in the world, that no one loved her or wanted her,
and that she was the most unhappy of women. Filled with remorseful pity,
Margaret bent over her, begging her not to cry. She brought a
smelling-bottle, and Miss Sophronia clutched it, sobbing, and told
Margaret she was an angelic child. "This--this is--a Vanderdecken
vinaigrette!" she said, between her sobs. "Did Eliza Vanderdecken give
you this, too? Very singular of Eliza! But she never had any sense of
fitness. Thank you my dear! I suffer--no living creature knows what I
suffer with my nerves. I--shall be better soon. Don't mind anything I
said; I must suffer, but it shall always be in silence, I always
maintain that. No one shall know; I never speak of it; I am the grave,
for silence. Do not--do not tell your uncle, Margaret, how you have seen
me suffer. Do not betray my momentary weakness!"

"Certainly not!" said Margaret, heartily. "I will not say a word, Cousin
Sophronia, of course!"

"He would wish to know!" said Miss Sophronia, smothering a sob into a
sigh. "John Montfort would be furious if he thought I was ill-treated,
and we were concealing it from him. He is a lion when once roused. Ah! I
should be sorry for that woman. But forgiveness is a duty, my dear, and
I forgive. See! I am myself again. Quite--" with a hysterical
giggle--"quite myself! I--I will take the vinaigrette to my room with
me, I think, my dear. Thank you! Dear Margaret! cherub child! how you
have comforted me!" She went, and Margaret heard her sniffing along the
entry; heard, and told herself she had no business to notice such
things; and went back rather ruefully to her buttonholes.



CHAPTER V.

A NEW TYPE.


"My child, I thought you were never coming again!" said Mrs. Peyton. "Do
you know that it is a week since I have seen you? I have been
destroyed,--positively destroyed, with solitude."

"I am so sorry," said Margaret. "I could not come before; truly I could
not, Mrs. Peyton. And how have you been?"

Mrs. Peyton leaned back on her pillows, with a little laugh. "Who cares
how I have been?" she said, lightly. "What does it matter how I have
been? Tell me some news, Margaret. I must have news. You are alive, you
move, and have your being; tell me something that will make me feel
alive, too."

Margaret looked at the lady, and thought she looked very much alive. She
was a vision of rose colour, from the silk jacket fluttering with
ribbons, to the pink satin that shimmered through the lace bed-spread.
The rosy colour almost tinted her cheeks, which were generally the hue
of warm ivory. Her hair, like crisped threads of gold, was brought down
low on her forehead, hiding any lines that might have been seen there;
it was crowned by a bit of cobweb lace, that seemed too slight to
support the pink ribbon that held it together. The lady's hands were
small, and exquisitely formed, and she wore several rings of great
value; her eyes were blue and limpid, her features delicate and regular.
Evidently, this had been a great beauty. To Margaret, gazing at her in
honest admiration, she was still one of the most beautiful creatures
that could be seen.

Mrs. Peyton laughed under the girl's simple look of pleasure. "You like
my new jacket?" she said. "The doctor never so much as noticed it this
morning. I think I shall send him away, and get another, who has eyes in
his head. You are the only person who really cares for my clothes,
Margaret, and they are the only interest I have in the world."

"I wish you wouldn't talk so!" said Margaret, colouring. "You don't mean
it, and why will you say it?"

"I do mean it!" said the beautiful lady. "I mean every word of it.
There's nothing else to care for, except you, you dear little
old-fashioned thing. I like you, because you are quaint and truthful.
Have you seen my pink pearl? You are not half observant, that's the
trouble with you, Margaret Montfort."

She held out her slender hand; Margaret took it, and bent over it
affectionately. "Oh, what a beautiful ring!" she cried. "I never saw a
pink pearl like this before, Mrs. Peyton, so brilliant, and such a deep
rose colour. Isn't it very wonderful?"

"The jeweller thought so," said Mrs. Peyton. "He asked enough for it; it
might have been the companion to Cleopatra's. The opal setting is
pretty, too, don't you think? And I have some new stones. You will like
to see those."

She took up a small bag of chamois leather, that lay on the bed beside
her, opened it, and a handful of precious stones rolled out on the lace
spread. Margaret caught after one and another in alarm. "Oh! Oh, Mrs.
Peyton, they frighten me! Why, this diamond--I never saw such a diamond.
It's as big as a pea."

"Imperfect!" said the lady. "A flaw in it, you see; but the colour is
good, and it does just as well for a plaything, though I don't like
flawed things, as a rule. This sapphire is a good one,--deep, you see; I
like a deep sapphire."

"This light one is nearer your eyes," said Margaret, taking up a lovely
clear blue stone.

"Flatterer! People used to say that once; a long time ago. Heigh ho,
Margaret, don't ever grow old! Take poison, or throw yourself out of the
window, but don't grow old. It's a shocking thing to do."

Margaret looked at her friend with troubled, affectionate eyes, and laid
her hand on the jewelled fingers.

"Oh, I mean it!" said the lady, with a pretty little grimace. "I mean
it, Miss Puritan. See! Here's a pretty emerald. But you haven't told me
the news. Mr. Montfort is well always?"

"Always!" said Margaret. "We--we have a visitor just now, Mrs.
Peyton,--some one you know."

"Some one I know?" cried Mrs. Peyton. "I thought every one I knew was
dead and buried. Who is it, child? Don't keep me in suspense. Can't you
see that I am palpitating?"

She laughed, and looked so pretty, and so malicious, that Margaret
wanted to kiss and to shake her at the same moment.

"It is a cousin of Uncle John's and of mine," she said; "Miss Sophronia
Montfort."

"_What!_" cried Mrs. Peyton, sitting up in bed. "Sophronia Montfort? You
are joking, Margaret."

Assured that Margaret was not joking, she fell back again on her
pillows. "Sophronia Montfort!" she said, laughing softly. "I have not
heard of her since the flood. How does John--how does Mr. Montfort
endure it, Pussy? He was not always a patient man."

Margaret thought her uncle one of the most patient men she had ever
seen.

"And how many men have you seen, little girl? Never mind! I will allow
him all the qualities of the Patient Patriarch. He will need them all,
if he is to have Sophronia long. I am sorry for you, Pussy! Come over as
often as you can to see me. I am dull, but there are worse things than
dullness."

This was not very encouraging.

"She--Cousin Sophronia--sent you a great many messages," Margaret said,
timidly. "She--is very anxious to see you, Mrs. Peyton. She would like
to come over some morning, and spend an hour with you."

"If she does, I'll poison her!" said Mrs. Peyton, promptly. "Don't look
shocked, Margaret Montfort; I shall certainly do as I say. Sophronia
comes here at peril of her life, and you may tell her so with my
compliments."

Margaret sat silent and distressed, not knowing what to say. She had
known very few people in her quiet life, and this beautiful lady, whom
she admired greatly, also puzzled her sadly.

"I cannot tell her that, can I, dear Mrs. Peyton?" she said, at last. "I
shall tell her that you are not well,--that is true, most
certainly,--and that you do not feel able to see her."

"Tell her what you please," said Emily Peyton, laughing again. "If she
comes, I shall poison her,--that is my first and last word. Tell her?
Tell her that Emily Peyton is a wreck; that she lies here like a log,
week after week, month after month, caring for nothing, no one caring
for her, except a kind little girl, who is frightened at her wild talk.
I might try the poison on myself first, Margaret; what do you think of
that?" Then, seeing Margaret's white, shocked face, she laughed again,
and fell to tossing the gems into the air, and catching them as they
fell. "It would be a pity, though, just when I have got all these new
playthings. Did you bring a book to read to me, little girl? I can't
abide reading, but I like to hear your voice. You have something, I see
it in your guilty face. Poetry, I'll be bound. Out with it, witch! You
hope to bring me to a sense of the error of my ways. Why, I used to read
poetry, Margaret, by the dozen yards. Byron,--does any one read Byron
nowadays?"

"My father was fond of Byron," said Margaret. "He used to read me bits
of 'Childe Harold' and the 'Corsair;' I liked them, and I always loved
the 'Assyrian.' But--I thought you might like something bright and
cheerful to-day, Mrs. Peyton, so I brought Austin Dobson. Are you fond
of Dobson?"

"Never heard of him!" said the lady, carelessly. "Read whatever you
like, child; your voice always soothes me. Will you come and be my
companion, Margaret? Your uncle has Sophronia now; he cannot need you.
Come to me! You shall have a thousand, two thousand dollars a year, and
all the jewels you want. I'll have these set for you, if you like."

[Illustration: "'DID YOU BRING A BOOK TO READ TO ME, LITTLE GIRL?'"]

She seemed only half in earnest, and Margaret laughed. "You sent your
last companion away, you know, Mrs. Peyton," she said. "I'm afraid I
should not suit you, either."

"My dear, that woman ate apples! No one could endure that, you know.
Ate--champed apples in my ears, and threw the cores into my grate.
Positively, she smelt of apples all day long. I had to have the room
fumigated when she left. A dreadful person! One of her front teeth was
movable, too, and set me distracted every time she opened her mouth. Are
you ever going to begin?"

Margaret read two or three of her favourite poems, but with little heart
in her reading, for she felt that her listener was not listening. Now
and then would come an impatient sigh, or a fretful movement of the
jewelled hands; once a sapphire was tossed up in the air, and fell on
the floor by Margaret's feet. Only when she began the lovely "Good
Night, Babette!" did Mrs. Peyton's attention seem to fix. She listened
quietly, and, at the end, drew a deep breath.

"You call that bright and cheerful, do you?" Mrs. Peyton murmured.
"Everything looks cheerful in the morning. Good night,--"I grow so
old,"--how dare you read me such a thing as that, Margaret Montfort? It
is an impertinence."

"Indeed," said Margaret, colouring, and now really wounded. "I do not
understand you at all to-day, Mrs. Peyton. I don't seem to be able to
please you, and it is time for me to go."

She rose, and the lady, her mood changing again in an instant, took her
two hands, and drew her close to her side.

"You are my only comfort," she said. "Do you hear that? You are the only
person in this whole dreadful place that I would give the half of a
burnt straw to see. Remember that, when I behave too abominably. Yes, go
now, for I am going to have a bad turn. Send Antonia; and come again
soon--soon, do you hear, Margaret? But remember--remember that the
poison-bowl waits for Sophronia!"

"What--shall I give her any message?" said poor Margaret, as she bent
to kiss the white forehead between the glittering waves of hair.

"Give her my malediction," said Mrs. Peyton. "Tell her it is almost a
consolation for lying here, to think I need not see her. Tell her
anything you like. Go now! Good-bye, child! Dear little quaint, funny,
prim child, good-bye!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Margaret walked home sadly enough. She loved and admired her beautiful
friend, but she did not understand her, and there was much that she
could not approve. It seemed absurd, she often said to herself, for a
girl of her age to criticise, to venture to disapprove, of a woman old
enough to be her mother, one who had travelled the world over, and knew
plenty of human nature, if little of books. Yet, the thought would come
again, there was no age to right and wrong; and there were things that
it could not be right to think, or kind to say, at eighteen or at
eighty. And her uncle did not like Mrs. Peyton. Margaret felt that,
without his having ever put it into words. Still, she was so beautiful,
so fascinating,--and so kind to her! Perhaps, unconsciously, Margaret
did miss a good deal the two young cousins who had been with her during
her first year at Fernley; surely, and every hour, she missed her Aunt
Faith, whose tenderness had been that of the mother she had never known.

She was in no haste to go home; there was still an hour before Uncle
John would come. There was little peace at home in these days, but a
prying eye, and a tongue that was seldom still save in sleep. She had
left Elizabeth in tears to-day, her precious linen having been pulled
over, and all the creases changed because they ran the wrong way. In
vain Margaret had reminded her of the heroine of the story she had liked
so much, the angelic Elizabeth of Hungary. "It don't make much
difference, Miss Margaret!" Elizabeth said. "I am no saint, miss, and
all the roses in the world wouldn't make my table-cloths look fit to go
on, now."

Frances was "neither to hold or to bind;" even the two young girls whom
the elder women had in training were tossing their heads and muttering
over their brasses and their saucepans. The apple of discord seemed to
be rolling all about the once peaceful rooms of Fernley House. "I'll go
home through the woods," said Margaret, "and see if they have begun work
on the bog yet."

It was lovely in the woods. Margaret thought there could be no such
woods in the world as these of Fernley. The pines were straight and
tall, and there was little or no undergrowth; just clear, fragrant
stretches of brown needles, where one could lie at length and look up
into the whispering green, and watch the birds and squirrels. There was
moss here and there; here and there, too, a bed of pale green ferns,
delicate and plumy; but most of it was the soft red-brown carpet that
Margaret loved better even than ferns. She walked slowly along, drinking
in beauty and rest at every step. If she could only bring the sick lady
out here, she thought, to breathe this life-giving air! Surely she would
be better! She did not look ill enough to stay always in bed. They must
try to bring it about.

She stopped at the little brook, and sat down on a mossy stone. The
water was clear and brown, breaking into white over the pebbles here and
there. How delightful it would be to take off her shoes and stockings,
and paddle about a little! Peggy, her cousin, would have been in the
water in an instant, very likely shoes and all; but Margaret was timid,
and it required some resolution to pull off her shoes and stockings, and
a good deal of glancing over her shoulder, to make sure that no one was
in sight. Indeed, who could be? The water was cool; oh, so cool and
fresh! She waded a little way; almost lost her balance on a slippery
stone, and fled back to the bank, laughing and out of breath. A frog
came up to look at her, and goggled in amazement; she flipped water at
him with her hand, and he vanished indignant. It would be very pleasant
to walk along the bed of the stream, as far as the entrance to the bog
meadow. Could she venture so far? No, for after all, it was possible
that some of the workmen might have arrived and might be in the
neighbourhood, though they were not to begin work till the next day.
Very slowly Margaret drew her feet out of the clear stream where they
twinkled and looked so white,--Margaret had pretty feet,--but she could
not make up her mind to put on the shoes and stockings just yet. She
must dry her feet; and this moss was delightful to walk on. So on she
went, treading lightly and carefully, finding every step a pure
pleasure, till she saw sunlight breaking through the green, and knew
that she was coming to the edge of the peat bog. Ah, what memories this
place brought to Margaret's mind! She could see her cousin Rita,
springing out in merry defiance over the treacherous green meadow; could
hear her scream, and see her sinking deep, deep, into the dreadful
blackness below. Then, like a flash, came Peggy from the wood, this very
wood she was walking in now, and ran, and crept, and reached out, and by
sheer strength and cleverness saved Rita from a dreadful death, while
she, Margaret, stood helpless by. Dear, brave Peggy! Ah, dear girls
both! How she would like to see them this moment. Why! Why, what was
that?

Some one was whistling out there in the open. Whistling a lively,
rollicking air, with a note as clear and strong as a bird's. Horror! The
workmen must have come! Margaret was down on the grass in an instant,
pulling desperately at her shoes and stockings. From the panic she was
in, one might have thought that the woods were full of whistling
brigands, all rushing in her direction, with murder in their hearts. She
could hardly see; there was a knot in her shoe-string; why did she ever
have shoes that tied? Her heart was beating, the blood throbbing in her
ears,--and all the time the whistling went on, not coming nearer, but
trilling away in perfect cheerfulness, though broken now and then, and
coming in fits and starts. At last! At last the shoes were tied, and
Margaret stood up, still panting and crimson, but feeling that she could
face a robber, or even an innocent workman, without being disgraced for
life. Cautiously she stole to the edge of the wood, and peeped between
the pine-boles. The sun lay full on the peat bog, and it shone like a
great, sunny emerald, friendly and smiling, with no hint of the black
treachery at its heart. No hint? But look! Out in the very middle of the
bog a figure was standing, balanced on a tussock of firm earth. A light,
active figure, in blue jean jumper and overalls. One of the workmen, who
did not know of the peril, and was plunging to his destruction? Margaret
opened her lips to cry aloud, but kept silence, for the next moment she
comprehended that the young man (he was evidently young, though his back
was turned to her) knew well enough what he was about. He had a long
pole in his hand, and with this he was poking and prodding about in the
black depths beneath him. Now he sounded carefully a little way ahead of
him, and then, placing his pole carefully on another firm spot, leaped
to it lightly. The black bog water gurgled up about his feet, but he did
not sink, only planted his feet more firmly, and went on with his
sounding. Now he was singing. What was he singing? What a quaint, funny
air!

        "A wealthy young farmer of Plymouth, we hear,
         He courted a nobleman's daughter, so dear;
         And for to be married it was their intent,--

Hi! muskrat!--come out of there!" He almost lost his balance, and
Margaret screamed a very small scream, that could not be heard a dozen
yards. Recovering himself, the young man began to make his way towards
the shore, at a point nearly opposite to where Margaret stood. Springing
lightly to the firm ground, he took off his cap, and made a low bow to
the bog, saying at the same time something, Margaret could not hear
what. Then, looking carefully about him, the young workman appeared to
be selecting a spot of earth that was to his mind; having done so, he
sat down, took out a note-book, and wrote with ardour for several
minutes. Then he took off his cap, and ran his fingers through his
hair--which was very curly, and bright red--till it stood up in every
direction; then he turned three elaborate somersaults; and then, with
another salute to the bog, and a prolonged whistle, he went off, leaping
on his pole, and singing, as he went:

        "And for to be mar-ri-ed it was their intent;
         All friends and relations had given their consent."



CHAPTER VI.

A LESSON IN GEOGRAPHY.


"Margaret!"

"Yes, uncle."

"Can you come here a moment, my dear?"

"Surely, Uncle John. I was looking for you, and could not find you."

Margaret came running in from the garden. Her uncle was sitting in his
private study, which opened directly on the garden, and communicated by
a staircase in the wall with his bedroom. The study was a pleasant room,
lined with books for the most part, but with some valuable pictures, and
a great table full of drawers, and several presses or secretaries,
filled with papers and family documents of every kind. Mr. John
Montfort, recluse though he was, was the head of a large and important
family connection. Few of his relatives ever saw him, but most of them
were in more or less constant correspondence with him, and he knew all
their secrets, though not one of them could boast of knowing his. He was
the friend and adviser, the kindly helper, of many a distant cousin who
had never met the kind, grave glance of his brown eyes. Peggy Montfort
used to say, in the days when it had pleased him to appear as John
Strong, the gardener, that it "smoothed her all out," just to look at
him; and many people experienced the same feeling on receiving one of
his letters. No one had it, however, so strongly as Margaret herself, or
so she thought; and it was with a sensation of delightful relief that
she answered his call this morning. Mr. Montfort turned round from the
great table at which he was sitting, and held out his hand
affectionately.

"Come here, my child," he said, "and let me look at you. Look me
straight in the eyes; yes, that will do. You are feeling well, Margaret?
You look well, I must say."

"Well? Of course, Uncle John! Am I ever anything else? I have never had
a day's illness since I came here."

"You do not feel the load of responsibility too much for your young
shoulders?" Mr. Montfort went on. "It--it is not too dull for you here,
alone month after month with an elderly man, and a hermit, and one who
has the reputation of a grim and unfriendly old fellow? What do you say,
Margaret?"

The quick tears sprang to Margaret's eyes. She looked up at her uncle,
and saw in his eyes the quizzical twinkle that always half puzzled and
wholly delighted her. "Oh, uncle!" she cried; "you really deceived me
this time! I might have known you were in fun,--but you were so grave!"

"Grave?" said Mr. Montfort. "Never more so, I assure you. I may not have
very serious doubts, in my own mind; nevertheless, I want your
assurance. Do you, Margaret Montfort, find life a burden under existing
circumstances, or do you find it--well, endurable for awhile yet?"

"I find life as happy as I can imagine it," said Margaret, simply; and
then, being absolutely truthful, she added, "That is,--I did find it
so, Uncle John,--until these last two weeks."

"Precisely!" said Mr. Montfort. "Not a word, my dear! I understand you.
You are fond of children, I think, Margaret?"

"Very fond," said Margaret, thinking that Uncle John was strange indeed
to-day.

"Get on well with them, I should suppose. You had a great deal of
influence over Peggy, Margaret."

"Dear, good Peggy! She was so ready to be influenced, Uncle John. She
was just waiting to--to be helped on a little, don't you know?"

"Yes; so Rita thought, if I remember aright!" said Mr. Montfort, dryly.
"But with younger children, eh? You have had some experience of them,
perhaps, Margaret?"

Was he still joking? Margaret had not much sense of humour, and she was
sadly puzzled again.

"I--I love little children," she said. "Of course I do, Uncle John!"

"Little children,--yes. But how about boys? Active, noisy,
happy-go-lucky boys? Boys that smash windows, and yell, and tear their
clothes on barbed-wire fences? How about those, Margaret?"

"Is that the kind of boy you were, Uncle John?" asked Margaret, smiling.
"Because if so, I am sure I shall like them very much."

"Very well, my dear child!" he said. "You are well and happy, and we
understand each other, and that is all right, very right. Now,
Margaret,--I ask this for form's sake merely,--have you been in this
room before, to-day?"

"No, Uncle John," said Margaret.

"Of course you have not. Knew it before I asked you. Do you notice
anything unusual in the appearance of the room, my dear?"

Margaret looked about her, wondering. It produced an impression
of--well, not just the perfect order in which it was generally to be
found. Several drawers were half open; a sheaf of papers lay on the
floor, as if dropped by a startled hand. The writing things were
disarranged, slightly, yet noticeably; for Mr. Montfort always kept them
in one position, which was never changed save when they were in actual
use.

"Why, it looks--as if--as if you had been in a hurry, Uncle John," she
said at last.

"It looks as if _some one_ had been in a hurry," said Mr. Montfort,
significantly. "I have not been in this room before, to-day; I found it
in this condition. Never mind, my dear! I am going to write a letter
now. Don't let me keep you any longer."

Margaret went away, wondering much; her uncle joined her soon, and they
looked at the roses together, and chatted as usual, and were happy, till
Cousin Sophronia rapped on the window with her thimble, and asked
whether they were coming in, or whether she should come out and join
them.

She was trying that evening, Cousin Sophronia. Nothing on the tea-table
suited her, to begin with. She declared the beef tea unfit to touch, and
desired Mr. Montfort to taste it, which he politely but firmly refused
to do. "But it is not fit to eat!" cried the lady. "I insist on your
tasting it, my dear John."

"My dear Sophronia, I am extremely sorry it is not to your taste. If it
is not good, I certainly do not want to taste it. Send it away and ask
me to taste something that is good."

