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´╗┐Title: About Peggy Saville
Author: Vaizey, George de Horne, Mrs., 1857-1917
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "About Peggy Saville" ***

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About Peggy Saville, by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey.

________________________________________________________________________
I have used part of the same introduction for this book, as I did for
one of the books about Pixie O'Shaughnessy, not because the books are
anything like the same, but because the observations are equally valid.

This is another excellent book by Mrs de Horne Vaizey, dating from the
end of the nineteenth century.  While of course it is dated in its
references to the world around its actors, yet nevertheless their
emotions are well-described, and no doubt are timeless.

Some older children are being educated at a Vicarage near Brighton,
along with the vicar's own three. Peggy Saville is a "new girl", having
previously lived in India, where her parents still are. She has great
talent in some directions, but still has to add up by counting on her
fingers! She certainly gets up to some tricks, though.

There is a fire at a dance given by the titled family of one of the
pupils, from which Peggy rescues the daughter of the house. Both girls
are injured, Peggy the more severely, but eventually they are both on
the way to recovery.

In some ways the world around the people in the book is recognisable
today, in a way which a book written thirty or forty years before would
not have been.  They have electricity, telephones, trains, buses, and
many other things that we still use regularly today.  Of course one
major difference is that few people today have servants, while
middle-class and upper-class families of the eighteen nineties would
certainly have had them.

So it is not so very dated after all.  But I do think there is a real
value in reading the book.  Oddly enough, I think that a boy would
benefit from reading any of the author's books, more than a girl would,
because it would give him an insight into the girlish mind which he
could not so easily otherwise obtain.

________________________________________________________________________

ABOUT PEGGY SAVILLE, BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY.



CHAPTER ONE.

A NEW INMATE.

The afternoon post had come in, and the Vicar of Renton stood in the bay
window of his library reading his budget of letters.  He was a tall,
thin man, with a close-shaven face, which had no beauty of feature, but
which was wonderfully attractive all the same.  It was not an old face,
but it was deeply lined, and those who knew and loved him best could
tell the meaning of each of those eloquent tracings.  The deep vertical
mark running up the forehead meant sorrow.  It had been stamped there
for ever on the night when Hubert, his first-born, had been brought
back, cold and lifeless, from the river to which he had hurried forth
but an hour before, a picture of happy boyhood.  The vicar's brow had
been smooth enough before that day.  The furrow was graven to the memory
of Teddy, the golden-haired lad who had first taught him the joys of
fatherhood.  The network of lines about the eyes were caused by the
hundred and one little worries of everyday life, and the strain of
working a delicate body to its fullest pitch; and the two long, deep
streaks down the cheeks bore testimony to that happy sense of humour
which showed the bright side of a question, and helped him out of many a
slough of despair.  This afternoon, as he stood reading his letters one
by one, the different lines deepened, or smoothed out, according to the
nature of the missive.  Now he smiled, now he sighed, anon he crumpled
up his face in puzzled thought, until the last letter of all was
reached, when he did all three in succession, ending up with a low
whistle of surprise--

"Edith!  This is from Mrs Saville.  Just look at this!"

Instantly there came a sound of hurried rising from the other end of the
room; a work-basket swayed to and fro on a rickety gipsy-table, and the
vicar's wife walked towards him, rolling half a dozen reels of thread in
her wake with an air of fine indifference.

"Mrs Saville!" she exclaimed eagerly.  "How is my boy?" and without
waiting for an answer she seized the letter, and began to devour its
contents, while her husband went stooping about over the floor picking
up the contents of the scattered basket and putting them carefully back
in their places.  He smiled to himself as he did so, and kept turning
amused, tender glances at his wife as she stood in the uncarpeted space
in the window, with the sunshine pouring in on her eager face.  Mrs
Asplin had been married for twenty years, and was the mother of three
big children; but such was the buoyancy of her Irish nature and the
irrepressible cheeriness of her heart, that she was in good truth the
youngest person in the house, so that her own daughters were sometimes
quite shocked at her levity of behaviour, and treated her with gentle,
motherly restraint.  She was tall and thin, like her husband, and he, at
least, considered her every whit as beautiful as she had been a score of
years before.  Her hair was dark and curly; she had deep-set grey eyes,
and a pretty fresh complexion.  When she was well, and rushing about in
her usual breathless fashion, she looked like the sister of her own tall
girls; and when she was ill, and the dark lines showed under her eyes,
she looked like a tired, wearied girl, but never for a moment as if she
deserved such a title as an old, or elderly, woman.  Now, as she read,
her eyes glowed, and she uttered ecstatic little exclamations of triumph
from time to time; for Arthur Saville, the son of the lady who was the
writer of the letter, had been the first pupil whom her husband had
taken into his house to coach, and as such had a special claim on her
affection.  For the first dozen years of their marriage all had gone
smoothly with Mr and Mrs Asplin, and the vicar had had more work than
he could manage in his busy city parish; then, alas, lung trouble had
threatened; he had been obliged to take a year's rest, and to exchange
his living for a sleepy little parish, where he could breathe fresh air,
and take life at a slower pace.  Illness, the doctor's bills, the year's
holiday, ran away with a large sum of money; the stipend of the country
church was by no means generous, and the vicar was lamenting the fact
that he was shortest of money just when his children were growing up and
he needed it most, when an old college friend requested, as a favour,
that he would undertake the education of his only son, for a year at
least, so that the boy might be well grounded in his studies before
going on to the military tutor who was to prepare him for Sandhurst.
Handsome terms were quoted, the vicar looked upon the offer as a leading
of Providence, and Arthur Saville's stay at the vicarage proved a
success in every sense of the word.  He was a clever boy who was not
afraid of work, and the vicar discovered in himself an unsuspected
genius for teaching.  Arthur's progress not only filled him with
delight, but brought the offer of other pupils, so that he was but the
forerunner of a succession of bright, handsome boys, who came from far
and wide to be prepared for college, and to make their home at the
vicarage.  They were honest, healthy-minded lads, and Mrs Asplin loved
them all, but no one had ever taken Arthur Saville's place.  During the
year which he had spent under her roof he had broken his collar-bone,
sprained his ankle, nearly chopped off the top of one of his fingers,
scalded his foot, and fallen crash through a plate-glass window.  There
had never been one moment's peace or quietness; she had gone about from
morning to night in chronic fear of a disaster; and, as a matter of
course, it followed that Arthur was her darling, ensconced in a little
niche of his own, from which subsequent pupils tried in vain to oust
him.

Mrs Saville dwelt upon the latest successes of her clever son with a
mother's pride, and his second mother beamed, and smiled, and cried, "I
told you so!"

"Dear boy!"

"Of course he did!" in delighted echo.  But when she came to the second
half of the letter her face changed, and she grew grave and anxious.
"And now, dear Mr Asplin," Mrs Saville wrote, "I come to the real
burden of my letter.  I return to India in autumn, and am most anxious
to see Peggy happily settled before I leave.  She has been at this
Brighton school for four years, and has done well with her lessons, but
the poor child seems so unhappy at the thought of returning, that I am
sorely troubled about her.  Like most Indian children, she has had very
little home life, and after being with me for the last six months she
dreads the prospect of school, and I cannot bear the thought of sending
her back against her will.  I was puzzling over the question yesterday,
when it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps you, dear Mr Asplin, could
help me out of my difficulty.  Could you--would you, take her in hand
for the next three years, letting her share the lessons of your own two
girls?  I cannot tell you what a relief and joy it would be to feel that
she was under your care.  Arthur always looks back on the year spent
with you as one of the brightest of his life; and I am sure Peggy would
be equally happy.  I write to you from force of habit, but really I
think this letter should have been addressed to Mrs Asplin, for it is
she who would be most concerned.  I know her heart is large enough to
mother my dear girl during my absence; and if strength and time will
allow her to undertake this fresh charge, I think she will be glad to
help another mother by doing so.  Peggy is bright and clever, like her
brother, and strong on the whole, though her throat needs care.  She is
nearly fifteen--the age, I think, of your youngest girl--and we should
be pleased to pay the same terms as we did for Arthur.  Now, please,
dear Mr Asplin, talk the matter over with your wife, and let me know
your decision as soon as possible."

Mrs Asplin dropped the letter on the floor, and turned to confront her
husband.

"Well!"

"Well?"

"It is your affair, dear, not mine.  You would have the trouble.  Could
you do with an extra child in the house?"

"Yes, yes, so far as that goes.  The more the merrier.  I should like to
help Arthur's mother, but,"--Mrs Asplin leant her head on one side, and
put on what her children described as her "Ways and Means" expression.
She was saying to herself,--"Clear out the box-room over the study.
Spare chest-of-drawers from dressing-room--cover a box with one of the
old chintz curtains for an ottoman--enamel the old blue furniture--new
carpet and bedstead, say five or six pounds outlay--yes!  I think I
could make it pretty for five pounds!..."  The calculations lasted for
about two minutes, at the end of which time her brow cleared, she nodded
brightly, and said in a crisp, decisive tone, "Yes, we will take her!
Arthur's throat was delicate too.  She must use my gargle."

The vicar laughed softly.

"Ah!  I thought that would decide it.  I knew your soft heart would not
be able to resist the thought of the delicate throat!  Well, dear, if
you are willing, so am I.  I am glad to make hay while the sun shines,
and lay by a little provision for the children.  How will they take it,
do you think?  They are accustomed to strange boys, but a girl will be a
new experience.  She will come at once, I suppose, and settle down to
work for the autumn.  Dear me! dear me!  It is the unexpected that
happens.  I hope she is a nice child."

"Of course she is.  She is Arthur's sister.  Come! the young folks are
in the study.  Let us go and tell them the news.  I have always said it
was my ambition to have half a dozen children, and now, at last, it is
going to be gratified."

Mrs Asplin thrust her hand through her husband's arm, and led him down
the wide, flagged hall, towards the room whence the sound of merry young
voices fell pleasantly upon the ear.



CHAPTER TWO.

MELLICENT'S PROPHECY.

The schoolroom was a long, bare apartment running along one side of the
house, and boasting three tall windows, through which the sun poured in
on a shabby carpet and ink-stained tables.  Everything looked well worn
and, to a certain extent, dilapidated, yet there was an air of cheerful
comfort about the whole which is not often found in rooms of the kind.
Mrs Asplin revelled in beautiful colours, and would tolerate no drab
and saffron papers in her house; so the walls were covered with a rich
soft blue; the cushions on the wicker chairs rang the changes from rose
to yellow; a brilliant Japanese screen stood in one corner, and a wire
stand before the open grate held a number of flowering plants.  A young
fellow of seventeen or eighteen was seated at one end of the table
employed in arranging a selection of foreign stamps.  This was Maxwell,
the vicar's eldest surviving son, who was to go up to Oxford at the
beginning of the year, and was at present reading under his father's
supervision.  His sister Mellicent was perched on the table itself,
watching his movements, and vouchsafing scraps of advice.  Her
suggestions were received with sniffs of scornful superiority, but
Mellicent prattled on unperturbed, being a plump, placid person, with
flaxen hair, blue eyes, and somewhat obtuse sensibilities.  The elder
girl was sitting reading by the window, leaning her head on her hand,
and showing a long, thin face, comically like her father's, with the
same deep lines running down her cheeks.  She was neither so pretty nor
so even-tempered as her sister, but she had twice the character, and was
a young person who made her individuality felt in the house; while
Maxwell was the beauty of the family, with his mother's crisp, dark
locks, grey eyes, and brunette colouring.

These three young people were the vicar's only surviving children; but
there were two more occupants of the room--the two lads who were being
coached to enter the University at the same time as his own son.  Number
one was a fair, dandified-looking youth, who sat astride a deck-chair,
with his trousers hitched up so as to display long, narrow feet, shod in
scarlet silk socks and patent-leather slippers.  He had fair hair,
curling over his forehead; bold blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and an air
of being very well satisfied with the world in general and himself in
particular.  This was Oswald Elliston, the son of a country squire, who
had heard of the successes of Mr Asplin's pupils, and was storing up
disappointment for himself in expecting similar exploits from his own
handsome, but by no means over-brilliant, son.  The second pupil had a
small microscope in his hand, and was poring over a collection of
"specimens," with his shoulders hitched up to his ears, in a position
the reverse of elegant.  Every now and then he would bend his head to
write down a few notes on the paper beside him, showing a square-chinned
face, with heavy eyebrows and strong roughly-marked features.  His
clothes were worn, his cuffs invisible, and his hair ruffled into wild
confusion by the unconscious rubbings of his hands; and this was the
Honourable Robert Darcy, third son of Lord Darcy, a member of the
Cabinet, and a politician of world-wide reputation.

The servants at the vicarage were fond of remarking, apropos of the
Honourable Robert, that he "didn't look it"; which remark would have
been a subject of sincere gratification to the lad himself, had it been
overheard; for there was no surer way of annoying him than by referring
to his position, or giving him the prefix to which he was entitled.

The young folks looked up inquiringly as Mr and Mrs Asplin entered the
room, for the hour after tea was set apart for recreation, and the
elders were usually only too glad to remain in their own quiet little
sanctum.  Oswald, the gallant, sprang to his feet and brought forward a
chair for Mrs Asplin, but she waved him aside, and broke impetuously
into words.

"Children! we have news for you.  You are going to have a new companion.
Father has had a letter this afternoon about another pupil--"

Mellicent yawned, and Esther looked calmly uninterested, but the three
lads were full of interest.  Their faces turned towards the vicar with
expressions of eager curiosity.

"A new fellow!  This term!  From what school, sir?"

"A ladies' boarding-school at Brighton!"  Mrs Asplin spoke rapidly, so
as to be beforehand with her husband, and her eyes danced with
mischievous enjoyment, as she saw the dismay depicted on the three
watching faces.  A ladies' school!  Maxwell, Oswald, and Robert, had a
vision of a pampered pet in curls, and round jacket, and their backs
stiffened in horrified indignation at the idea that grown men of
seventeen and eighteen should be expected to associate with a "kid" from
a ladies' school!

The vicar could not restrain a smile, but he hastened to correct the
mistake.  "It's not a `fellow' at all, this time.  It's a girl!  We have
had a letter from Arthur Saville's mother, asking us to look after her
daughter while she is in India.  She will come to us very soon, and
stay, I suppose, for three or four years, sharing your lessons, my
dears, and studying with you--"

"A girl!  Good gracious!  Where will she sleep?" cried Mellicent, with
characteristic matter-of-fact curiosity, while Esther chimed in with
further inquiries.

"What is her name?  How old is she?  What is she like?  When will she
come?  Why is she leaving school?"

"Not very happy.  Peggy.  In the little box-room over the study.  About
fifteen, I believe.  Haven't the least idea.  In a few weeks from now,"
said Mrs Asplin, answering all the questions at once in her impulsive
fashion, the while she walked round the table, stroked Maxwell's curls,
bent an interested glance at Robert's collection, and laid a hand on
Esther's back, to straighten bowed shoulders.  "She is Arthur's sister,
so she is sure to be nice, and both her parents will be in India, so you
must all be kind to the poor little soul, and give her a hearty
welcome."

Silence!  Nobody had a word to say in response to this remark; but the
eyes of the young people met furtively across the table, and Mr Asplin
felt that they were only waiting until their seniors should withdraw
before bursting into eager conversation.

"Better leave them to have it out by themselves," he whispered
significantly to his wife; then added aloud, "Well, we won't interrupt
you any longer.  Don't turn the play-hour into work, Rob!  You will
study all the better for a little relaxation.  You have proved the truth
of that axiom, Oswald--eh?" and he went laughing out of the room, while
Oswald held the door open for his wife, smiling assent in lazy fashion.

"Another girl!" he exclaimed, as he reseated himself on his chair, and
looked with satisfaction at his well-shod feet.  "This is an unexpected
blow!  A sister of the redoubtable Saville!  From all I have heard of
him, I should imagine a female edition would be rather a terror in a
quiet household.  I never saw Saville,--what sort of a fellow was he to
look at, don't you know?"

Mellicent reflected.

"He had a nose!" she said solemnly.  Then, as the others burst into
hilarious laughter, "Oh, it's no use shrieking at me; I mean what I
say," she insisted.  "A big nose--like Wellington's!  When people are
very clever, they always have big noses.  I imagine Peggy small, with a
little thin face, because she was born in India, and lived there until
she was six years old, and a great big nose in the middle--"

"Sounds appetising," said Maxwell shortly.  "I don't!  I imagine Peggy
like her mother, with blue eyes and brown hair.  Mrs Saville is awfully
pretty.  I have seen her often, and if her daughter is like her--"

"I don't care in the least how she looks," said Esther severely.  "It's
her character that matters.  Indian children are generally spoiled, and
if she has been to a boarding-school she may give herself airs.  Then we
shall quarrel.  I am not going to be patronised by a girl of fourteen.
I expect she will be Mellicent's friend, not mine."

"I wonder what sums she is in!" said Mellicent dreamily.  "Rob! what do
you think about it?  Are you glad or sorry?  You haven't said anything
yet."

Robert raised his eyes from his microscope, and looked her up and down,
very much as a big Newfoundland dog looks at the terrier which disturbs
its slumber.

"It's nothing to me," he said loftily.  "She may come if she likes."
Then, with sudden recollection, "Does she learn the violin?  Because we
have already _one_ girl in this house who is learning the violin, and
life won't be worth living if there is a second."

He tucked his big notebook under his chin as he spoke, and began sawing
across it with a pencil, wagging his head and rolling his eyes, in
imitation of Mellicent's own manner of practising, producing at the same
time such long-drawn, catlike wails from between his closed lips as made
the listeners shriek with laughter.  Mellicent, however, felt bound to
expostulate.

"It's not the tune at all," she cried loudly.  "Not like any of my
pieces; and if I _do_ roll my eyes, I don't rumple up my hair and pull
faces at the ceiling, as _some_ people do, and I know who they are, but
I am too polite to say so!  I hope Peggy will be my friend, because then
there will be two of us, and you won't dare to tease me any more.  When
Arthur was here, a boy pulled my hair, and he carried him upstairs and
held his head underneath the shower-bath."

"I'll pull it again, and see if Peggy will do the same," said Rob
pleasantly; and poor Mellicent stared from one smiling face to another,
conscious that she was being laughed at, but unable to see the point of
the joke.

"When Peggy comes," she said, in an injured tone, "I hope she will be
sympathetic.  I'm the youngest, and I think you ought all to do what I
want; instead of which you make fun, and laugh among yourselves, and
send me messages.  For instance, when Max wanted his stamps brought
down--"

Maxwell passed his big hand over her hair and face, then, reversing the
direction, rubbed up the point of the little snub nose.

"Never mind, chubby, your day is over!  We will make Peggy the
message-boy now.  Peggy will be a nice, meek little girl, who will like
to run messages for her betters!  She shall be my fag, and attend to me.
I'll give her my stamps to sort."

"I rather thought of having her for fag myself; we can't admit a girl to
our study unless she makes herself useful," said Oswald languidly;
whereupon Rob banged the notebook on the table with clanging decision.

"Peggy belongs to me," he announced firmly.  "It's no use you two
fellows quarrelling.  That matter is settled once for all.  Peggy will
be my fag; I've barleyed her for myself, and you have nothing to say in
the matter."

But Esther tossed her head with an air of superior wisdom.

"Wait till she comes," she said sagely.  "If Peggy is anything like her
brother, you may spare yourself the trouble of planning as to what she
must or must not do.  It is waste of time.  Peggy will be mistress over
us all!"



CHAPTER THREE.

ENTER MISS SAVILLE!

A fortnight later Peggy Saville arrived at the vicarage.  Her mother
brought her, stayed for a couple of hours, and then left for the time
being; but as she was to pay some visits in the neighbourhood it was
understood that this was not the final parting, and that she would spend
several afternoons with her daughter before sailing for India.  On this
occasion, however, none of the young people saw her, for they were out
during the afternoon, and were just settling down to tea in the
schoolroom when the wheels of the departing carriage crunched down the
drive.

"Now for it!" cried Maxwell, and they looked at one another in silence,
knowing full well what would happen.  Mrs Asplin would think an
introduction to her young friends the best distraction for the strange
girl after her mother's departure, and the next item in the programme
would be the appearance of Miss Peggy herself.  Esther rearranged the
scattered tea-things; Oswald felt to see if his necktie was in position,
and Robert hunched his shoulders and rolled his eyes at Mellicent in
distracting fashion.  Each one sat with head cocked on one side, in an
attitude of eager attention.  The front door banged, footsteps
approached, and Mrs Asplin's high, cheerful tones were heard drawing
nearer and nearer.

"This way, dear," she was saying.  "They are longing to see you!"

The listeners gave a simultaneous gulp of excitement, the door opened,
and--Peggy entered!

She was not in the least what they had expected!  This was neither the
blonde beauty of Maxwell's foretelling, nor the black-haired elf
described by Mellicent.  The first glance was unmitigated
disappointment.

"She is not a bit pretty," was the mental comment of the two girls.
"What a funny little soul!" that of the three big boys, who had risen on
Mrs Asplin's entrance, and now stood staring at the new-comer with
curious eyes.

Peggy was slight and pale, and at the first sight her face gave a
comical impression of being made up of a succession of peaks.  Her hair
hung in a pigtail down her back, and grew in a deep point on her
forehead; her finely-marked eyebrows were shaped like eaves, and her
chin was for all the world like that of a playful kitten.  Even the
velvet trimming on her dress accentuated this peculiarity, as it
zigzagged round the sleeves and neck.  The hazel eyes were light and
bright, and flitted from one figure to another with a suspicious
twinkling; but nothing could have been more composed, more demure, or
patronisingly grown-up than the manner in which this strange girl bore
the scrutiny which was bent upon her.

"Here are your new friends, Peggy," cried Mrs Asplin cheerily.  "They
always have tea by themselves in the schoolroom, and do what they please
from four to five o'clock.  Now just sit down, dear, and take your place
among them at once.  Esther will make room for you by her side, and
introduce you to the others.  I will leave you to make friends.  I know
young people get on better when they are left alone."

She whisked out of the room in her impetuous fashion, and Peggy Saville
seated herself in the midst of a ghastly silence.  The young people had
been prepared to cheer and encourage a bashful stranger, but the
self-possession of this thin, pale-faced girl took them by surprise, so
that they sat round the table playing uncomfortably with teaspoons and
knives, and irritably conscious that they, and not the new-comer, were
the ones to be overcome with confusion.  The silence lasted for a good
two minutes, and was broken at last by Miss Peggy herself.

"Cream _and_ sugar!" she said, in a tone of sweet insinuation.  "Two
lumps, if you please.  Not very strong, and as hot as possible.  Thank
you!  So sorry to be a trouble."

Esther fairly jumped with surprise, and seizing the teapot, filled the
empty cup in haste.  Then she remembered the dreaded airs of the
boarding-school miss, and her own vows of independence, and made a
gallant effort to regain composure.

"No trouble at all.  I hope that will be right.  Please help yourself.
Bread--and--butter--scones--cake!  I must introduce you to the rest, and
then you will feel more at home!  I am Esther, the eldest, a year older
than you, I think.  This is Mellicent, my younger sister, fourteen last
February.  I think you are about the same age."  She paused a moment,
and Peggy looked across the table and said, "How do you do, dear?" in an
affable, grandmotherly fashion, which left poor Mellicent speechless,
and filled the others with delighted amusement.  But their own turn was
coming.  Esther pulled herself together, and went on steadily with her
introductions.  "This is Maxwell, my brother, and these are father's two
pupils--Oswald Elliston, and Robert--the Honourable Robert Darcy."  She
was not without hope that the imposing sound of the latter name would
shake the self-possession of the stranger, but Peggy inclined her head
with the air of a queen, drawled out a languid, "Pleased to see you!"
and dropped her eyes with an air of indifference, which seemed to imply
that an "Honourable" was an object of no interest whatever, and that she
was really bored by the number of her titled acquaintances.  The boys
looked at each other with furtive glances of astonishment.  Mellicent
spread jam all over her plate, and Esther unconsciously turned on the
handle of the urn and deluged the tray with water, but no one ventured a
second remark, and once again it was Peggy's voice that opened the
conversation.

"And is this the room in which you pursue your avocations?  It has a
warm and cheerful exposure."

"Er--yes!  This is the schoolroom.  Mellicent and I have lessons here in
the morning from our German governess, while the boys are in the study
with father.  In the afternoon, from two to four, they use it for
preparation, and we go out to classes.  We have music lessons on Monday,
painting on Tuesday, calisthenics and wood-carving on Thursday and
Friday.  Wednesday and Saturday are half-holidays.  Then from four to
six the room is common property, and we have tea together and amuse
ourselves as we choose."

"A most desirable arrangement.  Thank you!  Yes,--I _will_ take a scone,
as you are so kind!" said Peggy blandly; a remark which covered the five
young people with confusion, since none of them had noticed that her
plate was empty.  Each one made a grab in the direction of the plate of
scones; the girls failed to reach it, while Oswald, twitching it from
Robert's hands, jerked half the contents on the table, and had to pick
them up, while Miss Saville looked on with a smile of indulgent
superiority.

"Accidents will happen, will they not?" she said sweetly, as she lifted
a scone from the plate, with her little finger cocked well in the air,
and nibbled it daintily between her small white teeth.  "A most
delicious cake!  Home-made, I presume?  Perhaps of your own concoction?"

Esther muttered an inarticulate assent, and once more the conversation
languished.  She looked appealingly at Maxwell.  As the son of the
house, the eldest of the boys, it was his place to take the lead, but
Maxwell looked the picture of embarrassment.  He did not suffer from
bashfulness as a rule, but since Peggy Saville had come into the room he
had been seized with an appalling self-consciousness.  His feet felt in
the way, his arms seemed too long for practical purposes, his elbows had
a way of invading other people's precincts, and his hands looked red and
clammy.  It occurred to him dimly that he was not a man after all, but
only a big overgrown schoolboy, and that little Miss Saville knew as
much, and was mildly pitiful of his shortcomings.  He was not at all
anxious to attract the attention of the sharp little tongue, so he
passed on the signal to Mellicent, kicking her foot under the table, and
frowning vigorously in the direction of the stranger.

"Er,"--began Mellicent, anxious to respond to the signal, but lamentably
short of ideas,--"Er,--Peggy!  Are you fond of sums?  I'm in decimals.
Do you like fractions?  I think they are hateful.  I could do vulgars
pretty well, but decimals are fearful.  They never come right.  So
awfully difficult."

"Patience and perseverance overcome difficulties.  Keep up your courage.
I'll help you with them, dear," said Peggy encouragingly, closing her
eyes the while, and coughing in a faint and ladylike manner.

She could not really be only fourteen, Mellicent reflected.  She talked
as if she were quite grown-up,--older than Esther, seventeen or eighteen
at the very least.  What a little white face she had! what a great thick
plait of hair!  How erect she held herself!  Fraulein would never have
to rebuke her new pupil for stooping shoulders.  It was kind of her to
promise help with those troublesome decimals!  Quite too good an offer
to refuse.

"Thank you very much," she said heartily, "I'll show you some after tea.
Perhaps you may be able to make me understand better than Fraulein.
It's very good of you, P--" A quick change of expression warned her that
something was wrong, and she checked herself to add hastily, "You want
to be called `Peggy,' don't you?  No?  Then what must we call you?  What
is your real name?"

"Mariquita!" sighed the damsel pensively, "after my grandmother--
Spanish.  A beautiful and unscrupulous woman at the court of Philip the
Second."  She said "unscrupulous" with an air of pride, as though it had
been "virtuous," or some other word of a similar meaning, and pronounced
the name of the king with a confidence that made Robert gasp.

"Philip the Second?  Surely not?  He was the husband of our Mary in
1572.  That would make it just a trifle too far back for your
grandmother, wouldn't it?" he inquired sceptically; but Mariquita
remained absolutely unperturbed.

"It must have been someone else, then, I suppose.  How clever of you to
remember!  I see you know something about history," she said suavely; a
remark which caused an amused glance to pass between the young people,
for Robert had a craze for history of all description, and had serious
thought of becoming a second Carlyle so soon as his college course was
over.

Maxwell put his handkerchief to his mouth to stifle a laugh, and kicked
out vigorously beneath the table, with the intention of sharing his
amusement with his friend Oswald.  It seemed, however, that he had aimed
amiss, for Mariquita fell back in her chair, and laid her hand on her
heart.

"I think there must be some slight misunderstanding.  That's my foot
that you are kicking!  I cut it very badly on the ice last winter, and
the least touch causes acute suffering.  Please don't apologise; it
doesn't matter in the least," and she rolled her eyes to the ceiling,
like one in mortal agony.

It was the last straw.  Maxwell's embarrassment had reached such a pitch
that he could bear no more.  He murmured some unintelligible words, and
bolted from the room, and the other two boys lost no time in following
his example.

In subsequent conversations, Mellicent always referred to this occasion
as "the night when Robert had _one cup_," it being, in truth, the only
occasion since this young gentleman entered the vicarage when he had
neglected to patronise the teapot three or four times in succession.



CHAPTER FOUR.

GOOD-BYE, MARIQUITA!

For four long days had Mariquita Saville dwelt beneath Mr Asplin's
roof, and her companions still gazed upon her with fear and trembling,
as a mysterious and extraordinary creature whom they altogether failed
to understand.  She talked like a book; she behaved like a
well-conducted old lady of seventy, and she sat with folded hands gazing
around, with a curious, dancing light in her hazel eyes, which seemed to
imply that there was some tremendous joke on hand, the secret of which
was known only to herself.  Esther and Mellicent had confided their
impressions to their mother; but in Mrs Asplin's presence Peggy was
just a quiet, modest girl, a trifle shy, as was natural under the
circumstances, but with no marked peculiarity of any kind.  She answered
to the name of "Peggy," to which address she was at other times
persistently deaf, and sat with neat little feet crossed before her, the
picture of a demure, well-behaved young schoolgirl.  The sisters assured
their mother that Mariquita was a very different person in the
schoolroom, but when she inquired as to the nature of the difference, it
was not easy to explain.

She talked so grandly, and used such great big words!--"A good thing,
too," Mrs Asplin averred.  She wished the rest would follow her
example, and not use so much foolish, meaningless slang.--Her eyes
looked so bright and mocking, as if she were laughing at something all
the time.--Poor, dear child! could she not talk as she liked?  It was a
great blessing she _could_ be bright, poor lamb, with such a parting
before her!--She was so grown-up, and patronising, and superior!--Tut!
tut!  Nonsense!  Peggy had come from a boarding-school, and her ways
were different from theirs--that was all.  They must not take stupid
notions, but be kind and friendly, and make the poor girl feel at home.

Fraulein on her side reported that her new pupil was docile and
obedient, and anxious to get on with her studies, though not so far
advanced as might have been expected.  Esther was far ahead of her in
most subjects, and Mellicent learned with pained surprise that she knew
nothing whatever about decimal fractions.

"Circumstances, dear," she explained, "circumstances over which I had no
control prevented an acquaintance, but no doubt I shall soon know all
about them, and then I shall be pleased to give you the promised help;"
and Mellicent found herself saying, "Thank you," in a meek and
submissive manner, instead of indulging in a well-merited rebuke.

No amount of ignorance seemed to daunt Mariquita, or to shake her belief
in herself.  When Maxwell came to grief in a Latin essay, she looked up
and said, "Can I assist you?" and when Robert read aloud a passage from
Carlyle, she laid her head on one side and said, "Now, do you know, I am
not altogether sure that I am with him on that point!" with an assurance
which paralysed the hearers.

Esther and Mellicent discussed seriously together as to whether they
liked, or disliked, this extraordinary creature, and had great
difficulty in coming to a conclusion.  She teased, puzzled, aggravated,
and provoked them; therefore, if they had any claim to be logical, they
should dislike her cordially, yet somehow or other they could not bring
themselves to say that they disliked Mariquita.  There were moments when
they came perilously near loving the aggravating creature.  Already it
gave them quite a shock to look back upon the time when there was no
Peggy Saville to occupy their thoughts, and life without the interest of
her presence would have seemed unspeakably flat and uninteresting.  She
was a bundle of mystery.  Even her looks seemed to exercise an uncanny
fascination.  On the evening of her arrival the unanimous opinion had
been that she was decidedly plain, but there was something about the
pale little face which always seemed to invite a second glance, and the
more closely you gazed, the more complete was the feeling of
satisfaction.

"Her face is so _neat_," Mellicent said to herself; and the adjective
was not inappropriate, for Peggy's small features looked as though they
had been modelled by the hand of a fastidious artist, and the air of
dainty finish extended to her hands and feet and slight, graceful
figure.

The subject came up for discussion on the third evening after Peggy's
arrival, when she had been called out of the room to speak to Mrs
Asplin for a few minutes.  Esther gazed after her as she walked across
the floor with her dignified tread, and when the door was closed she
said slowly--

"I don't think Mariquita is as plain now as I did at first; do you,
Oswald?"

"N-no!  I don't think I do.  I should not call her exactly plain.  She
is a funny little thing, but there's something nice about her face."

"Very nice!"

"Last night in the pink dress she looked almost pretty."

"Y-es!"

"Quite pretty!"

"Y-es! really quite pretty."

"We shall think her lovely in another week," said Mellicent tragically.
"Those awful Savilles!  They are all alike--there is something Indian
about them.  Indian people have a lot of secrets that we know nothing
about; they use spells, and poisons, and incantations that no English
person can understand, and they can charm snakes.  I've read about it in
books.  Arthur and Peggy were born in India, and it's my opinion that
they are bewitched.  Perhaps the ayahs did it when they were in their
cradles.  I don't say it is their own fault, but they are not like other
people, and they use their charms on us, as there are no snakes in
England.  Look at Arthur!  He was the naughtiest boy--always hurting
himself, and spilling things, and getting into trouble, and yet everyone
in the house bowed down before him, and did what he wanted.--Now mark my
words, Peggy will be the same!"

Mellicent's companions were not in the habit of "marking her words," but
on this occasion they looked thoughtful, for there was no denying that
they were already more or less under the spell of the remorseless
stranger.

On the afternoon of the fourth day Miss Peggy came down to tea with her
pigtail smoother and more glossy than ever, and the light of war shining
in her eyes.  She drew her chair to the table, and looked blandly at
each of her companions in turn.

"I have been thinking," she said sweetly, and the listeners quaked at
the thought of what was coming.  "The thought has been weighing on my
mind that we neglect many valuable and precious opportunities.  This
hour, which is given to us for our own use, might be turned to profit
and advantage, instead of being idly frittered away--

  "`In work, in work, in work alway,
  Let my young days be spent.'

"It was the estimable Dr Watts, I think, who wrote those immortal
lines!  I think it would be a desirable thing to carry on all
conversation at this table in the French language for the future.
_Passez-moi le beurre, s'il vous plait_, Mellicent, _ma tres chere.
J'aime beaucoup le beurre, quand il est frais.  Est-ce que vous aimez le
beurre plus de la_,--I forget at the moment how you translate _jam, il
fait tres beau, ce apres-midi, n'est pas_?"

She was so absolutely, imperturbably grave that no one dared to laugh.
Mellicent, who took everything in deadly earnest, summoned up courage to
give a mild little squeak of a reply.  "_Wee_--_mais hier soir, il
pleut_;" and in the silence that followed Robert was visited with a
mischievous inspiration.  He had had French nursery governesses in his
childhood, and had, moreover, spent two years abroad, so that French
came as naturally to him as his own mother-tongue.  The temptation to
discompose Miss Peggy was too strong to be resisted.  He raised his
dark, square-chinned face, looked straight into her eyes, and rattled
off a breathless sentence to the effect that there was nothing so
necessary as conversation, if one wished to master a foreign language;
that he had talked French in the nursery; and that the same Marie who
had nursed him as a baby was still in his father's service, acting as
maid to his sister.  She was getting old now, but was a most faithful
creature, devoted to the family, though she had never overcome her
prejudices against England and English ways.  He rattled on until he was
fairly out of breath, and Peggy leant her little chin on her hand, and
stared at him with an expression of absorbing attention.  Esther felt
convinced that she did not understand a word of what was being said, but
the moment that Robert stopped, she threw back her head, clasped her
hands together, and exclaimed--

"_Mais certainement, avec_ pleasure!" with such vivacity and Frenchiness
of manner that she was forced into unwilling admiration.

"Has no one else a remark to make?" continued this terrible girl,
collapsing suddenly into English, and looking inquiringly round the
table.  "Perhaps there is some other language which you would prefer to
French.  It is all the same to me.  We ought to strive to become
proficient in foreign tongues.  At the school where I was at Brighton
there was a little girl in the fourth form who could write, and even
speak, Greek with admirable fluency.  It impressed me very much, for I
myself knew so little of the language.  And she was only six--"

"Six!"  The boys straightened themselves at that, roused into eager
protest.  "Six years old!  And spoke Greek!  And wrote Greek!
Impossible!"

"I have heard her talking for half an hour at a time.  I have known the
girls in the first form ask her to help them with their exercises.  She
knew more than anyone in the school."

"Then she is a human prodigy.  She ought to be exhibited.  Six years
old!  Oh, I say--that child ought to turn out something great when she
grows up.  What did you say her name was, by the bye?"

Peggy lowered her eyelids, and pursed up her lips.  "Andromeda
Michaelides," she said slowly.  "She was six last Christmas.  Her father
is Greek Consul in Manchester."

There was a pause of stunned surprise; and then, suddenly, an
extraordinary thing happened.  Mariquita bounded from her seat, and
began flying wildly round and round the table.  Her pigtail flew out
behind her; her arms waved like the sails of a windmill, and as she
raced along she seized upon every loose article which she could reach,
and tossed it upon the floor.  Cushions from chairs and sofa went flying
into the window; books were knocked off the table with one rapid sweep
of the hand; magazines went tossing up in the air, and were kicked about
like so many footballs.  Round and round she went, faster and faster,
while the five beholders gasped and stared, with visions of madhouses,
strait-jackets, and padded rooms, rushing through their bewildered
brains.  Her pale cheeks glowed with colour; her eyes shone; she gave a
wild shriek of laughter, and threw herself, panting, into a chair by the
fireside.

"Three cheers for Mariquita!  Ho! ho! he!  Didn't I do it well?  If you
could have _seen_ your faces!"

"P-P-P-eggy!  Do you mean to say you have been pretending all this time?
What do you mean?  Have you been putting on all those airs and graces
for a joke?" asked Esther severely; and Peggy gave a feeble splutter of
laughter.

"W-wanted to see what you were like!  Oh, my heart!  Ho! ho! ho! wasn't
it lovely?  Can't keep it up any longer!  Good-bye, Mariquita!  I'm
Peggy now, my dears.--Give me some more tea!"



CHAPTER FIVE.

EXPLANATIONS.

In the explanations that followed, no one showed a livelier interest
than Peggy herself.  She was in her element answering the questions
which were showered upon her, and took an artistic pleasure in the
success of her plot.

"You see," she explained, "I knew you would all be talking about me, and
wondering what I was like, just as I was thinking about you.  As I was
Arthur's sister, I knew you would be sure to imagine me a mischievous
tom-boy, so I came to the conclusion that the best way to shock you
would be to be quite too awfully proper and well-behaved.  I never
enjoyed anything so much in my life as that first tea-time, when you all
looked dumb with astonishment.  I had made up my mind to go on for a
week, but mother is coming to-morrow, and I couldn't keep it up before
her, so I was obliged to explode to-night.  Besides, I'm really quite
fatigued with being good--"

"And are you--are you--really not proper, after all?" gasped Mellicent
blankly; whereat Peggy clasped her hands in emphatic protest.

"Proper!  Oh, my dear, I am the most awful person.  I am always getting
into trouble.  You know what Arthur was?  Well, I tell you truly, he is
nothing to me.  It's an extraordinary thing.  I have excellent
intentions, but I seem bound to get into scrapes.  There was a teacher
at Brighton, Miss Baker,--a dear old thing.  I called her `Buns.'--She
vowed and declared that I shortened her life by bringing on palpitation
of the heart.  I set the dressing-table on fire by spilling matches and
crunching them beneath my heels.  It was not a proper dressing-table,
you know--just a wooden thing frilled round with muslin.  We had two
blazes in the last term.  And a dreadful thing occurred!  Would you
believe that I was actually careless enough to sit down on the top of
her best Sunday hat, and squash it as flat as a pancake!"

Despite her protestations of remorse, Peggy's voice had an exultant ring
as she detailed the history of her escapades, and Esther shrewdly
suspected that she was by no means so penitent as she declared.  She put
on her most severe expression, and said sternly--

"You must be dreadfully careless.  It is to be hoped you will be more
careful here, for your room is far-away from ours, and you might be
burned to death before anyone discovered you.  Mother never allows
anyone to read in bed in this house, and she is most particular about
matches.  You wouldn't like to be burned to a cinder all by yourself
some fine night, I should say?"

"No, I shouldn't--or on a wet one either.  It would be so lonely," said
Peggy calmly.  "No; I am a reformed character about matches.  I support
home industries, and go in for safeties, which `strike only on the box.'
But the boys would rescue me."  She turned with a smile, and beamed
upon the three tall lads.  "Wouldn't you, boys?  If you hear me
squealing any night, don't stop to think.  Just catch up your ewers of
water, and rush to my bedroom.  We might get up an amateur fire-brigade,
to be in readiness.  You three would be the brigade, and I would be the
captain and train you.  It would be capital fun.  At any moment I could
give the signal, and then, whatever you were doing--playing,--working,--
eating,--or on cold frosty nights, just when you were going to bed, off
you would have to rush, and get out your fire-buckets.  Sometimes you
might have to break the ice, but there's nothing like being prepared.
We might have the first rehearsal to-night--"

"It's rather funny to hear you talking of being captain over the boys,
because the day we heard that you were coming, they all said that if
they were to be bothered with a third girl in the house, you would have
to make yourself useful, and that you should be their fag.  Max said so,
and so did Oswald, and then Robert said they shouldn't have you.  He had
lots of little odd things he wanted done, and he could make you very
useful.  He said the other boys shouldn't have you; you were his
property."

"Tut, tut!" said Peggy pleasantly.  She looked at the three scowling,
embarrassed faces, and the mocking light danced back into her eyes.  "So
they were all anxious to have me, were they?  How nice!  I'm gratified
to hear it.  Is there any little thing I can do for your honourable self
now, Mr Darcy, before I dress for dinner?"

Robert looked across the room at Mellicent with an expression which made
that young person tremble in her shoes.