The chicken was tough. "You should change your butcher, John. Or are
these your own fowls? Chickens I will not call them; they must be two
years old at least. Nothing disagrees with me like tough poultry. Nobody
to look after the fowls properly, I suppose. I must take them in hand;
not that I have had any experience myself of fowls, but an educated
person, you understand. So important, I always say, to bring educated
intelligence to bear on these matters. And then, these knives are so
dull! Even if the fowls were tender, impossible to make an impression
with such a knife as this. Elizabeth, what do you use for your knives?"

Elizabeth used Bristol brick, as she always had done.

"Ah, entirely out of date, Bristol brick. You must send for some of the
preparation that William uses, John. Nothing like it. Something or
other, it's called; somebody's--I can't remember now, but we will have
it, never fear, dearest John. Shameful, for you to be subjected to dull
knives _and_ tough poultry. What are these? Strawberries? Dear me! I did
hope we could have raspberries this evening. One is so tired of
strawberries by this time, don't you think so?"

"I am sorry," said Mr. Montfort. "The raspberries will be ripe in a day
or two, Sophronia; Willis thought they would hardly do to pick to-day."

"Oh, but I assure you, my dearest John, Willis is entirely wrong. I
examined the bushes myself; I went quite through them, and found them
quite--entirely ripe. That was just Willis's laziness, depend upon it.
These old servants" (Elizabeth had gone to get more cream, the lady
having emptied the jug on her despised strawberries) "are too lazy to be
of much use. Depend upon it, John, you will know no peace until you get
rid of them all, and start afresh; I am thinking very seriously about
it, I assure you, my dear fellow. Yes, I have been longing for days for
a plate of raspberries and cream. I have so little appetite, that
whenever I _can_ tempt it a little, the doctor says, I must not fail to
do so. No more, dear, thank you! It is of no consequence, you know,
really, not the least in the world; only, one can be of so much more
use, when one keeps one's health. Ah, you remember what health I had as
a child, John! You remember the dear old days here, when we were
children together?"

"I remember them very well, Sophronia," said Mr. Montfort, steadily.
"And speaking of that, I am expecting some young visitors here in a day
or two."

Cousin Sophronia looked up with a jerk; Margaret looked at her uncle in
surprise; he sipped his tea tranquilly, and repeated: "Some young
visitors, yes. They will interest you, Sophronia, with your strong
family feeling."

"Who--who are they?" asked Miss Sophronia. "Most ill-judged, I must say,
to have children here just now; who did you say they were, John?"

"Cousin Anthony's children. They lost their mother some years ago, you
remember; I fancy Anthony has had rather a hard time with them since.
Now he has to go out West for the rest of the summer, and I have asked
them to come here."

For once Miss Sophronia was speechless. After a moment's silence,
Margaret ventured to say, timidly, "How old are the children, Uncle
John?"

"Really, my dear, I hardly know. Two boys and a girl, I believe. I don't
even know their names; haven't seen their father for twenty years. Good
fellow, Anthony; a little absent-minded and heedless, but a good fellow
always. I was glad to be able to oblige him."

Miss Sophronia recovered her speech.

"Really, my dear John," she said, with an acrid smile; "I had no idea
you were such a philanthropist. If Fernley is to become an asylum for
orphan relations--"

"Sophronia!" said Mr. Montfort.

His tone was quiet, but there was something in it that made the lady
redden, and check herself instantly. Margaret wondered what would
become of her, if her uncle should ever speak to her in that tone.

"I am sure I meant nothing!" said Miss Sophronia, bridling and rallying
again. "I am sure there was no allusion to our dearest Margaret. Absurd!
But these children are very different. Why, Anthony Montfort is your
second cousin, John. I know every shade of relationship; it is
impossible to deceive me in such matters, John."

"I should not attempt it, my dear cousin," said Mr. Montfort, quietly.
"Anthony _is_ my second cousin. I will go further to meet you, and admit
boldly that these children are my second cousins once removed, and
Margaret's third cousins. Where shall we put them, Margaret?"

"My dearest John," cried Miss Sophronia, in her gayest tone, "you are
not to give it a thought! Is he, Margaret? No, my dear fellow! It is
noble of you--Quixotic, I must think, but undeniably noble--to take in
these poor little waifs; but you shall have no further thought about
providing for them. Everything shall be arranged; I know the house from
garret to cellar, remember. I will make every arrangement, dearest John,
depend upon me!"

The evenings were not very gay at Fernley just now. Miss Sophronia could
not keep awake while any one else read aloud; so she took matters into
her own hands, and read herself, for an hour by the clock. Her voice was
high and thin, and kept Mr. Montfort awake; she was apt to emphasise the
wrong words, which made Margaret's soul cry out within her; and she
stopped every few minutes to chew a cardamom seed with great
deliberation. This simple action had the effect of making both her
hearers extremely nervous, they could not have explained why. Also, she
was afflicted with a sniff, which recurred at regular intervals,
generally in the middle of a sentence. Altogether the reading was a
chastened pleasure nowadays; and this particular evening it was
certainly a relief when she declared, before the hour was quite over,
that she was hoarse, and must stop before the end of the chapter. On the
whole, she thought it might be better for her to go to bed early, and
take some warm drink. "It would never do for me to be laid up, with
these children coming to be seen after!" she declared. So she departed,
and Margaret and her uncle sat down to a game of backgammon, and played
slowly and peacefully, lingering over their moves as long as they
pleased, and tasting the pleasure of having no one say that they should
play this or that, "of course!"

The game over, Mr. Montfort leaned back in his chair, with an air of
content.

"This is pleasant!" he said, slowly. "Margaret, my dear, this is very
pleasant!" Margaret smiled at him, but made no reply. None was needed:
the uncle and niece were so much alike in tastes and feelings, that they
hardly needed speech, sometimes, to know each other's thoughts. Both
were content to sit now silent, in the soft, cheerful candle-light,
looking about on the books and pictures that they loved, and feeling the
silence like a cordial.

Suddenly Mr. Montfort's air of cheerful meditation changed. He sat
upright, and leaned slightly forward. He seemed to listen for
something. Then suddenly, softly, he rose, and with silent step crossed
the room and stood a moment beside the wall. It was a very different
face that he turned to Margaret the next instant.

"My dear," he said, "there is some one in my study."

"In your study, Uncle John? What do you mean? That is,--how can you
tell, uncle?"

"Come here, and listen!" said her uncle. Margaret stole to his side, and
listened, her head, like his, near the wall. She heard the crackling of
paper; the sound of a drawer pulled softly out; the clank, muffled, but
unmistakable, of brass handles. What did it mean? She looked to her
uncle for explanation. He shook his head and motioned her to be silent.
Then, taking her hand in his, he led her softly from the room. Margaret
followed, greatly wondering, across the wide hall; through the low door
that led to the White Rooms, now her own; into her own sitting-room, or
Aunt Faith's room, as she still loved to call it. Here Mr. Montfort
released her hand, and again motioned her to be silent.

"I will explain by and by, my dear," he said. "Follow me, now, and learn
another lesson in Fernley geography; I was keeping it for a surprise
some day, but never mind. Where is this place?"

Margaret noticed, in all her confusion of surprise, that the great white
chair was pushed away from its usual place. Her uncle stepped in behind
the table near which it always stood, and passed his hand along the
smooth white panel of the wall. Noiselessly it swung open, revealing a
dark space. Margaret obeyed his gesture, and following, found herself in
a narrow passage, carpeted with felt, on which her feet made no sound.
They went forward some way; it was quite dark, but she followed her
uncle's guidance, and he trod as surely as if it were broad daylight.
Presently he stopped, and, with a pressure of the hand, bade her listen
again. The rustling of paper sounded very clear now; there was another
rustle, too, the rustle of silk. Suddenly, light flashed upon them;
Margaret felt herself drawn swiftly forward; there was a smothered
exclamation in her uncle's voice, followed by a scream from another.

They were standing in Mr. Montfort's study. The room was lighted by a
single candle, that stood on the writing-table; beside this table,
backed against it in an attitude of terror and surprise, stood Miss
Sophronia Montfort, her hands full of documents, her eyes glaring. There
was a moment of silence, and Margaret counted her heart-beats. Then--

"Can I be of any assistance to you, my dear Sophronia?" asked Mr.
Montfort, blandly. "You seem in distress; allow me to relieve you of
some of these." He took the papers quietly, and laid them on the table.
Miss Sophronia gasped once, twice; opened and shut her eyes several
times, and swallowed convulsively; when she spoke, it was with a
fluttering voice, but in something like her ordinary tone.

"My dear John! How you startled me! A--a--little surprise for you, my
dear fellow. Such a shocking condition as your papers were in. I
thought--a kindness--to bring a little order out of chaos; he! he!
ahem! my throat is troublesome to-night. A warm drink! Yes, my dear
John, I remembered the old passage, you see. I said, why should I
disturb the dear fellow, to ask him for the key to the outer door? And
really, John, these papers are too--too bad!"

She shook her head in a manner that was meant to be playful; but
suddenly the smile dropped from her face like a mask; for Mr. Montfort
did a singular thing. He bent his head forward slightly; fixed his eyes
on his cousin with a peculiar expression, and advanced slowly, one step.
"Sophronia!" he said.

Miss Sophronia began to tremble.

"Don't, John!" she cried. "John Montfort, don't do it! I am your own
cousin. Your father and mine were brothers, John. I hope I know my
duty--ah, don't! I will not, John Montfort!"

Margaret looked from one to the other in blank amazement. The lady
seemed in the extremity of terror. Her uncle--was this her uncle?
Instead of the grave, dignified gentleman, she seemed to see a boy; a
boy intent on mischief, every motion of him alive with power and
malice. Step by step he advanced, his hands clenched, his head bent
forward, his eyes still fixed, bright and strong, on his cousin.

"Sophronia!" he said, "I am coming! Sophronia! Sophronia! Sophronia!"
Each time he quickened voice and step. He was almost upon her; with one
wild shriek Miss Sophronia turned and fled. Her skirts whisked along the
secret passage; they heard the door bang. She was gone.

Mr. Montfort sat down in his study chair and laughed long and silently.

"Don't look so frightened, my dear!" he said, at last. "It was a scurvy
trick, but she deserved it. I--I used to run Sophronia up-stairs,
Margaret, when she was a troublesome girl. It always frightened her. I'd
have done it in another minute, if she had not run, but I knew she
would. Poor Sophronia! I suppose something of the boy stays in us, my
dear, as long as we live. I--I am afraid I should rather have enjoyed
running Sophronia up-stairs."



CHAPTER VII.

THE DAUNTLESS THREE.


The next morning Miss Sophronia kept her bed; her cold, she said, was
too severe to admit of her joining the family at breakfast. Margaret
waited on her with an uneasy sense of guilt in general, though she could
not accuse herself of any special sin. She did her best to be
sympathetic and dutiful, having been brought up to respect her elders
sincerely. But she was puzzled all the same, and when it came to any
question between her cousin and her uncle, there were no more doubts.
She must put herself out of the way as much as possible, and give up,
wherever her own pleasure was concerned,--where it was any matter
connected with Uncle John, she would be the Rock of Gibraltar. This
being settled, the Rock of Gibraltar brought raspberries for Cousin
Sophronia's breakfast, and made her room bright with flowers, and tried
to make cheer for her. The poor lady was rather subdued, and told
Margaret she was a cherub child; then declared she would not be a burden
on any one, and sent the girl away to "amuse herself."

"Be happy as a butterfly, my dear, all the morning; don't give me a
thought, I beg of you. If Frances would have a new-laid egg ready for me
at eleven--positively a new-laid one, Margaret! Perhaps you would bring
it yourself from the hen-yard. I have no confidence in servants, and it
would make a pleasant little trip for you. So important, I always say,
for the young to have something useful to mingle with their sports.
Boiled three minutes and a half, my love! I doubt if I can eat it, but
it is my duty to make the attempt. Bless you! Good-bye! If you happen to
have nothing to do about twelve, you might bring your work and sit with
me. I am the most sociable creature in the world; I cannot endure to be
alone when I am ill; but don't have me on your mind, my love, for a
single instant."

All the duties attended to, Margaret spent a delightful hour, with
Elizabeth's assistance, in making ready the rooms for the newcomers. The
little girl was to have Peggy's room, next her own, and that needed
nothing save fresh flowers in the vases, and fresh ribbons on the
curtains. But the boys were to have the old nursery, the great room that
ran across the whole width of the house, on the third floor. It was a
pleasant room, with dormer windows facing east and south, a great
fireplace, with a high wire fender, and a huge sofa, covered with red
chintz dragons. A funny sofa it was, with little drawers let in along
the sides. John Montfort and his brothers used to lie on this sofa, when
they had the measles and whooping-cough, and play with the brass
drawer-handles, and keep their treasures in the drawers. The windows
were barred, and there was a gate across the landing, at the top of the
stairs. Elizabeth had suggested taking away the gate and the bars, "such
big young gentlemen as these would be, most likely, sir!" but Mr.
Montfort shook his head very decidedly.

"If they are Montfort boys, Elizabeth, they will need all the bars we
can give them. Master Richard was twelve, when he squeezed himself
between these, and went along the gutter hanging by his hands, till he
came to the spout, and shinned down it. Never make things too easy for a
Montfort boy!"

In one corner stood a huge rocking-horse, with saddle and bridle of
crimson leather, rather the worse for wear. He was blind of one eye, and
his tail had seen service, but he was a fine animal for all that.
Margaret hunted about in the attic, and found a box of ninepins.
Marbles, too; Uncle John had told her that there must be marbles
somewhere, in a large bag of flowered purple calico, with a red string.
They had been there forty years; they must be there still. She found
them at last, hanging from a peg of one of the great beams. On the beam
close by was written:

        "This is my Peg. If any Pig touches my Peg,
        that Pig will be Pegged. Signed, JOHN MONTFORT."

"Oh," thought Margaret, "what a pleasant boy Uncle John must have been!
What good times we should have had together!" And then she reflected
that he could not possibly have been so nice a boy as he was an uncle,
and was content.

The marbles, and the rocking-horse, and--what else ought there to be?
Tops! Uncle John had said something about tops. Here Margaret screamed,
and fled to the attic door. Something was moving on the beam by which
she had been standing, perched on a chair. Something rolled slowly
along, half the length of the beam, and dropped to the floor and rolled
towards her. Laughing now, Margaret stooped and picked up a great ball,
a leather ball, striped red and black. On one of the red stripes was
written, in large, unconventional letters, "Roger." It was her father's
ball! Margaret held the toy very tenderly in her hands, and tried to see
the worn, thoughtful face she remembered so well, a rosy boy's face,
full of light and laughter. She had seen, yesterday, strangely enough,
her uncle's boyish looks, revealed in a flash of mischief; it was less
easy to see her father's.

As she stood meditating, the sound of wheels was heard outside. Margaret
ran to look out of the little gable window, then clapped her hands
together, in amazement and pleasure. The children had come!

When she reached the verandah, they were already standing there, facing
Mr. Montfort, who had come out by an early train, and was standing
looking at them with amused attention, holding the little girl's hands
in his.

"And what are your names, my dears?" he was saying.

"Basil, Merton, and Susan D.," replied the elder boy, promptly, while
three pairs of sharp eyes were fastened on the strange uncle.

"Battle, Murder, and Sudden Death!" said Mr. Montfort under his breath.
He had no idea that any one could hear him, but a shriek of laughter
startled him, and made Margaret jump.

"That's what Puppa calls us!" cried Basil, springing lightly up and down
on the tips of his toes. "We didn't know whether you would or not; he
said you would pretty soon, anyhow. How do you do, Uncle John? We are
very well, thank you. I am thirteen, and Mert is twelve, and Susan D. is
ten. Puppa hopes we shall not be troublesome, and here are the keys of
the trunks."

The boy drew a long breath, and looked round him with an air of triumph.

"Well, I should think you would know it!" said his brother. "Been saying
it all the way over here."

"More than you could do!" retorted his elder.

"Wouldn't do it anyhow, so there!" said the younger.

[Illustration: "THE LITTLE GIRL HAD NEVER STIRRED, BUT STOOD GAZING UP
AT THE BIG MAN WHO HELD HER HANDS."]

These last remarks had been carried on in an undertone, the set speech
having been delivered slowly and with much dignity. Finally each boy
kicked the other's shins surreptitiously, and then both stared again at
their uncle. The little girl had never stirred, but stood gazing up at
the big man who held her hands so lightly and yet so kindly, and who had
such bright, deep, quiet brown eyes. Margaret, standing in the doorway,
scrutinised the three, and felt a sinking at the heart. Basil Montfort
was a tall boy for his age, slender and wiry, with tow-coloured hair
that stood straight on end, thin lips that curled up at the corners with
a suggestion of malice, and piercing gray eyes, which he had a trick of
screwing up till they were like gimlet points. The second, Merton, was
decidedly better-looking, with pretty curly hair, and blue eyes with an
appealing look in them; but Margaret fancied he looked a little sly; and
straightway took herself to task for the unkind fancy. The little girl
was Basil over again, save that the tow-coloured hair was put back with
a round comb, and the gray eyes widely opened, instead of half shut,
when she looked at any one. All three children were neatly dressed, and
all looked as if they were not used to their clothes.

"Well," said Mr. Montfort at last, after a long, silent look at each one
in turn, "I am very glad to see you, children. I hope we are going to be
good friends. Boys, I was a boy myself, just two or three years ago,--or
it may be four,--so you can ask me about anything you want to know.
Susan, I never was a girl, you see, but that need not make much
difference. Your Cousin Margaret--oh, here _is_ your Cousin Margaret!
She will be good to you, and--and in short, you are all very welcome to
Fernley, and there is a swing in the garden, and the rest you can find
out for yourselves."

Margaret came forward, and shook hands with the boys, and kissed the
little girl warmly. Evidently Susan D. was not used to being kissed, for
she blushed, and her brothers giggled rather rudely, till they caught
Mr. Montfort's eye, and stopped.

"Young gentlemen," said Uncle John, with an emphasis which brought the
blood to Basil's cheek, "dinner will be ready"--he looked at his
watch--"in an hour. I daresay they would like something now, Margaret;
crackers and cheese, gingerbread,--what? You'll find them something."
Mr. Montfort nodded kindly, and strode away to his study. Margaret was
left alone with the three strange children, feeling shyer than ever
before in her life. The meeting with the three cousins of her own age,
two years ago, was nothing to this.

"Are you hungry, boys?" she asked.

"Starving!" said Merton.

"He isn't," said Susan D. "He's been eating all the way, ever since we
left home. He's a greedy,--that's what he is." Then, scared at her own
voice, she hung her head down, and put her finger in her mouth.

"Oh, well," said Margaret, "I daresay you would all be hungry before
dinner-time, so suppose we come into the pantry and see what we can
find. Will you come with me, Susan, dear?" She held out her hand, but
the little girl evaded it, and followed in the rear, holding her own
hands behind her back.

"Will you call me Cousin Margaret?" the girl went on. "And shall I call
you Susie, or do you like Susan better?"

Susan not replying, Basil replied for her. "Susan D. we call her; but
Puppa calls her Sudden Death when she acts bad; she mostly does act
bad."

"Don't neither!" muttered Susan D., scowling.

"Do teither!" retorted both brothers in a breath.

"She ain't shy!" Basil went on. "She's sulky, that's all. Merton's shy,
and I ain't. I'll tell you things, when you ask me; they won't, half the
time."

"Well, I haven't asked you anything, yet, have I?" said Margaret,
smiling, and feeling more at ease with this boy, somehow, than with
either of the others. "What can you tell me that is pleasant about
them?"

"That's so!" said Basil, and his lips parted suddenly in a smile that
positively transfigured his plain face. "Well, Mert's the best boxer,
and he can sing and draw. I'm the best runner, of course, 'count of my
legs being long, you see." He held up a long, thin leg for Margaret's
inspection. "Some fellows called me Spider once, and Susan D. scratched
their faces for 'em. She's great at scratching, Susan D. is."

"My dear!" said poor Margaret. "I thought you were going to tell me the
pleasant things, Basil."

"Ain't I?" said the boy, innocently. "She was standing up for me, you
see. She always stands up for me; Mert is a sne---- well, what I was
going to say, she's a pretty good runner, for a girl, and she can shin a
rope too, better than any of us. Mert can hang on longest with his
teeth."

"What _do_ you mean, child?" cried Margaret, laughing. Basil flashed his
brilliant smile on her again.

"Tables," he explained. "Yes, please, crackers; and quite a lot of
cheese, please."

"Greedy Gobble!" interjected Merton.

"Well, I like that!" said Basil. "Who ate my sandwich, when I was
looking out of the window? I tell you what, I'd punch your head for two
cents, young feller!"

"Boys," said Margaret, decidedly, "I cannot have this! While you are
with me, I expect you to behave decently."

"Yes, ma'am!" said both boys, with ready cheerfulness; and Basil
continued his explanation.

"We see which can hang on to a table longest, don't you know, by your
teeth. Did ever you?"

"No, I certainly never did; and--I don't think you'd better try it here,
Basil. It must be very hard on your teeth, besides ruining the table."

"It ain't healthy for the table," Basil admitted. "You ought to see the
tables at home! It makes like a little pattern round the edge,
sometimes. Quite pretty, I think. Say, are you the boss here?"

Seated on the pantry dresser, swinging his legs, the young gentleman
seemed as much at home as if he had spent his life at Fernley. The two
other children were eating hastily and furtively, as if they feared each
bite might be their last. Basil crunched his crackers and nibbled his
cheese with an air of perfect unconcern. "Are you the boss here?" he
repeated.

"Am I in authority, do you mean?" asked Margaret, who could not abide
slang of any kind. "No, indeed, Basil. Your Uncle John is the head of
the house, in every possible way. I hope you are all going to be very
good and obedient. He is the kindest, best man in the whole world."

"I think he's bully," said Basil. "I guess you're bully too, ain't you?
And it's a bully place. Hi, Mert, there's a squirrel! Look at him
running up that tree. My! Wish I had a pea-shooter!"

"Bet you couldn't hit him if you had!" cried Merton, as all three
children watched the squirrel with breathless interest.

"Bet I could!" said Basil, contemptuously.

"Guess he could hit it when you couldn't hit a barn in the next county!"
cried Susan D. in a kind of small shriek; then she caught Margaret's
eye, blushed furiously, and tried to get behind her bread and butter.

"I say! can we go out in the garden?" cried Basil.

"Yes, indeed, but wouldn't you like to come up and see your rooms first?
Such pleasant rooms! I am sure you will like them."

But none of the children cared to see the pleasant rooms. Receiving
permission to play till they heard the dinner-bell, they fled suddenly,
as if the constable were at their heels. Margaret saw their legs
twinkling across the grass-plot. They were yelling like red Indians.
Susan D.'s hat blew off at the third bound; Basil shied his cap into a
bush with a joyous whoop, then snatched off his brother's and threw that
after it. Merton grappled him with a shout, and they rolled over and
over at the feet of their sister, who bent down and pummelled them both
with might and main, shrieking with excitement. As Margaret gazed
aghast, preparing to fly and interfere, she heard a quiet laugh behind
her, and turning, saw Mr. Montfort looking over her shoulder.

"Battle, Murder, and Sudden Death!" he said. "Separate them? On no
account, my dear! They have been shut up for hours, and their muscles
need stretching. Don't be alarmed, my child; I know this kind." Poor
Margaret sighed. She did not know this kind.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE FIRST CONQUEST.


When Margaret went to bed that night, she felt as if she had been
whipped with rods. Head, heart, and back, all ached in sympathy. The
children were in bed; that is, she had left them in bed; their staying
there was another matter; however, all three were tired after their
journey, and Uncle John thought the chances were that they would fall
asleep before they had time to think of doing anything else. Among the
three, the little girl was the one who oppressed Margaret with a sense
of defeat, a sense of her own incompetence. She had not expected to
understand the boys; she had never had any experience of boys; but she
had expected to win the little girl to her, and make her a little
friend, perhaps almost a sister. Susan D. received her advances with an
elfish coldness that had something not human in it, Margaret thought.
The child was like a changeling, in the old fairy stories. That evening,
when bedtime came, Margaret went up with her to the pretty room, hoping
for a pleasant time. She sat down and took the little girl on her knee.
"Let us have a cuddle, dear!" she said; "put your head down on my
shoulder, and I will sing you one of my own bedtime songs, that my nurse
used to sing to me."

Susan D. sat bold upright, not a yielding joint in all her body.

"Don't you like songs?" asked Margaret, stroking the tow-coloured hair
gently.

"No!" said the child; and with the word she wriggled off Margaret's lap,
and stood twisting her fingers awkwardly, and frowning at the floor.
Margaret sighed.

"Then we will undress and get to bed," she said, trying to speak
lightly. "You must be very tired, little girl. Isn't that a pretty bed?
Is your bed at home like this? Tell me about your room, won't you,
Susie?"

But Susan D. still twisted her fingers and frowned, and would not say a
single word. She made no resistance, however, when Margaret helped her
off with her clothes. "You are big enough to undress yourself, of
course," the girl said, "but I will help you to-night, because you are
tired, and you must feel strange, coming so far away from home. Poor
little mite!" The child looked so small and slight, standing with her
dress off, and her thin shoulders sticking out like wings, that Margaret
felt a sudden thrill of compassion, and stooping, kissed the freckled
cheek warmly. The colour came into the child's face, but she stood like
a stock, never moving a muscle, never raising her eyes to take note of
the pretty, tasteful arrangements to which Margaret had given such
thought and pains. But the undressing went on, and presently she was in
her little nightgown, with her hair unbraided and smoothly brushed. She
might be pretty, Margaret decided, when she filled out a little, and had
a pleasanter expression. She was so little! Surely there must be one
more effort, this first night.

"Shall I hear you say your prayers, dear?" asked Margaret, taking the
child's two hands in hers. Susan D. shook her head resolutely.

"No? You like better to say them by yourself? Then I will come back in a
few minutes, and tuck you up in your little nest."

The child gave no sign; and when Margaret came back, she was standing in
the same spot, in the same position. She got into bed obediently, and
made no resistance when Margaret tucked the bedclothes in, patted her
shoulder, and gave her a last good-night kiss. She might as well have
kissed the pillow for any response there was, but at least there had
been no shrinking this time. "Good night, Susan D.," said Margaret,
cheerfully, pausing at the door. "Good night, dear! Susan, I think you
must answer when you are spoken to."

"Good night!" said Susan D. Margaret shut the door softly and went away.
As she passed along the corridor that ran round the hall, something
struck her forehead lightly. She looked up, and narrowly escaped getting
a fish-hook in her eye. Merton looked over the banisters, and smiled
appealingly. "I was fishin'," he said. "There's fish-lines in the
drawers of the sofa. I guess I 'most caught a whale, didn't I?"

"Merton, you must go to bed at once!" said Margaret. "How long have you
been standing there in your nightgown? You might catch your death." (It
had been one of old Katy's maxims that if you stood about in your
nightgown for however short a time, you inevitably got your death.
Margaret had never doubted it till this moment.) "I am coming up now to
tuck you both up!" she added, with a happy inspiration.

There was a hasty scuffle, then a rush, accompanied by smothered
squeals. When Margaret reached the nursery, both boys were in bed.
Merton's blue eyes were wide open, and fixed on her with mournful
earnestness; Basil was asleep, the clothes tucked in well under his
chin. He lay on his back, his mouth slightly opened; he was snoring
gently, but unobtrusively. Poor child! no doubt he was tired enough. But
how had Merton managed to make so _much_ noise?

Margaret looked around her, and Merton's gaze grew more intense. His own
clothes lay in a heap on the floor, but where were his brother's?
And--and what was that, smoothly folded over the back of a chair? A
clean nightgown?

But when Merton saw his cousin's eyes fix on the nightgown, he exploded
in a bubbling laugh. "He--he ain't undressed at all!" he cried,
gleefully. "He never! he's got his boots on, and every single--" The
speech got no further. There was a flying whirl of blankets, a leap, and
Basil was on his brother's chest, pounding him with right good will.
"You sneak!" he cried. "I'll teach you--"

There was no time to think; the child would be killed before her eyes.
Margaret took a firm hold on Basil's collar, and dragged him off by main
strength, he still clawing the air. Unconsciously, she gave him a hearty
shake before she let go; the boy staggered back a few paces; who would
have thought that Margaret had such strength in her slender wrists? The
crisis over, she panted, and felt faint for an instant; Basil, after a
moment of bewilderment, looked at her, and the smile broke all over his
face, a moment before black with rage.

"Got me that time, didn't you?" he said, simply. "He's a mean sneak,
Mert is. I'll serve him out to-morrow, don't you be afraid!"

"Basil, what does this mean?" asked Margaret, severely. "Why are you not
in bed?" Then as Basil sent an eloquent glance at the pillow where his
head had been lying so quietly, she added, "Why are you not undressed, I
mean? I am afraid you have been very naughty, both of you, boys."

"Well, you see," said Basil, apologetically, "there was all kinds of
things in the drawers, and then I got on the rocking-horse, and it
wasn't but just a minute before you came up. I say, isn't this a bully
room, Cousin Margaret? I think Uncle John was awfully good to give us
such a room as this. Why doesn't he sleep here himself? Bet I would, if
I owned the house. I say, do those marbles belong to him?"

"I suppose so," said Margaret, smiling in spite of herself; "yes, I am
sure they were his. But now, Basil,--"

"Well, see here!" cried the boy, excitedly. "Because, you see, they're
worth a lot, some of 'em. Why, there's agates,--why, they are perfect
beauties! Just look!" He ran towards the sofa, but Margaret stopped him
resolutely.

"To-morrow, Basil!" she said. "To-morrow you shall show me everything
you like; but now you must go to bed, this very moment. I am pretty
tired, but I shall sit outside on the landing, till you tell me that you
are in bed; then I shall come in and make sure for myself, and tuck you
in."

Basil illuminated the room again. "Will you?" he cried. "Honest, will
you tuck us in?"

Margaret nodded, wondering, and withdrew to the landing, where she sat
with her head in her hands, saying to herself, "Let nothing disturb
thee, nothing affright thee--"

Basil spoke through the keyhole. "Cousin Margaret!"

"Yes, Basil; are you ready so soon?"

"No, not quite. I wanted to say,--do you think you ought to spank me?"

"No, certainly not, my dear!"

"'Cause you can, if you think you'd better."

"No, no, Basil; only do get to bed, like a good boy!"

"Yes, ma'am."

A sudden plunge was heard, a thump, and the agonised shriek of a
suffering bedstead. "Now I'm in bed!" said Basil. Margaret picked up the
two heaps of clothing, and laid them neatly on two chairs. "I want you
to do this yourselves after this," she explained. "It isn't nice to
leave your things on the floor."

"All right!" "We will!" said both boys; and then they joined in a
fervent appeal to her not to turn their knickerbockers upside down.
"'Cause all the things in your pockets spill out," said Merton.

"And then you get 'em mixed, and can't tell what belongs where," cried
Basil. "Thank you, Cousin Margaret; that's bully!"

Margaret tucked Merton in first; he looked so dimpled and pretty, she
was tempted to offer a caress, but the recollection of Susan D. kept
her from it. Turning away, she came to Basil's bed. The boy watched her
intently as she smoothed the bedclothes with practised hand, and tucked
them in exactly right, not too tight and not too loose. There are
several ways of tucking a person into bed. With a pleasant "Good night!"
she was about to leave him, but something in the boy's face held her.
"Is there anything you want, my dear?" she asked, gently. Basil looked
at her; then turned his head away. "Mother used to put me to bed!" he
muttered, so low that Margaret could hardly hear. She did hear, however;
and instantly stooping over the boy, she kissed him warmly. Thank
Heaven, here was one who did want to be loved. "Dear Basil," she said,
tenderly. "Dear boy, you shall tell me all about her some day. Will
you?" The boy nodded; his eyes were eloquent, but he did not speak. Her
heart still warm, Margaret looked across at Merton; but Basil plucked
her gown and whispered, "He--doesn't know. He can't remember her.
Perhaps you can teach him--"

Margaret nodded, kissed the boy's white forehead once more, and went
away with a lighter heart than she had brought with her. On the floor
below she paused to listen at Susan's door; all was quiet there. Cousin
Sophronia was asleep, too, no doubt; Margaret had spent part of the
evening with her, reading, and listening to her doleful prophecies of
the miseries entailed by the coming of "these dreadful children!" It was
nearly her own bedtime, too, for between Cousin Sophronia and the
children the evening had slipped away all too fast. But surely she might
have a few minutes of peace and joy? The library door stood open; from
it there came a stream of cheerful light, and the perfume of a Manila
cigar. Oh, good! Uncle John had not gone to his study; he was waiting
for her. As she passed Miss Sophronia's door, Margaret fancied she heard
a call; but she was not sure, and for once she was rebellious. She flew
down-stairs, and ran into the library.

The pleasant room lay in shade, save for the bright gleam of the
reading-lamp. Among the books which lined the walls from floor to
ceiling, the gilded backs of the smaller volumes caught the light and
sent it back in soft, broken twinklings; but the great brown folios on
the lower shelves were half lost in a comfortable duskiness. The crimson
curtains were drawn before the open windows, and the evening wind waved
them lightly now and then, sending new shadows to chase the old ones
along the walls and ceiling. The thick old Turkey carpet held every
possible shade of soft, faded richness, and the brown leather armchairs
looked as if they had been sat in by generations of book-loving
Montforts, as indeed they had. And amid all this sober comfort, by the
great library table with its orderly litter of magazines and new books,
sat Mr. John Montfort, book in hand and cigar in mouth, a breathing
statue of Ease, in a brown velvet smoking-jacket. He looked up, and,
seeing Margaret in the doorway, laid down his book, and held out his
hand with a gesture of welcome. "Well, my girl," he said, "come and tell
me all about it!"

With a great sigh of relief, Margaret dropped on the rug at her uncle's
feet, and laid her tired head on his knee. "Uncle John!" she said. "Oh,
Uncle John!" That seemed to be all she wanted to say; she shut her eyes,
and gave herself up to the comfort which only comes with rest after
fatigue.

Mr. Montfort stroked her hair gently, with a touch as light as a
woman's. Then he took up his book again, and began to read aloud. It was
a curious old book, bound in black leather, with great silver clasps.

        "In that isle is a dead sea or lake, that has
        no bottom; and if any thing falls into it, it
        will never come up again. In that lake grow
        reeds, which they call Thaby, that are thirty
        fathoms long; and of these reeds they make fair
        houses. And there are other reeds, not so long,
        that grow near the land, and have roots full a
        quarter of a furlong long or more, at the knots
        of which roots precious stones are found that
        have great virtues; for he who carries any of
        them upon him may not be hurt by iron or steel;
        and therefore they who have those stones on
        them fight very boldly both by sea and land;
        and therefore, when their enemies are aware of
        this, they shoot at them darts without iron or
        steel, and so hurt and slay them. And also of
        those reeds they make houses and ships and
        other things, as we here make houses and ships
        of oak, or of any other tree. And let no man
        think I am joking, for I have seen these reeds
        with my own eyes."

The words flowed on and on; Margaret felt her troubles smoothing
themselves out, melting away. "Who is this pleasant person?" she asked,
without raising her head.

"Sir John Mandeville," said her uncle. "Rest a bit still, and we'll go
and see the Chan of Cathay with him. Here we are!" He turned a page or
two, and read again:

        "The emperor has his table alone by himself,
        which is of gold and precious stones; or of
        crystal, bordered with gold and full of
        precious stones; or of amethysts, or of lignum
        aloes, that comes out of Paradise; or of ivory
        bound or bordered with gold. And under the
        emperor's table sit four clerks, who write all
        that the emperor says, be it good or evil; for
        all that he says must be held good; for he may
        not change his word nor revoke it."

"Oh, but I shouldn't like that, Uncle John!" cried Margaret. "I
shouldn't like that at all! Should you?"

"I don't think it would be agreeable," Mr. Montfort admitted. "But when
we come to anything we don't like, we can suppose that Sir John
was--shall we call it embroidering? And how does my girl feel now? Are
the wrinkles smoothing out at all?"

"All smooth!" replied the girl. "All gone, Uncle John. I was only a
little tired; and--Uncle John--"

"Yes, dear child."

"You must expect that I shall do a great many wrong things, at first. I
am very ignorant, and--well, not very old, perhaps. If only I can make
the children love me!"

"They'd better love you," said Uncle John. "If they don't, they'll get
the stick. But don't fret, Margaret; I am not going to fret, and I shall
not let you do it. The little girl seems slightly abnormal, at first
sight; but the boys--"

"Yes, Uncle John?" and Margaret raised her head and looked eagerly at
her uncle, hoping for some light that would make all clear to her. "The
boys?"

"Why, the boys are just boys, my dear; nothing in the world but plain
boys. Two of 'em instead of four,--thank your stars that you are in
this generation instead of the last, my love; and now take this little
head off to bed, and don't let another anxious thought come into it.
Good night, my child."



CHAPTER IX.

A NEWCOMER.


"If you please, Miss Margaret, the lady would like to speak to you, in
her room."

"Miss Montfort?" (Elizabeth never would call Miss Sophronia Miss
Montfort.) "Yes, Elizabeth, I will be up in a moment; tell her, please."

Hastily pinning her collar,--it was near breakfast-time, and she had
been longer than usual in dressing,--Margaret ran up to the Blue Room.
Miss Sophronia, in curl-papers and a long, yellow wrapper, was standing
near the window, apparently rigid with horror.

"What is it, Cousin Sophronia? What can I do for you?"

"Margaret, I told you,--I warned you. I warned John Montfort. No one can
say that I neglected my duty in this respect; my conscience is clear.
Now look,--I desire you, look out of that window, and tell me what you
think."

Margaret looked. At first she saw nothing but the clear glass, and,
beyond it, the blue sky and waving trees. But, looking again, she became
aware of two objects dangling over the upper part of the pane; a black
object, and a white object; two small legs, one bare, the other in
stocking and shoe. The legs were swinging back and forth, keeping time
to a clear and lively whistle, and now and then one of them gave a
little kick, as of pure content.

"Do you see?" demanded Miss Sophronia, in tragic tone.

"Yes, Cousin Sophronia, I see. I can't think--but I'll run up at once
and see what it means, and bring the child down. I--" Margaret waited to
say no more, but flew up-stairs, only pausing to cast a hasty glance
into Susan D.'s room, the door of which stood open. The room was empty;
so, when she reached the top of the stairs, was the nursery. She entered
a small room that was used as a storeroom; its one window looked
directly on the roof, and this window stood wide open. Running to look
out, Margaret saw Susan D., seated astride of a gable, dangling her legs
as aforesaid, and apparently enjoying herself immensely. The whistle
stopped when she saw her cousin, and the cheerful look gave place to one
of sullenness.

"Susan, my dear child, what are you doing here?"

"Looking for my other stocking," replied the child.

"Your stocking?"

"Yes. I dropped it out of the window, and I came up here to look for
it."

"She thought she could see better!" explained Basil, appearing suddenly
from behind the chimney. "I--good morning, Cousin Margaret. I slept very
well, thank you."

"So did I!" chimed in Susan D., with suspicious readiness. "I slept very
well. Good morning, Cousin Margaret, thank you!"

"That isn't right," said Basil, as Margaret looked in bewilderment from
one to the other; "you are such a stupid, Susan D. You see," he added,
turning to Margaret, "I've been telling her that she's got to have
better manners, and speak when she's spoken to; and, if she behaves
pretty well, she's going to get some hard stamps she wants; and if she
doesn't--"

"I am," said Susan D. "Amn't I, Cousin Margaret?"

It was the first time the child had addressed Margaret directly, and the
latter hastened to assure her that her morning greeting would do very
well indeed. "But, dear children," she cried, "I cannot let you stay
here. Indeed, you ought never to have come up; I don't believe Uncle
John would like to have you on the roof at all; and it is
breakfast-time, and Cousin Sophronia has been a good deal frightened,
Susie, at seeing your legs dangling over her window in this fashion."

"We aren't hurting the old roof!" cried boy and girl, in eager
self-defence.

"Oh, my dears! It isn't the roof, it's your precious necks, that you
might be breaking at this moment. How are you going to get back? Basil,
it makes me dizzy to look at you."

"Then I wouldn't look," said Basil, cheerfully. "I'm all right, Cousin
Margaret, just truly I am. Why, I just live on roofs, every chance I
get. And this is a bully roof to climb on."

Margaret covered her eyes with her hands, as the boy came tripping along
the ridge-pole towards her; but the next moment she put the hands down
resolutely. "Let me help you!" she said. "Susan, take my hand, dear, and
let me help you in."

But Susan D. needed no helping hand; she scrambled up the slope of the
roof like a squirrel, and wriggled in at the window before Margaret
could lay hands on her. "I'm all right!" she said, shyly. "I didn't find
my stocking, though. I'll get another pair." But Margaret soon found the
stocking, and in due time could report to Cousin Sophronia that the
children were both safe on the ground, and more or less ready for
breakfast. Merton had not shared in the roof expedition; he had climbed
the great chestnut-tree instead, and appeared at breakfast with most of
the buttons off his jacket, and a large barn-door tear in his
knickerbockers.

Miss Sophronia greeted the children with firmness. "How do you do, my
dears?" she said. "I am your Cousin Sophronia, and I shall take the
place of a mamma to you while you are here. If you do as I tell you, we
shall get on very well, I dare say. You are Basil? Yes, you look like
your Uncle Reuben. You remember Reuben, John? What a troublesome boy he
was, to be sure! And this is Merton. H'm! Yes! The image of his father.
Anthony; to be sure! And what is your name, child? Susan D.? Ah, yes!
For your Aunt Susan, of course. And are you a good girl, Susan D.?"

Susan D. hung her head, and looked defiant.

"Always answer when you are spoken to," said the lady, with mild
severity. "I'm afraid your father has let you run wild; but we will
alter all that. Little boy--Merton, I mean, you are taking too much
sugar on your porridge. Too much sugar is very bad for children. Hand me
the bowl, if you please. I am obliged to take a good deal of sugar--the
doctor's orders! There are one--two--three buttons off your jacket. This
will never do!"

"I scraped 'em off, shinning up the tree," said Merton, sadly. "I barked
all my shins, too; but I found the squirrel's nest."

"Oh, Merton, you didn't meddle with it?" cried Margaret. "That little
squirrel is so tame, I should be very sorry to have him teased. You
didn't tease him, did you, dear?"

Merton looked injured. "I just put my hand into his old hole, and he bit
me, nasty thing! I'll kill him, first chance I get."

"You will do nothing of the kind," said Mr. Montfort, quietly. "You will
let the squirrel alone, Merton, or I shall have to stop the climbing
altogether. You understand?"

"Yes, sir," said Merton. "Ow! you stop that, now!"

"Did you speak to me, sir?" inquired Mr. Montfort, politely.

"Well, he kicked my sore shin," growled Merton, glaring savagely at
Basil. Basil chuckled gleefully. Mr. Montfort looked from one to the
other.

"Kick each other as much as you like out-of-doors," he said. "Here, you
can either behave yourselves or leave the table. Take your choice." He
spoke very quietly, and went on with his letter, without another glance
at the boys; indeed, no second glance was needed, for the children
behaved remarkably well through the rest of breakfast.

That morning was a trying time for Margaret. She tried hard to remember
her uncle's parting words, as he drove away: "Let them run, these first
few days, and don't worry; above all, don't worry!"

[Illustration: "MERTON WAS TEASING CHIQUITO."]

Yes, but how could she help worrying? If it had been only running! But
these children never seemed content to stay on their feet for ten
minutes together. Now they were turning somersaults round and round the
grass-plot, till her head grew dizzy, and Cousin Sophronia screamed
from the window that they would all be dead of apoplexy in less than ten
minutes. Now they were hanging by their heels from the lower branches of
the horse-chestnut tree, daring each other to turn a somersault in the
air and so descend. Now Merton was teasing Chiquito, and getting his
finger bitten, and howling, while Basil jeered at him, and wanted to
know whether a sixty-year-old bird was likely to stand "sauce" from a
ten-year-old monkey. Now Susan D. had caught her frock on a bramble, and
torn a long, jagged rent across the front breadth, that filled Margaret
with despair. Poor Susan D.! By afternoon, Miss Sophronia had taken her
into custody, and marched her off to her own room, to stay there till
bedtime.

"The child was rebellious, my dear Margaret; positively disrespectful. A
little discipline, my love, is what that child needs. It is my duty to
give it to her, and I shall do my duty cheerfully. At your age, it is
not to be expected that you should know anything about children. Leave
all to me, and you will be surprised at the result. A firm rein for a
few weeks,--I shall manage her, never fear!"

Margaret was humble-minded, and fully conscious of her total lack of
experience; still, she could not feel that a system of repression was
the one most likely to succeed with Susan D.

"If we could win the child's affection," she began, timidly. Miss
Sophronia pounced upon her.