"All right, young lady, I'll remember you!" he said quietly.  "I've
warned you before about repeating conversations.  Now you'll see what
happens.  I'll cure you of that little habit, my dear, as sure as my
name is Robert Darcy--"

"The Honourable Robert Darcy!" murmured a silvery voice from the other
side of the fireplace.  Robert turned his head sharply, but Peggy was
gazing into the coals with an air of lamb-like innocence, and he
subsided into himself with a grunt of displeasure.

The next day Mrs Saville came to lunch, and spent the afternoon at the
vicarage.  As Maxwell had said, she was a beautiful woman; tall, fair,
and elegant, and looking a very fashionable lady when contrasted with
Mrs Asplin in her well-worn serge, but her face was sad and anxious in
expression.  Esther noticed that her eyes filled with tears more than
once as she looked round the table at the husband and wife and the three
tall, well-grown children; and when the two ladies were alone in the
drawing-room she broke into helpless sobbings.

"Oh, how happy you are!  How I envy you!  Husband, children,--all beside
you.  Oh, never, never let one of your girls marry a man who lives
abroad.  My heart is torn in two; I have no rest.  I am always longing
for the one who is not there.  I must go back,--the major needs me; but
my Peggy,--my own little girl!  It is like death to leave her behind!"

Mrs Asplin put her arms round the tall figure, and rocked her gently to
and fro.

"I know!  I know!" she said brokenly.  "I _ache_ for you, dear; but I
understand!  I have parted with a child of my own--not for a few years,
but for ever, till we meet again in God's heaven.  I'll help you every
way I can.  I'll watch her night and day; I'll coddle her when she's
ill; I'll try to make her a good woman.  I'll _love_ her, dear, and she
shall be my own special charge.  I'll be a second mother to her."

"You dear, good woman!  God bless your kind heart!" said Mrs Saville
brokenly.  "I can't help breaking down, but indeed I have much to be
thankful for.  I can't tell you what a relief it is to feel that she is
in this house.  The principals of that school at Brighton were all that
is good and excellent, but they did not understand my Peggy."  The tears
were still in her eyes, but she broke into a flickering smile at the
last word.  "My children have such spirits!  I am afraid they really do
give more trouble than other boys and girls, but they are not really
naughty.  They are truthful and generous, and wonderfully warm-hearted.
I never needed to punish Peg when she was a little girl; it was enough
to show that she had grieved me.  She never did the same thing again
after that; but--oh, dear me!--the ingenuity of that child in finding
fresh fields for mischief!  Dear Mrs Asplin, I am afraid she will try
your patience.  You must be sure to keep a list of all the breakages and
accidents, and charge them to our account.  Peggy is an expensive little
person.  You know what Arthur was."

"Bless him--yes!  I had hardly a tumbler left in the house," said Mrs
Asplin, with gusto.  "But I don't grieve myself about a few breakages.
I have had too much to do with schoolboys for that!--And now give me all
the directions you can about this precious little maid, while we have
the room to ourselves."

For the next hour there the two ladies sat in conclave about Miss
Peggy's mental, moral, and physical welfare.  Mrs Asplin had a book in
her hand, in which from time to time she jotted down notes of a curious
and inconsequent character.  "Pay attention to private reading.
Gas-fire in her bedroom for chilly weather.  See dentist in Christmas
holidays.  Query: gold plate over eye-tooth?  Boots to order, Beavan and
Company, Oxford Street.  Cod-liver oil in winter.  Careless about
changing shoes.  Damp brings on throat.  Aconite and belladonna."  So
on, and so on.  There seemed no end to the warnings and instructions of
this anxious mother; but when all was settled as far as possible, the
ladies adjourned into the schoolroom to join the young people at their
tea, so that Mrs Saville might be able to picture her daughter's
surroundings when separated from her by those weary thousands of miles.

"What a bright, cheery room!" she said smilingly, as she took her seat
at the table, and her eyes wandered round as if striving to print the
scene in her memory.  How many times, as she lay panting beneath the
swing of the punkah, she would recall that cool English room, with its
vista of garden through the windows, the long table in the centre, the
little figure with the pale face and plaited hair, seated midway between
the top and bottom!  Oh! the moments of longing--of wild, unbearable
longing--when she would feel that she must break loose from her
prison-house and fly away,--that not the length of the earth itself
could keep her back, that she would be willing to give up life itself
just to hold Peggy in her arms for five minutes, to kiss the sweet lips,
to meet the glance of the loving eyes--

But this would never do!  Had she not vowed to be cheerful?  The young
folks were looking at her with troubled glances.  She roused herself,
and said briskly--

"I see you make this a playroom as well as a study.  Somebody has been
wood-carving over there, and you have one of those dwarf
billiard-tables.  I want to give a present to this room--something that
will be a pleasure and occupation to you all; but I can't make up my
mind what would be best.  Can you give me a few suggestions?  Is there
anything that you need, or that you have fancied you might like?"

"It's very kind of you," said Esther warmly; and echoes of "Very kind!"
came from every side of the table, while boys and girls stared at each
other in puzzled consideration.  Maxwell longed to suggest a joiner's
bench, but refrained out of consideration for the girls' feelings.
Mellicent's eager face, however, was too eloquent to escape attention,
and Mrs Saville smiled at her in an encouraging manner.

"Well, dear, what is it?  Don't be afraid.  I mean something really nice
and handsome; not just a little thing.  Tell me what you thought?"

"A--a new violin!" cried Mellicent eagerly.  "Mine is so old and
squeaky, and my teacher said I needed a new one badly.  A new violin
would be nicest of all."

Mrs Saville looked round the table, caught an expressive grimace going
the round of three boyish faces, and raised her eyebrows inquiringly.

"Yes?  Whatever you like best, of course.  It is all the same to me.
But would the violin be a pleasure to all?  What about the boys?"

"They would hear me play!  The pieces would sound nicer.  They would
like to hear them."

"Ahem!" coughed Maxwell loudly; and at that there was a universal shriek
of merriment.  Peggy's clear "Ho! ho!" rang out above the rest, and her
mother looked at her with sparkling eyes.  Yes, yes, yes; the child was
happy!  She had settled down already into the cheery, wholesome life of
the vicarage, and was in her element among these merry boys and girls!
She hugged the thought to her heart, finding in it her truest comfort.
The laughter lasted several minutes, and broke out intermittently from
time to time as that eloquent cough recurred to memory, but after all it
was Mellicent who was the one to give the best suggestion.

"Well then, a--a what-do-you-call-it!" she cried.  "A thing-um-me-bob!
One of those three-legged things for taking photographs!  The boys look
so silly sometimes, rolling about together in the garden, and we have
often and often said, `Don't you wish we could take their photographs?
They _would_ look such frights!'  We could have ever so much fun with a
what-do-you-call-it?"

"Ah, that's something like!"  "Good business."  "Oh, wouldn't it be
sweet!" came the quick exclamations; and Mrs Saville looked most
pleased and excited of all.

"A camera!" she cried.  "What a charming idea!  Then you would be able
to take photographs of Peggy and the whole household, and send them out
for me to see.  How delightful!  That is a happy thought, Mellicent.  I
am so grateful to you for thinking of it, dear.  I'll buy a really good
large one, and all the necessary materials, and send them down at once.
Do any of you know how to set to work?"

"I do, Mrs Saville," Oswald said.  "I had a small camera of my own, but
it got smashed some years ago.  I can show them how to begin, and we
will take lots of photographs of Peggy for you, in groups and by
herself.  They mayn't be very good at first, but you will be interested
to see her in different positions.  We will take her walking, and
bicycling, and sitting in the garden, and every way we can think of--"

"And whenever she has a new dress or hat, so that you may know what they
are like," added Mellicent anxiously.  "Are her hats going to be the
same as ours, or is she to choose them for herself?"

"She may choose them for herself, subject, of course, to your mother's
refraining influence.  If she were to develop a fondness for scarlet
feathers, for instance, I think Mrs Asplin should interfere; but Peggy
has good taste.  I don't think she will go far wrong," said the girl's
mother, looking at her fondly; and the little white face quivered before
it broke into its sunny, answering smile.

Three times that evening, after Mrs Saville had left, did her
companions surprise the glitter of tears in Peggy's eyes; but there was
a dignified reserve about her manner which forbade outspoken sympathy.
Even when she was discovered to be quietly crying behind her book, when
Maxwell flipped it mischievously out of her hands,--even then did Peggy
preserve her wonderful self-possession.  The tears were trickling down
her cheeks, and her poor little nose was red and swollen, but she looked
up at Maxwell without a quiver, and it was he who stood gaping before
her, aghast and miserable.

"Oh, I say!  I'm fearfully sorry!"

"So am I," said Peggy severely.  "It was rude, and not at all funny.
And it injures the book.  I have always been taught to reverence books,
and treat them as dear and valued companions.  Pick it up, please.
Thank you.  Don't do it again."  She hitched herself round in her chair,
and settled down once more to her reading, while Maxwell slunk back to
his seat.  When Peggy was offended she invariably fell back upon
Mariquita's grandiose manner, and the sting of her sharp little tongue
left her victims dumb and smarting.



CHAPTER SIX.

A NEW FRIENDSHIP.

A week after this, Mrs Saville came to pay her farewell visit before
sailing for India.  Mother and daughter went out for a walk in the
morning, and retired to the drawing-room together for the afternoon.
There was much that they wanted to say to each other, yet for the most
part they were silent, Peggy sitting with her head on her mother's
shoulder, and Mrs Saville's arms clasped tightly round her.  Every now
and then she stroked the smooth brown head, and sometimes Peggy raised
her lips and kissed the cheek which leant against her own, but the
sentences came at long intervals.

"If I were ill, mother--a long illness--would you come?"

"On wings, darling!  As fast as boat and train could bring me."

"And if you were ill?"

"I should send for you, if it were within the bounds of possibility--I
promise that!  You must write often, Peggy--long, long letters.  Tell me
all you do, and feel, and think.  You will be almost a woman when we
meet again.  Don't grow up a stranger to me, darling."

"Every week, mother!  I'll write something each day, and then it will be
like a diary.  I'll tell you every bit of my life..."

"Be a good girl, Peggy.  Do all you can for Mrs Asplin, who is so kind
to you.  She will give you what money you need, and if at any time you
should want more than your ordinary allowance, for presents or any
special purpose, just tell her about it, and she will understand.  You
can have anything in reason; I want you to be happy.  Don't fret,
dearie.  I shall be with father, and the time will pass.  In three years
I shall be back again, and then, Peg, then, how happy we shall be!  Only
three years."

Peggy shivered, and was silent.  Three years seem an endless space when
one is young.  She shut her eyes, and pondered drearily upon all that
would happen before the time of separation was passed.  She would be
seventeen, nearly eighteen--a young lady who wore dresses down at her
ankles, and did up her hair.  This was the last time, the very, very
last time when she would be a child in her mother's arms.  The new
relationship might be nearer, sweeter, but it could never be the same,
and the very sound of the words "the last time" sends a pang to the
heart.

Half an hour later the carriage drove up to the door.  Mr and Mrs
Asplin came into the room to say a few words of farewell, and then left
Peggy to see her mother off.  There were no words spoken on the way, and
so quietly did they move that Robert had no suspicion that anyone was
near, as he took off his shoes in the cloak-room opening off the hall.
He tossed his cap on to a nail, picked up his book, and was just about
to sally forth, when the sound of a woman's voice sent a chill through
his veins.  The tone of the voice was low, almost a whisper, yet he had
never in his life heard anything so thrilling as its intense and
yearning tenderness.  "Oh, my Peggy!" it said.  "My little Peggy!"  And
then, as in reply, came a low moaning sound, a feeble bleat like that of
a little lamb torn from its mother's side.  Robert charged back into the
cloak-room, and kicked savagely at the boots and shoes which were
scattered about the floor, his lips pressed together, and his brows
meeting in a straight black line across his forehead.  Another minute,
and the carriage rolled away.  He peeped out of the door in time to see
a little figure fly out into the rain, and walking slowly towards the
schoolroom came face to face with Mrs Asplin.

"Gone?" she inquired sadly.  "Well, I'm thankful it is over.  Poor
little dear, where is she?  Flown up to her room, I suppose.  We'll
leave her alone until tea-time.  It will be the truest kindness."

"Yes," said Robert vaguely.  He was afraid that the good lady would not
be so willing to leave Peggy undisturbed if she knew her real
whereabouts, and was determined to say nothing to undeceive her.  He
felt sure that the girl had hidden herself in the summer-house at the
bottom of the garden, and a nice, damp, mouldy retreat it would be this
afternoon, with the rain driving in through the open window, and the
creepers dripping on the walls.  Just the place in which to sit and
break your heart, and catch rheumatic fever with the greatest possible
ease.  And yet Robert said no word of warning to Mrs Asplin.  He had an
inward conviction that if anyone were to go to the rescue, that person
should be himself, and that he, more than anyone else, would be able to
comfort Peggy in her affliction.  He sauntered up and down the hall
until the coast was clear, then dashed once more into the cloak-room,
took an Inverness coat from a nail, a pair of goloshes from the floor,
and sped rapidly down the garden-path.  In less than two minutes he had
reached the summer-house, and was peeping cautiously in at the door.
Yes; he was right.  There sat Peggy, with her arms stretched out before
her on the rickety table, her shoulders heaving with long, gasping sobs.
Her fingers clenched and unclenched themselves spasmodically, and the
smooth little head rolled to and fro in an abandonment of grief.  Robert
stood looking on in silent misery.  He had a boy's natural hatred of
tears, and his first impulse was to turn tail, go back to the house, and
send someone to take his place; but even as he hesitated he shivered in
the chilly damp, and remembered the principal reason of his coming.  He
stepped forward and dropped the cloak over the bent shoulders, whereupon
Peggy started up and turned a scared white face upon him.

"Who, who--Oh! it is you!  What do you want?"

"Nothing.  I saw you come out, and thought you would be cold.  I brought
you out my coat."

"I don't want it; I am quite warm.  I came here to be alone."

"I know; I'm not going to bother.  Mrs Asplin thinks you are in your
room, and I didn't tell her that I'd seen you go out.  But it's damp.
If you catch cold, your mother will be sorry."

Peggy looked at him thoughtfully, and there was a glimmer of gratitude
in her poor tear-stained eyes.

"Yes; I p-p-romised to be careful.  You are very kind, but I can't think
of anything to-night.  I am too miserably wretched."

"I know; I've been through it.  I was sent away to a boarding-school
when I was a little kid of eight, and I howled myself to sleep every
night for weeks.  It is worse for you, because you are older, but you
will be happy enough in this place when you get settled.  Mrs Asplin is
a brick, and we have no end of fun.  It is ever so much better than
being at school; and, I say, you mustn't mind what Mellicent said the
other night.  She's a little muff, always saying the wrong thing.  We
were only chaffing when we said you were to be our fag.  We never really
meant to bully you."

"You c-couldn't if you t-tried," stammered Peggy brokenly, but with a
flash of her old spirit which delighted her hearer.

"No; of course not.  You can stand up for yourself; I know that very
well.  But look here: I'll make a compact, if you will.  Let us be
friends.  I'll stick to you and help you when you need it, and you stick
to me.  The other girls have their brother to look after them, but if
you want anything done, if anyone is cheeky to you, and you want him
kicked, for instance, just come to me, and I'll do it for you.  It's all
nonsense about being a fag, but there are lots of things you could do
for me if you would, and I'd be awfully grateful.  We might be partners,
and help one another--"

Robert stopped in some embarrassment, and Peggy stared fixedly at him,
her pale face peeping out from the folds of the Inverness coat.  She had
stopped crying, though the tears still trembled on her eyelashes, and
her chin quivered in uncertain fashion.  Her eyes dwelt on the broad
forehead, the overhanging brows, the square, massive chin, and
brightened with a flash of approval.

"You are a nice boy," she said slowly.  "I like you!  You don't really
need my help, but you thought it would cheer me to feel that I was
wanted.  Yes; I'll be your partner, and I'll be of real use to you yet.
You'll find that out, Robert Darcy, before you have done with me."

"All right, so much the better.  I hope you will; but you know you can't
expect to have your own way all the time.  I'm the senior partner, and
you will have to do what I tell you.  Now I say it's damp in this hole,
and you ought to come back to the house at once.  It's enough to kill
you to sit in this draught."

"I'd rather like to be killed.  I'm tired of life.  I shouldn't mind
dying a bit."

"Humph!" said Robert shortly.  "Jolly cheerful news that would be for
your poor mother when she arrived at the end of her journey!  Don't be
so selfish.  Now then, up you get!  Come along to the house."

"I wo--" Peggy began, then suddenly softened, and glanced apologetically
into his face.  "Yes, I will, because you ask me.  Smuggle me up to my
room, Robert, and don't, don't, if you love me, let Mellicent come near
me!  I couldn't stand her chatter to-night!"

"She will have to fight her way over my dead body," said Robert firmly;
and Peggy's sweet little laugh quavered out on the air.

"Nice boy!" she repeated heartily.  "Nice boy; I do like you!"



CHAPTER SEVEN.

AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHERS.

Peggy looked very sad and wan after her mother's departure, but her
companions soon discovered that anything like outspoken sympathy was
unwelcome.  The redder her eyes, the more erect and dignified was her
demeanour; if her lips trembled when she spoke, the more grandiose and
formidable became her conversation, for Peggy's love of long words and
high-sounding expressions was fully recognised by this time, and caused
much amusement in the family.

A few days after Mrs Saville sailed, a welcome diversion arrived in the
shape of the promised camera.  The Parcels Delivery van drove up to the
door, and two large cases were delivered, one of which was found to
contain the camera itself, the tripod and a portable dark room, while
the other held such a collection of plates, printing-frames, and
chemicals as delighted the eyes of the beholders.  It was the gift of
one who possessed not only a deep purse, but a most true and thoughtful
kindness, for, when young people are concerned, two-thirds of the
enjoyment of any present is derived from the possibility of being able
to put it to immediate use.  As it was a holiday afternoon, it was
unanimously agreed to take two groups and develop them straightway.

"Professional photographers are so dilatory," said Peggy severely; "and
indeed I have noticed that amateurs are even worse.  I have twice been
photographed by friends, and they have solemnly promised to send me a
copy within a few days.  I have waited, consumed by curiosity, and, my
dears, it has been months before it has arrived!  Now we will make a
rule to finish off our groups at once, and not keep people waiting until
all the interest has died away.  There's no excuse for such dilatory
behaviour!"

"There is some work to do, remember, Peggy.  You can't get a photograph
by simply taking off and putting on the cap; you must have a certain
amount of time and fine weather.  I haven't had much experience, but I
remember thinking that photographs were jolly cheap, considering all the
trouble they cost, and wondering how the fellows could do them at the
price.  There's the developing, and washing, and printing, and toning,--
half a dozen processes before you are finished."

Peggy smiled in a patient, forbearing manner.

"They don't get any less, do they, by putting them off?  Procrastination
will never lighten labour.  Come, put the camera up for us, like a good
boy, and we'll show you how to do it."  She waved her hand towards the
brown canvas bag, and the six young people immediately seized different
portions of the tripod and camera, and set to work to put them together.
The girls tugged and pulled at the sliding legs, which were too new and
stiff to work with ease; Maxwell turned the screws which moved the
bellows, and tried in vain to understand their working; Robert peered
through the lenses, and Oswald alternately raved, chided, and jeered at
their efforts.  With so many cooks at work, it took an unconscionable
time to get ready, and even when the camera was perched securely on its
spidery legs, it still remained to choose the site of the picture, and
to pose the victims.  After much wandering about the garden, it was
finally decided that the schoolroom window would be an appropriate
background for a first effort; but a heated argument followed before the
second question could be decided.

"I vote that we stand in couples, arm-on-arm,--like this!" said
Mellicent, sidling up to her beloved brother, and gazing into his face
in a sentimental manner, which had the effect of making him stride away
as fast as he could walk, muttering indignant protests beneath his
breath.

Then Esther came forward with her suggestion.

"I'll hold a book as if I were reading aloud, and you can all sit round
in easy, natural positions, and look as if you were listening.  I think
that would make a charming picture."

"Idiotic, I call it!  `Scene from the Goodchild family; mamma reading
aloud to the little ones.'  Couldn't possibly look easy and natural
under the circumstances; should feel too miserable.  Try again, my dear.
You must think of something better than that."

It was impossible to please those three fastidious boys.  One suggestion
after another was made, only to be waved aside with lordly contempt,
until at last the girls gave up any say in the matter, and left Oswald
to arrange the group in a manner highly satisfactory to himself and his
two friends, however displeasing to the more artistic members of the
party.  Three girls in front, two boys behind, all standing stiff as
pokers; with solemn faces, and hair ruffled by constant peepings beneath
the black cloth.  Peggy in the middle, with her eyebrows more peaked
than ever, and an expression of resigned martyrdom on her small, pale
face; Mellicent, large and placid, on the left; Esther on the right,
scowling at nothing, and, over their shoulders, the two boys' heads,
handsome Max and frowning Robert.

"There," cried Oswald, "that's what I call a sensible arrangement!  If
you take a photograph, _take_ a photograph, and don't try to do a
pastoral play at the same time.  Keep still a moment, and I will see if
it is focused all right.  I can see you pulling faces, Peggy!  It's not
at all becoming.  Now then, I'll put in the plate--that's the way!--
one--two--three--and I shall take you.  Stea-dy?"

Instantly Mellicent burst into giggles of laughter, and threw up her
hands to her face, to be roughly seized from behind and shaken into
order.

"Be quiet, you silly thing!  Didn't you hear him say steady?  What are
you trying to do?"

"She has spoiled this plate, anyhow," said Oswald icily.  "I'll try the
other, and if she can't keep still this time she had better run away and
laugh by herself at the other end of the garden.  Baby!"

"Not a ba--" began Mellicent indignantly; but she was immediately
punched into order, and stood with her mouth wide open, waiting to
finish her protest so soon as the ordeal was over.

Peggy forestalled her, however, with an eager plea to be allowed to take
the third picture herself.

"I want to have one of Oswald to send to mother, for we are not complete
without him, and I know it would please her to think I had taken it
myself," she urged; and permission was readily granted, as everyone felt
that she had a special claim in the matter.  Oswald therefore put in new
plates, gave instructions as to how the shutters were to be worked, and
retired to take up an elegant position in the centre of the group.

"Are you read-ee?" cried Peggy, in professional sing-song; then she put
her head on one side and stared at the group with twinkling eyes.  "Hee,
hee!  How silly you look!  Everyone has a new expression for the
occasion!  Your own mothers would not recognise you!  That's better.
Keep that smile going for another moment, and--how long must I keep off
the cap, did you say?"

Oswald hesitated.

"Well, it varies.  You have to use your own judgment.  It depends upon--
lots of things!  You might try one second for the first, and two for the
next, then one of them is bound to be right."

"And one a failure!  If I were going to depend on my judgment, I'd have
a better one than that!" cried Peggy scornfully.  "Ready!  A little more
cheerful, if you please--Christmas is coming!  That's _one_.  Be so good
as to remain in your positions, ladies and gentlemen, and I'll try
another."  The second shutter was pulled out, the cap removed, and the
group broke up with sighs of relief, exhausted with the strain of
cultivating company smiles for a whole two minutes on end.  Max stayed
to help the girls to fold up the camera, while Oswald darted into the
house to prepare the dark room for the development of the plates.

When he came out, ten minutes later on, it was a pleasant surprise to
discover Miss Mellicent holding a plate in her hand and taking sly peeps
inside the shutter, just "to see how it looked."  He stormed and raved,
while Mellicent looked like a martyr, wished to know how a teeny little
light like that could possibly hurt anything, and seemed incapable of
understanding that if one flash of sunlight could make a picture, it
could also destroy it with equal swiftness.  Oswald was forced to
comfort himself with the reflection that there were still three plates
uninjured; and, when all was ready, the six operators squeezed
themselves in the dark room, to watch the process of development,
indulging the while in the most flowery expectations.

"If it is very good, let me send it to an illustrated paper.  Oh, do!"
said Mellicent, with a gush.  "I have often seen groups of people in
them.  `The thing-a-me-bob touring company,' and stupid old cricketers,
and things like that.  We should be far more interesting."

"It will make a nice present for mother, enlarged and mounted," said
Peggy thoughtfully.  "I shall keep an album of my own, and mount every
single picture we take.  If there are any failures, I shall put them in
too, for they will make it all the more amusing.  Photograph albums are
horribly uninteresting as a rule, but mine shall be quite different.
There shall be nothing stiff and prim about it; the photographs shall be
dotted about in all sorts of positions, and underneath each I shall put
in--ah--conversational annotations."  Her tongue lingered over the words
with triumphant enjoyment.  "Conversational annotations, describing the
circumstances under which it was taken, and anything about it which is
worth remembering...  What are you going to do with those bottles?"

Oswald ruffled his hair in embarrassment.  To pose as an instructor in
an art, when one is in doubt about its very rudiments, is a position
which has its drawbacks.

"I don't--quite--know.  The stupid fellow has written instructions on
all the other labels, and none on these except simply `Developer Number
1' and `Developer Number 2'; I think the only difference is that one is
rather stronger than the other.  I'll put some of the Number 2 in a
dish, and see what happens; I believe that's the right way--in fact, I'm
sure it is.  You pour it over the plate and jog it about, and in two or
three minutes the picture ought to begin to appear.  Like this!"

Five eager faces peered over his shoulders, rosy red in the light of the
lamp; five pairs of lips uttered a simultaneous "Oh!" of surprise; five
cries of dismay followed in instant echo.  It was the tragedy of a
second.  Even as Oswald poured the fluid over the plate, a picture
flashed before their eyes, each one saw and recognised some fleeting
feature; and, in the very moment of triumph, lo, darkness, as of night,
a sheet of useless, blackened glass!

"What about the conversational annotations?" asked Robert slily; but he
was interrupted by a storm of indignant queries, levied at the head of
the poor operator, who tried in vain to carry off his mistake with a
jaunty air.  Now that he came to think of it, he believed you _did_ mix
the two developers together!  Just at the moment he had forgotten the
proportions, but he would go outside and look it up in the book; and he
beat a hasty retreat, glad to escape from the scene of his failure.  It
was rather a disconcerting beginning; but hope revived once more when
Oswald returned, primed with information from the _Photographic Manual_,
and Peggy's plates were taken from their case and put into the bath.
This time the result was slow in coming.  Five minutes went by, and no
signs of a picture--ten minutes, a quarter of an hour.

"It's a good thing to develop slowly; you get the details better," said
Oswald, in so professional a manner that he was instantly reinstated in
public confidence; but when twenty minutes had passed, he looked
perturbed, and thought he would use a little more of the hastener.  The
bath was strengthened and strengthened, but still no signs of a picture.
The plate was put away in disgust, and the second one tried with a like
result.  So far as it was possible to judge, there was nothing to be
developed on the plate.

"A nice photographer you are, I must say!  What are you playing at now?"
asked Max, in scornful impatience; and Oswald turned severely to Peggy--

"Which shutter did you draw out?  The one nearest to yourself?"

"Yes, I did--of course I did!"

"You drew out the nearest to you, and the farthest away from the lens?"

"Precisely--I told you so!" and Peggy bridled with an air of virtue.

"Then no wonder nothing has come out!  You have drawn out the wrong
shutter each time, and the plates have never been exposed.  They are
wasted!  That's fivepence simply _thrown_ away, to say nothing of the
chemicals!"

His air of aggrieved virtue; Peggy's little face staring at him, aghast
with horror; the thought of four plates being used and leaving not a
vestige of a result, were all too funny to be resisted.  Mellicent went
off into irrepressible giggles; Max gave a loud "Ha, ha!" and once again
a mischievous whisper sounded in Peggy's ear--

"Good for you, Mariquita!  What about the `conversational annotations'?"



CHAPTER EIGHT.

PEGGY SHOWS HERSELF IN HER TRUE COLOURS.

The photographic fever burnt fiercely for the next few weeks.  Every
spare hour was devoted to the camera, and there was not a person in the
house, from the vicar himself to the boy who came in to clean boots and
knives, who had not been pressed to repeated sittings.  There were no
more blank plates, but there were some double ones which had been twice
exposed, and showed such a kaleidoscopic jumble of heads and legs as was
as good as any professional puzzle; but, besides these, there were a
number of groups where the likenesses were quite recognisable, though
scarcely flattering enough to be pleasant to the originals.  There was
quite a scene in the dining-room on the evening when Oswald came down in
triumph and handed round the proofs of the first presentable group, over
which he had been busy all the afternoon.

"Oh, oh, oh!  I'm an old woman, and I never knew it!" cried Mrs Asplin,
staring in dismay at the haggard-looking female who sat in the middle of
the group, with heavy, black shadows on cheeks and temple.  The vicar
cast a surreptitious glance in the glass above the sideboard, and tried
to straighten his bent shoulders, while Mellicent's cheeks grew scarlet
with agitation, and the tears were in her voice, as she cried--

"I look like a p-p-pig!  It's not a bit like!  A nasty, horrid, fat,
puffy pig!"

"I don't care about appearances; but mine is not in the least like,"
Esther said severely.  "I am sure no one could recognise it; I look
seventy-eight at the very least."

Robert flicked the paper across the table with a contemptuous "Bah!" and
Max laughed in his easy, jolly manner, and said--

"Now I know how I shall look when my brain softens!  I'm glad I've seen
it; it will be a lesson to me to take things easily, and not
over-study."

"But look at the leaves of the ivy," protested Oswald, in aggrieved
self-vindication, "each one quite clear and distinct from the others;
it's really an uncommonly good plate.  The detail is perfect.  Look at
that little bunch of flowers at the corner of the bed!"  All in vain,
however, did he point out the excellences of his work.  The victims
refused to look at the little bunch of flowers.  Each one was occupied
with staring at his own portrait; the Asplin family sighing and
protesting, and Peggy placidly poking a pin through the eyes of the
various sitters, and holding the paper to the light to view the effect.
It was a little trying to the feelings of one who had taken immense
pains over his work, and had given up a bicycle ride to sit for a whole
afternoon in a chilly pantry, dabbling in cold water, and watching over
the various processes.  Oswald was ruffled, and showed it more plainly
than was altogether courteous.

"I'm sorry you're not pleased," he said coldly.  "I aim at truthfulness,
you see, and that is what you don't get from a professional photograph.
It's no good wasting time, simply to get oneself disliked.  I'll go in
for Nature, and leave the portrait business to somebody else.  The girls
can try!  They think they can do everything!"

Peggy looked at Esther, and Esther looked at Peggy.  They did not say a
word, but a flash of understanding passed from the brown eyes to the
grey, which meant that they were on their mettle.  They were not going
to defend themselves, but henceforth it was a case of die or produce a
good photograph, and so oblige Oswald to alter his tone of scornful
incredulity.

For the next week the camera was the one engrossing thought.  Every
minute that could be spared was devoted to experiments, so that Fraulein
complained that lessons were suffering in consequence.  The hearts of
her pupils were not in their work, she declared; it would be a good
thing if a rule could be made that no more photographs were to be taken
until the Christmas holidays.  She looked very fierce and formidable as
she spoke, but soft-hearted Mrs Asplin put in a plea for forgiveness.

"Ah, well, then, have patience for a few days longer," she begged.
"They are just children with a new toy; let them have as much of it as
they will at first, and they will tire of their own accord, and settle
down to work as well as ever.  We can control their actions, but not
their thoughts; and I'm afraid if I forbade photography at present, you
would find them no more interested in lessons.  I fancy there is
something especially engrossing on hand this week, and we might as well
let them have it out."

Even Mrs Asplin, however, hardly realised the thoroughness with which
the girls were setting to work to achieve their end.  They held a
committee meeting on Esther's bed, sitting perched together in attitudes
of inelegant comfort, with arms encircling their knees, and chins
resting on the clasped hands, wherein it was proposed and seconded that
Peggy, the artistic, should pose and take the sitters, while Esther, the
accurate, should undertake the after-processes.

"And what am I to do?" cried Mellicent plaintively; and her elders
smiled upon her with patronising encouragement.

"You shall wash up all the trays and glasses, and put them neatly away."

"You shall carry the heavy things, dear, and stand to me for your back
hair.  I think I could make a really good effect with your back hair."
Peggy put her head on one side and stared at the flaxen mane in
speculative fashion.  "A long muslin gown--a wreath of flowers--a bunch
of lilies in your hands!  If you weren't so fat, you would do
splendiforously for Ophelia.  I might manage it, perhaps, if I took you
from the back, with your head turned over your shoulder, so as to show
only the profile.  Like that!  Don't move now, but let me see how you
look."  She took Mellicent's head between her hands as she spoke, wagged
it to and fro, as if it belonged to a marionette, and then gave a
frog-like leap to a farther corner of the bed to study the effect.  "A
little more to the right.  Chin higher!  Look at the ceiling.  Yes-es--I
can do it.  I see how it can be done."

It turned out, indeed, that Peggy had a genius for designing and posing
pretty, graceful pictures.  With a few yards of muslin and a basket, or
such odds and ends of rubbish as horrified Esther's tidy soul to behold,
she achieved marvels in the way of fancy costumes, and transformed the
placid Mellicent into a dozen different characters: Ophelia, crowned
with flowers; Marguerite, pulling the petals of a daisy; Hebe, bearing a
basket of fruit on her head, and many other fanciful impersonations,
were improvised and taken before the week was over.  She went about the
work in her usual eager, engrossed, happy-go-lucky fashion, sticking
pins by the dozen into Mellicent's flesh in the ardour of arrangement,
and often making a really charming picture, only to spoil it at the last
moment by a careless movement, which altered the position of the camera,
and so omitted such important details as the head of the sitter, or left
her squeezed into one corner of the picture, like a sparrow on the
house-top.

Out of a dozen photographs, three, however, were really remarkable
successes; as pretty pictures as one could wish to see, and, moreover,
exceedingly good likenesses of the bonnie little subject.  Esther's part
of the work was performed with her usual conscientious care; and when
the last prints were mounted, the partners gazed at them with rapture
and pride.  They were exhibited at the dinner-table the same evening
amid a scene of riotous excitement.  The vicar glowed with pleasure;
Mrs Asplin called out, "Oh, my baby!  Bless her heart!" and whisked
away two tears of motherly pride.  Oswald was silent and subdued; and
even Robert said, "Humph--it's not so bad," a concession which turned
the girls' heads by its wonderful magnanimity.

Their triumph was almost sweeter than they had expected; but, truth to
tell, they had had too much of photography during the last week, and
Mrs Asplin's prophecy came true, inasmuch as it now ceased to become an
occupation of absorbing interest, and assumed its rightful place as an
amusement to be enjoyed now and then, as opportunity afforded.



CHAPTER NINE.

THE HONOURABLE ROSALIND.

By the beginning of October Peggy had quite settled down in her new
home, and had established her right to be Arthur Saville's sister by
convulsing the quiet household with her tricks and capers.  She was
affectionate, obedient, and strictly truthful; her prim little face,
grandiose expressions, and merry ways, made her a favourite with
everyone in the house, from the vicar, who loved to converse with her in
language even more high-flown than her own, to the old North-country
cook, who confided in the housemaid that she "fair-ly did love that
little thing," and manoeuvred to have apple charlotte for dinner as
often as possible, because the "little thing" had praised her prowess in
that direction, and commended the charlotte as a "delicious confection."
Mrs Asplin was specially tender over the girl who had been left in her
charge, and, in return, Peggy was all that was sweet and affectionate,
vowed that she could never do enough to repay such kindness, and
immediately fell into a fresh pickle, and half frightened the life out
of her companions by her hairbreadth escapes.  Her careless,
happy-go-lucky ways seemed all the more curious because of the almost
Quaker-like neatness of her appearance.  Mellicent was often untidy, and
even Esther had moments of dishevelment, but Peggy was a dainty little
person, whose hair was always smooth, whose dress well brushed and
natty.  Her artistic sense was too keen to allow of any shortcoming in
this respect; but she seemed blessed with a capacity of acting before
she thought, which had many disastrous consequences.  She was by no
means a robust girl, and Mrs Asplin fussed over her little ailments
like an old mother-hen with a delicate nursling.  One prescription after
another was unearthed for her benefit, until the washstand in her room
looked like a small chemist's shop.  An array of doctor's tinctures,
gargles, and tonics, stood on one side, while on the other were a number
of home-made concoctions in disused wine-bottles, such as a paregoric
cough-mixture, and a cooling draught to be taken the first thing in the
morning, which last pretended to be lemonade, but in reality contained a
number of medicinal powders.  "Take it up tenderly, treat it with care!"
was Peggy's motto with respect to this last-named medicine, for she had
discovered that by judicious handling it was possible to enjoy a really
tasty beverage, and to leave the sediment untouched at the bottom of the
bottle!

Esther and Mellicent were almost equally well supplied by their anxious
mother, but their bottles behaved in a well-regulated fashion, and never
took upon themselves to play tricks, while those in Peggy's room seemed
infected by the spirit of the owner, and amused themselves with seeing
how much mischief they could accomplish.  A bottle of ammonia had been
provided as a cure for bites of gnats and flies; Peggy flicked a towel
more hastily than usual, and down it fell, the contents streaming over
the wood, and splashing on to the wardrobe near at hand, with the
consequence that every sign of polish was removed, and replaced by white
unsightly stains.  The glass stopper of a smelling-salts bottle became
fixed in its socket, and, being anointed with oil and placed before the
fire to melt, popped out suddenly with a noise as of a cannon shot,
aimed accurately for the centre of the mirror, and smashed it into a
dozen pieces.  The "safety ink-pot," out of which she indited her
letters to her mother, came unfastened of its own accord and rolled up
and down the clean white toilet cover.  This, at least, was the
impression left by Peggy's innocent protestations, while the gas and
soap seemed equally obstinate--the one refusing to be lowered when she
left the room, and the other insisting upon melting itself to pieces in
her morning bath!

"Mrs Saville was right--Peggy is a most expensive person!" cried Mrs
Asplin in dismay, when the bills for repairs came in; but when the vicar
suggested the advisability of a reproof, she said, "Oh, poor child; she
is so lonely--I haven't the heart to scold her;" and Peggy continued to
detail accounts of her latest misfortune with an air of exaggerated
melancholy, which barely concealed the underlying satisfaction.  It
required a philosophic mind to be able to take damages to personal
property in so amiable a fashion; but occasionally Peggy's pickles took
an irresistibly comical character.  The story was preserved in the
archives of the family of one evening when the three girls had been sent
upstairs to wash their abundant locks and dry them thoroughly before
retiring to bed.  A fire was kindled in the old nursery, which was now
used as a sewing-room, and Mrs Asplin, who understood nothing if it was
not the art of making young folks happy, had promised a supper of roast
apples and cream when the drying process was finished.

Esther and Mellicent were squatted on the hearth, in their blue
dressing-gowns, when in tripped Peggy, fresh as a rose, in a long robe
of furry white, tied round the waist with a pink cord.  One bath-towel
was round her shoulders, and a smaller one extended in her hands, with
the aid of which she proceeded to perform a fancy dance, calling out
instructions to herself the while, in imitation of the dancing-school
mistress.  "To the right--two--three!  To the left--two--three!  Spring!
Pirouette!  Atti-tude!"  She stood poised on one foot, towel waving
above her head, damp hair dripping down her back, while Esther and
Mellicent shrieked with laughter, and drummed applause with heel and
toe.  Then she flopped down on the centre of the hearth, and there was
an instantaneous exclamation of dismay.

"Phew!  What a funny smell!  Phew!  Phew!  Whatever can it be?"

"I smelt it too.  Peggy, what have you been doing?  It's simply awful!"

"Hair-wash, I suppose, or the soap--I noticed it myself.  It will pass
off," said Peggy easily; but at that moment Mrs Asplin entered the
room, sniffed the air, and cried loudly--

"Bless me, what's this?  A regular Apothecaries' Hall!  Paregoric!  It
smells as if someone had been drinking quarts of paregoric!  Peggy,
child, your throat is not sore again?"

"Not at all, thank you.  Quite well.  I have taken no medicine to-day."

"But it is you, Peggy--it really is!"  Mellicent declared.  "There was
no smell at all before you came into the room.  I noticed it as soon as
the door was opened, and when you came and sat down beside us--whew!
simply fearful!"

"I have taken _no_ medicine to-day," repeated Peggy firmly.  Then she
started, as if with a sudden thought, lifted a lock of hair, sniffed at
it daintily, and dropped it again with an air of conviction.  "Ah, I
comprehend!  There seems to have been a slight misunderstanding.  I have
mistaken the bottles.  I imagined that I was using the mixture you gave
me, but--"

"She has washed her hair in cough-mixture!  Oh, oh, oh!  She has mixed
paregoric and treacle with the water!  Oh, what will I do! what will I
do!  This child will be the death of me!"  Mrs Asplin put her hand to
her side, and laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks, while
Mellicent rolled about on the floor, and Esther's quiet "He, he, he!"
filled up the intervals between the bursts of merriment.

Peggy was marched off to have her hair re-washed and rinsed, and came
back ten minutes later, proudly complacent, to seat herself in the most
comfortable stool and eat roast apple with elegant enjoyment.  She was
evidently quite ready to enlarge upon her latest feat, but the sisters
had exhausted the subject during her absence, and had, moreover, a piece
of news to communicate which was of even greater interest.

"Oh, Peggy, what y'think?" cried Mellicent, running her words into each
other in breathless fashion, as her habit was when excited; "I've got
something beautiful to tell you.  S'afternoon Bob got a letter from his
mother to say that they were all coming down next week to stay at the
Larches for the winter.  They come almost every year, and have
shooting-parties, and come to church and sit in the big square pew,
where you can just see their heads over the side.  They look so funny,
sitting in a row without their bodies.  Last year there was a young lady
with them who wore a big grey hat--the loveliest hat you ever saw--with
roses under the brim, and stick-up things all glittering with jewels,
and she got married at Christmas.  I saw her photograph in a magazine,
and knew her again in a moment.  I used to stare at her, and once she
smiled back at me.  She looked sweet when she smiled.  Lady Darcy always
comes to call on mother, and she and father go there to dinner ever so
many times, and we are asked to play with Rosalind--the Honourable
Rosalind.  I expect they will ask you to go too.  Isn't it exciting?"

"I can bear it," said Peggy coldly.  "If I try very hard, I think I can
support the strain."