"My love, you naturally think so! Believe me, I know what I am talking
about. I have practically brought up William's children; the result is
astonishing, everybody says so." (Everybody did, but their astonishment
was hardly what the good lady fancied it.) "Trust,--dearest Margaret,
simply confide absolutely in me! So important, I always say, for the
young to have entire confidence in their elders."

Margaret was thankful when dinner was over, and her cousin gone to take
her afternoon nap. Basil was in a lowering mood, the result of his
sister's imprisonment. He would do nothing but rage against Cousin
Sophronia, so Margaret was finally obliged to send him away, and sit
down with a sigh to her work, alone.

It was very pleasant and peaceful on the verandah. The garden was hot
and sunny at this hour, but here the shade lay cool and grateful, and
Margaret felt the silence like balm on her fretted spirit. It was all
wrong that she should be so fretted; she argued with herself, scolded,
tried to bring herself to a better frame of mind; but nature was too
strong for her, and the best she could do was to resolve that she would
try, and keep on trying, her very best; and that Uncle John should not
know how worried she was. That, surely, she could manage: to keep a
smiling face when he was at home, and to made light of all these hourly
pin-pricks that seemed to her sensitive nature like sword-thrusts.

So quiet! Only the sound of the soft wind in the great chestnut-trees,
and the clear notes of a bird in the upper branches. A rose-breasted
grosbeak! Her uncle had been teaching her something about birds, and she
knew this beautiful creature, and loved to watch him as he hovered
about the nest where his good wife sat. His song was almost like the
oriole's, Margaret thought. She laid down her embroidery, and watched
the flashes of crimson appear and disappear. What a wonderful, beautiful
thing! How good to live in the green country, where lovely sights and
sounds were one's own, all day long. Why should one let oneself be
distressed, even if things did not go just to one's mind?

A soft cloud seemed to be stealing over her spirit; it was not sleep,
but just a waking dream, of peace and beauty, and the love of all lovely
things in the green and blossoming world, where life floated by to the
music of birds,--

"I beg your pardon, Miss Margaret; were you asleep, miss?"

Margaret sat upright, and looked a little severe. It would never do even
to look as if she had been asleep, in the middle of the afternoon. "No,
Elizabeth," she said. "What is wanted?"

"Only miss, Frances was wishful to know whether she should keep Master
Merton's dinner any longer, or whether she'd cook something fresh for
him along with his supper."

No more dreaming for Margaret! She sprang to her feet, suddenly
conscious of the fact that Merton had not been seen for several hours.
It could not have been more than eleven o'clock when he was in her room;
now-- "What time is it, Elizabeth?"

"Going on five, Miss Margaret. Mr. Montfort'll soon be here, miss; maybe
Master Merton might have gone to meet him."

Margaret shook her head; that did not seem at all likely. She hailed
Basil, who came sauntering up the gravel walk, his brow still clouded,
kicking the pebbles before him.

"Oh, Basil, have you seen Merton? He has not been in the house since
this morning, and I am anxious about him."

Basil shrugged his shoulders. "Run away, most likely!" he said,
carelessly. "He's always running away, Mert is."

"Always running away! But where could he run to, Basil? He does not know
his way about here. He surely would not run away in a strange place."

Basil smiled superior. "That's just why he'd do it. He likes to find out
new places; we both do. I wouldn't leave Susan D., or I'd have gone,
too, bet I would. No use staying here, to be bossed round."

"Oh, Basil, don't talk so, but help me, like a dear boy, to find
Merton."

Basil stood uncertain. He raised a threatening glance towards Miss
Sophronia's window; but Margaret was beside him in a moment. "Basil, to
please me!" she said. She laid her hand on the boy's shoulder. He stood
still, and Margaret had a moment of painful doubt; but the next instant
he raised his face to her with his own enchanting smile. "All right!" he
said. "You are all right, Cousin Margaret, whatever other folks are, and
I'll help you every single bit I can."

"That's my good, helpful boy!" said Margaret, heartily. "Oh, Basil, you
and I together can do a great deal, but alone I feel rather helpless.
You shall be my little--no, not little--you shall be my brother, and
tell me how to manage Merton and Susan, and make them love me. But the
first thing is to find Merton. What can have become of the child? Where
shall we look for him?"

"I think perhaps down by the bog," said Basil, looking very important
and pleased with his new responsibility. "He said he was going down
there, first chance he got. I meant to go, too, but I won't if you don't
want me to, Cousin Margaret. There's a bully--"

"Basil!"

"There's a--a superb workman down there; do you know him, Cousin
Margaret? I guess he's the boss, or something. He wears blue overalls
and a blue jumper, and he can vault--oh my! how that fellow can vault!"

"Basil, I don't feel at all sure that your uncle would wish you to be
talking with strange workmen. At any rate, I think you ought to ask
leave, don't you?"

"Maybe I ought!" said Basil, cheerfully. "But it's too late now, you
see, 'cause I have talked to him, quite lots, and he's awfully jolly.
Oh, Jonah! I do believe there he is now; and--Cousin Margaret! I do
believe he's got Mert with him! Look!"

Margaret looked. A man was coming across the field that lay beyond the
garden wall; a workingman, from his blue overalls and jumper; a young
man, from the way he moved, and from his light, springy step. Margaret
could not see his face, but his hair was red; she could see that over
the burden that he carried in his arms.

Coming nearer, this burden was seen to be a child. A chimney-sweeper?
No, for chimney-sweepers are not necessarily wet; do not drip black mud
from head to foot; do not run streams of black bog water.

"Merton!" cried poor Margaret, who knew well the look of that mud and
water. "Oh, what has happened? Is--is he hurt?" she cried out, running
towards the wall.

The young workman raised a cheerful face, streaked with black, and
presenting the appearance of a light-hearted savage in trim for a
funeral.

"Not a bit hurt!" he called in return. "All right, only wet, and a
trifle muddy. Little chap's had a bath, that's all. Hope you haven't
been anxious about him."

"Oh, yes, I have been anxious--thank you! You are sure--he has not been
in danger?"

"Well," the stranger admitted, "just as well I was there, perhaps. It
isn't a safe place for children, you see. How are you now, old chap? He
was a bit dizzy when I picked him up, you see."

Merton lifted his black head, and looked ruefully at Margaret.

"You told me not to go!" he said. "I won't go again."

"Well, I guess you won't!" cried Basil, excitedly. "Why, you've been in
all over; it's all up to your chin, and some of it's on the back of your
head. I say, you must--"

The young man made him a sign quickly. "He's all right!" he said. "Mud
baths extremely hygienic; recommended by the medical fraternity;
a--where did you say I should put him?"

"Oh, I beg your pardon!" cried Margaret. "I am letting you hold him all
this time, and you are getting all wet, too."

"No consequence, not the least in the world. Besides,--past participle
perhaps more appropriate than present."

Margaret led the way to the verandah, and the stranger finally deposited
his burden on the steps. Looking down at himself, he seemed for the
first time aware of his singular appearance, for he blushed, and,
lifting his cap, was turning away with a muttered apology, in which the
word "clothes" was the only word Margaret could hear.

"Oh!" she cried, "you are not going yet! I--I have not thanked you! You
have saved the child's life, I know you have. I--I have seen something
of that bog," she shuddered. "Mr. Montfort will want to see you, and
thank you himself. Do at least tell me your name, so that we may know
who it is that has done us this great service."

But here the young man caught sight of his face, reflected in a
window-pane, and lost the last vestige of self-possession. "If--if
you'll excuse me," he cried, "I think I'll go before Mr. Montfort comes.
The costume of a Mohawk on the war-path--effective, but unusual;
a--call to-morrow if I may, to see if the little chap is all right. Mr.
Montfort kindly asked me--good day!"

"But you haven't told her your name!" Basil shouted after him.

"Oh! Of course!--a--Merryweather! Gerald Merryweather."



CHAPTER X.

"I MUST HELP MYSELF."


        "DEAR MARGARET:

        "I find a telegram here which obliges me to run
        on to Philadelphia at once. I may be away all
        the week; do as well as you can, dear child,
        and don't let B., M., and S. D. tear you to
        pieces. I forgot to tell you that the young man
        in charge of the bog-draining turns out to be
        the son of an old friend of mine, Miles
        Merryweather. I asked him to come up to the
        house; if he should come while I am away, you
        will be good to him. I will let you know by
        telegraph when to expect me.

                "Always affectionately yours,
                                    "JOHN MONTFORT."

Margaret read this brief letter with a sinking heart. How was she to
keep up without Uncle John? How was she to cope with all the
difficulties that beset her path like sharp-thorned briers? If she had
but Aunt Faith--if she had but some one to turn to! She had tried to
take counsel with Mrs. Peyton, but the beautiful woman was still, at
fifty, a spoiled child, far younger in many ways than Margaret herself;
she would only laugh, and advise her to get rid of Miss Sophronia by
some trick, or practical joke.

"Freeze her out, my dear! Get rid of her, somehow! That is all the
advice I can give you. And bring the young barbarians to see me; I am
sure they will amuse me."

Margaret had just been acting on this last request. She had taken the
two boys to see the invalid, and had left them there now, coming away
with a sore and angry heart. Mrs. Peyton had been drawing the children
out, laughing at their remarks about their cousin, and paying no regard
to Margaret's entreaties. At length Margaret had simply come away, with
no more than a brief "Good afternoon!" feeling that she could not trust
herself to say more. Emily Peyton only laughed; she had full confidence
in her charm, and thought she could bring back her puritanical little
friend whenever she chose to smile in a particular way; meanwhile, the
children were a new toy, and amused her.

But Margaret felt that she had had almost enough of Mrs. Peyton. Beauty
was a great deal, charm and grace were a great deal more; but they did
not take the place of heart. No, there was no one to help her! Well,
then she must help herself, that was all!

She stood still, her mind full of this new thought. She was eighteen
years old; she was well and strong, and possessed of average
intelligence. "Look here!" she said suddenly, aloud. "If you cannot
manage those children, why, I am ashamed of you. Do you hear?"

The other self, the timid one, did hear, and took heart. The girl felt
new strength coming to her. The world had changed, somehow; the
giants,--were they only windmills, after all? Up, lance, and at them!

In this changed mood she went on, humming a little song to herself. As
she drew near the wood that skirted the bog, the song was answered by
another, trolled in a cheerful bass voice:

        "The lady was pleased for to see him so bold;
         She gave him her glove that was flowered with gold;
         She said she had found it while walking around,
         As she was a-hunting with her dog and her gun."

The "blue boy," as she mentally called him, came dancing out of the
wood, throwing up his cap, and singing as he came. At sight of Margaret
he paused, in some confusion, cap in hand.

"I--I beg your pardon," he said. "I trust I did not disturb you with my
carol? There isn't generally any one here, you know; I get rather to
feel as if it all belonged to me. I hope the little chap is all right
to-day, Miss--Is it Miss Montfort?"

"Oh, yes! Certainly!" said Margaret, blushing in her turn. "I ought to
have said, of course--yes, thank you, Mr. Merryweather, Merton is quite
well to-day; and I really think he has had a lesson, for he has not run
away since, and it is two or three days ago. I--my uncle has been
suddenly called away on business, but he asked me to say--that is, we
shall be very glad to see you at the house any day; Miss Montfort, his
cousin,--my uncle's cousin,--is there with me and the children."

"Thanks awfully," murmured Gerald. "I'd like to come ever so much, some
day; but I keep all in a mess so--" he glanced down ruefully at his blue
clothes, and finding them quite respectably clean, brightened visibly.
"My father was at school with Mr. Montfort; Miles Merryweather, perhaps
he told you, Miss Montfort?"

"Yes, he told me. I--I always think Uncle John must have been such a
delightful boy. I am sure they must have had good times together."

"So was the Pater, no end; I mean, my father was an agreeable youth
also." Gerald stopped short, and glanced sidelong at the young girl. He
was well used to girls, having sisters and cousins; but they were used
to him, too, and he somehow felt that this sweet, serious-looking maiden
was not accustomed to young men, and that he must, as he silently put it
to himself, "consider the prudent P, and the quaintly quiggling Q."

"And Uncle John must have been a brilliant scholar!" Margaret went on,
warming to her subject. She had never, as it happened, walked and talked
with a lad before in her quiet life; she did not know quite how to do
it, but so long as she talked about Uncle John, she could not go wrong.
"He knows so much,--so much that he must have learned early, because it
is so a part of him. Wasn't he head of his class most of the time? He
never will talk about it, but I am sure he must have been."

"I am not so sure about that," Gerald admitted; "I know he was the best
wrestler, and that he and my father were generally neck and neck in all
the running races. He was a better high kick, because his legs were
longer, don't you know, but the Pater was ahead in boxing."

Margaret was bewildered. Was this scholarship? Was this the record that
brilliant boys left behind them? She gave a little sigh; the mention of
long legs brought her back to Basil again. Dear Basil! he had only one
pair of knickerbockers left that was fit to be seen. She ought to be
mending the corduroys this moment, in case he should come home all in
pieces, as he was apt to do.

"Have you any little brothers, Mr. Merryweather?" she asked, following
the thread of her thought.

"One; Willy. That is, he's not so very little now, but he's a good bit
younger than Phil and I; Phil is my twin. Willy--oh, I suppose he must
be fourteen, or somewhere about there, to a field or two."

"Basil is twelve," said Margaret, thoughtfully. "And does he--or did he,
two years ago,--I suppose a boy develops very quickly,--did he want to
be climbing and jumping and running _all_ the time?"

"Let me see!" said Gerald, gravely. "Why--yes, I should say so, Miss
Montfort. Of course he stops now and then to eat; and then there's the
time that he's asleep, you know; you have to take out that. But
otherwise,--yes, I should say you had described Willy's existence pretty
well."

"And climbing on roofs?" Margaret went on. "And tumbling into bogs, and
turning somersaults? What _can_ be the pleasure of turning oneself
wrong side up and getting the blood into one's head?"

Margaret stopped suddenly, and the colour rushed into her face; no need
of somersaults in her case. For had not this young man been turning
somersaults the first time she saw him? And turning them in the same
senseless way, just for the joy of it, apparently? She glanced at him,
and he was blushing too; but he met her look of distress with one so
comic in its quizzical appeal, that she laughed in spite of herself.

"I love to turn somersaults!" he murmured. "'Twas the charm of my
chirping childhood; it is now the solace of my age. Don't be severe,
Miss Montfort. I turn them now, sometimes; I will not deceive you."

"Oh! oh, yes, I know!" said Margaret, timidly, but still laughing in
spite of herself. "I--I saw you the other day, Mr. Merryweather. I
thought--you seemed to be enjoying yourself very much."

"No! Did you, though?" cried Gerald. "I say! Where was it? I never meant
to do it when people were round. I'm awfully sorry."

"Oh, no!" said Margaret, confused. "Why shouldn't you? It--it was by the
edge of the bog. I had come round that way, and you were leaping with a
pole about the bog, and I--stayed to watch you. I hope you don't mind;"
this foolish girl was blushing again furiously, which was most
unnecessary; "and--I thought you must be a foreigner; I don't know why.
And--and then you came out, and turned a somersault, and--I wondered
why, that was all. You see, I never had a brother, and I have never
known any boys in all my life till now. I don't mean that you are a boy,
of course!"

"Oh, but I _am_!" cried Gerald. "What else am I but a boy? I wish they
could hear you at home. Why, I'm just Jerry, you know, and--and I've
always been that kind of boy, I'm afraid; just like Willy, only a good
deal worse. And now--well, I've been through college, and now I'm in the
School of Mines, and I'm twenty-one, and all that, but I can't seem to
make myself feel any older, don't you know. I don't know what's going to
become of me. Hilda says I won't grow up till I fall--oh! you don't
know Hilda, do you, Miss Montfort?"

"Hilda?" repeated Margaret. "I only know Hilda in the 'Marble Faun.'"

"Hildegarde Merryweather; Hildegarde Grahame she used to be. I thought
you might possibly have--well, she's my aunt according to the flesh. I
wish you did know her!"

"Your aunt? Is she--is she about Uncle John's age? I know so few people,
you see. I have lived a very quiet life."

"Oh, no! She--well, I suppose she's a little older than you, but not
very much. She married Roger, don't you know. He's my half-uncle all
right, but he's ever so many years younger than the Pater, nearer our
age, you might almost say; and Hildegarde and the girls, my sisters,--I
say! I wish you knew them all, Miss Montfort."

"I wish I did," said Margaret, simply. "There are no girls of my own age
near here. Last year I had my cousins, and I miss them so much!"

"Of course you must!" said sympathetic Gerald. "Girls are no end--I--I
mean, I like them too, ever so much." He paused, and wished he knew the
right thing to say. How pretty and sweet she was! Not like Hilda, of
course (Hilda was this young man's ideal of what a girl should be), but
with a little quiet way of her own that was very nice. She must have no
end of a time of it with these youngsters! He spoke his thought aloud.
They were nearing Fernley, and he must leave her soon. "You must be
having some difficulty with those youngsters, Miss Montfort. If I could
help you any time, I wish you'd let me know. There have always been such
a lot of us at home, I'm used to most kinds of children, you see; and I
should be ever so glad--"

[Illustration: "'Won't you come in?'"]

"Oh, thank you!" said Margaret, gratefully. "I am sure you are very
kind; and if you would advise me sometimes--now that Uncle John is
away--I should be most grateful. But--I ought to be able to manage them
myself, it seems to me, without help. If I can only make them love me!"
She looked straight at Gerald, and her dark gray eyes were very
wistful in their unconscious appeal.

"I'd like to see 'em not!" said the young man, straightway. "Little
beggars! They couldn't help themselves!" He was about to add that he
would thrash them handsomely if they did not love her, but pulled
himself together, and blushed to his ears, and was only comforted by
seeing out of the tail of his eye that the girl was wholly unconscious
of his blushes. After all, there was some sense in freckles and sunburn.

But here they were now at the gates of Fernley. "Won't you come in?"
said Margaret. But Gerald, becoming once more conscious of his
working-clothes, which he had entirely forgotten, excused himself. If he
might come some evening soon? Yes, he might, and should. He lingered
still a moment, and Margaret, after a moment's shyness, held out her
hand frankly. "I am so glad to know you!" she said, simply. "Uncle
John--Mr. Montfort said I was to be good to you, and I will try."

"I'm sure you couldn't be anything else!" said Gerald, with fervour.
"Thanks, awfully, Miss Montfort. Good-bye!" Lifting his cap, the young
man turned away, feeling homesick, and yet cheerful. Passing round the
corner of the house, and finding himself well out of sight of the young
girl, he relieved his feelings by turning a handspring; and on coming to
his feet again, encountered the awful gaze of two greenish eyes, bent
upon him from an upper window of the house.

"Now I've done it!" said the youth, brushing himself, and assuming all
the dignity of which he was master. "Wonder who that is? Housekeeper,
perhaps? Quite the Gorgon, whoever it is. Wish I didn't turn over so
easily."

Margaret went into the house singing, with a lighter heart than she had
felt since Uncle John's letter came. Perhaps she had made a friend; at
any rate, a pleasant acquaintance. What a frank, nice, gentlemanly--boy!
"For he is a boy, just as he says!" she acknowledged to herself. And
what kind, honest eyes he had; and how thoughtful to offer to help her
with the children!

Her pleasant meditations were harshly interrupted. Miss Sophronia came
down-stairs, with her brown and yellow shawl drawn over her shoulders;
this, Margaret had learned, was a bad sign.

"Margaret, who was that young man? I saw you! There is no use in
attempting to conceal anything from me, my dear. I saw you talking with
a young man at the gate."

"Why should I conceal it?" asked Margaret, wondering. "It was Mr.
Merryweather, Cousin Sophronia. He was a schoolmate of Uncle John's,--I
mean his father was."

"Stuff and nonsense!" cried the lady, sharply. "Don't tell me anything
of the kind, miss. He was a common workman, a day-labourer. I tell you I
saw him! Do you suppose I have no eyes in my head? I shall consider it
my duty to tell your uncle as soon as he comes home. I am surprised at
you, Margaret. I thought at least you were discreet. William's daughters
would no more think of talking with such a person--but that comes of
leaving a young person alone here with servants. My dear, I shall make
it a point henceforward--"

She stopped; for the gentle Margaret turned upon her with eyes of fire.
"Cousin Sophronia, I cannot listen to this; I will not listen! I am a
gentlewoman, and must be spoken to as a gentlewoman. I am eighteen years
old, and am accountable to no one except Uncle John for my behaviour.
Let me pass, please! I want to go to my room."

The girl swept by, her head high, her cheeks burning with righteous
wrath. Miss Sophronia gazed after her speechless; it was as if a dove
had ruffled its wings and flown in her face. "Ungrateful girl!" said the
lady to herself. "I never meet with anything but ingratitude wherever I
go. She is as bad as those girls of William's, for all her soft looks.
The human heart is very, very depraved. But I shall do my duty, in spite
of everything."



CHAPTER XI.

THE SECOND CONQUEST.


The boys came home late for tea that night, bubbling over with joy.
Basil declared that they did not want any supper. "Mrs. Peyton gave us
some of her supper. I say, Cousin Margaret, isn't she bully?"

"Basil, if you _could_ find another adjective now and then! I cannot
imagine anything less appropriate to Mrs. Peyton than--the one you
used."

"Oh, well, it doesn't matter! She _is_ bully! She had broiled chicken, a
whole one, and she just took a little piece off the breast for herself,
and then she told Mert and me each to take a leg and run. And we did!
And Mert sat down in the china bath-tub with his, and smashed
it,--cracked it, at least,--and she said she didn't care."

"And the table-drawer was full of chocolate peppermints," chimed in
Merton, "and we ate so many, I don't feel very well now, I think,
p'r'aps."

"And she told us lots of things!" cried Basil again; he looked towards
Miss Sophronia, with sparkling eyes. "She told us about when she was a
little girl, and used to stay here, when Uncle John's puppa and mumma
were alive. I say! And you were here, too, she said, Cousin Sophronia.
And she said--lots of things!" The boy stopped suddenly, and gave his
brother a look of intelligence.

"Ho!" said Merton, "I know what you mean,--you mean about the ghost,
that scared--I say! You stop pinching, will you? I'll punch your--"

"Merton!" said Margaret, warningly.

"Well, he was pinching me!" whined Merton. "And it did scare you, didn't
it, Cousin Sophronia?"

Miss Sophronia looked disturbed. "Merton, you should speak when you are
spoken to!" she said, severely. "I am surprised that Mrs. Peyton should
have told you such things. There certainly were some very strange
occurrences at Fernley, Margaret, when I was a young girl. They never
were explained to my satisfaction; indeed, I never heard of their being
explained at all. Little boys, if you do not want any supper, you may as
well run away. I do not approve of their going to see Emily Peyton,
Margaret. I shall make a point of their not doing so in future. She was
always malicious."