The Larches, the country house of Lord Darcy, had already been pointed
out to her notice; but the information that the family was coming down
for the yearly visit was unwelcome to her, for a double reason.  She
feared, in the first place, lest it should mean a separation from Bob,
who was her faithful companion, and fulfilled his promise of friendship
in a silent, undemonstrative fashion, much to her fancy.  In the second
place, she was conscious of a rankling feeling of jealousy towards the
young lady who was distinguished by the name of the Honourable Rosalind,
and who seemed to occupy an exalted position in the estimation of the
vicar's daughters.  Her name was frequently introduced into
conversation, and always in the most laudatory fashion.  When a heroine
was of a superlatively fascinating description, she was "Just like
Rosalind"; when an article of dress was unusually fine and dainty, it
would "do for Rosalind."  Rosalind was spoken of with bated breath, as
if she were a princess in a fairy tale, rather than an ordinary
flesh-and-blood damsel.  And Peggy did not like it; she did not like it
at all, for, in her own quiet way, she was accustomed to queen it among
her associates, and could ill brook the idea of a rival.  She had not
been happy at school, but she had been complacently conscious that of
all the thirty girls she was the most discussed, the most observed, and
also, among the pupils themselves, the most beloved.  At the vicarage
she was an easy first.  When the three girls went out walking, she was
always in the middle, with Esther and Mellicent hanging on an arm at
either side.  Robert was her sworn vassal, and Max and Oswald her
respectful and, on the whole, obedient servants.  Altogether, the
prospect of playing second fiddle to this strange girl was by no means
pleasant.  Peggy tilted her chin, and spoke in a cool, cynical tone.

"What is she like, this wonderful Rosalind?  Bob does not seem to think
her extraordinary.  I cannot imagine a `Miss Robert' being very
beautiful, and as she is his sister, I suppose they are alike."

Instantly there arose a duet of protests.

"Not in the least.  Not a single bit.  Rosalind is lovely!  Blue eyes,
golden hair--"

"Down past her waist--"

"The sweetest little hands--"

"A real diamond ring--"

"Pink cheeks--"

"Drives a pony-carriage, with long-tailed ponies--"

"Speaks French all day long with her governess--jabber, jabber, jabber,
as quick as that--just like a native--"

"Plays the violin--"

"Has a lovely little sitting-room of her own, simply crammed with the
most exquisite presents and books, and goes travelling abroad to France
and Italy and hot places in winter.  Lord and Lady Darcy simply worship
her, and so does everyone, for she is as beautiful as a picture.  Don't
you think it would be lovely to have a lord and lady for your father and
mother?"

Peggy sniffed the air in scornful superiority.

"I am very glad I've not!  Titles are so ostentatious!  Vulgar, I call
them!  The very best families will have nothing to do with them.  My
father's people were all at the Crusades, and the Wars of the Roses, and
the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  There is no older family in England,
and they are called `Fighting Savilles,' because they are always in the
front of every battle, winning honours and distinctions.  I expect they
have been offered titles over and over again, but they would not have
them.  They refused them with scorn, and so would I if one were offered
to me.  Nothing would induce me to accept it!"

Esther rolled her eyes in a comical, sideway fashion, and gave a little
chuckle of unbelief; but Mellicent looked quite depressed by this
reception of her grand news, and said anxiously--

"But, Peggy, think of it!  The Honourable Mariquita!  It would be too
lovely!  Wouldn't you feel proud writing it in visitors' books, and
seeing it printed in newspapers when you grow up?  `The Honourable
Mariquita wore a robe of white satin, trimmed with gold!'"

"Peggy Saville is good enough for me, thank you," said that young lady,
with a sudden access of humility.  "I have no wish to have my clothes
discussed in the public prints.  But if you are invited to the Larches
to play with your Rosalind, pray don't consider me!  I can stay at home
alone.  I don't mind being dull.  I can turn my time to good account.
Not for the world would I interfere with your pleasure?"

"But P-P-Peggy, dar-ling Peggy, we would not leave you alone!"
Mellicent's eyes were wide with horror, she stretched out entreating
hands towards the unresponsive figure.  To see Peggy cross and snappish
like--any other ordinary mortal was an extraordinary event, and quite
alarming to her placid mind.  "They will ask you, too, dear!  I am sure
they will--we will all be asked together!" she cried; but Peggy tossed
her head, refusing to be conciliated.

"I shall have a previous engagement.  I am not at all sure that they are
the sort of people I ought to know," she said.  "My parents are so
exclusive!  They might not approve of the acquaintance!"



CHAPTER TEN.

AMBITIONS!

Although Fraulein had charge over the girls' education, Mr Asplin
reserved to himself the right of superintending their studies and
dictating their particular direction.  He was so accustomed to training
boys for a definite end that he had no patience with the ordinary
aimless routine of a girl's school course, and in the case of his
daughters had carefully provided for their different abilities and
tastes.  Esther was a born student, a clear-headed, hard-thinking girl,
who took a delight in wrestling with Latin verbs and in solving problems
in Euclid, while she had little or no artistic faculty.  He put her
through much the same course as his own boys, gave her half an hour's
private lesson on unoccupied afternoons, and cut down the two hours'
practising on the piano to a bare thirty minutes.  Esther had pleaded to
give up music altogether, on the ground that she had neither love nor
skill for this accomplishment, but to this the vicar would not agree.

"You have already spent much time over it, and have passed the worst of
the drudgery; it would be folly to lose all you have learnt," he said.
"You may not wish to perform in public, but there are many other ways in
which your music may be useful.  In time to come you would be sorry if
you could not read an accompaniment to a song, play bright airs to amuse
children, or hymn tunes to help in a service.  Half an hour a day will
keep up what you have learned, and so much time you must manage to
spare."

With Mellicent the case was almost exactly opposite.  It was a waste of
time trying to teach her mathematics, she had not sufficient brain power
to grasp them, and if she succeeded in learning a proposition by heart
like a parrot, it was only to collapse into helpless tears and
protestations when the letters were altered, and, as it seemed to her,
the whole argument changed thereby.

Fraulein protested that it was impossible to teach Mellicent to reason;
but the vicar was loath to give up his pet theory that girls should
receive the same hard mental training as their brothers.  He declared
that if the girl were weak in this direction, it was all the more
necessary that she should be trained, and volunteered to take her in
hand for half an hour daily, to see what could be done.  Fraulein
accepted this offer with a chuckle of satisfaction, and the vicar went
on with the lessons several weeks, patiently plodding over the same
ground without making the least impression on poor Mellicent's brain,
until there came one happy never-to-be-forgotten morning when Algebra
and Euclid went spinning up to the ceiling, and he jumped from the table
with a roar of helpless laughter.

"Oh, baby! baby! this is past all bearing!  We might try for a century,
and never get any further.  I cannot waste any more time."  Then, seeing
the large tears gathering, he framed the pretty face in his hands, and
looked at it with a tender smile.  "Never mind, darling! there are
better things in this world than being clever and learned.  You will be
our little house-daughter; help mother with her work, and play and sing
to father when he is tired in the evening.  Work hard at your music,
learn how to manage a house, to sew and mend and cook, and you will have
nothing to regret.  A woman who can make a home, has done more than many
scholars."

So it came to pass that Mellicent added the violin to her
accomplishments, and was despatched to her own room to practise
exercises, while her elder sister wrestled with problems and equations.

When Peggy Saville arrived, here was a fresh problem, for Fraulein
reported that the good child could not add five and six together without
tapping them over on her finger; was as ignorant of geography as a
little heathen, and had so little ear for music that she could not sing
"Rule Britannia" without branching off into "God save the Queen."  But
when it came to poetry!--Fraulein held up her hands in admiration.  It
was absolutely no effort to that child to remember, her eyes seemed to
flash down the page, and the lines were her own, and as she repeated
them her face shone, and her voice thrilled with such passionate delight
that Esther and Mellicent had been known to shed tears at the sound of
words which had fallen dead and lifeless from their own lips.  And at
composition, how original she was!  What a relief it was to find so
great a contrast to other children!  When it was the life of a great man
which should be written, Esther and Mellicent began their essays as
ninety-nine out of a hundred schoolgirls would do, with a flat and
obvious statement of birth, birthplace, and parentage; but Peggy
disdained such commonplace methods, and dashed headlong into the heart
of her subject with a high-flown sentiment, or a stirring assertion
which at once arrested the reader's interest.  And it was the same with
whatever she wrote; she had the power of investing the dullest subject
with charm and brightness.  Fraulein could not say too much of Peggy's
powers in this direction, and the vicar's eye brightened as he listened.
He asked eagerly to be allowed to see the girl's manuscript book, and
summoned his wife from pastry-making in the kitchen to hear the three or
four essays which it contained.

"What do you think of those for a girl of fourteen?  There's a pupil for
you!  If she were only a boy!  Such dash--such spirit--such a gift of
words!  Do you notice her adjectives?  Exaggerated, no doubt, and
over-abundant, but so apt, so true, so strong!  That child can write:
she has the gift.  She ought to turn out an author of no mean rank."

"Oh, dear me!  I hope not.  I hope she will marry a nice, kind man who
will be good to her, and have too much to do looking after her children
to waste her time writing stories," cried Mrs Asplin, who adored a good
novel when she could get hold of one, but harboured a prejudice against
all women-authors as strong-minded creatures, who lived in lodgings, and
sported short hair, inky fingers, and a pen behind the ear.  Mariquita
Saville was surely destined for a happier fate.  "When a woman can live
her _own_ romance, why need she trouble her head about inventing
others?"

Her husband looked at her with a quizzical smile.

"Even the happiest life is not all romance, dear.  It sometimes seems
unbearably prosaic, and then it is a relief to lose oneself in fiction.
You can't deny that!  I seem to have a remembrance of seeing someone I
know seated in a big chair before this very fire devouring a novel and a
Newton pippin together on more Saturday afternoons than I could number."

"Tuts!" said his wife, and blushed a rosy red, which made her look
ridiculously young and pretty.  Saturday afternoon was her holiday-time
of the week, and she had not yet outgrown her schoolgirl love of eating
apples as an accompaniment to an interesting book; but how aggravating
to be reminded of her weakness just at this moment of all others!  "What
an inconvenient memory you have!" she said complainingly.  "Can't a poor
body indulge in a little innocent recreation without having it brought
up against her in argument ever afterwards?  And I thought we were
talking about Peggy!  What is at the bottom of this excitement?  I know
you have some plan in your head."

"I mean to see that she reads good books, and only books that will help,
and not hinder, her progress.  The rest will come in time.  She must
learn before she can teach, have some experience of her own before she
can imagine the experiences of others; but writing is Peggy's gift, and
she has been put in my charge.  I must try to give her the right
training."

From that time forward Mr Asplin studied Peggy with a special interest,
and a few evenings later a conversation took place among the young
people which confirmed him in his conclusion as to her possibilities.
Lessons were over for the day, and girls and boys were amusing
themselves in the drawing-room, while Mr Asplin read the _Spectator_,
and his wife knitted stockings by the fire.  Mellicent was embroidering
a prospective Christmas present, an occupation which engaged her leisure
hours from March to December; Esther was reading, and Peggy was supposed
to be writing a letter, but was, in reality, talking incessantly, with
her elbows planted on the table, and her face supported on her clasped
hands.  She wore a bright pink frock, which gave a tinge of colour to
the pale face, her hair was unbound from the tight pigtail and tied with
a ribbon on the nape of her neck, from which it fell in smooth heavy
waves to her waist.  It was one of the moments when her companions
realised with surprise that Peggy could look astonishingly pretty upon
occasion; and Oswald, from the sofa, and Max and Bob, from the opposite
side of the table, listened to her words with all the more attention on
that account.

She was discussing the heroine of a book which they had been reading in
turns, pointing out the inconsistencies in her behaviour, and
expatiating on the superior manner in which she--Mariquita--would have
behaved, had positions been reversed.  Then the boys had described their
own imaginary conduct under the trying circumstances, drawing forth
peals of derisive laughter from the feminine audience; and the question
had finally drifted from "What would you do?" to "What would you be?"
with the result that each one was eager to expatiate on his own pet
schemes and ambitions.

"I should like to come out first in all England in the Local
Examinations, get my degree of M.A., and be a teacher in a large High
School," said Esther solemnly.  "At Christmas and Easter I would come
home and see my friends, and in summer-time I'd go abroad and travel,
and rub up my languages.  Of course, what I should like best would be to
be headmistress of Girton, but I could not expect that to come for a
good many years.  I must be content to work my way up, and I shall be
quite happy wherever I am, so long as I am teaching."

"Poor old Esther! and she will wear spectacles, and black alpaca
dresses, and woollen mittens on her hands!  Can't I see her!" cried Max,
throwing back his head with one of the cheery bursts of laughter which
brought his mother's eyes upon him with a flash of adoring pride.  "Now
there's none of that overweening ambition about me.  I could bear up if
I never saw an improving book again.  What _I_ would like would be for
some benevolent old millionaire to take a fancy to me, and adopt me as
his heir.  I feel cut out to be a country gentleman, and march about in
gaiters and knickerbockers, looking after the property, don't you know,
and interviewing my tenants.  I'd be strict with them, but kind at the
same time; look into all their grievances, and put them right whenever I
could.  I'd make it a model place before I'd done with it, and all the
people would adore me.  That's my ambition, and a very good one it is
too; I defy anyone to have a better."

"I should like to marry a very rich man with a big moustache, and a
beautiful house in London with a fireplace in the hall," cried Mellicent
fervently.  "I should have carriages and horses, and a diamond necklace
and three children: Valentine Roy--that should be the boy--and
Hildegarde and Ermyntrude, the girls, and they should have golden hair
like Rosalind, and blue eyes, and never wear anything but white, and big
silk sashes.  I'd have a housekeeper to look after the dinners and
things, and a governess for the children, and never do anything myself
except give orders and go out to parties.  I'd be the happiest woman
that ever lived."

Lazy Oswald smiled in complacent fashion.

"And the fattest!  Dearie me, wouldn't you be a tub!  I don't know that
I have any special ambition.  I mean to get my degree if I can, and then
persuade the governor to send me a tour round the world.  I like moving
about, and change and excitement, and travelling is good fun if you
avoid the fag, and provide yourself with introductions to the right
people.  I know a fellow who went off for a year, and had no end of a
time; people put him up at their houses, and got up balls and dinners
for his benefit, and he never had to rough it a bit.  I could put in a
year or two in that way uncommonly well."

Rob had been wriggling on his chair and scowling in his wild-bear
fashion all the while Oswald was speaking, and at the conclusion he
relieved his feelings by kicking out recklessly beneath the table, with
the result that Peggy sat up suddenly with a "My foot, my friend!  Curb
your enthusiasm!" which made him laugh, despite his annoyance.

"But it's such bosh!" he cried scornfully.  "It makes me sick to hear a
fellow talk such nonsense.  Balls and dinners--faugh!  If that's your
idea of happiness, why not settle down in London and be done with it!
That's the place for you!  I'd give my ears to go round the world, but I
wouldn't thank you to go with a dress suit and a valet; I'd want to
rough it, to get right out of the track of civilisation and taste a new
life; to live with the Bedouin in their tents as some of those artist
fellows have done, or make friends with a tribe of savages.
Magnificent!  I'd keep a notebook with an account of all I did, and all
the strange plants and flowers and insects I came across, and write a
book when I came home.  I'd a lot rather rough it in Africa than lounge
about Piccadilly in a frock coat and tall hat."  Robert sighed at the
hard prospect which lay before him as the son of a noble house, then
looked across the table with a smile: "And what says the fair Mariquita?
What _role_ in life is she going to patronise when she comes to years
of discretion?"

Peggy nibbled the end of her pen and stared into space.

"I've not quite decided," she said slowly.  "I should like to be either
an author or an orator, but I'm not sure which.  I think, on the whole,
an orator, because then you could watch the effect of your words.  It is
not possible, of course, but what I should like best would be to be the
Archbishop of Canterbury, or some great dignitary of the Church.  Oh,
just imagine it!  To stand up in the pulpit and see the dim cathedral
before one, and the faces of the people looking up, white and solemn.--
I'd stand waiting until the roll of the organ died away, and there was a
great silence; then I would look at them, and say to myself--`A thousand
people, two thousand people, and for half an hour they are in my power.
I can make them think as I will, see as I will, feel as I will.  They
are mine!  I am their leader.'--I cannot imagine anything in the world
more splendid than that!  I should choose to be the most wonderful
orator that was ever known, and people would come from all over the
world to hear me, and I would say beautiful things in beautiful words,
and see the answer in their faces, and meet the flash in the eyes
looking up into mine.  Oh-h! if it could only--only be true; but it
can't, you see.  I am a girl, and if I try to do anything in public I am
as nervous as a rabbit, and can only squeak, squeak, squeak in a tiny
little voice that would not reach across the room.  I had to recite at a
prize-giving at school once, and, my dears, it was a lamentable failure!
I was only audible to the first three rows, and when it was over I
simply sat down and howled, and my knees shook.  Oh dear, the very
recollection unpowers me!  So I think, on the whole, I shall be an
authoress, and let my pen be my sceptre.  From my quiet fireside," cried
Peggy, with a sudden assumption of the Mariquita manner, and a swing of
the arms which upset a vase of chrysanthemums, and sent a stream of
water flowing over the table--"from my quiet fireside I will sway the
hearts of men--"

"My plush cloth!  Oh, bad girl--my new plush cloth!  You dreadful Peggy,
what will I do with you?"  Mrs Asplin rushed forward to mop with her
handkerchief and lift the dripping flowers to a place of safety, while
Peggy rolled up her eyes with an expression of roguish impenitence.

"Dear Mrs Asplin, it was not I, it was that authoress.  She was
evolving her plots...  Pity the eccentricities of the great!"



CHAPTER ELEVEN.

A SHAKESPEARE READING.

Esther was preparing for the Cambridge Local Examination at Christmas,
and making a special study of _The Merchant of Venice_, as the play
chosen for the year.

Fraulein explained the notes, and expatiated on the Venice of the past
and the manners and customs of its inhabitants; but it was Mr Asplin
who had the brilliant idea of holding a Shakespeare reading which should
make the play live in the imagination of the young people, as no amount
of study could do.  The suggestion was made one day at dinner, and was
received with acclamation by everyone present.

"Oh, how lovely, father!  It will help me ever so much!" said Esther.
"And Peggy must be Portia."

"I'd like to be that funny little man Launcelot--what do you call it?--
only I know I couldn't do it," said Mellicent humbly.  "I'll be the
servants and people who come in and give messages.  But, of course,
Peggy must be Portia."

"Peggy shall be Portia, and I'll be the Jew, and snarl at her across the
court," said Rob, with an assurance which was not at all appreciated by
his companions.

"I've rather a fancy to try Shylock myself," Max declared.  "Oswald
would make a capital Bassanio, and you could manage Antonio all right if
you tried, for he has not so much to do.  Let me see: Peggy--Portia;
Esther--Nerissa; Mellicent--Jessica (she's so like a Jewess, you see!);
you and Oswald--Bassanio and Antonio; Shylock--my noble self.  Father
and mother to help out with the smaller characters.  There you are!  A
capital cast, and everyone satisfied.  I'm game to be Shylock, but I
can't do the sentimental business.  You two fellows will have to take
them, and we'll divide the smaller fry among us."

"Indeed we will do nothing of the kind.  I'm not going to take Bassanio;
I couldn't do it, and I won't try.  I'll have a shot at Shylock if you
like, but I can't do anything else.  The cast is all wrong, except so
far as Peggy is concerned.  Of course she is Portia."

"Proposed, seconded, and carried unanimously that Peggy is Portia!" said
Mr Asplin, smiling across the table at that young lady, who tried to
look modest and unconcerned, but was plainly aglow with satisfaction.
"For Shylock, as the character seems so much in demand, we had better
draw lots.  I will write the names on slips of paper, and you must all
agree to take what comes, and make the best of it.  I will fill in the
gaps, and I am sure mother will help all she can--"

"Lemonade in the intervals, and coffee for those who prefer it, with
some of my very best company cake," said Mrs Asplin briskly.  "It will
be quite an excitement.  I should rather like to be Shylock myself, and
defy Peggy and her decree; but I'll give it up to the boys, and make
myself generally useful.  Why couldn't we begin to-night?"

"Oh, Mrs Asplin, no!  It will take me days to get up my part!  And the
costumes--consider the costumes!" cried Peggy anxiously.  And her
hostess raised her hands in surprise.

"The costumes!  Are you going to dress up?  I never thought of that!"

"Surely that is unnecessary, Peggy!  You can read the play without
changing your clothes!" echoed the vicar; but, from the chorus of
disclaimer which greeted his words, it appeared that the young people
could do nothing of the sort.

Max wanted to know how a fellow could possibly "talk Shylock" in a white
tie and an evening jacket.  Oswald thought it equally ridiculous to pose
as an Italian lover in English clothing; and Peggy turned up her eyes
and said she could not really abandon herself to her part if her costume
were inappropriate.  Even Esther, the sober-minded, sided with the rest,
so the vicar laughed and gave way, only too pleased to sanction anything
which helped the object which he had at heart.

"Dress up by all means, if it pleases you.  It will be interesting to
see the result.  But, of course, I must be absolved from any experiments
of the kind."

"Oh, of course!  And mother, too, if she likes, though I should love to
see her made-up as Shylock!  You must not see or ask about our dresses
until the night arrives.  They must be a secret.  You will lend us all
your fineries, mother--won't you?"

"Bless your heart, yes!  But I haven't got any!" said Mrs Asplin, in
her funny Irish way.  "They were all worn out long, long ago."  She gave
a little sigh for the memory of the days when she had a wardrobe full of
pretty things and a dozen shimmery silk dresses hanging on the pegs, and
then flashed a loving smile at her husband, in case he might think that
she regretted their loss.  "If there is anything about the rooms that
would do, you are welcome to use it," she added, glancing vaguely at the
sideboard and dumb waiter, while the boys laughed loudly at the idea of
finding any "properties" in the shabby old dining-room.

Peggy, however, returned thanks in the most gracious manner, and sat
wrapt in thought for the rest of the evening, gazing darkly around from
time to time, and scribbling notes on sheets of note-paper.

Short of playing Shylock, which in the end fell to Maxwell's share, it
seemed as if all the responsibility of the performance fell on Peggy's
shoulders.  She was stage manager, selecting appropriate pieces of
furniture from the different rooms and piling them together behind the
screen in the study, whence they could be produced at a moment's notice,
to give some idea of the different scenes.  She coached Esther and
Mellicent in their parts, designed and superintended the making of the
costumes, and gave the finishing touches to each actor in turn when the
night of the "Dramatic Reading" arrived.

"Taking one consideration with another," as Max remarked, "the costumes
were really masterpieces of art."

To attire two young gentlemen as Italian cavaliers, and a third as a
bearded Jew, with no materials at hand beyond the ordinary furnishings
of a house, is a task which calls for no small amount of ingenuity, yet
this is exactly what Peggy had done.

Antonio and Bassanio looked really uncommonly fine specimens, with
cycling knickerbockers, opera cloaks slung over their shoulders, and
flannel shirts pouched loosely over silk sashes, and ornamented with
frills of lace at wrists and neck.  Darkened eyebrows gave them a
handsome and distinguished air, and old straw hats and feathers sat
jauntily on their tow wigs.

The vicar sat in the arm-chair by the fire, Shakespeare in hand, waiting
to fill in the odd parts with his wife's help, and simultaneous cries of
astonishment and admiration greeted the appearance of the two actors at
the beginning of the first scene.

"It's wonderful!  Did I ever see such children?  What in the world have
they got on their heads?  Milly's old leghorn, I declare, and my pink
feathers.  My old pink feathers!  Deary me!  I'd forgotten all about
them.  I've never worn them since the year that--"

"`In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,'" quoth the wearer of the
feathers, scowling darkly at the frivolous prattler, who straightway hid
her head behind her book, and read Salanio's first speech in a tone of
meek apology.

There was a great deal of confusion about the first scene, for four
people had to read the parts of six, and one of the number was so much
occupied with gazing at the costumes of the actors that she invariably
lost her place, and had to be called to order by significant coughs and
glances.  By this time it generally happened that the vicar had made up
his mind to come to the rescue, and both husband and wife would begin to
read at the same moment, to their own amusement, and to the disgust of
the two lads, who felt uncomfortable in their borrowed plumes, and
keenly sensitive about their precious dignity.  Antonio mumbled his last
speech in undignified haste, and followed Bassanio out of the room,
prepared to echo his statement that this sort of thing was "tomfoolery,"
and that he wasn't going to make an idiot of himself any longer to
please Peggy Saville, or any other girl in the world.  But the words
died on his lips, for outside, in the hall, stood Peggy herself, or
rather Portia, and such a Portia as made him fairly blink with
amazement!  Amidst the bustle of the last few days Portia's own costume
had been kept a secret, so that the details came as a surprise to the
other members of the party.  Nerissa stood by her side, clad in a
flowing costume, the component parts of which included a dressing-gown,
an antimacassar, and a flowered chintz curtain; but, despite the nature
of the materials, the colouring was charming, and frizzled hair, flushed
cheeks, and sparkling eyes, transformed the sober Esther into a very
personable attendant on the lady of Belmont.  There was nothing of the
dressing-gown character about Portia's own attire, however.  Its
magnificence took away the breath of the beholders.  The little witch
had combed her hair to the top of her head, and arranged it in a coil,
which gave height and dignity to her figure.  A string of pearls was
twisted in and out among the dark tresses; her white silk frock was
mysteriously lengthened and ornamented by two large diamond-shaped
pieces of satin encrusted with gold, one placed at the bottom of the
skirt, and the other hanging loosely from the square-cut neck of the
bodice.  Long yellow silk sleeves fell over the bare arms and reached
the ground; and from the shoulders hung a train of golden-hued plush,
lined with a paler shade of yellow.  Bassanio and Gratiano stood aghast,
and Portia simpered at them sweetly in the intervals between dispensing
stage directions to the boot boy, who was clad in his best suit for the
occasion, and sent to and fro to change the arrangement of the scenery.
He wheeled the sofa into the centre of the room, piled it up with blue
cushions, and retired to make way for the two ladies, who were already
edging in at the door.

A gasp of astonishment greeted their appearance, but when Peggy dragged
her heavy train across the room, threw herself against the cushions in
an attitude calculated to show off all the splendour of her attire, when
she leant her pearl-decked head upon her hand, turned her eyes to the
ceiling, and said, with a sigh as natural and easy as if they were her
own words which she was using, and not those of the immortal Shakespeare
himself, "`By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is a-weary of this great
world!'"--then the vicar broke into a loud "Hear! hear!" of delight, and
Mrs Asplin seized the poker and banged uproarious applause upon the
fender.  For the first few minutes amazement and admiration held her
dumb; but as the girls moved to and fro, and the details of their
costumes became more apparent, she began to utter spasmodic cries of
recognition, somewhat trying to the composure of the actors.

Portia's description of her lovers was interrupted by a cry of, "My
table centres!  The Turkish squares I bought at the Exhibition, and have
never used!  Wherever did they find them?" while a little later came
another cry, as the identity of the plush train made itself known, "My
_portiere_ from the drawing-room door!  My beautiful _portiere_--with
the nice new lining!  Oh dear, dear! it's dragging about all over the
dirty carpet!  Don't sit on it, dear!  For pity's sake, don't git on
it!"

"Mother!" cried Esther, in a deep tone of remonstrance; but Portia was
unconscious of interruption.  The other actors held their books in their
hands, and, for the most part, read their speeches; but Peggy trusted
entirely to memory, and sighed and yawned over the denunciation of her
lovers, with evident satisfaction to herself as well as to the
beholders.  Nerissa read her part "conscientiously," as the newspapers
would say, punctuating her sentences in exemplary fashion, and laying
the emphasis upon the right words as directed by the stage manageress;
but, such is the contrariness of things, that, with all her efforts, the
effect was stiff and stifled, while Peggy drawled through her sentences,
or gabbled them over at break-neck speed, used no emphasis at all, or
half a dozen running, at her own sweet will, and was so truly Portia
that the vicar wondered dreamily if he should have to interview the Duke
of Morocco in his study, and Mrs Asplin sighed unconsciously, and told
herself that the child was too young to be troubled with lovers.  She
must not dream of accepting any one of them for years to come!

At the end of the scene, however, anxiety about her beloved _portiere_
overpowered everything else in the mind of the vicar's wife, and she
rushed after the actors to call out eager instructions.  "Hang it up at
once--there's good children.  If you put it down on a chair, Peggy will
sit on it as sure as fate!  And oh! my table centres!  Put them back in
the drawer if you love me!  Wrap them up in the tissue paper as you
found them!"

"Mother, you are a terrible person!  Go back, there's a dear, and do
keep quiet!" cried a muffled voice from behind the dining-room door, as
Shylock dodged back to escape observation; and Mrs Asplin retreated
hastily, aghast at the sight of a hairy monster, in whom she failed to
recognise a trace of her beloved son and heir.  Shylock's make-up was,
in truth, the triumph of the evening.  The handsome lad had been
transformed into a bent, misshapen old man, and anything more ugly,
frowsy, and generally unattractive than he now appeared it would be
impossible to imagine.  A cushion gave a hump to his shoulders, and over
this he wore an aged purple dressing-gown, which had once belonged to
the vicar.  The dressing-gown was an obvious refuge; but who but Peggy
Saville would have thought of the trimming, which was the making of the
shaggy, unkempt look so much desired?  Peggy had sat with her hands
clasped on her lap, and her head on one side, staring at the gown when
it was held out for her approval two days before, then had suddenly
risen, and rushed two steps at a time upstairs to the topmost landing, a
wide, scantily furnished space which served for a playground on wet
afternoons.  An oilcloth covered the floor, a table stood in a corner,
and before each of the six doors was an aged wool rug, maroon as to
colouring, with piebald patches here and there where the skin of the
lining showed through the scanty tufts.  Peggy gave a whoop of triumph,
tucked one after the other beneath her arm, and went flying down again,
dropping a mat here and there, tripping over it, and nearly falling from
top to bottom of the stairs.  Hairbreadth escapes were, however, so much
a part of her daily existence that she went on her way unperturbed, and
carried her bundle into the study, where the girls sniffed derisively,
and the boys begged to know what she intended to do with all that
rubbish.

"`They that have no invention should be hanged,'" quoted Peggy,
unperturbed.  "Give me a packet of pins, and I'll soon show you what I
am going to do.  Dear, dear, dear, I don't know what you would do
without me!  You are singularly bereft of imagination."

She tossed her pigtail over her shoulder, armed herself with the largest
pins she could find, and set to work to fasten the mats down the front
of the gown, and round the hem at the bottom, so that the wool hung in
shaggy ends over the feet.  The skins were thick, the heads of the pins
pressed painfully into her fingers, but she groaned and worked away
until the border was arranged for stitching, and could be tried on to
show the effect.

"Perfectly splendid!" was the verdict of the beholders.  And so the
matter of Shylock's gown was settled; but his beard still remained to be
provided, and was by no means an easy problem to solve.

"Tow!" suggested Mellicent; but the idea was hooted by all the others.
The idea of Shylock as a blonde was too ridiculous to be tolerated.
False hair was not to be bought in a small village, and Maxwell's
youthful face boasted as yet only the faintest shadow of a moustache.

The question was left over for consideration, and an inspiration came
the same afternoon, when Robert hurled one of the roller-like cushions
of the sofa at Oswald's head, and Oswald, in catching it, tore loose a
portion of the covering.

"Now you've done it!" he cried.  "The room will be covered with
feathers, and then you will say it was my fault!  We shall have to
fasten the stupid thing up somehow or other!"  He peered through the
opening as he spoke, and his face changed.  "It's not feathers--it's
horsehair!  Here's a find!  What about that wig for Shylock?"

Esther was dubious.

"It would take a great deal of horsehair to make a wig.  It would spoil
the cushion if the horsehair were taken away; it would spoil the sofa if
the cushion were small; it would spoil the room if the sofa--"

Peggy interrupted with a shriek of laughter.  "Oh, oh, oh!  It's like
the `House that Jack built'!  How long do you intend to go on like that?
Nonsense, my dear!  It would be perfectly easy to take out what we
want, and put it back afterwards.  I'll promise to do it myself and sew
it up tightly, though, if you desire my opinion, I think the cushion
would be improved by letting in a little air.  You might as well lean
your head on a brick.  Max, you are a made man!  You shall have a
beautiful, crinkly black wig, and a beard to match!  We will sew them to
your turban, and fasten them with black elastic.  It will never show,
and I'll finish off the joins after you are dressed.  You'll see?"

"You can do as you like!  I'm in your hands!" said Max easily; and when
the night of the reading arrived, and he was attired in wig and gown,
Peggy seated him in a chair and tucked a towel under his chin with an
air of business.  She had a number of small accessories on a table near
at hand, and Max was first instructed to stick pieces of black plaster
over alternate teeth, so that he might appear to possess only a few
isolated fangs, and then made to lie back in his chair, while his
dresser stood over him with a glue-brush in one hand and a bunch of
loose horsehair in the other.

"Shut your eyes!" she cried loudly.  And before he could say "Jack
Robinson" a tuft of the wiry stuff covered his eyebrow.  "Keep your face
still!"  And, to his horror, the gum was daubed from the borders of the
beard, halfway up to his eyes, and little prickly ends of hair were held
in Peggy's palm and pressed against his cheeks until they were firmly
attached.

This, indeed, was more than he had bargained for!  He jerked back his
head, and began a loud-voiced protest, only to be interrupted by shrieks
of excitement.

"Oh, oh, oh!  It's beautiful--beautiful!  What a fright!  What a
delicious fright!  No one would know you!  You look an old hairy monster
who would gobble up half a dozen Christians.  Do look at yourself!"

Peggy felt the pride of an artist in the result of her efforts, and Max
was hardly less delighted than herself as he stood before the glass,
gazing at his hairy cheeks and leering horribly, to admire his toothless
gums.  If the result were so hideous as to astonish even those who had
watched the process of his make-up, what wonder that the effect upon
Shylock's fond parents was of a stupefying nature!

Horror kept Mrs Asplin silent until the middle of the scene between
Shylock and Antonio when the bond is signed, and then her agitation
could no longer be controlled, and Shylock's little speeches were
interrupted by entreaties to take that horrid stuff off his teeth, to
use plenty of hot water in washing his face, and to be sure to anoint it
plentifully with cold cream after doing so.

An ordinary lad would have lost his temper at these interruptions; but
Max adored his mother, and could never take anything she did in a wrong
spirit.  Anger being therefore impossible, the only other resource was
to laugh, which, in Peggy's opinion, was even worse than the former.  A
Shylock who chuckled between his speeches, and gave a good-humoured "Ha!
ha!" just before uttering his bitterest invective, was a ridiculous
parody of the character, with whom it would be impossible to act.  It
would be hard indeed if all her carefully rehearsed speeches lost their
effect, and the famous trial scene were made into a farce through these
untimely interruptions!

The second part of the play went more smoothly, however, as the audience
settled down to a more attentive hearing, and the actors became less
self-conscious and embarrassed.  If four out of the six were sticks, who
never for a moment approached the verge of the natural, Portia and
Shylock did nobly, and, when the reading was over and the young people
gathered round the fire in the drawing-room, it was unanimously agreed
that they had acquired a more intimate knowledge of the play by this one
evening's representation than by weeks of ordinary study.

"I feel so much more intimate with it!" said Esther.  "It seems to have
made it alive, instead of just something I have read in a book.  It was
a delightful thought, father, and I am grateful to you for proposing it.
I wish I could do all my lessons in the same way."

"I've not enjoyed myself so much for ages.  You just did beautifully,
all of you, and the dresses were a sight to behold.  As for Peggy, she's
a witch, and could make up costumes on a desert island, if she were put
to it!  But I don't know what is going to happen to my poor, dear boy's
face.  Oswald, what is he doing?  Isn't he coming to have some lemonade
and cake?" asked Mrs Asplin anxiously.  And Oswald chuckled in a
heartless fashion.

"Pride must abide.  He would be Shylock, whether we liked it or not, so
let him take the consequences.  He is fighting it out with cold cream in
the bathroom, and some of the horsehair sticks like fun.  I'll go up and
tell him we have eaten all the cake.  He was getting savage when I came
down, and it will sweeten his temper!"



CHAPTER TWELVE.

PEGGY IN TROUBLE.

As Peggy sat writing in the study one afternoon, a shaggy head came
peering round the door, and Robert's voice said eagerly--"Mariquita!  A
word in your ear!  Could you come out and take a turn round the garden
for half an hour before tea, or are you too busy?"

"Not at all.  I am entirely at your disposal," said Peggy elegantly; and
the young people made their way to the cloak-room, swung on coats and
sailor hats, and sallied out into the fresh autumn air.

"Mariquita," said Robert then, using once more the name by which he
chose to address Peggy in their confidential confabs, "Mariquita, I am
in difficulties!  There is a microscope advertised in _Science_ this
week, that is the very thing I have been pining for for the last six
years.  I must _get_ it, or die; but the question is--_how_?  You see
before you a penniless man."  He looked at Peggy as he spoke, and met
her small, demure smile.

"My dear and honourable sir--"

"Yes, yes, I know; drop that, Mariquita!  Don't take for granted, like
Mellicent, that because a man has a title he must necessarily be a
millionaire.  Everything is comparative!  My father is rich compared to
the vicar, but he is really hard-up for a man in his position.  He gets
almost no rent for his land nowadays, and I am the third son.  I haven't
as much pocket-money in a month as Oswald gets through in a week.  Now
that microscope costs twenty pounds, and if I were to ask the governor
for it, he wouldn't give it to me, but he would sigh and look wretched
at being obliged to refuse.  He's a kind-hearted fellow, you know, who
doesn't like to say `No,' and I hate to worry him.  Still--that
microscope!  I must have it.  By hook or by crook, I must have it.  I've
set my mind on that."

"I'm sure I hope you will, though for my part you must not expect me to
look through it.  I like things to be pretty, and when you see them
through a microscope they generally look hideous.  I saw my own hand
once--ugh!"  Peggy shuddered.  "Twenty pounds!  Well, I can only say
that my whole worldly wealth is at your disposal.  Draw on me for
anything you like--up to seven-and-six!  That's all the money I have
till the beginning of the month."

"Thanks!--I didn't intend to borrow; I have a better idea than that.  I
was reading a magazine the other day, and came upon a list of prize
competitions.  The first prize offered was thirty pounds, and I'm going
to win that prize!  The microscope costs only twenty pounds, but the
extra ten would come in usefully for--I'll tell you about that later on!
The _Piccadilly Magazine_ is very respectable and all that sort of
thing; but the governor is one of the good, old-fashioned, conservative
fellows, who would be horrified if he saw my name figuring in it.  I'm
bound to consider his feelings, but all the same I'm going to win that
prize.  It says in the rules--I've read them through carefully--that you
can ask your friends to help you, so that there would be nothing unfair
about going into partnership with someone else.  What I was going to
suggest was that you and I should collaborate.  I'd rather work with you
than with any of the others, and I think we could manage it rather well
between us.  Our contribution should be sent in in your name; that is to
say, if you wouldn't object to seeing yourself in print."

"I should love it.  I'm proud of my name; and it would be a new
sensation."  But Peggy spoke in absent-minded fashion, as if her
thoughts were running on another subject.  Rob had used a word which was
unfamiliar in her ears, a big word, a word with a delightful
intellectual roll, and she had not the remotest idea of its meaning.
Collaborate!  Beautiful!  Not for worlds would she confess her
ignorance, yet the opportunity could not be thrown away.  She must
secure the treasure, and add it to her mental store.  She put her head
on one side, and said pensively--

"I shall be most happy to er--er--In what other words can I express
`collaborate,' Rob?  I object to repetition?"

"Go shags!" returned Robert briefly.  "I would do the biggest part of
the work, of course--that's only fair, because I want two-thirds of the
money--but you could do what you liked, and have ten pounds for your
share.  Ten pounds would come in very usefully for Christmas."

"Rather!  I'd get mother and father lovely presents, and Mrs Asplin
too; and buy books for Esther, and a little gold ring for Mellicent--
it's her idea of happiness to have a gold ring.  I'll help you with
pleasure, Rob, and I'm sure we shall get the prize.  What have we to do?
Compose some poetry?"

"Goodness, no!  Fancy me making up poetry!  It's to make up a calendar.
There are subjects given for each month--sorrow, love, obedience,
resignation--that sort of thing, and you have to give a quotation for
each day.  It will take some time, but we ought to stand a good chance.
You are fond of reading, and know no end of poetry, and where I have a
pull is in knowing French and German _so_ well.  I can give them some
fine translations from the Latin and Greek too, for the matter of that,
and put the authors' names underneath.  That will impress the judges,
and make 'em decide in our favour.  I've been working at it only three
days, and I've got over fifty quotations already.  We must keep
note-books in our pockets, and jot down any ideas that occur to us
during the day, and go over them together at night.  You will know a
lot, I'm sure."

  "`Sorrow and silence are strong,
  and patient endurance is godlike,
  Therefore accomplish thy labour of love,
  till the heart is made godlike.'"

quoted Peggy with an air; and Rob nodded approval.

"That's it!  That's the style!  Something with a bit of a sermon in it
to keep 'em up to the mark for the day.  Bravo, Mariquita! you'll do it
splendidly.  That's settled, then.  We shall have to work hard, for
there is only a month before it must be sent off, and we must finish in
good time.  When you leave things to the last, something is bound to
come in the way.  It will take an age to write out three hundred and
sixty-five extracts."

"It will indeed, for they must be very nicely done," said Peggy
fastidiously.  "Of course it is most important that the extracts
themselves should be good, but it matters almost as much that they
should look neat and attractive.  Appearances go such a long way."  And
when Robert demurred, and stated his opinion that the judges would not
trouble their heads about looks, she stuck firmly to her point.

"Oh, won't they, though!  Just imagine how you would feel if you were in
their position, and had to look over scores of ugly, uninteresting
manuscripts.  You would be bored to death, and, after plodding
conscientiously through a few dozen, you would get so mixed up that you
would hardly be able to distinguish one from another.  Then suddenly--
suddenly,"--Peggy clasped her hands with one of her favourite dramatic
gestures--"you would see before you a dainty little volume, prettily
written, easy to read, easy to hold, nice to look at, and do you mean to
say that your heart wouldn't give a jump, and that you would not take a
fancy to the writer from that very moment?  Of course you would; and so,
if you please, I am going to look after the decorative department, and
see what can be done.  I must give my mind to it--Oh!  I'll tell you
what would be just the thing.  When I was in the library one day lately
I saw some sweet little note-books with pale green leaves and gilt
edges.  I'll count the pages, and buy enough to make up three hundred
and sixty-five, and twelve extra, so as to put one plain sheet between
each month.  Then we must have a cover.  Two pieces of cardboard would
do, with gilt edges, and a motto in Old English letters--`_The months in
circling-orbit fly_.'  Have I read that somewhere, or did I make it up?
It sounds very well.  Well, what next?"  Peggy was growing quite
excited, and the restless hands were waving about at a great rate.  "Oh,
the pages!  We shall have to put the date at the top of each.  I could
do that in gold ink, and make a pretty little skriggle--
er--`_arabesque_' I should say, underneath, to give it a finish.  Then
I'd hand them on to you to write the extracts in your tiny little
writing.  Rob, it will be splendid!  Do you really think we shall get
the prize?"