She seemed much fluttered, and Margaret, wondering, hastened to change
the subject. "I wonder where Susan D. can be. I have not seen the child
since I came in, and she did not answer when I called her. Elizabeth, do
you--"

"Pardon me, Margaret, my love!" Miss Sophronia interposed. "Susan D. is
in bed; I sent her to bed an hour ago."

"Oh, Cousin Sophronia! Without her supper? What had she done?"

"She was disobedient, my dear,--disobedient and impertinent. I have no
doubt that this will have an excellent effect upon the child. Basil,
what do you want? I told you to go away."

"Cousin Margaret, could I speak to you a moment, please?" asked the boy.

"I will come to you, Basil," said Margaret, quickly. "Will you excuse
me, Cousin Sophronia, please? I have quite finished. Now, Basil, what is
it?"

She led the boy carefully out of earshot, for thunder and lightning were
in his face, and she foresaw an outburst.

"Susan D. is in bed!" cried Basil. "She has had no supper at all;
Elizabeth said so. That woman sent her. Cousin Margaret, I won't stand
it. I--I'll set fire to her clothes! I'll shoot her! I'll--I'll kill her
some way--"

Margaret laid her hand over the boy's mouth. "You will be silent!" she
said. "Not a word, not a syllable, till you can speak like a civilised
being. We will have no savages here."

Basil said no word,--he knew well enough when he must obey,--but he set
his teeth, and clenched his fists; the veins on his temples swelled, his
whole childish frame shook with anger. Margaret had never seen any one,
not even Rita, in such a passion as this. For a few moments, the two
stood motionless, facing each other. Then Margaret took the boy's hand
in hers, and led him out into the garden. Still holding his hand, she
paced up and down the green walk in silence, Basil following obediently.
The evening was falling soft and dusk; the last bird was chirping
sleepily; the air was full of the scent of flowers. Behind the dark
trees, where the sun had gone down, the sky still glowed with soft,
yellow light. "See!" said Margaret, presently. "There is the first star.
Let us wish! Oh, Basil dear, let us wish--and pray--for a good thing,
for strength to overcome--ourselves."

The boy's hand pressed hers convulsively, but he did not speak at first.
Presently he said, almost in a whisper, "She is so little,--and so thin!
I told Mother I would take care of her. But--I said--I would try not to
let go of myself, too."

Very tenderly Margaret drew the child down beside her, on a rustic
bench that stood under one of the great tulip-trees. In the quiet
darkness, she felt his heart open to her even more than it had done yet.
In the hour that followed, she learned the story of a wild, faithful
nature, full of mischief, full of love. The passionate love for his
mother, whom he remembered well; the faithful, scowling devotion to the
little sister, whom no one should scold but himself, and whom he shook,
and bullied, and protected with a sole eye to her good; all this, and
much more, Margaret learned. The two sat hand in hand, and took counsel
together. "Oh, it is so good to have some one to talk to," cried Basil.

"Isn't it, dear?" said Margaret. "Now you know how I feel with Uncle
John away; and--oh, Basil, before I had Uncle John,--when my father
died,--oh, my dear! But you are going to be my brother now, Basil,--my
dear, dear little brother, aren't you? And you will tell me how to make
Susan D. love me. I think you do love me a little already, don't you,
Basil?"

For all answer, Basil threw his arms round her, and gave her such a hug
as made her gasp for breath.

"Dear boy," cried Margaret, "don't--kill me! Oh, Basil! I tried to hug
Susan D. the other day, and I might as well have hugged the door! She
won't even let me kiss her good night; that is, she lets me, but there
is no response. Why doesn't she like me, do you think?"

"She does!" said Basil. "Or she will, soon as she can get out of
herself. Don't you know what I mean, Cousin Margaret? It's as if she had
a dumb spirit, like that fellow in the Bible, don't you know? Nobody but
me understands; but you will, just once you get inside."

"Ah, but how shall I ever get inside?" said Margaret.

Basil nodded confidently. "You will!" he said. "I know you will, some
time. Oh, Cousin Margaret, mayn't I take her something to eat? She's
always hungry, Susan D. is, and I know she won't sleep a mite if she
doesn't have anything. I--no, I won't let go again, but it _is_ the
meanest, hatefullest thing that ever was done in the world! Now isn't
it, Cousin Margaret? Don't you think so yourself?"

Sorely puzzled as to the exact path of duty, Margaret tried to explain
to the boy how ideas of discipline had changed since Cousin Sophronia
was a young girl; how, probably, she had herself been brought up with
rigid severity, and, never having married, had kept all the old
cast-iron ideas which were now superseded by wider and better knowledge
and sympathy. As to this particular point, what should she say? Her
whole kind nature revolted against the thought of the hungry child,
alone, waking, perhaps weeping, with no one to comfort her; yet how
could she, Margaret, possibly interfere with the doings of one old
enough to be her mother?

Pondering in anxious perplexity, she chanced to raise her eyes to the
house. It was brightly lighted, and, as it happened, the curtains had
not been drawn. "Look!" said Margaret, pressing the boy's hand in hers.
"Basil, look!"

One long, narrow window looked directly upon the back stairs, which led
from the servants' hall to the upper floor. Up these stairs, past the
window, a figure was now seen to pass, swiftly and stealthily; a portly
figure, carrying something that looked like a heaped up plate; the
figure of Frances the cook. It passed, and in a moment more they saw
light, as of an opening door, flash into the dark window of the corner
room where the little girl slept.

"Do you know, Basil," said Margaret, "I wouldn't worry any more about
Susan D.'s being hungry. There is one person in Fernley whom no one, not
even Uncle John, can manage; that is Frances."

An hour or so later, Margaret was coming down from the nursery. Merton
had announced, as bedtime drew near, that he "felt a pain;" and Margaret
had no difficulty in tracing it to Mrs. Peyton's careless indulgence.
She stole down quietly to the cheerful back room where Frances and
Elizabeth sat with their sewing, and begged for some simple remedy.
Frances rose with alacrity. "Checkerberry cordial is what you want,
Miss Margaret," she said. "I've made it for thirty years, and I hope I
know its merits. No wonder the child is sick. If some had their way,
everybody in this house 'ud be sick to starvation."

"I am afraid it was the other thing in this case, Frances," said
Margaret, meekly. "I'm afraid Master Merton ate too many rich things at
Mrs. Peyton's." Now in general, Frances could not abide patiently the
mention of Mrs. Peyton; but this time she declared she was glad the
child had had enough to eat for once. "'Twill do him no harm!" she said,
stoutly. "Give him ten drops of this, Miss Margaret, in a wine-glass of
hot water,--wait a minute, dear, and I'll mix it myself,--and he'll turn
over and go to sleep like a lamb. Treating children as if they was one
half starch and t'other half sticks! Don't tell me!"

Knowing that none of this wrath was directed against herself, Margaret
wisely held her tongue, and departed with her glass, leaving Frances
still muttering, and Elizabeth with lips pursed up in judicious silence.
And Merton took it and felt better, and was glad enough to be petted a
little, and finally to be tucked up with the hot water-bottle for a
comforter.

As has been said, Margaret was coming down-stairs after this mission was
fulfilled, when she met Miss Sophronia coming up. "All quiet up-stairs,
my dear?" said the lady. "I am going to bed myself, Margaret, for I feel
a little rheumatic, or I should rather say neuralgic, perhaps. These
things are very obscure; the doctor says my case is a very remarkable
one; he has never seen another like it. Yes, and now I am going to make
sure that this child is all right, and that she does not actually need
anything. Duty, Margaret, is a thing I can never neglect."

Margaret followed her cousin into the room, feeling rather
self-reproachful. Perhaps she had been unjust in her judgment. Cousin
Sophronia was of course doing the best, or what she thought the best,
for this poor wild little girl.

Miss Sophronia advanced towards the bed, holding up her candle.
Margaret, looking over her shoulder, saw the child lying fast asleep,
her hand under her cheek. Her face was flushed, and her fair hair lay in
a tangle on the pillow. Margaret had never seen her look so nearly
pretty. There were traces of tears on her face, too, and she sobbed a
little, softly, in her sleep.

"Poor little thing!" whispered Margaret; but Miss Sophronia was not
looking at Susan D. now. With stiff, outstretched finger she pointed to
the floor. "Look at that!" she said, in a penetrating whisper. Indeed,
the child had dropped her clothes on the floor all at once, and they lay
in an untidy heap, shocking to Margaret's eyes, which loved to see
things neatly laid. She shook her head and was about to murmur some
extenuation of the offence, when--Miss Sophronia set down the candle on
the stand; then, with a quick, decided motion, she pulled the sleeping
child out of bed. "Susan D.," she said, "pick up your clothes at once.
Never let me find them in this condition again. Shocking!"

The child stood helpless, bewildered, blinking, half awake, at the
light, not in the least understanding what was said to her. Miss
Sophronia took her by the shoulder, not unkindly, and repeated her
command. "Pick them up at once, my dear! Let this be a lesson to you,
never to leave your clothes on the floor again." Still only half
comprehending, the child stooped, stumbling as she did so, and picking
up the clothes, laid them on the chair as she was directed.

"There!" said Miss Sophronia, in high satisfaction. "Now, my dearest
Margaret, you will see that this child will never neglect her clothes
again. A lesson promptly administered, on the spot, is worth all the
preaching in the world. Get into bed again, Susan D., and go to sleep
like a good child. Some day you will be very grateful to your Cousin
Sophronia for teaching you these things."

She turned away with the candle. Margaret, standing in the shadow, saw
the child still standing in the middle of the room, a forlorn, shivering
little figure, silent; the most piteous sight those tender eyes had ever
looked upon. Softly the girl closed the door. "Margaret," she heard her
cousin say. "Oh, she is gone down-stairs!" and the steps went away
along the entry. But Margaret groped her way to where Susan D. stood;
the next moment she had the child in her arms, and was pressing her
close, close. A rocking-chair was by; she had seen it, and knew where to
lay her hand to draw it forward. She sank down in it, and rocked to and
fro, murmuring inarticulate words of comfort. The night was warm, but
still the child shivered; Margaret, groping again, found a shawl, and
wrapped it round her. There was no more holding off, no more resistance;
the little creature clung around Margaret's neck with a desperate hold,
as if she dared not let her go for an instant. Her breast heaved once or
twice, silently; then she burst into a passion of tears, and sobbed on
her cousin's heart. "I love you!" cried the child. "You are good, and I
love you! Don't--don't leave me alone, please don't!"

Margaret held her close in her warm, loving arms. "My lamb!" she said.
"My little girl! Indeed I will not leave you. Quiet now, dearie; quiet
and don't cry! Oh, Susan D., I have no mother, either, dear; let us
love each other a great, great deal!" and Susan D. sobbed, and curled
closer yet, as if she would wind herself into the very heart that beat
so kindly and so tenderly.

So they sat, till the sobs died away into soft, broken breathings.
Margaret began to sing, and crooned one after another the old songs that
Katy used to sing to her when she was rocked just so on that broad,
faithful Irish breast. Susan D. lifted her head a little towards her
ear. "What is it?" said Margaret, bending down.

"I--I do like singing!" whispered the child.

Margaret nodded, and sang on. By and by the almost frantic clasp of the
small arms loosened; the head sank back gently on her arm; the child was
asleep. Margaret rose to lay her down, but instantly she started up
again, affrighted, and cried out, and begged not to be left alone. What
was to be done? Margaret hesitated; then she bade the child hold fast,
and slowly, carefully she made her way down the stairs and through the
passage to her own room, and did not pause till the little child was
lying safe, happy, and wondering, in the white bed, in the wonderful
White Room.

"Crowd me?" said Cousin Margaret. "Not a bit of it! There is plenty of
room, and in the morning we will have a most lovely cuddle, and tell
stories. But now go to sleep this very minute, Susan D., while I do my
hair. Good night, little sister!"

"Good night!" said Susan D. "I love you! Good night!"



CHAPTER XII.

THE VOICE OF FERNLEY.


From that night, Susan D. was Margaret's friend and true lover.

She followed her round in the hope of being able to do some little
service of love. She brought her flowers, and hunted the fields for the
largest and finest berries for her. At any hour of the day, Margaret
might feel a little hot hand slide into hers and deposit a handful of
warm, moist raspberries or blueberries. Sometimes this bred trouble, as
when Merton waylaid his sister, and wrested the hard-won treasures from
her for his own refreshment; with the result of shrieks and scuffling,
and a final thrashing from his elder brother; or, as when Cousin
Sophronia detected the child sidling along with closed palm, and
demanded to see what she had. Susan D. resisted stoutly, till at
length, yielding to superior strength, she threw the berries on the
floor, and trampled them into the carpet. There was a good deal of this
kind of thing; but still the change was a blessed one, and Margaret,
when she met the beaming look of love in the child's face, and
remembered the suspicious scowl that had greeted her only so few days
ago, was most thankful, and felt it to be worth any amount of trouble,
even to taking the spots out of the carpet, which was a hard thing to
do.

"I told you!" said Basil, smiling superior. "I told you, once you got
inside, you'd find the kid not at all so bad. I say, Cousin Margaret,
you're not a fraidcat, are you?"

"A what, Basil?"

"A fraidcat! Don't you know what a fraidcat is, Cousin Margaret? Seems
to me you didn't learn many modern expressions when you were a little
girl, did you?"

"Really, Basil, I think I learned all that were necessary," said
Margaret, laughing. "I did not learn slang, certainly, nor boy-jargon,
and I don't care to take lessons, thank you. Don't you think good,
plain English is good enough?"

"Oh, well, it sounds all right from you, 'cause you are you, and you
wouldn't match yourself if you didn't talk that way, I suppose. But it
would sound silly for a boy to go on so, don't you see?"

"I am afraid I don't see very well, Basil, but no matter. The things I
am afraid of are spiders and caterpillars and cows! Is that what you
wanted to know?"

"N--not exactly!" said the boy; "but no matter, Cousin Margaret. You
haven't got a ball of twine, have you? Oh, yes, please! Thank you, that
is just exactly what I wanted. You always know where things are, don't
you? That's bully!"

The children had been very good for the last few days; singularly good,
Margaret thought, as she sat on the verandah in the pleasant twilight,
reviewing the day's doings, and wondering what happy day would bring
Uncle John back to her. Certainly, he would find a good deal of
improvement. Merton had not run away since his experience in the bog;
Susan D. was won, and Basil grew more and more helpful and considerate.
More than that, the children, all three of them, seemed to have quieted
down of their own accord. At this hour, they were generally shouting and
screaming, racing over the grass, or tumbling headlong from the trees,
keeping Margaret in a constant state of terror, and Cousin Sophronia in
one of peevish irritation and alarm. But now they had gone of their own
will to the summer-house, saying that they were going to tell stories,
and see how quiet they could be. They were quiet, indeed, for she could
not even hear their voices. Cousin Sophronia, coming out with an
inquiry, became instantly suspicious, and declared she must go and see
what they were about; but Margaret begged her to wait a little. "They
can do no harm in the summer-house!" she said. "And--Uncle John thought
we would better let them alone a good deal, Cousin Sophronia."

"My love," said the lady, seating herself, and folding her hands for a
good talk, "your Uncle John is a babe, simply a babe in these matters.
Even if he knew anything about children,--which he does not,--it would
be my duty, my positive duty, to shield him from all anxieties of this
kind. Why else did I come here, my love, except for this very thing?"

"Did you, then, know that Cousin Anthony wished to send the children?"
asked Margaret, perhaps not without a spice of gentle malice.

"Ahem! No, not precisely, my love! But--but it was my firm resolve to
protect dearest John from every species of annoyance. Every species, my
dear! John Montfort--good gracious! What is that?" She started to her
feet, and Margaret followed her example. A sound seemed to pass them in
the air; a strange sound, something between a sigh and a moan. It
swelled for a moment, then died away among the trees beyond the
verandah. Miss Sophronia clutched Margaret's arm. "You--you made that
noise?" she whispered. "Say it was you, Margaret!"

"Indeed, it was not I, Cousin Sophronia!" said Margaret. "It must have
been a sudden gust of wind. It is gone now; it must surely have been
the wind. Shall I bring you a wrap? Do you feel chilly?"

Miss Sophronia still held her arm. "No, no! Don't go!" she said. "I--I
feel rather nervous to-night, I think. Nerves! Yes, no one knows what I
suffer. If you had any idea what my nights are-- You may be right, my
dear, about the wind. It is a misfortune, I always say, to have such
exquisite sensibility. The expression is not my own, my love, it is
Doctor Soper's. Shall we go into the house, and light the lamps? So much
more cheerful, I always think, than this dreary twilight."

Margaret hesitated a moment. The evening was very warm, and once in the
house, her cousin would be sure to shut all the windows and draw the
curtains. Still, she must not be selfish--

"If I join you in a few minutes, Cousin Sophronia?" she said. "The
children--I suppose it is time for them to come in. I will just go down
to the summer-house and see--"

The sentence remained unfinished; for at that moment, almost close
beside them, arose the strange moaning sound once more. This time Miss
Sophronia shrieked aloud. "Come!" she cried, dragging Margaret towards
the house. "Come in this moment! It is the Voice! The Voice of Fernley.
I will not stay here; I will not go in alone. Come with me, Margaret!"

She was trembling from head to foot, and even Margaret, who was not
timid about such matters, felt slightly disturbed. Was this some trick
of the children? She must go and hunt them up, naughty little things.
Ah! What was that, moving in the dusk? It was almost entirely dark now,
but something was certainly coming up the gravel walk, something that
glimmered white against the black box-hedges. Miss Sophronia uttered
another piercing shriek, and would have fled, but Margaret detained her.
"Who is that?" said the girl. "Basil, is that you? Where are the other
children?"

The white figure advanced; it was tall and slender, and seemed to have
no head. Miss Sophronia moaned, and cowered down at Margaret's side.

"I beg pardon!" said a deep, cheerful voice. "I hope nothing is wrong.
It is only I, Miss Montfort,--Gerald Merryweather."

Only a tall youth in white flannels; yet, at that moment, no one, save
Uncle John himself, could have been more welcome, Margaret thought. "Oh,
Mr. Merryweather," she said, "I am so glad to see you! No, nothing is
wrong, I hope; that is--won't you come up on the verandah? My
cousin--Cousin Sophronia, let me present Mr. Merryweather."

Mr. Merryweather advanced, bowing politely to the darkness; when, to his
amazement, the person to whom he was to pay his respects sprang forward,
and clutched him violently.

"You--you--you abominable young man!" cried Miss Sophronia, shrilly.
"You made that noise; you know you made it, to annoy me! Don't tell me
you did not! Get away from here this instant, you--you--impostor!"

Margaret was struck dumb for an instant, and before she could speak,
Gerald Merryweather was replying, quietly, as if he had been throttled
every day of his life:

"If choking is your object, madam, you can do it better by pulling the
other way, I would suggest. By pulling in this direction, you see, you
only injure the textile fabric, and leave the _corpus delicti_
comparatively unharmed."

He stood perfectly still; Miss Sophronia still clutched and shook him,
muttering inarticulately; but now Margaret seized and dragged her off by
main force. "Cousin Sophronia!" she cried. "How can you--what can you be
thinking of? This is Mr. Merryweather, I tell you, the son of Uncle
John's old schoolmate. Uncle John asked him to call. I am sure you are
not well, or have made some singular mistake."

"I don't believe a word of it!" said Miss Sophronia. "Not one single
word! What was he making that noise for, I should like to know?"

Mr. Merryweather answered with a calm which he was far from feeling. His
pet necktie was probably ruined, his collar crumpled, very likely his
coat torn. He had taken pains with his toilet, and now he had been set
upon and harried, by some one he had never seen, but whom he felt sure
to be the Gorgon who had glared at him out the window several days
before. This was a horrid old lady; he saw no reason why he should be
attacked in the night by horrid old ladies, when he was behaving
beautifully.

"I am sorry!" he said, rather stiffly. "I was not conscious of speaking
loud. Miss Montfort asked who it was, and I told her. If I have offended
_her_, I am ready to apologise--and withdraw."

This sounded theatrical, it occurred to him; but then, the whole scene
was fit for the variety stage. Poor Margaret felt a moment of despair.
What should she do?

"Mr. Merryweather," she said, aloud, "Miss Montfort has been much
startled. Just before you came, we heard a noise; rather a strange
noise, which we could not account for. I think her nerves are somewhat
shaken. She will be better in a moment. And--and I was just going to the
summer-house, to call the children. Would you come with me, I wonder?"

Miss Sophronia clamoured that she could not be left alone, but for once
Margaret was deaf to her appeals. She was too angry; her guest--that
is, her uncle's guest--to be set upon and shaken, as if he were a
naughty child caught stealing apples,--it was too shameful! He would
think they were all out of their senses.

"Oh, I am so sorry! So sorry!" she found herself saying aloud. "Mr.
Merryweather, I am so mortified, so ashamed! What can I say to you?"

"Say!" said Gerald, his stiffness gone in an instant. "Don't say
anything, Miss Montfort. I--I don't mean that; I mean, there's nothing
_to_ say, don't you know? Why, it wasn't your fault! Who ever thought of
its being your fault?"

"I ought to have recognised you sooner!" said Margaret. "It was pretty
dark, and we had really been startled, and my cousin is very nervous. If
you would _please_ overlook it this time I should be so grateful!"

"Oh, I _say_!" cried the young man. "Miss Montfort, if you go on in this
way, I shall go back and ask the old--and ask the lady to choke me some
more. I--I _like_ being choked! I like anything; only don't go on so!
Why, it isn't any matter in the world. Perhaps it relieved her feelings
a bit; and it didn't do me any harm." He felt of his necktie, and
settled his collar as well as he could, thankful for the friendly
darkness. "Indeed, I am all right!" he assured her, earnestly. "Trivets
aren't a circumstance to me, as far as rightness is concerned. Now if
you'll forget all about it, Miss Montfort, please, I shall be as happy
as the bounding roe,--or the circumflittergating cockchafer!" he added,
as a large June-bug buzzed past him.

"You are very good!" murmured Margaret. "I am sure--but here is the
summer-house. Children, are you here? Basil! Susan D.!"

No answer came. The frogs chirped peacefully, the brook at the foot of
the garden sent up its soft, bubbling murmur; there was no other sound.
It was very dark, for the trees were thick overhead. The fireflies
flitted hither and thither, gleaming amid the thickets of honeysuckle
and lilac; the young man's figure beside her glimmered faintly in the
darkness, but there was no glimpse of Susan D.'s white frock, or
Basil's white head.

"Children!" cried Margaret again. "Don't play any tricks, dears! It is
bedtime, and after, and you must come in. Susan, Cousin wants you,
dear!"

Silence; not a rustle, not a whisper.

"I should suppose they had gone," said Gerald. "Or do you think they are
playing hookey? Wait a minute, and I'll hunt around."

But search availed nothing; the children were not in the summer-house,
nor near it. "They must have gone back to the house," said Margaret.
"Thank you so much, Mr. Merryweather. I am sorry to have given you all
this trouble for nothing."

"Oh, trouble!" said Gerald. "This isn't my idea of trouble, Miss
Montfort. What a pretty place this is! Awfully--I mean, extremely
pretty."

"It is pretty in the daytime. I should hardly think you could see
anything now, it is so dark."

"Well, yes, it is dark; but I mean it seems such a pleasant place to
sit and rest in a little. Hadn't you better sit and rest a minute, Miss
Montfort? The children are all right, you may be sure. Gone to bed, most
likely, like good little kids. I--I often went to bed, when I was a
kid."

Margaret could not help laughing; nevertheless, she turned decidedly
towards the house. "I am afraid I cannot be sure of their having gone to
bed," she said. "I think I must find them, Mr. Merryweather, but if you
are tired, you shall rest on the verandah while I hunt."

Gerald did not want to rest on the verandah, particularly if his recent
assailant were still there. He wanted to stay here in the garden. He
liked the fireflies, and the frogs; the murmur of the brook, and the
soft voice speaking out of the darkness. He thought this was a very nice
girl; he wished she would not be so uneasy about those tiresome
youngsters. However, as there seemed to be no help for it, he followed
Margaret in silence up the gravel walk. She need not hurry so, he
thought; it was very early, not half past eight yet. He wanted to make
his call; he couldn't dress up like this every night; and, besides, it
was a question whether he could ever wear this shirt again by daylight.

Miss Sophronia was not on the verandah.

"Will you not come in?" asked Margaret at the door; but Gerald felt,
rather than heard, the uneasiness in her voice, and decided, much
against his inclination, that it would be better manners to say good
night and take himself off.

"I think I must be going," he had begun already, when, from the open
door behind them, burst a long, low, melancholy wail. The girl started
violently. The young man bent his ear in swift attention. The voice--the
cry--trembled on the air, swelled to a shriek; then died slowly away
into a dreary whisper, and was gone.

Before either of the young people could speak, the library door was
flung open, and a wild figure came flying out. Miss Sophronia threw
herself once more upon Gerald, and clung to him with the energy of
desperation. "My dear young man!" cried the distracted lady. "Save me!
Protect me! I knew your father! I was at school with your
mother,--Miranda Cheerley. Save me,--hold me! Do not desert me! You are
my only hope!"

It was past nine o'clock when Gerald Merryweather finally took his
departure. The children had been discovered,--in bed, and apparently
asleep. Three neatly folded piles of clothes showed at least that they
had gone to bed in a proper and reasonable manner. Miss Sophronia
Montfort had finally been quieted, by soothing words and promises,
followed up by hot malted milk and checkerberry cordial, the latter
grimly administered by Frances, and so strong that it made the poor lady
sneeze. Margaret was to sleep with her; Gerald was to come the next
morning to see how she was; meanwhile, Frances and Elizabeth, the latter
badly frightened, the former entirely cool and self-possessed, were to
sleep in the front chamber, and be at hand in case of any untoward
event.

There was nothing further to be done save to shake hands warmly with
Margaret, submit to an embrace from Miss Sophronia, and go. Mr.
Merryweather strode slowly down the garden path, looking back now and
then at the house, where already the lights on the lower floor were
being extinguished one by one.

"That's a very nice girl!" he murmured. "Hildegarde would approve of
that girl, I know. But on the other hand, my son, that is a horrid old
lady. I should like--Jerry, my blessed infant, I _should_ like--to make
that old lady run!" He turned for a final glance at the house;
considered the advisability of turning a handspring; remembered his
white flannels, and, with a bow to the corner window, was gone in the
darkness.



CHAPTER XIII.

WHO DID IT?


"Frightened, was she?" said Mrs. Peyton. "How sad! Margaret, you are not
looking at my bed-spread. This is the first day I have used it, and I
put it on expressly for you. What is the use of my having pretty things,
if no one will look at them?"

"Indeed, it is very beautiful!" said Margaret. "Everything you have is
beautiful, Mrs. Peyton."

"It is Honiton!" said Mrs. Peyton. "It ought to be handsome. But you do
not care, Margaret, it is perfectly easy to see that. You don't care
about any of my things any more. I was simply a new toy to you in the
beginning, and you liked to look at me because I was pretty. Now you
have new toys,--Sophronia Montfort, I suppose, and a sweet plaything she
is! and you pay no further attention to me. Deny it if you can!"

Margaret did not attempt to deny it; she was too absolutely truthful not
to feel a certain grain of fact in the lady's accusation. Life was
opening fuller and broader upon her every day; how could she think of
lace bed-spreads, with three children constantly in her mind, to think
and plan and puzzle for? To say nothing of Uncle John and all the rest.
And as to the "new toy" aspect, Margaret knew that she might well enough
turn the accusation upon her lovely friend herself; but this she was too
kind and too compassionate to do. Would not any one want toys, perhaps,
if forced to spend one's life between four walls?

So she simply stroked the exquisite hand that lay like a piece of carved
ivory on the splendid coverlet, and smiled, and waited for the next
remark.

"I knew you would not deny it!" the lady said. "You couldn't, you see.
Well, it doesn't matter! I shall be dead some day, I hope and trust. So
Sophronia was frightened? Tell me more about it!"

"She was very much frightened!" said Margaret. "Mrs. Peyton, I wanted
to ask you--when the children came home yesterday, they said something
about your having told them some story of old times here; of a ghost, or
some such thing. I never heard of anything of the sort. Do you--do you
remember what it was? I ought not to torment you!" she added,
remorsefully; for Mrs. Peyton put her hand to her head, and her brow
contracted slightly, as if with pain.

"Only my head, dear, it is rather troublesome to-day; I suppose I ought
not to talk very much! Yes, there was a ghost, or something like one, in
old times, when I was a child. I wasn't at Fernley at the time, but I
heard about it; Sophronia was there, and I remember she was frightened
into fits, just as you describe her last night."

"What--do you remember anything about it? It isn't that old story of
Hugo Montfort, is it, the man who looks for papers?"

"Oh, no, nothing so interesting as that! I always longed to see Hugo.
No, this is just a voice that comes and goes, wails about the rooms and
the gardens. It is one of the Montfort women, I believe, the one who
cut up her wedding-gown and then went mad."

"Penelope?"

"That's it! Penelope Montfort. Once in a while they see her, but very
rarely, I believe."

"Mrs. Peyton, you are making fun of me. Aunt Faith told me there was no
ghost except that of Hugo Montfort; of course I don't mean that there is
really that; but no ghost that people had ever fancied."

"Ah, well, my dear, all this was before Mrs. Cheriton came to Fernley!
Before such a piece of perfection as she was, no wandering ghost would
have ventured to appear. Now don't stiffen into stone, Margaret
Montfort! I know she was a saint, but she never liked me, and I am not a
saint, you see. I was always a sinner, and I expect to remain one. And
certainly, there was a white figure seen about Fernley, at that time I
was speaking of; and no one ever found out what it was; and if you want
to know any more, you must ask John Montfort. There, now my head is
confused, and I shall not have a straight thought again to-day!"

The lady turned her head fretfully on the pillow. Margaret, who knew her
ways well, sat silent for some minutes, and then began to sing softly:

        O sweetest lady ever seen,
          (With a heigh ho! and a lily gay,)
        Give consent to be my queen,
          (As the primrose spreads so sweetly.)

Before the long ballad was ended, the line between Mrs. Peyton's
eyebrows was gone, and her beautiful face wore a look of contentment
that was not common to it.

"Go away now!" the lady murmured. "You have straightened me out again.
Be thankful for that little silver voice of yours, child! You can do
more good with it in the world than you know. I really think you are one
of the few good persons who are not odious. Go now! Good-bye!"

Margaret went away, thinking, as she had often thought before, how like
her Cousin Rita this fair lady was. "Only Rita has a great, great deal
more heart!" she said to herself. "Rita only laughs at people when she
is in one of her bad moods. Dear Rita! I wonder where she is to-day.
And Peggy is driving the mowing machine, she writes; mowing hundreds of
acres, and riding bareback, and having a glorious time."

A letter had come the day before from Peggy Montfort, telling of all her
delightful doings on the farm, and begging that her darling Margaret
would come out and spend the rest of the summer with her. "Darling
Margaret, do, do, _do_ come! Nobody can possibly want you as much as I
do; nobody can begin to think of wanting you one hundredth part as much
as your own Peggy."

Margaret had laughed over the letter, and kissed it, and perhaps there
was a tear in her eye when she put it away to answer. It was good, good
to be loved. And Peggy did love her, and so she hoped--she knew--did
Uncle John; and now the children were hers, two of them, at least; hers
to have and to hold, so far as love went. Go away and leave them now,
when they needed her every hour? "No, Peggy dear, not even to see your
sweet, round, honest face again."

Coming back to the house she found Gerald Merryweather on the verandah.
He was in his working clothes again, but they were fresh and spotless,
and he was a pleasant object to look upon. He explained that he had
called to inquire for the ladies' health, and to express his hope that
they had suffered no further annoyance the night before. He was on his
way to the bog, and just thought he would ask if there was anything he
could do.

"Thank you!" said Margaret, gratefully. "You are very good, Mr.
Merryweather. No; nothing more happened; and my poor cousin got some
sleep after awhile. But I still cannot imagine what the noise was, can
you?"

"So many noises at night, don't you know?" said Gerald. "Especially
round an old house like this. You were not personally alarmed, were you,
Miss Montfort? I think you may be pretty sure that there was nothing
supernatural about it. Oh, I don't mean anything in particular, of
course; but--well, I never saw a ghost; and I don't believe in 'em. Do
you?"

"Certainly not. I didn't suppose any one believed in them nowadays.
But,--do you know, I really am almost afraid my Cousin Sophronia does.
She will not listen to any explanation I can suggest. I really--oh, here
she is, Mr. Merryweather!"

Miss Sophronia greeted Gerald with effusion. "I heard your voice, my
dear young man," she said, "and I came down to beg that you would take
tea with us this evening--with my niece--she is quite the same as my own
niece; I make no difference, dearest Margaret, I assure you,--with my
niece and me. If--if there should be any more unpleasant occurrences, it
would be a comfort to have a man, however young, on the premises. Willis
sleeps in the barn, and he is deaf, and would be of little use. He
couldn't even be of the smallest use, if we should be murdered in our
beds."

"Oh, but we are not going to be murdered, Cousin Sophronia," said
Margaret, lightly. "We are going to be very courageous, and just let
that noise understand that we care nothing whatever about it."

"Margaret, my love, you are trivial," responded Miss Sophronia,
peevishly. "I wish you would pay attention when I speak. I ask Mr.
Merryweather to take tea with us, and you talk about noises. Very
singular, I am sure."

"Oh, but of course it would be very pleasant, indeed, to have Mr.
Merryweather take tea with us!" cried Margaret, in some confusion. "I
hope you will come, Mr. Merryweather."

It appeared that nothing in the habitable universe would give Mr.
Merryweather greater pleasure. At half-past six? He would not fail to be
on hand; and if there should be noises again, why--let those who made
them look to themselves. And, with this, the young man took his leave.

The children were very troublesome that day. Margaret could not seem to
lay her hand on any one of them. If she called Basil, he was "in the
barn, Cousin Margaret, helping Willis with the hay. Of course I'll come,
if you want me, but Willis seems to need me a good deal, if you don't
mind."

When it was time for Susan D.'s sewing, the child came most obediently
and affectionately; but her thimble was nowhere to be found, and she had
mislaid her spool, and, finally, when everything was found, she had not
sat still ten minutes, when she was "_so_ thirsty; and must go and get a
glass of water, please, Cousin Margaret!"

"Susan," said Margaret, "I want to talk to you, and I cannot seem to get
a chance for a word. Sit still now, like a good little girl, and tell
me--"

"Yes, Cousin Margaret, I couldn't find my thimble first, you see; and
then there wasn't any spool, and I left it in my basket yesterday, I'm
sure I did, but Merton _will_ take it to teach the kitten tricks with,
and then it gets all dirty. Don't you know how horrid a spool is when a
kitten has been playing with it? You have to wind off yards and yards,
and then the rest is sort of fruzzly, and keeps making knots."

"Yes, I know. Susan D., what were you doing last evening?" said
Margaret.

"Last evening?" repeated the child. "We were in the summer-house,
Cousin Margaret. We were playing Scottish Chiefs, don't you know? Merton
had to play Lord Soulis, 'cause he drew the short straw; but he got
cross, and wouldn't play good a bit."

"Wouldn't play _well_, or _nicely_," corrected Margaret. "But after
that, Susan dear?"

"That took a long time," said the child. It seemed, when she was alone
with Margaret, that she could not talk enough; the little pent-up nature
was finding most delightful relief and pleasure in unfolding before the
sympathy that was always warm, always ready.

"You see, when it came to carrying me off (I was Helen Mar, after I'd
been Marion and was dead), Merton was just horrid. He said he wouldn't
carry me off; he said he wouldn't have me for a gift, and called me
Scratchface, and all kinds of names. And of course Lord Soulis wouldn't
have talked that way; so Wallace (of course Basil _had_ to be Wallace
when he drew the long straw, and he never cheats, though Merton does,
whenever he gets a chance)--well, and so, Wallace told him, if he
didn't carry me off in two shakes of a cat's tail--"

"Susan D.!"

"Well, that's what he _said_, Cousin Margaret. I'm telling you just as
it happened, truly I am. If he didn't carry me off in two shakes of a
cat's tail, he'd pitch him over the parapet,--you know there's a
splendid parapet in the summer-house,--and so he wouldn't, and so he
did; but Mert held on, and they both went over into the meadow. I guess
Lord Soulis got the worst of it down there, for when they climbed up
again he did carry me off, though he pinched me hard all the way, and
made my arm all black and blue; I didn't say anything, because I was
Helen Mar, but I gave it to him good--I mean well--this morning, and
served him out. And then Wallace had to rescue me, of course, and that
was _great_, and we all fell over the parapet again, and that was the
way I tore the gathers out of my frock. So you see, Cousin Margaret!"

Susan D. paused for breath, and bent over her sewing with exemplary
diligence. Margaret took the child's chin in her hand, and raised her
face towards her.

"Susan," she said, gently, "after you had that fine play--it must have
been a great play, and I wish I had seen it--after that, what did you
do?"

"We--we--went to bed!" said Susan D.

"Why did you go without coming to say good night? Answer me truly, dear
child."

The two pairs of gray eyes looked straight into each other. A shadow of
fear--a suggestion of the old look of distrust and suspicion--crept into
the child's eyes for a moment; but before Margaret's kind, firm, loving
gaze it vanished and was gone. A wave of colour swept over her face; her
eyes wavered, gave one imploring glance, and fell.

"Aren't you going to tell me, Susan D.?" asked Margaret once more.

"N--no!" said Susan D., in a whisper scarcely audible.

"No? And why not, dear child?"

"I promised!" whispered Susan D.

"Susan D., do you know anything about that strange noise that frightened
us so last night?"

But not another word would Susan D. say. She looked loving, imploring,
deprecating; she threw her arms around Margaret's neck, and hid her face
and clung to her; but no word could she be brought to say. At last
Margaret, displeased and puzzled, felt constrained to tell the child
rather sternly to fold her work and go away, and not come back to her
till she could answer questions properly. Susan went obediently; at the
door she hesitated, and Margaret heard a little sigh, which made her
heart go out in sympathy toward the little creature. Instantly she rose,
and, going to the child, put her arms round her affectionately.

"Darling, I think you are puzzled about something," she said, quickly.
Susan D. nodded, and clung close to her cousin's side.

"I will not ask you anything more," said Margaret. "I am going to trust
you, Susan D., not to do anything wrong. Remember, dear, that the two
most important things in the world are truth and kindness. Now kiss me,
dear, and go."

Left alone, Margaret sat for some time, puzzling over what had happened,
and wondering what would happen next. It was evident that the children
were concerned in some way, or at least had some knowledge, of the
mysterious sounds which had so alarmed Miss Sophronia. What ought she to
do? How far must she try to force confession from them, if it were her
duty to try; and how could she do it?

Thus pondering, she became aware of voices in the air; she sat near the
open window, and the voices were from above her. The nursery window! She
listened, bending nearer, and holding her breath.

"Well, if you back out now, Susan D., it will be mean!" Basil was
saying. "What did you say to her?"

"I didn't say anything!" Susan D. answered, sullenly.

"Why didn't you tell her that we had a pain, and didn't want to bother
her, 'cause she had company?" cried Merton, eagerly. "I had that all
fixed to tell her, only she never asked me."

"I wouldn't tell her a lie," said Susan D. "Basil, you wouldn't tell her
a lie, either, you know you wouldn't, when she looks at you that way,
straight at you, and you can't get your eyes away."

"Of course I wouldn't," said Basil. "And the reason she didn't ask you,
Merton, was because she knew it wouldn't make much difference what you
said. That's the trouble about you. But now, Susan, if you had only had
a little dipplo-macy, you could have got through all right, as I did."

"I don't know what you mean by dipplo-macy," retorted Susan.

"Ho, stupid!" sneered Merton.

"I don't believe you know what it means yourself!" cried Basil. "Come,
tell now, if you are so wise. What does it mean? Ah, I knew you didn't
know! You _are_ a sneak, Mert! Well, I guess in the beginning, when Adam
was making the words, you know, he must have wanted to hide from the
serpent or something--perhaps a hairy mammoth, or a megatherium, I
shouldn't wonder,--so he said, 'Dip low,' and then 'Massy!' for a kind
of exclamation, you see. And spelling gets changed a lot in the course
of time; you can see that just from one class to another in the grammar
school. Well, anyhow, it means a sort of getting round things, managing
them, without telling lies, or truth either."

"You've got to tell one or the other," objected Susan D.

"No, you haven't, either! Now, how did I manage? I have just kept out of
Cousin Margaret's way all day, so far, and I'm going to keep out the
rest of it. I've been helping Willis ever since breakfast, and he says I
really helped him a great deal, and I'll make a farmer yet; only I
won't, 'cause I'm going into the navy. And now pretty soon I'm going in,
in a tearing hurry, and ask her if I can take some lunch and go over to
see Mr. Merryweather at the bog, 'cause he is going to give me a lesson
in surveying. He _is_; he said he would, any time I came over. And so,
you see--"

"That's all very well," interrupted Merton, scornfully. "But when it
comes night, what'll you do then, I should like to know?"

"Easy enough. I shall have a headache, and she won't ask me questions
when I have a headache; she'll just sit and stroke my head, and put me
to sleep."

"Ho! How'll you get your headache? Have to tell a lie then, I guess."

"No, sir, I won't! And if you say that again, I'll bunt you up against
the wall. Easy enough to get a headache. I don't know whether I shall
eat hot doughnuts, or just ram my head against the horse-chestnut-tree
till it aches; but I'll get the headache, you may bet your boots--"

"Basil, she asked you not to say that, and you said you wouldn't."

"Well, I'm sorry; I didn't mean to. Pull out a hair, Susan D., and then
I shall remember next time. Ouch! You pulled out two."

"I say, come on!" cried Merton. "We've got lots of things to see to. We
have to--"

The voices were gone. Margaret sat still, sewing steadily, and working
many thoughts into her seam.

It might have been half an hour after this that Basil burst into the
room, breathless and beaming, his tow-colored hair standing on end. "Oh,
Cousin Margaret, can I--I mean may I, go over to the bog? Mr.
Merryweather said he would give me a lesson in surveying; and Frances is
going to put me up some luncheon, and I'm in a _norful_ hurry. May I go,
please?"

"Yes, Basil; you may go after you have answered me one question."

"Yes, Cousin Margaret," said the diplomat. "I may miss Mr. Merryweather
if I don't go pretty quick, but of course I will."

"Basil, did you make that strange noise last night?"

"No, Cousin Margaret!" cried the boy; the smile seemed to break from
every corner of his face at once, and his eyes looked straight truth
into hers. "I did not. Is that all? You said one question! Thank you
ever and ever so much! Good-bye!" And he was gone.

"It is quite evident that I am not a dipplo-mat," said Margaret, with a
laugh that ended in a sigh. "I wish Uncle John would come home!"



CHAPTER XIV.

BLACK SPIRITS AND WHITE.


The evening fell close and hot. Gerald Merryweather, taking his way to
Fernley House, noticed the great white thunder-heads peering above the
eastern horizon. "There'll be trouble by and by," he said.

        "I wonder, oh, I wonder,
         If they're afraid of thunder.

"Ever lapsing into immortal verse, my son. You are the Lost Pleiad of
Literature, that's what you are; and a mighty neat phrase that is. Oh,
my Philly, why aren't you here, to take notice of my coruscations? Full
many a squib is born to blaze unseen, and waste its fizzing--Hello, you,
sir! Stop a minute, will you?"

A small boy was scudding along the path before him. He turned his head,
but on seeing Gerald he only doubled his rate of speed. Merton was a
good runner for his size, but it was ill trying to race the Gambolling
Greyhound, as Gerald had been called at school. Two or three quick
steps, two or three long, lopping bounds, and Master Merton was caught,
clutched by the collar, and held aloft, wriggling and protesting.

"You let me go!" whined Merton. "Oh, please Mr. Merryweather, don't stop
me now. It's very important, indeed, it is."

"Just what I was thinking," said Gerald. "We'll go along together, my
son. I wouldn't squirm, if I were you; destructive to the collar;
believe one who has suffered. What! it is not so many years. Take
courage, small cat, and strive no more!"

Merton, after one heroic wriggle, gave up the battle, and walked beside
his captor in sullen silence.

"Come!" said Gerald. "Let us be merry, my son. As to that noise, now!"

"What noise?" asked Merton, peevishly.

"The roarer, my charmer. Why beat about the bush? You frightened the
old--that is, you alarmed both your cousins, with the joyful instrument
known among the profane as a roarer. Tush! Why attempt concealment? Have
I not roared, when time was? And a very pretty amusement, I could never
deny; but I wouldn't try it again, that's all. You hear, young sir? I
wouldn't try it again."