"I _mean_ to get it!  We have a good library here, and plenty of time,
if we like to use it.  I'm going to get up at six every morning.  I
shan't fail for want of trying, and if I miss this I'll win something
else.  My mind is made up!  I'm going to buy that microscope!"  Robert
tossed his head and looked ferocious, while Peggy peered in his rugged
face, and, womanlike, admired him the more for his determination.

They lingered in the garden discussing details, planning out the work,
and arranging as to the different books to be overlooked until the tea
hour was passed, and Mrs Asplin came to the door and called to them to
come in.

"And nothing on your feet but your thin slippers?  Oh, you Peggy!" she
exclaimed in despair.  "Now you will have a cold, and ten to one it will
fly to your throat.  I shall have to line you a penny every time you
cross the doorstep without changing your shoes.  Summer is over,
remember.  You can't be too careful in these raw, damp days.  Run
upstairs this minute and change your stockings."

Peggy looked meek, and went to her room at once to obey orders; but the
mischief was done--she shivered, and could not get warm, her head ached,
and her eyes felt heavy.  Mrs Asplin looked anxiously at her in the
drawing-room after dinner, and finally called her to her side.

"Peggy, come here!  Aren't you well?  Let me feel your hand.  Child,
it's like a coal!  You are in a fever.  Why didn't you tell me at once?"

"Because I--really, it's nothing, Mrs Asplin!  Don't be worried.  I
don't know why I feel so hot.  I was shivering only a minute ago."

"Go straight upstairs and take a dose of ammoniated quinine.  Turn on
the fire in your room.  Max!  Robert!  Oswald!  Esther!  Mellicent! will
everyone please look after Peggy in the future, and see that she does
not run out in her slippers!" cried Mrs Asplin in a despairing voice;
and Peggy bolted out of the door, in haste to escape before more
reproaches could be hurled at her head.

But an alarm of a more serious nature than a threatened cold was to take
place before the evening was over.  The young people answered briefly,
Mrs Asplin turned back to her book, and silence settled down upon the
occupants of the drawing-room.  It was half-past eight, the servants had
carried away the dinner things, and were enjoying their evening's rest
in the kitchen.  The vicar was nodding in his easy-chair, the house was
so quiet that the tick of the old grandfather clock in the hall could be
heard through the half-opened door.  Then suddenly came the sound of
flying footsteps, the door burst open, and in rushed Peggy once more,--
but such a Peggy, such an apparition of fear, suffering, and terror as
brought a cry of consternation from every lip.  Her eyes were starting
from her head, her face was contorted in spasmodic gaspings for breath,
her arms sawed the air like the sails of a windmill, and she flew round
and round the room in a wild, unheeding rush.

"Peggy, my child! my child! what is the matter?  Oh, Austin--oh!  What
shall we do?" cried Mrs Asplin, trying to catch hold of the flying
arms, only to be waved off with frenzied energy.  Mellicent dissolved
into tears and retreated behind the sofa, under the impression that
Peggy had suddenly taken leave of her senses, and practical Esther
rushed upstairs to search for a clue to the mystery among the medicine
bellies on Peggy's table.  She was absent only for a few minutes; but it
seemed like an hour to the watchers, for Peggy's face grew more and more
agonised, she seemed on the verge of suffocation, and could neither
speak nor endure anyone to approach within yards of her mad career.
Presently, however, she began to falter, to draw her breath in longer
gasps, and as she did so there emerged from her lips a series of loud
whooping sounds, like the crowing of a cock, or the noise made by a
child in the convulsions of whooping-cough.  The air was making its way
to the lungs after the temporary stoppage, and the result would have
been comical if any of the hearers had been in a mood for jesting,
which, in good truth, they were not.

"Thank Heaven!  She will be better now.  Open the window and leave her
alone.  Don't try to make her speak.  What in the world has the child
been doing?" cried the vicar wonderingly; and at that moment Esther
entered, bearing in her hand the explanation of the mystery--a bottle
labelled "Spirits of Ammonia," and a tumbler about an eighth full of a
white milky-looking fluid.

"They were in the front of the table.  The other things had not been
moved.  I believe she has never looked at the labels, but seized the
first bottle that came to her hand--this dreadfully strong ammonia which
you gave her for the gnat bites when she first came."

A groan of assent came from the sofa on which Peggy lay, choking no
longer, but ghastly white, and drawing her breath in painful gasps.
Mrs Asplin sniffed at the contents of the tumbler, only to jerk back
her head with watery eyes and reddened lips.

"No wonder that the child was nearly choked!  The marvel is that she had
ever regained her breath after such a mistake.  Her throat must be raw!"
She hurried out of the room to concoct a soothing draught, at which
Peggy supped at intervals during the evening, croaking out a hoarse,
"Better, thank you!" in reply to inquiries, and looking so small and
pathetic in her nest of cushions that the hearts of the beholders
softened at the sight.  Before bedtime, however, she revived
considerably, and, her elastic spirits coming to her aid, entertained
the listeners with a husky but dramatic account of her proceedings.  How
she had not troubled to turn the gas full up, and had just seized the
bottle, tilted some of the contents into a tumbler in which there was a
small portion of water, without troubling to measure it out, and gulped
it down without delay.  Her description of the feelings which ensued was
a really clever piece of word-painting, but behind the pretence of
horror at her own carelessness there rang a hardly concealed note of
pride, as though, in thus risking her life, she had done something quite
clever and distinguished.

Mrs Asplin exhausted herself in "Ohs!" and "Ahs!" of sympathy, and had
nothing harsher to say than--

"Well now, dearie, you'll be more careful another time, won't you?"  But
the vicar's long face grew longer than ever as he listened, and the
lines deepened in his forehead.  Peggy was inexperienced in
danger-signals, but Esther and Mellicent recognised the well-known
signs, and were at no loss to understand the meaning of that quiet, "A
word with you in the study, Mariquita, if you please!" with which he
rose from the breakfast-table next morning.

Peggy's throat was still sore, and she fondly imagined that anxiety on
its behalf was the cause of the summons, but she was speedily
undeceived, for the vicar motioned towards a chair, and said, in short
grave sentences, as his manner was when annoyed--

"I wish to speak to you about the event of last night; I am afraid that
you hardly realise the matter in its true light.  I was not at all
pleased with the manner in which you gave your explanation.  You
appeared to imagine that you had done something clever and amusing.  I
take a very different view.  You showed a reprehensible carelessness in
trifling with medicines in the dark; it might have caused you your life,
or, at best, a serious injury.  As it was, you brought pain upon
yourself, and gave us all a serious alarm.  I see nothing amusing in
such behaviour, but consider it stupid, and careless to an almost
criminal extent."

Peggy stood motionless, eyes cast down, hands clasped before her--a
picture of injured innocence.  She did not say a word in self-defence,
but her feelings were so plainly written on her face that the vicar's
eyes flashed with impatience.

"Well, what have you to say?"

Peggy sighed in dolorous fashion.

"I am sorry; I know it was careless.  I am always doing things like
that.  So is Arthur.  So was father when he was a boy.  It's in the
family.  It's unfortunate, but--"

"Mariquita," said the vicar sternly, "you are _not_ sorry!  If I had
seen that you were penitent, I should not have spoken, for you would
have been sufficiently punished by your own sufferings, but you are not
sorry; you are, on the whole, rather proud of the escapade!  Look into
your own heart and see if it is not so?"

He paused, looking at her with grave, expectant eyes, but there was no
sign of conviction upon the set face.  The eyes were still lowered, the
lips drooped with an expression of patient endurance.  There was silence
in the room while Peggy studied the carpet, and the vicar gazed at her
downcast face.  A moment before he had been on the verge of anger, but
the sternness melted away in that silence, and gave place to an anxious
tenderness.  Here was a little human soul committed to his care--how
could he help? how best guide and train?  The long, grave face grew
beautiful in that moment with the expression which it wore every Sunday
as he gazed around the church at the beginning of the sermon, noting
this one and that, having a swift realisation of their needs and
failings, and breathing a prayer to God that He would give to his lips
the right word, to his heart the right thought, to meet the needs of his
people.  Evidently, sternness and outspoken blame was not the best way
to touch the girl before him.  He must try another mode.

"Peggy," he said quietly, "do you think you realise what a heavy
responsibility we laid upon ourselves when we undertook the care of you
for these three years?  If any accident happened to you beneath our
roof, have you ever imagined what would be our misery and remorse at
sending the news to your parents?  About their feelings I do not speak;
you can realise them for yourself.  We safeguard you with every
precaution in our power; we pray morning and night that you may be
preserved in safety; is it too much to ask that you will do your part by
showing more forethought, and by exercising some little care in the
daily duties of life?  I ask it for our sakes as well as your own."

A pink flush spread over Peggy's cheeks; she gulped nervously and raised
her eyes to the vicar's face.  Twice her lips opened as if to speak, but
the natural reserve, which made it agony to her to express her deepest
feelings, closed them again before a word had been spoken.  The question
was not answered, but a little hand shot out and nestled in Mr Asplin's
with a spasmodic grip which was full of eloquence.

"Yes, dear, I know you will!  I know you will!" he said, answering the
unspoken promise, and looking down at her with one of his sweet, kindly
smiles.  "It will be a comfort to my wife as well as myself.  She is
very nervous about you.  She was upstairs three times in the night, to
satisfy herself that you were well after your fright, and is too tired
herself to come downstairs this morning.  She is always bright and
cheery, but she is not very strong.  You would be sorry to make her
ill."

No answer, only another grip of the hand, and a sudden straightening of
the lips, as if they were pressed together to avoid an involuntary
trembling.  There is something especially touching in the sight of
restrained emotion; and as the vicar thought of his own two daughters,
his heart was very tender over the girl whose parents were separated
from her by six thousand miles of land and sea.

"Well now, dear, I have said my say, and that is an end of it.  I don't
like finding fault, but my dear wife has thrown that duty on my
shoulders by being too tender-hearted to say a word of blame even when
it is needed.  Her method works very well, as a rule, but there are
occasions when it would be criminal to withhold a just reprimand."  The
vicar stopped short, and a spasm of laughter crossed his face.  Peggy's
fingers had twitched within his own as he spoke those last two words,
and her eyes had dilated with interest.  He knew as well as if he had
been told that she was gloating over the new expression, and mentally
noting it for future use.  Nothing, however, could have been sweeter or
more natural than the manner in which she sidled against him, and
murmured--

"Thank you so much.  I am sorry!  I will truly try;" and he watched her
out of the room with a smile of tender amusement.

"A nice child--a good child--feels deeply.  I can rely upon her to do
her best."

Robert was hanging about in the passage, ready, as usual, to fulfil his
vows of support, and Peggy slid her hand through his arm and sauntered
slowly with him towards the schoolroom.  Like the two girls, he had been
at no loss to understand the reason of the call to the study, and would
fain have expressed his sympathy, but Peggy stopped him with uplifted
finger.

"No, no--he was perfectly right.  You must not blame him.  I have been
guilty of reprehensible carelessness, and merited a reprimand!"



CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

JEALOUS THOUGHTS.

Peggy felt weak and shaken for some days after her fright, and was
thankful to stay quietly indoors and busy herself with her new task.
The gas-fire could be turned on in her room whenever she desired, and at
every spare moment she ran upstairs, locked her door behind her, and
began to write.  Robert insisted that the work should be kept secret,
and that not a word should be said about the competition downstairs, for
he was sensitive about the remarks of his companions, and anxious to
keep a possible failure to himself.  All the work had to be done
upstairs, therefore, and the frequent absence of the partners from the
schoolroom, though much regretted, did not seem at all inexplicable to
the others.  It was understood that Peggy and Robert had some interest
in common; but as winter advanced this was no unusual occurrence in a
house where Christmas was a carnival, and surprises of an elaborate
nature were planned by every member of the household.  It was taken for
granted that the work had some connection with Christmas, and inquiries
were discreetly avoided.

With an old calendar before her as a model for the lettering, Peggy did
her work neatly and well, and the gilt "arabesques" had an artistic
flourish which was quite professional.  When Robert was shown the first
half-dozen sheets he whistled with surprise, and exclaimed, "Good old
Mariquita!" a burst of approval before which Peggy glowed with delight.
It had been agreed that, after printing the first ten days of January,
Peggy should go on to the first ten of February, and so on throughout
the year, so that Rob should be able to use what quotations had already
been found under each heading, and should not be detained until the
whole thirty or thirty-one had been chosen.

The partners were most fastidious in their selection at the beginning of
their work; but when half the time had passed, and not one-third of the
necessary number of quotations had been found, alarm seized upon the
camp, and it was realised that a little more latitude must be shown.

"We shall have to use up all the old ones which we struck off the list,"
said Rob disconsolately.  "I'm sorry; but I never realised before that
three hundred and sixty-five was such an outrageously large number.  And
we shall have to get books of extracts, and read them through from
beginning to end.  Nearly two hundred more to find; a hundred and fifty,
say, when we have used up those old ones!  It will take us all our
time!"

"I'll get up at six every morning and read by my fire," said Peggy
firmly.  "If it's necessary, I'll get up at five, and if I can't find
bits to suit all the stupid old things, I'll--I'll write some myself!
There!  Why shouldn't I?  I often make up things in my head, and you
wouldn't believe how fine they are.  I think of them days afterwards,
and ask myself, `Now where did I read that?' and then it comes back to
me.  `Dear me; I made it up myself!'  If we get very short, Rob, there
wouldn't be any harm in writing a few sentences and signing them
`Saville,' would there?"

"Not if they were good enough," said Rob, trying to suppress the laugh
which would have hurt Peggy's feelings, and looking with twinkling eyes
at the little figure by his side, so comically unprofessional, with her
lace collar, dainty little feet, and pigtail of dark brown hair.

"You mustn't get up too early in the morning and overtire yourself.  I
can't allow that!" he added firmly.  "You have looked like a little
white ghost the last few days, and your face is about the size of my
hand.  You must get some colour into your cheeks before the holidays, or
that beloved Arthur will think we have been ill-treating you when he
comes down."

Peggy gave a sharp sigh, and relapsed into silence.  It was the rarest
thing in the world to hear her allude to any of her own people.  When a
letter arrived, and Mrs Asplin asked questions concerning father,
mother, or brother, she answered readily enough, but she never offered
information, or voluntarily carried on the conversation.  Friends less
sympathetic might have imagined that she was so happy in her new home
that she had no care beyond it, but no one in the vicarage made that
mistake.  When the Indian letter was handed to her across the
breakfast-table, the flush of delight on the pale cheeks brought a
reflected smile to every face, and more than one pair of eyes watched
her tenderly as she sat hugging the precious letter, waiting until the
moment should come when she could rush upstairs and devour its contents
in her own room.  Once it had happened that mail day had arrived and
brought no letter, and that had been a melancholy occasion.  Mrs Asplin
had looked at one envelope after another, had read the addresses twice,
thrice, even four times over, before she summoned courage to tell of its
absence.

"There is no letter for you to-day, Peggy!"  Her voice was full of
commiseration as she spoke, but Peggy sat in silence, her face
stiffened, her head thrown back with an assumption of calm indifference.
"There must have been some delay in the mail.  You will have two
letters next week, dearie, instead of one."

"Probably," said Peggy.  Mellicent was staring at her with big, round
eyes; the vicar peered over the rim of his spectacles; Esther passed the
marmalade with eager solicitude; her friends were all full of sympathy,
but there was a "Touch-me-if-you-dare!" atmosphere about Peggy that day
which silenced the words on their lips.  It was evident that she
preferred to be left alone, and though her eyes were red when she came
down to lunch, she held her chin so high, and joined in the conversation
with such an elegant flow of language, that no one dare comment on the
fact.  Two days later the letter arrived, and all was sunshine again;
but, in spite of her cheery spirits, her friends realised that Peggy's
heart was not in the vicarage, and that there were moments when the
loneliness of her position pressed on her, and when she longed intensely
for someone of her very own, whose place could not be taken by even the
kindest of friends.

Like most undemonstrative people, Peggy dearly loved to be appreciated,
and to receive marks of favour from those around.  Half the zest with
which she entered into her new labour was owing to the fact that Robert
had chosen her from all the rest to be his partner.  She was aglow with
satisfaction in this fact, and with pleasure in the work itself, and the
only cloud which darkened her horizon at the present moment was caused
by those incidental references to the fair Rosalind which fell so often
from her companions' lips.

"Everything," said Peggy impatiently to herself, "everything ends in
Rosalind!  Whatever we are talking about, that stupid girl's name is
bound to be introduced!  I asked Mellicent if she would have a scone at
tea this afternoon, and she said something about Rosalind in reply--
Rosalind liked scones, or she didn't like scones, or some ridiculous
nonsense of the sort!  Who wants to know what Rosalind likes?  I don't!
I'm sick of the name!  And Mrs Asplin is as silly as the rest!  The
girls must have new dresses because Rosalind is coming, and they will be
asked to tea at the Larches!  If their green dresses are good enough for
us, why won't they do for Rosalind, I should like to know?  Rob is the
only sensible one.  I asked him if she were really such a marvellous
creature, and he said she was an affected goose!  He ought to know
better than anyone else!  Curls indeed!  One would think it was
something extraordinary to have curls!  My hair would curl too, if I
chose to make it, but I don't; I prefer to have it straight!  If she is
the `Honourable Rosalind,' I am Mariquita Saville, and I'm not going to
be patronised by anybody--so there!" and Peggy tossed her head, and
glared at the reflection in the glass in a lofty and scornful manner, as
though it were the offending party who had had the audacity to assume
superiority.

Robert was one with Peggy in hoping that his people would not leave town
until such time as the calendar should be despatched on its travels, for
when they were installed at the Larches he was expected to be at home
each week from Saturday until Monday, and the loss of that long holiday
afternoon would interfere seriously with the work on hand.  He had seen
so little of his people for the last few years, that he would be
expected to be sociable during the short time that he was with them, and
could hardly shut himself up in his room for hours at a time.  Despair
then settled down upon both partners, when a letter arrived to say that
the Darcy family were coming down even earlier than had been expected,
and summoning Robert to join them at the earliest possible moment.

"This is awful!" cried the lad, ruffling his hair with a big, restless
hand.  "I know what it means--not only Saturdays off, but two or three
nights during the week into the bargain!  Between you and me, Mariquita,
the governor is coming down here to economise, and intends to stay much
longer than usual.  Hector has been getting into debt again; he's the
eldest, you know--the one in the Life Guards.  It's a lot too bad, for
he has had it all his own way so far, and when he runs up bills like
this, everyone has to suffer for it.  Mother hates the country for more
than a few weeks at a time, and will be wretched if she is kept here all
through the winter.  I know how it will be: she will keep asking people
down, and getting up all sorts of entertainments to relieve the dulness.
It's all very well in its way, but just now when I need every minute--"

"Shall you give up trying for the prize?" asked Peggy faintly, and Rob
threw back his head with emphatic disclaimer.

"I never give up a thing when I have made up my mind to do it!  There
are ten days still, and a great deal can be done in ten days.  I'll take
a couple of books upstairs with me every night, and see if I can find
something fresh.  There is one good thing about it, I shall have a fresh
stock of books to choose from at the Larches.  It is the last step that
costs in this case.  It was easy enough to fix off the first hundred,
but the last is a teaser!"

On Saturday morning a dogcart came over to convey Robert to the Larches,
and the atmosphere of the vicarage seemed charged with expectation and
excitement.  The Darcys had arrived; to-morrow they would appear at
church; on Monday they would probably drive over with Rob and pay a
call.  These were all important facts in a quiet country life, and
seemed to afford unlimited satisfaction to every member of the
household.  Peggy grew so tired of the name of Darcy that she retired to
her room at eight o'clock, and was busy at work over the September batch
of cards, when a knock came to the door, and she had to cover them over
with the blotting-paper to admit Mellicent in her dressing-gown, with
her hair arranged for the night in an extraordinary number of little
plaited pigtails.

"Will you fasten the ends for me, Peggy, please?" she requested.  "When
I do it, the threads fall off, and the ends come loose.  I want it to be
specially nice for to-morrow!"

"But it will look simply awful, Mellicent, if you leave it like this.
It will be frizzed out almost on a level with your head.  Let me do it
up in just two tight plaits; it will be far, far nicer," urged Peggy,
lifting one little tail after another, and counting their number in
dismay.  But no, Mellicent would not be persuaded.  The extra plaits
were a tribute to Rosalind, a mark of attention to her on her arrival
with which she would suffer no interference; and as a consequence of her
stubbornness she marched to church next morning disfigured by a mop of
untidy, tangled hair, instead of the usual glossy locks.

Peggy preserved a demeanour of stately calm, as she waited for the
arrival of the Darcy family, but even she felt a tremor of excitement
when the verger hobbled up to the square pew and stood holding the door
open in his hand.  The heads of the villagers turned with one consent to
the doorway; only one person in the church disdained to move her
position, but she heard the clatter of horses' hoofs from without, and
presently the little procession passed the vicarage pew, and she could
indulge her curiosity without sacrifice to pride.  First of all came
Lord Darcy, a thin, oldish man, with a face that looked tired and kind,
and faintly amused by the amount of attention which his entrance had
attracted.  Then his wife, a tall, fair woman, with a beautiful profile,
and an air of languid discontent, who floated past with rustling silken
skirts, leaving an impression of elegance and luxury, which made Mrs
Asplin sigh and Mellicent draw in her breath with a gasp of rapture.
Then followed Robert with his shaggy head, scowling more fiercely than
ever in his disgust at finding himself an object of attention, and last
of all a girlish figure in a grey dress, with a collar of soft, fluffy
chinchilla, and a velvet hat with drooping brim, beneath which could be
seen a glimpse of a face pink and white as the blossoms of spring, and a
mass of shining, golden hair.  Peggy shut her lips with a snap, and the
iron entered into her soul.  It was no use pretending any longer!  This
was Rosalind, and she was fairer, sweeter, a hundred times more
beautiful than she had ever imagined!



CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

ROSALIND'S VISIT.

Robert did not make his appearance next morning, and his absence seemed
to give fresh ground for the expectation that Lady Darcy would drive
over with him in the afternoon and pay a call at the vicarage.

Mrs Asplin gathered what branches of russet leaves still remained in
the garden and placed them in bowls in the drawing-room, with a few
precious chrysanthemums peeping out here and there; laid out her very
best tea-cloth and d'oyleys, and sent the girls upstairs to change their
well-worn school dresses for something fresher and smarter.

"And you, Peggy dear--you will put on your pretty red, of course!" she
said, standing still, with a bundle of branches in her arms, and looking
with a kindly glance at the pale face, which had somehow lost its sunny
expression during the last two days.

Peggy hesitated and pursed up her lips.

"Why `of course,' Mrs Asplin?  I never change my dress until evening.
Why need I do it to-day, just because some strangers may call whom I
have never seen before?"

It was the first time that the girl had objected to do what she was
told, and Mrs Asplin was both surprised and hurt by the tone in which
she spoke--a good deal puzzled too, for Peggy was by no means
indifferent to pretty frocks, and as a rule fond of inventing excuses to
wear her best clothes.  Why, then, should she choose this afternoon of
all others to refuse so simple a request?  Just for a moment she felt
tempted to make a sharp reply, and then tenderness for the girl whose
mother was so far-away took the place of the passing irritation, and she
determined to try a gentler method.

"There is not the slightest necessity, dear," she said quietly.  "I
asked only because the red dress suits you so well, and it would have
been a pleasure to me to see you looking your best.  But you are very
nice and neat as you are.  You need not change unless you like."

She turned to leave the room as she finished speaking; but before she
had reached the door Peggy was by her side, holding out her hands to
take possession of twigs and branches.

"Let me take them to the kitchen, please!  Let me help you!" she said
quickly, and just for a moment a little hand rested on her arm with a
spasmodic pressure.  That was all; but it was enough.  There was no need
of a formal apology.  Mrs Asplin understood all the unspoken love and
penitence which was expressed in that simple action, and beamed with her
brightest smile.

"Thank you, my lassie, please do!  I'm glad to avoid going near the
kitchen again, for when cook once gets hold of me I can never get away.
She tells me the family history of all her relatives, and indeed it's
very depressing, it is," (with a relapse into her merry Irish accent),
"for they are subject to the most terrible afflictions!  I've had one
dose of it to-day, and I don't want another!"

Peggy laughed, and carried off her bundle, lingered in the kitchen just
long enough to remind the cook that "apple charlotte served with cream"
was a seasonable pudding at the fall of the year, and then went upstairs
to put on the red dress, and relieve her feelings by making grimaces at
herself in the glass as she fastened the buttons.

At four o'clock the patter of horses' feet came from below, doors opened
and shut, and there was a sound of voices in the hall.  The visitors had
arrived!

Peggy pressed her lips together, and bent doggedly over her writing.
She had not progressed with her work as well as she had hoped during
Rob's absence, for her thoughts had been running on other subjects, and
she had made mistake after mistake.  She must try to finish one batch at
least, to show him on his return.  Unless she was especially sent for,
she would not go downstairs; but before ten minutes had passed,
Mellicent was tapping at the door and whispering eager sentences through
the keyhole.

"Peggy, quick!  They've come!  Rosalind's here!  You're to come down!
Quick!  Hurry up!"

"All right, my dear, keep calm!  You will have a fit if you excite
yourself like this!" said Peggy coolly.

The summons had come, and could not be disregarded, and on the whole she
was not sorry.  The meeting was bound to take place sooner or later,
and, in spite of her affectation of indifference, she was really
consumed with curiosity to know what Rosalind was like.  She had no
intention of hurrying, however, but lingered over the arrangement of her
papers until Mellicent had trotted downstairs again, and the coast was
clear.  Then she sauntered after her with leisurely dignity, opened the
drawing-room door, and gave a swift glance round.

Lady Darcy sat talking to Mrs Asplin a few yards away, in such a
position that she faced the doorway.  She looked up as Peggy entered,
and swept her eyes curiously over the girl's figure.  She looked older
than she had done from across the church the day before, and her face
had a bored expression, but, if possible, she was even more elegant in
her attire.  It seemed quite extraordinary to see such a fine lady
sitting on that well-worn sofa, instead of the sober figure of the
vicar's wife.

Peggy flashed a look from one to the other--from the silk dress to the
serge, from the beautiful weary face to the cheery loving smile--and
came to the conclusion that, for some mysterious reason, Mrs Asplin was
a happier woman than the wife of the great Lord Darcy.

The two ladies stopped talking and looked expectantly towards her.

"Come in, dear!  This is our new pupil, Lady Darcy, for whom you were
asking.  You have heard of her--"

"From Robert.  Oh yes, frequently!  I was especially anxious to see
Robert's little friend.  How do you do, dear?  Let me see!  What is your
funny little name?  Molly--Dolly--something like that, I think--I forget
for the moment?"

"Mariquita Saville!" quoth Peggy grandiloquently.  She was consumed with
regret that she had no second name to add to the number of syllables,
but she did her best with those she possessed, rolling them out in her
very best manner and with a stately condescension which made Lady Darcy
smile for the first time since she entered the room.

"Oh-h!"  The lips parted to show a gleam of regular white teeth.
"That's it, is it?  Well, I am very pleased to make your acquaintance,
Mariquita.  I hope we shall see a great deal of you while we are here.
You must go and make friends with Rosalind--my daughter.  She is longing
to know you."

"Yes, go and make friends with Rosalind, Peggy dear!  She was asking for
you," said Mrs Asplin kindly; and as the girl walked away the two
ladies exchanged smiling glances.

"Amusing!  Such grand little manners!  Evidently a character."

"Oh, quite!  Peggy is nothing if not original.  She is a dear, good
girl, but quite too funny in her ways.  She is really the incarnation of
mischief, and keeps me on tenter-hooks from morning until night, but
from her manner you would think she was a model of propriety.  Nothing
delights her so much as to get hold of a new word or a high-sounding
phrase."

"But what a relief to have someone out of the ordinary run!  There are
so many bores in the world, it is quite refreshing to meet with a little
originality.  Dear Mrs Asplin, you really must tell me how you manage
to look so happy and cheerful in this dead-alive place?  I am desolate
at the idea of staying here all winter.  What in the world do you find
to do?"

Mrs Asplin laughed.

"Indeed, that's not the trouble at all; the question is how to find time
to get through the day's duties!  It's a rush from morning till night,
and when evening comes I am delighted to settle down in an easy-chair
with a nice book to read.  One has no chance of feeling dull in a house
full of young people."

"Ah, you are so good and clever, you get through so much.  I want to ask
your help in half a dozen ways.  If we are to settle down here for some
months, there are so many arrangements to make.  Now tell me, what would
you do in this case?"  The two ladies settled down to a discussion on
domestic matters, while Peggy crossed the room to the corner where
Rosalind Darcy sat in state, holding her court with Esther and Mellicent
as attendant slaves.  She wore the same grey dress in which she had
appeared in church the day before, but the jacket was thrown open, and
displayed a distractingly dainty blouse, all pink chiffon, and frills,
and ruffles of lace.  Her gloves lay in her lap, and the celebrated
diamond ring flashed in the firelight as she held out her hand to meet
Peggy's.

"How do you do?  So glad to see you!  I've heard of you often.  You are
the little girl who is my bwothar's fwiend."  She pronounced the letter
"r" as if it had been "w," and the "er" in brother as if it had been
"ah," and spoke with a languid society drawl more befitting a woman of
thirty than a schoolgirl of fifteen.

Peggy stood motionless and looked her over, from the crown of her hat to
the tip of the little trim shoe, with an expression of icy displeasure.

"Oh dear me, no," she said quietly, "you mistake the situation.  You put
it the wrong way about.  Your brother is the big boy whom I have allowed
to become a friend of mine!"

Esther and Mellicent gasped with amazement, while Rosalind gave a trill
of laughter, and threw up her pretty white hands.

"She's wexed!" she cried.  "She's wexed, because I called her little!
I'm wewwy sowwy, but I weally can't help it, don't you know.  It's the
twuth!  You are a whole head smaller than I am."  She threw back her
chin, and looked over Peggy's head with a smile of triumph.  "There,
look at that, and I'm not a year older.  I call you wewwy small indeed
for your age."

"I'm thankful to hear it!  I admire small women," said Peggy promptly,
seating herself on a corner of the window-seat, and staring critically
at the tall figure of the visitor.  She would have been delighted if she
could have persuaded herself that her height was awkward and ungainly,
but such an effort was beyond imagination.  Rosalind was startlingly and
wonderfully pretty; she had never seen anyone in real life who was in
the least like her.  Her eyes were a deep, dark blue, with curling dark
lashes, her face was a delicate oval, and the pink and white colouring,
and flowing golden locks, gave her the appearance of a princess in a
fairy tale rather than an ordinary flesh-and-blood maiden.  Peggy looked
from her to Mellicent, who was considered quite a beauty among her
companions, and, oh dear me! how plain, and fat, and prosaic she
appeared when viewed side by side with this radiant vision!  Esther
stood the comparison better, for, though her long face had no
pretensions to beauty, it was thoughtful and interesting in expression.
There was no question which was most charming to look at; but if it had
come to choice of a companion, an intelligent observer would certainly
have decided in favour of the vicar's daughter.  Esther's face was
particularly grave at this moment, and her eyes met Peggy's with a
reproachful glance.  What was the matter with the girl this afternoon?
Why did she take up everything that Rosalind said in that hasty,
cantankerous manner?  Here was an annoying thing--to have just given an
enthusiastic account of the brightness and amicability of a new
companion, and then to have that companion come into the room only to
make snappish remarks, and look as cross and ill-natured as a bear!  She
turned in an apologetic fashion to Rosalind, and tried to resume the
conversation at the point where it had been interrupted by Peggy's
entrance.

"And I was saying, we have ever so many new things to show you--
presents, you know, and things of that kind.  The last is the nicest of
all: a really good big camera with which we can take proper photographs.
Mrs Saville--Peggy's mother--gave it to us before she left.  It was a
present to the schoolroom, so it belongs equally to us all, and we have
such fun with it.  We are beginning to do some good things now, but at
first they were too funny for anything.  There is one of father where
his boots are twice as large as his head, and another of mother where
her face has run, and is about a yard long, and yet it is so like her!
We laughed till we cried over it, and father has locked it away in his
desk.  He says he will keep it to look at when he is low-spirited."

Rosalind gave a shrug to her shapely shoulders.

"It would not cheer me up to see a cawicature of myself!  I don't think
I shall sit to you for my portrait, if that is the sort of thing you do,
but you shall show me all your failures.  It will amuse me.  You will
have to come up and see me vewwy often this winter, for I shall be so
dull.  We have been abroad for the last four years, and England seems so
dark and dweawy.  Last winter we were at Cairo.  We lived in a big
hotel, and there was something going on almost every night.  I was not
out, of course, but I was allowed to go into the room for an hour after
dinner, and to dance with the gentlemen in mother's set.  And we went up
the Nile in a steamer, and dwove about every afternoon, paying calls,
and shopping in the bazaars.  It never rains in Cairo, and the sun is
always shining.  It seems so wonderful!  Just like a place in a fairy
tale."  She looked at Peggy as she spoke, and that young person smiled
with an air of elegant condescension.

"It would do so to you.  Naturally it would.  When one has been born in
the East, and lived there the greater part of one's life, it seems
natural enough, but the trippers from England who just come out for a
few months' visit are always astonished.  It used to amuse us so much to
hear their remarks!"

Rosalind stared, and flushed with displeasure.  She was accustomed to
have her remarks treated with respect, and the tone of superiority was a
new and unpleasing experience.

"You were born in the East?"

"Certainly I was!"

"Where, may I ask?"

"In India--in Calcutta, where my father's regiment was stationed."

"You lived there till you were quite big?  You can remember all about
it?"

"All I want to remember.  There was a great deal that I choose to
forget.  I don't care for India.  England is more congenial to my
feelings."

"And can you speak the language?  Did you learn Hindostanee while you
were there?"

"Naturally.  Of course I did."

A gasp of amazement came from the two girls in the window, for a
knowledge of Hindostanee had never been included in the list of Peggy's
accomplishments, and she was not accustomed to hide her light under a
bushel.  They gazed at her with widened eyes, and Rosalind scented
scepticism in the air, and cried quickly--

"Say something, then.  If you can speak, say something now, and let us
hear you."

"Pardon me!" said Peggy, simpering.  "As a matter of fact, I was sent
home because I was learning to speak too well.  The language of the
natives is not considered suitable for English children of tender age.
I must ask you to be so kind as to excuse me.  I should be sorry to
shock your sensibilities."

Rosalind drew her brows together and stared steadily in the speaker's
face.  Like many beautiful people, she was not over-gifted with a sense
of humour, and therefore Peggy's grandiose manner and high-sounding
words failed to amuse her as they did most strangers.  She felt only
annoyed and puzzled, dimly conscious that she was being laughed at, and
that this girl with the small face and the peaked eyebrows was trying to
patronise her--Rosalind Darcy--instead of following the vicar's
daughters in adoring her from a respectful distance, as of course it was
her duty to do.  She had been anxious to meet the Peggy Saville of whom
her brother had spoken so enthusiastically, for it was a new thing to
hear Rob praise a girl, but it was evident that Peggy on her side was by
no means eager to make her acquaintance.  It was an extraordinary
discovery, and most disconcerting to the feelings of one who was
accustomed to be treated as a person of supreme importance.  Rosalind
could hardly speak for mortification, and it was an immense relief when
the door opened, and Max and Oswald hurried forward to greet her.  Then
indeed she was in her element, beaming with smiles, and indulging a
dozen pretty little tricks of manner for the benefit of their admiring
eyes.  Max took possession of the chair by her side, his face lighted up
with pleasure and admiration.  He was too thoroughly natural and healthy
a lad to be much troubled with sentiment, but ever since one winter
morning five years before, when Rosalind had first appeared in the
little country church, she had been his ideal of all that was womanly
and beautiful.  At every meeting he discovered fresh charms, and to-day
was no exception to the rule.  She was taller, fairer, more elegant.  In
_some_ mysterious manner she seemed to have grown older than he, so
that, though he was in reality three years her senior, he was still a
boy, while she was almost a young lady.

Mrs Asplin looked across the room, and a little anxious furrow showed
in her forehead.  Maxwell's admiration for Rosalind was already an old
story, and as she saw his eager face and sparkling eyes, a pang of fear
came into his mother's heart.  If the Darcys were constantly coming down
to the Larches, it was only natural to suppose that this admiration
would increase, and it would never do for Max to fall in love with
Rosalind!  The vicar's son would be no match for Lord Darcy's daughter;
it would only mean a heartache for the poor lad, a clouded horizon just
when life should be the brightest.  For a moment a prevision of trouble
filled her heart, then she waved it away in her cheery, hopeful
fashion--

"Why, what a goose I am!  They are only children.  Time enough to worry
my head about love affairs in half a dozen years to come.  The lad would
be a Stoic if he didn't admire her.  I don't see how he could help it!"

"Rosalind is lovelier than ever, Lady Darcy, if that is possible!" she
said aloud, and her companion's face brightened with pleasure.

"Oh, do you think so?" she cried eagerly.  "I am so glad to hear it, for
this growing stage is so trying.  I was afraid she might outgrow her
strength and lose her complexion, but so far I don't think it has
suffered.  I am very careful of her diet, and my maid understands all
the new skin treatments.  So much depends on a girl's complexion.  I
notice your youngest daughter has a very good colour.  May I ask what
you use?"

"Soap and water, fresh air, good plain food,--those are the only
cosmetics we use in this house," said Mrs Asplin, laughing outright at
the idea of Mellicent's healthy bloom being the result of "skin
treatment."  "I am afraid I have too much to do looking after the
necessities of life for my girls, Lady Darcy, to worry myself about
their complexions."

"Oh yes.  Well, I'm sure they both look charming; but Rosalind will go
much into society, and of course,"--She checked herself before the
sentence was finished; but Mrs Asplin was quick enough to understand
the imputation that the complexions of a vicar's daughters were but of
small account, but that it was a very different matter when the
Honourable Rosalind Darcy was concerned.  She understood, but she was
neither hurt nor annoyed by the inferences, only a little sad and very,
very pitiful.  She knew the story of the speaker's life, and the reason
why she looked forward to Rosalind's entrance into society with such
ambition.  Lady Darcy had been the daughter of poor but well-born
parents, and had married the widower, Lord Darcy, not because she loved
him or had any motherly feeling for his two orphan boys, but simply and
solely for a title and establishment, and a purse full of money.  Given
these, she had fondly imagined that she was going to be perfectly happy.
No more screwing and scraping to keep up appearances; no more living in
dulness and obscurity; she would be Lady Darcy, the beautiful young wife
of a famous man.  So, with no thought in her heart but for her own
worldly advancement, Beatrice Fairfax stood before God's altar and vowed
to love, honour, and obey a man for whom she had no scrap of affection,
and whom she would have laughed to scorn if he had been poor and
friendless.  She married him, but the life which followed was not by any
means all that she had expected.  Lord Darcy had heavy money losses,
which obliged him to curtail expenses almost immediately after his
wedding; her own health broke down, and it was a knife in her heart to
know that her boy was only the third son, and that the two big, handsome
lads at Eton would inherit the lion's share of their father's property.
Hector, the Lifeguardsman, and Oscar, the Dragoon, were for ever running
into debt and making fresh demands on her husband's purse.  She and her
children had to suffer for their extravagances; while Robert, her only
son, was growing up a shy, awkward lad, who hated society, and asked
nothing better than to be left in the country alone with his frogs and
his beetles.  Ambition after ambition had failed her, until now all her
hopes were centred in Rosalind, the beautiful daughter, in whom she saw
a reproduction of herself in the days of her girlhood.  She had had a
dull and obscure youth; Rosalind should be the belle of society.  Her
own marriage had been a disappointment; Rosalind should make a brilliant
alliance.  She had failed to gain the prize for which she had worked;
she would live again in Rosalind's triumphs, and in them find fullest
satisfaction.

So Lady Darcy gloated over every detail of her daughter's beauty, and
thought day and night of her hair, her complexion, her figure, striving
still to satisfy her poor tired soul with promises of future success,
and never dreaming for a moment that the prize which seemed to elude her
grasp had been gained long ago by the vicar's wife, with her
old-fashioned dress and work-worn hands.  But Mrs Asplin knew, and
thanked God in her heart for the sweetness and peace of her dear, shabby
home; for the husband who loved her, and the children whom they were
training to be good servants for Him in the world Yes, and for that
other child too, who had been taken away at the very dawn of his
manhood, and who, they believed, was doing still better work in the
unseen world.

Until Lady Darcy discovered that the only true happiness rose from
something deeper than worldly success, there was nothing in store for
her but fresh disappointments and heart-hunger; while as for Rosalind,
the unfortunate child of such a mother--Mrs Asplin looked at the girl
as she sat leaning back in her chair, craning her throat, and showing
off all her little airs and graces for the benefit of the two admiring
schoolboys, gratified vanity and self-love showing on every line of her
face.

"It seems almost cruel to say so," she sighed to herself, "but it would
be the best thing that could happen to the child if she were to lose
some of her beauty before she grew up.  Such a face as that is a
terrible temptation to vanity."  But Mrs Asplin did not guess how soon
these unspoken words would come back to her memory, or what bitter cause
she would have to regret their fulfilment.



CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

A PINK LUNCHEON.

For the next week conversation was more strictly centred on Rosalind
than ever, and the gloomy expression deepened on Peggy's face.  She was,
in truth, working too hard for her strength, for, as each day passed,
the necessity of hurrying on with the calendar became more apparent; and
as Robert was no longer master of his own time, she was obliged to come
to his aid in writing out the selected quotations.

At every spare moment of the day she was locked in her room, scribbling
away for dear life or searching for appropriate extracts, and, as a
consequence, her brain refused to rest when she wished it to do so.  She
tossed wakefully on her pillow, and was often most inclined for sleep
when six o'clock struck, and she dragged herself up, a white-cheeked,
weary little mortal, to sit blinking over the fire, wishing feebly that
it was time to go to bed again, instead of getting up to face the long,
long day.