"I don't know what you mean--" Merton began; but at this Gerald lifted
him gently from the ground by his shirt-collar, and, waving him about,
intimated gently that it would not be good for his health to tell lies.

"Well, I didn't do it, anyhow!" Merton protested. "Honest, I did not."

"Honesty is not written in your expressive countenance, Master Merton
Montfort," said Gerald. "However, it may be so. We shall see. Meantime,
young fellow, and merely as between man and man, you understand, it
would be money in your youthful pocket if you could acquire the habit of
looking a person in the eyes, and not directing that cherubic gaze at
the waistcoat buttons, or even the necktie, of your in-ter-loc-utor.
Now, here we are at the house, and you may go, my interesting popinjay.
Bear in mind that my eye is upon you. Adieu! adieu! Rrrrrememberrrr
me!!!"

Gerald put such dramatic fervour into this farewell that Merton was as
heartily frightened as he could have desired, and scurried away without
stopping to look behind.

"That's not such a very nice little boy, I believe," said Gerald.
"T'other one is worth a cool dozen of Master Merton. Well, they won't do
much mischief while I am to the fore. Though I should be loth to
interfere with the end they probably have in view. I should like full
well myself to make that-- Ah, good evening, Miss Montfort!"

       *       *       *       *       *

It was so hot after tea, that even Miss Sophronia made no suggestion of
sitting in the house. They all assembled on the verandah, which faced
south, so that generally here, if anywhere, a breath of evening coolness
might be had. To-night, however, no such breath was to be felt. The
thunder-heads had crept up, up, half-way across the sky; their snowy
white had changed to blackish blue; and now and again, there opened
here or there what looked like a deep cavern, filled with lurid flame;
and then would follow a long, rolling murmur, dying away into faint
mutterings and losing itself among the treetops.

Miss Sophronia was very uneasy. At one moment she declared she must go
into the house, she could not endure this; the next she vowed she would
rather see the danger as it came, and she would never desert the others,
never.

"Do you think there is danger, my dear young man?" she asked, for
perhaps the tenth time.

"Why, no!" said Gerald. "No more than usual, Miss Montfort. These trees,
you see, are a great protection. If the lightning strikes one of them,
of course it will divert the fluid from the house. If you have no iron
about your person--"

But here Miss Sophronia interrupted him. She begged to be excused for a
moment, and went into the house. When she returned, her head was
enveloped in what looked like a "tidy" of purple wool, while her feet
were shuffling along in a pair of blue knitted slippers.

"There!" she said, "I have removed every atom of metal, my dear young
man, down to my hairpins, I assure you; and there were nails in my
shoes, Margaret. My dear, I advise you to follow my example. So
important, I always say, to obey the dictates of science. I shall always
consider it a special providence that sent this dear young man to us at
this trying time. Go at once, dearest Margaret, I implore you."

But Margaret refused to adopt any such measures of precaution. She was
enjoying the slow oncoming of the storm; she had seldom seen anything
more beautiful, she thought, and Gerald agreed with her. He was sitting
near her, and had taken Merton on his knee, to that young gentleman's
manifest discomposure. He wriggled now and then, and muttered some
excuse for getting down, but Gerald blandly assured him each time that
he was not inconveniencing him in the least, and begged him to make
himself comfortable, and entirely at home. Meantime, Margaret had
called Basil and Susan D. to her side, and was holding a hand of each,
calling upon them from time to time to see the wonderful beauty of the
approaching storm. They responded readily enough, and were really
interested and impressed. Once or twice, it is true, Basil stole a
glance at his sister, and generally found her looking at him in a
puzzled, inquiring fashion; then he would shake his head slightly, and
give himself up once more to watching the sky.

It was a very extraordinary sky. The clouds, now deep purple, covered it
almost from east to west; only low down in the west a band of angry
orange still lingered, and added to the sinister beauty of the scene.
The red caverns opened deeper and brighter, and now and again a long,
zigzag flash of gold stood out for an instant against the black, and
following it came crack upon crack of thunder, rolling and rumbling over
their heads. But still the air hung close and heavy, still there was no
breath of wind, no drop of rain.

Sitting thus, and for the moment silent, there came, in a pause of the
thunder, a new sound; a sound that some of them, at least, knew well.
Close at hand, rising apparently from the very wall at their side, came
the long, eerie wail of the night before. Louder and louder it swelled,
till it rang like a shriek in their ears, then suddenly it broke and
shuddered itself away, till only the ghost of a sound crept from their
ears, and was lost. Margaret and Gerald both sprang to their feet, the
girl held the children's hands fast in hers, the lad clutched the boy in
his arms till he whimpered and cried; their eyes met, full of inquiry,
the same thought flashing from blue eyes and gray. Not the children?
What, then? Before Gerald could speak, Miss Sophronia was clinging to
him again, shrieking and crying; calling upon him to save her; but this
time Gerald put her aside with little ceremony.

"If you'll take this boy!" he cried. "Hold him tight, please, and don't
let him get off. I'm going--if I may?" he looked swift inquiry at
Margaret.

"Oh, yes, yes!" cried the girl. "Do go! We are all right. Cousin
Sophronia, you _must_ let him go."

Dropping Merton into the affrighted lady's arms, the lithe, active youth
was in the house in an instant, following the Voice of Fernley. There it
came again, rising, rising,--the cry of a lost soul, the wail of a
repentant spirit.

"A roarer, by all means!" said young Merryweather. "But where, and by
whom?" He ran from side to side, laying his ear against the wall here,
there, following the sound. Suddenly he stopped short, like a dog
pointing. Here, in this thickness of the wall, was it? Then, there must
be a recess, a something. What corresponded to this jog? Ha! that little
low door, almost hidden by the great picture of the boar-hunt. Locked?
No; only sticking, from not having been opened, perhaps, for years. It
yielded. He rushed in,--the door closed behind him with a spring. He
found himself in total darkness,--darkness filled with a hideous cry,
that rang out sharp and piercing,--then fell into sudden silence.

"Is it you, Master Merton?" said a whisper. "I didn't wait; I thought
maybe--"

Gerald stretched out his arm, and grasped a solid form. Instantly he was
grasped in return by a pair of strong arms,--grasped and held with as
powerful a grip as his own. A full minute passed, two creatures
clutching each other in the pit-dark, listening to each other's
breathing, counting each other's heart-beats. Then--

"Who are you?" asked Gerald, under his breath.

"None of your business!" was the reply, low, but prompt. "Who are you,
if it comes to that?"

"Why,--why, you're a woman!"

"And you're a man, and that's worse. What are you doing here?"

"I am taking tea here. I'm a visitor. I have been here all the evening."

"And I've been here twenty years. I'm the cook."

The young man loosed his hold, and dropped on the floor. He rocked back
and forth, in silent convulsions of laughter.

"The cook! Great Cæsar, the cook! Oh, dear me! Stop me, somebody.
What--what did you do it for?" he gasped, between the paroxysms.

"Hush! Young Mr. Merryweather, is it? Do be quiet, sir! We're close by
the verandah. Was--was she frightened, sir?"

"She? Who? One of 'em was."

"She--the old one. I wouldn't frighten Miss Margaret; but she has too
much sense. Was the other one scared, sir?"

"Into fits, very near. You did it well, Mrs. Cook! I couldn't have done
it better,--look here! I shall have to tell them, though. I came
expressly to find out--"

Groping in the dark, Frances clutched his arm again, this time in a
gentler grasp. "Don't you do it, sir!" she whispered. "Young gentleman,
don't you do it! If you do, she'll stay here all her days. No one can't
stand her, sir, and this were the only way. Hark! Save us! What's that?"

No glimmer of light could penetrate to the closet where they stood, in
the thickness of the wall, but a tremendous peal of thunder shook the
house, and Miss Sophronia's voice could be heard calling frantically on
Gerald to come back.

"I must go," said Gerald. "I--I won't give you away, Mrs. Cook. Shake!"

"You're a gentleman, sir," replied Frances. They shook hands in the
dark, and Gerald ran out. Even as he opened the door the storm broke. A
violent blast of wind, a blinding flare, a rattling volley of thunder,
and down came the rain.

A rush, a roar, the trampling of a thousand horses; and overhead the
great guns bellowing, and the flashes coming and going--it was a wild
scene. The family had come in, and were all standing in the front hall.
All? No, two, only,--Margaret and Miss Sophronia. In the confusion and
tumult, the children had escaped, and were gone. Margaret, a little
pale, but perfectly composed, met Gerald with a smile, as if it were the
most ordinary thing in the world for young gentlemen to walk out of the
wall. She was supporting Miss Sophronia, who had quite lost her head,
and was crying piteously that they would die together, and that whoever
escaped must take her watch and chain back to William. "Poor William,
what will become of him and those helpless babes?"

"It's all right, Miss Montfort," said Gerald, cheerfully. "I ran the
noise down, and it was the simplest thing in the world. Nothing to be
alarmed about, I do assure you; nothing."

"What was it?" asked Margaret, in an undertone.

"I'll tell you by and by," replied the young man, in the same tone. "Not
now, please; I promised--somebody. You shall know all in good time."

His look of bright confidence was not to be resisted. Margaret nodded
cheerfully, and submitted to be mystified in her own home by an almost
total stranger. Indeed, the Voice of Fernley had suddenly sunk into
insignificance beside the Voice of Nature. The turmoil outside grew more
and more furious. At length a frightful crash announced that the
lightning had struck somewhere very near the house. This was the last
straw for poor Miss Sophronia. She fled up-stairs, imploring Gerald and
Margaret to follow her. "Let us die together!" she cried. "I am
responsible for your young lives; we will pass away in one embrace. The
long closet, Margaret! It is our only chance of life,--the long closet!"

The long closet, as it was called, was in reality a long enclosed
passage, leading from the Blue Room, where Miss Sophronia slept, to one
of the spare chambers beyond. It was a dim place, lighted only by a
transom above the door. Here were kept various ancient family relics
which would not bear the light of day; a few rusty pictures, some
ancient hats, and, notably, a bust of some deceased Montfort, which
stood on a shelf, covered with a white sheet, like a half-length ghost.
Margaret did not think this gloomy place at all a cheerful place for a
nervous woman in a thunder-storm; so, nodding to Gerald to follow, she
ran up-stairs. But before she reached the landing, terrific shrieks
began to issue from the upper floor; shrieks so agonising, so
ear-piercing, that they dominated even the clamour of the storm.
Margaret flew, and Gerald flew after. What new portent was here?
Breathless, Margaret reached the door of the long closet. It stood open.
On the floor inside crouched Miss Sophronia, uttering the frantic
screams which rang through the house. Apparently she had lost the use of
her limbs from terror, else she would not have remained motionless
before the figure which was advancing towards her from the gloom of the
long passage. First a dusky whiteness glimmered from the black of the
further end, where the half-ghost sat on its shelf; then gradually the
whiteness detached itself, took shape,--if it could be called
shape,--emerged into the dim half-light,--came on slowly, silently.
Shrouded, like the ghostly bust behind it, tall and slender, with dark
locks escaping beneath the hood or cowl that drooped low over its
face,--with one hand raised, and pointing stiffly at the unhappy
woman,--the figure came on--and on--till it saw Margaret. Then it
stopped. Next came in view the bright, eager face of Gerald
Merryweather, looking over Margaret's shoulder. And at that, the
spectre began, very slowly, and with ineffable dignity, to retreat.

"Exclusive party," whispered Gerald. "Objects to our society, Miss
Montfort. Shall I head him off, or let him go?"

Margaret made no reply; she was bending over the poor lady on the floor,
trying to make her hear, trying to check the screams which still rang
out with piercing force.

[Illustration: A LIVELY GHOST.]

"Cousin Sophronia! Cousin, do stop! Do listen to me! It is a trick, a
naughty, naughty trick; nothing else in the world. Do, please, stop
screaming, and listen to me. Oh, what shall I do with her?" This remark
was addressed to Gerald; but that young gentleman was no longer beside
her. He had been keeping his eye on the spectre, which slowly, softly
glided back and back, until it melted once more into the thick blackness
at the further end. Gerald dodged out into the hall, and ran along the
outer passage, to meet, as he expected, the ghost full and fair at the
other door. "Run!" cried a small voice. "I'll hold him; run!" Gerald was
grasped once more, this time by a pair of valiant little hands which
did their best, and which he put aside very gently, seeing a petticoat
beneath them. "You sha'n't catch him!" cried the second spectre,
clinging stoutly to his legs.

        "Twice he wrung her hands in twain,
         But the small hands closed again!"

Meantime the spectre-in-chief had darted back into the closed passage.
There was a crash. The half-ghost toppled over as he ran against it, and
was shivered on the floor, adding another noise to the confusion. The
phantom raced along the passage, took a flying leap over Miss
Sophronia's prostrate form, revealing, had any looked, an unsuspected
blackness of leg beneath the flowing white, and scudded along the square
upper hall. By this time Gerald was at his heels again, and a pretty
race it was. Round the hall, up the stairs, and round the landing of the
attic flight. At the attic door the spectre wavered an instant,--then
turned, and dashed down-stairs again. Once more round the upper hall,
now down the great front staircase, gathering his skirts as he went,
the black legs now in good evidence, and making wonderful play. A good
runner, surely. But the Greyhound was gaining; he was upon him. The
phantom gave a wild shriek, gained the front door with one desperate
leap, and plunged, followed by his pursuer, into the arms of a gentleman
who stood in the doorway, in the act of entering.

"Easy, there!" said Mr. Montfort, receiving pursuer and pursued with
impartial calm. "Is it the Day of Judgment, or what?"



CHAPTER XV.

A DEPARTURE.


"I am extremely sorry, Sophronia, that you were so alarmed last night. I
trust you feel no ill effects this morning?"

"Ill effects! My dear John, I am a wreck! Simply a wreck, mentally and
physically. I shall never recover from it--never."

"Oh, don't say that, Cousin Sophronia!" exclaimed Margaret, who was
really much distressed at all that passed.

"My love, if it is the truth, I must say it. Truth, Margaret, is what I
live for. No, I shall never recover, I feel it. My prayer is that these
unhappy children may never know that they are the cause of my
untimely--"

"Has Basil made his apology?" asked Mr. Montfort, abruptly.

"Yes, John, yes; I am bound to say he has, though he showed little
feeling in it. Not a tenth part so much as little Merton, who was in
real sorrow,--actually shed tears,--although he had no hand in the cruel
deceit. Ah! Merton is the only one of those children who has any heart."

"Indeed?" said Mr. Montfort, "I didn't know it was as bad as that."

"Quite, I assure you, dearest John. If it were not for my poor William
and his children, I should take Merton with me and be a mother to him.
His nerves, like mine, are shattered by the terrible occurrences of the
last two nights. He was positively hysterical as he pointed out to
me--what I had already pointed out to you, Margaret--that the _real
thing_ had not been explained. I might, in time, live down the effect of
those children's wicked jest; but the Voice of Fernley has never been
explained, and never will be."

Mr. Montfort pulled his moustache, and looked out of the window,
observing the prospect; but Margaret cried:

"Oh, Cousin Sophronia, you are wrong; indeed, indeed you are! Young Mr.
Merryweather found out all about it last night, only he had not time to
tell us. He said it was something perfectly simple, and that there was
no need of being alarmed in the least."

"By the way," said Mr. Montfort, "I have a note from the lad this
morning. He found some special tools were needed, and went up to town by
the early train to see about them. May be gone a day or two, he says.
What was the noise like, Margaret?"

Margaret was about to tell all she knew, but Miss Sophronia interrupted.
"Spare me, dearest Margaret, spare me the recalling of details. I am
still too utterly broken,--I shall faint, I know I shall. John, it was
simply the voice that was heard ten, or it may be fifteen years ago,
when I was a young girl. You must remember; it is impossible but that
you must remember."

"I remember perfectly," said Mr. Montfort. "That was thirty years ago,
Sophronia; that was in 1866. Oh, yes, I remember." Again Mr. Montfort
became absorbed in the view from the window. His face was very grave;
why, then, did the buttons on his waistcoat shake? "And Master Merton
was frightened, was he?" he resumed, presently. "Ha! that looks bad.
Good morning, Jones," as a respectable-looking man in livery came up the
gravel walk. "A note for me? no answer? thanks." The man touched his
hat, and departed; Mr. Montfort opened the pretty, pearl-coloured note,
and read, as follows:

        "DEAR JOHN:

        "Don't punish the children; it was partly my
        fault, and partly your own. I supposed you
        expected something to happen, and I thought the
        old trick would serve as well as a new one.

                                    "As ever,
                                           E. P."

"Humph!" said Mr. Montfort, twisting the note, and frowning at the
window. "Precisely! and so, you were saying, Sophronia--ahem! that is,
you are obliged to leave us?"

"Yes, my dearest John, I must go. I could not, no! I could not sleep
another night beneath this roof. I have told Willis. I am cut to the
heart at leaving you, so helpless, with only this poor child here, and
those--those dreadful children of Anthony's. I would so gladly have
made a home for you, my poor cousin. I live only for others; but still
it seems my duty _to_ live, and I am convinced that another night here
would be my death."

"I will not attempt to change your purpose, Sophronia. At the same time
I am bound to tell you that--a--that the disturbance of which you speak
is of no supernatural kind, but is attributable to--to human agency
altogether. If you wish, I will have it looked into at once, or we can
wait till young Merryweather comes back. He seemed to know about it, you
say, Margaret. And--but at any rate, Sophronia, we can write you the
sequel, and, if you feel uneasy, why, as you say-- You have ordered
Willis? Then I'll go and get some tags for your trunks."

Mr. Montfort retired with some alacrity, and Margaret, with an
unexplained feeling of guilt at her heart, offered to help Miss
Sophronia with her packing.

An hour later the lady was making her adieux. The carriage was at the
door, Willis had strapped on the two trunks, and all was ready. Mr.
Montfort shook his cousin by the hand, and was sorry that her visit had
ended in such an untoward manner. Margaret begged Cousin Sophronia's
pardon for anything she might have done amiss. Indeed, the girl's heart
was full of a vague remorse. She had tried, but she felt that she might
have tried harder to make things go smoothly. But Miss Sophronia bore,
she declared, no malice to any one.

"I came, dear John, determined to do my best, to be a sister to you in
every way; it will always be a comfort to think that I have been with
you these two months. It may be that some time, when my nerves are
restored, I may be able to come to Fernley again; if you should make any
changes, you understand me. Indeed, a complete change, my dear cousin,
is the thing I should most recommend. Missing me as you will,--a
companion of your own age,--you might still marry, dearest John, you
might indeed. Emily--"

"That will do, Sophronia!" said Mr. Montfort, sternly. "Have you
everything you want for the journey?"

"Everything, I think, dear John. Ah! well, good-bye, Margaret! It has
been a blow to find that you do not love me, my dear, as I have loved
you, but we must bear our burdens."

"What do you--what can you mean, Cousin Sophronia?" asked Margaret,
turning crimson. "I am sure I have tried--"

"Ah! well, my dear, one gives oneself away," said the lady. "You said in
your letter to your cousin,--I recall the precise words--'I have tried
to love her, but I cannot succeed.' Yes; very painful to one who has a
heart like mine; but I find so few--"

"Cousin Sophronia," cried the girl, all softer thoughts now merged in a
burning resentment. "You--you read my letter, the letter that was on my
own desk, in my own room?"

"Certainly, my love, I did. I hope I know something about young girls
and their ways; I considered it my duty, my sacred duty, to see what you
wrote."

"You seem to know little about the ways of gentle people!" cried
Margaret, unable for once to restrain herself. Her uncle laid his hand
on her arm. "Steady, little woman!" he said. His quiet, warning voice
brought the angry girl to herself, the more quickly that she knew his
sympathy was all with her.

"I--I should not have said that, Cousin Sophronia," she said. "I beg
your pardon! Good-bye!"

She could not say more; she stood still, with burning cheeks, while Mr.
Montfort helped the lady into the carriage.

"A pleasant journey to you, Sophronia," he said, as he closed the door.
"Willis--"

"Good-bye!" cried Miss Sophronia, out of the window. "Bless you, dearest
John! Margaret, my love, I shall always think of you most tenderly,
believe me, in spite of everything. It is impossible for me to harbour
resentment. No, my child, I shall always love you as a sister. I have
taken the old vinaigrette with me, as a little souvenir of you; I knew
it would give you pleasure to have me use it. Bless you! And, John, if
you want me to look up some good servants for you, I know of an
excellent woman who would be the very thing--"

"Willis!" said Mr. Montfort again. "You'll miss that train, Sophronia,
if you don't,--_bon voyage!_"

Mr. Montfort stood for some seconds looking after the carriage as it
drove off; then he drew a long breath, and threw out his arms, opening
his broad chest.

"Ha!" said he. "So that is over. Here endeth the-- What, crying, May
Margaret? Come and sit here beside me, child; or shall we come out and
see the roses? Really astonishing to have this number of roses in
August; but some of these late kinds are very fine, I think."

Chatting quietly and cheerfully, he moved from one shrub to another,
while Margaret wiped her eyes, and gradually quieted her troubled
spirit.

"Thank you, Uncle John!" she said, presently. "You know, don't you? You
always know, just as papa did. But--but I never heard of any one's doing
such a thing, did you?"

"Didn't you, my dear? Well, you see, you didn't know your Cousin
Sophronia when she was a girl. And--let us be just," he added. "You,
belonging to the new order, have no idea of what many people thought and
did forty years ago. I have no doubt, from my recollection of my Aunt
Melissa, Sophronia's mother, that she read all her children's letters. I
know she searched my pockets once, thinking I had stolen sugar; I
hadn't, that time, and my white rat was in my pocket, and bit her, and I
was glad."

Seeing Margaret laugh again, Mr. Montfort added, in a different tone,
"And now, I must see those boys."

The children were sent for to the study, where they remained for some
time. Basil and Susan D. came out looking very grave; they went up to
the nursery in silence, and sat on the sofa, rubbing their heads
together, and now and then exchanging a murmur of sympathy and
understanding. Merton remained after the others, and when he emerged
from the fatal door, he was weeping profusely, and refused to be
comforted by Elizabeth; and was found an hour after, pinching Chico's
tail, and getting bitten in return. Telling Margaret about it
afterward, Mr. Montfort said:

"Basil and the little girl tell a perfectly straight story. It is just
as I supposed; they were trying the old ghost trick that we other boys,
your father and Richard and I, Margaret, played on Sophronia years ago.
If the thunder-storm had not brought you all up-stairs, there would have
been some very pretty ghost-gliding, and the poor soul would very likely
have been frightened into a real fit instead of an imaginary one.
Children don't realise that sort of thing; I certainly did not, nor my
brothers; but I think these two realise it now, and they are not likely
to try anything of the kind again. As for the noise,--"

"Yes, Uncle John, I am really much more puzzled about that noise, for,
of course, I saw the other foolishness with my eyes."

"Well!" said Mr. Montfort, comfortably, "we used to make that noise with
a thing we called a roarer; I don't know whether they have such things
now. You take a tomato-can, and put a string through it, and then you--
It really does make a fine noise, very much what you describe. Yes, I
have that on my conscience, too, Margaret. You see, I told you I knew
this kind of child, and so I do, and for good reason. But Basil won't
say anything at all about the matter. He says it was not his hunt, and
he will tell all that he did, but cannot tell on others; which is
entirely proper. But when I turned to that other little scamp, Merton, I
could get nothing but floods of tears, and entreaties that I would ask
Frances. 'Frances knows all about it!' he said, over and over."

"And have you seen Frances?"

"N--no," replied Mr. Montfort, rather slowly. "I am going to see Frances
now."

Accordingly, a few minutes later, Frances, bustling about her kitchen,
became aware of her master standing in the doorway. She became aware of
him, I say, but it was with "the tail of her eye" only; she took no
notice of him, and went on rattling dish-pans at an alarming rate. She
appeared to be house-cleaning; at all events, the usually neat kitchen
was in a state of upheaval, and the chairs and tables, tubs and
clothes-horses, were so disposed that it was next to impossible for any
one to enter. Moreover, Frances apparently had a toothache, for her face
was tied up in a fiery red handkerchief; and when Mr. Montfort saw that
handkerchief, he looked grave, and hung about the door more like a
schoolboy than a dignified gentleman and the proprietor of Fernley
House.

"Good morning, Frances," he said at length, in a conciliatory tone.

"Good morning, sir," said Frances; and plunged her mop into a pail of
hot water.

"You have a toothache, Frances? I am very sorry."

"Yes, sir, I have; thank you, sir."

"A--Frances--I came to ask if you can tell me anything about the strange
noise that frightened the ladies so, last night and the night before."

"No, sir," said Frances. "I can't tell you nothing about it. There do be
rats enough in this house, Mr. Montfort, to make any kind of a noise;
and I do wish, sir, as the next time you are in town, you would get me a
rat-trap as is good for something. There's nothing but trash, as the
rats won't look at, and small blame to them. I can't be expected to do
without things to do with, Mr. Montfort, and I was saying so to
Elizabeth only this morning."

"I will see to the traps, Frances. But this noise that I am speaking of;
Master Merton says--"

"And I was wishful to ask you, sir, if you would please tell Master
Merton to keep out of my kitchen, and not come bothering here every hour
in the day. The child is that greedy, he do eat himself mostly ill every
day, sir, as his father would be uneasy if he knew it, sir. And to have
folks hanging round my kitchen when I am busy is a thing I never could
abide, Mr. John, as you know very well, sir, and I hope you'll excuse me
for speaking out; and if you'd go along, sir, and be so kind, maybe I
could get through my cleaning so as to have dinner not above half an
hour or so late, though I'm doubtful myself, harried as I have been."

"I really don't see what I am to do with Frances," said Mr. Montfort, as
he went back to his study; "she grows more and more impracticable. She
will be giving me notice to quit one of these days, if I don't mind. I
am very sure the house belongs to her, and not to me. But, until Master
Gerald Merryweather comes back, I really don't see how I am to find out
who worked that roarer."



CHAPTER XVI.

PEACE.


Peace reigned once more at Fernley House; peace and cheerfulness, and
much joy. It was not the same peace as of old, when Margaret and her
uncle lived their quiet tête-à-tête life, and nothing came to break the
even calm of the days. Very different was the life of to-day. The peace
was spiritual purely, for the lively and varied round of daily life gave
little time for repose and meditation, at least for Margaret. She had
begun to give the children short but regular lessons in the morning,
finding that the day was not only more profitable but pleasanter for
them and for all, if it began with a little study. And the lessons were
a delight to her. Remembering her struggles with Peggy,--dear Peggy,--it
was a joy to teach these young creatures the beginnings of her beloved
English history, and to see how they leaped at it, even as she herself
had leaped so few years ago. They carried it about with them all day.
Margaret never knew whom to expect to dinner in these days. Now a
scowling potentate would stalk in with folded arms and announce that he
was William the Conqueror, and demand the whereabouts of Hereward the
Wake (who was pretty sure to emerge from under the table, and engage in
sanguinary combat, just after he had brushed his hair, and have to be
sent up to the nursery to brush it over again); now a breathless pair
would rush in, crying that they were the Princes in the Tower, and would
she please save them, for that horrid old beast of a Gloster was coming
after them just as fast as he could come. Indeed, Margaret had to make a
rule that they should be their own selves, and no one else, in the
evening when Uncle John came home, for fear of more confusion than he
would like.

"But I get so _used_ to being Richard," cried Basil, after a day of
crusader-life. "You can't do a king well if you have to keep stopping
and being a boy half the time. Don't you see that yourself, Cousin
Margaret?"

Yes, Margaret saw that, but she submitted that she liked boys, and that
it was trying for a person in private life, like herself, to live all
day in royal society, especially when royalty was so excited as the
Majesty of England was at this juncture.

"Oh, but why can't you be some one too, Cousin Margaret? I suppose Susan
D. would hate to give up being Berengaria, after you gave her that
lovely gold veil--I say, doesn't she look bul--doesn't she look pretty
in it? I never thought Susan D. would come out pretty, but it's mostly
the way you do her hair--what was I saying, Cousin Margaret? Oh, yes,
but there are other people you could be, lots and lots of them.
And--Merton doesn't half do Saladin. He keeps getting mad when I run him
through the body, and I _can't_ make him understand that I don't mean
those nasty, fat, black things in ponds, when I call him 'learned
leech,' and you know he _has_ to be the leech, it says so in the
'Talisman.' And so perhaps you would be Saladin, and he can be Sir
Kenneth, though he's too sneaky for him, too. Or else you could be the
hermit, Cousin Margaret. Oh, do be the hermit! Theodoric of Engedi, you
know, the Flail of the Desert, that's a splendid one to do. All you have
to do is keep jumping about and waving something, and crying out, 'I am
Theodoric of Engedi! I am the Flail of the Desert!' Come on, Cousin
Margaret, oh, I say, do!" And Susan D., tugging at her cousin's gown,
shouted in unison, "Oh, I say, do, Cousin Margaret!"

If any one had told Margaret Montfort, three months before this, that
she would, before the end of the summer, be capering about the garden,
waving her staff, and proclaiming herself aloud to be the highly
theatrical personage described above, she would have opened her eyes in
gentle and rather scornful amazement. But Margaret was learning many
things in these days, and among them the art of being a child. Her life
had been mostly spent with older people; she had never known till now
the rapture of being a little girl, a little boy. Now, seeing it in
these bright faces, that never failed to grow brighter at sight of her,
she felt the joy reflected in her own face, in her own heart; and it was
good to let all the quiet, contained maiden ways go, once in a while,
and just be a child with the children, or a Flail of the Desert, as in
the present instance.

John Montfort, leaning on the gate, watched the pretty play, well
pleased. "They have done her all the good in the world," he said to
himself. "It isn't only what she has done for them, bless her, but for
her, too, it has been a great thing. I was selfish and stupid to think
that a young creature could go on growing to fulness, without other
young creatures about it. How will she feel, I wonder, about their
going? How would she like--"

[Illustration: "THE 'FLAIL OF THE DESERT.'"]

At this moment he was discovered by Basil, who charged him with a joyous
shout. "Oh, here is Uncle John! Oh, Uncle John, don't you want to be
Saladin, please? Here's Merton has hurt his leg and gone off in a sulk,
and I'll get you a scimitar in a minute--it's the old sickle, and Willis
says it's so rusty you can't really do much mischief with it; and
here's the Hermit of Engedi, you know, and he can shout--"

But, alas, for the Lion-hearted! When he turned to summon his hermit, he
saw no flying figure, brandishing a walking-stick and crying aloud, but
a demure young lady, smoothing her hair hurriedly and shaking out the
folds of her dress, as she hastened to meet her uncle.

"Bravo!" said Uncle John. "But why did you stop, Meg? It wouldn't have
been the first time I had played Saladin, I assure you!"

"Oh, uncle! I am really too much out of breath to play any more. And
besides, it is near tea-time, and the children must go and get ready. I
will come in a moment, Susan dear, and do your hair. Are there any
letters, Uncle John? Oh, two, from the girls; how perfectly delightful!
Oh, I must run up, but we'll read them after tea, shall we, Uncle John?"

"With all my heart, my dear; and I have a letter, too, about which I
shall want to consult you. Go now, or Susan D. will be trying to braid
her own hair, a thing to be avoided, I have observed."

Tea over, and Mr. Montfort seated at ease with his cigar, the children
engaged in an enchanting game of Bat (played with worn-out umbrellas,
from which the sticks had been taken: this game is to be highly
recommended where there is space for flapping and swooping), Margaret
opened her letters; reopened them, rather, for it must be confessed that
she had peeped into both while she was braiding her own hair and
changing her dress for the pretty evening gown her uncle always liked to
see.

"Peggy is actually off for school, Uncle John. It does not seem possible
that we are in September, and the summer really gone. She seems in high
spirits over it, dear child. Listen!

        "DARLING DEAREST MARGARET:

        "I am going to-morrow; I waited till the last
        minute, so that I could tell you the last of
        me. My trunk is almost all packed, and I really
        think I have done it pretty well. Thank you,
        ever and ever and ever so much, for the nice
        things to tie up my shoes in. They are just
        lovely, and so is the shoe-bag to hang against
        the wall. I mean to put away every shoe just
        the very minute I take it off, and not have
        them kicking about the closet floor at all,
        ever. And the combing-sack! Oh, Margaret, it is
        a perfect beauty! Ever so much too pretty to do
        my hair in, and mother says so, too, but I
        shall, because you made it for me to, and think
        of you all the time I am, and--

        "I got a little mixed there, but you will know
        what I mean, dearest Margaret. Tell Uncle John
        I am so perfectly delighted with the lovely
        ring, I don't know _what_ to _do_. Oh,
        Margaret, you know how I always wanted a ring,
        and how I used to admire that sapphire of
        Rita's; and to think of having a sapphire ring
        myself--why, I can hardly believe it even now!
        I couldn't go to sleep for ever so long last
        night, just watching it in the moonlight. Of
        course I shall write to Uncle John and thank
        him myself, but I couldn't wait just to let him
        know how happy I was. (Margaret, if you think
        he would like it, or at least wouldn't mind it,
        you might give him a hug just now and say I
        sent it, but don't unless you are _perfectly
        sure_ he wouldn't mind, because you know how I
        _love_ Uncle John, even if I am just the least
        bit afraid of him, and I'm sure that is natural
        when you think what a goose I am.)"

Margaret paused, laughing, to throw her arms around her uncle, and tell
him that this was "Peggy's hug;" then she went on:

        "I was so glad to get your last letter, and to
        hear all about dear, darling Fernley, and Uncle
        John, and Elizabeth and Frances, and all the
        funny things those funny children have been
        doing. Margaret, they are almost exactly like
        us children when we were their age. I never
        began to think about growing up till I read
        about how they carry on, and then saw that we
        didn't act so any more, Jean, and Flora, and I.
        Jean is younger than me, of course, but she's
        more grown up, I really think. I think you must
        have a lovely time, now that--well, you said I
        mustn't call names, and so I won't, but I know
        just exactly what kind of a person she was,
        Margaret, and _so do you_, and you can't deny
        it, so now!

        "Margaret, of course I do feel rather scared
        about school, for I am still very ignorant, and
        I suppose all the girls will know about forty
        thousand times as much as I do, and they will
        call me stupid, and I know I am; but I mean to
        be brave, and remember all the things you have
        said, and mother has helped me, too, oh, a lot,
        and she says she just wishes she had had the
        chance when she was a girl, and I know now just
        how she feels. And then when I come home, you
        see, I can teach the little girls, and that
        will be great. But I never shall try to teach
        them spelling, or history, for you know I
        cannot; and I cannot remember to this day who
        Thomas à Bucket was, and why they called him
        that.

        "Hugh came in just now, and I asked him that,
        and he laughed, and said Thomas à Bucket was
        certainly pale before they got through with
        him. I don't know what he means, but he says
        you will, so I write it down. Good-bye,
        dearest, darling Margaret. Give heaps and
        oceans and lots of love to Uncle John, and most
        of all to your own darling self, from

                                            "PEGGY."

"I wonder how Peggy will get on at school?" said Margaret. "Very well, I
should think. Certainly no one can help liking her, dear girl; and she
will learn a great deal, I am sure."

"She'll never learn English history," said Mr. Montfort; "but after all,
there are other things, May Margaret, though you are loth to acknowledge
it."

"And now for Rita. I'll just run through it again, Uncle John, to
see--oh! oh, yes! The first part is all just that she wants to see me,
and so on,--her wild way. She has had the most wonderful summer,--'the
Pyrenees, Margaret! Never before have I seen great mountains, that scale
the heavens, you understand. The Titans are explained to me. I have
seen, and my soul has arisen to their height. I could dwell with thee,
Marguerite, on snow-peaks tinged with morning rose, peaks that touch the
stars, that veil themselves in clouds of evening;' perhaps I'll skip a
little here, Uncle John. Interlaken,--the Jungfrau,--oh, she _is_ having
a glorious time. Oh! oh, dear me, uncle!"

"Well, my dear? She has not fallen off the Jungfrau?"

"No, not that; but she--she is--or she thinks she is--going to be
married."

Mr. Montfort whistled. "To the Matterhorn, or to some promising young
avalanche? Pray enlighten me, my dear."

"Oh! don't laugh, Uncle John, I am afraid it may be serious. A young
Cuban, she says, a soldier, of course." Margaret ran her eyes down the
page, but found nothing sober enough to read aloud. "He seems to be a
very wonderful person," she said, timidly. "Handsome, and a miracle of
courage,--and a military genius; if war should come, Rita thinks he will
be commander-in-chief of the Cuban army. You don't think it will really
come to war, Uncle John?"

"I cannot tell, Margaret," said Mr. Montfort, gravely. "Things are
looking rather serious, but no one can see just what is coming yet. And
this seems to be a bona fide engagement? It isn't little Fernando, is
it?"

"No! oh, no! She says--she is sorry for Fernando, but he will always be
her brother. This one's name is--let me see. José Maria Salvador
Santillo de Santayana. What a magnificent name! He had followed her from
Cuba, and he has Uncle Richard's permission to pay his addresses to
Rita, and she says--she says he is the dream of her life, embodied in
the form of a Greek hero, with the soul of a poet, and the intellect of
a Shakespeare. So I suppose it is all right, uncle; only, she is very
young."

"Young! My dear child, she was grown up while you were still in the
nursery," said Mr. Montfort. "According to Spanish ideas, it is high
time for her to be married, and I am sure I wish the dear girl all
happiness. We must look over the family trinkets, Margaret, and find
something for our bird of Paradise. There are some pretty bits of
jewelry; but that will keep. Now, if you can stop wondering and
romancing for a moment, May Margaret, I, too, have a letter, about which
I wish to consult you."

"Yes, uncle, oh, yes! I hope he is good as well as handsome, don't you?
She says the Santillo nose is the marvel of all Cuba."

"The Santillo nose may be pickled in brine, my dear, for ought I care; I
really want your attention, Margaret, and you must come down from the
clouds. Here is Anthony Montfort writing for his children."

"_What!_" cried Margaret, waking suddenly from her dream. "What did you
say about the children, Uncle John? Cousin Anthony writing for them?
What can you mean?"

"Why, my love, I mean writing for them," said Mr. Montfort, calmly. "He
is, you may remember, a relation of theirs, a father in point of fact.
He has found an excellent opening in California, and means to stay
there. He says--I'll read you his letter, or the part of it that relates
to the children. Hum--'grateful to you'--ha! yes, here it is. 'Of
course I must make some arrangement about the children. One of the boys
can come to me, but I cannot take care of both, so Basil will have to go
to boarding-school, and Susan D., too. If you would be so good as to
look up a good school or two, I should be ever so much obliged. Basil
can take care of himself, you'll only have to consign and ship him;
perhaps you can get some one to go with the little girl, and see to her
things and all that. It's a shame to call upon you,'--h'm! so forth!
Well, Meg, what do you say?"

But Margaret said nothing. She was sitting with her hands fallen on her
lap, gazing at her uncle with a face of such piteous consternation that
he had much ado to keep his countenance.

"Take them away!" she faltered, presently. "Take away--my children? Oh,
Uncle John!"

Mr. Montfort looked away, and smoked awhile in silence, giving the girl
time to collect herself. Margaret struggled with the tears that wanted
to rush to her eyes. She forced herself to take up the letters that lay
in her lap and fold them methodically. When he saw that her hands
trembled less, Mr. Montfort said, quietly, "The children have been a
great deal of care to you, Margaret; but you have grown fond of them, I
know, and so have I. I think a good deal of your judgment, my dear,
young as you are. What would you like best to have done about the little
people? Take time; take time! Anthony practically leaves the whole
matter in my hands. In fact, I think he is puzzled, and feels perhaps
that he has not done as well as he might for them always. Take time, my
child."

"Oh, I don't need any time, Uncle John!" cried Margaret, trying to speak
steadily. "I--I didn't realise, I suppose--it has all come about so
gradually--I didn't realise all that they were to me. To lose Basil and
Susan D.,--I don't see how I can let them go, uncle; I don't indeed. You
won't think me ungrateful, will you, dear? I was, oh, so happy, before
they came; but now--they are so dear, so dear! and--and Susan D. is
used to me, and to have her go to a stranger who might not understand
the poor little shut-up nature--oh, how can I bear it? how can I bear
it?"

"Well, my dear," said Mr. Montfort, comfortably. "How if you did not
have to bear it?"

Then, as Margaret raised her startled eyes to his, he went on, in the
kind, steady tone that always brought quiet and peace with it.

"How if we made the present arrangement--part of it, at
least--permanent? Let Merton go to his father; I should not care to have
the bringing up of Merton. But there is an excellent school near here,
on the island, to which Basil could go, staying the week and coming home
here for Sunday; and if little Susan would not be too much care for
you,--she's a dear little girl, once you get through the prickles,--why,
May Margaret, it seems to me--"

But Mr. Montfort got no further; for here was Margaret sobbing on his
breast as if she were Rita herself, and calling him the best and
dearest and kindest, and telling him that she was so happy, so happy;
and that was why she was crying, only she could not stop; and so on and
so on, till Uncle John really thought he should have to send for
Frances. At his suggesting this, however, Margaret laughed through her
tears, and presently struggled into something like composure.

"And, after all," said Mr. Montfort, "how do you know the children will
want to stay with you, you conceited young woman?"

"Oh, Uncle John! I will teach Susan D. all I know, and a great deal
more, I hope, for I shall be learning all the time now, if I have
another coming after me. And we will keep house together, and it will be
like the little sister, like little Penelope, Uncle John. And then to
have Basil coming home every week, all full of school, and fun, and
noise,--why, how perfectly delightful it will be! And I will not let
them overrun you, dear uncle; they have been good lately, haven't
they?"

"They have been extremely good, my dear. All the same, I think you would
do well to interview them on the subject, before you prepare all your
chickens for the market. See, there are your two coming up the walk this
moment. You might go--"

But Margaret was already gone. Mr. Montfort watched her light figure
flying down the walk, and thought she had grown almost back into a child
again, since the children came. "And yet all a woman," he said; "all a
sweet, wholesome, gentle woman. See her now with her arms around the
child; the little creature clings to her as if she were the mother it
never knew. Ah! she is telling them. No need to smother her, children. I
never really meant to separate you; no, indeed. I only wanted you to
find out for yourselves, as I have found out for myself. No more
solitude at Fernley, please God; from now on, young faces and hearts,
and sunshine, and a home; the future instead of the past."

The good man laid down his cigar, quietly and carefully, as he did
everything, and opened his arms as the three, Margaret and her
children, came flying towards him; and they ran into those kind strong
arms and nestled there, and looked into his eyes and knew that they were
at home.


THE END.



THE

"Queen Hildegarde" Series.

By Laura E. Richards.


HILDEGARDE'S HARVEST.

The _fifth volume_ of the Hildegarde Series. Illustrated with eight
full-page cuts. Square 16mo, cloth, $1.25.

A new volume in the "Hildegarde" series, some of the best and most
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HILDEGARDE'S NEIGHBORS.

Fourth volume. Illustrated from original designs. Illustrated by L. J.
Bridgman. Square 16mo, cloth, $1.25.


HILDEGARDE'S HOME.

Third volume. Illustrated with original designs by Merrill. Square 16mo,
cloth, $1.25.


HILDEGARDE'S HOLIDAY.

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16mo, cloth, $1.25.


QUEEN HILDEGARDE.

First volume. Illustrated from original designs by Garrett (292 pp.).
Square 16mo, cloth, $1.25.

"We would like to see the sensible, heroine-loving girl in her early
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THE HILDEGARDE SERIES.

as above. 5 vols., square 16mo, put up in a neat box, $6.25.

***Next to Miss Alcott's famous "LITTLE WOMEN" series they easily rank,
and no books that have appeared in recent times may be more safely put
into the hands of a bright, intelligent girl than these five "Queen
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Estes & Lauriat, Publishers, Boston.



Other Books by Laura E. Richards.


LOVE AND ROCKS.

Tall 16mo, handsome cover design, etching frontispiece, $1.00.

A charming story of one of the pleasant islands on the rugged Maine
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WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE.

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A series of papers which has already delighted the many readers of St.
Nicholas, now revised and published in book form, with many additions.
The title most happily introduces the reader to the charming home life
of Dr. Howe and Mrs. Julia Ward Howe during the childhood of the author,
and one is young again in reading the delightful sketches of happy child
life in this most interesting family.


GLIMPSES OF THE FRENCH COURT.

Sketches from French History. Handsomely illustrated with a series of
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SAME.

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The History of France, during the eighteenth century, is a
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the salient figures of this remarkable period.

Estes & Lauriat, Publishers, Boston.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

Obvious punctuation errors repaired.

Page 125, word "the" was inserted into the text (out of the window)

Page 188, "year" changed to "years" (for thirty years)

Page 226, "bothér" changed to "bother" (want to bother her)

Page 268, "scimetar" changed to "scimitar" (a scimitar in a)

The asterism on used on the second to the last advertising page was
changed to *** for this text version.





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