Robert was not more observant than most boys of his age, and Peggy would
have worked herself to death before she had complained to him.  She was
proud to feel that he depended on her more than ever, that without her
help he could not possibly have finished his task, while his words of
gratitude helped to comfort a heart which was feeling sore and empty.

In truth, these last few weeks had been harder for Peggy than those
immediately following her mother's departure.  Then each one in the
house had vied with the other in trying to comfort her, whereas now,
without any intention of unkindness, her companions often appeared to be
neglectful.

When Rosalind was present Esther hung on one arm and Mellicent on the
other, without so much as a glance over the shoulder to see if Peggy
were following.  Instead of a constant "Peggy, what would you like?"

"What does Peggy say?" her opinion was never even asked, while
Rosalind's lightest word was treated as law.

It would have been hard for any girl under the circumstances, but it was
doubly hard when that girl was so dependent on her friends, and so
sensitive and reserved in disposition as Peggy Saville.  She would not
deign to complain or to ask for signs of affection which were not
voluntarily given, but her merry ways disappeared, and she became so
silent and subdued that she was hardly recognisable as the audacious
Peggy of a few weeks earlier.

"Peggy's so grumpy," Mellicent complained to her mother.  "She never
laughs now, nor makes jokes, nor flies about as she used to do!  She's
just as glum and mum as can be, and she never sits with us!  She is
always in her bedroom with the door locked, so that we can't get in!
She's there now!  I think she might stay with us sometimes!  It's mean,
always running away!"

Mrs Asplin drew her brows together and looked worried.  She had not
been satisfied about Peggy lately, and this news did not tend to
reassure her.  Her kind heart could not endure that anyone beneath her
roof should be ill or unhappy, and the girl had looked both during the
last few days.  She went upstairs at once and tapped at the door, when
Peggy's voice was raised in impatient answer.

"I can't come!  Go away!  I'm engaged!"

"But I want to speak to you, dear!  Please let me in!" she replied in
her clear, pleasant tones; whereupon there was a hasty scamper inside,
and the door was thrown open.

"Oh-h!  I didn't know it was you; I thought it was one of the girls.
I'm sorry I kept you waiting."

Mrs Asplin gave a glance around.  The gas-fire was lit, but the chair
beside it stood stiffly in the corner, and the cushion was uncrushed.
Evidently, the girl had not been sitting there.  The work-basket was in
its accustomed place, and there were no cottons or silks lying about--
Peggy had not been sewing at Christmas presents, as she had half hoped
to find her.  A towel was thrown over the writing-table, and a piece of
blotting-paper lay on the floor.  A chair was pushed to one side, as if
it had been lately used.  That looked as if she had been writing
letters.

"Peggy dear, what are you doing all by yourself in this chilly room?"

"I'm busy, Mrs Asplin.  I lit the fire as soon as I came in."

"But a room does not get warm in five minutes.  I don't want you to
catch cold and be laid up with a sore throat.  Can't you bring your
writing downstairs and do it beside the others?"

"I would rather not.  I can get on so much better by myself."

"Are you writing to India--to your mother?"

"N-no, not just now."

"Then really, dear, you must come downstairs!  This won't do!  Your
mother wished you to have a fire in your room, so that you might be able
to sit here when you wanted to be alone, but she never meant you to make
it a habit, or to spend all your spare time alone.  It isn't healthy to
use a room night and day, and to burn so much gas, and it isn't
sociable, Peggy dear.  Mellicent has just been complaining that you are
hardly ever with them nowadays.  Come along, like a good girl; put the
writing away and amuse yourself downstairs.  You have done enough work
for one day.  You don't do me credit with those white cheeks."

Peggy stood with her eyes fixed on the carpet without uttering a word.
It would have been the easiest thing in the world to say, "Oh, do let me
stay upstairs as much as I like for a day or two longer.  I have a piece
of work on hand which I am anxious to finish.  It is a secret, but I
hope to tell you all about it soon, and I am sure you will be pleased."
If she had done so, she knew perfectly well how hearty and pleasant
would have been Mrs Asplin's consent; but there are some states of mind
in which it is a positive pleasure to be a martyr, and to feel oneself
misunderstood, and this was just the mood in which Peggy found herself
at present.  She heard Mrs Asplin sigh, as if with anxiety and
disappointment, as she left the room, and shrugged her shoulders in
wilful indifference.

"She thinks I like sitting shivering here!  I slave, and slave, from
morning till night, and then people think I am sulky!  I am not working
for myself.  I don't want the wretched old ten pounds; I could have ten
pounds to-morrow if I needed it.  Mother said I could.  I am working to
help Rob, and now I shall have to sit up later, and get up earlier than
ever, as I mayn't work during the day.  Mellicent said I was never with
them, did she!  I don't see that it matters whether I am there or not!
They don't want me; nobody wants me, now that Rosalind has come!  I hate
Rosalind--nasty, smirking, conceited thing!" and Peggy jerked the towel
off the writing-table and flicked it violently to and fro in the air,
just as a little relief to her overcharged feelings.

She was crossing the hall with unwilling steps when the postman's knock
sounded at the door, and three letters in long, narrow envelopes fell to
the ground.  Each envelope was of a pale pink tint, with a crest and
monogram in white relief; one was addressed to the Misses Asplin,
another to Oswald Elliston, and a third to Miss Mariquita Saville.

"Invitations!" cried Peggy, with a caper of delight.  "Invitations!  How
scrumptious!"  Her face clouded for a moment as the sight of the letters
"R.D." suggested the sender of the letters; but the natural girlish
delight in an unexpected festivity was stronger even than her
prejudices, and it was the old, bright Peggy who bounced into the
schoolroom holding up the three letters, and crying gleefully, "_Quis,
Quis_, something nice for somebody!  An invitation!"

"_Ego, Ego_!" came the eager replies, and the envelopes were seized and
torn open in breathless haste.

"From Rosalind!  Oh, how funny!  `Requests the pleasure--company--to a
pink luncheon.'  What in the world is a `pink luncheon'?--`on Tuesday
next, the 20th inst.'"

"A p-p-pink luncheon?  How wewwy stwange!" echoed Mellicent, who had
been suddenly affected with an incapacity to pronounce the letter "r"
since the arrival of Rosalind Darcy on the scene--a peculiarity which
happened regularly every autumn, and passed off again with the advent of
spring.  "How can a luncheon possibly be pink?"

"That's more than I can tell you, my dear!  Ask Rob.  What does it mean,
Rob?" asked Peggy curiously; and Robert scowled, and shook back his
shock of hair.

"Some American fad, I believe.  The idea is to have everything of one
colour--flowers, drapery, and food, china--everything that is on the
table.  It's a fag and an awful handicap, for you can't have half the
things you want.  But let us be modern or die--that's the motto
nowadays.  Mother is always trying to get hold of new-fangled notions."

"`Peggy Saville requests the pleasure of Jane Smith's company to a
magenta supper.'--`Peggy Saville requests the pleasure of Mr Jones's
company to a purple tea.'  It's a splendid idea!  I like it immensely,"
said Peggy, pursing her lips, and staring in the fire in meditative
fashion.  "Pink--pink--what can we eat that is pink?  P-prawns,
p-pickles, p-p-pomegranates, P-aysandu tongues (you would call those
pink, wouldn't you--pinky red?)  Humph!  I don't think it sounds very
nice.  Perhaps they dye the things with cochineal.  I think I shall have
a sensible brown and green meal before I go, and then I can nibble
elegantly at the pinkies.  Would it be considered a delicate mark of
attention if I wore a pink frock?"

"Certainly it would.  Wear that nice one that you put on in the
evenings.  Rosalind will be in pink from head to foot, you may depend on
it," said Robert confidently; whereupon Mellicent rushed headlong from
the room to find her mother, and plead eagerly that summer crepon
dresses of the desired tint should be brought forth from their
hiding-place and freshened up for the occasion.  To accede to this
request meant an extra call upon time already fully occupied, but
mothers have a way of not grudging trouble where their children are
concerned.  Mrs Asplin said, "Yes, darling, of course I will!" and set
to work with such goodwill that all three girls sported pink dresses
beneath their ulsters when they set off to partake of the mysterious
luncheon, a few days later.

Rosalind came to the bedroom to receive them, and looked on from an
arm-chair, while Lady Darcy's maid helped the visitors to take off their
wraps.  She herself looked like a rose in her dainty pink draperies, and
Peggy had an impression that she was not altogether pleased to see that
her guests were as appropriately dressed as herself.  She eyed them up
and down, and made remarks to the maid in that fluent French of hers
which was so unintelligible to the schoolgirls' ears.  The maid smirked
and pursed up her lips, and then, meeting Peggy's steady gaze, dropped
her eyes in confusion.  Peggy knew, as well as if she had understood
every word, that the remarks exchanged between mistress and maid had
been of a depreciatory nature, not as concerned her own attire--that was
as perfect in its way as Rosalind's own--but with reference to the
home-made dresses of the vicar's daughters, which seemed to have
suddenly become clumsy and shapeless when viewed in the mirrors of this
elegant bedroom.  She was in arms at once on her friends' behalf, and
when Peggy's dignity was hurt she was a formidable person to tackle.  In
this instance she fixed her eyes first on the maid, and then on Rosalind
herself with a steady, disapproving stare which was not a little
disconcerting.

"I am sorry," she said, "but we really don't know French well enough to
follow your conversation!  You were talking about us, I think.  Perhaps
you would be kind enough to repeat your remarks in English?"

"Oh-h, it doesn't matter!  It was nothing at all important!"  Rosalind
flushed, and had the grace to look a trifle ashamed of her own
ill-breeding, but she did not by any means appreciate the reproof.  The
girls had not been ten minutes in the house, and already that
aggravating Peggy Saville had succeeded in making her feel humiliated
and uncomfortable.  The same thing happened whenever they met.  The
respect and awe and adoring admiration which she was accustomed to
receive from other girls of her own age seemed altogether wanting in
Peggy's case; and yet, strange to say, the very fact that she refused to
fall down and worship invested Peggy with a peculiar importance in
Rosalind's eyes.  She longed to overcome her prejudices and add her name
to the list of her adorers, and to this end she considered her tastes in
a way which would never have occurred to her in connection with Mrs
Asplin's daughters.  In planning the pink luncheon Peggy had been
continually in her mind, and it is doubtful whether she would have taken
the trouble to arrange so difficult an entertainment had not the party
from the vicarage included that important personage, Miss Mariquita
Saville.

From the bedroom the girls adjourned to the morning-room, where Lady
Darcy sat waiting; but almost as soon as they had exchanged greetings,
the gong sounded to announce luncheon, and they walked across the hall
aglow with expectation.

The table looked exquisite, and the guests stood still in the doorway
and gasped with admiration.  The weather outside was grey and murky, but
tall standard lamps were placed here and there, and the light which
streamed from beneath the pink silk shades gave an air of warmth and
comfort to the room.  Down the centre of the table lay a slip of
looking-glass, on which graceful long-necked swans seemed to float to
and fro, while troughs filled with soft pink blossoms formed a
bordering.  Garlands of pink flowers fell from the chandelier and were
attached to the silver candelabra, in which pink candles burned with
clear and steady flare.  Glass, china, ornaments, were all of the same
dainty colour, and beside each plate was a dainty little buttonhole
nosegay, with a coral-headed pin, all ready to be attached to the dress
or coat of the owner.

"It's--it's beautiful!" cried Mellicent ecstatically; while Peggy's
beauty-loving eye turned from one detail to another with delighted
approbation.  "Really," she said to herself in astonishment, "I couldn't
have done it better myself!  It's quite admirable!" and as Rosalind's
face peered inquiringly at her beneath the canopy of flowers, she nodded
her head, and smiled generous approval.

"Beautiful!  Charming!  I congratulate you!  Did you design it and
arrange everything yourself?"

"Mother and I made it up between us.  We didn't do the actual work, but
we told the servants what to do, and saw that it was all right.  The
flowers and bonbons are easy enough to manage; it's the things to eat
that are the greatest trouble."

"It seems to be too horribly prosaic to eat anything at such a table,
except crumpled rose-leaves, like the princess in the fairy tale," said
Peggy gushingly; but at this Mellicent gave an exclamation of dismay,
and the three big lads turned their eyes simultaneously towards the soup
tureen, as if anxious to assure themselves that they were not to be put
off with such ethereal rations.

The soup was pink.  "Tomato!" murmured Peggy to herself, as she raised
the first creamy spoonful to her lips.  The fish was covered with thick
pink sauce; tiny little cutlets lurked behind ruffles of pink paper;
pink baskets held chicken souffles; moulds of pink cream and whipped-up
syllabubs were handed round in turns, and looked so tempting that
Mellicent helped herself at once, and nearly shed tears of mortification
on finding that they were followed by distracting pink ices, which were
carried away again before she could possibly finish what was on her
plate.  Then came dessert-plates and finger-glasses, in which
crystallised rose-leaves floated in the scented water, as if in
fulfilment of Peggy's suggestion of an hour before, and the young people
sat in great contentment, eating rosy apples, bananas pared and dipped
in pink sugar, or helping themselves to the delicious bonbons which were
strewed about the table.

While they were thus occupied the door opened, and Lord Darcy came into
the room.  He had not appeared before, and he shook hands with the
visitors in turn, and then stood at the head of the table looking about
him with a slow, kindly smile.  Peggy watched him from her seat, and
thought what a nice face he had, and wondered at the indifferent manner
in which he was received by his wife and daughter.  Lady Darcy leant
back in her chair and played with her fruit, the sleeves of her pink
silk tea-gown falling back from her white arms.  Rosalind whispered to
Max, and neither of them troubled to cast so much as a glance of welcome
at the new-comer.  Peggy thought of her own father, the gallant soldier
out in India, of the joy and pride with which his comings and goings
were watched; of Mr Asplin in the vicarage, with his wife running to
meet him, and Mellicent resting her curly bead on his shoulder; and the
figure of the old lord standing unnoticed at the head of his own table
assumed a pathetic interest.  It seemed, however, as if Lord Darcy were
accustomed to be overlooked, for he showed no signs of annoyance; on the
contrary, his face brightened, and he looked at the pretty scene with
sparkling eyes.  The room was full of a soft rosy glow, the shimmer of
silver and crystal was reflected in the sheet of mirror, and beneath the
garlands of flowers the young faces of the guests glowed with pleasure
and excitement.  He looked from one to the other--handsome Max, dandy
Oswald, Robert with his look of strength and decision; then to the
girls--Esther, gravely smiling; wide-eyed Mellicent; Peggy, with her
eloquent, sparkling eyes; Rosalind, a queen of beauty among them all;
finally to the head of the table, where sat his wife.

"I must congratulate you, dear," he said heartily.  "It is the prettiest
sight I have seen for a long time.  You have arranged admirably, but
that's no new thing; you always do.  I don't know where you get your
ideas.  These wreaths--eh?  I've never seen anything like them before.
What made you think of fastening them up there?"

"I have had them like that several times before, but you never notice a
thing until its novelty is over, and I am tired to death of seeing it,"
said his wife, with a frown and an impatient curve of the lip, as if she
had received a rebuke instead of a compliment.

Peggy stared at her plate, felt Robert shuffle on his chair by her side,
and realised that he was as embarrassed and unhappy as herself.  The
beautiful room with its luxurious appointments seemed to have suddenly
become oppressive and cheerless, for in it was the spirit of discontent
and discord between those who should have been most in harmony.  Esther
was shocked, Mellicent frightened, the boys looked awkward and
uncomfortable.  No one ventured to break the silence, and there was
quite a long pause before Lady Darcy spoke again in quick, irritable
tones.

"Have you arranged to get away with me on Thursday, as I asked you?"

"My dear, I cannot.  I explained before.  I am extremely sorry, but I
have made appointments which I cannot break.  I could take you next week
if you would wait."

"I can't wait.  I told you I had to go to the dentist's.  Do you wish me
to linger on in agony for another week?  And I have written to Mrs
Bouverie that I will be at her `At Home' on Saturday.  My appointments
are, at least, as binding as yours.  It isn't often that I ask you to
take me anywhere, but when it is a matter of health I do think you might
show a little consideration."

Lord Darcy drew his brows together and bit his moustache.  Peggy
recalled Robert's description of the "governor looking wretched" when he
found himself compelled to refuse a favour, and did not wonder that the
lad was ready to deny himself a pleasure rather than see that expression
on his father's face.  The twinkling light had died out of his eyes, and
he looked old and sad and haggard, far more in need of physical remedies
than his wife, whose "agony" had been so well concealed during the last
two hours as to give her the appearance of a person in very comfortable
health.  Rosalind alone looked absolutely unruffled, and lay back in her
chair nibbling at her bonbon, as though such scenes were of too frequent
occurrence between her parents to be deserving of attention.

"If you have made up your mind to go to-morrow, and cannot go alone, you
must take Robert with you, Beatrice, for I cannot leave.  It is only for
four days, and Mr Asplin will no doubt excuse him, if you write and
explain the circumstances."

Lord Darcy left the room, and Robert and Peggy exchanged agonised
glances.  Go away for nearly a week, when before two days were over the
calendar must be sent to London, and there still remained real hard work
before it was finished!  Peggy sat dazed and miserable, seeing the
painful effort of the last month brought to naught, Robert's ambition
defeated, and her own help of no avail.  That one glance had shown the
lad's face flushed with emotion; but when his mother spoke to him in
fretful tones, bidding him be ready next morning when she should call in
the carriage on her way to the station, he answered at once with polite
acquiescence--

"Very well, mater, I won't keep you waiting.  I shall be ready by
half-past ten if you want me."



CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR.

Lady Darcy left the young people by themselves after luncheon, and, as
was only natural, conversation at once turned on the proposed visit to
London.  Peggy was too much perturbed to speak, but Mellicent put the
very inquiry which she most wished answered, being never troubled with
bashfulness in asking questions.

"Has your mother's tooth been hurting her very much, Rosalind?"

"Tooth! what tooth?  Oh, I think she did have a little twinge one night;
but it's not the dentist whom she is really going to see.  That's only
an excuse.  She really wants to go to some parties," said Rosalind
lightly; whereat her brother scowled at her under heavy brows.

"What business have you to say that?  What can you know about it, pray?
If mother says she is in pain, it is not for you to contradict, and make
up your own explanations.  Leave her to manage her own affairs--"

He spoke rapidly, but Rosalind only shrugged her shoulders, and
whispered something in Max's ear, at which he smiled and nodded his
head, evidently taking her part against her brother, to Peggy's intense
indignation.

No words were exchanged between the partners on the subject of the
calendar until they were once more at home; when Robert took advantage
of the first quiet opportunity, and came up to Peggy with a face of set
determination.

"Mariquita!" he said, "_I_--_am_--_not_--_going_--_to give in_!  If you
stick to me, we can still manage to get the calendar off in time.  There
are twenty more quotations to be found.  I'll sit up to-night and fix
them off, and go on writing as long as I can keep awake, but I can't
take a dozen books up to town with me, so I must leave it to you to
finish up.  I'll mark the passages I choose, write the full address on a
piece of paper, and leave everything ready for you to make up the
parcel.  All you will have to do will be to write the remaining cards,
and to see that it is sent off on Friday.  Five o'clock will be time
enough, but if you can get it off in the morning, so much the better.
You think you can manage as much as that?"

"Oh yes!  I'd do anything rather than give up now.  It would be too
grudging.  I am not afraid of a little more work."

"You have done more than your share already.  I am mad about it, but it
can't be helped.  I couldn't refuse to go with the mater, and I wouldn't
if I could.  She is really not at all strong, and does not like the life
down here.  It will do her good to have a few days' change."

Peggy looked at him steadily.  She did not speak, but her eyes grew soft
and shining, and there was something at once so sweet, so kindly, and so
gentle in her expression that Rob exclaimed in surprise--

"I say, Peggy, you--you do look pretty!  I never saw you look like that
before--what have you been doing to yourself?"

"Doing!"  Peggy straightened herself at that, in offended dignity.
"Doing, indeed!  What do you mean?  Don't you think I am pretty as a
rule?"

"Never thought about it," returned Robert carelessly.  "You are Peggy--
that's enough for me.  A nice state I should be in to-day if it were not
for you!  You are the jolliest little brick I ever met, and if I get
this prize it will be far more your doing than my own."

Well, that was good hearing!  Peggy held her head high for the rest of
that evening, and felt as if nothing would have power to depress her for
the future.  But, alas, when the pendulum is at its highest it begins to
swing downwards.  Peggy's heart sank as she watched Robert drive away
from the door the next morning, and it went on sinking more and more
during the next twenty-four hours, as she realised the responsibility
which weighed upon her shoulders.  When she came down to breakfast on
Friday morning the calendar was finished and ready to be made up for the
post, but her head was splitting with pain as the result of the long
hours' work stolen from sleep, and a dead weight of depression had
settled on her spirits.  It seemed of a sudden that all this work and
effort was waste of time; that the chances of being successful were
infinitesimally small; that even if it were gained, the prize was of
little value; that if Robert's absence for four days made such a
difference in the life at the vicarage, it would become altogether
unbearable when he said good-bye at the beginning of the year and went
up to Oxford; that she was a desperately unfortunate little unit, thrust
into the midst of a family which was complete in itself, and had only a
kindly toleration to offer to a stranger; that, in all probability,
there would shortly be a war in India, when her father would be killed,
her mother die of a broken heart, and Arthur be called out to join the
ranks of the recruits.  She conjured up a touching picture of herself,
swathed in crape, bidding good-bye to her brother at the railway
station, and watching the scarlet coat disappear in the distance, as the
train steamed away.  It was all most miserable and picturesque, and
outside the fog gathered, and the rain poured down in a fine, persistent
drizzle.  It was one of those typical November days when it seems as if
the earth itself is in the blues, and that it becomes everyone living on
its surface to follow its example.

When afternoon came Peggy curled herself in an arm-chair in the corner
of the study, and stared gloomily at the fire.  It was four o'clock.  In
another hour the postman would call for the letters, and she would
deliver the precious packet into his hands.  She had made it up in the
dinner-hour, with some faint idea of carrying it to the village; but she
was tired, the rain poured, and Rob had said that the afternoon post
would do.  She had given up the idea of going out, and taken a nap
instead on the top of her bed.  And now it was four o'clock.  Mellicent
called out that she was dying for tea-time to come; it had seemed such a
long, long day; they really ought to have tea earlier on these dreary,
murky afternoons.  "_I want my tea_!" she chanted, in shrill,
penetrating tones, and instantly the refrain was taken up by the other
voices, and repeated over and over again with ever-increasing volume,
until the mistress of the house rushed in to discover the reason of the
clamour.

"Bless your hearts, you shall have it at once!" she cried.  "I'll ring
and have it brought in, and ransack my cupboards to see what treats I
can give you.  Poor dears, it _is_ dull for you sitting indoors all day
long.  We must think of some bright, exciting games for this evening."
No sooner said than done; she did not wait until Mary appeared, but
bustled off to meet her, to enlist the cook's sympathy, and put out the
promised delicacies, and when the table was set she returned to the room
and seated herself, smilingly, in Esther's place.

"I am going to stay with you this afternoon," she said brightly.  "Draw
up your chairs, dears, and let us be jovial.  There is no credit in
being happy when the sun is shining, as dear old Mark Tapley would have
said; but it will really be praiseworthy if we succeed in being festive
this afternoon.  Come, Peggy, dearie!"

Peggy turned her dreary little face and stared at the table.  From
outside came the sound of the opening and shutting of the door, of
footsteps in the hall.  She glanced at the clock, wondering if it could
possibly be the postman already, found it was only ten minutes past
four, and dismissed the supposition with a sigh.  "I don't--think--I
want--" she was beginning slowly, when, of a sudden, there came a
tremendous rat-tat-tat on the schoolroom door; the handle was not
turned, but burst open; a blast of chilly air blew into the room, and in
the doorway stood a tall, handsome youth, with square shoulders, a
gracefully poised head, and Peggy Saville's eave-like brows above his
dancing eyes.

"Oh, what a surprise!" came the cry in loud laughing tones.  "How do you
do, everybody?  Just thought I would step in as I was passing, and have
a cup of tea, don't you know."

"My boy!  My boy!  Oh, how good to see you!" cried Mrs Asplin
rapturously.  Mellicent gurgled with surprise, and Peggy stood up by her
chair and stretched out both arms like a child to its mother.

"Arthur!--oh--Arthur!" she gasped, and there was a pathos, a longing, an
almost incredulous rapture in her voice which made the tears start in
Mrs Asplin's eyes, and brought a cloud of anxiety over the new-comer's
face.

"Why, Peg!" he cried.  "My little Peg!  Is something wrong, dear?  You
look as melancholy as--"

"Peggy has not been like herself for the last few weeks.  I think she
has had an attack of homesickness and longing for her own people.  I'm
so glad you've come.  You will do her more good than a dozen tonics.
Bless the boy; how big he is!  And how did you manage to get away, dear,
and how long can you stay?  Tell me all about it.  I am consumed with
curiosity--"

"I can stay till Monday or Tuesday, if you can put me up; and I came
away because I--I suppose I am not quite up to the mark.  My head
bothers me.  It aches, and I see black specks floating before my eyes.
The doctor advised me to knock off for a few days, and I thought I would
rather come here than anywhere."

"I should think so, indeed.  Of course we can put you up--proud and
pleased to do so.  Well, this is a pleasant surprise for a dull November
day!  You couldn't have had a better one if you had had a hundred
wishes, could you, Peggy?  You won't feel melancholy any longer?"

"I'm just enraptured!  Saturday, Sunday, Monday--three whole days and
two halves, as good as four days--almost a week!  It's too delicious--
too utterly delicious to realise!"

Peggy drew deep sighs of happiness, and hung on to Arthur's arm in an
abandonment of tenderness which showed her in a new light to her
companions.  She would not loosen her grasp for a moment, and even when
seated at the table kept her fingers tightly locked round his arm, as
though afraid that he might escape.

As for Arthur himself, he was in the wildest spirits.  He was as
handsome a young soldier as one could wish to see, and his likeness to
Peggy seemed only to make him more attractive in the eyes of the
beholders.

"Hurrah!" he cried cheerily.  "Hurrah, for a good old vicarage tea!
Scones? that's the style!  Mary made them, I hope, and put in lots of
currants.  Raspberry jam!  I say, mater, do you remember that solemn
waitress you had, who told you that the jam was done again, and when you
exclaimed in horror, said, `Yes, 'um, it's not a bit of good buying
raspberry jam.  _They like it_!'  Ha, ha, ha!  I've often thought of
that!  That looks uncommonly good cake you have over there.  Thank you,
I think I will!  Begin with cake, and work steadily back to bread and
butter--that's the style, isn't it, Peggums?  Esther, I looks towards
you!  Mellicent, you are as thin as ever, I see.  You should really do
something for it.  There are regular hollows in your cheeks."

"Nasty, horrid thing!  You are always teasing!  How would you like it if
you were struck fat yourself?" cried Mellicent, aggrieved.  But, in
spite of herself, her chubby cheeks dimpled with smiles as Arthur rolled
his eyes at her across the table, for there was something irresistibly
fascinating about this young fellow, and it was like old times to see
him seated at the tea-table and to listen to his merry rattling voice.

"The dominie must grant a general holiday to-morrow," he declared, "and
we will do something fine to celebrate the occasion.  We'll have out
this wonderful camera in the morning and take some groups.  You and I
must be taken together, Peggy, to send out to the parents.  You promised
to send me copies of all the things you took, but you are as false in
that respect as the whole race of amateur photographers.  They are grand
hands at promising, but they never, by any chance--Hallo!  What's that?
My cup over?  Awfully sorry, mater, really!  I'll put a penny in the
missionary-box.  Was it a clean cloth?"

"Oh, my dear boy, don't apologise!  I should not have felt that it was
really you if you had not knocked your cup over!  To see the table-cloth
swimming with tea all round convinces me that it is Arthur himself, and
nobody else!  Tut, tut!  What does a table-cloth matter?"  And Mrs
Asplin beamed upon her favourite as if she were really rather delighted
than otherwise at his exploit.

It was a merry, not to say noisy, meal which followed.  Peggy's lost
spirits had come back with the first glimpse of Arthur's face; and her
quips and cranks were so irresistibly droll that three separate times
over Mellicent choked over her tea, and had to be relieved with vigorous
pounding on the back, while even Esther shook with laughter, and the
boys became positively uproarious.

Then Mr Asplin came in, and Arthur was carefully concealed behind the
window-curtains, while he was asked whom he would most like to see if
the choice were given him.  In provoking manner he mentioned at once a
brother in Australia, and, when informed that relatives were not on the
list, recollected an old college chum who was out in the Mauritius.

"Oh dear, what a stupid man!" cried his wife in despair.  "We don't mean
the friends of your youth, dear!  Think of the last few years and of
your young friends!  Now, if you could choose, whom would you--"

"Arthur Saville!" said the vicar promptly, upon which Arthur made a
loophole between the curtains and thrust his mischievous face through
the gap, to the vicar's amazement and the uproarious delight of the
onlookers.  A dozen questions had to be asked and answered about
studies, examinations, and health, while Peggy sat listening, beaming
with happiness and pride.

It came as quite a shock to all when the vicar announced that it was
time to dress for dinner, and Mrs Asplin looked at Peggy with an
apologetic smile.

"We were all so charmed to see Arthur that I'm afraid we have been
selfish and engrossed too much of his attention.  You two will be
longing for a cosy little chat to yourselves.  If you run upstairs now,
Peggy, and hurry through your dressing, there will be a little time
before dinner, and you could have this room to yourselves."

"Yes, run along, Peg!  It won't take me ten minutes to get into my
clothes, and I'll be here waiting for you!" cried Arthur eagerly.  And
Peggy went flying two steps at a time upstairs to her own room.

The gas was lit; the can of hot water stood in the basin, the towel
neatly folded over the top; the hands of the little red clock pointed to
six o'clock, and the faint chime met her ear as she entered.

Peggy stood still in the doorway, an icy chill crept through her veins,
her hands grasped the lintel, and her eyes grew wide and blank with
horror.  There, on the writing-table lay a brown paper parcel--the
precious parcel which contained the calendar which had been the object
of such painful work and anxiety!



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

PEGGY IS LOST.

Arthur Saville waited in vain by the schoolroom fire, for his sister did
not join him.  And when he entered the dining-room in response to the
summons of the gong, she had not yet made her appearance.

Mrs Asplin looked at him with uplifted brows.

"Where is Peggy?"

"I don't know.  I haven't seen her since she went upstairs.  The little
wretch can't have hurried very much."

"She hasn't been with you, then!  Never mind, there is plenty of time to
come.  She must be making a special toilet for your benefit."

But when the first course was nearly over and the girl had not yet
appeared, Mrs Asplin grew impatient, and despatched the servant to
hasten her movements.

"Just tell her that we have been at table for nearly ten minutes.  Ask
if she will be long."

Mary left the room, was absent a short time, and came back with an
extraordinary statement.

"Miss Peggy is not in her room, ma'am."

"Not in her room!  Then she must have come downstairs.  Perhaps she
didn't hear the gong.  Just look in the schoolroom, Mary, and in the
other rooms too, and tell her to come at once."

Another few minutes passed, and back again came Mary, looking flushed
and mysterious.

"I can't see Miss Peggy anywhere, ma'am.  She has not come downstairs."

"You have looked in the drawing-room--Mr Asplin's study?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Did you go upstairs again?"

"No, ma'am.  I had looked there before."

"Esther dear, you go!" cried Mrs Asplin quickly.  "Bring her down at
once!  What in the world is the child doing?  It's most extraordinary!"

"She's not given to playing games of hide-and-seek just at dinner-time,
is she?" asked Arthur, laughing.  "I am never surprised at anything
Peggy does.  She has some little prank on hand, depend upon it, and will
turn up in good time.  It's her own fault if she misses her dinner."

"But it's so extraordinary!  To-night of all nights, when you have just
arrived!  I wish the child would come!" replied Mrs Asplin, craning her
neck forward to listen to the cries of "Peggy!  Peggy!" which came from
the upper storey.

The door stood open, and everyone ceased talking to follow Esther's
footsteps to and fro, to count the opening and shutting of doors--one,
two, three, four, five--to look apprehensively at each other as the
messenger returned--alone!

"Mother, she is not there!  I've looked everywhere--in every corner--and
she has not changed her dress, nor washed, nor anything.  The room looks
exactly as if she had never gone in; but she did, for we all followed
her upstairs.  I looked over the wardrobe, and all her dresses are
there, and the can of hot water is untouched, and the gas left full up."

"Oh dear, what can have happened?"  Mrs Asplin pushed back her chair
and stood up, looking anxious and puzzled.  "I cannot rest until she is
found!  I must look myself!  Go on with dinner, all of you; I won't be
long.  Where can the child be hiding herself?"

"Don't worry, mater!" said Arthur kindly.  "It's very tiresome of Peggy
to disappear at such an inopportune moment, but no harm can have
happened to her, you know.  It's impossible!  As I said before, she has
probably some wild prank in her head of which this is a part.  I'll give
her a lecture when I catch her for spoiling dinner like this, and such
an uncommonly good dinner too!"  And Arthur smiled in cheery fashion,
and tried his best to keep up the failing spirits of the company by
chatting away while his hostess was out of the room, as if nothing had
happened which was the least unusual or alarming.

When Mrs Asplin returned, however, after a lengthened absence, there
was a simultaneous rising from the table to listen to her report.

"She is not in the house!  Jane began at the top and I began at the
bottom, and we searched every hole and corner.  I have looked in the
very cupboards and wardrobes!  I even searched the cistern-room, but she
is not to be found.  I don't know what to do next.  It seems impossible
that she can have disappeared--yet where can she be?"

"Have you looked in the cloak-room to see if any of her outdoor things
are missing?"

"I went in, but I never thought of looking at her clothes.  Outdoor?
What on earth should take the child out at this hour in the dark and
rain?"

"I can't tell you that, dear, but we must think of every possibility.
Esther, you know best what Peggy had in the cloak-room--see if anything
is missing.  Mellicent, run upstairs and find if any hats or jackets
have been taken from their places.  If she is not in the house, she must
have gone out.  It was most thoughtless and foolish to go without asking
permission, and at such an hour; but, as Arthur says, there is not much
chance of any harm befalling her.  Try not to work yourself up into a
state of anxiety, dear; we shall soon find your truant for you.  Well,
Esther, what is it?"

"Her mackintosh has gone, father, and her red tam-o'-shanter, and her
snow-shoes.  Her peg is next to mine, and there is nothing on it but her
check golf cape."

"She has gone out, then!  What can it mean?--to-night of all nights,
when she was so happy, when Arthur had just arrived, when she promised
to be downstairs in ten minutes--"

"It is most extraordinary!  It must have been something of great
importance, one would say.  Does anyone know if Peggy had any special
interest on hand at present?  Was there any gift which she wished to
buy?  It does not happen to be anyone's birthday to-morrow, does it?
Yours, Arthur, for instance?  No?  The birthday of a school-friend,
then?  She might suddenly have remembered such an occasion, and rushed
out to post a letter--"

"But there is no post until to-morrow morning, so she would gain no time
by doing that.  The postman called at five o'clock, and the letters were
on the hall-table waiting for him as usual.  I do not know of any work
that she had on hand, but the girls have complained that she has spent
all her spare time in her room lately, and when I spoke to her about it
she said she was writing--"

"Perhaps she is writing a book," suggested Mellicent thoughtfully.  "She
says she is going to be an authoress when she grows up.  I think Robert
knew what she was doing.  They were always talking together and looking
over books, and I heard him say to her, `Bring me all you have finished,
to look over.'  I said something to her about printing some photographs
for Christmas cards, and she said she could do nothing until after the
nineteenth."

"The nineteenth!" echoed the vicar sharply.  "That is to-day.  We gather
from that, then, that Peggy had been busy with work, either by herself
or in conjunction with Robert, which had to be completed by to-day.
Nobody has the least idea of what nature it was?  No?  Then I shall go
to Robert's room and see if there is anything lying about which can give
me a clue."

"I'll go with you, sir," said Arthur, who was beginning to look a little
anxious and uneasy, as the moments passed by and brought no sign of his
sister; but, alas, the scattered papers on Rob's table gave no clue to
the mystery!

When one is endeavouring to find a reason why a girl should mysteriously
disappear from her home, it does not help very much to find a few slips
of paper on which are written such items as "Tennyson's Poems, page 26,"
"Selections from British Authors, 203", "Macaulay's Essays, 97,"
etcetera.

Arthur and Mr Asplin looked at one another, puzzled and disappointed,
and had no alternative but to return to the dining-room and confess
their failure.

"Would not it be a good thing to go up to the Larches, and hear what
Robert has to say on the subject?"  Arthur asked; and when he was told
that Robert was in London he still held to his suggestion.

"For someone else in the house may know about it," he declared.  "Rob
may have confided in his mother or sister.  At the worst we can get his
address, and telegraph to him for information, if she has not returned
before we get back.  She might even have gone to the Larches herself
to--to see Rosalind!"

"Peggy doesn't like Rosalind.  She never goes to see her if she can help
it.  I'm quite sure she has not gone there," said Mellicent shrewdly.
"It is more likely she has gone to Fraulein's lodgings to tell her about
Arthur.  She is fond of Fraulein."

The suggestion was not very brilliant, but it was hailed with eagerness
by the listeners as the most probable explanation yet offered.

"Then I'll tell you what we will do.  I'll go off to the Larches," cried
Arthur, "and one of you fellows can see Fraulein, and find out if Peggy
has been there.  We must try every place, likely and unlikely.  It is
better than sitting here doing nothing."

Max frowned and hesitated.  "Or--er--or you might go to Fraulein, and
I'll take the Larches!  It is a long walk for you after your journey,"
he suggested, with a sudden access of politeness, "and there seems more
probability that Fraulein may be able to help us.  You could go there
and back in a short time."

"Just as you like, of course.  It is all the same to me," returned
Arthur, in a tone which plainly intimated that it was nothing of the
sort.  Mrs Asplin looked from one to the other of the flushed faces,
realising that even in the midst of anxiety the image of beautiful,
golden-haired Rosalind had a Will-o'-the-wisp attraction for the two big
lads; but her husband saw nothing of what lay behind the commonplace
words, and said calmly--

"Very well, then, Max, be off with you as fast as you can go.  Find out
if Robert has said anything about the work which he has had on hand;
find out his address in town, and, if possible, where a telegram would
reach him this evening.  Arthur will call at Fraulein's lodgings; and,
Oswald, you might go with him so far, and walk through the village.  Ask
at old Mrs Gilpin's shop if Miss Saville has been there, but don't talk
about it too much; we don't want to make more fuss than we can help.
Keep your eyes open!"

The three lads departed without further delay; the vicar put on his coat
and hat preparatory to searching the garden and the lanes in the
immediate neighbourhood, and the womenkind of the household settled down
to an hour of painful waiting.

Mrs Asplin lay back in her chair, with her hand to her head, now
silent, now breaking out into impetuous lamentations.  The fear lest any
accident had happened to Peggy paralysed her with dread.  Her thoughts
went out to far-away India; she imagined the arrival of the ominous
cablegram; pictured it carried into the house by a native servant; saw
the light die out of two happy faces at the reading of the fatal words.
"Oh, Peggy, Peggy!" she groaned.  "Oh, the poor father--the poor mother!
What will I do?  What will I do?  Oh, Peggy, dearie, come back I come
back!"

Esther busied herself looking after a dozen little domestic
arrangements, to which no one else seemed capable of attendance, and
Mellicent laid her head on her mother's lap, and never ceased crying,
except for one brief interval, when she darted upstairs to peep inside
the old oak chest, prompted thereto by a sudden reminiscence of the
bride of the "Mistletoe Bough."  There was no Peggy inside the chest,
however; only a few blankets, and a very strong smell of camphor; so
Mellicent crept back to her footstool, and cried with redoubled energy.
In the kitchen the fat old cook sat with a hand planted on either knee,
and thrilled the other servants with an account of how "a cousin of me
own brother-in-law, him that married our Annie, had a child as went
a-missing, as fine a girl as you could wish to see from June to January.
Beautiful kerly 'air, for all the world like Miss Mellicent's, and such
nice ways with her!  Everybody loved that child, gentle and simple.
`Beller,' 'er name was, after her mother.  She went out unbeknownst,
just as it might be Miss Peggy, and they searched and better
searched,"--cook's hands waved up and down, and the heads of the
listeners wagged in sympathy--"and never a trace could they find.  'Er
father--he's a stone-mason by trade, and getting good money--he knocked
off work, and his friends they knocked off too, and they searched the
country far and wide.  Day and night I tell you they searched, a week on
end, and poor Isabeller nearly off her head with grief.  I've heard my
sister say as she never tasted bite nor sup the whole time, and was
wasted to a shadow.  Eh, poor soul, it's hard to rare up a child, and
have it go out smiling and bonnie, and never see nothink of it again but
its bones--for she had fallen into a lime pit, had Beller, and it was
nothing but her skeleton as they brought 'ome.  There was building going
on around there, and she was playing near the pit--childlike--just as it
might be Miss Peggy..."  Soon and on.  The horrors accumulated with
every moment.  The housemaid had heard tell of a beautiful little girl,
the heiress to a big estate, who had been carried off by strolling
gipsies, and never been seen again by her sorrowing relatives; while the
waitress hinted darkly that the time might come when it would be a
comfort to know force had been employed, for sharper than a serpent's
tooth was an ungrateful child, and she always _had_ said that there was
something uncanny about that little Miss Saville!

The clock was striking nine o'clock when the first of the messengers
came back to report his failure; he was closely followed by a second;
and last of all came Max, bringing word that nothing had been seen or
heard of Peggy at the Larches; that neither Lord Darcy nor Rosalind had
the faintest idea of the nature of the work which had just been
completed; and, further, that on this evening Robert was escorting his
mother to some entertainment, so that even if sent off at once a
telegram could not reach him until a late hour.  Mrs Asplin turned her
white face from one speaker to the other, and, when the last word was
spoken, broke into a paroxysm of helpless weeping.



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

THE SECRET CONFESSED.

"Something has happened!  Something terrible has happened to the child!
And she was left in our charge.  We are responsible.  Oh, if any harm
has happened to Peggy, however, ever, ever, can I bear to live and send
the news to her parents--"

"My dearest, you have done your best; you could not have been kinder or
more thoughtful.  No blame can attach to you.  Remember that Peggy is in
higher hands than yours.  However far from us she may be, she can never
stray out of God's keeping.  It all seems very dark and mysterious,
but--"

At this moment a loud rat-tat-tat sounded on the knocker, and with one
accord the hearers darted into the hall, and stood panting and gasping,
while Arthur threw open the door.

"Telegram, sir!" said a sharp, young voice, and the brown envelope which
causes so much agitation in quiet households was thrust forward in a
small cold hand.  Arthur looked at the address and handed it to the
vicar.

"It is for you, sir, but it cannot possibly be anything about--"

Mr Asplin tore open the envelope, glanced over the words, and broke
into an exclamation of amazement.  "It is!  It is from Peggy
herself!--`Euston Station.  Returning by 10.30 train.  Please meet me at
twelve o'clock.--Peggy.'  What in the world does it mean?"  He looked
round the group of anxious faces, only to see his own expression of
bewilderment repeated on each in turn.

"Euston!  Returning!  She is in London.  She is coming back from town!"

"She ran away to London, to-night when she was so happy, when Arthur had
just arrived!  Why?  Why?  Why?"

"She must have caught the seven o'clock train."

"She must have left the house almost immediately after going upstairs to
dress for dinner."

"Oh, father, why should she go to London?"

"I am quite unable to tell you, my dear," replied the vicar drily.  He
looked at his wife's white, exhausted face, and his eyes flashed with
the "A-word-with-you-in-my-study" expression, which argued ill for Miss
Peggy's reception.  Mrs Asplin, however, was too thankful to know of
the girl's safety to have any thought for herself.  She began to smile,
with the tears still running down her face, and to draw long breaths of
relief and satisfaction.

"It's no use trying to guess at that, Millie dear.  It is enough for me
to know that she is alive and well.  We shall just have to try and
compose ourselves in patience until we hear Peggy's own explanation.
Let me see!  There is nearly an hour before you need set out.  What can
we do to pass the time as quickly as possible?"

"Have some coffee, I should say!  None of us have had too much dinner,
and a little refreshment would be very welcome after all this strain,"
said Arthur promptly, and Mrs Asplin eagerly welcomed the suggestion.

"That's what I call a really practical proposal!  Ring the bell, dear,
and I will order it at once.  I am sure we shall all have thankful
hearts while we drink it."  She looked appealingly at Mr Asplin as she
spoke; but there was no answering smile on his face, and the lines down
his cheeks looked deeper and grimmer than ever.

"Oh, goody, goody, goodness, aren't I glad I am not Peggy!" sighed
Mellicent to herself; while Arthur Saville pursed his lips together, and
thought, "Poor little Peg!  She'll catch it.  I've never seen the
dominie look so savage.  This is a nice sort of treat for a fellow who
has been ordered away for rest and refreshment!  I wish the next two
hours were safely over."

Wishing, unfortunately, however, can never carry us over the painful
crises of our lives.  We have to face them as best we may, and Arthur
needed all his cheery confidence to sustain him during the damp walk
which followed, when the vicar tramped silently by his side, his shovel
hat pulled over his eyes, his mackintosh coat flapping to and fro in the
wind.

They reached the station in good time, and punctually to the minute the
lights of the London express were seen in the distance.  The train drew
up, and among the few passengers who alighted the figure of Peggy, in
her scarlet-trimmed hat, was easily distinguished.  She was assisted out
of the carriage by an elderly gentleman, in a big travelling coat, who
stood by her side as she looked about for her friends.  As Mr Asplin
and Arthur approached, they only heard his hearty, "Now you are all
right!" and Peggy's elegant rejoinder, "Exceedingly indebted to you for
all your kindness!"  Then he stepped back into the carriage, and she
came forward to meet them, half shy, half smiling, "I--I am afraid that
you--"

"We will defer explanations, Mariquita, if you please, until we reach
home.  A fly is waiting.  We will return as quickly as possible," said
the vicar frigidly; and the brother and sister lagged behind as he led
the way out of the station, gesticulating and whispering together in
furtive fashion.

"Oh, you Peggy!  _Now_ you have done it!  No end of a row!"

"Couldn't help it!  Had to go.  Stick to me, Arthur, whatever you do!"

"Like a leech!  We'll worry through somehow.  Never say die!"  Then the
fly was reached, and they jolted home in silence.

Mrs Asplin and the four young folks were sitting waiting in the
drawing-room, and each one turned an eager, excited face towards the
doorway as Peggy entered, her cheeks white, but with shining eyes, and
hair ruffled into little curls beneath the scarlet cap.  Mrs Asplin
would have rushed forward in welcome, but a look in her husband's face
restrained her, and there was a deathlike silence in the room as he took
up his position by the mantelpiece.

"Mariquita," he said slowly, "you have caused us to-night some hours of
the most acute and painful anxiety which we have ever experienced.  You
disappeared suddenly from among us, and until ten o'clock, when your
telegram arrived, we had not the faintest notion as to where you could
be.  The most tragic suspicions came to our minds.  We have spent the
evening in rushing to and fro, searching and inquiring in all
directions.  Mrs Asplin has had a shock from which, I fear, she will be
some time in recovering.  Your brother's pleasure in his visit has been
spoiled.  We await your explanation.  I am at a loss to imagine any
reason sufficiently good to excuse such behaviour; but I will say no
more until I have heard what you have to say."

Peggy stood like a prisoner at the bar, with hanging head and hands
clasped together.  As the vicar spoke of his wife, she darted a look at
Mrs Asplin, and a quiver of emotion passed over her face.  When he had
finished she drew a deep breath, raised her head and looked him full in
the face with her bright, earnest eyes.

"I am sorry," she said slowly.  "I can't tell you in words _how_ sorry I
am.  I know it will be difficult, but I hope you will forgive me.  I was
thinking what I had better do while I was coming back in the train, and
I decided that I ought to tell you everything, even though it is
supposed to be a secret.  Robert will forgive me, and it is Robert's
secret as much as mine.  I'll begin at the beginning.  About five weeks
ago Robert saw an advertisement of a prize that was offered by a
magazine.  You had to make up a calendar with quotations for every day
in the year, and the person who sent in the best selection would get
thirty pounds.  Rob wanted the money very badly to buy a microscope, and
he asked me to help him.  I was to have ten pounds for myself if we won,
but I didn't care about that.  I just wanted to help Rob.  I said I
would take the money, because I knew if I didn't he would not let me
work so hard, and I thought I would spend it in buying p-p-presents for
you all at Christmas."--Peggy's voice faltered at this point, and she
gulped nervously several times before she could go on with her
story.--"We had to work very hard, because the time was so short.
Robert had not seen the advertisement until it had been out some time.
I printed the headings on the cards; that is why I sat so much in my own
room.  The last fortnight I have been writing every morning before six
o'clock.  Oh, you can't think how difficult it was to get it finished,
but Robert was determined to go on; he thought our chance was very good,
because he had found some beautiful extracts, and translated others, and
the pages really looked pretty and dainty.  The manuscript had to be in
London this morning; if it missed the post last night, all our work
would have been wasted, and at the last moment Lady Darcy took Rob away
with her, and I was left with everything to finish.  I _may_ have slept
a little bit the last two nights; I did lie down for an hour or two, and
I _may_ have had a doze, but I don't think so!  I wrote the last word
this morning after the breakfast-bell had rung, and I made up the parcel
at twelve o'clock.  I thought of going out and posting it then; of
course, that is what I should have done, but,"--her voice trembled once
more--"I was so tired!  I thought I would give it to the postman myself,
and that would do just as well.  I didn't put it with the letters
because I was afraid someone would see the address and ask questions,
and Rob had said that I was to keep it a secret until we knew whether we
had won.  I left the parcel on my table.  Then Arthur came!  I was so
happy--there was so much to talk about--we had tea--it seemed like five
minutes.  Everyone was amazed when we found it was time to dress, but
even then I forgot all about the calendar.  I only remembered that
Arthur was here, and was going to stay for four days, and all the way
upstairs I was saying to myself, `I'm happy, I'm happy; oh I _am_
happy!' because, you know, though you are so kind, you have many
relatives belonging to you whom you love better than me, and my own
people are all far-away, and sometimes I've been very lonely!  I thought
of nothing but Arthur, and then I opened the door of my room, and there,
before my eyes, was the parcel--Rob's parcel that he had trusted to me--
that I had solemnly promised to post in time--"

She stopped short, and there was a gasp of interest and commiseration
among the listeners.  Peggy caught it; she glanced sharply at the
vicar's face, saw its sternness replaced by a momentary softness, and
was quick to make the most of her opportunity.  Out flew the dramatic
little hand, her eyes flashed, her voice thrilled with suppressed
excitement.

"It lay there before my eyes, and I stood and looked at it.--I thought
of nothing, but just stood and stared.  I heard you all come upstairs,
and the doors shut, and Arthur's voice laughing and talking; but there
was only one thing I could remember--I had forgotten Rob's parcel, and
he would come back, and I should have to tell him, and see his face!  I
felt as if I were paralysed, and then suddenly I seized the parcel in my
hands, and flew downstairs.  I put on my cap and cloak and went out into
the garden.  I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was going to do
_something_!  I ran on and on, through the village, down towards the
station.  I knew it was too late for the post-office, but I had a sort
of feeling that if I were at the station something might be done.  Just
as I got there a train came in, and I heard the porter call out, `London
express.'  I thought--No!  I did not think at all--I just ran up to a
carriage and took a seat, and the door banged, and away we went.  The
porter came and asked for my ticket, and I had a great deal of trouble
to convince him that I had only come from here, and not all the way.
There was an old lady in the carriage, and she told him that it was
quite true, for she had seen me come in.  When we went off again, she
looked at me very hard, and said, `Are you in trouble, dear?' and I
said, `Yes, I am; but oh, please don't talk to me!  Do please leave me
alone!' for I had begun to realise what I had done, and that I couldn't
be back for hours and hours, and that you would all be anxious and
unhappy.  I think I was as miserable as you were when I sent off that
telegram.  I posted the parcel in London, and went and sat in the
waiting-room.  I had an hour and a half to wait, and I was wretched and
nervous and horribly hungry.  I had no money left except a few coppers,
and I was afraid to spend them and have nothing left.  It seemed like a
whole day, but at last the train came in, and I saw an old gentleman
with white hair standing on the platform.  I took a fancy to his
appearance, so I walked up to him, and bowed, and said, `Excuse me,
sir--I find myself in a dilemma!  Will you allow me to travel in the
same carriage as yourself?'  He was most agreeable.  He had travelled
all over the world, and talked in the most interesting fashion, but I
could not listen to his conversation.  I was too unhappy.  Then we
arrived, and Mr Asplin called me `M-M-Mariquita!' and w-wouldn't let
you kiss me--"

Her voice broke helplessly this time, and she stood silent, with
quivering lip, while sighs and sobs of sympathy echoed from every side.
Mrs Asplin cast a glance at her husband, half defiant, half appealing,
met a smile of assent, and rushed impetuously to Peggy's side.

"My darling!  I'll kiss you now.  You see we knew nothing of your
trouble, dear, and we were so very, very anxious.  Mr Asplin is not
angry with you any longer, are you, Austin?  You know now that she had
no intention of grieving us, and that she is truly sorry--"

"I never thought--I never thought,"--sobbed Peggy; and the vicar gave a
slow, kindly smile.

"Ah, Peggy, that is just what I complain about.  You don't think, dear,
and that causes all the trouble.  No, I am not angry any longer.  I
realise that the circumstances were peculiar, and that your distress was
naturally very great.  At the same time, it was a most mad thing for a
girl of your age to rush off by rail, alone, and at night-time, to a
place like London.  You say that you had only a few coppers left in your
purse.  Now suppose there had been no train back to-night, what would
you have done?  It does not bear thinking of, my dear; or that you
should have waited alone in the station for so long, or thrown yourself
on strangers for protection.  What would your parents have said to such
an escapade?"

Peggy sighed, and cast down her eyes.  "I think they would have been
cross too.  I am sure they would have been anxious, but I know they
would forgive me when I was sorry, and promised that I really and truly
would try to be better and more thoughtful!  They would say, `Peggy
dear, you have been sufficiently punished!  Consider yourself
absolved!'"

The vicar's lips twitched, and a twinkle came into his eye.  "Well then,
I will say the same!  I am sure you have regretted your hastiness by
this time, and it will be a lesson to you in the future.  For Arthur's
sake, as well as your own, we will say no more on the subject.  It would
be a pity if his visit were spoiled.  Just one thing, Peggy, to show you
that, after all, grown-up people are wiser than young ones, and that it
is just as well to refer to them now and then, in matters of difficulty.
Has it ever occurred to you that the mail went up to London by the very
train in which you yourself travelled, and that by giving your parcel to
the guard it could still have been put in the bag?  Did that thought
never occur to your wise little brain?"

Peggy made a gesture as of one heaping dust and ashes on her head.  "I
never did," she said, "not for a single moment!  And I thought I was so
clever!  I am prostrate with confusion!"



CHAPTER NINETEEN.

ROSALIND'S BALL.

In consideration of Arthur's presence and of the late hours and
excitement of the night before, the next day was observed as a holiday
in the vicarage.  Mrs Asplin stayed in bed until lunch-time, the boys
went for a bicycle ride, and Peggy and her brother had a delightful chat
together by the schoolroom fire, when he told her more details about his
own plans than he had been able to touch upon in a dozen letters.

"The preliminary examination for Sandhurst begins on the 26th this
year," he explained, "and so far as I can make out I shall romp through
it.  I am going to take all the subjects in Class One--mathematics,
Latin, French, geometrical drawing, and English composition; I'll
astonish them in the last subject!  Plenty of dash and go, eh, Peggy,--
that's the style to fetch 'em!  In Class Two you can only take two
subjects, so I'm going in for chemistry and physics.  I rather fancy
myself in physics, and if I don't come out at the head of the list, or
precious near the head, it won't be for want of trying.  I have worked
like a nigger these last six months; between ourselves, I thought I had
worked too hard a few days ago; I felt so stupid and dizzy, and my head
ached until I could hardly open my eyes.  If I had not come away, I
believe I should have broken down, but I'm better already, and by
Tuesday I shall be as fit as a fiddle.  I hope I do well, it would be so
jolly to cable out the news to the old pater; and I say, Peg, I don't
mean to leave Sandhurst without bringing home something to keep as a
souvenir.  At the end of each Christmas term a sword is presented to the
cadet who passes out first in the final exam.--`The Anson Memorial
Sword.'  Mariquita!"--Arthur smote his breast, and struck a fierce and
warlike attitude,--"that sword is mine!  In the days to come, when you
are old and grey-headed, you will see that rusty blade hanging over my
ancestral hearth, and tell in faltering tones the story of the gallant
youth who wrested it from his opponents."

"Ha, ha!" responded Peggy deeply.  There was no particular meaning in
the exclamation, but it seemed right and fitting in the connection, and
had a smack of melodrama which was quite to her taste.  "Of course you
will be first, Arthur!" she added; "and, oh dear! how proud I shall be
when I see you in all your uniform!  I am thankful all my men relatives
are soldiers, they are so much more interesting than civilians.  It
would break my heart to think of you as a civilian!  Of course wars are
somewhat disconcerting, but then one always hopes there won't be wars."

"I don't!" cried Arthur loudly.  "No, no--active service for me, and
plenty of it!

  "`Come one, come all, this rock shall fly
  From its firm base as soon as I!'

"That's my motto, and my ambition is the Victoria Cross, and I'll get
that too before I'm done; you see if I don't!  It's the ambition of my
life, Peg.  I lie awake and think of that little iron cross; I go to
sleep and dream of it, and see the two words dancing before my eyes in
letters of fire, `For Valour,' `For Valour,' `For Valour.'  Ah!"--he
drew a deep breath of excitement--"I don't think there is anything in
the world I should envy, if I could only gain that."

Peggy gazed at him with kindling eyes.  "You are a soldier's son," she
said, "and the grandson of a soldier, and the great-grandson of a
soldier; it's in your blood; you can't help it--it's in my blood too,
Arthur!  I give you my solemn word of honour that if the French or
Germans came over to invade this land, I'd--" Peggy seized the ruler and
waved it in the air with a gesture of fiercest determination--"I'd fight
them!  There!  I'd shoot at them; I'd go out and spike the guns; I'd--
I'd climb on the house-tops and throw stones at them.  You needn't
laugh, I tell you I should be _terrible_!  I feel as if I could face a
whole regiment myself.  The spirit--the spirit of my ancestors is in my
breast, Arthur Reginald, and woe betide that enemy who tries to wrest
from me my native land!"  Peggy went off into a shriek of laughter, in
which Arthur joined, until the sound of the merry peals reached Mrs
Asplin's ears as she lay wearily on her pillow, and brought a smile to
her pale face.  "Bless the dears!  How happy they are!" she murmured to
herself; nor even suspected that it was a wholesale massacre of foreign
nations which had been the cause of this gleeful outburst.

Arthur left the vicarage on Tuesday evening, seemingly much refreshed by
the few days' change, though he still complained of his head, and
pressed his hand over his eyes from time to time as though in pain.  The
parting from Peggy was more cheerful than might have been expected, for
in a few more weeks Christmas would be at hand, when, as he himself
expressed it, he hoped to return with blushing honours thick upon him.
Peggy mentally expended her whole ten pounds in a present for the dear
handsome fellow, and held her head high in the consciousness of owning a
brother who was destined to be Commander-in-Chief of the British forces
in the years to come.

The same evening Robert returned from his visit to London.  He had heard
of Peggy's escapade from his father and sister, and was by no means so
grateful as that young lady had expected.

"What in all the world possessed you to play such a mad trick?" he
queried bluntly.  "It makes me ill to think of it.  Rushing off to
London on a wet, foggy night, never even waiting to inquire if there was
a return train, or to count if you had enough money to see you through!
Goodness only knows what might have happened!  You are careless enough
in an ordinary way, but I must say I gave you credit for more sense than
that."

"Well, but, Rob," pleaded Peggy, aggrieved, "I don't think you need
scold!  I did it for you, and I thought you would be pleased."

"Did you indeed?  Well, you are mightily mistaken; I wouldn't have let
you do a thing like that for all the microscopes in the world.  I don't
care a rap for the wretched old microscope."

"Oh! oh!"

"In comparison, I mean.  Of course I should have been glad to get it if
it had come to me in an ordinary way, but I was not so wrapped up in the
idea that I would not have been reasonable, if you had come to me
quietly and explained that you had missed the post."

Peggy shook her head sagely.  "You think so now, because the danger is
over, and you are sure it can't happen.  But I know better.  I can tell
you exactly what would have happened.  You wouldn't have stormed or
raged, it would have been better if you had, and sooner over; you would
just have stood still, and--glared at me!  When I'd finished speaking,
you would have swallowed two or three times over, as if you were gulping
down something which you dared not say, and then turned on your heel and
marched out of the room.  That's what you would have done, my dear and
honourable sir, and you know it!"

Robert hung his head and looked self-conscious.

"Well, if I had!  A fellow can't hide all he feels in the first moment
of disappointment.  But I should have got over it, and you know very
well that I should never have brought it up against you.  `Glared!'
What if I _did_ glare?  There is nothing very terrible in that, is
there?"

"Yes, there is.  I could not have borne it, when I had been trying so
hard to help you.  And it would not have been only the first few
minutes.  Every time when you were quiet and depressed, when you looked
at your specimens through your little old glass and sighed, and pitched
it away, as I've seen you do scores and scores of times, I should have
felt that it was my fault, and been in the depths of misery.  No, no,
I'm sorry to the depths of my heart that I scared dear Mrs Asplin and
the rest, but it is a matter of acute satisfaction to me to know that
your chance has in no way been hindered by your confidence in me!" and
Peggy put her head on one side, and coughed in a faint and ladylike
manner, which brought the twinkle back into Robert's eyes.

"Good old Mariquita!" he cried, laughing.  "`Acute satisfaction' is
good, Mariquita--decidedly good!  You will make your name yet in the
world of letters.  Well, as I said before, you are a jolly little brick,
and the best partner a fellow ever had!  Mind you, I tell you straight
that I think you behaved badly in cutting off like that; but I'll stand
by you to the others, and not let them sit upon you while I am there."

"Thanks!" said Peggy meekly.  "But, oh, I beseech of you, don't bring up
the subject if you can help it!  I'm tired to death of it all!  The
kindest thing you can do is to talk hard about something else, and give
them a fresh excitement to think about.  Talk about--about--about
Rosalind if you will; anything will do--only, for pity's sake, leave me
alone, and pretend there is not such a thing in the world as a
calendar!"

"Right you are!" said Robert, laughing.  "I'll steer clear of the rocks!
And as it happens, I have got a piece of news that will put your doings
into the background at one fell swoop.  Rosalind is going to give a
party!  The Earl and Countess of Berkhampton are coming down to the
Larches the week after next, and are going to bring their two girls with
them.  They are great lanky things, with about as much `go' in the pair
as in one of your little fingers; but this party is to be given in their
honour.  The mater has asked everyone of a right age within a dozen
miles around, and the house will be crammed with visitors.  Your card is
coming to-morrow, and I hope you will give me the honour of the first
round, and as many as possible after that."

"The first, with pleasure; I won't promise any more until I see how we
get on.  It doesn't seem appropriate to think of your dancing, Rob;
there is something too heavy and serious in your demeanour.  Oswald is
different; he would make a charming dancing master.  Oh, it will be an
excitement!  Mellicent will not be able to eat or sleep for thinking of
it; and poor Mrs Asplin will be running up seams on the sewing-machine,
and making up ribbon bows from this day to that.  I'm glad I have a
dress all ready, and shan't be bothered with any trying on!  You don't
know what it is to stand first on one leg and then on the other, to be
turned and pulled about as if you were a dummy, and have pins stuck into
you as if you were a pin-cushion!  I adore pretty clothes, but every
time I go to the dressmaker's I vow and declare that I shall take to
sacks.  Tell them at dinner, do, and they will talk about it for the
rest of the evening!"

Peggy's prophecy came true, for the subject of Rosalind's party became a
topic of such absorbing interest as left room for little else during the
next few weeks.  New dresses had to be bought and made for the girls,
and Peggy superintended the operations of the village dressmaker with
equal satisfaction to herself and her friends.

Rosalind appeared engrossed in preparations, and two or three times a
week, as the girls trudged along the muddy roads, with Fraulein lagging
in the rear, the jingle of bells would come to their ears, and
Rosalind's two white long-tailed ponies would come dashing past, drawing
the little open carriage in which their mistress sat, half-hidden among
a pile of baskets and parcels.  She was always beautiful and radiant,
and as she passed she would turn her head over her shoulders and look at
the three mud-bespattered pedestrians with a smile of pitying
condescension, which made Peggy set her teeth and draw her eyebrows
together in an ominous frown.

One day she condescended to stop and speak a few words from her throne
among the cushions.

"How de do?  So sowwy not to have been to see you!  Fwightfully busy,
don't you know.  We are decowating the wooms, and don't know how to
finish in time.  It's going to be quite charming!"

"We know!  We know!  Rob told us.  I'm dying to see it.  You should ask
Peggy to help you, if you are in a hurry.  She's s-imply splendid at
decorations!  Mother says she never knew anyone so good at it as Peggy!"
cried Mellicent, with an outburst of gushing praise, in acknowledgment
of which she received a thunderous frown and such a sharp pinch on the
arm as penetrated through all her thick winter wrappings.

Rosalind, however, only ejaculated, "Oh, weally!" in an uninterested
manner, and whipped up her ponies without taking any further notice of
the suggestion; but it had taken root in her mind all the same, and she
did not forget to question her brother on the first opportunity.

Mellicent Asplin had said that Peggy Saville was clever at decoration.
Was it true, and would it be the least use asking her to come and help
in the decorations?

Robert laughed, and wagged his head with an air of proud assurance.

Clever!  Peggy?  She was a witch!  She could work wonders!  If you set
her down in an empty room, and gave her two-and-sixpence to transform it
into an Alhambra, he verily believed she could do it.  The way in which
she had rigged up the various characters for the Shakespeare reading was
nothing short of miraculous.  Yes, indeed, Peggy would be worth a dozen
ordinary helpers.  The question was, Would she come?

"Certainly she will come.  I'll send down for her at once," said
Rosalind promptly, and forthwith sat down and wrote a dainty little
note, not to Peggy herself, but to Mrs Asplin, stating that she had
heard great accounts of Peggy Saville's skill in the art of decoration,
and begging that she might be allowed to come up to the Larches to help
with the final arrangements, arriving as early as possible on the day of
the party, and bringing her box with her, so as to be saved the fatigue
of returning home to dress.  It was a prettily worded letter, and Mrs
Asplin was dismayed at the manner of its reception.

"No, Peggy Saville won't!" said that young person, pursing her lips and
tossing her head in her most high and mighty manner.  "She won't do
anything of the sort!  Why should I go?  Let her ask some of her own
friends!  I'm not her friend!  I should simply loathe to go!"

"My dear Peggy!  When you are asked to help!  When this entertainment is
given for your pleasure, and you can be of real use--"

"I never asked her to give the party!  I don't care whether I go or not!
She is simply making use of me for her own convenience!"

"It is not the first or only time that you have been asked, as you know
well, Peggy.  And sometimes you have enjoyed yourself very much.  You
said you would never forget the pink luncheon.  In spite of all you say,
you owe Rosalind thanks for some pleasant times; and now you can be of
some service to her.  Well, I'm not going to force you, dear.  I hate
unwilling workers, and if it's not in your heart to go, stay at home,
and settle with your conscience as best you can."

Peggy groaned with sepulchral misery.

"Wish I hadn't got no conscience!  Tiresome, presuming thing--always
poking itself forward and making remarks when it isn't wanted.  I
suppose I shall have to go, and run about from morning till night,
holding a pair of scissors, and nasty little balls of string, for
Rosalind's use!  Genius indeed!  What's the use of talking about genius?
I know very well I shall not be allowed to do anything but run about
and wait upon her.  It's no use staring at me, Mrs Asplin.  I mean it
all--every single word."

"No, you don't, Peggy!  No, you don't, my little kind, warm-hearted
Peggy!  I know better than that!  It's just that foolish tongue that is
running away with you, dearie.  In your heart you are pleased to do a
service for a friend, and are going to put your whole strength into
doing it as well and tastefully as it can be done."

"I'm not!  I'm not!  I'm not!  I'm savage, and it's no use pretending--"

"Yes, you are!  I know it!  What is the good of having a special gift if
one doesn't put it to good use?  Ah, that's the face I like to see!  I
didn't recognise my Peggy with that ugly frown.  I'll write and say
you'll come with pleasure."

"It's to please you, then, not Rosalind!" said Peggy obstinately.  But
Mrs Asplin only laughed, dropped a kiss upon her cheek, and walked away
to answer the invitation forthwith.



CHAPTER TWENTY.

AT THE LARCHES.

The next morning, immediately after breakfast, Peggy went up to her own
room to pack for her visit to the Larches.  The long dress-box, which
had been stored away ever since its arrival, was brought out, and its
contents displayed to an admiring audience, consisting of Mrs Asplin,
Esther, Mellicent, and Mary the housemaid.

Everything was there that the heart of girl could desire, and a mother's
forethought provide for her darling's use when she was far-away.  A
dress of cobweb Indian muslin embroidered in silk, a fan of curling
feathers, a dear little satin pocket in which to keep the lace
handkerchief, rolls of ribbons, dainty white shoes, with straggly silk
stockings rolled into the toes.

Peggy displayed one article after another, while Mellicent groaned and
gurgled with delight; Mary exclaimed, "My, Miss Peggy, but you will be
smart!" and Mrs Asplin stifled a sigh at the thought of her own
inferior preparations.

Punctually at ten o'clock the carriage drove up to the door, and off
Peggy drove, not altogether unwillingly, now that it had come to the
pinch, for after all it _is_ pleasant to be appreciated, and, when a
great excitement is taking place in the neighbourhood, it is only human
to wish to be in the thick of the fray.

Lady Darcy welcomed her guest with gracious kindness, and, as soon as
she had taken off her hat and jacket in the dressing-room which was
allotted to her use, she was taken straight away to the chief room,
where the work of decoration was being carried briskly forward.  The
village joiner was fitting mirrors into the corners and hammering with
deafening persistence, a couple of gardeners were arranging banks of
flowers and palms, and Rosalind stood in the midst of a bower of
greenery, covered from head to foot in a smock of blue linen, and with a
pair of gardening gloves drawn over her hands.

She gave a little cry of relief and satisfaction as Peggy entered.

"Oh, Mawiquita, so glad you have come!  Mother is so busy that she can't
be with me at all, and these wretched bwanches pwick my fingers!  Do
look wound, and say how it looks!  This is weally the servants' hall,
you know, as we have not a pwoper ballroom, and it is so square and high
that it is perfectly dweadful to decowate!  A long, narrow woom is so
much better!"

Peggy thought the arrangements tasteful and pretty; but she could not
gush over the effect, which, in truth, was in no way original or
striking.  There seemed little to be done in the room itself, so she
suggested an adjournment into the outer hall, which seemed to offer
unique opportunities.

"That space underneath the staircase!" she cried eagerly.  "Oh,
Rosalind, we could make it look perfectly sweet with all the beautiful
Eastern things that you have brought home from your travels!  Let us
make a little harem, with cushions to sit on, and hanging lamps, and
Oriental curtains for drapery.  We could do it while the men are
finishing this room, and be ready to come back to it after lunch."

"Oh, what a sweet idea!  Mawiquita, you are quite too clever!" cried
Rosalind, aglow with pleasure.  "Let us begin at once.  It will be ever
so much more intewesting than hanging about here."

She thrust her hand through Peggy's arm as she spoke, and the two girls
went off on a tour through the house to select the most suitable
articles for their decoration of the "harem."  There was no lack of
choice, for the long suite of reception-rooms was full of treasures, and
Peggy stopped every few minutes to point with a small forefinger and
say, "That screen, please!  That table!  That stool!" to the servants
who had been summoned in attendance.  The smaller things, such as
ornaments, table-cloths, and lamps she carried herself, while Rosalind
murmured sweetly, "Oh, don't twouble!  You mustn't, weally!  Let me help
you!" and stood with her arms hanging by her side, without showing the
faintest sign of giving the offered help.

As the morning passed away, Peggy found indeed that the Honourable Miss
Darcy was a broken reed to lean upon in the way of assistance.  She sat
on a stool and looked on while the other workers hammered and pinned and
stitched--so that Peggy's prophecy as to her own subordinate position
was exactly reversed, and the work of supervision was given entirely
into her hands.

It took nearly two hours to complete the decorations of the "harem," but
when all was finished the big ugly space beneath the staircase was
transformed into as charming a nook as it is possible to imagine.
Pieces of brilliant flag embroidery from Cairo draped the farther wall,
a screen of carved work shut out the end of the passage, gauzy curtains
of gold and blue depended in festoons from the ascending staircase, and
stopped just in time to leave a safe place for a hanging lamp of wrought
iron and richly coloured glass.  On the floor were spread valuable rugs
and piles of bright silken cushions, while on an inlaid table stood a
real Turkish hookah and a brass tray with the little egg-shaped cups out
of which travellers in the East are accustomed to sip the strong black
coffee of the natives.

Peggy lifted the ends of her apron in her hands and executed a dance of
triumph on her own account when all was finished, and Rosalind said,
"Weally, we have been clever!  I think we may be proud of ourselves!" in
amiable effusion.

The two girls went off to luncheon in a state of halcyon amiability
which was new indeed in the history of their acquaintance, and Lady
Darcy listened with an amused smile to their rhapsodies on the subject
of the morning's work, promising faithfully not to look at anything
until the right moment should arrive, and she should be summoned to gaze
and admire.

By the time that the workers were ready to return to the room, the men
had finished the arrangements at which they had been at work before
lunch, and were beginning to tack festoons of evergreens along the
walls, the dull paper of which had been covered with fluting of soft
pink muslin.  The effect was heavy and clumsy in the extreme, and
Rosalind stamped her foot with an outburst of fretful anger.

"Stop putting up those wreaths!  Stop at once!  They are simply hideous!
It weminds me of a penny weading in the village schoolwoom!  You might
as well put up `God save the Queen' and `A Mewwy Chwistmas' at once!
Take them down this minute, Jackson!  I won't have them!"

The man touched his forehead, and began pulling out the nails in
half-hearted fashion.

"Very well, miss, as you wish.  Seems a pity, though, not to use 'em,
for it took me all yesterday to put 'em together.  It's a sin to throw
'em away."

"I won't have them in the house, if they took you a week!"  Rosalind
replied sharply, and she turned on her heel and looked appealingly in
Peggy's face.  "It's a howwid failure!  The woom looks so stiff and
stwaight--like a pink box with nothing in it!  Mother won't like it a
bit.  What can we do to make it better?"

Peggy scowled, pursed up her lips, pressed her hand to her forehead, and
strode up and down the room, rolling her eyes from side to side, and
going through all the grimaces of one in search of inspiration.
Rosalind was right: unless some device were found by which the shape of
the room could be disguised, the decorations must be pronounced more or
less a failure.  She craned her head to the ceiling, and suddenly beamed
in triumph.

"I have it!  The very thing!  We will fasten the garlands to that middle
beam, and loop up the ends at intervals all round the walls.  That will
break the squareness, and make the room look like a tent, with a ceiling
of flowers."

"Ah-h!" cried Rosalind; and clasped her hands with a gesture of relief.
"Of course!  The vewy thing!  We ought to have thought of it at the
beginning.  Get the ladder at once, Jackson, and put in a hook or wing,
or something to hold the ends; and be sure that it is strong enough.
What a good thing that the weaths are weady!  You see, your work will
not be wasted after all."

She was quite gracious in her satisfaction, and for the next two hours
she and Peggy were busily occupied superintending the hanging of the
evergreen wreaths and in arranging bunches of flowers to be placed at
each point where the wreaths were fastened to the wall.  At the end of
this time, Rosalind was summoned to welcome the distinguished visitors
who had arrived by the afternoon train.  She invited Peggy to accompany
her to the drawing-room, but in a hesitating fashion, and with a glance
round the disordered room, which said, as plainly as words could do,
that she would be disappointed if the invitation were accepted; and
Peggy, transformed in a moment into a poker of pride and dignity,
declared that she would prefer to remain where she was until all was
finished.

"Well, it weally would be better, wouldn't it?  I will have a tway sent
in to you here, and do, Mawiquita, see that evewything is swept up and
made tidy at once, for I shall bring them in to look wound diwectly
after tea, and we must have the wooms tidy!"

Rosalind tripped away, and Peggy was left to herself for a lonely and
troublesome hour.  The tea-tray was brought in, and she was just seating
herself before an impromptu table, when up came a gardener to say that
one of "these 'ere wreaths seemed to hang uncommon near the gas-bracket.
It didn't seem safe like."  And off she went in a panic of
consternation to see what could be done.  There was nothing for it but
to move the wreath some inches farther away, which involved moving the
next also, and the next, and the next, so as to equalise the distances
as much as possible; and by the time that they were settled to Peggy's
satisfaction, lo, table and tray had been whisked out of sight by some
busy pair of hands, and only a bare space met her eyes.  This was blow
number one, for, after working hard all afternoon, tea and cake come as
a refreshment which one would not readily miss.  She cheered herself,
however, by putting dainty finishing touches here and there, seeing that
the lamp was lighted in the "harem" outside, and was busy placing fairy
lamps among the shrubs which were to screen the band, when a babel of
voices from outside warned her that the visitors were approaching.
Footsteps came nearer and nearer, and a chorus of exclamations greeted
the sight of the "harem."  The door stood open, Peggy waited for
Rosalind's voice to call and bid her share the honours, but no summons
came.  She heard Lady Darcy's exclamation, and the quick, strong tones
of the strange countess.

"Charming, charming; quite a stroke of genius!  I never saw a more
artistic little nook.  What made you think of it, my dear?"

"Ha!" said Peggy to herself, and took a step forward, only to draw back
in dismay, as a light laugh reached her ear, followed by Rosalind's
careless--

"Oh, I don't know; I wanted to make it pwetty, don't you know; it was so
dweadfully bare, and there seemed no other way."

Then there was a rustle of silk skirts, and the two ladies entered the
room, followed by their respective daughters, Rosalind beautiful and
radiant, and the Ladies Berkhampton with their chins poked forward, and
their elbows thrust out in ungainly fashion.  They paused on the
threshold, and every eye travelled up to the wreath-decked ceiling.  A
flush of pleasure came into Lady Darcy's pale cheeks, and she listened
to the countess's compliments with sparkling eyes.

"It is all the work of this clever child," she said, laying her hand
fondly on Rosalind's shoulder.  "I have had practically nothing to do
with the decorations.  This is the first time I have been in the room
to-day, and I had no idea that the garlands were to be used in this way.
I thought they were for the walls."

"I congratulate you, Rosalind!  You are certainly very happy in your
arrangements," said the countess cordially.  Then she put up her
eyeglass and stared inquiringly at Peggy, who stood by with her hair
fastened back in its usual pigtail, and a big white apron pinned over
her dress.

"She thinks I am the kitchen-maid!" said Peggy savagely to herself; but
there was little fear of such a mistake, and, the moment that Lady Darcy
noticed the girl's presence, she introduced her kindly enough, if with
somewhat of a condescending air.

"This is a little friend of Rosalind's who has come up to help.  She is
fond of this sort of work," she said; then, before any of the strangers
had time to acknowledge the introduction, she added hastily, "And now I
am sure you must all be tired after your journey, and will be glad to go
to your rooms and rest.  It is quite wicked of me to keep you standing.
Let me take you upstairs at once!"

They sailed away with the same rustle of garments, the same babel of
high-toned voices, and Peggy stood alone in the middle of the deserted
room.  No one had asked her to rest, or suggested that she might be
tired; she had been overlooked and forgotten in the presence of the
distinguished visitor.  She was only a little girl who was "fond" of
this sort of work, and, it might be supposed, was only too thankful to
be allowed to help!  The house sank into silence.  She waited for half
an hour longer, in the hope that someone would remember her presence,
and then, tired, hungry, and burning with repressed anger, crept
upstairs to her own little room and fell asleep upon the couch.



CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.

ANOTHER ACCIDENT!

Dinner was served unusually early that evening, and was an embarrassing
ordeal from which Peggy was thankful to escape.

On her way upstairs, however, Rosalind called her back with an eager
petition.

"Oh, Peggy! would you mind awwanging some flowers?  A big hamper has
just awwived from town, and the servants are all so dweadfully busy.  I
must get dwessed in time to help mother to weceive, but it wouldn't
matter if you were a few minutes late.  Thanks so much!  Awfully
obliged."

She gave her thanks before an assent had been spoken, and tripped
smilingly away, while Peggy went back to the big room to find a great
tray full of hothouse treasures waiting to be arranged, and no availing
vases in which to place them.  The flowers, however, were so beautiful,
and the fronds of maidenhair so green and graceful, that the work was a
pleasure; she enjoyed discovering unlikely places in which to group
them, and lingered so long over her arrangements that the sudden
striking of the clock sent her flying upstairs in a panic of
consternation.  Another quarter of an hour and the vicarage party would
arrive, for they had been bidden a little in advance of the rest, so
that Robert might help his mother and sister in receiving their guests.
Peggy tore off dress and apron, and made all the speed she could, but
she was still standing in dressing-jacket and frilled white petticoat,
brushing out her long waves of hair when the door opened and Esther and
Mellicent entered.  They had begged to be shown to Miss Saville's room,
and came rustling in, smiling and beaming, with woollen caps over their
heads, snow-shoes on their feet, and fleecy shawls swathed round and
round their figures, and fastened with a hairpin on the left shoulder,
in secure and elegant fashion.  Peggy stood, brush in hand, staring at
them and shaking with laughter.

"He! he! he!  I hope you are warm enough!  Esther looks like a sausage,
and Mellicent looks like a dumpling.  Come here, and I'll unwind you.
You look as if you could not move an inch, hand or foot."

"It was mother," Mellicent explained.  "She was so afraid we would catch
cold.  Oh, Peggy, you are not half dressed.  You will be late!  Whatever
have you been doing?  Have you had a nice day?  Did you enjoy it?  What
did you have for dinner?"

Peggy waved her brush towards the door in dramatic warning.

"Rosalind's room!" she whispered.  "Don't yell, my love, unless you wish
every word to be overheard.  This is her dressing-room, which she lent
to me for the occasion, so there's only a door between us.--There, now,
you are free.  Oh, dear me, how you have squashed your sash!  You really
must remember to lift it up when you sit down.  You had better stand
with your back to the fire, to take out the creases."

Mellicent's face clouded for a moment, but brightened again as she
caught sight of her reflection in the swing glass.  Crumples or no
crumples, there was no denying that blue was a becoming colour.  The
plump, rosy cheeks dimpled with satisfaction, and the flaxen head was
twisted to and fro to survey herself in every possible position.

"Is my hair right at the back?  How does the bow look?  I haven't burst,
have I?  I thought I heard something crack in the cab.  Do you think I
will do?"

"Put on your slippers, and I'll tell you.  Anyone would look a fright in
evening dress and snow-shoes."

Peggy's answer was given with a severity which sent Mellicent waddling
across the room to turn out the contents of the bag which lay on the
couch, but the next moment came a squeal of consternation, and there she
stood in the attitude of a tragedy queen, with staring eyes, parted
lips, and two shabby black slippers grasped in either hand.

"M-m-m-my old ones!" she gasped in horror-stricken accents.
"B-b-b-brought them by mistake!"  It was some moments before her
companions fully grasped the situation, for the new slippers had been
black too, and of much the same make as those now exhibited.  Mrs
Asplin had had many yearnings over white shoes and stockings, all silk
and satin, and tinkling diamond buckles like those which had been
displayed in Peggy's dress-box.  Why should not her darlings have dainty
possessions like other girls?  It went to her heart to think what an
improvement these two articles would make in the simple costumes; then
she remembered her husband's delicate health, his exhaustion at the end
of the day, and the painful effort with which he nerved himself to fresh
exertions, and felt a bigger pang at the thought of wasting money so
hardly earned.  As her custom was on such occasions, she put the whole
matter before the girls, talking to them as friends, and asking their
help in her decision.

"You see, darlings," she said, "I want to do my very best for you, and
if it would be a real disappointment not to have these things, I'll
manage it somehow, for once in a way.  But it's a question whether you
would have another chance of wearing them, and it seems a great deal of
money to spend for just one evening, when poor dear father--"

"Oh, mother, no, don't think of it!  Black ones will do perfectly well.
What can it matter what sort of shoes and stockings we wear?  It won't
make the least difference in our enjoyment," said Esther the sensible;
but Mellicent was by no means of this opinion.

"I don't know about that!  I love white legs!" she sighed dolefully.
"All my life long it has been my ambition to have white legs.  Silk ones
with little bits of lace let in down the front, like Peggy's.  They're
so beautiful!  It doesn't seem a bit like a party to wear black
stockings; only of course I know I must, for I'd hate to waste father's
money.  When I grow up I shall marry a rich man, and have everything I
want.  It's disgusting to be poor...  Will they be nice black slippers,
mother, with buckles on them?"

"Yes, dearie.  Beauties!  Great big buckles!" said Mrs Asplin lovingly;
and a few days later a box had come down from London, and the slippers
had been chosen out of a selection of "leading novelties"; worn with
care and reverence the previous evening, "to take off the stiffness,"
and then after all--oh, the awfulness of it!--had been replaced by an
old pair, in the bustle of departure.

The three girls stared at one another in consternation.  Here was a
catastrophe to happen just at the last moment, when everyone was so
happy and well satisfied!  The dismay on the chubby face was so pitiful
that neither of Mellicent's companions could find it in her heart to
speak a word of reproof.  They rather set to work to propose different
ways out of the difficulty.

"Get hold of Max, and coax him to go back for them!"

"He wouldn't; it's no use.  It's raining like anything, and it would
take him an hour to go there and come back."

"Ask Lady Darcy to send one of the servants--"

"No use, my dear.  They are scampering up and down like mice, and
haven't a moment to spare from their own work."

"See if Rosalind would lend me a pair!"

"Silly goose!  Look at your foot.  It is three times the size of hers.
You will just have to wear them, I'm afraid.  Give them to me, and let
me see what can be done."  Peggy took the slippers in her hands and
studied them critically.  They were certainly not new, but then they
were by no means old; just respectable, middle-aged creatures, slightly
rubbed on the heel and white at the toes, but with many a day of good
hard wear still before them.

"Oh, come," she said reassuringly, "they are not so bad, Mellicent!
With a little polish they would look quite presentable.  I'll tap at the
door and ask Rosalind if she has some that she can lend us.  She is sure
to have it.  There are about fifty thousand bottles on her table."

Peggy crossed the room as she spoke, tapped on the panel, and received
an immediate answer in a high complacent treble.

"Coming!  Coming!  I'm weady;" then the door flew open; a tiny pink silk
shoe stepped daintily over the mat, and Rosalind stood before them in
all the glory of a new Parisian dress.  Three separate gasps of
admiration greeted her appearance, and she stood smiling and dimpling
while the girls took in the fascinating details--the satin frock of
palest imaginable pink, the white chiffon over-dress which fell from
shoulder to hem in graceful freedom, sprinkled over with exquisite
rose--leaves--it was all wonderful--fantastic--as far removed from
Peggy's muslin as from the homely crepon of the vicar's daughters.

"Rosalind! what a perfect _angel_ you look!" gasped Mellicent, her own
dilemma forgotten in her wholehearted admiration; but the next moment
memory came back, and her expression changed to one of pitiful appeal.
"But, oh, have you got any boot-polish?  The most awful thing has
happened.  I've brought my old shoes by mistake!  Look!  I don't know
what on earth I shall do, if you can't give me something to black the
toes."  She held out the shoes as she spoke, and Rosalind gave a shrill
scream of laughter.

"Oh! oh!  Those things!  How fwightfully funny! what a fwightful joke!
You will look like Cinderwella, when she wan away, and the glass
slippers changed back to her dweadful old clogs.  It is too scweamingly
funny, I do declare!"

"Oh, never mind what you declare!  Can you lend us some boot-polish--
that's the question!" cried Peggy sharply.  She knew Mellicent's horror
of ridicule, and felt indignant with the girl who could stand by, secure
in her own beauty and elegance, and have no sympathy for the misfortune
of a friend.  "If you have a bottle of peerless gloss, or any of those
shiny things with a sponge fastened on the cork, I can make them look
quite respectable, and no one will have any cause to laugh."

"Ha, ha, ha!" trilled Rosalind once more, "Peggy is cwoss!  I never knew
such a girl for flying into tantwums at a moment's notice!  Yes, of
course I'll lend you the polish.  There is some in this little
cupboard--there!  I won't touch it, in case it soils my gloves.  Shall I
call Marie to put it on for you?"

"Thank you, there's no need--I can do it!  I would rather do it myself!"

"Oh--oh, isn't she cwoss!  You will bweak the cork if you scwew it about
like that, and then you'll never be able to get it out.  Why don't you
pull it pwoperly?"

"I know how to pull out a cork, thank you; I've done it before!"

Peggy shot an angry glance at her hostess, and set to work again with
doubled energy.  Now that Rosalind had laughed at her inability, it
would be misery to fail; but the bottle had evidently lain aside for
some time, and a stiff black crust had formed round the cork which made
it difficult to move.  Peggy pulled and tugged, while Rosalind stood
watching, laughing her aggravating, patronising little laugh, and
dropping a word of instruction from time to time.  And then, quite
suddenly, a dreadful thing happened.  In the flash of an eye--so quickly
and unexpectedly, that, looking back upon it, it seemed like a nightmare
which could not possibly have taken place in real life--the cork jerked
out in Peggy's hand, in response to a savage tug, and with it out flew
an inky jet, which rose straight up in the air, separated into a
multitude of tiny drops, and descended in a flood--oh, the horror of
that moment!--over Rosalind's face, neck, and dress.

One moment a fairy princess, a goddess of summer, the next a figure of
fun with black spots scattered thickly over cheeks and nose, a big
splash on the white shoulder, and inky daubs dotted here and there
between the rose-leaves.  What a transformation!  What a spectacle of
horror!  Peggy stood transfixed; Mellicent screamed in terror; and
Esther ran forward, handkerchief in hand, only to be waved aside with
angry vehemence.  Rosalind's face was convulsed with anger; she stamped
her foot and spoke at the pitch of her voice, as if she had no control
over her feelings.

"Oh, oh, oh!  You wicked girl! you hateful, detestable girl!  You did it
on purpose, because you were in a temper!  You have been in a temper all
the afternoon!  You have spoiled my dress!  I was weady to go
downstairs.  It is eight o'clock.  In a few minutes everyone will be
here, and oh, what shall I do--what shall I do!  Whatever will mother
say when she sees me?"

As if to give a practical answer to this inquiry, there came a sound of
hasty footsteps in the corridor, the door flew open, and Lady Darcy
rushed in, followed by the French maid.

"My darling, what is it?  I heard your voice.  Has something happened?
Oh-h!"  She stopped short, paralysed with consternation, while the maid
wrung her hands in despair.  "Rosalind, what _have_ you done to
yourself?"

"Nothing, nothing!  It was Peggy Saville; she splashed me with her
horrid boot-polish--I gave it to her for her shoes.  It is on my face,
my neck, in my mouth--"

"I was pulling the cork.  It came out with a jerk.  I didn't know; I
didn't see!--"

Lady Darcy's face stiffened with an expression of icy displeasure.

"It is too annoying!  Your dress spoiled at the last moment!
Inexcusable carelessness!  What is to be done, Marie?  I am in despair!"

The Frenchwoman shrugged her shoulders with an indignant glance in
Peggy's direction.

"There is nothing to do.  Put on another dress--that is all.
Mademoiselle must change as quick as she can.  If I sponge the spots, I
spoil the whole thing at once."

"But you could cut them out, couldn't you?" cried Peggy, the picture of
woe, yet miserably eager to make what amends she could.  "You could cut
out the spots with sharp scissors, and the holes would not show, for the
chiffon is so full and loose.  I--I think I could do it, if you would
let me try!"

Mistress and maid exchanged a sharp, mutual glance, and the Frenchwoman
nodded slowly.

"Yes, it is true; I could rearrange the folds.  It will take some time,
but still it can be done.  It is the best plan."

"Go then, Rosalind, go with Marie; there is not a moment to spare, and
for pity's sake don't cry!  Your eyes will be red, and at any moment now
the people may begin to arrive.  I wanted you to be with me to receive
your guests.  It will be most awkward being without you, but there is no
help for it, I suppose.  The whole thing is too annoying for words!"

Lady Darcy swept out of the room, and the three girls were once more
left alone; but how changed were their feelings in those few short
moments!  There was not the shadow of a smile between them; they looked
more as if they were about to attend a funeral than a scene of
festivity, and for several moments no one had the heart to speak.  Peggy
still held the fatal cork in her hand, and went through the work of
polishing Mellicent's slippers with an air of the profoundest dejection.
When they were finished she handed them over in dreary silence, and was
recommencing the brushing of her hair, when something in the expression
of the chubby face arrested her attention.  Her eyes flashed; she faced
round with a frown and a quick, "Well, what is it?  What are you
thinking now?"

"I--I wondered," whispered Mellicent breathlessly, "if you did do it on
purpose!  Did you _mean_ to spoil her dress, and make her change it?"

Peggy's hands dropped to her side, her back straightened until she stood
stiff and straight as a poker.  Every atom of expression seemed to die
out of her face.  Her voice had a deadly quiet in its intonation.

"What do you think about it yourself?"

"I--I thought perhaps you did!  She teased you, and you were so cross.
You seemed to be standing so very near her, and you are jealous of her--
and she looked so lovely!  I thought perhaps you did..."

"Mellicent Asplin," said Peggy quietly, and her voice was like the east
wind that blows from an icy-covered mountain,--"Mellicent Asplin, my
name is Saville, and in my family we don't condescend to mean and
dishonourable tricks.  I may not like Rosalind, but I would have given
all I have in the world sooner than this should have happened.  I was
trying to do you a service, but you forget that.  You forget many
things!  I have been jealous of Rosalind, because when she arrived you
and your sister forgot that I was alone and far-away from everyone
belonging to me, and were so much engrossed with her that you left me
alone to amuse myself as best I might.  You were pleased enough to have
me when no one else was there, but you left me the moment someone
appeared who was richer and grander than I.  I wouldn't have treated
_you_ like that, if our positions had been reversed.  If I dislike
Rosalind, it is your fault as much as hers; more than hers, for it was
you who made me dread her coming!"

Peggy stopped, trembling and breathless.  There was a moment's silence
in the room, and then Esther spoke in a slow, meditative fashion.

"It is quite true!" she said.  "We _have_ left you alone, Peggy; but it
is not quite so bad as you think.  Really and truly we like you far the
best, but--but Rosalind is such a change to us!  Everything about her is
so beautiful and so different, that she has always seemed the great
excitement of our lives.  I don't know that I'm exactly fond of her, but
I want to see her, and talk to her, and hear her speak, and she is only
here for a short time in the year.  It was because we looked upon you as
really one of ourselves that we seemed to neglect you; but it was wrong,
all the same.  As for your spoiling her dress on purpose, it's
ridiculous to think of it.  How could you say such a thing, Mellicent,
when Peggy was trying to help you, too?  How _could_ you be so mean and
horrid?"

"Oh, well, I'm sure I wish I were dead!" wailed Mellicent promptly.
"Nothing but fusses and bothers, and just when I thought I was going to
be so happy!  If I'd had white shoes, this would never have happened.
Always the same thing!  When you look forward to a treat, everything is
as piggy and nasty as it can be!  Wish I'd never come!  Wish I'd stayed
at home, and let the horrid old party go to Jericho!  Rosalind's crying,
Peggy's cross, you are preaching!  This is a nice way to enjoy yourself,
I must say!"

Nothing is more hopeless than to reason with a placid person who has
lapsed into a fit of ill-temper.  The two elder girls realised this, and
remained perfectly silent while Mellicent continued to wish for death,
to lament the general misery of life, and the bad fortune which attended
the wearers of black slippers.  So incessant was the stream of her
repinings, that it seemed as if it might have gone on for ever, had not
a servant entered at last, with the information that the guests were
beginning to arrive, and that Lady Darcy would be glad to see the young
ladies without delay.  Esther was anxious to wait and help Peggy with
her toilet, but that young lady was still on her dignity, and by no
means anxious to descend to a scene of gaiety for which she had little
heart.  She refused the offer, therefore, in Mariquita fashion, and the
sisters walked dejectedly along the brightly-lit corridors, Mellicent
still continuing her melancholy wail, and Esther reflecting sadly that
all was vanity, and devoutly wishing herself back in the peaceful
atmosphere of the vicarage.



CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

FIRE!

It was fully half an hour later when Peggy crept along the passage, and
took advantage of a quiet moment to slip into the room and seat herself
in a sheltered corner.  Quick as she was, however, somebody's eyes were
even quicker, for a tall figure stepped before her, and an aggrieved
voice cried loudly--

"Well, I hope you are smart enough to satisfy yourself, now that you
_are_ ready!  You have taken long enough, I must say.  What about that
first waltz that you promised to have with me?"

Peggy drew in her breath with a gasp of dismay.

"Oh, Rob, I am sorry!  I forgot all about it.  I've been so perturbed.
Something awful has occurred.  You heard about it, of course--"

"No, I didn't?  What on earth," began the boy anxiously; but so soon as
he heard the two words "Rosalind's dress!" he shrugged his shoulders in
contemptuous indifference.  "Oh, that!  I heard something about it, but
I didn't take much notice.  Spilt some ink, didn't you?  What's the odds
if you did?  Accidents will happen, and she has a dozen others to choose
from.  I don't see anything wrong with the dress.  It looks decent
enough."

Peggy followed the direction of his eyes, and caught a glimpse of
Rosalind floating past on the arm of a tall soldierly youth.  She was
sparkling with smiles, and looking as fresh and spotless as on the
moment when she had stepped across the threshold of her own room.
Neither face nor dress bore any trace of the misfortune of an hour
before, and Peggy heaved a sigh of relief as she watched her to and fro.

"Jolly enough, isn't she?  There's nothing for you to fret about, you
see," said Rob consolingly.  "She has forgotten all about it, and the
best thing you can do is to follow her example.  What would you think of
some light refreshment?  Let's go to the dining-room and drown our
sorrows in strawberry ice.  Then we can have a waltz, and try a
vanilla--and a polka, and some lemonade!  That's, my idea of enjoying
myself.  Come along, while you get the chance!--"

"Oh, Rob, you _are_ greedy!" protested Peggy; nevertheless she rose
blithely enough, and her eyes began to sparkle with some of their wonted
vivacity.  There was something strong and reassuring about Robert's
presence; he looked upon things in such an eminently sensible,
matter-of-fact way, that one was ashamed to give way to moods and tenses
in his company.

Peggy began to feel that there was still some possibility of happiness
in life, and on her way to the door she came face to face with Lady
Darcy, who reassured her still further by smiling as amiably as if
nothing had happened.

"Well, dear, enjoying yourself?  Got plenty of partners?"  Then in a
whispered aside, "The dress looks all right!  Such a clever suggestion
of yours.  Dear, dear, what a fright we had!" and she swept away,
leaving an impression of beauty, grace, and affability which the girl
was powerless to resist.  When Lady Darcy chose to show herself at her
best, there was a charm about her which subjugated all hearts, and, from
the moment that the sweet tired eyes smiled into hers, Peggy Saville
forgot her troubles and tripped away to eat strawberry ices, and dance
over the polished floor with a heart as light as her heels.

One party is very much like another.  The room may be larger or smaller,
the supper more or less substantial, but the programme is the same in
both cases, and there is little to be told about even the grandest of
its kind.  Somebody wore pink; somebody wore blue; somebody fell down on
the floor in the middle of the lancers, which are no longer the stately
and dignified dance of yore, but an ungainly romp more befitting a
kitchen than a ballroom; somebody went in to supper twice over, and
somebody never went at all, but blushed unseen in a corner, thinking
longingly of turkey, trifle, and crackers; and then the carriages began
to roll up to the door, brothers and sisters paired demurely together,
stammered out a bashful "Enjoyed myself so much!  Thanks for a pleasant
evening," and raced upstairs for coats and shawls.

By half-past twelve all the guests had departed except the vicarage
party, and the sons and daughters of the old squire who lived close by,
who had been pressed to stay behind for that last half-hour which is
often the most enjoyable of the whole evening.

Lord and Lady Darcy and the grown-up visitors retired into the
drawing-room to regale themselves with sandwiches and ices, and the
young people stormed the supper-room, interrupted the servants in their
work of clearing away the good things, seated themselves
indiscriminately on floor, chair, or table, and despatched a second
supper with undiminished appetite.  Then Esther mounted the platform
where the band had been seated, and played a last waltz, and a very last
waltz, and "really the last waltz of all."  The squire's son played a
polka with two fingers, and a great deal of loud pedal, and the fun grew
faster and more uproarious with every moment.  Even Rosalind threw aside
young ladylike affectations and pranced about without thinking of
appearances, and when at last the others left the room to prepare for
the drive home she seized Peggy's arm in eager excitement.

"Peggy!  Peggy!  Such a joke!  I told them to come back to say good-bye,
and I am going to play a twick!  I'm going to be a ghost, and glide out
from behind the shwubs, and fwighten them.  I can do it beautifully.
See!"  She turned down the gas as she spoke, threw her light gauze skirt
over her head, and came creeping across the room with stealthy tread,
and arms outstretched, while Peggy clapped her hands in delight.

"Lovely!  Lovely!  It looks exactly like wings.  It makes me quite
creepy.  Don't come out if Mellicent is alone, whatever you do.  She
would be scared out of her seven senses.  Just float gently along toward
them, and keep your hands forward so as to hide your face.  They will
recognise you if you don't."

"Oh, if you can see my face, we must have less light.  There are too
many candles, I'll put out the ones on the mantelpiece.  Stay where you
are, and tell me when it is wight," Rosalind cried gaily, and ran across
the room on her tiny pink silk slippers.

So long as she lived Peggy Saville remembered the next minutes; to the
last day of her life she had only to shut her eyes and the scene rose up
before her, clear and vivid as in a picture.  The stretch of empty room,
with its fragrant banks of flowers; the graceful figure flitting across
the floor, its outline swathed in folds of misty white; the glimpse of a
lovely, laughing face as Rosalind stretched out her arm to reach the
silver candelabra, the sudden flare of light which caught the robe of
gauze, and swept it into flame.  It all happened within the space of a
minute, but it was one of those minutes the memory of which no years can
destroy.  She had hardly time to realise the terror of the situation
before Rosalind was rushing towards her with outstretched hands, calling
aloud in accents of frenzied appeal--

"Peggy!  Peggy!  Oh, save me, Peggy!  I'm burning!  Save me!  Save me!"



CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

A NIGHT OF TERROR.

While the young folks had been enjoying themselves in the ballroom,
their elders had found the time hang somewhat heavily on their hands.
The evening had not been so interesting to them as to their juniors.
Lady Darcy was tired with the preparations of the day, and the countess
with her journey from town.  Both were fain to yawn behind their fans
from time to time, and were longing for the moment to come when they
could retire to bed.  If only those indefatigable children would say
good-night and take themselves off!  But the echo of the piano still
sounded from the room, and seemed to go on and on, in endless
repetition.

Everything comes to those who wait, however--even the conclusion of a
ball to the weary chaperon.  At long past midnight the strains died
away, and in the hope of an early release the ladies roused themselves
to fresh conversational effort.  What they said was unimportant, and
could never be remembered; but at one moment, as it seemed, they were
smiling and exchanging their little commonplace amenities, two languid,
fine ladies whose aim in life might have been to disguise their own
feelings and hide the hearts that God had given them; the next the
artificial smiles were wiped away, and they were clinging together, two
terrified, cowering women, with a mother's soul in their faces--a
mother's love and fear and dread!  A piercing cry had sounded through
the stillness, and another, and another, and, while they sat paralysed
with fear, footsteps came tearing along the passage, the door was burst
open, and a wild, dishevelled-looking figure rushed into the room.  A
curtain was wound round face and figure, but beneath its folds a long
white arm gripped convulsively at the air, and two little feet staggered
about in pink silk slippers.

Lady Darcy gave a cry of anguish; but her terror seemed to hold her
rooted to the spot, and it was her husband who darted forward and caught
the swaying figure in his arms.  The heavy wrappings came loose in his
grasp, and as they did so an unmistakable smell pervaded the room--the
smell of singed and burning clothing.  A cloud of blackened rags
fluttered to the ground as the last fold of the curtain was unloosed,
and among them--most pitiful sight of all--were stray gleams of gold
where a severed lock of hair lay on the carpet, its end still turned in
glistening curl.

"Rosalind!  Rosalind!" gasped the poor mother, clutching the arms of her
chair, and looking as if she were about to faint herself, as she gazed
upon the pitiful figure of her child.  The lower portion of Rosalind's
dress was practically uninjured, but the gauze skirt and all the frills
and puffing round the neck hung in tatters, her hair was singed and
roughened, and as the air touched her skin she screamed with pain, and
held her hands up to her neck and face.

"Oh!  Oh!  Oh!  I am burning!  Cover me up!  Cover me up!  I shall die!
Oh, mother, mother!  The pain--the pain!"

She reeled as if about to faint, yet if anyone attempted to approach she
beat them off with frantic hands, as if in terror of being touched.

One of the ladies ran forward with a shawl, and wrapped it forcibly
round the poor scarred shoulders, while the gentlemen hurried out of the
room to send for a doctor and make necessary arrangements.  One of the
number came back almost immediately, with the news that he had failed to
discover the cause of the accident.  There was no sign of fire upstairs,
the ballroom was dark and deserted, the servants engaged in setting the
entertaining rooms in order.  For the present, at least, the cause of
the accident remained a mystery, and the distracted father and mother
occupied themselves in trying to pacify their child.

"I'll carry you upstairs, my darling.  We will put something on your
skin which will take away the pain.  Try to be quiet, and tell us how it
happened.  What were you doing to set yourself on fire?"

"Peggy!  Peggy!" gasped Rosalind faintly.  Her strength was failing by
this time, and she could hardly speak; but Lady Darcy's face stiffened
into an awful anger at the sound of that name.  She turned like a
tigress to her husband, her face quivering with anger.

"That girl again!  That wicked girl!  It is the second time to-night!
She has killed the child; but she shall be punished!  I'll have her
punished!  She shall not kill my child, and go free!  I'll--I'll--"

"Hush, hush, Beatrice!  Take care!  You frighten Rosalind.  We must get
her to bed.  There is not a moment to lose."

Lord Darcy beckoned to one of the servants, who by this time were
crowding in at the door, and between them they lifted poor, groaning
Rosalind in their arms, and carried her up the staircase, down which she
had tripped so gaily a few hours before.  Tenderly as they held her, she
moaned with every movement, and, when she was laid on her bed, it seemed
for a moment as if consciousness were about to forsake her.  Then
suddenly a light sprung into her eyes.  She lifted her hand and gasped
out one word--just one word--repeated over and over again in a tone of
agonised entreaty.

"Peggy!  Peggy!  Peggy!"

"Yes, darling, yes!  I'll go to her.  Be quiet--only be quiet!"

Lady Darcy turned away with a shudder as the maid and an old family
servant began the task of removing the clothes from Rosalind's writhing
limbs, and, seizing her husband by the arm, drew him out on the landing.
Her face was white, but her eyes gleamed, and the words hissed as they
fell from her lips.

"Find that girl, and turn her out of this house!  I will not have her
here another hour!  Do you hear--not a minute!  Send her away at once
before I see her!  Don't let me see her!  I can't be responsible for
what I would do!"

"Yes, yes, dear, I'll send her away!  Try to calm yourself.  Remember
you have work to do Rosalind will need you."

The poor old lord went stooping away, his tired face looking aged and
haggard with anxiety.  His beautiful young daughter was scarcely less
dear to him than to her mother, and the sound of her cries cut to his
heart; yet in the midst of his anguish he had a pang of compassion for
the poor child who, as he believed, was the thoughtless cause of the
accident.  What agony of remorse must be hers!  What torture she would
now be suffering!

The guests and servants were standing huddled together on the landing
upstairs, or running to and fro to procure what was needed.  Every
thought was concentrated on Rosalind, and Rosalind alone, and the part
of the house where the dance had been held was absolutely deserted.

He took his way along the gaily decorated hall, noted with absent eye
the disordered condition of the "harem," which had been pointed out so
proudly at the beginning of the evening, and entered the empty room.
The lights were out, except for a few candles scattered here and there
among the flowers.  He walked slowly forward, saw the silver candlestick
on the floor before the fireplace, and stood gazing at it with a quick
appreciation of what had happened.  For some reason or other Rosalind
had tried to reach the candle, and the light had caught her gauzy skirt,
which had burst into flames.  It was easy--terribly easy to imagine; but
in what way had Peggy Saville been responsible for the accident, so that
her name should sound so persistently on Rosalind's lips,--and who had
been the Good Samaritan who had come to the rescue with that thick
curtain which had killed the flames before they had time to finish the
work of destruction?

Lord Darcy peered curiously round.  The oak floor stretched before him
dark and still, save where its polished surface reflected the light
overhead; but surely in the corner opposite to where he stood there was
a darker mass--a shadow deeper than the rest?

He walked towards it, bending forward with straining eyes.  Another
curtain of the same pattern as that which had enveloped Rosalind--a
curtain of rich Oriental hues with an unaccountable patch of white in
the centre.  What was it?  It must be part of the fabric itself.  Lord
Darcy told himself that he had no doubt on the subject, yet the way
across the room seemed unaccountably long, and his heart beat fast with
apprehension.  In another moment he stood in the corner, and knew too
well the meaning of that patch of white, for Peggy Saville lay stretched
upon the curtain, motionless, unconscious--to all appearance, dead!



CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.

THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW.

It was one o'clock in the morning when a carriage drove up to the door
of the Larches, and Mrs Asplin alighted, all pale, tear-stained, and
tremulous.  She had been nodding over the fire in her bedroom when the
young people had returned with the news of the tragic ending to the
night's festivity, and no persuasion or argument could induce her to
wait until the next day before flying to Peggy's side.

"No, no!" she cried.  "You must not hinder me.  If I can't drive, I will
walk!  I would go to the child to-night, if I had to crawl on my hands
and knees!  I promised her mother to look after her.  How could I stay
at home and think of her lying there?  Oh, children, children, pray for
Peggy!  Pray that she may be spared, and that her poor parents may be
spared this awful--awful news!"

Then she kissed her own girls, clasped them to her in a passionate
embrace, and drove off to the Larches in the carriage which had brought
the young people home.

Lady Darcy came out to meet her, and gripped her hand in welcome.

"You have come!  I knew you would.  I am so thankful to see you.  The
doctor has come, and will stay all night.  He has sent for a nurse--"

"And--my Peggy?"

Lady Darcy's lips quivered.

"Very, very ill--much worse than Rosalind!  Her poor little arms!  I was
so wicked, I thought it was her fault, and I had no pity, and now it
seems that she has saved my darling's life.  They can't tell us about it
yet, but it was she who wrapped the curtain round Rosalind, and burned
herself in pressing out the flames.  Rosalind kept crying, `Peggy!
Peggy!' and we thought she meant that it was Peggy's fault.  We had
heard so much of her mischievous tricks.  My husband found her lying on
the floor.  She was unconscious; but she came round when they were
dressing her arms.  I think she will know you--"

"Take me to her, please!"  Mrs Asplin said quickly.  She had to wait
several moments before she could control her voice sufficiently to add,
"And Rosalind, how is she?"

"There is no danger.  Her neck is scarred, and her hair singed and
burned.  She is suffering from the shock, but the doctor says it is not
serious.  Peggy--"

She paused, and the other walked on resolutely, not daring to ask for
the termination of that sentence.  She crept into the little room, bent
over the bed, and looked down on Peggy's face through a mist of tears.
It was drawn and haggard with pain, and the eyes met hers without a ray
of light in their hollow depths.  That she recognised was evident, but
the pain which she was suffering was too intense to leave room for any
other feeling.  She lay motionless, with her bandaged arms stretched
before her, and her face looked so small and white against the pillow
that Mrs Asplin trembled to think how little strength was there to
fight against the terrible shock and strain.  Only once in all that long
night did Peggy show any consciousness of her surroundings, but then her
eyes lit up with a gleam of remembrance, her lips moved, and Mrs Asplin
bent down to catch the faintly whispered words--

"The twenty-sixth--next Monday!  Don't tell Arthur!"

"`The twenty-sixth!'  What is that, darling?  Ah, I remember--Arthur's
examination!  You mean if he knew you were ill, it would upset him for
his work?"

An infinitesimal movement of the head answered "Yes," and she gave the
promise in trembling tones--

"No, my precious, we won't tell him.  He could not help, and it would
only distress you to feel that he was upset.  Don't trouble about it,
darling.  It will be all right."

Then Peggy shut her eyes and wandered away into a strange world, in
which accustomed things disappeared, and time was not, and nothing
remained but pain and weariness and mystery.  Those of us who have come
near to death have visited this world too, and know the blackness of it,
and the weary waking.

Peggy lay in her little white bed, and heard voices speaking in her ear,
and saw strange shapes flit to and fro.  Quite suddenly, as it appeared,
a face would be bending over her own, and as she watched it with languid
curiosity, wondering what manner of thing it could be, it would melt
away and vanish in the distance.  At other times again it would grow
larger and larger, until it assumed gigantic proportions, and she cried
out in fear of the huge, saucer-like eyes.  There was a weary puzzle in
her brain, an effort to understand, but everything seemed mixed up and
incomprehensible.  She would look round the room and see the sunshine
peeping in through the chinks of the blinds, and when she closed her
eyes for a moment--just a single fleeting moment--lo! the gas was lit,
and someone was nodding in a chair by her side.  And it was by no means
always the same room.  She was tired, and wanted badly to rest, yet she
was always rushing about here, there, and everywhere, striving vainly to
dress herself in clothes which fell off as soon as they were fastened,
hurrying to catch a train to reach a certain destination; but in each
instance the end was the same--she was falling, falling, falling--always
falling--from the crag of an Alpine precipice, from the pinnacle of a
tower, from the top of a flight of stairs.  The slip and the terror
pursued her wherever she went; she would shriek aloud, and feel soft
hands pressed on her cheeks, soft voices murmuring in her ear.

One vision stood out plainly from those nightmare dreams--the vision of
a face which suddenly appeared in the midst of the big grey cloud which
enveloped her on every side--a beautiful face which was strangely like,
and yet unlike, something she had seen long, long ago in a world which
she had well-nigh forgotten.  It was pale and thin, and the golden hair
fell in a short curly crop on the blue garment which was swathed over
the shoulders.  It was like one of the heads of celestial choir-boys
which she had seen on Christmas cards and in books of engravings, yet
something about the eyes and mouth seemed familiar.  She stared at it
curiously, and then suddenly a strange, weak little voice faltered out a
well-known name.

"Rosalind!" it cried, and a quick exclamation of joy sounded from the
side of the bed.  Who had spoken?  The first voice had been strangely
like her own, but at an immeasurable distance.  She shut her eyes to
think about it, and the fair-haired vision disappeared, and was seen no
more.

There was a big, bearded man also who came in from time to time, and
Peggy grew to dread his appearance, for with it came terrible stabbing
pain, as if her whole body were on the rack.  He was one of the Spanish
Inquisitors, of whom she had read, and she was an English prisoner whom
he was torturing!  Well, he might do his worst!  She would die before
she would turn traitor and betray her flag and country.  The Savilles
were a fighting race, and would a thousand times rather face death than
dishonour.

One day, when she felt rather stronger than usual, she told him so to
his face, and he laughed--she was quite sure he laughed, the
hard-hearted wretch!  And someone else said, "Poor little love!" which
was surely an extraordinary expression for a Spanish Inquisitor.  That
was one of the annoying things in this new life--people were so
exceedingly stupid in their conversation!  Now and again she herself had
something which she was especially anxious to say, and when she set it
forth with infinite difficulty and pains the only answer which she
received was a soothing, "Yes, dear, yes!"

"No, dear, no!" or a still more maddening, "Yes, darling, I quite
understand!"--which she knew perfectly well to be an untruth.  Really,
these good people seemed to think that she was demented, and did not
know what she was saying.  As a matter of fact, it was exactly the other
way about; but she was too tired to argue.  And then one day came a
sleep when she neither dreamt nor slipped nor fell, but opened her eyes
refreshed and cheerful, and beheld Mrs Asplin sitting by a table
drinking tea and eating what appeared to be a particularly tempting
slice of cake.

"I want some cake!" she said clearly; and Mrs Asplin jumped as if a
cannon had been fired off at her ear, and rushed breathlessly to the
bedside, stuttering and stammering in amazement--

"Wh-wh-wh-what?"

"Cake!" repeated Peggy shrilly.  "I want some!  And tea!  I want my
tea!"

Surely it was a very natural request!  What else could you expect from a
girl who had been asleep and wakened up feeling hungry?  What on earth
was there in those commonplace words to make a grown-up woman cry like a
baby, and why need everyone in the house rush in and stare at her as if
she were a figure in a waxwork?  Lord Darcy, Lady Darcy, Rosalind, the
old French maid--they were all there--and, as sure as her name was Peggy
Saville, they were all four, handkerchief in hand, mopping their eyes
like so many marionettes!

Nobody gave her the cake for which she had asked.  Peggy considered it
exceedingly rude and ill-bred; but while she was thinking of it she grew
tired again, and, rolling round into a soft little bundle among the
blankets, fell afresh into sweet refreshing slumbers.



CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.

CONVALESCENCE.

"Convalescence," remarked Peggy elegantly, a week later on,
"convalescence is a period not devoid of attraction!"  She was lying on
a sofa in her bedroom at the Larches, wrapped in her white
dressing-gown, and leaning against a nest of pink silk cushions, and,
what with a table drawn up by her side laden with grapes and jelly, a
pile of Christmas numbers lying close at hand, and the presence of an
audience consisting of Rosalind, Lady Darcy, and Mrs Asplin, ready to
listen admiringly to her conversation, and to agree enthusiastically
with every word she uttered, it did indeed seem as if the position was
one which might be endured with fortitude!  Many were the questions
which had been showered upon her since her return to consciousness, and
the listeners never grew tired of listening to her account of the
accident.  How Rosalind had clutched too carelessly at the slender
candlestick, so that it had fallen forward, setting the gauze dress in
flames, how she herself had flown out of the room, torn down the
curtains which draped the "harem," and had flung them round the frantic,
struggling figure.  With every day that passed, however, Peggy gained
more strength, and was petted to her heart's content by everyone in the
house.  The old lord kissed her fondly on the cheek, and murmured, "God
reward you, my brave girl, for I never can."  Lady Darcy shed tears
every morning when the burns were dressed, and said, "Oh, Peggy dear,
forgive me for being cross, and do, do be sure to use the lotion for
your arms regularly every day when you get better!"  And the big doctor
chucked her under the chin, and cried--

"Well, `Fighting Saville,' and how are we to-day?  You are the pluckiest
little patient I've had for a long time.  I'll say that for you!  Let's
have another taste of the rack!"  It was all most agreeable and soothing
to one's feelings!

One of the first questions Peggy asked after her return to consciousness
was as to how much her father and mother had been told of her accident,
and whether the news had been sent by letter or cable.

"By letter, dear," Mrs Asplin replied.  "We talked it over carefully,
and concluded that that would be best.  You know, dearie, we were very,
very anxious about you for a few days, but the doctor said that it would
be useless cabling to your mother, because if all went well you would be
up again before she could arrive, and if--if it had gone the other way,
Peggy, she could not have been in time.  I sent her a long letter, and I
have written every mail since, and now we are going to calculate the
time when the first letter will arrive, and send a cable to say that you
are quite out of danger, and sitting up, and getting hungrier and more
mischievous with every day as it passes!"

"Thank you," said Peggy warmly.  "That's very kind.  I am glad you
thought of that; but will you please promise not to be economical about
the cable?  They won't care about the money.  Spend pounds over it if it
is necessary, but do, do manage to make them believe that I am quite
perky.  Put at the end, `Peggy says she is perky!'  They will know that
is genuine, and it will convince them more than anything else."  And so
those five expressive words went flashing across the world at the end of
a long message, and brought comfort to two hearts that had been near to
breaking.

So soon as Peggy was pronounced to be out of danger, Mrs Asplin went
back to the vicarage, leaving her in the charge of the kind hospital
nurse, though for that matter every member of the household took it in
turns to wait upon her.  A dozen times a day the master and mistress of
the house would come into the sick-room to inquire how things were
going, or to bring some little gift for the invalid; and as she grew
stronger it became the custom for father, mother, and daughter to join
her at her early tea.  Peggy watched them from her sofa, too weak to
speak much, but keenly alive to all that was going on, among other
things, to the change which had come over these three persons since she
had known them first.  Lord Darcy had always been kind and considerate,
but his manner seemed gentler and more courteous than ever, while
Rosalind's amiability was an hourly surprise, and Lady Darcy's manner
had lost much of its snappish discontent.  On one occasion, when her
husband made some little request, she replied in a tone so sweet and
loving that the listener started with surprise.  What could it be that
had worked this transformation?  She did not realise that when the Angel
of Death has hovered over a household, and has at last flown away with
empty arms, leaving the home untouched, they would be hard hearts that
were not touched, ungrateful natures that did not take thought of
themselves, and face life with a higher outlook!  Lady Darcy's social
disappointments seemed light compared with the awful "might have been";
while Rosalind's lamentations over her disfigurement had died away at
the sight of Peggy's unconscious form.  Perhaps, when Lord Darcy thanked
Peggy for all she had done for him and his, he had other thoughts in his
mind than the mere physical deliverance of which she had been the
instrument!

Arthur had been kept well informed of his sister's recovery, and proved
himself the kindest of brothers, sending letters by the dozen, full of
such nonsensical jokes, anecdotes, and illustrations, as would have
cheered the gloomiest invalid in the world.  But the happiest day of all
was when the great news arrived that his name was placed first of all in
the list of successful candidates.  This was indeed tidings of comfort
and joy!  Peggy clapped her bandaged hands together, and laughed aloud
with tears of pain streaming down her face.  "Arthur Saville, V.C.,
Arthur Saville, V.C.!" she cried, and then fell to groaning because some
days must still elapse before the medical examination was over, and her
hero was set free to hasten to her side.

"And I shall be back at the vicarage then, and we shall all be together!
Oh, let us be joyful!  How happy I am!  What a nice old world it is,
after all!" she continued hilariously, while Rosalind gazed at her with
reproachful eyes.

"Are you so glad to go away?  I shall be vewy, vewy sowwy--I'll miss you
awfully.  I shall feel that there is nothing to do when you have gone
away, Peggy!"--Rosalind hesitated, and looked at her companion in
uncertain bashful fashion.  "I--I think you like me a little bit now,
and I'm vewy fond of you, but you couldn't bear me before we were ill.
You might tell me why?"

"I was jealous of you," said Peggy promptly; whereat Rosalind's eyes
filled with tears.

"You won't be jealous now!" she said dismally, and raised her head to
stare at her own reflection in the mirror.  The hair which had once
streamed below her waist was now cut short round her head, her face had
lost its delicate bloom, and an ugly scar disfigured her throat and the
lower portion of one cheek.  Beautiful she must always be, with her
faultless features and wonderful eyes, but the bloom and radiance of
colour which had been her chief charm had disappeared for the time being
as completely as though they had never existed.

"I'll love you more," said Peggy reassuringly.  "You are ever so much
nicer, and you will be as pretty as ever when your hair grows and the
marks fade away.  I like you better when you are not _quite_ so pretty,
for you really were disgustingly conceited; weren't you now?  You can't
deny it."

"Oh, Peggy Saville, and so were you!  I saw that the first moment you
came into the woom.  You flared up like a Turkey cock if anyone dared to
offend your dignity, and you were always widing about on your high
horse, tossing your head, and using gweat long words."

"That's pride, it's not conceit.  It's quite a different thing."

"It's about the same to other people," said Rosalind shrewdly.  "We both
gave ourselves airs, and the wesult was the same, whatever caused it.  I
was pwoud of my face, and you were pwoud of your--your--er--family--and
your cleverness, and--the twicks you played; so if I confess, you ought
to confess too.  I'm sorry I aggwavated you, Mawiquita, and took all the
pwaise for the decowations.  It was howwibly mean, and I don't wonder
you were angwy.  I'm sorry that I was selfish!"

"I exceedingly regret that I formed a false estimate of your character!
Let's be chums!" said Peggy sweetly; and the two girls eyed one another
uncertainly for a moment, then bent forward and exchanged a kiss of
conciliation, after which unusual display of emotion they were seized
with instant embarrassment.

"Hem!" said Peggy.  "It's very cold!  Fire rather low, I think.  Looks
as if it were going to snow."

"No," said Rosalind; "I mean--yes.  I'll put on some more--I mean coals.
In half an hour Esther and Mellicent will be here--"

"Oh, so they will!  How lovely!"  Peggy seized gladly on the new
opening, and proceeded to enlarge on the joy which she felt at the
prospect of seeing her friends again, for on that afternoon Robert and
the vicarage party were to be allowed to see her for the first time, and
to have tea in her room.  She had been looking forward to their visit
for days, and, new that the longed-for hour was at hand, she was eager
to have the lamps lit, and all preparations made for their arrival.

Robert appeared first, having ridden over in advance of the rest.  And
Rosalind, after going out to greet him, came rushing back, all shaken
with laughter, with the information that he had begun to walk on tiptoe
the moment that he had left the drawing-room, and was creeping along the
passage as if terrified at making a sound.

Peggy craned her head, heard the squeak, squeak of boots coming nearer
and nearer, the cautious opening of the door, the heavy breaths of
anxiety, and then, crash!--bang!--crash! down flopped the heavy screen
round the doorway, and Rob was discovered standing among the ruins in
agonies of embarrassment.  From his expression of despair, he might have
supposed that the shock would kill Peggy outright; but she gulped down
her nervousness, and tried her best to reassure him.

"Oh, never mind--never mind!  It doesn't matter.  Come over here and
talk to me.  Oh, Rob, Rob, I am so glad to see you!"

Robert stood looking down in silence, while his lips twitched and his
eyebrows worked in curious fashion.  If it had not been altogether too
ridiculous, Peggy would have thought that he felt inclined to cry.  But
he only grunted, and cried--

"What a face!  You had better tuck into as much food as you can, and get
some flesh on your bones.  It's about as big as the palm of my hand!
Never saw such a thing in my life."

"Never mind my face," piped Peggy in her weak little treble.  "Sit right
down and talk to me.  What is the news in the giddy world?  Have you
heard anything about the prize?  When does the result come out?
Remember you promised faithfully not to open the paper until we were
together.  I was so afraid it would come while I was too ill to look at
it!"

"I should have waited," said Robert sturdily.  "There would have been no
interest in the thing without you; but the result won't be given for ten
days yet, and by that time you will be with us again.  The world hasn't
been at all giddy, I can tell you.  I never put in a flatter time.
Everybody was in the blues, and the house was like a tomb, and a jolly
uncomfortable tomb at that.  Esther was housekeeper while Mrs Asplin
was away, and she starved us!  She was in such a mortal fright of being
extravagant that she could scarcely give us enough to keep body and soul
together, and the things we had were not fit to eat.  Nothing but milk
puddings and stewed fruit for a week on end.  Then we rebelled.  I
nipped her up in my arms one evening in the schoolroom, and stuck her on
the top of the little bookcase.  Then we mounted guard around, and set
forth our views.  It would have killed you to see her perched up there,
trying to look prim and to keep up her dignity.

"`Let me down this moment, Robert.  Bring a chair and let me get down.'

"`Will you promise to give us a pie to-morrow, then, and a decent sort
of a pudding?'

"`It's no business of yours what I give you.  You ought to be thankful
for good wholesome food!'

"`Milk puddings are not wholesome.  They don't agree with us--they are
too rich!  We should like something a little lighter for a change.  Will
you swear off milk puddings for the next fortnight if I let you down?'

"`You are a cruel, heartless fellow, Robert Darcy--thinking of puddings
when Peggy is ill, and we are all so anxious about her!'

"`Peggy would die at once if she heard how badly you were treating us.
Now then, you have kept me waiting for ten minutes, so the price has
gone up.  Now you'll have to promise a pair of ducks and mince-pies into
the bargain!  I shall be ashamed of meeting a sheep soon, if we go on
eating mutton every day of the week.'

"`Call yourself a gentleman!' says she, tossing her head and withering
me with a glance of scorn.

"`I call myself a hungry man, and that's all we are concerned about for
the moment,' said I.  `A couple of ducks and two nailing good puddings
to-morrow night, or there you sit for the rest of the evening!'

"We went at it hammer and tongs until she was fairly spluttering with
rage; but she had to promise before she came down, and we had no more
starvation diet after that.  Oswald went up to town for a day, and
bought a pair of blue silk socks and a tie to match--that's the greatest
excitement we have had.  The rest has been all worry and grind, and
Mellicent on the rampage about Christmas presents.  Oh, by the bye, I
printed those photographs you wanted to send to your mother, and packed
them off by the mail a fortnight ago, so that she would get them in good
time for Christmas."

"Rob, you didn't!  How noble of you!  You really are an admirable
person!"  Peggy lay back against her pillows and gazed at her "partner"
in great contentment of spirit.  After living an invalid's life for
these past weeks, it was delightfully refreshing to look at the big
strong face.  The sight of it was like a fresh breeze coming into the
close, heated room, and she felt as if some of his superabundant energy
had come into her own weak frame.

A little later the vicarage party arrived, and greeted the two
convalescents with warmest affection.  If they were shocked at the sight
of Rosalind's disfigurement and Peggy's emaciation, three out of the
four were polite enough to disguise their feelings; but it was too much
to expect of Mellicent that she should disguise what she happened to be
feeling.  She stared and gaped, and stared again, stuttering with
consternation--

"Why--why--Rosalind--your hair!  It's shorter than mine!  It doesn't
come down to your shoulders!  Did they cut it all off?  What did you do
with the rest?  And your poor cheek!  Will you have that mark all your
life?"

"I don't know.  Mother is going to twy electwicity for it.  It will fade
a good deal, I suppose, but I shall always be a fwight.  I'm twying to
wesign myself to be a hideous monster!" sighed Rosalind, turning her
head towards the window the while in such a position that the scar was
hidden from view, and she looked more like the celestial choir-boy of
Peggy's delirium than ever, with the golden locks curling round her
neck, and the big eyes raised to the ceiling in a glance of pathetic
resignation.

Rob guffawed aloud with the callousness of a brother; but the other two
lads gazed at her with an adoring admiration which was balm to her vain
little heart.  Vain still, for a nature does not change in a day; and,
though Rosalind was an infinitely more lovable person now than she had
been a few weeks before, the habits of a lifetime were still strong upon
her, and she could never by any possibility be indifferent to
admiration, or pass a mirror without stopping to examine the progress of
that disfiguring scar.

"It wouldn't have mattered half so much if it had been Peggy's face that
was spoiled," continued Mellicent, with cruel outspokenness, "and it is
only her hands that are hurt.  Things always go the wrong way in this
world!  I never saw anything like it.  You know that night-dress bag I
was working for mother, Peggy?  Well, I only got two skeins of the blue
silk, and then if I didn't run short, and they hadn't any more in the
shop.  The other shades don't match at all, and it looks simply vile.  I
am going to give it to--ahem!  I mean that's the sort of thing that
always happens to me--it makes me mad!  You can't sew at all, I suppose?
What do you do with yourself all day long, now that you are able to get
up?"

Peggy's eyes twinkled.

"I sleep," she said slowly, "and eat, and sleep a little more, and eat
again, and talk a little bit, roll into bed, and fall fast asleep.
_Voila tout, ma chere!  C'est ca que je fais tous les jours_."

Rosalind gave a shriek of laughter at Peggy's French, and Mellicent
rolled her eyes to the ceiling.

"How s-imply lovely!" she sighed.  "I wish I were you!  I'd like to go
to bed in November and stay there till May.  In a room like this, of
course, with everything beautiful and dainty, and a maid to wait upon
me.  I'd have a fire and an india-rubber hot-water bottle, and I'd lie
and sleep, and wake up every now and then, and make the maid read aloud,
and bring me my meals on a tray.  Nice meals!  Real, nice invalidy
things, you know, to tempt my appetite."  Mellicent's eyes rolled
instinctively to the table, where the jelly and the grapes stood
together in tempting proximity.  She sighed, and brought herself back
with an effort to the painful present.  "Goodness, Peggy, how funny your
hands look!  Just like a mummy!  What do they look like when the
bandages are off?  Very horrible?"

"Hideous!"  Peggy shrugged her shoulders and wrinkled her nose in
disgust.  "I am going to try to grow old as fast as I can, so that I can
wear mittens and cover them up.  I'm really rather distressed about it,
because I am so--so addicted to rings, don't you know.  They have been a
weakness of mine all my life, and I've looked forward to having my
fingers simply loaded with them when I grew up.  There is one of
mother's that I especially admire--a big square emerald surrounded with
diamonds.  She promised to give it to me on my twenty-first birthday,
but, unless my hands look very different by that time, I shall not want
to call attention to them.  Alack-a-day!  I fear I shall never be able
to wear a ring--"

"Gracious goodness!  Then you can never be married!" ejaculated
Mellicent, in a tone of such horrified dismay as evoked a shriek of
merriment from the listeners--Peggy's merry trill sounding clear above
the rest.  It was just delicious to be well again, to sit among her
companions and have one of the old hearty laughs over Mellicent's quaint
speeches.  At that moment she was one of the happiest girls in all the
world.



CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.

ALAS, FOR ARTHUR!

A few days later Peggy was driven home to the vicarage, and stood the
drive so well that she was able to walk downstairs at tea-time, and sit
at the table with only a cushion at her back, to mark her out as an
invalid just recovering from a serious illness.  There was a special
reason why she wished to look well this afternoon, for Arthur was
expected by the six o'clock train; and the candidate who had come out
first in his examination lists must not have his reception chilled by
anxiety or disappointment.

Peggy was attired in her pink dress, and sat roasting before the fire,
so as to get some colour into her cheeks.  If her face were only the
size of the palm of a hand, she was determined that it should at least
be rosy; and if she looked very bright, and smiled all the time, perhaps
Arthur would not notice how thin she had become.

When half-past six struck, everyone crowded into the schoolroom, and
presently a cab drove up to the door, and a modest rap sounded on the
knocker.

"That's not Arthur!" cried Mrs Asplin confidently.  "He knocks straight
on without stopping, peals the bell at the same time, and shouts
Christmas carols through the letter-box!  He has sent on his luggage, I
expect, and is going to pounce in upon us later on."

"Ah, no, that's not Arthur!" assented Peggy; but Mr Asplin turned his
head quickly towards the door, as if his ear had caught a familiar note,
hesitated for a moment, and then walked quickly into the hall.

"My dear boy!" the listeners heard him cry; and then another voice spoke
in reply--Arthur's voice--saying, "How do you do, sir?" in such flat,
subdued tones as filled them with amazement.

Mrs Asplin and Peggy turned towards each other with distended eyes.  If
Arthur had suddenly slid down the chimney and crawled out on the hearth
before them, turned a somersault in at the window, or crawled from
beneath the table, it would have caused no astonishment whatever; but
that he should ring at the bell, walk quietly into the hall, and wait to
hang up his hat like any other ordinary mortal,--this was indeed an
unprecedented and extraordinary proceeding!  The same explanation darted
into both minds.  His sister's illness!  He was afraid of startling an
invalid, and was curbing his overflowing spirits in consideration for
her weakness.

Peggy rose from her chair, and stood waiting, with sparkling eyes and
burning cheeks.  He should see in one glance that she was better--almost
well--that there was no need of anxiety on her behalf.  And then the
tall, handsome figure appeared in the doorway, and Arthur's voice
cried--

"Peggikens!  Up and dressed!  This is better than I hoped.  How are you,
dear little Peg?"

There was something wrong with the voice, something lacking in the
smile; but his sister was too excited to notice it.  She stretched out
her arms towards him, and raised her weak, quavering little voice in a
song of triumph--

"See-ee the conquering he-he-he-he-hero com-ums!  Sow-ow-ow-ow-ownd the
trumpet, play--a--a--a--"

"Don't, Peg!" cried Arthur sharply.  "Don't, dear!"  He was standing by
her side by this time, and suddenly he wrapped his arms round her and
laid his curly head on hers.  "I'm plucked, Peg!" he cried, and his
voice was full of tears.  "Oh, Peg, I'm plucked!  It's all over; I can
never be a soldier.  I'm plucked--plucked--plucked!"

"Arthur dear!  Arthur darling!" cried Peggy loudly.  She clasped her
arms round his neck, and glared over his shoulder, like a tigress whose
young has been threatened with danger.  "You plucked!  My brother
plucked!  Ho! ho! ho!"  She gave a shrill peal of laughter.  "It's
impossible!  You were first of all, the very first.  You always are
first.  Who was wicked enough, and cruel enough, and false enough, to
say that Arthur Saville was plucked in an examination?"

"Arthur, my boy, what is it?  What does it mean?  You told us you were
first.  How can you possibly be plucked?"

"My--my eyes!" said Arthur faintly.  He raised his head from Peggy's
shoulder and looked round with a haggard smile.  "The medical exam.
They would not pass me.  I was rather blind when I was here before, but
I thought it was with reading too much.  I never suspected there was
anything really wrong--never for a moment!"

"Your eyes!"  The vicar pressed his hand to his forehead, as if unable
to grasp this sudden shattering of his hopes.  "But--but I don't
understand!  Your eyes never gave you any trouble when you were here.
You were not short-sighted.  One knew, of course, that good sight was
necessary; but there seemed no weakness in that direction.  I can't
imagine any cause that can have brought it on."

"I can!" said Arthur drearily.  "I got a bad knock at lacrosse two years
ago.  I didn't tell you about it, for it wasn't worth while; but my eyes
were bad for some time after that.  I thought they were all right again;
but I had to read a lot of things across a room, and made a poor show of
it.  Then the doctor took me to a window and pointed to an omnibus that
was passing.

"`What's the name on that 'bus?' he said.  `What is the colour of that
woman's hat?  How many horses are there?'

"I guessed.  I couldn't see.  I made a shot at it, and it was a wrong
shot.  He was a kind old chap.  I think he was sorry for me.  I--I came
out into the street, and walked about.  It was very cold.  I tried to
write to you, but I couldn't do it--I couldn't put it down in black and
white.  No V.C. now, little Peg!  That's all over.  You will have a
civilian for your brother, after all!"

He bent down to kiss the girl's cheeks as he spoke, and she threw her
arms round his neck and kissed him passionately upon his closed eyelids.

"Dear eyes!" she cried impetuously.  "Oh, dear eyes!  They are the
dearest eyes in all the world, whatever anyone says about them.  It
doesn't matter what you are--you are my Arthur, the best and cleverest
brother in all the world.  Nobody is like you!"

"You have a fine career before you still, my boy!  You will always
fight, I hope, and conquer enemies even more powerful than armed men!"
cried Mrs Asplin, trembling.  "There are more ways than one of being a
soldier, Arthur!"

"I know it, mater," said the young man softly.  He straightened his back
and stood in silence, his head thrown back, his eyes shining with
emotion, as fine a specimen of a young English gentleman as one could
wish to meet.  "I know it," he repeated, and Mrs Asplin turned aside to
hide her tears.  "Oh, my pretty boy!" she was saying to herself.  "Oh,
my pretty boy!  And I'll never see him in his red coat, riding his horse
like a prince among them all!  I'll never see the medals on his breast!
Oh, my poor lad that has the fighting blood in his veins!  It's like
tearing the heart out of him to turn Arthur Saville into anything but a
soldier.  And the poor father--what will he say at all, when he hears
this terrible news?"  She dared not trust herself to speak again; the
others were too much stunned and distressed to make any attempt at
consolation, and it was a relief to all when Mellicent's calm,
matter-of-fact treble broke the silence.

"Well, for my part, I'm very glad!" she announced slowly.  "I'm sorry,
of course, if he has to wear spectacles, because they are not becoming,
but I'm glad he is not going to be a soldier.  I think it's silly having
nothing to do but drill in barracks, and pretending to fight when there
is no one to fight with.  I should hate to be a soldier in times of
peace, and it would be fifty thousand times worse in war.  Oh, my
goodness, shouldn't I be in a fright!  I should run away--I know I
should; but Arthur would be in the front of every battle, and it's
absurd to think that he would not get killed.  You know what Arthur is!
Did you ever know him have a chance of hurting himself and not taking
it?  He would be killed in the very first battle--that's my belief--and
_then_ you would be sorry that you wanted him to be a soldier!  Or, if
he wasn't killed, he would have his legs shot off.  Last time I was in
London I saw a man with no legs.  He was sitting on a little board with
wheels on it, and selling matches in the street.  Well, I must say I'd
rather have my brother a civilian, as you call it, than have no legs, or
be cut in pieces by a lot of nasty naked old savages."

A general smile went round the company.  There was no resisting it.
Even Arthur's face brightened, and he turned his head and looked at
Mellicent with his old twinkling smile.

"Bravo, Chubby!" he cried.  "Bravo, Chubby!  Commend me to Mellicent for
good, sound commonsense.  The prospect of squatting on a board, selling
matches, is not exhilarating, I must confess.  I'm glad there is one
person at least who thinks my prospects are improved."  He gave a little
sigh, which was stifled with praiseworthy quickness.  "Well, the worst
is over, now that I have told you and written the letter to India.
Those were the two things that I dreaded most.  Now I shall just have to
face life afresh, and see what can be made of it.  I must have a talk
with you, sir, later on, and get your advice.  Cheer up, Peggikens!
Cheer up, mater!  It's no use grieving over spilt milk, and Christmas is
coming.  It would never do to be in the dolefuls over Christmas!  I've
got a boxful of presents upstairs--amused myself with buying them
yesterday to pass the time.  You come up with me to-night, Peg, and I'll
give you a peep.  You look better than I expected, dear, but fearsome
scraggy!  We shall have to pad her out a bit, shan't we, mater?  She
must have an extra helping of plum-pudding this year."

He rattled on in his own bright style, or in as near an imitation of it
as he could manage, and the others tried their best to follow his
example and make the evening as cheery as possible.  Once or twice the
joy of being all together again in health and strength conquered the
underlying sorrow, and the laughter rang out as gaily as ever; but the
next moment Arthur would draw in his breath with another of those short,
stabbing sighs, and Peggy would shiver, and lie back trembling among her
pillows.  She had no heart to look at Christmas presents that night, but
Arthur carried her upstairs in his strong arms, laid her on her bed, and
sat beside her for ten minutes' precious private talk.

"It's a facer, Peg," he said.  "I can't deny it's a facer.  When I
walked out of that doctor's room I felt as weak as a child.  The shock
knocked the strength out of me.  I had never thought of anything else
but being a soldier, you see, and it's a strange experience to have to
face life afresh, with everything that you had expected taken out of it,
and nothing ahead but blankness and disappointment.  I've been so strong
too--as strong as a horse.  If it hadn't been for that blow--well, it's
over!  It's a comfort to me to feel that it was not my own fault.  If
I'd been lazy or careless, and had failed in the exam., it would have
driven me crazy; but this was altogether beyond my control.  It is
frightfully rough luck, but I don't mean to howl--I must make the best
of what's left!"

"Yes, yes, I'm sure you will.  You have begun well, for I think you have
been wonderfully brave and courageous about it, Arthur dear!"

"Well, of course!" said Arthur softly.  "I always meant to be that, Peg;
and, as the mater says, it is only another kind of battle.  The other
would have been easier, but I mean to fight still.  I am not going to
give up all my dreams.  You shall be proud of me yet, though not in the
way you expected."

"I never was so proud of you in my life!"  Peggy cried.  "Never in all
my life."

Long after Arthur had kissed her and gone to his own room she lay awake,
thinking of his words and of the expression on his handsome face as the
firelight played on moistened eye and trembling lip.  "I mean to fight."

"You shall be proud of me yet."  The words rang in her ears, and would
not be silenced.  When she fell asleep Arthur was still by her side; the
marks of tears were on his face.  He was telling her once more the story
of disappointment and failure; but she could not listen to him, for her
eyes were fixed on something that was pinned on the breast of his coat--
a little cross with two words printed across its surface.

In her dream Peggy bent forward, and read those two words with a great
rush of joy and exultation.

"For Valour!"

"For Valour!"  Yes, yes, it was quite true!  Never was soldier flushed
with victory more deserving of that decoration than Arthur Saville in
his hour of disappointment and failure.



CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.

THE PARTING OF THE WAYS!

Arthur kept his word, and tried manfully not to let his own
disappointment interfere with the enjoyment of Christmas Day.

The party at the vicarage was smaller than usual, for Rob and Oswald had
both gone home for the festive season, and he knew well that the
knowledge that "Arthur was coming" had seemed the best guarantee of a
merry day to those who were left.

Peggy too--poor little Peg, with her bandaged hands and tiny white
face--it would never do to grieve her by being depressed and gloomy!

"Begone, dull care!" cried Arthur to himself then, when he awoke on
Christmas morning, and, promptly wrapping himself in his dressing-gown,
he sallied out on to the landing, where he burst into the strains of
"Christians, awake!" with such vigorous brush-and-comb accompaniment on
the panels of the doors as startled the household out of their dreams.

"Miserable boy!  I was having such a lovely nap!  I'll never forgive
you!" cried Mrs Asplin's voice, in sleepy wrath.

"Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas!" shouted the girls; and Peggy's
clear pipe joined in last of all.  "And many of them!  Come in!  Come
in!  I was lying awake and longing to see you!"

Arthur put his ruffled head round the door and beamed at the little
figure in the bed, as if he had never known a trouble in his life.

"What a wicked story!  I heard you snore.  Merry Christmas, Peg, and a
Happy New Year!  And don't you go for to do it again never no more!
It's a jolly morning.  I'll take you out for a toddle in the garden when
we come home from church, if you are a good girl.  Will you have your
present now, or wait till you get it?  It begins with a B.  I love my
love with a B, because she's a--"

"Oh, Arthur!" interrupted Peggy regretfully.  "I haven't half such a
nice present for you as I expected.  You see I couldn't work anything,
and I couldn't get out to the shops, and I hadn't nearly as much money
as I expected either.  If Rob and I had won that prize, I should have
had ten pounds; but the stupid editors have put off announcing the
result week after week.  They say there were so many competitors; but
that's no consolation, for it makes our chance less.  I do hope it may
be out next week.  But, at any rate, I didn't get my ten pounds in time,
and there I was, you see, with little money and practically no hands--
a--er--a most painful contingency, which I hope it may never be your lot
to experience.  You must take the will for the deed."

"Oh, I will!" agreed Arthur promptly.  "I'll take the will now, and you
can follow up with the deed as soon as you get the cash.  But no more
journeys up to London, my dear, if you love me, and don't use such big
words before seven o'clock in the morning, or you'll choke.  It's bad
for little girls to exert themselves so much.  Now I'm going to skate
about in the bath for a bit, and tumble into my clothes, and then I'll
come back and give you a lift downstairs.  You are coming down for
breakfast, I suppose?"

"Rather!  On Christmas morning!  I should just think I was!" cried Peggy
emphatically; and Arthur went off to the bathroom, calling in at Max's
room _en route_, to squeeze a sponge full of water over that young
gentleman's head, and pull the clothes off the bed, by way of giving
emphasis to his, "Get up, you lazy beggar!  It's the day after
to-morrow, and the plum-pudding is waiting!"

Peggy was the only one of the young folks who did not go to church that
morning; but she was left in charge of the decorations for the
dinner-table, and when this was finished there was so much to think
about that the time passed all too quickly.

Last year she and Arthur had spent Christmas with their mother; now both
parents were away in India, and everything was strange and altered.  As
Peggy sat gazing into the heart of the big gloomy fire, it seemed to her
that the year that was passing away would end a complete epoch in her
brother's experiences and her own, and that from this hour a new chapter
would begin.  She herself had come back from the door of death, and had
life given, as it were, afresh into her hands.  Arthur's longed-for
career had been checked at its commencement, and all his plans laid
waste.  Even the life in the vicarage would henceforth take new
conditions, for Rob and Oswald would go up to Oxford at the beginning of
the term, and their place be filled by new pupils.  There was something
solemnising in the consciousness of change which filled the air.  One
could never tell what might be the next development.  Nothing was too
unexpected to happen--since Arthur's success had ended in failure, and
she herself had received Rosalind's vows of love and friendship.

"Good things have happened as well as bad," acknowledged Peggy honestly;
"but how I do hate changes!  The new pupils may be the nicest boys in
the world, but no one will ever--ever be like Rob, and I'd rather Arthur
had been a soldier than anything in the wide world.  I wish one could go
on being young for ever and ever.  It's when you grow old that all these
troubles and changes come upon you."  And Peggy sighed and wagged her
head, oppressed with the weight of fifteen years.

It was a relief to hear the clatter of horses' hoofs, and the sound of
voices in the hall, which proved that the church-goers had returned
home.  Mr and Mrs Asplin had been driven home from church by Lord and
Lady Darcy, and the next moment they were in the room, and greeting
Peggy with demonstrative affection.

"We couldn't go home without coming to see you, dear," said Lady Darcy
fondly.  "Rosalind is walking with the rest, and will be here in a few
minutes.  A merry Christmas to you, darling, and many, many of them.
I've brought you a little present which I hope you will like.  It's a
bangle bracelet--quite a simple one that you can wear every day--and you
must think of me sometimes when you put it on."

She touched the spring of a little morocco case as she spoke, and there
on the satin lining lay a band of gold, dependent from which hung the
sweetest little locket in the world--heart-shaped, studded with pearls,
and guarding a ring of hair beneath the glass shield.

Lady Darcy pointed to it in silence--her eyes filling with tears, as
they invariably did on any reference to Rosalind's accident, and Peggy's
cheeks flushed with pleasure.

"I can't thank you!  I really can't," she said.  "It is too lovely.  You
couldn't possibly have given me anything I liked better.  I have a
predilection for jewellery, and the little locket is too sweet, dangling
on that chain!  I do love to have something that waggles!"  She held up
her arm as she spoke, shaking the locket to and fro with a childlike
enjoyment, while the two ladies watched her with tender amusement.  Lord
Darcy had not spoken since his first greeting, but now he came forward,
and linking his arm in Peggy's led her to the farther end of the room.

"I have no present for you, my dear--I could not think of one that was
good enough--but yesterday I really think I hit on something that would
please you.  Robert told us how keenly you were feeling your brother's
disappointment, and that he was undecided what to try next.  Now, I
believe I can help him there.  I have influence in the Foreign Office,
and can ensure him an opening when he is ready for it, if your father
agrees that it is desirable.  Would that please you, Peggy?  If I can
help your brother, will it go some little way towards paying the debt I
owe you?"

"Oh-h!" cried Peggy rapturously.  "Oh!"  She clasped Lord Darcy's hands
in her own and gazed at him with dilated eyes.  "Can you do it?  Will
you do it?  There is nothing in all the world I should like so much.
Help Arthur--give him a good chance--and I shall bless you for ever and
ever!  I could never thank you enough--"

"Well, well, I will write to your father and see what he has to say.  I
can promise the lad a start at least, and after that his future will be
in his own hands, where I think we may safely leave it.  Master Arthur
is one of the fortunate being's who has an `open sesame' to all hearts.
Mr Asplin assures me that he is as good at work as at play; I have not
seen that side of his character, but he has always left a most pleasing
impression on my mind, most pleasing."  The old lord smiled to himself,
and his eyes took a dreamy expression, as if he were recalling to memory
the handsome face and strong manly presence of the young fellow of whom
he was speaking.  "He has been a favourite at our house for some years
now, and I shall be glad to do him a service; but remember, Peggy, that
when I propose this help, it is, in the first instance at least, for
your sake, not his.  I tell you this because I think it will give you
pleasure to feel that you have been the means of helping your brother.
Talk it over with him some time when you are alone together, and then he
can come up and see me.  To-day we must leave business alone.  Here they
come!  I thought they would not be long after us--"

Even as he spoke voices sounded from the hall, there was a clatter of
feet over the tiled flooring, and Mellicent dashed into the room.

"P-P-P-Postman!" she stammered breathlessly.  "He is coming!  Round the
corner!  Heaps of letters!  Piles of parcels!  A hand-cart, and a boy to
help him!  Here in five minutes!  Oh! oh! oh!"  She went rushing back to
the door, and Rosalind came forward, looking almost her old beautiful
self, with her cheeks flushed by the cold air, and the fur collar of her
jacket turned up so as to hide the scarred cheek.

"Merry Christmas, Rosalind!  How--how nice you look!" cried Peggy,
looking up and down the dainty figure with more pleasure in the sight
than she could have believed possible a few weeks before.  After being
accustomed for four long weeks to gaze at those perfectly cut features,
Esther's long chin and Mellicent's retrousse nose had been quite a trial
to her artistic sensibilities on her return to the vicarage.  It was
like having a masterpiece taken down from the walls and replaced by an
inferior engraving.  She gave a sigh of satisfaction as she looked once
more at Rosalind's face.

"Mewwy Chwistmas, Peggy!  I've missed you fwightfully.  I've not been to
church, but I dwove down to meet the others, and came to see you.  I had
to see you on Chwistmas Day.  I've had lovely pwesents, and there are
more to come.  Mother has given you the bwacelet, I see.  Is it what you
like?"

"My dear, I love it.  I'm fearfully addicted to jewellery.  I had to put
it on at once, and it looks quite elegant on top of the bandages!  I'm
inexpressibly obliged.  I've got heaps of things--books, scent,
glove-box, writing-case, a big box coming from India, and--don't tell
her--an apron from Mellicent!  The most awful thing.  I can't think
where she found it.  Yellow cloth with dog-roses worked in filoselle!
Imagine me in a yellow apron with spotty roses around the brim!"

"He! he!  I can't!  I weally can't.  It's too widiculous!" protested
Rosalind.  "She sent me a twine bag made of netted cotton.  It's awfully
useful if you use twine, but I never do.  Don't say I said so.  Who got
the night-dwess bag with the two shades of blue that didn't match?"

"Esther!  You should have seen her face!" whispered Peggy roguishly, and
the girls went into peals of laughter, which brought Robert hurrying
across the room to join them.

"Now then, Rosalind; when you have quite done, I should like to speak to
Peggy.  The compliments of the season to you, Mariquita; I hope I see
you well."

Peggy pursed up her lips, and looked him up and down with her dancing
hazel eyes.

"Most noble sir, the heavens rain blessings on you--Oh, my goodness,
there's the postman!" she said all in one breath; and the partners
darted forward side by side towards the front door, where the old
postman was already standing, beaming all over his weatherbeaten face,
as he began turning out the letters and calling out the names on the
envelopes.

"Asplin, Asplin, Saville, Asplin, Saville, Saville, Miss Peggy Saville,
Miss Mellercent Asplin, Miss Saville, Miss M. Saville, Miss Peggy
Saville."

So the list ran on, with such a constant repetition of the same name
that Max exclaimed in disgust, "Who _is_ this Miss Peggy Saville that we
hear so much about?  She's a greedy thing, whoever she may be;" and
Mellicent whined out, "I wish I had been at a boarding-school!  I wish
my relatives lived abroad.  There will be none left for me by the time
she has finished."  Then Arthur thrust forward his mischievous face, and
put in a stern inquiry--

"Forbes!  Where's that registered letter?  That letter with the
hundred-pound note.  Don't say you haven't got it, for I know better.
Hand it over now, without any more bother."

The old postman gave a chuckle of amusement, for this was a standing
joke renewed every Christmas that Arthur had spent at the vicarage.

"'Tasn't come ter-day, Muster Saville.  Missed the post.  'Twill be
coming ter-morrer morning certain!"

"Forbes!" croaked Arthur solemnly.  "Reflect!  You have a wife and
children.  This is a serious business.  It's ruin, Forbes, that's what
it is.  R-u-i-n, my friend!  Be advised by me, and give it up.  The
hundred pounds is not worth it, and besides I need it badly.  Don't
deprive a man of his inheritance!"

"Bless yer rart, I'd bring it yer with pleasure rif I could!  Nobody'd
bring it quicker ran I would!" cried Forbes, who like everyone else
adored the handsome young fellow who was always ready with a joke and a
kindly word.  "It's comin' for the Noo Year, sir.  You mark my words.
There's a deal of luck waitin' for yer in the Noo Year!"

Arthur's laugh ended in a sigh, but he thanked the old man for his good
wishes, tipped him even more lavishly than usual, and followed his
companions to the drawing-room to examine their treasures.

Parcels were put on one side to await more leisurely inspection, but
cards and letters were opened at once, and Rob seated himself by Peggy's
side as she placed the pile of envelopes on a table in the corner.

"We are partners, you know," he reminded her, "so I think I am entitled
to a share in these.  What a lot of cards!  Who on earth are the
senders?"

"My godfathers, and my godmothers, and all my relatives and friends.
The girls at school and some of the teachers.  This fat one is from
`Buns'--Miss Baker, the one whose Sunday hat I squashed.  She used to
say that I was sent to her as wholesome discipline, to prevent her being
too happy as a hard-worked teacher in a ladies' school, but she wept
bucketfuls when I came away.  I liked Buns!  This is from Marjorie
Riggs, my chum.  She had a squint, but a most engaging disposition.
This is from Kate Strong: now if there is a girl in the world for whom I
cherish an aversion, it is Katie Strong!  She is what I call a specious
pig, and why she wanted to send me a Christmas card I simply can't
imagine.  We were on terms of undying hatred.  This is from Miss Moss,
the pupil teacher.  She had chilblains, poor dear, and spoke through her
dose.  `You busn't do it, Peggy, you really busn't.  It's bost adoying!'
Then I did it again, you know, and she sniggered and tried to look
cross.  This is--I don't know who this is from!  It's a man's writing.
It looks like a business letter--London postmark--and something printed
in white on the seal.  What is it?  `The Pic-Pic-Piccadilly'--Robert!"
Peggy's voice grew shrill with excitement.  "_The Piccadilly Magazine_."

"Wh-at!"  Robert grabbed at the envelope, read the words himself, and
stared at her with sparkling eyes.  "It is!  It's the prize, Mariquita!
It must be.  What else would they write about?  Open it and see.  Quick!
Shall I do it for you?"

"Yes, yes!" cried Peggy breathlessly.  She craned her head forward as
Rob tore open the envelope, and grasped his arm with both hands.
Together they read the typewritten words, together they gasped and
panted, and shrieked aloud in joy.  "We've done it!  We have!  We've won
the prize!  Thirty pounds!  Bravo, Rob!  Now you can buy your
microscope!"--"Good old Mariquita, it's all your doing.  Don't speak to
us; we are literary people, far above ordinary commonplace creatures
like you.  Thir-ty pounds! made by our own honest toil.  What do you
think of that, I'd like to know?"

Each member of the audience thought something different, and said it
amid a scene of wild excitement.  The elders were pleased and proud,
though not above improving the occasion by warnings against secret work,
over-anxiety, midnight journeys, etcetera.  Mellicent exclaimed, "How
jolly!  Now you will be able to give presents for the New Year as well
as Christmas;" and Arthur said, "Dear Peggums!  I always loved you; I
took the `will,' you know, without any grumbling, and now you can follow
up with the deed as quickly as you like!"  Each one wanted to hold the
precious document in his own hands, to read it with his own eyes, and it
was handed round and round to be exclaimed over in accents of wonder and
admiration, while Rob beamed, and Peggy tossed her pigtail over her
shoulder, holding her little head at an angle of complacent
satisfaction.

The moment of triumph was very sweet--all the sweeter because of the
sorrows of the last few weeks.  The partners forgot all the hard work,
worry, and exhaustion, and remembered only the joy of success and hope
fulfilled.  Robert said little in the way of thanks, preferring to wait
until he could tell Peggy of his gratitude without an audience to
criticise his words; but when his mother began to speak of leaving, it
was he who reminded Mrs Asplin of the promise that the invalid should
have her first walk on Christmas Day.

"Let us go on ahead, and take her with us until the carriage overtakes
us.  It will do her no harm.  It's bright and dry--"

"Oh, mater, yes!  I told Peg I would take her out," chimed in Arthur,
starting from his seat by Rosalind's side, and looking quite distressed
because he had momentarily forgotten his promise.  "Wrap her up well,
and we'll take care of her.  The air will do her good."

"I think it will, but you must not go far--not an inch beyond the
crossroads.  Come, Peggy, and I'll dress you myself.  I can't trust you
to put on enough wraps."  Mrs Asplin whisked the girl out of the room,
and wrapped her up to such an extent that when she came downstairs again
she could only puff and gasp above her muffler, declare that she was
choking, and fan herself with her muff.  Choking or not, the eyes of the
companions brightened as they looked at her, for the scarlet
tam-o'-shanter was set at a rakish angle on the dark little head, and
Peggy the invalid seemed to have made way for the Peggy of old, with
dimpling cheeks and the light of mischief in her eyes.

The moment that Mrs Asplin stopped fumbling with her wraps, she was out
at the door, opening her mouth to drink in the fresh chill air, and
Robert was at her side before anyone had a chance of superseding him.

"Umph!  Isn't it good?  I'm stifling for a blow.  My lungs are sore for
want of exercise.  I was longing, longing to get out.  Robert, do you
realise it?  We have won the prize!  Can you believe it?  It is almost
too good to be true.  It's the best present of all.  Now you can buy
your microscope, and get on with your work as you never could before!"

"Yes, and it's all your doing, Mariquita.  I could not have pulled it
off without your help.  If I make anything out of my studies, it will be
your doing too.  I'll put it down to you, and thank you for it all my
life."

"H-m!  I don't think I deserve so much praise, but I like it.  It's very
soothing," said Peggy reflectively.  "I'm very happy about it, and I
needed something to make me happy, for I felt as blue as indigo this
morning.  We seem to have come to the end of so many things, and I hate
ends.  There is this disappointment about Arthur, which spoils all the
old plans, and the break-up of our good times here together.  I shall
miss Oswald.  He was a dear old dandy, and his ties were quite an
excitement in life; but I simply can't imagine what the house will be
like without you, Rob!"

"I shall be here for some weeks every year, and I'll run down for a day
or two whenever I can.  It won't be good-bye."

"I know--I know! but you will never be one of us again, living in the
house, joining in all our jokes.  It will be quite a different thing.
And you will grow up so quickly at Oxford, and be a man before we know
where we are."

"So will you--a woman at least.  You are fifteen in January.  At
seventeen, girls put their hair up and wear long dresses.  You will look
older than I do, and give yourself as many airs as if you were fifty.  I
know what girls of seventeen are like.  I've met lots of them, and they
say, `That boy!' and toss their heads as if they were a dozen years
older than fellows of their own age.  I expect you will be as bad as the
rest, but you needn't try to snub me.  I won't stand it."

"You won't have a chance, for I shan't be here.  As soon as my education
is finished I am going out to India, to stay until father retires and we
come home to settle.  So after to-day--"

"After to-day--the deluge!  Peggy, I didn't tell you before, but I'm off
to-morrow to stay in town until I go up to Oxford on the fourteenth.
The pater wants to have me with him, so I shan't see you again for some
months.  Of course I am glad to be in town for most things, but--"

"Yes, but!" repeated Peggy, and turned a wan little face upon him.  "Oh,
Rob, it is changing quickly I never thought it would be so soon as this.
So it is good-bye.  No wonder I felt so blue this morning.  It is
good-bye for ever to the old life.  We shall meet again, oh yes! but it
will be different.  Some day when I'm old and grown-up I will see in a
newspaper the name of a distinguished naturalist and discoverer, and
say, `I used to know him once.  He was not at all proud.  He used to
pull my hair like any ordinary mortal.'

"Some day I shall enter a ballroom, and see a little lady sitting by the
door waving her hands in the air, and using words a mile long, and shall
say to myself, `Do my eyes deceive me?  Is it indeed the Peggy Pickle of
the Past?' and my host will say, `My good sir, that is the world-famous
authoress, Mariquita de Ponsonby Plantagenet Saville!'  Stevenson, I
assure you, is not in it for flow of language, and she is so proud of
herself that she won't speak to anyone under a belted earl."

"That sounds nice!" said Peggy approvingly.  "I should like that; but it
wouldn't be a ball, you silly boy--it would be a conversazione, where
all the clever and celebrated people of London were gathered together,
`To have the honour of meeting Miss Saville.'  There would be quite a
number of people whom we knew among the Lions.  A very grand Lady
Somebody or other, the beauty of the season--Rosalind, of
course--all sparkling with diamonds, and leaning on the arm of a
distinguished-looking gentleman with orders on his breast.  That's
Arthur.  I'm determined that he shall have orders.  It's the only thing
that could reconcile me to the loss of the Victoria Cross, and a
dress-coat is so uninteresting without trimmings!  A fat lady would be
sitting in a corner prattling about half a dozen subjects all in one
moment--that's Mellicent; and a tall, lean lady in spectacles would be
imparting useful information to a dandy with an eyeglass stuck in one
eye--that's Esther and Oswald!  Oh dear, I wonder--I wonder--I wonder!
It's like a story-book, Rob, and we are at the end of the first volume.
How much shall we have to do with each other in the second and third;
and what is going to happen next, and how, and when?"

"We--we have to part, that's the next thing," said Rob sadly.  "Here
comes the carriage, and Arthur is shouting for us to stop.  It's
good-bye, for the present, Mariquita; there's no help for it!"

"At the crossroads!" said Peggy slowly, her eye wandering to the
sign-board which marked the paths branching north, south, east, and
west.  She stopped short and stood gazing into his face, her eyes big
and solemn, the wind blowing her hair into loose little curls beneath
her scarlet cap, her dramatic mind seizing eagerly on the significance
of the position.  "At the crossroads, Rob, to go our different ways!
Good-bye, good-bye!  I hate to say it.  You--you won't forget me, and
like the horrid boys at college better than me, will you, Rob?"

Robert gave a short, strangled little laugh.

"I think--not!  Cheer up, partner!  We will meet again, and have a
better time together than we have had yet.  The third volume is always
more exciting than the first.  I say we shall, and you know when I make
up my mind to a thing, it has to be done!"

"Ah, but how?" sighed Peggy faintly.  "But how?"  Vague prophecies of
the future were not much comfort to her in this moment of farewell.  She
wanted something more definite; but Rob had no time to enter into
details, for even as she spoke the carriage drew up beside them, and,
while the occupants congratulated Peggy on having walked so far and so
well, he could only grip her hand, and take his place in silence beside
his sister.

Lady Darcy bent forward to smile farewell; Rosalind waved her hand, and
then they were off again, driving swiftly homewards, while Peggy stood
watching, a solitary figure upon the roadside.

Arthur and his companions hurried forward to join her, afraid lest she
should be tired, and overcome with grief by the parting with her friend
and partner.

"Poor little Peg!  She won't like it a bit," said Arthur.  "She's
crying!  I'm sure she is."

"She is putting her handkerchief to her eyes," said Mellicent.

"We will give her an arm apiece, and take her straight back," said Max
anxiously.  "It's a shame to have left the poor little soul alone!"

They stared with troubled eyes at the little figure which stood with its
back turned towards them, in an attitude of rigid stillness.  There was
something pathetic about that stillness, with just the flutter of the
tell-tale handkerchief, to hint at the quivering face that was hidden
from view.  The hearts of Peggy's companions were very tender over her
at that moment; but even as they planned words of comfort and cheer, she
wheeled round suddenly and walked back to meet them.

It was an unusually mild morning for the season of the year, and the sun
was shining from a cloudless sky.  Its rays fell full upon Peggy's face
as she advanced--upon reddened eyes, trembling lips, and two large tears
trickling down her cheeks.  It was undeniable that she was crying, but
she carried her head well back upon her shoulders, rather courting than
avoiding observation, and as she drew nearer it became abundantly
evident that Peggy had retired in honour of Mariquita, and that
consolations had better be deferred to a more promising occasion.

"A most lacerating wind!" she said coolly.  "It draws the moisture to my
eyes.  Quite too piercingly cold, I call it!" and even Mellicent had not
the courage to contradict.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

And here, dear readers, we leave Peggy Saville at a milestone of her
life.  In what direction the crossroads led the little company of
friends, and what windings of the path brought them once more together,
remains still to be told.  It was a strange journey, and in their
travelling they met many friends with whom all young people are
acquainted.  The giant barred the way, and had to be overcome before the
palace could be reached; the Good Spirit intervened at the right moment
to prevent calamity, the prince and princess stepped forward and made
life beautiful; for life is the most wonderful fairy tale that was ever
written, and full of magic to those who have eyes to see.

Farewell, then, to Peggy Pickle; but if it be the wish of those who have
followed her so far, we may meet again with Mariquita Saville, in the
glory of sweet and twenty, and learn from her the secret of the years.

THE END.





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